Category Archives: Idea Soup

Creativity and Mental Illness


The creative genius — oft misunderstood, outcast, tortured, misanthropic, fueled by demon spirits. Yet, this same description would seem to be equally apt at describing many of those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from mental illness. So, could creativity and mental illness be high-level symptoms of a broader underlying spectrum “disorder”? After all, a not insignificant number of people and businesses tend to regard creativity as a behavioral problem — best left outside the front-door to the office. Time to check out the results of the latest psychological study.

From the Guardian:

The ancient Greeks were first to make the point. Shakespeare raised the prospect too. But Lord Byron was, perhaps, the most direct of them all: “We of the craft are all crazy,” he told the Countess of Blessington, casting a wary eye over his fellow poets.

The notion of the tortured artist is a stubborn meme. Creativity, it states, is fuelled by the demons that artists wrestle in their darkest hours. The idea is fanciful to many scientists. But a new study claims the link may be well-founded after all, and written into the twisted molecules of our DNA.

In a large study published on Monday, scientists in Iceland report that genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often in people in creative professions. Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants than professions the scientists judged to be less creative, among which were farmers, manual labourers and salespeople.

Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik, said the findings, described in the journal Nature Neuroscience, point to a common biology for some mental disorders and creativity. “To be creative, you have to think differently,” he told the Guardian. “And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane.”

The scientists drew on genetic and medical information from 86,000 Icelanders to find genetic variants that doubled the average risk of schizophrenia, and raised the risk of bipolar disorder by more than a third. When they looked at how common these variants were in members of national arts societies, they found a 17% increase compared with non-members.

The researchers went on to check their findings in large medical databases held in the Netherlands and Sweden. Among these 35,000 people, those deemed to be creative (by profession or through answers to a questionnaire) were nearly 25% more likely to carry the mental disorder variants.

Stefansson believes that scores of genes increase the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These may alter the ways in which many people think, but in most people do nothing very harmful. But for 1% of the population, genetic factors, life experiences and other influences can culminate in problems, and a diagnosis of mental illness.

“Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity,” said Stefansson. “I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius. Creativity is a quality that has given us Mozart, Bach, Van Gogh. It’s a quality that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1% of the population pays the price for it.”

Stefansson concedes that his study found only a weak link between the genetic variants for mental illness and creativity. And it is this that other scientists pick up on. The genetic factors that raise the risk of mental problems explained only about 0.25% of the variation in peoples’ artistic ability, the study found. David Cutler, a geneticist at Emory University in Atlanta, puts that number in perspective: “If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance,” he said.

Most of the artist’s creative flair, then, is down to different genetic factors, or to other influences altogether, such as life experiences, that set them on their creative journey.

For Stefansson, even a small overlap between the biology of mental illness and creativity is fascinating. “It means that a lot of the good things we get in life, through creativity, come at a price. It tells me that when it comes to our biology, we have to understand that everything is in some way good and in some way bad,” he said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait, 1889. Courtesy of Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. Public Domain.

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Monsters of Our Own Making

For parents: a few brief tips on how to deal with young adult children — that most pampered of generations. Tip number 1: turn off junior’s access to the family Netflix account.

From WSJ:

Congratulations. Two months ago, your kid graduated from college, bravely finishing his degree rather than dropping out to make millions on his idea for a dating app for people who throw up during Cross Fit training. If he’s like a great many of his peers, he’s moved back home, where he’s figuring out how to become an adult in the same room that still has his orthodontic headgear strapped to an Iron Man helmet.

Now we’re deep into summer, and the logistical challenges of your grad really being home are sinking in. You’re constantly juggling cars, cleaning more dishes and dealing with your daughter’s boyfriend, who not only slept over but also drank your last can of Pure Protein Frosty Chocolate shake.

But the real challenge here is a problem of your own making. You see, these children are members of the Most-Loved Generation: They’ve grown up with their lives stage-managed by us, their college-acceptance-obsessed parents. Remember when Eva, at age 7, was obsessed with gymnastics…for exactly 10 months, which is why the TV in your guest room sits on top of a $2,500 pommel horse?

Now that they’re out of college, you realize what wasn’t included in that $240,000 education: classes in life skills and decision-making.

With your kid at home, you find that he’s incapable of making a single choice on his own. Like when you’re working and he interrupts to ask how many blades is the best number for a multi-blade razor. Or when you’ve just crawled into bed and hear the familiar refrain of, “Mom, what can we eat?” All those years being your kid’s concierge and coach have created a monster.

So the time has come for you to cut the cord. And by that I mean: Take your kid off your Netflix account. He will be confused and upset at first, not understanding why this is happening to him, but it’s a great opportunity for him to sign up for something all by himself.

Which brings us to money. It’s finally time to channel your Angela Merkel and get tough with your young Alexis Tsipras. Put him on a consistent allowance and make him pay the extra fees incurred when he uses the ATM at the weird little deli rather than the one at his bank, a half-block away.

Next, nudge your kid to read books about self-motivation. Begin with baby steps: Don’t just hand her “Lean In” and “I Am Malala.” Your daughter’s great, but she’s no Malala. And the only thing she’s leaning in to is a bag of kettle corn while binge-watching “Orange Is the New Black.”

Instead, over dinner, casually drop a few pearls of wisdom from “Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success,” such as, “Make each day your masterpiece.” Let your kid decide whether getting a high score on her “Panda Pop Bubble Shooter” iPhone game qualifies. Then hope that John Wooden has piqued her curiosity and leave his book out with a packet of Sour Patch Xploderz on top. With luck, she’ll take the bait (candy and book).

Now it’s time to work on your kid’s inability to make a decision, which, let’s be honest, you’ve instilled over the years by jumping to answer all of her texts, even that time you were at the opera. “But,” you object, “it could have been an emergency!” It wasn’t. She couldn’t remember whether she liked Dijon mustard or mayo on her turkey wrap.

Set up some outings that nurture independence. Send your kid to the grocery store with orders to buy a week of dinner supplies. She’ll ask a hundred questions about what to get, but just respond with, “Whatever looks good to you” or, “Have fun with it.” She will look at you with panic, but don’t lose your resolve. Send her out and turn your phone off to avoid a barrage of texts, such as, “They’re out of bacterial wipes to clean off the shopping cart handle. What should I do?”

Rest assured, in a couple of hours, she’ll return with “dinner”—frozen waffles and a bag of Skinny Pop popcorn. Tough it out and serve it for dinner: The name of the game is positive reinforcement.

Once she’s back you’ll inevitably get hit with more questions, like, “It’s not lost, but how expensive is that remote key for the car?” Take a deep breath and just say, “Um, I’m not sure. Why don’t you Google it?”

Read the entire story here.

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The Literal Word


I’ve been following the recent story of a country clerk in Kentucky who is refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The clerk cites her profound Christian beliefs for contravening the new law of the land. I’m reminded that most people who ardently follow a faith, as proscribed by the literal word from a God, tend to interpret, cherry-pick and obey what they wish. And, those same individuals will fervently ignore many less palatable demands from their God. So, let’s review a few biblical pronouncements, lest we forget what all believers in the Christian bible should be doing.

From the Independent:

Social conservatives who object to marriage licenses for gay couples claim to defend “Christian marriage,” meaning one man paired with one woman for life, which they say is prescribed by God in the Bible.

But in fact, Bible writers give the divine thumbs-up to many kinds of sexual union or marriage. They also use several literary devices to signal God’s approval for one or another sexual liaison: The law or a prophet might prescribe it, Jesus might endorse it, or God might reward it with the greatest of all blessings: boy babies who go on to become powerful men.

While the approved list does include one man coupled with one woman, the Bible explicitly endorses polygamy and sexual slavery, providing detailed regulations for each; and at times it also rewards rape and incest.

Polygamy. Polygamy is the norm in the Old Testament and accepted without reproof by Jesus (Matthew 22:23-32). contains pages dedicated to 40 biblical figures, each of whom had multiple wives.

Sex slaves. The Bible provides instructions on how to acquire several types of sex slaves. For example, if a man buys a Hebrew girl and “she please not her master” he can’t sell her to a foreigner; and he must allow her to go free if he doesn’t provide for her (Exodus 21:8).

War booty. Virgin females are counted, literally, among the booty of war. In the book of Numbers (31:18) God’s servant commands the Israelites to kill all of the used Midianite women along with all boy children, but to keep the virgin girls for themselves. The Law of Moses spells out a ritual to purify a captive virgin before sex. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

Incest. Incest is mostly forbidden in the Bible, but God makes exceptions. Abraham and Sarah, much favoured by God, are said to be half-siblings. Lot’s daughters get him drunk and mount him, and God rewards them with male babies who become patriarchs of great nations (Genesis 19).

Brother’s widow. If a brother dies with no children, it becomes a man’s duty to impregnate the brother’s widow. Onan is struck dead by God because he prefers to spill his seed on the ground rather than providing offspring for his brother (Genesis 38:8-10). A New Testament story (Matthew 22:24-28) shows that the tradition has survived.

Wife’s handmaid. After seven childless decades, Abraham’s frustrated wife Sarah says, “Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”  Her slave, Hagar, becomes pregnant. Two generations later, the sister-wives of Jacob repeatedly send their slaves to him, each trying to produce more sons than the other (Genesis 30:1-22).

Read the entire story here.

Image: Biblical engraving: Sarah Offering Hagar to Her Husband, Abraham, c1897. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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The Post-Capitalism Dream


I’m not sure that I fully agree with the premises and conclusions that author Paul Mason outlines in his essay below excerpted from his new book, Postcapitalism (published on 30 July 2015). However, I’d like to believe that we could all very soon thrive in a much more equitable and socially just future society. While the sharing economy has gone someway to democratizing work effort, Mason points out other, and growing, areas of society that are marching to the beat of a different, non-capitalist drum: volunteerism, alternative currencies, cooperatives, gig-economy, self-managed spaces, social sharing, time banks. This is all good.

It will undoubtedly take generations for society to grapple with the consequences of these shifts and more importantly dealing with the ongoing and accelerating upheaval wrought by ubiquitous automation. Meanwhile, the vested interests — the capitalist heads of state, the oligarchs, the monopolists, the aging plutocrats and their assorted (political) sycophants  — will most certainly fight until the very bitter end to maintain an iron grip on the invisible hand of the market.

From the Guardian:

The red flags and marching songs of Syriza during the Greek crisis, plus the expectation that the banks would be nationalised, revived briefly a 20th-century dream: the forced destruction of the market from above. For much of the 20th century this was how the left conceived the first stage of an economy beyond capitalism. The force would be applied by the working class, either at the ballot box or on the barricades. The lever would be the state. The opportunity would come through frequent episodes of economic collapse.

Instead over the past 25 years it has been the left’s project that has collapsed. The market destroyed the plan; individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity; the hugely expanded workforce of the world looks like a “proletariat”, but no longer thinks or behaves as it once did.

If you lived through all this, and disliked capitalism, it was traumatic. But in the process technology has created a new route out, which the remnants of the old left – and all other forces influenced by it – have either to embrace or die. Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.

