The IBM Songbook

IBM Songbook

It would be fascinating to see a Broadway or West End show based on lyrics penned in honor of IBM and Thomas Watson, Sr., its first president. Makes you wonder if faithful employees of say, Facebook or Apple, would ever write a songbook — not in jest — for their corporate alma mater. I think not.

From ars technica:

“For thirty-seven years,” reads the opening passage in the book, “the gatherings and conventions of our IBM workers have expressed in happy songs the fine spirit of loyal cooperation and good fellowship which has promoted the signal success of our great IBM Corporation in its truly International Service for the betterment of business and benefit to mankind.”

That’s a hell of a mouthful, but it’s only the opening volley in the war on self-respect and decency that is the 1937 edition of Songs of the IBM, a booklet of corporate ditties first published in 1927 on the order of IBM company founder Thomas Watson, Sr.

The 1937 edition of the songbook is a 54-page monument to glassey-eyed corporate inhumanity, with every page overflowing with trite praise to The Company and Its Men. The booklet reads like a terribly parody of a hymnal—one that praises not the traditional Christian trinity but the new corporate triumvirate of IBM the father, Watson the son, and American entrepreneurship as the holy spirit:

Thomas Watson is our inspiration,
Head and soul of our splendid I.B.M.
We are pledged to him in every nation,
Our President and most beloved man.
His wisdom has guided each division
In service to all humanity
We have grown and broadened with his vision,
None can match him or our great company.
T. J. Watson, we all honor you,
You’re so big and so square and so true,
We will follow and serve with you forever,
All the world must know what I. B. M. can do.

—from “To Thos. J. Watson, President, I.B.M. Our Inspiration”

The wording transcends sense and sanity—these aren’t songs that normal human beings would choose to line up and sing, are they? Have people changed so much in the last 70-80 years that these songs—which seem expressly designed to debase their singers and deify their subjects—would be joyfully sung in harmony without complaint at company meetings? Were workers in the 1920s and 1930s so dehumanized by the rampaging robber barons of high industry that the only way to keep a desirable corporate job at a place like IBM was to toe the line and sing for your paycheck?

Surely no one would stand for this kind of thing in the modern world—to us, company songs seem like relics of a less-enlightened age. If anything, the mindless overflowing trite words sound like the kind of praises one would find directed at a cult of personality dictator in a decaying wreck of a country like North Korea.

Indeed, some of the songs in the book wouldn’t be out of place venerating the Juche ideal instead of IBM:

We don’t pretend we’re gay.
We always feel that way,
Because we’re filling the world with sunshine.
With I.B.M. machines,
We’ve got the finest means,
For brightly painting the clouds with sunshine.

—from “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine”

Surely no one would stand for this kind of thing in the modern world—to us, company songs seem like relics of a less-enlightened age. If anything, the mindless overflowing trite words sound like the kind of praises one would find directed at a cult of personality dictator in a decaying wreck of a country like North Korea.

Tie an onion to your belt

All right, time to come clean: it’s incredibly easy to cherry pick terrible examples out of a 77-year old corporate songbook (though this songbook makes it easy because of how crazy it is to modern eyes). Moreover, to answer one of the rhetorical questions above, no—people have not changed so much over the past 80-ish years that they could sing mawkishly pro-IBM songs with an irony-free straight face. At least, not without some additional context.

There’s a decade-old writeup on NetworkWorld about the IBM corporate song phenomena that provides a lot of the glue necessary to build a complete mental picture of what was going on in both employees’ and leaderships’ heads. The key takeaway to deflate a lot of the looniness is that the majority of the songs came out of the Great Depression era, and employees lucky enough to be steadfastly employed by a company like IBM often werereally that grateful.

The formal integration of singing as an aspect of IBM’s culture at the time was heavily encouraged by Thomas J. Watson Sr. Watson and his employees co-opted the era’s showtunes and popular melodies for their proto-filking, ensuring that everyone would know the way the song went, if not the exact wording. Employees belting out “To the International Ticketograph Division” to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” (“In I.B.M. There’s a division. / That’s known as the Ticketograph; / It’s peopled by men who have vision, / Progressive and hard-working staff”) really isn’t all that different from any other team-building exercise that modern companies do—in fact, in a lot of ways, it’s far less humiliating than a company picnic with Mandatory Interdepartmental Three-Legged Races.

Many of the songs mirror the kinds of things that university students of the same time period might sing in honor of their alma mater. When viewed from the perspective of the Depression and post-Depression era, the singing is still silly—but it also makes a lot more sense. Watson reportedly wanted to inspire loyalty and cohesion among employees—and, remember, this was also an era where “normal” employee behavior was to work at a single company for most of one’s professional life, and then retire with a pension. It’s certainly a lot easier to sing a company’s praises if there’s paid retirement at the end of the last verse.

Read the entire article and see more songs here.

Image: Page 99-100 of the IBM Songbook, 1937. Courtesy of IBM / are technica.

Syndrome X

DNA_Structure

The quest for immortality or even great longevity has probably led humans since they first became self-aware. Entire cultural movements and industries are founded on the desire to enhance and extend our lives. Genetic research, of course, may eventually unlock some or all of life and death’s mysteries. In the meantime, groups of dedicated scientists continue to look for for the foundation of aging with a view to understanding the process and eventually slowing (and perhaps stopping) it. Richard Walker is one of these singularly focused researchers.

From the BBC:

Richard Walker has been trying to conquer ageing since he was a 26-year-old free-loving hippie. It was the 1960s, an era marked by youth: Vietnam War protests, psychedelic drugs, sexual revolutions. The young Walker relished the culture of exultation, of joie de vivre, and yet was also acutely aware of its passing. He was haunted by the knowledge that ageing would eventually steal away his vitality – that with each passing day his body was slightly less robust, slightly more decayed. One evening he went for a drive in his convertible and vowed that by his 40th birthday, he would find a cure for ageing.

Walker became a scientist to understand why he was mortal. “Certainly it wasn’t due to original sin and punishment by God, as I was taught by nuns in catechism,” he says. “No, it was the result of a biological process, and therefore is controlled by a mechanism that we can understand.”

Scientists have published several hundred theories of ageing, and have tied it to a wide variety of biological processes. But no one yet understands how to integrate all of this disparate information.

Walker, now 74, believes that the key to ending ageing may lie in a rare disease that doesn’t even have a real name, “Syndrome X”. He has identified four girls with this condition, marked by what seems to be a permanent state of infancy, a dramatic developmental arrest. He suspects that the disease is caused by a glitch somewhere in the girls’ DNA. His quest for immortality depends on finding it.

It’s the end of another busy week and MaryMargret Williams is shuttling her brood home from school. She drives an enormous SUV, but her six children and their coats and bags and snacks manage to fill every inch. The three big kids are bouncing in the very back. Sophia, 10, with a mouth of new braces, is complaining about a boy-crazy friend. She sits next to Anthony, seven, and Aleena, five, who are glued to something on their mother’s iPhone. The three little kids squirm in three car seats across the middle row. Myah, two, is mining a cherry slushy, and Luke, one, is pawing a bag of fresh crickets bought for the family gecko.

Finally there’s Gabrielle, who’s the smallest child, and the second oldest, at nine years old. She has long, skinny legs and a long, skinny ponytail, both of which spill out over the edges of her car seat. While her siblings giggle and squeal, Gabby’s dusty-blue eyes roll up towards the ceiling. By the calendar, she’s almost an adolescent. But she has the buttery skin, tightly clenched fingers and hazy awareness of a newborn.

