Category Archives: Idea Soup

MondayMap: Thought Police

Map-Freedom-of-ThoughtThe inflammatory rhetoric of the US election gives me pause. Pretenders to the nation’s highest office include xenophobes and racists. Yet their words of fear and hate are protected by one of the simplest and most powerful sentences written in to law:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We should give thanks for these words every day. The words protect our utterances, thoughts, beliefs and associations.

Citizens in many other country’s are not so lucky. Some nations give preferential treatment to believers in the state-sanctioned religion and discriminate against those who don’t adhere. Other nations will severely persecute or punish their own people for blasphemy and/or apostasy.

Then there’s the list of 13, including: Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Pakistan, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. Here you can be put to death for not believing or for criticizing or renouncing your state-imposed belief system.

Please visit the International Humanist and Ethical Union to read the full Freedom of Thought Report 2015. It makes for sobering reading — hard to believe we all live in the 21st century.

Image: Countries (in red) where apostasy is punishable by death. Courtesy of Independent / International Humanist and Ethical Union.

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Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

Lucifero-Alessandro-Vellutello-1534

On April 30, 2016 Ben Gittleson, a journalist for ABC News, authored this headline:

Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

Surely it is the best political headline bar none. Ever. Period.

Click here, if you wish to read the actual story behind this 7-word masterpiece.

Image: Lucifer, by Alessandro Vellutello (1534), for Dante‘s Inferno, canto 34. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Your Ticket to the Past: Tipler Cylinder

So, you want to travel back in time? Here’s the solution. But first forget the tricked-out DeLorean and H.G. Wells’ victorian time machine. What you need is a Tipler Cylinder. Let’s begin with the ingredients if you are inclined to construct your very own cylinder.

  1. Take a mass of about 10 times that of the Sun.
  2. Compress and fashion the mass into an infinitely long, spaghetti-like cylinder.
  3. Spin the cylinder, along its longitudinal axis, at least up to several billion revolutions per minute.

Once you’ve  done this all you need in a craft able to spiral around the cylinder — without getting crushed by gravity — to make use of its frame-dragging of spacetime. Voila! Do this correctly, and you might well emerge billions of years from where you began. But, you’ll be in the past, of course.

Read more about the Tipler Cylinder here.

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Sharing the Wealth: Chobani-Style

Chobani-black-cherry-yogurtOK, so I am thoroughly addicted to yogurt (or yoghurt, for my non-US readers). My favorite is the greek yogurt Fage, followed by an Aussie concoction called Noosa. Chobani doesn’t even make my top 5.

However, Chobani did something today, April 26, 2016, that made me want to cheer. The company founder, and majority stockholder, gave 10 percent of the business to his 2,000 employees. On average, each will get around $150,000; some, based on length of employment, will gain millions.

Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, founded Chobani in 2005. The company is privately held, but is estimated to be now valued at $3-5 billion. Chobani’s employees will reap their rewards when the company goes public in an IPO. In Hamdi Ulukaya’s words:

I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people.

Mr. Ulukaya is a role model for other business leaders, who would do well to follow his great example. Chobani offers us a vision that shows employer and employee working to win together.

I may have to revisit Chobani and my yogurt preferences!

From the NYT:

The 2,000 full-time employees of Chobani were handed quite the surprise on Tuesday: an ownership stake in the yogurt company that could make some of them millionaires.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani in 2005, told workers at the company’s plant here in upstate New York that he would be giving them shares worth up to 10 percent of the company when it goes public or is sold. The goal, he said, is to pass along the wealth they have helped build in the decade since the company started. Chobani is now widely considered to be worth several billion dollars.

“I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people,” Mr. Ulukaya said in an interview in his Manhattan office that was granted on the condition that no details of the program would be disclosed before the announcement. “Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time.”

Employees got the news on Tuesday morning. Each worker received a white packet; inside was information about how many “Chobani Shares” they were given. The number of shares given to each person is based on tenure, so the longer an employee has been at the company, the bigger the stake.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Chobani yogurt. Courtesy of Chobani.

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The New Morality: Shame Replaces Guilt

I don’t often agree with author and columnist David Brooks, but I think he makes a very important observation regarding the continued evolution of moral relativism. Importantly, he notes that while our collective morality has become increasingly subjective, rather than governed by universal moral principles, it is now being driven more so by shame rather than guilt.