As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world – Wikipedia – is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.

You only find this new economy if you look hard for it. In Greece, when a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems they found more than 70 substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives ranging from squats to carpools to free kindergartens. To mainstream economics such things seem barely to qualify as economic activity – but that’s the point. They exist because they trade, however haltingly and inefficiently, in the currency of postcapitalism: free time, networked activity and free stuff. It seems a meagre and unofficial and even dangerous thing from which to craft an entire alternative to a global system, but so did money and credit in the age of Edward III.

New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged over the past 10 years, which the media has dubbed the “sharing economy”. Buzzwords such as the “commons” and “peer-production” are thrown around, but few have bothered to ask what this development means for capitalism itself.

I believe it offers an escape route – but only if these micro-level projects are nurtured, promoted and protected by a fundamental change in what governments do. And this must be driven by a change in our thinking – about technology, ownership and work. So that, when we create the elements of the new system, we can say to ourselves, and to others: “This is no longer simply my survival mechanism, my bolt hole from the neoliberal world; this is a new way of living in the process of formation.”

The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other. If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models.

The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.

Is it utopian to believe we’re on the verge of an evolution beyond capitalism? We live in a world in which gay men and women can marry, and in which contraception has, within the space of 50 years, made the average working-class woman freer than the craziest libertine of the Bloomsbury era. Why do we, then, find it so hard to imagine economic freedom?

It is the elites – cut off in their dark-limo world – whose project looks as forlorn as that of the millennial sects of the 19th century. The democracy of riot squads, corrupt politicians, magnate-controlled newspapers and the surveillance state looks as phoney and fragile as East Germany did 30 years ago.

All readings of human history have to allow for the possibility of a negative outcome. It haunts us in the zombie movie, the disaster movie, in the post-apocalytic wasteland of films such as The Road or Elysium. But why should we not form a picture of the ideal life, built out of abundant information, non-hierarchical work and the dissociation of work from wages?

Millions of people are beginning to realise they have been sold a dream at odds with what reality can deliver. Their response is anger – and retreat towards national forms of capitalism that can only tear the world apart. Watching these emerge, from the pro-Grexit left factions in Syriza to the Front National and the isolationism of the American right has been like watching the nightmares we had during the Lehman Brothers crisis come true.

We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.

Read the excerpt here.

Image: The Industrial Workers of the World poster “Pyramid of Capitalist System” (1911). Courtesy of Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Cause and Effect

One of the most fundamental tenets of our macroscopic world is the notion that an effect has a cause. Throw a pebble (cause) into a still pond and the ripples (effect) will be visible for all to see. Down at the microscopic level, physicists have determined through their mathematical convolutions that there is no such thing — there is nothing precluding the laws of physics running in reverse. Yet, we never witness ripples in a pond diminishing and ejecting a pebble, which then finds its way back to a catcher.

Of course, this quandary has kept many a philosopher’s pencil well sharpened while physicists continue to scratch their heads. So, is cause and effect merely an coincidental illusion? Or, does our physics only operate in one direction, determined by a yet to be discovered fundamental law?

Author of Causal Reasoning in Physics, philosopher Mathias Frisch, offers great summary of current thinking, but no fundamental breakthrough.

From Aeon:

Do early childhood vaccinations cause autism, as the American model Jenny McCarthy maintains? Are human carbon emissions at the root of global warming? Come to that, if I flick this switch, will it make the light on the porch come on? Presumably I don’t need to persuade you that these would be incredibly useful things to know.

Since anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions do cause climate change, cutting our emissions would make a difference to future warming. By contrast, autism cannot be prevented by leaving children unvaccinated. Now, there’s a subtlety here. For our judgments to be much use to us, we have to distinguish between causal relations and mere correlations. From 1999 and 2009, the number of people in the US who fell into a swimming pool and drowned varies with the number of films in which Nicholas Cage appeared – but it seems unlikely that we could reduce the number of pool drownings by keeping Cage off the screen, desirable as the remedy might be for other reasons.

In short, a working knowledge of the way in which causes and effects relate to one another seems indispensible to our ability to make our way in the world. Yet there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy, dating back at least to David Hume in the 18th century, that finds the notions of causality to be dubious. And that might be putting it kindly.

Hume argued that when we seek causal relations, we can never discover the real power; the, as it were, metaphysical glue that binds events together. All we are able to see are regularities – the ‘constant conjunction’ of certain sorts of observation. He concluded from this that any talk of causal powers is illegitimate. Which is not to say that he was ignorant of the central importance of causal reasoning; indeed, he said that it was only by means of such inferences that we can ‘go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses’. Causal reasoning was somehow both indispensable and illegitimate. We appear to have a dilemma.

Hume’s remedy for such metaphysical quandaries was arguably quite sensible, as far as it went: have a good meal, play backgammon with friends, and try to put it out of your mind. But in the late 19th and 20th centuries, his causal anxieties were reinforced by another problem, arguably harder to ignore. According to this new line of thought, causal notions seemed peculiarly out of place in our most fundamental science – physics.

There were two reasons for this. First, causes seemed too vague for a mathematically precise science. If you can’t observe them, how can you measure them? If you can’t measure them, how can you put them in your equations? Second, causality has a definite direction in time: causes have to happen before their effects. Yet the basic laws of physics (as distinct from such higher-level statistical generalisations as the laws of thermodynamics) appear to be time-symmetric: if a certain process is allowed under the basic laws of physics, a video of the same process played backwards will also depict a process that is allowed by the laws.

The 20th-century English philosopher Bertrand Russell concluded from these considerations that, since cause and effect play no fundamental role in physics, they should be removed from the philosophical vocabulary altogether. ‘The law of causality,’ he said with a flourish, ‘like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed not to do harm.’

Neo-Russellians in the 21st century express their rejection of causes with no less rhetorical vigour. The philosopher of science John Earman of the University of Pittsburgh maintains that the wooliness of causal notions makes them inappropriate for physics: ‘A putative fundamental law of physics must be stated as a mathematical relation without the use of escape clauses or words that require a PhD in philosophy to apply (and two other PhDs to referee the application, and a third referee to break the tie of the inevitable disagreement of the first two).’

This is all very puzzling. Is it OK to think in terms of causes or not? If so, why, given the apparent hostility to causes in the underlying laws? And if not, why does it seem to work so well?

A clearer look at the physics might help us to find our way. Even though (most of) the basic laws are symmetrical in time, there are many arguably non-thermodynamic physical phenomena that can happen only one way. Imagine a stone thrown into a still pond: after the stone breaks the surface, waves spread concentrically from the point of impact. A common enough sight.

Now, imagine a video clip of the spreading waves played backwards. What we would see are concentrically converging waves. For some reason this second process, which is the time-reverse of the first, does not seem to occur in nature. The process of waves spreading from a source looks irreversible. And yet the underlying physical law describing the behaviour of waves – the wave equation – is as time-symmetric as any law in physics. It allows for both diverging and converging waves. So, given that the physical laws equally allow phenomena of both types, why do we frequently observe organised waves diverging from a source but never coherently converging waves?

Physicists and philosophers disagree on the correct answer to this question – which might be fine if it applied only to stones in ponds. But the problem also crops up with electromagnetic waves and the emission of light or radio waves: anywhere, in fact, that we find radiating waves. What to say about it?

On the one hand, many physicists (and some philosophers) invoke a causal principle to explain the asymmetry. Consider an antenna transmitting a radio signal. Since the source causes the signal, and since causes precede their effects, the radio waves diverge from the antenna after it is switched on simply because they are the repercussions of an initial disturbance, namely the switching on of the antenna. Imagine the time-reverse process: a radio wave steadily collapses into an antenna before the latter has been turned on. On the face of it, this conflicts with the idea of causality, because the wave would be present before its cause (the antenna) had done anything. David Griffiths, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Reed College in Oregon and the author of a widely used textbook on classical electrodynamics, favours this explanation, going so far as to call a time-asymmetric principle of causality ‘the most sacred tenet in all of physics’.

On the other hand, some physicists (and many philosophers) reject appeals to causal notions and maintain that the asymmetry ought to be explained statistically. The reason why we find coherently diverging waves but never coherently converging ones, they maintain, is not that wave sources cause waves, but that a converging wave would require the co?ordinated behaviour of ‘wavelets’ coming in from multiple different directions of space – delicately co?ordinated behaviour so improbable that it would strike us as nearly miraculous.

It so happens that this wave controversy has quite a distinguished history. In 1909, a few years before Russell’s pointed criticism of the notion of cause, Albert Einstein took part in a published debate concerning the radiation asymmetry. His opponent was the Swiss physicist Walther Ritz, a name you might not recognise.

It is in fact rather tragic that Ritz did not make larger waves in his own career, because his early reputation surpassed Einstein’s. The physicist Hermann Minkowski, who taught both Ritz and Einstein in Zurich, called Einstein a ‘lazy dog’ but had high praise for Ritz.  When the University of Zurich was looking to appoint its first professor of theoretical physics in 1909, Ritz was the top candidate for the position. According to one member of the hiring committee, he possessed ‘an exceptional talent, bordering on genius’. But he suffered from tuberculosis, and so, due to his failing health, he was passed over for the position, which went to Einstein instead. Ritz died that very year at age 31.

Months before his death, however, Ritz published a joint letter with Einstein summarising their disagreement. While Einstein thought that the irreversibility of radiation processes could be explained probabilistically, Ritz proposed what amounted to a causal explanation. He maintained that the reason for the asymmetry is that an elementary source of radiation has an influence on other sources in the future and not in the past.

This joint letter is something of a classic text, widely cited in the literature. What is less well-known is that, in the very same year, Einstein demonstrated a striking reversibility of his own. In a second published letter, he appears to take a position very close to Ritz’s – the very view he had dismissed just months earlier. According to the wave theory of light, Einstein now asserted, a wave source ‘produces a spherical wave that propagates outward. The inverse process does not exist as elementary process’. The only way in which converging waves can be produced, Einstein claimed, was by combining a very large number of coherently operating sources. He appears to have changed his mind.

Given Einstein’s titanic reputation, you might think that such a momentous shift would occasion a few ripples in the history of science. But I know of only one significant reference to his later statement: a letter from the philosopher Karl Popper to the journal Nature in 1956. In this letter, Popper describes the wave asymmetry in terms very similar to Einstein’s. And he also makes one particularly interesting remark, one that might help us to unpick the riddle. Coherently converging waves, Popper insisted, ‘would demand a vast number of distant coherent generators of waves the co?ordination of which, to be explicable, would have to be shown as originating from the centre’ (my italics).

This is, in fact, a particular instance of a much broader phenomenon. Consider two events that are spatially distant yet correlated with one another. If they are not related as cause and effect, they tend to be joint effects of a common cause. If, for example, two lamps in a room go out suddenly, it is unlikely that both bulbs just happened to burn out simultaneously. So we look for a common cause – perhaps a circuit breaker that tripped.

