THIS WEEK: A report on the riots in Sweden and what they may portend for affluent liberal-democratic nations that have thought themselves insulated from such crises. Thoughts on how the Internet is using us all. The crumbling facade of mainstream authority and received wisdom in public health pronouncements, along with internal strife in the medical community over how — or whether — to try to explain uncertainty and nuance in medical science to the general public. The survival, and in fact centrality, of philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular amid our age of scientific confusion. An interview with science fiction legend and culture war lightning rod Orson Scott Card on politics, art, and writing. A review of a new book about “deciding to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being part of a community,” which may offer “a plausible way out of the postmodern alienation and ironic posturing” that characterizes contemporary views of the good life. A three-minute animation of the main points from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
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Stockholm Riots Leave Sweden’s Dreams of Perfect Society Up in Smoke
Colin Freeman, The Telegraph, May 25, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is more than just a little troubling.]
Teaser: A week of disturbances in Sweden’s capital has tested the Scandinavian nation’s reputation for tolerance, reports Colin Freeman.
Like the millions of other ordinary Swedes whom he now sees himself as one of, Mohammed Abbas fears his dream society is now under threat. When he first arrived in Stockholm as refugee from Iran in 1994, the vast Husby council estate where he settled was a mixture of locals and foreigners, a melting pot for what was supposed to be a harmonious, multi-racial paradise. Two decades on, though, “white flight” has left only one in five of Husby’s flats occupied by ethnic Swedes, and many of their immigrant replacements do not seem to share his view that a new life in Sweden, is a dream come true. Last week, the neighbourhood erupted into rioting, sparking some of the fiercest urban unrest that Sweden has seen in decades, and a new debate about the success of racial integration.
“In the old days, the neighbourhood was more Swedish and life felt like a dream, but now there are just too many foreigners, and a new generation that has grown up here with just their own culture,” he said, gesturing towards the hooded youths milling around in Husby’s pedestrianised shopping precinct.
. . . This weekend, after six consecutive nights of rioting, Mr Mohammed was not the only one questioning the Swedish social model’s preference for the carrot over the stick. Many Swedes were left asking why a country that prides itself on a generous welfare state, liberal social attitudes and a welcoming attitude towards immigrants should ever have race riots in the first place.
. . . The disturbances erupted in Husby last weekend, after police shot dead an elderly man brandishing a machete inside his house. Angered at what they saw as police heavyhandedness, youths torched cars and buildings and stoned police and firefighters. Police were then forced to draft in extra manpower from outside Stockholm as the trouble spread to other immigrant-dominated suburbs of the capital and towns such as Orebro in central Sweden, where 25 masked youths set fire to a school on Friday night. Up too in smoke has gone the notion that egalitarian Sweden, which has largely avoided the global recession, might be immune from the social problems blighting less affluent parts of Europe.
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How the Internet Is Using Us All
Michael Saler, The Times Literary Supplement, May 22, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Saler, a history professor at the University of California, Davis (and someone whom we quoted just the other day in a Frankenstein-related vein), made a splash last year with the publication of his book As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, in which he examined such diverse subjects as Sherlock Holmes, the Lovecraft Mythos, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, World of Warcraft, and Second Life. Here he reviews and discusses two new books from two of the leading critics of Internet utopianism.]
If the origins of Western civilization are linked to ancient Greece, the future of human existence is pegged to Silicon Valley. The “Valley” is not merely a byword for technological innovation and economic growth: it is the lush seedbed for a new ideology of the twenty-first century, one that fills the void left by the Cold War. This ideology revolves around the internet. Its fundamentalist narrative has been spun over several decades from such diverse strands as free-market economics, techno-mysticism, anarchist leanings and utopian longings, and has now assumed a prominent place in everyday conversation alongside the technologies that inspired it. The internet ideology provides a quasi-religious vision of how human relationships will be transformed, material abundance created, and transcendence attained through human–machine interactions. Its prophets cite its decentralized and open structure as the model for a free, egalitarian and transparent world order. Their holy writ is Moore’s Law, which suggests that computers will “evolve” exponentially, doubling their prowess every two years or so. Their eschatology is the Singularity, which predicts that machines will outstrip humans in the near future, and benevolently uplift (or simply upload) mere mortals to nerd Nirvana. In the interim, the messy stuff of ordinary existence will be tamed by quantifying it into the bits and bytes of Information Theory, and transformed into profitable “Big Data” for the Information Economy.
