Black Friday – OptOutside

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I’m not a great fan of consumerism. And, I especially detest so-called “Black Friday” — a vulgar and avaricious corporate-America-sponsored-gluttonous-shopping-frenzy that seems to infest the public psyche the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a recent email from the REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) co-op, of which I’m a member, declaring that all 140+ of their stores will be closed on November 27 — Black Friday — in addition to Thanksgiving Day. Now, the cynic in me detects some level of self-serving marketing spin designed to increase REI’s foot traffic when their doors reopen on November 28, and beyond. But, I must say I’m all for #OptOutside — a day for fresh air, muddy boots, enormous vistas and no shopping. I hope other retailers follow suit and consumers opt to spend their time outside rather than spending cash inside.

CEO, Jerry Stritzke, penned the following on the REI website:

REI is closing on Black Friday.

You read that correctly. On November 27, we’ll be closing all 143 of our stores and paying our employees to head outside.

Here’s why we’re doing it.

For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.

We’re a different kind of company—and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently. We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us.

So, I encourage you to do the same wherever you may be; keep your fingers off Amazon and your feet away from Walmart’s aisles, and be part of nature’s great outside.

Image: Flatirons, Boulder. Courtesy of the author.
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The Clown Car Rolls into Town

Google-search-clown-car

This must be one for the record books: the 2016 Republican clown car replete with X number of presidential hopefuls rolls into the People’s Republic of Boulder, Colorado (my home) today, October 28, 2015.

The left-of-center University of Colorado campus at Boulder (CU) is hosting the next Republican debate in one of the most left-leaning cities in the country. This is an idyllic, small city of a 100,000, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, where mountain lions outnumber Republicans and where residents are more likely to brandish a hookah than a handgun. But, it does show that our town is open-minded and welcoming to colorful characters.

I eagerly await the next Democratic presidential debate in Lubbock Texas or Mesa, Arizona. Namaste!

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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What If You Spoke Facebookish?

The video from comedian Jason Horton shows us what real world interactions would be like if we conversed the same way as we do online via Facebook. His conversations may be tongue-in-cheek but they’re too close to becoming reality for comfort. You have to suppose that these offline (real world) status updates would have us drowning in hashtags, over-reaction, moralizing, and endless yawn inducing monologues.

I’d rather have Esperanto make a comeback.

Video courtesy of Jason Horton.

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MondayMap: Our Beautiful Blue Home

OK, OK, I cheated a little this week. I don’t have a map story.

But I couldn’t resist posting the geographic-related news of NASA’s new website. Each day, the agency will post a handful of images of our gorgeous home, as seen from the DSCOVR spacecraft. DSCOVR is parked at the L-1 Lagrangian Point, about 1 million miles from Earth and 92 million from the Sun, where the gravitational forces of the three bodies balance. It’s a wonderful vantage point to peer at our beautiful blue planet.

DSCOVR-Earth-image-19Oct2015

You can check out NASA’s new website here.

Image: Earth as imaged from DSCOVR on October 19, 2015. Courtesy of NASA, NOAA and the U.S Air Force.

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You Could Be Galactic Viceroy

Many corporations, by necessity, are not the most innovative of human aggregations. Most are conservative by nature — making money today, based on what worked yesterday. So, to maintain some degree of creative spirit and keep workers loyal they allow (some) employees to adopt rather — by corporate standards — wacky, left-field titles.

My favorite of this bunch: Digital Prophet, which I much prefer over iCup Technician, Wizard of Lightbulb Moments, and Wet Leisure Attendant.

Read more oddball titles here.

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The Old School Social Network Returns

Not too long ago newbies to a community might first have met their neighbors face-to-face by knocking on each others’ front doors, through strolling around the neighborhood or at browsing at the local, communal market or store. But busy schedules, privacy fences, garage doors, a car-centric culture and a general fear of strangers have raised barriers and successfully isolated us. So, it’s wonderful to see the digital tools of our modern age being put to a more ancient use — meeting the neighbors, and breaking down some barriers — many of which seem to be caused by our technologies. Long may the old school (face-to-face) social network prosper!

From NYT:

When Laurell Boyers, 34, and her husband, Federico Bastiani, 37, moved in together in Bologna in 2012, they did not know any of their neighbors. It was a lonely feeling.

“All my friends back home had babies, play dates, people to talk to, and I felt so left out,” Ms. Boyers, who moved from South Africa, said on a recent afternoon. “We didn’t have family or friends connections here. We knew people occasionally, but none in our same situation.”

So Mr. Bastiani took a chance and posted a flier along his street, Via Fondazza, explaining that he had created a closed group on Facebook just for the people who lived there. He was merely looking to make some new friends.

In three or four days, the group had about 20 followers. Almost two years later, the residents say, walking along Via Fondazza does not feel like strolling in a big city neighborhood anymore. Rather, it is more like exploring a small town, where everyone knows one another, as the group now has 1,100 members.

“Now I am obligated to speak to everyone when I leave the house,” Ms. Boyers said jokingly. “It’s comforting and also tiring, sometimes. You have to be careful what you ask for.”

The idea, Italy’s first “social street,” has been such a success that it has caught on beyond Bologna and the narrow confines of Via Fondazza. There are 393 social streets in Europe, Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by Mr. Bastiani’s idea, according to the Social Street Italia website, which was created out of the Facebook group to help others replicate the project.

Bologna, a midsize northern city, is known for its progressive politics and cooperatives. It is home to what is considered Italy’s oldest university, and it has a mix of a vibrant, young crowd and longtime residents, known for their strong sense of community.

Still, socially speaking, Italy — Bologna included — can be conservative. Friendships and relationships often come through family connections. It is not always easy to meet new people. In large cities, neighbors typically keep to themselves.

But today, the residents of Via Fondazza help one another fix broken appliances, run chores or recharge car batteries. They exchange train tickets and organize parties.

About half of Via Fondazza’s residents belong to the Facebook group. Those who do not use the Internet are invited to events via leaflets or word of mouth.

