1 hour payday loans south africa apply for fast loan online online loans direct lender how to get a cash loan for school check city payday loans online easy fast cash now el paso tx quick fast loans online south africa

Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

Lucifero-Alessandro-Vellutello-1534

On April 30, 2016 Ben Gittleson, a journalist for ABC News, authored this headline:

Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

Surely it is the best political headline bar none. Ever. Period.

Click here, if you wish to read the actual story behind this 7-word masterpiece.

Image: Lucifer, by Alessandro Vellutello (1534), for Dante‘s Inferno, canto 34. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Your Ticket to the Past: Tipler Cylinder

So, you want to travel back in time? Here’s the solution. But first forget the tricked-out DeLorean and H.G. Wells’ victorian time machine. What you need is a Tipler Cylinder. Let’s begin with the ingredients if you are inclined to construct your very own cylinder.

  1. Take a mass of about 10 times that of the Sun.
  2. Compress and fashion the mass into an infinitely long, spaghetti-like cylinder.
  3. Spin the cylinder, along its longitudinal axis, at least up to several billion revolutions per minute.

Once you’ve  done this all you need in a craft able to spiral around the cylinder — without getting crushed by gravity — to make use of its frame-dragging of spacetime. Voila! Do this correctly, and you might well emerge billions of years from where you began. But, you’ll be in the past, of course.

Read more about the Tipler Cylinder here.

Send to Kindle

Climate Change Threat Grows

A_Flood_on_Java_1865-1876

Eventually science and reason does prevail. But, in the case of climate change, our global response is fast becoming irrelevant. New research shows accelerating polar ice melt, accelerating global warming and an acceleration in mean sea-level rise. James Hansen and colleagues paint a much more dire picture than previously expected.

From the Guardian:

The current rate of global warming could raise sea levels by “several meters” over the coming century, rendering most of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable and helping unleash devastating storms, according to a paper published by James Hansen, the former Nasa scientist who is considered the father of modern climate change awareness.

The research, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, references past climatic conditions, recent observations and future models to warn the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will contribute to a far worse sea level increase than previously thought.

Without a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the global sea level is likely to increase “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years”, the paper states, warning that the Earth’s oceans were six to nine meters higher during the Eemian period – an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1C warmer than it is today.

Global warming of 2C above pre-industrial times – the world is already halfway to this mark – would be “dangerous” and risk submerging cities, the paper said. A separate study, released in February, warned that New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai will be among the cities at risk from flooding by 2100.

Hansen’s research, written with 18 international colleagues, warns that humanity would not be able to properly adapt to such changes, although the paper concedes its conclusions “differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments”.

The IPCC has predicted a sea level rise of up to one meter by 2100, if emissions are not constrained. Hansen, and other scientists, have argued the UN body’s assessment is too conservative as it doesn’t factor in the potential disintegration of the polar ice sheets.

Hansen’s latest work has proved controversial because it was initially published in draft form last July without undergoing a peer review process. Some scientists have questioned the assumptions made by Hansen and the soaring rate of sea level rise envisioned by his research, which has now been peer-reviewed and published.

Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said the revised paper still has the same issues that initially “caused me concern”.

“Namely, the projected amounts of meltwater seem … large, and the ocean component of their model doesn’t resolve key wind-driven current systems (e.g. the Gulf Stream) which help transport heat poleward,” Mann said in an email to the Guardian.

“I’m always hesitant to ignore the findings and warnings of James Hansen; he has proven to be so very prescient when it comes to his early prediction about global warming. That having been said, I’m unconvinced that we could see melting rates over the next few decades anywhere near his exponential predictions, and everything else is contingent upon those melting rates being reasonable.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: A Flood on Java (c.1865-1876) by Raden Saleh, lithograph. Courtesy: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and the Caribbean Studies. Public Domain.

Video: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms Video Abstract. Courtesy: Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions.

Send to Kindle

Sharing the Wealth: Chobani-Style

Chobani-black-cherry-yogurtOK, so I am thoroughly addicted to yogurt (or yoghurt, for my non-US readers). My favorite is the greek yogurt Fage, followed by an Aussie concoction called Noosa. Chobani doesn’t even make my top 5.

However, Chobani did something today, April 26, 2016, that made me want to cheer. The company founder, and majority stockholder, gave 10 percent of the business to his 2,000 employees. On average, each will get around $150,000; some, based on length of employment, will gain millions.

Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, founded Chobani in 2005. The company is privately held, but is estimated to be now valued at $3-5 billion. Chobani’s employees will reap their rewards when the company goes public in an IPO. In Hamdi Ulukaya’s words:

I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people.

Mr. Ulukaya is a role model for other business leaders, who would do well to follow his great example. Chobani offers us a vision that shows employer and employee working to win together.

I may have to revisit Chobani and my yogurt preferences!

From the NYT:

The 2,000 full-time employees of Chobani were handed quite the surprise on Tuesday: an ownership stake in the yogurt company that could make some of them millionaires.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani in 2005, told workers at the company’s plant here in upstate New York that he would be giving them shares worth up to 10 percent of the company when it goes public or is sold. The goal, he said, is to pass along the wealth they have helped build in the decade since the company started. Chobani is now widely considered to be worth several billion dollars.

“I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people,” Mr. Ulukaya said in an interview in his Manhattan office that was granted on the condition that no details of the program would be disclosed before the announcement. “Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time.”

Employees got the news on Tuesday morning. Each worker received a white packet; inside was information about how many “Chobani Shares” they were given. The number of shares given to each person is based on tenure, so the longer an employee has been at the company, the bigger the stake.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Chobani yogurt. Courtesy of Chobani.

Send to Kindle

The New Morality: Shame Replaces Guilt

I don’t often agree with author and columnist David Brooks, but I think he makes a very important observation regarding the continued evolution of moral relativism. Importantly, he notes that while our collective morality has become increasingly subjective, rather than governed by universal moral principles, it is now being driven more so by shame rather than guilt.

Brooks highlights an insightful essay by Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, which lays the blame for the rise in shame versus guilt in some part on our immersion in online social networks. But, as Crouch points out despite our increasingly shame-driven culture (in the West), shame and shaming is not a new phenomenon.

Yet while shame culture has been with us for thousands of years the contemporary version offers a subtle but key difference. In ancient societies — and still mostly in Eastern cultures — avoidance of shame is about dignity and honor; in our Western world the new shame culture it is about pursuit of celebrity within the group.

From NYT:

In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote a book called “The Closing of the American Mind.” The core argument was that American campuses were awash in moral relativism. Subjective personal values had replaced universal moral principles. Nothing was either right or wrong. Amid a wave of rampant nonjudgmentalism, life was flatter and emptier.

Bloom’s thesis was accurate at the time, but it’s not accurate anymore. College campuses are today awash in moral judgment.

Many people carefully guard their words, afraid they might transgress one of the norms that have come into existence. Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned.

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Last year, Andy Crouch published an essay in Christianity Today that takes us toward an answer.

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

This creates a set of common behavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise so that they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.

Second, there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

Third, people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Crouch describes how video gamers viciously went after journalists, mostly women, who had criticized the misogyny of their games. Campus controversies get so hot so fast because even a minor slight to a group is perceived as a basic identity threat.

