Saturday, May 23, 2015

Terminator Machines?

The Star Online

In my Rhetoric and Composition course, we're currently reading about Japanese robots as a possible solution to Japan's demographic problem, its low birthrate, but the article is about five years old and therefore out of date in such a fast-moving field, so I was gratified to see this recent article on Japanese robots: June H. L. Wong's "When humans need not apply" (The Star Online, May 20, 2015):
Robotics is now the biggest thing since the Internet. Japan, described as the world's most robot-savvy nation, wants to lead the charge. Last Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched the Robot Revolution Initiative, partnering with the private sector . . . . The Japanese are, admittedly, rather unusual in their ready acceptance of humanoid robots in their midst but I don't think other people are that far behind . . . . Like the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago, the robot revolution is bringing about great changes but perhaps with unimaginable consequences . . . . [for] the human mind be replaced by the mechanical mind in many jobs . . . . Yuji Honkawa, a 47-year-old equities trader at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, lost his job after 20 years because automated traders could file orders much faster than him . . . . If I thought my profession was safe, I was wrong. There are robot journalists too. According to the Humans Need Not Apply video, bots can write about anything. One company claims its artificial intelligence platform can create "narratives that rival your best analyst or writer, produced at a scale, speed and quality only possible with automation" . . . . [H]umankind could well face its worst enemy in 14 years. That is the predicted date - 2029 - when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence and achieves "the singularity", the point when men and machines converge, with machines ultimately taking over . . . . Which company is most single-minded in pursuing this singularity? The answer is Google, which The Guardian has described as "assembling the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth" . . . . Google’s near dominance of almost every facet of our digital lives from ground up to sky down has spooked many who have likened it to The Terminator's Skynet, the military artificial intelligence system spread out over millions of computer servers that became self-aware and wanted to kill and enslave humans. Don't believe me? Just Google it!
Well, that'll certainly solve everyone's demographic problem. A final solution.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Another positive review of my Bottomless Bottle of Beer novella . . .

Fellow fantasy writer Mark Russell liked The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, awarding five stars and adding:
A smart, fun fantasy novella, full of literary allusions, puns, and deep thoughts. Hodges combines a bunch of fun tropes (Faust, Milton, Daniel Webster and many more) in a light-hearted, thoughtful adventure. If you like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, you're probably going to quite enjoy this story.
He alerted me via email to his review and added these words:
It was a fun read . . . . A nice balance of fun and smart, and it went in a couple of directions I did not expect.
Great to hear that. I wonder what the unexpected directions were . . .

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Don't try this if you're not a bird . . .

Dean Potter
Jim Hurst for The New York Times

. . . unless you're batsh*t crazy! Writing for the NYT, John Branch reports that "Dean Potter, Extreme Climber, Dies in BASE-Jumping Accident at Yosemite" (May 17, 2015), along with a friend of Potter:
Potter, 43, and the other man, Graham Hunt, 29, leapt near dusk off Taft Point, a promontory about 3,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, not far from the iconic granite masses of El Capitan and Half Dome. Flying in wingsuits, they tried to clear a notch in the granite cliffs but instead smashed into the rocks in quick succession.
Even if you are batsh*t crazy, don't try it. You don't have wings. Unlike a real bat  . . .


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Islamic Reformation? No and Yes . . .

Martin Luther Burning Papal Bull with 41 Theses Against Him
Artwork by Friedrich Martersteig
Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images

A friend of mine sent me a link to this article, "Why Islam doesn't need a reformation," by Mehdi Hasan and published in the Guardian very recently (May 17, 2015). Hasan points to Aayan Hirsi Ali's call for a Islamic Reformation and asks if we really want the same kind of religious violence that resulted afterwards as Christianity tore itself apart. I agree with Hasan. We don't want that. Moreover, Islam has already had its Protestant-type 'Reformation' - in the movement led by Ibn Abdul Wahhab:
The truth is that Islam has already had its own reformation of sorts, in the sense of a stripping of cultural accretions and a process of supposed "purification". And it didn't produce a tolerant, pluralistic, multifaith utopia, a Scandinavia-on-the-Euphrates. Instead, it produced . . . the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Wasn't reform exactly what was offered to the masses of the Hijaz by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the mid-18th century itinerant preacher who allied with the House of Saud? He offered an austere Islam cleansed of what he believed to be innovations, which eschewed centuries of mainstream scholarship and commentary, and rejected the authority of the traditional ulema, or religious authorities.
Hasan is exactly right - that Islamic reform contributed to the Islamist mess we're in today. That's why I usually say I'm for Muslim reform, not an Islamic Reformation. I'm not sure about all of these following remarks by Hasan, however:
Don't get me wrong. Reforms are of course needed across the crisis-ridden Muslim-majority world: political, socio-economic and, yes, religious too. Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect - embodied in, say, the Prophet's letter to the monks of St Catherine's monastery, or the "convivencia" (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.
The letter might be useful, though of limited use, and I've read that the "convivencia" in Spain was not quite so ideal as often believed. That Spanish era has been subject to selective memory. Moreover, all those centuries of mainstream commentary were not so good for non-Muslims living under the yoke of Islam.

