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08 Dec 15:55

Trump's manipulation of mass consciousness

by Dr. Mike Sosteric, Associate Professor, Sociology, Athabasca University
Human memories are malleable. U.S. President Donald Trump seems aware of this truism as he effectively moulds and shapes American minds with deceptions and exaggerations. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

We like to think of our memories as sepia celluloid snippets of our life upon this Earth.

We think they “reflect us” and remind us of the person we like to be. True, memories can be iffy sometimes. We don’t always remember all the details, but mostly our memories are real.

For a long time, scientists backed us up. Early memory researchers thought that most memories retained some connection with reality. To be sure, memories were elaborately constructed in a bubbling and boiling cauldron of expectation, emotion, motivation, personal opinion, prejudice and self-delusion — what we scientists call, in our typically obtuse way, self-induced, systematic distortations. But there would usually be some element of reality.

As it turns out, we are wrong. When it comes to memory, reality need not apply.

Psychologists have demonstrated that a skilled manipulator can create memories out of the fantastical thin air. Psychologist Julia Shaw does this in experiments with students. Using basic psychology, she can convince 70 per cent of her subjects that they committed a crime, when in fact they never did. It is “alarmingly easy” to do, she says.

How does she achieve this remarkable fabrication?

First, she makes people trust her. Second, she establishes her authority. Third, she constructs their new memory by invoking, through image, visualization and narrative, the subject’s imagination.

Like a potter at her wheel, she moulds and shapes the memory, layering in detail and reinforcing through repetition. Finally, she fires the new memory in the kiln of social pressure and group membership. Voila, the student is a convicted criminal!

Human survival requires group coherence

It’s shocking, but understandable, from an evolutionary perspective. Neurological mechanisms that create malleable memory do not make us sheeple, but they do go a long way towards creating group identification and coherence, an absolute requisite for human survival before advanced civilization.

Malleable memory is an evolutionary thing, and a lot more common than you think.

For better or worse, we’re all doing it all the time, unconsciously or consciously.

Even — perhaps especially — Donald Trump.

Like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, he uses his Twitter magic wand to exploit this “malleable memory effect” to achieve ultra-right economic and social goals.

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he walks towards Air Force One at JFK airport in New York on Dec. 2. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Just as Julia Shaw did with her students, Trump establishes trust by saying things like: “Nobody would fight harder for free speech than me,” “I will create jobs like no one else,” I’m the greater doer of things and suggests I’m a good old down home family boy, just like you.

He establishes authority by saying things like “Nobody knows jobs like I do”, by pretending he’s the smartest guy in the room and the best man for the job.

Highest IQ?

After all, he’s got the highest IQ, and the biggest crowds. He’s the highest-rated and the best thing ever. “Believe me,” he says, and his followers believe him.

He uses images, visualizations and narratives to create whatever memory and new reality he wants. He does it, as he well knows, with consummate mastery and skill.

He practised these skills when he, and the people who were helping him, took down Hillary Clinton. He portrayed her to the people as a crooked, corrupt, incompetent and dangerous failure who would screw over Americans and take them to war. He reinforced it by naming her Crooked Hillary.

And, finally, he invoked group membership and social pressure to lock it all down. He divides Americans into “winners” and “losers,” and invites the winners to stand on his side. They apparently heed his call:

There’s no doubt Trump is a skillful manipulator of people’s memory system. It explains why people who would never ordinarily have voted for Trump cast their ballots for him anyway. He is not a moron, and he’s certainly not crazy.

Addicted to accumulating cash?

He may be heavily addicted to the accumulation of money, to the point where he’d rather invoke nuclear war with Korea than slow its flow, but he’s not mad, stupid or crazy, that’s for sure.

I imagine he’s having a good chuckle. While everybody moralizes and judges, he simply “gets it done.” He is making America great again, for the filthy rich. Under the discredited guise of trickle-down economics, he is accused of trouncing on everybody, and possibly taking us all to war, so he and his brethren can legislate their conservative agenda.

U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to board Marine One recently on the South Lawn of the White House. The Associated Press

In the interests of the uber-rich, his administration has decimated environmental controls, executed a coup d'état of the American education system and passed into law the “biggest” tax bill and tax cuts in history. The only thing he’s failed at so far is wiping out health care for the poor, but he might also get that job done in the future.

So what to do? I suppose that depends on whether you’re a fan of trickle-down economics or not, or think Trump’s a dangerous traitor or not. Personally, I’m on the side of Will Rogers and the IMF, both of whom say, in their own special way, trickle-down economics is a joke.

If you’re not a Trump fan, recognize that tweets about the Access Hollywood tape and other tweet storms are not madness, they are carefully designed mini-memes designed to manipulate mass memory.

Making fun of him and calling him crazy only serves his agenda. I suggest we all quit playing into his hands and instead do what Chelsea Handler did. Start taking his agenda, and his threat, a whole lot more seriously than we are.

The Conversation

Dr. Mike Sosteric does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

08 Dec 15:41

Charles Dickens: The man who invented Christmas plagiarized Jesus

by Matthew Robert Anderson, Affiliate Professor, Theological Studies, Loyola College for Diversity & Sustainability, Concordia University
A Christmas Carol can be seen as a mirror to biblical parables. (Bleeker Street Media/Elevation Pictures)

Everyone knows the story of Scrooge, a man so miserly his name has become synonymous with penny-pinching meanness. Scrooge’s conversion from miser to benefactor has been told and retold since Charles Dickens first wrote A Christmas Carol in the fall and winter of 1843. Ebenezer is a wonderful character, so richly portrayed and fascinating he’s echoed in stories from The Grinch to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Pop culture has embraced both Dickens and his tale. With this season’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, Hollywood has done it again.

But who was Scrooge before he was, well, Christopher Plummer? The inspiration for the crotchety Christmas-hater may have been those who put Dickens’ own father into debtor’s prison and were responsible for young Charles working in a shoe-blacking factory.

Some Dickens scholars believe the author’s 1843 visit to sooty Manchester, or to “the black streets of London,” (as he described them in a letter to a friend) influenced him. It may be that the fable was a moral reminder from Dickens to himself, as he teetered on financial ruin. This is the theory proposed in the book by Les Standiford on which this year’s movie is based.

Did Dickens in fact invent Christmas, as we know it? Hollywood may think so, but others, like David Parker in his Christmas and Charles Dickens vehemently disagree.

Many believe Dicken’s version of Christmas isn’t religious. Bleeker Street Media/Elevation Pictures)

Whatever your opinion, the prevailing wisdom is that A Christmas Carol isn’t particularly religious. As a professor of biblical studies at Concordia University and also a Lutheran minister, I have a different reading.

It’s true that the celebration of the season which Scrooge discovers has much more to do with generosity, family gatherings and large cooked birds, than the Nativity. But maybe those seeking explicit scriptural references in Dickens’ story are underestimating the Victorian novelist’s skill — and his audacity. Perhaps A Christmas Carol contains an alternative to the Bible rather than a simple borrowing from it. And perhaps that’s the point.

Jesus was a master story-teller

Jesus, by all accounts another master story-teller, told a parable that, stripped of Dickens’ English waistcoats, ledgers, fog and shutters, could almost be a mirror to A Christmas Carol:

“There once was a rich man. A poor man named Lazarus lived at his gate, with nothing to eat. Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died.”

There follows, in Jesus’ tale, an exchange between the rich man, who is in torment, and Abraham, who acts as the guardian of paradise. It’s hard not to think of the innocent Lazarus as a precursor to Tiny Tim.

First the rich man asks for his own relief from hell. When that’s denied, he pleads: “I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. Let him warn them so they don’t come to this place of agony.” Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets. They must listen to them.”

“No, Father Abraham!” cries the rich man, “But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change” (Luke 16:19-31).

One can almost hear the chains of Morley’s ghost rattling. What would have happened if Father Abraham had said yes? Something very like a first-century version of A Christmas Carol.

Let’s not forget that the people of our western English-speaking past, especially artists and writers, were imbued with Biblical references and ideas. As Northrop Frye, among others, has argued, they lived and created in a world shaped by the rhythms, narratives, images and conceptions (or misconceptions) of the King James Bible.

Was Dickens familiar with Christian scriptures? All evidence points to the fact that he was more acquainted than most. Despite an antipathy to organized religion, from 1846 to 1849 Dickens wrote a short biography of Jesus for his children, titled The Life of our Lord.

He forbade that his small retelling of Jesus’ life should be published, until not only he, but also his children, had died. The “Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man” was one of eight stories of Jesus that Dickens chose to include in that volume. But in his story of Scrooge, Dickens was too much of a writer to leave Jesus’ parable as is, and his age too suspicious of scripture to leave it “unbroken.”

A Christmas Carol unites the deliciously horrific sensibility of the Gothic movement with the powerfully simple narrative style, joined to moral concern, typical of parables.

A Christmas Carol may be heavily influenced by The Parable of Lazarus.

Was Dickens perhaps dozing off some Sunday while the rector droned on about Lazarus, until he wakened with a start dreaming of Scrooge? We will never know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.

Happy endings for the rich

Surprisingly, the Sunday after Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey, Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, preaching on exactly this text, spoke of Dickens as the “parabler” of his age. Stanley said that “By [Dickens] that veil was rent asunder which parts the various classes of society. Through his genius the rich man…was made to see and feel the presence of Lazarus at his gate.”

I would go further: Dickens took the parable, and then retold and changed it, so that the rich man gets a second chance. As a privileged societal figure who had gone through financial difficulties and who cared about the poor himself, Dickens freely adapted Jesus to come up with a story that’s ultimately more about love than judgement.

When confronted with Marley’s spectre, Scrooge, unnerved but unrepentant, addresses the apparition: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”

The perceptive reader (or viewer) of A Christmas Carol can point a finger at Marley’s ghost and add: “Or maybe you’re an ironic but hope-filled riff on Jesus, by a famous nineteenth-century author who wanted to write his own story of redemption.”

Dickens not only invented this Christmas genre, but imagined a happy ending for himself in it. He penned an enduring story about the second chance even a rich person can receive, if haunted by persistent-enough ghosts.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (Bleeker Street Media/Elevation Pictures)
The Conversation

Matthew Robert Anderson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

08 Dec 15:35

Why Trump's evangelical supporters welcome his move on Jerusalem

by Julie Ingersoll, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Florida
Why Jerusalem matters to evangelicals. jaime.silva, CC BY-NC-ND

President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, Dec. 6 that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel received widespread criticism. Observers quickly recognized the decision as related not so much to national security concerns as to domestic U.S. politics and promises candidate Trump made to his evangelical supporters, who welcomed the announcement..

Historian Diana Butler Bass posted on Twitter:

“Of all the possible theological dog-whistles to his evangelical base, this is the biggest. Trump is reminding them that he is carrying out God’s will to these Last Days.”

It is true that evangelicals have often noted that their support for Trump is based in their conviction that God can use the unlikeliest of men to enact his will. But how did conservative American Christians become invested in such a fine point of Middle East policy as whether the U.S. Embassy is in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

For many of President Trump’s evangelical supporters this is a key step in the progression of events leading to the second coming of Jesus. There’s an interesting story as to how that came to be.

