The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

15 March 2009

Don't Panic!

Happy 2009, everyone!

I've been intending to revive this blog for a while, and I wanted to begin with a post on geology; I have a few in the works, but in the mean time there are a couple of things I"ve come across in the past week that I wanted to acknowledge.

First, I came across this Op-Ed yesterday: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (I saw it first on, of all places, Gawker.com). I don't know this guy, but this seems to me to contain some important insights about technology and revolutions (I say this as a fan of newspapers, who is saddened to see what has happened to the Rocky Mountain News, what is happening to the SF Chronicle, and what appears to be happening to the LA Times).

Last week was Douglas Noel Adams' birthday (He once noted that he was the most famous DNA born in Cambridge in 1952, but that would be topped the next year). Though I was a fan of Monty Python, I had no idea who he was until 1982 when I took my first college science class, introduction to astronomy. Dr. Kim (I'm going to start doing some posts about my favorite teachers) recommended that we watch a series that was premiering that weekend on PBS called Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I don't know the context in which he heard about it, but he assumed it was a documentary about astronomy. He apologized for his misapprehension the following week, but it was one of the funniest bits of science fiction I'd seen in my life.

It's now close to 30 years later and I've listened to all of the radio series, seen the movie (meh...), read all of the books (and for good measure, since Dr. Kim retired a few years ago I've been teaching one of his astronomy sections). Adams died in May of 2001 at the age of 49, too young for many of his fans. His combination of brilliant wit, love of emerging technologies, and love of the natural world made the world a richer place.

Some of his influence is obvious: when Alta Vista developed the first universal translator for text, what else could they call it but Babel Fish?

". . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."
"I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
"I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day."
"(..) Sir Isaac Newton, renowned inventor of the milled-edge coin and the catflap!"
"The what?" said Richard.
"That catflap! A device of the utmost cunning, perspicuity and invention. It is a door within a door, you see, a ..."
"Yes," said Richard, "there was also the small matter of gravity."
"Gravity," said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, "yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered." ...
"You see?" he said dropping his cigarette butt, "They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see."
"We don't have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it."


Lockwood said...

I love that XKCD comic. I read the books well before I saw the TV production, so the latter seemed just awful to me... at first. The thing about BBC productions of that era is they're so poorly produced and funded, but they're wonderfully written. So if you can stick with them long enough to get into the story, and learn to overlook the lack of "American" production values (or better, to enjoy them on their own terms), they are a wonderful treat. I had much the same reaction to Dr. Who when a college roommate got me started watching that series.

Garry Hayes said...

Welcome back! I truly miss Douglas Adams too. I gave an intro to my classes about the earth's place in the cosmos, and ended by saying our planet is referred to as "mostly harmless", and was relieved to get some knowing smiles.

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