The Null Device


Britain's foremost composer is being investigated by police after preparing to roast and eat a swan at his Orkney home. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies claims that the swan was already dead, having presumably been killed by hitting power lines, and that it is a common Orkney tradition to collect and eat thus killed swans. In England, that may have been illegal in itself, as mute swans are the property of the Queen, though this law does not apply in Scotland.

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John Scalzi claims that the great political divide of our time is not between liberals and conservatives, but between rationalists and irrationalists:

There's a more common name for irrationalists in politics: "wingnuts." But I think that particular word is both inaccurate and falsely comforting, since it suggests that irrationalists are marginalized on the edge of political discourse. A hint for you: When an irrational politician sleeps in the White House, irrationalism is not exactly marginalized. Irrationalists aren't wingnuts; they're not even the wings. They're the damned fuselage of political discourse at the moment, and I think that's pretty damn scary.
Bush's irrationalist tendencies have fundamentally little to do with his conservative tendencies, which is to say that the former are not spawned from the latter. God knows irrationalism lies on both sides of the conventional political spectrum; the irrationalists of the left who tried to expunge "dead white guys" from curricula back when I was still in school to my mind walk arm and arm with the irrationalists on the right who are now busily trying to expunge evolution. An irrationalist liberal in the White House would be no better than Bush, that's for sure.

Though was there ever a time when rationalism held sway over politics, as opposed to public discourse being buffeted by impulses, fashions, superstitions, waves of mass hysteria and the effects of human cognitive biases which probably made excellent sense on the hunter-gatherer savannah? This has been the case in Plato's day and Shakespeare's, and will probably be so throughout the future of humanity. When the post-singularity nanobot hives populated by the uploaded personalities of our distant descendants launch for outer space in 500 years' time, chances are their politics and public discourse will be just as dominated by prejudices, phobias, omens, superstitions and kneejerk reactions as they are now.

Nonetheless, while rationalism is, to some extent, a lost cause, it is one worth taking up. Sure, if you take up the rationalist banner, the multitudes may laugh at you, call you a crank and sometimes throw things at you, but with patience and perseverance, you can persuade a few people and make the heavily-armed madhouse that is the world slightly less psychotic. At least until the next wave of mass excitement sweeps through it, anyway.

On a tangent, Australian lefty cultural commentator Phillip Adams on politicians and other leaders embracing irrational beliefs, from Reagan's Apocalyptic Christianity and Blair's taste for new-age mumbo-jumbo to the Australian founding fathers' fondness for the Victorian spiritualist fad and Gandhi's reliance on soothsayers before nuclear tests.

It's certainly a recurring theme in politics. One wonders, though, whether it's a case of (a) everybody being a bit kooky, and the media amplifying this in public figures, (b) politicians being (for some reason) more irrational than the man on the street, or (c) successful politicians realising that it pays to pander to irrational beliefs, and that rationality is punished. (Look, for example, at Al Gore, and his image of being a heartless, calculating robot-like being. Never mind that he had embraced the whacko anti-technology mystical-primitivist side of the environmental movement some years before that; perhaps he just wasn't fluffy enough.)

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An interesting NYTimes article on how mobile phones (many donated by South Korean journalists) and video recorders (which have become cheap as Chinese consumers adopt DVD players) are breaking down North Korea's barriers of isolation:

"In the 1960's in the Soviet Union, it was cool to wear blue jeans and listen to rock and roll," said Andrei Lankov, a Russian exchange student in the North at Kim Il Sung University in 1985, who now teaches about North Korea at Kookmin University here in the South. "Today, it is cool for North Koreans to look and behave South Korean, as they do in the television serials. That does not bode well for the long-term survival of the regime."

(Tangent: as Western pop music infiltrated Russia, it produced bizarre hybrids; porn-metal bands like Korozia Metalla and evil-sounding electronic noise acts and things like t.A.t.U. All of which makes one wonder what North Korean popular music will be like when the regime collapses. Assuming that it collapses without making North Korea (or, indeed, much of the Pacific Rim) into a radioactive crater.)

The North Korean government isn't taking this lying down: they've bought radio-location devices for detecting mobile phone signals. Meanwhile, to combat the video recorder menace (which, it would seem, is to repressive hermit-states what the Boston Strangler is to... never mind), the North Korean police simply switch off the power to areas, a block at a time, and inspect the tapes stuck in video recorders for subversive content. Those caught are probably executed if they're lucky, or used in hideous experiments if they're not. And Kim Jong Il has good reason to fear:

"They are gradually learning about South Korean prosperity," Dr. Lankov said. "This is a death sentence to the regime. North Korea's claim to legitimacy is based on its ability to deliver the worker's paradise now. What if everyone sees that it is not delivering?"

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