This week’s recommended articles and essays (and videos) include: the political battle behind climate science research; the rising push for a future where urban infrastructure is relocated underground; a look at Wal-Mart’s destructive effect on America’s middle class; the alteration of reading, writing, and publishing by the snooping technology that accompanies e-books; a brilliant, long essay by Theodore Roszak about the musical and psychedelic cultural streams that gave birth to today’s cyberpunkish utopia/dystopia of a computer-permeated civilization; an essay about America’s dangerous social experiment in raising galactically spoiled and lazy kids; interesting speculations about the relationship between Walt Whitman, Frankenstein, and Dracula; the use of infrasound for military purposes and to create perceived supernatural manifestations; a consideration of the relationship between movies and consciousness as informed by Inception; and a report on a new survey showing that a majority of Americans “believe” in UFOs.
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The Battle over Climate Science
Tom Clynes, PopSci, June 21, 2012
Teaser: Climate scientists routinely face death threats, hate mail, nuisance lawsuits and political attacks. How much worse can it get?
[NOTE: Along with this story’s obvious interesting-ness factor stemming from its subject, it’s also valuable for the glimpse it provides into the world of paid propagandists and lobbying groups whose influence on both public opinion and corrupt and/or misguided politicians has been poisonous to public discourse.]
“Weird” is perhaps the mildest way to describe the growing number of threats and acts of intimidation that climate scientists face. A climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory answered a late-night knock to find a dead rat on his doorstep and a yellow Hummer speeding away. An MIT hurricane researcher found his inbox flooded daily for two weeks last January with hate mail and threats directed at him and his wife. And in Australia last year, officials relocated several climatologists to a secure facility after climate-change skeptics unleashed a barrage of vandalism, noose brandishing and threats of sexual attacks on the scientists’ children. Those crude acts of harassment often come alongside more-sophisticated legal and political attacks.
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Our underground future
Leon Neyfakh,The Boston Globe, June 24, 2012
A cadre of engineers who specialize in tunneling and excavation say that we have barely begun to take advantage of the underground’s versatility. The underground is the next great frontier, they say, and figuring out how best to use it should be a priority as we look ahead to the shape our civilization will take. “We have so much room underground,” said Sam Ariaratnam, a professor at Arizona State University and the chairman of the International Society for Trenchless Technology. “That underground real estate—people need to start looking at it. And they are starting to look at it.” The federal government has taken an interest, convening a panel of specialists under the banner of the National Academy of Engineering to produce a report, due out later this year, on the potential uses for America’s underground space, and in particular its importance in building sustainable cities. The long-term vision is one in which the surface of the earth is reserved for the things we want to see and be around—houses, schools, yards, parks—while all the other facilities that are needed to make a city run, from water treatment plants to data banks to freight systems, hum away underground. Though the basic idea has existed for decades, new engineering techniques and an increasing interest in sustainable urban growth have created fresh momentum for what once seemed like a notion out of Jules Verne.
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Wal-Mart: 50 Years of Gutting America’s Middle Class
Stacy Mitchell, Common Dreams, July 2, 2012
Teaser: Walmart’s explosive growth has gutted two key pillars of the American middle class: small businesses and well-paid manufacturing jobs.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I personally buy things at Wal-Mart. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the problem with it.]
As communities lost their local retailers, there was less demand for services like accounting and graphic design, less advertising revenue for local media outlets, and fewer accounts for local banks. As Walmart moved into communities, the volume of money circulating from business to business declined. More dollars flowed into Walmart’s tills and out of the local economy. In exchange for the many middle-income jobs Walmart eliminated, all we got in return were low-wage jobs for the workers who now toil in its stores. To get by, many Walmart employees have no choice but to rely on food stamps and other public assistance. Walmart’s history is the story of what has gone wrong in the American economy.
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Your E-Book Is Reading You
Alexandra Alter,The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2012
Teaser: Digital-book publishers and retailers now know more about their readers than ever before. How that’s changing the experience of reading.
In the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them. For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public. The major new players in e-book publishing — Amazon, Apple and Google — can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books…Jim Hilt, [Barnes & Noble’s] vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.
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From Satori to Silicon Valley
Theodore Roszak, Making the Macintosh: Technology and Culture in Silicon Valley, Stanford University, 2000
[NOTE: Brilliant. Fascinating. Awesome. And long (12,000 words), and depth-filled. A must-read history of the cultural and spiritual influences that led to the modern-day, cyberpunk-ish computer/Internet culture of techno-utopian dreams in the midst of an unfolding socioeconomic dystopia. Includes copious insightful commentary on the way the whole thing has been driven since the 1960s by music and psychedelics.]
