Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

Why comment?

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

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

The bikes-and-dogs theory

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

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

How low do we go?

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

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

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

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

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

Die Antwoord: The Real Zef Rappers of Beverly Hills

[ed. These two crack me up with their bizarro/gonzo/take no prisoners style. Plus, as Ninja says, they got those "next-level beats".]

Ninja, one half of the influential rave-rap act Die Antwoord, is none too pleased that from across the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino has cranked up the stereo, blasting Sarah Vaughan’s voice. “Can you not listen to that man and turn the music down,” he says to the waiter in a snarling, Afrikaans-inflected stage whisper. “Oh, yeah,” says Yolandi Visser, the shyer of the two. “Thank you,” she adds, as the waiter shuffles over to the stereo.

A few moments later, Tarantino stands, unsheathes an LP and drops the needle on side two of Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story,” then raises his glass to Ninja and Visser in a facetious toast — but they already have their backs to him and, tellingly, the volume is significantly lower.

Engaging in this sort of D.J. battle with an Oscar winner requires either the confidence of an L.A. insider or the carelessness of an interloper. Ninja, 42, and Visser, 32, the duo that pioneered Zef culture — South Africa’s response to America’s so-called white trash — are a bit of both. With matching mullets and meth-chic attire, the seemingly out-of-place pair is also oddly at home.

Accents notwithstanding, Ninja and Visser — who formed Die Antwoord in Cape Town in 2008, and now live between L.A. and Johannesburg — could at times be mistaken for native Angelenos, whether dissecting the menu’s vegetarian options (settling on avocado tartines), or recalling coffee at the home of David Lynch, who, for a while, was their neighbor in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl. The duo’s 10-year-old daughter, Sixteen, chose the house for them. (They co-parent but ended their romantic relationship some time ago.)

Die Antwoord exploded on the music scene in 2010 when videos for two songs from their debut album, “$O$,” became viral sensations. Interscope quickly signed them to a $10-million deal. Things didn’t go well. The label’s executives pushed them to record a follow-up heavy on collaborations and guest appearances. “Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas and Far East Movement,” Ninja says. “And we were like, ‘Who? And no!’

The group backed out of the deal, started their own label, Zef Recordz, and went on to release two more albums. They’ve since seized every opportunity to raise a middle finger to the mainstream, in the process cultivating — and perhaps caricaturing — a persona of petulance. Offered the opportunity to open for Gaga, they responded with a video sendup of the singer (an impersonator gives birth to a cockroach, then gets mauled by a lion). They responded to an invite to Kanye West’s house by trash-talking him in a video they made in a bathroom. At their Austin City Limits performance in early October, Ninja dropped his pants and mooned the crowd. (...)

Die Antwoord’s founding D.J., known as God (formerly Hi-Tek), began sharing D.J. duties with Muggs, and they pushed each other. “There’s a Zulu saying that goes, ‘Spear sharpens spear,’” says Ninja. “The competition was ill.”

You could say the same about the garrulous Ninja and the reticent Visser. Their intensely codependent dynamic has long baffled observers, leading some to wonder if their behavior is an elaborate form of performance art. “When we laid down our verses on this album, Yolandi burned me nearly every single time,” Ninja says. “I remember thinking, ‘How can I compete?’ I’m in love with the cut of her voice. It’s just the most delicious frequency.” Hearing this, Visser pulls her knees up under her tank-top hoodie, then pulls the hood over her head and cinches it tight.

by Alex Bhattacharji, NY Times | Read more:
[ed. Here's a cool animated video: Happy Go Sucky Fucky]

On Political Correctness

If you say that something is technically correct, you are suggesting that it is wrong – the adverb before “correct” implies a “but”. However, to say that a statement is politically correct hints at something more insidious. Namely, that the speaker is acting in bad faith. He or she has ulterior motives, and is hiding the truth in order to advance an agenda or to signal moral superiority. To say that someone is being “politically correct” discredits them twice. First, they are wrong. Second, and more damningly, they know it.

If you go looking for the origins of the phrase, it becomes clear that there is no neat history of political correctness. There have only been campaigns against something called “political correctness”. For 25 years, invoking this vague and ever-shifting enemy has been a favourite tactic of the right. Opposition to political correctness has proved itself a highly effective form of crypto-politics. It transforms the political landscape by acting as if it is not political at all. Trump is the deftest practitioner of this strategy yet.

Most Americans had never heard the phrase “politically correct” before 1990, when a wave of stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines. One of the first and most influential was published in October 1990 by the New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, who warned – under the headline “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” – that the country’s universities were threatened by “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform”.

Bernstein had recently returned from Berkeley, where he had been reporting on student activism. He wrote that there was an “unofficial ideology of the university”, according to which “a cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of ‘correct’ attitude toward the problems of the world”. For instance, “Biodegradable garbage bags get the PC seal of approval. Exxon does not.”

Bernstein’s alarming dispatch in America’s paper of record set off a chain reaction, as one mainstream publication after another rushed to denounce this new trend. The following month, the Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz decried the “brave new world of ideological zealotry” at American universities. In December, the cover of Newsweek – with a circulation of more than 3 million – featured the headline “THOUGHT POLICE” and yet another ominous warning: “There’s a ‘politically correct’ way to talk about race, sex and ideas. Is this the New Enlightenment – or the New McCarthyism?” A similar story graced the cover of New York magazine in January 1991– inside, the magazine proclaimed that “The New Fascists” were taking over universities. In April, Time magazine reported on “a new intolerance” that was on the rise across campuses nationwide.

If you search ProQuest, a digital database of US magazines and newspapers, you find that the phrase “politically correct” rarely appeared before 1990. That year, it turned up more than 700 times. In 1991, there are more than 2,500 instances. In 1992, it appeared more than 2,800 times. Like Indiana Jones movies, these pieces called up enemies from a melange of old wars: they compared the “thought police” spreading terror on university campuses to fascists, Stalinists, McCarthyites, “Hitler Youth”, Christian fundamentalists, Maoists and Marxists.

Many of these articles recycled the same stories of campus controversies from a handful of elite universities, often exaggerated or stripped of context. (...)

None of the stories that introduced the menace of political correctness could pinpoint where or when it had begun. Nor were they very precise when they explained the origins of the phrase itself. Journalists frequently mentioned the Soviets – Bernstein observed that the phrase “smacks of Stalinist orthodoxy”– but there is no exact equivalent in Russian. (The closest would be “ideinost”, which translates as “ideological correctness”. But that word has nothing to do with disadvantaged people or minorities.) The intellectual historian LD Burnett has found scattered examples of doctrines or people being described as “politically correct” in American communist publications from the 1930s – usually, she says, in a tone of mockery.

