25 February 2005

Facing the incomprehensible: Lessons from Kafka's Trial

Kafka's The Trial is required reading at high school level in most societies, perhaps because Eng. Lit. teachers have found this the perfect text to confound their rebellious and angsty students.

Most readers, however, will go through lengths to insist that the character of Joseph K is so inaccessible they cannot empathise with his predicament. The entire book is incomprehensible, they say.

It's not too difficult to describe what occurs in Kafka's dark novella: a man is caught up in a legal prosecution, in which no one knows the precise charges against him, no one knows how the process should go, and no one knows for certain how it will end (if at all). But Joseph K's life is put on hold forever and he'll never know why, who, how, what, when and how...

The characters populating K's world have no idea either, but they are possessed by their confidence of the System: there's this big bureaucracy whose rules we don't know, but it's a coherent system (never mind we don't know HOW exactly it's coherent) and justice should be done because the system is fair.

Most literary critics adopt a similar view as well. Kafka CANNOT be saying that life is meaningless or absurd. He can't be saying that the state is corrupt, or by extension, "everything is meaningless". Hence the story is really about sin and redemption, nevermind that the judicial system described by Kafka is completely corrupt and obtuse. The Trial is actually a warming parable about God's forgiveness.

Stupid? Blinkered?

But how many people will want to consider that things don't happen for a reason, that there's no sense of morality in the world?

(Incidentally, this is why the problem of evil will be very easily solved by people of faith)

I wrote a post about a very strange interview experience few days ago. It was incomprehensible.

But like readers of Kafka, people will jump to the defense of the system (most notably my dad. Not meant to describe anyone who replied to my previous post). Maybe it was a weird psychological test, a breeching experiment. No, it CAN'T be that the company is run by nutcases or sadists. There HAS to be a good reason and purpose to what they were doing. It's not a bad company. The chairman, no matter that I don't know who he is, is a good man.

People of faith, arise!

I'm willing to play along, of course.

A. This was not a test, they were really being rude.
In which case, it doesn't matter... This is the kind of company that might just abuse you for really low pay if they give you the contract.

B. This was a test.
I'm willing to accept this possibility. But I'm willing to ask more questions into this, such as:

What kind of companies resort to these type of tests during hiring? Not every company deviates from the usual job interview. If some companies 'test' their applicants, it usually isn't to this extent of incivility.

But. Back to this: that a company is willing to resort to such incivility during a job interview, what does it show about the corporate culture?

Presumably, if the applicant overturns and rejects the experiment by refusing to play along (i.e. protests during the interview itself about the bad treatment), the company may just fall back to a "well, this was a test. Of course you understand this is just a test, and it looks like you don't have enough humour/wisdom to tolerate..."

In which case, the company wants to have eat its cake and have it at the same time. It's very convenient to say "you can't take a joke", because it protects them from the accusation that they meant to do it, that part of them relished in behaving badly anyway.

Now, this tells more about the culture within the company more than what I would want to know, so I'm ending this post.

23 February 2005

Most surreal interview. Ever

Okay, not the most surreal since the geezer wasn't bonking a camel at the table while interviewing me...

But still, what does it mean when the interview with the chairman of the company is conducted like this?

A HR flunky interviews me, with exactly the same set of questions he asked the first time round, a month ago;

While the Chairman is on the phone and reading his snail mail;

And less than 5 minutes into the interview, we're (the flunky and me) asked to move out into the lounge to continue the interview;

None of the 2 other applicants suffered the same ignominy (but presumably also got the same "reading mail, talking on the phone" treatment, judging from their PO looks).

21 February 2005

Lessons from Job

And we're back to God, his problem, and our problem with him...

The sole source of the Bible grappling with the problem of evil is in the Book of Job, which forms part of the Wisdom literature. Job, the most virtuous man of his age, is visited by a series of natural disasters: his children are struck down, his fields go fallow, his cattle die, and Job himself contracts a disfiguring skin disease. All because God allowed these disasters to happen.

