Fate Isn’t All That It’s Cracked Up to Be

If you believe in the luck of the draw, the turn of a card, the spin of a wheel; if you believe in the leaves in your teacup, the lines on your palm, or the numbers in your fortune cookie; if you believe in fate or a psychic or the neighbor’s black cat, then you are all the poorer for it — perhaps not spiritually, but certainly financially.

From the Telegraph:

Strange as it sounds, a serious study has been undertaken by academics into the link between people’s propensity to trust in luck, or fate – and their financial success.

And it has concluded the less faith someone places in luck, fate or some other “external factor”, the more wealth they are likely to accumulate.

Some might say the conclusion is commonsense but the report – produced by three academics at the University of Mebourne in Australia – even came up with a figure of AUS$150,000 (£82,000), which was the difference over four years between “households who believe fate will determine their future” and “households that believe they can shape their own destiny.”

The report, here, titled “Locus of control and savings”, splits psychological profiles into two groups, those with either an “internal” or “external” “locus” of control. The latter are people who believe that fate, or luck – or other people – are the determining force in shaping their lives. Those with an “internal locus of control” are those who are “strong believers in their ability to shape their own destiny.”

The survey then linked pshychological measures of behaviour to national savings data. “We find that households in which the reference person has an internal locus of control save more both in terms of levels and as a percentage of their permanent incomes than do households with external reference persons.”

It arrived at a precise financial measure, saying: “over a four year period households with a strong sense of shaping one’s destiny are on average $150,000 better off, and save 7.7% more of their income.”

The authors claimed that although their work relied on Australian data, it would reflect trends in other developed economies.

The work is one of a growing number of studies into what motivates saving, the type of people most likely to save – and how governments can stimulate more saving.

Read the entire article here.

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I Am Selfie

astronaut-selfie

Presidents, prime ministers, pop stars and the public in general — anyone and everyone armed with a smartphone and a dire need for attention did this in 2013. Without a doubt, 2013 was the year of the narcissistic selfie.

See more selfies here.

Image: Astronaut Luca Parmitano uses a digital still camera to take a photo of himself in space. Courtesy of NASA / Daily Mail.

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Time for the Neutrino

Enough of the Higgs boson, already! It’s time to shine the light on its smaller, swifter cousin, the neutrino.

From the NYT:

HAVE you noticed how the Higgs boson has been hogging the limelight lately? For a measly little invisible item, whose significance cannot be explained without appealing to thorny concepts of quantum field theory, it has done pretty well for itself. The struggling starlets of Hollywood could learn a thing or two about the dark art of self-promotion from this boson.

First, its elusiveness “sparked the greatest hunt in science,” as the subtitle of one popular book put it. Then came all the hoopla over its actual discovery. Or should I say discoveries? Because those clever, well-meaning folks at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva proclaimed their finding of the particle not once but twice. First in 2012, on the Fourth of July no less, they told the world that their supergigantic — and awesomely expensive — atom smasher had found tentative evidence of the Higgs. Eight months later, they made a second announcement, this time with more data in hand, to confirm that they had nabbed the beast for real. Just recently, there was yet more fanfare when two of the grandees who had predicted the particle’s existence back in 1964 shared a Nobel Prize for their insight.

In fact, ever since another Nobel-winning genius, Leon Lederman, branded it the “God particle” some 20 years ago, the Higgs boson has captured the public imagination and dominated the media coverage of physics. Some consider Professor Lederman’s moniker a brilliant P.R. move for physics, while others denounce it as a terrible gaffe that confuses people and cheapens a solemn scientific enterprise. Either way, it has been effective. Nobody ever talks about the fascinating lives of other subatomic particles on “Fox and Friends.”

Sure, the story of Higgs is a compelling one. The jaw-dropping $9 billion price tag of the machine built to chase it is enough to command our attention. Plus, there is the serene, wise man at the center of this epic saga: the octogenarian Peter Higgs, finally vindicated after waiting patiently for decades. Professor Higgs was seen to shed a tear of joy at a news conference announcing the discovery, adding tenderness to the triumphant moment and tugging ever so gently at our heartstrings. For reporters looking for a human-interest angle to this complicated scientific brouhaha, that was pure gold.

But I say enough is enough. It is time to give another particle a chance.

And have I got a terrific candidate for you! It moves in mysterious ways, passing right through wood, walls and even our bodies, with nary a bump. It morphs among three forms, like a cosmic chameleon evading capture. It brings us news from the sun’s scorching heart and from the spectacular death throes of monstrous stars. It could tell us why antimatter is so rare in the universe and illuminate the inner workings of our own planet. Someday, it may even help expose rogue nuclear reactors and secret bomb tests, thus promoting world peace. Most important, we might not be here without it.

WHAT is this magical particle, you ask? It is none other than the ghostly neutrino.

O.K., I admit that I am biased, having just written a book about it. But believe me, no other particle comes close to matching the incredibly colorful and quirky personality of the neutrino, or promises to reveal as much about a mind-boggling array of natural phenomena, both subatomic and cosmic. As one researcher told me, “Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” Besides, John Updike considered it worthy of celebrating in a delightful poem in The New Yorker, and on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon Cooper’s idol Professor Proton chose Gino the Neutrino as his beloved puppet sidekick.

Granted, the neutrino does come with some baggage. Remember how it made headlines two years ago for possibly traveling faster than light? Back then, the prospects of time travel and breaking Einstein’s speed limit provided plenty of fodder for rampant speculation and a few bad jokes. In the end, the whole affair turned out to be much ado about a faulty cable. I maintain it is unfair to hold the poor little neutrino responsible for that commotion.

Generally speaking, the neutrino tends to shun the limelight. Actually, it is pathologically shy and hardly ever interacts with other particles. That makes it tough to pin down.

Thankfully, today’s neutrino hunters have a formidable arsenal at their disposal, including newfangled observatories buried deep underground or in the Antarctic ice. Neutrino chasing, once an esoteric sideline, has turned into one of the hottest occupations for the discerning nerd. More eager young ones will surely clamor for entry into the Promised Land now that the magazine Physics World has declared the recent detection of cosmic neutrinos to be the No. 1 physics breakthrough of the year.

Drum roll, please. The neutrino is ready to take center stage. But don’t blink: It zips by at nearly the speed of light.

Read the entire story here.

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Ancient Aquifer

curiosity-rover

Mars Curiosity Rover is at it again. This time it has unearthed (or should it be “unmarsed”) compelling evidence of an ancient lake on the red planet.

From Wired:

The latest discovery of Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover is evidence of an ancient freshwater lake on Mars that was part of an environment that could potentially have supported simple microbial life.

The lake is located inside the Gale Crater and is thought to have covered an area that is 31 miles long and three miles wide for more than 100,000 years.

According to a paper published yesterday in Science Magazine: “The Curiosity rover discovered fine-grained sedimentary rocks, which are inferred to represent an ancient lake and preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy.”

When analyzing two rock samples from an area known as Yellowknife Bay, researchers discovered smectite clay minerals, the chemical makeup of which showed that they had formed in water. Due to low salinity and the neutral pH, the water the minerals formed in was neither too acidic nor too alkaline for life to have once existed within it.

Chemolithoautotrophs, the form of life the researchers believed may have lived in the lake, can also be found on Earth, usually in caves or in vents on the ocean floor.

“If we put microbes from Earth and put them in this lake on Mars, would they survive? Would they survive and thrive? And the answer is yes,” the Washington Post is reporting John Grotzinger, a Caltech planetary geologist who is the chief scientist of the Curiosity rover mission, as saying at a press conference.

Evidence of water was first discovered in soil samples on Mars in September by Curiosity, which first landed on the Red Planet in August 2012 with the hope of discovering whether it may have once offered a habitable environment. Increasingly, as studies are finding evidence of the planet’s environment interacting at some point with water, researchers are believing that in the past Mars could have been a more Earth-like planet.

Curiosity cannot confirm whether or not these organisms definitely did exist on Mars, only that the environment was once ideal for them to flourish there.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Mars Curiosity Rover. Courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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You Are Middle-Aged

google-search-middle-age

If you are losing touch with new technology, are growing increasingly hairy — in all the wrong places — and increasingly detest noisy environments, then you are middle-aged. Significantly, many now characterize the middle-aged years as 44-60. And, of course, if you continually misplace your glasses or feed the neighborhood birds more frequently, though you are still younger than 44 years, then you may just be acting middle-aged. Read on for some more telltale signs of your imminent demise.

From the Washington Post:

How do you know you’re middle-aged? How about when you wear clothes and shoes based on comfort rather than style, or grow hair in all the wrong places: nose, ears, eyebrows? Those are just two of the signs mentioned in a recent British survey about when middle age begins and how to identify it.

The 2,000 people surveyed by Benenden, a health-care and insurance firm, also made clear that middle age was no longer something for 30- or 40-year-olds to worry about. The life change, they said, began at 53. In fact, nearly half of the older-than-50s who were surveyed said they personally had not experienced “middle age” yet.

“A variety of factors — including more active lifestyles and healthier living — mean that people find their attitudes towards getting older are changing. Over half of the people surveyed didn’t feel that there even was such a thing as ‘middle age’ anymore,” Paul Keenan, head of communications at Benenden Health, said in a statement when the survey was released in August.

“Being ‘old’ appears to be a state of mind rather than being a specific age,” he added. “People no longer see ‘middle age’ as a numerical milestone and don’t tend to think of themselves as ‘old’ as they hit their fifties and beyond. I’m 54 myself, with the mind-set of a thirty-something — perhaps sometimes even that of a teenager!”

So beyond comfort shoes and ear hair, what are some signs that you’re no longer young? Here’s the full list offered up by respondents to the survey. Some are particularly British (e.g., joining the National Trust, taking a flask of tea on a day out). But you’ll get the point.

Losing touch with everyday technology such as tablets and TVs

Finding you have no idea what “young people” are talking about

Feeling stiff

Needing an afternoon nap

Groaning when you bend down

Not remembering the name of any modern bands

Talking a lot about your joints/ailments

Hating noisy pubs

Getting more hairy — ears, eyebrows, nose, face, etc.

Thinking policemen/teachers/doctors look really young

Preferring a night in with a board game than a night on the town

You don’t know any songs in the top 10

Choosing clothes and shoes for comfort rather than style

Taking a flask of tea on a day out

Obsessive gardening or bird feeding

Thinking there is nothing wrong with wearing an anorak

Forgetting people’s names

Booking a cruise

Misplacing your glasses, bag, car keys, etc.

Complaining about the rubbish on television these days

Gasping for a cup of tea

Getting bed socks for Christmas and being very grateful

Taking a keen interest in “The Antiques Road Show”

When you start complaining about more things

Listening to the Archers

You move from Radio 1 to Radio 2

Joining the National Trust

Being told off for politically incorrect opinions

Flogging the family car for something sportier

When you can’t lose six pounds in two days anymore

You get shocked by how racy music videos are

Taking a keen interest in the garden

Buying travel sweets for the car

Considering going on a “no children” cruise for a holiday

When you know your alcohol limit

Obsessively recycling/ knowing the collection dates

Always carrying a handy pack of tissues

Falling asleep after one glass of wine

Spending more money on face creams/anti-aging products

Preferring a Sunday walk to a lie-in

By comparison to those who participated in the British survey, Americans have a different take on when middle age begins, at least according to a paper published in 2011 by researchers at Florida State University. That study, which used nationally representative data collected in 1995-1996 and 2004-2006, showed that the perceived beginning of middle age varied, not surprisingly, depending on the age group that was providing the estimate. Overall, the researchers said, most people think of middle age as beginning at 44 and ending at 60.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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Merry Christmas and Happy Regression

Setting aside religious significance, the holidays season tends to be a time when most adults focus on children and family, in that order. But interestingly enough adults, consciously or not, regress to their younger selves during this extended time with parents and family.

From the Guardian:

In a characteristically serene post at Zen Habits, Leo Babauta points out that holiday family gatherings can be “the ultimate mindfulness training ground”: if you can remain centred and calm in the middle of Christmas dinner, you can presumably do so anywhere.

True, I’m sure. But for any of us heading back to childhood homes in the next few days – or, for that matter, reuniting elsewhere with the people we spent our childhoods with – there’s one huge challenge to be overcome. I’m talking, of course, about the ferocious black hole that sucks adult children, and their parents, back into family roles from years or even decades ago, the moment they’ve reassembled under one roof.

Holiday regression is an experience so universal that even therapists who specialise in this sort of stuff tend to counsel Just Dealing With It. “Expect to regress,” writes one. “Regression can be sweet,” ventures another. Forget all the progress you thought you’d made towards becoming a well-functioning and responsible member of society. For a week or so, you might as well be 13 again.

Actually, the concept of regression, like so many handed down from Freud, is probably best thought of as a poetic metaphor; modern psychology provides no real reason to believe that you’re literally returning to an earlier stage of ego development when you start passive-aggressively point-scoring with your sister over the mulled wine. The crucial point about those old family roles is that they work: they’re time-tested ways that your family discovered, over years, that enabled it to hold together as a family. The roughly 20 years between birth and fleeing the nest, as the therapist Marie Hartwell-Walker points out, is “a whole lot of practice for making the family style and our role in it permanent.”

None of that means it’s always – or even usually – enjoyable to play those roles. But they serve a purpose: the family unit’s purpose, if not necessarily your own.

