Psychic Media Watch

Watching the media is one of my favorite amateur pursuits. It’s a continuous source of paradox, infotainment, hypocrisy, truthiness (Stephen Colbert, 2005), loud-mouthery (me, 2015) and hence, enjoyment. So, when two opposing headlines collide mid-way across the Atlantic it’s hard for me to resist highlighting the dissonance. I snapped both these stories on the same day, August 28, 2015. The headlines read:

New York Times:

Psychic-news-28Aug2015-NYTApparently, fortunetelling is “a scam”, according to convicted New York psychic, Celia Mitchell.

The Independent:

Psychic-news-28Aug2015-Independent

Yet, in the UK, the College of Policing recommends using psychics to find missing persons.

Enjoy.

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Bang Bang, You’re Dead. The Next Great Reality TV Show

Google-search-reality-tv

Aside from my disbelief that America can let the pathetic and harrowing violence from guns continue, the latest shocking episode in Virginia raises another disturbing thought. And, Jonathan Jones has captured it quite aptly. Are we increasingly internalizing real world violence as a vivid but trivial game? Despite trails of murder victims and untold trauma to families and friends, the rest of us are lulled into dream-like detachment. The violence is just like a video game, right? The violence is played out as a reality TV show, right? And we know both are just fiction — it’s not news, it’s titillating, voyeuristic entertainment. So, there is no need for us to do anything. Let’s just all sit back and wait for the next innovative installment in America’s murderous screenplay. Bang bang, you’re dead! The show must go on.

Or, you could do something different, however small, and I don’t mean recite your go-to prayer or converge around a candle!

From Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian:

Vester Flanagan’s video of his own murderous shooting of Alison Parker and Adam Ward shows a brutal double killing from the shooter’s point of view. While such a sick stunt echoes the horror film Peeping Tom by British director Michael Powell, in which a cameraman films his murders, this is not fiction. It is reality – or the closest modern life gets to reality.

I agree with those who say such excreta of violence should not be shared on social media, let alone screened by television stations or hosted by news websites. But like everything else that simply should not happen, the broadcasting and circulation of this monstrous video has happened. It is one more step in the destruction of boundaries that seems a relentless rush of our time. Nothing is sacred. Not even the very last moments of Alison Parker as we see, from Flanagan’s point of view, Flanagan’s gun pointing at her.

Like the giant gun Alfred Hitchcock used to create a disturbing point of view shot in Spellbound, the weapon dominates the sequence I have seen (I have no intention of seeking out the other scenes). The gun is in Flanagan’s hand and it gives him power. It is held there, shown to the camera, like a child’s proud toy or an exposed dick in his hand – it is obscene because you can see that it is so important to him, that it is supposed to be some kind of answer, revenger or – as gun fans like to nickname America’s most famous gun the Colt 45 – “the Equaliser”. The way Flanagan focuses on his gun revealed the madness of America’s gun laws because it shows the infantile and pathetic relationship the killer appears to have with his weapon. How can it make sense to give guns so readily to troubled individuals?

What did the killer expect viewers to get from watching his video? The horrible conclusion has to be that he expected empathy. Surely, that is not possible. The person who you care about when seeing this is unambiguously his victim. This is, viewed with any humanity at all, a harrowing view of the evil of killing another person. I watched it once. I can’t look again at Alison Parker’s realization of her plight.

The sense that we somehow have a right to see this, the decision of many media outlets to screen it, has a lot to do with the television trappings of this crime. Because part of the attack was seen and heard live on air, because the victims and the perpetrator all worked for the same TV station, there’s something stagey about it all. Sadly people so enjoy true life crime stories and this one has a hokey TV setting that recalls many fictional plots of films and TV programs.

It exposes the paradox of ‘reality television’ – that people on television are not real to the audience at all. The death of a presenter is therefore something that can be replayed on screens with impunity. To see how bizarre and improper this is, imagine if anyone broadcast or hosted a serial killer’s videos of graphic murders. How is viewing this better?

But there is still another level of unreality. The view of that gun pointing at Parker resembles video games like Call of Duty that similarly show your gun pointing at virtual enemies. Is this more than a coincidence? It is complicated by the fact that Flanagan had worked in television. His experience of cameras was not just virtual. So his act of videoing his crime would seem to be another crass, mad way of getting “revenge” on former colleagues. But the resemblance to video games is nevertheless eerie. It adds to the depressing conclusion that we may see more images taken by killers, more dead-eyed recordings of inhuman acts. For video games do create fantasy worlds in which pointing a gun is such a light thing to do.

In this film from the abyss the gun is used as if it was game. Pointed at real people with the ease of manipulating a joystick. And bang bang, they are dead.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Tragedy. The Reaction

gun-violence-reaction

Another day, another dark and twisted murder in the United States facilitated by the simple convenience of a gun. The violence and horror seems to become more incredible each time: murder in restaurants, murder at the movie theater, murder on the highway, murder in the convenience store, murder at work, murder in a place of worship, and now murder on-air, live and staged via social media.

But, as I’ve mentioned before the real tragedy is the inaction of the people. Oh apologies, there is a modicum of action, but it is inconsequential, with apologies to the victims’ families. After each mass shooting — we don’t hear much about individual murder anymore (far too common) — the pattern is lamentably predictable: tears and grief; headlines of disbelief and horror; mass soul-searching (lasting several minutes at most); prayer and words, often spoken by a community or national leader; tributes to the victims and sympathy for the families and friends; candlelight vigils, balloons, flowers and cards at the crime scene. It’s all so sad and pathetic. Another day, another mass murder. Repeat the inaction.

Until individuals, neighbors and communities actually take real action to curb gun violence these sad tragedies and empty gestures will continue to loop endlessly.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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HR and the Evil Omnipotence of the Passive Construction

Next time you browse through your company’s compensation or business expense policies, or for that matter, anything written by the human resources (HR) department, cast your mind to George Orwell. In one of his critical essays Politics and the English Language, Orwell makes a clear case for the connection between linguistic obfuscation and political power. While Orwell’s obsession was on the political machine, you could just as well apply his reasoning to the mangled literary machinations of every corporate HR department.

Oh, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, especially when it is used to construct obtuse passive sentences without a subject — perfect for a rulebook that all citizens must follow and that no one can challenge.

From the Guardian:

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of human resources’. All issues are human resource issues, and human resources itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

OK, that’s not exactly what Orwell wrote. The hair-splitters among you will moan that I’ve taken the word “politics” out of the above and replaced it with “human resources”. Sorry.

But I think there’s no denying that had he been alive today, Orwell – the great opponent and satirist of totalitarianism – would have deplored the bureaucratic repression of HR. He would have hated their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.

