Category Archives: Idea Soup

The Enigma of Privacy

Privacy is still a valued and valuable right. It should not be a mere benefit in a democratic society. But, in our current age privacy is becoming an increasingly threatened species. We are surrounded with social networks that share and mine our behaviors and we are assaulted by the snoopers and spooks from local and national governments.

From the Observer:

We have come to the end of privacy; our private lives, as our grandparents would have recognised them, have been winnowed away to the realm of the shameful and secret. To quote ex-tabloid hack Paul McMullan, “privacy is for paedos”. Insidiously, through small concessions that only mounted up over time, we have signed away rights and privileges that other generations fought for, undermining the very cornerstones of our personalities in the process. While outposts of civilisation fight pyrrhic battles, unplugging themselves from the web – “going dark” – the rest of us have come to accept that the majority of our social, financial and even sexual interactions take place over the internet and that someone, somewhere, whether state, press or corporation, is watching.

The past few years have brought an avalanche of news about the extent to which our communications are being monitored: WikiLeaks, the phone-hacking scandal, the Snowden files. Uproar greeted revelations about Facebook’s “emotional contagion” experiment (where it tweaked mathematical formulae driving the news feeds of 700,000 of its members in order to prompt different emotional responses). Cesar A Hidalgo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the Facebook news feed as “like a sausage… Everyone eats it, even though nobody knows how it is made”.

Sitting behind the outrage was a particularly modern form of disquiet – the knowledge that we are being manipulated, surveyed, rendered and that the intelligence behind this is artificial as well as human. Everything we do on the web, from our social media interactions to our shopping on Amazon, to our Netflix selections, is driven by complex mathematical formulae that are invisible and arcane.

Most recently, campaigners’ anger has turned upon the so-called Drip (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) bill in the UK, which will see internet and telephone companies forced to retain and store their customers’ communications (and provide access to this data to police, government and up to 600 public bodies). Every week, it seems, brings a new furore over corporations – Apple, Google, Facebook – sidling into the private sphere. Often, it’s unclear whether the companies act brazenly because our governments play so fast and loose with their citizens’ privacy (“If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear,” William Hague famously intoned); or if governments see corporations feasting upon the private lives of their users and have taken this as a licence to snoop, pry, survey.

We, the public, have looked on, at first horrified, then cynical, then bored by the revelations, by the well-meaning but seemingly useless protests. But what is the personal and psychological impact of this loss of privacy? What legal protection is afforded to those wishing to defend themselves against intrusion? Is it too late to stem the tide now that scenes from science fiction have become part of the fabric of our everyday world?

Novels have long been the province of the great What If?, allowing us to see the ramifications from present events extending into the murky future. As long ago as 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin imagined One State, the transparent society of his dystopian novel, We. For Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Atwood and many others, the loss of privacy was one of the establishing nightmares of the totalitarian future. Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle paints a portrait of an America without privacy, where a vast, internet-based, multimedia empire surveys and controls the lives of its people, relying on strict adherence to its motto: “Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft.” We watch as the heroine, Mae, disintegrates under the pressure of scrutiny, finally becoming one of the faceless, obedient hordes. A contemporary (and because of this, even more chilling) account of life lived in the glare of the privacy-free internet is Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which charts the existence of a lonely writer whose only escape is into the shallows of the web. “The first and last thing I do every day,” the book begins, “is see what strangers are saying about me.”

Our age has seen an almost complete conflation of the previously separate spheres of the private and the secret. A taint of shame has crept over from the secret into the private so that anything that is kept from the public gaze is perceived as suspect. This, I think, is why defecation is so often used as an example of the private sphere. Sex and shitting were the only actions that the authorities in Zamyatin’s One State permitted to take place in private, and these remain the battlegrounds of the privacy debate almost a century later. A rather prim leaked memo from a GCHQ operative monitoring Yahoo webcams notes that “a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person”.

It is to the bathroom that Max Mosley turns when we speak about his own campaign for privacy. “The need for a private life is something that is completely subjective,” he tells me. “You either would mind somebody publishing a film of you doing your ablutions in the morning or you wouldn’t. Personally I would and I think most people would.” In 2008, Mosley’s “sick Nazi orgy”, as the News of the World glossed it, featured in photographs published first in the pages of the tabloid and then across the internet. Mosley’s defence argued, successfully, that the romp involved nothing more than a “standard S&M prison scenario” and the former president of the FIA won £60,000 damages under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Now he has rounded on Google and the continued presence of both photographs and allegations on websites accessed via the company’s search engine. If you type “Max Mosley” into Google, the eager autocomplete presents you with “video,” “case”, “scandal” and “with prostitutes”. Half-way down the first page of the search we find a link to a professional-looking YouTube video montage of the NotW story, with no acknowledgment that the claims were later disproved. I watch it several times. I feel a bit grubby.

“The moment the Nazi element of the case fell apart,” Mosley tells me, “which it did immediately, because it was a lie, any claim for public interest also fell apart.”

Here we have a clear example of the blurred lines between secrecy and privacy. Mosley believed that what he chose to do in his private life, even if it included whips and nipple-clamps, should remain just that – private. The News of the World, on the other hand, thought it had uncovered a shameful secret that, given Mosley’s professional position, justified publication. There is a momentary tremor in Mosley’s otherwise fluid delivery as he speaks about the sense of invasion. “Your privacy or your private life belongs to you. Some of it you may choose to make available, some of it should be made available, because it’s in the public interest to make it known. The rest should be yours alone. And if anyone takes it from you, that’s theft and it’s the same as the theft of property.”

Mosley has scored some recent successes, notably in continental Europe, where he has found a culture more suspicious of Google’s sweeping powers than in Britain or, particularly, the US. Courts in France and then, interestingly, Germany, ordered Google to remove pictures of the orgy permanently, with far-reaching consequences for the company. Google is appealing against the rulings, seeing it as absurd that “providers are required to monitor even the smallest components of content they transmit or store for their users”. But Mosley last week extended his action to the UK, filing a claim in the high court in London.

Mosley’s willingness to continue fighting, even when he knows that it means keeping alive the image of his white, septuagenarian buttocks in the minds (if not on the computers) of the public, seems impressively principled. He has fallen victim to what is known as the Streisand Effect, where his very attempt to hide information about himself has led to its proliferation (in 2003 Barbra Streisand tried to stop people taking pictures of her Malibu home, ensuring photos were posted far and wide). Despite this, he continues to battle – both in court, in the media and by directly confronting the websites that continue to display the pictures. It is as if he is using that initial stab of shame, turning it against those who sought to humiliate him. It is noticeable that, having been accused of fetishising one dark period of German history, he uses another to attack Google. “I think, because of the Stasi,” he says, “the Germans can understand that there isn’t a huge difference between the state watching everything you do and Google watching everything you do. Except that, in most European countries, the state tends to be an elected body, whereas Google isn’t. There’s not a lot of difference between the actions of the government of East Germany and the actions of Google.”

All this brings us to some fundamental questions about the role of search engines. Is Google the de facto librarian of the internet, given that it is estimated to handle 40% of all traffic? Is it something more than a librarian, since its algorithms carefully (and with increasing use of your personal data) select the sites it wants you to view? To what extent can Google be held responsible for the content it puts before us?

Read the entire article here.

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Computer Generated Reality

Computer games have come a very long way since the pioneering days of Pong and Pacman. Games are now so realistic that many are indistinguishable from the real-world characters and scenarios they emulate. It is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of hardware and software engineers and the creativity of developers who bring all the diverse underlying elements of a game together. Now, however, they have a match in the form of computer system that is able to generate richly  imagined and rendered world for use in the games themselves. It’s all done through algorithms.

From Technology Review:

Read the entire story here.

Video: No Man’s Sky. Courtesy of Hello Games.

 

 

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Gun Love

Gun Violence in America

The second amendment remains ever strong in the U.S. And, of course so does the number of homicides and child deaths at the hands of guns. Sigh!

From the Guardian:

In February, a nine-year-old Arkansas boy called Hank asked his uncle if he could head off on his own from their remote camp to hunt a rabbit with his .22 calibre rifle. “I said all right,” recalled his uncle Brent later. “It wasn’t a concern. Some people are like, ‘a nine year old shouldn’t be off by himself,’ but he wasn’t an average nine year old.”

Hank was steeped in hunting: when he was two, his father, Brad, would put him in a rucksack on his back when he went turkey hunting. Brad regularly took Hank hunting and said that his son often went off hunting by himself. On this particular day, Hank and his uncle Brent had gone squirrel hunting together as his father was too sick to go.

When Hank didn’t return from hunting the rabbit, his uncle raised the alarm. His mother, Kelli, didn’t learn about his disappearance for seven hours. “They didn’t want to bother me unduly,” she says.

The following morning, though, after police, family and hundreds of locals searched around the camp, Hank’s body was found by a creek with a single bullet wound to the forehead. The cause of death was, according to the police, most likely a hunting accident.

“He slipped and the butt of the gun hit the ground and the gun fired,” says Kelli.

Kelli had recently bought the gun for Hank. “It was the first gun I had purchased for my son, just a youth .22 rifle. I never thought it would be a gun that would take his life.”

Both Kelli and Brad, from whom she is separated, believe that the gun was faulty – it shouldn’t have gone off unless the trigger was pulled, they claim. Since Hank’s death, she’s been posting warnings on her Facebook page about the gun her son used: “I wish someone else had posted warnings about it before what happened,” she says.

Had Kelli not bought the gun and had Brad not trained his son to use it, Hank would have celebrated his 10th birthday on 6 June, which his mother commemorated by posting Hank’s picture on her Facebook page with the message: “Happy Birthday Hank! Mommy loves you!”

Little Hank thus became one in a tally of what the makers of a Channel 4 documentary called Kids and Guns claim to be 3,000 American children who die each year from gun-related accidents. A recent Yale University study found that more than 7,000 US children and adolescents are hospitalised or killed by guns each year and estimates that about 20 children a day are treated in US emergency rooms following incidents involving guns.

Hank’s story is striking, certainly for British readers, for two reasons. One, it dramatises how hunting is for many Americans not the privileged pursuit it is overwhelmingly here, but a traditional family activity as much to do with foraging for food as it is a sport.

Francine Shaw, who directed Kids and Guns, says: “In rural America … people hunt to eat.”

Kelli has a fond memory of her son coming home with what he’d shot. “He’d come in and say: “Momma – I’ve got some squirrel to cook.” And I’d say ‘Gee, thanks.’ That child was happy to bring home meat. He was the happiest child when he came in from shooting.”

But Hank’s story is also striking because it shows how raising kids to hunt and shoot is seen as good parenting, perhaps even as an essential part of bringing up children in America – a society rife with guns and temperamentally incapable of overturning the second amendment that confers the right to bear arms, no matter how many innocent Americans die or get maimed as a result.

“People know I was a good mother and loved him dearly,” says Kelli. “We were both really good parents and no one has said anything hateful to us. The only thing that has been said is in a news report about a nine year old being allowed to hunt alone.”

Does Kelli regret that Hank was allowed to hunt alone at that young age? “Obviously I do, because I’ve lost my son,” she tells me. But she doesn’t blame Brent for letting him go off from camp unsupervised with a gun.

“We’re sure not anti-gun here, but do I wish I could go back in time and not buy that gun? Yes I do. I know you in England don’t have guns. I wish I could go back and have my son back. I would live in England, away from the guns.”

Read the entire article here.

Infographic courtesy of Care2 via visua.ly

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The Best

The United States is home to many first and superlatives: first in democracy, wealth, openness, innovation, industry, innovation. The nation also takes great pride in its personal and cultural freedoms. Yet it is also home to another superlative: first in rates of incarceration.  In fact, the US leads other nations by such a wide margin that questions continue to be asked. In the land of the free, something must be wrong.

From the Atlantic:

On Friday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow nearly 50,000 nonviolent federal drug offenders to seek lower sentences. The commission’s decision retroactively applied an earlier change in sentencing guidelines to now cover roughly half of those serving federal drug sentences. Endorsed by both the Department of Justice and prison-reform advocates, the move is a significant step forward in reversing decades of mass incarcerationthough in a global context, still modest—step forward in reversing decades of mass incarceration.

How large is America’s prison problem? More than 2.4 million people are behind bars in the United States today, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence. That’s more than the combined population of 15 states, all but three U.S. cities, and the U.S. armed forces. They’re scattered throughout a constellation of 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 2,259 juvenile facilities, 3,283 local jails, and many more military, immigration, territorial, and Indian Country facilities.

Compared to the rest of the world, these numbers are staggering. Here’s how the United States’ incarceration rate compares with those of other modern liberal democracies like Britain and Canada:

That graph is from a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, an invaluable resource on mass incarceration. (PPI also has a disturbing graph comparing state incarceration rates with those of other countries around the world, which I highly recommend looking at here.) “Although our level of crime is comparable to those of other stable, internally secure, industrialized nations,” the report says, “the United States has an incarceration rate far higher than any other country.”

Some individual states like Louisiana contribute disproportionately, but no state is free from mass incarceration. Disturbingly, many states’ prison populations outrank even those of dictatorships and illiberal democracies around the world. New York jails more people per capita than Rwanda, where tens of thousands await trial for their roles in the 1994 genocide. California, Illinois, and Ohio each have a higher incarceration rate than Cuba and Russia. Even Maine and Vermont imprison a greater share of people than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Egypt.

