Texas Versus Women’s Health

Texas-map

During the period between 2010 and 2014 the rate of women who died from pregnancy-related complications doubled. Not in an impoverished third world nation, but Texas. This increase in maternal mortality is second to none across the United States and all other developed nations.

Perhaps not coincidentally this same period is also marked by Texas’ significant budget cuts that all but destroyed reproductive healthcare clinics and Planned Parenthood services in the state.

This is a great (and sad) example that clearly demonstrates how political ideology can have serious and fatal consequences for 51 percent of the population. I have to wonder if the other half of the population will ever come to its senses. Though, with Republicans firmly in control at the local and state level I’m sure even these concrete facts will be fair game for some hyperbolic fictional distortion.

From the Guardian:

The rate of Texas women who died from complications related to their pregnancy doubled from 2010 to 2014, a new study has found, for an estimated maternal mortality rate that is unmatched in any other state and the rest of the developed world.

The finding comes from a report, appearing in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, that the maternal mortality rate in the United States increased between 2000 and 2014, even while the rest of the world succeeded in reducing its rate. Excluding California, where maternal mortality declined, and Texas, where it surged, the estimated number of maternal deaths per 100,000 births rose to 23.8 in 2014 from 18.8 in 2000 – or about 27%.

But the report singled out Texas for special concern, saying the doubling of mortality rates in a two-year period was hard to explain “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval”.

From 2000 to the end of 2010, Texas’s estimated maternal mortality rate hovered between 17.7 and 18.6 per 100,000 births. But after 2010, that rate had leaped to 33 deaths per 100,000, and in 2014 it was 35.8. Between 2010-2014, more than 600 women died for reasons related to their pregnancies.

No other state saw a comparable increase.

In the wake of the report, reproductive health advocates are blaming the increase on Republican-led budget cuts that decimated the ranks of Texas’s reproductive healthcare clinics. In 2011, just as the spike began, the Texas state legislature cut $73.6m from the state’s family planning budget of $111.5m. The two-thirds cut forced more than 80 family planning clinics to shut down across the state. The remaining clinics managed to provide services – such as low-cost or free birth control, cancer screenings and well-woman exams – to only half as many women as before.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Maps.

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Psychopath Versus Sociopath

psycopath-vs-sociopath-infographic1

I’ve been writing for a while now about a certain person who wishes to become the next President of the United States. His name is Donald Trump. He carries with him an entire encyclopedia — no, bookshelves of encyclopedias — of negative character traits. But chief among these he lacks empathy, tends to feel no guilt or remorse, and disregards the needs and rights of others. These are traits common to both psychopaths and sociopaths.

Over the last few years I’ve been describing Mr. Trump as a psychopath. Others, particularly recently (here, here, here), characterize him as a sociopath. Who’s right?

I’m turning to some psychological resources, excerpted and paraphrased below — American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, WebMD — to help me clarify the differences.

On first analysis it looks like Mr. Trump straddles both! Though I must say, that regardless, I don’t want either a sociopath or a psychopath, or a psycho-sociopath or a socio-psychopath in the White House with fingers anywhere close to the nuclear codes.

Sociopath:

Sociopaths tend to be volatile. That is, they tend to be nervous and easily agitated or angered. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. In addition, they may be uneducated and live on the fringes of traditional society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. They are frequently transients and drifters.

It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people in certain situations but not others. Many sociopaths have no regard for society in general or its rules. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of environmental influences (“nurture”), such as childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse.

Psychopath:

Psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

It is believed that psychopathy is the largely the result of “nature” (genetics) and is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions.

Infographic courtesy of Psychologia.

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Can We Move There?

Pale Red Dot is an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It will use HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and the Burst Optical Observer and Transient Exploring System (BOOTES). It will be one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public will see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse  and interpret data, which may or may not be able to confirm the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour . The outreach campaign consists of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website: http://www.palereddot.org

I’ve been toying with the idea of uprooting and moving to Canada should a certain orange-haired bigot win the US presidential election. But, no offense to Canadians, scientists have just discovered an Earth-like planet a mere 4.25 light-years away, our nearest celestial neighbor.

Can anyone convince Elon Musk (of SpaceX) to get cracking on a suitable spacecraft that will get us there, or at least help us leave, before November 8, 2016? Forget Mars, Proxima Centauri here I come!

From Space.com

The star closest to the sun hosts a planet that may be very much like Earth, a new study reports.

Astronomers have discovered a roughly Earth-size alien world around Proxima Centauri, which lies just 4.2 light-years from our own solar system. What’s even more exciting, study team members said, is that the planet, known as Proxima b, circles in the star’s “habitable zone” — the range of distances at which liquid water could be stable on a world’s surface.

“We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars,” lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, a physics and astronomy lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said in a statement.”The search for life on Proxima b comes next.” [In Pictures: The Discovery of Planet Proxima b]

The discovery of Proxima b was a long time in the making.

Astronomers have been hunting intensively for planets around Proxima Centauri for more 15 years, using instruments such as the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), both of which are installed on telescopes run by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

UVES, HARPS and other instruments like them allow researchers to detect the slight wobbles in a star’s movement caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

Astronomers found hints of such a wobble back in 2013, but the signal was not convincing, Anglada-Escude said. So he and a number of other researchers launched a campaign to ferret out the planet. They called this effort the Pale Red Dot — a nod to Carl Sagan’s famous description of Earth as a “pale blue dot,” and the fact that Proxima Centauri is a small, dim star known as a red dwarf.

The Pale Red Dot team focused HARPS on Proxima Centauri every night from Jan. 19, 2016, through March 31 of this year. After they combined this new data with UVES observations from 2000 through 2008 and HARPS observations from 2005 through early 2014, the signal of a possible planet came through loud and clear.

Then, after analyzing observations of the star’s brightness made by several other telescopes, Anglada-Escude and his colleagues ruled out the possibility that this signal could be caused by the variable activity of Proxima Centauri.

