An Eleven Year Marathon

While 11 years is about how long my kids suggest it would take me to run a marathon, this marathon is entirely other-worldly. It’s taken NASA’s Opportunity rover this length of time to cover just over 26 miles. It may seem like an awfully long time to cover that short distance, but think of all the rest stops — for incredible scientific discovery — along the way.

Check out a time-lapse that compresses Opportunity’s incredible martian journey into a mere 8 minutes.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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Kodokushi. A Lonely Death

As we age many of us tend to ponder our legacies. We wonder if we did good throughout our lives; we wonder if we’ll be remembered. Then we die.

Some will pass on treasured mementos to their descendents, families and friends; others — usually the one percenters — will cast their names on buildings, art bequests, research funds, and academic chairs. And yet others may not entrust any physical objects to their survivors, but nonetheless they’ll leave behind even more significant artifacts: trails of goodwill, moral frameworks, positive behaviors and traits, sound knowledge and teachings, passion, wonder.

Some of us will die in our sleep. A few will die in accidents or at the hands of others. Many of us will die in hospitals or clinics, attached to our technologies, sometimes attended by nearest and dearest, sometimes attended only by clinicians.

Sadly, some will die alone. Paradoxically, despite our increasing technologically enabled interconnectedness this phenomenon is on the increase, especially in aging societies with a low birth rate. Japan is a striking example — to such an extent that the Japanese even have a word for it: kodokushi or “lonely death”. Sadder still, where there are kodokushi victims there are now removal companies dedicated to their cleanup.

From Roads and Kingdoms:

Three months ago in an apartment on the outskirts of Osaka, Japan, Haruki Watanabe died alone. For weeks his body slowly decomposed, slouched in its own fluids and surrounded by fetid, fortnight-old food. He died of self-neglect, solitude, and a suspected heart problem. At 60, Watanabe, wasn’t old, nor was he especially poor. He had no friends, no job, no wife, and no concerned children. His son hadn’t spoken to him in years, nor did he want to again.

For three months no one called, no one knew, no one cared. For three months Watanabe rotted in his bedsheets, alongside pots of instant ramen and swarming cockroaches. The day that someone eventually called, he came not out of concern but out of administration. Watanabe had run out of money, and his bank had stopped paying the rent. The exasperated landlord, Toru Suzuki, had rung and rung, but no one had picked up. Sufficiently angry, he made the trip from his own home, in downtown Osaka, to the quiet suburb where his lodger lived. (Both men’s names are pseudonyms.)

First, there was the smell, a thick, noxious sweetness oozing from beneath the door frame. Second, there was the sight, the shape of a mortally slumped corpse beneath urine-soaked bedsheets. Third, there was the reality: Suzuki had come to collect his dues but had instead found his tenant’s dead body.

Disgusted, angry, but mostly shocked that this could happen to him, the landlord rang the police. The police came; they investigated with procedural dispassion and declared the death unsuspicious. This wasn’t suicide in the traditional sense, they said, but it did seem that the deceased had wanted to die. They’d seen it before, and it was an increasingly common occurrence throughout Japan: a single man dying, essentially, from loneliness.

They noted down what was required by their forms, wrapped up the body in officialdom, tied it with red tape, and removed it amid gawps and gags of inquisitive neighbors. The police then departed for the cemetery, where, because no family member had stepped forward to claim the body, they would intern Watanabe in an unmarked grave alongside the rest of Japan’s forgotten dead.

Suzuki was now left to his festering property and precarious financials. He was concerned. He didn’t know who to call or how to deal with the situation. In Japan, suicide can dramatically reduce the value of a property, and although this wasn’t suicide, his neighbors had seen enough; the gossip would spread fast. He heard whispers of kodokushi, a word bandied about since the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, when thousands of elderly Japanese were relocated to different residences and started dying alone, ostracized or isolated from family and friends. But what did that really mean for Suzuki, and how was he going to deal with it? Like most Japanese, he had heard of the “lonely death” but had not really believed in it; he certainly didn’t know what to do in such circumstances. So he turned to the Internet, and after hours of fruitless searching found a company called Risk-Benefit, run by a man named Toru Koremura.

With no other options he picked up the phone and gave the company a call.

With one of the fastest aging populations in the world and traditional family structures breaking down, Japan’s kodokushi phenomenon is becoming harder to ignore—not that the government and the Japanese people don’t do their best to sweep it under the carpet. Inaccurate statistics abound, with confusing definitions of what is and isn’t considered kodokushi being created in the process. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were some 3,700 “unaccompanied deaths” in Japan in 2013. However, other experts estimate the number is nearer 30,000 a year.

Scott North, a sociologist at Osaka University, argues that this extreme divergence could be the result of experts including some forms of suicide (of which there are around 27,000 cases a year in Japan) into the category of kodokushi. It could also be the result of bad accounting. Recently, senior Japanese bureaucrats admitted to having lost track of more than 250,000 people older than age 100. In a case that made international headlines in 2010, Sogen Kato, thought to be Tokyo’s oldest man at 111 years of age, turned out to have been mummified in his own apartment for more than 30 years.

Read the entire story here.

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Thirty Going On Sixty or Sixty Going on Thirty?

By now you probably realize that I’m a glutton for human research studies. I’m particularly fond of studies that highlight a particular finding one week, only to be contradicted by the results of another study the following week.

However, despite lack of contradictions, this one published via the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences caught my eye. It suggests that we age at remarkably different rates. While most subjects showed a perceived, biological age within a handful of years of their actual, chronological age, there were some surprises. Some 30-year-olds showed a biological age twice that of their chronological age, while some appeared ten years younger.

From the BBC:

A study of people born within a year of each other has uncovered a huge gulf in the speed at which their bodies age.

The report, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracked traits such as weight, kidney function and gum health.

Some of the 38-year-olds were ageing so badly that their “biological age” was on the cusp of retirement.

The team said the next step was to discover what was affecting the pace of ageing.

The international research group followed 954 people from the same town in New Zealand who were all born in 1972-73.

The scientists looked at 18 different ageing-related traits when the group turned 26, 32 and 38 years old.

The analysis showed that at the age of 38, the people’s biological ages ranged from the late-20s to those who were nearly 60.

“They look rough, they look lacking in vitality,” said Prof Terrie Moffitt from Duke University in the US.

The study said some people had almost stopped ageing during the period of the study, while others were gaining nearly three years of biological age for every twelve months that passed.

People with older biological ages tended to do worse in tests of brain function and had a weaker grip.

Most people’s biological age was within a few years of their chronological age. It is unclear how the pace of biological ageing changes through life with these measures.

Read the entire story here.

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Cat in the (Hat) Box

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Cat owner? Ever pondered why your aloof, inscrutable feline friend loves boxes? Here are some answers courtesy of people who study these kinds of things.

From Wired:

Take heart feline enthusiasts. Your cat’s continued indifference toward her new Deluxe Scratch DJ Deck may be disappointing, but there is an object that’s pretty much guaranteed to pique her interest. That object, as the Internet has so thoroughly documented, is a box. Any box, really. Big boxes, small boxes, irregularly shaped boxes—it doesn’t matter. Place one on the ground, a chair, or a bookshelf and watch as Admiral Snuggles quickly commandeers it.

So what are we to make of the strange gravitational pull that empty Amazon packaging exerts on Felis sylvestris catus? Like many other really weird things cats do, science hasn’t fully cracked this particular feline mystery. There’s the obvious predation advantage a box affords: Cats are ambush predators, and boxes provide great hiding places to stalk prey from (and retreat to). But there’s clearly more going on here.

Thankfully, behavioral biologists and veterinarians have come up with a few other interesting explanations. In fact, when you look at all the evidence together, it could be that your cat may not just like boxes, he may need them.

The box-and-whisker plot

Understanding the feline mind is notoriously difficult. Cats, after all, tend not to be the easiest test subjects. Still, there’s a sizable amount of behavioral research on cats who are, well, used for other kinds of research (i.e., lab cats). These studies—many of which focused on environmental enrichment—have been taking place for more than 50 years and they make one thing abundantly clear: Your fuzzy companion derives comfort and security from enclosed spaces.

This is likely true for a number of reasons, but for cats in these often stressful situations, a box or some other type of separate enclosure (within the enclosures they’re already in) can have a profound impact on both their behavior and physiology.

EthologistClaudia Vinke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands is one of the latest researchers to study stress levels in shelter cats. Working with domestic cats in a Dutch animal shelter, Vinke provided hiding boxes for a group of newly arrived cats while depriving another group of them entirely. She found a significant difference in stress levels between cats that had the boxes and those that didn’t. In effect, the cats with boxes got used to their new surroundings faster, were far less stressed early on, and were more interested in interacting with humans.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Dune At Fifty

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Quite coincidentally, and with no prescience at work, I had a half-read Dune Messiah (the second installment of the Dune chronicles) at my side when this article spun its way across the ether. So, it made me put digital pen to digital paper. It’s hard to believe that this master work is now well into middle age. And like a fine wine maturing over time, rather than bursting into our collective consciousness when first published, Dune and its successors took decades to reach a critical mass of appeal.

In crafting this epic work of imagination Frank Herbert takes us on a voyage that goes beyond the narrow genres much-needed by our literary establishment. Is Dune science fiction? Is Dune space opera? Is Dune Fantasy or literary fiction? Is Dune thriller or romance? Or is Dune a treatise on politics and religion. The answer is yes.

