This week we bring you an exceptionally rich list of excellent reading and, in two cases, excellent listening. Topics include: the inherent — and ongoing — problem with financial institutions that are “too big to fail”; the siege of higher education in its traditional form by tech startups and the exploding online college movement; the overt, frightening, and thoroughly Orwellian/dystopian militarization of America’s cities as domestic law enforcement is remade in the mold of a counterinsurgency operation; the sci-fi sounding but very real possibility of having your brain hacked and your sensitive data stolen via consumer-grade EEG headsets used in gaming and other activities; a brilliant interview with esoteric author Guido Mina di Sospiro by Teeming Brain columnist David Metcalfe at Reality Sandwich; research into the phenomenon of hearing voices and the ways that “normal” people can learn to speak to God; excellent new pieces on F. Scott Fitgerald’s epic depression, H.P. Lovecraft’s life and work (from the Smithsonian [!]), and the discovery of a copy of Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley to Lord Byron; and two recent pieces from NPR on musical matters, the first examining America’s interesting shift toward a craving for “sadness and ambiguity” in pop music over the past 50 years, and the second profiling John Cage on the hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Too Big to Fail and Too Risky to Exist
William J. Quirk, The American Scholar, Autumn 2012
Teaser: Four years after the 2008 financial crisis, banks are behaving more recklessly than ever
The financial crisis of 2008 now looks more and more like a defining moment, a crisis of capitalism. Globally, it has produced, in addition to a crippling recession, an unending debt crisis. Our own escalating, unpayable debt makes the future of U.S. power increasingly uncertain. Government borrowing and spending policies have failed to stimulate growth in the economy. The crisis is, at its heart, a cultural failure combined with a political collapse. Behavior by bank executives that once was discouraged by a lifted eyebrow created complex structures abetted by an aggressive reading of the statutes—anything not explicitly prohibited was considered permissible … Four years after the crisis began, another election is upon us. What have we learned? Where are we now? What are the prospects for meaningful reform of the financial system? Will our debt crush us? Should we let it? Is it legitimate? What comes next? An open discussion of these questions needs to take place now. The health of the financial system, and of our republic, depends on it. Yet for the bankers, it is still business as usual. In his book, Bailout, Neil Barofsky, the former special inspector general in charge of oversight of TARP (the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program), writes that a major cost of the bailout is the perpetuation of the existing financial system: Paulson and his successor, Timothy Geithner,“hadn’t just saved the banks, they’d also preserved a status quo that was dangerously broken, and in so doing they might have actually increased the danger lurking in our financial architecture.”
The Siege of Academe
Kevin Carey, The Washington Monthly, September/October 2012
Via The Browser
Teaser: For years, Silicon Valley has failed to breach the walls of higher education with disruptive technology. But the tide of battle is changing. A report from the front lines.
According to the National Venture Capital Association, investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year. For the huge generator of innovation, technology, and wealth that is Silicon Valley, higher education is a particularly fat target right now. This hype has happened before, of course. Back in the 1990s…many people confidently predicted that the Internet would render brick-and-mortar universities obsolete. It hasn’t happened yet, in part because colleges are a lot more complicated than retail bookstores. Higher education is a publicly subsidized, heavily regulated, culturally entrenched sector that has stubbornly resisted digital rationalization. But the defenders of the ivy-covered walls have never been more nervous about the Internet threat. In June, a panicked board of directors at the University of Virginia fired (and, after widespread outcry, rehired) their president, in part because they worried she was too slow to move Thomas Jefferson’s university into the digital world. The ongoing carnage in the newspaper industry provides an object lesson of what can happen when a long-established, information-focused industry’s business model is challenged by low-price competitors online. The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for curing the chronic college cost disease that is driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It may also be an existential threat to institutions that have long played a crucial role in American life.
