Category Archives: Idea Soup

Occam’s Razor For a Trumpian World

William_of_OckhamOccam’s razor (or Ockham’s razor) is a principle from philosophy popularized by 14th century philosopher and logician William of Ockham.

Put simply, it states that if there are two or more explanations for a possible occurrence, the simplest explanation is usually the best. That is, the more assumptions required for a possible hypothesis, the less likely is the explanation for that hypothesis.

While Occam’s razor has been found to apply reasonably well in the philosophy of science and more generally, it is not infallible. So, in this 21st century, it’s time to give Occam’s razor a much needed, fresh coat of paint. Further, it also requires an update to make it 100 percent accurate and logically water-tight.

So, let me present Trump’s razor. It goes like this:

Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts and that answer is likely correct.

Unfortunately I can’t lay claim to this brilliant new tool of logic. Thanks go to the great folks over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall and John Scalzi.

Read their insightful proposal here.

Image: William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Bringing Work to the Homeless

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Many of us have had interactions — usually fleeting and impersonal — with the homeless. Those of us fortunate enough to have made our own luck (it doesn’t come from the sky) usually find the less fortunate on street corners asking for a donation. Sometimes, some of us may give them a dollar or two to assuage guilt or to just “make them go away”. More often than not we hear voices — sometimes our own — asking, why don’t they just get a job?

The Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Richard Berry, had a novel answer to this question, and it seems to be working. In the process, his program is moving the homeless off the street and, more importantly, delivering kindness and compassion and instilling hope and dignity in some of our most vulnerable souls.

From the Washington Post:

Republican Mayor Richard Berry was driving around Albuquerque last year when he saw a man on a street corner holding a sign that read: “Want a Job. Anything Helps.”

Throughout his administration, as part of a push to connect the homeless population to services, Berry had taken to driving through the city to talk to panhandlers about their lives. His city’s poorest residents told him they didn’t want to be on the streets begging for money, but they didn’t know where else to go.

Seeing that sign gave Berry an idea. Instead of asking them, many of whom feel dispirited, to go out looking for work, the city could bring the work to them.

Next month will be the first anniversary of Albuquerque’s There’s a Better Way program, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless population, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working. The job pays $9 an hour, which is above minimum wage, and provides a lunch. At the end of the shift, the participants are offered overnight shelter as needed.

In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment.

“You can just see the spiral they’ve been on to end up on the corner. Sometimes it takes a little catalyst in their lives to stop the downward spiral, to let them catch their breath, and it’s remarkable,” Berry said in an interview. ”They’ve had the dignity of work for a day; someone believed in them today.”

There is a persisting stigma that people begging for money are either drug addicts or too lazy to work and are looking for an easy handout.

But that’s not necessarily the reality. Panhandling is not especially lucrative, but for some people it can seem as if it’s the only option. When they’ve been approached in Albuquerque with the offer of work, most have been eager for the opportunity to earn money, Berry said. They just needed a lift. One man told him no one had said a kind word to him in 25 years.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Texas Versus Women’s Health

Texas-map

During the period between 2010 and 2014 the rate of women who died from pregnancy-related complications doubled. Not in an impoverished third world nation, but Texas. This increase in maternal mortality is second to none across the United States and all other developed nations.

Perhaps not coincidentally this same period is also marked by Texas’ significant budget cuts that all but destroyed reproductive healthcare clinics and Planned Parenthood services in the state.

This is a great (and sad) example that clearly demonstrates how political ideology can have serious and fatal consequences for 51 percent of the population. I have to wonder if the other half of the population will ever come to its senses. Though, with Republicans firmly in control at the local and state level I’m sure even these concrete facts will be fair game for some hyperbolic fictional distortion.

From the Guardian:

The rate of Texas women who died from complications related to their pregnancy doubled from 2010 to 2014, a new study has found, for an estimated maternal mortality rate that is unmatched in any other state and the rest of the developed world.

The finding comes from a report, appearing in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, that the maternal mortality rate in the United States increased between 2000 and 2014, even while the rest of the world succeeded in reducing its rate. Excluding California, where maternal mortality declined, and Texas, where it surged, the estimated number of maternal deaths per 100,000 births rose to 23.8 in 2014 from 18.8 in 2000 – or about 27%.

But the report singled out Texas for special concern, saying the doubling of mortality rates in a two-year period was hard to explain “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval”.

From 2000 to the end of 2010, Texas’s estimated maternal mortality rate hovered between 17.7 and 18.6 per 100,000 births. But after 2010, that rate had leaped to 33 deaths per 100,000, and in 2014 it was 35.8. Between 2010-2014, more than 600 women died for reasons related to their pregnancies.

No other state saw a comparable increase.

In the wake of the report, reproductive health advocates are blaming the increase on Republican-led budget cuts that decimated the ranks of Texas’s reproductive healthcare clinics. In 2011, just as the spike began, the Texas state legislature cut $73.6m from the state’s family planning budget of $111.5m. The two-thirds cut forced more than 80 family planning clinics to shut down across the state. The remaining clinics managed to provide services – such as low-cost or free birth control, cancer screenings and well-woman exams – to only half as many women as before.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Maps.

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Psychopath Versus Sociopath

psycopath-vs-sociopath-infographic1

I’ve been writing for a while now about a certain person who wishes to become the next President of the United States. His name is Donald Trump. He carries with him an entire encyclopedia — no, bookshelves of encyclopedias — of negative character traits. But chief among these he lacks empathy, tends to feel no guilt or remorse, and disregards the needs and rights of others. These are traits common to both psychopaths and sociopaths.