In particular, Orwell would have utterly despised the language that HR people use. In his excellent essay Politics and the English Language (where he began the thought that ended with Newspeak), Orwell railed against the language crimes committed by politicians.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Repeat the politics/human resources switch in the above and the argument remains broadly the same. Yes, HR is not explaining away murders, but it nonetheless deliberately misuse language as a sort of low-tech mind control to avert our eyes from office atrocities and keep us fixed on our inboxes. Thus mass sackings are wrapped up in cowardly sophistry and called rightsizings, individuals are offboarded to the jobcentre and the few hardy souls left are consoled by their membership of a more streamlined organisation.

Orwell would have despised the passive constructions that are the HR department’s default setting. Want some flexibility in your contract? HR says company policy is unable to support that. Forgotten to accede to some arbitrary and impractical office rule? HR says we are minded to ask everyone to remember that it is essential to comply by rule X. Try to question whether an ill-judged commitment could be reversed? HR apologises meekly that the decision has been made.

Not giving subjects to any of these responses is a deliberate ploy. Subjects give ownership. They imbue accountability. Not giving sentences subjects means that HR is passing the buck, but to no one in particular. And with no subject, no one can be blamed, or protested against.

The passive construction is also designed to give the sense that it’s not HR speaking, but that they are the conduit for a higher-up and incontestable power. It’s designed to be both authoritative and banal, so that we torpidly accept it, like the sovereignty of the Queen. It’s saying: “This is the way things are – deal with it because it isn’t changing.” It’s indifferent and deliberately opaque. It’s the worst kind of utopianism (the kind David Graeber targets in his recent book on “stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy”), where system and rule are king and hang the individual. It’s deeply, deeply oppressive.

Annual leave is perhaps an even worse example of HR’s linguistic malpractice. The phrase gives the sense that we are not sitting in the office but rather fighting some dismal war and that we should be grateful for the mercy of Field Marshal HR in allowing us a finite absence from the front line. Is it too indulgent and too frivolous to say that we are going on holiday (even if we’re just taking the day to go to Ikea)? Would it so damage our career prospects? Would the emerging markets of the world be emboldened by the decadence and complacency of saying we’re going on hols? I don’t think so, but they clearly do.

Actually, I don’t think it’s so much of a stretch to imagine Orwell himself establishing the whole HR enterprise as a sort of grim parody of Stalinism; a never-ending, ever-expanding live action art installation sequel to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Look at your office’s internal newsletter. Is it an incomprehensible black hole of sense? Is it trying to prod you into a place of content, incognisant of all the everyday hardships and irritations you endure? If your answer is yes, then I think that like me, you find it fairly easy to imagine Orwell composing these Newspeak emails from beyond the grave to make us believe that War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and 2+2=5.

Delving deeper, the parallels become increasingly hard to ignore. Company restructures and key performance indicators make no sense in the abstract, merely serving to demotivate the workforce, sap confidence and obstruct productivity. So are they actually cleverly designed parodies of Stalin’s purges and the cult of Stakhanovism?

Read the entire story here.

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Passion, Persistence and Pluto

New Horizons Pluto Flyby

Alliterations aside this is a great story of how passion, persistence and persuasiveness can make a real impact. This is especially significant when you look at the triumphant climax to NASA’s unlikely New Horizons mission to Pluto. Over 20 years in the making and fraught with budget cuts and political infighting — NASA is known for its bureaucracy — the mission reached its zenith last week. While thanks go to the many hundreds engineers and scientists involved from its inception, the mission would not have succeeded without the vision and determination of one person — Alan Stern.

In a music track called “Over the Sea” by the 1980s (and 90s) band Information Society there is a sample of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk saying,

“In every revolution there is one man with a vision.”

How appropriate.

