Saturday, April 30, 2016

Make More Music

[ed. My God. Someday learning anything in its elemental form will be obsolete.]

It's music-making time again! This week, we've got another set of crowdfunded devices that unlock new and unexpected ways to play with sound and create new tunes.


The Dualo is all about making it easy to create music, but that hasn't stopped it from being an interesting device by several professional standards. Its core functions are the two banks of buttons that are set up to group harmonious notes nearby (so pressing any local set of buttons is likely to produce a pleasing combination) and which can be switched between 52 different synthesized instruments, and a 7-track on-the-fly looper that lets you layer these sounds on top of each other as you play. What's notable and rare among these kinds of instruments is that the Dualo is a self-contained, standalone device — it doesn't require an associated app or a computer, though it can also double as a MIDI input device in larger digital music workflows.


AirJamz is really more of a toy than anything else, but it sure does look like a fun toy. It's a wrist-mounted motion sensor that interfaces wirelessly with a mobile app to produce sound from that age-old pastime of playing air guitar. Your miming strums are converted into actual guitar sounds, though it's a little unclear just how much control over those sounds the system really provides. Nevertheless, it looks like fun — and, again, is MIDI compatible, opening up all sorts of possibilities. With the ability to run four sensor units in tandem, AirJamz might find the most adoption as a party game.

XTH Sense

The XTH Sense is the most ambitious and different of this week's projects: a bio-sensor based music creation device. Like the AirJamz, it straps to your wrist and detects movement — but it doesn't stop there. The unit includes a bioacoustic microphone that listens for pulse, blood flow and muscle movement, and a thermometer to track body temperature, and performs some algorithmic wizardry to combine all these variables into a shifting signal that controls other devices. Music creation is one of its flagship applications, but not the only one: it also has potential as a virtual reality device, a gaming controller and more, not to mention it could be used simply as a bio-sensor for those who want to access that data. Like our other devices this week, the XTH Sense has full MIDI compatibility, and even comes with pre-made plugins for a bunch of popular music production software packages — plus, it's compatible with the Arduino IDE, and comes with a flexible API for building custom apps.

by Lean Beadon, Tech Dirt |  Read more:
Image: via:

Pop Goes the Digital Media Bubble

You don't always hear the bubble burst. Often, it's more a gradual escaping of air, signaled by nothing more than the occasional queasy feeling you bat away: One house for sale on the block, oh well. Two, three—maybe just a robust market? Five, six, seven—and suddenly everyone's underwater and the sheriff is at your door.

That's kind of how it's feeling in the digital media business. For a few years now, investors have been pouring money into online news with the kind of fervor that once fueled the minimansion boom. But in the past year, the boarded-up windows have started showing up: The Guardian, which bet heavily on expanding its digital presence in the United States, announced it needed to cut costs by 20 percent. The tech news site Gigaom shut down suddenly, with its founder warning that "it is a very dangerous time" to be in digital media. Mobile-first Circa put itself on "indefinite hiatus." Al Jazeera America, once hailed as the hottest thing in bringing together cable news and digital publishing, shut down and laid off hundreds of journalists.


And it's been getting worse. As the New York Times' John Herrman put it, "in recent weeks, what had been a simmering worry among publishers has turned into borderline panic." Mashable, which had made a big investment in news and current affairs, laid off dozens of journalists and pivoted to a new, video-heavy strategy. Investor darling BuzzFeed fought reports that it had slashed earnings projections by nearly 50 percent. Salon laid off a string of veteran staffers. Yahoo put its core business, including its news and search features, up for sale.

Pop. Pop.

Here's the thing: It was not hard to see this coming. For years now, smooth-talking guys (yes, mostly guys) with PowerPoint decks have offered up one magic formula after another to save the business of news. Citizen journalism—all the reporting done by users, for free, with newsrooms simply curating it all. "Brand You"—each journo out there on her own, drawing legions of followers to her personal output. (Even Andrew Sullivan couldn't make that work.) Viral headlines—every news shop Upworthy-ing its way into the Facebook swarm. Aggregation, curation, explainer journalism, explainer video, branded content, text bots, video, branded video, branded virtual reality video…each fueling the hope that here, at last, was the way to make news profitable again. A whole class of future-of-news pundits made a living pontificating about how "legacy media" were getting their lunch eaten by digital-native startups. (...)

What keeps them from making money now is that online advertising pays pennies. (Actually, a penny per reader is pretty good these days—CPM, or "cost per thousand" ads, is often far less than half that.) And there are a ton of people competing for those fractions of a penny—including Google and Facebook, which collectively pulled in a whopping 85 percent of new ad spending in the first quarter of this year. The only way to make ends meet in that environment is to turn up the fire hose of fast and cheap content or rent your pages out to native advertising (sorry, branded content).

Look at it this way: A reporter doing even modestly original work might produce five stories a week (and that's not allowing for anything more than a few phone calls and a couple of rounds of editing per piece). If each of those stories gets, on average, 50,000 readers, and each of those page views generates $0.01 (again, a very generous rate), you'll end up grossing $2,500 a week, or $130,000 a year, with which you'll have to pay the reporter and her editor, their benefits, web tech, sales and ops staff, taxes, insurance, electricity, rent, laptops, phones…

And this calculus assumes a brutal pace of hour-by-hour filing and publishing, with journalists constantly looking over their shoulder at the traffic numbers.... The math just doesn't work.

by Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones |  Read more:
Image: via:

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

~ Phlip Marlowe


“Come bowl with me this evening dear
And we will kill twelve cans of beer:
We’ll join the others on the team
And eat three quarts of peach ice-cream.
And in between each frame we bowl
We’ll eat a burger on a roll,
A dozen hot dogs, sacks of fries
A meatball and two apple pies;
Come bowl with me, you really should --
The exercise will do us good.”

~Mad Magazine
Image: The Big Lebowski

Friday, April 29, 2016

When the Powerful Cry ‘Bully’

Last month, Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest a new state law that, among other things, requires people to use the bathrooms of the biological sex reflected on their birth certificates. Springsteen released a statement saying he wanted to “show solidarity” with those waging a “fight against prejudice and bigotry” against trans people. In response, United States Representative Mark Walker, a Republican who supports the bill, told The Hollywood Reporter that Springsteen’s boycott was “a bully tactic,” thereby joining a growing chorus of people who seem to have mixed up their Davids and Goliaths.

A few days later, a (white) North Charleston, S.C., police chief refused to attend a community meeting on the one-year anniversary of the death of Walter Scott because of what he called the “bullying tactics” of its (black) members at previous meetings. Last September, Kylie Jenner, a reality star worth millions, claimed that she was being cyberbullied by commenters on socialmedia. In 2009, the blogger Heather Armstrong tweeted that no one should buy a Maytag washer because of what she called the company’s inadequate response to her broken appliance, and onlookers on Twitter accused her of bullying Whirlpool, the company’s $19 billion parent corporation.

In the old days, bullies were tough guys who picked on wimpy guys, a predictable, archetypal clash that inevitably led to a heroic outcome. Picture the brute kicking sand in the face of the scrawny wimp in the Charles Atlas comic-book ads, inspiring our hero to pump up his muscles and seek revenge. Picture Bluto, Popeye’s hulking nemesis, imperiling Olive Oyl time and again so our favorite sailor man could eat his spinach and save the day. For decades, Western culture treated bullying as an expected rite of passage that tested a man’s mettle, an unpleasant but surmountable obstacle on the path to glory.

