Archive for July, 2011

In the Google Age, Concepts are Vital

There was a time when a RICH College at Oxford would have as many as FORTY books, each of them chained to the wall, with a full time Librarian to watch over them.

I call this the Chained Book Age.

I cannot see how anyone can really understand intellectual history without being acutely aware of this CONCEPT.

It is hard for us to believe that a man proved he was educated back then by insisting that men had more teeth than women. But one can see that an educated man was who the Librarian allowed to read a chained book, and who had mastered both writing and Latin, or even better, Greek.

A Book in the Chained Book Age was unique.

THE Book was denied to the people.

The Church said that allowing access to the Book would lead to disaster, precisely because Books were the Only True Authority.

And the Church was dead right in its prediction.

When the Bible got printed, millions died.

Now the Bible is out, and it has been and will be the best selling book every year in the foreseeable future.

The Genie simply will not go back into the bottle.

The Chained Book Age is over.

Boy, is it ever over!

From the Age of Chained Books to the Age of Google.

That is more than just a fact, that is a concept.

From the Age of Chained Books to the Age of Public Libraries — another innovation of Ben Franklin –was a hell of a leap.

Now even the public libraries are becoming quaint.

Our society has gone from the time when the Book’s version of facts was absolutely holy and restricted, so much that a person who could quote a Book represented True Wisdom to the time when you just Google it.

Knowledge has now gone ballistic.

But what about CONCEPTS, the framework within which thinking in the Google Age should take place?

Now you are not a hero because you can recite facts.

In the Google Age, facts are wholesale.

In the Google Age, concepts are the rare item.



Regulation is a Power Struggle, not a Morality Play

I just wrote BoardAd that “Provigil is officially only a narcolepsy pill. Ritalin is the ADD pill, and it has been a Schedule 2, meaning it is addictive, for forty years. But Provigil is more closely regulated because it works too well.”

If this had been written to him by anybody but me, he would naturally have asked if I didn’t need some medication myself. But this is simply how the world works.

Regulation of drugs or guns or anything else, in the real world, is a power struggle.

It is true that the average doctor or brass hat policeman is fully and honestly convinced that his ideas about controlling guns or drugs is entirely objective. He has, after all, devoted his life to the public good.

Which is why you have them as specialists in things like law enforcement and medicine, but you pay people like me to deal with reality.

As committee staff, I was perfectly aware that both sides on each issue believed down to the toes of their shoes that they were the good guys.

So while others start with the assumption that a person who is expert in a field has a more objective opinion, I start with the reality that the last person who is objective on any subject is the person who has devoted his life to it.

No one wants to hear this.

When people look at a judge their first thought is that he is a successful practitioner of law and is an expert, one who has given up a lucrative law practice which a lawyer of his abilities could probably command,  in order to devote himself to the Law.

This is a very comforting idea. None of us want to be wheeled into the Emergency Room while having it in mind that the doctors are biased in what they do. If we are on trial, none of us wants to think that the judge has anything but Justice on his mind.

No one wants to pay a crippling fortune for tuition with the idea that the expensive professor has exactly the same mind set every other professor has.

After all, these are the areas where we do NOT understand what is going on. We want desperately to believe that when it comes to stuff we cannot understand, the people who do understand are no different from us, except for their higher knowledge on the subject.

It’s a scary world if that is not true.

But if you realize that each profession has a set of steel hard prejudices, you can at least predict what they are for.

Provigil gives energy, the way Ritalin does. It makes people feel energetic and good.

There is no way in God’s universe that a drug that makes people feel good will ever go unregulated.

Provigil is amazing. You know the “do no operate heavy machinery” bit? Provigil has been used on jet pilots for over two days without sleep and had no ill effects!

It is true that an effective drug is usually fatal in an overdose.

But the white power that kills more people than any other is called sugar, and you do not need a prescription saying you are not diabetic to get it.

What is important here is not the facts, but the concept.

The fact is simply that if a person gets his power in the medical industry, things are really regulated first and foremost because they are effective, not because they are dangerous.

Regulation is a power struggle, but a person who is inside a field cannot recognize that fact.



Mantra Thinking: Screw the Details, Get the CONCEPT Right

About my age Benjamin Franklin began writing his autobiography.

It was, among other things, a farewell. Franklin was about seventy and he had done more different things than any other man we know of from his time.