The internet ideology is easy to mock but difficult to reject. It doesn’t really matter if some dismiss it as “cyber-utopian”, or ignore it while enjoying the internet’s practical benefits, or find aspects of it, such as the Singularity, ridiculous. (Sceptics are welcome to take a ten-week, $25,000 course at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, the mission of which is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”.) The internet ideology is difficult to dislodge because it is not simply an immaterial ideal; it is materially embedded in a global infrastructure made up of machines, software, private businesses and public institutions. This infrastructure influences how we think and behave, and once locked in may be difficult to change. Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier fear that the internet ideology has insidious consequences, despite its utopian intentions: as Lanier remarks, “It’s not a result of some evil scheme, but a side effect of an idiotic elevation of the fantasy that technology is getting smart and standing on its own, without people”. Both propose alternative visions, insisting that they are “cyber-realists” rather than “cyber-pessimists”. Their problem is not with the new technology, but with the way it is currently being deployed in narrowly instrumental and commercial ways.
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Eat Your Heart Out
Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times, March 8, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article about a recent development in the world of health studies is yet another instance of the crisis of legitimacy and authority that has come to characterize all areas and levels of life in America’s contemporary post-industrial, digitally connected society. The past decade has seen a dramatic convergence of ideas and positions that were formerly framed as fringey and kooky by received, mainstream opinion into the center of that mainstream itself. The rapid calling into question of what were presented to Americans as trustworthy dietary rules for achieving and maintaining health and longevity is emblematic of this trend. Nothing is more fundamental to our daily, material existence as humans than food, water, and air. Over a span of decades we handed over or had taken from us (or both) our sense of legitimate control and decision-making power over this fundamental aspect of our lives. The “experts,” we were told, had the real dope on how and what we “should” and “should not” eat, and more pointedly, on how we “should” and “should not” regard the very fact and act of eating itself. A chorus of voices has been whispering for many years that all is not as it seems, and that many ideas and principles and practices that have been presented to us as authoritative and trustworthy are actually shaky, backwards, and/or just plain wrong, whether because of honest error or because of the more nefarious possibility that big corporations and other powerful organizations have used their epic lobbying power to swindle and manipulate the rest of us for their own financial gain — as in, to name one especially pertinent example, the army of lobbyists from big agribusiness who basically wrote the official “healthy” dietary policies established by the U.S. federal government from the 1970s onward.]
Over the last several decades, it has become accepted wisdom that consuming saturated fat, the type found in meat and butter, is bad for you. . . . But new studies may be upending those assumptions. Researchers with the National Institutes of Health and other organizations recently resurrected the results of a long-overlooked Australian study conducted from 1966 to 1973. . . . [They add] to a small but unsettling body of data suggesting that consuming polyunsaturated oils, even though they reliably lower cholesterol, may nevertheless increase your risk of heart disease. In broader terms, the new analysis muddies the already murky issue of just how diet affects heart-disease risk and health in general. Polyunsaturated oils, while decreasing cholesterol, may simultaneously promote inflammation throughout the body, says Philip C. Calder, a professor of nutritional immunology at the University of Southampton, in England, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new analysis. This inflammation may initiate heart disease and “outweigh any possible good effect” of the oils.
. . . . Some would argue, Calder wrote in an e-mail, that “the link between cholesterol and heart disease is not actually as strong as we think.” That possibility, while startling, lends credence to other studies showing that assiduously sticking to a diet rich in fish oils, another heart-healthful fat, doesn’t necessarily protect people from heart attacks or strokes; and that those who carry extra pounds, even to the point of being slightly obese, may live longer than people who weigh less. . . . [T]he truth is, at this point, we don’t truly understand how it all works.
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The Big Fat Truth
Virginia Hughes, Nature, May 22, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For obvious reasons, this one should be read and considered in tandem with the item directly above. After reading it, also see the related editorial in the same journal of Nature, as well as comments from Forbes magazine (in “Top Science Journal Rebukes Harvard’s Top Nutritionist“) that summarize the upshot of it all: “In an extraordinary editorial and feature article, Nature, one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific journals, has effectively admonished the chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department, Walter Willett, for promoting over-simplification of scientific results in the name of public health and engaging in unseemly behavior towards those who venture conclusions that differ to his.”]
