Category Archives: Idea Soup

Mandela

The world has lost a person of true grace, peace and morality. We honor Nelson Mandela, who passed away on December 5, 2013. First, a prisoner for 27 years of racist apartheid, and then a  forgiving president of a healing post-apartheid nation, Mandela was a shining example — to us all — of the best qualities of humanity. May his Long Walk continue…

From the New York Times:

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an enduring icon of the struggle against racial oppression, died on Thursday, the government announced, leaving the nation without its moral center at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the country’s leaders.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address on Thursday night, adding that Mr. Mandela had died at 8:50 p.m. local time. “His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love.”

Mr Zuma called Mr. Mandela’s death “the moment of our greatest sorrow,” and said that South Africa’s thoughts were now with the former president’s family. “They have sacrificed much and endured much so that our people could be free,” he said.

Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of treason by the white minority government, only to forge a peaceful end to white rule by negotiating with his captors after his release in 1990. He led the African National Congress, long a banned liberation movement, to a resounding electoral victory in 1994, the first fully democratic election in the country’s history.

Mr. Mandela, who was 95, served just one term as South Africa’s president and had not been seen in public since 2010, when the nation hosted the soccer World Cup. But his decades in prison and his insistence on forgiveness over vengeance made him a potent symbol of the struggle to end this country’s brutally codified system of racial domination, and of the power of peaceful resolution in even the most intractable conflicts.

Years after he retreated from public life, his name still resonated as an emblem of his effort to transcend decades of racial division and create what South Africans called a Rainbow Nation.

Yet Mr. Mandela’s death comes during a period of deep unease and painful self-examination for South Africa.

In the past year and a half, the country has faced perhaps its most serious unrest since the end of apartheid, provoked by a wave of wildcat strikes by angry miners, a deadly response on the part of the police, a messy leadership struggle within the A.N.C. and the deepening fissures between South Africa’s rulers and its impoverished masses.

Scandals over corruption involving senior members of the party have fed a broader perception that Mr. Mandela’s near saintly legacy from the years of struggle has been eroded by a more recent scramble for self-enrichment among a newer elite.

After spending decades in penurious exile, many political figures returned to find themselves at the center of a grab for power and money. President Jacob Zuma was charged with corruption before rising to the presidency in 2009, though the charges were dropped on largely technical grounds. He has faced renewed scrutiny in the past year over $27 million spent in renovations to his house in rural Zululand.

Graphic cellphone videos of police officers abusing people they have detained have further fueled anger at a government seen increasingly out of touch with the lives of ordinary South Africans.

Mr. Mandela served as president from 1994 to 1999, stepping aside at the age of 75 to allow his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to run and take the reins. Mr. Mandela spent his early retirement years focused on charitable causes for children and later speaking out about AIDS, which has killed millions of Africans, including his son Makgatho, who died in 2005.

Mr. Mandela retreated from public life in 2004 at the age of 85, largely withdrawing to his homes in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Houghton and his ancestral village in the Eastern Cape, Qunu.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Nelson Mandela, 2001. Courtesy of Telegraph / Reuters / Johnathan Evans.

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How to Burst the Filter Bubble

As the customer service systems of all online retailers and media companies become ever-more attuned to their shoppers’ and members’ preferences the power of the filter bubble grows ever-greater. And, that’s not a good thing.

The filter bubble ensures that digital consumers see more content that matches their preferences and, by extension, continues to reinforce their opinions and beliefs. Conversely, consumers see less and less content that diverges from historical behavior and calculated preferences, often called “signals”.

And, that’s not a good thing.

What of diverse opinion and diverse views? Without a plurality of views and a rich spectrum of positions creativity loses in its battle with banality and conformity. So how can digital consumers break free of the systems that deliver custom recommendations and filtered content and reduce serendipitous discovery?

From Technology Review:

The term “filter bubble” entered the public domain back in 2011when the internet activist Eli Pariser coined it to refer to the way recommendation engines shield people from certain aspects of the real world.

Pariser used the example of two people who googled the term “BP”. One received links to investment news about BP while the other received links to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, presumably as a result of some recommendation algorithm.

This is an insidious problem. Much social research shows that people prefer to receive information that they agree with instead of information that challenges their beliefs. This problem is compounded when social networks recommend content based on what users already like and on what people similar to them also like.

This the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.

And the danger is that it can polarise populations creating potentially harmful divisions in society.

Today, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona as well as Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia, both at Yahoo Labs, say they’ve hit on a way to burst the filter bubble. Their idea that although people may have opposing views on sensitive topics, they may also share interests in other areas. And they’ve built a recommendation engine that points these kinds of people towards each other based on their own preferences.

The result is that individuals are exposed to a much wider range of opinions, ideas and people than they would otherwise experience. And because this is done using their own interests, they end up being equally satisfied with the results (although not without a period of acclimitisation). “We nudge users to read content from people who may have opposite views, or high view gaps, in those issues, while still being relevant according to their preferences,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

These guys have tested this approach by focusing on the topic of abortion as discussed by people in Chile in August and September this year. Chile has some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws on the planet–it was legalised here in 1931 and then made illegal again in 1989. With presidential elections in November, a highly polarised debate was raging in the country at that time.

They found over 40,000 Twitter users who had expressed an opinion using the hashtags such as #pro-life and #pro-choice. They trimmed this group by choosing only those who gave their location as Chile and by excluding those who tweeted rarely. That left over 3000 Twitter users.

The team then computed the difference in the views of these users on this and other topics using the regularity with which they used certain other keywords. This allowed them to create a kind of wordcloud for each user that acted like a kind of data portrait.

They then recommended tweets to each person based on similarities between their word clouds and especially when they differed in their views on the topic of abortion.

The results show that people can be more open than expected to ideas that oppose their own. It turns out that users who openly speak about sensitive issues are more open to receive recommendations authored by people with opposing views, say Graells-Garrido and co.

They also say that challenging people with new ideas makes them generally more receptive to change. That has important implications for social media sites. There is good evidence that users can sometimes become so resistant to change than any form of redesign dramatically reduces the popularity of the service. Giving them a greater range of content could change that.

“We conclude that an indirect approach to connecting people with opposing views has great potential,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

It’s certainly a start. But whether it can prevent the herding behaviour in which users sometimes desert social media sites overnight, is debatable. But the overall approach is admirable. Connecting people is important when they share similar interests but arguably even more so when their views clash.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Eli Pariser, beware online “filter bubbles”. Courtesy of Eli Pariser, thefilterbubble.

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Customer Service Meets Customer Arrogance

Contrary to popular opinion espoused by retail management, service companies and business “gurus”, the customer is not always right. In fact, the customer is sometimes arrogant, ignorant and wrong.

From the Guardian:

I was a waitress at Applebee’s restaurant in Saint Louis. I was fired Wednesday for posting a picture on Reddit.com of a note a customer left on a bill. I posted it on the web as a light-hearted joke.

This didn’t even happen at my table. The note was left for another server, who allowed me to take a picture of it at the end of the night.

Someone had scribbled on the receipt, “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?”

I assumed the customer’s signature was illegible, but I quickly started receiving messages containing Facebook profile links and websites, asking me to confirm the identity of the customer. I refused to confirm any of them, and all were incorrect.

I worked with the Reddit moderators to remove any personal information. I wanted to protect the identity of both my fellow server and the customer. I had no intention of starting a witch-hunt or hurting anyone.

Now I’ve been fired.

The person who wrote the note came across an article about it, called the Applebee’s location, and demanded everyone be fired — me, the server who allowed me to take the picture, the manager on duty at the time, the manager not on duty at the time, everyone. It seems I was fired not because Applebee’s was represented poorly, not because I did anything illegal or against company policy, but because I embarrassed this person.

In light of the situation, I would like to make a statement on behalf of wait staff everywhere: We make $3.50 an hour. Most of my paychecks are less than pocket change because I have to pay taxes on the tips I make.

After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers, and bartenders, I make less than $9 an hour on average, before taxes. I am expected to skip bathroom breaks if we are busy. I go hungry all day if I have several busy tables to work. I am expected to work until 1:30am and then come in again at 10:30am to open the restaurant.

I have worked 12-hour double shifts without a chance to even sit down. I am expected to portray a canned personality that has been found to be least offensive to the greatest amount of people. And I am expected to do all of this, every day, and receive change, or even nothing, in return. After all that, I can be fired for “embarrassing” someone, who directly insults his or her server on religious grounds.

In this economy, $3.50 an hour doesn’t cut it. I can’t pay half my bills. Like many, I would love to see a reasonable, non-tip-dependent wage system for service workers like they have in other countries. But the system being flawed is not an excuse for not paying for services rendered.

I need tips to pay my bills. All waiters do. We spend an hour or more of our time befriending you, making you laugh, getting to know you, and making your dining experience the best it can be. We work hard. We care. We deserve to be paid for that.

I am trying to stand up for all of us who work for just a few dollars an hour at places like Applebee’s. Whether a chain steakhouse or a black-tie establishment, tipping is not optional. It is how we get paid.

I posted a picture to make people laugh, but now I want to make a serious point: Things like this happen to servers all the time. People seem to think that the easiest way to save money on a night out is to skip the tip.

I can’t understand why I was fired over this. I was well liked and respected at Applebee’s. My sales were high, my managers had no problems with me, and I was even hoping to move up to management soon. When I posted this, I didn’t represent Applebee’s in a bad light. In fact, I didn’t represent them at all.

I did my best to protect the identity of all parties involved. I didn’t break any specific guidelines in the company handbook – I checked. But because this person got embarrassed that their selfishness was made public, Applebee’s has made it clear that they would rather lose a dedicated employee than an angry customer. That’s a policy I can’t understand.

I am equally baffled about how a religious tithe is in any way related to paying for services at a restaurant. I can understand why someone could be upset with an automatic gratuity. However, it’s a plainly stated Applebee’s policy that a tip is added automatically for parties over eight like the one this customer was part of. I cannot control that kind of tip; it’s done by the computer that the orders are put into. I’ve been stiffed on tips before, but this is the first time I’ve seen the “Big Man” used as reasoning.

Obviously the person who wrote this note wanted it seen by someone. It’s strange that now that the audience is wider than just the server, the person is ashamed.

I have no agenda here. I seek no revenge against the note writer. I have no interest in exposing their identity, and, at this point, I’m not even sure I want my job back. I was just trying to make a joke, but I came home unemployed.

I’ve been waiting tables to save up some money so I could finally go to college, so I could get an education that would qualify me for a job that doesn’t force me to sell my personality for pocket change.

While this story has garnered immense media attention, my story is not uncommon. Bad tips and harsh notes are all part of the job. People get fired to keep customers happy every day.

As this story has gotten popular, I’ve received inquiries as to where people can send money to support me. As a broke kid trying to get into college, it’s certainly appealing, but I’d really rather you make a difference to your next server. I’d rather you keep that money and that generosity for the next time you eat out.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Customer receipt courtesy of the Guardian.

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Is Walmart Wiccan? Is BestBuy Baptist? Is McDonalds Methodist?

So much for the Roberts Supreme Court. Conservatives would suggest that the court is intent on protecting the Constitution from assault by progressive liberals and upholding its libertarian conservativism. Yet, protections of and for the individual seem to have taken a backseat to recent rulings that promote corporate power — a somewhat new invention; perhaps, none more so than recent decisions that ruled corporations to be “people”. But the court is not standing still — not content with animating a business with lifeblood, soon, the court is likely to establish whether corporations have a religious spirit as well as individual sentience. Sticks of oxymoronic progressivism.

From the Washington Post:

If you thought this “corporations are people” business was getting out of hand, brace yourself. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court accepted two cases that will determine whether a corporation can deny contraceptive coverage to its female employees because of its religious beliefs.

The cases concern two of the most politically charged issues of recent years: who is exempted from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, and whether application of the First Amendment’s free speech protections to corporations, established by the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, means that the First Amendment’s protections of religious beliefs must also be extended to corporations.

The Affordable Care Act requires employers to offer health insurance that covers contraception for their female employees. Churches and religious institutions are exempt from that mandate. But Hobby Lobby, a privately owned corporation that employs 13,000 people of all faiths — and, presumably, some of no faith — in its 500 craft stores says that requiring it to pay for contraception violates its religious beliefs — that is, the beliefs of its owners, the Green family.

In a brief submitted to a federal court, the Greens said that some forms of contraception — diaphragms, sponges, some versions of the pill — were fine by them, but others that prevented embryos from implanting in the womb were not. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld the Greens’ position in June in a decision explicitly based on “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.” Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote: “We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression.”

Tymkovich’s assessment of how the five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court may rule could prove correct — but what a mess such a ruling would create! For one thing, the Green family’s acceptance of some forms of contraception and rejection of others, while no doubt sincere, suggests that they, like many people of faith, adhere to a somewhat personalized religion. The line they draw is not, for instance, the same line that the Catholic Church draws.

Individual believers and non-believers draw their own lines on all kinds of moral issues every day. That’s human nature. They are free to say that their lines adhere to or are close to specific religious doctrines. But to extend the exemptions that churches receive to secular, for-profit corporations that claim to be following religious doctrine, but may in fact be nipping it here and tucking it there, would open the door to a range of idiosyncratic management practices inflicted on employees. For that matter, some religions have doctrines that, followed faithfully, could result in bizarre and discriminatory management practices.

The Supreme Court has not frequently ruled that religious belief creates an exemption from following the law. On the contrary, in a 1990 majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that Native Americans fired for smoking peyote as part of a religious ceremony had no right to reinstatement. It “would be courting anarchy,” Scalia wrote in Employment Division v. Smith, to allow them to violate the law just because they were “religious objectors” to it. “An individual’s religious beliefs,” he continued, cannot “excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law.”

It will be interesting to see whether Scalia still believes that now that he’s being confronted with a case where the religious beliefs in question may be closer to his own.

The other issue all this raises: Where does this corporations-are-people business start and stop? Under the law, corporations and humans have long had different standards of responsibility. If corporations are treated as people, so that they are free to spend money in election campaigns and to invoke their religious beliefs to deny a kind of health coverage to their workers, are they to be treated as people in other regards? Corporations are legal entities whose owners are not personally liable for the company’s debts, whereas actual people are liable for their own. Both people and corporations can discharge their debts through bankruptcy, but there are several kinds of bankruptcy, and the conditions placed on people are generally far more onerous than those placed on corporations. If corporations are people, why aren’t they subject to the same bankruptcy laws that people are? Why aren’t the owners liable for corporate debts as people are for their own?

Read the entire article here.

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Good, Old-Fashioned Spying

The spied-upon — and that’s most of us — must wonder how the spymasters of the NSA eavesdrop on their electronic communications. After all, we are led to believe that the agency with a voracious appetite for our personal data — phone records, financial transactions, travel reservations, texts and email conversations — gathered it all without permission. And, apparently, companies such as Google, Yahoo and AT&T with vast data centers and sprawling interconnections between them, did not collude with the government.