Brooks highlights an insightful essay by Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, which lays the blame for the rise in shame versus guilt in some part on our immersion in online social networks. But, as Crouch points out despite our increasingly shame-driven culture (in the West), shame and shaming is not a new phenomenon.

Yet while shame culture has been with us for thousands of years the contemporary version offers a subtle but key difference. In ancient societies — and still mostly in Eastern cultures — avoidance of shame is about dignity and honor; in our Western world the new shame culture it is about pursuit of celebrity within the group.

From NYT:

In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote a book called “The Closing of the American Mind.” The core argument was that American campuses were awash in moral relativism. Subjective personal values had replaced universal moral principles. Nothing was either right or wrong. Amid a wave of rampant nonjudgmentalism, life was flatter and emptier.

Bloom’s thesis was accurate at the time, but it’s not accurate anymore. College campuses are today awash in moral judgment.

Many people carefully guard their words, afraid they might transgress one of the norms that have come into existence. Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned.

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Last year, Andy Crouch published an essay in Christianity Today that takes us toward an answer.

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

This creates a set of common behavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise so that they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.

Second, there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

Third, people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Crouch describes how video gamers viciously went after journalists, mostly women, who had criticized the misogyny of their games. Campus controversies get so hot so fast because even a minor slight to a group is perceived as a basic identity threat.

The ultimate sin today, Crouch argues, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes, “Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”

He notes that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, the ones in Asia, for example. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or “face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.

Read the entire column here.

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One Dollar, One Vote

Top-20-political-donors

Money continues to swirl and flow in US politics. During a presidential election season the dollar figure is now in the billions. The number is unfathomable and despicable. And, yet according to the US Supreme Court money is free speech so it’s perfectly legal — although morally abhorrent (to many).

Thus, by corollary, many people feel (and know) that the system is twisted, rigged, and corrupt. Money sways lawmakers. Money helps write laws; it overturns others. Money elects. Money smears. Money impeaches. Money filters news; it distorts fact. Money buys influence, it buys access.

Of course, in a democracy, this would seem to be a travesty — many millions of ordinary citizens without thousands or millions of dollars are left without a voice. Because the voice of the many is completely usurped by the voice of the few, replete with their expensive megaphones and smartphones with speed-dial connections to their political puppets. But, don’t forget, we — the ordinary citizens of the US — don’t live in a democracy; we live in a plutocracy. The wealthy few, rule for and by themselves.

A small example, collectively, the top 20 political donors have so far, this election season alone, donated a staggering $171.5 million to their favorite political action committees (PAC). This doesn’t even include money that’s funneled directly to the candidates themselves.

It’s obscene and corrupt.

But, hey, it’s free speech, so we’re told.

From Washington Post:

Since 2015, super PACs have raised $607.7 million and have spent $452 million. The top 50 donors together have supplied $248.2 million—41 percent of the money raised to date.

The largest share of the money has come from donors who have given between $1 million and $5 million. Five contributors giving more than $10 million each contributed 14 percent of the total raised.

Many of the biggest super PAC donors have spread around their money, financing multiple super PACs that back presidential hopefuls and congressional candidates. They hail from various sectors, with many drawing on fortunes made in the energy industry, on Wall Street and in health care.

The Washington Post is also tracking donations made through “ghost corporations” whose backers cannot be identified. Clicking on “ghost corporations” below brings up a list the corporate contributors to super PACs who have not yet been publicly linked to individual donors.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Snapshot of top donors compiled by Washington Post.

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Democracy and Education Go Hand-in-Hand

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800

Yes, it’s time to muse on the current state of affairs in the US and the current presidential election cycle. The race, in some quarters, has devolved into a peculiar hybrid of vulgar reality TV show and absurd adolescent popularity contest (with my apologies to adolescents the world over).

The incessant bloviating, bragging, lies, bigotry and hatred espoused by some of the current political candidates has me considering two elements that are vital to our democracy.

The first, our right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Constitution. However vile and repulsive their speech, the peddlers of caustic words have a right to speak. Their opponents and detractors have an equal right as well. But, this must be done by all sides, free of intimidation, threats and violence.

The second, is no less important, but you’ll not find any requirement or right listed in any statute. Yet, our democracy fully depends upon it. Our system of governance requires a citizenry that is educated and also versed in the political process. The alternative, as we increasingly see in the United States, is a politically-savvy uber-class with its moneyed handlers and benefactors, “the so-called establishment”, to which most ordinary citizens have outsourced their reasoning, and a growing underclass fueled by distrust, anger and resentment — a recipe for divisiveness and anarchy.