Ushering in the kingdom of God

The nation of Israel and the role of the city of Jerusalem are central in the “end-times” theology – a form of what is known as “pre-millennialism” – embraced by many American conservative Protestants. ​

Evangelical Christians from various countries wave flags as they show their support for Israel in Jerusalem in a march held in October 2015. AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

While this theology is often thought of as a “literal” reading of the Bible, it’s actually a reasonably new interpretation that dates to the 19th century and relates to the work of Bible teacher John Nelson Darby.

According to Darby, for this to happen the Jewish people must have control of Jerusalem and build a third Jewish temple on the site where the first and second temples – destroyed centuries ago by the Babylonians and Romans – once were. In Darby’s view this was a necessary precursor to the rapture, when believers would be “taken up” by Christ to escape the worst of the seven-year-period of suffering and turmoil on Earth: the Great Tribulation. This is to be followed by the cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon at which Satan will be defeated and Christ will establish his earthly kingdom. All of this became eminently more possible when the modern state of Israel was established in the 1940s.

But to understand the power of this way of looking at the world, it is necessary to do more than point to theological tenets. It is their dissemination through culture that determines which thought systems take hold and which ones are lost to history.

As author of “Building God’s Kingdom,” I focus on various aspects of conservative American Protestantism in American culture and politics. In my research I have seen how some thought systems get lost in history and others take hold.

Here is what happened with the end-time narrative that made it a core undercurrent to how these Christians look at the world and history.

The origins of this narrative

The end-times framework was popularized in the 1970s with an inexpensive and widely available paperback by evangelist and Christian writer Hal Lindsey called “The Late Great Planet Earth.” Lindsey argued that the establishment of the state of Israel in the 1940s set up a chain of events that would lead to Jesus’s return.

Waiting For The Word, CC BY

He calculated a date for that return in the 1980s. Lindsey, like many end-times prognosticators before him, argued that he lived in the “first time in history” when the biblical prophecies could possibly be fulfilled. This, he thought, was due in large part to the reestablishment of Israel.

Despite his claim to be reading the Bible literally, Lindsey’s interpretation was far from literal. He said, for example, that the locusts predicted in the one of the plagues in the book of Revelation were “really” helicopters.

As adults were reading Lindsey’s book, a generation of young people watched an “evangelistic” film, “A Thief in the Night,” in church services and youth group meetings.

Beginning with an ominous ticking clock, the film begins at the rapture. It shows how all the faithful Christians suddenly disappeared. For those who remained, there was one more chance to accept the Gospel but that chance required living through extreme persecution.

The film scared young people into conversion by depicting the experiences of these young Christians who were suffering because they had arrogantly dismissed warnings from their friends, families and churches to repent and had missed the rapture.

According to scholar Amy Frykholm, an estimated 50 million to 300 million people viewed “A Thief in the Night.”

The end-times and the culture wars

The use of popular media to spread a terrifying vision of the end of history to draw young people into repentance continued in the 1980s with the apocalyptic novels of Frank Peretti. The Peretti novels depicted a vibrant and active spiritual world in which cosmic forces of good and evil were vying for supremacy all around us.

As the book presented it, every person is obliged to play a part for one side or the other in very literal ways. This applies to all people: “True Christians” were meant to fight on God’s side, and the rest on the side of Satan. The first of these was called “This Present Darkness.”

Though clearly recognized as fictional, these books were also perceived as “real.” For example, while the seat of the diabolical scheming was the fictional local college and the chief antagonist was a fictional professor, it wasn’t lost on readers that they were to perceive colleges and professors as likely enemies.

The depiction of literal “good guys” and “bad guys” as regular people aligned with God and Satan, respectively, played into the increasingly divisive culture war battles of the time. These books were powerful and effective until a decade later when they were replaced in popular Christian culture by the “Left Behind” series, co-authored by culture warrior Tim LaHaye.

These 16 books and four films, released over the course of a decade, also trace the lives of the latecoming believers who had missed the rapture and were now part of the “Tribulation Force,” as they endured the post rapture world and sought to remain faithful despite persecution. The series’ successes included a New York Times best-seller, while seven others set sales records. The entire series sold more than 65 million copies.

Natasha Padgitt, CC BY-NC-SA

It’s impossible to overemphasize the effects of this framework on those within the circles of evangelicalism where it is popular. A growing number of young people who have left evangelicalism point to end-times theology as a key component of the subculture they left. They call themselves “exvangelicals” and label teachings like this as abusive.

It’s hard to get away from the invocation of mythic narratives in American politics. They get used often and are invented and reinvented to be deployed at different times in history. While supporters and opponents of the Trump announcement agree that the results might be cataclysmic, some of the supporters are happy. That is because they are reading it through a lens that promises the return of Jesus and the establishment of God’s kingdom.

Editor’s note: in a previous version of this article the date of President Trump’s announcement about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was incorrect. It has been corrected to Dec. 6.

The Conversation

Julie Ingersoll does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

08 Dec 15:22

A glass of whisky could help you get your head around deep time

by Carina J. Fearnley, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, UCL

The Scottish geologist James Hutton made a proposal in 1788 that, at the time, was extraordinarily controversial. He described Earth as a “beautiful machine”, constantly subjected to long-term decay and regeneration, that could only be understood over many millions of years. This may not sound that contentious, but the challenge this posed to humanity’s sense of time was substantial. Popular contemporary estimates of Earth’s age, such as Bishop Ussher’s calculation that it was created in 4,004 BC, were dwarfed by the magnitude of what Hutton described.

Today, we are more familiar with the enormity of the Earth’s age in contrast with our diminutive timespans. In 1981, John McPhee coined the term “deep time”, highlighting the apparent insignificance of the span of human existence in the face of geological processes. Yet such scale is inherently difficult to conceive of. And so as societies face changing environments, with challenges of energy and food security, the short-term perspective is often politically and economically dominant.

But this way of thinking is high risk. If we are to adequately respond and adapt to landscape change, we need think about time differently, take a more holistic view. As such, over the last year we have been exploring different ways in which we might understand how humans think about deep time, and how it shapes our behaviours.

Geological time spiral. United States Geological Survey

We started by zoning in on the everyday. Deep time, for all its vastness, becomes intimate when we trace it in things that are familiar to us. In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Farrier explains that deep time is “not an abstract, distant prospect, but a spectral presence in the everyday”. It is also in the everyday that we increasingly see our human role in shaping deep time. The Anthropocene era is characterised by the marks that we leave in the geological record.

Deep time is therefore visible in our daily lives, and if we look closely enough we can understand time through the material presence of objects.

Deep whisky

Take a glass of whisky. The processes that have led to the enjoyment of a dram by no means begin with the opening of a distillery. Geological processes occurring over millions of years all contribute towards its particular taste. Our project, conducted by a team consisting of an anthropologist, a geologist, a literary scholar, a palaeoecologist, and a radiocarbon dating expert, was carried out in Orkney, and so for the whisky element of our work we focused on the well-respected Highland Park distillery. Beyond colour, viscosity, aroma, and taste, we wanted to experience and apprehend how long processes of time, far beyond our lifespans, contributed to the amber liquid.

Whisky requires key ingredients: barley, yeast, water, a fuel source (in this case peat), oak wood barrels (often seasoned through years holding Oloroso sherry), and copper crafted pot stills. Water is added to the mix after the barley has been malted and ground down into “grist” to prepare the spirit.

Because so much water is needed, streams percolating through millions of years of rock supply most distilleries. And the chemistry of this water impacts the final taste. Orkney has unusually hard water, drawn through calcareous Old Red Sandstone deposited 359–416m years ago. The malting process also affects the taste. Highland Park, for example, is famous for its floral peaty flavour that derives largely from the peat smoke used in this process. Peat is the slow accumulation of partially decomposed organic matter building up under wet conditions over thousands of years.

Cut peat for fuel on the island of Hoy. Traditional methods are still commonly used. Carina Fearnley, Author provided

Peat through time

The fuel used will connect us with cultural as well as geological history, if looked for. Orkney, for example, has a rich history of cutting peat, a process referred to in the 12th century Norse Orkneyinga Saga but believed to have been started long before then. While few in Orkney cut their own peat today, some still employ their tools and inherited knowledge to get fuel for the cold times.

Local poets such as George Mackay Brown and Margaret Tait captured the communal practice of peat cutting. Mackay Brown depicts men, women and children out on the hill, “small blades glitter[ing]” at dawn as they release the wealth of the peat through a ritualistic exchange of labour. For both poets, peat is also a point of origin, its wet blackness recalling its own beginnings in the fiery “chaos” of the Earth’s centre; the vast temporal and spatial depth of our planet’s core opened up to the human imagination through the everyday presence of the peat.

The characteristics of peatlands also make them excellent archives of environmental change, like a book that can be read through time. Peat exhibits a coherent stratigraphy that captures past landscapes and how humans interacted with and transformed them. Michelle Farrell, for example, has analysed pollen trapped in different peat layers from a 7,000-year-old core sample from Hobbister Moor, the peat used by Highland Park. These microfossils enabled the reconstruction of the environments people inhabited since the Mesolithic, explaining how woodlands retracted owing to climate changes and human impacts, as well as the spread of the characteristic heathland that dominates Orkney today.

Layers of peat at Hobbister Moor. The time frames are revealed by the stratigraphy. Carina Fearnley, Author provided

The reconstruction of trends that work at time scales beyond our human experience as well as unravelling human-environment interactions are the treasures that a deep time approach gives us.

Past, present, future

Digging into the peat, we also look to the future: is it really sustainable for humans to consume resources thousands of years in the making? The depletion of peat impacts upon unique habitats, highlighting the mismatch between human consumption in the short term and the long-term processes that generate the resources we depend on. Peat can be used in a relatively sustainable manner through careful management and by experimenting to establish the best conditions for peat regrowth. Yet the sustainability of peat extraction remains an open question: as the ecologist Kimmo Tolonen has argued:

Peat belongs to the renewable resources only in the geological timescale.

Thinking about an everyday object in such an interdisciplinary way allowed us to engage with deep time through a seemingly everyday glass of whisky. Appreciating the deep geological timescales that shape rock, water, and the taste of the whisky gave rise to stories about the generations who have worked the peat; the creative poetics and histories of peat; and the environmental and geographical histories revealed by looking at peat under the microscope.

Deep time’s vastness can seem out of scale with human life. Yet thinking through materials and different kinds of knowledge and local expertise, we see how it protrudes into the everyday. Thought of like this, any object might serve as a lens through which to see deep time’s vivid presence today.

The Conversation

Carina Fearnley receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the project "Orkney: Beside the Ocean of Time".

Lourdes López-Merino receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the project "Orkney: Beside the Ocean of Time”.

Niamh Downing has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, and the European Social Fund. Orkney: Beside the Ocean of Time is an AHRC funded research project, with partnership from The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness.

Richard Irvine has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the projects "Pathways to understanding the changing climate" and "Orkney: Beside the Ocean of Time".

