Weekend Reads: Computer Pain, Holodecks, Technology Woes, Confederate Lies, UFOs

Recommended weekend reading material for May 15, 2021.

Every week, I compile a list of interesting and thought-provoking articles to offer you some enjoyable weekend reading material.

For all of their many, many benefits, Laine Nooney explains how computers have also brought us a whole new world of pain.

The aches and pains of computer use now play an outsized role in our physical (and increasingly, our mental) health, as the demands of remote work force us into constant accommodation. We stretch our wrists and adjust our screens, pour money into monitor arms and ergonomic chairs, even outfit our offices with motorized desks that can follow us from sitting to standing to sitting again. Entire industries have built their profits on our slowly curving backs, while physical therapists and chiropractors do their best to stem a tide of bodily dysfunction that none of us opted into. These are, at best, partial measures, and those who can’t afford extensive medical interventions or pricey furniture remain cramped over coffee tables or fashioning makeshift laptop raisers. Our bodies, quite literally, were never meant to work this way.

Among other things, Nooney’s article contains some fascinating excerpts concerning the history of how computers came to be so integrated in homes and offices, and the shifting socio-cultural views of computer work.

A team of scientists at Brigham Young University have taken us one step closer to having a real-life holodeck.

BYU’s Holography Group has created these free-floating 3D holograms that employ lasers and a tiny particle hovering in mid-air to manifest these amazing digital images that can can be viewed from all angles without the need of a special AR headset or smartphone.

By using a laser beam to trap a small particle in mid-air, the team then tasks the concentrated shaft of light to drag that particle in various directions at high speed, thus manifesting vivid holographic animation that exists physically.

AI Dungeon was an online game that used artificial intelligence to create dynamic adventure games — and then it began generating really dark and explicit storylines based on user input. But when the developers began moderating the game’s content, controversy ensued.

Blocking the AI system from creating some types of sexual or adult content while allowing others will be difficult. Technology like OpenAI’s can generate text in many different styles because it is built using machine learning algorithms that have digested the statistical patterns of language use in billions of words scraped from the web, including parts not appropriate for minors. The software is capable of moments of startling mimicry, but it doesn’t understand social, legal, or genre categories as people do. Add the fiendish inventiveness of Homo internetus, and the output can be strange, beautiful, or toxic.

It’s almost like the developers had never heard of Rule 34, or for that matter, had even spent any time on the internet at all. Otherwise, they would’ve known that people on the internet are excellent at perverting, well, anything.

In other tech-related controversies, Facebook has announced plans to create a version of Instagram for kids, but over 40 attorneys general have written a letter criticizing the social media giant’s plans.

The state attorneys general call for Facebook to abandon its plans, citing concerns around developmental health, privacy and Facebook’s track record of prioritizing growth over the well-being of children on its platforms. In the letter, embedded below, they delve into specific worries about cyberbullying, online grooming by sexual predators and algorithms that showed dieting ads to users with eating disorders.

Via 1440.

Facebook is also working on a new feature for “prayer” posts.

The idea for prayer posts grew out of the myriad ways users have connected over Facebook while distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the spokesperson.

“Our mission to give people the power to build community extends to the world’s largest community; the faith community,” Nona Jones, head of Global Faith Partnerships at Facebook, said in a written statement to RNS.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, this feature seems rather innocuous, because why not offer “prayer” posts? On the other hand, do we really want Facebook, with its awful track record concerning privacy, meddling in prayer requests?

2021’s inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have been announced.

JAY-Z and Foo Fighters have been inducted after being nominated in their first year of eligibility. Tina Turner, the Go-Go’s, Todd Rundgren, and Carole King have also been inducted. It marks the second induction for Dave Grohl (previously with Nirvana), Turner (previously with Ike Turner), and King (previously with Gerry Goffin). Turner and King follow Stevie Nicks as the only women to be inducted multiple times.

Other artists who will receive rewards and special recognition include Kraftwerk, LL Cool J, and Randy Rhoads. The induction ceremony is on October 30, 2021.

In a powerful essay, Clint Smith explores the reasons why, even now, people continue to resist and downplay the awful history of the Confederacy.

A few years ago, I decided to travel around America visiting sites that are grappling — or refusing to grapple — with America’s history of slavery. I went to plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials, houses, and historical landmarks. As I traveled, I was moved by the people who have committed their lives to telling the story of slavery in all its fullness and humanity. And I was struck by the many people I met who believe a version of history that rests on well-documented falsehoods.

Luke Harrington explains the effects that censorship had on the comic book industry for decades.

The Comics Code effectively cut the industry’s output in half overnight as publishers struggled to come up with stories that actually satisfied all of its requirements. In the end, they all sort of arrived at the same thing: silly stories about superheroes catching and locking up wacky bank-robbing villains. So if you were wondering why comic books as a medium are associated in so many people’s minds with bland stories of do-gooder heroes, well… now you know. That’s basically what they were from the 1950s until the 1980s, when the Comics Code’s grip finally started to weaken. Then again, that’s basically what movies are now, and… I dunno, I guess somebody likes it.

Finally, Ezra Klein ponders what UFOs and the discovery of extraterrestrial life would mean for humanity — and his forecast isn’t terribly promising.

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? Certainly not the academics who’d laughed them off as nonsense, or the governments who would now be seen as liars.

From the Blog

Earlier this month, a long-lost bit of Christian music history finally saw the light of day when Velvet Blue Music released Tales, the debut album from Morella’s Forest which was originally recorded in 1988 but never released due to label woes. Morella’s Forest was the first band of Ronnie and Jason Martin, who would eventually form two of my favorite bands, Joy Electric and Starflyer 59. From my review:

Listening to it now with the benefits of hindsight, I’m pretty confident that Tales would’ve been a game changer. We’d be mentioning it in the same breath as landmark albums like Lifesavers Underground’s Shaded Pain. And along with the likes of The Prayer Chain and The Violet Burning, it would’ve been an album that convinced the younger me that Christian music didn’t have to be lame. That it could, indeed, be gloomy, melancholy, poetic, and something more unique and artistic than just watered down “praise and worship” songs.

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