Common-cause inferences are so pervasive that it is difficult to imagine what we could know about the world beyond our immediate surroundings without them. Hume was right: judgments about causality are absolutely essential in going ‘beyond the evidence of the senses’. In his book The Direction of Time (1956), the philosopher Hans Reichenbach formulated a principle underlying such inferences: ‘If an improbable coincidence has occurred, there must exist a common cause.’ To the extent that we are bound to apply Reichenbach’s rule, we are all like the hard-boiled detective who doesn’t believe in coincidences.

Read the entire article here.

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A dreary, sardonic, anti-establishment theme park could only happen in the UK. Let’s face it, the corporate optimists running the US would never allow such a pessimistic and apocalyptic vision to unfold in the land of Disney and Nickelodeon.

Thus, residents of the UK are the sole, fortunate recipients of a sarcastic visual nightmare curated by Banksy and a posse of fellow pop-culture-skewering artists. Dismaland — a Bemusement Park — is hosted in appropriately grey seafront venue of Weston-super-Mare. But, grab your tickets soon, the un-theme park is only open from August 22 to September 27, 2015.

Visit Dismaland online, here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Psychic Media Watch

Watching the media is one of my favorite amateur pursuits. It’s a continuous source of paradox, infotainment, hypocrisy, truthiness (Stephen Colbert, 2005), loud-mouthery (me, 2015) and hence, enjoyment. So, when two opposing headlines collide mid-way across the Atlantic it’s hard for me to resist highlighting the dissonance. I snapped both these stories on the same day, August 28, 2015. The headlines read:

New York Times:

Psychic-news-28Aug2015-NYTApparently, fortunetelling is “a scam”, according to convicted New York psychic, Celia Mitchell.

The Independent:


Yet, in the UK, the College of Policing recommends using psychics to find missing persons.


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Bang Bang, You’re Dead. The Next Great Reality TV Show


Aside from my disbelief that America can let the pathetic and harrowing violence from guns continue, the latest shocking episode in Virginia raises another disturbing thought. And, Jonathan Jones has captured it quite aptly. Are we increasingly internalizing real world violence as a vivid but trivial game? Despite trails of murder victims and untold trauma to families and friends, the rest of us are lulled into dream-like detachment. The violence is just like a video game, right? The violence is played out as a reality TV show, right? And we know both are just fiction — it’s not news, it’s titillating, voyeuristic entertainment. So, there is no need for us to do anything. Let’s just all sit back and wait for the next innovative installment in America’s murderous screenplay. Bang bang, you’re dead! The show must go on.

Or, you could do something different, however small, and I don’t mean recite your go-to prayer or converge around a candle!

From Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian:

Vester Flanagan’s video of his own murderous shooting of Alison Parker and Adam Ward shows a brutal double killing from the shooter’s point of view. While such a sick stunt echoes the horror film Peeping Tom by British director Michael Powell, in which a cameraman films his murders, this is not fiction. It is reality – or the closest modern life gets to reality.

I agree with those who say such excreta of violence should not be shared on social media, let alone screened by television stations or hosted by news websites. But like everything else that simply should not happen, the broadcasting and circulation of this monstrous video has happened. It is one more step in the destruction of boundaries that seems a relentless rush of our time. Nothing is sacred. Not even the very last moments of Alison Parker as we see, from Flanagan’s point of view, Flanagan’s gun pointing at her.

Like the giant gun Alfred Hitchcock used to create a disturbing point of view shot in Spellbound, the weapon dominates the sequence I have seen (I have no intention of seeking out the other scenes). The gun is in Flanagan’s hand and it gives him power. It is held there, shown to the camera, like a child’s proud toy or an exposed dick in his hand – it is obscene because you can see that it is so important to him, that it is supposed to be some kind of answer, revenger or – as gun fans like to nickname America’s most famous gun the Colt 45 – “the Equaliser”. The way Flanagan focuses on his gun revealed the madness of America’s gun laws because it shows the infantile and pathetic relationship the killer appears to have with his weapon. How can it make sense to give guns so readily to troubled individuals?

What did the killer expect viewers to get from watching his video? The horrible conclusion has to be that he expected empathy. Surely, that is not possible. The person who you care about when seeing this is unambiguously his victim. This is, viewed with any humanity at all, a harrowing view of the evil of killing another person. I watched it once. I can’t look again at Alison Parker’s realization of her plight.

The sense that we somehow have a right to see this, the decision of many media outlets to screen it, has a lot to do with the television trappings of this crime. Because part of the attack was seen and heard live on air, because the victims and the perpetrator all worked for the same TV station, there’s something stagey about it all. Sadly people so enjoy true life crime stories and this one has a hokey TV setting that recalls many fictional plots of films and TV programs.

It exposes the paradox of ‘reality television’ – that people on television are not real to the audience at all. The death of a presenter is therefore something that can be replayed on screens with impunity. To see how bizarre and improper this is, imagine if anyone broadcast or hosted a serial killer’s videos of graphic murders. How is viewing this better?

But there is still another level of unreality. The view of that gun pointing at Parker resembles video games like Call of Duty that similarly show your gun pointing at virtual enemies. Is this more than a coincidence? It is complicated by the fact that Flanagan had worked in television. His experience of cameras was not just virtual. So his act of videoing his crime would seem to be another crass, mad way of getting “revenge” on former colleagues. But the resemblance to video games is nevertheless eerie. It adds to the depressing conclusion that we may see more images taken by killers, more dead-eyed recordings of inhuman acts. For video games do create fantasy worlds in which pointing a gun is such a light thing to do.

In this film from the abyss the gun is used as if it was game. Pointed at real people with the ease of manipulating a joystick. And bang bang, they are dead.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Tragedy. The Reaction


Another day, another dark and twisted murder in the United States facilitated by the simple convenience of a gun. The violence and horror seems to become more incredible each time: murder in restaurants, murder at the movie theater, murder on the highway, murder in the convenience store, murder at work, murder in a place of worship, and now murder on-air, live and staged via social media.

But, as I’ve mentioned before the real tragedy is the inaction of the people. Oh apologies, there is a modicum of action, but it is inconsequential, with apologies to the victims’ families. After each mass shooting — we don’t hear much about individual murder anymore (far too common) — the pattern is lamentably predictable: tears and grief; headlines of disbelief and horror; mass soul-searching (lasting several minutes at most); prayer and words, often spoken by a community or national leader; tributes to the victims and sympathy for the families and friends; candlelight vigils, balloons, flowers and cards at the crime scene. It’s all so sad and pathetic. Another day, another mass murder. Repeat the inaction.

Until individuals, neighbors and communities actually take real action to curb gun violence these sad tragedies and empty gestures will continue to loop endlessly.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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HR and the Evil Omnipotence of the Passive Construction

Next time you browse through your company’s compensation or business expense policies, or for that matter, anything written by the human resources (HR) department, cast your mind to George Orwell. In one of his critical essays Politics and the English Language, Orwell makes a clear case for the connection between linguistic obfuscation and political power. While Orwell’s obsession was on the political machine, you could just as well apply his reasoning to the mangled literary machinations of every corporate HR department.

Oh, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, especially when it is used to construct obtuse passive sentences without a subject — perfect for a rulebook that all citizens must follow and that no one can challenge.

From the Guardian:

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of human resources’. All issues are human resource issues, and human resources itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

OK, that’s not exactly what Orwell wrote. The hair-splitters among you will moan that I’ve taken the word “politics” out of the above and replaced it with “human resources”. Sorry.

But I think there’s no denying that had he been alive today, Orwell – the great opponent and satirist of totalitarianism – would have deplored the bureaucratic repression of HR. He would have hated their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.

In particular, Orwell would have utterly despised the language that HR people use. In his excellent essay Politics and the English Language (where he began the thought that ended with Newspeak), Orwell railed against the language crimes committed by politicians.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Repeat the politics/human resources switch in the above and the argument remains broadly the same. Yes, HR is not explaining away murders, but it nonetheless deliberately misuse language as a sort of low-tech mind control to avert our eyes from office atrocities and keep us fixed on our inboxes. Thus mass sackings are wrapped up in cowardly sophistry and called rightsizings, individuals are offboarded to the jobcentre and the few hardy souls left are consoled by their membership of a more streamlined organisation.

Orwell would have despised the passive constructions that are the HR department’s default setting. Want some flexibility in your contract? HR says company policy is unable to support that. Forgotten to accede to some arbitrary and impractical office rule? HR says we are minded to ask everyone to remember that it is essential to comply by rule X. Try to question whether an ill-judged commitment could be reversed? HR apologises meekly that the decision has been made.

Not giving subjects to any of these responses is a deliberate ploy. Subjects give ownership. They imbue accountability. Not giving sentences subjects means that HR is passing the buck, but to no one in particular. And with no subject, no one can be blamed, or protested against.

The passive construction is also designed to give the sense that it’s not HR speaking, but that they are the conduit for a higher-up and incontestable power. It’s designed to be both authoritative and banal, so that we torpidly accept it, like the sovereignty of the Queen. It’s saying: “This is the way things are – deal with it because it isn’t changing.” It’s indifferent and deliberately opaque. It’s the worst kind of utopianism (the kind David Graeber targets in his recent book on “stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy”), where system and rule are king and hang the individual. It’s deeply, deeply oppressive.

Annual leave is perhaps an even worse example of HR’s linguistic malpractice. The phrase gives the sense that we are not sitting in the office but rather fighting some dismal war and that we should be grateful for the mercy of Field Marshal HR in allowing us a finite absence from the front line. Is it too indulgent and too frivolous to say that we are going on holiday (even if we’re just taking the day to go to Ikea)? Would it so damage our career prospects? Would the emerging markets of the world be emboldened by the decadence and complacency of saying we’re going on hols? I don’t think so, but they clearly do.

Actually, I don’t think it’s so much of a stretch to imagine Orwell himself establishing the whole HR enterprise as a sort of grim parody of Stalinism; a never-ending, ever-expanding live action art installation sequel to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Look at your office’s internal newsletter. Is it an incomprehensible black hole of sense? Is it trying to prod you into a place of content, incognisant of all the everyday hardships and irritations you endure? If your answer is yes, then I think that like me, you find it fairly easy to imagine Orwell composing these Newspeak emails from beyond the grave to make us believe that War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and 2+2=5.

Delving deeper, the parallels become increasingly hard to ignore. Company restructures and key performance indicators make no sense in the abstract, merely serving to demotivate the workforce, sap confidence and obstruct productivity. So are they actually cleverly designed parodies of Stalin’s purges and the cult of Stakhanovism?

Read the entire story here.

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Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

Apparently, in this day and age of ubiquitous technology there is no excuse for not having evidence. So, if you recently had a terrific (or terrible) meal in your (un-)favorite restaurant you must have pictures to back up your story. If you just returned from a gorgeous mountain hike you must have images for every turn on the trial. Just attended your high-school reunion? Pictures! Purchased a new mattress? Pictures! Cracked your heirloom tea service? Pictures! Mowed the lawn? Pictures! Stubbed toe? Pictures!

