Indigenous myths, animal ESP, and portents of apocalyptic transformation

Here’s science writer Carrie Arnold, in a newly published article at Aeon titled “Watchers of the Earth,” discussing the possibility that indigenous myths may carry warning signals for natural disasters:

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Reading this triggered a flood of associated thoughts this morning, mostly related to things I’ve read elsewhere that resonate with it. Although the basic focus is different, for me this article somewhat recalls a starkly apocalyptic and millenarian passage from the ending to Benjamin Hoff’s The Te of Piglet (1992), a book that many readers found off-putting for its semi-grimness, which represented a departure from the more charmingly whimsical presentation of Taoism that Hoff had adopted in its predecessor, The Tao of Pooh: Read the rest of this entry

How thought leaders displaced public intellectuals

The next time somebody tries to recommend a TED talk to me, I may recommend this piece, or else the book it’s excerpted from, Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas. It’s not that there aren’t any worthwhile TED talks, of course. But Drezner’s words hit home in this era of “thought leaders.”

When I refer to “public intellectuals,” I mean experts who are versed and trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of public policy issues. The public intellectual serves a vital purpose in democratic discourse: exposing shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom….

How is a thought leader distinct from a public intellectual? A thought leader is an intellectual evangelist. Thought leaders develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot….

Public intellectuals know enough about many things to be able to point out intellectual charlatans. Thought leaders know one big thing and believe that their important idea will change the world.

What is happening is that the marketplace of ideas has turned into the Ideas Industry. The twenty-first century public sphere is bigger, louder, and more lucrative than ever before. A surge of high-level panels, conference circuits, and speaker confabs allows intellectuals to mix with other members of the political, economic, and cultural elite in a way that would have been inconceivable a half century ago….

As America’s elite has gotten richer and richer, they can afford to do anything they want. A century ago, America’s plutocrats converted their wealth into university endowments, think tanks, or philanthropic foundations. Today’s wealthy set up their own intellectual salons and publishing platforms—and they are not hands-off about the intellectual output of their namesakes.

Defending precognition research in ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education’

Interesting: Last month The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Tom Bartlett, their senior science editor, titled “Spoiled Science.” It’s about the way Cornell University’s renowned Food and Brand Lab has taken a credibility hit in the wake of revelations about multiple statistical anomalies that have been discovered in papers co-authored by its director, Brian Wansink, who is also a celebrity scholar due to appearance on the likes of 60 Minutes and Rachael Ray. The heart of the article’s import is laid out in this paragraph:

The slow-motion credibility crisis in social science has taken the shine off a slew of once-brilliant reputations and thrown years of research into doubt. It’s also led to an undercurrent of anxiety among scientists who fear that their labs and their publication records might come under attack from a feisty cadre of freelance critics. The specifics of these skirmishes can seem technical at times, with talk of p-values and sample sizes, but they go straight to the heart of how new knowledge is created and disseminated, and whether some of what we call science really deserves that label.

In the middle of the piece, Bartlett sudden mentions Daryl Bem’s famous precognition research from a few years ago, and subjects it to a brief but withering moment of scorn:

This isn’t the first time Cornell has had to cope with a blow to its research reputation. In 2011, Daryl Bem, an emeritus professor of psychology, published a paper in which he showed, or seemed to show, that subjects could anticipate pornographic images before they appeared on a computer screen. If true, Bem’s finding would upend what we understand about the nature of time and causation. It would be a big deal. That paper, “Feeling the Future,” was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate, though Bem himself has stood by his results.

Yesterday Bem responded with a letter to the Chronicle titled “In Defense of Research on Precognition,” in which he sets the record straight. He begins by pointing out that his paper was published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which has a rejection rate of 80 percent, and where the paper was approved by four referees and two editors before publication.

He then points out that Barlett’s claim about the experiment’s failure to replicate is patently false: “In 2015, three colleagues and I published a follow-up meta-analysis of 90 such experiments conducted by 33 laboratories in 14 countries. The results strongly support my original findings. In particular, the independent replications are robust and highly significant statistically.”

