Seamus Haney, Come Back

Enough is enough! Our favorite wordsmiths must call a halt right now. First we lost Chris Hitchens, soon followed by Iain Banks. And now, poet extraordinaire, Seamus Heaney.

So, we mourn and celebrate with an excerpt from his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech. You can find more on Heaney’s remarkable life in words, here, at Poetry Foundation.

From the Independent:

When I first encountered the name of the city of Stockholm, I little thought that I would ever visit it, never mind end up being welcomed to it as a guest of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation.

At the time I am thinking of, such an outcome was not just beyond expectation: it was simply beyond conception. In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.

But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.

We could pick up the names of neighbours being spoken in the local accents of our parents, and in the resonant English tones of the newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”. But even so, none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something ominous in the newscaster’s tones, there was something torpid about our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it.

The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way. Then as the years went on and my listening became more deliberate, I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, such as a detective serial about a British special agent called Dick Barton or perhaps a radio adaptation of one of Capt. W.E. Johns’s adventure tales about an RAF flying ace called Biggles. Now that the other children were older and there was so much going on in the kitchen, I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm.

I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot. And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air.

*

I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible. I credit it immediately because of a line I wrote fairly recently instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to “walk on air against your better judgement”. But I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment. I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.

*

To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against. Even as a schoolboy, I loved John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation; as an adolescent, I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him; I loved Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness; and Chaucer too for much the same reasons. Later on I would find a different kind of accuracy, a moral down-to-earthness to which I responded deeply and always will, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a poetry where a New Testament sensibility suffers and absorbs the shock of the new century’s barbarism. Then later again, in the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style, in the sheer obduracy of Robert Lowell’s and in the barefaced confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s, I encountered further reasons for believing in poetry’s ability – and responsibility – to say what happens, to “pity the planet,” to be “not concerned with Poetry.”

This temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are was corroborated by the experience of having been born and brought up in Northern Ireland and of having lived with that place even though I have lived out of it for the past quarter of a century. No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration. So, partly as a result of having internalized these attitudes through growing up with them, and partly as a result of growing a skin to protect myself against them, I went for years half-avoiding and half- resisting the opulence and extensiveness of poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke; crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, all those forked lightnings and fissures of association; and missing the visionary strangeness of Eliot. And these more or less costive attitudes were fortified by a refusal to grant the poet any more license than any other citizen; and they were further induced by having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.

In such circumstances, the mind still longs to repose in what Samuel Johnson once called with superb confidence “the stability of truth”, even as it recognizes the destabilizing nature of its own operations and enquiries. Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen seventies in another small house, this time in Co. Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home-not only those by the Provisional IRA in Belfast but equally atrocious assaults in Dublin by loyalist paramilitaries from the north. Feeling puny in my predicaments as I read about the tragic logic of Osip Mandelstam’s fate in the 1930s, feeling challenged yet steadfast in my noncombatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweetnatured school friend had been interned without trial because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology. In a poem called “Exposure” I wrote then:

If I could come on meteorite!
Instead, I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, a grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once in a lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
(from North)

Read the entire article here.

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Overcoming Right-handedness

When asked about handedness Nick Moran over a TheMillions says, “everybody’s born right-handed, but the best overcome it.” Funny. And perhaps, now, based on several rings of truth.

Several meta-studies on the issue of handedness suggest that lefties may indeed have an advantage over their right-handed cousins in a specific kind of creative thinking known as divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to generate new ideas for a single principle quickly.

At last, left-handers can emerge from the shadow that once branded them as sinister degenerates and criminals. (We recommend you check the etymology of the word “sinister” for yourself.)

From the New Yorker:

Cesare Lombroso, the father of modern criminology, owes his career to a human skull. In 1871, as a young doctor at a mental asylum in Pavia, Italy, he autopsied the brain of Giuseppe Villela, a Calabrese peasant turned criminal, who has been described as an Italian Jack the Ripper. “At the sight of that skull,” Lombroso said, “I seemed to see all at once, standing out clearly illuminated as in a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal, who reproduces in civilised times characteristics, not only of primitive savages, but of still lower types as far back as the carnivora.”

Lombroso would go on to argue that the key to understanding the essence of criminality lay in organic, physical, and constitutional features—each defect being a throwback to a more primitive and bestial psyche. And while his original insight had come from a skull, certain telltale signs, he believed, could be discerned long before an autopsy. Chief among these was left-handedness.

In 1903, Lombroso summarized his views on the left-handed of the world. “What is sure,” he wrote, “is, that criminals are more often left-handed than honest men, and lunatics are more sensitively left-sided than either of the other two.” Left-handers were more than three times as common in criminal populations as they were in everyday life, he found. The prevalence among swindlers was even higher: up to thirty-three per cent were left-handed—in contrast to the four per cent Lombroso found within the normal population. He ended on a conciliatory note. “I do not dream at all of saying that all left-handed people are wicked, but that left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species.”

Though Lombroso’s science may seem suspect to a modern eye, less-than-favorable views of the left-handed have persisted. In 1977, the psychologist Theodore Blau argued that left-handed children were over-represented among the academically and behaviorally challenged, and were more vulnerable to mental diseases like schizophrenia. “Sinister children,” he called them. The psychologist Stanley Coren, throughout the eighties and nineties, presented evidence that the left-handed lived shorter, more impoverished lives, and that they were more likely to experience delays in mental and physical maturity, among other signs of “neurological insult or physical malfunctioning.” Toward the end of his career, the Harvard University neurologist Norman Geschwind implicated left-handedness in a range of problematic conditions, including migraines, diseases of the immune system, and learning disorders. He attributed the phenomenon, and the related susceptibilities, to higher levels of testosterone in utero, which, he argued, slowed down the development of the brain’s left hemisphere (the one responsible for the right side of the body).

But over the past two decades, the data that seemed compelling have largely been discredited. In 1993, the psychologist Marian Annett, who has spent half a century researching “handedness,” as it is known, challenged the basic foundation of Coren’s findings. The data, she argued, were fundamentally flawed: it wasn’t the case that left-handers led shorter lives. Rather, the older you were, the more likely it was that you had been forced to use your right hand as a young child. The mental-health data have also withered: a 2010 analysis of close to fifteen hundred individuals that included schizophrenic patients and their non-affected siblings found that being left-handed neither increased the risk of developing schizophrenia nor predicted any other cognitive or neural disadvantage. And when a group of neurologists scanned the brains of four hundred and sixty-five adults, they found no effect of handedness on either grey or white matter volume or concentration, either globally or regionally.

Left-handers may, in fact, even derive certain cognitive benefits from their preference. This spring, a group of psychiatrists from the University of Athens invited a hundred university students and graduates—half left-handed and half right—to complete two tests of cognitive ability. In the Trail Making Test, participants had to find a path through a batch of circles as quickly as possible. In the hard version of the test, the circles contain numbers and letters, and participants must move in ascending order while alternating between the two as fast as possible. In the second test, Letter-Number Sequencing, participants hear a group of numbers and letters and must then repeat the whole group, but with numbers in ascending order and letters organized alphabetically. Lefties performed better on both the complex version of the T.M.T.—demonstrating faster and more accurate spatial skills, along with strong executive control and mental flexibility—and on the L.N.S., demonstrating enhanced working memory. And the more intensely they preferred their left hand for tasks, the stronger the effect.

The Athens study points to a specific kind of cognitive benefit, since both the T.M.T. and the L.N.S. are thought to engage, to a large extent, the right hemisphere of the brain. But a growing body of research suggests another, broader benefit: a boost in a specific kind of creativity—namely, divergent thinking, or the ability to generate new ideas from a single principle quickly and effectively. In one demonstration, researchers found that the more marked the left-handed preference in a group of males, the better they were at tests of divergent thought. (The demonstration was led by the very Coren who had originally argued for the left-handers’ increased susceptibility to mental illness.) Left-handers were more adept, for instance, at combining two common objects in novel ways to form a third—for example, using a pole and a tin can to make a birdhouse. They also excelled at grouping lists of words into as many alternate categories as possible. Another recent study has demonstrated an increased cognitive flexibility among the ambidextrous and the left-handed—and lefties have been found to be over-represented among architects, musicians, and art and music students (as compared to those studying science).

Part of the explanation for this creative edge may lie in the greater connectivity of the left-handed brain. In a meta-analysis of forty-three studies, the neurologist Naomi Driesen and the cognitive neuroscientist Naftali Raz concluded that the corpus callosum—the bundle of fibers that connects the brain’s hemispheres—was slightly but significantly larger in left-handers than in right-handers. The explanation could also be a much more prosaic one: in 1989, a group of Connecticut College psychologists suggested that the creativity boost was a result of the environment, since left-handers had to constantly improvise to deal with a world designed for right-handers. In a 2013 review of research into handedness and cognition, a group of psychologists found that the main predictor of cognitive performance wasn’t whether an individual was left-handed or right-handed, but rather how strongly they preferred one hand over another. Strongly handed individuals, both right and left, were at a slight disadvantage compared to those who occupied the middle ground—both the ambidextrous and the left-handed who, through years of practice, had been forced to develop their non-dominant right hand. In those less clear-cut cases, the brain’s hemispheres interacted more and overall performance improved, indicating there may something to left-handed brains being pushed in a way that a right-handed one never is.

Whatever the ultimate explanation may be, the advantage appears to extend to other types of thinking, too. In a 1986 study of students who had scored in the top of their age group on either the math or the verbal sections of the S.A.T., the prevalence of left-handers among the high achievers—over fifteen per cent, as compared to the roughly ten percent found in the general population—was higher than in any comparison groups, which included their siblings and parents. Among those who had scored in the top in both the verbal and math sections, the percentage of left-handers jumped to nearly seventeen per cent, for males, and twenty per cent, for females. That advantage echoes an earlier sample of elementary-school children, which found increased left-handedness among children with I.Q. scores above a hundred and thirty-one.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Book cover – David Wolman’s new book, A Left Hand Turn Around the World, explores the scientific factors that lead to 10 percent of the human race being left-handed. Courtesy of NPR.

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Quantum Computation: Spooky Arithmetic

Quantum computation holds the promise of vastly superior performance over traditional digital systems based on bits that are either “on” or “off”. Yet for all the theory, quantum computation still remains very much a research enterprise in its very infancy. And, because of the peculiarities of the quantum world — think Schrödinger’s cat, both dead and alive — it’s even difficult to measure a quantum computer at work.

From Wired:

In early May, news reports gushed that a quantum computation device had for the first time outperformed classical computers, solving certain problems thousands of times faster. The media coverage sent ripples of excitement through the technology community. A full-on quantum computer, if ever built, would revolutionize large swaths of computer science, running many algorithms dramatically faster, including one that could crack most encryption protocols in use today.

Over the following weeks, however, a vigorous controversy surfaced among quantum computation researchers. Experts argued over whether the device, created by D-Wave Systems, in Burnaby, British Columbia, really offers the claimed speedups, whether it works the way the company thinks it does, and even whether it is really harnessing the counterintuitive weirdness of quantum physics, which governs the world of elementary particles such as electrons and photons.

Most researchers have no access to D-Wave’s proprietary system, so they can’t simply examine its specifications to verify the company’s claims. But even if they could look under its hood, how would they know it’s the real thing?