But rather than seek to pigeonhole the work and thus limit its initial appeal to a new audience, I think it would be wise to took at Dune in an entirely different way. Dune is an evolutionary tale, and at many levels — it tells us of the evolution of ecological philosophy; the evolution of the self and of the state; the evolution of ideas and religion; the evolution of consciousness and culture.

I have to hope that younger generations, evolving fifty years from now and beyond, will be reading and contemplating Herbert’s work with as much awe.

From the Guardian:

In 1959, if you were walking the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, you might have encountered a burly, bearded extrovert, striding about in Ray-Ban Aviators and practical army surplus clothing. Frank Herbert, a freelance writer with a feeling for ecology, was researching a magazine story about a US Department of Agriculture programme to stabilise the shifting sands by introducing European beach grass. Pushed by strong winds off the Pacific, the dunes moved eastwards, burying everything in their path. Herbert hired a Cessna light aircraft to survey the scene from the air. “These waves [of sand] can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave … they’ve even caused deaths,” he wrote in a pitch to his agent. Above all he was intrigued by the idea that it might be possible to engineer an ecosystem, to green a hostile desert landscape.

About to turn 40, Herbert had been a working writer since the age of 19, and his fortunes had always been patchy. After a hard childhood in a small coastal community near Tacoma, Washington, where his pleasures had been fishing and messing about in boats, he’d worked for various regional newspapers in the Pacific northwest and sold short stories to magazines. He’d had a relatively easy war, serving eight months as a naval photographer before receiving a medical discharge. More recently he’d spent a weird interlude in Washington as a speechwriter for a Republican senator. There (his only significant time living on the east coast) he attended the daily Army-McCarthy hearings, watching his distant relative senator Joseph McCarthy root out communism. Herbert was a quintessential product of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast, self-reliant and distrustful of centralised authority, yet with a mile-wide streak of utopian futurism and a concomitant willingness to experiment. He was also chronically broke. During the period he wrote Dune, his wife Beverly Ann was the main bread-winner, her own writing career sidelined by a job producing advertising copy for department stores.

Soon, Herbert’s research into dunes became research into deserts and desert cultures. It overpowered his article about the heroism of the men of the USDA (proposed title “They Stopped the Moving Sands”) and became two short SF novels, serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, one of the more prestigious genre magazines. Unsatisfied, Herbert industriously reworked his two stories into a single, giant epic. The prevailing publishing wisdom of the time had it that SF readers liked their stories short. Dune (400 pages in its first hardcover edition, almost 900 in the paperback on my desk) was rejected by more than 20 houses before being accepted by Chilton, a Philadelphia operation known for trade and hobby magazines such as Motor Age, Jewelers’ Circular and the no-doubt-diverting Dry Goods Economist.

Though Dune won the Nebula and Hugo awards, the two most prestigious science fiction prizes, it was not an overnight commercial success. Its fanbase built through the 60s and 70s, circulating in squats, communes, labs and studios, anywhere where the idea of global transformation seemed attractive. Fifty years later it is considered by many to be the greatest novel in the SF canon, and has sold in millions around the world.

***

Dune is set in a far future, where warring noble houses are kept in line by a ruthless galactic emperor. As part of a Byzantine political intrigue, the noble duke Leto, head of the Homerically named House Atreides, is forced to move his household from their paradisiacal home planet of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune. The climate on Dune is frighteningly hostile. Water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants go outside, they must wear stillsuits, close-fitting garments that capture body moisture and recycle it for drinking.

The great enemy of House Atreides is House Harkonnen, a bunch of sybaritic no-goods who torture people for fun, and whose head, Baron Vladimir, is so obese that he has to use little anti-gravity “suspensors” as he moves around. The Harkonnens used to control Dune, which despite its awful climate and grubby desert nomad people, has incalculable strategic significance: its great southern desert is the only place in the galaxy where a fantastically valuable commodity called “melange” or “spice” is mined. Spice is a drug whose many useful properties include the induction of a kind of enhanced space-time perception in pilots of interstellar spacecraft. Without it, the entire communication and transport system of the Imperium will collapse. It is highly addictive, and has the side effect of turning the eye of the user a deep blue. Spice mining is dangerous, not just because of sandstorms and nomad attacks, but because the noise attracts giant sandworms, behemoths many hundreds of metres in length that travel through the dunes like whales through the ocean.

Have the Harkonnens really given up Dune, this source of fabulous riches? Of course not. Treachery and tragedy duly ensue, and young Paul survives a general bloodbath to go on the run in the hostile open desert, accompanied, unusually for an adventure story, by his mum. Paul is already showing signs of a kind of cosmic precociousness, and people suspect that he may even be the messiah figure foretold in ancient prophecies. His mother, Jessica, is an initiate of the great female powerbase in an otherwise patriarchal galactic order, a religious sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit. Witchy and psychically powerful, the sisters have engaged in millennia of eugenic programming, of which Paul may be the culmination.

This setup owes something to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as well as the tales written by Idaho-born food chemist Elmer Edward “Doc” Smith, creator of the popular Lensman space operas of the 1940s and 50s, in which eugenically bred heroes are initiated into a “galactic patrol” of psychically enhanced supercops. For Smith, altered states of consciousness were mainly tools for the whiteous and righteous to vaporise whole solar systems of subversives, aliens and others with undesirable traits. Herbert, by contrast, was no friend of big government. He had also taken peyote and read Jung. In 1960, a sailing buddy introduced him to the Zen thinker Alan Watts, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Long conversations with Watts, the main conduit by which Zen was permeating the west-coast counterculture, helped turn Herbert’s pacy adventure story into an exploration of temporality, the limits of personal identity and the mind’s relationship to the body.

Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Oregon Dunes, near Florence, Oregon, served as an inspiration for the Dune saga. Courtesy of Rebecca Kennison. Creative Commons.

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Earth 2.0: Kepler 452b

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On July 23, 2015 NASA announced discovery of Kepler 452b, an Earth-like exoplanet, which they dubbed Earth 2.0. Found following a four-year trawl through data from the Kepler exoplanet-hunting space telescope, Kepler 452b is the closest exoplanet yet in its resemblance to Earth. It revolves around its sun-like home star in 380 days at a distance similar to that between Earth and our sun (93 million miles).

Unfortunately, Kepler 452b is a “mere” 1,400 light years away — so you can forget trying to strike up a real-time conversation with any of its intelligent inhabitants. If it does harbor life I have to hope that any sentient lifeforms have taken better care of their home than we earthlings do of our own. Then again, it may be better that the exoplanet hosts only non-intelligent life!

Here’s NASA’s technical paper.

Check out NASA’s briefing here.

Image: Artist rendition of Kepler 452b. Courtesy of NASA. Public Domain.

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Chief Happiness Officer?

When I first read this story I thought it was a mistimed April Fool’s joke. But, I was wrong. The Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) is a growing trend within the halls of corporate America. And, of course, it is brought to you by those happy yet earnest gurus in Silicon Valley.

One wonders where this is likely to take us 10, 20 years from now. But, one thing is reasonably clear — for most, corporate happiness may be an unattainable or undeliverable paradox.

From the New Republic:

Happiness isn’t something you find, or work toward—it’s something you buy and have delivered. Or at least that’s the premise of one of the newest jobs over in the C-suite. Now, alongside the CEO, CFO, and their ilk, we have the CHO, or chief happiness officer. As the name clearly suggests, the CHO is responsible for the contentment of individual employees, sort of like an h.r. manager, but on steroids; the theory goes that happy workers are productive workers, so happiness turns out to be in the company’s best interest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many CHOs reside in Silicon Valley—both at start-ups and more blue chip tech companies. But it’s starting to spread: Southern restaurant company Hopjacks created the position in 2012 and the Quality of Life Foundation, an education nonprofit, created one in 2010.

On a day-to-day basis, CHOs busy themselves with diagnosing the emotional wellbeing of their workers, as well as adjusting workplace policy and culture in order to create the conditions for happiness. This can involve distributing surveys that measure contentment, leading workshops on everything from communication skills to mindfulness meditation, and generally diagnosing the office atmosphere. The job can also mean out-of-office activities—or, in the case of Hopjacks, a “Serial Killer Secret-Santa Weapon-Exchange” (an event, according to CHO Jarod Kelly, “where all of us blindly ordered each other [weapons] gifts from www.budk.com.”).

The CHO’s rise may have begun with Chade-Meng Tan. Meng is Google’s chief happiness officer equivalent, officially known as the Jolly Good Fellow. According to his self-made job description, his goal is to “enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.” He began at Google soon after the company was born, and spent eight years in the engineering department, before switching to the company’s “People Development Team” in the mid-2000s. Meng was inspired to work happiness into Google after encountering studies on the 65-year-old brain of a Buddhist monk named Mathieu Ricard. Ricard, after earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, turned his back on science and became a Buddhist monk in 1972, with the aim of exploring happiness through meditation.

In a 2010 TED talk, Meng explains that Ricard “is the happiest man in the world,” based on brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex. Whether or not measuring happiness in an MRI machine holds water is beside the point—Meng liked what he saw, and aimed to spread Ricard’s cognitive tendencies throughout the Google community.

Google’s involvement in worker happiness set off something of a trend, with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh releasing a book in 2010 called Delivering Happiness. The book, which covers strategies to increase happiness in corporate culture, was a New York Times best seller and spawned a consulting firm of the same name, devoted to, well, delivering happiness to companies around the world.

