Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Snow Blankets the Middle East

Snow at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestinian territories. Image Source: Bob May.

On 12-13 December 2013, Cairo saw its first snowfall in 112 years (hat tip: Quigley's Cabinet). The city of Safed, Israel saw almost 1 metre, or 1 yard, of snow fall, causing deaths and operational chaos. BBC has been reporting on the compounded misery of Syrian refugees. From the pictures of snowmen across the region, only children seemed overjoyed.

"Manger Square, with the Church of the Nativity in the background, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem." Image Source: MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images via Washington Post.

China's Dawn of Lunar Missions

Image Source: Peter Parks / AFP / Times Live.

The rover developed for China's Chang'e 3 (嫦娥三) lunar mission  is going to land tomorrow on the moon in a historic event. If the landing is successful, it will be the first spacecraft on the moon in four decades. The first launch under this programme, Chang'e 1, occurred in 2007. Beijing will follow tomorrow's landing with another lunar lander mission, Chang'e 4, in 2015. From The Planetary Society:
According to numerous Chinese news reports, Chang'e 3's landing on the Moon is now scheduled to begin at 21:40 Beijing time on December 14, which is 13:40 UT[, 8:40 Eastern] or 05:40 PT. That's about two hours earlier than previously stated. Once deceleration begins, the whole process will take about 750 seconds. Here is a Xinhua news site in English that may contain news updates about the landing. It is possible that this CCTV website will contain a news feed. Chinese television coverage will begin at 11:00 UT [or 6:00 a.m Eastern].
For China's English language Youtube channel, CCTV, go here. Their videos, tagged, 'Journey to the Moon' are here; the playlist will likely feature new videos tomorrow.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Millennial Background Soundtrack

Intrusive, ultra-groomed media so dominate perception now that everyday life has a soundtrack. Whether it is a private iPod playlist, or the general racket of Web and TV news, marketing and incessant communications, there is a constant thrum of noise behind everything. In today's post, hear a few samples from composer Joshua Baker, who writes soundtracks for films, TV, the Web and video games. His work is disarming because it fades so perfectly into the meta-background.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Virtual Fortunes, Supranational Futures

Image Source: Business Insider.

One globe, one currency? The Bitcoin - an online unit of exchange comprising a collection of numbers in a cyber-wallet - has exploded in value as speculators rush to buy the supranational virtual currency. They are buoyed by a widely-reported October 2013 investment success story and the simultaneous closure of the Bitcoin-loving online black market, The Silk Road. From The Guardian:
Kristoffer Koch invested 150 kroner ($26.60) in 5,000 bitcoins in 2009, after discovering them during the course of writing a thesis on encryption. He promptly forgot about them until widespread media coverage of the anonymous, decentralised, peer-to-peer digital currency in April 2013 jogged his memory.
Bitcoins are stored in encrypted wallets secured with a private key, something Koch had forgotten. After eventually working out what the password could be, Koch got a pleasant surprise: 
"It said I had 5,000 bitcoins in there. Measuring that in today's rates it's about NOK5m ($886,000)," Koch told NRK.

In April 2013, the value of bitcoin peaked at $266 before crashing to a low of $50 soon after. Since then, bitcoin has seen large fluctuations in its value, most recently following the seizure of online drugs marketplace Silk Road, plummeting before jumping $30 in one day to a high of $197 in October. ...