So, there is growing speculation that the agency tapped into the physical cables that make up the very backbone of the Internet. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase World Wide Web.

From the NYT:

The recent revelation that the National Security Agency was able to eavesdrop on the communications of Google and Yahoo users without breaking into either companies’ data centers sounded like something pulled from a Robert Ludlum spy thriller.

How on earth, the companies asked, did the N.S.A. get their data without them knowing about it?

The most likely answer is a modern spin on a century-old eavesdropping tradition.

People knowledgeable about Google and Yahoo’s infrastructure say they believe that government spies bypassed the big Internet companies and hit them at a weak spot — the fiber-optic cables that connect data centers around the world that are owned by companies like Verizon Communications, the BT Group, the Vodafone Group and Level 3 Communications. In particular, fingers have been pointed at Level 3, the world’s largest so-called Internet backbone provider, whose cables are used by Google and Yahoo.

The Internet companies’ data centers are locked down with full-time security and state-of-the-art surveillance, including heat sensors and iris scanners. But between the data centers — on Level 3’s fiber-optic cables that connected those massive computer farms — information was unencrypted and an easier target for government intercept efforts, according to three people with knowledge of Google’s and Yahoo’s systems who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It is impossible to say for certain how the N.S.A. managed to get Google and Yahoo’s data without the companies’ knowledge. But both companies, in response to concerns over those vulnerabilities, recently said they were now encrypting data that runs on the cables between their data centers. Microsoft is considering a similar move.

“Everyone was so focused on the N.S.A. secretly getting access to the front door that there was an assumption they weren’t going behind the companies’ backs and tapping data through the back door, too,” said Kevin Werbach, an associate professor at the Wharton School.

Data transmission lines have a long history of being tapped.

As far back as the days of the telegraph, spy agencies have located their operations in proximity to communications companies. Indeed, before the advent of the Internet, the N.S.A. and its predecessors for decades operated listening posts next to the long-distance lines of phone companies to monitor all international voice traffic.

Beginning in the 1960s, a spy operation code-named Echelon targeted the Soviet Union and its allies’ voice, fax and data traffic via satellite, microwave and fiber-optic cables.

In the 1990s, the emergence of the Internet both complicated the task of the intelligence agencies and presented powerful new spying opportunities based on the ability to process vast amounts of computer data.

In 2002, John M. Poindexter, former national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan, proposed the Total Information Awareness plan, an effort to scan the world’s electronic information — including phone calls, emails and financial and travel records. That effort was scrapped in 2003 after a public outcry over potential privacy violations.

The technologies Mr. Poindexter proposed are similar to what became reality years later in N.S.A. surveillance programs like Prism and Bullrun.

The Internet effectively mingled domestic and international communications, erasing the bright line that had been erected to protect against domestic surveillance. Although the Internet is designed to be a highly decentralized system, in practice a small group of backbone providers carry almost all of the network’s data.

The consequences of the centralization and its value for surveillance was revealed in 2006 by Mark Klein, an AT&T technician who described an N.S.A. listening post inside a room at an AT&T switching facility.

The agency was capturing a copy of all the data passing over the telecommunications links and then filtering it in AT&T facilities that housed systems that were able to filter data packets at high speed.

Documents taken by Edward J. Snowden and reported by The Washington Post indicate that, seven years after Mr. Klein first described the N.S.A.’s surveillance technologies, they have been refined and modernized.

Read the entire article here.

Image: fiber-optic cables. Courtesy of Daily Mail.

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You May Be Just a Line of Code

Some very logical and rational people — scientists and philosophers — argue that we are no more than artificial constructs. They suggest that it is more likely that we are fleeting constructions in a simulated universe rather than organic beings in a real cosmos; that we are, in essence, like the oblivious Neo in the classic sci-fi movie The Matrix. One supposes that the minds proposing this notion are themselves simulations…

From Discovery:

In the 1999 sci-fi film classic The Matrix, the protagonist, Neo, is stunned to see people defying the laws of physics, running up walls and vanishing suddenly. These superhuman violations of the rules of the universe are possible because, unbeknownst to him, Neo’s consciousness is embedded in the Matrix, a virtual-reality simulation created by sentient machines.

The action really begins when Neo is given a fateful choice: Take the blue pill and return to his oblivious, virtual existence, or take the red pill to learn the truth about the Matrix and find out “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Physicists can now offer us the same choice, the ability to test whether we live in our own virtual Matrix, by studying radiation from space. As fanciful as it sounds, some philosophers have long argued that we’re actually more likely to be artificial intelligences trapped in a fake universe than we are organic minds in the “real” one.

But if that were true, the very laws of physics that allow us to devise such reality-checking technology may have little to do with the fundamental rules that govern the meta-universe inhabited by our simulators. To us, these programmers would be gods, able to twist reality on a whim.

So should we say yes to the offer to take the red pill and learn the truth — or are the implications too disturbing?

Worlds in Our Grasp

The first serious attempt to find the truth about our universe came in 2001, when an effort to calculate the resources needed for a universe-size simulation made the prospect seem impossible.

Seth Lloyd, a quantum-mechanical engineer at MIT, estimated the number of “computer operations” our universe has performed since the Big Bang — basically, every event that has ever happened. To repeat them, and generate a perfect facsimile of reality down to the last atom, would take more energy than the universe has.

“The computer would have to be bigger than the universe, and time would tick more slowly in the program than in reality,” says Lloyd. “So why even bother building it?”

But others soon realized that making an imperfect copy of the universe that’s just good enough to fool its inhabitants would take far less computational power. In such a makeshift cosmos, the fine details of the microscopic world and the farthest stars might only be filled in by the programmers on the rare occasions that people study them with scientific equipment. As soon as no one was looking, they’d simply vanish.

In theory, we’d never detect these disappearing features, however, because each time the simulators noticed we were observing them again, they’d sketch them back in.

That realization makes creating virtual universes eerily possible, even for us. Today’s supercomputers already crudely model the early universe, simulating how infant galaxies grew and changed. Given the rapid technological advances we’ve witnessed over past decades — your cell phone has more processing power than NASA’s computers had during the moon landings — it’s not a huge leap to imagine that such simulations will eventually encompass intelligent life.

“We may be able to fit humans into our simulation boxes within a century,” says Silas Beane, a nuclear physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Beane develops simulations that re-create how elementary protons and neutrons joined together to form ever larger atoms in our young universe.

Legislation and social mores could soon be all that keeps us from creating a universe of artificial, but still feeling, humans — but our tech-savvy descendants may find the power to play God too tempting to resist.

They could create a plethora of pet universes, vastly outnumbering the real cosmos. This thought led philosopher Nick Bostrom at the University of Oxford to conclude in 2003 that it makes more sense to bet that we’re delusional silicon-based artificial intelligences in one of these many forgeries, rather than carbon-based organisms in the genuine universe. Since there seemed no way to tell the difference between the two possibilities, however, bookmakers did not have to lose sleep working out the precise odds.

Learning the Truth

That changed in 2007 when John D. Barrow, professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, suggested that an imperfect simulation of reality would contain detectable glitches. Just like your computer, the universe’s operating system would need updates to keep working.

As the simulation degrades, Barrow suggested, we might see aspects of nature that are supposed to be static — such as the speed of light or the fine-structure constant that describes the strength of the electromagnetic force — inexplicably drift from their “constant” values.

Last year, Beane and colleagues suggested a more concrete test of the simulation hypothesis. Most physicists assume that space is smooth and extends out infinitely. But physicists modeling the early universe cannot easily re-create a perfectly smooth background to house their atoms, stars and galaxies. Instead, they build up their simulated space from a lattice, or grid, just as television images are made up from multiple pixels.

The team calculated that the motion of particles within their simulation, and thus their energy, is related to the distance between the points of the lattice: the smaller the grid size, the higher the energy particles can have. That means that if our universe is a simulation, we’ll observe a maximum energy amount for the fastest particles. And as it happens, astronomers have noticed that cosmic rays, high-speed particles that originate in far-flung galaxies, always arrive at Earth with a specific maximum energy of about 1020 electron volts.

The simulation’s lattice has another observable effect that astronomers could pick up. If space is continuous, then there is no underlying grid that guides the direction of cosmic rays — they should come in from every direction equally. If we live in a simulation based on a lattice, however, the team has calculated that we wouldn’t see this even distribution. If physicists do see an uneven distribution, it would be a tough result to explain if the cosmos were real.

Astronomers need much more cosmic ray data to answer this one way or another. For Beane, either outcome would be fine. “Learning we live in a simulation would make no more difference to my life than believing that the universe was seeded at the Big Bang,” he says. But that’s because Beane imagines the simulators as driven purely to understand the cosmos, with no desire to interfere with their simulations.

Unfortunately, our almighty simulators may instead have programmed us into a universe-size reality show — and are capable of manipulating the rules of the game, purely for their entertainment. In that case, maybe our best strategy is to lead lives that amuse our audience, in the hope that our simulator-gods will resurrect us in the afterlife of next-generation simulations.

The weird consequences would not end there. Our simulators may be simulations themselves — just one rabbit hole within a linked series, each with different fundamental physical laws. “If we’re indeed a simulation, then that would be a logical possibility, that what we’re measuring aren’t really the laws of nature, they’re some sort of attempt at some sort of artificial law that the simulators have come up with. That’s a depressing thought!” says Beane.

This cosmic ray test may help reveal whether we are just lines of code in an artificial Matrix, where the established rules of physics may be bent, or even broken. But if learning that truth means accepting that you may never know for sure what’s real — including yourself — would you want to know?

There is no turning back, Neo: Do you take the blue pill, or the red pill?

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Matrix, promotional poster for the movie. Courtesy of Silver Pictures / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Colorizing History

Historical events happened in full color. Yet, many of the photographs that captured most of our important collective, cultural moments were, and still are, in black and white. So, is right to have them colorized? An iconic image of a mushroom cloud over Bikini Atoll from 1946 shows the effect of colorization.

We would argue that while the process of colorization adds a degree of realism and fidelity to an image that would otherwise not exist as black and white in nature. However, it is no more true than the original photograph itself. A color version is merely another rendition of a scene through the subjective eyes of a colorist, however skilled. In the case of a black and white image it is perhaps truer to a historical period in the sense that it is captured and rendered by the medium of expression at the time. The act of recording an event, including how it is done, cannot be divorced from the event itself.

Original: A nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, on 25 July 1946. Photograph: Library Of Congress.

Colorized: Colorization of the Bikini Atoll nuclear explosion by Sanna Dullaway.

From the Guardian:

Do historic photographs look better in colour? The colorizers think so. Skilled digital artists such as Sanna Dullaway and Jordan J Lloyd are keen to remind us that the past was as colourful as the present – and their message is spreading though Reddit and Facebook.

See more images and read the entire article here.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress and respective copyright holders.

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Predicting the Future is Highly Overrated

Contrary to what political pundits, stock market talking heads and your local strip mall psychic will have you believe, no one, yet, can predict the future. And, it is no more possible for the current generation of tech wunderkinds or Silicon Valley venture fund investors or the armies of analysts.

From WSJ:

I believe the children aren’t our future. Teach them well, but when it comes to determining the next big thing in tech, let’s not fall victim to the ridiculous idea that they lead the way.

Yes, I’m talking about Snapchat.

Last week my colleagues reported that Facebook FB -2.71% recently offered $3 billion to acquire the company behind the hyper-popular messaging app. Stunningly, Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s 23-year-old co-founder and CEO, rebuffed the offer.

If you’ve never used Snapchat—and I implore you to try it, because Snapchat can be pretty fun if you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m not, because I’m grumpy and old and I have two small kids and no time for fun, which I think will be evident from the rest of this column, and also would you please get off my lawn?—there are a few things you should know about the app.

First, Snapchat’s main selling point is ephemerality. When I send you a photo and caption using the app, I can select how long I want you to be able to view the picture. After you look at it for the specified time—1 to 10 seconds—the photo and all trace of our having chatted disappear from your phone. (Or, at least, they are supposed to. Snapchat’s security measures have frequently been defeated.)

Second, and relatedly, Snapchat is used primarily by teens and people in college. This explains much of Silicon Valley’s obsession with the company.

The app doesn’t make any money—its executives have barely even mentioned any desire to make money—but in the ad-supported tech industry, youth is the next best thing to revenue. For tech execs, youngsters are the canaries in the gold mine.

That logic follows a widely shared cultural belief: We all tend to assume that young people are on the technological vanguard, that they somehow have got an inside scoop on what’s next. If today’s kids are Snapchatting instead of Facebooking, the thinking goes, tomorrow we’ll all be Snapchatting, too, because tech habits, like hairstyles, flow only one way: young to old.

There is only one problem with elevating young people’s tastes this way: Kids are often wrong. There is little evidence to support the idea that the youth have any closer insight on the future than the rest of us do. Sometimes they are first to flock to technologies that turn out to be huge; other times, the young pick products and services that go nowhere. They can even be late adopters, embracing innovations that older people understood first. To butcher another song: The kids could be all wrong.

Here’s a thought exercise. How many of the products and services that you use every day were created or first used primarily by people under 25?

A few will spring to mind, Facebook the biggest of all. Yet the vast majority of your most-used things weren’t initially popular among teens. The iPhone, the iPad, the iPod, the Google search engine, YouTube, Twitter, TWTR -1.86% Gmail, Google Maps, Pinterest, LinkedIn, the Kindle, blogs, the personal computer, none of these were initially targeted to, or primarily used by, high-school or college-age kids. Indeed, many of the most popular tech products and services were burdened by factors that were actively off-putting to kids, such as high prices, an emphasis on productivity and a distinct lack of fun. Yet they succeeded anyway.

Even the exceptions suggest we should be wary of catering to youth. It is true that in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg designed Facebook for his Harvard classmates, and the social network was first made available only to college students. At the time, though, Facebook looked vastly more “grown up” than its competitors. The site prevented you from uglifying your page with your own design elements, something you could do with Myspace, which, incidentally, was the reigning social network among the pubescent set.

Mr. Zuckerberg deliberately avoided catering to this group. He often told his co-founders that he wanted Facebook to be useful, not cool. That is what makes the persistent worry about Facebook’s supposedly declining cachet among teens so bizarre; Facebook has never really been cool, but neither are a lot of other billion-dollar companies. Just ask Myspace how far being cool can get you.

Incidentally, though 20-something tech founders like Mr. Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates get a lot of ink, they are unusual. A recent study by the VC firm Cowboy Ventures found that among tech startups that have earned a valuation of at least $1 billion since 2003, the average founder’s age was 34. “The twentysomething inexperienced founder is an outlier, not the norm,” wrote Cowboy’s founder Aileen Lee.

If you think about it for a second, the fact that young people aren’t especially reliable predictors of tech trends shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sure, youth is associated with cultural flexibility, a willingness to try new things that isn’t necessarily present in older folk. But there are other, less salutary hallmarks of youth, including capriciousness, immaturity, and a deference to peer pressure even at the cost of common sense. This is why high school is such fertile ground for fads. And it’s why, in other cultural areas, we don’t put much stock in teens’ choices. No one who’s older than 18, for instance, believes One Direction is the future of music.

