So. So, I have been turning the details of the "fight" over and over in my mind. What I felt was that there was something of Quality in my friend Manoj's comments and there was something about those comments that is present only in the best fora and the best commenters. (I and Manoj are still friends in the real world, by the way, and so that is all there is to say about that little spat). Anyway, that brings me to the topic du jour - Internet Thunderdomes.
With widespread public access to the Internet, pretty much anybody who is anybody is either on the Internet already or is deliberately keeping himself or herself off the Internet. There are now, I believe, several public fora that may be called, for the lack of a better word, Internet Thunderdome Projects. What, in the world, is an Internet Thunderdome? Well, this is how it is. The rule of a Internet Thunderdome is simple - "Two men enter, one man leaves". An Internet Thunderdome is a forum for public intellectuals to debate other people. Bad ideas get rubbished and destroyed. Good ideas are allowed to flourish. When anyone or any group of people builds an Internet Thunderdome, he or she (or they) must possess three things:
The first requirement is essentially a Great Books requirement. The Internet Thunderdomista(s) must be knowledgeable enough in a number of areas - psychology, sociology, economics, strategy, organization behavior, philosophy, enough about world history & politics, political science, anthropology - that he or she can be a competent public intellectual. What's more, with the concept of the Internet Thuderdome, we further require that they need to know enough about the mathematical foundations of these areas where appropriate.
Besides knowledge, there is skills. They should be able to "own" an Internet debate. Essentially, they should be able to "pwn" anyone else in case they have to go head-to-head in a debate with them, and the other people is clearly wrong. This means that they should be able to point out flaws in other people's arguments when other people who are not Internet Thunderdomistas debate with them. They should be able to contend, as it were, with their contenders. This, I think, should be possible if you are knowledgeable enough in all of these areas, and preferably knows one or more of the areas at an expert level. They absolutely must know how the major areas of human inquiry 'work', so to speak.
And finally, there is experience. The Internet Thuderdomista(s) needs to engage in a number of debates to build up experience in debating people from a wide variety of points of view.
Some people acquire this experience with debating and knowledge of subject areas in university courses, but it is important for me to state the sorts of courses that make the cut. I do believe that it is not merely a matter of being able to debate that counts, and it is not merely a matter of being able to come up killer debating points. A lot of people can debate and debate well (see the example of the Pakistani gentlemen below). What's more important is that there is some actual Wisdom in the debate. My standard for Wisdom is the Management and Markets course at Harvard Business School. It was a tough course with a lot of material to go through for somebody like me who came from an engineering background, and the worst thing about this course is that you have to do all the material within a year and pass the General Examination at the end of the year. Rumor has it that even Clayton Christensen found it difficult to manage Microeconomics 1 to be followed by Microeconomics 2 along with Management and Markets Semester 1 to be followed by Management and Markets Semester 2 followed at the end by the General Examination, all in one year. The point is that there is so much carefully prepared material in this sort of course that you end up acquiring a lot of Wisdom along the way. Nothing can beat the Wisdom you acquire by going through carefully selected material of this sort (please see this article by Akeel Bilgrami for further thoughts on this - http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/06/are-we-smarter-yet-how-colleges-are-misusing-the-internet.html#more). It is this type of Wisdom that a public forum is ultimately after.
So. What are some Internet Thunderdomes? I would name Crooked Timber as one of the very best of the Internet Thunderdomes. Another quasi-Thunderdome is the comments section of "Three Quarks Daily". The Indian blog Sepia Mutiny was a bit of an Internet Thunderdome but, unfortunately, something went wrong early on and it never was much more than a very, very snarky forum with a lot of heat but very little light. It is, one must say, a bit more difficult than you think to build one. The problem, really, is that there are actually not that many people who have built up competencies in all these areas. Furthermore, they have to be willing to spend the time to debate other people on said Thunderdome. The point of these Thunderdomes is, of course, to have public debates where one can actually debate serious, important stuff. And, in all humility, this group blog Ask the Delphic Oracle has also achieved that status. There is enough of the competencies required that between us, I think, we are competent enough to be public intellectuals.
All this has been prompted, as I mentioned, by an Internet discussion I was having recently on my Facebook where this person said that he would rather be un-friended than be censored. I realized that although we were vehemently disagreeing with one another, there was something of Quality in his comments that I didn't want to lose him as a friend. The problem is, of course, that seeing the intellectual in the other guy makes me very reluctant to ignore the whole thing. I felt, in the end, that there was Reason there and there was Quality. And what is this mysterious Quality that I keep referring to in this post? Well, read this bit from Abbas Raza's post on "Three Quarks Daily" entitled "Cocktail Party Conversation Permit".
Like the two urbane and seemingly well-educated and well-dressed slightly older gentlemen I once overheard at a dinner party in Karachi (and there are plenty here in America, or anywhere for that matter) saying with great conviction (and with extremely thoughtful expressions on their faces, and in ponderous cadences, as if they were straining under the burden of a massive feat of cognitive strength and skill):
1st Guy: "Pakistan's only problem has always been that our leaders lack sincerity."
2nd Guy: "No, no, no. Our only problem has always been that our leaders lack committment."
