Category Archives: Idea Soup

MondayMap: 80 Years After Prohibition

Alcohol_control_in_United_States

Apparently, Prohibition (of alcohol sales, production and transportation) ended in the United States in 1933. But, you’d be surprised to learn that more than 80 years later many regions across the nation still have restrictions and bans.

The map shows areas where alcohol is restricted: red indicates that the sales of alcohol is banned (dry); blue shows that it is allowed (wet); and yellow denotes that the county is “partially dry” or “moist”.

Interestingly, Kansas, Tennessee and Mississippi are dry states by default and require individual counties to opt in to sell alcohol. Texas is a confusing patchwork: of Texas’s 254 counties, 11 are completely dry, 194 are partially dry, and 49 are entirely wet. And, to to add to the confusion, Texas prohibits off-premises sale of liquor — but not beer and wine — all day on Sunday and select holidays.

Read more here.

Image: Map shows dry (red), wet (blue), and mixed (yellow) counties in the United States as of March 2012. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

The Curious Psychology of Returns

In a recent post I wrote about the world of reverse logistics, which underlies the multi-billion dollar business of product returns. But while the process of consumer returns runs like a well-oiled, global machine the psychology of returns is confusingly counter-intuitive.

For instance, a lenient return policy leads to more returned products — no surprise there. But, it also causes increased consumer spending, and the increased spending outweighs the cost to the business of processing the increased returns. Also, and rather more curiously, a more lenient return time limit correlates to a reduction in returns, not an increase.From the Washington Post:

January is prime time for returns in the retail industry, the month where shoppers show up in droves to trade in an ill-fitting sweater from grandma or to unload the second and third “Frozen” dolls that showed up under the Christmas tree.

This post-Christmas ritual has always been costly for retailers, comprising a large share of the $284 billion in goods that were returned in 2014.  But now it is arguably becoming more urgent for the industry to think carefully about return policies, as analysts say the rise of online shopping is bringing with it a surge in returns. The return rate for the industry overall is about 8 percent, but analysts say that it is likely significantly higher than that online, since shoppers are purchasing goods without seeing them in person or trying them on.

Against that backdrop, researchers at University of Texas-Dallas sought to get a better handle on how return policies affect shopper behavior and, in turn, whether lenient policies such as offering a lengthy period for returns actually helps or hurts a retailer’s business.

Overall, a lenient return policy did indeed correlate with more returns. But, crucially, it was even more strongly correlated with an increase in purchases. In other words, retailers are generally getting a clear sales benefit from giving customers the assurance of a return.

One surprising finding: More leniency on time limits is associated with a reduction — not an increase — in returns.

This may seem counterintuitive, but researchers say it could have varying explanations. Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

SciDeny and Rain Follows the Plow Doctrine

Ploughmen

“SciDeny” is a growing genre of American fiction.

SciDeny is authored by writers who propose an alternate “reality” to rational scientific thought. But, don’t be fooled into believing that SciDeny is anything like SciFi.

There are 3 key differences between SciDeny and SciFi. First, SciDeny is authored by politicians, lawyers or lay-persons with political agendas, not professional novelists. Second, SciDeny porports to be non-fictional, and indeed many believe it to be so. Third, where SciFi often promotes a visionary future underpinned by scientific and technological progress, SciDeny is aimed squarely at countering the scientific method and turning back the clock on hundreds of years of scientific discourse and discovery.

SciDeny is most pervasive in our schools (and the current US Congress), where the SciDeniers promote the practice under the guise of academic freedom. The key target for the SciDeny movement is, of course, evolution. But, why stop there. I would encourage SciDeniers to band together to encourage schools to teach the following as well: flat-earth, four humors, luminiferous aether, alchemy, geo-centric theory of the universe, miasmatic theory of disease, phlogiston, spontaneous generation, expanding earth, world ice doctrine, species transmutation, hollow earth theory, phrenology, and rain follows the plow (or plough).

We’re off to a great start already in 2016, as various States vie to be the first to pass SciDeny-friendly legislation. Oklahoma is this year’s winner.

From ars technica:

The first state bills of the year that would interfere with science education have appeared in Oklahoma. There, both the House and Senate have seen bills that would prevent school officials and administrators from disciplining any teachers who introduce spurious information to science classes.

These bills have a long history, dating back to around the time when teaching intelligent design was determined to be an unconstitutional imposition of religion. A recent study showed that you could take the text of the bills and build an evolutionary tree that traces their modifications over the last decade. The latest two fit the patterns nicely.

The Senate version of the bill is by State Senator Josh Brecheen, a Republican. It is the fifth year in a row he’s introduced a science education bill after announcing he wanted “every publicly funded Oklahoma school to teach the debate of creation vs. evolution.” This year’s version omits any mention of specific areas of science that could be controversial. Instead, it simply prohibits any educational official from blocking a teacher who wanted to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories.

The one introduced in the Oklahoma House is more traditional. Billed as a “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act” (because freedom!), it spells out a whole host of areas of science its author doesn’t like:

The Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics, and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Read more here.

Image: Ploughing with oxen. A miniature from an early-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English poem God Spede þe Plough, held at the British Museum. By Paul Lacroix. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Election 2016 QVC Infomercial

The 2016 US presidential election cycle just entered the realm of total absurdity.

Not content with puerile vulgarity, hate-speech, 4th-grade “best words” and policy-less demagoguery, current  frontrunner for the Republican nomination was hawking his fake steaks, bottled water, vodka and wine at his March 8, 2016 press conference…

trump-infomercial-8Mar2016

Image courtesy of Jared Wyand / Independent News.

Send to Kindle

PhotoMash: A Great Leader vs Something Else Entirely

Today’s PhotoMash comes courtesy of the Guardian (UK Edition), on January 21, 2016. A kindly editor over there was thoughtful enough to put President Eisenhower alongside two elements of the 2016 US presidential election clown circus.

Photomash-Palin-vs-EisenhowerMany political scholars, commentators and members of the public — of all political stripes — who remember Eisenhower during his two terms in office (1953-1961) agree that he was one of the greatest US Presidents. As for the pretenders to the throne in the other half of this PhotoMash, well, ugh. Enough said.

Image courtesy of the Guardian.

Send to Kindle

DeepDrumpf the 4th-Grader

DeepDrumpf is a Twitter bot out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn from the jaw-dropping rants of the current Republican frontrunner for the Presidential nomination and then tweets its own remarkably Trump-like musings.

A handful of DeepDrumpf’s recent deep-thoughts here:

DeepDrumpf-Twitter-bot

The bot’s designer CSAIL postdoc Bradley Hayes says DeepDrumpf uses “techniques from ‘deep-learning,’ a field of artificial intelligence that uses systems called neural networks to teach computers to to find patterns on their own. ”

I would suggest that the deep-learning algorithms, in the case of Trump’s speech patterns, did not have to be too deep. After all, linguists who have studied his words agree that it’s mostly at a  4th-grade level — coherent language is not required.

Patterns aside, I think I prefer the bot over the real thing — it’s likely to do far less damage to our country and the globe than the real thing.

Send to Kindle

Old Fame and Insta-Fame

First, let me begin by introducing a quote for our times from David Bowie, dated 2003, published in Performing Songwriter.

“Fame itself, of course, doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant. That must be pretty well known by now. I’m just amazed how fame is being posited as the be all and end all, and how many of these young kids who are being foisted on the public have been talked into this idea that anything necessary to be famous is all right. It’s a sad state of affairs. However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’ll become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new. Now it’s, to be famous you should do what it takes, which is not the same thing at all. And it will leave many of them with this empty feeling.”

Thirteen years on, and just a few days following Bowie’s tragic death, his words on fame remain startlingly appropriate. We now live in a world where fame can be pursued, manufactured and curated without needing any particular talent — social media has seen to that.

This new type of fame — let’s call it insta-fame — is a very different kind of condition to our typical notion of old fame, which may be enabled by a gorgeous voice, or acting prowess, or a way with the written word, or prowess with a tennis racket, or at the wheel of a race car, or one a precipitous ski slope, or from walking on the surface of the Moon, or from winning the Spelling Bee, or from devising a cure for polio.

It’s easy to confuse insta-fame with old fame: both offer a huge following of adoring strangers and both, potentially, lead to inordinate monetary reward. But that’s where the similarities end. Old fame came from visible public recognition and required an achievement or a specific talent, usually honed after many years or decades. Insta-fame on the other hand doesn’t seem to demand any specific skill and is often pursued as an end in itself. With insta-fame the public recognition has become decoupled from the achievement — to such an extent, in fact, that it no longer requires any achievement or skill, other than the gathering of more public recognition. This is a gloriously self-sustaining circle that advertisers have grown to adore.

My diatribe leads to a fascinating article on the second type of fame, insta-fame, and some of its protagonists and victims. David Bowie’s words continue to ring true.