Back in 2004, when MaryMargret and her husband, John, went to the hospital to deliver Gabby, they had no idea anything was wrong. They knew from an ultrasound that she would have clubbed feet, but so had their other daughter, Sophia, who was otherwise healthy. And because MaryMargret was a week early, they knew Gabby would be small, but not abnormally so. “So it was such a shock to us when she was born,” MaryMargret says.

Gabby came out purple and limp. Doctors stabilised her in the neonatal intensive care unit and then began a battery of tests. Within days the Williamses knew their new baby had lost the genetic lottery. Her brain’s frontal lobe was smooth, lacking the folds and grooves that allow neurons to pack in tightly. Her optic nerve, which runs between the eyes and the brain, was atrophied, which would probably leave her blind. She had two heart defects. Her tiny fists couldn’t be pried open. She had a cleft palate and an abnormal swallowing reflex, which meant she had to be fed through a tube in her nose. “They started trying to prepare us that she probably wouldn’t come home with us,” John says. Their family priest came by to baptise her.

Day after day, MaryMargret and John shuttled between Gabby in the hospital and 13-month-old Sophia at home. The doctors tested for a few known genetic syndromes, but they all came back negative. Nobody had a clue what was in store for her. Her strong Catholic family put their faith in God. “MaryMargret just kept saying, ‘She’s coming home, she’s coming home’,” recalls her sister, Jennie Hansen. And after 40 days, she did.

Gabby cried a lot, loved to be held, and ate every three hours, just like any other newborn. But of course she wasn’t. Her arms would stiffen and fly up to her ears, in a pose that the family nicknamed her “Harley-Davidson”. At four months old she started having seizures. Most puzzling and problematic, she still wasn’t growing. John and MaryMargret took her to specialist after specialist: a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, a geneticist, a neurologist, an ophthalmologist and an orthopaedist. “You almost get your hopes up a little – ’This is exciting! We’re going to the gastro doctor, and maybe he’ll have some answers’,” MaryMargret says. But the experts always said the same thing: nothing could be done.

The first few years with Gabby were stressful. When she was one and Sophia two, the Williamses drove from their home in Billings, Montana, to MaryMargret’s brother’s home outside of St Paul, Minnesota. For nearly all of those 850 miles, Gabby cried and screamed. This continued for months until doctors realised she had a run-of-the-mill bladder infection. Around the same period, she acquired a severe respiratory infection that left her struggling to breathe. John and MaryMargret tried to prepare Sophia for the worst, and even planned which readings and songs to use at Gabby’s funeral. But the tiny toddler toughed it out.

While Gabby’s hair and nails grew, her body wasn’t getting bigger. She was developing in subtle ways, but at her own pace. MaryMargret vividly remembers a day at work when she was pushing Gabby’s stroller down a hallway with skylights in the ceiling. She looked down at Gabby and was shocked to see her eyes reacting to the sunlight. “I thought, ‘Well, you’re seeing that light!’” MaryMargret says. Gabby wasn’t blind, after all.

Despite the hardships, the couple decided they wanted more children. In 2007 MaryMargret had Anthony, and the following year she had Aleena. By this time, the Williamses had stopped trudging to specialists, accepting that Gabby was never going to be fixed. “At some point we just decided,” John recalls, “it’s time to make our peace.”

Mortal questions

When Walker began his scientific career, he focused on the female reproductive system as a model of “pure ageing”: a woman’s ovaries, even in the absence of any disease, slowly but inevitably slide into the throes of menopause. His studies investigated how food, light, hormones and brain chemicals influence fertility in rats. But academic science is slow. He hadn’t cured ageing by his 40th birthday, nor by his 50th or 60th. His life’s work was tangential, at best, to answering the question of why we’re mortal, and he wasn’t happy about it. He was running out of time.

So he went back to the drawing board. As he describes in his book, Why We Age, Walker began a series of thought experiments to reflect on what was known and not known about ageing.

Ageing is usually defined as the slow accumulation of damage in our cells, organs and tissues, ultimately causing the physical transformations that we all recognise in elderly people. Jaws shrink and gums recede. Skin slacks. Bones brittle, cartilage thins and joints swell. Arteries stiffen and clog. Hair greys. Vision dims. Memory fades. The notion that ageing is a natural, inevitable part of life is so fixed in our culture that we rarely question it. But biologists have been questioning it for a long time.

It’s a harsh world out there, and even young cells are vulnerable. It’s like buying a new car: the engine runs perfectly but is still at risk of getting smashed on the highway. Our young cells survive only because they have a slew of trusty mechanics on call. Take DNA, which provides the all-important instructions for making proteins. Every time a cell divides, it makes a near-perfect copy of its three-billion-letter code. Copying mistakes happen frequently along the way, but we have specialised repair enzymes to fix them, like an automatic spellcheck. Proteins, too, are ever vulnerable. If it gets too hot, they twist into deviant shapes that keep them from working. But here again, we have a fixer: so-called ‘heat shock proteins’ that rush to the aid of their misfolded brethren. Our bodies are also regularly exposed to environmental poisons, such as the reactive and unstable ‘free radical’ molecules that come from the oxidisation of the air we breathe. Happily, our tissues are stocked with antioxidants and vitamins that neutralise this chemical damage. Time and time again, our cellular mechanics come to the rescue.

Which leads to the biologists’ longstanding conundrum: if our bodies are so well tuned, why, then, does everything eventually go to hell?

One theory is that it all boils down to the pressures of evolution. Humans reproduce early in life, well before ageing rears its ugly head. All of the repair mechanisms that are important in youth – the DNA editors, the heat shock proteins, the antioxidants – help the young survive until reproduction, and are therefore passed down to future generations. But problems that show up after we’re done reproducing cannot be weeded out by evolution. Hence, ageing.

Most scientists say that ageing is not caused by any one culprit but by the breakdown of many systems at once. Our sturdy DNA mechanics become less effective with age, meaning that our genetic code sees a gradual increase in mutations. Telomeres, the sequences of DNA that act as protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes, get shorter every year. Epigenetic messages, which help turn genes on and off, get corrupted with time. Heat shock proteins run down, leading to tangled protein clumps that muck up the smooth workings of a cell. Faced with all of this damage, our cells try to adjust by changing the way they metabolise nutrients and store energy. To ward off cancer, they even know how to shut themselves down. But eventually cells stop dividing and stop communicating with each other, triggering the decline we see from the outside.

Scientists trying to slow the ageing process tend to focus on one of these interconnected pathways at a time. Some researchers have shown, for example, that mice on restricted-calorie diets live longer than normal. Other labs have reported that giving mice rapamycin, a drug that targets an important cell-growth pathway, boosts their lifespan. Still other groups are investigating substances that restore telomeres, DNA repair enzymes and heat shock proteins.

During his thought experiments, Walker wondered whether all of these scientists were fixating on the wrong thing. What if all of these various types of cellular damages were the consequences of ageing, but not the root cause of it? He came up with an alternative theory: that ageing is the unavoidable fallout of our development.

The idea sat on the back burner of Walker’s mind until the evening of 23 October 2005. He was working in his home office when his wife called out to him to join her in the family room. She knew he would want to see what was on TV: an episode of Dateline about a young girl who seemed to be “frozen in time”. Walker watched the show and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Brooke Greenberg was 12 years old, but just 13 pounds (6kg) and 27 inches (69cm) long. Her doctors had never seen anything like her condition, and suspected the cause was a random genetic mutation. “She literally is the Fountain of Youth,” her father, Howard Greenberg, said.

Walker was immediately intrigued. He had heard of other genetic diseases, such as progeria and Werner syndrome, which cause premature ageing in children and adults respectively. But this girl seemed to be different. She had a genetic disease that stopped her development and with it, Walker suspected, the ageing process. Brooke Greenberg, in other words, could help him test his theory.

Uneven growth

Brooke was born a few weeks premature, with many birth defects. Her paediatrician labeled her with Syndrome X, not knowing what else to call it.

After watching the show, Walker tracked down Howard Greenberg’s address. Two weeks went by before Walker heard back, and after much discussion he was allowed to test Brooke. He was sent Brooke’s medical records as well as blood samples for genetic testing. In 2009, his team published a brief report describing her case.

Walker’s analysis found that Brooke’s organs and tissues were developing at different rates. Her mental age, according to standardised tests, was between one and eight months. Her teeth appeared to be eight years old; her bones, 10 years. She had lost all of her baby fat, and her hair and nails grew normally, but she had not reached puberty. Her telomeres were considerably shorter than those of healthy teenagers, suggesting that her cells were ageing at an accelerated rate.

All of this was evidence of what Walker dubbed “developmental disorganisation”. Brooke’s body seemed to be developing not as a coordinated unit, he wrote, but rather as a collection of individual, out-of-sync parts. “She is not simply ‘frozen in time’,” Walker wrote. “Her development is continuing, albeit in a disorganised fashion.”

The big question remained: why was Brooke developmentally disorganised? It wasn’t nutritional and it wasn’t hormonal. The answer had to be in her genes. Walker suspected that she carried a glitch in a gene (or a set of genes, or some kind of complex genetic programme) that directed healthy development. There must be some mechanism, after all, that allows us to develop from a single cell to a system of trillions of cells. This genetic programme, Walker reasoned, would have two main functions: it would initiate and drive dramatic changes throughout the organism, and it would also coordinate these changes into a cohesive unit.

Ageing, he thought, comes about because this developmental programme, this constant change, never turns off. From birth until puberty, change is crucial: we need it to grow and mature. After we’ve matured, however, our adult bodies don’t need change, but rather maintenance. “If you’ve built the perfect house, you would want to stop adding bricks at a certain point,” Walker says. “When you’ve built a perfect body, you’d want to stop screwing around with it. But that’s not how evolution works.” Because natural selection cannot influence traits that show up after we have passed on our genes, we never evolved a “stop switch” for development, Walker says. So we keep adding bricks to the house. At first this doesn’t cause much damage – a sagging roof here, a broken window there. But eventually the foundation can’t sustain the additions, and the house topples. This, Walker says, is ageing.

Brooke was special because she seemed to have been born with a stop switch. But finding the genetic culprit turned out to be difficult. Walker would need to sequence Brooke’s entire genome, letter by letter.

That never happened. Much to Walker’s chagrin, Howard Greenberg abruptly severed their relationship. The Greenbergs have not publicly explained why they ended their collaboration with Walker, and declined to comment for this article.

Second chance

In August 2009, MaryMargret Williams saw a photo of Brooke on the cover of People magazine, just below the headline “Heartbreaking mystery: The 16-year-old baby”. She thought Brooke sounded a lot like Gabby, so contacted Walker.

After reviewing Gabby’s details, Walker filled her in on his theory. Testing Gabby’s genes, he said, could help him in his mission to end age-related disease – and maybe even ageing itself.

This didn’t sit well with the Williamses. John, who works for the Montana Department of Corrections, often interacts with people facing the reality of our finite time on Earth. “If you’re spending the rest of your life in prison, you know, it makes you think about the mortality of life,” he says. What’s important is not how long you live, but rather what you do with the life you’re given. MaryMargret feels the same way. For years she has worked in a local dermatology office. She knows all too well the cultural pressures to stay young, and wishes more people would embrace the inevitability of getting older. “You get wrinkles, you get old, that’s part of the process,” she says.

But Walker’s research also had its upside. First and foremost, it could reveal whether the other Williams children were at risk of passing on Gabby’s condition.

For several months, John and MaryMargret hashed out the pros and cons. They were under no illusion that the fruits of Walker’s research would change Gabby’s condition, nor would they want it to. But they did want to know why. “What happened, genetically, to make her who she is?” John says. And more importantly: “Is there a bigger meaning for it?”

John and MaryMargret firmly believe that God gave them Gabby for a reason. Walker’s research offered them a comforting one: to help treat Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases. “Is there a small piece that Gabby could present to help people solve these awful diseases?” John asks. “Thinking about it, it’s like, no, that’s for other people, that’s not for us.” But then he thinks back to the day Gabby was born. “I was in that delivery room, thinking the same thing – this happens to other people, not us.”

Still not entirely certain, the Williamses went ahead with the research.

Amassing evidence

Walker published his theory in 2011, but he’s only the latest of many researchers to think along the same lines. “Theories relating developmental processes to ageing have been around for a very long time, but have been somewhat under the radar for most researchers,” says Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, a biologist at the University of Liverpool. In 1932, for example, English zoologist George Parker Bidder suggested that mammals have some kind of biological “regulator” that stops growth after the animal reaches a specific size. Ageing, Bidder thought, was the continued action of this regulator after growth was done.

Subsequent studies showed that Bidder wasn’t quite right; there are lots of marine organisms, for example, that never stop growing but age anyway. Still, his fundamental idea of a developmental programme leading to ageing has persisted.

For several years, Stuart Kim’s group at Stanford University has been comparing which genes are expressed in young and old nematode worms. It turns out that some genes involved in ageing also help drive development in youth.

Kim suggested that the root cause of ageing is the “drift”, or mistiming, of developmental pathways during the ageing process, rather than an accumulation of cellular damage.

Other groups have since found similar patterns in mice and primates. One study, for example, found that many genes turned on in the brains of old monkeys and humans are the same as those expressed in young brains, suggesting that ageing and development are controlled by some of the same gene networks.

Perhaps most provocative of all, some studies of worms have shown that shutting down essential development genes in adults significantly prolongs life. “We’ve found quite a lot of genes in which this happened – several dozen,” de Magalhaes says.

Nobody knows whether the same sort of developmental-programme genes exist in people. But say that they do exist. If someone was born with a mutation that completely destroyed this programme, Walker reasoned, that person would undoubtedly die. But if a mutation only partially destroyed it, it might lead to a condition like what he saw in Brooke Greenberg or Gabby Williams. So if Walker could identify the genetic cause of Syndrome X, then he might also have a driver of the ageing process in the rest of us.

And if he found that, then could it lead to treatments that slow – or even end – ageing? “There’s no doubt about it,” he says.

Public stage

After agreeing to participate in Walker’s research, the Williamses, just like the Greenbergs before them, became famous. In January 2011, when Gabby was six, the television channel TLC featured her on a one-hour documentary. The Williams family also appeared on Japanese television and in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles.

Other than becoming a local celebrity, though, Gabby’s everyday life hasn’t changed much since getting involved in Walker’s research. She spends her days surrounded by her large family. She’ll usually lie on the floor, or in one of several cushions designed to keep her spine from twisting into a C shape. She makes noises that would make an outsider worry: grunting, gasping for air, grinding her teeth. Her siblings think nothing of it. They play boisterously in the same room, somehow always careful not to crash into her. Once a week, a teacher comes to the house to work with Gabby. She uses sounds and shapes on an iPad to try to teach cause and effect. When Gabby turned nine, last October, the family made her a birthday cake and had a party, just as they always do. Most of her gifts were blankets, stuffed animals and clothes, just as they are every year. Her aunt Jennie gave her make-up.

Walker teamed up with geneticists at Duke University and screened the genomes of Gabby, John and MaryMargret. This test looked at the exome, the 2% of the genome that codes for proteins. From this comparison, the researchers could tell that Gabby did not inherit any exome mutations from her parents – meaning that it wasn’t likely that her siblings would be able to pass on the condition to their kids. “It was a huge relief – huge,” MaryMargret says.

Still, the exome screening didn’t give any clues as to what was behind Gabby’s disease. Gabby carries several mutations in her exome, but none in a gene that would make sense of her condition. All of us have mutations littering our genomes. So it’s impossible to know, in any single individual, whether a particular mutation is harmful or benign – unless you can compare two people with the same condition.

All girls

Luckily for him, Walker’s continued presence in the media has led him to two other young girls who he believes have the same syndrome. One of them, Mackenzee Wittke, of Alberta, Canada, is now five years old, with has long and skinny limbs, just like Gabby. “We have basically been stuck in a time warp,” says her mother, Kim Wittke. The fact that all of these possible Syndrome X cases are girls is intriguing – it could mean that the crucial mutation is on their X chromosome. Or it could just be a coincidence.

Walker is working with a commercial outfit in California to compare all three girls’ entire genome sequences – the exome plus the other 98% of DNA code, which is thought to be responsible for regulating the expression of protein-coding genes.

For his theory, Walker says, “this is do or die – we’re going to do every single bit of DNA in these girls. If we find a mutation that’s common to them all, that would be very exciting.”

But that seems like a very big if.

Most researchers agree that finding out the genes behind Syndrome X is a worthwhile scientific endeavour, as these genes will no doubt be relevant to our understanding of development. They’re far less convinced, though, that the girls’ condition has anything to do with ageing. “It’s a tenuous interpretation to think that this is going to be relevant to ageing,” says David Gems, a geneticist at University College London. It’s not likely that these girls will even make it to adulthood, he says, let alone old age.

It’s also not at all clear that these girls have the same condition. Even if they do, and even if Walker and his collaborators discover the genetic cause, there would still be a steep hill to climb. The researchers would need to silence the same gene or genes in laboratory mice, which typically have a lifespan of two or three years. “If that animal lives to be 10, then we’ll know we’re on the right track,” Walker says. Then they’d have to find a way to achieve the same genetic silencing in people, whether with a drug or some kind of gene therapy. And then they’d have to begin long and expensive clinical trials to make sure that the treatment was safe and effective. Science is often too slow, and life too fast.

End of life

On 24 October 2013, Brooke passed away. She was 20 years old. MaryMargret heard about it when a friend called after reading it in a magazine. The news hit her hard. “Even though we’ve never met the family, they’ve just been such a part of our world,” she says.

MaryMargret doesn’t see Brooke as a template for Gabby – it’s not as if she now believes that she only has 11 years left with her daughter. But she can empathise with the pain the Greenbergs must be feeling. “It just makes me feel so sad for them, knowing that there’s a lot that goes into a child like that,” she says. “You’re prepared for them to die, but when it finally happens, you can just imagine the hurt.”

Today Gabby is doing well. MaryMargret and John are no longer planning her funeral. Instead, they’re beginning to think about what would happen if Gabby outlives them. (Sophia has offered to take care of her sister.) John turned 50 this year, and MaryMargret will be 41. If there were a pill to end ageing, they say they’d have no interest in it. Quite the contrary: they look forward to getting older, because it means experiencing the new joys, new pains and new ways to grow that come along with that stage of life.

Richard Walker, of course, has a fundamentally different view of growing old. When asked why he’s so tormented by it, he says it stems from childhood, when he watched his grandparents physically and psychologically deteriorate. “There was nothing charming to me about sedentary old people, rocking chairs, hot houses with Victorian trappings,” he says. At his grandparents’ funerals, he couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t look much different in death than they did at the end of life. And that was heartbreaking. “To say I love life is an understatement,” he says. “Life is the most beautiful and magic of all things.”

If his hypothesis is correct – who knows? – it might one day help prevent disease and modestly extend life for millions of people. Walker is all too aware, though, that it would come too late for him. As he writes in his book: “I feel a bit like Moses who, after wandering in the desert for most years of his life, was allowed to gaze upon the Promised Land but not granted entrance into it.”

 Read the entire story here.

Story courtesy of BBC and Mosaic under Creative Commons License.

Image: DNA structure. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Idea Shower and The Strategic Staircase

Every now and then we visit the world of corporatespeak to see how business jargon is faring: which words are in, which phrases are out. Unfortunately, many of the most used and over-used still find their way into common office parlance. With apologies to our state-side readers some of the most popular British phrases follow, and, no surprise, many of these cringeworthy euphemisms seem to emanate from the U.S. Ugh!

From the Guardian:

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a bit of joined up, blue sky thinking. I love nothing more than the opportunity to touch base with my boss first thing on a Monday morning. It gives me that 24 carat feeling.

I apologise for the sarcasm, but management speak makes most people want to staple the boss’s tongue to the desk. A straw poll around my office found jargon is seen by staff as a tool for making something seem more impressive than it actually is.

The Plain English Campaign says that many staff working for big corporate organisations find themselves using management speak as a way of disguising the fact that they haven’t done their job properly. Some people think that it is easy to bluff their way through by using long, impressive-sounding words and phrases, even if they don’t know what they mean, which is telling in itself.

Furthermore, a recent survey by Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter (23%) considering it to be a pointless irritation. “Thinking outside the box” (57%), “going forward” (55%) and “let’s touch base” (39%) were identified as the top three most overused pieces of jargon.

Walk through any office and you’ll hear this kind of thing going on every day. Here are some of the most irritating euphemisms doing the rounds:

Helicopter view – need a phrase that means broad overview of the business? Then why not say “a broad view of the business”?

Idea shower – brainstorm might be out of fashion, but surely we can thought cascade something better than this drivel.

Touch base offline – meaning let’s meet and talk. Because, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to communicate without a Wi-Fi signal. No, really, it is. Fancy a coffee?

Low hanging fruit – easy win business. This would be perfect for hungry children in orchards, but what is really happening is an admission that you don’t want to take the complicated route.

Look under the bonnet – analyse a situation. Most people wouldn’t have a clue about a car engine. When I look under a car bonnet I scratch my head, try not to look like I haven’t got a clue, jiggle a few pipes and kick the tyres before handing the job over to a qualified professional.

Get all your ducks in a row – be organised. Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street had an obsession with rubber ducks. You may think I’m disorganised, but there’s no need to talk to me like a five-year-old.

Don’t let the grass grow too long on this one – work fast. I’m looking for a polite way of suggesting that you get off your backside and get on with it.

Not enough bandwidth – too busy. Really? Try upgrading to fibre optics. I reckon I know a few people who haven’t been blessed with enough “bandwidth” and it’s got nothing to do with being busy.

Cascading relevant information – speaking to your colleagues. If anything, this is worse than touching base offline. From the flourish of cascading through to relevant, and onto information – this is complete nonsense.

The strategic staircase – business plan. Thanks, but I’ll take the lift.

Run it up the flagpole – try it out. Could you attach yourself while you’re at it?

Read the entire story here.

Sugar Is Bad For You, Really? Really!

 

sugar moleculesIn case you may not have heard, sugar is bad for you. In fact, an increasing number of food scientists will tell you that sugar is a poison, and that it’s time to fight the sugar oligarchs in much the same way that health advocates resolved to take on big tobacco many decades ago.

