The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

google-search-fake-news

The online filter bubble is a natural extension of our preexisting biases, particularly evident in our media consumption. Those of us of a certain age — above 30 years — once purchased (and maybe still do) our favorite paper-based newspapers and glued ourselves to our favorite TV news channels. These sources mirrored, for the most part, our cultural and political preferences. The internet took this a step further by building a tightly wound, self-reinforcing feedback loop. We consume our favorite online media, which solicits algorithms to deliver more of the same. I’ve written about the filter bubble for years (here, here and here).

The online filter bubble in which each of us lives — those of us online — may seem no more dangerous than its offline predecessor. After all, the online version of the NYT delivers left-of-center news, just like its printed cousin. So what’s the big deal? Well, the pervasiveness of our technology has now enabled these filters to creep insidiously into many aspects of our lives, from news consumption and entertainment programming to shopping and even dating. And, since we now spend growing  swathes of our time online, our serendipitous exposure to varied content that typically lies outside this bubble in the real, offline world is diminishing. Consequently, the online filter bubble is taking on a much more critical role and having greater effect in maintaining our tunnel vision.

However, that’s not all. Over the last few years we have become exposed to yet another dangerous phenomenon to have made the jump from the offline world to online — the echo chamber. The online echo chamber is enabled by our like-minded online communities and catalyzed by the tools of social media. And, it turns our filter bubble into a self-reinforcing, exclusionary community that is harmful to varied, reasoned opinion and healthy skepticism.

Those of us who reside on Facebook are likely to be part of a very homogeneous social circle, which trusts, shares and reinforces information accepted by the group and discards information that does not match the group’s social norms. This makes the spread of misinformation — fake stories, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors — so very effective. Importantly, this is increasingly to the exclusion of all else, including real news and accepted scientific fact.

Why embrace objective journalism, trusted science and thoughtful political dialogue when you can get a juicy, emotive meme from a friend of a friend on Facebook? Why trust a story from Reuters or science from Scientific American when you get your “news” via a friend’s link from Alex Jones and the Brietbart News Network?

And, there’s no simple solution, which puts many of our once trusted institutions in severe jeopardy. Those of us who care have a duty to ensure these issues are in the minds of our public officials and the guardians of our technology and media networks.

From Scientific American:

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

Many are asking whether this onslaught of digital misinformation affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. The truth is we do not know, although there are reasons to believe it is entirely possible, based on past analysis and accounts from other countries. Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. Overall, the harm can be very real: If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?

As a researcher on the spread of misinformation through social media, I know that limiting news fakers’ ability to sell ads, as recently announced by Google and Facebook, is a step in the right direction. But it will not curb abuses driven by political motives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

The Birthday Problem

birthday_paradox

I first came across the Birthday Problem in my first few days of my first year of secondary school in London [that would be 6th grade for my US readers]. My mathematics teacher at the time realized the need to discuss abstract problems in concrete terms, especially statistics and probability. So, he wowed many of us — in a class of close to 30 kids — by firmly stating that there was a better than even chance that two of us shared the same birthday. In a class of 30, the actual probability is 60 percent, and rises to close to 100 percent is a group of only 60.

Startlingly, two in our class did indeed share the same birthday. How could that be possible, I wondered?

Well, the answer is grounded in the simple probability of large populations. But, it is also colored by our selective biases to remember “remarkable” coincidences and to ignore the much, much larger number of instances where there is no coincidence at all.

From the Washington Post.

Mathematician Joseph Mazur was in the back of a van snaking through the mountains of Sardinia when he heard one of his favorite coincidence stories. The driver, an Italian language teacher named Francesco, told of meeting a woman named Manuela who had come to study at his school. Francesco and Manuela met for the first time in a hotel lobby, and then went to have coffee.

They spoke for an hour, getting acquainted, before the uncomfortable truth came out. Noting Manuela’s nearly perfect Italian, Francesco finally asked why she decided to come to his school.

“She said, ‘Italian? What are you talk about? I’m not here to learn Italian,’” Mazur relates. “And then it dawned on both of them that she was the wrong Manuela and he was the wrong Francesco.” They returned to the hotel lobby where they had met to find a different Francesco offering a different Manuela a job she didn’t want or expect.

The tale is one of the many stories that populate Mazur’s new book, “Fluke,” in which he explores the probability of coincidences.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The computed probability of at least two people sharing a birthday versus the number of people. Courtesy: Rajkiran g / Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Send to Kindle

Surplus Humans and the Death of Work

detroit-industry-north-wall-diego-rivera

It’s a simple equation: too many humans, not enough work. Low paying, physical jobs continue to disappear, replaced by mechanization. More cognitive work characterized by the need to think is increasingly likely to be automated and robotized. This has complex and dire consequences, and not just global economic ramifications, but moral ones. What are we to make of ourselves and of a culture that has intimately linked work with meaning when the work is outsourced or eliminated entirely?

A striking example comes from the richest country in the world — the United States. Recently and anomalously life-expectancy has shown a decrease among white people in economically depressed areas of the nation. Many economists suggest that the quest for ever-increasing productivity — usually delivered through automation — is chipping away at the very essence of what it means to be human: value purpose through work.

James Livingston professor of history at Rutgers University summarizes the existential dilemma, excerpted below, in his latest book No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.

From aeon:

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Detroit Industry North Wall, Diego Rivera. Courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts. Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

Breathe, You’re On Vacation

google-search-vacation

I’m lucky enough to be able to take a couple of vacations [holidays for my British readers] each year. Over the decades my vacations have generally tended to fall into two categories. First, there is the inactive, relaxing vacation of nothingness. This usually involves lounging and listening to ocean waves break along a beautiful beach, reading some choice literature and just, well, relaxing — when without kids in tow. Second, there is the active vacation spent trekking in the wilderness or discovering a far-flung natural or cultural wonder of the world.