From the Independent:

Charlie Barker is in her pyjamas, sitting in the shared kitchen of her halls of residence, with an Asda shopping trolley next to her – storage overflow from her tiny room. A Flybe plane takes off from City Airport, just across the dank water from the University of East London, where Barker studies art in surroundings that could not be greyer. The only way out is the DLR, the driverless trains that link Docklands to the brighter parts of town.

 “I always wanted to move to London and when everyone was signing up for uni, I was like, I don’t want to go to uni – I just want to go to London,” says Barker, who calls David Bowie her “spirit animal” and is obsessed with Hello Kitty. But going to London is hard if you’re 18 and from Nottingham and don’t have a plan or money. “So then I was like, OK, I’ll go to uni in London.” So she ended up in Beckton, which is closer to Essex than the city centre.

It’s lunchtime and one of Barker’s housemates walks in to stick something in the microwave, which he quickly takes back to his room. They exchange hellos. “I don’t really talk to people here, I just go to central to meet my friends,” she says. “But the DLR is so long and tragic, especially when you’re not in the brightest of moods.” I ask her if she often goes to the student canteen. I noticed it on the way here; it’s called “Munch”. She’s in her second year and says she didn’t know it existed.

These are unlikely surroundings, in some ways. Because while Barker is a nice, normal student doing normal student things, she’s also famous. I take out my phone and we look through her pictures on Instagram, where her following is greater than the combined circulations of Hello! and OK! magazines. Now @charliexbarker is in the room and things become more colourful. Pink, mainly. And blue, and glitter, and selfies, and skin.

And Hello Kitty. “I wanted to get a tattoo on the palm of my hand and because it was painful I was like, ‘what do I believe in enough to get tattooed on my hand for the rest of my life?’, and I was like – Hello Kitty. My Mum was like, ‘you freak!'” The drawing of the Japanese cartoon cat features in a couple of Barker’s 700-plus photos. In a portrait of her hand, she holds a pink and blue lollipop, and her fingernails are painted pink and blue. The caption: “Pink n blu pink n blu.”

Before that, Barker, now 19, wanted a tattoo saying “Drink water, eat pussy”, but decided against it. The slogan appears in another photo, scrawled on the pavement in pink chalk as she sits wearing a Betty Boop jacket in pink and black, with pink hair and fishnets. “I was bumming around with my friend Daniel, who’s a photographer, and I wanted to see if I could do all the styling and everything,” she says. “We’d already done four of five looks and we were like, oh my God, so we just wet my hair and went with it.”

“Poco esplicita,” suggests one of her Italian followers beside the photo. Barker rarely replies to comments these days, most of which are from fans (“I love uuuuu… Your style just killing me… IM SCREAMING”) and doesn’t say much in her captions (“I do wat I want” in this case). Yet her followers – 622,000 of them at the time of writing – love her pictures, many of which receive more than 50,000 likes. She’s not on reality TV, can’t sing and has no famous relatives. She’s not rich and has no access to private jets or tigers as pets. Yet with a photographic glimpse – or at least suggestion – of a life of colour and attitude, a student in Beckton has earned the sort of fame that only exists on Instagram.

“That sounds so weird, saying that, stop it!” she says when I ask if she feels famous. “No, I’m not famous. I’m just doing my own thing, getting recognition doing it. And I think everyone’s famous now, aren’t they? Everyone has an Instagram and everyone’s famous.”

The photo app, bought by Facebook in 2012, boomed last year, overtaking Twitter in September with 400 million active monthly users. But there are degrees of Instafame. And if one measure, beyond an audience, is a change to one’s life, then Barker has it. So too do Brian Whittaker (@brianhwhittaker) and Olivia Knight-Butler (@livrosekb), whose followings also defy celebrity norms. Whittaker, an insanely grown-up 16-year-old from Solihull, also rejects the idea that he’s famous at all, despite having a quarter of a million followers. “I don’t see followers as a real thing, it’s just being popular on a page,” he says from his mum’s house.

Yet in the next sentence he talks about the best indicator of fame in any age. “I get stopped in the street quite a bit now. In the summer I was in Singapore with my parents and people were taking pictures of me. One person stopped me and then when I got back to the hotel room I saw pictures of me on Instagram shopping. People had tagged me and were asking, ‘is this really you, are you in Singapore?'”

“I get so so flattered when people ask me for a picture in the street,” Barker says. Most of her fans are younger teenage girls. Many have set up dedicated Charlie Barker fan accounts, re-posting her images adorned with love hearts. They idolise her. “I feel like I have to give them eternal love for it, I’m like, oh my God, that is so sweet.”

Read the entire article here.

Video: Fame, David Bowie. Courtesy mudroll / Youtube.

Send to Kindle

Anti-Gifting and Reverse Logistics

Google-search-gifts-returns

Call it what you may, but ’tis the season following the gift-giving season, which means only one thing, it’s returns season. Did you receive a gorgeous pair of shoes in the wrong size? Return. Did you get yet another hideous tie or shirt in the wrong color? Return. Yet more lotion that makes you break out in an orange rash? Return? Video game in the wrong format or book that you already digested last year? Return. Toaster that doesn’t match your kitchen decor? Return.

And, the numbers of returns are quite staggering. According to Optoro — a research firm that helps major retailers process and resell returns — consumers return nearly $70 billion worth of purchases during the holiday season. That’s more than the entire GDP of countries like Luxembourg or Sri Lanka.

So, with returns being such a huge industry how does the process work? Importantly, a returned gift is highly unlikely to end up back on the original shelf from where it was purchased. Rather, the gift is often transported by an inverse supply-chain — known as reverse logistics — from the consumer back to the retailer, sometimes back to a wholesaler, and then back to a liquidator. Importantly, up to 40 percent of returns don’t even make it back to a liquidator since it’s sometimes more economical for the retailer to discard the item.

From Wired:

For most retailers, the weeks leading up to Christmas are a frenzied crescendo of activity. But for Michael Ringelsten, the excitement starts after the holidays.

Ringelsten runs Shorewood Liquidators, which collects all those post-holiday returns—from unwanted gadgets and exercise equipment to office furniture and popcorn machines—and finds them a new home. Wait, what? A new home? Yep. Rejected gifts and returned goods don’t go back on the shelves from which they came. They follow an entirely different logistical path, a weird mirror image of the supply chain that brings the goods we actually want to our doors.

This parallel process exists because the cost of restocking and reselling returned items often exceeds the value of those items. To cut their losses, online retailers often turn to folks like Ringelsten.

I discovered Shorewood Liquidators through a rather low rent-looking online ad touting returned items from The Home Depot, Amazon, Sears, Wal-Mart, and other big retailers. I was surprised to find the items weren’t bad. Some were an out-and-out deal, like this comfy Arcadia recliner (perfect for my next Shark Tank marathon). Bidding starts at 99 cents for knickknacks or $5 for nicer stuff. The descriptions state whether there are scuffs, scratches, or missing parts.

“This recliner? It will definitely sell,” Ringelsten says. Shorewood employs 91 people who work out of a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Illinois—a space that, after the holidays, is a Through the Looking Glass version of Amazon, selling unwanted gifts at rock-bottom prices. And as Americans buy more and more holiday gifts online, they’re also returning more, creating new opportunities for businesses prepared to handle what others don’t want. Call it “re-commerce.”

The Hidden World of Returns

UPS says last week it saw the highest volume of returns it expects to see all year, with people sending back more than 5 million gifts and impulse purchases. On the busiest day of that week, the shipper said, people sent back twice as many packages—1 million in all—than the same day a year ago.

But those returns often don’t return from whence they came. Instead, they’re shipped to returns facilities—some operated by retailers, others that serve as hubs for many sellers. Once there, the goods are collected, processed, and often resold by third-party contractors, including wholesalers and liquidators like Shorewood. These contractors often use software that determines the most profitable path, be it selling them to consumers online, selling them in lots to wholesale buyers, or simply recycling them. If none of these options is profitable, the item may well end up in a landfill, making the business of returns an environmental issue, as well.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

A (Word) Cloud From the (Tweet) Storm of a Demagogue

trump-wordcloud-26Feb2016

It’s impossible to ignore the thoroughly shameful behavior of the current crop of politicians and non-politicians running in this year’s U.S clown car race presidential election. The vicious tripe that flows from the mouths of these people is certainly attention-grabbing. But while it may have been titillating at first, the discourse — in very loose terms — has now taken a deeply disgusting and dangerous turn.

Just take the foul-mouthed tweets of current front runner for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump.

Since he entered the race his penchant for bullying and demagoguery has taken center stage; no mention of any policy proposals, rational or otherwise; just a filthy mouth spouting hatred, bigotry, fear, shame and intimidation in a constant 140-character storm of drivel.

So I couldn’t resist taking all his recent tweets and creating a wordcloud from his stream of anger and nonsense. His favorite “policy” statements to date: wall, dumb, failing, dopey, dope, worst, dishonest, failed, bad, sad, boring. I must say it is truly astonishing to see this person attack another for being: hater, liar, dishonest, racist, sexist, dumb, total hypocrite!