I think what we need - in addition to fighting Islamism on the literal battlefield - is an intellectual fight, one drawing on Western principles and critical scholarship of the sort that Christianity and Judaism have had to deal with.

Islam needs Qur'anic criticism - and criticism of the Hadith and Sira. We might not be able to reform Islam - outsiders that we are - but we can put up an intellectual shield to protect our Western way of thinking, speaking, and living.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another Teacher Appreciation Day Card from a Student

Floral Thank You Card
Dolce Press

Another student has given me a Teacher's Day card, similar to the one above, and she wrote:
To Professor H. J. Hodges

Happy Teacher's Appreciation Day!

It is a joy to be in your class this semester. I am learning a lot on various topics and developing my writing skills as well. Thank you for making the class enjoyable, especially through discussions.

P.S. Hope you'll enjoy the chocolate.

[Student's Name Redacted]
I did indeed enjoy the chocolate. So did my wife. Maybe I should treat this class to coffee . . .


Monday, May 18, 2015

Westerners Disbelieving the Jihadists

Muhammad on a Camel and Jesus on a Donkey
Jesus Ahead by A Head

I recently mentioned a conference held on May 3-4, 2015 at Boston University (BU) on "Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad," and one of the readers of my blog sent me a link to a report on that conference by one of the participants, Timothy R. Furnish, "Talking Honestly About Islamic Hate Speech" (History News Network, May 9, 2015). Among other things, Furnish cited Dr. Jeffrey Bale, who described a tendency among Westerners to disbelieve jihadists:
Dr. Jeffrey Bale, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, . . . . focused on the phenomenon of "mirror imaging" among Westerners - the tendency to assume that the other "thinks like me," or at least not too differently . . . . Thus, no matter how many times ISIS or al-Qa'idah or Boko Haram or the Taliban states, unequivocally, that they are waging jihad fi sabil Allah ("holy war in the path of Allah"), unbelieving Westerners try to explain it as really being motivated by political grievances, lack of jobs, or Western meddling in the Middle East.
I get some of this when I explain that the so-called "sword verses" in the Qur'an abrogate the earlier verses of peace, but some people prefer to cling to the "no compulsion in religion" verse even though it's been abrogated.

I understand them . . . I also prefer that verse, but reality tells me otherwise . . .

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Assuming Al-Baghdadi's isn't just a voice from the grave . . .

Asia News

. . . then "For Al-Baghdadi, Islam is a religion of war" (Samir Khalil Samir, Asia News, May 15, 2015), says the headline, citing the Islamic State's Caliph, Al-Baghdadi:
Islam . . . was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is [merely] the war of the Islamic State. It is[, rather,] the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels.
And there I was so sure of the mantra that "Islam is a religion of peace" and thus fully assured that all those terrorist attacks by Islamists were utter misunderstandings of an entirely peaceful Islam. Good to have that point cleared up! I reckon Jeffrey Tayler must be right, after all, that "This is not a battle we have chosen; the battle has chosen us."

The Caliph Al-Baghdadi, of all Muslims, ought to know what he's talking about, right?

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Teacher's Day Card!

Teacher's Day
Hoover Web Design

One of my students gave me a card for Teacher's Day - though not the card above (offered in lieu of mine, not found online) - and wrote:
Dear Professor Hodges,

Happy Teacher's Day!

It has been more than a year since I first met you in Academic English class. Time indeed flies. I can't believe that I'm a senior now . . . . Anyway! It is usually a carnation flower, not a clover [and the original card, as already noted, is not the one above, so no clover], but I wanted to thank you and wish you good luck, so I picked this [clover] card. But I put a flower here so you wouldn't feel bad about not having a flower.

Thank you for a good discussion class that gives us opportunities to actively think and discuss. I also wanted to thank you for kindly helping me whenever I went to ask for your help on Wednesdays - it always took longer than I expected, so I felt sorry but grateful at the same time.

I hope I have no grammatical errors here, but even if I do, I hope you don't mind. I also hope you have a great day today - and Happy Teacher's Day.


[Student name redacted]
I always appreciate such cards since I'm not a recipient of dozens of such, and I like pretend that other students were also involved in selecting the cards that I do receive . . .

