Shibboleths that define — and separate us

* On his “Crooked Timbers” blog, John Quiggin offers a discussion of political shibboleths.  A shibboleth is “an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe,” a definition which seems almost perfectly made for the “birther” claim that President Obama was born in Kenya, is a Muslim and wants to impose Sharia law in the United States… a general belief set now held (according to recent polls) by a substantial fraction of likely Republican voters.

Quiggin’s essay is seriously thoughtful and filled with important insights. It is being widely circulated and deserves your attention, even (especially) if you are a conservative American who feels bewildered by the direction that your movement has lately veered. (Hint: what’s gone sour has nothing to do with any of the old-style, libertarian values espoused by Barry Goldwater. It is at right-angles to the so-called “left-right axis.”)

Other issues, creationism and abortion, as well as climate change, are defining separators of our day. These ‘badge beliefs” are viewpoints that connect one to fellow-believers. Why these particular issues? “A badge belief is easy to adopt because it does not commit the holder to any particular effort or action….In other words, it should be a narrowly-held belief that is easy to display, but does not require the holder to do anything,” writes Jon Jenny on The Secular Web.

* Was it really only back in 1994 that major media figures were still saying “what’s an inter-net?” See this amazing Today Show clip.  And remember that five years earlier, in 1989, I portrayed what could only be web pages in my novel EARTH. (There was, as yet, no web!)

* Is the news all negative? In the category of: I have been telling you folks about this for years…

“A widely used index of civic scientific literacy, sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times,  showed that 28% of American adults scored high enough to understand scientific ideas at that level.   In 1988, well before Science 2.0 and a time when only a few print magazines and expensive journals monopolized science, just 10 percent of U.S. adults had sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas. … In the wave of criticisms about America, one thing gets lost that explains American adult knowledge – America is the only major country that requires almost all its college and university students to complete a full year of science. So the scientific literacy of U.S. adults is higher than the general adult populations of other developed nations.”

* And in the category of “I’ll believe it when I see it…”  Apparently “hardcore Isaac Asimov purists who are already despondent at the idea of Roland Emmerich  on the Foundation Trilogy. It’s all in the headline, really: Emmerich’s adaptation of Asimov’s story won’t just be predictably big and explode-y; it will be 3D and made with motion-capture goodness.” 

* TED, an organization best known for its annual gathering of top thought leaders, launched a social discussion platform on its website today. The move is part of a larger effort to spread, as TED’s motto goes, “ideas worth spreading” beyond the 1,300-attendee, five-day conference.  –  Now, if only I had time to play this “quora” thing. 

=== SAVING THE FUTURE BY DISPERSING POWER? ===

Some folks are thinking about how to anchor-in the freedom enhancing effects of the internet, by fostering inherently cheap/free/distributed systems that cannot be centrally controlled.  (My own software invention may prove extremely useful in that effort. So has the general approach to openness pushed in The Transparent Society.)  Anyway, to get a good picture of how others view the need, read: “Decentralizing the Internet So Big Brother Can’t Find You,” in which reporter Jim Dwyer describes Professor Eben Moglen’s  efforts to develop a “freedom box.”
   
”If revolutions for freedom rest on the shoulders of Facebook, Mr. Moglen said, the revolutionaries will have to count on individuals who have huge stakes in keeping the powerful happy. “It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse,” Mr. Moglen said.

“By contrast, with tens of thousands of individual encrypted servers, there would be no one place where a repressive government could find out who was publishing or reading “subversive” material. In response to Mr. Moglen’s call for help, a group of developers working in a free operating system called Debian have started to organize Freedom Box software. Four students from New York University who heard a talk by Mr. Moglen last year have been building a decentralized social network called Diaspora.”  A key set of ingredients. Not only for ensuring freedom, but allowing even the slim possibility of human survival.

=== WATSON, COMING NEAR ===

Anyone watch the jeopardy “Watson” event?  Fascinating! One more milestone down. A commentary I found illuminating is by Kent Pitman.

I believe the one unfair aspect of the show was the input-output discrepancy. Input is a very large part of the difficult task faced by human contestants and hence, Watson’s should have been speech recognition. As Kent Pitman points out:  “IBM actually sells speech recognition software. This should have been a chance to showcase it.” Also, I believe Watson should hand to send signals to a “hand” to push the regular buzzer, same as the humans.

(BTW… I have a particular use for speech recognition.  I attend a lot of conferences at which attendees have their laptops open in front of them, fiddling away while the speaker speaks onstage. (Funny about that; it would be rude if they read a newspaper!)  Thing is, I hope to offer a service at one conference where the people with laptops could have a window open while a speech recognition program scrolls the speaker’s words as they are being spoken onstage.  This would let people take notes by selecting and copying passages as they scroll by. Yes, I know it would have many errors! The notes aren’t expected to be accurate or perfect, just a way to save talking points for later consideration. Does anyone have a notion how to proceed with something like this?)

=== TAKING FRESH LOOKS AT FANTASY TALES ===

Almost as if the author had read my classic essay on J.R.R. Tolkien (and perhaps he had) there has appeared a new English translation of a Russian novel that retells Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” from the perspective of the “bad guys.” 

From the Salon review: “That’s the philosophy behind “The Last Ringbearer,” a novel set during and after the end of the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of “The Lord of the Rings”) and told from the point of view of the losers. The novel was written by Kirill Yeskov, a Russian paleontologist, and published to acclaim in his homeland in 1999. Translations of the book have also appeared in other European nations, but fear of the vigilant and litigious Tolkien estate has heretofore prevented its publication in English.”

Now let me be clear that I do not insist that Tolkien’s epic be viewed as “history written by the lying winners.”  I have enjoyed it both ways. First taking JRRT’s word for it that the villains were utterly deliberately vile, with self aware desire for ruination… and again the other way, with a critical awareness that the “good” elves had a lot to answer for — a position that was actually held (if you read his deeper works) by Tolkien himself!

(I have always consider JRRT to be a retro-nostalgist romantic, and hence and enemy of the progressive enlightenment. But he was an honest and smart retro-nostalgist, who came by it with sound – or at least understandable – grievances against modern technological society, acquired on the killing fields of Flanders. Tolkien is miles better than other future-hating romantics, like George Lucas, who spit on a modern, scientific society that has been very, very good to them.)

In my essay I pondered if the “villains” in Lord of the Rings might have been rebels against a reactionary order — one that insisted – for example – that all the glass boxes capable of showing faraway lands (which we call TVs and computer monitors) be held only by top elites (he called them “palantirs”) and that racism, classism and sexism be rigidly enforced. To me, it was just a brief thought experiment. Apparently (though I have not yet read it), Yeskov’s work goes headlong down this path!

“In Yeskov’s retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science “destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!” He’s in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become “masters of the world,” and turn Middle-earth into a “bad copy” of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron’s citadel, is, by contrast, described as “that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”  (From Laura Miller‘s Salon Magazine review. Read this before downloading!)

People who find such re-imaginings interesting should not miss Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  Now this one I have read and can totally vouch for! It is fascinating and vastly better-written than the original books.

Is this the future of fiction?  Online publishing has many advantages… and disadvantages. Evasion of copyright restrictions? Unleashed creativity? Freedom to perform variations on a theme?  Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson have their MONGOLIAD project and I have some thoughts in mind.  Maybe. If time allows.

=== MISCELLANY ===

And now, by popular demand… The abstract is now online!
Evolution of Cometary Nuclei as Influenced by a Dust Component
by G David Brin
Doctoral Dissertation for the University of California, San Diego March 1981

1 Comment

Filed under internet, politics

One response to “Shibboleths that define — and separate us

  1. I was gratified to see you acknowledge Tolkien as “honest and smart.” What he was doing in his various works of myth was restating the mediaeval grand unified theory. And as Isaac Asimov wrote in an essay on “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien celebrates the ability of ordinary individuals to affect the course of history.

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