Cosmic Laughter, or Yirat Shamayim?
Your Editor was in a quandary this week. Should this Editorial be snarky or serious? After all, snarky is what we're known for. There is not one subject on which we're not curious, playful, and jocular. On the other hand, this week's issue combines the ridiculous with the sublime, and frankly, sometimes the change of subject can make your head swim. Speaking of heads and swimming, there's also this month's Create topic, which is Artificial Intelligence. Which makes us think about thinking. . .
You see what I mean?
I've had a bit of inspirational help in this direction from professional thinking-type persons. One was the head of the English Department at my university, many aeons ago. This gentleman taught Chaucer to me and other inquiring minds back in the day. The prof insisted that in his poem Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer was discussing 'cosmic laughter': basically, the idea that if you look at reality from a sufficient distance, you'll see the humour in it all. You'll bubble up with laughter. We do that a lot around here.
Take Freewayriding, for instance. The Artists' workshop discussion got so hilarious the other day that it spilled over into the Post. How so, you ask? (As well you may.) Well, FWR had to draw a map, and though he's much better at it than I am, it was still a challenge. It didn't help that I suggested he include h2g2's favourite island (Wight), which was a little weird considering the map in question was of Canada. . . anyhow, way too many cooks got involved in that broth, and things got stranger and stranger. . . the upshot of it all was that the Guide got a good illustration, and the Post got a science fiction serial. Of which that picture up there is a part. Yes, children, the god Thor is involved. And tourists. And maple syrup. The Saga of Bjorn Bottlesson and Leatherpants the Lost will be featured in these pages all month. I describe it as a cross between Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt, with a bit of h2g2 thrown in. You're going to love it. See? Cosmic laughter, it's part of our stock in trade.
Then there's the caption challenge. It's smug, furry, and there for you to admire and snark on. Get to work.
Our AI challenge can be humorous. At least, that's how I approached it. I moseyed over and poked at Cleverbot again. As a mad dialogue generator, Cleverbot is still undefeated. Lewis Carroll would have adored him.
On the other hand, Minorvogonpoet takes her AI seriously, because she is a much more thoughtful person than the Post Editor. MVP challenges us to think about unintended consequences and collateral damage in her short story Careless Driving. Read, think, have your say.
Ah, thinking. We're into it this month. We're thinking about thinking. I do a bit of that, but then, so does the Reverend Legh Richmond. Bluebottle put us onto the Reverend when he challenged the Post to devote some Literary Corner space to those writers with an Isle of Wight connection. So we're giving the IoW the month of February, as it will go down a treat with our science fiction serial. This week's IoW-related offering is an excerpt from The Dairyman's Daughter, a remarkable little tome published in 1814. It's about somebody who lived a quiet, inoffensive life, never declared war on anyone, etc. What do you say? That couldn't possibly be interesting? Then how come the book sold four million copies in 14 years? Why was it translated into 19 languages? That's a lot of influence for a young woman who spent so much time around cows. And she didn't even have a Twitter account. Makes you think. At least, I hope it does.
Which brings me to the other part of this week's title: the Yirat Shamayim. That's Hebrew, that is. It means, roughly translated, 'awe of Heaven'. It's what the ancient scriptures and those other professional thinking persons, the Torah scholars, insist is the beginning of wisdom. The idea behind Yirat Shamayim is that if you lack a proper sense of reverence – if worthwhile things are not sacred to you – then you're not likely to be thinking anything worth thinking about. I would argue that, for all our snarkiness, we at h2g2 have a comprehensive sense of awe and wonder when it comes to what we hold sacred.
Take Willem's painting. Like all his paintings, Willem's reconstruction here proceeds from the assumption that our search for knowledge about the past is a worthy endeavour, and that what we learn is a sacred trust. We need to preserve our knowledge and pass it on. He's done that beautifully, as always.
Milla has approached the sacredness of memory, as well. On a recent business trip, she visited some synagogues in Prague. She recorded their wall of remembrance. She stood in their cemetery. And she took some pictures to share with us. I would argue that this, too, is Yirat Shamayim.
Galaxy Babe has a lot on her plate these days. We're with her in spirit, and we understand completely if she's too busy to be frivolous with us online. But she took the time to send us a photo essay whose pictures speak far louder than words at this time. She titled these images of fog and blind trust Driving Across the Bridge. Perhaps they'll speak to your condition, as they did to mine.
Awix drops by with a review of the Trainspotting sequel. He's thoughtful about that, as well. See what you think about what our reviewer thinks.
So what can we say about ourselves, we h2g2ers? Does all the laughter mean we don't know the world is poised on a knife edge of danger? Are we indifferent to the imminent arrival of the Great White Handkerchief? No, we say: when the wind is southerly, we know an oxyaena from a housecat. Collectively, we act out of an abundance of Yirat Shamayim: we respect Life, the Universe, and Everything far too much to reduce its meaning to a mere number. We're still working out the questions.
I will shut up now, and let you enjoy this issue. Read, please comment, and pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top, send me some more of this amazing copy! You all have so much talent that I'm in awe! And may your week be filled with joyful surprises.