Finally, he shares this salient fact:

Bartlett further asserts that this research was widely ridiculed and constituted a blow to Cornell’s research reputation. But it was Cornell’s own public-affairs office that was proactively instrumental in setting up interviews with the press and other media following the publication of the original article. New Scientist, Discover, Wired, New York Magazine, and Cornell’s own in-house publications all described the research findings seriously and without ridicule.

Me, I’m just fascinated to see mentions of such matters cropping up repeatedly in a place like The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose publication of essays by Jeffrey Kripal on the paranormal I discussed at some length a few years ago. (And of course I’d be lying if I denied that I simply enjoyed reading Bem’s refutation of Bartlett’s belittling.)

A fascinating and important re-visioning of God and religion: “God: An Autobiography”

It was around 2010 that I first became aware of Jerry Martin’s book in progress titled God: An Autobiography as Told to a Philosopher. I was deep into blogging at the (now-defunct) Demon Muse site at the time, and I was developing A Course in Demonic Creativity from those materials. So thoughts about the experience of perceived communication from an external psychological or spiritual source were very much on my mind. And when I began reading excerpts and even entire chapters from the God book at its website, I was transfixed. The official description that accompanies the eventually published full version of the book will indicate why:

The voice announced, “I am God.” For Jerry Martin, that encounter began a personal, intellectual, and spiritual adventure. He had not believed in God. He was a philosopher, trained to be skeptical — to doubt everything. So his first question was: Is this really God talking? There were other urgent questions: What will my wife think? Why would God want to talk to me? Does God want me to do something? He began asking all the questions about life and death and ultimate things to which he — and all of us — have sought answers: Love and loss. Happiness and suffering. Good and evil. Death and the afterlife. The world’s religions. The ways God communicates with us. How to live in harmony with God. God: An Autobiography tells the story of these mind-opening conversations with God.

Jerry L. Martin was raised in a Christian home. By the time he left college, he was not a believer. But he was interested in the big questions and so he studied the great thinkers. He became a philosophy professor and served as head of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to scholarly articles on epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and public policy, he wrote reports on education that received national attention and was invited to testify before Congress. He stepped down from that career to write this book.

So you can understand my interest. I got involved in some of the online communications with Jerry that appreciative readers were conducting through the book site, and it swiftly became evident that he and I shared a similar set of concerns, although my own experiences have imparted a decidedly darker cast to my thoughts and writings about the perception of divine and daemonic communication. Jerry and I also conversed through Facebook (to which I only recently returned, with a new account, after a multi-year hiatus), and I found him to be a very kind and generous-spirited correspondent. When the full, final edition of God: An Autobiography was published last year by Calladium, I was pleased to see it make slow but sure and steady headway as readers began to catch on to its import. Kirkus Reviews weighed in with a sparklingly positive (and nicely informative) response in which they called the book “a captivating religious dialogue for the modern age.” A writer for Reading Religion, the book review publication of the American Academy of Religion, praised God: An Autobiography as “the most path-breaking material for future philosophical and theological reflection I have come across in a long time.”

I concur with both assessments. Today I finally got around to writing my own brief review of the book. I posted it at Amazon a little while ago (making it only the second Amazon review that I have ever written; the first was for The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett). Now I’m sharing it with Teeming Brain readers, many of whom I suspect will find it, and the book itself, of interest. Read the rest of this entry

My introduction to Jon Padgett’s ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’

As I have mentioned in the past, my good friend Jon Padgett’s debut horror fiction collection The Secret of Ventriloquism, featuring an introduction by me, is a very special piece of work. It has been gratifying to see how events in the several months since I last talked about it have borne this out. Rue Morgue Magazine selected it as the Best Fiction Book of 2016. Michael Calia praised it in The Wall Street Journal. It has gained additional reviews and enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of Paul Tremblay, who describes it as “a horror revelation,” and Weird Fiction Review, where reviewer Adams Mills asserts that it is “a collection that begs to be read as a whole, and then also to be revisited past the first reading.”

If this whets your appetite, be advised that right now, for a limited time, the Kindle edition can be downloaded for free. (After reading it, I think you might also find that you want to buy a physical copy.) [UPDATE 3/26/17: Alas, this offer has now expired.]