The ultimate sin today, Crouch argues, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes, “Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”

He notes that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, the ones in Asia, for example. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or “face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.

Read the entire column here.

Send to Kindle

Beware the Beauty of Move 37

AlphaGo-Lee-Sedol-Game 2

Make a note of the date, March 15, 2016. On this day, AlphaGo the Go playing artificial intelligence (AI) system from Google’s DeepMind unit, wrapped up its five game series. It beat Lee Sedol, a human and one of the world’s best Go players, by 4 games to 1.

This marks the first time a machine has beaten a human at Go, an ancient and notoriously complex board game.  AlphaGo’s victory stunned the Go-playing world, but its achievement is merely the opening shot in the coming AI revolution.

The AlphaGo system is based on deep neural networks and machine learning, which means it is driven by software that learns. In fact, AlphaGo became an expert Go player by analyzing millions of previous Go games and also by playing itself tens of millions of times, and learning and improving in the process.

While the AI technology that underlies AlphaGo has been around for decades, it is now reaching a point where AI-based systems can out-think and outperform their human masters. In fact, many considered it impossible for a computer to play Go at this level due to the immeasurable number of possible positions on the board, mastery of strategy, tactical obfuscation, and the need for a human-like sense of intuition.

Indeed, in game 2 of the series AlphaGo made a strange, seemingly inexplicable decision on move 37. This turned the game to AlphaGo’s favor and Lee Sedol never recovered. Commentators and AlphaGo’s human adversary noted move 37 as extraordinarily unexpected and “beautiful”.

And, from that story of beauty comes a tale of caution from David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale. Gelernter rightly wonders what an AI with an IQ of 5,000 would mean. After all, it is only a matter of time — rapidly approaching — before we have constructed machines with a human average IQ of 100, then 500.

Image: Game 2, first 99 moves, screenshot. AlphaGo (black) versus Lee Sedol (white), March 10, 2016. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

Curate Your Own Death

six-feet-under-opening-title

It’s your funeral. So why not manage it yourself.

A new crop of smartphone and web apps aims to deliver end-of-life planning services directly to your small screen. Not only can you manage your own funeral, some of these services even help you curate your own afterlife. Apparently, apps like Cake, SafeBeyond, Everplans and Everest, are perfectly suited to millennials, many of whom already curate significant aspects of their lives online.

From the Guardian:

A young man is staring straight into the camera. He looks late 20s or early 30s, with a suede blazer and two-toned hipster glasses, and cheerfully waves as he introduces himself. “Hi, my name’s Will,” he tells the YouTube audience. “And I’m dead.”

“While my family is a bit upset, they’re not stressed. Because when I was among the land of the living, I made the incredibly smart move of signing up for Everest.”

Will flashes a smile. His family plans his funeral in the background, using the detailed plan he left behind.

Everest is a Houston-based funeral concierge, and the firm that commissioned Will’s upbeat, millennial-friendly video last fall from Sandwich Video, a Los Angeles production company popular with the tech set in Silicon Valley. Everest published the film in February 2016 as part of a campaign to target millennials, hoping even twentysomethings can be lured into thinking about their digital afterlives.

Everest is just one of a wave of apps and digital services that are emerging to help millennials plan their own #authentic mortal passings, right down to Instagram-worthy funerals. Last fall, rival apps Cake and SafeBeyond were released within one month of each other, and both hope to streamline end-of-life planning into one simple app.

Death apps promise to help a person organize his or her entire online life into a bundle of digital living wills, funeral plans, multimedia memorial portfolios and digital estate arrangements. It could be the mother of all personal media accounts, designed to store all of a person’s online passwords in one spot, for a successor to retrieve after he or she dies.

But millennials already curate their digital lives to perfection on social media. So how much are these “death apps” adding just another layer of pressure to personalize yet another stage of their lives?

Read the entire story here.

Image: Six Feet Under, opening title. Courtesy: HBO / Wikia.

Send to Kindle

Earth Day 2016: Silicon Swamp Edition

NOAA-Silicon-Valley-seal-level-rise-map

How better to mark this year’s Earth Day than to remind ourselves of the existential perils of climate change. As the Earth warms, polar ice melts, sea-levels rise. As sea-levels rise, low lying coastal lands submerge. Much of coastal Florida would disappear under a sea-level rise of a mere 6 feet.

Our tech innovation hub in Silicon Valley wouldn’t fare well either. Many of our tech giants, including Google, Facebook, Oracle, Cisco and Salesforce, have planted their roots on the bay-side of Silicon Valley. Much of this area is only a handful of feet above sea-level. Oh, and kiss goodbye to San Francisco International Airport as well — though perhaps the local VCs could re-purpose it into a sea-plane terminal.

The map above, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), highlights the flood prone areas in shades of blue.

From the Guardian:

Technology giants including Facebook and Google face the prospect of their prestigious Silicon Valley headquarters becoming swamped by water as rising sea levels threaten to submerge much of the property development boom gripping San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Sea level forecasts by a coalition of scientists show that the Silicon Valley bases for Facebook, Google and Cisco are at risk of being cut off or even flooded, even under optimistic scenarios where rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions avoid the most severe sea level increases.

Without significant adaptation, Facebook’s new campus appears most at risk. The 430,000 sq ft complex – topped with a nine-acre garden rooftop – is an extension of its Menlo Park base and was crafted by architect Frank Gehry. Located near the San Francisco Bay shoreline, the offices are designed to house 2,800 staff.

“Facebook is very vulnerable,” said Lindy Lowe, a senior planner at California’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “They built on a very low site – I don’t know why they chose to build there. Facebook thinks they can pay enough to protect themselves.

“The temporary flooding within the campus can probably be addressed, but the temporary flooding onto the roadway can’t be addressed by them. I think they realize that is the weakest link for them. We’ll see how dedicated they are to that facility.”

Facebook has elevated its office to spare it from flooding, but even with a 1.6ft rise in sea levels by the end of the century – which is towards the lower end of projections – the area around it will be inundated. Much sooner, within the coming decades, the roads leading into the complex will flood so regularly that major adaptions will be required to keep the site viable. Facebook didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the issue.

The situation is a little better for Google, located in Mountain View and also unwilling to discuss sea level rise, and Cisco, headquartered in San Jose. But should the Antarctic ice sheet disintegrate, as outlined in a recent scientific paper, seas will be pushed up beyond 6ft and swamp both businesses.

The situation is similarly stark for Salesforce, which would see its San Francisco base submerged under the worst sea level rise scenario. Meanwhile, Airbnb, located near the vulnerable Mission Bay area, will have its headquarters gain a much closer bayside view simply by staying put.

Read the entire store here.

Image: Sea-level rise and coastal flooding impacts, San Francisco / Bay Area map. Courtesy of NOAA.

Send to Kindle

Photography At Its Best

Wasteland with elephant - Nick Brandt

Ecological destruction, urbanization, species extinction, wildlife displacement and human poverty — a compelling and disturbing story told through a collection of eerily beautiful images. I have nothing more to say about Nick Brandt‘s latest collection of gorgeous photographs. Please take 15 minutes to visit his online exhibit titled Inherit the Dust or order the book — you’ll be moved and captivated.

