Monday, January 18, 2010
  The law of unintended consequences
Burma's military leader General Than Shwe at a camp for cyclone victims on the outskirts of Rangoon, 18 May 2008. Autumn Kelly with her father and bridesmaids. (Montage by sugarexpletive)
I have commented before on how the most significant changes technology brings (especially on a long view) are often unforeseen and usually unintended. The same is often true of military and political decisions.

I doubt the Great King Nebuchadnezzar, or even the far greater and probably more admirable Emperor Cyrus, intended to turn the tribal religion of a peripheral hill country people into a faith that changed the religious outlook of the world. (Judaism being mother to Christianity and later perhaps Islam.)

On another blog I tell how the evil intentions of Sen. Gen. Than Shwe and his fellow kleptocrats in Burma have also had unintended but perhaps profound consequences.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010
  Might I ambiguate, please?
Christmas #23 - One hundred sigma by kevindooley
Miriam Bier wrote in her Facebook status "question: if you can disambiguate, can you not also ambiguate?"

In view of my recent posts I have to claim an emphatic: Can I [you choose the punctuation]

Since the halcyon days when I was a bright young thing the world has gained an almost infinitely greater degree of capacity to communicate. I grew up in a world of broadcast (TV and Radio - basically one way transmission of information, one way is not communication), print (also basically one way - one way is a dead end ;) and occasional handwriting (letters and such) and even more occasional telephone chats (once or twice a week to my fiancée) as the extent of common long distance communication. So a face-to-face world enriched by a little long distance communication and a lot of one to many lecturing. Now, a generation later, I sit in a refugee camp and email colleagues around the world, MSN my children in other continents, and Facebook and blog to all who are interested. Almost instant, almost ubiquitous and almost free communication. My 1975 self would see this as utopian.

BUT this increased capacity to communicate also increases our access to information, which increases our (own estimates of our) knowledge. Greater perceived certainty is a dangerous thing. It leads to simplistic black and white thinking. This combined with our increased capacity to communicate, leading to fads (on a global scale like the latest TV sensation or publishing blockbuster, or locally like the way biblical studies bloggers have rashes of posts about the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon), produces an uncertain, unstable world.

That's dangerous as well as exciting. An uncertain world in which humans are more "certain" scares me. Certainty is the enemy of truth, truth comes from living with ambiguity, ambiguation is the servant of truth.

See also: John's History versus Myth: A True False Dichotomy and my Internet fast: The degradation of predictability - and knowledge.

So, my friends: Ambiguate all you can! Disrupt certainty :)

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Saturday, January 16, 2010
  Internet fast: The degradation of predictability - and knowledge
Interdependence Tree photo by House Of Sims
Nassim N. Taleb, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering, NYU-Poly, for his contribution [to the online symposium see also my summary of Hillis' post for context] has argued that greater information produces greater confidence, and in this post adds that since the Internet does not merely increase our access to information but also our interdependence (see the previous post). Interdependence increases fads (he uses both Harry Potter and the globalisation of runs on banks as examples). "Such world", he writes, "is more "complex", more moody, much less predictable."

His conclusion is practical and personal, in an attempt to regain wisdom like that shown by the ancients and people from the pre-Internet past, he is enjoying an Internet fast:
I am not entirely deprived of the Internet; this is just a severe diet, with strict rationing. True, technologies are the greatest things in the world, but they have way too monstrous side effects — and ones rarely seen ahead of time. And since spending time in the silence of my library, with little informational pollution, I can feel harmony with my genes; I feel I am growing again.

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  Snippets on how the Internet is changing us
There is a brilliant collection of short essays at Edge, edited by Jonn Brockman in which several digerati reflect on how "the Internet" [a term the first contributor, computer scientist, W. Daniel Hillis notes is not unproblematic] is changing us. They are all good, but here are my highlighted snippets.

Hillis suggests print enabled "the enlightenment" the Internet enables the "entanglement". In the enlightenment we became independent, in the entanglement we are becoming interdependent:
In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don't bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.

He illustrates this discussing Internet Time Protocol the system that allows software to know what time/date it is now, so saving humans from needing to enter the time and date on bootup. The system depends on multiple networked devices, and few if any programmers understand it, we all use it. We are interconnecting not only when we are aware of it, but also and particularly when we are not.

