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Peter Marmorek
Peter Marmorek
The webby arm of Tikkunista.com

A Niche in the Long Tail


by: on January 15th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

Last week I was walking past the Salvation Army store on my corner, when I noticed that someone had abandoned a box of books in front of the deposit bin. I assume that things left there are for perusal, so I perused, and found a book I’d always been curious about: Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”. Andersen writes about how things change when scarcity of access is no longer a factor in what we purchase. He looks at books and music in particular, and at the changes that have occurred in our consumption of those media, now that we have unlimited choices of what to read or listen to. A half century ago, my reading source was my school or town library, and what they had was the limits of what I might read next. I read almost all the John Buchan novels, partially because I liked those prototypical James Bond adventures (if James Bond had been a Victorian upper class Brit), but more because those were the books which our library had.

Similarly, the music I bought was limited to the music that the record stores had; one of the reasons that music was such a bond in the 60s and 70s was that we all listened to the same music. We had to; it was a culture of hits and the hit albums were the only ones that could be found in the big stores. In Montreal, in 1964, I had been fond of a local band called “JB and the Playboys”, but when I moved to Toronto, and from there to Boston, I accepted I’d never get to hear their new music, and none of my friends would be interested in a band of whom they’d never heard and whose albums they couldn’t buy.

Now it’s a market of niches. The long tail (Think Amazon! Think iTunes!) means that stores carry all the books there are, or all the music there is. Since they’re in digital form, it doesn’t cost anything to add another thousand choices, and some of them will sell. Anderson cites that 99% of the books on Amazon sold at least one copy last year, which is all Amazon needs to make a profit. How different from the limited shelf-space bookstores had, on which a book that wasn’t selling (yet, or still) got sent back to the remainderers, its brief shelf-life over.


Angry Birds


by: on January 9th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Some of my readers may have celebrated New Year’s under the balmy twenty-four hour sunlight of Antarctica, which would explain why they haven’t heard of “Angry Birds”. The rest of you don’t have an excuse for being so sadly out of the loop, but your being so does provide a fine reason for me to fill you in. Wikipedia, most useful as an elaborator on all topical phenomena, succinctly offers this summary: Angry Birds is a puzzle video game developed by Finland-based Rovio Mobile, in which players use a slingshot to launch birds at pigs stationed on or within various structures, with the intent of destroying all the pigs on the playfield…. Players may re-attempt levels as many times as they wish, and may also replay completed levels in an attempt to boost their score.

It has been a very long time since I’ve encountered a game as addictive as this one, which certainly makes the question “why?” of personal interest. But Wikipedia’s explication adds that there are currently over four million hours per day worldwide spent playing “Angry Birds”, and that over 50 million people have downloaded the game for their iToys, Androids, or other similar platforms. So my addiction is not unique, which broadens that “why?” question. Two days ago the Mac App store opened, which allows Mac users to buy apps online from a single source. I checked it this morning, and not to my surprise, the top selling program across all categories, was “Angry Birds”. The addiction is real.


The Wikileaks Infowar


by: on December 12th, 2010 | 34 Comments »

“There is a war between the ones
who say there is a war
And the ones who say there isn’t.”
(Leonard Cohen)

Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” (Hillary Clinton, 1/21/10)

Wikileaks has raised a range of fascinating and related issues, starting with the extraordinary information that has been revealed. But should that information have been revealed? Is Julian Assange a hero, a rapist, both, or neither? What has the US done in response, and what should it have done? And what has “Anonymous” done in response, and who are they anyway? I’ve been trying to keep up with the unfolding answers to these questions, surfing as fast as I can, and getting further and further behind the wave. But the most fascinating story is the battle between Anonymous and the US government, a battle so one-sided that it makes David and Goliath look like an even money bet. But, as could only have happened in the 21st century, Anonymous has won at least the first few rounds.

In this corner in the red, white, and blue trunks, the US government. With an annual budget of 3.5 trillion dollars it has enough power that all it takes is for Joseph Lieberman, (whom the Guardian calls “the kind of politician who gives loose cannons a bad name”) to call Wikileaks “implacably hostile to our military and the most basic requirements of our national security,” and things happen. Amazon terminates their hosting of Wikileak’s account, spuriously claiming copyright violation. (As Juan Cole points out, “once a document has become public, no matter how, the government cannot sue for copyright infringement or demand its return on those grounds, at least in the United States” And how secure does your cloud computing feel these days?) Wikileaks domain name provider, Everydns, dropped wikileaks.org off the net (the cyber equivalent of having your phone disconnected). Visa and Mastercard stopped allowing their cards to be used to make donations to Wikileaks, (though you can use these same cards to donate to the Ku Klux Klan). Paypal not only dropped Wikileaks, but locked the account of users whose businesses had donated any money to Wikileaks. Then, feeling that a Wikileaks knockout had been achieved, on Dec 8th the US State department announced “World Press Freedom Day,” because they were “concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information.” Oh the irony, it burns. As Al Jazeera accurately summed up the US response,

“what WikiLeaks is exposing is the way the Western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (the US and UK in not regulating their financial sectors); corrupt (Ireland, Italy; all other governments in relation to the arms trade) or recklessly militaristic (US and UK in Iraq) and yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way…. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted in a really effective way, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.”