Over the last few years I’ve been describing Mr. Trump as a psychopath. Others, particularly recently (here, here, here), characterize him as a sociopath. Who’s right?

I’m turning to some psychological resources, excerpted and paraphrased below — American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, WebMD — to help me clarify the differences.

On first analysis it looks like Mr. Trump straddles both! Though I must say, that regardless, I don’t want either a sociopath or a psychopath, or a psycho-sociopath or a socio-psychopath in the White House with fingers anywhere close to the nuclear codes.

Sociopath:

Sociopaths tend to be volatile. That is, they tend to be nervous and easily agitated or angered. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. In addition, they may be uneducated and live on the fringes of traditional society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. They are frequently transients and drifters.

It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people in certain situations but not others. Many sociopaths have no regard for society in general or its rules. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of environmental influences (“nurture”), such as childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse.

Psychopath:

Psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

It is believed that psychopathy is the largely the result of “nature” (genetics) and is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions.

Infographic courtesy of Psychologia.

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Comfort, Texas, the Timeship and Technological Immortality

Timeship-screenshot

There’s a small town deep in the heart of Texas’ Hill Country called Comfort. It was founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants. Its downtown area is held to be one of the most well-preserved historic business districts in Texas. Now, just over 160 years on there’s another preservation effort underway in Comfort.

This time, however, the work goes well beyond preserving buildings; Comfort may soon be the global hub for life-extension research and human cryopreservation. The ambitious, and not without controversy, project is known as the Timeship, and is the brainchild of architect Stephen Valentine and the Stasis Foundation.

Since one the the key aims of the Timeship is to preserve biological material — DNA, tissue and organ samples, and even cryopreserved humans — the building design presents some rather unique and stringent challenges. The building must withstand a nuclear blast or other attack; its electrical and mechanical systems must remain functional and stable for hundreds of years; it must be self-sustaining and highly secure.

Read more about the building and much more about the Timeship here.

Image: Timeship screenshot. Courtesy of Timeship.

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What’s Up With Middle-Aged White Males?

reggie-perrin-bbc

Not too long ago I came across a number of articles describing the high and growing incidence of suicide among middle-aged white males. Indeed, the suicide rate has skyrocketed 40 percent since the early 2000s.

Understandably, and no less sad, the increase in suicides seems to be driven by acute financial distress, chronic pain and/or illness, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Now, it seems that there is a corresponding increase in the number of white males faking their disappearance or fantasizing about it. A classic example is John Darwin from the UK, also known as “canoe man“, who faked his own death in 2002. But a key difference between this group and those who take their own lives is that the group of white males looking to disappear tends to be financially and (reasonably) emotionally stable.

So what on earth is going on?

A soon too be published book — Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood, examines what it’s like to fake your own death and burgeoning “disappearance” industry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps Todd’s plan for faking his death will remain in the realm of pure fantasy. But were he to put his plan into motion, Todd fits the prime demographic for a death fraudster. As a middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual white man with a family, Todd represents the person most likely to fake his death. I’d noticed this disproportion in the demographics, and I wondered if there was anything to it. Privacy consultant Frank Ahearn and author of How to Disappear told me that the majority of his clients who sought to leave their lives behind were men, and J. J. Luna, author of How to Be Invisible: Protect Your Home, Your Children, Your Assets, and Your Life, told me that “far more men than women!” seek his “invisibility” services. In the 1996 guidebook How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, disappearance enthusiast Doug Richmond writes, “To a man of a certain age, there’s a bit of magic in the very thought of cutting all ties, of getting away from it all, of changing names and jobs and women and living happily ever after in a more salubrious clime!”

But why do these seemingly privileged men, who enjoy every perk that DNA has to offer, feel so hemmed in that they must go off the radar entirely? Perhaps it’s because although men still out-earn women, they then entangle themselves in financial trouble trying to enhance their fortunes. Maybe they shrug off because they feel less responsibility to see their children grow and flourish. Women shoulder the burdens of family and community—they take care of dying parents, snotty kids, shut-in neighbors—anyone before themselves. Though that might be relying too heavily on conventional wisdom about gender roles, the numbers speak for themselves: faking death seems to be a heavily male phenomenon. After combing through the stories and examining the traits that men like Todd share, I noticed that they all seemed to feel emasculated, made impotent, by their mundane lives. So, not earning enough money, they invest in a harebrained scheme. Underwhelmed with their monogamous sex lives, they take up with other women. Faking death seems to be not only a way out but also, counterintuitively, a way to be brave.

Read more here.

Image: Actor Leonard Rossiter plays Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, a mid-1970s BBC sitcom. Courtesy: BBC.

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Foreign Accent Syndrome

keep-calm-british

As a Brit living in the United States I have first-hand evidence that the British accent is superior to its American counterpart — as judged by Americans themselves. Americans usually characterize a person with a British accent as being more intelligent, more charming, more authoritative and more sincere. Brilliant (for my US audience, “awesome”)!

So, it would come as no surprise to find some Americans imitating the plummy pronunciation of its Old World cousin to score social points. But such impostors are usually universally derided by both Americans and Brits, save for American actors who tend only to be derided by Brits for never quite grasping the Queen’s English.

This leads me to the peculiar case of a Texan woman — with a Texan accent — who developed a British accent after surgery to correct an overbite. Her case in one of only a hundred or so ever documented examples of Foreign Accent Syndrome.