Verifying the processes of an ordinary computer is easy, in principle: At each step of a computation, you can examine its internal state — some series of 0s and 1s — to make sure it is carrying out the steps it claims.

A quantum computer’s internal state, however, is made of “qubits” — a mixture (or “superposition”) of 0 and 1 at the same time, like Schrödinger’s fabled quantum mechanical cat, which is simultaneously alive and dead. Writing down the internal state of a large quantum computer would require an impossibly large number of parameters. The state of a system containing 1,000 qubits, for example, could need more parameters than the estimated number of particles in the universe.

And there’s an even more fundamental obstacle: Measuring a quantum system “collapses” it into a single classical state instead of a superposition of many states. (When Schrödinger’s cat is measured, it instantly becomes alive or dead.) Likewise, examining the inner workings of a quantum computer would reveal an ordinary collection of classical bits. A quantum system, said Umesh Vazirani of the University of California, Berkeley, is like a person who has an incredibly rich inner life, but who, if you ask him “What’s up?” will just shrug and say, “Nothing much.”

“How do you ever test a quantum system?” Vazirani asked. “Do you have to take it on faith? At first glance, it seems that the obvious answer is yes.”

It turns out, however, that there is a way to probe the rich inner life of a quantum computer using only classical measurements, if the computer has two separate “entangled” components.

In the April 25 issue of the journal Nature, Vazirani, together with Ben Reichardt of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Falk Unger of Knight Capital Group Inc. in Santa Clara, showed how to establish the precise inner state of such a computer using a favorite tactic from TV police shows: Interrogate the two components in separate rooms, so to speak, and check whether their stories are consistent. If the two halves of the computer answer a particular series of questions successfully, the interrogator can not only figure out their internal state and the measurements they are doing, but also issue instructions that will force the two halves to jointly carry out any quantum computation she wishes.

“It’s a huge achievement,” said Stefano Pironio, of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

The finding will not shed light on the D-Wave computer, which is constructed along very different principles, and it may be decades before a computer along the lines of the Nature paper — or indeed any fully quantum computer — can be built. But the result is an important proof of principle, said Thomas Vidick, who recently completed his post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s a big conceptual step.”

In the short term, the new interrogation approach offers a potential security boost to quantum cryptography, which has been marketed commercially for more than a decade. In principle, quantum cryptography offers “unconditional” security, guaranteed by the laws of physics. Actual quantum devices, however, are notoriously hard to control, and over the past decade, quantum cryptographic systems have repeatedly been hacked.

The interrogation technique creates a quantum cryptography protocol that, for the first time, would transmit a secret key while simultaneously proving that the quantum devices are preventing any potential information leak. Some version of this protocol could very well be implemented within the next five to 10 years, predicted Vidick and his former adviser at MIT, the theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson.

“It’s a new level of security that solves the shortcomings of traditional quantum cryptography,” Pironio said.

Spooky Action

In 1964, the Irish physicist John Stewart Bell came up with a test to try to establish, once and for all, that the bafflingly counterintuitive principles of quantum physics are truly inherent properties of the universe — that the decades-long effort of Albert Einstein and other physicists to develop a more intuitive physics could never bear fruit.

Einstein was deeply disturbed by the randomness at the core of quantum physics — God “is not playing at dice,” he famously wrote to the physicist Max Born in 1926.

In 1935, Einstein, together with his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, described a strange consequence of this randomness, now called the EPR paradox (short for Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen). According to the laws of quantum physics, it is possible for two particles to interact briefly in such a way that their states become “entangled” as “EPR pairs.” Even if the particles then travel many light years away from each other, one particle somehow instantly seems to “know” the outcome of a measurement on the other particle: When asked the same question, it will give the same answer, even though quantum physics says that the first particle chose its answer randomly. Since the theory of special relativity forbids information from traveling faster than the speed of light, how does the second particle know the answer?
To Einstein, these “spooky actions at a distance” implied that quantum physics was an incomplete theory. “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing,” he wrote to Born. “But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.”

Over the remaining decades of his life, Einstein searched for a way that the two particles could use classical physics to come up with their answers — hidden variables that could explain the behavior of the particles without a need for randomness or spooky actions.

But in 1964, Bell realized that the EPR paradox could be used to devise an experiment that determines whether quantum physics or a local hidden-variables theory correctly explains the real world. Adapted five years later into a format called the CHSH game (after the researchers John Clauser, Michael Horne, Abner Shimony and Richard Holt), the test asks a system to prove its quantum nature by performing a feat that is impossible using only classical physics.

The CHSH game is a coordination game, in which two collaborating players — Bonnie and Clyde, say — are questioned in separate interrogation rooms. Their joint goal is to give either identical answers or different answers, depending on what questions the “detective” asks them. Neither player knows what question the detective is asking the other player.

If Bonnie and Clyde can use only classical physics, then no matter how many “hidden variables” they share, it turns out that the best they can do is decide on a story before they get separated and then stick to it, no matter what the detective asks them, a strategy that will win the game 75 percent of the time. But if Bonnie and Clyde share an EPR pair of entangled particles — picked up in a bank heist, perhaps — then they can exploit the spooky action at a distance to better coordinate their answers and win the game about 85.4 percent of the time.

Bell’s test gave experimentalists a specific way to distinguish between quantum physics and any hidden-variables theory. Over the decades that followed, physicists, most notably Alain Aspect, currently at the École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, carried out this test repeatedly, in increasingly controlled settings. Almost every time, the outcome has been consistent with the predictions of quantum physics, not with hidden variables.

Aspect’s work “painted hidden variables into a corner,” Aaronson said. The experiments had a huge role, he said, in convincing people that the counterintuitive weirdness of quantum physics is here to stay.

If Einstein had known about the Bell test, Vazirani said, “he wouldn’t have wasted 30 years of his life looking for an alternative to quantum mechanics.” He simply would have convinced someone to do the experiment.

Read the whole article here.

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Ethical Meat and Idiotic Media

Lab grown meat is now possible. But is not available on an industrial scale to satisfy the human desire for burgers, steak and ribs. While this does represent a breakthrough it’s likely to be a while before the last cow or chicken or pig is slaughtered. Of course, the mainstream media picked up this important event and immediately labeled it with captivating headlines featuring the word “frankenburger”. Perhaps a well-intentioned lab will someday come up with an intelligent form of media organization.

From the New York Times (dot earth):

I first explored livestock-free approaches to keeping meat on menus in 2008 in a pieced titled “Can People Have Meat and a Planet, Too?”

It’s been increasingly clear since then that there are both environmental and — obviously — ethical advantages to using technology to sustain omnivory on a crowding planet. This presumes humans will not all soon shift to a purely vegetarian lifestyle, even though there are signs of what you might call “peak meat” (consumption, that is) in prosperous societies (Mark Bittman wrote a nice piece on this). Given dietary trends as various cultures rise out of poverty, I would say it’s a safe bet meat will remain a favored food for decades to come.

Now non-farmed meat is back in the headlines, with a patty of in-vitro beef – widely dubbed a “frankenburger” — fried and served in London earlier today.

The beef was grown in a lab by a pioneer in this arena — Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. My colleague Henry Fountain has reported the details in a fascinating news article. Here’s an excerpt followed by my thoughts on next steps in what I see as an important area of research and development:

According to the three people who ate it, the burger was dry and a bit lacking in flavor. One taster, Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based author of a book on the future of food [link], said “the bite feels like a conventional hamburger” but that the meat tasted “like an animal-protein cake.”

But taste and texture were largely beside the point: The event, arranged by a public relations firm and broadcast live on the Web, was meant to make a case that so-called in-vitro, or cultured, meat deserves additional financing and research…..

Dr. Post, one of a handful of scientists working in the field, said there was still much research to be done and that it would probably take 10 years or more before cultured meat was commercially viable. Reducing costs is one major issue — he estimated that if production could be scaled up, cultured beef made as this one burger was made would cost more than $30 a pound.

The two-year project to make the one burger, plus extra tissue for testing, cost $325,000. On Monday it was revealed that Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, paid for the project. Dr. Post said Mr. Brin got involved because “he basically shares the same concerns about the sustainability of meat production and animal welfare.”
The enormous potential environmental benefits of shifting meat production, where feasible, from farms to factories were estimated in “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production,”a 2011 study in Environmental Science and Technology.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Professor Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. Courtesy of Reuters/David Parry / The Atlantic.

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Marina Abramovic is Not a Vampire

Pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic admits to not being a vampire, when asked about her eternally youthful looks. Self-described as the “grandmother of performance art” she is constantly examining the relationship between artist and audience, body and mind. And, while the artist may not be a vampire, the Artist is Present.

From the Guardian:

Marina Abramovic abolishes all boundaries between art and life. In the 1970s she pioneered “performance art”, but the reason I have put that well-worn term into inverted commas is that it is too narrow a description of her, even if it’s one she chooses. The exciting thing about Abramovic is that she makes art into life and life into art. This was made very apparent when she went on Reddit this week to converse with her fans in an “Ask me anything” session.

Her love life, her money life, her age (and whether she comes from a long line of vampires from Montenegro) – the questions covered all these, and Abramovic gave disarming answers.

In the 1970s she collaborated with the artist Ulay who was also her lover. Their personal and working relationship ended with a performance on the Great Wall of China that culminated in a last hug. So one Reddit question was: how did that last hug feel? Here is her answer:

“One of the most painful moments of my life. I knew this is over, I knew it was the end of a very important period of my life. I just remember I could not stop crying.”

It’s an answer that says more about Abramovic than a pile of textbooks on contemporary art might express. This is what she does. She makes art that is directly emotional, in which her entire being is at risk: her work with Ulay was a massive part of her career, so when their relationship ended they risked shattering their artistic legacy as well as their lives. She tells another questioner why artists should never fall in love with artists: “I have done this three times, and each time I had the heart broke …”

And another still on why she doesn’t have children:

“I never wanted to … I never had the biological clock running like other women. I always wanted to be an artist and I knew that I could not divide this energy into anything else. Looking back, I think it was the right decision.”

This is more like an audience with a famous soap opera star (or character?) than a conventional art seminar. Abramovic is asked how she appears never to have aged (she was born in 1946) – is she a vampire? She replies that her grandmother and great-grandmother both lived to more than 100 and kept their youthful looks.

Like a crazy soap opera, this has an impossibly dramatic climax. Abramovic is asked what it felt like when Ulay came to her 2010 performance The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: “Entire life of our 12 years together went like a fast forward film …”

You can see this moment on video. In her MoMA performance, Abramovic simply sat there for 700 hours and people were invited to sit opposite her, looking into her eyes. Most of them ended up crying. But she was caught in a drama of her own on the day Ulay arrived and sat with her. It’s an amazing thing to see – a soap opera of MoMA’s own.

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Human History

How does one condense four thousand years of human history into a single view? Well, John Sparks did just that with his histomap in 1931.

From Slate:

This “Histomap,” created by John B. Sparks, was first printed by Rand McNally in 1931. (The David Rumsey Map Collection hosts a fully zoomable version here.) (Update: Click on the image below to arrive at a bigger version.)