But in the other corner, apparently wearing no trunks at all, was Anonymous.


Reddit: Being Touched by My Home Base


by: on December 7th, 2010 | Comments Off

A person reveals a lot by the website they choose for their home page. Some people want to have their own blog; others have Google news. There have been times when I’ve had both of those, but for the past four years I’ve been firmly linked to Reddit. Reddit is a community forum on which people post, either their own comments or links to sites, news, pictures, whatever. Users can comment on these posts, and discussions, sometimes heated ones, follow. There’s nothing unusual with that. The first element that lifts Reddit beyond the ordinary is that readers can click arrows to upvote or downvote both the news stories, and one another’s comments, so that the stories that people find the most interesting are the ones you see in the top 50, and the comments that people have found the most offensive sink to the bottom of the list. The people rule, or at least moderate the website .

The second remarkable element is the size of Reddit. Each month about two million different visitors, go to their selection of its 56,514 subreddits, or separate topics. So if you want people who share your interest in (lightly sampling the ‘p’s) pets, Poland, polyamory relationships, Phish, poetry, or programming there’s a subreddit devoted to that. (There are a number devoted to porn, but as with all subreddits, if you don’t sign up for it, you don’t see it.) To get a sense of the range, look at the current 912 most popular subreddits here, with the name written proportionally to the popularity: the most popular are in the biggest font size. Three weeks ago I wanted to find out the best cellular company for an iPhone in Canada, I posted the question in both the iPhone and Canada subreddits, and within two days had a hugely helpful and educated series of responses. (Consensus answer: it’s a trick question. There are no good cellular phone companies in Canada. Most useful answer: a link to a website that compares costs and plans for all iPhone carriers across the country.)


Kafka’s Fable


by: on November 29th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into,”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

A Fable by Franz Kafka

Kafka’s story haunts me, as his stories always have. This one at first seems a simple enough eighty-seven words But while with many writers the ambiguities clarify as you go deeper, with Kafka they always get more complex. The mouse worries about his life having led him into a now inevitable trap. We have a sense of what mouse traps are, and a sense of how our own choices narrow as we age. But is the cat the trap that the mouse sees coming, or is the cat a trap not seen? But the cat is multiple: it’s both the one who knows how the mouse might escape from the trap and it’s the death from which the mouse cannot escape.

If the mouse had changed his direction, would he have escaped the cat? There are two reasons to think so: the cat is in the last chamber, so if the mouse had gone somewhere else he might not have run into the cat. And if the mouse hadn’t been worrying about the walls, worrying about the enormity of the world, he might have had more attention to devote towards worrying about things like cats.

My world too has gotten smaller, or so it seems to me.


Scanning the Scanners


by: on November 18th, 2010 | 11 Comments »

One month ago I drank some extremely noxious laxatives, and went into a small room where a man stuck a camera up my rectum and took a series of photos. It was an invasive and unpleasant procedure, one which I repeat every five years, thanks to advice from my doctor and two friends who have survived colon cancer. I’d rather have a colonoscopy than colon cancer. Whether I want to go through a similar procedure every time I take an airplane is a related question, one we may face in our immediate future. The path that leads to that hypothetical question starts with a media scan of the new TSA (Transportation Security Association) scanners and the policy that comes with them..

The “naked-scanners” are now in place at many US airports, and the plan is to have a thousand installed by the end of 2011. A bill to make them mandatory at all airports by 2013 is currently before the Senate. But at present would-be air travellers have a choice: they can be seen naked by air agents or be “patted down”. There are some good reasons not to want either of them, but you won’t get on the flight without one. We’ll start with the scanners, which have three really basic problems: safety, privacy, and functionality.


On Evolution, Vaccination, and Global Warming: The Cost of Magical Thinking


by: on November 9th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

When I was a teenager I believed that science was the route to all the best answers to the most important questions. I would have applauded Sir Ernest Rutherford’s dictum: “There is physics and there is stamp-collecting.” It took the sixties to loosen up my views, to help me recognize that there were things not measurable by science, but true none the less. Love and literature were two early examples; the power of spirituality came later. Today my views are closer to what Stephen Jay Gould called Nonoverlapping Magisteria , the perspective that there are areas of expertise over which science holds sway, and other areas over which it does not, and that wisdom can best be reached through exploring both. But as I have opened to ideas in the world outside science, I am horrified at how of increasing numbers of people are moving the opposite way, abandoning science, logic, rationality and embracing magical thinking.

Magical thinking is the idea that what you think changes the physical world directly. In a harmless form, I learned it when my family watched Saturday night hockey games, and my mother warned my brother and I that any premature celebration before the final siren would certainly cause the Canadians to suddenly lose the game. In a more dangerous form, it is promulgated through books like “The Secret” which teach that if you choose to believe that you will be successful, you will (and if you aren’t it’s your own fault for not choosing to be.) It is a belief which allows the rich to feel that they simply chose to be rich, and the people who were poisoned by drinking the effluent dumped into rivers from their factories chose that, so everyone gets what they wanted and no guilt is necessary.


