Category Archives: tD

The Golden Age of TV: Trailer Park Boys

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I have noticed that critics of our pop culture seem to agree that we are in a second golden age of television in the United States (and elsewhere). It’s a period beginning in the late 1990s, and stretching to the present day, marked by the production of a significant number of critically and internationally acclaimed programs. The original golden age of television spanned the late 1940s and early 50s (e.g., Kraft Television Theater, Four Star Playhouse, The Clock, Alfred Hitchcock Presents).

I’m not much of a TV watcher so my credentials are somewhat dubious. But, I must weigh in to set the record straight on our current golden age. To be precise, it began in Canada on April 22, 2001, and to a fashion, continues to this day.

You see, on April 22, 2001, the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired “Take Your Little Gun and Get Out of My Trailer Park“, the first episode of the first season of Trailer Park Boys.

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I first stumbled across Trailer Park Boys on BBC America while channel surfing in 2004 (I know, 3 years late!). Unfamiliar? Trailer Park Boys (TPB) is a now legendary Canadian mockumentary comedy chronicling the (mis-)adventures of Julian, Ricky and Bubbles, and other colorful residents of fictitious Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Nova Scotia. The show now in its 11th season is a booze and pot-fueled catalog of vulgar, outrageous hare-brained silliness.

I love it. To date I have never laughed so much while watching TV. Luckily for me, and other fans, the show and related movies are now available on Netflix.

So, long may the real golden age of TV continue complete with Bubble’s kitties, Julian and Ricky’s get-rich-quick schemes, Randy’s stomach, Mr.Lahey, Cyrus the nutter, J-Roc, rum-and-coke, Tyrone, Lucy, Officer Green, Trinity, shopping carts and the rest of the madcap bunch.

Image 1: Trailer Park Boys screenshot. Courtesy of Swearnet.

Image 2 courtesy of Google Search.

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The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

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The online filter bubble is a natural extension of our preexisting biases, particularly evident in our media consumption. Those of us of a certain age — above 30 years — once purchased (and maybe still do) our favorite paper-based newspapers and glued ourselves to our favorite TV news channels. These sources mirrored, for the most part, our cultural and political preferences. The internet took this a step further by building a tightly wound, self-reinforcing feedback loop. We consume our favorite online media, which solicits algorithms to deliver more of the same. I’ve written about the filter bubble for years (here, here and here).

The online filter bubble in which each of us lives — those of us online — may seem no more dangerous than its offline predecessor. After all, the online version of the NYT delivers left-of-center news, just like its printed cousin. So what’s the big deal? Well, the pervasiveness of our technology has now enabled these filters to creep insidiously into many aspects of our lives, from news consumption and entertainment programming to shopping and even dating. And, since we now spend growing  swathes of our time online, our serendipitous exposure to varied content that typically lies outside this bubble in the real, offline world is diminishing. Consequently, the online filter bubble is taking on a much more critical role and having greater effect in maintaining our tunnel vision.

However, that’s not all. Over the last few years we have become exposed to yet another dangerous phenomenon to have made the jump from the offline world to online — the echo chamber. The online echo chamber is enabled by our like-minded online communities and catalyzed by the tools of social media. And, it turns our filter bubble into a self-reinforcing, exclusionary community that is harmful to varied, reasoned opinion and healthy skepticism.

Those of us who reside on Facebook are likely to be part of a very homogeneous social circle, which trusts, shares and reinforces information accepted by the group and discards information that does not match the group’s social norms. This makes the spread of misinformation — fake stories, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors — so very effective. Importantly, this is increasingly to the exclusion of all else, including real news and accepted scientific fact.

Why embrace objective journalism, trusted science and thoughtful political dialogue when you can get a juicy, emotive meme from a friend of a friend on Facebook? Why trust a story from Reuters or science from Scientific American when you get your “news” via a friend’s link from Alex Jones and the Brietbart News Network?

And, there’s no simple solution, which puts many of our once trusted institutions in severe jeopardy. Those of us who care have a duty to ensure these issues are in the minds of our public officials and the guardians of our technology and media networks.

From Scientific American:

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

Many are asking whether this onslaught of digital misinformation affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. The truth is we do not know, although there are reasons to believe it is entirely possible, based on past analysis and accounts from other countries. Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. Overall, the harm can be very real: If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?

As a researcher on the spread of misinformation through social media, I know that limiting news fakers’ ability to sell ads, as recently announced by Google and Facebook, is a step in the right direction. But it will not curb abuses driven by political motives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Next 4 Years

It’s taken me a week to recover from the visceral shock of the US Presidential election. A vile process that continued for 18 months finally culminated in the election of, quite simply, a neo-fascist-lite for our Twitter age.

Like many other so-called elitists — if we should equate elitism with a higher education — I had hoped for a different outcome. Well, it wasn’t to be. So, it’s time to accept the result and move on, right?

Not quite, since this is an existential threat to my children and our democracy, like no other.

