Nicolas de Condorcet’s “Progress of the Human Mind”

Posted on 2nd November 2014 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Mediaphilism
Marquis de Condorcet Quote

It frustrates me bitterly that the works of the Enlightenment are almost forgotten in America’s universities. Science classes ignore them because scientists must focus on the most current understanding of our world. Humanities classes ignore them because the Age of Enlightenment, with its rationality and empiricism, is seen as the oppressor of creative expression.

But we owe so much to this age, which abolished god-appointed kings, established the sciences that so dramatically improved our quality of life, and brought forth the rational radical ideas of equality and human rights. The Enlightenment is the foundation for humanism, and I think everyone should celebrate the myriad brilliant works of the revolutionary minds who contributed to it.

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Top 10 Books Exploring Otherness

Posted on 1st July 2012 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Top 10 Books Exploring Otherness

I hate doing top 10 lists because I am going to make some huge embarrassing oversite and I really don’t have any objective way to order what makes the list. That being said, this list consist of my own personal favorites from the world of literature as someone who grew up in a western society with all the cultural baggage that comes with it. These are books where the aliens are alien, and their otherness gives us a new perspective on our own identity and culture.

10. War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

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Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass

Posted on 25th October 2011 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism
Evening With Ira Glass Advertisement

This American Life (TAL) is one of the most successful shows on NPR, it started in 1995, has won numerous awards, and one of my conservative friends even described the show as “single-handedly justifying the existence of NPR.” I’ve heard shows from time to time over the years, but a few months ago I downloaded a torrent of every show in the cannon and have been completely hooked ever since. So when I heard Ira Glass’ was coming to Chrysler Hall in Norfolk I jumped at the chance to see him talk about the show, behind the scenes, and how the show is so effective at communicating and connecting with the audience.

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A Review of Albert Brook’s 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America

Posted on 29th August 2011 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

For a man with a memorable career that spans three decades Albert Brooks doesn’t seem to have that many credits to his name in IMDB. The writer/director of Real Life, Defending Your Life, Mother, and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World has brought us only a handful of films, but they are all memorable for the characters and social insights they bring to the screen. For his most recent work, he has dropped the ‘director’ part of his title to deliver us his first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, a remarkably prescient bit of futurism that will deserve a revisit two decades from now.

Many of the overwhelmingly positive reviews of 2030 on Amazon describe Brooks’ futurist portrayal of the United States with words like “dystopian” and “black comedy,” but I felt these terms undermine the dire warnings about America’s direction the book presages. There was nothing comedic, even darkly comedic, about the situations in which Brooks’ characters find themselves, only tragedy. To call the world Brooks foretells “dystopian” makes it sound fantastical, extreme, like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but everything Brooks describes is not only plausible, but predicted by economic, political, and historical experts in the media on a weekly basis.

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Breakout of Slide Presentation Linearity with Prezi

Posted on 21st February 2011 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out,Mediaphilism
MemexPlex Prezi Screenshot
MemexPlex Prezi Screenshot

At Science Online 2011 I was introduced to the Prezi Presentation Paradigm by Stacy Baker of Extreme Biology. After getting past a surprisingly mild learning curve, I was able to produce the following presentation mixing a Prezi presentation with desktop video capture:

Keeping in mind this is not the best example of a Prezi demo, you can step through and play with the MemexPlex Prezi itself below (alternately, you can browse popular Prezis here). Don’t confine yourself to just click through the presentation, as you can click-and-drag, double-click, and zoom as well:

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Memetic Association Exercizes with Science Tarot

Posted on 29th November 2010 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,Mediaphilism
Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, 15th Century
Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, 15th Century

If you’re looking to part a fool and their money, psychic readings are a great business*. Through the art of cold reading,by making statements that seem personal, but are true for most people, the psychic creates the illusion of having supernatural intuition about their client. For instance, they may say “I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.” Who isn’t? Or, if the client is older, they may say, “Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen,” which would be true for the majority of causes of death. Psychics also use the rainbow ruse strategy of making a statement that is vague and contradictory about the client, such as “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset.” It’s probably not hard to find experiences in your life that match this statement to yourself, and if you can’t, the psychic can claim you need to look deeper or that you are suppressing something.

A favorite tool of psychics in performing their readings are tarot cards. These cards come in a wide variety of themes, with fantastic artwork, and generalized symbolism that takes on different meanings depending on where the card appears in a spread. They work because they exploit both the cold reading technique and generate rainbow statements in their symbolism.

