06 November 2017


Modern life is weird. We have great new gadgets. Even my cheap phone takes amazing photographs, allows me to edit them, and then post them to a globe spanning computer network.

But I believe that we are also witnessing changes that will be extremely deleterious. One of the ancient principles of justice is that someone accused of a crime is presumed to be actually innocent until they are proven to be guilty in a court.

The burden of proof lies entirely on the prosecution (usually the state). They must show beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. And they are innocent up to the point where a judge pronounces them guilty.

This principle is article 11 in the UN declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Of course if someone confesses to a crime, that is different. Confession, acknowledges the crime and invites punishment.

I believe that this principle is under serious threat, because accusations are being equated with guilt. This was in fact the post-Roman Germanic system. If twelve people all accused you of the same thing, then you were guilty, unless you could prove otherwise. 

On the other hand, presumption of innocence also presumes an impartial judiciary. And I think it is fair to say that the judiciary and police are not always impartial. They are, for example, often racist and sexist. To my mind this is part of the same problem, it undermines the presumption of innocence if accusations are not taken seriously.

We seem to be veering back to the presumption of guilt. It is tied to the practice of reporting crimes to the media rather than to the police. Of course if the police do not take reports of crimes seriously, it may be argued that they leave victims no choice. So there is blame on the police in this case also. Still we are increasingly seeing this strategy of using the leverage of the mass-media to bypass the judiciary and the presumption of innocence, and to attack people in the public eye.

It seems to me, based on media reports, that, say, Harvey Weinstein is guilty. It certainly *seems* that way. By the Germanic standard, more than 12 people have accused him of similar crimes. I find it hard to believe he is *not* guilty. And in fact Weinstein seems to have made a tacit admission that he has committed crimes of that nature. Where there is admission of guilt, then the presumption of innocence no longer applies.

I also think of Paul Gambaccini, an American living in the UK who gained prominence as a DJ. He is now a patron of the arts, a noted philanthropist, and a BBC radio presenter. Gambaccini was one of many men arrested for "historical sexual offences" during Operation Yewtree. He was suspended from his job while the accusations against him were investigated and became the subject of considerable media speculation. The police were themselves using the media to raise the profile of their work bringing pederasts to justice. Although Gambaccini was never charged with a criminal offence, he was under a cloud for a year, and unable to work during that time. He argued that the presumption of innocence did not seem to apply to him (he wrote a book and is suing the police).

In the case of historical offences that were either not reported at the time, or where reports were ignored, there is a deficit of justice. Clearly there is a huge backlog of allegations that are now emerging. A lot of children we targeted by pederasts and not protected because society as a whole had trouble believing that the problem was there at all, let alone widespread in places like Catholic Churches, Scout groups, or football teams. And the media (especially the UK media) fan the flames, because they thrive of four emotions: anger, fear, disgust, and lust.

The problem is that we cannot suspend the principles of justice in the pursuit of justice delayed or denied. Justice delayed or denied is not justice; it is clearly unjust. But suspending the presumption of innocence is also unjust. Gambaccini was arguably punished by society merely for being accused of a crime. And maybe he does deserve to be compensated for this.

Justice is vitally important. Without it our society will fall apart. People, especially people of wealth/power, have to be held to account. Some of the most ancient rights we have as citizens were wrung from the monarchy by force (or the threat of it). The idea that we all equal in the eyes of the law is a precious victory for ordinary people.

We all have our opinions and intuitions about what we read in the media about people. But the media are not reliable guides to what is going on. The media are a business, whose sole aim is to provide dividends to shareholders (this aim has completely overwhelmed any other aims of business in the 21st Century). They do whatever it takes to make a profit and pay shareholders a fat dividend, limited only by what the law allows, and often not even that (as we know all too well in the UK).

In the end it is only through careful presentation of all of the evidence, and weighing it up in an unbiased manner (without the media hype), that justice can be served. If we serve a lesser mistress than justice, then we are in real trouble. And I suppose that many people would say that we are right now in real trouble because of the past denial of justice. To me this is not an argument for allowing the system to break even more; it is an argument for fixing the system and making it work for everyone.

