MondayMap: Music


If you decide to do only one thing today, do this: visit everynoise, discover new music and have some expansive auditory fun.

Every Noise At Once is the brainchild of Glenn McDonald, a self-described data alchemist. He has sampled and categorized popular music into an astounding 1,264 genres — at current estimates.

You’re probably familiar with glam rock, emo punk, motown, ambient, garage, house, dub step, rap, metal and so on. But are you up on: neo-synthpop, fallen angel, deep orgcore, neurostep, death metal, skweee and cow punk? Well, here’s your chance to find out and expand your senses and your mind.

From the Guardian:

Music used to be easy. Some people liked rock. Some people liked pop. Some people liked jazz, blues or classical. And, basically, that was sort of it. However, musicians are a restless bunch and you can only play Smoke on the Water, Always Crashing in the Same Car or Roast Fish and Cornbread so many times before someone is bound to say: “Hang on a minute, what would happen if we played them all at the same time?” And so it is that new genres are born. Now imagine that happening for at least half a century or so – all over the world – and you reach a point at which, according to the engineer and “data alchemist” Glenn McDonald, there are now 1,264 genres of popular music; all you need to do is go directly to his startlingly website and look – well, listen – for yourself.

Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt to build an algorithmically generated map of the entire musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analysed by Spotify’s music-intelligence division, The Echo Nest. It is also – in truth – one of the greatest time-eating devices ever created. You thought you had some kind of idea of just how much music is out there? You don’t. I don’t. But McDonald does. So he’s covered those genres – such as death metal, techno or hip-hop, which you’ll have heard of. Others, such as electro trash, indietronica or hard glam you may only have the most passing acquaintance with. Then, rather wonderfully, there are the outliers, those genres that you almost certainly didn’t even know existed – much less ever explored – suomi rock, shimmer psych,fourth world – right there at your fingertips any time you please. But the question is: what lives even further out than the outliers? How odd can it all get? Well, here are 10 genres (we could have nominated about 50) that even mouth-breathing indie record-shop blowhards (full disclosure: I used to be a mouth-breathing indie-record shop blowhard) would be hardpressed to help you find …

Read the entire story and sample some bands here.

Image: Every Noise at Once, screenshot. Courtesy of Glenn McDonald, Every Noise at Once.

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Slow Reading is Catching on Fast (Again)

Pursuing a cherished activity, uninterrupted, with no distraction is one of life’s pleasures. Many who multi-task and brag about it have long forgotten the benefits of deep focus and immersion in one single, prolonged task. Reading can be such a process — and over the last several years researchers have found that distraction-free, thoughtful reading — slow reading — is beneficial.

So, please put down your tablet, laptop, smartphone and TV remote after you read this post, go find an unread book, shut out your daily distractions — kids, news, Facebook, boss, grocery lists, plumber — and immerse yourself in the words on a page, and nothing else. It will relieve you of stress and benefit your brain.

From WSJ:

Once a week, members of a Wellington, New Zealand, book club arrive at a cafe, grab a drink and shut off their cellphones. Then they sink into cozy chairs and read in silence for an hour.

The point of the club isn’t to talk about literature, but to get away from pinging electronic devices and read, uninterrupted. The group calls itself the Slow Reading Club, and it is at the forefront of a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading.

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.

“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams, a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”

Slow readers list numerous benefits to a regular reading habit, saying it improves their ability to concentrate, reduces stress levels and deepens their ability to think, listen and empathize. The movement echoes a resurgence in other old-fashioned, time-consuming pursuits that offset the ever-faster pace of life, such as cooking the “slow-food” way or knitting by hand.

The benefits of reading from an early age through late adulthood have been documented by researchers. A study of 300 elderly people published by the journal Neurology last year showed that regular engagement in mentally challenging activities, including reading, slowed rates of memory loss in participants’ later years.

A study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others’ mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in building relationships. A piece of research published in Developmental Psychology in 1997 showed first-grade reading ability was closely linked to 11th grade academic achievements.

Yet reading habits have declined in recent years. In a survey this year, about 76% of Americans 18 and older said they read at least one book in the past year, down from 79% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.

Attempts to revive reading are cropping up in many places. Groups in Seattle, Brooklyn, Boston and Minneapolis have hosted so-called silent reading parties, with comfortable chairs, wine and classical music.

Diana La Counte of Orange County, Calif., set up what she called a virtual slow-reading group a few years ago, with members discussing the group’s book selection online, mostly on Facebook. “When I realized I read Twitter more than a book, I knew it was time for action,” she says.

