Thursday, February 26, 2004

I've got a series of posts forthcoming (I am guessing we'll reach a fever pitch this afternoon during our usual classroom time), but first I'll pick up on the off-topic thread between AbHiyan and me. Justification (i.e., pretense): I'll use it to illustrate points about our online experiment and the readings for this week. But first the digression:

As part of our discussion of Godel, Newton, and Bertrand Russell (who's the real subtext here), AbHiyan says, "Newton's book was called Principia." In fact the full title of his book on gravitation and (Newtonian) mechanics is Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and it is traditionally shortened to either Principia Mathematica or just plain Principia.

AbHiyan also says (er, types), "I know what Godel is talking about, remember infinite regress I was talking about, the same thing!!!"

Godel, like any mathematician examing set theory, has much to say about infinity (his second biggest piece of work deals with the continuum hypothesis, which is all about infinity). His most important work and the one I mentioned to Abhiyan, however, demonstrates the inherent incompleteness of any internally consistent system of axioms. (He manages to illustrate his proof with reference to Martians trying to interpret a language of Earthlings.)

Since constructing such a system of axioms (to reduce all mathematics to logic) was Bertrand Russell's raison d'etre from the beginning of his career until 1931, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem basically made 98% of Russell's work to that time obsolete, metaphysically speaking. Russell continued to be a ridiculously prolific writer (he lived to be 97 and averaged something like 10,000 words PER DAY), but his raison d'etre after 1931 was mostly to be a political activist and philosophical popularizer.

When Russell realized his whole philosophical program was bunk, he didn't take the hint and evolve into a pragmatist (as had his former student Wittgenstein). He just shrugged and changed the subject. Add to that the fact that Russell was pure D-minus as a family man, and I just find it hard to like the guy.


Now if you don't respond to the name Ben or Abhiyan (or, reluctantly, Abiyan), the above was no doubt supremely annoying. And as Abhiyan said, "people if you do not follow the conversation try gaging us!!!"

The point here is that you pretty much can't gag us. Once Greg gave us permission to join this blog, we gained the ability to post pretty much whatever we want. I could if I wanted just go on about how disappointing the Boston Celtics are. Abhiyan could respond to my Godel/Russell comments at even greater length, taking our blog even further off topic. Greg could later remove our Godel/Russell posts, but maybe he's waiting until the end of the week to see the whole blog at once, and he won't see the problem until Abhiyan and I have ruined it. The rest of the class might well get totally pissed off and either tune out or respond by bombarding us with numerous expressions of annoyance. Because we have to deal with each other in class, there are limits to how bad that could get, but imagine if we never had to deal with each other face to face. There'd be nothing stopping us from degenerating into a nasty flame-war that would totally ruin the LIS810 blog.


This post is also an illustration of other points made by Smith in Chapter 4. First, messages online are far more subject to preservation than is the spoken word. For instance, from Abhiyan's post below, ("Newton's book was called Principia"), one might suppose I had disputed that at some point. What we had really disputed, though, was the name of Betrand Russell's titanic failure of a book that attempted to capture mathematics in a finite set of axioms. I said Russell's book was Principia Mathematica, and he expressed disbelief, suggesting I was confusing it with the book by Newton. If that part of our discussion happened online, I could point back to our words, prove it and say, "Ha!" Alas, all I've got to rely on is heresay (unless the secret police were bugging the sidewalk in front of Stillwaters at the time, and 20 years from now I accessed their records with a FOIA request).


This message also illustrates one of the theories cited to explain why people bother to offer their expertise in online communities, which I will call the "peacock syndrome." Most of the above is amazingly off-topic and, for most people, totally trivial. But since I could not resist the opportunity to, well, massage my ego, I went ahead and did it anyway. Since it wasn't offered by way of assistance, it will most likely backfire, provoking rolling eyes, causing me to be ostracized and the like, but, well...


Final point: this message also exemplifies a point made on p. 155, that there is a different sort of "communication edge" online (and hence I guess another sort of digital divide) because this sort of interaction is all about typing and reading. In face-to-face interactions I could be a total heel, have a savage speech impediment, be mortally afraid to leave my house or prefer to operate as a social recluse. But because this blog is all about reading and typing, my love of both means I approach a forum like this with a lot of enthusiasm, I will carefully read every other post, I will respond to questions in great detail, and my posts will go on and on, like, unfortunately, this one has.

Okay, no more long-winded messages, I swear.

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