Saturday, December 3, 2016

Mother Nature Is Brought to You By ...

[ed. There's not a day goes by that I'm not aghast at some new capitulation to capitalism.]

This year, parks in several states including Idaho and Washington, and the National Park Service, will be blazing a new trail, figuratively at least, as they begin offering opportunities to advertisers within their borders.

King County in Washington, which manages 28,000 acres of parkland surrounding Seattle, offers a full branding menu: Naming rights or sponsorships may be had for park trails, benches and even trees. “Make our five million visitors your next customers,” the county urges potential advertisers.

King County already partnered with Chipotle to hide 30 giant replica burritos on parkland bearing the logo of the agency and the restaurant chain. People who found the burritos won prizes from Chipotle.

In May, the National Park Service proposed allowing corporate branding as a matter of “donor recognition.” As The Washington Post reported, under new rules set to go into effect at the end of the year, “an auditorium at Yosemite National Park named after Coke will now be permitted” and “visitors could tour Bryce Canyon in a bus wrapped in the Michelin Man.”

The logic behind these efforts is, in its own way, unimpeachable. Many millions of people — that is, “green consumers” — visit parks every day, representing an unrealized marketing opportunity of great value. Yes, parks are meant to be natural, not commercial, but times are tough, or so say the backers of the new schemes.

The spread of advertising to natural settings is just a taste of what’s coming. Over the next decade, prepare for a new wave of efforts to reach some of the last remaining bastions of peace, quiet and individual focus — like schools, libraries, churches and even our homes.

Some of this reflects technological change, but the real reason is the business model of what I call the “attention merchants.” Unlike ordinary businesses, which sell a product, attention merchants sell people to advertisers. They do so either by finding captive audiences (like at a park or school) or by giving stuff away to gather up consumer data for resale.

Once upon a time, this was a business model largely restricted to television and newspapers, where it remained within certain limits. Over the last decade, though, it has spread to nearly every new technology, and started penetrating spaces long thought inviolate.

In school districts in Minnesota and California, student lockers are sometimes covered by large, banner-style advertisements, so that the school hallways are what marketers call a fully immersive experience. Other schools have allowed advertising inside gymnasiums and on report cards and permission slips. The Associated Press reported this year that a high school near South Bend, Ind., “sold the naming rights to its football field to a bank for $400,000, its baseball field to an auto dealership, its softball field to a law firm, its tennis court to a philanthropic couple and its concession stands to a tire and auto-care company and a restaurant.”

Even megachurches, with their large and loyal congregations, have come to see the upside of “relevant” marketing, yielding the bizarre spectacle of product placements in sermons. In one of the first such efforts, pastors in 2005 were offered a chance to win $1,000 and a trip to London if they mentioned “The Chronicles of Narnia” during services. For the 2013 release of “Superman: Man of Steel,” pastors were supplied with notes for a sermon titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero.”

Nor are our workplaces and social spheres immune. The time and energy we spend socializing with friends and family has, almost incredibly, been harnessed for marketing, through the business models of Facebook, Instagram and other social media. At the office, the most successful of the productivity-killing distraction engines, BuzzFeed, brags of luring a “bored at work” network hundreds of millions strong.

Unfortunately, there is worse yet to come: The nation’s most talented engineers now apply themselves to making marketing platforms out of innovations — A.I. assistants like the Amazon Echo or self-driving cars. Here the intrusions will be subtle, even disguised, so as not to trip our defenses, but they will be even more powerful, going after our very decision-making processes. Consider how much we already depend on Siri or Google Maps: What happens when our most trusted tools have mixed motives?

by Tim Wu, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Tim Enthoven

Killing You Softly With Her Dreams

Arianna Huffington wants to put you to sleep.

In her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Huffington dramatically announces that we are in the middle of an unacknowledged sleep crisis. There is a problem in our society, Huffington tells us: we have forgotten how to sleep. Fortunately, sleepless readers need not fear: Huffington’s handy little book is here to show you how to combat sleeplessness.

Sleep Revolution is written in classic Huffington style: part Deepak Chopra, part Oprah, and strung together with quotes from everyone from Persian poet Rumi to art critic Jonathan Crary to even (bafflingly for a self-described progressive), the anti-immigrant, Brexit-enabling, racist former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The writing, it should go without saying, is bad. A chapter begins: “From the beginning of time, people have struggled with sleep.” In fact, from the beginning of time, sophomore English teachers have been taking red pen to any essay that starts with “from the beginning of time.” Her phrasing is often corny and uses too many exclamation points.

Sleep Revolution is less a book than a business plan, a typical product of the can-do inspiration industry made popular by the likes of Andrew Weil and Suzie Orman, the snake oil salespeople of the 21st century. Like them, Huffington first tells you that you have a problem, one you were unaware you had. She then generously reveals the many products that can help alleviate your symptoms, suggesting plenty of expensive solutions. Huffington has learnt her trade from the best hucksters. She absorbs the techniques of assorted rich people’s gurus, like cult leaders Bhagwan Rajneesh and John-Roger, combining new age verbiage with sly admonitions to give up one’s material wealth (into their outstretched hands, of course).

Huffington undoubtedly possesses a kind of brilliance. It lies not in the quality of her thought or writing, but in her ability to understand and exploit the zeitgeist. The ideas in Sleep Revolution, such as they are, are mostly bits and pieces about sleep deprivation and the problems thereof cribbed and culled from a range of sources (likely the product of several intensive hours of Googling). To be sure, they are banal. And yet Huffington’s book is perfect for our moment in time: it arrives just as capitalism is making many of us more sleepless than ever.