To whet your appetite even further, here’s the complete text of my introduction.

* * *

Introduction to

The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett

S. T. Joshi has famously argued that the truly great authors of weird fiction have been great precisely because they use their stories as a vehicle for expressing a coherent worldview. I would here like to advance an alternative thesis. I would like to assert that one of the characteristics of great weird fiction, and most especially weird horror—not the sole characteristic, of course, since weird horror is a multifaceted jewel, but a characteristic that is crucial and irreducible in those works of the weird that lodge in the reader’s mind with unforgettable force and intensity—is a vivid and distinct authorial voice.

Can you imagine Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” without the sonorous narrative voice that speaks from the very first page in tones of absolute gloom and abject dread? Can you imagine Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” minus its voice of detached, dreamlike trepidation tinged with cosmic horror, as generated by the author’s distinctive deployment of diction and artistry of prose style? Or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House without the striking establishment of voice in the classic opening paragraph (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream…”), which then develops over the course of the novel into a sustained tone of mingled dread, loneliness, and melancholy? Or what about Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” without its measured tone of fearful discovery foregrounded against an emotional backdrop of desolate inner wintriness, as delivered in the narrative voice of an unnamed social anthropologist investigating a strange clown festival in an American Midwestern town? Each of these stories would be not just diminished but fundamentally altered—neutered, hamstrung, eviscerated—by the removal of its distinctive voice, which, vitally, is not just the narrative voice of the individual story but the voice of the author expressing itself through the environment of that particular work. Read the rest of this entry

Revised and Relaunched: MattCardin.com

 

After several months of deliberation and development, I have just launched a brand new version of my author site, www.mattcardin.com. The layout and structure are completely new, with easy navigation, a modern look, and an overall sleeker design. Have a look and let me know what you think.

 

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Dehumanization: Surrendering to the Death of Democracy

 

Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m just peeking in from the digital wings, amid much ongoing blog silence, to observe that many of the issues and developments — sociocultural, technological, and more — that I began furiously tracking here way back in 2006 are continuing to head in pretty much the same direction. A case in point is provided by the alarming information, presented in a frankly alarmed tone, that appears in this new piece from Scientific American (originally published in SA’s German-language sister publication, Spektrum der Wissenschaft):

Everything started quite harmlessly. Search engines and recommendation platforms began to offer us personalised suggestions for products and services. This information is based on personal and meta-data that has been gathered from previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel — possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others.

But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards “persuasive computing.” In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for Internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people. . . .

[I]t can be said that we are now at a crossroads. Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society — for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path — a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution

Oh, and for a concrete illustration of all the above, check this out:

How would behavioural and social control impact our lives? The concept of a Citizen Score, which is now being implemented in China, gives an idea. There, all citizens are rated on a one-dimensional ranking scale. Everything they do gives plus or minus points. This is not only aimed at mass surveillance. The score depends on an individual’s clicks on the Internet and their politically-correct conduct or not, and it determines their credit terms, their access to certain jobs, and travel visas. Therefore, the Citizen Score is about behavioural and social control. Even the behaviour of friends and acquaintances affects this score, i.e. the principle of clan liability is also applied: everyone becomes both a guardian of virtue and a kind of snooping informant, at the same time; unorthodox thinkers are isolated. Were similar principles to spread in democratic countries, it would be ultimately irrelevant whether it was the state or influential companies that set the rules. In both cases, the pillars of democracy would be directly threatened.

FULL ARTICLE: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Of course, none of this is real news to anybody who has been paying attention. It’s just something that people like me, and maybe like you, find troubling enough to highlight and comment on. And maybe, in the end, Cipher from The Matrix will turn out to have been right: Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Because from where I’m sitting, there doesn’t appear to be anything one can do to stop this streamrollering, metastasizing, runaway train-like dystopian trend. Talking about it is just that: talk. Which is one reason why I’ve lost a portion of the will that originally kept me blogging here for so many years. You can only play the role of Cassandra for so long before the intrinsic attraction begins to dissipate. Read the rest of this entry

The world of tomorrow? You can have it (Hollywood post-apocalyptic supercut)

Horror encyclopedia: My work is (almost) done

Horror_Literature_through_History_edited_by_Matt_Cardin

This week I finished the primary body of editorial work on Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. It has been my all-consuming focus on this vast project that has kept The Teeming Brain mostly dormant for most of 2016. I just now counted and saw that I have published a mere twenty-five previous posts this year. Quite honestly, in the past twelve months I have become something of an editor monk, devoting myself single-mindedly to this project during every “extra” (ha ha) hour, and working the equivalent of two (or more) full-time jobs.