“I’ve noticed that people at first wonder whether they need to pay something” for the help from others, said Mr. Bastiani, referring to the experience of an 80-year-old woman who needed someone to go pick up some groceries for her, or a resident who sought help assembling a piece of Ikea furniture.

“But that’s not the point,” he added. “The best part of this is that it breaks all the schemes. We live near one another, and we help each other. That’s it.”

The impact of the experiment has surprised almost everyone here.

It “has changed the walking in Via Fondazza,” said Francesca D’Alonzo, a 27-year-old law graduate who joined the group in 2013.

“We greet each other, we speak, we ask about our lives, we feel we belong here now,” she said.

The exchanges usually start virtually but soon become concrete, allowing residents to get to know one another in person.

Everyone on Via Fondazza seems to have an anecdote. Ms. D’Alonzo remembers the party she gave on New Year’s Eve in 2013, when her then mostly unknown neighbors brought so much food and wine that she did not know where to put it.

“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy,” she said. “You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”

Read the entire article here.

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Guns Are So Yesterday

German_soldier_with_flamethrower_c1941

If you have a serious penchant for expressing your personal freedoms through weapons a revolver or automatic sniper rifle may still not be enough. So, you should throw out that rusty AK47 and the grenade launcher — no doubt stashed only for “critter hunting” — and consider some really serious heat, literally. Imagine your very own personal flamethrower!

While flamethrowers are banned for national and military use by the Inhumane Weapons Convention, to which the United States is a signatory, personal use is more loosely regulated. In the United States some states have banned flamethrowers completely, while others like California, require only a permit. There is now a growing effort to regulate flamethrowers at a national level, and more tightly. So, you may well want to procure one very soon, before those freedom-hating feds limit access to yet another form of seriously hot macho pleasure.

From ars technica:

In the wake of two companies now selling the first commercially available flamethrowers in the United States, at least one mayor has called for increased restrictions on their use. And to no one’s surprise, the prospect of prohibition has now driven more sales.

“Business is skyrocketing higher than ever due to the discussion on prohibition,” Chris Byars, the CEO of the Ion Productions Team based in Troy, Michigan, told Ars by e-mail. “I’m a huge supporter of personal freedom and personal responsibility. Own whatever you like, unless you use it in a manner that is harmful to another or other’s property. We’ve received a large amount of support from police, fire, our customers, and interested parties regarding keeping them legal.”

Byars added that the company has sold 350 units at $900 each, including shipping, in recent weeks. That’s in addition to the $150,000 the company raised on IndieGoGo.

The Ion product, known as the XM42, can shoot fire over 25 feet and has more than 35 seconds of burn time per tank of fuel. With a full tank of fuel, it weighs just 10 pounds.

Another company—XMatter, based in Cleveland, Ohio—sells a similar device for $1,600 each, but it weighs 50 pounds. However, this device has approximately double the range of the XM42. Quinn Whitehead, the company’s co-founder, did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

Last week, Mayor Jim Fouts of nearby Warren, Michigan—the third largest city in the state—told Ars that he was worried about the sale of such devices in his city.

“My concern is that flamethrowers in the wrong hands could cause catastrophic damage either to the person who is using it or more likely to the person who is being targeted,” he said. “This is a pretty dangerous mix because it’s a combination of butane and gasoline which is highly flammable. Anybody who aims this at someone else or something happens and it happens close to them is going to be close to be incinerated.”

Shockingly, there are no current federal regulations on the possession, manufacture, sale, or use of flamethrowers.

“These devices are not regulated as they do not qualify as firearms under the National Firearms Act,” Corey Ray, a spokesman with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, told Ars by e-mail.

At the state level, California requires a permit while Maryland outright bans them—Ars is not aware of any other state-level regulation. The Inhumane Weapons Convention, which the United States signed in 1981, forbids “incendiary weapons,” including flamethrowers. However, this document is only an agreement between nation-states and their militaries, and it did not foresee individual possession.

A new bill in Troy, Michigan, proposed earlier this month would forbid “storage, use, and possession of flamethrowers in the city.” Violations of the law would constitute a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both in addition to seizure of the device.

Read the entire story here.

Image: German soldier with flame-thrower c.1941. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Would You Like Vocal Fry With That?

Google-search-fries

Valleyspeak, uptalk (or upspeak), breathiness, run-on sentences and vocal fry. I’m not sure which came first and why a significant number of young people — mostly women — speak in this way. But these vocal contortions have prodded a new generation of linguists and speech pathologists into a feeding frenzy of language  research.

The overall consensus seems to suggest that these speech mannerisms paint young people as less educated and less competent. Not only that but most listeners find the patterns rather annoying.

From the Guardian:

Patriarchy is inventive. The minute a generation of women has figured out how to not be enslaved by Ideology A, some new cultural pressure arises in the form of Internalisation B, making sure they don’t get too far too fast. The latest example: the most empowered generation of women ever – today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.

This demographic of women tends to have a distinctive speech pattern. Many commentators have noticed it, often with dismay. Time magazine devoted a column to the mannerism called vocal fry, noting a study that found that this speech pattern makes young women who use it sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable: “Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians.”

“Vocal fry” is that guttural growl at the back of the throat, as a Valley girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night. The less charitable refer to it privately as painfully nasal, and to young women in conversation sounding like ducks quacking. “Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways. Slate notes that older men (ie those in power over young women) find it intensely annoying. One study by a “deeply annoyed” professor, found that young women use “uptalk” to seek to hold the floor. But does cordially hating these speech patterns automatically mean you are anti-feminist?

Many devoted professors, employers who wish to move young women up the ranks and business owners who just want to evaluate personnel on merit flinch over the speech patterns of today’s young women. “Because of their run-on sentences, I can’t tell in a meeting when these young women have said what they have to say,” confided one law partner.

“Their constant uptalk means I am constantly having to reassure them: ‘uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh’. It’s exhausting.”