The pressure to record our experiences has grown in lock-step with the explosive growth in smartphones and connectivity. Collecting and sharing our memories remains a key part of our story-telling nature. But, this obsessive drive to record every minutiae of every experience, however trivial, has many missing the moment — behind the camera or in front of it, we are no longer in the moment.

Just as our online social networks have stirred growth in the increasingly neurotic condition known as FOMO (fear of missing out), we are now on the cusp on some new techno-enabled, acronym-friendly disorders. Let’s call these FONBB — fear of not being believed, FONGELOFAMP — fear of not getting enough likes or followers as my peers, FOBIO — fear of becoming irrelevant online.

From NYT:

“Pics or it didn’t happen” is the response you get online when you share some unlikely experience or event and one of your friends, followers or stalkers calls you out for evidence. “Next thing I know, I’m bowling with Bill Murray!” Pics or it didn’t happen. “I taught my cockatoo how to rap ‘Baby Got Back’ — in pig Latin.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Against all odds, I briefly smiled today.” Pics or it didn’t happen!

It’s a glib reply to a comrade’s boasting — coming out of Internet gaming forums to rebut boasts about high scores and awesome kills — but the fact is we like proof. Proof in the instant replay that decides the big game, the vacation pic that persuades us we were happy once, the selfie that reassures us that our face is still our own. “Pics or it didn’t happen” gained traction because in an age of bountiful technology, when everyone is armed with a camera, there is no excuse for not having evidence.

Does the phrase have what it takes to transcend its humble origins as a cruddy meme and become an aphorism in the pantheon of “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Seeing is believing”? For clues to the longevity of “Pics,” let’s take a survey of some classic epigrams about visual authority and see how they hold up under the realities of contemporary American life.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a dependable workhorse, emerging from early-­20th-­century newspaper culture as a pitch to advertisers: Why rely on words when an illustration can accomplish so much more? It seems appropriate to test the phrase with a challenge drawn from contemporary news media. Take one of the Pulitzer Prize-­winning photographs from The St. Louis Post-­Dispatch’s series on Ferguson. In the darkness, a figure is captured in an instant of dynamic motion: legs braced, long hair flying wild, an extravagant plume of smoke and flames trailing from the incendiary object he is about to hurl into space. His chest is covered by an American-­flag T-­shirt, he holds fire in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, a living collage of the grand and the bathetic.

Headlines — like the graphics that gave birth to “A picture is worth a thousand words” — are a distillation, a shortcut to meaning. Breitbart News presented that photograph under “Rioters Throw Molotov Cocktails at Police in Ferguson — Again.” CBS St. Louis/Associated Press ran with “Protester Throws Tear-­Gas Canister Back at Police While Holding Bag of Chips.” Rioter, protester, Molotov cocktail, tear-­gas canister. Peace officers, hypermilitarized goons. What’s the use of a thousand words when they are Babel’s noise, the confusion of a thousand interpretations?

“Seeing is believing” was an early entry in the canon. Most sources attribute it to the Apostle Thomas’s incredulity over Jesus’ resurrection. (“Last night after you left the party, Jesus turned all the water into wine” is a classic “Pics or it didn’t happen” moment.) “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Once Jesus shows up, Thomas concludes that seeing will suffice. A new standard of proof enters the lexicon.

Intuitive logic is not enough, though. Does “Seeing is believing” hold up when confronted by current events like, say, the killing of Eric Garner last summer by the police? The bystander’s video is over two minutes long, so dividing it into an old-­fashioned 24 frames per second gives us a bounty of more than 3,000 stills. A real bonanza, atrocity-­wise. But here the biblical formulation didn’t hold up: Even with the video and the medical examiner’s assessment of homicide, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Time to downgrade “Seeing is believing,” too, and kick “Justice is blind” up a notch.

Can we really use one cherry-­picked example to condemn a beloved idiom? Is the system rigged? Of course it is. Always, everywhere. Let’s say these expressions concerning visual evidence are not to blame for their failures, but rather subjectivity is. The problem is us. How we see things. How we see people. We can broaden our idiomatic investigations to include phrases that account for the human element, like “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” We can also change our idiomatic stressors from contemporary video to early photography. Before smartphones put a developing booth in everyone’s pocket, affordable portable cameras loosed amateur photographers upon the world. Everyday citizens could now take pictures of children in their Sunday best, gorgeous vistas of unspoiled nature and lynchings.

A hundred years ago, Americans took souvenirs of lynchings, just as we might now take a snapshot of a farewell party for a work colleague or a mimosa-­heavy brunch. They were keepsakes, sent to relatives to allow them to share in the event, and sometimes made into postcards so that one could add a “Wish you were here”-­type endearment. In the book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” Leon F. Litwack shares an account of the 1915 lynching of Thomas Brooks in Fayette County, Tenn. “Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene. .?.?. People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling at the end of the rope.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Picture-­card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards.” Pics or it didn’t happen. “Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools, the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.” Pics or it didn’t happen.

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Gadzooks, Gosh, Tarnation and the F-Bomb

Blimey! How our lexicon of foul language has evolved! Up to a few hundred years ago most swear words and oaths bore some connection to God, Jesus or other religious figure or event. But the need to display some level of dubious piety and avoid a lightening bolt from the blue led many to invent and mince a whole range of creative euphemisms. Hence, even today, we still hear words like “drat”, “gosh”, “tarnation”, “by george”, “by jove”, “heck”, “strewth”, “odsbodikins”, “gadzooks”, “doggone”.

More recently our linguistic penchant for shock and awe stems mostly from euphemistic — or not — labels for body parts and bodily functions — think: “freaking” or “shit” or “dick” and all manner of “f-words” and “c-words”. Sensitivities aside, many of us are fortunate enough to live in nations that have evolved beyond corporal or even capital punishment for uttering such blasphemous or vulgar indiscretions.

So, the next time your drop the “f-bomb” or a “dagnabbit” in public reflect for a while and thank yourself for supporting your precious democracy over the neighboring theocracy.

From WSJ:

At street level and in popular culture, Americans are freer with profanity now than ever before—or so it might seem to judge by how often people throw around the “F-bomb” or use a certain S-word of scatological meaning as a synonym for “stuff.” Or consider the millions of fans who adore the cartoon series “South Park,” with its pint-size, raucously foul-mouthed characters.

But things might look different to an expedition of anthropologists visiting from Mars. They might conclude that Americans today are as uptight about profanity as were our 19th-century forbears in ascots and petticoats. It’s just that what we think of as “bad” words is different. To us, our ancestors’ word taboos look as bizarre as tribal rituals. But the real question is: How different from them, for better or worse, are we?

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive. An anatomy book in the 1400s could casually refer to a part of the female anatomy with what we today call the C-word. But over time, referring to these things in common conversation came to be regarded with a kind of pearl-clutching horror.

By the 1500s, as English began taking its place alongside Latin as a world language with a copious high literature, a fashion arose for using fancy Latinate terms in place of native English ones for more private matters. Thus was born a slightly antiseptic vocabulary, with words like copulate and penis. Even today modern English has no terms for such things that are neither clinical nor vulgar, along the lines of arm or foot or whistle.

The burgeoning bourgeois culture of the late 1700s, both in Great Britain and America, was especially alarmist about the “down there” aspect of things. In growing cities with stark social stratification, a new gentry developed a new linguistic self-consciousness—more English grammars were published between 1750 and 1800 than had ever appeared before that time.

In speaking of cooked fowl, “white” and “dark” meat originated as terms to avoid mention of breasts and limbs. What one does in a restroom, another euphemism of this era, is only laboriously classified as repose. Bosom and seat (for the backside) originated from the same impulse.

Passages in books of the era can be opaque to us now without an understanding of how particular people had gotten: In Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” Giles the butler begins, “I got softly out of bed; drew on a pair of…” only to be interrupted with “Ladies present…” after which he dutifully says “…of shoes, sir.” He wanted to say trousers, but because of where pants sit on the body, well…

Or, from the gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884 and copious enough to take up a shelf and bend it, you would never have known in the original edition that the F-word or the C-word existed.

Such moments extend well into the early 20th century. In a number called “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” in the 1932 Broadway musical “42nd Street,” Ginger Rogers sings “He did right by little Nelly / with a shotgun at his bell-” and then interjects “tummy” instead. “Belly” was considered a rude part of the body to refer to; tummy was OK because of its association with children.

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The Pivot and the Money

Once upon a time the word “pivot” usually referred to an object’s point of rotation. Then, corporate America got its sticky hands all over it. The word even found its way in to Microsoft Excel — as in Pivot Table. But, the best euphemistic example comes from one of my favorite places for invention and euphemism — Silicon Valley. In this region of the world pivot has come to mean a complete change in business direction.

Now, let’s imagine you’re part of start-up company. At the outset, your company has a singularly great, world-changing idea. You believe it’s the best idea, since, well, the last greatest world-changing idea. It’s unique. You are totally committed. You secure funding from some big name VCs anxious to capitalize and make the next $100 billion. You and your team work countless hours on realizing your big idea — it’s your dream, your passion. Then, suddenly you realize that your idea is utterly worthless — the product looks good but nobody, absolutely nobody, will consider it, let alone buy it; in fact, a hundred other companies before you had the same great, unique idea and all failed.

What are you and your company to do? Well, you pivot.

The entrepreneurial side of me would cheer an opportunistic company for “pivoting”, abandoning that original, great idea, and seeking another. Better than packing one’s bags and enrolling in corporate serfdom, right? But, there’s another part of me that thinks this is an ethical sell-out: it’s disingenuous to the financial backers, and it shows lack of integrity. That said, the example is of course set in Silicon Valley.

From Medium:

It was about a month after graduating from Techstars that my co-founder, Lianne, and I had our “oh shit” moment.

This is a special moment for founders; it’s not when you find a fixable bug in your app, when you realize you have been poorly optimizing your conversion funnel, or when you get a “no” from an investor. An “oh shit” moment is when you realize there is something fundamentally wrong with your business.

In our case, we realized that the product that we wanted to create was irreconcilable with a viable business model. So who were we going to tell? Techstars, who just accepted us into their highly prestigious accelerator on the basis that we could make it work? Our investors, who we just closed a round with?