As a result, bullying has long been a rich source of comedy, with even its insults and injuries mined for laughs, all the better to set up that final, triumphant scene in which the bully gets his comeuppance. The 1989 cult hit “Heathers” took this final act of vengeance to an extreme: A merciless group of high-school girls harasses their peers until the characters played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater murder them one by one, then blow up the entire school.

That dark scene foreshadowed the radical transformation of our view of bullying that came 11 years later, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., armed with pipe bombs and a small arsenal of firearms, killed 13 people and then themselves. The media painted a dramatic portrait of bullying culture gone wild at the high school, with an imagined “trench coat mafia” of angry, alienated geeks seeking their revenge against popular jocks who’d tormented them for years. But in the 2009 book “Columbine,” Dave Cullen, who reported from the scene that day and studied the event for the next 10 years, asserted that the trench-coat mafia was marginal, and Harris and Klebold had nothing to do with it. According to Cullen, Harris, the lead perpetrator, had many friends, was popular with girls and was rarely bullied. He was just a psychopath.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the event remains in place 17 years later, but this misreading nonetheless helped to incite a seismic — but necessary — shift in the common wisdom on bullying. It came to be acknowledged as a serious threat to the emotional and physical health of its victims. And then, with the advent of social media came the rise of “cyberbullying,” harassment that felt at once private and public, ephemeral yet deeply personal.

The roots of the word “bully” never foretold such a gloomy outcome. In the 16th century, “bully” was originally a term of endearment, arising from the Dutch word boel, or “lover,” and broeder, or “brother.” The word evolved into a greeting for a male friend, and from there into a term meaning “worthy” or “jolly.” This positive connotation lived on into 19th-century congratulatory slang — “Bully for you!” — but back in the mid-17th century, an alternate usage, meaning “harasser of the weak,” had already caught on.

Today this meaning is utterly dominant, and antibullying slogans, campaigns and organizations make up a fundamental piece of education culture. My 9-year-old daughter is currently serving as an antibullying “ambassador” at her school, one of a gaggle of fourth-graders charged with (gently) confronting their peers on any and all bullying behavior. According to my daughter, such offenses range from “being mean” and “hurting someone’s feelings” to “teasing.” The linguistic creep evident here has often struck me as troubling, especially as a relatively laughable bully archetype has been supplanted by the specter of mass murder and suicide.

by Heather Havrilesky, NY Magazine |  Read more:
Image: Matt Dorfman

Zero Hedge, Wall Street's Renegade Blog

[ed. I usually check Zero Hedge at least once a day. Here's their response.]

Colin Lokey, also known as "Tyler Durden," is breaking the first rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. He’s also breaking the second rule of Fight Club. (See the first rule.)

After more than a year writing for the financial website Zero Hedge under the nom de doom of the cult classic’s anarchic hero, Lokey’s going public. In doing so, he’s answering a question that has bedeviled Wall Street since the site sprang up seven years ago: Just who is Tyler Durden, anyway?

The answer, it turns out, is three people. Following an acrimonious departure this month, in which two-thirds of the trio traded allegations of hypocrisy and mental instability, Lokey, 32, decided to unmask himself and his fellow Durdens.

Lokey said the other two men are Daniel Ivandjiiski, 37, the Bulgarian-born former analyst long reputed to be behind the site, and Tim Backshall, 45, a well-known credit derivatives strategist. (Bloomberg LP competes with Zero Hedge in providing financial news and information.)

In a telephone interview, Ivandjiiski confirmed that the men had been the only Tyler Durdens on the payroll since Lokey came aboard last year, but he criticized his former colleague's decision to come forward.

He called Lokey's parting gift a case of sour grapes. Backshall, meanwhile, declined to comment, referring questions to Ivandjiiski. A political science graduate with an MBA and a Southern twang, Lokey said he had a checkered past before joining Zero Hedge. Earlier this month, overwork landed him in a hospital because he felt a panic attack coming on, he said.

“Ultimately we wish Colin all the best, he’s clearly a troubled individual in many ways, and we are frankly disappointed that he’s decided to take his displeasure with the company in such a public manner,” Ivandjiiski said. (...)

Since being founded in the depths of the financial crisis, Zero Hedge has grown from a blog to an Internet powerhouse. Often distrustful of the “establishment” and almost always bearish, it's known for a pessimistic world view. Posts entitled “Stocks Are In a Far More Precarious State Than Was Ever Truly Believed Possible” and “America's Entitled (And Doomed) Upper Middle Class” are not uncommon.

The site’s ethos is perhaps best summed up by the tagline at the top of its homepage, also borrowed from Fight Club: “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” A paean to populism, the 1999 film is filled with loathing for consumerism and the financial system. Brad Pitt portrays Tyler Durden as hell-bent on bringing down the corrupt system of the global elite—an attitude often reflected in Zero Hedge’s content.

by Tracy Alloway and Luke Kawa, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Brad Pitt, Fight Club. 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Colorado Weighs Replacing Obama’s Health Policy With Universal Coverage

For years, voters in this swing state have rejected tax increases and efforts to expand government. But now they are flirting with a radical transformation: whether to abandon President Obama’s health care policy and instead create a new, taxpayer-financed public health system that guarantees coverage for everyone.

The estimated $38-billion-a-year proposal, which will go before Colorado voters in November, will test whether people have an appetite for a new system that goes further than the Affordable Care Act. That question is also in play in the Democratic presidential primaries.

The state-level effort, which supporters here call the ColoradoCare plan, would do away with deductibles. It would allow patients to choose doctors and specialists without distinguishing between those “in network” and those “out of network.” It would largely be paid for with a tax increase on workers and businesses, and cover everyone in the state. Supporters say most people would end up saving money.

Insurance groups, chambers of commerce and conservatives have already lined up in opposition. They say the plan’s details are vague, its size and cost galling. The proposed health system would have a budget bigger than that of Colorado’s entire state government. A new 10 percent tax on payroll and incomes to pay for the system would push Colorado’s tax rates to some of the highest in the nation.

The proposal’s chance of success is dubious. Colorado has a mixed record when it comes to ballot measures, though it has passed some notable ones over the years, including marijuana legalization and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, an anti-tax, anti-spending constitutional amendment.

But the proposal had enough support to garner 100,000 signatures, which put it on the ballot. It has also worried insurers, and some in the medical community and the business community, enough for them to organize in opposition, even enlisting a Democratic former governor to help in their campaign.

In this season of political discontent, the notion of dismantling the health insurance system has tapped an aquifer of frustration from voters. People say that even after the Affordable Care Act, they still pay too much in premiums, plus thousands in deductibles, and still have to worry about being bankrupted by a disabling car crash or an extended hospital stay.

“I think insurance is one of the biggest jokes and crooks,” said Brandon Barta, 38, of Denver. He said his father, Dixon, who worked at a gas station, never received aggressive enough treatment for his prostate cancer. He died last May at the age of 64.

“He was overlooked,” Mr. Barta said.

Mr. Barta said he was intrigued by the idea of a universal health plan that covered maternity care, checkups, emergency room visits and hospital stays, all the way through end-of-life care. Like millions of Americans, he has health insurance tied to his work. His coverage lapsed recently when he switched jobs to start working for a golf entertainment complex, and he is still waiting for his new plan to kick in.

Still, he has questions about how universal coverage would work and how much it would cost taxpayers like him.

The answers: If a majority of voters say yes, the system would start running in 2019, and essentially be a start-up health cooperative bigger than companies like Nike and American Express, according to the Colorado Health Institute, an independent policy group. A 21-person elected board would set the benefits and budgets. The system would be financed by payroll taxes of 3.3 percent for workers and 6.7 percent for employers. It would impose a 10 percent tax on investment income, people who are self-employed and some small-business income.