The phrase came into more widespread use in American leftist circles in the 1960s and 1970s – most likely as an ironic borrowing from Mao, who delivered a famous speech in 1957 that was translated into English with the title “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”.

Ruth Perry, a literature professor at MIT who was active in the feminist and civil rights movements, says that many radicals were reading the Little Red Book in the late 1960s and 1970s, and surmises that her friends may have picked up the adjective “correct” there. But they didn’t use it in the way Mao did. “Politically correct” became a kind of in-joke among American leftists – something you called a fellow leftist when you thought he or she was being self-righteous. “The term was always used ironically,” Perry says, “always calling attention to possible dogmatism.”

by Moira Weigel, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Nathalie Lees

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


[ed. They've had other inventive videos too, like: Here It Goes Again]

Thai-Style Clams in Coconut Broth

In some cases, it’s hard to say whether to call a dish a soup, or to call it soupy, souplike or brothy. All those terms are positives, in any case. Take steamed clams, for instance. For my purposes, a big bowl of clams bobbing around in a broth of their own qualifies as soup. Yes, we appreciate each little sweet clammy morsel as we suck it from the shell, but ultimately it is the clams’ savory juices, enjoyed spoonful by spoonful or slurped from the bowl’s edge, that really satisfy. With clams, the more broth the better.

There are countless approaches. Garlic, parsley and a splash of wine make the simplest sort of soupy clams. Whether you use large cherrystones, littlenecks, diminutive Manila clams or briny cockles, the technique is the same: Put them in a pot, clamp on the lid and turn the heat full blast. In a matter of minutes, the clams are open and ready to eat, swimming in a tasty sea.

That’s a perfect go-to option, but today I’m making a highly aromatic Thai-style version. It requires very little in the way of advance preparation or chopping, but you may need to make a small detour for a few key aromatic ingredients to perfume the soup. Most Asian groceries will have them. Lemongrass, galangal, lime leaf, hot pepper and coconut milk are among the classic Thai seasonings for shellfish; using them is dead simple (and all can be stored in the fridge for a week or more). To release their flavors, crush or bruise them. Bash the lemongrass, tear the lime leaf and slice the galangal before they go in the pot. If you want it especially piquant, smash the hot peppers and add them whole. Otherwise add thinly sliced Thai chiles to taste.

Spicy and refreshing, the bright-tasting broth is a mix of sweet, salty, sour and herbaceous. If you added mussels, scallops or prawns to the clams, no one would complain. But I still maintain it’s the glorious soupiness of this dish that is the real reason to make it.

Fragrant Thai-Style Clams in Coconut Broth

by David Tanis, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Karsten Moran

Monday, November 28, 2016

Barack Obama’s Contribution to the Decline of US Democracy

Yes, we can!

The iconic slogan “Yes, we can!” inspired the wave of enthusiasm that swept up millions of Americans during the presidential election of 2008 and carried Barack Obama to the White House. If that slogan epitomized the beginning of the Obama presidency, he had an equally iconic ending: the first African-American president shaking hands with the first president-elect in at least 100 years endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In November 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency with almost 53% on a voter turnout of 58%. The winning percentage was the highest since 1988 and the turnout the largest for 50 years. The first non-white president took office on a surge of enthusiasm exceeding any since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (by comparison John Kennedy went to the presidency with less than half of total votes and a winning margin of 0.2 percentage points).

The enthusiasm for Obama arose from fervent hope for specific changes: 1) a universal, affordable health system; 2) the end of two disastrous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq); 3) economic recovery from the worst collapse in 80 years; and 4) action against banks and bankers to prevent a recurrence of the collapse.

To fulfil these hopes, Obama had majorities in both houses of Congress, 58 of 100 Senators (largest majority of any party in 30 years) and 257 seats in the House (most since 1992). By any measure the new president enjoyed an overwhelming majority. Under some circumstances the Republican minority in the Senate could prevent voting, but a determined and bold president could force votes within the arcane Senate rules.

No he didn’t!

It quickly became obvious that Obama would be anything but determined and bold; on the contrary, avoiding conflict through compromise would guide his presidency. In face of a solidly right wing Republican opposition, attempting to compromise was recipe for failure, a disaster foretold and fulfilled.

Despite the large House and Senate majorities a litany of failure dogged the first two Obama years, some partial and others presented as success. Extension of the popular Medicare programme offered the obvious method of achieving a national health system (confusingly dubbed “single payer” by its adherents). Obama yielded before opposition from private “health care” corporations and drug companies.

The result was an extremely complicated, expensive and inefficient system acceptable to private interests. To make a bad outcome worse, seeking a non-existent compromise, the president delayed passage of the “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” for so long that no one enjoyed the limited benefits before the mid-term election in 2010 (it became law in March 2010). The Republicans would use attacks on the president’s dubious triumph to regain control of the House of Representatives and almost seize the Senate.

The quickly enacted fiscal stimulus (February 2009), American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, brought the closest thing to success. Because the president failed to challenge the Republican hysteria over the fiscal deficit that the stimulus necessarily increased, the mildly successful recovery package would also serve Republican election propaganda.

Having lost the propaganda battle on health care and recovery, Obama scored a third own goal by declining to prosecute any financial executive for the illegal dealings that helped provoke the Great Recession of 2008-2010. This failure combined with massive capital replenishment of banks handed the right wing Republicans a slogan more natural to progressives, “bailout Main Street, not Wall Street”.

Finally, far from ending the two wars began by his predecessor, Obama continued to wage them, even expanding US military operations to other countries with extensive use of military drones as the preferred killing agent. The specific promise to close the brutal detention camp on Cuban soil is unfulfilled.

Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama remained popular despite his failures. Like Clinton his eight years as president would after the initial hope decline deeper and deeper into failure. Perhaps the most shocking of these was the failure to mount serious opposition to the Republican gutting of the law protecting the right to vote, a savage blow to his fellow African-Americans. Weakening of the Voting Rights Act was de facto endorsement of state laws throughout the country restricting the rights of citizenship.

Had Obama ended two unpopular wars, supported an effective recovery programme, quickly forced through a Medicare-based health system for all, and aggressively reformed the US financial sector, he would be hailed as the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, he leaves condemned, yet another Democratic president whose neoliberal economic policies fed a rising of inequalities and shrinking of the well-being of the vast majority.

