Category Archives: Idea Soup

Area 51 Lives On

google-search-area-51

What to believe about Area 51? Over the decades it has inspired hundreds of conspiratorial theories — extra-terrestrial spaceship landings, alien abductions, illegal governmental experimentation. Indeed, an entire tourist-based industry has arisen to attract myth-seekers to the Nevada desert. One thing does seem to be true: there’s a lot going on behind the barbed wire fences and security gates, and it’s probably all military.

From StumbleUpon:

In the middle of the barren Nevada desert, there’s a dusty unmarked road that leads to the front gate of Area 51. It’s protected by little more than a chain link fence, a boom gate, and intimidating trespassing signs. One would think that America’s much mythicized top secret military base would be under closer guard, but make no mistake. They are watching.

Beyond the gate, cameras see every angle. On the distant hilltop, there’s a white pickup truck with a tinted windshield peering down on everything below. Locals says the base knows every desert tortoise and jackrabbit that hops the fence. Others claim there are embedded sensors in the approaching road.

What exactly goes on inside of Area 51 has led to decades of wild speculation. There are, of course, the alien conspiracies that galactic visitors are tucked away somewhere inside. One of the more colorful rumors insists the infamous 1947 Roswell crash was actually a Soviet aircraft piloted by mutated midgets and the wreckage remains on the grounds of Area 51. Some even believe that the U.S. government filmed the 1969 moon landing in one of the base’s hangars.

For all the myths and legends, what’s true is that Area 51 is real and still very active. There may not be aliens or a moon landing movie set inside those fences, but something is going on and only a select few are privy to what’s happening further down that closely-monitored wind-swept Nevada road. “The forbidden aspect of Area 51 is what makes people want to know what’s there,” says aerospace historian and author Peter Merlin who’s been researching Area 51 for more than three decades.

“And there sure is still a lot going on there.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Finland: A Pioneer in Universal Basic Income

coat_of_arms_of_finlandOn January 1, 2017, the idea of universal basic income (UBI) took another small but significant leap forward, in Finland.

UBI is a form of social security where a government institution pays its citizens a regular, unconditional sum.

Finland is testing UBI by handing around $600 per month to 2,000 jobless Finns for the next two years. It’s a bold experiment aimed at helping the long-term unemployed.

From Business Insider:

Finland has an ambitious New Year’s resolution in mind: learn how offering free money for two years helps the unemployed get back to work.

Starting January 1, 2017 and lasting until 2019, the federal social security institution Kela will distribute roughly $590 each month to 2,000 jobless Finns.

Regardless of whether they find work during that period, the money will keep coming in at the beginning of each month — a trial version of basic income, one of the past year’s most popular theories of how to solve poverty.

Under universal basic income (UBI), people receive a standard amount of money just for being alive. By handing out the money to everyone, regardless of their income status, UBI advocates say the system prevents people from falling through the cracks.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, says the experiment in Finland should provide insights on two fronts.

The first is whether basic income could help clean up Finland’s messy system of social security. Depending on their specific needs, Turunen says residents could be on one of 40 different benefit systems. Each benefit — whether it’s for someone who’s sick, unemployed, a student, or so on— is calculated differently and must be changed when the person’s status changes.

“That’s really a burden for customers and Kela to do all those status changes,” Turunen tells Business Insider. A form of basic income could mean people just need to apply for one status indefinitely, no changes required.

The experiment will also provide clues about how people behave when they’re receiving free money. Skeptics say people will sit on their couch all day. Proponents claim they’ll actually use the money to make their lives better. (Limited evidence from developing countries suggests it’s more of the latter.)

Turunen suspects the experiment will compel at least a few wannabe entrepreneurs to make the leap into starting their own business — a risky proposition in Finland today since business owners who are forced to close shop don’t receive unemployment benefits. It’s not unlike the system in place in most US states.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Finland coat of arms. Courtesy: Vzb83 / Wipipedia. Public Domain.

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The Rise of Beards and the Fall of Social Media

Google-search-hipster-beard

Perhaps the rise of the hipster beard, handle-bar mustache, oversized glasses, craft brew, fixie (fixed-gear bicycle), thrift store sweaters, indie folk and pickling is a sign. Some see it as a signal of the imminent demise of social media, no less.

Can the length of facial hair or jacket elbow pads and the end of Facebook be correlated? I doubt it, but it’s worth pondering. Though, like John Biggs over a TechCrunch I do believe that the technology pendulum will eventually swing back towards more guarded privacy — if only as the next generation strikes back at the unguarded, frivolous, over-the-top public sharing of its parents.

Then, we can only hope for the demise of the hipster trend.

From TechCrunch:

After the early, exciting expository years of the Internet – the Age of Jennicam where the web was supposed to act as confessional and stage – things changed swiftly. This new medium was a revelation, a gift of freedom that we all took for granted. Want to post rants against the government? Press publish on Blogspot. Want to yell at the world? Aggregate and comment upon some online news. Want to meet people with similar interests or kinks? There was a site for you although you probably had to hunt it down.

The way we shared deep feelings on the Internet grew out of its first written stage into other more interactive forms. It passed through chatrooms, Chatroulette, and photo sharing. It passed through YouTube and Indie gaming. It planted a long, clammy kiss on Tumblr where it will probably remain for a long time. But that was for the professional exhibitionists. Today the most confessional “static” writing you’ll find on a web page is the occasional Medium post about beating adversity through meditation and Apple Watch apps and we have hidden our human foibles behind dank memes and chatbots. Where could the average person, the civilian, go to share their deepest feelings of love, anger, and fear?

Social media.

But an important change is coming to social media. We are learning that all of our thoughts aren’t welcome, especially by social media company investors. We are also learning that social media companies are a business. This means conversation is encouraged as long as it runs the gamut from mundane to vicious but stops at the overtly sexual or violent. Early in its life-cycle Pinterest made a big stink about actively banning porn while Instagram essentially allowed all sorts of exposition as long as it was monetizable and censored. Facebook still actively polices its photographs for even the hint of sexuality as an artist named Justyna Kiesielewicz recently discovered. She posted a staid nude and wanted to run it as an targeted advertisement. Facebook mistakenly ran the ad for a while, grabbing $50 before it banned the image. In short the latest incarnation of the expository impulse is truncated and sites like Facebook and Twitter welcome most hate groups but most draw the line at underboobs.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search and all hipsters.

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Launch-On-Warning

minuteman3-test-launch

Set aside your latest horror novel and forget the terror from the Hollywood blood and gore machine. What follows is a true tale of existential horror.

