Archive for January, 2012

Our Fatuous Future

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Culture, Debate, Technophilia
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The BBC News Magazine has an article where readers submitted predictions for futurologists Ian Pearson and Patrick Tucker to discuss their likelihood. (If there is a job description for “futurologist,” I’d like to read it.) I find it striking that the majority are about technological refinements and the minority are about social issues. A few observe how the biosphere is changing (for the worse). Notably missing are artistic and spiritual predictions. Rather than quote the entire article, I’ve grabbed the predictions only:

  1. Oceans will be extensively farmed and not just for fish.
  2. We will have the ability to communicate through thought transmission.
  3. Thanks to DNA and robotic engineering, we will have created incredibly intelligent humans who are immortal
  4. We will be able to control the weather.
  5. Antarctica will be “open for business.”
  6. One single worldwide currency.
  7. We will all be wired to computers to make our brains work faster.
  8. Nanorobots will flow around our body fixing cells, and will be able to record our memories.
  9. We will have sussed nuclear fusion.
  10. There will only be three languages in the world — English, Spanish and Mandarin.
  11. Eighty per cent of the world will have gay marriage.
  12. California will lead the break-up of the U.S.
  13. Space elevators will make space travel cheap and easy.
  14. Women will be routinely impregnated by artificial insemination rather than by a man.
  15. There will be museums for almost every aspect of nature, as so much of the world’s natural habitat will have been destroyed.
  16. Deserts will become tropical forest.
  17. Marriage will be replaced by an annual contract.
  18. Sovereign nation states will cease to exist and there will be one world government.
  19. War by the West will be fought totally by remote control.
  20. Britain will have had a revolution.

The criteria for selecting user submissions and what qualifies the two experts to opine on the future (engineers as leaders of men?) are a bit obscure, but there is clearly something fatuous about the vision of the future contemplated by these predictions. I linked before to Bill Joy’s famous article in the April 2000 issue of Wired, entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Since publication, the article has provoked considerable discussion, which some complain is pessimistic (or doom-and-gloom or neo-Luddite or obscurantist) while others concur with Joy’s assessment. Anyone who can step back and contextualize technophilia as a threat to human and nonhuman wellbeing attracts my attention. Those barreling ahead heedlessly, despite some rhetorical flourishes and rationalizations, I tend to avoid.

Perhaps it’s wrong of me to filter out the technophiles, since the world is inevitably going that way on the short term at least. However, further technological refinement is just not something to long for. Social change is inevitable, too, but we seem pointed toward increased global hostilities (similar to world conflicts throughout the 20th century) while we’re not otherwise busy reducing the world to rubble and grinding people into the dust. Elsewhere, I wrote that

… the world has been understood as an essentially dead, lifeless form from which we humans can extract and exploit at will all resources available to provide material wealth and comfort. Even those things that live (plants and animals) have no inherent value but are totally available for us to manage as resources quite independent of any consideration of the suffering we inflict upon them. This is what it means to live in an instrumental reality, where the totality of existence boils down to matter or material changing form until it eventually exhausts itself via the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Any discussion of a spiritual plane where human emotion, natural beauty, or artistic expression might hold sway are merely “entertainments” we afford ourselves to titillate the senses. All this is a dystopian view, of course, but we’re so far away from utopia that one can’t argue with a straight face that most of the world’s people (and most other animals, too) aren’t in fact suffering horribly, no matter what glories await the American consumer at the shopping mall.

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Back to book blogging after an absence of a couple months while my attentions were turned elsewhere.

Picking up The Master and His Emissary again, I was intrigued to read something that jogged a memory from a neuroscience class I took 20 years ago. McGilchrist mentions almost in passing (on his way to other matters of interest) readiness potentials and their relation to sequences of events in mental processing. My memory is that event-related potentials as measured by electroencephalography (wow, that passed the spell-checker!) reveal a latency period following a stimulus. More specifically, the P3 wave (sometimes P300) signalling the onset of brain processing (as distinguished from background noise) is delayed by anywhere from 250 to 700 ms (usually falling around 300 ms, hence the name). The mere fact that it takes the brain a split second (literally) to respond is unsurprising; one would expect response to follow stimulus by some interval. What’s interesting is that the brain time stamps or backdates stimuli to coincide with their occurrence. Maybe that’s not so interesting either, but for my appreciation of consciousness, it’s pretty significant that any moment in the stream of consciousness had width to it and strict ordering of events as measured by scientific instruments down to the millisecond is time adjusted on the fly in human experience. This is more apparent in McGilchrist’s description of hemispheric cooperation in mental processing:

… the right hemisphere contribution … has both temporal priority and ontological priority, since thought is originally ‘largely imagistic and minimally analytic’, whereas by the moment of utterance, it has become ‘both imagistic and analytic and is a synthesis of the holistic and analytic functions’. In terms of the thesis of this book, then, the process begins in the realm of the right hemisphere, gets input from the left hemisphere, and finally reaches a synthesis of right with left. [p. 190]

This is made clearer perhaps on the next page:

[It was] found that the disconnected left hemisphere could not engage with narrative, for two main reasons: it lacked concreteness and specificity in its relation of the story, and became abstract and generic, and it got time sequences wrong and conflated episodes that were separate in the story because they look similar (in other words, it categorised them, and therefore put them together, even though in the lived world their meaning was destroyed by being taken out of narrative sequence). In place of a narrative, it produced a highly abstract and disjointed meta-narrative. [p. 191]

Considering how the stream of consciousness is narrative, a kind of story we tell ourselves even as it’s experienced from inside the story, temporal displacement and decontextualization enabled by built-in mental mechanisms have some far-reaching implications.  It’s reaching, no doubt, to suggest that our politics, as formulated by technocrats, are an incoherent stew of disjointed abstractions (soundbites, anyone?). And it’s a paradox that the worst offenders could hardly be described as analytical, left-brain types.

What may be going on, which is far beyond the scope of McGilchrist’s arguments up to my reading position in the book, is that technocrats, speaking through mind-numb candidates with nice hair and strong jaws, have intuitively or perhaps brilliantly concocted a bizarre meta-narrative that appeals strongly to left-brain categories but never manages to synthesize with the right hemisphere into an overarching narrative. The candidates can turn on a dime and spew inanities because frankly they’re just as flummoxed by words put in their mouths by campaign managers and strategists interested solely in winning elections, not in governing, as the general public, which goes goggle-eyed at the mere mention of iconic words such as freedom, liberty, and democracy, or alternately, family, wealth, and progress. Thus, one can perhaps embrace McGilchrist’s thesis that the Emissary (left brain), which should take its direction from and serve the Master (right brain) because that’s the way it’s structured biologically, has usurped control and is making us, in a word, insane.

Tab Dump 02

Posted: January 23, 2012 in Blogosphere, Idle Nonsense

Over two years ago, I purged a bunch of links I’d been collecting of news stories and opinion columns I had thought perhaps I’d blog about but then never did. Seems it’s time again to rid myself of bookmarks in my browser. I haven’t reread any of these links to refresh my memory but will if the comments indicate I should.

We’re All Animals Now: In Psychology Today, “The Ideological Animal” provides this summary:

We’re easily manipulated by politics. We think our political stance is the product of reason, but we’re surprisingly malleable. Our essential political self is more a stew of childhood temperament, education, and fear of death.

Pretty much says what it says, little comment being necessary. But I’ll offer this: we tend to think of ourselves as smart animals (if we regard ourselves as animals at all), but scientific evidence continues to mount that like other large mammals we share social behaviors to a greater degree than we like to believe.

More on PoliPsy: An article originally published in The New Republic (republished by the Carnegie Endowment) by John Judis called “Death Grip: How Political Psychology Explains Bush’s Ghastly Success” adds to the argument that the public is led around by the nose. A similar argument could be made for Ronald Reagan’s remarkable success. Both presidents essentially carried water for corporate interests and ideologies that aligned with their own self-aggrandizement.

Lessons in Learned Helplessness: The Atlantic published an up-is-down, right-is-wrong-is-right article called “Cultivating Failure” about learning how to grow food. It’s a rich argument that teaching immigrant sons and daughters basic biology returns them to the fields they escaped in Mexico or elsewhere.

