Category Archives: Idea Soup

This is the Result of Pretending to be Stupid

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the apocalypse my friends.

From the NYT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire op/ed here.

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Psychic Quanta From the New Age Wisdom Generator

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

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

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

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

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

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Poor Leadership and Destruction of Meaningful Work


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

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

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

From University of Sussex:

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

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

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

The authors identified five qualities of meaningful work:

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

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

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Five Tips For Re-Learning How to Walk


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the BBC:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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Search and the Invisible Hand of Bias


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of DuckDuckGo.

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Steps of Life


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

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

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

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

20 years: “Jeunesse”

40 years: “Age de discretion”

50 years: “Age de Maturité”

90 years: “Age de decrépitude”

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

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Scary Chart. Scary Times


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

The report centers around one simple question put to households:

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

The answer was jaw-dropping:

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

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

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

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

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

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MondayMap: Beyond the Horizon


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

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

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

From NPR:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

Map: Beach view of Australia. Courtesy Andy Woodruff.

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Farm in a Box

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

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

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

Please check out Freight Farms and spread the word.

Image: Freight Farms. Courtesy: Freight Farms.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more of this surreal story here.

Image: Potwin, Kansas. Courtesy: Google Maps.

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Your New Job in Academia

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

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


Images courtesy of Courtesy: CU-Boulder grad students.

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Litigation Financing

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

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

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

From Wired:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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

From NYT:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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MondayMap: A is Blue; B is Red


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

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

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

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

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

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Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

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

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

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

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

From Wired:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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Man Sues God


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Independent:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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

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Eurovision Comes to America


Mark your calendar. Saturday, May 14, 2016. On this day, for the first time ever the European psychodrama known as the Eurovision Song Contest comes to the United States. Stream the event here or catch it in the US on the Logo channel.

Here’s a quick overview for non-Europeans. Eurovision is the annual, continent-wide song contest — rather like football’s World Cup (soccer, for my US readers). Over 40 nations compete for the honor of best pop song. Since its origin in 1956, Eurovision has expanded beyond the boundaries of Europe to include entries from Israel, North Africa and even Australia. Around 200 million people tune in to watch the finals. The winner is chosen by a panel of judges from each nation, combined with votes from viewers. This year’s event is broadcast from Stockholm — the venue is selected based on the nationality of the previous year’s winner.

What makes it so popular? Well, it’s camp and kitschy. But, above all it’s a nationalistic festival wrapped in bubblegum: patriotic one-upmanship  under the guise of pop. Importantly, it allows nations to exhibit their superiority over neighboring countries without bloodshed. Let’s face it — if you’re British, there is nothing better than trouncing the French in Eurovision.

Read more details from NYT here.

Image: Jamie-Lee represents Germany in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest with Ghost. From the semi-final. Courtesy: Thomas Hanses (EBU).

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PhotoMash: A Tale of Two Nations


Today’s (photo-)mashup comes from the front page of The Guardian, May 6, 2016. The kindly editors juxtaposed two stories that show the chasm between two kindred nations: the United States and the United Kingdom.

The first story reminds us that the United States now has a xenophobic, racist, anti-Muslim bully [I would use more suitable words, but my children sometimes read this blog] as its presumptive Republican nominee for President. The second story breaks news that a Muslim was just elected Mayor of London, the capital city.

One of these nations is moving forward; the direction of the other remains perplexing and disturbing.

Image: Screen shot from the Guardian, May 6, 2016.

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A Career As An Existentialist, Perhaps?

Philosophy isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of the 4-hour debate over lunch on the merits of ethics, aesthetics and or metaphysics. Gone are the days of heated discussions over breakfast lattes on the philosophical traditions of existentialism versus rationalism. But we do still have a duty to think big and to ponder the great questions. So, why not become a part-time, if not professional, existentialist?

From the Guardian:

I was a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my granny on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. It was the cover that attracted me, with its Dalí painting of a dripping watch and sickly green rock formation, plus a blurb describing it as “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being”. I didn’t know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation meant – although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I just guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who drifts around his provincial seaside town staring at tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at their sheer blobbish reality, and making scornful remarks about the bourgeoisie. The book inspired me: I played truant from school and tried drifting around my own provincial town of Reading. I even went to a park and tried to see the Being of a Tree. I didn’t quite glimpse it, but I did decide that I wanted to study philosophy, and especially this strange philosophy of Sartre’s, which I learned was “existentialism”.

I am convinced that existentialism should be seen as more than a fad, however, and that it still has something to offer us today. In a spirit of experiment, here are 10 possible reasons to be an existentialist – or at least to read their books with a fresh sense of curiosity.

1 Existentialists are philosophers of living

2 Existentialists really care about freedom

3 (Some) existentialists have interesting sex lives

4 Existentialists tackle painful realities

5 Existentialists try to be authentic

6 Existentialists think it matters what we do (and may stay up all night arguing about it)

7 Existentialists are not conformists

8 Existentialists can be fun to read

9 Existentialists also write about unconventional subjects

10 Existentialists think big

Read the entire article here.

Video: Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion, Monty Python. Courtesy of Monty Python / BBC.

Image: From left to right, top to bottom: Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Your Local Morality Police

Hot on the heals of my recent post on the thought police around the globe comes a more specific look at the morality police in selected Islamic nations.

I’ve written this before, and I’ll write it again: I am constantly reminded of my good fortune at having been born in (UK) and later moved to (US) nations that value freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

Though, the current electioneering in the US does have me wondering how a Christian evangelical theocracy under a President Cruz would look.

From the BBC:

Police forces tasked with implementing strict state interpretations of Islamic morality exist in several other states, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Malaysia.

Many – especially those with an affinity with Western lifestyles – chafe against such restrictions on daily life, but others support the idea, and growing religious conservatism has led to pressure for similar forces to be created in countries that do not have them.

Here are some places where “morality police” forces patrol:


Name: Gasht-e Ershad (Persian for Guidance Patrols), supported by Basij militia

Who they are: Iran has had various forms of “morality police” since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the Gasht-e Ershad are currently the main agency tasked enforcing Iran’s Islamic code of conduct in public.

Their focus is on ensuring observance of hijab – mandatory rules requiring women to cover their hair and bodies and discouraging cosmetics.


Name: Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Mutawa (Arabic for Particularly obedient to God)

Who they are: Formed in 1940, the Mutawa is tasked with enforcing Islamic religious law – Sharia – in public places.

This includes rules forbidding unrelated males and females to socialise in public, as well as a dress code that encourages women to wear a veil covering all but their eyes.

Read the entire story here.

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MondayMap: Thought Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer


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

Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

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

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

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

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Your Ticket to the Past: Tipler Cylinder

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

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

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

Read more about the Tipler Cylinder here.

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Sharing the Wealth: Chobani-Style

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

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

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

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

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

I may have to revisit Chobani and my yogurt preferences!

From the NYT:

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

Image: Chobani yogurt. Courtesy of Chobani.

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The New Morality: Shame Replaces Guilt

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

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

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

From NYT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire column here.

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One Dollar, One Vote


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

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

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

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

It’s obscene and corrupt.

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

From Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

Read the whole story here.

Image: Snapshot of top donors compiled by Washington Post.

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Democracy and Education Go Hand-in-Hand


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light and liberty go together.

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

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

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

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Hyperlinks of Hypocrisy: Money, Power and Corruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story here.

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

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Nutella Hacks


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

Tip Number 2 From the Telegraph:

Fill the jar with ice cream

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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The Power of Political Shamelessness

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

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

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

From NYT Magazine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here.

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

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