One item only from Hans Ulrich Obrist's (Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London) partial and multiple alphabet of an answer:
D is for Doubt
A certain unreliability of technical and material information on the Internet brings us to the notion of doubt. I feel that doubt has become more pervasive. The artist Carsten Höller has invented the Laboratory of Doubt, which is opposed to mere representation. As he has told me, 'Doubt and perplexity ... are unsightly states of mind we'd rather keep under lock and key because we associate them with uneasiness, with a failure of values'. Höller's credo is not to do; not to intervene. To exist is to do and not to do is a way of doing. 'Doubt is alive; it paralyzes certainty.' (Carsten Höller)
Yes! Now, can we encourage students to begin to understand this?

The ever stimulating Clay Shirky, Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher, provoked me most with this Contrarian gem:
Rabbi Avrohom Osdoba (photo by goldberg)
It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.
This is the lesson Big Music is beginning to learn, the moving image industry has begun to face, that is freaking the publishers, but will change higher education beyond belief (one day, soon?). [See my Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as Recapitulation especially the first section "Return of the Rabbi" 115-121.]

And, I am only about half-way through the articles :) What a cornucopia of stimulating thinking!

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Friday, January 15, 2010
  Google, politics and diplomacy
Commenting on my "Has Google gained a conscience?" post below Bill said:
Timing is so critical. I suspect it's a good thing that Google waited as long as it did to make this a line in the sand. The Chineese people are more likely to notice, now.
This is a really interesting comment, and even more striking are the thoughts it provokes. For Bill is likely spot on. If enough people in China have become Google-dependent, especially families of people with influence, then this new hard line of Google's could be effective.
Image from La Gaceta
If it is, it could also be the point from which future historians date the beginning of the state of Google, Google's definitive entry into politics and diplomacy. Already de facto if not de jure Google controls a huge proportion of the global access to information. It also wields significant economic power, if it adds to that an active use of its "hearts and minds" power Google has the potential to significantly impact global politics and diplomacy. For many years people have worried about the monetary "clout" of large corporations (though these worries may be due more to miscalculations than reality), perhaps though the information barons pose the real threat to democracy, as well as or after the threat they pose to tyranny.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010
  Has Google gained a conscience?
Tank Man — This famous photo, taken on 5 June 1989 by photographer Jeff Widener, shows the PLA's advancing tanks halting for an unknown man near Tiananmen Square.
A while back lots of people complained when Google caved in to Chinese pressure and began systematic censoring of political information on (the example most often used was image searches for "Tianamen Square" which allover the world, except in China, showed most prominently a lonely activist facing down a tank - in China only innocuous tourist photos.

At last thanks to "someone" attempting to unearth information (in part from their Gmail accounts) about Chinese political activists Google has got a conscience and is changing its policy. As a result the Google blog says:
We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.
A moderately large step for a corporation, a giant leap for humanity!

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Monday, January 11, 2010
J.K. Gayle at Aristotle's Feminist Subject has a brilliant (shining, sparkling, sharply cut) post the Prostitute... or probably "the Prostitute, Post-Pentateuch Persuasion, and Play in Bible Translation". I won't spoil it by sumarising, or ruin it by excerpting (much ;) but I do want to encourage you to read it. I hope that people who read this blog will really enjoy the post in full, as I am.

To encourage you I will just offer this small gem: the post talks much of wordplay:
By "wordplay," I mean both playfulness with words and wiggleroom in their interpretation.
With that sentence in the opening of the first full section I am hooked.  But it is only a detail, so DO read the post in full, please :)

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Sunday, January 10, 2010
  The Earliest Hebrew Inscription (so far)
Some 18 months back the excavators of Khirbet Qeiyafa near the Elah valley in the Judean Shephelah announced the discovery of an ostracon (potsherd) with an inscription they believed to be in Hebrew. The ostracon was dated from its context to the 10th Century BCE, the time many people would date the United Monarchy of David and Solomon. At the time photos were published that did not really allow one to read the inscription and only a few words had been tentatively deciphered.

Now a text and English translation have been published (at least informally in the news media). Since this publication is NOT scholarly but promotional, and since no other scholars have had access to either the text or to good photographs this text must be treated with some caution!

Credit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa Usage Restrictions: This image may only be used with the given credit.

However, if Prof. Galil's reading of the text is even approximately correct this discovery is very important. He reads (and translated) the text like this:
1' you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2' Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3' [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4' the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5' Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
If this is roughly correct, while it does not (despite the quoted claims in the press article) either contain ideas that were "unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society" and alone it certainly cannot support Prof. Galil's claim that:
It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.
But it might help support the likelihood that biblical accounts of Daviod and Solomon are not entirely fictional, and cause significant increase in estimates of the likelihood that significant texts could have been composed and written in Hebrew at that time. And, unless closer examination shows that it was not written in Hebrew, it IS the earliest evidence for Hebrew writing so far!

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