News Briefs 06-03-2017

Shoot your shot...

Quote of the Day:

I'm not a political person. ... I don't understand politics, I don't understand the concept of two sides and I think that probably there's good on both sides, bad on both sides, and there's a middle ground, but it never seems to come to the middle ground and it's very frustrating watching it and seemingly we're not moving forward.

David Lynch

Journey Through Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

With just over two months left until that TV show we liked comes back into style, there's no doubt plenty of us will be wanting to refresh our memory of the plot, characters and general weirdness of the original Twin Peaks, given its been over 25 years since the series premiered. If you're one of those people, I highly recommend the 4-part video series Journey Through Twin Peaks, embedded below, which analyzes the narrative cycle of Twin Peaks, from the pilot right through to the movie Fire Walk With Me.

Written, narrated, and edited by Joel Bocko, the series takes an in-depth look at the plot of the original series, with interesting asides and insights - including some of the more occult influences - without going too deep (and with Twin Peaks, you can go deeeep down the rabbit hole if you want to).

Obviously, spoilers, so if you're new to Twin Peaks and are planning on watching the original series, this will give everything away!

Part 1, "Harmony of the Dark Woods" explores the pilot through the season 2 premiere, examining how the show perfectly balances its three core elements: Laura Palmer, the town of Twin Peaks, and FBI Agent Dale Cooper.

Part 2, "The Center Cannot Hold" explores episodes 9-17 (the first third of season 2) with particular focus on the character of Laura Palmer, the revelation of her killer, and the show's mistakes in resolving her mystery.

Part 3, "The Whole Damned Town" explores episodes 17-29, the second half of the series in which the show tries to move beyond the Laura Palmer investigation. Along the way, we will pause to examine the show's colorful ensemble cast, the "spirit" of the show (through its style and media reception), the character arc of Agent Cooper (as well as David Lynch's and Mark Frost's differing conceptions of him), and the evolution of the Twin Peaks mythology, including the influence of Theosophy.

Part 4, "Laura is the One," explores the 1992 prequel feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, including its controversial reputation and the character arc of Laura Palmer, as well as the "afterlife" of Twin Peaks, including the show's impact on David Lynch's later films.

(via OpenCulture)

News Briefs 04-03-2017

”The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone — and to no one.”

Quote of the Day:

“Heaven is home. Utopia is here. Nirvana is now.”

Edward Abbey

Tracking Down the Secret Drugs of Buddhism

Buddhist goddess, or mushroom?

Did Buddhists of ancient times use shamanic plants and mushrooms in their sacred rituals? This is the question that Mike Crowley attempts to answer in his new book Secret Drugs of Buddhism. The book looks at the central role which psychedelics have played in Indian religions, beginning with the legendary soma, and follows the trail all the way to amrita, the sacramental drink of Vajrayāna Buddhism.

A glance at the titles of Vajrayāna scriptures will find the word amrita again and again. Many Vajrayāna deities have amrita as part of their name and a liquid called amrita is frequently visualized in Vajrayāna meditations. Almost all the early teachers of the Vajrayāna are depicted holding skull-cups of amrita. Two "skull-cups" of amrita adorn Vajrayāna altars and a drink called amrita is consumed at all major Vajrayāna rituals. Hundreds of Vajrayāna deities are said to carry amrita in some form, whether in a skull-cup, vase, flask or bowl.

Consider, for example, the prominent meditation-deity Hevajra. He is usually described and depicted as having sixteen arms with every hand holding a skull-cup filled with amrita and in one of his several variants he and his trantric consort arise out of the amrita itself.

And yet, despite multiple references in Vajrayāna literature and near-ubiquitous depictions in Vajrayāna art, you may be forgiven for never having heard of amrita before. If you are, as I am myself, a practicing Vajrayānist, then you may have performed the Vajrasattva purification practice in which the body is (mentally) filled with amrita. But the actual nature of amrita, its origin and history, are rarely discussed, if at all. In fact, even a standard textbook which provides a detailed account of Vajrayāna Buddhism as practiced in India and Tibet has managed to overlook it entirely.

Secret Drugs of Buddhism sets out to remedy this 'blind-spot' in the understanding of ancient Buddhist practices, pointing out the importance of amrita to the Vajrayan Buddhist tradition, and even offers suggestions for the ingredients of the original, psychoactive potion.

In telling the story of amrita, this book provides a new perspective on the origins of the Vajrayāna itself and, in the process, it resolves a few puzzles of tantric iconography (e.g. the role of peacocks, wheels and water-buffaloes) as well as offering an explanation for the previously inexplicable "crown-bump" deities.

It must be said that, in many cases, Buddhist references to amrita are simply an allusion to a legendary "elixir of immortality" and nothing more. Such turns of phrase as "the nectar of my teacher's words" may be considered as expressions of devotion or mere literary tropes, but not references to a physical potion. On the other hand, there are abundant instances in which amrita (whether actually drunk or merely visualized in a meditation) is associated with "bliss" or even "intoxication". In these instances we may clearly perceive indications that a draft of amrita was expected to induce a state of "blissful" intoxication - at least in the historical past. Yet, as we will see, the drinking of a drug potion called amrita was an essential component of the original Vajrayāna practice.

The book is full of fantastic insights and speculation, such as the proliferation of 'parasol' imagery and multi-armed deities fanning their limbs about in a circle in Buddhist artwork - both rather close analogues to the distinctive shapes and anatomy of mushrooms (it seems so obvious once it is pointed out). Secret Drugs of Buddhism also features a short foreword from Ann Shulgin and colour plates illustrating points made in the book.

