A Gift From Greece

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

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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It’s Official — Big Rip Coming!

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

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

From the Daily Telegraph:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the story here.

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

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Those Were the Days

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

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

From the WSJ:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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MondayMap: The Grocery Store Project

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

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

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

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Justice Kennedy

Anthony_Kennedy_official_SCOTUS_portrait

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

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

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

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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Pale Blue 2Dot0

IDL TIFF file

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

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

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

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Sharing Only Goes So Far

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

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

From the Independent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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Comparing Forgiveness and Fiction

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

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

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

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

Families of Victims

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

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

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

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

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

 Read more here.

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The Bibliotherapist

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

From the New Yorker:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Real Tragedy

SIG_ProMore deaths. More gun violence.

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

Our leaders speak of tragedy.

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

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

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

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

a school or

a movie theater or

a post office or

a fast food restaurant or

a museum or

a car or

a parking lot or

a university or

military base or

a community center or

a church!

Read more from the NYT.

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

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Keep Those Old Photos

google-search-photos

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

From Wired:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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MondayMap: Cuisine Cartography

map-US-state-food

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

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

Read more here.

Map courtesy of Huffington Post / Yelp.

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The Greatest Fear

We are often told and then reminded that the rich are not that different from the poor. Though, the storytellers weaving these narratives are usually organs of the rich, of course.

While I’m lucky to have had the education and initiative to rise above the poverty that my parents endured — I would categorize myself as “in between” — I have to gulp incredulously at the utter insensitivity of some who seem to have it all, and yet want more.

One very rich gentleman reminds us that (some) rich people are indeed very different from the poor. Let’s look at Johann Rupert’s (owner of Cartier and other luxury brands) biggest fear, which would seem to be rather different from the more pressing fears of the poor, and for that matter, the remaining 99 percent (think: food, health care, shelter, transportation etc etc).

From the Independent:

The multi-billionaire owner of luxury jewellery company Cartier has revealed his greatest fear – robots replacing workers and the poor rising up to bring down the rich.

Speaking at the Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco (obviously), the fashion tycoon told his fellow elite that he can’t sleep at the thought of the social upheaval he thinks is imminent.

According to Bloomberg, Johann Rupert told the conference to bear in mind that when the poor rise up, the middle classes won’t want to buy luxury goods for fear of exposing their wealth.

He said he had been reading about changes in labour technology, as well as recent Oxfam figures suggesting the top 1 per cent of the global population now owns more wealth than the other 99 per cent.

“How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare?” he said. “We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”

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I Literally Can’t Even

Literally… Can’t Even…

By the time you read this the title phrase will be a cringeworthy embarrassment to the teens that popularized it just over a month ago. Ok, so I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get my point — new slang enters, and leaves, our pop lexicon faster than the rise and fall of internet hasbeen Psy. The simplified life-cycle goes something like this:

Week 1: Teens co-opt and twist an existing word or phrase to a new meaning.

Week 2: Parents of teens scratch heads; teens’ obfuscation is successful.

Week 3: Social networks both on and offline amplify the new “meme”.

Week 4: Corporations targeting the teen demographic adopt the meme themselves.

Week 5: Mass media picks up the story.

Week 5 + 1 Day: New meme is old news; teens move on; parents continue head-scratching; corporate ad agencies still promoting old meme are fired.

To an amateur linguist this process is fascinating. Though, I must admit to heart palpitations — metaphorical ones — when I hear people, young and old, use and misuse “literally”. As for “can’t even”, well, its time has already passed. Next!

From NYT:

A little paradox of Internet celebrity is that a YouTube personality can amass millions upon millions of young fans by making it seem as if he’s chatting with each of them one to one. Tyler Oakley, a 26-year-old man who identifies as a “professional fangirl,” is a master of the genre. He has nerd glasses, pinchable cheeks, a quiff he dyes in shades of blue and green and more YouTube subscribers than Shakira. Some of his teenage admirers have told him that he is the very first gay person that they have ever seen. He models slumber party outfits and gushes over boy bands, giving the kids who watch him from their bedrooms a peek into a wider world.

In March 2012, Oakley faced the camera, balanced a laptop in his sightline and paged through a photo set of the curly-haired actor Darren Criss, whose turn as a hunky gay singer in “Glee” made him a fixture of teenage dreams. In these new pictures, which had just been leaked online, Criss was lounging on a beach wearing only a pair of low-rise jeans and a layer of perspiration. Oakley’s videotaped reaction was exultant. “I literally cannot even,” he informed his fans. “I can’t even. I am unable to even. I have lost my ability to even. I am so unable to even. Oh, my God. Oh, my God!”

Soon, Oakley’s groupies had immortalized his soliloquy in GIF form: “Can’t” upon “can’t,” looping forever. Now they could conjure the GIF whenever they felt so overcome by emotion that they couldn’t even complete a thought. Oakley was not the first to recast the sentence fragment “I can’t even” as a stand-alone expression. He just helped shepherd it out of the insular realm of Tumblr fandom and into the wide-open Internet. That June, John Green, a writer of fiction for young adults who was awed by the praise for his breakaway novel, “The Fault in Our Stars,” pledged to “endeavor to regain my ability to even.” When Kacey Musgraves, then 25, won Best Country Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards, besting Taylor Swift, she began her acceptance speech with two “I can’t evens.” And this season, “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketchin which a trio of nasal-toned interns “literally couldn’t even” deal with their office’s frigid temperature. The punch line lands when they screech at a fourth intern to close her window, and the audience sees her sitting helplessly at her desk, both arms suspended in plaster casts. “I can’t,” she whimpers. “I literally cannot.”