Typically bitcoins are bought using traditional currency from a bitcoin "exchanger", although due to strict anti-money laundering controls, the process can can be tricky. A user can then withdraw those bitcoins by sending them back to an exchanger like Mt Gox, the best known bitcoin exchange, in return for cash.
However, bitcoin is gaining more and more traction within the physical world too. It is now possible to actually spend bitcoins without exchanging them for traditional currency first in a few British pubs, including the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, London, for instance. On 29 October, the world's first bitcoin ATM also went online in Vancouver, Canada, which scans a user's palm before letting them buy or sell bitcoins for cash. ... In August, Germany recognised bitcoin as a "unit of account", allowing the country to tax users or creators of the digital currency.
Crucially, not all other countries and authorities have not followed Germany's lead. Warnings against Bitcoins come alongside reports of the currency's ever-growing practical circulation as people simply don't listen:
  • World's first Bitcoin ATM opens in Vancouver, CBC (29 October 2013)
  • Bitcoin entrepreneurs want to put virtual coins in your wallet, The Toronto Star (12 November 2013)
  • Bitcoin accepted as payment for $1 million Canadian home, IB Times (4 December 2013)
  • Greenspan says Bitcoin a bubble without intrinsic currency value, Bloomberg (4 December 2013)
  • Greenspan baffled over Bitcoin 'bubble': "To be worth something, it must be backed by something" Zero Hedge (4 December 2013) 
  • Bitcoin $10,000? Forbes (4 December 2013)
  • Bitcoins crash after China says they're not real currency, Softpedia (7 December 2013) 
  • Korea decides not to recognize Bitcoin as real currency, Korea Herald (10 December 2013)
  • Time to take the Bitcoin bubble seriously, FT (11 December 2013)
  • Bitcoin and intrinsic value: A layman's response to Alan Greenspan, CoinDesk (11 December 2013)
  • Are gold, art and Bitcoin worth your money in 2014? Forbes (11 December 2013)
  • Bitcoin should not be seen as a currency - Ernst and Young, Guardian (11 December 2013)

"Waves Coffee House is one of at least 20 businesses in Vancouver [Canada] that currently accept bitcoins." Image Source: CBC.

Despite the warnings, speculation has driven the price of 1 Bitcoin to a value of between USD $600 and USD $1,000. See CoinDesk's Bitcoin price index, here. But for speculators, the time to buy Bitcoins should have been between 2009 and 2012, when they were worth a few dollars.

Two cultural spheres are appearing around these financial activities: the first is the older financial world we know well, which is only partly virtual, but theoretically still grounded in reality; and the second is the Millennial, completely virtual world. Bitcoins diverge radically from the stable currencies associated with the nation-state establishment and the whole economic and governmental order built around that establishment. The new virtual currencies are completely surreal and chaotic, like a bad dream in a dystopian sci-fi novel. Welcome to what designers of the movie Aeon Flux called, the "burning garbage can vision of the future." Bitcoins are traded by iPhones in coffee shops and pubs, or in online chatrooms, rather than banks. The exchanges are vulnerable to hackers and theft. The currency also suffers from price fragmentation; that is, it varies in price on different online exchanges in the world. In this regard, Bitcoins differ from major national currencies; from CoinDesk:
The US dollar and other major national currencies effectively trade at the same price, regardless of whether they are exchanged in Tokyo, London, New York, or any other major foreign exchange market. ... The reason for the near-perfect price synchronization we see in major currencies like the US dollar relates to an economic concept known as the ‘law of one price’.

Put simply, this concept means that prices for fungible, freely-traded items like currency should be equal across all open markets.

If we were to observe any material, persistent price variation between US dollars exchanged in Tokyo versus those exchanged in London, then this would be due to the existence of some cost or barrier – like variations in transaction fees, the speed at which information can travel, transportation expenses, or restrictions to the flow of funds. However, we do not observe any such variance, due to the very low frictions across the major forex markets.

In contrast to the forex markets for major currencies like the US Dollar, at any given moment the bitcoin exchange rate can vary by tens or hundreds of dollars from one exchange to the next.
For example, approximately a week before bitcoin first crossed the $1,000 mark on Mt. Gox, the price of bitcoin had already reached the renminbi equivalent of $1,000 on China’s largest exchange, BTC China.

Following the recent announcement by Chinese authorities that banks would no longer be able to transact with bitcoin (which, in turn, triggered Baidu’s decision to suspend its acceptance of bitcoin), the price on 5th December as of 08:30 GMT had plummeted in China by a renminbi equivalent of approximately $177 more than prices on exchanges located outside of China ... .