However, even though I began these vacation rituals with my parents when I was a child myself, and have now done this for decades, I may have had the idea of a vacation completely wrong. Apparently, the ideal vacation must involve breathing, mindfulness, and self-improvement. So, forget the relaxation.

Ironically, it seems that Google has yet to learn about our active needs for vacation wellness and enrichment. Search for “vacation” online and Google will first deliver many thousands of images of people relaxing at the beach under a deep blue sky.

From NYT:

When I was 22, I used to have a fantasy about going away to a sanitarium, like in “The Magic Mountain.” I would do nothing but sit on balconies, wrapped in steamer rugs, and go to the doctor, avoiding the rigors of the real world and emerging after a short period brighter, happier, better.

I’m beginning to think this was a prescient impulse. Over the decades we have embraced a widening and diverse array of practices and traditions, but the idea that we can be improved — in mind, body or spirit — has remained a constant. That this could be accomplished with money and in an allotted parcel of time has become increasingly popular with a generation reared in a maximalist minimalist moment that, as with fashion and interior design, demands grandiose, well-documented freedom from the world. If stuff was once an indicator of security, now the very lack of it — of dust, of furniture, of body fat, of errant thoughts — defines aspiration. A glamorous back-to-nature exercise in pricey self-abnegation has become the logical way to spend one’s leisure time.

We live in a golden age of the “wellness vacation,” a sort of hybrid retreat, boot camp, spa and roving therapy session that, for the cost of room and board, promises to refresh body and mind and send you back to your life more whole. Pravassa, a “wellness travel company,” summarizes its (trademarked) philosophy as “Breathe. Experience. Move. Mindfulness. Nourish.” (The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a wellness retreat in New England, boasts the eerily similar tagline: “Breathe. Connect. Move. Discover. Shine.”) A 10-day trip to Thailand with Pravassa includes a travel guide — who works, in her day job, as a “mindfulness-based psychotherapist” in Atlanta — as well as temple pilgrimages at dawn and, more abstractly, the potential to bring all that mindfulness back home with you. Selfies are not only allowed but encouraged.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

MondayMap: National Superlatives

international-number-ones-2016

OK, I must admit that some maps can be somewhat dubious. Or, is it all maps?

Despite their shaky foundations some maps form the basis for many centuries of human (mis-)understanding, only to be subsequently overturned by a new (and improved) chart. For instance, the geocentric models of our cosmos courtesy of Aristotle and Ptolemy were not replaced for around 1,400 years, until Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric view of the solar system.

Thus, keep in mind the latest view of our globe, courtesy of David McCandless. He compiled this esoteric worldview, because every nation is the best at something, from a collection of global data sources.

Looks like the US is “best” at spam (not the luncheon meat). While Russia leads in, of course, dash cams.

Send to Kindle

Beware. Economic Growth May Kill You

There is a long-held belief that economic growth and prosperity makes for a happier, healthier populace. Most economists and social scientists, and indeed lay-people, have subscribed to this idea for many decades.

But, this may be completely wrong.

A handful of contrarian economists began noticing a strange paradox in their research studies from 2000. Evidence suggests that rising incomes and personal well-being are linked in the opposite way. It seems that when the US economy is improving, people suffer more medical problems and die faster.

How could this be? Well, put simply, there are three main factors: increased pollution from increased industrial activity; greater occupational hazards from increased work; and, higher exposure to risky behaviors from greater income.

From the Washington Post:

Yet in recent years, accumulating evidence suggests that rising incomes and personal well-being are linked in the opposite way. It seems that economic growth actually kills people.

Christopher Ruhm, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, was one of the first to notice this paradox. In a 2000 paper, he showed that when the American economy is on an upswing, people suffer more medical problems and die faster; when the economy falters, people tend to live longer.

“It’s very puzzling,” says Adriana Lleras-Muney, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We know that people in rich countries live longer than people in poor countries. There’s a strong relationship between GDP and life expectancy, suggesting that more money is better. And yet, when the economy is doing well, when it’s growing faster than average, we find that more people are dying.”

In other words, there are great benefits to being wealthy. But the process of becoming wealthy — well, that seems to be dangerous.

Lleras-Muney and her colleagues, David Cutler of Harvard and Wei Huang of the National Bureau of Economic Research, believe they can explain why. They have conducted one of the most comprehensive investigations yet of this phenomenon, analyzing over 200 years of data from 32 countries. In a draft of their research, released last week, they lay out something of a grand unified theory of life, death and economic growth.

To start, the economists confirm that when a country’s economic output — its GDP — is higher than expected, mortality rates are also higher than expected.

The data show that when economies are growing particularly fast, emissions and pollution are also on the rise. After controlling for changes in air quality, the economists find that economic growth doesn’t seem to impact death rates as much. “As much as two-thirds of the adverse effect of booms may be the result of increased pollution,” they write.

A booming economy spurs death in other ways too. People start to spend more time at their jobs, exposing them to occupational hazards, as well as the stress of overwork. People drive more, leading to an increase in traffic-related fatalities. People also drink more, causing health problems and accidents. In particular, the economists’ data suggest that alcohol-related mortality is the second-most important explanation, after pollution, for the connection between economic growth and death rates.

This is consistent with other studies finding that people are more likely to die right after they receive their tax rebates. More income makes it easier for people to pay for health care and other basic necessities, but it also makes it easier for people to engage in risky activities and hurt themselves.