Huffington is never so impolite as to mention that capitalism, which has done well by her and made her a multimillionaire, may be to blame for keeping people working long, sleepless hours. She prefers proposing solutions to diagnosing causes. She tells you to leave your smartphone outside your bedroom, to have warm baths, to disengage. Don’t tackle work emails after a certain time.

Her solutions have the convenient consequence of making you a better worker for your employers, without actually raising your material standard of living. After all, she writes, “it would actually be better for business if employees called in tired, got a little more sleep, and then came in a bit late, rather than call in sick a few days later or, worse, show up sick, dragging themselves through the day while infecting others.” Her advice to her fellow bosses is purely expedient: if the worker drones rest, more labor can be wrung out of them.

This approach to sleep is common in the discourse of “self-care,” in which people are constantly admonished to heal themselves with candles, self-affirmation, and long baths but not told that they can actually revolt against the systems that create their exhaustion in the first place. According to a massive amount of sleep literature, the worst thing we do is not sleep enough, yet that same literature never bothers to wonder what might be keeping us up at night.

Yet many people know full well why they can’t sleep. Many of us juggle multiple jobs to cobble together our livings, and the problem of sleeplessness cuts across class barriers. While those with little or no money battle exhaustion as they travel from job to job, even wealthier people are frequently like hamsters in their wheels, constantly working against the clock to hold on to and add to their fortunes. No matter who you are, under competitive capitalism the rule is the same: You sleep, you lose. Marx once pointed out that capital is vampire-like and feeds on dead labor. But that’s somewhat unfair to vampires. After all, unlike vampires, capital never sleeps.

Capitalism has never slept much, and has always relied on the lack of sleep of millions of workers to be as efficient as possible. In fact, until the invention of the eight-hour day and the weekend (both startlingly new ideas, for which workers had to fight hard) “work” as such simply carried on day by draining day. Even the idea of a legally mandated lunch break is astonishingly recent. (...)

The great irony of Huffington’s new enterprises, which promise both sleep and thriving, is that the Huffington Post itself feeds off the sleeplessness of its writers, people who are compelled to stay up all night in order to read and repost pieces about how sleeplessness is ruining their lives. The Huffington Post is notorious for paying not a single cent for most of its contributions, paying writers solely in illusory “publicity.” By building a hugely popular website on unpaid labor, HuffPo played a major role in establishing the pitiful compensation structure currently faced by online writers. If writers can’t sleep, it’s because they make HuffPo rates, i.e. nothing.

The Sleep Revolution is therefore a work of extraordinary gall. There is no consideration of the structural problems with sleeplessness, no critique of the systems which drive people from their beds toward jobs where they nod off to sleep in exhaustion. Arianna Huffington did not invent the web, but she is among those who created the news that never sleeps, in turn created by aggregators working around the clock, so that you might wake up at midnight or 3 or 4 in the morning, entertained by yet another set of links about Kate Middleton in a red dress or a hammock for your head so you can sleep on the train on the way to work.

by Yasmin Nair, Current Affairs | Read more:
Image:Chris Matthews

Friday, December 2, 2016

Politics 101

Learning From Trump in Retrospect

Donald Trump’s Pollster Says the Election Came Down to Five Counties

Why is "the Decimation of Public Schools" a Bad Thing? [ed. See this response: Contra Robinson on Schooling. Excellent discussion all the way around. Why can't our policy discourse be more like this? I've learned more about the pros and cons of school vouchers and their alternatives in these two articles than I ever imagined possible, or dimly cared about. (And it's fascinating. Really. Be sure to read all the way through Scott Alexander's response, it has a lot of meaningful tangents and just keeps getting better and better).]

Going Diamond

I was seven when my parents joined Amway. Our house filled up with Amway products: boxes of Nutrilite™ vitamins, toaster pastries, Glister™ toothpaste, Artistry™ makeup. We washed our hair with Satinique shampoo; we washed our floors with L.O.C. ™ cleaner; we washed our dishes with Amway-brand dish soap; we strained our drinking water through Amway’s filter. Our friends were Amway. Our vocabulary was Amway. We were ‘Directs’ going ‘Diamond.’ We ‘showed The Plan’ to anyone who listened.

We drove to Miami for ‘functions’ at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Thousands of people attended, all packed into the big ballroom with lights turned up and people dancing in the aisles, getting ‘fired up’ to Calloway’s ‘I Wanna Be Rich,’ which blasted over the speakers. We clapped our hands and sang along. (...)

We drove our teal ’88 Oldsmobile Delta to the Bayou Club Estates for our requisite ‘dreambuilding’ and toured the brand-new houses: big mansions with tall, echoing ceilings and screened-in pools, shiny state-of-the-art kitchens, garages big enough for three Mercedes, a golf course in the back, vanity mirrors and crystal fixtures in every bathroom. We drove to the yacht dealer and toured the Princesses and the Prestiges, lying on cabin beds and ascending the wooden stairs to stand on pulpits, gazing toward imagined horizons.

Amway is a multilevel marketing corporation. Some call it a pyramid scheme. In 2015, its parent company, Alticor, claimed transglobal sales of $9.5 billion. It is the biggest direct-selling company in the world. Distributors make money by signing up other distributors and – somewhere in the background – ‘selling’ Amway products. It’s not exactly clear how Amway products should reach the public. That isn’t part of Amway’s marketing plan; The Plan mostly teaches distributors how to sign up other distributors, to whom they then distribute Amway products, who then distribute Amway products to other distributors they sign up, and onward. Amway has been the target, along with its affiliate companies, of multimillion-dollar lawsuits and other legal actions on almost every continent.

Four years after joining Amway, my parents came to their senses. There was L.O.C. ™ cleaner in our closet for years while we pretended Amway never happened.