The first guy then actually carefully considered this pearl of wisdom from political philosopher and all-round theorist #2 and finally, having reevaluated his own sophisticated worldview in the light of this new gem, dumped it unceremoniously, humbly but gravely declaring defeat: "Yes... I see... you are right... it is a matter of committment." In the throes of the cringing frustration one feels when faced with this sort of cretinism, I have sometimes felt that people should have to be licensed to spew profundities at cocktail parties, otherwise they should only be allowed to speak about either the weather or quantum theory. And the license would be received after demonstrating the ability to think about really, really, simple problems by passing a test. The idea, of course, being that if you can't think lucidly, logically, creatively and successfully about very simple problems where all the information required to solve them is present in their statement, and which have very clear and demonstrable solutions, what the &$@# makes you think you should be engaging hard and incredibly complicated and intricate issues?
It is simply this Quality of a commenter that shows that the person who wrote said comments has the ability to think lucidly, logically, creatively and successfully. I could see this sort of Quality in Manoj's comments on my Facebook page and on the Bay Area Quiz Club forum. And I think it is this sort of Quality that one constantly seeks to bring to any forum.
Now, that brings me to the second part of Abbas Raza's post. I shall simply repeat that beauty of a sentence that Abbas has there, this time in bold, and reproduce the rest of the post (the first three puzzles anyway) below. Please take a look.
If you can't think lucidly, logically, creatively and successfully about very simple problems where all the information required to solve them is present in their statement, and which have very clear and demonstrable solutions, what the &$@# makes you think you should be engaging hard and incredibly complicated and intricate issues?
Okay, okay, for the last nine days or so I was out of town and very busy and that is my excuse for not writing a substantive column today. (Perhaps some of you noticed that I wasn't posting all of last week?) Instead, now that I have given you some motivation to try and think about simple problems, I present a challenge to you: solve some logical and mathematical puzzles that my friend Alex Freuman sent me. Alex teaches high school physics and math at La Guardia High School here in Manhattan. (It was the model for the high school in the movie Fame.) I had seen some of the puzzles before but not others, and it took me a while to solve some of those. The first person to email me (click "About Us" at the top left of this page for my email) a full list of correct solutions, wins the privilege of writing one of our Monday columns for November 20th. Okay, so it's not a huge prize, but hey, if you've got something to say, here's your chance. And, of course, you will have earned the cocktail party conversational permit as far as I am concerned.
Don't look up the solutions, and please don't post solutions in the comments. Try to do all of them yourself. Believe me, even if you have to think for some days about a problem before you get it, there is a huge satisfaction and mental reward in doing so yourself. And you will feel more confident of yourself too. I shall, of course, trust you not to cheat. Here they are:
1. You are given two ropes and a lighter. This is the only equipment you can use. You are told that each of the two ropes has the following property: if you light one end of the rope, it will take exactly one hour to burn all the way to the other end. But it doesn't have to burn at a uniform rate. In other words, half the rope may burn in the first five minutes, and then the other half would take 55 minutes. The rate at which the two ropes burn is not necessarily the same, so the second rope will also take an hour to burn from one end to the other, but may do it at some varying rate, which is not necessarily the same as the one for the first rope. Now you are asked to measure a period of 45 minutes. How will you do it?
2. You have 50 quarters on the table in front of you. You are blindfolded and cannot discern whether a coin is heads up or tails up by feeling it. You are told that x coins are heads up, where 0 < x < 50. You are asked to separate the coins into two piles in such a way that the number of heads up coins in both piles is the same at the end. You may flip any coin over as many times as you like. How will you do it?
3. A farmer is returning from town with a dog, a chicken and some corn. He arrives at a river that he must cross, but all that is available to him is a small raft large enough to hold him and one of his three possessions. He may not leave the dog alone with the chicken, for the dog will eat it. Furthermore, he may not leave the chicken alone with the corn, for the chicken will eat it. How can he bring everything across the river safely?
Bye for now.
Update (July 17, 2013):
A post I made to an internal mailing list for Indian at a large MNC in the Bay Area.Names have been anonymized for the sake of privacy (i.e. that is why <X> has been used instea
d of the actual name.
Anand Manikutty wrote:
Btw, what <X> is trying to do is to do the impossible. I am a Thunderdomista and when I am in Thunderdome mode, with due respect to <X>, I cannot be defeated in Internet debate. <X>-I would be happy to take this up with you further on the Internet.
I maintain a List on the Internet to discuss topics of popular interest. These sorts of discussions are best done in public and on the Internet where everyone can see what points have been made. I use the following List for that purpose:
This sort of transparent debate is the ideal since it is clear what has been said by who and to who.
This also applies to any one else who would like to take up this thread or indeed even any of
the other threads brought up on this list with me further.
Welcome to Thunderdome.
"Two men enter, one man leaves".I have created a Thunderdome for Internet debates.
I have debated with
Slavoj Zizek, Rakesh Khurana,
even once on "The Smartest Man in America" Chris Langan's major theory of the mind,
over the Internet.
With Amartya Sen, Avinash Dixit, Wendy Doniger,
in person or
on the Internet.
So far, I have never been defeated.
"Two men enter, one man leaves".
So far, that one man has always been me.Unless it Zizek or Khurana or one of the other public intellectuals/academics when it is
simply a tie.