Delivering Happiness, according to CEO and CHO Jenn Lim, devotes its time to measuring the contentment of clients and to laboring to improve their working conditions. So how exactly does one create joy? “We take a snapshot of all the employees, and basically identify their happiness levels,” Lim says. “And using [the Happy Business Index], we can see, what are the key points of unhappiness?” (The Happy Business Index is a survey based off of “well-being researcher” Nic Marks’s Happy Planet Index, and scores how motivated and engaged employees feel in their workplace.) In an interview, Lim also explained that they look out for “how empowered employees feel, how much progress they feel they’re making, how connected and aligned they feel with the company.”

“Basically we’re able to derive actionable things that we recommend companies work on. I think of us as kind of a heart monitor,” Lim noted. CHOs not only monitor, but also calculate. Beyond the Happiness Business Index, the company uses a “happiness calculator” which is featured on its website and does little except tabulate how much money you stand to earn if you carry out a “happiness at work survey” (created by Delivering Happiness, of course).

Read the entire article here.

Video: Pharrell Williams – Happy (Official Music Video). Courtesy of I am Other.

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Where Are They?

Astrophysics professor Adam Frank reminds us to ponder Enrico Fermi‘s insightful question posed in the middle of the last century. Fermi’s question spawned his infamous, eponymous paradox, and goes something like this:

Why is there no evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy given the age of the universe and vast number of stars within it?

Based on simple assumptions and family accurate estimates of the universe’s age, the number of galaxies and stars within it, the probability of Earth-like planets and the development of intelligent life on these planets it should be highly likely that some civilizations have already developed the capability for interstellar travel. In fact, even a slow pace of intra-galactic travel should have led to the colonization of our entire galaxy within just a few tens of millions of years, which is a blink of an eye on a cosmological timescale. Yet we see now evidence on Earth or anywhere beyond. And therein lies the conundrum.

The doomsayers might have us believe that extraterrestrial civilizations have indeed developed numerous times throughout our galaxy. But, none have made the crucial leap beyond ecological catastrophe and technological self-destruction before being able to shirk the bonds of their home planet. Do we have the power to avoid the same fate? I hope so.

From 13.7:

The story begins like this: In 1950, a group of high-powered physicists were lunching together near the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Among those in attendance were Edward Teller (father of the nuclear bomb) and the Nobel Prize-winning Enrico Fermi. The discussion turned to a spate of recent UFO sightings and, then, on to the possibility of seeing an object (made by aliens) move faster than light. The conversation eventually turned to other topics when, out the blue, Fermi suddenly asked: “Where is everybody?”

While he’d startled his colleagues, they all quickly understood what he was referring to: Where are all the aliens?

What Fermi realized in his burst of insight was simple: If the universe was teeming with intelligent technological civilizations, why hadn’t they already made it to Earth? Indeed, why hadn’t they made it everywhere?

This question, known as “Fermi’s paradox,” is now a staple of astrobiological/SETI thinking. And while it might seem pretty abstract and inconsequential to our day-to-day existence, within Fermi’s paradox there lies a terrible possibility that haunts the fate of humanity.

Enough issues are packed into Fermi’s paradox for more than one post and — since Caleb Scharf and I are just starting a research project related to the question — I am sure to return to it. Today, however, I just want to unpack the basics of Fermi’s paradox and its consequences.

The most important thing to understand about Fermi’s paradox is that you don’t need faster-than-light travel, a warp drive or other exotic technology to take it seriously. Even if a technological civilization built ships that reached only a fraction of the speed of light, we might still expect all the stars (and the planets) to be “colonized.”

For example, let’s imagine that just one high-tech alien species emerges and starts sending ships out at one-hundredth of the speed of light. With that technology, they’d cross the typical distance between stars in “just” a few centuries to a millennium. If, once they got to a new solar system, they began using its resources to build more ships, then we can imagine how a wave of colonization begins propagating across the galaxy.

But how long does it take this colonization wave to spread?

Remarkably, it would only take a fraction of our galaxy’s lifetime before all the stars are inhabited. Depending on what you assume, the propagating wave of colonization could make it from one end of our Milky Way to the other in just 10 million years. While that might seem very long to you, it’s really just a blink of the eye to the 10-billion-year-old Milky Way (in other words, the colonization wave crosses in 0.001 times the age of the galaxy). That means if an alien civilization began at some random moment in the Milky Way’s history, odds are it has had time to colonize the entire galaxy.

You can choose your favorite sci-fi trope for what’s going on with these alien “slow ships.” Maybe they use cryogenic suspension. Maybe they’re using generation ships — mobile worlds whose inhabitants live out entire lives during the millennia-long crossing. Maybe the aliens don’t go themselves but send fully autonomous machines. Whatever scenario you choose, simple calculations, like the one above, tend to imply the aliens should be here already.

Of course, you can also come up with lots of resolutions to Fermi’s paradox. Maybe the aliens don’t want to colonize other worlds. Maybe none of the technologies for the ships described above really work. Maybe, maybe, maybe. We can take up some of those solutions in later 13.7 posts.

For today, however, let’s just consider the one answer that really matters for us, the existential one that is very, very freaky indeed: The aliens aren’t here because they don’t exist. We are the only sentient, technological species that exists in the entire galaxy.

It’s hard to overstate how profound this conclusion would be.

The consequences cut both ways. On the one hand, it’s possible that no other species has ever reached our state of development. Our galaxy with its 300 billion stars — meaning 300 billion chances for self-consciousness — has never awakened anywhere else. We would be the only ones looking into the night sky and asking questions. How impossibly lonely that would be.

Read the entire article here.

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Anthropo-Fracking — Monetizing You

While not known as retail innovators banks started charging us all manner of fees for every minutiae some time ago: the bounced check fee, the monthly checking fee, the statement fee, the paperwork fee, the outgoing wire fee, the incoming wire fee, the secondary account fee, the document discovery fee, the check copy fee, etc.

Then airlines jumped on the bandwagon: their cunning ploy to awe us with low fares while simultaneously shocking us with all manner of “ancillary fees”: the checked bag fee, the excess baggage fee, the large baggage fee, the food fee, the drink fee, the ticketing fee, the wifi fee, the check-in early fee, the seat selection fee, the group fee, the fee-fie-fo-fum fee, etc etc.

So, while you may believe that you are a valuable and marketable brand of one, most enterprises actually look upon you something more lowly, but financially attractive — you are nothing more than a cow to be milked, or a landscape to be fracked, of fees. Sadly, this movement towards “personal-fracking” — the monetization and mining of you — has only just entered its early stages. So, hold on tight to your wallet.

From the Guardian:

Fracking. Could there be a more perfect model for how we’re getting rinsed by this current conspiracy of government and commerce? In a world turned upside down, “conservative” now means the absolute opposite of “leaving things as they are”. Conservative means changing everything. It means dismantling things and selling off the bits. It means drilling into our lives and extracting the marrow.

Conservatism and conservation are now about as far apart as it’s possible to get. Friends of Conservation are the ones protecting the countryside. The ones who stand around self-consciously in terrible fancy dress, holding passive-aggressive placards in praise of the noble, selfless badger. Or basically any mammal that looks good in a waistcoat.

Friends of Conservatism, on the other hand, are the ones who roll up on heavy machinery like a pissed Ukrainian militia. The ones who drill deep beneath that area of local countryside whose only “use” so far has been as a picnic site. And who then pump into the ground powerful jets of high-pressure hydrogunk, splintering rock as easily as a walnut. And who, having sucked up a sky’s worth of valuable gas through a massive crack pipe, then pack up and lumber off to fracture and steal someone else’s underground treasure.

Welcome to capitalism’s late late show. If you can power-hose the last drop of value out of something, you now have an amoral imperative to do it. Fracking is the chief inspiration for today’s entrepreneurs, those “heroic wealth creators” so admired by Andy Pandery Burnham and half the Labour party. Everything is up for grabs now. The age of the racketeer is over. It’s all about fracketeering now.

A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression feeHere is a recent example. A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression fee”. Yeah, ha ha, the cheeky peaky blinders are leaching an extra grand and a half out of buyers just for accepting their offer on a property. Imagine that. Charging people for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.

It’s almost as if the property industry is a pirate economy serviced by unscrupulous thieving bastards drenched in melancholy duty-free fragrances. Let’s face it, estate agents have pretty much perfected the art of taking the piss with a straight face. One former estate agent told me the other day he was always instructed to make admin fees “whatever you think you can get away with … go high, then drop as a favour”. Classic surcharge frackery.

I had decided that of all the agents – sports, double, biological – estate agents were definitely the worst. Then I asked people on Twitter how they had been fracked over lately and they reminded me about letting agents. And about how every single person I’ve ever known who has had any dealings with a letting agent has had to recalibrate their view of the human race as a result. Has anyone ever got their exorbitant deposit back in full without an exhausting argument pointing out that three years of normal wear and tear can’t be classed as catastrophic damage? I’ve been hearing about people being charged a £90-per-person “reference fee” when moving between two properties run by the same agent, “so that’s £180 to ask themselves how we were as tenants”. Or being charged £50 for printing six pages of a rental contract. “I asked them to email it so I could print it. They said no.”

The world of fracketeering is infinitely flexible and contradictory. Buy tickets online and you could be charged an admin fee for an attachment that requires you to print them at home. The original online booking fee – you’ve come this far in the buying process, hand over an extra 12 quid now or write off the previous 20 minutes of your life – has mutated into exotic versions of itself.

