News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets


News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

Unless you are given to chronic anxiety or suffer from nihilistic despair, you probably haven’t spent much time contemplating the bottom of the ocean. Many people imagine the seabed to be a vast expanse of sand, but it’s a jagged and dynamic landscape with as much variation as any place onshore. Mountains surge from underwater plains, canyons slice miles deep, hot springs billow through fissures in rock, and streams of heavy brine ooze down hillsides, pooling into undersea lakes.

These peaks and valleys are laced with most of the same minerals found on land. Scientists have documented their deposits since at least 1868, when a dredging ship pulled a chunk of iron ore from the seabed north of Russia. Five years later, another ship found similar nuggets at the bottom of the Atlantic, and two years after that, it discovered a field of the same objects in the Pacific. For more than a century, oceanographers continued to identify new minerals on the seafloor—copper, nickel, silver, platinum, gold, and even gemstones—while mining companies searched for a practical way to dig them up.

Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic

News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

ZHENGZHOU, China — China is ramping up its ability to spy on its nearly 1.4 billion people to new and disturbing levels, giving the world a blueprint for how to build a digital totalitarian state.

Chinese authorities are knitting together old and state-of-the-art technologies — phone scanners, facial-recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases and many others — into sweeping tools for authoritarian control, according to police and private databases examined by The New York Times.

Once combined and fully operational, the tools can help police grab the identities of people as they walk down the street, find out who they are meeting with and identify who does and doesn’t belong to the Communist Party.

The United States and other countries use some of the same techniques to track terrorists or drug lords. Chinese cities want to use them to track everybody.

The rollout has come at the expense of personal privacy. The Times found that the authorities parked the personal data of millions of people on servers unprotected by even basic security measures. It also found that private contractors and middlemen have wide access to personal data collected by the Chinese government.

This build-out has only just begun, but it is sweeping through Chinese cities. The surveillance networks are controlled by local police, as if county sheriffs in the United States ran their own personal versions of the National Security Agency.

By themselves, none of China’s new techniques are beyond the capabilities of the United States or other countries. But together, they could propel China’s spying to a new level, helping its cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.

Read the rest of this article at: The New York Times

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Block hurries out of the Ikea Museum and heads toward the company’s headquarters. His stride is surprisingly quick — faster than mine, considering I’ve just scarfed down a substantial plate of meatballs and lingonberries at an upscale version of the company’s blue box cafeteria.

At 45, Block vibrates with the energy of a man half his age. He cuts a frantic figure against the mélange of asphalt, dirt, and gravel paths that crisscross the sprawling Ikea campus. I tell him he walks very fast.

“I hear that all the time,” Block responds without slowing, even as I stop to admire a 10-foot-tall monument to the Ikea Allen wrench.

And his name. What could be more Swedish than Björn and more fundamental to building something than a block? It’s a good thing because the world’s largest furniture retailer is building its home of the future around him.

Block earned a degree in industrial design (with a furniture minor) in Australia and did a stint in Colorado teaching Americans how to snowboard. Now, he is the personal embodiment of Ikea’s transformation from a plodding analog maker of furniture into a fast-moving digital company. He’s in charge of Ikea’s Home Smart business, which he’s been building on a project-by-project basis ever since joining the company seven years ago.

Read the rest of this article at: The Verge

News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

The past year has felt like a peak in mega-budget world-spanning media spectacles that command our attention, one outrageous finale after another. On April 26, 2019, the film Avengers: Endgame was released in the United States. Less an original narrative than an accretion of capital, technology, and celebrity, it had a budget of $356 million.

By July, the movie — the closing of a phase in the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe — was the highest-grossing movie in the history of Hollywood; it has so far achieved a global box office of around $2.8 billion. A month later, on May 19, the final episode of Game of Thrones aired on HBO, the end of an eight-season run that began in 2011. 19.3 million people watched the episode, a record for the series. The latest Star Wars film will cap off the franchise’s third trilogy on December 20 and attract millions more viewers. But it’s not just the stories that are ending.

Two Concerns
This communal moment of mass culture has occasioned celebration as well as a bout of anxiety. We’re in the midst of the Streaming Wars, with so many different media products and platforms competing for our attention — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney+, AppleTV+, and the still-to-come Peacock and HBO Max, to name but a few. Journalists and critics are worried that the huge popularity and sense of universality that Avengers and Game of Thrones achieved are now disappearing for good. The word often used to describe these omnipresent mass-entertainment products is “monoculture.”