06 Dec 20:53

Keep the pressure on Congress to protect net neutrality

by Larra Clark

day of Action Libraries Transform image. Reads: Because ISPs shouldn't have VIPs.Nearly 9,000 advocates have raised a library voice in favor of net neutrality over the past week, adding significantly to the outcry over the FCC’s draconian draft order rescinding 2015 protections. According to our action center dashboard, 27,319 emails have been sent and, thanks to you, every member of Congress has received at least one email from us. If you haven’t had a moment to write or call your member of Congress, it’s not too late. Go here.

In fact, some members have already spoken out in favor of preserving net neutrality. Maine Senator Susan Collins was the first Republican to oppose the draft order and has been joined by a few other Republicans and many Democrats. If you’re not sure where your member of Congress stands, you can check out the scorecard from our friends at Fight for the Future.

We also are working with other net neutrality allies to focus attention on Energy and Commerce Committee members, who most directly oversee the FCC. The ALA has signed on to this letter. Your institution can join, as well, via this form. The deadline to sign on is Friday, December 8 at 12 p.m. EST.

We’ve seen great activity and received some good questions from you. The most frequent question is why we aren’t targeting grassroots action toward the FCC commissioners who have the most direct power over whether or not these draft rules will be adopted. The FCC was our first stop for activism, with ALA comments joining millions of others from librarians and other advocates. The majority of comments filed before the end of the public comment period that makes up the foundation for rulemaking favored preserving enforceable network neutrality rules. The draft order dismissed these arguments in favor of other legal and economic readings of the issue. The draft order already has been supported by a majority of Commissioners, so it is almost certain to pass unless there is a meaningful intervention.

One possibility is a legal argument to the FCC, which the ALA has supported in a joint letter. Since the FCC order abdicates enforcement to the Federal Trade Commission, this argument is new and highly relevant. Concerns about the integrity of the FCC’s public record for this rulemaking also are significant. But even these concerns may not move a highly partisan FCC. Congressional outcry is the most likely to bring a pause on the intended vote.

Please keep up the pressure and continue to share your questions and ideas for activism. We’ll be back with more news and action items next week.

The post Keep the pressure on Congress to protect net neutrality appeared first on District Dispatch.

06 Dec 18:23

Who posted all those articles to ResearchGate anyway?

by David Hansen, JD

You may have heard about recent legal action against ResearchGate brought by several large academic publishers organized under name of the “Coalition for Responsible Sharing” (Elsevier, Wiley, Wolters Kluwer, Brill, and ACS). Some of its members filed a lawsuit against ResearchGate and sent ResearchGate copyright takedown notices for many articles posted there. There are some good summaries of the dispute already, including this one by Mike Wolfe at UC Davis and this one on Science Magazine Online.

The dispute is about the millions of copyrighted articles–the Coalition claims there are 7 million–made freely available through ResearchGate. The Coalition publishers, whose business model depends on charging for access to those articles, don’t like that users can get them for free. It’s a familiar dispute, and one that publishers have fought over the years, although on a much smaller scale, with, as well as a variety of universities repositories.

A natural inclination toward open access

So, who posted all those articles to ResearchGate? As far as I can tell, every article shared through ResearchGate was put there by one of its authors. I’m not sure of all of the reasons why authors use ResearchGate, but I believe a major one is that those authors want their work to be as easy to find and read as possible.

I also believe, based on experience working with academic authors on their publishing contracts, that many authors aren’t aware of the details of how their publishing contracts allow them to share their work. They aren’t lawyers, but they shouldn’t have to be.

For most of the ResearchGate articles, I have every reason to think that the publishers are correct in their assertion of legal authority, based on publishing contracts, to remove those articles. Authors often sign publishing contracts that transfer almost all of their rights to publishers. Some agreements grant rights back to authors for some “scholarly sharing”, but the contract terms are often so incomprehensible and limited that they are effectively meaningless to many authors. Some try to figure it out (do a Google search for “Is it legal to post articles to ResearchGate?” and you’ll find lots of advice of varying quality), but it’s far from clear.  So instead, many authors opt to follow their natural inclination—despite the risks—to take what steps they can to make their work easier to find, read, and perhaps be cited.

OA the “right” way versus “wrong” way

Scholarly publishing has long struggled with authors who don’t especially respect or even understand the dominant pay-for-access business model. Judging by the 7 million articles authors have shared through ResearchGate, many authors seem to view that model with something from outright contempt to self-interested indifference.

 So what are publishers to do with these authors who make their work freely available the “wrong” way? If enough people do it, it may have a serious effect on journal subscriptions. But authors are in a pretty good position; if publishers start actively enforcing copyright law against authors we may react negatively (and possibly very publicly) against not just the particular enforcement action but against the underlying business model. See, e.g., The Cost of Knowledge. So instead, we now see a stream of copyright enforcement not against authors but against the intermediaries that authors use to share their work: ResearchGate,, and university institutional repositories. It puts those organizations in a tough position, but ultimately, the harm is to authors who want to share their work.

As many people have stated before, the goals of open access can best be achieved if authors—who have great power as the initial owners of copyright in their works—hold on to their rights and negotiate their publishing contracts for terms that allow them to widely distribute online. For that matter, authors who want to share their work as openly as they can would do well to use alternatives besides posting to proprietary commercial sites like ResearchGate. But right now, that ideal of broad OA the “right” way seems far off.

Open in order to be read

We’re at the end of Open Access week, as you may have noticed by the encouraging number of OA events over the last few days. This year’s OA Week theme is “Open in order to…” I find one of the simplest but most powerful “open in order to…” statements is “open in order to be read.” To me, a silver lining of the ResearchGate takedowns (among other similar recent actions) is that it signals meaningful, author-created, system-wide pressure against a business model that hinders readership, rather than enhances it. The method and platform demonstrating that pressure isn’t ideal, the legality is questionable, and the result for some organizations (and potentially authors) may be painful. But it’s clear that author-initiated sharing, viewed collectively, is seen as a real threat to that business model. I’m hopeful that means we’re just a little bit closer to seeing that model fade out of dominance and yield to one that emphasizes access and readership.

As for authors today, we can protect ourselves from the risk of takedown notices by retaining our rights. Publishing contracts are not written in stone; they’re negotiable. Increasingly, we can negotiate to keep the rights we need to post our works anywhere we want to be read. For anyone interested, here are some tools for doing this the right way:






The post Who posted all those articles to ResearchGate anyway? appeared first on Scholarly Communications @ Duke.

05 Dec 20:09

If Any Profession is Known For Its Sense of Humor, Its Librarians.

by birdie

Check out this group of New Zealand librarians as reported in the Daily Mail UK . They are posing in imitation of the famous portrait of the Kardashians.

05 Dec 19:56

President Trump's national monument rollback is illegal and likely to be reversed in court

by Nicholas Bryner, Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy, University of California, Los Angeles
Supporters of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments during a rally Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017 in Salt Lake City. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

On Dec. 4, President Trump traveled to Utah to sign proclamations downsizing Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly 50 percent. “[S]ome people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said. “And guess what? They’re wrong.”

Native American tribes and environmental organizations have already filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s action. In our analysis as environmental and natural resources law scholars, the president’s action is illegal and will likely be overturned in court.

Contests over land use

Since 1906 the Antiquities Act has given presidents the authority to set aside federal lands in order to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

History of the Antiquities Act.

When a president creates a national monument, the area is “reserved” for the protection of sites and objects there, and may also be “withdrawn,” or exempted, from laws that would allow for mining, logging or oil and gas development. Frequently, monument designations grandfather in existing uses of the land, but prohibit new activities such as mineral leases or mining claims.

Because monument designations reorient land use away from resource extraction and toward conservation, some monuments have faced opposition from local officials and members of Congress. In the past two decades, Utah has been a flashpoint for this debate.

In 1996 President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a region of incredible slot canyons and remote plateaus. Twenty years later, President Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument, an area of scenic rock formations and sites sacred to Native American tribes.

Utah’s governor and congressional delegation have long argued that these monuments are larger than necessary and that presidents should defer to the state about whether to use the Antiquities Act.

Zinke’s review

In April President Trump ordered a review of national monuments designated in the past two decades. Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to recommend steps to eliminate or shrink these monuments or realign their management with Trump administration priorities.

Secretary Zinke’s review was an arbitrary and opaque process. During a rushed four-month period, Zinke visited only eight of the 27 monuments under review. At the end of the review, the Interior Department released to the public only a two-page summary of Zinke’s report.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visiting Bears Ears National Monument, May 9, 2017. DOI, CC BY-SA

In September the Washington Post published a leaked copy of Zinke’s detailed recommendations. They included downsizing, changing management plans or loosening restrictions at a total of 10 monuments, including three ocean monuments.

Trump’s proclamations

Trump’s proclamations on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante note the long list of objects that the monuments were created to protect, but claim that many of these objects are “not unique,” “not of significant scientific or historic interest,” or “not under threat of damage or destruction.”

As a result, Trump’s orders split each monument into smaller units, excluding large tracts that are deemed “unnecessary.” Areas cut from the monuments, including coal-rich portions of the Kaiparowits Plateau, will be reopened to mineral leasing, mining and other uses.

In our view, Trump’s justification for these changes mischaracterizes the law and the history of national monument designations.

What the law says

The key question at issue is whether the Antiquities Act empowers presidents to alter or revoke decisions by past administrations. The Property Clause of the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide what happens on “territory or other property belonging to the United States.” When Congress passed the Antiquities Act, it delegated a portion of that authority to the president so that administrations could act quickly to protect resources or sites that are threatened.

Critics of recent national monuments argue that if a president can create a national monument, the next one can undo it. However, the Antiquities Act speaks only of designating monuments. It says nothing about abolishing or shrinking them.

Two other early land management statutes – the Pickett Act of 1910 and the Forest Service Organic Act of 1897 – authorized the president to withdraw other types of land, and specifically stated that the president could modify or revoke those actions. In contrast, the Antiquities Act is silent on reversing past decisions.

Ruins at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico, originally protected under the Antiquities Act by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 to prevent looting of archaeological sites. Steven C. Price/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

In 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered abolishing the Castle-Pinckney National Monument – a deteriorating fort in Charleston, South Carolina – Attorney General Homer Cummings advised that the president did not have the power to take this step. (Congress abolished the monument in 1951.)

Congress enacted a major overhaul of public lands law in 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, repealing many earlier laws. However, it did not repeal the Antiquities Act. The House Committee that drafted the 1976 law also made clear in legislative reports that it intended to prohibit the president from modifying or abolishing a national monument, stating that the law would “specifically reserve to the Congress the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act.”

Since that time, no president until Trump has attempted to revoke or downsize any national monument. Trump’s changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante depend on an argument that presidential declarations about what a national monument protects are subject to second-guessing by subsequent presidents. These claims run counter to every court decision that has examined the Antiquities Act.

Courts have always been deferential to presidents’ use of the law, and no court has ever struck down a monument based on its size or the types of objects it is designed to protect. Congress, rather than the President, has the authority to alter monuments, should it decide that changes are appropriate.