It’s a story of potential catastrophic human error, aging and obsolete technology, testosterone-fueled brinkmanship, volatile rhetoric and nuclear annihilation.

Written by Eric Schlosser over at the New Yorker. He is author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”.

I wonder if the command and control infrastructure serving the U.S. nuclear arsenal has since been upgraded so that the full complement of intercontinental ballistic missiles can be launched at a whim via Twitter.

What a great start to the new year.

From the New Yorker:

On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States.

U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

Read the entire sobering article here.

Image: Minuteman III ICBM test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, United States. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force, DOD Defense Visual Information Center. Public Domain.

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What Up With That: Nationalism

The recent political earthquake in the US is just one example of a nationalistic wave that swept across Western democracies in 2015-2016. The election in the US seemed to surprise many political talking-heads since the nation was, and still is, on a continuing path towards greater liberalism (mostly due to demographics).

So, what exactly is up with that? Can American liberals enter a coma for the next 4 years, sure to awaken refreshed and ready for a new left-of-center regime? Or, is the current nationalistic mood — albeit courtesy of a large minority — likely to prevail for a while longer? Well, there’s no clear answer, and political scientists and researchers are baffled.

Care to learn more about theories of nationalism and the historical underpinnings of nationalism? Visit my reading list over at Goodreads. But make sure you start with: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson. It’s been the global masterwork on the analysis of nationalism since it was first published in 1983.

I tend to agree with Anderson’s thesis, that a nation is mostly a collective figment of people’s imagination facilitated by modern communications networks. So, I have to believe that eventually our networks will help us overcome the false strictures of our many national walls and borders.

From Scientific American:

Waves of nationalist sentiment are reshaping the politics of Western democracies in unexpected ways — carrying Donald Trump to a surprise victory last month in the US presidential election, and pushing the United Kingdom to vote in June to exit the European Union. And nationalist parties are rising in popularity across Europe.

Many economists see this political shift as a consequence of globalization and technological innovation over the past quarter of a century, which have eliminated many jobs in the West. And political scientists are tracing the influence of cultural tensions arising from immigration and from ethnic, racial and sexual diversity. But researchers are struggling to understand why these disparate forces have combined to drive an unpredictable brand of populist politics.

“We have to start worrying about the stability of our democracies,” says Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He notes that the long-running World Values Survey shows that people are increasingly disaffected with their governments — and more willing to support authoritarian leaders.

Some academics have explored potential parallels between the roots of the current global political shift and the rise of populism during the Great Depression, including in Nazi Germany. But Helmut Anheier, president of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, cautions that the economic struggles of middle-class citizens across the West today are very different, particularly in mainland Europe.

The Nazis took advantage of the extreme economic hardship that followed the First World War and a global depression, but today’s populist movements are growing powerful in wealthy European countries with strong social programmes. “What brings about a right-wing movement when there are no good reasons for it?”Anheier asks.

In the United States, some have suggested that racism motivated a significant number of Trump voters. But that is too simplistic an explanation, says Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard University.  “Trump dominated the news for more than a year, and did so with provocative statements that were meant to exacerbate every tension in the US,” she says.

Read the entire story here.

p.s. What Up With That is my homage to the recurring Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch of the same name.

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Consumerism Gone Utterly Utterly Mad

amazon-patent-afc

I’m not sure whether to love or hate Amazon (the online retailer). I love the one-click convenience and the mall-less shopping experience. But, Amazon’s lengthy tentacles are increasingly encroaching into every aspect of our lives. Its avaricious quest to “serve the customer” has me scared.

I don’t want Amazon to be the sole source for everything that I eat, wear and use. I don’t want Amazon to run the world’s computing infrastructure. I don’t want Amazon making and peddling movies. I don’t want Amazon tech eavesdropping on my household conversations. I don’t want Amazon owning telecommunications and fiber infrastructure, nor do I want it making phones. I don’t wish to live in a nation that has to all intents become a giant, nationwide Amazon warehouse. And, this leads me to the company’s latest crazy idea.

The company was granted patent #9,305,280 in April 2016 for an “airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery“. You got it: a flying warehouse stocked full of goodies hovering over your neighborhood armed and ready to launch your favorite washing detergent, a pair of Zappos shoes, diapers and a salame to your doorstep via missile drone.

Apparently the proposed airborne fulfillment center (AFC) “may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet)”. Not surprisingly, the AFC mothership will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — drones — “to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations”. But, in addition, the patent filing suggests that “shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC”. The proposed airship will also deliver customized airborne advertising tied to its inventory enabling on-the-fly (pun intended) product promotions and fulfillment.

As Annalee Newitz, Tech Culture Editor, over at ars technica remarks, “sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel“. Yes, and while Dick’s many novels were gloriously imagined, we don’t necessarily need them to enter the real world. Please let our androids continue dreaming (of electric sheep).

Image: Figure 2 from Amazon’s patent for an airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery. US patent #9305280. Courtesy: USPTO. Public Domain.

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Heroes Only Die at the Top of Hills

google-search-heroes-comicWe all need heroes. So, if you wish to become one, you would stand a better chance if you took your dying breaths atop a hill. Also, it would really help your cause if you arrived via virgin birth.

Accordingly, please refer to the Rank-Raglan Mythotype — it is a list of 22 universal archetypes that are prerequisites to you becoming a hero of mythological proportions (far beyond being a Youtube sensation):

  1. Hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
  2. His father is a king, and
  3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
  4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
  5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
  6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grand father to kill him, but
  7. He is spirited away, and
  8. Reared by foster -parents in a far country.
  9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
  10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.
  11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
  12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
  13. Becomes king.
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and
  15. Prescribes laws, but
  16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
  17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which
  18. He meets with a mysterious death,
  19. Often at the top of a hill,
  20. His children, if any do not succeed him.
  21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
  22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.

By far the most heroic fit to date is Mithradates the Great with 22 out of a possible 22 cross-cultural traits. Jesus comes in with a score of 18-20 (based on interpretation) out of 22 , beaten by Krishna with 21, while Robin Hood only manages a paltry 13. Interestingly, Buddha collects 15 points, followed closely by Czar Nicholas II with 14.

The mythotype comes from the book The Hero: A study in Tradition, Myth and Dreams by Lord Raglan.

List courtesy of Professor Thomas J. Sienkewicz, Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. It is based upon material used in his mythology classes for many years, first at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Hate Work Email? Become a French Citizen

google-search-work-stress

Many non-French cultures admire the French. They live in a gorgeous country with a rich history, and, besides, its crammed with sumptuous food and wine. And, perhaps as a result, the French seem to have a very firm understanding of the so-called work-life balance. They’re often characterized as a people who work to live, rather than their earnest Anglo-Saxon cousins who generally live to work. While these may be over-generalized aphorisms a new French law highlights the gulf between employee rights of the French versus those of other more corporate-friendly nations.