“The conclusion: We have found a planet around Proxima Centauri,” Anglada-Escude said Tuesday (Aug. 23) during a news conference.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Pale Red Dot, an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It will use HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and the Burst Optical Observer and Transient Exploring System (BOOTES). It will be one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public will see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse and interpret data, which may or may not be able to confirm the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour. The outreach campaign consists of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website : http://www.palereddot.org. Courtesy: ESO/Pale Red Dot – http://www.eso.org/public/images/ann16002a/

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A Global and Imperiled Treasure

Trail Ridge Road RMNP 2

About 25 miles from where I write lies Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). It’s a gorgeous part of the world — pristine forests, blue alpine lakes, frigid streams and ragged peaks. Luckily thanks to the persistent work of Enos Mills and President Woodrow Wilson’s signature RMNP has been protected from development and destruction since 1915. So too are its 411 sister regions and monuments that now make up the US National Park System.

The nationwide park system was officially founded 100 years ago today, August 25, 1916. It is a precious and priceless jewel — truly one of America’s best ideas.

On this centenary we should be reminded that each one of our parks and monuments requires our constant and vigilant protection. We must do all that we can to ensure that our children and their children can experience for themselves — over the next 100 years (and beyond) — some of nature’s true wonders.

Though keep in mind that while our parks may be protected from direct human exploitation they’re not immune to the ravages of climate change.

From the Guardian:

After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history.

“Yosemite’s famous glacier, once a mile wide, is almost gone,” fretted Barack Obama during a visit to the vast park in June.

“Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier national park, no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree national park.

“Rising seas can destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades and at some point could even threaten icons like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. That’s not the America I want to pass on to the next generation.”

Change, however, is inevitable no matter how quickly greenhouse gas emissions are cut. An NPS study from 2014 found four in five of America’s national parks are now at the “extreme end” of temperature variables charted since 1901.

“We are starting to see things spiral away now,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist at the NPS climate change response program. “We are going to look back at this time and actually think it was a calm period. And then people will start asking questions about what we were doing about the situation.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Above the clouds, near the famed Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Summer 2016. Courtesy: the author.

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Another Step Closer to Artificial Photosynthesis

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Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have constructed an artificial leaf that captures sunlight and uses it to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to usable hydrocarbon fuel. Senior author on the study, Amin Salehi-Khojin assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, notes that “the new solar cell is not photovoltaic — it’s photosynthetic.” Using a combination of intricately engineered nano-membranes and unique combinations of catalytic molecules the artificial leaf takes in sunlight and CO2 and produces syngas or synthetic gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas) from the cathode, and free oxygen and hydrogen ions at the anode.

This is a remarkable breakthrough that holds real promise — not only producing energy in a sustainable way from renewable sources but also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Read more about this pioneering work here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Thoughts As Shapes

wednesday is indigo blue bookcoverJonathan Jackson has a very rare form of a rare neurological condition. He has synesthesia, which is a cross-connection of two (or more) unrelated senses where an perception in one sense causes an automatic experience in another sense. Some synesthetes, for instance, see various sounds or musical notes as distinct colors (chromesthesia), others perceive different words as distinct tastes (lexical-gustatory synesthesia).

Jackson, on the other hand, experiences his thoughts as shapes in a visual mindmap. This is so fascinating I’ve excerpted a short piece of his story below.

Also, if you are further intrigued by this subject I recommend three great reads on the subject: Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard Cytowic, and David M. Eagleman; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks; The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic.

From the Atlantic:

One spring evening in the mid 2000s, Jonathan Jackson and Andy Linscott sat on some seaside rocks near their college campus, smoking the kind of cigarettes reserved for heartbreak. Linscott was, by his own admission, “emotionally spewing” over a girl, and Jackson was consoling him.

Jackson had always been a particularly good listener. But in the middle of their talk, he did something Linscott found deeply odd.

“He got up and jumped over to this much higher rock,” Linscott says. “He was like, ‘Andy, I’m listening, I just want to get a different angle. I want to see what you’re saying and the shape of your words from a different perspective.’ I was baffled.”

For Jackson, moving physically to think differently about an idea seemed totally natural. “People say, ‘Okay, we need to think about this from a new angle’ all the time!” he says. “But for me that’s literal.”

Jackson has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that has long been defined as the co-activation of two or more conventionally unrelated senses. Some synesthetes see music (known as auditory-visual synesthesia) or read letters and numbers in specific hues (grapheme-color synesthesia). But recent research has complicated that definition, exploring where in the sensory process those overlaps start and opening up the term to include types of synesthesia in which senses interact in a much more complex manner.

Read the entire  story here.

Image: Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, bookcover, Courtesy: By Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, MIT Press.

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Pessimism About Positive Thinking

Many of us have grown up in a world that teaches and values the power of positive thinking. The mantra of positive thinkers goes something like this: think positively about yourself, your situation, your goals and you will be much more motivated and energized to fulfill your dreams.

By some accounts the self-improvement industry in the US alone weighs in with annual revenues of around $10 billion. So, positive thinking must work, right? Psychologists suggest that it’s really not that simple; singular focus on positivity may help us in the short-term, but over the longer-term it frustrates our motivations and hinders progress towards our goals.

In short, it pays to be in touch with the negatives as well, to embrace and understand obstacles, to learn from and challenge our setbacks. It is to our advantage to be a pragmatic dreamer, grounded in both the beauty and ugliness that surrounds us.

From aeon:

In her book The Secret Daily Teachings (2008), the self-help author Rhonda Byrne suggested that: ‘Whatever big thing you are asking for, consider having the celebration now as though you have received it.’

Yet research in psychology reveals a more complicated picture. Indulging in undirected positive flights of fancy isn’t always in our interest. Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives.

