Category Archives: Culture

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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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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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.

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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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The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

google-search-fake-news

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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Surplus Humans and the Death of Work

detroit-industry-north-wall-diego-rivera

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

google-search-vacation

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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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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Quiet Please

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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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A Common Language

Researchers at Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab suggest that all humans may share one common ancestral language. This is regardless of our geographic diversity and seemingly independent linguistic family trees.

Having studied linguistics I can attest that one of its fundamental tenets holds that the sound of a word and its meaning tends to be an arbitrary relationship. Recently, a number of fascinating studies have shown that this linkage may not be as arbitrary as first thought.

For instance, words for small, prickly things — across numerous languages — are likely to be made up of high-pitched, “spiky” sounds, known as “kiki”. On the other hand, words for smoother, round objects are likely to contain “ooo” or “ou” sounds, known as “bouba”.

A great overview of the current thinking comes courtesy of  Scientific American’s recent article “‘R’ Is For Red: Common Words Share Similar Sounds in Many Languages“.

From Scientific American:

In English, the word for the sniffing appendage on our face is nose. Japanese also happens to use the consonant n in this word (hana) and so does Turkish (burun). Since the 1900s, linguists have argued that these associations between speech sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. Yet a new study calls this into question.

Together with his colleagues, Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich analyzed lists of words from 4,298 different languages. In doing so, they discovered that unrelated languages often use the same sounds to refer to the same meaning. For example, the consonant r is often used in words for red—think of French rouge, Spanish rojo, and German rot, but also Turkish k?rm?z?, Hungarian piros, and Maori kura.

The idea is not new. Previous studies have suggested that sound-meaning associations may not be entirely arbitrary, but these studies were limited by small sample sizes (200 languages or fewer) and highly restricted lists of words (such as animals only). Blasi’s study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, is notable because it included almost two thirds of the world’s languages and used lists of diverse words, including pronouns, body parts,verbs,natural phenomena,and adjectives—such as we, tongue, drink, star and small, respectively.

The scope of the study is unprecedented, says Stanka Fitneva, associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Canada, who was not involved in the research. And Gary Lupyan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, adds, “Only through this type of large-scale analysis can worldwide patterns be discovered.”

Read the entire article here.

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Please Don’t Send in the Clowns

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By some accounts the United States is undergoing an epidemic of (scary) clown sightings. For those who have been following the current election cycle — for what seems like years — this should come as no surprise. After all, a rather huge (or is it “yuuge”) one wants to be President.

That aside, this creepy game [for want of a better word] began in August in South Carolina, and has since spread to New York, New Jersey, Texas, Oregon, Florida and a host of other States.

I think author Stephen King has a lot to answer for.

Humor aside for a moment. A study on the nature of creepiness published in April 2016, ranks clowns as the most creepy occupation followed by taxidermist and sex shop worker; funeral director and taxi drivers rounded out the top 5. Many psychologists and anthropologists will find this result to be unsurprising — clowns, court jesters, jokers and village fools have been creeping out (and entertaining) audiences for thousands of years.

And, then of course, there’s an even more serious clown show going on at the moment, headed by a truly dangerous one — especially if you’re female:

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From the Guardian:

The first person to spot a clown, the patient zero in the current epidemic of threatening clowns sightings spreading across the US, was a little boy at a low-income apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina.

He ran to his mother, Donna Arnold, and told her what he had seen: two clowns in the woods, both brightly dressed and made up. One with a red fright wig and the other with a black star painted on his face. They whispered something to the boy.

“They were trying to lure him to the house,” his mother told me, pointing toward the woods.

A path into the woods led down into a shaded hollow, at the bottom of which was a small pond. Beside it sat a house that seemed abandoned. Someone had boarded up the windows, and the balcony sagged. New bags of potting soil sat near the basement door, though. And a modern security system looked recently installed.

After sunset a car approached the house; a gleaming white, new-model Mercedes that looked as out of place as any clown car. The driver stepped out and said she had recently bought the old house as an investment because it sits on five acres in an otherwise densely populated area. “You think it looks bad now, you should have seen it before I came in,” she said.

While we talked she wore an in-ear headset, so it wasn’t always clear whether she was speaking to me or someone on her phone.

No, she didn’t want to give her name, she said.

Yes, she had heard about the clown sightings.

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