For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

Guarding the secret code has become tricky, though. Teenagers used to listen for the telltale click of a parent eavesdropping on the telephone line. Now somebody (or something) is monitoring every keystroke. If an adult picks up a scrap of inscrutable teenager-speak via text or Twitter or a whisper wafting up from the back seat, she can access its definition on Urban Dictionary or Genius (which explains that “?‘I can’t even’ is a state of speechlessness too deep to even express in any other words”). In 1980, the linguist David Maurer, author of “The Big Con,” a book about underworld slang, wrote that “the migration of words from subculture to dominant culture is sparked by the amount of interaction between these groups,” as well as by the dominant group’s “interest in the behavior patterns” of the other. Parents are perennially nosy about what their teenagers are saying, and nowadays they can just Google it.

Read the entire article here.

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Multitasking: A Powerful and Diabolical Illusion

Our ever-increasingly ubiquitous technology makes possible all manner of things that would have been insurmountable just decades ago. We carry smartphones that envelope more computational power than mainframes just a generation ago. Yet for all this power at our fingertips we seem to forget that we are still very much human animals with limitations. One such “shortcoming” [your friendly editor believes it’s a boon] is our inability to multitask like our phones. I’ve written about this before, and am compelled to do so again after reading this thoughtful essay by Daniel J. Levitin, extracted from his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. I even had to use his phrasing for the title of this post.

From the Guardian:

Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.

In the old days, if the phone rang and we were busy, we either didn’t answer or we turned the ringer off. When all phones were wired to a wall, there was no expectation of being able to reach us at all times – one might have gone out for a walk or been between places – and so if someone couldn’t reach you (or you didn’t feel like being reached), it was considered normal. Now more people have mobile phones than have toilets. This has created an implicit expectation that you should be able to reach someone when it is convenient for you, regardless of whether it is convenient for them. This expectation is so ingrained that people in meetings routinely answer their mobile phones to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk now, I’m in a meeting.” Just a decade or two ago, those same people would have let a landline on their desk go unanswered during a meeting, so different were the expectations for reachability.

Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, calls it info-mania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people ascribe many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot?smoking.

Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, “People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.

Then there are the metabolic costs that I wrote about earlier. Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance. Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. By contrast, staying on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum, and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.

To make matters worse, lots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this email? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important. Why would anyone want to add to their daily weight of information processing by trying to multitask?

Read the entire article here.

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Professional Trolling

Just a few short years ago the word “troll” in the context of the internet had not even entered our lexicon. Now, you can enter a well-paid career in the distasteful practice, especially if you live in Russia. You have to admire the human ability to find innovative and profitable ways to inflict pain on others.

From NYT:

Around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 last year, Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, got a call from a resident who had just received a disturbing text message. “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,” the message read. “Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”

St. Mary Parish is home to many processing plants for chemicals and natural gas, and keeping track of dangerous accidents at those plants is Arthur’s job. But he hadn’t heard of any chemical release that morning. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Columbia Chemical. St. Mary Parish had a Columbian Chemicals plant, which made carbon black, a petroleum product used in rubber and plastics. But he’d heard nothing from them that morning, either. Soon, two other residents called and reported the same text message. Arthur was worried: Had one of his employees sent out an alert without telling him?

If Arthur had checked Twitter, he might have become much more worried. Hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road. “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals,” a man named Jon Merritt tweeted. The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance.

Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster. “Heather, I’m sure that the explosion at the #ColumbianChemicals is really dangerous. Louisiana is really screwed now,” a user named @EricTraPPP tweeted at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Heather Nolan. Another posted a screenshot of CNN’s home page, showing that the story had already made national news. ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video; in it, a man showed his TV screen, tuned to an Arabic news channel, on which masked ISIS fighters delivered a speech next to looping footage of an explosion. A woman named Anna McClaren (@zpokodon9) tweeted at Karl Rove: “Karl, Is this really ISIS who is responsible for #ColumbianChemicals? Tell @Obama that we should bomb Iraq!” But anyone who took the trouble to check CNN.com would have found no news of a spectacular Sept. 11 attack by ISIS. It was all fake: the screenshot, the videos, the photographs.

 In St. Mary Parish, Duval Arthur quickly made a few calls and found that none of his employees had sent the alert. He called Columbian Chemicals, which reported no problems at the plant. Roughly two hours after the first text message was sent, the company put out a news release, explaining that reports of an explosion were false. When I called Arthur a few months later, he dismissed the incident as a tasteless prank, timed to the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Personally I think it’s just a real sad, sick sense of humor,” he told me. “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck. (The F.B.I. told me the investigation was still open.)

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes. In April, I went to St. Petersburg to learn more about the agency and its brand of information warfare, which it has aggressively deployed against political opponents at home, Russia’s perceived enemies abroad and, more recently, me.

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Art And Algorithms And Code And Cash

#!/usr/bin/perl
# 472-byte qrpff, Keith Winstein and Marc Horowitz 
# MPEG 2 PS VOB file -> descrambled output on stdout.
# usage: perl -I :::: qrpff
# where k1..k5 are the title key bytes in least to most-significant order

s''$/=\2048;while(<>){G=29;R=142;if((@a=unqT="C*",_)[20]&48){D=89;_=unqb24,qT,@
b=map{ord qB8,unqb8,qT,_^$a[--D]}@INC;s/...$/1$&/;Q=unqV,qb25,_;H=73;O=$b[4]<<9
|256|$b[3];Q=Q>>8^(P=(E=255)&(Q>>12^Q>>4^Q/8^Q))<<17,O=O>>8^(E&(F=(S=O>>14&7^O)
^S*8^S<<6))<<9,_=(map{U=_%16orE^=R^=110&(S=(unqT,"\xb\ntd\xbz\x14d")[_/16%8]);E
^=(72,@z=(64,72,G^=12*(U-2?0:S&17)),H^=_%64?12:0,@z)[_%8]}(16..271))[_]^((D>>=8
)+=P+(~F&E))for@a[128..$#a]}print+qT,@a}';s/[D-HO-U_]/\$$&/g;s/q/pack+/g;eval

You know that hacking has gone mainstream when the WSJ features it on the from page. Further, you know it must be passé when the WSJ claims that the art world is now purveying chunks of code as, well, art. You have to love this country for its entrepreneurial capitalist acumen!