From Smithsonian

On July 14 at approximately 8 a.m. Eastern time, a half-ton NASA spacecraft that has been racing across the solar system for nine and a half years will finally catch up with tiny Pluto, at three billion miles from the Sun the most distant object that anyone or anything from Earth has ever visited. Invisible to the naked eye, Pluto wasn’t even discovered until 1930, and has been regarded as our solar system’s oddball ever since, completely different from the rocky planets close to the Sun, Earth included, and equally unlike the outer gas giants. This quirky and mysterious little world will swing into dramatic view as the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach, just 6,000 miles away, and onboard cameras snap thousands of photographs. Other instruments will gauge Pluto’s topography, surface and atmospheric chemistry, temperature, magnetic field and more. New Horizons will also take a hard look at Pluto’s five known moons, including Charon, the largest. It might even find other moons, and maybe a ring or two.
It was barely 20 years ago when scientists first learned that Pluto, far from alone at the edge of the solar system, was just one in a vast swarm of small frozen bodies in wide, wide orbit around the Sun, like a ring of debris left at the outskirts of a construction zone. That insight, among others, has propelled the New Horizons mission. Understand Pluto and how it fits in with those remnant bodies, scientists say, and you can better understand the formation and evolution of the solar system itself.
If all goes well, “encounter day,” as the New Horizons team calls it, will be a cork-popping celebration of tremendous scientific and engineering prowess—it’s no small feat to fling a collection of precision instruments through the frigid void at speeds up to 47,000 miles an hour to rendezvous nearly a decade later with an icy sphere about half as wide as the United States is broad. The day will also be a sweet vindication for the leader of the mission, Alan Stern. A 57-year-old astronomer, aeronautical engineer, would-be astronaut and self-described “rabble-rouser,” Stern has spent the better part of his career fighting to get Pluto the attention he thinks it deserves. He began pushing NASA to approve a Pluto mission nearly a quarter of a century ago, then watched in frustration as the agency gave the green light to one Pluto probe after another, only to later cancel them. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says, “like watching Lucy yank the football away from Charlie Brown, over and over.” Finally, Stern recruited other scientists and influential senators to join his lobbying effort, and because underdog Pluto has long been a favorite of children, proponents of the mission savvily enlisted kids to write to Congress, urging that funding for the spacecraft be approved.
New Horizons mission control is headquartered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore, where Stern and several dozen other Plutonians will be installed for weeks around the big July event, but I caught up with Stern late last year in Boulder at the Southwest Research Institute, where he is an associate vice president for research and development. A picture window in his impressive office looks out onto the Rockies, where he often goes to hike and unwind. Trim and athletic at 5-foot-4, he’s also a runner, a sport he pursues with the exactitude of, well, a rocket scientist. He has calculated his stride rate, and says (only half-joking) that he’d be world-class if only his legs were longer. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that he is a polarizing figure in the planetary science community; his single-minded pursuit of Pluto has annoyed some colleagues. So has his passionate defense of Pluto in the years since astronomy officials famously demoted it to a “dwarf planet,” giving it the bum’s rush out of the exclusive solar system club, now limited to the eight biggies.
The timing of that insult, which is how Stern and other jilted Pluto-lovers see it, could not have been more dramatic, coming in August 2006, just months after New Horizons had rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral. What makes Pluto’s demotion even more painfully ironic to Stern is that some of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that he had predicted greatly strengthened his opponents’ arguments, all while opening the door to a new age of planetary science. In fact, Stern himself used the term “dwarf planet” as early as the 1990s.
The wealthy astronomer Percival Lowell, widely known for insisting there were artificial canals on Mars, first started searching for Pluto at his private observatory in Arizona in 1905. Careful study of planetary orbits had suggested that Neptune was not the only object out there exerting a gravitational tug on Uranus, and Lowell set out to find what he dubbed “Planet X.” He died without success, but a young man named Clyde Tombaugh, who had a passion for astronomy though no college education, arrived at the observatory and picked up the search in 1929. After 7,000 hours staring at some 90 million star images, he caught sight of a new planet on his photographic plates in February 1930. The name Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, was suggested by an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, who had been discussing the discovery with her grandfather. The name was unanimously adopted by the Lowell Observatory staff in part because the first two letters are Percival Lowell’s initials.
Pluto’s solitary nature baffled scientists for decades. Shouldn’t there be other, similar objects out beyond Neptune? Why did the solar system appear to run out of material so abruptly? “It seemed just weird that the outer solar system would be so empty, while the inner solar system was filled with planets and asteroids,” recalls David Jewitt, a planetary scientist at UCLA. Throughout the decades various astronomers proposed that there were smaller bodies out there, yet unseen. Comets that periodically sweep in to light up the night sky, they speculated, probably hailed from a belt or disk of debris at the solar system’s outer reaches.
Stern, in a paper published in 1991 in the journal Icarus, argued not only that the belt existed, but also that it contained things as big as Pluto. They were simply too far away, and too dim, to be easily seen. His reasoning: Neptune’s moon Triton is a near-twin of Pluto, and probably orbited the Sun before it was captured by Neptune’s gravity. Uranus has a drastically tilted axis of rotation, probably due to a collision eons ago with a Pluto-size object. That made three Pluto-like objects at least, which suggested to Stern there had to be more. The number of planets in the solar system would someday need to be revised upward, he thought. There were probably hundreds, with the majority, including Pluto, best assigned to a subcategory of “dwarf planets.”
Just a year later, the first object (other than Pluto and Charon) was discovered in that faraway region, called the Kuiper Belt after the Dutch-born astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Found by Jewitt and his colleague, Jane Luu, it’s only about 100 miles across, while Pluto spans 1,430 miles. A decade later, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo discovered an object about half the size of Pluto, large enough to be spherical, which they named Quaoar (pronounced “kwa-war” and named for the creator god in the mythology of the pre-Columbian Tongva people native to the Los Angeles basin). It was followed in quick succession by Haumea, and in 2005, Brown’s group found Eris, about the same size as Pluto and also spherical.
Planetary scientists have spotted many hundreds of smaller Kuiper Belt Objects; there could be as many as ten billion that are a mile across or more. Stern will take a more accurate census of their sizes with the cameras on New Horizons. His simple idea is to map and measure Pluto’s and Charon’s craters, which are signs of collisions with other Kuiper Belt Objects and thus serve as a representative sample. When Pluto is closest to the Sun, frozen surface material evaporates into a temporary atmosphere, some of which escapes into space. This “escape erosion” can erase older craters, so Pluto will provide a recent census. Charon, without this erosion, will offer a record that spans cosmic history. In one leading theory, the original, much denser Kuiper Belt would have formed dozens of planets as big or bigger than Earth, but the orbital changes of Jupiter and Saturn flung most of the building blocks away before that could happen, nipping planet formation in the bud.
By the time New Horizons launched at Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006, it had become difficult to argue that Pluto was materially different from many of its Kuiper Belt neighbors. Curiously, no strict definition of “planet” existed at the time, so some scientists argued that there should be a size cutoff, to avoid making the list of planets too long. If you called Pluto and the other relatively small bodies something else, you’d be left with a nice tidy eight planets—Mercury through Neptune. In 2000, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, had famously chosen the latter option, leaving Pluto out of a solar system exhibit.
Then, with New Horizons less than 15 percent of the way to Pluto, members of the International Astronomical Union, responsible for naming and classifying celestial objects, voted at a meeting in Prague to make that arrangement official. Pluto and the others were now to be known as dwarf planets, which, in contrast to Stern’s original meaning, were not planets. They were an entirely different sort of beast. Because he discovered Eris, Caltech’s Brown is sometimes blamed for the demotion. He has said he would have been fine with either outcome, but he did title his 2010 memoir How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.
“It’s embarrassing,” recalls Stern, who wasn’t in Prague for the vote. “It’s wrong scientifically and it’s wrong pedagogically.” He said the same sort of things publicly at the time, in language that’s unusually blunt in the world of science. Among the dumbest arguments for demoting Pluto and the others, Stern noted, was the idea that having 20 or more planets would be somehow inconvenient. Also ridiculous, he says, is the notion that a dwarf planet isn’t really a planet. “Is a dwarf evergreen not an evergreen?” he asks.
Stern’s barely concealed contempt for what he considers foolishness of the bureaucratic and scientific varieties hasn’t always endeared him to colleagues. One astronomer I asked about Stern replied, “My mother taught me that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” Another said, “His last name is ‘Stern.’ That tells you all you need to know.”
DeGrasse Tyson, for his part, offers measured praise: “When it comes to everything from rousing public sentiment in support of astronomy to advocating space science missions to defending Pluto, Alan Stern is always there.”
Stern also inspires less reserved admiration. “Alan is incredibly creative and incredibly energetic,” says Richard Binzel, an MIT planetary scientist who has known Stern since their graduate-school days. “I don’t know where he gets it.”
Read the entire article here.

Image: New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, celebrates with New Horizons Flight Controllers after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. Public domain.
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The Big Breakthrough Listen

If you were a Russian billionaire with money to burn and a penchant for astronomy and physics what would you do? Well, rather than spend it on a 1,000 ft long super-yacht, you might want to spend it on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That’s what Yuri Milner is doing. So, hats off to him and his colleagues.

Though, I do hope any far-distant aliens have similar, or greater, sums of cash to throw at equipment to transmit a signal so that we may receive it. Also, I have to wonder what alien oligarchs spend their excess millions and billions on — and what type of monetary system they use (hopefully not Euros).

From the Guardian:

Astronomers are to embark on the most intensive search for alien life yet by listening out for potential radio signals coming from advanced civilisations far beyond the solar system.

Leading researchers have secured time on two of the world’s most powerful telescopes in the US and Australia to scan the Milky Way and neighbouring galaxies for radio emissions that betray the existence of life elsewhere. The search will be 50 times more sensitive, and cover 10 times more sky, than previous hunts for alien life.

The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the largest steerable telescope on the planet, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, are contracted to lead the unprecedented search that will start in January 2016. In tandem, the Lick Observatory in California will perform the most comprehensive search for optical laser transmissions beamed from other planets.