Image: Wasteland with Elephant, 2015. Nick Brandt.

Send to Kindle

One Dollar, One Vote

Top-20-political-donors

Money continues to swirl and flow in US politics. During a presidential election season the dollar figure is now in the billions. The number is unfathomable and despicable. And, yet according to the US Supreme Court money is free speech so it’s perfectly legal — although morally abhorrent (to many).

Thus, by corollary, many people feel (and know) that the system is twisted, rigged, and corrupt. Money sways lawmakers. Money helps write laws; it overturns others. Money elects. Money smears. Money impeaches. Money filters news; it distorts fact. Money buys influence, it buys access.

Of course, in a democracy, this would seem to be a travesty — many millions of ordinary citizens without thousands or millions of dollars are left without a voice. Because the voice of the many is completely usurped by the voice of the few, replete with their expensive megaphones and smartphones with speed-dial connections to their political puppets. But, don’t forget, we — the ordinary citizens of the US — don’t live in a democracy; we live in a plutocracy. The wealthy few, rule for and by themselves.

A small example, collectively, the top 20 political donors have so far, this election season alone, donated a staggering $171.5 million to their favorite political action committees (PAC). This doesn’t even include money that’s funneled directly to the candidates themselves.

It’s obscene and corrupt.

But, hey, it’s free speech, so we’re told.

From Washington Post:

Since 2015, super PACs have raised $607.7 million and have spent $452 million. The top 50 donors together have supplied $248.2 million—41 percent of the money raised to date.

The largest share of the money has come from donors who have given between $1 million and $5 million. Five contributors giving more than $10 million each contributed 14 percent of the total raised.

Many of the biggest super PAC donors have spread around their money, financing multiple super PACs that back presidential hopefuls and congressional candidates. They hail from various sectors, with many drawing on fortunes made in the energy industry, on Wall Street and in health care.

The Washington Post is also tracking donations made through “ghost corporations” whose backers cannot be identified. Clicking on “ghost corporations” below brings up a list the corporate contributors to super PACs who have not yet been publicly linked to individual donors.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Snapshot of top donors compiled by Washington Post.

Send to Kindle

Our Childrens Is Not Learning?

REAP-grammar-measure

It’s been 155 years since Lincoln took office as the 16th President of the United States. Yet, during this period many of our political leaders and pretenders to the throne have spoken to us in increasingly simplistic language.

In 2000 then President George W. Bush commenting on educational programs remarked, “What’s not fine is rarely is the question asked, are, is our children learning?” Since then it seems that many of our children and adults have indeed not been learning. This despite the growing complexity of our local and global politics.

Thus, the relentless march towards ever-increasing “dumbed-down-ness” brings me to the current election cycle. Could there be any better place to look? A research study out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute assessed the reading level of current and recent presidential campaign speeches.

The candidate with the lowest overall readability score — vocabulary and grammar — is Donald Trump. His grammar compares to that used by children aged 11 and under. Researchers also looked back at speeches by past Presidents and found that the language of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan was almost twice as advanced. George W. Bush fared the worst on grammar alone — his so-called Bushisms are the stuff of books and folklore — but his vocabulary scored significantly higher than Donald Trump. More recently, President Obama, and Senators Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders showed the highest overall readability scores.

I have to assume that the current Republican frontrunner will spin the news of his appalling linguistic (dis-)abilities in his own inimitable way — after all, 4th grade language skills will reach a significantly larger proportion of the US population, albeit mostly non-voting age, than that of his more cerebral and elitist opponents.

Check out the entire report, “A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 US Presidential Campaign“. Read more, here.

Image: Readability levels of campaign speeches. Snapshot from report, A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.

Send to Kindle

World Happiness Ranking

national-happiness-2015

Yet again, nations covering the northern latitudes outrank all others on this year’s global happiness scale. Not surprisingly, Denmark topped the happiness list in 2015, having secured the top spot since 2012, except for 2014 when it was pipped by Switzerland. The top 5 for 2015 are: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Canada.

The report finds that the happiest nations tend to be those with lower income disparity and strong national health and social safety programs. Ironically, richer nations, including the United States, tend to rank lower due to rising inequalities in income, wealth and health.

That said, the United States moved to No. 13, up two places from No. 15 the previous year. This is rather perplexing considering all the anger that we’re hearing about during the relentless 2016 presidential election campaign.

At the bottom of the list of 157 nations is Burundi, recently torn by a violent political upheaval. The bottom five nations for 2015 are: Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria and Burundi; all have recently suffered from war or disease or both.

The happiness score for each nation is based on multiple national surveys covering a number of criteria, which are aggregated into six key measures: GDP per capita, social support; healthy life expectancy; freedom to make life choices; generosity; and perceptions of corruption.

The World Happiness Report was prepared by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international group of social scientists and public health experts under the auspices of the United Nations.

Read more on the report here.

Image: Top 30 nations ranked for happiness, screenshot. Courtesy: World Happiness Report, The Distribution of World Happiness, by John F. Helliwell, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia; Haifang Huang, Department of Economics, University of Alberta; Shun Wang, KDI School of Public Policy and Management, South Korea.

Send to Kindle

Democracy and Education Go Hand-in-Hand

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800

Yes, it’s time to muse on the current state of affairs in the US and the current presidential election cycle. The race, in some quarters, has devolved into a peculiar hybrid of vulgar reality TV show and absurd adolescent popularity contest (with my apologies to adolescents the world over).

The incessant bloviating, bragging, lies, bigotry and hatred espoused by some of the current political candidates has me considering two elements that are vital to our democracy.

The first, our right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Constitution. However vile and repulsive their speech, the peddlers of caustic words have a right to speak. Their opponents and detractors have an equal right as well. But, this must be done by all sides, free of intimidation, threats and violence.

The second, is no less important, but you’ll not find any requirement or right listed in any statute. Yet, our democracy fully depends upon it. Our system of governance requires a citizenry that is educated and also versed in the political process. The alternative, as we increasingly see in the United States, is a politically-savvy uber-class with its moneyed handlers and benefactors, “the so-called establishment”, to which most ordinary citizens have outsourced their reasoning, and a growing underclass fueled by distrust, anger and resentment — a recipe for divisiveness and anarchy.

While founder Thomas Jefferson never did say, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” many of his writings confirm his fundamental belief that a strong democracy is existentially linked to an educated citizenry. Jefferson did say the following:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;… whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.

Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.

Light and liberty go together.

Jefferson’s powerful words as so especially important today. I have to agree with Michael Lynch professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, “Googling” a snippet of information is not a substitute for internalizing established facts, reasoned political discourse or wisdom.

We can all love the “poorly educated”, but it is our duty to ensure each and every citizen is well-educated. Anything less fails to open the door to personal opportunity and further reinforces a system of division.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Courtesy: White House Historical Association. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Bad Behavior Goes Viral

Social psychologists often point out how human behavior is contagious. Laugh and others will join in. Yawn and all those around you will yawn as well. In a bad mood at home? Well, soon, chances are that the rest of your family with join you on a downer as well.

