5 Intriguing Things: Wednesday, 1/29

Designer drugs, the informational self, Terry Gilliam's new movie, the botmaker, and the avalanche that blocked Valdez.
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1. If you, like me, have heard of "designer drugs" but don't really understand what that means, read this

To understand exactly how access to designer drugs has changed—to see exactly how easy it is to commission, purchase and import powerful new compounds that are beyond the reach of the law—I decided to get one made myself. I chose to focus on the Beatles’ drug, phenmetrazine: a nod to the cultural significance of Prellies and their illustrious user base. How easy would it be to get a legal version made? What procedures would it take, what roadblocks would be put in the way? 

I phoned a contact with expertise in chemistry and asked if he could think of a simple molecular tweak that would produce a new version of phenmetrazine that would be totally legal. Yes, he said. The change would be trivial. What might its effects be? 'A fantastic anorectic if you want to lose weight, and an effective stimulant.' The search began for a laboratory that would make a one-off sample."

 

2. An obstacle to understanding the NSA revelations, Facebook's business model, or credit-reporting agencies is our meaty sense of self.

"We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely about us. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are.

We understandably do not want to see ourselves as bits and bytes. But unless we begin conceptualizing ourselves in this way, we leave it to others to do it for us. Many government agencies and giant corporations are all too eager to continue the work of producing detailed data profiles of all of us. These profiles may be produced for varying purposes (targeting terrorists is not the same work as targeting consumers), but they all involve informational pictures of who we are — as well as who we can become. These agencies and corporations will continue producing new visions of you and me, and they will do so without our input if we remain stubbornly attached to antiquated conceptions of selfhood that keep us from admitting how informational we already are.

We need a concept of infopolitics precisely because we have become infopersons. What should we do about our Internet and phone patterns’ being fastidiously harvested and stored away in remote databanks where they await inspection by future algorithms developed at the National Security Agency, Facebook, credit reporting firms like Experian and other new institutions of information and control that will come into existence in future decades? What bits of the informational you will fall under scrutiny? The political you? The sexual you? What next-generation McCarthyisms await your informational self?"

 

3. Terry Gilliam has a new movie, The Zero Theorem, but no US distribution (sadface emoticon).

"It stars Christoph Waltz as an 'eccentric and reclusive computer genius' named Qohen who is tasked with figuring out whether the title equation -- which supposedly proves the meaninglessness of existence -- is actually correct.

As you can see from the trailer, poor Qohen gets more than he bargained for in the process as he falls for a mysterious and seductve young woman (Melanie Thierry) while also being thrust into a surreal and very Gilliam-esque world where reality just seems to melt away."

 

4. A wonderful profile of Darius Kazemi, botmaker, which is also about what art  and the Internet look like now.  

"The special power that Kazemi brings to this mission is what he and others call 'procedural literacy': Like most computer programmers, he can see past the surface of the digital tools in our lives, and figure out the automated mechanisms by which they’re making decisions on our behalf. ('Darius kind of sees the matrix a little bit,' Dubbin says.) And while he resists being cast as some kind of activist, Kazemi does see his work as a way to expose the mechanics of automation by putting it front and center in surprising new ways—'sort of an attempt to educate people,' he says, 'and prompt them to do some of that thinking on their own.'

That spirit runs through many of his projects. In that sense, they fall squarely in the tradition of so-called generative art—think Ellsworth Kelly’s random color paintings or the cut-and-paste experiments of William Burroughs. But Kazemi’s work stands apart by virtue of its immersion in the blinking and chaotic landscape of the Internet. This immersion in the Web is crucial, because the way people use it—to communicate, to shop, to get their news—is so often the target of his satire. His programs riff relentlessly on clichés we recognize; one even builds entire Web pages that look eerily like genuine human-built Buzzfeed listicles, as if to say, 'A computer could do this.' As Andrea Shubert, a video game designer and longtime acquaintance of Kazemi’s put it, 'He has a knack for knowing where to poke, and creates interesting ways to poke.'

It is also possible to see his work as nostalgic for a younger, less predictable Internet. Mark Sample, a fellow bot-maker and a digital studies professor at Davidson College, said in an e-mail that much of what Kazemi makes is aimed at recapturing the serendipitous spirit of the Web before browsing became quite so slick, curated, and targeted. 'I see Darius’s work as an ongoing critique of this contemporary Internet, a reminder that the Internet doesn’t have to be this way.'"

 

5. Unusual weather led to a massive avalanche that has blocked the road in and out of Valdez, Alaska

"Warm, wet weather late last week triggered numerous small avalanches and three major ones that left snow on the road from 20 to 40 feet deep for a distance of 1,000 to 1,500 feet in the Thompson Pass area.

The biggest snow slide, in the narrow canyon at Mile 16 of the mountain highway, is actually two avalanches: a huge natural slide that thundered to the canyon floor around 6 a.m. Friday, topped by an another, even bigger slide triggered Saturday afternoon by state crews trying to reduce avalanche risk with explosives.

The giant plug of snow backed up the Lowe River, a summer whitewater destination that winds through the narrow canyon. Unusually warm weather meant the river wasn't frozen like it usually is this time of year.

Until the water recedes off the highway, authorities say it's too dangerous for crews to start clearing the mountain of snow covering it."

 

Today's 1957 English Usage Tip:

amour-propre. Vanity usually gives the meaning as well, &, if as well, then better. See FRENCH WORDS.

 

Department of "Huh.": I've been informed by British readers that the word nonce has some unsavory connotations in that country. We did not know, and hope no one got skeeved out by its inclusion. Another reader informs that nonce-words are a fundamental tool in cryptography

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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