It is sad in the extreme to know, as we now do, that before Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary brought the gospel of LSD to the streets, the CIA had long since undertaken an exhaustive run of experiments with the hallucinogens using human beings as guinea pigs to explore the possibilities of mind control. Similarly, it now seems abundantly clear that long before the personal computer has the chance to restore democratic values, the major corporations and the security agencies of the world will have used the technology to usher in a new era of advanced surveillance and control. As for the space rocket and satellite, we can be sure that by the time the L-5 Society has raised the funds for its first modest colony, the military will already be encamped on the high frontier armed with unheard of genocidal weaponry. It was an attractive hope that the high technology of our society might be wrested from the grip of benighted forces and used to restore us to an idyllic natural state. And for a brief moment — while the music swelled, and the lights flashed, and the dope cast its spell — it looked like the road forward to many bright spirits. But ultimately — and really in very short order — the synthesis crumbled, and the technophiliac values of the counter culture won out. They are, after all, the values of the mainstream and the commanding heights, forces that have proved far more tenacious than most members of the counter culture guessed.
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Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, July 2, 2012
Teaser: Why do kids rule the roost?
[NOTE: Don’t dismiss this one too quickly by just skimming it and thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” It contains some really cogent and bracing information, including a comparison of contemporary American young people and family dynamics to those observed by anthropologists among less technologically advanced people. The contrasts are truly striking.]
With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well…What values do we convey by turning our homes into warehouses for dolls? By assigning our kids chores and then rewarding them when they screw up? By untying and then retying their shoes for them? It almost seems as if we’re actively trying to raise a nation of “adultescents.” And, perhaps without realizing it, we are.
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Frankenstein and Walt Whitman’s brain: “This is a grewsome story”
Cynthia Haven, The Book Haven, Stanford University, June 13, 2012
In the 1931 movie Frankenstein, the doctor’s hunchback assistant Franz raids the medical school’s lab to retrieve a brain for the monster. Whoops! He drops the jar that has the good brain and takes the bad brain instead – the brain of a demented murderer. (Video below.) Who would have guessed that there is some factual basis for this set piece? Walt Whitman’s brain may have been on the back of someone’s mind as the scenario was written, though it cannot be proved for certain. You see, Walt Whitman’s postmortem brain was put into some sort of a jam jar, and somebody dropped it, and it shattered. The brain, not the jar…or rather, probably, both. Or neither. Actually, it’s not certain the brain ever made it into a jar, or was dropped while it was in a sort of a rubber sack…The denouement was revealed years later by the renowned anatomist, Dr. Edward Spitzka in 1907. A throwaway comment in the doctor’s magnum opus admitted that the brain was “said to have been dropped” by “a careless attendant in the laboratory.” Investigations by Whitman’s friends revealed the dismaying facts: the brain “was destroyed either during the autopsy or while being conveyed to the jar, or in the jar before the hardening process by formaldehyde had been completed” … “the records state quite definitely that the brain was accidentally broken to bits during the pickling process.” Whitman’s devoted friend William Sloane Kennedy scribbled, “This is a grewsome story!”
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Walt Whitman, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Afterlife
Austin Allen,Big Think, June 24, 2012
[The anecdote about Whitman’s posthumously destroyed brain] makes him only a tenuous footnote to the Frankenstein legend. After all, it’s the dropped brains that fail to make it into the skull of the monster. But the connection becomes eerie in light of his much stronger claim to being Dracula. Dennis R. Perry explored this matter in depth in a 1986 Virginia Quarterly Review article, noting the “striking” physical similarities between Whitman and the vampire of Bram Stoker’s novel: “both have long white hair, a heavy moustache…and a leonine bearing.” Perry finds an equally striking parallel between an image from “Song of Myself” and an image from Dracula, both involving a mouth pressed erotically to a man’s breast. (In only one case does the scene involve blood.) Then there is the “rhythm, parallelism, and balance” of Dracula’s speech, which Perry argues is recognizably Whitmanian. It turns out Stoker may have had a bit of a crush on Whitman, though whether this went beyond literary hero-worship is anyone’s guess…Three years after last meeting Whitman (and two before Whitman died), Stoker began work on Dracula. Of course, this is all circumstantial evidence. But once you start reading Whitman into Dracula, it becomes hard not to read Dracula back into Whitman. Maybe it took an imagination as bizarre as Stoker’s to see it, but the Good Gray Poet of Brooklyn has a remarkably vampiric streak. It isn’t just his fascination with death, coffins, and the grave; it’s his obsession with lingering after death, with moving unseen among the living…So the strange cosmic career of Walt Whitman continues. He is large, he contains multitudes, and those multitudes turn out to contain monsters. Would he have rejected his posthumous roles in horror films, his accidental influence on Trueblood and the Twilight books? No, he would have relished them. (Who knows, may be relishing them yet.) The man who claimed to have been cared for by dinosaurs before his birth (“Song of Myself,” section 44); who declared himself the equal of Jehovah and Allah and all the other gods (section 41); who believed most profoundly that he was what Carl Sagan called “star stuff,” his body of a piece with the universe and everything in it—this man, who expected everything out of death, and nothing but the unexpected, would hardly have batted an eyelash at turning into Dracula.