Yes, as of January 1, 2017, an employee of a French company, having over 50 staff, has the legal right to ignore work-related emails, and other communications, outside of regular working hours.

Vive la France! More on this “right to disconnect” law here.

From the Guardian:

From Sunday [January 1, 2017], French companies will be required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology as the country seeks to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking.

On 1 January, an employment law will enter into force that obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones.

Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

The measure is intended to tackle the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime – while also giving employees flexibility to work outside the office.

“There’s a real expectation that companies will seize on the ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure,” said Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert, as a new survey on the subject was published in October.

“At the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them,” added Zunigo, who is an academic and director of research group Aristat.

The measure was introduced by labour minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report submitted in September 2015 which warned about the health impact of “info-obesity” which afflicts many workplaces.

Under the new law, companies will be obliged to negotiate with employees to agree on their rights to switch off and ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Messiah Myth

merryoldsanta

Now that almost two weeks have gone by since Christmas it’s time to reflect on it’s (historical) meaning beyond the shopping discounts, santa hats and incessant cheesy music.

We know that Christmas falls on two different dates depending on whether you follow the Gregorian or Julian (orthodox) calendars.

We know that many Christmas traditions were poached and re-purposed from rituals and traditions that predate the birth of Jesus, regardless of which calendar you adhere to: the 12-days of Christmas (christmastide) originated from the ancient Germanic mid-winter, more recently Norse, festival of Yule; the tradition of gift giving and partying came from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia; the Western Christian church settled on December 25 based on the ancient Roman date of the winter solstice; holiday lights came from the ancient pagans who lit bonfires and candles on the winter solstice to celebrate the return of the light.

And, let’s not forget the now ubiquitous westernized Santa Claus. We know that Santa has evolved over the centuries from a melting pot of European traditions including those surrounding Saint Nicolas, who was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor (Greek Anatolia in present-day Turkey), and the white-bearded Norse god, Odin.

So, what of Jesus? We know that the gospels describing him are contradictory, written by different, anonymous and usually biased authors, and at different times, often decades after the reported fact. We have no eye-witness accounts. We lack a complete record — there is no account for Jesus’ years 12-30. Indeed, religion aside, many scholars, now question the historic existence of Jesus, the man.

From Big Think:

Today, several books approach the subject, including Zealot by Reza Aslan, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald, and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman. Historian Richard Carrier in his 600 page monograph: On the Historicity of Jesus, writes that the story may have derived from earlier semi-divine beings from Near East myth, who were murdered by demons in the celestial realm. This would develop over time into the gospels, he said. Another theory is that Jesus was a historical figure who become mythicized later on.

Carrier believes the pieces added to the work of Josephus were done by Christian scribes. In one particular passage, Carrier says that the execution by Pilate of Jesus was obviously lifted from the Gospel of Luke. Similar problems such as miscopying and misrepresentations are found throughout Tacitus. So where do all the stories in the New Testament derive? According to Carrier, Jesus may be as much a mythical figure as Hercules or Oedipus.

Ehrman focuses on the lack of witnesses. “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing.”

One biblical scholar holds an even more radical idea, that Jesus story was an early form of psychological warfare to help quell a violent insurgency. The Great Revolt against Rome occurred in 66 BCE. Fierce Jewish warriors known as the Zealots won two decisive victories early on. But Rome returned with 60,000 heavily armed troops. What resulted was a bloody war of attrition that raged for three decades.

 Atwill contends that the Zealots were awaiting the arrival of a warrior messiah to throw off the interlopers. Knowing this, the Roman court under Titus Flavius decided to create their own, competing messiah who promoted pacifism among the populous. According to Atwill, the story of Jesus was taken from many sources, including the campaigns of a previous Caesar.

Of course, there may very well have been a Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef (as would have been Jesus’s real name) who gathered a flock around his teachings in the first century. Most antiquarians believe a real man existed and became mythicized. But the historical record itself is thin.

Read the entire article here.

Image:  “Merry Old Santa Claus”, by Thomas Nast,  January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain.

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MondayMap: Food Rhythms

rhythm-of-food-screenshot

OK, I admit it. Today’s article is not strictly about a map, but I couldn’t resist these fascinating data visualizations. The graphic show some of the patterns and trends that can be derived from the vast mountains of data gathered from Google searches. A group of designers and data scientists from Truth & Beauty teamed up with Google News Labs to produce a portfolio of charts that show food and drink related searches over the last 12 years.

The visual above shows a clear spike in cocktail related searches in December (for entertaining during holiday season). Interestingly Searches for a “Tom Collins” have increased since 2004 whereas those for “Martini” have decreased in number. A more recent phenomenon on the cocktail scene seems to be the “Moscow Mule”.

Since most of the searches emanated in the United States the resulting charts show some fascinating changes in the nation’s collective nutritional mood. While some visualizations confirm the obvious — fruit searches peak when in season; pizza is popular year round — some  specific insights are more curious:

  • Orange Jell-O [“jelly” for my British readers] is popular for US Thanksgiving.
  • Tamale searches peak around Christmas.
  • Pumpkin spice latte searches increase in the fall, but searches are peaking earlier each year.
  • Superfood searches are up; fat-free searches are down.
  • Nacho searches peak around Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Cauliflower may be the new Kale.

You can check out much more from this gorgeous data visualization project at The Rhythm of Food.

Image: Screenshot from Rhythm of Food. Courtesy: Rhythm of Food.

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MondayMap: A Global Radio Roadtrip

radio-garden-screenshot1

As a kid my radio allowed me to travel the world. I could use the dial to transport myself over border walls and across oceans to visit new cultures and discover new sounds. I’d always eagerly anticipate the next discovery as I carefully moved the dial around the Short Wave, Long Wave (and later the FM) spectrum, waiting for new music and voices to replace the soothing crackle and hiss of the intervening static.

So, what a revelation it is to stumble across Radio.Garden. It’s a glorious, app that combines the now arcane radio dial with the power of the internet enabling you to journey around the globe on a virtual radio roadtrip.