Much as psychotherapists are drawn to family dynamics when it comes to explaining this sort of thing, however, more mundane psychological factors are surely also at play. We’ve learned lots in recent years about the emotional-eliciting qualities of different environments, and their role in the formation of memories. (There’s even been some interesting work on what, exactly, people are hoping to re-experience when they seek out a lost childhood home.) If you’re sleeping in the bedroom you slept in as a child, how could you avoid taking on some of the characteristics of the child who formerly slept there?

Meanwhile, there’s the particular aroma of the family home. Smell, as Marcel Proust knew and recent research confirms, can be a peculiarly powerful trigger for memories. In short: a trip back home will always be a psychological minefield.

Is there anything to be done? One of the more interesting suggestions borrows from the field of “embodied cognition”, which refers to the way our mental lives are lived through, and are influenced by, our bodies. (For example, clenching a fist has been found to enhance willpower; folding your arms aids perseverance.)

Read the entire article here.

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What of Consciousness?

google-search-holiday-feast

As we dig into the traditional holiday fare surrounded by family and friends it is useful to ponder whether any of it is actually real or is it all inside the mind. The in-laws may be a figment of the brain, but the wine probably is real.

From the New Scientist:

Descartes might have been onto something with “I think therefore I am”, but surely “I think therefore you are” is going a bit far? Not for some of the brightest minds of 20th-century physics as they wrestled mightily with the strange implications of the quantum world.

According to prevailing wisdom, a quantum particle such as an electron or photon can only be properly described as a mathematical entity known as a wave function. Wave functions can exist as “superpositions” of many states at once. A photon, for instance, can circulate in two different directions around an optical fibre; or an electron can simultaneously spin clockwise and anticlockwise or be in two positions at once.

When any attempt is made to observe these simultaneous existences, however, something odd happens: we see only one. How do many possibilities become one physical reality?

This is the central question in quantum mechanics, and has spawned a plethora of proposals, or interpretations. The most popular is the Copenhagen interpretation, which says nothing is real until it is observed, or measured. Observing a wave function causes the superposition to collapse.

However, Copenhagen says nothing about what exactly constitutes an observation. John von Neumann broke this silence and suggested that observation is the action of a conscious mind. It’s an idea also put forward by Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, who said in 1931, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.”

That argument relies on the view that there is something special about consciousness, especially human consciousness. Von Neumann argued that everything in the universe that is subject to the laws of quantum physics creates one vast quantum superposition. But the conscious mind is somehow different. It is thus able to select out one of the quantum possibilities on offer, making it real – to that mind, at least.

Henry Stapp of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California is one of the few physicists that still subscribe to this notion: we are “participating observers” whose minds cause the collapse of superpositions, he says. Before human consciousness appeared, there existed a multiverse of potential universes, Stapp says. The emergence of a conscious mind in one of these potential universes, ours, gives it a special status: reality.

There are many objectors. One problem is that many of the phenomena involved are poorly understood. “There’s a big question in philosophy about whether consciousness actually exists,” says Matthew Donald, a philosopher of physics at the University of Cambridge. “When you add on quantum mechanics it all gets a bit confused.”

Donald prefers an interpretation that is arguably even more bizarre: “many minds”. This idea – related to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory, which has each outcome of a quantum decision happen in a different universe – argues that an individual observing a quantum system sees all the many states, but each in a different mind. These minds all arise from the physical substance of the brain, and share a past and a future, but cannot communicate with each other about the present.

Though it sounds hard to swallow, this and other approaches to understanding the role of the mind in our perception of reality are all worthy of attention, Donald reckons. “I take them very seriously,” he says.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Ducks, Politics and God

duck-dynastyUntil last Wednesday (December 18, 2013) the funniest elements of Duck Dynasty were the beards, Uncle Si and Uncle Si’s beard. But then reality hit the reality TV show.

On Thursday, and even more humorous than the show and beards, the patriarch of the family Phil Robertson was suspended for an anti-gay slur. That someone cannot voice a real remark, however obnoxious, on a reality TV show is rather ironic and quite hilarious. Spouses should await a similar suspension from the family for a week for the next household faux pas. Or, could it be that the show is somehow scripted by A&E management anxious to cash in on the next fleeting opportunity?

By Friday the situation has become even more surreal — the politicians and bible thumpers had jumped in. The silly season had begun. The chorus from conservatives has been deafening: “it’s about faith”, “it’s about sin”. But most seem to forget that in our consumer-oriented, market-driven society it’s really about money. So if advertisers blink because one or more members of the Duck Dynasty commercial franchise is a bigot, so be it. That’s free speech and money is the ultimate equalizer. The market has spoken.

That said, one wishes that politicians, pundits and prosletyzers could be suspended as well.

From the Washington Post:

Few could have predicted that the story lines of the hit A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty” and the 2016 presidential contest would converge.

But that unexpected mash-up played out Thursday as conservative politicians rushed to defend Phil Robertson, the shaggy-bearded, homespun star of the breakout series, who was suspended by the cable network after his published comments about gays stirred a storm of controversy.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a likely White House contender whose state is home to the show about a family that runs a duck-hunting gear enterprise, called Robertson and his family “great citizens.”

“The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” Jindal said in a statement prominently displayed on his official Web site, adding: “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), another probable 2016 candidate, chimed in on Facebook, writing: “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson.” And 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin wrote in a Facebook post that “those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

Their embrace of Robertson — who in an interview with GQ described “homosexual behavior” as sinful and compared it to bestiality and infidelity — underscored how gay rights remain a potent political issue for many religious voters on the right.

As the same-sex marriage movement has gained steam, many evangelicals and conservative Catholics feel as if they are being asked to give up deeply held beliefs — an effort they perceived in the quick suspension of the “Duck Dynasty” star after his comments were denounced by gay rights groups.

The furor is reminiscent of the protests and counter-rallies of support that swirled around the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A last year after its president said the company supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

Conservative Christians “feel like they’re under siege in a culture that is increasingly intolerant and discriminatory toward their views, and they don’t feel represented,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who noted that Robertson paraphrased from the Bible’s Book of Corinthians in his interview. “I did not get any impression at all that there was animus expressed,” Reed said

By jumping into the “Duck Dynasty” maelstrom, conservative leaders such as Jindal and Cruz sent a clear message to evangelical voters: We’re on your side.

“Make no mistake,” Reed said, “these voters are paying attention, and they are going to remember who stood up.”

The controversy played out on the very day that opposing cultural forces were on full display. New Mexico’s highest court legalized same-sex marriage, the 17th state to allow gays and lesbians to wed. And figure skater Brian Boitano announced he is gay, making him the third gay member of the U.S. delegation who will travel to Russia in February for the Winter Olympics.

The cross-currents spotlighted the schism over gay rights that persists in parts of the country.

“This shows that there clearly needs to be more engagement of the evangelical community if gay acceptance is going to become a reality,” said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights advocacy group.

Still, other gay rights advocates noted the growing number of moderate Republican leaders who have embraced the cause of same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, more than 100 Republicans signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.

Fred Sainz, spokesman for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said that “the days of making gay a wedge issue are dated.”

“I think they are outliers,” he said of Jindal, Cruz and Palin, adding that he believes they jumped into the “Duck Dynasty” controversy to appeal to “a niche base.”

But that base remains a powerful force in the Republican Party, particularly when it comes to presidential primaries in states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

Conservative activists said that the national push for gay rights could mobilize evangelical voters to the polls in new numbers in 2016, particularly if they feel there is a candidate running who reflects their beliefs.

David Lane, an influential Christian activist based in California who organizes pastor conferences, said he got an e-mail Thursday morning from a top Republican activist in Iowa who credited Jindal for speaking out quickly about Robertson’s suspension.

“What Jindal is doing is absolutely tremendous, from an evangelical and pro-life Catholic standpoint,” Lane said. “Spiritually speaking, we’re in a war.”

And Robertson, the blunt-spoken reality show star, is serving as the unexpected latest flashpoint. (Notably, his comments about gays — including a graphic description of which body parts are more desirable — have garnered substantially more attention than his contention in the same GQ interview that African Americans were happier in the era of Jim Crow laws in the South, calling them “singing and happy.”)

In the interview he said:“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”

Robertson issued a statement Thursday saying that he believes his mission is to spread the Bible’s teachings. “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” he said. “We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of New York Times.

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The Universe of Numbers

There is no doubt that mathematics — some very complex — has been able to explain much of what we consider the universe. In reality, and perhaps surprisingly, only a small subset of equations is required to explain everything around us from the atoms and their constituents to the vast cosmos. Why is that? And, what is the fundamental relationship between mathematics and our current physical understanding of all things great and small?

From the New Scientist:

When Albert Einstein finally completed his general theory of relativity in 1916, he looked down at the equations and discovered an unexpected message: the universe is expanding.

Einstein didn’t believe the physical universe could shrink or grow, so he ignored what the equations were telling him. Thirteen years later, Edwin Hubble found clear evidence of the universe’s expansion. Einstein had missed the opportunity to make the most dramatic scientific prediction in history.

How did Einstein’s equations “know” that the universe was expanding when he did not? If mathematics is nothing more than a language we use to describe the world, an invention of the human brain, how can it possibly churn out anything beyond what we put in? “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here,” wrote physicist Eugene Wigner in his classic 1960 paper “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol 13, p 1).

The prescience of mathematics seems no less miraculous today. At the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, physicists recently observed the fingerprints of a particle that was arguably discovered 48 years ago lurking in the equations of particle physics.

How is it possible that mathematics “knows” about Higgs particles or any other feature of physical reality? “Maybe it’s because math is reality,” says physicist Brian Greene of Columbia University, New York. Perhaps if we dig deep enough, we would find that physical objects like tables and chairs are ultimately not made of particles or strings, but of numbers.

“These are very difficult issues,” says philosopher of science James Ladyman of the University of Bristol, UK, “but it might be less misleading to say that the universe is made of maths than to say it is made of matter.”

Difficult indeed. What does it mean to say that the universe is “made of mathematics”? An obvious starting point is to ask what mathematics is made of. The late physicist John Wheeler said that the “basis of all mathematics is 0 = 0”. All mathematical structures can be derived from something called “the empty set”, the set that contains no elements. Say this set corresponds to zero; you can then define the number 1 as the set that contains only the empty set, 2 as the set containing the sets corresponding to 0 and 1, and so on. Keep nesting the nothingness like invisible Russian dolls and eventually all of mathematics appears. Mathematician Ian Stewart of the University of Warwick, UK, calls this “the dreadful secret of mathematics: it’s all based on nothing” (New Scientist, 19 November 2011, p 44). Reality may come down to mathematics, but mathematics comes down to nothing at all.

That may be the ultimate clue to existence – after all, a universe made of nothing doesn’t require an explanation. Indeed, mathematical structures don’t seem to require a physical origin at all. “A dodecahedron was never created,” says Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “To be created, something first has to not exist in space or time and then exist.” A dodecahedron doesn’t exist in space or time at all, he says – it exists independently of them. “Space and time themselves are contained within larger mathematical structures,” he adds. These structures just exist; they can’t be created or destroyed.

That raises a big question: why is the universe only made of some of the available mathematics? “There’s a lot of math out there,” Greene says. “Today only a tiny sliver of it has a realisation in the physical world. Pull any math book off the shelf and most of the equations in it don’t correspond to any physical object or physical process.”

It is true that seemingly arcane and unphysical mathematics does, sometimes, turn out to correspond to the real world. Imaginary numbers, for instance, were once considered totally deserving of their name, but are now used to describe the behaviour of elementary particles; non-Euclidean geometry eventually showed up as gravity. Even so, these phenomena represent a tiny slice of all the mathematics out there.

Not so fast, says Tegmark. “I believe that physical existence and mathematical existence are the same, so any structure that exists mathematically is also real,” he says.

So what about the mathematics our universe doesn’t use? “Other mathematical structures correspond to other universes,” Tegmark says. He calls this the “level 4 multiverse”, and it is far stranger than the multiverses that cosmologists often discuss. Their common-or-garden multiverses are governed by the same basic mathematical rules as our universe, but Tegmark’s level 4 multiverse operates with completely different mathematics.

All of this sounds bizarre, but the hypothesis that physical reality is fundamentally mathematical has passed every test. “If physics hits a roadblock at which point it turns out that it’s impossible to proceed, we might find that nature can’t be captured mathematically,” Tegmark says. “But it’s really remarkable that that hasn’t happened. Galileo said that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics – and that was 400 years ago.”

Read the entire article here.

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Mr.Busy

Mr_BusyCompeting with the co-worker who is a frenzy of activity is stressful. You know the type. This person is constantly rushing from one assignment to the next, hosting multiple hallway conversations, leaving meetings to take a call, dropping a call to answer an email, multitasking on 3 devices.

After all, you have to keep up — the busy colleague must be important or must be working on a critical project, right? Yes, it’s entirely possible, and no it could just be mis-perception — busy work is very different to smart work. Regardless, keeping up with “Mr.Busy” creates anxiety, friction and resentment in the workplace.

From WSJ:

Every office has (at least) one—the colleague who is always walking fast, finishing other people’s sentences and racing from meeting to meeting while fielding email, texts and voice mail on multiple devices. That person can appear very important.

They may not know it, but they’re usually causing secondhand stress.

