Tag Archives | Society

Michael Brown, Bill Cosby, and Our Disturbing Relationship with Power

Photo: Protesters demonstrate against the shooting of Michael Brown, by Flikr user LightBrigading (via I’mNotTheNanny, licensed under creative commons).

Photo: Protesters demonstrate against the shooting of Michael Brown, by Flickr user LightBrigading (via I’mNotTheNanny, licensed under creative commons).

[Warning: this essay ended up being really long. What can I say? These are deep-seated issues, and much as I wish I could address them adequately with a few GIFs and a listicle, that’s just not going to happen. If you are opposed to reading long articles, turn back now. And if you’re one of those people who likes to open long articles just to leave complaints about how long they are, like some commenters on the last long piece I wrote here, this is your cue to skip straight to the comments section and complain away. You’re welcome.]

It’s rare for breaking news events to line up in any way that is truly meaningful. Though we are increasingly bombarded with updates from TV screens, smartphones and social media, and the occasional printed word, none of it seems to add up to anything.… Read the rest

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America Is Built on Torture, Remember?

takomabibelot (CC BY 2.0)

takomabibelot (CC BY 2.0)

via Pacific Standard Magazine:

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report has sparked a great deal of outrage—and justifiably so. The details are grim and sickening: The report says that the CIA tortured innocent people, threatened to murder and rape the mothers of detainees, and used rectal feeding or, essentially, anal rape, as a punishment. The report paints a picture of heedless brutality, cruelty, and sadism.

Given the details from Abu Ghraib, and the long-known, supposedly sanctioned techniques like waterboarding, these revelations aren’t exactly surprising. But they still have the power to shock. Andrew Sullivan, who has been a bitter and committed critic of American torture, summed up the reaction of many when he suggested that readers “reflect on a president [George W. Bush] who cannot admit to being the first in that office to authorize such an assault on core American values and decency.” To numerous critics on the left and some on the right as well, the torture seems like a violation of the basic American commitment to freedom, justice, and human rights.

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James Randi: debunking the king of the debunkers


via The Telegraph:

There are few public figures who’ve had decades of an almost perfectly positive press, as James Randi has. The 87-year-old debunker of the paranormal was Richard Dawkins before God invented Richard Dawkins – angry, verbally aggressive, a hero to the kinds of people who don’t believe in Big Foot and are rational enough to become sleepless with fury at the brainlessness of the idiots who do.

Author and thinker Isaac Asimov once claimed Randi’s “qualifications as a rational human being are unparalleled”, whilst the New York Times has called him our “most celebrated living debunker”. More recently he’s been the star of an award winning documentary film telling his incredible story.

Originally a magician and escapologist known as The Amazing Randi he graduated, as a young man, to the more serious business of exposing con-men and the self-deluded who claim supernatural powers. His long life and career has been devoted to the pursuit of truth above all else.

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Why Elon Musk is probably not freaking out over plunging oil prices

Elon Musk's Twitter Photo.

Elon Musk’s Twitter Photo.

via Quartz:

One of the indirect casualties of tumbling oil prices in recent weeks has been Tesla. Shares in Elon Musk’s electric automaker have sunk by about 25% over the past three months.

Lower gas prices, in theory, eliminate one of the key advantages of owning an electric car: They cost much less to run than normal cars, at least when gas prices are high. So the decline in oil prices is not great news for the company.

On the other hand, there are reasons to not be too alarmed about it. If you can afford to buy a Tesla, the cost of gassing it up is probably not your chief concern. (Its current flagship Model S costs about $70,000, though a “cheaper” new car, the model 3, is expected to cost at least half that when it is released in 2017.)

And don’t forget, Musk himself expressed alarm about the rapid rise in Telsa’s share price earlier this year.

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Artificial Enzymes from Artificial DNA Challenge Life As We Know It

ynse (CC BY 2.0)

ynse (CC BY 2.0)

via Singularity Hub:

In the decade or so since the Human Genome Project was completed, synthetic biology has grown rapidly. Impressive advances include the first bacteria to use a chemically-synthesized genome and creation of a synthetic yeast chromosome.

Recently, scientists from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, led by Dr. Philip Hollinger, reported creating the first completely artificial enzymes that are functional. The breakthrough was published in the journal Nature and builds on prior success by the group in creating several artificial nucleotides.

Nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA and RNA, consist of a phosphate group, one of five nitrogenous bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, or uracil), and a sugar (deoxyribose in DNA and ribose in RNA).

In their previous studies, Dr. Hollinger’s group investigated whether nucleotides that don’t exist in nature (to our knowledge) could function like natural nucleotides. They designed six artificial nucleotides, keeping the phosphate group and one of the five nitrogenous bases, but switching between different sugars or even entirely different molecules.

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No Dogs No Masters

Jim Swill‘s latest documentary meditates on society’s use of technology with a particular focus on Southern Televangelists and the Selfie Culture. As always, he shoots his films on Smart phones, this latest one was shot on a shattered iPhone4. Swill made No Dogs No Masters while traveling around the United States and filmed, scored, wrote, and narrated the entire piece.

Swill explains:

“I make these films on Smart phones, this time a shattered iPhone4 while traveling the United States. This one in particular focuses on Southern Televangelists and Selfie Culture, while I was migrating out to live in Los Angeles California. There are a lot of themes relating to the municipal constructs that surround a more basic way of living, cleaning up after the messy thoughts, and the lack of interest in our own impending decays of sorts; like how technology advances around us at this rapid rate while morally we remain very much the same and things socially are still simplistic and grittier yet we’re holding this preview into a technologically saturated future.”

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Who said it: Charlie Brown or Friedrich Nietzsche?

nietzsche charlie

via Mashable:

Good grief, Charlie Brown. You’ll never be able to kick that football because it is an illusion.

Everyone’s favorite bald-headed blockhead isn’t just the socially awkward loner the rest of the Peanuts gang make him out to be. His often nihilistic musings on life over the last 64 years make him a lot like 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

While Neitzsche may not have attempted to kick footballs in his lifetime, Charlie Brown certain has spent plenty of his life gazing long into the abyss. Not too shabby for an 8-year-old.

To play the game, go here: http://mashable.com/2014/12/08/charlie-brown-or-friedrich-nietzsche/

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Senator Jay Rockefeller singlehandedly kills Freedom of Information Act reform

Senator Jay Rockefeller introduces Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a native of Hinton, West Virginia, before her nomination hearing on 9 April 2013 in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs for the position of Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV — CC by 2.0.

via Boing Boing:

The House unanimously passed a bill that would bring much-needed improvements to the Freedom of Information Act; the Senate had bi-partisan support for it, too — but outgoing Sen Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) singlehandedly killed the bill in a closed-door committee meeting.

He offered vague, bullshitty excuses for this, citing nonspecific issues with privacy that don’t bear even cursory scrutiny.

For 509 other members of Congress, these concerns were not enough to halt progress of much-needed reforms. It’s not clear which provisions the Senator is referring to, or what experts across the federal government he is referring to, because this short statement, issued at 6:30 PM on Friday after a full day of advocates, journalists and citizens asking for an explanation, doesn’t explain.

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Scorched Earth Economics

John (CC BY-SA 2.0)

John (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Activist Post:

Could rapidly falling oil prices trigger a nightmare scenario for the commodity derivatives market?

The big Wall Street banks did not expect plunging home prices to cause a mortgage-backed securities implosion back in 2008, and their models did not anticipate a decline in the price of oil by more than 40 dollars in less than six months this time either.  If the price of oil stays at this level or goes down even more, someone out there is going to have to absorb some absolutely massive losses.  In some cases, the losses will be absorbed by oil producers, but many of the big players in the industry have already locked in high prices for their oil next year through derivatives contracts.

The companies enter into these derivatives contracts for a couple of reasons.  Number one, many lenders do not want to give them any money unless they can show that they have locked in a price for their oil that is higher than the cost of production.  Secondly, derivatives contracts protect the profits of oil producers from dramatic swings in the marketplace.

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Is AI a Myth?


via Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies:

A few weeks back the technologist Jaron Lanier gave a provocative talk over at The Edge in which he declared ideas swirling around the current manifestation AI to be a “myth”, and a dangerous myth at that. Yet Lanier was only one of a set of prominent thinkers and technologists who have appeared over the last few months to challenge want they saw as a flawed narrative surrounding recent advances in artificial intelligence.

There was a piece in The New York Review of Books back in October by the most famous skeptic from the last peak in AI – back in the early 1980’s, John Searle. (Relation to the author lost in the mists of time) It was Searle who invented the well-know thought experiment of the “Chinese Room”, which purports to show that a computer can be very clever without actually knowing anything at all.

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