New Deal to neoliberalism

Wars, a flawed health care law and high unemployment did not give Donald Trump the key to the White House. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will swear in the most dangerous president in American history for a different reason. Beginning with Jimmy Carter in the 1970s the leadership of the Democratic Party enthusiastically worked to make neoliberal ideology mainstream consensus and Donald Trump is the outcome.

An equitable sharing of the benefits of economic growth is the necessary condition to sustain democracy in a capitalist society. This condition was the basis for the so-called New Deal coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It would serve as the guiding principle of the Democratic Party through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

The policies to achieve this equitable sharing had a common theme, restrictions on the functioning of markets, with the purpose of preventing the anti-social consequences of capitalist competition. Concretely these restrictions were 1) trade unions to limit labour market competition, 2) anti-monopoly laws and strict regulations to prevent concentration of corporate power, and 3) severe constraints on financial capital.

Neoliberalism was and remains the antithesis of the New Deal political economy. In contrast to preventing the anti-social consequences of market competition, neoliberalism celebrates that competition, attributing its excesses to public regulation. With this inversion of logic, apologists for financial capital blamed the infamous “sub-prime crisis” on public regulation not fraud and deception by bankers.

by John Weeks, Open Democracy |  Read more:
Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Elizabeth Cotten

Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Libba Cotten taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar at an early age. Although forbidden to do so, she often borrowed her brother's instruments when he was away, reversing the banjo and guitar to make them easier to play left-handed. Eventually she saved up the $3.75 required to purchase a Stella guitar from a local dry-goods store. Cotten immediately began to develop a unique guitar style characterized by simple figures played on the bass strings in counterpoint to a melody played on the treble strings, a method that later became widely known as "Cotten style." [ed. Also known as Cotten picking.] She fretted the strings with her right hand and picked with her left, the reverse of the usual method. Moreover, she picked the bass strings with her fingers and the treble (melody strings) with her thumb, creating an almost inimitable sound.

Libba married Frank Cotten when she was 15 (not a particularly early age in that era) and had one child, Lily. As Libba became immersed in family life, she spent more time at church, where she was counseled to give up her "worldly" guitar music. It wasn't until many years later that Cotten, due largely to a fortunate chance encounter, was able to build her immense talent into a professional music career. While working at a department store in Washington, D.C., Libba found and returned a very young and lost Peggy Seeger to her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. A month later, Cotten began work in the household of the famous folk-singing Seeger family.

The Seeger home was an amazing place for Libba to have landed entirely by accident. Ruth Crawford Seeger was a noted composer and music teacher while her husband, Charles, pioneered the field of ethnomusicology. A few years passed before Peggy discovered Cotten playing the family's gut-stringed guitar. Libba apologized for playing the instrument without asking, but Peggy was astonished by what she heard. Eventually the Seegers came to know Libba's instrumental virtuosity and the wealth of her repertoire.

Thanks largely to Mike Seeger's early recordings of her work, Elizabeth Cotten soon found herself giving small concerts in the homes of congressmen and senators, including that of John F. Kennedy. By 1958, at the age of sixty-two, Libba had recorded her first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes (Folkways 1957, now reissued as Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs, Smithsonian Folkways 1989). Meticulously recorded by Mike Seeger, this was one of the few authentic folk-music albums available by the early 1960s, and certainly one of the most influential. In addition to the now well-recorded tune "Freight Train," penned by Cotten when she was only eleven or twelve, the album provided accessible examples of some of the "open" tunings used in American folk guitar.

by Smithsonian Folkways |  Read more:
Image: via:
[ed. Surely a genius. Freight Train was one of the earliest fingerpicking tunes I learned to play. Can you imagine just turning a guitar upside down and playing it that way? Here's her Wikipedia page.]

The Anger Room

When she was a teenager on the South Side of Chicago in the late 1990s, Donna Alexander fantasized about setting up a space where stressed-out people could relieve their tension in a safe, nonviolent way — by smashing mannequins, televisions, furniture and other objects. She was confident in her idea, but she wasn’t sure how to turn it into a business.

Finally, in the fall of 2008, and by then living in Dallas, Ms. Alexander began an experiment. She invited current and past co-workers to her garage to pulverize items she had collected from the curbs in her neighborhood. “I would play music on my laptop and just let them have at it,” she says. She charged $5. Soon, word of the stress-relief sessions spread throughout Dallas.

“I started getting strangers at my door asking if my house was the place to break stuff,” Ms. Alexander said. “When that happened, I knew I had a business.”

Over the next few years while she looked for a suitable location for the company, Ms. Alexander accrued a four-month waiting list. In December 2011, she quit her job as a marketing manager for a steakhouse to officially start the Anger Room in a 1,000-square-foot space in downtown Dallas.

The Anger Room charges $25 for five minutes of crushing printers, alarm clocks, glass cups, vases and the like. Prices rise to about $500 for custom room setups. The most expensive setup so far has been a faux retail store, replete with racks of clothing. (...)

Sessions in an anger room are meant to be therapeutic. But mental health professionals question the efficacy of rampaging in a faux cubicle or whacking airborne glasses.

“Although it’s appealing to think that expressing anger can reduce stress, there is not much evidence of that,” says George M. Slavich, a clinical psychologist and director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at the University of California, Los Angeles. “On the contrary, the types of physiological and immune responses that occur during anger can actually be harmful for health.”

Mr. Slavich recommends stress-reduction techniques that can be incorporated into daily life, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation and cognitive behavior therapy.

Nevertheless, customers of the Anger Room have paid to re-enact a scene from the movie “Office Space,” in which the main characters, a trio of disgruntled computer programmers, beat a printer with a baseball bat. The company can also customize the workplace experience, recreating a customer’s own office.

“You have a desk with a computer and phone, chair and a mannequin dressed up in a suit, uniform or whatever relates to their real-life issue,” Ms. Alexander says.

Customers are provided with protective equipment that includes a helmet, goggles, boots and gloves. And they can pick out a music soundtrack — including classical, R&B, grunge and heavy metal — and an array of objects to swing.

“Some of our typical options are baseball bats, golf clubs, two-by-fours,” Ms. Alexander says. “We get things like metal pipes, mannequin arms and legs, skillets, legs from tables. Sledgehammers, crowbars and things like that.” Off-limits are sharp objects and those that use ammunition. (...)

Customers have included executives at large corporations, including Hilton and Microsoft, Ms. Alexander says. In the first year, the Anger Room’s revenue was $170,000. Since then, she has received about 2,500 inquiries from other aspiring anger-room entrepreneurs, and she is in the process of drafting a licensing agreement for franchisees.

by Claire Martin, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Cooper Neill
[ed. Sure beats this: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment]

Skating Rink Closes After Public Outcry

An amusement park in Japan has been forced to close its skating rink after a torrent of online criticism over its centrepiece: thousands of fish frozen into the ice.