More than most countries, Britain suffers from an "old-boys" network of men (and some women) educated in expensive and exclusive private schools and brought up to see themselves as naturally morally superior in ways that do not relate to how they behave. This means that they don't see themselves as bound by the laws made to keep lesser people in check. It is a monopoly on power that any good government would smash; but of course they are the government (and more recently the so-called Labour Party was run by them as well). In fact so much progress had been made in the UK that in 1979 a woman who was not part of that social elite became PM. But things have gone severely backward since then, partially as a result of reforms Thatcher herself instituted. The elite make a show of being socially liberal, while trying to entrench the power of their class economically and politically.

Many depictions of Justice, personified as a woman with a pair of scales and a sword, show her blindfolded. That is to say as blind to the social status of those being judged. What such static depictions don't really get across, is that the sword does not strike until there is a clear judgement. Accusations are not convictions. It is all too easy to create smoke without fire, especially nowadays. We cannot trust the media, they do not serve us, they serve only their shareholders. And the shareholders seem only to be interested in accumulating personal wealth. Justice, it seems, cannot bend people to her will. But the will of the people can circumscribe the power of the ruling classes - and that is where most of our human rights come from.

Arguably, a society is fair to the extent that people have wrested power away from the ruling classes and made it fair.

02 November 2017

Scifi Tropes

I didn't take this one. In fact this is the first ever "space selfie" taken by Buzz Aldrin on an EVA during the Gemini 12 mission.

I love scifi, but one thing that always bothers me about scfi in space is that helmets have internal lighting. I can understand why they must do this on TV - glass is reflective and if the interior of the helmet is dark, then you won't be able to see the face of the actor. But it does mean that the actor cannot see out very well, if at all.

In this shot Buzz has managed to get the sun angling in from the right of shot so you can see his face, albeit with some strong shadows.

In my scfi stories, no suits have glass any more. Glass is vulnerable to cracking (common trope) and an astronaut can easily be blinded by unshaded sunlight (also common trope). And glass doesn't stop all forms of harmful radiation - of which there is a great deal in space. Note also in Aldrin's 1960s suit, that his field of view is clear upwards, but he cannot look down at all - he cannot even see his hands unless they are raised to shoulder height!

In my stories, suits have VR goggles and hi-res, multi-spectral cameras (with digital zoom and other processing features). At this point it's probably cheaper to do this than make a sphere of toughened glass. Cameras and screens have better resolution that our eyes can detect now. This also allows the possibility of overlays with infrared or ultra-violet light which would be very useful! And the helmet now provides much better radiation protection.

A super version of this, plumbs the video feed directly into the optic nerve - very limited versions of this are available now for artificial retinas.

But of course you cannot see the face of the person in the suit. So, bad for TV, unless the people are sinister.

Another weird thing, which I think might happen IRL is that the whole suit has atmosphere. So a common scifi trope is that a hole in the leg means all your air leaks out and you die. In my suits only the helmet has air, and there are no external hoses to spring leaks or be yanked out. And the whole thing is self-sealing (using currently available tech).

Which also reminds me, most scifi stories go on and on about "oxygen levels". Oxygen is non-trivial, but the most important thing, as we saw in Apollo 13, is carbon-dioxide levels. CO2 build-up kills quicker than lack of O2 in almost all of the scenarios when people are "running out of air".

One day I'll write some of these stories down!

30 October 2017

That Fucking Cat.

Most people have heard about Schrödinger's cat. Schrödinger was trying to disprove the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics - the idea that until a particle is "observed" it is literally in all possible quantum states (i.e. spin, charge, mass, position, velocity, etc) at once. He thought this proposition was absurd so came up with this metaphor of the cat in the box.

We don't know what state the cat is in until we look, so the cat is both alive and dead. Which is clearly absurd where cats are concerned. But it might not be so absurd when we are thinking of, say, the "spin" states of sub-atomic particles. This is still the most popular interpretation of the wave equation, though slightly less than half of all physicists agree with it.

