The average Facebook user is said to have 142 “friends”, and many active members have over 500. This certainly seems to be a textbook case of quantity over quality in the increasingly competitive status wars and popularity stakes of online neo- or pseudo-celebrity. That said, and regardless of your relationship with online social media, the one good to come from the likes — a small pun intended — of Facebook is that social scientists can now dissect and analyze your online behaviors and relationships as never before.
So, while Facebook, and its peers, may not represent a qualitative leap in human relationships the data and experiences that come from it may help future generations figure out what is truly important.
Following on from last week’s MondayMap post on intolerance and hatred within the United States — according to tweets on the social media site Twitter — we expand our view this week to cover the globe. This map is a based on a more detailed, global research study of people’s attitudes to having neighbors of a different race.
From the Washington Post:
When two Swedish economists set out to examine whether economic freedom made people any more or less racist, they knew how they would gauge economic freedom, but they needed to find a way to measure a country’s level of racial tolerance. So they turned to something called the World Values Survey, which has been measuring global attitudes and opinions for decades.
Good customer service once meant that a store or service employee would know you by name. This person would know your previous purchasing habits and your preferences; this person would know the names of your kids and your dog. Great customer service once meant that an employee could use this knowledge to anticipate your needs or personalize a specific deal. Well, this type of service still exists — in some places — but many businesses have outsourced it to offshore call center personnel or to machines, or both. Service may seem personal, but it’s not — service is customized to suit your profile, but it’s not personal in the same sense that once held true.
Ubiquitous connectivity for, and between, individuals and businesses is widely held to be beneficial for all concerned. We can connect rapidly and reliably with family, friends and colleagues from almost anywhere to anywhere via a wide array of internet enabled devices. Yet, as these devices become more powerful and interconnected, and enabled with location-based awareness, such as GPS (Global Positioning System) services, we are likely to face an increasing acute dilemma — connectedness or privacy?
From the Guardian:
The internet has turned into a massive surveillance tool. We’re constantly monitored on the internet by hundreds of companies — both familiar and unfamiliar. Everything we do there is recorded, collected, and collated – sometimes by corporations wanting to sell us stuff and sometimes by governments wanting to keep an eye on us.
Linguists have traditionally held that words in a language have an average lifespan of around 8,000 years. Words change and are often discarded or replaced over time as the language evolves and co-opts other words from other tongues. English has been particularly adept at collecting many new words from different languages, which partly explains its global popularity.
Recently however, linguists have found that a small group of words have a lifespan that far exceeds the usual understanding. These 15,000-20,000 year old ultra-conserved words may be the linguistic precursors to common cognates — words with similar sound and meaning — that now span many different language families containing hundreds of languages.
From the Washington Post:
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
Stephen Wolfram, physicist, mathematician and complexity theorist, has taken big data ideas to an entirely new level — he’s quantifying himself and his relationships. He calls this discipline personal analytics.
While examining every phone call and computer keystroke he’s made may be rather useful to the FBI or to marketers, it is not until that personal data is tracked for physiological and medical purposes that it could become extremely valuable. But then again who wants their every move tracked 24 hours a day, even for medical science?
From ars technica:
Don’t be surprised if Stephen Wolfram, the renowned complexity theorist, software company CEO, and night owl, wants to schedule a work call with you at 9 p.m. In fact, after a decade of logging every phone call he makes, Wolfram knows the exact probability he’ll be on the phone with someone at that time: 39 percent.
We live in a world of brands, pitches, advertising, promotions, PR, consumer research, product placement, focus groups, and 24/7 spin. So, it should come as no surprise that even that ubiquitous and utilitarian listing of food and drink items from your local restaurant — the menu — would come in for some 21st century marketing treatment.
Fast food chains have been optimizing the look and feel of their menus for years, often right down to the font, color (artificial) and placement of menu items. Now, many upscale restaurants are following suit. Some call it menu engineering.
Strangely we don’t normally associate the hushed halls and ivory towers of academia with lies and frauds. We are more inclined to see con artists on street corners hawking dodgy wares or doing much the same from corner offices on Wall Street, for much princelier sums, of course, and with much more catastrophic consequences.
Humans being humans, cheating does go on in academic circles as well. We know that some students cheat — they plagiarize and fabricate work, they have others write their papers. More notably, some academics do this as well, but on a grander scale. And, while much cheating is probably minor and inconsequential, some fraud is intricate and grandiose, spanning many years of work, affecting subsequent work, diverting grants and research funds, altering policy and widely held public opinion. Meet one of its principal actors — Diederik Stapel, social psychologist and academic con artist.
One of our favorite thinkers, Nasim Nicholas Taleb, calls this tinkering — the iterative process by which ideas and actions can take root and become successful. Evolution is a wonderful example of this tinkering — repetitive failure and incremental progress. Many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley take this to heart.
Tech entrepreneur, Michele Serro, describes some key elements to successful tinkering below.