And, the contagion doesn’t end there, especially with negative behaviors; study after study shows the viral spread of suicide, product tampering, rioting, looting, speeding and even aircraft hijacking. So too, are mass shootings. Since the United States is a leading venue for mass shootings, there is now even a term for a mass shooting that happens soon after the first — an echo shooting.

From the Washington Post:

A man had just gone on a shooting rampage in Kalamazoo, Mich., allegedly killing six people while driving for Uber. Sherry Towers, an Arizona State University physicist who studies how viruses spread, worried while watching the news coverage.

Last year, Towers published a study using mathematical models to examine whether mass shootings, like viruses, are contagious. She identified a 13-day period after high-profile mass shootings when the chance of another spikes. Her findings are confirmed more frequently than she would like.

Five days after Kalamazoo, a man in Kansas shot 17 people, killing three by firing from his car. To Towers, that next shooting seemed almost inevitable.

“I absolutely dread watching this happen,” she said.

As the nation endures an ongoing stream of mass shootings, criminologists, police and even the FBI are turning to virus epidemiology and behavioral psychology to understand what sets off mass shooters and figure out whether, as with the flu, the spread can be interrupted.

“These things are clustering in time, and one is causing the next one to be more likely,” said Gary Slutkin, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who runs Cure Violence, a group that treats crime as a disease. “That’s definitional of a contagious disease. Flu is a risk factor for more flu. Mass shootings are a risk factor for mass shootings.”

The idea is not without skeptics. James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor who studies mass shootings, said: “Some bunching just happens. Yes, there is some mimicking going on, but the vast majority of mass killers don’t need someone else to give them the idea.”

Confirming, disputing or further exploring the idea scientifically is hampered by the federal funding ban on gun violence research. Towers and her colleagues did their study on their own time. And there’s not even a common database or definition of mass shootings.

The Congressional Research Service uses the term “public mass shootings” to describe the killing of four or more people in “relatively public places” by a perpetrator selecting victims “somewhat indiscriminately.”

In the 1980s, the violence occurred in post offices. In the 1990s, schools. Now it is mutating into new forms, such as the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that initially appeared to be a workplace shooting by a disgruntled employee.

Researchers say the contagion is potentially more complicated than any virus. There is the short-term effect of a high-profile mass shooting, which can lead quickly to another incident. Towers found that such echo shootings account for up to 30 percent of all rampages.

But there appear to be longer incubation periods, too. Killers often find inspiration in past mass shootings, praising what their predecessors accomplished, innovating on their methods and seeking to surpass them in casualties and notoriety.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

The Global Peril of Narcissism

Google-search-demagogue

I suspect that prior to our gluttonous always-on, social media age narcissists were very much a local phenomenon — probably much like European diseases remained mostly confined to the Old World prior to the advent of frequent shipping and air travel. Nowadays narcissistic traits such as self-absorption, image inflation and lack of empathy spread and amplify across the globe as impressionable tribes like, follow and emulate their narcissistic role models. As the virus of self-obsession spreads this puts our increasingly global village at some peril — replacing empathy with indifference and altruism with self-promotion, and leading to the inevitable rise of charismatic demagogues.

Author and psychotherapist Pat Macdonald aptly describes the rise of narcissism in her recent paper Narcissism in the Modern World. Quite paradoxically, Macdonald finds that,

“Much of our distress comes from a sense of disconnection. We have a narcissistic society where self-promotion and individuality seem to be essential, yet in our hearts that’s not what we want. We want to be part of a community, we want to be supported when we’re struggling, we want a sense of belonging. Being extraordinary is not a necessary component to being loved.”

From the Guardian:

“They unconsciously deny an unstated and intolerably poor self-image through inflation. They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur surrounded by psychologically impenetrable walls. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of doubts.” This is how Elan Golomb describes narcissistic personality disorder in her seminal book Trapped in the Mirror. She goes on to describe the central symptom of the disorder – the narcissist’s failure to achieve intimacy with anyone – as the result of them seeing other people like items in a vending machine, using them to service their own needs, never being able to acknowledge that others might have needs of their own, still less guess what they might be. “Full-bodied narcissistic personality disorder remains a fairly unusual diagnosis,” Pat MacDonald, author of the paper Narcissism in the Modern World, tells me. “Traditionally, it is very difficult to reverse narcissistic personality disorder. It would take a long time and a lot of work.”

What we talk about when we describe an explosion of modern narcissism is not the disorder but the rise in narcissistic traits. Examples are everywhere. Donald Trump epitomises the lack of empathy, the self-regard and, critically, the radical overestimation of his own talents and likability. Katie Hopkins personifies the perverse pride the narcissist takes in not caring for others. (“No,” she wrote in the Sun about the refugee crisis. “I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”) Those are the loudest examples, blaring like sirens; there is a general hubbub of narcissism beneath, which is conveniently – for observation purposes, at least – broadcast on social media. Terrible tragedies, such as the attacks on Paris, are appropriated by people thousands of miles away and used as a backdrop to showcase their sensitivity. The death of David Bowie is mediated through its “relevance” to voluble strangers.

It has become routine for celebrities to broadcast banal information and fill Instagram with the “moments” that constitute their day, the tacit principle being that, once you are important enough, nothing is mundane. This delusion then spills out to the non-celebrity; recording mundane events becomes proof of your importance. The dramatic rise in cosmetic surgery is part of the same effect; the celebrity fixates on his or her appearance to meet the demands of fame. Then the vanity, being the only truly replicable trait, becomes the thing to emulate. Ordinary people start having treatments that only intense scrutiny would warrant – 2015 saw a 13% rise in procedures in the UK, with the rise in cosmetic dentistry particularly marked, because people don’t like their teeth in selfies. The solution – stop taking selfies – is apparently so 2014.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

MondayMap: Internet Racism

map-internet-racism

Darkest blue and light blue respectively indicate much less and less racist areas than the national average. The darkest red indicates the most racist zones.

No surprise: the areas with the highest number of racists are in the South and the rural Northeastern United States. Head west of Texas and you’ll find fewer and fewer pockets of racists. Further, and perhaps not surprisingly, the greater the degree of n-word usage the higher is the rate of black mortality.

Sadly, this map is not of 18th or 19th century America, it’s from a recent study, April 2015, posted on Public Library of Science (PLOS) ONE.

Now keep in mind that the map highlights racism through tracking of pejorative search terms such as the n-word, and doesn’t count actual people, and it’s a geographic generalization. Nonetheless it’s a stark reminder that we seem to be two nations divided by the mighty Mississippi River and we still have a very long way to go before we are all “westerners”.

From Washington Post:

Where do America’s most racist people live? “The rural Northeast and South,” suggests a new study just published in PLOS ONE.

The paper introduces a novel but makes-tons-of-sense-when-you-think-about-it method for measuring the incidence of racist attitudes: Google search data. The methodology comes from data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. He’s used it before to measure the effect of racist attitudes on Barack Obama’s electoral prospects.