Read the entire story here.

Send to Kindle

You’re Not In Control

dual_elevator_door_buttons

Press a button, then something happens. Eat too much chocolate, then you feel great (and then put on weight). Step in to the middle of a busy road, then you get hit by an oncoming car. Walk in the rain, then you get wet. Watch your favorite comedy show, then you laugh.

Every moment of our lives is filled with actions and consequences, causes and effects. Usually we have a good sense of what is likely to happen when we take a specific action. This sense of predictability smooths our lives and makes us feel in control.

But sometimes all is not what is seems. Take the buttons on some of the most actively used objects in our daily lives. Press the “close door” button on the elevator [or “lift” for my British readers], then the door closes, right? Press the “pedestrian crossing” button at the crosswalk [or “zebra crossing”], then the safe to cross signal blinks to life, right? Adjust the office thermostat, then you feel more comfortable, right?

Well, if you think that by pressing a button you are commanding the elevator door to close, or the crosswalk signal to flash, or the thermostat to change the office temperature, you’re probably wrong. You may feel in control, but actually you’re not. In many cases the button may serve no functional purpose; the systems just work automatically. But the button still offers a psychological purpose — a placebo-like effect. We are so conditioned to the notion that pressing a button yields an action, that we still feel in control even when the button does nothing beyond making an audible click.

From the NYT:

Pressing the door-close button on an elevator might make you feel better, but it will do nothing to hasten your trip.

Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade group, said the close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

The legislation required that elevator doors remain open long enough for anyone who uses crutches, a cane or wheelchair to get on board, Ms. Penafiel said in an interview on Tuesday. “The riding public would not be able to make those doors close any faster,” she said.

The buttons can be operated by firefighters and maintenance workers who have the proper keys or codes.

No figures were available for the number of elevators still in operation with functioning door-close buttons. Given that the estimated useful life of an elevator is 25 years, it is likely that most elevators in service today have been modernized or refurbished, rendering the door-close buttons a thing of the past for riders, Ms. Penafiel said.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Elevator control panel, cropped to show only dual “door open” and “door close” buttons. Courtesy: Nils R. Barth. Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Send to Kindle

How and Why Did Metamorphosis Evolve?

papilio_machaon

Evolution is a truly wondrous thing. It has given us eyes and lots of grey matter [which we still don’t use very well]. It has given us the beautiful tiger and shimmering hues and soaring songs of our birds. It has given us the towering Sequoias, creepy insects, gorgeous ocean-bound creatures and invisible bacteria and viruses. Yet for all its wondrous adaptations one evolutionary invention still seems mysteriously supernatural — metamorphosis.

So, how and why did it evolve? A compelling new theory on the origins of insect metamorphosis by James W. Truman and Lynn M. Riddiford is excerpted below (from a detailed article in Scientific American).

The theory posits that a beneficial mutation around 300 million years ago led to the emergence of metamorphosis in insects:

By combining evidence from the fossil record with studies on insect anatomy and development, biologists have established a plausible narrative about the origin of insect metamorphosis, which they continue to revise as new information surfaces. The earliest insects in Earth’s history did not metamorphose; they hatched from eggs, essentially as miniature adults. Between 280 million and 300 million years ago, however, some insects began to mature a little differently—they hatched in forms that neither looked nor behaved like their adult versions. This shift proved remarkably beneficial: young and old insects were no longer competing for the same resources. Metamorphosis was so successful that, today, as many as 65 percent of all animal species on the planet are metamorphosing insects.

And, there are essentially three types of metamorphosis:

Wingless ametabolous insects, such as silverfish and bristletails, undergo little or no metamorphosis. When they hatch from eggs, they already look like adults, albeit tiny ones, and simply grow larger over time through a series of molts in which they shed their exoskeletons. Hemimetaboly, or incomplete metamorphosis, describes insects such as cockroaches, grasshoppers and dragonflies that hatch as nymphs—miniature versions of their adult forms that gradually develop wings and functional genitals as they molt and grow. Holometaboly, or complete metamorphosis, refers to insects such as beetles, flies, butterflies, moths and bees, which hatch as wormlike larvae that eventually enter a quiescent pupal stage before emerging as adults that look nothing like the larvae.

And, it’s backed by a concrete survival and reproductive advantage:

[T]he enormous numbers of metamorphosing insects on the planet speak for its success as a reproductive strategy. The primary advantage of complete metamorphosis is eliminating competition between the young and old. Larval insects and adult insects occupy very different ecological niches. Whereas caterpillars are busy gorging themselves on leaves, completely disinterested in reproduction, butterflies are flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar and mates. Because larvas and adults do not compete with one another for space or resources, more of each can coexist relative to species in which the young and old live in the same places and eat the same things.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon). Courtesy: fesoj – Otakárek fenyklový [Papilio machaon]. CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7263187

Send to Kindle

Nightmare Machine

mit-nightmare-machine

Now that the abject terror of the US presidential election is over — at least for a while — we have to turn our minds to new forms of pain and horror.

In recent years a growing number of illustrious scientists and technologists has described artificial intelligence (AI) as the greatest existential threat to humanity. They worry, rightfully, that a well-drilled, unfettered AI could eventually out-think and out-smart us at every level. Eventually, a super-intelligent AI would determine that humans were either peripheral or superfluous to its needs and goals, and then either enslave or extinguish us. This is the stuff of real nightmares.

Yet, at a more playful level, AI can also learn to deliver imagined nightmares. This Halloween researchers at MIT used AI techniques to create and optimize horrifying images of human faces and places. They called their AI the Nightmare Machine.

