Why we’re (not) all brilliant

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By Africa. freedigitalphotos.net

It seems to me that the proliferation of know-it-alls (I have to include myself, unfortunately) in world culture is directly traceable to the rise of Wikipedia.  There’s the obvious point that we can get information on almost anything at a click, but there’s also the less obvious inference from the fact that it’s crowd-sourced.

Anybody can add his/her two cents worth, or so the myth goes.  That may have been true at the inception, but try it now, and see how far you get.  That whole wisdom-of-crowds thing got a pretty good thrashing, as it became clear in the early days of Wikipedia that a lot of garbage was being put up.  Eventually, the Wiki-editor was born, and now you need credentials to post, or even revise.

But the myth lives on, and the prevalent, if dubious, implication that one opinion is as good as the next.  Politically attractive as such egalitarianism is, it just ain’t so.  Ironically, everyone seems aware of this in regard to someone else’s opinions; we’ll have to look elsewhere for the root of our narcissism.

The other part of this illusion of expertise is the instant accessibility of information.  This goes back to a very common misconception of long standing: the idea that an expert is nothing more than a repository of data.  There have always been two stereotypes of genius.  On one side is Einstein, standing before a blackboard filled with utterly incomprehensible symbols, and on the other is Ken Jennings, the record Jeopardy winner.  To me, the two represent complementary aspects of genius: Jennings the large working memory, and Einstein the ability to see patterns and implications.  Somehow, in the popular mind, this has gotten reduced to access to large databases.  Presumably, in this view, Einstein simply knew the encryption key which made all those facts available to him.

A recent cartoon has a character saying, “I’ve outsourced my memory to Google.”  Would that it were so simple.  Having all that information accessible in your brain is inherently different from being able to look it up quickly on your computer.  It is where the Jennings and Einstein stereotypes merge; you simply cannot see the pattern in a dataset if you can’t see the dataset all at once, and that requires a large working memory, inside your calabash, not on your desk.  Worse yet, you can’t see the fallacy in any given proposition if you can’t quickly compare it to other propositions.

My students used to ask me how you can choose between two plausible, but contradictory propositions.  Well, googling it will not help.  You need to closely examine the underlying assumptions of the two ideas, as well as the implications.  You also need to see how compatible they are with other propositions.  This is possible without a good working memory, but very difficult.

Much easier to pick a side, and stick with it.  You see this mirrored all the time in online “discussions.”  A makes an assertion; B makes a counter-assertion.  From that point, it’s either alternating re-assertions, or ad hominem, frequently both.  There is an appalling scarcity of any relevance from one comment to another.  If an adversary’s point is acknowledged at all, it is only as a prelude to insult.  “You say x; you’re hopelessly naive.”

Internet knowledge is very broad, but shallow as a puddle, I’m afraid.  Add to that the fact that most search engines will give you what the algorithm says you want, and online genius can be summed up in one word:

Fool.

Musical Riga: a photo essay

Riga is music; any season, but in summer, everything and everyone moves outdoors. The winters are long, dark, and cold, and Latvians figure to get the sun and fresh air while it’s available; plenty of time to rest after the leaves start to fall.  Everywhere you look, people are picnicking in the parks, or boating on the canal, or just sitting at cafes.  Nobody sleeps, really.  Many are the deep, peaceful slumbers, when it finally gets dark, interrupted by a full-throated early morning choir of well-lubricated revelers, their songs echoing back and forth between the buildings, much as they themselves might bounce between the same walls.  Latvians love their beer, and it is excellent; this fact in turn invites like-minded tourists to join in.  The saving grace is that the most violence you’re likely to see is perpetrated against the principles of harmony, and not people.  My view is that if I must put up with drunks, I much prefer them prone to outbursts of song than to outbursts of violence!

There is a plethora of music in official venues: concert halls, arenas, amphitheaters, and bars.  But to me, what really defines Riga in the summertime is the street music.  It is actively encouraged; the many local music schools even send their students out on the streets to perform, as a way of getting experience.  And, of course, there is the usual variety of street buskers, although it’s not everywhere that they set up complete with generators and amplified instruments.  The sheer range of talent and production value on the street is astonishing.

I wish I could have sampled the sounds for you, but I’m afraid it’s beyond my small competence to putt something like that together.  So here’s a photographic journey instead.

Enjoy!

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This trio was playing a Boccherini quartet.  If they had another person, I guess they could have gone for a quintet.  They were fantastic.

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There was even the occasional official paid gig, like this one at an upscale hotel.  Outdoors, of course.

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Big production number here; very professional, great vocalist.  They had a gas generator with a long enough extension cord so that it didn’t interfere too much.