But every time I drive past the Bayou Club, I can’t help wondering what it would have been like to go Diamond. Once considered the highest Pin Level – above Silver, Gold, Platinum, Ruby, Pearl, Sapphire and Emerald – Diamond status was what I had craved. It was what I’d believed was success. After all, less than 1 percent of Amway distributors go Diamond.

Silverthorn Road, Seminole, FL33777
4 bed, 4 bath, 5,144 sq. ft.

We’ve gone Diamond. ‘We’re buying a house in the Bayou Club. We’re starting a family,’ we tell the Realtor.

The first we see is in the Estates section. Croton in the front yard, Alexander palms and twisting cypress – all yards are maintained by the Bayou Club’s landscapers, she says. Each yard must coordinate with every other yard, to meet color-palette standards that coordinate with every house. You pay $137 a month for this privilege, another $205 for security and maintenance of common areas.

This house has two stories, an office and a loft, bamboo floors, a three-car garage, a pool.

‘You can see we’re getting the screens fixed,’ the Realtor says, pointing to the men working beyond the glass. She has piercing blue eyes. Processed blonde hair. She has French-tipped nails, diamond rings on all fingers, and a gold-and-diamond necklace. She wears a white semi sheer shirt, black-and-white-printed leisure pants, black eyeliner and heavy mascara. ‘We’re just putting some finishing touches on the place.’

I approach the French doors. The pool is bordered by stocky palms and, beyond them, the twelfth fairway. There is nothing like a yard.

‘Can children play on the golf course?’ I ask.

‘No, it’s private,’ she says. ‘And unless you don’t love your children, you don’t let them play on the golf course because they’ll be golf ball magnets.’

My husband chuckles.

‘And the golf course is private,’ she says again. ‘You have to join the club. If a golfer sees a child out there running around, they will call the golf ranger to chase them because they interfere with the game of play.

‘Do you play?’ she asks my husband.

‘No, but family does.’

‘We pay for golf privileges and we don’t like people on the golf course. We like our fairways nice and even.’

I wonder where the children play. The front yard is tiny. There’s barely any grass.

‘So the kids play out front,’ she continues. ‘And you know what? They do. When a child goes outside, he brings other kids out. We’re very strict about our speed limit here.’

‘I noticed the speed bumps,’ I say.

‘There are no speed bumps,’ she says, and I feel embarrassed. ‘If you came through Bardmoor, next door, there are bumps, but there are no bumps in Bayou Club. A lot of people have low-profile cars. We control our speed through our rover, who shoots radar. The fines are strict.’

‘Is there a neighborhood watch?’ asks my husband.

‘We have two security guards: one that roves the community 24/7 and one that stays at the gate,’ she says. ‘It’s not a hundred percent safe because if somebody wanted to come through Bardmoor, hop that fence in the middle of the night, and intrude on your house, nothing’s going to stop them. That gate out front is not going to stop them.’

‘It’s hardly even a gate,’ I say.

‘Your car won’t get through it,’ she says. ‘They might steal your jewelry, but they’re not stealing any big items.’

‘It has the illusion of security,’ says my husband.

If it’s not your family who brings you in, it’s probably a friend. For my dad, it was a manager at one of the car dealerships for which he handled advertising. The man’s business comprised almost half of my dad’s income. Over time, they’d developed a friendship. You’d think my dad would be immune to Amway, given his familiarity with advertising’s insidious ways. But how does the saying go? A good salesman can sell you your own grandmother.

My parents and I were solidly middle class when we collided with Amway. We owned our home. We lived in a safe neighborhood where I could play outside without supervision and walk home alone after the sun went down. We always kept an excess of food in the house. I got new shoes whenever I outgrew my old pair. I received new toys when my old ones broke and new books when I finished reading the ones I had. I went to gymnastics practice four times a week, singing lessons once a week, camp over the summer, and back-to-school shopping in the fall. We didn’t need Amway.

But that didn’t matter. In Amway, there’s no such thing as contentment.

If you’re happy with what you have, you haven’t dreamed, says Amway. Your life could be faster, shinier, brighter, more spacious – don’t settle for less. Join Amway.

You could drive a Jaguar instead of your crappy Oldsmobile. You could build a custom home – don’t settle for that two-bit shotgun you have. If you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished so far in your life, don’t be. Think bigger. Do better. If you don’t believe you can – trust Amway. Amway believes in you.

Nothing was wrong with our life before Amway – we didn’t join it to fill a void. We were happy, until we were told we could be happier.

by Sarah Gerard, Granta |  Read more:
Image: Sarah Gerard

Linda Vachon


On Nov. 25, 1963, three days after becoming the world’s most famous widow, Jacqueline Kennedy slipped on a mourning veil. A diaphanous shroud reaching to her waist, it moved lightly as she walked behind her husband’s coffin in the cortege that traveled from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. The veil was transparent enough to reveal her pale face, though not entirely, ensuring that she was at once visible and obscured. “I don’t like to hear people say that I am poised and maintaining a good appearance,” she later said. “I am not a movie actress.”

Intensely affecting and insistently protean, the film “Jackie” is a reminder that for a time she was bigger than any star, bigger than Marilyn or Liz. She was the Widow — an embodiment of grief, symbol of strength, tower of dignity and, crucially, architect of brilliant political theater. Hers was also a spectacularly reproducible image. It’s no wonder that shortly after President John F. Kennedy died, Andy Warhol started on more than 300 portraits of the Widow, juxtaposing photographs of her taken before and after the assassination. She smiles in a few, in others she looks frozen (or is it stoic?); the ones that pop are tight close-ups. They look like frames for an unfinished motion picture.

