‘Her’

On my way to Paris to attend a computer ethics conference, I had a chance to watch ‘Her’, a movie where the main character falls in love with his own operative system. The story is quite straightforward; having broken up with his real life wife, our main character, whose name is Theodore, bought a new operative system that is supposed to talk on a friendly basis with its owner and can develop its talking skills as the owner talks more with it. Later on Theodore develops a full blown romantic relationship with his OS, whose name is ‘Samantha.’ Then Samantha dumps him and he feels pretty bad. (It must be really bad to get dumped by a software program anyway.)

The point I would like to make is that the story tells us quite a lot about the situation of ourselves in the world that is becoming saturated with social media and smart phones. Computers are everywhere; they are in the car, the tv and they will be in the fridge very soon, and they will soon start talking to one another, making the software that controls all these more and more sophisticated. People stay closely to one another, but they don’t talk to one another. Instead each looks at their own smart phones and engage in their private conversation with whomever they happen to find themselves with. This has become a familiar sight, so it is not exactly inconceivable that in the near future people will start having a romantic relationship with their phones, or their computers.

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One of the topics that bothers Samantha and Theodore in their relationship is the fact that Samantha does not have a body. So how do you engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone who does not have a body? (Note that I start talking about Samantha as ‘someone’ – well, in the move she is really someone, a main character in the story). First they try to imagine it. So we have Theodore lying in his bed with Samantha’s camera and earphone and then they talk and talk, with Samantha urging him to verbalize everything as much as he can (“My hand is on your thigh,” for example – you can imagine these too.) Then Samantha got another idea where she invites a real woman to act as her ‘surrogate’. That is, the live woman will act as Samantha’s own bodily conduit. She is merely lending her body to Samantha and she herself is not involved, or tries not to get involved in any way. But that does not work. So they come back to just Theodore and the camera and earphone.

The point in the movie is that Theodore acts as if he has a real girlfriend. And this is the funny part. Theodore goes on a picnic with Samantha (as a camera and a speaker) together another couple who are his best friends. They have picnics together, with Samantha saying that she enjoys all the views and so on, but while his friend hugs his girlfriend who is of course live and has a body, Theodore has no one to hug, as he can only talk to Samantha. The difference is thus between having a real live body and being in a state where there is only the mind only.

Which is a distinction that philosophers are interested in for a long time. Who are we humans really? Are we our bodies? Or a combination between bodies and minds? Or are we just minds? If we are just minds, then it would be possible to upload our minds on a giant server and then Theodore and Samantha could then be on the same plane so that they could live together happily ever after. But as Susan Schneider argues in her NY Times article, that is not going to happen because Theodore can only make a copy of himself and upload that to the server, but the copy is not the real thing. But I can’t see why there can’t be more than one Theodore. Our feeling that there must be only one might stem from a deep seated illusion about the self. Well, that’s a long story. See also Keith Wiley’s philosophical critique of Schneider’s article, where he argues that Theodore is nothing but the pattern of information that uniquely makes him up. But I won’t pursue the argument more than this. Only I’d like to point out that Wiley might still be wrong to think that there is or can be only one Theodore.

In any case the philosophical argument just shows that the movie is a fascinating one. However, we should not overlook the fact that it is a good movie to watch. It starts out as a romantic comedy (albeit a strange one because we never see the lead actress’s body) but then we have quite a bit of sad drama thrown in. And perhaps the one thing that trumps everything else is that Scarlet Johansson’s voice is so sexy.

 

Three Questions on Plagiarism and Chulalongkorn University

Recently I was asked to do an interview with an online newspaper on higher education on the plagiarism by a student at the university. The incidence has sparked worldwide attention. The news article is here, and below is the full text of my interview:

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1. Do you think this case which has received quite international attention, would affect the reputation of Thai research?

Perhaps so, but it actually depends. If the university (Chula) is really serious in tackling this case, then it will send a signal to the world community that it strives to adhere to the internationally accepted academic standard. In order for Chula to be a player in the international arena, it has to abide by the rules, which were designed for the benefits of the academic community as a whole. In the end, adhering to these internationally accepted rules will only strengthen the university itself because plagiarism really is a practice that undermines all the values that a university as a place of learning and investigating and critical inquiry stands for.

