Recent Media diet: Breakfast of the champions, and The Messiah

Breakfast of the champions

I like  Kurt Vonnegut's writing a lot. I had read Cat's Craddle and TimeQuake when I was a graduate student interested in reading mostly science fiction. Of course these books are nominally science fiction. Cat's Cradle was written in the presence of the threat of nuclear destruction at cold war and Cuban crisis. The underlying theme in both Cat's Cradle and TimeQuake is free will, or rather the illusion of free will. (After Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Chiang picked up this free will and fate theme and does beautiful work on this.)

Somehow this book, the Breakfast of Champions, was more depressing than any other book I ever read. I didn't get this depressed even with the Cixin Liu's final book, Death's End, of the Three Body Problem trilogy.

Kurt Vonnegut deals with very dark content in this book. An underlying theme is again free will, but this time woven around the "human condition" and misery. His light style makes this darker... He weaponizes satire and sarcasm very effectively. He drops a couple references to how meaningless is life causally and moves on with his sarcastic freestyle writing. He drops a rape reference causally, and moves on. That is cruel. That is many times more cruel than discussing these longer and acknowledging their real weight. The way he makes passing remarks of injustice, bad, pain... is very depressing.

The writing in Breakfast of the Champions got too heavy for me very quickly.  I couldn't finish the audiobook. I gave it up, but again picked up after a week, because his writing is really good. He is a master of words. But maybe his books should come with trigger warnings for people who are prone to depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Messiah (with a spoiler at the very end)

I don't watch very little TV or Netflix. Last thing I watched was The Good Place (highly recommend it!). I think I came across The Messiah in a Netflix preview, and had time to kill, so watched the first episode. But then I kept watching and binged through the show in two days. Crazy...

I liked it a lot. It is a very engaging show. The main lesson from the show is that it is easy to manipulate people. We are very gullible, and the system we built, called the modern world, is actually quite fragile, and things can take a nose dive quickly.

The way things are going these days, with interesting/upset elections, tendency to move towards totalitarianism in many countries, increased friction in Middle East, viruses, market crashes, all it takes to make things unstable is some information warfare and psychological operations. If you can convince people of an apocalyptic future, you can manipulate them.

I am especially concerned about this with the prevalence of social media manipulation. Disinformation operations are real. Many social media strategists and bots manipulate news and perceptions skillfully, and not-so-skillfully. people get radicalized on the web, aided by the click rate maximizing algorithms feedback.
Lerner also divides psychological warfare operations into three categories: 
  1. White propaganda (Omissions and Emphasis): Truthful and not strongly biased, where the source of information is acknowledged.
  2. Grey propaganda (Omissions, Emphasis and Racial/Ethnic/Religious Bias): Largely truthful, containing no information that can be proven wrong; the source is not identified.
  3. Black propaganda (Commissions of falsification): Inherently deceitful, information given in the product is attributed to a source that was not responsible for its creation.
Lerner points out that grey and black operations ultimately have a heavy cost, in that the target population sooner or later recognizes them as propaganda and discredits the source. 
The last sentence made me snort. This sounds so naive now. In my mind, I heard the algorithmic machine say "hold my beer, Lerner".

SPOILER about the show:

Here is my guess about the show.

The first season is done. I guess that in the next season, we will see Cibril emerging as the real Messiah. That will make a season that can be as interesting as the first season.


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