Friday, March 25, 2016

[ed. I'll be taking a short break. See you later next week.]

Microsoft's Twitter Chat Robot Quickly Devolves Into Racist, Homophobic, Nazi, Obama-Bashing Psychopath

Two months ago, Stephen Hawking warned humanity that its days may be numbered: the physicist was among over 1,000 artificial intelligence experts who signed an open letter about the weaponization of robots and the ongoing "military artificial intelligence arms race."

Overnight we got a vivid example of just how quickly "artificial intelligence" can spiral out of control when Microsoft's AI-powered Twitter chat robot, Tay, became a racist, misogynist, Obama-hating, antisemitic, incest and genocide-promoting psychopath when released into the wild.

For those unfamiliar, Tay is, or rather was, an A.I. project built by the Microsoft Technology and Research and Bing teams, in an effort to conduct research on conversational understanding. It was meant to be a bot anyone can talk to online. The company described the bot as “Microsoft’s A.I. fam the internet that’s got zero chill!."

Microsoft initially created "Tay" in an effort to improve the customer service on its voice recognition software. According to MarketWatch, "she” was intended to tweet “like a teen girl” and was designed to “engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation.”

The chat algo is able to perform a number of tasks, like telling users jokes, or offering up a comment on a picture you send her, for example. But she’s also designed to personalize her interactions with users, while answering questions or even mirroring users’ statements back to them.

This is where things quickly turned south.

by Tyler Durden, Zerohedge |  Read more:
Image: Twitter

Thursday, March 24, 2016


Set in a nameless country at an undisclosed time in history, “The Hunger Artist” concerns a man who starves himself not for his art—as the old adage goes—but as a form of art. His abstinence becomes fodder for public consumption. In the opening pages, we’re told that the hunger artist travels to little hamlets and villages across the country, where he puts on performances in town squares. For forty days at a time, he sits inside a barred metal cage whose floor has been padded with straw, and sips from a thimble of water, not as a form of nourishment but rather to “moisten his lips.” Hordes of eager spectators peer into his kennel and gawk at his deprivation—the protuberant ribcage, the twiggy limbs, the gaunt and phlegmatic expression. But as the days wear on and tastes change, the crowds thin. Enthusiasm wanes. Soon, out of financial desperation and artistic despair, the hunger artist parts ways with his loyal publicist and joins a circus, the last venue where he can procure a stage for himself, however shabby and undignified it may be. “In order to spare his own sensitive feelings, he didn’t even look at the terms of his contract.”

Upon his arrival at the circus, he’s stationed at the far end of the grounds, amidst a menagerie of loud, squawking animals that prove to be more compelling to the guests than the sight of a rail-thin man sitting immobile in worsted vestments. From his vantage inside the cage, he can observe a collection of garishly painted signs advertising other exhibits, which contrast starkly with the drab interior of his own dwelling—the iron bars, the coarse straw, the pale skin. Eventually, people forget about him, even neglecting to change the number on the tablet outside his cage that denotes the duration of his fast.

One day a supervisor totters past the exhibit, seeing only a mound of hay, and asks a nearby attendant why a perfectly good cage is going to waste. Eventually, one member of the grounds crew recalls the presence of the professional faster, prompting everyone to start jabbing at the straw with poles until they locate the skimpy frame of the hunger artist, who rouses slowly. The conversation that ensues is the coda of the story:
“Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”
These are his last words. Upon his death, the cage is promptly evacuated, and he is replaced by a young panther, a lithe creature who prowls the confines of his tenement and has no trouble enjoying the food the guards bring him.

In the century since its publication, the story has spawned countless interpretations. Numerous critics have pointed out its obvious Christian allusions. Because the hunger artist’s fasts transpire over a period of forty days, they situate him beside other biblical figures, whose own crucibles of faith spanned the same length of time—Moses at Sinai waiting for the commandments; Jesus in the desert, brushing off the devil. And yet, ideologically, Kafka was anything but an apostle. Clearly he didn’t intend for the hunger artist to stand as a simple Christlike symbol. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the impresario calls the hunger artist an “unfortunate martyr,” which Kafka qualifies with a telling parenthetical: “something the hunger artist certainly was, only in a completely different sense.”

There are, of course, two senses in which one can be a martyr: when one is killed for one’s religious beliefs or when one embellishes their suffering in order to garner the condolence or commendation of others. Throughout the story, the hunger artist professes no article of faith, no strident political position. Instead, he’s monomaniacally preoccupied with being respected and adored, which gives us good reason to believe that Kafka wants us to regard him in the second, more pejorative sense of the term. The hunger artist’s claim at the end of the story that he “couldn’t find a food that tasted good” to him is hard to take literally. Instead, it seems to signal that his only nourishment—the only sustenance he hungered for—was approval and veneration. The fickleness of the public proved to be a meager diet, though, and since he had nothing else to live on, he wasted away to a husk of skin and bones. He was, quite literally, starved for attention.

It can be counted on that at some point during the discussion of Kafka, one of my students will mention the Kardashian family. The first time the conversation veered in this direction, I was somewhat baffled. But it turns out that for a particular segment of young people, the most immediate contemporary analogue to the hunger artist are celebrities who have made a career not from any particular talent or ability, but rather on their identity alone—the kind of celebrities who have transcended the realm of personalities—and perhaps personhood itself. (...)

I never lasted long on social media—there were a few weeks back in 2004 when I used Facebook, a dark period during which I also wore an eyebrow ring and still had hair—so its operations invariably feel exotic to me. Whenever my friends log on, I always jump at the chance to look over their shoulders and read their newsfeeds, trying to get a sense of its interpersonal flavor. But even though its codes and mores strike me as queer and foreign, I don’t bring to these investigations the bigoted attitude of a xenophobe nor the unalterable nostalgia of a Luddite. I’m genuinely curious about the potential benefits of expressing myself and curating my own life online. Surely, there are social advantages. And for a writer there are professional ones, too.

By now, the fact that Facebook conventions mirror the undertakings of celebrities—the meticulously curated profiles, the group-tested posts written in press-release diction, the endless photos of our friends’ meals, their leisure activities, their dogs (it’s true, “the stars are just like us”—in fact, they are us)—is usually acknowledged with sheepish embarrassment. We cop to our self-promotion and blush upon admitting that, yes, okay, it’s true: we do in fact take down Facebook posts or Instagram pics that don’t garner enough likes or favorites. We do sometimes, when polling our “friends,” address them this way: “Dear Facebook” or “Dear Hivemind.” But we defend against these minor humiliations of personhood by suggesting that they’re required by our neoliberal landscape. Perhaps the wisdom of Citizens United can be applied in reverse: yes, corporations are individuals, but individuals are corporations, too.

