Planned Obsolescence


Our digital technologies bring us many benefits: improved personal and organizational efficiency; enhanced communication and collaboration; increased access to knowledge, information, and all manner of products and services. Over the foreseeable future our technologies promise to re-shape our work-lives and our leisure time ever-more, for the better. Yet, for all the positives, our modern technology comes with an immense flaw. It’s called planned obsolescence. Those who make and sell us the next, great digital gizmo rely upon planned obsolescence, combined with our magpie-like desire for shiny new objects, to lock us into an unrelenting cycle of buy-and-replace, buy-and-replace.

Yet, if you are over 30, you may recall having fixed something. You had the tools (some possibly makeshift), you had the motivation (saving money), and you had enough skills and information to get it done. The item you fixed was pre-digital, a simple electrical device, or more likely mechanical — positively ancient by current standards. But, you breathed new life into it, avoided a new purchase, saved some cash and even learned something in the process. Our digital products make this kind of DIY repair almost impossible for all but the expert (the manufacturer or its licensed technician); in fact, should you attempt a fix, you are more likely to render the product in worse shape than before.

Our digital products are just too complex to fix. And, therein lies the paradox of our digital progress — our technologies have advanced tremendously but our ability to repair them has withered. Even many of our supposedly simpler household devices, such as the lowly toaster, blender, or refrigerator have at their heart a digital something-or-other, making repair exorbitantly expensive or impossible.

As a kid, I recall helping my parents fix an old television (the kind with vacuum tubes), mechanical cameras, a vacuum cleaner, darkroom enlarger, doorbell. Those were the days. Today, unfortunately, we’ve become conditioned to consign a broken product to a landfill and to do the same with our skills. It would be a step in the right direction for us to regain the ability to repair our products. But don’t expect any help from the product manufacturer.

From WSJ:

We don’t have to keep buying new gadgets. In fact, we should insist on the right to keep old ones running.

Who hasn’t experienced a situation like this? Halfway through a classic Jack Lemmon DVD, my colleague Shira’s 40-inch TV conked out. Nothing showed up on the screen when she pressed the power button. The TV just hiccupped, going, “Clip-clop. Clip-clop.”

This was a great excuse to dump her old Samsung and buy a shiny new TV, right? But before heading to Best Buy, Shira gave me a call hoping for a less expensive option, not to mention one that’s better for the environment.

We ended up with a project that changed my view on our shop-till-you-drop gadget culture. We’re more capable of fixing technology than we realize, but the electronics industry doesn’t want us to know that. In many ways, it’s obstructing us.

There’s a fight brewing between giant tech companies and tinkerers that could impact how we repair gadgets or choose the shop where we get it done by a pro.

At issue: Who owns the knowledge required to take apart and repair TVs, phones and other electronics?

Some manufacturers stop us by controlling repair plans and limiting access to parts. Others even employ digital software locks to keep us from making changes or repairs. This may not always be planned obsolescence, but it’s certainly intentional obfuscation.

Thankfully, the Internet is making it harder for them to get away with it.

My first stop with Shira’s TV, a 2008 model, was Samsung itself. On its website, I registered the TV and described what was broken.

Our TV problem wasn’t unique: Samsung was taken to court about this exact issue, caused by a busted component called a capacitor. With a little googling of the TV model, I found our problem wasn’t unique. Samsung settled in 2012 by agreeing to extend warranties for 18 months on certain TVs, including this one. It also kept repairing the problem at no cost for a while after.

But when a Samsung support rep called back, she said they’d no longer fix the problem free. She passed me to an authorized Samsung repair shop in my area. They said they’d charge $90 for an estimate, and at least $125 plus parts for a repair.

Buying a similar-size Samsung TV today costs $380. Why wouldn’t Shira just buy a new TV? She felt guilty. Old electronics don’t just go to the great scrapheap in the sky—even recycled e-waste can end up in toxic dumps in the developing world.

Enter Plan B: Searching the Web, I found a ton of people talking about this TV’s broken capacitors. There were even a few folks selling DIY repair kits. The parts cost…wait for it…$12.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Digital trash, Guiyu e-waste town, 2014. Courtesy of Mightyroy / Wikipedia. CC.

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Green Friday

South Arapahoe Peak

To my US readers… Happy Thanksgiving. By this time you will no doubt have been bombarded by countless commercials, online adds, billboards, flyers and messages to your inbox, social media account etc., espousing the wonders of the so-called Black Friday shopping orgy.

My advice: boycott the shopping mall and the stores — both online and brick-and-mortar — go outside, breath some fresh air, and join Green Friday. It’s infinitely better for the heart and the soul (and your bank account). My home state of Colorado has joined the bandwagon this year by opening up all state parks for free on Fresh Air Friday.

Image: South Arapahoe Peak, looking East, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Courtesy of the author.

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Crony Capitalism Rules

The self-righteous preachers of on all sides of the political aisle in the U.S are constantly decrying corruption across the globe; one day the target may be a central African nation, the next it’s China, then a country in Latin America. Of course, this wouldn’t be so ****ing hypocritical if those in positions of power opened their eyes — and closed their wallets — to the rampant cash-fueled cronyism in their own backyards.

The threat to this democracy from those with hoards of money is greater than any real or imagined hostility from terrorism. Money greases and fuels the well-oiled machine in Washington D.C; it catalyses those who peddle influence; it brokers power and it curries favor. The influence of money is insidious and pervasive, and it is eating away the promise of democracy for all.

Our politicians pay homage to the bundlers; they crave endorsement from the millionaires; and, increasingly, they need anointment from the billionaires. And Rome burns. Then, when our so-called representatives have had their turn in the public limelight and in power, they retreat to the shadows, where as lobbyists and brokers they wield even greater power for the moneyed few. And Rome continues to burn.

So you know things must be rather dire if even huge swathes of capitalist corporate America want some form of significant campaign finance reform. You can read for yourself what the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board has to say in its scathing report, Crony Capitalism: Unhealthy Relations Between Business and Government.

From the Guardian:

Political corruption is eating our democracy out from the inside. Most Americans know that. But democratic and economic health can’t be easily disentangled. As it diminishes our public sphere and drowns out the myriad of citizen voices, it also sucks the energy and vitality from our economy. This causes pain to business owners.

According to a recent report from the Committee on Economic Development, an old, white-shoe non-partisan organization that came out of the aftermath of World War II (and was a booster for the Marshall Plan), the United States economy is increasingly represented by crony capitalism, not competitive capitalism.

Lobbyists and privately funded elections have, according to the CED: “exerted an important toll on the US economy”. They propose banning registered lobbyists from raising money for federal candidates and officeholders, and implementing strict revolving door policies.

Crony capitalism, the report details, leads to “rent-seeking through subsidies or taxes that benefit vested interests at the expense of others, rather than the pursuit of profit through socially and economically productive behavior”.

What is most striking about the report is who is behind it. The CEO of CED is former Romney supporter Steve Odland. A former top lobbyist for PepsiCo, a republican called Larry Thompson – someone I never thought I’d agree with – is endorsing the single most important structural reform in America: publicly financed elections.

Thompson is the Co-Chair of CED’s Sustainable Capitalism Subcommittee, a driver in the release of the report. Paul Atkins, another member of the CED board (and the sustainable capitalism subcommittee) was a Bush-appointed SEC Commissioner who opposed rules constraining hedge funds.

“Campaign finance reform could free elected officials from their dependence on private campaign funding. Such funding is seen as an important reason why elected officials might bend their views on policy issues away from the public interest” the report said.

I disagree with a big part of the report. I don’t think we should reduce the corporate tax rate. But the crony capitalism argument is right on point, and the most striking thing about the report is its full-throated endorsement of a public financing model. And, the report persuasively shows how our current model reduces competitiveness of the economy “by favoring insiders over outsiders” and “continues to sap vitality” out of our economic life.

We haven’t always had this problem. Until the 1980s, candidates spent a fraction of their time talking to donors; just a few weeks a year, a little more right before an election. True, they’d fund raise from the wealthy interests, as they do now, but it was a minuscule part of their job: policy and constituent services were the heart of the work.

 Read the entire story here.

Video: Money, money, money. ABBA. Courtesy of AbbaEVEO.

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PhotoMash: Tax Credit Cuts and Robots

This week’s PhotoMash comes courtesy of the Guardian online news site. It’s front page carried a photo of George Osborne, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) wondering how to cut tax credits next to a story concluding that robots will take over a third of all UK manual jobs by 2030.


I dare you to find the real human above.

Images courtesy of the Guardian.

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Social Media Lice


We know that social media helps us stay superficially connected to others. We also know many of the drawbacks — an over-inflated and skewed sense of self; poor understanding and reduced thoughtfulness; neurotic fear of missing out (FOMO); public shaming, online bullying and trolling.

But, now we hear that one of the key foundations of social media — the taking and sharing of selfies — has more serious consequences. Social media has caused an explosion in head lice, especially in teenagers, particularly girls. Call it: social media head lice syndrome. While this may cause you to scratch your head in disbelief, or for psychosomatic reasons, the outbreak of lice is rather obvious. It goes like this: a group of teens needs a quick selfie fix; teens crowd around the smartphone and pose; teens lean in, heads together; head lice jump from one scalp to the next.

