Weekend Reading, 11/26/11

Happy Thanksgiving weekend everyone. I hope the past few days have been filled with good food, laughter, celebration, family and friends, and, of course, much gratitude. And here’s hoping that you all managed to stay clear of any Black Friday pepper-spray instances of “competitive shopping.”

We’ll start this week with a piece on cyber-security (is that still an acceptable use of “cyber-“?).

“Palantir, the War on Terror’s Secret Weapon” by Aslee Vance and Brad Stone in Business Week: Yes, Tolkien fans, you read that correctly. The highly-prized security software that had its start as PayPal’s anti-fraud program is named after the seeing-stones in The Lord of the Rings, and Palantir’s CEO unabashedly explains that the company’s mission is to “protect the Shire.” It’s an interesting company that seeks to keep its soul in what might be a seedy business. We hope they succeed, because as a friend and Tolkien enthusiast noted, “While the original Palantir were made by elves for the forces of good, they were eventually turned to evil ends. That may serve as a good allegory for those of us who get worried about Big Brother having infinite information about our lives.”

From the rather serious to a lighter piece.

“The Amazing History and the Strange Invention of the Bendy Straw” by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic: The history of technology — and yes, the bendy straw is a technology — is full of interesting and quirky stories like this which shows how much went into designing and making objects we take entirely for granted. It’s a quick read and you’ll have a great an interesting anecdote with which to bore entertain people every time they pull out a bendy straw.

And now for a slightly whimsical take on a rather profound matter.

“The Umbrella Man” produced by Errol Morris at the NY Times: This is a great little documentary, it comes in at under seven minutes, based on the “umbrella man” that mysteriously stood on the route of JFK’s motorcade the decidedly sunny day he was shot in 1963. It finally makes a great point about our understanding and study of history.

Now, in case you were tempted to join the Black Friday madness, here is a little inoculation for you.

“Rabbi Lets Consumerism Have It Between the i’s” by Jonathan Wynne-jones and Martin Beckford in The Sydney Morning Herald. This is not a new message, but it is stated once more with some force by a prominent British Rabbi and member of the House of Lords, Jonathan Sacks. While not wanting to invoke too much self-loathing, I did find it interesting that, as the article noted, “Although religious leaders have recently used increasingly strong language to condemn banks and politicians over the financial crisis and the gap between rich and poor, few have directly criticised ordinary people for their materialism.” There is a lot of finger pointing going on these days, but seemingly very little by way of introspection. I’ll leave it at that.

Speaking of which, if you place yourself right of center on the political spectrum, you may find these two pieces from prominent conservative writers instructive:

“A Caveman Won’t Beat a Salesman” by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal

and

“When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality” by David Frum in NY Magazine

If you are left of center, here is the companion piece to Frum’s:

“When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable” by Jonathan Chait.

I’ll leave you to answer those two questions.

Moving from politics to a very political and technological issue: energy policy.

“The Myth of Renewable Energy” by Dawn Stover in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: I’m far from expert on these matters, but this struck me as a rather grim, but well reasoned piece. The key point is straightforward: all renewable energies seem to have hidden and unsustainable factors worked in.

Not wanting to leave you on a downer this weekend, here is another sharp post from the folks at Cyborgology.

“Hipster Rivivalism: Authentic Technologies of Days Gone Past” by David Strohecker: Strohecker takes a look at the hipster fascination with vintage technologies and the quest for authenticity. It’s an interesting cultural trend as I’ve noted before here, and, I suspect, a symptom of the human condition groping for expression.

It’s a messy world out there right now, and storm clouds seem perpetually to be gathering on the horizon. At the risk of sounding trite, such times, for all of the angst they induce, can also have the effect of clarifying and reordering our priorities. I trust you still found much to be thankful for this week and, having already mentioned Tolkien, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the Two Towers. At the bleakest moment, Aragorn nonetheless manages to affirm, “Yet, dawn is ever the hope of men.”

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