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09 Jan 13:01

Heading back to the office? Bring these plants with you to fight formaldehyde (and other nasties)

by Danica-Lea Larcombe, PhD Candidate in Biodiversity and Human Health, Edith Cowan University

Humans have built high-rises since ancient Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that they became the default work space for a significant slice of the world’s workers. While these buildings are certainly efficient, they can cause real health issues.

Office buildings, where many Australians spend much of their time, are even worse than apartment buildings. Cubicles in offices usually consist of partitions made of particle board and vinyl carpet, synthetic flooring, a particle board desk and plastic or synthetic office chair, mostly lit by artificial lighting. The lucky few get natural light and a view from a window, but poor ventilation still spreads germs.

Read more: Why apartment dwellers need indoor plants

One excellent way to combat both sick days and stress is by filling your office with plants. Ideally, you want plants that will “scrub” the air of pathogens, improve the office’s mix of bacteria, and survive in low light with little care.

Fight formaldehyde (and other nasty chemicals)

One of the many chemical compounds given off by synthetic office furnishings is formaldehyde, which can irritate the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat, and also cause allergic contact dermatitis.

Irritation of the eyes and upper respiratory tract, as well as headaches, are the most common reported symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde toxins. Other harmful chemicals in the office may include benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, and even ammonia from cleaning products. High levels of carbon dioxide breathed out by a roomful of colleagues can give the room that “stuffy” feeling, particularly if there is no air conditioning.

Indoor plants will purify the air, reducing volatile organic compounds, including formaldehyde.

A NASA clean air study tested common indoor plants for the ability to filter pollutants, and found many are very effective at removing multiple kinds of organic compounds from the air (this chart is very handy for finding high performers).

To best remove indoor pollutants, try for one medium-sized plant per 2.2 square metres. Look for species with large leaves (the more leaf surface area, the more efficient it is).

Improve indoor bacteria balance

There are already trillions of bacteria in high-rise offices, but only a limited amount come in through open windows and air conditioning from the outdoor environment. Most of the bacteria, fungi and viruses come from people; we leave behind a microbial cloud from our skin wherever we go.

The office environment then creates new habitats for microbial communities that may be quite foreign to human skin, and may not be good for your health.

Beneficial bacteria on indoor plants and in their soil are an important addition to the office, stabilising the ecology of the built synthetic environment.

Plant-associated bacteria could also help to avoid outbreaks of pathogens by enhancing microbial biodiversity and balancing the complex network of the ecosystem. A wholesome balance may reduce the incidence of viral illness and the number of sick days among staff.

It’s not just the size of the plant that’s important here. Larger pots mean more root mass and soil surface for helpful bacteria and root microbes.

Beat stress

Over the past 30 years, research has shown that green spaces promote public health, and that contact with nature can shift highly stressed people to a more positive emotional state. One study identified eight ways people perceive green urban spaces (described as Serene, Space, Nature, Rich in Species, Refuge, Culture, Prospect, and Social) and confirmed the importance of considering plant life when creating public places.

Offices, particularly those with many people, poor ventilation or low natural light, should also consider plants and green spaces a necessity.

There are a few basic principles for a good office plant. It must be hardy and easy to maintain, and able to survive without water over weekends (or when the regular plant-carer goes on holiday). Many plants will do the most good in cubicles and spaces away from windows, so they need to be adapted to low light.

It’s also a good idea to avoid plants that flower extravagantly, which may cause allergic reactions. Check with your colleagues before introducing new plants.

Read more: Hay fever survival guide: why you have it and how to treat it

Some of the best all-rounders across these categories are Devil’s Ivy, Bamboo Palm, Kentia Palm, Variegated Snake Plant (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue), and the Peace Lily, but there are many beautiful plants that will improve your atmosphere and mood.

So if you’re heading back to work in an office soon (or know someone who is), why not bring along an indoor plant?

The Conversation

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

05 Jan 19:21

The libraries of the future will be made of DNA

by Jerome de Groot, Senior Lecturer, University of Manchester

There are 6,000 tweets sent a second. In the time you have read this sentence, 42,000 tweets will have been sent. At an average of 34 characters per tweet that’s 1,428,000 characters.

Worldwidewebsize daily estimates the size of the internet. On the day of writing, it amounted to 4.59 billion pages and a billion websites. This is the “indexed” internet, and doesn’t include the “dark web” or private databases.

The size of the web is measured in two ways. The first is “content” – storage capacity was estimated in 2014 as 1024 bytes, or a million exabytes. The second is “traffic”, measured in zettabytes. Global traffic recently passed one zettabyte, the content of 250 billion DVDs.

More conventionally, the UK published 184,000 books in 2013 – globally, the largest number per inhabitant. Add the increasing ways of measuring a human being in terms of data – DNA sequencing, online family trees, genetic coding, bank accounts, online information of all kinds – or the amount of scientific data being produced and read around the world and the amount of information in the world is staggering. Even the amount of storage most people need for photos and documents has grown hugely in the past few years.

As a species, we are producing information at a massive rate. The “reading” of the mass of data has led to new predictive models for social interaction. Businesses and governments are scrambling to make use of this data as human beings seem ever more readable, manageable and – possibly – controllable through the comprehension and manipulation of information.

But just how might all this information be stored? At present, we have physical libraries, and physical archives, and bookshelves. The internet itself is “stored” on hard-disk servers around the world, using enormous amounts of power to keep them cool. Online infrastructure is expensive, energy hungry, and vulnerable; its longevity is also limited – see Die Hard 4.0 for a dramatisation of this.

Data centres such as this one may soon be a thing of the past. Gorodenkoff/

Libraries of the future

The future of information storage may sound dull, but it is a crucial issue for anyone interested in the way that societies remember. A good example is family history, where public archives, such as census records and tax information, are increasingly accessed online. Millions of users around the world use subscription sites such as Ancestry or Findmypast to access this public information and to create their family trees using online software. This proliferation of information raises ethical issues about access (public records being used by private companies to make a profit) and about how this data is stored, managed and used.

We all have a stake in the way that libraries and archives might work in the future, how they might be configured, and what might be stored – and why. Do we really need to store every tweet ever sent? Making any kind of choice over what to store – what to collect, commemorate, archive – provokes a complex discussion. Technologies for accessing – “reading” – information need to be somehow futureproofed, or we will end up with huge amounts of information that cannot be used.

So: what to do? There are wide-ranging discussions at present, from what information to store (including various biobanks full of biological specimens), to how to store it, to where to store it (the Arctic, various locations in space, under water). Most of these discussions are occurring within scientific communities; some technological companies are involved. Those who have spent years thinking about memory, commemoration and archiving – historians and librarians – are often on the fringes of the discussion.