This week, I sent the book’s edited contents to the publisher, after having already engaged in much editorial collaborative back-and-forth with my project editor there in recent months. There’s still a lot of work left for me to do, of course, when the galleys are ready, but the bigger part of it — which at several points got so big and complex that I wondered how I would ever complete the danged thing — is now done.

That means I’m now able to share the rundown of the total two-volume behemoth (something I’ll doubtless do again when the book’s publication date grows near in 2017). Here are the basic specs:

The encyclopedia contains more than 400 entries written by seventy contributors (or seventy-one, if you count my direct hand in a couple of them) from seven different countries. It is organized as follows: Read the rest of this entry

Book news: ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’ by Jon Padgett

Maybe someday I’ll have more time to start tending The Teeming Brain again and stop leaving these gaps of weeks-turning-to-months. That time may still be a while off, however, since I’m currently buried under the equivalent of two and a half full-time jobs, what with the horror encyclopedia project eating up so many so-called “extra” hours each week that I’ve lost count. (It’s currently up to 69 contributors, most of them hailing from the US and UK, but also represented are Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, and China.)

At the moment, I wanted to make a point of poking my head above the snow (as in snowed under) to call attention to this, which should be of interest to many readers here.

the_secret_of_ventriloquism_by_jon_padgett

With themes reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, and Bruno Shulz, but with a strikingly unique vision, Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism heralds the arrival of a significant new literary talent. Padgett’s work explores the mystery of human suffering, the agony of personal existence, and the ghastly means by which someone might achieve salvation from both. A bullied child who seeks vengeance within a bed’s hollow box spring; a lucid dreamer haunted by an impossible house; a dummy that reveals its own anatomy in 20 simple steps; a stuttering librarian who holds the key to a mill town’s unspeakable secrets; a commuter whose worldview is shattered by two words printed on a cardboard sign; an aspiring ventriloquist who spends a little too much time looking at himself in a mirror. And the presence that speaks through them all.

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Matt Cardin
  • The Mindfulness of Horror Practice
  • Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown
  • The Indoor Swamp
  • Origami Dreams
  • 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism
  • Infusorium
  • Organ Void
  • The Secret of Ventriloquism

PRAISE:

“The Secret of Ventriloquism is horror with a capital H. Some of Padgett’s lines raised the hair on my neck.”

– Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase

“Padgett…proves with his stunning debut collection [to be] a worthy successor to the master [Thomas Ligotti]. There’s no gristle, no bone, no dilly-dallying here: only pure meat whose terrors seamlessly grow into the metaphysical…this volume is jam-packed with the stuff that nightmares are made of.”

– Dejan Ognjanovic, Rue Morgue Magazine

“…a voice that lodges in the reader’s mind with colossal force and intensity, marking…this book as unforgettable.”

– Matt Cardin, from the Introduction

Both a limited-edition hardcover and a bundled hardcover plus softcover plus ebook are currently available for pre-order from the publisher, Dunhams Manor Press.

The Pseudopod site — where you can listen to Jon’s awesome reading of “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” — has a good bio to give you a sense of who Jon is and where he’s coming from:

Jon Padgett…is the creator and long time administrator of the Thomas Ligotti Online website, and — as such — has been the first publisher for a number of Ligotti’s prose works over the years, including MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE and CRAMPTON….Padgett is a professional — though lapsed — ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, daughter, two cats, and dog. Padgett is also a professional voice-over artist with over thirty-seven years of theater and twenty years of audio narration experience.

Trust me. This book is something special. You might consider running, not walking, to secure a copy.