Life after paper books

I like to try out technologies. I don't mind if a product is difficult to use, as long as it is flexible, so I can use it as I like. One of the dumbest purchases I've made was a Sony MiniDisc, which sounded like a good idea when mp3 players were still small and expensive. Unfortunately it tied you up so well you needed to be an escape artist to use its functionality in any practical or unorthodox way*. Great potential, shoddy delivery, no fun.

And that's often what you get when you experiment. But then other times you strike oil, and that makes all the failed experiments worth it. Overall it is just more fun to experiment than to wait for other people to make, test and approve new ideas for you. It frees you from the prejudices and the fears of the late adopters.

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Why the news is a waste of your time

Why do people follow the news? This may seem like a dumb question, but think about it: Why do we watch, read or listen to the news? Many of us check the news several times a day. We have other things we want to spend time on. So what is it that we hope to achieve?

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At the siege of the MSM

Scene: The castle of mainstream media. Characters: Three newspaper editors; eight million bloggers.

EDITOR 1: There, tomorrows edition is finished. I'm really pleased with this one, it's a classic.
EDITOR 2: Yeah? What's on your front page? That triple rape-murder? A sex scandal? Don't tell me its another bird flu story?
EDITOR 1: No no, none of that. We've been creative, we've done something nobody has done before us.

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Illusions of progress

Here's a story about the future: Things will get better. We will get smarter and richer and happier. Life will be less dangerous, we will know more and we will have nobler ideals. There will be new and better technologies, better health care and better government. Here's another story: Things will get worse. Our economy will fail, and the environment will collapse. Technology will find new ways to kill, destroy and alienate us. We will abandon our values. Dangerous ideas will mislead us, war and violence will tear us apart.

Progress or decline, optimism or pessimism. I believe we are all biased in favor of one or the other. I myself am a natural optimist. Where others see possibilities for disaster, I see ways in which things may turn out well. On some level I really believe that all people are reasonable and would come around to my view if they knew what I know.

We're born optimists or pessimists, but we can unlearn this through knowledge and experience. Optimists and pessimists make the same mistake, they see history as alternating periods of clear progress and decline. But this is often an illusion.

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Believe what you say, say what you believe

Vebj�rn Selbekk, the Norwegian editor who printed Muhammed caricatures in January, has apologized for offending Norway's Muslims. The Swedish government has encouraged a web host provider to shut down a web site with similar pictures. Are we losing our freedom of speech?

The moment you ask that question, expecting a yes or no answer, you're off on the wrong track, the track where speech rights can be measured in a single number, and cultural disaster is always just a small increase or decrease away. Before you know it you'll be writing one of those tedious essays about how "we" have "forgotten" some value or principle or other, (decency, courage, rationality), and how you can't imagine how we'll ever pull out of this one.

The answer, in any case, is "it depends". It's not a good answer, but that's the fault of a poor question. A more important lesson we can take with us from this is that it is a poor strategy to defend speech rights by saying things we do not believe.

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Muhammed cartoons have got everyone confused

The whole Muhammed cartoon conflict is a mess, another one of those knots we have to carefully untangle before we can understand what is happening. You can't trust the word of the people involved: newspapers and bloggers publishing satirical pictures of Muhammed, Muslims who are insulted or angry to various degrees, and concerned multiculturalists. Most of them are confused. Many Europeans think Muslims are angry for no other reason than that they don't like to see pictures of their Prophet. People in Muslim countries think Europe is going through an orgy of anti-Muslim extremism, with cartooons about Muslim dog sex and pig-faced Muhammeds. European leaders think they have the mandate to apologize for their citizens.

And European Muslims, though not very angry and saying little we're not used to hearing from Christians, have gotten the insane idea that the European public is now in the mood for new laws against blasphemy. So there's confusion everywhere. And it's all just a proxy debate anyway, where what everyone is really concerned about is something other than drawings of Muhammed.

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Are social sciences good for anything?

Looking out over the ideological battlefield, one of the banners we see the right carrying is the one of "hard" or "real" science, as opposed to politicized science, junk science and "soft" science. This is encouraging, but when we look closer we see that there's much ideological opportunism involved. The right often uses science not to tell them what to think, but to help them win ideological battles, and improve morale among their troops. When science goes against them, or threatens to undermine morale, it is abandoned.

This makes it difficult to think straight about good and bad science. What is there to say about someone who sees postmodernism and climate science as different heads on the same troll? Or are skeptical of the ability of academics to understand society, but think they, as untrained amateurs with nothing but ideological tracts to guide them, have that ability themselves?

So it's refreshing to read Stanislav Andreski's 1972 book Social Sciences as Sorcery, which says everything worth saying about bad social science, but without the ideological opportunism, and with something added: ideas about what good social science should be like.

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Victimization on the right

Political activism can do horrible things to a cause. Many think only bad causes get corrupt, but it's almost inevitable that it happens to all of them. Activists compete for media attention. They dedicate their lives to one cause. How can this not lead them to exaggerate their claims, hush down nuances, and pretend that their cause is more important than all the others?

Show me an activist who is always honest and keeps everything in the right perspective. I'll show you Santa Claus, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy. We need activists, they've done useful things. We also need politicians and journalists, but that doesn't mean we pretend they can be trusted, or that these professions generally reward honesty and intelligence.

We hear often enough about the problems of activism on the "left". I don't even have to list any examples, you're already making a list in your mind as you read this. Instead I'm going to talk about something closer to home: The way political activism on the right can turn people into victims, and make freedom a gift from the state.

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