The Oldest Treasures From 12 Great Libraries – Atlas Obscura

In the history of writing, bound books as we know them today arrive fairly late, so there are no actual “books” on this list. Instead, this is a wondrous collection of illuminated manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, and clay tablets. Some of these items you can even see in person, if you pay a visit.

—Sarah Laskow. “The Oldest Treasures From 12 Great Libraries.” AtlasObscura.com. October 26, 2017.

The Key to Happiness: Coconuts

“…the key to happiness [is] simple: Abandon your earthly possessions, move to a tropical island, become a nudist, and eat only coconuts.”

—Zoe Bernard,”The Curious Case of August Engelhardt, Leader of a Coconut-Obsessed Cult.” Atlas Obscura. November 30, 2017.

Imagine sitting down in a small room in Germany in 1902 and listening to August Engelhardt’s pitch for happiness. Imagine beginning again in some unspoiled place, warm and living off nature’s bounty. It’s an offer of a clean slate, freedom and abundance. It’s an offer that fuels utopian visions everywhere.

People content with their circumstances in life, read about utopian experiments gone wrong in The New York Times, or after some time with the benefit of historical hindsight, and congratulate themselves. The smug voice in the chorus of our internal dialogue says authoritatively, “I would never fall for such a thing.”

Maybe. But, if you look a little deeper, it seems that we are all part of a larger cult: the religion of modernism, which holds equally strange beliefs, such as: earthly possessions will make us happy, education (indoctrination, if we are being less charitable) is the solution to many of our problems, studies that are unable to be reproduced constitute science, the priesthood of experts who have sage opinions about problems they do not experience and don’t live near should guide society, etc.

The discontents are left with fantasies about the kind of utopian paradise they could create after they win the lottery. Of course, the reality is that winning the lottery increases your chances of some unfortunate end by an order of magnitude. But, no need to worry, this is only a problem for the “winners”, and there are precious few of them. In the meantime, ponder the American Dream, work hard, and hope that your children get a better shake than you did. It happens enough to have some truth to it, just another kind of lottery. Leaving us to wonder, what other lotteries do we all buy into?

Meanwhile, the content, the “middle-class” run the wheel, buying new technology, a new bed, the gym membership, and eventually, there is an empty bank account to go with an empty life. A life’s work thrown out into the dumpster after a polite delay subsequent retirement. Sorry, we had to upgrade our systems old chum, and the thing you used to do is now worthless. Over time, true for everyone, even Shakespeare or the prophets. Religions eventually die too.

We laugh at August Engelhardt. Because to take him seriously we have to ask whether life would be better even with the heat stress, malaria, scorpions, the emaciated body of the hunter gatherer in a place where hunger finds a home. Maybe in the long run it is better.

Can you remember when the last time anyone in your family has experienced famine? Many people in industrial societies, certainly in the United States, do not have anyone within living memory of the experience. Once it is out of living memory, it is as if it becomes inconceivable. Famine? That can’t happen here. Easier to ignore all the evidence to the contrary, such as the fact famine was a regular feature of human life for much of history, and it is often driven by a pattern of collapse in economic systems based on intensive agriculture. War and famine is an inevitable consequences of our modern society, but like St. Augustine, we pray that it won’t happen (to us) yet.

nasa-poster-mars-exploration

But, what of Elon Musk? Isn’t Mars the contemporary equivalent of Papua New Guinea in 1902? He, at least, is honest that it’s going to be tough and will result in the death of many. But, the American Dream might be replaced by another, The Dream of Sol. The belief that it is humanity’s destiny to live out among the stars. It is the Manifest Destiny of our times, and it will be sold, just like the American Dream was sold. Work hard everyone! It’s for the good of humanity!

Mars will start as a cult, then become a religion and/or nation(s). There will be other August Engelhardts that will join and then break away, whether it is seasteading, asteroidsteading or spacesteading, and there is little difference between 3d printed water recycling machines and food pellet generation with “everything the body needs” from eating only coconuts and going nude, beyond one requiring more technological sophistication.

August Engelhardt lives, and his hungry ghost and others like him will haunt us forever. Go to the store and buy a coconut to share, while you still can! After your offering, blast off to Asgardia, if you dare.

The Problem With Talking, Illustrated Via The Law Enforcement Interview

“You, dear readers, know my advice about talking to the FBI: don’t. If the FBI — or any law enforcement agency — asks to talk to you, say ‘No, I want to talk to my lawyer, I don’t want to talk to you,’ and repeat as necessary. Do not talk to them ‘just to see what they want.’ Do not try to ‘set the facts straight.’ Do not try to outwit them. Do not explain that you have ‘nothing to hide.’

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up…”

—Ken White, “Everybody Lies: FBI Edition.” Popehat.com. December 4, 2017.

The key point is that our communication styles and habitual ways of thinking do not line up well when the focus becomes capital T “Truth”. We’re fallible human beings that frequently do not know the truth about ourselves, the world around us or even the truth about all the relevant context of events in which we take part.

Imagine, for example, the CIA operative that was involved in clandestine operations in South American countries in the 1980’s. Should this person be teaching college-level history courses based on their subject knowledge, particularly because they are acquainted with what was happening “behind the scenes”? Or, does his subjective experience compomise his ability to convey the truth in a more complete way?

I’d argue being involved in something compromises both our ability to explicitly know the truth of it, and there is also always an implicit knowledge informing our understanding that we cannot communicate in an explicit way that makes all communication false on some level. 