Space World in the city of Kitakyushu, south-west Japan, bowed to pressure to close the facility on Sunday after an online campaign denouncing the piscine graveyard as “cruel”, “immoral” and “weird”.

The rink, which was supposed to have stayed open until the spring, featured about 5,000 dead sprats, mackerel and other fish that had been bought from a local market embedded in the ice, some with their mouths still open in apparent suspended animation, according to local media reports.

The fish were also used to spell out “hello” under the ice and to form an arrow showing skaters which direction to follow.

Other parts of the rink showed rays and whale sharks that, the park pointed out, were merely enlarged photos that had been placed beneath the ice.

The outcry was prompted after the fish, some of which appear to be swimming in formation around a pillar, were featured in a local TV report last week.

Space World’s Facebook page was inundated with complaints and calls for the attraction to close.

One commenter said the park was “disrespectful of life”, while another said it was displaying an “appalling lack of morality”.

The facility’s website had touted the Ice Aquarium as an opportunity for visitors to “glide across the sea” in what it called the first attraction of its kind in the world.

But on Sunday, the park announced it was closing the ice rink. “We deeply apologise to people who felt uncomfortable about the Ice Aquarium event,” it said in a statement quoted in the Japan Times. “As a result, we have stopped the event from today.”

A spokesperson told the Asahi Shimbun that the park was considering holding a memorial service for the fish next year, adding that the fish were already dead when they were bought from a local wholesaler.

by Justin McCurry, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: The Guardian


This photograph makes me so happy. It was taken at the White House, of course, on the day that 21 people received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I first saw it on Vin Scully’s Instagram page. I am thankful that Vin Scully has an Instagram page.

I have spent the last two days staring at this photograph more or less nonstop. It has everything. At the center, you have Vin Scully, a miracle. Look at the joy on his face. That’s not one of those “OK, everybody smile,” expressions — that is the pure and runaway wonder of a child who cannot believe that life has been so good to him.

That was the wonder that Vin Scully brought to baseball. You can talk, of course, about the poetry. “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” You can talk about his sense of rhythm and tempo and music, the way he watched Henry Aaron hit the home run that passed the Babe, declared it gone, and then stepped aside for 27 seconds to let people hear the crowd roar, the fireworks go off, the rapture everyone felt just being there.

And then, at exactly the right beat, he sang:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

You can talk about the stories, the interludes, the vivid descriptions, the way he would take the plainest of moments — baseball’s beauty is in all of its plain moments — and turn it slightly magical: “So,” he would say, “deuces wild, two balls, two strikes, two outs, two on and two runs in the game.”

But it was his joy, above all, the way he could express his own sense of fortune at every game for more than a half century, that made him a miracle. Vin Scully’s life has had great sadness in it. Personal tragedies. Long lives do. “In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett wrote. Vin Scully went on, and somehow, through it all, conveyed that he still could not believe how wonderful it all is, a hitter, a pitcher, a beautiful day at Dodger Stadium. Pull up a chair and spend the afternoon with us.

To his right in the photograph, blocking the lower corner of the painting of John Tyler, that’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of course, and the smile on his face is a bit more forced, a bit wearier. That too fits. “Listen kid,” he said to the boy in the cockpit in “Airplane,” “I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”

Kareem’s game was pure efficiency. In his later years and after he retired, people would write about the beauty and gracefulness of his signature move, The Skyhook, but it always seemed to me that the miracle of The Skyhook was how ungraceful and unbeautiful it was; The Skyhook was scoring refined and distilled down to a sort of clear basketball concentrate. You knew it was coming. You had seen it a thousand times before. But it was unstoppable as rain and as unavoidable as the wind.

To Vin’s left in the photograph, with Ulysses S. Grant hovering over his shoulder, is Michael Jordan. He too has a camera-ready smile, though unsurprisingly, unlike Kareem’s, it is perfect.

by Joe Posnanski, Joe Blogs |  Read more:
Image: Vin Scully
[ed. Also, here's something Joe isn't too thankful about (Cleveland Browns): The Last Drive]

Sunday, November 27, 2016

via: here and here

Venezuela, A Failing State

The medical student told me to use his name. He said he didn’t care. “Maduro is a donkey,” he said. “An asshole.” He meant Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. We were passing through the wards of a large public hospital in Valencia, a city of roughly a million people, a hundred miles west of Caracas. The hallways were dim and stifling, thick with a frightening stench. Some were full of patients waiting silently in long lines outside exam rooms. Others were dark and deserted, with the overhead lighting ripped out. The medical student, lithe and light-haired, kept us moving, peering through swinging doors, conferring with colleagues in blue scrubs.

We ducked into a room stuffed with rusted bed frames and dirty plastic barrels, where in a corner a thin young man was propped on a bed without sheets. He watched us weakly. A young woman in a pink T-shirt stood beside him, rigid with surprise. The medical student gently asked if they would answer my questions. The young man nodded. His name was Nestor. He was twenty-one. This was his wife, Grace. Three weeks earlier, he had been ambushed on his motorbike and shot three times, in the chest and the left arm. “They were going to shoot me again, but one of the malandros”—bad guys—“said I was already dead. They took my motorbike.” Nestor spoke slowly, his voice uninflected. His skin was waxy. The wounds to his arm and chest were uncovered, half healed, dark with dried blood. There was a saline drip in his right arm and, at the foot of his bed, an improvised contraption, made from twine and an old one-litre plastic bottle, whose purpose I couldn’t figure out.

Did the hospital provide the saline?

No. Grace brought it. She also brought food, water, and, when she could find them, bandages, pain medication, antibiotics. These things were available only on the black market, at high prices, and Grace’s job, in a warehouse, paid less than a dollar a day.

“The hospital doesn’t even give water,” the medical student said. He was watching the hallway. He studied Nestor briefly. “The lungs fill with liquid after someone is shot in the thorax,” he told me. “We usually take the bullet out if we can. But, either way, the wounds need to be drained.”

Were the police investigating the robbery?

Nestor looked down. The naïveté of the question left it beneath reply. Venezuela has, by various measures, the world’s highest violent-crime rate. Less than two per cent of reported crimes are prosecuted.