Stored information, old style. By kurbanov/

Nanocrystals and DNA

Various different organisations are exploring physical ways of storing humanity’s information. Physical storage on nickel disks (read by microscope) or laser-written barcodes on silica glass have been suggested. Highly experimental – and at present energy-hungry – nanotechnology looks to write information at the near-molecular level (although the use of the word “write” is very much out of date here). Nanotechnological storage would be “read” through sophisticated microscopy and is sometimes the “effect” of chemical change or quite complicated processes, such as nanocrystals converting radiation (infra-red) into something “visible”. Some of the more baroque storage models range from a flash data memory vault on the moon to private companies sending digital content to Mars, to satellites orbiting the earth.

But most of the activity at present seems to be biological. Various scientists have begun to explore the possibility of using DNA to store information, called Nuclear Acid Memory (NAM).

This would involve the data being “translated” into the letters GATC, the base nucleic acids of DNA. DNA strands would then be created which could be translated back into the “original” by being sequenced. Researchers recently stored archival-quality versions of music by Miles Davis and Deep Purple and also of a short GIF in DNA form.

DNA is durable and increasingly easy to produce and read. It will keep for thousands of years in the right storage conditions. DNA might be stored anywhere that is dark, dry, cold, and arguably would not take up a great deal of room.

Much of this technology is in its infancy, but developments in nanotechnology and DNA sequencing suggest that we will be seeing the applied results of experimentation and development within years. Wider questions arise about the ethics of collection and to what extent these processes will become mainstream. Print, and to a certain extent digital, have become common and reasonably democratic ways of transmitting and storing information. It remains to be seen whether future storage and writing will be as easy to access, and who will be in control of humanity’s information and memory in the coming decades and centuries.

The Conversation

Jerome de Groot receives funding from AHRC.

03 Jan 20:50

Keeping Copyright Site-Blocking At Bay: 2017 In Review

by Mitch Stoltz

In 2017, major entertainment companies continued their quest for power to edit the Internet by blocking entire websites for copyright enforcement—and we’ve continued to push back.

Website blocking is a particularly worrisome form of enforcement because it’s a blunt instrument, always likely to censor more speech than necessary. Co-opting the Internet’s domain name system (DNS) as a tool for website blocking also threatens the stability of the Internet by inviting ever more special interests and governments to use the system for censorship.

This year, we’ve kept pressure on ICANN, the nonprofit body that makes domain name policy, to keep copyright enforcement out of their governing documents. And we’ve called out domain name registry companies who bypassed ICANN policy to create (or propose) their own private copyright enforcement machines. Public Interest Registry (PIR), the organization that manages the .org and .ngo top-level domains, announced in February that it intended to create a system of private arbitrators who would hear complaints of copyright infringement on websites. The arbitrators would wield the power to take away a website’s domain name, and possibly transfer it to the party who complained of infringement. The Domain Name Association (DNA), an industry trade association, also endorsed the plan.

EFF pointed out that this plan was developed in secret, without input from Internet users, and that it would bypass many of the legal protections for website owners and users that U.S. courts have developed over the years. Within weeks, PIR and DNA shelved this plan, apparently for good.

Unfortunately, some domain registries continue to suspend domain names based on accusations from major motion picture distributors (whom they call “trusted notifiers”) in a process that also bypasses the courts. Along with giving special privileges to luxury brands and other major trademark holders, and to U.S. pharmaceutical interests, these policies erode public trust in the domain name system, a key piece of Internet infrastructure.

There are worrisome developments in the courts as well. Major movie studios, record labels, and print publishers have continued to ask U.S. courts for broad injunctions that could force many kinds of intermediaries—all of free speech’s weak links—to help block websites.  They do this by filing lawsuits against a website, typically located outside the U.S., accusing it of copyright infringement. When the website’s owners don’t appear in court, the copyright holder seeks a default injunction written broadly to cover intermediaries like DNS registrars and registries, search engines, and content delivery networks, who can then be compelled to block the website. Several courts have granted these broad orders, including one that targets Sci-Hub, a site that gives access to research papers.

That’s concerning because, like the aborted efforts by domain registries, using default injunctions to block websites bypasses the normal rules created by the courts and Congress that define the role of Internet intermediaries. We hope that Internet companies continue to defend their users against censorship creep by fighting back against these orders. In the coming year, we’ll weigh in to help the courts understand why the current rules are worth sticking to.

This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2017.



03 Jan 20:43

Public Domain Day 2018

by Maria Scheid

It is the beginning of another year, which means the welcoming of new works into the public domain for Public Domain Day 2018. Today, countries around the world will expand their public domain with creative works whose term of copyright protection ended in 2017. As public domain works, these books, films, compositions, and works of art can be copied, shared, and remixed without copyright restrictions.

We have written before about the extension of the term of copyright protection under U.S. law and its impact on our public domain (we’ve also written about the ability of copyright owners to bypass this lengthy wait and dedicate their works to the public domain via Creative Commons CC0). As a result of this extension of copyright and Congress’s decision to apply the extension of copyright protection retroactively to existing works, those of us in the United States will need to wait until January 1, 2019 before we see new published works enter the public domain.

For now, the U.S. public domain will add a much smaller group of works—unpublished works whose author died in 1947 and were not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to 1978.

For an interesting read on some of the published works that are entering the public domain in countries around the world, head over to The Public Domain Review for their picks for the Class of 2018.


By Maria Scheid, Copyright Services Specialist at Copyright Services, The Ohio State University Libraries

02 Jan 20:00

How to tell your new year fortune the Edwardian way

by Lauren Alex O' Hagan, PhD Candidate in Language and Communication, Cardiff University
Leisha Kemp-Walker/Shutterstock

Whether snuggled up at home or out partying with family and friends, the dawn of the new year is something to toast to. But not so long ago, the people of Britain were commemorating the start of the forthcoming 12 months in a very different way – with books.

In the early 20th century, Edwardian Britain was gripped by a reading craze. On the playground at school, on a tea break down the mines, or in the drawing room of a mansion, men, women and children of all classes and ages were rarely without a book.

The idea of giving a book as a gift became popularised in the Victorian era. Books were bought for others to celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and, of course, Christmas. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, books had come to be so expected at Christmas that one Times reporter claimed that “Christmas would not be recognised without them”.

Books at Christmas is not something unique to British culture. Icelanders have long given books to each other on Christmas Eve and stayed up all night reading them. The custom is so deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture that it causes an annual jólabókaflóðið (“Christmas book flood”), as countless copies of around 700 volumes are published in just over four months. But it is the way that Edwardian Britons used these books that is quite unusual.

As mass consumerism and the formation of a commodity culture grew, the Victorian practice gradually spread to the new year. By 1901, no Edwardian stepped into the new year without a book. But the reason of this was not down to a tradition of gift-giving, it was guided by superstition. The Edwardians believed that bad luck would fall upon any family who did not have a book in hand when the clock struck midnight on December 31.

Predicting the future

Books were said to foretell a family’s fortune for the year. So, on New Year’s Day, families would gather around the fireplace and practice bibliomancy. This involved opening the new book on a random page and reading the passage to predict what would happen in the coming year.