Read the entire story here.

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Cellphone Only Lanes


You’ve seen the high occupancy vehicle lane on select highways. You’ve seen pedestrian only zones. You’ve seen cycle friendly zones. Now, it’s time for the slow walking lane — for pedestrians using smartphones! Perhaps we’ll eventually see separate lanes for tourists with tablets, smartwatch users and, of course, a completely separate zone for texting t(w)eens.

From the Independent:

The Chinese city of Chongqing claims to have introduced the world’s first ‘slow-walking lane’ for smartphone users.

No more will the most efficient of pedestrians be forced to stare frustratedly at the occiput of their meandering counterparts.

Two 100-ft lanes have been painted on to a pavement in the city, with one side reserved for those wanting to stare into their handheld device and the other exclusively for those who can presumably spare five minutes without checking their latest Weibo update.

However, according to the Telegraph, officials in Chongqing only introduced the signage to make the point that “it is best not to play with your phone while walking”.

Read the entire story here.

Image: City of Chongqing. Courtesy of the Independent.


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Texas and Its Textbooks: The Farce Continues

Just over a year ago I highlighted the plight of accepted scholarly fact in Texas. The state, through its infamous School Board of Education (SBOE), had just completed a lengthy effort to revise many textbooks for middle- and high-school curricula. The SBOE and its ideological supporters throughout the Texas political machine managed to insert numerous dubious claims, fictitious statements in place of agreed upon facts and handfuls of slanted opinion in all manner of historical and social science texts. Many academics and experts in their respective fields raised alarms over the process. But the SBOE derided these “liberal elitists”, and openly flaunted its distaste for fact, preferring to distort historical record with undertones of conservative Christianity.

Many non-Texan progressives and believers-in-fact laughingly shook their heads knowing that Texas could and should be left its own devices. Unfortunately, for the rest of the country, Texas has so much buying power that textbook publishers will often publish with Texas in mind, but distribute their books throughout the entire nation.

So now it comes as no surprise to find that many newly, or soon to be, published Texas textbooks for grades 6-12 are riddled with errors. An academic review of 43 textbooks highlights the disaster waiting to happen to young minds in Texas, and across many other states. The Texas SBOE will take a vote on which books to approve in November.

Some choice examples of the errors and half-truths below.

All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.

Discovery Education — Social Studies Techbook World Geography and Cultures

The text states: “When Europeans arrived, they brought Christianity with them and spread it among the indigenous people. Over time, Christianity became the main religion in Latin America.”

Pearson Education – Contemporary World Cultures

The text states: “Priests came to Mexico to convert Native Americans to the Roman Catholic religion. The Church became an important part of life in the new colony. Churches were built in the centers of towns and cities, and church officials became leaders in the colony.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography

The text states: “The Spanish brought their language and Catholic religion, both of which dominate modern Mexico.”


All but two of the world geography textbooks fail to mention the Spaniards’ forced conversions of the indigenous peoples to Christianity (e.g., the Spanish Requerimiento of 1513) and their often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions. The two exceptions (Cengage Learning, Inc. – World Cultures and Geography and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography) delay this grim news until a chapter on South America, and even there do not give it the prominence it deserves.

What’s Wrong?

The Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was most decidedly not benign. These descriptions provide a distorted picture of the spread of Christianity. An accurate account must include information about the forced conversion of native peoples and the often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions and practices. (This error of omission is especially problematic when contrasted with the emphasis on conquest – often violent – to describe the spread of Islam in some textbooks.)

One world history textbook (by Worldview Software, Inc.) includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

WorldView Software – World History A: Early Civilizations to the Mid-1800s

The text states: “South of the Sahara Desert most of the people before the Age of Explorations were black Africans of the Negro race.”

 Elsewhere, the text states: “The first known inhabitants of Africa north of the Sahara in prehistory were Caucasoid Hamitic people of uncertain origin.”

What’s Wrong?

First, the term “Negro” is archaic and fraught with ulterior meaning. It should categorically not be used in a modern textbook. Further, the first passage is unforgivably misleading because it suggests that all black native Africans belong to a single “racial” group. This is typological thinking, which disappeared largely from texts after the 1940s. It harkens back to the racialization theory that all people could be classified as one of three “races”: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, or Negroid. Better to say: “…were natives of African origin.” Similarly, in the second passage, it is more accurate to simply omit reference to “Caucasoid.”

From the Washington Post:

When it comes to controversies about curriculum, textbook content and academic standards, Texas is the state that keeps on giving.

