MonthJuly 2012

Jacques Ellul, Technology Doomsdayer Before his Time

Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul has been on my mind lately, so this Boston Globe story on the man is well timed:

An admirer of Karl Marx’s sociological theories, Ellul came to believe that by the 20th century, the central issue facing industrialized societies had shifted from class struggle to technology—or, as he called it, “technique.” Ellul used this term to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen as a way of thinking as well as an ensemble of machines and machine systems. Technique includes the methods and strategies that drive the mechanical system, as well as the quantitative mentality that drives those methods.

The character of technique is ruthless, Ellul believed. It relentlessly and aggressively expands its range of influence. Its single overriding value is efficiency. Because human beings are hopelessly inefficient by technique’s exacting standards, they must be forced or seduced into conforming more precisely to its demands. This amounts to a fundamental degradation of the human spirit. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility,” Ellul wrote. “Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery.”

Full Story: Boston Globe: Jacques Ellul, technology doomsdayer before his time

Ellul also wrote on propaganda.

See also: Abe Burmeister on being a hypocritical luddite (a position I’ve come to embrace myself).

Don’t Blame Cats for Toxoplasmosis

The Oregonian reports:

“Our concern is that because it has been sensationalized and interpreted as, ‘Your cat can make you sick,’ that really is missing the most dangerous part of toxoplasmosis and human infestation,” says Dr. Theresa Cornwell of Cat Care Professionals in Lake Oswego. “You’re much less likely to get toxoplasmosis from your cat as you are from fruits and vegetables or meat that is contaminated.”

“People tend to forget that the consumption of uncooked or partly cooked meat can be perhaps a more significant source of infection for toxoplasmosis,” agrees state public health veterinarian Dr. Emilio DeBess.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite toxoplasmosis as the third-leading cause of food-borne illness and death. Half of the 750 deaths attributed to toxoplasmosis each year are believed to be caused by eating contaminated meat, according to the CDC.

Full Story: Oregon Live: The truth about toxoplasmosis: the kitchen more likely source than your cat

Shape-Shifting Robots: Forget Nanotech; Think Claytronics

Imagine a bracelet or watch that changes into something else when you take it off. Perhaps it becomes a cell phone, or laptop computer. Although this scenario may seem like science fiction, this and much more will soon become reality with a ground-breaking new technology known as claytronics.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and Intel Research Labs Pittsburgh are just a few years away from bringing to life a futuristic simulation system that can morph nearly any object imagined into another object with different size, shape, color and function.

Full Story: IEET: Shape-Shifting Robots: Forget Nanotech; Think Claytronics

Is this what it will take to finally get us the Nokia Morph?

Finding the Right Type of Meditation for You Might be Key to Meditation Success

Did you give meditation a chance and decide it’s not your cup of tea? New research suggests you could be missing out on all the health benefits of meditation by simply starting out with a technique not well matched to your personal tastes. […]

Burke and colleagues recently conducted a study of college students new to meditation and their preferences among four meditation techniques — mantra, mindfulness, zen, and qigong visualization. […]

Published on July 7 in the journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, the findings reveal that by finding a form of meditation that works for you, you are less likely to quit. The result of sticking with it? Research-backed benefits of reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and help with addiction problems.

Full Story: NY Daily News: The right kind of meditation for you; Mantra, mindfulness, zen, and qigong visualization are different ways to relax

The paper is here, behind a paywall.

Neil Gaiman Writing Sandman Prequel

i09 reports that Neil Gaiman announced at Comic-Con that he’s writing a prequel to Sandman. J. H. Williams III of Promethea fame is set draw it. Here’s a transcript of part of Gaiman’s pre-recorded announcement:

When I finished writing The Sandman, there was one tale still untold. The story of what had happened to Morpheus to allow him to be so easily captured in The Sandman #1, and why he was returned from far away, exhausted beyond imagining, and dressed for war.

Full Story: io9: Neil Gaiman’s writing a prequel to Sandman in 2013

I haven’t read Sandman since I was 15 – about half my life ago. I have no idea if it’s actually good – it was the best thing I’d ever read up to that point (other than Watchmen), but I hadn’t read all that much. I think it’s time for a re-read.

A Sapphire Hard Disk Meant to Last 10 Million Years

Science Now reports on a new project meant to address the problem of alerting people of the future to nuclear waste storage facilities:

Today, Patrick Charton of the French nuclear waste management agency ANDRA presented one possible solution to the problem: a sapphire disk inside which information is engraved using platinum. The prototype shown costs €25,000 to make, but Charton says it will survive for a million years. The aim, Charton told the Euroscience Open Forum here, is to provide “information for future archaeologists.” But, he concedes: “We have no idea what language to write it in.” […]

The sapphire disk is one product of that effort. It’s made from two thin disks, about 20 centimeters across, of industrial sapphire. On one side, text or images are etched in platinum—Charton says a single disk can store 40,000 miniaturized pages—and then the two disks are molecularly fused together. All a future archaeologist would need to read them is a microscope. The disks have been immersed in acid to test their durability and to simulate ageing. Charton says they hope to demonstrate a lifetime of 10 million years.