Rushing blocks thoughtful communication and creates worries among colleagues that “maybe I should be doing that, too, or maybe my stuff isn’t as important as his, or maybe he’ll be irritable if I interrupt,” says Jordan Friedman, a New York City stress-management speaker and trainer.

Ray Hollinger was known for years among colleagues in a previous job as a sales-training executive as “Mr. Busy,” he says. In his quest to be a top performer, he says, he often thought, “If all this stuff just keeps coming at me, I will take it on. I will take it all on,” says Mr. Hollinger, founder of More Time More Sales, a Phoenixville, Pa., training firm.

He says he wasn’t aware that his constant motion sometimes made others feel uncomfortable—until a co-worker pointed it out. She told him that when she tried to talk with him, ” ‘your volume goes up, your pace of speaking goes up, and you’re not fully in the conversation,’ ” he says.

Working a few years ago with Rosemary Tator, a Waltham, Mass., leadership-development coach, Mr. Hollinger stopped piling on projects and started blocking out on his calendar the time he needed to achieve realistic goals—including time for interruptions. He also now stops himself when he talks too fast, by “taking a couple of breaths, and lowering my volume and my pace,” he says.

Ms. Tator invites rushers to visualize themselves on video. “What would you think of that person who ran into every meeting late, spent half the time on their cellphone with their email, and had to ask, ‘Could you please repeat that?’ because they weren’t listening?” says Ms. Tator, principal partner in 2beffective, a coaching and consulting firm.

Seeing colleagues—especially managers—operate at a frenzied, frantic pace can make the behavior contagious, says Robert S. Rubin, an associate professor of management at DePaul University, Chicago. He advises managers to hold “inoculation discussions, to inoculate the employee from catching the feeling” that rushing around is necessary to being seen as a good performer.

Open-plan offices help spread the contagion. When the boss has a view of the entire office, “no one wants to be seen as the slowest moving object in the solar system. You have to keep up with the Joneses—literally,” says Ben Jacobson, co-founder of Conifer Research, Chicago, which conducts behavioral and cultural research for companies.

Architects have begun blurring human figures in drawings of new-office projects, to appeal to clients who aspire to active, high-energy workplaces, says Jorge Barrero, a technical designer in Chicago for Gensler, an architecture, planning and design firm. The image is one clients “can connect with on an emotional level,” Mr. Barrero says.

Tom Krizmanic, a principal with Studios Architecture in New York, says about a quarter of the 218 designs he helped judge in a recent office-design competition, co-sponsored by Business Interiors by Staples, showed humans as blurred figures in motion. The trend began about three years ago, he says.

Some people go into overdrive after getting promoted or taking a challenging new job. Surrounded by senior managers, “they’re not the smartest person in the room any more,” says William Arruda of New York City, a personal-branding consultant. Instead of prioritizing their lengthening to-do lists, “they go into hair-on-fire mode, telling themselves, ‘I’m a machine. I get so much done. There’s nothing you can give me that will break me.’ “

“The productivity of entire teams can go down,” Mr. Arruda says. “If you have one person rushing into meetings at the last minute and tapping a pencil through the entire session, it changes the cadence for the entire group.”

To jolt rushers into awareness, he has them ask for written feedback from 10 to 20 colleagues. The form includes such seemingly frivolous questions as, “If I were a household appliance, which one would I be?” Chronic rushers are shocked when co-workers liken them to “a blender whirring around at 9 million miles an hour,” he says.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Mr.Busy. Courtesy of MrMen.

 

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Elite Mediocrity

Yet another survey of global education attainment puts the United States firmly in yet another unenviable position. US students ranked a mere 28th in science and came further down the scale on math, at 36th, out of 65 nations. So, it’s time for another well-earned attack on the system that is increasingly nurturing mainstream mediocrity and dumbing-down education to mush. In fact, some nameless states seem to celebrate the fact by re-working textbooks and curricula to ensure historic fact and scientific principles are distorted to promote a religious agenda. And, for those who point to the US as a guiding light in all things innovative, please don’t forget that a significant proportion of the innovators gained their educational credentials elsewhere, outside the US.

As the news Comedy Central faux-news anchor and satirist Stephen Colbert recently put it:

“Like all great theologies, Bill [O’Reilly]’s can be boiled down to one sentence: there must be a God, because I don’t know how things work.”

From the Huffington Post:

The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, results are in, and there’s some really good news for those that worry about the U.S. becoming a nation of brainy elitists. Of the 65 countries that participated in the PISA assessment, U.S. students ranked 36th in math, and 28th in science. When it comes to elitism, the U.S. truly has nothing to worry about.

For those relative few Americans who were already elite back when the 2009 PISA assessment was conducted, there’s good news for them too: they’re even more elite than they were in 2009, when the US ranked 30th in math and 23rd in science. Educated Americans are so elite, they’re practically an endangered species.

The only nagging possible shred of bad news from these test scores comes in the form of a question: where will the next Internet come from? Which country will deliver the next great big, landscape-changing, technological innovation that will propel its economy upward? The country of bold, transformative firsts, the one that created the world’s first nuclear reactor and landed humans on the moon seems very different than the one we live in today.

Mediocrity in science education has metastasized throughout the American mindset, dumbing down everything in its path, including the choices made by our elected officials. A stinging byproduct of America’s war on excellence in science education was the loss of its leadership position in particle physics research. On March 14 of this year, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that the Higgs Boson, aka the “God particle,” had been discovered at the EU’s Large Hadron Collider. CERN describes itself as “the world’s leading laboratory for particle physics” — a title previously held by America’s Fermilab. Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator was the world’s largest and most powerful until eclipsed by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The Tevatron was shut down on September 30th, 2011.

The Tevatron’s planned replacement, Texas’ Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), would have been three times the size of the EU’s Large Hadron Collider. Over one third of the SSC’s underground tunnel had been bored at the time of its cancellation by congress in 1993. As Texas Monthly reported in “How Texas Lost the World’s Largest Super Collider,” “Nobody doubts that the 40 TeV Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas would have discovered the Higgs boson a decade before CERN.” Fighting to save the SSC in 1993, its director, Dr. Roy Schwitters, said in a New York Times interview, “The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students.”

Ever wonder about the practical benefits of theoretical physics? Consider this: without Einstein’s theory of general relativity, GPS doesn’t work. That’s because time in those GPS satellites whizzing above us in space is slightly different than time for us terrestrials. Without compensating for the difference, our cars would end up in a ditch instead of Starbucks. GPS would also not have happened without advances in US space technology. Consider that, in 2013, there are two manned spacefaring nations on Earth – the US isn’t one of them. GPS alone is estimated to generate $122.4 billion annually in direct and related benefits according to an NDP Consulting Group report. The Superconducting Super Collider would have cost $8.4 billion.

‘C’ students’ revenge doesn’t stop with crushing super colliders or grounding our space program. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly famously translated his inability to explain 9th grade astronomy into justification for teaching creationism in public schools, stating that we don’t know how tides work, or where the sun or moon comes from, or why the Earth has a moon and Mars doesn’t (Mars actually has two moons).

Read the entire article here.

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It’s a Stage of Mind

Panic room, 2010Panic room, 2010

The art world continues to surprise. Just as creativity fades into a morass of commercial, “artotainment” drivel, along comes an artist with a thoroughly refreshing perspective. JeeYoung Lee creates breathtaking human-scale dioramas completely filling her 10 x 20 square foot studio with a parallel universe.

While it would be a delight to inhabit these spaces in Lee’s studio, it is unfortunately and understandably off-limits. However, the photographs are on display at the Opiom Gallery in Opio, France from 7 February to 7 March 2014.

Black birds, 2009Black birds, 2009

Nightscape, 2012Nightscape, 2012

From the Guardian:

From a giant honeycomb to a land of Lego and the last supper with mice, Korean artist JeeYoung Lee creates mystical universes in the confines of her 3×6 metre studio – then captures them on camera. Her first European exhibition, Stage of Mind, is at Opiom Gallery in Opio, France from 7 February to 7 March 2014.

See more images here.

Images courtesy of JeeYoung Lee/OPIOM Gallery.

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Cut the Buzzwords

Social network LinkedIn has just published a neat infographic showing the use, misuse and over-use of buzzwords in its members’ personal profiles. If your profile included such nuggets as: motivated, multinational and specialized, well, it’s probably time to freshen up the resume.

Our votes for the most overused buzzwords of 2013 would go to: innovation, redemption, sustainable and our favorite — big data.

infographic-linkedin-buzzwordsInfographic courtesy of LinkedIn.

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Doctor Lobotomy

walter-freeman

Read the following article once and you could be forgiven for assuming that it’s a fictional screenplay for Hollywood’s next R-rated Halloween flick or perhaps the depraved tale of an associate of Nazi SS officer and physician Josef Mengele.

Read the following article twice and you’ll see that the story of neurologist Dr. Walter Freeman is true: the victims — patients — were military veterans numbering in the thousands, and it took place in the United States following WWII.

This awful story is all the more incomprehensible by virtue of the cadre of assistants, surgeons, psychiatrists, do-gooders and government bureaucrats who actively aided Freeman or did nothing to stop his foolish, amateurish experiments. Unbelievable!

From WSJ:

As World War II raged, two Veterans Administration doctors reported witnessing something extraordinary: An eminent neurologist, Walter J. Freeman, and his partner treating a mentally ill patient by cutting open the skull and slicing through neural fibers in the brain.

It was an operation Dr. Freeman called a lobotomy.

Their report landed on the desk of VA chief Frank Hines on July 26, 1943, in the form of a memo recommending lobotomies for veterans with intractable mental illnesses. The operation “may be done, in suitable cases, under local anesthesia,” the memo said. It “does not demand a high degree of surgical skill.”

The next day Mr. Hines stamped the memo in purple ink: APPROVED.

Over the next dozen or so years, the U.S. government would lobotomize roughly 2,000 American veterans, according to a cache of forgotten VA documents unearthed by The Wall Street Journal, including the memo approved by Mr. Hines. It was a decision made “in accord with our desire to keep abreast of all advances in treatment,” the memo said.

The 1943 decision gave birth to an alliance between the VA and lobotomy’s most dogged salesman, Dr. Freeman, a man famous in his day and notorious in retrospect. His prolific—some critics say reckless—use of brain surgery to treat mental illness places him today among the most controversial figures in American medical history.

At the VA, Dr. Freeman pushed the frontiers of ethically acceptable medicine. He said VA psychiatrists, untrained in surgery, should be allowed to perform lobotomies by hammering ice-pick-like tools through patients’ eye sockets. And he argued that, while their patients’ skulls were open anyway, VA surgeons should be permitted to remove samples of living brain for research purposes.

The documents reveal the degree to which the VA was swayed by his pitch. The Journal this week is reporting the first detailed account of the VA’s psychosurgery program based on records in the National Archives, Dr. Freeman’s own papers at George Washington University, military documents and medical records, as well as interviews with doctors from the era, families of lobotomized vets and one surviving patient, 90-year-old Roman Tritz.

The agency’s use of lobotomy tailed off when the first major antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, came on the market in the mid-1950s, and public opinion of Dr. Freeman and his signature surgery pivoted from admiration to horror.

During and immediately after World War II, lobotomies weren’t greeted with the dismay they prompt today. Still, Dr. Freeman’s views sparked a heated debate inside the agency about the wisdom and ethics of an operation Dr. Freeman himself described as “a surgically induced childhood.”

In 1948, one senior VA psychiatrist wrote a memo mocking Dr. Freeman for using lobotomies to treat “practically everything from delinquency to a pain in the neck.” Other doctors urged more research before forging ahead with such a dramatic medical intervention. A number objected in particular to the Freeman ice-pick technique.

Yet Dr. Freeman’s influence proved decisive. The agency brought Dr. Freeman and his junior partner, neurosurgeon James Watts, aboard as consultants, speakers and inspirations, and its doctors performed lobotomies on veterans at some 50 hospitals from Massachusetts to Oregon.

Born in 1895 to a family of Philadelphia doctors, Yale-educated Dr. Freeman was drawn to psychosurgery by his work in the wards of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where Washington’s mentally ill, including World War I veterans, were housed but rarely cured. The treatments of the day—psychotherapy, electroshock, high-pressure water sprays and insulin injections to induce temporary comas—wouldn’t successfully cure serious mental illnesses that resulted from physical defects in the brain, Dr. Freeman believed. His suggestion was to sever faulty neural pathways between the prefrontal area and the rest of the brain, channels believed by lobotomy practitioners to promote excessive emotions.

It was an approach pioneered by Egas Moniz, a Portuguese physician who in 1935 performed the first lobotomy (then called a leucotomy). Fourteen years later, he was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in medicine.

In 1936, Drs. Freeman and Watts performed their first lobotomy, on a 63-year-old woman suffering from depression, anxiety and insomnia. “I knew as soon as I operated on a mental patient and cut into a physically normal brain, I’d be considered radical by some people,” Dr. Watts said in a 1979 interview transcribed in the George Washington University archives.

By his own count, Dr. Freeman would eventually participate in 3,500 lobotomies, some, according to records in the university archives, on children as young as four years old.

“In my father’s hands, the operation worked,” says his son, Walter Freeman III, a retired professor of neurobiology. “This was an explanation for his zeal.”

Drs. Freeman and Watts considered about one-third of their operations successes in which the patient was able to lead a “productive life,” Dr. Freeman’s son says. Another third were able to return home but not support themselves. The final third were “failures,” according to Dr. Watts.