Bibliomancy (from biblio meaning “books” and mancy, “divination by means of”) has a long spiritual tradition. Its origins lie in the Ancient Roman sortes, which involved using the texts of Homer and Virgil to predict the future (The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World, Leonard Victor Rutgers). Although the Bible explicitly condemns divination, it was widely adopted throughout the Middle Ages as a “magical medicine” that removed negative forces. In popular culture, bibliomancy occurs frequently throughout works of fiction, from Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Telling the future. Masson/Shutterstock

If Edwardians had been unfortunate enough not to receive a new book on New Year’s Eve, the Bible was chosen. A family member (typically the father) would ask a question, open the Bible at random, close his eyes and circle the text with his finger. When the “spirit” told him to stop, he would open his eyes and read the “answer” wherever his finger landed.

Increased secularity meant that in the absence of a new book or the Bible, much-loved classics like Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho!, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan could all be used to “predict” the future.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, bibliomancy is routinely practised by the protagonist Gabriel Betteredge using the pages of Robinson Crusoe.

When my spirits are bad – Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.

Although Collins was sending up this popular fad, bibliomancy was an important part of Victorian and Edwardian book culture. It was used by eminent figures including poet Robert Browning, who took to bibliomancy to find out about the fate of his attraction to fellow poet, and his later wife, Elizabeth Barrett. Though he made the unusual choice of Cerutti’s Italian Grammar for the divination, upon randomly opening it his eyes fell on the sentence: “If we love in the other world as we do in this, I shall love thee to eternity.”

Sadly, bibliomancy did not always make for happy endings: some were led to commit crimes and others were even known to have killed themselves over the result of a reading. On April 2 1866 The Belfast Morning News reported the story of a man who stole a set of spoons from a house because he believed that the Bible had told him to do so. He was, consequently, fined and sentenced to hard labour.

Toady bibliomancy is only practised by a few, but if you find yourself at a loss this New Year’s Eve, grab a book from the shelf. Whether it comes true or not, the text you find could inspire a positive outlook for the year ahead.

The Conversation

Lauren Alex O' Hagan 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.

02 Jan 19:39

13 'ye olde' phrases that would be far better in the workplace

by Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The piece around workplace jargon is moving forward, with the team hitting the ground running. We’ve got our ducks in a row, have drilled down into our learnings — let’s run it up the flagpole and see the result.

Clearly we need to enter 2018 with a fresh set of expressions for the workplace.

Now, I could suggest some spanking-new ones, but lexical novelty comes with risks — besides, we’re all a bit weary of innovation in the workplace.

Read more: Catchphrase to cliché: how corporate-speak became common in our everyday lives

So in the spirit of recycling, I suggest we recruit golden oldies to inject energy into modern managerial jargon, some linguistic gems from the past that deserve a second go.

Reaching out with saucy oars

Linguistic bugbears are always in the eye of beholder, but singing from the same hymn sheet seems to get up most noses. Old nautical jargon might be just what’s needed here, specifically — in the quill or jumping in quill. These are expressions that also meant “working in harmony”.

The quill here isn’t a feather, but an early version of coil (of rope). If you’re all jumping in quill, you’re nicely coiled up in concentric rings, so no need for synergizing either.

The world of business has also given us out over one’s skis. The message is “don’t get too far ahead of yourself”. Skiers I gather are irritated by this one because they feel the imagery is wrong, and those of us who aren’t into winter sports are simply confused.

If the idea is acting prematurely or recklessly, can I suggest we resurrect another couple of nautical expressions? Ships or boats that were rashly venturing were once said to be with saucy rigging or with saucy oars — titillating images for a change:

“They might have been sailing with saucy rigging with that restructure.”

Being loaded for bears when you hit the floor running

Something that makes regular appearances in our workplace memos is getting your ducks in a row, in other words, being organised. Its origin isn’t clear — ceramic flying ducks on a wall, rows of mechanical ducks at the fairground, balls (sitting ducks) lined up to be potted on the pool table.

It could also relate to real live ducks close together and about to be shot, or even the mother duck with her brood. All were possible inspirations.

I’m very tempted to suggest the incorporation of another duck expression here, the 17th century curiosity anatiferous “producing ducks” (from Latin anas (anati) “duck” + ferus “making”)?

But I suspect we need a stronger image for the modern corporate world. So how about being loaded for bear(s), a North American expression from the 19th century that also meant being fully prepared? Here you have to imagine hunters geared up for an bear encounter.

If you’re loaded for bears before the next meeting, you’re ready for anything.

Ideating or bethinking outside the box

The message from many management gurus is that plain and simple English words are what we need to achieve clear communication, and in the interests of de-jargonising modern corporate-speak we could even revive a few.

Sibsomeness, somredness, onehead, onehood all once referred to different aspects of unity of spirit, mind and action. While they lack the profitable association of corporate synergy, that meaning can be supplied:

“The team work resulted in a sibsomeness that was very productive.”

We like to investigate matters meticulously but are thoroughly sick of drilling down or peeling the onion. Now, we could bring back bolting the flour with its different image of a bolting-cloth or sieve. But why not Old English through-seek, with more or less the same meaning and a one thousand year-old pedigree.

The English word furtherhead was overwhelmed by French-inspired priorities and prioritize, and never took off. But as something that can be both noun and verb, it’s a handy replacement for these two foreign-derived expressions:

“The department has failed to futherhead safety within the industry.”

Ferking forthward

Let me finish with going forward, a kind of sentence tag that I equate with the teaspoonful of sugar following the tablespoonful of cod liver oil:

“This is our strategy going forward.”

There’s a fine Old English expression that could replace this overworked corporate morale booster — ferking forthward meaning moving forward, or helping something on its way.

In the modern version of the verb, prepositions are flexible. And whether it’s ferking out, up, off or forward, throughout its long and complicated life this verb has always had direction, action and bucket loads of purpose at its core:

“This ongoing restructuring of the business is a necessary step in creating a leaner organisation ferking up.”

There’s a little extra something here, too. It comes from the subtle vowel change that during the 16th century transformed ancient ferk to the modern-day F-word (undoubtedly this transition was assisted by other sources — successful expressions are usually mongrels).

Now, I know it’s easy to tilt at the jargon of others. But when expressions start doing something to people’s neck hairs, it’s time to let them go.

The Conversation

Kate Burridge 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.

02 Jan 18:41

Neil Gaiman Has Some Good Thoughts About Good Omens Fan Fiction

by Julie Muncy

Recently, a friend of mine and I had a conversation on Twitter about shipping. Specifically, that we share a Star Wars ship: Rey and Kylo Ren (please be kind, commenters). We shared a couple jokes and thoughts about The Last Jedi and Reylo, and then went our separate ways.