“Jackie” doesn’t try to complete that impossible, apparently unfinishable movie, the never-ending epic known as “The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and What It Means to History.” Instead, set largely after his death, it explores the intersection of the private and the public while ruminating on the transformation of the past into myth. It also pulls off a nice representational coup because it proves that the problem known as the Movie Wife — you know her, the little lady hovering at the edge of both the frame and story — can be solved with thought and good filmmaking. And as in Warhol’s Jackie portraits, John F. Kennedy is somewhat of a bit player here.

Jack suaves in now and again, flashing his big teeth (he’s played by an uncanny look-alike, Caspar Phillipson), but as the film’s title announces, it’s all about her. Jackie (Natalie Portman, perfect) first appears at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. It’s soon after Jack’s death and she’s taken refuge in another white house, this one along Nantucket Sound. If its large windows suggest transparency, her tight face and coiled body relay that she has other plans for the unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), who’s come to write about how she feels and what it means. In some roles, Ms. Portman stiffens up and never seems to get out of her head; in “Jackie” this works as a character trait.

The journalist is a chilly, unsympathetic fictional gloss on the writer Theodore H. White. On Nov. 29, 1963, one week after cradling her dying husband’s head in her lap, Mrs. Kennedy gave an interview to White that he said lasted about four hours. Originally titled “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” White’s article ran in Life magazine and was an exemplar of impressively marketable mythmaking — it inaugurated the Camelot fairy tale. White knew Kennedy, having written “The Making of the President, 1960,” an account of his presidential campaign. But the Widow was another matter entirely, and in his interview notes White scrawled the words “What does a woman think?” (...)

The White interview thrusts the story into the past, teleporting Jackie, for instance, onto Air Force One, where — with her back to the camera — she primps in a mirror while practicing an apparent speech in Spanish for the imminent Dallas trip. Dressed in her pink Chanel suit, she puts on her pillbox hat, as if ready for her entrance. The suit’s bright color gives the film a visual jolt, much like the deep-red roses that someone places in Jackie’s arms after she and Jack deplane. Some of the most famous photos from that day, like those of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One, are in black and white, so it’s easy to miss that the smudges that later appeared on the pink suit were splatters of blood.

by Manohla Dargis, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Natalie Portman in "Jackie"

While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks

Snap Inc., the parent company of the popular photo-messaging and storytelling app Snapchat, is having a productive autumn.

A couple of weeks ago, Snap filed confidential documents for a coming stock offering that could value the firm at $30 billion, which would make it one of the largest initial public offerings in recent years. Around the same time, it began selling Spectacles, sunglasses that can record video clips, which have become one of the most sought-after gadgets of the season.

And yet, even when it’s grabbing headlines, it often seems as if Snap gets little respect.

Though Snapchat has overtaken Twitter in terms of daily users to become one of the most popular social networks in the world, it has not attracted the media attention that the 140-character platform earns, perhaps because journalists and presidential candidates don’t use it very much. Snapchat’s news division has become a popular and innovative source of information for young people, but it is rarely mentioned in the hand-wringing over how social media affected the presidential election.

And because Snapchat is used primarily by teenagers and 20-somethings, and it seems deliberately designed to frustrate anyone over 25, it is often dismissed as a frivolity by older people (especially readers of a certain newspaper based in New York who have my email address).

This is all wrong. If you secretly harbor the idea that Snapchat is frivolous or somehow a fad, it’s time to re-examine your certainties. In fact, in various large and small ways, Snap has quietly become one of the world’s most innovative and influential consumer technology companies.

Snap, which is based far outside the Silicon Valley bubble, in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, is pushing radically new ideas about how humans should interact with computers. It is pioneering a model of social networking that feels more intimate and authentic than the Facebook-led ideas that now dominate the online world. Snap’s software and hardware designs, as well as its marketing strategies, are more daring than much of what we’ve seen from tech giants, including Apple.

Snap’s business model, which depends on TV-style advertising that (so far) offers marketers fewer of the data-targeted options pioneered by web giants like Google, feels refreshingly novel. And perhaps most important, its model for entertainment and journalism values human editing and curation over stories selected by personalization algorithms — and thus represents a departure from the filtered, viral feeds that dominate much of the rest of the online news environment.

Snap is still relatively small; its 150 million daily user base pales in comparison to Facebook’s 1.2 billion, and its success is far from assured. In its novelty, it can sometimes veer toward the bizarre and inscrutable. And it’s not obvious that all of its advances are positive. (For instance, I’m not sure that it’s always better for our relationships to lose a record of our chats with friends.)

Yet it’s no wonder that Facebook and its subsidiaries appear obsessed with imitating Snap. As a font of ideas that many in the tech industry hadn’t considered before, Snap isn’t just popular, but also increasingly important.

“Regardless of what happens, they’ve reshaped the social media landscape,” said Joseph B. Bayer, a communications professor at Ohio State University who has studied Snapchat’s impact on how people communicate. “They’re making risky moves, trying to rethink what people want online as opposed to taking what’s already been done and adding a new flash.”

Techies value disruption, and it’s difficult to think of another online company that has shuffled the status quo as consistently as Snap has over the past few years.

Before Snapchat, the industry took for granted that everything users posted to the internet should remain there by default. Saving people’s data — and then constantly re-examining it to create new products and advertising — is the engine that supports behemoths like Google and Facebook.

At its founding in 2011, Snap pushed a new way: By default, the pictures posted through Snapchat are viewable for only a short time. At the time, it was a head-scratching idea, one that many assumed was good only for sexting. To the tech industry’s surprise, disappearing messages captivated users who had been afraid that their momentary digital actions might follow them around forever.

Snapchat’s “ephemeral” internet — which has since been imitated by lots of other companies, including, most recently, Instagram — did not just usher in a new idea for online privacy. It also altered what had once been considered a sacred law of online interaction: virality.

Every medium that has ever been popular online — from email to the web to social networks like Facebook — has been pervaded by things that are passed along from one user to another. This is not the case on Snapchat. Though Snapchat has introduced some limited means of forwarding people’s snaps, the short life of every snap means there is no obvious means for any single piece of content to become a viral hit within the app. (...)

There is, instead, a practiced authenticity. The biggest stars — even Kylie Jenner — get ahead by giving you deep access to their real lives. As a result, much of what you see on Snapchat feels less like a performance than on other networks. People aren’t fishing for likes and follows and reshares. For better or worse, they’re trying to be real.

by Farhad Manjoo, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Rebecca Smeyne

52 things I learned in 2016

My first full year working at Fluxx on a series of fascinating projects and learning about...
  1. Call Me Baby is a call centre for cybercriminals who need a human voice as part of a scam. They charge $10 for each call in English, and $12 for calls in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. [Brian Krebs]
  2. Google’s advertising tools can track real-world shop visits. If a customer sees an ad then visits the relevant store a few days later, that conversion will appear in Google Adwords. Customers are tracked via (anonymised) Google Maps data. They’ve been doing this since 2014. [Matt Lawson]
  3. In a mixed-gender group, when women talk 25% of the time or less, it’s seen as being “equally balanced”. If women talk 25–50% of the time, they’re seen as “dominating the conversation” [Caitlin Moran]
  4. In July, 800,000 volunteers planted 49 million trees in Uttar Pradesh, India. [Brian Clark Howard]
  5. Forty per cent of adults (aged 16 to 60) in OECD countries can’t use a computer well enough to delete an email. [Jakob Nielsen]
  6. A Japanese insurance company is offering policies that cover social media backlash. [Tyler Cowen]
  7. Abu Dhabi numberplate “1” sold for Dh31m (£6.8m) in November. However, the cheque bounced, and the buyer was arrested. [Asma Samir and Tom Crampton]
  8. Australian musicians have performed with a synthesiser controlled by a petri dish of live human neurons: “The neurons were fed dopamine before the gig and went ballistic. The interaction with the drummer was very tight. The drum hits are processed into triggers and sent to the neurons.” [Andrew Finch and Guy Ben-Ary]
  9. Less than 20% of Tencent’s (the creator of WeChat) revenues come from advertising, compared to over 95% for Facebook. [Connie Chan]
  10. Opendoor is a controversial startup with this simple offer: “We’ll buy your home for market price, based off an algorithm, within 72 hours.” [Real Estate Pundit]
  11. There are six million iPhones in Iran, despite them being banned by both the Iranian government and international sanctions. [Christopher Schroeder]
  12. Pork scratchings are good for you. [Michael Ruhlman]
  13. The percentage of older Americans with dementia has fallen by almost 25% since 2000. In other words, a million fewer people had dementia in 2012 than we’d have expected in 2000. [Sharon Begley]
  14. A Californian company called Skinny Mirror sells mirrors that make you look thinner. When installed in the changing rooms of clothes shops, they can increase sales by 18%. [Kim Bhasin]
  15. “Bangladesh was hit by a massive cyclone in May. Half a million people were evacuated, and thanks to early warning systems and shelters, only 23 people died. Cyclone deaths in the country have fallen by 98 percent since the systems were developed following a 1991 cyclone in which 140,000 people died.” The system involves 2,500 huge concrete cyclone shelters that are also used as schools. [Charles Kenny + watch this video about the Indian version of the shelters]
  16. In Hong Kong, you can buy a $15,000 device called an IMSI Catcher which harvests the mobile phone numbers of everyone walking past, collecting up to 1,200 numbers a minute. [Ben Bryant]
by Tom Whitwell, Fluxx |  Read more:
Image: carving apples at a Blenheim Forge workshop in April.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

What is Hawaii?

[ed. I've read some of Paul Theroux's other books and just got done reading Hotel Honolulu. It was entertaining. I have to say though, if you haven't grown up there, you will never completely get it (Hawaii). So much has to do with growing up in the culture. The shared experiences, customs, diversity, history, economics, isolation (among other things) all contribute to a unique and somewhat autonomous society. Usually, the first question anyone asks when introduced to someone else is: what high school did you go to? It's the basic context for establishing shared trust and communication.]

Hawaii offers peculiar challenges to anyone wishing to write about the place or its people. Of course, many writers do, arriving for a week or so and gushing about the beaches, the excellent food, the heavenly weather, filling travel pages with holiday hyperbole. Hawaii has a well-deserved reputation as a special set of islands, a place apart, fragrant with blossoms, caressed by trade winds, vibrant with the plucking of ukuleles, effulgent with sunshine spanking the water—see how easy it is? None of this is wrong; but there is more, and it is difficult to find or describe. (...)

One of the traits that I’ve found in many island cultures is a deep suspicion of the outsiders, palangi, as such people are called in Samoa, suggesting they’ve dropped from the sky; a haole in Hawaii, meaning “of another breath”; the “wash-ashore” as non-islanders are dismissively termed in Martha’s Vineyard and other islands. Of course it’s understandable that an islander would regard a visitor with a degree of suspicion. An island is a fixed and finite piece of geography, and usually the whole place has been carved up and claimed. It is inconceivable that a newcomer, invariably superfluous, could bring a benefit to such a place; suspicion seems justified. The very presence of the visitor, the new arrival, the settler, suggests self-interest and scheming. (...)

I have lived in Hawaii for 22 years, and in this time have also traveled the world, writing books and articles about Africa, Asia, South America, the Mediterranean, India and elsewhere. Though I have written a number of fictional pieces, including a novel, Hotel Honolulu, set in Hawaii, I have struggled as though against monster surf to write nonfiction about the islands. I seldom read anything that accurately portrayed in an analytical way the place in which I have chosen to live. I have been in Hawaii longer than anywhere else in my life. I’d hate to die here, I murmured to myself in Africa, Asia and Britain. But I wouldn’t mind dying in Hawaii, which means I like living here.

Some years ago, I spent six months attempting to write an in-depth piece for a magazine describing how Hawaiian culture is passed from one generation to the other. I wrote the story, after a fashion, but the real tale was how difficult it was to get anyone to talk to me. I went to a charter school on the Big Island, in which the Hawaiian language was used exclusively, though everyone at the place was bilingual. Aware of the protocol, I gained an introduction from the headmaster of the adjoining school. After witnessing the morning assembly where a chant was offered, and a prayer, and a stirring song, I approached a teacher and asked if she would share with me a translation of the Hawaiian words I had just heard. She said she’d have to ask a higher authority. Never mind the translation, I said; couldn’t she just write down the Hawaiian versions?

“We have to go through the proper channels,” she said.

That was fine with me, but in the end permission to know the words was refused. I appealed to a Hawaiian language specialist, Hawaiian himself, who had been instrumental in the establishment of such Hawaiian language immersion schools. He did not answer my calls or messages, and in the end, when I pressed him, he left me with a testy, not to say xenophobic, reply.

I attended a hula performance. Allusive and sinuous, it cast a spell on me and on all the people watching, who were misty-eyed with admiration. When it was over I asked the kumu hula, the elder woman who had taught the dancers, if I could ask her some questions.

She said no. When I explained that I was writing about the process by which Hawaiian tradition was passed on, she merely shrugged. I persisted mildly and her last and scornful words to me were, “I don’t talk to writers.”

“You need an introduction,” I was told.

I secured an introduction from an important island figure, and I managed a few interviews. One sneeringly reminded me that she would not have bestirred herself to see me had it not been for the intervention of this prominent man. Another gave me truculent answers. Several expressed the wish to be paid for talking to me, and when I said it was out of the question they became stammeringly monosyllabic.

Observing protocol, I had turned up at each interview carrying a present—a large jar of honey from my own beehives on the North Shore of Oahu. No one expressed an interest in the origin of the honey (locally produced honey is unusually efficacious as a homeopathic remedy). No one asked where I was from or anything about me. It so happened that I had arrived from my house in Hawaii, but I might have come from Montana: No one asked or cared. They did not so much answer as endure my questions.

Much later, hearing that I had beehives, some Hawaiians about to set off on a canoe voyage asked if I would give them 60 pounds of my honey to use as presents on distant Pacific islands they planned to visit. I supplied the honey, mildly expressing a wish to board the canoe and perhaps accompany them on a day run. Silence was their stern reply: And I took this to mean that though my honey was local, I was not.

I was not dismayed: I was fascinated. I had never in my traveling or writing life come across people so unwilling to share their experiences. Here I was living in a place most people thought of as Happyland, when in fact it was an archipelago with a social structure that was more complex than any I had ever encountered—beyond Asiatic. One conclusion I reached was that in Hawaii, unlike any other place I had written about, people believed that their personal stories were their own, not to be shared, certainly not to be retold by someone else. Virtually everywhere else people were eager to share their stories, and their candor and hospitality had made it possible for me to live my life as a travel writer. (...)

But it wasn’t just native Hawaiians who denied me access or rebuffed me. I began to see that the whole of Hawaii is secretive and separated, socially, spacially, ethnically, philosophically, academically. Even the University of Hawaii is insular and uninviting, a place unto itself, with little influence in the wider community and no public voice—no commentator, explainer, nothing in the way of intellectual intervention or mediation. It is like a silent and rather forbidding island, and though it regularly puts on plays and occasionally a public lecture, it is in general an inward-looking institution, esteemed locally not for its scholarship but for its sports teams.

by Paul Theroux, Smithsonian |  Read more:
Image: Jacques Descloitres / Modis Land Rapid Response Team / NASA GSFC)

Barbara McCann

Humanity’s Greatest Fear is About Being Irrelevant

Genevieve Bell is an Australian anthropologist who has been working at tech company Intel for 18 years, where she is currently head of sensing and insights. She has given numerous TED talks and in 2012 was inducted into the Women in Technology hall of fame. Between 2008 and 2010, she was also South Australia’s thinker in residence.

Why does a company such as Intel need an anthropologist?

That is a question I’ve spent 18 years asking myself. It’s not a contradiction in terms, but it is a puzzle. When they hired me, I think they understood something that not everyone in the tech industry understood, which was that technology was about to undergo a rapid transformation. Computers went from being on an office desk spewing out Excel to inhabiting our homes and lives and we needed to have a point of view about what that was going to look like. It was incredibly important to understand the human questions: such as, what on earth are people going to do with that computational power. If we could anticipate just a little bit, that would give us a business edge and the ability to make better technical decisions. But as an anthropologist that’s a weird place to be. We tend to be rooted in the present – what are people doing now and why? – rather than long-term strategic stuff. (...)

You are often described as a futurologist. A lot of people are worried about the future. Are they right to be concerned?

That technology is accompanied by anxiety is not a new thing. We have anxieties about certain types of technology and there are reasons for that. We’re coming up to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the images in it have persisted.

Shelley’s story worked because it tapped into a set of cultural anxieties. The Frankenstein anxiety is not the reason we worried about the motor car or electricity, but if you think about how some people write about robotics, AI and big data, those concerns have profound echoes going back to the Frankenstein anxieties 200 years ago.

What is the Frankenstein anxiety?

Western culture has some anxieties about what happens when humans try to bring something to life, whether it’s the Judeo-Christian stories of the golem or James Cameron’s The Terminator.

So what is the anxiety about? My suspicion is that it’s not about the life-making, it’s about how we feel about being human. What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us? And that concern isn’t universal, as other cultures have very different responses to AI, to big data. The most obvious one to me would be the Japanese robotic tradition, where people are willing to imagine the role of robots as far more expansive than you find in the west. For example, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori published a book called The Buddha in the Robot, where he suggests that robots would be better Buddhists than humans because they are capable of infinite invocations. So are you suggesting that robots could have religion? It’s an extraordinary provocation.

So you don’t agree with Stephen Hawking when he says that AI is likely “either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity”?

Mori’s argument was that we project our own anxieties and when we ask: “Will the robots kill us?”, what we are really asking is: “Will we kill us?” Coming from a Japanese man who lived through the 20th century that might not be an unreasonable question. He wonders what would happen if we were to take as our starting point that technology could be our best angels, not our worst – it’s an interesting thought exercise. When I see some of the big thinkers of our day contemplating the arc of artificial intelligence, what I see is not necessarily a critique of the technology itself but a critique of us. We are building the engines, so what we build into them is what they will be. The question is not will AI rise up and kill us, rather, will we give it the tools to do so? (...)

A lot of the work you do examines the intersection between the intended use of a device and how people actually use it – and examining the disconnection. Could you talk about something you’re researching at the moment?

I’m interested in how animals are connected to the internet and how we might be able to see the world from an animal’s point of view. There’s something very interesting in someone else’s vantage point, which might have a truth to it. For instance, the tagging of cows for automatic milking machines, so that the cows can choose when to milk themselves. Cows went from being milked twice a day to being milked three to six times a day, which is great for the farm’s productivity and results in happier cows, but it’s also faintly disquieting that the technology makes clear to us the desires of cows – making them visible in ways they weren’t before. So what does one do with that knowledge? One of the unintended consequences of big data and the internet of things is that some things will become visible and compel us to confront them.

by Ian Tucker, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Leah Nash/NYT/Eyevine

Free Software Makes Any Car Self-Driving

Here is a strategy for start-ups dealing with regulators who might shut down your product: Make it free.

Scrappy self-driving car start-up released a free software kit on Wednesday to help developers learn to build a device that can turn any car into an autonomous vehicle. The year-old company, which is founded by a well-known hacker and backed by prominent Silicon Valley investors, hopes to accelerate the development of self-driving cars while skirting the ire of Washington.

The move raises questions of how the United States should foster innovation for promising technologies that also carry great risks. Experts say self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of accidents of the roadway, most of which are caused by human errors. But Comma’s self-driving kit has only logged roughly 5,000 miles of road time, a number that is effectively a useless barometer for judging safety, said John Simpson, of the safety advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.

The announcement also reflects the types of maneuvering start-ups are increasingly engaging in as they chart a path in heavily regulated sectors of the economy. A wave of companies in areas such as housing, DNA testing and aerospace is weighing whether to work with officials or to follow the playbook of companies such as Uber and Airbnb — asking forgiveness, but not permission, and seeing where the chips fall.

In Comma’s case, the strategy was an end run around the rulemakers.

When’s founder, George Hotz, announced his plan to sell a do-it-yourself self-driving software and hardware kit for $999 at a large industry conference this fall, the tech world was giddy with excitement. While large automakers and technology giants have poured billions into autonomous vehicles, Comma’s tech would have dramatically lowered the bar for entry. (...)

“We want to be the Android operating system for self-driving cars,” Hotz said at a news conference Wednesday, held in the company's garage in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Hotz was referring to the open-source smartphone operating system, which has become ubiquitous because it is free and developers can easily innovate on it.

The code, which is available on the open-source collaboration platform GitHub, allows anyone (but really, hardcore hackers) to build a dashcam-like device that they can set up in their car. The device plugs into a port in the car called a controller area network, or BUS (in most cars built after 2006). Users must build the device with a 3-D printer and have an Android OnePlus 3 phone to run the code and provide the camera that can scan the road.

by Elizabeth Dwoskin, WP | Read more:
Image:Brian Fung

Psilocybin Could be Key to Treating Depression

A single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, can lift the anxiety and depression experienced by people with advanced cancer for six months or even longer, two new studies show.

Researchers involved in the two trials in the United States say the results are remarkable. The volunteers had “profoundly meaningful and spiritual experiences” which made most of them rethink life and death, ended their despair and brought about lasting improvement in the quality of their lives.

The results of the research are published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology together with no less than ten commentaries from leading scientists in the fields of psychiatry and palliative care, who all back further research. While the effects of magic mushrooms have been of interest to psychiatry since the 1950s, the classification of all psychedelics in the US as schedule 1 drugs in the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam war and the rise of recreational drug use in the hippy counter-culture, has erected daunting legal and financial obstacles to running trials.

“I think it is a big deal both in terms of the findings and in terms of the history and what it represents. It was part of psychiatry and vanished and now it’s been brought back,” said Dr Stephen Ross, director of addiction psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center and lead investigator of the study that was based there.

Around 40-50% of newly diagnosed cancer patients suffer some sort of depression or anxiety. Antidepressants have little effect, particularly on the “existential” depression that can lead some to feel their lives are meaningless and contemplate suicide.