In the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, echoing many moderate Democratic leaders here, has said that she wants to keep and improve the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative legacy. But her opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, who won Colorado’s Democratic caucuses last month by nearly 20 points, has advocated abandoning the health law for a “Medicare for all” approach. His proposal is similar to the ColoradoCare plan.

The campaign over the Colorado initiative has had the unusual effect of putting conservative critics in the position of defending Mr. Obama’s health plan against an assault from the left. At the same time, it is energizing progressives, who say the Affordable Care Act was a giveaway to the insurance industry that, even with an estimated 20 million people newly insured, has left too many others without coverage.

by Jack Healy, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Theo Stroomer

Endurance Acting

Acting is not an endurance test, though you wouldn't know it from the yearly crop of Best Actor nominees. A win for Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" would only ratify the tendency to see acting greatness in terms of transformation and misery. In this value system, viewer remarks along the lines of, "I barely recognized him" and "My god, look at how much weight he lost!" and "Was that really him falling off that cliff?" take the place of more nuanced evaluations of the actor's art. Acting becomes a stoic's routine, a form of monk-like self-flagellation to prove devotion to one's craft. Lose that weight. Eat that flesh. Take the punch to the face. Are you man enough?

It's the most extreme possible variant of the tendency to mistake Most Acting for Best Acting. It's common wisdom now to say that, if you want get an Oscar nomination, especially as Best Actor, it helps to play somebody terminally ill, or struggling with a chronic condition ("Shine"), the loss of mobility ("Born on the Fourth of July," "My Left Foot," "The Theory of Everything") or a deformity ("The Elephant Man," "The English Patient") or wear lots of makeup to look more like a famous historical figure ("Lincoln"), and so on. And it's true. If you want that little gold man, you've got to pay some kind of physical price.

The acting-as-punishment routine takes this mentality to its lowest depth. Right now Leonardo DiCaprio is the front-runner in the Best Actor race for his performance in the survival epic "The Revenant," in which he plays an 1830s trapper seeking revenge against a colleague who betrayed him and left him for dead in the wilderness. During the course of the film—which we've repeatedly been told was shot under very difficult weather conditions and in harsh terrain; filmmaker suffering is part of this narrative now, too—Leo wades and swims in icy water, crawls across hard tundra while dragging an injured leg behind him, eats raw bison liver, sucks the marrow out of the vertebrae of an animal skeleton, etc., in the name of survival, but also in the name of Art. "Just about every awards body has drunk the 'Revenant' Kool-Aid, buying into DiCaprio’s endless boasting about how super-hard the movie was to make," wrote Matt Prigge, who agrees with me that Leo should not get an Oscar because it would reinforce poor messages.

Seen through this lens, DiCaprio's performance becomes a physical manifestation of his desire to win an Oscar (and his fans' desire to see him get one, finally, 22 years after his first nomination for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"). It also seems of a piece with other Oscar nominations in recent decades that are mainly about proving one's devotion to the art of acting by suffering before or during production (and some acclaimed weight-loss performances that did not get nominations, such as Christian Bale's in "The Machinist").

Robert DeNiro probably started it all when he ate his way across Europe to put on extra weight so that he could play the older, fatter version of boxer Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull." He did variations of this later in his career, putting on weight again to play Al Capone in "The Untouchables" and becoming pumped and ripped to play Max Cady in Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear" (Best Actor nomination). Matthew McConaughey's Best Actor win for "Dallas Buyer's Club" was at least partly a byproduct of how shocking and impressive it was to see him drop all that weight to play an AIDS sufferer. Tom Hanks got an Oscar nomination for "Cast Away," which shut down production for a year so that Hanks could lose 70 pounds to play a man who'd been stranded on a desert island. He had previously won two Best Actor Oscars, for playing, respectively, a Candide-like simpleton who had polio as a child ("Forrest Gump") and a man dying of AIDS while fighting for his rights in court ("Philadelphia").

Pauline Kael was first to call out this acting-as-endurance test idea, writing of "Raging Bull" way back in 1981, “What DeNiro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. DeNiro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with; his [Jake] LaMotta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt.” I love DeNiro in that movie, but he definitely validated some wrongheaded tendencies, as did the academy which rewarded him as much for his athlete's focus on enduring pain as for his imagination as a performer. Every year, one or more critics writes a piece complaining about this kind of thing. It's been going on for decades now. Nothing ever changes.

by Matt Zoller Seitz, MZS | Read more:
Image: The Revenant

Not All Practice Makes Perfect

In just our fourth session together, Steve was already beginning to sound discouraged. It was Thursday of the first week of an experiment that I had expected to last for two or three months, but from what Steve was telling me, it might not make much sense to go on. “There appears to be a limit for me somewhere around eight or nine digits,” he told me, his words captured by the tape recorder that ran throughout each of our sessions. “With nine digits especially, it’s very difficult to get regardless of what pattern I use—you know, my own kind of strategies. It really doesn’t matter what I use—it seems very difficult to get.”

Steve, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, where I was teaching at the time, had been hired to come in several times a week and work on a simple task: memorizing strings of numbers. I would read him a series of digits at a rate of about one per second—“Seven ... four ... zero ... one ... one ... nine ...” and so on—and Steve would try to remember them all and repeat them back to me once I was done. One goal was simply to see how much Steve could improve with practice. Now, after four of the hour-long sessions, he could reliably recall seven-digit strings—the length of a local phone number—and he usually got the eight-digit strings right, but nine digits was hit or miss, and he had never managed to remember a 10-digit string at all. And at this point, given his frustrating experience over the first few sessions, he was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to get any better.

What Steve didn’t know—but I did—was that pretty much all of psychological science at the time indicated that he was right. Decades of research had shown that there is a strict limit to the number of items that a person can retain in short-term memory, which is the type of memory the brain uses to hold on to small amounts of information for a brief period of time. If a friend gives you his address, it is your short-term memory that holds on to it just long enough to write it down. Or if you’re multiplying a couple of two-digit numbers in your head, your short-term memory is where you keep track of all the intermediate pieces: “Let’s see: 14 times 27 ... First, 4 times 7 is 28, so keep the 8 and carry the 2, then 4 times 2 is 8 ...” and so on. And there’s a reason it’s called “short-term.” You’re not going to remember that address or those intermediate numbers five minutes later unless you spend the time repeating them to yourself over and over again—and thus transfer them into your long-term memory.

The problem with short-term memory—and the problem that Steve was coming face-to-face with—is that the brain has strict limits on how many items it can hold in short-term memory at once. For some it is six items, for others it may be seven or eight, but the limit is generally about seven items—enough to hold on to a local phone number but not a Social Security number. Long-term memory doesn’t have the same limitations—in fact, no one has ever found the upper limits of long-term memory—but it takes much longer to deploy. Given enough time to work on it, you can memorize dozens or even hundreds of phone numbers, but the test I was giving Steve was designed to present digits so fast that he was forced to use only his short-term memory. I was reading the digits at a rate of one per second—too fast for him to transfer the digits into his long-term memory—so it was no surprise that he was running into a wall at numbers that were about eight or nine digits long. (...)

The subject we had recruited was Steve Faloon, who was about as typical a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate as we could have hoped to find. He was a psychology major who was interested in early childhood development. He had just finished his junior year. His scores on achievement tests were similar to those of other Carnegie Mellon students, while his grades were somewhat higher than average. Tall and thin with thick, dark-blond hair, he was friendly, outgoing, and enthusiastic. And he was a serious runner.

