An Ode To The Semicolon

I discovered semicolons in the fall of 1992. I had asked–on a lark of sorts–to read a term paper written by my then-girlfriend, who was taking a class in literary theory at New York University. In it, I noticed a ‘new’ form of punctuation; I had seen the semicolon before, but I had not seen it pressed so artfully into service. Here and there, my girlfriend had used it to mark off clauses–sometimes two, sometimes three–within a sentence; her placement turned one sentence into two, with a pause more pronounced than that induced by a comma. The two separated clauses acquired a dignity they did not previously progress; there was now a dramatic transition from one to the other as opposed to the blurring, the running on, induced by the comma. I had not read writing like this before; it read differently; it spoke to a level of sophistication in expression that seemed aspirational to me. I immediately resolved to use the semicolon in my own writing.

And so I did; I plunged enthusiastically into the business of sprinkling semicolons over my writing; they sprung up like spring wildflowers all over my prose, academic or not. Like my girlfriend, I did not stop at a mere pair of clauses; triplets and sometimes quadruplets were common. Indeed, the more the merrier; why not just string all of them along?

Needless to say, my early enthusiasm for semicolon deployment necessitated a pair of corrections. (My girlfriend herself offered one; my ego was not too enlarged to make me reject her help.) One was to use the semicolon properly. That is, to use it as a separator only when there were in fact separate clauses to be separated, and not just when a mere comma would have sufficed. The other, obviously, was to cut down just a tad on the number of clauses I was stringing together. Truth be told, there was something exhilarating about adding on one clause after another to a rapidly growing sentence, throwing in semicolon after semicolon, watching the whole dramatic edifice take shape on the page. Many editors of mine have offered interventions in this domain; I’ve almost always disagreed with their edits when they delete semicolons I’ve inserted in my writing. To my mind, they ran together too much and produced clunkier sentences in the process.

I don’t think there is any contest; the semicolon is my favorite piece of punctuation. The period is depressing; it possesses too much finality. The comma is a poser; it clutters up sentences, and very few people ever become comfortable with, or competent in, using them. (I often need to read aloud passages of prose I’ve written in order to get my comma placement right.) The colon is a little too officious. (My ascription of personalities to punctuation marks comes naturally to a synesthete like me.) The semicolon combines the best of all three, typographically and syntactically. It looks good; it works even better. What’s not to like?

A Conversation On Religious Experience

A couple of summers ago, a friend and I waited at a parking lot by Cottonwood Pass in Colorado for a ride back to Buena Vista. Bad weather had forced us off the Colorado Trail, and we now needed transportation to the nearest lodging venue. A pair of daytrippers, a middle-aged couple, appeared, walking back to their parked vehicle, done with their viewing and photography for the day. We walked over and made our request: could we please hitch a ride with them? They were not going back all the way to Buena Vista, but only to a campground nearby; would that work? We said it would; we would find another ride from there. In we hopped, and off we went.

As we drove, introductions were made; we were from Brooklyn, our benefactors were visiting from Texas, sans children and grandchildren.  When asked what I ‘did,’ I said I was a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Intrigued, they asked which classes I taught; when I listed philosophy of religion as one of them, they asked me if I was religious. I said that I wasn’t religious in belief or practice, but was very interested in the problems and questions that arose in that domain of philosophy. I asked my newly made friends if they were religious; they both said they were devout Christians. I asked them if their faith had been a matter of being born into a devout family, and they both replied that while they had been born into churchgoing families, each had had an individual ‘experience’ that had cemented their faith, given it a new dimension, and indeed caused them to say they ‘found Christ’ only later in life–in each case, following a profound ‘crisis’ of one sort or the other. When Christ ‘had come’ to them, they had ‘felt’ it immediately, and had never had any doubt ‘in their hearts’ from that point on. I listened, fascinated. I made note of the fact that I taught an section on ‘religious experiences’ in my class, and mentioned William James and St. Teresa of Avila‘s theoretical and personal accounts of its phenomena.

When my new friends were done recounting the story of their journey to their faith, they asked me again if I was sure I wasn’t religious. I said that I was quite sure I had no theistic belief–even as I remained fascinated by religion as a social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual phenomena and by the nature of religious feeling–which is why, of course, I had inquired into the nature of their religious belief and how they came by their beliefs. In response, my friends said they were ‘relieved’ to hear of my attitude, that they frequently skirted the subject in conversation with ‘strangers’ because they didn’t want anyone to feel they were proselytizing; I assured them I didn’t think they were, and that I had found the conversation singularly illuminating.

We had driven on past the campground that was supposed to be our destination; our friends said they found our conversation worth continuing; they would drop us to Buena Vista. Rain clouds were still threatening, so this offer was most welcome. Soon, we found ourselves on Buena Vista’s Main Street, our destination for the day. We alighted, grabbed our backpacks, posed for a photograph or two, and then bade them farewell; I asked for their names, but did not write them down, and so have forgotten them. But not that conversation; there was a refreshing warmth and openness on display that was refreshing, and in the context of the US and its endless ‘religious wars,’ a genuine sense of novelty.

Death Of A Password

Time to bid farewell to an old, dear, and familiar friend, a seven-character one whose identity was inscribed, as if by magic, on my fingertips, which flew over the keyboard to bring it to life, time and time again. The time has come for me to lay it to rest, after years and years of yeoman service as a gatekeeper and sentry sans pareil. For years it guarded my electronic stores, my digital repositories of files and email messages. It made sure no interlopers trespassed on these vital treasures, perhaps to defile and destroy, or worse, to embarrass me by firing off missives to all and sundry in the world signed by me, and invoking the wrath of those offended and displeased upon my head. It’s ‘design’ was simple, the artful placement of a special character between a pair of triplet letters that served to produce a colloquial term referring to a major rock band. (Sorry for being coy, but I have hopes of resurrecting this password at some point in the future when the madness about overly-secure passwords and yet utterly useless passwords has broken down.) Once devised this password worked like magic; it was easy to remember, and I never forgot it, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Once my life became sufficiently complicated to require more than one computer account, as an increasing number of aspects of my life moved online, this password was pressed into double and later, triple and quadruple duty: email clients, utilities billing accounts, mortgage payments, online streaming sites, and all of the rest. I knew this was a security risk of sorts but I persisted; like many other computer users, I dreaded having to learn new, increasingly complicated passwords, and of course, I was just plain lazy. And yet, I was curiously protective of my password; I never shared it with anyone, not even a cohabiting girlfriend. My resistance broke down once I got married; my life was now even more intertwined with another person, our affairs messily tangled up; we often needed access to each others’ computer accounts. And so, it came to be: I shared my password with my wife. I wondered, as I wrote it down for her, whether she’d notice my little verbal trick, my little attempt to be clever. Much to my disappointment she did not; she was all business; all she wanted was a string of letters that would let her retrieve a piece of information that she needed.

The end when it came, was prompted by a series of mishaps and by increasingly onerous security policies: my Twitter account was hacked and many new online accounts required new passwords whose requirements could not be met by my old password. With some reluctance, I began adopting a series of new passwords, slowly consolidating them into a pair of alphanumeric combinations. My older password still worked, but on increasingly fewer accounts. Finally, another security breach was the last straw; I had been caught, and found wanting; the time had come to move on. So I did. But not without the odd backward glance or two, back at an older and simpler time.

Studying Ancient Law In Philosophy Of Law

This semester in my philosophy of law class, I’ve begun the semester with a pair of class sessions devoted to ancient law: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Roman. (My class is reading excerpts from a standard law school textbook: Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications by Stephen E. Gottlieb,  Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton, & Robin L. West.) I chose these sections for class reading and discussion because as the authors put it, “First, it is useful to know about the origins of law….Second, the legal documents from the Ancient Near East offer you a comparative perspective…you will find illuminating points of similarity and difference with our own system of laws, and that will help you to identify seemingly universal features of law and to spot particular characteristics that distinguish our own legal system, characteristics that you may have assumed were universal. Third…studying the earliest attempts to impose law gives us an opportunity to examine the reasons for using law as a means of governing….we will find…hints about the original reasons for choosing law, as opposed to other methods of ruling.” Moreover, these excerpts offer us some of the “earliest attempts to reflect on the rule of law…[they] pose a set of questions that have defined the field of jurisprudence ever since….In contrast to contemporary jurisprudence these ancient writings offer clear distinctions between the different approaches: they present arguments about positivism and natural law in purer form.”