Wordcloud generated using Wordclouds.com.

Send to Kindle

MondayMap: National Business Emotional Intelligence

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) gives would-be business negotiators some general tips on how best to deal with counterparts from other regions of the world. After all, getting to yes and reaching a mutually beneficial agreement across all parties does require a good degree of cultural sensitivity and emotional intelligence.

map-Emotional-Counterpart

While there is no substitute to understanding other nations through travel and cultural immersion, the HBR article describes some interesting nuances to help those lacking in geographic awareness, international business experience,  and cross-cultural wisdom. The first step in this exotic journey is rather appropriately, a map.

No surprise, the Japanese and Filipinos shirk business confrontation, whereas the Russians and French savor it. Northern Europeans are less emotional, while Southern Europeans and Latin Americans are much more emotionally expressive.

From Frank Jacobs over at Strange Maps:

Negotiating with Filipinos? Be warm and personal, but stay polite. Cutting das Deal with Germans? Stay cool as ice, and be tough as nails. So what happens if you’re a German doing business in the Philippines?

That’s not the question this map was designed to answer. This map — actually, a diagram — shows differences in attitudes to business negotiations in a number of countries. Familiarise yourself with them, then burn the drawing. From now on, you’ll be a master international dealmaker.

Vertically, the map distinguishes between countries where it is highly haram to show emotions during business proceedings (Japan being the prime example) and countries where emotions are an accepted part of il commercio (yes, Italians are emotional extroverts — also in business).

The horizontal axis differentiates countries with a very confrontational negotiating style — think heated arguments and slammed doors — from places where decorum is the alpha and omega of commercial dealings. For an extreme example of the former, try trading with an Israeli company. For the latter, I refer you to those personable but (apparently also) persnickety Filipinos.

Read the entire article here.

Map courtesy of Erin Meyer, professor and the program director for Managing Global Virtual Teams at INSEAD. Courtesy of HBR / Strange Maps.

Send to Kindle

Please Laugh While You Can

Rationality requires us to laugh at the current state of the U.S. political “conversation” as Jonathan Jones so rightly reminds us. I say “conversation” in quotes because it’s no longer a dialog, not even a heated debate or argument. Politicians have replaced rational dialog and disagreement over policy with hate-speech, fear-mongering, bullying, venom, bigotry and character assassination. And, it’s all to the detriment of our democracy.

Those of us who crave a well-reasoned discussion about substantive issues and direction for our country have to gasp with utter incredulity — and then we must laugh.

From Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian:

When a man hoping to be president of the United States can sum up his own country with a photograph of a monogrammed gun and the single-word caption “America”, it may be time for the rest of the world to worry.

Instead they are laughing. Since the Republican nomination hopeful (although not very hopeful) Jeb Bush tweeted a picture of his handgun he has been mocked around the world with images that comically replace that violent symbol with the gentler images that sum up less trigger-happy places – a cup of tea for the UK, a bike for the Netherlands, a curry for Bradford.

The joke’s a bit thin, because what is currently happening in US politics is only funny if you are an alien watching from a spaceship and the fate of the entire planet is just one big laugh to you. For what is Bush trying to achieve with this picture? He’s trying to appeal to the rage and irrationality that have made Donald Trump’s bombastical assault on the White House look increasingly plausible while Bush languishes, a conventional politician swamped by unconventional times.

The centre cannot hold, WB Yeats wrote nearly a century ago, and this photograph shows exactly how off centre things are getting. When Jeb Bush – brother of one warmongering president, son of another, and a governor who sanctioned 21 executions during his tenure in Florida – embodies the centre ground, you know things have got strange. Compared with the strongman politics, explicit bigotry and perversion that a Trump presidency threatens, mere conservatism would be sweet sanity.

But this photograph reveals that that is not on offer. America, says Bush’s Twitter account, is a gun with your name on it. The candidate has his name inscribed on his weapon – Gov Jeb Bush, it says on the barrel. This man is a gun. He’s primed and loaded. You think Trump talks tough? Well, talk is cheap. “Speak softly, and carry a big stick,” said Theodore Roosevelt. Bush has got this gun, see, and he knows how to use it.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Documenting the Self

Samuel_PepysIs Nicolas Felton the Samuel Pepys of our digital age?

They both chronicled their observations over a period of 10 years, but separated by 345 years. However, that’s where the similarity between the two men ends.

Samuel Pepys was a 17th century member of British Parliament and naval bureaucrat, famous for the decade-long private diary. Pepys kept detailed personal notes from 1660 to 1669. The diary was subsequently published in the 19th century, and is now regarded as one of the principal sources of information of the Restoration period (return of the monarchy under Charles II). Many a British school kid [myself included] has been exposed to Pepys’ observations of momentous events, including his tales of the plague and the Great Fire of London.

Nicolas Felton a graphic designer and ex-Facebook employee cataloged his life from 2005 to 2015. Based in New York, Felton began obsessively recording the minutiae of his life in 2005. He first tracked his locations and time spent in each followed by his music-listening habits. Then he began counting his emails, correspondence, calendar entries, photos. Felton eventually compiled his detailed digital tracks into a visually fascinating annual Feltron Report.

So, Felton is certainly no Pepys, but his data trove remains interesting nonetheless — for different reasons. Pepys recorded history during a tumultuous time in England; his very rare, detailed first-person account across an entire decade has no parallel. His diary is now an invaluable literary chronicle for scholars and history buffs.

Our world is rather different today. Our technologies now enable institutions and individuals to record and relate their observations ad nauseam. Thus Felton’s data is not unique per se, though his decade-long obsession certainly provides us with a quantitative trove of data, which is not necessarily useful to us for historical reasons, but more so for those who study our tracks and needs, and market to us.

Read Samuel Pepys diary here. Read more about Nicolas Felton here.

Image: Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, oil on canvas, 1666. National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

iScoliosis

Google-search-neck-xray

Industrial and occupational illnesses have followed humans since the advent of industry. Obvious ones include: lung diseases from mining and a variety of skin diseases from exposure to agricultural and factory chemicals.

The late 20th century saw us succumb to carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries from laboring over our desks and computers. Now, in the 21st we are becoming hosts to the smartphone pathogen.

In addition to the spectrum of social and cultural disorders wrought by our constantly chattering mobile devices, we are at increased psychological and physical risk. But, let’s leave aside the two obvious ones: risk from vehicle injury due to texting while driving, and risk from injury due to texting while walking. More commonly, we are at increased risk of back and other chronic physical problems resulting from poor posture. This in turn leads to mood disorders, memory problems and depression. Some have termed this condition “text-neck”, “iHunch”, or “iPosture”; I’ll go with “iScoliosis™”.

From NYT:

THERE are plenty of reasons to put our cellphones down now and then, not least the fact that incessantly checking them takes us out of the present moment and disrupts family dinners around the globe. But here’s one you might not have considered: Smartphones are ruining our posture. And bad posture doesn’t just mean a stiff neck. It can hurt us in insidious psychological ways.

If you’re in a public place, look around: How many people are hunching over a phone? Technology is transforming how we hold ourselves, contorting our bodies into what the New Zealand physiotherapist Steve August calls the iHunch. I’ve also heard people call it text neck, and in my work I sometimes refer to it as iPosture.

The average head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. When we bend our necks forward 60 degrees, as we do to use our phones, the effective stress on our neck increases to 60 pounds — the weight of about five gallons of paint. When Mr. August started treating patients more than 30 years ago, he says he saw plenty of “dowagers’ humps, where the upper back had frozen into a forward curve, in grandmothers and great-grandmothers.” Now he says he’s seeing the same stoop in teenagers.

When we’re sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless. Studies have shown that people with clinical depression adopt a posture that eerily resembles the iHunch. One, published in 2010 in the official journal of the Brazilian Psychiatric Association, found that depressed patients were more likely to stand with their necks bent forward, shoulders collapsed and arms drawn in toward the body.

Posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them. In a study published in Health Psychology earlier this year, Shwetha Nair and her colleagues assigned non-depressed participants to sit in an upright or slouched posture and then had them answer a mock job-interview question, a well-established experimental stress inducer, followed by a series of questionnaires. Compared with upright sitters, the slouchers reported significantly lower self-esteem and mood, and much greater fear. Posture affected even the contents of their interview answers: Linguistic analyses revealed that slouchers were much more negative in what they had to say. The researchers concluded, “Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.”

Slouching can also affect our memory: In a study published last year in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy of people with clinical depression, participants were randomly assigned to sit in either a slouched or an upright position and then presented with a list of positive and negative words. When they were later asked to recall those words, the slouchers showed a negative recall bias (remembering the bad stuff more than the good stuff), while those who sat upright showed no such bias. And in a 2009 study of Japanese schoolchildren, those who were trained to sit with upright posture were more productive than their classmates in writing assignments.