The real problem we get at the popular level is that people don't get that the "observer" is also a metaphor. They think consciousness must somehow be involved. But it isn't. No one ever directly observed anything at the nanometer scale - we are not equipped for it. "Observe" here means physically interact with. The wave function of the particle collapses whenever the particle physically interacts with another particle. And at the particle scale it means any time two matter particles (fermions) exchange a force particle (boson). No consciousness is involved or required.

In terms of the cat metaphor this means that the universe does know whether the cat is alive or dead, because the cat interacts with the matter around it—it has to be in contact with the floor of the box for example. Touching the box collapses the wave function of the cat and the cat is either alive or dead and not in superposition of all states (probably never is).

So the thought experiment does not work unless the cat is suspended in a perfect vacuum, in perfect darkness, isolated from all magnetic fields, and not subject to gravity (even from the box!). In other words it would have to be in another universe which consisted of the cat and only the cat, and which could not communicate with our universe in any way. In which case we'd never know the outcome of the experiment. The uncertainty is either permanent or non-existent.

In other words, in the end it's just a bad metaphor. Schrödinger decisively lost his argument with the Copenhagen crowd. They took this weak attempt to discredit them, and turned it into a powerful positive symbol of their approach. Ouch.

In fact in something on our scale - with (literally) millions of billions of trillions of particles in every gram of matter - the wave function is always collapsed because there is interaction going on all the time. People are always in one particular state at any time (though time flows incessantly).

If humans behaved like particles we would be diffracted every time we walked through a doorway. In other words we would emerge at a random angle every time. (I'm assuming we're sober, eh?).

If there were two doorways close together, as we approached  we would blur out, pass through both doorways simultaneously, interfere with ourselves, come back into focus moving at a random angle. I've staggered through some doorways in my time, but never two at once.

If people were like particles, when you did one forward-roll  (↻360°) you would end up upside-down, and would have to do another one to get right-way up.

If people were like particles we could only know where we are or where we were going, but not both at the same time.

If people were like particles, then having people watch you walk down the road would cause you to swerve.

Quantum doesn't work on our scale. There never was a cat. Consciousness has nothing to do with it. Most of us can safely ignore quantum and behave as if the world is classical because at our scale and in our frame of reference, basically, it is.  Or, to be more accurate, classical theories predict the behaviour of matter on scales of mass, length and energy we can actually experience, to a higher degree of accuracy and precision than we can currently measure.

Which is not to say that on very small scales it is not possible to have quantum effects. It is possible. Gravity is so weak you can ignore it on very small scales. If you cool everything down close to absolute zero, exclude electromagnetic fields, and tweak other conditions, you can see quantum effects up to the scale of some fairly large single molecules such as bucky-balls (C60H60). Beyond this, and much above absolute zero, quantum effects simply disappear.

27 October 2017

Ancestors Fallacy

There's a cognitive mistake we make that needs a name but doesn't have one as far as I can tell. In the linked article about wolves the author starts out with an example from closer to home.

It's often assumed that because great apes knuckle-walk when on the ground, that we must have evolved from knuckle-walkers. We talk about "learning walking upright" to make the distinction clear. In fact we evolved from a common ancestor and that ancestor is likely to have been a brachiator - to have live mostly in the tree tops, like today's gibbons and (some) lemurs.

When a gibbon is on the ground it almost always walks on two legs. Using it's arms to stabilise itself. Youtube thinks this is very funny and has many videos of gibbons walking "like a human". It's not that they have "learned to walk like a human", that's just what they do on the ground. Note even the great apes adopt bipedalism when wading in water.

So there is a fallacy here. The fallacy tells us that the chimp is our closest genetic relative, so our ancestors must have been chimp-like (hiding in their somewhere is the assumption that chimps are "primitive" animals and that only humans evolve). But our ancestors were not chimp-like. Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans evolved knuckle walking, humans never did. Nor did gibbons.

The modern view of evolution is that all organisms currently alive have been evolving for exactly the same amount of time. So just because a bacteria looks archaic, does not mean that it is archaic. Everything currently alive is modern. Evolution doesn't stop for living things.