You may well ask, how is this possible? Read more over at Wired.

Image: Keep Calm screenshot. Courtesy: Keep Calm-o-Matic.

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The Two Percent and The Hum

Google-search-ocean-waves

By some estimates 2 percent of the population can at some time hear a mysterious sound known as “the Hum”. It’s a low pitched, droning noise that seems to have no source, yet comes from all around. The Hum has been heard in tiny Scottish villages, in Florida, Western Canada, New Mexico and other regions around the world. Hearers of The Hum have variously blamed distant diesel engines, remote submarines on maneuvers, underground pipes, industrial generators. The sources have never been definitively identified, and so the Hum sufferers have continued to search in vain for an explanation to the maddening sound.

Various theories — mostly of the conspiracy kind — have been proposed. Some put the sound down to secretive government agencies testing ultra-low frequency mind control. Others believe the sound to come from UFOs or instruments of socialist torture.

A more mundane explanation suggests the mysterious signal to be inside the heads of its listeners — nothing more than a form of irritating tinnitus. But many have remained unconvinced and have sought rational explanations elsewhere. Recently, sufferers and researchers have honed in on a potential source — low frequency oscillations of the Earth caused by long ocean waves on the sea floor.

Read more about The Hum here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

Flat_earth

Conspiracy theorists are a small but vocal and influential minority. Their views span the gamut of conspiracy theories: holocaust denial, President Kennedy’s assassination, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Flat Earth, alternate technology suppression, climate change, to name just a handful.

The United States is after all host to a candidate for the Presidency who subscribes to a number of conspiratorial theories, and, importantly, there’s even a dating app — Awake Dating — for like-minded conspiracy theorists. Though, the site’s COO Jarrod Fidden prefers to label his members “early adopter[s] of inconvenient truths” over the term “conspiracy theorist”, which, let’s face it, is often used pejoratively.

So, perhaps it serves to delve a little deeper into why some nonsensical and scientifically disproved ideas persist in 2016.

Briefly, it seems that zombie ideas thrive for a couple of key reasons: first, they may confer some level of group identity, attention and/or influence; second, they provide a degree of simplistic comfort to counter often highly complex scientific explanations. Moreover, conspiracy theories do have a generally positive cultural effect — some bring laughter to our days, but most tend to drive serious debate and further research in the quest for true (scientific) consensus.

From the Guardian:

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Azimuthal equidistant projection, used by some Flat Earthers as evidence for a flat Earth. Courtesy: Trekky0623 / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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A Reminder That Evil People Exist

Dachau_Konzentrationslager_Himmler

Recently discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, should serve as a reminder to us all that evil people are in our midst. His diary entries are all the more disturbing for their simple casualness:

January 3, 1943

  • 8pm: Dinner

  • 9pm: More meetings, one reacting to news that Nazi-allied police officers in Poland were refusing to fight.

  • 9-10pm: Orders all ten officers be executed and their families sent to concentration camps before going to bed

More from the Telegraph:

Newly discovered diaries have revealed the schedule of Heinrich Himmler, the man who planned the Holocaust, which suggests he was more concerned about what he had for lunch than his role in the Nazi massacre of at least six million people.

The documents, uncovered by German newspaper Bild, had been buried in the archive of the Russian ministry of defence in Podolsk near Moscow and were all but forgotten for more than 70 years.

The service diaries, which cover 1938 and the crucial war years of 1943 and 1944, had been snatched by the Red Army towards the end of the war.

Extracts document the hour-by-hour schedule of the reviled SS chief, juxtaposing phone calls with his wife and daughter alongside writs of execution.

Several of them allude to massage appointments taken early in the day which could last up to hours.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Himmler (front right, beside prisoner) visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936. Courtesy: German Federal Archives. Public Domain.

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How to Tell the Difference Between a Liar and a Bulls**t Artist

In this age of media-fueled online vitriol, denigration, falsehood, and shamelessness — elevated to an art form by the Republican nominee for President — it’s critically important for us to understand the difference between a liar and a bulls**t artist.

The liar is interested in the truth, deep down, but she prefers to hide it behind a veil. The liar often has knowledge or expertise about the truth, but hides it. The bulls**t artist, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. He is detached from reality caring not for truth or lies; he only cares for his desired effect on his intended audience. The absence of knowledge or expertise is required.

I’ll let you determine to which group Mr.Trump belongs. But, if you need help, check out CNN’s Fareed Zakaria reminding us about Mr.Trump’s unabashed ignorance and bulls**t-artistry.

From the Guardian:

As the past few decades have shown, the trolling mindset is awesomely well adapted to a digital age. It ignores rational argument. It ignores evidence. It misreads, deliberately. It uses anything and everything somebody says against them. To argue with trolls is to lose – to give them what they want. A troll is interested in impact to the exclusion of all else.

Trolls themselves are hairy Nordic creatures who live under bridges, but trolling doesn’t take its name from them. It comes from the Old French verb troller, meaning to hunt by wandering around in the hope of stumbling upon prey. The word made its way into English as a description of similar fishing tactics: slowly towing a lure in hope of a bite.

Then, in the early 1990s, a Usenet group took up the term to describe some users’ gleeful baiting of the naive: posting provocative comments in hope of attracting an outraged “bite”, then winding up their unwitting victim as thoroughly as possible.

In this, trolling is a form of bullshit art. “The essence of bullshit,” argues the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 book of the same name, “is not that it is false but that it is phony”.

Both a liar and an honest person are interested in the truth – they’re playing on opposite sides in the same game. A bullshitter, however, has no such constraint. As Frankfurt puts it, a bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false … He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose”.

Once again, impact is all. The total absence of knowledge or expertise is no barrier to bullshit. In fact, it helps. The artistry lies in knowing your audience, and saying whatever is needed in order to achieve a desired effect.

Read the entire article here.

Video courtesy of CNN.

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The Psychopath Test and the Nominee

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as he accepts the nomination during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTSJ4LA

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if the potential next President of the United States were a psychopath?

I would certainly like to have the answer, which would seem to be just as important as knowing if the nominee supports a minimum wage increase, universal healthcare, equity for women, and justice for minorities.

So, interestingly enough Keith Olbermann over at Vanity Fair ran Donald Trump through the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. It was developed by Robert D. Hare, a criminal psychologist, in the early 1980s. Still in use today, the 20-point checklist is used as a simple tool (among others) to quickly assess if a subject has mental health issues ranging from brain injury to psychopathy.

Here’s how the checklist works. Take each of the 20 items and score each with either a 0, 1 or 2, with 0 denoting “does not exhibit” and 2 denoting “does exhibit”. The highest score of 40 indicates that the subject has a high potential for being a dangerous psychopath; 30 is the minimum ranking for psychopathic tendencies.

I urge you to read the full article, but in the meantime I’ll excerpt Donald Trump’s score’s on each dimension below:

  • Glibness/superficial charm — 2
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth — 2
  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom — 2
  • Pathological Lying — 2
  • Cunning/Manipulative — 2
  • Lack of remorse or guilt — 2
  • Shallow Affect — 2
  • Callous/lack of empathy — 2
  • Parasitic lifestyle — 2
  • Poor behavioral controls — 2
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior — 2
  • Early behavior problems — 2
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals — 1
  • Impulsivity — 2
  • Irresponsibility — 1
  • Failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions — 2
  • Many short-term marital relationships — 0
  • Juvenile delinquency — 2
  • Revocation of conditional release — 0
  • Criminal versatility — 0

Total score, 32.  There you have it. So, when you vote in November, 2016, please think of the children of the world and the nuclear codes.

Image: Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as he accepts the nomination during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. Courtesy: PBS / REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTSJ4LA.

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This is the Result of Pretending to be Stupid

This NYT opinion piece has nailed it on the head. Pretending to be “stupid” to appeal to the “anti-elite” common man may well have been a good electoral strategy for Republican candidates over the last 50-60 years. Just cast your mind back to Sarah Palin as potential VP in 2008 and you’ll get my drift.

But now in 2016 we’ve entered uncharted territory: the country is on the verge of electing a shamefully ignorant man-child and he also happens to be a narcissistic psychopath with a wide range of extremely dangerous character flaws — and that’s putting it mildly.

Unfortunately for the US — and the world — the Republican nominee’s contempt for truth and reason, disdain for intellectual inquiry, and complete and utter ignorance is not an act. Though he does claim, “I know words. I have the best words. But there is no better word than stupid.

But perhaps all is not lost: he does seem to have a sound grasp of how to acquire top-notch military and geopolitical insights — in his own (best) words, “I watch the shows.

Welcome to the apocalypse my friends.

From the NYT:

It’s hard to know exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the “stupid party.”

Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The John F. Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America.

Rather than run away from the anti-intellectual label, Republicans embraced it for their own political purposes. In his “time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan said that the issue in the 1964 election was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Richard M. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and the “hard hats,” while his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, issued slashing attacks on an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

Many Democrats took all this at face value and congratulated themselves for being smarter than the benighted Republicans. Here’s the thing, though: The Republican embrace of anti-intellectualism was, to a large extent, a put-on. At least until now.

Eisenhower may have played the part of an amiable duffer, but he may have been the best prepared president we have ever had — a five-star general with an unparalleled knowledge of national security affairs. When he resorted to gobbledygook in public, it was in order to preserve his political room to maneuver. Reagan may have come across as a dumb thespian, but he spent decades honing his views on public policy and writing his own speeches. Nixon may have burned with resentment of “Harvard men,” but he turned over foreign policy and domestic policy to two Harvard professors, Henry A. Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while his own knowledge of foreign affairs was second only to Ike’s.

There is no evidence that Republican leaders have been demonstrably dumber than their Democratic counterparts. During the Reagan years, the G.O.P. briefly became known as the “party of ideas,” because it harvested so effectively the intellectual labor of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary. Scholarly policy makers like George P. Shultz, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett held prominent posts in the Reagan administration, a tradition that continued into the George W. Bush administration — amply stocked with the likes of Paul D. Wolfowitz, John J. Dilulio Jr. and Condoleezza Rice.

The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.

Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He uses the vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”

Mr. Trump even appears proud of his lack of learning. He told The Washington Post that he reached decisions “with very little knowledge,” but on the strength of his “common sense” and his “business ability.” Reading long documents is a waste of time because of his rapid ability to get to the gist of an issue, he said: “I’m a very efficient guy.” What little Mr. Trump does know seems to come from television: Asked where he got military advice, he replied, “I watch the shows.”

Read the entire op/ed here.

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Psychic Quanta From the New Age Wisdom Generator

Over the last couple of years I’ve been compiling a list of my favorite online generators. You know. Enter a key word here or click a button there and the service will return some deeply meaningful and usually darkly funny computer-generated content — sans human intervention.