I myself have inadvertently flinched when a young woman barraging a group with uptalk ran a technology-based conference call: “We’ll use Ruby on Rails? It is an MVC framework to support databases?” Well, will we?

One 29-year-old woman working in engineering told me it was easier for gatekeepers in her male-dominated field to disregard running-on, softspoken, vocally frying and uptalking women. “It is difficult for young women to be heard or even responded to in many male-dominated fields if they don’t strengthen their voices, That kind of disregarding response from men made me feel even softer and even lesser – in a vicious circle of silencing.” she said.

Style is content, as any writing teacher knows. Run-ons and “non-committal-ness” dilute many young women’s advocacy powers and thus their written authority. Many young women have learned not to go too far out on a limb with their voiced opinions; but the dilution of “voice” and the muddying of logic caused by run-on sentences in speech can undermine the power of their written thought processes and weaken their marshalling of evidence in an argument. At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully. Elleke Boehmer, an Oxford English professor, says: “I often observe my female students’ silence and lack of confidence in class with concern. How anxious they are about coming forward to express an opinion, to risk a point of view, so often letting the male students speak first and second and even third. And in this way they lose out in the discussions that are going to help them hone their pitch, write winning essays, secure the out-and-out firsts that male students in Humanities subjects still are securing in far greater numbers, proportionately, than they are.”

The problem of young women’s voices is gaining new cultural visibility. Recent books and plays have dealt with the suppression of young women’s voices: Boehmer’s own recent novel The Shouting in the Dark narrates the inner life of a young woman in South Africa in the 1970s – and shows how abuse breaks such a voice. The hit play Nirbhaya, in which Indian actresses narrate stories of their own rapes, also shows how young women’s voices are stifled by cultural silencing, even today.

Voice remains political at work as well. A Catalyst study found that self-advocacy skills correlate to workplace status and pay more directly than merit. In other words, speaking well is better for your career than working hard.

But Amy Giddon, director of corporate leadership at Barnard College’s Athena centre for leadership studies in New York, found in original research that “there is a disconnect between women’s confidence in their skills and abilities – which is often high – and their confidence in their ability to navigate the system to achieve the recognition and advancement they feel they deserve. Self-advocacy is a big part of this, and identified by many women in the study as the biggest barrier to their advancement.” In other words, today’s women know they can do great things; what they doubt – reasonably enough – is that they can speak well about those great things.

When you ask young women themselves what these destructive speech patterns mean to them, you get gender-political insights. “I know I use run-on sentences,” a 21-year-old intern at a university told me. “I do it because I am afraid of being interrupted.” No one has ever taught her techniques to refuse that inevitable interruption. “I am aware that I fill my sentences with question marks,” said a twentysomething who works in a research firm. “We do it when we speak to older people or people we see as authorities. It is to placate them. We don’t do it so much when we are by ourselves.” Surely we older feminists have not completed our tasks if no one has taught this young woman that it was not her job to placate her elders.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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Dear Reader. Thank You

Three years after the general release of WordPress in 2003, I joined the fledgling blogsphere with theDiagonal. Now, in mid-2015 I am reminded to thank you, dear reader.

theDiagonal now officially reaches every one of the world’s 196 nations (or 189-195 depending on how you align with the United Nations), but five. Hopefully, I’ll soon find readers in Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad and Niger, and of course North Korea. However, I suspect theDiagonal already unofficially hits eyeballs in Pyongyang — considering I’ve been hacked a couple of times over the last decade.

So, a big THANK YOU, dear reader, for taking some moments of your precious time to join this literary (mis-)adventure. And, welcome readers in Turkmenistan — salam; Samoa — talofa; and Equatorial Guinea — kedu.

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Entrepreneur (Introvert) Versus CEO (Extrovert)

Conventional wisdom from the corridors of corporate power seems to suggest that successful CEOs tend to be extroverts. On the other hand, it also seems that many successful entrepreneurs come from more introverted stock. This divergence must put a great deal of pressure on the leader as a company transitions from a startup to an established business. Perhaps, this is another of the many reasons why around 90 percent of startups fail.

From WSJ:

A quiet, reserved introvert is probably not what first came to mind. Aren’t entrepreneurs supposed to be gregarious and commanding—verbally adept and able to inspire employees, clients and investors with the sheer force of their personality? No wonder the advice for introverts who want to be entrepreneurs has long been some form of: “Be more extroverted.”

Now, though, business experts and psychologists are starting to see that guidance is wrong. It disregards the unique skills that introverts bring to the table—the ability to focus for long periods, a propensity for balanced and critical thinking, a knack for quietly empowering others—that may make them even better suited for entrepreneurial and business success than extroverts.

Indeed, numerous entrepreneurs and CEOs are either self-admitted introverts or have so many introvert qualities that they are widely thought to be introverts. These include Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, Marissa Mayer, current president and CEO of Yahoo, and Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

As entrepreneurs, introverts succeed because they “create and lead companies from a very focused place,” says Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” and founder of Quiet Revolution, a website for introverts. This spring, she co-founded the Quiet Leadership Institute, a consulting firm with a mission to help companies harness the talent of introverted employees and to help introverts draw on their natural strengths. The company’s clients include General Electric, Procter & Gamble and NASA.

Another big plus, she says: Introverts are not interested in leadership for personal glory, and they steer clear of the cult of personality. Their emphasis is on creating something, not on themselves.

“By their nature, introverts tend to get passionate about one, two or three things in their life,” says Ms. Cain. “And in the service of their passion for an idea they will go out and build alliances and networks and acquire expertise and do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

Here are some of the traits common to most introverts that make them especially well-suited to entrepreneurship.

They crave solitude

Many people believe that introverts, by definition, are shy and extroverts are outgoing. This is incorrect. Introverts, whom experts say comprise about a third of the population, get their energy and process information internally. Some may be shy and some may be outgoing, but they all prefer to spend time alone or in small groups, and often feel drained by a lot of social interaction or large groups.