That brings us back to Snapchat. Is the app just a youthful fad, just another boy band, or is it something more permanent; is it the Beatles?

To figure this out, we would need to know why kids are using it. Are they reaching for Snapchat for reasons that would resonate with older people—because, like the rest of us, they’ve grown wary of the public-sharing culture promoted by Facebook and Twitter? Or are they using it for less universal reasons, because they want to evade parental snooping, send risqué photos, or avoid feeling left out of a fad everyone else has adopted?

Read the entire article here.

Image: Snapchat logo. Courtesy of Snapchat / Wikipedia.

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The Anglosphere

Good or bad the modern world owes much of its current shape and form to two anglophone nations — Britain and the United States. How and why this would be is the subject of new book Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World by Daniel Hannan. His case is summarized below in an excerpted essay.

From the WSJ:

Asked, early in his presidency, whether he believed in American exceptionalism, Barack Obama gave a telling reply. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

The first part of that answer is fascinating (we’ll come back to the Greeks in a bit). Most Brits do indeed believe in British exceptionalism. But here’s the thing: They define it in almost exactly the same way that Americans do. British exceptionalism, like its American cousin, has traditionally been held to reside in a series of values and institutions: personal liberty, free contract, jury trials, uncensored newspapers, regular elections, habeas corpus, open competition, secure property, religious pluralism.

The conceit of our era is to assume that these ideals are somehow the natural condition of an advanced society—that all nations will get around to them once they become rich enough and educated enough. In fact, these ideals were developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words. You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when freedom under the law was more or less confined to the Anglosphere: the community of English-speaking democracies.

In August 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales off Newfoundland, no one believed that there was anything inevitable about the triumph of what the Nazis and Communists both called “decadent Anglo-Saxon capitalism.” They called it “decadent” for a reason. Across the Eurasian landmass, freedom and democracy had retreated before authoritarianism, then thought to be the coming force. Though a small number of European countries had had their parliamentary systems overthrown by invaders, many more had turned to autocracy on their own, without needing to be occupied: Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain.

Churchill, of all people, knew that the affinity between the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world rested on more than a congruence of parliamentary systems, and he was determined to display that cultural affinity to maximum advantage when he met FDR.

It was a Sunday morning, and the British and American crewmen were paraded jointly on the decks of HMS Prince of Wales for a religious service. The prime minister was determined that “every detail be perfect,” and the readings and hymns were meticulously chosen. The sailors listened as a chaplain read from Joshua 1 in the language of the King James Bible, revered in both nations: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. Be strong and of a good courage.”

The prime minister was delighted. “The same language, the same hymns and, more or less, the same ideals,” he enthused. The same ideals: That was no platitude. The world was in the middle of the second of the three great global confrontations of the 20th century, in which countries that elevated the individual over the state contended for mastery against countries that did the opposite. The list of nations that were on the right side in all three of those conflicts is a short one, but it includes the Anglophone democracies.

We often use the word “Western” as a shorthand for liberal-democratic values, but we’re really being polite. What we mean is countries that have adopted the Anglo-American system of government. The spread of “Western” values was, in truth, a series of military victories by the Anglosphere.

I realize that all this might seem strange to American readers. Am I not diluting the uniqueness of the U.S., the world’s only propositional state, by lumping it in with the rest of the Anglosphere? Wasn’t the republic founded in a violent rejection of the British Empire? Didn’t Paul Revere rouse a nation with his cry of “the British are coming”?

Actually, no. That would have been a remarkably odd thing to yell at a Massachusetts population that had never considered itself anything other than British (what the plucky Boston silversmith actually shouted was “The regulars are coming out!”). The American Founders were arguing not for the rejection but for the assertion of what they took to be their birthright as Englishmen. They were revolutionaries in the 18th-century sense of the word, whereby a revolution was understood to be a complete turn of the wheel: a setting upright of that which had been placed on its head.

Alexis de Tocqueville is widely quoted these days as a witness to American exceptionalism. Quoted, but evidently not so widely read, since at the very beginning of “Democracy in America,” he flags up what is to be his main argument, namely, that the New World allowed the national characteristics of Europe’s nations the freest possible expression. Just as French America exaggerated the autocracy and seigneurialism of Louis XIV’s France, and Spanish America the ramshackle obscurantism of Philip IV’s Spain, so English America (as he called it) exaggerated the localism, the libertarianism and the mercantilism of the mother country: “The American is the Englishman left to himself.”

What made the Anglosphere different? Foreign visitors through the centuries remarked on a number of peculiar characteristics: the profusion of nonstate organizations, clubs, charities and foundations; the cheerful materialism of the population; the strong county institutions, including locally chosen law officers and judges; the easy coexistence of different denominations (religious toleration wasn’t unique to the Anglosphere, but religious equality—that is, freedom for every sect to proselytize—was almost unknown in the rest of the world). They were struck by the weakness, in both law and custom, of the extended family, and by the converse emphasis on individualism. They wondered at the stubborn elevation of private property over raison d’état, of personal freedom over collective need.

Many of them, including Tocqueville and Montesquieu, connected the liberty that English-speakers took for granted to geography. Outside North America, most of the Anglosphere is an extended archipelago: Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the more democratic Caribbean states. North America, although not literally isolated, was geopolitically more remote than any of them, “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean,” as Jefferson put it in his 1801 inaugural address, “from the exterminating havoc [of Europe].”

Isolation meant that there was no need for a standing army in peacetime, which in turn meant that the government had no mechanism for internal repression. When rulers wanted something, usually revenue, they had to ask nicely, by summoning people’s representatives in an assembly. It is no coincidence that the world’s oldest parliaments—England, Iceland, the Faroes, the Isle of Man—are on islands.

Above all, liberty was tied up with something that foreign observers could only marvel at: the miracle of the common law. Laws weren’t written down in the abstract and then applied to particular disputes; they built up, like a coral reef, case by case. They came not from the state but from the people. The common law wasn’t a tool of government but an ally of liberty: It placed itself across the path of the Stuarts and George III; it ruled that the bonds of slavery disappeared the moment a man set foot on English soil.

There was a fashion for florid prose in the 18th century, but the second American president, John Adams, wasn’t exaggerating when he identified the Anglosphere’s beautiful, anomalous legal system—which today covers most English-speaking countries plus Israel, almost an honorary member of the club, alongside the Netherlands and the Nordic countries—as the ultimate guarantor of freedom: “The liberty, the unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature… and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the common law of England.”

Freedom under the law is a portable commodity, passed on through intellectual exchange rather than gene flow. Anyone can benefit from constitutional liberty simply by adopting the right institutions and the cultural assumptions that go with them. The Anglosphere is why Bermuda is not Haiti, why Singapore is not Indonesia, why Hong Kong is not China—and, for that matter, not Macau. As the distinguished Indian writer Madhav Das Nalapat, holder of the Unesco Peace Chair, puts it, the Anglosphere is defined not by racial affinity but “by the blood of the mind.”

At a time when most countries defined citizenship by ancestry, Britain was unusual in developing a civil rather than an ethnic nationality. The U.S., as so often, distilled and intensified a tendency that had been present in Great Britain, explicitly defining itself as a creedal polity: Anyone can become American simply by signing up to the values inherent in the Constitution.

There is, of course, a flip-side. If the U.S. abandons its political structures, it will lose its identity more thoroughly than states that define nationality by blood or territory. Power is shifting from the 50 states to Washington, D.C., from elected representatives to federal bureaucrats, from citizens to the government. As the U.S. moves toward European-style health care, day care, college education, carbon taxes, foreign policy and spending levels, so it becomes less prosperous, less confident and less free.

We sometimes talk of the English-speaking nations as having a culture of independence. But culture does not exist, numinously, alongside institutions; it is a product of institutions. People respond to incentives. Make enough people dependent on the state, and it won’t be long before Americans start behaving and voting like…well, like Greeks.

Which brings us back to Mr. Obama’s curiously qualified defense of American exceptionalism. Outside the Anglosphere, people have traditionally expected—indeed, demanded—far more state intervention. They look to the government to solve their problems, and when the government fails, they become petulant.

That is the point that much of Europe has reached now. Greeks, like many Europeans, spent decades increasing their consumption without increasing their production. They voted for politicians who promised to keep the good times going and rejected those who argued for fiscal restraint. Even now, as the calamity overwhelms them, they refuse to take responsibility for their own affairs by leaving the euro and running their own economy. It’s what happens when an electorate is systematically infantilized.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Keep Calm and Carry On. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Hmm. An Atheist Mega-Church?

A movement begun by two British comedians — Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones — to assemble like-minded atheists seems to have grown legs. But doesn’t a church for the faithless somehow contravene the principles of atheism? Unperturbed by this obvious contradiction the two are venturing on a lengthy tour of god-fearing America to raise funds and consciousness. One wonders if they are stopping in the Bible Belt. And, more importantly will they eventually resort to teleatheism [ed: your friends at theDiagonal coined this first].

From the Guardian:

It’s not easy being an atheist. In a world that for centuries has been dominated (and divided by) religious affiliations, it’s sort of inevitable that the minority group who can’t get down with the God thing or who don’t subscribe to any particular belief system would find themselves marginalized. As children of no God, it seems that atheists are somehow seen as lesser – less charitable, that is, and more selfish, nihilistic, closed minded, negative and just generally unworthy. Now, however, a group of atheists are fighting back.

Determined to show that those who believe in nothing are just as good as those who believe in something, the faithless are establishing a church of their own, and a mega-church at that. On the surface it seems like a rather brilliant idea. What’s not to like about beating the faithful at their own game? Apart from the one small caveat that establishing a place of worship for the faithless, even a godless one, rather negates what atheism is supposed to be all about.

The godless church concept is the brainchild of Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two British comedians, who identified a gap in the faith market that so far non-believers are flocking to fill. The first Sunday Assembly (as the gatherings are being called) took place in a dilapidated church in London on a cold morning this past January. It went down a treat, apparently, and the movement has gained enough momentum in Britain that the comic duo have since embarked on a “40 dates, 40 nights” tour of the United States raising money to build US congregations so godless Americans can become churchgoers too.

This past Sunday, the groups’ inaugural assembly in Los Angeles attracted some 400 people. Similar gatherings across the states have also drawn big crowds, bursting to do all the good stuff religious people do, just without the God stuff. As one of those non-believing types – the kind who’d be inclined to tick off the “spiritual but not religious” checkbox on a dating profile – I should fall right into the Sunday Assembly movement’s target demographic. If only the central idea of dragging atheists into a church so they can prove they are just as worthy as traditional churchgoers didn’t strike me as a bit of joke.

I’m sure Evans and Jones mean well. Although they might want to tone down the “shiny happy people” routine they have going on in their promotional video. It’s a little too reminiscent of the bearded, guitar playing priest that used to pay regular visits to the convent school I attended as a child in Ireland, who tried a little too hard to convince us skeptical kids that Catholicism is cool. I don’t mean to downplay the human need to find like-minded communities either or to explore the deeper purpose of our existence. I just can’t quite embrace the notion that atheists should be under any obligation to prove their worthiness to religious types, or that to do so they should mimic the long established religious practices that non-believers have typically eschewed.

I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives. I say this as someone who has done plenty of Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) style dabbling in various philosophies to find life’s bigger meaning, albeit on a lower budget and so far with less satisfying results – no mega movie deals or hot Brazilian husbands have materialized to date, but the journey continues.

Like a lot of people who don’t subscribe to any particular faith or belief system, I’m all for exploring the many spiritual adventures that are out there, and there are already plenty of inspirational (and godless) paths to choose from. The thing is, rewarding as these ventures into the spiritual realm often are, be they Buddhist retreats, Hindu meditation sessions or just a good old-fashioned yoga class with some “Om” chanting built in, I know that my true self is an atheist one. No philosophy, full on religion or Sunday Assembly – no matter how enticing, inviting or full of wisdom it may be – is going to win me over in the long term. I’m just not in the market for any man-made belief system – and they are all man-made – because I already have the one I am comfortable with: atheism.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Teasie Weasie, Vidal and Bob

A new BBC documentary chronicles the influence of flamboyant sixties hairstylist Raymond Bessone, better known as Raymond “Teasie Weasie”. He was the first stylist to appear on television, and is credited with inventing the modern bouffant and innovating with hair color. He also trained Vidal Sassoon, who later created the bob.

From the Guardian:

From the beehive to the afro and the footballer’s perm, a new BBC documentary celebrates the nation’s love of a flamboyant hairstyle – the bigger the better.

Possibly the most famous haircut of the 1960s, the asymmetric bob created by Vidal Sassoon in 1963 liberated a generation of women from the need for a weekly appointment and a session under the hood-dryer. With these sharp, swinging styles, the blowdry was born. This cut is by Roger Thompson, a stylist at Sassoon’s salon.

See more images hair[sic] or check out a preview of the documentary here.

Image: Cover of the 1976 paperback book “Raymond – The outrageous autobiography of Teasie-Weasie”. Courtesy of Raymond Bessone/ Wyndham Publications / Wikipedia.

Image: Bob cut. Courtesy of Vic Singh/Rex.

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Dangerous Foreign Films

The next time you cringe because your date or significant other wants to go see a foreign movie with you count your blessings. After all, you don’t live in North Korea.

So, take a deep breath and go see La Dolce Vita, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Rashomon.

From the Telegraph:

South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that the co-ordinated public executions took place in seven separate cities earlier this month.

In one case, the local authorities rounded up 10,000 people, including children, and forced them to watch, it reported.

Those put to death were found guilty by the state of minor misdemeanors, including watching videos of South Korean television programmes or possessing a Bible.

Sources told the paper that witnesses saw eight people tied to stakes in the Shinpoong Stadium, in Kangwon Province, before having sacks placed over their heads and being executed by soldiers firing machineguns.

“I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were so riddled by machinegun fire that they were hard to identify afterwards,” the source said.

Relatives and friends of the victims were reportedly sent to prison camps, a tactic that North Korea frequently uses to dissuade anyone from breaking the law.

“Reports on public executions across the country would be certain to have a chilling effect on the rest of the people,” Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, said. “All these people want to do is to survive and for their families to survive. The incentives for not breaking the law are very clear now.”

The mass executions could signal a broader crackdown on any hints of discontent among the population – and even rival groups in Pyongyang – against the rule of Kim Jong-un, who came to power after the death of his father in December 2011.

In a new report, the Rand Corporation think tank claims that Kim survived an assassination attempt in 2012 and that his personal security has since been stepped up dramatically. The report concurs with South Korean intelligence sources that stated in March that a faction within the North Korean army had been involved in an attempt on Kim’s life in November of last year.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Kim Jong-un. Supreme leader of North Korea. Courtesy of Time.

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A Female Muslim Superhero

Until recently all superheroes from the creative minds at Marvel and DC Comics were white, straight men. But over time — albeit very slowly — we have seen the arrival of greater diversity: an Amazonian Wonder Woman, an African-American Green Lantern, a lesbian Batwoman. Now, comes Kamala Khan, a shape-shifting Muslim girl, from New Jersey (well, nobody’s perfect).