Thanks, student!

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Jeffrey Tayler - "The left has Islam all wrong"

Jeffrey Tayler
Photo by Tatyana Shchukina
Los Angeles Review of Books

According to Jeffrey Tayler, "The left has Islam all wrong: Bill Maher, Pamela Geller and the reality progressives must face" (Salon, May 10, 2015), adding the lede, "Confusion over Islam and how to relate to it imperils free speech, without which no secular republic can survive." And he poses a question about the left's tendency to look upon Islam with indulgence:
What is it about Islam that simultaneously both motivates jihadis to kill and so many progressives to exculpate the religion, even when the killers leave no doubt about why they act? The second part of the question is easier to dispense with than the first. Progressives by nature seek common ground and believe people to be mostly rational actors - hence the desire to blame crime on social ills. Unfamiliarity with Islam's tenets also plays a role, plus, I believe, the frightening future we would seem to be facing as more and more Muslims immigrate to the West, and the world becomes increasingly integrated. Best just to talk of poverty and the like, or a few "bad apples." But to respond to the question's first part, we need to put aside our p.c. reading glasses and examine Islam's basic elements from a rationalist's perspective. Islam as a faith would not concern progressives, except that some of its adherents choose to act as parts of its dogma ordain, which, to put it mildly, violates the social contract underpinning the lives of the rest of us.
Tayler doesn't let Judaism or Christianity off lightly, either, but he saves his strongest language for Islam because . . .
. . . the Prophet Muhammad transformed the Judeo-Christian Despot on High into an even more menacing, wrathful ogre, whose gory punishments meted out to hapless souls after death fill many a Koranic verse. Shirk, or associating another being with God, is, of course, a paramount sin in Islam. Iconoclasm, or smashing asunder God's rival deities as represented in idols, was and remains a favorite pastime of Islamist totalitarians, as was tragically demonstrated by the Taliban's 2001 demolition of the awe-inspiring Buddhas of Bamiyan, or ISIS's devastation of ancient statues in Iraq. Such crimes are not perversions of Islam, but actions based on its canon and a fanatical desire to emulate its luminaries. To wit, after conquering Mecca, none other than the Prophet Muhammad (whose life Muslims hold to be exemplary) devastated the 360 idols of the Kaaba; and the Quran (Surat al-Anbiya', 21:57-58) recounts how the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham to Jews and Christians) broke apart idols. Monotheistic Islam and destruction, thus, go hand in hand, along with the (intolerant, divisive) proclamation that the Quran is the Final Testament, God's last word to humanity, superseding the previous (equally preposterous) "revelations" of Judaism and Christianity.
You see? I told you he was hard on Judaism and Christianity! Against Islam, he is of course harsher:
The only path to victory in this war in defense of free speech lies through courage. We cannot wimp out and blame the victims for drawing cartoons, writing novels, or making movies. We need to heed Gérard Biard, Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief, who declared, as he received the PEN award, that "They don't want us to write and draw. We must write and draw. They don't want us to think and laugh. We must think and laugh. They don't want us to debate. We must debate."
On free speech, I fully agree with Tayler. We are forced to speak out, forced to freely speak our minds:
This is not a battle we have chosen; the battle has chosen us.

It's time to fight back, and hard.
Inspiring words. A call to courage. With potentially deadly consequences . . .

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Adventures in English . . .

Un-Cowed by Destiny

In the print version of Wednesday's Korea Herald, Claire Lee's article, "Women more vulnerable to workplace bullying" (May 13, 2015), contained one great howler due to faulty software for recognizing proper syllabification in dividing one of the words at the end of a line (though I reckon two out of three ain't bad):
Among the witnesses, 61.3 per-
cent said the bullying they had
seen was "very serious." Also, 58.3
percent said they have had a cow-
orker who left work after being bul-
lied by their bosses or colleagues.
Note the nonexistent word "cow-orker"! Now, if only "bul-lied" had been divided as "bull-ied," we'd have had a truly weird couple of howlers that would - I hasten to add, but hesitate to say - have somehow fit the article's underlying theme of sexual harassment (which I take seriously, of course).

Incidentally, on my way to the book launch that I attended two days ago (May 12th), I grew confused by the lack of street signs (such that my rough, hand-drawn map was of little help), so I stopped to ask directions from a woman sheltering herself from the gusty rain at the entrance to an underground parking lot. She was very helpful, quickly locating the place by means of her smartphone and explaining how to get there. "Go straight down this street," she said, pointing at my map, "and you'll reach your destiny."

Apparently, the book launch was a more serious engagement than I had expected, but perhaps my meeting the Canadian ambassador was foreseen by that woman and holds some special significance for my life . . .