Thus, I will begin the next four years by reminding myself, and you dear reader of the President-elect’s vulgarities, bigotry, hypocrisy, contempt, mendacity and other dangerously ignorant, poisonous nonsense and complete bullshit from the depraved, despotic, shameless, shallow, deceitful, volatile, puerile, vindictive, noxious, boastful, misogynistic, racist, corrupt, thuggish, insensitive, naive, irrational, petulant, solipsistic, authoritarian, vengeful, disgraceful, abusive, irresponsible, narcissistic, pompous, vacuous, cowardly, amoral, self-aggrandizing, unprincipled, pathologically deranged, completely detached-from-reality (crazy), unapologetically fraudulent, chronically repulsive, thoroughly sleazy and incoherent mind mouth of the President-elect (think about that very carefully for several minutes each day over the next 1,450 or so days).

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Times Continue to Change

A thoroughly well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature to America’s unofficial poet laureate — Bob Dylan. Some good news that we can all cheer during these troubled, changing times. In the Nobel committee’s words,

For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

Video: TV Movie, The Times They are a Changing’ (1964), directed by Daryl Duke and starring Bob Dylan.

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One Month to Go!

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On November 8, 2016 citizens of the United States will decide who takes up residence in the Oval Office on the following January. If you remain undecided — which I doubt — please select from any one of the following links or stories or visit this summary page.

Gathered for the first time in one place, I present daily Trumpian #NeverTrump #DumpTrump vulgarities, bigotry, hypocrisy and other dangerously ignorant and poisonous nonsense from the volatile, puerile, vindictive, noxious, misogynistic, racist, insensitive, naive, irrational, petulant, authoritarian, disgraceful, irresponsible, narcissistic, vacuous, cowardly, pathologically deranged, completely detached-from-reality, and chronically repulsive and incoherent mind mouth of the “Republican” nominee for President (think about that very carefully for several minutes).

There is such a goldmine cesspool of material stretching back years, nay decades, that it’s difficult to recommend just a couple of highlights. However, if you’re a connoisseur of such ignorant vulgarities then I would suggest days 31 and 42 for their “jaw-droppingness”.

As we count down to Election Day — a potentially apocalyptic event — I plan to add a daily key “thought” (I use this term loosely) from the increasingly deranged and highly volatile mind of the Republican nominee.

For the sake of historical completeness I’ve also included some of Mr. Trump’s most recent choice vulgarities, bulls**t and other nonsense pre-100 days. I’m not going back more than a couple of years because, quite simply, there’s far too much crass stupidity to cover on one simple web page.

This truly is a gift that keeps on giving — but only up until November 8, 2016, of course.

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The Banana Republic Nextdoor

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The United States has no problem raking other nations and their leaders over the coals for violating fundamental human rights. We don’t like it when certain countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America trample on democracy, restrict free speech and restrict the ability of citizens to vote.

Yet, North Carolina clearly sees itself as a leading anti-democratic banana republic. Restricting voting rights of huge parts of the population under the guise of non-existent or insignificant voter fraud is nothing more than institutionalized racism.

The state’s leaders should be ashamed — the US Supreme Court seems to agree.

So, the next time you think of visiting a “third-world” nation to experience their “antiquated” governmental practices and their “quaint” discriminatory worldview put North Carolina on your bucket list.

From Washington Post:

The emails to the North Carolina election board seemed routine at the time.

“Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?” a staffer for the state’s Republican-controlled legislature asked in January 2012.

“Is there no category for ‘Hispanic’ voter?” a GOP lawmaker asked in March 2013 after requesting a range of data, including how many voters cast ballots outside their precinct.

And in April 2013, a top aide to the Republican House speaker asked for “a breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.”

Months later, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that cut a week of early voting, eliminated out-of-precinct voting and required voters to show specific types of photo ID — restrictions that election board data demonstrated would disproportionately affect African Americans and other minorities.

Critics dubbed it the “monster” law — a sprawling measure that stitched together various voting restrictions being tested in other states. As civil rights groups have sued to block the North Carolina law and others like it around the country, several thousand pages of documents have been produced under court order, revealing the details of how Republicans crafted these measures.

A review of these documents shows that North Carolina GOP leaders launched a meticulous and coordinated effort to deter black voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The law, created and passed entirely by white legislators, evoked the state’s ugly history of blocking African Americans from voting — practices that had taken a civil rights movement and extensive federal intervention to stop.

Last month, a three-judge federal appeals panel struck down the North Carolina law, calling it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” Drawing from the emails and other evidence, the 83-page ruling charged that Republican lawmakers had targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Gov. Pat McCrory (R) filed an emergency petition to restore the law, but a deadlocked Supreme Court on Wednesday refused his stay request, meaning the law will not be in effect for the Nov. 8 election. Because the lower court did not offer specific guidelines for reinstating early voting, however, local election boards run by Republicans are still trying to curb access to the polls.

In lengthy interviews, GOP leaders insisted their law is not racially motivated and their goal was to combat voter fraud. They called their opponents demagogues, who are using the specter of racism to inflame the issue.

Read the entire story here.

Image: State seal of North Carolina. Public Domain.

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Murderers or Terrorists and the Real Tragedy

The United States is a wonderful, yet thoroughly paradoxical place. Take the general reactions to gun violence, murder and terrorism, during a two week period in mid-September 2016, for example.

Exhibit A: Ahmad Khan Rahami, a would-be murderer, planted several home-made pipe and pressure cooker bombs in New Jersey and New York on September 17. Result: no deaths, several minor injuries, local property damage. Our news media spun days worth of front page coverage, outrage, analysis, hearsay, opinion, soul-searching. Reason: the perpetrator had a beard, Muslim name and found to have espoused sympathies with radicals.