For the first step, researchers fed hundreds of thousands of celebrity photos into their AI algorithm, known as a deep convolutional generative adversarial network. This allowed the AI to learn about faces and how to create new ones. Second, they flavored the results with a second learning algorithm that had been trained on images of zombies. The combination allowed the AI to learn the critical factors that make for scary images and to selectively improve upon upon them. It turns out that blood on the face, empty eyeball sockets, and missing or misshaped teeth tend to illicit the greatest horror and fear.

While the results are not quite as scary as Stephen Hawkins’ warning of AI-led human extinction the images are terrorizing nonetheless.

Learn more about the MIT Media Lab’s Nightmare Machine here.

Image: Horror imagery generated by artificial intelligence. Courtesy: MIT Media Lab.

Send to Kindle

Who Needs Education?

misd-proposed-stadium

Here’s a great example of the value that some citizens place on education in the United States. It’s one more recent example of a distorted system that ranks sporting success, or just dreams of success, over learning, teaching and intellectual accomplishment.

McKinney independent school district (MISD), part of the Dallas-Ft.Worth metropolitan area approved a $70 million bond package to finance a new 7,000 capacity stadium and other city improvements. By Texas’ standards this is small potatoes, nearby Allen ISD completed a 18,000 capacity high school stadium in 2012.

Put into perspective: most non-premium level, professional sports teams in Europe have lower capacity stadiums [stadia, for my British readers].

From Guardian:

In the middle of the change from small town to booming Dallas suburb is football. Celina could end up with more than one high school and therefore more than one football team, a division of the local talent pool that would vex some. But a more immediate question is over the future need for a new stadium to house the existing team and its swelling fanbase. The current 3,800-capacity Bobcat Stadium, regularly packed, might soon be unable to cope with demand.

These are interesting times for high school football stadiums in Texas. Nearby McKinney recently approved the construction of a new $70m, 12,000-seat stadium to be shared by the city’s three high schools. That followed hard on the heels of a $60m, 18,000-capacity venue for neighboring Allen – which has one high school – completed in 2012. Local media have called the sprouting of expensive stadiums among rival school districts in affluent suburbs an arms race. The adjacent Frisco, meanwhile, entered a partnership with the Dallas Cowboys for its schools to play in the NFL team’s new indoor practice facility built in the city. The Frisco independent school district is chipping in $30m so area kids can run out at The Ford Center at The Star, capacity 12,000.

Critics argue the money could be better spent elsewhere in the education system.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Proposed McKinney High School Stadium. Courtesy McKinney Independent School District (MISD) press handout.

Send to Kindle

MondayMap: The Architecture of Music

musicmap

A couple of years ago I wrote about Every Noise At Once a visualization, with samples, of (almost) every musical genre. At last count Glenn McDonald’s brainchild had algorithmically-generated and scatter-plotted 1,496 genres.

Now courtesy of Belgian architect Kwinten Crauwels we have the next gorgeous visual iteration of the music universe — Musicmap. It took Crauwels seven years to construct this astounding and comprehensive, interactive map of music genres, sub-genres and their relationships. It traces the genealogy of around 150 years of popular music.

Crauwels color-coded each of the major genres and devised different types of lines to show different relationships across the hundreds of genres and sub-genres. You can fly around the map to follow the links and drill-down to learn more about each musical style.

musicmap2

Now you can visually trace how Garage Rock is related to Detroit’s Motown and Doo Wop, or how present day Industrial Synth evolved from Krautrock of the 1970s.

It’s a visual, and musical, masterpiece. Read more about Musicmap here.

Image: Musicmap screenshots. Courtesy of Kwinten Crauwels, Musicmap.

Send to Kindle

The Only Gettysburg Address

lincolns_gettysburg_address_gettysburg

One hundred and fifty three years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered, during the American Civil War, one of the most memorable speeches in US history. His resonant words will continue to be taught, studied and remembered.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Others have delivered words on the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg. One recent example treated us, not to heartfelt oratory, but to whining about a rigged election, railing against the disgusting media, and regurgitating personal grievances and attacks. This speech train-of-thought nonsense will be discarded and forgotten, unless future scholars return to dissect the most spectacular campaign failure — and disgusting individual — in modern US politics.

Image: The only confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, some three hours before the speech, 19 November 1863. Courtesy: United States Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Speaking in (Alien) Tongues

Famous_fantastic_mysteries_195107

Considering that we humans cannot clearly communicate with any other living species on the planet it seems rather fanciful that we might be able to chat with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

But some linguists have a plan should we ever come across an alien civilization, or more likely should they ever choose to give Earth a visit. The idea is to develop a communication process using monolingual fieldwork.

From Scientific American:

In the upcoming sci-fi drama “Arrival,” several mysterious spacecraft touch down around the planet, and humanity is faced with how to approach—and eventually communicate—with these extraterrestrial visitors.

In the film, a team of experts is assembled to investigate, and among the chosen individuals is a linguist, played by actress Amy Adams. Though the story is rooted in science fiction, it does tackle a very real challenge: How do you communicate with someone—or how do you learn that individual’s language—when you have no intermediary language in common?

The film is based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang. It taps into the common science-fiction theme of alien tongues; not only the communication barrier they might present, but the unusual ways they could differ from human language. “There’s a long tradition of science fiction that deals with language and communication,” Chiang told Live Science in an email.

And in both the short story and film, linguists play a key role in bridging the gap between humans and aliens—something that isn’t entirely farfetched, according to Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts. “Linguists who’ve had extensive field experience can do this. That’s what they do,” Everett told Live Science.