So, if you are an enterprising (ex-)coder and have some cool Fortran, C++, or better yet, Assembler, lying around, dust off the diskette (or floppy, or better, yet, a punch card) and make haste to your nearest art gallery. You could become the first Picasso of programming — onward to the Gagosian! My story began with PL/1, IMS and then C, so my code may only be worthy of the artistic C-list.

From WSJ:

In March, Daniel Benitez, a cinema executive in Miami, paid $2,500 for a necktie. It wasn’t just any strip of designer neckwear. Imprinted on the blue silk were six lines of computer code that once brought the motion picture industry to its knees.

To the unschooled eye, the algorithm script on the tie, known formally as “qrpff,” looks like a lengthy typographical error.

But to Mr. Benitez and other computer cognoscenti, the algorithm it encodes is an artifact of rare beauty that embodies a kind of performance art. He framed it.

The algorithm sets out a procedure for what copyright holders once deemed a criminal act: picking the software lock on the digital scrambling system that Hollywood uses to protect its DVDs. At the turn of the century, hackers encoded it in many ways and distributed them freely—as programs, lines of poetry, lyrics in a rock song, and a square dance routine. They printed it on T-shirts and ties, like the item Mr. Benitez purchased. They proclaimed it free speech. No matter how many times the entertainment industry sued, their lawyers found the algorithm as hard to eradicate as kudzu.

Now it is exhibit A in the art world’s newest collecting trend.

Dealers in digital art are amassing algorithms, the computerized formulas that automate processes from stock-market sales to social networks.

In March, the online art brokerage Artsy and a digital code gallery called Ruse Laboratories held the world’s first algorithm art auction in New York. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where the auction was held as a fundraiser, is assembling a collection of computer code. In April, the Museum of Modern Art convened a gathering of computer experts and digital artists to discuss algorithms and design.

It is a small step for technology but a leap, perhaps, for the art world. “It is a whole new dimension we are trying to grapple with,” said curatorial director Cara McCarty at the Cooper Hewitt museum. “The art term I keep hearing is code.”

Read the entire article here.

Code snippet: Qrpff. A Perl script for decoding DVD content scrambling.

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MondayMap: Grey or Gray Matter?

infographic-spelling_bee_chart

The dumbing down of the United States continues apace. While 9-15 year-olds participating in this year’s national spelling bee competition seem to have no problem with words like “syzygy”, “onomatopoeia” and “triskaidekaphobia”, the general adult population is in dire linguistic straits.

An analysis of online search queries by Vocativ and Google Trends highlights some rather disturbing misspellings of rather common words. Though, what makes the survey so fascinating is to see the variations mapped by state. Sadly, around a dozen states had the most trouble with the word “grey”, including California, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and North Dakota. Arkansas, on the other hand, should be proud (or not), that its residents have the most trouble with the word “diarrhea” (US spelling), while residents of Idaho can’t seem to spell “antelope”.  Texans get hung up on “beautiful” and those living in Wyoming can’t seem to spell “jelous” [sic].

Read more from Vocativ here.

Infographic courtesy of Vocativ / Google Trends.

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Regression Texting

emoji-2016

Some culture watchers believe we are entering into a linguistic death spiral. Our increasingly tech-driven communication is enabling our language to evolve in unforeseen ways, and some linguists believe the evolution is actually taking us backwards rather than forwards. Enter exhibit one into the record: the :evil:  emoji.

From the Guardian:

So it’s official. We are evolving backwards. Emoji, the visual system of communication that is incredibly popular online, is Britain’s fastest-growing language according to Professor Vyv Evans, a linguist at Bangor University.

The comparison he uses is telling – but not in the way the prof, who appears enthusiastic about emojis, presumably intends. “As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” says Evans.

Perhaps that is because it is easier to go downhill than uphill. After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.

Unicode, the company that created emojis, has announced it will release 36 more of the brainless little icons next year. Demand is massive: 72% of 18- to 25-year-olds find it easier to express their feelings in emoji pictures than through the written word, according to a survey for Talk Talk mobile.

As tends to happen in an age when technology is transforming culture on a daily basis, people relate such news with bland irony or apparent joy. Who wants to be the crusty old conservative who questions progress? But the simplest and most common-sense historical and anthropological evidence tells us that Emoji is not “progress” by any definition. It is plainly a step back.

Evans compares Emoji with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Well indeed. ancient Egypt was a remarkable civilisation, but it had some drawbacks. The Egyptians created a magnificent but static culture. They invented a superb artistic style and powerful mythology – then stuck with these for millennia. Hieroglyphs enabled them to write spells but not to develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture: they left that to the Greeks.

These jumped-up Aegean loudmouths, using an abstract non-pictorial alphabet they got from the Phoenicians, obviously and spectacularly outdid the Egyptians in their range of expression. The Greek alphabet was much more productive than all those lovely Egyptian pictures. That is why there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.

In other words, there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable. That’s why Greece rather than Egypt leapt forward and why Shakespeare was more articulate than the Aztecs.

Read the entire article here.

Image: A subset of new emojis proposed for adoption in 2016. The third emoji along the top row is, of course, “selfie”. Courtesy of Unicode.

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Active SETI

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Seventy years after the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) experiment began some astronomers are thinking of SETI 2.0 or active SETI. Rather than just passively listening for alien-made signals emanating from the far distant exoplanets these astronomers wish to take the work a bold step further. They’re planning to transmit messages in the hope that someone or something will be listening. And that has opponents of the plan rather worried. If somethings do hear us, will they come looking, and if so, then what? Will the process result in a real-life The Day the Earth Stood Still or Alien? And, more importantly, will they all look astonishingly Hollywood-like?