In most social circumstances, this ambiguity and imprecision helps us all get along, allowing us to rationalize or interpret things how we wish. But, in the context of a law enforcement interview, this flexibility is how cases are built against people.

Polybius: The Urban Legend of the Government’s Mind-Controlling Arcade Game

“Gamers who tried it couldn’t stop playing, and began acting oddly: they were nauseous, stressed, had horrific nightmares. Others had seizures or attempted suicide, many felt unable to control their own thoughts. It was only later that they recalled how Polybius was serviced more often than other games. Men in black suits opened the machine every week, recorded its data, and left, with no interest in its coins. Soon after it appeared, the mysterious arcade game vanished without warning—taken by the men in black suits, leaving no record of its existence.

That’s the story, at least. This legend is one of the big unsolved mysteries of the gaming world, though most concede that the game never existed…”

—Natalie Zarrelli, “The Urban Legend of the Governments Mind Controlling Arcade Game.” AtlasObscura.com. April 28, 2016.

Raccoon 22’s Cognition

“To evaluate the universal effectiveness of the Aesop’s Fable paradigm, we applied this paradigm to a previously untested taxon, the raccoon (Procyon lotor). We first trained captive raccoons to drop stones into a tube of water to retrieve a floating food reward. Next, we presented successful raccoons with objects that differed in the amount of water they displaced to determine whether raccoons could select the most functional option. Raccoons performed differently than corvids and human children did in previous studies of Aesop’s Fable, and we found raccoons to be innovative in many aspects of this task. We suggest that raccoon performance in this paradigm reflected differences in tangential factors, such as behavior, morphology, and testing procedures, rather than cognitive deficiencies…

…Online Resource 5: Video footage from Raccoon 22’s fourth final trial. Here we see that she is able to overturn the entire apparatus by rocking her body backwards while pulling on the rim of the tube. We designed the apparatus to be freestanding so that the raccoons could approach and explore the apparatus from all sides. Thus, we made the base of the apparatus smooth, lacking any raised edges, and heavy (11.3 kg) so that the raccoons would not be able to grip or lift the base. Despite these precautions, Raccoon 22 was able to overturn it and retrieve the reward.”

—Lauren Stanton, et al. “Adaptation of the Aesop’s Fable paradigm for use with raccoons (Procyon lotor): considerations for future application in non-avian and non-primate species.” Animal Cognition. November 2017.

Sometimes, researchers test the cognitive abilities of members of the taxon. Sometimes, members of the taxon test the cognitive abilities of the researchers.

China’s Social Credit Score

“Every citizen in China, which now has numbers swelling to well over 1.3 billion, would be given a score that, as a matter of public record, is available for all to see. This citizen score comes from monitoring an individual’s social behavior — from their spending habits and how regularly they pay bills, to their social interactions — and it’ll become the basis of that person’s trustworthiness, which would also be publicly ranked…

…A citizen’s score affects their eligibility for a number of services, including the kinds of jobs or mortgages they can get, and it also impacts what schools their children qualify for…

…[In one version of the score], an individual’s score comes in a range between 300 and 850 and is broken down into five sub-categories: social connections, consumption behavior, security, wealth, and compliance.”

—Dom Galeon and Brad Bergan. “China’s “Social Credit System” Will Rate How Valuable You Are as a Human.” Futurism. December 2, 2017.

Contrast China’s overt Social Credit Score with this description of an American process of policing journalists.

“An explicit example of news outlets purging employees who “‘loosely’ opin[e] on stuff ‘just for the sake of weighing in’” is how Politico, a proxy for Washington’s courtiers among the managers of the public sphere, justifies political purges of job applicants whose social media postings may suggest a perspective that strays from majoritarian (white, cisheterosexual, male, able-bodied, bourgeois, Christian, etc.) subjectivities.

But long before the managers of the public sphere were shaken into action, those of us at the periphery of majoritarian subjectivities had been coerced into relaying white-supremacist values as ‘objective,’ values that have historically formed the ideological center of the ‘field of communications’ in America. Working in this field as a first-generation-immigrant, queer, and disabled person of color, my duties as a midcult technician have been performed under the courtly authoritarianism of a bleached-white managerial gaze.”

—Alfredo F. Riley, “The Management Estate.” The New Inquiry. November 14, 2017.

Which is worse: an overt FICO style score of evaluating and enforcing conformity or an implicit, subjective “the cop in your head” approach preferred by the American establishment? At least the former is honest about what it is doing.

The Theory of Visitors

“She leaned in. ‘Do you believe in the theory of visitors?’ She said this conspiratorially, as if she was sharing with me a secret.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘All relationships are transient,’ she said. ‘Friends who stab you in the back. People you network with at a fancy party. Relatives who die. The love of your life. Everything is temporary. People come into your life for a limited amount of time, and then they go away. So you welcome their arrival, and you surrender to their departure. Because they are all visitors. And when the visitors go home, they might take something from you. Something that you can’t ever get back. And that part sucks. But visitors always leave souvenirs. And you get to keep those forever.'”

—Sam Lansky, “The Theory of Visitors.” Medium.com. November 10, 2017.

Enjoyed the whole essay. It invites us to consider that the theory of visitors and the looking for the next swipe right encounter might be preventing us from interacting more deeply with people. Engaging with the projected personas that are reflected in the digital medium that can only be maintained at short intervals or at a distance, we make quick judgments about complicated, multi-faceted human beings. Perhaps everyone is a visitor, but the key point may be that relationships (at least some of them) are worth investing time in, irrespective of their duration.