Exhibit B: Arcan Cetin shot four women and one man at a Macy’s store in Burlington, Washington on September 23. Result: 5 deaths. The rampage in a suburban mall barely made the national headlines, and didn’t last beyond the 24-hour news cycle. Reason: the perpetrator was clean-shaven, had personal problems and found to have no “terrorist” links or sympathies.

Exhibit C: Nathan DeSai, a 46-year-old Texas attorney, went on a shooting spree in Houston on September 26. Result: 9 wounded. This made a minor flutter in the news media and has since disappeared from national consciousness even though he was wearing an antique German uniform with Swastikas.

In 2013, over 16,000 people were murdered in the US, around 11,000 at the hands of someone armed with a gun. In 2015, 475 people were killed in 372 mass shootings. Many of these go completely unreported, aside from a paragraph or two at the local level.

And yet.

And yet, our media and a large number of US citizens fret and decry events at the hands of the “terrorist”, while barely blinking at the daily carnage caused by our domestic, homicidal neighbors. Who are the real terrorists and why have we come to accept so many daily murders — averaging over 40 — as so utterly banal and trivial? Is the politically motivated “international” assassin any more dangerous than the disturbed suburban version? They’re both driven by a distorted worldview and their place in it. Perhaps, they’re not that different after all.

But, more importantly, rather than focusing on a 55 ft wall to deter illusory armies of terrorists it might be more rational to tackle the causes that lead to tens of thousands of our own citizens killing their spouses, families, neighbors, school children, work colleagues, church-goers, drivers, runners and shoppers. We are desensitized to our home-grown “domestic terrorism”. That’s the real tragedy.

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Lab-Grown Beef and Zombie Cows

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Writer and student of philosophy Rhys Southan provides some food for thought in his essay over at Aeon on the ethics of eating meat. The question is simple enough: would our world be better if humans ate only lab-grown meat or meat from humanely raised farm animals?

The answer may not be as simple or as black and white as you first thought. For instance, were we to move to 100 percent lab-grown beef, it is likely that there would be a far reduced need, if any, for real cattle. Thus, we’d be depriving an entire species from living and experiencing some degree of sentience and happiness. Or, if we were to retain some cows, but only in the wild, wouldn’t that be tantamount to torture for a domestic animal raised for millennia in domesticity? This might actually be worse than allowing cows to graze on humane farms for a good portion of their lives before being humanely killed — if there is such a thing — and readied for our plates.

From Aeon:

Three years ago, a televised taste test of a lab-grown burger proved it was possible to grow a tiny amount of edible meat in a lab. This flesh was never linked to any central nervous system, and so there was none of the pain, boredom and fear that usually plague animals unlucky enough to be born onto our farms. That particular burger coalesced in a substrate of foetal calf serum, but the goal is to develop an equally effective plant-based solution so that a relatively small amount of animal cells can serve as the initial foundation for glistening mounds of brainless flesh in vats – meat without the slaughter.

For many cultured-meat advocates, a major motive is the reduction of animal suffering. Vat meat avoids both the good and the bad of the mixed blessing that is sentient existence. Since the lives of animals who become our food are mostly a curse, producing mindless, unfeeling flesh to replace factory farming is an ethical (as well as literal) no-brainer.

A trickier question is whether the production of non-sentient flesh should replace what I will call ‘low-suffering animal farming’ – giving animals good lives while still raising them for food. Ideally, farmed animals would be spared the routine practices that cause severe pain: dehorning, castration, artificial insemination, branding, the separation of mothers from calves for early weaning, and long, cramped truck rides to slaughterhouses. But even in its Platonic form, low-suffering animal farming has detractors. If we give farm animals good lives, it presumably means that they like their lives and want to keep living – so how do we justify killing them just to enjoy the tastes and textures of meat? By avoiding all the good aspects of subjective experience, growing faceless flesh in vats also escapes this objection. Since vat meat cannot have any experiences at all, we don’t take a good life away by eating it.

This could avoid what many see as the fatal contradiction of humane animal farming: it commits us to treating animals with love and kindness… before slashing their throats so that we can devour their insides. It’s not the most compassionate end to a mutually respectful cross-species friendship. However, conscientiously objecting to low-suffering animal husbandry can be paradoxical as well. Those who want plants and nerveless animal cells to replace all animal farming because they think it wrong to kill happy creatures seem to believe that life for these farmed animals is such a good thing that it’s a shame for them to lose it – and so we should never create their lives at all. They love sentience so much, they want this to be a less sentient world.

So, which of these awkward positions has more going for it? In order to figure this out, I’m afraid we’ll need a thought experiment involving, well, zombie cows.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Highland cow, in southern Dartmoor, England, 2009. Courtesy: Nilfanion / Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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Clicks or Truth

The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site Snopes.com puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

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Prepping for the Day When Something Hits the Fan

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The end of the world may come in any one of hundreds of forms. Off the top of my head I can think several Hollywood-esque grand finales: a global pandemic, an errant asteroid, a careless Presidential error with nuclear codes, a biological terrorism attack, a leftist mind-control takeover, unfriendly aliens from Proxima Centauri, a misanthropic AI.