02 Jan 13:33

Tech Nerds Who Predicted an Internet Utopia Are Sorry For Being So Wrong

by Matt Novak

You probably remember those tantalizing tech predictions from the 1990s. The world wide web was going to become a paradise for access to information and civil discourse. The internet would allow people of different cultures to come together and learn from each other. The information superhighway was supposed to make…


19 Dec 20:03

After the FCC vote: continuing the fight for net neutrality

by Ellen Satterwhite

Text that says "Fight for Net Neutrality" with a star burst behind it.On December 14, a majority of FCC commissioners voted to gut net neutrality protections, limiting the power of ISPs to block, throttle, degrade or assign preference to some online content and services over others. This 3-2 vote to roll back strong, enforceable net neutrality protections was made in the face of widespread protests. Here is where we are today.

What Happened
This FCC decision opens the door for very different consumer experiences of the internet, especially within libraries for the patrons and communities they serve. For now, these changes are likely farther in the future. The country’s largest ISPs have told customers they will not see a change in how they experience the web (although past records don’t look bode well). With so many eyes on them right now and the certainty of a legal challenge, it is unlikely these companies will take any immediate action that will draw scrutiny. That said, significant changes are almost certain. In particular, ISPs could create faster delivery lanes for their own content (since many of these companies have media interests). This would make it harder for third-party or competing content (like content created by and in libraries) to reach people with the same quality of service.

Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel dissented in last week’s decision and detailed some of their concerns about the potential harms to the public interest and the internet ecosystem as we know it.

What’s Next?
As we’ve noted before, the FCC vote is not the final word. There are a several avenues supporters of net neutrality could take:

  1. Right after the vote, members of Congress announced their intent to attempt to nullify the FCC’s actions. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) gives Congress the ability and authority to do this; the CRA allows Congress to review a new agency regulation (in this case, Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” Order) and pass a Joint Resolution of Disapproval to overrule it. This would repeal last weeks FCC order, restoring the 2015 Open Internet Order and keeping net neutrality protections in place. This Congressional action would be subject to Presidential approval. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA) have both announced their intentions to introduce resolutions to overturn the FCC’s decision using the authority granted by the CRA and Democratic leadership in both Houses have urged their colleagues to support this move. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) plans to introduce legislation to codify net neutrality rules. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, is also calling for Congress to preserve the net neutrality rules. Timing: Congress will have 60 legislative days from when this order is published in the Federal Register. That could be about 5 or 6 months. Other legislation could take even longer.
  2. The FCC will be sued about this decision. Just hours after the vote, 18 state attorneys general announced they would be taking the FCC to court. “There is a strong legal argument that with this action, the federal government violated the Administrative Procedure Act,” Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in his statement.

    And advocacy groups Free Press and the National Hispanic Media Coalition have also announced they will take the Commission to court, disagreeing with the FCC on their interpretation of the Communications Act. They argue the FCC did not justify its action with any real facts for abandoning Title II classification for broadband ISPs.One important thing to remember is that going to court does not mean a judge will grant an injunction on the rules. And without an injunction, ISPs can still move forward with opening up internet fast lanes while the legal challenges make their way through the courts. Timing: We will know more after the rules are published in the Federal Register (probably any time in the next 60 days) and as cases are announced.

  3. In addition to legal action, several states and localities have indicated they would like to hold ISPs accountable for ensuring a neutral net for consumers in their areas. It is still very early. Some suggestions, like those from the Governor of Washington, are not yet formal legislative proposals. It is worth noting the FCC order specifically pre-empts state and local legislation, but it is not clear yet how expansive this pre-emption will be and whether it will pass legal muster. We will be watching these proposals closely and will update members about which pieces are moving and comport with the strong protections and the principles we have supported. Timing: Many state legislatures introducing bills for their coming sessions, so we expect to see more motion over the next few months.

What ALA is Doing and What You Can Do
ALA is reviewing its options and the best course of action with regard to legal challenges to last week’s vote. In the past, we have submitted extensive friend of the court briefs.

We are also working with allies to encourage Congress to overturn the FCC’s egregious action. You can email your members of Congress today and ask them to use a Joint Resolution of Disapproval under the CRA to restore the 2015 Open Internet Order protections.

ALA will continue to update you on the activities above and other developments as we continue to fight to preserve a neutral internet.

The post After the FCC vote: continuing the fight for net neutrality appeared first on District Dispatch.

19 Dec 19:48

The internet is giving a voice to those on the margins – losing net neutrality will take it away

by Harry T Dyer, Lecturer in Education, University of East Anglia

It’s easy to argue that the internet as it exists now is not “neutral”, with some companies and websites creating tech empires and online monopolies. But the decision of US telecoms watchdog, the Federal Communications Commission, to remove regulations that overtly guarantee net neutrality – the basic principle that all information on the internet should be treated equally and should be equally accessible – will certainly not improve matters.

By removing the net neutrality regulations passed in the US in 2015, the balance is tipped in favour of those companies who are able to pay internet service providers and telecoms companies to prioritise the transfer of their data. This is not just a hypothetical position experts theorise might happen: it is already happening in countries such as Guatemala where net neutrality norms have been undermined, with internet access provided in tiers that offer different speed of access for a different monthly fee.

The economic implications of this and what it means for smaller or innovative companies in a competitive marketplace are clear. But there are other hidden victims of a failure to protect net neutrality and deter the monopolisation of the internet. To find them, we must make a short detour into media theory.

The knowledge gap

In 1970 Philip Tichenor, George Donohue, and Clarice Olien proposed the influential Knowledge Gap Hypothesis, which in essence suggests that as the amount of mass media grows, consumers from a higher socio-economic background tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than those from a lower socio-economic background, and so benefit more from it. They suggested this happens for various reasons, including often being the target of this media, and having easier access to it. This means that, despite the apparently egalitarian potential of access to information enjoyed by people from across the socio-economic spectrum, in fact access to knowledge alone may not address socio-economic disparities – and may even exacerbate them further.

Five years later the same authors refined these ideas, suggesting ways to reduce this potential knowledge gap: media focused on events and issues that directly affect local communities, for example, or media that addressed forms of social conflict, and that dealt with shared issues and concerns.

Other factors have since helped close the knowledge gap – most notably access to the internet, described as a “tool for creating a more informed citizenry” by US academics Elizabeth Corley and Dietram Scheufele, and the rise of social media. At the same time, disparity of internet access based on income is quickly shrinking: recent data shows internet use among those earning under US$30,000 a year increased from 54% in 2008 to 79% in 2016, catching up those earning over US$75,000, who have stayed at a steady 95-97% over the same period.

In many ways, the internet fulfils the aim of reducing the knowledge gap by creating an environment through which communities can come together to discuss shared interests. It doesn’t just provide access to news and information, but offers a means to take part in shaping the narratives and pushing for direct action. The internet has provided the means to allow communities to develop, and use social media to reflect their needs and concerns.

Not all knowledge is useful

But, as has become clear recently, other factors affect the degree to which the general public is well informed. The rise of “fake news”, disinformation, and fringe beliefs such as flat-Eartherism, now distributed with ease through social media, has left the public potentially more confused than ever. The Pew Research Center reports that 64% of Americans are confused even to the basic facts of current events, which suggests that although internet access is a useful tool, we cannot assume that the information received is always correct, neutral, or beneficial. As was the case with much of the fake news spread during the 2016 US presidential election of Donald Trump, this disinformation can often be targeted at those from a specific socioeconomic background.