Back in 2010, we had an uproar over proposed changes to social studies standards by religious conservatives on the State Board of Education, which included a bid to calling the United States’ hideous slave trade history as the “Atlantic triangular trade.” There were other doozies, too, such as one proposal to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Enlightenment curriculum and replace him with John Calvin. Some were changed but the board’s approved standards were roundly criticized as distorted history.

There’s a new fuss about proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools that are based on what are called the Texas Essential  Knowledge  and  Skills.  Scholarly reviews of 43 proposed history, geography and government textbooks for Grades 6-12 — undertaken by the Education Fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog and activist group that monitors far-right issues and organizations — found extensive problems in American Government textbooks, U.S. and World History textbooks,Religion in World History textbooks, and Religion in World Geography textbooks.  The state board will vote on which books to approve in November.

Ideas promoted in various proposed textbooks include the notion that Moses and Solomon inspired American democracy, that in the era of segregation only “sometimes” were schools for black children “lower in quality” and that Jews view Jesus Christ as an important prophet.

Here are the broad findings of 10 scholars, who wrote four separate reports, taken from an executive summary, followed by the names of the scholars and a list of publishers who submitted textbooks.

The findings:

  • A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.
  • Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.
  • Several world history and world geography textbooks include biased statements that inappropriately portray Islam and Muslims negatively.
  • All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.
  • Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.
  • Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and already familiar with Christian events and doctrine.
  • A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems that exist in capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in the U.S. economic system.
  • One government textbook flirts with contemporary Tea Party ideology, particularly regarding the inclusion of anti-taxation and anti-regulation arguments.
  • One world history textbook includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

Read the entire article here and check out the academic report here.


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MondayMap: Our New Address — Laniakea


Once upon a time we humans sat smugly at the center of the universe. Now, many of us (though, not yet all) know better. Over the the last several centuries we learned and accepted that the Earth spun around the nearest Star, and not the converse. We then learned that the Sun formed part of an immense galaxy, the Milky Way, itself spinning in a vast cosmological dance. More recently, we learned that the Milky Way formed part of a larger cluster of galaxies, known as the Local Group.

Now we find that our Local Group is a mere speck within an immense supercluster containing around 100,000 galaxies spanning half a billion light years. Researchers have dubbed this galactic supercluster, rather aptly, Laniakea, Hawaiian for “immense heaven”. Laniakea is your new address. And, fascinatingly, Laniakea is moving towards an even larger grouping of galaxies named the Shapely supercluster.

From the Guardian:

In what amounts to a back-to-school gift for pupils with nerdier leanings, researchers have added a fresh line to the cosmic address of humanity. No longer will a standard home address followed by “the Earth, the solar system, the Milky Way, the universe” suffice for aficionados of the extended astronomical location system.

The extra line places the Milky Way in a vast network of neighbouring galaxies or “supercluster” that forms a spectacular web of stars and planets stretching across 520m light years of our local patch of universe. Named Laniakea, meaning “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian, the supercluster contains 100,000 large galaxies that together have the mass of 100 million billion suns.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, lies on the far outskirts of Laniakea near the border with another supercluster of galaxies named Perseus-Pisces. “When you look at it in three dimensions, is looks like a sphere that’s been badly beaten up and we are over near the edge, being pulled towards the centre,” said Brent Tully, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

Astronomers have long known that just as the solar system is part of the Milky Way, so the Milky Way belongs to a cosmic structure that is much larger still. But their attempts to define the larger structure had been thwarted because it was impossible to work out where one cluster of galaxies ended and another began.

Tully’s team gathered measurements on the positions and movement of more than 8,000 galaxies and, after discounting the expansion of the universe, worked out which were being pulled towards us and which were being pulled away. This allowed the scientists to define superclusters of galaxies that all moved in the same direction (if you’re reading this story on a mobile device, click here to watch a video explaining the research).

The work published in Nature gives astronomers their first look at the vast group of galaxies to which the Milky Way belongs. A narrow arch of galaxies connects Laniakea to the neighbouring Perseus-Pisces supercluster, while two other superclusters called Shapley and Coma lie on the far side of our own.

Tully said the research will help scientists understand why the Milky Way is hurtling through space at 600km a second towards the constellation of Centaurus. Part of the reason is the gravitational pull of other galaxies in our supercluster.

“But our whole supercluster is being pulled in the direction of this other supercluster, Shapley, though it remains to be seen if that’s all that’s going on,” said Tully.

Read the entire article here or the nerdier paper here.