From the Independent:

Selfies have sparked an explosion in the number of head lice cases among teenagers a group of US paediatricians has warned.

The group said there is a growing trend of “social media lice” where lice spread when teenagers cram their heads together to take a selfie.

Lice cannot jump so they are less common in older children who do not tend to swap hats or headgear.

A Wisconsin paediatrician, Dr Sharon Rink, told local news channel WBAY2 she has seen a surge of teenagers coming to see her for treatment, something which was unheard of five years ago.

Dr Rink said: “People are doing selfies like every day, as opposed to going to photo booths years and years ago.

“So you’re probably having much more contact with other people’s heads.

“If you have an extremely itchy scalp and you’re a teenager, you might want to get checked out for lice instead of chalking it up to dandruff.”

In its official online guide to preventing the spread of head lice, the Center for Disease Control recommends avoiding head-to-head contact where possible and suggests girls are more likely to get the parasite than boys because they tend to have “more frequent head-to-head contact”.

Read (and scratch) more here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Corporate Grief

amazon-france-bannerFollowing the recent horrendous mass murders in Mali, Paris, and Lebanon (and elsewhere) there is a visible outpouring of grief, and on a worldwide scale. Many of us, while removed from direct involvement and having no direct connection to the victims and their families, still feel sadness, pain and loss.

The empathy expressed by strangers or distant acquaintances for those even remotely connected with the violence is tangible and genuine. For instance, we foreigners may seek out a long-lost French colleague to express our concern and condolences for Mali / France and all Bamakoans / Parisians. There is genuine concern and sense of connection, at a personal level, however frail that connection may be.

But what is going on when Amazon, Apple, eBay, Uber and other corporations wave their digital banners of solidarity — expressing grief — on the home pages of their websites?

Jessica Reed over at the Guardian makes some interesting observations. She is absolutely right to admonish those businesses that would seek to profit from such barbaric acts. In fact, we should boycott any found to be doing so. Some are taking real and positive action, such as enabling free communication or providing free transportation and products. However, she is also correct to warn us of the growing, insidious tendency to anthropomorphize and project sentience onto corporations.

Brands and companies increasingly love us, they sympathize, and now they grieve with us. But there is a vast difference from being hugged in sympathy by the boss of your local deli and the faceless, impersonal digital flag-waving courtesy of a dotcom home page.

Who knows where this will lead us decades from now: perhaps if there is money to be made, big corporations will terrorize us as well.

From Jessica Reed:

The pain is shared by all of us, but a golden rule should apply: don’t capitalise on grief, don’t profit from it. Perhaps this is why big companies imposing their sympathy on the rest of us leaves a bitter taste in my month: it is hard for me to see these gestures as anything but profiteering.

Companies are now posing as entities capable of compassion, never mind that they cannot possibly speak for all of its employees. This also brings us a step closer to endowing them with a human trait: the capacity to express emotions. They think they’re sentient.

If this sounds crazy, it’s because it is.

In the US, the debate about corporate personhood is ongoing. The supreme court already ruled that corporations are indeed people in some contexts: they have been granted the right to spend money on political issues, for example, as well as the right to refuse to cover birth control in their employee health plans on religious grounds.

Armed with these rulings, brands continue to colonise our lives, accompanying us from the cradle to the grave. They see you grow up, they see you die. They’re benevolent. They’re family.

Looking for someone to prove me wrong, I asked Ed Zitron, a PR chief executive, about these kinds of tactics. Zitron points out that tech companies are, in some cases, performing a useful service – as in Facebook’s “safety check”, T-Mobile and Verizon’s free communication with France, and Airbnb’s decision to compensate hosts for letting people stay longer for free. Those are tangible gestures – the equivalent of bringing grief-stricken neighbours meals to sustain them, rather than sending a hastily-written card.

Anything else, he says, is essentially good-old free publicity: “an empty gesture, a non-movement, a sanguine pretend-help that does nothing other than promote themselves”.

It’s hard to disagree with him and illustrates how far brands have further infiltrated our lives since the publication of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which documented advertising as an industry not only interested in selling products, but also a dream and a message. We can now add “grief surfing” to the list.

A fear years back, Jon Stewart mocked this sorry state of affairs:

If only there were a way to prove that corporations are not people, show their inability to love, to show that they lack awareness of their own mortality, to see what they do when you walk in on them masturbating …

Turns out we can’t – companies will love you, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, whether you want it or not.

 Read the entire article here.

Image: Screen grab from, November 17, 2015.

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Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses…


Yesterday, November 19, 2015, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of legislation that would make it even more difficult for refugees from Iraq and Syria (and presumably other tormented lands) to enter the country. Today, I am reminded of the Emma Lazarus poem that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The key lines of the New Colossus are:

 ”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Looks like many of our representatives, state governors and a variety of talking heads have forgotten one of the central tenets that inspired, and inspires, this nation.

Image: Statue of Liberty unveiled, by Edward Moran, 1886. Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York. Public Domain.

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Xenophobia: Terrorism of the Mind

I suspect xenophobia is a spectrum disorder. At one end of the spectrum we see the acts of fundamentalist terrorists following their apocalyptic (and isolationist) scripts to their barbaric conclusions. At the other end, we hear the segregationist rants of talking heads demanding litmus tests for migrants, refugees and victims of violence. And, it’s all the more distasteful when one of the talking heads controls vast swathes of the global media.

So, shame on you Rupert Murdoch for suggesting that the US allow entry only to proven Christian refugees. Clearly, tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness are not concepts that Mr.Murdoch understands — traits that he lacks in common with those that he accuses.

From the Guardian:

I see Rupert Murdoch has come up with a foolproof method to ensure that the United States is safe from terrorism.

In a tweet offering advice to the American president, he wrote:

“Obama facing enormous opposition in accepting refugees. Maybe make special exception for proven Christians”

Oh yes he did. Does the News Corp boss not realise that this is just the kind of response to terrorism that the terrorists seek to provoke?

Ostracising all Muslims by refusing them sanctuary on the grounds that that they are potential terrorists is likely to be counter-productive. And, incidentally, is it not unChristian?

I note that the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, tongue firmly in cheek, tweeted back to Murdoch:

“Interesting idea… will you come and talk about it on @BBCNewsnight”.

But he didn’t take up the offer. He obviously prefers to let his wisdom shine through in 140 characters.

I am also queasy about the Tuesday editorial in Murdoch’s favourite newspaper, the Sun, which called on British-based Muslims to prove their opposition to “the jihadis” by marching through London with placards saying “not in our name”.

Rightly, the paper points out that Isis “seeks to establish violent, oppressive fundamentalism as the only true faith and to divide Muslims from non-Muslims.”

But I wonder whether the Sun realises that its message is similar: the effect of treating Muslims, all Muslims, as some kind of homogenous entity (and as a thing apart) is more likely to foment divisions with non-Muslims and alienate Muslims still further.

Read the entire story here.

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The Illness Known As Evil

What turns a seemingly ordinary person (usually male) into a brutal killer or mass-murderer? How does a quiet computer engineer end up as a cold-blooded executioner of innocents on a terrorist video in 2015? Why does one single guard in a concentration camp lead hundreds of thousands to their deaths during the Second World War? Why do we humans perform acts of such unspeakable brutality and horror?

Since the social sciences have existed researchers have weighed these questions. Is it possible that those who commit such acts of evil are host to a disease of the brain? Some have dubbed this Syndrome E, where E stands for evil. Others are not convinced that evil is a neurological condition with biochemical underpinnings. And so the debate, and the violence, rages on.

From the New Scientist:

The idea that a civilised human being might be capable of barbaric acts is so alien that we often blame our animal instincts – the older, “primitive” areas of the brain taking over and subverting their more rational counterparts. But fresh thinking turns this long-standing explanation on its head. It suggests that people perform brutal acts because the “higher”, more evolved, brain overreaches. The set of brain changes involved has been dubbed Syndrome E – with E standing for evil.

In a world where ideological killings are rife, new insights into this problem are sorely needed. But reframing evil as a disease is controversial. Some believe it could provide justification for heinous acts or hand extreme organisations a recipe for radicalising more young people. Others argue that it denies the reality that we all have the potential for evil within us. Proponents, however, say that if evil really is a pathology, then society ought to try to diagnose susceptible individuals and reduce contagion. And if we can do that, perhaps we can put radicalisation into reverse, too.

Following the second world war, the behaviour of guards in Nazi concentration camps became the subject of study, with some researchers seeing them as willing, ideologically driven executioners, others as mindlessly obeying orders. The debate was reignited in the mid-1990s in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In 1996, The Lancet carried an editorial pointing out that no one was addressing evil from a biological point of view. Neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried, at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to rise to the challenge.

In a paper published in 1997, he argued that the transformation of non-violent individuals into repetitive killers is characterised by a set of symptoms that suggests a common condition, which he called Syndrome E (see “Seven symptoms of evil“). He suggested that this is the result of “cognitive fracture”, which occurs when a higher brain region, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – involved in rational thought and decision-making – stops paying attention to signals from more primitive brain regions and goes into overdrive.

The idea captured people’s imaginations, says Fried, because it suggested that you could start to define and describe this basic flaw in the human condition. “Just as a constellation of symptoms such as fever and a cough may signify pneumonia, defining the constellation of symptoms that signify this syndrome may mean that you could recognise it in the early stages.” But it was a theory in search of evidence. Neuroscience has come a long way since then, so Fried organised a conference in Paris earlier this year to revisit the concept.