The main findings of the NYU study, which involved 29 patients, and the larger one from Johns Hopkins University with 51 patients, that a single dose of the medication can lead to immediate reduction in the depression and anxiety caused by cancer and that the effect can last up to eight months, “is unprecedented,” said Ross. “We don’t have anything like it.”

The results of the studies were very similar, with around 80% of the patients attributing moderately or greatly improved wellbeing or life satisfaction to a single high dose of the drug, given with psychotherapy support. (...)

Patients describe the experiences as “re-organisational”, said Griffiths. Some in the field had used the term “mystical”, which he thought was unfortunate. “It sounds unscientific. It sounds like we’re postulating mechanisms other than neuroscience and I’m certainly not making that claim.”

Ross said psilocybin activates a sub-type of serotonin receptor in the brain. “Our brains are hard-wired to have these kinds of experiences - these alterations of consciousness. We have endogenous chemicals in our brain. We have a little system that, when you tickle it, it produces these altered states that have been described as spiritual states, mystical states in different religious branches. (...)

The commentators writing in the journal include two past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association, the past president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, a previous deputy director of the Office of USA National Drug Control Policy and a previous head of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority.

The journal editor, Professor David Nutt, was himself involved in a small trial of psilocybin in a dozen people with severe depression in the UK in May. The ten commentators in the journal, he writes in an editorial, “all essentially say the same thing: it’s time to take psychedelic treatments in psychiatry and oncology seriously, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s.”

by Sarah Boseley, The Guardian | Read more:
Image:NYU Langone Medical Center

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

We Asked 8,500 Internet Commenters Why They Do What They Do

My fascination with internet comments began as exasperation. I’d just written a short article that began with a quote from the movie “Blazing Saddles”: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” After the story published, I quickly heard from readers explaining that, actually, the quote was originally from an earlier movie, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” The thing was, I’d included that information in the article.

This was no isolated case: I soon published another story that mentioned, by name, a program called parkrun, and yet I got about a half dozen emails from people helpfully informing me of this cool thing called parkrun.

These episodes represented only a single type of comment, but they got me wondering about commenting more broadly. Only a small subset of readers ever comment. What compels them to take the time to weigh in? To learn more about the reasons that people comment, I collected data from two sources — an analysis of the comments here at FiveThirtyEight and a surveyof more than 8,500 people. What I learned shifted my views about commenters and gave me some interesting insights into the hive mind.

Why comment?

The first thing I wanted to know was, why comment? What exactly are commenters seeking? A survey like ours isn’t perfect since it’s inevitably biased toward the subset of people most inclined to answer an internet survey (and, of course, self-reported results are notoriously unreliable). But it does provide a peek into people’s motivation. Our survey takers gave a wide range of answers, and my colleague Leah Libresco randomly sampled 500 of them and sorted them into categories describing their motivations.

Our respondents’ reasons for commenting mirror the results of a recent survey of 600 news commenters by Talia Jomini Stroud and her colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin’s Engaging News Project. In their survey, the top three reasons that people gave for commenting were “to express an emotion or opinion,” “to add information” or “to correct inaccuracies or misinformation.”

The bikes-and-dogs theory

Certain stories seem to generate a disproportionate number of comments, and after years of being on the receiving end of comments, I’ve formed a theory: The subjects most likely to elicit impassioned responses are those that feel personal to the reader (a real-life experience with the subject has made them feel like an expert) and those that hit on identity in some way. It’s based on something a newspaper reporter in Boulder told me many years ago. Back then, readers were still mailing letters to the editor, and they had a seemingly endless appetite to debate two things: who was at fault in conflicts between cars and bikes and whether dogs should be allowed to run unleashed on city trails.

To test this theory, I asked readers about the circumstances that made them most likely to comment. The answers lent at least some support to the bikes-and-dogs theory. But respondents’ reasons were more complex than my one, unified theory; commenters were also driven by a desire to provide their own information or to argue against an idea they disagreed with.

How low do we go?

Since I started down this road after receiving comments from people who hadn’t read (or absorbed) the whole article, I also asked survey takers how closely they read a story before commenting.

Here again, I had a hypothesis: Maybe this commenting-without-reading phenomenon represents a variation of the backfire effect, in which a person who receives evidence that their belief is erroneous actually becomes more strongly convinced of the viewpoint they already held. In this case, the reader sees a headline that catches their interest and reminds them of something that they already know, which triggers them to think about their pre-existing knowledge or belief about the subject and then to blast it out to the world. The article they’re reading doesn’t inform them, it just provides an opportunity for them to reinforce (and broadcast) what they already know. I ran my theory by Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who has studied the backfire effect. He told me it “seems plausible,” but said he wasn’t aware of any research testing this idea, “so in the spirit of your piece, I probably shouldn’t comment on it!”

When asked if they generally read the whole article before commenting, a few respondents to our survey said they only skimmed or didn’t read past the headline, but the vast majority of them reported that they read the story in its entirety.

That sounds encouraging, but I’m reluctant to take these answers at face value after talking to David Dunning, who’s a psychologist at the University of Michigan and one of the researchers known for identifying the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that, as the paper introducing the effect puts it, causes people to “fail to recognize their own incompetence.” “People are notoriously bad at comprehending what they’ve actually comprehended from text,” he said. “The correlation between what people think they’ve read and what they’ve actually read is quite small.” In a classic 1982 study, researchers asked study subjects to read a text that contained blatant contradictions and found that subjects who failed to find the contradictions still rated their comprehension as high. This could explain all those “stinking badges” comments.

by Christie Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight | Read more:
Image: Merjin Hos