Teaser: More and more studies show that being overweight does not always shorten life — but some public-health researchers would rather not talk about them.
Late in the morning on 20 February, more than 200 people packed an auditorium at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. The purpose of the event, according to its organizers, was to explain why a new study about weight and death was absolutely wrong. The report, a meta-analysis of 97 studies including 2.88 million people, had been released on 2 January in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). A team led by Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, reported that people deemed ‘overweight’ by international standards were 6% less likely to die than were those of ‘normal’ weight over the same time period.
The result seemed to counter decades of advice to avoid even modest weight gain, provoking coverage in most major news outlets — and a hostile backlash from some public-health experts. “This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,” said Walter Willett, a leading nutrition and epidemiology researcher at the Harvard school, in a radio interview.
. . . But many researchers accept Flegal’s results and see them as just the latest report illustrating what is known as the obesity paradox. Being overweight increases a person’s risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many other chronic illnesses. But these studies suggest that for some people — particularly those who are middle-aged or older, or already sick — a bit of extra weight is not particularly harmful, and may even be helpful. (Being so overweight as to be classed obese, however, is almost always associated with poor health outcomes.)
. . . [T]he most contentious part of the debate is not about the science per se, but how to talk about it . . . [M]any scientists say that they are uncomfortable with the idea of hiding or dismissing data — especially findings that have been replicated in many studies — for the sake of a simpler message . . . If the obesity-paradox studies are correct, the issue then becomes how to convey their nuances. A lot of excess weight, in the form of obesity, is clearly bad for health, and most young people are better off keeping trim. But that may change as they age and develop illnesses . . . Preventing weight gain in the first place should be the primary public-health goal, Willett says. “It’s very challenging to lose weight once you’re obese. That’s the most serious consequence of saying there’s no problem with being overweight. We want to have people motivated not to get there in the first place.” But Kamyar Kalantar-Zadeh, a nephrologist at the University of California, Irvine, says that it is important not to hide subtleties about weight and health. “We are obliged to say what the real truth is,” he says.
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Philosophy Isn’t Dead Yet
Raymond Tallis, The Independent, May 27, 2013
Teaser: Far from having replaced metaphysics, science is in a mess and needs help. Einstein saw it coming.
[T]here could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox — the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle — which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.
. . . Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally . . . . And then there is the mishandling of time. The physicist Lee Smolin’s recent book, Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive.
. . . [W]e should reflect on how a scientific image of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that have neither identity nor location, connects with our everyday experience. This should open up larger questions, such as the extent to which mathematical portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we mean by “reality”. The dismissive “Just shut up and calculate!” to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists’ picture of the universe is simply inadequate. “It is time” physicist Neil Turok has said, “to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both”. This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.
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Politics, Art, and the Practice of Writing: A Conversation with Orson Scott Card
Alan Levinovitz, The Millions, May 29, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Card has come under fire in recent years for expressing opposition to gay marriage. He has also received even more media attention than usual in recent months because of the upcoming film adaptation of Ender’s Game. This extensive and excellent interview for The Millions was occasioned by both facts. “In an effort to nuance current coverage of Card,” writes interviewer Levinovitz in a brief introduction, “I chose to ask him questions about writing and his identity as a writer. He provided detailed answers by e-mail.” The result is quite absorbing.]
The Millions: You have written that “good artists do their best to sustain that which is good though their art, and call for the correction of that which is destructive of happiness.” Can you give examples of how your work tries to accomplish that mission?
Orson Scott Card: I don’t consciously attempt to do any such thing. I’m not prescribing in that statement, I’m merely describing. Without any conscious thought at all, artists select the subject and the medium, the matter and the manner of their art. The very choices they make declare what they value and believe to be important. Artists are at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art (they’re always free to write essays to make their case); the conscious statements are as obvious and empty and ineffective as “Rosebud,” while the unconscious statements are powerful because they are rarely noticed by the audience even as they have their effects.
Every work of art is an attempt to create a community; any artist who claims to create only for himself is a liar, unless he never showed his work to another soul. Every work of art is mostly a reflection of the artist’s culture, unconsciously passed along because the artist has never thought the world could work any other way; yet every work of art, even the most conformist, is still different from any other’s work, and so it challenges the status quo to some degree, however minuscule.