Extroverts—sometimes spelled “extraverts” in psychology circles—gain energy from being with other people and typically process information externally, meaning they prefer to talk through problems instead of pondering them alone, and they sometimes form opinions while they speak. (Ambiverts, a third personality type that makes up the majority of the population, are a mix of introvert and extrovert.)

Being comfortable being alone—and thinking before acting—can give introverts a leg up as they formulate a business plan or come up with new strategies once the company is launched.

Introverts not only have the stamina to spend long periods alone—they love it. “Good entrepreneurs are able to give themselves the solitude they need to think creatively and originally—to create something where there once was nothing,” says Ms. Cain. “And this is just how introverts are wired.”

Extroverts may find it hard to cloister themselves to think through big questions—what does the company have to offer, how will it reach its audience?—because they crave stimulation. Solitude drains them, and they aren’t as creative if they spend too much time alone, says Beth Buelow, a speaker and coach who is founder of The Introvert Entrepreneur, a website for introverts. So extroverts often take a “throw the spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks” approach to solving problems, rather than think through possibilities.

While extroverts are networking, promoting or celebrating success, introverts have their “butt on the seat,” says Laurie Helgoe, author of “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength” and assistant professor in the department of psychology and human services at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. “An introvert on his or her own is going to enjoy digging in and doing research—and be able to sustain him- or herself in that lonely place of forging your own way.”

They don’t need external affirmation

Another important characteristic of introverts is that they tend to rely on their own inner compass—not external signals—to know that they’re making the right move or doing a good job. That can give them an edge in several ways.

For instance, they generally don’t look for people to tell them whether an idea is worth pursuing. They tend to think it through before speaking about it to anybody, and rely on their own judgment about whether it’s worth pursuing.

Read the entire story here.

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Finding Meaning in Meaninglessness

If you’re an atheist, like me, you will certainly relate to the excerpted interviews below — where each individual “unbeliever” recounts her or his views on living a purposeful life in an thoroughly indifferent, meaningless and beautiful universe. If you’re a “non-unbeliever”, you will see that meaning is all around.

As writer Gia Milinovich puts it:

It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you. And it’s an amazing, astonishing, remarkable, totally mind-blowing fucking miracle.

From Buzzfeed:

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist:

“The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

“If you’re an atheist and an evolutionary biologist, what you think is, I’m lucky to have these 80-odd years: How can I make the most of my existence here? Being an atheist means coming to grips with reality. And the reality is twofold. We’re going to die as individuals, and the whole of humanity, unless we find a way to colonise other planets, is going to go extinct. So there’s lots of things that we have to deal with that we don’t like. We just come to grips with the reality. Life is the result of natural selection, and death is the result of natural selection. We are evolved in such a way that death is almost inevitable. So you just deal with it.

“It says in the Bible that, ‘When I was a child I played with childish things, and when I became a man I put away those childish things.’ And one of those childish things is the superstition that there’s a higher purpose. Christopher Hitchens said it’s time to move beyond the mewling childhood of our species and deal with reality as it is, and that’s what we have to do.”

Susan Blackmore, psychologist:

“If I get a what’s-it-all-for sort of feeling, then I say to myself, What’s the point of it all? There isn’t any point. And somehow, for me – I know it’s not true for other people – that is really comforting. It slows me down. It reminds me that I didn’t ask to be born here, I’ll be gone, and I won’t know what’ll happen, I’ll just be gone, so get on with it. I find that comforting, to say to myself that there is no point, I live in a pointless universe. Here I am, for better or worse, get on with it.

“I was thinking about this yesterday. I was gardening, out there pulling up brambles, and I thought, Why do I do this? And the answer is, because I’m smiling, I’m enjoying it, and actually I love it. It’s because of the cycles of life. I was thinking, What’s the point of growing these beans again, because they’ll just die, and then next year I’ll do the same thing again. But isn’t that a great pleasure in life, that that’s how it is? The beans come and go, and you eat them and they die, and you do the work, and you see it come and go. Today is the due date for my first grandchild, and I think similarly about that. The cycles of birth and death. Here I am in the autumn of my life, I suppose – I’m 64 – and I’m just going through the same cycles that everyone goes through, and it gives me a sense of connection with other people. God, that sounds a bit poncey.

“The pointlessness of life is not a thing to be overcome. It’s something to be celebrated now, because that’s all there is.”

Kat Arney, biologist and science writer:

“I was raised in the Church of England. As a teenager, I ‘found Jesus’ and joined the evangelical movement, probably because I desperately wanted to feel part of a group, and also loved playing in the church band. I finally had my reverse Damascene moment as a post-doctoral researcher, desperately unhappy with my scientific career, relationship, and pretty much everything else, and can clearly remember the sudden realisation: I had one life, and I had to make the best of it. There was no heaven or hell, no magic man in the sky, and I was the sole captain of my ship.

“It was an incredibly liberating moment, and made me realise that the true meaning of life is what I make with the people around me – my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. People tell religious fairy stories to create meaning, but I’d rather face up to what all the evidence suggests is the scientific truth – all we really have is our own humanity. So let’s be gentle to each other and share the joy of simply being alive, here and now. Let’s give it our best shot.”

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist:

“I think there are two things about living in a godless universe that scare some people. First, there is no one watching over them, benevolently guiding their lives. Second, because there is no life after death, it all feels rather bleak.

“Instead of scaring me, I find these two things incredibly liberating. It means that I am free to do as I want; my choices are truly mine. Furthermore, I feel determined to make the most of the years I have left on this planet, and not squander it. The life I live now is not a dress rehearsal for something greater afterwards; it empowers me to focus on the here and now. That is how I find meaning and purpose in what might seem a meaningless and purposeless existence; by concentrating on what I can do, and the differences I can make in the lives of those around me, in the short time that we have.”

Read the entire article here.

