The Long View 2004-09-05: My Enthusiasms Prosper

John's enthusiasm for alternative history is arguably going better than spelling reform.

The kind of perfectly pleasant people who have no interest in religion John mentions near the end make me thing of Kipling, who described himself as a Christian God-fearing atheist.

My Enthusiasms Prosper

Lingva Prismo is a language-related site that is hosted by the German subsidiary of a Swedish PR firm. If you are interested in Esperanto, this might be a good place to start. I mention it here because this month's topic for discussion in the forum is the merits and demerits of spelling reform, one of my own pet projects.

For Germans, this is not the exotic subject it is for English-speakers. German recently implemented a reform that apparently pleased nobody. Compared to English, of course, German spelling is a snap, precisely because the orthography has been systematically reformed several times in the past. (The same is true of almost all European languages.) However, the design and introduction of the most recent German reform seems to have created a case study in how to do it badly. Such misadventures are not without precedent, even in English.

Is a successful reform ever going to happen in English? Yes, eventually. Resistance is futile.

* * *

Speaking of alien projects, everyone with any interest in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was fixated for at least a few hours last week by the report in New Scientist about radio source SHGb02+14a, which passed the initial tests for an artificial transmission. Anyone who follows the subject was also prepared for the disclaimers that the organizations involved in SETI immediately issued. If you would like a quick rundown of the reasons why SHGb02+14a is no more than interesting, take a look at Jay Manifold's A Voyage to Arcturus for September 2. I was particularly interested in this point:

The GuardianThe signal has a rapidly fluctuating frequency, which could occur if it was beamed out from a rapidly spinning planet or object, although a planet would have to be rotating nearly 40 times faster than Earth to produce the same drift. A drifting signal would be expected to have a different frequency each time it was detected.

Yet with every observation of SHGbo2+14a, the signal has started off with a frequency of 1420MHz before starting to drift - although this could be connected to the telescope.

That sounds to me like the transient hum that old vacuum-tube radios used to make when you first turned them on, but then what do I know?

The signal is likely to be a product of the equipment, or of some exotic but not intelligent astronomical object. Nonetheless, what struck me about this incident was how persnickety the SETI people are about which signals they find plausible. SETI has its own ideas about how they would make First Contact, and any alien who wants their attention will have to come up to their exacting standards. I have always been readier to believe that we might overhear an extraterrestrial civilization, such as the output from a solar-system-wide version of the GPS, than that we would find a beacon dedicated to First Contact. Our SETI does not plan on creating any such beacon; why should anyone else?

* * *

Further examples of blind dogmatism can be found in the Book Review Section of today's New York Times, where Sam Harris's new book, The End of Faith, was reviewed by Natalie Angier. Harris is a student of neuroscience who thinks that religion is pathological, and Angier is of similar mind. Here are some points she quotes with approbation:

''We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them 'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad,' 'psychotic' or 'delusional.' '' To cite but one example: ''Jesus Christ -- who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens -- can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?''

The interesting thing about this passage is that the hypothesis it implies, that religion is a form of insanity, has been repeatedly falsified by research. Some degree of religious belief and practice has been shown to be an indication of psychological well-being. Personal experience is consistent with this result. I've known plenty of unpleasant religious people (you know who you are), but the only wild-eyed screaming lunatics I have ever met in this regard are fanatical atheists.

There is another class of perfectly pleasant people with no interest in religion at all, but they have no relevance to the matter.

* * *

I threw away my most recent issue of The Weekly Standard, so I can't tell you who wrote the long piece about Alternate History. (I continue to insist that Alternative History is a better term, because "Alternate" implies just two possibilities, but don't get me started.) However, introductions to the genre are popping up all over, such as the essay by Laura Miller in today's New York Times, entitled Imagine. Why this sudden mainstream interest in a kind of fiction that many people can't stand? The reason seems to be Philip Roth's upcoming novel, The Plot Against America, which should be published in October.

The book's premise is that Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940. What happens thereafter I don't know. No doubt I will have to read the book, particularly if I can cage a copy from the publisher. In fact, if any of the book review editors who read this blog have a spare copy, please pass it along. You know who you are, too.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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