It turns out, our Techstars family, our friends, and the angels (literally) who invested in us became our greatest allies, supporters, and advocates as we navigated the treacherous, terrifying, uncertain, and ultimately wildly liberating waters of a pivot. So let’s start at the beginning…

In February of 2014, Lianne and I were completing our undergrad CS degrees at the University of Colorado. As we were reflecting on the past four years of school, we realized that the most valuable experiences that we had happened outside the classroom in the incredible communities that we became involved in. Being techies, we wanted to build a product which helped other students make these “serendipitous” connections around their campus?—?to make the most of their time in college as well. We wanted to help our friends explore their world around them.
We called it Varsity. The app was basically a replacement for the unreadable kiosks full of posters found on college campuses. Students could submit events and activities happening around their campus that others could discover and indicate they were attending. We also built in a personalization mechanism, which proactively suggested things to do around you based upon your interests.
A few months later, the MVP of the Varsity and a well-practiced pitch won us the New Venture Challenge at CU, which came with a $13k award and garnered the attention of Techstars Boulder.
The next couple of months were a whirlwind of change; Lianne and I graduated, we transitioned to our first full-time job (working for ourselves), and I spent a month in Israel with my sister before she left for college in Florida. We spent a good amount of our time networking our way around Techstars?—?feeling a little like the high school kids at a college party?—?but loving it at the same time. We met some incredible people (Sue Heilbronner, Brad Berenthal, Zach Nies, and Howard Diamond, to name a few) who taught us so much about our nascent business in a very short time.
We took as many meetings as we could with whomever would talk with us, and we funneled all of our learnings into our Techstars application. Through some combination of luck, sweat, and my uncanny ability to say the right things when standing in front of a large group of people, we were accepted into Techstars.
Techstars was incredibly challenging for us. The 3-month program was also equally rewarding. Lianne and I learned more about ourselves, our company, and our relationship with each other than we had in 4 years of undergraduate education together. About half-way through the program we rebranded Varsity to Native and started exploring ways to monitize the platform. The product had come along way?—?we had done some incredible engineering and design work that we were happy with.
Unfortunately, the problem with Varsity was absolutely zero alignment between the product that we wanted to build and the way that would bring it to market. One option was to spend the next 3 years grinding through the 8-month sales-cycles of universities across the country, which felt challenging (in the wrong ways) and bureaucratic. Alternatively, we could monetize the student attention we garnered, which we feared would cause discordance between the content students wanted to see and the content that advertisers wanted to show them.
Soon after graduating from Techstars, someone showed us Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk about how great leaders inspire action. Sinek describes how famous brands like Apple engage their customers starting with their “why” for doing business, which takes precedence over “how” they do business, and even over “what” their business does. At Native, we knew our “why” was something about helping people discover the world around them, and we now knew that the “how” and “what” of our current business wouldn’t get us there.
So, we decided to pivot.
Around this time I grabbed coffee with my friend Fletcher Richman. I explained to him the situation and asked for his advice. He offered the perspective that startups are designed to solve problems in the most efficient way possible. Basically, startups should be created to fill voids in the market that weren’t being solved by an existing company. The main issue was we had no problem to solve.
250k in funding, but nothing to fund? Do we give up, give the money back, and go get real jobs? Lianne and I weren’t done yet, so we went in search of problems worth solving.

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Living In And From a Box


Many of us in the West are lucky enough to live in a house or apartment. But for all intents it’s really an over-sized box. We are box dwellers. So it comes as no surprise to see our fascination of boxes accelerate over the last 10 years or so. These more recent boxes are much smaller than the ones in which we eat, relax, work and sleep, and they move around; these new boxes are the ones that deliver all we need to eat, relax, work and sleep.

Nowadays from the comfort of our own big box we can have anything delivered to us in a smaller box. [As I write this I’m sitting on my favorite armchair, which arrived from an online store, via a box]. But, this age of box-delivered convenience is very much a double-edged sword. We can now sate our cravings for almost anything, anytime and have an anonymous box-bringer deliver it to us almost instantaneously and all without any human interaction. We can now surround ourselves with foods and drinks and objects (and boxes) without ever leaving our very own box. We are becoming antisocial hermits.

From Medium:

Angel the concierge stands behind a lobby desk at a luxe apartment building in downtown San Francisco, and describes the residents of this imperial, 37-story tower. “Ubers, Squares, a few Twitters,” she says. “A lot of work-from-homers.”

And by late afternoon on a Tuesday, they’re striding into the lobby at a just-get-me-home-goddammit clip, some with laptop bags slung over their shoulders, others carrying swank leather satchels. At the same time a second, temporary population streams into the building: the app-based meal delivery people hoisting thermal carrier bags and sacks. Green means Sprig. A huge M means Munchery. Down in the basement, Amazon Prime delivery people check in packages with the porter. The Instacart groceries are plunked straight into a walk-in fridge.

This is a familiar scene. Five months ago I moved into a spartan apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of tech workers live. Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring: Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible, quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one another. I floated a few “hi’s” in the elevator when I first moved in, but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was clear: Lady, this is not that kind of building.

Back in the elevator in the 37-story tower, the messengers do talk, one tells me. They end up asking each other which apps they work for: Postmates. Seamless. EAT24. GrubHub. A woman hauling two Whole Foods sacks reads the concierge an apartment number off her smartphone, along with the resident’s directions: “Please deliver to my door.”

“They have a nice kitchen up there,” Angel says. The apartments rent for as much as $5,000 a month for a one-bedroom. “But so much, so much food comes in. Between 4 and 8 o’clock, they’re on fire.”

I start to walk toward home. En route, I pass an EAT24 ad on a bus stop shelter, and a little further down the street, a Dungeons & Dragons–type dude opens the locked lobby door of yet another glass-box residential building for a Sprig deliveryman:



“Sweet,” Dungeons & Dragons says, grabbing the bag of food. The door clanks behind him.

And that’s when I realized: the on-demand world isn’t about sharing at all. It’s about being served. This is an economy of shut-ins.

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew more isolated and depressed. “We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences,” said one of the researchers at the time. “And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing.”

We’re now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economy— with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding?—?there to free up your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care about, not standing at the post office with strangers. Rinse’s ad shows a couple chilling at a park, their laundry being washed by someone, somewhere beyond the picture’s frame. But plenty of the delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want you to leave home at all.

GrubHub’s advertising banks on us secretly never wanting to talk to a human again: “Everything great about eating, combined with everything great about not talking to people.” DoorDash, another food delivery service, goes for the all-caps, batshit extreme:


Katherine van Ekert isn’t a shut-in, exactly, but there are only two things she ever has to run errands for any more: trash bags and saline solution. For those, she must leave her San Francisco apartment and walk two blocks to the drug store, “so woe is my life,” she tells me. (She realizes her dry humor about #firstworldproblems may not translate, and clarifies later: “Honestly, this is all tongue in cheek. We’re not spoiled brats.”) Everything else is done by app. Her husband’s office contracts with Washio. Groceries come from Instacart. “I live on Amazon,” she says, buying everything from curry leaves to a jogging suit for her dog, complete with hoodie.

She’s so partial to these services, in fact, that she’s running one of her own: A veterinarian by trade, she’s a co-founder of VetPronto, which sends an on-call vet to your house. It’s one of a half-dozen on-demand services in the current batch at Y Combinator, the startup factory, including a marijuana delivery app called Meadow (“You laugh, but they’re going to be rich,” she says). She took a look at her current clients?—?they skew late 20s to late 30s, and work in high-paying jobs: “The kinds of people who use a lot of on demand services and hang out on Yelp a lot ?”

Basically, people a lot like herself. That’s the common wisdom: the apps are created by the urban young for the needs of urban young. The potential of delivery with a swipe of the finger is exciting for van Ekert, who grew up without such services in Sydney and recently arrived in wired San Francisco. “I’m just milking this city for all it’s worth,” she says. “I was talking to my father on Skype the other day. He asked, ‘Don’t you miss a casual stroll to the shop?’ Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with intention. There’s not time to stroll anywhere.”

Suddenly, for people like van Ekert, the end of chores is here. After hours, you’re free from dirty laundry and dishes. (TaskRabbit’s ad rolls by me on a bus: “Buy yourself time?—?literally.”)

So here’s the big question. What does she, or you, or any of us do with all this time we’re buying? Binge on Netflix shows? Go for a run? Van Ekert’s answer: “It’s more to dedicate more time to working.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Viva Vinyl


When I first moved to college and a tiny dorm room (in the UK they’re called halls of residence), my first purchase was a Garrard turntable and a pair of Denon stereo speakers. Books would come later. First, I had to build a new shrine to my burgeoning vinyl collection, which thrives even today.

So, after what seems like a hundred years since those heady days and countless music technology revolutions, it comes as quite a surprise — but perhaps not — to see vinyl on a resurgent path. The disruptors tried to kill LPs, 45s and 12-inchers with 8-track (ha), compact cassette (yuk), minidisk (yawn), CD (cool), MP3 (meh), iPod (yay) and now streaming (hmm).

But like a kind, zombie uncle the music industry cannot completely bury vinyl for good. Why did vinyl capture the imagination and the ears of the audiophile so? Well, perhaps it comes from watching the slow turn of the LP on the cool silver platter. Or, it may be the anticipation from watching the needle spiral its way to the first track. Or the raw, crackling authenticity of the sound. For me it was the weekly pilgrimage to the dusty independent record store — sampling tracks on clunky headphones; soaking up the artistry of the album cover, the lyrics, the liner notes; discussing the pros and cons of the bands with friends. Our digital world has now mostly replaced this experience, but it cannot hope to replicate it. Long live vinyl.

From ars technica:

On Thursday [July 2, 2015] , Nielsen Music released its 2015 US mid-year report, finding that overall music consumption had increased by 14 percent in the first half of the year. What’s driving that boom? Well, certainly a growth in streaming—on-demand streaming increased year-over-year by 92.4 percent, with more than 135 billion songs streamed, and overall sales of digital streaming increased by 23 percent.

But what may be more fascinating is the continued resurgence of the old licorice pizza—that is, vinyl LPs. Nielsen reports that vinyl LP sales are up 38 percent year-to-date. “Vinyl sales now comprise nearly 9 percent of physical album sales,” Nielsen stated.

Who’s leading the charge on all that vinyl? None other than the music industry’s favorite singer-songwriter Taylor Swift with her album 1989, which sold 33,500 LPs. Swift recently flexed her professional muscle when she wrote an open letter to Apple, criticizing the company for failing to pay artists during the free three-month trial of Apple Music. Apple quickly kowtowed to the pop star and reversed its position.

Following behind Swift on the vinyl chart is Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, The Arctic Monkeys’ AM (released in 2013), Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, and in fifth place, none other than Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which sold 23,200 copies in 2015.

Also interesting is that Nielsen found that digital album sales were flat compared to last year, and digital track sales were down 10.4 percent. Unsurprisingly, CD sales were down 10 percent.

When Nielsen reported in 2010 that 2.5 million vinyl records were sold in 2009, Ars noted that was more than any other year since the media-tracking business started keeping score in 1991. Fast forward five years and that number has more than doubled, as Nielsen counted 5.6 million vinyl records sold. The trend shows little sign of abating—last year, the US’ largest vinyl plant reported that it was adding 16 vinyl presses to its lineup of 30, and just this year Ars reported on a company called Qrates that lets artists solicit crowdfunding to do small-batch vinyl pressing.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Hotel California, The Eagles, album cover. Courtesy of the author.

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A Patent to End All Patents

You’ve seen the “we’ll help you file your patent application” infomercials on late night cable. The underlying promise is simple: your unique invention will find its way into every household on Earth and consequently will thrust you into the financial stratosphere making you the planet’s first gazillionaire. Of course, this will happen only after you part with your hard-earned cash for help in filing the patent. Incidentally, filing a patent with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) usually starts at around $10-15,000.