On the first day that Steve showed up for the memory work, his performance was dead-on average. He could usually remember seven digits and sometimes eight but no more. It was the same sort of performance you would expect from any random person picked off the street. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday he was a little better—an average of just under nine digits—but still no better than normal. Steve said he thought that the main difference from the first day was that he knew what to expect from the memory test and thus was more comfortable. It was at the end of that Thursday’s session that Steve explained to me why he thought he was unlikely to get any better.

Then on Friday something happened that would change everything. Steve found a way to break through. The training sessions went like this: I would start with a random five-digit string, and if Steve got it right (which he always did), I would go to six digits. If he got that right, we’d go to seven digits, and so on, increasing the length of the string by one each time he got it right. If he got it wrong, I would drop the length of the string by two and go again. In this way Steve was constantly challenged, but not too much. He was given strings of digits that were right at the boundary between what he could and couldn’t do.

And on that Friday, Steve moved the boundary. Up to that point he had remembered a nine-digit string correctly only a handful of times, and he had never remembered a 10-digit string correctly, so he had never even had a chance to try strings of 11 digits or longer. But he began that fifth session on a roll. He got the first three tries—five, six, and seven digits—right without a problem, missed the fourth one, then got back on track: six digits, right; seven digits, right; eight digits, right; nine digits, right. Then I read out a 10-digit number—5718866610—and he nailed that one as well. He missed the next string with 11 digits, but after he got another nine digits and another 10 digits right, I read him a second 11-digit string—90756629867—and this time he repeated the whole thing back to me without a hitch. It was two digits more than he had ever gotten right before, and although an additional two digits may not seem particularly impressive, it was actually a major accomplishment because the past several days had established that Steve had a “natural” ceiling—the number of digits he could comfortably hold in his short-term memory—of only eight or nine. He had found a way to push through that ceiling.

That was the beginning of what was to be the most surprising two years of my career. From this point on, Steve slowly but steadily improved his ability to remember strings of digits. By the 60th session he was able to consistently remember 20 digits—far more than Bill and I had imagined he ever could. After a little more than 100 sessions, he was up to 40, which was more than anyone, even professional mnemonists, had ever achieved, and still he kept going. He worked with me for more than 200 training sessions, and by the end he had reached 82 digits—82! If you think about that for a moment, you’ll realize just how incredible this memory ability truly is. Here are 82 random digits:


Imagine hearing all of those read out to you at one per second and being able to remember them all. This is what Steve Faloon taught himself to do over the two years of our experiment—all without even knowing it was possible, just by continuing to work on it week after week. (...)

Since that time I have devoted my career to understanding exactly how practice works to create new and expanded capabilities, with a particular focus on those people who have used practice to become among the best in the world at what they do. And after several decades of studying these best of the best—these “expert performers,” to use the technical term—I have found that no matter what field you study, music or sports or chess or something else, the most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles.

There is no obvious reason why this should be the case. Why should the teaching techniques used to turn aspiring musicians into concert pianists have anything to do with the training that a dancer must go through to become a prima ballerina or the study that a chess player must undertake to become a grandmaster? The answer is that the most effective and most powerful types of practice in any field work by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible. If you wish to develop a truly effective training method for anything—creating world-class gymnasts, for instance, or even something like teaching doctors to perform laparoscopic surgery—that method will need to take into account what works and what doesn’t in driving changes in the body and brain. Thus, all truly effective practice techniques work in essentially the same way.

These insights are all relatively new and weren’t available to all the teachers, coaches, and performers who produced the incredible improvements in performance that have occurred over the past century. Instead, these advances were all accomplished through trial and error, with the people involved having essentially no idea why a particular training method might be effective. Furthermore, the practitioners in the various fields built their bodies of knowledge in isolation, with no sense that all of this was interconnected—that the ice-skater who was working on a triple axel was following the same set of general principles as, say, the pianist working to perfect a Mozart sonata. So imagine what might be possible with efforts that are inspired and directed by a clear scientific understanding of the best ways to build expertise. And imagine what might be possible if we applied the techniques that have proved to be so effective in sports and music and chess to all the different types of learning that people do, from the education of schoolchildren to the training of doctors, engineers, pilots, businesspeople, and workers of every sort. I believe that the dramatic improvements we have seen in those few fields over the past hundred years are achievable in pretty much every field if we apply the lessons that can be learned from studying the principles of effective practice.

There are various sorts of practice that can be effective to one degree or another, but one particular form—which I named “deliberate practice” back in the early 1990s—is the gold standard. It is the most effective and powerful form of practice that we know of, and applying the principles of deliberate practice is the best way to design practice methods in any area. But before we delve into the details of deliberate practice, it will be best if we spend a little time understanding some more basic types of practice—the sorts of practice that most people have already experienced in one way or another.

by Anders Ericcson and Robert Pool, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Cultura RM Exclusive/Phil Fisk

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Could Facebook Swing the Election?

After Mark Zuckerberg publicly denounced Donald Trump (not by name, for some reason, but very clearly), Gizmodo reported that Facebook employees asked on an internal message board whether Facebook has a responsibility to try to stop a Trump presidency. The question, verbatim, was: “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?”

Zuckerberg didn’t answer — publicly, at least. But there was a larger, and frankly scarier, question lurking behind the question of Facebook’s political responsibilities: Could Facebook help prevent President Trump? Not through lobbying or donations or political action committees, but simply by exploiting the enormous reach and power of its core products? Could Facebook, a private corporation with over a billion active users, swing an election just by adjusting its News Feed?

“The way that you present information on Facebook or other social-media sites can have subtle but meaningful effects on people’s moods, their attitudes,” says Paul Brewer, a professor in the communications department of the University of Delaware who has studied Facebook’s political effects. Facebook knows this better than anyone; a study, released in 2014, was conducted to see whether changing the emotional content of users’ News Feeds would affect their mood. (The answer: yes.)

The first thing Facebook would have to do, if it wanted to swing an election, would be to suss out exactly who to target. “In politics, on some things, it’s very hard to change people’s minds,” says Brewer. “You’re not gonna change people from a Trump supporter to a Bernie supporter.” Trying to change the minds of those who are already vocally committed to one candidate is, basically, not worth the effort. So Facebook would, like any campaign, want to encourage turnout among the supporters of its preferred candidate, persuade the small number of genuinely uncommitted likely voters, and target apathetic voters who could be convinced to get out to the polls.

Facebook, understandably, keeps close to its chest exactly what conclusions it can draw about users based on their behavior on the social network. But the company almost certainly has the data to determine what your politics are; it has itself trumpeted the correlations between “liked” Facebook pages and political affiliation. It’s unclear whether apathy, as such, would be as easy to identify, but if you consider that third-party researchers have used public Facebook data to create algorithms that can predict personality traits to a high degree of accuracy, it seems likely that it would be fairly easy for the company to deduce your level of political engagement.

Assuming Facebook has successfully identified a persuadable voter, the next step would be the persuasion.

by Dan Nosowitz, NY Magazine, Select/All | Read more:
Image: Getty

The mass media, whether it is the internet or TV or whatever, does not discriminate between varieties of content. So a funny cat video has the same “weight” as footage of Syrian refugees stuck in hell. In the end, this just evens the whole spectrum out.

Jerry Stahl Talks to Eric Bogosian, and It’s a Little Dark
Image: via:

[ed. She stole my moves.]