Later in life, Dr. Watts, who died in 1994, offered a blunt assessment of lobotomy’s heyday. “It’s a brain-damaging operation. It changes the personality,” he said in the 1979 interview. “We could predict relief, and we could fairly accurately predict relief of certain symptoms like suicidal ideas, attempts to kill oneself. We could predict there would be relief of anxiety and emotional tension. But we could not nearly as accurately predict what kind of person this was going to be.”

Other possible side-effects included seizures, incontinence, emotional outbursts and, on occasion, death.

Read the entire article here.

 

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Global Domination — One Pixel at a Time

google-maps-article

Google’s story began with text-based search and was quickly followed by digital maps. These simple innovations ushered in the company’s mission to organize the world’s information. But as Google ventures further from its roots into mobile operating systems (Android), video (youtube), social media (Google+), smartphone hardware (through its purchase of Motorola’s mobile business), augmented reality (Google Glass), Web browsers (Chrome) and notebook hardware (Chromebook) what of its core mapping service? And is global domination all that it’s cracked up to be?

From the NYT:

Fifty-five miles and three days down the Colorado River from the put-in at Lee’s Ferry, near the Utah-Arizona border, the two rafts in our little flotilla suddenly encountered a storm. It sneaked up from behind, preceded by only a cool breeze. With the canyon walls squeezing the sky to a ribbon of blue, we didn’t see the thunderhead until it was nearly on top of us.

I was seated in the front of the lead raft. Pole position meant taking a dunk through the rapids, but it also put me next to Luc Vincent, the expedition’s leader. Vincent is the man responsible for all the imagery in Google’s online maps. He’s in charge of everything from choosing satellite pictures to deploying Google’s planes around the world to sending its camera-equipped cars down every road to even this, a float through the Grand Canyon. The raft trip was a mapping expedition that was also serving as a celebration: Google Maps had just introduced a major redesign, and the outing was a way of rewarding some of the team’s members.

Vincent wore a black T-shirt with the eagle-globe-and-anchor insignia of the United States Marine Corps on his chest and the slogan “Pain is weakness leaving the body” across his back. Though short in stature, he has the upper-body strength of an avid rock climber. He chose to get his Ph.D. in computer vision, he told me, because the lab happened to be close to Fontainebleau — the famous climbing spot in France. While completing his postdoc at the Harvard Robotics Lab, he led a successful expedition up Denali, the highest peak in North America.

A Frenchman who has lived half his 49 years in the United States, Vincent was never in the Marines. But he is a leader in a new great game: the Internet land grab, which can be reduced to three key battles over three key conceptual territories. What came first, conquered by Google’s superior search algorithms. Who was next, and Facebook was the victor. But where, arguably the biggest prize of all, has yet to be completely won.

Where-type questions — the kind that result in a little map popping up on the search-results page — account for some 20 percent of all Google queries done from the desktop. But ultimately more important by far is location-awareness, the sort of geographical information that our phones and other mobile devices already require in order to function. In the future, such location-awareness will be built into more than just phones. All of our stuff will know where it is — and that awareness will imbue the real world with some of the power of the virtual. Your house keys will tell you that they’re still on your desk at work. Your tools will remind you that they were lent to a friend. And your car will be able to drive itself on an errand to retrieve both your keys and your tools.

While no one can say exactly how we will get from the current moment to that Jetsonian future, one thing for sure can be said about location-awareness: maps are required. Tomorrow’s map, integrally connected to everything that moves (the keys, the tools, the car), will be so fundamental to their operation that the map will, in effect, be their operating system. A map is to location-awareness as Windows is to a P.C. And as the history of Microsoft makes clear, a company that controls the operating system controls just about everything. So the competition to make the best maps, the thinking goes, is more than a struggle over who dominates the trillion-dollar smartphone market; it’s a contest over the future itself.

Google was relatively late to this territory. Its map was only a few months old when it was featured at Tim O’Reilly’s inaugural Where 2.0 conference in 2005. O’Reilly is a publisher and a well-known visionary in Silicon Valley who is convinced that the Internet is evolving into a single vast, shared computer, one of whose most important individual functions, or subroutines, is location-awareness.

Google’s original map was rudimentary, essentially a digitized road atlas. Like the maps from Microsoft and Yahoo, it used licensed data, and areas outside the United States and Europe were represented as blue emptiness. Google’s innovation was the web interface: its map was dragable, zoomable, panable.

These new capabilities were among the first implementations of a technology that turned what had been a static medium — a web of pages — into a dynamic one. MapQuest and similar sites showed you maps; Google let you interact with them. Developers soon realized that they could take advantage of that dynamism to hack Google’s map, add their own data and create their very own location-based services.

A computer scientist named Paul Rademacher did just that when he invented a technique to facilitate apartment-hunting in San Francisco. Frustrated by the limited, bare-bones nature of Craigslist’s classified ads and inspired by Google’s interactive quality, Rademacher spent six weeks overlaying Google’s map with apartment listings from Craigslist. The result, HousingMaps.com, was one of the web’s first mash-ups.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Luc Vincent, head of Google Maps imagery. Courtesy of NYT Magazine.

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Everyday Sexism Project

The passing of Nelson Mandela reminds us that while great strides for freedom and justice were made in South Africa much still remains to be done. Unfortunately, racism and discrimination, in all its forms, continue to rear their ugly heads in all nooks and crannies of our world. So, the fight for equality continues; one great example is the Everyday Sexism Project.

From the Guardian:

The campaign for women’s liberation never went away, but this year a new swell built up and broke through. Since the early summer, I’ve been talking to feminist activists and writers for a short book, All The Rebel Women, and as I tried to keep up with the protests, marches and talks, my diary became a mess of clashing dates. The rush was such that in a single weekend in October, you could have attended a feminist freshers’ fair in London, the North East Feminist Gathering in Newcastle, a Reclaim the Night march in Edinburgh, or a discussion between different generations of feminist activists at the British Library (this sold out in 48 hours, was moved to a room four times bigger, and sold out again).

You could have joined one of the country’s 149 local grassroots groups, or shared your experience of misogyny on the site Laura Bates, 27, started in April 2012. Her Everyday Sexism Project has proved so successful that it was rolled out to 17 countries on its first anniversary this year, tens of thousands of women worldwide writing about the street harassment, sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and body-shaming they encounter. The project embodies that feminist phrase “the personal is political”, a consciousness-raising exercise that encourages women to see how inequality affects them, proves these problems aren’t individual but collective, and might therefore have political solutions. This year, 6,000 stories that have been sent to the project about harassment or assault on public transport – the majority never reported to authorities – were used to train 2,000 police officers in London, and create a public awareness campaign. In its first few weeks, says Bates, the reporting of harassment on public transport soared. Everyday Sexism currently has more than 108,000 followers on Twitter. Of course, following a social media account isn’t the same as joining a political party, but to put this engagement in perspective, Tory membership is now at 134,000.

Welcome to the fourth wave of feminism. This movement follows the first-wave campaign for votes for women, which reached its height 100 years ago, the second wave women’s liberation movement that blazed through the 1970s and 80s, and the third wave declared by Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter, and others, in the early 1990s. That shift from second to third wave took many important forms, but often felt broadly generational, with women defining their work as distinct from their mothers’. What’s happening now feels like something new again. It’s defined by technology: tools that are allowing women to build a strong, popular, reactive movement online. Just how popular is sometimes slightly startling. Girlguiding UK introduced a campaigning and activism badge this year and a summer survey of Mumsnet users found 59% consider themselves feminists, double those who don’t. Bates says that, for her, modern feminism is defined by pragmatism, inclusion and humour. “I feel like it is really down-to-earth, really open,” she says, “and it’s very much about people saying: ‘Here is something that doesn’t make sense to me, I thought women were equal, I’m going to do something about it.'”

As 2013 unfolded, it became impossible to ignore the rumble of feminist campaigners, up and down the country. They gathered outside the Bank of England in early July, the first burst of a heatwave, dressed as aviators, suffragettes and warrior queens, organised by Caroline Criado-Perez, 29, shouting for women’s representation on bank notes and beyond.

They demonstrated outside the Sun headquarters, organised by Yas Necati, 17, in a protest against Page 3, the biggest image of a woman that appears each day in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper – a teenager or twentysomething smiling sunnily in her pants. Necati, a student at sixth-form college, laughed shyly as she told me about the mocked-up pages she has sent Sun editor David Dinsmore, suggesting feminist comedians, artists and writers to appear on the page instead. One of her favourites showed a woman flashing bright blue armpit hair. The the No More Page 3 petition started by Lucy-Anne Holmes, 37, in August 2012,, has been signed by 128,000 people.

Ikamara Larasi, 24, started heading a campaign to address racist and sexist stereotypes in music videos, just as students began banning summer hit Blurred Lines on many UK campuses, in response to its sexist lyrics. Jinan Younis, 18, co-founded a feminist society at school, experienced online abuse from some boys in her peer group – “feminism and rape are both ridiculously tiring,” they wrote – and wasn’t deterred. Instead, she wrote an article about it that went viral. When I spoke to her in September, she was juggling shifts in a call centre, babysitting for neighbours, preparing for university, while helping out with a campaign to encourage feminist societies in schools countrywide. UK Feminista, an organisation set up in 2010 to support feminist activists, has had 100 people contact them this year, wanting to start their own school group. In late August, their national day of action against lads’ mags included 19 protests across the UK.

Thousands more feminists raised their voices online. Bates and Soraya Chemaly, 47, were among those who set up a campaign against misogynist pages on Facebook, including groups with names such as “raping a pregnant bitch and telling your friends you had a threesome”. Supporters sent more than 60,000 tweets in the course of a swift, week-long push, convincing the social media behemoth to change its moderation policies.

Southall Black Sisters protested outside the offices of the UK Border Agency against racist immigration laws and propaganda – including the notorious “Go Home” vans. They also marched in solidarity with protesters in Delhi, who began a wave of demonstrations following the death of a woman who was gang raped in the city last December, protests against rape culture that soon spread to Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The African LGBTI Out & Proud Diamond Group demonstrated opposite Downing Street after allegations emerged of the sexual abuse of women held at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre.

The Fawcett Society continued to show how cuts to benefits, services and public-sector jobs pose “triple jeopardy” to women (in 2013 women’s unemployment reached a 26-year high). Rape Crisis South London spearheaded a successful campaign to criminalise the possession of pornography that depicts rape. And 40 Days of Choice challenged the anti-abortion campaigners who have become worryingly prominent in the UK recently.

The Edinburgh fringe hosted a surprising run of feminist comedians, including Mary Bourke, with her show Muffragette. Bourke memorably noted in a BBC interview this summer that the open-mic circuit has become a “rape circle” in recent years. Feminist standups were ready to respond. Nadia Kamil, 29, performed a set including a feminist burlesque, peeling off eight layers of clothing to reveal messages such as “pubes are normal” and “equal pay” picked out in sequins. She also explained the theory of intersectionality through a vocoder, and gave out badges with the slogan “Smash the Kyriarchy”. (She hoped audience members would look up any words they were unfamiliar with later, such as “kyriarchy” and “cis”.)

Bridget Christie, 42, won the Foster’s Edinburgh comedy award with A Bic for Her, in which she railed against sexist comments by racing driver Stirling Moss, and talked about “ethical filing” – taking sexist magazines off shop shelves and dumping them straight in the bin. She wasn’t encouraging other people to do this, she emphasised. She just wanted to point out that she had been doing it for months – months – with no problem at all.

Women marched through London for Million Women Rise and Reclaim the Night, and organised events in 207 countries for One Billion Rising, a day of demonstrations to highlight the UN statistic that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. As part of this event, the UK parliament debated whether sex and relationship education should be on the national curriculum, and six months later, in her summer holidays, Lili Evans, 16, started the Campaign4Consent with Necati, calling for consent education in schools.

A chorus rose against online misogyny. Criado-Perez highlighted the string of rape threats sent to her on Twitter, writer Lindy West published the comments she received, (“There is a group of rapists with over 9,000 penises coming for this fat bitch,” read one), and the academic and broadcaster Mary Beard, Lauren Mayberry from the band Chvrches, and Ruby Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, all spoke out on this issue. If you want to know how deeply some people resent the idea of women’s advancement, the stream of online misogyny has been perhaps the most obvious, ugly backlash yet.

But bald attempts to silence women only made the movement larger and louder. They convinced those who had never thought about misogyny before that it was clearly still alive, and convinced those who were well aware of it to keep going.

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Here Be Dragons

google-search-dragonsDragons have long filled our dreams and nightmares, and maps. Until recently, cartographers would fill in unexplored areas on their hand-drawn charts with monsters and serpents. Now, most of the dragons we encounter are courtesy of the movies or the toy store, though some of us harbor metaphorical dragons within (or at the office). Thus with the next Hobbit movie — The Desolation of Smaug — on the horizon it is fitting to look back at the colorful history of our most treasured and terrifying dragons.

From the Guardian:

I doubt if JRR Tolkien would recognise his Smaug in Peter Jackson’s new CGI Hobbit spectacular, with its colossal, grandiose dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Tolkien’s beast, at least in the author’s original illustrations, was an elegant Rackhamesque creature: a fire-orange, slightly languid lizard, all stuck over with jewels from years of lolling about in his lair, where his vast treasure was stored.