This giant, ambitious chart fit neatly with a trend in nonfiction book publishing of the 1920s and 1930s: the “outline,” in which large subjects (the history of the world! every school of philosophy! all of modern physics!) were distilled into a form comprehensible to the most uneducated layman.

The 5-foot-long Histomap was sold for $1 and folded into a green cover, which featured endorsements from historians and reviewers. The chart was advertised as “clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration,” while at the same time capable of “holding you enthralled” by presenting:

the actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America.

The chart emphasizes domination, using color to show how the power of various “peoples” (a quasi-racial understanding of the nature of human groups, quite popular at the time) evolved throughout history.

It’s unclear what the width of the colored streams is meant to indicate. In other words, if the Y axis of the chart clearly represents time, what does the X axis represent? Did Sparks see history as a zero-sum game, in which peoples and nations would vie for shares of finite resources? Given the timing of his enterprise—he made this chart between two world wars and at the beginning of a major depression—this might well have been his thinking.

Sparks followed up on the success of this Histomap by publishing at least two more: the Histomap of religion (which I’ve been unable to find online) and the Histomap of evolution.

Read the entire article a check out the zoomable histomap here.

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The $13,000 College Essay

From the Wall Street Journal:

This spring, with little fanfare, the folks behind the Common Application—the main application form for almost 500 of the nation’s top colleges and universities—announced a big change: the personal statement, the form’s core essay, has been extended from 500 to 650 words long.

I thought: That’ll be $13,000.

Several years ago, on a high floor in a midtown Manhattan office, a father offered me $10,000 to write his son’s personal statement. Apparently he had misunderstood what was meant by “independent college applications adviser.” The publishing industry may be in a tailspin, but in some places, writers can still earn $20 a word. Thanks to the Common Application’s changes (and not including inflation), that’s $13,000 a kid.

Though I had other “day jobs,” for 15 years I worked discreetly as a college-applications adviser in cities from Los Angeles to London. I never wrote a student’s essay, but I was practicing a dark art: such tutoring privileges the elite whose parents can afford it and profits from a miserable process.

The grim statistics of the college admissions race (last year Harvard reported a 5.79% acceptance rate), fueled by an obsession with trophy schools, have warped what might be a powerful threshold for adolescents. At the very moment when teenagers are invited to offer what they’ve learned and who they’ve become, their voices are hijacked by well-meaning adults who think kids can’t possibly be allowed to risk answering these questions on their own.

High-school college counselors tend to nudge kids away from sentiment. Not a bad intention, but an adolescent barred from her feelings is an adolescent paralyzed. Consider the young woman I worked with, who wrote draft after deadening draft about environmental degradation. She didn’t really care about trees, and she had a B in biology. She was an otherwise happy cheerleader who liked history and whose mother had been diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. Her drafts revealed her feeling that her world was ending, but there was nothing she could do to stop it.

So why not just write the truth?

“No sick relatives,” said her college counselor. “Too manipulative, too obvious.”

We set that aside and started again. She began: “My college counselor told me not to write about my mother’s cancer, but if you want to know anything about me, you have to know what I’m dealing with every day of my life.”

She wrote about her mother’s illness after all, and was accepted most everywhere.

More damned are the students who have been coached to hide their privilege with a wash of community service. It was difficult to find sympathy for the girl whose “most significant activity” was quarterly visits to a local nursing home with her a golden retriever.

What might this 17-year-old have written about? I don’t know. She never revealed what mattered to her, beyond fashion or status. I suspect there might have been a terrific essay about appearances and the cost to individuality of constant evaluation, but I was a tutor, not a therapist.

The strong student was shocked to be accepted nowhere but a distant backup.

A hedge-fund manager rewrote his son’s application. The boy had been rejected early decision by the father’s alma mater. In his revision, the father posited that a community benefits from a range of individuals, the stars and the average people alike; and argued, in the first person, for the boy’s admission by virtue of his mediocrity.

Getting rejected didn’t break this boy’s heart. His father did.

In my years handling applications to elite schools, from Harvard to Haverford, Davidson to Dickinson and everything in between, I was often surprised by where students did gain acceptance. But in every case it was a student who wrote a fabulously independent essay. Not necessarily hyper-sophisticated. But true.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google search.

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A Smarter Smart Grid

If you live somewhere rather toasty you know how painful your electricity bills can be during the summer months. So, wouldn’t it be good to have a system automatically find you the cheapest electricity when you need it most? Welcome to the artificially intelligent smarter smart grid.

From the New Scientist:

An era is coming in which artificially intelligent systems can manage your energy consumption to save you money and make the electricity grid even smarter

IF YOU’RE tired of keeping track of how much you’re paying for energy, try letting artificial intelligence do it for you. Several start-up companies aim to help people cut costs, flex their muscles as consumers to promote green energy, and usher in a more efficient energy grid – all by unleashing smart software on everyday electricity usage.

Several states in the US have deregulated energy markets, in which customers can choose between several energy providers competing for their business. But the different tariff plans, limited-time promotional rates and other products on offer can be confusing to the average consumer.

A new company called Lumator aims to cut through the morass and save consumers money in the process. Their software system, designed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, asks new customers to enter their energy preferences – how they want their energy generated, and the prices they are willing to pay. The software also gathers any available metering measurements, in addition to data on how the customer responds to emails about opportunities to switch energy provider.

A machine-learning system digests that information and scans the market for the most suitable electricity supply deal. As it becomes familiar with the customer’s habits it is programmed to automatically switch energy plans as the best deals become available, without interrupting supply.

“This ensures that customers aren’t taken advantage of by low introductory prices that drift upward over time, expecting customer inertia to prevent them from switching again as needed,” says Lumator’s founder and CEO Prashant Reddy.

The goal is not only to save customers time and money – Lumator claims it can save people between $10 and $30 a month on their bills – but also to help introduce more renewable energy into the grid. Reddy says power companies have little idea whether or not their consumers want to get their energy from renewables. But by keeping customer preferences on file and automatically switching to a new service when those preferences are met, Reddy hopes renewable energy suppliers will see the demand more clearly.

A firm called Nest, based in Palo Alto, California, has another way to save people money. It makes Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats that integrate machine learning to understand users’ habits. Energy companies in southern California and Texas offer deals to customers if they allow Nest to make small adjustments to their thermostats when the supplier needs to reduce customer demand.

“The utility company gives us a call and says they’re going to need help tomorrow as they’re expecting a heavy load,” says Matt Rogers, one of Nest’s founders. “We provide about 5 megawatts of load shift, but each home has a personalised demand response. The entire programme is based on data collected by Nest.”

Rogers says that about 5000 Nest users have opted-in to such load-balancing programmes.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Treehugger.

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Growing Pains

The majority of us can identify with the awkward and self-conscious years of adolescence. And, interestingly enough many of us emerge to the other side.

From Telegraph:

Photographer Merilee Allred tries to show us that teenage insecurities don’t have to hold us back as an adult in her project ‘Awkward Years’. Bullied as a child, the 35-year-old embarked on the project after a friend didn’t believe Merilee was a self-described ‘queen of the nerds’ as a child. She asked people to pose with unflattering pictures of themselves when they were young to highlight how things can turn out alright.

Check out more pictures from the awkward years here.

Image: Project photographer Merilee Allred. Then: 11 years old, 5th grade, in Billings, Montana. Now: 35 years old, UX Designer residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. Courtesy of Merilee Allred / Telegraph.

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En Vie: Bio-Fabrication Expo

En Vie, french for “alive” is an exposition like no other. It’s a fantastical place defined through a rich collaboration of material scientists, biologists, architects, designers and engineers. The premise of En Vie is quite elegant — put these disparate minds together and ask them to imagine what the future will look like. And, it’s a quite magical world; a world where biological fabrication replaces traditional mechanical and chemical fabrication. Here shoes grow from plants, furniture from fungi and bees construct vases. The En Vie exhibit is open at the Space Foundation EDF in Paris, France until September 1.

From ars technica:

The natural world has, over millions of years, evolved countless ways to ensure its survival. The industrial revolution, in contrast, has given us just a couple hundred years to play catch-up using technology. And while we’ve been busily degrading the Earth since that revolution, nature continues to outdo us in the engineering of materials that are stronger, tougher, and multipurpose.

Take steel for example. According to the World Steel Association, for every ton produced, 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. In total in 2010, the iron and steel industries, combined, were responsible for 6.7 percent of total global CO2 emissions. Then there’s the humble spider, which produces silk that is—weight for weight—stronger than steel. Webs spun by Darwin’s bark spider in Madagascar, meanwhile, are 10 times tougher than steel and more durable than Kevlar, the synthetic fiber used in bulletproof vests. Material scientists savvy to this have ensured biomimicry is now high on the agenda at research institutions, and an exhibit currently on at the Space Foundation EDF in Paris is doing its best to popularize the notion that we should not just be salvaging the natural world but also learning from it.

En Vie (Alive), curated by Reader and Deputy Director of the Textile Futures Research Center at Central Saint Martins College Carole Collet, is an exposition for what happens when material scientists, architects, biologists, and engineers come together with designers to ask what the future will look like. According to them, it will be a world where plants grow our products, biological fabrication replaces traditional manufacturing, and genetically reprogrammed bacteria build new materials, energy, or even medicine.

It’s a fantastical place where plants are magnetic, a vase is built by 60,000 bees, furniture is made from funghi, and shoes from cellulose. You can print algae onto rice paper, then eat it or encourage gourds to grow in the shape of plastic components found in things like torches or radios (you’ll have to wait a few months for the finished product, though). These are not fanciful designs but real products, grown or fashioned with nature’s direct help.

In other parts of the exhibit, biology is the inspiration and shows what might be. Eskin, for instance, provides visitors with a simulation of how a building’s exterior could mimic and learn from the human body in keeping it warm and cool.

Alive shows that, speculative or otherwise, design has a real role to play in bringing different research fields together, which will be essential if there’s any hope of propelling the field into mass commercialization.

“More than any other point in history, advances in science and engineering are making it feasible to mimic natural processes in the laboratory, which makes it a very exciting time,” Craig Vierra, Professor and Assistant Chair, Biological Sciences at University of the Pacific, tells Wired.co.uk. In his California lab, Vierra has for the past few years been growing spider silk proteins from bacteria in order to engineer fibers that are close, if not quite ready, to give steel a run for its money. The technique involves purifying the spider silk proteins away from the bacteria proteins before concentrating these using a freeze-dryer in order to render them into powder form. A solvent is then added, and the material is spun into fiber using wet spinning techniques and stretched to three times its original length.

“Although the mechanical properties of the synthetic spider fibers haven’t quite reached those of natural fibers, research scientists are rapidly approaching this level of performance. Our laboratory has been working on improving the composition of the spinning dope and spinning parameters of the fibers to enhance their performance.”

Vierra is a firm believer that nature will save us.

“Mother Nature has provided us with some of the most outstanding biomaterials that can be used for a plethora of applications in the textile industry. In addition to these, modern technological advances will also allow us to create new biocomposite materials that rely on the fundamentals of natural processes, elevating the numbers and types of materials that are available. But, more importantly, we can generate eco-friendly materials.