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Then there was this guy, a marvelous operatic baritone.

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Cello chiller.

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I actually thought I might know this blues harp player from my checkered past.  Then I realized I’m old enough to be his father.

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They start young.  Good posture, sweet sound.

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A one-woman band, and with an attitude.  Her schtick was to ask passers-by to sing a verse of their national anthem.  Then she would make it sound like everything else she played.

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Ragtime Cowboy Joe.

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Not a cowboy.  Some people apparently just needed the money.  The quality of this group was variable, but you had to give them credit for doing something, and not just begging.

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Even Anonymous apparently was represented.  An interesting cure for stage fright!

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Very proper, and with a beautiful clear voice.  She played a traditional instrument and sang Latvian folk songs, even dressed the part.

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Of course, it’s always nice if you have a buddy to help with the music.

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Uh, no comment.

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More solid traditional music, despite the cowboy hats.

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Some interesting combinations…

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Lots of brass bands.  These guys were excellent; no need for amps here!

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Or here, for Mr.Cool.

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Another brass band.

That’s all, folks!

Writers, unblock!

The good news is, I’ve figured out writer’s block.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look a blank page in the eye.  Worse, not even the frequent notes to myself, made in feverish wakeful nights, have elicited more than a yawn.  Lost sleep for nothing, dear friends.

In the morning, I read my scrawls, trying vainly to recall what “Res. wh. whump!” could possibly mean.  Or why the revelation that people have two of everything but probisci might be of interest to the bloggerati.  Having failed, I hereby donate both ideas to the writing public; I would love to read something they inspired.

I tried all the usual antidotes, including the oft-prescribed stream of consciousness ramblings.  Sure enough, they proved to be ramblings.  Consciousness, I’m not so sure.  My streams seemed clogged; too often for comfort, in a terrifyingly relentless dwindle, I found myself repeating one or two words over and over.  Drowning in a sea of – well, not even drowning, not even that, which would at least have been tragic.

One wearisome evening, I gave up early and shut my computer down.

“Installing important updates,” it said, “Please do not log off or power down your computer.”

Brilliant, I thought, can’t even give up properly.  Then it hit me.

My brain had been sluggish lately, reluctant to follow my commands.  Just like my computer.  I needed to install important updates.

Forget writing, forget blockage.  Start the shut-down process.  But how to download the necessary updates?

Jump in the car, take a drive.  Read billboards.  Stop for coffee.  Buy some paint at Lowe’s.  Or just look at paint, and decide not to.  Talk to a human, any human, preferably one you wouldn’t normally find interesting.  Go to a public park.  Go to a museum and look at art.  Get out among people, the more, the better.

Do this for a while; it can take days to download these updates.  Just don’t think about writing.  Eventually, just as you’re heading out the door to go grocery shopping, you’ll realize you need to write something down first.  It will end up taking much longer than you thought, and you’ll have to eat out, since you will have forgotten all about the groceries.

Update successfully installed.

The bad news, of course, is that none of this is any different from what you’ve been doing all along.

"Ainava," Konrads Ubans

“Ainava,” Konrads Ubans

Egypt’s lesson for America

The term of President Mohamed Mursi ended abruptly Wednesday, as the Egyptian army took control, arrested him, and declared his government over.  A coup, in plain words, toppling the country’s first democratically elected president from power.  We should be outraged.

Or should we?  Mursi’s missteps, succinctly recounted in this Reuters article, seemed to almost ensure his demise, but incompetence, even recalcitrance, alone doesn’t justify annulling a popular election.  What doomed his regime, and what, to me, provided reasonable cause for his removal, was his November 22 hijacking of the constitutional assembly process.  On that day, he assumed for himself emergency powers, by which any and all oversight of the assembly, previously packed with his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots, was crushed.  This included any discussion of the packing itself.

When the assembly predictably returned a constitution leaning heavily toward Islamist principles, the public rebelled, and took to the streets once again.  Mursi’s response: quell the demonstrations, force an early referendum, before the opposition had a chance to organize itself, and ram the new constitution through.  Every move after that was right and proper, according to the new constitution, but if the constitution itself is suspect, such legality is moot.

Mursi’s victory was on the slimmest of margins, and was largely the result of the disunity of the opposition.  As it was, he was forced into a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, who was arguably handicapped by having been Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarek.  Shafik still managed 48.3% of the vote.

This is the crux: having won by a small margin, Mursi proceeded to rule as if he had a crushing mandate, assuming emergency powers when conventional channels disfavored him, and thoroughly ignoring any of the concerns of the opposition, accusing them instead of subversion.  No compromise.