Author Shelina Janmohamed chimes in with some well-timed analysis.

From the Telegraph:

Once, an average comic book superhero was male and wore his pants on the outside of his trousers. We’ve been thrown some female heroines along the way: Wonder Woman, Lara Croft and Ms Marvel. The female presence in comics has been growing over the years. But the latest announcement by Marvel Comics that a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim American girl from New Jersey will be one of their lead characters has been creating a stir, and for all the right reasons. Kamala Khan is the new Ms Marvel.

The series editor at Marvel, Sana Amanat says the series is a “desire to explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective”. Khan can grow and shrink her limbs and her body and ultimately, she’ll be able to shape shift into other forms.

Like all superheroes she has a back story, and the series will deal with how familial and religious edicts mesh with super-heroics, and perhaps even involve some rule breaking.

I love it.

As a teenager, I wish I could have seen depictions of struggling with identity, religion and adolescence that reflected my own, and in a way that made me believe I could be powerful rather than confused, marginalised and abnormal.

Kamala Khan will create waves not just for teenagers though. Her very existence will enable readers to see past the ‘Muslim’ tag, into a powerful and flawed multifaceted human being. Fantasy, paradoxically, is a potent method to create normalisation of Muslim women in the ordinary mainstream.

Usually, Muslim women in the public eye including fictional ones, are cast in a long tradition of one-dimensional stereotypes, meek, submissive, oppressed and cloaked females struggling to escape from a violent family, or too brainwashed to know that she needs to escape.

Instead, Marvel Comics has created the opportunity to investigate the complexity of a Muslim female character to the backdrop of a different history: the tradition of superheroes. Fraught with angst in her daily life, we can now explore Muslim women’s relationship with power (and in Khan’s case, with giant fists). She is contextualised not through politics but through the world of superheroes.

Comics and cartoons are increasingly giving space to Muslim women to be explored in new contexts, offering the opportunity for better understanding, and ‘normalisation.’ Yes, I’m using the word again, because sometimes that’s all we long for, to be seen as normal ordinary women.

Just yesterday, the hashtag ‘#AsAMuslimWoman’ was trending on Twitter, offering mundane self descriptions from Muslim women such as: “Early mornings irritate me & I enjoy chocolate”, “I hate the District line in the morning. It’s cramped. And it smells funny”, and I’m “running my business, enjoying motherhood and living my Dreams”.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Muslim superhero, on the cover of the new Ms. Marvel comic. Courtesy of the Marvel / Independent.

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The Best Place to be a Woman

By most accounts the best place to be a woman is one that offers access to quality education and comprehensive healthcare, provides gender equality with men, and meaningful career and family work-life balance. So where is this real world Shangri-La. Some might suggest this place to be the land of opportunity — the United States. But, that’s not even close. Nor is it Canada or Switzerland or Germany or the UK.

According to a recent Global Gender Gap report, and a number of other surveys, the best place to be born a girl is Iceland. Next on the list come Finland, Norway, and Sweden, with another Scandinavian country, Denmark, not too far behind in seventh place. By way of comparison, the US comes in 23rd — not great, but better than Afghanistan and Yemen.

From the Social Reader:

Icelanders are among the happiest and healthiest people on Earth. They publish more books per capita than any other country, and they have more artists. They boast the most prevalent belief in evolution — and elves, too. Iceland is the world’s most peaceful nation (the cops don’t even carry guns), and the best place for kids. Oh, and they’ve got a lesbian head of state, the world’s first. Granted, the national dish is putrefied shark meat, but you can’t have everything.

Iceland is also the best place to have a uterus, according to the folks at the World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries based on where women have the most equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country’s political and economic life.

According to the 2013 report, Icelandic women pretty much have it all. Their sisters in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have it pretty good, too: those countries came in second, third and fourth, respectively. Denmark is not far behind at number seven.

The U.S. comes in at a dismal 23rd, which is a notch down from last year. At least we’re not Yemen, which is dead last out of 136 countries.

So how did a string of countries settled by Vikings become leaders in gender enlightenment? Bloodthirsty raiding parties don’t exactly sound like models of egalitarianism, and the early days weren’t pretty. Medieval Icelandic law prohibited women from bearing arms or even having short hair. Viking women could not be chiefs or judges, and they had to remain silent in assemblies. On the flip side, they could request a divorce and inherit property. But that’s not quite a blueprint for the world’s premier egalitarian society.

The change came with literacy, for one thing. Today almost everybody in Scandinavia can read, a legacy of the Reformation and early Christian missionaries, who were interested in teaching all citizens to read the Bible. Following a long period of turmoil, Nordic states also turned to literacy as a stabilizing force in the late 18th century. By 1842, Sweden had made education compulsory for both boys and girls.

Researchers have found that the more literate the society in general, the more egalitarian it is likely to be, and vice versa. But the literacy rate is very high in the U.S., too, so there must be something else going on in Scandinavia. Turns out that a whole smorgasbord of ingredients makes gender equality a high priority in Nordic countries.

To understand why, let’s take a look at religion. The Scandinavian Lutherans, who turned away from the excesses of the medieval Catholic Church, were concerned about equality — especially the disparity between rich and poor. They thought that individuals had some inherent rights that could not just be bestowed by the powerful, and this may have opened them to the idea of rights for women. Lutheran state churches in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland have had female priests since the middle of the 20th century, and today, the Swedish Lutheran Church even has a female archbishop.

Or maybe it’s just that there’s not much religion at all. Scandinavians aren’t big churchgoers. They tend to look at morality from a secular point of view, where there’s not so much obsessive focus on sexual issues and less interest in controlling women’s behavior and activities. Scandinavia’s secularism decoupled sex from sin, and this worked out well for females. They came to be seen as having the right to sexual experience just like men, and reproductive freedom, too. Girls and boys learn about contraception in school (and even the pleasure of orgasms), and most cities have youth clinics where contraceptives are readily available. Women may have an abortion for any reason up to the eighteenth week (they can seek permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare after that), and the issue is not politically controversial.

Scandinavia’s political economy also developed along somewhat different lines than America’s did. Sweden and Norway had some big imperialist adventures, but this behavior declined following the Napoleonic Wars. After that they invested in the military to ward off invaders, but they were less interested in building it up to deal with bloated colonial structures and foreign adventures. Overall Nordic countries devoted fewer resources to the military — the arena where patriarchal values tend to get emphasized and entrenched. Iceland, for example, spends the world’s lowest percentage of GDP on its military.

Industrialization is part of the story, too: it hit the Nordic countries late. In the 19th century, Scandinavia did have a rich and powerful merchant class, but the region never produced the Gilded Age industrial titans and extreme concentration of wealth that happened in America back then, and has returned today. (Income inequality and discrimination of all kinds seem to go hand-in-hand.)

In the 20th century, farmers and workers in the newly populated Nordic cities tended to join together in political coalitions, and they could mount a serious challenge to the business elites, who were relatively weak compared to those in the U.S. Like ordinary people everywhere, Scandinavians wanted a social and economic system where everyone could get a job, expect decent pay, and enjoy a strong social safety net. And that’s what they got — kind of like Roosevelt’s New Deal without all the restrictions added by New York bankers and southern conservatives. Strong trade unions developed, which tend to promote gender equality. The public sector grew, providing women with good job opportunities. Iceland today has the highest rate of union membership out of any OECD country.

Over time, Scandinavian countries became modern social democratic states where wealth is more evenly distributed, education is typically free up through university, and the social safety net allows women to comfortably work and raise a family. Scandinavian moms aren’t agonizing over work-family balance: parents can take a year or more of paid parental leave. Dads are expected to be equal partners in childrearing, and they seem to like it. (Check them out in the adorable photo book, The Swedish Dad.)

The folks up north have just figured out — and it’s not rocket science! — that everybody is better off when men and women share power and influence. They’re not perfect — there’s still some unfinished business about how women are treated in the private sector, and we’ve sensed an undertone of darker forces in pop culture phenoms like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But Scandinavians have decided that investment in women is both good for social relations and a smart economic choice. Unsurprisingly, Nordic countries have strong economies and rank high on things like innovation — Sweden is actually ahead of the U.S. on that metric. (So please, no more nonsense about how inequality makes for innovation.)

The good news is that things are getting better for women in most places in the world. But the World Economic Forum report shows that the situation either remains the same or is deteriorating for women in 20 percent of countries.

In the U.S., we’ve evened the playing field in education, and women have good economic opportunities. But according to the WEF, American women lag behind men in terms of health and survival, and they hold relatively few political offices. Both facts become painfully clear every time a Tea Party politician betrays total ignorance of how the female body works. Instead of getting more women to participate in the political process, we’ve got setbacks like a new voter ID law in Texas, which could disenfranchise one-third of the state’s woman voters. That’s not going to help the U.S. become a world leader in gender equality.

Read the entire article here.

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Mind the Gap

The gap in question is not the infamous gap between subway platform and train, but the so-called “thigh gap”. Courtesy of the twittersphere, internet trolls and the substance-lacking 24hr news media, the thigh gap has now become the hot topic du jour.

One wonders when the conversation will move to a more significant gap — the void between the ears of a significant number of image-obsessed humans.

From the Guardian:

She may have modelled for Ralph Lauren and appeared on the cover of Vogue Italia, but when a photo of Robyn Lawley wearing a corset appeared on Facebook the responses were far from complimentary. “Pig”, “hefty” and “too fat” were some of the ways in which commenters described the 24-year-old. Her crime? Her thighs were touching. Lawley had failed to achieve a “thigh gap”.

The model, who has her own swimwear line and has won numerous awards for her work, responded vehemently below the line: “You sit behind a computer screen objectifying my body, judging it and insulting it, without even knowing it.”

She also went on to pen a thoughtful rallying cry for the Daily Beast last week against those who attacked her, saying their words were “just another tool of manipulation that other people are trying to use to keep me from loving my body”.

The response to her article was electric and Lawley was invited to speak about thigh-gap prejudice on America’s NBC Today. In a careful and downbeat tone, she explained: “It’s basically when your upper middle thighs do not touch when you’re standing with your legs together.”

The Urban Dictionary website describes it in no uncertain terms as “the gap between a woman’s thighs directly below the vagina, often diamond shaped when the thighs are together.”

The thigh gap is not a new concept to Lawley, who at 6ft 2in and 12 stone is classified as a “plus-size” model, and who remembers learning about it aged 12. But the growth of Instagram and other social media has allowed the concept of a thigh gap to enter the public consciousness and become an alarming, and exasperating, new trend among girls and women.

A typical example is a Twitter account devoted solely to Cara Delevingne’s thigh gap, which the model initially described as “pretty funny” but also “quite crazy”.

Selfies commonly show one part of a person’s anatomy, a way of compartmentalising body sections to show them in the best light, and the thigh gap is particularly popular. What was once a standard barometer of thinness among models is now apparently sought after by a wider public.

The thigh gap has its own hashtag on Twitter, under which users post pictures of non-touching thighs for inspiration, and numerous dedicated blogs. The images posted mirror the ubiquitous images of young, slim models and pop stars in shorts, often at festivals such as Glastonbury or Coachella, that have flooded the mainstream media in recent years, bringing with them the idea that skinniness, glamour and fun are intertwined.

There is even a “how to” page on the internet, although worshippers of thin may be disappointed to find that the first step is to “understand that a thigh gap is not physically possible for most people”.

Naomi Shimada began modelling at 13, but had to quit the industry when her weight changed. “I was what they call a straight-size model – a size 6 – when I started, which is normal for a very young girl.

“But as I got older my body didn’t stay like that, because, guess what, that doesn’t happen to people! So I took a break and went back in as a size 14 and now work as a plus-size model.”

Shimada is unequivocal about where the obsession with the thigh gap comes from. “It’s not a new trend: it’s been around for years. It comes partly from a fashion industry that won’t acknowledge that there are different ways a woman should look, and it comes from the pro-anorexic community. It’s a path to an eating disorder.”

Caryn Franklin, the former Clothes Show presenter who co-founded the diversity campaign All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, is quite appalled. “We now have a culture that convinces women to see themselves as an exterior only, and evaluating and measuring the component parts of their bodies is one of the symptoms.

“Young women do not have enough female role models showing them action or intellect. In their place are scantily clad celebrities. Sadly, young women are wrongly looking to fashion for some kind of guidance on what it is to be female.”

Franklin, who was fashion editor of style magazine i-D in the 1980s, says it hasn’t always been this way: “I had spent my teen years listening to Germaine Greer and Susie Orbach talking about female intellect.

“When I came out of college I knew I had a contribution to make that wasn’t based on my appearance. I then landed in a fashion culture that was busy celebrating diversity. There was no media saying ‘get the look’ and pointing to celebrities as style leaders because there wasn’t a homogenised fashion look, and there weren’t digital platforms that meant that I was exposed to more images of unachievable beauty.”

Asked whether the fixation on skinny thighs is a way of forcing women’s bodies to look pre-pubescent, Franklin says: “This culture has encouraged women to infantilise themselves. When you are so fixated on approval for what you look like, you are a little girl: you haven’t grown up.”

For many, the emergence of the thigh gap trend is baffling.

“About four hours ago, as far as I was concerned a ‘thigh gap’ was something anyone could have if they stood up and placed their feet wider than hip distance apart,” wrote Vice journalist Bertie Brandes when she discovered the phenomenon.

“A thigh gap is actually the hollow cavity which appears between the tops of your legs when you stand with your feet together. It also means that your body is underweight.”

Other bloggers have responded with a sense of the absurd; feminist blog Smells Like Girl Riot recently posted a diagram of a skeleton to show why the ischium and the pubis cannot be altered through diet alone.

Shimada, now 26, is about to launch her own fanzine, A-Genda, which aims to use a diverse range of models to show young women “something healthy to aspire to”.

“When I was a really young model there were girls who used to talk about the pencil test, which is when you measure the depth of your waist against the length of a pencil, and back dimples, when the lack of fat would create concave areas of skin,” she says. “But I don’t even think this kind of thing is limited to the fashion industry any more. It’s all a big mess. But we all have to play a role in making it better.”

Franklin also wonders: “When did everyone become so narcissistic? What happened to intellect? My sense of myself was not informed by a very shallow patriarchal media that prioritised the objectification of women – it was informed by feminism.”

Lawley signed off her call to arms with a similar acknowledgement of the potential power of women’s bodies.

“I’ve been trying to do just the opposite: I want my thighs to be bigger and stronger. I want to run faster and swim longer. I suppose we all just want different things, but women have enough pressure as it is without the added burden of achieving a ‘thigh gap’.

“The last thing I would want for my future daughter would be to starve herself because she thought a ‘thigh gap’ was necessary to be deemed attractive.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Model Robyn Lawley. Courtesy of Jon Gorrigan / Observer.

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Are You An H-less Socialist?