Smaug was created by Tolkien out of his love for Beowulf, whose hero battles with “the fiery dragon, the fearful fiend”. But Tolkien also threw in a little wordplay for good measure: the name came from the old German smugan, meaning to squeeze through a hole, presumably in reference to the biblical parable about rich men and needles; while Smaug’s treasure-guarding echoes the origin of the word dragon itself, from the Greek drakon, “to watch”.

For all its contemporary role as a cliche of fantasy epics, the dragon’s true power comes from a darker place. It casts a long shadow over our folk memory, across the caverns of our collective fears. It may even reach back into prehistory: when the fossilised bones of sauropods were first discovered, they were claimed to be the remains of dragons – a notion encouraged by the convention that dragons didn’t really die, they just cast off their bodies.

But the dragon cannot be contained by palaeontology. It writhes out of reality and into western creation myths, from the pagan Norse beast Níðhöggr, gnawing away at the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, to the Book of Revelation and its “great red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns” that attempts to eat the offspring of “the woman clothed with the sun” as she gives birth.

Throughout the Bible, in fact, the dragon is the embodiment of evil, a stand-in for Satan. There’s a wonderful 15th-century oil in the Prado, attributed to a “master of Zafra”, that depicts the archangel Michael (looking rather girly with his crimped hair and bejewelled breastplate) straddling an extraordinary dragon. This medieval mashup has the paws of a lion, the wings of a vulture, the neck of a sea serpent and a head seemingly composed of a horned cow crossed with the archetypal Chinese dragon familiar from 1,000 vases and takeaway menus.

It’s a mark of the monster’s shape-shifting qualities that its satanic western aura is sharply contrasted by the rearing, joyous, prancing imperial dragons of China: symbols of good luck and nobility rather than of disaster, often bearing pearls and surrounded by clouds and fire. At least one emperor, Yaou, was said to have been the product of a liaison between his mother and a red dragon.

In fact, so rich were the oriental legends of dragons that they convinced the Victorian geologist Charles Gould that dragons had really existed. “There is nothing impossible in the ordinary notion of the traditional dragon,” Gould declared in his 1886 book Mythical Monsters. “It is more likely to have once had a real existence than to be a mere offspring of fancy.” Gould surmised that these dragon stories drew on a “long terrestrial lizard, hibernating and carnivorous, with the power of constricting with its snake-like body and tail, possibly furnished with wing-like extensions”. Since Victorians regularly read reports of maned and long-necked sea monsters in their newspapers, such faith in the fabulous was by no means unusual.

For all his mentions of Darwin and “rational study” of the evidence, Gould betrayed his creationist beliefs when he declared that the dragon disappeared during the “Biblical Deluge”. Nevertheless, his fellow cryptozoologists not only insisted that dragons had existed, but that they still did – in the brontosaurian shape of Mokele Mbembe, cavorting in the Congo’s swamps like an African Loch Ness monster.

The Prado painting proves that the medieval world thronged with dragons; its skies were as full of them as ours are of 747s. But it is to the 19th century that we owe our contemporary image of the dragon. From Tennyson’s “Dragons of the prime, / That tare each other in their slime”, to the art of William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones and Aubrey Beardsley, the period teemed with the beasts. Blake’s Great Red Dragon watercolour series revisited the baby-eating beast of Revelation, and has much in common with Swiss surrealist HR Giger’s designs for Alien (itself a sci-fi version of the dragon). Morphing weirdly between human and beast, they are so intensely physical they must surely have emerged from Blake’s many hallucinations. To Burne-Jones, the dragon was a more muscular physical reality, a bleeding, biting beast to be wrestled by St George. Beardsley, on the other hand, produced an epicene, ambisexual Arthurian dragon, all curlicues and decadent flourishes – an enervated, languorous, stupefied beast, barely capable of a roar.

It has always struck me that the pterodactyls and prehistoric lizards that hang off London’s Natural History Museum, not to mention the terracotta dragons perched on the eaves of suburban terraces, were really only excuses for the Victorians to invent their own gargoyles and demons as a retort to the worrying new doubts of Darwinism. Like all monsters (the word comes from the Latin monstrum, “to warn”), dragons fulfil a particular niche, whether for a Chinese emperor, Victorian artist, or contemporary film-maker: they become precisely what the age demands of them, their roars tailored to contemporary concerns. In his intriguing, postmodern study The Last Dinosaur Book, WJT Mitchell sees the dragon as “the cultural ancestor of the dinosaur … the ruling reptile of premodern social systems, associated with kings and emperors, with buried treasure and with the fall of dynasties”. Rather than exorcise the atavistic monsters, the appearance of real dragons – in the shape of Tyrannosaurus rex et al – merely reinforced belief in their imaginary predecessors.

That’s why, in the movies of Ray Harryhausen and other fantasy films from Godzilla to Jurassic Park and beyond, dinosaurs and dragons are almost interchangeable: a reflection of new 20th-century myths, auguries of a nuclear age. From Tolkien and CS Lewis to Dungeons and Dragons (with a particular appeal to boys – and quite a few men), they speak of an alternative existence into which we might escape when reality threatens. Perhaps that’s why the abusive term “dragon” is reserved for “terrifying” women (despite all the phallic symbolism of a dragon’s serpentine neck).

Enter not Bruce Lee, but Carl Jung, stroking his beard and declaring that the dragon is an archetype of our unconscious fears: the devouring nature of our mothers, or our fear of sex – the dragon inside us all. Furthermore, Jung diagnosed the dichotomy of the dragon and its two faces: as feared enemy in western myth; or as the positive, transformative power within ourselves (“the Great Self Within” in Jung’s phrase) in the eastern tradition. Cue a parade of new-age dragons, their sulphorous breath replaced with pungent patchouli.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Meta-Research: Discoveries From Research on Discoveries

Discoveries through scientific research don’t just happen in the lab. Many of course do. Some discoveries now come through data analysis of research papers. Here, sophisticated data mining tools and semantic software sift through hundreds of thousands of research papers looking for patterns and links that would otherwise escape the eye of human researchers.

From Technology Review:

Software that read tens of thousands of research papers and then predicted new discoveries about the workings of a protein that’s key to cancer could herald a faster approach to developing new drugs.

The software, developed in a collaboration between IBM and Baylor College of Medicine, was set loose on more than 60,000 research papers that focused on p53, a protein involved in cell growth, which is implicated in most cancers. By parsing sentences in the documents, the software could build an understanding of what is known about enzymes called kinases that act on p53 and regulate its behavior; these enzymes are common targets for cancer treatments. It then generated a list of other proteins mentioned in the literature that were probably undiscovered kinases, based on what it knew about those already identified. Most of its predictions tested so far have turned out to be correct.

“We have tested 10,” Olivier Lichtarge of Baylor said Tuesday. “Seven seem to be true kinases.” He presented preliminary results of his collaboration with IBM at a meeting on the topic of Cognitive Computing held at IBM’s Almaden research lab.

Lichtarge also described an earlier test of the software in which it was given access to research literature published prior to 2003 to see if it could predict p53 kinases that have been discovered since. The software found seven of the nine kinases discovered after 2003.

“P53 biology is central to all kinds of disease,” says Lichtarge, and so it seemed to be the perfect way to show that software-generated discoveries might speed up research that leads to new treatments. He believes the results so far show that to be true, although the kinase-hunting experiments are yet to be reviewed and published in a scientific journal, and more lab tests are still planned to confirm the findings so far. “Kinases are typically discovered at a rate of one per year,” says Lichtarge. “The rate of discovery can be vastly accelerated.”

Lichtarge said that although the software was configured to look only for kinases, it also seems capable of identifying previously unidentified phosphatases, which are enzymes that reverse the action of kinases. It can also identify other types of protein that may interact with p53.

The Baylor collaboration is intended to test a way of extending a set of tools that IBM researchers already offer to pharmaceutical companies. Under the banner of accelerated discovery, text-analyzing tools are used to mine publications, patents, and molecular databases. For example, a company in search of a new malaria drug might use IBM’s tools to find molecules with characteristics that are similar to existing treatments. Because software can search more widely, it might turn up molecules in overlooked publications or patents that no human would otherwise find.

“We started working with Baylor to adapt those capabilities, and extend it to show this process can be leveraged to discover new things about p53 biology,” says Ying Chen, a researcher at IBM Research Almaden.

It typically takes between $500 million and $1 billion dollars to develop a new drug, and 90 percent of candidates that begin the journey don’t make it to market, says Chen. The cost of failed drugs is cited as one reason that some drugs command such high prices (see “A Tale of Two Drugs”).

Software that read tens of thousands of research papers and then predicted new discoveries about the workings of a protein that’s key to cancer could herald a faster approach to developing new drugs.

The software, developed in a collaboration between IBM and Baylor College of Medicine, was set loose on more than 60,000 research papers that focused on p53, a protein involved in cell growth, which is implicated in most cancers. By parsing sentences in the documents, the software could build an understanding of what is known about enzymes called kinases that act on p53 and regulate its behavior; these enzymes are common targets for cancer treatments. It then generated a list of other proteins mentioned in the literature that were probably undiscovered kinases, based on what it knew about those already identified. Most of its predictions tested so far have turned out to be correct.

“We have tested 10,” Olivier Lichtarge of Baylor said Tuesday. “Seven seem to be true kinases.” He presented preliminary results of his collaboration with IBM at a meeting on the topic of Cognitive Computing held at IBM’s Almaden research lab.

Lichtarge also described an earlier test of the software in which it was given access to research literature published prior to 2003 to see if it could predict p53 kinases that have been discovered since. The software found seven of the nine kinases discovered after 2003.

“P53 biology is central to all kinds of disease,” says Lichtarge, and so it seemed to be the perfect way to show that software-generated discoveries might speed up research that leads to new treatments. He believes the results so far show that to be true, although the kinase-hunting experiments are yet to be reviewed and published in a scientific journal, and more lab tests are still planned to confirm the findings so far. “Kinases are typically discovered at a rate of one per year,” says Lichtarge. “The rate of discovery can be vastly accelerated.”

Lichtarge said that although the software was configured to look only for kinases, it also seems capable of identifying previously unidentified phosphatases, which are enzymes that reverse the action of kinases. It can also identify other types of protein that may interact with p53.

The Baylor collaboration is intended to test a way of extending a set of tools that IBM researchers already offer to pharmaceutical companies. Under the banner of accelerated discovery, text-analyzing tools are used to mine publications, patents, and molecular databases. For example, a company in search of a new malaria drug might use IBM’s tools to find molecules with characteristics that are similar to existing treatments. Because software can search more widely, it might turn up molecules in overlooked publications or patents that no human would otherwise find.

“We started working with Baylor to adapt those capabilities, and extend it to show this process can be leveraged to discover new things about p53 biology,” says Ying Chen, a researcher at IBM Research Almaden.

It typically takes between $500 million and $1 billion dollars to develop a new drug, and 90 percent of candidates that begin the journey don’t make it to market, says Chen. The cost of failed drugs is cited as one reason that some drugs command such high prices (see “A Tale of Two Drugs”).

Lawrence Hunter, director of the Center for Computational Pharmacology at the University of Colorado Denver, says that careful empirical confirmation is needed for claims that the software has made new discoveries. But he says that progress in this area is important, and that such tools are desperately needed.

The volume of research literature both old and new is now so large that even specialists can’t hope to read everything that might help them, says Hunter. Last year over one million new articles were added to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline database of biomedical research papers, which now contains 23 million items. Software can crunch through massive amounts of information and find vital clues in unexpected places. “Crucial bits of information are sometimes isolated facts that are only a minor point in an article but would be really important if you can find it,” he says.

Read the entire article here.

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Through the Eyes of Children

Sderot_Home

The very human invention that is war has taken an incalculable cost since it was first conceived, presumably when the first hunter-gatherers picked up the first rock or fashioned the first club. The cost on the innocent — especially the children — is brutal: death, pain, broken bodies, maimed limbs, fractured minds, shredded families.

Photographer Brian McCarty has chronicled the stories of some victims from the war and violence in the Middle East. In his visits to a therapeutic center in Jerusalem in 2011 he would watch the children work with therapists as they voice their painful memories and fear through art and play. Later, we would re-create their “war art” in photographs, often with the help of the children.

From Wired:

At the Spafford Children’s Center for in East Jerusalem, L.A.–based photographer Brian McCarty watched as a little girl made a crayon drawing of a dead boy. She carefully colors in a red pool of blood around his body. It was a drawing that McCarty would later use to stage one of his photographs for WAR-TOYS, a series that recreates children’s memories and fears of conflict in the Middle East with toys.

“Play can become a mechanism for healing,” says McCarty. Drawing on the tenets of art and play therapy, which help children express emotions in non-verbal ways, he sees WAR-TOYS as providing witness to the often unseen impact of armed conflict on children, while serving as part of these children’s therapeutic process.

McCarty first visited this therapeutic center in 2011 where he would observe as children worked with art and play therapists to tell and draw their stories. The drawings then served as a storyboard of sorts for McCarty, who re-created the scenes using locally purchased toys as characters and props. When possible, he brought the child along to help art direct the shoot.

McCarty worked with children in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, which produced a variety of drawings. Some children drew the keys their families kept as symbols of the homes they had to flee. A few boys portrayed heroic militants with homemade bombs. Young girls in Gaza City often drew mothers and babies near scenes of carnage.

