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01 Nov 19:26

No, a genetic study didn’t pinpoint the ancestral homeland of all humans

by Kiona N. Smith
200,000 years ago, parts of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa looked a lot like the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Enlarge / 200,000 years ago, parts of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa looked a lot like the Okavango Delta in Botswana. (credit: Gorgo / Wikimedia)

A study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature earlier this week supposedly determined that a particular region of southern Africa gave rise to modern humans 200,000 years ago. But, shockingly, it turns out that a single genomic study can't instantly resolve one of the biggest questions in human evolution.

The Nature paper's claim has drawn criticism from people in the field, in part because it contradicts a heap of other evidence—and it doesn't offer any explanation. And the actual emergence of our species is much older, much messier, and much more interesting.

Is this the homeland of modern humans?

Geneticist Eva Chan of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia and her colleagues say that mitochondrial DNA can be used to trace the origins of modern humanity to an area spanning the borders of Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. This place is a dry landscape dotted with salt pans that hint at a former wetland paradise. Because mitochondrial DNA is passed directly from mother to child, the study claims that this is where the maternal ancestors of modern humans—6,500 generations removed—once lived.

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01 Nov 17:20

The Science Of Scary: Why It's So Fun To Be Freaked Out

by Madeline K. Sofia
Psychologist Ken Carter studies why some people seek out haunted houses and other thrills — even though he

When it comes to hair-raising experiences, why do some of us cower while others can't get enough? Ken Carter, an expert on adrenaline junkies, reveals what makes them tick.

(Image credit: Kay Hinton/Emory University)

31 Oct 17:08

Why you should start a weekly planning session (and how to do it effectively)

by Kelly Nolan

You can eliminate a lot of unexpected stress by doing a little bit of advance planning.

I’m a time management strategist who, last week, skipped the very same planning session I make my clients work through each week. I assured myself it would be fine to skip it just this once and in the process, took for granted the benefits of planning.

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31 Oct 16:58

Here’s why you should never use decorative contact lenses—in graphic pictures

by Beth Mole
Closeup image of man wearing scary contact lenses.

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Unless you’d like to keep the pirate look going, it’s best to avoid costume contact lenses this Halloween.

Like every October, health authorities and medical organizations want to remind you that the decorative, over-the-counter lenses are not only illegal, they’re also terrible for your eyes. And they're not telling tall tales. The lenses can cause infections, sores, scratches, vision-impairing scars, and even blindness. It’s easy to find eye-related horror stories from people who turned to black-market lenses to change the color, shape, or look of their eyes (some lenses even add logos to your eyeballs).

Just on Tuesday, USA Today reported the case of a Cleveland woman who got decorative lenses stuck to her eyeballs. The lenses were supposed to turn her brown eyes blue but instead made them swollen and red. She had to have them removed in an emergency room.

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31 Oct 16:51

AI May Not Kill Your Job—Just Change It

by Sara Harrison
Don't fear the robots, according to a report from MIT and IBM. Worry about algorithms replacing any task that can be automated. 
31 Oct 16:15

Astronomers catch wind rushing out of galaxy

Exploring the influence of galactic winds from a distant galaxy called Makani, UC San Diego's Alison Coil, Rhodes College's David Rupke and a group of collaborators from around the world made a novel discovery. Published in Nature, their study's findings provide direct evidence for the first time of the role of galactic winds—ejections of gas from galaxies—in creating the circumgalactic medium (CGM). It exists in the regions around galaxies, and it plays an active role in their cosmic evolution. The unique composition of Makani—meaning wind in Hawaiian—uniquely lent itself to the breakthrough findings.
31 Oct 16:14