If you’re British and you drop your Hs while speaking then your likely to be considered of inferior breeding stock by the snootier classes. Or as the Times newspaper put it at the onset of the 20th century, you would be considered  an “h-less socialist”. Of course, a mere fifty years earlier it was generally acceptable to drop aitches, so you would have been correct in pronouncing “hotel” as “otel” or “horse” as “orse”. And, farther back still, in Ancient Rome adding Hs would have earned the scorn of the ruling classes for appearing too Greek. So, who’s right?

If you’re wondering how this all came about and who if anybody is right, check out the new book Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story by Michael Rosen.

From the Guardian:

The alphabet is something not to be argued with: there are 26 letters in as fixed a sequence as the numbers 1-26; once learned in order and for the “sounds they make”, you have the key to reading and the key to the way the world is classified. Or perhaps not.

Actually, in the course of writing my book about the history of the letters we use, Alphabetical, I discovered that the alphabet is far from neutral. Debates about power and class surround every letter, and H is the most contentious of all. No other letter has had such power to divide people into opposing camps.

In Britain, H owes its name to the Normans, who brought their letter “hache” with them in 1066. Hache is the source of our word “hatchet”: probably because a lower-case H looks a lot like an axe. It has certainly caused a lot of trouble over the years. A century ago people dropping their h’s were described in the Times as “h-less socialists.” In ancient Rome, they were snooty not about people who dropped their Hs but about those who picked up extra ones. Catullus wrote a nasty little poem about Arrius (H’arrius he called him), who littered his sentences with Hs because he wanted to sound more Greek. Almost two thousand years later we are still split, and pronouncing H two ways: “aitch”, which is posh and “right”; and “haitch”, which is not posh and thus “wrong”. The two variants used to mark the religious divide in Northern Ireland – aitch was Protestant, haitch was Catholic, and getting it wrong could be a dangerous business.

Perhaps the letter H was doomed from the start: given that the sound we associate with H is so slight (a little outbreath), there has been debate since at least AD 500 whether it was a true letter or not. In England, the most up-to-date research suggests that some 13th-century dialects were h-dropping, but by the time elocution experts came along in the 18th century, they were pointing out what a crime it is. And then received wisdom shifted, again: by 1858, if I wanted to speak correctly, I should have said “erb”, “ospital” and “umble”.

The world is full of people laying down the law about the “correct” choice: is it “a hotel” or “an otel”; is it “a historian” or “an historian”? But there is no single correct version. You choose. We have no academy to rule on these matters and, even if we did, it would have only marginal effect. When people object to the way others speak, it rarely has any linguistic logic. It is nearly always because of the way that a particular linguistic feature is seen as belonging to a cluster of disliked social features. Writing this book has been a fascinating journey: the story of our alphabet turns out to be a complex tug of war between the people who want to own our language and the people who use it. I know which side I’m on.

Read the (h)entire (h)article ‘ere.

Image: Alphabetical book cover. Courtesy of Michael Rosen.

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Pre-Twittersphere Infectious Information

While our 21st century always-on media and information sharing circus pervades every nook and cranny of our daily lives, it is useful to note that pre-Twittersphere, ideas and information did get shared. Yes, useful news and even trivial memes did go viral back in the 18oos.

From Wired:

The story had everything — exotic locale, breathtaking engineering, Napoleon Bonaparte. No wonder the account of a lamplit flat-bottom boat journey through the Paris sewer
went viral after it was published — on May 23, 1860.

At least 15 American newspapers reprinted it, exposing tens of thousands of readers to the dank wonders of the French city’s “splendid system of sewerage.”

Twitter is faster and HuffPo more sophisticated, but the parasitic dynamics of networked media were fully functional in the 19th century. For proof, look no further than the Infectious Texts project, a collaboration of humanities scholars and computer scientists.

The project expects to launch by the end of the month. When it does, researchers and the public will be able to comb through widely reprinted texts identified by mining 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers from the Library of Congress. While this first stage focuses on texts from before the Civil War, the project eventually will include the later 19th century and expand to include magazines and other publications, says Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a leader of the project.

Some of the stories were printed in 50 or more newspapers, each with thousands to tens of thousands of subscribers. The most popular of them most likely were read by hundreds of thousands of people, Cordell says. Most have been completely forgotten. “Almost none of those are texts that scholars have studied, or even knew existed,” he said.

The tech may have been less sophisticated, but some barriers to virality were low in the 1800s. Before modern copyright laws there were no legal or even cultural barriers to borrowing content, Cordell says. Newspapers borrowed freely. Large papers often had an “exchange editor” whose job it was to read through other papers and clip out interesting pieces. “They were sort of like BuzzFeed employees,” Cordell said.

Clips got sorted into drawers according to length; when the paper needed, say, a 3-inch piece to fill a gap, they’d pluck out a story of the appropriate length and publish it, often verbatim.

Fast forward a century and a half and many of these newspapers have been scanned and digitized. Northeastern computer scientist David Smith developed an algorithm that mines
this vast trove of text for reprinted items by hunting for clusters of five words that appear in the same sequence in multiple publications (Google uses a similar concept for its Ngram viewer).

The project is sponsored by the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern and the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cordell says the main goal is to build a resource for other scholars, but he’s already capitalizing on it for his own research, using modern mapping and network analysis tools to explore how things went viral back then.

Counting page views from two centuries ago is anything but an exact science, but Cordell has used Census records to estimate how many people were living within a certain distance of where a particular piece was published and combined that with newspaper circulation data to estimate what fraction of the population would have seen it (a quarter to a third, for the most infectious texts, he says).

He’s also interested in mapping how the growth of the transcontinental railroad — and later the telegraph and wire services — changed the way information moved across the country. The animation below shows the spread of a single viral text, a poem by the Scottish poet Charles MacKay, overlaid on the developing railroad system. The one at the very bottom depicts how newspapers grew with the country from the colonial era to modern times, often expanding into a territory before the political boundaries had been drawn.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Courtesy of Ryan Cordell / Infectious texts project. Thicker lines indicate more content-sharing between 19th century newspapers.

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Millionaires are So Yesterday

Not far from London’s beautiful Hampstead Heath lies The Bishops Avenue. From the 1930s until the mid-1970s this mile-long street became the archetypal symbol for new wealth; the nouveau riche millionaires made this the most sought after — and well-known — address for residential property in the nation (of course “old money” still preferred its stately mansions and castles). But since then, The Bishops Avenue has changed, with many properties now in the hands of billionaires, hedge fund investors and oil rich plutocrats.

From the Telegraph:

You can tell when a property is out of your price bracket if the estate agent’s particulars come not on a sheet of A4 but are presented in a 50-page hardback coffee-table book, with a separate section for the staff quarters.

Other giveaway signs, in case you were in any doubt, are the fact the lift is leather-lined, there are 62 internal CCTV cameras, a private cinema, an indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam room, and a series of dressing rooms – “for both summer and winter”, the estate agent informs me – which are larger than many central London flats.

But then any property on The Bishops Avenue in north London is out of most people’s price bracket – such as number 62, otherwise known as Jersey House, which is on the market for £38 million. I am being shown around by Grant Alexson, from Knight Frank estate agents, both of us in our socks to ensure that we do not grubby the miles of carpets or marble floors in the bathrooms (all of which have televisions set into the walls).

My hopes of picking up a knock-down bargain had been raised after the news this week that one property on The Bishops Avenue, Dryades, had been repossessed. The owners, the family of the former Pakistan privatisation minister Waqar Ahmed Khan, were unable to settle a row with their lender, Deutsche Bank.

It is not the only property in the hands of the receivers on this mile-long stretch. One was tied up in a Lehman Brothers property portfolio and remains boarded up. Meanwhile, the Saudi royal family, which bought 10 properties during the First Gulf War as boltholes in case Saddam Hussein invaded, has offloaded the entire package for a reported £80 million in recent weeks. And the most expensive property on the market, Heath Hall, had £35 million knocked off the asking price (taking it down to a mere £65 million).

This has all thrown the spotlight once again on this strange road, which has been nicknamed “Millionaires’ Row” since the 1930s – when a million meant something. Now, it is called “Billionaires’ Row”. It was designed, from its earliest days, to be home to the very wealthy. One of the first inhabitants was George Sainsbury, son of the supermarket founder; another was William Lyle, who used his sugar fortune to build a vast mansion in the Arts and Crafts style. Stars such as Gracie Fields also lived here.

But between the wars, the road became the butt of Music Hall comedians who joked about it being full of “des-reses” for the nouveaux riches such as Billy Butlin. Evelyn Waugh, the master of social nuance, made sure his swaggering newspaper baron Lord Copper of Scoop resided here. It was the 1970s, however, that saw the road vault from being home to millionaires to a pleasure ground for international plutocrats, who used their shipping or oil wealth to snap up properties, knock them down and build monstrous mansions in “Hollywood Tudor” style. Worse were the pastiches of Classical temples, the most notorious of which was built by the Turkish industrialist Halis Toprak, who decided the bath big enough to fit 20 people was not enough of a statement. So he slapped “Toprak Mansion” on the portico (causing locals to dub it “Top Whack Mansion”). It was sold a couple of years ago to the Kazakhstani billionairess Horelma Peramam, who renamed it Royal Mansion.

Perhaps the most famous of recent inhabitants was Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, and for a long time Britain’s richest man. But he sold Summer Palace, for £38 million in 2011 to move to the much grander Kensington Palace Gardens, in the heart of London. The cast list became even more varied with the arrival of Salman Rushdie who hid behind bullet-proof glass and tycoon Asil Nadir, whose address is now HM Belmarsh Prison.

Of course, you can be hard-pressed to discover who owns these properties or how much anyone paid. These are not run-of-the-mill transactions between families moving home. Official Land Registry records reveal a complex web of deals between offshore companies. Miss Peramam holds Royal Mansion in the name of Hartwood Resources Company, registered in the British Virgin Islands, and the records suggest she paid closer to £40 million than the £50 million reported.

Alexson says the complexity of the deals are not just about avoiding stamp duty (which is now at 7 per cent for properties over £2 million). “Discretion first, tax second,” he argues. “Look, some of the Middle Eastern families own £500 billion. Stamp duty is not an issue for them.” Still, new tax rules this year, which increase stamp duty to 15 per cent if the property is bought through an offshore vehicle, have had an effect, according to Alexson, who says that the last five houses he sold have been bought by an individual, not a company.

But there is little sign of these individuals on the road itself. Walking down the main stretch of the Avenue from the beautiful Hampstead Heath to the booming A1, which bisects the road, more than 10 of these 39 houses are either boarded up or in a state of severe disrepair. Behind the high gates and walls, moss and weeds climb over the balustrades. Many others are clearly uninhabited, except for a crew of builders and a security guard. (Barnet council defends all the building work it has sanctioned, with Alexson pointing out that the new developments are invariably rectifying the worst atrocities of the 1980s.)

Read the entire article here.

Image: Toprak Mansion (now known as Royal Mansion), The Bishops Avenue. Courtesy of Daily Mail.

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Rushing to be Late

You’re either a cat person or you are a dog person. You’re either an early bird or a night owl, and similarly you’re either usually early or habitually late.

From the Washington Post:

I’m a late person.

I don’t think of myself as late, though. Every single time that it happens (and it invariably happens) I think of it as an exceptional fluke that will not occur again. Me, chronically late? No! Unforeseen things just happen on my way to getting places. If I were honest I would admit that these miscalculations never result in my being early, but I am not honest. If we were completely honest, who could even get out of bed in the morning?

Here is a translation guide, if you know someone like me:

I am coming downstairs: I will respond to an email, eight minutes will pass, then I will come downstairs.
I am a block away: I am two blocks away.
I am five minutes away: I am ten minutes away.
I am seventeen minutes away: I am giving you an oddly specific number to disguise the fact that I am probably something like half an hour away.
Twenty minutes away!: I am lost somewhere miles away, but optimistic.
I’m en route!: I am still in my apartment
See you at [Time we originally agreed upon]: I’m about to go take a shower, then get dressed, and then I will leave at the time we agreed to meet.

And if you say “I’m running five minutes late” this, to me, translates to “Hey, you now have time to watch a 90 minute film before you get dressed!”

I haven’t always been a late person. I didn’t think of myself as a late person until last week, when it finally happened.

“Dinner is at 7:00,” a friend told me. I showed up at 7:15, after a slight miscalculation or two while getting dressed that I had totally not foreseen, and then we waited for fifteen more minutes. Dinner was at 7:30. I had been assigned my own time zone. I was That Late Person.

The curse of the habitually late person is to be surrounded by early people. Early people do not think of themselves as Early People. They think of themselves as Right. “You have to be early in order to be on time,” they point out. Being on time is important to them. The forty minutes between when they arrive ten minutes early in order to “scout the place out” and “get in line” and when you show up mumbling excuses is the time it takes them to perfect the reproachful but resigned expression they are wearing when you get there. It is an expression that would not look out of place on a medieval saint. It is luminous with a kind of righteous indignation, eyes lifted skyward to someone who appreciates the value of time, a sad, small smile curving the lips to show that they forgive you, because they always forgive you, because you know not what you do.

“Well,” you say, “there was traffic.” This is never a lie. There is always traffic somewhere. But it is seldom actually why you are late. You might as well say, “I hear in Los Angeles today there was a bear running around and the police had to subdue it” for the relevance this story has to your arrival time. You hit every green light. The traffic parted for you, effortlessly, as though you were Moses. You were still half an hour late.

Still, it is best to say something. The next best thing to not being late, you have always felt, is to have an amusing excuse for why. “I am sorry I’m late,” you say. “I ran into Constance Moondragon, that crazy lady from the bus!” This is, technically, true — you saw her on the sidewalk, but did not actually speak to her — and it buys you time.

Sometimes this compounds. When you realize you are late, the thought sometimes occurs to you that “Well, since I’m going to be late, I should bring a gift to atone.” Then you are two hours late because all the liquor stores were closed, instead of forty-five minutes late, as planned.

Being late is a kind of optimism. Every time I leave to go somewhere I always think, on some level, “Maybe this is the day that leaving exactly when the event starts will get me there on time.” I am not sure how this will work, but hope springs eternal.

Besides, isn’t there is a kind of graciousness to being late, as some writers of etiquette books will tell you? If you show up precisely on time, you run the risk of catching your hosts in the inevitable last-minute scramble to make the place look decent, pour the wine, and hide their collections of werewolf erotica under the settee. To arrive 15 minutes after the scheduled time shows not disrespect for your hosts’ time, but a respect for their effort to make hosting seem like an effortless flow of magic.

The hosts never quite see things that way, of course.

By this point, you have probably lost all sympathy for me. The first comment on this piece will, I assume, be someone saying, “You sound like you are deeply self-centered and don’t care at all about the feelings of others, and I feel sorry for you.” And the thing is, all the evidence points to your being right, except for my feeble assertion that in my heart of hearts, I really do value your time, I never consciously intend to be late in a cruel way, and I am not the terrible person I appear. And that doesn’t go very far.