Trek to Tromsø north of the arctic circle in Norway, then hop over to Omsk in central Russia. Check out the meditative tunes in Kathmandu before heading southwest to Ruwi, Oman on the Persian Gulf. Stopover in Kuching, Malaysia, then visit Nhulunbuy in Australia’s Northern Territory. Take in a mid-Pacific talk radio show in Bairiki, in the Republic of Kiribati, then some salsa inspired tuned in Tacna, Peru, and followed by pounding Brazilian Euro-techno in João Pessoa. Journey to Kinshasa in the DRC for some refreshing African beats, then rest for the day with some lively conversation in the Italian Apennine Mountains in Parma, Italy.

radio-garden-screenshot2

During this wonderful border free journey one thing is becomes crystal clear: we are part of one global community with much in common. History will eventually prove the racists and xenophobes among us wrong.

Images: Screenshots of Radio.Garden. Courtesy of Radio.Garden.

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Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

alien-abduction-waltonShould we blame the creative originators of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation and click-bait hype? Or, should we blame the media for disseminating, spinning and aggrandizing these stories for their own profit or political motives? Or, should we blame us — the witless consumers.

I subscribe to the opinion that all three constituencies share responsibility — it’s very much a symbiotic relationship.

James Warren chief media writer for Poynter has a different opinion; he lays the blame squarely at the feet of gullible and unquestioning citizens. He makes a very compelling argument.

Perhaps if any educated political scholars remain several hundred years from now, they’ll hold the US presidential election of 2016 as the culmination of a process where lazy stupidity triumphed over healthy skepticism and reason.

From Hive:

The rise of “fake news” inspires the press to uncover its many practitioners worldwide, discern its economics and herald the alleged guilt-ridden soul-searching by its greatest enablers, Facebook and Google.

But the media dances around another reality with the dexterity of Beyonce, Usher and septuagenarian Mick Jagger: the stupidity of a growing number of Americans.

So thanks to Neal Gabler for taking to Bill Moyers’ website to pen, “Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News.” (Moyers)

Fake news, of course, “is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth — which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it — fake news is an assault on democracy as well.”

Gabler is identified here as the author of five books, without mentioning any. Well, one is 1995’s Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. It’s a superb look at Walter Winchell, the man who really invented the gossip column and wound up with a readership and radio audience of 50 million, or two-thirds of the then-population, as he helped create our modern media world of privacy-invading gossip and personal destruction as entertainment.

“What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public,” Gabler writes of our current mess. “Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign. That is our current situation, and it is no sure thing that either truth or democracy survives.”

Think of it. The goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t be bothered to read a newspaper or decent digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times. Ask all those pissed-off Trump loyalists in rural towns to name their two U.S. senators.

We love convincing ourselves of the strengths of democracy, including the inevitable collective wisdom setting us back on a right track if ever we go astray. And while the media may hold itself out as cultural anthropologists in explaining the “anger” or “frustration” of “real people,” as is the case after Donald Trump’s election victory, we won’t really underscore rampant illiteracy and incomprehension.

So read Gabler. “Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.”

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Artist’s conception of an alien spacecraft tractor-beaming a human victim. Courtesy: unknown artist, Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Uber For…

google-search-uber

There’s an Uber for pet-sitters (Rover). There’s an Uber for dog walkers (Wag). There’s an Uber for private jets (JetMe). There are several Ubers for alcohol (Minibar, Saucey, Drizly, Thirstie). In fact, enter the keywords “Uber for…” into Google and the search engine will return “Uber for kids, Uber for icecream, Uber for news, Uber for seniors, Uber for trucks, Uber for haircuts, Uber for iPads (?), Uber for food, Uber for undertakers (??)…” and thousands of other results.

The list of Uber-like copycats, startups and ideas is seemingly endless — a sign, without doubt, that we have indeed reached peak-Uber. Perhaps VCs in the valley should move on to some more meaningful investments, before the Uber bubble bursts.

From Wired:

“Uber for X” has been the headline of more than four hundred news articles. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs used the phrase to describe their companies in their pitch decks. On one site alone—AngelList, where startups can court angel investors and employees—526 companies included “Uber for” in their listings. As a judge for various emerging technology startup competitions, I saw “Uber for” so many times that at some point, I developed perceptual blindness.

Nearly all the organizations I advised at that time wanted to know about the “Uber for” of their respective industries. A university wanted to develop an “Uber for tutoring”; a government agency was hoping to solve an impending transit issue with an “Uber for parking.” I knew that “Uber for” had reached critical mass when one large media organization, in need of a sustainable profit center, pitched me their “Uber for news strategy.”

“We’re going to be the Uber for news,” the news exec told me. Confused, I asked what, exactly, he meant by that.

“Three years from now, we’ll have an on-demand news platform for Millennials. They tap a button on their phones and they get the news delivered right to them, wherever they are,” the editor said enthusiastically. “This is the future of news!”

“Is it an app?” I asked, trying to understand.

“Maybe. The point is that you get the news right away, when you want it, wherever you are,” the exec said.

“So you mean an app,” I pressed. “Yes!” he said. “But more like Uber.”

The mass “Uber for X” excitement is a good example of what happens when we don’t stop to investigate a trend, asking difficult questions and challenging our cherished beliefs. We need to first understand what, exactly, Uber is and what led to entrepreneurs coining that catchphrase.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

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The online filter bubble is a natural extension of our preexisting biases, particularly evident in our media consumption. Those of us of a certain age — above 30 years — once purchased (and maybe still do) our favorite paper-based newspapers and glued ourselves to our favorite TV news channels. These sources mirrored, for the most part, our cultural and political preferences. The internet took this a step further by building a tightly wound, self-reinforcing feedback loop. We consume our favorite online media, which solicits algorithms to deliver more of the same. I’ve written about the filter bubble for years (here, here and here).

The online filter bubble in which each of us lives — those of us online — may seem no more dangerous than its offline predecessor. After all, the online version of the NYT delivers left-of-center news, just like its printed cousin. So what’s the big deal? Well, the pervasiveness of our technology has now enabled these filters to creep insidiously into many aspects of our lives, from news consumption and entertainment programming to shopping and even dating. And, since we now spend growing  swathes of our time online, our serendipitous exposure to varied content that typically lies outside this bubble in the real, offline world is diminishing. Consequently, the online filter bubble is taking on a much more critical role and having greater effect in maintaining our tunnel vision.

However, that’s not all. Over the last few years we have become exposed to yet another dangerous phenomenon to have made the jump from the offline world to online — the echo chamber. The online echo chamber is enabled by our like-minded online communities and catalyzed by the tools of social media. And, it turns our filter bubble into a self-reinforcing, exclusionary community that is harmful to varied, reasoned opinion and healthy skepticism.

Those of us who reside on Facebook are likely to be part of a very homogeneous social circle, which trusts, shares and reinforces information accepted by the group and discards information that does not match the group’s social norms. This makes the spread of misinformation — fake stories, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors — so very effective. Importantly, this is increasingly to the exclusion of all else, including real news and accepted scientific fact.