At the most fundamental level, understanding why people kill is about understanding decision-making, and neuroscientists at the conference homed in on this. Fried’s theory starts with the assumption that people normally have a natural aversion to harming others. If he is correct, the higher brain overrides this instinct in people with Syndrome E. How might that occur?

Etienne Koechlin at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris was able to throw some empirical light on the matter by looking at people obeying rules that conflict with their own preferences. He put volunteers inside a brain scanner and let them choose between two simple tasks, guided by their past experience of which would be the more financially rewarding (paying 6 euros versus 4). After a while he randomly inserted rule-based trials: now there was a colour code indicating which of the two tasks to choose, and volunteers were told that if they disobeyed they would get no money.

Not surprisingly, they followed the rule, even when it meant that choosing the task they had learned would earn them a lower pay-off in the free-choice trials. But something unexpected happened. Although rule-following should have led to a simpler decision, they took longer over it, as if conflicted. In the brain scans, both the lateral and the medial regions of the PFC lit up. The former is known to be sensitive to rules; the latter receives information from the limbic system, an ancient part of the brain that processes emotional states, so is sensitive to our innate preferences. In other words, when following the rule, people still considered their personal preference, but activity in the lateral PFC overrode it.

Of course, playing for a few euros is far removed from choosing to kill fellow humans. However, Koechlin believes his results show that our instinctive values endure even when the game changes. “Rules do not change values, just behaviours,” he says. He interprets this as showing that it is normal, not pathological, for the higher brain to override signals coming from the primitive brain. If Fried’s idea is correct, this process goes into overdrive in Syndrome E, helping to explain how an ordinary person overcomes their squeamishness to kill. The same neuroscience may underlie famous experiments conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s, which revealed the extraordinary lengths to which people would go out of obedience to an authority figure – even administering what they thought were lethal electric shocks to strangers.

Fried suggests that people experience a visceral reaction when they kill for the first time, but some rapidly become desensitised. And the primary instinct not to harm may be more easily overcome when people are “just following orders”. In unpublished work, Patrick Haggard at University College London has used brain scans to show that this is enough to make us feel less responsible for our actions. “There is something about being coerced that produces a different experience of agency,” he says, “as if people are subjectively able to distance themselves from this unpleasant event they are causing.”

However, what is striking about many accounts of mass killing, both contemporary and historical, is that the perpetrators often choose to kill even when not under orders to do so. In his book Ordinary Men, the historian Christopher Browning recounts the case of a Nazi unit called reserve police battalion 101. No member of this unit was forced to kill. A small minority did so eagerly from the start, but they may have had psychopathic or sadistic tendencies. However, the vast majority of those who were reluctant to kill soon underwent a transformation, becoming just as ruthless. Browning calls them “routinised” killers: it was as if, once they had decided to kill, it quickly became a habit.

Habits have long been considered unthinking, semi-automatic behaviours in which the higher brain is not involved. That seems to support the idea that the primitive brain is in control when seemingly normal people become killers. But this interpretation is challenged by new research by neuroscientist Ann Graybiel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies people with common psychiatric disorders, such as addiction and depression, that lead them to habitually make bad decisions. In high-risk, high-stakes situations, they tend to downplay the cost with respect to the benefit and accept an unhealthy level of risk. Graybiel’s work suggests the higher brain is to blame.

In one set of experiments, her group trained rats to acquire habits – following certain runs through mazes. The researchers then suppressed the activity of neurons in an area of the PFC that blocks signals coming from a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala. The rats immediately changed their running behaviour – the habit had been broken. “The old idea that the cognitive brain doesn’t have evaluative access to that habitual behaviour, that it’s beyond its reach, is false,” says Graybiel. “It has moment-to-moment evaluative control.” That’s exciting, she says, because it suggests a way to treat people with maladaptive habits such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even, potentially, Syndrome E.

What made the experiment possible was a technique known as optogenetics, which allows light to regulate the activity of genetically engineered neurons in the rat PFC. That wouldn’t be permissible in humans, but cognitive or behavioural therapies, or drugs, could achieve the same effect. Graybiel believes it might even be possible to stop people deciding to kill in the first place by steering them away from the kind of cost-benefit analysis that led them to, say, blow themselves up on a crowded bus. In separate experiments with risk-taking rats, her team found that optogenetically decreasing activity in another part of the limbic system that communicates with the PFC, the striatum, made the rats more risk-averse: “We can just turn a knob and radically alter their behaviour,” she says.

Read the entire article here.

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Bestial or Human?

Following the recent horrendous mass murders in Lebanon and Paris I heard several politicians and commentators describe the atrocities as “bestial“.  So, if you’re somewhat of a pedant link me you’ll know that bestial means “of or like an animal“. This should make you scratch your head because the terror and bloodshed is nowhere close to bestial — it’s thoroughly human.

Only humans have learned to revel and excel in these types of destructive behaviors, and on such a scale. So, next time your hear someone label such an act as bestial please correct them, and hope that one day we’ll all learn to be more bestial.

And, on the subject of the recent atrocities, I couldn’t agree more with the following two articles: the murderers are certainly following a bankrupt ideology, but they’re far from mindless.

From the Guardian:

During Sunday night’s monologue he [John Oliver, Last Week Tonight show on HBO] took advantage of the US cable channel’s relaxed policy on swearing. “After the many necessary and appropriate moments of silence, I’d like to offer you a moment of premium cable profanity … it’s hardly been 48 hours but there are a few things we can say for certain.

“First, as of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic fucking arseholes … possibly working with other fucking arseholes, definitely working in service of an ideology of pure arseholery.

“Second, and this goes almost without saying, fuck these arseholes …

“And, third, it is important to remember, nothing about what these arseholes are trying to do is going to work. France is going to endure and I’ll tell you why. If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, camembert, madeleines, macarons, and the fucking croquembouche. You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friend.

Read the entire article here and anthropologist Scott Atran’s (University of Michigan) op-ed, here.

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The Curious Case of the Strange Transit Signal

Something very strange is happening over at KIC 8462852. But, it may not be an alien intelligence.


NASA’s extrasolar, planet-hunting space telescope, found some odd changes in the luminosity of a star — KIC 8462852– located in the constellation of Cygnus, about 1,400 light-years from Earth. In a recent paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers reported that:

“Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”

But despite several years of monitoring, astronomers have yet to come up with a feasible, natural explanation. And, this has conspiracy theorists, alien hunters and SciFi enthusiasts very excited. Could it be a massive alien structure shielding the star, or is there simpler and natural, but less amazing possibility? Occam’s razor could well prevail again, but I certainly hope not in this case.

From Wired:

Last week, astronomers—amateur and pro—got excited about some strange results from the Kepler Space Telescope, the NASA observatory tasked with searching for Earth-like planets. As those planets orbit their own distant suns, periodically blocking light from Kepler’s view, the telescope documents the flickers. But over the last several years, it has picked up a strange pattern of blips from one star in particular, KIC 8462852.

Light from that star dramatically plunges in irregular intervals—not the consistent pattern you’d expect from an orbiting planet. But what could possibly cause such a thing? Gotta be aliens, right? Clearly someone—something—has assembled a megastructure around its sun, like that hollow Celestial head in Guardians of the Galaxy. Or maybe it’s a solar array, collecting energy-giving radiation and preventing light from reaching NASA’s telescope.

This, of course, is almost certainly poppycock. When you’re searching the vast expanse of space, lots of things look like they could be signs of extraterrestrial life. Astronomical observers are constantly looking for tiny glimmers of information in the mess of noise that streams through space toward Earth, and often, things that at first look like signals end up being mirages. This has all happened before; it will all happen again. For example:


In 1967, astronomer Jocelyn Bell was monitoring signals from the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, trying to analyze the behavior of quasars, energy-spewing regions surrounding supermassive black holes within distant galaxies. What she found, though, was a series of regular pulses, always from the same part of the sky, that she labeled LGM-1: Little Green Men. Soon, though, she found similar signals coming from another part of the sky, and realized that she wasn’t seeing messages from two different alien civilizations: It was radiation from a spinning, magnetized neutron star—the first measured pulsar.

Sparks at Parkes

In 1998, astronomers at the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia started noticing mysterious radio signals called perytons—unexplained, millisecond-long bursts. The researchers there didn’t immediately cry alien, though; they could tell that the radio signals were terrestrial in origin, because they showed up across the entire spectrum monitored by the telescope. They didn’t know until this year, however, exactly where those emissions came from: a microwave oven on the observatory’s campus, which released a short, powerful radio signal when staffers opened its door in the middle of heating.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Flux time series for KIC 8462852 showing different portions of the 4-year Kepler observations. Courtesy: T. S. Boyajian et al, Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the flux?

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A Bookstore Opens!


Much has been said about the demise of reading, literature, books and bookstores. In the US alone between 2000 and 2007 around 1,000 independent bookstores shuttered their doors. The national chain Borders went bankrupt in 2011, closing over 600 locations. Electronic forms of entertainment, e-readers, and have all been highlighted as villains in the destruction of physical print and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Yet, over the last few years a somewhat surprising trend seems to have emerged. It’s not an exponential curve, such as new members flocking to social media in their gazillions, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent during the five year period from 2009 to 2014. And, to add icing to the cake Amazon recently declared open a real, physical bookstore! Yes, you read the last sentence correctly — the bookstore is located in Seattle, and carries around 5,000 titles.