The confirmation fee. The convenience fee. Someone who bought tickets for a tennis event at the O2 sent me this pithy tweet: “4 tickets. 4 Facility Fees + 4 Service Charge + 1 Standard Mail £2.75 = 15% of overall £!”. Definitely a grand slam.

It’s amazing to think of a world that existed before the admin charge. It almost makes you nostalgic for a simpler and more innocent time, when racketeers would work out what it was we wanted and then supply it at an inflated price. You remember racketeers. Snappy dressers, little moustaches, connections to organised crime. Some of them did very well and went on to become successful publishers or peers of the realm. Quite a few old-school racketeers went into the “hospitality and leisure” business, where these days fracking is in full effect.

Read the entire story here.

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Online Social Networks Make Us More and Less Social

Two professors walk in to a bar… One claims that online social networks enrich our relationships and social lives; the other claims that technology diminishes and distracts us from real world relationships. Professor Keith N. Hampton at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information argues for the former positive position. While Professor Larry Rosen at California State University argues against. Who’s right?

Well, they’re both probably right.

But, several consequences seem to be more certain about our new, social technologies: our focus is increasingly fragmented and short; our memory and knowledge retention is being increasingly outsourced; our impatience and need for instant gratification continues to grow; and our newly acquired anxieties continue to expand — fear of missing out, fear of being unfriended, fear of being trolled, fear of being shamed, fear from not getting comments or replies, fear of not going viral, fear of partner’s lack of status reciprocity, fear of partner’s status change, fear of being Photoshopped or photobombed, fear of having personal images distributed, fear of quiet…

From the WSJ:

With the spread of mobile technology, it’s become much easier for more people to maintain constant contact with their social networks online. And a lot of people are taking advantage of that opportunity.

One indication: A recent Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. found that 71% use Facebook at least occasionally, and 45% of Facebook users check the site several times a day.

That sounds like people are becoming more sociable. But some people think the opposite is happening. The problem, they say, is that we spend so much time maintaining superficial connections online that we aren’t dedicating enough time or effort to cultivating deeper real-life relationships. Too much chatter, too little real conversation.

Others counter that online social networks supplement face-to-face sociability, they don’t replace it. These people argue that we can expand our social horizons online, deepening our connections to the world around us, and at the same time take advantage of technology to make our closest relationships even closer.

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says technology is distracting us from our real-world relationships. Keith N. Hampton, who holds the Professorship in Communication and Public Policy at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, argues that technology is enriching those relationships and the rest of our social lives.

Read the entire story here.

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Conservative Dogma and Climate Science and Social Justice

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

You would not be correct in labeling the Catholic Church a hotbed of progressive thought. It’s very foundation is steeped in tradition and dogma. So, you could be forgiven for thinking that most secular politicians in the United States, of all stripes, would have a better grasp of current realities and even science than an establishment conservative church.

Yet, the Vatican has just released a new papal encyclical, On Care For Our Common Home, on the environment that decries the ecological and humanitarian crisis wrought by climate change. You read this correctly — the pope seems to understand and embrace the science of climate change and the impact of humans. In addition to acceptance of scientific principle the encyclical paints our ongoing destruction of the planet and its climate as an issue of social justice. The pope is absolutely correct — the poor suffer unequally from the strife enabled and enacted by the rich.

Ironically, many of the pope’s Republican followers — let’s call them crusading climate science deniers — in the US Congress are of another mind. They’ve been quite vociferous of late, arguing that the pope would best serve his flock by sticking to communion and keeping his nose out of scientific, environmental and political debate. I used to think that most Republicans, including Catholics, derived their denial of climate science — and perhaps most science — from a strict devotion to their god. But, now that one of God’s representatives on Earth backs mainstream climate science what are the Republican believers to do?

One day after Pope Francis released this sweeping document, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican and Catholic, had this to say:

“… I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” 

Par for the course. One wonders where Governor Bush, Senator Inhofe and their colleagues actually do get there economic policy, and more importantly where do they learn about science, if any at all. We’ll have to leave the issue of social justice aside for now — one battle at a time.

Dear God, you do work in such mysterious ways!

An excerpt below from the Vatican’s encyclical on the environment. Read it in full here.

The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilised in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.

These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesise nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the Earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the Earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest. For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas. It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people.

Read more here.

Image: ”The Blue Marble”, iconic photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). Courtesy of NASA. Public domain.

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Hello Pluto

Pluto-New-Horizons-14Jul2015

Today NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached the (dwarf) planet Pluto and its five moons. After a 9.5 year voyage covering around 3 billion miles, the refrigerator-sized probe has finally reached its icy target. Unfortunately, New Horizons is traveling so quickly it will not enter orbit around Pluto but continue its 30,000 mph trek into interstellar space. The images, and science, that the craft will stream back to Earth over the coming months should be spectacular.

Check out more on the New Horizon’s mission here.

Image: Pluto as imaged by New Horizons, last image prior to its closest approach on July 14, 2015. Images courtesy of NASA.

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One Spinach Leaf = 1 Gallon of Water

spinach-leaves

As I leafed through this article from the New York Times my jaw progressively dropped. The story and the underlying analysis brings the terrible Californian drought in to a very clear focus. The increasing lack of water in the state is causing policy makers to enact ever-tougher water restrictions and forcing farmers and consumers to use less and less of the precious liquid.

While the problem in California pales in comparison to the human cost of past global droughts in Africa and Asia, the situation nonetheless is becoming increasingly dire, especially for farmers and those who depend on their produce (most of us). I’ve been following developments in California for sometime, but I must admit until now I had never pondered the actual cost, in terms of water, of some of the foods I eat. Soul-searching required.

So, here’s a quick snapshot from some of the mountains of data:

The average American consumes over 300 gallons of California water each week by eating food that was produced there.

One spinach leaf — yes, one — requires just under 1 gallon of water to grow until ripe for eating.

It takes 4.1 gallons of water to produce a slice of California avocado each week, which is what an average American eats each week.

It takes over 1 gallon of water to produce ONE California almond.

It takes 42.5 gallons of water to produce 3 mandarin oranges.

Four glasses of milk require almost 144 gallons of water (most of this goes to growing the feed for the cattle that produce our milk and beef).

A handful of strawberries needs 1 gallon of water.

Check out the detailed research here.

Image: Spinach leaves. Public domain.

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The Devout Atheist

Dawkins_aaconfEvolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sprang to the public’s attention via his immensely popular book The Selfish Gene. Since its publication almost 40 years ago, its author has assumed the unofficial mantle of Atheist-In-Chief. His passionate and impatient defense — some would call it crusading offense — of all things godless has rubbed many the wrong way, including numerous unbelievers. That said, his reasoning remains crystal clear and his focus laser-like. I just wish he would stay away from Twitter.

Check out his foundation here.

From the Guardian:

In Dublin, not long ago, Richard Dawkins visited a steakhouse called Darwin’s. He was in town to give a talk on the origins of life at Trinity College with the American physicist Lawrence Krauss. In the restaurant, a large model gorilla squatted in a corner and a series of sepia paintings of early man hung in the dining room – though, Dawkins pointed out, not quite in the right chronological order. A space by the bar had been refitted to resemble the interior of the Beagle, the vessel on which Charles Darwin sailed to South America in 1831 and conceived his theory of natural selection. “Oh look at this!” Dawkins said, examining the decor. “It’s terrific! Oh, wonderful.”

Over the years, Dawkins, a zoologist by training, has expressed admiration for Darwin in the way a schoolboy might worship a sporting giant. In his first memoir, Dawkins noted the “serendipitous realisation” that his full name – Clinton Richard Dawkins – shared the same initials as Charles Robert Darwin. He owns a prized first edition of On The Origin of Species, which he can quote from memory. For Dawkins, the book is totemic, the founding text of his career. “It’s such a thorough, unanswerable case,” he said one afternoon. “[Darwin] called it one long argument.” As a description of Dawkins’s own life, particularly its late phase, “one long argument” serves fairly well. As the global face of atheism over the last decade, Dawkins has ratcheted up the rhetoric in his self-declared war against religion. He is the general who chooses to fight on the front line – whose scorched-earth tactics have won him fervent admirers, and ferocious enemies. What is less clear, however, is whether he is winning.

Over dinner – chicken for Dawkins, steak for everyone else – he spoke little. He was anxious to leave early in order to discuss the format of the event with Krauss. Though Dawkins gives a talk roughly once a fortnight, he still obsessively overprepares. On this occasion, there was no need – he and Krauss had put on a similar show the night before at the University of Ulster in Belfast. They had also appeared on a radio talkshow, during which they had attempted to debate a creationist (an “idiot”, in Dawkins’s terminology). “She simply tried to shout down everything Lawrence and I said. So she was in effect going la la la la la.” Dawkins stuck his fingers in his ears as he sang.

Krauss and Dawkins have toured frequently as a double act, partners in a global quest to broadcast the wonder of science and the nonexistence of God. Dawkins has been on this mission ever since 1976, when he published The Selfish Gene, the book that made him famous, which has now sold over a million copies. Since then, he has written another 10 influential books on science and evolution, plus The God Delusion, his atheist blockbuster, and become the most prominent of the so-called New Atheists – a group of writers, including Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who published anti-religion polemics in the years after 9/11.