But when we regard our “selves” this way—as a product to be marketed, a message to be promulgated, a brand to be “liked”—something strange happens. We begin to feel the gathering pangs of a clenched inauthenticity, which accrues ever more quickly under the pressure to keep up appearances, to apply yet another coat of varnish to the surface of our brand. We may feel lonely or “unknown” in ways we could never admit. Of course, all social roles are inescapably performative, and it would be naïve to think that we can totally avoid the dramaturgy of self-presentation simply by staying offline. But in the age of wearable technology, push notifications and selfie sticks, it has become difficult to adequately distinguish between our virtual and visceral selves, to know when exactly the curtain closes and the backstage begins. Kafka notes that toward the end of his life, malnourished by a thankless audience, the hunger artist never leaves the circus. It is perhaps no accident that the site of his exhibit, the very proscenium of his performance, is also a cage.

by Barrett Swanson, The Point | Read more:
Image: Kim Kardashian

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

‘Fitbit For Your Period’: The Rise of Fertility Tracking

Will Sacks did not plan to go into the menstruation business. When he travelled from Toronto to Reno to attend his first Burning Man festival in August 2009, he only knew that he needed a change. At the age of 29, he was having a personal crisis. “I had forgotten that I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he told me earlier this year. “I had forgotten that I wanted to create a company that could put a dent in the universe.” He quit his job as an energy efficiency consultant, shut down the small online business he had been running on the side, and booked a plane ticket to the desert.

Before beginning the drive to Burning Man from Reno airport, Sacks posted a message on Craigslist offering a ride in his rental car to anyone who needed one. A young woman named Kati Bicknell answered. Petite and pale, with thick brown hair, Bicknell looks like she stepped out of a pre‑Raphaelite painting. She exudes an intense, slightly mischievous, energy. Sacks comes across as calmer. He locks eyes when he talks to you, pausing every few sentences to check in: are you still with him? Does his optimism sound naive?

Bicknell had flown to Reno from New York, where she had a job at TED Talks. The drive to Burning Man became the beginning of a shared mythology. After the gathering ended, Sacks and Bicknell dated long distance, taking overnight buses between Toronto and New York. One weekend in November, they found themselves having “the birth control conversation”.

“We had been dating for three months,” Bicknell told me not long ago. “He said, ‘I don’t love wearing condoms and I was wondering whether you would be willing to go on the pill.’ I said … ‘No!’”

“I was relatively unenlightened at that point,” Sacks conceded, “and Kati got pissed.” Bicknell thought it was “bullshit” that the burden of birth control always fell on women. She suggested that her boyfriend get a vasectomy. Sacks balked. Then she brought up an alternative he had never heard of: the fertility awareness method (FAM). Fertility awareness involves regularly tracking certain physiological signs in order to determine when a woman can conceive and when she cannot.

Bicknell had always taken a strong interest in fertility. Her mother was one of over two million American women fitted with the Dalkon Shield in the early 1970s, a defective intrauterine device that caused hundreds of thousands of patients to suffer infections, miscarriages, and other serious problems; Bicknell grew up hearing how hard she had been to conceive. Ever since she began menstruating at 11, Bicknell had experienced highly irregular periods. No doctor ever investigated why; they simply put her on the pill.

In her 20s, Bicknell became concerned that the “fake period” the pill gave her every 28 days was masking a health problem that she should know about. A roommate gave her a copy of a book titled Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by a nurse named Toni Weschler. It is the bible of the fertility awareness method. By the time she met Sacks, Bicknell had already been practising it for three years.

“Fertility charting is this thing I’m already doing that can be used to prevent pregnancy,” Bicknell told Sacks that night in November 2009. “It’s just the kind of cool, nerdy thing you would be super into.” As she explained how it worked, Sacks became more and more stunned by his own ignorance.

“I had an engineering degree and thought I knew everything,” he told me. “I was blown away. On the one hand I was shocked and dismayed that I had been under this totally false understanding of how women’s bodies work. On the other, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a side-effect free, hormone-free, form of birth control.’”

“This is a technology that can change the world,” Sacks thought. Bicknell agreed. That winter, they decided to ditch their jobs and move to Panama together. They rented a house near the ocean, took freelance gigs to pay the bills and spent the rest of their time in a hammock, poring over scientific studies and beginning work on their business pitch. When they returned north, they filed preliminary patents for an app that would make it easier for couples to practise fertility awareness.

They did not know how hard it would be to translate their ideas into a company. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Bicknell recalled, “and we didn’t even know it.”

In 1990, Carl Djerassi, one of the biochemists who created the oral contraceptive pill, predicted that the invention that had made him rich and famous could soon become obsolete. In an article in Science magazine, Djerassi explained that recent advances in his field had made it possible to track changes in blood hormone levels simply by taking samples of saliva or urine. This meant that, using simple cheek swabs, women could accurately predict the days when they could become pregnant. If they did so, taking the synthetic hormones that he had developed would become unnecessary. But Djerassi thought it was unlikely that fertility tracking would replace the pill. Why? Powerful pharmaceutical companies had a huge interest in pushing the pill. As for tracking, nobody had figured out how to make money from it.

For around 20 years, nobody did. But today, the market in “smart wearables” is booming. Biosensors connected to phones and other mobile devices make it easy to record, store, and analyse data about your body and behaviours. Apart from “activity trackers” – which record information about how many steps you take each day, how many stairs you climb, calories you burn, and so on – fertility trackers are the most frequently downloaded kind of health app in the Apple Store.

Fertility awareness apps have an enormous potential market: women from puberty to menopause. The industries that they could disrupt are huge, too. A 2013 study by Transparency Market Research estimated that in 2018, women worldwide will spend $23.3bn on contraceptives. Americans also spend $5bn a year on assisted reproductive technology treatments – at least some of which fertility awareness advocates say they could avoid, if they and their doctors paid closer attention to their bodies.

by Moira Weigel, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: Bratislav Milenkovic

Apple is Boring Now

At a lightning-fast press event yesterday (March 21), Apple announced a spate of product updates. A year ago, it unveiled the new MacBook laptop and told us when the Apple Watch—its first entirely new product in five years—would be available. At yesterday’s event, Apple’s big reveal was a smaller iPhone and iPad.

Apple has in a few short years gone from a company with a sharp product focus to one that will seemingly produce any device in any size or color. In a recent question-and-answer session on Reddit, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak worried that Apple is following the market, rather than leading it:
I worry a little bit about – I mean I love my Apple Watch, but – it’s taken us into a jewelry market where you’re going to buy a watch between $500 or $1100 based on how important you think you are as a person. The only difference is the band in all those watches. Twenty watches from $500 to $1100. The band’s the only difference? Well this isn’t the company that Apple was originally, or the company that really changed the world a lot. So it might be moving, but you’ve got to follow, you know. You’ve got to follow the paths of where the markets are.
Apple now sells 55 different Apple Watch bands and watches made out of five different materials, in two sizes. (That’s not to mention the myriad Hermès and Edition versions it also sells.) Apple sells iPads infive sizes and three colors, and has five iPhones in three sizes and four colors. It has laptops with 11, 12, 13 and 15-inch screens, some of which are available in multiple colors.