But a growing cadre of survivalists isn’t idly debating the pros and cons and probabilities of one apocalyptic scenario versus another. No. These “preppers”, as they have come to be known in some quarters, are actively preparing; they’re planning, moving, hoarding and readying themselves for the ultimate civilizational collapse. You’ll find quite a number of preppers in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest known as the American Redoubt.

Quite why the number of preppers has been rising recently is open to speculation. But I’d hazard a guess that most perceive their current lives under threat from a collection of at least three of the following: politicians (probably left-leaning ones), global elites, multiculturalism, atheists, the media, investment banks, Muslims, Jews, the Pope, and millennials [this last one is a joke].

From the Washington Post:

Don and Jonna Bradway recently cashed out of the stock market and invested in gold and silver. They have stockpiled food and ammunition in the event of a total economic collapse or some other calamity commonly known around here as “The End of the World As We Know It” or “SHTF” — the day something hits the fan.

The Bradways fled California, a state they said is run by “leftists and non-Constitutionalists and anti-freedom people,” and settled on several wooded acres of north Idaho five years ago. They live among like-minded conservative neighbors, host Monday night Bible study around their fire pit, hike in the mountains and fish from their boat. They melt lead to make their own bullets for sport shooting and hunting — or to defend themselves against marauders in a world-ending cataclysm.

“I’m not paranoid, I’m really not,” said Bradway, 68, a cheerful Army veteran with a bushy handlebar mustache who favors Hawaiian shirts. “But we’re prepared. Anybody who knows us knows that Don and Jonna are prepared if and when it hits the fan.”

The Bradways are among the vanguard moving to an area of the Pacific Northwest known as the American Redoubt, a term coined in 2011 by survivalist author and blogger James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is deliberate) to describe a settlement of the God-fearing in a lightly populated territory that includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon.

Those migrating to the Redoubt are some of the most motivated members of what is known as the prepper movement, which advocates readiness and self-reliance in man-made or natural disasters that could create instability for years. It’s scenario-planning that is gaining adherents and becoming mainstream in what Redoubt preppers described as an era of fear and uncertainty.

They are anxious about recent terrorist attacks from Paris to San Bernardino, Calif., to Orlando; pandemics such as Ebola in West Africa; potential nuclear attacks from increasingly provocative countries such as North Korea or Iran; and the growing political, economic and racial polarization in the United States that has deepened during the 2016 presidential election.

Nationally, dozens of online prepper suppliers report an increase in sales of items from water purifiers to hand-cranked radios to solar-powered washing machines. Harvest Right, a Utah company that invented a $3,000 portable freeze dryer to preserve food, has seen sales grow from about 80 a month two years ago to more than 900 a month now, said spokesman Stephanie Barlow.

Clyde Scott, owner of Rising S Bunkers, said pre-made, blast-proof underground steel bunkers are in big demand, including his most popular model, which sleeps six to eight people and sells for up to $150,000.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Luxury bunker able to withstand a 20-kiloton nuclear blast. Courtesy of Harry Norman Realtors / Cater News. Daily Mail.

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176 Reasons to Vote Against the Bully

I implore you to watch the entire video and (re-)learn why the Republican nominee for President should never be elected. The piece is 17 minutes long — it’s increasingly impossible to distill Trump’s truly deplorable and vulgar bile into anything shorter.

Video: 176 Reasons Donald Trump Shouldn’t Be President
In the debut episode of his new series, “The Closer with Keith Olbermann,” GQ’s Keith Olbermann tallies the most outrageous of Donald Trump’s offenses in what is now his 15-month assault on American democracy. Courtesy: GQ.

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If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

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This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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50 Years Later Texas Moves Backwards (Again)

** FILE **This 1966 file photo shows Charles J. Whitman, a 24-year-old student at the University of Texas, a sniper who killed 16 and wounded 31 from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in Austin, Texas, Aug. 1, 1966. Until the carnage by a student gunman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Monday, April 16, 2007, the sniping rampage by Whitman from the Austin school's landmark 307-foot tower had remained the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history. (AP Photo, File)
** FILE **This 1966 file photo shows Charles J. Whitman, a 24-year-old student at the University of Texas, a sniper who killed 16 and wounded 31 from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in Austin, Texas, Aug. 1, 1966. Until the carnage by a student gunman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Monday, April 16, 2007, the sniping rampage by Whitman from the Austin school’s landmark 307-foot tower had remained the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history. (AP Photo, File)

On August 1, 2016, Texas’ new “Campus Carry” law went into effect. This means that licensed gun holders will generally be allowed to carry concealed handguns at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and other public colleges throughout Texas.

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a non-brown-skinned, non-Muslim, domestic terrorist killed his wife and mother in their homes, and then went on to murder a further 14 people at the UT Austin campus. Before being shot and killed by an Austin police officer Whitman seriously wounded an additional 32 people.

Ironically and sadly, many believe that Campus Carry will make their university campuses safer. History and real data shows otherwise.

Evidence does show that legally-armed citizens can prevent some crime. But this would make no serious dent in the annual 32,000-plus death toll from guns in the US. Sensible gun control, with thorough and exhaustive background checks, is a more rational answer. The good guy with a gun is a myth — go ask your local police department.

Image: Charles Whitman Source, 1963, Cactus, the student yearbook of the University of Texas. Courtesy: The Austin History Center. Reference AR.2000.002, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library Date: c 1963.