City Under Siege
Jacob Silverman, The New Inquiry, September 6, 2012
The police presence [that I encountered before a possible protest in New York City on June 13] was not about preventing criminality or violence. Rather, the officers were there both as a show of force and to fulfill what has become the NYPD’s signal philosophy since 9/11: pre-emption. Pre-emption is among the most important philosophical and strategic underpinnings for counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, and after years of being honed in Fallujah and Kandahar, COIN has been imported to the West, where it compliments the growing militarization of law enforcement and the transformation of local police forces into hybrid paramilitary-intelligence organizations. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, a book published two years ago by Stephen Graham, a professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, may be the central text to understanding this new condition … In New York, armed National Guardsmen patrol Grand Central Station and other transportation hubs. The NYPD — which has been turned into a full-fledged intelligence agency, with military-grade equipment, civilian analysts, overseas offices, and in-house CIA liaisons — maps and surveils Muslim enclaves, recalling Israeli practices in the West Bank, the ur-model for counterinsurgency, and raids “known” activist households before protests even take place. Taken together — and one must also cite the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice, which has grown immensely in the past 10 years — these policies reflect a stunning reconfiguration of policing and of how cities are secured against urban publics, which is to say, themselves.
Researchers Hack Brainwaves to Reveal PINs, Other Personal Data
Geeta Dayal, Wired, August 29, 2012
Suggested by Jesús Olmo
Don’t you dare even think about your banking account password when you slap on those fancy new brainwave headsets. Or at least that seems to be the lesson of a new study which found that sensitive personal information, such as PIN numbers and credit card data, can be gleaned from the brainwave data of users wearing popular consumer-grade EEG headsets. A team of security researchers from Oxford, UC Berkeley, and the University of Geneva say that they were able to deduce digits of PIN numbers, birth months, areas of residence and other personal information by presenting 30 headset-wearing subjects with images of ATM machines, debit cards, maps, people, and random numbers in a series of experiments. The paper, titled “On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain Computer Interfaces,” represents the first major attempt to uncover potential security risks in the use of the headsets … The researchers envision a scenario in which a potential malicious attacker could write “brain spyware” to harvest private information from the user, which could be legitimately downloaded as an app … “The simplicity of our experiments suggests the possibility of more sophisticated attacks,” write the researchers, warning that “with the ever-increasing quality of devices, success rate of attacks will likely improve.”
The Forbidden Book: An Interview with Guido Mina de Sospira
David Metcalfe,Reality Sandwich, August 21, 2012
[NOTE: The interviewer here is Teeming Brain columnist David Metcalfe. Along with the fascination of the main content itself, be sure to notice the thriving and sprawling conversation that the interview has spawned among Reality Sandwich’s readers in the comments section.]
There are novels that deal with magic, and there are magical novels. Guido Mina di Sospiro and Joscelyn Godwin have co-authored a work which stands masterfully at the center of both traditions. The Forbidden Book, recently released by Disinfo Books, now part of Red Wheel / Weiser, is a fantastic bit of fiction whose narrative takes us into a world of esoteric intrigue and initiation, while it is, in itself, an esoteric text worthy of unraveling.
David: What was your and Godwin’s intention in writing the book?
Guido: Our goal was that of writing an allegory of a certain mental process that can be brought into being by alchemical texts and more or less gifted and devoted practitioners. Then there was a more mundane intention — to expose the imposture of popular works of fiction that promise magic but do not deliver it … Our take on the esoteric or theological thriller differs from the average. Most such works exploit a public fascination with esotericism or magic, but only skirt the issue, as the mystery is routinely solved by rational means.
We likewise bring back to life ancient rituals, secret societies, and so on, but then have the leading characters attempt to solve the mystery by esoteric means.