Apple used to make one great phone, and a few great laptops and iPods. While there was some variation among those products, we could count on Apple to announce some Big New Thing at a slick press event every year in California. Now Apple’s innovations are just Apple products in every size and shape you can think of. While it may make good business sense to make a variety of versions for a variety of people, it’s not like these things have gotten cheaper or more accessible. Samsungreportedly makes 26 different tablets, each with different screen sizes to capture just about everyone who might possibly want a tablet. Is Apple, the world’s most profitable company, now chasing the business model of Samsung?

The (potentially apocryphal) quote from Henry Ford sums up where Apple seems to be heading: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Apple products are still generally high quality—although some would argue the quality of its software is falling—and they still sell well, but there’s less that differentiates them from their competition. What do Apple products now offer that Samsung’s don’t?

Last month, Samsung announced its latest flagship smartphones, and tech journalists generally agreed that Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge phone is the best Android phone on the market. Some say it’s simply the best phone. Its camera is the best phone camera I’ve ever used. Other than the some annoying additional bloatware that Samsung and mobile carriers installed on the device, the phone itself is as satisfying as an iPhone 6S.

Apple just isn’t offering much to differentiate itself. New releases are just updates of past models, or the same device, but a bit thinner or nimbler. It launched the iPad Pro because it saw the Microsoft Surface; it launched the iPhone 6 Plus because it saw the Samsung Galaxy Note phablets; it launched the Apple Watch because it saw Android Wear and Fitbit and Jawbone. Apple used to be able to convince people they needed something they hadn’t even imagined, whether that was 1,000 songs in their pocket, or a talking watch. This year or next, Apple will almost certainly announce the following:
  • The iPhone 7
  • The Apple Watch 2
  • The MacBook 2
  • The iPad Pro 2
  • A new iMac
  • A new Mac Mini
  • A new Apple TV
Like Disney’s Marvel Studios, Apple is now seemingly locked in an unending cycle of sequels and spin-offs. Even Apple’s next headquarters, Campus 2, is a sequel.

by Mike Murphy, Quartz |  Read more:
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

How Nike Lost Steph Curry to Under Armour

It's Nov. 17, 2015, and it's throwback-jersey night in Oakland. Steph Curry flaunts a retro look as he readies himself to play the Raptors. The reigning MVP strolls into the locker room, sporting bright yellow shorts at what can only be described as 1970s length. After he ties his Under Armour Curry 2 sneakers, he dresses for the most public of preparations. By this point, it has become clear that fans are showing up earlier, in increasing numbers, just to see Curry warm up. His is now a cult of personality so powerful, thousands flock to see a man play basketball against the air.

Before Curry trots out to the screaming throngs, the man who can move a nation's worth of money explains his short shorts. He smiles and proclaims, "I'm going Bazemore style." Bazemore style, as in Bazemore's bold penchant for wearing shorts that are briefer than briefs. Bazemore was a Warrior once, an undrafted rookie in 2012 who seized scraps of attention with yoga-pose celebrations from the bench. Back then, while collecting DNPs, he got on the ground floor of something that rose because he asked Curry to lift it.

Since he entered the league, "Bazemore style," has also meant being swaddled in Under Armour apparel. "He's like the biggest spokesperson for the brand," says Curry, the actual biggest UA spokesperson. "Always wears new stuff, wears my stuff." You can often see Bazemore wearing Curry's signature shoes. Increasingly, America's youth are joining in that predilection.

On March 3, 2016, Business Insider relayed a note from Morgan Stanley analyst Jay Sole on Under Armour's business prospects. In it, Curry's potential worth to the company is placed at more than a staggering $14 billion. Sole's call on UA's stock is bearish relative to other prognosticators, but for one man's power to change everything.

His note reads, "UA's U.S. basketball shoe sales have increased over 350 percent YTD. Its Stephen Curry signature shoe business is already bigger than those of LeBron, Kobe and every other player except Michael Jordan. If Curry is the next Jordan, our call will likely be wrong."

What few fans know is the backstory of all this -- how the most electric player in a generation slipped through the grasp of the most powerful sports apparel company in the world, and how Under Armour pulled off the marketing heist of the century.Nike, like many in the sports world, overlooked Steph Curry in 2013. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the 2013 offseason -- coming off a year in which Curry had started 78 games and the Warriors had made the Western Conference semis -- Nike owned the first opportunity to keep Curry. It was its privilege as the incumbent with an advantage that extended beyond vast resources. "I was with them for years," Curry says. "It's kind of a weird process being pitched by the company you're already with. There was some familiar faces in there."

Curry was a Nike athlete long before 2013, though. His godfather, Greg Brink, works for Nike. He wore the shoes growing up, sported the swoosh at Davidson. In his breakout 54-point game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28, 2013, he was wearing Nike Zoom Hyperfuse, a pair of sneakers he still owns, tucked away in his East Bay Area home, shielded from the light of day. "They're not up front and center," Curry says of the pair. "I definitely kept all my favorite [shoes] just as a memory of where my career has gone."

Nike had every advantage when it came to keeping Curry. Incumbency is a massive recruiting edge for a shoe company, as players often express a loyalty to these brands their NBA franchises might envy. And Nike wasn't just any shoe company. It's the shoe company that claims cultural and monetary dominance over the sneaker market. According to Nick DePaula of The Vertical, Nike has signed 68 percent of NBA players, more than 74 percent if you include Nike's Jordan Brand subsidiary. In the 2012 Olympics, Mike Krzyzewski, a Nike endorser, coached an entire roster of 11 Nike-signed athletes and Kevin Love, who merely wore the shoes.

Its hold on consumers is even tighter. According to Forbes, Nike accounted for 95.5 percent of the basketball sneaker market in 2014. In short, its grip on the NBA universe is reflective of a corporation claiming Michael Jordan heritage and a $100 billion market cap -- all advantages that might explain why Nike's pitch to Curry evoked something hastily thrown together by a hungover college student.

The August meeting took place on the second floor of the Oakland Marriott, three levels below Golden State's practice facility. Famed Nike power broker and LeBron James adviser Lynn Merritt was not present, a possible indication of the priority -- or lack thereof -- that Nike was placing on the meeting. Instead, Nico Harrison, a sports marketing director at the time, ran the meeting (Harrison, who has since been named Nike's vice president of North America basketball operations, did not respond to multiple interview requests).

In truth, there had been other indications that Nike lacked interest before this meeting. (...)

The sneaker business exists parallel to the basketball business, except not completely. Estimates peg total sneaker sales somewhere north of $20 billion annually, and rising. The total worth of NBA basketball is harder to gauge, but the $2.15 billion sale of the traditionally ignoble Los Angeles Clippers speaks to its riches. Both basketball and basketball shoes are massive operations, deriving their dollars from the consumer's obsession with winners. More specifically, with cool winners. Football can be ugly and popular. Baseball can be slow and profitable. The NBA needs physical charisma, individuals with moves so graceful viewers ache to imitate them.