But mass incarceration is more than just an international anomaly; it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon in American criminal justice. Starting in the 1970s with the rise of tough-on-crime politicians and the War on Drugs, America’s prison population jumped eightfold between 1970 and 2010.

These two metrics—the international and the historical—have to be seen together to understand how aberrant mass incarceration is. In time or in space, the warehousing of millions of Americans knows no parallels. In keeping with American history, however, it also disproportionately harms the non-white and the non-wealthy. “For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones,” wrote Adam Gopnik in his seminal 2012 article.

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

Mass incarceration’s effects are not confined to the cell block. Through the inescapable stigma it imposes, a brush with the criminal-justice system can hamstring a former inmate’s employment and financial opportunities for life. The effect is magnified for those who already come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Black men, for example, made substantial economic progress between 1940 and 1980 thanks to the post-war economic boom and the dismantling of de jure racial segregation. But mass incarceration has all but ground that progress to a halt: A new University of Chicago study found that black men are no better off in 2014 than they were when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act 50 years earlier.

Read the entire article here.

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Isolation Fractures the Mind

Through the lens of extreme isolation Michael Bond shows us in this fascinating article how we really are social animals. Remove a person from all meaningful social contact — even for a short while — and her mind will begin to play tricks and eventually break. Michael Bond is author of The Power of Others.

From the BBC:

When people are isolated from human contact, their mind can do some truly bizarre things, says Michael Bond. Why does this happen?

Sarah Shourd’s mind began to slip after about two months into her incarceration. She heard phantom footsteps and flashing lights, and spent most of her day crouched on all fours, listening through a gap in the door.

That summer, the 32-year-old had been hiking with two friends in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan when they were arrested by Iranian troops after straying onto the border with Iran. Accused of spying, they were kept in solitary confinement in Evin prison in Tehran, each in their own tiny cell. She endured almost 10,000 hours with little human contact before she was freed. One of the most disturbing effects was the hallucinations.

“In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there,” she wrote in the New York Times in 2011. “At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realised the screams were my own.”

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

We’ve known for a while that isolation is physically bad for us. Chronically lonely people have higher blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection, and are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Loneliness also interferes with a whole range of everyday functioning, such as sleep patterns, attention and logical and verbal reasoning. The mechanisms behind these effects are still unclear, though what is known is that social isolation unleashes an extreme immune response – a cascade of stress hormones and inflammation. This may have been appropriate in our early ancestors, when being isolated from the group carried big physical risks, but for us the outcome is mostly harmful.

Yet some of the most profound effects of loneliness are on the mind. For starters, isolation messes with our sense of time. One of the strangest effects is the ‘time-shifting’ reported by those who have spent long periods living underground without daylight. In 1961, French geologist Michel Siffre led a two-week expedition to study an underground glacier beneath the French Alps and ended up staying two months, fascinated by how the darkness affected human biology. He decided to abandon his watch and “live like an animal”. While conducting tests with his team on the surface, they discovered it took him five minutes to count to what he thought was 120 seconds.

A similar pattern of ‘slowing time’ was reported by Maurizio Montalbini, a sociologist and caving enthusiast. In 1993, Montalbini spent 366 days in an underground cavern near Pesaro in Italy that had been designed with Nasa to simulate space missions, breaking his own world record for time spent underground. When he emerged, he was convinced only 219 days had passed. His sleep-wake cycles had almost doubled in length. Since then, researchers have found that in darkness most people eventually adjust to a 48-hour cycle: 36 hours of activity followed by 12 hours of sleep. The reasons are still unclear.

As well as their time-shifts, Siffre and Montalbini reported periods of mental instability too. But these experiences were nothing compared with the extreme reactions seen in notorious sensory deprivation experiments in the mid-20th Century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, China was rumoured to be using solitary confinement to “brainwash” American prisoners captured during the Korean War, and the US and Canadian governments were all too keen to try it out. Their defence departments funded a series of research programmes that might be considered ethically dubious today.

The most extensive took place at McGill University Medical Center in Montreal, led by the psychologist Donald Hebb. The McGill researchers invited paid volunteers – mainly college students – to spend days or weeks by themselves in sound-proof cubicles, deprived of meaningful human contact. Their aim was to reduce perceptual stimulation to a minimum, to see how their subjects would behave when almost nothing was happening. They minimised what they could feel, see, hear and touch, fitting them with translucent visors, cotton gloves and cardboard cuffs extending beyond the fingertips. As Scientific American magazine reported at the time, they had them lie on U-shaped foam pillows to restrict noise, and set up a continuous hum of air-conditioning units to mask small sounds.

After only a few hours, the students became acutely restless. They started to crave stimulation, talking, singing or reciting poetry to themselves to break the monotony. Later, many of them became anxious or highly emotional. Their mental performance suffered too, struggling with arithmetic and word association tests.

But the most alarming effects were the hallucinations. They would start with points of light, lines or shapes, eventually evolving into bizarre scenes, such as squirrels marching with sacks over their shoulders or processions of eyeglasses filing down a street. They had no control over what they saw: one man saw only dogs; another, babies.

Some of them experienced sound hallucinations as well: a music box or a choir, for instance. Others imagined sensations of touch: one man had the sense he had been hit in the arm by pellets fired from guns. Another, reaching out to touch a doorknob, felt an electric shock.

When they emerged from the experiment they found it hard to shake this altered sense of reality, convinced that the whole room was in motion, or that objects were constantly changing shape and size.

Read the entire article here.

 

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You Are a Neural Computation

Since the days of Aristotle, and later Descartes, thinkers have sought to explain consciousness and free will. Several thousand years on and we are still pondering the notion; science has made great strides and yet fundamentally we still have little idea.

Many neuroscientists now armed with new and very precise research tools are aiming to change this. Yet, increasingly it seems that free will may indeed by a cognitive illusion. Evidence suggests that our subconscious decides and initiates action for us long before we are aware of making a conscious decision. There seems to be no god or ghost in the machine.

From Technology Review:

It was an expedition seeking something never caught before: a single human neuron lighting up to create an urge, albeit for the minor task of moving an index finger, before the subject was even aware of feeling anything. Four years ago, Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, slipped several probes, each with eight hairlike electrodes able to record from single neurons, into the brains of epilepsy patients. (The patients were undergoing surgery to diagnose the source of severe seizures and had agreed to participate in experiments during the process.) Probes in place, the patients—who were conscious—were given instructions to press a button at any time of their choosing, but also to report when they’d first felt the urge to do so.

Later, Gabriel Kreiman, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston, captured the quarry. Poring over data after surgeries in 12 patients, he found telltale flashes of individual neurons in the pre-­supplementary motor area (associated with movement) and the anterior cingulate (associated with motivation and attention), preceding the reported urges by anywhere from hundreds of milliseconds to several seconds. It was a direct neural measurement of the unconscious brain at work—caught in the act of formulating a volitional, or freely willed, decision. Now Kreiman and his colleagues are planning to repeat the feat, but this time they aim to detect pre-urge signatures in real time and stop the subject from performing the action—or see if that’s even possible.

A variety of imaging studies in humans have revealed that brain activity related to decision-making tends to precede conscious action. Implants in macaques and other animals have examined brain circuits involved in perception and action. But Kreiman broke ground by directly measuring a preconscious decision in humans at the level of single neurons. To be sure, the readouts came from an average of just 20 neurons in each patient. (The human brain has about 86 billion of them, each with thousands of connections.) And ultimately, those neurons fired only in response to a chain of even earlier events. But as more such experiments peer deeper into the labyrinth of neural activity behind decisions—whether they involve moving a finger or opting to buy, eat, or kill something—science could eventually tease out the full circuitry of decision-making and perhaps point to behavioral therapies or treatments. “We need to understand the neuronal basis of voluntary decision-making—or ‘freely willed’ decision-­making—and its pathological counterparts if we want to help people such as drug, sex, food, and gambling addicts, or patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder,” says Christof Koch, chief scientist at the Allen Institute of Brain Science in Seattle (see “Cracking the Brain’s Codes”). “Many of these people perfectly well know that what they are doing is dysfunctional but feel powerless to prevent themselves from engaging in these behaviors.”

Kreiman, 42, believes his work challenges important Western philosophical ideas about free will. The Argentine-born neuroscientist, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, specializes in visual object recognition and memory formation, which draw partly on unconscious processes. He has a thick mop of black hair and a tendency to pause and think a long moment before reframing a question and replying to it expansively. At the wheel of his Jeep as we drove down Broadway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kreiman leaned over to adjust the MP3 player—toggling between Vivaldi, Lady Gaga, and Bach. As he did so, his left hand, the one on the steering wheel, slipped to let the Jeep drift a bit over the double yellow lines. Kreiman’s view is that his neurons made him do it, and they also made him correct his small error an instant later; in short, all actions are the result of neural computations and nothing more. “I am interested in a basic age-old question,” he says. “Are decisions really free? I have a somewhat extreme view of this—that there is nothing really free about free will. Ultimately, there are neurons that obey the laws of physics and mathematics. It’s fine if you say ‘I decided’—that’s the language we use. But there is no god in the machine—only neurons that are firing.”

Our philosophical ideas about free will date back to Aristotle and were systematized by René Descartes, who argued that humans possess a God-given “mind,” separate from our material bodies, that endows us with the capacity to freely choose one thing rather than another. Kreiman takes this as his departure point. But he’s not arguing that we lack any control over ourselves. He doesn’t say that our decisions aren’t influenced by evolution, experiences, societal norms, sensations, and perceived consequences. “All of these external influences are fundamental to the way we decide what we do,” he says. “We do have experiences, we do learn, we can change our behavior.”

But the firing of a neuron that guides us one way or another is ultimately like the toss of a coin, Kreiman insists. “The rules that govern our decisions are similar to the rules that govern whether a coin will land one way or the other. Ultimately there is physics; it is chaotic in both cases, but at the end of the day, nobody will argue the coin ‘wanted’ to land heads or tails. There is no real volition to the coin.”

Testing Free Will

It’s only in the past three to four decades that imaging tools and probes have been able to measure what actually happens in the brain. A key research milestone was reached in the early 1980s when Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department at the University of California, San Francisco, made a remarkable study that tested the idea of conscious free will with actual data.

Libet fitted subjects with EEGs—gadgets that measure aggregate electrical brain activity through the scalp—and had them look at a clock dial that spun around every 2.8 seconds. The subjects were asked to press a button whenever they chose to do so—but told they should also take note of where the time hand was when they first felt the “wish or urge.” It turns out that the actual brain activity involved in the action began 300 milliseconds, on average, before the subject was conscious of wanting to press the button. While some scientists criticized the methods—questioning, among other things, the accuracy of the subjects’ self-reporting—the study set others thinking about how to investigate the same questions. Since then, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to map brain activity by measuring blood flow, and other studies have also measured brain activity processes that take place before decisions are made. But while fMRI transformed brain science, it was still only an indirect tool, providing very low spatial resolution and averaging data from millions of neurons. Kreiman’s own study design was the same as Libet’s, with the important addition of the direct single-neuron measurement.

When Libet was in his prime, ­Kreiman was a boy. As a student of physical chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, he was interested in neurons and brains. When he went for his PhD at Caltech, his passion solidified under his advisor, Koch. Koch was deep in collaboration with Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, to look for evidence of how consciousness was represented by neurons. For the star-struck kid from Argentina, “it was really life-changing,” he recalls. “Several decades ago, people said this was not a question serious scientists should be thinking about; they either had to be smoking something or have a Nobel Prize”—and Crick, of course, was a Nobelist. Crick hypothesized that studying how the brain processed visual information was one way to study consciousness (we tap unconscious processes to quickly decipher scenes and objects), and he collaborated with Koch on a number of important studies. Kreiman was inspired by the work. “I was very excited about the possibility of asking what seems to be the most fundamental aspect of cognition, consciousness, and free will in a reductionist way—in terms of neurons and circuits of neurons,” he says.

One thing was in short supply: humans willing to have scientists cut open their skulls and poke at their brains. One day in the late 1990s, Kreiman attended a journal club—a kind of book club for scientists reviewing the latest literature—and came across a paper by Fried on how to do brain science in people getting electrodes implanted in their brains to identify the source of severe epileptic seizures. Before he’d heard of Fried, “I thought examining the activity of neurons was the domain of monkeys and rats and cats, not humans,” Kreiman says. Crick introduced Koch to Fried, and soon Koch, Fried, and Kreiman were collaborating on studies that investigated human neural activity, including the experiment that made the direct neural measurement of the urge to move a finger. “This was the opening shot in a new phase of the investigation of questions of voluntary action and free will,” Koch says.

Read the entire article here.

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Go Forth And Declutter

Google-search-hoarding

Having only just recently re-located to Colorado’s wondrous Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, your friendly editor now finds himself surrounded by figurative, less-inspiring mountains: moving boxes, bins, bags, more boxes. It’s floor to ceiling clutter as far as the eye can see.