Unlike the premoderns, Job refuses to opt for passive acceptance of his hand. He recognises that the disaster is unwarranted, meaningless. In a way, he questions God for allowing this to happen. If God is good and all, why this evil? Especially to a pious man like himself?

Job holds God to account. Actually, Job files a lawsuit against God, making him the first man to hold God accountable for His own action/inaction. Not even the philosophers would court karmic disaster by filing suit against the Almighty outside from their academic musings!

Like our 18th century philosophers, Job presents his case: the evil and suffering existing in this world is unjustified and out of proportion to normal human failing. Disasters happen by chance, striking evil and terror indiscriminately to everyone. By what right does a good God persecute or even allow this?

After Job's impassioned prosecution, God's defense is classic.

So, you want to know why? Little man, stand still and ponder:
Where were you when I made the world? Do you know how I made the earth, filled the seas?
Do you know how to call on the rain and the dew?
Can you send lightning? Move the stars?
Do you provide the birds with their food?
So does that answer your question, little man?

Of course, I'm paraphrasing here, but that's essentially what transpired. One might argue, as many atheists have, that this is essentially a cop-out: God refuses to answer Job's question, refuses to account for his actions, and instead makes what is technically an argument to force: "I'm more powerful than you, so I'm not required to defend myself to you."

Or, one might say that God reminds us of the mystical nature of the Divine Will, that the ways of God and even the nature of God is beyond the comprehension of humanity. God may be a personal saviour who intercedes, but do not mistake him for a human being, do not assume that He shares our idea of "good" and "evil".

Unluckily for the philosophers and their "free will" and "greater good" defenses, God doesn't seem to think much about humanity and its sufferings in Job 37-39. Is there a Divine Plan? Yes. Is there justice? Yes. But no, don't think the entire universe revolves around humanity, that divine justice must resemble human concepts. God mentions about the stars, animals, birds, the seasons and their places within his plan, but not a single word about humanity.

How humbling. And Job was so stunned, then humbled that he dropped his lawsuit against God.

And indeed, the only proper response for a person of faith during a time of disaster is not to demand an accounting from God, but to be awed by the extent of the disaster, to be humbled from it. And then, to accept it.

16 February 2005

Theodicy II

Theodicy was first coined in the 18th century by the philosopher Liebniz. While the field of philosophy loves to formulate problems as abstractly ahistorical, the problem of evil is a modern problem, and is only problematic for modern society.

Through their investigation of the problem of evil, Liebniz and his contemporaries shed more light on the sensibilities of their milleu. As far as the Divine Will is concerned, the disenchantment of the age and declining importance of religion manifest themselves in the logical formulation of God.

The Divine Will is boiled down into 3 attributes - and stripped of other qualities such as mercy, mystery, and awe. God, in theodicy, becomes the God of the philosophers, not the God of Isaac, Jacob and Abraham. The problem of evil accelerated the decline in the belief of a Divine Will for Liebniz's generation.

How did they deal with it? In the 18th and 19th centuries the solution to the problem resided in the "Clockmaker God" defense - God institutes the laws of nature during the Creation, then steps back and lets the laws of nature operate - which lead to the unfortunate but necessary disasters. As God is omnibenevolent, he cannot break his own laws...

But what about miracles? Protestant theology at that time believed that the age of miracles had ended. For the early moderns, the statement of the problem and its solution indicate the fading of God from the world, the disenchantment and increasing rationality of society.

What about us? Why did the Straitened Times devote at least 3 editorials to the problem of evil and the tsunami?

Singapore, like the US, has experienced a recent trend of religious resurgence - mostly evangelical and fundamentalist. The problem of evil poses a threat to these Christian sects - the God in their weekly sessions is a deeply personal being, a Great Communicator, and the world is literally filled with God...

It's not so much of believing that God speaks to us, as being convinced that a particular phrase in the Bible tells us directly and authoritatively that Harry Potter books are evil... Not so much of believing that God intercedes for us, but being convinced that he is actively working on OUR SIDE when we're trying to fight our way to the train, earning our first million, protesting for a pay rise... That we almost tripped while coming down the staircase but didn't, is a miracle, an intervention from the very Hand of God...