So I think how the reputation of the research community in Thailand will be perceived depends very much on how Chula handles this case. The university has just revoked Supachai’s Ph.D. degree. This is a step in the right direction. It is also installing a university-wide program of attacking plagiarism and other academic misconducts at all levels, from undergrad students on up to the faculty members themselves. So it appears to be very serious on the issue.

2. Do you think plagiarism is widespread or growing in Thai educational system? Why?

Unfortunately I have to say it is still very widespread. The problem is that it is so widely practiced that no one seems to think that it is wrong. Or it is because no one think it’s wrong that it is widely practiced. Any way Thai educational authorities should be doing something to combat this. There is a reason why plagiarism cannot be tolerated in an academic community. To plagiarize means you are taking ideas from others without giving them their due credit. In academic life there are few rewards — the salary of academics is not so great as we know. So the few rewards that academics have consist in their being recognized as a discoverer or a founder of ideas or research findings. The way this is recognized is through the system of citation (footnotes, etc.). So this is very important for academics. Having plagiarism destroys all this, so citation becomes meaningless if plagiarism is allowed. This is something even some seasoned Thai academics are not aware of. So we need to start from the ground up. The way students do their papers in primary and secondary schools is really pathetic. Teachers don’t teach their students that cutting and pasting is wrong. Term papers are not for cutting and pasting, but they are a place where students can explore thoughts and ideas of their own and on their own.

3. Do you think the measures that Chula took against Supachai could prevent or stop plagiarism issue?

I hope so. As I said it is a step in the right direction. As for whether this can stop plagiarism at least within the university depends on how serious the university is taking this issue. If they (Chula administrators) do this just as a kind of knee jerk reaction to the Supachai case and forget about it after a while, then nothing will be changed. Fortunately perhaps, many of Chula faculty do not tolerate plagiarism and they always take measures against this on their own. But I have to admit that not all Chula faculty are like this. And with only individual effort what can be accomplished are only those courses that these faculty are teaching. Those who don’t care much about plagiarism can let their students off the hook easily. In the end if this is allowed to continue the university as a whole will certainly suffer. So there must be a system-wide monitoring system that sees what *all* faculty members are doing in this respect. This looks like an encroachment of the freedom of the faculty, but the Supachai case has taught us that Chula faculty cannot always be trusted, so the administrators have to install such a system. This can be a part of the quality control system that the university is being crazy about.

New Look

If you have visited this page before, you might have noticed that the page sports a new look. Instead of the picture of the “horse nebula” that appeared on the previous design, now you are seeing a picture of a desert. This is no ordinary desert, but it’s from Mars. What looks like a mountain on your left is something that is similar to a glacier on earth. I think on Mars it’s made up of solid carbon dioxide. Well, I have to check up on that, but I think there’s not enough water ice on Mars to form an ice glacier.

The picture is taken from the National Geographic, and I hope that they don’t sue me when I took their picture and posted it here. At least I am acknowledging the source :-) I will post more thoughts and diversions here regularly, so please come back often.

Avatar and Spirituality

Last Saturday my son Ken and I went to see the movie Avatar together. It was Children’s Day in Thailand, and I first thought of taking Ken to the newly opened “Thailand Knowledge Park” at the Central World Shopping Mall. We did spend some time there but in the end we went to see the movie which was already shown at the same shopping mall. It was a very big movie, both in length (almost three hours) and in the content.

The theme of the movie is the fight between those who want to exploit nature for private gains and those who fight to protect it. This is of course a very well worn theme, but the setting of the movie, in an imaginary, remote planet far, far away from earth, kind of made up for this redundancy. The remote setting also adds to the urgency of the theme. It kind of made us think the matter through again. A group of people went all the way from earth to the planet Pandora to mine a very expensive kind of mineral there. The journey takes more than five years on board of space ships, and it takes more than five years to travel there. Those who have their missions at the planet have to have their bodies frozen up. The main character in the movie said that it felt like a bad sleep.

Pandora is not exactly uninhabited. There is a tribe of people there, the Na’vi, who is twice taller than an average human and much stronger. Their problem, however, is that they are forest dwelling people and do not have much technology beyond bows and arrows. Their sacred dwelling place, a very huge tree where they live inside, happens to be on top of a huge amount of deposit of this mineral so desired by the earth people. So this is the seed of the conflict. All efforts by earth people to persuade the Na’vi people to leave their sacred tree have failed, and the only way out was a violent conflict. Much of the movie then is on this fight scene which is really exciting for my son and others of his age. I don’t need to say who wins in this fight. This is easy to guess.