You can't be Michael Jordan, but you can rent a part of his life when you wear Jordans. For millions of people, that slice of happiness is worth the cost.

by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN | Read more:
Image:Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Men Explain Lolita to Me

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of an opinion must be in want of a correction. Well, actually, no it isn’t, but who doesn’t love riffing on Jane Austen? The answer is: lots of people, because we’re all different and some of us haven’t even read Pride and Prejudice dozens of times, but the main point is that I’ve been performing interesting experiments in proffering my opinions and finding that some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion. Sometimes they also seem to think that they are in charge, of me as well of facts.

It isn’t a fact universally acknowledged that a person who mistakes his opinions for facts may also mistake himself for God. This can happen if he’s been insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences, and that they too were created equal, with certain inalienable rights, and that consciousness thing that is so interesting and troubling is also going on inside their heads. This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long—and turns compliant women into mirrors reflecting them back twice life size, Virginia Woolf noted. The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way. (...)

I sort of kicked the hornets’ nest the other day, by expressing feminist opinions about books. It all came down to Lolita. “Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter asserted, which made me wonder if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy. The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience? This reader thinks so.

All I had actually said was that, just as I had identified with a character who’s dismissively treated in On the Road, so I’d identified with Lolita. I read many Nabokov novels back in the day, but a novel centered around the serial rape of a kidnapped child, back when I was near that child’s age was a little reminder how hostile the world, or rather the men in it, could be. Which is not a pleasure.

The omnipresence of men raping female children as a literary subject, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles to Less Than Zero, along with real-life accounts like that of Jaycee Dugard (kidnapped at 11 in 1991 and used as a sex slave for 18 years by a Bay Area man), can have the cumulative effect of reminding women that we spend a lot of our lives quietly, strategically trying not to get raped, which takes a huge toll on our lives and affects our sense of self. Sometimes art reminds us of life. (...)

You can read Nabokov’s relationship to his character in many ways. Vera Nabokov, the author’s wife, wrote, “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…” And the women who read Nabokov’s novel in repressive Iran, says Azar Nafisi of Reading Lolita in Tehran, identified too: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.”

When I wrote the essay that provoked such splenetic responses, I was trying to articulate that there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories. And that these are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.

Dilbert comic Scott Adams wrote last month that we live in a matriarchy because, “access to sex is strictly controlled by the woman.” Meaning that you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you, which if we say it without any gender pronouns sounds completely reasonable. You don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you, and that’s not a form of oppression either. You probably learned that in kindergarten.

But if you assume that sex with a female body is a right that heterosexual men have, then women are just these crazy illegitimate gatekeepers always trying to get in between you and your rights. Which means you have failed to recognize that women are people, and perhaps that comes from the books and movies you have—and haven’t—been exposed to, as well as the direct inculcation of the people and systems around you. Art matters, and there’s a fair bit of art in which rape is celebrated as a triumph of the will (see Kate Millet’s 1970 book Sexual Politics, which covers some of the same male writers as the Esquire list) . It’s always ideological, and it makes the world we live in.

by Rebecca Solnit, LitHub |  Read more:
Image: Jamie Keenan

Air Force One carrying President Barack Obama and his family flies over a neighborhood of Havana as it approaches the runway to land at Havana's international airport. REUTERS/Alberto Reyes

More pictures here:

Kieron Cropper (Cur3es)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

GAO on Retirement Security: Most Households Approaching Retirement Have Low Savings

Many retirees and workers approaching retirement have limited financial resources. About half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA). According to GAO's analysis of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit (DB) plan or nonretirement savings, to draw on in retirement (see figure below). For example, among households age 55 and older, about 29 percent have neither retirement savings nor a DB plan, which typically provides a monthly payment for life. Households that have retirement savings generally have other resources to draw on, such as non-retirement savings and DB plans. Among those with some retirement savings, the median amount of those savings is about $104,000 for households age 55-64 and $148,000 for households age 65-74, equivalent to an inflation-protected annuity of $310 and $649 per month, respectively. Social Security provides most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older.

Select Resources for All Households Age 55 and Older

Studies and surveys GAO reviewed provide mixed evidence about the adequacy of retirement savings. Studies range widely in their conclusions about the degree to which Americans are likely to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living in retirement, largely because of different assumptions about how much income this goal requires. The studies generally found about one-third to two-thirds of workers are at risk of falling short of this target. In surveys, compared to current retirees, workers age 55 and older expect to retire later and a higher percentage plan to work during retirement. However, one survey found that about half of retirees said they retired earlier than planned due to health problems, changes at their workplace, or other factors, suggesting that many workers may be overestimating their future retirement income and savings. Surveys have also found that people age 55-64 are less confident about their finances in retirement than those who are age 65 or older.

by GAO |  Read more:
Image: GAO

The Hidden Price of Mindfulness Inc.

The other morning, I woke up and brewed a cup of Mindful Lotus tea ($6 for 20 bags). On the subway, I loaded the Headspace app on my iPhone and followed a guided mindfulness exercise ($13 a month for premium content). Later in the day, I dropped by Mndfl, a meditation studio in Greenwich Village ($20 for a 45-minute class).

These days it seems as if everyone is peddling mindfulness, a popular form of meditation. The Golden State Warriors, the Seattle Seahawks and the Boston Red Sox are now practicing mindfulness in the locker room. After Google began teaching the practice to its employees, stuffy companies like McKinsey and BlackRock started doing the same.

Consumer offerings are prolific, too. There are more than two dozen mindfulness apps for smartphones, some offering $400 lifetime subscriptions. The Great Courses has two mindfulness packages, each with a couple of dozen DVDs for $250. For an enterprising contemplative, it’s never been easier to make a buck.

On the face of it, that should be good news all around. After all, where’s the harm in having folks slow down, get in touch with their feelings and be kind? As a sporadic meditator myself, I know firsthand that mindfulness can relieve stress, improve focus and promote well-being. And during this charged election season, couldn’t we all use a bit more peace, love and understanding?

But with so many cashing in on the meditation craze, it’s hard not to wonder whether something essential is being lost. If mindfulness can be bought as easily as a pair of Lululemon yoga pants, can it truly be a transformative practice that eases the troubled mind? It’s a question as slippery as a Zen koan.

There’s no doubt that as mindfulness has gone mainstream, plenty of people have used the technique to achieve peace of mind, greater self-awareness, perhaps even more compassion. Yet at the same time, a race to the bottom seems to be underway.

Never mind all the companies glomming on to the “mindful” moniker. (There are Mindful Meats, Mindful Mints and the Mindful Supply Company, which makes T-shirts. A friend recently painted her daughter’s bedroom “Mindful Gray.”) More troubling is the rush to make mindfulness something that fits neatly into lives lived at the speed of the web.

Increasingly, mindfulness is being packaged as a one-minute reprieve, an interlude between checking Instagram and starting the next episode of “House of Cards.” One company proclaims it has found the “minimum effective dose” of meditation that will change your life. On Amazon, you can pick up “One-Minute Mindfulness: 50 Simple Ways to Find Peace, Clarity, and New Possibilities in a Stressed-Out World.” Dubious courses promise to help people “master mindfulness” in a few weeks.

