The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Bright materials

A recent lecture by Philip Pullman has been widely quoted for its forthright opposition to the proposed law against incitement to religious hatred. Good - but what a focus on this point leaves out is the bulk of the lecture, which is a brilliant examination and defence of literature as a school of morals; something through which we learn about, you know, life. He sees this liberal, humanist view as under fire from two sides: from theocracy and from theory. 'Theocratic absolutism' (which need not be theistic) is necessarily reductive: the function of literature (if any) is pedagogy. For theory literature is reduced to the text: the function of criticism is pathology. It is curious to imagine, as Pullman doesn't (here, anyway) what chaff might be produced if these two millstones ever came together, and started grinding.
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Two years on

Yesterday's Glasgow antiwar demo was no bigger than the one that took place in April 2003. It was, however, broader, and much better understood in the streets. Even the police were friendly. There were no politicians on the platform. Gordon Gentle's fifteen-year-old sister spoke outstandingly well. An RAF veteran who introduced himself as 'not a peacemonger' talked about his sons in the Black Watch. Speakers from (I think) CND and G8 Alternatives also kept to the point, while making connections. In the crowd, everyone behaved as if they were on the same side. Even the sectarians were polite. The antiwar movement is small but it's neither divided nor isolated.
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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Destined to become a classic

I hate, hate, hate buying online. Now I know why. Top 10 Reasons to Not Shop Online delivers what it promises, unlike all too many websites. (Via). I know all about the stupid things programmers and systems developers can do. Most people must have the impression that the sort of crap detailed above is company policy.
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Monday, March 07, 2005

Reasons to be cheerful

Nick Gillespie, Editor-in-Chief of Reason, has kindly sent me a review copy of Choice: the best of Reason magazine, published by BenBella Books. (Full disclosure: Reason once ran an interview with me.) It's a book to dip into, and I've been dipping into it. I haven't read all of it, so this isn't a review.

First, though, the book looks good. The cover design is classy. The picture of the Statue of Liberty (obligatory under a little-known but grimly enforced Federal regulation of libertarian book covers) is cropped to hardly more than a nostril. In the text the font is easy on the eye. It all looks mainstream. The contrast with almost every other libertarian paperback I have on my shelves is striking: all but one of them have covers that holler of crank. (It isn't a question of radicalism of content - the one exception is the fine Open Court second edition of The Machinery of Freedom, by David Friedman.) Choice is libertarianism you can bring home to mother.

The selections - not all of which I've read - have a likewise mainstream tone. The default voice of Reason is American think-piece journalism. This is good. Even if you detest libertarianism, this is good. I appreciate it when people I disagree with advance specious arguments couched in civility and enlivened by wit. I've read enough of the other kind. Nor has it anything of the hell-in-a-handbasket mood of much libertarian writing. No Princess Leia drama-queen holograms flicker the message that the old Republic is dead. This is the cheerful libertarianism that David Brin once asked for.

Here are no debates about how many angels have the right to dance on the head of a pin. The closest cut to the bone of principle is Jesse Walker's attack on the culturally stifling effects of copyright laws. Nor, to be unfair, are there any about the abiding libertarian concern, foreign policy, a.k.a. imperialism. The omission looks strategic.

But much is included. A cliche of praise for a collection is to single out one of the items as itself 'worth the price of the book'. (The selection there wouldn't be mine.) Choice has several contenders. Jesse Walker's article goes off the corporate-lib reservation entirely. The interview with Christopher Hitchens shows the contradiction of a historical materialist sensibility without a socialist hope. Charles Paul Freund praises vulgar commercial culture, and rescues from oblivion that most reckless of counter-cultures, the Stalin-era stilyagi. Jacob Sullum documents the horror of what the War on Some Drugs does to patients in chronic pain and denied opiates. Nick Gillespie runs some numbers on the culture boom. (I'd quite like to see a serious Marxist response to that one.) Milton Friedman, interviewed, politely scathes think-tanks and the bought thought of policy wonks. Every reader will have their own opinion as to which article justifies the collection, and which should have been binned as if by an invisible hand. This may not sound like the best of reasons for reading it, but it is.
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Friday, March 04, 2005


A copy of the Tor paperback edition of Newton's Wake arrived today. It carries snippets of reviews, and one surprised me so much that I've just looked it up online. Yup, there it is - a review in Romantic Times:
This is an exciting stand-alone space opera that takes familiar SF tropes - sentient machines and galactic exploration - and gives them a fresh perspective. MacLeod incorporates humorous touches, including a jab at the ubiquitous Microsoft, that humanize the futuristic characters. The writing flows and is surprisingly light and easy to read and, despite its episodic style, accessible to the average reader as well as the hardcore SF fan. With its unexpected twists and turns, this is a work sure to keep the reader on the edge of her seat.
In fact Romantic Times reviews SF and fantasy more often than most mainstream publications: their list of authors reviewed includes James D. Macdonald, L. E. Modesitt, Elizabeth Moon and Ian R. MacLeod, and that's just from a first glance at the M's. Now, how many preconceptions does that shatter?

Joe Blogs

The story of Joe Gordon, the world-famous blogging bookseller, has had a happy ending.


Several kind readers have pointed out that my statement about any non-Tory vote being objectively a Tory vote is, to put it mildly, an over-statement. They are of course right. One of them, Meaders has given the entire post a vigorous talking to. But it's the week's events that really give me pause: if New Labour can over-ride Magna Carta, what won't they do?
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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Good News for Early Modern Man

Chris at Crooked Timber points to a collection of Early Modern Philosophy Texts in modern English.
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Interesting Thoughts

The Internet is more like a brain, and the Web more like a mind, than anything so far implemented on a single computer. This far-from-original idea suggests some interesting thoughts, about, well, interesting thoughts. The following were stimulated by Teresa Nielsen Hayden's thread on moderating conversations in virtual space, and a Crooked Timber thread on Gresham's Law and Blogging. In particular, what set off my surge of neural linkage was Teresa's point number 5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system. and a remark somewhere on the Crooked Timber thread to the effect that linkage is Technorati's criterion for 'interestingness'; because that, in turn, called to mind James P. Hogan saying, re AI research: 'We don't have an algorithm for interestingness.'

This raises the possibility that things that can go wrong with the Web might have fertile analogies with what goes wrong with minds. I'm thinking about things like spamming, trolling, and scamming. They all work by exploiting our criteria for interesting thoughts - or to put in computer terms, gaming the algorithm for interestingness. Spam usually offers us interesting stuff, for normal or depraved values of interesting. Comment spam works by increasing the linkage to a site, thus lifting it up the league tables that rate sites by the number of links to them. Trolling works by pushing our hot buttons. Come to think of it, topic drift occurs much the same way. Scams work by latching onto the desire to make money.

It occurs to me that some ideas, or complexes of ideas, might work the same way in propagating themselves within and between minds. Obsessions and compulsions might be just ideas that have hijacked an internal mechanism for bringing important matters to our attention: mental spam, as it were. When I mentioned this to a friend last night, he suggested that depression might gain its grip from doing the same thing, or the same sort of thing with the opposite sign: instead of the wrong things becoming interesting, almost everything seems uninteresting.

What about the spread of dodgy ideas between minds? I'm thinking here about pseudosciences, conspiracy theories, urban legends, canards, rumours, gossip ... they all work by exploiting flaws in the criteria by which we identify interesting ideas - and, of course, flaws in our application of critical thinking. We all apply critical thinking. We just don't all, or always, apply it correctly or widely enough. Extending the domain of critical thinking from everyday practicalities to wider horizons is what progress, individual and historical, is about. We're all scientific and sceptical. We're all ignorant and credulous. It's a matter of degree. It too is easily gamed. Some mistaken ideas have owed their tenacity to ignorant scepticism: if the world is round, why don't the people on the other side fall off?

Another point that this analogy suggests is that Richard Dawkins' 'religion is a mind virus' meme is wrong. There are lots of reasons for thinking it wrong, especially (to my mind, anyway) thinking about how religious people actually think. But if the brain is more like the whole Internet than it's like a computer, the virus analogy falls at the first hurdle. Religious ideas are held, not because they are downloaded into infant brains, but because they seem to make sense to adult minds. It was adult minds that came up with them in the first place. Religion can be understood as something like a science. In Cro-Magnon times the idea of the spirit world may have seemed as brilliant a deduction as our latest neuroscience does to us. 'Oh, so that's why we see dead people in dreams!' 'Hey, wait a minute! Suppose ...' And off they went, these Dawkinses of the dawn.
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