Visions for All
Bruce Bower, ScienceNews, April 7, 2012
[Stanford University anthropologist Tanya] Luhrmann spent more than four years interviewing evangelical Christians in Chicago and Palo Alto, Calif., for her 2012 book When God Talks Back. Her conversations…are part of an ongoing effort to try to understand how ordinary people can meet God through spiritual hallucinations. Researchers studying hallucinations often focus on people with schizophrenia and other psychotic ailments who experience incessant, unwanted and distressing hallucinations. But emotionally stable, well-functioning individuals can have unusual sensory experiences too. Luhrmann’s evidence suggests that this regular-folks brand of hallucinating is much more common than most people think, and understanding such hallucinations could offer new insights into how the mind works. People who effortlessly get caught up in imaginary worlds, nature and music are more likely to have hallucinations, for example. Luhrmann has also identified ways that, through practice, such hallucinatory abilities can be enhanced. “Given the right training in how to pay attention to one’s mind, it’s easy to go on a walk with God,” Luhrmann says … Westerners usually keep these experiences secret…because they know that people who have hallucinations are often assumed to be mentally ill. Elsewhere in the world, people openly discuss their hallucinatory experiences. In many non-Western cultures, such as Thailand’s Buddhist society, troubled minds are viewed as open to manipulation by ghosts and other forms of invisible, supernatural energy, Luhrmann says … However minds and brains instigate hallucinations, cultural training may lie at the heart of sensing the immaterial, Luhrmann says.
Thomas Heise, Berfrois, September 4, 2012
Via The Browser
[NOTE: This is excruciating and fascinating to read. Rarely has the mythic quality of F. Scott Fitzerald’s horrific personal descent been examined more ably or absorbingly.]
At what should have been the height of his novelistic powers in the mid 1930s, he was listless, reckless in his personal affairs, sick with tuberculosis and jaw-droppingly drunk. As Fitzgerald himself would later admit, he had become a poor caretaker of everything he possessed, even his own talent … More than most people, Fitzgerald was conscious of how the logic of the market infiltrated all spheres of life, coding itself deep into the imagination and affecting the very terms in which we think about ourselves … In the depths of the Depression—economic, physical, mental, spiritual—Fitzgerald turned to pecuniary metaphors to describe his own condition when writing his personal essays for Esquire. He did so partly because they were ready at hand and partly because he wanted to show the way he himself enabled the corrosive influence of the market to inflate his own ego and puncture his self-worth. “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt,” he revealed. By his own admission, he was “like a man over-drawing at his bank.”
Today We Celebrate the Short, Unhappy Life of H.P. Lovecraft
Smithsonian.com, August 20, 2012
[NOTE: You know we’ve turned a corner — in a good way — when the Smithsonian Institution officially takes note of Lovecraft’s birthday by publishing a nice little piece on his life and legacy. Yes, the article significantly overplays the “Lovecraft was a sad weirdo obsessed with the macabre” shtick, which has long been a fairly prevalent and erroneous view among a significant portion of the Lovecraft-aware population. But the basic facts are there, and it’s still really nice to see HPL getting this kind of attention from such a publication.]
Howard Phillips Lovecraft – circa 1900
Today, “weird fiction” fans everywhere toast the birth of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, more commonly known as H.P. Lovecraft. Though Lovecraft left this world in 1937, his prolific short stories, poems and essays continue to feed the imagination and nightmares of readers around the world, including fanboy and author Stephen King, the creators of the Batman series and the band Metallica … Lovecraft’s sad, short life informed his now-considered-genius writing – the silver lining of nearly 5 decades of suffering. He was born 122 years ago today, on August 20, 1890, and life more or less went downhill from there … Later in life, Lovecraft’s stories often drew upon his scientific knowledge and he became one of the first writers to mix science fiction and horror … He was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine, and, ever the macabre-obsessed weirdo, kept meticulous notes of the various unpleasant ways his malady manifested itself. On March 15, 1937, ten years after moving back to Providence, Lovecraft passed away, his pain finally coming to an end. Only after his death was Lovecraft’s fiction finally recognized as works of genius by horror and fantasy genre fans. In 1977, his disciples pooled their funds to purchase a respectable headstone for the long-deceased master, inscribing it with the phrase “I AM PROVIDENCE” taken from one of Lovecraft’s letters.