Why embrace objective journalism, trusted science and thoughtful political dialogue when you can get a juicy, emotive meme from a friend of a friend on Facebook? Why trust a story from Reuters or science from Scientific American when you get your “news” via a friend’s link from Alex Jones and the Brietbart News Network?

And, there’s no simple solution, which puts many of our once trusted institutions in severe jeopardy. Those of us who care have a duty to ensure these issues are in the minds of our public officials and the guardians of our technology and media networks.

From Scientific American:

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

Many are asking whether this onslaught of digital misinformation affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. The truth is we do not know, although there are reasons to believe it is entirely possible, based on past analysis and accounts from other countries. Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. Overall, the harm can be very real: If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?

As a researcher on the spread of misinformation through social media, I know that limiting news fakers’ ability to sell ads, as recently announced by Google and Facebook, is a step in the right direction. But it will not curb abuses driven by political motives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Birthday Problem

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I first came across the Birthday Problem in my first few days of my first year of secondary school in London [that would be 6th grade for my US readers]. My mathematics teacher at the time realized the need to discuss abstract problems in concrete terms, especially statistics and probability. So, he wowed many of us — in a class of close to 30 kids — by firmly stating that there was a better than even chance that two of us shared the same birthday. In a class of 30, the actual probability is 60 percent, and rises to close to 100 percent is a group of only 60.

Startlingly, two in our class did indeed share the same birthday. How could that be possible, I wondered?

Well, the answer is grounded in the simple probability of large populations. But, it is also colored by our selective biases to remember “remarkable” coincidences and to ignore the much, much larger number of instances where there is no coincidence at all.

From the Washington Post.

Mathematician Joseph Mazur was in the back of a van snaking through the mountains of Sardinia when he heard one of his favorite coincidence stories. The driver, an Italian language teacher named Francesco, told of meeting a woman named Manuela who had come to study at his school. Francesco and Manuela met for the first time in a hotel lobby, and then went to have coffee.

They spoke for an hour, getting acquainted, before the uncomfortable truth came out. Noting Manuela’s nearly perfect Italian, Francesco finally asked why she decided to come to his school.

“She said, ‘Italian? What are you talk about? I’m not here to learn Italian,’” Mazur relates. “And then it dawned on both of them that she was the wrong Manuela and he was the wrong Francesco.” They returned to the hotel lobby where they had met to find a different Francesco offering a different Manuela a job she didn’t want or expect.

The tale is one of the many stories that populate Mazur’s new book, “Fluke,” in which he explores the probability of coincidences.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The computed probability of at least two people sharing a birthday versus the number of people. Courtesy: Rajkiran g / Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Surplus Humans and the Death of Work

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It’s a simple equation: too many humans, not enough work. Low paying, physical jobs continue to disappear, replaced by mechanization. More cognitive work characterized by the need to think is increasingly likely to be automated and robotized. This has complex and dire consequences, and not just global economic ramifications, but moral ones. What are we to make of ourselves and of a culture that has intimately linked work with meaning when the work is outsourced or eliminated entirely?

A striking example comes from the richest country in the world — the United States. Recently and anomalously life-expectancy has shown a decrease among white people in economically depressed areas of the nation. Many economists suggest that the quest for ever-increasing productivity — usually delivered through automation — is chipping away at the very essence of what it means to be human: value purpose through work.

James Livingston professor of history at Rutgers University summarizes the existential dilemma, excerpted below, in his latest book No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.

From aeon:

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Detroit Industry North Wall, Diego Rivera. Courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts. Wikipedia.

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Breathe, You’re On Vacation

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I’m lucky enough to be able to take a couple of vacations [holidays for my British readers] each year. Over the decades my vacations have generally tended to fall into two categories. First, there is the inactive, relaxing vacation of nothingness. This usually involves lounging and listening to ocean waves break along a beautiful beach, reading some choice literature and just, well, relaxing — when without kids in tow. Second, there is the active vacation spent trekking in the wilderness or discovering a far-flung natural or cultural wonder of the world.

However, even though I began these vacation rituals with my parents when I was a child myself, and have now done this for decades, I may have had the idea of a vacation completely wrong. Apparently, the ideal vacation must involve breathing, mindfulness, and self-improvement. So, forget the relaxation.

Ironically, it seems that Google has yet to learn about our active needs for vacation wellness and enrichment. Search for “vacation” online and Google will first deliver many thousands of images of people relaxing at the beach under a deep blue sky.

From NYT:

When I was 22, I used to have a fantasy about going away to a sanitarium, like in “The Magic Mountain.” I would do nothing but sit on balconies, wrapped in steamer rugs, and go to the doctor, avoiding the rigors of the real world and emerging after a short period brighter, happier, better.

I’m beginning to think this was a prescient impulse. Over the decades we have embraced a widening and diverse array of practices and traditions, but the idea that we can be improved — in mind, body or spirit — has remained a constant. That this could be accomplished with money and in an allotted parcel of time has become increasingly popular with a generation reared in a maximalist minimalist moment that, as with fashion and interior design, demands grandiose, well-documented freedom from the world. If stuff was once an indicator of security, now the very lack of it — of dust, of furniture, of body fat, of errant thoughts — defines aspiration. A glamorous back-to-nature exercise in pricey self-abnegation has become the logical way to spend one’s leisure time.

We live in a golden age of the “wellness vacation,” a sort of hybrid retreat, boot camp, spa and roving therapy session that, for the cost of room and board, promises to refresh body and mind and send you back to your life more whole. Pravassa, a “wellness travel company,” summarizes its (trademarked) philosophy as “Breathe. Experience. Move. Mindfulness. Nourish.” (The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a wellness retreat in New England, boasts the eerily similar tagline: “Breathe. Connect. Move. Discover. Shine.”) A 10-day trip to Thailand with Pravassa includes a travel guide — who works, in her day job, as a “mindfulness-based psychotherapist” in Atlanta — as well as temple pilgrimages at dawn and, more abstractly, the potential to bring all that mindfulness back home with you. Selfies are not only allowed but encouraged.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Beware. Economic Growth May Kill You

There is a long-held belief that economic growth and prosperity makes for a happier, healthier populace. Most economists and social scientists, and indeed lay-people, have subscribed to this idea for many decades.

But, this may be completely wrong.

A handful of contrarian economists began noticing a strange paradox in their research studies from 2000. Evidence suggests that rising incomes and personal well-being are linked in the opposite way. It seems that when the US economy is improving, people suffer more medical problems and die faster.