“As the population size increases, the availability of natural resources will become more scarce and limiting for humans. It will force society to develop new methods and strategies to produce larger quantities of materials at a faster pace to meet the demands of the world. We simply must find more cost-efficient methods to manufacture materials that are non-toxic for the environment. Many of the materials being synthesized today are very dangerous after they degrade and enter the environment, which is severely impacting the wildlife and disrupting the ecology of the animals on the planet.”

According to Vierra, the fact that funding in the field has become extremely competitive over the past ten years is proof of the quality of research today. “The majority of scientists are expected to justify how their research has a direct, immediate tie to applications in society in order to receive funding.”

We really have no alternative but to continue down this route, he argues. Without advances in material science, we will continue to produce “inferior materials” and damage the environment. “Ultimately, this will affect the way humans live and operate in society.”

We’re agreed that the field is a vital and rapidly growing one. But what value, if any, can a design-led project bring to the table, aside from highlighting the related issues. Vierra has assessed a handful of the incredible designs on display at Alive for us to see which he thinks could become a future biomanufacturing reality.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Radiant Soil, En Vie Exposition. Courtesy of Philip Beesley, En Vie / Wired.

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Only Three Feet

Three feet. Three feet is nothing you say. Three feet is less than the difference between the shallow and deep ends of most swimming pools. Well, when the three feet is the mean ocean level rise it becomes a little more significant. And, when that three feet is the rise predicted to happen within the next 87 years, by 2100, it’s, well, how do you say, catastrophic.

A rise like that and you can kiss goodbye to your retirement home in Miami, and for that matter, kiss goodbye to much of southern Florida, and many coastal communities around the world.

From the New York Times:

An international team of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change contrarians, as probably related to short-term factors. The report emphasizes that the basic facts giving rise to global alarm about future climate change are more established than ever, and it reiterates that the consequences of runaway emissions are likely to be profound.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the draft report says. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level, and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

The “extremely likely” language is stronger than in the last major United Nations report, published in 2007, and it means the authors of the draft document are now 95 percent to 100 percent confident that human activity is the primary influence on planetary warming. In the 2007 report, they said they were 90 percent to 100 percent certain on that issue.

On another closely watched issue, however, the authors retreated slightly from their 2007 position.

On the question of how much the planet could warm if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere doubled, the previous report had largely ruled out any number below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The new draft says the rise could be as low as 2.7 degrees, essentially restoring a scientific consensus that prevailed from 1979 to 2007.

Most scientists see only an outside chance that the warming will be as low as either of those numbers, with the published evidence suggesting that an increase above 5 degrees Fahrenheit is likely if carbon dioxide doubles.

The new document is not final and will not become so until an intensive, closed-door negotiating session among scientists and government leaders in Stockholm in late September. But if the past is any guide, most of the core findings of the document will survive that final review.

The document was leaked over the weekend after it was sent to a large group of people who had signed up to review it. It was first reported on in detail by the Reuters news agency, and The New York Times obtained a copy independently to verify its contents.

It was prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a large, international group of scientists appointed by the United Nations. The group does no original research, but instead periodically assesses and summarizes the published scientific literature on climate change.

“The text is likely to change in response to comments from governments received in recent weeks and will also be considered by governments and scientists at a four-day approval session at the end of September,” the panel’s spokesman, Jonathan Lynn, said in a statement Monday. “It is therefore premature and could be misleading to attempt to draw conclusions from it.”

The intergovernmental panel won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007 for seeking to educate the world’s citizens about the risks of global warming. But it has also become a political target for climate contrarians, who helped identify several minor errors in the last big report from 2007. This time, the group adopted rigorous procedures in hopes of preventing such mistakes.

On sea level, one of the biggest single worries about climate change, the new report goes well beyond the one from 2007, which largely sidestepped the question of how much the ocean could rise this century.

The new report lays out several scenarios. In the most optimistic, the world’s governments would prove far more successful at getting emissions under control than they have been in the recent past, helping to limit the total warming.

In that circumstance, sea level could be expected to rise as little as 10 inches by the end of the century, the report found. That is a bit more than the eight-inch rise in the 20th century, which proved manageable even though it caused severe erosion along the world’s shorelines.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

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Nineteenth Century Celebrity

You could be forgiven for believing that celebrity is a peculiar and pervasive symptom of our contemporary culture. After all in our multi-channel, always on pop-culture, 24×7 event-driven, media-obsessed maelstrom celebrities come, and go, in the blink of an eye. This is the age of celebrity.

Well, the U.S. had its own national and international celebrity almost two hundred years ago, and he wasn’t an auto-tuned pop star or a viral internet sensation with a cute cat. His name — Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette, a French nobleman and officer, and a major general in the Continental Army.

From Slate:

The Marquis de Lafayette, French nobleman and officer, was a major general in the Continental Army by the age of nineteen. When he returned for a comprehensive tour of the United States in 1824-1825, Lafayette was 67, and was the last man still living who had served at his rank in the Continental Army.

Americans loved the aging soldier for his role in the Revolutionary War, and for his help after the war in smoothing diplomatic relations between the United States and France. Moreover, he was a living connection to his friend and mentor George Washington. The combination made him a celebrity who enjoyed a frenzied reception as he made his way through all 24 states.

Women, especially, poured forth affection for the Marquis. In one beautifully lettered address, the “Young Ladies of the Lexington Female Academy” (Kentucky) showered their visitor with assurances that he was remembered by the new generation of Americans: “Even the youngest, gallant Warrior, know you; even the youngest have been taught to lisp your name.”

Lafayette’s visit inspired the production of souvenir merchandise embroidered, painted, or printed with his face and name. This napkin and glove are two examples of such products.

In his book Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, William L. Bird, Jr. reports that Lafayette was uncomfortable when he encountered ladies wearing these gloves—particularly because a gentleman was expected to kiss a lady’s hand upon first meeting. Bird writes:

When offered a gloved hand at a ball in Philadelphia, Lafayette “murmur[ed] a few graceful words to the effect that he did not care to kiss himself, he [then] made a very low bow, and the lady passed on.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: La Fayette as a Lieutenant General, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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MondayMap: Circles Around London

London’s beautiful tube (metropolitan subway) map has been re-imagined by Max Roberts, psychologist and map designer. His map adds a circular spin to the iconic tube map, which was created by Harry Beck in 1931.

See Beck’s original map here, and check out larger versions of Robert’s circular map here.

Images courtesy of Transport For London, and Max Roberts.

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Name a Planet

So, you’d like to name a planet, perhaps after your grandmother or a current girlfriend or boyfriend. Here’s how below. But, forget trying to name a celestial object after your pet. So, “Mr.Tiddles”, “Snowy” and “Rex” are out.

From the Independent:

The international institute responsible for naming planets, stars and other celestial bodies has announced that the public will now be able to submit their own suggestions on what to call new discoveries in space.

Founded in 1919, the Paris-based International Astronomical Union (IAU) has more than 11,000 members in more than 90 countries, making it the de facto authority in the field.

Without any official laws enforcing the use of planetary names, the decisions on what to call new discoveries are usually a matter of consensus.

The changes announced by IAU hope to make public’s involvement more streamlined, asking that submissions are “sent to iaupublic@iap.fr” and promising that they will be “handled on a case-by-case basis”.

“The IAU fully supports the involvement of the general public, whether directly or through an independent organised vote, in the naming of planetary satellites, newly discovered planets, and their host stars,” says the statement.

The following guidelines have been offered for submission by would-be planet-namers:

? 16 characters or less in length,

? preferably one word,

? pronounceable (in as many languages as possible),

? non-offensive in any language or culture,

? not too similar to an existing name of an astronomical object.

? names of pet animals are discouraged,

? names of a purely or principally commercial nature are not allowed.

Despite this nod towards a democratic process, the IAU recently vetoed naming a newly discovered moon orbiting Pluto after Vulcan, the home-planet of Spock from the Star Trek franchise.

William Shatner, the actor who played Captain James Kirk in the show, launched a campaign via Twitter after the Seti institute discovered the new moons and created an online poll to name them.

Submitted names had to be picked from classical mythology and have an association with the underworld.‘Vulcan’ easily won the contest with 174,062 votes, followed by ‘Cerberus’ with 99,432 votes, and ‘Styx’ with 87,858 votes.

However, the IAU chose ‘Kerberus’ and ‘Styx’ as the names for the new moons, rejecting Vulcan as it “had already been used for a hypothetical planet between Mercury and the Sun.”

This planet was later found not to exist, but the term ‘vulcanoid’ is still used to refer to asteroids within the orbit of Mercury. Shatner responded to the IAU’s decision by tweeting, “They didn’t name the moon Vulcan. I’m sad. Who’d ever thought I’d be betrayed by geeks and nerds?”

 

Read the entire article here.

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Big Data and Your Career

If you’re a professional or like networking, but shun Facebook, then chances are good that you hang-out on LinkedIn. And, as you do, the company is trawling through your personal data and that of hundreds of millions of other members to turn human resources and career planning into a science — all with the help of big data.

From the Washington Post:

Every second, more than two people join LinkedIn’s network of 238 million members.

They are head hunters in search of talent. They are the talent in search of a job. And sometimes, the career site for the professional class is just a hangout for the well-connected worker.

LinkedIn, using complex, carefully concocted algorithms, analyzes their profiles and site behavior to steer them to opportunity. And corporations parse that data to set business strategy. As the network grows moment by moment, LinkedIn’s rich trove of information also grows more detailed and more comprehensive.

It’s big data meeting human resources. And that data, core to LinkedIn’s potential, could catapult the company beyond building careers and into the realms of education, urban development and economic policy.

Chief executive Jeff Weiner put it this way in a recent blog post: “Our ultimate dream is to develop the world’s first economic graph,” a sort of digital map of skills, workers and jobs across the global economy.

Ambitions, in other words, that are a far cry from the industry’s early stabs at modernizing the old-fashioned jobs board (think ­Monster.com and CareerBuilder).

So far, LinkedIn’s data-driven strategy appears to be working: It turned its highest-ever profit in the second quarter, $364 million, and its stock price has grown sixfold since its 2011 initial public offering. Because its workforce has doubled in a year, it’s fast outgrowing its Mountain View headquarters, just down the street from Google. In 2014, it’ll move into Yahoo’s neighborhood with a new campus in Sunnyvale.

The company makes money three ways: members who pay for premium access; ad sales; and its gold mine, a suite of products created by its talent solutions division and sold to corporate clients, which accounted for $205 million in revenue last quarter.

When LinkedIn staffers talk about their network and products, they often refer to an “ecosystem.” It’s an apt metaphor, because the value of their offerings would seem to rely heavily on equilibrium.

LinkedIn’s usefulness to recruiters is deeply contingent on the quality and depth of its membership base. And its usefulness to members depends on the quality of their experience on the site. LinkedIn’s success, then, depends largely on its ability to do more than just amass new members. The company must get its users to maintain comprehensive, up-to-date profiles, and it must give them a reason to visit the site frequently.

To engage members, the company has deployed new strategies on all fronts: a redesigned site; stuff to read from the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Welch and Richard Branson; new mobile applications; status updates; targeted aggregated news stories and more.

By throwing more and more at users, of course, LinkedIn risks undermining the very thing that’s made it the go-to site for recruiters: a mass of high-quality candidates, sorted and evaluated and offered up.

