Ayn Rand and Me (Part 1)

Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.

– Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand

[This is part 1 of a planned 3 part series on the philosophy of Ayn Rand and its influence on my life. This first part serves as an introduction to Ayn Rand and her philosophy and the context within which I first learned of her work.]

Like religious belief, the late Ayn Rand is not a subject for polite conversation. She evokes such extremes of emotion in those who know of her that it’s almost impossible to have any rational discussion about her or the philosophical movement she inspired. Coupled with the fact that Ayn Rand’s ideas have had an immeasurably profound influence on me, this makes the present essay the most intensely personal and hence most difficult to write of anything in the entire site thus far.

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World’s Most Powerful Laptop

Sager NP9261

[The above image is taken from Sager’s official website.]

I noticed this ludicrously powerful notebook computer in the news today. It has a quad-core CPU, dual 8700M-GT video cards in SLI mode and triple 200GB hard drives. It’s so powerful in fact, that instead of having a battery, it claims to have a built-in UPS instead. And since it weighs 11.5 pounds without including its power brick, can you really call this thing a laptop?

I’m an tech enthusiast myself, but this item serves as a perfect illustration of my puzzlement at how some people go completely crazy in an overboard way over the latest and greatest gadgets. I play a lot of computer games so naturally I need a gaming computer, but from my observations there are people who will happily pay ridiculous amounts of money just to be able to own powerful computers that they don’t really take full advantage of. Similarly, I can appreciate the utility of devices like mobile phones, PDAs and even ebook readers but I’m certainly not the kind of person who buys them just for the sake of buying them.

Malaysian Co-owner of YouPorn?

This interesting tidbit caught my attention in an article in this month’s issue of Condé Nast’s Portfolio magazine. The article itself concerns the severe competition that traditional producers of pornography are facing from the abundance of free and pirated pornographic content on the internet and points to YouPorn as a prime example. As its name suggests, YouPorn is a pornographic version of YouTube. According to the article, one of the co-owners of YouPorn is a Malaysian, supposedly named Zach Hong, who lives in Australia.

The article itself is actually quite interesting in of itself. As it mentions in passing, the pornographic industry has always been the first segment of entertainment to adopt new technology, beginning with content in VHS and later in DVD format. Its problems and how it deals with them could be a good predictor of how more mainstream entertainment companies deal with the breakdown of their traditional content distribution models due to the rise of the internet.

Still, if it is really true that a Malaysian is co-founder of YouPorn and it turns out to be the biggest internet business yet founded by a Malaysian, it would give an ironic twist to the tired refrain of Malaysia Boleh!

Passionforarts.com

It’s been a month now that I’ve reworked my previous website as a blog and ended up writing more content for it than I originally thought I would. Now I guess my wife has caught the writing bug from me and has decided to do some writing of her own. Her blog at passionforarts.com is entirely in Chinese and will focus on the arts, particularly film and television. They aren’t really reviews, but are more like essays examining the themes and ideas in specific works.

Present at the Creation (Museum)

John Scalzi recently posted a highly entertaining account on his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky in the US, complete with 100 photos of the whole thing. Among some of the most ridiculous claims the museum makes is that dinosaurs lived contemporaneously with humans until as late as the Fifth Dynasty of ancient kingdom of Egypt. Even more amusingly, they claim that before Adam committed the original sin of eating the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, all animals were herbivores, even some fearsome dinosaurs as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. They suggest that before Adam ate the apple, the T. Rexes used their gigantic fangs and claws to eat coconuts.

Personally, I recall going to Sunday school once at an early age and hearing the story of the Garden of Eden. Even then, my bullshit detectors went off because, well, having read stuff like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, I wondered where were the dinosaurs in the story? As Scalzi writes, you really have to admire the chutzpah of creationists who can insert dinosaurs into Paradise and still claim with a straight face that all the facts fit together just fine.

As ridiculous as this sounds, this is a pretty big deal in the United States. The Creation Museum cost US$27 million and is reportedly attracting crowds of a decent size, while approximately two thirds of Americans believe that creation science should be taught alongside evolution in schools. More worrying still, as The Economist noted earlier this year, the movement is becoming global, with Turkey in particular being a centre for Muslim creationism.

I’m particularly curious about attitudes in Malaysia. From anecdotal evidence, I believe that most Malaysians still harbour significant doubts about human evolution without actually committing themselves to so ludicrous a belief as the 6 day Young Earth Creationism taught by the museum. This is still a shame though because the consensus among scientists is that evolution is probably the most well established and well documented theory in all of science and answers to the most common questions are easily found on websites like the TalkOrigins Archive.

Heroes: A Geek’s Wet Dream

Heroes

So I’ve just finished rewatching the first season of Heroes and again I’m struck by just how incredibly geeky it is. It’s very obviously a show written by comic book fans for comic book fans and a lot of its appeal comes from consciously emulating the elements that work in comics and translating them to television. Not all of the borrowings from comics work in practice of course: Mohinder Suresh’s opening and closing narration might come off well in a comic, lending it a literary air, but in the show the bland reading comes across as pretentious and boring. Still, things like the awakening of unusual powers in unsuspecting ordinary people, plots within plots on a grand scale, showdowns between heroes and villains, bursts of frantic and spectacular action, and even nail-biting cliffhanger endings to episodes are all part of what makes traditional superhero comics so great.

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The Death of Free Will

This month’s issue of Popular Mechanics has an article on the latest advances in mind reading technology: using magnetic resonance imaging machines to determine without ambiguity what a subject is thinking about. As a practical matter, the main experiment cited in the article is actually not that impressive since there was a base success rate of 50 percent simply by guessing what the test subject was thinking about. As a foretaste of what is to come however, it is intriguing. As the imaging resolution goes up and the database from which the raw images are interpreted grows, the accuracy of such devices will only increase. It is well within the realm of the possible that eventually such devices may be available in a portable form.

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The unexamined life is a life not worth living