“Google data, evidence suggests, are unlikely to suffer from major social censoring,” Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in a previous paper. “Google searchers are online and likely alone, both of which make it easier to express socially taboo thoughts. Individuals, indeed, note that they are unusually forthcoming with Google.” He also notes that the Google measure correlates strongly with other standard measures social science researchers have used to study racist attitudes.

This is important, because racism is a notoriously tricky thing to measure. Traditional survey methods don’t really work — if you flat-out ask someone if they’re racist, they will simply tell you no. That’s partly because most racism in society today operates at the subconscious level, or gets vented anonymously online.

For the PLOS ONE paper, researchers looked at searches containing the N-word. People search frequently for it, roughly as often as searches for  “migraine(s),” “economist,” “sweater,” “Daily Show,” and “Lakers.” (The authors attempted to control for variants of the N-word not necessarily intended as pejoratives, excluding the “a” version of the word that analysis revealed was often used “in different contexts compared to searches of the term ending in ‘-er’.”)

Read the entire article here.

Image: Association between an Internet-Based Measure of Area Racism and Black Mortality. Courtesy of Washington Post / PLOS (Public Library of Science) ONE.

Send to Kindle

Searching for Signs of Life

Gliese 581 c

Surely there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. Cosmologists estimate that the observable universe contains around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets. And, they calculate that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains around 100 billion planets that are hospitable to life (as we currently know it).

These numbers boggle the mind and beg a question: how do we find evidence for life beyond our shores? The decades long search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) pioneered the use of radio telescope observations to look for alien signals from deep space. But, the process has remained rather rudimentary and narrowly focused. The good news now is that astronomers and astrobiologists have a growing toolkit of techniques that allow for much more sophisticated detection and analysis of the broader signals of life — not just potential radio transmissions from an advanced alien culture.

From Quanta:

Huddled in a coffee shop one drizzly Seattle morning six years ago, the astrobiologist Shawn Domagal-Goldman stared blankly at his laptop screen, paralyzed. He had been running a simulation of an evolving planet, when suddenly oxygen started accumulating in the virtual planet’s atmosphere. Up the concentration ticked, from 0 to 5 to 10 percent.

“Is something wrong?” his wife asked.

“Yeah.”

The rise of oxygen was bad news for the search for extraterrestrial life.

After millennia of wondering whether we’re alone in the universe — one of “mankind’s most profound and probably earliest questions beyond, ‘What are you going to have for dinner?’” as the NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild put it — the hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way. Thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been discovered in the past decade. Among them are potential super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, hot Jupiters and worlds such as Kepler-452b, a possibly rocky, watery “Earth cousin” located 1,400 light-years from here. Starting in 2018 with the expected launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to peer across the light-years and scope out the atmospheres of the most promising exoplanets. They will look for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.

They’ll do this by observing the thin ring of starlight around an exoplanet while it is positioned in front of its parent star. Gases in the exoplanet’s atmosphere will absorb certain frequencies of the starlight, leaving telltale dips in the spectrum.

As Domagal-Goldman, then a researcher at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), well knew, the gold standard in biosignature gases is oxygen. Not only is oxygen produced in abundance by Earth’s flora — and thus, possibly, other planets’ — but 50 years of conventional wisdom held that it could not be produced at detectable levels by geology or photochemistry alone, making it a forgery-proof signature of life. Oxygen filled the sky on Domagal-Goldman’s simulated world, however, not as a result of biological activity there, but because extreme solar radiation was stripping oxygen atoms off carbon dioxide molecules in the air faster than they could recombine. This biosignature could be forged after all.

The search for biosignature gases around faraway exoplanets “is an inherently messy problem,” said Victoria Meadows, an Australian powerhouse who heads VPL. In the years since Domagal-Goldman’s discovery, Meadows has charged her team of 75 with identifying the major “oxygen false positives” that can arise on exoplanets, as well as ways to distinguish these false alarms from true oxygenic signs of biological activity. Meadows still thinks oxygen is the best biosignature gas. But, she said, “if I’m going to look for this, I want to make sure that when I see it, I know what I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, Sara Seager, a dogged hunter of “twin Earths” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is widely credited with inventing the spectral technique for analyzing exoplanet atmospheres, is pushing research on biosignature gases in a different direction. Seager acknowledges that oxygen is promising, but she urges the astrobiology community to be less terra-centric in its view of how alien life might operate — to think beyond Earth’s geochemistry and the particular air we breathe. “My view is that we do not want to leave a single stone unturned; we need to consider everything,” she said.

As future telescopes widen the survey of Earth-like worlds, it’s only a matter of time before a potential biosignature gas is detected in a faraway sky. It will look like the discovery of all time: evidence that we are not alone. But how will we know for sure?

Read the entire article here.

Image: Artist’s Impression of Gliese 581 c, the first terrestrial extrasolar planet discovered within its star’s habitable zone. Courtesy: Hervé Piraud, Latitude0116, Xhienne. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.

Send to Kindle

Hyperlinks of Hypocrisy: Money, Power and Corruption

The extraordinary and very welcome leak of over 11 million files — collectively known as the Panama Papers — from one of the world’s largest offshore law firms, Mossack Fonseca, shows three very simple things. First, power corrupts. Second, the super-rich will continue to get richer. Third, the very rich live by different rules to the rest of the global population.

None of the preceding is, of course, of any surprise.

What fascinates me is to see this common thread of brash hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement links politicians of all stripes in democracies, with business leaders in totalitarian states, with so-called “communist” dictators, and holier-than-thou celebrities.

This tangled web of tax-avoiders and wealth-obfuscators links oligarchs with royals; it links Christians and Muslims; it links atheists with the pious; it links military dictators with socialists; it links criminals and bankers (too many, one and the same) and drug lords; it links sanctions-busters with sanctions-enforcers; it links the Saudis with the Iranians; it links footballers with cello players.

Avarice and greed knows no boundaries and transcends all political systems.

This, of course, shouldn’t come as any surprise either.

From the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:

A massive leak of documents exposes the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders and reveals how associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies.

The leak also provides details of the hidden financial dealings of 128 more politicians and public officials around the world.

The cache of 11.5 million records shows how a global industry of law firms and big banks sells financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars.

These are among the findings of a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations.

The files expose offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan.

They also include at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they’d been involved in wrongdoing, such as doing business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.

One of those companies supplied fuel for the aircraft that the Syrian government used to bomb and kill thousands of its own citizens, U.S. authorities have charged.

“These findings show how deeply ingrained harmful practices and criminality are in the offshore world,” said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens.” Zucman, who was briefed on the media partners’ investigation, said the release of the leaked documents should prompt governments to seek “concrete sanctions” against jurisdictions and institutions that peddle offshore secrecy.

World leaders who have embraced anti-corruption platforms feature in the leaked documents. The files reveal offshore companies linked to the family of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who has vowed to fight “armies of corruption,” as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has positioned himself as a reformer in a country shaken by corruption scandals. The files also contain new details of offshore dealings by the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a leader in the push for tax-haven reform.

The leaked data covers nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015. It allows a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.

Read the entire story here.