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MondayMap: Addresses Made Simple

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I recently tripped over a fascinating mapping app called What3Words. Its goal is to make location and address finding easier. It does so in quite a creative way — by assigning a unique combination of 3 words to every 3×3 square meter location on the planet. In What3Words own words:

So in case you were wondering. The Queen’s official residence in London (Buckingham Palace) is fence.gross.bats.

It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates.

Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

How cool.

Image: What3Words screenshot. Courtesy: What3Words.

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Bedlam and the Mysterious Air Loom

Air Loom machine

During my college years I was fortunate enough to spend time as a volunteer in a Victorian era psychiatric hospital in the United Kingdom. Fortunate in two ways: that I was able to make some small, yet positive difference to the lives of some of the patients; and, fortunate enough to live on the outside.

Despite the good and professional intentions of the many caring staff the hospital itself — to remain nameless — was a dreary embodiment of many a nightmarish horror flick. The building had dark, endless corridors; small, leaky windows; creaky doors, many with locks exclusively on the outside, and even creakier plumbing; spare cell-like rooms for patients; treatment rooms with passive restraints on chairs and beds. Most locals still called it “____ lunatic asylum”.

All of this leads me to the fascinating and tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a rebellious (and somewhat paranoid) peace activist who was confined to London’s infamous Bedlam asylum in 1797. He was incarcerated for believing he was being coerced and brainwashed by a mysterious governmental mind control machine known as the “Air Loom”.

Subsequent inquiries pronounced Matthews thoroughly sane, but the British government kept him institutionalized anyway because of his verbal threats against officials and then king, George III. In effect, this made Matthews a political prisoner — precisely that which he had always steadfastly maintained.

Ironically, George III’s well-documented, recurrent and serious mental illness had no adverse effect on his own reign as monarch from 1760-1820. Interestingly enough, Bedlam was the popular name for the Bethlem Royal Hospital, sometimes known as St Mary Bethlehem Hospital.

The word “Bedlam”, of course, later came to be a synonym for confusion and chaos.

Read the entire story of James Tilly Matthews and his nemesis, apothecary and discredited lay-psychiatrist, John Haslam, at Public Domain Review.

Image: Detail from the lower portion of James Tilly Matthews’ illustration of the Air Loom featured in John Haslam’s Illustrations of Madness (1810). Courtesy: Public Domain Review / Wellcome Library, London. Public Domain.

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Pokemon Go and the Post-Apocalyptic Future is Nigh

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Some have lauded Pokémon Go as the next great health and fitness enabler since the “invention” of running. After all, over the span of just a few days it has forced half of Western civilization to unplug from Netflix, get off the couch and move around, and to do so outside!

The cynic in me perceives deeper, darker motives at play: a plot by North Korea to distract the West while it prepares a preemptive nuclear strike; a corporate sponsored youth brain-washing program; an exquisitely orchestrated, self-perpetuated genocidal time-bomb wrought by shady political operatives; a Google inspired initiative to tackle the obesity epidemic.

While the true nature of this elegantly devious phenomenon unfolds over the long-term — and maintains the collective attention of tens of millions of teens and millennials in the process — I will make a dozen bold, short-term predictions:

  1. A legendary Pokémon, such as Mewtwo, will show up at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and it will be promptly shot by open carry fanatics.
  2. The first Pokémon Go fatality will occur by July 31, 2016 — a player will inadvertently step into traffic while trying to throw a Poké Ball.
  3. The hundredth Pokémon Go fatality will occur on August 1, 2016 — the 49th player to fall into a sewer and drown.
  4. Sales of comfortable running shoes will skyrocket over the next 3 days, as the West discovers walking.
  5. Evangelical mega-churches in the US will hack the game to ensure Pokémon characters appear during revivals to draw more potential customers.
  6. Pokémon characters will begin showing up on Fox News and the Supreme Court.
  7. Tinder will file for chapter 11 bankruptcy and emerge as a Pokémon dating site.
  8. Gyms and stadia around the country will ditch all sporting events to make way for mass Pokémon hunts; NFL’s next expansion team will be virtual and led by Pikachu as quarterback.
  9. The Pokémon Company, Nintendo and Niantic Labs will join forces to purchase Japan by year’s end.
  10. Google and Tesla will team up to deliver Poké Spot in-car navigation allowing players to automatically drive to Pokémon locations.
  11. Donald Trump will assume office of PokémonPresident of the United States on January 20, 2017; 18-35-year-olds forgot to vote.
  12. World ends, January 21, 2017.

Pokemon-Go WSJ screenshot 13Jul2016If you’re one of the few earthlings wondering what Pokémon Go is all about, and how in the space of just a few days our neighborhoods have become overrun by zombie-like players, look no further than the WSJ. Rupert Murdoch must be a fan.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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As Clear As Black and White

Police-violence-screenshot-7Jul2016

The terrible tragedy that is wrought by guns in the United States continues unabated. And, it’s even more tragic when elements of our police forces fuel the unending violence, more often than not, enabled by racism. The governor of Minnesota Mark Dayton put it quite starkly yesterday, following the fatal shooting of Philando Castile on July 6, 2016, a resident of Falcon Heights, pulled over for a broken tail-light.

Just one day earlier, police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana shot and killed Alton Sterling.