Yet most of the drawings depicted the children’s fears. One boy’s drawing expressed how unattainable safety felt even with defense systems ready. It shows the sky full of incoming rockets and defensive interceptor missiles, while on the ground a bus explodes.

The use of toys as surrogates gives McCarty’s reenactments a playful, fictional distance while shifting the perspective to that of a child’s: closer to the ground, helplessly witnessing the shocking blur of play and violence.

The local toys also reveal the socio-economic layers of the region. While most of the toys in the region were made in China; in Gaza they were often botched discount versions.

And despite some previous efforts to rid the region of war toys, plastic soldiers, guns and bombs are ubiquitous. Notably, Israeli and Palestinian flags figures largely in the children’s drawings, and thus McCarty’s photographs, revealing the intensely divisive tribalism recognized, and sometimes identified with, from an early age.

“I’ve chosen to be as neutral as possible for the project. Much like the kids, I only know that the person shooting at me is a bad guy. They are ‘them,’ no matter which side of the border I’m on,” McCarty says.

McCarty, who has used toys in his photographs for 17 years, views this series as the first phase of a larger project — though gaining access is a challenge. “It took two years and a number of face-to-face meetings for an Israeli NGO to grant me access,” he says.

And that’s only the first difficulty. There’s also an element of danger. He recalled one particularly harrowing photo shoot: “Throughout, the sounds of outbound rockets and concussions from incoming airstrikes grew in intensity. I managed to complete my work, while experiencing first-hand the fear and anxiety the children face throughout their lives.”

See more images and read the full story here.

Image:  Photograph from WAR-TOYS by Brian McCarty. Courtesy of Brian McCarty / Wired.

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The AbFab Garden Bridge

London-garden-bridge

Should it come to fruition, London’s answer to Lower Manhattan’s High Line promises to be a delightful walker’s paradise and another visitor magnet. The Garden Bridge is a new pedestrian walkway across the River Thames designed with nature in mind, and planted throughout with trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Interestingly, the idea for the design came from British national treasure, actress Joanna Lumley.

From Slate:

British designer Thomas Heatherwick has a knack for reinventing iconic designs. See, for example, his modern take on a midcentury double-decker bus or his 2012 Olympic cauldron, made of 204 copper petals representing participating nations. Heatherwick is also known for whimsical inventions like his 2004 rolling bridge, which curls up on itself to let boats pass beneath it.

The latest proposal from Heatherwick, the man that mentor Terence Conran branded a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci, is a nature-inspired walkway across the Thames: The Garden Bridge.

Oddly, the idea for the design came from Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley, who approached Heatherwick years ago. The bridge would be a new structure across the river intended to help improve pedestrian life by connecting North and South London with a planted garden path landscaped by U.K. designer and horticulturalist Dan Pearson. It would be filled with indigenous river edge trees, shrubs, and wildflowers and include benches and walkways of varying widths to create both intimate and more expansive spaces along the walkway. If built, the bridge would be an obvious crowdpleaser as a public green space, lookout point, and tourist destination. In London it would be a rare new jewel in the crown of a city already famed for its gardens.

Why is the idea of a slow garden path through a bustling urban landscape so appealing? Perhaps it’s because, like a vertical garden, such greenways inject our concrete metropolises with a stylized dose of the natural world we destroyed to build them. (Even if the inevitable crowds might detract from the imagined experience.)

Or perhaps it has something to do with biologist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, described in Charles Montgomery’s new book Happy City as the notion that “humans are hardwired to find particular scenes of nature calming and restorative.” Montgomery also discusses a theory by biologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan that explains how negotiating busy city streets demands draining “voluntary attention,” whereas “involuntary attention, the kind we give to nature, is effortless, like a daydream or a song washing through your brain. You might not even realize you are paying attention and yet you may be restored and transformed by the act.”

Is this London’s answer to NYC’s High Line, itself inspired by Paris’ Promenade plantée? (Although those projects were built on the ruins of abandoned railway tracks, the parallels are clear.) Earlier this week, the Financial Times noted that the initiative has been “seen by many as the capital’s answer to New York’s much-praised High Line,” adding that “the project appealed to the rivalry between New York and London.”

While the proposed Garden Bridge has the informal support of Mayor Boris Johnson, it would be built using mostly private funding (and board trustees have rejected the idea of selling naming rights to corporate sponsors). Half of that money has already been raised, through private donations and a recent injection of cash from the government, notes The Independent, which reported on Wednesday that Transport for London, the city’s transit authority, has pledged 30 million pounds in support of the project.

Until Dec. 20, the public can visit the website of the Garden Bridge Trust that has been set up to welcome suggestions and thoughts on the plan, which if built could be open to the public in late 2017. In the meantime, this Garden Bridge video narrated by Lumley offers a sneak peek.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge would provide a leisurely garden path across the Thames River. Courtesy Arup.

 

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Reheated Spam — The Circus Flies Again

Of late it seems that the wave of musical reunions has threatened to submerge us all under a tsunami of nostalgia — Blondie, Fleetwood Mac, Madness, Kid Creole (and the Coconuts), The Eagles to name but a few. Some, we would rather not have — can anyone say Spice Girls? Hollywood certainly has had a hand in this wave of nostalgia, with a firm eye on box office cash — War of the Worlds, Dracula, Ocean’s Eleven, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And, of course, we have witnessed no end of updated remakes of, or soon to be rebooted, once classic TV shows from the last fifty years — Roots, Tales from the Darkside, Fame, Charlie’s Angels, Hawaii Five-O, Rockford Files and even Dukes of Hazzard.

However, none can possibly compare with the imminent reunion of the most revered act in British comedy — Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Brits the world over are having heart palpitations at the prospect of the five remaining pythons reforming on stage in the summer of 2014. Hold the spam, though. Shows are only currently scheduled for London.

From the Telegraph:

The five remaining members of Monty Python and I are sitting in a silver Mercedes. We’re driving away from the press conference where they have just announced their reunion. Opposite me are Eric Idle and the two Terrys, Gilliam and Jones. I’m squashed up next to Michael Palin and John Cleese.

It’s been “an awful long time”, says Gilliam, since they’ve been together in the same vehicle. Do they feel like rock stars on tour? “We don’t know what that would be like,” says Cleese. “I do,” Palin says. “It’s just having people wanting to tear your clothes off, John.” Cleese is having none of it: “This is very tame in comparison…”

Idle suggests the five men could almost pass as “the geriatric version” of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s

Night, “where we’re not being pursued by anybody. We’re very old and we just long to go to bed and have a sleep.” But they’re clearly having a good time. “Better than being home alone,” as Gilliam puts it.

The Pythons’ announcement, that next summer they will perform together on stage for the first time in 24 years, was filmed by 27 camera crews and transmitted live around the world, generating a wave of both excitement and nostalgia. Gilliam’s wife of 40 years, Maggie, was watching the press conference from the departure lounge of an airport in France, in tears. She was moved, jokes Gilliam, by the sight of “five old farts… about to step into the abyss”. Idle’s wife, Tania, tuned in from their home in Los Angeles. “She was enjoying it,” he says. “She thought we looked good.” Gilliam smiles, “You’ve got a better wife than I do, then.”

“How many of us are married to Catholics?” asks Cleese. Only he is, as it turns out. “Your latest one’s a Catholic?” asks Idle. “The last few years I’ve had a lot of Catholic girlfriends,” Cleese replies. “About four in a row.” He married Jennifer Wade, his fourth wife, last year in the West Indies. “By an umpire,” jokes Idle. “I declare this marriage LBW,” Palin joins in. “Leg Before Wife,” says Gilliam.

When I ask whether they ever have political discussions, the laughter stops briefly. “We’re so disillusioned now that we have nothing to disagree about,” says Cleese. Gilliam launches into a monologue about politics giving way to corporate power. “Gilliam, shut up!” says Cleese. “Not much of a discussion,” Palin observes. “It was a rant, Terry,” says Idle. “The discussion follows the rant,” replies Gilliam.

It’s 44 years since the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was shown on BBC One late one evening, changing comedy history for ever. It’s 24 years since the sixth member of the gang, Graham Chapman, died of cancer. Today, the surviving five boast a combined age of 358, yet they still make each other laugh. “The worst thing,” says Gilliam, who is now 73 years old, “is on the bus or Tube when a girl in her twenties offers you her seat. It’s so depressing.” “I thought that was called twerking,” says Idle instantly. “And you thought I was dead!”

In the days before the reunion, as anticipation grew, one national newspaper characterised the group as the “poisonous Pythons”, portraying Cleese and Idle as being at the centre of the acrimony. Before our car journey, when I have some time alone with each of the Pythons, Cleese bats away that paper’s suggestion that the five of them are in a permanent state of war, insisting that he needed no persuasion to sign up for the comeback. “It’s not very time-consuming and we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company,” he says, “which doesn’t mean we don’t argue and disagree about things. We do all the time.”

Cleese left the Flying Circus after the third series ended in 1973; the others carried on for a fourth half series the following year. What made him leave before the end? “I felt that Python had taken my life over and I wanted to be able to do other things,” he says. “I wanted to be part of the group, I didn’t want to be married to them – because that’s what it felt like. I began to lose any kind of control over my life and I was not forceful enough in saying no.”

What’s more, he says, “the Pythons didn’t really hear my objection when I said I was not happy about one or two aspects of the show. It was like, ‘Cleese is on some strange trip of his own’ and they never listened. We never really communicated. And I also had the burden of working with Chapman during his alcoholic phase when no one else would work with him. So my writing consisted of sitting with someone who couldn’t remember in the afternoon what we had written in the morning.” Cleese did return for the Monty Python films, however, including Life of Brian in 1979, but they involved far less of a time commitment.

There will be those who say that the reason Cleese and the others are regrouping now can be summarised in one word: money. Certainly Jones did little to dispel that idea when he declared before the press conference, “I hope it makes us a lot of money. I hope to be able to pay off my mortgage.” But when I ask him now, he offers a different explanation: the Pythons enjoy working together. Idle also identifies “fun” as the main motivation behind the reunion. “I couldn’t really believe it. We sort of agreed in August,” he says, though he worried that the others might change their minds. “But no, everybody’s getting more and more into it.”

Idle, Palin and Jones appeared together in public at the start of this year to give evidence in court after Mark Forstater, the producer of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sued for a share of profits from the spin-off stage musical Spamalot. Forstater won the case and Idle says the group have also had to pay lawyers $1million over the past year and a half. “We’ve had to deal with all this… Somebody said, ‘Oh God let’s do something funny.’”

Read the entire article here.

Video: Spam. Courtesy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus / BBC.

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The Rise and Fall of Morally Potent Obscenity

There was a time in the U.S. when the many would express shock and decry the verbal (or non-verbal) obscenity of the few. It was also easier for parents to shield the sensitive ears and eyes of their children from the infrequent obscenities of pop stars, politicians and others seeking the media spotlight.

Nowadays, we collectively yawn at the antics of the next post-pubescent alumnus of the Disney Channel. Our pop icons, politicians, news anchors and their ilk have made rudeness, vulgarity and narcissism the norm. Most of us no longer seem to be outraged — some are saddened, some are titillated — and then we shift our ever-decreasing attention spans to the next 15 minute teen-sensation. The vulgar and vain is now ever-present. So we become desensitized, and our public figures and wannabe stars seek the next even-bigger-thing to get themselves noticed before we look elsewhere.

The essayist Lee Siegel seems to be on to something — many of our current obscenity-makers harken back to a time when their vulgarity actually conveyed meaning and could raise a degree of moral indignation in the audience. But now it’s just the new norm and a big yawn.

From Lee Siegel / WSJ:

“What’s celebrity sex, Dad?” It was my 7-year-old son, who had been looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. He mispronounced “celebrity” but spoke the word “sex” as if he had been using it all his life. “Celebrity six,” I said, abruptly closing my AOL screen. “It’s a game famous people play in teams of three,” I said, as I ushered him out of my office and downstairs into what I assumed was the safety of the living room.

No such luck. His 3-year-old sister had gotten her precocious little hands on my wife’s iPhone as it was charging on a table next to the sofa. By randomly tapping icons on the screen, she had conjured up an image of Beyoncé barely clad in black leather, caught in a suggestive pose that I hoped would suggest nothing at all to her or her brother.

And so it went on this typical weekend. The eff-word popped out of TV programs we thought were friendly enough to have on while the children played in the next room. Ads depicting all but naked couples beckoned to them from the mainstream magazines scattered around the house. The kids peered over my shoulder as I perused my email inbox, their curiosity piqued by the endless stream of solicitations having to do with one aspect or another of sex, sex, sex!

When did the culture become so coarse? It’s a question that quickly gets you branded as either an unsophisticated rube or some angry culture warrior. But I swear on my hard drive that I’m neither. My favorite movie is “Last Tango in Paris.” I agree (on a theoretical level) with the notorious rake James Goldsmith, who said that when a man marries his mistress, he creates a job vacancy. I once thought of writing a book-length homage to the eff-word in American culture, the apotheosis of which was probably Sir Ben Kingsley pronouncing it with several syllables in an episode of “The Sopranos.”