IBISWorld, a research company, estimates that meditation-related businesses in the United States last year generated $984 million in revenue. With so many mindful goods and services for sale, it can be easy to forget that mindfulness is a quality of being, not a piece of merchandise.

“It’s not enough to purchase the right product to be mindful,” said Dan Harris, an ABC news anchor who chronicled his grudging embrace of meditation in a book, “10 Percent Happier.” “Mindfulness is a practice, and it’s worth doing.”

That is, you can’t simply buy mindfulness. In its historical context, mindfulness is just one aspect of a lifelong journey to become more accepting, less judgmental and kinder to oneself and others. Even in its modern incarnation, mindfulness is best understood as a skill, one acquired through hours of sometimes uncomfortable contemplation.

Alas, that may be asking too much in an age of crash diets and instant abs.

When considering the fate of mindfulness in the American marketplace, it’s instructive to look at the evolution of yoga. Like mindfulness, yoga has its roots in the spiritual traditions of India, and was practiced for decades by enthusiasts before it went mainstream. But as yoga grew more popular, it mutated in strange ways. Today there is naked yoga, paddleboard yoga, and doga — that is, yoga done while holding your dog. Yoga also became a multibillion-dollar business, spawning apparel companies like Lululemon, a vast cottage industry of studios and teacher trainings, and a kaleidoscope of yogi bric-a-brac.

Kaitlin Quistgaard chronicled yoga’s often bizarre ascendance as the former editor of Yoga Journal. She said that while purists sometimes wrung their hands about its commercialization, their lamentations were in vain. Let loose in the American marketplace, yoga took on a life of its own. Now, she said, the same thing is happening with mindfulness.

by David Gelles, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Robert Frank Hunter

Adrian Paci

The Makeup Master List

[ed. Wow. I had no idea it was this complicated.]

How to Prevent Clumpy Mascara
How to Shape Your Eyebrows
How to Catch Eyeshadow Fallout
Five Alternatives to Black Eyeliner
How to Make Lower Lashes Look Thicker
How to Use Eyelash Primer for Eyebrows
How to Disguise False Lashes
How to Heat Your Lash Curler
White Eyeliner as a Eyeshadow Base
How to Make Your Lashes Look Thicker
Sticky Tape for Eyeliner
Eye Makeup for Brown, Blue, Green, Hazel and Grey Eyes
How to Waterline
10 Ways to use Eyeshadow
How to Tightline Your Eyes
Eye Makeup Tutorial
How to Curl Your Eyelashes
Powder, Pencil, Liquid or Gel Eyeliner?
How to Apply False Lashes
How to Apply Winged Eyeliner
How to Press a Pigment
How to Achieve Long Eyelashes
How to Create a Easy Smokey Eye
How to Make Your Eyeliner Last
How to Apply Individual Eyelashes
How to Groom Your Eyebrows
How to Make Your Eyes Look Larger


Lena Dunham: The Uncontested Queen of Angst

[ed. I'm late to the Lena Dunham party but have been binge-watching Girls lately and she's wonderful.]

Lena Dunham had a panic attack last night. The actor/writer/director/producer started to tot up her advancing years, and before she knew it, she was measuring out her grave. "I thought, in two and a half years I'll be 30, then 10 years from that I'll be 40, then 10 years from that I'll be 50." She shudders to a halt. Is she genuinely worried? "All the time. It's why I don't sleep at night."

Nobody in the 21st century has done angst quite like Dunham. The angst of being unloved, undesired, unattractive, unpopular, unsuccessful. The irony is that, at 27, she has been named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, signed a $3.5m book deal, completed her third series of the TV comedy Girls and has a rock star boyfriend.

Girls is funny, filthy, disturbing and acute. Dunham has taken Sex And The City and refashioned it for an age of eternal internships, dysfunctional relationships and middle-class disappointment. Whereas Sex And The City is aspirational – desirable women, designer wardrobes, glamorous jobs – nobody would want to be Dunham's character, Hannah, in Girls. Her clothes are scruffy and stained, her brilliant career is stymied, OCD blights her life and the men she meets are more rapists than dreamboats. Hannah is the ultimate un-American heroine.

Girls is Sex And The City when the recession has bit, the world looks bleak and dreams have turned to dust. It focuses on the lives of four girls in Brooklyn, New York, where Dunham lives. Three are conventionally attractive, if angsty in their own way, but it is Hannah who is the really interesting one – an aspiring writer desperate to expose herself to any possible experience to make her work more real, but equally desperate for regular love and safety. Hannah often hangs around in knickers and vest, exposing body and soul. She is as self-obsessed as she is self-loathing, socially gauche (at one job interview, she makes a joke about her would-be boss being a date-rapist) and frequently humiliated (her boyfriend sends her a photo of his penis, then apologises because it wasn't meant for her). And we root for her all the way.

We meet at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where she edits Girls. I don't recognise Dunham at first, and am not sure why. She's certainly more elegant than Hannah – she doesn't dress as loudly or look as bulky – but there's something else. Then it strikes me. I don't recognise her with her clothes on. So often in Girls, she's stripped to her tattoos or less, and here she is fully covered: stripy blue and white T-shirt, chic red cardigan, leggings and boots. The tattoos – garish, inky and prison-like – say a lot about Dunham. She got her first at 17, as a mark of her womanly independence, and yet they are illustrations of her favourite childhood books (Eloise on her back, Ferdinand the bull on her shoulder). She laughs when I tell her I didn't recognise her with clothes on, and admits that covering up has become a disguise. "My tattoos are the main way people recognise me if I'm out."

Dunham's success is an astonishing story, not least as an example of self-actualisation. The girl who ransacked her own life to write a warts'n'all TV show about a girl desperate to become famous by writing a warts'n'all book about her own life becomes world famous in the process.

I tell her I imagine she was a hyperactive child, forever on the go. No, she says, anything but. "I was a really lazy kid. I almost never left the house. If it was a weekend, I wouldn't even go outside, because I hated going in the park, hated doing any sports, hated walking around, hated doing almost everything. I liked to read and watch TV." Both her parents are artists and she was fascinated by their world.

Was she confident? "In a sense, yes, but I didn't have that many friends. I just talked a lot. I talked before I walked. I talked to myself, my parents, my babysitter, my little sister, the doctor, whoever was there. But I didn't have a tremendous amount of friends until high school." She says it was partly because she didn't want them and partly because they didn't want her. "I was pretty annoying. Looking back, I was a know-it-all."

What was the most annoying thing about her? "I'm not saying I was smarter than other kids, but I wanted to talk about what I wanted to talk about, and I wasn't interested in meeting anybody halfway. I remember being on play dates and not feeling there was a sympatico between us, then going home and hanging out with my parents and feeling, well, this is what's fun, this is what's interesting to do."

The waiter arrives. She's on first-name terms with him and orders fruit and yoghurt, and orange juice. Hannah is more of a macaroni cheese and cheesecake girl.