Everett spent more than 30 years working with the Pirahãpeople of the Brazilian Amazon, learning and studying their language, which was poorly documented prior to his work. Pirahãis what’s called a language isolate, a linguistic orphan of sorts, and is the last surviving member of its language family. It is also well-known for some of its atypical qualities, such as a lack of counting numbers or relative directions, such as “left” and “right,” qualities which Everett worked out over years of study.

The people were similarly isolated, and were entirely monolingual, he said. So it didn’t matter that Everett didn’t know Portuguese. Rather than asking questions about the Pirahãlanguage in a shared second language, he conducted his research in a style known as monolingual fieldwork.

Pointing to a nearby object, like a stick, and asking (even in English) what it’s called is typically interpreted as a cue to name it, Everett said. From the names of things, a linguist can then work their way towards actions, and how to express relationships between objects, Everett said. All the while, linguists typically transcribe the statements, paying attention to the sounds, the grammar and the way meanings are combined, building a working theory of the language, he said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Reprint of The War of the Worlds cover-featured on the July 1951 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

The Next 4 Years

It’s taken me a week to recover from the visceral shock of the US Presidential election. A vile process that continued for 18 months finally culminated in the election of, quite simply, a neo-fascist-lite for our Twitter age.

Like many other so-called elitists — if we should equate elitism with a higher education — I had hoped for a different outcome. Well, it wasn’t to be. So, it’s time to accept the result and move on, right?

Not quite, since this is an existential threat to my children and our democracy, like no other.

Thus, I will begin the next four years by reminding myself, and you dear reader of the President-elect’s vulgarities, bigotry, hypocrisy, contempt, mendacity and other dangerously ignorant, poisonous nonsense and complete bullshit from the depraved, despotic, shameless, shallow, deceitful, volatile, puerile, vindictive, noxious, boastful, misogynistic, racist, corrupt, thuggish, insensitive, naive, irrational, petulant, solipsistic, authoritarian, vengeful, disgraceful, abusive, irresponsible, narcissistic, pompous, vacuous, cowardly, amoral, self-aggrandizing, unprincipled, pathologically deranged, completely detached-from-reality (crazy), unapologetically fraudulent, chronically repulsive, thoroughly sleazy and incoherent mind mouth of the President-elect (think about that very carefully for several minutes each day over the next 1,450 or so days).

Send to Kindle

Open-Office or Home-Based?

google-search-open-office

Enough with the open office. Despite claims to democratize the workspace, improve employee camaraderie and boost interactions the open office layout reduces productivity.

Employers, here’s a better idea. Let your employees work from home. It really works: cuts corporate costs, increases productivity and morale, and reduces greenhouse emissions (from less commuting). Everybody wins — except, perhaps, for those who thrive on office gossip or require an in situ foosball table.

From the Washington Post:

A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life.  All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system.  As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips.  At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York,  making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Quiet Please

dakota-ridge-29nov2015

Our world is a noisy place. And, for all our technological progress it is becoming increasingly noisy. Many who can afford to do so spend a significant slice of their incomes seeking the elusive place or moment(s) that bring peace and quiet. So, it’s no surprise to see an uptick in demand for all things quiet — silent reading, silent dining, silent hiking, silent meditation.

From the Guardian:

Once the preserve of monastic retreats and hardcore meditators, simply being quiet is growing in appeal. Whole businesses have sprung up to meet a rising demand for quiet time, from silent weekend getaways to silent dining, silent reading parties and even silent dating. This month sees the release of documentary In Pursuit of Silence, a “meditative film” about our relationship with noise, promoted with a delicate two-minute trailer in which not a word is uttered.

Silence can, as the film attests, mean different things to different people. It can be a space for quiet reflection or a state fraught with discomfort. There is a certain intimacy inherent in being silent with other people – we usually do so only with those closest to us. So there is something almost radical about the recent trend for enjoying silence with strangers.

Mariel Symeonidou started a regular silent reading party in Dundee just under a year ago, in a moment of “uncharacteristic extroversion”. Readers bring their books and meet in a bar, where they read together in silence for an hour or sometimes two, then put the books away to chat and have a drink.

Read the entire article, in silence, here.

Image: Early winter, Dakota Ridge. Courtesy of the author.

Send to Kindle

Asgardia

asgardia-screenshot

With all this earthbound turmoil around us perhaps it’s time to move elsewhere. Asgardia? Well, almost. You may soon be able to become an Asgardian citizen. First the project leaders must convince the United Nations that a satellite to be launched in 2017 deems legal, sovereign status. One catch, though. You’ll still have to reside on Earth.

From the Guardian:

Proposals for the “first nation state in space” have been unveiled by a team of scientists and legal experts, who say the move will foster peace, open up access to space technologies and offer protection for citizens of planet Earth.

Dubbed “Asgardia” after one of the mythical worlds inhabited by the Norse gods, the team say the “new nation” will eventually become a member of the United Nations, with its own flag and anthem devised by members of the public through a series of competitions.

According to the project website, Asgardia “will offer an independent platform
free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws. It will become a place it in orbit which is truly ‘no man’s land’”.

Initially, it would seem, this new nation will consist of a single satellite, scheduled to be launched next year, with its citizens residing firmly on terra firma.

Speaking to the Guardian through an interpreter, the project lead Igor Ashurbeyli, said: “Physically the citizens of that nation state will be on Earth; they will be living in different countries on Earth, so they will be a citizen of their own country and at the same time they will be citizens of Asgardia.”

“When the number of those applications goes above 100,000 we can officially apply to the UN for the status of state,” he added.