Now, you might wonder if positive thinking is really as harmful as I’m suggesting. In fact, it is. In a number of studies over two decades, my colleagues and I have discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance. In one study, we asked college students who had a crush on someone from afar to tell us how likely they would be to strike up a relationship with that person. Then we asked them to complete some open-ended scenarios related to dating. ‘You are at a party,’ one scenario read. ‘While you are talking to [your crush], you see a girl/boy, whom you believe [your crush] might like, come into the room. As she/he approaches the two of you, you imagine…’

Some of the students completed the scenarios by spinning a tale of romantic success. ‘The two of us leave the party, everyone watches, especially the other girl.’ Others offered negative fantasies about love thwarted: ‘My crush and the other girl begin to converse about things which I know nothing. They seem to be much more comfortable with each other than he and I….’

We checked back with the students after five months to see if they had initiated a relationship with their crush. The more students had engaged in positive fantasies about the future, the less likely they were actually to have started up a romantic relationship.

My colleagues and I performed such studies with participants in a number of demographic groups, in different countries, and with a range of personal wishes, including health goals, academic and professional goals, and relationship goals. Consistently, we found a correlation between positive fantasies and poor performance. The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve.

Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much.

Read the entire article here.

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Comfort, Texas, the Timeship and Technological Immortality

Timeship-screenshot

There’s a small town deep in the heart of Texas’ Hill Country called Comfort. It was founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants. Its downtown area is held to be one of the most well-preserved historic business districts in Texas. Now, just over 160 years on there’s another preservation effort underway in Comfort.

This time, however, the work goes well beyond preserving buildings; Comfort may soon be the global hub for life-extension research and human cryopreservation. The ambitious, and not without controversy, project is known as the Timeship, and is the brainchild of architect Stephen Valentine and the Stasis Foundation.

Since one the the key aims of the Timeship is to preserve biological material — DNA, tissue and organ samples, and even cryopreserved humans — the building design presents some rather unique and stringent challenges. The building must withstand a nuclear blast or other attack; its electrical and mechanical systems must remain functional and stable for hundreds of years; it must be self-sustaining and highly secure.

Read more about the building and much more about the Timeship here.

Image: Timeship screenshot. Courtesy of Timeship.

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What’s Up With Middle-Aged White Males?

reggie-perrin-bbc

Not too long ago I came across a number of articles describing the high and growing incidence of suicide among middle-aged white males. Indeed, the suicide rate has skyrocketed 40 percent since the early 2000s.

Understandably, and no less sad, the increase in suicides seems to be driven by acute financial distress, chronic pain and/or illness, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Now, it seems that there is a corresponding increase in the number of white males faking their disappearance or fantasizing about it. A classic example is John Darwin from the UK, also known as “canoe man“, who faked his own death in 2002. But a key difference between this group and those who take their own lives is that the group of white males looking to disappear tends to be financially and (reasonably) emotionally stable.

So what on earth is going on?

A soon too be published book — Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood, examines what it’s like to fake your own death and burgeoning “disappearance” industry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps Todd’s plan for faking his death will remain in the realm of pure fantasy. But were he to put his plan into motion, Todd fits the prime demographic for a death fraudster. As a middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual white man with a family, Todd represents the person most likely to fake his death. I’d noticed this disproportion in the demographics, and I wondered if there was anything to it. Privacy consultant Frank Ahearn and author of How to Disappear told me that the majority of his clients who sought to leave their lives behind were men, and J. J. Luna, author of How to Be Invisible: Protect Your Home, Your Children, Your Assets, and Your Life, told me that “far more men than women!” seek his “invisibility” services. In the 1996 guidebook How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, disappearance enthusiast Doug Richmond writes, “To a man of a certain age, there’s a bit of magic in the very thought of cutting all ties, of getting away from it all, of changing names and jobs and women and living happily ever after in a more salubrious clime!”

But why do these seemingly privileged men, who enjoy every perk that DNA has to offer, feel so hemmed in that they must go off the radar entirely? Perhaps it’s because although men still out-earn women, they then entangle themselves in financial trouble trying to enhance their fortunes. Maybe they shrug off because they feel less responsibility to see their children grow and flourish. Women shoulder the burdens of family and community—they take care of dying parents, snotty kids, shut-in neighbors—anyone before themselves. Though that might be relying too heavily on conventional wisdom about gender roles, the numbers speak for themselves: faking death seems to be a heavily male phenomenon. After combing through the stories and examining the traits that men like Todd share, I noticed that they all seemed to feel emasculated, made impotent, by their mundane lives. So, not earning enough money, they invest in a harebrained scheme. Underwhelmed with their monogamous sex lives, they take up with other women. Faking death seems to be not only a way out but also, counterintuitively, a way to be brave.

Read more here.

Image: Actor Leonard Rossiter plays Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, a mid-1970s BBC sitcom. Courtesy: BBC.

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Foreign Accent Syndrome

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As a Brit living in the United States I have first-hand evidence that the British accent is superior to its American counterpart — as judged by Americans themselves. Americans usually characterize a person with a British accent as being more intelligent, more charming, more authoritative and more sincere. Brilliant (for my US audience, “awesome”)!

So, it would come as no surprise to find some Americans imitating the plummy pronunciation of its Old World cousin to score social points. But such impostors are usually universally derided by both Americans and Brits, save for American actors who tend only to be derided by Brits for never quite grasping the Queen’s English.

This leads me to the peculiar case of a Texan woman — with a Texan accent — who developed a British accent after surgery to correct an overbite. Her case in one of only a hundred or so ever documented examples of Foreign Accent Syndrome.

You may well ask, how is this possible? Read more over at Wired.

Image: Keep Calm screenshot. Courtesy: Keep Calm-o-Matic.

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The Two Percent and The Hum

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By some estimates 2 percent of the population can at some time hear a mysterious sound known as “the Hum”. It’s a low pitched, droning noise that seems to have no source, yet comes from all around. The Hum has been heard in tiny Scottish villages, in Florida, Western Canada, New Mexico and other regions around the world. Hearers of The Hum have variously blamed distant diesel engines, remote submarines on maneuvers, underground pipes, industrial generators. The sources have never been definitively identified, and so the Hum sufferers have continued to search in vain for an explanation to the maddening sound.