Success is Failure: The Guardian has an option column by Simon Jenkins that Eisenhower’s warning that the military-industrial complex would come to define us has been realized. Well, it’s pretty much been true since then, so not exactly a new development. Additionally, the invention of enemies to justify war was novelized two decades before the Eisenhower administration by George Orwell. Same old, same old, but it might as well be acknowledged anew.

Looking Backwards to the Future: An article in Logos by Philip Green called “Farewell to Democracy” describes our fairly brief flirtation with democracy in the West coming to its tawdry conclusion. The even wider perspective I’ve been seeing elsewhere suggests that all types of hierarchical social organization based on concentrations of power and rule of law are doomed to failure. Whether their brief, bright flame is worth it is perhaps yet another debate.

The Jesus Phone and its Discontents: An article in Commonweal by Andrew Bacevich called “Selling our Souls” tells the obvious, not that anyone wants to see or hear it: technolust ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. From other quarters, I can anticipate that the argument would be that since we’re soulless now anyway, there’s no real conflict.

Hanging by a Thread (or a rope): A brief summary of an interview with Sophie Shevardnadze by RT News (a useful alternative to mainstream Western media) states that modern capitalism is nearly kaput, which is another statement of the obvious to which most of us are blind.

Sensible Schooling: An article in the NY Times tells about a school operating in the heart of the silicon beast that refuses to allow computers in the classroom. This is even more ironic as the article states, “Three-quarters of the students here have parents with a strong high-tech connection.” Something about do as I say, not as I do belongs here.

One is the Loneliest Number: An article at Salon.com by Alice Karekezi called “Why Kids Need Solitude” describes how constant overstimulation blocks the conditions necessary for anything to sink in. The article is about education, but it arguably applies to just about everyone everywhere, not just kids in school. There’s simply no time for processing if the fire hose of information and stimulation aimed at us never gets turned off.

The Great Unwashed Masses: Charles Saatchi believes that Eurotrash can’t discern good art from bad as the works are regarded among collectors more as investment vehicles than artistic expressions. I’ve thought the same thing about American art and its audiences for years. But anytime a call for raising standards of taste and erudition appears, it’s attacked as elitist and snobbish.

Lives Lived in Denial: The NY Times reports that 60% of Americans believe they’re living the dream despite everything in shambles around them. I suppose this much is true if one’s dreams are nightmares.

Incarcerated America: Reuters reports on a study noting that by age 23, one-third of U.S. adults have been arrested. Such is life in the modern security state. The article discusses criminal activity, but I can’t help but wonder how many of the arrests were really over acts of dissidence.

Care-Givers Rn’t Us: A shocking account in the NY Times about doctors who learn nothing about care-giving but are only skilled at procedures reveals they overtreat due to perverse economic incentives that reward procedures well out of balance with consultation, which consultation they seem ill-suited to render unless of course procedures are indicated.

Human Scale

Posted: January 22, 2012 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy, Technophilia

I wonder if there is such a thing as proper human scale or whether we’re truly at liberty to adopt whatever scale we can imagine. The question was prompted upon viewing two documentaries: Ken Burns’ Civil War and This is It by and about Michael Jackson.

I had never seen a Ken Burns documentary before. This one has aged pretty well, especially considering how its subject is already well removed from the present day. Among the many impressions it made on me, it seemed very much that the people profiled, be they presidents, generals, or foot soldiers, were men of surprising integrity who still yet operated at human scale. One might expect to have seen any of them — even those quite famous in retrospect — walking along the streets in Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; or elsewhere. Much was made of generals who fought, were injured, and sometimes died with their troops, even though military officers have always been somewhat insulated from the thick of battle. So despite having made icons of them as we now look back upon the history they experienced, they were of decidedly human scale in their own time. Washington was undoubtedly the first superstar prez, for instance, but the office didn’t immediately confer upon Lincoln the awe in which we now hold him. Lincoln was actually quite disliked during his first term as president and is resented in the South even down to today.