While founder Thomas Jefferson never did say, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” many of his writings confirm his fundamental belief that a strong democracy is existentially linked to an educated citizenry. Jefferson did say the following:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;… whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.

Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.

Light and liberty go together.

Jefferson’s powerful words as so especially important today. I have to agree with Michael Lynch professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, “Googling” a snippet of information is not a substitute for internalizing established facts, reasoned political discourse or wisdom.

We can all love the “poorly educated”, but it is our duty to ensure each and every citizen is well-educated. Anything less fails to open the door to personal opportunity and further reinforces a system of division.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Courtesy: White House Historical Association. Public Domain.

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Hyperlinks of Hypocrisy: Money, Power and Corruption

The extraordinary and very welcome leak of over 11 million files — collectively known as the Panama Papers — from one of the world’s largest offshore law firms, Mossack Fonseca, shows three very simple things. First, power corrupts. Second, the super-rich will continue to get richer. Third, the very rich live by different rules to the rest of the global population.

None of the preceding is, of course, of any surprise.

What fascinates me is to see this common thread of brash hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement links politicians of all stripes in democracies, with business leaders in totalitarian states, with so-called “communist” dictators, and holier-than-thou celebrities.

This tangled web of tax-avoiders and wealth-obfuscators links oligarchs with royals; it links Christians and Muslims; it links atheists with the pious; it links military dictators with socialists; it links criminals and bankers (too many, one and the same) and drug lords; it links sanctions-busters with sanctions-enforcers; it links the Saudis with the Iranians; it links footballers with cello players.

Avarice and greed knows no boundaries and transcends all political systems.

This, of course, shouldn’t come as any surprise either.

From the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:

A massive leak of documents exposes the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders and reveals how associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies.

The leak also provides details of the hidden financial dealings of 128 more politicians and public officials around the world.

The cache of 11.5 million records shows how a global industry of law firms and big banks sells financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars.

These are among the findings of a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations.

The files expose offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan.

They also include at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they’d been involved in wrongdoing, such as doing business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.

One of those companies supplied fuel for the aircraft that the Syrian government used to bomb and kill thousands of its own citizens, U.S. authorities have charged.

“These findings show how deeply ingrained harmful practices and criminality are in the offshore world,” said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens.” Zucman, who was briefed on the media partners’ investigation, said the release of the leaked documents should prompt governments to seek “concrete sanctions” against jurisdictions and institutions that peddle offshore secrecy.

World leaders who have embraced anti-corruption platforms feature in the leaked documents. The files reveal offshore companies linked to the family of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who has vowed to fight “armies of corruption,” as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has positioned himself as a reformer in a country shaken by corruption scandals. The files also contain new details of offshore dealings by the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a leader in the push for tax-haven reform.

The leaked data covers nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015. It allows a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.

Read the entire story here.

Video: The Panama Papers: Victims of Offshore. Courtesy: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

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Nutella Hacks

nutella-with-icecream

I come from a long line of Nutella lovers; parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, kids, grandparents all feasted on this wonderful, deliciously gooey (and unhealthy) hazelnut spread. And, like all other Nutella fans I have often pondered how to extricate the last remaining dribs and drabs from the jar — fans will know that the jar’s shape does not make this easy. So, when I found this article listing 5 key strategies for getting every last drop I couldn’t resist reposting a short excerpt for all other Nutella nuts. (You’ll have to read the full article to learn more tips.) Then you’ll wonder why you or your kids never thought of these important life lessons. Duh!

Tip Number 2 From the Telegraph:

Fill the jar with ice cream

A tip from the helpful LifeProTips community over on Reddit: “Put a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream in the jar and mix it around for a bit.” As the ice cream melts, it’ll take some of the Nutella with it and you’ll have a chocolate covered sundae. Just make sure the Nutella is fairly warm to begin with, otherwise it won’t work properly.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Nutella with ice cream. Courtesy: Reddit/imgur.

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The Power of Political Shamelessness

Cowardly_lion2I’m not quite sure when the era of political correctness died, but surely our current election cycle truly signals its end. The pendulum of discourse has now swung fully away from PC to PS — Political Shamelessness.