The value of preservation

This summer 118 other law professors, as well as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a number of conservation organizations, cited our analysis in letters to Secretary Zinke concluding that the president does not have authority to downsize or revoke national monuments.

Although many national monuments faced vociferous local opposition when they were declared, including Jackson Hole National Monument (now part of Grand Teton National Park), over time, Americans have come to appreciate them.

Indeed, Congress has converted many into national parks, including Acadia, the Grand Canyon, Arches and Joshua Tree. These four parks alone attracted over 13 million visitors in 2016. The aesthetic, cultural, scientific, spiritual and economic value of preserving them has long exceeded whatever short-term benefit could have been derived without legal protection.

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are home to many natural and archaeological wonders, including scenic bluffs, petroglyphs, burial grounds and other sacred sites and a rich diversity of plant and animal life. The five Native American tribes that supported protecting Bears Ears, led by the Navajo Nation, have vowed to defend the monuments in court. President Trump’s effort to scale back these monuments oversteps his authority and is unlikely to stand.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 27, 2017.

The Conversation

Eric Biber was an associate attorney with Earthjustice from 2003-2006, where he worked on litigation relating to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Mark Squillace served as Special Assistant to the Solicitor at the U.S. Department of the Interior in the year 2000.

Nicholas Bryner and Sean B. Hecht do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

05 Dec 19:51

Social networking sites may be controlling your mind – here's how to take charge

by Simon McCarthy-Jones, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology, Trinity College Dublin
Are you a Facebook addict? Here's how to find out. Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

How can you live the life you want to, avoiding the distractions and manipulations of others? To do so, you need to know how you work. “Know thyself”, the Ancients urged. Sadly, we are often bad at this.

But by contrast, others know us increasingly well. Our intelligence, sexual orientation – and much more – can be computed from our Facebook likes. Machines, using data from our digital footprint, are better judges of our personality than our friends and family. Soon, artificial intelligence, using our social network data, will know even more. The 21st-century challenge will be how to live when others know us better than we know ourselves.

But how free are we today? There are industries dedicated to capturing and selling our attention – and the best bait is social networking. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have drawn us closer round the campfire of our shared humanity. Yet, they come with costs, both personal and political. Users must decide if the benefits of these sites outweigh their costs.

This decision should be freely made. But can it be, if social networking sites are potentially addictive? The decision should also be informed. But can it be, if we don’t know what is happening behind the curtain?

Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, recently discussed the thought process that went into building this social network. He described it as being:

All about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?

To do this, the user had to be given:

A little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post…and that’s going to get you to contribute more.

Parker continued:

It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… The inventors, creators, it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg]… understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.

Human needs create human vulnerabilities

So what are these vulnerabilities? Humans have a fundamental need to belong and a fundamental desire for social status. As a result, our brains treat information about ourselves like a reward. When our behaviour is rewarded with things such as food or money, our brain’s “valuation system” activates. Much of this system is also activated when we encounter self-relevant information. Such information is hence given great weight. That’s why, if someone says your name, even across a noisy room, it automatically pops into your consciousness.

Information relating to our reputation and social rank is particularly important. We are wired to be sensitive to this. We understand social dominance at only 15 months of age.

Social networking sites grab us because they involve self-relevant information and bear on our social status and reputation. The greater your need to belong and be popular, and the stronger your brain’s reward centres respond to your reputation being enhanced, the more irresistible is the site’s siren song.

Is social media addictive?

Gambling is addictive because you don’t know how many bets you will have to make before you win. B F Skinner uncovered this in his Harvard pigeon lab in the 1950s. If pigeons were given food every time they pecked a button, they pecked a lot. If they were only sometimes given food when they pecked a button, they not only pecked much more, but did so in a frantic, compulsive manner.

It could be argued that Skinner’s pigeon lab was resurrected at Harvard in 2004, with two modifications. It was called Facebook. And it didn’t use pigeons.

When you check Facebook you can’t predict if someone will have left you self-relevant information or not. Social network sites are slot machines that pay out the gold of self-relevant information. This is why billions of people pull their levers. So, can they be addictive?

Facebook reportedly originally advertised itself as “the college addiction”. Today, some researchers claim Facebook addiction “has become a reality”. However, this is not a recognised psychiatric disorder and there are problems with the concept.

People undertake many activities on Facebook, from gaming to social networking. The term “Facebook addiction” hence lacks specificity. Also, as Facebook is just one of many networking sites, the term “social networking addiction” would seem more appropriate.

Yet, the term “addiction” itself remains potentially problematic. Addictions are typically thought of as chronic conditions that cause problems in your life. Yet, a 5-year follow-up study found that many excessive behaviours deemed to be addictions – such as exercising, sex, shopping and video gaming – were fairly temporary. Furthermore, excessive social network use need not cause problems for everyone. Indeed, labelling excessive involvement in an activity as an “addiction” could result in the overpathologisation of everyday behaviors. Context is key.

Nevertheless, excessive social network use has been convincingly argued to lead to symptoms associated with addiction. This includes becoming preoccupied with these sites, using them to modify your mood, needing to use them more and more to get the same effects, and suffering withdrawal effects when use is ceased that often cause you to start using again. The best estimate is that around 5% of adolescent users have significant levels of addiction-like symptoms.

Taking back control

How can we benefit from social networking sites without being consumed by them?Companies could redesign their sites to mitigate the risk of addiction. They could use opt-out default settings for features that encourage addiction and make it easier for people to self-regulate their usage. However, some claim that asking tech firms “to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask”. So government regulation may be needed, perhaps similar to that used with the tobacco industry.

Users could also consider whether personal reasons are making them vulnerable to problematic use. Factors that predict excessive use include an increased tendency to experience negative emotions, being unable to cope well with everyday problems, a need for self-promotion, loneliness and fear of missing out. These factors will, of course, not apply to everyone.

Finally, users could empower themselves. It is already possible to limit time on these sites using apps such as Freedom, Moment and StayFocusd. The majority of Facebook users have voluntarily taken a break from Facebook, though this can be hard.

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” run the famous lines from Invictus. Sadly, future generations may find them incomprehensible.

The Conversation

Simon McCarthy-Jones receives funding from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

04 Dec 20:46

The new tax bill will make Americans less healthy – and that's bad for the economy

by Diane Dewar, Associate Professor of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, University at Albany, State University of New York
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The new tax bill, passed by the Senate early Saturday, is not just about taxes. It has significant consequences for the American health care system – especially for the most vulnerable of our citizens.

If the proposed tax bill comes to fruition, it will reduce the affordability of health care for many Americans. Without access to care, our sickest and most vulnerable – especially the the poor and elderly – will suffer an increasing chance of poorer health outcomes.

What’s more, the bill’s long-term outcomes will be bad for our economy, resulting in lost productivity, lost wages and increased health care costs. If Americans become less healthy and have less access to health care, then everyone loses.

This bill puts much of the health system reforms under the Obama administration in jeopardy. For example, the Senate tax plan includes a repeal of an important part of the Affordable Care Act, the individual mandate. This provision requires that most Americans buy health insurance, or pay a penalty.

Many health care experts see the mandate as the only way to bring healthy people into the insurance marketplaces. Gutting the mandate would result in 13 million more uninsured Americans over the next 10 years.

Additionally, the Senate bill is expected to trigger a US$25 billion annual cut to Medicare, including cuts to cancer care for older Americans covered by Medicare. The House plan also eliminates medical expense deductions, implying that catastrophic expenses will not be as deductible under the new tax proposal.

Many economists believe that the American population has a right to be healthy and productive. This has major implications for the income generated for society. A healthier population has a greater investment in human capital and is more productive in the workforce, yielding greater output and income.

By the same token, a less healthy workforce will work less and be less valuable in the labor market. Health care costs will also increase due to uncompensated care, as more of the population cannot afford basic health care services to prevent disease – let alone chronic or critical care.

Lack of access to care also lowers the productivity of lower income citizens. If health insurance is less affordable and available, then those already at risk for illness will become even more vulnerable. This segment of the population will be likelier to fall ill and lose work time.

Is the right to health only relevant for those with influence or affluence in the U.S.? If so, then we all will pay for the poorer health of our society in the long term. Hospitals and other providers will pass along bad debt and costs associated with charity care for uninsured people. Insurance companies will charge higher premiums to cover the expenses they incur for treating patients who skip preventive care and instead go to the doctor only when they are sick.

As the most vulnerable Americans rack up increasing medical expenses and decline in productivity due to sickness, everyone in the U.S. will have to pay the price.

The Conversation

Diane Dewar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

04 Dec 20:25

The horror and pleasure of misused words: from mispronunciation to malapropisms

by Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland
'I want to be effluent': malapropisms and mispronounced words were a regular gag in the TV comedy Kath and Kim and continue to peeve many people today. AAP

American film director Judd Apatow once confessed to Stephen Colbert that he’d been mispronouncing his wife Leslie Mann’s name for nearly two decades. He’d been saying “Lez-lee”, while she pronounces it as “Less-lee”. When he asked her why she hadn’t corrected his mistake, she said she “thought he wouldn’t be able to make the adjustment”. Barbra Streisand, unlike Mann, is reportedly insistent that her name be pronounced correctly by everyone, even Apple’s voice assistant Siri.

In Australia, mispronunciation is often said as “mispronounciation”. Although it is a noun, there’s no “noun” in it. In 1987, Harold Scruby, who later functioned as Deputy Mayor of the Mosman City Council, published a quirky compendium of instances of mispronunciation by Australians. He labelled these “Waynespeak”. Prior to the publication of Scruby’s book, his friend Leo Schofield had run some of the expressions in his Sydney Morning Herald column and been drowned in “a Niagara of correspondence”.

Hordes of respondents regarded these expressions to be at least non-standard, or just plain wrong. Despite this, many of Scruby’s examples remain current today: “anythink” and its companions “everythink”, “nothink”, and “somethink”; “arks” (“ask”); “astericks” (“asterisk”); “bought” (“brought”); “could of” (“could’ve”); “deteriate” (“deteriorate”); “ecksetra” (“et cetera”); “expresso” (“espresso”); “haitch” (“aitch”); “hone in” (“home in”); and so on through to the end of the alphabet with “youse”.

For those of us who wince we hear “youse”, it might be a surprise to find the term in a dictionary. The Macquarie Dictionary feels compelled to explain that the dictionary is a complete record of Australian English. The criterion for inclusion in it is thus “evidence of currency in the language community”.

When I polled friends for their pet pronunciation peeves, many of them listed those in the Waynespeak collection, while others added examples that readers may cringe at: “cachay” (“cache”) and “orientate” (“orient”).

Further reading: Crimes of grammar and other writing misdemeanours

A favourite was “Moët” – often pronounced as “Mo-eee” or “Mo-way”. The name is of Dutch origin and is correctly pronounced as “Mo-wett”. Moët drinkers (and customers of Nike, Hermes, Givenchy, Porsche, Adidas, Yves St Laurent, and Saucony) who wish to check whether they have been pronouncing their luxury products correctly can click on this advice.

