Category Archives: Idea Soup

Corporate Grief

amazon-france-bannerFollowing the recent horrendous mass murders in Mali, Paris, and Lebanon (and elsewhere) there is a visible outpouring of grief, and on a worldwide scale. Many of us, while removed from direct involvement and having no direct connection to the victims and their families, still feel sadness, pain and loss.

The empathy expressed by strangers or distant acquaintances for those even remotely connected with the violence is tangible and genuine. For instance, we foreigners may seek out a long-lost French colleague to express our concern and condolences for Mali / France and all Bamakoans / Parisians. There is genuine concern and sense of connection, at a personal level, however frail that connection may be.

But what is going on when Amazon, Apple, eBay, Uber and other corporations wave their digital banners of solidarity — expressing grief — on the home pages of their websites?

Jessica Reed over at the Guardian makes some interesting observations. She is absolutely right to admonish those businesses that would seek to profit from such barbaric acts. In fact, we should boycott any found to be doing so. Some are taking real and positive action, such as enabling free communication or providing free transportation and products. However, she is also correct to warn us of the growing, insidious tendency to anthropomorphize and project sentience onto corporations.

Brands and companies increasingly love us, they sympathize, and now they grieve with us. But there is a vast difference from being hugged in sympathy by the boss of your local deli and the faceless, impersonal digital flag-waving courtesy of a dotcom home page.

Who knows where this will lead us decades from now: perhaps if there is money to be made, big corporations will terrorize us as well.

From Jessica Reed:

The pain is shared by all of us, but a golden rule should apply: don’t capitalise on grief, don’t profit from it. Perhaps this is why big companies imposing their sympathy on the rest of us leaves a bitter taste in my month: it is hard for me to see these gestures as anything but profiteering.

Companies are now posing as entities capable of compassion, never mind that they cannot possibly speak for all of its employees. This also brings us a step closer to endowing them with a human trait: the capacity to express emotions. They think they’re sentient.

If this sounds crazy, it’s because it is.

In the US, the debate about corporate personhood is ongoing. The supreme court already ruled that corporations are indeed people in some contexts: they have been granted the right to spend money on political issues, for example, as well as the right to refuse to cover birth control in their employee health plans on religious grounds.

Armed with these rulings, brands continue to colonise our lives, accompanying us from the cradle to the grave. They see you grow up, they see you die. They’re benevolent. They’re family.

Looking for someone to prove me wrong, I asked Ed Zitron, a PR chief executive, about these kinds of tactics. Zitron points out that tech companies are, in some cases, performing a useful service – as in Facebook’s “safety check”, T-Mobile and Verizon’s free communication with France, and Airbnb’s decision to compensate hosts for letting people stay longer for free. Those are tangible gestures – the equivalent of bringing grief-stricken neighbours meals to sustain them, rather than sending a hastily-written card.

Anything else, he says, is essentially good-old free publicity: “an empty gesture, a non-movement, a sanguine pretend-help that does nothing other than promote themselves”.

It’s hard to disagree with him and illustrates how far brands have further infiltrated our lives since the publication of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which documented advertising as an industry not only interested in selling products, but also a dream and a message. We can now add “grief surfing” to the list.

A fear years back, Jon Stewart mocked this sorry state of affairs:

If only there were a way to prove that corporations are not people, show their inability to love, to show that they lack awareness of their own mortality, to see what they do when you walk in on them masturbating …

Turns out we can’t – companies will love you, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, whether you want it or not.

 Read the entire article here.

Image: Screen grab from Amazon.fr, November 17, 2015.

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Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses…

UnveilingTheStatueofLiberty-1886-EdwardMoran

Yesterday, November 19, 2015, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of legislation that would make it even more difficult for refugees from Iraq and Syria (and presumably other tormented lands) to enter the country. Today, I am reminded of the Emma Lazarus poem that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The key lines of the New Colossus are:

 “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Looks like many of our representatives, state governors and a variety of talking heads have forgotten one of the central tenets that inspired, and inspires, this nation.

Image: Statue of Liberty unveiled, by Edward Moran, 1886. Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York. Public Domain.

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Xenophobia: Terrorism of the Mind

I suspect xenophobia is a spectrum disorder. At one end of the spectrum we see the acts of fundamentalist terrorists following their apocalyptic (and isolationist) scripts to their barbaric conclusions. At the other end, we hear the segregationist rants of talking heads demanding litmus tests for migrants, refugees and victims of violence. And, it’s all the more distasteful when one of the talking heads controls vast swathes of the global media.

So, shame on you Rupert Murdoch for suggesting that the US allow entry only to proven Christian refugees. Clearly, tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness are not concepts that Mr.Murdoch understands — traits that he lacks in common with those that he accuses.

From the Guardian:

I see Rupert Murdoch has come up with a foolproof method to ensure that the United States is safe from terrorism.

In a tweet offering advice to the American president, he wrote:

“Obama facing enormous opposition in accepting refugees. Maybe make special exception for proven Christians”

Oh yes he did. Does the News Corp boss not realise that this is just the kind of response to terrorism that the terrorists seek to provoke?

Ostracising all Muslims by refusing them sanctuary on the grounds that that they are potential terrorists is likely to be counter-productive. And, incidentally, is it not unChristian?

I note that the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, tongue firmly in cheek, tweeted back to Murdoch:

“Interesting idea… will you come and talk about it on @BBCNewsnight”.

But he didn’t take up the offer. He obviously prefers to let his wisdom shine through in 140 characters.

I am also queasy about the Tuesday editorial in Murdoch’s favourite newspaper, the Sun, which called on British-based Muslims to prove their opposition to “the jihadis” by marching through London with placards saying “not in our name”.

Rightly, the paper points out that Isis “seeks to establish violent, oppressive fundamentalism as the only true faith and to divide Muslims from non-Muslims.”

But I wonder whether the Sun realises that its message is similar: the effect of treating Muslims, all Muslims, as some kind of homogenous entity (and as a thing apart) is more likely to foment divisions with non-Muslims and alienate Muslims still further.

Read the entire story here.

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The Illness Known As Evil

What turns a seemingly ordinary person (usually male) into a brutal killer or mass-murderer? How does a quiet computer engineer end up as a cold-blooded executioner of innocents on a terrorist video in 2015? Why does one single guard in a concentration camp lead hundreds of thousands to their deaths during the Second World War? Why do we humans perform acts of such unspeakable brutality and horror?

Since the social sciences have existed researchers have weighed these questions. Is it possible that those who commit such acts of evil are host to a disease of the brain? Some have dubbed this Syndrome E, where E stands for evil. Others are not convinced that evil is a neurological condition with biochemical underpinnings. And so the debate, and the violence, rages on.