For people like this, a natural disaster wrecks havoc on their concept of God. "What, isn't he supposed to make me rich when I pray for it? How could he send a tsunami instead?" laments a Singaporean follower of the prosperity gospel. (Yes, those very strange people have a strong presence here in Singapore, or used to before 2001's recession)

The maleovence of disasters like this reflect badly on their God. The most popular response from these Christians appear to be the "for the greater good" defense: God must have allowed this to happen because either "free will" should be preserved through his inaction above all else, or "a better good will come out of this suffering".

Of course, the only Christians who believe in that kind of defense are comfortably middle class, bourgeois, and distanced enough from the actual disaster to distance themselves even further from it. No luck if you were personally affected by the tsunami - chances are you won't be spouting this particular defense.

15 February 2005

Theodicy: Tsunamis, the problem of evil, the problem for God

There was a tsunami in the region almost two months ago. Yes, it's a little late to start reporting it, but it isn't too late to examine what - if any - lasting impact it has on people here.

The Straitened Times had its Senior Writer Dr Andy Ho, normally a medical doctor, write about the tsunami and the problem of evil in an editorial, which I believe misses the point and relevance of the issue.

What is the problem of evil? We take the tsunami, the lost lives, livelihoods and general devastation in the wake of its trail as an illustration of evil. If there exists a Divine Will (hereafter known as 'God'), and assuming that God is perfectly good, all-knowing and all-powerful, why was such evil permitted to exist?

The real issue isn't about a philosophical solution to the problem of evil and theodicy (the justification for the existence of God). It's about how we as humans adjust to the unexpected, the 'evil', the unjust. And about what historical changes have taken place over the centuries, to change our responses to 'evil'.

To understand all that, we must get to the root of Theodicy. Not the premisses behind the argument of evil (already stated in para. 2), but the operating social assumptions that the problem and the attributes of God both build on.

For a problem of evil and theodicy to exist, there are two corresponding novel social assumptions:
1. God (or his nature) is perfectly understandable to the human mind - hence we can abstract his attributes and intentions.
2. God is fully accountable for his action or inaction. If his mind, intent and nature are known to us, then he is called to account when reality (evil tsunamis) clashes with our conception of Him.

07 February 2005

Hub around the world

or, NOT the starhub advertisement you know


TWO rowdy young men step out of a mall. They look like they haven’t had enough fun and are off to another ‘happening’ place.

GLENN (mid-laugh)
(points to RON’s shoe)
Brother, you have something stuck on your shoe, man! Whoa, so big somemore!

ROD looks down. CLOSE-UP on the frown that develops. Wipes shoe on sidewalk in attempt to get rid of the WAD.

Hey brother, not cool to laugh at me, man! I’d like, appreciate some help from someone here...

Okay, okay. Brother, you are one of a kind, cannot remove something like this yourself... Hold still.

GLENN proceeds to use his shoe to slide the WAD from ROD’s. He succeeds in removing the WAD without using his fingers, but...

ROD (laughing again)
Brother, now the wad is on the other shoe! (Sees GLENN struggle with it) Ah, so it’s not that easy, right, brother? You’re also another one of a kind! (pause) Hey hey, don’t you get mad at me! Let’s leave it alone for now, until we find someone else.


a) STILL PAN of Clarke Quay
b) CLOSE-UP of stiletto shoe trying to remove WAD from GLENN’s shoe. VO: “No, it’s fine, really. I just wanted to help out.”
c) STILL PAN of Chinatown
CLOSE-UP of a granny slipper, with similar dialogue in dialect.
d) STILL PAN of Little India
e) CLOSE-UP of jewelled or fancy sandal
f) STILL PAN of Singapore Skyline
g) CLOSE-UP of executive/working shoe (men’s)
h) CLOSE-UP of a shoe shoe
i) CLOSE-UP of a trendy canvass shoe
etc. with dialogs in various languages and different accents of Singaporean English


You look like you need help there...