An hour or so after dinner, the Burke Theatre in Trinity College, a large modern lecture hall with banked seating, was full. After separate presentations, Krauss and Dawkins conversed freely, swapping ideas on the origins of life. As he spoke, Dawkins took on a grandfatherly air, as though passing on hard-earned wisdom. He has always sought to inject beauty into biology, and his voice wavered with emotion as he shifted from dry fact to lyrical metaphor.

Dawkins has the stately confidence of one who has spent half a life behind a lectern. He has aged well, thanks to the determined jaw and carved cheekbones of a 1950s matinee idol. His hair remains in the style that has served him for 70 years, a lopsided sweep. A prominent brow and hawkish stare give him a look of constant urgency, as though he is waiting for everyone to catch up. In Dublin, his outfit was academic-on-tour: jacket, woolly jumper and tie, one of a collection hand-painted by his wife, Lalla Ward, which depict penguins, fish, birds of prey.

At the end of the Trinity event, a crowd of about 40 audience members descended on to the stage, clutching books to be signed. Dawkins eventually retreated into the wings to avoid a crush. One young schoolteacher lingered in the hallway long after the rest of the audience had left, in the hope of shaking Dawkins’s hand. Earlier that day, Dawkins had expressed bewilderment at his own celebrity. “I find the epidemic of selfies disconcerting,” he said. “It’s always, ‘one quick photo.’ One quick. But it never is.” Though he is used to receiving a steady flow of letters from fans of The God Delusion and new converts to atheism, he does not perceive himself as a figurehead. “I don’t need to say if I think of myself as a leader,” he said a few weeks later. “I simply need to say the book has sold three million copies.”

Dawkins turned 74 in March this year. To celebrate, he had dinner with Ward at Cherwell Boathouse, a smart restaurant overlooking the river in Oxford; the occasion was marred only slightly by a loud-voiced fellow diner, Dawkins recalled, “who quacked like Donald Duck”. An academic of his eminence could, by now, have eased into a distinguished late period: more books, the odd speech, master of an Oxford college, a gentle tending to his legacy. Though he is in a retrospective phase – one memoir published, a second on its way later this year – peaceful retreat from public life has not been the Dawkins way. “Some people might say why don’t you just get on with gardening,” he said. “I think [there’s a] passion for truth and a passion for justice that doesn’t allow me to do that.”

Instead, Dawkins remains indefatigably active. He rarely takes a holiday, but travels frequently to give talks – in the last four months he has been to Ireland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Brazil. Though he says he prefers to speak about science, God inevitably looms. “I suppose some of what I do is an attempt to change people’s minds about religion,” he said, with some understatement, between events in Ireland. “And I do think that’s a politically important thing to be doing.” For Dawkins, who describes his own politics as “vaguely left”, this means a concern for the state of the world, and a desire, ultimately, to eradicate religion from society. In his mission, Dawkins is still, at heart, a teacher. “I would like to leave the world a better place,” he said. “I like to think my science books have had a positive educational effect, but I also want to leave the world a better place in influencing opinion in other fields where there is illogic, obscurantism, pretension.” Religious faith, for Dawkins, is above all a sign of faulty thinking, of ignorance; he wants to educate the ill-informed out of their mistakes. He sees religion, as he once put it on Twitter, as “an organised licence to be acceptably stupid”.

The two strands of Dawkins’s mission – promoting science, demolishing religion – are intended to be complementary. “If they are antagonistic to each other, that would be regrettable,” he said, “but I don’t see why they should be.” But antagonism is part of Dawkins’s daily life. “I suppose some of the passions that I show are more appropriate to a young man than somebody of my age.” Since his arrival on Twitter in 2008, his public pronouncements have become more combative – and, at times, flamboyantly irritable: “How dare you force your dopey unsubstantiated superstitions on innocent children too young to resist?,” he tweeted last June. “How DARE you?”

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins)June 10, 2014

How dare you force your dopey unsubstantiated superstitions on innocent children too young to resist? How DARE you?

Read the entire story here.

Image: Richard Dawkins, 34th annual conference of American Atheists (2008). Public domain.

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Emmy Noether, Mathematician

Emmy-NoetherMost non-mathematicians have probably heard of Euclid, Pythagoras, Poincaré, Gauss, Lagrange, de Fermat, and Hilbert,  to name but a few. All giants in their various mathematical specialties. But, I would hazard a wager that even most mathematicians have never heard of Noether. Probably because Emmy Noether is a woman.

Yet learning of her exploits in the early 20th century, I can see how far we still have to travel to truly recognize the contributions of women in academia and science — and everywhere else for that matter — as on a par with those of men. Women like Noether succeeded despite tremendous (male) pressure against them, which makes their achievements even more astonishing.

From ars technica:

By 1915, any list of the world’s greatest living mathematicians included the name David Hilbert. And though Hilbert previously devoted his career to logic and pure mathematics, he, like many other critical thinkers at the time, eventually became obsessed with a bit of theoretical physics.

With World War I raging on throughout Europe, Hilbert could be found sitting in his office at the great university at Göttingen trying and trying again to understand one idea—Einstein’s new theory of gravity.

Göttingen served as the center of mathematics for the Western world by this point, and Hilbert stood as one of its most notorious thinkers. He was a prominent leader for the minority of mathematicians who preferred a symbolic, axiomatic development in contrast to a more concrete style that emphasized the construction of particular solutions. Many of his peers recoiled from these modern methods, one even calling them “theology.” But Hilbert eventually won over most critics through the power and fruitfulness of his research.

For Hilbert, his rigorous approach to mathematics stood out quite a bit from the common practice of scientists, causing him some consternation. “Physics is much too hard for physicists,” he famously quipped. So wanting to know more, he invited Einstein to Göttingen to lecture about gravity for a week.

Before the year ended, both men would submit papers deriving the complete equations of general relativity. But naturally, the papers differed entirely when it came to their methods. When it came to Einstein’s theory, Hilbert and his Göttingen colleagues simply couldn’t wrap their minds around a peculiarity having to do with energy. All other physical theories—including electromagnetism, hydrodynamics, and the classical theory of gravity—obeyed local energy conservation. With Einstein’s theory, one of the many paradoxical consequences of this failure of energy conservation was that an object could speed up as it lost energy by emitting gravity waves, whereas clearly it should slow down.

Unable to make progress, Hilbert turned to the only person he believed might have the specialized knowledge and insight to help. This would-be-savior wasn’t even allowed to be a student at Göttingen once upon a time, but Hilbert had long become a fan of this mathematician’s highly “abstract” approach (which Hilbert considered similar to his own style). He managed to recruit this soon-to-be partner to Göttingen about the same time Einstein showed up.

And that’s when a woman—one Emmy Noether—created what may be the most important single theoretical result in modern physics.

 …

During Noether’s stay at Göttingen, Hilbert contrived a way to allow her to lecture unofficially. He repeatedly attempted to get her hired as a Privatdozent, or an officially recognized lecturer. The science and mathematics faculty was generally in favor of this, but Hilbert could not overcome the resistance of the humanities professors, who simply could not stomach the idea of a female teacher. At one meeting of the faculty senate, frustrated again in his attempts to get Noether a job, he famously remarked, “I do not see that the sex of a candidate is an argument against her admission as Privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bathing establishment.”

Social barriers aside, Noether immediately grasped the problem with Einstein’s theory. Over the course of three years, she not only solved it, but in doing so she proved a theorem that simultaneously reached back to the dawn of physics and pushed forward to the physics of today. Noether’s Theorem, as it is now called, lies at the heart of modern physics, unifying everything from the orbits of planets to the theories of elementary particles.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Emmy Noether (1882-1935). Public domain.

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Bursting My Bubble

Google-search-bubble-wrap

Popping those squishy pockets of air in bubble wrap has been a simple pleasure for many kids (and kids at heart) for decades. Not any more. Sealed Air, the company that has been producing this wonder material since 1960, has invented a “popless” version called iBubble Wrap.

How could they do this? As we all know popping the bubbles is often much more fun than receipt of the actual object that the wrap protects. This is not progress; this is cultural regression.

From the WSJ:

Hate to burst your bubble, but there’s a new form of Bubble Wrap coming out — and this one won’t pop.

Sealed Air, which has sold Bubble Wrap since 1960, has a new version of its protective wrapping coming out called iBubble Wrap, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It’s sold flat and airless, making it easier to store and ship. A single truckload of iBubble Wrap can hold as much packaging material as 47 truckloads of the old stuff, the Journal said.

iBubble Wrap is inflated with a custom pump by the companies that use it as shipping material.

The air bubbles in iBubble Wrap are filled in columns, and the bubbles in each column are connected. Press on one, and there’s no cathartic “POP!” as in traditional Bubble Wrap.

Instead, the air just shifts around in the column of bubbles.

The North Carolina company told the newspaper it would still make traditional Bubble Wrap, and other companies will undoubtedly continue to make similar packaging material that pops.

But if the new stuff takes off, the Bubble Wrap we all know and love could become a lot less common… and eventually, all we’ll have left is Virtual Bubble Wrap.

Read the story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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A Gift From Greece

Flag_of_Greece.svgGreece has been in an increasingly troubled economic situation of late, but the nation’s current crisis has been decades in the making. Over several generations successive governments overspent on an enormous scale on populist social programs, such a healthcare, pensions and other benefits. And, these same governments — regardless of party affiliation — did little to account for this spending either by cutting services or raising revenues (and may would also add, curtailing tax evasion).

