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Vulcan, National Science Fiction Day, Barry's year in review, Amazon airships, Asimov's full "Cult of Ignorance"

Published Monday, January 02, 2017 @ 1:52 AM EST
Jan 02 2017

Today is Monday, January 2, the second day of 2017 in the Gregorian calendar, with 363 days remaining.

There are:
14 days until Martin Luther King Day;
18 days until Donald Trump becomes President of the Unites States;
31 days until Groundhog Day;
43 days until Valentines Day;
49 days until Presidents Day;
69 days until Daylight Saving Time begins;
74 days until St. Patrick's Day;
77 days until the arrival of Spring;
89 days until April Fool's Day;
102 days until Good Friday;
104 days until Easter Sunday; and
672 days until the 2018 midterm elections.

Venus passing in front of the sun in 2012. (NASA)

On this day in 1860, The discovery of the planet Vulcan is announced at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, France. French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier proposed the existence of the planet to explain Mercury's eccentric orbit. No planet was ever found, and the perturbations in Mercury's orbit were explained in 1915 by Einstein, whose equations predicted exactly the observed amount of advance of Mercury's perihelion without any recourse to the existence of a hypothetical Vulcan. The planet Vulcan in the Star Trek universe is an entirely different body in a different star system.


Among other things, today is also National Science Fiction Day, chosen to correspond with the official birthdate of famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (see Asimov birthday quotes and commentary below.)


Arrested Florida naked walker to police: I lost a bet. He also admitted to being high on methamphetamine. Of course.


As of this writing, The KGB Quotations Database contains 43,880 entries. Check it out.


Some persons born on January 2 who said interesting things:

Quote of the day:

"Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome."
-Isaac Asimov


If years were movies, 2016 would be "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Dave Barry's annual year in review column is out. Despite the deftly-written satire, I found little about which to laugh. Example: "... it becomes evident that, barring some highly unlikely political development, the next president of the United States will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the nation is in the grip of a worsening heroin epidemic. Coincidence? You be the judge." I swear I saw a couple straight news stories about this.


Amazon is exploring the use of giant airships to serve as mobile, flying warehouses that could help the online retail giant deliver more of its goods by drone. But do we really need the sky littered with flying big box stores?


Still wondering why Clinton lost? A Virginia Waffle House employee makes some good point. A bit of rough language, so NSFW.


Whatever you do, don't visit these web sites unless you have a couple hours to waste every day.


What's worse than snakes on a plane? How about scorpions on a train?


New theories suggest the hull of the Titanic had been weakened by a huge fire that burned for days before the ship hit the iceberg.


As this is National Science Fiction Day and Isaac Asimov's birthday, I hope you'll indulge me in reproducing one of Asimov's most frequently-cited non-fiction works, an opinion piece he wrote at the dawn of the Reagan era that is, unfortunately, even more relevant today.

A Cult of Ignorance
by Isaac Asimov

It is hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: "America's right to know." It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, "America's right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?"

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school. Thus, Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found the American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that was all his own and that has been the despair of satirists ever since.

George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the "pointy-headed professor," and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-headed audience.

BUZZWORDS: Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists: "Don't trust the experts!" Ten years ago, it was "Don't trust anyone over 30." But the shouters of that slogan found that the inevitable alchemy of the calendar converted them to the untrustworthiness of the over-30, and, apparently, they determined never to make that mistake again. "Don't trust the experts!" is absolutely safe. Nothing, neither the passing of time nor exposure to information will convert these shouters to experts in any subject that might conceivably be useful.

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge. learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called "elitists." That's the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don't know what an "elitist" is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts "elitist" it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

All right, then, forget my ingenuous question. America's right to know does not include knowledge of elitist subjects. America's right to know involves something we might express vaguely as "what's going on." America has the right to know "what's going on" in the courts, in Congress, in the White House, in industrial councils, in the regulatory agencies, in labor unions- in the seats of the mighty, generally.

Very good, I'm for that, too. But how are you going to let people know all that?

Grant us a free press, and a corps of independent and fearless investigative reporters, comes the cry, and we can be sure that the people will know.

Yes, provided they can read!

As it happens, reading is one of those elitist subjects I have been talking about, and tht: American public, by and large, in their distrust of experts and in their contempt for pointy-headed professors, can't read and don't read.

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines- but how many non-elitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic? Moreover, the situation is growing worse. Reading scores in the schools decline steadily. The highway signs, which used to represent elementary misreading lessons ("Go Slo," "Xroad") arc steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible and incidentally to help those who know how to drive a car but, not being pointy- headed professors, can't read.

Again, in television commercials, there are frequent printed messages. Well, keep your eyes on them and you'll find out that no advertiser ever believes that anyone but an occasional elitist can read that print. To ensure that more than this mandarin minority gets the message, every word of it is spoken out loud by the announcer.

HONEST EFFORT: If that is so, then how have Americans got the right to know? Grant that there are certain publications that make an honest effort to tell the public what they should know, but ask yourselves how many actually read them.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only one per cent- or less- of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

I contend that the slogan "America's right to know" is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read. What shall we do about it?

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce "elitism."

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like "America's right to know" and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

(from the January 21, 1980 issue of Newsweek)


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