Anti-police-violence-screenshot-8Jul2016

And, today we hear that the cycle of mistrust, hatred and deadly violence — courtesy of guns — has come full circle. A racist sniper (or snipers)  apparently targeting and murdering five white police officers in Dallas, Texas on July 7, 2016.

Images: Screenshots courtesy of Washington Post and WSJ, respectively.

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Eg er Island

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A couple of days after “Brexit” — Britain’s move to pull out of the European Union — an enormous self-inflicted wound perpetrated by narrow-minded xenophobes and scare-mongering political opportunists, Britain got it just deserts. Iceland kicked England out of Euro 2016 — the Europe-wide football (soccer) tournament.

How significant? Well, let’s put this in some perspective. Iceland is a country of only ~330,000 souls, the size of several small London suburbs. It has never fielded a team in a major tournament. It’s national coach is a dentist. The combined income of the entire Icelandic team is less than 5 percent of the average salary earned by just one of England’s players.

The United States offers no giant-killing parallels; however, I suspect, Iceland’s 2-1 win over England would be akin to a high school football (American football) team drubbing the NFL’s Broncos or Patriots.

So, while I was born and raised in London, today I am Iceland, “Ég er Island”.

Image: Eyjafjallajökull glacier, one of the smallest glaciers in Iceland. Courtesy: Andreas Tille – Own work.

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Made in America: Apple Pie and AR-15

AR-15 rifleThe United States lays claim to an amazing number of home-grown inventions that shaped history and became iconic reflections of modern American culture.  Thomas Edison’s lightbulb. Eastman’s film camera. Ford’s Model T car. Coca-cola. Big Mac. Microsoft Windows. iPhone. These are just a few of the hundreds of products and services that shaped America.

The horrific mass murder in Orlando, Florida, suggests that another key product should now make the iconic list — the AR-15 and its close imitators (the American mass murderer’s product of choice).

The AR-15 is easier to purchase than a cell phone, costs less than a 60-inch HDTV (around $500-700), and is simpler to use than your TV remote. Most importantly for the next, budding mass-murderer, the AR-15 is devastatingly optimized; with a few legal add-ons it can fire 800-900 rounds per minute. That’s a lot of wonderfully convenient killing.

Can someone pass me the .223 ammo with that whipped cream?

Image: AR-15 rifle. Courtesy: TheAlphaWolf – Derivative work of File:Stag2wi.jpg. Public Domain.

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Zhoosh the Riah

Growing up in London of the 60s and 70s (yes, I’m that old, really), I had a rich exposure to the pig latin of teenagers and the cockney rhyming slang of adults. Rhyming slang provided a gorgeously poetic and subversive way of conversing with like-minded souls and hiding meaning from any outsiders.

I still have a soft spot for its words and phrases:

I don’t adam and eve it — believe
You’re always getting into barney rubble — trouble
I made another cadbury’s flake — mistake
Switch off the custard and jelly — telly (television)
I lost my dog and bone again — phone
My plates of meat are sore — feet
How are the dustbin lids? — kids
Drive down the frog and toad — road
I crashed my jam-jar — car
Use your loaf (short for loaf of bread) — head
Close your north and south when you’re eating — mouth
Rabbit (short for rabbit and pork) is cheap — talk
That was a great cup of rosie (short for Rosy Lee) — tea
Meet you at the rub-a-dub — pub
I’m short of sausage and mash — cash
How’s the trouble and strife? — wife

Rhyming slang like other cryptolectic languages is slowly dying out. Sadly, rich dialects and phrases from our subcultures are now increasingly subsumed by homogeneous corporate-speak.

So, it’s heart-warming to find this recent article reminding us of the forbidden corners of language by columnist Gary Nunn.

From the Guardian:

There are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Include argots – the characteristic language of a particular group – and that number climbs ginormously.

Ginormous itself is argot, the portmanteau of gigantic and enormous to form a new blended word. It’s also hyperbole: gigantic is no longer deemed huge enough, so we blend and expand.

Groups of people form their own private lexicons because coded language is exclusive, exciting and defiant. Part of it is finding your community: the mystique of being in the “in group” carried over from school; the private joke you have to be in on to find funny. You find your tribe by mimicking the peculiarities of their diction. It creates a sense of belonging, expertise and solidarity.

But it can go beyond that. The coded nature of argot (from the French for slang) can be deliberately subversive because that particular group rejects the status quo, which they find unsatisfactory, unacceptable or oppressive. It can also help conceal criminal activity or frowned-upon behaviour, making it a cryptolect – a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others and affirm the character of a marginalised subculture.

For all those reasons, argot is my favourite part of language: it sits in the forbidden corners, between the gaps, underneath the rigidity of all the rules of grammar. It’s where creativity bubbles and thrives, shrouded by an enigmatic cloak of linguistic abandon.

Often, adopters of argot have common enemies to defy or hide from: traditional conservative society; the law; the police. Defying the authority and perceived supremacy of the dominant forces in society is empowering and essential to avoid detection. It’s why drug dealers and users employ female personification in their trade to euphemise and conceal. So having a dinner party with Tina, Gina and Molly would be less civilised than it sounds: you’d be taking, respectively, crystal meth, GHB and MDMA. Similarly, the patois used in hip-hop was originally used to defy the same enemies, the argot defined by clever puns, rapid rhyming couplets, blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay and don’t-give-a-toss attitude set to an insistent beat.