Prince Showed Me a Whole New Way of Existing

When I was 12 years old, I saw Prince for the first time on the cheesy top-40 TV show "Solid Gold." He was wearing a sparkly purple jacket and eyeliner, dancing like a sexy demon with a guitar strapped to his body, singing about the end times. It was like catching a glimpse of an alien from a distant galaxy and immediately realizing that there is a faraway world out there that's a million times cooler than the world you live in.

As Prince moved from "1999" into "Little Red Corvette," I fired questions at my 16-year-old brother: Who is that? He's so weird! Is he wearing make-up? Why is his hair like that? Do you like this song? My brother was more than happy to answer my questions if it meant steering me away from the empty calories of Air Supply and Hall & Oates that were the staple of my musical diet at that point. Yes, Prince is very fucking cool, his tone told me. Yes, this guy is the real deal. Yes. He came from another dimension to blow your tiny preteen mind.

A few weeks later, I visited a record store and bought Dirty Mind. I put it into my Walkman immediately, and didn't take it out for the next six months. That opening beat, like a heartbeat, followed by Prince's extra-high soprano, sounded to my very white, very Catholic ears like the sexiest whisper of temptation I'd ever heard.

There's something about you, baby
It happens all the time
Whenever I'm around you, baby
I get a dirty mind
It doesn't matter where we are
It doesn't matter who's around
It doesn't matter, I just want to lay you down

It was like listening to my nascent libido. Prince was a dangerously sexy alien who lived inside my head and knew exactly how sick my thoughts were. He understood the enormous inconvenience of getting a dirty mind whenever you're around someone — which is the pretty much the dominant ambience of a 12-year-old's existence. Suddenly I knew that all of the things that everyone called "bad" might actually be very, very good indeed.

And there was something so gentle and loving and right about Prince. He had a massive sex drive (Obviously! All the guy did was fuck!) but he didn't have the scary vibe of a macho dude who would manhandle you with his giant, clumsy bear paws and then leave you mauled and weeping afterwards. Prince was filthy but sensitive. He knew what he was doing. He had skills. When he bragged about his skills and then shimmied around onstage and then played those finessed, nuanced guitar licks with those delicate hands of his … Well. You learned things about your own desires just watching him. It was not difficult to access your sexual imagination, once you knew that Prince existed.

And nothing Prince claimed seemed far-fetched. It seemed plausible that virgins on their way to be wed would stop and proclaim to him, "I must confess, I want to get undressed and go to bed." I didn't even know what this "head" thing was, but I knew Prince could probably do it better than any man alive. And he wouldn't make you feel cheap about it, either. He'd make you feel like the center of the known universe. Prince seemed to love women for all of the right reasons. Prince was part woman, maybe. Or maybe he was part gay. I didn't have the slightest grasp of what any of this stuff meant — I barely understood binary gender constructions — but I knew that Prince found all of the traditional distinctions made by mortal man useless and arbitrary and hopelessly narrow-minded.

Prince made pop music seem more exciting and smarter than it ever had before. Prince made sex seem full of possibility instead of sinful and scary. Prince made regular everyday men seem clumsy and unimaginative.

So I bought 1999 and listened to that constantly. And then Purple Rain came out.

"The Beautiful Ones" was by far my favorite song on that album. I listened to it over and over again until I couldn't stand the sound of any other song. No other song could touch the seductive melancholy of "The Beautiful Ones." Here was a song that felt just like falling madly in love and lust and then watching it slip out of your grasp. Plenty of songs are about that, but Prince takes it past the gentle, flat ocean of "I want you back" and heads out for the open sea of desire and despair and rage and raw physical longing. When Prince starts singing "Do you want me?" it's so unexpected and so wretched that it's impossible not to feel every cell of your body spring to life. When he screeches "Baby baby baby I want you!" it sounds like a baby crying, which is exactly how it feels to want someone who is indifferent about you.

I loved that song desperately, precisely because it embodied the feeling you have, when you're so obsessed that you can barely breathe, that if you express yourself clearly enough and passionately enough, the object of your obsession will somehow be moved enough by your passion to come around. This essential misunderstanding — that by explaining your desires clearly and forcefully, you'll finally be embraced and loved deeply — ruled the next 15 years of my life. "The Beautiful Ones" was a terrible, irresistible omen of things to come.

by Heather Havrilesky, The Cut |  Read more:
Image: Ron Wolfson

Psycho Thrillers: Five Movies That Teach Us How the Mind Works

In Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors lives the same day over and over again. At one point, he has a chat in a bar with two drunks: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing you did mattered?” “That just sums it up for me,” replies the drunk. Sums it up for a lot of us.

Freud encouraged patients to tell their stories and got them to free-associate around their narrative to find out how they thought and felt about themselves. This gave his patients the chance to relive, re-examine and possibly re-edit their narratives in terms of the way they conduct themselves in the present. Our earliest environment has a profound impact upon us and forms, to a great extent, how we see and interact with the world.

When we first meet Connors, played by Bill Murray, whatever happened to him in his past has made him grumpy, sarcastic, antisocial and rude. He is trapped in the narcissistic defence of assuming he is superior to everyone else and we see people being circumspect around him and not enjoying his company. In psychotherapy, we often talk about “self-fulfilling prophecy” – if you expect everyone not to like you, you behave defensively and, hey presto, your prophecy comes true. Being trapped in the same day is a metaphor for how he is stuck in this pattern.

Groundhog day also illustrates object relations theory: the theory of how we find bad objects (a negative influence from our past) in objects that are around us in the present. To find our bad object we search for and find negative traits even when, in other people’s eyes, there would be none. For example, at the Groundhog Day festival that Phil reports on from the small town of Punxsutawney, he can only see hypocrisy and farce, whereas the TV producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), sees the beauty of tradition and the enjoyment it brings to the people. In object relations theory, the idea is that the psychoanalyst becomes a good object for the patient, and with the analyst’s facilitation the patient finds good objects where hitherto they could not. Rita is Phil’s good object and the catalyst in Phil’s transformation. Her influence begins to rub off. He discovers the joys of educating himself in literature, art and music. He finds out about people, helping them and befriending them rather than writing them off and finds out that this has its own reward.

The tradition of Punxsutawney is that if the groundhog, also called Phil, can see its shadow on Groundhog Day, the town will get six more weeks of winter. It takes Phil the weatherman quite a long time to see his shadow too, but when at last he does, the day miraculously moves on. In Jungian theory, the shadow refers to negative aspects of your own personality that you disown and project on to others. There are also positive aspects to the shadow that remain hidden from consciousness. Jung said that everyone carries a shadow and that the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the darker and more destructive it has the potential to be.

by Philippa Perry , The Guardian | Read more:
Image: Groundhog Day.Allstar/Columbia

Dyson Wants to Create a Hair-Dryer Revolution

Sir James Dyson, the British designer and engineer, sporting sneakers, cobalt blue spectacles and a voluminous thatch of silvery hair, stood in his vast glass office in the depths of the English countryside one recent Tuesday afternoon. He was clutching a device that he contends could change the monotony of bathroom routines forever.

“There has been zero innovation in this market for over 60 years,” said Mr. Dyson, 68, a billionaire who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.

“Millions of people use contraptions daily that are hideously inefficient, waste their time and are causing them long-term damage,” he said. “We realized that we could — and should — sort this situation out.”

He triumphantly held up what appeared to be a sleek black and pink plastic doughnut on a stick. “Four years, 100 odd patents and 600 prototypes later, I think we might have found the answer.”