Some patents are truly extraordinary in their optimistic silliness: wind harnessing bicycle, apparatus for simulating a high-five, flatulence deodorizer, jet-powered surfboard, thong diaper, life-size interactive bowl of soup, nicotine infused coffee, edible business cards, magnetic rings to promote immortality, and so it goes. Remember, though, this is the United States, and most crazy things are possible and profitable. So, you could well find yourself becoming addicted to those 20oz nicotine infused lattes each time you pull up at the local coffee shop on your jet-powered surfboard.

But perhaps the most recent thoroughly earnest and whacky patent filing comes from Boeing no less. It’s for a laser-powered fusion-fission jet engine. The engine uses ultra-high powered lasers to fuse pellets of hydrogen, causing uranium to fission, which generates heat and subsequently electricity. All of this powering your next flight to Seattle. So, the next time you fly on a Boeing aircraft, keep in mind what some of the company’s engineers have in store for you 100 or 1,000 years from now. I think I’d prefer to be disassembled and beamed up.

From ars technica:

Assume the brace position: Boeing has received a patent for, I kid you not, a laser-powered fusion-fission jet propulsion system. Boeing envisions that this system could replace both rocket and turbofan engines, powering everything from spacecraft to missiles to airplanes.

The patent, US 9,068,562, combines inertial confinement fusion, fission, and a turbine that generates electricity. It sounds completely crazy because it is. Currently, this kind of engine is completely unrealistic given our mastery of fusion, or rather our lack thereof. Perhaps in the future (the distant, distant future that is), this could be a rather ingenious solution. For now, it’s yet another patent head-scratcher.

To begin with, imagine the silhouette of a big turbofan engine, like you’d see on a commercial jetliner. Somewhere in the middle of the engine there is a fusion chamber, with a number of very strong lasers focused on a single point. A hohlraum (pellet) containing a mix of deuterium and tritium (hydrogen isotopes) is placed at this focal point. The lasers are all turned on at the same instant, creating massive pressure on the pellet, which implodes and causes the hydrogen atoms to fuse. (This is called inertial confinement fusion, as opposed to the magnetic confinement fusion that is carried out in a tokamak.)

According to the patent, the hot gases produced by the fusion are pushed out of a nozzle at the back of the engine, creating thrust—but that’s not all! One of the by-products of hydrogen fusion is lots of fast neutrons. In Boeing’s patented design, there is a shield around the fusion chamber that’s coated with a fissionable material (uranium-238 is one example given). The neutrons hit the fissionable material, causing a fission reaction that generates lots of heat.

Finally, there’s some kind of heat exchanger system that takes the heat from the fission reaction and uses that heat (via a heated liquid or gas) to drive a turbine. This turbine generates the electricity that powers the lasers. Voilà: a fusion-fission rocket engine thing.

Let’s talk a little bit about why this is such an outlandish idea. To begin with, this patented design involves placing a lump of material that’s made radioactive in an airplane engine—and these vehicles are known to sometimes crash. Today, the only way we know of efficiently harvesting radioactive decay is a giant power plant, and we cannot get inertial fusion to fire more than once in a reasonable amount of time (much less on the short timescales needed to maintain thrust). This process requires building-sized lasers, like those found at the National Ignition Facility in California. Currently, the technique only works poorly. Those two traits are not conducive to air travel.

But this is the USA we’re talking about, where patents can be issued on firewalls (“being wielded in one of most outrageous trolling campaigns we have ever seen,” according to the EFF) and universities can claim such rights on “agent-based collaborative recognition-primed decision-making” (EFF: ”The patent reads a little like what might result if you ate a dictionary filled with buzzwords and drank a bottle of tequila”). As far as patented products go, it is pretty hard to imagine this one actually being built in the real world. Putting aside the difficulties of inertial confinement fusion (we’re nowhere near hitting the break-even point), it’s also a bit far-fetched to shoehorn all of these disparate and rather difficult-to-work-with technologies into a small chassis that hangs from the wing of a commercial airplane.

Read the entire story here.

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The Post-Stewart Apocalypse


Our planet continues to orbit its home star. The cosmos has yet to collapse into a galactic-sized blackhole. But, don’t be fooled. The apocalypse is here. It has indeed arrived. Today is August 7, 2015 or 1 PS.

We are now one day into the PS era, that’s PS for Post-Stewart — Jon Stewart, that is. So, as we enter this uncharted period — a contemporary Dark Ages — I will mourn Jon Stewart’s passing and yet curse him for leaving The Daily Show before his projected death of natural causes in 2065.

However, I am reminded that his arch-enemy Faux News will continue to amaze and entertain those of us who search for truth in the dumbed-down, fear-mongering drivel that it pumps through our nation’s cables. The channel’s puppet-master, and chief propagandist, Roger Ailes had this to say of Stewart,

“He’s feeling unrewarded because Fox News beats him on the amount of money we make, on ratings and on popularity. I’m sure it’s very depressing when he sits home at night and worries about it. We never did.”

This is so wonderfully hilarious, for Mr. Ailes fails to notice that he’s comparing his vast “news” media empire to a mere comedy show. I suppose I can take solace from this quote — who needs Jon Stewart when the target of his ire can do such a preeminent job of skewering itself.

Bye Jon, I hope you find several suitable Moments of Zen! But, you’re still a bastard.

Image courtesy of Google Search / The Daily Show.

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Kodokushi. A Lonely Death

As we age many of us tend to ponder our legacies. We wonder if we did good throughout our lives; we wonder if we’ll be remembered. Then we die.

Some will pass on treasured mementos to their descendents, families and friends; others — usually the one percenters — will cast their names on buildings, art bequests, research funds, and academic chairs. And yet others may not entrust any physical objects to their survivors, but nonetheless they’ll leave behind even more significant artifacts: trails of goodwill, moral frameworks, positive behaviors and traits, sound knowledge and teachings, passion, wonder.

Some of us will die in our sleep. A few will die in accidents or at the hands of others. Many of us will die in hospitals or clinics, attached to our technologies, sometimes attended by nearest and dearest, sometimes attended only by clinicians.

Sadly, some will die alone. Paradoxically, despite our increasing technologically enabled interconnectedness this phenomenon is on the increase, especially in aging societies with a low birth rate. Japan is a striking example — to such an extent that the Japanese even have a word for it: kodokushi or “lonely death”. Sadder still, where there are kodokushi victims there are now removal companies dedicated to their cleanup.

From Roads and Kingdoms:

Three months ago in an apartment on the outskirts of Osaka, Japan, Haruki Watanabe died alone. For weeks his body slowly decomposed, slouched in its own fluids and surrounded by fetid, fortnight-old food. He died of self-neglect, solitude, and a suspected heart problem. At 60, Watanabe, wasn’t old, nor was he especially poor. He had no friends, no job, no wife, and no concerned children. His son hadn’t spoken to him in years, nor did he want to again.

For three months no one called, no one knew, no one cared. For three months Watanabe rotted in his bedsheets, alongside pots of instant ramen and swarming cockroaches. The day that someone eventually called, he came not out of concern but out of administration. Watanabe had run out of money, and his bank had stopped paying the rent. The exasperated landlord, Toru Suzuki, had rung and rung, but no one had picked up. Sufficiently angry, he made the trip from his own home, in downtown Osaka, to the quiet suburb where his lodger lived. (Both men’s names are pseudonyms.)

First, there was the smell, a thick, noxious sweetness oozing from beneath the door frame. Second, there was the sight, the shape of a mortally slumped corpse beneath urine-soaked bedsheets. Third, there was the reality: Suzuki had come to collect his dues but had instead found his tenant’s dead body.

Disgusted, angry, but mostly shocked that this could happen to him, the landlord rang the police. The police came; they investigated with procedural dispassion and declared the death unsuspicious. This wasn’t suicide in the traditional sense, they said, but it did seem that the deceased had wanted to die. They’d seen it before, and it was an increasingly common occurrence throughout Japan: a single man dying, essentially, from loneliness.

They noted down what was required by their forms, wrapped up the body in officialdom, tied it with red tape, and removed it amid gawps and gags of inquisitive neighbors. The police then departed for the cemetery, where, because no family member had stepped forward to claim the body, they would intern Watanabe in an unmarked grave alongside the rest of Japan’s forgotten dead.

Suzuki was now left to his festering property and precarious financials. He was concerned. He didn’t know who to call or how to deal with the situation. In Japan, suicide can dramatically reduce the value of a property, and although this wasn’t suicide, his neighbors had seen enough; the gossip would spread fast. He heard whispers of kodokushi, a word bandied about since the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, when thousands of elderly Japanese were relocated to different residences and started dying alone, ostracized or isolated from family and friends. But what did that really mean for Suzuki, and how was he going to deal with it? Like most Japanese, he had heard of the “lonely death” but had not really believed in it; he certainly didn’t know what to do in such circumstances. So he turned to the Internet, and after hours of fruitless searching found a company called Risk-Benefit, run by a man named Toru Koremura.

With no other options he picked up the phone and gave the company a call.

With one of the fastest aging populations in the world and traditional family structures breaking down, Japan’s kodokushi phenomenon is becoming harder to ignore—not that the government and the Japanese people don’t do their best to sweep it under the carpet. Inaccurate statistics abound, with confusing definitions of what is and isn’t considered kodokushi being created in the process. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were some 3,700 “unaccompanied deaths” in Japan in 2013. However, other experts estimate the number is nearer 30,000 a year.

Scott North, a sociologist at Osaka University, argues that this extreme divergence could be the result of experts including some forms of suicide (of which there are around 27,000 cases a year in Japan) into the category of kodokushi. It could also be the result of bad accounting. Recently, senior Japanese bureaucrats admitted to having lost track of more than 250,000 people older than age 100. In a case that made international headlines in 2010, Sogen Kato, thought to be Tokyo’s oldest man at 111 years of age, turned out to have been mummified in his own apartment for more than 30 years.

Read the entire story here.

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Thirty Going On Sixty or Sixty Going on Thirty?

By now you probably realize that I’m a glutton for human research studies. I’m particularly fond of studies that highlight a particular finding one week, only to be contradicted by the results of another study the following week.

However, despite lack of contradictions, this one published via the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences caught my eye. It suggests that we age at remarkably different rates. While most subjects showed a perceived, biological age within a handful of years of their actual, chronological age, there were some surprises. Some 30-year-olds showed a biological age twice that of their chronological age, while some appeared ten years younger.

From the BBC:

A study of people born within a year of each other has uncovered a huge gulf in the speed at which their bodies age.

The report, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracked traits such as weight, kidney function and gum health.

Some of the 38-year-olds were ageing so badly that their “biological age” was on the cusp of retirement.

The team said the next step was to discover what was affecting the pace of ageing.

The international research group followed 954 people from the same town in New Zealand who were all born in 1972-73.

The scientists looked at 18 different ageing-related traits when the group turned 26, 32 and 38 years old.

The analysis showed that at the age of 38, the people’s biological ages ranged from the late-20s to those who were nearly 60.