How could this be? Well, put simply, there are three main factors: increased pollution from increased industrial activity; greater occupational hazards from increased work; and, higher exposure to risky behaviors from greater income.

From the Washington Post:

Yet in recent years, accumulating evidence suggests that rising incomes and personal well-being are linked in the opposite way. It seems that economic growth actually kills people.

Christopher Ruhm, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, was one of the first to notice this paradox. In a 2000 paper, he showed that when the American economy is on an upswing, people suffer more medical problems and die faster; when the economy falters, people tend to live longer.

“It’s very puzzling,” says Adriana Lleras-Muney, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We know that people in rich countries live longer than people in poor countries. There’s a strong relationship between GDP and life expectancy, suggesting that more money is better. And yet, when the economy is doing well, when it’s growing faster than average, we find that more people are dying.”

In other words, there are great benefits to being wealthy. But the process of becoming wealthy — well, that seems to be dangerous.

Lleras-Muney and her colleagues, David Cutler of Harvard and Wei Huang of the National Bureau of Economic Research, believe they can explain why. They have conducted one of the most comprehensive investigations yet of this phenomenon, analyzing over 200 years of data from 32 countries. In a draft of their research, released last week, they lay out something of a grand unified theory of life, death and economic growth.

To start, the economists confirm that when a country’s economic output — its GDP — is higher than expected, mortality rates are also higher than expected.

The data show that when economies are growing particularly fast, emissions and pollution are also on the rise. After controlling for changes in air quality, the economists find that economic growth doesn’t seem to impact death rates as much. “As much as two-thirds of the adverse effect of booms may be the result of increased pollution,” they write.

A booming economy spurs death in other ways too. People start to spend more time at their jobs, exposing them to occupational hazards, as well as the stress of overwork. People drive more, leading to an increase in traffic-related fatalities. People also drink more, causing health problems and accidents. In particular, the economists’ data suggest that alcohol-related mortality is the second-most important explanation, after pollution, for the connection between economic growth and death rates.

This is consistent with other studies finding that people are more likely to die right after they receive their tax rebates. More income makes it easier for people to pay for health care and other basic necessities, but it also makes it easier for people to engage in risky activities and hurt themselves.

Read the entire story here.

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Who Needs Education?

misd-proposed-stadium

Here’s a great example of the value that some citizens place on education in the United States. It’s one more recent example of a distorted system that ranks sporting success, or just dreams of success, over learning, teaching and intellectual accomplishment.

McKinney independent school district (MISD), part of the Dallas-Ft.Worth metropolitan area approved a $70 million bond package to finance a new 7,000 capacity stadium and other city improvements. By Texas’ standards this is small potatoes, nearby Allen ISD completed a 18,000 capacity high school stadium in 2012.

Put into perspective: most non-premium level, professional sports teams in Europe have lower capacity stadiums [stadia, for my British readers].

From Guardian:

In the middle of the change from small town to booming Dallas suburb is football. Celina could end up with more than one high school and therefore more than one football team, a division of the local talent pool that would vex some. But a more immediate question is over the future need for a new stadium to house the existing team and its swelling fanbase. The current 3,800-capacity Bobcat Stadium, regularly packed, might soon be unable to cope with demand.

These are interesting times for high school football stadiums in Texas. Nearby McKinney recently approved the construction of a new $70m, 12,000-seat stadium to be shared by the city’s three high schools. That followed hard on the heels of a $60m, 18,000-capacity venue for neighboring Allen – which has one high school – completed in 2012. Local media have called the sprouting of expensive stadiums among rival school districts in affluent suburbs an arms race. The adjacent Frisco, meanwhile, entered a partnership with the Dallas Cowboys for its schools to play in the NFL team’s new indoor practice facility built in the city. The Frisco independent school district is chipping in $30m so area kids can run out at The Ford Center at The Star, capacity 12,000.

Critics argue the money could be better spent elsewhere in the education system.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Proposed McKinney High School Stadium. Courtesy McKinney Independent School District (MISD) press handout.

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The Only Gettysburg Address

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One hundred and fifty three years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered, during the American Civil War, one of the most memorable speeches in US history. His resonant words will continue to be taught, studied and remembered.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Others have delivered words on the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg. One recent example treated us, not to heartfelt oratory, but to whining about a rigged election, railing against the disgusting media, and regurgitating personal grievances and attacks. This speech train-of-thought nonsense will be discarded and forgotten, unless future scholars return to dissect the most spectacular campaign failure — and disgusting individual — in modern US politics.

Image: The only confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, some three hours before the speech, 19 November 1863. Courtesy: United States Library of Congress. Public Domain.

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Speaking in (Alien) Tongues

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Considering that we humans cannot clearly communicate with any other living species on the planet it seems rather fanciful that we might be able to chat with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

But some linguists have a plan should we ever come across an alien civilization, or more likely should they ever choose to give Earth a visit. The idea is to develop a communication process using monolingual fieldwork.

From Scientific American:

In the upcoming sci-fi drama “Arrival,” several mysterious spacecraft touch down around the planet, and humanity is faced with how to approach—and eventually communicate—with these extraterrestrial visitors.

In the film, a team of experts is assembled to investigate, and among the chosen individuals is a linguist, played by actress Amy Adams. Though the story is rooted in science fiction, it does tackle a very real challenge: How do you communicate with someone—or how do you learn that individual’s language—when you have no intermediary language in common?

The film is based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang. It taps into the common science-fiction theme of alien tongues; not only the communication barrier they might present, but the unusual ways they could differ from human language. “There’s a long tradition of science fiction that deals with language and communication,” Chiang told Live Science in an email.

And in both the short story and film, linguists play a key role in bridging the gap between humans and aliens—something that isn’t entirely farfetched, according to Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts. “Linguists who’ve had extensive field experience can do this. That’s what they do,” Everett told Live Science.

Everett spent more than 30 years working with the Pirahãpeople of the Brazilian Amazon, learning and studying their language, which was poorly documented prior to his work. Pirahãis what’s called a language isolate, a linguistic orphan of sorts, and is the last surviving member of its language family. It is also well-known for some of its atypical qualities, such as a lack of counting numbers or relative directions, such as “left” and “right,” qualities which Everett worked out over years of study.

The people were similarly isolated, and were entirely monolingual, he said. So it didn’t matter that Everett didn’t know Portuguese. Rather than asking questions about the Pirahãlanguage in a shared second language, he conducted his research in a style known as monolingual fieldwork.