We had to go, the medical student said. Grace and Nestor thanked us, though we had done nothing for them. The medical student was worried about what he called “spies.” He had smuggled me into the hospital through a broken back door. The regular entrances to the hospital were all manned by uniformed personnel with rifles—National Guard, mostly, but also police, both local and national, and other, less identifiable militia. Hospitals in Caracas were even more tightly secured. Why were hospitals so heavily guarded? Nobody threatened to invade them. The guards had orders, it was said, to keep out journalists. Exposés had embarrassed the government.

Most of the elevators were out of order, so we took the stairs. At night, the medical student said, these stairwells were dangerous—unlit and prowled by muggers. But how could muggers get past the guards? “They work together,” he said. “They share.” He took me down a grimy corridor to a heavy door, which he cracked open. Beyond it, I could see a gleaming, brightly lit hallway with freshly painted light-blue walls and a polished white tile floor. “This is the area they show visitors,” he whispered. He peered at me to make sure I understood. Got it: Potemkin General. We hurried away.

I was introduced to a surgeon, who took me outside to speak. We stood under a tin roof, near piles of garbage and a deserted loading dock. The surgeon was bearded, heavyset, nervous. He looked exhausted. He did not want me to know his name, let alone use it. “We have no basic trauma tools,” he said. “Sutures, gloves, pins, plates.” He ran down a list of unavailable medications, including ciprofloxacin, an all-purpose antibiotic, and clindamycin, a cheap antibiotic. The doctors lost surgical patients because they had no adrenaline. They could still do some types of blood tests, but they could no longer test for hepatitis or H.I.V./aids. The electricity supply was a problem. At one stage, the operating room had been closed for a week. The waiting list for surgery was now three months. In Maracaibo, a major city farther west, surgeons had been reduced to operating by cell-phone flashlight.

The surgeon headed back inside. Doctors had been fired, I knew, for talking to reporters, even for simply filing complaints about hospital conditions. The government did not want to know. There were private clinics to which high officials and Venezuelans with dollars took themselves and their families. Those who could went abroad.

“I’ve seen public hospitals in Chile and Argentina,” the medical student said. “They’re clean, fine, efficient, like they used to be here. We’re going backward. All because of this government!”

Public health in Venezuela is, in fact, getting rapidly worse. In 1961, Venezuela was the first country declared free of malaria. Now its robust malaria-­prevention program has collapsed, and there are more than a hundred thousand cases of malaria yearly. Other diseases and ailments long vanquished have also returned—malnutrition, diphtheria, plague. The government releases few statistics, but it is estimated that one out of every three patients admitted to a public hospital today dies there. State mental hospitals, lacking both food and medications, have been reduced to putting emaciated, untreated patients out on the streets.

We circled the hospital grounds, following a tin-roofed walkway. It was a dim, greasy day, raining lightly. We came upon a long, narrow encampment: families who had strung hammocks between the posts of the walkway or laid mattresses on the concrete, out of the rain. There were bags, baskets, baby strollers. People seemed to be camped long term.

A dark-skinned man in a hammock said that he had been there for three months. His four-year-old son was in the hospital with a low blood-platelet count. “Viral infection,” the medical student told me. “Maybe Zika, or dengue. If he gets the right meds, he’ll survive.” He asked the man, whose name was José, about blood tests. José said that he had raised the forty dollars for the tests, partly by begging on buses, after losing his job. Now he needed money for medicines, none of which the pharmacies had in stock. “We must buy from the mafia,” he said. He meant the black market, but not just the ubiquitous profiteers known as bacha­queros. The medical student understood. Some of the security forces that were deployed, or self-­deployed, to the hospital were in the medical-­supply business.

The overstaffed entrances—all the military and police uniforms and firepower—began to make more sense. Cops and soldiers, militares, were notoriously underpaid. There was money to be made here. We talked to other families camped on the walkway, and on concrete benches under an awning closer to the hospital buildings. Some people were surprisingly outspoken. They denounced the prices charged for examinations (in a system of supposedly free health care), the corruption, the intimidation, the outrageous prices for sterile gauze, saline, food (when there was food), and medications. Some militares had the nerve to accuse the families of profiteering, and to seize their hard-won supplies when they tried to enter the hospital. These were items that, often, they had bought from other militares, who had looted them from pharmacies, or from shipments meant for hospitals. The worst actors were the colectivos, gangs of barrio toughs armed by the government and deputized as “defenders of the revolution.” Their main activity, as runaway inflation and food rationing gripped the country, was shaking down and monitoring their neighborhoods, but they found opportunities around hospitals and seemingly answered to no one. (Some colectivos could trace their descent to urban guerrillas from the sixties who had never disarmed.)

A young woman in a wheelchair had been shot in the leg in a robbery, and was unable to get the pain reliever she needed. But that wasn’t why she was out here. She was looking after her mother, who was in the hospital. The young woman taught primary school, and her students came to school hungry, and she had some choice things to say about President Maduro. Use my name, she said. She wasn’t afraid. But I didn’t want to put more than her first name in my notes. If guards or the colectivos saw my notebooks, they might be seized.

The revolution being defended is usually known, in Venezuela, as Chavismo, for its chief protagonist, Hugo Chávez, who was the country’s President from 1999 until his death, in 2013. For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting—a paroxysm known as the Caracazo—which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background—his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency.

by William Finnegan, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Oscar B. Castillo

Fuck Work

Economists believe in full employment. Americans think that work builds character. But what if jobs aren’t working anymore?

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

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

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

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

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

And don’t tell me that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour solves the problem. No one can doubt the moral significance of the movement. But at this rate of pay, you pass the official poverty line only after working 29 hours a week. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Working a 40-hour week, you would have to make $10 an hour to reach the official poverty line. What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?

But, wait, isn’t our present dilemma just a passing phase of the business cycle? What about the job market of the future? Haven’t the doomsayers, those damn Malthusians, always been proved wrong by rising productivity, new fields of enterprise, new economic opportunities? Well, yeah – until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.

For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell usthat almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the book Race Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.

So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.

In short, it lets us say: enough already. Fuck work.

Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?

I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?

by James Livingston, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Tim Flach/Getty

Politics 101

The New Workplace Is Agile, and Nonstop

Whether you like it or not, your boss may want you to start acting more like a programmer.

In offices ranging from a museum in Sydney, Australia, to a car dealership in Maine, to the tech department at the insurance giant Allstate, the work force is adopting a tech industry concept called agile computing.

No doubt, Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time while internet searches bring the world’s information to our fingertips.

But people may not realize that it is the subtler aspects of how tech companies operate that often have a more lasting effect on other industries.

The “agile” part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple: Rather than try to do giant projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy. And progress can be measured in small steps — one little project at a time.