So, what’s going on?

From ars technica:

Literary fans in Seattle will no longer need their MacBooks to procure the latest bestselling book: they just need to stroll down to the local Amazon Books store. Today, the online retailer is opening its flagship physical outlet in Seattle’s University Village. According to a press release, the selection of available titles is based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and curator assessments. If you need further convincing, Amazon Books is also stocking “review cards” so as to ensure you know exactly what everyone else thought about your potential purchase.

Interestingly, the books will all be displayed “face-out,” meaning that customers will be able to see the covers instead of merely the spine. The reason for this, explains Amazon Books vice president Jennifer Cast, is that the company wants to showcase the authors and their work rather than cramming as many things on a shelf as possible. The first Amazon Books store is fairly large at 5,500 square feet (510 square meters) of retail space and 2,000 square feet (185 square meters) of storage.

Read the entire ars techica article here.

From Slate:

The recent news of the opening of an independent bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was greeted with surprise and delight, since a neighborhood once flush with such stores had become a retail book desert. The opening coincides with the relocation of the Bank Street Bookstore near Columbia University, leading the New York Times to declare, “Print is not dead yet — at least not on the Upper West Side.”

Two stores don’t constitute a trend, but they do point to a quiet revival of independent bookselling in the United States. They also underscore the shifting sands of physical bookselling, where the biggest losers are not—as was once assumed—the independent booksellers, but rather the large book chains.

Only a few years ago, observers projected that the rise of chain stores and Amazon would lead to the vast shrinkage of independent bookstores. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent since the depths of the recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. Meanwhile, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and the fate of Barnes & Noble, which failed to make the Nook into a viable e-reader competitor with Amazon’s Kindle, appears murky. What happened?

The short answer is that by listing their shares as public companies, both Borders and Barnes & Noble were drawn into a negative vortex that destroyed the former and has crippled the latter. Not only did they become public companies, but they positioned themselves as high-growth companies, focused on innovation and disruption. That forced them to compete with the growth company par excellence in their space: Amazon. It also forced them to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories. Those strategies, as it turned out, were precisely wrong for the actual business they were in: selling books to a selective audience. Which is precisely what independent bookstores are good at.

Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, and even Costco looked to be squeezing the life out of indies in the 1990s and into the aughts. Borders alone went from 21 stores in 1992 to 256 superstores in 1999. Barnes & Noble saw even greater growth. Those stores offered more choices, cafes, magazines, and for a while, music. Many independents, already operating with razor-thin margins, couldn’t compete. Between 2000 and 2007, some 1,000 independent bookstores closed.

But even as they were expanding, the chains were beset by questionable management decisions pressured by the demands of public markets to grow, grow, grow. Facing the need for expensive investment in technology, Borders sold its online distribution to Amazon in 2001 and threw its efforts into more stores and bigger stores, using its share price to finance massive debt. Barnes & Noble opened more superstores as well, but it also decided to challenge Amazon by developing the Nook at a cost of more than $1 billion.

The results were disastrous. Barnes & Noble bled money; it just announced earnings with yet another quarter of losses and declining revenue. Amazon dominated because it could spend far more money on technology than the chains, and because its core competency was in the disruptive technologies of e-readers, distribution, and inventory management. Amazon was never seen primarily as a retailer, and hence it could carry massive inventories that were a drag on its earnings and then spend billions on research and development because investors accepted Amazon’s narrative that it was a disruptive technology company redefining how everything is sold, not just books.

The chains, however, were valued as retailers, which meant that they had to have higher sales, more stores, and lower inventory to justify their stock prices. Because investors viewed the chains as retailers, they had to move product. That is what clothing stores do: Old inventory gets put on sale and then off-loaded to discount stores. Unsold inventory shows up on income statements as a negative against sales. To demonstrate higher profitability, retail stores have an incentive to turn over their inventories quickly.

For clothing and electronics and automobiles, that workflow is in sync with consumer behavior. Consumers want new fashion, the newest flat-screen, the latest model car. Book consumers aren’t the same. Yes, new titles can drive sales, but book buyers also look for forgotten classics and hidden gems. That means poring over shelves, and that requires old inventory. The chains and their management could have tried to set investors’ expectations for higher unsold inventories as a healthy part of the specific business of buying and selling books. But they didn’t. They treated old inventory as a drag rather than an asset and began to trim their shelves of titles. (Alternatively, they could have tried to position themselves as larger, better-stocked versions of the independents, focusing on the particular desires of book customers.)

Independent bookstores never had to answer to the dictates of public markets. Many of their proprietors understood, intuitively and from conversations with customers, that a well-curated selection—an inventory of old and new books—was their primary and maybe only competitive advantage. In the words of Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “The indie bookselling amalgam of knowledge, innovation, passion, and business sophistication has created a unique shopping experience.”

Read the entire Slate article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Grandiose Narcissism


Oh America! You are locked in a painful and relentless electioneering cycle. Love it or hate it, the process of electing a president is a brutal and brutish amalgam of self-centeredness, untruth, circus-showmanship, flamboyance and ego. Psychologists have a label for these traits, often synthesized to their essence in political candidates and leaders. It’s called grandiose narcissism. It would seem that during the current presidential election cycle, which began several hundred years and 10 million political commercials ago, has an overstuffed share of these grandiose narcissists. This makes for tremendous entertainment. But, it’s thoroughly ghastly to think that one of these performers could be in the White House a mere six months from now.

From the NYT:

With the presidential campaign in full swing, a perennial question has resurfaced: How much weight should voters give to candidates’ personalities? The political rise of Donald J. Trump has drawn attention to one personality trait in particular: narcissism. Although narcissism does not lend itself to a precise definition, most psychologists agree that it comprises self-centeredness, boastfulness, feelings of entitlement and a need for admiration.

We have never met Mr. Trump, let alone examined him, so it would be inappropriate of us to offer a formal assessment of his level of narcissism. And in all fairness, today’s constant media attention makes a sizable ego a virtual job requirement for public office. Still, the Trump phenomenon raises the question of what kinds of leaders narcissists make. Fortunately, a recent body of research has suggested some answers.

In a 2013 article in Psychological Science, we and our colleagues approached this question by studying the 42 United States presidents up to and including George W. Bush. (The primary data were collected before Barack Obama’s presidency.) First we took a data set compiled by the psychologists Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer, who for an earlier study asked experts on each president to complete personality surveys on the subjects of their expertise. Then, using standard formulas from the research literature on personality, we produced estimates of each president’s narcissism level. Finally, we correlated these personality ratings with data from surveys of presidential performance obtained from independent panels of historians.

We found that narcissism, specifically “grandiose narcissism” — an amalgam of flamboyance, immodesty and dominance — was associated with greater overall presidential success. (This relation was small to moderate in magnitude.) The two highest scorers on grandiose narcissism were Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt, the two lowest James Monroe and Millard Fillmore.

Grandiose narcissism was tied to slightly better crisis management, public persuasiveness and agenda-setting. Presidents with high levels of this trait were also more likely to assume office by winning election in a landslide (55 percent or more of the popular vote) and to initiate new legislation.

Yet we also found that grandiose narcissism was associated with certain negative outcomes, including unethical behaviors like stealing, abusing power and bending rules. High scorers on this trait were especially likely to have been the target of impeachment resolutions (John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton).

We also considered a less well-understood dimension of narcissism: “vulnerable narcissism,” a trait associated with being self-absorbed and thin-skinned (think of Richard M. Nixon, who was a high scorer on this trait). We found that vulnerable narcissism showed little relation to successful presidential leadership.

To be certain, our results were based on a small and highly select sample, and we relied on presidential experts’ judgments of personality. Still, other psychological studies of narcissism, using other data and different methods, have yielded broadly similar results.

In contrast, the psychologist W. Keith Campbell and others have found that narcissists tend to be overconfident when making decisions, to overestimate their abilities and to portray their ideas as innovative when they are not. Compared with their non-narcissistic counterparts, they are more likely to accumulate resources for themselves at others’ expense.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Art and Money


The process through which an artist finds fortune and fame is a complex one, though to many of us — even those who have spent some time within the art world — it seems rather random and obscure. Raw talent alone will only carry an artist up the first rungs of the ladder of success. To gain the upper reaches requires and modicum of luck and lots of communication, connections, sales and marketing.

Unfortunately, for those artists who seek only to create and show their works (and perhaps even sell a few), the world of art is very much a business. It is driven by money, personality (of the artist or her proxies) and market power of a select few galleries, curators, critics, collectors, investors, and brokers. So, just like any other capitalist adventure the art market can be manoeuvered  and manipulated. As a result, a few artists become global superstars, while still living, their art taking on a financial life of its own; the remaining 99.999 percent — well, they’ll have to hold on to their day-jobs.

From WSJ:

Next month, British artist Damien Hirst—a former superstar whose prices plummeted during the recession—could pull off an unthinkable feat: By opening a free museum, called the Newport Street Gallery, in south London to display his private collection of other artists’ works, Mr. Hirst could salvage his own career.

Just as the new museum opens, an independent but powerful set of dealers, collectors and art advisers are quietly betting that a surge of interest in Mr. Hirst’s new endeavor could spill over into higher sales for his art. Some, like New York dealer Jose Mugrabi, are stockpiling Hirsts in hopes of reselling them for later profits, believing a fresh generation of art collectors will walk away wanting to buy their own Hirsts. Mr. Mugrabi, who helped mount successful comeback campaigns in the past for Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Richard Prince, said he owns 120 pieces by Mr. Hirst, including $33 million of art he bought directly from the artist’s studio three months ago.

Other dealers, such as Pilar Ordovas, are organizing gallery shows that place Mr. Hirst’s work alongside still-popular artists, angling for a beneficial comparison.

New York art adviser Kim Heirston, whose clients include Naples collector Massimo Lauro, said she has been scouring for Hirsts at fairs and auctions alike. “I’m telling anybody who will listen to buy him because Damien Hirst is here to stay,” Ms. Heirston said.

If successful, their efforts could offer a real-time glimpse into the market-timing moves of the art-world elite, where the tastes of a few can still sway the opinions of the masses. Few marketplaces are as changeable as contemporary art. This is a realm where price levels for an artist can be catapulted in a matter of minutes by a handful of collectors in an auction. Those same champions can then turn around the following season and dump their stakes in the same artist, dismissing him as a sellout. Like fashion, the roster of coveted artists is continually being reshuffled in subtle ways.

Most artists with lengthy careers have seasons of ebb and flow, and collectors who sync their buying and selling can profit accordingly, experts say. Before the recession, Mr. Hirst, age 50, was an art-world darling, the leader of London’s 1990s generation of so-called Young British Artists who explored ideas about life and death in provocative, outsize ways. He is best known for covering canvases in dead butterflies and polka dots whose rainbow hues he color-coded to match chemical compounds found in drugs.

During the market’s last peak, collectors paid as much as $19 million at auction for his artworks, and he staffed multiple studios throughout the U.K. with as many as 100 studio assistants to help produce his works. Mr. Hirst is reportedly worth an estimated $350 million, thanks to his art sales but also his skill as a businessman, amassing an empire of real estate holdings in the U.K. and elsewhere. He also co-founded a publishing company called Other Criteria in 2005 that publishes art books, artist-designed clothing and prints of his works, as well as other emerging artists.

But his star fell sharply after he committed an art-world taboo by bypassing conventional sales channels—selling works slowly through galleries—and auctioned off nearly $200 million of his work directly at Sotheby’s in 2008. While the sale was successful and proved his popularity, it became his undoing. He irked his galleries and some longtime collectors, who felt he had flooded his own marketplace for a singular payout. These days, it’s “much riskier” to trade a Hirst at auction than it was a decade ago, according to Michael Moses, co-founder of an auction tracking firm called Beautiful Asset Advisors. Collectors who bought and resold his works since 2005 have mainly suffered losses, Mr. Moses added.

Read the entire story here.

Image: A collection of some of Damien Hirst’s “dot” works. Courtesy of Google Search.

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Your Perfect Lifestyle Captured, Shared, Commoditized

Socality-BarbieMany millions of people post countless images on a daily basis of their perfect soft-focus and sepia-toned lives on Instagram (and other social media). These images are cataloged and captioned and shared so that many more millions may participate vicariously in these wonderfully perfect moments.

Recently a well known personality joined the Instagram picture-posting, image-sharing frenzy. Not unlike movie-stars, sports personalities and the music glitterati she’s garnered millions of followers on Instagram. She posts pictures of her latest, perfect outfits with perfect hair; she shows us perfect lattes sipped from the perfect coffee shop; she shares shares soft-focus sunsets from perfect mountaintops; images of a perfect 5-course dinner from a perfectly expensive bistro with or without that perfect bearded date; photographs of perfect vacations at the beach or from a yacht or a vintage train. She seems to have a perfect life, captured in a kaleidoscopic torrent of perfect visuals.

Her name is Barbie. Actually, her full name is Socality Barbie. She’s a parody of her human followers, and she’s well on her way to becoming the next social media sensation. Except, she’s not real, she’s a Barbie doll. But what’s really interesting about Socality Barbie is that she’s much like many of her human peers on social media — she’s a commoditized hipster.

My one complaint: she doesn’t take enough selfies. I wonder what’s next for her — perhaps an eponymous reality TV show.

From the Guardian:

Here she is on the sand, barefoot in the lapping waves, wearing cropped skinny jeans and shoulder-robing a blanket. And here she is in a cafe, the sleeves of her utility overshirt pushed up as she reaches for her flat white with its photogenic foam-art. Here she is in the mountains, wearing a beanie hat that perfectly offsets hair blow-dried into soft waves. Oh, and look, here’s a still-life shot of her weekend-away capsule wardrobe laid out on hardwood floors. She’s taking high-heeled hiking boots. But then, she is a Barbie doll.

Socality Barbie, the newest social-media sensation, is on a mission to take down Instagram from the inside. The account is the brainchild of an anonymous wedding photographer in Oregon, who dresses a Barbie doll in mini-hipster outfits and posts Instagram shots of doll-sized hikes (always sunny, lots of photogenic light shafts through the trees), coffee dates (whitewashed wooden tables and a calm, mindful atmosphere) and boyfriends (check shirt, facial hair).

It’s not exactly satire – I don’t think you can really satirise Instagram, that would be like satirising kittens – but Socality Barbie skewers something about how plastic Instagram has become. She is the Rosa Parks of a society oppressed by thigh gaps and tyrannised by heavily filtered brunches. She is a taking a brave stand against – OK, poking fun at – the disproportionate power and influence of Instagram, which has overtaken the Farrow & Ball paint chart as the sacred text we must live by.

Let me get one thing straight: I love Instagram. I am addicted. Sometimes I wake up in the night and, half asleep, reach for my phone and start scrolling through my feed, which at that hour is Lily-Rose Depp in novelty socks, people I vaguely know in New York taking overlit selfies in bars and insomniacs on a 3am camera-roll jag posting throwback photos with mawkish captions. And I love it. So I am absolutely not about to declare Instagram over. Anyway, that would be idiotic: in 2012, Facebook paid $1bn to buy it; it is now valued at $35bn. And in fashion, Instagram is everything. It has catwalk shows in real time, street style from all over the world, plus you get to see every time someone you know buys a new coat. What more could I possibly want?

But what Instagram isn’t any more is cutting edge. Instead of being hip, it is a world of commodified hipsterdom. All pigeon-toed loafers on pretty tiled floors and nail art on a hand holding a street-truck burger. It is a guilty pleasure, a cosy comforting world where everyone dresses really well and is also, like, super nice. It is is a bit like watching reality TV, in fact. You get to watch attractive people living their lives, at a level of apparent intimacy that makes it compelling. Theoretically, Instagram is more high-minded than reality TV, because it shows you a kaleidoscope of viewpoints from all over the world. The trouble is they all look the same.

Read the entire story here.

Images courtesy of Socality Barbie.

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PhotoMash: Snoopers Charter and Fast Walking

Welcome to my inaugural PhotoMash segment. This is a lighthearted look at juxtaposing news stories. Online media needs eyeballs. So to keep our attention media outlets cycle and recycle their news stories ever more frequently. The result is that we’re increasingly likely to find unrelated and sometimes opposing stories right next to each other on a page. Editors have little time to police these embarrassing juxtapositions of text and images, since much is now driven by automated content publishing systems, which of course paves the way for my story and/or photo mash-up service.


So, here’s my first PhotoMash, courtesy of the Independent in the UK. Home Secretary Teresa May introducing new surveillance proposals and the UK’s first fast pedestrian lane for walkers. Makes for an interesting mash-up. Get the idea? Two, or more, incongruous images displayed coincidentally side-by-side. [Are those Teresa May’s legs?]

Images courtesy of the Independent.

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Can Burning Man Be Saved?


I thought it rather appropriate to revisit Burning Man one day after Guy Fawkes Day in the UK. I must say that Burning Man has grown into more of a corporate event compared with the cheesy pyrotechnic festivities in Britain on the 5th of November. So, even though Burners have a bigger, bolder, brasher event please remember-remember, we Brits had the original burning man — by 380 years.

The once-counter-cultural phenomenon known as Burning Man seems to be maturing into an executive-level tech-fest. Let’s face it, if I can read about the festival in the mainstream media it can’t be as revolutionary as it once set out to be. Though, the founders‘ desire to keep the festival radically inclusive means that organizers can’t turn away those who may end up razing Burning Man to the ground due to corporate excess. VCs and the tech elite from Silicon Valley now descend in their hoards, having firmly placed Burning Man on their app-party circuit. Until recently, Burners mingled relatively freely throughout the week-long temporary metropolis in the Nevada desert; now, the nouveau riche arrive on private jets and “camp” in exclusive wagon-circles of luxury RVs catered to by corporate chefs and personal costume designers. It certainly seems like some of Larry Harvey’s 10 Principles delineating Burning Man’s cultural ethos are on shaky ground. Oh well, capitalism ruins another great idea! But, go once before you die.

From NYT:

There are two disciplines in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs excel above almost everyone else. The first is making exorbitant amounts of money. The second is pretending they don’t care about that money.

To understand this, let’s enter into evidence Exhibit A: the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev.

If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air.

A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct. But now things are a little different. Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, has been the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else.

Some of the biggest names in technology have been making the pilgrimage to the desert for years, happily blending in unnoticed. These include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, and Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon. But now a new set of younger rich techies are heading east, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, employees from Twitter, Zynga and Uber, and a slew of khaki-wearing venture capitalists.

Before I explain just how ridiculous the spending habits of these baby billionaires have become, let’s go over the rules of Burning Man: You bring your own place to sleep (often a tent), food to eat (often ramen noodles) and the strangest clothing possible for the week (often not much). There is no Internet or cell reception. While drugs are technically illegal, they are easier to find than candy on Halloween. And as for money, with the exception of coffee and ice, you cannot buy anything at the festival. Selling things to people is also a strict no-no. Instead, Burners (as they are called) simply give things away. What’s yours is mine. And that often means everything from a meal to saliva.

In recent years, the competition for who in the tech world could outdo who evolved from a need for more luxurious sleeping quarters. People went from spending the night in tents, to renting R.V.s, to building actual structures.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

This is drastically different from the way most people experience the event. When I attended Burning Man a few years ago, we slept in tents and a U-Haul moving van. We lived on cereal and beef jerky for a week. And while Burning Man was one of the best experiences of my life, using the public Porta-Potty toilets was certainly one of the most revolting experiences thus far. But that’s what makes Burning Man so great: at least you’re all experiencing those gross toilets together.

That is, until recently. Now the rich are spending thousands of dollars to get their own luxury restroom trailers, just like those used on movie sets.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

For those with even more money to squander, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help.

Tyler Hanson, who started going to Burning Man in 1995, decided a couple of years ago to try working as a paid Sherpa at one of these luxury camps. He described the experience this way: Lavish R.V.s are driven in and connected together to create a private forted area, ensuring that no outsiders can get in. The rich are flown in on private planes, then picked up at the Burning Man airport, driven to their camp and served like kings and queens for a week. (Their meals are prepared by teams of chefs, which can include sushi, lobster boils and steak tartare — yes, in the middle of 110-degree heat.)

“Your food, your drugs, your costumes are all handled for you, so all you have to do is show up,” Mr. Hanson said. “In the camp where I was working, there were about 30 Sherpas for 12 attendees.”

Mr. Hanson said he won’t be going back to Burning Man anytime soon. The Sherpas, the money, the blockaded camps and the tech elite were too much for him. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” he said. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”

Strangely, the tech elite won’t disagree with Mr. Hanson about it being a reflection of society. This year at the premiere of the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who was a founder of PayPal, complained that Mike Judge, the show’s creator, didn’t get the tech world because — wait for it — he had not attended the annual party in the desert.

“I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley,” Mr. Musk said to a Re/Code reporter, while using a number of expletives to describe the festival. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Burning Man gallery. Courtesy of Burners.

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Remember, Remember the Fifth of November


I was born and came of age in London. So I have vivid, if somewhat mixed, memories of the 5th of November. We kids variously called it Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night. We’d spend our pocket money (allowance) that week on fireworks rather than sweets (candy). We’d set off our fireworks and huddle around bonfires on the evening of the 5th. Naughtier kids would post (mail) fireworks in their neighbors’ letterboxes (mail boxes) and empty milk bottles.

Now that I live in the US I still have difficulty in explaining this strange and uniquely British celebration to Americans. So, here’s another attempt. Though I’ve since given up trying to explain the once common refrain — “Penny for the Guy!”– heard from children on street corners during the week leading up to the 5th of November [you will need to figure this out for yourself].

We celebrate it because Guy Fawkes once tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Oops, wrong! We celebrate it because on this day in 1605 the Gunpowder Plot planned by Mr.Fawkes and his Roman Catholic co-conspirators was successfully foiled. Correct!

From the Telegraph:

What is Bonfire Night?

Bonfire Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605 by a gang of Roman Catholic activists led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby.

When Protestant King James I began his reign, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution felt for over 45 years under his predecessor Queen Elizabeth would finally end, but this didn’t transpire so the Gunpowder Plot conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.

Guy (Guido) Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, having rented out a house closed to the Houses of Parliament, managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building. (Physicists from the Institute of Physics later calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder beneath Parliament would have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion).

The plot began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to the William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him not to avoid the House of Lords.

The letter (which could well have been sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham), was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5.

Explosive expert Fawkes, who had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse, was subsequently caught when a group of guards checked the cellars at the last moment.

Fawkes was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters and Lord Monteagle was rewarded with 500 pounds and 200 pounds worth of lands, for his service in protecting the crown.

Read the entire article here.

Image: A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Fawkes is third from the right. Public Domain.

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Selfie-Drone: It Was Only a Matter of Time


Those of you who crave a quiet, reflective escape from the incessant noise of the modern world, may soon find even fewer places for quiet respite. Make the most of your calming visit to the beach or a mountain peak or an alpine lake or an emerald forest before you are jolted back to reality by swarms of buzzing selfie-drones. It’s rather ironic to see us regress as our technology evolves. Oh, and you can even get a wearable one! Does our penchant for narcissistic absorption have no bounds? That said, there is one positive to come of this dreadful application of a useful invention — the selfie-stick may be on the way out. I will now revert to my quiet cave for the next 50 years.

From NYT:

It was a blistering hot Sunday in Provence. The painted shutters of the houses in Arles were closed. Visitors were scarce. In the Roman amphitheater, built to hold some 20,000 spectators, I sat among empty bleachers, above homes with orange tile roofs, looking past ancient arcades and terraces to the blue horizon. Was this the sort of stillness van Gogh experienced when he was in Arles on this same June day in 1888? I began to entertain the thought but was distracted by a soft whirring; a faint electric hum. Something was drawing near. I looked around and saw nothing — until it and I were eye to eye.

Or rather, eye to lens. A drone resembling one of those round Roomba robotic vacuums had levitated from the pit of the nearly 2,000-year-old arena and was hovering in the air between me and the cloudless horizon. Reflexively I turned away and tugged on the hem of my dress. Who knew where this flying Roomba was looking or what it was recording?

Unexpected moments of tranquility, like finding yourself in a near-empty Roman arena during a heat wave, are becoming more and more elusive. If someone isn’t about to inadvertently impale you with a selfie-stick, another may catch you on video with a recreational drone, like the DJI Phantom (about $500 to $1,600), which is easy to use (unless you’re inebriated, like the man who crashed a Phantom on the White House grounds in January).

Yet what travelers are seeing today — remote-controlled drones bobbing around tourist sites, near airports, in the Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City while President Obama played golf — is but the tip of the iceberg. Think remote-controlled drones and selfie-sticks are intrusive? Prepare for the selfie-drone.

This next generation of drones, which are just beginning to roll out, doesn’t require users to hold remote controllers: They are hands-free. Simply toss them in the air, and they will follow you like Tinker Bell. With names such as Lily (around $700 on pre-order) and Nixie (not yet available for pre-order), they are capable of recording breathtaking video footage and trailing adventure travelers across bridges and streams, down ski slopes and into secluded gardens.

Nixie, which you can wear on your wrist until you want to fling it off for a photo or video, has a “boomerang mode” that allows it to fly back to you as if it were a trained raptor. A promotional video for Lily shows a man with a backpack lobbing the drone like a stone over a bridge and casually walking away, only to have the thing float up and follow him. Think you can outmaneuver the contraption in white-water rapids? Lily is waterproof. I watched with awe a video of Lily being dumped into a river beside a woman in a kayak (where one assumes Lily will perish), yet within seconds emerging and rising, like Glenn Close from the bathtub in “Fatal Attraction.”

There is no denying that the latest drone technology is impressive. And the footage is striking. Adventure travelers who wish to watch themselves scale Kilimanjaro or surf in Hawaii along the North Shore of Oahu will no doubt want one. But if selfie-drones become staples of every traveler who can afford them, we stand to lose more than we stand to gain when it comes to privacy, safety and quality-of-life factors like peace and beauty.

Imagine sunsets at the lake or beach with dozens of selfie-drones cluttering the sky, each vying for that perfect shot. Picture canoodling on a seemingly remote park bench during your romantic getaway and ending up on video. The intimate walks and tête-à-têtes that call to mind Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester would hardly be the same with drones whizzing by. Think of your children building sand castles and being videotaped by passing drones. Who will be watching and recording us, and where will that information end up?

I shudder to think of 17- and 18-year-olds receiving drones for Christmas and on their winter vacations crashing the contraptions into unsuspecting sunbathers. Or themselves. Lest you think I joke, consider that in May the singer Enrique Iglesias, who is well past his teenage years, sliced his fingers while trying to snap a photo with a (remote-controlled) drone during his concert in Mexico.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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LGBTQ_flag.svgAt some point we will have all moved on to a post-prudish, post-voyeuristic, post-exploitative, post-coming-out, post-gender identity world; we’ll all be celebrated as individuals, and discrimination will no longer exist.

Slap! Well, that’s quite enough of the pipe-dream for today, let’s get back to the complexity of present day reality. So, here’s a quick snapshot of where we are on the gender-label issue. Keep in mind, the “snapshot” is courtesy of the Guardian and the “we” refers to the British — both very peculiar institutions.

From the Guardian:

When Rugby League’s Keegan Hirst came out as gay this week, he said that he had been hiding for a long time. “How could I be gay? I’m from Batley, for goodness sake. No one is gay in Batley.” If the 27-year-old Yorkshireman had been a few years younger, he might have found some people in his hometown who are at least sexually fluid. A YouGov poll this week put the number of 18- to 24-year-old Brits who identify as entirely heterosexual at 46%, while just 6% would call themselves exclusively gay. Sexuality now falls between the lines: identity is more pliable, and fluidity more acceptable, than ever before.

The gay-straight binary is collapsing, and it’s doing so at speed. The days in which a celebrity’s sexual orientation was worthy of a tabloid scandal have long since died out. Though newspapers still report on famous people coming out and their same-sex relationships, the lurid language that once accompanied such stories has been replaced by more of a gossipy, “did you know?” tone, the sort your mum might take on the phone, when she’s telling you about what Julie round the corner has been up to. And the reaction of the celebrities involved has morphed, too, into a refusal to play the naming game. Arena-filling pop star Miley Cyrus posted an Instagram of a news story that described her as “genderqueer” with the caption, “NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!”. Kristen Stewart, who has been followed around by insinuations about the “gal pal” she is often photographed with for a couple of years, finally spoke about the relationship in an interview with Nylon magazine this month. She said, simply, “Google me, I’m not hiding”, but, like the people surveyed by YouGov, refused to define herself as gay or straight. “I think in three or four years, there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight. It’s like, just do your thing.”

It’s arguable that celebrities such as Stewart are part of the reason for those parameters becoming less essential, at least in the west. It shouldn’t fall to famous people to define our social attitudes but, simply, visibility matters: if it is not seen as outrageous or transgressive that the star of Twilight will hold hands with her girlfriend in the street, then that, in a very small way, reinforces the normality of it. If Cara Delevingne tells Vogue that she loves her girlfriend, then that, too, adds to the picture. The more people who are out, the more normal it becomes; the less alone a confused kid in a small town looking at gossip websites might feel; the less baffled the parent of a teenager who brings home a same-sex date might be. Combine that with the seemingly unstoppable legislative reinforcement of equal rights, too – gay marriage becoming legal in Ireland, in the US – and suddenly, it seems less “abnormal”, less boundary-busting, to fall in love or lust with someone of the same gender.

“I would describe myself as a bisexual homoromantic,” says Alice, 23, from Sussex. For the uninitiated, I asked her to explain. “It means I like sex with men and women, but I only fall in love with women. I wouldn’t say something wishy-washy like, ‘It’s all about the person,’ because more often it’s just that I sometimes like a penis.” She says her attitude towards sex and sexuality is similar among other people in her peer group. “A lot of my friends talk about their sexuality in terms of behaviour these days, rather than in terms of labels. So they’ll say, ‘I like boys’, or ‘I get with girls too,’ rather than saying, ‘I’m gay, I’m a lesbian, I’m bisexual.’”

She says that even among those who exclusively date people of the same gender, there is a reluctance to claim an identity as proscriptive as “gay”. “Most young people who are gay don’t see it as a defining property of their character, because they don’t have to, because society doesn’t constantly remind them of their difference.” However, she is careful to point out that this is very much the case in the small, liberal part of London where she lives now. “[Not defining] is something I feel entitled to as a person who lives in London, but I didn’t feel entitled to it in a small town in the home counties. I’ve never experienced discrimination about my sexuality, but I’m aware that it’s because I ‘pass’ [as straight].”

In fact, among the young British people I spoke to, geography is vital. Lucy, 25, wonders if the number of people who say they are not straight really tallies with the number of people who are actually acting upon those desires. “Saying you’re sexually fluid means you’re part of a movement. It means you’re seen as forward-thinking,” she says, suggesting there is a certain cachet attached to being seen as open that does not come with affirmed heterosexuality. She also believes it is more of a metropolitan story than necessarily representative of Britain as a whole. “If I went back to my home town in the Midlands, we wouldn’t sit around talking about ‘sexual fluidity’. You’re a ‘dyke’, or you’re not. There’s only one type of lesbian there.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Gay Pride Flag. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Black Friday – OptOutside


I’m not a great fan of consumerism. And, I especially detest so-called “Black Friday” — a vulgar and avaricious corporate-America-sponsored-gluttonous-shopping-frenzy that seems to infest the public psyche the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a recent email from the REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) co-op, of which I’m a member, declaring that all 140+ of their stores will be closed on November 27 — Black Friday — in addition to Thanksgiving Day. Now, the cynic in me detects some level of self-serving marketing spin designed to increase REI’s foot traffic when their doors reopen on November 28, and beyond. But, I must say I’m all for #OptOutside — a day for fresh air, muddy boots, enormous vistas and no shopping. I hope other retailers follow suit and consumers opt to spend their time outside rather than spending cash inside.

CEO, Jerry Stritzke, penned the following on the REI website:

REI is closing on Black Friday.

You read that correctly. On November 27, we’ll be closing all 143 of our stores and paying our employees to head outside.

Here’s why we’re doing it.

For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.

We’re a different kind of company—and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently. We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us.

So, I encourage you to do the same wherever you may be; keep your fingers off Amazon and your feet away from Walmart’s aisles, and be part of nature’s great outside.

Image: Flatirons, Boulder. Courtesy of the author.
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The Clown Car Rolls into Town


This must be one for the record books: the 2016 Republican clown car replete with X number of presidential hopefuls rolls into the People’s Republic of Boulder, Colorado (my home) today, October 28, 2015.

The left-of-center University of Colorado campus at Boulder (CU) is hosting the next Republican debate in one of the most left-leaning cities in the country. This is an idyllic, small city of a 100,000, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, where mountain lions outnumber Republicans and where residents are more likely to brandish a hookah than a handgun. But, it does show that our town is open-minded and welcoming to colorful characters.

I eagerly await the next Democratic presidential debate in Lubbock Texas or Mesa, Arizona. Namaste!

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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What If You Spoke Facebookish?

The video from comedian Jason Horton shows us what real world interactions would be like if we conversed the same way as we do online via Facebook. His conversations may be tongue-in-cheek but they’re too close to becoming reality for comfort. You have to suppose that these offline (real world) status updates would have us drowning in hashtags, over-reaction, moralizing, and endless yawn inducing monologues.

I’d rather have Esperanto make a comeback.

Video courtesy of Jason Horton.

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MondayMap: Our Beautiful Blue Home

OK, OK, I cheated a little this week. I don’t have a map story.

But I couldn’t resist posting the geographic-related news of NASA’s new website. Each day, the agency will post a handful of images of our gorgeous home, as seen from the DSCOVR spacecraft. DSCOVR is parked at the L-1 Lagrangian Point, about 1 million miles from Earth and 92 million from the Sun, where the gravitational forces of the three bodies balance. It’s a wonderful vantage point to peer at our beautiful blue planet.


You can check out NASA’s new website here.

Image: Earth as imaged from DSCOVR on October 19, 2015. Courtesy of NASA, NOAA and the U.S Air Force.

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You Could Be Galactic Viceroy

Many corporations, by necessity, are not the most innovative of human aggregations. Most are conservative by nature — making money today, based on what worked yesterday. So, to maintain some degree of creative spirit and keep workers loyal they allow (some) employees to adopt rather — by corporate standards — wacky, left-field titles.

My favorite of this bunch: Digital Prophet, which I much prefer over iCup Technician, Wizard of Lightbulb Moments, and Wet Leisure Attendant.

Read more oddball titles here.

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The Old School Social Network Returns

Not too long ago newbies to a community might first have met their neighbors face-to-face by knocking on each others’ front doors, through strolling around the neighborhood or at browsing at the local, communal market or store. But busy schedules, privacy fences, garage doors, a car-centric culture and a general fear of strangers have raised barriers and successfully isolated us. So, it’s wonderful to see the digital tools of our modern age being put to a more ancient use — meeting the neighbors, and breaking down some barriers — many of which seem to be caused by our technologies. Long may the old school (face-to-face) social network prosper!

From NYT:

When Laurell Boyers, 34, and her husband, Federico Bastiani, 37, moved in together in Bologna in 2012, they did not know any of their neighbors. It was a lonely feeling.

“All my friends back home had babies, play dates, people to talk to, and I felt so left out,” Ms. Boyers, who moved from South Africa, said on a recent afternoon. “We didn’t have family or friends connections here. We knew people occasionally, but none in our same situation.”

So Mr. Bastiani took a chance and posted a flier along his street, Via Fondazza, explaining that he had created a closed group on Facebook just for the people who lived there. He was merely looking to make some new friends.

In three or four days, the group had about 20 followers. Almost two years later, the residents say, walking along Via Fondazza does not feel like strolling in a big city neighborhood anymore. Rather, it is more like exploring a small town, where everyone knows one another, as the group now has 1,100 members.

“Now I am obligated to speak to everyone when I leave the house,” Ms. Boyers said jokingly. “It’s comforting and also tiring, sometimes. You have to be careful what you ask for.”

The idea, Italy’s first “social street,” has been such a success that it has caught on beyond Bologna and the narrow confines of Via Fondazza. There are 393 social streets in Europe, Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by Mr. Bastiani’s idea, according to the Social Street Italia website, which was created out of the Facebook group to help others replicate the project.