In her teens, Dunham went to Saint Ann's, a school in Brooklyn that specialises in the arts. There, she met Girls co-star Jemima Kirke, and came out of her shell. "It was an amazing place, like a home for wayward children." Was she regarded as wayward? "No, I think maybe eccentric and slightly difficult. I was never a bad kid, I just wasn't necessarily doing my work as I was told to or connecting perfectly with my peer group."

Was she better behaved than Hannah? "Ummm, yes." Actually, she says, when she did try to act properly wayward, she was useless. In one episode of Girls, Hannah takes cocaine and makes a night of it. When Dunham dabbled, it was a different story. "I tried coke, but was a total failure. I snorted a little bit, then always sneezed. It was sadder than having not tried drugs, in that I tried drugs and failed at trying drugs."

Dunham often sounds like an eager-to-please teenager, her voice rising at the end of sentences, so that statements become questions. But her actual words belie that: confident, considered, wise beyond her years. Allison Williams, who plays Hannah's friend Marnie in Girls, once said Dunham "has the soul of a wonderful 85-year-old man".

After school, Dunham studied creative writing at Oberlin, a liberal arts college. By the age of 20, she was writing, directing and appearing in short films featuring characters that bore an uncanny resemblance to herself: schlumpy, neurotic, funny, and so uncool they were cool. Within two years of graduating, she had made Tiny Furniture, her first full-length feature film.

Dunham's work is like a Russian doll of self-reference. Each project seems like a more ambitious version of the previous one. Hannah is based on the short period in Dunham's life when she was in a rut, unable to realise her ambitions, working dead-end jobs, falling out with friends, falling in with dodgy men. In Tiny Furniture, made when she was 23 and featuring her real-life mother and sister as her fictional mother and sister, Dunham's self-abasing Aura is a template for Hannah. Aura goes even lower than Hannah, allowing a man she fancies to have sex with her in a drainpipe on a construction site. Tiny Furniture in turn references a video Dunham made as a student, called The Fountain, in which she strips to her bikini, climbs into a college fountain, bathes in it and brushes her teeth. This video marked the emergence of Lena Dunham – it received more than 1.5m hits on YouTube, with thousands of bruising below-the-line comments, some versions of which made their way into the film ("Look, whales ahead!" "What a blubber factory!" "No, her stomach isn't huge, it's just that her boobs are really small – it's an optical illusion"). After the fountain episode, her character's boyfriend says that while he wants to get naked in front of people who want to see him naked, she wants to do it in front of people who don't want to see her naked. Dunham is part Woody Allen, part Nora Ephron (whose screenwriter mother told her, "Everything is copy").

In Girls, Hannah tells a friend that she's immune to insults, "because no one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, OK? So any mean thing someone is going to think of to say about me, I've said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour." By way of comfort, her friend offers, "You think everyone in the world is out to humiliate you. You're like a great big ugly psychotic wound." Girls, especially the first series, does not hold back.

Doesn't she get confused between herself and her characters? "I don't," she says with surprising certainty, through a mouthful of berries. "Other people do. Sometimes, the other cast members will call me Lena within the scene." In fact, what disorients her now is not so much the similarities between herself and Hannah as the differences. "It's confusing that I'm playing a character who's unable to assert herself and unable to get traction with her work and unable to be clear about her creativity, and yet at the same time I'm also writing, directing and acting in the show. It's strange to be in the meek, confused stressed-out skin of Hannah, then have to move into orchestrating the performances."

She stares at the massive plate in front of her ("Tell me if there's any of my fruit you want. I've over-fruited"), juggling with the real and the unreal. The more she writes, the less she trusts her ability to sift fact from fiction, and the less it matters to her: "It starts being about emotional truth." The most bewildering thing, though, she says, is her inability to distinguish real life from a TV studio. "At the end of a day's shooting, I don't know what's going on. I go to bed and I'm seeing a boom operator with a boom pole above my bed, and I close my eyes and think I have to do another take of sleeping, that first take wasn't good." I assume she's joking, but she isn't. "I still think I'm in the show, in bed getting filmed, acting as if I'm sleeping."

One of the radical aspects of Girls is how much time Hannah does spend in bed: mooching, writing, sleeping, having bad sex, occasionally having good sex. A number of young women who adore Girls tell me how surprised they are at how often Hannah is naked or near enough. I ask if she's an exhibitionist. Her voice tightens slightly. "I've always fought against that label, because it seems so simplistic and it has such a sexual connotation to it. I'm sure it must be perceived in that way, and it wouldn't be an inaccurate thing to say, but that's not how I was thinking about it when I did it."

In the past, she has said her interest in exposing herself is rooted in anything but self-confidence. In fact, there seems to be an element of masochism in it; an invitation for others to abuse her. She smiles. "Well, a lot of my parents' friends were performance artists, so I think I just understood that the body could be a tool in that exploration."

The only scene that embarrassed her is one in which she played table tennis topless with a new boyfriend. "It was one of the first times in the show that nudity had felt like it was supposed to be fun and cute and sexual. It wasn't a comfortable space for me to occupy. I have an easier time playing romantic rejection than playing loving situations. I have an easier time playing humiliating nudity than playing sexy nudity. I think it's because there's something really vulnerable…" She prods at the plate with her fork as she attempts to complete the sentence. "See, I'm stabbing a melon as I say this… I think there's something really vulnerable about the earnest emotions that come with being in love or being attracted to somebody that are anxiety-inducing to play, whereas there's the armour of humour and relatability to that other stuff that makes it easier to do. The times I'm embarrassed are when I'm writing about loving situations and romantic moments, rather than totally degrading sex and looking bad in your underwear." So she's happy only when she's playing unhappy? "Yeah, it's true! It's really complicated."

by Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Girls

Nathan Benn, Cape Canaveral Florida 1981

Monday, March 21, 2016

Traditional Economics Failed. Here’s a New Blueprint.

Politics in democracy can be understood many ways, but on one level it is the expression of where people believe their self-interest lies— that is to say, “what is good for me?” Even when voters vote according to primal affinities or fears rather than economic advantage (as Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, lamented of poor whites who vote Republican), it is because they’ve come to define self-interest more in terms of those primal identities than in terms of dollars and cents.

This is not proof of the stupidity of such voters. It is proof of the malleability and multidimensionality of self-interest. While the degree to which human beings pursue that which they think is good for them has not and will probably never change, what they believe is good for them can change and from time to time has, radically.

We assert a simple proposition: that fundamental shifts in popular understanding of how the world works necessarily produce fundamental shifts in our conception of self-interest, which in turn necessarily producefundamental shifts in how we think to order our societies.

Consider for a moment this simple example:

For the overwhelming majority of human history, people looked up into the sky and saw the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolve around the earth. This bedrock assumption based on everyday observation framed our self-conception as a species and our interpretation of everything around us.

Alas, it was completely wrong.