From the New Scientist:

The idea that a civilised human being might be capable of barbaric acts is so alien that we often blame our animal instincts – the older, “primitive” areas of the brain taking over and subverting their more rational counterparts. But fresh thinking turns this long-standing explanation on its head. It suggests that people perform brutal acts because the “higher”, more evolved, brain overreaches. The set of brain changes involved has been dubbed Syndrome E – with E standing for evil.

In a world where ideological killings are rife, new insights into this problem are sorely needed. But reframing evil as a disease is controversial. Some believe it could provide justification for heinous acts or hand extreme organisations a recipe for radicalising more young people. Others argue that it denies the reality that we all have the potential for evil within us. Proponents, however, say that if evil really is a pathology, then society ought to try to diagnose susceptible individuals and reduce contagion. And if we can do that, perhaps we can put radicalisation into reverse, too.

Following the second world war, the behaviour of guards in Nazi concentration camps became the subject of study, with some researchers seeing them as willing, ideologically driven executioners, others as mindlessly obeying orders. The debate was reignited in the mid-1990s in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In 1996, The Lancet carried an editorial pointing out that no one was addressing evil from a biological point of view. Neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried, at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to rise to the challenge.

In a paper published in 1997, he argued that the transformation of non-violent individuals into repetitive killers is characterised by a set of symptoms that suggests a common condition, which he called Syndrome E (see “Seven symptoms of evil“). He suggested that this is the result of “cognitive fracture”, which occurs when a higher brain region, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – involved in rational thought and decision-making – stops paying attention to signals from more primitive brain regions and goes into overdrive.

The idea captured people’s imaginations, says Fried, because it suggested that you could start to define and describe this basic flaw in the human condition. “Just as a constellation of symptoms such as fever and a cough may signify pneumonia, defining the constellation of symptoms that signify this syndrome may mean that you could recognise it in the early stages.” But it was a theory in search of evidence. Neuroscience has come a long way since then, so Fried organised a conference in Paris earlier this year to revisit the concept.

At the most fundamental level, understanding why people kill is about understanding decision-making, and neuroscientists at the conference homed in on this. Fried’s theory starts with the assumption that people normally have a natural aversion to harming others. If he is correct, the higher brain overrides this instinct in people with Syndrome E. How might that occur?

Etienne Koechlin at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris was able to throw some empirical light on the matter by looking at people obeying rules that conflict with their own preferences. He put volunteers inside a brain scanner and let them choose between two simple tasks, guided by their past experience of which would be the more financially rewarding (paying 6 euros versus 4). After a while he randomly inserted rule-based trials: now there was a colour code indicating which of the two tasks to choose, and volunteers were told that if they disobeyed they would get no money.

Not surprisingly, they followed the rule, even when it meant that choosing the task they had learned would earn them a lower pay-off in the free-choice trials. But something unexpected happened. Although rule-following should have led to a simpler decision, they took longer over it, as if conflicted. In the brain scans, both the lateral and the medial regions of the PFC lit up. The former is known to be sensitive to rules; the latter receives information from the limbic system, an ancient part of the brain that processes emotional states, so is sensitive to our innate preferences. In other words, when following the rule, people still considered their personal preference, but activity in the lateral PFC overrode it.

Of course, playing for a few euros is far removed from choosing to kill fellow humans. However, Koechlin believes his results show that our instinctive values endure even when the game changes. “Rules do not change values, just behaviours,” he says. He interprets this as showing that it is normal, not pathological, for the higher brain to override signals coming from the primitive brain. If Fried’s idea is correct, this process goes into overdrive in Syndrome E, helping to explain how an ordinary person overcomes their squeamishness to kill. The same neuroscience may underlie famous experiments conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s, which revealed the extraordinary lengths to which people would go out of obedience to an authority figure – even administering what they thought were lethal electric shocks to strangers.

Fried suggests that people experience a visceral reaction when they kill for the first time, but some rapidly become desensitised. And the primary instinct not to harm may be more easily overcome when people are “just following orders”. In unpublished work, Patrick Haggard at University College London has used brain scans to show that this is enough to make us feel less responsible for our actions. “There is something about being coerced that produces a different experience of agency,” he says, “as if people are subjectively able to distance themselves from this unpleasant event they are causing.”

However, what is striking about many accounts of mass killing, both contemporary and historical, is that the perpetrators often choose to kill even when not under orders to do so. In his book Ordinary Men, the historian Christopher Browning recounts the case of a Nazi unit called reserve police battalion 101. No member of this unit was forced to kill. A small minority did so eagerly from the start, but they may have had psychopathic or sadistic tendencies. However, the vast majority of those who were reluctant to kill soon underwent a transformation, becoming just as ruthless. Browning calls them “routinised” killers: it was as if, once they had decided to kill, it quickly became a habit.

Habits have long been considered unthinking, semi-automatic behaviours in which the higher brain is not involved. That seems to support the idea that the primitive brain is in control when seemingly normal people become killers. But this interpretation is challenged by new research by neuroscientist Ann Graybiel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies people with common psychiatric disorders, such as addiction and depression, that lead them to habitually make bad decisions. In high-risk, high-stakes situations, they tend to downplay the cost with respect to the benefit and accept an unhealthy level of risk. Graybiel’s work suggests the higher brain is to blame.

In one set of experiments, her group trained rats to acquire habits – following certain runs through mazes. The researchers then suppressed the activity of neurons in an area of the PFC that blocks signals coming from a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala. The rats immediately changed their running behaviour – the habit had been broken. “The old idea that the cognitive brain doesn’t have evaluative access to that habitual behaviour, that it’s beyond its reach, is false,” says Graybiel. “It has moment-to-moment evaluative control.” That’s exciting, she says, because it suggests a way to treat people with maladaptive habits such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even, potentially, Syndrome E.

What made the experiment possible was a technique known as optogenetics, which allows light to regulate the activity of genetically engineered neurons in the rat PFC. That wouldn’t be permissible in humans, but cognitive or behavioural therapies, or drugs, could achieve the same effect. Graybiel believes it might even be possible to stop people deciding to kill in the first place by steering them away from the kind of cost-benefit analysis that led them to, say, blow themselves up on a crowded bus. In separate experiments with risk-taking rats, her team found that optogenetically decreasing activity in another part of the limbic system that communicates with the PFC, the striatum, made the rats more risk-averse: “We can just turn a knob and radically alter their behaviour,” she says.

Read the entire article here.

