Category Archives: Fascinating Blog

Who’s got the popular touch?

I don’t think Clive James’ “Cultural Amnesia” has a bad sentence in it.  To understand the context I’m quoting a larger part of the paragraph (page 689) about how intertwined cleverness and stupidity often are, but it’s the last line that kills

“The policy was stupid, but here again it was not necessarily the product of stupid men:  the East Coast foreign policy elite constituted the cleverest collection of political brains in America.  Otherwise known as the Wise Men, after World War II they gave an unwise policy its initial impetus because there was no other way of getting a genuinely beneficial measure – the Marshal Plan – through Congress.  They needed a Red scare as an appeal to the masses:  always an uncomfortable position for any intellectual elite to be in.  Appeals to the masses are better managed by big business.”

Science with Bad Metaphors

In a recent post I suggested that Dungeons & Dragons is the most under-appreciated cultural force of this era.  One impact I didn’t suggest it had was on science – but I suspect it’s true.

A number of years ago I noticed that when you read the work of theoretical physicists, you discover that their work positing hypothetical entities that could exist based on a limited view of reality and a few mathematical tools sounds *exactly* like it was lifted from the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Seriously:  “The Multiverse?”  “Branes?”  Quarks that travel back and forth through time?  “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy?”  You could find all of these concepts in D&D handbooks in the 80s.

Is that a coincidence?  Remember that the current crop of theoretical physicists (at least in the U.S.) was the one that grew up with D&D – and that the upcoming generation came of age with the terms and concepts firmly established in geek culture.  Continue reading Science with Bad Metaphors

Terrorism and Bartending are tough gigs

In his book “The Signal and the Noise,” Nate Silver quotes this statistic from the Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology.

“Terrorist organizations are fundamentally weak and unstable:  as is supposedly true of new restaurants, 90 percent of them fail within the first year.” (pages 435-436)

I don’t really know what to say about this information – it just tickles me.

The problem with health care spending is the health care system

I’ve written about this before myself, but Robert Reich absolutely nails it in a recent blog post.  Our health care system is so expensive in large part because it’s designed to be:  if there’s more money to be made in expensive treatments that don’t really solve the problem, it will arch towards those treatments.  We know how to help people much more than we do, but the current system isn’t set-up to recognize the best treatment as the best option.

Reich’s extended riff is below.

Continue reading The problem with health care spending is the health care system

Pretending I never played Dungeons & Dragons

“But for all the imaginative freedom the game affords its players, the impulse of the war-game hobbyists who built it – at first Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax — was toward a standardization and classification of the elements of fantasy.” – Alan Schurstel, reviewing  “Playing at the World,” the first serious history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons and the dawn of adult simulation and role-playing games.

It’s hard to think of a less respected subcultural phenomenon that did more to change the world than Dungeons & Dragons.

Comic books – many of which have been inspired by D&D – are doing billion dollar box office and have geek chic.  Some people (erroneously) even consider them to be among the fine arts.  Video games – the most successful of which owe a direct and well acknowledged debt to the rules that Gygax built – are also moving billions of copies and have obtained a cultural aura of youthful invincibility.  It’s not a sin to play video games, just to be bad at it.  It used to be a sign of social leprosy to be in a school’s AV club:  now everybody wants to be friends with the guy who can make YouTube videos.

D&D  however,  never made it out of the ghetto.  That’s not to say it hasn’t made progress:  at first it was seen as literally evil and fit only for the demented.  In an era before school mass school shootings, kids who played D&D were seen as potential school shooters.  Continue reading Pretending I never played Dungeons & Dragons

The “Charisma Code” has not been cracked by sloppy thinking

From Salon.com’s portrait of Reality TV casting guru Doron Ofir:

That certain something which transforms an unknown nobody into a national celebrity is what we call charisma. This mysterious phenomenon of personal magnetism is usually thought of as defying definition. We can never seem to put our finger on what exactly that force of personality is exactly or where it comes from. But Doron’s ability to find star after star suggests that charisma isn’t the enigma we once assumed it to be. 

Right – because if there’s one truly mysterious quality about Charisma, it’s that you never know it when you see it.  If only there were some way to tell who the charismatic people are!