In contrast, well into the era of mass media, Michael Jackson became known as the King of Pop and carried around him (or everyone projected onto him) a powerful aura or presence. Whereas the folks in the documentary about the stage show Jackson was mounting for his comeback (or swan song) just prior to his untimely death regarded him simultaneously as showbiz genius and saint among men (not even oblique mention was made of Jackson’s many legal, financial, and identity issues), Jackson apparently regarded himself with surprising humility and was more motivated by the work than by being Michael Jackson. No doubt his talent was quite unique. In fact, even though the film was only clips of rehearsal from the show, not yet a fully polished performance, Jackson was riveting to watch. I suspect that this is due in part to how media remakes people into mythological characters or demigods. Who among us would not admit to being star-struck when in the presence of someone as famous as Jackson (or Sherman or Davis)?

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Review: Titus

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Media, Narrative
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I’ve wanted to see the movie Titus since it came out in 1999, and it finally made its way to the top of my Netflix queue. It’s directed by Julie Taymor, who has risen to fame and prominence as a director of movies, operas, Broadway shows, and other theatrical productions. Titus is the earlier of her two film adaptations of Shakespearean works, the second being The Tempest (2010).

Anachronistic resetting of operatic or theatrical works is a narrative device that sometimes works marvelously and sometimes renders the work unwatchable. Though not Taymor’s work, I turned off the movie Romeo + Juliet (sometimes given as William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) reset as the story of rival gangs in Verona Beach (or was it Venice Beach, CA?), and I once played in the pit orchestra for Mozart’s Magic Flute staged as a Texas western (“Whale, howdy hay, y’all!!). In Titus, Taymor’s high concept blends without trace of apology ancient and modern Roman locations (some actually being Croatian), Weimar Germany decadence (citing Nazism and cabaret culture), and 1980s American kitsch. The costuming is similarly inventive and mismatched. While plain and obvious to the eye, these devices in Titus don’t detract as needless distractions or heedless destruction, though they do come across as rather self-aware. And like most other resettings, one should not really notice but simply go with it. However, especially when opulent production values practically scream for attention and the shifts between visual themes snap one’s head back and forth jarringly but without comment, I can’t help but to take special notice.

Titus joins a fairly crowded field of movies based on Shakespearean plays. I may be unusual in that I still feel some obligation to know this bit of our cultural heritage, even though I come to the plays primarily through movie adaptations and have never really considered them in print or read them aloud in classrooms or elsewhere. I read the beginnings of a couple online reviews, and though others critics are doubtlessly far more knowledgeable than I am about Shakespearean canon, I didn’t really care that it’s an early work of his (chronologically, no. 6 of 37) and therefore reputed to be not as fully developed thematically as his later works. It’s still got the rich, allegorical language and brutal, tragic elements.

Rendering late middle English intended for the stage into natural-sounding language is always tricky, and the actors fare well in Titus. One big advantage of viewing a DVD is that one can turn on captioning and track the speech visually as well as aurally. It was a big help for me, though it still takes quite a bit of decoding and a curious cognitive shift to hear that style of language as fluid. (And of course, many of Shakespeare’s references and allusions go right over my head.) Titus may be fortunate not to contain any of the more famous Shakespearean quotes. The other standard DVD bonus feature is the director’s commentary, and though I’ve only yet heard the first few minutes, Taymor starts by describing narrative choices rather than making technical observations (who cares what lens or what kind of dolly shot?) or relaying dumb anecdotes. In my experience, only a few movie commentaries are equally erudite and interested in discussing storytelling (The Name of the Rose and Something’s Gotta Give spring to mind).

I recommend the film, and it’s easy to see why Taymor earns the attention given her. I viewed Titus in perhaps 5 or 6 segments (the film runs rather long at around 2:40:00), but I intend to see it again and then hear the commentary in full, probably neither in one sitting (such is the modern world with its fragmented attention).

Awarded Answers 04

Posted: January 15, 2012 in Advertising, Blogosphere, Education, Writing
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I learned something useful about the way WebAnswers works. The site creates much of its own content in the form of robot questions. I knew of this category before but didn’t know how to recognize them. Now I do. So when possible, I avoid answering them for two reasons: the best answer is never awarded and the traffic tends to be minimal. That doesn’t mean the question can’t be legitimate, interesting, or useful or that I might not have a well thought-out answer worth contributing. Nor does it mean that I might not earn some residual income from answering (which is all that I get out of awarded answers for that matter). The biggest reason is that the bot questions are culled from other Internet question-and-answer sites and so are derivative and without authorship. They are at small remove from content farms, which I blogged about here.