Some of these boxes contain essentials, yet probably around 80 percent hold stuff. Yes, just stuff — aging items that hold some kind of sentimental meaning or future promise: old CDs, baby clothes, used ticket stubs, toys from an attic three moves ago, too many socks, ill-fitting clothing, 13 allen wrenches and screwdrivers, first-grade school projects, photo negatives, fading National Geographic magazines, gummed-up fountain pens, European postcards…

So, here’s a very timely story on the psychology of clutter and hoarding.

From the WSJ:

Jennifer James and her husband don’t have a lot of clutter—but they do find it hard to part with their children’s things. The guest cottage behind their home in Oklahoma City is half-filled with old toys, outgrown clothing, artwork, school papers, two baby beds, a bassinet and a rocking horse.

“Every time I think about getting rid of it, I want to cry,” says Ms. James, a 46-year-old public-relations consultant. She fears her children, ages 6, 8 and 16, will grow up and think she didn’t love them if she doesn’t save it all. “In keeping all this stuff, I think someday I’ll be able to say to my children, ‘See—I treasured your innocence. I treasured you!’ “

Many powerful emotions are lurking amid stuff we keep. Whether it’s piles of unread newspapers, clothes that don’t fit, outdated electronics, even empty margarine tubs, the things we accumulate reflect some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Now there’s growing recognition among professional organizers that to come to grips with their clutter, clients need to understand why they save what they save, or things will inevitably pile up again. In some cases, therapists are working along with organizers to help clients confront their psychological demons.

“The work we do with clients goes so much beyond making their closets look pretty,” says Collette Shine, president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “It involves getting into their hearts and their heads.”

For some people—especially those with big basements—hanging onto old and unused things doesn’t present a problem. But many others say they’re drowning in clutter.

“I have clients who say they are distressed at all the clutter they have, and distressed at the thought of getting rid of things,” says Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y., who makes house calls, in extreme cases, to help hoarders.

In some cases, chronic disorganization can be a symptom of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and dementia—all of which involve difficulty with planning, focusing and making decisions.

The extreme form, hoarding, is now a distinct psychiatric disorder, defined in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 as “persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their value” such that living areas cannot be used. Despite all the media attention, only 2% to 5% of people fit the criteria—although many more joke, or fear, they are headed that way.

Difficulty letting go of your stuff can also go hand in hand with separation anxiety, compulsive shopping, perfectionism, procrastination and body-image issues. And the reluctance to cope can create a vicious cycle of avoidance, anxiety and guilt.

In most cases, however, psychologists say that clutter can be traced to what they call cognitive errors—flawed thinking that drives dysfunctional behaviors that can get out of hand.

Among the most common clutter-generating bits of logic: “I might need these someday.” “These might be valuable.” “These might fit again if I lose (or gain) weight.”

“We all have these dysfunctional thoughts. It’s perfectly normal,” Dr. Rego says. The trick, he says, is to recognize the irrational thought that makes you cling to an item and substitute one that helps you let go, such as, “Somebody else could use this, so I’ll give it away.”

He concedes he has saved “maybe 600″ disposable Allen wrenches that came with IKEA furniture over the years.

The biggest sources of clutter and the hardest to discard are things that hold sentimental meaning. Dr. Rego says it’s natural to want to hang onto objects that trigger memories, but some people confuse letting go of the object with letting go of the person.

Linda Samuels, president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, an education and research group, says there’s no reason to get rid of things just for the sake of doing it.

“Figure out what’s important to you and create an environment that supports that,” she says.

Robert McCollum, a state tax auditor and Ms. James’s husband, says he treasures items like the broken fairy wand one daughter carried around for months.

“I don’t want to lose my memories, and I don’t need a professional organizer,” he says. “I’ve already organized it all in bins.” The only problem would be if they ever move to a place that doesn’t have 1,000 square feet of storage, he adds.

Sometimes the memories people cling to are images of themselves in different roles or happier times. “Our closets are windows into our internal selves,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, a Baltimore psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear.”

“Say you’re holding on to your team uniforms from college,” she says. “Ask yourself, what about that experience did you like? What can you do in your life now to recapture that?”

Somebody-might-need-this thinking is often what drives people to save stacks of newspapers, magazines, outdated electronic equipment, decades of financial records and craft supplies. With a little imagination, anything could be fodder for scrapbooks or Halloween costumes.

For people afraid to toss things they might want in the future, Dr. Baumgartner says it helps to have a worst-case scenario plan. “What if you do need that tutu you’ve given away for a Halloween costume? What would you do? You can find almost anything on eBay.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google search.

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Iran, Women, Clothes

hajib_Jeune_femmeA fascinating essay by Haleh Anvari, Iranian writer and artist, provides an insightful view of the role that fashion takes in shaping many of our perceptions — some right, many wrong — of women.

Quite rightly she argues that the measures our culture places on women, through the lens of Western fashion or Muslim tradition, are misleading. In both cases, there remains a fundamental need to address and to continue to address women’s rights versus those of men. Fashion stereotypes may be vastly different across continents, but the underlying issues remain very much the same whether a woman wears a hijab on the street or lingerie on a catwalk.

From the NYT:

I took a series of photographs of myself in 2007 that show me sitting on the toilet, weighing myself, and shaving my legs in the bath. I shot them as an angry response to an encounter with a gallery owner in London’s artsy Brick Lane. I had offered him photos of colorful chadors — an attempt to question the black chador as the icon of Iran by showing the world that Iranian women were more than this piece of black cloth. The gallery owner wasn’t impressed. “Do you have any photos of Iranian women in their private moments?” he asked.

As an Iranian with a reinforced sense of the private-public divide we navigate daily in our country, I found his curiosity offensive. So I shot my “Private Moments” in a sardonic spirit, to show that Iranian women are like all women around the world if you get past the visual hurdle of the hijab. But I never shared those, not just because I would never get a permit to show them publicly in Iran, but also because I am prepared to go only so far to prove a point. Call me old-fashioned.Read the entire article here.

Ever since the hijab, a generic term for every Islamic modesty covering, became mandatory after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have been used to represent the country visually. For the new Islamic republic, the all-covering cloak called a chador became a badge of honor, a trademark of fundamental change. To Western visitors, it dropped a pin on their travel maps, where the bodies of Iranian women became a stand-in for the character of Iranian society. When I worked with foreign journalists for six years, I helped produce reports that were illustrated invariably with a woman in a black chador. I once asked a photojournalist why. He said, “How else can we show where we are?”

How wonderful. We had become Iran’s Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.

Next came the manteau-and-head scarf combo — less traditional, and more relaxed, but keeping the lens on the women. Serious reports about elections used a “hair poking out of scarf” standard as an exit poll, or images of scarf-clad women lounging in coffee shops, to register change. One London newspaper illustrated a report on the rise of gasoline prices with a woman in a head scarf, photographed in a gas station, holding a pump nozzle with gasoline suggestively dripping from its tip. A visitor from Mars or a senior editor from New York might have been forgiven for imagining Iran as a strange land devoid of men, where fundamentalist chador-clad harridans vie for space with heathen babes guzzling cappuccinos. (Incidentally, women hardly ever step out of the car to pump gas here; attendants do it for us.)

The disputed 2009 elections, followed by demonstrations and a violent backlash, brought a brief respite. The foreign press was ejected, leaving the reporting to citizen journalists not bound by the West’s conventions. They depicted a politically mature citizenry, male and female, demanding civic acknowledgment together.

We are now witnessing another shift in Iran’s image. It shows Iran “unveiled” — a tired euphemism now being used to literally undress Iranian women or show them off as clotheshorses. An Iranian fashion designer in Paris receives more plaudits in the Western media for his blog’s street snapshots of stylish, affluent young women in North Tehran than he gets for his own designs. In this very publication, a male Iranian photographer depicted Iranian women through flimsy fabrics under the title “Veiled Truths”; one is shown in a one-piece pink swimsuit so minimal it could pass for underwear; others are made more sensual behind sheer “veils,” reinforcing a sense of peeking at them. Search the Internet and you can get an eyeful of nubile limbs in opposition to the country’s official image, shot by Iranian photographers of both sexes, keen to show the hidden, supposedly true, other side of Iran.

Young Iranians rightly desire to show the world the unseen sides of their lives. But their need to show themselves as like their peers in the West takes them into dangerous territory. Professional photographers and artists, encouraged by Western curators and seeking fast-track careers, are creating a new wave of homegrown neo-Orientalism. A favorite reworking of an old cliché is the thin, beautiful young woman reclining while smoking a hookah, dancing, or otherwise at leisure in her private spaces. Ingres could sue for plagiarism.

In a country where the word feminism is pejorative, there is no inkling that the values of both fundamentalism and Western consumerism are two sides of the same coin — the female body as an icon defining Iranian culture.

It is true that we Iranians live dual lives, and so it is true that to see us in focus, you must enter our inner sanctum. But the inner sanctum includes women who believe in the hijab, fat women, old women and, most important, women in professions from doctor to shopkeeper. It also includes men, not all of whom are below 30 years of age. If you wish to see Iran as it is, you need go no further than Facebook and Instagram. Here, Iran is neither fully veiled nor longing to undress itself. Its complex variety is shown through the lens of its own people, in both private and public spaces.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Young woman from Naplouse in a hijab, c1867-1885. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Dinosaurs of Retail

moa

Shopping malls in the United States were in their prime in the 1970s and ’80s. Many had positioned themselves a a bright, clean, utopian alternative to inner-city blight and decay. A quarter of a century on, while the mega-malls may be thriving, the numerous smaller suburban brethren are seeing lower sales. As internet shopping and retailing pervades all reaches of our society many midsize malls are decaying or shutting down completely.  Documentary photographer Seth Lawless captures this fascinating transition in a new book: Black Friday: the Collapse of the American Shopping Mall.

From the Guardian:

It is hard to believe there has ever been any life in this place. Shattered glass crunches under Seph Lawless’s feet as he strides through its dreary corridors. Overhead lights attached to ripped-out electrical wires hang suspended in the stale air and fading wallpaper peels off the walls like dead skin.

Lawless sidesteps debris as he passes from plot to plot in this retail graveyard called Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. The shopping centre closed in 2008, and its largest retailers, which had tried to make it as standalone stores, emptied out by the end of last year. When Lawless stops to overlook a two-storey opening near the mall’s once-bustling core, only an occasional drop of water, dribbling through missing ceiling tiles, breaks the silence.

“You came, you shopped, you dressed nice – you went to the mall. That’s what people did,” says Lawless, a pseudonymous photographer who grew up in a suburb of nearby Cleveland. “It was very consumer-driven and kind of had an ugly side, but there was something beautiful about it. There was something there.”

Gazing down at the motionless escalators, dead plants and empty benches below, he adds: “It’s still beautiful, though. It’s almost like ancient ruins.”

Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish.

According to longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, numerous midmarket malls, many of them born during the country’s suburban explosion after the second world war, could very well share Rolling Acres’ fate. “They’re going, going, gone,” Davidowitz says. “They’re trying to change; they’re trying to get different kinds of anchors, discount stores … [But] what’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money. That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”

Shopping culture follows housing culture. Sprawling malls were therefore a natural product of the postwar era, as Americans with cars and fat wallets sprawled to the suburbs. They were thrown up at a furious pace as shoppers fled cities, peaking at a few hundred per year at one point in the 1980s, according to Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist and author of Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. Though construction has since tapered off, developers left a mall overstock in their wake.

Currently, the US contains around 1,500 of the expansive “malls” of suburban consumer lore. Most share a handful of bland features. Brick exoskeletons usually contain two storeys of inward-facing stores separated by tile walkways. Food courts serve mediocre pizza. Parking lots are big enough to easily misplace a car. And to anchor them economically, malls typically depend on department stores: huge vendors offering a variety of products across interconnected sections.

For mid-century Americans, these gleaming marketplaces provided an almost utopian alternative to the urban commercial district, an artificial downtown with less crime and fewer vermin. As Joan Didion wrote in 1979, malls became “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes”. Peppered throughout disconnected suburbs, they were a place to see and be seen, something shoppers have craved since the days of the Greek agora. And they quickly matured into a self-contained ecosystem, with their own species – mall rats, mall cops, mall walkers – and an annual feeding frenzy known as Black Friday.

“Local governments had never dealt with this sort of development and were basically bamboozled [by developers],” Underhill says of the mall planning process. “In contrast to Europe, where shopping malls are much more a product of public-private negotiation and funding, here in the US most were built under what I call ‘cowboy conditions’.”

Shopping centres in Europe might contain grocery stores or childcare centres, while those in Japan are often built around mass transit. But the suburban American variety is hard to get to and sells “apparel and gifts and damn little else”, Underhill says.

Nearly 700 shopping centres are “super-regional” megamalls, retail leviathans usually of at least 1 million square feet and upward of 80 stores. Megamalls typically outperform their 800 slightly smaller, “regional” counterparts, though size and financial health don’t overlap entirely. It’s clearer, however, that luxury malls in affluent areas are increasingly forcing the others to fight for scraps. Strip malls – up to a few dozen tenants conveniently lined along a major traffic artery – are retail’s bottom feeders and so well-suited to the new environment. But midmarket shopping centres have begun dying off alongside the middle class that once supported them. Regional malls have suffered at least three straight years of declining profit per square foot, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC).