From the Guardian:

If you have any interest at all in diet, obesity, public health, diabetes, epidemiology, your own health or that of other people, you will probably be aware that sugar, not fat, is now considered the devil’s food. Dr Robert Lustig’s book, Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease, for all that it sounds like a Dan Brown novel, is the difference between vaguely knowing something is probably true, and being told it as a fact. Lustig has spent the past 16 years treating childhood obesity. His meta-analysis of the cutting-edge research on large-cohort studies of what sugar does to populations across the world, alongside his own clinical observations, has him credited with starting the war on sugar. When it reaches the enemy status of tobacco, it will be because of Lustig.

“Politicians have to come in and reset the playing field, as they have with any substance that is toxic and abused, ubiquitous and with negative consequence for society,” he says. “Alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine. We don’t have to ban any of them. We don’t have to ban sugar. But the food industry cannot be given carte blanche. They’re allowed to make money, but they’re not allowed to make money by making people sick.”

Lustig argues that sugar creates an appetite for itself by a determinable hormonal mechanism – a cycle, he says, that you could no more break with willpower than you could stop feeling thirsty through sheer strength of character. He argues that the hormone related to stress, cortisol, is partly to blame. “When cortisol floods the bloodstream, it raises blood pressure; increases the blood glucose level, which can precipitate diabetes. Human research shows that cortisol specifically increases caloric intake of ‘comfort foods’.” High cortisol levels during sleep, for instance, interfere with restfulness, and increase the hunger hormone ghrelin the next day. This differs from person to person, but I was jolted by recognition of the outrageous deliciousness of doughnuts when I haven’t slept well.

“The problem in obesity is not excess weight,” Lustig says, in the central London hotel that he has made his anti-metabolic illness HQ. “The problem with obesity is that the brain is not seeing the excess weight.” The brain can’t see it because appetite is determined by a binary system. You’re either in anorexigenesis – “I’m not hungry and I can burn energy” – or you’re in orexigenesis – “I’m hungry and I want to store energy.” The flip switch is your leptin level (the hormone that regulates your body fat) but too much insulin in your system blocks the leptin signal.

It helps here if you have ever been pregnant or remember much of puberty and that savage hunger; the way it can trick you out of your best intentions, the lure of ridiculous foods: six-month-old Christmas cake, sweets from a bin. If you’re leptin resistant – that is, if your insulin is too high as a result of your sugar intake – you’ll feel like that all the time.

Telling people to simply lose weight, he tells me, “is physiologically impossible and it’s clinically dangerous. It’s a goal that’s not achievable.” He explains further in the book: “Biochemistry drives behaviour. You see a patient who drinks 10 gallons of water a day and urinates 10 gallons of water a day. What is wrong with him? Could he have a behavioural disorder and be a psychogenic water drinker? Could be. Much more likely he has diabetes.” To extend that, you could tell people with diabetes not to drink water, and 3% of them might succeed – the outliers. But that wouldn’t help the other 97% just as losing the weight doesn’t, long-term, solve the metabolic syndrome – the addiction to sugar – of which obesity is symptomatic.

Many studies have suggested that diets tend to work for two months, some for as long as six. “That’s what the data show. And then everybody’s weight comes roaring back.” During his own time working night shifts, Lustig gained 3st, which he never lost and now uses exuberantly to make two points. The first is that weight is extremely hard to lose, and the second – more important, I think – is that he’s no diet and fitness guru himself. He doesn’t want everybody to be perfect: he’s just a guy who doesn’t want to surrender civilisation to diseases caused by industry. “I’m not a fitness guru,” he says, puckishly. “I’m 45lb overweight!”

“Sugar causes diseases: unrelated to their calories and unrelated to the attendant weight gain. It’s an independent primary-risk factor. Now, there will be food-industry people who deny it until the day they die, because their livelihood depends on it.” And here we have the reason why he sees this is a crusade and not a diet book, the reason that Lustig is in London and not Washington. This is an industry problem; the obesity epidemic began in 1980. Back then, nobody knew about leptin. And nobody knew about insulin resistance until 1984.

“What they knew was, when they took the fat out they had to put the sugar in, and when they did that, people bought more. And when they added more, people bought more, and so they kept on doing it. And that’s how we got up to current levels of consumption.” Approximately 80% of the 600,000 packaged foods you can buy in the US have added calorific sweeteners (this includes bread, burgers, things you wouldn’t add sugar to if you were making them from scratch). Daily fructose consumption has doubled in the past 30 years in the US, a pattern also observable (though not identical) here, in Canada, Malaysia, India, right across the developed and developing world. World sugar consumption has tripled in the past 50 years, while the population has only doubled; it makes sense of the obesity pandemic.

“It would have happened decades earlier; the reason it didn’t was that sugar wasn’t cheap. The thing that made it cheap was high-fructose corn syrup. They didn’t necessarily know the physiology of it, but they knew the economics of it.” Adding sugar to everyday food has become as much about the industry prolonging the shelf life as it has about palatability; if you’re shopping from corner shops, you’re likely to be eating unnecessary sugar in pretty well everything. It is difficult to remain healthy in these conditions. “You here in Britain are light years ahead of us in terms of understanding the problem. We don’t get it in the US, we have this libertarian streak. You don’t have that. You’re going to solve it first. So it’s in my best interests to help you, because that will help me solve it back there.”

The problem has mushroomed all over the world in 30 years and is driven by the profits of the food and diet industries combined. We’re not looking at a global pandemic of individual greed and fecklessness: it would be impossible for the citizens of the world to coordinate their human weaknesses with that level of accuracy. Once you stop seeing it as a problem of personal responsibility it’s easier to accept how profound and serious the war on sugar is. Life doesn’t have to become wholemeal and joyless, but traffic-light systems and five-a-day messaging are under-ambitious.

“The problem isn’t a knowledge deficit,” an obesity counsellor once told me. “There isn’t a fat person on Earth who doesn’t know vegetables are good for you.” Lustig agrees. “I, personally, don’t have a lot of hope that those things will turn things around. Education has not solved any substance of abuse. This is a substance of abuse. So you need two things, you need personal intervention and you need societal intervention. Rehab and laws, rehab and laws. Education would come in with rehab. But we need laws.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Molecular diagrams of sucrose (left) and fructose (right). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

National Extinction Coming Soon

Based on declining fertility rates in some Asian nations a new study predicts complete national extinctions in the not too distant future.

From the Telegraph:

South Koreans will be ‘extinct’ by 2750 if nothing is done to halt the nation’s falling fertility rate, according to a study by The National Assembly Research Service in Seoul.

The fertility rate declined to a new low of 1.19 children per woman in 2013, the study showed, well below the fertility rate required to sustainSouth Korea‘s current population of 50 million people, the Chosun Ilbo reported.

In a simulation, the NARS study suggests that the population will shrink to 40 million in 2056 and 10 million in 2136. The last South Korean, the report indicates, will die in 2750, making it the first national group in the world to become extinct.

The simulation is a worst-case scenario and does not consider possible changes in immigration policy, for example.

The study, carried out at the request of Yang Seung-jo, a member of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, underlines the challenges facing a number of nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and increasingly China are all experiencing growing financial pressures caused by rising healthcare costs and pension payments for an elderly population.

The problem is particularly serious in South Korea, where more than 38 per cent of the population is predicted to be of retirement age by 2050, according to the National Statistics Office. The equivalent figure in Japan is an estimated 39.6 per cent by 2050.

According to a 2012 study conducted by Tohoku University, Japan will go extinct in about one thousand years, with the last Japanese child born in 3011.

David Coleman, a population expert at Oxford University, has previously warned that South Korea’s fertility rate is so low that it threatens the existence of the nation.

The NARS study suggests that the southern Korean port city of Busan is most at risk, largely because of a sharp decline in the number of young and middle-aged residents, and that the last person will be born in the city in 2413.

Read the entire article here.

Those 25,000 Unread Emails

Google-search-emailIt may not be you. You may not be the person who has tens of thousands of unread emails scattered across various email accounts. However, you know someone just like this — buried in a virtual avalanche of unopened text, unable to extricate herself (or him) and with no pragmatic plan to tackle the digital morass.

Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte has some ideas to help your friend  (or you of course — your secret is safe with us).

From the Washington Post:

I was drowning in e-mail. Overwhelmed. Overloaded. Spending hours a day, it seemed, roiling in an unending onslaught of info turds and falling further and further behind. The day I returned from a two-week break, I had 23,768 messages in my inbox. And 14,460 of them were unread.

I had to do something. I kept missing stuff. Forgetting stuff. Apologizing. And getting miffed and increasingly angry e-mails from friends and others who wondered why I was ignoring them. It wasn’t just vacation that put me so far behind. I’d been behind for more than a year. Vacation only made it worse. Every time I thought of my inbox, I’d start to hyperventilate.

I’d tried tackling it before: One night a few months ago, I was determined to stay at my desk until I’d powered through all the unread e-mails. At dawn, I was still powering through and nowhere near the end. And before long, the inbox was just as crammed as it had been before I lost that entire night’s sleep.

On the advice of a friend, I’d even hired a Virtual Assistant to help me with the backlog. But I had no idea how to use one. And though I’d read about people declaring e-mail bankruptcy when their inbox was overflowing — deleting everything and starting over from scratch — I was positive there were gems somewhere in that junk, and I couldn’t bear to lose them.

I knew I wasn’t alone. I’d get automatic response messages saying someone was on vacation and the only way they could relax was by telling me they’d never, ever look at my e-mail, so please send it again when they returned. My friend, Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks, often sends out this auto response: “My inbox looks like Pompeii, post-volcano. Will respond as soon as I have time to excavate.” And another friend, whenever an e-mail is longer than one or two lines, sends a short note, “This sounds like a conversation,” and she won’t respond unless you call her.

E-mail made the late writer Nora Ephron’s list of the 22 things she won’t miss in life. Twice. In 2013, more than 182 billion e-mails were sent every day, no doubt clogging up millions of inboxes around the globe.

Bordering on despair, I sought help from four productivity gurus. And, following their advice, in two weeks of obsession-bordering-on-compulsion, my inbox was down to zero.

Here’s how.

*CREATE A SYSTEM. Julie Gray, a time coach who helps people dig out of e-mail overload all the time, said the first thing I had to change was my mind.

“This is such a pervasive problem. People think, ‘What am I doing wrong? They think they don’t have discipline or focus or that there’s some huge character flaw and they’re beating themselves up all the time. Which only makes it worse,” she said.

“So I first start changing their e-mail mindset from ‘This is an example of my failure,’ to ‘This just means I haven’t found the right system for me yet.’ It’s really all about finding your own path through the craziness.”

Do not spend another minute on e-mail, she admonished me, until you’ve begun to figure out a system. Otherwise, she said, I’d never dig out.

So we talked systems. It soon became clear that I’d created a really great e-mail system for when I was writing my book — ironically enough, on being overwhelmed — spending most of my time not at all overwhelmed in yoga pants in my home office working on my iMac. I was a follower of Randy Pausch who wrote, in “The Last Lecture,” to keep your e-mail inbox down to one page and religiously file everything once you’ve handled it. And I had for a couple years.

But now that I was traveling around the country to talk about the book, and back at work at The Washington Post, using my laptop, iPhone and iPad, that system was completely broken. I had six different e-mail accounts. And my main Verizon e-mail that I’d used for years and the Mac Mail inbox with meticulous file folders that I loved on my iMac didn’t sync across any of them.

Gray asked: “If everything just blew up today, and you had to start over, how would you set up your system?”

I wanted one inbox. One e-mail account. And I wanted the same inbox on all my devices. If I deleted an e-mail on my laptop, I wanted it deleted on my iMac. If I put an e-mail into a folder on my iMac, I wanted that same folder on my laptop.

So I decided to use Gmail, which does sync, as my main account. I set up an auto responder on my Verizon e-mail saying I was no longer using it and directing people to my Gmail account. I updated all my accounts to send to Gmail. And I spent hours on the phone with Apple one Sunday (thank you, Chazz,) to get my Gmail account set up in my beloved Mac mail inbox that would sync. Then I transferred old files and created new ones on Gmail. I had to keep my Washington Post account separate, but that wasn’t the real problem.

All systems go.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

Robin Williams You Will Be Missed

Google-search-robin-williams

Mork returned to Ork this weekend; sadly, his creator Robin Williams passed away on August 11, 2014. He was 63. His unique comic genius will be sorely missed.

From NYT:

Some years ago, at a party at the Cannes Film Festival, I was leaning against a rail watching a fireworks display when I heard a familiar voice behind me. Or rather, at least a dozen voices, punctuating the offshore explosions with jokes, non sequiturs and off-the-wall pop-cultural, sexual and political references.

There was no need to turn around: The voices were not talking directly to me and they could not have belonged to anyone other than Robin Williams, who was extemporizing a monologue at least as pyrotechnically amazing as what was unfolding against the Mediterranean sky. I’m unable to recall the details now, but you can probably imagine the rapid-fire succession of accents and pitches — macho basso, squeaky girly, French, Spanish, African-American, human, animal and alien — entangling with curlicues of self-conscious commentary about the sheer ridiculousness of anyone trying to narrate explosions of colored gunpowder in real time.

Part of the shock of his death on Monday came from the fact that he had been on — ubiquitous, self-reinventing, insistently present — for so long. On Twitter, mourners dated themselves with memories of the first time they had noticed him. For some it was the movie “Aladdin.” For others “Dead Poets Society” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” I go back even further, to the “Mork and Mindy” television show and an album called “Reality — What a Concept” that blew my eighth-grade mind.

Back then, it was clear that Mr. Williams was one of the most explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously verbal comedians who ever lived. The only thing faster than his mouth was his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-associative absurdity. Janet Maslin, reviewing his standup act in 1979, cataloged a tumble of riffs that ranged from an impression of Jacques Cousteau to “an evangelist at the Disco Temple of Comedy,” to Truman Capote Jr. at “the Kindergarten of the Stars” (whatever that was). “He acts out the Reader’s Digest condensed version of ‘Roots,’ ” Ms. Maslin wrote, “which lasts 15 seconds in its entirety. He improvises a Shakespearean-sounding epic about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, playing all the parts himself, including Einstein’s ghost.” (That, or something like it, was a role he would reprise more than 20 years later in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”)

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Kissing for the Sake of Art

The Makeout ProjectThe process for many artists in often long and arduous. Despite the creative and, usually, fulfilling end result the path is frequently punctuated with disrespect, self-deprivation, suffering and pain. Indeed, many artists have paid a heavier price for their expression: censorship, imprisonment, torture, death.

So, it’s refreshing to see an artist taking a more pleasure-filled route. Kissing. Someone has to do it!

From the Guardian:

From the naked women that Yves Klein covered in blue paint to Terry Richardson’s bevy of porny subjects, the art world is full of work that for one person seems liberated and for another exploitative. Continuing to skirt that line is Jedediah Johnson, an American photographer whose ongoing series the Makeout Project involves him putting on lipstick then kissing people, before documenting the resulting smears in portraits.

Johnson’s shots are really striking, with his LaChapellian palette of bright colours making the lipstick jump out from its surprisingly circuitous path across each person’s face. The subjects look variously flirtatious, amused and ashamed; some have strange narratives, like the woman who is holding a baby just out of shot, her partner hovering off to one side.

It’s sensational enough to have been covered in the Daily Mail with their characteristically BIZARRE use of capitalisation, perhaps chiefly because it seems cheeky – or indeed sleazy. “People say ‘oh, it’s disgusting and he’s just doing it to get cheap thrills’, and I guess that is kind of not totally untrue,” Johnson tells me, explaining the germ of his project. “I just got this thought of this lipstick mark on your face when someone kisses you as being a powerful, loaded gesture that could communicate a lot. And also, y’know, there were a lot of people I knew who I wanted to kiss.” It was a way of addressing his “romantic anxiety”, which was holding him back from kissing those he desired.

So he started asking to kiss people at parties, generally picking someone he knew first of all, so the other partygoers could see it was an art project rather than a novel way of getting his end away. After a while, he graduated to studio portraits, and not just of attractive young women. He says he didn’t want to be “the guy using art as an excuse to kiss people he wants to – and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but that’s just not who I wanted to be. So I’m going to have to kiss some people I don’t want to.” This includes a series of (still pretty attractive) men, who ended up teaching Jedediah a lot. “I didn’t realise people lead a kiss – I would always just kiss people, and I was leading, and I had no idea. There have been a couple of times when I kissed guys and they led; I tried to move into different real estate on their face, and they wouldn’t let me.”

His work is understandably misinterpreted though, with some people seeing the hand that cradles the face in each shot as a controlling, violent image. “I understand that when you are just pointing the viewer in a direction, they come up with stuff you’re not into.” But the only thing that really grates him is when people accuse him of not making art. “I have two degrees in art, and I don’t feel I have the ability to declare whether something is art or not. It’s an awful thing to say.”

The intrigue of his images comes from trying to assess the dynamic between the pair, from the woman biting her lip faux-seductively to those trying to hide their feelings about what’s just happened. Is there ever an erotic charge? “A few times it’s got really real for me; there’s some where I was probably like oh that was nice, and they’re thinking oh that was incredible, I don’t know what to do now. The different levels are very interesting.” He has had one unfortunate bad breath incident, though: “I was like hey, let’s make out, and she was like, great, just let me finish my garlic string beans. She still had garlic in her mouth.”

Read the entire story and see more images here.

Visit Jedediah Johnson’s website to see the entire Makeout Project here.

Image: The Makeout Project by Jedediah Johnson. Courtesy of Jedediah Johnson / Guardian.

Privacy and Potato Chips

Google-search-potato-chip

Privacy and lack thereof is much in the news and on or minds. New revelations of data breaches, phone taps, corporate hackers and governmental overreach surface on a daily basis. So, it is no surprise to learn that researchers have found a cheap way to eavesdrop on our conversations via a potato chip (crisp, to our British-English readers) packet. No news yet on which flavor of chip makes for the best spying!

From ars technica:

Watch enough spy thrillers, and you’ll undoubtedly see someone setting up a bit of equipment that points a laser at a distant window, letting the snoop listen to conversations on the other side of the glass. This isn’t something Hollywood made up; high-tech snooping devices of this sort do exist, and they take advantage of the extremely high-precision measurements made possible with lasers in order to measure the subtle vibrations caused by sound waves.

A team of researchers has now shown, however, that you can skip the lasers. All you really need is a consumer-level digital camera and a conveniently located bag of Doritos. A glass of water or a plant would also do.

Good vibrations

Despite the differences in the technology involved, both approaches rely on the same principle: sound travels on waves of higher and lower pressure in the air. When these waves reach a flexible object, they set off small vibrations in the object. If you can detect these vibrations, it’s possible to reconstruct the sound. Laser-based systems detect the vibrations by watching for changes in the reflections of the laser light, but researchers wondered whether you could simply observe the object directly, using the ambient light it reflects. (The team involved researchers at MIT, Adobe Research, and Microsoft Research.)

The research team started with a simple test system made from a loudspeaker playing a rising tone, a high-speed camera, and a variety of objects: water, cardboard, a candy wrapper, some metallic foil, and (as a control) a brick. Each of these (even the brick) showed some response at the lowest end of the tonal range, but the other objects, particularly the cardboard and foil, had a response into much higher tonal regions. To observe the changes in ambient light, the camera didn’t have to capture the object at high resolution—it was used at 700 x 700 pixels or less—but it did have to be high-speed, capturing as many as 20,000 frames a second.

Processing the images wasn’t simple, however. A computer had to perform a weighted average over all the pixels captured, and even a twin 3.5GHz machine with 32GB of RAM took more than two hours to process one capture. Nevertheless, the results were impressive, as the algorithm was able to detect motion on the order of a thousandth of a pixel. This enabled the system to recreate the audio waves emitted by the loudspeaker.

Most of the rest of the paper describing the results involved making things harder on the system, as the researchers shifted to using human voices and moving the camera outside the room. They also showed that pre-testing the vibrating object’s response to a tone scale could help them improve their processing.

But perhaps the biggest surprise came when they showed that they didn’t actually need a specialized, high-speed camera. It turns out that most consumer-grade equipment doesn’t expose its entire sensor at once and instead scans an image across the sensor grid in a line-by-line fashion. Using a consumer video camera, the researchers were able to determine that there’s a 16 microsecond delay between each line, with a five millisecond delay between frames. Using this information, they treated each line as a separate exposure and were able to reproduce sound that way.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

 

The Enigma of Privacy

Privacy is still a valued and valuable right. It should not be a mere benefit in a democratic society. But, in our current age privacy is becoming an increasingly threatened species. We are surrounded with social networks that share and mine our behaviors and we are assaulted by the snoopers and spooks from local and national governments.

From the Observer:

We have come to the end of privacy; our private lives, as our grandparents would have recognised them, have been winnowed away to the realm of the shameful and secret. To quote ex-tabloid hack Paul McMullan, “privacy is for paedos”. Insidiously, through small concessions that only mounted up over time, we have signed away rights and privileges that other generations fought for, undermining the very cornerstones of our personalities in the process. While outposts of civilisation fight pyrrhic battles, unplugging themselves from the web – “going dark” – the rest of us have come to accept that the majority of our social, financial and even sexual interactions take place over the internet and that someone, somewhere, whether state, press or corporation, is watching.

The past few years have brought an avalanche of news about the extent to which our communications are being monitored: WikiLeaks, the phone-hacking scandal, the Snowden files. Uproar greeted revelations about Facebook’s “emotional contagion” experiment (where it tweaked mathematical formulae driving the news feeds of 700,000 of its members in order to prompt different emotional responses). Cesar A Hidalgo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the Facebook news feed as “like a sausage… Everyone eats it, even though nobody knows how it is made”.

Sitting behind the outrage was a particularly modern form of disquiet – the knowledge that we are being manipulated, surveyed, rendered and that the intelligence behind this is artificial as well as human. Everything we do on the web, from our social media interactions to our shopping on Amazon, to our Netflix selections, is driven by complex mathematical formulae that are invisible and arcane.

Most recently, campaigners’ anger has turned upon the so-called Drip (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) bill in the UK, which will see internet and telephone companies forced to retain and store their customers’ communications (and provide access to this data to police, government and up to 600 public bodies). Every week, it seems, brings a new furore over corporations – Apple, Google, Facebook – sidling into the private sphere. Often, it’s unclear whether the companies act brazenly because our governments play so fast and loose with their citizens’ privacy (“If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear,” William Hague famously intoned); or if governments see corporations feasting upon the private lives of their users and have taken this as a licence to snoop, pry, survey.