The idea has been around for at least 15 years. It is used by the small tech company Twilio, for example, to turn out 40 changes to its product every day. But it wasn’t until recently that this sort of employee organization found its way into other industries or even into the technology departments of other companies.

“Folks want to talk about the Airbnb and Uber, but this is like when the assembly line showed up,” said Douglas Safford, Allstate’s vice president of technology innovation. “All the layers and specialization are breaking down. Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week.” (...)

Now cloud computing — putting your data or your software on the servers of a giant data center that is accessible through the internet — is having an outsize influence. Cloud computing (a technology) and agile computing (a management concept) have proved to be a strong combination for creating and tweaking products faster than the competition.(...)

“There’s a lot of talk around the water cooler about how easy it is to pick up more work when you get home,” said Mr. Collins. Some of the museum workers have found other cloud-based tools to compensate — ones that shut off access to work after, say, 7 p.m.

There is also a question of identity in this new workplace: If you are asked to be flexible and jump from one little project to another without hesitation, what sense of ownership do you have of your work?

“It’s like you have to constantly walk through walls, producing fast, with no chance to regroup,” said Ms. Hinds. “As humans, we crave being known for something. If you’re constantly moving in and out of teams, what’s your identity?”

by Quentin Hardy, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Whitten Sabbatini

Friday, November 25, 2016

All That's Left When You Die

[ed. Too much negativity lately. Here are a couple Justin Halpern posts to lighten things up a little with his dad's unique form of wisdom.]

Last month my dad turned seventy-eight years old. A few days before his birthday, I drove down to San Diego to see him.

“What do you want for your birthday,” I asked, as we sat in his living room.

“I want to talk to you about something. Let’s take the dog for a walk,” he said, as he grabbed a leash that sat next to his recliner. “You take the shit bag,” he added, handing me a bundled up plastic baggy.

We headed up his quiet suburban street as his large brown Rottweiler mix walked ahead.

“The human body wasn’t meant to live this long,” he said.

“Seventy-eight is not that old,” I replied.

“Do we have to sit here and dignify a clearly horseshit statement such as that, or can you cease to pander to me and just have a conversation?”

“Okay. Seventy-eight is old.”

He hiked up his sweatpants and quickened the pace of our walk.

“I’m not complaining. I’m just saying people peddle this ridiculous idea that you can be an old person and go water skiing and fuck whenever you want and it’s bullshit. It’s fucking hubris that’s specific to humans and no other species,” he said, as he yanked the dog’s leash, pulling it away from the neighbor’s lawn right before it trampled their flowers.

“Well, the other option is to just accept that death is coming for you,” I replied.

“It is coming for you. You can’t beat death. It’s un-fucking-defeated. And if you fight it, it will humiliate you. It’ll chain you to a bed and make someone have to wipe your shitty ass. It’ll make you forget who your own fucking kids are. It takes your dignity and it whips its’ dick out and pisses on it. When you’re younger and it comes for you, it’s worth it to fight it and suffer through the humiliation. When you’re older, what the fuck does it get you to go through that?,” he said, then took a deep breath and stopped on the sidewalk.

I looked at him collecting his thoughts and every muscle in my stomach contracted in fear. I could barely get out my next words.

“Are you dying?” I asked.

“What? Fuck no. If I was dying I’d just call you up and say ‘Hey, I’m dying.’

“I would prefer you didn’t do it like that,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Like I’m going to give a shit what you prefer when I’m dying,” he laughed, as he began walking again.

So then why are you bringing this up?”

“Take a look at the dog,” he said, pointing at his best friend. “The dog gives a shit about three things, in this order; Living, fucking, eating. Now, if he’s eating, and the opportunity to fuck presents itself, he’d stop eating so that he could fuck. And if he’s fucking, and something threatens his livelihood, he’d stop fucking so that he could protect himself. What does that tell you?” he asked.

“I don’t know, isn’t that, like, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or something?”

“I’m okay with you just saying ‘I don’t know.’ I’d actually prefer that to a dumb answer.”

“I don’t know, dad,” I said, getting a little annoyed.

“The dog, just like every other animal including us, thinks first and foremost about staying alive and passing on their genetics. It’s in our DNA to do so. You spend all your time when you’re young making sure you do all the best eating, fucking, and living you can. But then you get old like me and you can’t even tell if you farted and nothing in your body works like it used to. And you start to think, or at least I do, about how you can spend all your most effective years on this planet, which is filled with billions of people, not giving a shit about anybody but the ten or so motherfuckers that share your blood. And I think human beings are capable of more than just that. And we should want to be. Because when you die, all that’s left of you is the people you gave a shit about. Everybody loves to say how much we’ve evolved, but the real measure of whether or not a species has evolved is if they can look their DNA in the eyes and say, ‘Fuck you, I can do better than you think I can.’

by Justin Halpern, GQ |  Read more:
Image: Justin Halpern

You Will Never Sleep With a Woman Like That

If you discount countless, forgettable chunks of time spent at school, home, and 7-Eleven, I passed most of my waking hours from ages ten through twelve playing baseball and goofing off with friends at the Point Loma Little League fields. Those two adjacent baseball fields were about a mile from my house, and twice a week my team, the San Diego Credit Union Padres, would gather there to practice.

"You should just be called the Padres, not all that bullshit about credit unions," my dad said, as he drove me to the field on the opening day of the season when I was eleven years old.

"But the credit union pays for us to have a team," I said.

"Yeah, well, I pay for you to do everything, and you don't see me making you wear a shirt with my giant goddamned face on it."

"That would be a weird shirt," I said.

"Please. You wear all kinds of dopey shirts, and — what the fuck am I talking about right here? The shirt's not real, I'm just making a point. You got your gear?" he asked, pulling up to the field.

Saturdays were filled with a full lineup of games, all of which the league's players were required to attend, so my parents could drop me off bright and early and then do whatever they wanted all day until my game. The prospect of a morning to himself was very exciting for my dad.

"There's a lot of good teams this year, I think," I said, continuing our conversation as we arrived at the fields.

He reached over me and popped open my door.

"Fascinating. Now out of the car. Vamoose. Out! Out! Have fun and don't screw with anyone bigger than you. I'll be in the stands when your game starts," he said.

I put my hand up for a high five, and he used that hand to push me out of the car. Then his Oldsmobile screeched away up the street, like he was fleeing the scene of a double homicide.

When we weren't playing in a game, most of the Little Leaguers would keep busy playing tag in between the two fields or eating a spicy linguiça sausage made by the local Portuguese family that ran the snack shack above the field.