Should the bitcoin market continue to grow in the months and years ahead, it would be reasonable to expect a decline in price fragmentation across the various exchanges as trading volume and liquidity increase.
For the time being, however, relatively illiquid markets alongside the barriers which have been erected around and between the various bitcoin exchanges will continue to drive price fragmentation.
Bloomberg posted reports this week on how to buy Bitcoins and commented on the virtual currency's shaky prices. See these videos - and an interview from the Guardian with one of Bitcoin's self-proclaimed developers - below the jump. Bitcoins will be supplied, this designer declares, until 2030, after which the supply will stop. But whether he actually was a Bitcoin developer or not is debatable. The original Bitcoin protocol was designed in 2008 by a person or group of people working under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

Image Source: Guardian.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Millennial Artist: Jee Young Lee's Stage of Mind

Resurrection. Image Source: My Modern Met.

Caption for the above photograph: "Inspired by the Story of Shim Cheong, a Korea folktale as well as by Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Lee JeeYoung made this installation by painting paper lotus and flooding the room with fog and carbonic ice in order to create a mystic atmosphere.
Lotus flowers grow from the impure mud to reach for the light and bloom to the rise and fall of the sun; in Asia, it bears various cultural symbolisms such as prospects and rebirth. It is also known for its purifying function. The presence of the artist in the heart of such flower is meant to convey her personal experience. 'I was born again by overcoming negative elements that had dragged me down and cleansed myself emotionally. The figure within a lotus blooming implies a stronger self who was just born again and is facing a new world'. It is this is very moment when one reaches maturity and full-potential that Lee illustrates in 'Resurrection', and, more generally speaking, throughout the entirety of her corpus."

My Modern Met reports on a South Korean Gen Y artist, Jee Young Lee, who creates beautiful interiors (hat tip: Ken Kaminesky):
Jee Young Lee creates highly elaborate scenes that require an incredible amount of patience and absolutely no photo manipulation. For weeks and sometimes months, the young Korean artist works in the confines of her small 360 x 410 x 240 cm studio bringing to life worlds that defy all logic. In the middle of the sets you can always find the artist herself, as these are self-portraits but of the unconventional kind. Inspired by either her personal life or old Korean fables, they each have their own backstory, which of course, only adds to the intense drama. From February 7 to March 7, 2014, OPIOM Gallery in Opio, France ... present[s] a selection of Lee's ongoing body of work called Stage of Mind.
Further from Brain Factory:
This exhibition introduces seven new photographic works ... a project on which the artist has been working continuously since 2007. Jee Young Lee “constructs” scenes for her camera rather than employing the traditional method of “taking” images such as still lifes, figures, or landscapes. ...
Lee's artistic motivation derives from her quest for personal identity. In each of Lee's stories, the artist is the protagonist. At times facing away from us, at other times showing only part of her body or reclining, she quietly and mysteriously inhabits her dream-like realms. Through their bold materials and patterns, dramatic colors, and intriguing narratives, Lee's new works signal maturity, coherence, and sophistication. The legends of East and West, Korean proverbs, personal childhood experiences, and immediate realities provide the motifs for her creations. ...
Lee's constructed realities belong to the “directorial mode,” employed since the 1980's by Postmodernist photographers in repudiation of the Modernist practice that sought truth in the everyday world. Lee's “constructed image photography” may be compared to the works of German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand, who builds life-sized models he intends to demolish after photographing them. Her “staged photography” brings to mind tableaux vivant not unlike U.S. installation artist and photographer Sandy Skoglund's orchestrated room-size installations. But in contrast to these earlier artists, Lee's subjects are deeply personal and intensely psychological.
See more of Jee Young Lee's works below the jump and at this site. All works are copyrighted by the artist and are reproduced here under Fair Use.

Childhood. Image Source: Bored Panda.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Obama's Speech at Mandela's Memorial

Image Source: CBC.

U.S. President Barack Obama's speech today at the memorial service for the late South African President Nelson Mandela is already receiving high praise for being a well-written tribute. Unruly crowds greeted President Obama with wild applause before he began to speak. The memorial brought together many different worlds and Obama's response to this moment was possibly the most poignant and successful.

Obama sought to find Mandela's place in history without creating a hagiography; he insisted on Mandela's fallible humanity which underscored his real accomplishments. Obama's speech comes from his lead writer, a former unpaid intern and Millennial, Cody Kennan. From Business Insider:
To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of states and government, past and present; distinguished guests -- it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other. To the people of South Africa -- people of every race and walk of life -- the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.

