Personal Media Summary: April 2016

10

A random selection of stuff I found on the web last month (or is there a theme to this? I can’t tell …)

  • First, a few things that sound like the kind of crazy nonsense found on the back alleys of the internet: a bunch of people are trying to track down the source behind a globally reported low-frequency _hum_1, another bunch of people believe they might have found evidence of a _Dyson Sphere_2 1500 light years away, and serious research _on the effects of LSD_3 is still being carried out.

  • If Nicholas Carr’s books aren’t depressing enough, a review4 of the latest one certainly can be. A few choice quotes:

The Glass Cage is subtitled “Automation and Us,” and Carr tries hard to direct his critique toward the process of automation rather than technology as such. His material, however, repeatedly refuses such framing. Consider just three of the many examples that appear under “automation”: the automation of driving via self-driving cars, the automation of facial recognition via biometric technologies, and the automation of song recognition via apps like Shazam, which identify a song after just a few seconds of “listening.” They do look somewhat similar, but differences abound as well. In the first example, the driver is made unnecessary; in the second example, technology augments human capacity to recognize faces; in the third example, we create a genuinely new ability, since humans can’t recognize unknown songs. Given such diversity, it’s not obvious why automation—rather than, say, augmentation—is the right framework to understand these changes. What are we automating with the song identification app?

Carr firmly believes that our embrace of automation comes from confusion, infatuation, or laziness—rather than, say, necessity. “The trouble with automation,” he explains, “is that it often gives us what we don’t need at the cost of what we do.” In theory, then, we can all live without relying on the wonders of modern technology: we can cultivate our cognitive and aesthetic skills by ditching our GPS units, by cooking our own elaborate dishes, by making our own clothes, by watching our kids instead of relying on apps (au pairs are so last century). What Carr fails to mention is that all of these things are much easier to do if you are rich and have no need to work. Automation—of cognition, emotion, and intellect—is the intolerable price we have to pay for the growing corporatization of everyday life.

  • Moving on, Inherent Vice was an amazing movie in its own way. Perhaps some day I’ll read the book. Here is the trailer5, and a review6 (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson). Recommend it, but you gotta pay attention to the details!

  • Your gut isn’t just important because it takes care of your food, it hosts a ”second brain” that

… it is the only organ to boast its own independent nervous system, an intricate network of 100 million neurons embedded in the gut wall. So sophisticated is this neural network that the gut continues to function even when the primary neural conduit between it and the brain, the vagus nerve, is severed.

Many researchers have wondered whether beneficial gut bacteria might temper the anxiety and depression …. They first infected mice with a parasite to induce chronic, low-grade gut inflammation. In addition to causing intestinal inflammation, this treatment suppressed levels of BDNF in the hippocampus and caused the mice to behave more anxiously. When mice were then treated to a 10-day course of the beneficial microbe Bifidobacterium longum, their behavior normalized, as did their BDNF levels.

  • A photojournalist travels to old Gulag7 sites in Russia (one of them is the photo above, featuring a shot-through bust of Lenin in front of a housing complex built by slave labour)

  • Since Umberto Eco died, I’ve added his recent book8 (”The Prague Cemetery”) to my “to-read list”

  • I can’t decide if this is something radically new or just rehashing old ideas, but some professor9 is trying to convince us that “the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses”

  • This bit is a niche item (think spy stories, though less Iam Fleming, and more le Carre) : Kim Philby was a famous double agent in the 50s and the 60s, and recent documents10 provide much more detail, if you care for that sort of a thing.

“It was a very dirty story,” said Mr. Philby, whose treachery was responsible for the deaths of hundreds. “But after all, our work does imply getting dirty hands from time to time, but we do it for a cause that is not dirty in any way.”

  • This guy makes11 an interesting point: Data about a thing, if you have enough of it, becomes the thing. I’ll omit the obvious next step.

  • Here’s something I can’t possibly agree with (not being a fan of the prequels at all): Camille Paglia considers12 George Lucas ”the greatest artist of our time”

  • And finally, something to listen to (and watch!): Blade Runner Blues by Vangelis13, featuring artwork from the movie.

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