Advances in both observation technology and scientific understanding allowed people to first see, and much later accept, that in fact the earth was not the center of the universe, but rather, a speck in an ever-enlarging and increasingly humbling and complex cosmos. We are not the center of the universe.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the fact that the evidence for this scientific truth was there the whole time. But people didn’t perceive it until concepts like gravity allowed us to imagine the possibility of orbits. New understanding turns simple observation into meaningful perception. Without it, what one observes can be radically misinterpreted. New understanding can completely change the way we see a situation and how we see our self-interest with respect to it. Concepts determine, and often distort, percepts.

Today, most of the public is unaware that we are in the midst of a moment of new understanding. In recent decades, a revolution has taken place in our scientific and mathematical understanding of the systemic nature of the world we inhabit.

–We used to understand the world as stable and predictable, and now we see that it is unstable and inherently impossible to predict.

–We used to assume that what you do in one place has little or no effect on what happens in another place, but now we understand that small differences in initial choices can cascade into huge variations in ultimate consequences.

–We used to assume that people are primarily rational, and now we see that they are primarily emotional.

Now, consider: how might these new shifts in understanding affect our sense of who we are and what is good for us?

A Second Enlightenment and the Radical Redefinition of Self-Interest

In traditional economic theory, as in politics, we Americans are taught to believe that selfishness is next to godliness. We are taught that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. We are taught that democracy is at its most functional when individuals and factions pursue their own self-interest aggressively. In both instances, we are taught that an invisible hand converts this relentless clash and competition of self-seekers into a greater good.

These teachings are half right: most people indeed are looking out for themselves. We have no illusions about that. But the teachings are half wrong in that they enshrine a particular, and particularly narrow, notion of what it means to look out for oneself.

Conventional wisdom conflates self-interest and selfishness. It makes sense to be self-interested in the long run. It does not make sense to be reflexively selfish in every transaction. And that, unfortunately, is what market fundamentalism and libertarian politics promote: a brand of selfishness that is profoundly against our actual interest.

Let’s back up a step.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that certain truths were held to be “self-evident,” he was not recording a timeless fact; he was asserting one into being. Today we read his words through the filter of modernity. We assume that those truths had always been self-evident. But they weren’t. They most certainly were not a generation before Jefferson wrote. In the quarter century between 1750 and 1775, in a confluence of dramatic changes in science, politics, religion, and economics, a group of enlightened British colonists in America grew gradually more open to the idea that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

It took Jefferson’s assertion, and the Revolution that followed, to make those truths self-evident.

We point this out as a simple reminder. Every so often in history, new truths about human nature and the nature of human societies crystallize. Such paradigmatic shifts build gradually but cascade suddenly.

This has certainly been the case with prevailing ideas about what constitutes self-interest. Self-interest, it turns out, is not a fixed entity that can be objectively defined and held constant. It is a malleable, culturally embodied notion.

Think about it. Before the Enlightenment, the average serf believed that his destiny was foreordained. He fatalistically understood the scope of life’s possibility to be circumscribed by his status at birth. His concept of self-interest extended only as far as that of his nobleman. His station was fixed, and reinforced by tradition and social ritual. His hopes for betterment were pinned on the afterlife. Post-Enlightenment, that all changed. The average European now believed he was master of his own destiny. Instead of worrying about his odds of a good afterlife, he worried about improving his lot here and now. He was motivated to advance beyond what had seemed fated. He was inclined to be skeptical about received notions of what was possible in life.

The multiple revolutions of the Enlightenment— scientific, philosophical, spiritual, material, political— substituted reason for doctrine, agency for fatalism, independence for obedience, scientific method for superstition, human ambition for divine predestination. Driving this change was a new physics and mathematics that made the world seem rational and linear and subject to human mastery.

The science of that age had enormous explanatory and predictive power, and it yielded an entirely new way of conceptualizing self-interest. Now the individual, relying on his own wits, was to be celebrated for looking out for himself— and was expected to do so. As physics developed into a story of zero-sum collisions, as man mastered steam and made machines, as Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution took hold, the binding and life-defining power of old traditions and institutions waned. A new belief seeped osmotically across disciplines and domains: Every man can make himself anew. And before long, this mutated into another ethic: Every man for himself.

Compared to the backward-looking, authority-worshipping, passive notion of self-interest that had previously prevailed, this, to be sure, was astounding progress. It was liberation. Nowhere more than in America— a land of wide-open spaces, small populations, and easily erased histories— did this atomized ideal of self-interest take hold. As Steven Watts describes in his groundbreaking history The Republic Reborn, “the cult of the self-made man” emerged in the first three decades after Independence. The civic ethos of the founding evaporated amidst the giddy free-agent opportunity to stake a claim and enrich oneself. Two centuries later, our greed-celebrating, ambition-soaked culture still echoes this original song of self-interest and individualism.

Over time, the rational self-seeking of the American has been elevated into an ideology now as strong and totalizing as the divine right of kings once was in medieval Europe. Homo economicus, the rationalist self-seeker of orthodox economics, along with his cousin Homo politicus, gradually came to define what is considered normal in the market and politics. We’ve convinced ourselves that a million individual acts of selfishness magically add up to a common good. And we’ve paid a great price for such arrogance. We have today a dominant legal and economic doctrine that treats people as disconnected automatons and treats the mess we leave behind as someone else’s problem. We also have, in the Great Recession, painful evidence of the limits of this doctrine’s usefulness.

But now a new story is unfolding.

by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, Evonomics | Read more:
Image: Sasquatch Books

Renting a Friend in Tokyo

It's muggy and I'm confused. I don't understand where I am, though it was only a short walk from my Airbnb studio to this little curry place. I don’t understand the lunch menu, or even if it is a lunch menu. Could be a religious tract or a laminated ransom note. I’m new in Tokyo, and sweaty, and jet-lagged. But I am entirely at ease. I owe this to my friend Miyabi. She’s one of those reassuring presences, warm and eternally nodding and unfailingly loyal, like she will never leave my side. At least not for another 90 minutes, which is how much of her friendship I’ve paid for.

Miyabi isn’t a prostitute, or an escort or an actor or a therapist. Or maybe she’s a little of each. For the past five years she has been a professional rent-a-friend, working for a company called Client Partners.

My lunch mate pokes daintily at her curry and speaks of the friends whose money came before mine. There was the head of a prominent company, rich and “very clever” but conversationally marooned at “hello.” Discreetly and patiently, Miyabi helped draw other words out. There was the string of teenage girls struggling to navigate mystifying social dynamics; at their parents’ request, Miyabi would show up and just be a friend. You know, a normal, companionable, 27-year-old friend. She has been paid to cry at funerals and swoon at weddings, lest there be shame over a paltry turnout. Last year, a high schooler hired her and 20 other women just long enough to snap one grinning, peace-sign-flashing, I-totally-have-friends Instagram photo.