Youth slang is one of the most consistently refreshing of argots. The yoof want to feel cool, exclusive, quirky and not speak in the same manner as their ’rents, which is why they’ll say things like “Nek minnit I had mahoosive FOMO” – a combination of Jamaican patois hybrid, portmanteau, acronym and drama.

As fresh as argot can feel, it can also become redundant, incumbent or mainstream. Cockney rhyming slang, for example, is a casualty of sweeping gentrification. Some of it has become mainstream – we all know what “apples and pears” means. But it retains its linguistic creativity: one’s Aris means “arse”; an abbreviation of Aristotle, which rhymes with bottle-and-glass. Genius.

Read the entire story here.

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PhotoMash: CEO Pay For Failure Versus CEO Pay For Success

Photomash-Mayer-vs-SorrellToday’s PhotoMash is a stark reminder that many corporate CEOs live by different rules, which they tend to conjure up themselves.

The PhotoMash comes courtesy of the Guardian on April 19, 2016.

On the one hand we see Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo since 2012. She has presided over the demise of Yahoo — loss of search business to Google, loss of ad share to Facebook, failed investments in new business ventures in the billions of dollars. Yet, since taking over Yahoo Meyer has taken home around $78 million. Further, she’s on the hook to collect another $59 million should Yahoo’s takeover spark her dismissal. Admittedly, Yahoo’s stock price has rallied in recent years, but most analysts attribute this solely to Yahoo’s stake in China’s Alibaba.

One the other hand we have Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP. Over the last 30 years he’s built WPP from a small UK-based wire and plastics manufacturer, which he used as a shell company, into the world’s leading marketing and advertising services company. By current estimates WPP is valued at around $30 billion. Of late he’s been defending his latest compensation package estimated at $100 million.

Both Meyer and Sorrell tell us they’re worth every penny of remuneration to their companies and shareholders. But while it could be argued that both are earning rather too much compared with the 99.999 percent, only one is deserving. And, that shows the crux of the issue — regardless of success or failure, most CEOs will always win.

Image: Screen shot from the Guardian, April 19, 2016.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (and His AK47)

Many see the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States as a force for good. Many recognize the NRA as a force for evil. To some, it is the heroic protector of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. To others it is the organization that allows gun violence to take the lives of over 30,000 citizens each year.

Yet, did you know that the NRA is also in the business of publishing fairytales? Actually, the NRA publishes children’s classics that have been re-imagined to include guns. Now you can enjoy classics like Hansel and Gretel (Have Guns) and Little Red Riding Hood (Has a Gun), with wholly appropriate gun violence and NRA-fashioned endings, as they should have been intended.

So, I can’t wait for handguns, semi-automatic rifles and more instruments of efficient death to take a stand in our classic American literature: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (With an AK47),  Invisible Man (and Lots of Guns), The Great Gatsby (and His Glock 40), Moby Dick (and the Tomahawk Cruise Missile).

But, why stop there?

We need to re-imagine Shakespeare’s works complete with shotguns, and our best poetry would certainly benefit from several truck-loads of tactical nuclear weapons, And, of course it’s time to give Jesus a well-deserved sniper rifle and a couple of literary grenades to love fend of the Pharisees, devil, Pilate, and Judas Iscariot.

Thank you NRA for opening the minds of our children to real possibilities.

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Bad Art of the Deal

Urinal-art

It goes without question that a billionaire narcissist — who just happens to be running for president of the United States in 2016 — will have any number of images of himself (there aren’t many billionaire narcissistic women). But for every photograph or artwork that celebrates and reinforces the narcissist — no doubt commissioned for or by the narcissist and hanging in a prominent spot in one each of his homes — there will be another work that seeks to counter the narcissist’s carefully curated image. This is what good political art does. It counters and questions, and it supplements our open political discourse so that we may see and weigh other perspectives.

Oh, and it’s sharply and darkly funny too!

Image: Donald Trump meets Rolling Stones-inspired urinals at Belushi’s sports bar in Paris. Artists: William Duke and Brandon Griffin have added. Photograph: Meike van Schijndel.

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Our Childrens Is Not Learning?

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It’s been 155 years since Lincoln took office as the 16th President of the United States. Yet, during this period many of our political leaders and pretenders to the throne have spoken to us in increasingly simplistic language.

In 2000 then President George W. Bush commenting on educational programs remarked, “What’s not fine is rarely is the question asked, are, is our children learning?” Since then it seems that many of our children and adults have indeed not been learning. This despite the growing complexity of our local and global politics.

Thus, the relentless march towards ever-increasing “dumbed-down-ness” brings me to the current election cycle. Could there be any better place to look? A research study out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute assessed the reading level of current and recent presidential campaign speeches.

The candidate with the lowest overall readability score — vocabulary and grammar — is Donald Trump. His grammar compares to that used by children aged 11 and under. Researchers also looked back at speeches by past Presidents and found that the language of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan was almost twice as advanced. George W. Bush fared the worst on grammar alone — his so-called Bushisms are the stuff of books and folklore — but his vocabulary scored significantly higher than Donald Trump. More recently, President Obama, and Senators Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders showed the highest overall readability scores.