Read the story here.

Image: Screenshot from Asgardia website.

Send to Kindle

MondayMap: Red Versus Blue

1883-county-map

You may believe that colorful, graphical electoral analysis is a relatively recent phenomenon. You know, those cool red and blue maps (and now sometimes green or purple) of each state and country.

But our present day news networks and the internet did not invent this type of infographic map.

Susan Schulten, chair of the history department at the University of Denver, discovered what may be the earliest example of a US county-level electoral map. Published in 1883 it shows results from the 1880 Presidential election between Republican James Garfield and Democrat Winfield Hancock. Garfield won.

Two notable reversals in the 1880 map versus today’s counterpart: First, Democrats are in red; Republicans in blue. Second, Democrats make up the majority in much of the South and Midwest; Republicans rule in the Northeast. Interestingly, the color scheme switched numerous times over the last hundred years and did not formally become Democrat=Blue, Republican=Red until the 2000 election cycle.

For more fascinating details of our electoral maps, past and present, check out this article by Lazaro Gamio, over at the Washington Post.

Image: Plate 11 from Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States, published in 1883. Courtesy: Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Fear the First 100 Days

Imagine, in your rosy colored dreams or your darkest nightmares, what the first one hundred days of a Republican presidency would look like.

Actually, you don’t need to do much imagining since you can for the most part piece together what would become of the United States based on the daily flow of Trumpian vulgarities, bigotry, hypocrisy, contempt and other dangerously ignorant, poisonous nonsense and complete bullshit from the depraved, despotic, shameless, shallow, deceitful, volatile, puerile, vindictive, noxious, misogynistic, racist, corrupt, thuggish, insensitive, naive, irrational, petulant, authoritarian, vengeful, disgraceful, abusive, irresponsible, narcissistic, vacuous, cowardly, self-aggrandizing, unprincipled, pathologically deranged, completely detached-from-reality (crazy), unapologetically fraudulent, chronically repulsive, thoroughly sleazy and incoherent mind mouth of the “Republican” nominee for President (think about that very carefully for several minutes).

But, that said, Dana Milbank over at the Washington Post reminds us of the stakes, just a couple of days away; he couldn’t have put it more clearly and succinctly:

Among things you can expect: a trade war with China and Mexico, a restarting of Iran’s nuclear program, millions losing their health insurance, the start of mass deportations, a possible military standoff with China in the South China Sea and North Korea, the resumption of waterboarding, the use of federal agencies to go after Hillary Clinton and other Trump critics, the spectacle of the commander in chief suing women who have accused him of sexual misconduct and a constitutional crisis as the president of the United States attempts to disqualify the federal judge in a fraud suit against him because the judge is Latino.

He’s not joking. Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Education, Income Inequality and the Great Divide

There’s a commonly held belief that having a greater level of education ensures a higher level of lifetime income. While this is generally true the picture is rather more complex. It’s painfully clear that income inequality is more acute now than it has ever been and the gap between white and black wage earners in the United States is wider than ever. But, perhaps surprisingly, the overall income gap is increasing between well-educated whites and blacks. Why is this the case? A detailed study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reminds us that:

Income growth in recent decades has been limited, more or less, to the highest echelon of earners, a group that is overwhelmingly white. Out of every 1,000 households in the top 1 percent, only two are black, while about 910 are white. And so, as economic forces lifted the incomes of the 1 percent, the blacks on lower rungs of the economic ladder have been largely left behind.

So while black Americans with high school diplomas and college degrees may historically be doing better, the predominantly white top 1 percent continues to pull away.

From Washington Post:

We’ve known for a while that black Americans aren’t making economic progressA recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, shows that the black-white wage gap is now the widest it has been since 1979. What’s more interesting, though, is how inequality has been increasing, and for whom.

It used to be that low-skilled black workers suffered the greatest disadvantage relative to their white counterparts. But there has been a strange reversal in the past 40 years. EPI finds that the black-white wage gap has become wider — and is widening faster — among those with more education.

This chart illustrates the history of the wage gap among men with less than 10 years of job experience. The early years are the most crucial in a person’s career, and also the most sensitive to fluctuations in the job market.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

The Best Line

google-search-supermarket-lines

There is a strategy to picking the quickest line (queue) when checking out at the grocery store (supermarket). It includes one several seemingly counter-intuitive recommendation: get behind a shopper with a full cart (trolley). Other recommendations include: go left; pick female cashiers; and, evaluate the customers ahead of you.

From NYT:

You dash into the supermarket for a few necessities. You figure it will be 10 minutes — tops — before you are done and on your way home.

Then you get to the checkout lanes and they are brimming with shoppers. Your plan for a quick exit begins to evaporate.

But all is not lost.

For anyone who has ever had to stand in line (or if you are a New Yorker, you stand on line) at a supermarket, retailer, bank or anywhere else, here are some tips from experts for picking the line that will move the fastest.

Get behind a shopper who has a full cart

That may seem counterintuitive, but data tell a different story, said Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher who is the chief academic officer at Desmos, where he explores the future of math, technology and learning.

“Every person requires a fixed amount of time to say hello, pay, say goodbye and clear out of the lane,” he said in an email. His research found all of that takes an average of 41 seconds per person and items to be rung up take about three seconds each.

That means getting in line with numerous people who have fewer things can be a poor choice.

Think of it this way: One person with 100 items to be rung up will take an average of almost six minutes to process. If you get in a line with four people who each have 20 items, it will take an average of nearly seven minutes.

Those minutes add up. Richard Larson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is considered the foremost expert on queues, estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in lines.

