April 6, 2018
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Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two are more critical:
Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)
Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)
Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)
And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL
February 27, 2017
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Native-American Flag (At the time meaning white Anglo-Saxons arriving from Europe w/in the past 100 years) ca. 1850
A few weeks ago I attended an art show opening of Oneness at the Irma Freeman Center in Pittsburgh. Among other work, the show featured Maranie Staab’s photographs of refugees from Jordan and Iraq. As our country debates whether and how to permit refugees from various lands to live and work in a nation founded by immigrants, it’s worthwhile to consider the great diaspora from another country. The Irish Potato Famine (An Gorta Mor) of 1845-1850 killed an estimated one to one-and-a-half million people and sent thousands fleeing from their native land.
When the Irish immigrants arrived in America, the response — including in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, where the Know-Nothing Party had a stronghold — included virulent fear and prejudice against what was perceived as an alien and subversive threat. How different are the stories and faces then from the stories and faces now of those arriving from Syria and Iraq, Mexico and South America?
If you’re Irish (and everyone is on Saint Patrick’s Day) celebrate the luck of your ancestors in not dying of typhus or starvation before making it to Columbia’s fabled shore in coffin ships. Meanwhile, I am continuing to record installments of James Joyce’s The Dead. Take a listen. Hopefully, I’ll finish in time to enjoy a green beer on March 17th. — CDL
November 10, 2016
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If you are dismayed and wringing your hands over the recent demonstration of democracy in America on November 8th, it might be good to keep in mind a quote by Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, a lady in a group of citizens asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy , which BBC Radio broadcast in the late 1970s/80s, provides this additional helpful insight:
From Fit the Seventh:
Narrator: There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory mentioned, which states that this has already happened.
Adams’ advice in HGG is something that DeTocqueville and Franklin, themselves fellow travelers in this existential universe, might subscribe to: Don’t panic, and carry a towel.
March 26, 2016
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I’m struck lately by the contradiction between the technological profusion of our society and our preoccupation with magic, paranormal, fantasy and the occult. As we rely on fruits of the scientific method such as self-driving cars and genetic engineering to solve our problems (of not knowing how to drive and not knowing how to stay healthy), we seem equally obsessed with an opposite mode of thinking and behaving.
The disconnect is especially evident in television, movies and the web. For every example like Apollo 13 and The Martian that celebrates the virtues of empirical thinking and technological ingenuity, five or six seem to promote a view of the world decidedly inconsistent with the scientific method and standard (that is, arguably Western) logic. A partial list includes:
- The Da Vinci Code
- Harry Potter
- The Secret
Films and Television:
See above, and –
- The Magicians
- The Vampire Diaries
- The Walking Dead
- Dungeons & Dragons (which originated as a board game in the 1970s and has since gone online)
- Final Fantasy
- Magic, the Gathering
Examples like The Secret and (to some extent The Da Vinci Code ) cross the line into magical thinking ‘belief systems’ which I have touched on here and here.
There’s more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat: A linear, empirical mode of thinking and understanding of the world does not necessarily give us a monopoly on reality. And books inspired by the occult (see H.P. Lovecraft) and shows such as theTwilight Zone have been around for a long time. But the more mainstream ambivalence about technology and the scientific method may be due to our disappointment and frustration with the world these have given us (or more accurately that we have created with them). It seems suspiciously coincidental that all the commercial hype over vampires and zombies seems to date from the information technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s and the growth of the Internet hydra.
The line between the scientific method and magic in this world has not always been so clear. Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy in between creating calculus and classic physics. Joseph Priestly, clergyman and discoverer of oxygen, pursued his Millennialist religious studies after absconding to Northumberland Pennsylvania at the forks of the Susquehanna, near where I grew up.
Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings exhibit a consistent internal logic and and science (or techne ) all their own — sort of literary alternate universes. Tolkien wrote of creating secondary worlds that adhere to their own laws.
I just recently uncovered the following essay I published in 1985 titled The New Magic.