From the Wall Street Journal:
If there was ever a cliche about entrepreneurialism, it’s this: Joe or Jane McEntrepreneur were trying to book a flight/find flattering support garments/rent a car and were profoundly dissatisfied with the experience. Incensed, they set out to design a better way — and did, earning millions in the process.
The internet has revolutionized retailing, the music business, and the media landscape. It has anointed countless entrepreneurial millionaires and billionaires and helped launch arrays of new businesses in all spheres of life.
Of course, due to the peculiarities of human nature the internet has also become an enabler and/or a new home to less upstanding ventures such as online pornography, spamming, identify theft and phishing.
Now comes “catfishing“: posting false information online with the intent of reeling someone in (usually found on online dating sites). While this behavior is nothing new in the vast catalog of human deviousness, the internet has enabled an explosion in “catfishers“. This fascinating infographic below gives a neat summary.
Recently we posted a fascinating story about a legal ruling in Iceland that allowed parents to set aside centuries of Icelandic history by naming their girl “Blaer” — a traditionally male name. You see Iceland has an official organization — the Iceland Naming Committee — that regulates and decides if a given name is acceptable (by Icelandic standards).
Well, this got us thinking about rules and conventions in other nations. For instance, New Zealand will not allow parents to name a child “Pluto”, however “Number 16 Bus Shelter” and “Violence” recently got the thumbs up. Some misguided or innovative (depending upon your perspective) New Zealanders have unsuccessfully tried to name their offspring: “*” (yes, asterisk), “.” (period or full-stop), “V”, and “Emperor”.
Pathological criminals and the non-criminals who seek to understand them have no doubt co-existed since humans first learned to steal from and murder one another.
So while we may be no clearer in fully understanding the underlying causes of anti-social, destructive and violent behavior many researchers continue their quests. In one camp are those who maintain that such behavior is learned or comes as a consequence of poor choices or life-events, usually traumatic, or through exposure to an acute psychological or physiological stressor. In the other camp, are those who argue that genes and their subsequent expression, especially those controlling brain function, are a principal cause.
Some recent neurological studies of criminals and psychopaths shows fascinating, though not unequivocal, results.
No tricks. No Ponzi scheme. No lottery win. No grand inheritance. It’s rather simple; it’s about simple lifestyle choices made at an early age. We excerpt part of Mister Money Moustache’s fascinating story below.
We believe that corporate-speak is a dangerous starting point that may eventually lead us to Orwellian doublethink. After all what could possibly be the purpose of using the words “going forward” in place of “in the future”, if not to convince employees to believe the past never happened. Some of our favorite management buzzwords and euphemisms below.
From the Guardian:
Among the most spirit-sapping indignities of office life is the relentless battering of workers’ ears by the strangled vocabulary of management-speak. It might even seem to some innocent souls as though all you need to do to acquire a high-level job is to learn its stultifying jargon. Bureaucratese is a maddeningly viral kind of Unspeak engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations. Here are some of its most dismaying manifestations.
Behavioral scientists have confirmed what shy people of the world have known for quite some time — that timidity and introversion can be beneficial traits. Yes, shyness is not a disorder!
Several studies of humans and animals show that shyness and assertiveness are both beneficial, dependent on the situational context. Researchers have shown that evolution favors both types of personality, and in fact, often rewards adaptability versus pathological extremes at either end of the behavioral spectrum.
Some words give us the creeps, they raise the hair on back of our heads, they make us squirm and give us an internal shudder. “Moist” is such as word.
The George Saunders story “Escape From Spiderhead,” included in his much praised new book Tenth of December, is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The sprawling, futuristic tale delves into several potentially unnerving topics: suicide, sex, psychotropic drugs. It includes graphic scenes of self-mutilation. It employs the phrases “butt-squirm,” “placental blood,” and “thrusting penis.” At one point, Saunders relates a conversation between two characters about the application of medicinal cream to raw, chafed genitals.
It’s long been known that Microsoft Powerpoint fuels corporate mediocrity and causes brain atrophy if used by creative individuals. Now we discover that another flashship product from the Seattle software maker, this time Excel, is to blame for some significant stresses on the global financial system.
From ars technica:
An economics paper claiming that high levels of national debt led to low or negative economic growth could turn out to be deeply flawed as a result of, among other things, an incorrect formula in an Excel spreadsheet. Microsoft’s PowerPoint has been considered evil thanks to the proliferation of poorly presented data and dull slides that are created with it. Might Excel also deserve such hyperbolic censure?
Living in the West we are generally at liberty to wear what we wish, certainly in private, and usually in public — subject to public norms of course. That said, one can make a good case for punishing offenders of all genders who enact “crimes of fashion”.
From the Telegraph:
One of the lesser-known effects of the double-dip recession is that young men have been unable to afford belts. All over the Western world we have had to witness exposed bottoms, thanks to lack of funds to pop out and buy a belt or a pair of braces, although many people have tried to convince me that this is actually a conscious “fashion’” choice.
