Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy birthday, good old Ben...

A Pause to Honor Old Ben...

I would normally leave a provocative post like the last one at top position for a few days, to generate discussion. But something else merits timely posting.

Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin -- my 18th Century hero. (I have a few other heroes. But they are spread pretty thin.) In fact, we named our first born after him, even though “Benjamin” is supposed to be reserved for your last born.

This is a clear case where one death in childhood would have profoundly altered human history. I cannot think of a single person who was more important. If John Locke was godfather of the pragmatic-modernist Enlightenment, then Franklin was its dad and mentor, meddling and training most of those who set out to transform theory into practice, turning it into a vigorous Grand Experiment.

Moreover, he proved that martyrdom is, at best, a lesser beneficence. Far better to change the world and elevate everyone... while having a really good time! Take a minute to appreciate this fellow. How lucky we were to have him... and how unlucky that his kind were so rare -- or readily squelched -- during the millennia that came before. Today, his potential may reside in some poor Bengali slum kid, or a million other flickering flames, across the globe. People who would be burnt alive in any other culture.

We can argue over how best to nurture such flames. But not over whether that should be a fierce dedication, one that all of us should share. Stay burnable. Help others to be.


*Speaking of polymaths, here are some snippets from the fecund Ray Kurzweil:

---Crouching Tiger, Hidden Robot Astrobiology Magazine Jan. 14, 2006 ** The 2005 Fourth British Computer Society's Annual Prize for Progress towards Machine Intelligence has been won by IFOMIND, a mobile robot system that demonstrates intelligence as it meets a new object in its world. IFOMIND reacts initially in an "instinctive" way to its first perception of an unknown object that it encounters; at first it is...

--- Taiwan breeds green-glowing pigs BBC News Jan. 12, 2006 ** Scientists in Taiwan say they have bred three pigs that glow in the dark. The pigs are transgenic, created by adding genetic material from jellyfish into a normal pig embryo. The scientists will use the transgenic pigs to study human disease. Because the pig's genetic material is green, it is easy to spot. So if, for instance, some of its...

--- Google is already working on a massive and global computing grid. Eventually, says Mr Saffo, "they're trying to build the machine that will pass the Turing test," in other words, an artificial intelligence that can pass as a human in written conversations. Wisely or not, Google wants to be a new sort of deus ex...

--- A "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops, is being built 1000 kilometers from the North Pole by the Norwegian government to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity...

--- Dogs do as well as state-of-the-art screening tests at sniffing out people with lung or breast cancer. The research raises the possibility that trained dogs could detect cancers even earlier and might some day supplement or even replace mammograms and CT scans in the laboratory. The dogs correctly detected 99% of the lung cancer samples, and...


* Some of you have taken to sending me items on the side. That’s fine. But you know I will share the choice bits here, and you could, as well. I am assuming you want them posted at the topmost level and/or you don’t want your names mentioned. Fine.

One of you wrote in about OS Card’s recent missive on Intelligent Design. I may comment on that one soon. First, some miscellany...

*Another of you offered this startlingly cogent (though possibly offensive) political jpeg. It oversimplifies, but lays bare the staggeringly unprecedented levels of hypocrisy. http://z.about.com/d/politicalhumor/1/0/M/h/bush_bj.jpg

*And finally, someone wrote in with this gem: “The national leaders of campus conservatives of that era included many of today's prominent Republican leaders (Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed were all national leaders of College Republicans). It is almost ... creepy ... what an incestuous little group they were -- and are. They were outcasts and they came of age with a collective chip on their shoulders, seething at their mainstream peers (who were probably having a lot more fun than they were). Their views were shockingly extreme and they have spent their lives seeking the power to have their world view prevail.”

I never thought of it that way, before. All those frustrated and goggle-eyed campus rightwing geeks, who could never get a date... are now in charge of the world’s only superpower. No wonder they are so busy not only getting even with all the ex-hippies... but also sticking it to the suave “normal” republicans! This may explain the dramatic and diametric veer away from old-style GOP isolationism into a level of utopian international adventurism that would make John F. Kennedy look positively prudent! In fact, the parallels with JFK are vastly closer than any comparison with, say, Dwight David Eisenhower.

Ah... Alcibiades...


Anonymous said...

An appropriate time to post this From "Bill in Portland Maine":

The Great Franklin-Bush debate...in 6 rounds:

Bush: America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Franklin: All wars are follies, very expensive and very mischievous ones. In my opinion, there never was a good war or a bad peace. When will mankind be convinced and agree to settle their difficulties by arbitration?


Bush: Health care reform must begin with Medicare; Medicare is the binding commitment of a caring society. We must renew that commitment by giving seniors access to preventive medicine and new drugs that are transforming health care in America.

Franklin: Well done is better than well said.