Various theories — mostly of the conspiracy kind — have been proposed. Some put the sound down to secretive government agencies testing ultra-low frequency mind control. Others believe the sound to come from UFOs or instruments of socialist torture.

A more mundane explanation suggests the mysterious signal to be inside the heads of its listeners — nothing more than a form of irritating tinnitus. But many have remained unconvinced and have sought rational explanations elsewhere. Recently, sufferers and researchers have honed in on a potential source — low frequency oscillations of the Earth caused by long ocean waves on the sea floor.

Read more about The Hum here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

Flat_earth

Conspiracy theorists are a small but vocal and influential minority. Their views span the gamut of conspiracy theories: holocaust denial, President Kennedy’s assassination, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Flat Earth, alternate technology suppression, climate change, to name just a handful.

The United States is after all host to a candidate for the Presidency who subscribes to a number of conspiratorial theories, and, importantly, there’s even a dating app — Awake Dating — for like-minded conspiracy theorists. Though, the site’s COO Jarrod Fidden prefers to label his members “early adopter[s] of inconvenient truths” over the term “conspiracy theorist”, which, let’s face it, is often used pejoratively.

So, perhaps it serves to delve a little deeper into why some nonsensical and scientifically disproved ideas persist in 2016.

Briefly, it seems that zombie ideas thrive for a couple of key reasons: first, they may confer some level of group identity, attention and/or influence; second, they provide a degree of simplistic comfort to counter often highly complex scientific explanations. Moreover, conspiracy theories do have a generally positive cultural effect — some bring laughter to our days, but most tend to drive serious debate and further research in the quest for true (scientific) consensus.

From the Guardian:

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Azimuthal equidistant projection, used by some Flat Earthers as evidence for a flat Earth. Courtesy: Trekky0623 / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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A Reminder That Evil People Exist

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Recently discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, should serve as a reminder to us all that evil people are in our midst. His diary entries are all the more disturbing for their simple casualness:

January 3, 1943

  • 8pm: Dinner

  • 9pm: More meetings, one reacting to news that Nazi-allied police officers in Poland were refusing to fight.

  • 9-10pm: Orders all ten officers be executed and their families sent to concentration camps before going to bed

More from the Telegraph:

Newly discovered diaries have revealed the schedule of Heinrich Himmler, the man who planned the Holocaust, which suggests he was more concerned about what he had for lunch than his role in the Nazi massacre of at least six million people.

The documents, uncovered by German newspaper Bild, had been buried in the archive of the Russian ministry of defence in Podolsk near Moscow and were all but forgotten for more than 70 years.

The service diaries, which cover 1938 and the crucial war years of 1943 and 1944, had been snatched by the Red Army towards the end of the war.

Extracts document the hour-by-hour schedule of the reviled SS chief, juxtaposing phone calls with his wife and daughter alongside writs of execution.

Several of them allude to massage appointments taken early in the day which could last up to hours.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Himmler (front right, beside prisoner) visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936. Courtesy: German Federal Archives. Public Domain.

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How to Tell the Difference Between a Liar and a Bulls**t Artist

In this age of media-fueled online vitriol, denigration, falsehood, and shamelessness — elevated to an art form by the Republican nominee for President — it’s critically important for us to understand the difference between a liar and a bulls**t artist.

The liar is interested in the truth, deep down, but she prefers to hide it behind a veil. The liar often has knowledge or expertise about the truth, but hides it. The bulls**t artist, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. He is detached from reality caring not for truth or lies; he only cares for his desired effect on his intended audience. The absence of knowledge or expertise is required.

I’ll let you determine to which group Mr.Trump belongs. But, if you need help, check out CNN’s Fareed Zakaria reminding us about Mr.Trump’s unabashed ignorance and bulls**t-artistry.

From the Guardian:

As the past few decades have shown, the trolling mindset is awesomely well adapted to a digital age. It ignores rational argument. It ignores evidence. It misreads, deliberately. It uses anything and everything somebody says against them. To argue with trolls is to lose – to give them what they want. A troll is interested in impact to the exclusion of all else.

Trolls themselves are hairy Nordic creatures who live under bridges, but trolling doesn’t take its name from them. It comes from the Old French verb troller, meaning to hunt by wandering around in the hope of stumbling upon prey. The word made its way into English as a description of similar fishing tactics: slowly towing a lure in hope of a bite.

Then, in the early 1990s, a Usenet group took up the term to describe some users’ gleeful baiting of the naive: posting provocative comments in hope of attracting an outraged “bite”, then winding up their unwitting victim as thoroughly as possible.

In this, trolling is a form of bullshit art. “The essence of bullshit,” argues the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 book of the same name, “is not that it is false but that it is phony”.

Both a liar and an honest person are interested in the truth – they’re playing on opposite sides in the same game. A bullshitter, however, has no such constraint. As Frankfurt puts it, a bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false … He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose”.

Once again, impact is all. The total absence of knowledge or expertise is no barrier to bullshit. In fact, it helps. The artistry lies in knowing your audience, and saying whatever is needed in order to achieve a desired effect.

Read the entire article here.

Video courtesy of CNN.

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The Psychopath Test and the Nominee

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as he accepts the nomination during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTSJ4LA

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if the potential next President of the United States were a psychopath?

I would certainly like to have the answer, which would seem to be just as important as knowing if the nominee supports a minimum wage increase, universal healthcare, equity for women, and justice for minorities.

So, interestingly enough Keith Olbermann over at Vanity Fair ran Donald Trump through the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. It was developed by Robert D. Hare, a criminal psychologist, in the early 1980s. Still in use today, the 20-point checklist is used as a simple tool (among others) to quickly assess if a subject has mental health issues ranging from brain injury to psychopathy.

Here’s how the checklist works. Take each of the 20 items and score each with either a 0, 1 or 2, with 0 denoting “does not exhibit” and 2 denoting “does exhibit”. The highest score of 40 indicates that the subject has a high potential for being a dangerous psychopath; 30 is the minimum ranking for psychopathic tendencies.

