Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Formula for My Ignorance

Went to a meeting recently night to hear from Provo's mayoral and city council candidates. That may be all I hear about them: the more likely my vote is to affect the outcome of a race, the less likely I am to really have any idea what's going on. This may explain why I follow Iranian politics so carefully: my vote wouldn’t make a difference there even if I had one, as should be clear from the following formula:

Where K is knowledge, i is potential influence, and a an apathetic constant.

While many Americans are not bound by this formula, we tend to follow national politics far more closely than local politics in this country. Maybe it has to do with the advent of television and mass media; maybe it has to do with levels of duplicity in national politics that make it hard to differentiate from pulp fiction (and thus too popular for local events to compete); maybe it has to do with a globalized economy--or maybe we’re just lazy and those other things are only excuses. In any case, dozens of my friends wanted to know what I thought of last year’s Presidential Election; no has asked me anything about this year’s election yet.

Is our apathy about local politics greater, even, than our cynicism about national politics?

Does our loss of faith in politics correspond to a loss of faith in community?

What new myths can we find that let us keep faith in our institutions even in the face of reality?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Google Jews

I am the kind of Jew who puts the -ish in Jewish.

Since I'm a Caucajewmexdian, of course, no one really expects any better of me--which is sort of a relief. Borrowing bits and pieces of three religions (the Sikhism and Judaism of my grandfathers' families, plus my own Mormon faith) makes it a lot easier to get through life in one piece, but I'm glad I'm not responsible for living all three religions completely.

On the eve of this Yom Kippur, though, I'd like to thank Google and the inventors of the internet (who according to legend, were actually 4th century rabbis who created a primitive version of today's web on paper) for making it easier to stay in touch with my additional faiths. Thanks to Google, I always know when Yom Kippur starts (tonight) even though I don't use the old Hebrew calendar. Thanks to Google, I can usually track down copies of the prayers and sacred texts I'm interested in: often in at least three different translations. Thanks to Google, I can learn more than what my what father passed down to me from his father, even though I live in a city in Utah that probably has a Jewish population of less than 12.

Does that make Google, in some sense, my fourth religion? The idea makes me sort of uncomfortable: can "googling" be a religious verb?

Friday, September 25, 2009


On Tuesday, I said that space and time had collapsed.

Walking home from school today, I revised that opinion. Yes, being able to call home is nice. And it doesn't matter to you whether I write from home or school: you get the same information at the same time either way. But it turns out that when you're walking, 2.4 miles is still 2.4 miles. And when the sun is up in the early afternoon sky, and the weather is trying not to give up on the idea of summer--a 40 minute walk really does take 40 minutes (not the 7 minutes Google maps will estimate for you, based on its assumption that anyone checking an online map will be traveling with the aid of fermented dinosaur blood).

This problem of space staying big in spite of our technology is hardly limited to my local experience. The majority of the universe has escaped the effects of technology and globalization: light from the relatively close star Polaris (the north star) is 430 years old by the time it reaches us. Light from the furthest known galaxies in the universe reaches the Hubble telescope only after a 13 billion year trip across the cosmos.

If we knew how to send out a message that could be interpreted by any other sentient life in the universe, odds are that the world would be over before we heard back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Collapsing Space and Time

When I was a child, someone told me that we live in days of miracle and wonder. Looking back, I can't remember if it was an ecclesiastical leader or Paul Simon who said so. I am guessing it was an ecclesiastical leader, because the way telephones collapsed space and time seemed to be part of the supporting argument (and for Mormons like me, calling people from church on the phone is an important religious duty).

You see, when contrasted with letters, which communicate primarily between the writer's past and the reader's present, a phone call really is an amazing thing. Two places can be in the same time at once! My father tells me that before I was a child this seldom happened. My mother's birth in 1959, he'd tell us, actually came before his birth in 1957, because her birthplace (Utah) was always at least ten years behind his birthplace (California) in those days. Ten to hundred year variations between places were normal back then.

My blog, and the surrounding backdrop of the internet, have changed all that. People can read my blog virtually instantly, get updated on what's happening right now, and for once Utahns and Californians can be in the same time at the same time! Time and space are thus collapsed, often into a single word.

The only people who will be left out of this new global connectedness, I think, will be people who spend their time with the ghosts of internet past (e.g. reading Johannes Gutenberg's blog) and people whose internet connections are slower than carrier pigeons.

The rest of us, though, will be able to live in a Utopian Global Village in which distinctions of space and time no longer matter. Even differences in income will become irrelevant--what difference, after all, does a wage make for people too busy responding to email to eat?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is this blog shallow?

Wrote an experimental essay recently that included some content adapted from this blog. I used matching crayon colors for hyperlinks and shuffled the posts before putting them in an envelope for each reader. A lot of students were intrigued, but the professor didn't like it. According to him (this is a direct quote but "quote" marks make it looking like I'm mocking the statement, which I'm not-- believe me, I tried and then deleted them. Good riddance!):

The blog form is by default superficial (even when it pretends depth).

When I read that, I was struck by how perfect a marriage of author and form this blog constitutes. You see, like all blogs, I am shallow, even when I pretend depth. The blog form and I go together like wabadabbadoowaa and whatever else they sing about in Grease (or was it the Muppet Babies cartoon? My cultural memory is all out of whack).

There's only one troubling component to this. It's a mathematical fact that a negative times a negative equals a positive. Thus, if the blog form is shallow and I am shallow, this blog must be deep!

Did this blog accidentally turn deep while I wasn't looking? Or is it safely shallow, proving that my professor was wrong, and the form has a potential depth, corrected by my shallowness?

Should signs be put up to keep children from drowning? Shall I start selling stilts for my readers to get around the blog with?

Help me sort things out by commenting or voting on the poll to the right. I will defer to the wisdom of the masses on this one. (Yes, that means you.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Passive-Aggressive Pacifist

Listened to a presentation today by a passive-aggressive pacifist...he believes that fighting won't solve the world's problems, but complaining loudly to random people will.

In a way, I suppose faith in the power of loud complaining is a pillar of democracy. The trouble is that all that yelling seems to have damaged his hearing--listening, as I recall, was supposed to be democracy's second great pillar.

Nobody ever really got good at listening, though, so it was cut when Bill Clinton downsized the government. (Which was kind of him, because otherwise we may not have had the resources to fund the Cash for Clunkers program.)

In any case, I like the new one-pillar system. I find that it saves a lot of time.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Am I a bad driver, or did BYU beat the Sooners?

For one reason or the other, everyone was honking at me on my drive home from work tonight...

I read the news today oh boy

If by "today" you mean "last week" then yes, I read the news. A few highlights:

The Necktie: An Energy Vampire

Sheik Hasina has no patience
for impracticality

Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangaldesh, is fed up with men wasting all the electricity. She recently ordered all government employess to stop wearing ties and suit jackets and to leave their shirts untucked in an effort to decrease cooling costs in government buildings. Analysts are hoping that private sector businesses will follow the government's examples and that a "Just Say No to Ties" program will help ease Bangladesh's energy shortage woes.

The Jolly Green Giants, a U.S. environmentalist advocacy group, is pushing for similiar measures in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and throughout the southern states. If we don't act sooner, spokesperson Bruce Banner warns, the day may come when video game time is "rationed like sugar during World War Two. Which would you rather give up--a tie now or your Wii time later?"

A White Flag in Academia

When Larry Sanger proposed the idea of incorporating a wiki element as a feeder into the academically-oriented (now defunct) Nupedia project, objections were so strong that the project had to be split off under a separate domain name lest it taint the Nupedia project by association. Academics and educators have remained predominantly critical of the project in the intervening years, even as the number of wikipedia articles and readers has multiplied into the millions and wikipedia has risen to the top of Google's search results on most subjects.

Dr. Chatterjee wants to end the war between
traditional academics and Web 2.0 models
for sharing knowledge. Sheikh Hasina thinks
he should take off his tie & jacket first.

Ramesh Chatterjee, President of Rajput University, is looking to change that. He recently approved a change in campus policy that requires professors to spend at least one hour per week editing wikipedia. "We've been warning students against this long enough" he said in his subsequent message to the faculty. "The idea of a hypertext-based universal encyclopedia is so powerful, they will continue to turn to it first for information. It's time we did our part to ensure that the formal and informal students of the world get the best possible information at the place of their choice." Academic Vice President Sayed Multan added "If enough institutions follow our lead, significant portions of wikipedia will become de facto peer-reviewed. We can also increase the number of references to premier journals and research in our respective fields, showing their role in the formation of human knowledge."

The change is not without critics, however. In addition to classical concerns about the value of creating a strong dividing line between academic and popular knowledge, some have expressed concerns about the future repurcussions of institutions paying employees to edit the open encyclopedia. "Any institution paying employees to edit the world's most popular reference work is effectively buying influence" says democracy advocate Tom Lin. "Are we really comforable with putting our view of the world up for sale?"

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Conversation In My Office

Ryan: "What is wrong with you?"
Me: "I don't know, but I like it!"

Apocalyptic reminiscence

The sun shined red through the smoke of wildfires last night and a deer crossed the road in front of me on my drive home several hours later. Both are signs of impending apocalypse: deer, for example, are known to be demons (they get so desperate here in winter that one almost hit me as I was walking from Nicole's house to my car). Red suns, while less foreboding than blood red moons, are similarly bound to signify something.

The whole thing makes me miss the Club. Maybe I'll see if Peter's free for lunch later this week to catch up or something.

Or maybe I'm just being silly. Maybe it doesn't make sense to feel, in every unexpected astronomical event or cervine encounter, an impending & radical change. Maybe it doesn't make sense to miss old friends over silly little things like a few forest fires.

Maybe I won't call Peter after all.
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