I suspect that the politically correct modus operandi of tip-toeing around substantive issues of our time is partly to blame for the rise of PS. Some commentators believe that PS is also fed by the shield of anonymity so perfectly enabled by our new online tools — anyone can now voice a vitriolic monologue behind a convenient anon avatar. Perhaps more so, our current culture has come to value blow-hard opinion disguised as news and hysterical reality TV re-packaged as real-life, and the more controversial, dramatic and bigoted the better.

Mark Leibovich, correspondent for NYT Magazine, looks at the roots and consequences of this epidemic of shameless public behavior. He’s quite right to assert that a “cesspool of anonymity” has facilitated a spike in indifference and shamelessness, and both are associated with false courage. Thus, it would seem that many of our public figures — especially our politicians — are petty cowards hiding behind a shield of untruth, bluster and anger. And, until we are all courageous enough to battle this tide of filthy discourse we will all continue to surf in the ocean of shamelessness.

From NYT Magazine:

Lately I’ve been thinking about the notion of false courage. It was introduced to me by an unlikely philosopher king: the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, whom I interviewed for an article on the N.F.L. that ran in the Feb. 7 issue of the magazine. We were talking about proposals on how to improve player safety in football. Jones mentioned to me a counterintuitive idea that Lamar Hunt, the founding owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, once suggested.

“Hunt thought we should take the face mask off of football helmets,” Jones told me. Why? Jones explained that face masks can foster an illusion of protection. “Lamar Hunt thought the face mask gave a player false courage,” Jones explained. “It gave the impression he could launch headfirst, and the face mask would protect him.”

I have since found myself thinking about false courage in other contexts. As a political culture, we are drowning in false courage. For all the exposure and exhibitionism that social media has allowed for, it has also has created a cesspool of anonymity — and what is anonymity if not a social face mask and sweeping enabler of false courage?

You can type pretty much anything you want these days with very little risk of discovery, let alone shame. People send me the most vile emails and tweets without any fear of anyone — namely me — learning who they are. I don’t much care; I am numb to their abuse. As with everyone who writes for the Internet, that is my default. I don’t mean to be glib here, especially as a man — I fully realize that for female writers, the line between run-of-the-mill Internet moron and a genuine threat can be hard to discern. But learned indifference is my face mask. No one gets embarrassed after a while because no one cares.

Last week, I wrote a brief article about Hillary Clinton. Nothing guarantees a faster descent into the cesspool than writing something — anything — about Hillary Clinton. I could list examples, but, you know, family newspaper. I received one particularly vulgar email via The Times’s feedback queue from a reader who identified himself as “Handsome Dave.” Without getting into his particular anatomical eloquences, I admit that I forwarded his note to a few friends with a sarcastic rejoinder about the quality of some of our readers. One person I sent Handsome Dave’s missive to was Tom Brokaw, the retired NBC News anchor, who has had a firsthand view of how fast our notions of common respect in the public discourse have disintegrated. Brokaw’s take on Handsome Dave: “It is that mentality and sense of empowerment that allows Trump to get away with his style.”

It’s always easy to roll eyes at traditional media types’ wringing hands over “the coarsening of our culture” or some such. But it’s also worth noting that the coarsening norms of the Internet can bear much resemblance these days to what’s actually coming from the candidates’ town halls and debate stages. Today’s politics nurtures its own ethic of false courage. For as scrutinized and unprivate as the lives of politicians have become, I would venture that they can get away with much more today than they used to; the speed of the news cycle, the shrinking of attention spans and the sheer volume of information practically dictates as much. People used to have time to digest information, and leaders were better regulated by higher capacities for shame. Community decency standards were higher. Everyone’s outrage reserves were much less overtaxed. Now everything burns off in a few days, no matter how noxious.

Brokaw mentioned Donald Trump. Trump is probably the best example of a politician that has insulated himself from the outrages he perpetrates by never apologizing, simply throwing himself into the next news cycle and explaining away what used to be called “gaffes” as proof of how honest and refreshing and nonpolitician-like his style is. But it’s not just Trump. All politicians today seem to operate with a greater sense of invulnerability — the belief that a deft media strategy can neutralize any consequences.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first edition. Courtesy: W.W. Denslow (d. 1915). Library of Congress. Public Domain.

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Adieu! Death of the Circumflex

je-suis-circonflexeThe French have a formal language police.