Video: The Panama Papers: Victims of Offshore. Courtesy: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Send to Kindle

The Increasing Mortality of White Males

This is the type of story that you might not normally, and certainly should not, associate with the world’s richest country. In a reversal of a long-established trend, death rates are increasing for less educated, white males. The good news is that death rates continue to fall for other demographic and racial groups, especially Hispanics and African Americans. So, what is happening to white males?

From the NYT:

It’s disturbing and puzzling news: Death rates are rising for white, less-educated Americans. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton reported in December that rates have been climbing since 1999 for non-Hispanic whites age 45 to 54, with the largest increase occurring among the least educated. An analysis of death certificates by The New York Times found similar trends and showed that the rise may extend to white women.

Both studies attributed the higher death rates to increases in poisonings and chronic liver disease, which mainly reflect drug overdoses and alcohol abuse, and to suicides. In contrast, death rates fell overall for blacks and Hispanics.

Why are whites overdosing or drinking themselves to death at higher rates than African-Americans and Hispanics in similar circumstances? Some observers have suggested that higher rates of chronic opioid prescriptions could be involved, along with whites’ greater pessimism about their finances.

Yet I’d like to propose a different answer: what social scientists call reference group theory. The term “reference group” was pioneered by the social psychologist Herbert H. Hyman in 1942, and the theory was developed by the Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1950s. It tells us that to comprehend how people think and behave, it’s important to understand the standards to which they compare themselves.

How is your life going? For most of us, the answer to that question means comparing our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead. As children and adolescents, we closely observed our parents. They were our first reference group.

And here is one solution to the death-rate conundrum: It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Nutella Hacks

nutella-with-icecream

I come from a long line of Nutella lovers; parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, kids, grandparents all feasted on this wonderful, deliciously gooey (and unhealthy) hazelnut spread. And, like all other Nutella fans I have often pondered how to extricate the last remaining dribs and drabs from the jar — fans will know that the jar’s shape does not make this easy. So, when I found this article listing 5 key strategies for getting every last drop I couldn’t resist reposting a short excerpt for all other Nutella nuts. (You’ll have to read the full article to learn more tips.) Then you’ll wonder why you or your kids never thought of these important life lessons. Duh!

Tip Number 2 From the Telegraph:

Fill the jar with ice cream

A tip from the helpful LifeProTips community over on Reddit: “Put a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream in the jar and mix it around for a bit.” As the ice cream melts, it’ll take some of the Nutella with it and you’ll have a chocolate covered sundae. Just make sure the Nutella is fairly warm to begin with, otherwise it won’t work properly.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Nutella with ice cream. Courtesy: Reddit/imgur.

Send to Kindle

The Power of Political Shamelessness

Cowardly_lion2I’m not quite sure when the era of political correctness died, but surely our current election cycle truly signals its end. The pendulum of discourse has now swung fully away from PC to PS — Political Shamelessness.

I suspect that the politically correct modus operandi of tip-toeing around substantive issues of our time is partly to blame for the rise of PS. Some commentators believe that PS is also fed by the shield of anonymity so perfectly enabled by our new online tools — anyone can now voice a vitriolic monologue behind a convenient anon avatar. Perhaps more so, our current culture has come to value blow-hard opinion disguised as news and hysterical reality TV re-packaged as real-life, and the more controversial, dramatic and bigoted the better.

Mark Leibovich, correspondent for NYT Magazine, looks at the roots and consequences of this epidemic of shameless public behavior. He’s quite right to assert that a “cesspool of anonymity” has facilitated a spike in indifference and shamelessness, and both are associated with false courage. Thus, it would seem that many of our public figures — especially our politicians — are petty cowards hiding behind a shield of untruth, bluster and anger. And, until we are all courageous enough to battle this tide of filthy discourse we will all continue to surf in the ocean of shamelessness.

From NYT Magazine:

Lately I’ve been thinking about the notion of false courage. It was introduced to me by an unlikely philosopher king: the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, whom I interviewed for an article on the N.F.L. that ran in the Feb. 7 issue of the magazine. We were talking about proposals on how to improve player safety in football. Jones mentioned to me a counterintuitive idea that Lamar Hunt, the founding owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, once suggested.

“Hunt thought we should take the face mask off of football helmets,” Jones told me. Why? Jones explained that face masks can foster an illusion of protection. “Lamar Hunt thought the face mask gave a player false courage,” Jones explained. “It gave the impression he could launch headfirst, and the face mask would protect him.”

I have since found myself thinking about false courage in other contexts. As a political culture, we are drowning in false courage. For all the exposure and exhibitionism that social media has allowed for, it has also has created a cesspool of anonymity — and what is anonymity if not a social face mask and sweeping enabler of false courage?

You can type pretty much anything you want these days with very little risk of discovery, let alone shame. People send me the most vile emails and tweets without any fear of anyone — namely me — learning who they are. I don’t much care; I am numb to their abuse. As with everyone who writes for the Internet, that is my default. I don’t mean to be glib here, especially as a man — I fully realize that for female writers, the line between run-of-the-mill Internet moron and a genuine threat can be hard to discern. But learned indifference is my face mask. No one gets embarrassed after a while because no one cares.

Last week, I wrote a brief article about Hillary Clinton. Nothing guarantees a faster descent into the cesspool than writing something — anything — about Hillary Clinton. I could list examples, but, you know, family newspaper. I received one particularly vulgar email via The Times’s feedback queue from a reader who identified himself as “Handsome Dave.” Without getting into his particular anatomical eloquences, I admit that I forwarded his note to a few friends with a sarcastic rejoinder about the quality of some of our readers. One person I sent Handsome Dave’s missive to was Tom Brokaw, the retired NBC News anchor, who has had a firsthand view of how fast our notions of common respect in the public discourse have disintegrated. Brokaw’s take on Handsome Dave: “It is that mentality and sense of empowerment that allows Trump to get away with his style.”

It’s always easy to roll eyes at traditional media types’ wringing hands over “the coarsening of our culture” or some such. But it’s also worth noting that the coarsening norms of the Internet can bear much resemblance these days to what’s actually coming from the candidates’ town halls and debate stages. Today’s politics nurtures its own ethic of false courage. For as scrutinized and unprivate as the lives of politicians have become, I would venture that they can get away with much more today than they used to; the speed of the news cycle, the shrinking of attention spans and the sheer volume of information practically dictates as much. People used to have time to digest information, and leaders were better regulated by higher capacities for shame. Community decency standards were higher. Everyone’s outrage reserves were much less overtaxed. Now everything burns off in a few days, no matter how noxious.

Brokaw mentioned Donald Trump. Trump is probably the best example of a politician that has insulated himself from the outrages he perpetrates by never apologizing, simply throwing himself into the next news cycle and explaining away what used to be called “gaffes” as proof of how honest and refreshing and nonpolitician-like his style is. But it’s not just Trump. All politicians today seem to operate with a greater sense of invulnerability — the belief that a deft media strategy can neutralize any consequences.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first edition. Courtesy: W.W. Denslow (d. 1915). Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

April Fool!

NASA-Thwaites Glacier

The media loves to prank us with a good April Fools’ joke each year. This one is a gem — human-driven climate change will melt our glaciers and polar ice at an increasingly faster pace than previously calculated. Result: faster rising oceans leading to higher ocean levels. What a great joke!