Check-out my recent Fave-Five list if you’re respectively weary of billionaire plutocrats, self-aggrandizing start-ups, politicians, unfathomable science and ivory tower academics:

Now, I have the profound pleasure to add another to my list:

This latest one delivers some profound transcendental literary waveforms worthy of any New Age mystic. A sample of its recent teachings:

We grow, we exist, we are reborn. Energy is the nature of inseparability, and of us. Soon there will be an unveiling of life-force the likes of which the infinite has never seen. We are in the midst of a psychic ennobling of intuition that will align us with the quantum soup itself. Our conversations with other beings have led to an unveiling of pseudo-unlimited consciousness. Humankind has nothing to lose. Sharing is the driver of consciousness. Nothing is impossible. The planet is electrified with vibrations.

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Poor Leadership and Destruction of Meaningful Work

WomanFactory1940s

First, your boss may be a great leader but she or he has little or no sway over how you assess the meaningfulness of the work you do. Second, while there is no correlation between a boss and meaningful work, a bad boss can destroy any likelihood of meaningful effort.

That’s the recent finding, excerpted below, by researchers from the University of Sussex and the University of Greenwich in the UK.

Therein lies a valuable set of lessons for any business wishing to recruit, retain and motivate employees.

From University of Sussex:

Bosses play no role in fostering a sense of meaningfulness at work – but they do have the capacity to destroy it and should stay out of the way, new research shows.

Published in MIT Sloan Management Review, the research indicates that, rather than being similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, meaningfulness at work tends to be intensely personal and individual, and is often revealed to employees as they reflect on their work.

Thus what managers can do to encourage meaningfulness is limited, though what they can do to introduce meaninglessness is unfortunately of far greater capacity.

The authors identified five qualities of meaningful work:

1. Self-Transcendent. Individuals tend to experience their work as meaningful when it matters to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent.

2. Poignant. People often find their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.

 3. Episodic. A sense of meaningfulness arises in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seems that no one can find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work is meaningful arises at peak times that are generative of strong experiences.

4. Reflective. Meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people are able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

5. Personal. Work that is meaningful is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

Read more here.

Image: Turret lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 1942. Courtesy: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public Domain.

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Five Tips For Re-Learning How to Walk

Google-search-walking-with-smartphone

It seems that the aimless walk to clear one’s mind has become a rarity. So too the gentle stroll to ponder and think. Purposeless walking, it seems, is a dying art. Indeed many in the West are so pampered for transportation alternatives and (self-)limited in time that walking has become an indulgence — who can afford to walk any more when driving or taking the bus or the train can save so much time (and energy). Moreover, when we do walk, we’re firmly hunched over our smartphones, entranced by cyberspace and its virtual acknowledgments and affirmations, and thoroughly unaware of our surroundings.

Google-search-walking-in-nature

Yet keep in mind that many of our revered artists, photographers, authors and philosophers were great walkers. They used the walk to sense and think. In fact, studies find a link between walking and creativity.

So, without further ado I present 5 tips to help you revive an endangered pastime:

#1. Ditch the smartphone and any other mobile device.

#2. Find a treasured place to walk. Stomping to the nearest pub or 7-Eleven does not count.

#3. Pay attention to your surroundings and walk mindfully. Observe the world around you. This goes back to #1.

#4. Take off the headphones, take out the earbuds and leave your soundtrack at home. Listen to the world around you.

#5. Leave the partner, friend and dog (or other walking companion) at home. Walk alone.

From the BBC:

A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking – just for its own sake – and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?

Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.

Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there’s something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.

Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.

Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London’s atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London’s parks.

Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn’t match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it.

Read the entire article here.

Images courtesy of Google Search: Walking with smartphone. Walking in nature (my preference).

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Search and the Invisible Hand of Bias

duck-duck-go

I’ve written about the online filter bubble for a while now. It’s an insidious and disturbing consequence of our online world. It refers to the phenomenon whereby our profile, personal preferences, history and connections pre-select and filter the type of content that reaches us, eliminating things we don’t need to see. The filter bubble reduces our exposure to the wider world of information and serendipitous discovery.

If this were not bad enough the online world enables a much more dangerous threat — one of hidden bias through explicit manipulation. We’re all familiar with the pull and push exerted by the constant bombardment from overt advertising. We’re also familiar with more subtle techniques of ambient and subliminal control, which aim to sway our minds without our conscious awareness — think mood music in your grocery store (it really does work).

So, now comes another more subtle form of manipulation, but with more powerful results, and it’s tied to search engines and the central role these tools play in our daily lives.

Online search engines, such as Google, know you. They know your eye movements and your click habits; they know your proclivity to select a search result near the top of the first search engine results page (SERP). Advertisers part with a fortune each day with the goal of appearing in this sweet spot on a SERP. This is a tried and tested process — higher ranking on a SERP leads to more clicks and shifts more product.

Google and many other search engines will list a handful of sponsored results at the top of a SERP, followed by a collection of random results listed in order that best fit your search query. Your expectation is that these results are tailored to your query, but that they’re non-biased. That’s the key.

New research shows that you believe these SERP results to be non-biased, even if they are manipulated behind the scenes. Moreover, these manipulated results can greatly sway your opinion. The phenomenon now comes with a name, the search engine manipulation effect, or SEME (pronounced “seem”).

In the wrong hands — government overlords or technology oligarchs — this heralds a disturbing possible (and probable) future, already underway in countries with tightly controlled media and flows of information.

Check out a detailed essay on SEME by Robert Epstein here. Epstein is an author and research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California.

Finally, if you’re interested in using an alternative search engine that’s less interested in taking over the world, check out DuckDuckGo.

Image courtesy of DuckDuckGo.

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Steps of Life

Steps-of-life-19th-century-print

Are you adolescent or middle-aged? Are you on life’s upwardly mobile journey towards the peak years (whatever these may be) or are you spiraling downwards in terminal decline?

The stages of life — from childhood to death — may be the simplistic invention of ancient scholars who sought a way to classify and explain the human condition, but over hundreds of years authors and artists have continued to be drawn to the subject. Our contemporary demographers and market researchers are just the latest in a long line of those who seek to explain, and now monetize, particular groups by age.

So, if you’re fascinated by this somewhat arbitrary chronological classification system the Public Domain Review has a treat. They’ve assembled a fine collection of images from the last five hundred years that depict the different ages of man and woman.

A common representation is to show ages ascending a series of steps from infancy to a peak and then descending towards old-age, senility and death. The image above is a particularly wonderful example of the genre and while the ages are noted in French the categories are not difficult to decipher:

20 years: “Jeunesse”

40 years: “Age de discretion”

50 years: “Age de Maturité”

90 years: “Age de decrépitude”

Image: “Le cours de la vie de l’homme dans ses différents âges”. Early 19th-century print showing stages of life at ten year intervals from 10-90 years as ascending and then descending steps. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Scary Chart. Scary Times

Chart-percent-able-to-pay-emergency-expense

A recent report by the US Federal Reserve examines the relative financial health of US households. It makes for very sober reading, highlighting the economic pain suffered by a large swathe of the population.

The report centers around one simple question put to households:

Can you come up with $400 in an emergency (say an unexpected medical bill) and pay for it either in cash or with a credit card whose bill you could pay off within a month?

The answer was jaw-dropping:

For people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 (i.e. not the very poorest), 44 percent said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency.

Even more astonishing, 27 percent of those making more than $100,000 also could not.

The report suggests that this is not poverty. So what on earth is going on?

One thing is clear, and it’s a disturbing message that we keep seeing in many of our neighborhoods and echoed in the media — the great middle-class is declining and income inequality continues to broaden. At the low-end of the economic spectrum, the number of households in or close to poverty is expanding — this, in the richest country in the history of the world. At the high-end, the 1 percent, and especially the richest 0.1 percent, hold an ever greater share of the income and wealth.

Image: Percent of respondents who would completely pay an emergency expense that costs $400 using cash or a credit card
that they pay off at the end of the month (by race/ethnicity and household income). Courtesy: Report on the Economic Well-Being
of U.S. Households in 2014, May 2015. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

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MondayMap: Beyond the Horizon

Map-beach-view

Andy Woodruff is a cartographer, he makes maps. His most recent construction is a series of whimsical maps that visualize what many off us at least once in our lives may have pondered.

When we are at the beach looking out to sea, casting our eyes to the distant horizon, we often wonder what lies beyond. If you could set off and walk in a straight line from your small plot of sand (or rock) across the vast ocean where would you first make landfall? Andy Woodruff’s “Beyond the Sea” maps answer this question, and the results are surprising.

For instance, if you happen to be looking out from any beach on the US Eastern Seaboard — and your vision could bend and stretch over the horizon — you would see the Southern coastline of Australia. So, drop the boring atlas and Google Maps and go follow some more of Andy Woodruff’s fascinating great circles.

From NPR:

Ever stood on the coastline, gazing out over the horizon, and wondered what’s on the other side? Pondered where you’d end up if you could fly straight ahead until you hit land?

Turns out the answer might be surprising. And even if you pulled out an atlas — or, more realistically, your smartphone — you might have trouble figuring it out. Lines of latitude won’t help, and drawing a path on most maps will lead you astray.

Cartographer Andy Woodruff, who recently embarked on a project called Beyond the Sea to illustrate this puzzle, says there are two simple reasons why it’s harder than it seems to figure out which coast lies directly on the other side of the horizon.

First, coastlines are “wacky,” he writes on his blog. And second, well, the Earth is round.

The crookedness of the world’s coastlines means moving a few miles up or down the coast will leave you facing a different direction (assuming your gaze is straight out, perpendicular to the coast around you).

Read the entire story here.

Map: Beach view of Australia. Courtesy Andy Woodruff.

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Farm in a Box

Freight-FarmsIf you’ve read my blog for a while you undoubtedly know that I have a rather jaded view of tech startup culture — particularly with Silicon Valley’s myopic obsession for discovering the next multi-billion dollar mobile-consumer-facing-peer-to-peer-gig-economy-service-sharing-buzzword-laden-dating-platform-with-integrated-messaging-and-travel-meta-search app.

So, here’s something refreshing and different. A startup focused on reimagining the production and distribution of fresh food. The company is called Freight Farms, their product: a self-contained farm straight out of a box. Actually the farm is contained inside a box — a standard, repurposed 40 ft long shipping container. Each Leafy Green Machine, as it is called, comes fully equipped with a vertically-oriented growing environment, plant-optimized LED lighting, recirculating hydroponic plumbing and finger-tip climate control.

Freight Farms may not (yet) make a significant impact on the converging and accelerating global crises of population growth, climate change, ecological destruction and natural resource depletion. But the company offers a sound solution to tackling the increasing demand for locally grown and sustainably produced food, especially as the world becomes increasingly urbanized.

Please check out Freight Farms and spread the word.