Operators have signed agreements that hand the scientists thousands of hours of telescope time per year to eavesdrop on planets that orbit the million stars closest to Earth and the 100 nearest galaxies. The telescopes will scan the centre of the Milky Way and the entire length of the galactic plane.

Launched on Monday at the Royal Society in London, with the Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the Breakthrough Listen project has some of the world’s leading experts at the helm. Among them are Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, Geoff Marcy, who has discovered more planets beyond the solar system than anyone, and the veteran US astronomer Frank Drake, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (Seti).

Stephen Hawking said the effort was “critically important” and raised hopes for answering the question of whether humanity has company in the universe. “It’s time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth,” he said. “Mankind has a deep need to explore, to learn, to know. We also happen to be sociable creatures. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”

The project will not broadcast signals into space, because scientists on the project believe humans have more to gain from simply listening out for others. Hawking, however, warned against shouting into the cosmos, because some advanced alien civilisations might possess the same violent, aggressive and genocidal traits found among humans.

“A civilisation reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria,” he said.

The alien hunters are the latest scientists to benefit from the hefty bank balance of Yuri Milner, a Russian internet billionaire, who quit a PhD in physics to make his fortune. In the past five years, Milner has handed out prizes worth tens of millions of dollars to physicists, biologists and mathematicians, to raise the public profile of scientists. He is the sole funder of the $100m Breakthrough Listen project.

“It is our responsibility as human beings to use the best equipment we have to try to answer one of the biggest questions: are we alone?” Milner told the Guardian. “We cannot afford not to do this.”

Milner was named after Yuri Gagarin, who became the first person to fly in space in 1961, the year he was born.

The Green Bank and Parkes observatories are sensitive enough to pick up radio signals as strong as common aircraft radar from planets around the nearest 1,000 stars. Civilisations as far away as the centre of the Milky Way could be detected if they emit radio signals more than 10 times the power of the Arecibo planetary radar on Earth. The Lick Observatory can pick up laser signals as weak as 100W from nearby stars 25tn miles away.

Read the entire story here.

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Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

Apparently, in this day and age of ubiquitous technology there is no excuse for not having evidence. So, if you recently had a terrific (or terrible) meal in your (un-)favorite restaurant you must have pictures to back up your story. If you just returned from a gorgeous mountain hike you must have images for every turn on the trial. Just attended your high-school reunion? Pictures! Purchased a new mattress? Pictures! Cracked your heirloom tea service? Pictures! Mowed the lawn? Pictures! Stubbed toe? Pictures!

The pressure to record our experiences has grown in lock-step with the explosive growth in smartphones and connectivity. Collecting and sharing our memories remains a key part of our story-telling nature. But, this obsessive drive to record every minutiae of every experience, however trivial, has many missing the moment — behind the camera or in front of it, we are no longer in the moment.

Just as our online social networks have stirred growth in the increasingly neurotic condition known as FOMO (fear of missing out), we are now on the cusp on some new techno-enabled, acronym-friendly disorders. Let’s call these FONBB — fear of not being believed, FONGELOFAMP — fear of not getting enough likes or followers as my peers, FOBIO — fear of becoming irrelevant online.

From NYT:

“Pics or it didn’t happen” is the response you get online when you share some unlikely experience or event and one of your friends, followers or stalkers calls you out for evidence. “Next thing I know, I’m bowling with Bill Murray!” Pics or it didn’t happen. “I taught my cockatoo how to rap ‘Baby Got Back’ — in pig Latin.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Against all odds, I briefly smiled today.” Pics or it didn’t happen!

It’s a glib reply to a comrade’s boasting — coming out of Internet gaming forums to rebut boasts about high scores and awesome kills — but the fact is we like proof. Proof in the instant replay that decides the big game, the vacation pic that persuades us we were happy once, the selfie that reassures us that our face is still our own. “Pics or it didn’t happen” gained traction because in an age of bountiful technology, when everyone is armed with a camera, there is no excuse for not having evidence.

Does the phrase have what it takes to transcend its humble origins as a cruddy meme and become an aphorism in the pantheon of “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Seeing is believing”? For clues to the longevity of “Pics,” let’s take a survey of some classic epigrams about visual authority and see how they hold up under the realities of contemporary American life.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a dependable workhorse, emerging from early-­20th-­century newspaper culture as a pitch to advertisers: Why rely on words when an illustration can accomplish so much more? It seems appropriate to test the phrase with a challenge drawn from contemporary news media. Take one of the Pulitzer Prize-­winning photographs from The St. Louis Post-­Dispatch’s series on Ferguson. In the darkness, a figure is captured in an instant of dynamic motion: legs braced, long hair flying wild, an extravagant plume of smoke and flames trailing from the incendiary object he is about to hurl into space. His chest is covered by an American-­flag T-­shirt, he holds fire in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, a living collage of the grand and the bathetic.

Headlines — like the graphics that gave birth to “A picture is worth a thousand words” — are a distillation, a shortcut to meaning. Breitbart News presented that photograph under “Rioters Throw Molotov Cocktails at Police in Ferguson — Again.” CBS St. Louis/Associated Press ran with “Protester Throws Tear-­Gas Canister Back at Police While Holding Bag of Chips.” Rioter, protester, Molotov cocktail, tear-­gas canister. Peace officers, hypermilitarized goons. What’s the use of a thousand words when they are Babel’s noise, the confusion of a thousand interpretations?

“Seeing is believing” was an early entry in the canon. Most sources attribute it to the Apostle Thomas’s incredulity over Jesus’ resurrection. (“Last night after you left the party, Jesus turned all the water into wine” is a classic “Pics or it didn’t happen” moment.) “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Once Jesus shows up, Thomas concludes that seeing will suffice. A new standard of proof enters the lexicon.

Intuitive logic is not enough, though. Does “Seeing is believing” hold up when confronted by current events like, say, the killing of Eric Garner last summer by the police? The bystander’s video is over two minutes long, so dividing it into an old-­fashioned 24 frames per second gives us a bounty of more than 3,000 stills. A real bonanza, atrocity-­wise. But here the biblical formulation didn’t hold up: Even with the video and the medical examiner’s assessment of homicide, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Time to downgrade “Seeing is believing,” too, and kick “Justice is blind” up a notch.

Can we really use one cherry-­picked example to condemn a beloved idiom? Is the system rigged? Of course it is. Always, everywhere. Let’s say these expressions concerning visual evidence are not to blame for their failures, but rather subjectivity is. The problem is us. How we see things. How we see people. We can broaden our idiomatic investigations to include phrases that account for the human element, like “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” We can also change our idiomatic stressors from contemporary video to early photography. Before smartphones put a developing booth in everyone’s pocket, affordable portable cameras loosed amateur photographers upon the world. Everyday citizens could now take pictures of children in their Sunday best, gorgeous vistas of unspoiled nature and lynchings.