Chimps and humans have evolved for equal lengths of time. And neither of us is more like our common ancestor than the other.

This means that there are no "primitive" tribes. Hunter-gatherers living now are not necessarily representative of pre-historic humans unless we know the conditions they live in have not changed (and given the intervention of the last ice-age this is extremely unlikely).

Yes, humans arrived in Australia as long ago as 60,000 years before the present, but they constantly changed. The evolved literally hundreds of languages for instance.

In my field of study, modern schools of Buddhism, whether Theravāda or Tibetan or Zen are often seen are representative of some previous era. This is the same fallacy. All forms of Buddhism currently being practised are modern (though not all are modernist). No amount of social conservatism can prevent changes from accumulating over dozens of generations.

I'm not sure what to call this fallacy.

26 October 2017

Studying the Heart Sutra

As everyone knows by now, for the last 5 years I have specialised in studying the Heart Sutra. Apart from identifying several grammatical errors in the standard Sanskrit version, I've also made or substantially confirmed a couple of ground breaking discoveries about the text.
It is a curious thing about Western Buddhism that we privilege texts which we believe to have a Sanskrit "original". It is curious partly because Sanskrit did not come into popular use amongst Buddhists until about the 4th Century of the Common Era. Anything actually composed in Sanskrit, is quite late.

In fact, for well over 1000 years, the Heart Sutra was the most popular text in East Asia in it's Chinese version and probably few people were even aware that there even was a Sanskrit version. They might have understood that it notionally came from India, but the study of Sanskrit was never widespread outside of India and most people wouldn't have known any Sanskrit (much like now). Asians knew the Heart Sutra as the Xinjing and recited it in Chinese, or some approximation of the Chinese (in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam). The Tibetans had a Tibetan translation from about the 10th Century and used that exclusively (it also has errors in it!).

For a brief period in the 20th century, the Sanskrit text came to the fore. An old palm-leaf manuscript preserved in Japan was dusted off and became the primary focus of the study of the text. A number of very late Nepalese manuscripts were found. A couple of stone inscriptions from China were added. And from these Edward Conze constructed his edition. His version of the Sanskrit text (more like an original composition) became established in the minds of Westerners as the "original".
Then in 1992 Jan Nattier showed that the Sanskrit text is a translation from Chinese! The Heart Sutra was composed in China. This is quite a big deal for the most popular sacred text in the Buddhist world.

How have Buddhists reacted to the revelation that their most popular text was a fake, composed ~1100 years after the Buddha is supposed to have died? Mostly with denial or indifference. I'm still not sure whether the latter is admirable insouciance or something more dubious or insidious.

25 years after Nattier's amazing 90 page article (which I still consider the best example of academic writing in our field) there is still not much reaction - even when her idea is acknowledged, it is without any drama. The word apocryphon is sometimes used as a euphemism for "fake", but other than that no one seems bothered.

Nattier's article has had almost no impact on my own Buddhist Order. I suppose as a preeminent scholar of the text, I bear some of the responsibility for that, though I have written 32 essays on my blog which touch on aspects of the Heart Sutra. If anyone were really looking, they'd have found them.

Several people have lately encouraged me to teach on the Heart Sutra at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre. I think probably next year, but yes, I think that might be good.

19 October 2017

The Tyranny of Now*

Some people tell us that we can forget about the past and the future and just focus on now. And we do this then all our problems will disappear. I call bullshit. Screw Eckhart Tolle - I'm sure he's a nice guy, but he seems to oversimplify everything.

To begin with, this attitude assumes that if we don't think about our emotional baggage that it will stop having an impact. I don't know about you, but that's not how it works for me.

Leaving behind a lifetime of habit is a process, not an event. And that process may well take up the rest of our lives and remain incomplete when we die. Generally speaking we have to see that we are moving beyond one situation (past) and towards another (future) to stay motivated (now). 

So the past is useful because it is only in comparison to our memories that we have a sense of progress (or any change at all for that matter).