What that means for my participation at WebAnswers is that I am finding it harder to locate questions to which I want to contribute an answer. I’ve already steered clear of an inexhaustible stream of questions about medical and legal issues, pregnancy, custody, pets, and favorites. The bot questions (now that I recognize them as such) further reduce my activity potential, which has been more than a little questionable anyway in terms of the reward-to-effort ratio and my association with other regular contributors whose expertise is often unclear despite some impressive numbers.

Nevertheless, these are my latest awarded answers:

  • Who has commented about “the bimbo eruption”? To what is he referring? link
  • What does POLICE stand for? (abbr) link
  • Is it good for your body to run a marathon? link
  • Is music essential to life? link
  • Is there really such a thing as a victimless crime? link
  • How should “economics” be considered and delineated. Is it truly “a discipline” or something else[?] link
  • Was the Big Bang loud? link
  • How many James Bond movies have been made? link
  • Are we living in a simulated reality? link
  • Training for marathons is bad for you? link

As usual, my previous sets of awarded answers can be seen here and here and here.

Salting the Earth

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Education, Environment, History
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Chicago just had its first seasonal snowfall of any significance, and the first reaction of residents, businesses, and IDOT is to haul out their snow blowers, snowplows, and salt broadcasters. Considering how modest the snowfall was, only 4.5 to 6.5 inches in most areas (but up to 7 or 8 inches in a few), it was almost hysterical overkill. Perhaps the memory of last year’s blizzard, dubbed Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse, was to blame. No matter. What matters is that with each new snowfall and each winter, more and more salt is scattered onto sidewalks and roadways. The Chicago Loop in particular becomes several square miles of salt-encrusted concrete and pavement lest anyone slip, fall down, go boom, and litigate. I’m not especially concerned over my ruined shoes or deteriorating sidewalks and roadways. They’re impermanent anyway. Rather, my concern is that over a period of years, we’re literally salting the earth — something far more permanent. (The IDOT link above reports that “Last year, the agency spent $84.6 million on snow removal and spread 562,220 tons of salt.” That may sound like pride but should read as horror.)

Sowing with salt was a practice in ancient warfare meant to destroy the soils of a conquered city or country to make it impossible for the conquered to grow food — a particularly nasty way of adding insult to injury. In the modern world, it’s occurring with alarming regularity due to a variety of factors. Plenty of information is out there to be had about salinization (see for example here, here, and here, the last of which appears to be pretty extensive), but do we learn from our mistakes and make the necessary adjustments? Don’t bother responding to that question; everyone already knows the answer. The numbers of ways we continue to insult our injured planet just keep mounting.

Traffic Report No. 07

Posted: January 5, 2012 in Blogosphere

WordPress prepares an automated annual traffic report for its bloggers. I haven’t posted it in the past but I will this year (about last year) for no particular reason. I notice the platform has a steady stream of minute improvements and features on the private side, which is appreciated. People often ask which blog host is best, and although I don’t have any experience with others and only use the free tools, I’m pretty happy with WordPress.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

I borrowed from the Chicago Public Library (CPL) the DVD Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies (1997). This is very much the sort of media public libraries ought to collect, along with nonfiction and reference titles. Undoubtedly, the CPL knows its patrons better than I do, so its primary focus lies instead with popular fiction, popular music, and feature films (this last in direct competition with video stores or the ubiquitous Redbox). I suppose I shouldn’t complain, since I borrow liberally.

I learn of new titles only infrequently, now that classical music is no longer available in record stores and browsing must be done online. Further, major orchestras have begun weaning themselves from the record labels as the means of production have been democratized. Some orchestras have also begun to concentrate on multimedia: DVDs of concert and stage performances or educational efforts aimed at illuminating the music. For instance, the San Francisco Symphony has a steadily expanding series called Keeping Score, while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has its own multimedia stage production called Beyond the Score, an installment of which was made into a companion DVD to its CD recording of Shostakovich Symphony No. 4.

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