And all this being said, the life of a late person is great. I don’t do it on purpose, but it has much to recommend it. “People who show up late for things are always so much more cheerful than the people who have to wait for them,” E. V. Lucas said. This is true. One time I showed up early for something by mistake, and it was awful! I had to wait around for half an hour! Being late, you get all the fun of being there, with none of the pain of having to wait for other people to get there. You show up, and the party has already started. You get to do That Fun Thing That You Were Doing Right Before You Left and then join in That Fun Thing Everyone Is Doing When You Arrive. It’s the best of all possible worlds. You never have to stand alone in the rain anywhere waiting for anyone to assemble. Your host is never in the shower when you show up. You miss a couple of trailers, but you never have to see those long-form infomercials or answer movie theater trivia. You never have to be the first one at a party, making awkward small talk to the host and volunteering to help saute the onions. Do you really look like someone who would be good at sauteing onions? Of course not. What are you doing here? Why didn’t you wait half an hour like everyone else? You could be watching a video of a cat and a horse being friends!

Read the entire article here.

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A Little Give and Take

[Or, we could have titled this post, "The Original Old World to New World and Visa Versa Infectious Disease Vector].

Syphilis is not some god’s vengeful jest on humanity for certain “deviant” behaviors, according to various televangelists. But, it may well be revenge for the Bubonic Plague. And, Columbus and his fellow explorers could well be to blame for bringing Syphilis back to Europe in exchange for introducing the Americas to smallpox, measles and the plague. What a legacy!

From the Guardian:

Last month, Katherine Wright was awarded the Wellcome Trust science writing prize at a ceremony at the Observer’s offices at Kings Place, London. Wright, who is studying for a DPhil in structural biology at Oxford University, was judged the winner of category A “for professional scientists of postgraduate level and above” from more than 600 entries by a panel including BBC journalist Maggie Philbin, scientist and broadcaster Helen Czerski and the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr. “I am absolutely thrilled to have won the science writing prize,” says Wright. “This experience has inspired me to continue science writing in the future.”

In the 1490s, a gruesome new disease exploded across Europe. It moved with terrifying speed. Within five years of the first reported cases, among the mercenary army hired by Charles VIII of France to conquer Naples, it was all over the continent and reaching into north Africa. The first symptom was a lesion, or chancre, in the genital region. After that, the disease slowly progressed to the increasingly excruciating later stages. The infected watched their bodies disintegrate, with rashes and disfigurements, while they gradually descended into madness. Eventually, deformed and demented, they died.

Some called it the French disease. To the French, it was the Neapolitan disease. The Russians blamed the Polish. In 1530, an Italian physician penned an epic poem about a young shepherd named Syphilis, who so angered Apollo that the god struck him down with a disfiguring malady to destroy his good looks. It was this fictional shepherd (rather than national rivalries) who donated the name that eventually stuck: the disease, which first ravaged the 16th-century world and continues to affect untold millions today, is now known as syphilis.

As its many names attest, contemporaries of the first spread of syphilis did not know where this disease had come from. Was it indeed the fault of the French? Was it God’s punishment on earthly sinners?

Another school of thought, less xenophobic and less religious, soon gained traction. Columbus’s historic voyage to the New World was in 1492. The Italian soldiers were noticing angry chancres on their genitals by 1494. What if Columbus had brought the disease back to Europe with him as an unwelcome stowaway aboard the Pinta or the Niña?

Since the 1500s, we have discovered a lot more about syphilis. We know it is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium called Treponema pallidum, and we know that we can destroy this bacterium and cure the disease using antibiotics. (Thankfully we no longer “treat” syphilis with poisonous, potentially deadly mercury, which was used well into the 19th century.)

However, scientists, anthropologists, and historians still disagree about the origin of syphilis. Did Columbus and his sailors really transport the bacterium back from the New World? Or was it just coincidental timing, that the first cases were recorded soon after the adventurers’ triumphant return to the Old World? Perhaps syphilis was already present in the population, but doctors had only just begun to distinguish between syphilis and other disfiguring illnesses such as leprosy; or perhaps the disease suddenly increased in virulence at the end of the 15th century. The “Columbian” hypothesis insists that Columbus is responsible, and the “pre-Columbian” hypothesis that he had nothing to do with it.

Much of the evidence to distinguish between these two hypotheses comes from the skeletal record. Late-stage syphilis causes significant and identifiable changes in the structure of bone, including abnormal growths. To prove that syphilis was already lurking in Europe before Columbus returned, anthropologists would need to identify European skeletons with the characteristic syphilitic lesions, and date those skeletons accurately to a time before 1493.

This has proved a tricky exercise in practice. Identifying past syphilis sufferers in the New World is straightforward: ancient graveyards are overflowing with clearly syphilitic corpses, dating back centuries before Columbus was even born. However, in the Old World, a mere scattering of pre-Columbian syphilis candidates have been unearthed.

Are these 50-odd skeletons the sought-after evidence of pre-Columbian syphilitics? With such a small sample size, it is difficult to definitely diagnose these skeletons with syphilis. There are only so many ways bone can be damaged, and several diseases produce a bone pattern similar to syphilis. Furthermore, the dating methods used can be inexact, thrown off by hundreds of years because of a fish-rich diet, for example.

A study published in 2011 has systematically compared these European skeletons, using rigorous criteria for bone diagnosis and dating. None of the candidate skeletons passed both tests. In all cases, ambiguity in the bone record or the dating made it impossible to say for certain that the skeleton was both syphilitic and pre-Columbian. In other words, there is very little evidence to support the pre-Columbian hypothesis. It seems increasingly likely that Columbus and his crew were responsible for transporting syphilis from the New World to the Old.

Of course, Treponema pallidum was not the only microbial passenger to hitch a ride across the Atlantic with Columbus. But most of the traffic was going the other way: smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague were only some of the Old World diseases which infiltrated the New World, swiftly decimating thousands of Native Americans. Syphilis was not the French disease, or the Polish disease. It was the disease – and the revenge – of the Americas.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547). Courtesy of Wikipedia / Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Good Job Mr.Snowden

Far from being a communist sympathizer and U.S. traitor, Edward Snowden has done the United States and the world a great service. Single-handedly he is responsible for some of the most important revelations concerning the inner machinations of the U.S. government, particularly its vast surveillance apparatus headed by the National Security Agency (NSA). Once held in high esteem by much of the world, for its openness and transparency, the continuing revelations now paint the United States as nothing more than a paranoid, security state akin to the ex-Soviet Union.

Mr.Snowden, your life for the foreseeable future is likely to be hellish, but may you sleep soundly in the knowledge that you have helped open our eyes to the egregious actions of a country many no longer trust.

From the Guardian:

The National Security Agency monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after being given the numbers by an official in another US government department, according to a classified document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The confidential memo reveals that the NSA encourages senior officials in its “customer” departments, such the White House, State and the Pentagon, to share their “Rolodexes” so the agency can add the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians to their surveillance systems.

The document notes that one unnamed US official handed over 200 numbers, including those of the 35 world leaders, none of whom is named. These were immediately “tasked” for monitoring by the NSA.

The revelation is set to add to mounting diplomatic tensions between the US and its allies, after the German chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday accused the US of tapping her mobile phone.

After Merkel’s allegations became public, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement that said the US “is not monitoring and will not monitor” the German chancellor’s communications. But that failed to quell the row, as officials in Berlin quickly pointed out that the US did not deny monitoring the phone in the past.

The NSA memo obtained by the Guardian suggests that such surveillance was not isolated, as the agency routinely monitors the phone numbers of world leaders – and even asks for the assistance of other US officials to do so.

The memo, dated October 2006 and which was issued to staff in the agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID), was titled “Customers Can Help SID Obtain Targetable Phone Numbers”.

It begins by setting out an example of how US officials who mixed with world leaders and politicians could help agency surveillance.

“In one recent case,” the memo notes, “a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders … Despite the fact that the majority is probably available via open source, the PCs [intelligence production centers] have noted 43 previously unknown phone numbers. These numbers plus several others have been tasked.”

The document continues by saying the new phone numbers had helped the agency discover still more new contact details to add to their monitoring: “These numbers have provided lead information to other numbers that have subsequently been tasked.”

But the memo acknowledges that eavesdropping on the numbers had produced “little reportable intelligence”. In the wake of the Merkel row, the US is facing growing international criticism that any intelligence benefit from spying on friendly governments is far outweighed by the potential diplomatic damage.

The memo then asks analysts to think about any customers they currently serve who might similarly be happy to turn over details of their contacts.

“This success leads S2 [signals intelligence] to wonder if there are NSA liaisons whose supported customers may be willing to share their ‘Rolodexes’ or phone lists with NSA as potential sources of intelligence,” it states. “S2 welcomes such information!”

The document suggests that sometimes these offers come unsolicited, with US “customers” spontaneously offering the agency access to their overseas networks.

“From time to time, SID is offered access to the personal contact databases of US officials,” it states. “Such ‘Rolodexes’ may contain contact information for foreign political or military leaders, to include direct line, fax, residence and cellular numbers.”

The Guardian approached the Obama administration for comment on the latest document. Officials declined to respond directly to the new material, instead referring to comments delivered by Carney at Thursday’s daily briefing.

Carney told reporters: “The [NSA] revelations have clearly caused tension in our relationships with some countries, and we are dealing with that through diplomatic channels.

“These are very important relations both economically and for our security, and we will work to maintain the closest possible ties.”

The public accusation of spying on Merkel adds to mounting political tensions in Europe about the scope of US surveillance on the governments of its allies, after a cascade of backlashes and apologetic phone calls with leaders across the continent over the course of the week.

Asked on Wednesday evening if the NSA had in the past tracked the German chancellor’s communications, Caitlin Hayden, the White House’s National Security Council spokeswoman, said: “The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel. Beyond that, I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”

At the daily briefing on Thursday, Carney again refused to answer repeated questions about whether the US had spied on Merkel’s calls in the past.

The NSA memo seen by the Guardian was written halfway through George W Bush’s second term, when Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state and Donald Rumsfeld was in his final months as defence secretary.

Merkel, who, according to Reuters, suspected the surveillance after finding her mobile phone number written on a US document, is said to have called for US surveillance to be placed on a new legal footing during a phone call to President Obama.

“The [German] federal government, as a close ally and partner of the US, expects in the future a clear contractual basis for the activity of the services and their co-operation,” she told the president.

Read the entire article here.

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Wrong Decisions, Bad Statistics

Each of us makes countless decisions daily. A not insignificant number of these — each day — is probably wrong. And, in most cases we continue, recover, readjust, move on, and sometimes even correct ourselves and learn. In the majority of instances these wrong decisions lead to inconsequential results.

However, sometimes the results are much more tragic, leading to accidents, injury and death. When those incorrect decisions are made by healthcare professionals the consequences are much more stark. By some estimates, around 50,000 hospital deaths could be prevented each year in Canada and the U.S. from misdiagnosis.

From the New York Times:

Six years ago I was struck down with a mystery illness. My weight dropped by 30 pounds in three months. I experienced searing stomach pain, felt utterly exhausted and no matter how much I ate, I couldn’t gain an ounce.

I went from slim to thin to emaciated. The pain got worse, a white heat in my belly that made me double up unexpectedly in public and in private. Delivering on my academic and professional commitments became increasingly challenging.

It was terrifying. I did not know whether I had an illness that would kill me or stay with me for the rest of my life or whether what was wrong with me was something that could be cured if I could just find out what on earth it was.

Trying to find the answer, I saw doctors in London, New York, Minnesota and Chicago.

I was offered a vast range of potential diagnoses. Cancer was quickly and thankfully ruled out. But many other possibilities remained on the table, from autoimmune diseases to rare viruses to spinal conditions to debilitating neural illnesses.

Treatments suggested ranged from a five-hour, high-risk surgery to remove a portion of my stomach, to lumbar spine injections to numb nerve paths, to a prescription of antidepressants.

Faced with all these confusing and conflicting opinions, I had to work out which expert to trust, whom to believe and whose advice to follow. As an economist specializing in the global economy, international trade and debt, I have spent most of my career helping others make big decisions — prime ministers, presidents and chief executives — and so I’m all too aware of the risks and dangers of poor choices in the public as well as the private sphere. But up until then I hadn’t thought much about the process of decision making. So in between M.R.I.’s, CT scans and spinal taps, I dove into the academic literature on decision making. Not just in my field but also in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, information science, political science and history.

What did I learn?

Physicians do get things wrong, remarkably often. Studies have shown that up to one in five patients are misdiagnosed. In the United States and Canada it is estimated that 50,000 hospital deaths each year could have been prevented if the real cause of illness had been correctly identified.

Yet people are loath to challenge experts. In a 2009 experiment carried out at Emory University, a group of adults was asked to make a decision while contemplating an expert’s claims, in this case, a financial expert. A functional M.R.I. scanner gauged their brain activity as they did so. The results were extraordinary: when confronted with the expert, it was as if the independent decision-making parts of many subjects’ brains pretty much switched off. They simply ceded their power to decide to the expert.

If we are to control our own destinies, we have to switch our brains back on and come to our medical consultations with plenty of research done, able to use the relevant jargon. If we can’t do this ourselves we need to identify someone in our social or family network who can do so on our behalf.

Anxiety, stress and fear — emotions that are part and parcel of serious illness — can distort our choices. Stress makes us prone to tunnel vision, less likely to take in the information we need. Anxiety makes us more risk-averse than we would be regularly and more deferential.

We need to know how we are feeling. Mindfully acknowledging our feelings serves as an “emotional thermostat” that recalibrates our decision making. It’s not that we can’t be anxious, it’s that we need to acknowledge to ourselves that we are.

It is also crucial to ask probing questions not only of the experts but of ourselves. This is because we bring into our decision-making process flaws and errors of our own. All of us show bias when it comes to what information we take in. We typically focus on anything that agrees with the outcome we want.

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Slavery 2013

A modern day map for a detestable blight that humans refuse to eradicate. We have notions that slavery was a distant problem caused by the ancient Egyptians or the Roman colonizers or, more recently, 18th century plantation owners. But, unfortunately, there are around 30 million slaves today — a thoroughly shameful statistic.

From the Washington Post:

We think of slavery as a practice of the past, an image from Roman colonies or 18th-century American plantations, but the practice of enslaving human beings as property still exists. There are 29.8 million people living as slaves right now, according to a comprehensive new report issued by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

This is not some softened, by-modern-standards definition of slavery. These 30 million people are living as forced laborers, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child brides in forced marriages and, in all ways that matter, as pieces of property, chattel in the servitude of absolute ownership. Walk Free investigated 162 countries and found slaves in every single one. But the practice is far worse in some countries than others.

The country where you are most likely to be enslaved is Mauritania. Although this vast West African nation has tried three times to outlaw slavery within its borders, it remains so common that it is nearly normal. The report estimates that four percent of Mauritania is enslaved – one out of every 25 people. (The aid group SOS Slavery, using a broader definition of slavery, estimated several years ago that as  many as 20 percent of Mauritanians might be enslaved.)