Given this, it’s questionable whether the internet has indeed reduced knowledge gaps, or if it has opened new divides in how and what we understand in a post-truth world. Nonetheless, any attack on net neutrality is likely to further restrict who has access to what information, and at what cost. The social impact of this could easily drive a wedge into and reopen any remaining knowledge gap, undoing some of the benefits achieved so far.

Who has access, and who doesn’t? marcelograciolli, CC BY

Which voices are amplified online?

The internet has, to an extent, amplified voices from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and it’s vital that rolling back net neutrality doesn’t erode what inroads these less-heard voices have made against the socio-cultural norm. Knowledge on the internet is already problematic. For example, much of Wikipedia is written by white males from the global north, despite being seen as a repository of “the world’s knowledge”.

Spaces for a greater range of voices to take a role in shaping the knowledge available online must be created – not reduce access to only those who can afford it on platforms that pay for quicker access. A tiered internet that is tied to the ability to pay will likely further minimise the diversity of voices online.

There is every chance, looking at the examples of countries that have already removed net neutrality, that websites given faster and easier access will be sites from tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter – companies that have the commercial clout to achieve preferential arrangements with internet providers and telecoms firms, but which often do not reflect or protect disenfranchised communities. Facebook, for example, has nominally added more than two options for gender classification, yet research suggests the platform still classifies all users by a gender binary. Similarly, Twitter’s continued failure to effectively deal with abuse including, but not limited to, racism and misogyny means the site, by design, does not afford the same voice, freedom, or protection to all users.

These popular platforms have a long history of ignoring, mistreating or misrepresenting at-risk communities. Given that they already account for a huge proportion of internet use, it is likely that with the removal of net neutrality, mistreated communities will continue to be marginalised. Similarly, if we slow down, target and punish local blogs and sites aimed at local news and specific communities we potentially undo the conditions through which the internet has lessened knowledge gaps.

There is a long way to go in order to ensure the internet is a space where people from diverse backgrounds are able to access and contribute to knowledge. But removing net neutrality is a step backwards, and will only serve to further silence disenfranchised communities, and reverse the positive steps so far taken to close the knowledge gap.

The Conversation

Harry T Dyer 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.

15 Dec 17:43

What Public Libraries Will Lose Without Net Neutrality

by birdie
Via the Verge, New York Public Library’s CEO and president Anthony Marx and associate director of information policy Greg Cram discuss the issue, explaining exactly which library resources an open internet protects, who would be hurt the most by net neutrality’s rollback, and why handing the internet to ISPs could threaten the basic foundation of American democracy.

The rollback of net neutrality opens the possibility for ISPs to start to play with how we pay for the internet, but because [it hasn’t] been rolled back yet, we don’t have evidence that they will in fact do those things. It’s a little speculative at this point. I think everyone is speculating a little bit in this. But the indications we got from the ISPs are that there will be paid prioritization and for us, there are specific things that would likely end up in the slow lane.

15 Dec 16:56

Universities spend millions on accessing results of publicly funded research

by Mark C. Wilson, Senior Lecturer, Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland
Research findings are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge universities subscription fees. from, CC BY-ND

University research is generally funded from the public purse. The results, however, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge subscription fees.

I had to use freedom of information laws to determine how much universities in New Zealand spend on journal subscriptions to give researchers and students access to the latest research - and I found they paid almost US$15 million last year to just four publishers.

There are additional costs, too. Paywalls on research hold up scientific progress and limit the public’s access to the latest information.

Read more: Not just available, but also useful: we must keep pushing to improve open access to research

The project took more than three years because universities originally refused to release the information. I had to make a complaint to the Ombudsman, the government official charged with determining whether information from the state sector should be publicly disclosed.

The Ombudsman’s final opinion ruled unambiguously that the public’s right to know outweighs any commercial interests of the publishers and universities.

The cost of knowledge

The following points stand out in a preliminary analysis of spending by New Zealand universities on subscriptions to journals from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis between 2013 and 2016.

  • The total amount spent on the four publishers is substantial, around US$14.9 million in 2016 (the total spending on all publishers is likely at least 2-3 times that). The University of Auckland, with 33000 students and 2200 academic and research staff, spent US$3.8 million, including US$1.6 million on Elsevier.

  • The mean expenditure per academic/research staff member in 2016 was around US$1800.

  • The University of Canterbury is getting a much worse deal than the others, 35% above the mean.

  • The rate of increase of subscription costs (17%) over the period clearly exceeds the Consumer Price Index inflation rate over the period (2-3% in New Zealand, USA and Europe).

  • The publisher with the highest percentage increase over the period was Taylor & Francis (33%).

Obtaining the information

Many journal subscription prices are high (for example, the prominent biology journal Cell is over US$2000 per year), especially given that the funding for the research typically comes from public sources.

With the advent of the internet, many people predicted a major drop in expenditure on journals, but the opposite has occurred. One reason is that the main commercial publishers use anti-competitive practices such as bundling of unrelated journals (so-called “Big Deals”) and confidentiality clauses in contracts.

Price secrecy allows sellers to use differential pricing and weaken the negotiating situation of buyers, leading to market inefficiency. The fact that each journal has a monopoly on its specific content means that journals cannot be easily substituted by others.

In 2014, Timothy Gowers and others used freedom of information laws to extract the relevant price information from universities in the UK. In 2009, less extensive work in the USA had also been done by Ted Bergstrom and colleagues. Data from Finland and Netherlands has recently been made public.

I requested data from seven of New Zealand’s eight universities, which collectively have around 8400 academic/research staff and 130000 students. The process was long and required persistence. Following the Ombudsman’s ruling, the universities complied, supplying me with data on spending on journals from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis.

There are some subtleties, such as assumptions about exchange rate conversions and exactly which products from the listed publishers the money is spent on. Interested readers can consult the raw data.

Is open access the answer?

The restricted access inherent in the subscription model makes it hard for journalists, politicians and the general public to use scholarship for better evidence-based decision making.

Recently, open access journals have emerged. They place no barriers on readers but still have production costs. The “Gold Open Access” model, in which authors or funders typically pay for each article, has become popular with traditional publishers. They often set the article processing charge level at around US$2000 to US$3000.

The analysis above implies that wholesale conversion to such article processing charges will not save money for universities. Several independent estimates put a reasonable article processing charge at no more than US$500 (less in some disciplines).

The key problem is not the particular model of payment for journal article production and distribution, but the dysfunctional market in publishing services. Although they are a large part of the problem, commercial publishers are not entirely to blame. For example, the research community uses historical journal reputation to evaluate researchers, making it harder for new, better run journals to enter the market.