A town in Louisiana has fought back against this practice and is now imposing fines for those who choose to fly their trousers at half-mast. What a shame this new law is, as these poor chaps are exactly that – poor. They can’t afford a belt! Fining them isn’t going to help their finances, is it?
In 2010, novelist Iain Banks delivered his well-crafted and heart-felt view of a very human problem — our inability to learn from past mistakes. Courageously for someone in the public eye he did something non-trivial, however small, about an all too common one. We excerpt his essay below.
Many herald the forward motion of technological innovation as progress. In many cases the momentum does genuinely seem to carry us towards a better place; it broadly alleviates pain and suffering; it generally delivers more and better nutrition to our bodies and our minds. Yet for all the positive steps, this progress is often accompanied by retrograde leaps — often paradoxical ones. Particularly disturbing is the relative ease to which technology allows us — the responsible adults – to sexualise and exploit children. Now, this is certainly not a new phenomenon, but our technical prowess certainly makes this problem more pervasive. A case in point, the Instagram beauty pageant. Move over Honey Boo-Boo.
Human intelligence is a wonderful thing. At both the individual and collective level it drives our complex communication, our fundamental discoveries and inventions, and impressive and accelerating progress. Intelligence allows us to innovate, to design, to build; and it underlies our superior capacity, over other animals, for empathy, altruism, art, and social and cultural evolution. Yet, despite our intellectual abilities and seemingly limitless potential, we humans still do lots of stupid things. Why is this?
Those of us who live relatively comfortable lives in the West are confronted with numerous and not insignificant stresses on a daily basis. There are the stresses of politics, parenting, work life balance, intolerance and financial, to name but a few.
Yet, for all the negatives it is often useful to put our toils and troubles into a clearer perspective. Sometimes a simple story is quite enough. This story is about a Saudi woman who dared to drive. In Saudi Arabia it is not illegal for women to drive, but it is against custom. May Manal al-Sharif and other “custom fighters” like her live long and prosper.
From the Wall Street Journal:
“You know when you have a bird, and it’s been in a cage all its life? When you open the cage door, it doesn’t want to leave. It was that moment.”
Chomsky. It’s highly likely that the mere sound of his name will polarize you. You will find yourself either for Noam Chomsky or adamantly against. You will either stand with him on the Arab-Israeli conflict or you won’t; you either support his libertarian-socialist views or you’re firmly against; you either agree with him on issues of privacy and authority or you don’t. However, regardless of your position on the Chomsky-support-scale you have to recognize that once he’s gone — he’s 84 years old — he’ll be recognized as one of the world’s great contemporary thinkers and writers. In the same mold as George Orwell, who was one of Chomsky’s early influences, Chomsky speaks truth to power. Whether the topic is political criticism, mass media, analytic philosophy, the military-industrial complex, computer science or linguistics the range of Chomsky’s discourse is astonishing, and his opinion not to be ignored.
You could be forgiven for mistakenly assuming this story to be a work of pop fiction from the colorful and restless minds of Quentin Tarrantino or the Coen brothers. But in another example of life mirroring art, it’s all true.
It’s unlikely that you would find many people who would argue against the notion that the United States is truly the most creative and innovative nation; from art to basic scientific research, from music to engineering, from theoretical physics to food science, from genetic studies and medicine to movies. And yet perplexingly, the nation continues to yearn for its wild, pioneering past, rather than inventing a brighter and more civilized future. To many outsiders the many contradictions that make up the United States are a source laughter and much incredulity. The recent news out of South Dakota shows why.
From the New York Times:
Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota on Friday signed into law a bill that would allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom.
While some other states have provisions in their gun laws that make it possible for teachers to be armed, South Dakota is believed to be the first state to pass a law that specifically allows teachers to carry firearms.
Most parents of teenagers would undoubtedly side with the first characterization: texting is a disaster for the English language — and any other texted language for that matter. At first glance it would seem that most linguists and scholars of language would agree. After all, with seemingly non-existent grammar, poor syntax, complete disregard for spelling, substitution of symbols for words, and emphasis on childish phonetics, how can texting be considered anything more than a regression to a crude form of proto-human language?
Well, linguist John McWhorter holds that texting is actually a new form of speech, and for that matter, it’s rather special and evolving in real-time. LOL? Read on and you will be (surprised). Oh, and if you still need help with texting translation, check-out dtxtr.
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted in December 1865. It abolished slavery.
But, it seems that someone in Mississippi did not follow the formal process. So, the law was officially ratified only a couple of weeks ago — 147 years late. Thanks go to two enterprising scholars and the movie Lincoln.
From the Guardian:
Mississippi has officially ratified the 13th amendment to the US constitution, which abolishes slavery and which was officially noted in the constitution on 6 December 1865. All 50 states have now ratified the amendment.
Mississippi’s tardiness has been put down to an oversight that was only corrected after two academics embarked on research prompted by watching Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film about president Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to secure the amendment.
theDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.
theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.