Edith Wharton’s Ghosts

by Morgan Meis

J. Nicole Jones at The Paris Review:

In a preface to her ghost stories, Wharton writes, “I do not believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.” Following an attack of typhoid as a child, Wharton writes in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, that she returned from the brink of death with “chronic fear” that felt like a “choking agony of terror.” Well into young adulthood, she would not sleep without a light and a maid present in her room. “It was like some dark, indefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening,” she writes, and I could not help but think of Hilary Mantel’s childhood encounter with an indescribable evil in her family’s garden. Must all women be visited by terror so consistently and from such a young age? The rumors of paranormal activity at the Mount began after the house become an all-girls school in the forties, and intensified when the theater troupe Shakespeare and Company took residence there in the seventies. The performers were kicked out more than a decade ago in a landlord-tenant dispute that seemed, publicly, not related to the supernatural. Even so, nothing attracts the devil more than a group of adolescent girls, except for maybe a group of actors.

more here.

31 Oct 16:09

What Happens to the Clothes We Throw Away?: Watch Unravel, a Short Documentary on the Journey Our Waste Takes

by Ted Mills

When we throw our clothes away in the West, they don’t all go to a thrift store or to a recycling center or a local landfill. Instead, every year 100,000 tons of clothes make their way across the ocean to India. In this awareness raising short doc from UK-based filmmaker Meghna Gupta, we see the end point of these bales and bales of Western fashion, and the women and men who turn our waste back into thread. The thread then begins its own journey, inevitably winding back up as cheap imported clothes. And the cycle begins again.

Gupta lets the women speak for themselves, in particular Reshma, a young mother and wife who works in one such recycling center in Panipat, North India. We see her daily life as well as the process turning our castoffs into thread. Upon entering the country, the clothes are cut so they can’t be re-sold. Then women like Reshma remove buttons, zippers, and any other non-cloth component.

Far, far away from even a passing encounter with a Westerner (apart from what they’ve seen on the Discovery Channel), Reshma and her co-workers create a narrative and an image of the people sending all these clothes. The West must have a water shortage, Reshma says, that is stopping people from washing their clothes. The West also must have a very strange diet to produce the plus-size garments they keep coming across.

Now, the West doesn’t have a water shortage, but according to EDGE (Emerging Designers Get Exposed), the clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil, producing 20 percent of global waste water, and a global waste total of nearly 13 million tons of fabric. Producing cotton is water-intensive—with 5,000 gallons needed just to make a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

Recycling is important—it’s been a constant message to the public since the 1970s. But the global footprint that this film hints at, all those cargo ships, all those trucks, all that fuel and those miles traveled…is this really a solution? How do we stop the demand and the disposability?

The doc doesn’t answer those questions, and doesn’t mean to do so. It just wants you to see a small family in the middle of a large global machine. They seem happy enough. But they also see their fate as God-given, at least in this life this time 'round.

“You tend to get dressed for other people,” Reshma’s husband says. “But at the end of the day you’ll be as beautiful as God made you. All people have a natural beauty.”

via Aeon

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

What Happens to the Clothes We Throw Away?: Watch Unravel, a Short Documentary on the Journey Our Waste Takes is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooksFree Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.

30 Oct 20:57

Conscientiousness may matter less if you’re a lawyer than if you’re in sales

by Cathleen O'Grady
Image of wooden puzzle pieces

Enlarge (credit: Thanee Hengpattanapong / EyeEm)

Personality tests are two a penny, and most of them are no more meaningful than astrology (spoken like a true Capricorn). But there are ways to study personality empirically—they just involve accepting a lot of imperfection and fuzziness.

The "Big Five" personality traits do seem to get at something meaningful about human personality. They certainly don't capture everything, but Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism are traits that can be measured with a high degree of stability from one test to the next. They change in predictable ways across people's lifespans and with therapy, and they seem to be related in measurable ways to people's lives outside the context of a personality test.

One of those traits—conscientiousness—is, unsurprisingly, strongly related to how people perform at work. But why, and in what settings? A paper published this week in PNAS used the data from more than 2,500 studies to summarize what we know about conscientiousness. Unexpectedly, the authors find that conscientiousness scores make less of a difference to people's performance when they're in high-complexity careers. Instead, they mainly seems to matter in low- or moderate-complexity jobs.