When I learned that friendship is rentable in Tokyo, it merely seemed like more Japanese wackiness, in a subset I’d come to think of as interest-kitsch. Every day in Japan, it seems, some weird new appetite is identified and gratified. There are cats to rent, after all, used underwear to purchase, owls to pet at owl bars. Cuddle cafés exist for the uncuddled, goat cafés for the un-goated. Handsome men will wipe away the tears of stressed-out female office workers. All to say I expected something more or less goofy when I lined up several English-speaking rent-a-friends for my week in Tokyo. The agency Miyabi works for exists primarily for lonely locals, but the service struck me as well suited to a solo traveler, too, so I paid a translator to help with the arrangements. Maybe a more typical Japanese business would’ve bristled at this kind of intrusion from a foreigner. But the rent-a-friend world isn’t typical, I would soon learn, and in some ways it wants to subvert all that is.

Contrived Instagram photos aside, Miyabi’s career mostly comprises the small, unremarkable acts of ordinary friendship: Shooting the breeze over dinner. Listening on a long walk. Speaking simple kindnesses on a simple drive to the client’s parents’ house, simply to pretend you two are in love and absolutely on the verge of getting married, so don’t even worry, Mom and Dad.

As a girl, Miyabi longed to be a flight attendant—Continental, for some reason—and that tidy solicitousness still emanates. She wears a smart gray skirt and a gauzy beige blouse over which a sheet of impeccable hair drapes weightlessly. She doesn’t care that I am peccable. She smiles when I smile, touches my arm to make a point. Her graciousness cloaks a demanding job. With an average of 15 gigs a week, Miyabi’s hours are irregular and bleed from day into night. The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she still struggles to convince her parents that her relatively new field is legitimate. The money is fine but not incredible; I’m paying her roughly $115 for two hours, some percentage of which Client Partners keeps. So why does she do it? Miyabi puts down her chopsticks and explains: It helps people—real and lonesome people in need of, well, whatever ineffable thing friendship means to our species. “So many people are good at life online or life at work, but not real life,” she says, pantomiming someone staring at a phone. For such clients a dollop of emotional contact with a friendly person is powerful, she adds, even with a price tag attached.

So this isn’t secretly about romance? I ask. Not at all, she replies. (...)

During my time in Tokyo I develop a seamless routine of leaving the apartment, drifting vaguely toward the address on my phone, squinting confusedly, doubling back, eating some gyoza, and eventually stumbling onto my destination. On a drizzly Friday morning, my destination is the Client Partners headquarters, a small but airy suite in a nondescript Shibuya district office building. I rope my translator in for this, and we’re met by a round-faced woman in a long robelike garment. Maki Abe is the CEO, and for the next hour we sit across a desk from her and talk not about wacky interest-kitsch but about a nation’s spiritual health.

“We look like a rich country from the outside, but mentally we have problems,” Maki says. She speaks slowly, methodically. “Japan is all about face. We don’t know how to talk from the gut. We can’t ask for help. So many people are alone with their problems, and stuck, and their hearts aren’t touching.”

Maki and I bowed when we met, but we also shook hands. She brings it up later. “There are many people who haven’t been touched for years. We have clients who start to cry when we shake hands with them.”

It’s not that people lack friends, she says. Facebook, Instagram— scroll around and you find a country bursting with mugging, partying companionship. It just isn’t real, that’s all. “There’s a real me and a masked me. We have a word for the lonely gap in between that: kodoku.”

by Chris Colin, Afar |  Read more:
Image: Landon Nordeman


When it comes to emojis, the future is very, very ... Face with Tears of Joy.

If you don't know what that means then you: a) aren't a 14-year-old girl. b) love to hate those tiny pictures that people text you all the time. Or c) are nowhere near a smartphone or online chat.

Otherwise, here in 2016, it's all emojis, all the time. And Face with Tears of Joy, by the way, is a bright yellow happy face with a classic, toothy grin as tears fall.

The Face was chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as its 2015 "word" of the year, based on its popularity and reflecting the rise of emojis to help charitable causes, promote businesses and generally assist oh-so-many-more of us in further expressing ourselves on social media and in texts. (...)


While there's now a strict definition of emojis as images created through standardized computer coding that works across platforms, they have many, many popular cousins by way of "stickers," which are images without the wonky back end. Kimojis, the invention of Kim Kardashian, aren't technically emojis, for instance, at least in the eyes of purists.

In tech lore, the great emoji explosion has a grandfather in Japan and his name is Shigetaka Kurita. He was inspired in the 1990s by manja and kanji when he and others on a team working to develop what is considered the world's first widespread mobile Internet platform came up with some rudimentary characters. They were working a good decade before Apple developed a set of emojis for the first iPhones.

Emojis are either loads of fun or the bane of your existence. One thing is sure: There's no worry they'll become a "language" in and of themselves. While everybody from Coca-Cola to the Kitten Bowl have come up with little pictographs to whip up interest in themselves, emojis exist mainly to nuance the words regular folk type, standing in for tone of voice, facial expressions and physical gestures - extended middle finger emoji added recently.

"Words aren't dead. Long live the emoji, long live the word," laughed Gretchen McCulloch, a Toronto linguist who, like some others in her field, is studying emojis and other aspects of Internet language.

Emojis have been compared to hieroglyphs, but McCulloch is not on board. That ancient picture-speak included symbols with literal meaning, but others stood in for actual sound.

Emoji enthusiasts have played with telling word-free stories using their little darlings alone and translating song lyrics into the pictures, "but they can't be put together like letters to make a pronounceable word," McCulloch said.


Back when Kurita was creating some of the first emojis, chaos already had ensued in trying to make all the pagers and all the emerging mobile phones and the newfangled thing called email and everything else Internet-ish that was bubbling up speak to each other. And also to allow people in Japan used to a more formal way of communicating make themselves understood in the emerging shorthand.

Enter the Unicode Consortium, on the coding end. It's a volunteer nonprofit industry organization working in collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization, the latter an independent non-governmental body that helps develop specifications for all sorts of things, including emojis, on a global scale.

Unicode, co-founded and headed by Mark Davis in Zurich, has a big, big mission, of which emojis have a place: making sure all the languages in the world are encoded and supported across platforms and devices.

The key word here is volunteer. Davis has a whole other job at Google, but he has dedicated himself to the task above. He also co-chairs the consortium's emoji subcommittee, a cog in a vetting process for new emojis that can take up to two years before new ones are put into the Unicode Standard for the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook to do with what they wish.

Where does Davis sit with the rapid rise of emojis?

"It has been a surprise. We didn't fully understand how popular they were going to be," he said.

At the moment, Unicode has released 1,624 emojis, with more options when you factor in modifiers for such things as skin tone. The emoji subcommittee fields about 100 proposals for new emojis a year. Not all make it through the vetting process.

"We don't encode emoji for movie or fictional people, or for deities. And we're not going to give you a Donald Trump," Davis said.

Gender, he said, is among the next frontiers for emojis. Demand for a female runner, for instance, will be voted on in May as critics have questioned a male-female divide. The consortium is trying to come up with a way to more easily and quickly customize emoji for gender, hair color and other features, Davis said.

"Personally, I am very much looking forward to a face palm emoji," he joked.

by Leanne Italie, AP |  Read more:
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