I urge you to read the full article, but in the meantime I’ll excerpt Donald Trump’s score’s on each dimension below:

  • Glibness/superficial charm — 2
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth — 2
  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom — 2
  • Pathological Lying — 2
  • Cunning/Manipulative — 2
  • Lack of remorse or guilt — 2
  • Shallow Affect — 2
  • Callous/lack of empathy — 2
  • Parasitic lifestyle — 2
  • Poor behavioral controls — 2
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior — 2
  • Early behavior problems — 2
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals — 1
  • Impulsivity — 2
  • Irresponsibility — 1
  • Failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions — 2
  • Many short-term marital relationships — 0
  • Juvenile delinquency — 2
  • Revocation of conditional release — 0
  • Criminal versatility — 0

Total score, 32.  There you have it. So, when you vote in November, 2016, please think of the children of the world and the nuclear codes.

Image: Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as he accepts the nomination during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. Courtesy: PBS / REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTSJ4LA.

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50 Years Later Texas Moves Backwards (Again)

** FILE **This 1966 file photo shows Charles J. Whitman, a 24-year-old student at the University of Texas, a sniper who killed 16 and wounded 31 from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in Austin, Texas, Aug. 1, 1966. Until the carnage by a student gunman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Monday, April 16, 2007, the sniping rampage by Whitman from the Austin school's landmark 307-foot tower had remained the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history. (AP Photo, File)
** FILE **This 1966 file photo shows Charles J. Whitman, a 24-year-old student at the University of Texas, a sniper who killed 16 and wounded 31 from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in Austin, Texas, Aug. 1, 1966. Until the carnage by a student gunman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Monday, April 16, 2007, the sniping rampage by Whitman from the Austin school’s landmark 307-foot tower had remained the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history. (AP Photo, File)

On August 1, 2016, Texas’ new “Campus Carry” law went into effect. This means that licensed gun holders will generally be allowed to carry concealed handguns at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and other public colleges throughout Texas.

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a non-brown-skinned, non-Muslim, domestic terrorist killed his wife and mother in their homes, and then went on to murder a further 14 people at the UT Austin campus. Before being shot and killed by an Austin police officer Whitman seriously wounded an additional 32 people.

Ironically and sadly, many believe that Campus Carry will make their university campuses safer. History and real data shows otherwise.

Evidence does show that legally-armed citizens can prevent some crime. But this would make no serious dent in the annual 32,000-plus death toll from guns in the US. Sensible gun control, with thorough and exhaustive background checks, is a more rational answer. The good guy with a gun is a myth — go ask your local police department.

Image: Charles Whitman Source, 1963, Cactus, the student yearbook of the University of Texas. Courtesy: The Austin History Center. Reference AR.2000.002, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library Date: c 1963.

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This is the Result of Pretending to be Stupid

This NYT opinion piece has nailed it on the head. Pretending to be “stupid” to appeal to the “anti-elite” common man may well have been a good electoral strategy for Republican candidates over the last 50-60 years. Just cast your mind back to Sarah Palin as potential VP in 2008 and you’ll get my drift.

But now in 2016 we’ve entered uncharted territory: the country is on the verge of electing a shamefully ignorant man-child and he also happens to be a narcissistic psychopath with a wide range of extremely dangerous character flaws — and that’s putting it mildly.

Unfortunately for the US — and the world — the Republican nominee’s contempt for truth and reason, disdain for intellectual inquiry, and complete and utter ignorance is not an act. Though he does claim, “I know words. I have the best words. But there is no better word than stupid.

But perhaps all is not lost: he does seem to have a sound grasp of how to acquire top-notch military and geopolitical insights — in his own (best) words, “I watch the shows.

Welcome to the apocalypse my friends.

From the NYT:

It’s hard to know exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the “stupid party.”

Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The John F. Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America.

Rather than run away from the anti-intellectual label, Republicans embraced it for their own political purposes. In his “time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan said that the issue in the 1964 election was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Richard M. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and the “hard hats,” while his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, issued slashing attacks on an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

Many Democrats took all this at face value and congratulated themselves for being smarter than the benighted Republicans. Here’s the thing, though: The Republican embrace of anti-intellectualism was, to a large extent, a put-on. At least until now.

Eisenhower may have played the part of an amiable duffer, but he may have been the best prepared president we have ever had — a five-star general with an unparalleled knowledge of national security affairs. When he resorted to gobbledygook in public, it was in order to preserve his political room to maneuver. Reagan may have come across as a dumb thespian, but he spent decades honing his views on public policy and writing his own speeches. Nixon may have burned with resentment of “Harvard men,” but he turned over foreign policy and domestic policy to two Harvard professors, Henry A. Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while his own knowledge of foreign affairs was second only to Ike’s.

There is no evidence that Republican leaders have been demonstrably dumber than their Democratic counterparts. During the Reagan years, the G.O.P. briefly became known as the “party of ideas,” because it harvested so effectively the intellectual labor of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary. Scholarly policy makers like George P. Shultz, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett held prominent posts in the Reagan administration, a tradition that continued into the George W. Bush administration — amply stocked with the likes of Paul D. Wolfowitz, John J. Dilulio Jr. and Condoleezza Rice.

The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.

Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He uses the vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”

Mr. Trump even appears proud of his lack of learning. He told The Washington Post that he reached decisions “with very little knowledge,” but on the strength of his “common sense” and his “business ability.” Reading long documents is a waste of time because of his rapid ability to get to the gist of an issue, he said: “I’m a very efficient guy.” What little Mr. Trump does know seems to come from television: Asked where he got military advice, he replied, “I watch the shows.”

Read the entire op/ed here.

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MondayMap: Addresses Made Simple

what3words-buckingham-palace

I recently tripped over a fascinating mapping app called What3Words. Its goal is to make location and address finding easier. It does so in quite a creative way — by assigning a unique combination of 3 words to every 33 square meter location on the planet. In What3Words own words:

So in case you were wondering. The Queen’s official residence in London (Buckingham Palace) is fence.gross.bats.