And, to quote the Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination, “I think our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons.” Or, was it “a hoax created by the Chinese“?

Care to follow more of this global joke? Check out this peer reviewed paper.

Image: Icebergs that have broken from the calving side of Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, November 2014. Courtesy Jim Yungel/NASA.

Send to Kindle

A Trip to Titan

titanNASA is advertising its upcoming space tourism trip to Saturn’s largest moon Titan with this gorgeous retro poster.

Just imagine rowing across Titan’s lakes and oceans, and watching Saturn set below the horizon. So, dump that planned cruise down the Danube and hike to your local travel agent before all the seats are gone. But, before you purchase a return ticket keep in mind the following:

Frigid and alien, yet similar to our own planet billions of years ago, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has a thick atmosphere, organic-rich chemistry and a surface shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane. Cold winds sculpt vast regions of hydrocarbon-rich dunes. There may even be cryovolcanoes of cold liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter was designed to peer through Titan’s perpetual haze and unravel the mysteries of this planet-like moon.
Image: Titan poster. Courtesy of NASA/JPL.
Send to Kindle

Adieu! Death of the Circumflex

je-suis-circonflexeThe French have a formal language police.

The Académie Française (French Academy) is the country’s foremost national watchdog of the French language. It’s been working to protect and preserve the language for over 380 years — mostly, I suspect, from the unceasing onslaught of English, think words like “le week-end”.

Interestingly enough members of the Académie Française proposed and accepted over 2,500 changes to the language — mostly spelling revisions — back in 1990. Now with mainstream French newspapers and TV networks having taken up the story, social media is abuzz with commentary; the French public is weighing in on the proposals, and many traditionalists and language purists don’t like what they see.

Exhibit A: the proposed loss of the circumflex accent (ˆ) that hovers above certain vowels. So, maîtresse becomes maitresse (mistress or female teacher); coût becomes cout (cost).

Exhibit B: oignon is to become ognon (onion).

Sacre bleu, I don’t like it either!

From the Guardian:

French linguistic purists have voiced online anger at the loss of one of their favourite accents – the pointy little circumflex hat (ˆ) that sits on top of certain vowels.

Changes to around 2,400 French words to simplify them for schoolchildren, such as allowing the word for onion to be spelled ognon as well as the traditional oignon, have brought accusations the country’s Socialist government is dumbing down the language.

Nothing provokes a Gallic row than changes to the language of Molière, but the storm took officials by surprise as the spelling revisions had been suggested by the Académie Française, watchdogs of the French language, and unanimously accepted by its members as long ago as 1990.

The aim was to standardise and simplify certain quirks in the written language making it easier to learn (among them chariot to charriot to harmonise with charrette, both words for a type of cart and the regrouping of compound nouns like porte-monnaie/portemonnaie (purse), extra-terrestres/extraterrestres and week-end/weekend, to do away with the hyphen.

While the “revised spelling list” was not obligatory, dictionaries were advised to carry both old and new spellings, and schools were instructed to use the new versions but accept both as correct.

The reforms provoked a #JeSuisCirconflexe campaign (derived from the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag) on Twitter. As the row spread across the internet and social networks, some wondered why the reforms, decided 26 years ago, had suddenly become such an issue.

In 2008, advice from the education ministry suggested the new spelling rules were “the reference” to be used, but it appears few people took notice. Last November, the changes were mentioned again in another ministry document about “texts following the spelling changes … approved by the Académie Française and published in the French Republic Official Journal on 6 December 1990”. Again, the news went unremarked.

It was only when a report by television channel TF1 appeared on Wednesday this week that the ognon went pear-shaped.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of BBC / Twitter.

Send to Kindle

Religious Upbringing Reduces Altruism

Religious_symbols

Ready? This one may come as a shock to some. Yet another body of research shows that children raised in religious families are less likely to be selfless and generous towards others. Yes, that’s right, morality and altruism do not automatically spring forth from religiosity. Increasingly, it looks like altruism is a much deeper human (and animal) trait, and indeed studies show that altruistic behaviors are common in primates and other animals.

From Scientific American:

Organized religion is a cornerstone of spiritual community and culture around the world. Religion, especially religious education, also attracts secular support because many believe that religion fosters morality. A majority of the United States believes that faith in a deity is necessary to being a moral person.

In principle, religion’s emphasis on morality can smooth wrinkles out of the social fabric. Along those lines, believers are often instructed to act selflessly towards others. Islam places an emphasis on charity and alms-giving, Christianity on loving your neighbor as yourself. Taoist ethics, derived from the qualities of water, include the principle of selflessness

However, new research conducted in six countries around the world suggests that a religious upbringing may actually yield children who are less altruistic. Over 1000 children ages five to twelve took part in the study, from the United States, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China. By finding that religious-raised children are less altruistic in the laboratory, the study alerts us to the possibility that religion might not have the wholesome effects we expect on the development of morality. The social practice of religion can complicate the precepts of a religious text. But in order to interpret these findings, we have to first look at how to test morality.

In an experiment snappily named the dictator game, a child designated “dictator” is tested for altruistic tendencies. This dictator child is conferred with great power to decide whether to share stickers with others. Researchers present the child with thirty stickers and instruct her to take ten favorite stickers. The researchers carefully mention that there isn’t time to play this game with everyone, setting up the main part of the experiment: to share or not to share. The child is given two envelopes and asked whether she will share stickers with other children at the school who cannot play the game. While the researcher faces the wall, the child can slip some stickers into the donation envelope and some into the other envelope to keep.

As the researchers expected, younger children were less likely to share stickers than older children. Also consistent with previous studies, children from a wealthier socioeconomic status shared more. More surprising was the tendency of children from religious households to share less than those from nonreligious backgrounds. When separated and analyzed by specific religion, the finding remained: children from both Christian and Muslim families on average shared less than nonreligious children. (Other religious designations were not represented in large enough numbers for separate statistical comparison.) Older kids from all backgrounds shared more than younger ones, but the tendency for religious children to share less than similar-aged children became more pronounced with age. The authors think this could be due to cumulative effects of time spent growing up in a religious household. While the large numbers of subjects strengthens the finding of a real difference between the groups of children, the actual disparity in typical sharing was about one sticker. We need to know if the gap in sticker sharing is meaningful in the real world.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Religious symbols from the top nine organized faiths of the world. From left to right: 1st Row: Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, Hindu Aumkar 2nd Row: Islamic Star and crescent, Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, Shinto Torii 3rd Row: Sikh Khanda, Bahá’í star, Jain Ahimsa Symbol. Courtesy: Rursus / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Software That Learns to Eat Itself

Google became a monstrously successful technology company by inventing a solution to index and search content scattered across the Web, and then monetizing the search results through contextual ads. Since its inception the company has relied on increasingly sophisticated algorithms for indexing mountains of information and then serving up increasingly relevant results. These algorithms are based on a secret sauce that ranks the relevance of a webpage by evaluating its content, structure and relationships with other pages. They are defined and continuously improved by technologists and encoded into software by teams of engineers.