From BBC:

Scientists at a US conference have said it is time to try actively to contact intelligent life on other worlds.

Researchers involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life are considering what the message from Earth should be.

The call was made by the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence institute at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose.

But others argued that making our presence known might be dangerous.

Researchers at the Seti institute have been listening for signals from outer space for more than 30 years using radio telescope facilities in the US. So far there has been no sign of ET.

The organisation’s director, Dr Seth Shostak, told attendees to the AAAS meeting that it was now time to step up the search.

“Some of us at the institute are interested in ‘active Seti’, not just listening but broadcasting something to some nearby stars because maybe there is some chance that if you wake somebody up you’ll get a response,” he told BBC News.

The concerns are obvious, but sitting in his office at the institute in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, he expresses them with characteristic, impish glee.

Game over?

“A lot of people are against active Seti because it is dangerous. It is like shouting in the jungle. You don’t know what is out there; you better not do it. If you incite the aliens to obliterate the planet, you wouldn’t want that on your tombstone, right?”

I couldn’t argue with that. But initially, I could scarcely believe I was having this conversation at a serious research institute rather than at a science fiction convention. The sci-fi feel of our talk was underlined by the toy figures of bug-eyed aliens that cheerfully decorate the office.

But Dr Shostak is a credible and popular figure and has been invited to present his arguments.

Leading astronomers, anthropologists and social scientists will gather at his institute after the AAAS meeting for a symposium to flesh out plans for a proposal for active Seti to put to the public and politicians.

High on the agenda is whether such a move would, as he put it so starkly, lead to the “obliteration” of the planet.

“I don’t see why the aliens would have any incentive to do that,” Dr Shostak tells me.

“Beyond that, we have been telling them willy-nilly that we are here for 70 years now. They are not very interesting messages but the early TV broadcasts, the early radio, the radar from the Second World War – all that has leaked off the Earth.

“Any society that could come here and ruin our whole day by incinerating the planet already knows we are here.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Myth Busting Silicon(e) Valley

map-Silicon-Valley

Question: what do silicone implants and Silicon Valley have in common?  Answer: they are both instruments of a grandiose illusion. The first, on a mostly personal level, promises eternal youth and vigor; the second, on a much grander scale, promises eternal wealth and greatness for humanity.

So, let’s leave aside the human cosmetic question for another time and concentrate on the broad deception that is current Silicon Valley. It’s a deception at many different levels —  self-deception of Silicon Valley’s young geeks and code jockeys, and the wider delusion that promises us all a glittering future underwritten by rapturous tech.

And, how best to debunk the myths that envelop the Valley like San Francisco’s fog, than to turn to Sam Biddle, former editor of Valleywag. He offers a scathing critique, which happens to be spot on. Quite rightly he asks if we need yet another urban, on-demand laundry app and what on earth is the value to society of “Yo”? But more importantly, he asks us to reconsider our misplaced awe and to knock Silicon Valley from its perch of self-fulfilling self-satisfaction. Yo and Facebook and Uber and Clinkle and Ringly and DogVacay and WhatsApp and the thousands of other trivial start-ups — despite astronomical valuations — will not be humanity’s savior. We need better ideas and deeper answers.

From GQ:

I think my life is better because of my iPhone. Yours probably is, too. I’m grateful to live in a time when I can see my baby cousins or experience any album ever without getting out of bed. I’m grateful that I will literally never be lost again, so long as my phone has battery. And I’m grateful that there are so many people so much smarter than I am who devise things like this, which are magical for the first week they show up, then a given in my life a week later.

We live in an era of technical ability that would have nauseated our ancestors with wonder, and so much of it comes from one very small place in California. But all these unimpeachable humanoid upgrades—the smartphones, the Google-gifted knowledge—are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule, of Silicon Valley’s output. What was once a land of upstarts and rebels is now being led by the money-hungry and the unspirited. Which is why we have a start-up that mails your dog curated treats and an app that says “Yo.” The brightest minds in tech just lately seem more concerned with silly business ideas and innocuous “disruption,” all for the shot at an immense payday. And when our country’s smartest people are working on the dumbest things, we all lose out.

That gap between the Silicon Valley that enriches the world and the Silicon Valley that wastes itself on the trivial is widening daily. And one of the biggest contributing factors is that the Valley has lost touch with reality by subscribing to its own self-congratulatory mythmaking. That these beliefs are mostly baseless, or at least egotistically distorted, is a problem—not just for Silicon Valley but for the rest of us. Which is why we’re here to help the Valley tear down its own myths—these seven in particular.

Myth #1: Silicon Valley Is the Universe’s Only True Meritocracy

 Everyone in Silicon Valley has convinced himself he’s helped create a free-market paradise, the software successor to Jefferson’s brotherhood of noble yeomen. “Silicon Valley has this way of finding greatness and supporting it,” said a member of Greylock Partners, a major venture-capital firm with over $2 billion under management. “It values meritocracy more than anyplace else.” After complaints of the start-up economy’s profound whiteness reached mainstream discussion just last year, companies like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter reluctantly released internal diversity reports. The results were as homogenized as expected: At Twitter, 79 percent of the leadership is male and 72 percent of it is white. At Facebook, senior positions are 77 percent male and 74 percent white. Twitter—a company whose early success can be directly attributed to the pioneering downloads of black smartphone users—hosts an entirely white board of directors. It’s a pounding indictment of Silicon Valley’s corporate psyche that Mark Zuckerberg—a bourgeois white kid from suburban New York who attended Harvard—is considered the Horatio Alger 2.0 paragon. When Paul Graham, the then head of the massive start-up incubator Y Combinator, told The New York Times that he could “be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” he wasn’t just talking about Zuck’s youth.