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30 Oct 18:26

Gen Z Has Given Us New Fighting Words: Ok Boomer

by Rachel Leishman

Old man yells at cloud from The Simpsons

Boomers love to cry and then pretend like they’re not crying and blame other generations (of “snowflakes”) for their tears. Tis the way of the generation after World War II. They think they’ve had it tough and so they throw their lack of student loan debt in our face and mock our 80-hour work weeks by saying that, in their day, the television sets were in black and white.

The problem with the modern era is that the Baby Boomer generation, and just anyone who is older or nearing retirement, loves to call anyone younger than them a millennial, which isn’t the case. We have distinct generational divides, always have. The problem now is that by generalizing generations, you’re insulting everyone all at once and forcing a wave of unnecessary anger between them. So how is Gen Z combating that? By saying “Ok boomer” as a generalization for anyone older who is criticizing the youths.

Talking to NBC News, Sam Harman, a 17-year-old who took part in an iconic “Ok boomer” picture, discussed why the phrase has become so prominent:

I think a big part of why it has caught on is just, like, baby boomers and older people in general love to complain about younger people on the whole. They’ll call anyone younger than them ‘millennials,’ and doing the same thing to older people by calling them ‘boomers’ is kind of a push back to that.

With sweatshirts for sale (I already bought one) and a Twitter campaign that is spreading at a rapid pace, we’re all learning of the power that Gen Z has. The Ok Boomer trend started when one group of kids realized that their favorite sentiment to say to one another was “Ok Boomer” and has now grown into songs, tweet threads, and sweatshirt sales, so we have to give it up to Gen Z.


View this post on Instagram


Let’s get it trending #okboomer

A post shared by Sam Hughes (@god_damn_sam) on

There’s a level of dedication to this trend that I truly appreciate. Basically anyone over the age of 39 likes to just throw everyone younger than them into the same generational label. The labels mean nothing except when someone wants to blame them for something. “Millennials” are lazy, “Gen Z” is entitled, and both of us are fed up. It was just Gen Z who found a way to make it a movement online, and we, as millennials, must support. (Hence my purchasing of a sweatshirt I most definitely do not need but definitely want.)

So now, we get to explore the songs and tweets of the youths and thrive in their comedic wit. Here, please listen to this song titled “ok, boomer” while we look at some of the best tweets about this movement.


The children really are our future and I can’t wait to be cozy in my “Ok boomer” sweatshirt all winter long.

(via NBC News, image: Fox)

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 —The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—

30 Oct 16:55

Exclusive: I left Google because of pregnancy discrimination

by Pavithra Mohan

Chelsey Glasson, who recently filed a complaint with the EEOC, talked to Fast Company about her experience at Google during her second pregnancy.

Over the summer, an anonymous memo by a Google employee on maternity leave made the rounds on an internal message board. In the post, which was eventually leaked to Motherboard, Chelsey Glasson explained that she would not be returning to Google after her leave was up, detailing allegations of pregnancy discrimination and retaliatory behavior. “I’m sharing this statement because I hope it informs needed change in how Google handles discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” she wrote.

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30 Oct 16:54

The Future of Transportation Is Not the Hyperloop or the Self-Driving Car. It’s the Bus, the Bike, and the Elevator.

by Henry Grabar
Getting people around in new, different ways relies mostly on technologies that we have had for a while.
30 Oct 16:54

Big Oil Gets Bigger

Big oil has gotten a lot bigger, according to Wood Mackenzie Chairman and Chief Analyst Simon Flowers.
30 Oct 16:32

How to Mansplain Politics On Social Media Based On Your Political Party

by Kyle Teller

Tired of women online not getting you? Want a quick way to let every woman know you’re right, that they are feminazis? Use our guide and never again will you have to listen to a woman not listen to you first.

COASTAL REPUBLICAN: You believe everyone is coming for your guns and the 5th or 6th or some amendment and Jesus says guns are good.