Read the entire story here.

Image: Mall of America. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Your Tax Dollars At Work — Leetspeak

US-FBI-ShadedSealIt’s fascinating to see what our government agencies are doing with some of our hard earned tax dollars.

In this head-scratching example, the FBI — the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit, no less — has just completed a 83-page glossary of Internet slang or “leetspeak”. LOL and Ugh! (the latter is not an acronym).

Check out the document via Muckrock here — they obtained the “secret” document through the Freedom of Information Act.

From the Washington Post:

The Internet is full of strange and bewildering neologisms, which anyone but a text-addled teen would struggle to understand. So the fine, taxpayer-funded people of the FBI — apparently not content to trawl Urban Dictionary, like the rest of us — compiled a glossary of Internet slang.

An 83-page glossary. Containing nearly 3,000 terms.

The glossary was recently made public through a Freedom of Information request by the group MuckRock, which posted the PDF, called “Twitter shorthand,” online. Despite its name, this isn’t just Twitter slang: As the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit explains in the introduction, it’s a primer on shorthand used across the Internet, including in “instant messages, Facebook and Myspace.” As if that Myspace reference wasn’t proof enough that the FBI’s a tad out of touch, the IRSU then promises the list will prove useful both professionally and “for keeping up with your children and/or grandchildren.” (Your tax dollars at work!)

All of these minor gaffes could be forgiven, however, if the glossary itself was actually good. Obviously, FBI operatives and researchers need to understand Internet slang — the Internet is, increasingly, where crime goes down these days. But then we get things like ALOTBSOL (“always look on the bright side of life”) and AMOG (“alpha male of group”) … within the first 10 entries.

ALOTBSOL has, for the record, been tweeted fewer than 500 times in the entire eight-year history of Twitter. AMOG has been tweeted far more often, but usually in Spanish … as a misspelling, it would appear, of “amor” and “amigo.”

Among the other head-scratching terms the FBI considers can’t-miss Internet slang:

  1. AYFKMWTS (“are you f—— kidding me with this s—?”) — 990 tweets
  2. BFFLTDDUP (“best friends for life until death do us part) — 414 tweets
  3. BOGSAT (“bunch of guys sitting around talking”) — 144 tweets
  4. BTDTGTTSAWIO (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore it out”) — 47 tweets
  5. BTWITIAILWY (“by the way, I think I am in love with you”) — 535 tweets
  6. DILLIGAD (“does it look like I give a damn?”) — 289 tweets
  7. DITYID (“did I tell you I’m depressed?”) — 69 tweets
  8. E2EG (“ear-to-ear grin”) — 125 tweets
  9. GIWIST (“gee, I wish I said that”) — 56 tweets
  10. HCDAJFU (“he could do a job for us”) — 25 tweets
  11. IAWTCSM (“I agree with this comment so much”) — 20 tweets
  12. IITYWIMWYBMAD (“if I tell you what it means will you buy me a drink?”) — 250 tweets
  13. LLTA (“lots and lots of thunderous applause”) — 855 tweets
  14. NIFOC (“naked in front of computer”) — 1,065 tweets, most of them referring to acronym guides like this one.
  15. PMYMHMMFSWGAD (“pardon me, you must have mistaken me for someone who gives a damn”) — 128 tweets
  16. SOMSW (“someone over my shoulder watching) — 170 tweets
  17. WAPCE (“women are pure concentrated evil”) — 233 tweets, few relating to women
  18. YKWRGMG (“you know what really grinds my gears?”) — 1,204 tweets

In all fairness to the FBI, they do get some things right: “crunk” is helpfully defined as “crazy and drunk,” FF is “a recommendation to follow someone referenced in the tweet,” and a whole range of online patois is translated to its proper English equivalent: hafta is “have to,” ima is “I’m going to,” kewt is “cute.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: FBI Seal. Courtesy of U.S. Government.

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Nuts About Nutella

nutella

Connoisseurs of Nutella — that wonderful concoction of hazelnuts and chocolate — are celebrating 50 years of the iconic Italian spread. Here’s to the next 50 bites, sorry years! Say no more.

From the Guardian:

In Piedmont they have been making gianduiotto, a confectionery combining hazelnuts and cocoa sold in a pretty tinfoil wrapper, since the mid-18th century. They realised long ago that the nuts, which are plentiful in the surrounding hills, are a perfect match for chocolate. But no one had any idea that their union would prove so harmonious, lasting and fruitful. Only after the second world war was this historic marriage finally sealed.

Cocoa beans are harder to come by and, consequently, more expensive. Pietro Ferrero, an Alba-based pastry cook, decided to turn the problem upside down. Chocolate should not be allowed to dictate its terms. By using more nuts and less cocoa, one could obtain a product that was just as good and not as costly. What is more, it would be spread.

Nutella, one of the world’s best-known brands, celebrated its 50th anniversary in Alba last month. In telling the story of this chocolate spread, it’s difficult to avoid cliches: a success story emblematic of Italy’s postwar recovery, the tale of a visionary entrepreneur and his perseverance, a business model driven by a single product.

The early years were spectacular. In 1946 the Ferrero brothers produced and sold 300kg of their speciality; nine months later output had reached 10 tonnes. Pietro stayed at home making the spread. Giovanni went to market across Italy in his little Fiat. In 1948 Ferrero, now a limited company, moved into a 5,000 sq metre factory equipped to produce 50 tonnes of gianduiotto a month.

By 1949 the process was nearing perfection, with the launch of the “supercrema” version, which was smoother and stuck more to the bread than the knife. It was also the year Pietro died. He did not live long enough to savour his triumph.

His son Michele was driven by the same obsession with greater spreadability. Under his leadership Ferrero became an empire. But it would take another 15 years of hard work and endless experiments before finally, in 1964, Nutella was born.

The firm now sells 365,000 tonnes of Nutella a year worldwide, the biggest consumers being the Germans, French, Italians and Americans. The anniversary was, of course, the occasion for a big promotional operation. At a gathering in Rome last month, attended by two government ministers, journalists received a 1kg jar marked with the date and a commemorative Italian postage stamp. It is an ideal opportunity for Ferrero – which also owns the Tic Tac, Ferrero Rocher, Kinder and Estathé brands, among others – to affirm its values and rehearse its well-established narrative.

There are no recent pictures of the patriarch Michele, who divides his time between Belgium and Monaco. According to Forbes magazine he was worth $9.5bn in 2009, making him the richest person in Italy. He avoids the media and making public appearances, even eschewing the boards of leading Italian firms.

His son Giovanni, who has managed the company on his own after the early death of his brother Pietro in 2011, only agreed to a short interview on Italy’s main public TV channel. He abides by the same rule as his father: “Only on two occasions should the papers mention one’s name – birth and death.”

In contrast, Ferrero executives have plenty to say about both products and the company, with its 30,000-strong workforce at 14 locations, its €8bn ($10bn) revenue, 72% share of the chocolate-spreads market, 5 million friends on Facebook, 40m Google references, its hazelnut plantations in both hemispheres securing it a round-the-year supply of fresh ingredients and, of course, its knowhow.

“The recipe for Nutella is not a secret like Coca-Cola,” says marketing manager Laurent Cremona. “Everyone can find out the ingredients. We simply know how to combine them better than other people.”

Be that as it may, the factory in Alba is as closely guarded as Fort Knox and visits are not allowed. “It’s not a company, it’s an oasis of happiness,” says Francesco Paolo Fulci, a former ambassador and president of the Ferrero foundation. “In 70 years, we haven’t had a single day of industrial action.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Never enough Nutella. Courtesy of secret Nutella fans the world over / Ferrero, S.P.A

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Images: Go Directly To Jail or…

open-door

If you live online and write or share images it’s likely that you’ve been, or will soon be, sued by the predatory Getty Images. Your kindly editor at theDiagonal uses images found to be in the public domain or references them as fair use in this blog, and yet has fallen prey to this extortionate nuisance of a company.

Getty with its army of fee extortion collectors — many are not even legally trained or accredited — will find reason to send you numerous legalistic and threatening letters demanding hundreds of dollars in compensation and damages. It will do this without sound proof, relying on the threats to cajole unwary citizens to part with significant sums. This is such a big market for Getty that numerous services, such as this one, have sprung up over the years to help writers and bloggers combat the Getty extortion.

With that in mind, it’s refreshing to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York taking a rather different stance: the venerable institution is doing us all a wonderful service by making many hundreds of thousands of classic images available online for free. Getty take that!

From WSJ:

This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released for download about 400,000 digital images of works that are in the public domain. The images, which are free to use for non-commercial use without permission or fees, may now be downloaded from the museum’s website. The museum will continue to add images to the collection as they digitize files as part of the initiative Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC). 

When asked about the impact of the initiative, Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, said the new program would provide increased access and streamline the process of obtaining these images. “In keeping with the Museum’s mission, we hope the new image policy will stimulate new scholarship in a variety of media, provide greater access to our vast collection, and broaden the reach of the Museum to researchers world-wide. By providing open access, museums and scholars will no longer have to request permission to use our public domain images, they can download the images directly from our website.”

Thomas P. Campbell, director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the Met joins a growing number of museums using an open-access policy to make available digital images of public domain works. “I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection,” Mr. Campbell said in his May 16 announcement. Other New York institutions that have initiated similar programs include the New York Public Library (map collection),  the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New York Philharmonic. 

See more images here.

Image: “The Open Door,” earlier than May 1844. Courtesy of William Henry Fox Talbot/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Life and Death: Sharing Startups

The great cycle of re-invention spawned by the Internet and mobile technologies continues apace. This time it’s the entrepreneurial businesses laying the foundation for the sharing economy — whether that be beds, room, clothes, tuition, bicycles or cars. A few succeed to become great new businesses; most fail.

From the WSJ:

A few high-profile “sharing-economy” startups are gaining quick traction with users, including those that let consumers rent apartments and homes like Airbnb Inc., or get car rides, such as Uber Technologies Inc.

Both Airbnb and Uber are valued in the billions of dollars, a sign that investors believe the segment is hot—and a big reason why more entrepreneurs are embracing the business model.

At MassChallenge, a Boston-based program to help early-stage entrepreneurs, about 9% of participants in 2013 were starting companies to connect consumers or businesses with products and services that would otherwise go unused. That compares with about 5% in 2010, for instance.

“We’re bullish on the sharing economy, and we’ll definitely make more investments in it,” said Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator in Mountain View, Calif., and one of Airbnb’s first investors.

Yet at least a few dozen sharing-economy startups have failed since 2012, including BlackJet, a Florida-based service that touted itself as the “Uber for jet travel,” and Tutorspree, a New York service dubbed the “Airbnb for tutors.” Most ran out of money, following struggles that ranged from difficulties building a critical mass of supply and demand, to higher-than-expected operating costs.

“We ended up being unable to consistently produce a level of demand on par with what we needed to scale rapidly,” said Aaron Harris, co-founder of Tutorspree, which launched in January 2011 and shuttered in August 2013.

“If you have to reacquire the customer every six months, they’ll forget you,” said Howard Morgan, co-founder of First Round Capital, which was an investor in BlackJet. “A private jet ride isn’t something you do every day. If you’re very wealthy, you have your own plane.” By comparison, he added that he recently used Uber’s ride-sharing service three times in one day.

Consider carpooling startup Ridejoy, for example. During its first year in 2011, its user base was growing by about 30% a month, with more than 25,000 riders and drivers signed up, and an estimated 10,000 rides completed, said Kalvin Wang, one of its three founders. But by the spring of 2013, Ridejoy, which had raised $1.3 million from early-stage investors like Freestyle Capital, was facing ferocious competition from free alternatives, such as carpooling forums on college websites.

Also, some riders could—and did—begin to sidestep the middleman. Many skipped paying its 10% transaction fee by handing their drivers cash instead of paying by credit card on Ridejoy’s website or mobile app. Others just didn’t get it, and even 25,000 users wasn’t sufficient to sustain the business. “You never really have enough inventory,” said Mr. Wang.

After it folded in the summer of 2013, Ridejoy returned about half of its funding to investors, according to Mr. Wang. Alexis Ohanian, an entrepreneur in Brooklyn, N.Y., who was an investor in Ridejoy, said it “could just be the timing or execution that was off.” He cited the success so far of Lyft Inc., the two-year-old San Francisco company that is valued at more than $700 million and offers a short-distance ride-sharing service. “It turned out the short rides are what the market really wanted,” Mr. Ohanian said.

One drawback is that because much of the revenue a sharing business generates goes directly back to the suppliers—of bedrooms, parking spots, vehicles or other “shared” assets—the underlying business may be continuously strapped for cash.

Read the entire article here.

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Measuring a Life

stephen-sutton

“I don’t see the point in measuring life in time any more… I would rather measure it in terms of what I actually achieve. I’d rather measure it in terms of making a difference, which I think is a much more valid and pragmatic measure.”

These are the inspiring and insightful words of 19 year-old, Stephen Sutton, from Birmingham in Britain, about a week before he died from bowel cancer. His upbeat attitude and selflessness during his last days captured the hearts and minds of the nation, and he raised around $5½ million for cancer charities in the process.