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Grandiose Narcissism

Google-search-GOP-debate

Oh America! You are locked in a painful and relentless electioneering cycle. Love it or hate it, the process of electing a president is a brutal and brutish amalgam of self-centeredness, untruth, circus-showmanship, flamboyance and ego. Psychologists have a label for these traits, often synthesized to their essence in political candidates and leaders. It’s called grandiose narcissism. It would seem that during the current presidential election cycle, which began several hundred years and 10 million political commercials ago, has an overstuffed share of these grandiose narcissists. This makes for tremendous entertainment. But, it’s thoroughly ghastly to think that one of these performers could be in the White House a mere six months from now.

From the NYT:

With the presidential campaign in full swing, a perennial question has resurfaced: How much weight should voters give to candidates’ personalities? The political rise of Donald J. Trump has drawn attention to one personality trait in particular: narcissism. Although narcissism does not lend itself to a precise definition, most psychologists agree that it comprises self-centeredness, boastfulness, feelings of entitlement and a need for admiration.

We have never met Mr. Trump, let alone examined him, so it would be inappropriate of us to offer a formal assessment of his level of narcissism. And in all fairness, today’s constant media attention makes a sizable ego a virtual job requirement for public office. Still, the Trump phenomenon raises the question of what kinds of leaders narcissists make. Fortunately, a recent body of research has suggested some answers.

In a 2013 article in Psychological Science, we and our colleagues approached this question by studying the 42 United States presidents up to and including George W. Bush. (The primary data were collected before Barack Obama’s presidency.) First we took a data set compiled by the psychologists Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer, who for an earlier study asked experts on each president to complete personality surveys on the subjects of their expertise. Then, using standard formulas from the research literature on personality, we produced estimates of each president’s narcissism level. Finally, we correlated these personality ratings with data from surveys of presidential performance obtained from independent panels of historians.

We found that narcissism, specifically “grandiose narcissism” — an amalgam of flamboyance, immodesty and dominance — was associated with greater overall presidential success. (This relation was small to moderate in magnitude.) The two highest scorers on grandiose narcissism were Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt, the two lowest James Monroe and Millard Fillmore.

Grandiose narcissism was tied to slightly better crisis management, public persuasiveness and agenda-setting. Presidents with high levels of this trait were also more likely to assume office by winning election in a landslide (55 percent or more of the popular vote) and to initiate new legislation.

Yet we also found that grandiose narcissism was associated with certain negative outcomes, including unethical behaviors like stealing, abusing power and bending rules. High scorers on this trait were especially likely to have been the target of impeachment resolutions (John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton).

We also considered a less well-understood dimension of narcissism: “vulnerable narcissism,” a trait associated with being self-absorbed and thin-skinned (think of Richard M. Nixon, who was a high scorer on this trait). We found that vulnerable narcissism showed little relation to successful presidential leadership.

To be certain, our results were based on a small and highly select sample, and we relied on presidential experts’ judgments of personality. Still, other psychological studies of narcissism, using other data and different methods, have yielded broadly similar results.

In contrast, the psychologist W. Keith Campbell and others have found that narcissists tend to be overconfident when making decisions, to overestimate their abilities and to portray their ideas as innovative when they are not. Compared with their non-narcissistic counterparts, they are more likely to accumulate resources for themselves at others’ expense.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Your Perfect Lifestyle Captured, Shared, Commoditized

Socality-BarbieMany millions of people post countless images on a daily basis of their perfect soft-focus and sepia-toned lives on Instagram (and other social media). These images are cataloged and captioned and shared so that many more millions may participate vicariously in these wonderfully perfect moments.

Recently a well known personality joined the Instagram picture-posting, image-sharing frenzy. Not unlike movie-stars, sports personalities and the music glitterati she’s garnered millions of followers on Instagram. She posts pictures of her latest, perfect outfits with perfect hair; she shows us perfect lattes sipped from the perfect coffee shop; she shares shares soft-focus sunsets from perfect mountaintops; images of a perfect 5-course dinner from a perfectly expensive bistro with or without that perfect bearded date; photographs of perfect vacations at the beach or from a yacht or a vintage train. She seems to have a perfect life, captured in a kaleidoscopic torrent of perfect visuals.

Her name is Barbie. Actually, her full name is Socality Barbie. She’s a parody of her human followers, and she’s well on her way to becoming the next social media sensation. Except, she’s not real, she’s a Barbie doll. But what’s really interesting about Socality Barbie is that she’s much like many of her human peers on social media — she’s a commoditized hipster.

My one complaint: she doesn’t take enough selfies. I wonder what’s next for her — perhaps an eponymous reality TV show.

From the Guardian:

Here she is on the sand, barefoot in the lapping waves, wearing cropped skinny jeans and shoulder-robing a blanket. And here she is in a cafe, the sleeves of her utility overshirt pushed up as she reaches for her flat white with its photogenic foam-art. Here she is in the mountains, wearing a beanie hat that perfectly offsets hair blow-dried into soft waves. Oh, and look, here’s a still-life shot of her weekend-away capsule wardrobe laid out on hardwood floors. She’s taking high-heeled hiking boots. But then, she is a Barbie doll.

Socality Barbie, the newest social-media sensation, is on a mission to take down Instagram from the inside. The account is the brainchild of an anonymous wedding photographer in Oregon, who dresses a Barbie doll in mini-hipster outfits and posts Instagram shots of doll-sized hikes (always sunny, lots of photogenic light shafts through the trees), coffee dates (whitewashed wooden tables and a calm, mindful atmosphere) and boyfriends (check shirt, facial hair).

It’s not exactly satire – I don’t think you can really satirise Instagram, that would be like satirising kittens – but Socality Barbie skewers something about how plastic Instagram has become. She is the Rosa Parks of a society oppressed by thigh gaps and tyrannised by heavily filtered brunches. She is a taking a brave stand against – OK, poking fun at – the disproportionate power and influence of Instagram, which has overtaken the Farrow & Ball paint chart as the sacred text we must live by.

Let me get one thing straight: I love Instagram. I am addicted. Sometimes I wake up in the night and, half asleep, reach for my phone and start scrolling through my feed, which at that hour is Lily-Rose Depp in novelty socks, people I vaguely know in New York taking overlit selfies in bars and insomniacs on a 3am camera-roll jag posting throwback photos with mawkish captions. And I love it. So I am absolutely not about to declare Instagram over. Anyway, that would be idiotic: in 2012, Facebook paid $1bn to buy it; it is now valued at $35bn. And in fashion, Instagram is everything. It has catwalk shows in real time, street style from all over the world, plus you get to see every time someone you know buys a new coat. What more could I possibly want?

