Thursday, October 05, 2006

Conspiracy theories explained.

Conspiracy theorists allege that the events of 9/11 are not adequately explained by the "official story" fingering Osama bin Laden and his network as the culprits. What really needs explaining, though, is not 9/11, but the existence of such conspiracy theorists themselves, whose by now well-known speculations about what "really happened" that day are - not to put too fine a point on it - so mind-numbingly stupid that it is mystifying how anyone with a functioning cerebrum could take them seriously even for a moment.
Hmmm... I wonder how he really feels. This lead (lede) paragraph comes from Edward Feser, writing at TCS Daily on conspiracy theories.

Be sure to read the whole thing, and follow the links, one of which got me to James Franklin, "The Renaissance Myth"--an interesting look at the Middle Ages and the origins of the Renaissance idea, which he obviously thinks is a myth, at least in its most popular form. In his conclusion, Franklin, an Australian mathematician, wonders why historians have continued to buy into that myth:

No psychological insight is needed to guess Petrarch's motives in pretending that a thousand years of darkness had ended with himself. But there is something of a puzzle as to why later historians continued to accept the exaggerated account the Renaissance gave of itself. A few, especially the Encyclopedists of eighteenth-century France, had ideological motives, since they wanted to condemn the churches of their own time by attributing to them the alleged obscurantism of the Middle Ages. Something similar holds for Michelet's wish to represent the Renaissance world view as a forerunner of the opinions of the liberal political faction to which he adhered. But most historians have not had any particular reason for agreeing with any of this. Speculations on what may have been common to most historians over a period of centuries cannot be certain, but there are a few things it seems fair to assert. The writers who gave us our view of the past, from the authors of massive Histoires de France to the average text book hacks, were basically not interested in the history of ideas. In most cases, their primary concerns were political, military and economic. On opening an average history of the Renaissance, we can expect to find keen debate on whether Lorenzo de Medici's Milanese policy was well advised or not. But we can rely on being assured without argument that his court was brilliant. Courts of successful princes are always brilliant. And brilliant courts are of necessity adorned by great poets and profound philosophers. The training of historians, and their natural bent, fit them to evaluate politics and literature better than science and philosophy. For success in the field of history, and especially popular history, depends more on the humanistic arts of rhetoric and grammar than on scientific and logical skills. Good men, most historians, but innumerate. Since in addition science, mathematics and medieval philosophy are of their nature harder to understand than Renaissance belles lettres and narrative painting, it would be surprising if the tradition of history did not praise the Renaissance.

We, though, are at liberty to be more sceptical.
Gosh. I'd be the last to dispute his claim about historians not being great at science and math. Still, this seems a bit gratuitous. Not to get into a pissing contest here, but I haven't run into too many mathmaticians and scientists with especially strong knowledge or understanding of intellectual development over time, especially as it relates to political culture and philosophy. Franklin might want to dismiss language and arts as "rhetoric and grammar," but that serves only to show the limitations of scientific and logical skills in understanding history. How about a combination? Is that such a strange idea?

Interesting how links are made. The Franklin article above originally appeared in Quadrant Magazine, which was a new title to me. So I looked it up and discovered that it is now a fifty year old Australian journal of literature and ideas. The latest edition has available online an article by Ross Terrill called "Mao's Battle with Freedom." (Terrill is no Mao apologist, but he tries to bring a little balance to the discussion--which I think is a mistake, but read his very good article anyway.)

And that's how I bounce around the internet.

In entertainment news. The Departed, Martin Scorsese's new Boston Irish gang pic (as opposed to his old New York Irish gang pic) is getting great reviews--95% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. You know what that means? I'm going to think really hard about seeing it in the theaters. I might even look up showtimes and ask my neighbor Jim if he wants to go. Then I'll remember that I have two young kids, Jim will remember that he has an infant daughter, and we'll both have other things going on--usually involving work around the house. I might still go, but the odds are 50-50 at best.

That's alright, I thoroughly enjoy working around the house, and I'm rather fond of the kids, too. But there was a time when I wouldn't miss seeing any reasonably well-reviewed big budget movie in the theater, let alone a show like The Departed. Now I'm happy if I can stay awake past 9:30 to watch a third episode of Battlestar Galactica on DVD.

[ALERT: Cheesiest transition ever.]

Speaking of... season 3 of Battlestar Galactica begins tonight on the SciFi Network. I don't know how to put this gently, so here goes: if you watch television at all, and do not watch this show, you are an idiot. It is the best show on television. It will change your life. It will align the planets and bring peace and prosperity to all humanity, just like Bill and Ted's music.

I understand the hesitation in getting involved in the show. I'm with you. Science fiction has been tarnished by Star Trek and Star Trek fandom. Sci-fi and fantasy fans are ridiculous with their dressing up as characters and laying out diagrams of ships and all that. Galaxy Quest nailed it perfectly, and so did the Entourage episode where the gang goes to Comic-Con and Johnny Drama is a living legend for his role on the fictional Viking Quest. I liked Star Trek, but the campiness of those shows, the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5, and almost everything else on this list, make it awfully tough to take science fiction seriously.

But Battlestar Galactica is a serious show that just happens to be set in a science fiction setting. It is much more political, psychological, religious, and philosophical than science fiction-y. There are no transporters or lasers or phasers or proton torpedos. The ship never comes up on a large alien life form, gets threatened, and then comes up with a cool technological solution to get around the alien. In fact, there are no aliens at all on the show.

Here is the basic premise: All humans began on a single planet, but they left that planet and colonized 12 planets (and maybe a thirteenth called Earth, but that is a legend on the show). The humans created robots with artificial intelligence, and the robots rebelled, starting a war. A peace was struck, and the robots disappeared--until the start of the show, when they returned, this time with models that look exactly like humans, and launched a massive nucleur attack on all 12 planets that killed 20 billion people.

Approximately 50,000 humans survived the attack, mostly because they were in ships away from the planet, and they came together in a fleet led by the Battlestar Galactica (which is basically like a giant aircraft carrier and battleship combined). The commander of the Galactica is played by Edward James Olmos. The only political leader of the twelve colonies to survive was the secretary of education, and she became the president. She is played by Mary McDonnell (the white woman from Dances With Wolves). The fleet is running from the robots and looking for a new home, perhaps Earth.

It gets extremely complex from there, but if you haven't watched it you can still catch up. Go to the Battlestar Galactica webpage. The geniuses who produce the show have created a webpage that is a primer for the show, including a 44 minute online episode called "The Story So Far" (which is also on SciFi at 5:00 PM Eastern today).

Truth is, if I had to choose between the new season of Battlestar Galactica and The Departed, it's not even a competition. I'll be at home at 8:00 Central time, glued to the TV. You should be, too.

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