So, the burning question is, is democracy simple majoritarianism?  We hear a lot about majority rule with regard to democracy, but is that all there is to it?  In the United States, the constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, declares otherwise.  The very concept of rights quite bluntly limits the power of the majority to enforce its will, and protects minorities from its ill will, right down to the individual.  I use the term “minority” here in its strict sense, not the political sense of identifiable interest group.

But on a subtler level, the implication is that the interests of such minorities must be taken into consideration by the leaders elected by the majority, even when swept into office by groundswell.  Still more, when the margin of majority is as thin as spring ice.

Which brings us to the infamous gridlock of American politics.  It is grounded on the idea that, in a democracy, the winner takes all, that it is unnecessary, even irresponsible, to compromise with the losers.

We seem to have a lot of Mursis in American politics these days.  Let’s take Egypt’s fate as an object lesson, and avoid that treacherous path.

Government loyalty

We live in fascinating times.  We are outraged by government incursions into our corner of the Grand Database, while at the same time we cheerfully surrender any and all information about ourselves for a 10% discount at Best Buy.  In fact, we seem to be outraged by almost anything the government does these days, up to and including holding public trials to determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which we now seem to be convinced are contrived and predetermined whenever they fail to conform to our own conclusions.  These conclusions, of course, are based on what information we could glean from the news media, which we firmly believe are utterly untrustworthy, with notable exceptions, which I’ll discuss momentarily..

How has it come about that we offer up the most bizarrely intimate details of our lives daily on Facebook, yet man the barricades when it transpires that some government agency might have been reading them?  Or cough up our phone numbers and email addresses on demand when checking out at Home Depot for no apparent reason?

Well of course, you say, no point in getting a loyalty card, and then clamming up about it, is there?  There’s a sacred bond involved, similar to the bond that ties us to certain news outlets, those we are sworn to believe regardless of the absurdity of their dispatches.  Therein lies a glimmer of hope for resolving this crisis of confidence.

Government loyalty cards.  Get a loyalty card, and get a discount when you present it at tax time.  Pay more taxes, get a bigger discount.  We’d even get special offers in the mail, both snail and e, for holiday sales tax rebates, or jury duty aboard a luxury cruise ship, half price if you volunteer immediately.  All of this can be easily paid for by adjusting the “normal” tax rates for those who don’t have loyalty cards.

We might believe everything the government tells us, as we do with Fox News or The Guardian, if we thought of them as our tribe.  We might even believe government policies are based on the moral code of humanitarianism.

Snowden in purgatory

Right now, the number one thing for which I am most grateful:  I am not Edward Snowden.

I know whereof I speak.  I only just returned from a trip which involved a nine-hour layover at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  Which, I’m betting, is rather nicer than Sheremetyevo in Moscow.  It is a very peculiar kind of torture.

Passenger Ricardo Schnibblevits, traveling to Tashkent, please report to Gate A9 for immediate boarding, or your baggage will be removed from the airplane, and your reservation cancelled.

The single most important thing that makes such an experience bearable is the knowledge that it is only temporary.  Snowden is utterly bereft of this consolation.  He may glance habitually at his watch, but it tells him nothing of interest.  How many times can he walk from one end of the transit area to the other before he has it memorized?  How many greasy shashliks can his stomach endure before he contemplates a hunger strike just for the novelty?

What is he using for money?  Will his Starbucks card be accepted at Double Coffee?  All the little irritants, horribly magnified.  Like the armrest on the chair where he’s trying to sleep becoming a permanent part of his anatomy, or (shudder) Russian toilet paper.

Sheremetyevo Airport reminds you not to leave your bags unattended.  Unattended bags will be immediately confiscated for security reasons.

What country in its right mind would grant asylum to Snowden, thereby holding him up as an example of sterling behavior to its citizens?  Does anyone really believe a place exists among the nations of Earth that is not at least as bad as, if not worse than, the United States, in terms of secrets, of spying on its citizens, or of any one of hundreds of infringements, large and small, on dignity, not to say liberty?  I’ll grant you, many are not as up to date technologically, but that would only make someone like Snowden all the more dangerous to them.

Hero or traitor, he’s in the land of the Undead for the foreseeable future.  We’re not necessarily talking about days, or even weeks, here.  The world record for this kind of thing is held by Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who endured the departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle for 18 years.  That’s right, 18 years.

Passenger Rickky Platz, please return to the security check-in zone to reclaim your passport.  Passenger Rickky Platz.

In the same clothes.  The same underpants that drove him nuts riding up on the flight from Hong Kong.  How many bags of stale peanuts can one man endure?  I believe I would be on the phone to the US consul sooner rather than later.  In prison, there is at least the exercise yard.

Passenger Edward Snowden, please make yourself as comfortable as you can.  It will be awhile.