Discovered: Lord Byron’s Copy of Frankenstein, with Love from Mary Shelley
The Huffington Post, June 9, 2012
A copy of Frankenstein that belonged to Lord Bryon and features an inscription by Mary Shelley has been discovered in a family library — and is expected to sell for £400,000 at auction. The copy of the best known fiction of the Romantic era had lain untouched for more than 50 years in the library of Lord Jay, the economist and Labour politician. His grandson Sammy, was sorting through his political papers for the archives of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, when he made the discovery. “I saw the book lying at an angle in the corner of the top shelf. On opening it, I saw the title page, recognised what it was at once and leafed hungrily through the text – it was only when I flicked idly back to the first blank that I saw the inscription in cursive black ink, “To Lord Byron, from the author”,” explained the 23-year-old. The next day Richard Ovenden, deputy librarian at the Bodleian, came to the house and verified the inscription as being in Mary Shelley’s hand.
Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop’s Emotional Evolution
Alix Spiegel, NPR, September 4, 2012
[NOTE: At the NPR page you can listen to this story in addition to reading it. This is highly advisable, since the piece as it originally aired on All Things Considered features many musical excerpts.]
Six years ago, Glenn Schellenberg decided to do an experiment. Schellenberg works at the University of Toronto, where he studies the psychology of music. The idea behind his experiment couldn’t have been more straightforward: He simply wanted to play music for people and get them to rate how happy or sad that music made them feel … So Schellenberg sat down with a grad student and told him to find both happy-sounding fast music in a major key and sad-sounding slow music in a minor key. Essentially, they were looking for emotionally clear music that they could play for their future research subjects. But while the grad student had no trouble finding fast, happy-sounding music in a major key when he looked at older musical eras — from the classical period up through the 1960s — it got a lot harder when it came to contemporary pop music. There were plenty of fast-tempo songs, but almost all of the songs he found were in a minor key, and didn’t sound unambiguously happy; they were more emotionally complicated than that. “After the second or third time, he came back with songs that — in terms of their musical characteristics — were actually mixed rather than purely happy-sounding,” Schellenberg says. “I started to think, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Had there been some kind of shift, Schellenberg wondered, in the emotional content of music since the 1960s? How had the psychology of our music changed? … According to Schellenberg’s study, in the latter half of the last decade, there were more than twice as many hit songs in a minor key as there were in the latter half of the 1960s. “People are responding positively to music that has these characteristics that are associated with negative emotions,” he says … “People have come to appreciate sadness and ambiguity more,” Schellenberg says. “Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be complex similarly.” Sadness and ambiguity: the latest emotional fashion.
Music Is Everywhere: John Cage at 100
Tom Vitale, NPR, September 5, 2012
[NOTE: As with the article above, this one also appeared on All Things Considered and can likewise be listened to at the original page. It’s well worth hearing, not only because it features musical excerpts from Cage but because his voice, which appears at several points in the story, is simply exquisite.]
Kay Larson is the author of a new book called Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. She says Cage’s ideas had a huge influence, especially on the visual arts. “The point is to look around you and see what’s present in the world, and what that music of the world sounds like, and then make music out of that,” Larson says. “He changed the entire culture of the arts in America and Europe” … In the 1940s, Cage pioneered electronic music, creating works out of randomly assembled snippets of audiotape. But perhaps Cage’s greatest invention was his approach to music and art. After two years studying Zen Buddhism, Cage came up with the idea of using chance to compose his music. He used the I Ching and literally rolled the dice to determine which elements went where, freeing the music from the composer’s preconceptions. Cage said he wanted to see each act as new, as a fresh experience — even something you do every day. “Gradually, and through a study of Oriental philosophy and through the use of chance operations,” Cage said, “I have found ways, I think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my mind.
IMAGES: Books image via FreeDigitalImages.net; “Emotiv Epoc (developer)” by drbakker under Creative Commons; “F. Scott Fitzgerald 1921” by The World’s Work (The World’s Work (June 1921), p. 192) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; “Howard Phillips Lovecraft – circa 1900” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; “Mary Shelley” by Richard Rothwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons