News and the forgotten value of waiting

If someone wanted to create a parody of cable news, it would be hard to satirize the form more effectively than to cast Wolf Blitzer as the lead character in a goofy show called The Situation Room, where all news all the time is breaking news.

The irony of the fact that CNN’s news show of that name is, on the contrary, meant to be taken seriously, is that it does indeed capture the zeitgeist of the news media environment in which we now live — an environment, driven largely by social media, that maximizes the value of the nowness of news while eviscerating the value of its content.

News nowadays has such a short shelf-life, it’s already stale before it gets packaged. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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A history of hype behind Cambridge Analytica

Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, once described his work in this way: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

As an Old Etonian, his ties to royalty, the aristocracy, and the rich and famous, seemed to foster (at least in his own mind) the notion that he had the skills and connections required for shaping global events.

But as Claudio Gatti noted while Donald Trump took office, Oakes’ primary business skill seems to have been identical to Trump’s: the art of self-promotion.

Oakes’ bio in the SCL webpage says that he “was educated at Eton College and UCL, where he studied Psychology”, although according to a 2008 letter the University College London sent to David Miller, a UK sociologist who studies propaganda, there were no records of him ever studying there.

[Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Facebook employees feel increasingly responsible for the world’s problems

At an all-hands meeting for Facebook employees at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park on Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t show up. Fielding questions for just 30 minutes was the company’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal. In its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook had not acted improperly, he insisted. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

One employee asked the same question twice: Even if Facebook played by its own rules, and the developer followed policies at the time, did the company ever consider the ethics of what it was doing with user data? Grewal didn’t answer directly.

As the report notes, Facebook has weathered complaints about violating user privacy since its inception. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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The ancient hunt in which the tracker’s skill united reason and imagination

“The San people of the Kalahari desert are the last tribe on Earth to use what some believe to be the most ancient hunting technique of all: the persistence hunt; they run down their prey,” says David Attenborough:

 

“The hunter pays tribute to his quarry’s courage and strength. With ceremonial gestures that ensure that its spirit returns to the desert sands from which it came. While it was alive, he lived and breathed with it and felt its every movement in his own body, and at the moment of its death, he shared its pain. He rubs its saliva into his own legs to relieve the agony of his own burning muscles, and he gives thanks for the life he has taken so that he may sustain the lives of his family waiting for him back in their settlement.”

Louis Liebenberg, author of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, argues that the rational skills required by the ancient tracker provided the basis of scientific reasoning.

The first creative science, practiced by possibly some of the earliest members of Homo sapiens who had modern brains and intellects, may have been the tracking of game animals…

[Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Novichok chemical attack near Porton Down fed catnip to conspiracy theorists

Vladimir Putin has long understood that Russia can easily exploit the cynicism that permeates political perceptions across the West.

The use of the Soviet chemical weapon, Novichok, in close proximity to the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, hardly seems coincidental. It accomplished two things:

1. By deploying this agent so close to the lab, operatives could be fairly confident that British authorities with the required expertise would be able to positively identify the chemical, i.e. Russia’s calling card would be relatively easy to decipher.

2. Carrying out an attack so close to such a controversial facility would instantly provide fodder for conspiracy theories promoting the idea that Porton Down itself was the origin of the Novichok used in the attack. Russia did not hesitate to seed such speculation:


Predictably, Craig Murray and others (with the support of the Russian government and media) were swift to hoist “false flag” claims of one kind or another. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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The depletion of the human microbiome and how it can be restored

Tobias Rees and Nils Gilman write:

It is a crisis some scientists believe has similar proportions to climate change, but it gets much less coverage: Microbes are disappearing from our bodies.

You may have heard that trillions of microbes — bacteria, fungi, viruses, protists — live on every surface of your body as well as inside your mouth, other orifices and your gut. You may have also heard that these microbes make up the majority of your body’s cells.

But few are aware of how directly these microbes and their genes affect the functioning of our bodies. The human genome found in the nuclei of our cells contains roughly 20,000 genes, but the microbiome — the sum total of genetic material in the microorganisms that live in and on us — contains as many as 20 million genes, all of which are directly or indirectly interacting with and at times even controlling our genes.

Our microbial genes are critical to the regulation of our metabolism, to the ability of our immune system to fight off infection and to the production of the neurotransmitters that power our brain and nervous system. The microbiome, just like our nuclear genome, is heritable. The majority of microbes are transferred from mother to child during childbirth, in a chain of transmission that reaches back to the earliest animals that evolved — which happen to have been microbes.

So why the crisis? [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

Frans de Waal asks: are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

Just as attitudes of superiority within segments of human culture are often expressions of ignorance, humans collectively — especially when subject to the dislocating effects of technological dependence — tend to underestimate the levels of awareness and cognitive skills of creatures who live mostly outside our sight. This tendency translates into presuppositions that need to be challenged by what de Waal calls his “cognitive ripple rule”:

Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.

In a review of de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Ludwig Huber notes that there are a multitude of illustrations of the fact that brain size does not correlate with cognitive capacities.

Whereas we once thought of humans as having unique capabilities in learning and the use of tools, we now know these attributes place us in a set of species that also includes bees. Our prior assumptions about seemingly robotic behavior in such creatures turns out to have been an expression of our own anthropocentric prejudices. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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The immobilization of life on Earth

One of the defining characteristics of life is movement, be that in the form of locomotion or simply growth.

What is inanimate is not alive and yet humans, through the use of technology, are constantly seeking ways to reduce the need to move our own limbs.

We have set ourselves on a trajectory that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will eliminate our need to possess a fully functioning body as we reduce ourselves to a corpse-like condition sustained by a multiplicity of devices. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Quinn Norton and the New York Times’ short-lived courage

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Paleolithic parenting and animated GIFs

The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution.

The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed.

It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears figured out that movement seen in living creatures around them could, by cunning means, be captured in crafted illusions of movement.


Let’s run with the hypothesis that this 14,000 year old artifact is indeed a toy. What does this tell us about its creator and the children for whom it was made? [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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My new website: Attention to the Unseen

I just launched my new website, Attention to the Unseen.

If you find it interesting, please sign up for email updates (via Feedburner).

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With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Britain First and the first Britons

The white supremacists who chant “blood and soil” (borrowing this phrase from the Nazis’ Blut und Boden) think white-skinned people have a special claim to the lands of Europe and North America.

This is an arrogant and ignorant belief to hold on this side of the Atlantic where every white person has immigrant ancestry originating from Europe, but European whiteness in terms of origin (not superiority) is a less controversial notion. That is to say, even among those of us who support the development and protection of inclusive, racially diverse societies, it’s generally believed that prior the modern era of mass migration, European societies were overwhelmingly white because, to put it crudely, Europe is where white people come from.

It turns out that European whiteness has surprisingly shallow roots, as new research findings based on a DNA analysis of “Cheddar Man” indicate. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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What happened to War in Context?

On December 20, I explained my reason for suspending updates to this site by referring mysteriously and ominously to “the dictate of highly unpredictable events.”

Regular visitors to War in Context may want to find out what happened and can now do so by reading this post on my new website, Attention to the Unseen.

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No updates for a while

I wish this notice could be more precise, but this is a time when under the dictate of highly unpredictable events, I have to set aside my long-standing commitment to update this site. Paul Woodward

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Senate Russia investigation now looking into Jill Stein

BuzzFeed reports: The top congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has set its sights on the Green Party and its nominee, Jill Stein.

Dennis Trainor Jr., who worked for the Stein campaign from January to August of 2015, says Stein contacted him on Friday saying the Senate Intelligence Committee had requested that the campaign comply with a document search.

Trainor, who served as the campaign’s communications director and acting manager during that time, told BuzzFeed News that he was informed of the committee’s request because during his time on the campaign, his personal cell phone was “a primary point of contact” for those looking to reach Stein or the campaign. That included producers from RT News, the Russian state-funded media company that booked Stein for several appearances, Trainor said. [Continue reading…]

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Putin thanks Trump for CIA intel that ‘foiled’ a planned ‘terrorist attack’ in Russia

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday phoned President Trump to thank him for a tip from the CIA that thwarted a terrorist attack being planned in St. Petersburg.

The unusual call — countries share intelligence all the time, but presidents rarely publicly thank one another for it — was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Putin told Trump that the information provided by the CIA allowed Russian law enforcement agencies to track down and detain a group of suspects who were planning to bomb the centrally located Kazan Cathedral and other crowded parts of Russia’s second-largest city.

“Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people,” the White House said in its readout of the call. “Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together.” [Continue reading…]

I don’t have time to answer this question right now, but I can’t help wondering whether the conspiracy theorists who so often raise the specter of “false flag” operations are doing so right now.

We already know how easily the piggy in the Oval office can be led by the ring in his nose.

We also know Putin wants to presents Russia as an equal to the U.S. rather than an inferior partner.

But the picture being painted here is one in which the CIA supposedly has better intelligence on plots unfolding inside Russia than do Putin’s own security services.

Perhaps that’s the case, or perhaps bait was carefully laid for the CIA in order to conjure a useful bit of PR highlighting the cordiality of U.S.-Russian relations during a time when Russia isn’t too busy meddling in U.S. elections.

Update: I guess there are other observers with vastly more knowledge of Russian politics than I have, who are also casting a deeply skeptical eye on this report:

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How Donald Trump is laying the foundation stones for a fascist state

Readers here should already be aware that I am not in the habit of making hyperbolic statements, so when I use the phrase “fascist state,” it’s not in the commonplace sense of merely expressing disgust for Donald Trump.

While fascism is generally most strongly associated with its expressions through military domination, as George Orwell clearly understood, the most pernicious and absolute way through which a totalitarian government exerts its power is through the control and manipulation of language.

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or “evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered. [Continue reading…]

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