‘Moët’ champagne is commonly mispronounced, to the dismay of many. Leonard Zhukovsky/

My pet pronunciation peeve is the mispronunciation of the word “the” in front of a word beginning with a vowel. Many people, and just about all newsreaders, pronounce it as a neutral “thuh” instead of sounding it out as “thee”, as in “tea”. It’s thee apple, not thuh apple.

Mixed meanings

Some of the suggestions that surfaced in my poll classify as a “malapropism” rather than as a mispronunciation. The term “malapropism” derives from the name of a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy of manners, The Rivals. Mrs Malaprop’s bungled attempts at erudite speech led her to declare one gentleman “the very pineapple of politeness!” and to say of another, “Illiterate him … from your memory”.

Writers of television scripts often create characters prone to malapropisms: Irene in Home and Away, Virginia Chance in Raising Hope, and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. The Australian television characters Kath and Kim were notorious for their malapropisms, such as “I want to be effluent and practise serial monotony”.

TV character Tony Soprano was a repeat offender when it comes to the ‘malapropism’. IMDB

Tony Abbott once embarrassingly substituted “suppository” for “repository”. In an article about the proposed airport at Badgerys Creek in Sydney, a reporter mentioned “a relatively modest and small group that would have some affectation”. Did the reporter mean “effect”?

The San Remo Hotel in San Francisco, meanwhile, highlights its “turn of the century decorum”. On the UK television show The Apprentice, one of the contestants talked about “appealing to the female genre”.

Other examples that I have noted include “What are you incinerating about me?”; “a Dorian of the theatre”; “a logo that amplifies modernism and professionalism”; “It’s not as if the English language is frozen in aspen” (though it’s pretty cold in Aspen); and “As we approach the footy finals, I can emphasise with the players”.

Justin Bieber once said: “I was detrimental to my own career”. I think we can guess that Justin meant “instrumental”, though he may have been just self-aware. We can also guess what the other malapropisms should have been (decor, gender, insinuating, doyen, exemplifies, aspic, empathise).

Note that there needs to be a tinge of humour for an expression or word to be labelled as a malapropism, and it needs to be a real word. Richard Lederer has a hugely amusing post on malapropisms on his Verbivore site, including this fine example: “If you wish to submit a recipe for publication in the cookbook, please include a short antidote concerning it”.

An extension of malapropism occurs in the malamanteau, which is a word that The Economist defines as an erroneous and unintentional portmanteau.

It was launched as a word on the xkcd comic strip and is apparently unpopular with the Wikipedia administration folks, who objected to the word having an entry on the site. The most quoted malamanteau is George W. Bush’s “I misunderestimated”. Others that have evoked smirks have been “miscommunicado” (from “miscommunicate” and “incommunicado”), “insinuendo” (from “innuendo” and “insinuation”), and “squirmish” (“squirm” and “skirmish”).

I recently heard a sparkling new malamanteau, “merticular”, used to describe a fussy person. It appears to combine “particular” and “meticulous”. When I questioned this and suggested that “meticulous” would do, the speaker said: “No. A merticular person functions at a higher level of "pickyness” than a “particular” person".

A ‘malamanteau’ is an extension of the malapropism. xkcd comics, CC BY-NC-SA

It’s over to you now: Are you merely “picky” or are you “merticular”?

Is it worthy of the moniker of malamanteau? If so, how would you spell it?

The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

04 Dec 20:17

Bucket list: I make a vintage costume jewelry Christmas tree — get my tips!

by Pam Kueber

vintage costume jewelry christmas treeI’ve been collecting broken vintage costume jewelry for several years — with the goal to make a lifetime-achievement crafty: A costume jewelry Christmas tree. This weekend I gathered all my supplies, took over the dining room, and got down to gluing. This project was not easy — like making ornament wreaths, it’s another effort in juggling colors and shapes in three dimensions — made all the more stressful by the fact that it takes a lot more jewelry than you think. That said, I’m pretty darned happy with the result! 

Scene of the crime. Things to collect over time to make this project possible:

  • Broken costume jewelry.
  • Vintage picture frames.
  • Vintage velvet.

Artsy fartsy.

vintage costume jewelry christmas tree

Voila! My weebit has a new mommy-heirloom!

My Tips:

  • Start by reading my DIY story from earlier this year (it includes the glue I used): Making art from broken costume jewelry.
  • Calipers are important to have on hand.
  • Golly, you never knew how handy it would be to have so many old broken pearl necklaces in your stash. I find these at most every estate sale. Use the pearls — all sizes, all designs, all colors and sheens — to fill in the in-between spots.
  • I thought about it first and decided I preferred to not have a “straight” edge to the right- and left-hand sides of the tree. I think it’s more interesting that way. To start, I created my “outline”. Then, I filled in from there.
  • Think about your colorway: I wanted the tree to be primarily gold. But then, I realized that I did not have enough jewelry — big pieces — to fill in the tree. So I began to add light green, which I thought worked well because gold has some green in it.
  • As you go, keep scanning the tree clockwise, starting at the bottom left, to ensure you are creating focal points, combining colors, “breaking your edge”, and then “building up” in a way that keeps your eyes moving — in way that gives the piece visual dynamism.
  • Take it slow. I came back to my wreath probably 10 times over three days to keep working on it. I’ll bet that I worked at least 10 hours on it. My goal-mode when I do projects like this is to Enjoy The Process. So I take my time. It’s cheaper than therapy.
  • Next: I am going to paint up the frame a bit more, and probably add some bling to it, too. And, I will reorganize all the jewelry left into colors and decorative pieces so that I can assess what I need to look for in the coming year as I prowl estate sales. 
  • Throw out all my rules — and make your own!

More link love:

The post Bucket list: I make a vintage costume jewelry Christmas tree — get my tips! appeared first on Retro Renovation.

01 Dec 20:14

Could intelligent machines of the future own the rights to their own creations?

by Paresh Kathrani, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Westminster
shutterstock Jirsak/Shutterstock

Intellectual property may be the legal term for creations, including literary or artistic, but there is something inherently human about it as well.

It has long been taken that only human beings are capable of being intelligent in its fullest form, and the concept of intellectual property strives to protect the product of such human intelligence. This is reflected in a number of intellectual property laws. The US Copyright Office, for instance, talks about the “fruits of intellectual labour” and registers original works of authorship “provided that the work was created by a human being”.

But what if a piece of art, music, literature, photography or other product were not created by a human mind at all, but by a machine embedded with artificial intelligence (AI)?

US judges ruled that a monkey could not claim copyright. David J Slater/Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-NC

A judge in California last year accepted a contention that a macaque monkey from Sulawesi, Indonesia, did not have the standing to claim copyright of a “selfie” it had taken. The case came after David Slater, a British wildlife photographer, first claimed use by Wikipedia of the picture – taken by the monkey while his camera was unattended – was a copyright infringement. A case was then brought against him, arguing that it was Slater that was breaching the monkey’s copyright. But, ultimately, the judge rejected the claim.

Intelligence and intellectual property

Why is intellectual property predominantly anthropocentric? Many philosophical and other reasons exist for this. John Locke in his 17th-century work on natural rights, for instance, considered that it is in the common interest that people should have a natural right to what they produce and the results of their labour. There are also many different economic rationales.

The protection of intellectual property is essential for economic advancement. If the results of the intellect were not protected then this may disincentive people from manufacturing the products and providing the services that the market relies on. Human progress would ultimately suffer.

This gives rise to a question concerning the value of “intelligence”. Much rests on this valuable capacity, including progress. It should be protected as a value in itself and that is, indeed, one of the justifications for intellectual property. For this reason, maybe it is right that machines with AI should be recognised as capable of having copyright in order to protect the significance that we give to intelligence.

It is worth noting that many strides have been made in recent decades when it comes to such machines. In the 1970s, Harold Cohen, a British artist, wrote about “machine generated art” and developed software, AARON, which produces spectacular, abstract imagery.

Harold Cohen developed an algorithm that can create original art.

IBM Watson can among other things decode natural language in order to answer questions. Igor Mordatch, a researcher at the University of California in Berkeley, created an algorithm that will enable robots to learn and work out their own optimal means for achieving targets.

But yet despite calling it “intelligence”, many people are unwilling to countenance the idea that machines with AI can own intellectual property. The other side of the argument goes that intellectual property does not only seek to protect intelligence per se. It aims to uphold a particular form of intelligence – that which is human, something that has long been the case across societies.

People on this side of the argument believe that what intelligent machines are doing is just the execution of a program or algorithm ultimately produced by a human programmer. As such, the latter should be given any intellectual property rights that flow.

Intelligent creators of the future

In this way, humans take credit for the products of AI systems – they did build them after all. But does this argument hold up, especially going forward? What about the very value of intelligence in and of itself? One of the many determinants of this question is, indeed, likely to be the significance people have for intelligence in a rapidly changing world.

AI-based machines will become more human like – more capable of learning, more sophisticated and more accomplished in generating complex solutions and products – in the future. They will become better at making decisions that have an impact on our day-to-day lives. So you might therefore argue that, if we want to protect the value of intelligence, we must recognise AI as being capable of owning intellectual property. Otherwise, we risk undercutting the very notion of intelligence.

Machines and humans could soon be working hand in hand. Borkin Vadim/Shutterstock

The European Union has already acknowledged the importance that AI based machines and robots will have in the future and has called for the consideration of a Civil Law Rule of Robots. Intellectual property rights could stem for this, in particular, given that the European Parliament’s resolution is recognising the need for “a specific legal status for robots”.

Let’s not forget that machines are already becoming more human-like, including the humanoid Sophia, who, after being made a citizen of Saudi Arabia, says she wants to have a baby. It seems clear that, while machines may not be able to enforce intellectual property rights (yet), anything less might potentially amount to a violation of the value we place on intelligence in and of itself.

The Conversation

Paresh Kathrani does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

29 Nov 20:42

The final album by LODRSC is...

29 Nov 20:05

The Deepest Fish Ever Captured Is So Ugly I Want to Throw It Back in the Sea

by Brian Kahn on Earther, shared by Cheryl Eddy to io9

The deep sea is a dark place both literally and figuratively, home to the stuff of nightmares. Now, scientists have named a new unholy terror deep beneath the ocean’s surface.


27 Nov 20:44

Curious Kids: Why are fern leaves shaped the way they are, and are all ferns identical?

by Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne
Ferns are a very old group of plants that came along more than 200 million years before the dinosaurs walked the earth. Marcella Cheng/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Curious Kids, is a series for children where kids send in questions and we ask an expert to answer them.

Dear Conversation, I am a curious kid and while I was bush walking I noticed these ferns. I wanted to know why fern leaves are shaped they way they are, and if they don’t have flowers does that mean all ferns are identical? Thank you for your help – Heather, age 8, Brisbane

You’ve asked two great questions, which I’ll answer one by one.

Read more: Curious Kids: Are zombies real?

Why are fern leaves shaped the way they are?

Ferns are a very old group of plants that came along more than 200 million years before the dinosaurs walked the Earth. They were food for the plant-eating dinosaurs and they’re really great survivors.

Fern leaves are shaped the way they are because each species has adapted or changed over time to better suit its particular environment. That’s all thanks to evolution.