Known as the Dyson Supersonic and unveiled in Tokyo on April 27, the device is his response to a question many never thought to ask: Is it possible to make a better hair dryer?

This may not seem like a big deal. A few burned scalps and frizz issues aside, people have been doing just fine with the standard hair dryer for decades. But, as Dai Fujiwara, a Japanese fashion designer who collaborated with Mr. Dyson on an Issey Miyake runway presentation, wrote in an email, “Because everyday life is too common, people rarely realize there is a problem.”

About 92 percent of British women regularly use a hair dryer (according to the consultancy Mintel), while 75.5 percent of all women and 24.5 percent of men in the United States and 97 percent of women and 30 percent of men in Japan use one (according to Dyson), and most spend an average of 20 minutes on each session. So changing even a small percentage of that behavior could have outsize repercussions.

Mr. Dyson, Britain’s best-known living inventor, is the Steve Jobs of domestic appliances. He has built a fortune from making otherwise standard products seem aesthetically desirable, in the process persuading untold numbers of consumers that they really, really want cordless and bagless vacuum cleaners, air purifiers, bladeless fans and even household robots. (...)

Ed Shelton, a design manager for the Supersonic, said: “It was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. Beyond having to crack the science of hair, we’ve had to tackle a highly subjective user psychology.

“Trust me when I say there are many more approaches and angles to blow-drying than vacuuming in the world. British women want volume. Japanese women want straightness. No one wants hair damage. And we then we had to create a fleet of robots specifically to test that over and over again.”

by Elizabeth Paton, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Andrew Testa

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Drug Prices Keep Rising Despite Intense Criticism

From the campaign trail to the halls of Congress, drug makers have spent much of the last year enduring withering criticism over the rising cost of drugs.

It doesn’t seem to be working.

In April alone, Johnson & Johnson raised its prices on several top-selling products, including the leukemia drug Imbruvica, the diabetes treatment Invokana, and Xarelto, an anti-clotting drug, according to a research note published last week by an analyst for Leerink, an investment bank. Other major companies that have raised prices this year include Amgen, Gilead and Celgene, the analyst reported.

Drug makers have raised prices on brand-name drugs by double-digit percentages since the start of the year, according to interviews with executives at Express Scripts and CVS Caremark, two major drug-benefit managers. And a report last week by the research firm IMS Health found that in 2015, list prices for drugs increased more than 12 percent, in line with the trend over the five previous years.

“It used to be the drug companies only took one price increase year,” said Dr. Steve Miller, chief medical officer at Express Scripts. “Now what they’re doing is taking multiple price increases multiple times a year.”

That scrutiny on pricing is likely to continue on Wednesday with the Senate testimony of J. Michael Pearson, the chief executive of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, which has come to be viewed as an industry pariah after profiting for years on drastic price increases on old drugs. Mr. Pearson, who is stepping down as chief executive next month, has been subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is investigating the drug-pricing issue.

List prices do not tell the full picture. Much like the inflated room rates posted on the back of a hotel door, drug list prices don’t show the rebates and other discounts that insurers and pharmacy-benefit managers demand from manufacturers, who are increasingly being forced to compete with other drug makers and to offer more generous deals, which lowers the effective cost of the drugs.

In fact, the same report by IMS Health that found that list prices rose 12 percent last year also found that the net price growth — what insurers and employers actually pay for drugs — went up a far more modest 2.8 percent, one of the lowest increases in years.

But one of the cruelties of drug pricing is that the burden falls most heavily on those least able to pay it. Uninsured patients often must pay the list price of a drug, and an increasingly large share of insured customers are being asked to pay a percentage of the list price.

“It’s sort of embedded in the health care system that the price is never the price, unless you’re a cash-paying customer,” said Adam J. Fein, president of Pembroke Consulting, a management advisory and business research company. “And in that case, we soak the poor.” (...)

So if drug makers’ list prices aren’t representative of the true cost of a drug, why risk negative publicity by raising them? Many rebates and other discounts are tied to a percentage of the list price, for one, which means a higher list price still yields more profit. And not every insurer and pharmacy-benefit manager is as sophisticated as the top players, so manufacturers can profit on the margins.

“The structure of the system is such that the only way they can get any increase in prices is to raise the list price by a very high percent,” said Mr. Fein. “It’s kind of baked into the system, and it’s so complicated, you can’t really unwind it without blowing up the entire health care system.”

by Katie Thomas, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Lyrics Entangle Two Rachels

[ed. The internet springs into action... and shoots itself in the foot.]

Minutes after BeyoncĂ© released “Lemonade,” an album in which she touches on marital infidelity, fans in the Beyhive declared it a very bad evening for two people: her husband, Jay Z; and the mystery woman the singer fleetingly mentions as a mistress. Let’s call that poor soul Becky.

The lyric is embedded at the end of the song “Sorry,” and it goes like this: “He only want me when I’m not there. He better call Becky with the good hair.”

Soon after watching Beyoncé swing a bat at cars and set her surroundings on fire in the televised album viewing event, the Beyhive carried out the virtual equivalent of a car smashing against the reputation of the designer Rachel Roy, whose relationship with Jay Z had long been a matter of speculation.

It did not help that Ms. Roy alluded to her good hair in an Instagram post on Saturday night, the night the album was unveiled. “Good hair, don’t care,” she wrote. That was all the evidence the Beyhive needed to unleash its wrath.

But then it got stranger. The TV chef Rachael Ray was accidentally pulled into the fray — because of her similar name. (...)

The Beyhive largely reversed course after discovering that Ms. Ray, the Food Network fixture who prefers to go by “Rach,” was the victim of an unfortunate misspelling. But her Instagram page remains a smoldering wreckage of lemon and bee emojis. Ms. Roy was so inundated with comments that she set her own account to private. (...)

A couple of days later, the dust seems to be clearing. If you’re reading this, congratulations: You survived the rapture. And it looks as if Jay Z is going to be just fine: “Lemonade” is another high-profile delivery to his music service, Tidal, and his marriage appears to be intact.

by Katie Rogers, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Chad Batka

Monday, April 25, 2016

Finding Love Again, This Time With a Man

[ed. Worth reading just for the comments section.]

At age 70, I did not imagine that I would fall in love again and remarry. But the past 20 years have made my life a story of two great loves.

On Jan. 3, 1996, the telephone rang just before midnight, interrupting the silence of the hospital room. From the bedside of my wife, Clare, I lifted the receiver. “Please hold for the president.” Bill Clinton had heard that Clare, struck by acute leukemia, was fading. She listened and smiled but was too weak to speak.

Some hours later, I held her hands in mine as she died. During 48 years of marriage, we had spent a lifetime together.

In the cold spring that followed, I felt grateful to be alive, lucky to have many friends and family members, and glad for a challenging assignment from President Clinton involving national service. But I also wondered what it would be like living by myself for the rest of my life. I was sure I would never again feel the kind of love Clare and I shared. (...)

For our three children and me, Clare was at the heart of our family. When I told her, “You’re my best friend,” she would reply, “and your best critic.” And when I said, “You’re my best critic,” she responded, “and your best friend.”

We were both about to turn 70 when she died. I assumed that I was too old to seek or expect another romance. But five years later, standing on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I sensed a creative hour and did not want to miss it.

It was afternoon, and the tanning beachgoers faced west, toward the wall of concrete buildings lining the boulevard, to catch the sun, ignoring the beautiful sea. I swam alone in the water, attracting the attention of two bystanders near the shore. They came over to say hello, which is how I met Matthew Charlton.