Tarot Universal de Dali
Tarot Universal de Dali
Credit: Le.Mat

I occasionally do Tarot readings for myself. Over the years, when confronted with a challenging life issue, I would turn to The Mythic Tarot set for help figuring out what to do. This set portrays four different Greek Myths in the four different suits, and I always have to keep the book open when doing a reading because I find it impossible to remember what the cards mean.

I expect many scientists out there would say that my playing with the tarot harms my credibility as a skeptic, but I am completely aware of what makes the tarot work, and have no delusions that the meanings I appear to find in the cards are self-generated. The cards are like the old Principia Discordia quote about books, “…a mirror, when a monkey looks in, no apostle looks out.”

That doesn’t mean the cards are useless. The tarot meme has survived five centuries, in part for the solace it provides, but also because it serves a useful function. A tarot reading provides an exercise in deep, sustained thought on a subject, each new card challenging the practitioner to look at the subject of inquiry from a different angle. The tarot spread doesn’t answer any questions, but like a Rogerian Psychologist it prompts us to find the correct answers within ourselves.

Science Tarot
Science Tarot

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Required Reading for Public Computer Science Teachers: Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas

Posted on 18th February 2010 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out,Mediaphilism
Seymour Papert's Mindstorms
Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms

Dr. Seymour Papert is best known as the inventor of the Logo programming language, a tool for teaching children problem solving, but his influence in education goes much further than that. Papert has always been a visionary where computers and education intersect, and it is incredible how glacially society has moved to embrace his proposed pedagogical recommendations.

30 years ago, Seymour Papert argued for integrating computers into the classroom as a means of accelerating learning and empowering children with the means to direct their own educations. In his classic text Mindstorms he postulates that the cost of having a computer system for every child would actually save the school system money because it would shorten the number of years required to educate each student:

The problem of cost has not gone away, but it may be overestimated how much it would cost to put a computer for every child in a school. $1,000 a child spread out over 12 years? Plus, the use of computers could accelerate learning, maybe even cut a year off of the amount of time it takes to educate a student, saving 1/12th the cost of a child’s total education.

Papert was talking about computers in 1980 dollars, before the home PC had dropped in price to today’s more accessible levels and magnified power, so today the above statement is even truer. One laptop for every child in America would cut the number of years necessary to educate our children and enhance the quality of their education dramatically.

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A Review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget

Posted on 21st January 2010 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view. – Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget is a book that has infuriated the Information Age idealists who believe that the World Wide Web will solve all the world’s problems through the wisdom of crowds to leverage civilization into a new paradigm where all content is free open-access and anyone can make it big without the rusty old-media institutions with their profit-driven motivations blah, blah, blah… Let me avow upfront that I am one of those people, and so is Lanier, but Lanier has insights into where the vision has gone horribly wrong and how our favorite online innovations are actually institutions exploiting our free labors while simultaneously constraining our creativity.

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Random Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar

Posted on 22nd December 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Roger Ebert absolutely loved it, Jim Emerson thought it was totally lame, and io9 has an essay up about it being a recapitulation of the “White Man’s Guilt” plotline. Here are my thought’s on James Cameron’s Avatar:

Uncanny Valley: Doesn’t apply to this movie at all, which was one of my disappointments with it. I wanted to see human beings move seamlessly between CGI and live action, but Cameron wisely avoided attempting this. The Navi are aliens, like LOTR’s Gollumn, they are sufficiently non-human to avoid creeping us out. Failing to attempt CGI humans makes the film significantly less revolutionary to my mind.

Alien life on Pandora: On the one hand, I was disappointed with the numerous earth-referencing aliens: the alien horses, alien lemurs, alien rhinoceroses, dogs, panthers, and such. On the other hand, I appreciated the alien twists on these species: nostrils on their chests, four forearms, and the bioluminescence of the plant life. The closer we look at Pandora’s life, the more alien it becomes in the details. We can clearly see a distinct evolutionary history in Pandora’s life forms’ shared traits.

Clichéd Storyline: Yes, the movie is “Dances With Wolves in space,” but that’s a good thing. It would have been foolishness to try out some experimental storyline with a $250 million budget. George Lucas demonstrated that with The Phantom Menace, a film that avoided all conventional plot devices in a sophomoric attempt at innovative storytelling to become the all-time epic fail of moviemaking ever1.