It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates.

Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

How cool.

Image: What3Words screenshot. Courtesy: What3Words.

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Benjamin Saves Us From Hollywood

Benjamin-screenshot

Not a moment too soon. Benjamin has arrived in California to save us from ill-conceived and poorly written screenplays vying to be the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Thankfully, Benjamin is neither the 20-something, creative-wunderkind nor a 30-something know-it-all uber-producer; he (or she) is not even human. Benjamin is an AI (artificial intelligence) based automatic screenwriter, and author of Sunspring, a short science fiction film.

From ars technica:

Ars is excited to be hosting this online debut of Sunspring, a short science fiction film that’s not entirely what it seems. It’s about three people living in a weird future, possibly on a space station, probably in a love triangle. You know it’s the future because H (played with neurotic gravity by Silicon Valley‘s Thomas Middleditch) is wearing a shiny gold jacket, H2 (Elisabeth Gray) is playing with computers, and C (Humphrey Ker) announces that he has to “go to the skull” before sticking his face into a bunch of green lights. It sounds like your typical sci-fi B-movie, complete with an incoherent plot. Except Sunspring isn’t the product of Hollywood hacks—it was written entirely by an AI. To be specific, it was authored by a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM for short. At least, that’s what we’d call it. The AI named itself Benjamin.

Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. Director Oscar Sharp made the movie for Sci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includes the 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days. Sharp’s longtime collaborator, Ross Goodwin, is an AI researcher at New York University, and he supplied the movie’s AI writer, initially called Jetson. As the cast gathered around a tiny printer, Benjamin spat out the screenplay, complete with almost impossible stage directions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.” Then Sharp randomly assigned roles to the actors in the room. “As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. It even has its own musical interlude (performed by Andrew and Tiger), with a pop song Benjamin composed after learning from a corpus of 30,000 other pop songs.

Read more here.

Image: Benjamin screenshot. Courtesy of Benjamin.

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Fish Roasts Human: Don’t Read It, Share It

Common_goldfish2

Interestingly enough, though perhaps not surprisingly, people on social media share news stories rather than read them. At first glance this seems rather perplexing: after all, why would you tweet or re-tweet or like or share a news item before actually reading and understanding it?

Arnaud Legout co-author of a recent study, out of Columbia University and the French National Institute (Inria), tells us that “People form an opinion based on a summary, or summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.” More confusingly, he adds, “Our results show that sharing content and actually reading it are poorly correlated.”

Please take 8 seconds or more to mull over this last statement again:

Our results show that sharing content and actually reading it are poorly correlated.

Without doubt our new technological platforms and social media have upended traditional journalism. But, in light of this unnerving finding I have to wonder if this means the eventual and complete collapse of deep analytical, investigative journalism and the replacement of thoughtful reflection with “NationalEnquirerThink”.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the findings, but it does seem that it is more important for social media users to bond with and seek affirmation from their followers than it is to be personally informed.

With average human attention span now down to 8 seconds I think our literary and contemplative future now seems to belong safely in the fins of our cousin, the goldfish (attention span, 9 seconds).

Learn more about Arnaud Legout’s disturbing study here.

Image: Common Goldfish. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Psychic Quanta From the New Age Wisdom Generator

Over the last couple of years I’ve been compiling a list of my favorite online generators. You know. Enter a key word here or click a button there and the service will return some deeply meaningful and usually darkly funny computer-generated content — sans human intervention.

Check-out my recent Fave-Five list if you’re respectively weary of billionaire plutocrats, self-aggrandizing start-ups, politicians, unfathomable science and ivory tower academics:

Now, I have the profound pleasure to add another to my list:

This latest one delivers some profound transcendental literary waveforms worthy of any New Age mystic. A sample of its recent teachings:

We grow, we exist, we are reborn. Energy is the nature of inseparability, and of us. Soon there will be an unveiling of life-force the likes of which the infinite has never seen. We are in the midst of a psychic ennobling of intuition that will align us with the quantum soup itself. Our conversations with other beings have led to an unveiling of pseudo-unlimited consciousness. Humankind has nothing to lose. Sharing is the driver of consciousness. Nothing is impossible. The planet is electrified with vibrations.

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Bedlam and the Mysterious Air Loom

Air Loom machine

During my college years I was fortunate enough to spend time as a volunteer in a Victorian era psychiatric hospital in the United Kingdom. Fortunate in two ways: that I was able to make some small, yet positive difference to the lives of some of the patients; and, fortunate enough to live on the outside.

Despite the good and professional intentions of the many caring staff the hospital itself — to remain nameless — was a dreary embodiment of many a nightmarish horror flick. The building had dark, endless corridors; small, leaky windows; creaky doors, many with locks exclusively on the outside, and even creakier plumbing; spare cell-like rooms for patients; treatment rooms with passive restraints on chairs and beds. Most locals still called it “____ lunatic asylum”.

All of this leads me to the fascinating and tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a rebellious (and somewhat paranoid) peace activist who was confined to London’s infamous Bedlam asylum in 1797. He was incarcerated for believing he was being coerced and brainwashed by a mysterious governmental mind control machine known as the “Air Loom”.

Subsequent inquiries pronounced Matthews thoroughly sane, but the British government kept him institutionalized anyway because of his verbal threats against officials and then king, George III. In effect, this made Matthews a political prisoner — precisely that which he had always steadfastly maintained.

Ironically, George III’s well-documented, recurrent and serious mental illness had no adverse effect on his own reign as monarch from 1760-1820. Interestingly enough, Bedlam was the popular name for the Bethlem Royal Hospital, sometimes known as St Mary Bethlehem Hospital.

The word “Bedlam”, of course, later came to be a synonym for confusion and chaos.

Read the entire story of James Tilly Matthews and his nemesis, apothecary and discredited lay-psychiatrist, John Haslam, at Public Domain Review.