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Ambition Or Greed Dotcom

When I soak in articles like this one on Amazon’s (the dotcom) vast and ever-growing empire I wonder about the difference between ambition and greed. I used to admire this company tremendously, founded by the singularly focused Jeff Bezos. But, for some reason, when Amazon expanded into retailing groceries my allegiance began to wane. Now that they’re also producing their own entertainment programming, and have their sticky fingers in hundreds of diverse pies, I think I’m starting to dislike and distrust this corporate behemoth. Amazon gave up being a pure retailer a while ago — now they produce original shows and movies; they host e-commerce and manage business services for many other corporations; they run all manner of marketplaces; they compete with distributors. The company does all of this very well.

And, yet.

When did Jeff Bezo’s ambition and that of his 150,000-plus employees — to deliver all manner of stuff so effortlessly and conveniently — morph into what increasingly seems like greed? Because, somewhere along this spectrum of acquisitiveness a noble ambition seems to have become a selfish one.

Oh, and as for the demanding, competitive, brutish workplace — the company seems to be doing nothing more than applying the same principles to its employees as it does from its data-driven retailing and distribution operation. Unfortunately, it seems to have lost sight — as do many companies — that employees remain stubbornly human.

From NYT:

On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years. The company’s winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.

Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Mr. Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.

“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Thanks in part to its ability to extract the most from employees, Amazon is stronger than ever. Its swelling campus is transforming a swath of this city, a 10-million-square-foot bet that tens of thousands of new workers will be able to sell everything to everyone everywhere. Last month, it eclipsed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the country, with a market valuation of $250 billion, and Forbes deemed Mr. Bezos the fifth-wealthiest person on earth.

Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this article, declining requests for interviews with Mr. Bezos and his top leaders.

However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.

In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Many employees are motivated by “thinking big and knowing that we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent,” said Elisabeth Rommel, a retail executive who was one of those permitted to speak.

Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.

“A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,” said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, “The Amazon Way.

Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.

“Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade,” said Clay Parker Jones, a consultant who helps old-line businesses become more responsive to change.

On a recent morning, as Amazon’s new hires waited to begin orientation, few of them seemed to appreciate the experiment in which they had enrolled. Only one, Keith Ketzle, a freckled Texan triathlete with an M.B.A., lit up with recognition, explaining how he left his old, lumbering company for a faster, grittier one.

“Conflict brings about innovation,” he said.

Read the entire article here.

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Don’t Call Me; I’ll Not Call You Either

google-search-telephone

We all have smartphones, but the phone call is dead. That tool of arcane real-time conversation between two people (sometimes more) is making way for asynchronous sharing via text, image and other data.

From the Atlantic:

One of the ironies of modern life is that everyone is glued to their phones, but nobody uses them as phones anymore. Not by choice, anyway. Phone calls—you know, where you put the thing up to your ear and speak to someone in real time—are becoming relics of a bygone era, the “phone” part of a smartphone turning vestigial as communication evolves, willingly or not, into data-oriented formats like text messaging and chat apps.

The distaste for telephony is especially acute among Millennials, who have come of age in a world of AIM and texting, then gchat and iMessage, but it’s hardly limited to young people. When asked, people with a distaste for phone calls argue that they are presumptuous and intrusive, especially given alternative methods of contact that don’t make unbidden demands for someone’s undivided attention. In response, some have diagnosed a kind of telephoniphobia among this set. When even initiating phone calls is a problem—and even innocuous ones, like phoning the local Thai place to order takeout—then anxiety rather than habit may be to blame: When asynchronous, textual media like email or WhatsApp allow you to intricately craft every exchange, the improvisational nature of ordinary, live conversation can feel like an unfamiliar burden. Those in power sometimes think that this unease is a defect in need of remediation, while those supposedly afflicted by it say they are actually just fine, thanks very much.

But when it comes to taking phone calls and not making them, nobody seems to have admitted that using the telephone today is a different material experience than it was 20 or 30 (or 50) years ago, not just a different social experience. That’s not just because our phones have also become fancy two-way pagers with keyboards, but also because they’ve become much crappier phones. It’s no wonder that a bad version of telephony would be far less desirable than a good one. And the telephone used to be truly great, partly because of the situation of its use, and partly because of the nature of the apparatus we used to refer to as the “telephone”—especially the handset.

On the infrastructural level, mobile phones operate on cellular networks, which route calls between between transceivers distributed across a service area. These networks are wireless, obviously, which means that signal strength, traffic, and interference can make calls difficult or impossible. Together, these factors have made phone calls synonymous with unreliability. Failures to connect, weak signals that staccato sentences into bursts of signal and silence, and the frequency of dropped calls all help us find excuses not to initiate or accept a phone call.

By contrast, the traditional, wired public switched telephone network (PSTN) operates by circuit switching. When a call is connected, one line is connected to another by routing it through a network of switches. At first these were analog signals running over copper wire, which is why switchboard operators had to help connect calls. But even after the PSTN went digital and switching became automated, a call was connected and then maintained over a reliable circuit for its duration. Calls almost never dropped and rarely failed to connect.

But now that more than half of American adults under 35 use mobile phones as their only phones, the intrinsic unreliability of the cellular network has become internalized as a property of telephony. Even if you might have a landline on your office desk, the cellular infrastructure has conditioned us to think of phone calls as fundamentally unpredictable affairs. Of course, why single out phones? IP-based communications like IM and iMessage are subject to the same signal and routing issues as voice, after all. But because those services are asynchronous, a slow or failed message feels like less of a failure—you can just regroup and try again. When you combine the seemingly haphazard reliability of a voice call with the sense of urgency or gravity that would recommend a phone call instead of a Slack DM or an email, the risk of failure amplifies the anxiety of unfamiliarity. Telephone calls now exude untrustworthiness from their very infrastructure.