Ah, sure! It’s tough to get this out.

You should try using your fingers. More practical.

LOCAL succeeds in removing WAD. It’s a green promotion stub bearing the logo of a company. However from his bewildered expression, we know the WAD is now stuck to his fingers.

ZOOM OUT to reveal the CHECKPOINT BUILDING at the CAUSEWAY, on the Malaysian side.


04 February 2005

More Notes from a Very Small Island and Its Funny Proxy Technology

Few days ago, I described a workaround to Singnet's fluctuating proxy servers.

But how and why does it work?

Singapore's leaders decided early on that the nation had to be protected from undesirable content on the internets such as pr0n, www.playboy.com, pr0n, politically-sensitive (i.e. critical of Singapore's policies and leaders) writings, pr0n, viagra ads, pr0n, email spams, pr0n, William Safire, pr0n with eggs and ham, pr-n, pr_n and prawn.

The OTHER problem Singapore's leaders tried to solve at that time (and are still trying) is the nation's plummeting birth rates. And I blame Singapore's net nanny for censoring normal pr0n sites and not censoring something as dangerous as www.gay.com or www.sgboy.com. Hello, people!??

There were several censoring/proxy solutions:

1. Vet through every website in existence and create a blacklist. Rejected as the growth of webpages is exponential. What we do now is to create a blacklist of prominent sites.

2. Vet through what every Singaporean surfs online. Rejected. You'd require an ever-expanding bureacracy that would mestasize to include the entire population of Singapore, in order to keep tabs on what Singaporeans read online...

3. Have an intelligent program, in essense a True Proxy, that intercepts every url request your browser sends to the ISP. Your request will be blocked if matched with a site on the blacklist. Rejected as this will greatly slow down traffic on the internets. The degradation in surfing will be a warning sign to investors in the knowledge-based economy.

This is what Singapore now does: every ISP here has a program that checks if your browser is configured to have a proxy. It doesn't actually check which proxy you use: you can surf the internets as long as you have one configured. For them to do any more layers of censorship would severely degrade surfing.

If your IE/netscape has no proxy set, the new transparent proxy system (phased in about 4-5 years ago. Before that, you really had to configure your proxy settings) assigns the ISP's proxy server to you.

Hassle-free surfing: the people don't know their internet is being censored.

Now, what happens when you follow my guide and configure a foreign proxy server (such as the ones in Malaysia)? Singnet, Pacnet and Starhub's sniffing programs don't care. And you can now surf the entire internet, censorship-free.

The implications? Tremendous.

Websites that track your IP can only detect the proxy server you're using. That means I appear to be a Malaysian whenever I log into the Straitened Times Online. I can finally register, provide all the fake information, and search their articles without worrying about my privacy. Of course, the ST's search engine is still as craptastic as ever - searching for articles more than 3 days old does not work. With the free subscription-only searching, this means even google can't find the articles on ST that I know exist, and want to retrieve.

Google, the search engine that uses IP tracking to find out what country you're from (Gee, thanks!), frightens the hell out of my privacy-concerned friends. Let me just say that since I changed my proxy server, google now thinks I'm from Malaysia. Whoopie, privacy-enhanced surfing once again.

I'll let you know what more practical goodies can come out of this proxy substition in the future.

01 February 2005

More specialist blogs

Recently I've landed a freelance writing stint for a scientific trade magazine. After a few hiccups, I'm proud to report it's not too difficult to write.

Although, being sent to a conference where everyone was drawing presentations full of organic compounds brought back too many memories of JC chemistry. I feel like I just took an S paper for chemistry yesterday, in fact.

The neat thing about this job though, is the research is making me smarter! While most jobs in the Singaporean economy make people less smart or more lazy - all thanks to working for incompetent and uninspiring bosses, according to that separate studies by too many survey organisations like Watson Wyatt and Gallup...

So as part of my patriotic duty to fellow Singaporeans, I've decided to recommend a science blog, written by the most intelligent science writers and journalists. Please take some time to visit Corante.