I’m cool, and I’m down with everything, you bet, but I miss a time when there were powerful imprecations instead of mere obscenity—or at least when sexual innuendo, because it was innuendo, served as a delicious release of tension between our private and public lives. Long before there was twerking, there were Elvis’s gyrations, which shocked people because gyrating hips are more associated with women (thrusting his hips forward would have had a masculine connotation). But Elvis’s physical motions on stage were all allusion, just as his lyrics were:

Touch it, pound it, what good does it do

There’s just no stoppin’ the way I feel for you

Cos’ every minute, every hour you’ll be shaken

By the strength and mighty power of my love

The relative subtlety stimulates the imagination, while casual obscenity drowns it out. And such allusiveness maintains social norms even as they are being violated—that’s sexy. The lyrics of Elvis’s “Power of My Love” gave him authority as a respected social figure, which made his asocial insinuations all the more gratifying.

The same went, in a later era, for the young Madonna : “Two by two their bodies become one.” It’s an electric image because you are actively engaged in completing it. Contrast that with the aging Madonna trash-talking like a kid:

Some girls got an attitude

Fake t— and a nasty mood

Hot s— when she’s in the nude

(In the naughty naked nude)

It’s the difference between locker-room talk and the language of seduction and desire. As Robbie Williams and the Pet Shop Boys observed a few years ago in their song “She’s Madonna”: “She’s got to be obscene to be believed.”

Everyone remembers the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” whose sexual and racial provocations were perfectly calibrated for 1971. Few, if any, people can recall their foray into explicit obscenity two years later with “Star Star.” The earlier song was sly and licentious; behind the sexual allusions were the vitality and energy to carry them out. The explicitness of “Star Star” was for bored, weary, repressed squares in the suburbs, with their swingers parties and “key clubs.”

Just as religious vows of abstinence mean nothing without the temptations of desire—which is why St. Augustine spends so much time in his “Confessions” detailing the way he abandoned himself to the “fleshpots of Carthage”—violating a social norm when the social norm is absent yields no real pleasure. The great provocations are also great releases because they exist side by side with the prohibitions that they are provoking. Once you spell it all out, the tension between temptation and taboo disappears.

The open secret of violating a taboo with language that—through its richness, wit or rage—acknowledges the taboo is that it represents a kind of moralizing. In fact, all the magnificent potty mouths—from D.H. Lawrence to Norman Mailer, the Beats, the rockers, the proto-punks, punks and post-punks, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Patti Smith, and up through, say, Sarah Silverman and the creators of “South Park”—have been moralizers. The late Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black” is so full of racial slurs, obscenity and repugnant sexual imagery that I could not find one meaningful phrase to quote in this newspaper. It is also a wryly indignant song that rips into the racism of liberals whose reverence for black culture is a crippling caricature of black culture.

Though many of these vulgar outlaws were eventually warily embraced by the mainstream, to one degree or another, it wasn’t until long after their deaths that society assimilated them, still warily, and sometimes not at all. In their own lifetimes, they mostly existed on the margins or in the depths; you had to seek them out in society’s obscure corners. That was especially the case during the advent of new types of music. Swing, bebop, Sinatra, cool jazz, rock ‘n’ roll—all were specialized, youth-oriented upheavals in sound and style, and they drove the older generation crazy.

These days, with every new ripple in the culture transmitted, commented-on, analyzed, mocked, mashed-up and forgotten on countless universal devices every few minutes, everything is available to everyone instantly, every second, no matter how coarse or abrasive. You used to have to find your way to Lou Reed. Now as soon as some pointlessly vulgar song gets recorded, you hear it in a clothing store.

The shock value of earlier vulgarity partly lay in the fact that a hitherto suppressed impulse erupted into the public realm. Today Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and the rest have made impulsiveness a new social norm. No one is driving anyone crazy with some new form of expression. You’re a parent and you don’t like it when Kanye West sings: “I sent this girl a picture of my d—. I don’t know what it is with females. But I’m not too good with that s—”? Shame on you.

The fact is that you’re hearing the same language, witnessing the same violence, experiencing the same graphic sexual imagery on cable, or satellite radio, or the Internet, or even on good old boring network TV, where almost explicit sexual innuendo and nakedly explicit violence come fast and furious. Old and young, high and low, the idiom is the same. Everything goes.

Graphic references to sex were once a way to empower the individual. The unfair boss, the dishonest general, the amoral politician might elevate themselves above other mortals and abuse their power, but everyone has a naked body and a sexual capacity with which to throw off balance the enforcers of some oppressive social norm. That is what Montaigne meant when he reminded his readers that “both kings and philosophers defecate.” Making public the permanent and leveling truths of our animal nature, through obscenity or evocations of sex, is one of democracy’s sacred energies. “Even on the highest throne in the world,” Montaigne writes, “we are still sitting on our asses.”

But we’ve lost the cleansing quality of “dirty” speech. Now it’s casual, boorish, smooth and corporate. Everybody is walking around sounding like Howard Stern. The trash-talking Jay-Z and Kanye West are superwealthy businessmen surrounded by bodyguards, media consultants and image-makers. It’s the same in other realms, too. What was once a cable revolution against treacly, morally simplistic network television has now become a formulaic ritual of “complex,” counterintuitive, heroic bad-guy characters like the murderous Walter White on “Breaking Bad” and the lovable serial killer in “Dexter.” And the constant stream of Internet gossip and brainless factoids passing themselves off as information has normalized the grossest references to sex and violence.

Back in the 1990s, growing explicitness and obscenity in popular culture gave rise to the so-called culture wars, in which the right and the left fought over the limits of free speech. Nowadays no one blames the culture for what the culture itself has become. This is, fundamentally, a positive development. Culture isn’t an autonomous condition that develops in isolation from other trends in society.

The JFK assassination, the bloody rampage of Charles Manson and his followers, the incredible violence of the Vietnam War—shocking history-in-the-making that was once hidden now became visible in American living rooms, night after night, through new technology, TV in particular. Culture raced to catch up with the straightforward transcriptions of current events.

And, of course, the tendency of the media, as old as Lord Northcliffe and the first mass-circulation newspapers, to attract business through sex and violence only accelerated. Normalized by TV and the rest of the media, the counterculture of the 1970s was smoothly assimilated into the commercial culture of the 1980s. Recall the 15-year-old Brooke Shields appearing in a commercial for Calvin Klein jeans in 1980, spreading her legs and saying, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” From then on, there was no going back.

Today, our cultural norms are driven in large part by technology, which in turn is often shaped by the lowest impulses in the culture. Behind the Internet’s success in making obscene images commonplace is the dirty little fact that it was the pornography industry that revolutionized the technology of the Internet. Streaming video, technology like Flash, sites that confirm the validity of credit cards were all innovations of the porn business. The Internet and pornography go together like, well, love and marriage. No wonder so much culture seems to aspire to porn’s depersonalization, absolute transparency and intolerance of secrets.

Read the entire article here.

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theDiagonal Facelift

Dear readers, you may have noticed a few changes to our blog recently. We are making several improvements to make it easier on the eyes and fingers. We hope you find the cosmetic surgery to your liking. We’ll complete our updates by the end of the week.

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5 Billion Infractions per Day

New reports suggest that the NSA (National Security Agency) is collecting and analyzing over 5 billion records per day from mobile phones worldwide. That’s a vast amount of data covering lots of people — presumably over 99.9999 percent innocent people.

Yet, the nation yawns and continues to soak in the latest shenanigans on Duck Dynasty. One wonders if Uncle Si and his cohorts are being tracked as well. Probably.

From the Washington Post:

The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.

The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices, according to the officials and the documents, which were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool.

The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.

One senior collection manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said “we are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.

In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them.

U.S. officials said the programs that collect and analyze location data are lawful and intended strictly to develop intelligence about foreign targets.

Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said “there is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about cellphones in the United States.”

The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.

Still, location data, especially when aggregated over time, are widely regarded among privacy advocates as uniquely sensitive. Sophisticated mathematical tech­niques enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. Cellphones broadcast their locations even when they are not being used to place a call or send a text message.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Duck Dynasty show promotional still. Courtesy of Wikipedia / A&E.

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Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse chronicled her discussions with those close to death in a thoughtful blog called Inspiration and Chai. Her observations are now an even more thoughtful book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. The regrets are simple and yet profound; no mention of wanting to “skydive naked” or “appear on a reality TV show”.

From the Guardian:

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,” she says, “common themes surfaced again and again.”

Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Read the entire article here.

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Mandela

The world has lost a person of true grace, peace and morality. We honor Nelson Mandela, who passed away on December 5, 2013. First, a prisoner for 27 years of racist apartheid, and then a  forgiving president of a healing post-apartheid nation, Mandela was a shining example — to us all — of the best qualities of humanity. May his Long Walk continue…

From the New York Times:

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an enduring icon of the struggle against racial oppression, died on Thursday, the government announced, leaving the nation without its moral center at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the country’s leaders.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address on Thursday night, adding that Mr. Mandela had died at 8:50 p.m. local time. “His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love.”

Mr Zuma called Mr. Mandela’s death “the moment of our greatest sorrow,” and said that South Africa’s thoughts were now with the former president’s family. “They have sacrificed much and endured much so that our people could be free,” he said.

Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of treason by the white minority government, only to forge a peaceful end to white rule by negotiating with his captors after his release in 1990. He led the African National Congress, long a banned liberation movement, to a resounding electoral victory in 1994, the first fully democratic election in the country’s history.

Mr. Mandela, who was 95, served just one term as South Africa’s president and had not been seen in public since 2010, when the nation hosted the soccer World Cup. But his decades in prison and his insistence on forgiveness over vengeance made him a potent symbol of the struggle to end this country’s brutally codified system of racial domination, and of the power of peaceful resolution in even the most intractable conflicts.

Years after he retreated from public life, his name still resonated as an emblem of his effort to transcend decades of racial division and create what South Africans called a Rainbow Nation.

Yet Mr. Mandela’s death comes during a period of deep unease and painful self-examination for South Africa.

In the past year and a half, the country has faced perhaps its most serious unrest since the end of apartheid, provoked by a wave of wildcat strikes by angry miners, a deadly response on the part of the police, a messy leadership struggle within the A.N.C. and the deepening fissures between South Africa’s rulers and its impoverished masses.

Scandals over corruption involving senior members of the party have fed a broader perception that Mr. Mandela’s near saintly legacy from the years of struggle has been eroded by a more recent scramble for self-enrichment among a newer elite.

After spending decades in penurious exile, many political figures returned to find themselves at the center of a grab for power and money. President Jacob Zuma was charged with corruption before rising to the presidency in 2009, though the charges were dropped on largely technical grounds. He has faced renewed scrutiny in the past year over $27 million spent in renovations to his house in rural Zululand.

Graphic cellphone videos of police officers abusing people they have detained have further fueled anger at a government seen increasingly out of touch with the lives of ordinary South Africans.

Mr. Mandela served as president from 1994 to 1999, stepping aside at the age of 75 to allow his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to run and take the reins. Mr. Mandela spent his early retirement years focused on charitable causes for children and later speaking out about AIDS, which has killed millions of Africans, including his son Makgatho, who died in 2005.

Mr. Mandela retreated from public life in 2004 at the age of 85, largely withdrawing to his homes in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Houghton and his ancestral village in the Eastern Cape, Qunu.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Nelson Mandela, 2001. Courtesy of Telegraph / Reuters / Johnathan Evans.

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Journey to the Center of Consumerism

Our collective addiction for purchasing anything, anytime may be wonderfully satisfying for a culture that collects objects and values unrestricted choice and instant gratification. However, it comes at a human cost. Not merely for those who produce our toys, clothes, electronics and furnishings in faraway, anonymous factories, but for those who get the products to our swollen mailboxes.

An intrepid journalist ventured to the very heart of the beast — an Amazon fulfillment center — to discover how the blood of internet commerce circulates; the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr worked at Amazon’s warehouse, in Swansea, UK, for a week. We excerpt her tale below.

From the Guardian:

The first item I see in Amazon’s Swansea warehouse is a package of dog nappies. The second is a massive pink plastic dildo. The warehouse is 800,000 square feet, or, in what is Amazon’s standard unit of measurement, the size of 11 football pitches (its Dunfermline warehouse, the UK’s largest, is 14 football pitches). It is a quarter of a mile from end to end. There is space, it turns out, for an awful lot of crap.

But then there are more than 100m items on its UK website: if you can possibly imagine it, Amazon sells it. And if you can’t possibly imagine it, well, Amazon sells it too. To spend 10½ hours a day picking items off the shelves is to contemplate the darkest recesses of our consumerist desires, the wilder reaches of stuff, the things that money can buy: a One Direction charm bracelet, a dog onesie, a cat scratching post designed to look like a DJ’s record deck, a banana slicer, a fake twig. I work mostly in the outsize “non-conveyable” section, the home of diabetic dog food, and bio-organic vegetarian dog food, and obese dog food; of 52in TVs, and six-packs of water shipped in from Fiji, and oversized sex toys – the 18in double dong (regular-sized sex toys are shelved in the sortables section).

On my second day, the manager tells us that we alone have picked and packed 155,000 items in the past 24 hours. Tomorrow, 2 December – the busiest online shopping day of the year – that figure will be closer to 450,000. And this is just one of eight warehouses across the country. Amazon took 3.5m orders on a single day last year. Christmas is its Vietnam – a test of its corporate mettle and the kind of challenge that would make even the most experienced distribution supply manager break down and weep. In the past two weeks, it has taken on an extra 15,000 agency staff in Britain. And it expects to double the number of warehouses in Britain in the next three years. It expects to continue the growth that has made it one of the most powerful multinationals on the planet.

