Tale of the Norden Bombsight

Malcom Gladwell spins a fascinating story about the strange origins and ultimately twisted fate of a fabulously complicated yet practically hapless bomb-sighting device developed at extraordinary expense for the U.S. military in WWII.

It’s a wonderful metaphor for many things…

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Filmmaker Adam Curtis returns with a brilliant new documentary series that explores the ways in which many of our modern ideas and conventionally held beliefs have been perversely shaped by the machines we’ve created.

In this episode, Curtis tracks the woefully unintended effects of Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” ideology on the financial markets and technocratic elite of America during the 1990s.

This is the story of the dream that computers could create a new kind of stable world. One that would bring about a new kind of global capitalism free of all risk and without the cyclical boom and bust of the past – one that would abolish political power and create a new kind of democracy through the Internet where millions of individuals would be connected as nodes in a cybernetic system without hierarchical control.

Well, we all know how that worked out, don’t we?

Progress

The fifth installment of Charlie Brooker’s How TV Ruined Your Life examines how television has warped our relationship with technology.

It’s somewhat surprising that Brooker failed to mention Star Trek, which since it debuted in 1966, has surely one of the most influential TV programs in terms of shaping people’s attitudes towards technology.

Biomimicry

How can architects build a new world of sustainable beauty? By learning from nature. At TEDSalon in London, Michael Pawlyn describes three habits of nature that could transform architecture and society: radical resource efficiency, closed loops, and drawing energy from the sun.

Maybe I’m naïve to believe that we can “invent” our way out what may currently appear to be intractable environmental problems by means of technological innovation and unconventional thinking, but talks like this help provide much encouragement to consider what may be possible, rather than simply dwelling on what is not.

Lament for a Nation

Fascinating discussion from TVO’s Agenda program about the current state of Canadian nationalism within the framework of political philosopher George Grant’s ideas and particularly his seminal essay Lament for a Nation, written in the wake of the 1963 election that toppled the Diefenbaker government.

Just as an irrelevant aside, I had no idea that David Warren was once editor of The Idler… That was such a wonderful magazine! I must have been one of its (evidently too) few subscribers back in the day.

Is Google Gay?

The dynamic “autocomplete” feature that Google now features is certainly a clever (if somewhat pointless) demonstration of its on-the-fly data mining capabilities, but the results that it instantly proffers as you’re typing can indeed be curious…

Type in “is stephen harper” for example. Really, are that many people actually wondering if the Prime Minister of Canada is gay? Probably not. So why then is this question dished up as the third most likely search result, other than that his name may be attached to a lot of discussions about the topic of gay rights, etc.? Ditto with Jack Layton, btw; only in his case the query (no pun intended) is ranked even higher. Funnily enough, when you run Michael Ignatieff through the same exercise, you’re mainly prompted with questions about him possibly being American or Jewish…

Augmented Reality Maps

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, the architect of Bing Maps at Microsoft, demonstrates the latest augmented-reality “Photosynth” enhanced mapping technology.

One can almost visualize the head of Alex Jones exploding…

Better is… Better

The “smart grid” concept explained in practical terms using electric hybrids automobiles as a starting point for illustrating the idea of how a more intelligent framework of energy distribution might work.

This new series of videos produced by Peter Sinclair (aka ‘greenman3610′) promises to be very encouraging to those of us who think there’s more to solving the global energy predicament than the dimwitted stratagem of “Drill baby, drill!” or a bleak future of scarcity involving caves and such…

Update: Video replaced with newer upload.

Denialism

Interesting talk by Michael Specter, staff writer for the New Yorker, speaking to a recent Authors@Google symposium about his provocative new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

Why have so many Americans, who more than any other people have been defined by progress and scientific achievement, begun to mistrust the scientific process itself? How did vaccines, the world’s most effective health measure, become a subject of bitter debate and denial? Why do Americans spend billions of dollars each year on dietary supplements, despite growing stacks of evidence that they are either useless or dangerous? Why, despite thousands of years of agricultural success, do we insist that genetically modified food is somehow different and more dangerous than “conventional” crops? And why, in the era of genomic medicine, do we so often on ignore genetic realities — preferring to cling to the myth that we are all alike?

In Denialism, Specter reveals that Americans have come to mistrust institutions and especially the institution of science more today than ever before. For centuries, the general view had been that science is neither good nor bad-that it merely supplies information and that new information is always beneficial. Now, science is viewed as a political constituency that isn’t always in our best interest.

As Michael Specter sees it, this amounts to a war against progress. The issues may be complex but the choices are not: Are we going to continue to embrace new technologies, along with acknowledging their limitations and threats, or are we ready to slink back into an era of magical thinking? In his book Specter argues for a new Enlightenment, the revival of an approach to the physical world that was stunningly effective for hundreds of years: What can be understood and reliably repeated by experiment is what nature regarded as true. Now, at the time of mankind’s greatest scientific advances-and our greatest need for them-that deal must be renewed.

Full disclosure: The foregoing comments were cribbed shamelessly from the YouTube post for this video and the Amazon product description, just so you know… However, given they raise a number of the pertinent questions needed to be made, and not wanting to re-invent the wheel, I didn’t see any point in attempting to re-fashion them simply to sound clever.

It’s a fortunate coincidence for Specter that his book is rolling out in the present environment of renewed controversy over climate-change as the global confab in Copenhagen kicks off, even though it should be noted that his book quite intentionally doesn’t deal at all specifically with the subject of global warming to which the term “denialism” is most frequently (and quite often unfairly) attributed these days. I think it was a wise choice on Specter’s part to make a clear distinction in this regard, even though some of the same operative patterns of thought may be shared by people who likewise share a deep distrust of institutional authority.

The Beautiful Universe

Wonderful images of our local galaxy courtesy of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory at the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA. The Chandra Observatory is a telescope linked to an orbiting space satellite that’s specially designed to detect X-ray emissions from very “hot” regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter existing around black holes.

It’s hard not to be awestruck by these glimpses of the centre of the Galaxy in which our solar system exists, especially considering that the Milky Way is but one of innumerable galaxies in the observable universe. And yet, some people are still completely amazed by the tale of a “burning bush” on Mount Horeb.