Every once in a while, someone would raise talk of venturing into the canyon that sat about fifty yards beyond the outfield fences. We were all scared of the canyon. It was packed with trees that grew so close together their branches became intertwined like a bundle of snakes. The canyon's ground was muddy, and it emitted an odor that registered somewhere between "maple syrup" and "rest-stop bath room." It was a group of cannibals short of being the perfect setting for an Indiana Jones film.

Every kid you ran into had a different theory about what lurked inside the canyon walls. "My brother found a pile of poo there that he said was too big to be dog poo or cat poo, but not big enough to be human poo. He said it's probably wolf poo," said my friend Steven as we waited for the game ahead of us to finish so we could take the field.

"Your brother's an idiot," said Michael, the chubby catcher on my team, who always wore his hat backward, so that the back of it came down right above his dark-green eyes. "A bunch of gays live in there. That's where they butt-fuck each other."

"What? Why wouldn't they do that at their house?" I asked.

"I don't know, I'm not a homo. But if you want to get butt-fucked, go into that canyon," he responded, inhaling a bite of sausage that would have killed a lesser twelve-year-old.

At that point in my life, the only two things that scared me were the movie Arachnophobia and that canyon. I tried to never get too close to it, for fear that something might reach out of the forest and pull me in. If I absolutely had to go near to chase an errant throw, my neck would stiffen and my breath would quicken as my body prepared to flee. I decided to run the theories about its inhabitants past my father to see if he had a scientific opinion on the matter.

"Why would gay people screw each other in a canyon filled with wolves?" my dad asked me as he drove us home after my game, my mom sitting beside him in the passenger seat.

"No, that's not what I said. One kid said there were wolves. It was a different kid who said the thing — "

"Hey, look at me, I'm screwing. My pants are off. Oh shit, there's an angry fucking wolf. Does that make any goddamn sense to you?"

"No. But that's not — "

"Plus," my dad interrupted again, "I don't even think wolves are indigenous to this area. Your school takes field trips. You ever heard them say shit to you about wolves? You gotta think about these things critically, son."

"No, I do. I didn't think that the wolves were — "

My mom turned to face me in the backseat. "Also, Justy, you know that homosexuals have sex just like heterosexuals do: in the privacy of their homes. Not in the woods."

"Although sometimes straight people do screw each other in the woods. Mostly when you're in high school, though," my dad added.

I decided to drop the conversation. But that week, on two consecutive nights, I had nightmares about the canyon. Each involved me finding something terrifying in a clearing at the center. In the first dream, I stumbled upon an aquarium that had a screaming Patrick Swayze trapped inside of it, begging me for help, but I was too scared to approach him. In the second, I was confronted by a large squid that had two or three sets of human legs. After that last dream I shot up out of bed, wide awake. I tried falling back to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I pictured the canyon, then Swayze, then Squidman.

Hoping it would relax me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom to grab some water from the kitchen. I was still shaken from the dream, and the shapes of the shadows on the hallway wall looked ominous. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move, and I froze in place. It's just a shadow that looks like a person, I told myself. It's not a person.

"What in the hell are you doing?"

I shrieked like a frightened monkey and jumped back, crashing into the bookcase behind me. As my eyes adjusted I realized that the shadow was my dad, sitting in total darkness in the La-Z-Boy chair that faced the windows to our backyard.

"Jesus H. Christ. Calm down, son. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I had a freaky dream," I said, trying to catch my breath. "What are you doing?"

"I'm sitting in the dark drinking a hot toddy. What the hell does it look like?"

"Why are you doing that right now? It's the middle of the night."

"Well, contrary to popular fucking belief, I enjoy a little time to myself, so I wake up early so I can have it. Clearly I'm going to have to start waking up earlier."

"Oh. Well, sorry. Didn't mean to bother you," I said, turning to head back to bed, glass of water forgotten.

"No apologies necessary," he said.

Maybe it was the bourbon in the hot toddy, or the serenity of the darkness all around him, but at that moment my dad seemed uncharacteristically at ease.

"Can I ask you a question?" I said, turning to face him again.

"Fire away."

"If something's freaking you out, what do you do to not freak out about it?"

"Is this about that Arachnophobia movie, again? I told you, a spider that large couldn't sustain itself in an urban environment. The ecosystem is too delicate. Not fucking plausible."

"It's not about Arachnophobia. It's just — if something's freaking you out, how do you get it to not freak you out?"

He raised his mug of hot toddy to his lips and took a big slurp.

"Well, scientifically speaking, human beings fear the unknown. So, whatever's freaking you out, grab it by the balls and say hello," he said.

I had no idea what that meant, and even in the dimly lit living room he could tell.

"I'm saying, if something's scaring you out, don't run from it. Find out everything you can about it. Then it ain't the unknown anymore and it ain't scary." He paused. "Or I guess it could be a shitload scarier. Mostly the former, though."

As I padded down the hallway back to my room, I knew what had to be done: I had to enter the canyon. There was just no way I was going it alone.

by Justin Halpern, Grantland |  Read more:
Photo: courtesy Justin Halpern
[ed. Repost]

Cameras, Ecommerce and Machine Learning

Mobile means that, for the first time, pretty much everyone on earth will have a camera, taking vastly more images than were ever taken on film ('How many pictures?'). This feels like a profound change on a par with, say, the transistor radio making music ubiquitous.

Then, the image sensor in a phone is more than just a camera that takes pictures - it’s also part of new ways of thinking about mobile UIs and services ('Imaging, Snapchat and mobile'), and part of a general shift in what a computer can do ('From mobile first to mobile native').

Meanwhile, image sensors are part of a flood of cheap commodity components coming out of the smartphone supply chain, that enable all kinds of other connected devices - everything from the Amazon Echo and Google Home to an August door lock or Snapchat Spectacles (and of course a botnet of hacked IoT devices). When combined with cloud services and, increasingly, machine learning, these are no longer just cameras or microphones but new endpoints or distribution for services - they’re unbundled pieces of apps. ('Echo, interfaces and friction') This process is only just beginning - it now seems that some machine learning use cases can be embedded into very small and cheap devices. You might train an ‘is there a person in this image?’ neural network in the cloud with a vast image set - but to run it, you can put it on a cheap DSP with a cheap camera, wrap it in plastic and sell it for $10 or $20. These devices will let you use machine learning everywhere, but also let machine learning watch or listen everywhere.

So, smartphones and the smartphone supply chain are enabling a flood of UX and device innovation, with machine learning lighting it all up.