Image: Laniakea: Our Home Supercluster of Galaxies. The blue dot represents the location of the Milky Way. Courtesy: R. Brent Tully (U. Hawaii) et al., SDvision, DP, CEA/Saclay.

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Theism Versus Spirituality

Prominent neo-atheist Sam Harris continues to reject theism, and does so thoughtfully and eloquently. In his latest book, Waking Up, he continues to argue the case against religion, but makes a powerful case for spirituality. Harris defines spirituality as an inner sense of a good and powerful reality, based on sound self-awarenesses and insightful questioning of one’s own consciousness. This type of spirituality, quite rightly, is devoid of theistic angels and demons. Harris reveals more in his interview with Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

From the NYT:

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.

The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.

G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?

S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.

Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.

And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.

G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.

S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.

For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.

However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.

Read the entire story here.

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An Ode to the Monopolist

Peter Thiel on why entrepreneurs should strive for monopoly and avoid competition. If only it were that simple for esoteric restaurants, innovative technology companies and all startup businesses in between.

From WSJ:

What valuable company is nobody building? This question is harder than it looks, because your company could create a lot of value without becoming very valuable itself. Creating value isn’t enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create.

This means that even very big businesses can be bad businesses. For example, U.S. airline companies serve millions of passengers and create hundreds of billions of dollars of value each year. But in 2012, when the average airfare each way was $178, the airlines made only 37 cents per passenger trip. Compare them to Google which creates less value but captures far more. Google brought in $50 billion in 2012 (versus $160 billion for the airlines), but it kept 21% of those revenues as profits—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year. Google makes so much money that it is now worth three times more than every U.S. airline combined.

The airlines compete with each other, but Google stands alone. Economists use two simplified models to explain the difference: perfect competition and monopoly.

“Perfect competition” is considered both the ideal and the default state in Economics 101. So-called perfectly competitive markets achieve equilibrium when producer supply meets consumer demand. Every firm in a competitive market is undifferentiated and sells the same homogeneous products. Since no firm has any market power, they must all sell at whatever price the market determines. If there is money to be made, new firms will enter the market, increase supply, drive prices down and thereby eliminate the profits that attracted them in the first place. If too many firms enter the market, they’ll suffer losses, some will fold, and prices will rise back to sustainable levels. Under perfect competition, in the long run no company makes an economic profit.

The opposite of perfect competition is monopoly. Whereas a competitive firm must sell at the market price, a monopoly owns its market, so it can set its own prices. Since it has no competition, it produces at the quantity and price combination that maximizes its profits.

To an economist, every monopoly looks the same, whether it deviously eliminates rivals, secures a license from the state or innovates its way to the top. I’m not interested in illegal bullies or government favorites: By “monopoly,” I mean the kind of company that is so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute. Google is a good example of a company that went from 0 to 1: It hasn’t competed in search since the early 2000s, when it definitively distanced itself from Microsoft and Yahoo!

Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

How much of the world is actually monopolistic? How much is truly competitive? It is hard to say because our common conversation about these matters is so confused. To the outside observer, all businesses can seem reasonably alike, so it is easy to perceive only small differences between them. But the reality is much more binary than that. There is an enormous difference between perfect competition and monopoly, and most businesses are much closer to one extreme than we commonly realize.

The confusion comes from a universal bias for describing market conditions in self-serving ways: Both monopolists and competitors are incentivized to bend the truth.

Monopolists lie to protect themselves. They know that bragging about their great monopoly invites being audited, scrutinized and attacked. Since they very much want their monopoly profits to continue unmolested, they tend to do whatever they can to conceal their monopoly—usually by exaggerating the power of their (nonexistent) competition.

Think about how Google talks about its business. It certainly doesn’t claim to be a monopoly. But is it one? Well, it depends: a monopoly in what? Let’s say that Google is primarily a search engine. As of May 2014, it owns about 68% of the search market. (Its closest competitors, Microsoft and Yahoo! have about 19% and 10%, respectively.) If that doesn’t seem dominant enough, consider the fact that the word “google” is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary—as a verb. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen to Bing.

But suppose we say that Google is primarily an advertising company. That changes things. The U.S. search-engine advertising market is $17 billion annually. Online advertising is $37 billion annually. The entire U.S. advertising market is $150 billion. And global advertising is a $495 billion market. So even if Google completely monopolized U.S. search-engine advertising, it would own just 3.4% of the global advertising market. From this angle, Google looks like a small player in a competitive world.

What if we frame Google as a multifaceted technology company instead? This seems reasonable enough; in addition to its search engine, Google makes dozens of other software products, not to mention robotic cars, Android phones and wearable computers. But 95% of Google’s revenue comes from search advertising; its other products generated just $2.35 billion in 2012 and its consumer-tech products a mere fraction of that. Since consumer tech is a $964 billion market globally, Google owns less than 0.24% of it—a far cry from relevance, let alone monopoly. Framing itself as just another tech company allows Google to escape all sorts of unwanted attention.

Non-monopolists tell the opposite lie: “We’re in a league of our own.” Entrepreneurs are always biased to understate the scale of competition, but that is the biggest mistake a startup can make. The fatal temptation is to describe your market extremely narrowly so that you dominate it by definition.

Read the entire article here.

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The Next (and Final) Doomsday Scenario

Personally, I love dystopian visions and apocalyptic nightmares. So, news that the famed Higgs boson may ultimately cause our demise, and incidentally the end of the entire cosmos, caught my attention.

Apparently theoreticians have calculated that the Higgs potential of which the Higgs boson is a manifestation has characteristics that make the universe unstable. (The Higgs was discovered in 2012 by teams at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.) Luckily for those wishing to avoid the final catastrophe this instability may keep the universe intact for several more billions of years, and if suddenly the Higgs were to trigger the final apocalypse it would be at the speed of light.

From Popular Mechanics:

In July 2012, when scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider culminated decades of work with their discovery of the Higgs boson, most physicists celebrated. Stephen Hawking did not. The famed theorist expressed his disappointmentthat nothing more unusual was found, calling the discovery “a pity in a way.” But did he ever say the Higgs could destroy the universe?

That’s what many reports in the media said earlier this week, quoting a preface Hawking wrote to a book called Starmus. According to The Australian, the preface reads in part: “The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100 [billion] gigaelectronvolts (GeV). This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.”

What Hawking is talking about here is not the Higgs boson but what’s called the Higgs potential, which are “totally different concepts,” says Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University. The Higgs field permeates the entire universe, and the Higgs boson is an excitation of that field, just like an electron is an excitation of an electric field. In this analogy, the Higgs potential is like the voltage, determining the value of the field.

Once physicists began to close in on the mass of the Higgs boson, they were able to work out the Higgs potential. That value seemed to reveal that the universe exists in what’s known as a meta-stable vacuum state, or false vacuum, a state that’s stable for now but could slip into the “true” vacuum at any time. This is the catastrophic vacuum decay in Hawking’s warning, though he is not the first to posit the idea.

Is he right?

“There are a couple of really good reasons to think that’s not the end of the story,” Mack says. There are two ways for a meta-stable state to fall off into the true vacuum—one classical way, and one quantum way. The first would occur via a huge energy boost, the 100 billion GeVs Hawking mentions. But, Mack says, the universe already experienced such high energies during the period of inflation just after the big bang. Particles in cosmic rays from space also regularly collide with these kinds of high energies, and yet the vacuum hasn’t collapsed (otherwise, we wouldn’t be here).

“Imagine that somebody hands you a piece of paper and says, ‘This piece of paper has the potential to spontaneously combust,’ and so you might be worried,” Mack says. “But then they tell you 20 years ago it was in a furnace.” If it didn’t combust in the furnace, it’s not likely to combust sitting in your hand.

Of course, there’s always the quantum world to consider, and that’s where things always get weirder. In the quantum world, where the smallest of particles interact, it’s possible for a particle on one side of a barrier to suddenly appear on the other side of the barrier without actually going through it, a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. If our universe was in fact in a meta-stable state, it could quantum tunnel through the barrier to the vacuum on the other side with no warning, destroying everything in an instant. And while that is theoretically possible, predictions show that if it were to happen, it’s not likely for billions of billions of years. By then, the sun and Earth and you and I and Stephen Hawking will be a distant memory, so it’s probably not worth losing sleep over it.

What’s more likely, Mack says, is that there is some new physics not yet understood that makes our vacuum stable. Physicists know there are parts of the model missing; mysteries like quantum gravity and dark matter that still defy explanation. When two physicists published a paper documenting the Higgs potential conundrum in March, their conclusion was that an explanation lies beyond the Standard Model, not that the universe may collapse at any time.

Read the article here.

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The Original Rolling Stones


Who or what has been moving these Death Valley boulders? Theories have persisted for quite some time: unknown inhabitants of the desert straddling California and Nevada; mischievous troglodytes from Middle Earth; aliens sending us cryptic, geologic messages; invisible demons; telepathic teenagers.

But now we know, and the mysterious forces at work are, unfortunately, rather mundane — the rocks are moved through a combination of rain, ice and wind. Oh well — time to focus on crop circles again!

From ars technica:

Mario is just a video game, and rocks don’t have legs. Both of these things are true. Yet, like the Mario ghosts that advance only when your back is turned, there are rocks that we know have been moving—even though no one has ever seen them do it.

The rocks in question occupy a spot called Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Playas are desert mudflats that sometimes host shallow lakes when enough water is around. Racetrack Playa gets its name from long furrows extending from large rocks sitting on the playa bed—tracks that make it look as if the rocks had been dragged through the mud. The tracks of the various rocks run parallel to each other, sometimes suggesting that the rocks had made sharp turns in unison, like dehydrated synchronize swimmers.

Many potential explanations have been offered up (some going back to the 1940s) for this bizarre situation, as the rocks seem to only move occasionally and had never been caught in the act. One thing everyone could agree on was that it must occur when the playa is wet and the muddy bottom is slick. At first, suggestions revolved around especially strong winds. One geologist went as far as to bring out a propeller airplane to see how much wind it would take.

The other idea was that ice, which does occasionally form there, could be responsible. If the rocks were frozen into a sheet of ice, a little buoyancy might reduce the friction beneath them. And again, strong winds over the surface of the ice could drag the whole mess around, accounting for the synchronized nature of the tracks.

Over the years, a number of clever studies have attempted to test these possibilities. But to truly put the question to rest, the rocks were going to have to be observed while moving. A team led by Richard Norris and his engineer cousin James Norris set out to do just that. They set out 15 rocks with GPS loggers, a weather station, and some time-lapse cameras in 2011. Magnetic triggers were buried beneath the rocks so that the loggers would start recording when they began to move. And the Norrises waited.

They got what they were after last winter. A little rain and snow provided enough water to fill the lake to a depth of a few centimeters. At night, temperatures were low enough for ice to form. On a few sunny days, the rocks stirred.

By noon, the thin sheet of ice—just a few millimeters thick—would start breaking up. Light wind pushed the ice, and the water in the lake, to the northeast. The rocks, which weren’t frozen into the thin ice, went along for the ride. On one occasion, two rocks were recorded traveling 65 meters over 16 minutes, with a peak rate of 5 to 6 meters per minute.

These movements were detectable in the time-lapse images, but you might not actually notice it if you were standing there. The researchers note that the tracks carved in the mud aren’t immediately apparent due to the muddy water.

The total distances traveled by the instrumented rocks between November and February ranged from 15 to 225 meters. While all moving rocks travel in the direction of the prevailing wind, they didn’t all move together—motion depended on the way the ice broke up and the depth of the water around each rock.

While the proposed explanations weren’t far off, the thinness of the ice and the minimal wind speed that were needed were both surprises. There was no ice buoyancy lifting the rocks. They were just being pushed by loose sheets of thin ice that were themselves being pushed by wind and water.

In the end, there’s nothing extraordinary about the motion of these rocks, but the necessary conditions are rare enough that the results still shock us. Similar tracks have been found in a few playas elsewhere around the world, though, and ice-pushed rocks also leave marks in the shallows of Canada’s Great Slave Lake. There’s no need to worry about the rocks at Racetrack Playa coming to life and opening secretly ferocious jaws when you look away.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Rocks at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley. Courtesy of Arno Gourdol. Some Rights Reserved.

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The Future of History

Take and impassioned history professor, a mediocre U.S. high school history curriculum and add Bill Gates, and you get an opportunity to inject fresh perspectives and new ideas into young minds.

Not too long ago Professor David Christian’s collection of Big History DVDs caught Gates’ attention, leading to a broad mission to overhaul the boring history lesson — one school at a time. Professor Christian’s approach takes a thoroughly holistic approach to the subject, spanning broad and interconnected topics such as culture, biochemistry, astronomy, agriculture and physics. The sweeping narrative fundamental to Christian’s delivery reminds me somewhat of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, two landmark U.K. television series.

From the New York Times:

In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.

As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.”

As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects, like the Common Core Standards Initiative, which the foundation was instrumental in pushing through. And Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible. He was frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he told me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set a meeting with Christian.

A few days later, the professor, who was lecturing at San Diego State University, found himself in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet with the billionaire. “I was scared,” Christian recalled. “Someone took me along the corridor, knocks on a door, Bill opens it, invites me in. All I remember is that within five minutes, he had so put me at my ease. I thought, I’m a nerd, he’s a nerd and this is fun!” After a bit of small talk, Gates got down to business. He told Christian that he wanted to introduce “Big History” as a course in high schools all across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved. “He actually gave me his email address and said, ‘Just think about it,’ ” Christian continued. ” ‘Email me if you think this is a good idea.’ ”

Christian emailed to say that he thought it was a pretty good idea. The two men began tinkering, adapting Christian’s college course into a high-school curriculum, with modules flexible enough to teach to freshmen and seniors alike. Gates, who insisted that the course include a strong digital component, hired a team of engineers and designers to develop a website that would serve as an electronic textbook, brimming with interactive graphics and videos. Gates was particularly insistent on the idea of digital timelines, which may have been vestige of an earlier passion project, Microsoft Encarta, the electronic encyclopedia that was eventually overtaken by the growth of Wikipedia. Now he wanted to offer a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface. The site, which is open to the public, would also feature a password-protected forum for teachers to trade notes and update and, in some cases, rewrite lesson plans based on their experiences in the classroom.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Clip from Threshold 1, The Big Bang. Courtesy of Big History Project, David Christian.

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Measuring the Quantum Jitter

Some physicists are determined to find out if we are mere holograms. Perhaps not quite like the dystopian but romanticized version fictionalized in The Matrix, but still a fascinating idea nonetheless. Armed with a very precise measuring tool, known as a Holometer or more precisely twin correlated Michelson holographic interferometers, researchers aim to find the scale at which the universe becomes jittery. In turn this will give a better picture of the fundamental units of space-time, well beyond the the elementary particles themselves, and somewhat closer to the Planck Length.

From the New Scientist:

The search for the fundamental units of space and time has officially begun. Physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois, announced this week that the Holometer, a device designed to test whether we live in a giant hologram, has started taking data.

The experiment is testing the idea that the universe is actually made up of tiny “bits”, in a similar way to how a newspaper photo is actually made up of dots. These fundamental units of space and time would be unbelievably tiny: a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton. And like the well-knownquantum behaviour of matter and energy, these bits of space-time would behave more like waves than particles.

“The theory is that space is made of waves instead of points, that everything is a little jittery, and never sits still,” says Craig Hogan at the University of Chicago, who dreamed up the experiment.

The Holometer is designed to measure this “jitter”. The surprisingly simple device is operated from a shed in a field near Chicago, and consists of two powerful laser beams that are directed through tubes 40 metres long. The lasers precisely measure the positions of mirrors along their paths at two points in time.

If space-time is smooth and shows no quantum behaviour, then the mirrors should remain perfectly still. But if both lasers measure an identical, small difference in the mirrors’ position over time, that could mean the mirrors are being jiggled about by fluctuations in the fabric of space itself.

 So what of the idea that the universe is a hologram? This stems from the notion that information cannot be destroyed, so for example the 2D event horizon of a black hole “records” everything that falls into it. If this is the case, then the boundary of the universe could also form a 2D representation of everything contained within the universe, like a hologram storing a 3D image in 2D .

Hogan cautions that the idea that the universe is a hologram is somewhat misleading because it suggests that our experience is some kind of illusion, a projection like a television screen. If the Holometer finds a fundamental unit of space, it won’t mean that our 3D world doesn’t exist. Rather it will change the way we understand its basic makeup. And so far, the machine appears to be working.

In a presentation given in Chicago on Monday at the International Conference on Particle Physics and Cosmology, Hogan said that the initial results show the Holometer is capable of measuring quantum fluctuations in space-time, if they are there.

“This was kind of an amazing moment,” says Hogan. “It’s just noise right now – we don’t know whether it’s space-time noise – but the machine is operating at that specification.”

Hogan expects that the Holometer will have gathered enough data to put together an answer to the quantum question within a year. If the space-time jitter is there, Hogan says it could underpin entirely new explanations for why the expansion of our universe is accelerating, something traditionally attributed to the little understood phenomenon of dark energy.

Read the entire article here.

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Burning Man Bucket List


As this year’s Burning Man comes to an end in the eerily beautiful Black Rock Desert in Nevada I am reminded that attending this life event should be on everyone’s bucket list, before they actually kick it.

That said, applying one or more of the Ten Principle’s that guide Burners, should be a year-round quest — not a once in a lifetime transient goal.

Read more about this year’s BM here.

See more BM visuals here.

Image: Super Pool art installation, Burning Man 2014. Courtesy of Jim Urquhart / Reuters.


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How to Get Blazingly Fast Internet

Chattanooga,_TennesseeIt’s rather simple in theory, and only requires two steps. Step 1: Follow the lead of a city like Chattanooga, Tennessee. Step 2: Tell you monopolistic cable company what to do with its cables. Done. Now you have a 1 Gigabit Internet connection — around 50-100 times faster than your mother’s Wifi.

