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Teeming Links – May 1, 2015

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Don’t say you weren’t warned: artificial telepathy might turn out to be a nightmare. “Will the next generation of telepathy machines make us closer, or are there unforeseen dangers in the melding of minds?” (Aeon)

What is the future of loneliness in the age of the Internet?  “As we moved our lives online, the internet promised an end to isolation. But can we find real intimacy amid shifting identities and permanent surveillance?” (The Guardian)

An Even More Dismal Science: “For the past 25 years, a debate has raged among some of the world’s leading economists. At issue has been whether the nature of the business cycle underwent a fundamental change after the end of the ’30 glorious years’ that followed World War II, when the economy was characterized by rapid growth, full employment, and a bias toward moderate inflation. . . . Today, a degree of consensus has emerged. There is no longer much point in questioning whether the glory days are over.” (Project Syndicate)

Astrobiology research scientist Lewis Dartnell considers a pertinent question: Could we recreate industrial-technological civilization without fossil fuels? (Aeon)

Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of H. P. Lovecraft: “The weird realism that runs through Lovecraft’s writings undermines any belief system — religious or humanist — in which the human mind is the centre of the universe.” (New Statesman)

George Lucas rips Hollywood and laments the digital dumbing of Internet culture: “George Lucas offered a bleak assessment of the current state of the film business during a panel discussion with Robert Redford at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, saying that the movies are ‘more and more circus without any substance behind it’ . . . . The man who took bigscreen fantasies to bold new worlds said he never could have predicted the smallness of popular entertainment options on platforms such as YouTube. ‘I would never guess people would watch cats do stupid things all day long,’ said Lucas.” (Variety)

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer writes about an anomalous event that shook his skepticism to the core: “[T]he eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [my wife Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation. The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.” (Scientific American)

The Return of the Exorcists: “With papal recognition of an international group of exorcists comes a renewed interest in their ministry and role in the pastoral work of the Church.” (The Catholic World Report)

Case Study: The Horror Genre: “Unlike the western or gangster film, where there are a few fairly hard and fast rules in terms of the environment that the action might take place in, or indeed the nature of the characters that are ranged against one another, the horror genre can encompass an extraordinarily wide range of environments, characters, threats and subtexts. This is perhaps one of the major reasons that the horror film has remained popular — or has been able to reinvent itself when its popularity seemed to be on the wane. But what exactly does the horror genre consist of?” (Routledge, from the companion website for the textbook AS Media Studies: The Essential Introduction)

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Beyond the Beautiful Darkness: Mark Samuels on Atheism, Christianity, Weird Horror, and the Road out of Hell

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Teeming Brain interview with Mark Samuels has long been one of our most popular features, and with this post we finally welcome Mark to our Teem of contributors. Mark’s interview was published back in 2006, and it still continues to draw a steady stream of readers these seven years later. This is due, of course, to the fact that Mark’s reputation as a significant writer of weird fiction has continued to grow in the intervening years, with his corpus having expanded from  The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003), Black Altars (2003), and The Face of Twilight (2006) — all available at the time the interview was published — to include two more story collections, Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes and The Man Who Collected Machen, both of which have received widespread acclaim. His work has been praised by the likes of Ted Klein and Ramsey Campbell. It has been reprinted multiple times in various “year’s best” anthologies. He was also personally fictionalized and lampooned — along with Thomas Ligotti, Ellen Datlow, Michael Cisco, Wilum Pugmire, S. T. Joshi, Gordon Van Gelder, and others — by Laird Barron in the story “More Dark,” which appears in Laird’s 2013 collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (which recently won the Bram Stoker Award).

In the essay below, Mark speaks personally about the central role that religion has played in his life as a writer and a human being. As he traces his route from agnosticism to atheism to Christianity, and as he delves into the relationship between all of this and his attraction to weird fiction, he goes into greater depth and speaks more pointedly about some things he said in his interview. Like his chief literary idol, Arthur Machen, Mark’s Christianity is central to his writing (Machen was an Anglican, Mark is a Roman Catholic). And far from clashing with his weird fictional sensibility, this serves as its very source by charging the world for him with an all-pervasive aura of numinous mystery and an abiding awareness of the Hell that always accompanies the possibility of Heaven. This is, obviously, not a position unique to Mark. It doesn’t even qualify as especially rare among the ranks of his fellow horror writers. But his particular expressions of it puts him at odds with certain prevailing cultural attitudes both within and without the community of horror writers and readers, and Mark isn’t one to mince words. Time for me to be silent and let him speak for himself.