“I think there’s a chance of people getting tired of it and checking out of it,” said Chris Collins, director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Telegraph / LinkedIn.

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Digital Romance is Alive (and Texting)

The last fifty years has seen a tremendous shift in our personal communications. We have moved from voice conversations via rotary phones molded in bakelite to anytime, anywhere texting via smartphones and public-private multimedia exposes held via social media. During all of this upheaval the process of romance may have changed too, but it remains alive and well, albeit rather different.

From Technology Review:

Boy meets girl; they grow up and fall in love. But technology interferes and threatens to destroy their blissful coupledom. The destructive potential of communication technologies is at the heart of Stephanie Jones’s self-published romance novel Dreams and Misunderstandings. Two childhood sweethearts, Rick and Jessie, use text messages, phone calls, and e-mail to manage the distance between them as Jessie attends college on the East Coast of the United States and Rick moves between Great Britain and the American West. Shortly before a summer reunion, their technological ties fail when Jessie is hospitalized after a traumatic attack. During her recovery, she loses access to her mobile phone, computer, and e-mail account. As a result, the lovers do not reunite and spend years apart, both thinking they have been deserted.

Jones blames digital innovations for the misunderstandings that prevent Rick and Jessie’s reunion. It’s no surprise this theme runs through a romance novel: it reflects a wider cultural fear that these technologies impede rather than strengthen human connection. One of the Internet’s earliest boosters, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, makes similar claims in her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less from Each Other. She argues that despite their potential, communication technologies are threatening human relationships, especially intimate ones, because they offer “substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face.”

If the technology is not fraying or undermining existing relationships, stories abound of how it is creating false or destructive ones among young people who send each other sexually explicit cell-phone photos or “catfish,” luring the credulous into online relationships with fabricated personalities. In her recent book about hookup culture, The End of Sex, Donna Freitas indicts mobile technologies for the ease with which they allow the hookup to happen.

It is true that communication technologies have been reshaping love, romance, and sex throughout the 2000s. The Internet, sociologists Michael ­Rosenfeld and Reuben Thomas have found, is now the third most common way to find a partner, after meeting through friends or in bars, restaurants, and other public places. Twenty-two percent of heterosexual couples now meet online. In many ways, the Internet has replaced families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, civic groups, and workplaces as a venue for finding romance. It has become especially important for those who have a “thin market” of potential romantic partners—middle-aged straight people, gays and lesbians of all ages, the elderly, and the geographically isolated. But even for those who are not isolated from current or potential partners, cell phones, social-network sites, and similar forms of communication now often play a central role in the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of intimate relationships.

While these developments are significant, fears about what they mean do not accurately reflect the complexity of how the technology is really used. This is not surprising: concerns about technology as a threat to the social order, particularly in matters of sexuality and intimacy, go back much further than Internet dating and cell phones. From the boxcar (critics worried that it could transport those of loose moral character from town to town) to the automobile (which gave young people a private space for sexual activity) to reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization, technological innovations that affect intimate life have always prompted angst. Often, these fears have resulted in what sociologists call a “moral panic”—an episode of exaggerated public anxiety over a perceived threat to social order.

Moral panic is an appropriate description for the fears expressed by Jones, Turkle, and Freitas about the role of technology in romantic relationships. Rather than driving people apart, technology-­mediated communication is likely to have a “hyperpersonal effect,” communications professor Joseph Walther has found. That is, it allows people to be more intimate with one another—sometimes more intimate than would be sustainable face to face. “John,” a college freshman in Chicago whom I interviewed for research that I published in a 2009 book, Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, highlights this paradox. He asks, “What happens after you’ve had a great online flirtatious chat … and then the conversation sucks in person?”

In the initial getting-to-know-you phase of a relationship, the asynchronous nature of written communication—texts, e-mails, and messages or comments on dating or social-network sites, as opposed to phone calls or video chatting—allows people to interact more continuously and to save face in potentially vulnerable situations. As people flirt and get to know each other this way, they can plan, edit, and reflect upon flirtatious messages before sending them. As John says of this type of communication, “I can think about things more. You can deliberate and answer however you want.”

As couples move into committed relationships, they use these communication technologies to maintain a digital togetherness regardless of their physical distance. With technologies like mobile phones and social-network sites, couples need never be truly apart. Often, this strengthens intimate relationships: in a study on couples’ use of technology in romantic relationships, Borae Jin and Jorge Peña found that couples who are in greater cell-phone contact exhibit less uncertainty about their relationships and higher levels of commitment. This type of communication becomes a form of “relationship work” in which couples trade digital objects of affection such as text messages or comments on online photos. As “Champ,” a 19-year-old in New York, told one of my collaborators on Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out about his relationship with his girlfriend, “You send a little text message—‘Oh I’m thinking of you,’ or something like that—while she’s working … Three times out of the day, you probably send little comments.”

To be sure, some of today’s fears are based on the perfectly accurate observation that communication technologies don’t always lend themselves to constructive relationship work. The public nature of Facebook posts, for example, appears to promote jealousy and decrease intimacy. When the anthropologist Ilana Gershon interviewed college students about their romantic lives, several told her that Facebook threatens their relationships. As one of her interviewees, “Cole,” said: “There is so much drama. It’s adding another stress.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google search.

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Heavenly Light or Neuronal Hallucination

Many who have survived near-death experiences recount approaching a distant light as if closing in on the exit from a dark tunnel. Is it a heavenly light beckoning us towards the eternal afterlife in paradise? Perhaps, there is a simpler, scientific explanation.

From the Washington Post:

It’s called a near-death experience, but the emphasis is on “near.” The heart stops, you feel yourself float up and out of your body. You glide toward the entrance of a tunnel, and a searing bright light envelops your field of vision.

It could be the afterlife, as many people who have come close to dying have asserted. But a new study says it might well be a show created by the brain, which is still very much alive. When the heart stops, neurons in the brain appeared to communicate at an even higher level than normal, perhaps setting off the last picture show, packed with special effects.

“A lot of people believed that what they saw was heaven,” said lead researcher and neurologist Jimo Borjigin. “Science hadn’t given them a convincing alternative.”

Scientists from the University of Michigan recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) signals in nine anesthetized rats after inducing cardiac arrest. Within the first 30 seconds after the heart had stopped, all the mammals displayed a surge of highly synchronized brain activity that had features associated with consciousness and visual activation. The burst of electrical patterns even exceeded levels seen during a normal, awake state.

In other words, they may have been having the rodent version of a near-death experience.

“On a fundamental level, this study makes us think about the neurobiology of the dying brain,” said senior author and anesthesiologist George A. Mashour. It was published Monday online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Near-death experiences have been reported by many who have faced death, worldwide and across cultures. About 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report visions or perceptions during clinical death, with features such as a bright light, life playback or an out-of-body feeling.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of people reporting these experiences,” Borjigin said. “If that experience comes from the brain, there has to be a fingerprint of that.”

An unanswered question from a previous experiment set her down the path of exploring the phenomenon. In 2007, Borjigin had been monitoring neurotransmitter secretion in rats when, in the middle of the night, two of her animals unexpectedly died. Upon reviewing the overnight data, she saw several unknown peaks near the time of death.

This got her thinking: What kinds of changes does the brain go through at the moment of death?

Then last year, Borjigin turned to Mashour, a colleague with expertise in EEG and consciousness, for help conducting the first experiment to systematically investigate the brain after cardiac arrest. EEG uses electrodes to measure voltage fluctuations in the brain caused by many neurons firing at once. A normal, awake brain should show spikes depending on what types of processing are going on; in a completely dead brain, it flat-lines.

When the heart suddenly stops, blood flow to the brain stops and causes death in a human within minutes. A likely assumption would be that, without a fresh supply of oxygen, any sort of brain activity would go flat. But after the rats went into cardiac arrest, Mashour and his colleagues observed the opposite happening.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Discovery.

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CSA

No, it’s not another network cop show. CSA began life as community supported agriculture — neighbors buying fresh produce from collectives of local growers and farmers. Now, CSA has grown itself to include art — community supported art — exposing neighbors to local color and creativity.

From the New York Times:

For years, Barbara Johnstone, a professor of linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University here, bought shares in a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program — and picked up her occasional bags of tubers or tomatoes or whatever the member farms were harvesting.

Her farm shares eventually lapsed. (“Too much kale,” she said.) But on a recent summer evening, she showed up at a C.S.A. pickup location downtown and walked out carrying a brown paper bag filled with a completely different kind of produce. It was no good for eating, but it was just as homegrown and sustainable as what she used to get: contemporary art, fresh out of local studios.

“It’s kind of like Christmas in the middle of July,” said Ms. Johnstone, who had just gone through her bag to see what her $350 share had bought. The answer was a Surrealistic aluminum sculpture (of a pig’s jawbone, by William Kofmehl III), a print (a deadpan image appropriated from a lawn-care book, by Kim Beck) and a ceramic piece (partly about slavery, by Alexi Morrissey).

Without even having to change the abbreviation, the C.S.A. idea has fully made the leap from agriculture to art. After the first program started four years ago in Minnesota, demonstrating that the concept worked just as well for art lovers as for locavores, community-supported art programs are popping up all over the country: in Pittsburgh, now in its first year; Miami; Brooklyn; Lincoln, Neb.; Fargo, N.D.

The goal, borrowed from the world of small farms, is a deeper-than-commerce connection between people who make things and people who buy them. The art programs are designed to be self-supporting: Money from shares is used to pay the artists, who are usually chosen by a jury, to produce a small work in an edition of 50 or however many shares have been sold. The shareholders are often taking a leap of faith. They don’t know in advance what the artists will make and find out only at the pickup events, which are as much about getting to know the artists as collecting the fruits of their shares.

The C.S.A.’s have flourished in larger cities as a kind of organic alternative to the dominance of the commercial gallery system and in smaller places as a way to make up for the dearth of galleries, as a means of helping emerging artists and attracting people who are interested in art but feel they have neither the means nor the connections to collect it.

“A lot of our people who bought shares have virtually no real experience with contemporary art,” said Dayna Del Val, executive director of the Arts Partnership in Fargo, which began a C.S.A. last year, selling 50 shares at $300 each for pieces from nine local artists. “They’re going to a big-box store and buying prints of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies,’ if they have anything.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Daily Camera.

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Liking the Likes of Likers

Researchers trawling through data from Facebook and other social networking sites find good examples of what they call human herding behavior.  A notable case shows that if you “like” an article online, your friends are more likely to “like” that article too. Is it a case of similarities of the group leading to similar behavior among peers? Well, apparently not — the same research also found that if you dislike the same article, your friends are not as likely to dislike it as well. So what is going on?

From the New York Times:

If you “like” this article on a site like Facebook, somebody who reads it is more likely to approve of it, even if the reporting and writing are not all that great.

But surprisingly, an unfair negative reaction will not spur others to dislike the article. Instead, a thumbs-down view will soon be counteracted by thumbs up from other readers.

Those are the implications of new research looking at the behavior of thousands of people reading online comments, scientists reported Friday in the journal Science. A positive nudge, they said, can set off a bandwagon of approval.

“Hype can work,” said one of the researchers, Sinan K. Aral, a professor of information technology and marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “and feed on itself as well.”