A hundred years ago, Americans took souvenirs of lynchings, just as we might now take a snapshot of a farewell party for a work colleague or a mimosa-­heavy brunch. They were keepsakes, sent to relatives to allow them to share in the event, and sometimes made into postcards so that one could add a “Wish you were here”-­type endearment. In the book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” Leon F. Litwack shares an account of the 1915 lynching of Thomas Brooks in Fayette County, Tenn. “Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene. .?.?. People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling at the end of the rope.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Picture-­card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools, the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.” Pics or it didn’t happen.

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Gadzooks, Gosh, Tarnation and the F-Bomb

Blimey! How our lexicon of foul language has evolved! Up to a few hundred years ago most swear words and oaths bore some connection to God, Jesus or other religious figure or event. But the need to display some level of dubious piety and avoid a lightening bolt from the blue led many to invent and mince a whole range of creative euphemisms. Hence, even today, we still hear words like “drat”, “gosh”, “tarnation”, “by george”, “by jove”, “heck”, “strewth”, “odsbodikins”, “gadzooks”, “doggone”.

More recently our linguistic penchant for shock and awe stems mostly from euphemistic — or not — labels for body parts and bodily functions — think: “freaking” or “shit” or “dick” and all manner of “f-words” and “c-words”. Sensitivities aside, many of us are fortunate enough to live in nations that have evolved beyond corporal or even capital punishment for uttering such blasphemous or vulgar indiscretions.

So, the next time your drop the “f-bomb” or a “dagnabbit” in public reflect for a while and thank yourself for supporting your precious democracy over the neighboring theocracy.

From WSJ:

At street level and in popular culture, Americans are freer with profanity now than ever before—or so it might seem to judge by how often people throw around the “F-bomb” or use a certain S-word of scatological meaning as a synonym for “stuff.” Or consider the millions of fans who adore the cartoon series “South Park,” with its pint-size, raucously foul-mouthed characters.

But things might look different to an expedition of anthropologists visiting from Mars. They might conclude that Americans today are as uptight about profanity as were our 19th-century forbears in ascots and petticoats. It’s just that what we think of as “bad” words is different. To us, our ancestors’ word taboos look as bizarre as tribal rituals. But the real question is: How different from them, for better or worse, are we?

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive. An anatomy book in the 1400s could casually refer to a part of the female anatomy with what we today call the C-word. But over time, referring to these things in common conversation came to be regarded with a kind of pearl-clutching horror.

By the 1500s, as English began taking its place alongside Latin as a world language with a copious high literature, a fashion arose for using fancy Latinate terms in place of native English ones for more private matters. Thus was born a slightly antiseptic vocabulary, with words like copulate and penis. Even today modern English has no terms for such things that are neither clinical nor vulgar, along the lines of arm or foot or whistle.

The burgeoning bourgeois culture of the late 1700s, both in Great Britain and America, was especially alarmist about the “down there” aspect of things. In growing cities with stark social stratification, a new gentry developed a new linguistic self-consciousness—more English grammars were published between 1750 and 1800 than had ever appeared before that time.

In speaking of cooked fowl, “white” and “dark” meat originated as terms to avoid mention of breasts and limbs. What one does in a restroom, another euphemism of this era, is only laboriously classified as repose. Bosom and seat (for the backside) originated from the same impulse.

Passages in books of the era can be opaque to us now without an understanding of how particular people had gotten: In Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” Giles the butler begins, “I got softly out of bed; drew on a pair of…” only to be interrupted with “Ladies present…” after which he dutifully says “…of shoes, sir.” He wanted to say trousers, but because of where pants sit on the body, well…

Or, from the gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884 and copious enough to take up a shelf and bend it, you would never have known in the original edition that the F-word or the C-word existed.

Such moments extend well into the early 20th century. In a number called “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” in the 1932 Broadway musical “42nd Street,” Ginger Rogers sings “He did right by little Nelly / with a shotgun at his bell-” and then interjects “tummy” instead. “Belly” was considered a rude part of the body to refer to; tummy was OK because of its association with children.

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The Pivot and the Money

Once upon a time the word “pivot” usually referred to an object’s point of rotation. Then, corporate America got its sticky hands all over it. The word even found its way in to Microsoft Excel — as in Pivot Table. But, the best euphemistic example comes from one of my favorite places for invention and euphemism — Silicon Valley. In this region of the world pivot has come to mean a complete change in business direction.

Now, let’s imagine you’re part of start-up company. At the outset, your company has a singularly great, world-changing idea. You believe it’s the best idea, since, well, the last greatest world-changing idea. It’s unique. You are totally committed. You secure funding from some big name VCs anxious to capitalize and make the next $100 billion. You and your team work countless hours on realizing your big idea — it’s your dream, your passion. Then, suddenly you realize that your idea is utterly worthless — the product looks good but nobody, absolutely nobody, will consider it, let alone buy it; in fact, a hundred other companies before you had the same great, unique idea and all failed.

What are you and your company to do? Well, you pivot.

The entrepreneurial side of me would cheer an opportunistic company for “pivoting”, abandoning that original, great idea, and seeking another. Better than packing one’s bags and enrolling in corporate serfdom, right? But, there’s another part of me that thinks this is an ethical sell-out: it’s disingenuous to the financial backers, and it shows lack of integrity. That said, the example is of course set in Silicon Valley.

From Medium:

It was about a month after graduating from Techstars that my co-founder, Lianne, and I had our “oh shit” moment.

This is a special moment for founders; it’s not when you find a fixable bug in your app, when you realize you have been poorly optimizing your conversion funnel, or when you get a “no” from an investor. An “oh shit” moment is when you realize there is something fundamentally wrong with your business.

In our case, we realized that the product that we wanted to create was irreconcilable with a viable business model. So who were we going to tell? Techstars, who just accepted us into their highly prestigious accelerator on the basis that we could make it work? Our investors, who we just closed a round with?

It turns out, our Techstars family, our friends, and the angels (literally) who invested in us became our greatest allies, supporters, and advocates as we navigated the treacherous, terrifying, uncertain, and ultimately wildly liberating waters of a pivot. So let’s start at the beginning…

In February of 2014, Lianne and I were completing our undergrad CS degrees at the University of Colorado. As we were reflecting on the past four years of school, we realized that the most valuable experiences that we had happened outside the classroom in the incredible communities that we became involved in. Being techies, we wanted to build a product which helped other students make these “serendipitous” connections around their campus?—?to make the most of their time in college as well. We wanted to help our friends explore their world around them.
We called it Varsity. The app was basically a replacement for the unreadable kiosks full of posters found on college campuses. Students could submit events and activities happening around their campus that others could discover and indicate they were attending. We also built in a personalization mechanism, which proactively suggested things to do around you based upon your interests.
A few months later, the MVP of the Varsity and a well-practiced pitch won us the New Venture Challenge at CU, which came with a $13k award and garnered the attention of Techstars Boulder.
The next couple of months were a whirlwind of change; Lianne and I graduated, we transitioned to our first full-time job (working for ourselves), and I spent a month in Israel with my sister before she left for college in Florida. We spent a good amount of our time networking our way around Techstars?—?feeling a little like the high school kids at a college party?—?but loving it at the same time. We met some incredible people (Sue Heilbronner, Brad Berenthal, Zach Nies, and Howard Diamond, to name a few) who taught us so much about our nascent business in a very short time.
We took as many meetings as we could with whomever would talk with us, and we funneled all of our learnings into our Techstars application. Through some combination of luck, sweat, and my uncanny ability to say the right things when standing in front of a large group of people, we were accepted into Techstars.
Techstars was incredibly challenging for us. The 3-month program was also equally rewarding. Lianne and I learned more about ourselves, our company, and our relationship with each other than we had in 4 years of undergraduate education together. About half-way through the program we rebranded Varsity to Native and started exploring ways to monitize the platform. The product had come along way?—?we had done some incredible engineering and design work that we were happy with.
Unfortunately, the problem with Varsity was absolutely zero alignment between the product that we wanted to build and the way that would bring it to market. One option was to spend the next 3 years grinding through the 8-month sales-cycles of universities across the country, which felt challenging (in the wrong ways) and bureaucratic. Alternatively, we could monetize the student attention we garnered, which we feared would cause discordance between the content students wanted to see and the content that advertisers wanted to show them.
Soon after graduating from Techstars, someone showed us Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk about how great leaders inspire action. Sinek describes how famous brands like Apple engage their customers starting with their “why” for doing business, which takes precedence over “how” they do business, and even over “what” their business does. At Native, we knew our “why” was something about helping people discover the world around them, and we now knew that the “how” and “what” of our current business wouldn’t get us there.
So, we decided to pivot.
Around this time I grabbed coffee with my friend Fletcher Richman. I explained to him the situation and asked for his advice. He offered the perspective that startups are designed to solve problems in the most efficient way possible. Basically, startups should be created to fill voids in the market that weren’t being solved by an existing company. The main issue was we had no problem to solve.
Shit.
250k in funding, but nothing to fund? Do we give up, give the money back, and go get real jobs? Lianne and I weren’t done yet, so we went in search of problems worth solving.

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Living In And From a Box

google-search-boxes

Many of us in the West are lucky enough to live in a house or apartment. But for all intents it’s really an over-sized box. We are box dwellers. So it comes as no surprise to see our fascination of boxes accelerate over the last 10 years or so. These more recent boxes are much smaller than the ones in which we eat, relax, work and sleep, and they move around; these new boxes are the ones that deliver all we need to eat, relax, work and sleep.

Nowadays from the comfort of our own big box we can have anything delivered to us in a smaller box. [As I write this I’m sitting on my favorite armchair, which arrived from an online store, via a box]. But, this age of box-delivered convenience is very much a double-edged sword. We can now sate our cravings for almost anything, anytime and have an anonymous box-bringer deliver it to us almost instantaneously and all without any human interaction. We can now surround ourselves with foods and drinks and objects (and boxes) without ever leaving our very own box. We are becoming antisocial hermits.

From Medium:

Angel the concierge stands behind a lobby desk at a luxe apartment building in downtown San Francisco, and describes the residents of this imperial, 37-story tower. “Ubers, Squares, a few Twitters,” she says. “A lot of work-from-homers.”

And by late afternoon on a Tuesday, they’re striding into the lobby at a just-get-me-home-goddammit clip, some with laptop bags slung over their shoulders, others carrying swank leather satchels. At the same time a second, temporary population streams into the building: the app-based meal delivery people hoisting thermal carrier bags and sacks. Green means Sprig. A huge M means Munchery. Down in the basement, Amazon Prime delivery people check in packages with the porter. The Instacart groceries are plunked straight into a walk-in fridge.

This is a familiar scene. Five months ago I moved into a spartan apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of tech workers live. Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring: Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible, quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one another. I floated a few “hi’s” in the elevator when I first moved in, but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was clear: Lady, this is not that kind of building.

Back in the elevator in the 37-story tower, the messengers do talk, one tells me. They end up asking each other which apps they work for: Postmates. Seamless. EAT24. GrubHub. Safeway.com. A woman hauling two Whole Foods sacks reads the concierge an apartment number off her smartphone, along with the resident’s directions: “Please deliver to my door.”

“They have a nice kitchen up there,” Angel says. The apartments rent for as much as $5,000 a month for a one-bedroom. “But so much, so much food comes in. Between 4 and 8 o’clock, they’re on fire.”

I start to walk toward home. En route, I pass an EAT24 ad on a bus stop shelter, and a little further down the street, a Dungeons & Dragons–type dude opens the locked lobby door of yet another glass-box residential building for a Sprig deliveryman:

“You’re…”

“Jonathan?”

“Sweet,” Dungeons & Dragons says, grabbing the bag of food. The door clanks behind him.

And that’s when I realized: the on-demand world isn’t about sharing at all. It’s about being served. This is an economy of shut-ins.

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew more isolated and depressed. “We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences,” said one of the researchers at the time. “And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing.”

We’re now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economy— with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding?—?there to free up your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care about, not standing at the post office with strangers. Rinse’s ad shows a couple chilling at a park, their laundry being washed by someone, somewhere beyond the picture’s frame. But plenty of the delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want you to leave home at all.

GrubHub’s advertising banks on us secretly never wanting to talk to a human again: “Everything great about eating, combined with everything great about not talking to people.” DoorDash, another food delivery service, goes for the all-caps, batshit extreme:

“NEVER LEAVE HOME AGAIN.”

Katherine van Ekert isn’t a shut-in, exactly, but there are only two things she ever has to run errands for any more: trash bags and saline solution. For those, she must leave her San Francisco apartment and walk two blocks to the drug store, “so woe is my life,” she tells me. (She realizes her dry humor about #firstworldproblems may not translate, and clarifies later: “Honestly, this is all tongue in cheek. We’re not spoiled brats.”) Everything else is done by app. Her husband’s office contracts with Washio. Groceries come from Instacart. “I live on Amazon,” she says, buying everything from curry leaves to a jogging suit for her dog, complete with hoodie.

She’s so partial to these services, in fact, that she’s running one of her own: A veterinarian by trade, she’s a co-founder of VetPronto, which sends an on-call vet to your house. It’s one of a half-dozen on-demand services in the current batch at Y Combinator, the startup factory, including a marijuana delivery app called Meadow (“You laugh, but they’re going to be rich,” she says). She took a look at her current clients?—?they skew late 20s to late 30s, and work in high-paying jobs: “The kinds of people who use a lot of on demand services and hang out on Yelp a lot ?”