Pointing to a nearby object, like a stick, and asking (even in English) what it’s called is typically interpreted as a cue to name it, Everett said. From the names of things, a linguist can then work their way towards actions, and how to express relationships between objects, Everett said. All the while, linguists typically transcribe the statements, paying attention to the sounds, the grammar and the way meanings are combined, building a working theory of the language, he said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Reprint of The War of the Worlds cover-featured on the July 1951 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Public Domain.

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Open-Office or Home-Based?

google-search-open-office

Enough with the open office. Despite claims to democratize the workspace, improve employee camaraderie and boost interactions the open office layout reduces productivity.

Employers, here’s a better idea. Let your employees work from home. It really works: cuts corporate costs, increases productivity and morale, and reduces greenhouse emissions (from less commuting). Everybody wins — except, perhaps, for those who thrive on office gossip or require an in situ foosball table.

From the Washington Post:

A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life.  All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system.  As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips.  At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York,  making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Quiet Please

dakota-ridge-29nov2015

Our world is a noisy place. And, for all our technological progress it is becoming increasingly noisy. Many who can afford to do so spend a significant slice of their incomes seeking the elusive place or moment(s) that bring peace and quiet. So, it’s no surprise to see an uptick in demand for all things quiet — silent reading, silent dining, silent hiking, silent meditation.

From the Guardian:

Once the preserve of monastic retreats and hardcore meditators, simply being quiet is growing in appeal. Whole businesses have sprung up to meet a rising demand for quiet time, from silent weekend getaways to silent dining, silent reading parties and even silent dating. This month sees the release of documentary In Pursuit of Silence, a “meditative film” about our relationship with noise, promoted with a delicate two-minute trailer in which not a word is uttered.

Silence can, as the film attests, mean different things to different people. It can be a space for quiet reflection or a state fraught with discomfort. There is a certain intimacy inherent in being silent with other people – we usually do so only with those closest to us. So there is something almost radical about the recent trend for enjoying silence with strangers.

Mariel Symeonidou started a regular silent reading party in Dundee just under a year ago, in a moment of “uncharacteristic extroversion”. Readers bring their books and meet in a bar, where they read together in silence for an hour or sometimes two, then put the books away to chat and have a drink.

Read the entire article, in silence, here.

Image: Early winter, Dakota Ridge. Courtesy of the author.

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MondayMap: Red Versus Blue

1883-county-map

You may believe that colorful, graphical electoral analysis is a relatively recent phenomenon. You know, those cool red and blue maps (and now sometimes green or purple) of each state and country.

But our present day news networks and the internet did not invent this type of infographic map.

Susan Schulten, chair of the history department at the University of Denver, discovered what may be the earliest example of a US county-level electoral map. Published in 1883 it shows results from the 1880 Presidential election between Republican James Garfield and Democrat Winfield Hancock. Garfield won.

Two notable reversals in the 1880 map versus today’s counterpart: First, Democrats are in red; Republicans in blue. Second, Democrats make up the majority in much of the South and Midwest; Republicans rule in the Northeast. Interestingly, the color scheme switched numerous times over the last hundred years and did not formally become Democrat=Blue, Republican=Red until the 2000 election cycle.

For more fascinating details of our electoral maps, past and present, check out this article by Lazaro Gamio, over at the Washington Post.

Image: Plate 11 from Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States, published in 1883. Courtesy: Library of Congress. Public Domain.

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Fear the First 100 Days

Imagine, in your rosy colored dreams or your darkest nightmares, what the first one hundred days of a Republican presidency would look like.

Actually, you don’t need to do much imagining since you can for the most part piece together what would become of the United States based on the daily flow of Trumpian vulgarities, bigotry, hypocrisy, contempt and other dangerously ignorant, poisonous nonsense and complete bullshit from the depraved, despotic, shameless, shallow, deceitful, volatile, puerile, vindictive, noxious, misogynistic, racist, corrupt, thuggish, insensitive, naive, irrational, petulant, authoritarian, vengeful, disgraceful, abusive, irresponsible, narcissistic, vacuous, cowardly, self-aggrandizing, unprincipled, pathologically deranged, completely detached-from-reality (crazy), unapologetically fraudulent, chronically repulsive, thoroughly sleazy and incoherent mind mouth of the “Republican” nominee for President (think about that very carefully for several minutes).

But, that said, Dana Milbank over at the Washington Post reminds us of the stakes, just a couple of days away; he couldn’t have put it more clearly and succinctly:

Among things you can expect: a trade war with China and Mexico, a restarting of Iran’s nuclear program, millions losing their health insurance, the start of mass deportations, a possible military standoff with China in the South China Sea and North Korea, the resumption of waterboarding, the use of federal agencies to go after Hillary Clinton and other Trump critics, the spectacle of the commander in chief suing women who have accused him of sexual misconduct and a constitutional crisis as the president of the United States attempts to disqualify the federal judge in a fraud suit against him because the judge is Latino.

He’s not joking. Read the entire article here.

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Education, Income Inequality and the Great Divide

There’s a commonly held belief that having a greater level of education ensures a higher level of lifetime income. While this is generally true the picture is rather more complex. It’s painfully clear that income inequality is more acute now than it has ever been and the gap between white and black wage earners in the United States is wider than ever. But, perhaps surprisingly, the overall income gap is increasing between well-educated whites and blacks. Why is this the case? A detailed study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reminds us that:

Income growth in recent decades has been limited, more or less, to the highest echelon of earners, a group that is overwhelmingly white. Out of every 1,000 households in the top 1 percent, only two are black, while about 910 are white. And so, as economic forces lifted the incomes of the 1 percent, the blacks on lower rungs of the economic ladder have been largely left behind.

So while black Americans with high school diplomas and college degrees may historically be doing better, the predominantly white top 1 percent continues to pull away.

From Washington Post:

We’ve known for a while that black Americans aren’t making economic progressA recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, shows that the black-white wage gap is now the widest it has been since 1979. What’s more interesting, though, is how inequality has been increasing, and for whom.

It used to be that low-skilled black workers suffered the greatest disadvantage relative to their white counterparts. But there has been a strange reversal in the past 40 years. EPI finds that the black-white wage gap has become wider — and is widening faster — among those with more education.

This chart illustrates the history of the wage gap among men with less than 10 years of job experience. The early years are the most crucial in a person’s career, and also the most sensitive to fluctuations in the job market.

Read the entire article here.

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The Best Line

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There is a strategy to picking the quickest line (queue) when checking out at the grocery store (supermarket). It includes one several seemingly counter-intuitive recommendation: get behind a shopper with a full cart (trolley). Other recommendations include: go left; pick female cashiers; and, evaluate the customers ahead of you.