We, the public, have looked on, at first horrified, then cynical, then bored by the revelations, by the well-meaning but seemingly useless protests. But what is the personal and psychological impact of this loss of privacy? What legal protection is afforded to those wishing to defend themselves against intrusion? Is it too late to stem the tide now that scenes from science fiction have become part of the fabric of our everyday world?

Novels have long been the province of the great What If?, allowing us to see the ramifications from present events extending into the murky future. As long ago as 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin imagined One State, the transparent society of his dystopian novel, We. For Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Atwood and many others, the loss of privacy was one of the establishing nightmares of the totalitarian future. Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle paints a portrait of an America without privacy, where a vast, internet-based, multimedia empire surveys and controls the lives of its people, relying on strict adherence to its motto: “Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft.” We watch as the heroine, Mae, disintegrates under the pressure of scrutiny, finally becoming one of the faceless, obedient hordes. A contemporary (and because of this, even more chilling) account of life lived in the glare of the privacy-free internet is Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which charts the existence of a lonely writer whose only escape is into the shallows of the web. “The first and last thing I do every day,” the book begins, “is see what strangers are saying about me.”

Our age has seen an almost complete conflation of the previously separate spheres of the private and the secret. A taint of shame has crept over from the secret into the private so that anything that is kept from the public gaze is perceived as suspect. This, I think, is why defecation is so often used as an example of the private sphere. Sex and shitting were the only actions that the authorities in Zamyatin’s One State permitted to take place in private, and these remain the battlegrounds of the privacy debate almost a century later. A rather prim leaked memo from a GCHQ operative monitoring Yahoo webcams notes that “a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person”.

It is to the bathroom that Max Mosley turns when we speak about his own campaign for privacy. “The need for a private life is something that is completely subjective,” he tells me. “You either would mind somebody publishing a film of you doing your ablutions in the morning or you wouldn’t. Personally I would and I think most people would.” In 2008, Mosley’s “sick Nazi orgy”, as the News of the World glossed it, featured in photographs published first in the pages of the tabloid and then across the internet. Mosley’s defence argued, successfully, that the romp involved nothing more than a “standard S&M prison scenario” and the former president of the FIA won £60,000 damages under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Now he has rounded on Google and the continued presence of both photographs and allegations on websites accessed via the company’s search engine. If you type “Max Mosley” into Google, the eager autocomplete presents you with “video,” “case”, “scandal” and “with prostitutes”. Half-way down the first page of the search we find a link to a professional-looking YouTube video montage of the NotW story, with no acknowledgment that the claims were later disproved. I watch it several times. I feel a bit grubby.

“The moment the Nazi element of the case fell apart,” Mosley tells me, “which it did immediately, because it was a lie, any claim for public interest also fell apart.”

Here we have a clear example of the blurred lines between secrecy and privacy. Mosley believed that what he chose to do in his private life, even if it included whips and nipple-clamps, should remain just that – private. The News of the World, on the other hand, thought it had uncovered a shameful secret that, given Mosley’s professional position, justified publication. There is a momentary tremor in Mosley’s otherwise fluid delivery as he speaks about the sense of invasion. “Your privacy or your private life belongs to you. Some of it you may choose to make available, some of it should be made available, because it’s in the public interest to make it known. The rest should be yours alone. And if anyone takes it from you, that’s theft and it’s the same as the theft of property.”

Mosley has scored some recent successes, notably in continental Europe, where he has found a culture more suspicious of Google’s sweeping powers than in Britain or, particularly, the US. Courts in France and then, interestingly, Germany, ordered Google to remove pictures of the orgy permanently, with far-reaching consequences for the company. Google is appealing against the rulings, seeing it as absurd that “providers are required to monitor even the smallest components of content they transmit or store for their users”. But Mosley last week extended his action to the UK, filing a claim in the high court in London.

Mosley’s willingness to continue fighting, even when he knows that it means keeping alive the image of his white, septuagenarian buttocks in the minds (if not on the computers) of the public, seems impressively principled. He has fallen victim to what is known as the Streisand Effect, where his very attempt to hide information about himself has led to its proliferation (in 2003 Barbra Streisand tried to stop people taking pictures of her Malibu home, ensuring photos were posted far and wide). Despite this, he continues to battle – both in court, in the media and by directly confronting the websites that continue to display the pictures. It is as if he is using that initial stab of shame, turning it against those who sought to humiliate him. It is noticeable that, having been accused of fetishising one dark period of German history, he uses another to attack Google. “I think, because of the Stasi,” he says, “the Germans can understand that there isn’t a huge difference between the state watching everything you do and Google watching everything you do. Except that, in most European countries, the state tends to be an elected body, whereas Google isn’t. There’s not a lot of difference between the actions of the government of East Germany and the actions of Google.”

All this brings us to some fundamental questions about the role of search engines. Is Google the de facto librarian of the internet, given that it is estimated to handle 40% of all traffic? Is it something more than a librarian, since its algorithms carefully (and with increasing use of your personal data) select the sites it wants you to view? To what extent can Google be held responsible for the content it puts before us?

Read the entire article here.

Frozen Moving Pictures

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Recent works by artist duo Floto+Warner could be mistaken for a family of bizarrely fluid, alien life-forms, not 3D sculptures of colorful chemicals. While these still images of fluorescent airborne liquids certainly pay homage to Jackson Pollock, they have a unique and playful character all of their own. And, in this case the creative process is just as fascinating as the end result.

From Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian:

Luridly chemical colours hang in the air in the vast wastelands of Nevada in an eye-catching set of pictures by the New York art duo Floto+Warner. To make these images of bright liquids arrested in space, Cassandra and Jeremy Floto threw up cocktails of colour until their camera caught just the splashy, fluid, stilled moments they wanted to record. Apparently, Photoshop is not involved.

These images echo the great modern tradition that pictures motion, energy and flux. “Energy and motion made visible – memories arrested in space,” as Jackson Pollock said of his paintings that he made by dripping, flicking and throwing paint on to canvases laid on the floor. Pollock’s “action paintings” are the obvious source of Floto and Warner’s hurled colours: their photographs are playful riffs on Pollock. And they bring out one of the most startling things about his art: the sense it is still in motion even when it has stopped; the feel of paint being liquid long after it has dried.

Floto and Warner prove that Pollock is still the Great American Artist, 58 years after his death. American art still can’t help echoing him. Works from Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty to Andy Warhol’s piss paintings echo his free-ranging exploration of space and his dynamic expansion of the act of drawing.

Yet these images of arrested veils and clouds of colour also echo other attempts to capture living motion. In 1830 to 1831 Hokusai depicted The Great Wave off Kanagawa as a tower of blueness cresting into white foam and about to fall onto the boats helplessly caught in its path. Hokusai’s woodblock print is a decisive moment in the story of art. It takes motion as a topic, and distills its essence in an image at once dynamic and suspended.

Photographers would soon take up Hokusai’s challenge to understand the nature of motion. Famously, Eadweard Muybridge in the late 19th century took strange serial studies of human and animal bodies in motion. Yet the photographer whom Floto+Warner echo most vividly is Harold E Edgerton, who brought the scientific photography of movement into modern times in striking pictures of a foot kicking a ball or a bullet piercing an apple.

Read the entire story and see more of Floto+Warner’s images here.

Image: Green Salt, Floto+Warner. Courtesy of the Guardian.