Bologna, a midsize northern city, is known for its progressive politics and cooperatives. It is home to what is considered Italy’s oldest university, and it has a mix of a vibrant, young crowd and longtime residents, known for their strong sense of community.

Still, socially speaking, Italy — Bologna included — can be conservative. Friendships and relationships often come through family connections. It is not always easy to meet new people. In large cities, neighbors typically keep to themselves.

But today, the residents of Via Fondazza help one another fix broken appliances, run chores or recharge car batteries. They exchange train tickets and organize parties.

About half of Via Fondazza’s residents belong to the Facebook group. Those who do not use the Internet are invited to events via leaflets or word of mouth.

“I’ve noticed that people at first wonder whether they need to pay something” for the help from others, said Mr. Bastiani, referring to the experience of an 80-year-old woman who needed someone to go pick up some groceries for her, or a resident who sought help assembling a piece of Ikea furniture.

“But that’s not the point,” he added. “The best part of this is that it breaks all the schemes. We live near one another, and we help each other. That’s it.”

The impact of the experiment has surprised almost everyone here.

It “has changed the walking in Via Fondazza,” said Francesca D’Alonzo, a 27-year-old law graduate who joined the group in 2013.

“We greet each other, we speak, we ask about our lives, we feel we belong here now,” she said.

The exchanges usually start virtually but soon become concrete, allowing residents to get to know one another in person.

Everyone on Via Fondazza seems to have an anecdote. Ms. D’Alonzo remembers the party she gave on New Year’s Eve in 2013, when her then mostly unknown neighbors brought so much food and wine that she did not know where to put it.

“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy,” she said. “You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”

Read the entire article here.

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Guns Are So Yesterday


If you have a serious penchant for expressing your personal freedoms through weapons a revolver or automatic sniper rifle may still not be enough. So, you should throw out that rusty AK47 and the grenade launcher — no doubt stashed only for “critter hunting” — and consider some really serious heat, literally. Imagine your very own personal flamethrower!

While flamethrowers are banned for national and military use by the Inhumane Weapons Convention, to which the United States is a signatory, personal use is more loosely regulated. In the United States some states have banned flamethrowers completely, while others like California, require only a permit. There is now a growing effort to regulate flamethrowers at a national level, and more tightly. So, you may well want to procure one very soon, before those freedom-hating feds limit access to yet another form of seriously hot macho pleasure.

From ars technica:

In the wake of two companies now selling the first commercially available flamethrowers in the United States, at least one mayor has called for increased restrictions on their use. And to no one’s surprise, the prospect of prohibition has now driven more sales.

“Business is skyrocketing higher than ever due to the discussion on prohibition,” Chris Byars, the CEO of the Ion Productions Team based in Troy, Michigan, told Ars by e-mail. ”I’m a huge supporter of personal freedom and personal responsibility. Own whatever you like, unless you use it in a manner that is harmful to another or other’s property. We’ve received a large amount of support from police, fire, our customers, and interested parties regarding keeping them legal.”

Byars added that the company has sold 350 units at $900 each, including shipping, in recent weeks. That’s in addition to the $150,000 the company raised on IndieGoGo.

The Ion product, known as the XM42, can shoot fire over 25 feet and has more than 35 seconds of burn time per tank of fuel. With a full tank of fuel, it weighs just 10 pounds.

Another company—XMatter, based in Cleveland, Ohio—sells a similar device for $1,600 each, but it weighs 50 pounds. However, this device has approximately double the range of the XM42. Quinn Whitehead, the company’s co-founder, did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

Last week, Mayor Jim Fouts of nearby Warren, Michigan—the third largest city in the state—told Ars that he was worried about the sale of such devices in his city.

“My concern is that flamethrowers in the wrong hands could cause catastrophic damage either to the person who is using it or more likely to the person who is being targeted,” he said. ”This is a pretty dangerous mix because it’s a combination of butane and gasoline which is highly flammable. Anybody who aims this at someone else or something happens and it happens close to them is going to be close to be incinerated.”

Shockingly, there are no current federal regulations on the possession, manufacture, sale, or use of flamethrowers.

“These devices are not regulated as they do not qualify as firearms under the National Firearms Act,” Corey Ray, a spokesman with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, told Ars by e-mail.

At the state level, California requires a permit while Maryland outright bans them—Ars is not aware of any other state-level regulation. The Inhumane Weapons Convention, which the United States signed in 1981, forbids “incendiary weapons,” including flamethrowers. However, this document is only an agreement between nation-states and their militaries, and it did not foresee individual possession.

A new bill in Troy, Michigan, proposed earlier this month would forbid “storage, use, and possession of flamethrowers in the city.” Violations of the law would constitute a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both in addition to seizure of the device.

Read the entire story here.

Image: German soldier with flame-thrower c.1941. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Would You Like Vocal Fry With That?


Valleyspeak, uptalk (or upspeak), breathiness, run-on sentences and vocal fry. I’m not sure which came first and why a significant number of young people — mostly women — speak in this way. But these vocal contortions have prodded a new generation of linguists and speech pathologists into a feeding frenzy of language  research.

The overall consensus seems to suggest that these speech mannerisms paint young people as less educated and less competent. Not only that but most listeners find the patterns rather annoying.

From the Guardian:

Patriarchy is inventive. The minute a generation of women has figured out how to not be enslaved by Ideology A, some new cultural pressure arises in the form of Internalisation B, making sure they don’t get too far too fast. The latest example: the most empowered generation of women ever – today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.

This demographic of women tends to have a distinctive speech pattern. Many commentators have noticed it, often with dismay. Time magazine devoted a column to the mannerism called vocal fry, noting a study that found that this speech pattern makes young women who use it sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable: “Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians.”

“Vocal fry” is that guttural growl at the back of the throat, as a Valley girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night. The less charitable refer to it privately as painfully nasal, and to young women in conversation sounding like ducks quacking. “Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways. Slate notes that older men (ie those in power over young women) find it intensely annoying. One study by a “deeply annoyed” professor, found that young women use “uptalk” to seek to hold the floor. But does cordially hating these speech patterns automatically mean you are anti-feminist?

Many devoted professors, employers who wish to move young women up the ranks and business owners who just want to evaluate personnel on merit flinch over the speech patterns of today’s young women. “Because of their run-on sentences, I can’t tell in a meeting when these young women have said what they have to say,” confided one law partner.

“Their constant uptalk means I am constantly having to reassure them: ‘uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh’. It’s exhausting.”

I myself have inadvertently flinched when a young woman barraging a group with uptalk ran a technology-based conference call: “We’ll use Ruby on Rails? It is an MVC framework to support databases?” Well, will we?

One 29-year-old woman working in engineering told me it was easier for gatekeepers in her male-dominated field to disregard running-on, softspoken, vocally frying and uptalking women. “It is difficult for young women to be heard or even responded to in many male-dominated fields if they don’t strengthen their voices, That kind of disregarding response from men made me feel even softer and even lesser – in a vicious circle of silencing.” she said.

Style is content, as any writing teacher knows. Run-ons and “non-committal-ness” dilute many young women’s advocacy powers and thus their written authority. Many young women have learned not to go too far out on a limb with their voiced opinions; but the dilution of “voice” and the muddying of logic caused by run-on sentences in speech can undermine the power of their written thought processes and weaken their marshalling of evidence in an argument. At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully. Elleke Boehmer, an Oxford English professor, says: “I often observe my female students’ silence and lack of confidence in class with concern. How anxious they are about coming forward to express an opinion, to risk a point of view, so often letting the male students speak first and second and even third. And in this way they lose out in the discussions that are going to help them hone their pitch, write winning essays, secure the out-and-out firsts that male students in Humanities subjects still are securing in far greater numbers, proportionately, than they are.”

The problem of young women’s voices is gaining new cultural visibility. Recent books and plays have dealt with the suppression of young women’s voices: Boehmer’s own recent novel The Shouting in the Dark narrates the inner life of a young woman in South Africa in the 1970s – and shows how abuse breaks such a voice. The hit play Nirbhaya, in which Indian actresses narrate stories of their own rapes, also shows how young women’s voices are stifled by cultural silencing, even today.

Voice remains political at work as well. A Catalyst study found that self-advocacy skills correlate to workplace status and pay more directly than merit. In other words, speaking well is better for your career than working hard.

But Amy Giddon, director of corporate leadership at Barnard College’s Athena centre for leadership studies in New York, found in original research that “there is a disconnect between women’s confidence in their skills and abilities – which is often high – and their confidence in their ability to navigate the system to achieve the recognition and advancement they feel they deserve. Self-advocacy is a big part of this, and identified by many women in the study as the biggest barrier to their advancement.” In other words, today’s women know they can do great things; what they doubt – reasonably enough – is that they can speak well about those great things.

When you ask young women themselves what these destructive speech patterns mean to them, you get gender-political insights. “I know I use run-on sentences,” a 21-year-old intern at a university told me. “I do it because I am afraid of being interrupted.” No one has ever taught her techniques to refuse that inevitable interruption. “I am aware that I fill my sentences with question marks,” said a twentysomething who works in a research firm. “We do it when we speak to older people or people we see as authorities. It is to placate them. We don’t do it so much when we are by ourselves.” Surely we older feminists have not completed our tasks if no one has taught this young woman that it was not her job to placate her elders.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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