Deux ex Machina: I believe this is a reference to the “Earth Mother” joining the fight at the film’s climax, as if the hand of god were coming down to thwart the antagonists; however, as a good bit of science fiction, we know that the planet is a living network, with all of its species connected through hubs, similar to several plant species on Earth. Yes, it’s a type of god, but a god with a scientific explanation. “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization is indistinguishable from god.” If there’s a scientific explanation, then it’s not the hand of god coming down at the end.

Environmentalist Philosophy: I am bothered by the film’s hypocrisy of communicating a message of environmentalism and romanticizing a return to a more primitive time through an incredibly elaborate $250 million dollar fabrication produced by a farm of energy-ravenous networked computer systems. I am also disappointed with the film’s resolution, where the primitives win and the technologically-advanced civilization is sent back to its planet to die. Environmentalism is not a zero-sum game, and a more thoughtful story would have come up with a more sophisticated solution where both sides could have won. This film has an important environmental message; however, it is a useless message for our modern world. If all 6.9 billion of us on Earth gave up our technology and tried to live off the land, we would destroy our planet even more quickly and mostly starve away as a result. In this respect, Avatar is pure pseudo-environmentalist escapism, while the true environmentalists are out building solar, geothermal, and wind power stations to transition our civilization to a less environmentally-impactful lifestyle.

1 I caught some flak for this point on Jim Emerson’s blog, to which I responded:

So Avatar is a good movie because it’s familiar and conventional, while The Phantom Menace is a bad movie because it’s new and unconventional? Sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense. When did writing a new story become “experimental”?

I’ll bite. TPM is a bad movie exactly for being unconventional. By unconventional, I mean George Lucas’ story included three to four protagonists competing for the spotlight, characters so formal and regal only a fanboy could love them, a plot the requires a political wonk to decipher it, and an overly-dazzling ending that tried to tie together four different action plot lines. These are all unconventional in the context of your average American action-theater fare, and they all detracted from what should have been an otherwise enjoyable film. Most people cared less about these failings because the film drowned us in, at the time, revolutionary special effects, but now, with those effects no longer being dazzling, people can see how truly awful TPM was.

Mind you, many of these same attributes have added up to some great filmmaking. Consider David Lynch’s Dune, a sci-fi epic both politically-heavy and filled with formal, regal characters. I and many of my friends consider Dune a fantastic film, but in cinematic history it is considered a spectacular flop. It was unconventional, it was awesome, but it had no mass appeal. What if Cameron had spent his revolutionary CGI effects on remaking such a film?

Now consider Star Wars, which was out and out space opera, knights and maidens in space. Was its story new? Innovative? No. It was a standard, cut-and-paste plotline–but also one with a proven track record. It’s movie making history because it had revolutionary special effects and a soundtrack to present that canned plot in a superiorly entertaining fashion.

Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s a good thing that directors can’t make awesomely-budgeted experimental films, but it’s naive to pretend they have a non-professional-harakiri choice in the matter. James Cameron made a wise choice in hijacking Dances With Wolves, a plotline with proven mass-appeal, as the vehicle for showcasing his special effects innovations. Avatar may not survive and be revered by fanboys the way Star Wars has over the decades, but by playing it safe in his storytelling, Cameron gives his film much better odds towards that end.

Enlightenment Truths and Metaphysical Inaccuracies in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

Posted on 11th October 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Mediaphilism
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

I strongly disagree with avid Plotz’s commentary, Dan Brown’s Washington, which argues that the real story of Washington is in the political players, not the spiritual and philosophical history which is the focus of The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown’s power as a writer is in having his characters take an intellectual adventure, travelling down pathways of obscure knowledge and history. The Lost Symbol is at its most intriguing when the characters are just standing around reasoning, however misrepresented their facts may be at times.