Image: Freight Farms. Courtesy: Freight Farms.

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The Story of the Default Coordinate: 38°N 97°W

Map-US-center

About 40 miles and 40 minutes north-east of Wichita, Kansas lies the small town of Potwin. The 2010 census put the official population of Potwin at 449.

Potwin would be an unremarkable town, situated in the Great Plains surrounded by vast farms and feedlots, if it were not for one unique fact. Potwin is home to a farmhouse with a Lat-Long location of 38°N 97°W.

You see, 38°N 97°W happens to coincide with the coordinates, incorrectly, chosen as the geographical center of the United States by a digital mapping company in 2002. Geographically the official center of the country is 39°50′ N (or 39.8333333), 98°35′ W (or -98.585522), which is a spot in northern Kansas near the Nebraska border.

But, back in 2002, a digital mapping company, called MaxMind, decided to round the actual, unwieldy Lat-Long coordinates to 38.0000, -97.0000. These coordinates would become the default point and de facto center of the United States.

Now, the internet uses a protocol (IP) to allow any device to connect with any other, via a unique IP address. This allows a message or webpage from one device, say a server, to find its way to another device, such as your computer. Every device connected to the internet has a unique IP address. Companies soon realized that having an IP address, in cyberspace, would be much more valuable — for technical maintenance or marketing purposes — if it could be tied to a physical location. So, companies like MaxMind came along to provide the digital mapping and location translation service.

However, for those IP addresses that could not be adequately resolved to a physical address, the company assigned the default coordinate — the center of the United States.

Unfortunately, there are now around 600 million IP addresses that point to this default location, 38°N 97°W, which also happens to be the farmhouse in Potwin.

This becomes rather problematic for the residents of 38°N 97°W because internet scammers, spammers,  cyber-thieves and other digitally-minded criminals typically like to hide their locations, which end up resolving to the default coordinate and the farmhouse in Potwin. As a result, the federal authorities have made quite a habit of visiting this unremarkable farmhouse in Potwin, and the residents now lead far from unremarkable lives.

Read more of this surreal story here.

Image: Potwin, Kansas. Courtesy: Google Maps.

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Your New Job in Academia

university-title-1Many of us would probably jump at the chance to secure a life-long position as a tenured professor at a prestigious college. Few disadvantages and lots of benefits: great salary, job for life, long vacations, post-docs to do all your hard work, teaching assistants to do all your easy work. But, most of us don’t have the academic chops to reach the rarefied atmosphere of our great institutions of learning.

university-title-2So, here’s the next best thing. Visit universitytitlegenerator.com and award yourself a lesser title. While most of these algorithmically designed titles are randomly generated and confusingly obtuse, you just have to believe that they really do exist, and that the positions pay rather well.

university-title-3

Images courtesy of universitytitlegenerator.com. Courtesy: CU-Boulder grad students.

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Litigation Financing

Have some loose change under your mattress? If so, and the loose change comes in the millions of dollars, you may want to consider investing it. But, not in a paltry savings account or the stock market. You should consider investing it in litigation. Yes, there are funds, run by money managers and lawyers, that do nothing but sue for financial gain. And, if that so-called “litigation fund” happens to be suing for a cause that you believe in, then you’ll reap a two-fold reward: you’ll collect a handsome investment return, and you’ll get the pleasure of ruining your legal adversary in the process.

Here’s just one example. Burford Capital, a British litigation investment company, has recorded an almost 400 percent growth in profits over the last five years. The firm reported recent profits of $77 million and declared a staggering 70 percent net return on its investments.

So, perhaps you should ditch the notion of becoming the next Warren Buffet; trash the thought of investing in companies that innovate, create and build, and pour your retirement funds in companies that sue and litigate. Furthermore, if you seek a really stellar return on your hard-earned cash, then you should consider investing in litigation funds that sue media companies over the first amendment — that’s where the action and the money is today, and that’s where the next part of this ethically questionable story leads.

From Wired:

The revelation that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit against Gawker sent shockwaves through the media industry. Commentators had barely recovered from the $140 million in damages awarded to Hogan. Now they were grappling with a bigger question: Is this kind of financial arrangement even legal? Could it happen to them?

The short answer to both is yes—picking up the tab on someone else’s lawsuit is now perfectly legal (it wasn’t always), and people who do it aren’t required to reveal that they’re doing it or why. The practice is reviled by the business community, and yet Thiel, a staunch pro-business libertarian, has shown billionaires everywhere that it’s possible to not only sue a media company indirectly for revenge but to make money doing it. Now that the message is out, there’s nothing to stop other billionaires from following his lead.

“This [case] could really change the landscape, because everyone who has gripes about what the media has done is going to start thinking about dollars and cents and running to their lawyers,” says Thomas Julin, a partner at Miami-based law firm Hunton and Williams who focuses on First Amendment litigation.

“And it’s going to get lawyers thinking, ‘Maybe I should be more willing to represent other individuals against the media.’”

Regardless of how you feel about Gawker, Hogan, or Thiel, this financial arrangement sets a dangerous precedent for anyone running a business—especially a media business. Litigation finance is a booming industry, and Thiel’s success likely makes the entire media industry vulnerable to professional litigation financiers willing to fund other vendettas.

“Litigation financing is really dangerous,” says Bryan Quigley from the Institute for Legal Reform, the civil justice arm of the US. Chamber of Commerce, an advocate for American businesses. “There’s no doubt it’s going to create more litigation in general.”