If there’s any reassuring news, it’s not that tech’s diversity crisis is getting better, but that in the face of so much dismal news, people are becoming angry enough and brave enough to admit that the state of things is not good. Silicon Valley loves data, after all, and with data readily demonstrating tech’s overwhelming white-guy problem, even the true believers in meritocracy see the circumstances as they actually are.

Earlier this year, Ellen Pao became the most mentioned name in Silicon Valley as her gender-discrimination suit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, played out in court. Although the jury sided with the legendary VC firm, the Pao case was a watershed moment, bringing sunlight and national scrutiny to the issue of unchecked Valley sexism. For every defeated Ellen Pao, we can hope there are a hundred other female technology workers who feel new courage to speak up against wrongdoing, and a thousand male co-workers and employers who’ll reconsider their boys’-club bullshit. But they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Myth #4: School Is for Suckers, Just Drop Out

 Every year PayPal co-founder, investor-guru, and rabid libertarian Peter Thiel awards a small group of college-age students the Thiel Fellowship, a paid offer to either drop out or forgo college entirely. In exchange, the students receive money, mentorship, and networking opportunities from Thiel as they pursue a start-up of their choice. We’re frequently reminded of the tech titans of industry who never got a degree—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are the most cited, though the fact that they’re statistical exceptions is an aside at best. To be young in Silicon Valley is great; to be a young dropout is golden.

The virtuous dropout hasn’t just made college seem optional for many aspiring barons—formal education is now excoriated in Silicon Valley as an obsolete system dreamed up by people who’d never heard of photo filters or Snapchat. Mix this cynicism with the libertarian streak many tech entrepreneurs carry already and you’ve got yourself a legit anti-education movement.

And for what? There’s no evidence that avoiding a conventional education today grants business success tomorrow. The gifted few who end up dropping out and changing tech history would have probably changed tech history anyway—you can’t learn start-up greatness by refusing to learn in a college classroom. And given that most start-ups fail, do we want an appreciable segment of bright young people gambling so heavily on being the next Zuck? More important, do we want an economy of CEOs who never had to learn to get along with their dorm-mates? Who never had the opportunity to grow up and figure out how to be a human being functioning in society? Who went straight from a bedroom in their parents’ house to an incubator that paid for their meals? It’s no wonder tech has an antisocial rep.

Myth #7: Silicon Valley Is Saving the World

Two years ago an online list of “57 start-up lessons” made its way through the coder community, bolstered by a co-sign from Paul Graham. “Wow, is this list good,” he commented. “It has the kind of resonance you only get when you’re writing from a lot of hard experience.” Among the platitudinous menagerie was this gem: “If it doesn’t augment the human condition for a huge number of people in a meaningful way, it’s not worth doing.” In a mission statement published on Andreessen Horowitz’s website, Marc Andreessen claimed he was “looking for the companies who are going to be the big winners because they are going to cause a fundamental change in the world.” The firm’s portfolio includes Ringly (maker of rings that light up when your phone does something), Teespring (custom T-shirts), DogVacay (pet-sitters on demand), and Hem (the zombified corpse of the furniture store Fab.com). Last year, wealthy Facebook alum Justin Rosenstein told a packed audience at TechCrunch Disrupt, “We in this room, we in technology, have a greater capacity to change the world than the kings and presidents of even a hundred years ago.” No one laughed, even though Rosenstein’s company, Asana, sells instant-messaging software.

 This isn’t just a matter of preening guys in fleece vests building giant companies predicated on their own personal annoyances. It’s wasteful and genuinely harmful to have so many people working on such trivial projects (Clinkle and fucking Yo) under the auspices of world-historical greatness. At one point recently, there were four separate on-demand laundry services operating in San Francisco, each no doubt staffed by smart young people who thought they were carving out a place of small software greatness. And yet for every laundry app, there are smart people doing smart, valuable things: Among the most recent batch of Y Combinator start-ups featured during March’s “Demo Day” were Diassess (twenty-minute HIV tests), Standard Cyborg (3D-printed limbs), and Atomwise (using supercomputing to develop new medical compounds). Those start-ups just happen to be sharing desk space at the incubator with “world changers” like Lumi (easy logo printing) and Underground Cellar (“curated, limited-edition wines with a twist”).

Read the entire article here.

Map: Silicon Valley, CA. Courtesy of Google.

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Innovating the Disruption Or Disrupting the Innovation

Corporate America has a wonderful knack of embracing a meaningful idea and then overusing it to such an extent that it becomes thoroughly worthless. Until recently, every advertiser, every manufacturer, every service, shamelessly promoted itself as an innovator. Everything a company did was driven by innovation: employees succeeded by innovating; the CEO was innovation incarnate; products were innovative; new processes drove innovation — in fact, the processes themselves were innovative. Any business worth its salt produced completely innovative stuff from cupcakes to tires, from hair color to drill bits, from paper towels to hoses. And consequently this overwhelming ocean of innovation — which upon closer inspection actually isn’t real innovation — becomes worthless, underwhelming drivel.

So, what next for corporate America? Well, latch on to the next meme of course — disruption. Yawn.

From NPR/TED:

HBO’s Silicon Valley is back, with its pitch-perfect renderings of the culture and language of the tech world — like at the opening of the “Disrupt” startup competition run by the Tech Crunch website at the end of last season. “We’re making the world a better place through scalable fault-tolerant distributed databases” — the show’s writers didn’t have to exercise their imagination much to come up with those little arias of geeky self-puffery, or with the name Disrupt, which, as it happens, is what the Tech Crunch conferences are actually called. As is most everything else these days. “Disrupt” and “disruptive” are ubiquitous in the names of conferences, websites, business school degree programs and business book best-sellers. The words pop up in more than 500 TED Talks: “How to Avoid Disruption in Business and in Life,” “Embracing Disruption,” “Disrupting Higher Education,” “Disrupt Yourself.” It transcends being a mere buzzword. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham said two centuries ago, there is a point where jargon becomes a species of the sublime.