Going deeper than dropped connections, telephony suffered from audio-signal processing compromises long before cellular service came along, but the differences between mobile and landline phone usage amplifies those challenges, as well. At first, telephone audio was entirely analogue, such that the signal of your voice and your interlocutor’s would be sent directly over the copper wire. The human ear can hear frequencies up to about 20 kHz, but for bandwidth considerations, the channel was restricted to a narrow frequency range called the voice band, between 300 and 3,400 Hz. It was a reasonable choice when the purpose of phones—to transmit and receive normal human speech—was taken into account.

By the 1960s, demand for telephony recommended more efficient methods, and the transistor made it both feasible and economical to carry many more calls on a single, digital circuit. The standard that was put in place cemented telephony’s commitment to the voice band, a move that would reverberate in the ears of our mobile phones a half-century later.

In order to digitally switch calls, the PSTN became subject to sampling, the process of converting a continuous signal to a discrete one. Sampling is carried out by capturing snapshots of a source signal at a specific interval. A principle called the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem specifies that a waveform of a particular maximum frequency can be reconstructed from a sample taken at twice that frequency per second. Since the voice band required only 4 kHz of bandwidth, a sampling rate of 8 kHz (that is, 8,000 samples per second) was established by Bell Labs engineers for a voice digitization method. This system used a technique developed by Bernard Oliver, John Pierce, and Claude Shannon in the late ‘40s called Pulse Code Modulation (PCM). In 1962, Bell began deploying PCM into the telephone-switching network, and the 3 kHz range for telephone calls was effectively fixed.

Since the PSTN is still very much alive and well and nearly entirely digitized save for the last mile, this sampling rate has persisted over the decades. (If you have a landline in an older home, its signal is probably still analog until it reaches the trunk of your telco provider.) Cellular phones still have to interface with the ordinary PSTN, so they get sampled in this range too.

Two intertwined problems arise. First, it turns out that human voices may transmit important information well above 3,300 Hz or even 5,000 Hz. The auditory neuroscientist Brian Monson has conducted substantial research on high-frequency energy perception. A widely-covered 2011 study showed that subjects could still discern communicative information well above the frequencies typically captured in telephony. Even though frequencies above 5,000 Hz are too high to transmit clear spoken language without the lower frequencies, Monson’s subjects could discern talking from singing and determine the sex of the speaker with reasonable accuracy, even when all the signal under 5,000 Hz was removed entirely. Monson’s study shows that 20th century bandwidth and sampling assumptions may already have made incorrect assumptions about how much of the range of human hearing was use for communication by voice.

That wasn’t necessarily an issue until the second part of the problem arises: the way we use mobile phones versus landline phones. When the PSTN was first made digital, home and office phones were used in predictable environments: a bedroom, a kitchen, an office. In these circumstances, telephony became a private affair cut off from the rest of the environment. You’d close the door or move into the hallway to conduct a phone call, not only for the quiet but also for the privacy. Even in public, phones were situated out-of-the-way, whether in enclosed phone booths or tucked away onto walls in the back of a diner or bar, where noise could be minimized.

Today, of course, we can and do carry our phones with us everywhere. And when we try to use them, we’re far more likely to be situated in an environment that is not compatible with the voice band—coffee shops, restaurants, city streets, and so forth. Background noise tends to be low-frequency, and, when it’s present, the higher frequencies that Monson showed are more important than we thought in any circumstance become particularly important. But because digital sampling makes those frequencies unavailable, we tend not to be able to hear clearly. Add digital signal loss from low or wavering wireless signals, and the situation gets even worse. Not only are phone calls unstable, but even when they connect and stay connected in a technical sense, you still can’t hear well enough to feel connected in a social one. By their very nature, mobile phones make telephony seem unreliable.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Time For Another Candlelight Vigil

Another day, another mass shooting. Only in the United States do citizens and their political leaders take action to counter terrorism but sit idly by when it comes to tackling the enormity of domestic gun violence. Soon, no doubt, we’ll hear of a child accidentally killing his younger sibling with a handgun. On it goes.

So, here’s yet another infographic — courtesy of Wired — on the subject, which puts the scale of this abhorrent and relentless tragedy quite starkly.

Between 2003 and 2013, domestic and international terrorism killed 312 US citizens. During that same period, in the US, 346,681 people died at the hands of someone with a gun. That’s over 31,500 gun deaths per year. Gotta have those guns!

Yet this is the difference in reactions: when the perpetrator is a foreign terrorist we deploy the full force of the US, be it drones, NSA, CIA, FBI, our armed services; when it’s a raging neighbor with a gun we hold a candlelight vigil.

If you want to take some action beyond reciting a few prayers and lighting a candle, please visit Americans For Responsible Solutions. Remember, if we sit idly by, we are complicit.

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Infographic courtesy of Wired.

 

 

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The Emperor and/is the Butterfly

In an earlier post I touched on the notion proposed by some cosmologists that our entire universe is some kind of highly advanced simulation. The hypothesis is that perhaps we are merely information elements within a vast mathematical fabrication, playthings of a much superior consciousness. Some draw upon parallels to The Matrix movie franchise.

Follow some of the story and video interviews here to learn more of this fascinating and somewhat unsettling idea. More unsettling still: did our overlord programmers leave a backdoor?

Video: David Brin – Could Our Universe Be a Fake? Courtesy of Closer to Truth.

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The Tech Emperor Has No Clothes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bill Hewlett. David Packard. Bill Gates. Steve Allen. Steve Jobs. Larry Ellison. Gordon Moore. Tech titans. Moguls of the microprocessor. Their names hold a key place in the founding and shaping of our technological evolution. That they catalyzed and helped create entire economic sectors goes without doubt. Yet, a deeper, objective analysis of market innovation shows that the view of the lone, great-man (or two) — combating and succeeding against all-comers — may be more of a self-perpetuating myth than actual reality. The idea that single, visionary individual drives history and shapes the future is but a long and enduring invention.