I love to work in science fiction and fantasy because we deliberately rewrite the rules of reality. Sadly, of course, even in our field we tend to converge on consensus realities, as Bruce Sterling once pointed out before he himself joined a new consensus reality. So even we keep searching for new writers to re-envision the world around our characters. Yet even in the most relentlessly conformist of the just-like-every-other-post-modernist fiction, there are glimmers of individuality — even creative writing programs can’t stamp out every vestige of it, try as they might. Whether you are openly reinventing reality, you reinvent it; whether you are deliberately championing certain cultural values, you champion at least the ones you have not yet thought to question.
I have learned to trust my unconscious mind. In my many years at this trade, I have had a chance to see what many readers have found in all my stories, and I am sometimes astonished at the personal and cultural meanings they found in them. Yet I cannot, and would not wish to, challenge their readings as long as they conform to the text.
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Matthew Hennessey, City Journal, May 24, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a lovely and moving review of and reflection upon Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, which “follows Rod Dreher, a Philadelphia journalist, back to his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana (pop. 1,700) in the wake of his younger sister Ruthie’s death. When she was diagnosed at age 40 with a virulent form of cancer in 2010, Dreher was moved by the way the community he had left behind rallied around his dying sister, a schoolteacher. He was also struck by the grace and courage with which his sister dealt with the disease that eventually took her life. In Louisiana for Ruthie’s funeral in the fall of 2011, Dreher began to wonder whether the ordinary life Ruthie led in their country town was in fact a path of hidden grandeur, even spiritual greatness, concealed within the modest life of a mother and teacher. In order to explore this revelation, Dreher and his wife decided to leave Philadelphia, move home to help with family responsibilities and have their three children grow up amidst the rituals that had defined his family for five generations-Mardi Gras, L.S.U. football games, and deer hunting. As David Brooks poignantly described Dreher’s journey homeward in a recent New York Times column, Dreher and his wife Julie “decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being part of a community.”]
Teaser: Rod Dreher’s homage to his sister raises profound questions about family and modern life.
This is an important book, shot through with Dreher’s penetrating intellect and cultural commentary. Some reviewers have interpreted Dreher’s relocation as an embrace of small-town, conservative values. But The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is also extraordinary because it does something that few books even try to attempt: it offers a plausible way out of the postmodern alienation and ironic posturing that has for too long informed my generation’s warped notions of the good life.
Raised on pop culture and relativism, convinced we could create sustainable worlds from scratch, trapped in a permanent adolescence, we find ourselves now at mid-life, with children of our own, with jobs and responsibilities, but with no frame of reference for what’s true or real or good. Who are we, we wonder? How did we end up in an America that seems smaller than the one we grew up in? Why does the culture feel so inauthentic? Where does our bitterness and sarcasm come from? Why are we lonely so much of the time?
Dreher’s book offers answers, though not easy or comforting ones. In the first place, there are virtues—now largely ignored—in staying put. We lead peripatetic lives, hopping from job to job and place to place, chasing the best offer or the best school district or the best commute. Before his sister’s death, Dreher followed a career that took him on an exciting but exhausting circuit through the elite cultural institutions of Washington, D.C., Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia. At each stop, he built networks of trusted friends and colleagues. But he eventually realized that these were not the ties that could support him in an acute crisis such as the one that befell his sister.
For that, you need family. For that, you need true community — the kind that enters your house and cleans it for you when you’ve gone to the hospital; that cooks for your kids when you’re too sick to do it yourself; that tracks down the car you abandoned on the highway because the radiator blew out while you were rushing home to be with your dying mother; that fixes the radiator and parks the car back in your driveway, anonymously; that surrounds you in your grief and refuses to let you be engulfed by it.
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What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Epipheo.TV, May 6, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Nicholas Carr comments, “As I was writing The Shallows, I kept thinking, ‘Man, if I could only draw, I’d bag all these freaking words and do this as a cartoon.’ Now, thanks to the talented animators at Epipheo, my dream has been realized. My favorite part is when I burn in videogame hell.”]
Most of us are on the Internet on a daily basis and whether we like it or not, the Internet is affecting us. It changes how we think, how we work, and it even changes our brains. We interviewed Nicholas Carr, the author of, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, about how the Internet is influencing us, our creativity, our thought processes, our ideas, and how we think.