MondayMap: The Grocery Store Project

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

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

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

Justice Kennedy

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

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

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

 

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

Pale Blue 2Dot0

IDL TIFF file

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

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

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

Sharing Only Goes So Far

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

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

From the Independent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

Comparing Forgiveness and Fiction

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

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

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

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

Families of Victims

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

Time to Blame the Victims, Again

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

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

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

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

 Read more here.

The Bibliotherapist

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

From the New Yorker:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

The Real Tragedy

SIG_ProMore deaths. More gun violence.

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

Our leaders speak of tragedy.

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

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

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

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

a school or

a movie theater or

a post office or

a fast food restaurant or

a museum or

a car or

a parking lot or

a university or

military base or

a community center or

a church!

Read more from the NYT.

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

Keep Those Old Photos

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

From Wired:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

MondayMap: Cuisine Cartography

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

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

Read more here.

Map courtesy of Huffington Post / Yelp.

The Greatest Fear

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

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

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

From the Independent:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

I Literally Can’t Even

Literally… Can’t Even…

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

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

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

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

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

Week 5: Mass media picks up the story.

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

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

From NYT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

Multitasking: A Powerful and Diabolical Illusion

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

Professional Trolling

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

From NYT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

Art And Algorithms And Code And Cash

#!/usr/bin/perl
# 472-byte qrpff, Keith Winstein and Marc Horowitz <sipb-iap-dvd@mit.edu>
# MPEG 2 PS VOB file -> descrambled output on stdout.
# usage: perl -I <k1>:<k2>:<k3>:<k4>:<k5> qrpff
# where k1..k5 are the title key bytes in least to most-significant order

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

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

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

From WSJ:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

MondayMap: Grey or Gray Matter?

infographic-spelling_bee_chart

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

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

Read more from Vocativ here.

Infographic courtesy of Vocativ / Google Trends.