October 2005

I had an argument with a couple of guys about the reliability of Wikipedia (see the links section). The following is a hastily written (and extemporaneous) defense of the big wiki:
Hey guys,

You are right, some articles in Wikipedia are unreliable and I should have looked more thoroughly before quoting one about the Skull and Bones because it is actually one of the unreliable ones. So I’m wrong and you are right. I apologize for inconsistency.
Separate from this stupidness on my part, I do think Wikipedia is a reliable source of information, because even “experts” in a given field are prone to the same human weaknesses as everyone else, namely, bias, and one would expect that with an effectively infinite number of editing capabilities, wikipedia would tend toward what is the average in a range of interpretations.
Also, there is little incentive for someone to go to the trouble to publish false information on the site, since they would know that it would likely be deleted very quickly. On the other hand, people who are sincerely interested in a particular subject (for example, entomology), would have a great incentive to share their unique knowledge in an unrestricted way.
While wikipedia is not a perfect source of information (and a completely worthless source of information about original research or current events), I think it is vastly more valuable than the Encyclopedia Britannica because of the democratic nature of the editing process. After all, who is capable of deciding what is worth publishing and what is not? In the information world, no one should be a semantic tyrant. The rapid nature of information exchange makes real democracy possible, at least in some realms of our lives. Why would we want to shy away from the very principals our society was founded on, but never quite achieved? Besides, wikipedia has an entire section devoted to self-criticism, which is impossible in a published work. Wikipedia belongs in the same class as operating systems like Unix, which have open source code. If either of you have doubts about the stability (leaving questions of “user friendliness” aside) of open source operating systems in comparison to a traditionally designed one like Windows, I encourage you to ask a representative of the Computer Science Department. A growing number of businesses and government organizations use Unix/Linux for their servers, not Windows because it is much more efficient, stable, and secure.
Yes, wikipedia is controversial, and yes it is not perfect, but neither is a democratic system of government…
Think it over and let me know your opinion(s)

While driving back to school from Roan Mountain, Tennessee, I was able to dig into a few gritty (think sclereids in pears) topics, while listening to Coldplay‘s cathartic and apocalyptic X&Y (here at W&L we have a famous apocalypse class). I found a couple of interesting blogs: one on culture with a Protestant skew, another deals with what might be described as “big picture socioeconomic technoenvironmental culture analysis”. I just call it “fun to read,” especially the part about Saving the World. Wrote a long email to Professor Brown about the relevance of hermeneutics to current culture wars. Foucault’s Pendulum has got me thinking like a nihilist (if every interpretation of a text is equally relevant, then there is no authoritative interpretation, and we might as well forget about finding any objective meaning in any text). Nevertheless, the following concept has made me question whether “purpose in life” and “epistemological objectivity” are mutually exclusive ideas:
Eco‘s characters partially enact literary theory, as they demonstrate the way that meaning is manufactured by consciousness, and how it may be impossible for any human reading to be without meaning. As in semiotics, it is possible that there is an order antecedent to even the consciously random and that any manufactured meaning is true or false only to the degree that it is believed.
Eco’s work illustrates the postmodernist literary theory concept of hypertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works and their interpretation. A woven fabric of cultural consciousness is imitated and, in fact, investigated.
Despite this disturbing thought (I abhor the ethical implications of a nihilist metaphysic, siding with Flannery O’Connor against Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat” mentality…this brings back memories of John Woodmansee’s excellent instruction in English at NCSSM), I have enjoyed contemplating the role of texts in the meaning of our lives. One physicist, Alan Sokal, seems to dismiss postmodernism as so much B.S., and his practical joke of a scientific paper is worth skimming, if nothing else for the amusement (commentary is available at Wikipedia). Oh, and who were the Cathars anyway (of course they were heretics…isn’t it interesting that orthodoxy cannot exist without concomitant heresy?)?
To add to all the mounting intellectual excitement, Cornel West is coming to W&L! I was suprised and disappointed not to find his name on this list!

Trade-offs between what is right and what keeps a person sane. If the whole world is corrupt and inconsistent, the pattern-seekers will endlessly be frustrated. I was very taken by the idea that Quantum Indeterminacy leaves room for God, due to the impossibility of a complete chain of causation (because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). University life is constraining and irritating. Being morally accountable to others who see me as a role model is a heavy way to live; almost a kind of eternal return, as suggested by Nietzsche and explored in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kundera), except the return is that one’s ideas are always reincarnated in othe lives of intellectual and spiritual progeny.
Additionally, I have an instinctive distrust of what is popular. Although this is probably a good way to keep up the governance, I like to think that my role is to always think in ways alternative to the ways prescribed by those with power. On the one hand, I do not accept the authority of secretive, elitist organizations (I just started reading Eco’s Il Pendolo di Foucault), but on the other I do not accept the authority of the masses of humanity in telling me how to live my life. Ultimately, only God is a trustworthy guide for learning how to live one’ s life.
An interesting Cabalist quotation: “When the Light of the Endless was drawn in the form of a straight line in the Void… it was not drawn and extended immediately downwards, indeed it extended slowly — that is to say, at first the Line of Light began to extend and at the very start of its extension in the secret of the Line it was drawn and shaped into a wheel, perfectly circular all around.
I continue to be fascinated with the concept of Global Citizenship (Internationalist Magazine, lying around campus). Samantha Stanley is working on a thesis about this. Additionally, I picked up a couple of new threads along the webs of adventures and bluegrass music. J. Michael Fay, the megatransect guy, and Steep Canyon Rangers.
So much to learn, yet so hard to study.
Oh, and don’t forget about the Flying Spaghetti Monster– a REAL alternative to Intelligent Design. See the first paragraph if you have trouble reconciling theism with evolutionary explanations for natural history.

The more time I spend around people, the more I am amazed at them. First, spending time with an old mentor who was in Iceland for a year. Then, actually going to my 8am physics class for the first time in a week. I had forgotten how special the morning is. Running and reminiscing about the past few years of Outing Club people. I like the feeling of the air burning my lungs while I run. People who I have mistreated treating me with generosity and respect. People I have ignored paying attention to me. I realize too infrequently how much God is at work all around. Indeed it is God shining through all the people that makes them beautiful and makes me love the people. Sitting around and philosophizing. A memorable line: “It’s like, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.” Metaphysical treasure-seeking and ethical sacrifices. Then, sharing burdens. sleep.

A conversation with an old classmate prompted me to contemplate the scale of human interaction, from individual to society levels. Seeing an exhibition of Maxine Payne‘s photography revealed a hidden corner of American Culture. I stumbled upon the song “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty, which is beautiful. It reminded me of the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smokey Mountains during April. Seems like a lifetime ago. In stark contrast is the question of whether one can remain a pacifist while enjoying games like Starcraft. The open source movements, and Data Havens (see http://locut.us/~ian/blog/ on Freenet). Censorship alive and well. How does this relate to the controversy over the teaching of evolution in public schools? Epistemologically, religion and science are non-overlapping, mutually exclusive, separate. This is because science can only operate on testable hypotheses and faith is by definition the belief in something that cannot be proven by a materialistic, mechanistic experiment. Is it more important for people to be taught what is factual or what they want to believe? Or what stabilizes society? Speaking of stability, social interaction as a college student is vastly different from what it will be in the larger world. This is a positive thought! More thoughts than time to write today…