In the wake of my exit from Facebook a couple of weeks ago — something I still intend to write about here in the near future, in tandem with an explanation of my reasons for leaving Google as well — I’ve taken the time, energy, and attention that I was using to post things over there (links to articles, essays, blog posts, films, and other material) and channeled it over here to The Teeming Brain. Hence, my rather drastically increased rate of posting in recent weeks.
But, as I had expected, I’m finding that a lot of the smaller tidbits, the mere links to and excerpts from a variety of worthy items that I often posted at Facebook sans accompanying commentary by me, don’t feel quite right to offer as solo posts over here. So I hereby inaugurate a new and ongoing Teeming Brain feature titled Recommended Reading. Each Friday I’ll post a gallery of links to what I regard as the most compelling (important, inspiring, striking, galling, entertaining) items that I’ve encountered, read, and/or watched on the interwebs during the preceding week. I greatly appreciate this sort of hands-on curation of valuable content by a number of tuned-in bloggers and writers who help to separate the intellectual wheat from the deluge of digital chaff. So, in essence, this is my way of paying it forward.
But first, a caveat: If you’re reading from the Internet all the time, and especially if you’re reading only the latest and newest items to appear, then you’re living under the psychic spell of what Dominic Basulto, in one of the pieces linked below, aptly refers to as “the Internet’s cult of now.” Take it from somebody who has been there, done that, and personally emerged from the wreckage with a timely warning (i.e., me): You should make a point of unplugging regularly from the digital otherworld to spend both clock time and psychological time in the real world of existential experience. In terms of your reading life, this means, among other things, maintaining a vital relationship with paper. In his 2011 book The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake — a truly and deeply excellent examination of the trend identified in the title — John David Ebert unpacks the philosophical meanings of our macrocultural move toward the digitization of all forms of media and communication (as ebooks, cell phones, music files, streaming movies, and so on) and points out that this phenomenon entails the wholesale dissolving of physical forms into a kind of digital aether. Paper, celluloid, vinyl, magnetic tape, discs, cables — all disappear to be replaced by virtual versions of themselves that are only accessible in phantom form via an ever-proliferating field of consumer electronic devices. And they take your, my, our consciousness and sense of self with them, shifting our cultural and personal sense of identity gradually but definitely toward immateriality. In other words — and to riff and expand on Ebert’s point — we risk being turned into phantoms ourselves, mere shades of people drifting in a luminous digital underworld.
In short, my purpose here isn’t to give you more stuff to absorb your psyche into the Internet, so use with care. Caveat lector (let the reader beware).
That said, here you go.
* * *
Roger Scruton, Spectator, March 17, 2012
Teaser: “Neuroscience wants to be the answer to everything. It isn’t.”
Brain imaging won’t help you to analyse Bach’s Art of Fugue or to interpret King Lear any more than it will unravel the concept of legal responsibility or deliver a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture; it won’t help you to understand the concept of God or to evaluate the proofs for His existence, nor will it show you why justice is a virtue and cowardice a vice. And it cannot fail to encourage the superstition which says that I am not a whole human being with mental and physical powers, but merely a brain in a box…To describe the resulting ‘science’ as an explanation of consciousness, when it merely reads back into the explanation the feature that needs to be explained, is not just unjustified — it is profoundly misleading, in creating the impression that consciousness is a feature of the brain, and not of the person…When it comes to the subtle features of the human condition, to the byways of culpability and the secrets of happiness and grief, we need guidance and study if we are to interpret things correctly. That is what the humanities provide, and that is why, when scholars who purport to practise them, add the prefix ‘neuro’ to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.
* * *
I’m Being Followed: How Google — and 104 Other Companies — Are Tracking Me on the Web
Alex Madrigal, The Atlantic, February 29, 2012
Teaser: “Who are these companies and what do they want from me? A voyage into the invisible business that funds the web.”
Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized…As users, we move through our Internet experiences unaware of the churning subterranean machines powering our web pages with their cookies and pixels trackers, their tracking code and databases…[N]ever before in the history of human existence has so much data been gathered about so many people for the sole purpose of selling them ads. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” my old friend and early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher once said. “That sucks,” he added…Companies’ ability to track people online has significantly outpaced the cultural norms and expectations of privacy. This is not because online companies are worse than their offline counterparts, but rather because what they can do is so, so different. We don’t have a language for talking about how these companies function or how our society should deal with them…The great downside to this beautiful, free web that we have is that you have to sell your digital self in order to access it.
* * *
Reading the paranormal writing us: an interview with Jeffrey Kripal
The Immanent Frame, April 2011
I read the paranormal as a semiotic event that plays out on both the mental/subjective and material/physical planes as a bridging sign or mediating story between two orders of experience: one conscious and constructed, the other not. Such a project, of course, violates our Cartesian epistemologies involving an interior, solipsistic, illusory subject looking out onto a real but dead, indifferent, and inert objective world ruled entirely by math and mechanism. It is this same useful Cartesian mistake that renders such events “impossible,” even though they happen all the time.
…If there is anything I believe, it is that we are not who we think we are. “Mind” or “consciousness” is not some neurological froth or emergent property of the computer brain, much less some ethnic or religious ego. Rather, it is a non-spatial, non-temporal presence of proportions so vast and so fantastic that there is really no way to exaggerate it, and there is certainly no way to “explain” it with either the absolute contextualist and relativist epistemologies of the humanities or the objectivist epistemologies and naïve realisms of the sciences. Basically, I am suggesting that the human form is a hidden presence of truly mythological proportions. A recent dissertation, by Jason Kelly at the University of Ottawa, has attempted to capture my thought under my own early rubric of “mystical humanism.” I accept that. Everything religious can indeed be reduced to the human, but it turns out that the human is not at all what we thought. That is very close to “what I believe.”
* * *
The Age of Double Standards
Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect, March 19, 2012
Teaser: “American Airlines can declare bankruptcy and wipe away debt. But you can’t—and that’s just the beginning.”
[W]hat’s good for corporate capitalism is evidently too good for the rest of us…Wall Street has convinced lawmakers that relief for the masses, even in a deflationary economic emergency, would not only inflict unacceptable costs to bank balance sheets; it would also promote “moral hazard” — the economist’s term for rewarding and thereby inviting improvident behavior. Thanks to a revision in the bankruptcy law passed in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush after nearly a decade of furious lobbying by the credit-card industry and the banks, consumers generally face far more onerous bankruptcy terms than do corporations…The moral vocabulary of debt is filled with denunciations about improvident borrowers, but who ever heard of an improvident lender? Yet it was the recklessness of banks that caused the financial collapse…The gross disparity in the way that bankruptcy law treats corporate persons and actual people is only one of multiple double standards that increasingly define our age…Linking all of these disparities between citizens and corporations is the political power of a new American plutocracy. Until our politics connects these dots and citizens start resisting, the financial elite will rule. Despite the Occupy movement, most regular people have yet to experience the sudden enlightenment of Captain Yossarian, who decided, unpatriotically, that he didn’t want to die. In the face of economic pillaging, we are behaving like damned fools.
* * *
Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation
Heather Vogell, John Perry and Alan Judd and M.B. Pell, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 25, 2012
Suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school districts resemble those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows…The newspaper analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast. The findings represent an unprecedented examination of the integrity of school testing. The analysis doesn’t prove cheating. But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools. A tainted and largely unpoliced universe of untrustworthy test results underlies bold changes in education policy, the findings show
…In some of the nation’s biggest cities, dynamic district leaders preached “data-driven” decision-making and even linked test scores to bonuses or principal hiring and firing decisions. Many boasted of taking a corporate approach to education, focusing on student test achievement as the single most important measure of success. Some of the most persistently suspicious test scores nationwide, however, occurred in districts renowned for cutting-edge reforms. In Atlanta, for instance, former Superintendent Beverly Hall won national recognition as Superintendent of the Year in 2009. State investigators later confirmed scores that year were widely manipulated by educators who assisted students improperly and outright changed tens of thousands of their answers on state tests. In some Atlanta schools, cheating was an open secret for years. After students turned in their tests, teachers and administrators erased and corrected their mistakes — even holding a “changing party” at a teacher’s home. In another school, staff opened plastic wrap securing test booklets with a razor, then melted the wrap shut again after making forbidden copies…Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch said the incessant focus on testing has eroded the quality of instruction. “All of this is predictable,” said Ravitch, a former top U.S. Department of Education official who in recent years reversed her support for testing and tough accountability measures. “We’re warping the education system in order to meet artificial targets.”
* * *
War on Words: NYC Dept. of Education Wants 50 ‘Forbidden’ Words Banned from Standardized Tests
CBS New York, March 26, 2012
Teaser: “‘Dinosaur,’ ‘Birthday,’ ‘Halloween,’ ‘Poverty,’ ‘Divorce’ Among Those Suggested”
George Carlin is rolling over in his grave. The New York City Department of Education is waging a war on words of sorts, and is seeking to have words they deem upsetting removed from standardized tests. Fearing that certain words and topics can make students feel unpleasant, officials are requesting 50 or so words be removed from city-issued tests. The word “dinosaur” made the hit list because dinosaurs suggest evolution which creationists might not like, WCBS 880′s Marla Diamond reported. “Halloween” is targeted because it suggests paganism; a “birthday” might not be happy to all because it isn’t celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses…Words that suggest wealth are excluded because they could make kids jealous. “Poverty” is also on the forbidden list…Also banned are references to “divorce” and “disease,” because kids taking the tests may have relatives who split from spouses or are ill…Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE is simply giving guidance to the test developers. “So we’re not an outlier in being politically correct. This is just making sure that test makers are sensitive in the development of their tests,” Walcott said Monday.
* * *
90 Degrees in Winter: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like
Bill McKibben, The Nation, March 20, 2012
Beginning in mid-March…[the National Weather Service’s] various offices began issuing bulletins that sounded slightly shaken. “There’s extremes in weather, but seeing something like this is impressive and unprecedented,” Chicago NWS meteorologist Richard Castro told the Daily Herald. “It’s extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year long periods of records to break records day after day after day,” the office added in an official statement…It’s hard to overstate how impossible this weather is — when you have nearly a century and a half of records, they should be hard to break, much less smash. But this is like Barry Bonds on steroids if his steroids were on steroids, an early season outbreak of heat completely without precedent in its scale and spread…[W]e’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing this week. Except, of course, in the models that the climatologists have been printing out on their supercomputers for the last two decades. This is what climate change looks like, just like last year’s new record for multibillion-dollar weather disasters is what climate change looks like.
* * *
The cost of affluence
Guy McPherson, Nature Bats Last, March 30, 2012
[NOTE: Dr. McPherson is Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. I’ve linked to his work here in the past, and I was alerted to his new and hair-raising article/essay by the fact that he links it to, and builds its basic emotional and philosophical structure around, a recent post I made here at The Teeming Brain about Kierkegaard’s philosophy of anxiety. As you can see from the following excerpt, Dr. McPherson’s essay should rightly be read in tandem with McKibben’s piece above and the story immediately below.]
According to NASA, anthropogenic climate change is primarily due to human actions. The ongoing crisis is intensifying, and much of North America is experiencing summer in March. Ninety degrees in winter is not normal, climate-change deniers notwithstanding. Ditto for this year’s Silent Spring. If you’re under the age of 35, you’ve never experienced “normal” temperatures despite a weakening sun. In fact, February 1985 was the last time global mean monthly average was below the twentieth-century average. Already, climate has shifted to a new state. That state can only be described as dire. And yet because Earth’s climate system behaves in a nonlinear manner, future changes could occur very rapidly, making it seem as if more than three decades without a below-normal temperature reading were the good ol’ days. What does the future hold? First, a warning: Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
* * *
Scientists warn of ’emergency on global scale’
American Foreign Press, March 29, 2012
Leading scientists on Thursday called on the upcoming Rio Summit to grapple with environmental ills that they said pointed to “a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.” In a “State of the Planet” declaration issued after a four-day conference, the scientists said Earth was now facing unprecedented challenges, from water stress, pollution and species loss to spiralling demands for food…”These threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.” The conference gathered nearly 3,000 environment scientists, economists, business executives and policymakers in the runup to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio…[They called on governments] to scrap obsessions with gross domestic product (GDP) as the only benchmark of progress. Governments should also include environment, health and social factors. “A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of wellbeing and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in wellbeing at all scales,” the declaration said.