Basically, people a lot like herself. That’s the common wisdom: the apps are created by the urban young for the needs of urban young. The potential of delivery with a swipe of the finger is exciting for van Ekert, who grew up without such services in Sydney and recently arrived in wired San Francisco. “I’m just milking this city for all it’s worth,” she says. “I was talking to my father on Skype the other day. He asked, ‘Don’t you miss a casual stroll to the shop?’ Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with intention. There’s not time to stroll anywhere.”

Suddenly, for people like van Ekert, the end of chores is here. After hours, you’re free from dirty laundry and dishes. (TaskRabbit’s ad rolls by me on a bus: “Buy yourself time?—?literally.”)

So here’s the big question. What does she, or you, or any of us do with all this time we’re buying? Binge on Netflix shows? Go for a run? Van Ekert’s answer: “It’s more to dedicate more time to working.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Viva Vinyl

Hotel-California-album

When I first moved to college and a tiny dorm room (in the UK they’re called halls of residence), my first purchase was a Garrard turntable and a pair of Denon stereo speakers. Books would come later. First, I had to build a new shrine to my burgeoning vinyl collection, which thrives even today.

So, after what seems like a hundred years since those heady days and countless music technology revolutions, it comes as quite a surprise — but perhaps not — to see vinyl on a resurgent path. The disruptors tried to kill LPs, 45s and 12-inchers with 8-track (ha), compact cassette (yuk), minidisk (yawn), CD (cool), MP3 (meh), iPod (yay) and now streaming (hmm).

But like a kind, zombie uncle the music industry cannot completely bury vinyl for good. Why did vinyl capture the imagination and the ears of the audiophile so? Well, perhaps it comes from watching the slow turn of the LP on the cool silver platter. Or, it may be the anticipation from watching the needle spiral its way to the first track. Or the raw, crackling authenticity of the sound. For me it was the weekly pilgrimage to the dusty independent record store — sampling tracks on clunky headphones; soaking up the artistry of the album cover, the lyrics, the liner notes; discussing the pros and cons of the bands with friends. Our digital world has now mostly replaced this experience, but it cannot hope to replicate it. Long live vinyl.

From ars technica:

On Thursday [July 2, 2015] , Nielsen Music released its 2015 US mid-year report, finding that overall music consumption had increased by 14 percent in the first half of the year. What’s driving that boom? Well, certainly a growth in streaming—on-demand streaming increased year-over-year by 92.4 percent, with more than 135 billion songs streamed, and overall sales of digital streaming increased by 23 percent.

But what may be more fascinating is the continued resurgence of the old licorice pizza—that is, vinyl LPs. Nielsen reports that vinyl LP sales are up 38 percent year-to-date. “Vinyl sales now comprise nearly 9 percent of physical album sales,” Nielsen stated.

Who’s leading the charge on all that vinyl? None other than the music industry’s favorite singer-songwriter Taylor Swift with her album 1989, which sold 33,500 LPs. Swift recently flexed her professional muscle when she wrote an open letter to Apple, criticizing the company for failing to pay artists during the free three-month trial of Apple Music. Apple quickly kowtowed to the pop star and reversed its position.

Following behind Swift on the vinyl chart is Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, The Arctic Monkeys’ AM (released in 2013), Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, and in fifth place, none other than Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which sold 23,200 copies in 2015.

Also interesting is that Nielsen found that digital album sales were flat compared to last year, and digital track sales were down 10.4 percent. Unsurprisingly, CD sales were down 10 percent.

When Nielsen reported in 2010 that 2.5 million vinyl records were sold in 2009, Ars noted that was more than any other year since the media-tracking business started keeping score in 1991. Fast forward five years and that number has more than doubled, as Nielsen counted 5.6 million vinyl records sold. The trend shows little sign of abating—last year, the US’ largest vinyl plant reported that it was adding 16 vinyl presses to its lineup of 30, and just this year Ars reported on a company called Qrates that lets artists solicit crowdfunding to do small-batch vinyl pressing.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Hotel California, The Eagles, album cover. Courtesy of the author.

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A Patent to End All Patents

You’ve seen the “we’ll help you file your patent application” infomercials on late night cable. The underlying promise is simple: your unique invention will find its way into every household on Earth and consequently will thrust you into the financial stratosphere making you the planet’s first gazillionaire. Of course, this will happen only after you part with your hard-earned cash for help in filing the patent. Incidentally, filing a patent with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) usually starts at around $10-15,000.

Some patents are truly extraordinary in their optimistic silliness: wind harnessing bicycle, apparatus for simulating a high-five, flatulence deodorizer, jet-powered surfboard, thong diaper, life-size interactive bowl of soup, nicotine infused coffee, edible business cards, magnetic rings to promote immortality, and so it goes. Remember, though, this is the United States, and most crazy things are possible and profitable. So, you could well find yourself becoming addicted to those 20oz nicotine infused lattes each time you pull up at the local coffee shop on your jet-powered surfboard.

But perhaps the most recent thoroughly earnest and whacky patent filing comes from Boeing no less. It’s for a laser-powered fusion-fission jet engine. The engine uses ultra-high powered lasers to fuse pellets of hydrogen, causing uranium to fission, which generates heat and subsequently electricity. All of this powering your next flight to Seattle. So, the next time you fly on a Boeing aircraft, keep in mind what some of the company’s engineers have in store for you 100 or 1,000 years from now. I think I’d prefer to be disassembled and beamed up.

From ars technica:

Assume the brace position: Boeing has received a patent for, I kid you not, a laser-powered fusion-fission jet propulsion system. Boeing envisions that this system could replace both rocket and turbofan engines, powering everything from spacecraft to missiles to airplanes.

The patent, US 9,068,562, combines inertial confinement fusion, fission, and a turbine that generates electricity. It sounds completely crazy because it is. Currently, this kind of engine is completely unrealistic given our mastery of fusion, or rather our lack thereof. Perhaps in the future (the distant, distant future that is), this could be a rather ingenious solution. For now, it’s yet another patent head-scratcher.

To begin with, imagine the silhouette of a big turbofan engine, like you’d see on a commercial jetliner. Somewhere in the middle of the engine there is a fusion chamber, with a number of very strong lasers focused on a single point. A hohlraum (pellet) containing a mix of deuterium and tritium (hydrogen isotopes) is placed at this focal point. The lasers are all turned on at the same instant, creating massive pressure on the pellet, which implodes and causes the hydrogen atoms to fuse. (This is called inertial confinement fusion, as opposed to the magnetic confinement fusion that is carried out in a tokamak.)

According to the patent, the hot gases produced by the fusion are pushed out of a nozzle at the back of the engine, creating thrust—but that’s not all! One of the by-products of hydrogen fusion is lots of fast neutrons. In Boeing’s patented design, there is a shield around the fusion chamber that’s coated with a fissionable material (uranium-238 is one example given). The neutrons hit the fissionable material, causing a fission reaction that generates lots of heat.