Link: Secret Drugs of Buddhism at Amazon US

News Briefs 02-03-2017

Walking under a canopy of trees beats any type of psychotherapy.

  • These tiny fossils could be the oldest evidence of life on Earth.
  • 'Best ever' view of what a dinosaur really looked like.
  • US scientists find a way to safely thaw cryopreserved tissues. Just wait a bit longer, Walt!
  • Professor David Nutt: Psilocybin does in 30 seconds what antidepressants take 3-4 weeks to do.
  • The Israeli army is enrolling people on the autistic spectrum, with surprising results.
  • On the latest episode of Skeptiko, Ed May explains why, despite having run the Stargate psychic program for 10 years, he remains an unapologetic materialist and scoffs at any notion of consciousness surviving death.
  • Making (religious) sense on the possibility of life in the TRAPPIST-1 system: The Baptist approach, and the Catholic approach.
  • Scientists from the University of Central Florida want to become the first Martian bricklayers.
  • Space tourist Richard Garriott forewarns future SpaceX tourists about the Overview effect.
  • Tom DeLonge: From Blink 182 to "the world's leading UFO hunter." Srsly?
  • My bud and colleague, Robbie Graham, doesn't buy the DeLonge Delusion [Part1] [Part 2].
  • Unsolved UFO case in Houston still bewilders former police officer.
  • Recently-disclosed CIA document reveals Carl Jung accused the government of withholding UFO information.
  • Rediscovering 60 years of Sasquatch stories.
  • Military officers in Chile spooked out of haunted house.
  • Red Pill of the Day: If you love doing laps in your local public swimming pool, then you DO NOT want to know how much urine was found by a recent scientific test.

Thanks to Conan & Bill Paxton --game will NEVER be over, man!

Quote of the Day:

"I was so glad I had it yesterday when my boss demanded that we allow the White House lawyers to look at our phones to stop the leaks. I just sat there on my secret and smiled."

˜Amazon customer review for the Beat The Boss 3in1 J8 World Smallest Mobile Phone, which is so small it could be easily concealed in somebody's rectum.

News Briefs 01-03-2017

Welcome to Spring/Autumn (apply hemispheric orientation as appropriate)!

Thanks to @Gordon_White and @AnomalistNews.

Quote of the Day:

Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups…So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

Philip K. Dick

Updating Conspiracy Theory: The Rise of Weaponised Narrative and Manipulation Via Social Networks

Online manipulation

The past few months has seen a proliferation of think pieces about 'fake news', much of it overstated or wrong-headed, and much also ignoring the fact that fake news has been around as long as news has. But there is certainly some truth at the centre of it all, and it may be more a case that the rise of social networks has allowed for a new type of 'personalised' manipulation via fake, hyperbolic and/or emotive stories, and it is that which we are noticing.

For those wishing to better inform themselves - in order to protect themselves against this manipulation - I heartily recommend two articles in particular. The first is a DefenseOne article titled "Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace":

Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.

The article hits the nail on the head, I think, by pointing out the 'information overload' we are now experiencing makes us vulnerable to oversimplified, emotive narratives (a key component also in the rise in 'populist' movements):

Cultures, institutions, and individuals are, among many other things, information-processing mechanisms. As they become overwhelmed with information complexity, the tendency to retreat into simpler narratives becomes stronger.

Under this stress, cultures fragment. Institutions are stretched until they become ineffective or even dysfunctional. Individuals who define their identity primarily through the state – such as Americans, Russians, Chinese, or Europeans – retreat to a mythic Golden Age nationalism, while those who prioritize cultural and religious bonds retreat to fundamentalism.

...By offering cheap passage through a complex world, weaponized narrative furnishes emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding. The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts. This departure from rationality opens such ring-fenced belief communities to manipulation and their societies to attack.

While the observations in the DefenseOne article are mostly about a new type of battleground between nation states, the second article I recommend takes this one step further, and shows how any rich and powerful individual can push their own political view by manipulating us via weaponized narrative that uses our own social data against us. The article, "Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media", starts off rather blandly, discussing one of the biggest funders of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Robert Mercer - "a billionaire who is, as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs". It is the later part of the article, when it discusses how Mercer is doing this, that we should all be paying major attention to:

there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.

...[According to the communications director of the Leave.EU (Brexit) campaign], Cambridge Analytica had worked for them...it had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert.

Facebook profiles – especially people’s “likes” – could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results...with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself.

According to an expert in the field, Professor Jonathan Rust:

The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.

Quoting short sections doesn't really do either of the articles justice - I heartily recommend reading them both in their entirety to understand how vulnerable we all are to manipulation in the 21st century. But how do we combat these types of strategies? Your suggestions are more than welcome in the comments section!

Link: "Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace"

Link: "Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media"

News Briefs 28-02-2017

Fly me to the Moon!

Quote of the Day:

Utopian movements produce dystopias.

Dennis Prager

Handle: A New Boston Dynamics Robot That Has Legs with Wheels

Just when you thought you could survive the coming robot revolution by outrunning them, Boston Dynamics have released video of their latest invention, 'Handle': a 6 and a half foot tall humanoid style robot which can travel 9mph via the wheels on the end of its legs. Oh, and it can jump 4​ ​feet vertically while its motoring along too...

​It uses electric power to operate both electric and hydraulic actuators, with a range of about 15 miles on one battery charge. ​​​Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles​ found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs Handle can have the best of both worlds.

Joking aside though, this latest robot looks to have amazing potential for simple carrying/moving/delivery jobs.

Related stories:

News Briefs 27-02-2017

We're on an express elevator to hell...going down!

Quote of the Day:

You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.

Robert A. Heinlein