But what Instagram isn’t any more is cutting edge. Instead of being hip, it is a world of commodified hipsterdom. All pigeon-toed loafers on pretty tiled floors and nail art on a hand holding a street-truck burger. It is a guilty pleasure, a cosy comforting world where everyone dresses really well and is also, like, super nice. It is is a bit like watching reality TV, in fact. You get to watch attractive people living their lives, at a level of apparent intimacy that makes it compelling. Theoretically, Instagram is more high-minded than reality TV, because it shows you a kaleidoscope of viewpoints from all over the world. The trouble is they all look the same.

Read the entire story here.

Images courtesy of Socality Barbie.

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PhotoMash: Snoopers Charter and Fast Walking

Welcome to my inaugural PhotoMash segment. This is a lighthearted look at juxtaposing news stories. Online media needs eyeballs. So to keep our attention media outlets cycle and recycle their news stories ever more frequently. The result is that we’re increasingly likely to find unrelated and sometimes opposing stories right next to each other on a page. Editors have little time to police these embarrassing juxtapositions of text and images, since much is now driven by automated content publishing systems, which of course paves the way for my story and/or photo mash-up service.

Photomash-Teresa_May-Fast_Walking

So, here’s my first PhotoMash, courtesy of the Independent in the UK. Home Secretary Teresa May introducing new surveillance proposals and the UK’s first fast pedestrian lane for walkers. Makes for an interesting mash-up. Get the idea? Two, or more, incongruous images displayed coincidentally side-by-side. [Are those Teresa May’s legs?]

Images courtesy of the Independent.

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Can Burning Man Be Saved?

Burning-Man-2015-gallery

I thought it rather appropriate to revisit Burning Man one day after Guy Fawkes Day in the UK. I must say that Burning Man has grown into more of a corporate event compared with the cheesy pyrotechnic festivities in Britain on the 5th of November. So, even though Burners have a bigger, bolder, brasher event please remember-remember, we Brits had the original burning man — by 380 years.

The once-counter-cultural phenomenon known as Burning Man seems to be maturing into an executive-level tech-fest. Let’s face it, if I can read about the festival in the mainstream media it can’t be as revolutionary as it once set out to be. Though, the founders‘ desire to keep the festival radically inclusive means that organizers can’t turn away those who may end up razing Burning Man to the ground due to corporate excess. VCs and the tech elite from Silicon Valley now descend in their hoards, having firmly placed Burning Man on their app-party circuit. Until recently, Burners mingled relatively freely throughout the week-long temporary metropolis in the Nevada desert; now, the nouveau riche arrive on private jets and “camp” in exclusive wagon-circles of luxury RVs catered to by corporate chefs and personal costume designers. It certainly seems like some of Larry Harvey’s 10 Principles delineating Burning Man’s cultural ethos are on shaky ground. Oh well, capitalism ruins another great idea! But, go once before you die.

From NYT:

There are two disciplines in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs excel above almost everyone else. The first is making exorbitant amounts of money. The second is pretending they don’t care about that money.

To understand this, let’s enter into evidence Exhibit A: the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev.

If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air.

A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct. But now things are a little different. Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, has been the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else.

Some of the biggest names in technology have been making the pilgrimage to the desert for years, happily blending in unnoticed. These include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, and Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon. But now a new set of younger rich techies are heading east, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, employees from Twitter, Zynga and Uber, and a slew of khaki-wearing venture capitalists.

Before I explain just how ridiculous the spending habits of these baby billionaires have become, let’s go over the rules of Burning Man: You bring your own place to sleep (often a tent), food to eat (often ramen noodles) and the strangest clothing possible for the week (often not much). There is no Internet or cell reception. While drugs are technically illegal, they are easier to find than candy on Halloween. And as for money, with the exception of coffee and ice, you cannot buy anything at the festival. Selling things to people is also a strict no-no. Instead, Burners (as they are called) simply give things away. What’s yours is mine. And that often means everything from a meal to saliva.

In recent years, the competition for who in the tech world could outdo who evolved from a need for more luxurious sleeping quarters. People went from spending the night in tents, to renting R.V.s, to building actual structures.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

This is drastically different from the way most people experience the event. When I attended Burning Man a few years ago, we slept in tents and a U-Haul moving van. We lived on cereal and beef jerky for a week. And while Burning Man was one of the best experiences of my life, using the public Porta-Potty toilets was certainly one of the most revolting experiences thus far. But that’s what makes Burning Man so great: at least you’re all experiencing those gross toilets together.

That is, until recently. Now the rich are spending thousands of dollars to get their own luxury restroom trailers, just like those used on movie sets.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

For those with even more money to squander, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help.

Tyler Hanson, who started going to Burning Man in 1995, decided a couple of years ago to try working as a paid Sherpa at one of these luxury camps. He described the experience this way: Lavish R.V.s are driven in and connected together to create a private forted area, ensuring that no outsiders can get in. The rich are flown in on private planes, then picked up at the Burning Man airport, driven to their camp and served like kings and queens for a week. (Their meals are prepared by teams of chefs, which can include sushi, lobster boils and steak tartare — yes, in the middle of 110-degree heat.)

“Your food, your drugs, your costumes are all handled for you, so all you have to do is show up,” Mr. Hanson said. “In the camp where I was working, there were about 30 Sherpas for 12 attendees.”

Mr. Hanson said he won’t be going back to Burning Man anytime soon. The Sherpas, the money, the blockaded camps and the tech elite were too much for him. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” he said. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”

Strangely, the tech elite won’t disagree with Mr. Hanson about it being a reflection of society. This year at the premiere of the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who was a founder of PayPal, complained that Mike Judge, the show’s creator, didn’t get the tech world because — wait for it — he had not attended the annual party in the desert.

“I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley,” Mr. Musk said to a Re/Code reporter, while using a number of expletives to describe the festival. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Burning Man gallery. Courtesy of Burners.

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Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Gunpowder_Plot_conspirators

I was born and came of age in London. So I have vivid, if somewhat mixed, memories of the 5th of November. We kids variously called it Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night. We’d spend our pocket money (allowance) that week on fireworks rather than sweets (candy). We’d set off our fireworks and huddle around bonfires on the evening of the 5th. Naughtier kids would post (mail) fireworks in their neighbors’ letterboxes (mail boxes) and empty milk bottles.

Now that I live in the US I still have difficulty in explaining this strange and uniquely British celebration to Americans. So, here’s another attempt. Though I’ve since given up trying to explain the once common refrain — “Penny for the Guy!”– heard from children on street corners during the week leading up to the 5th of November [you will need to figure this out for yourself].