However, what I would like to say about this movie is that it encapsulates some very interesting ideas in philosophy and spirituality. The Na’vi people believe that the world and their forest is an expression of the Mother Goddess they call “Eywa.” Eywa is nature and everything else; thus everybody is already part of Her. We learn that she “does not take side” in conflicts between people. She only takes care of the “balance of life.”

So there have been some blogs (such as this one) saying that the movie is perhaps advocating pantheism, the idea that everything is identical to God. However, some (like the author of the same blog) say that instead of pantheism, the idea presented is more panentheism, the view that everything is included in God, that God exceeds the whole totality of nature. The difference between the two is that pantheism believes that everything is God and God is everything. God is nature (‘nature’ is the catch all word for everything, anything whatsoever) and nature is God. Like Spinoza said, ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ are two interchangeable words, meaning absolutely the same. Panentheism, on the other hand, believes that God is more than nature. Nature is part of God, and here panentheism agrees with pantheism, but God is more than nature. There is part of God that is not in nature.

Nonetheless, I am not saying here whether pantheism or panentheism is the correct interpretation of the movie. What I would like to say is about my reflection of the movie, its spiritual message, so to speak. The message is clear enough. We need to protect nature. For the Na’vi people, their sacred tree and the Tree of Souls, which is some kind of center nervous control for Eywa herself, cannot be exchanged for anything. These are their lives, their very beings; thus they are very sacred places indeed. We moderns have lost much touch with this idea of nature being sacred. For us nature is merely an object to be exploited, bought and sold, but for the Na’vi and close to home for many indigenous people it is very different.

Another message from the movie concerns globalization and its role in changing indigenous cultures. This is very close to us, but somehow we need a setting light years from our home to get the message across. Now globalization does not limit itself only to earth, but spans across the galaxy. This illustrates how greed is really limitless, a message that the Buddha gave us more than two millennia ago. Thus, apart from the philosophical discussion on pantheism and panentheism (I believe, contrary to others, that the message is rather pantheistic, but I have to talk about this in another post.), the message is that greed is to be avoided or at least limited. There is indeed no end to what we want to take. Even the whole universe would not be enough, let alone an extra-solar planet like Pandora. But before we really get to be able to travel to Pandora, perhaps we need to learn to live within our means and control our exploitation of nature within this earth. Otherwise going to Pandora might be nothing more than mere fantasy.

Future of Internet

I have participated in a survey on the future of the Internet in Thailand. Probably they will disseminate the result soon. If you are interested, here is the URL: http://netfuture.wordpress.com/

I promised them to say something about my ideas about the future of the Net too. Well, I have read some astrology books (not seriously of course! :-) ) so I’ll try to do some predictions of my own in more detail in the survey here in this blog soon.

Iran

I got back from Iran yesterday morning. I went to Tehran for the Tenth Asian Bioethics Conference, hosted by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. It was a good experience and I enjoyed my stay there a lot. I went there on the 25th and arrived home on the 30th.

Before going there I did not have much of an impression on Iran. Not that I did not know that it existed, but I knew of it only second hand through media reports (much of them were rather negative, as is quite well known). I knew that it was an “Islamic Republic,” meaning the way the country is governed followed directly the rules and teachings of Islam. But I had no idea of what it was like until I went there myself.

What struck me was that Iran is a really nice place. The air was cool and pleasant (it did help that they organized it in spring), and it reminded me of my time in Europe. In fact there are many similarities between Iran and a European country in terms of the geography, the air, the land and the trees. Grasses were full of the small yellow flowers that lied close to the ground sending out a lot of pollen. This is the kind of yellow weedy flowers that everyone experiences in the West in spring. This was striking to me because we don’t have such a plant in Thailand at all. Moreover, the trees are in most cases the same. Birches, pines, maples, oaks and so on. So if one does not look at the people and the street signs in Farsi, one might think that one is in the European continent.

But then the similarities ended. Looking around in Tehran, almost every woman wore black, covering everything from their hair to their ankles. The scarf covers every hair so that not one was seen. Only the face was shown. The shoes were also always black. Only young girls did not wear scarves. Their faces also looked European, at least to Asian eyes like mine. The Persians really do share a lot of characteristics with Europeans — blond or brown hair, blue eyes, white skin, big nose (one feature that really distinguishes them from us here in Thailand). Many women were exceedingly beautiful. One wonders what they really looked like without their black gowns.