Read the entire article here, preferably not via your smartphone.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Hate Crimes and the Google Correlation

Google-search-hate-speechIt had never occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense: there’s a direct correlation between Muslim hates crimes and Muslim hate searches on Google. For that matter, there is probably a correlation between other types of hate speech and hate crimes — women, gays, lesbians, bosses, blacks, whites, bad drivers, religion X. But it is certainly the case that Muslims and the Islamic religion are taking the current brunt both online and in the real world.

Clearly, we have a long way to go in learning that entire populations are not to blame for the criminal acts of a few. However, back to the correlations.

Mining of Google search data shows indisputable relationships. As the researchers point out, “When Islamophobic searches are at their highest levels, such as during the controversy over the ‘ground zero mosque’ in 2010 or around the anniversary of 9/11, hate crimes tend to be at their highest levels, too.” Interestingly enough there are currently just over 50 daily searches for “I hate my boss” in the US. In November there were 120 searches per day for “I hate Muslims”.

So, here’s an idea. Let’s get Google to replace the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the search page (who uses that anyway) with “I’m Feeling Hateful”. This would make the search more productive for those needing to vent their hatred.

More from NYT:

HOURS after the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2, and minutes after the media first reported that at least one of the shooters had a Muslim-sounding name, a disturbing number of Californians had decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them.

The top Google search in California with the word “Muslims” in it was “kill Muslims.” And the rest of America searched for the phrase “kill Muslims” with about the same frequency that they searched for “martini recipe,” “migraine symptoms” and “Cowboys roster.”

People often have vicious thoughts. Sometimes they share them on Google. Do these thoughts matter?

Yes. Using weekly data from 2004 to 2013, we found a direct correlation between anti-Muslim searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

We measured Islamophobic sentiment by using common Google searches that imply hateful attitudes toward Muslims. A search for “are all Muslims terrorists?” for example leaves little to the imagination about what the searcher really thinks. Searches for “I hate Muslims” are even clearer.

When Islamophobic searches are at their highest levels, such as during the controversy over the “ground zero mosque” in 2010 or around the anniversary of 9/11, hate crimes tend to be at their highest levels, too.

In 2014, according to the F.B.I., anti-Muslim hate crimes represented 16.3 percent of the total of 1,092 reported offenses. Anti-Semitism still led the way as a motive for hate crimes, at 58.2 percent.

Hate crimes may seem chaotic and unpredictable, a consequence of random neurons that happen to fire in the brains of a few angry young men. But we can explain some of the rise and fall of anti-Muslim hate crimes just based on what people are Googling about Muslims.

The frightening thing is this: If our model is right, Islamophobia and thus anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although it will take awhile for the F.B.I. to collect and analyze the data before we know whether anti-Muslim hate crimes are in fact rising spectacularly now, Islamophobic searches in the United States were 10 times higher the week after the Paris attacks than the week before. They have been elevated since then and rose again after the San Bernardino attack.

According to our model, when all the data is analyzed by the F.B.I., there will have been more than 200 anti-Muslim attacks in 2015, making it the worst year since 2001.

How can these Google searches track Islamophobia so well? Who searches for “I hate Muslims” anyway?

We often think of Google as a source from which we seek information directly, on topics like the weather, who won last night’s game or how to make apple pie. But sometimes we type our uncensored thoughts into Google, without much hope that Google will be able to help us. The search window can serve as a kind of confessional.

There are thousands of searches every year, for example, for “I hate my boss,” “people are annoying” and “I am drunk.” Google searches expressing moods, rather than looking for information, represent a tiny sample of everyone who is actually thinking those thoughts.

There are about 1,600 searches for “I hate my boss” every month in the United States. In a survey of American workers, half of the respondents said that they had left a job because they hated their boss; there are about 150 million workers in America.

In November, there were about 3,600 searches in the United States for “I hate Muslims” and about 2,400 for “kill Muslims.” We suspect these Islamophobic searches represent a similarly tiny fraction of those who had the same thoughts but didn’t drop them into Google.

“If someone is willing to say ‘I hate them’ or ‘they disgust me,’ we know that those emotions are as good a predictor of behavior as actual intent,” said Susan Fiske, a social psychologist at Princeton, pointing to 50 years of psychology research on anti-black bias. “If people are making expressive searches about Muslims, it’s likely to be tied to anti-Muslim hate crime.”

Google searches seem to suffer from selection bias: Instead of asking a random sample of Americans how they feel, you just get information from those who are motivated to search. But this restriction may actually help search data predict hate crimes.

Read more here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

PhotoMash: Honey Boo-Boo and Trump’s Jihadists

Oh, the Washington Post is the source that keeps on giving. We’re only a few days into 2016, and the newspaper’s online editors continue to deliver wonderfully juxtaposed stories that highlight the peculiar absurdity of contemporary (American) “news”.

Photomash-honey-booboo-vs-donald-for-isis

This photomash (or more appropriately “storymash”) comes to us from the Washington Post, January 2, 2016. Both subjects are courtesy of our odd fascination with the hideous monsters created by reality TV.

The first story describes Discovery Communications re-awakening; aiming to move away from the reality trash TV of Honey Boo Boo. The second, highlights our move towards the new phenomenon of reality trash politics spearheaded by the comb-overed-one.

Send to Kindle

Fight or Flight (or Record?)

Google-search-danger

Psychologists, social scientists and researchers of the human brain have long maintained that we have three typical responses to an existential, usually physical, threat. First, we may stand our ground to tackle and fight the threat. Second, we may turn and run from danger. Third, we may simply freeze with indecision and inaction. These responses have been studied, documented and confirmed over the decades. Further, they tend to mirror those of other animals when faced with a life-threatening situation.

But, now that humans have entered the smartphone age, it appears that there is a fourth response — to film or record the threat. This may seem hard to believe and foolhardy, but quite disturbingly it’s is a growing trend, especially among younger people.

From the Telegraph:

If you witnessed a violent attack on an innocent victim, would you:

a) help
b) run
c) freeze

Until now, that was the hypothetical question we all asked ourselves when reading about horrific events such as terror attacks.

What survival instinct would come most naturally? Fight or flight?

No longer. Over the last couple of years it’s become very obvious that there’s a fourth option:

d) record it all on your smartphone.

This reaction of filming traumatic events has become more prolific in recent weeks. Last month’s terror attacks in Paris saw mobile phone footage of people being shot, photos of bodies lying in the street, and perhaps most memorably, a pregnant woman clinging onto a window ledge.

Saturday [December 5, 2015] night saw another example when a terror suspect started attacking passengers on the Tube at Leytonstone Station. Most of the horrific incident was captured on video, as people stood filming him.

One brave man, 33-year-old engineer David Pethers, tried to fight the attacker. He ended up with a cut to the neck as he tried to protect passing children. But while he was intervening, others just held up their phones.

“There were so many opportunities where someone could have grabbed him,” he told the Daily Mail. “One guy came up to me afterwards and said ‘well done, I want to shake your hand, you are the only one who did anything, I got the whole thing on film.’

“I was so angry, I nearly turned on him but I walked away. I though, ‘Are you crazy? You are standing there filming and did nothing.’ I was really angry afterwards.”

It’s hard to disagree. Most of us know heroism is rare and admirable. We can easily understand people trying to escape and save themselves, or even freezing in the face of terror.

But deliberately doing nothing and choosing to film the whole thing? That’s a lot harder to sympathise with.

Psychotherapist Richard Reid agrees – “the sensible option would be to think about your own safety and get out, or think about helping people” – but he says it’s important we understand this new reaction.

“Because events like terror attacks are so outside our experience, people don’t fully connect with it,” he explains.

“It’s like they’re watching a film. It doesn’t occur to them they could be in danger or they could be helping. The reality only sinks in after the event. It’s a natural phenomenon. It’s not necessarily the most useful response, but we have to accept it.”

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Now We Can All Be Michael Scott And Number 6

Or, if you are from the UK — you can be David Brent. That is, we can all aspire to be a terrible boss. And, it’s all courtesy of the techno-enabled Uberified gig-economy.

Those of us who have a boss will identify with the mostly excruciating ritual that is the annual performance review; your work, your attitude, your personality is dissected, sliced and diced, scored, rated and ranked. However, as traumatic as this may be for you, remember that at least your boss actually interacts (usually) with you, and may actually have come to know you (somewhat), over a period of some years.

But, how would it feel to be evaluated in this way — scored and rated — by complete strangers during a fleeting interaction that may only have lasted minutes? Online social media tools make this scoring wonderfully easy and convenient — just check a box or select 1-5 stars or a thumbs up/down. Add to this the sharing / gig economy, and we now have millions of people ready (and eager) to score millions of others for waiting tables, chauffeuring a car, delivering pizza, writing an app, cleaning a house, walking your dog, mowing your lawn. And, the list grows each day. Thus, you may be an employee to any numbers of managers throughout each day — it’s just that each manager is actually one of your customers, and each customer is armed with your score.

