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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm in training this week, which is why posting is so slow. Here's links.

* Hell is other people: A survey from the University of Georgia reports that students find bias and intolerance in their peers, not in their professors.

* I had a profile of a local academic couple in the Indy this week, NCSU's Marsha and Devin Orgeron, who have somehow managed to navigate horrible academic process after horrible academic process, together and simultaneously, without murdering each other.

* What things could one person do now to best progress human civilization in the long term (ie, millions of years)? The answer is "nothing," of course, but even if it weren't "nothing" it wouldn't have anything to do with having kids and/or raising them right.

* Wired profile of Neal Stephenson and his new book, Anathem.

Set on a planet called Arbe (pronounced "arb"), Anathem documents a civilization split between two cultures: an indulgent Saecular general population (hooked on casinos, shopping in megastores, trashing the environment—sound familiar?) and the super-educated cohort known as the avaunt, or "auts," who live a monastic existence defined by intellectual activity and circumscribed rituals. Freed from the pressures of pedestrian life, the avaunt view time differently. Their society—the "mathic" world—is clustered in walled-off areas known as concents built around giant clocks designed to last for centuries. The avaunt are separated into four groups, distinguished by the amount of time they are isolated from the outside world and each other. Unarians stay inside the wall for a year. Decenarians can venture outside only once a decade. Centenarians are locked in for a hundred years, and Millennarians—long-lifespanners who are endowed with Yoda-esque wisdom—emerge only in years ending in triple zeros. Stephenson centers his narrative around a crisis that jars this system—a crisis that allows him to introduce action scenes worthy of Buck Rogers and even a bit of martial arts. It's a rather complicated setup; fortunately, there's a detailed timeline and 20-page glossary to help the reader decode things.

...In a sense, the length of Anathem, as well as its challenges to the reader, are part of its theme. Despite the monastic trappings of the clock-tenders, the avaunt are not driven by faith. What binds them is a commitment to logic and rationality. The robes and rituals, Stephenson says, are not religion but "their way of glorifying and expressing respect for ideas and thinkers that are important to them." Outside the walls ("extramuros," as the term goes—by the time you're a couple of hundred pages in, this language thing begins to fall in place), people zip around in an ADD haze of fast-food joints, persistent gadgets (instead of CrackBerry, they are addicted to handheld "jeejahs"), and evangelical religion. Stephenson sees a parallel to the George W. Bush-era wars between science and religion, made possible because the general population is either indifferent or hostile to extended rational thought. "I could never get that idea, the notion that society in general is becoming aliterate, out of my head," he says. "People who write books, people who work in universities, who work on big projects for a long time, are on a diverging course from the rest of society. Slowly, the two cultures just get further and further apart."
* Howard Zinn for the high school classroom.

* And Joshuah Bearman has more on kill screens and arcade games.