However, I think it’s also worth thinking much more broadly about what computer vision in particular might now mean - thinking about what it might mean that images and video will become almost as transparent to computers as text has always been. You could always search text for ‘dog’ but could never search pictures for a dog - now you’ll be able to do both, and, further, start to get some understanding of what might actually be happening.

We should expect that every image ever taken can be searched or analyzed, and some kind of insight extracted, at massive scale. Every glossy magazine archive is now a structured data set, and so is every video feed. With that incentive (and that smarthone supply chain) far more images and video will be captured.

So, some questions for the future:
  • Every autonomous car will, necessarily, capture HD 360 degree video whenever it’s moving. Who owns that data, what else can you do with it beyond driving and how do our ideas of privacy adjust?
  • A retailer can deploy cheap commodity wireless HD cameras thoughout the store, or a mall operator the mall, and finally know exactly what track every single person entering took through the building, and what they looked at, and then connect that to the tills for purchase data. How much does that change (surviving) retail?
  • What happens to the fashion industry when half a dozen static $100 cameras can tell you everything that anyone in Shoreditch wore this year - when you can trace a trend through social and street photography from start to the mass-market, and then look for the next emerging patterns?
  • What happens to ecommerce recommendations when a system might be able to infer things about your taste from your Instagram or Facebook photos, without needing tags or purchase history - when it can see your purchase history in your selfies?
Online retailers have been extremely good at retail as logistics, but much less good at retail as discovery and recommendation - much less good at showing you something you didn’t know you might like ('The Facebook of ecommerce'). I sometimes compare Amazon to Sears Roebuck a century ago - they let you buy anything you could buy in a big city, but they don’t let you shop the way you can in a big city. (I think this is also a big reason why ebook sales have flatlined - what do you buy?)

Now, suppose you buy the last ten years’ issues of Elle Decoration on eBay and drop them into just the right neural networks, and then give that system a photo of your living room and ask which lamps it recommends? All those captioned photos, and the copy around them, are training data. And yet, if you don’t show the user an actual photo from that archive, just a recommendation based on it, you probably don’t need to pay the original print publisher itself anything at all. (Machine learning will be fruitful grounds for IP lawyers.) We don’t have this yet, but we know, pretty much, how we might do it. We have a roadmap to recognize some kind of preferences, automatically, at scale.

The key thing here is that the nice attention-grabbing demos of computer vision that recognize a dog or a tree, or a pedestrian, are just the first, obvious use cases for a fundamental new capability - to read images. And not just to read them the way humans can, but to read a billion and see the patterns. Among many other things, that has implications for a lot of retail, including parts not really affected by Amazon, and indeed for the $500bn spent every year on advertising.

by Benedict Evans |  Read more:
Image: via:


Cookie Jar

There was a certain accord between them, right from the beginning. The boy thought the old man looked pretty good for ninety, and the old man thought the boy, whose name was Dale, looked pretty good for thirteen.

The kid started by calling him Great-Grandpa, but Barrett was having none of that. “It makes me feel even older than I am. Call me Rhett. That’s what my father called me. I was a Rhett before there was a Rhett Butler—imagine that.”

Dale asked him who Rhett Butler was.

“Never mind. It was a bad book and only a so-so movie. Tell me again about this project of yours.”

“We’re supposed to talk to our oldest relative, and ask what life was like when he was my age. Then I’m supposed to write a two-page report on how much things have changed. But Mr. Kendall hates generalities, so I’m supposed to concentrate on one or two specifics. That means—”

“I know what specifics are,” Rhett said. “Which specifics have you got in mind?”

Dale considered the question. While he did so, Rhett considered the boy: healthy mop of hair, straight back, clear skin and eyes. There were seventy-seven years between them, and Dale Alderson probably considered that an ocean, but to Rhett it was only a lake. Maybe no more than a pond.

You’ll get across it in no time, kiddo, he thought. The brevity of the swim between your bank and mine will surprise you. It certainly surprised me. He wasn’t sure his great-grandson—the youngest of the lot—even thought of him as an actual human being. More like a talking fossil.

“Speak up, Dale. I’ve got all day, but you probably don’t.”

“Well…you remember before there was TV, right?”

Rhett smiled, even though he felt this was a question to which his great-grandson should already have known the answer. He restrained an urge to say, Don’t they teach you kids anything, because it would have been curmudgeonly and impolite. Not to mention ungrateful. This boy had come to the Good Life Retirement Home for the sole purpose of hearing Barrett Alderson talk about the past, a subject that usually had kids running the other way as fast as they could go. It was only for a school assignment, true, but still. He had come all the way across town on the bus, which made Rhett think of trips he and his brother Jack had made on the interurban line to see their mother.

“Dale, I never even saw a television until I was twenty-one. Radar scopes, yes, but no TVs. I had my first confirmed sighting in an appliance-store window, after I got back from the war. I watched for twenty minutes, almost hypnotized.”

“Which war was that?”

“Two,” he said patiently. “Nazis? Hitler? Japanese in the Pacific? Ring any bells?”

“Sure, yeah, banzai charges and all that. I thought you might mean Korea.”

“When Korea blew up, I was married with a couple of kids.”

“Was my grandpa one of them?”

“Yup, he’d just made his appearance.” And when Vietnam rolled around, I was as old as your father is now. Maybe older.

“So you were stuck with radio, huh?”

“Well, yes, but we didn’t consider ourselves stuck with it.”

Outside his room, from down the hall, came the electronically amplified voice of the retirement home’s recreation director (or one of her minions) calling out bingo numbers. Rhett was happy not to be there, although he supposed he would be tomorrow. He was measuring out the last years of his life—maybe down to months now, considering the blood that had started to show up in the bowl when he took a shit—not in coffee spoons but in coverall games.

“No?” Dale asked.

“Absolutely not. After supper, my dad and my brothers would—”

“Wait, wait, hold that thought.” Dale dug into the pocket of his jeans and brought out an iPhone. He fiddled with it and the screen lit up. He fiddled with it some more and then set it on the bed.

“That thing records, too?” Rhett asked.


“Is there anything it doesn’t do?”

“Honey, it don’t do windows,” the boy said, and Rhett laughed. The kid might be a little foggy on twentieth-century history, but he was quick. And funny.

Dale smiled back at his great-grandfather, glad the old guy had gotten the joke, perhaps seeing him as a human being after all, or beginning to. Rhett could hope; even at ninety, he remained mostly optimistic, although optimism was a little harder to manage at three in the morning, lying awake and feeling the threads holding him to this life loosening.

by Stephen King, VQR |  Read more:
Image: Pat Perry