  • PROFILE PIC: Wear Oakley sunglasses and hold at least 5 guns. Your Facebook banner must be a pixelated photo of a frayed U.S. flag.
  • TAGLINE: “Where’s your evidence? You’re all drinking the feminist Kool-Aid.”
  • IGNORE: Any evidence.
  • SIGN-OFF: “Bitch.”

MIDWEST REPUBLICAN: You are the diet version of the Coastal Republican but colder.

  • PROFILE PIC: Lean too close to the camera so viewers only see your confused face and a bit of your Sam’s Club fleece vest.
  • TAGLINE: “Ope! Sorry the lib media makes you feel that way.”
  • IGNORE: All women, particularly your lib daughter.
  • SIGN-OFF: “God bless.”

BERNIE BRO: You voted for Bernie because you wanted to buy weed even though you’re white and could already buy weed.

  • PROFILE PIC: Party at a dank festival and wear your own cannabis-themed merch paid for by your CEO father.
  • TAGLINE: “Bush and Obama were the same, man. Don’t join the sheeple just because you’re afraid of losing access to safe healthcare.”
  • IGNORE: Any example of how Obama expanded equal pay laws or how current candidates may choose to support or defund Planned Parenthood.
  • SIGN-OFF: “Chill out, dude. Voting doesn’t matter [for white men] anyway.”

I-VOTED-FOR-HILLARY-NOW-I’M-A-BIDEN BRO: You think you’re voting against your Coastal Republican father, but you’re really just like him.

  • PROFILE PIC: Sit in an armchair of a private men’s club while smoking a Cuban cigar. Make direct eye contact.
  • TAGLINE: “Biden is our best option. We can’t win with polarizing male candidates.”
  • IGNORE: Any mention of Biden’s sexual misconduct, Biden’s touchy relationship with the Hyde Amendment, and any female candidates not named Hillary.

SOCIALIST/MISOGYNIST ALLY: You took one feminist course in college and talked over the women. Your wife is your only female friend, but you claim her friends as your own.

  • PROFILE PIC: Raise your fist at a Women’s March then crop out all the women from the photo.
  • TAGLINE: “Your thoughts are controlled by the patriarchal system that abused you and makes you think this way. Put on your pussy hat, I’ll grab mine, and together we can change women’s rights by voting my way!”
  • IGNORE: Her pleas that she’s a person with her own ideas and autonomy. She’s clearly delusional.
  • SIGN-OFF: #MeToo with a five-page story of how a woman once asked you to stop calling her.

THE MARXIST: “Chortle-chortle capitalism” is tangible in your voice, even on the screen. You wear Birkenstocks, all-black clothing, and never cut your hair.

  • PROFILE PIC: Stand in the center of your labor union where the women performed all the labor and made your protest sign. Hey, hey, ho!
  • TAGLINE:: “We’re all the same under the capitalist pig. Talking about ‘Identity politics’ gets in the way of me and my movement and my penis.”
  • IGNORE: Any woman posting that a candidate protected her rights or her ability to talk to you in the first place.
  • SIGN-OFF: “Make me a sandwich [out of the Rich].”

THE LIBERTARIAN: You wear anarchist earrings bought from Hot Topic and carry a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged.

  • PROFILE PIC: None. Don’t let the media gain access to your photos that you’re afraid no one will like.
  • TAGLINE: “Let’s destroy the government before it benefits anyone other than me!”
  • IGNORE: Any discussion of The Civil Rights Act, Title IX, or any rulings protecting women. Free speech is more important than her safety. Stifle her voice in any copy room, town meeting, or public space by arguing with Socialist/Misogynist Ally man for seven hours until the woman leaves the room, silent and ashamed.
  • SIGN-OFF: “I can’t provide research because the system is against me. All research is a lie against me.”

FOR THE UNDECIDED MANSPLAINER: You hate women but do not know why — mommy?