The right kind of open access

Even with the best will in the world, there is an inevitable time lag for new journals to become established. To make faster progress, it is necessary to decouple the ownership of current journal titles from the provision of editorial and publication services, so that competition among publishers helps to control prices. This reclaiming of community control is the most fundamental of the recently formalised Fair Open Access Principles.

New organisations such as MathOA, PsyOA, LingOA and the Fair Open Access Alliance have been set up to facilitate large-scale conversion of subscription journals to an open access model, with community control of journals and no direct author payments. This of course involves mass defections by editorial boards.

We expect that global savings of at least 75% of current payments to journals can be made by using modern publishing providers such as Scholastica and Ubiquity, and by reallocating subscription payments toward article processing charges. What is the research community waiting for?

The Conversation

Mark C. Wilson is a board member for MathOA, and its delegate to the Fair Open Access Alliance. Both of these are nonprofit organizations registered in the Netherlands.

15 Dec 16:55

An anthropologist explains why we love holiday rituals and traditions

by Dimitris Xygalatas, Assistant Professor in Anthropology, University of Connecticut
Working together on a once-a-year project feels festive and special. Flotsam/

The mere thought of holiday traditions brings smiles to most people’s faces and elicits feelings of sweet anticipation and nostalgia. We can almost smell those candles, taste those special meals, hear those familiar songs in our minds.

Ritual marks some of the most important moments in our lives, from personal milestones like birthdays and weddings to seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving and religious holidays like Christmas or Hanukkah. And the more important the moment, the fancier the ritual.

Holiday rituals are bursting with sensory pageantry. These (often quite literal) bells and whistles signal to all of our senses that this is no common occasion – it is one full of significance and meaning. Such sensory exuberance helps create lasting recollections of those occasions and marks them in our memory as special events worth cherishing.

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to value family rituals. Research shows that they can provide various psychological benefits, helping us enjoy ourselves, connect with loved ones and take a respite from the daily grind.

An anxiety buffer

Everyday life is stressful and full of uncertainty. Having a special time of the year when we know exactly what to do, the way we’ve always done it, provides a comfortable sense of structure, control and stability.

A holiday toast can have special weight. diane cordell, CC BY-NC-ND

From reciting blessings to raising a glass to make a toast, holiday traditions are replete with rituals. Laboratory experiments and field studies show that the structured and repetitive actions involved in such rituals can act as a buffer against anxiety by making our world a more predictable place.

Many of those rituals may of course also be performed at other times throughout the year. But during the holiday season, they become more meaningful. They’re held in a special place (the family home) and with a special group of people (our closest relatives and friends). For this reason, more people travel during the year-end holidays than any other time of the year. Gathering together from far-flung locations helps people leave their worries behind, and at the same time lets them reconnect with time-honored family traditions.

Happy meals

No holiday tradition would be complete without a festive meal. Since the first humans gathered around the fire to roast their hunt, cooking has been one of the defining characteristics of our species.

The long hours spent in the kitchen and the dining room during the preparation and consumption of holiday meals serve some of the same social functions as the hearths of our early ancestors. Sharing a ceremonial meal symbolizes community, brings the entire family together around the table and smooths the way for conversation and connection.

All cultures have rituals that revolve around food and meal preparation. Jewish tradition dictates that all food must be chosen and prepared according to specific rules (Kosher). In parts of the Middle East and India, only the right hand must be used for eating. And in many European countries, it is important to lock eyes while making a toast in order to avoid seven years of bad sex.

Hosts pull out all the stops for over-the-top holiday feasts. +Simple on Unsplash, CC BY

Of course, special occasions require special meals. So most cultures reserve their best and most elaborate dishes for the most important holidays. For example, in Mauritius, Tamil Hindus serve the colorful “seven curries” at the conclusion of the Thaipussam kavadi festival, and in Greece families get together to spit-roast an entire lamb on Easter Day. And these recipes often include some secret ingredients – not just culinary, but also psychological.

Research shows that performing a ritual before a meal improves the eating experience and makes the food (even just plain carrots!) seem tastier. Other studies found that when children participate in food preparation they enjoy the food more, and that the longer we spend preparing a meal, the more we come to appreciate it. In this way, the labor and fanfare associated with holiday meals virtually guarantees an enhanced gastronomical experience.

Sharing is caring

It is common to exchange presents during the holiday period. From a rational perspective, this might seem pointless, at best recycling resources or, at worst, wasting them. But don’t underestimate the importance of these exchanges. Anthropologists have noted that among many societies ritualized gift-giving plays a crucial role in maintaining social ties by creating networks of reciprocal relationships.

Gifts under the tree can be a key component of Christmas celebrations. Andrew Neel on Unsplash, CC BY

Today, many families give each other lists of desired presents for the holidays. The brilliance of this system lies precisely in the fact that most people end up getting what they would buy anyway – the money gets recycled but everyone still enjoys the satisfaction of giving and receiving gifts.

And as this is a special time of the year, we can even allow ourselves some guilt-free indulgence. Last year, my wife and I saw a fancy coffee machine that we really liked, but we decided it was too expensive. But in December, we went back and bought it as a mutual present, agreeing that it was OK to splurge a bit for the holidays.

The stuff family is made of

The most important function of holiday rituals is their role in maintaining and strengthening family ties. In fact, for relatives who live far apart, holiday rituals may be the glue that holds the family together.

Ritual is a powerful marker of identity and group membership. Some of my own field studies have found that taking part in collective rituals creates feelings of belonging and increased generosity toward other members of the group. It’s no surprise, then, that spending the holidays with the in-laws for the first time is often regarded as a rite of passage – a sign of true family membership.

Holiday traditions are particularly important for children. Research shows that children who participate in group rituals become more strongly affiliated with their peers. In addition, having more positive memories of family rituals seems to be associated with more positive interactions with one’s own children.

Rituals and traditions can help make our memories of holidays good ones. Darren Coleshill on Unsplash, CC BY

Holiday rituals are the perfect recipe for family harmony. Sure, you might need to take three flights to get there, and they will almost certainly be delayed. And your uncle is bound to get drunk and start a political argument with his son-in-law again. But according to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, this is unlikely to spoil the overall experience.

Kahneman’s research shows that when we evaluate past experiences, we tend to remember the best moments and the last moments, paying little attention to everything else. This is known as the “peak-end rule.”

In other words, our memory of the family holiday will mostly consist of all the rituals (both joyful and silly), the good food, the presents and then hugging everyone goodbye at the end of the night (after your uncle made up with his son-in-law). And by the time you get back home, you’ll have something to look forward to for next year.

The Conversation

Dimitris Xygalatas 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.

15 Dec 16:30

Fascism’s return and Trump’s war on youth

by Henry Giroux, Chaired professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University
Donald Trump’s policies represent a particular attack on American youth and children, particularly those who are disadvantaged (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Fascism is all too often relegated to the history books.

The word conjures up a period in which civilized societies treated democracy with contempt, engaged in acts of systemic violence, practised extermination and elimination, supported an “apocalyptic populism,” suppressed dissent, promoted a hyper-nationalism, displayed contempt for women, embraced militarism as an absolute ideal and insisted on obedience to a self-proclaimed prophet.