If people tend to herd together on popular opinions, that could call into question the reliability of “wisdom of the crowd” ratings on Web sites like Yelp or Amazon and perhaps provide marketers with hints on how to bring positive attention to their products.

“This is certainly a provocative study,” said Matthew O. Jackson, a professor of economics at Stanford who was not involved with the research. “It raises a lot of questions we need to answer.”

Besides Dr. Aral (who is also a scholar in residence at The New York Times research and development laboratory, working on unrelated projects), the researchers are from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and New York University.

They were interested in answering a question that long predates the iPhone and Justin Bieber: Is something popular because it is actually good, or is it popular just because it is popular?

To help answer that question, the researchers devised an experiment in which they could manipulate a small corner of the Internet: reader comments.

They collaborated with an unnamed Web site, the company did not want its involvement disclosed, on which users submit links to news articles. Readers can then comment on the articles, and they can also give up or down votes on individual comments. Each comment receives a rating calculated by subtracting negative votes from positive ones.

The experiment performed a subtle, random change on the ratings of comments submitted on the site over five months: right after each comment was made, it was given an arbitrary up or down vote, or — for a control group — left alone. Reflecting a tendency among the site’s users to provide positive feedback, about twice as many of these arbitrary initial votes were positive: 4,049 to 1,942.

The first person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score. There was no change in the likelihood of subsequent negative votes. Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group.

“That is a significant change,” Dr. Aral said. “We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding.”

Meanwhile, comments that received an initial negative vote ended up with scores indistinguishable from those in the control group.

The Web site allows users to say whether they like or dislike other users, and the researchers found that a commenter’s friends were likely to correct the negative score while enemies did not find it worth their time to knock down a fake up vote.

The distortion of ratings through herding is not a novel concern. Reddit, a social news site that said it was not the one that participated in the study, similarly allows readers to vote comments up or down, but it also allows its moderators to hide those ratings for a certain amount of time. “Now a comment will more likely be voted on based on its merit and appeal to each user, rather than having its public perception influence its votes,” it explained when it unveiled the feature in April.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Facebook “like” icon. Courtesy of Wikimedia / Facebook.

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Read Something Longer Than 140 Characters

Unplugging from the conveniences and obsessions of our age can be difficult, but not impossible. For those of you who have a demanding boss or needful relationships or lack the will to do away with the email, texts, tweets, voicemail, posts, SMS, likes and status messages there may still be (some) hope without having to go completely cold turkey.

While we would recommend you retreat to a quiet cabin by a still pond in the dark woods, the tips below may help you unwind if you’re frazzled but shun the idea of a remote hideaway. While you’re at it, why not immerse yourself in a copy of Walden.

From the Wall Street Journal:

You may never have read “Walden,” but you’re probably familiar with the premise: a guy with an ax builds a cabin in the woods and lives there for two years to tune out the inessential and discover himself. When Henry David Thoreau began his grand experiment, in 1845, he was about to turn 28—the age of a typical Instagram user today. Thoreau lived with his parents right before his move. During his sojourn, he returned home to do laundry.

Thoreau’s circumstances, in other words, weren’t so different from those of today’s 20-somethings—which is why seeking tech advice from a 19th-century transcendentalist isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” he wrote in “Walden.” That statement still rings true for those of us who have lived with the latest high-tech wonders long enough to realize how much concentration they end up zapping. “We do not use the Facebook; it uses us,” we might say.

But even the average social-media curmudgeon’s views on gadgetry aren’t as extreme as those of Thoreau. Whereas he saw inventions “as improved means to an unimproved end,” most of us genuinely love our iPhones, Instagram feeds and on-demand video. We just don’t want them to take over our lives, lest we forget the joy of reading without the tempting interruption of email notifications, or the pleasure of watching just one good episode of a television show per sitting.

Thankfully, we don’t have to go off the grid to achieve more balance. We can arrive at a saner modern existence simply by tweaking a few settings on our gadgets and the services we rely on. Why renounce civilization when technology makes it so easy to duck out for short stretches?

Inspired by the writings of Thoreau, we looked for simple tools—the equivalent of Thoreau’s knife, ax, spade and wheelbarrow—to create the modern-day equivalent of a secluded cabin in the woods. Don’t worry: There’s still Wi-Fi.

1. Manage your Facebook ‘Friendships’

As your Facebook connections grow to include all 437 of the people you sort of knew in high school, it’s easy to get to the point where the site’s News Feed becomes a hub of oversharing—much of it accidental. (Your co-worker probably had no idea the site would post his results of the “Which Glee Character Are You?” quiz.) Adjusting a few settings will bring your feed back to a more Thoreauvian state.

Facebook tries to figure out which posts will be most interesting to you, but nothing beats getting in there yourself and decluttering by hand. The process is like playing Whac-A-Mole, with your hammer aimed at the irrelevant posts that pop up in your News Feed.

Start by removing serial offenders: On the website, hover your cursor over the person’s name as it appears above a post, hit the “Friends” button that pops up and then uncheck “Show in News Feed” to block future posts. If that feels too drastic, click “Acquaintances” from the pop-up screen instead. This relegates the person to a special “friends list” whose updates will appear lower in the News Feed. (Fear not, the person won’t be notified about either of the above demotions.)

You can go a step further and scale back the types of updates you receive from those you’ve added to Acquaintances (as well as any other friends lists you create). Hover your cursor over the News Feed’s “Friends” heading then click “More” and select the list name. Then click the “Manage Lists” button and, finally, “Choose Update Types.”

Unless you’re in the middle of a fierce match of Bejeweled Blitz, you can safely deselect “Games” and most likely “Music and Videos,” too. Go out on a limb and untick “Comments and Likes” to put the kibosh on musings and shout-outs about other people’s posts. You’ll probably want to leave the mysteriously named “Other Activity” checked, though; while it includes some yawn-inducing updates, the category also encompasses announcements of major life events, like engagements and births.

3. Read Something Longer Than 140 Characters

Computers, smartphones and tablets are perfect for skimming TMZ, but for hunkering down with the sort of thoughtful text Thoreau would endorse, a dedicated ereader is the tech equivalent of a wood-paneled reading room. Although there are fancier models out there, the classic Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite are still tough to beat. Because their screens aren’t backlit, they don’t cause eye strain the way a tablet or color ereader can. While Amazon sells discounted models that display advertisements (each costs $20 less), don’t fall for the trap: The ads undermine the tranquility of the device. (If you already own an ad-supported Kindle, remove the ads for $20 using the settings page.) Also be sure to install the Send to Kindle plug-in for the Chrome and Firefox Web browers. It lets you beam long articles that you stumble upon online to the device, magically stripping away banner ads and other Web detritus in the process.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Managers, Who Needs ‘Em

If you work in a typical organization, whether it’s a for-profit or charitable enterprise, you are likely to have a manager. And, that manager will have a manager. What do all these layers of supervisors do and are they really necessary? Many small companies are starting to find that managers do not necessarily a successful company make, and are jettisoning typical hierarchical styles of governance for fluid, dynamic and managerless organizations. They are learning that managerless does not equal rudderless. Those of you in larger companies may only continue to dream — so in the meantime keep sending that status report to your manager.

From Wall Street Journal:

This spring the Chicago software firm 37signals took a big step: It appointed a manager.

The promotion wasn’t an entirely welcome one for Jason Zimdars, the veteran designer who was selected for the job. Rather than manage coworkers, he says, “I like to code and design and make things.”

Disdain for management sometimes seems as common as free snacks among tech startups and other small or young companies founded without layers of supervisors, fancy titles or a corporate ladder to climb. Leaders of these companies, including 37signals, say they are trying to balance the desire to free workers to create and the need for a decision maker to ensure projects run smoothly.

Management has traditionally been a worker’s best way to get ahead and increase earnings, but at startups, where speed and autonomy are prized above all else, managers are often dismissed as archaic, or worse, dead weight.

37signals, which got its start in 1999, keeps head count low and hires people capable of managing themselves.

Two-thirds of the 38 staffers, including Mr. Zimdars, work off site, and coding, designing and helping customers—not managing others—are the contributions that matter most.

“I want people here who are doing the work, not managing the work,” says Jason Fried, one of the company’s co-founders.

The trick for smaller companies, such as 37signals, is making sure decisions get made and tasks get done without evolving into a bureaucracy.

Mr. Fried previously oversaw the company’s main product, Basecamp, in addition to looking after other products and setting strategy. But he was stretched so thin that key decisions about the project-management software, which serves as a hub for workers to share messages, collaborate on documents and discuss ideas, were sometimes left hanging for weeks or months.

By this past April Mr. Fried realized it was time to hand the reins over to Mr. Zimdars, who had worked as a designer for the company for several years. As Basecamp’s product owner, Mr. Zimdars is now empowered to make decisions about the product and handles a team of five or so employees.

The 38-year-old father of two, who works from a stand-up desk in his Oklahoma City, Okla., home office, doesn’t see himself as a typical manager. He even avoids the language of management; for instance, he doesn’t refer to members of his team as “direct reports.”

When a co-worker recently presented Mr. Zimdars with an idea for a new feature, Mr. Fried suggested they come back with some alternative, bigger-picture ideas. After some back and forth, Mr. Zimdars decided to overrule his boss—though he thought twice about it—and went with his colleague’s original idea.

While Mr. Zimdars says he is glad product development now moves more quickly, he has reservations about his new assignment. “In my past experience, moving into more managerial roles has sort of been the exit out of other companies,” he says.

37signals tried out middle management a few years ago, when Mr. Fried hired someone to oversee the customer-service team. But the employee, who is no longer with the firm, did little besides overseeing others, he says.

Since then, the customer-support team has rotated some management duties, such as keeping track of group performance and ensuring goals are met. The manager-of-the-month also handles customer-support requests.

“If you are too far away from actually doing the work, you don’t really understand the work anymore and what goes into it,” says Mr. Fried.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google search “manager”.

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Listening versus Snooping

Many of your mobile devices already know where you are and what you’re doing. Increasingly the devices you use will record your every step and every word (and those of any callers), and even know your mood and health status. Analysts and eavesdroppers at the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) must be licking their collective their lips.

From Technology Review:

The Moto X, the new smartphone from Google’s Motorola Mobility, might be remembered best someday for helping to usher in the era of ubiquitous listening.

Unlike earlier phones, the Moto X includes two low-power chips whose only function is to process data from a microphone and other sensors—without tapping the main processor and draining the battery. This is a big endorsement of the idea that phones could serve you better if they did more to figure out what is going on (see “Motorola Reveals First Google-Era Phone”). For instance, you might say “OK Google Now” to activate Google’s intelligent assistant software, rather than having to first tap the screen or press buttons to get an audio-processing function up and running.

This brings us closer to having phones that continually monitor their auditory environment to detect the phone owner’s voice, discern what room or other setting the phone is in, or pick up other clues from background noise. Such capacities make it possible for software to detect your moods, know when you are talking and not to disturb you, and perhaps someday keep a running record of everything you hear.

“Devices of the future will be increasingly aware of the user’s current context, goals, and needs, will become proactive—taking initiative to present relevant information,” says Pattie Maes, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab. “Their use will become more integrated in our daily behaviors, becoming almost an extension of ourselves. The Moto X is definitely a step in that direction.”