Rosicrucian Metaphor for the Invisible College
Rosicrucian Metaphor for the Invisible College
“The Temple of the Rosy Cross”
Credit: Teophilus Schweighardt Constantien

If you can remember that Dan Brown writes fiction and ride along with his storytelling with a notepad and a critical eye, you can discover some very fascinating things to look for in Washington DC and the Enlightenment Era. Thanks to Brown, I discovered the Invisible College, which was the precursor to the UK’s Royal Society, a society of scientists interested in understanding the world through empirical analysis. Today, the term serves to describe any method of attaining an education without going through an official academic route, similar to attending free courses online to get the knowledge, if not the course credit. The Rosicrucians was another fascinating concept, linked to the Invisible College, another secret society that may or may not have existed, but two anonymous manifestos were attributed to the organization, Fama fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis, that stirred up much intellectual debate in Europe, and may have contributed to the Enlightenment movement. One individual rumored to have written the manifestos was Francis Bacon, who’s New Atlantis, also mentioned in Brown’s book, which depicted a utopian society founded on the principles of free inquiry and scientific research.

Library of Congress, Jefferson Reading Room
Library of Congress, Jefferson Reading Room

The Lost Symbol takes place across a wonderful variety of settings right around the Washington DC mall, which would be difficult to take in over the course of a week, much less during the single night in which Brown’s book takes place. He hits most of the science imagery found in the Jefferson Reading Room, a fantastic monument to science, knowledge, and Enlightenment values. The US Botanical Gardens, National Statuary Hall, and the Kryptos Sculpture outside CIA headquarters are just a few fascinating locations in the book and they serve as just a glance at the immense amount of history packed into the nation’s capital.

Credit: CIA

Brown has a penchant for silly academic scenes where Professor Robert Langdon wows awestruck students with seemingly incredible historical facts. The Lost Symbol delivers many of these, like when students mistake the pristine Smithsonian Castle for an ancient Norman castle so the Professor can correct them. But the Smithsonian is an incredible Institution, one that requires weeks to take in just what’s on display around the National Mall. Dan Brown introduces us to the Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC), described in Smithsonian Magazine as the “Nation’s Attic,” which emphasizes that what the public can access in the museums is only a tiny fraction of the Smithsonian’s total collection. However, Brown’s book is a little out of date, as the squid and coelacanth referenced in the SMSC’s “Wet Pod” are currently on display at the Sant Ocean Hall in the Smithsonian museum of Natural History, which opened September 2008.

Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)
Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)
Via Google Maps

I never suspected there was anything at the Washington National Cathedral for me, an Enlightenment scholar, to appreciate; however, I am thankful to Dan Brown for introducing me to the Space Window, honoring the Moon landing, and includes a fragment of lunar rock brought back from an American lunar mission. The cathedral also features the head of Darth Vader as one of its gargoyles, voted by children as the scariest figure to fulfill the “role of the grotesque” in the architecture.

Washington National Cathedral Space Window
Washington National Cathedral Space Window

My favorite new Washington DC discovery in The Lost Symbol is the Apotheosis of Washington, the mural gracing the inside of the Capitol Building’s dome, which depicts the Founding Fathers and other great minds of their age receiving wisdom directly from the Roman gods. Ceres sits on a McCormick mechanical reaper, bringing agricultural science to Americans, Vulcan forges cannonballs in front of a steam engine, Venus helps to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable, and Minerva is shown bringing an electrical generator, batteries, and a printing press to the great American scientists Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse, and Robert Fulton.

Science in the Apotheosis of Washington
Science in the Apotheosis of Washington

The problem is that all of these real-world settings and details prime us to believe other, wholly fabricated aspects of Brown’s storytelling. I unquestioningly swallowed the falsehood that the Founding Father’s originally planned to call our nation’s capital “New Rome,” because I knew they were heavily influenced by the Greek Democracy and Roman Republic; however, I have found no evidence that the FF intended this whatsoever, and must assume that it has no basis in fact1.

Brown’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, asserts at one point that Google is not research. Maybe Brown fears his readers discovering or other original sources where they can find out how he has exaggerated or misrepresented material. For instance, the way he overhypes the CIA’s Stargate Program, which experimented with remote viewing, but was cancelled without producing anything conclusive. Or the importance of the Noetic Sciences, which deals with supernatural ways of coming into knowledge, and, despite millions of books being sold on the subject, has yet to produce anything empirical. He mentions that meditating Yogis, produce a miraculous waxy substance from their pineal glands, but fails to mention this substance would be melatonin (there’s no evidence for Brown’s statement anyway). And, of course, 2012 has to make an appearance as well.