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Jack Sargeant, Fortean Times, December 2001
Teaser: An acoustic weapon disorients rioters and afflicts an invading army with nausea. It can create ‘ghosts’ and arouse animal passions. Fantastic? Jack Sargeant, delving into the possible uses and abuses of infrasound, isn’t so sure. Additional material by David Sutton.
Predictably, the media image of the use of infrasound is as a weapon that disables the body and discomforts the mind; however, it has also been discussed in association with enlightened meditative states. The mantras and chants of monks, priests and followers of a variety of religions are commonly believed to have a profoundly calming effect on practitioners just as some musical instruments — like Tibetan thigh bone trumpets — are thought to resonate at the same frequency as the human body, whilst Tibetan singing bowls are believed to trigger specific frequencies in the brain. A significant part of this old ‘mystical’ technology is the ritual buildings (tombs, chambers, cathedrals and temples) designed to amplify or modulate the resonances created by rhythmic chants, singing or music…We might not notice it, but infrasound permeates our daily environment; the machines around us, the buildings, and the weather all generate infrasound frequencies. The effects may be as unsettling as a ghostly vision, as tiring as the pressure created before a storm, or as invigorating as a good night’s sleep. Disabling forms of infrasound may be used in future wars or to quell civil riots and demonstrations. With important consequences like these, it is unsettling to realise that we actually know far too little about the audio frequencies that surround us.
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Hollywood, Inception, and the Cinematic Dream State
Ayesha Khanna, Big Think, June 20, 2012
Cinema can be as cathartic as a great psychedelic experience. In fact, I think movies provide the best psychedelic trips because they are highly tuneable and controllable, no doubt assisted by an inhibited prefrontal cortex. Nolan can design a mind-blowing hero’s journey in every movie without the existential risk you’d get taking DMT or LSD. The level of precision a filmmaker has in “sculpting” the details of the cinematic experience means he can carry our psyches along for the ride of a lifetime. He can guide us towards a place of ecstatic illumination…In 1970, Gene Youngblood wrote a book called Expanded Cinema in which he calls for a cinema that will satisfy the new and restless consciousness of modern man. Our existential malaise, having only been exacerbated by material wealth in the Western world, requires a new form of media to shake us into a state of wonderment and awe. “When we say expanded cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness,” he writes. “Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life itself, it is a process of becoming, a part of man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.” This is the ultimate inception: an epic quest for self-awareness.
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UFOs Exist, Say 36 Percent in National Geographic Survey
Alon Harish, ABC News, June 27, 2012
[NOTE: Cue the X-Files theme. As in, literally. The video story accompanying this piece naturally, inevitably, starts with this sound cue and continues in such a vein throughout. It’s still a semi-interesting story, but the degradation of the entire UFO subject into a question of “believers” vs. “skeptics” remains galling, absurd, and destructive.]
If you believe in UFOs, you may be in better company than you think. Thirty-six percent of Americans, about 80 million people, believe UFOs exist, and a tenth believe they have spotted one, a new National Geographic poll shows. Seventeen percent said they did not believe in UFOs, or Unidentified Flying Objects, and nearly half of those surveyed said they were unsure. Perhaps reflective of today’s political climate, there appears to be near-universal skepticism of government — nearly four-fifths of respondents said they believe the government has concealed information about UFOs from the public. The study, commissioned in anticipation of National Geographic Channel’s “Chasing UFOs” series premiering Friday night, was not all serious, said Brad Dancer, National Geographic’s senior vice president for audience and business development. Respondents were asked whether President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney would handle an alien invasion better (Obama won 65 percent in that contest) and which superhero they would call in to fight off the attack (the Hulk beat out Batman and Spider-Man)…A growing number of Americans have come to believe that Earth is not the only planet in the universe hosting life, he said. The study showed that 77 percent of Americans believe there are signs that aliens have visited Earth…Those numbers did not surprise longtime UFO investigator David MacDonald, director of the non-profit Mutual UFO Network, who said the idea of contact with extraterrestrials has become commonplace in the last few decades. “We have grown up with ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica,'” MacDonald said. “We’re at the point where we’d say ‘What planet are you from? Oh well, let’s have a beer.'”