Go left for faster service

Robert Samuel, founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, a New York-based service that will stand in line for you, said in an email that most people are right-handed and tend to veer to the right.

Look for female cashiers

“This may seem sexist, but I prefer female cashiers,” Mr. Samuel wrote. “In my experience they seem to be the most expedient at register transactions and processing.”

A. J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., suggested checking to see if a cashier was talkative and commenting on every item being scanned. If so, avoid this line “unless there is no one in that line, in which case, just deal with the chatty cashier,” she said in an email.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Trust A Climate Scientist?

infographic-trust-in-climate-scientists-is-low-among-republicans-considerably-higher-among-liberal-democrats

If you trust a climate scientist you are more likely to be a liberal Democrat. And, if you tend to be highly skeptical of climate science, scientific consensus, climate change causes, and even ways to address climate change, then you’re more likely to be a Republican.

A fascinating study from the Pew Research Center sheds more light on the great, polarized divide between the left and the right.

For instance, 70 percent of liberal Democrats “trust climate scientists’ a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.” Further, just over half (54 percent) of liberal Democrats “say climate scientists’ understand the causes of climate change very well”, which compares with only 11 percent of conservative Republicans.

From Pew Research Center:

Political fissures on climate issues extend far beyond beliefs about whether climate change is occurring and whether humans are playing a role, according to a new, in-depth survey by Pew Research Center. These divisions reach across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people’s basic trust in the motivations that drive climate scientists to conduct their research.

Specifically, the survey finds wide political divides in views of the potential for devastation to the Earth’s ecosystems and what might be done to address any climate impacts. There are also major divides in the way partisans interpret the current scientific discussion over climate, with the political left and right having vastly divergent perceptions of modern scientific consensus, differing levels of trust in the information they get from professional researchers, and different views as to whether it is the quest for knowledge or the quest for professional advancement that drives climate scientists in their work.

This survey extensively explores how peoples’ divergent views over climate issues tie with people’s views about climate scientists and their work. Democrats are especially likely to see scientists and their research in a positive light. Republicans are considerably more skeptical of climate scientists’ information, understanding and research findings on climate matters.

Read the entire article here.

Infographic: Trust in climate science is low among Republicans; considerably higher among liberal Democrats. Courtesy: Pew Research Center.

Send to Kindle

MondayMap: Yes. A Magnetic, Foldable Dymaxion Map

dymaxion_map_ocean2

fuller_projection

For a map geek [or are we nerds?] like me a foldable Dymaxion map with a 2D and 3D projection is rather cool. Buckminster Fuller and architect, collaborator Shoji Sadao created this peculiar view of our world over 60 years ago, 1954 to be more precise.

A key advantage of this map was that it was held to be the least distorted of all 2D projections of our 3D globe, and it could also be accurate in three dimensions.

For example, Fuller correctly maintained that his projection has less distortion of relative size of areas compared to the common Mercator projection. It also has less distortion of shapes of areas when compared to the Gall–Peters projection.

Now we can enjoy a magnetic globe version of Fuller and Sadao’s creation courtesy of designer Brendan Ravenhill.

From Wired:

Brendan Ravenhill reimagines the Dymaxion Map as a magnetic globe. Like Fuller’s original map, Ravenhill’s globe can exist in two or three dimensions. Laid flat, it’s a series of 20 triangles that show Fuller’s projection as a single landmass. The back of each triangle features a magnet so you can fold the map into an angular globe. “Really it’s a toy, but a toy that has a lot of resonance and importance,” Ravenhill says.

Fuller made his map endlessly reconfigurable. And while Ravenhill’s design nods to that idea with its partitioned triangles, there’s really only one way to put the puzzle together correctly. “You know you’re doing it wrong if there’s a magnet where Antarctica is supposed to be,” he says.

Read the entire article here.

Images: 1) An icosahedral net showing connected oceans surrounding Antarctica; 2) Unfolded Dymaxion map with nearly contiguous land masses. Courtesy: Wikipedia. CC BY 2.5.

Send to Kindle

We All Need More Hygge

SONY DSC

Trust the Danes to come up with it. Survey after survey often puts Denmark at or near the top of global happiness rankings. Followers of all things happiness put this national contentment down to an ethereal quality known as “hygge“. Just as with most recipes for happiness, hygge is rather difficult to define, but generally I would characterize it as “informal, public coziness with a touch of self-indulgence.” The Danes must know a little about happiness — after all, they did invent Lego.

From the Guardian:

Jeppe Trolle Linnet’s gaze dances around Bang & Jensen, his favourite Copenhagen café-bar, seeking out anything and everything that brings it hygge, that untranslatable quality of places, people and togetherness prized by Danes above almost all else.

“It’s the candles, obviously … the lighting. It’s not like they have big lamps on the ceiling,” he says. Then the furnishings: “You get the feeling that, ‘hmm, this must have been brought in from various places’.” He gestures at the flip-down seats we’re sitting on. “Like an old cinema. So probably someone knew someone. Just by the look of it, it suggests that people here are connected to someone, so the whole place is full of sociality, even when it’s empty.” He rubs the shiny brass where his feet are resting. “And obviously it’s all pretty worn, you feel that if you put your feet up, it wouldn’t really matter.”

Linnet published the first academic paper on hygge five years ago, since when he has become the go-to expert for Danish journalists, particularly around Christmas, when hygge is paramount.

If this is the first you’ve heard of hygge, pronounced “hue-guh” and usually translated as “cosiness”, you are about to hear a whole lot more.