Where will this lead us? Should we rank our partners and spouses each day, indeed, several times each day? Will we score our kids for table etiquette, manners, talk-back? Should we score the check-out employee, the bank clerk, the bus driver, barista, nurse practitioner, car mechanic, surgeon? Ugh.

But you can certainly see why corporate executives are falling over themselves to have customers anonymously score their customer-facing employees. For the process devolves power to the customer, and removes management from having to make the once tough personnel decisions. So, why not have hordes of anonymous reviews and aggregated scores from customers determine the fate of low-level service employees? This would seem to be the ultimate customer service.

Yet, by replacing the human connection between employer/customer and employee/service worker with scores and algorithms we are further commoditizing ourselves. We erode our humanity by allowing ourselves to be quantified and enumerated, and for doing the same to others, known and unknown. Having the power to score and rate another person at the press of a finger — anonymously — may make for savvy 21st century management but it makes for a colder, crueler world, which increasingly reads like a dystopian novel.

From the Verge:

Soon, you’ll be able to go to the Olive Garden and order your fettuccine alfredo from a tablet mounted to the table. After paying, you’ll rate the server.

Then you can use that tablet to hail an Uber driver, whom you’ll also rate, from one to five stars. You can take it to your Airbnb, which you’ll award one to five stars across several categories, and get a TaskRabbit or Postmates worker to pick up groceries — rate them too. Maybe you’ll check on the web developer you’ve hired through Upwork, perusing the screenshots taken automatically from her computer, and think about how you’ll rate her when the job is done. You could hire someone from Handy to clean the place before you leave. More stars.

The on-demand economy has scrambled the roles of employer and employee in ways that courts and regulators are just beginning to parse. So far, the debate has focused on whether workers should be contractors or employees, a question sometimes distilled into an argument about who’s the boss: are workers their own bosses, as the companies often claim, or is the platform their boss, policing their work through algorithms and rules?

But there’s a third party that’s often glossed over: the customer. The rating systems used by these companies have turned customers into unwitting and sometimes unwittingly ruthless middle managers, more efficient than any boss a company could hope to hire. They’re always there, working for free, hypersensitive to the smallest error. All the algorithm has to do is tally up their judgments and deactivate accordingly.

Ratings help these companies to achieve enormous scale, managing large pools of untrained contract workers without having to hire supervisors. It’s a nice arrangement for customers too, who get cheap service with a smile — even if it’s an anxious one. But for the workers, already in the precarious position of contract labor, making every customer a boss is a terrifying prospect. After all, they — we — can be entitled jerks.

“You get pretty good at kissing ass just because you have to,” an Uber driver told me. “Uber and Lyft have created this monstrous brand of customer where they expect Ritz Carlton service at McDonald’s prices.”

In March, when Judge Edward Chen denied Uber’s motion for summary judgement on the California drivers’ class action suit, he seized on the idea that ratings aren’t just a customer feedback tool — they represent a new level of monitoring, far more pervasive than any watchful boss. Customer ratings, Chen wrote, give Uber an “arguably tremendous amount of control over the ‘manner and means’ of its drivers’ performance.” Quoting from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he wrote that a “state of conscious and permanent visibility assures the automatic functioning of power.”

Starting with Ebay, rating systems have typically been described as way of establishing trust between strangers. Some commentators go so far as to say ratings are more effective than government regulation. “Uber and Airbnb are in fact some of the most regulated ecosystems in the world,” said Joshua Gans, an economist at the University of Toronto, at an FTC workshop earlier this year. Rather than a single certification before you can begin work, everyone is regulated constantly through a system of mutually assured judgment.

Certainly customers sometimes have awful experiences — reckless driving, creepy comments — and the rating system can help report them. But when it comes to policing dangerous behavior, most of these platforms have come to rely not on ratings but on traditional safety measures — identity verification, background checks, and the knowledge that any illegal actions can be investigated and enforced through the tracking devices every worker carries. We can’t rate for criminal histories, poor training, or negligent car maintenance.

So what do we rate for? We rate for the routes drivers take, for price fluctuations beyond their control, for slow traffic, for refusing to speed, for talking too much or too little, for failing to perform large tasks unrealistically quickly, for the food being cold when they delivered it, for telling us that, No, we can’t bring beer in the car and put our friend in the trunk — really, for any reason at all, including subconscious biases about race or gender, a proven problem on many crowdsourced platforms. This would be a nuisance if feedback were just feedback, but ratings have become the primary metric in automated systems determining employment. If you imagine the things customers rate down for as firing decisions in a traditional workplace, they look capricious and harsh. It’s a strange amount of power for customers to hold, all the more so considering that many don’t know they wield it.

Sometimes, as in Uber’s system, workers have the opportunity to rate customers back. An Uber spokesperson told me that, “Uber’s priority is to connect you with a safe, reliable ride — no matter who you are, where you’re coming from, or where you’re going. Achieving that goal for our community means maintaining an environment of mutual accountability and respect. We want everyone to have a great ride, every time, and two-way feedback is one of the many ways we work to make that possible. “

Read more here.

Video: The Prisoner – I’m not a number, I’m a free man! 1967. Courtesy: Patrick  McGoohan / ITC Entertainment.

Send to Kindle

Rudeness Goes Viral

We know intuitively, anecdotally and through scientific study that aggressive behavior can be transmitted to others through imitation. The famous Bobo doll experiment devised by researchers at Stanford University in the early 1960s, and numerous precursors, showed that subjects given an opportunity to observe aggressive models later reproduced a good deal of physical and verbal aggression substantially identical with that of the model. In these studies the model was usually someone with a higher social status or with greater authority (e.g., an adult) than the observer (e.g., a child).

Recent updates to these studies now show that low-intensity behaviors such as rudeness can be as equally contagious as more intense behaviors like violence. Fascinatingly, the contagion seems to work equally well even if the model and observer are peers.

So, keep this in mind: watching rude behaviors leads us to be rude to others.

From Scientific American:

Flu season is nearly upon us, and in an effort to limit contagion and spare ourselves misery, many of us will get vaccinated. The work of Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis has helped restrict the spread of the nasty bug for generations, and the influenza vaccine is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. But before the vaccine could be developed, scientists first had to identify the cause of influenza — and, importantly, recognize that it was contagious.

New research by Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez at the University of Florida takes that same first step in identifying a different kind of contagious menace: rudeness. In a series of studies, Foulk and colleagues demonstrate that being the target of rude behavior, or even simply witnessing rude behavior, induces rudeness. People exposed to rude behavior tend to have concepts associated with rudeness activated in their minds, and consequently may interpret ambiguous but benign behaviors as rude. More significantly, they themselves are more likely to behave rudely toward others, and to evoke hostility, negative affect, and even revenge from others.

The finding that negative behavior can beget negative behavior is not exactly new, as researchers demonstrated decades ago that individuals learn vicariously and will repeat destructive actions.  In the now infamous Bobo doll experiment, for example, children who watched an adult strike a Bobo doll with a mallet or yell at it were themselves abusive toward the doll.  Similarly, supervisors who believe they are mistreated by managers tend to pass on this mistreatment to their employees.

Previous work on the negative contagion effect, however, has focused primarily on high-intensity behaviors like hitting or abusive supervision that are (thankfully) relatively infrequent in everyday life.  In addition, in most previous studies the destructive behavior was modeled by someone with a higher status than the observer. These extreme negative behaviors may thus get repeated because (a) they are quite salient and (b) the observer is consciously and intentionally trying to emulate the behavior of someone with an elevated social status.

To examine whether this sensitivity impacts social behavior, Foulk’s team conducted another study in which participants were asked to play the part of an employee at a local bookstore.  Participants first observed a video showing either a polite or a rude interaction among coworkers.  They were then asked to respond to an email from a customer.  The email was either neutral (e.g., “I am writing to check on an order I placed a few weeks ago.”), highly aggressive (e.g., “I guess you or one of your incompetent staff must have lost my order.”), or moderately rude (I’m really surprised by this as EVERYBODY said you guys give really good customer service???).

Foulk and colleagues again found that prior exposure to rude behavior creates a specific sensitivity to rudeness. Notably, the type of video participants observed did not affect their responses to the neutral or aggressive emails; instead, the nature of those emails drove the response.  That is, all participants were more likely to send a hostile response to the aggressive email than to neutral email, regardless of whether they had previously observed a polite or rude employee interaction.  However, the type of video participants observed early in the study did affect their interpretation of and response to the rude email.  Those who had seen the polite video adopted a benign interpretation of the moderately rude email and delivered a neutral response, while those who had seen the rude video adopted a malevolent interpretation and delivered a hostile response.  Thus, observing rude behaviors, even those committed by coworkers or peers, resulted in greater sensitivity and heightened response to rudeness.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Clowns, Ducks and Dancing Girls

OK, OK. I’ve had to break my own rule (again). You know, the one that states that I’m not supposed to write about politics. The subject is far too divisive, I’m told. However, as a US-based, Brit and hence a somewhat removed observer — though I can actually vote — I cannot stay on the sidelines.