As we talked, I was struck by Matthew’s inquisitive and thoughtful manner and his charm. I knew he was somebody I would enjoy getting to know. We were decades apart in age with far different professional interests, yet we clicked.

I admired Matthew’s adventurous 25-year-old spirit. When he told me that I was “young at heart,” I liked the idea, until I saw a picture of him on a snowboard upside down executing a daring back flip. The Jackson Hole newspaper carried the caption, “Charlton landed the jump without mishap.”

We took trips around the country and later to Europe together, becoming great friends. We both felt the immediate spark, and as time went on, we realized that our bond had grown into love. Other than with Clare, I had never felt love blossom this way before.

It was three years before I got the nerve to tell my sons and daughter about Matthew. I brought a scrapbook of photographs, showing Matthew and me on our travels, to a large family wedding. It was not the direct discussion the subject deserved. Yet over time my children have welcomed Matthew as a member of the family, while Matthew’s parents have accepted me warmly.

To some, our bond is entirely natural, to others it comes as a strange surprise, but most soon see the strength of our feelings and our devotion to each other. We have now been together for 15 years.

by Harris Wofford, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Vivienne Flesher

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Gun Control We Deserve

The issue isn’t whether or not we should have “gun control,” but what kind of gun control we want to recognize as legitimate

America already has gun control—all kinds of gun control. Start with the guns themselves: sawed-off shotguns are legal for general public ownership in Indiana; take one into Ohio and you’re looking at a felony charge. A pistol magazine that holds eleven rounds is a matter of indifference to Rhode Island; carry it into Connecticut and you’ve committed a crime. Even the definition of what makes a gun “loaded” differs from state to state. Or consider the laws governing concealed carry, which dozens of states have dramatically liberalized since the 1990s. In many states you don’t need to take a written test, sit through a safety video, or even prove you know how to fire a gun, let alone reliably hit a target, to be licensed to carry a concealed weapon. In other localities, you must do all of the above—and still you might be denied, because the criteria are black-box, subject to the discretion of the issuing authorities. In still other states you need no license at all: if you can buy a gun, you can carry it concealed. Complicating things further is a baroque network of reciprocity laws whereby some states recognize permits issued by others and issue permits to nonresidents. This landscape changes so rapidly that gun carriers who travel across state borders often rely on smartphone apps to alert them to local regulations.

Against this complex backdrop, the temptation to focus obsessively on particular interest groups and pieces of legislation—namely, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment—is understandable. Despite the endless talk about both, the history and role of each may be somewhat different than you think. For nearly a century, the NRA focused on hunting and the cultivation of marksmanship in patriotic rapprochement with the US military and supported firearms registration laws and gun bans. The NRA’s emphasis on guns as tools for self-defense only really arose during the turbulent political and demographic upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s—as did its vehement rhetorical focus on the Second Amendment. As for the Amendment itself, things are also more complicated: whatever the status of the individual right to bear arms in the nation’s Constitution, an overwhelming number of state constitutions guarantee it in no uncertain terms. If the Second Amendment were to disappear tomorrow, the on-the-ground legal reality in forty-four states would remain the same.

The fiery debates over guns that regularly suck the air out of American public discourse rarely acknowledge these realities. This is in part because reckoning with an endlessly complicated mess of technical particularities, local oddities, and regional differences makes for poor national political theater. But acknowledging the forces and structures that have gotten us to our present moment would also be an ugly business—revealing that no one’s hands are clean, and that they’re largely tied, too. Campaigning for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton thus accuses Bernie Sanders of being an NRA darling who dishonors mass shooting victims. Meanwhile, Sanders lambastes Clinton’s connection to a prominent former NRA lobbyist and lays the corpses of dead Iraqis at her feet. In the narrow political calculus of the news cycle, this kind of point-scoring, for all its vileness, is more expedient than frankly confronting relationships between adventurism abroad, violence at home, and the vast capital and influence of the US military-industrial complex.

At the deepest level, the schizoid landscape of American gun control is the product of two phenomena, both baked into the American past and protean in their contemporary manifestations. First, a long history of skirmishes over who should be armed and how—fraught battles that pivot on questions of race, class, masculinity, and the role of law enforcement.1 Second, the synergy between American militarism and capitalism: a perennial entanglement that has produced a society in which there are more guns than civilians to own them. Together, these forces combine to make debates over whether or not guns should be kept in private hands theoretical at best and, more often than not, proxy conversations that distract us from ugly social realities and broken institutions.

by Patrick Blanchfield, N+1 |  Read more:
Image: M&R Photography

Too Big to Nail

[ed. Assuming the Justice Department or SEC were actually interested in prosecuting politically-connected bankers in the first place. Jon Corzine, anyone?]

The main problem with Wall Street isn’t that, as Bernie Sanders says, the banks are too big to fail. It is that the bankers who run them are too big to nail—to be held financially and personally liable for the bad or corrupt decisions they make. This is now, sadly, documented history. The heart of the subprime mortgage mania—the real reason it could go on for so many years, nearly sinking the world economy in the end—was that no one was really held responsible for any of his or her bad decisions. Ever.

Bank executives weren’t held responsible during the bubble as it was building, when banks stopped caring about their own mortgage lending standards because the bankers knew all those bad loans would be bundled into securities that could be sold around the world, thus relieving the bankers’ firms of liability (though many banks also fecklessly kept substantial amounts on their books). Executives weren’t held responsible during the crash, when they were bailed out by the federal government and barely had to promise any change of behavior in return. And they weren’t held responsible long afterwards, when the Justice Department and the SEC failed to convict (and barely put on trial)a single senior executive, or even to send any to the poorhouse by levying fines and penalties. No personal accountability whatsoever, from start to finish; on the contrary, bankers, traders and executives were rewardedfor their reckless behavior with big bonuses. Is there any better recipe for encouraging more greed, mania and irresponsibility by Wall Street—no matter how big the bank you’re working at is?

Federal regulators are gradually trying to get at this problem; on Thursday, they proposed new rules under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law intended to prevent executives at businesses with more than $1 billion of assets from earning “excessive” pay that encourages too-risky or aggressive tactics. The idea is to require the nation's largest banks and financial firms to hold back executives' bonus pay for longer than before—and require a minimum period of seven years for the biggest firms to "claw back" bonuses if it emerges that an executive's actions have hurt the institution.

But regulators need to go much further than this modest proposal and once again require—as in the long-ago days of private partnerships—that senior Wall Street executive put their entire personal wealth and holdings under threat of confiscation. In plain language, in the event of a bankruptcy, a bank’s bigwigs would be legally required to turn over to creditors or shareholders, until they are made whole, title to scores of Fifth Avenue co-ops, homes in the Hamptons or Palm Beach, or wherever they may be, plus brokerage and bank accounts filled with their accumulated billions. At the moment, of course, no such legal provisions exist. In fact, the whole purpose of a corporate structure is designed to shield executives from liabilities and make them the responsibility of creditors and shareholders.

But that protection can change–in fact should change—either voluntarily by a board of directors, or by federal regulators demanding it. Something very similar to this requirement already exists in the United Kingdom where, since March 1, senior bank executives are held personally liable for things that go wrong in their direct chain of command. In the United States, the big banks’ prudential regulators at the Federal Reserve could require this accountability just as the Financial Conduct Authority now does in the U.K.

Needless to say, this would not be a popular provision on Wall Street. But there is no question that this is the level of accountability that is required to make sure the leaders on Wall Street never again allow the behavior that occurred in the years leading up to the 2008 crisis to happen again.