 

BEYOND THE BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS

I came to Catholicism when in my late twenties, having had a type of secular upbringing, at home and in school, to gladden the heart of the most fervent advocate of the neo-atheist movement. There was no Bible in the house. Christmas was just Yuletide, and wholly pagan. Easter was a time for chocolate eggs.

I do recall undergoing one term of mandatory Religious Studies classes, but these were centered around comparative religion, and the bald, white-haired teacher was regarded by the pupils as a legitimate target for some really vile abuse during his own lessons, over which he had no control. His tolerance was regarded as a fatal weakness. Strangely enough, at this hell-hole, all the other teachers would resort to corporeal punishment and thought little of maintaining order through physical violence, right up until the moment the practice was forcibly abolished in all U.K. state schools in 1983. He, however, refused to do so. In class he was shouted down, ignored, and swore at, and I joined in. We pupils learnt nothing during those classes. Looking back thirty years to those lessons now, I think I learnt more of true worth from his example of baffled dignity than from any other of the classes I took. Needless to say, every single teacher in that school was a good socialist and devout religious sceptic. And they made of me exactly the same thing.

Then, during my late teens, I discovered the works of Lovecraft. I admired his stories to the point of complete adulation. I wanted not only to write the sort of tales he wrote, but to be exactly like this great man himself. When I also obtained his selected letters and read through them, he became, as well my guide in literature, my educator. My vague, indifferent agnosticism was cast aside, and I became a militant atheist and scientific materialist. HPL knew everything (except when it came to his biological racism, but I glossed over this failing, as so many others did), and so I too knew everything, since in terms of his system anything that could not be empirically demonstrated was not worth serious consideration. All else was wishful thinking. I devoured the work of any atheist author I could discover, ignoring completely the other side, and became the master of confirming my own prejudices. Objections, rather than being looked into, were treated as mere trifles only deserving of a sneer or scornful words. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

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Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – September 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word comes from novelist and National Book Award winner Richard Powers, speaking to The Believer magazine in 2007 about the unique value of reading — and specifically, reading fiction — in helping to “deliver us from certainty” during an age when a great deal of evil arises from a surplus of that empathy-less state of mind:

We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

. . . It seems to me that evil . . . might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others. . . . I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

. . . Our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story. A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

— “Interview with Richard Powers,” The Believer, February 2007

(Hat tip to Jesús Olmo for calling this interview to my attention.)

* * *

Not One Top Wall Street Executive Has Been Convicted of Criminal Charges Related to 2008 Crisis (Reuters – The Huffington Post)
“Five years on from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the debate over how to hold senior bank bosses to account for failures is far from over, but legal sanctions for top executives remain a largely remote threat.”

Online Security Pioneer Predicts Grim Future (LiveScience)
“One of the creators of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption believes that the future of Internet security will see everyday users getting the short end of the stick. The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has likely compromised SSL, one of the foremost methods of Internet encryption. ‘There will be a huge pressure to catch up to NSA, and where this leads is not pretty.'”

CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ (Wired)
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just published a first-of-its-kind assessment of the threat the country faces from antibiotic-resistant organisms. ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era,’ Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, said in a media briefing. ‘And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.'”

Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School (The New York Times)
Truly bothersome information on the way the ultrawealthy are segregating themselves into a walled-off elite at America’s premier business school. Sign of the times. Culture replicating itself from above and below.

The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness (AlterNet)
“Coercion — the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance — is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling and parenting. . . . [The partnership between Big Pharma and Big Money] has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families and severe emotional and behavioral problems.”

Science Confirms The Obvious: Pharmaceutical Ads Are Misleading (Popular Science)
“The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to market their products directly to consumers — in commercials like those cute little Zoloft ads and all those coy Viagra spots. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a new study finds that when over-the-counter and prescription drug companies make commercials trying to sell the public on their product, they’re not always the most truthful.”