From Technology Review:

Since Steve Jobs’s death, in 2011, Elon Musk has emerged as the leading celebrity of Silicon Valley. Musk is the CEO of Tesla Motors, which produces electric cars; the CEO of SpaceX, which makes rockets; and the chairman of SolarCity, which provides solar power systems. A self-made billionaire, programmer, and engineer—as well as an inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies—he has been on the cover of Fortune and Time. In 2013, he was first on the Atlantic’s list of “today’s greatest inventors,” nominated by leaders at Yahoo, Oracle, and Google. To believers, Musk is steering the history of technology. As one profile described his mystique, his “brilliance, his vision, and the breadth of his ambition make him the one-man embodiment of the future.”

Musk’s companies have the potential to change their sectors in fundamental ways. Still, the stories around these advances—and around Musk’s role, in particular—can feel strangely outmoded.

The idea of “great men” as engines of change grew popular in the 19th century. In 1840, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here.” It wasn’t long, however, before critics questioned this one–dimensional view, arguing that historical change is driven by a complex mix of trends and not by any one person’s achievements. “All of those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from,” Herbert Spencer wrote in 1873. And today, most historians of science and technology do not believe that major innovation is driven by “a lone inventor who relies only on his own imagination, drive, and intellect,” says Daniel Kevles, a historian at Yale. Scholars are “eager to identify and give due credit to significant people but also recognize that they are operating in a context which enables the work.” In other words, great leaders rely on the resources and opportunities available to them, which means they do not shape history as much as they are molded by the moments in which they live.

Musk’s success would not have been possible without, among other things, government funding for basic research and subsidies for electric cars and solar panels. Above all, he has benefited from a long series of innovations in batteries, solar cells, and space travel. He no more produced the technological landscape in which he operates than the Russians created the harsh winter that allowed them to vanquish Napoleon. Yet in the press and among venture capitalists, the great-man model of Musk persists, with headlines citing, for instance, “His Plan to Change the Way the World Uses Energy” and his own claim of “changing history.”

The problem with such portrayals is not merely that they are inaccurate and unfair to the many contributors to new technologies. By warping the popular understanding of how technologies develop, great-man myths threaten to undermine the structure that is actually necessary for future innovations.

Space cowboy

Elon Musk, the best-selling biography by business writer Ashlee Vance, describes Musk’s personal and professional trajectory—and seeks to explain how, exactly, the man’s repeated “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Born in South Africa in 1971, Musk moved to Canada at age 17; he took a job cleaning the boiler room of a lumber mill and then talked his way into an internship at a bank by cold-calling a top executive. After studying physics and economics in Canada and at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he enrolled in a PhD program at Stanford but opted out after a couple of days. Instead, in 1995, he cofounded a company called Zip2, which provided an online map of businesses—“a primitive Google maps meets Yelp,” as Vance puts it. Although he was not the most polished coder, Musk worked around the clock and slept “on a beanbag next to his desk.” This drive is “what the VCs saw—that he was willing to stake his existence on building out this platform,” an early employee told Vance. After Compaq bought Zip2, in 1999, Musk helped found an online financial services company that eventually became PayPal. This was when he “began to hone his trademark style of entering an ultracomplex business and not letting the fact that he knew very little about the industry’s nuances bother him,” Vance writes.

When eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion, in 2002, Musk emerged with the wherewithal to pursue two passions he believed could change the world. He founded SpaceX with the goal of building cheaper rockets that would facilitate research and space travel. Investing over $100 million of his personal fortune, he hired engineers with aeronautics experience, built a factory in Los Angeles, and began to oversee test launches from a remote island between Hawaii and Guam. At the same time, Musk cofounded Tesla Motors to develop battery technology and electric cars. Over the years, he cultivated a media persona that was “part playboy, part space cowboy,” Vance writes.

Musk sells himself as a singular mover of mountains and does not like to share credit for his success. At SpaceX, in particular, the engineers “flew into a collective rage every time they caught Musk in the press claiming to have designed the Falcon rocket more or less by himself,” Vance writes, referring to one of the company’s early models. In fact, Musk depends heavily on people with more technical expertise in rockets and cars, more experience with aeronautics and energy, and perhaps more social grace in managing an organization. Those who survive under Musk tend to be workhorses willing to forgo public acclaim. At SpaceX, there is Gwynne Shotwell, the company president, who manages operations and oversees complex negotiations. At Tesla, there is JB Straubel, the chief technology officer, responsible for major technical advances. Shotwell and Straubel are among “the steady hands that will forever be expected to stay in the shadows,” writes Vance. (Martin Eberhard, one of the founders of Tesla and its first CEO, arguably contributed far more to its engineering achievements. He had a bitter feud with Musk and left the company years ago.)

Likewise, Musk’s success at Tesla is undergirded by public-sector investment and political support for clean tech. For starters, Tesla relies on lithium-ion batteries pioneered in the late 1980s with major funding from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Tesla has benefited significantly from guaranteed loans and state and federal subsidies. In 2010, the company reached a loan agreement with the Department of Energy worth $465 million. (Under this arrangement, Tesla agreed to produce battery packs that other companies could benefit from and promised to manufacture electric cars in the United States.) In addition, Tesla has received $1.29 billion in tax incentives from Nevada, where it is building a “gigafactory” to produce batteries for cars and consumers. It has won an array of other loans and tax credits, plus rebates for its consumers, totaling another $1 billion, according to a recent series by the Los Angeles Times.

It is striking, then, that Musk insists on a success story that fails to acknowledge the importance of public-sector support. (He called the L.A. Times series “misleading and deceptive,” for instance, and told CNBC that “none of the government subsidies are necessary,” though he did admit they are “helpful.”)

If Musk’s unwillingness to look beyond himself sounds familiar, Steve Jobs provides a recent antecedent. Like Musk, who obsessed over Tesla cars’ door handles and touch screens and the layout of the SpaceX factory, Jobs brought a fierce intensity to product design, even if he did not envision the key features of the Mac, the iPod, or the iPhone. An accurate version of Apple’s story would give more acknowledgment not only to the work of other individuals, from designer Jonathan Ive on down, but also to the specific historical context in which Apple’s innovation occurred. “There is not a single key technology behind the iPhone that has not been state funded,” says economist Mazzucato. This includes the wireless networks, “the Internet, GPS, a touch-screen display, and … the voice-activated personal assistant Siri.” Apple has recombined these technologies impressively. But its achievements rest on many years of public-sector investment. To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles?