* * *
The Internet’s Cult of Now
Dominic Basulto, Big Think, March 27, 2012
There is only one measure of time that matters to the current Internet generation: the here and now. The Cult of Now is influencing everything that we do and every interaction we have on the Internet, especially since providing a live, real-time update is often no more difficult than pressing a button on a smart phone. We now perceive our digital lives as a continuous flow of information, and as the intensity of this information flow builds, it means that “the now” gets a disproportionate amount of attention and focus in our society. The Cult of Now satisfies our desire for instant digital gratification, but does it impoverish us in other ways?…Is it possible that, as a society, we will no longer be able to remember the past and no longer envision the future, when all of our collective energies are put into imagining the now? This fixation on the “now” necessarily leaves us short-sighted, unable to see the bigger picture. The real-time generation has the opportunity to become the greatest generation, but only if it remembers the accumulated stock of wisdom of knowledge stored not in streams and feeds, but in books, folders and dusty old archives.
* * *
Hippies head for Noah’s Ark: Queue here for rescue aboard alien spaceship
Oliver Pickup, The Independent, March 25, 2012
Teaser: “Thousands of New Agers descend on mountain they see as haven from December’s apocalypse.”
A rapidly increasing stream of New Age believers — or esoterics, as locals call them — have descended in their camper van-loads on the usually picturesque and tranquil Pyrenean village of Bugarach. They believe that when apocalypse strikes on 21 December this year, the aliens waiting in their spacecraft inside Pic de Bugarach will save all the humans near by and beam them off to the next age. As the cataclysmic date — which, according to eschatological beliefs and predicted astrological alignments, concludes a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar — nears, the goings-on around the peak have become more bizarre and ritualistic…Upwards of 100,000 people are thought to be planning a trip to the mountain, 30 miles west of Perpignan, in time for 21 December, and opportunistic entrepreneurs are shamelessly cashing in on the phenomenon…Jean-Pierre Delord, the perplexed mayor of Bugarach, has flagged up the situation to the French authorities, requesting they scramble the army to the tiny village for fear of a mass suicide. It has also caught the attention of France’s sect watchdog, Miviludes.
* * *
Santorum video evokes horror classics to bash Obama
Lisa Richwine and Liana B. Baker, Reuters, March 28, 2012
Complete with eerie music, the video is a teaser for an eight-part series and looks like an “Amityville Horror,” “Twilight Zone” and Alfred Hitchcock mash-up. Using the time-tested tools of horror masters, it paints a picture of a frightening future if Obama wins re-election…An Obama campaign staff member in Chicago said Santorum was trying to scare Americans into voting for him. Other Obama backers complained the video likened the president to Ahmadinejad by quickly flashing alternating images of the two. The Democratic National Committee, on its website, calls the video a “new low” and asks for donations to “fight back.” “I don’t know what goes too far about it,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s longtime media strategist and ad maker. He said the campaign was warning there will be a nuclear-armed Iran and higher gas prices if Obama were elected. Santorum, on the other hand, would get tough with Tehran, he said.
[NOTE: To see the part where the ad “likens the president to Ahmadinejad,” pay careful attention beginning at about the 35-second mark. The video shows a television screen that displays Ahmadinejad’s face, and suddenly there are at least two rapid and basically subliminal — but clearly and unmistakably real — flickers of Obama’s face replacing the Iranian President’s. “A new low,” indeed.]