But the seeds that produced such fascist horrors have once again sprung to life, returning in new social and political forms.

Today, a culture of fear dominates American society, one marked by massive inequities in wealth and power that not only uphold structures of domination, but also view differences as threats, compassion as weakness and shared responsibilities —if not the common good itself — as pathology.

Fascist thought is on the rise all over the world, but its most blatant and dangerous manifestation has emerged in the Trump administration.

Fear and the ethos of mass consumerism —coupled with widespread insecurity and ignorance —now drive people into a malignant notion of security, self-inflicted cynicism and into the arms of demagogues like Trump. For too many Americans, critical thinking and hope have given way to emotional bonding and the revival of the discourse of ultra-nationalism and bigotry.

Trump: Not Hitler, but dangerous nonetheless

Trump is not Hitler in that he has not created concentration camps, shut down the critical media or rounded up dissidents; moreover, the United States at the current historical moment is not the Weimar Republic.

But in the Trump era, remnants of fascism exist in different shapes and forms and include a celebration of the cult of the leader, systemic racism, the embrace of a toxic macho-populism and state support for ultra-nationalism, racism and the threat of violence against critics.

All of these elements are evident in Trump’s rhetoric and policy initiatives.

Trump’s corporate brand of neoliberal fascism is highly visible in right-wing policies that favour deregulation, corporate power and the interests of the ultra-rich.

Instead of draining the corporate swamp, Trump has embraced the merging of corporate and political power, and in doing so has turned the state into a battering ram designed to serve the most powerful and wealthiest members of society.

Trump’s mode of fascism is a unique product of our times, our commercial culture, and a corporate controlled media, all of which saps the foundations of a viable democracy.

American culture is advertising-saturated and celebrity-based, and has permitted a rich self-promoter to abandon any pretense of civility, accountability or integrity in order to hype, scam and market his way to power.

Call it Fascism, American-Style. It’s returned in the shadow of neoliberalism, with its celebration of the market as the template for governing all of society and its concentration of economic and political power in relatively few hands.

Friendly with dictators

How else to explain Trump’s unapologetic support and friendly attitude toward right-wing dictators such as the self-confessed killer, Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, all of whom have a fawning attraction to Trump given he exhibits little interest in their massive human rights violations.

Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte speak during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Manila in November 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Trump’s fascism is also on full display in his ramping up of the police state, his relentless racist rhetoric, taunts and policies that cast Blacks, immigrants and Muslims as people unworthy of respect, compassion and dignity, and in his support for a war culture.

The latter is marked by his expansion of the U.S. military budget, his provocations aimed at North Korea and reckless policies such as recognizing Jerusalem the capital of Israel —widely condemned by almost all world leaders — that destabilize the Middle East, Asia and other parts of the world.

But there are more subtle, if not under-examined, indicators that point to resurgence of fascist principles in the United States.

One of the most powerful is Trump’s war on youth.

Finance capitalism now drives politics, governance and policy in unprecedented ways. And it’s more than willing to sacrifice the future of young people for short-term political and economic gains, if not democracy itself.

In an apparent war on children, the Trump administration provides a disturbing index of a society in the midst of a deep moral and political crisis — not the least of which was the president’s support and defence of an accused serial pedophile, Roy Moore, in his unsuccessful attempt to win an Alabama Senate seat.

‘Foreclosed hope’

Too many young people today live in an era of foreclosed hope, an era in which it is difficult either to imagine a life beyond the tenets of a savage form of casino capitalism or to transcend the fear that any attempt to do so can only result in a more dreadful nightmare.

Youth today are not only plagued by the fragility and uncertainty of the present, they are, as the late Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has argued, “the first post-war generation facing the prospect of downward mobility [in which the] plight of the outcast stretches to embrace a generation as a whole.”

American youth, especially those marginalized by race and class, are subject to the dictates of the punishing state. Not only is their behaviour being criminalized in schools and on the streets, they are also subject to repressive forms of legislation.

Several states are sponsoring legislation that would make perfectly legal forms of protest a crime that carries a huge fine, or subjects young people to possible felony charges? Increasingly, young people are viewed as a public disorder, a dream now turned into a nightmare.

The most recent example is evident in budget and tax reform bills that shift millions of dollars away from social programs vital to the health of poor youth to the pockets of the ultra-rich, who hardly need tax deductions.

As U.S. children’s rights activist Marian Wright Adelman points out, such actions are particularly alarming and cruel at a time when “millions of America’s children today are suffering from hunger, homelessness and hopelessness.”

She adds: “Nearly 13.2 million children are poor – almost one in five. About 70 per cent of them are children of colour, who will be a majority of our children by 2020. More than 1.2 million are homeless. About 14.8 million children struggle against hunger in food insecure households.”

Cruel mindset

The Trump administration is more than willing to pass massive tax cuts for the rich while at the same time refusing to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which supports over nine million children.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, meantime, has argued that tax cuts shouldn’t benefit the poor because they will just waste the money on booze and women.

So if you’re not rich, it’s because you’re lazy. Really? Tell that to the 10,000 people, some of them children, who may die each year as a result of losing their health insurance due to the proposed Senate tax bill.

Such a mindset, and statements like Grassley’s, are more than cruel, they represent a political and economic system that has abandoned any sense of moral and social responsibility.

In this view, children are undeserving of aid because offering such government support flies in the face of a ruthless neoliberal ideology that insists that the only responsibility of government is to aid the rich and powerful corporations.

If the poor are suffering and subject to harsh conditions, according to Grassley’s logic, it is because of a lack of character.

Another under-analyzed example of Trump’s war on youth can be seen his cancellation of the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted in 2012 by former president Barack Obama.

Under the program, over 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children or teens before 2007 were allowed to live, study and work in the United States without fear of deportation.

Loyola Marymount University student and dreamer Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, in California in September 2017. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In revoking the program, Trump enacted a policy that is both cruel and racist, given that 78 per cent of DACA residents are from Mexico. These are the same immigrants Trump once labelled rapists, drug addicts and criminals.

Trump’s contempt for the lives of young people, his support for a culture of cruelty and his appetite for destruction and civic catastrophe are more than a symptom of a society ruled almost exclusively by a market-driven survival of the fittest ethos.

‘Systemic derangement’

It is about the systemic derangement of democracy and emergence of fascist politics that celebrates the toxic pleasures of the authoritarian state with no regard for its children.

Trump is the apostle of moral blindness and unchecked corruption, and he revels in a mode of governance that merges his never-ending theatrics of self-promotion with deeply authoritarian politics.

One of the most disturbing features of Trump’s fascism is his disregard for the truth and his embrace of an infantilism that demonstrates, for young people, a lack of any viable sense of critical thought, agency and commitment to social and economic justice.

What’s more, Trump has unleashed a rancid populism and racist-fuelled ultra-nationalism that mimics older forms of fascism and creates a culture of cruelty that both disparages its children and cancels out a future that makes democracy possible for them — and therefore all of us.

At the same time, Trump has embraced a merging of corporate power and politics that is characteristic of all fascist regimes, and in doing so, he has shifted wealth and resources away from vital social programs for young people into the hands of the financial elite.

There is more at work here than regressive tax policies, there is also an attempt to disable the welfare state by eliminating its funding.

Domestic terrorism

One result is what might be called the unleashing of a form of domestic terrorism — terrorism practised in one’s own country against one’s own people —in which young people are subject to state violence and relegated to forms of terminal exclusion, spheres of social abandonment and set adrift in a state of disorientation and despair.

Under this new resurgence of fascism, thinking is dangerous, public spheres that promote critical thought are considered pathological and youth are viewed as a threatening disoriented class, especially those marginalized by race, sexual orientation and class.

And so under Trump, the winds of fascism have accelerated into a hurricane and pose a haunting crisis for youth, the future and democracy itself.

That crisis of youth under the Trump regime is a political disaster of the first order and threatens every vital cultural and political ideal, principle, social formation and public sphere that makes a democracy possible. It’s best illustrated by Trump’s support for Moore, a homophobe, unabashed racist and an accused child predator, sexual harasser and sexual abuser.

Yes, fascism us making a comeback and is with us once again — yet Moore’s defeat in the deep-red state of Alabama to his Democratic challenger gives us reason to hope. Black voters, particularly black women, and young voters stood up to say “no more.”

Fascism requires those among us who value equity, fairness, justice and morality to defeat it. To stop fascism, it is crucial that we show that democracy is the only alternative, and that the grotesque elements of fascism will be challenged. Here’s hoping Alabama is just the beginning of such a struggle.

The Conversation

Henry Giroux 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.

15 Dec 14:22

When cringeworthy gifts are worse than inconsiderate

by Deborah Y. Cohn, Associate Professor of Marketing, New York Institute of Technology
Sometimes a gift that might seem reasonable is no nicer than a stocking full of coal. Suzanne Tucker/

Ever wondered why your mom bought you that inexplicable thing? You’re not alone.

I have spent years doing consumer research related to gift giving. In my field, conventional wisdom surmises that when gifts fail to please recipients, it’s accidental. But I’ve determined that sometimes people give bad gifts on purpose.

My personal interest in this dynamic stems from a gag present my dad gave me when I was a kid. As I unwrapped his box in a box in a box, the anticipation grew bigger as the boxes got smaller. When I found that the last box was empty, it crushed me. He thought it was funny. (In my dad’s defense, this happened on April Fool’s Day, an occasion on which we had no gift-giving traditions.)

But I never could shake my urge to learn why someone would give such a rotten gift.

It can be hard to recover from a disappointing gift, even when it’s supposed to be a gag. unguryanu/Shutterstock

Studying mean gifts

The total cost of unwanted gifts is high, both in terms of dollars and in damaged relationships, I’ve found in my research.

Unwanted merchandise returned to U.S. retailers during the 2015 holiday season (excluding fraud cases) totaled US$60.84 billion. This sum of course leaves out the many unwanted gifts that are regifted, ignored, sold, donated or thrown away.

No data exist about how many presents are cruel, but this problem has implications for brands, retailers, marketers and consumers at a time when the National Retail Federation predicts that Americans are spending an estimated $678.75 billion a year on presents.

Depending on whether you’ve got similar tales of woe, you may (or may not) be surprised to learn that many people intentionally give gifts with no concerns for the recipient’s feelings.

Although it seems nonsensical to give someone a gift that will damage a relationship rather than strengthen it, some people deliberately do just that.

Not only are these returns a drag for businesses, they harm friendships and fray family bonds.

To undertake a study of mean presents, the first of its kind, I did in-depth interviews individually with the people in 15 relationships. Each interview with one member of these couples began with the question, “Can you tell me about gift giving between you and your partner over the course of time?” In these interviews, couples often spoke about gifts exchanged within their families, too.

To broaden the study, I searched family-focused message boards at the website using the keyword “gifts” and analyzed the more than 400,000 relevant results.

People, it turns out, really like to talk about gifts.

They talk online about great gifts and horrible gifts. They seek help from others to figure out what went wrong. They like to complain when they suspect that someone has intentionally given them an awful present.

When your loved ones give presents that don’t suit you, it can get awkward. Sebastian Gauert/

5 kinds of inconsiderate presents

After reviewing the data, I identified five categories of inconsiderate gifts.

Confrontational. The first are gifts that are essentially personal affronts. One of my personal favorites is the pregnancy test a woman actually gave her childless daughter-in-law for Christmas.

I was also shocked by this other example that is purely aggressive rather than passive aggressive: A woman bought her grown son a book about Christianity knowing that he had given up the faith and didn’t appreciate being reminded of his mother’s disapproval.

Selfish. “To-you-for-me” gifts benefit givers more than recipients.

One sports-loving man in my study epitomized this category by giving his wife a big-screen television for her birthday, just in time for the Super Bowl that she didn’t plan to watch.

Aggressive. Sometimes gifts are explicitly meant to offend.

For example, after a man in my study gave his wife lawn furniture for Mother’s Day, she told him she hated the pattern and asked him to return it. Instead, he bought her more of that furniture for her birthday a few weeks later.

This category of crummy gifts signals a deteriorating relationship. Indeed, this couple got divorced not long after these incidents.

Obligatory. It’s always hard to select gifts when the giver doesn’t know or especially care what the recipient would want.

These obligatory presents, often exchanged and opened in front of groups, are not malicious gifts. They are simply meant to check a box. If everyone gathering round a Christmas tree is going to be giving each other something, you may feel safer giving your Aunt Sally a completely random thing even if you have no clue about what she’d like.

One woman bought her husband clothes for his birthday even though she knew he would end up returning most of them. When asked, “If you knew he wouldn’t like it, why did you buy it?,” she replied, “Probably just so he would have something on his birthday.” She felt the need to give a gift, but no need to please her husband.

Competitive. Gifts given for bragging rights are intended to “out-gift” someone else. A common example of this is what happens when someone gives their grandchild a present the kid’s parents specifically said not to buy.

One woman in my study reported that her parents were competing with her in-laws to give her kids increasingly large and extravagant gifts over her objections – then posting about it on Facebook.

To be sure, these categories may overlap. Ill-conceived gifts can be be both aggressive and competitive, and “to-you—for-me” presents can also be confrontational.

Typical Americans are buying 15 gifts this holiday season. If any of yours sound like they fit the mold of these crummy presents, there’s still time to alleviate the suffering by not going through with your plan to give someone a cruel gift – or at least to apologize if it’s too late.

The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson explains why many presents amount to what economists call “deadweight loss”: The company wasted time making it, the giver wasted time buying it, and the receiver wasted time returning it.
The Conversation

Deborah Y. Cohn 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 15:55

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.

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.