These considerations offer a series of compelling arguments for why the study of ancient law should be included in a philosophy of law course; the description of law as a historically evolving and contingent technology of governance is one that every student of law–philosophical or otherwise–should be familiar with. (I regret never having including these sorts of materials in my previous iterations of this class; philosophy of law anthologies for their part, do not include material on ancient law.) If today’s vigorous class discussion–on a preliminary reading of the laws of Ur-Namma, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Yahdun-Lim was any indication, this syllabus selection has been a hit with my students as well. My students were particularly enthused by an introductory exercise that asked them to write a prologue, a few laws, and a conclusion in the style of these legislators; we then discussed why they picked the prologue and the laws that they did; this discussion allowed me to introduce the concept of the ‘expressive impact of law’ and also the so-called four-fold model of behavioral modification, which shows that law is but one modality by which behavior can be modified (the others are social norms, market pressures, and architectural constraints.) Moreover, these legislative excerpts are written in a very distinctive style, which permitted a preliminary discussion of legal rhetoric as well.

I often get syllabi wrong; and much remains to be done in this semester, but for the time being I’m reasonably pleased that this class–which sputtered so spectacularly last year–is off to a bright start in this new year. Hope springs eternal.

On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

Thinking Of Autonomous Weapons In ‘Systems’ Terms

A persistent confusion in thinking about weapons and their regulation is to insist on viewing weapons in isolation, and not as part of larger, socio-political-economic-legal-ethical systems. This confusion in the domain of gun control for instance, inspires the counter-slogan ‘guns don’t kill people; people kill people.’ Despite its glibness–and its misuse by the NRA–the slogan encapsulates a vital truth: it is singularly unilluminating to consider a weapon in isolation. Indeed, the object we term a weapon is only within the context a large system that makes it one. A piece of metal is a knife because it is used as one, pressed into service as one by a decision-making agent of some kind, to cut objects, vegetable or animal.

Which brings us to autonomous weapons, a domain where the ethical and regulatory debate is quite clearly demarcated. The case for autonomous weapons is exceedingly familiar: they are more humane because of their greater precision; they can be used to reduce the ‘cost’ of war, both human and material; no more carpet-bombing, just precision strikes, delivered by autonomous weapons–which moreover, reduce the strain of killing on humans. (That is, these weapons are kinder to those who kill and those who are killed.) The case against them is similarly familiar: the delegation of lethal decision making to a machine incapable of fine-grained ethical deliberation is an invitation to moral atrocity, to a situation in which lurking catastrophes are triggered by a moral calculus that makes decisions which are only superficially technically correct. The immaturity of such systems and the algorithms they instantiate makes them especially risky to deploy and use.

Autonomous weapons do not exist in isolation, of course; they are more correctly considered autonomous weapons systems–as one part of an economic, military, legal, political, and moral calculus; their use as weapons is not merely function of their machinic code; it is a function, rather, of a much more complex ‘code’ made up of bits of legal regulations, political imperatives, and physical and economic constraints. It is these that act together, in concert, or in opposition, to ‘fire’ the weapon in question. As such, some of the ‘ethical’ arguments in favor of autonomous weapoons systems look a little trite: yes, autonomous weapons system carry the potential to enable more targeted and precise killing, but the imperatives to do so still need to be human directed; their force is channeled and directed and perhaps weakened or strengthened–by all sorts of system level and corporate constraints like political ones. The questions such systems prompt are, as they should be, quite different from those that might be directed at an ‘isolated weapon’: Who owns them? Who ‘controls’ them? What are safeguards on their inappropriate use? Which system’s political and economic and moral imperatives are written into its operational procedures? The world’s deadliest bomber can be grounded by a political command, its engines left idling by politics; it can also be sent half-way around the world by a similar directive.

An illustrative example may be found in the history of computing itself: the wide-scale deployment of personal computing devices in office settings, their integration into larger ‘enterprise’ systems, was a long and drawn out process, one suffering many birthing pains. This was because the computers that were placed in offices, were not, despite appearances, isolated computing devices; they were part of computing systems. They were owned by the employer, not the employee, so they were not really ‘personal’; their usage–hours, security access etc–was regulated by company rules; the data on their drives belonged to the employer. (For instance, to print a document, you accessed a networked printer administered by an Information Systems Group; or, the computers are not accessible on weekends or after hours.) Under these circumstances, it was a category mistake to regard these machines as isolated personal computing devices; rather, they were part of a much larger commercial system; their human users were one component of it. Claims about their capacities, their desirability, their efficiencies were only coherently made within the framework of this system.