 To give “disruptive” its due, it actually started its life with some meat on its bones. It was popularized in a 1997 book by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. According to Christensen, the reason why established companies fail isn’t that they don’t keep up with new technologies, but that their business models are disrupted by scrappy, bottom-fishing startups that turn out stripped-down versions of existing products at prices the established companies can’t afford to match. That’s what created an entry point for “disruptive innovations” like the Model T Ford, Craigslist classifieds, Skype and no-frills airlines.

Christensen makes a nice point. Sometimes you can get the world to beat a path to your door by building a crappier mousetrap, too, if you price it right. Some scholars have raised questions about that theory, but it isn’t the details of the story that have put “disruptive” on everybody’s lips; it’s the word itself. Buzzwords feed off their emotional resonances, not their ideas. And for pure resonance, “disruptive” is hard to beat. It’s a word with deep roots. I suspect I first encountered it when my parents read me the note that the teacher pinned to my sweater when I was sent home from kindergarten. Or maybe it reminds you of the unruly kid who was always pushing over the juice table. One way or another, the word evokes obstreperous rowdies, the impatient people who are always breaking stuff. It says something that “disrupt” is from the Latin for “shatter.”

Disrupt or be disrupted. The consultants and business book writers have proclaimed that as the chronic condition of the age, and everybody is clambering to be classed among the disruptors rather than the disruptees. The lists of disruptive companies in the business media include not just Amazon and Uber but also Procter and Gamble and General Motors. What company nowadays wouldn’t claim to be making waves? It’s the same with that phrase “disruptive technologies.” That might be robotics or next-generation genomics, sure. But CNBC also touts the disruptive potential of an iPhone case that converts to a video game joystick.

These days, people just use “disruptive” to mean shaking things up, though unlike my kindergarten teacher, they always infuse a note of approval. As those Tech Crunch competitors assured us, disruption makes the world a better place. Taco Bell has created a position called “Resident Disruptor,” and not to be outdone, McDonald’s is running radio ads describing its milkshake blenders as a disruptive technology. Well, OK, blenders really do shake things up. But by the time a tech buzzword has been embraced by the fast food chains, it’s getting a little frayed at the edges. “Disruption” was never really a new idea in the first place, just a new name for a fact of life as old as capitalism. Seventy years ago the economist Joseph Schumpeter was calling it the “gales of creative destruction,” and he just took the idea from Karl Marx.

Read the entire story here.

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The Free Market? Yeah Right

The US purports to be home of the free market. But we all know it’s not. Rather, it is home to vested and entrenched interests who will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the status quo beneath the veil of self-written regulations and laws. This is called protectionism — manufacturers, media companies, airlines and suppliers all do it. Texas car dealers and their corporate lobbyists are masters at this game.

From ars technica:

In a turn of events that isn’t terribly surprising, a bill to allow Tesla Motors to sell cars directly to consumers in Texas has failed to make it to the floor, with various state representatives offering excuses about not wanting to “piss off all the auto dealers.”

The Lone Star State’s notoriously anti-Tesla stance—one of the strongest in the nation—is in many ways the direct legacy of powerful lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Gene Fondren, who spent much of his life ensuring that the Texas Automobile Dealers Association’s wishes were railroaded through the Texas legislature.

That legacy is alive and well, with Texas lawmakers refusing to pass bills in 2013 and again in 2015 to allow Tesla to sell to consumers. Per the state’s franchise laws, auto manufacturers like Tesla are only allowed to sell cars to independent third-party dealers. These laws were originally intended to protect consumers against the possibility of automakers colluding on pricing; today, though, they function as protectionist shields for the entrenched political interests of car dealers and their powerful state- and nationwide lobbyist organizations.

The anti-Tesla sentiment didn’t stop Texas from attempting to snag the contracts for Tesla Motors’ upcoming “Gigafactory,” the multibillion dollar battery factory that Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk eventually chose to build in Reno, Nevada.

Speaking of Elon Musk—in a stunning display of total ignorance, Texas state representative Senfronia Thompson (a Democrat representing House District 141) had this to say about the bill’s failure: “I can appreciate Tesla wanting to sell cars, but I think it would have been wiser if Mr. Tesla had sat down with the car dealers first.”

 Apparently being even minimally familiar with the matters one legislates isn’t a requirement to serve in the Texas legislature. However, Thompson did receive many thousands in campaign contributions from the Texas Automobile Dealers Association, so perhaps she’s just doing what she’s told.

Read the entire story here.

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Death Explained

StillLifeWithASkull

Let’s leave the mysteries of the spiritual after-life aside for our various religions to fight over, and concentrate on what really happens after death. It many not please many aesthetes, but the cyclic process is beautiful nonetheless.

From Raw Story:

“It might take a little bit of force to break this up,” says mortician Holly Williams, lifting John’s arm and gently bending it at the fingers, elbow and wrist. “Usually, the fresher a body is, the easier it is for me to work on.”

Williams speaks softly and has a happy-go-lucky demeanour that belies the nature of her work. Raised and now employed at a family-run funeral home in north Texas, she has seen and handled dead bodies on an almost daily basis since childhood. Now 28 years old, she estimates that she has worked on something like 1,000 bodies.

Her work involves collecting recently deceased bodies from the Dallas–Fort Worth area and preparing them for their funeral.

“Most of the people we pick up die in nursing homes,” says Williams, “but sometimes we get people who died of gunshot wounds or in a car wreck. We might get a call to pick up someone who died alone and wasn’t found for days or weeks, and they’ll already be decomposing, which makes my work much harder.”