Even before the Moto X, there were apps, such as the Shazam music-identification service, that could continually listen for a signal. When users enable a new feature called “auto-tagging” on a recent update to Shazam’s iPad app, Shazam listens to everything in the background, all the time. It’s seeking matches for songs and TV content that the company has stored on its servers, so you can go back and find information about something that you might have heard a few minutes ago. But the key change is that Shazam can now listen all the time, not just when you tap a button to ask it to identify something. The update is planned for other platforms, too.

But other potential uses abound. Tanzeem Choudury, a researcher at Cornell University, has demonstrated software that can detect whether you are talking faster than normal, or other changes in pitch or frequency that suggest stress. The StressSense app she is developing aims to do things like pinpoint the sources of your stress—is it the 9:30 a.m. meeting, or a call from Uncle Hank?

Similarly, audio analysis could allow the phone to understand where it is—and make fewer mistakes, says Vlad Sejnoha, the chief technology officer of Nuance Communications, which develops voice-recognition technologies. “I’m sure you’ve been in situation where someone has a smartphone in their pocket and suddenly a little voice emerges from the pocket, asking how they can be helped,” he says. That’s caused when an assistance app like Apple’s Siri is accidentally triggered. If the phone’s always-on ears could accurately detect the muffled acoustical properties of a pocket or purse, it could eliminate this false start and stop phones from accidentally dialing numbers as well. “That’s a work in progress,” Sejnoha says.  “And while it’s amusing, I think the general principle is serious: these devices have to try to understand the users’ world as much as possible.”

A phone might use ambient noise levels to decide how loud a ringtone should be: louder if you are out on the street, quiet if inside, says Chris Schmandt, director of the speech and mobility group at MIT’s Media Lab. Taking that concept a step further, a phone could detect an ambient conversation and recognize that one of the speakers was its owner. Then it might mute a potentially disruptive ringtone unless the call was from an important person, such as a spouse, Schmandt added.

Read the entire article here.

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Citizens and Satellites: SkyTruth

Daily we are reminded how much our world has changed and how it continues to transform. Technology certainly aids those who seek to profit from Earth’s resources, as they drill, cut, dig, and explode. Some use it wisely, while others leave our fragile home covered in scars of pollution and exploitation — often unseen.

For those who care passionately about the planet, satellite surveillance has become an tool essential tool — in powerful yet unexpected ways.

From the Washington Post:

Somewhere in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from the nearest landfall, there is a fishing ship. Let’s say you’re on it. Go onto the open deck, scream, jump around naked, fire a machine gun into the air — who will ever know? You are about as far from anyone as it is possible to be.

But you know what you should do? You should look up and wave.

Because 438 miles above you, moving at 17,000 miles per hour, a polar-orbiting satellite is taking your photograph. A man named John Amos is looking at you. He knows the name and size of your ship, how fast you’re moving and, perhaps, if you’re dangling a line in the water, what type of fish you’re catching.

Sheesh, you’re thinking, Amos must be some sort of highly placed international official in maritime law. … Nah.

He’s a 50-year-old geologist who heads a tiny nonprofit called SkyTruth in tiny Shepherdstown, W.Va., year-round population, 805.

Amos is looking at these ships to monitor illegal fishing in Chilean waters. He’s doing it from a quiet, shaded street, populated mostly with old houses, where the main noises are (a) birds and (b) the occasional passing car. His office, in a one-story building, shares a toilet with a knitting shop.

With a couple of clicks on the keyboard, Amos switches his view from the South Pacific to Tioga County, Pa., where SkyTruth is cataloguing, with a God’s-eye view, the number and size of fracking operations. Then it’s over to Appalachia for a 40-year history of what mountaintop-removal mining has wrought, all through aerial and satellite imagery, 59 counties covering four states.

“You can track anything in the world from anywhere in the world,” Amos is saying, a smile coming into his voice. “That’s the real revolution.”

Amos is, by many accounts, reshaping the postmodern environmental movement. He is among the first, if not the only, scientist to take the staggering array of satellite data that have accumulated over 40 years, turn it into maps with overlays of radar or aerial flyovers, then fan it out to environmental agencies, conservation nonprofit groups and grass-roots activists. This arms the little guys with the best data they’ve ever had to challenge oil, gas, mining and fishing corporations over how they’re changing the planet.

His satellite analysis of the gulf oil spill in 2010, posted on SkyTruth’s Web site, almost single-handedly forced BP and the U.S. government to acknowledge that the spill was far worse than either was saying.

He was the first to document how many Appalachian mountains have been decapitated in mining operations (about 500) because no state or government organization had ever bothered to find out, and no one else had, either. His work was used in the Environmental Protection Agency’s rare decision to block a major new mine in West Virginia, a decision still working its way through the courts.

“John’s work is absolutely cutting-edge,” says Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace. “No one else in the nonprofit world is watching the horizon, looking for how to use satellite imagery and innovative new technology.”

“I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing what John is,” says Peter Aengst, regional director for the Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office.

Amos’s complex maps “visualize what can’t be seen with the human eye — the big-picture, long-term impact of environment damage,” says Linda Baker, executive director of the Upper Green River Alliance, an activist group in Wyoming that has used his work to illustrate the growth of oil drilling.

This distribution of satellite imagery is part of a vast, unparalleled democratization of humanity’s view of the world, an event not unlike cartography in the age of Magellan, the unknowable globe suddenly brought small.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Detail from a September 2012 satellite image of natural gas drilling infrastructure on public lands near Pinedale, Wyoming. Courtesy of SkyTruth.

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To Phubb or Not to Phubb?

A new verb for a very recent phenomenon. Phubbing was invented by inveterate texters and proliferated by anyone aged between 16-25 years.

Urban dictionary defines “phubbing” as:

Snubbing someone in favour of your mobile phone. We’ve all done it: when a conversation gets boring, the urge to check out an interesting person’s twitter/ Facebook/ Youtube/ Pinterest/whatever feed can be overwhelming.

Unsurprisingly, even though the word is probably only a couple of months old, there is a campaign to fight phubbing. It is safe to assume that a complementary verb will soon appear to denote injury suffered while texting and not paying attention to obstacles in one’s immediate surroundings, such as fire hydrants, other people, lamp posts, potholes, cars, lawn mowers, and so on.

From the Guardian:

Age: A distinctly 21st-century problem.

Appearance: A friend’s face buried in a screen.

What are we talking about? We’re talking about phubbing.

Never heard of it. That’s because the word was first used about a month ago.

To describe what? To describe the kind of person who bursts out laughing mid-conversation, making you think you’ve made a brilliant joke, and then says: “Sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you, I just saw something really funny on Twitter.” Or the sort who think it’s appropriate to check their emails in the pub when you only have each other for company. Or the tedious people who live-tweet weddings.

Those people are the worst. So what does “phubbing” actually mean? It means “The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.”

According to whom? According to the website of the international Stop Phubbing campaign group.

There’s a campaign against it? There is. Or a website for a campaign anyway, set up last month by 23-year-old Alex Haigh from Melbourne. They haven’t actually done all that much campaigning so far.

How can I get involved? You can download “Stop Phubbing” posters for restaurants and “Stop Phubbing” place cards for weddings, browse a gallery of celebrity “phubbers” caught texting instead of talking – including Victoria Beckham and Elton John – and even “Shame a Phubber” from your own social circle by uploading an incriminating photograph to the site.

Sounds pretty serious. Not really. There’s also a list of “Disturbing Phubbing Stats” that includes “If phubbing were a plague it would decimate six Chinas”, “97% of people claim their food tasted worse while being a victim of phubbing” and “92% of repeat phubbers go on to become politicians”.

Ah. So it’s really just a joke site? Well, a joke site with a serious message about our growing estrangement from our fellow human beings. But mostly a joke site, yes.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Textually.org.

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Fields from Dreams

It’s time to abandon the notion that you, and everything around you, is made up of tiny particles and their subatomic constituents. You are nothing more than perturbations in the field, or fields. Nothing more. Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll explains all.

From Symmetry:

When scientists talk to non-scientists about particle physics, they talk about the smallest building blocks of matter: what you get when you divide cells and molecules into tinier and tinier bits until you can’t divide them any more.

That’s one way of looking at things. But it’s not really the way things are, said Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll in a lecture at Fermilab. And if physicists really want other people to appreciate the discovery of the Higgs boson, he said, it’s time to tell them the rest of the story.

“To understand what is going on, you actually need to give up a little bit on the notion of particles,” Carroll said in the June lecture.

Instead, think in terms of fields.

You’re already familiar with some fields. When you hold two magnets close together, you can feel their attraction or repulsion before they even touch—an interaction between two magnetic fields. Likewise, you know that when you jump in the air, you’re going to come back down. That’s because you live in Earth’s gravitational field.

Carroll’s stunner, at least to many non-scientists, is this: Every particle is actually a field. The universe is full of fields, and what we think of as particles are just excitations of those fields, like waves in an ocean. An electron, for example, is just an excitation of an electron field.

This may seem counterintuitive, but seeing the world in terms of fields actually helps make sense of some otherwise confusing facts of particle physics.

When a radioactive material decays, for example, we think of it as spitting out different kinds of particles. Neutrons decay into protons, electrons and neutrinos. Those protons, electrons and neutrinos aren’t hiding inside neutrons, waiting to get out. Yet they appear when neutrons decay.

If we think in terms of fields, this sudden appearance of new kinds of particles starts to make more sense. The energy and excitation of one field transfers to others as they vibrate against each other, making it seem like new types of particles are appearing.

Thinking in fields provides a clearer picture of how scientists are able to make massive particles like Higgs bosons in the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC smashes bunches of energetic protons into one another, and scientists study those collisions.

“There’s an analogy that’s often used here,” Carroll said, “that doing particle physics is like smashing two watches together and trying to figure out how watches work by watching all the pieces fall apart.

“This analogy is terrible for many reasons,” he said. “The primary one is that what’s coming out when you smash particles together is not what was inside the original particles. … [Instead,] it’s like you smash two Timex watches together and a Rolex pops out.”

What’s really happening in LHC collisions is that especially excited excitations of a field—the energetic protons—are vibrating together and transfering their energy to adjacent fields, forming new excitations that we see as new particles—such as Higgs bosons.

Thinking in fields can also better explain how the Higgs works. Higgs bosons themselves do not give other particles mass by, say, sticking to them in clumps. Instead, the Higgs field interacts with other fields, giving them—and, by extension, their particles—mass.

Read the entire article here.

Image: iron filing magnetic field lines between two bar magnets. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Is Your Company Catholic or Baptist?

Is your business jewish? Does your corporation follow the book of tao or the book of mormon or those of shadows (wicca) or yasna (zoroastrianism)? Or, is your company baptist, muslim, hindu or atheist or a practitioner in one of the remaining estimated 4,200 belief systems?

In mid-2012 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that corporations are indeed people when it ruled for Citizens United against the State of Montana in allowing unlimited corporate spending in local elections. Now, we await another contentious and perplexing ruling from the justices that may assign spirituality to a corporation alongside personhood.

Inventors of board games take note: there is surely a game to be made from matching one’s favorite companies with religions of the world.