The Académie Française (French Academy) is the country’s foremost national watchdog of the French language. It’s been working to protect and preserve the language for over 380 years — mostly, I suspect, from the unceasing onslaught of English, think words like “le week-end”.

Interestingly enough members of the Académie Française proposed and accepted over 2,500 changes to the language — mostly spelling revisions — back in 1990. Now with mainstream French newspapers and TV networks having taken up the story, social media is abuzz with commentary; the French public is weighing in on the proposals, and many traditionalists and language purists don’t like what they see.

Exhibit A: the proposed loss of the circumflex accent (ˆ) that hovers above certain vowels. So, maîtresse becomes maitresse (mistress or female teacher); coût becomes cout (cost).

Exhibit B: oignon is to become ognon (onion).

Sacre bleu, I don’t like it either!

From the Guardian:

French linguistic purists have voiced online anger at the loss of one of their favourite accents – the pointy little circumflex hat (ˆ) that sits on top of certain vowels.

Changes to around 2,400 French words to simplify them for schoolchildren, such as allowing the word for onion to be spelled ognon as well as the traditional oignon, have brought accusations the country’s Socialist government is dumbing down the language.

Nothing provokes a Gallic row than changes to the language of Molière, but the storm took officials by surprise as the spelling revisions had been suggested by the Académie Française, watchdogs of the French language, and unanimously accepted by its members as long ago as 1990.

The aim was to standardise and simplify certain quirks in the written language making it easier to learn (among them chariot to charriot to harmonise with charrette, both words for a type of cart and the regrouping of compound nouns like porte-monnaie/portemonnaie (purse), extra-terrestres/extraterrestres and week-end/weekend, to do away with the hyphen.

While the “revised spelling list” was not obligatory, dictionaries were advised to carry both old and new spellings, and schools were instructed to use the new versions but accept both as correct.

The reforms provoked a #JeSuisCirconflexe campaign (derived from the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag) on Twitter. As the row spread across the internet and social networks, some wondered why the reforms, decided 26 years ago, had suddenly become such an issue.

In 2008, advice from the education ministry suggested the new spelling rules were “the reference” to be used, but it appears few people took notice. Last November, the changes were mentioned again in another ministry document about “texts following the spelling changes … approved by the Académie Française and published in the French Republic Official Journal on 6 December 1990”. Again, the news went unremarked.

It was only when a report by television channel TF1 appeared on Wednesday this week that the ognon went pear-shaped.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of BBC / Twitter.

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Religious Upbringing Reduces Altruism

Religious_symbols

Ready? This one may come as a shock to some. Yet another body of research shows that children raised in religious families are less likely to be selfless and generous towards others. Yes, that’s right, morality and altruism do not automatically spring forth from religiosity. Increasingly, it looks like altruism is a much deeper human (and animal) trait, and indeed studies show that altruistic behaviors are common in primates and other animals.

From Scientific American:

Organized religion is a cornerstone of spiritual community and culture around the world. Religion, especially religious education, also attracts secular support because many believe that religion fosters morality. A majority of the United States believes that faith in a deity is necessary to being a moral person.

In principle, religion’s emphasis on morality can smooth wrinkles out of the social fabric. Along those lines, believers are often instructed to act selflessly towards others. Islam places an emphasis on charity and alms-giving, Christianity on loving your neighbor as yourself. Taoist ethics, derived from the qualities of water, include the principle of selflessness

However, new research conducted in six countries around the world suggests that a religious upbringing may actually yield children who are less altruistic. Over 1000 children ages five to twelve took part in the study, from the United States, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China. By finding that religious-raised children are less altruistic in the laboratory, the study alerts us to the possibility that religion might not have the wholesome effects we expect on the development of morality. The social practice of religion can complicate the precepts of a religious text. But in order to interpret these findings, we have to first look at how to test morality.

In an experiment snappily named the dictator game, a child designated “dictator” is tested for altruistic tendencies. This dictator child is conferred with great power to decide whether to share stickers with others. Researchers present the child with thirty stickers and instruct her to take ten favorite stickers. The researchers carefully mention that there isn’t time to play this game with everyone, setting up the main part of the experiment: to share or not to share. The child is given two envelopes and asked whether she will share stickers with other children at the school who cannot play the game. While the researcher faces the wall, the child can slip some stickers into the donation envelope and some into the other envelope to keep.

