Blog Archives

Teeming Links – June 27, 2014

FireHead

Beware the man who has more influence on the future of reading than anybody else in the world: Jeff Bezos is simultaneously a visionary, an innovator, and a destroyer.

Pro Publica explains why online tracking is getting creepier. (Hint: It has to do with the merging of all the mountains of online and offline data about you.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has recently announced that it will start tracking users across the Internet using its widgets such as the “Like” button,” and it won’t honor do-not-track browser settings.

Helpfully, Pro Publica offers an illuminating look at Facebook’s complicated history of tracking you.

Feeling more antsy and irritable lately? Nicholas Carr says blame smartphones, which are turning us into patient and irritable monsters: “Society’s ‘activity rhythm’ has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.”

The Wall Street Journal briefly reports on Americans who choose to live without cellphones.

William Deresiewicz warns against uncritically buying into the apocalyptic rhetoric about the state of higher education, much of which comes from profit-minded billionaires who want to remake college for their own purposes: “The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal. That distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry. That have no use for larger social purposes. That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right.”

A new survey of all 7 billion humans on planet earth — conducted by The Onion — finds that we’re surprised we still haven’t figured out an alternative to letting power-hungry assholes decide everything.

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On Point presents a 45-minute conversation about the deep and perennial fascination of Dracula in history, myth, and literature:

There is something about biting and blood that we never get over. Luis Suarez and his bite debated round the world in the World Cup. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Victorian tale of castles and darkness that we still feel at our throats. That story has had amazing staying power. “I want to suck your blood!” and all the rest. Built off the story of Transylvania’s real Vlad the Impaler. Back to Europe’s long struggle with the Turkish caliphate. The story never dies. This hour On Point: the history and myth of literature’s great vampire — Dracula.

Historian Tim Stanley explains how Slender Man is a strongly Lovecraftian myth that became a violent reality.

E. Antony Gray gives a brief introduction to egregores and explains how Slender Man is a non-abstract and positively Lovecraftian example.

Writer, artist, and photographer Karen Emslie writes from first-person experience about the terror — and bliss — of sleep paralysis (while holding to a reductive neurobiological understanding of the phenomenon): “[S]leep paralysis has naturally spawned some very scary stories and films. But as a writer and filmmaker as well as a long-time percipient, I have another story to tell. Beyond the sheer terror, sleep paralysis can open a doorway to thrilling, extraordinary, and quite enjoyable altered states.”

(Note: I have personally never experienced the bliss of SP. For me it has always been pure, overwhelming, transformative horror.)

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Bela Lugosi as 1931 Dracula by Anonymous (Universal Studios) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Vlad Tepes by anonymous artist (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Teeming Links – May 30, 2014

FireHead

Remember America’s “new oil boom” based on fracking? Well, you can say goodbye to it: the Energy Information Agency just downwardly revised its estimate of the amount of technically recoverable oil in America’s #1 shale reserve by 96 percent .

Check it out: a straightforward business interview with Ilidio F. Santos, an environmental consultant for the Angolan oil company Sonangol E&P, suddenly turns all doomer when Santos says human civilization is done for: “The more you study, the more you read, the more you discuss the environmental problems of the planet and its inhabitants (be they human or other), the more you understand that this is a lost cause. The human civilization is doomed in the decades to come, as there is no way that the people who have the power to stop the suicidal path understand the urgency and nature of the problem. Those who do not know about it at least live oblivious to the horror that will come to this planet in a few decades.” The interviewer responds by saying, “You are scaring me, Ilidio.” To which Santos replies, “Be scared!”

Superbug threat as grave as climate change, say scientists: “Superbugs resistant to drugs pose a serious worldwide threat and demand a response on the same scale as efforts to combat climate change, infectious disease specialists said on Thursday.”

Adventures in the Land of Illness: A superb essay by Sam Harris, available in both audio and text form, about his recent experiences with ill health: “It has been interesting for me, as a proponent of science and skepticism, to experience the feelings of vulnerability and desperation that come with an illness for which science has no clear remedy or even a diagnosis. . . . As someone who will soon release a book about meditation, the illusion of the self, and the transcendence of unnecessary suffering, I feel I should offer some account of how my own mind has fared when tested in this way.”

CNN reports 50 percent chance of Armageddon-level asteroid strike in 2041. Or actually not. Seriously, not. (Maybe CNN should consider a name change and pay for the rights to an old HBO series title: “Not Necessarily the News.”)

Astronomer and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf explains why searching for extraterrestrial life yields enormous benefits here on earth: “[T]he cosmic sprawl can help us disentangle the complex terrestrial systems and histories of which we are a part. This is not a frivolous exercise. On the contrary, it could be the key to overcoming our scientific ignorance.”

The psychology of Soylent and the prison of first-world food choices: “Why are some repulsed by Soylent, but others desperate to receive their orders?”

The Internet as we know it is dying: Andrew Leonard explains how “Facebook and Google are killing the classic Internet and reinventing it in their image,” with nods to Amazon as well.

