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Posted by on Aug 11, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

Some thoughts… on weblogs and thinking outside of the box

Cross-posted to Random Fate.

When I was in graduate school, on an exam in my Classical Electrodynamics class, we were asked to re-derive the Maxwell Equations assuming that in addition to the existence of electric charge, magnetic charge also was present in the universe (aka magnetic monopoles, of the north and south variety, analogous to positive and negative charge, and magnetic monopoles definitely do NOT exist, by the way).

The details of the theory are not important, but the implications of what we were asked to do are. In straightforward terms, we were asked to derive the fundamental equations that would govern the behavior of electricity and magnetism assuming that the universe was a different place; not as it exists, but a “what if” scenario.

Then, using the newly derived “electric and magnetic charge” equations along with the Maxwell Equations, we were given a set of real-world measurements and asked to use the two different sets of equations to predict the electric charge density and magnetic charge density required to account for the data.

Needless to say, the “electric and magnetic charge” equations resulted in answers that either did not converge to a solution or gave results that were not reasonable.

This is a routine exercise both in the process of learning the “how” of science along with being a key part of the methodologies of experimental and theoretical research. Working out what would happen if some variation up to and including the opposite of the theory or hypothesis under consideration was valid allows us to figure out what the results of an experiment would be, and then helps when the data is taken and must be interpreted, because data rarely matches the model cleanly enough to yield no doubts.

Engineers refer to this as “thinking outside the box”.

At my weblog Random Fate, I put categories on all my posts, displayed prominently above the post title on both the main page and the individual entry pages. While I readily confess to having the traditional tendencies of any technologist to be anal retentive, I categorize so prominently for a reason beyond any need I might have for order and classification.

The categories of the posts are intended to be an indication of what I am trying to communicate. Opinion is not intended to be balanced and is therefore publicly acknowledged as “opinion“. When I write something I label as commentary, I strive to be relatively balanced, as evenhanded as any human can be.

In posts under the heading Patterns in the White Noise I am trying to go beyond the short-term, ADD nature of both weblogs and the so-called MainStream Media (MSM) to find broader patterns that may be of interest or concern.

When I categorize a post as some thoughts… I am in effect “thinking out loud”, trying out thoughts that may be well outside of my opinions and beliefs, trying the “what if” scenario, working out the math to see if the results conform with reality.

Recently, I wrote a post that briefly mentioned the bombing of Hiroshima by the United States near the end of World War II. I was trying to illustrate the limitations of using old thought-models to understand the current world, in other words using limited theories to explain data that went beyond the limitations, hence the categorization and title of the post “Some thoughts …on using Newtonian Physics in an Einsteinian universe“.

My brief mentioning of the bombing of Hiroshima was quoted completely out of context by someone whom I did not think would try to score cheap political points by engaging in such egregious distortions. I am not linking to the offending post because I am not interested in starting a pointless pissing match. Instead, I am trying to illustrate what I see as a grave drawback and potential problem relating to the interaction of weblogs and politics.

What I wrote, in the best context that can be provided without requiring a reading of the entire work, was:

Linear thinking in a complex, multifaceted, nonlinear world is simple-minded at best, and can lead to catastrophe.

Yet, most thinking on both the left and right in America is still linear, us-versus-them, whether “them” consists of the political opposition or “the terrorists”, whatever that nebulous term really means.

For in the end, what does “terrorism” mean? In these days when we are about to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first use of an atomic weapon in warfare, and where we recently commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps created in Europe by the fascist regimes led by Nazi Germany the question has not been fully answered, and not the least because of the tactics used by the victors of six decades past.

Germany set up a deliberate mass-murder holocaust directed against a group because of their religion, and Japan practiced genocidal warfare on a scale still not fully recognized in the West. Both Germany and Japan were defeated by the United States and allies using tactics that today would be called “terrorist” by the bombing of cities in nominal aims of disrupting production of vital war materiel in campaigns that by even the standards of the day were indiscriminate. The fires of Dresden and Tokyo stand in accusation of the terrorist aspect of the assaults.

These tactics are defended as what was necessary to defeat evil.

In these days of the Global War on Terror, who has the privilege of defining what is “evil” so that terrorist tactics can be used to defeat it?

If “evil” is that which seeks to destroy your culture and way of life, then can we truly call the Islamofascists “evil” when in their eyes the West, led by the United States, is destroying what they believe to be the basis of Islamic culture and way of life, and they use terrorist tactics to defeat what they perceive as “evil”?

“Evil” and “good”, the two sides of the edgeless coin of bipolar thinking.

One side or the other, impossible for the coin to land on a nonexistent edge that might bridge between the two sides.

I was attempting to turn the “War on Terror” rhetoric on its head in an effort to find out if there was a non-obvious way to end or at least reduce the threat posed by the Islamofascist terrorist organizations.

I was rewarded by an out of context citation that referred to my discussion of the Hiroshima bomb as “someone in the moral equivalence industry” trying “to argue that the dropping of the atomic bomb was an act of terrorism.”

I was very angered by this distortion, and unfortunately I reacted in a way that does not reflect well upon me, much to my regret.

In addition to leaving some rather heated comments to the post that referenced my words far out of context, I put up on Random Fate the following quote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

   -F. Scott Fitzgerald

I still believe in the truth behind that statement, but the insult towards the person I perceived had offended me that I included in the accompanying text only added fuel to a pointless fire.

As we all learn the hard way, however, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.

In the end, it is the hardest lesson in life, what is done is done and cannot be recalled.

Yet in of itself, the incident shows the limitations of our ADD attitudes as we are constructing them in this brave new world of weblogs.

Attempting to “think outside the box” by presenting as rational what is apparently “unthinkable” to some results in cherry-picking of passages out of context to prove a point that has nothing to do with the original context.

Striving to understand instead of simply react seemingly results in more misunderstanding than illumination if the thoughts are expressed aloud.

Expecting people to be willing to make the intellectual effort to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, especially on topics close to their heart, is unrealistic.

The final conclusion: Assertions that the advent of weblogs encourages a more widespread “discussion” that is more “balanced” than that displayed by the much-derided MSM is a will o’ the wisp that if followed will indeed lead us astray.

We have the same blatant and subtle partisan distortions, the same out of context quoting, the same cherry-picking of events and data; the only difference is it is now being done by people who are NOT being paid to do so.

This is progress?

Until more people are willing to put in the skull-sweat to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function, we will grow more and more unable to cope with the complexities of the world.

As the phrase I used to create the title of my post that was selectively, distortedly quoted said, “We must stop using Newtonian Physics in our Einsteinian universe.”

If you insist on adhering to the old models, cherry-picking your data, selectively quoting when it gives your “side” an ephemeral advantage, whatever the Hell “advantage” means today, go elsewhere and do not bother to read what I post here at The Moderate Voice nor at Random Fate, for the work I put into these writings is not for you.

If you are willing to look at my arguments as a whole, not focusing on what offends your sensibilities but instead examining why you are offended, then please, read on, comment, argue even, but do NOT pick pieces to assault as if each piece represents the whole of my beliefs. If you do so, you only reveal your own small-mindedness.

The small-minded may well be the death of the grand ideals that are the foundation of the United States.