From Slate:

Remember the big dustup last summer over the contraception mandate in President Obama’s health reform initiative? It required companies with more than 50 employees to provide insurance, including for contraception, as part of their employees’ health care plans. The constitutional question was whether employers with religious objections to providing coverage for birth control could be forced to do so under the new law. The Obama administration tweaked the rules a few times to try to accommodate religious employers, first exempting some religious institutions—churches and ministries were always exempt—and then allowing companies that self-insure to use a separate insurance plan to pay and provide for the contraception. Still, religious employers objected, and lawsuits were filed, all 60 of them.

A year later, the courts have begun to weigh in, and the answer has slowly begun to emerge: maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on whether corporations—which already enjoy significant free-speech rights—can also invoke religious freedom rights enshrined in the First Amendment.

Last Friday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the contraception mandate, rejecting a challenge from a Pennsylvania-based cabinetmaker who claimed that as a Mennonite he should not be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage to his 950 employees because the mandate violates the company’s rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The owner considers some of the contraception methods at issue—specifically, the morning-after and week-after pills—abortifacients.

The appeals court looked carefully to the precedent created by Citizens United—the 2010 case affording corporations free-speech rights when it came to election-related speech—to determine whether corporations also enjoy constitutionally protected religious freedom. Writing for the two judges in the majority, Judge Robert Cowen found that although there was “a long history of protecting corporations’ rights to free speech,” there was no similar history of protection for the free exercise of religion. “We simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion,” he concluded. “A holding to the contrary … would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

Cowan also flagged the absolute novelty of the claims, noting that there was almost no case law suggesting that corporations can hold religious beliefs. “We are not aware of any case preceding the commencement of litigation about the Mandate, in which a for-profit, secular corporation was itself found to have free exercise rights.” Finally he took pains to distinguish the corporation, Conestoga, from its legal owners. “Since Conestoga is distinct from the Hahns, the Mandate does not actually require the Hahns to do anything. … It is Conestoga that must provide the funds to comply with the Mandate—not the Hahns.”

Judge Kent Jordan, dissenting at length in the case, said that for-profit, secular corporations can surely avail themselves of the protections of the religion clauses. “To recognize that religious convictions are a matter of individual experience cannot and does not refute the collective character of much religious belief and observance … Religious opinions and faith are in this respect akin to political opinions and passions, which are held and exercised both individually and collectively.”

The 3rd Circuit decision creates a significant split between the appeals courts, because a few short weeks earlier, the Colorado-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., finding by a 5–3 margin that corporations can be persons entitled to assert religious rights. Hobby Lobby is a chain of crafts supply stores located in 41 states. The 10th Circuit upheld an injunction blocking the contraception requirement because it offended the company owners’ religious beliefs. The majority in the 3rd Circuit wrote that it “respectfully disagrees” with the 10th Circuit. A split of this nature makes Supreme Court review almost inevitable.

The Supreme Court has long held the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to prohibit governmental regulation of religious beliefs, but a long line of cases holds that not every regulation that inflects upon your religious beliefs is unconstitutional. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from imposing a “substantial burden” on anyone’s “exercise of religion” unless it is “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.” The Obama administration and the judges who have refused to grant injunctions contend that the burden here is insignificant, amounting to a few dollars borne indirectly by the employer to facilitate independent, private decisions made by their female employees. They also argue that they are promoting a compelling government interest in providing preventive health care to Americans. The employers and the judges who have enjoined the birth-control provision claim that they are being forced to choose between violating protected religious beliefs and facing crippling fines and that free or inexpensive birth control is available at community health centers and public clinics.

Basically, the constitutional question will come down to whether a for-profit, secular corporation can hold religious beliefs and convictions, or whether—as David Gans explains here —“the Court’s cases recognize a basic, common-sense difference between living, breathing, individuals—who think, possess a conscience, and a claim to human dignity—and artificial entities, which are created by the law for a specific purpose, such as to make running a business more efficient and lucrative.” Will Baude takes the opposite view, explaining that the 3rd Circuit’s reasoning—that “ ‘corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires’ … would all prove too much, because they are technically true of any organizational association, including … a church!” Baude likens the claim that corporations can never have religious freedom rights to the claim that corporations—including the New York Times—can never have free-speech rights.

Part of the problem, at least in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, is that neither corporation was designed to do business as religious entities. It has been clear since the nation’s founding that corporations enjoy rights in connection to the purposes for which they were created—which is why the administration already exempts religious employers whose purpose is to inculcate religious values and chiefly employ and serve people who share their religious tenets. This is about companies that don’t meet those criteria. As the dissenters at the 10th Circuit observed, the fact that some “spiritual corporations” have some religious purposes doesn’t make every corporation a religious entity. And as professor Elizabeth Sepper of Washington University puts it in a new law-review article on the subject: “Corporations, as conglomerate entities, exist indefinitely and independently of their shareholders. They carry out acts and affect individual lives, and have an identity that is larger than their constituent parts. Walmart is Walmart, even when Sam Walton resigns.”

The rest of the problem is self-evident. Where does it stop? Why does your boss’ religious freedom allow her to curtail your own? The dangers in allowing employers to exercise a religious veto over employee health care are obvious. Can an employer deny you access to psychiatric care if he opposes it on religious grounds? To AIDS medications? To gelatin-covered pills? Constitutional protections of a single employer’s individual rights of conscience and belief become a bludgeon by which he can dictate the most intimate health decisions of his workers, whose own religious rights and constitutional freedoms become immaterial.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of ThinkProgress.

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The View From Saturn

As Carl Sagan would no doubt have had us remember, we are still collectively residents of a very small, very pale blue dot. The image of planet Earth was taken by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been busy circuiting and mapping the Saturnian system over the last several years. Cassini turned the attention of its cameras to our home on July 19, 2013 for this portrait.

From NASA:

Color and black-and-white images of Earth taken by two NASA interplanetary spacecraft on July 19 show our planet and its moon as bright beacons from millions of miles away in space.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured the color images of Earth and the moon from its perch in the Saturn system nearly 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) away. MESSENGER, the first probe to orbit Mercury, took a black-and-white image from a distance of 61 million miles (98 million kilometers) as part of a campaign to search for natural satellites of the planet.

In the Cassini images Earth and the moon appear as mere dots — Earth a pale blue and the moon a stark white, visible between Saturn’s rings. It was the first time Cassini’s highest-resolution camera captured Earth and its moon as two distinct objects.

It also marked the first time people on Earth had advance notice their planet’s portrait was being taken from interplanetary distances. NASA invited the public to celebrate by finding Saturn in their part of the sky, waving at the ringed planet and sharing pictures over the Internet. More than 20,000 people around the world participated.

“We can’t see individual continents or people in this portrait of Earth, but this pale blue dot is a succinct summary of who we were on July 19,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Cassini’s picture reminds us how tiny our home planet is in the vastness of space, and also testifies to the ingenuity of the citizens of this tiny planet to send a robotic spacecraft so far away from home to study Saturn and take a look-back photo of Earth.”

Pictures of Earth from the outer solar system are rare because from that distance, Earth appears very close to our sun. A camera’s sensitive detectors can be damaged by looking directly at the sun, just as a human being can damage his or her retina by doing the same. Cassini was able to take this image because the sun had temporarily moved behind Saturn from the spacecraft’s point of view and most of the light was blocked.

A wide-angle image of Earth will become part of a multi-image picture, or mosaic, of Saturn’s rings, which scientists are assembling. This image is not expected to be available for several weeks because of the time-consuming challenges involved in blending images taken in changing geometry and at vastly different light levels, with faint and extraordinarily bright targets side by side.

“It thrills me to no end that people all over the world took a break from their normal activities to go outside and celebrate the interplanetary salute between robot and maker that these images represent,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “The whole event underscores for me our ‘coming of age’ as planetary explorers.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

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Our Beautiful Galaxy

We should post stunning images of the night sky like these more often. For most of us, unfortunately, light pollution from our surroundings hides beautiful vistas like these from the naked eye.

Image: Receiving the Galatic Beam. The Milky Way appears to line up with the giant 64-m dish of the radio telescope at Parkes Observatory in Australia. As can be seen from the artificial lights around the telescope, light pollution is not a problem for radio astronomers. Radio and microwave interference is a big issue however, as it masks the faint natural emissions from distant objects in space. For this reason many radio observatories ban mobile phone use on their premises. Courtesy: Wayne England / The Royal Observatory Greenwich / Telegraph.

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Fifty Shades of Red

Many of us once in every while lose our marbles, go off our trolleys, join the funny farm. We are sometimes just plain wacko, bonkers, nuts, loony, certifiable, batty, bonzo, daft, as mad as a hatter. For proof, we turn to the London Fire Brigade (fire department, to our North American readers). The service has just issued its list of 1,300 unusual incidents since 2010 that get them called out on emergency, in addition to much more serious events such as building fires, and other man-made and natural disasters. The lists make for some very embarrassing reading, and includes: head stuck in toilet, hands stuck in blender, genitals (male) stuck in toaster.

From the Guardian:

It sounds barmy doesn’t it, the London Fire Brigade telling people about men putting their genitals where they shouldn’t? But the fact of the matter is people put body parts in strange places all the time, get stuck, and then call us out to release them. We’re not just talking one or two; our crews have been called out to over 1,300 “unusual” incidents since 2010 – that’s more than one a day.

Granted, they’re not all penis-related, but some are very silly: people with loo seats on their heads, a man with his arm trapped in a portable toilet, adults stuck in children’s toys, someone with a test tube on his finger. And a lot of handcuffs. More than 25 people call us out every year to release them from these. I don’t know whether it’s the Fifty Shades effect or not, but I can tell you this, most are Fifty Shades of Red by the time we turn up in a big, red fire engine with our equipment to cut them out.

We launched our campaign, #FiftyShadesofRed, in a bid to highlight some of the less conventional incidents we’ve attended over the past few years. We tweeted about the incidents from our account, @LondonFire, which certainly raised a few eyebrows, not least among some of my international firefighting colleagues who were surprised to see us putting it all out there, so to speak. This included nine instances of men with rings stuck in awkward places; nine people with their hands stuck in blenders and shredders; numerous people with their hands stuck in letterboxes; a child with a tambourine on its head … the list goes on. We’ve even been called out to rescue a man whose penis was stuck in a toaster. The mind boggles but the message is serious: use some common sense and remember we’re an emergency service and should be treated as such.

It all seems like a bit of fun, but actually when people call us out in these circumstances, they perhaps don’t realise that our firefighters are then not available to attend genuine emergencies, such as fires. Yes, accidents do happen, and sometimes situations can’t be avoided, but I think an awful lot of these incidents could be prevented if people applied some good, old-fashioned common sense. Using handcuffs? Wear the key round your neck. Potty training a toddler? Watch them like a hawk so they don’t end up with it stuck on their head. Like wearing rings? Lovely, but if they’re too small, don’t force them on.

As well as attending each call being time-consuming, it is also pretty expensive, with each costing just shy of £300 of public money. Yet despite many of these call-outs being a bit wacky, they can also be very stressful and painful to those trapped, and some are potentially life-threatening. People getting trapped in machinery, or falling on to fences and getting impaled spring to mind. I’d like to reassure everyone that if there is a genuine emergency, and someone’s in need of our help, we will of course always attend.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Handcuffs. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

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