Bush: There is no "trust fund," just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay---will pay for either in higher taxes, or reduced benefits, or cuts to other critical government programs. The office here in Parkersburg stores those IOUs. They're stacked in a filing cabinet. Imagine---the retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet. It's time to strengthen and modernize Social Security for future generations with growing assets that you can control, that you call your own---assets that the government cannot take away.

Franklin: Half a truth is often a great lie.


Bush: The fact that somebody leaked this program [of illegally spying on Americans without a warrant] causes great harm to the United States. There's an enemy out there.

Franklin: Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.


Bush: I'm a uniter, not a divider. I refuse to play the politics of putting people into groups and pitting one group against another.

Franklin: Tricks and treachery are the practice of fools, that don't have brains enough to be honest.


Bush:I'm not going to change my mind.

Franklin: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise. ... When you're finished changing, you're finished.

Final score: Bush 0 Franklin 6

Posted at:



Tony Fisk said...

How do you know who the last born is? (or is this something gentiles should not ask?)

Thankyou, Stefan. I hope the dog's only sniffing around your ankles 'cos it's walkies time!' (Is it true about the hula hoop?)

Off topic: (reposted 'cos I think it's important to keep the pressure on)

More on the Al-Jazeera memo:

It appears that Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle sent the memo to the democrats for use in the 2004 elections. Apparently, they didn't use it for fear it would *boost* Bush's chances of victory (??? if that notion is true, can I register to join another species, please?)

Anonymous said...

Yes, Kira jumps through a hula hoop on command. If you have the DiVX video codec, you can watch her perform:



reason said...

How can "traditionally" a name be reserved for a last born? Surely until fairly recently that was normally not knowable?

reason said...

Oops - sorry Tony Fisk I saw you already asked that.

skribe said...

After the debate:

Bush: Why do you hate America?

Franklin: ??!!

How do you know who the last born is?

You start by finding two bricks...


Anonymous said...

"How do you know who the last born is?"

When the mother dies giving birth to him.

Genesis 35:17-19 (King James Version)

17And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.
18And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.
19And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.

Oh, and Ben Franklin is a favorite of mine, also. Scientists, statesman, philanderer...


Woozle said...

For what it's worth, the Bush church sign is... well, see for yourself.

Alas but that it were real...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brin,

I see your redirects from Kurzweil's site on occasion. I just recieved and started to read Kurzweil's book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Kurzweil reveals a fairly intense regimen of supplements he personally takes (in order to extend his longevity). How about you--are you doing anything like Kurzweil suggests to stretch yourself long enough to take advantage of future tech?

Rob Perkins said...

I don't know why "missive" connotes negatively to me. The dictionary I have doesn't seem to support it.

Rob Perkins said...

Heh. My last born, according to plan, carries the name "Benjamin", but that's because it forms part of my name (I was first born) and not because of any cosmopolitan awareness of Jewish tradition.

It's news to me, David! :)

Rob Perkins said...

"Bill in Portland Maine" comes across to me as an equivocating demagogue.

Anonymous said...

"This is a clear case where one death in childhood would have profoundly altered human history. I cannot think of a single person who was more important."

Mohammad, founder of Islam, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Re Brin's title "Happy birthday, good old Ben...":

Today I noticed in my local public library [by the way, wasn't the public library another idea of Ben's? I seem to recall hearing that somewhere along the line -- maybe it was in junior high American History class] new books section "Benjamin Franklin: in Search of a Better World", Yale University Press, 2005. Perhaps if Brin had been the book's title dictator it would have been "Benjamin Franklin: Building a Better World".

Here is the dust jacket synopsis:


"Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" examines the many facets of America's most extraordinary founding father. Politician, diplomat, scientist, printer, and civic improver, Franklin influenced every aspect of American life, from his own time to the present. This book, designed to accompany the traveling Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary exhibition celebrating Franklin's 300th birthday, includes essays by ten prominent scholars that offer an overview of Franklin's life and cover the full range of his interests and achievements, illustrated by more than 265 color images -- portraits, manuscripts, drawings, maps, paintings, engravings, and a plethora of Franklin's possessions, from teacups to printing equipment. This comprehensive guide, combining new scholarship with unique images -- many of which have not been seen before -- will be a must-have for anyone interested in Franklin.



Anonymous said...

This may make me sound like an incredible nerd, but I'm a total Ben Franklin fanboy. Long before I even lived in Pennsylvania, and went to the Franklin Institute regularly. He's like the wise buy kooky old uncle of the Founding Fathers. And a total playboy for his time in France, so there's something for everybody.

Yeah, I know, that doesn't really add anything, but hey.

Anonymous said...

Re last born: If the mother dies in childbirth, there you go. :(

These days, you can plan it.

Just be aware that antibiotics may compromise the effectiveness of birth control pills. (I know of at least 2 kids that happened that way.)