“They look rough, they look lacking in vitality,” said Prof Terrie Moffitt from Duke University in the US.

The study said some people had almost stopped ageing during the period of the study, while others were gaining nearly three years of biological age for every twelve months that passed.

People with older biological ages tended to do worse in tests of brain function and had a weaker grip.

Most people’s biological age was within a few years of their chronological age. It is unclear how the pace of biological ageing changes through life with these measures.

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Cat in the (Hat) Box


Cat owner? Ever pondered why your aloof, inscrutable feline friend loves boxes? Here are some answers courtesy of people who study these kinds of things.

From Wired:

Take heart feline enthusiasts. Your cat’s continued indifference toward her new Deluxe Scratch DJ Deck may be disappointing, but there is an object that’s pretty much guaranteed to pique her interest. That object, as the Internet has so thoroughly documented, is a box. Any box, really. Big boxes, small boxes, irregularly shaped boxes—it doesn’t matter. Place one on the ground, a chair, or a bookshelf and watch as Admiral Snuggles quickly commandeers it.

So what are we to make of the strange gravitational pull that empty Amazon packaging exerts on Felis sylvestris catus? Like many other really weird things cats do, science hasn’t fully cracked this particular feline mystery. There’s the obvious predation advantage a box affords: Cats are ambush predators, and boxes provide great hiding places to stalk prey from (and retreat to). But there’s clearly more going on here.

Thankfully, behavioral biologists and veterinarians have come up with a few other interesting explanations. In fact, when you look at all the evidence together, it could be that your cat may not just like boxes, he may need them.

The box-and-whisker plot

Understanding the feline mind is notoriously difficult. Cats, after all, tend not to be the easiest test subjects. Still, there’s a sizable amount of behavioral research on cats who are, well, used for other kinds of research (i.e., lab cats). These studies—many of which focused on environmental enrichment—have been taking place for more than 50 years and they make one thing abundantly clear: Your fuzzy companion derives comfort and security from enclosed spaces.

This is likely true for a number of reasons, but for cats in these often stressful situations, a box or some other type of separate enclosure (within the enclosures they’re already in) can have a profound impact on both their behavior and physiology.

EthologistClaudia Vinke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands is one of the latest researchers to study stress levels in shelter cats. Working with domestic cats in a Dutch animal shelter, Vinke provided hiding boxes for a group of newly arrived cats while depriving another group of them entirely. She found a significant difference in stress levels between cats that had the boxes and those that didn’t. In effect, the cats with boxes got used to their new surroundings faster, were far less stressed early on, and were more interested in interacting with humans.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Chief Happiness Officer?

When I first read this story I thought it was a mistimed April Fool’s joke. But, I was wrong. The Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) is a growing trend within the halls of corporate America. And, of course, it is brought to you by those happy yet earnest gurus in Silicon Valley.

One wonders where this is likely to take us 10, 20 years from now. But, one thing is reasonably clear — for most, corporate happiness may be an unattainable or undeliverable paradox.

From the New Republic:

Happiness isn’t something you find, or work toward—it’s something you buy and have delivered. Or at least that’s the premise of one of the newest jobs over in the C-suite. Now, alongside the CEO, CFO, and their ilk, we have the CHO, or chief happiness officer. As the name clearly suggests, the CHO is responsible for the contentment of individual employees, sort of like an h.r. manager, but on steroids; the theory goes that happy workers are productive workers, so happiness turns out to be in the company’s best interest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many CHOs reside in Silicon Valley—both at start-ups and more blue chip tech companies. But it’s starting to spread: Southern restaurant company Hopjacks created the position in 2012 and the Quality of Life Foundation, an education nonprofit, created one in 2010.

On a day-to-day basis, CHOs busy themselves with diagnosing the emotional wellbeing of their workers, as well as adjusting workplace policy and culture in order to create the conditions for happiness. This can involve distributing surveys that measure contentment, leading workshops on everything from communication skills to mindfulness meditation, and generally diagnosing the office atmosphere. The job can also mean out-of-office activities—or, in the case of Hopjacks, a “Serial Killer Secret-Santa Weapon-Exchange” (an event, according to CHO Jarod Kelly, “where all of us blindly ordered each other [weapons] gifts from”).

The CHO’s rise may have begun with Chade-Meng Tan. Meng is Google’s chief happiness officer equivalent, officially known as the Jolly Good Fellow. According to his self-made job description, his goal is to “enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.” He began at Google soon after the company was born, and spent eight years in the engineering department, before switching to the company’s “People Development Team” in the mid-2000s. Meng was inspired to work happiness into Google after encountering studies on the 65-year-old brain of a Buddhist monk named Mathieu Ricard. Ricard, after earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, turned his back on science and became a Buddhist monk in 1972, with the aim of exploring happiness through meditation.

In a 2010 TED talk, Meng explains that Ricard “is the happiest man in the world,” based on brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex. Whether or not measuring happiness in an MRI machine holds water is beside the point—Meng liked what he saw, and aimed to spread Ricard’s cognitive tendencies throughout the Google community.

Google’s involvement in worker happiness set off something of a trend, with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh releasing a book in 2010 called Delivering Happiness. The book, which covers strategies to increase happiness in corporate culture, was a New York Times best seller and spawned a consulting firm of the same name, devoted to, well, delivering happiness to companies around the world.

Delivering Happiness, according to CEO and CHO Jenn Lim, devotes its time to measuring the contentment of clients and to laboring to improve their working conditions. So how exactly does one create joy? “We take a snapshot of all the employees, and basically identify their happiness levels,” Lim says. “And using [the Happy Business Index], we can see, what are the key points of unhappiness?” (The Happy Business Index is a survey based off of “well-being researcher” Nic Marks’s Happy Planet Index, and scores how motivated and engaged employees feel in their workplace.) In an interview, Lim also explained that they look out for “how empowered employees feel, how much progress they feel they’re making, how connected and aligned they feel with the company.”

“Basically we’re able to derive actionable things that we recommend companies work on. I think of us as kind of a heart monitor,” Lim noted. CHOs not only monitor, but also calculate. Beyond the Happiness Business Index, the company uses a “happiness calculator” which is featured on its website and does little except tabulate how much money you stand to earn if you carry out a “happiness at work survey” (created by Delivering Happiness, of course).

Read the entire article here.

Video: Pharrell Williams – Happy (Official Music Video). Courtesy of I am Other.

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Anthropo-Fracking — Monetizing You

While not known as retail innovators banks started charging us all manner of fees for every minutiae some time ago: the bounced check fee, the monthly checking fee, the statement fee, the paperwork fee, the outgoing wire fee, the incoming wire fee, the secondary account fee, the document discovery fee, the check copy fee, etc.

Then airlines jumped on the bandwagon: their cunning ploy to awe us with low fares while simultaneously shocking us with all manner of “ancillary fees”: the checked bag fee, the excess baggage fee, the large baggage fee, the food fee, the drink fee, the ticketing fee, the wifi fee, the check-in early fee, the seat selection fee, the group fee, the fee-fie-fo-fum fee, etc etc.

So, while you may believe that you are a valuable and marketable brand of one, most enterprises actually look upon you something more lowly, but financially attractive — you are nothing more than a cow to be milked, or a landscape to be fracked, of fees. Sadly, this movement towards “personal-fracking” — the monetization and mining of you — has only just entered its early stages. So, hold on tight to your wallet.

From the Guardian:

Fracking. Could there be a more perfect model for how we’re getting rinsed by this current conspiracy of government and commerce? In a world turned upside down, “conservative” now means the absolute opposite of “leaving things as they are”. Conservative means changing everything. It means dismantling things and selling off the bits. It means drilling into our lives and extracting the marrow.

Conservatism and conservation are now about as far apart as it’s possible to get. Friends of Conservation are the ones protecting the countryside. The ones who stand around self-consciously in terrible fancy dress, holding passive-aggressive placards in praise of the noble, selfless badger. Or basically any mammal that looks good in a waistcoat.

Friends of Conservatism, on the other hand, are the ones who roll up on heavy machinery like a pissed Ukrainian militia. The ones who drill deep beneath that area of local countryside whose only “use” so far has been as a picnic site. And who then pump into the ground powerful jets of high-pressure hydrogunk, splintering rock as easily as a walnut. And who, having sucked up a sky’s worth of valuable gas through a massive crack pipe, then pack up and lumber off to fracture and steal someone else’s underground treasure.

Welcome to capitalism’s late late show. If you can power-hose the last drop of value out of something, you now have an amoral imperative to do it. Fracking is the chief inspiration for today’s entrepreneurs, those “heroic wealth creators” so admired by Andy Pandery Burnham and half the Labour party. Everything is up for grabs now. The age of the racketeer is over. It’s all about fracketeering now.

A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression feeHere is a recent example. A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression fee”. Yeah, ha ha, the cheeky peaky blinders are leaching an extra grand and a half out of buyers just for accepting their offer on a property. Imagine that. Charging people for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.

It’s almost as if the property industry is a pirate economy serviced by unscrupulous thieving bastards drenched in melancholy duty-free fragrances. Let’s face it, estate agents have pretty much perfected the art of taking the piss with a straight face. One former estate agent told me the other day he was always instructed to make admin fees “whatever you think you can get away with … go high, then drop as a favour”. Classic surcharge frackery.

I had decided that of all the agents – sports, double, biological – estate agents were definitely the worst. Then I asked people on Twitter how they had been fracked over lately and they reminded me about letting agents. And about how every single person I’ve ever known who has had any dealings with a letting agent has had to recalibrate their view of the human race as a result. Has anyone ever got their exorbitant deposit back in full without an exhausting argument pointing out that three years of normal wear and tear can’t be classed as catastrophic damage? I’ve been hearing about people being charged a £90-per-person “reference fee” when moving between two properties run by the same agent, “so that’s £180 to ask themselves how we were as tenants”. Or being charged £50 for printing six pages of a rental contract. “I asked them to email it so I could print it. They said no.”

The world of fracketeering is infinitely flexible and contradictory. Buy tickets online and you could be charged an admin fee for an attachment that requires you to print them at home. The original online booking fee – you’ve come this far in the buying process, hand over an extra 12 quid now or write off the previous 20 minutes of your life – has mutated into exotic versions of itself.

The confirmation fee. The convenience fee. Someone who bought tickets for a tennis event at the O2 sent me this pithy tweet: “4 tickets. 4 Facility Fees + 4 Service Charge + 1 Standard Mail £2.75 = 15% of overall £!”. Definitely a grand slam.

It’s amazing to think of a world that existed before the admin charge. It almost makes you nostalgic for a simpler and more innocent time, when racketeers would work out what it was we wanted and then supply it at an inflated price. You remember racketeers. Snappy dressers, little moustaches, connections to organised crime. Some of them did very well and went on to become successful publishers or peers of the realm. Quite a few old-school racketeers went into the “hospitality and leisure” business, where these days fracking is in full effect.

Read the entire story here.