Similar considerations apply to autonomous weapons; talk of their roles in warfare, their abilities, and the like, are only meaningfully expressed within a discursive framework that references the architecture of the system the weapon in question functions as a part of.

 

Volcanoes In Ecuador: Thwarted But Happy

Climbing volcanoes in Ecuador has been a long-held dream of mine. From January 13th to the 19th of this year, I took a few baby steps toward realizing it: I traveled to Machachi, Ecuador to try to hike and climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest volcanoes. I failed; both volcanoes were not prepared to receive me on their summits; the weather did not co-operate and was well and truly ‘socked in’ with persistent rain and snow higher up. I traveled partway up Cotopaxi, returning from 5300 meters after snow conditions were deemed unfit for us to continue; the Chimborazo attempt was called off before commencing thanks to reports that avalanche conditions prevailed on its slopes. Still, I managed to squeeze in hikes–of varying levels–of three other volcanoes in the region: Corazon; Illiniza Norte; Ruminahui. I also spent a rewarding week at a lovely hostel–the Hosteria Chiguac–in the town of Machachi, and a wonderful weekend in Quito with an old friend. Like all occasions to travel, this one changed me emotionally and physically; I fell in love all over again with the mountains and renewed my gratitude for the folks I meet when I travel,–this time around, a pair of fire fighters from Idaho, Canadian climbers, English schoolboys, a German young man–who fill my heart with their affection and amaze me with their kindness. The world is a big place, and I will remain in awe of all it contains.

I arrived in Quito on Friday, January 11th, and after being picked up by Manuel from Andes Climbing, was driven to Machachi to check in at the Hosteria Chiguac. Next morning, my guide Marco arrived to accompany me on an acclimitazation hike to Corazon. The hike begins from a parking lot at 4000 m above sea level and continues on to the summit of Corazon–with a funky little rocky scramble requiring some care along the way. The summit is at 4780m; we were accompanied by a dog–Senor Perro–who proved to be a remarkably skillful scrambler and hiker. After a quick lunch, we headed back down, or rather, we were chased off the summit ridge by an impending thunderstorm. The next day, Marco and I headed off to climb Illiniza Norte, the less-technical of the pair of Illinizas. This is a class 3 scramble that turned into an alpine adventure thanks to the fresh snow; the most excitement came along the traverse ‘El Paseo De Morte’ and in ascending the final couloir to the summit; we roped up and Marco expertly belayed me on a couple of sections. After the summit, we ‘surfed’ our way down a scree slope to pull off a little slippery, slidy, shortcut. After a day’s rest, Marco and I attempted to scale Cotopaxi.

The day before our attempted climb, Marco and I drove to the parking lot for the Jose Rivas Refuge, and hiked up to the refuge, our jumping off point for the summit push. We ate an early dinner, checked our gear and turned in for the night at about 630PM. Wake-up was at 11PM; I drank a quick coffee, geared up, and headed out. One indication of the trouble we were to face was that we had to put on our crampons at the refuge itself, as opposed to the usual ‘crampons-on’ point at the the glacier forty-five minutes up the slope. Later, the snow grew deeper, wetter, and slippier, making progress up the slope harder and harder. Two hours and 1300 feet up the slope, our luck ran out, as Marco and other guides with other parties decided that snow conditions made it too hard to carry on. Our Cotopaxi plans having fallen apart, so did our Chimoborazo ones; besides, scouting reports made it clear avalanche risk was too high. I settled for a substitute hike to Ruminahui Central on a day which summed up the weather for the week; it began and ended in dampness, and we were chased off the peak by an approaching storm.

My hiking concluded, I moved to Quito for the weekend to meet an old friend and spent a couple of days of blissful indulgence, eating ceviche and various barbecued meats, strolling around, drinking delicious black coffee with coconut oil and sugar, and enjoying, all over again, the sensation of being amazed by this world’s offerings. The mountains did not co-operate this time around; but I’m patient. I’ll be back.