As the researchers expected, younger children were less likely to share stickers than older children. Also consistent with previous studies, children from a wealthier socioeconomic status shared more. More surprising was the tendency of children from religious households to share less than those from nonreligious backgrounds. When separated and analyzed by specific religion, the finding remained: children from both Christian and Muslim families on average shared less than nonreligious children. (Other religious designations were not represented in large enough numbers for separate statistical comparison.) Older kids from all backgrounds shared more than younger ones, but the tendency for religious children to share less than similar-aged children became more pronounced with age. The authors think this could be due to cumulative effects of time spent growing up in a religious household. While the large numbers of subjects strengthens the finding of a real difference between the groups of children, the actual disparity in typical sharing was about one sticker. We need to know if the gap in sticker sharing is meaningful in the real world.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Religious symbols from the top nine organized faiths of the world. From left to right: 1st Row: Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, Hindu Aumkar 2nd Row: Islamic Star and crescent, Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, Shinto Torii 3rd Row: Sikh Khanda, Bahá’í star, Jain Ahimsa Symbol. Courtesy: Rursus / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Words Before Death

SQ_Lethal_Injection_RoomA team of psychologists recently compiled and assessed the last words of prison inmates who were facing execution in Texas.

I was surprised to learn of a publicly accessible “last statement” database, available via Texas’ department of criminal justice.

Whether you subscribe to the idea that the death penalty is just [I do not] or not, you will surely find these final utterances moving — time for some reflection.

From the Independent:

Psychologists have analysed the last words of inmates who were condemned to death in Texas.

In a new paper, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers Dr. Sarah Hirschmüller and Dr. Boris Egloff used a database of last statements of inmates on death row and found the majority of the statements to be positive.

The researchers theorise that the inmates, the average age of whom in the current dataset is just over 39, expressed positive sentiments, because their minds were working in overdrive to avert them from fearing their current situation.

This is called ‘Terror-Management Theory’ (TMT). The concept is that people search for meaning when confronted with terror in a bid to maintain self-esteem and that “individuals employ a wide range of cognitive and behavioural efforts to regulate the anxiety that mortality salience evokes.”

Read more here.

Image: Execution room in the San Quentin State Prison in California. Public Domain.

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MondayMap: House Prices via London Tube

London-Tube-house-prices

While I no longer live in London, I grew up there and still have a special affection for the city. I’m even attached to its famed Tube map (subway for my US readers). So I found this rendition rather fascinating — a map of average house prices at and around each tube station. No surprise: house prices on and inside the Central Line (red) are the highest, with the lowest hovering around £500,000 (roughly $710,000). Read more about this map here.

Map courtesy of eMoov with data provided by Zoopla.

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Fictionalism of Free Will and Morality

In a recent opinion column William Irwin professor of philosophy at King’s College summarizes an approach to accepting the notion of free will rather than believing it. While I’d eventually like to see an explanation for free will and morality in biological and chemical terms — beyond metaphysics — I will (or may, if free will does not exist) for the time being have to content myself with mere acceptance. But, I my acceptance is not based on the notion that “free will” is pre-determined by a supernatural being — rather, I suspect it’s an illusion, instigated in the dark recesses of our un- or sub-conscious, and our higher reasoning functions rationalize it post factum in the full light of day. Morality on the other hand, as Irwin suggests, is an rather different state of mind altogether.

From the NYT:

Few things are more annoying than watching a movie with someone who repeatedly tells you, “That couldn’t happen.” After all, we engage with artistic fictions by suspending disbelief. For the sake of enjoying a movie like “Back to the Future,” I may accept that time travel is possible even though I do not believe it. There seems no harm in that, and it does some good to the extent that it entertains and edifies me.

Philosophy can take us in the other direction, by using reason and rigorous questioning to lead us to disbelieve what we would otherwise believe. Accepting the possibility of time travel is one thing, but relinquishing beliefs in God, free will, or objective morality would certainly be more troublesome. Let’s focus for a moment on morality.

The philosopher Michael Ruse has argued that “morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes.” If that’s true, why have our genes played such a trick on us? One possible answer can be found in the work of another philosopher Richard Joyce, who has argued that this “illusion” — the belief in objective morality — evolved to provide a bulwark against weakness of the human will. So a claim like “stealing is morally wrong” is not true, because such beliefs have an evolutionary basis but no metaphysical basis. But let’s assume we want to avoid the consequences of weakness of will that would cause us to act imprudently. In that case, Joyce makes an ingenious proposal: moral fictionalism.