In other words, the long-term solution to the causes of the 2008 financial crisis lies less in breaking up the nation’s largest banks—an idea that seems to be all the rage these days among some politicians and regulators, especially since many of the banks failed their “living will” test a couple of weeks ago—than in changing the behavior of the people who run and work at those banks.

by William D. Cohan, Politico |  Read more:
Image: uncredited


Saturday, April 23, 2016

In an Age of Privilege, Not Everyone Is in the Same Boat

Behind a locked door aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship is a world most of the vessel’s 4,200 passengers will never see. And that is exactly the point.

In the Haven, as this ship within a ship is called, about 275 elite guests enjoy not only a concierge and 24-hour butler service, but also a private pool, sun deck and restaurant, creating an oasis free from the crowds elsewhere on the Norwegian Escape.

If Haven passengers venture out of their aerie to see a show, a flash of their gold key card gets them the best seats in the house. When the ship returns to port, they disembark before everyone else.

“It was always the intention to make the Haven somewhat obscure so it wasn’t in the face of the masses,” said Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian’s former chief executive, who helped design the Escape with the hope of attracting a richer clientele. “That segment of the population wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics.”

With disparities in wealth greater than at any time since the Gilded Age, the gap is widening between the highly affluent — who find themselves behind the velvet ropes of today’s economy — and everyone else.

It represents a degree of economic and social stratification unseen in America since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan and the rigidly separated classes on the Titanic a century ago.

What is different today, though, is that companies have become much more adept at identifying their top customers and knowing which psychological buttons to push. The goal is to create extravagance and exclusivity for the select few, even if it stirs up resentment elsewhere. In fact, research has shown, a little envy can be good for the bottom line.

When top-dollar travelers switch planes in Atlanta, New York and other cities, Delta ferries them between terminals in a Porsche, what the airline calls a “surprise-and-delight service.” Last month, Walt Disney World began offering after-hours access to visitors who want to avoid the crowds. In other words, you basically get the Magic Kingdom to yourself.

When Royal Caribbean ships call at Labadee, the cruise line’s private resort in Haiti, elite guests get their own special beach club away from fellow travelers — an enclave within an enclave.

“We are living much more cloistered lives in terms of class,” said Thomas Sander, who directs a project on civic engagement at the Kennedy School at Harvard. “We are doing a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.”

Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that the top 1 percent of American households now controls 42 percent of the nation’s wealth, up from less than 30 percent two decades ago. The top 0.1 percent accounts for 22 percent, nearly double the 1995 proportion.

But even as income inequality and the wealth gap stoke the discontent that has emerged as a powerful force in this year’s presidential election, for American business it represents something else entirely. From cruise ship operators and casinos to amusement parks and airlines, the rise of the 1 percent spells opportunity and profit. (...)

For companies trying to entice moneyed customers, that means identifying and anticipating what they want. “The premium customer doesn’t want to be asked questions,” said Mr. Clarke of PricewaterhouseCoopers. “They don’t want friction. They want things to happen through osmosis.”

But for people at the lower end of the market, as well as in the middle, plenty of friction remains. The trade-off is that the amount of hassle is precisely calibrated to just how much you are willing to pay.

“At the low end, people’s expectations have fundamentally changed,” Mr. Clarke said. “Because it’s a fraction of the cost, people say, ‘I’m willing to take some discomfort because my wallet is staying full.’”

by Nelson D. Schwartz, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Gabriela Herman

The Greatest Politician to Never Hold Public Office

In one of the most bizzare and brilliant scenes in American political history, Donald J. Trump last night declined the Republican nomination for President of the United States of America. Speaking to a packed convention center in Cleveland, Ohio where he had just been selected by an overwhelming majority of delegates, Mr. Trump took to the podium and began a speech that stunned the country and world at large:

"My fellow Americans, tonight I am going to tell you a story and talk about my vision for the future. This campaign began not as a... prank, but an experiment. An experiment to show the American people just how venal and divided and dysfunctional our current form of government is (gasps).

I am not qualified to be President (boos). No, I'm really not, and I don't mind telling you that. I don't have the experience in that system, and for that I am grateful. Very grateful. I'm a businessman, that is what I do: business. But I have to tell you, it's too hard these days for me to separate business from all the issues that are currently ruining this great country and running it into the ground. Issues that we have ignored or accepted far too long that are undermining our strength and killing our ability to compete on a global stage, and making us turn against each other."

Mr. Trump then went on to describe many of those issues, including: a broken political system that responds only to corporate lobbying and campaign contributions; breathtaking economic inequality, and widespread corporate criminality and tax cheating; a superficial media that vies mainly to see "who can bark the loudest"; an incoherent immigration policy that is as much a failure as our war on drugs; a dark cabal of government spying agencies with varying spying agendas; a country grounded in fear and economic insecurity, debt and technological disruption, with no safety net or mechanism for people who want to work to be able to do so; and a health care system that is neither affordable nor able to promote either health or care.

Mr. Trump said he had to be more extreme than he felt comfortable being during the campaign - painting issues in stark black and white - in order to get people's attention. Otherwise, "it's all noise and nuance, and nobody gets excited about that."

He then went on to say, "Look, I need qualified workers for my hotels, my golf courses, my other businesses, as does every business in this country. Where are we going to find those people when they can't afford to live near those businesses, commute to them, or even apply for them because they're working two, three jobs just to make ends meet? In the mean time, you have these CEOs making 20-30 million dollars a year (tax-free because they can afford offshore tax havens) lining the pockets of our politicians so that even more money will flow their way. It's despicable, and I know, because I've seen how the system operates - from the inside, and top to bottom. I've always said, 'tax me more', and I believe that. I can afford it, and I'll tell you what, so can all the other businesses in this country. If they can't, then they are not competitive, and who wants to keep subsidizing a bunch of losers? Eventually all the people drowning will realize how easy it is to capsize those few partying in the lifeboats."

In reference to his supporters, Mr. Trump encouraged them not to be disheartened. He told them they had made their voices heard and now had the responsiblity to follow up on his candidacy with real action rather than relying on one person to do the job. "It's not realistic to expect one person to change a dysfunctional system if that person has to work within the rules of that system" Mr. Trump stated. Toward that end, he revealed plans for a new organization - the Make America Great Foundation - to be headed by himself, that will hold politicians, government officials, corporations, and others accountable for their actions based upon a set of measurable criteria (yet to be revealed). He said he welcomes all Americans - of any political party - who want to influence change in a more direct way.

In effect, with the Make America Great Foundation, Mr. Trump explained that he hopes to create not only a Super PAC but a shadow government that will mobilize millions of people and dollars for its causes, and pay people for their levels of organizing and involvement. Mr. Trump was very candid about this in comments after the speech saying, "Look, bullies only respond to strength. If I have to create a bully to achieve what we want, then that is what I will do. We will have the best people, I guarantee it, because those people will be you. Remember 'We the People'?"

"And, remember, I can always run again."

As can be expected, Mr. Trump's exit from the 2016 Presidential race has created an immediate tsunami of relief, disbelief, dismay and political manuevering. While Mr. Trump did not endorse any of the remaining candidates, either Democrat or Republican, he did imply that any person selected in this next election will be a lame duck from the start, "Because they will have to deal with the Make America Great Foundation. They don't get to play inside ball with their cronies anymore."

Is Donald J. Trump the greatest politican to never hold public office? We'll see in the coming months.

by markk, Duck Soup | Read more: