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Aw, the Humanity

July 25, 2010

The flip-side of the coin of the last blog post, wherein I encourage the reader to wallow in systemic American ignorance, is that from time to time there are some truly entertaining and heartening displays of humanity that are often the byproduct of allowing ourselves to be distracted from things that have more “important” implications.

For example, you’ve got people who compile lists of unfortunate domain names, like:

Similarly, people will happily recognize and pass along pithy cleverness, or at least confuse it for self-contradiction and irony:

There are people with a knack for design who will help you visualize information about humanity’s raw creative potential in an elegant way (of course this visualization would have been useful when I was writing about Cognitive Surplus):

And people will an eye for design can generate cleverness in design itself, using minimal tools, such as the compendium of typesetter’s mustaches, even without any motivation or reward other than mutual entertainment, adulation, and love.

And cool design (e.g., imagination) can inspire more practical creators (e.g., scientists) to turn what was once pure fantasy into reality (e.g., invisibility cloak):

They describe developing a nonmetallic cloak that uses identical glass resonators made of chalcogenide glass, a type of dielectric material (one that does not conduct electricity). In computer simulations, the cloak made objects hit by infrared waves — approximately one micron or one-millionth of a meter long — disappear from view.

Earlier attempts by other researchers used metal rings and wires. “Ours is the first to do the cloaking of cylindrical objects with glass,” Semouchkina said.

Her invisibility cloak uses metamaterials, which are artificial materials having properties that do not exist in nature, made of tiny glass resonators arranged in a concentric pattern in the shape of a cylinder. The “spokes” of the concentric configuration produce the magnetic resonance required to bend light waves around an object, making it invisible.

But if it’s more despair at the status of civilization you’re looking for (perhaps with a schadenfreude approach), there is no shortage of human stupidity, of which you can find several humorously curated collections on the internet.  Take, for example, these one star reviews of classic novels on Amazon.com.  E.g., some of my favorites:

Gone With the Wind (1936)
Author: Margaret Mitchell
“Well, it’s a girl’s world. The world of Gloria Steinem and the popular feminism, as distilled on TV (including CBC shows, not all fundamentalist Hollywood garbage) of my youth is GONE. Now the girls run the show. You’re not allowed to call them sluts. And it’s impossible to call them virgins. They’re all doing Rhett Butler. So what are they? Idiots… Hope you like the Gangstas. It’s what you deserve.”

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Author: John Steinbeck
“While the story did have a great moral to go along with it, it was about dirt! Dirt and migrating. Dirt and migrating and more dirt.”

The Great Gatsby (1925)
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
“It grieves me deeply that we Americans should take as our classic a book that is no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops.”

Lord of the Flies (1955)
Author: William Golding
“I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!! It is incredibly boring and disgusting. I was very much disturbed when I found young children killing each other. I think that anyone with a conscience would agree with me.”

The Lord of the Rings (1954)
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

1984 (1948)
Author: George Orwell
“Don’t listen to anyone who tries to distinguish between “serious” works of literature like this one and allegedly “lesser” novels. The distinction is entirely illusory, because no novels are “better” than any others, and the concept of a “great novel” is an intellectual hoax. This book isn’t as good as Harry Potter in MY opinion, and no one can refute me. Tastes are relative!”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Author: Harper Lee
“I don’t see why this book is so fabulous. I would give it a zero. I find no point in writing a book about segregation, there’s no way of making it into an enjoyable book. And yes I am totally against segregation.”

Along those lines, it is not too difficult to gain from the ignorance of our countrymen, if in no other way than in that Hegelian dialectical sense.  In particular, we can learn from the mistakes of others by extracting and condensing the received wisdom and lessons into algorithms and machine functions.  Whereas humans are fallible and easily cowed by political pressure or personal interests at stake, those distillations of ideas are capable of dispassionately dispensing and applying that wisdom without fear of censorship.  See, e.g., Facebook’s algorithm that deleted Sarah Palin’s post because of its inflammatory and racist content.  I hope that humans learn to rise to acting like humans, but if not, I for one welcome our machine overlords!

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