Franklin had negotiated with the King and with Indians, supplied armies, made his fortune, and he was the only the third American to be a Fellow of the Royal Society. Almost every American knew quotes from him,,

James Watt and Adam Smith were personal buddies of his.

Just his incredible contributions to the science of electricity would have been enough for one man. “Positive” and “negative” and “battery” and a whole list of basic words we use today were his.

So by 1774 Ole Ben was feeling a bit used up. He was looking back on his life.

He never finished the book.

Some events caught up with him of which you may have heard. In fact, most people are not familiar with what he did BEFORE he started saying goodbye.

He had no idea what was about to happen in the troubles with Britain, but he had another historical blind spot.

Ben Franklin was fascinated by knowledge for its own sake. But, as a very, very practical man who had made his own fortune, he knew that electricity was fascinating but totally impractical. He would have laughed out loud at someone who theorized that there might someday be a PRACTICAL use for this barely theoretical force.

Yes, he proved lightening was electricity, but he no more thought of that as a practical discovery than he would of the idea that man is largely made of carbon, and therefore scientists could create a man.

I use to know the details of Franklin’s electricity. But that was back when I was a ham radio operator, and I was using a state of the art Morse Code key.

I remember that a “battery” was named for the way the glass jars looked like a column of men. It took a lot of glass jars being chemicalized and rubbed to put out a spark you could see.

I forgot the details, but since I am a Mantra Thinker, the CONCEPT stayed with me. It caused me to save a lot of science projects that Senator Proxmire was loved by mindless conservatives for attacking.

Proxmire just read the titles of the projects, which the average person would not understand, and denounce the $50,000 or whatever the grantee was spending.

Analog Magazine once made a list of some of the stunning advances these very basic research programs caused.

That was one of the two times I risked my job on principle. John Ashbrook had the NSF Grant list sent to me and asked me to find some projects to make fun of for publicity. I was the only person on his or the Committee’s staff who could understand what the titles meant, so I was the only one who could do it.

I did what a staffer NEVER does: I told him No. I told my boss this stuff was unworthy of him, and I would have no part of it.

No, I don’t remember the details of Ben Franklin and electricity.

But I got the POINT.


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Mantra Thinking is Proud to be “Childish”

I just got off the elevator with a mother and her little three-year-old boy.

He was, of course, looking at the only brightly lit things in the elevator, the ones indicating the floor we were each going to.

He had heard us indicate the buttons to push. We were on the lift together for only about a minute. So the conversation I made was to say to him, “You’re going to fifteen and I’m going to eleven.”

The boy doesn’t need to understand what it means, I just included him in the conversation his mother and I had had.

A young child does two things: 1) he gets very used to not understanding what is going on, but 2) He still manages to get a picture of the world from the tens of thousands of things he hears and does not understand.

I do exactly the same thing here.

I just burst into laughter remembering that ten years ago readers of Whitaker online gently corrected me when I took Texas Hold ‘Em for an actual commenter.

I talked learnedly about the Book of Genesis and got “the firmament” wrong.

The little boy will come, in time, to realize that the floors on the elevator mean he is going up to the fifteenth floor, from which every day he looks out on the world from an entirely different perspective from that when he was on the first floor.

It is true that we forget the really awful childhood pains, but we also forget this particular joy. We forget the joy of a developing human brain.

The kid will someday realize the connection between that elevator and the sight he sees on his porch a hundred and forty feet up. He will forget that realization in half a minute. But while he is having it, it is The Latest News, the World Coming Together.

It happens to each child thousands of times. It is a repeated joy everybody forgets, but for that moment it is like the candy bar he has waited all day for. Dessert is delicious and instantly forgotten. It is still a wonderful thing when you have the taste buds of a child.

I will never know when I enter my second childhood because I am still in my first.

Nothing I write has big words, because after my threescore and ten, I am STILL delighting in figuring out how basics connect together.

Mantra Thinking is childish. That is why it is so joyful.


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Where the Hell ARE You?

I am getting pretty tired, and the SWARM is where I look for encouragement.

We get thousands of hits on the site, but we are lucky to get fifteen or twenty comments in BUGS SWARM.

Where the hell are the REST of you?

Is it true that only one in several hundred of people who read BUGS bothers to actually get out there and do the job?