On this 4th of July, Greece is now effectively bankrupt — banks are closed, a quarter of the adult population is unemployed, European creditors have called in their loans, and lenders are sitting on the sidelines until the country charts a more sustainable path. So, while the country suffers I am reminded on this anniversary of America’s founding that Greece’s most important export — democracy — still flourishes, despite some obvious flaws. This ancient civilization brought the world many gifts; we should be thankful and hopeful that the embattled Greeks can once again rebuild their great nation and export their treasures.

From the Guardian:

Just how special were the ancient Greeks? Was there really a Greek “miracle”? The question has become painfully politicised. Critics of colonialism and racism tend to play down the specialness of the ancient Greeks. Those who maintain that there was something identifiably different and even superior about the Greeks, on the other hand, are often die-hard conservatives who have a vested interest in proving the superiority of “western” ideals. I fit into neither camp. I am certainly opposed to colonialism and racism, and have investigated reactionary abuses of the classical tradition in colonial India and by apologists of slavery all the way through to the American Civil War. But my constant engagement with the ancient Greeks and their culture has made me more, rather than less, convinced that they asked a series of crucial questions that are difficult to identify in combination within any of the other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean or Near Eastern antiquity. This is why, as I will go on to argue, I believe in classics for the people – that ideas from the ancient Greeks should be taught to everybody, not just the privileged few.

The foundations of Greek culture were laid long before the arrival of Christianity, between 800 and 300BC. Greek-speakers lived in hundreds of different villages, towns and cities, from Spain to Libya and the Nile Delta, from the freezing river Don in the northeastern corner of the Black Sea to Trebizond. They were culturally elastic, and often freely intermarried with other peoples; they had no sense of ethnic inequality that was biologically determined, since the concepts of distinct world “races” had not been invented. They tolerated and even welcomed imported foreign gods. And what united them was never geopolitics. With the arguable exception of the short-lived Macedonian empire in the later 4th century BC, there never was a recognisable, independent, state run by Greek-speakers, centred in and including what we now know as Greece, until after the Greek war of independence in the early 19th century.

What bound the Greeks together was an enquiring cast of mind underpinned by a wonderful shared set of stories and poems and a restlessness that made them more likely to sail away and found a new city-state than tolerate starvation or oppression in a mainland metropolis. The diasporic, seafaring Greeks, while they invented new communities from scratch and were stimulated by interacting with other ethnic groups, made a rapid series of intellectual discoveries that raised the Mediterranean world to a new level of civilisation. This process of self-education was much admired by the Greeks and Romans of the centuries that followed. When the texts and artworks of classical Greece were rediscovered in the European Renaissance, they changed the world for a second time.

Yet over the last two decades the notion that the Greeks were exceptional has been questioned. It has been emphasised that they were just one of many ethnic and linguistic groups centred in the eastern end of the ancient Mediterranean world. Long before the Greeks appeared in the historical record, several complicated civilisations had existed – the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Hattians and Hittites. Other peoples provided the Greeks with crucial technological advances; they learned the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians, and how to mint coins from the Lydians. They may have learned how to compose elaborate cult hymns from the mysterious Luwians of Syria and central Anatolia. During the period in which the Greeks invented rational philosophy and science, after 600BC, their horizons were dramatically opened up by the expansion of the Persian empire.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, our understanding of the other cultures of the Ancient Near East advanced rapidly. We know far more about the minds of the Greeks’ predecessors and neighbours than we did before the landmark discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets in the Tigris valley in 1853. There has been a stream of newly published texts in the languages of the successive peoples who dominated the fertile plains of Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians). The words of Hittites on the tablets found at Hattuša in central Turkey and the phrases inscribed on clay tablets at Ugarit in northern Syria have been deciphered. New texts as well as fresh interpretations of writings by the ancient Egyptians continue to appear, requiring, for example, a reassessment of the importance of the Nubians to North African history. Many of these thrilling advances have revealed how much the Greeks shared with, and absorbed from, their predecessors and neighbours. Painstaking comparative studies have been published which reveal the Greek “miracle” to have been one constituent of a continuous process of intercultural exchange.

It has become a new orthodoxy that the Greeks were very similar to their Ancient Near Eastern neighbours, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant, Persia and Asia Minor. Some scholars have gone so far as to ask whether the Greeks came up with anything new at all, or whether they merely acted as a conduit through which the combined wisdom of all the civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean was disseminated across the territories conquered by Alexander the Great, before arriving at Rome and posterity. Others have seen sinister racist motives at work and accused classicists of creating in their own image the Oldest Dead White European Males; some have claimed, with some justification, that northern Europeans have systematically distorted and concealed the evidence showing how much the ancient Greeks owed to Semitic and African peoples rather than to Indo-European, “Aryan” traditions.

Taken singly, most Greek achievements can be paralleled in the culture of at least one of their neighbours. The Babylonians knew about Pythagoras’s theorem centuries before Pythagoras was born. The tribes of the Caucasus had brought mining and metallurgy to unprecedented levels. The Hittites had made advances in chariot technology, but they were also highly literate. They recorded the polished and emotive orations delivered on formal occasions in their royal court, and their carefully argued legal speeches. One Hittite king foreshadows Greek historiography when he chronicles in detail his frustration at the incompetence of some of his military officers during the siege of a Hurrian city. The Phoenicians were just as great seafarers as any Greeks. The Egyptians developed medicine based on empirical experience rather than religious dogma and told Odyssey-like stories about sailors who went missing and returned after adventures overseas. Pithy fables similar to those of Aesop were composed in an archaic Aramaic dialect of Syria and housed in Jewish temples. Architectural design concepts and technical know-how came from the Persians to the Greek world via the many Ionian Greek workmen who helped build Persepolis, Susa and Pasargadae, named Yauna in Persian texts. Nevertheless, none of these peoples produced anything equivalent to Athenian democracy, comic theatre, philosophical logic or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Flag of Greece. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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It’s Official — Big Rip Coming!

San_Sebastian-Cementerio_de_PolloeThe UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper just published this article, so it must be true. After all, the broadsheet has been a stalwart of conservative British journalism since, well, the dawn of time, some 6,000 year ago.

Apparently our universe will end in a so-called Big Rip, and not in a Big Freeze. Nor will it end in a Big Crunch, which is like the Big Bang in reverse. The Big Rip seems to be a rather calm and quiet version of the impending cosmological apocalypse. So, I’m all for it. I can’t wait… 22 billion years and counting.

From the Daily Telegraph:

A group of scientists claim to have evidence supporting the Big Rip theory, explaining how the universe will end – in 22 billion years.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, have discovered a new mathematical formulation that supports the Big Rip theory – that as the universe expands, it will eventually be ripped apart.

“The idea of the Big Rip is that eventually even the constituents of matter would start separating from each other. You’d be seeing all the atoms being ripped apart … it’s fair to say that it’s a dramatic scenario,” Dr Marcelo Disconzi told the Guardian.

Scientists observed distant supernovae to examine whether the Big Rip theory, which was first suggested in 2003, was possible.

The theory relies on the assumption that the universe continues to expand faster and faster, eventually causing the Big Rip.

“Mathematically we know what this means. But what it actually means in physical terms is hard to fathom,” said Dr Disconzi.

Conflicting theories for how the universe will end include the Big Crunch, whereby the Big Bang reverses and everything contracts, and the Big Freeze, where as the universe slowly expands it eventually becomes too cold to sustain life.

Previous questions raised over the Big Rip theory include explaining how sticky fluids – that have high levels of viscosity – can travel faster than the speed of light, defying the laws of physics.

However, the Vanderbilt team combined a series of equations, including some dating back to 1955, to show that viscosity may not be a barrier to a rapidly expanding universe.

“My result by no means settles the question of what the correct formulation of relativistic viscous fluids is. What it shows is that, under some assumptions, the equations put forward by Lichnerowicz have solutions and the solutions do not predict faster-than-light signals. But we still don’t know if these results remain valid under the most general situations relevant to physics,” Dr Disconzi told the New Statesman.

Read the story here.

Image: Cementerio de Polloe, en Donostia-San Sebastián, 2014. Courtesy of Zarateman. Public domain.

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Those Were the Days

I (still) have school-age children. So, I’m in two minds as to whether I support columnist Joe Queenan’s position on the joys that come from freedom-from-kids. He is not the mythical empty nester bemoaning the loss of his kids to the vagaries of adulthood. He is not the control-freak helicopter parent suffering from the withdrawal pains that come from no longer being able to offer advice on math homework. He doesn’t miss offering a soothing critique on the latest cardboard diorama. Nor does he mourn the loss of the visits to school counsellors, the coach, the nurse or ferrying the kids to and from the endless after-school and extracurricular activities. He’s joyfully free.

While I anticipate a certain pleasure to be had from this added freedom when the kids trek off to college and beyond, I think it will come as a mixed blessing. Will I miss scratching my head over 9th grade calculus? Will I miss cheering on my budding basketball star? Will I miss drawing diagrams of electron shells and maps of the Middle East? Will I miss the video book reviews or the poetry slam? I think I will.

From the WSJ:

Once their children are all grown up and have moved away for good, parents are supposed to suffer from profound melancholy and sometimes even outright depression. This is the phenomenon widely known by the horrid term “empty nest syndrome.”

“It all went by too fast.” “We didn’t really enjoy those precious little moments as much as we should have.” “The future now looks so bleak.” These are the sorts of things that rueful empty nesters—nostalgic for the glorious, halcyon days when their children were young and innocent and still nesting—say to themselves. Or so runs the popular mythology.