Brown ties together the facts that Isaac Newton’s temperature scale had 33 degrees (zero being freezing, 33 boiling), there are 33 Vertebrae in the human spine, and 33 degrees in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry as proof that 33 is perceived as a powerful number in mysticism. If Dan Brown had wanted to weave the number into his storytelling a little more, he could have included Dante’s Divine Comedy (3 canticas with 33 cantos each), the number of segments in the United Nations’ symbol, and the coming of age for hobbits in the Lord of the Rings according to Wikipedia.

Where The DaVinci Code was focused on religious institutions suppressing knowledge to maintain their power, Lost Symbol focuses on ancient institutions trying to keep psychic powers out of mortal hands. Ancient societies had an awesome understanding of the universe that we modern folk are only just now beginning to discover, according to the book, and we simply aren’t ready for much of this forbidden knowledge. Everything we discover with modern physics was already written about in all the ancient texts. The Bible, for instance, contains this forbidden knowledge, but it’s hidden in the verse to prevent us from destroying ourselves with it. According to The Lost Symbol, America’s Founding Fathers were keenly aware of this:

It was here, Robert, at the very core of this young American nation, that our brightest forefathers–John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine–all warned of the profound dangers of interpreting the Bible literally. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so convinced the Bible’s true message was hidden that he literally cut up the pages and reedited the book, attempting, in his words, ‘to do away with the artificial scaffolding and restore the genuine doctrines.’

These words are technically true, but are highly misleading for the context in which they appear in The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown is trying to make it seem as if the Founding Fathers thought there was a hidden mystical meaning in the Bible, but this was not Thomas Jefferson’s intent in crafting his own version of the Bible. Jefferson started out constructing a simplified version of the New Testament that American Indians could easily understand, but turned to extracting what he considered Jesus’ true philosophical intent from what he came to see as the morass of supernatural embellishment the evangelicals had brought into the scriptures. Thomas Paine was highly critical of the Bible, not seeing a hidden mystical meaning, but a philosophy that he found morally reprehensible.

Dan Brown, in trying to prop up Noetic Sciences, ends up perpetuating an historical urban legend instead:

Peter once compared Noetic Scientists to the early explorers who were mocked for embracing the heretical notion of a spherical earth. Almost overnight, these explorers went from fools to heroes, discovering uncharted worlds and expanding the horizons of everyone on the planet.

This is nonsense and bad history. In American public schools we are taught that Columbus’ journey to find a western route to India was all the more amazing because everyone at the time thought the Earth was flat. While this makes his story more compelling, the reality was that the Earth’s spherical nature was a well-established fact. Aristotle knew the Earth was round in the third-century BC by observing its shadow on the Moon, Alexandria philosopher Eratosthenes had estimated the size of the Earth, and the early Romans were the first to suggest the idea of a westward route to India. Columbus’ opponents knew the Earth was round; however, they believed the explorer had grossly underestimated its size. Dan Brown is himself guilty of underestimating the “wisdom of the ancients2” in not knowing that the ancients knew the Earth was round.

The problem is, if you believe the conspiracy theory that all this powerful forbidden knowledge is being obfuscated by secret societies, then the fact that original documents reveal a truth that is devoid of supernaturalism, however intriguing their philosophical debates, then the lack of evidence is merely more support for the conspiracy to hide the “truth.” It’s a catch-22: there’s no evidence of a conspiracy to hide what the conspiracy theorist wants to believe; therefore, the conspiracy theorist takes this as evidence that the knowledge is being effectively hidden3.

I do appreciate Dan Brown bringing up Albert Einstein’s concept of a “Cosmic Religion,” which was the sense of spirituality Einstein got from uncovering the workings of the natural world and was best explained in his 1930s essay in the New York Times Magazine, Religion and Science:

…the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts, and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics!

There is spirituality in this view of life, and there is hidden power to be revealed through scientific experimentation and empirical discovery. Just as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke said, Dan Brown is correct that “If our ancestors could see us today, surely they would think us gods.”

1 The only reference I could find to America and “New Rome” was as a pejorative in a commentary by Osama Bin Laden.

2 Part of the “wisdom of the ancients” Brown cites is the ingenuity of Alchemy, from which he conveniently leaves out the fact that his icon, Isaac “Jeova Sanctus Unus” Newton poisoned himself by playing with and tasting Mercury.

3 Full disclosure, I am a Discordian, so technically I am part of the conspiracy, but since organization is against the principles of Discordianism, it must purely be an emergent phenomenon.