Five books on the subject are hitting the shelves this autumn. There’s The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (subtitled “The Danish way to live well”), out last week. And The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits (subtitled “The Danish art of living well”), out last month. Coming later this week is The Art of Hygge, while How to Hygge and Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way, are both out next month.

“It’s the new black,” laughs Agnete Wulff, whose husband Poul owns Wulff & Konstali Food Shop, reputedly the Danish capital’s most hygge place for breakfast, where I drop in first thing in the morning.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Nyhavn, a 17th-century waterfront lined by brightly colored townhouses, Copenhagen, Denmark. Courtesy: GuoJunjun / Wikipedia.
CC BY-SA 3.0.

Send to Kindle

Philanthrophy and Playing God

I would suspect that most of us, as we age and enter the second half of our fleeting existence, dream of leaving something behind, a legacy of some sort. That something may be an invaluable collection of intangibles: thoughts, ideas and values that we pass on to our children, partners, family and friends. For others the legacy may be more physical and yet still intimate: favorite books, old toys, a battered mug, personal photos, jewelry, a treasured car. And, for others still — usually the much more wealthy among us — the legacy usually involves making a grander exit for a community or even a nation: a newly named wing of a hospital or even an entire building; a donation of art to the nation; an endowment to a favored charity or alma mater; a research chair at the local university; a bequest of land for future generations to enjoy.

During last 25-30 years we have seen the continued expansion of this ultra-wealthy class, the multi-billionaires. Despite some rather vulgar and ostentatious displays of excess, many have pledged to give most of their riches away — while still living — to worthy causes. The philanthropic who’s-who includes: Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, Michael Bloomberg, Zuckerberg/Chan, Paul Allen, to name but a few.

This leads to an interesting question: are our billionaire contemporaries trying to play God?

From the Independent:

Is anyone else left underwhelmed by the unbearable arrogance of Mark Zuckerberg? Not content with saving Africa through his Internet.org project to get “everyone in the continent” online, he’s now decided that his money can eradicate all disease. Not just Alzheimer’s, not just the many variations of cancer, not just HIV, not just the Zika virus, not just rare genetic abnormalities and not just the common cold: all disease, because that’s what $3bn can get you. Why did none of us think of this before?

Following the birth of their first child Max last year, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99 per cent of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Now I have to admit this is slightly more inspiring than the widespread reports Jay Z had decided to stop using the word “bitch” after the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy (a change of heart that was later denied by his publicists, FYI, so expect the B-word to continue populating Jay’s lyrics for the foreseeable future), but it’s still, at best, hopelessly naïve and incredibly American.

It’s a nice idea that if you become rich enough, you can start to play God – but there are clear limits to Zuckerberg’s apparent omnipotence. $3bn is a wonderful gift to medicine, which will undoubtedly be used for some very positive research, facilities and treatments. Zuckerberg and Chan are being wonderfully philanthropic and unselfish in their huge donation of funds. But the Facebook founder’s claim that lots of money can magically render all disease a minor, manageable inconvenience is unnecessarily grandiose. Killer disease will always exist – everybody dies of something – and sometimes accepting your limits is just as important as shooting for the moon.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Iran Versus Macy’s

The NYT recently published an updated compendium of the 281 people, places and things that the Republican nominee for President has insulted via Twitter. It makes for some unbelievable and sometimes humorous reading. Interestingly enough, the “great orange one” has more vitriol to hurl at Macy’s department store (“very disloyal to me”) than at Iran and the recent international nuclear agreement (“Really sad!”).
The Iran nuclear deal international agreement:
Send to Kindle

In Search of the Perfect 100-Year-Old Sandwich

up-to-date-sandwich-book

Cultures the world-over have been wrapping edible delicacies in bread for thousands of years. But for some reason English-speaking nations attribute this concoction to John Montagu, the 18th century 4th Earl of Sandwich. Legend has it that he would demand that his serving staff deliver slices of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could eat one-handed and continue playing his favorite card games and gamble without interruption.

In honor of this remarkable invention, and with apologies to the real inventor(s) and the many precursors to the modern sandwich, the Public Domain Review has published, “The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich“, by Eva Green Fuller in 1909.

Check out the yummy egg sandwiches beginning on page 31. While I’m dubious about some of the fishy sandwiches the author is certainly correct on the first prerequisite for a good sandwich, “perfect bread in suitable condition”.

From Public Domain Review:

Although the sandwich became well established in England, the uptake in the US was a little slow (perhaps in opposition to their former rulers), a sandwich recipe not appearing in an American cookbook until 1815. By 1909 it was a different story, as the wonderfully no-nonsense Up-To-Date Sandwich Book featured here can attest to, a popularity no doubt linked to what made the food form soar amongst the working classes of the British industrial revolution — it was fast, portable, and cheap. As the subtitle betrays, no less than four hundred different sandwiches are detailed in the book.

Image: The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich (1909). Courtesy: Public Domain Review.

Send to Kindle

Morality and a Second Language

Frequent readers will know that I’m intrigued by social science research into the human condition. Well, this collection of studies is fascinating. To summarize the general finding: you are less likely to follow ethical behavior if you happen to be thinking in an acquired, second language. Put another way, you are more moral when you think in your mother tongue.

Perhaps counter-intuitively a moral judgement made in a foreign language requires more cognitive processing power than one made in the language of childhood. Consequently, moral judgements of dubious or reprehensible behavior are likely to be seen as less wrong than those evaluated in native tongue.

I suppose there is a very valuable lesson here: if you plan to do some shoplifting or rob a bank then you should evaluate the pros and cons of your criminal enterprise in the second language that you learned in school.

From Scientific American:

What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language—English or Spanish—was used.)

Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants’ moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle