In a 1969 television interview, David Frost asked, "Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?", to which Asimov replied, "Whose?"
A similar question can be sometimes be posed to those whose religious inclinations are more mystical than theistic. From Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything:
And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinity—a total embrace of the entire Kosmos—a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It's at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?Were Mr. Wilber here, I'd ask: which infinity?
The question is not as beside the point as it may sound. Infinity as a metaphor for everything (or for God) goes back to when no one had a handle on infinity, and from when space seemed Euclidean and infinite. The metaphor deserves to be reconsidered on both counts.
Cantor showed how infinity is not just shorthand for an unending process but is also a kind of number which, remarkably, comes in varieties. Cantor demystified infinity to a considerable extent.
Space is not Euclidean and may well not be infinite. Time might not be infinite either, which strikes me as sensible in light of how Einstein showed space and time to be inseparable.
You could say that I'm being pedantic, that infinity the metaphor isn't infinity the number. I'd still lobby for careful phrasing, especially when the subject matter is difficult to put into words in the first place.
In any case, Ken Wilber seems to like infinity more than zero. Materialism, he suggests, tells us life is "signifying absolutely nothing". But what's wrong with that?
I rather like nothing. When I hear zero, I don't think of barrenness but rather of a metaphor for foundation. And I see zero as a symbol for fairness, akin to the blindfold on Lady Justice.
I don't see "signifying nothing" (I prefer the adverb-free original) as a defect. Life is its own reward. For 399 consecutive months from 1958 to 1992, Isaac Asimov wrote essays on science for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, also collected and published in book form (usually 17 essays to a book). Reading Asimov gave me a head start on several science and math topics before I encountered them in school.
Upon making friends with a boy who moved into my neighborhood around 1970, I found that his favorite science author was also Isaac Asimov—which at the time struck me as a coïncidence but in retrospect seems almost inevitable because who else was writing so many good books on science that even kids could read.
Last night, I read the first few essays from Asimov's book The Left Hand of the Electron. After explaining what parity means in physics and where it applies and where it doesn't, Asimov made an analogy:
You might ask, of course, why parity should be conserved in some interactions and not in others—and might not be satisfied with the answer "Because that's the way the universe is."That's from the essay "Odds and Evens", first published in 1971. Asimov could have found some other example; standing up for homosexuality went against the grain at the time. But Asimov didn't flinch. He said what he felt in the clear, direct language that was his specialty. Credit is also due to the editors of F&SF, who gave Asimov carte blanche to write whatever he wanted. From the US Patent and Trademark Office's refusal of a Norwegian company's request to register the trademark Comfyballs, saying "the mark is immoral or scandalous" and thus prohibited under 15 U.S.C. §1052(a):
As indicated in the applicant's Response to the Office Action dated March 6, 2014, the applicant's intended use of the term, "balls," is limited to the meaning "testicles." Thus, in the context of the applicant's goods, the mark, "COMPFYBALLS," [sic] means only one thing -- that a man's testicles, or "balls," will be comfortable in the applicant's undergarments. Thus, the applicant's use of the term is clearly limited to the vulgar meaning as shown in the dictionaries. The mark does not create a double entendre or other idiomatic expression. It is a straightforward use of the word "balls" instead of testicles. When used in this way, the word, "balls" has an offensive meaning.All italics mine.
From the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:
President Reagan's message to the US Senate, May 20, 1988:
The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.The Convention was ratified by the US Senate on 21 October 1994.
From commentary today by Markus Feldenkirchen, Washington correspondent for Der Spiegel (my translation):
... Countries like Russia, China, or Iran, which are tired of being lectured by the West about human rights and democracy, will use today's report to show the world there is no difference between their regimes and the West's leading power.That reminds me of the tone of a George Harrison lyric I am wont to quote at times like this: With every mistake, we must surely be learning.
The USA's Tweedledee and Tweedledum Parties share blame—if not equally—for how the USA betrayed the principles embodied in the UN Convention Against Torture. Obama ordered an end to torture but that's not enough. His refusal to hold any war criminals to account (in the interest of "looking forward rather than backward") makes the whole mess partly his legacy now too.
Yet this episode highlights a clear difference: the GOP didn't want this report published. It remains by far the more pro-torture party. The first computer I wrote programs for had 16384 bytes of RAM (well, core memory). One learned to write compact code.
Conciseness is still a virtue (not that you'd know it from the size of many programs we use nowadays). Concise code can be good for much the same reasons we like concise prose: it's readable and less error‑prone.
But there's more to life than writing readable code. Programmers also code for sport, at times throwing readability to the wind for the sake of extreme conciseness and/or bizarreness of expression. I stand in awe at some of the winning IOCCC entries.
Consider the problem of determining the day of the week from month/day/year. People have been devising methods for this calculation for longer than there have been electronic computers; Zeller's congruence is a concise day-of-the-week algorithm from the nineteenth century.
Expressing the 30-days-hath-September rules is the fun part. Zeller's congruence does this concisely indeed, a neat trick until you see that it entails considering January and February as months 13 and 14 of the previous year. By the time you've coded that in a programming language you've negated all the conciseness in the method.
More straightforward (if less compact) day-of-the-week code would work just fine. Some road signs bear matter-of-fact statements, e.g. BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD SURFACE.
The pic at right shows one of the more abstract (not to mention subjective) assertions I've seen expressed on a road sign. I heard about it from the Wikipedia page for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which says the life-is-worth-living signage is on the eastbound approach.
Why not also on the westbound? Is it because in that direction, anyone persuaded to make it all the way across is upon landfall subject to the highest bridge toll in the USA, arguably less than a warm gesture of support? Or are Brooklynites less disgruntled than Staten Islanders? Or do they never jump off the Verrazano when the Brooklyn Bridge is so historic and convenient?
Cheap humor aside, I just want to say the Verrazano turned 50 this year and it's a nice bridge. I'm old enough to remember Fisher Radio, a New York manufacturer of high-quality audio equipment in the 1950s and '60s. The company's founder, Avery Fisher, had a reputation for being an unassuming man. Even after the company had grown to a considerable size, Mr. Fisher might be the one to answer the phone if you called the factory. Fisher was an amateur violinist and was drawn to the hi-fi business by his love of music.
In 1973, Fisher donated $10.5 million toward the renovation of New York's Philharmonic Hall, since known as Avery Fisher Hall. From a New York Times article later that year about naming facilities after benefactors:
... if one is to believe development directors, the euphemistic title that fundraisers usually bear, ... no donor ever actually asks to have his gift commemorated in this way.But despite Fisher's reputation for modesty, the deal he agreed to called for his name to be on the hall in perpetuity. Problem is, the building needs another expensive renovation and renaming rights wouldn't hurt in attracting a new benefactor. Twelve years ago, Avery Fisher's heirs threatened legal action if the hall were to be renamed. But that was then, this is now, and the Fisher family has decided to accept $15 million to forget about that in perpetuity thing. Avery Fisher could not be reached for comment.
Time: it doesn't just heal all wounds, it also voids all contracts. Readers may recall that Deep Springs College, a tiny but fine institution of higher learning in my county, has been wanting to amend the Deed of Trust that established it as accepting only male students. A court agreed last month. If the ruling survives a likely appeal, one word (highlighted) is to be changed in this paragraph from the Deed:
1. The purpose for which the property hereby conveyed and the rents, income, profits, and proceeds thereof, shall be used by said trustees is to provide for and carry on educational work in the State of California similar to and in development of the work already inaugurated by grantor at Deep Springs in Inyo County, California, but in such manner and form and at such place or places within said state as said trustees in good conscience and the exercise of their best judgment may determine, for the education of promising young men people, selected by said trustees or as they may prescribe, in a manner emphasizing the need and opportunity for unselfish service in uplifting mankind from materialism to idealism, to a life in harmony with the Creator, in the conduct of which educational work democratic self government by the students themselves shall be a feature as is now the case at said Deep Springs, and which work shall be carried on not for profit but solely for the advancement of the purpose hereinabove mentioned.The judge bought the argument that the all-male-ness of the student body was adversely affecting the operation of the college in ways that the college's founder might not have anticipated almost 100 years ago. "The Court finds that continuation of the Trust under its terms would substantially impair the accomplishment of the purposes of the Trust."
The ruling cites California Probate Code §15403(b) and §15409(a) as giving the court discretion to make this change.
The judge found that deleterious effects of a single-sex student body included
In reading the ruling, I was struck by how much the judge tried to understand what kind of man Deep Springs' founder L. L. Nunn was. He noted (correctly) that Nunn was an innovator and a pioneer. He quoted from a letter Nunn wrote in 1924 that shows his understanding that the college had to be adaptable and yet also his insistence on its principles:
It is certainly true that Deep Springs has worked very imperfectly. I have never been satisfied with it. And I hope that the Trustees never will be. But the fundamental principles practised at the institution are what I wish to perpetuate. I shall keep driving home to you gentlemen, even if it takes my dying breath, that the purpose of Deep Springs is the education of promising young men in a manner emphasizing the need and opportunity for unselfish service and uplifting mankind from materialism to idealism, to a life in harmony with the Creator.The court noted how Deep Springs has already changed: "... the emphasis on 'life in harmony with the Creator' has not been incorporated explicitly in the curriculum or policies or traditions practiced at Deep Springs for decades, presumably without destroying the character of the institution." Religious instruction was a significant part of the curriculum in early years, something I didn't know before reading this ruling.
That points out a potential double standard to avoid. Were I to say the college should remain all-male in keeping with the founder's expressed intent, by the same token it should also be frankly religious. If you know me, you know I'm all for deëemphasizing materialism—yet I consider the college's turn toward secularity to be progress. The opposite of materialism is not necessarily theism.