It is hard to eulogize any man -- to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person -- their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.

Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement -- a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would -- like Abraham Lincoln -- hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations -- a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.

Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it’s tempting I think to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, Madiba insisted on sharing with us his doubts and his fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection -- because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried -- that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood -- a son and a husband, a father and a friend. And that’s why we learned so much from him, and that’s why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, and persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.

Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. And we know he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments … a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people,” he said.

But like other early giants of the ANC -- the Sisulus and Tambos -- Madiba disciplined his anger and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their God-given dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and [with] equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his.

Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough. No matter how right, they must be chiseled into law and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of unconditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that “prisoners cannot enter into contracts."

But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy, true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa -- Ubuntu -- a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small -- introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS -- that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well, to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.

For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.

We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice -- the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.

The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today.

And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

The questions we face today -- how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war -- these things do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that is true. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world -- you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.

After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

What a magnificent soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.

Monday, December 9, 2013

More Snowden Leaks: Who Watches the Watchmen?

A World of Warcraft dwarf warrior. Image Source: Got Warcraft.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now watching governments watch us. A report from The Wire states that the NSA and GCHQ have been spying on players in virtual reality environments:
As it turns out, your guild isn't the only group watching your level 90 dwarf warrior slay the Horde like its a walk through the park: The NSA and its British intelligence counterpart, the GCHQ, are watching World of Warcraft, too. That's according to a new report from The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica, which also details the intelligence community's surveillance of Second Life and the Microsoft XBox Live network.

According to the report, the NSA collected the content and metadata of communications between players, while creating characters to target (and attempt to recruit) specific users. The report, like many other recent revelations on the extent of U.S. intelligence collection, cites documents obtained through Edward Snowden.

The documents also outline the agency's logic in starting the program. According to one 2008 NSA document, intelligence officials were able to match "terrorist target selectors” to accounts in a handful of online games. They also discovered that some potential foreign agent recruits were playing World of Warcraft, including "engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives." ...

here's an interesting tidbit on a 2007 meeting between NSA officials and a now former executive at Linden Lab, who pitched his own company's service as [an] intelligence gathering gold mine:
The executive, Cory Ondrejka, was a former Navy officer who had worked at the NSA with a top-secret security clearance. He visited the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members over a brown bag lunch, according to an internal agency announcement. “Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are a reality: come hear Cory tell you why!” said the announcement. It added that virtual worlds gave the government the opportunity “to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. soil.”
And in 2009, the government solicited proposals for research grants intended to fund inquiries into the links between online behavior in video games and the real-world behavior of the player. It's not clear if any of the programs mentioned in the documents are still in effect. The [leaked] documents are available to view here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Detroit and Technology: Race by Any Other Name

Music, the soul of Detroit. The Supremes: Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross (1964).  Image Source: Gilles Petard / Getty Images via HuffPo.

When Canadian philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "the medium is the message," he provided an elegant shorthand for our present and future realities.

Technology has revolutionized how we communicate. But does the change in how we communicate with technology really leave its stamp on what we communicate? Does the way we are using technology as a medium transform how we understand eternal questions, such as those of race, class, gender, religion, love, government or politics?

"Music is the missing link in Detroit's recovery." Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone (no. 962, November 25, 2004). Image Source: allposters.

As an example, take race and Detroit. I could have picked any topic in relation to tech communications: class in London, language in Quebec, religion in Saudi Arabia, human rights in China, the economy in Singapore. But given that today is a day of prayer to honour Nelson Mandela in South Africa, I chose race. In 2012, John K. Bennett wrote for HuffPo:
It's no secret that southeastern Michigan for many decades stood as one of the most segregated and racially polarized communities in America.
There is no way here to explain how huge race is as an issue in this bankrupting city and how it has related to other factors which contributed to Detroit's collapse: the economy, deindustrialization, globalization, class, corruption, drugs, crime, political and institutional breakdown, policing and education.

But the focus of this post is not to get into all of that, and instead ask if technology, used as a communications medium, changes the understanding of that picture?