Politics-Cruz-ducks-15Jan2016

For US politics and its never-ending election season is a process that must be observed, studied, dissected and savored. After all, it’s not really politics — it’s a hysterically entertaining reality TV show complete with dancing girls, duck hunting, character assassination, clowns, demagogues, guns, hypocrisy, plaid shirts, lies and so much more. Best of all, there are no policies or substantive ideas of any kind; just pure entertainment. Netflix should buy the exclusive rights!

Politics-Trump-rally-15Jan2016

Image, top: Phil Robertson, star of the Duck Dynasty reality TV show, says Cruz is the man for the job because he is godly, loves America, and is willing to kill a duck to make gumbo soup. Courtesy of the Guardian.

Image, bottom, Political rally for Donald Trump featuring gyrating dancing girls and warnings to the “enemy”. Courtesy of Fox News.

Send to Kindle

Design Thinking Versus Product Development

Out with product managers; in with design thinkers. Time for some corporate creativity. Think user journeys and empathy roadmaps.

A different corporate mantra is beginning to take hold at some large companies like IBM. It’s called design thinking, and while it’s not necessarily new, it holds promise for companies seeking to meet the needs of their customers at a fundamental level. Where design is often thought of in terms of defining and constructing cool-looking products, design thinking is used to capture a business problem at a broader level, shape business strategy and deliver a more holistic, deeper solution to customers. And, importantly, to do so more quickly than through a typical product development life-cycle.

From NYT:

Phil Gilbert is a tall man with a shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses. He typically wears cowboy boots and bluejeans to work — hardly unusual these days, except he’s an executive at IBM, a company that still has a button-down suit-and-tie reputation. And in case you don’t get the message from his wardrobe, there’s a huge black-and-white photograph hanging in his office of a young Bob Dylan, hunched over sheet music, making changes to songs in the “Highway 61 Revisited” album. It’s an image, Mr. Gilbert will tell you, that conveys both a rebel spirit and hard work.

Let’s not get carried away. Mr. Gilbert, who is 59 years old, is not trying to redefine an entire generation. On the other hand, he wants to change the habits of a huge company as it tries to adjust to a new era, and that is no small task.

IBM, like many established companies, is confronting the relentless advance of digital technology. For these companies, the question is: Can you grow in the new businesses faster than your older, lucrative businesses decline?

Mr. Gilbert answers that question with something called design thinking. (His title is general manager of design.) Among other things, design thinking flips traditional technology product development on its head. The old way is that you come up with a new product idea and then try to sell it to customers. In the design thinking way, the idea is to identify users’ needs as a starting point.

Mr. Gilbert and his team talk a lot about “iteration cycles,” “lateral thinking,” “user journeys” and “empathy maps.” To the uninitiated, the canons of design thinking can sound mushy and self-evident. But across corporate America, there is a rising enthusiasm for design thinking not only to develop products but also to guide strategy and shape decisions of all kinds. The September cover article of the Harvard Business Review was “The Evolution of Design Thinking.” Venture capital firms are hiring design experts, and so are companies in many industries.

Still, the IBM initiative stands out. The company is well on its way to hiring more than 1,000 professional designers, and much of its management work force is being trained in design thinking. “I’ve never seen any company implement it on the scale of IBM,” said William Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford University. “To try to change a culture in a company that size is a daunting task.”

Daunting seems an understatement. IBM has more than 370,000 employees. While its revenues are huge, the company’s quarterly reports have shown them steadily declining in the last two years. The falloff in revenue is partly intentional, as the company sold off less profitable operations, but the sometimes disappointing profits are not, and they reflect IBM’s struggle with its transition. Last month, the company shaved its profit target for 2015.

In recent years, the company has invested heavily in new fields, including data analytics, cloud computing, mobile technology, security, social media software for business and its Watson artificial intelligence technology. Those businesses are growing rapidly, generating revenue of $25 billion last year, and IBM forecasts that they will contribute $40 billion by 2018, through internal growth and acquisitions. Just recently, for example, IBM agreed to pay $2 billion for the Weather Company (not including its television channel), gaining its real-time and historical weather data to feed into Watson and analytics software.

But IBM’s biggest businesses are still the traditional ones — conventional hardware, software and services — which contribute 60 percent of its revenue and most of its profit. And these IBM mainstays are vulnerable, as customers increasingly prefer to buy software as a service, delivered over the Internet from remote data centers.

Recognizing the importance of design is not new, certainly not at IBM. In the 1950s, Thomas J. Watson Jr., then the company’s chief executive, brought on Eliot Noyes, a distinguished architect and industrial designer, to guide a design program at IBM. And Noyes, in turn, tapped others including Paul Rand, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen in helping design everything from corporate buildings to the eight-bar corporate logo to the IBM Selectric typewriter with its golf-ball-shaped head.

At that time, and for many years, design meant creating eye-pleasing, functional products. Now design thinking has broader aims, as a faster, more productive way of organizing work: Look at problems first through the prism of users’ needs, research those needs with real people and then build prototype products quickly.

Defining problems more expansively is part of the design-thinking ethos. At a course in New York recently, a group of IBM managers were given pads and felt-tip pens and told to sketch designs for “the thing that holds flowers on a table” in two minutes. The results, predictably, were vases of different sizes and shapes.

Next, they were given two minutes to design “a better way for people to enjoy flowers in their home.” In Round 2, the ideas included wall placements, a rotating flower pot run by solar power and a software app for displaying images of flowers on a home TV screen.

Read the entire story here.

Send to Kindle

PhotoMash: A Blind Girl Sees; A Sighted Man is Blind

Today’s juxtaposition of images and stories comes courtesy of the Independent, from December 15, 2015. One is literally blind, the other figuratively.

The girl on the left is a 14-year old from Malawi. Her name is Rose. As a result of severe eye cataracts she was blind since birth. A recent operation restored her sight.

The man on the right can see, and according to his doctors is in excellent health. But he remains blind to all around, except his own reflection.

Photomash-Blind-versus-Blind

Images courtesy of Independent, UK.

Send to Kindle

On the Joys of Not Being Twenty Again

I’m not twenty, and am constantly reminded that I’m not — both from internal alerts and external messages. Would I like to be younger? Of course. But it certainly comes at a price. So, after reading the exploits of a 20-something forced to live without her smartphone for a week, I realize it’s not all that bad being a cranky old luddite.

I hope that the ordeal, excerpted below, is tongue-very-much-in-cheek but I suspect it’s not: constant status refreshes, morning selfies, instant content gratification, nano-scale attention span, over-stimulation, life-stream documentation, peer ranking, group-think, interrupted interruptions. Thus, I realize I’m rather content not to be twenty after all.

From the Telegraph:

I have a confession to make: I am addicted to my smartphone. I use it as an alarm clock, map, notepad, mirror and camera.

I spend far too much time on Twitter and Instagram and have this week realised I have a nervous tick where I repeatedly unlock my smartphone.

And because of my phone’s many apps which organise my life and help me navigate the world, like many people my age, I am quite literally lost without it.

I am constantly told off by friends and family for using my phone during conversations, and I recently found out (to my horror) that I have taken over 5,000 selfies.

So when my phone broke I seized the opportunity to spend an entire week without it, and kept a diary each day.

Day One: Thursday

Frazzled, I reached to my bedside table, so I could take a morning selfie and send it to my friends.

Realising why that could not happen, my hand and my heart both felt empty. I knew at this point it was going to be a long week.

Day Two: Friday

I basked in the fact my colleagues could not contact me – and if I did not reply to their emails straight away it would not be the end of the world.

I then took the train home to see my parents outside London.

I couldn’t text my mother about any delays which may have happened (they didn’t), and she couldn’t tell me if she was going to be late to the station (she wasn’t). The lack of phone did nothing but make me feel anxious and prevent me from being able to tweet about the irritating children screaming on the train.

Day Three: Saturday

It is a bit weird feeling completely cut off from the outside world; I am not chained to my computer like I am at work and I am not allowed to constantly be on my laptop like a teen hacker.

It was nice though – a real detox. We went on a walk with our spaniel in the countryside near the Chiltern Hills. I had to properly talk to everyone, instead of constantly refreshing Twitter, which was novel.

I do feel like my attention span is improving every day, but I equally feel anchorless and lost without having any way of contacting anyone, or documenting my life.

….

Day Seven: Wednesday

My attention span and patience have grown somewhat, and I have noticed I daydream and have thoughts independent of Twitter far more often than usual.

Read the entire account here.

Send to Kindle

Back to the Future

France_in_XXI_Century_Latest_fashionJust over a hundred years ago, at the turn of the 19th century, Jean-Marc Côté and some of his fellow French artists were commissioned to imagine what the world would look like in 2000. Their colorful sketches and paintings portrayed some interesting inventions, though all seem to be grounded in familiar principles and incremental innovations — mechanical helpers, ubiquitous propellers and wings. Interestingly, none of these artist-futurists imagined a world beyond Victorian dress, gender inequality and wars. But these are gems nonetheless.