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Bursting My Bubble


Popping those squishy pockets of air in bubble wrap has been a simple pleasure for many kids (and kids at heart) for decades. Not any more. Sealed Air, the company that has been producing this wonder material since 1960, has invented a “popless” version called iBubble Wrap.

How could they do this? As we all know popping the bubbles is often much more fun than receipt of the actual object that the wrap protects. This is not progress; this is cultural regression.

From the WSJ:

Hate to burst your bubble, but there’s a new form of Bubble Wrap coming out — and this one won’t pop.

Sealed Air, which has sold Bubble Wrap since 1960, has a new version of its protective wrapping coming out called iBubble Wrap, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It’s sold flat and airless, making it easier to store and ship. A single truckload of iBubble Wrap can hold as much packaging material as 47 truckloads of the old stuff, the Journal said.

iBubble Wrap is inflated with a custom pump by the companies that use it as shipping material.

The air bubbles in iBubble Wrap are filled in columns, and the bubbles in each column are connected. Press on one, and there’s no cathartic “POP!” as in traditional Bubble Wrap.

Instead, the air just shifts around in the column of bubbles.

The North Carolina company told the newspaper it would still make traditional Bubble Wrap, and other companies will undoubtedly continue to make similar packaging material that pops.

But if the new stuff takes off, the Bubble Wrap we all know and love could become a lot less common… and eventually, all we’ll have left is Virtual Bubble Wrap.

Read the story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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A Gift From Greece

Flag_of_Greece.svgGreece has been in an increasingly troubled economic situation of late, but the nation’s current crisis has been decades in the making. Over several generations successive governments overspent on an enormous scale on populist social programs, such a healthcare, pensions and other benefits. And, these same governments — regardless of party affiliation — did little to account for this spending either by cutting services or raising revenues (and may would also add, curtailing tax evasion).

On this 4th of July, Greece is now effectively bankrupt — banks are closed, a quarter of the adult population is unemployed, European creditors have called in their loans, and lenders are sitting on the sidelines until the country charts a more sustainable path. So, while the country suffers I am reminded on this anniversary of America’s founding that Greece’s most important export — democracy — still flourishes, despite some obvious flaws. This ancient civilization brought the world many gifts; we should be thankful and hopeful that the embattled Greeks can once again rebuild their great nation and export their treasures.

From the Guardian:

Just how special were the ancient Greeks? Was there really a Greek “miracle”? The question has become painfully politicised. Critics of colonialism and racism tend to play down the specialness of the ancient Greeks. Those who maintain that there was something identifiably different and even superior about the Greeks, on the other hand, are often die-hard conservatives who have a vested interest in proving the superiority of “western” ideals. I fit into neither camp. I am certainly opposed to colonialism and racism, and have investigated reactionary abuses of the classical tradition in colonial India and by apologists of slavery all the way through to the American Civil War. But my constant engagement with the ancient Greeks and their culture has made me more, rather than less, convinced that they asked a series of crucial questions that are difficult to identify in combination within any of the other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean or Near Eastern antiquity. This is why, as I will go on to argue, I believe in classics for the people – that ideas from the ancient Greeks should be taught to everybody, not just the privileged few.

The foundations of Greek culture were laid long before the arrival of Christianity, between 800 and 300BC. Greek-speakers lived in hundreds of different villages, towns and cities, from Spain to Libya and the Nile Delta, from the freezing river Don in the northeastern corner of the Black Sea to Trebizond. They were culturally elastic, and often freely intermarried with other peoples; they had no sense of ethnic inequality that was biologically determined, since the concepts of distinct world “races” had not been invented. They tolerated and even welcomed imported foreign gods. And what united them was never geopolitics. With the arguable exception of the short-lived Macedonian empire in the later 4th century BC, there never was a recognisable, independent, state run by Greek-speakers, centred in and including what we now know as Greece, until after the Greek war of independence in the early 19th century.

What bound the Greeks together was an enquiring cast of mind underpinned by a wonderful shared set of stories and poems and a restlessness that made them more likely to sail away and found a new city-state than tolerate starvation or oppression in a mainland metropolis. The diasporic, seafaring Greeks, while they invented new communities from scratch and were stimulated by interacting with other ethnic groups, made a rapid series of intellectual discoveries that raised the Mediterranean world to a new level of civilisation. This process of self-education was much admired by the Greeks and Romans of the centuries that followed. When the texts and artworks of classical Greece were rediscovered in the European Renaissance, they changed the world for a second time.

Yet over the last two decades the notion that the Greeks were exceptional has been questioned. It has been emphasised that they were just one of many ethnic and linguistic groups centred in the eastern end of the ancient Mediterranean world. Long before the Greeks appeared in the historical record, several complicated civilisations had existed – the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Hattians and Hittites. Other peoples provided the Greeks with crucial technological advances; they learned the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians, and how to mint coins from the Lydians. They may have learned how to compose elaborate cult hymns from the mysterious Luwians of Syria and central Anatolia. During the period in which the Greeks invented rational philosophy and science, after 600BC, their horizons were dramatically opened up by the expansion of the Persian empire.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, our understanding of the other cultures of the Ancient Near East advanced rapidly. We know far more about the minds of the Greeks’ predecessors and neighbours than we did before the landmark discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets in the Tigris valley in 1853. There has been a stream of newly published texts in the languages of the successive peoples who dominated the fertile plains of Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians). The words of Hittites on the tablets found at Hattuša in central Turkey and the phrases inscribed on clay tablets at Ugarit in northern Syria have been deciphered. New texts as well as fresh interpretations of writings by the ancient Egyptians continue to appear, requiring, for example, a reassessment of the importance of the Nubians to North African history. Many of these thrilling advances have revealed how much the Greeks shared with, and absorbed from, their predecessors and neighbours. Painstaking comparative studies have been published which reveal the Greek “miracle” to have been one constituent of a continuous process of intercultural exchange.

It has become a new orthodoxy that the Greeks were very similar to their Ancient Near Eastern neighbours, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant, Persia and Asia Minor. Some scholars have gone so far as to ask whether the Greeks came up with anything new at all, or whether they merely acted as a conduit through which the combined wisdom of all the civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean was disseminated across the territories conquered by Alexander the Great, before arriving at Rome and posterity. Others have seen sinister racist motives at work and accused classicists of creating in their own image the Oldest Dead White European Males; some have claimed, with some justification, that northern Europeans have systematically distorted and concealed the evidence showing how much the ancient Greeks owed to Semitic and African peoples rather than to Indo-European, “Aryan” traditions.

Taken singly, most Greek achievements can be paralleled in the culture of at least one of their neighbours. The Babylonians knew about Pythagoras’s theorem centuries before Pythagoras was born. The tribes of the Caucasus had brought mining and metallurgy to unprecedented levels. The Hittites had made advances in chariot technology, but they were also highly literate. They recorded the polished and emotive orations delivered on formal occasions in their royal court, and their carefully argued legal speeches. One Hittite king foreshadows Greek historiography when he chronicles in detail his frustration at the incompetence of some of his military officers during the siege of a Hurrian city. The Phoenicians were just as great seafarers as any Greeks. The Egyptians developed medicine based on empirical experience rather than religious dogma and told Odyssey-like stories about sailors who went missing and returned after adventures overseas. Pithy fables similar to those of Aesop were composed in an archaic Aramaic dialect of Syria and housed in Jewish temples. Architectural design concepts and technical know-how came from the Persians to the Greek world via the many Ionian Greek workmen who helped build Persepolis, Susa and Pasargadae, named Yauna in Persian texts. Nevertheless, none of these peoples produced anything equivalent to Athenian democracy, comic theatre, philosophical logic or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Flag of Greece. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Those Were the Days

I (still) have school-age children. So, I’m in two minds as to whether I support columnist Joe Queenan’s position on the joys that come from freedom-from-kids. He is not the mythical empty nester bemoaning the loss of his kids to the vagaries of adulthood. He is not the control-freak helicopter parent suffering from the withdrawal pains that come from no longer being able to offer advice on math homework. He doesn’t miss offering a soothing critique on the latest cardboard diorama. Nor does he mourn the loss of the visits to school counsellors, the coach, the nurse or ferrying the kids to and from the endless after-school and extracurricular activities. He’s joyfully free.

While I anticipate a certain pleasure to be had from this added freedom when the kids trek off to college and beyond, I think it will come as a mixed blessing. Will I miss scratching my head over 9th grade calculus? Will I miss cheering on my budding basketball star? Will I miss drawing diagrams of electron shells and maps of the Middle East? Will I miss the video book reviews or the poetry slam? I think I will.

From the WSJ:

Once their children are all grown up and have moved away for good, parents are supposed to suffer from profound melancholy and sometimes even outright depression. This is the phenomenon widely known by the horrid term “empty nest syndrome.”

“It all went by too fast.” “We didn’t really enjoy those precious little moments as much as we should have.” “The future now looks so bleak.” These are the sorts of things that rueful empty nesters—nostalgic for the glorious, halcyon days when their children were young and innocent and still nesting—say to themselves. Or so runs the popular mythology.

This has not been my experience as a parent. From the moment my children left school forever ten years ago, I felt a radiant, ineffable joy suffuse my very being. Far from being depressed or sad, I was elated. There was a simple reason for this: From that point onward, I would never again have to think about the kids and school. Never, ever, ever.

 I would never have to go to the middle school office to find out why my child was doing so poorly in math. I would never have to ask the high-school principal why the French teacher didn’t seem to speak much French. I would never have to ask the grade-school principal why he rewrote my daughter’s sixth-grade graduation speech to include more references to his own prodigious sense of humor and caring disposition, and fewer jokes of her own.

I would never have to complain that the school had discontinued the WordMasters competition, the one activity at which my son truly excelled. I would never have to find out if my son was in any way responsible for a classmate damaging his wrist during recess. I would never again have to listen to my child, or anyone else’s, play the cello.

I would never have to attend a parent-teacher meeting to find out why my daughter’s history instructor was teaching the class that England’s King Edward II didn’t have a son. A son named Edward III. A son who took special pains to publicly hang the man who allegedly killed his dad—and let the body rot for a couple of days, just to show how ticked off he was about his father’s mistreatment. All of which my kids knew because their mother grew up 5 miles from the castle where Edward II was heinously butchered. Leaving behind Edward III. His son.

“The timeline gets confusing back then,” the teacher explained when we visited him. No, it doesn’t. In history, this thing happened and that thing didn’t. If you didn’t know that, your students got crummy AP scores. And then they didn’t get into the best college. My wife and I weren’t going out of our way to embarrass the teacher. It was just…well…first you’re wrong about Edward III, and then you’re wrong about Henry III, and before you know it, you’re wrong about Richard III. Who knows where it all could lead?

But now it no longer mattered. The ordeal had ended; the 18-year plague had run its course; the bitter cup had passed from my lips. I would never quaff from its putrid contents again. Good riddance.

Read the entire story here.

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Justice Kennedy


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

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

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

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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Sharing Only Goes So Far

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

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

From the Independent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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Comparing Forgiveness and Fiction

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

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

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

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

Families of Victims

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

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

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

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

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

 Read more here.

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