The idea that you need a formula to tell who’s charismatic is the stuff that great sketch comedy is made of.  But writer Rupert Russell goes on in very serious tones to explain that Ofir has discovered a profound secret of human nature that opens charisma like a high school locker:  “totemism.” Continue reading The “Charisma Code” has not been cracked by sloppy thinking

The price of “Freedom” is “Vigilence”; the price of a liberal democracy is “Truth”

I have severe reservations about the literary criticism that made Stanley Fish famous, but I have to say I find his long-running series of essays in the New York Times to be provocative, insightful, and important.

In his 2012 “Christmas column” (“Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State”), Fish comes down to one of the central reasons that a liberal democracy can never breathe easy – and will likely never own the easy loyalty of the mass of mankind that all the systems we keep thinking we’ve vanquished do.

“Substance, then, is the chief danger to the liberal state.”

Tragic but true.

This conclusion is inevitable when you realize that liberal democracy exists because it is committed to individual liberty and the freedom of conscience – but that to protect everyone’s liberty and conscience, it cannot allow anyone’s beliefs to be expressed in ways that would change society.  It doesn’t matter if it’s “Christ is Lord” or “A is A” or “evolution explains that” – a liberal democracy only cares that everyone gets to express themselves, and believe what they like, without rocking the boat.

It is committed to a process:  a process which regards the truth value of any set of beliefs as irrelevant, and people who are too committed to the truth (which a liberal democracy would call “values” or “culture” or “lifestyle”) are dangerous.  A truth can exist within a liberal democracy only so long as it does not make claims that impact the public’s right to be indifferent. Continue reading The price of “Freedom” is “Vigilence”; the price of a liberal democracy is “Truth”

The difference between the NRA and AAA

I recently heard an argument that blaming the NRA for gun deaths in America is like blaming AAA for car crashes.  Both are just trade organizations lobbying for the users of their respective products.
Right, except:

  • AAA doesn’t oppose drivers licences or speed limits.
  • AAA doesn’t say the solution to traffic jams is more cars on the road.

Medical or Mental?

In his book “The Signal and the Noise,” poll-guru Nate Silver writes:

“Diseases and other medical conditions can also have this self-fulfilling property.  When medical contiditons are widely discussed in the media, people are more likely to identify their symptoms, and doctors are more likely to diagose (or misdiagnose) them.  The best-known case of this in recent years is autism.  If you compare the number of children who are diagnosed as ausistic to the frequency with which the term autism has been used in American newspapers, you’ll find that there is an almost perfect one-to-one correspondance.” (p. 217 – 218)

Essentially the more a disease is on people’s minds, the closer reporting of it gets to 100%.  Part of this is surely attributable to increased awareness – autism is a real thing – but at what point does hyper-awareness turn into a social manifestation of something else?  There were virtually no reports of western style eating disorders in Japan until, in 1994, local Japanese media began quoting out of American diagnostic manuals.  Suddenly American style anarexics were appearing everywhere – and still do.   Continue reading Medical or Mental?

Why Humanism has a future

I think that’s what Clive James reveals in his awe inspiring work “Cultural Amnesia” – about which I think often.

From the introduction:

“(W)e are nowadays much more free to be thinkers than is commonly supposed.  The usual division is to treat our daily job as the adventure and our cultural diversions as a mere mechanism of renewal and repose.  But the adventurous jobs are becoming more predictable all the time, even at the level of celebrity and conspicuous material success.  Could there be anything less astonishing than to work day and night on Wall Street to make the millions that will buy the Picasso that will hang on the wall of our Upper East Side apartment to help convince us and our guests that we are lucky to know each other?  I have been in that apartment, and admired the PIcasso, and envied its owner:  I especially envied him his third wife, who had the same eyes as Picasso’s second mistress, although they were on different sides of her nose.  But I didn’t envy the man his job.  In the same week, I was filming in Greenwich Village, and spent an hour of down-time sitting in a cafe making my first acquaintance with the poetry of Anthony Hecht.  I couldn’t imagine living better.  The real adventure is no longer in the job.  In the job we can have a profile written about us, and be summed up:  all the profiles will be the same, and all the summaries add up to the same thing.  The real adventure is in what we do to entertain ourselves, a truth which the profile writers concede by trying to draw us out on our supposed addictions to shark fishing, fast cars, extreme skiing and expensive young women.  But even the entertainment an no longer be adventurous if it serves a purpose,  It will be adventurous only if it serves itself.  In other words, it will not be utilitarian.  It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.” Continue reading Why Humanism has a future