France_in_XXI_Century._Air_cabSome of their works found their way into cigar boxes and cigarette cases, others were exhibited at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. My three favorites: a Tailor of the Latest Fashion, the Aero-cab Station and the Whale Bus. See the full complement of these remarkable futuristic visions at the Public Domain Review, and check out the House Rolling Through the Countryside and At School.

I suspect our contemporary futurists — born in the late 20th or early 21st-century — will fall prey to the same narrow visions when asked to sketch our planet in 3000. But despite the undoubted wealth of new gadgets and gizmos a thousand years from now the challenge would be to see if their imagined worlds might be at peace and with equality for all.
France_in_XXI_Century_Whale_busImages courtesy of the Public Domain Review, a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Barbie the Surveillance Officer

Google-search-hello-barbie

There are probably any number of reasons that you, and your kids, may choose to steer clear of Barbie (the Mattel doll that is). Detractors will point to a growing list of problems for which Barbie is to blame, including: gender stereotyping, body image distortion, vacuum cleaner accidents with her fake hair, eating disorders, and poor self esteem. However, it may not have occurred to you that the latest incarnation of the doll — interactive Hello Barbie — could also be spying on you and your family. Could the CIA, NSA or MI5 be keeping tabs on you through your kid’s doll? Creepy, and oh, she’s still far too thin.

From the Guardian:

Mattel’s latest Wi-Fi enabled Barbie doll can easily be hacked to turn it into a surveillance device for spying on children and listening into conversations without the owner’s knowledge.

The Hello Barbie doll is billed as the world’s first “interactive doll” capable of listening to a child and responding via voice, in a similar way to Apple’s Siri, Google’s Now and Microsoft’s Cortana.

It connects to the internet via Wi-Fi and has a microphone to record children and send that information off to third-parties for processing before responding with natural language responses.

But US security researcher Matt Jakubowski discovered that when connected to Wi-Fi the doll was vulnerable to hacking, allowing him easy access to the doll’s system information, account information, stored audio files and direct access to the microphone.

Jakubowski told NBC: “You can take that information and find out a person’s house or business. It’s just a matter of time until we are able to replace their servers with ours and have her say anything we want.”

Once Jakubowski took control of where the data was sent the snooping possibilities were apparent. The doll only listens in on a conversation when a button is pressed and the recorded audio is encrypted before being sent over the internet, but once a hacker has control of the doll the privacy features could be overridden.

It was the ease with which the doll was compromise that was most concerning. The information stored by the doll could allow hackers to take over a home Wi-Fi network and from there gain access to other internet connected devices, steal personal information and cause other problems for the owners, potentially without their knowledge.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Forget The Millennials — It’s Time For Generation K

Blame fickle social scientists. After the baby-boomers the most researched generation has been that of the millennials — so-called due to their coming of age at the turn of the century. We know what millennails like to eat and drink, how they dress, their politics; we know about their proclivity to sharing, their need for meaning and fun at work; we know they need attention and constant feedback. In fact, we have learned so much — and perhaps so little — from the thousands of, often-conflicting, research studies of millennials that some researchers have decided to move on to new blood. Yes, it’s time to tap another rich vein of research material — Generation K. But I’ll stop after relating what the “K” means in Generation K, and let you form your own conclusions.

Generation K is named for Katniss, as in the Hunger Games‘ hero Katniss Everdeen. That’s right, if you were born between 1995 and 2002, according to economist Noreena Hertz you are Gen-Katniss.

From the Guardian:

The brutal, bleak series that has captured the hearts of a generation will come to a brutal, bleak end in November when The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 arrives in cinemas. It is the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga, which has immersed the young in a cleverly realised world of trauma, violence, mayhem and death.

For fans of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy about a young girl, Katniss Everdeen, forced to fight for survival in a country ruled by fear and fuelled by televised gladiatorial combat, this is the moment they have been waiting for.

Since the first book in the trilogy was published in 2008, Collins’s tale has sold more than 65 million copies in the US alone. The films, the first of which was released in 2012, have raked in more than $2bn worldwide at the box office and made a global star of their leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the increasingly traumatised Katniss with a perfect mix of fury and resignation. For the huge appeal of The Hunger Games goes deeper than the fact that it’s an exciting tale well told. The generation who came to Katniss as young teens and have grown up ploughing through the books and queuing for the movies respond to her story in a particularly personal way.

As to why that might be, the economist and academic Noreena Hertz, who coined the term Generation K (after Katniss) for those born between 1995 and 2002, says that this is a generation riddled with anxiety, distrustful of traditional institutions from government to marriage, and, “like their heroine Katniss Everdeen, [imbued with] a strong sense of what is right and fair”.

“I think The Hunger Games resonates with them so much because they are Katniss navigating a dark and difficult world,” says Hertz, who interviewed 2,000 teenagers from the UK and the US about their hopes, fears and beliefs, concluding that today’s teens are shaped by three factors: technology, recession and coming of age in a time of great unease.

“This is a generation who grew up through 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings and Islamic State terrors. They see danger piped down their smartphones and beheadings on their Facebook page,” she says. “My data showed very clearly how anxious they are about everything from getting into debt or not getting a job, to wider issues such as climate change and war – 79% of those who took part in my survey worried about getting a job, 72% worried about debt, and you have to remember these are teenagers.

“In previous generations teenagers did not think in this way. Unlike the first-era millennials [who Hertz classes as those aged between 20 and 30] who grew up believing that the world was their oyster and ‘Yes we can’, this new generation knows the world is an unequal and harsh place.”

Writer and activist Laurie Penny, herself a first-era millennial at the age of 29, agrees. “I think what today’s young people have grasped that my generation didn’t get until our early 20s, is that adults don’t know everything,” she says. “They might be trying their best but they don’t always have your best interests at heart. The current generation really understands that – they’re more politically engaged and they have more sense of community because they’re able to find each other easily thanks to their use of technology.”

One of the primary appeals of the Hunger Games trilogy is its refusal to sugarcoat the scenarios Katniss finds herself in. In contrast to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there are no reliable adult figures to dispense helpful advice and no one in authority she can truly trust (notably even the most likeable adult figures in the books tend to be flawed at best and fraudulent at worst). Even her friends may not always have her back, hard as they try – Dumbledore’s Army would probably find themselves taken out before they’d uttered a single counter-curse in the battlegrounds of Panem. At the end of the day, Katniss can only rely on one person, herself.

“Ultimately, the message of the Hunger Games is that everything’s not going to be OK,” says Penny. “One of the reasons Jennifer Lawrence is so good is because she lets you see that while Katniss is heroic, she’s also frightened all of the time. She spends the whole story being forced into situations she doesn’t want to be in. Kids respond because they can imagine what it’s like to be terrified but know that you have to carry on.”

It’s incontestable that we live in difficult times and that younger generations in particular may be more acutely aware that things aren’t improving any time soon, but is it a reach to say that fans of the Hunger Games are responding as much to the world around them as to the books?

Read the entire story here.

Video: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 Official Trailer – “We March Together”. Courtesy of the Hunger Games franchise.

Send to Kindle

Perchance Art Thou Smitten by Dapper Hipsters? Verily Methinks

Linguistic-trends-2015As the (mostly) unidirectional tide of cultural influence flows from the U.S to the United Kingdom, the English mother tongue is becoming increasingly (and distressingly, I might add) populated by Americanisms: trash instead of rubbish, fries not chips, deplane instead of disembark, shopping cart instead of trolley, bangs rather than fringe, period instead of full stop. And there’s more: 24/7, heads-up, left-field, normalcy, a savings of, deliverable, the ask, winningest.

All, might I say, utterly cringeworthy.

Yet, there may be a slight glimmer of hope, and all courtesy of the hipster generation. Hipsters, you see, crave an authentic, artisanal experience — think goat cheese and bespoke hats — that also seems to embrace language. So, in 2015, compared with a mere decade earlier, you’re more likely to hear some of the following words, which would normally be more attributable to an archaic, even Shakespearean, era:

perchance, mayhaps, parlor, amidst, amongst, whilst, unbeknownst, thou, thee, ere, hath

I’m all for it. My only hope now, is that these words will flow against the tide and into the U.S. to repair some of the previous linguistic deforestation. Methinks I’ll put some of these to immediate, good use.

From the Independent:

Hipsters are famous for their love of all things old-fashioned: 19th Century beards, pickle-making, Amish outerwear, naming their kids Clementine or Atticus. Now, they may be excavating archaic language, too.

As Chi Luu points out at JSTOR Daily  — the blog of a database of academic journals, what could be more hipster than that? — old-timey words like bespoke, peruse, smitten and dapper appear to be creeping back into the lexicon.

This data comes from Google’s Ngram viewer, which charts the frequencies of words appearing in printed sources between 1800 and 2012.