Some ferns are small and grow on other plants in wet places, while others are tall and tough. There are thousands of types of ferns, which grow in different environments all over the world.

The leaves of ferns are called fronds and they all have different sizes, shapes and textures. There are the tiny, soft fronds of maidenhair ferns.

The soft fronds of maidenhair ferns are suited to wet environments. Flickr/Anika Malone, CC BY

Then there are the tough, leathery fronds of bracken and the large fronds of tree ferns that may be more than 2 metres long.

The fronds of many ferns begin as small, curled balls. As they grow, they change shape and start to look like the neck of a violin. That’s why they’re called fiddleheads.

The fronds of many ferns begin as small, curled balls. As they grow, they change shape and start to look like the neck of a violin. Marcella Cheng/ The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Many people think different tree ferns look the same, but if you look closely the various species are very different in size, shape and texture.

If they don’t have flowers does that mean all ferns are identical?

Since ferns are such an old group of plants, they don’t have flowers or cones. Ferns were around for about 200 million years before plants with flowers came along, so they make new ferns in a different way.

Most ferns use things called spores, which are tiny and look like pepper. They can travel long distances on the wind or by getting a lift from a passing animal.

During some times of the year, if you look underneath the fronds, you can see the sporangium (that’s the part of the leaf where the spores are made).

You can see the sporangium on the underside of this fern. Flickr/Richard Droker, CC BY

Some look like tiny bunches of grapes, some look like a little brown purse, and others like a dome. Often the sporangium starts out light green and as it ripens, turns dark brown.

Ferns spores develop into what scientists call “gametophytes”, which usually look flat, green and spongy. These gametophytes produce eggs and sperm.

You can see here the gametophyte of a Sword Fern – it is the flattish, spongy-looking bit. Flickr/Richard Droker, CC BY

The egg or sperm from one gametophyte can join up with the egg or sperm from a different gametophyte.

When that happens, the baby ferns produced this way are not genetically identical to the parent or to each other. It only works properly if there’s enough water around so that the sperm can swim to the eggs. You can read more about it here.

Some ferns, however, can sprout ferns from their underground stems or from special bulb-shaped bits on their fronts called “bulbils”. When that happens, the baby fern is genetically identical to its parent.

If you want to grow your own ferns, follow the instructions below. It is great fun to watch them grow.

How to grow your own ferns. Marcella Cheng/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Read more: Curious Kids: What started the Big Bang?

Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. You can:

* Email your question to
* Tell us on Twitter by tagging @ConversationEDU with the hashtag #curiouskids, or
* Tell us on Facebook


Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

The Conversation

Gregory Moore does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

22 Nov 20:38

A Spine-Tingling New Book Collects Artist Brian Coldrick's Single-Panel Ghost Stories

by Cheryl Eddy

A year back, we spotlighted the excellently spooky work of artist Brian Coldrick, creator of webcomic Behind You. Now, his illustrations have been compiled into a book from IDW, titled Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories. We’ve got a peek at some of the gorgeously-rendered nightmares within.


08 Nov 16:05

Better Homes and Gardens’ 1961 Decorating Book — 432 pages — reissued !

by Pam Kueber

Howdy, hudee, here’s a great gift idea: A reissue of the 1961 classic, Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book: How to Plan Colors and Furnishings That Reflect the Personality of Your Family. At 432 pages, it delivers a lotta bang for your buck, too. Thanks to Heather for this tip! She found her copy at Costco, and also spotted it >> on Amazon here. << Note, I earn a small commission if you click through and buy anything from Amazon links. More info on this hours-of-fun reading:

From the Amazon description:

Take a walk down memory lane with this 1950s decorating classic, re-released for a whole new generation

The year is 1956….And during this boom period, grateful young families thrilled to find themselves homeowners after the uncertainty of the Great Depression followed by a second Great War. Those empty rooms needed filling in order to make the house a home, and homeowners turned to the iconic Better Homes and Gardens brand.

Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book, the first edition of a title that would spawn ten editions over the years, became the new home bible for injecting class, style (and the occasional misguided cowboy wallpaper) into American homes. While exploring numerous styles, the main theme of the book is the on-trend mid-century modern sensibility, a style as appropriate today as it was six decades ago when the book was initially released.

Filled with hundreds of full-color period photos, dozens of adorable illustrations, and decorating tips and tricks that are both helpful and nostalgic, the book remains a fun classic. With this welcome hardcover release, reproduced exactly as it looked and read in the 1950s, everything old is new again.

Again, ya can nab it >> on Amazon here or via the widget below << or like Heather, maybe a store locally.

The post Better Homes and Gardens’ 1961 Decorating Book — 432 pages — reissued ! appeared first on Retro Renovation.

07 Nov 19:43

06 Nov 12:20

Schwinn Grey Ghost bike — limited edition reproduction

by Pam Kueber

Just out: Limited Edition Schwinn Grey Ghost Bicycle, available at Dick’s Sporting Goods. My quick search on the google puts these at 1971, and very collectible found original in the wild. Thanks to reader Roach C. for this hot ride tip! Link: Limited Edition Schwinn Grey Ghost Bike at Dick’s.

The post Schwinn Grey Ghost bike — limited edition reproduction appeared first on Retro Renovation.

03 Nov 11:25


24 Oct 11:23


18 Oct 19:54

No, YOU'RE Terrified Of This Insanely Haunted School

by Lauren Evans on Jezebel, shared by Cheryl Eddy to io9

There’s this misguided idea that spirits and demons only show up during the month of October, even though the undead are active throughout the year. You think just because it’s hot out and you fell asleep in your American flag bikini holding a hot dog doesn’t mean there isn’t still a poltergeist subtly scooting a book…


12 Oct 17:15

WUSF: The end of an era

by (Jesse Stoke, News Editor)



For five decades WUSF has provided an outlet for growth and experience for students, as well as informative and educational programming for their viewers. On Sunday at 11:59:59 p.m., the station will go dark, according to WUSF-TV General Manager JoAnn Urofsky.

Kim Thurman is a former student who interned at WUSF during her time at USF.

“My last semester of college I interned at WUSF,” Thurman said. “I did a little bit of everything. I was in radio for a couple of weeks and in TV production for a number of weeks as well.”

Thurman was able to take the knowledge and experience she gained during her time as an intern and transition that into a position as an employee of WUSF-TV.

“When I was graduating, they offered me a position as a part-time employee,” Thurman said. “It took a little while, probably around six months, until I was hired part-time in June as the assistant editor in TV. So I prepped everything before the actual editor got to it and made sure that he had everything that he needed.”

Thurman is not the only person to have interned at WUSF before beginning a career in journalism. Larry Goodman interned before his graduation in 1967. He said he considers his time interning and taking courses with WUSF to have been some of the most valuable moments of his academic career.

“I recall a TV Broadcasting class as a student, around 1967, in which we practiced giving news reports as well as a technical class in lighting,” Goodman said. “It will be sad for the students who never had these valuable opportunities and sad to no longer be able to broadcast ‘University Beat’ and interesting news on the latest University research, athletic advancement, extraordinary students.”

Urofsky said internship opportunities for students will still remain plentiful, event without an active TV studio and station.

“Internships will not be limited moving forward,” Urofsky said. “In fact, we have more interns than ever this semester and are planning for even more to join us next semester.

“So, we are pretty enthusiastic about all of the opportunities that we are going to have for students. Even radio is not just audio anymore, it incorporates videos now too. We will need video for our websites and reports, so we are still looking for students who want video experience. “

As far as what the closure means for employees of WUSF-TV, Urofsky said some employees, such as herself, will remain on in other capacities within the station, but others are being offered training in resume building and interviewing skills for their future endeavors. 

“Employees have been transitioning out on their own and we did have some layoffs earlier,” Urofsky said. “Not all of the employees are being accommodated within the university, although the university has been very accommodating. They have been able to have access to career counseling, resume writing and interviewing skills.”

For what her future entails, Urofsky, who has been in her position since 2002 said, “We have two radio stations and we have the studios, so we will be transitioning the WUSF TV production studios into ones for radio and other projects both within and outside of the university.”

Goodman said he wishes something different could have been done to salvage the TV station.

“Even if it is going to be used as a lab, that is great, but it had so much more to gain by staying open in so many ways,” Goodman said.

For employees of the TV station, such as Thurman, there is one very important message to convey to the TV station’s audience.

“It definitely is the end of an era,” Thurman said. “The programming that we had on our channel was special and I think our viewers know that, so my message to them would just be a giant thank you. It really was all about the viewers and we could not have done it for as long as we did without them.”

11 Oct 14:47

Neanderthals didn't give us red hair but they certainly changed the way we sleep

by Darren Curnoe, Associate Professor, University of New South Wales Sydney, and Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW
Artist's reconstruction of a Neanderthal male, at the Neanderthal Museum, Germany (Credit: Stephan Sheer). Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Geneticists have now firmly established that roughly two percent of the DNA of all living non-African people comes from our Neanderthal cousins.

It’s difficult to imagine why our early ancestors would have mated with them. Neanderthals were a different species to us after all, and the thought of it seems distasteful to us today.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, and armed with so few facts about the circumstances surrounding this interspecies dalliance, we mustn’t be too quick to judge.

Still, scientists are learning a great deal now about how active this Neanderthal DNA is in our bodies and the role that it might be playing in determining how we look and behave as well as our susceptibility to certain diseases.

One of the very first features suggested as having a Neanderthal origin was red hair. A set of Neanderthal genes responsible for both light hair and skin colour was identified by geneticists more than a decade ago and linked to human survival at high latitude, light poor, regions like Europe.

Because the Neanderthals had lived in Europe for several hundred thousand years, it was reasoned that natural selection gave them light skin and hair colour helping to prevent diseases like rickets from occurring.

But as is so often the case in science, the situation is far more complicated than most of us would have imagined. Red hair wasn’t inherited from Neanderthals at all. It now turns out they didn’t even carry the gene for it!

Red hair is a uniquely human feature, according to a new study by Michael Danneman and Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and published in the The American Journal of Human Genetics.

It’s striking and paradoxical that half of all the Neanderthal genes in our genome play a role in determining skin and hair colour. Yet this new research shows us that Neanderthal genes have no more influence over these features than the unique human genes we carry for them.

What does all of this mean? Well, over time, tens of thousands years in fact, natural selection has produced a fine balance between Neanderthal and human genes for these features. We might think of lightly skinned and haired people today as having the best bits of both genomes for these traits.

Some of the other skin colour genes inherited from Neanderthals include one associated with both the ease with which people tan and the incidence of childhood sunburn.

Another surprise for me in this new study was the role that Neanderthal genes play in human sleep patterns, as determined by the body’s circadian rhythms. The natural cycles of night and day, and their length, which vary enormously with latitude and season, are strong influences over our circadian rhythms.

Danneman and Kelso searched for a link between latitude and the prevalence of a Neanderthal form of a gene (ASB1) which plays a role in determining whether you are an ‘evening person’, and is associated with the need for daytime napping as well as being tied to narcolepsy.

It turns out that indeed non-African populations living far away from the equator today show a higher prevalence of ASB1 than people living close to it.