From NYT:

You dash into the supermarket for a few necessities. You figure it will be 10 minutes — tops — before you are done and on your way home.

Then you get to the checkout lanes and they are brimming with shoppers. Your plan for a quick exit begins to evaporate.

But all is not lost.

For anyone who has ever had to stand in line (or if you are a New Yorker, you stand on line) at a supermarket, retailer, bank or anywhere else, here are some tips from experts for picking the line that will move the fastest.

Get behind a shopper who has a full cart

That may seem counterintuitive, but data tell a different story, said Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher who is the chief academic officer at Desmos, where he explores the future of math, technology and learning.

“Every person requires a fixed amount of time to say hello, pay, say goodbye and clear out of the lane,” he said in an email. His research found all of that takes an average of 41 seconds per person and items to be rung up take about three seconds each.

That means getting in line with numerous people who have fewer things can be a poor choice.

Think of it this way: One person with 100 items to be rung up will take an average of almost six minutes to process. If you get in a line with four people who each have 20 items, it will take an average of nearly seven minutes.

Those minutes add up. Richard Larson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is considered the foremost expert on queues, estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in lines.

Go left for faster service

Robert Samuel, founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, a New York-based service that will stand in line for you, said in an email that most people are right-handed and tend to veer to the right.

Look for female cashiers

“This may seem sexist, but I prefer female cashiers,” Mr. Samuel wrote. “In my experience they seem to be the most expedient at register transactions and processing.”

A. J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., suggested checking to see if a cashier was talkative and commenting on every item being scanned. If so, avoid this line “unless there is no one in that line, in which case, just deal with the chatty cashier,” she said in an email.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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We All Need More Hygge

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Trust the Danes to come up with it. Survey after survey often puts Denmark at or near the top of global happiness rankings. Followers of all things happiness put this national contentment down to an ethereal quality known as “hygge“. Just as with most recipes for happiness, hygge is rather difficult to define, but generally I would characterize it as “informal, public coziness with a touch of self-indulgence.” The Danes must know a little about happiness — after all, they did invent Lego.

From the Guardian:

Jeppe Trolle Linnet’s gaze dances around Bang & Jensen, his favourite Copenhagen café-bar, seeking out anything and everything that brings it hygge, that untranslatable quality of places, people and togetherness prized by Danes above almost all else.

“It’s the candles, obviously … the lighting. It’s not like they have big lamps on the ceiling,” he says. Then the furnishings: “You get the feeling that, ‘hmm, this must have been brought in from various places’.” He gestures at the flip-down seats we’re sitting on. “Like an old cinema. So probably someone knew someone. Just by the look of it, it suggests that people here are connected to someone, so the whole place is full of sociality, even when it’s empty.” He rubs the shiny brass where his feet are resting. “And obviously it’s all pretty worn, you feel that if you put your feet up, it wouldn’t really matter.”

Linnet published the first academic paper on hygge five years ago, since when he has become the go-to expert for Danish journalists, particularly around Christmas, when hygge is paramount.

If this is the first you’ve heard of hygge, pronounced “hue-guh” and usually translated as “cosiness”, you are about to hear a whole lot more.

Five books on the subject are hitting the shelves this autumn. There’s The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (subtitled “The Danish way to live well”), out last week. And The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits (subtitled “The Danish art of living well”), out last month. Coming later this week is The Art of Hygge, while How to Hygge and Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way, are both out next month.

“It’s the new black,” laughs Agnete Wulff, whose husband Poul owns Wulff & Konstali Food Shop, reputedly the Danish capital’s most hygge place for breakfast, where I drop in first thing in the morning.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Nyhavn, a 17th-century waterfront lined by brightly colored townhouses, Copenhagen, Denmark. Courtesy: GuoJunjun / Wikipedia.
CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Philanthrophy and Playing God

I would suspect that most of us, as we age and enter the second half of our fleeting existence, dream of leaving something behind, a legacy of some sort. That something may be an invaluable collection of intangibles: thoughts, ideas and values that we pass on to our children, partners, family and friends. For others the legacy may be more physical and yet still intimate: favorite books, old toys, a battered mug, personal photos, jewelry, a treasured car. And, for others still — usually the much more wealthy among us — the legacy usually involves making a grander exit for a community or even a nation: a newly named wing of a hospital or even an entire building; a donation of art to the nation; an endowment to a favored charity or alma mater; a research chair at the local university; a bequest of land for future generations to enjoy.

During last 25-30 years we have seen the continued expansion of this ultra-wealthy class, the multi-billionaires. Despite some rather vulgar and ostentatious displays of excess, many have pledged to give most of their riches away — while still living — to worthy causes. The philanthropic who’s-who includes: Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, Michael Bloomberg, Zuckerberg/Chan, Paul Allen, to name but a few.

This leads to an interesting question: are our billionaire contemporaries trying to play God?

From the Independent:

Is anyone else left underwhelmed by the unbearable arrogance of Mark Zuckerberg? Not content with saving Africa through his Internet.org project to get “everyone in the continent” online, he’s now decided that his money can eradicate all disease. Not just Alzheimer’s, not just the many variations of cancer, not just HIV, not just the Zika virus, not just rare genetic abnormalities and not just the common cold: all disease, because that’s what $3bn can get you. Why did none of us think of this before?

Following the birth of their first child Max last year, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99 per cent of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Now I have to admit this is slightly more inspiring than the widespread reports Jay Z had decided to stop using the word “bitch” after the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy (a change of heart that was later denied by his publicists, FYI, so expect the B-word to continue populating Jay’s lyrics for the foreseeable future), but it’s still, at best, hopelessly naïve and incredibly American.

It’s a nice idea that if you become rich enough, you can start to play God – but there are clear limits to Zuckerberg’s apparent omnipotence. $3bn is a wonderful gift to medicine, which will undoubtedly be used for some very positive research, facilities and treatments. Zuckerberg and Chan are being wonderfully philanthropic and unselfish in their huge donation of funds. But the Facebook founder’s claim that lots of money can magically render all disease a minor, manageable inconvenience is unnecessarily grandiose. Killer disease will always exist – everybody dies of something – and sometimes accepting your limits is just as important as shooting for the moon.

Read the entire article here.

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Iran Versus Macy’s

The NYT recently published an updated compendium of the 281 people, places and things that the Republican nominee for President has insulted via Twitter. It makes for some unbelievable and sometimes humorous reading. Interestingly enough, the “great orange one” has more vitriol to hurl at Macy’s department store (“very disloyal to me”) than at Iran and the recent international nuclear agreement (“Really sad!”).
The Iran nuclear deal international agreement:
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