The map at the top of this page shows almost every country in the world colored according to the share of its population that is enslaved. The rate of slavery is also alarmingly high in Haiti, in Pakistan and in India, the world’s second-most populous country. In all three, more than 1 percent of the population is estimated to live in slavery.

A few trends are immediately clear from the map up top. First, rich, developed countries tend to have by far the lowest rates of slavery. The report says that effective government policies, rule of law, political stability and development levels all make slavery less likely. The vulnerable are less vulnerable, those who would exploit them face higher penalties and greater risk of getting caught. A war, natural disaster or state collapse is less likely to force helpless children or adults into bondage. Another crucial factor in preventing slavery is discrimination. When society treats women, ethnic groups or religious minorities as less valuable or less worthy of protection, they are more likely to become slaves.

Then there are the worst-affected regions. Sub-Saharan Africa is a swath of red, with many countries having roughly 0.7 percent of the population enslaved — or one in every 140 people. The legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism are still playing out in the region; ethnic divisions and systems of economic exploitation engineered there during the colonial era are still, to some extent, in place. Slavery is also driven by extreme poverty, high levels of corruption and toleration of child “marriages” of young girls to adult men who pay their parents a “dowry.”

Two other bright red regions are Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Both are blighted particularly by sex trafficking, a practice that bears little resemblance to popular Western conceptions of prostitution. Women and men are coerced into participating, often starting at a very young age, and are completely reliant on their traffickers for not just their daily survival but basic life choices; they have no say in where they go or what they do and are physically prevented from leaving. International sex traffickers have long targeted these two regions, whose women and men are prized for their skin tones and appearance by Western patrons.

Yes, this map can be a little misleading. The United States, per capita, has a very low rate of slavery: just 0.02 percent, or one in every 5,000 people. But that adds up to a lot: an estimated 60,000 slaves, right here in America.

If your goal is to have as few slaves as possible — Walk Free says it is working to eradicate the practice in one generation’s time — then this map is very important, because it shows you which countries have the most slaves and thus which governments can do the most to reduce the global number of slaves. In that sense, the United States could stand to do a lot.

You don’t have to go far to see slavery in America. Here in Washington, D.C., you can sometimes spot them on certain streets, late at night. Not all sex workers or “prostitutes” are slaves, of course; plenty have chosen the work voluntarily and can leave it freely. But, as the 2007 documentary “Very Young Girls” demonstrated, many are coerced into participating at a young age and gradually shifted into a life that very much resembles slavery.

A less visible but still prevalent form of slavery in America involves illegal migrant laborers who are lured with the promise of work and then manipulated into forced servitude, living without wages or freedom of movement, under constant threat of being turned over to the police should they let up in their work. Walk Free cites “a highly developed criminal economy that preys on economic migrants, trafficking and enslaving them.” That economy stretches from the migrants’ home countries right to the United States.

The country that is most marked by slavery, though, is clearly India. There are an estimated 14 million slaves in India – it would be as if the entire population of Pennsylvania were forced into slavery. The country suffers deeply from all major forms of slavery, according to the report. Forced labor is common, due in part to a system of hereditary debt bondage; many Indian children are born “owing” sums they could never possibly pay to masters who control them as chattel their entire lives. Others fall into forced labor when they move to a different region looking for work, and turn to an unlicensed “broker” who promises work but delivers them into servitude. The country’s caste system and widespread discrimination abet social norms that make it easier to turn a blind eye to the problem. Women and girls from underprivileged classes are particularly vulnerable to sexual slavery, whether under the guise of “child marriages” or not, although men and boys often fall victim as well.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Washington Post.

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Innovation in Education?

While many aspects of our lives have changed, mostly for the better, over the last two to three hundred years, one area remains relatively untouched. Education. Since the industrial revolution that began in Western Europe and then swept the world not much has changed in the way we educate our children. It is still very much an industrial, factory-oriented process.

You could argue that technology has altered how we learn, and you would be partly correct. You could also argue that our children are also much more informed and learned compared with their peers in Victorian England, and, again, you would be partly correct. But the most critical element remains the same — the process. The regimented approach, the rote teaching, the focus on tests and testing, and the systematic squelching of creativity still remains solidly in place.

William Torrey Harris, one of the founders of the U.S. public school system in the late-1800s, once said,

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

And, in testament to his enduring legacy, much of this can still be seen in action today in most Western public schools.

Yet, in some pockets of the world there is hope. Sir Ken Robinson’s vision may yet come to fruition.

From Wired:

José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—”a place of punishment.”

For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.

After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.

Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.

He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.

Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.

And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.

The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.

At home in Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.

He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.

“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”

He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them, “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”

Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t realize that over the next nine months, her experience of school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational innovations from around the world and vaulting her and some of her classmates to the top of the math and language rankings in Mexico.

“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”

In 1999, Sugata Mitra was chief scientist at a company in New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.

Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.

Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one of four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: William Torrey Harris, (September 10, 1835 – November 5, 1909), American educator, philosopher, and lexicographer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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It’s Pretty Ugly Online

This is a compelling and sad story of people with ugly minds who have nothing better to do than demean others. The others in this story are those that pervade social media in search of attention and a modicum of self-esteem. Which group is in need of most in help? Well, you decide.

From Wired:

Live artist Louise Orwin has created a show—Pretty Ugly—based on her research into the phenomenon of teenage girls discussing body issues on social media.

“OK, guys, this is a serious matter… I want to know whether I’m pretty or not,” says a teenage girl with a high-pitched voice and heavily made-up eyes going by the name of girlsite101.

She goes on to explain with pageant participant peppiness that her classmates say she is pretty and she “wins homecoming queen every year,” but that she’s not convinced. The only way to settle the situation is to ask the impartial commenters of YouTube.

The video has notched up more than 110,000 views and the comments are, frankly, brutal: “Bitch” and “You have an ugly personality and you’re making this shit up. You’re ugly” rank the highest. But there are many, many more: “You look like a bug!”; “You’re ugly as fuck […] You might want to cover up that third eye you twig. And you’re ears are fucking tiny. Like seriously, stick them up your ass. And stop telling lies”; “stupid slut”; “attention seeker”; “a pretty face destroyed by an ugly personality.” There are 5,500 of these comments—the vast majority of them are negative.

Girlsite101′s video is not a one-off. There are almost 600,000 results when you search for “am I pretty or ugly” on YouTube. It’s this phenomenon that live artist Louise Orwin has set out to explore in a performance called Pretty Ugly.

Orwin’s journey started when she came across the “Thinspiration” community on Tumblr, where pictures of slim women—ranging from the naturally slim to the emaciated—are shared as a source of inspiration for those trying to lose weight. “I got obsessed with the way these teenage girls were using Tumblr,” she told Wired.co.uk. “I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

At the same time, Orwin was exploring how teenage girls use social media compared to the outlets she had as a teenager. “When I was a teenager I was writing in a diary; today teenagers are posting onto Tumblr.”

“I was horrified by it”

During the course of her research, she chanced upon one of the aforementioned “am I pretty or ugly?” videos. “I saw a really young girl pouting and posing in front of the camera. Her language was something that struck me. It was really teenage language; she was talking about how boys at school were picking on her but there was one guy who fancied her and she didn’t know why boys didn’t like her,” Orwin explains. The girl on camera then asked whether her audience thought she was pretty or ugly. “I was horrified by it,” said Orwin. “Then you look at the comments below; they were horrific.”

Orwin then spotted the many related videos alongside it. “The thing that struck me is that it seemed like a really brave thing to do. I couldn’t imagine myself posting a video like that because I would have thought that she was opening herself up to a huge amount of criticism.”

After trying to contact some of the girls who made the videos, Orwin decided to post some of her own. She came up with a number of teenage alter-egos: an emo girl called Becky, a nerdy girl called Amanda, and another character called Baby.

“I got torrents of abuse. People were telling me to fuck off and die,” Orwin explained. The emo girl Becky was targeted particularly aggressively. Three weeks after the video was posted, there was a spike of interest and Orwin received 200 comment notifications. One of the comments said: “Your so fucking dumb, yes you are ugly, just because you made this shitty video I think your the ugliest cunt out, take off that eye shadow no girl ever can pull off that much especially not you, and if you really think being ugly is such a surprise to you, life is going to fucking suck for you.”

“I woke up and read all of this abuse and I really felt it in my stomach. I had to remind myself that it’s not me, it’s the character.”

Orwin makes a point about the characters being 15-years-old in her videos (she’s actually 26), but that didn’t stop her from receiving hundreds of private messages, the vast majority from men, many of which were asking for her to send more videos. One man said “I think ur pretty. Don’t let anyone tell u any different OK. Can u do a dance vid so I can see more of sexy u?xx.”

When Orwin sat down to analyze the comments and messages she had received on her videos, she found that 70 percent of the feedback was from men, “and most of them were definitely over 18.” Most of the women who commented were under 18.

One commenter who stood out for Orwin was a user called RookhKshatriya, who wrote under Becky’s video, “You’re a 4 and without glasses you are a 5.” The commenter is actually a London-based academic who works in education and calls himself an “anti-feminist,” believing that the Anglo-American brand of feminism that emerged in the ’60s has an ulterior misandrist agenda. You can check out his blog, Anglobitch, here. “He takes himself very seriously, but he’s going on YouTube and rating 15-year-old girls,” muses Orwin.

One of the things that intrigues Orwin about these videos is that they explore the idea of anonymity as well as performance. “Part of the reason that a lot of them post the videos is yes, they want to know whether they are pretty. But they also see the trend going round and it’s just another subject to make a video on. Which is strange.”

Orwin’s show, Pretty Ugly, follows the trail of her research, looking at the relationships Becky, Amanda, and Baby have with their commenters and the people who messaged them. “Conversations with trolls, friendships… it also covers all the creepy side of it,” she explains.

The show starts with Orwin asking the audience the central question: do they think she is pretty or ugly. “I need to show how irrelevant that question should be. Would you go up to a person on the street and ask them that? I am trying to make this anonymous world into a live face-to-face world.”

Orwin is particularly struck by the way digital media is changing the way we perceive ourselves and each other. “And what does it mean for feminism today?”

When she compares her own teenage years to those being lived out today, she says she remembers getting to a certain age when people were starting to talk about the pressures of the media, which was selling unattainable images of perfection and beauty. “But it was about the media. Now if you look on Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, it’s not the media, but the teenage girls themselves perpetuating this myth. They are resharing these images, reblogging. There’s always going to be peer pressure but I think [social media] makes these issues worse.”

Read the entire article here.

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Big Bad Data; Growing Discrimination

You may be an anonymous data point online, but it does not follow that you’ll not still be a victim of personal discrimination. As technology to gather and track your every move online steadily improves so do the opportunities to misuse that information. Many of us are already unwitting participants in the growing internet filter bubble — a phenomenon that amplifies our personal tastes, opinions and shopping habits by pre-screening and delivering only more of the same based on our online footprints. Many argue that this is benign and even beneficial — after all isn’t it wonderful when Google’s ad network pops up product recommendations for you on “random” websites based on your previous searches, or isn’t it that much more effective when news organizations only deliver stories based on your previous browsing history, interests, affiliations or demographic?

Not so. We are in ever-increasing danger of allowing others to control what we see and hear online. So kiss discovery and serendipity goodbye. More troubling still, beyond the ability to deliver personalized experiences online, as corporations gather more and more data from and about you, they can decide if you are of value. While your data may be aggregated and anonymized, the results can still help a business target you, or not, whether you are explicitly identified by name or not.

So, perhaps your previous online shopping history divulged a proclivity for certain medications; well, kiss goodbye to that pre-existing health condition waiver. Or, perhaps the online groups that you belong to are rather left-of-center or way out in left-field; well, say hello to a smaller annual bonus from your conservative employer. Perhaps, the news or social groups that you subscribe to don’t align very well with the values of your landlord or prospective employer. Or, perhaps, Amazon will not allow you to shop online any more because the company knows your annual take-home pay and that you are a potential credit risk. You get the idea.

Without adequate safe-guards and controls those who gather the data about you will be in the driver’s seat. Whereas, put simply, it should be the other way around — you should own the data that describes who you are and what your do, and you should determine who gets to see it and how it’s used. Welcome to the age of Big (Bad) Data and the new age of data-driven discrimination.

From Technology Review:

Data analytics are being used to implement a subtle form of discrimination, while anonymous data sets can be mined to reveal health data and other private information, a Microsoft researcher warned this morning at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference.

Kate Crawford, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, argued that these problems could be addressed with new legal approaches to the use of personal data.

In a new paper, she and a colleague propose a system of “due process” that would give people more legal rights to understand how data analytics are used in determinations made against them, such as denial of health insurance or a job. “It’s the very start of a conversation about how to do this better,” Crawford, who is also a visiting professor at the MIT Center for Civic Media, said in an interview before the event. “People think ‘big data’ avoids the problem of discrimination, because you are dealing with big data sets, but in fact big data is being used for more and more precise forms of discrimination—a form of data redlining.”

During her talk this morning, Crawford added that with big data, “you will never know what those discriminations are, and I think that’s where the concern begins.”

Health data is particularly vulnerable, the researcher says. Search terms for disease symptoms, online purchases of medical supplies, and even the RFID tags on drug packaging can provide websites and retailers with information about a person’s health.

As Crawford and Jason Schultz, a professor at New York University Law School, wrote in their paper: “When these data sets are cross-referenced with traditional health information, as big data is designed to do, it is possible to generate a detailed picture about a person’s health, including information a person may never have disclosed to a health provider.”

And a recent Cambridge University study, which Crawford alluded to during her talk, found that “highly sensitive personal attributes”— including sexual orientation, personality traits, use of addictive substances, and even parental separation—are highly predictable by analyzing what people click on to indicate they “like” on Facebook. The study analyzed the “likes” of 58,000 Facebook users.

Similarly, purchasing histories, tweets, and demographic, location, and other information gathered about individual Web users, when combined with data from other sources, can result in new kinds of profiles that an employer or landlord might use to deny someone a job or an apartment.

In response to such risks, the paper’s authors propose a legal framework they call “big data due process.” Under this concept, a person who has been subject to some determination—whether denial of health insurance, rejection of a job or housing application, or an arrest—would have the right to learn how big data analytics were used.

This would entail the sorts of disclosure and cross-examination rights that are already enshrined in the legal systems of the United States and many other nations. “Before there can be greater social acceptance of big data’s role in decision-making, especially within government, it must also appear fair, and have an acceptable degree of predictability, transparency, and rationality,” the authors write.

Data analytics can also get things deeply wrong, Crawford notes. Even the formerly successful use of Google search terms to identify flu outbreaks failed last year, when actual cases fell far short of predictions. Increased flu-related media coverage and chatter about the flu in social media were mistaken for signs of people complaining they were sick, leading to the overestimates.  “This is where social media data can get complicated,” Crawford said.