Google’s Ngram shows that lots of archaic words appear to be resurfacing — including gems like perchance, mayhaps and parlor.

The same trend is visible for words like amongst, amidst, whilst and unbeknownst, which are are archaic forms of among, amid, while and unknown.

Read the story in its entirety here.

Image courtesy of Google’s Ngram viewer / Independent.

Send to Kindle

Your Job is Killing You

Women_mealtime_st_pancras_workhouse

Many of us complain about the daily stresses from our jobs and our bosses, even our coworkers. We even bemoan the morning commute and the work we increasingly bring back home to complete in the evening. Many of us can be heard to say, “this job is killing me!”. Metaphorically, of course.

Well, researchers at Stanford and Harvard now find that in some cases your job is actually, quite literally, killing you. This may seem self-evident, but the data shows that workers with less education are significantly more likely to be employed in jobs that are more stressful and dangerous, and have less healthy workplace practices. This, in turn, leads to a significantly lower average life span than that for those with higher educational attainment. Researchers measured typical employment-related stressors such as: unemployment, layoffs, absence of employer subsidized health insurance, shift work, long working hours, job insecurity and work-family conflict. The less education a worker has, the more likely that she or he will suffer a greater burden from one or more of these stressors.

Looks like we’re gradually reverting to well-tested principles of Victorian worker exploitation. Check out more details from the study here.

From Washington Post:

People often like to groan about how their job is “killing” them. Tragically, for some groups of people in the U.S., that statement appears to be true.

A new study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford has quantified just how much a stressful workplace may be shaving off of Americans’ life spans. It suggests that the amount of life lost to stress varies significantly for people of different races, educational levels and genders, and ranges up to nearly three years of life lost for some groups.

Past research has shown an incredible variation in life expectancy around the United States, depending on who you are and where you live. Mapping life expectancy around the nation by both county of residence and race, you can see that people in some parts of the U.S. live as many as 33 years longer on average than people in other parts of the country, the researchers say.

Those gaps appear to be getting worse, as the wealthy extend their life spans and other groups are stagnant. One study found that men and women with fewer than 12 years of education had life expectancies that were still on par with most adults in the 1950s and 1960s — suggesting the economic gains of the last few decades have gone mostly to more educated people. The financial crisis and subsequent recession, which put many people in economic jeopardy, may have worsened this effect.

There are lots of reasons that people with lower incomes and educations tend to have lower life expectancies: differences in access to health care, in exposure to air and water pollution, in nutrition and health care early in life, and in behaviors, such as smoking, exercise and diet. Past research has also shown that job insecurity, long hours, heavy demands at work and other stresses can also cut down on a worker’s life expectancy by taking a heavy toll on a worker’s health. (If you work in an office, here are some exercises you might try to prevent this.)

But researchers say this is the first study to look at the ways that a workplace’s influence on life expectancy specifically break down by racial and educational lines.

To do their analysis, they divided people into 18 different groups by race, education and sex. They then looked at 10 different workplace factors — including unemployment and layoffs, the absence of health insurance, shift work, long working hours, job insecurity and work-family conflict — and estimated the effect that each would have on annual mortality and life expectancy.

The data show that people with less education are much more likely to end up in jobs with more unhealthy workplace practices that cut down on one’s life span. People with the highest educational attainment were less affected by workplace stress than people with the least education, the study says.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Women mealtime at St Pancras workhouse, London. Courtesy: Peter Higginbothom. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Send to Kindle

The Vicious Cycle of Stuff

google-search-stuff

Many of us in the West, and now increasingly in developing nations, are the guilty perpetrators of the seemingly never-ending cycle of consumption and accumulation. Yet for all the talk of sustainability, down-sizing, and responsible consumption we continue to gather, hoard and surround ourselves with more and more stuff.

From the Guardian:

The personal storage industry rakes in $22bn each year, and it’s only getting bigger. Why?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because vast nations of hoarders have finally decided to get their acts together and clean out the hall closet.

It’s also not because we’re short on space. In 1950 the average size of a home in the US was 983 square feet. Compare that to 2011, when American houses ballooned to an average size of 2,480 square feet – almost triple the size.

And finally, it’s not because of our growing families. This will no doubt come as a great relief to our helpful commenters who each week kindly suggest that for maximum environmental impact we simply stop procreating altogether: family sizes in the western world are steadily shrinking, from an average of 3.37 people in 1950 to just 2.6 today.

So, if our houses have tripled in size while the number of people living in them has shrunk, what, exactly, are we doing with all of this extra space? And why the billions of dollars tossed to an industry that was virtually nonexistent a generation or two ago?

Well, friends, it’s because of our stuff. What kind of stuff? Who cares! Whatever fits! Furniture, clothing, children’s toys (for those not fans of deprivation, that is), games, kitchen gadgets and darling tchotchkes that don’t do anything but take up space and look pretty for a season or two before being replaced by other, newer things – equally pretty and equally useless.

The simple truth is this: you can read all the books and buy all the cute cubbies and baskets and chalkboard labels, even master the life-changing magic of cleaning up – but if you have more stuff than you do space to easily store it, your life will be spent a slave to your possessions.

We shop because we’re bored, anxious, depressed or angry, and we make the mistake of buying material goods and thinking they are treats which will fill the hole, soothe the wound, make us feel better. The problem is, they’re not treats, they’re responsibilities and what we own very quickly begins to own us.

The second you open your wallet to buy something, it costs you – and in more ways than you might think. Yes, of course there’s the price tag and the corresponding amount of time it took you to earn that amount of money, but possessions also cost you space in your home and time spent cleaning and maintaining them. And as the token environmentalist in the room, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that when you buy something, you’re also taking on the task of disposing of it (responsibly or not) when you’re done with it. Our addiction to consumption is a vicious one, and it’s stressing us out.

I know this because I’ve experienced it, having lived in everything from a four-bedroom house to my current one-bedroom flat I share with my daughter – but I’m also bringing some cold, hard science to the table.

A study published by UCLA showed that women’s stress hormones peaked during the times they were dealing with their possessions and material goods. Anyone who parks on the street because they can’t fit their car into the garage, or has stared down a crammed closet, can relate.

Our addiction to consuming is a vicious one, and it’s having a markedly negative impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Time for the Bucket List to Kick the Bucket

For the same reasons that New Year’s resolutions are daft, it’s time to ditch the bucket list. Columnist Steven Thrasher rightly argues that your actions to get something done or try something new should be driven by your gusto for life — passion, curiosity, wonder, joy — rather than dictated by a check box because you’re one step closer to death. Signs that it’s time to ditch the bucket list: when the idea is co-opted by corporations, advertisers and Hollywood; when motivational posters appear in hallways; and when physical bucket list buckets and notepads go on sale at Pottery Barn or Walmart.

From the Guardian:

Before each one of us dies, let’s wipe the “bucket list” from our collective vocabulary.

I hate the term “the bucket list.” The phrase, a list of things one wants to do in life before one dies or “kicks the bucket”, is the kind of hackneyed, cliche, stupid and insipid term only we Americans can come up with.

Even worse, “the bucket list” has become an excuse for people to couch things they actually desire to try doing as only socially acceptable if framed in the face of their death. It’s as if pleasure, curiosity and fun weren’t reasons enough for action.

If you want to try doing something others might find strange or unorthodox – write a novel, learn to tap dance, engage in a rim job, field dress a deer, climb Everest, go out in drag for a night – why do you need any justification at all? And certainly, why would you need an explanation that is only justifiable in terms of kicking the bucket?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the phrase “bucket list” comes to us from the banal mind of screenwriter Justin Zackham, who developed a list of things he wanted to do before he died. Years later, his “bucket list” became the title of his corny 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It’s about two old men with terminal cancer who want to live it up before they die. That, if anyone at all, is who should be using the term “bucket list”. They want to do something with the finite time they know they have left? Fine.

But bucket list has trickled down to everday use by the perfectly healthy, the exceptionally young, and most of all, to douche bags. I realized this at Burning Man last week. Often, when I asked exceptionally boring people what had drawn them to Black Rock City, they’d say: “It was on my bucket list!”

Really? You wanted to schlep out to the desert and face freezing lows, scorching highs and soul crushing techno simply because you’re going to die someday?

There’s a funny dynamic sometimes when I go on a long trip while I’m out of work. When I backpacked through Asia and Europe in 2013, people (usually friends chained to a spouse, children and a mortgage) would sometimes awkwardly say to me: “Well, it will be the trip of a lifetime!” It was a good trip, but just one of many great journeys I’ve taken in my life so far. My adventures might interrupt someone else’s idea of what’s “normal.” But travel isn’t something I do to fulfil my “bucket list”; travel is a way of life for me. I do not rush into a trip thinking: “Good Christ, I could die tomorrow!” I don’t travel in place of the stable job or partner or kids I may or may not ever have. I do it as often as I can because it brings me joy.

Read the entire column here.

Send to Kindle