Finally, there’s some kind of heat exchanger system that takes the heat from the fission reaction and uses that heat (via a heated liquid or gas) to drive a turbine. This turbine generates the electricity that powers the lasers. Voilà: a fusion-fission rocket engine thing.

Let’s talk a little bit about why this is such an outlandish idea. To begin with, this patented design involves placing a lump of material that’s made radioactive in an airplane engine—and these vehicles are known to sometimes crash. Today, the only way we know of efficiently harvesting radioactive decay is a giant power plant, and we cannot get inertial fusion to fire more than once in a reasonable amount of time (much less on the short timescales needed to maintain thrust). This process requires building-sized lasers, like those found at the National Ignition Facility in California. Currently, the technique only works poorly. Those two traits are not conducive to air travel.

But this is the USA we’re talking about, where patents can be issued on firewalls (“being wielded in one of most outrageous trolling campaigns we have ever seen,” according to the EFF) and universities can claim such rights on “agent-based collaborative recognition-primed decision-making” (EFF: ”The patent reads a little like what might result if you ate a dictionary filled with buzzwords and drank a bottle of tequila”). As far as patented products go, it is pretty hard to imagine this one actually being built in the real world. Putting aside the difficulties of inertial confinement fusion (we’re nowhere near hitting the break-even point), it’s also a bit far-fetched to shoehorn all of these disparate and rather difficult-to-work-with technologies into a small chassis that hangs from the wing of a commercial airplane.

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The Post-Stewart Apocalypse

Jon-Stewart

Our planet continues to orbit its home star. The cosmos has yet to collapse into a galactic-sized blackhole. But, don’t be fooled. The apocalypse is here. It has indeed arrived. Today is August 7, 2015 or 1 PS.

We are now one day into the PS era, that’s PS for Post-Stewart — Jon Stewart, that is. So, as we enter this uncharted period — a contemporary Dark Ages — I will mourn Jon Stewart’s passing and yet curse him for leaving The Daily Show before his projected death of natural causes in 2065.

However, I am reminded that his arch-enemy Faux News will continue to amaze and entertain those of us who search for truth in the dumbed-down, fear-mongering drivel that it pumps through our nation’s cables. The channel’s puppet-master, and chief propagandist, Roger Ailes had this to say of Stewart,

“He’s feeling unrewarded because Fox News beats him on the amount of money we make, on ratings and on popularity. I’m sure it’s very depressing when he sits home at night and worries about it. We never did.”

This is so wonderfully hilarious, for Mr. Ailes fails to notice that he’s comparing his vast “news” media empire to a mere comedy show. I suppose I can take solace from this quote — who needs Jon Stewart when the target of his ire can do such a preeminent job of skewering itself.

Bye Jon, I hope you find several suitable Moments of Zen! But, you’re still a bastard.

Image courtesy of Google Search / The Daily Show.

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The Battle of the Century

The comedic geniuses, Laurel and Hardy show us what happens when aggression and revenge are channeled through slapstick and 3,000 custard pies. If only all our human conflicts could be resolved through a good custard pie fight.

More importantly, the missing second reel of their 1927 silent movie, The Battle of the Century, has been found. So, we may finally know the climax of the Stan and Ollie cult classic — and see more pie-throwing in the process. Yum.

Video: Clip from Laurel and Hardy’s silent film The Battle of the Century (1927).

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Europa Here We Come

NASA-Europa

With the the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Philae lander firmly rooted to a comet, NASA’s Dawn probe orbiting dwarf planet Ceres and its New Horizon’s spacecraft hurtling towards Pluto and Charon it would seem that we are doing lots of extraterrestrial exploration lately. Well, this is exciting, but for arm-chair explorers like myself this is still not enough. So, three cheers to NASA for giving a recent thumbs up to their next great mission — Europa Multi Flyby — to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Development is a go! But we’ll have to wait until the mid-2020s for lift-off. And, better yet, ESA has a mission to Europa planned for launch in 2022. Can’t wait — it looks spectacular.

From ars technica:

Get ready, we’re going to Europa! NASA’s plan to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s moon just passed a major hurdle. The mission, planned for the 2020s, now has NASA’s official stamp of approval and was given the green light to move from concept phase to development phase.

Formerly known as Europa Clipper, the mission will temporarily be referred to as the Europa Multi Flyby Mission until it is given an official name. The current mission plan would include 45 separate flybys around the moon while orbiting Jupiter every two weeks. “We are taking an exciting step from concept to mission in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release.

Since Galileo first turned a spyglass up to the skies and discovered the Jovian moon, Europa has been a world of intrigue. In the 1970s, we received our first look at Europa through the eyes of Pioneer 10 and 11, followed closely by the twin Voyager satellites in the 1980s. Their images provided the first detailed view of the Solar System’s smoothest body. These photos also delivered evidence that the moon might be harboring a subsurface ocean. In the mid 1990s, the Galileo spacecraft gave us the best view to-date of Europa’s surface.

“Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions,” Grunsfeld said. “Mainly, is there life beyond Earth?”

Sending a probe to explore Jupiter’s icy companion will help scientists in the search for this life. If Europa can support microbial life, other glacial moons such as Enceladus might as well.

Water, chemistry, and energy are three components essential to the presence of life. Liquid water is present throughout the Solar System, but so far the only world known to support life is Earth. Scientists think that if we follow the water, we may find evidence of life beyond Earth.

However, water alone will not support life; the right combination of ingredients is key. This mission to Europa will explore the moon’s potential habitability as opposed to outright looking for life.

When we set out to explore new worlds, we do it in phases. First we flyby, then we send robotic landers, and then we send people. This three-step process is how we, as humans, have explored the Moon and how we are partly through the process of exploring Mars.

The flyby of Europa will be a preliminary mission with four objectives: explore the ice shell and subsurface ocean; determine the composition, distribution, and chemistry of various compounds and how they relate to the ocean composition; map surface features and determine if there is current geologic activity; characterize sites to determine where a future lander might safely touch down.

Europa, at 3,100 kilometers wide (1,900 miles), is the sixth largest moon in the Solar System. It has a 15 to 30 kilometer (9 to 18 mile) thick icy outer crust that covers a salty subsurface ocean. If that ocean is in contact with Europa’s rocky mantle, a number of complex chemical reactions are possible. Scientists think that hydrothermal vents lurk on the seafloor, and, just like the vents here on Earth, they could support life.

The Galileo orbiter taught us most of what we know about Europa through 12 flybys of the icy moon. The new mission is scheduled to conduct approximately 45 flybys over a 2.5-year period, providing even more insight into the moon’s habitability.

Read the article here.

Image: Europa. Europa is Jupiter’s sixth-closest moon, and the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. Courtesy of NASA.

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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

google-search-cat

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

USA_Oregon_Dunes

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

452b_artistconcept_beautyshot

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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