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Goals and Passion Are For Losers

Forget career advice from your boss or the business suit sitting in airline seat 7A. Forget start-up mentors and the advisory board; forget angel investors and analysts with their binders of business suggestions. Forget using your family or local business leaders as a sounding board for your existing (or next) enterprise. Forget the biography of the corporate titan or the entrepreneurial whiz with the obligatory garage.

The best career advise comes from one source, Scott Adams: it’s all about failure.

From WSJ:

If you’re already as successful as you want to be, both personally and professionally, congratulations! Here’s the not-so-good news: All you are likely to get from this article is a semientertaining tale about a guy who failed his way to success. But you might also notice some familiar patterns in my story that will give you confirmation (or confirmation bias) that your own success wasn’t entirely luck.

If you’re just starting your journey toward success—however you define it—or you’re wondering what you’ve been doing wrong until now, you might find some novel ideas here. Maybe the combination of what you know plus what I think I know will be enough to keep you out of the wood chipper.

Let me start with some tips on what not to do. Beware of advice about successful people and their methods. For starters, no two situations are alike. Your dreams of creating a dry-cleaning empire won’t be helped by knowing that Thomas Edison liked to take naps. Secondly, biographers never have access to the internal thoughts of successful people. If a biographer says Henry Ford invented the assembly line to impress women, that’s probably a guess.

But the most dangerous case of all is when successful people directly give advice. For example, you often hear them say that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?

Here’s the counterargument: When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don’t want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He’s in business for the wrong reason.

My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over 30 years, said that the best loan customer is someone who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.

For most people, it’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion.

The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded. For example, when I invested in a restaurant with an operating partner, my passion was sky high. And on day one, when there was a line of customers down the block, I was even more passionate. In later years, as the business got pummeled, my passion evolved into frustration and annoyance.

On the other hand, Dilbert started out as just one of many get-rich schemes I was willing to try. When it started to look as if it might be a success, my passion for cartooning increased because I realized it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, it looks as if the projects that I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

So forget about passion. And while you’re at it, forget about goals, too.

Just after college, I took my first airplane trip, destination California, in search of a job. I was seated next to a businessman who was probably in his early 60s. I suppose I looked like an odd duck with my serious demeanor, bad haircut and cheap suit, clearly out of my element. I asked what he did for a living, and he told me he was the CEO of a company that made screws. He offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was a continuing process.

This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are that the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet, he explained, was to always be looking for a better deal. The better deal has its own schedule. I believe the way he explained it is that your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job.

This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options.

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

I have a friend who is a gifted salesman. He could have sold anything, from houses to toasters. The field he chose (which I won’t reveal because he wouldn’t appreciate the sudden flood of competition) allows him to sell a service that almost always auto-renews. In other words, he can sell his service once and enjoy ongoing commissions until the customer dies or goes out of business. His biggest problem in life is that he keeps trading his boat for a larger one, and that’s a lot of work.

Observers call him lucky. What I see is a man who accurately identified his skill set and chose a system that vastly increased his odds of getting “lucky.” In fact, his system is so solid that it could withstand quite a bit of bad luck without buckling. How much passion does this fellow have for his chosen field? Answer: zero. What he has is a spectacular system, and that beats passion every time.

As for my own system, when I graduated from college, I outlined my entrepreneurial plan. The idea was to create something that had value and—this next part is the key—I wanted the product to be something that was easy to reproduce in unlimited quantities. I didn’t want to sell my time, at least not directly, because that model has an upward limit. And I didn’t want to build my own automobile factory, for example, because cars are not easy to reproduce. I wanted to create, invent, write, or otherwise concoct something widely desired that would be easy to reproduce.

My system of creating something the public wants and reproducing it in large quantities nearly guaranteed a string of failures. By design, all of my efforts were long shots. Had I been goal-oriented instead of system-oriented, I imagine I would have given up after the first several failures. It would have felt like banging my head against a brick wall.

But being systems-oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project that I happened to be working on. And every day during those years I woke up with the same thought, literally, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and slapped the alarm clock off.

Today’s the day.

If you drill down on any success story, you always discover that luck was a huge part of it. You can’t control luck, but you can move from a game with bad odds to one with better odds. You can make it easier for luck to find you. The most useful thing you can do is stay in the game. If your current get-rich project fails, take what you learned and try something else. Keep repeating until something lucky happens. The universe has plenty of luck to go around; you just need to keep your hand raised until it’s your turn. It helps to see failure as a road and not a wall.

I’m an optimist by nature, or perhaps by upbringing—it’s hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins—but whatever the cause, I’ve long seen failure as a tool, not an outcome. I believe that viewing the world in that way can be useful for you too.

Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” It sounds clever, but it’s a loser philosophy. I don’t want my failures to simply make me stronger, which I interpret as making me better able to survive future challenges. (To be fair to Nietzsche, he probably meant the word “stronger” to include anything that makes you more capable. I’d ask him to clarify, but ironically he ran out of things that didn’t kill him.)

Becoming stronger is obviously a good thing, but it’s only barely optimistic. I do want my failures to make me stronger, of course, but I also want to become smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier and more energized. If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.

Before launching Dilbert, and after, I failed at a long series of day jobs and entrepreneurial adventures. Here are just a few of the worst ones. I include them because successful people generally gloss over their most aromatic failures, and it leaves the impression that they have some magic you don’t.

When you’re done reading this list, you won’t have that delusion about me, and that’s the point. Success is entirely accessible, even if you happen to be a huge screw-up 95% of the time.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Great 21st Century Battles: The Overhead Bin

For flyers, finding adequate space in the overhead bin or under the seat in front, for that increasingly small carry-on item, is one of the most stressful stages of any flight. For airlines, it’s become the next competitive battleground, one that yields significant revenues, at little cost.

So, next time you fly with a dead catfish, kitchen sink or archery set, keep in mind that airlines may want you sitting comfortably, but they want your money much more.

From NYT:

A frosted cake. A 10-gallon hat. A car muffler.

People have crammed all sorts of things — including a kitchen sink — into airplane overhead compartments.

But now the battle of the bins, that preflight scrum over precious carry-on space, has turned into something else for airlines: the business of the bins.

After starting to charge fees for checking baggage, airlines are finding new ways to make money from carry-ons. Overhead compartments, it turns out, are valuable real estate — and these days, they go to the highest bidders.

Using an airline credit card? Come on down. Flying first class? Right this way. Paying an extra fee when you book? It’s your turn. Priority is increasingly given to those who pay.

“There are multiple ways you can improve upon your boarding zone,” said Andy Jacobs, the president of a candy company who travels about twice a month. “As a diamond member on Delta, I never have a problem securing space.”

Many travelers may not realize it, but a seat ticket does not automatically entitle them to overhead space. Once space runs out, passengers must check their luggage at the gate, without paying a fee — and then wait for it at the baggage claim at their destination. Airlines are capitalizing on the fact that many fliers are willing to pay for carry-on convenience.

When Mr. Jacobs is not flying Delta, he relies on credit cards to jump to the front of the boarding line. “Those cards are worth it,” he said. “I actually carry three different airline affinity credit cards.”

He has good reason to get to the front. “As a chocolate salesperson, I need to bring my bags on the plane so the chocolate won’t melt,” he said. “When you’re flying to a major customer and you pick up your bags at baggage claim and your samples are melted, that becomes a pretty big problem.”

As Mr. Jacobs has learned, there is only so much room.

And there is little chance that the free-for-all at check-in will ease soon. Airlines rely increasingly on fees, experts say. In 2012, domestic carriers collectively earned roughly $3.5 billion in checked-bag fees, up from less than half a billion dollars five years earlier, according to the Department of Transportation. Although exact figures are not yet available for early boarding revenue, analysts say it is increasing.

“There is growth there,” said Jay Sorenson, president of the airline consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany. “Airlines will implement more of these fees.”

Brian Easley, a career flight attendant, has watched the competition for overhead space become increasingly acrimonious.

“When someone gets to their row and looks up and sees something’s there, they kind of freak out about it,” he said. “They will throw a fit and they will start screaming at whoever put their stuff in their spot. We’ve had to throw people off the plane just because they refused to walk up a few feet and stick it in another overhead bin.”

People will carry on anything and everything, Mr. Easley said. On one flight to the Dominican Republic, a passenger brought a kitchen sink wrapped in a trash bag. “Luckily, at the time we were flying this particular Airbus that just has a ton of overhead bin space.”

Another time on the same route, a passenger carried on a car muffler. “I think in that case we did put it in a closet, next to a hula hoop someone had brought,” he said.

Robert W. Mann, an airline industry consultant, said that although new planes were designed to accommodate more carry-on bags, “there’s an infinite demand for overhead bin space,” especially as airlines squeeze more people than ever onto planes.

Airlines say they are providing an option travelers want.

“It’s something our customers desire,” said an American Airlines spokesman, Matt Miller. Charlie Hobart, a United Airlines spokesman, said, “We’re always looking for ways to make travel more convenient for our customers.” United let customers pay for priority boarding before its merger with Continental and reintroduced it this year. “Customers did enjoy it when we had it” before the merger, Mr. Hobart said.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of USA Today.

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Six Rules to Super-Charge Your Creativity

Creative minds by their very nature are all different. Yet upon further examination it seems that there are some key elements and common routines that underlie many of the great, innovative thinkers. First and foremost, of course, is to be an early-bird.

From the Guardian:

One morning this summer, I got up at first light – I’d left the blinds open the night before – then drank a strong cup of coffee, sat near-naked by an open window for an hour, worked all morning, then had a martini with lunch. I took a long afternoon walk, and for the rest of the week experimented with never working for more than three hours at a stretch.

This was all in an effort to adopt the rituals of some great artists and thinkers: the rising-at-dawn bit came from Ernest Hemingway, who was up at around 5.30am, even if he’d been drinking the night before; the strong coffee was borrowed from Beethoven, who personally counted out the 60 beans his morning cup required. Benjamin Franklin swore by “air baths”, which was his term for sitting around naked in the morning, whatever the weather. And the midday cocktail was a favourite of VS Pritchett (among many others). I couldn’t try every trick I discovered in a new book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Work; oddly, my girlfriend was unwilling to play the role of Freud’s wife, who put toothpaste on his toothbrush each day to save him time. Still, I learned a lot. For example: did you know that lunchtime martinis aren’t conducive to productivity?

As a writer working from home, of course, I have an unusual degree of control over my schedule – not everyone could run such an experiment. But for anyone who thinks of their work as creative, or who pursues creative projects in their spare time, reading about the habits of the successful, can be addictive. Partly, that’s because it’s comforting to learn that even Franz Kafka struggled with the demands of his day job, or that Franklin was chronically disorganised. But it’s also because of a covert thought that sounds delusionally arrogant if expressed out loud: just maybe, if I took very hot baths like Flaubert, or amphetamines like Auden, I might inch closer to their genius.

Several weeks later, I’m no longer taking “air baths”, while the lunchtime martini didn’t last more than a day (I mean, come on). But I’m still rising early and, when time allows, taking long walks. Two big insights have emerged. One is how ill-suited the nine-to-five routine is to most desk-based jobs involving mental focus; it turns out I get far more done when I start earlier, end a little later, and don’t even pretend to do brain work for several hours in the middle. The other is the importance of momentum. When I get straight down to something really important early in the morning, before checking email, before interruptions from others, it beneficially alters the feel of the whole day: once interruptions do arise, they’re never quite so problematic. Another technique I couldn’t manage without comes from the writer and consultant Tony Schwartz: use a timer to work in 90-minute “sprints”, interspersed with signficant breaks. (Thanks to this, I’m far better than I used to be at separating work from faffing around, rather than spending half the day flailing around in a mixture of the two.)

The one true lesson of the book, says its author, Mason Currey, is that “there’s no one way to get things done”. For every Joyce Carol Oates, industriously plugging away from 8am to 1pm and again from 4pm to 7pm, or Anthony Trollope, timing himself typing 250 words per quarter-hour, there’s a Sylvia Plath, unable to stick to a schedule. (Or a Friedrich Schiller, who could only write in the presence of the smell of rotting apples.) Still, some patterns do emerge. Here, then, are six lessons from history’s most creative minds.

1. Be a morning person

It’s not that there aren’t successful night owls: Marcel Proust, for one, rose sometime between 3pm and 6pm, immediately smoked opium powders to relieve his asthma, then rang for his coffee and croissant. But very early risers form a clear majority, including everyone from Mozart to Georgia O’Keeffe to Frank Lloyd Wright. (The 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards, Currey tells us, went so far as to argue that Jesus had endorsed early rising “by his rising from the grave very early”.) For some, waking at 5am or 6am is a necessity, the only way to combine their writing or painting with the demands of a job, raising children, or both. For others, it’s a way to avoid interruption: at that hour, as Hemingway wrote, “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” There’s another, surprising argument in favour of rising early, which might persuade sceptics: that early-morning drowsiness might actually be helpful. At one point in his career, the novelist Nicholson Baker took to getting up at 4.30am, and he liked what it did to his brain: “The mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled… I found that I wrote differently then.”

Psychologists categorise people by what they call, rather charmingly, “morningness” and “eveningness”, but it’s not clear that either is objectively superior. There is evidence that morning people are happier and more conscientious, but also that night owls might be more intelligent. If you’re determined to join the ranks of the early risers, the crucial trick is to start getting up at the same time daily, but to go to bed only when you’re truly tired. You might sacrifice a day or two to exhaustion, but you’ll adjust to your new schedule more rapidly.

2. Don’t give up the day job

Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy,” Franz Kafka complained to his fiancee, “and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvres.” He crammed in his writing between 10.30pm and the small hours of the morning. But in truth, a ”pleasant, straightforward life” might not have been preferable, artistically speaking: Kafka, who worked in an insurance office, was one of many artists who have thrived on fitting creative activities around the edges of a busy life. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in the afternoons, before commencing his night shift at a power plant; TS Eliot’s day job at Lloyds bank gave him crucial financial security; William Carlos Williams, a paediatrician, scribbled poetry on the backs of his prescription pads. Limited time focuses the mind, and the self-discipline required to show up for a job seeps back into the processes of art. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” wrote Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive and poet. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.” Indeed, one obvious explanation for the alcoholism that pervades the lives of full-time authors is that it’s impossible to focus on writing for more than a few hours a day, and, well, you’ve got to make those other hours pass somehow.

3. Take lots of walks

There’s no shortage of evidence to suggest that walking – especially walking in natural settings, or just lingering amid greenery, even if you don’t actually walk much – is associated with increased productivity and proficiency at creative tasks. But Currey was surprised, in researching his book, by the sheer ubiquity of walking, especially in the daily routines of composers, including Beethoven, Mahler, Erik Satie and Tchaikovksy, “who believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortunes would befall him”. It’s long been observed that doing almost anything other than sitting at a desk can be the best route to novel insights. These days, there’s surely an additional factor at play: when you’re on a walk, you’re physically removed from many of the sources of distraction – televisions, computer screens – that might otherwise interfere with deep thought.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Frank Lloyd Wright, architect, c. March 1, 1926. Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.

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