I can resist anything, except temptation! (Oscar Wilde)

Roozbeh and the Confused PhD Student

in me

This is a short play that my PhD colleagues performed during my PhD celebration fest. I put it here with their permission.

The Narrator (Noel)

As a PhD student, at one time or another, you get to the point where you feel confused, or lost, you just need to talk to someone to get some advice and get back on track. Now our friend and colleague Roozbeh is the kind of guy who’ll always be happy to have a conversation, to support and to discuss, and he does it, in a very special way that we have all come to appreciate and like about him. In this small play, we want to re-live some real or fictional encounters with Roozbeh, where he’s helped us along in one way or another.

The Confused PhD Student (Jonathan)

Oh man, this PhD thing is tough, I just feel confused by all the reading and the writing and courses. [Sighs] Well, for what it’s worth, the last thing that goes is hope. So I can hope that I’ll manage it somehow. And then, there’s always hope for… [Pause] cake at fika.

Roozbeh#1 (Simon)

Is it, though? Is hope the last thing that goes? If you can’t manage the PhD, is it really hope that is what remains before you tell your supervisors that you can’t make it? I’m not so sure! It could be that it’s just your sense of commitment that keeps you going. Well, little buddy, whatever it is that keeps you going until the end, I, as a Doctor, can tell you that it’s totally worth it. Maybe, you just need to relax, get your mind off of it for a bit, maybe watch a good movie?

The Confused PhD Student

Yeah, maybe I just need to get away from it for a moment. Do something totally else. I think I’ll go watch an animated movie, since all academics are real humans, I probably can’t get much farther away than that. I’ll watch “Inside Out”. Being inside a human sounds fun!

Roozbeh#2 (Matilda)

But what is the purpose of animated movies? Think about it? Are they really saying something? If you compare with the ones being produced now with the ones from before, they had a meaning, right!? What is the purpose now? Is it the animation Technology, just showing of? Think of it like PhD studies: Are you just taking a certain topic because it’s cool, it’s trendy and has all kinds of special effects? Or do you want to tell a story, make a difference? A PhD should not be a flashy animated movie. If you take that into account, you’ll surely not get lost in the process.

The Confused PhD Student

Okay, first a movie, now not an animated movie. I’m not sure where this is going. Anyway, Roozbeh, I read your book and I saw all the crazy analyzes and everything you did. You seem to be really good with numbers. See, I’m just doing my literature search, and I get this huge number of hits that I really need to narrow down.

Roozbeh#3 (Sally)

So you mean that you have a big number? What is actually a number? We use numbers every day, but take a step back, what are they, really? Why do they do such good job of helping us explain the universe? Mathematical structures can consist of numbers, sets, groups, and points — but are they real objects, or do they simply describe relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? This is essentially an ontological problem, where we’re left baffled about the true nature of the universe and which aspects of it are human constructs and which are truly tangible. I think that’s the central point here in all of this!

The Confused PhD Student

Wow, Roozbeh, way to confuse me. [Sighs] Well, now I feel I really need a break. [Looks at watch] Oh wow! It’s 2.30. Someone’s bringing kanelbullar today!

Roozbeh#4 (Linn)

Yes! Kanelbullar! You know what I sometimes wonder? Are kanelbullar really the right choice? Think about it! It’s just a bun with sugar and cinnamon, I’m not sure that will get you to your PhD, my friend. Just consider the number of bullar you eat over the five years! Is that really what we should be doing? Consider the old Greeks, they made such progress in understanding the world and the universe, all without kanelbullar! Maybe, your confusion would be lower without all the sweets clouding our minds.

The Confused PhD Student

Well, Roozbehs, I really appreciate the talk, but I’m really not sure how not focusing on hope, not watching animated movies, not trusting numbers and not eating kanelbullar will get me through my PhD. [Turns to real Roozbeh] Regardless, we know that we still have time to understand all the things that you’ve already understood.

We’re just really glad that you’ll stick around for at least a few more years, now that you’re a Doctor, so that we can continue to have our talks, that we can help each other in our work, and we can benefit from your great knowledge and the magic of your mind, that never stops to wonder. Congratulations on making it, Roozbeh, we’re all very proud of you!

A couple who broke a modern taboo

in modern certainties

Sara and Gabriel Chrisman have committed a great sin.

They are researchers interested in the Victorian era near the end of the nineteenth century and like this particular period so much that have decided to “live in it“. About five years ago, they purchased a 19th century-built house in Port Townsend, Washington State and got rid of most (or all) of the contemporary tools and gadgets and replaced them with things such as icebox, mechanical clock, fountain pen, and oil lamp. They have lived a Victorian life since then.

You may think of their attempt as interesting, funny, in vain, or irrelevant. Nevertheless, you most likely agree with me that trying to live by Victorian tools is a harmless and innocent hobby that should not make anyone angry. However, although most people treat Sara and Gabriel with respect, there are a few who do their best to make their lives as miserable as they can. These are people who swear at their face or send them hate letters with death threats. It seems that some people simply cannot tolerate what Sara and Gabriel do, that is, living a happy life in such a way that seems to be very different from the rest of us.

But why? What is the reason for such anger, violence and irrational behavior? What is in Sara and Gabriel’s way of life that makes it so unacceptable in the eyes of some?

I tend to agree with John Greer that it has something to do with the fact that this couple have broken one of the prevalent taboos of the contemporary modern cultures. They, by choosing to live a Victorian life, have shown that it is ultimately up to each of us to select the set of tools by which we would like to live. In other words, they tell us that we are free to choose or reject any of the advanced contemporary technologies.

But the idea that we can actually chose the technologies that shape our living style is a modern taboo. You cannot say or do such things as “we have a choice in accepting or rejecting advanced often professionally prescribed technologies”, because by saying so, you are implying that we have genuine choice, hence, there is a real possibility of not choosing some or all of the advanced technologies.

Sara and Gabriel has broken this taboo in an irrefutable way. Their practical message to others is not “hey! you should also join us and live a Victorian lifestyle!”, but is something more radical. They are saying “instead of following the lead of professional marketers and technology brokers you can take control of your own life. You can choose!”.

The idea that one is free to accept or reject advanced technologies is a modern taboo. The view that one can live without TV, computer, smart phone, cars, etc. is a “modern heresy” and whoever commit such a heresy, in words or deed, will face punishment: they shall be violently humiliated and marginalized.

But Sara and Gabriel are also interesting from another perspective. In choosing a less material and energy intensive life style, they join the pioneers who acknowledge the demise of the epoch of abundance of concentrated energy, resources and wastefulness. Don’t let their 19th century living style deceit you; they are neither seeking to move back in time nor try to act as present-day Luddites, but, through radical reduction of their material and energy consumption they have their gaze toward future. Sara and Gabriel based on the material heritage of their own culture have taken a brave step toward exploring ancient and new ways of being human and less wasteful.

The rise of the system era

in philosophy & ethics

This short text is inspired (and in part summarized) by Ivan Illich’s view on the history of tools and the rise of a new epoch which according to him, the concept of system represents. I have freely paraphrased, summarized, and modified the text as narrated here.[1] I do not claim that my understanding of Ivan Illich’s view is accurate or complete (one need to be much more knowledgeable for that kind of confidence), but I have done my best. 

One of the key concepts of our age is the concept of “system”. System, not in the sense that we refer to “system of thought” or “system of book keeping”, but rather in the sense that was first used in the science of cybernetics. System, in this sense, is a metaphor for the world of computer, genetic engineering, and information technology. The rise of a system-based worldview, represents the end of an era, which Ivan Illich calls “the age of instrumentality”, and the beginning of a new epoch. The age of instrumentality was an era in which our relationship to the outside world was mediated and shaped via our tools. Tool, in the vocabulary of Ivan Illich, encompassrs a wide ranging meaning and refers to any engineered device. Before the beginning of the age of system, the characteristic of tools were their distinctness and disconnectedness from their users. Something which Ivan Illich refers to as “distality” or being “distal”. But in systems, there is no such distality.

Before the 12th century, tools were considered as extensions of the human body. However, gradually since that time, a clear border between the tools and their users was formed. This marked the rise of the age of instrumentality (tools as distal instruments). However, in systems this distinction is removed. Human becomes part of the system and operates within the system.

Insofar as there is a distality between human and her tools, tools can encompass some of the intentions of its user. Tools are subjected to our free will and act as instruments that help us to achieve our intended purpose. For example, a knife, depending on the intention of its user, can be used for preparing food, self-defense, or decorating a garden.

But this is not true for systems. Whatever purpose they are designed for, they encompass us. The user of system, not only operates within it, but also follows the function which the system is designed for. In other words, a system does not follow the intention of its user, but only operates according to the nature of its design. Our use of a system is done within its parameters.

The importance of this change is due to the impact that it will have on our view toward ourselves and our surrounding world. When the world is viewed as a vast and interconnected system, which covers the microscopic ream of cells and the macroscopic realm of the biosphere; the earth, as an external reality on which we are standing, disappears from beneath our feet. System is a fundamentally abstract concept. It is not based on any stepping stone, and there is no external point of reference on which we can stand and allow us to look at it from outside or to influence it.

Within a period of one or two generations, computer has become a key metaphor for our awareness towards ourselves and the world. The same way that the invention of wheel allowed us to speak of “wheel of fate”, or the invention of writing allowed us to speak of the “book of nature”, the rise of computer allows us to have a cybernetic view toward the world: world as network, as eco-system, as a genetic text.

This new image of the world is deeply changing us. We are no more standing with one foot in the world and one foot outside it, as we did previously as the readers of the book of nature or people with written destinies. Instead, we have become part of the system.


  1. Illich, I., 2000. Corruption of Christianity. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, Ont.  

What do the dying birds tell us?

in ecological innovations/utopianism, dystopianism & techno-optimism

Technological innovations bring solutions to certain problems while simultaneously create another forms of challenges. For instance, wind turbines and solar thermal plants are known to have lethal effects on wild life, specially on birds:

Hundreds of thousands of birds and bats are killed by wind turbines in the U.S. each year, including some protected species such as the golden eagle and the Indiana bat. That’s only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions killed by buildings, pesticides, fossil-fuel power plants, and other human causes, but it’s still worrying — especially as wind power is experiencing record growth.[1]

What was less obvious to me was birds being barbecued on air while flying over solar plants:

Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one “streamer” every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator’s application to build a still-bigger version.[2]

This does not mean that we are facing a technological dead ends, or we should take an anti-developmental approach. Should the will and mandate be present, tech-fixes for such issues can be developed. However, such examples bust the myth of “larger knowledge means smaller problems”.  Knowing more brings with it questions and problems of its own, which may be even larger than expected. Before the invention of automobile, there were no car accidents, or before the discovery of the CFCs there was no ozone layer rupturing, and so on. Accordingly,

Expansion or evolution of “problem-sphere”, rather than its reduction and dissolution, is integral to the development of science and technology.

Those dying birds are the sad but not sole reminders of this “principle” to us.


  1. Roger Drouin, “For the birds (and the bats): 8 ways wind power companies are trying to prevent deadly collisions,” Grist, Jan-2014. 

  2. E. Knickmeyer and J. Locher, “Emerging solar plants scorch birds in mid-air,” Associated Press, Aug-2014. 

Rice genome vs human’s

in general

In the documentary which I posted recently, it was mentioned that the full genetic sequence of some plants (genome) is larger than humans.  For instance rice genome has 45-55K genes[1], in contrast to human genome which has about 21K genes[2].

Does this show that rice is more complex, more evolved, or superior than humanity, or it is an indication that complexity or superiority has no direct relation to the size of the genome?


  1. J. Yu, S. Hu, et al., “A Draft Sequence of the Rice Genome (Oryza sativa L. ssp. indica),” Science, vol. 296, no. 5565, pp. 79–92, Apr. 2002. 

  2. “About the Human Genome Project.” [Online]. Available: http://web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/project/info.shtml. [Accessed: 23-Aug-2014]. 

Ecoliteracy is not enough

in education & literacy

The existing ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy model of simply addressing the knowledge deficit, rather than addressing the real issue of the behavior deficit, has tended to yield highly knowledgeable individuals who, despite their understanding, often fail to take action. “Knowing that change is needed is clearly not enough to motivate it in most human behavior,… individuals must have a sense of urgency and personal control over prospective outcomes and goal achievement before they will commit to meaningful action or new behaviors.”[1]


  1. Institute, T.W., Orr, D.W., Prugh, T., Renner, M., Seyle, C., King, M.W., Leighninger, M., Lind, D., Gowdy, J., Hempel, M., Brown, P., M.A, M.J.J.S., Cullinan, C., Hilton, I., Geall, S., Makhijani, S., Sachs, A., Engelman, R., Weber, M.L., Kaul, I., Ivanova, M., Worthington, R., Sweeney, S., Palley, T., Alperovitz, G., Cordes, C., Bollier, D., Weston, B., Bartosiewicz, P., Miley, M., Musolino, E., Auth, K., Netzer, N., Gouverneur, J., Mitschke, J., Johnson, I., Hongyuan, Y., 2014. State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, Annual edition. ed. Island Press, Washington, USA. 

Keynesian myths

in status quo

“It is obvious that the Keynesians’ disgust with the Neoliberal policies of the government of big business is misplaced. At the heart of their frustration is the unrealistic perception that economic strategies and policies are largely intellectual products, and that policy making is primarily a matter of technical expertise and personal preferences: economists and/or policy makers who are far-sighted, good-hearted, or better equipped with “smart” ideas would opt for “good” or Keynesian-type capitalism; while those lacking such admirable qualities would foolishly or misguidedly or heartlessly choose “bad” or “Neoliberal capitalism”. As I have pointed out in an earlier critique of Keynesian economics, it is not a matter of “bad” vs. “good” policy; it is a matter of class policy. Keynesians are angry because they tend to be oblivious or shy away from the politics of class, that is, the politics of policy making. Instead, they seem to think that economic policy making results mainly from a battle of ideas and theories, and they are disappointed because they are losing that battle.”[1]


  1. Ismael Hossein-zadeh, “Solutions to the Global Economic Crisis: Keynesian Myths, Hopes and Illusions,” The Market Oracle, 06-Nov-2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article31395.html. [Accessed: 23-Jun-2014]. 

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