Portrait of the Polymath as an Old Man


by: on November 3rd, 2010 | 3 Comments »

In my childhood, I wanted to know everything about everything, which I called “being a polymath”, because polymath was such an impressive word. I read omnivorously, and remembered almost all of what I had read. I was the star of my high school’s Reach For the Top team (short version: a Canadian high school Jeopardy). I knew all the songs on the top 30, every week, and could identify them from the first notes, to the amazement of my parents to whom all rock and roll sounded pretty much the same. Two long-remembered dreams from my childhood encapsulate this obsession. In the first, the happy dream, aliens come to destroy Earth (I was a big science fiction fan) but moved to pity, they choose one person at random and ask one question. If the question is answered correctly, Earth will be spared; if incorrectly, ZAP! They choose me; I know the answer. Everyone is awed and grateful. In the other dream, I go off to summer camp for two weeks, and when I come back I get a copy of the current top thirty. I look at it in disbelief. I don’t know any of the songs on it. I don’t even know any of the groups. I am in utter despair.

One of these dreams has come true, and – here’s a hint – it’s not the one with the aliens. I still read music reviews occasionally, and they’re about albums I don’t know by bands of which I’ve never heard. Even when they explain that the lead singer used to be in this important other band, I still don’t know him. Sometimes out of this vast ocean of ignorance there’ll emerge a familiar island, a new album by Paul Simon, or the Rolling Stones. But the waters of oblivion are rising, the islands are becoming fewer, and there are more and more column inches of reviews waving between them.


The Use and Misuse of Names


by: on October 22nd, 2010 | 23 Comments »

I intuitively feel that these experiences, mystical but also sensual and embodied, are the core of spirituality and the foundation that religions build their vast tottering edifices upon: these experiences that work for us, that we then work hard to name and explicate in full logical or fantastically elaborated detail. Naming is not only important but unavoidable … but once the naming develops into major exclusionary truth claims, … and once these get identified with the worldly power involved in religious organization then all the power of the experience gets harnessed to the groupthink and the powerplays (exclusions, repressions and crusades) and we have the worst of religion.

Dave Belden in response to How I Became a Pagan

Reading Dave’s comment, I was reminded of Deepak Chopra’s saying “God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion.’” There is an inescapable tension between experience and the words we use to describe that experience, which cannot help but remove us from the experience itself. Ted Hughes warns us eloquently: “In a way, words are continually trying to displace our experience. And insofar as they are stronger than the raw life of our experience, and full of themselves and all the dictionaries they have digested, they do displace it.” Yet Hughes as a poet chose to use words to create extraordinary experiences for his readers. How do you communicate without words? How do you guide people on a spiritual path without names for the landmarks they are passing?

On the vision quest I wrote about, Oriah was certainly conscious of that tension. When we came back from the vision quest, we were not allowed to talk to anyone about our experience, because once we did it would become a story, and we would remember the story and how we had told it rather than the experience. After a day, we met as a group and shared the experience of our vision quest with one another, in mime. No words allowed. This was (radical understatement) a challenge, but it forced us to focus on the physical, emotional, and spiritual experience rather than moving into the intellectual world, which I at least certainly do all too easily. I remember one woman, who simply sat in the centre of our circle, and peeled an onion, layer after layer, as tears rolled down her face. When I go to sweat lodges in my tradition, we are always encouraged not to speak to any one for seven days about our experience in the lodge, so that we have time to process the experience before it becomes a story.


How I Became a Pagan


by: on October 16th, 2010 | 29 Comments »

Paganism. The name itself has a certain wild and crazy sound to it, a sense of scribbling wildly outside the lines of the establishment. Much as I’d like to claim that aspect of the word, that sense of neo-medievalists dancing naked in the spring moonlight before they copulate in the furrows so that the crops will come again this year, that isn’t me, and it isn’t my paganism. I’m an urban middle-aged man, ex-school teacher, born and raised Jewish. What has brought me to a spiritual place where I can assert my religion is pagan, (or primal, to use Huston Smith’s more encompassing term) ?

I’ve always had an interest in the spiritual, in how we form a bridge from ourselves to something that is bigger than ourselves. Judaism is a community religion; the Talmud says that one cannot be Jewish in isolation, and there is no story I know of a Jewish hermit living in a remote cave by himself seeking G_d. But my family lived in a small French-Canadian town, and even when we moved to Montreal and later Toronto we were never part of a Jewish community. So perhaps that’s the reason that I never felt any twinges of spirituality around Judaism, never felt a personal connection to Something Greater when I was in the synagogue listening to people chant something in Hebrew, a language I was able to memorize enough of to stumble through the form of a Bar Mitzvah but never understood. I read the Bible, cover to cover three times in Grade 5, and while I liked the stories, and absorbed the ethic better than I realized, I was never a believer in the theology. But my spiritual need was still there. Had I been raised by Kabbalists, I might well have found the catalyzing power I was seeking there, but those were not the cards I was dealt.