From the Guardian:

Few scenarios can seem as cruel or as bleak as a 19-year-old boy dying of cancer. And yet, in the case of Stephen Sutton, who died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of Wednesday morning, it became an inspiring, uplifting tale for millions of people.

Sutton was already something of a local hero in Birmingham, where he was being treated, but it was an extraordinary Facebook update in April that catapulted him into the national spotlight.

“It’s a final thumbs up from me,” he wrote, accompanied by a selfie of him lying in a sickbed, covered in drips, smiling cheerfully with his thumbs in the air. “I’ve done well to blag things as well as I have up till now, but unfortunately I think this is just one hurdle too far.”

It was an extraordinary moment: many would have forgiven him being full of rage and misery. And yet here was a simple, understated display of cheerful defiance.

Sutton had originally set a fundraising target of £10,000 for the Teenage Cancer Trust. But the emotional impact of that selfie was so profound that, in a matter of days, more than £3m was donated.

He made a temporary recovery that baffled doctors; he explained that he had “coughed up” a tumour. And so began an extraordinary dialogue with his well-wishers.

To his astonishment, nearly a million people liked his Facebook page and tens of thousands followed him on Twitter. It is fashionable to be downbeat about social media: to dismiss it as being riddled with the banal and the narcissistic, or for stripping human interaction of warmth as conversations shift away from the “real world” to the online sphere.

But it was difficult not to be moved by the online response to Stephen’s story: a national wave of emotion that is not normally forthcoming for those outside the world of celebrity.

His social-media updates were relentlessly upbeat, putting those of us who have tweeted moaning about a cold to shame. “Just another update to let everyone know I am still doing and feeling very well,” he reassured followers less than a week before his death. “My disease is very advanced and will get me eventually, but I will try my damn hardest to be here as long as possible.”

Sutton was diagnosed with bowel cancer in September 2010 when he was 15; tragically, he had been misdiagnosed and treated for constipation months earlier.

But his response was unabashed positivity from the very beginning, even describing his diagnosis as a “good thing” and a “kick up the backside”.

The day he began chemotherapy, he attended a party dressed as a granny – he was so thin and pale, he said, that he was “quite convincing”. He refused to take time off school, where he excelled.

When he was diagnosed as terminally ill two years later, he set up a Facebook page with a bucket list of things he wanted to achieve, including sky-diving, crowd-surfing in a rubber dinghy, and hugging an animal bigger than him (an elephant, it turned out).

But it was his fundraising for cancer research that became his passion, and his efforts will undoubtedly transform the lives of some of the 2,200 teenagers and young adults diagnosed with cancer each year.

The Teenage Cancer Trust on Wednesday said it was humbled and hugely grateful for his efforts, with donations still ticking up and reaching £3.34m by mid-afternoon .

His dream had been to become a doctor. With that ambition taken from him, he sought and found new ways to help people. “Spreading positivity” was another key aim. Four days ago, he organised a National Good Gestures Day, in Birmingham, giving out “free high-fives, hugs, handshakes and fist bumps”.

Indeed, it was not just money for cancer research that Sutton was after. He became an evangelist for a new approach to life.

“I don’t see the point in measuring life in time any more,” he told one crowd. “I would rather measure it in terms of what I actually achieve. I’d rather measure it in terms of making a difference, which I think is a much more valid and pragmatic measure.”

By such a measure, Sutton could scarcely have lived a longer, richer and more fulfilling life.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Stephen Sutton. Courtesy of Google Search.

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Expanding Binge Culture

The framers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence could not have known. They could not have foreseen how commoditization, consumerism, globalisation and always-on media culture would come to transform our culture. They did well to insert “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

But they failed to consider our collective evolution — if you would wish to denote it as such — towards a sophisticated culture of binge. Significant numbers of us have long binged on physical goods, money, natural resources, food and drink. However, media has lagged, somewhat. But no longer. Now we have at our instantaneous whim entire libraries of all-you-can-eat infotainment. Time will tell if this signals the demise of quality, as it gets replaced with overwhelming quantity. One area shows where we may be heading — witness the “fastfoodification” of our news.

From NYT:

When Beyoncé released, without warning, 17 videos around midnight on Dec. 13, millions of fans rejoiced. As a more casual listener of Ms. Knowles, I balked at the onslaught of new material and watched a few videos before throwing in the towel.

Likewise, when Netflix, in one fell swoop, made complete seasons of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” available for streaming, I quailed at the challenge, though countless others happily immersed themselves in their worlds of Washington intrigue and incarcerated women.

Then there is the news, to which floodgates are now fully open thanks to the Internet and cable TV: Flight 370, Putin, Chris Christie, Edward Snowden, Rob Ford, Obamacare, “Duck Dynasty,” “bossy,” #CancelColbert, conscious uncoupling. When presented with 24/7 coverage of these ongoing narratives from an assortment of channels — traditional journalism sites, my Facebook feed, the log-out screen of my email — I followed some closely and very consciously uncoupled from others.

Had these content providers released their offerings in the old-media landscape, à la carte rather than in an all-you-can-eat buffet, the prospect of a seven-course meal might not have seemed so daunting. I could handle a steady drip of one article a day about Mr. Ford in a newspaper. But after two dozen, updated every 10 minutes, plus scores of tweets, videos and GIFs that keep on giving, I wanted to forget altogether about Toronto’s embattled mayor.

While media technology is now catching up to Americans’ penchant for overdoing it and finding plenty of willing indulgers, there are also those like me who recoil from the abundance of binge culture.

In the last decade, media entertainment has given far more freedom to consumers: watch, listen to and read anything at anytime. But Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice,” argues that our surfeit of consumer choices engenders anxiety, not satisfaction, and sometimes even a kind of paralysis.

His thesis (which has its dissenters) applies mostly to the profusion of options within a single set: for instance, the challenge of picking out salad dressing from 175 varieties in a supermarket. Nevertheless, it is also germane to the concept of bingeing, when 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad” wait overwhelmingly in a row like bottles of Newman’s Own on a shelf.

Alex Quinlan, 31, a first-year Ph.D. student in poetry at Florida State University, said he used to spend at least an hour every morning reading the news and “putting off my responsibilities,” as well as binge-watching shows. He is busier now, and last fall had trouble installing an Internet connection in his home, which effectively “rewired my media-consumption habits,” he said. “I’m a lot more disciplined. Last night I watched one episode of ‘House of Cards’ and went to bed. A year ago, I probably would’ve watched one, gotten another beer, then watched two more.”

Even shorter-term bingeing can seem like a major commitment, because there is a distorting effect of receiving a large chunk of content at once rather than getting it piecemeal. To watch one Beyoncé video a week would eat as much time as watching all in one day, but their unified dissemination makes them seem intimidatingly movie-length (which they are, approximately) rather than like a series of four-minute clips.

I also experienced some first-world anxiety last year with the release of the fourth season of “Arrested Development.” I had devoured the show’s first three seasons, parceled out in 22-minute weekly installments on Fox as well as on DVD, where I would watch episodes I had already seen (in pre-streaming days, binge-watching required renting or owning a copy, which was more like a contained feast). But when Netflix uploaded 15 new episodes totaling 8.5 hours on May 26, I was not among those queuing up for it. It took me some time to get around to the show, and once I had started, the knowledge of how many episodes stretched in front of me, at my disposal whenever I wanted, proved off-putting.

This despite the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to binge-viewing. If everyone is quickly exhausting every new episode of a show, and writing and talking about it the next day, it’s easy to feel left out of the conversation if you haven’t kept pace. And sometimes when you’re late to the party, you decide to stay home instead.

Because we frequently gorge when left to our own Wi-Fi-enabled devices, the antiquated methods of “scheduling our information consumption” may have been healthier, if less convenient, said Clay Johnson, 36, the author of “The Information Diet.” He recalled rushing home after choir practice when he was younger to catch “Northern Exposure” on TV.

“That idea is now preposterous,” he said. “We don’t have appointment television anymore. Just because we can watch something all the time doesn’t mean we should. Maybe we should schedule it in a way that makes sense around our daily lives.”

“It’s a lot like food,” he added. “You see some people become info-anorexic, who say the answer is to unplug and not consume anything. Much like an eating disorder, it’s just as unhealthy a decision as binge-watching the news and media. There’s a middle ground of people who are saying, ‘I need to start treating this form of input in my life like a conscious decision and to be informed in the right way.’ ”

Read the entire story here.

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Clothing Design by National Sub-Committee

North-Korean-Military

It’s probably safe to assume that clothing designed by committee will be more utilitarian and drab than that from the colored pencils of say Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani or Coco Chanel.

So, imagine what clothing would look like if it was designed by the Apparel Research Center, a sub-subcommittee of the Clothing Industry Department, itself a sub-committee of the National Industry Committee. Yes, welcome to the strange, centrally planned and tightly controlled world of our favorite rogue nation, North Korea. Imagine no more as Paul French takes us on a journey through daily life in North Korea, excerpted from his new book North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French. It makes for sobering reading.

From the Guardian:

6am The day starts early in Pyongyang, the city described by the North Korean government as the “capital of revolution”. Breakfast is usually corn or maize porridge, possibly a boiled egg and sour yoghurt, with perhaps powdered milk for children.

Then it is time to get ready for work. North Korea has a large working population: approximately 59% of the total in 2010. A growing number of women work in white-collar office jobs; they make up around 90% of workers in light industry and 80% of the rural workforce. Many women are now the major wage-earner in the family – though still housewife, mother and cook as well as a worker, or perhaps a soldier.

Makeup is increasingly common in Pyongyang, though it is rarely worn until after college graduation. Chinese-made skin lotions, foundation, eyeliner and lipstick are available and permissible in the office. Many women suffer from blotchy skin caused by the deteriorating national diet, so are wearing more makeup. Long hair is common, but untied hair is frowned upon.

Men’s hairstyles could not be described as radical. In the 1980s, when Kim Jong-il first came to public prominence, his trademark crewcut, known as a “speed battle cut”, became popular, while the more bouffant style favoured by Kim Il-sung, and then Kim Jong-il, in their later years, is also popular. Kim Jong-un’s trademark short-back-and-sides does not appear to have inspired much imitation so far. Hairdressers and barbers are run by the local Convenience Services Management Committee; at many, customers can wash their hair themselves.

Fashion is not really an applicable term in North Korea, as the Apparel Research Centre under the Clothing Industry Department of the National Light Industry Committee designs most clothing. However, things have loosened up somewhat, with bright colours now permitted as being in accordance with a “socialist lifestyle”. Pyongyang offers some access to foreign styles. A Japanese watch denotes someone in an influential position; a foreign luxury watch indicates a very senior position. The increasing appearance of Adidas, Disney and other brands (usually fake) indicates that access to goods smuggled from China is growing. Jeans have at times been fashionable, though risky – occasionally they have been banned as “decadent”, along with long hair on men, which can lead to arrest and a forced haircut.

One daily ritual of all North Koreans is making sure they have their Kim Il-sung badge attached to their lapel. The badges have been in circulation since the late 1960s, when the Mansudae Art Studio started producing them for party cadres. Desirable ones can change hands on the black market for several hundred NKW. In a city where people rarely carry cash, jewellery or credit cards, Kim badges are one of the most prized targets of Pyongyang’s pickpockets.

Most streets are boulevards of utilitarian high-rise blocks. Those who live on higher floors may have to set out for work or school a little earlier than those lower down. Due to chronic power cuts, many elevators work only intermittently, if at all. Many buildings are between 20 and 40 storeys tall – there are stories of old people who have never been able to leave. Even in the better blocks elevators can be sporadic and so people just don’t take the chance. Families make great efforts to relocate older relatives on lower floors, but this is difficult and a bribe is sometimes required. With food shortages now constant, many older people share their meagre rations with their grandchildren, weakening themselves further and making the prospect of climbing stairs even more daunting.

Some people do drive to work, but congestion is not a major problem. Despite the relative lack of cars, police enforce traffic regulations strictly and issue tickets. Fines can be equivalent to two weeks’ salary. Most cars belong to state organisations, but are often used as if they were privately owned. All vehicles entering Pyongyang must be clean; owners of dirty cars may be fined. Those travelling out of Pyongyang require a travel certificate. There are few driving regulations; however, on hills ascending vehicles have the right of way, and trucks cannot pass passenger cars under any circumstances. Drunk-driving is punished with hard labour. Smoking while driving is banned on the grounds that a smoking driver cannot smell a problem with the car.

Those who have a bicycle usually own a Sea Gull, unless they are privileged and own an imported second-hand Japanese bicycle. But even a Sea Gull costs several months’ wages and requires saving.

7.30am For many North Koreans the day starts with a 30-minute reading session and exercises before work begins. The reading includes receiving instructions and studying the daily editorial in the party papers. This is followed by directives on daily tasks and official announcements.

For children, the school day starts with exercises to a medley of populist songs before a session of marching on the spot and saluting the image of the leader. The curriculum is based Kim Il-sung’s 1977 Thesis on Socialist Education, emphasising the political role of education in developing revolutionary spirit. All children study Kim Il-sung’s life closely. Learning to read means learning to read about Kim Il-sung; music class involves singing patriotic songs. Rote learning and memorising political tracts is integral and can bring good marks, which help in getting into university – although social rank is a more reliable determinant of college admission. After graduation, the state decides where graduates will work.