Right now, in Swansea, four shifts will be working at least a 50-hour week, hand-picking and packing each item, or, as the Daily Mail put it in an article a few weeks ago, being “Amazon’s elves” in the “21st-century Santa’s grotto”.

If Santa had a track record in paying his temporary elves the minimum wage while pushing them to the limits of the EU working time directive, and sacking them if they take three sick breaks in any three-month period, this would be an apt comparison. It is probably reasonable to assume that tax avoidance is not “constitutionally” a part of the Santa business model as Brad Stone, the author of a new book on Amazon, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, tells me it is in Amazon’s case. Neither does Santa attempt to bully his competitors, as Mark Constantine, the founder of Lush cosmetics, who last week took Amazon to the high court, accuses it of doing. Santa was not called before the Commons public accounts committee and called “immoral” by MPs.

For a week, I was an Amazon elf: a temporary worker who got a job through a Swansea employment agency – though it turned out I wasn’t the only journalist who happened upon this idea. Last Monday, BBC’s Panorama aired a programme that featured secret filming from inside the same warehouse. I wonder for a moment if we have committed the ultimate media absurdity and the show’s undercover reporter, Adam Littler, has secretly filmed me while I was secretly interviewing him. He didn’t, but it’s not a coincidence that the heat is on the world’s most successful online business. Because Amazon is the future of shopping; being an Amazon “associate” in an Amazon “fulfilment centre” – take that for doublespeak, Mr Orwell – is the future of work; and Amazon’s payment of minimal tax in any jurisdiction is the future of global business. A future in which multinational corporations wield more power than governments.

But then who hasn’t absent-mindedly clicked at something in an idle moment at work, or while watching telly in your pyjamas, and, in what’s a small miracle of modern life, received a familiar brown cardboard package dropping on to your doormat a day later. Amazon is successful for a reason. It is brilliant at what it does. “It solved these huge challenges,” says Brad Stone. “It mastered the chaos of storing tens of millions of products and figuring out how to get them to people, on time, without fail, and no one else has come even close.” We didn’t just pick and pack more than 155,000 items on my first day. We picked and packed the right items and sent them to the right customers. “We didn’t miss a single order,” our section manager tells us with proper pride.

At the end of my first day, I log into my Amazon account. I’d left my mum’s house outside Cardiff at 6.45am and got in at 7.30pm and I want some Compeed blister plasters for my toes and I can’t do it before work and I can’t do it after work. My finger hovers over the “add to basket” option but, instead, I look at my Amazon history. I made my first purchase, The Rough Guide to Italy, in February 2000 and remember that I’d bought it for an article I wrote on booking a holiday on the internet. It’s so quaint reading it now. It’s from the age before broadband (I itemise my phone bill for the day and it cost me £25.10), when Google was in its infancy. It’s littered with the names of defunct websites (remember Sir Bob Geldof’s deckchair.com, anyone?). It was a frustrating task and of pretty much everything I ordered, only the book turned up on time, as requested.

But then it’s a phenomenal operation. And to work in – and I find it hard to type these words without suffering irony seizure – a “fulfilment centre” is to be a tiny cog in a massive global distribution machine. It’s an industrialised process, on a truly massive scale, made possible by new technology. The place might look like it’s been stocked at 2am by a drunk shelf-filler: a typical shelf might have a set of razor blades, a packet of condoms and a My Little Pony DVD. And yet everything is systemised, because it has to be. It’s what makes it all the more unlikely that at the heart of the operation, shuffling items from stowing to picking to packing to shipping, are those flesh-shaped, not-always-reliable, prone-to-malfunctioning things we know as people.

It’s here, where actual people rub up against the business demands of one of the most sophisticated technology companies on the planet, that things get messy. It’s a system that includes unsystemisable things like hopes and fears and plans for the future and children and lives. And in places of high unemployment and low economic opportunities, places where Amazon deliberately sites its distribution centres – it received £8.8m in grants from the Welsh government for bringing the warehouse here – despair leaks around the edges. At the interview – a form-filling, drug- and alcohol-testing, general-checking-you-can-read session at a local employment agency – we’re shown a video. The process is explained and a selection of people are interviewed. “Like you, I started as an agency worker over Christmas,” says one man in it. “But I quickly got a permanent job and then promoted and now, two years later, I’m an area manager.”

Amazon will be taking people on permanently after Christmas, we’re told, and if you work hard, you can be one of them. In the Swansea/Neath/Port Talbot area, an area still suffering the body blows of Britain’s post-industrial decline, these are powerful words, though it all starts to unravel pretty quickly. There are four agencies who have supplied staff to the warehouse, and their reps work from desks on the warehouse floor. Walking from one training session to another, I ask one of them how many permanent employees work in the warehouse but he mishears me and answers another question entirely: “Well, obviously not everyone will be taken on. Just look at the numbers. To be honest, the agencies have to say that just to get people through the door.”

It does that. It’s what the majority of people in my induction group are after. I train with Pete – not his real name – who has been unemployed for the past three years. Before that, he was a care worker. He lives at the top of the Rhondda Valley, and his partner, Susan (not her real name either), an unemployed IT repair technician, has also just started. It took them more than an hour to get to work. “We had to get the kids up at five,” he says. After a 10½-hour shift, and about another hour’s drive back, before picking up the children from his parents, they got home at 9pm. The next day, they did the same, except Susan twisted her ankle on the first shift. She phones in but she will receive a “point”. If she receives three points, she will be “released”, which is how you get sacked in modern corporatese.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Amazon distribution warehouse in Milton Keynes, UK. Courtesy of Reuters / Dylan Martinez.

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How to Burst the Filter Bubble

As the customer service systems of all online retailers and media companies become ever-more attuned to their shoppers’ and members’ preferences the power of the filter bubble grows ever-greater. And, that’s not a good thing.

The filter bubble ensures that digital consumers see more content that matches their preferences and, by extension, continues to reinforce their opinions and beliefs. Conversely, consumers see less and less content that diverges from historical behavior and calculated preferences, often called “signals”.

And, that’s not a good thing.

What of diverse opinion and diverse views? Without a plurality of views and a rich spectrum of positions creativity loses in its battle with banality and conformity. So how can digital consumers break free of the systems that deliver custom recommendations and filtered content and reduce serendipitous discovery?

From Technology Review:

The term “filter bubble” entered the public domain back in 2011when the internet activist Eli Pariser coined it to refer to the way recommendation engines shield people from certain aspects of the real world.

Pariser used the example of two people who googled the term “BP”. One received links to investment news about BP while the other received links to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, presumably as a result of some recommendation algorithm.

This is an insidious problem. Much social research shows that people prefer to receive information that they agree with instead of information that challenges their beliefs. This problem is compounded when social networks recommend content based on what users already like and on what people similar to them also like.

This the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.

And the danger is that it can polarise populations creating potentially harmful divisions in society.

Today, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona as well as Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia, both at Yahoo Labs, say they’ve hit on a way to burst the filter bubble. Their idea that although people may have opposing views on sensitive topics, they may also share interests in other areas. And they’ve built a recommendation engine that points these kinds of people towards each other based on their own preferences.

The result is that individuals are exposed to a much wider range of opinions, ideas and people than they would otherwise experience. And because this is done using their own interests, they end up being equally satisfied with the results (although not without a period of acclimitisation). “We nudge users to read content from people who may have opposite views, or high view gaps, in those issues, while still being relevant according to their preferences,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

These guys have tested this approach by focusing on the topic of abortion as discussed by people in Chile in August and September this year. Chile has some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws on the planet–it was legalised here in 1931 and then made illegal again in 1989. With presidential elections in November, a highly polarised debate was raging in the country at that time.

They found over 40,000 Twitter users who had expressed an opinion using the hashtags such as #pro-life and #pro-choice. They trimmed this group by choosing only those who gave their location as Chile and by excluding those who tweeted rarely. That left over 3000 Twitter users.

The team then computed the difference in the views of these users on this and other topics using the regularity with which they used certain other keywords. This allowed them to create a kind of wordcloud for each user that acted like a kind of data portrait.

They then recommended tweets to each person based on similarities between their word clouds and especially when they differed in their views on the topic of abortion.

The results show that people can be more open than expected to ideas that oppose their own. It turns out that users who openly speak about sensitive issues are more open to receive recommendations authored by people with opposing views, say Graells-Garrido and co.

They also say that challenging people with new ideas makes them generally more receptive to change. That has important implications for social media sites. There is good evidence that users can sometimes become so resistant to change than any form of redesign dramatically reduces the popularity of the service. Giving them a greater range of content could change that.

“We conclude that an indirect approach to connecting people with opposing views has great potential,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

It’s certainly a start. But whether it can prevent the herding behaviour in which users sometimes desert social media sites overnight, is debatable. But the overall approach is admirable. Connecting people is important when they share similar interests but arguably even more so when their views clash.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Eli Pariser, beware online “filter bubbles”. Courtesy of Eli Pariser, thefilterbubble.

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Customer Service Meets Customer Arrogance

Contrary to popular opinion espoused by retail management, service companies and business “gurus”, the customer is not always right. In fact, the customer is sometimes arrogant, ignorant and wrong.

From the Guardian:

I was a waitress at Applebee’s restaurant in Saint Louis. I was fired Wednesday for posting a picture on Reddit.com of a note a customer left on a bill. I posted it on the web as a light-hearted joke.

This didn’t even happen at my table. The note was left for another server, who allowed me to take a picture of it at the end of the night.

Someone had scribbled on the receipt, “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?”

I assumed the customer’s signature was illegible, but I quickly started receiving messages containing Facebook profile links and websites, asking me to confirm the identity of the customer. I refused to confirm any of them, and all were incorrect.

I worked with the Reddit moderators to remove any personal information. I wanted to protect the identity of both my fellow server and the customer. I had no intention of starting a witch-hunt or hurting anyone.

Now I’ve been fired.

The person who wrote the note came across an article about it, called the Applebee’s location, and demanded everyone be fired — me, the server who allowed me to take the picture, the manager on duty at the time, the manager not on duty at the time, everyone. It seems I was fired not because Applebee’s was represented poorly, not because I did anything illegal or against company policy, but because I embarrassed this person.

In light of the situation, I would like to make a statement on behalf of wait staff everywhere: We make $3.50 an hour. Most of my paychecks are less than pocket change because I have to pay taxes on the tips I make.

After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers, and bartenders, I make less than $9 an hour on average, before taxes. I am expected to skip bathroom breaks if we are busy. I go hungry all day if I have several busy tables to work. I am expected to work until 1:30am and then come in again at 10:30am to open the restaurant.

I have worked 12-hour double shifts without a chance to even sit down. I am expected to portray a canned personality that has been found to be least offensive to the greatest amount of people. And I am expected to do all of this, every day, and receive change, or even nothing, in return. After all that, I can be fired for “embarrassing” someone, who directly insults his or her server on religious grounds.

In this economy, $3.50 an hour doesn’t cut it. I can’t pay half my bills. Like many, I would love to see a reasonable, non-tip-dependent wage system for service workers like they have in other countries. But the system being flawed is not an excuse for not paying for services rendered.

I need tips to pay my bills. All waiters do. We spend an hour or more of our time befriending you, making you laugh, getting to know you, and making your dining experience the best it can be. We work hard. We care. We deserve to be paid for that.

I am trying to stand up for all of us who work for just a few dollars an hour at places like Applebee’s. Whether a chain steakhouse or a black-tie establishment, tipping is not optional. It is how we get paid.

I posted a picture to make people laugh, but now I want to make a serious point: Things like this happen to servers all the time. People seem to think that the easiest way to save money on a night out is to skip the tip.

I can’t understand why I was fired over this. I was well liked and respected at Applebee’s. My sales were high, my managers had no problems with me, and I was even hoping to move up to management soon. When I posted this, I didn’t represent Applebee’s in a bad light. In fact, I didn’t represent them at all.

I did my best to protect the identity of all parties involved. I didn’t break any specific guidelines in the company handbook – I checked. But because this person got embarrassed that their selfishness was made public, Applebee’s has made it clear that they would rather lose a dedicated employee than an angry customer. That’s a policy I can’t understand.

I am equally baffled about how a religious tithe is in any way related to paying for services at a restaurant. I can understand why someone could be upset with an automatic gratuity. However, it’s a plainly stated Applebee’s policy that a tip is added automatically for parties over eight like the one this customer was part of. I cannot control that kind of tip; it’s done by the computer that the orders are put into. I’ve been stiffed on tips before, but this is the first time I’ve seen the “Big Man” used as reasoning.

Obviously the person who wrote this note wanted it seen by someone. It’s strange that now that the audience is wider than just the server, the person is ashamed.

I have no agenda here. I seek no revenge against the note writer. I have no interest in exposing their identity, and, at this point, I’m not even sure I want my job back. I was just trying to make a joke, but I came home unemployed.

I’ve been waiting tables to save up some money so I could finally go to college, so I could get an education that would qualify me for a job that doesn’t force me to sell my personality for pocket change.

While this story has garnered immense media attention, my story is not uncommon. Bad tips and harsh notes are all part of the job. People get fired to keep customers happy every day.

As this story has gotten popular, I’ve received inquiries as to where people can send money to support me. As a broke kid trying to get into college, it’s certainly appealing, but I’d really rather you make a difference to your next server. I’d rather you keep that money and that generosity for the next time you eat out.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Customer receipt courtesy of the Guardian.

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