The Ringer eulogized Game of Thrones as “the very last piece of TV monoculture” and Vulture “the last show we watch together.” “Monoculture is dead, or will die with Game of Thrones,” according to Lainey Gossip’s Elaine Lui. Now, “we watch what we like, and we cluster together with the people who also watch what we like.” Even the era of extensive recaps was pronounced over, if not the reign of prestige TV itself. We live in a “time of cultural fragmentation,” wrote Alex Shephard in the New Republic, arguing that not even the Nobel Prize for literature has survived as a representation of monoculture.

Within the monoculture obsession, there are two concerns. The first is that in the digital streaming era we have lost a perceived ability to connect over media products as reference points that everyone knows, the way that we used to discuss the weather or politics, at least in a bygone time before our realities were split by climate change and Fox News. The fear is that we exist in a fragmented realm of impenetrable niches and subcultures enabled by streaming media.

The second concern is that, because of the pressures of social media and the self-reinforcing biases of recommendation algorithms that drive streaming, culture is becoming more similar than different. We are worried that our digital niches cause a degree of homogenization, which the word monoculture is also used to describe.

“If Twitter controls publishing, we’ll soon enter a dreary monoculture that admits no book unless it has been prejudged and meets the standards of the censors,” Jennifer Senior wrote in a New York Times opinion piece about young-adult literature. Mass media has “been getting more mass,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, also in the Times, responding to the popularity of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which went from a TikTok meme to one of the most popular pop songs ever made, at least according to its time on the charts.

“Despite the barrage of choice, more of us are enjoying more of the same songs, movies and TV shows,” Manjoo continued. The effect is happening across different cultural industries: “We’re returning to a media monoculture,” made up of corporatized, homogenized websites instead of smaller blogs, Darcie Wilder wrote on the Outline. Martin Scorsese echoed the complaint when he argued that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema” but instead bland, market-tested products without artistic integrity.

Read the rest of this article at: Vox

News 12.18.19 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

The pizza toast was like liturgy, like an old friend comforting me as I wept into my hands. The pizza toast was everything I needed it to be at the very moment it arrived.

You see: I was in the middle of an epic walk across Japan. On this trip I was following the old Nakasendō historic highway, and would go on to walk more than 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles) in total. On this particular day I was grappling with an eight-hour stretch of scorched asphalt that I had nicknamed “Pachinko Road.” The Nakasendō connects Tokyo and Kyoto and parts of it cut through forests, others through sleepy farming villages, and others still through suburban hell-sprawl. I loved the sprawl, how it made you contend with how a certain portion of the world is just one continuous big-box store. But on Pachinko Road, it all had a slightly Japanese twist: Japanese Duane Reades, tonkatsu fried-pork chain restaurants with piglet mascots, chain udon noodle and curry shops you can find in any Japanese prefecture and, yes, pachinko parlors — those loud, smoke-filled gambling warehouses so alluring, so Sirenic, they necessitate warning signs throughout their parking lots. Warnings that implore parents not to leave their infants in their cars as they play, hypnotized for hours by small metal balls. This was the belt of Japanese road I had now been walking for two days. A belt where parents accidentally roasted their children.

But then that stretch of sin and sameness fell away. Homes, small gardens, marks of human scale began to appear, and just outside of Gifu city proper, I spotted a sign. A tiny square with modernist design impulses that spelled out “Yashiro” in Japanese. As I neared and saw the gently radiused windows, the petite frosted-glass globe above the doorway, I was pretty certain they’d have what I was looking for: pizza toast.

When I first arrived in Japan as an undergraduate 19 years ago, I could hardly eat anything. Sushi and soba and natto (a breakfast staple of fermented soybeans) and eel were unthinkable. I didn’t even really like ramen. I had grown up on fried bologna and Spaghetti-Os, Fruit Roll-Ups and Twix. Japan’s culinary landscape of nuance and texture and procession was lost on my palate. And so I took solace and sanctuary in a small old-style Japanese cafe — a kissaten— near my university in Tokyo. It was there that I first encountered “pizza toast.” The name intrigued, and what was presented seemed like food you might serve a child. Perfect. For me, it became a bridge between where I had been and where I was to go. I didn’t think much of it then; it was just a food I knew I could reliably eat, and the kissa itself acted as a kind of buffer zone, a beacon of comfort, where I could drink black coffee and smoke and read novels.

Years later, in an effort to deepen my connection with the country, I began to embark on a number of exploratory, anthropological walks throughout Japan. I’ve traced the paths of old Japanese haiku poets into the north, and documented some of the pilgrimage paths of central Japan. I’ve partaken in rituals with “mountain ascetics” and walked their secret mountain routes. I speak the language, converse easily with the locals, and have found the combination of language, walking alone, and chatting up strangers to be a kind of skeleton key into the minds and lives of the people of Japan.

Read the rest of this article at: Eater

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