Read the entire story here.

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Divergence

chart-income-and-wealth-inequality

Columnist Thomas B. Edsall over at the NYT offers an incisive article on the diverging fortunes and misfortunes of Americans in the top and bottom fifths of the population as measured by income. We’ve all become accustomed to hearing about the concentration of wealth and power by the 0.1 percent and even the 1 percent. But the separation between the top 10-20 percent and bottom 10-20 percent is no less stark. This separation in income and wealth is now increasingly fracturing the United States along various fault lines: geography, educational attainment, health care access, race and class.

From NYT:

For years now, people have been talking about the insulated world of the top 1 percent of Americans, but the top 20 percent of the income distribution is also steadily separating itself — by geography and by education as well as by income.

This self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.

The accompanying chart, taken from “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation,” a March 2016 paper by Sean F. Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford, and Kendra Bischoff, a professor of sociology at Cornell, demonstrates the accelerating geographic isolation of the well-to-do — the upper middle and upper classes (a pattern of isolation that also applies to the poor, with devastating effect).

In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent.

At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Chart showing income and wealth inequality, 1913?2014, from “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation”, March 2016. Courtesy: Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff.

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MondayMap: A is Blue; B is Red

MPK1-426_Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916

A hundred years ago the first two letters of the alphabet and a somewhat arbitrary line drawn on a map changed the Earth’s geopolitical axis. The ramifications continue to be felt across the globe to this day.

The waning days of WWI finally precipitated the decline of the once vast Ottoman Empire. During this period the eventual victors, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia, began secretly planning how they would carve up the spoils, which covered much of the Middle East. With Russia then succumbing to its own revolution, Britain and France were free to delineate their own “spheres of influence”, allocating huge areas of territory (and peoples) to themselves and their appointed heirs. “A” was to be blue and would belong to France; the region covered what is now Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and parts of Turkey. “B” was to be red and would be administered by the British; it covered modern-day Jordan, southern Iraq and parts of what is now Israel.

The agreement and the new map were negotiated in 1915-16 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, respectively. It was signed on May 16, 1916, and became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The secret deal reneged on numerous promises and assurances made to leaders in the region, and subsequently disenfranchised entire populations for generations.

Read more about the map, the secret deal and the hundred years of turbulent and bloody consequence in David Fromkin’s book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989).

Map: Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 16 May 1916.

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Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

I’ve been writing about the filter bubble for quite sometime. The filter bubble refers to the tendency for online search tools, and now social media, to screen and deliver results that fit our online history and profile thereby returning only results that are deemed relevant. Eli Pariser coined the term in his book The Filter Bubble, published in 2011.

The filter bubble presents us with a clear faustian bargain: give up knowledge and serendipitous discovery of the wider world for narrow, personalized news and information that matches our immediate needs and agrees with our profile.

The great irony is that our technologies promise a limitless, interconnected web of data and information, but these same technologies ensure that we will see only the small sliver of information that passes through our personal, and social, filters. This consigns us to live inside our very own personal echo chambers, separated from disagreeable information that does not pass criteria in our profiles or measures gleaned across our social networks.

So, we should all be concerned as Facebook turns its attention to delivering and filtering news, and curating it in a quest for a more profitable return. Without question we are in the early stages of the reinvention of journalism as a whole and digital news in particular. The logical conclusion of this evolution has yet to be written, but it is certainly clear that handing so much power over the dissemination of news and information to one company cannot be in our long-term interests. If Mr. Zuckerberg and team deem certain political news to be personally distasteful or contrary to their corporate mission, should we sit back and allow them to filter it for us? I think not.

From Wired:

When Facebook News Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.

As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!

The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.

What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.

The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.

Read the entire article here.

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Man Sues God

Europe-a-Prophecy

A quick accounting shows that there are around 1.3 million lawyers in the US, so it’s no surprise that we are constantly surrounded by stories of thoroughly ridiculous lawsuits. Just a few to whet your appetite:

Animal rights group sues on behalf of monkey for ownership of selfies.

Bank robber gets shot by deputy; sues city for $6.3 million in medical bills.

Prison inmate suing the NFL for $88 billion over the 2015 cowboy’s playoff loss.

And, how can we forget the seemingly annual occurrence of a coffeeshop patron suing for $millions over a coffee spill.

So, please forgive me for initially thinking that the following lawsuit was instigated by a blasphemous American and his or her posse of attorneys.

Though, it does seem a little odd that we humans — those who believe in the supreme deity — haven’t sued before, but for more substantial contractual breaches: failing to stop cycles of genocide; aiding in the environmental destruction of creation; instilling hatred and intolerance in humanity; allowing inequality and injustice to thrive, and so on.

From the Independent:

An Israeli man has petitioned for a restraining order against God, claiming the almighty has been particularly unkind to him over the years and that the police are unable to do anything.

The man, named by Israeli news site NRG as David Shoshan, represented himself at a court hearing in Haifa, a port city in the north of Israel. The report noted that God was not present to defend himself.

The court heard God had been particularly unkind to Mr Shoshan, treating him “harshly and not nicely”, though no specific details were given about what exactly had happened to make him feel this way.

Mr Shoshan claimed he made several attempts to contact police to report God’s alleged crimes, and that patrol cars had been sent to his house on 10 occasions.

However, the measure was ineffective against the deity and police advised him to take out a restraining order.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Europe a Prophesy. The Ancient of Days (1794). Watercolor etching by William Blake. Courtesy: William Blake Archive. Public Domain.

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