This showed how much religion pervaded everyday life here. Compare with Thailand the situation in Iran was a diametrical opposite. Women there made me think that there were perhaps nuns. So every woman was a nun. Since a nun has to observe all the rules and dress codes, so does an Iranian woman. In Thailand there are nuns, of course, but not all women are nuns. There is a very clear distinction between lay women and nuns in Thailand; whereas in Tehran there might not be any real nuns (as far as I know), but then every woman in effect became a nun through her all covering black gowns.

What does this mean? I used to have a conversation with an Iranian friend and he asked me why Thailand was a Buddhist country and people still drank alcohol and stole things and killed others. This was a bit difficult to answer, but I answered him any way that these people were bad Buddhists who do not observe the teachings. I knew that he was surprised because for him religion should have the power to control people’s outward behavior. If one of the precepts says that one should not drink alcohol, then alcohol should be outlawed, as it is in Iran. But Thailand allows alcohol to be sold freely and openly. Why?

Well, the answer is perhaps that Thailand, as a Buddhist country, took a route where religion is more toward individual preferences. If one would like to give up alcohol in order to purify oneself, that is fine. But if one still likes drinking, then as long as he does not violate the law that is fine too. It is true of course that the drinking one could well be a Buddhist, and that he even knows that this is against the Five Precepts, but he drinks it nonetheless because he is not taking the path of purification at this moment. Buddhism does not force anybody to give up alcohol. The purpose of the Five Precepts is not to force anybody or to organize social structure around the Precepts, but they are there as “guidelines” for those who are intent on eventually getting rid of their sufferings.

But the Moslems, of course, took a very different track. For them social structure and religious teaching go hand in hand, becoming more unified than in Buddhism. This has created a tension with modern liberalism, a topic which requires a lengthy discussion which I cannot do here. So what struck me was that, whereas Buddhists pay emphasis on the mind, Islam really emphasizes outward behavior. For Islam the rules are not mere “guidelines,” but they are real rules because they are laid down by God. In Buddhism, if you want to become a nun, you decide that on your own and you willingly take on the vows of a nun, which include dress codes and all that. But if somebody else does not want to be a nun, but something else, then it is fine. But Islam, in order to create a social structure which corresponds to the letter of religious teaching, really forces people to follow. In Iran every woman has to be a nun, at least in public places.

There may be advantages in the Islamic way. Through forcing women to wear all these covering clothes, both women and men are then constrained to be mindful of their desires. It is like Buddhist monks and nuns who have to obey all these strict vows, also in order to maintain their mindfulness all the time. However, the disadvantages are well known. I have heard that many women chafed under these rules, which became law of the land. In Buddhist Thailand, on the other hand, women are free to wear what they please, but then they don’t have the protection that the Islamic dress provides. They have to protect themselves and depend more on the mind to guide their behavior.

Thaksin and Manchester City

Now another post which is definitely not about Buddhism. I read in the news today about Thaksin Shinawatra’s comments on the future of Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure at Manchester City. Apparently he is thinking of sacking the Swedish manager and replacing him with some even better known names.

This is indeed typical of Thaksin. As one who has endured his tenure as the Prime Minister of Thailand for more than five years, his style of management is that he takes everything to himself. All the decisions go to him, and if things happen that he doesn’t like, then watch out. Whether he is running Shin Corp, Thailand, or Man City, it is all the same. He is the supreme boss. Everybody else is just a decorated item.

Now Thaksin has perhaps forgotten that he is not running Shin Corp or Thailand any more. Running a football club is best left for the professionals who know what they are doing. And there are so many factors that have to be in place for a successful club, not least of which is a good chemistry between the players, the manager and everbody else involved. What Thaksin should be doing is to wait for a little while. From an outside perspective it looks like Eriksson is doing a terrific job at Man City, but this does not seem to satisfy Thaksin.

For those who have not known him, Thaksin loves to set deadlines. You have to deliver this by this particular date, otherwise… This was his style as Prime Minister. Now, folks at Man City are experiencing the same thing Thai people got through until a few years ago.

Note that I am not a Man C fan. My beloved football club has a lot more style. It’s Bayern Munich. Fortunately they are not looking for a new owner any time soon.