We celebrate it because Guy Fawkes once tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Oops, wrong! We celebrate it because on this day in 1605 the Gunpowder Plot planned by Mr.Fawkes and his Roman Catholic co-conspirators was successfully foiled. Correct!

From the Telegraph:

What is Bonfire Night?

Bonfire Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605 by a gang of Roman Catholic activists led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby.

When Protestant King James I began his reign, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution felt for over 45 years under his predecessor Queen Elizabeth would finally end, but this didn’t transpire so the Gunpowder Plot conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.

Guy (Guido) Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, having rented out a house closed to the Houses of Parliament, managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building. (Physicists from the Institute of Physics later calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder beneath Parliament would have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion).

The plot began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to the William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him not to avoid the House of Lords.

The letter (which could well have been sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham), was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5.

Explosive expert Fawkes, who had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse, was subsequently caught when a group of guards checked the cellars at the last moment.

Fawkes was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters and Lord Monteagle was rewarded with 500 pounds and 200 pounds worth of lands, for his service in protecting the crown.

Read the entire article here.

Image: A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Fawkes is third from the right. Public Domain.

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LGBTQ Soup

LGBTQ_flag.svgAt some point we will have all moved on to a post-prudish, post-voyeuristic, post-exploitative, post-coming-out, post-gender identity world; we’ll all be celebrated as individuals, and discrimination will no longer exist.

Slap! Well, that’s quite enough of the pipe-dream for today, let’s get back to the complexity of present day reality. So, here’s a quick snapshot of where we are on the gender-label issue. Keep in mind, the “snapshot” is courtesy of the Guardian and the “we” refers to the British — both very peculiar institutions.

From the Guardian:

When Rugby League’s Keegan Hirst came out as gay this week, he said that he had been hiding for a long time. “How could I be gay? I’m from Batley, for goodness sake. No one is gay in Batley.” If the 27-year-old Yorkshireman had been a few years younger, he might have found some people in his hometown who are at least sexually fluid. A YouGov poll this week put the number of 18- to 24-year-old Brits who identify as entirely heterosexual at 46%, while just 6% would call themselves exclusively gay. Sexuality now falls between the lines: identity is more pliable, and fluidity more acceptable, than ever before.

The gay-straight binary is collapsing, and it’s doing so at speed. The days in which a celebrity’s sexual orientation was worthy of a tabloid scandal have long since died out. Though newspapers still report on famous people coming out and their same-sex relationships, the lurid language that once accompanied such stories has been replaced by more of a gossipy, “did you know?” tone, the sort your mum might take on the phone, when she’s telling you about what Julie round the corner has been up to. And the reaction of the celebrities involved has morphed, too, into a refusal to play the naming game. Arena-filling pop star Miley Cyrus posted an Instagram of a news story that described her as “genderqueer” with the caption, “NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!”. Kristen Stewart, who has been followed around by insinuations about the “gal pal” she is often photographed with for a couple of years, finally spoke about the relationship in an interview with Nylon magazine this month. She said, simply, “Google me, I’m not hiding”, but, like the people surveyed by YouGov, refused to define herself as gay or straight. “I think in three or four years, there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight. It’s like, just do your thing.”

It’s arguable that celebrities such as Stewart are part of the reason for those parameters becoming less essential, at least in the west. It shouldn’t fall to famous people to define our social attitudes but, simply, visibility matters: if it is not seen as outrageous or transgressive that the star of Twilight will hold hands with her girlfriend in the street, then that, in a very small way, reinforces the normality of it. If Cara Delevingne tells Vogue that she loves her girlfriend, then that, too, adds to the picture. The more people who are out, the more normal it becomes; the less alone a confused kid in a small town looking at gossip websites might feel; the less baffled the parent of a teenager who brings home a same-sex date might be. Combine that with the seemingly unstoppable legislative reinforcement of equal rights, too – gay marriage becoming legal in Ireland, in the US – and suddenly, it seems less “abnormal”, less boundary-busting, to fall in love or lust with someone of the same gender.

“I would describe myself as a bisexual homoromantic,” says Alice, 23, from Sussex. For the uninitiated, I asked her to explain. “It means I like sex with men and women, but I only fall in love with women. I wouldn’t say something wishy-washy like, ‘It’s all about the person,’ because more often it’s just that I sometimes like a penis.” She says her attitude towards sex and sexuality is similar among other people in her peer group. “A lot of my friends talk about their sexuality in terms of behaviour these days, rather than in terms of labels. So they’ll say, ‘I like boys’, or ‘I get with girls too,’ rather than saying, ‘I’m gay, I’m a lesbian, I’m bisexual.’”

She says that even among those who exclusively date people of the same gender, there is a reluctance to claim an identity as proscriptive as “gay”. “Most young people who are gay don’t see it as a defining property of their character, because they don’t have to, because society doesn’t constantly remind them of their difference.” However, she is careful to point out that this is very much the case in the small, liberal part of London where she lives now. “[Not defining] is something I feel entitled to as a person who lives in London, but I didn’t feel entitled to it in a small town in the home counties. I’ve never experienced discrimination about my sexuality, but I’m aware that it’s because I ‘pass’ [as straight].”

In fact, among the young British people I spoke to, geography is vital. Lucy, 25, wonders if the number of people who say they are not straight really tallies with the number of people who are actually acting upon those desires. “Saying you’re sexually fluid means you’re part of a movement. It means you’re seen as forward-thinking,” she says, suggesting there is a certain cachet attached to being seen as open that does not come with affirmed heterosexuality. She also believes it is more of a metropolitan story than necessarily representative of Britain as a whole. “If I went back to my home town in the Midlands, we wouldn’t sit around talking about ‘sexual fluidity’. You’re a ‘dyke’, or you’re not. There’s only one type of lesbian there.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Gay Pride Flag. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Black Friday – OptOutside

rei-optoutside

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

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

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

REI is closing on Black Friday.

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

Here’s why we’re doing it.

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

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

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

Image: Flatirons, Boulder. Courtesy of the author.
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What If You Spoke Facebookish?

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

I’d rather have Esperanto make a comeback.

Video courtesy of Jason Horton.

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You Could Be Galactic Viceroy

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

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

Read more oddball titles here.

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Guns Are So Yesterday

German_soldier_with_flamethrower_c1941

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

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

From ars technica:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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

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Would You Like Vocal Fry With That?

Google-search-fries

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

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Entrepreneur (Introvert) Versus CEO (Extrovert)

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

From WSJ:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They crave solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t need external affirmation

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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Finding Meaning in Meaninglessness

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

As writer Gia Milinovich puts it:

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

From Buzzfeed:

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist:

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

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

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

Susan Blackmore, psychologist:

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

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

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

Kat Arney, biologist and science writer:

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

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

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist:

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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Ambition Or Greed Dotcom

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

And, yet.

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

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

From NYT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Conflict brings about innovation,” he said.

Read the entire article here.

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The Tech Emperor Has No Clothes

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

From Technology Review:

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

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

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

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

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

Space cowboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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

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Streampunk Elevator (Lift)

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

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

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole story here.

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

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When 8 Equals 16

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I’m sure that most, if not all, mathematicians would tell you that their calling is at the heart of our understanding of the universe. Mathematics describes our world precisely and logically. But, mix it with the world of women’s fashion and this rigorous discipline becomes rather squishy, and far from absolute. A case in point: a women’s size 16 today is equivalent to a women’s size 8 from 1958.

This makes me wonder what the fundamental measurements and equations describing our universe would look like if controlled by advertisers and marketers. Though, Einstein’s work on Special and General Relativity may seem to fit the fashion industry quite well: one of the central tenets of relativity holds that measurements of various quantities (read: dress size) are relative to the velocities (market size) of observers (retailers). In particular, space (dress size) contracts and time (waist size) dilates.

From the Washington Post:

Here are some numbers that illustrate the insanity of women’s clothing sizes: A size 8 dress today is nearly the equivalent of a size 16 dress in 1958. And a size 8 dress of 1958 doesn’t even have a modern-day equivalent — the waist and bust measurements of a Mad Men-era 8 come in smaller than today’s size 00.

These measurements come from official sizing standards once maintained by the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and taken over in recent years by the American Society of Testing and Materials. Data visualizer Max Galka recently unearthed them for a blog post on America’s obesity epidemic.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that the average American woman today weighs about as much as the average 1960s man. And while the weight story is pretty straightforward — Americans got heavier — the story behind the dress sizes is a little more complicated, as any woman who’s ever shopped for clothes could probably tell you.

As Julia Felsenthal detailed over at Slate, today’s women’s clothing sizes have their roots in a depression-era government project to define the “Average American Woman” by sending a pair of statisticians to survey and measure nearly 15,000 women. They “hoped to determine whether any proportional relationships existed among measurements that could be broadly applied to create a simple, standardized system of sizing,” Felsenthal writes.

Sadly, they failed. Not surprisingly, women’s bodies defied standardization. The project did yield one lasting contribution to women’s clothing: The statisticians were the first to propose the notion of arbitrary numerical sizes that weren’t based on any specific measurement — similar to shoe sizes.

The government didn’t return to the project until the late 1950s, when the National Bureau of Standards published “Body Measurements for the Sizing of Women’s Patterns and Apparel” in 1958. The standard was based on the 15,000 women interviewed previously, with the addition of a group of women who had been in the Army during World War II. The document’s purpose? “To provide the consumer with a means of identifying her body type and size from the wide range of body types covered, and enable her to be fitted properly by the same size regardless of price, type of apparel, or manufacturer of the garment.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Diagram from “Body Measurements for the Sizing of Women’s Patterns and Apparel”, 1958. Courtesy of National Bureau of Standards /  National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

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Forget Broccoli. It’s All About the Blue Zones

You should know how to live to be 100 years old by now. Tip number one: inherit good genes. Tip number two: forget uploading your consciousness to an AI, for now. Tip number three: live and eat in a so-called Blue Zone. Tip number four: walk fast, eat slowly.

From the NYT:

Dan Buettner and I were off to a good start. He approved of coffee.

“It’s one of the biggest sources of antioxidants in the American diet,” he said with chipper confidence, folding up his black Brompton bike.

As we walked through Greenwich Village, looking for a decent shot of joe to fuel an afternoon of shopping and cooking and talking about the enigma of longevity, he pointed out that the men and women of Icaria, a Greek island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, regularly slurp down two or three muddy cups a day.

This came as delightful news to me. Icaria has a key role in Mr. Buettner’s latest book, “The Blue Zones Solution,” which takes a deep dive into five places around the world where people have a beguiling habit of forgetting to die. In Icaria they stand a decent chance of living to see 100. Without coffee, I don’t see much point in making it to 50.

The purpose of our rendezvous was to see whether the insights of a longevity specialist like Mr. Buettner could be applied to the life of a food-obsessed writer in New York, a man whose occupational hazards happen to include chicken wings, cheeseburgers, martinis and marathon tasting menus.

Covering the world of gastronomy and mixology during the era of David Chang (career-defining dish: those Momofuku pork-belly buns) and April Bloomfield (career-defining dish: the lamb burger at the Breslin Bar and Dining Room) does not exactly feel like an enterprise that’s adding extra years to my life — or to my liver.

And the recent deaths (even if accidental) of men in my exact demographic — the food writer Joshua Ozersky, the tech entrepreneur Dave Goldberg — had put me in a mortality-anxious frame of mind.

With my own half-century mark eerily visible on the horizon, could Mr. Buettner, who has spent the last 10 years unlocking the mysteries of longevity, offer me a midcourse correction?

To that end, he had decided to cook me something of a longevity feast. Visiting from his home in Minnesota and camped out at the townhouse of his friends Andrew Solomon and John Habich in the Village, this trim, tanned, 55-year-old guru of the golden years was geared up to show me that living a long time was not about subsisting on a thin gruel of, well, gruel.

After that blast of coffee, which I dutifully diluted with soy milk (as instructed) at O Cafe on Avenue of the Americas, Mr. Buettner and I set forth on our quest at the aptly named LifeThyme market, where signs in the window trumpeted the wonders of wheatgrass. He reassured me, again, by letting me know that penitent hedge clippings had no place in our Blue Zones repast.

“People think, ‘If I eat more of this, then it’s O.K. to eat more burgers or candy,’ ” he said. Instead, as he ambled through the market dropping herbs and vegetables into his basket, he insisted that our life-extending banquet would hinge on normal affordable items that almost anyone can pick up at the grocery store. He grabbed fennel and broccoli, celery and carrots, tofu and coconut milk, a bag of frozen berries and a can of chickpeas and a jar of local honey.

The five communities spotlighted in “The Blue Zones Solution” (published by National Geographic) depend on simple methods of cooking that have evolved over centuries, and Mr. Buettner has developed a matter-of-fact disregard for gastro-trends of all stripes. At LifeThyme, he passed by refrigerated shelves full of vogue-ish juices in hues of green, orange and purple. He shook his head and said, “Bad!”

“The glycemic index on that is as bad as Coke,” he went on, snatching a bottle of carrot juice to scan the label. “For eight ounces, there’s 14 grams of sugar. People get suckered into thinking, ‘Oh, I’m drinking this juice.’ Skip the juicing. Eat the fruit. Or eat the vegetable.” (How about a protein shake? “No,” he said.)

So far, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of making it to 100. I love coffee, I’m not much of a juicer and I’ve never had a protein shake in my life. Bingo. I figured that pretty soon Mr. Buettner would throw me a dietary curveball (I noticed with vague concern that he was not putting any meat or cheese into his basket), but by this point I was already thinking about how fun it would be to meet my great-grandchildren.

I felt even better when he and I started talking about strenuous exercise, which for me falls somewhere between “root canal” and “Justin Bieber concert” on the personal aversion scale.

I like to go for long walks, and … well, that’s about it.

“That’s when I knew you’d be O.K.,” Mr. Buettner told me.

It turns out that walking is a popular mode of transport in the Blue Zones, too — particularly on the sun-splattered slopes of Sardinia, Italy, where many of those who make it to 100 are shepherds who devote the bulk of each day to wandering the hills and treating themselves to sips of red wine.

“A glass of wine is better than a glass of water with a Mediterranean meal,” Mr. Buettner told me.

Red wine and long walks? If that’s all it takes, people, you’re looking at Methuselah.

O.K., yes, Mr. Buettner moves his muscles a lot more than I do. He likes to go everywhere on that fold-up bike, which he hauls along with him on trips, and sometimes he does yoga and goes in-line skating. But he generally believes that the high-impact exercise mania as practiced in the major cities of the United States winds up doing as much harm as good.

“You can’t be pounding your joints with marathons and pumping iron,” he said. “You’ll never see me doing CrossFit.”

For that evening’s meal, Mr. Buettner planned to cook dishes that would make reference to the quintet of places that he focuses on in “The Blue Zones Solution”: along with Icaria and Sardinia, they are Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, Calif., where Seventh-day Adventists have a tendency to outlive their fellow Americans, thanks to a mostly vegetarian diet that is heavy on nuts, beans, oatmeal, 100 percent whole-grain bread and avocados.

We walked from the market to the townhouse. And it was here, as Mr. Buettner laid out his cooking ingredients on a table in Mr. Solomon’s and Mr. Habich’s commodious, state-of-the-art kitchen, that I noticed the first real disconnect between the lives of the Blue Zones sages and the life of a food writer who has enjoyed many a lunch hour scarfing down charcuterie, tapas and pork-belly-topped ramen at the Gotham West Market food court.

Where was the butter? Hadn’t some nice scientists determined that butter’s not so lethal for us, after all? (“My view is that butter, lard and other animal fats are a bit like radiation: a dollop a couple of times a week probably isn’t going to hurt you, but we don’t know the safe level,” Mr. Buettner later wrote in an email. “At any rate, I can send along a paper that largely refutes the whole ‘Butter is Back’ craze.” No, thanks, I’m good.)

Where was the meat? Where was the cheese? (No cheese? And here I thought we’d be friends for another 50 years, Mr. Buettner.)

Read the entire article here.

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Aspirational or Inspirational?

Both of my parents came from a background of chronic poverty and limited educational opportunity. They eventually overcame these constraints through a combination of hard work, persistence and passion. They instilled these traits in me, and somehow they did so in a way that fostered a belief in a well-balanced life containing both work and leisure.

But to many, especially in the United States, the live-to-work ethic thrives. This condition is so acute and prevalent that most Americans caught in corporate jobs never take their full — and yet meager by global standards — allotment of annual vacation. Our culture is replete with tales of driven, aspirational parents — think dragon mom — who seem to have their kid’s lives mapped out from the crib.

I have to agree with columnist George Monbiot: while naked ambition may gain our children monetary riches and a higher rung on the corporate ladder it does not a life make.

From the Guardian:

Perhaps because the alternative is too hideous to contemplate, we persuade ourselves that those who wield power know what they are doing. The belief in a guiding intelligence is hard to shake.

We know that our conditions of life are deteriorating. Most young people have little prospect of owning a home, or even of renting a decent one. Interesting jobs are sliced up, through digital Taylorism, into portions of meaningless drudgery. The natural world, whose wonders enhance our lives, and upon which our survival depends, is being rubbed out with horrible speed. Those to whom we look for guardianship, in government and among the economic elite, do not arrest this decline, they accelerate it.

The political system that delivers these outcomes is sustained by aspiration: the faith that if we try hard enough we could join the elite, even as living standards decline and social immobility becomes set almost in stone. But to what are we aspiring? A life that is better than our own, or worse?

Last week a note from an analyst at Barclays’ Global Power and Utilities group in New York was leaked. It addressed students about to begin a summer internship, and offered a glimpse of the toxic culture into which they are inducted.

“I wanted to introduce you to the 10 Power Commandments … For nine weeks you will live and die by these … We expect you to be the last ones to leave every night, no matter what … I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … the internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … an intern asked our staffer for a weekend off for a family reunion – he was told he could go. He was also asked to hand in his BlackBerry and pack up his desk … Play time is over and it’s time to buckle up.”

Play time is over, but did it ever begin? If these students have the kind of parents featured in the Financial Times last month, perhaps not. The article marked a new form of employment: the nursery consultant. These people, who charge from £290 an hour, must find a nursery that will put their clients’ toddlers on the right track to an elite university.

They spoke of parents who had already decided that their six-month-old son would go to Cambridge then Deutsche Bank, or whose two-year-old daughter “had a tutor for two afternoons a week (to keep on top of maths and literacy) as well as weekly phonics and reading classes, drama, piano, beginner French and swimming. They were considering adding Mandarin and Spanish. ‘The little girl was so exhausted and on edge she was terrified of opening her mouth.’”

In New York, playdate coaches charging $450 an hour train small children in the social skills that might help secure their admission to the most prestigious private schools. They are taught to hide traits that could suggest they’re on the autistic spectrum, which might reduce their chances of selection.

From infancy to employment, this is a life-denying, love-denying mindset, informed not by joy or contentment, but by an ambition that is both desperate and pointless, for it cannot compensate for what it displaces: childhood, family life, the joys of summer, meaningful and productive work, a sense of arrival, living in the moment. For the sake of this toxic culture, the economy is repurposed, the social contract is rewritten, the elite is released from tax, regulation and the other restraints imposed by democracy.

Where the elite goes, we are induced to follow. As if the assessment regimes were too lax in UK primary schools, last year the education secretary announced a new test for four-year-olds. A primary school in Cambridge has just taken the obvious next step: it is now streaming four-year-olds into classes according to perceived ability. The education and adoption bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, will turn the screw even tighter. Will this help children, or hurt them?

Read the entire column here.

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Girlfriend or Nuclear Reactor?

YellowcakeAsk a typical 14 year-old boy if he’d prefer to have a girlfriend or a home-made nuclear fission reactor he’s highly likely to gravitate towards the former. Not so Taylor Wilson; he seems to prefer the company of Geiger counters, particle accelerators, vacuum tubes and radioactive materials.

From the Guardian:

Taylor Wilson has a Geiger counter watch on his wrist, a sleek, sporty-looking thing that sounds an alert in response to radiation. As we enter his parents’ garage and approach his precious jumble of electrical equipment, it emits an ominous beep. Wilson is in full flow, explaining the old-fashioned control panel in the corner, and ignores it. “This is one of the original atom smashers,” he says with pride. “It would accelerate particles up to, um, 2.5m volts – so kind of up there, for early nuclear physics work.” He pats the knobs.

It was in this garage that, at the age of 14, Wilson built a working nuclear fusion reactor, bringing the temperature of its plasma core to 580mC – 40 times as hot as the core of the sun. This skinny kid from Arkansas, the son of a Coca-Cola bottler and a yoga instructor, experimented for years, painstakingly acquiring materials, instruments and expertise until he was able to join the elite club of scientists who have created a miniature sun on Earth.

Not long after, Wilson won $50,000 at a science fair, for a device that can detect nuclear materials in cargo containers – a counter-terrorism innovation he later showed to a wowed Barack Obama at a White House-sponsored science fair.

Wilson’s two TED talks (Yup, I Built A Nuclear Fusion Reactor and My Radical Plan For Small Nuclear Fission Reactors) have been viewed almost 4m times. A Hollywood biopic is planned, based on an imminent biography. Meanwhile, corporations have wooed him and the government has offered to buy some of his inventions. Former US under-secretary for energy, Kristina Johnson, told his biographer, Tom Clynes: “I would say someone like him comes along maybe once in a generation. He’s not just smart – he’s cool and articulate. I think he may be the most amazing kid I’ve ever met.”

Seven years on from fusing the atom, the gangly teen with a mop of blond hair is now a gangly 21-year-old with a mop of blond hair, who shuttles between his garage-cum-lab in the family’s home in Reno, Nevada, and other more conventional labs. In addition to figuring out how to intercept dirty bombs, he looks at ways of improving cancer treatment and lowering energy prices – while plotting a hi-tech business empire around the patents.

As we tour his parents’ garage, Wilson shows me what appears to be a collection of nuggets. His watch sounds another alert, but he continues lovingly to detail his inventory. “The first thing I got for my fusion project was a mass spectrometer from an ex-astronaut in Houston, Texas,” he explains. This was a treasure he obtained simply by writing a letter asking for it. He ambles over to a large steel safe, with a yellow and black nuclear hazard sticker on the front. He spins the handle, opens the door and extracts a vial with pale powder in it.

“That’s some yellowcake I made – the famous stuff that Saddam Hussein was supposedly buying from Niger. This is basically the starting point for nuclear, whether it’s a weapons programme or civilian energy production.” He gives the vial a shake. A vision of dodgy dossiers, atomic intrigue and mushroom clouds swims before me, a reverie broken by fresh beeping. “That’ll be the allanite. It’s a rare earth mineral,” Wilson explains. He picks up a dark, knobbly little rock streaked with silver. “It has thorium, a potential nuclear fuel.”

I think now may be a good moment to exit the garage, but the tour is not over. “One of the things people are surprised by is how ubiquitous radiation and radioactivity is,” Wilson says, giving me a reassuring look. “I’m very cautious. I’m actually a bit of a hypochondriac. It’s all about relative risk.”

He paces over to a plump steel tube, elevated to chest level – an object that resembles an industrial vacuum cleaner, and gleams in the gloom. This is the jewel in Wilson’s crown, the reactor he built at 14, and he gives it a tender caress. “This is safer than many things,” he says, gesturing to his Aladdin’s cave of atomic accessories. “For instance, horse riding. People fear radioactivity because it is very mysterious. You want to have respect for it, but not be paralysed by fear.”

The Wilson family home is a handsome, hacienda-style house tucked into foothills outside Reno. Unusually for the high desert at this time of year, grey clouds with bellies of rain rumble overhead. Wilson, by contrast, is all sunny smiles. He is still the slightly ethereal figure you see in the TED talks (I have to stop myself from offering him a sandwich), but the handshake is firm, the eye contact good and the energy enviable – even though Wilson has just flown back from a weekend visiting friends in Los Angeles. “I had an hour’s sleep last night. Three hours the night before that,” he says, with a hint of pride.

He does not drink or smoke, is a natty dresser (in suede jacket, skinny tie, jeans and Converse-style trainers) and he is a talker. From the moment we meet until we part hours later, he talks and talks, great billows of words about the origin of his gift and the responsibility it brings; about trying to be normal when he knows he’s special; about Fukushima, nuclear power and climate change; about fame and ego, and seeing his entire life chronicled in a book for all the world to see when he’s barely an adult and still wrestling with how to ask a girl out on a date.

The future feels urgent and mysterious. “My life has been this series of events that I didn’t see coming. It’s both exciting and daunting to know you’re going to be constantly trying to one-up yourself,” he says. “People can have their opinions about what I should do next, but my biggest pressure is internal. I hate resting on laurels. If I burn out, I burn out – but I don’t see that happening. I’ve more ideas than I have time to execute.”

Wilson credits his parents with huge influence, but wavers on the nature versus nurture debate: was he born brilliant or educated into it? “I don’t have an answer. I go back and forth.” The pace of technological change makes predicting his future a fool’s errand, he says. “It’s amazing – amazing – what I can do today that I couldn’t have done if I was born 10 years earlier.” And his ambitions are sky-high: he mentions, among many other plans, bringing electricity and state-of-the-art healthcare to the developing world.

Read the entire fascinating story here.

Image: Yellowcake, a type of uranium concentrate powder, an intermediate step in the processing of uranium ores. Courtesy of United States Department of Energy. Public Domain.

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Creativity and Mental Illness

Vincent_van_Gogh-Self_portrait_with_bandaged_ear

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. Wikipaintings.org. 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

Abraham-Sarah-Hagar

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). Biblicalpolygamy.com 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

Anti-capitalism_color

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.

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