8am Work begins. Pyongyang is the centre of the country’s white-collar workforce, though a Pyongyang office would appear remarkably sparse to most outsiders. Banks, industrial enterprises and businesses operate almost wholly without computers, photocopiers and modern office technology. Payrolls and accounting are done by hand.

12pm Factories, offices and workplaces break for lunch for an hour. Many workers bring a packed lunch, or, if they live close by, go home to eat. Larger workplaces have a canteen serving cheap lunches, such as corn soup, corn cake and porridge. The policy of eating in work canteens, combined with the lack of food shops and restaurants, means that Pyongyang remains strangely empty during the working day with no busy lunchtime period, as seen in other cities around the world.

Shopping is an as-and-when activity. If a shop has stock, then returning later is not an option as it will be sold out. According to defectors, North Koreans want “five chests and seven appliances”. The chests are a quilt chest, wardrobe, bookshelf, cupboard and shoe closet, while the appliances comprise a TV, refrigerator, washing machine, electric fan, sewing machine, tape recorder and camera. Most ordinary people only have a couple of appliances, usually a television and a sewing machine.

Food shopping is equally problematic. Staples such as soy sauce, soybean paste, salt and oil, as well as toothpaste, soap, underwear and shoes, sell out fast. The range of food items available is highly restricted. White cabbage, cucumber and tomato are the most common; meat is rare, and eggs increasingly so. Fruit is largely confined to apples and pears. The main staple of the North Korean diet is rice, though bread is sometimes available, accompanied by a form of butter that is often rancid. Corn, maize and mushrooms also appear sometimes.

Read the entire excerpt here.

Image: Soldiers from the Korean People’s Army look south while on duty in the Joint Security Area, 2008. Courtesy of U.S. government.

 

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Kids With Guns

lily-with-her-gunIf you were asked to picture a contemporary scene populated with gun-toting children it’s possible your first thoughts might lean toward child soldiers in Chad, Burma, Central African Republic, Afghanistan or South Sudan. You’d be partially correct — that this abhorrent violation of children goes on in this world today, is incomprehensible and morally repugnant. Yet, you’d also be partially wrong.

So, think closer to home, think Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Kentucky in the United States. A recent series of portraits titled “My First Rifle” by photographer An-Sofie Kesteleyn showcases children posing with their guns. See more of her fascinating and award-winning images here.

From  Wired:

Approaching strangers at gun ranges across America and asking to photograph their children holding guns isn’t likely to get you the warmest reception. But that’s exactly what photographer An-Sofie Kesteleyn did last June for her series My First Rifle. “One of the only things I had going for me was that I’m not some weird-looking guy,” she says.

Kesteleyn lives in Amsterdam but visited the United States to meet gun owners about a month after reading a news story about a 5-year-old boy in Kentucky who killed his 2-year-old sister with his practice rifle. She was taken aback by the death, which was deemed an accident. Not only because it was a tragic story, but also because in the Netherlands, few people if any own guns and it was unheard of to give a 5-year-old his own firearm.

“I really wanted to know what parents and kids thought about having the guns,” she says. “For me it was hard to understand because we don’t have a gun culture at all. The only people with guns [in the Netherlands] are the police.”

Thinking Texas would be cliché, Kesteleyn started her project in Ohio and worked her way though Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana before ending in the Lone Star State. Most of the time, it was rough going. Many people didn’t want to talk about their gun ownership. More often than not, she ended up talking to gun shop or shooting range owners, the most outspoken proponents.

During the three weeks she was on the ground, about 15 people were willing to let her photograph their children with Crickett rifles, which come in variety of colors, including hot pink. She always asked to visit people at home, because photos at the gun range were too expected and Kesteleyn wanted to reveal more details about the child and the parents.

“At home it was a lot more personal,” she says.

She spent time following one young girl who owned a Crickett and tried to develop a traditional documentary story, but that didn’t pan out so she switched, mid-project, to portraits. If the parents were OK with the idea, she’s ask children to pose in their rooms, in whatever way they felt comfortable.

“By photographing them in their bedroom I thought it helped remind us that they’re kids,” she says.

Kesteleyn also had the children write down what they were most scared of and what they might use the gun to defend themselves against (zombies, dinosaurs, bears). She then photographed those letters and turned the portrait and letter into a diptych.

So far the project has been well received in Europe. But Kesteleyn has yet to show it many places in the United States worries about how people might react. Though she tried coming to the story with an open mind and didn’t develop a strong opinion one way or another, she knows some viewers might assume she has an agenda.

Kesteleyn says that the majority of parents give their kids guns to educate them and ensure they know how to properly use a firearm when they get older. At the same time, she never could shake how odd she felt standing next to a child with a gun.

“I don’t want to be like I’m against guns or pro guns, but I do think giving a child a gun is sort of like giving your kids car keys,” she says.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Lily, 6. Courtesy of An-Sofie Kesteleyn / Wired.

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Zentai Coming to a City Near You

google-search-zentai

The latest Japanese export may not become as ubiquitous as Pokemon or the Toyota Camry. However, aficionados of Zentai seem to be increasing in numbers, and outside of the typical esoteric haunts such as clubs or during Halloween parties. Though, it may be a while before Zentai outfits appear around the office.

From the Washington Post:

They meet on clandestine Internet forums. Or in clubs. Or sometimes at barbecue parties, where as many as 10 adherents gather every month to eat meat and frolic in an outfit that falls somewhere between a Power Ranger’s tunic and Spider-Man’s digs.

They meet on clandestine Internet forums. Or in clubs. Or sometimes at barbecue parties, where as many as 10 adherents gather every month to eat meat and frolic in an outfit that falls somewhere between a Power Ranger’s tunic and Spider-Man’s digs.

It’s called “zentai.” And in Japan, it can mean a lot of things. To 20-year-old Hokkyoku Nigo, it means liberation from the judgment and opinions of others. To a 22-year-old named Hanaka, it represents her lifelong fascination with superheroes. To a 36-year-old teacher named Nezumiko, it elicits something sexual. “I like to touch and stroke others and to be touched and stroked like this,” she told the AFP’s Harumi Ozawa.

But to most outsiders, zentai means exactly what it looks like: spandex body suits.

Where did this phenomenon come from and what does it mean? In a culture of unique displays — from men turning trucks into glowing light shows to women wearing Victoria-era clothing — zentai appears to be yet another oddity in a country well accustomed to them.

The trend can take on elements of prurience, however, and groups with names such as “zentai addict” and “zentai fetish” teem on Facebook. There are zentai ninjas. There are zentai Pokemon. There are zentai British flags and zentai American flags.

An organization called the Zentai Project, based in England, explains it as “a tight, colorful suit that transforms a normal person into amusement for all who see them. … The locals don’t know what to make of us, but the tourists love us and we get onto lots of tourist snaps — sometimes we can hardly walk 3 steps down the street before being stopped to pose for another picture.”

Though the trend is now apparently global, it was once just a group of Japanese climbing into skintight latex for unknown reasons.

“With my face covered, I cannot eat or drink like other customers,” Hokkyoku Nigo says in the AFP story. “I have led my life always worrying about what other people think of me. They say I look cute, gentle, childish or naive. I have always felt suffocated by that. But wearing this, I am just a person in a full body suit.”

Ikuo Daibo, a professor at Tokyo Mirai University, says wearing full body suits may reflect a sense of societal abandonment. People are acting out to define their individuality.

“In Japan,” he said, ”many people feel lost; they feel unable to find their role in society. They have too many role models and cannot choose which one to follow.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Literally? Literally!

In everyday conversation the word “literally” is now as overused as the word “like” or the pause “um”. But, it’s also thoroughly abused (figuratively) and misused (literally). Unfortunately for pedants and linguistic purists, the word has become an intensifier of sorts. So, while you’ll still have to resort to cringing and correcting — if you are that inclined — your conversational partners next time they exclaim “… he was literally dying from laughter”, you have help online. A new web browser extension scans the page you’re on and replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively”. Now that’s really mind-blowing, literally.

From Slate:

If you’re a cool-headed, fair-minded, forward-thinking descriptivist like my colleague David Haglund, it doesn’t bother you one bit that people often use the word “literally” when describing things figuratively.

If, on the other hand, you’re a cranky language bully like me, it figuratively bugs the crap out of you every time.

We pedants are waging a losing battle, of course. Even major dictionaries now recognize the use of “literally” as an intensifier for statements that are not literally true.

Fortunately, Yahoo Tech‘s Alyssa Bereznak has run across a simple remedy for this galling inversion of the term’s original meaning. Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results.

It doesn’t work in every instance—tweets, for example, are immune to the extension’s magic, as are illustrations. But it works widely enough to put you in metaphorical stitches when you see some of the results. For instance, a quick Google News search for “literally” turns up the following headlines, modified by the browser extension to a state of unintentional accuracy:

  • The 2014 MTV Movie Awards Were Figuratively on Fire
  • 10 Things You Figuratively Do Not Have Time For
  • Momentum Is Figuratively the Next Starting Pitcher for LSU

Be warned, though: Walker’s widget does not distinguish between the literal and figurative uses of “literally.” So if you install it, you’ll also start seeing the word “figuratively” to describe things that are literally true, as in, “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” (The baseball was in fact destroyed.)

But hey, that’s no worse than the current state of affairs. Come to think of it, by the anti-prescriptivists’ logic, there’s nothing wrong with using “figuratively” to mean “literally,” as long as enough people do it. Anything can mean anything, literally—I mean figuratively!

If you’re signed into the Chrome browser, you can install the extension here. For those who want a browser extension that zaps hyperbole more broadly, try Alison Dianotto’s Downworthy tool, which performs similar operations on phrases like “will blow your mind” and “you won’t believe.”

Read the entire article here.

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Google: The Standard Oil of Our Age

Google’s aim to organize the world’s information sounds benign enough. But delve a little deeper into its research and development efforts or witness its boundless encroachment into advertising, software, phones, glasses, cars, home automation, travel, internet services, artificial intelligence, robotics, online shopping (and so on), and you may get a more uneasy and prickly sensation. Is Google out to organize information or you? Perhaps it’s time to begin thinking about Google as a corporate hegemony, not quite a monopoly yet, but so powerful that counter-measures become warranted.

An open letter, excerpted below, from Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer AG, does us all a service by raising the alarm bells.

From the Guardian:

Dear Eric Schmidt,

As you know, I am a great admirer of Google’s entrepreneurial success. Google’s employees are always extremely friendly to us and to other publishing houses, but we are not communicating with each other on equal terms. How could we? Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google. We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly. And as the biggest among the small, perhaps it is also up to us to be the first to speak out in this debate. You yourself speak of the new power of the creators, owners, and users.

In the long term I’m not so sure about the users. Power is soon followed by powerlessness. And this is precisely the reason why we now need to have this discussion in the interests of the long-term integrity of the digital economy’s ecosystem. This applies to competition – not only economic, but also political. As the situation stands, your company will play a leading role in the various areas of our professional and private lives – in the house, in the car, in healthcare, in robotronics. This is a huge opportunity and a no less serious threat. I am afraid that it is simply not enough to state, as you do, that you want to make the world a “better place”.

Google lists its own products, from e-commerce to pages from its own Google+ network, higher than those of its competitors, even if these are sometimes of less value for consumers and should not be displayed in accordance with the Google algorithm. It is not even clearly pointed out to the user that these search results are the result of self-advertising. Even when a Google service has fewer visitors than that of a competitor, it appears higher up the page until it eventually also receives more visitors.

You know very well that this would result in long-term discrimination against, and weakening of, any competition, meaning that Google would be able to develop its superior market position still further. And that this would further weaken the European digital economy in particular.

This also applies to the large and even more problematic set of issues concerning data security and data utilisation. Ever since Edward Snowden triggered the NSA affair, and ever since the close relations between major American online companies and the American secret services became public, the social climate – at least in Europe – has fundamentally changed. People have become more sensitive about what happens to their user data. Nobody knows as much about its customers as Google. Even private or business emails are read by Gmail and, if necessary, can be evaluated. You yourself said in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” This is a remarkably honest sentence. The question is: are users happy with the fact that this information is used not only for commercial purposes – which may have many advantages, yet a number of spooky negative aspects as well – but could end up in the hands of the intelligence services, and to a certain extent already has?

Google is sitting on the entire current data trove of humanity, like the giant Fafner in The Ring of the Nibelung: “Here I lie and here I hold.” I hope you are aware of your company’s special responsibility. If fossil fuels were the fuels of the 20th century, then those of the 21st century are surely data and user profiles. We need to ask ourselves whether competition can generally still function in the digital age, if data is so extensively concentrated in the hands of one party.

There is a quote from you in this context that concerns me. In 2009 you said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” The essence of freedom is precisely the fact that I am not obliged to disclose everything that I am doing, that I have a right to confidentiality and, yes, even to secrets; that I am able to determine for myself what I wish to disclose about myself. The individual right to this is what makes a democracy. Only dictatorships want transparent citizens instead of a free press.