Following a fictionalist account of morality, would mean that we would accept moral statements like “stealing is wrong” while not believing they are true. As a result, we would act as if it were true that “stealing is wrong,” but when pushed to give our answer to the theoretical, philosophical question of whether “stealing is wrong,” we would say no. The appeal of moral fictionalism is clear. It is supposed to help us overcome weakness of will and even take away the anxiety of choice, making decisions easier.

Giving up on the possibility of free will in the traditional sense of the term, I could adopt compatibilism, the view that actions can be both determined and free. As long as my decision to order pasta is caused by some part of me — say my higher order desires or a deliberative reasoning process — then my action is free even if that aspect of myself was itself caused and determined by a chain of cause and effect. And my action is free even if I really could not have acted otherwise by ordering the steak.

Unfortunately, not even this will rescue me from involuntary free will fictionalism. Adopting compatibilism, I would still feel as if I have free will in the traditional sense and that I could have chosen steak and that the future is wide open concerning what I will have for dessert. There seems to be a “user illusion” that produces the feeling of free will.

William James famously remarked that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will. Well, I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it. In fact, if free will fictionalism is involuntary, I have no choice but to accept free will. That makes accepting free will easy and undeniably sincere. Accepting the reality of God or morality, on the other hand, are tougher tasks, and potentially disingenuous.

Read the entire article here.

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A Case For Less News

Google-search-cable-news

I find myself agreeing with columnist Oliver Burkeman over at the Guardian that we need to carefully manage our access to the 24/7 news cycle. Our news media has learned to thrive on hyperbole and sensationalism, which — let’s face it — tends to be mostly negative. This unending and unnerving stream of gloom and doom tends to make us believe that we are surrounded by more badness than there actually is. I have to believe that most of the 7 billion+ personal stories each day that we could be hearing about — however mundane — are likely to not be bad or evil. So, while it may not be wise to switch off cable or satellite news completely, we should consider a more measured, and balanced, approach to the media monster.

From the Guardian:

A few days before Christmas, feeling rather furtive about it, I went on a media diet: I quietly unsubscribed from, unfollowed or otherwise disconnected from several people and news sources whose output, I’d noticed, did nothing but bring me down. This felt like defeat. I’ve railed against the popular self-help advice that you should “give up reading the news” on the grounds that it’s depressing and distracting: if bad stuff’s happening out there, my reasoning goes, I don’t want to live in an artificial bubble of privilege and positivity; I want to face reality. But at some point during 2015’s relentless awfulness, it became unignorable: the days when I read about another mass shooting, another tale of desperate refugees or anything involving the words “Donald Trump” were the days I’d end up gloomier, tetchier, more attention-scattered. Needless to say, I channelled none of this malaise into making the planet better. I just got grumbly about the world, like a walking embodiment of that bumper-sticker: “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?”

One problem is that merely knowing that the news focuses disproportionately on negative and scary stories doesn’t mean you’ll adjust your emotions accordingly. People like me scorn Trump and the Daily Mail for sowing unwarranted fears. We know that the risk of dying in traffic is vastly greater than from terrorism. We may even know that US gun crime is in dramatic decline, that global economic inequality is decreasing, or that there’s not much evidence that police brutality is on the rise. (We just see more of it, thanks to smartphones.) But, apparently, the part of our minds that knows these facts isn’t the same part that decides whether to feel upbeat or despairing. It’s entirely possible to know things are pretty good, yet feel as if they’re terrible.

This phenomenon has curious parallels with the “busyness epidemic”. Data on leisure time suggests we’re not much busier than we were, yet we feel busier, partly because – for “knowledge workers”, anyway – there’s no limit to the number of emails we can get, the demands that can be made of us, or the hours of the day we can be in touch with the office. Work feels infinite, but our capacities are finite, therefore overwhelm is inevitable. Similarly, technology connects us to more and more of the world’s suffering, of which there’s an essentially infinite amount, until feeling steamrollered by it becomes structurally inevitable – not a sign that life’s getting worse. And the consequences go beyond glumness. They include “compassion fade”, the well-studied effect whereby our urge to help the unfortunate declines as their numbers increase.

Read the whole column here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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