This experiment is fueling a renaissance of sorts in the Southern U.S. city and other metropolitan areas can only look on in awe. It comes as no surprise that the cable oligarchs at Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T are looking for any way to halt the city’s progress into the 21st Century.

The Guardian:

Loveman’s department store on Market Street in Chattanooga closed its doors in 1993 after almost a century in business, another victim of a nationwide decline in downtowns that hollowed out so many US towns. Now the opulent building is buzzing again, this time with tech entrepreneurs taking advantage of the fastest internet in the western hemisphere.

Financed by the cash raised from the sale of logistics group Access America, a group of thirty-something local entrepreneurs have set up Lamp Post, an incubator for a new generation of tech companies, in the building. A dozen startups are currently working out of the glitzy downtown office.

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

He’s not alone in thinking so. Lamp Post is one of several tech incubators in this mid-sized Tennessee city. Money is flowing in. Chattanooga has gone from close to zero venture capital in 2009 to more than five organized funds with investable capital over $50m in 2014 – not bad for a city of 171,000 people.

The city’s go-getting mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat tipped for higher office, is currently reviewing plans for a city center tech zone specifically designed to meet the needs of its new workforce.

In large part the success is being driven by The Gig. Thanks to an ambitious roll-out by the city’s municipally owned electricity company, EPB, Chattanooga is one of the only places on Earth with internet at speeds as fast as 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average.

The tech buildup comes after more than a decade of reconstruction in Chattanooga that has regenerated the city with a world-class aquarium, 12 miles of river walks along the Tennessee River, an arts district built around the Hunter Museum of American Arts, high-end restaurants and outdoor activities.

But it’s the city’s tech boom has sparked interest from other municipalities across the world. It also comes as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to address some of the biggest questions the internet has faced when it returns from the summer break. And while the FCC discusses whether Comcast, the world’s biggest cable company, should take over Time Warner, the US’s second largest cable operator, and whether to allow those companies to set up fast lanes (and therefore slow lanes) for internet traffic, Chattanooga is proof that another path is possible.

It’s a story that is being watched very closely by Big Cable’s critics. “In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

On Friday, the US cable industry called on the FCC to block Chattanooga’s plan to expand, as well as a similar plan for Wilson, North Carolina.

“The success of public broadband is a mixed record, with numerous examples of failures,” USTelecom said in a blog post. “With state taxpayers on the financial hook when a municipal broadband network goes under, it is entirely reasonable for state legislatures to be cautious in limiting or even prohibiting that activity.”

Mayor Berke has dealt with requests for visits from everyone from tiny rural communities to “humungous international cities”. “You don’t see many mid-sized cities that have the kind of activity that we have right now in Chattanooga,” he said. “What the Gig did was change the idea of what our city could be. Mid-sized southern cities are not generally seen as being ahead of the technological curve, the Gig changed that. We now have people coming in looking to us as a leader.”

It’s still early days but there have already been notable successes. In addition to Access America’s sale for an undisclosed sum, last year restaurant booking site OpenTable bought a local company, QuickCue, for $11.5m. “That’s a great example of a story that just doesn’t happen in other mid-sized southern cities,” said Berke.

But it’s what Chattanooga can do next that has the local tech community buzzed.

EPB’s high-speed network came about after it decided to set up a smart electric grid in order to cut power outages. EPB estimated it would take 10 years to build the system and raised a $170m through a municipal bond to pay for it. In 2009 president Barack Obama launched the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus programme aimed at getting the US economy back on track amid the devastation of the recession. EPB was awarded $111m to get its smart grid up and running. Less than three years later the whole service territory was built.

The fibre-optic network uses IntelliRupter PulseClosers, made by S&C Electric, that can reroute power during outages. The University of California at Berkeley estimates that power outages cost the US economy $80bn a year through business disruption with manufacturers stopping their lines and restaurants closing. Chattanooga’s share of that loss was about $100m, EPB estimates. The smart grid can detect a fault in milliseconds and route power around problems. Since the system was installed the duration of power outages has been cut in half.

But it was the other uses of that fiber that fired up enthusiasm in Chattanooga. “When we first started talking about this and the uses of the smart grid we would say to customers and community groups ‘Oh and it can also offer very high-speed internet, TV and phone.’ The electric power stuff was no longer of interest. This is what what people got excited about and it’s the same today,” said EPB vice president Danna Bailey.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Chattanooga, TN skyline. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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