Reparative Compulsions (The New Inquiry)
“Social media works similarly [to gambling casinos], aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. . . . Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.”

Stephen King: True compassion lies at the heart of horror (The Telegraph)
“Stephen King’s books convey terror through character in a way that films never can. . . . This makes King different from the horror writers of a previous generation — Dennis Wheatley with his wicked aristocrats or H P Lovecraft with his luxuriant, ornate prose.”

David Attenborough: “I believe the Abominable Snowman may be real” (Radio Times)
Hat tip to Matt Staggs at Disinfo. “The world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster says he thinks the creature of Himalayan legend — which has a North American cousin known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch — could be much more than a myth.”

Unholy mystery (Aeon)
How fictional detectives, in the wake of the cultural religious disillusionments following the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, came to take the place of priests and shamans in the modern secular mind.

Brazilian Believers of Hidden Religion Step out of Shadows (NPR)
On the new and increasing mainstream cultural status of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, which are based on the experience of spirit possession, and which are coming forward for the first time to assert a claim to above-board political, economic, and social power. “Followers believe in one all-powerful god who is served by lesser deities. Individual initiates have their personal guiding deity, who acts as an inspiration and protector. There is no concept of good or evil, only individual destiny.”

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of Marvels (Joscelyn Godwin for New Dawn)
“The museum of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in the Jesuit College of Rome was an obligatory stop for high-class tourists, from John Evelyn the diarist to Queen Christina of Sweden, but they never knew what to expect. . . . By the time of his death Kircher’s world view was already under demolition by the Scientific Revolution.”

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, published in 1652-1654. By .Ihcoyc at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek’s Enterprise (PBS Newshour)
“In an in-depth profile of NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, Foreign Policy reveals that one of the ways the general endeared himself to lawmakers and officials was to make them feel like Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise from the TV series ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'”

Educating the Potential Human — Skepticism, Psychical Research and a New Age of Reason (David Metcalfe for Disinfo)
“Whatever one’s personal beliefs on the subject of anomalous experience, it seems a bit blind not to realize that much of the heated conversation on the topic has nothing to do with actual understanding, and plays directly into the hands of profiteers of one sort or another, even down to the most mundane level of ego stroking experts on both sides who use the lack of clarity in the situation to support their personal brands.”

A New Story of the People (Charles Eisenstein)
A brilliant portion of Eisenstein’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, set to a compelling video complement, that explores the process of changing the world by changing our narrative about it. “The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation.”

Fandom & Fantasy: Exploring the Anomalous at Dragon Con

DragonCon Babylon

Exterior view of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis

 

A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world.  “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”

— Louis Cattiaux

It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.

Rationalized irrationality

Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest  fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”

Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Read the rest of this entry

Soothsayers, Seers, and other Specters of the Skeptical Mind

I remember the last time I consulted a soothsayer. ‘Twas in the early of the year, and sorrow had wont to call upon my home.

Where, I thought dimly, shall I find succor now my very rooms themselves speak to me of tragedy? Aye me, the pains of a soul lost in this ill-lit world of dark delirium!. Fain would I press forward, if only I could find some wane and wanton hope, yet such seeking brought only more sorrow.

Strolling the thoroughfare, my hobnailed, haggard shoes tapping out a beleaguered fugue upon the chipped and sullied cobblestones, I saw what I mistook, I do admit, for a white and luminous dove: my fated angel, strange savior, black and white winged,  read all over.

Lo, ’twas nay a bird, but a breeze-blown bit of newspaper! How odd that this scrap could become so like an oracle to me, proof of providence in that strange synchronicity. Upon it, writ in print full clear, this message, which would become so dear to my heart:

Online Psychic Readings – 3 Million 5-star Ratings Don’t Lie.

Huh? When, exactly, was the last time you encountered a “soothsayer”? Perhaps down the street, next to the local smithy, or across the way from old Elias Nottuman the Tanner? What century are we living in again?

Still, someone out there is encountering them, at least according to a recent piece at Yahoo! News titled “Psychic Devastates Dead Student’s Family,” which highlights the failure of a couple of self-proclaimed psychics to solve missing-person cases and then holds this up as an example of a supposed pervasive plague of psychism and superstition infecting Western culture: Read the rest of this entry