But as is the case in many areas of human endeavor, the underlying search engine technology and its teams of human designers and caregivers are being replaced by newer, better technology. In this case the better technology is based on artificial intelligence (AI), and it doesn’t rely on humans. It is based on machine or deep learning and neural networks — a combination of hardware and software that increasingly mimics the human brain in its ability to aggregate and filter information, decipher patterns and infer meaning.

[I’m sure it will not be long before yours truly is replaced by a bot.]

From Wired:

Yesterday, the 46-year-old Google veteran who oversees its search engine, Amit Singhal, announced his retirement. And in short order, Google revealed that Singhal’s rather enormous shoes would be filled by a man named John Giannandrea. On one level, these are just two guys doing something new with their lives. But you can also view the pair as the ideal metaphor for a momentous shift in the way things work inside Google—and across the tech world as a whole.

Giannandrea, you see, oversees Google’s work in artificial intelligence. This includes deep neural networks, networks of hardware and software that approximate the web of neurons in the human brain. By analyzing vast amounts of digital data, these neural nets can learn all sorts of useful tasks, like identifying photos, recognizing commands spoken into a smartphone, and, as it turns out, responding to Internet search queries. In some cases, they can learn a task so well that they outperform humans. They can do it better. They can do it faster. And they can do it at a much larger scale.

This approach, called deep learning, is rapidly reinventing so many of the Internet’s most popular services, from Facebook to Twitter to Skype. Over the past year, it has also reinvented Google Search, where the company generates most of its revenue. Early in 2015, as Bloomberg recently reported, Google began rolling out a deep learning system called RankBrain that helps generate responses to search queries. As of October, RankBrain played a role in “a very large fraction” of the millions of queries that go through the search engine with each passing second.

Read the entire story here.

Send to Kindle

Shear Madness/Genius: Smartphoneless For 18 Months

Model5302TelephoneRead the following sentence and you’ll conclude that this person is stark-raving-mad.

Writer Jenna Woginrich jettisoned her smartphone and lived 18 months without mobile calls and without texting, status updates and alerts.

Now read her complete story, excerpted below, and you’ll realize that after 18 months without a smartphone she is perfectly sane, more balanced, less stressed and generally more human.

From Jenna Woginrich via the Guardian:

The phone rings: it’s my friend checking to see if I can pick her up on the way to a dinner party. I ask her where she is and as she explains, I reach as far as I can across the countertop for a pen. I scribble the address in my trusty notebook I keep in my back pocket. I tell her I’ll be at her place in about 20 minutes, give or take a few. Then I hang up. Literally.

I physically take the handset receiver away from my ear and hang it on the weight-triggered click switch that cuts off my landline’s dial tone.

I take my laptop, Google the address, add better directions to my notes and head outside to my 1989 pick-up truck (whose most recent technological feature is a cassette player) and drive over. If I get lost on the way, I’ll need to ask someone for directions. If she changes her plans, she won’t be able to tell me or cancel at a moment’s notice. If I crash on the way, I won’t be calling 911.

I’m fine with all of this. As you guessed by now, I haven’t had a cellphone for more than 18 months.

I didn’t just cancel cellular service and keep the smartphone for Wi-Fi fun, nor did I downgrade to a flip phone to “simplify”; I opted out entirely. There is no mobile phone in my life, in any form, at all.

Arguably, there should be. I’m a freelance writer and graphic designer with many reasons to have a little computer in my holster, but I don’t miss it. There are a dozen ways to contact me between email and social media. When I check in, it’s on my terms. No one can interrupt my bad singing of Hooked on a Feeling with a text message. It’s as freeing as the first night of a vacation.

“My phone” has become “the phone”. It’s no longer my personal assistant; it has reverted back to being a piece of furniture – like “the fridge” or “the couch”, two other items you also wouldn’t carry around on your butt.

I didn’t get rid of it for some hipster-inspired luddite ideal or because I couldn’t afford it. I cut myself off because my life is better without a cellphone. I’m less distracted and less accessible, two things I didn’t realize were far more important than instantly knowing how many movies Kevin Kline’s been in since 2010 at a moment’s notice. I can’t be bothered unless I choose to be. It makes a woman feel rich.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Western Electric Model 5302 telephone Courtesy: ProhibitOnions, 2007 / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Words Before Death

SQ_Lethal_Injection_RoomA team of psychologists recently compiled and assessed the last words of prison inmates who were facing execution in Texas.

I was surprised to learn of a publicly accessible “last statement” database, available via Texas’ department of criminal justice.

Whether you subscribe to the idea that the death penalty is just [I do not] or not, you will surely find these final utterances moving — time for some reflection.

From the Independent:

Psychologists have analysed the last words of inmates who were condemned to death in Texas.

In a new paper, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers Dr. Sarah Hirschmüller and Dr. Boris Egloff used a database of last statements of inmates on death row and found the majority of the statements to be positive.

The researchers theorise that the inmates, the average age of whom in the current dataset is just over 39, expressed positive sentiments, because their minds were working in overdrive to avert them from fearing their current situation.

This is called ‘Terror-Management Theory’ (TMT). The concept is that people search for meaning when confronted with terror in a bid to maintain self-esteem and that “individuals employ a wide range of cognitive and behavioural efforts to regulate the anxiety that mortality salience evokes.”

Read more here.

Image: Execution room in the San Quentin State Prison in California. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Speaking in Tongues

Apparently there is some depth to ex-governor of Alaska Sarah Palin’s unintelligible vocalizations. According to Anna North, editor of the cultural blog at the NYT, Palin’s speech patterns are actually quite complex, reminiscent of the Latin oratory of ancient Rome. [Do I detect some tongue-in-cheekiness?] Oh, ignotum per ignotius!

Please make up your own mind. From the NYT:

Sarah Palin has been mocked a lot for the way she talks, especially in her strange and rambling endorsement speech for Donald Trump. But her speeches on the campaign trail aren’t simple; they are actually incredibly complicated.

Her unusual style was on display at a Trump rally on Monday afternoon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “When both parties, the machines involved, when both of them hate you,” she said at one point, “then you know America loves you and we do love he who will be the next president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump!”

Let’s break that last part down: “We” love not just Donald Trump, or even just Donald J. Trump, but “he who will be the next president of the United States of America.”

Mrs. Palin relies heavily on this particular kind of dependent clause. “He is one who would know to negotiate,” she said of Donald Trump in her speech endorsing him on Jan. 19. Later in that speech, she spoke of “our own G.O.P. machine, the establishment, they who would assemble the political landscape.”

Maybe Mrs. Palin or her speechwriters think the convoluted sentence structure makes her sound smart. Maybe they think it makes her sound heroic, like the orators of the past. Or maybe all those extra clauses are just a really good way to load up a sentence with praise — or insults. Here’s Mrs. Palin using both a dependent clause and a participial phrase to attack President Obama on Jan. 19:

And he, who would negotiate deals, kind of with the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighborhood tea, well, he deciding that, “No, America would apologize as part of the deal,” as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow, and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, “Thank you, enemy.”

I honestly am not sure what’s going on in this sentence. What I do know is that Sarah Palin has this in common with Roman orators: She loves to talk trash.

Read the entire column here.

Send to Kindle