Full Story: Science Now: A Million-Year Hard Disk

(via Sam)

Academia vs. the Private Sector for Science Jobs

I write often about the need for more STEM education in order to match graduates with actual jobs, but the reality is that the “S” part of the acronym doesn’t necessarily have a lot of openings. At least not in academia. Julianne Dalcanton writes:

Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.

However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.

Cosmic Variance: Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for Scientists

In other words, science graduates are facing many of the same problems that Phds in the humanities face. Dalcanton goes on to note that many physics and astronomy majors are finding lucartive careers in the private sector, paritcularly in the technology industry. Ashlee Vance wrote about this phenomena for Business Week last year. I agree that it’s sad that so many smart people are ending up devoting their careers to figuring out how to get people to click ads, but as I wrote last year there’s an interesting upside: lots and lots of open source big data tools.

Earlier this year David Graeber wrote about why science and technology seemed stalled compared to our science fictional imaginations and quotes astrophysicist Jonathan Katz:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems… It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

In other words, you might be better off in the private sector wrangling click stream data than you would be grinding out proposals to do essentially nothing in academia. Le sigh.

The Weaponization of Neuroscience

Jon Bardin wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education on how science can be weaponized, even decades after it’s conducted. For example, this DARPA project is based on unrelated research from the 1960s:

In a small, anonymous office in the Trump Tower, 28 floors above Wall Street, a man sits in front of a computer screen sifting through satellite images of a foreign desert. The images depict a vast, sandy emptiness, marked every so often by dunes and hills. He is searching for man-made structures: houses, compounds, airfields, any sign of civilization that might be visible from the sky. The images flash at a rate of 20 per second, so fast that before he can truly perceive the details of each landscape, it is gone. He pushes no buttons, takes no notes. His performance is near perfect.

Or rather, his brain’s performance is near perfect. The man has a machine strapped to his head, an array of electrodes called an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which is recording his brain activity as each image skips by. It then sends the brain-activity data wirelessly to a large computer. The computer has learned what the man’s brain activity looks like when he sees one of the visual targets, and, based on that information, it quickly reshuffles the images. When the man sorts back through the hundreds of images—most without structures, but some with—almost all the ones with buildings in them pop to the front of the pack. His brain and the computer have done good work.

Chronicles of Higher Education: From Bench to Bunker

(Thanks Justin!)

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge Interviews Grimes


Photo by Phillip Nguyen / CC

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge interviews Grimes for the style mag V:

When we first listened to the music, the core sequences or rhythms sounded incredibly like Throbbing Gristle around D.O.A. There was a track, “AB/7A,” that has a really similar sound to it. What kind of equipment are you using?

G I use a Roland Juno G. I think I like crunchy sounds. I like as much bass as possible in the drums and multiple kicks. I definitely listen to a lot of industrial music, more modern like Nine Inch Nails–style industrial.

Can you actually get really raw emotion out of a digital machine?

G I think it’s about the actual sonic experience. When you have that loop going and going on the computer and you’re letting it do it for hours, you’re so into it. For me that’s a really emotional experience, just getting so bound up in the loop that’s happening. It’s like the computer is just my means of interacting with the sound.
It’s your doorway to that space.

G Well, I was raised with a computer. It’s been a pretty big part of how I have always interacted with the world.

Full Story: V Magazine: Grimes by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

See also:

Technoccult dossier on Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

Technoccult interview with Gen

Just Let the Shut-Ins Bang Their Virtual Girlfriends in Peace

augmented reality girlfriend

Lindy West writes that although augmented reality “girlfriends” freak her out by objectifying women:

Critics looooooove to climb up on their high horse and flail around with fake concern about shit like this—how Real Dolls and “virtual girlfriends” keep men (and some women, I guess, maybe) from forging real human connections. But let’s be honest, here. There are some people in the world who, unfortunately, will never make a real human connection. There are some people who nobody in the world wants to be around. Or, if somebody does want to be around them, that person might be very very far away (hence, computers!). Those people exist. A computerized goggle-girlfriend might not be the #1 healthiest road to fulfillment, but: a) Who am I, the fulfillment police? (ANSWER: MAYBE); and b) So fucking what? Let them have their things.

Full Story: Jezebel: Just Let the Shut-Ins Bang Their Virtual Girlfriends in Peace

(via Chris Arkenberg)

Guys and Dolls, a documentary about men and their RealDolls

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