John had been dead about four hours before his body was brought into the funeral home. He had been relatively healthy for most of his life. He had worked his whole life on the Texas oil fields, a job that kept him physically active and in pretty good shape. He had stopped smoking decades earlier and drank alcohol moderately. Then, one cold January morning, he suffered a massive heart attack at home (apparently triggered by other, unknown, complications), fell to the floor, and died almost immediately. He was just 57 years old.

Now, John lay on Williams’ metal table, his body wrapped in a white linen sheet, cold and stiff to the touch, his skin purplish-grey – telltale signs that the early stages of decomposition were well under way.

Self-digestion

Far from being ‘dead’, a rotting corpse is teeming with life. A growing number of scientists view a rotting corpse as the cornerstone of a vast and complex ecosystem, which emerges soon after death and flourishes and evolves as decomposition proceeds.

Decomposition begins several minutes after death with a process called autolysis, or self-digestion. Soon after the heart stops beating, cells become deprived of oxygen, and their acidity increases as the toxic by-products of chemical reactions begin to accumulate inside them. Enzymes start to digest cell membranes and then leak out as the cells break down. This usually begins in the liver, which is rich in enzymes, and in the brain, which has a high water content. Eventually, though, all other tissues and organs begin to break down in this way. Damaged blood cells begin to spill out of broken vessels and, aided by gravity, settle in the capillaries and small veins, discolouring the skin.

Body temperature also begins to drop, until it has acclimatised to its surroundings. Then, rigor mortis – “the stiffness of death” – sets in, starting in the eyelids, jaw and neck muscles, before working its way into the trunk and then the limbs. In life, muscle cells contract and relax due to the actions of two filamentous proteins (actin and myosin), which slide along each other. After death, the cells are depleted of their energy source and the protein filaments become locked in place. This causes the muscles to become rigid and locks the joints.

During these early stages, the cadaveric ecosystem consists mostly of the bacteria that live in and on the living human body. Our bodies host huge numbers of bacteria; every one of the body’s surfaces and corners provides a habitat for a specialised microbial community. By far the largest of these communities resides in the gut, which is home to trillions of bacteria of hundreds or perhaps thousands of different species.

The gut microbiome is one of the hottest research topics in biology; it’s been linked to roles in human health and a plethora of conditions and diseases, from autism and depression to irritable bowel syndrome and obesity. But we still know little about these microbial passengers. We know even less about what happens to them when we die.

Putrefaction

Scattered among the pine trees in Huntsville, Texas, lie around half a dozen human cadavers in various stages of decay. The two most recently placed bodies are spread-eagled near the centre of the small enclosure with much of their loose, grey-blue mottled skin still intact, their ribcages and pelvic bones visible between slowly putrefying flesh. A few metres away lies another, fully skeletonised, with its black, hardened skin clinging to the bones, as if it were wearing a shiny latex suit and skullcap. Further still, beyond other skeletal remains scattered by vultures, lies a third body within a wood and wire cage. It is nearing the end of the death cycle, partly mummified. Several large, brown mushrooms grow from where an abdomen once was.

For most of us the sight of a rotting corpse is at best unsettling and at worst repulsive and frightening, the stuff of nightmares. But this is everyday for the folks at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility. Opened in 2009, the facility is located within a 247-acre area of National Forest owned by Sam Houston State University (SHSU). Within it, a nine-acre plot of densely wooded land has been sealed off from the wider area and further subdivided, by 10-foot-high green wire fences topped with barbed wire.

In late 2011, SHSU researchers Sibyl Bucheli and Aaron Lynne and their colleagues placed two fresh cadavers here, and left them to decay under natural conditions.

Once self-digestion is under way and bacteria have started to escape from the gastrointestinal tract, putrefaction begins. This is molecular death – the breakdown of soft tissues even further, into gases, liquids and salts. It is already under way at the earlier stages of decomposition but really gets going when anaerobic bacteria get in on the act.

Putrefaction is associated with a marked shift from aerobic bacterial species, which require oxygen to grow, to anaerobic ones, which do not. These then feed on the body’s tissues, fermenting the sugars in them to produce gaseous by-products such as methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia, which accumulate within the body, inflating (or ‘bloating’) the abdomen and sometimes other body parts.

This causes further discolouration of the body. As damaged blood cells continue to leak from disintegrating vessels, anaerobic bacteria convert haemoglobin molecules, which once carried oxygen around the body, into sulfhaemoglobin. The presence of this molecule in settled blood gives skin the marbled, greenish-black appearance characteristic of a body undergoing active decomposition.

Colonisation

When a decomposing body starts to purge, it becomes fully exposed to its surroundings. At this stage, the cadaveric ecosystem really comes into its own: a ‘hub’ for microbes, insects and scavengers.

Two species closely linked with decomposition are blowflies and flesh flies (and their larvae). Cadavers give off a foul, sickly-sweet odour, made up of a complex cocktail of volatile compounds that changes as decomposition progresses. Blowflies detect the smell using specialised receptors on their antennae, then land on the cadaver and lay their eggs in orifices and open wounds.

Each fly deposits around 250 eggs that hatch within 24 hours, giving rise to small first-stage maggots. These feed on the rotting flesh and then moult into larger maggots, which feed for several hours before moulting again. After feeding some more, these yet larger, and now fattened, maggots wriggle away from the body. They then pupate and transform into adult flies, and the cycle repeats until there’s nothing left for them to feed on.

Under the right conditions, an actively decaying body will have large numbers of stage-three maggots feeding on it. This ‘maggot mass’ generates a lot of heat, raising the inside temperature by more than 10°C. Like penguins huddling in the South Pole, individual maggots within the mass are constantly on the move. But whereas penguins huddle to keep warm, maggots in the mass move around to stay cool.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bucheli explains, surrounded by large toy insects and a collection of Monster High dolls in her SHSU office. “If you’re always at the edge, you might get eaten by a bird, and if you’re always in the centre, you might get cooked. So they’re constantly moving from the centre to the edges and back.”