Human circadian rhythms are medically important because of the well known 24-hour variation in blood levels of glucose, insulin and leptin, which controls our appetite. Clock variability underpins short sleep episodes, sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep, which have all been associated with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, increased appetite, and even obesity.

Some of the other newly discovered Neanderthal genes in the human genome are linked to body height in adults as well as the stature reached by children at 10 years of age, pulse rate, and the distribution of fat in the legs.

Other Neanderthal genes apparently help determine our mood, as influenced by our exposure to sunlight, or even whether we like to eat pork or not.

It’s no longer such a novelty that our ancestors interbred with archaic humans like the Neanderthals. No more lame jokes from me about ‘shagging the ancestors’!

Their decision to mate with the Neanderthals, what ever the reason, continues to reverberate after tens of thousands of years. Neanderthal genes are playing a very real role today in influencing how we look, feel and behave, including even some commonly suffered diseases often linked to a Western lifestyle and diet.

All of this reinforces once again how remarkable and surprising our evolutionary history as a species truly is. And it brings into sharp relief the very real importance of our evolution for a proper understanding of many of the challenges humankind faces globally today.

The Conversation


Darren Curnoe receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

11 Oct 14:16

The quest to revive extinct Aurochs to restore ancient lands

by Mihnea Tanasescu, Research Fellow, Environmental Political Theory, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
This Auroch skeleton from Denmark dates to around 7,500BC. The circles indicate where the animal was wounded by arrows. Malene Thyssen./Wikimedia, CC BY-NC

Rewilding and restoration of land often rely on the reintroduction of species. But what happens when what you want to reintroduce no longer exists? What if the animal in question is not only locally extinct, but gone for good?

Yes, this might sound like the plot of Jurassic Park. But in real life this is actually happening in the case of the Aurochs (Bos primigenius). This wild ancestor of all modern cattle has not been seen since the last individual died in 1627, in today’s Poland.

Aurochs have been deep within the human psyche for as long as there have been humans, as attested by their prominence in cave art. However, the advent of agriculture and domestication put the magnificent animal on a path to extinction.

So why bring the Aurochs back today and how? And what is the likely outcome?

What is left of Aurochs, besides their depiction in cave paintings, are some fossil remains and some descriptions in the historical record. “Their strength and speed are extraordinary,” wrote the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, in Commentarii de bello Gallico.

Despite the former large range of habitat of this animal (from the Fertile Crescent to the Iberian Peninsula, from Scandinavia to the Indian subcontinent), the historical record is quite slim on exact descriptions. And in all likelihood its size, behaviour, and general temperament will have varied across different environments. Despite this likely variation, the Auroch has survived into modernity as the primordial, powerful and enormous, ox.

Lascaux painting of Aurochs. Prof saxx/Wikimedia

A super-bull

The idea around today is that the Aurochs’ characteristics have survived, genetically scattered throughout its descendants. By breeding these together and selecting offspring that show increasingly more Aurochs-like traits, the theory is that we can eventually re-create something very similar to the lost animal. This theory is known as back-breeding: literally breeding backwards.

The first attempt to revive the Aurochs was made in the 1930s in Germany by two zoo directors, the brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck, with an undeniable Nazi party affiliation.

Their creation, now known as the Heck cattle, took only 12 years to accomplish and mixed breeds of domestic cattle with fighting bulls from Spain. The brothers focused more on size and aggression than on being faithful to the anatomical description of the Aurochs. This is partly why nobody today considers Heck cattle to be actual recreations of an extinct species, something reflected in the name these animals carry.

The Heck cattle made it through World War II and have since populated pastures and zoos throughout Europe. Though certainly not Aurochs, many find that they do the Aurochs’ job just fine. This is why the famous Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands uses them as one of their primary grazers.

Recreating wilderness

For most of the 20th century it was assumed that the landscape in Europe before human settlement was mostly forest. Frans Vera, a Dutch biologist, changed this inherited wisdom and proposed that the primeval European landscape was a mosaic consisting of forest as well as meadows and other kinds of habitat. One of the main reasons for this, he argued, is that big animals (the Aurochs among them) would have engineered this landscape through their grazing behaviour, something now known as “natural grazing”.

The Oostvaardersplassen, founded by Vera, is his way of proving that he is right. The herds of Heck cattle were introduced to engineer the landscape, to see what happens to the land in the presence of many grazers.

The theory of natural grazing has attracted many that are eager to introduce grazing animals to new land, in the hope that they will become the engineers of a future European wilderness. This push for wild grazing animals is one of the primary factors behind the drive to recreate the Aurochs.

Species descending from Aurochs could help reconquer lost lands and wilderness. Alexas Foto/Pixabay

As the world is urbanising, rural land is being abandoned. In Europe, it is predicted that farmland abandonment will continue apace through the middle of the century.

This changing land-use pattern across continental scales has re-energised the restoration debate. The Vera hypothesis of an original mozaic landscape is motivating others to restore and rewild by using big grazers.

What an Aurochs should look like

Since the Heck brothers conducted their hasty experiments there have been new attempts at back-breeding. Heck cattle have also become an element of this new experimentation.

There are currently projects to recreate the Aurochs in several European countries. One of the largest attempts is led by the Taurus Foundation in partnership with Rewilding Europe, a rewilding organisation that wants to introduce the new Aurochs across the continent, as ecosystem engineers. Rival projects exist in the Netherlands, Germany and Hungary, and the Heck cattle are not going anywhere.

There is no shared set of criteria that guides everyone towards the same goal. One of the obvious criteria is genetic, but it was only in 2015 that Stephen Park and his colleagues were able to sequence the first full Aurochs genome. The genetic material came from one single fossilised specimen, and much work is still to be done to understand the genetic variability of the extinct species.

Tauros bull in the Netherlands, bred by the ‘Tauros’ program aimed at recreating aurochs. Henri Kerkdijk-Otten/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

It is unlikely that an organisation will be able to impose a standard for what, in the future, will count as an Auroch.

Some argue that bringing extinct species back has no ethical basis and is in fact impossible, while others consider it an ethical duty to do so. The likeliest result of current and past experimentation is a future full of competing Aurochs, with new genetic paths leading into an unknown future.

Functionally speaking, it makes little difference what the created animals look like, as long as they behave a certain way. But part of the drive for recreating a lost animal is undoubtedly aesthetic: people want the new to look like their idea of the old. And this, more than anything, will ensure future rivalries between competing back-breeders. In the drive to bring one species back, we are almost certain to create several.

The Conversation

Mihnea Tanasescu receives funding from the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO).

11 Oct 13:18

Five vital things you can't do properly when you're on your phone

by Gemma Briggs, Lecturer in psychology, The Open University
Careful crossing that road! Shutterstock

In a recent RAC survey, 26% of UK 1,700 motorists reported using a handheld mobile phone while driving, despite it being illegal. In response, road safety charity Brake, argued that society’s phone “addiction” can have very serious consequences.

A quick online search throws up many articles suggesting that people are “glued” to their smartphones and therefore miss important and enriching experiences and interactions going on around them.

But psychological research shows that not only do people miss things because they are staring at their phone’s screen, they also miss things when they’re looking ahead but talking on their phone. In fact, people conversing on a phone can appear to look at something yet fail to consciously detect it.

This “inattention blindness” has been demonstrated in various ways, including the famous “invisible gorilla” experiment. By focusing on one particular task (such as counting how often a basketball is passed between team members) we can miss other, highly salient events in the scene – such as a person dressed as a gorilla.

The ability to focus our attention like this is extremely useful, as we simply couldn’t process all of the incoming visual information that we are constantly bombarded with. But in some situations, inattention blindness can have serious consequences.

Here’s research on five things you can’t do properly while on your phone:

1) Notice hazards when driving

Drivers using a hands-free phone are far less likely to notice and react to hazards, even those directly ahead of them. This leads to increased stopping distances and a four-fold increase in accident risk. Research suggests this inattention blindness is produced by the need to share limited mental resources between tasks.

Phone conversations have a visual component – you picture where your conversation partner is and what they are saying – and this mental imagery draws on resources which are needed for accurate visual perception. Consequently, someone on the phone can look at, but not see, a hazard.

2) Cross the road safely

Pedestrians talking on the phone are more likely to be injured crossing the road. They tend to take longer to decide to cross, and then walk more slowly. They also make more unsafe judgements on crossings.

In one study, phone-users successfully crossed a simulated street only 84% of the time. Compared with other distractions, including listening to music, phone use is associated with poorer decision-making, missed opportunities to cross and increased likelihood of being involved in a collision.

3) Take the most direct route

Phone-users may change the way they walk, which in turn affects the route they take and what they notice around them. One observational study found that people talking on the phone were more likely to change the direction they were walking in, were less likely to be aware of other people around them, resulting in them getting in other people’s way, and tended to walk more slowly than people who were either listening to music or undistracted.

Even a highly practised and “automatic” task like walking can become disrupted when a person’s attention is diverted to a phone conversation. Another study looked at participants’ gait while walking to a previously learned destination. Compared to undistracted walkers, phone users walked slower and made more lateral deviations from the set route, meaning they walked further than needed.

4) Notice advertisements you pass

Phone-users are less likely to recall seeing advertisements that they have passed while on the phone. Research has shown that even though people distracted by a phone conversation look at advertisements as often as those who are undistracted, they don’t remember them when later questioned.

What clown?! Shutterstock

5) Spot a unicycling clown

One study neatly demonstrated the power of inattention blindness in phone users by observing people distracted either by a phone call, a conversation with another person, or listening to music.

Walking across a large square on a college campus, participants passed an unexpected and highly visible item – a clown on a unicycle. While those talking to another person or listening to music mostly noticed the clown, only 25% of people on the phone reported having seen him. Unsurprisingly, these phone users were quite shocked to have missed something so obviously attention grabbing.

So, it appears from the available research that people talking on their phones have diminished “situation awareness” – they are less conscious of what is happening around them, which can have important implications for their own and others’ safety. Phone users are more likely to miss important and highly visible events – and crucially are often unaware of how unaware they may be.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

11 Oct 13:02

Sing ’til you're grinning: community choirs versus football teams

by Gary W Kerr, Researcher in Science Communication, University of Salford

You’ve just finished your weekly practice. Your heart rate is up and your stress levels are down. You’ve just got your breath back and now you and all your teammates are heading down the pub. Spirits are high. You’re all getting a bit rowdy and Dave’s started chanting the team song.

Community is at the heart of what you do: your family, friends and fans support you throughout your ups and downs and the weekly training sessions have transformed you all from a group of strangers to best mates. There’s nothing better than putting on an away-performance outside your home turf.

You are, of course, in a community choir.

Like being in a local football squad, choir members benefit physically, mentally and socially from their team activity. But the Big Choral Census found that while around 300,000 more people participate in choirs than play football, amateur football receives £30m in funding each year compared to under £500,000 a year for choirs.

Sing ‘til you’re grinning”, part of the Manchester Science Festival will look at how being in a community choir can actually aid health and well-being. The project created a new choir to be scrutinised by scientists over a 12-week period to test whether being in a choir really does make a person healthier. The social benefits are already well documented. We know, for example, that group singing is an excellent ice-breaker and can lead to quick, effective bonding for large groups.

Like many other activities, being in a choir provides a platform for people to meet others with similar interests, which can lead to new friendships and a fuller social circle. Choir participation can also be spiritually uplifting to those who are grieving and has been shown to improve the quality of life for cancer survivors and their carers.

Of particular interest are the benefits to people who suffer from social isolation and loneliness. Half a million older people in the UK go for a week at a time without seeing or speaking to anyone and investment in choirs may provide one solution to this national social challenge.

The Creative Health report by the All Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Well-being set out evidence and examples of arts-based practice which impacts positively on the health and well-being of participants. The report makes recommendations for the potential of arts in health to be realised, including recommending that arts and cultural organisations are involved directly in the delivery of health services.

Greater Manchester is one the first of the city regions with a directly elected “metro-mayor” to have made arts and culture integral to its health and well-being strategy. The region – which has a devolved health and social care budget of £6 billion – is a national pilot area exploring how the arts can help improve economic performance, education, health and well-being.

The science of singing

So what is the underlying science that makes choral singing good for your health? Current research focuses on the presence of three hormones: endorphin, oxytocin and cortisol. Endorphin is the body’s “feel good” hormone and is released during exercise, laughing and eating chocolate. Endorphins are released when people are performing in a choir but not when people are merely listening to music. This is because choral singing is in itself a physical workout. The deep breaths taken as part of singing equate to aerobic exercise, which increases blood flow and releases the “feel-good” hormone. This explains why choral singing especially benefits people who suffer from asthma, as it helps with their breathing.

Oxytocin, the body’s “love drug” increases feelings of love and trust. Not only is oxytocin released during group singing but it is released in such significant quantities that after just one singing class, choir members feel closer to each other than they would do when participating in any other group activity. This explains the close friendships that stem from community choirs.

Cortisol is our “stress hormone” and is significantly reduced after just one hour of choir singing. Low levels of cortisol can boost the immune system and help the body fight infections.

So, with a decrease in stress hormones and an increase in feel-good and love-hormones, it’s no wonder choir singers report feeling high after their training. In the future could we see the likes of choirmaster and TV personality Gareth Malone reach the status of some the world’s top footballers? Perhaps not. We’ve still got some way to go before choirs and football are on the same playing field.

The Conversation

In addition to being an academic researcher, Gary W. Kerr is a freelance science festivals consultant and undertakes various contracts in staff training, creative production, staff management and delivery of various science festivals across the UK and overseas. He is a co-producer of the event described in this article. Sing ‘til you’re grinning, co-produced by Salford Community Leisure and the University of Salford, as part of Manchester Science Festival, is taking place at Eccles Gateway and Library on Thursday 26th October 2017 from 2.30pm – 3.30pm.

09 Oct 11:29

US gun policy needs reform after tragedy

by (Renee Perez, Columnist)

Fifty-nine were killed and 527 were injured Oct. 1 in Las Vegas when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers from the window of his hotel room. But these 586 human beings were not just the victims of a deranged gunman. 

They were also the victims of a gun-saturated cultural, governmental and economic system that vehemently reveres the destructive capacity of firearms yet has the audacity to express shock at every grisly, heartbreaking episode of mass violence that is perpetrated by individuals with guns.

Those whose lives were taken were mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, artists, musicians, financial advisors, law enforcement officers, sorority sisters, nurses and small business owners, just to name a few. From all walks of life, they came together under the starlit Las Vegas sky to celebrate life to the tune of good music.

These 586 people were heinously aggreived by Paddock, but to reduce the blame for this tragedy to the deranged inner workings of a single assailant would be exceedingly short-sighted.

The truth is, we can neither honor the victims of this horrific shooting nor prevent these dreadful episodes from occurring if we fail to recognize and address the grim reality that gave rise to the massacre: Guns control America. 

The omnipotence of the firearm in the U.S. can be summed up by — and perhaps traced back to — the fact that the right to its possession was penned into the country’s Constitution.

But it is hard to imagine the Founding Fathers could have foreseen the development of semiautomatic rifles capable of firing up to 180 rounds per minute. The Second Amendment was written during a time when the typical firearm was a musket with an effective firing rate of three rounds per minute.

What the Founding Fathers could predict, however, was that changing times may call for a need to alter the Constitution to respond to new needs or threats. Thus, they penned Article V, which states that, “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution.”

But if policy-makers have the right and duty to amend the Constitution as new concerns arise — for instance, an epidemic of 521 mass shootings in the 477 days since the Pulse shooting — what is stopping them? Why do they continue to helplessly tweet their “thoughts and prayers” to those affected by mass shootings instead of passing laws that, say, prevent individuals from legally stockpiling 33 firearms in 12 months, as Paddock did?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that whatever weight may hold down their hearts when a white man slaughters dozens of people is not enough to offset the weight of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) lobbying money in their pockets.

According to The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research organization that tracks the relationship between lobbying and public policy, the NRA spent $54.4 million on the 2016 election cycle alone.

The NRA has consistently encouraged politicians to loosen the U.S.’s already weak gun restrictions by spending outrageous sums of money lobbying the people who pledge to serve all citizens equally.

For instance, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent $37 million on lobbying 54 senators “who voted in 2015 against a measure prohibiting people on the government’s terrorist watch list from buying guns.” The only Democrat to vote against the measure was Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

The NRA’s attempts to deregulate the sale of guns has been so successful that there are now “more gun clubs and gun shops in America than McDonalds,” according to the New York Times, and “almost as many privately-owned firearms in this country as there are people living inside it,” according to the Washington Post.

As we have come to witness all too consistently, the pervasiveness of such powerful weapons has resulted in this country being one where catastrophes like Las Vegas are embedded into the fabric of everyday life.

Indeed, the numbers show that gun violence in the U.S. is outrageously high.

Everytown Research Center, a nonprofit group that tracks firearm violence in the U.S., reports that the U.S.’s gun homicide rate is 25 times the average of other developed countries. Everytown also reports that, on an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns. That’s almost twice as many people as were killed in Vegas.

These numbers are by no means comparable to those of any other developed country, and that is no accident. It is the result of the domination of the U.S.'s legislative system and social imaginary by a tremendous economic power and cultural symbol. 

The victims of the Las Vegas attack gathered together for a night that should have been full of joy and festivity. Instead, they were subjected to a terrible mass shooting, and the blame is not merely on a 64-year-old gunman but also on the fundamentally defective system that enabled this – and countless other – attacks. 

Renee Perez is a junior majoring in political science and economics.

06 Oct 11:35

Meet the 'Bronies': adult fans giving My Little Pony a marketing headache

by Andrew Crome, Lecturer in History, Manchester Metropolitan University

When My Little Pony: The Movie lands in cinemas this October, producers Hasbro will be hoping that the animation proves popular with its target audience of young girls. The film will also attract a very different group of viewers: adult My Little Pony fans known as “Bronies”. Made up predominantly of young men aged 18-30, the fandom has evoked reactions ranging from bemusement to celebration since it emerged at the beginning of this decade.

Hasbro launched a new My Little Pony series, subtitled Friendship is Magic, in 2010. The new show adopted a distinctive and appealing art style while focusing on creating strong female characters and consistent character arcs.

The adult fandom initially developed via the notorious internet forum 4-Chan. Although users planned to mock the show, a number became regular viewers and began discussing it in dedicated forums. The term “Bronies” – a combination of “bros” and “ponies” – developed soon after. Although this initially applied to male fans, it is now generally used to describe fans of all genders.

Bronies engage in typical fan activities. This includes writing fan fiction and creating artwork. Fans write songs and create pony inspired music, from orchestral, to dubsteb and metal. Physical meet-ups and large conventions (often involving cosplay) offer opportunities to engage with other fans in offline settings.

The fandom has generated both positive and negative reactions. It has attracted praise for progressive views of gender, encouraging charitable activity and promoting creativity. At the same time, some argue that academic and media interest in male fans risks ignoring the many female “Pony” fans who are not seen as worthy of comment.

The most common criticism of the fandom has focused on its supposedly “regressive” nature – the worry that adults watching cartoons designed for young children represents an inability to deal with real life. As Anne Gilbert argued, popular press coverage “reveals a pervasive discomfort” with adult men celebrating a cartoon for young girls.

This repeats a longstanding criticism of fandom. Representatives of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, attacked 1930s jazz fandom as inherently regressive, while the Tolkien Clubs that formed in 1960s America were branded “infantile” on their foundation. Critics argued that fans were living in fantasy worlds in order to avoid adult responsibilities.

But, as studies of fandom have multiplied over the past 30 years, they have suggested that involvement in fan communities offers outlets for creativity, socialising and spaces for political debate.

Neither is adult consumption of children’s media new or particularly novel, as the continued popularity of Disney animation among adults suggests. As far back as 1908, Walford Graham Robertson’s children’s play Pinkie and the Fairies attracted such large numbers of soldiers that its audience was said to resemble a military parade ground.

What is more novel in My Little Pony fandom is its scale and visibility, facilitated by the internet and rise of social media. For Hasbro, this presents both opportunities and challenges.

Marketing dilemmas

Bronies might sound like a marketing dream for Hasbro’s movie. Adult fans offer a built-in audience, social media presence and disposable income to spend on merchandise. Although initially wary of Bronies, Hasbro have increasingly courted the adult fanbase. The toy range now includes a line of more expensive products designed for collection and display, alongside merchandise including coffee-table art books explicitly aimed at adult fans.

Marketing for the movie has therefore tried to capitalise on fan enthusiasm. The initial trailer launched alongside a GIF maker designed to generate memes and facilitate promotion on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. Exclusive designer posters were distributed to fans at San Diego Comic Con, while the movie’s Twitter account produced stylised artwork designed to appeal to adults.

At the same time, a committed fandom brings challenges. Fans criticised producers over elements of the movie’s promotion, complaining when early trailers emphasised guest stars (such as Emily Blunt and Sia) instead of allowing the TV show’s voice actors to reprise their central roles. Issues such as where the movie fits into My Little Pony continuity – which are unlikely to worry the film’s young audience – suddenly also become important considerations.

Above all, producers have to balance their knowledge of adult fandom with the requirement that the film appeals primarily to children. Ironically, some fans have expressed concerns that producers pandered to them over recent years, citing the show’s original innocence and un-selfconscious charm as responsible for its initial appeal. As Ewan Kirkland has argued, there is a risk that in the pursuit of adult fans, My Little Pony’s young female audience is getting lost in the process.

Press coverage focused on the supposed “weirdness” of Bronies misses the point that historically and culturally they aren’t doing anything overly unusual. The fandom nonetheless raises questions about fan/producer interactions. How visible do Hasbro want their involvement with a sometimes ridiculed fandom to be? Are producers celebrating fans or exploiting their enthusiasm for marketing purposes? And where does the child audience fit in all of this? The movie, and reaction to it, should offer some fascinating answers to these questions.

The Conversation

Andrew Crome does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.