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Science, Fiction, and points in between
Wednesday 14 November 2001
Books and Ideas
How many writers would do what Robert Olen Butler is doing--write a story live on the Internet, so everyone can watch his every keystroke?
More bad news about e-books: according to Dilbert scribe Scott Adams, the number 1 best-selling e-book in this year (his own) has sold only 4,500 copies.
Obituary: David Lewis, philosopher and metaphysician, whose most controversial notion involved "counterfactuals":
In "On the Plurality of Worlds," Mr. Lewis argued that the actual world is just one among an infinite number of worlds, each one equally real. This view comported well with the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Mr. Lewis's views of possible worlds often led to talk about the reality of Conan the Barbarian, Middle Earth and the planets depicted in "Star Trek" episodes. They also evoked some skepticism.
The NYT piece cites other examples by Niven, Pohl, and Borges.
The War Effort
Can biological evolution offer guidance in fighting our terrorist enemies? (A fairly straight article, considering the magazine's subtitle: "gloom and doom with a sense of humor".)
Here's a serious Michael Dirda piece on "obsession, the limits of reason, the virtues of doubt."
Some years back I published a long piece about multiculturalism for The Post magazine, in which I noted:
Dirda takes refuge in Sherlock Holmes.
"In principle, an educated human being ought to be tolerant, civil, acquainted with the world's history, art and literature, knowledgeable about modern science, an active citizen, thoughtful about philosophical and religious questions, able to express his views with clarity and force, devoted to family, conscientious in the performance of his work.
"These are values that matter to me -- but do they matter to you? What about a competitive spirit? Should teachers foster self-confidence, or introspection? Great thinkers, artists and scientists seldom conform to this mild, humane model; neither do many business magnates, politicians, athletes and movie stars. In fact, the world has been shaped not so much by sensitive nice guys as by obsessives, neurasthenics, madmen and visionaries. We need Dionysus as much as Apollo."
These days, many us of us must feel a deep melancholy to reflect that our world and our lives -- both made infinitely better by science and technology -- can still be horribly threatened by zealots. It might almost be axiomatic: The more technology a culture possesses, the more tolerant it tends to be. For ultimately, however much one may daydream about fleeing to Victorian London, no one in less than perfect health would wish to live there.
David Denby offers specific advice for what writers and artists can do in the new war.
They hate us for many reasons: because we support Israel and because we are allied with Saudi Arabia, and because we act in our own interests while moralizing to others, just like every other great power in history. But if we are also hated because some people are willing to believe lies or half-truths about us, we can alter that situation just by showing up without swagger.
We cannot lecture these people about the greatness of American civilization, insulting the already insulted. But we can at least describe our secular scrolls, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and say what is meant by the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, habeas corpus, and the promise of universal respect for human rights. We can describe the advantage of self-knowledge and self-criticism, citing our other documents—writings of Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hegel, Emerson, even Jane Austen, whose most effervescent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, realizing that she has misjudged her haughty suitor, says to herself, “Vanity, not love, has been my folly. … Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Elizabeth’s self-reproach in Pride and Prejudice seems like nothing more than an episode in a love story, but at the same time it’s a seminal event in Western consciousness. It would be a curious and very difficult enterprise to explain why.
Slate, November 1, 2001
In the same day's Slate, editor Michael Kinsley observes how the war is changing the language.
To be or not to be? That remaining the question, the answer increasingly clear. The verb "to be" dying out, and the culprit? None other than TV news channels. Taking the place of such cherished words as "is," "are," "am," even "were" and "was": a new verb form that you might call the one-size-fits-all past, present, and future participle. Or you might call it the one-size-fits-all past, present, and future gerund. One of these right and one of them wrong, but which which? Nobody really knowing the difference between a participle and a gerund. Anyone claiming to understand the distinction probably bluffing. So calling it what you wish: Either label doing.
Slate, November 1, 2001
October Aether Vibrations