Paying Goliath

A friend pointed me to the story of David and Goliath. Well, actually, it was the Malcolm Gladwell story of David and Goliath. TED talks have become a regular part of public education and I was a little surprised to see one based on a Bible story. If you’d blink you’d miss it. I’d seen Gladwell’s new book on David and Goliath in the bookstore, and I had assumed it was about some hidden principle based on little boys challenging giants to single combat. Who knows. So when I turned on TED and heard Gladwell describing pretty much what I would do in class, and knowing that he was raking in the bucks for doing so, I gave it some thought. Yes, it is clear that he’s done some research into ancient warfare. Most of us who read the Hebrew Bible do, since ancient warfare is a large part of Holy Writ. (Yet the world seems surprised when religions turn violent.) Gladwell’s perspective is refreshing, but I can’t help think that the Bible does indeed view David as the underdog. Yes, slingers were always an important factor in warfare, just as archers were before guns were invented. I seriously doubt David was actually packing the firepower of a .45, however.

The interesting thing is that Gladwell takes the story so literally. Historically David’s existence is questionable, although I personally see the weight of tradition as bearing on the tipping point here. There were just too many stories of the boy who killed the giant in the Bible to say it was all made up. The fact that they don’t agree in details adds a hoary venerability to the tales. But can we take it to the level of seeing Goliath as having double vision because of his gigantism, and saying to David “why do you come at me with sticks” even though the lad is holding only one? Perhaps Goliath can be pardoned for using the plural instead of dual form (he is, after all, a Philistine), but the point here is that it is a taunt. David is what the dog saw, compared to the seriously shielded Goliath. Gladwell makes some good points, but, in my humble opinion, misses the giant.

Saul, the king of Israel, fears to send David into combat because the kid will be slaughtered and Israel will be enslaved. Yes, ancient armies relied on slingers, but, like archers, in great numbers. Perhaps it was David’s accuracy that was in doubt. According to the Bible, however, Israel boasted slingers who could hit a hair at distance, and these from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s own people. So the point of the story is that David’s victory is a miracle. Miracles no longer fly, of course. Those who write bestsellers know best. It stands to reason. Okay, so I’ll buy Gladwell’s book now, but I somehow feel that those of us who have spent a life studying the Bible really deserve something more that jobless obscurity. I come at the giant with a tiny blog, but then, I’ve alway been an underdog. An outlier, you might say.


Explained Away

The premise seems sound. Although science tends to indicate that God is not necessary to explain anything, religion itself may still be useful. In a nutshell, that’s the basis of Alain de Button’s TED talk, “Atheism 2.0.” We don’t need to believe in God to find religion a useful paradigm. There’s so much more to being human than being simply analytical. De Button begins from the premise that there is no god, but that religion teaches us many useful lessons. It is a fascinating concept. I’ve had de Button’s book on the topic on my reading list for some months now, but like so many pressed for time, I find it simpler to watch a 20-minute TED talk than to read an entire book. It is refreshing to see someone on TED not simply dismissing religion. My friends in the STEM community often recommend TED talks, and they usually leave me feeling small and insignificant. Now I can at least show my face.

A deep irony pervades this condescension to religion. Scientific study of the past (known by the collective term archaeology) has recently given strong indication that the religious impulse is what led to civilization itself. The mysterious site of Gobekli Tepe, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to reveal that even before high antiquity what drew people together was the emergence of religious belief. Religion leads to culture, and culture leads to science. Science rejects religion and what happens to culture? Just take a look around. I’m still a naive man with working class values. In the course of my business travels I’ve often ended up in what might be considered the sketchiest kinds of neighborhoods. The suburbs keep moving further out. What happens when we run out of space? God only kn— wait, that’s a forbidden premise. Materialism only knows.

De Button’s talk is fascinating in that he doesn’t simply dismiss religion. Like most non-specialists, he focuses on the accidentals that reveal something savvy religionists have always known—there’s a healthy dose of psychology in any religion. Call it neuroscience, or call it truth. Religions have something to teach us. Civilization, it seems, began because of religion. De Button is clearly correct that we need not believe the minutia of religious doctrine to get something out of it. Atheism is not always evil nor is piety always above moral suspicion. Being human, we can’t help but wonder what is really real, however. Religions claim to know, as do some sciences. Little can be said beyond the fact that none of us know. Of course, TED will ask some of us to speak to the issue and the rest of us should just sit still and pay attention. To be noticed is to be an expert.

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

Arduino Anything?

Before my daughter enrolled in college I’d never heard of an Arduino. Since her high school robotics team leadership has now passed into more able hands, I figured that I’d go back to my naive days of not thinking about automated mechanical devices, devoting my gray matter to grayer matters. Still, over the past several weeks robots keep seeking me out. A spread in Delta’s in-flight magazine for July featured robots, as did an alumni magazine for August. Now the issue of Time for September has a story about robots. When my daughter sent me the Arduino video, by TED, I knew I’d better try to pay attention. Technology will change us, whether we want it to or not. It seems that from the first knapping of flint our destiny was set to manipulating our world and making it into something we create. Robots make us gods.


The real issue, however, in the TED video is that Arduino is open-source. Open-source means that the designs, instructions, and application of the device are voluntarily not held under copyright. Academics throughout the world are increasingly favoring open-source material—not just software and hardware, but the knowledge behind them. In my work at a for-profit (i.e. “commercial”) publisher, I know that open-source is a huge concern. It used to be that open-source, that is, free—information, was considered inferior. Like the early stages of recycled grocery bags. Arduino puts the lie to that supposition. An international team has made a device that is extremely flexible in application, and is giving it away. Many academic journals, traditional cash cows for the publishing industry, are now going open-source. Those of us who research and write don’t often do it for money—we just want our ideas shared. Commercial interests, however, are heavily vested in turning a profit from information. It is a clash of worldviews.

Never one of the great capitalists, I find open-source an intriguing concept. The problem is that those who think need to find a way to make a living in a society over-awed by spending. Universities charge tuition because professors have to be paid. Publishers charge a week’s wages for textbooks because editors have to be paid. Knowledge—the most valuable commodity people possess—fits uneasily with entrepreneurial ideals. This blog is open-source. Maybe that is why it has never garnered much attention, like a first-generation recycled paper bag. These same ideas, however, when presented in the context of university classrooms were subject to fees of thousands of dollars. Registration filled up every semester. The source is the same, a guy with a Ph.D. from a major research university making observations about how religion impacts each and every one of us, often in unexpected ways. Some things you can’t even give away. Well, if trends continue I shouldn’t be surprised if someday even this is taken over by a robot. Right, Mr. Čapek?