Image: Detail from the lower portion of James Tilly Matthews’ illustration of the Air Loom featured in John Haslam’s Illustrations of Madness (1810). Courtesy: Public Domain Review / Wellcome Library, London. Public Domain.

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The Accelerated Acceleration

Dark_Energy

Until the mid-1990s accepted scientific understanding of the universe held that the cosmos was expanding. Scientists have accepted this since 1929 when Edwin Hubble‘s celestial observations showed that distant galaxies were all apparently moving away from us.

But, in 1998 two independent groups of cosmologists made a startling finding. The universe was not only expanding, its expansion was accelerating. Recent studies show that this acceleration in the fabric of spacetime is actually faster than first theorized and observed.

And, nobody knows why. This expansion, indeed the accelerating expansion, remains one of our current great scientific mysteries.

Cosmologists, astronomers and theoreticians of all stripes have proposed no shortage of possible explanations. But, there is still scant observational evidence to support any of the leading theories. The most popular revolves around the peculiar idea of dark energy.

From Scientific American:

Our universe is flying apart, with galaxies moving away from each other faster each moment than they were the moment before. Scientists have known about this acceleration since the late 1990s, but whatever is causing it—dubbed dark energy—remains a mystery. Now the latest measurement of how fast the cosmos is growing thickens the plot further: The universe appears to be ballooning more quickly than it should be, even after accounting for the accelerating expansion caused by dark energy.

Scientists came to this conclusion after comparing their new measurement of the cosmic expansion rate, called the Hubble constant, to predictions of what the Hubble constant should be based on evidence from the early universe. The puzzling conflict—which was hinted at in earlier data and confirmed in the new calculation—means that either one or both of the measurements are flawed, or that dark energy or some other aspect of nature acts differently than we think.

“The bottom line is that the universe looks like it’s expanding about eight percent faster than you would have expected based on how it looked in its youth and how we expect it to evolve,” says study leader Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. “We have to take this pretty darn seriously.” He and his colleagues described their findings, based on observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, in a paper submitted last week to the Astrophysical Journal and posted on the preprint server arXiv.

One of the most exciting possibilities is that dark energy is even stranger than the leading theory suggests. Most observations support the idea that dark energy behaves like a “cosmological constant,” a term Albert Einstein inserted into his equations of general relativity and later removed. This kind of dark energy would arise from empty space, which, according to quantum mechanics, is not empty at all, but rather filled with pairs of “virtual” particles and antiparticles that constantly pop in and out of existence. These virtual particles would carry energy, which in turn might exert a kind of negative gravity that pushes everything in the universe outward.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The universe’s accelerated expansion. Courtesy: NASA and ESA.

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Poor Leadership and Destruction of Meaningful Work

WomanFactory1940s

First, your boss may be a great leader but she or he has little or no sway over how you assess the meaningfulness of the work you do. Second, while there is no correlation between a boss and meaningful work, a bad boss can destroy any likelihood of meaningful effort.

That’s the recent finding, excerpted below, by researchers from the University of Sussex and the University of Greenwich in the UK.

Therein lies a valuable set of lessons for any business wishing to recruit, retain and motivate employees.

From University of Sussex:

Bosses play no role in fostering a sense of meaningfulness at work – but they do have the capacity to destroy it and should stay out of the way, new research shows.

Published in MIT Sloan Management Review, the research indicates that, rather than being similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, meaningfulness at work tends to be intensely personal and individual, and is often revealed to employees as they reflect on their work.

Thus what managers can do to encourage meaningfulness is limited, though what they can do to introduce meaninglessness is unfortunately of far greater capacity.

The authors identified five qualities of meaningful work:

1. Self-Transcendent. Individuals tend to experience their work as meaningful when it matters to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent.

2. Poignant. People often find their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.

 3. Episodic. A sense of meaningfulness arises in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seems that no one can find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work is meaningful arises at peak times that are generative of strong experiences.

4. Reflective. Meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people are able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

5. Personal. Work that is meaningful is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

Read more here.

Image: Turret lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 1942. Courtesy: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public Domain.

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Towards an Understanding of Consciousness

Robert-Fudd-Consciousness-17C

The modern scientific method has helped us make great strides in our understanding of much that surrounds us. From knowledge of the infinitesimally small building blocks of atoms to the vast structures of the universe, theory and experiment have enlightened us considerably over the last several hundred years.

Yet a detailed understanding of consciousness still eludes us. Despite the intricate philosophical essays of John Locke in 1690 that laid the foundations for our modern day views of consciousness, a fundamental grasp of its mechanisms remain as elusive as our knowledge of the universe’s dark matter.

So, it’s encouraging to come across a refreshing view of consciousness, described in the context of evolutionary biology. Michael Graziano, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, makes a thoughtful case for Attention Schema Theory (AST), which centers on the simple notion that there is adaptive value for the brain to build awareness. According to AST, the brain is constantly constructing and refreshing a model — in Graziano’s words an “attention schema” — that describes what its covert attention is doing from one moment to the next. The brain constructs this schema as an analog to its awareness of attention in others — a sound adaptive perception.

Yet, while this view may hold promise from a purely adaptive and evolutionary standpoint, it does have some way to go before it is able to explain how the brain’s abstraction of a holistic awareness is constructed from the physical substrate — the neurons and connections between them.

Read more of Michael Graziano’s essay, A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved. Graziano is the author of Consciousness and the Social Brain, which serves as his introduction to AST. And, for a compelling rebuttal, check out R. Scott Bakker’s article, Graziano, the Attention Schema Theory, and the Neuroscientific Explananda Problem.

Unfortunately, until our experimentalists make some definitive progress in this area, our understanding will remain just as abstract as the theories themselves, however compelling. But, ideas such as these inch us towards a deeper understanding.