Dear graduates: A commencement speech for the mediocre: “Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between ‘doing what they love,’ and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.”

It’s been nearly 90 years since John Maynard Keynes started predicting the rise of a technologically enabled leisure society. And yet life in today’s high-tech America is a plague of busyness.

The Rise of Nintendo: A Story in 8 Bits: “From ‘Donkey Kong’ to the NES — how a Japanese company took over the American living room.”

A Beautiful Man: On Peter Parker and the Amazing Spider-Man: “[I]t’s not so much that Spider-Man was the superhero who could be you, though Lee used that very phrase in the comics. Spider-Man was one of the few superheroes who was more interesting than the supervillains he fought. . . . In his New York, he could be a most beautiful man, like Don Quixote or Jean Valjean or Samuel Pickwick — Dostoevsky’s three famous examples of the archetype — a figure whose greatest creation, born out of neurosis and genius, is himself.”

The Survivor: On Magneto, Mutants, and the Holocaust: “Magneto stands as . . . a rebuke to everyone who wishes to contain the lessons of the Holocaust, to everyone who has a simple explanation for its occurrence, to everyone who wishes to valorize victimhood, to everyone who believes that survival is an unmitigated blessing. The X-Men movies and the comics tell you things you don’t want to hear, that Hitler won World War II, that the Holocaust never stopped happening, that it continues to happen and that it will keep happening.”

The Rosicrucian Vision: “Although the Rosicrucian philosophy was presented as a total package of religion, science, etc., it tended to divide into three different streams: first, there was the scientific, philosophical stream; secondly, the social and political stream; thirdly, the Hermetic-Cabalistic-Alchemical stream. . . .When we look at something like Rosicrucianism, or at the Templars or at Freemasonry or at the legends of the Holy Grail, we are looking at the tip of an iceberg. I believe that behind these phenomena lies a very ancient current. What precise form it takes I know not, but I believe that every so often in human history this current comes to the surface.”

The Elf Whisperer of Iceland: “The whole affair, from the cause célèbre behind the protest (Save the Elves?!) to the government’s eventual acquiescence, is indicative of the unusual and complicated relationship Iceland has with elves and other hidden people. Jónsdóttir was advocating for the lives of invisible tiny beings that most of us associate with building Santa’s toys . . . and the government listened.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why I’m fed up with Amazon

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In the past I have both 1) praised Jeff Bezos for displaying what looks like a true love of books and reading, and 2) highlighted Amazon’s bullying and heavy-handedness in the publishing industry by linking to Steve Wasserman’s damning 2012 article “The Amazon Effect,” in which Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Books Review, explains how his early positive view of Bezos and Amazon soured over time as it became evident that the company is intent on “bulldozing any real or perceived obstacles to its single-minded pursuit of maximum clout” by imposing “increasingly harsh terms on both its competitors and its clients.”

Recently it’s looking like the scale has tipped definitively in favor of the negative judgment on both Bezos and his company. Or at least that’s my take, which is based on the fact, revealed just last week, that Amazon is now flat-out blackmailing publishers and authors into complying with their draconian demands by charging higher prices and delaying shipments for products from companies that resist them. Various other tactics are also involved, such as removing entire promotion pages for some books. What’s more, Amazon isn’t afraid to play this kind of hardball with books by big-name authors. Titles by J. K. Rowling, Anne River Siddons, and James Patterson are among those that have been affected.

Says The New York Times‘ David Streitfield and Melissa Eddy:

Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before. Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention. . . . No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m personally fed up with this kind of crap, and this feeling applies to more than just the Amazon situation. Amazon is emblematic of a major cultural shift that has taken place in the Internet era as megacorporations representing various sectors of the business world and cultural life at large have attempted to hold us all hostage by playing an egregiously monopolistic game. And it all seems doubly sinister in a way that’s distinct from the monopolies of a past age, since this time the imperialistic and totalitarian business practices are hitched to, and also — or so the corporate titans hope — enabled and sweetened by, the digital-populist tone of “personal freedom and empowerment” that still attends the Internet like a lingering morning mist at midday.

This kind of thing makes me remember all over again why I ditched Facebook and Twitter. Among other reasons, I just got sick of being a willing pawn in the war of the Digital Overlords, where my personal data and decisions are used as leverage and ammunition. I’ve been thinking for many months that it may be time to ditch Amazon as well, and this recent revelation adds some serious weight to that consideration. This would of course mean going back and removing all of the Amazon affiliate links here at The Teeming Brain. I also own a Kindle and subscribe to Prime, so, you know, I’m pretty deeply entangled. And don’t think for a minute that I’m not aware of the tarry syrup of irony that automatically coats every word I type here, on a blog, using a computer that’s running a Windows operating system, thus reinforcing the basic thrust of the entire digital economy and cultural technopoly that I’m ostensibly criticizing.

I would be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on this issue. Is Amazon really a tyrant? Would a personal boycott be advisable? Would it even be meaningful? More broadly, is the future just a giant playing field for megacorporations where the role of us peasants is simply to be trampled underfoot while saying thank you for it?

Image courtesy of mack2happy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net