Similarly with the future. You are asked to set yourself adrift on the ocean with no destination and let the wind and currents take you where they will. But we know what this lack of purpose and direction looks like. It manifests as dissolution or in wasted, directionless lives. In one of my songs I sing about feeling like "a fish with no tail, eye's wide, no idea where I'm going". I don't sing it, but to me this is terrifying. This is Hamlet, watching helplessly as inevitability crushes him. Fuck that!

While it is certainly a good idea to focus on the task at hand, for many reasons one has to keep one foot in the past and an eye on the future. Tasks are more enjoyable if we are focused (now), but they are more meaningful if they take us toward a definite goal (future) and more satisfying if we have a sense of progress (past). And if that goal benefits the community then so much the better for us. When we contribute to something bigger than ourselves (society, basically) it is about the most meaningful thing we can do.

Most of the important things in life are complex and difficult and therefore require persistence over days, months, and years. Bigger goals cannot be achieved without a clear sense of direction or a sense of progress as one proceeds.

Without the future we have no sense of the meaning of our actions. Without the past we have no sense of progress. So whatever you do, do not lose sight of either.


*I took my title from a TED talk by Carol Dweck.

But I was also thinking about a Sanskrit phrase which translates as "future, past, and present buddhas" (atītānāgatapratyutpannā buddhāḥ). Chinese Buddhists routinely translated this as 三世諸佛 "all buddhas of the three times", a phrase which is never used in Sanskrit (with one exception). Then, when the Heart Sutra was translated back into Sanskrit, the phrase was literally rendered as "all buddhas of the three times" (tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ) - this is the one exception. This is the smoking gun that tells us that the text could only have been composed in China. Expect a publication on this in due course.

18 October 2017

Passive Voice and Crime

This is a response to a Tweet that showed up in my Twitter stream a couple of days ago. We often speak about crime in the passive voice. And there's a thing about passive voice that will be clear to anyone who has learned Pali or Sanskrit - the passive voice has no subject. Which is why I prefer agent/patient to subject/object when discussing grammar.

In the active voice, a subject does an action to an object. In the passive voice an action is done by an agent to an patient. But we can and do use the passive voice without a subject, i.e. with just an action and a patient.

In terms of crime we can say things like:
"The woman was raped."
"A man was mugged."
"A child was run over."
"The official was bribed."
"The house was burgled"
This is a pretty common way of talking about crime. What's missing in all of these statement is the agent of the action: "... by a rapist", "... by a mugger", "... by the dangerous driver", "... by the developer", "... by a thief". And so on. Just because the verb is in the passive voice, does not mean that the action is not carried out by someone.

Similarly, there is a trend for people who have responsibility to skirt it by saying bullshit phrases like "mistakes were made". In which case we can always ask "By whom were the mistakes made?" Just because they shift to the passive voice, does not mean that we are forced to abandon the notion of a grammatical (and real) agent of the action.

Use of the passive voice without an agent is a problem to the extent that it shifts the conversational emphasis onto grammatical patient, i.e. the victim, the location, or the nature of the crime, while obscuring the agent of the action. Of course crimes happen to us, against our will, so the passive voice is designed for exactly these situations. But if we leave off the perpetrator of the crime, we may create an unfair situation.

Why? Because when we comprehend actions we typically understand them in terms of agents with motivations. And why is this? It's because the archetype for a willed action is our own experience of turning our head to say we've had enough milk. Or our first experience of grabbing something and pulling it closer. The archetypes in other words are our own willed actions.

So if we only mention the patient of the criminal action, then we leave a conceptual gap in which the victim (potentially) becomes the agent: i.e. we blame the victim. Someone has to make the action happen, and if the actual agent is out of the picture, then we look to the only other participant. Crime is emotive, and perhaps no crime more so than rape. If someone was raped, then yes, I think it is vital that we insist that it was an action carried out by someone.

In rape, resistance often makes things worse for example, because the assailant may become more violent and it both intensifies and prolongs the experience. Each case is different, but no woman ever wants to be raped, or "asks for it". That much has to be clear. And it ought to be clear in how we talk about it. But its not justice to hold a whole section of society to blame for the crimes of individuals. This is an important principle of our justice system: collective punishment is not just. I cannot be blamed or punished for crimes in which I am not explicitly involved in committing. I don't accept that just being a man makes me complicit in violence. I've been the victim of more violence than most people I know. Quite a bit of that was from women or girls, by the way.

With that said, I do want to continue to think more about the use of passive voice verbs in the way we speak of crimes generally. For example, with respect to the example of bribery, you may have thought, "hang on, the official who was bribed actively committed a crime by accepting the bribe." Yes, they did. The bribe was accepted by the official. Interesting, this is the passive voice, but in discussing bribery always seems to specify an agent. The verb is passive in this sentence, but it is clear who is doing what. So this makes it an interesting one to think about. For every crime there is a criminal.

It's important to specify the agent of the criminal action, especially in the case of groups who tend to be oppressed or disempowered. The story is not, to take a topical example, that some actor was raped, but that an actor was raped by Harvey Weinstein (allegedly). The criminal becomes the focus rather than the victim of the crime. Our justice system is skewed towards punishing perpetrators and so we have to identify them, or we consider that justice has not been served. A more restorative justice system would go about it differently and would require us to focus on the victims. 

A load of crime words are used in both the past active and past passive voice "he raped..." and "she was raped...". Similarly with murdered, robbed etc. We almost always talk about crimes in the past - unless we are in the process of being mugged or whatever.

Of course this is more difficult when the criminal is as yet unknown or as yet not proven guilty (as in Weinstein's case). But the thing about the passive voice is that it cries out to be qualified "by....". Which is why one amusing way to identify a verb in the passive voice is to see if following it with "by zombies" still makes sense. e.g.

  • The man was being pursued [by zombies]. Makes sense, verb is passive. 
  • The man pursued [by zombies] his dog. Doesn't make sense, verb is active. 

The person on twitter who inspired this little rant, was insistent that perpetrators should particularly be identified as men. To me this smacks of the old "all men a rapists" bullshit. A man might have raped a woman, and yes, it is usually a man, but actually the number of men who are rapists is pretty small. I have known many hundreds of men, and I know of one who was accused of rape. I'm not sure that anything is gained by emphasising the gender of criminals. In the case of violence, men are very much more likely to be the victims of violence than women are.

In any case, people sometimes say we should strive to eliminate the passive voice. When I looked at a few news headlines, I did not see much use of the passive voice. Many crime stories do use the active voice and of course are therefore forced to attribute the crime to someone. So maybe the prejudice against the passive voice is having an effect. In which case the original complaint might have overstated the problem.

On the other hand because we attribute crimes to someone, and are often lazy about the adverb allegedly, some people are splattered with guilt by association. The "no smoke without fire" fallacy. I have seen no evidence that anyone thinks that Weistein did not rape, molest, and pester women, though he has yet to be charged by the police, let alone appear in court to be judged. He is being tried in the media and punishment has already commenced.

On the other hand, when the police raided Cliff Richard's house, and tipped off the media so that they could film it, the man's reputation was severely damaged by the allegations. A crime was more or less deliberately attributed to him, when in fact, as far as anyone knows, he is innocent (false accusation is also a crime). Same with Paul Gambaccini, who was caught up in the same furore, but was always innocent. Accusations of child sex-abuse are extremely damaging, especially to someone who makes their living in the public eye. And that is balanced against the damage that sex-offenders cause if left unchecked (as they have been for decades in the entertainment industry).

So, even if we were to switch entirely to using the active voice, the way we talk and think about crime is not a simple matter. We usually have less than perfect knowledge and people are unreliable witnesses (both passively and actively).

There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. Especially when things happen to us against our will, the passive voice is exactly what we need to express that directly. If someone punched me in the face we could look at it in different ways. If I wanted you to empathise with me and perhaps comfort me, I might say "I was punched in the face". The focus is on me. But if I want you to get angry I might say "Phil punched me in the face." Now I am directing your attention to Phil. If you report this to your friend you (unconsciously) make similar determinations, i.e. who is the focus? What emotion am I trying to elicit? Who is to blame? And so on. A good deal of subtly is available to us by adding extra words, stress, and facial expressions to the mix.