Image: Representation of consciousness from the seventeenth century. Robert FluddUtriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris […] historia, tomus II (1619), tractatus I, sectio I, liber X, De triplici animae in corpore visione. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Five Tips For Re-Learning How to Walk

Google-search-walking-with-smartphone

It seems that the aimless walk to clear one’s mind has become a rarity. So too the gentle stroll to ponder and think. Purposeless walking, it seems, is a dying art. Indeed many in the West are so pampered for transportation alternatives and (self-)limited in time that walking has become an indulgence — who can afford to walk any more when driving or taking the bus or the train can save so much time (and energy). Moreover, when we do walk, we’re firmly hunched over our smartphones, entranced by cyberspace and its virtual acknowledgments and affirmations, and thoroughly unaware of our surroundings.

Google-search-walking-in-nature

Yet keep in mind that many of our revered artists, photographers, authors and philosophers were great walkers. They used the walk to sense and think. In fact, studies find a link between walking and creativity.

So, without further ado I present 5 tips to help you revive an endangered pastime:

#1. Ditch the smartphone and any other mobile device.

#2. Find a treasured place to walk. Stomping to the nearest pub or 7-Eleven does not count.

#3. Pay attention to your surroundings and walk mindfully. Observe the world around you. This goes back to #1.

#4. Take off the headphones, take out the earbuds and leave your soundtrack at home. Listen to the world around you.

#5. Leave the partner, friend and dog (or other walking companion) at home. Walk alone.

From the BBC:

A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking – just for its own sake – and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?

Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.

Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there’s something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.

Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.

Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London’s atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London’s parks.

Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn’t match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it.

Read the entire article here.

Images courtesy of Google Search: Walking with smartphone. Walking in nature (my preference).

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Search and the Invisible Hand of Bias

duck-duck-go

I’ve written about the online filter bubble for a while now. It’s an insidious and disturbing consequence of our online world. It refers to the phenomenon whereby our profile, personal preferences, history and connections pre-select and filter the type of content that reaches us, eliminating things we don’t need to see. The filter bubble reduces our exposure to the wider world of information and serendipitous discovery.

If this were not bad enough the online world enables a much more dangerous threat — one of hidden bias through explicit manipulation. We’re all familiar with the pull and push exerted by the constant bombardment from overt advertising. We’re also familiar with more subtle techniques of ambient and subliminal control, which aim to sway our minds without our conscious awareness — think mood music in your grocery store (it really does work).

So, now comes another more subtle form of manipulation, but with more powerful results, and it’s tied to search engines and the central role these tools play in our daily lives.

Online search engines, such as Google, know you. They know your eye movements and your click habits; they know your proclivity to select a search result near the top of the first search engine results page (SERP). Advertisers part with a fortune each day with the goal of appearing in this sweet spot on a SERP. This is a tried and tested process — higher ranking on a SERP leads to more clicks and shifts more product.

Google and many other search engines will list a handful of sponsored results at the top of a SERP, followed by a collection of random results listed in order that best fit your search query. Your expectation is that these results are tailored to your query, but that they’re non-biased. That’s the key.

New research shows that you believe these SERP results to be non-biased, even if they are manipulated behind the scenes. Moreover, these manipulated results can greatly sway your opinion. The phenomenon now comes with a name, the search engine manipulation effect, or SEME (pronounced “seem”).

In the wrong hands — government overlords or technology oligarchs — this heralds a disturbing possible (and probable) future, already underway in countries with tightly controlled media and flows of information.

Check out a detailed essay on SEME by Robert Epstein here. Epstein is an author and research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California.

Finally, if you’re interested in using an alternative search engine that’s less interested in taking over the world, check out DuckDuckGo.

Image courtesy of DuckDuckGo.

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Pokemon Go and the Post-Apocalyptic Future is Nigh

google-search-pokemon-go

Some have lauded Pokémon Go as the next great health and fitness enabler since the “invention” of running. After all, over the span of just a few days it has forced half of Western civilization to unplug from Netflix, get off the couch and move around, and to do so outside!

The cynic in me perceives deeper, darker motives at play: a plot by North Korea to distract the West while it prepares a preemptive nuclear strike; a corporate sponsored youth brain-washing program; an exquisitely orchestrated, self-perpetuated genocidal time-bomb wrought by shady political operatives; a Google inspired initiative to tackle the obesity epidemic.

While the true nature of this elegantly devious phenomenon unfolds over the long-term — and maintains the collective attention of tens of millions of teens and millennials in the process — I will make a dozen bold, short-term predictions:

  1. A legendary Pokémon, such as Mewtwo, will show up at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and it will be promptly shot by open carry fanatics.
  2. The first Pokémon Go fatality will occur by July 31, 2016 — a player will inadvertently step into traffic while trying to throw a Poké Ball.
  3. The hundredth Pokémon Go fatality will occur on August 1, 2016 — the 49th player to fall into a sewer and drown.
  4. Sales of comfortable running shoes will skyrocket over the next 3 days, as the West discovers walking.
  5. Evangelical mega-churches in the US will hack the game to ensure Pokémon characters appear during revivals to draw more potential customers.
  6. Pokémon characters will begin showing up on Fox News and the Supreme Court.
  7. Tinder will file for chapter 11 bankruptcy and emerge as a Pokémon dating site.
  8. Gyms and stadia around the country will ditch all sporting events to make way for mass Pokémon hunts; NFL’s next expansion team will be virtual and led by Pikachu as quarterback.
  9. The Pokémon Company, Nintendo and Niantic Labs will join forces to purchase Japan by year’s end.
  10. Google and Tesla will team up to deliver Poké Spot in-car navigation allowing players to automatically drive to Pokémon locations.
  11. Donald Trump will assume office of PokémonPresident of the United States on January 20, 2017; 18-35-year-olds forgot to vote.
  12. World ends, January 21, 2017.

Pokemon-Go WSJ screenshot 13Jul2016If you’re one of the few earthlings wondering what Pokémon Go is all about, and how in the space of just a few days our neighborhoods have become overrun by zombie-like players, look no further than the WSJ. Rupert Murdoch must be a fan.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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