I have to assume that the current Republican frontrunner will spin the news of his appalling linguistic (dis-)abilities in his own inimitable way — after all, 4th grade language skills will reach a significantly larger proportion of the US population, albeit mostly non-voting age, than that of his more cerebral and elitist opponents.

Check out the entire report, “A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 US Presidential Campaign“. Read more, here.

Image: Readability levels of campaign speeches. Snapshot from report, A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.

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Democracy and Education Go Hand-in-Hand

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800

Yes, it’s time to muse on the current state of affairs in the US and the current presidential election cycle. The race, in some quarters, has devolved into a peculiar hybrid of vulgar reality TV show and absurd adolescent popularity contest (with my apologies to adolescents the world over).

The incessant bloviating, bragging, lies, bigotry and hatred espoused by some of the current political candidates has me considering two elements that are vital to our democracy.

The first, our right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Constitution. However vile and repulsive their speech, the peddlers of caustic words have a right to speak. Their opponents and detractors have an equal right as well. But, this must be done by all sides, free of intimidation, threats and violence.

The second, is no less important, but you’ll not find any requirement or right listed in any statute. Yet, our democracy fully depends upon it. Our system of governance requires a citizenry that is educated and also versed in the political process. The alternative, as we increasingly see in the United States, is a politically-savvy uber-class with its moneyed handlers and benefactors, “the so-called establishment”, to which most ordinary citizens have outsourced their reasoning, and a growing underclass fueled by distrust, anger and resentment — a recipe for divisiveness and anarchy.

While founder Thomas Jefferson never did say, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” many of his writings confirm his fundamental belief that a strong democracy is existentially linked to an educated citizenry. Jefferson did say the following:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;… whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.

Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.

Light and liberty go together.

Jefferson’s powerful words as so especially important today. I have to agree with Michael Lynch professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, “Googling” a snippet of information is not a substitute for internalizing established facts, reasoned political discourse or wisdom.

We can all love the “poorly educated”, but it is our duty to ensure each and every citizen is well-educated. Anything less fails to open the door to personal opportunity and further reinforces a system of division.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Courtesy: White House Historical Association. Public Domain.

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The Global Peril of Narcissism

Google-search-demagogue

I suspect that prior to our gluttonous always-on, social media age narcissists were very much a local phenomenon — probably much like European diseases remained mostly confined to the Old World prior to the advent of frequent shipping and air travel. Nowadays narcissistic traits such as self-absorption, image inflation and lack of empathy spread and amplify across the globe as impressionable tribes like, follow and emulate their narcissistic role models. As the virus of self-obsession spreads this puts our increasingly global village at some peril — replacing empathy with indifference and altruism with self-promotion, and leading to the inevitable rise of charismatic demagogues.

Author and psychotherapist Pat Macdonald aptly describes the rise of narcissism in her recent paper Narcissism in the Modern World. Quite paradoxically, Macdonald finds that,

“Much of our distress comes from a sense of disconnection. We have a narcissistic society where self-promotion and individuality seem to be essential, yet in our hearts that’s not what we want. We want to be part of a community, we want to be supported when we’re struggling, we want a sense of belonging. Being extraordinary is not a necessary component to being loved.”

From the Guardian:

“They unconsciously deny an unstated and intolerably poor self-image through inflation. They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur surrounded by psychologically impenetrable walls. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of doubts.” This is how Elan Golomb describes narcissistic personality disorder in her seminal book Trapped in the Mirror. She goes on to describe the central symptom of the disorder – the narcissist’s failure to achieve intimacy with anyone – as the result of them seeing other people like items in a vending machine, using them to service their own needs, never being able to acknowledge that others might have needs of their own, still less guess what they might be. “Full-bodied narcissistic personality disorder remains a fairly unusual diagnosis,” Pat MacDonald, author of the paper Narcissism in the Modern World, tells me. “Traditionally, it is very difficult to reverse narcissistic personality disorder. It would take a long time and a lot of work.”

What we talk about when we describe an explosion of modern narcissism is not the disorder but the rise in narcissistic traits. Examples are everywhere. Donald Trump epitomises the lack of empathy, the self-regard and, critically, the radical overestimation of his own talents and likability. Katie Hopkins personifies the perverse pride the narcissist takes in not caring for others. (“No,” she wrote in the Sun about the refugee crisis. “I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”) Those are the loudest examples, blaring like sirens; there is a general hubbub of narcissism beneath, which is conveniently – for observation purposes, at least – broadcast on social media. Terrible tragedies, such as the attacks on Paris, are appropriated by people thousands of miles away and used as a backdrop to showcase their sensitivity. The death of David Bowie is mediated through its “relevance” to voluble strangers.

It has become routine for celebrities to broadcast banal information and fill Instagram with the “moments” that constitute their day, the tacit principle being that, once you are important enough, nothing is mundane. This delusion then spills out to the non-celebrity; recording mundane events becomes proof of your importance. The dramatic rise in cosmetic surgery is part of the same effect; the celebrity fixates on his or her appearance to meet the demands of fame. Then the vanity, being the only truly replicable trait, becomes the thing to emulate. Ordinary people start having treatments that only intense scrutiny would warrant – 2015 saw a 13% rise in procedures in the UK, with the rise in cosmetic dentistry particularly marked, because people don’t like their teeth in selfies. The solution – stop taking selfies – is apparently so 2014.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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