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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: April 24, 2010

John Wilcock

“The microfinance industry, with over $60bn
in assets, has  unquestionably outgrown its charitable roots.”

—The New York Times

ARE WE ALONE in the Universe? That’s the subtitle of a new book on a timeless subject that keeps popping up over and over again in one form or another. The beguiling ABC television series V for example, is the current version, although that melodramatic saga falls more into the genre of alien kidnapping and cattle mutilation than a serious discussion of the subject.
Last month’s new work, The Eerie Silence, is by the English physicist Paul Davies, currently a professor at Arizona State University, whose more distinguished credentials are as head of the expansively-named Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Post-Detection Taskgroup (known as Seti). This was established half a century ago to listen for (and transmit) signals in space.
Results so far have been zero in both directions, but explanations for that have been (i) as some planets are hundreds of light years away, anybody “looking” at us might be seeing a medieval world; (ii) they might think we’re not sufficiently developed to be worth contacting; (iii) we might be on different wavelengths with different methods of communication; and (iv) there’s nobody out there.
Nevertheless, Davies, who’ll be 64 next week, is not discouraged. “What we’re doing is a fantastic and challenging task,” he says. “It compels us to think about all the things we should be thinking about. What is life? What is intelligence?”
One important aspect of Seti’s work is to try and have some influence over what kind of response this planet is going to offer if we ever do receive an overture from outer space.  And that’s assuming that with only mathematics in common, we can manage to communicate at all.
Which are the agencies that can truly represent humanity,” Davies asks. “You wouldn’t go to the Catholic church or the US Army. So one of the first things we might (tell them) is that there’s no unitary government on this planet, no unitary political philosophy or ideology. We’re a great place for freedom, if not anarchy, and so we’re putting together the best possible coherent package for your consideration, but expect it to be followed with all sorts of bizarre and incoherent babble that you must treat with discretion.”

IT’S BACK AGAIN! The hoary old argument about Who Wrote Shakespeare?  “An appetite for conspiracy theories combined with a call for ‘balance’ from some sectors of academia and the rise of the internet has given the theme new life,” explains the Economist while reviewing the new tome, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro, a Columbia University professor who has written previous books about the bard. The magazine says that snobbery is one of the reasons why people such as Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud have questioned the authorship, i.e. how could some “untutored, un-traveled glover’s son from “Hicksville” have known enough about kings and courtiers, affairs of state, etc? Professor Shapiro appears to disagree with them; his book defends the man from Stratford as the true author.

IT’S SAD ENOUGH that so many of the New Yorker cartoons just aren’t funny but how could any intelligent adult pretend to like most of the nonsensical poetry the magazine publishes? Here’s the first verse of Michael Robbins’ “Lust for Life” from the April 12 issue:

The elephants ate each other and then they dreamed of eating elephants till their captors came to feed them. Then they died. My meth lab tends to explode. I move to a new one like a hermit crab.  I give the gift of gab.

INSIDE THE VOICE OF AMERICA there is growing dissent about the way that the radio station is run, some complaining that it is secretly pro-Iran. Newsmax repeats allegations that the acting head of the Persian News Network, Alex Belida, exhibits “poor editorial judgment” and doesn’t understand Iranian affairs. In fact, he doesn’t even speak or read Persian. A taxpayer-funded multimedia network with a $194 million budget, VOA is alleged to suffer from its “old-fashioned, dictatorial management style,” the mag charges.

NASA’s SPACE SHUTTLES, having become surplus due to shutting down the program, will now be given away, but only museums or educational institutions are eligible. But even free, they’re hardly a bargain as NASA estimates that shipping and handling costs will be around $29 million for each. That’s because the 75-ton orbiters are 122 feet long,  have 78-foot wingspans, and can’t be disassembled to negotiate routes where light posts or traffic signals might block the way. In fact, initial delivery will be to some airport with a runway long enough (8,000 feet) to accommodate the Boeing 747 which will transport the bulky item. The bill for that trip alone is $6 million. Several museums are in the running for Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor, with the leading choices currently being Manhattan’s Sea, Air, and Space Museum and Oregon’s Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, the current home of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose flying boat.

THE REHABILITATION of New York’s former governor Eliot Spitzer was well underway even before the New York Times ran a 3,000-word piece about his “redemption” earlier this month, less than two years after the disclosure that he was “a client in a prostitution ring.” Public appearances, published articles, and even a television serial (The Good Wife), whose plot echoes his misadventure, have all kept his name alive. But maybe the best explanation of his standing can be found in the March issue of the academic Boston Review whose cover blazoned his name in type even bigger than the mag’s logo. Inside was the reprint of an intelligently analytical speech by Spitzer, 50, which demonstrates why so many still hold him in high regard. Battling against the Wall Street criminals, it is clear not only that he has acted as a genuine tribune of the people, but also prompts the suspicion that some of the greed-heads who benefited from his downfall might have had something to do with it.
[cf. Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen]

THE WILCOCK WEB: Tuesday will be National Pot Smoking Day (4/20. dig?)….Seeing as, like any other politicians, the Supremos regard themselves as above the law, it’s not unlikely that some of them are nursing scandalous secrets. Maybe there lies next year’s Pulitzer for National Inquirer‘s new DC bureau. ….“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies,” quipped Groucho Marx….  Fortune says there’s a growing demand for “executive temps,” short-term bosses who can earn huge salaries turning around distressed companies before a permanent CEO is appointed…. “When one is in love, one begins to deceive oneself,” quipped the astute  Oscar Wilde. “And one ends by deceiving others”….. Immigration officers from customs and border control absently left nearly 200 guns in restrooms, bowling alleys, and other public places last year. Homeland Security promises 185,000 employees will get “extra training”….It’s childishly stupid at this time in history for countries still to be competing with each other as to which can spend the most  $$trillions on exploring space. Call in the UN (or something) to organize joint missions to Mars (or wherever)… Nineteen countries are contributing to the $1.3bn cost of the world’s biggest telescope whose 115 separate dishes will dot a 78 square-mile tract of northern Chile by the year after next….If homosexuality and pedophilia are unrelated, what age is the dividing line?…. It was obvious that the brilliant microfinance scheme was doomed as soon as the banks jumped in….So many 12-year-old Swiss kids complained that condoms were too big that Lamprecht AG has made a smaller version…Prison is a very expensive way of making bad people worse quoth former British minister Douglas Hurd….. Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s? –  Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)