This has not been my experience as a parent. From the moment my children left school forever ten years ago, I felt a radiant, ineffable joy suffuse my very being. Far from being depressed or sad, I was elated. There was a simple reason for this: From that point onward, I would never again have to think about the kids and school. Never, ever, ever.

 I would never have to go to the middle school office to find out why my child was doing so poorly in math. I would never have to ask the high-school principal why the French teacher didn’t seem to speak much French. I would never have to ask the grade-school principal why he rewrote my daughter’s sixth-grade graduation speech to include more references to his own prodigious sense of humor and caring disposition, and fewer jokes of her own.

I would never have to complain that the school had discontinued the WordMasters competition, the one activity at which my son truly excelled. I would never have to find out if my son was in any way responsible for a classmate damaging his wrist during recess. I would never again have to listen to my child, or anyone else’s, play the cello.

I would never have to attend a parent-teacher meeting to find out why my daughter’s history instructor was teaching the class that England’s King Edward II didn’t have a son. A son named Edward III. A son who took special pains to publicly hang the man who allegedly killed his dad—and let the body rot for a couple of days, just to show how ticked off he was about his father’s mistreatment. All of which my kids knew because their mother grew up 5 miles from the castle where Edward II was heinously butchered. Leaving behind Edward III. His son.

“The timeline gets confusing back then,” the teacher explained when we visited him. No, it doesn’t. In history, this thing happened and that thing didn’t. If you didn’t know that, your students got crummy AP scores. And then they didn’t get into the best college. My wife and I weren’t going out of our way to embarrass the teacher. It was just…well…first you’re wrong about Edward III, and then you’re wrong about Henry III, and before you know it, you’re wrong about Richard III. Who knows where it all could lead?

But now it no longer mattered. The ordeal had ended; the 18-year plague had run its course; the bitter cup had passed from my lips. I would never quaff from its putrid contents again. Good riddance.

Read the entire story here.

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MondayMap: The Grocery Store Project

grocery-store-project-screenshot

Danish photographer Simon Høgsberg spent 21 months shooting 97,000 images of people outside one Copenhagen supermarket. Høgsberg began taking pictures in April 2010 outside a supermarket called Føtex — fascinated by the varied sea of humanity that passed him by each day.

Then he cataloged the images and plotted the intersections of people who featured in multiple photographs on different days. The result is a visual map of the lives of around 450 people who randomly cropped up multiple times during his obsessive photo-shoot. Høgsberg titled his work The Grocery Store Project. I’m still grappling with the value of this huge undertaking, but it is wholly fascinating nonetheless.

Image: Screenshot of The Grocery Store Project. Courtesy of Simon Høgsberg.

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Justice Kennedy

Anthony_Kennedy_official_SCOTUS_portrait

This story from the Guardian sums up the historic decision on same-sex marriage issued by the US Supreme Court on June 26, 2015.

An excerpt from the 103 page opinion written for the majority (5-4) by Justice Anthony Kennedy:

The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity. The petitioners in these cases seek to find that liberty by marrying someone of the same sex and having their marriages deemed lawful on the same terms and conditions as marriages between persons of the opposite sex. 

The momentous legal opinion paves the way for a little more equality. Thank you, Justice Kennedy – and now the work in welcoming the four arch-conservative justices into the non-constructionist, non-textualist 21st century must continue apace.

From the Guardian:

His prose may lack the fiery eloquence of his US supreme court colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, or the razor-sharp precision of chief justice John Roberts, but the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy – granting a constitutional right to same-sex marriage across the United States – will go down as one of the most important legal documents in the history of the American civil rights struggle.

Court-watchers were left in little doubt where most of the nine justices stood on marriage equality after two and a half hours of extended oral arguments held the hushed halls of the nation’s highest tribunal spellbound in April.

On one side, the court’s traditional liberals: Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were withering in their view of the arguments advanced by Republican-controlled states that wanted to hold back the growing tide of legal rulings that backed gay marriage.

On the other side of the bench were the more reliably conservative members of the supreme court – Scalia, Samuel Alito and the typically silent Clarence Thomas – who believed not just that marriage should remain solely between a man and woman, but that the court had no right to voice its opinion on the matter at all.

More inscrutable, however, were Roberts, who barely said a word throughout the entire hearing, and Kennedy, who seemed genuinely unsure which way to lean: he expressed concern for the consequence of either ruling.

Kennedy, the 78-year-old former lawyer from California appointed to the bench by Republican president Ronald Reagan a generation ago, is seen – in theory – as one of the conservative majority. But in practice, he has long been the most enigmatic of the swing voters on some of the most defining stories in American history.

On Thursday, he had joined Roberts in defending Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms from yet another legal onslaught by conservative critics.

But on Friday, the day same-sex marriage became the law of the land, Roberts had decided to stay firmly in the conservative camp.

And so Kennedy became the one man to effectively determine a decision that will directly affect millions of Americans in love – and redefine a core legal and social bedrock for all of them, perhaps forever.

The closest Kennedy came to capturing the emotion felt by campaigners and protesters on both sides of the argument was when he was describing the institution at the heart of the argument.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family,” he wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Those who know the court best are in little doubt as to the significance of Kennedy’s words.

But on a day when a funeral for victims of the Charleston church shootings cast a long shadow over the ongoing battle for racial equality, the decision was a source of hope for many.

“America should be very proud,” said Barack Obama in an emotional statement from the White House rose garden.

“There’s so much more work to be done to extend the full promise of America to every American,” he added. “But today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Anthony Kennedy, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 2011. Public Domain.

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Pale Blue 2Dot0

IDL TIFF file

Thanks to the prodding of Carl Sagan, just over 25 years ago, on February 14, 1990 to be exact, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera towards Earth and snapped what has since become an iconic image. It showed our home planet as a very small, very pale blue dot — much as you’d expect from a distance of around 3.7 billion miles.

Though much closer to Earth, the Cassini spacecraft snapped a similar shot of our planet in 2013. Cassini is in its seemingly never-ending orbits of discovery around the Saturnian system, which it began over 10 years ago. It took the image in 2013: Earth in the distance at the center right is dwarfed by Saturn’s rings in the foreground. A rare, beautiful and remarkable image!

Image: Saturn’s rings and Earth in the same frame. Taken on July 19, 2013, via the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

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Sharing Only Goes So Far

Let’s face it humans are an avaricious lot. We stash, hoard, accumulate and collect. We’ve stored and saved ever since our ancient ancestors figured out the benefits of delayed gratification — usually to stave off the existential threat of starvation. But, we also learned to acquire and amass stuff because it increasingly conveyed status and social rank — presumably the more we had the more attractive we would be to a potential mate.

And, so the internet-enabled sharing economy presents a certain, counter-cultural dilemma: how much will be truly share? The answer is probably not as much as Airbnb, DogVacay, Snapgoods, Zipcar and TaskRabbit would have us believe. Dare I say it, but I have to believe that it’s more about disposable convenience than it is altruism.

From the Independent:

Rental services like Airbnb and Zipcar may have captured the public imagination but the so-called “sharing economy” will never become widespread because people have a strong psychological desire to own material goods, according to new research

The internet has led to the emergence of numerous sites that allow people to rent, borrow, lend, swap and share products rather than buying new ones.

However, such schemes will never replace purchase capitalism because people are culturally programmed to amass as many possessions as possible, says a new report by Nottingham Trent University, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

“The sharing economy is a credible way to help tackle today’s consumer society,” said Laura Piscicelli, a researcher at the university. “What we’ve identified in this study, though, is that people’s individual values may prevent ‘collaborative consumption’ from becoming mainstream,” she added.

Ms Piscicelli said ride-sharing and clothes swapping were on the increase, and some renting and second-hand retail websites had been successful. Other sites, like TaskRabbit, have enjoyed some success by allowing people to outsource household chores.

But the researcher said that most “sharing economy” websites had failed due to lack of interest – because they failed to satisfy out cultural craving to possess objects.

People’s psychological programming is not the only problem, according to co-researcher Professor Tim Cooper. He blamed manufacturers for opting to build disposable products – rather than long-lasting alternatives which could be rented or shared by many different customers.

“Most people want to own a washing machine so they don’t last as long as they ought to. The average machine lasts around 10 years – but you could easily make one these days that lasts 15 or 20 years,” Professor Cooper said. “But they don’t. And the reason for that is that companies are locked into this replacement cycle – they need the replacements to make money.

“One way to change that is to get people to rent it rather than buy it,” he said, adding that a whole range of “utilitarian” goods which lack a fashion element could be managed in that way.

“The problem at the moment is that the whole renting market is about appealing to a very narrow segment – people who can’t afford to buy, who aren’t credit worthy, paying ridiculous prices. No one in their right mind will rent unless they have to. So the market’s got to be transformed,” he says.

Read the entire article here.

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Comparing Forgiveness and Fiction

Here’s a brief look at the very different reactions from two groups of people to the white terrorist murders in Charleston, South Carolina last week. The groups are: families of the innocent victims and some of our political leaders and news pundits.

According to a vociferous group mostly sounding off on Fox/Faux News, the murders were variously due to: the victims themselves, Christian persecution, drugs, lack of faith, lack of guns, gays and transgender individuals, accident, evil, and the wrath of God.

And thus, the murders were certainly not white terrorism against blacks and not catalyzed by guns.