Purging

“We’re looking at the purging fluid that comes out of decomposing bodies,” says Daniel Wescott, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Wescott, an anthropologist specialising in skull structure, is using a micro-CT scanner to analyse the microscopic structure of the bones brought back from the body farm. He also collaborates with entomologists and microbiologists – including Javan, who has been busy analysing samples of cadaver soil collected from the San Marcos facility – as well as computer engineers and a pilot, who operate a drone that takes aerial photographs of the facility.

“I was reading an article about drones flying over crop fields, looking at which ones would be best to plant in,” he says. “They were looking at near-infrared, and organically rich soils were a darker colour than the others. I thought if they can do that, then maybe we can pick up these little circles.”

Those “little circles” are cadaver decomposition islands. A decomposing body significantly alters the chemistry of the soil beneath it, causing changes that may persist for years. Purging – the seeping of broken-down materials out of what’s left of the body – releases nutrients into the underlying soil, and maggot migration transfers much of the energy in a body to the wider environment. Eventually, the whole process creates a ‘cadaver decomposition island’, a highly concentrated area of organically rich soil. As well as releasing nutrients into the wider ecosystem, this attracts other organic materials, such as dead insects and faecal matter from larger animals.

According to one estimate, an average human body consists of 50–75 per cent water, and every kilogram of dry body mass eventually releases 32 g of nitrogen, 10 g of phosphorous, 4 g of potassium and 1 g of magnesium into the soil. Initially, it kills off some of the underlying and surrounding vegetation, possibly because of nitrogen toxicity or because of antibiotics found in the body, which are secreted by insect larvae as they feed on the flesh. Ultimately, though, decomposition is beneficial for the surrounding ecosystem.

According to the laws of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. In other words: things fall apart, converting their mass to energy while doing so. Decomposition is one final, morbid reminder that all matter in the universe must follow these fundamental laws. It breaks us down, equilibrating our bodily matter with its surroundings, and recycling it so that other living things can put it to use.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still-Life with a Skull, 17th-century painting by Philippe de Champaigne. Public Domain.

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Texas Needs More Guns, Not Less

Nine dead. Waco, Texas. May 17, 2015. Gunfight at Twin Peaks restaurant.

What this should tell us, particularly gun control advocates, is that Texans need more guns. After all, the US typically loosens gun restrictions after major gun related massacres — the only “civilized” country to do so.

Lawmakers recently passed two open carry gun laws in the Texas Senate. Once reconciled the paranoid governor — Greg Abbott, will surely sign. But even though this means citizens of the Lone State State will then be able to openly run around in public, go shopping or visit the local movie theater while packing a firearm, they still can’t walk around with an alcoholic beverage. Incidentally, in 2013 in the US 1,075 people under the age of 19 were killed by guns. That’s more children dying from gunfire than annual military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, let’s leave the irony of this situation aside and focus solely on some good old fashioned sarcasm. Surely, it’s time to mandate that all adults in Texas should be required to carry a weapon. Then there would be less gunfights, right? And, while the Texas Senate is busy with the open carry law perhaps State Senators should mandate that all restaurants install double swinging doors, just like those seen in the saloons of classic TV Westerns.

From the Guardian:

Nine people were killed on Sunday and some others injured after a shootout erupted among rival biker gangs at a Central Texas restaurant, sending patrons and bystanders fleeing for safety, a police spokesman said.

The violence erupted shortly after noon at a busy Waco marketplace along Interstate 35 that draws a large lunchtime crowd. Waco police Sergeant W Patrick Swanton said eight people died at the scene of the shooting at a Twin Peaks restaurant and another person died at a hospital.

It was not immediately clear if bystanders were among the dead, although a local TV station, KCEN-TV, reported that all of the fatalities were bikers and police confirmed that no officers had been injured or killed.

Another local station, KXXV, reported that police had recovered firearms, knives, bats and chains from the scene. Restaurant employees locked themselves in freezers after hearing the shots, the station said.

How many injuries had occurred and the severity of those injuries was not known.

“There are still bodies on the scene of the parking lot at Twin Peaks,” Swanton said. “There are bodies that are scattered throughout the parking lot of the next adjoining business.”

A photograph from the scene showed dozens of motorcycles parked in a lot. Among the bikes, at least three people wearing what looked like biker jackets were on the ground, two on their backs and one face down. Police were standing a few feet away in a group. Several other people also wearing biker jackets were standing or sitting nearby.

Swanton said police were aware in advance that at least three rival gangs would be gathering at the restaurant and at least 12 Waco officers in addition to state troopers were at the restaurant when the fight began.

When the shooting began in the restaurant and then continued outside, armed bikers were shot by officers, Swanton said, explaining that the actions of law enforcement prevented further deaths.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Great Western Movie Themes.

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MondayMap: The State of Death

distinctive-causes-of-death-by-state

It’s a Monday, so why not dwell on an appropriately morbid topic — death. Or, to be more precise, a really cool map that shows the most distinctive causes of death for each state. We know that across the United States in general the most common causes of death are heart disease and cancer. However, looking a little deeper shows other, secondary causes that vary by state. So, leaving aside the top two, you will see that a resident of Tennessee is more likely to die from “accidental discharge of firearms”, while someone from Alabama will succumb to syphilis. Interestingly, Texans are more likely to depart this mortal coil from tuberculosis; Georgians from “abnormal clinical problems not elsewhere classified”. While Alaskans — no surprise here — lead the way in deaths from airplane, boating and “unspecified transport accidents”.

Read more here.

Map: Distinctive cause of death by state. Courtesy of Francis Boscoe, New York State Cancer Registry.

 

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