Against this background, it greatly concerns me that Google – which has just announced the acquisition of drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace – has been seen for some time as being behind a number of planned enormous ships and floating working environments that can cruise and operate in the open ocean. What is the reason for this development? You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find this alarming.

Historically, monopolies have never survived in the long term. Either they have failed as a result of their complacency, which breeds its own success, or they have been weakened by competition – both unlikely scenarios in Google’s case. Or they have been restricted by political initiatives.

Another way would be voluntary self-restraint on the part of the winner. Is it really smart to wait until the first serious politician demands the breakup of Google? Or even worse – until the people refuse to follow?

Sincerely yours,

Mathias Döpfner

Read the entire article here.

 

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Peak Beard

google-search-beards

Followers of all things hirsute, particularly male facial hair have recently declared “peak beard”. The declaration means that it’s no longer cool to be bearded (if you’re a man, anyway), since being bearded no longer represents a small, and hence very hip, minority. Does this mean our friends over a Duck Dynasty will have to don a clean-shaven look to maintain their ratings? Time will tell.

From the Guardian:

Hirsute men have been warned their attractiveness to potential partners may fade as facial hair becomes more prevalent, in a scenario researchers have called “peak beard”.

Research conducted by the University of NSW finds that, when people are confronted by a succession of bearded men, clean-shaven men become more attractive to them.

This process also works in reverse, with men with heavy stubble and full, Ned Kelly-style beards judged more attractive when present in a sea of hairless visages.

Researchers picked 1,453 bisexual or heterosexual women and 213 heterosexual men to take part in the study.

Participants were shown 36 images of men’s faces, with the first 24 pictures used to condition the subjects by showing them exclusively bearded or non-bearded men, or a mixture of the two.

The final 12 images then showed clean shaven or bearded men, with the participants ranking their attractiveness on a scale of minus four to four.

Researchers found the ranking of these men strongly depended upon the exposure of participants to bearded men prior to this. The more beards they’d already seen, the less attractive subsequent beards were, and vice versa with clean-shaven men.

This phenomenon is called “negative frequency-dependent sexual selection” and is present in several animal species, according to the UNSW team.

Researcher Robert Brooks told Guardian Australia the aim of the work was to look at the dynamics that drove the fashion of beards.

“There is a lot of faddishness with beards, they are on the way back and it’s interesting to look at that interaction with culture,” he said.

“It appears that beards gain an advantage when rare, but when they are in fashion and common, they are declared trendy and that attractiveness is over.”

Brooks conceded it was hard to tell how the experiment related to the real world, but said the fashion for beards might be reaching its zenith.

“The bigger the trend gets, the weaker the preference for beards and the tide will go out again,” he said. “We may well be at peak beard. Obviously, you will see more beards in Surry Hills than in Bondi, but I think we are near saturation point. This thing can’t get much bigger.

“These trends usually move in 30-year cycles from when they are first noticed but, with the internet, things are moving a lot faster.”

The researchers are now working on a larger, follow-up study that will look at the link between facial hair and masculinity.

“We still don’t really know the primary function of the beard,” Brooks said. “Some women are attracted to it, some are repelled. It is clear it is a sign of manliness, it makes men look older and also more aggressive. How much women like that depends, in a way, on how overtly masculine they like their men.

Read the entire article hair (pun intended).

Image: Men with beards. Courtesy of Google Search.

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Caveat Asterisk and Corporate Un-Ethics

Froot-Loops-Cereal-BowlWe have to believe that most companies are in business to help us with their products and services, not hurt us. Yet, more and more enterprises are utilizing novel ways to shield themselves and their executives from the consequences and liabilities of shoddy and dangerous products and questionable business practices.

Witness the latest corporate practice:  buried deeply within a company’s privacy policy you may be surprised to find a clause that states the company is not liable to you in any way if you have purchased one of their products, or downloaded a coupon, or “liked” them via a social network!

You have to admire the combined creativity of these corporate legal teams — who needs real product innovation with tangible consumer benefits when you can increase the corporate bottom-line through legal shenanigans that abrogate ethical responsibility.

So if you ever find a dead rodent in your next box of Cheerios, which you purchased with a $1-off coupon, you may be out of luck; and General Mills executives will be as happy as the families in their blue sky cereal commercials.

From the NYT:

Might downloading a 50-cent coupon for Cheerios cost you legal rights?

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

Instead, anyone who has received anything that could be construed as a benefit and who then has a dispute with the company over its products will have to use informal negotiation via email or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site.

In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

“We’ve updated our Privacy Policy,” the company wrote in a thin, gray bar across the top of its home page. “Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.”

The change in legal terms, which occurred shortly after a judge refused to dismiss a case brought against the company by consumers in California, made General Mills one of the first, if not the first, major food companies to seek to impose what legal experts call “forced arbitration” on consumers.

“Although this is the first case I’ve seen of a food company moving in this direction, others will follow — why wouldn’t you?” said Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, a trade group representing plaintiff trial lawyers. “It’s essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product.”

General Mills declined to make anyone available for an interview about the changes. “While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach,” the company said in a statement. “We even cover the cost of arbitration in most cases. So this is just a policy update, and we’ve tried to communicate it in a clear and visible way.”

A growing number of companies have adopted similar policies over the years, especially after a 2011 Supreme Court decision, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, that paved the way for businesses to bar consumers claiming fraud from joining together in a single arbitration. The decision allowed companies to forbid class-action lawsuits with the use of a standard-form contract requiring that disputes be resolved through the informal mechanism of one-on-one arbitration.

Credit card and mobile phone companies have included such limitations on consumers in their contracts, and in 2008, the magazine Mother Jones published an article about a Whataburger fast-food restaurant that hung a sign on its door warning customers that simply by entering the premises, they agreed to settle disputes through arbitration.

Companies have continued to push for expanded protection against litigation, but legal experts said that a food company trying to limit its customers’ ability to litigate against it raised the stakes in a new way.

What if a child allergic to peanuts ate a product that contained trace amounts of nuts but mistakenly did not include that information on its packaging? Food recalls for mislabeling, including failures to identify nuts in products, are not uncommon.

“When you’re talking about food, you’re also talking about things that can kill people,” said Scott L. Nelson, a lawyer at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group. “There is a huge difference in the stakes, between the benefit you’re getting from this supposed contract you’re entering into by, say, using the company’s website to download a coupon, and the rights they’re saying you’re giving up. That makes this agreement a lot broader than others out there.”

Big food companies are concerned about the growing number of consumers filing class-action lawsuits against them over labeling, ingredients and claims of health threats. Almost every major gathering of industry executives has at least one session on fighting litigation.

Last year, General Mills paid $8.5 million to settle lawsuits over positive health claims made on the packaging of its Yoplait Yoplus yogurt, saying it did not agree with the plaintiff’s accusations but wanted to end the litigation. In December 2012, it agreed to settle another suit by taking the word “strawberry” off the packaging label for Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, which did not contain strawberries.

General Mills amended its legal terms after a judge in California on March 26 ruled against its motion to dismiss a case brought by two mothers who contended that the company deceptively marketed its Nature Valley products as “natural” when they contained processed and genetically engineered ingredients.

“The front of the Nature Valley products’ packaging prominently displays the term ‘100% Natural’ that could lead a reasonable consumer to believe the products contain only natural ingredients,” wrote the district judge, William H. Orrick.

He wrote that the packaging claim “appears to be false” because the products contain processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Bowl of cereal. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Evan-Amos.

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It’s Official: The U.S. is an Oligarchy

US_Capitol_west_side

Until recently the term oligarchy was usually only applied to Russia and some ex-Soviet satellites. A new study out of Princeton and Northwestern universities makes a case for the oligarchic label right here in the United States. Jaded voters will yawn at this so-called news — most ordinary citizens have known for decades that the U.S. political system is thoroughly broken, polluted with money (“free speech” as the U.S. Supreme Court would deem it) and serves only special interests (on the right or the left).

From the Telegraph:

The US government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities has concluded.

The report, entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, used extensive policy data collected from between the years of 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the US political system.

After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Researchers concluded that US government policies rarely align with the the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favour special interests and lobbying oragnisations: “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.”

The positions of powerful interest groups are “not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens”, but the politics of average Americans and affluent Americans sometimes does overlap. This merely a coincidence, the report says, with the the interests of the average American being served almost exclusively when it also serves those of the richest 10 per cent.

The theory of “biased pluralism” that the Princeton and Northwestern researchers believe the US system fits holds that policy outcomes “tend to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.”

Read more here.

Image: U.S. Capitol. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Fourteen Years in Four Minutes

Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester has made a beautiful and enduring timelapse portrait. Shot over a period of 14 years, the video shows his daughter growing up before our eyes. To create this momentous documentary work Hofmeester filmed his daughter, Lotte, for 15 seconds every week since birth. This is a remarkable feat  for both filmmaker and his subject, and probably makes many of us wish we could have done the same. Hofmeester created a similar timelapse video of Lotte’s younger brother Vince.

Read more on this story here.

Video courtesy of Frans Hofmeester.

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Now Where Did I Put Those Keys?

key_chain

We all lose our car keys and misplace our cell phones. We leave umbrellas on public transport. We forget things at the office. We all do it — some more frequently than others. And, it’s not merely a symptom of aging. Many younger people seem to be increasingly prone to losing their personal items, perhaps a characteristic of their increasingly fragmented, distracted and limited attention spans.

From the WSJ:

You’ve put your keys somewhere and now they appear to be nowhere, certainly not in the basket by the door they’re supposed to go in and now you’re 20 minutes late for work. Kitchen counter, night stand, book shelf, work bag: Wait, finally, there they are under the mail you brought in last night.

Losing things is irritating and yet we are a forgetful people. The average person misplaces up to nine items a day, and one-third of respondents in a poll said they spend an average of 15 minutes each day searching for items—cellphones, keys and paperwork top the list, according to an online survey of 3,000 people published in 2012 by a British insurance company.

Everyday forgetfulness isn’t a sign of a more serious medical condition like Alzheimer’s or dementia. And while it can worsen with age, minor memory lapses are the norm for all ages, researchers say.

Our genes are at least partially to blame, experts say. Stress, fatigue, and multitasking can exacerbate our propensity to make such errors. Such lapses can also be linked to more serious conditions like depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders.

“It’s the breakdown at the interface of attention and memory,” says Daniel L. Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of “The Seven Sins of Memory.”

That breakdown can occur in two spots: when we fail to activate our memory and encode what we’re doing—where we put down our keys or glasses—or when we try to retrieve the memory. When you encode a memory, the hippocampus, a central part of the brain involved in memory function, takes a snapshot which is preserved in a set of neurons, says Kenneth Norman, a psychology professor at Princeton University. Those neurons can be activated later with a reminder or cue.

It is important to pay attention when you put down an item, or during encoding. If your state of mind at retrieval is different than it was during encoding, that could pose a problem. Case in point: You were starving when you walked into the house and deposited your keys. When you then go to look for them later, you’re no longer hungry so the memory may be harder to access.

The act of physically and mentally retracing your steps when looking for lost objects can work. Think back to your state of mind when you walked into the house (Were you hungry?). “The more you can make your brain at retrieval like the way it was when you lay down that original memory trace,” the more successful you will be, Dr. Norman says.

In a recent study, researchers in Germany found that the majority of people surveyed about forgetfulness and distraction had a variation in the so-called dopamine D2 receptor gene (DRD2), leading to a higher incidence of forgetfulness. According to the study, 75% of people carry a variation that makes them more prone to forgetfulness.

“Forgetfulness is quite common,” says Sebastian Markett, a researcher in psychology neuroscience at the University of Bonn in Germany and lead author of the study currently in the online version of the journal Neuroscience Letters, where it is expected to be published soon.

The study was based on a survey filled out by 500 people who were asked questions about memory lapses, perceptual failures (failing to notice a stop sign) and psychomotor failures (bumping into people on the street). The individuals also provided a saliva sample for molecular genetic testing.

About half of the total variation of forgetfulness can be explained by genetic effects, likely involving dozens of gene variations, Dr. Markett says.

The buildup of what psychologists call proactive interference helps explain how we can forget where we parked the car when we park in the same lot but different spaces every day. Memory may be impaired by the buildup of interference from previous experiences so it becomes harder to retrieve the specifics, like which parking space, Dr. Schacter says.

A study conducted by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California found that the brain keeps track of similar but distinct memories (where you parked your car today, for example) in the dentate gyrus, part of the hippocampus. There the brain stores separates recordings of each environment and different groups of neurons are activated when similar but nonidentical memories are encoded and later retrieved. The findings appeared last year in the online journal eLife.

The best way to remember where you put something may be the most obvious: Find a regular spot for it and somewhere that makes sense, experts say. If it’s reading glasses, leave them by the bedside. Charge your phone in the same place. Keep a container near the door for keys or a specific pocket in your purse.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Leather key chain. Courtesy of Wikipedia / The Egyptian.

 

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Second Amendment Redux

Retired Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens, argues for a five-word change to the Second Amendment to U.S. Constitution. His cogent argument is set forth in his essay, excerpted below, from his new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”

Stevens’ newly worded paragraph would read as follows:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.

Sadly, for those of us who advocate gun control, any such change is highly unlikely during our lifetimes, so you can continue to add a further 30,000 annual count of bodies to the gun lobby’s books. The five words should have been inserted 200 years ago. It’s far too late now — and school massacres just aren’t enough to shake the sensibilities of most apathetic or paranoid Americans.

From the Washington Post:

Following the massacre of grammar-school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, high-powered weapons have been used to kill innocent victims in more senseless public incidents. Those killings, however, are only a fragment of the total harm caused by the misuse of firearms. Each year, more than 30,000 people die in the United States in firearm-related incidents. Many of those deaths involve handguns.

The adoption of rules that will lessen the number of those incidents should be a matter of primary concern to both federal and state legislators. Legislatures are in a far better position than judges to assess the wisdom of such rules and to evaluate the costs and benefits that rule changes can be expected to produce. It is those legislators, rather than federal judges, who should make the decisions that will determine what kinds of firearms should be available to private citizens, and when and how they may be used. Constitutional provisions that curtail the legislative power to govern in this area unquestionably do more harm than good.

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution placed limits on the powers of the new federal government. Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of the Second Amendment, which provides that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.”

When I joined the court in 1975, that holding was generally understood as limiting the scope of the Second Amendment to uses of arms that were related to military activities. During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.

Organizations such as the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and mounted a vigorous campaign claiming that federal regulation of the use of firearms severely curtailed Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Five years after his retirement, during a 1991 appearance on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” Burger himself remarked that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

In recent years two profoundly important changes in the law have occurred. In 2008, by a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home for purposes of self-defense. And in 2010, by another vote of 5 to 4, the court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment limits the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. I dissented in both of those cases and remain convinced that both decisions misinterpreted the law and were profoundly unwise. Public policies concerning gun control should be decided by the voters’ elected representatives, not by federal judges.

In my dissent in the McDonald case, I pointed out that the court’s decision was unique in the extent to which the court had exacted a heavy toll “in terms of state sovereignty. . . . Even apart from the States’ long history of firearms regulation and its location at the core of their police powers, this is a quintessential area in which federalism ought to be allowed to flourish without this Court’s meddling. Whether or not we can assert a plausible constitutional basis for intervening, there are powerful reasons why we should not do so.”

“Across the Nation, States and localities vary significantly in the patterns and problems of gun violence they face, as well as in the traditions and cultures of lawful gun use. . . . The city of Chicago, for example, faces a pressing challenge in combating criminal street gangs. Most rural areas do not.”

In response to the massacre of grammar-school students at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some legislators have advocated stringent controls on the sale of assault weapons and more complete background checks on purchasers of firearms. It is important to note that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures.

First, the court did not overrule Miller. Instead, it “read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns.” On the preceding page of its opinion, the court made it clear that even though machine guns were useful in warfare in 1939, they were not among the types of weapons protected by the Second Amendment because that protected class was limited to weapons in common use for lawful purposes such as self-defense. Even though a sawed-off shotgun or a machine gun might well be kept at home and be useful for self-defense, neither machine guns nor sawed-off shotguns satisfy the “common use” requirement.

Read the entire article here.

 

 

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No Work Past 6pm. C’est La Vie

les-deux-magots

Many westerners either love or hate the French. But, you have to hand it to them: where American’s love to work; the French, well, just love to do other stuff.

Famous for its maximum 35-hour work week enacted in 1999, the country recently established another restriction on employer demands. It is now illegal for superiors to demand that their office employees check computers, tablets or smartphones after 6pm. So, while the Brits must be whining that their near neighbors have gained yet another enviable characteristic, Americans must be leaving the country in droves. After all, 6pm is merely a signal that the workday is only half over in the United States. Mind you, the French do seem to live longer. Sacre bleu.

From the Independent:

It’s an international version of the postcode lottery. The dateline lottery, if you like, which means that if you are born in Limoges rather than Lancaster, you’re likely to live longer. The 2013 list of life expectancy compiled by the World Health Organisation has France in 13th position and the United Kingdom way behind in 29th spot.

The average life expectancy for these two countries, separated only by 23 miles of waterway, is 82.3 years and 81 years respectively. While it may not seem much of a difference at this remove, it’s something those Britons who are approaching their 81st birthdays might not be feeling too cheerful about.

We are repeatedly told that it is to do with the French diet, all that olive oil and fresh fruit and a glass of red wine with meals, which wards off heart disease. Anyone who’s been to provincial France, however, and tried to buy something from a shop between noon and 3pm, or, depending on where you are, on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, might have stumbled upon the real reason for the greater longevity of the French. This is a place that still believes in half-day closing and taking lunch breaks. This is a country that has a very different attitude towards work from some of its close Northern European neighbours. And the chances are that, if your work-life balance is tilted more towards life, you are going to live longer.

France is the only country in the world to have adopted a 35-hour working week and this is strictly enforced. So much so that, yesterday, an agreement was signed between bosses and unions representing more than a million white-collar employees that would strike the average British worker as an edict from Cloud Cuckoo Land. It is a legally enforceable deal that means workers should not be contacted once they have left the office. It is as if the smartphone had never been invented (and yes, I know, many of us might hanker for a return to those days).

It’s rather ironic that French businesses in the technology sector will not be allowed to urge their employees to check emails once they’ve done their day’s work, and the unions will from now on be measuring what they are neatly calling “digital working time”.

How quaint these ideas seem to us. Heaven only knows what the average British working week would be if digital hours were taken into consideration. No matter what time of the day or night, whatever we may be doing in our leisure hours, we are only a ping away from being back at a virtual desk. I rarely have dinner with anyone these days who isn’t attached to their smartphone, waiting for a pause in the conversation so they can check their emails. Not good for digestion, not good for quality of life.

Here’s the thing, too. French productivity levels outstrip those of Britain and Germany, and French satisfaction with their quality of life is above the OECD average. No wonder, we may say. We’d all like to take a couple of hours off for lunch, washed down with a nice glass of Côtes du Rhône, and then switch our phones off as soon as we leave work. It’s just that our bosses won’t let us.

Read the entire article here (before 6pm if you’re in France at a work computer).

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I Don’t Know, But I Like What I Like: The New Pluralism

choiceIn an insightful opinion piece, excerpted below, a millennial wonders if our fragmented and cluttered, information-rich society has damaged pluralism by turning action into indecision. Even aesthetic preferences come to be so laden with judgmental baggage that expressing a preference for one type of art, or car, or indeed cereal, seems to become an impossible conundrum  for many born in the mid-1980s or later. So, a choice becomes a way to alienate those not chosen — when did selecting a cereal become such an onerous exercise in political correctness and moral relativism?

From the New York Times:

Critics of the millennial generation, of which I am a member, consistently use terms like “apathetic,” “lazy” and “narcissistic” to explain our tendency to be less civically and politically engaged. But what these critics seem to be missing is that many millennials are plagued not so much by apathy as by indecision. And it’s not surprising: Pluralism has been a large influence on our upbringing. While we applaud pluralism’s benefits, widespread enthusiasm has overwhelmed desperately needed criticism of its side effects.

By “pluralism,” I mean a cultural recognition of difference: individuals of varying race, gender, religious affiliation, politics and sexual preference, all exalted as equal. In recent decades, pluralism has come to be an ethical injunction, one that calls for people to peacefully accept and embrace, not simply tolerate, differences among individuals. Distinct from the free-for-all of relativism, pluralism encourages us (in concept) to support our own convictions while also upholding an “energetic engagement with diversity, ” as Harvard’s Pluralism Project suggested in 1991. Today, paeans to pluralism continue to sound throughout the halls of American universities, private institutions, left-leaning households and influential political circles.

However, pluralism has had unforeseen consequences. The art critic Craig Owens once wrote that pluralism is not a “recognition, but a reduction of difference to absolute indifference, equivalence, interchangeability.” Some millennials who were greeted by pluralism in this battered state are still feelings its effects. Unlike those adults who encountered pluralism with their beliefs close at hand, we entered the world when truth-claims and qualitative judgments were already on trial and seemingly interchangeable. As a result, we continue to struggle when it comes to decisively avowing our most basic convictions.

Those of us born after the mid-1980s whose upbringing included a liberal arts education and the fruits of a fledgling World Wide Web have grown up (and are still growing up) with an endlessly accessible stream of texts, images and sounds from far-reaching times and places, much of which were unavailable to humans for all of history. Our most formative years include not just the birth of the Internet and the ensuing accelerated global exchange of information, but a new orthodoxy of multiculturalist ethics and “political correctness.”

These ideas were reinforced in many humanities departments in Western universities during the 1980s, where facts and claims to objectivity were eagerly jettisoned. Even “the canon” was dislodged from its historically privileged perch, and since then, many liberal-minded professors have avoided opining about “good” literature or “high art” to avoid reinstating an old hegemony. In college today, we continue to learn about the byproducts of absolute truths and intractable forms of ideology, which historically seem inextricably linked to bigotry and prejudice.

For instance, a student in one of my English classes was chastened for his preference for Shakespeare over that of the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. The professor challenged the student to apply a more “disinterested” analysis to his reading so as to avoid entangling himself in a misinformed gesture of “postcolonial oppression.” That student stopped raising his hand in class.

I am not trying to tackle the challenge as a whole or indict contemporary pedagogies, but I have to ask: How does the ethos of pluralism inside universities impinge on each student’s ability to make qualitative judgments outside of the classroom, in spaces of work, play, politics or even love?

In 2004, the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour intimated that the skeptical attitude which rebuffs claims to absolute knowledge might have had a deleterious effect on the younger generation: “Good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on.” Latour identified a condition that resonates: Our tenuous claims to truth have not simply been learned in university classrooms or in reading theoretical texts but reinforced by the decentralized authority of the Internet. While trying to form our fundamental convictions in this dizzying digital and intellectual global landscape, some of us are finding it increasingly difficult to embrace qualitative judgments.

Matters of taste in music, art and fashion, for example, can become a source of anxiety and hesitation. While clickable ways of “liking” abound on the Internet, personalized avowals of taste often seem treacherous today. Admittedly, many millennials (and nonmillennials) might feel comfortable simply saying, “I like what I like,” but some of us find ourselves reeling in the face of choice. To affirm a preference for rap over classical music, for instance, implicates the well-meaning millennial in a web of judgments far beyond his control. For the millennial generation, as a result, confident expressions of taste have become more challenging, as aesthetic preference is subjected to relentless scrutiny.

Philosophers and social theorists have long weighed in on this issue of taste. Pierre Bourdieu claimed that an “encounter with a work of art is not ‘love at first sight’ as is generally supposed.” Rather, he thought “tastes” function as “markers of ‘class.’ ” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that aesthetic preference could be traced along socioeconomic lines and reinforce class divisions. To dislike cauliflower is one thing. But elevating the work of one writer or artist over another has become contested territory.

This assured expression of “I like what I like,” when strained through pluralist-inspired critical inquiry, deteriorates: “I like what I like” becomes “But why do I like what I like? Should I like what I like? Do I like it because someone else wants me to like it? If so, who profits and who suffers from my liking what I like?” and finally, “I am not sure I like what I like anymore.” For a number of us millennials, commitment to even seemingly simple aesthetic judgments have become shot through with indecision.

Read the entire article here.

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A Case for Slow Reading

With 24/7 infotainment available to us through any device, anywhere it is more than likely that these immense torrents of competing words, images and sounds will have an effect on our reading. This is particularly evident online where consumers of information are increasingly scanning and skimming — touching only the bare surface of an article — before clicking a link and moving elsewhere (and so on) across the digital ocean. The fragmentation of this experience is actually rewiring our brains, and as some researchers suggest, perhaps not for the best.

From the Washington Post.

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

If the rise of nonstop cable TV news gave the world a culture of sound bites, the Internet, Wolf said, is bringing about an eye byte culture. Time spent online — on desktop and mobile devices — was expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for U.S. adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behavior. That’s up from three hours in 2010.

Word lovers and scientists have called for a “slow reading” movement, taking a branding cue from the “slow food” movement. They are battling not just cursory sentence galloping but the constant social network and e-mail temptations that lurk on our gadgets — the bings and dings that interrupt “Call me Ishmael.”

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.

The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.

“The brain is plastic its whole life span,” Wolf said. “The brain is constantly adapting.”

Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”

“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”

Adapting to read

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Brandon Ambrose, a 31-year-old Navy financial analyst who lives in Alexandria, knows of those consequences.

His book club recently read “The Interestings,” a best-seller by Meg Wolitzer. When the club met, he realized he had missed a number of the book’s key plot points. It hit him that he had been scanning for information about one particular aspect of the book, just as he might scan for one particular fact on his computer screen, where he spends much of his day.

“When you try to read a novel,” he said, “it’s almost like we’re not built to read them anymore, as bad as that sounds.”

Ramesh Kurup noticed something even more troubling. Working his way recently through a number of classic authors — George Eliot, Marcel Proust, that crowd — Kurup, 47, discovered that he was having trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information. Online sentences tend to be shorter, and the ones containing complicated information tend to link to helpful background material.

“In a book, there are no graphics or links to keep you on track,” Kurup said.

It’s easier to follow links, he thinks, than to keep track of so many clauses in page after page of long paragraphs.

 

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