Gasp! How much our so called leaders need to learn from those who have truly lost.

Families of Victims

Politicians and Pundits
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” Nadine Collier, daughter of victim 70-year-old Ethel Lance. “Any time there is an accident like this… the president is clear, he doesn’t like Americans to have guns and so he uses every opportunity, this being another one, to basically go parrot that message.” Rick Perry, 2016 presidential hopeful.
Felecia Sanders , mother of Tywanza Sanders:”We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.” “It sounds crass, but frankly the best way to stop a bad person with a gun is to have a good person with a weapon that is equal or superior to the one that he’s using.” Mike Huckabee, 2016 presidential hopeful.
Bethane Middleton-Brown, representing family of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor:”DePayne Doctor was my sister. And I just thank you on the behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry. But one thing DePayne always joined in my family with is that she taught me we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.” “We don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be… You talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation.” Rick Santorum, 2016 presidential hopeful.
Anthony Thompson, representing family of Myra Thompson:”I forgive you, my family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be OK. Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.” “It seems to me – again, without having all the details about this one – that these individuals have been medicated. And there may be a real issue in this country, from the standpoint of these drugs, and how they’re used.” Rick Perry, 2016 presidential hopeful.
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons:”Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof — everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.” “I’m deeply concerned that this gunman chose to go into a church. Because there does seem to be a rising hostility against Christians across this country because of our Biblical views. It’s something we have to be aware of, and not create an atmosphere in which people take out their violent intentions against Christians.” E.W. Jackson.
Daughter of Ethel Lance:”I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people but God forgive you and I forgive you.” “Had somebody in that church had a gun, they probably would have been able to stop him. If somebody was there, they would have had the opportunity to pull out their weapon and take him out.” Steve Doocy, Fox News.
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Time to Blame the Victims, Again

Despite the tragic human cost of the latest gun violence in the United States and the need for families to mourn, grieve and seek solace, some will fuel the hatred. Some will show utter disregard of others’  pain and suffering. Some will display no empathy, no sympathy, no sensitivity, no compassion. Some will blame the victims. This is the other real tragedy.

So today — just two days after the horrific murder of nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church — let us consider Charles Cotton. Mr. Cotton is a devout board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Mr. Cotton blames Pastor and Senator Pinckney, one of the nine victims for the murders. You see, according to Mr. Cotton’s paranoid and myopic worldview, had Senator Pinckney not recently voted against local concealed gun carry legislation “eight of his church members…might be alive.” There we have it. This is the level of the weapons debate in America. Outrageous.

Mr. Cotton clearly loves his shiny metal weapons much more than he does his fellow man. I would assume that he also blames rape victims for their rapes, blacks for perpetrating white supremacist terrorism, and survivors of domestic violence for their abuse. But let’s certainly not blame the murderers and their convenient weapons of mass destruction. After all, black lives don’t matter — guns do!

Those of us who spare a human thought for the victims might actually characterize Senator Pinckney as a fallen hero. Those of us who are optimists about humanity’s future have to believe that the only way forward is through an open mind and open heart, and through non-violence. Paranoia comforted by weapons is a broken philosophy, fueled by darkness and despair.

 Read more here.

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The Bibliotherapist

google-search-books

No, the bibliotherapist is not a character from Jasper Fforde’s literary detective novels. And yes, there is such a profession. So, perhaps if you’re a committed bibliophile this may be the career for you. The catch: well, you need to get along well with people and books. Counts me out.

From the New Yorker:

Several years ago, I was given as a gift a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading “prescription.” I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying). I’ve long been wary of the peculiar evangelism of certain readers: You must read this, they say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes, with no allowance for the fact that books mean different things to people—or different things to the same person—at various points in our lives. I loved John Updike’s stories about the Maples in my twenties, for example, and hate them in my thirties, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life. I love to gorge on books over long breaks—I’ll pack more books than clothes, I told Berthoud. I confided my dirty little secret, which is that I don’t like buying or owning books, and always prefer to get them from the library (which, as I am a writer, does not bring me very good book-sales karma). In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

We had some satisfying back-and-forths over e-mail, with Berthoud digging deeper, asking about my family’s history and my fear of grief, and when she sent the final reading prescription it was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was “The Guide,” by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” “Henderson the Rain King,” by Saul Bellow, and “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as “The Case for God,” by Karen Armstrong, and “Sum,” by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

I worked my way through the books on the list over the next couple of years, at my own pace—interspersed with my own “discoveries”—and while I am fortunate enough to have my ability to withstand terrible grief untested, thus far, some of the insights I gleaned from these books helped me through something entirely different, when, over several months, I endured acute physical pain. The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance, Bagster, in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value. “Bibliotherapy is…a new science,” Bagster explains. “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” To a middle-aged client with “opinions partially ossified,” Bagster gives the following prescription: “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” (George Bernard Shaw is at the top of the list.) Bagster is finally called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature,” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Real Tragedy

SIG_ProMore deaths. More gun violence.

Leaders from all corners of the United States console grieving relatives and friends of those lost at the hands of another murderer. The story and images are all too common and desensitizing.

Our leaders speak of tragedy.

But the real tragedy is letting this continue, and allowing the violence and murder to be so easy and convenient.

Apparently, the latest act of senseless, peculiarly American violence comes at the hands of a 21-year old who was recently given a gun for his birthday. Most civilized nations tend to give different types of gifts. But, this is the land of the Second Amendment after all.

And, this time the location wasn’t a school or a movie theater, but a house of peace and worship. A tragic irony.

We are all complicit in acts like these through our inaction. So relax, do nothing, embrace the status-quo and let the weapon sales continue. Then just wait and beware the next time you visit:

a school or

a movie theater or

a post office or

a fast food restaurant or

a museum or

a car or

a parking lot or

a university or

military base or

a community center or

a church!

Read more from the NYT.

Image: SIG Pro semi-automatic pistol. Courtesy of Augustas Didžgalvis, 2012. Wikipedia.

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Keep Those Old Photos

google-search-photos

Chances are that when you are feeling sentimental or nostalgic you’ll head straight for the old photographs. If you’ve had the misfortune of being swept up in a natural or accidental disaster — fire, flood, hurricane — it’s likely that  the objects you seek out first  or miss the most while be your photographs. Those of us over the age of 35 may still have physical albums or piles of ancient images stored in shoeboxes or biscuit tins. And, like younger generations, we’ll also have countless pictures stored on our smartphones or computers or a third party internet service like Instagram or Pinterest — organized or not. We hold on to our physical and digital images because they carry meaning and store our connections. A timely article from Wired’s editor reminds us to keep even the bad ones.

From Wired:

The past 12 months sucked. Over that span I lost my grandmother, a childhood friend, and a colleague. Grief is a weak spring; if there’s not enough time between blows, you don’t bounce back. You just keep getting pushed down. Soon even a minor bummer could conjure deep sadness. I took comfort in photos: some dug out of boxes but most unearthed online.

One particularly low evening, I sat on the couch reading my departed friend’s blog. I’d read it before—beginning to end, a river that spanned years and documented her battle with illness. This time I just scanned for images. I sat there frozen. My wet face locked into the glow-cone of my laptop, captivated by an unexpected solace: candid photos.

The posed pictures didn’t do it for me; they felt like someone else, effigies at best. But in the side shots and reflections, the thumbnail in a screencapped FaceTime chat, I felt like I was really seeing her. It was as if those frames contained a forever-spark of her life.

“A posed image can never be the same as when someone’s guard is down.” So said Costa Sakellariou, a photography professor at Binghamton University whose course I took the summer of my second junior year. I enrolled in it to make up credits that I was too busy getting wasted to accrue during the regular academic year (helluva student, this guy), but the experience ended up being really important to me.

Costa would have us use manual film cameras for street photography. We’d set our aperture to a daylight-friendly f/16, prefocus at 3 feet, then go downtown to ambush pedestrians. “A candid photograph captures the intersections of life,” he’d say. Well, he said something like that back then, but he said exactly that when I called him to talk for the first time in 15 years.

He’s still at Binghamton, his students still shoot film (mostly), and he’s not super-sanguine about the direction photography is taking. It’s too controlled, too curated, too conceptual. “People have chosen to abandon the random elements,” he says. If you look at your Instagram feed, you’ll see he’s right. Though photos on ephemeral platforms like Snapchat are less carefully constructed, the Internet’s permanent record is full of poses and setups.

This got me thinking about my photographic legacy. I post about a half-dozen pics a week—mostly on Instagram, mostly staged. When I’m gone, my survivors will only know the artful shots of motorcycles, fourth-take selfies with my wife, scenic vistas, and the #dogsofwired.

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Image courtesy of Google Search.

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MondayMap: Cuisine Cartography

map-US-state-food

Love food? Love maps? You’re in the right place. What could be better than a story that combines both. To peripheral watchers of America and those who believe fast food is America’s national treasure, it may come as a surprise to see that many US states show very different tastes in cuisine, and some quite exotic.

The map shows cuisines that are the most common in each state barring the national average, which is probably pizza. Asian food mostly dominates the west coast, but Oregon does it’s own thing, of course (food stands). Coloradans maintain their health and fitness bent by favoring gluten-free foods, while Texans still love their tex-mex. There are some fascinating surprises: peruvian food tops the list in Virginia and Maryland; Vermont and Idaho prefer gastropubs; and West Virginia craves hot dogs.

Read more here.

Map courtesy of Huffington Post / Yelp.

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