Read the entire story here.

Image: Titan Oceanus. Trevi Fountain, Rome. Public Domain.

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Streampunk Elevator (Lift)

The University of Leicester has one of these in its Attenborough Tower. In fact, it’s one of the few working examples left in Britain. Germany has several, mostly deployed in government buildings. For me, and all other Leicester students who came before and after, riding it was — and probably still is — a rite of passage. Many of the remaining contraptions have been mothballed due to safety fears and limited accessibility. What is it?

The paternoster — is a dual-shaft revolving elevator (or lift). Despite the odd name (from the Latin for the Our Father prayer, often recited while fingering through rosary beads on a looped chain), it’s a wonderful Victorian invention that needs to be preserved, and cherished. Oh, and do you wonder what happens at the top or bottom of the loop? Do you get crushed? Does the paternoster cabin emerge upside down, with you inside? You’ll have to visit and ride one to find out!

From the Guardian:

As the paternoster cabin in which he was slowly descending into the bowels of Stuttgart’s town hall plunged into darkness, Dejan Tuco giggled infectiously. He pointed out the oily cogs of its internal workings that were just about visible as it shuddered to the left, and gripped his stomach when it rose again with a gentle jolt. “We’re not supposed to do the full circuit,” he said. “But that’s the best way to feel like you’re on a ferris wheel or a gondola.”

The 12-year-old German-Serb schoolboy was on a roll, spending several hours one day last week riding the open elevator shaft known as a paternoster, a 19th-century invention that has just been given a stay of execution after campaigners persuaded Germany’s government to reverse a decision to ban its public use.

That the doorless lift, which consists of two shafts side by side within which a chain of open cabins descend and ascend continuously on a belt, has narrowly escaped becoming a victim of safety regulations, has everything to do with a deeply felt German affection for what many consider an old-fashioned yet efficient form of transport.

In the UK, where paternosters were invented in the 1860s, only one or two are believed to be in use. In Germany which first adopted them in the 1870s, there are an estimated 250 and there was an outcry, particularly among civil servants, when they were brought to a standstill this summer while the legislation was reviewed.

Officials in Stuttgart were among the loudest protesters against the labour minister Andrea Nahles’ new workplace safety regulations, which stated that the lifts could only be used by employees trained in paternoster riding.

“It took the heart out of this place when our paternoster was brought to a halt, and it slowed down our work considerably,” said Wolfgang Wölfle, Stuttgart’s deputy mayor, who vociferously fought the ban and called for the reinstatement of the town hall’s lift, which has been running since 1956.

“They suit the German character very well. I’m too impatient to wait for a conventional lift and the best thing about a paternoster is that you can hop on and off it as you please. You can also communicate with people between floors when they’re riding on one. I see colleagues flirt in them all the time,” he added, celebrating its reopening at a recent town hall party to which hundreds of members of the public were invited.

Among the streams of those who jumped on and off as tunes such as Roxette’s Joyride and Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator pumped out of speakers, were a Polish woman and her poodle, couples who held hands in the anxious seconds before hopping on board, a one-legged man who joked that the paternoster was not to blame for the loss of his limb, and Dejan, who rushed to the town hall straight from school and spent three hours tirelessly riding up and down. Some passengers were as confident as ballet dancers, others somewhat more hesitant.

Read the whole story here.

Video: Paternoster, Attenborough Tower, University of Leicester. Courtesy of inoy0.

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Goodbye Poppy. Hello Narco-Yeast

S_cerevisiaeBioengineers have been successfully encoding and implanting custom genes into viruses, bacteria and yeast for a while now. These new genes usually cause these organisms to do something different, such as digest industrial waste, kill malignant hosts and manufacture useful chemicals.

So, it should come as no surprise to see the advent — only in the laboratory at the moment — of yeast capable of producing narcotics. There seems to be no end to our inventiveness.

Personally, I’m waiting for a bacteria that can synthesize Nutella and a fungus that can construct corporate Powerpoint presentations.

From the NYT:

In a widely expected advance that has opened a fierce debate about “home-brewed heroin,” scientists at Stanford have created strains of yeast that can produce narcotic drugs.

Until now, these drugs — known as opioids — have been derived only from the opium poppy. But the Stanford lab is one of several where researchers have been trying to find yeast-based alternatives. Their work is closely followed by pharmaceutical companies and by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Advocates of the rapidly advancing field of bioengineering say it promises to make the creation of important chemicals — in this case painkillers and cough suppressants — cheaper and more predictable than using poppies.

In one major advance more than a decade ago scientists in Berkeley added multiple genes to yeast until it produced a precursor to artemisinin, the most effective modern malaria drug, which previously had to be grown in sweet wormwood shrubs. Much of the world’s artemisinin is now produced in bioengineered yeast.

But some experts fear the technology will be more useful to drug traffickers than to pharmaceutical companies. Legitimate drug makers already have steady supplies of cheap raw materials from legal poppy fields in Turkey, India, Australia, France and elsewhere.

For now, both scientists and law-enforcement officials agree, it will be years before heroin can be grown in yeast. The new Stanford strain, described Thursday in the journal Science, would need to be 100,000 times as efficient in order to match the yield of poppies.

It would take 4,400 gallons of yeast to produce the amount of hydrocodone in a single Vicodin tablet, said Christina D. Smolke, the leader of the Stanford bioengineering team.

For now, she said, anyone looking for opioids “could buy poppy seeds from the grocery store and get higher concentrations.”But the technology is advancing so rapidly that it may match the efficiency of poppy farming within two to three years, Dr. Smolke added.

Read the story here.

Image: Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells in DIC microscopy. Public Domain.

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