  • “LISTEN [political party] FRIENDS, THE ONLY WAY IS [mine].”
  • Use a meme to mansplain for you.
  • Do not read any research, evidence, or experience written by any woman posting. Like Gaston of Beauty and the Beast, how are you supposed to read a book without any pictures?
  • If she nevertheless persists on responding, paste the following: “I see your point [do not actually acknowledge this point in any concrete way], but [insert a story about your suburban childhood and a Wikipedia page that you didn’t read].
  • If she nevertheless persists again, write: “Where’s your evidence?” You’re a man. Let her know it’s up to everyone else to provide you with information when you post about politics you’ve never read or only read when it’s about men.
  • When it looks like she may win the argument, paste any of the following in any order:
    “What about men’s rights?”
    “Not all men!”
    “I can’t win!”
30 Oct 16:30

Wave tank simulation of coastal defenses

by Rob Beschizza

"It's really complicated." The action begins 3 minutes in.

29 Oct 21:37

Hellvetica Puts a Spooky Twist on the World’s Most Popular Font

by Arielle Pardes
The minds behind the unsettling typeface were inspired by their office Halloween party.
29 Oct 21:10

In Mark Zuckerberg’s World, “Provenance” Means Nothing

by Kate Gill
Mark Zuckerberg (via Wikimedia Commons)

To the supreme ruler of Facebook, nothing is sacred. Especially not language.

During a summit at the Paley Center last week, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg gave a 40-minute address on his company’s latest innovation: Facebook News.

Seated next to Zuckerberg was another media giant, Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp — Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate-empire that owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Daily Telegraph, among other major outlets.

About 10 minutes through his sermon, Zuckerberg arrived at a thesis — and a word of interest: “Provenance has been one of the key things I think we’ve talked about for years, the importance for people to know where the information is coming from … so that they establish that base of trust,” he said, nodding at Thomson, whom Zuckerberg praised for “pushing him” in this area.

In the art world, provenance is a crucial term — and a perennial conversation.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, provenance denotes “the place of origin or earliest known history of something.” It derives from the french verb provenir, or “to come from.” To dealers, collectors, and historians, provenance is largely a matter of authenticity — who painted the work, when, and under what circumstances. In museums, it’s also a question of how, exactly, a work might have been acquired — and whether its collector handled the work ethically.

Certainly, language (its meaning, scope, and impact) is fluid. But in Zuckerberg’s case, word choice may betray a certain arrogance.

Since its emergence, Facebook has changed the way we communicate — and that includes the way we speak. To “like” something is to click a button on-screen; a “wall” signifies that endless Facebook scroll. And now, provenance may come to imply one question — is it fake news or misinformation? Gone are the implications about art, origin, ethics, and quality. Since Facebook arguably was an incubator for the fake news phenomenon, Zuckerberg may be explaining away his company’s unfortunate record with one word.

That is not to imply Zuckerberg has done anything remarkable with word choice. Individuals in power often borrow words and concepts from other industries. But given Zuckerberg’s callous approach to public interest, his vocabulary may be worth a second listen.

During Friday’s event, Zuckerberg unveiled his site’s forthcoming “news tab,” what he referred to as a “dedicated space” for journalism to exist in the Facebook universe. Up until this point, journalism has competed directly with the musings of friends, memes, and baby photos. Once the news tab launches in earnest, articles will leave the busy, chaotic main feed for their own depot.

In exchange for access to this content, Facebook will pay select publishers — presumably the New York Times, the Washington Post, et al. (Commentators have already noted that local, less profitable outlets may unjustly lose out on the cushy arrangement.)

Social media has infiltrated every corner of modern life, but does it have the authority to redefine language as it pleases? The ultimate test is, of course: will the vernacular change? Will our sense of provenance change according to Zuckerberg’s definition? Let’s hope not.

29 Oct 21:09

Happy Birthday, ARPANET: The Internet’s Grandfather First Connected 50 Years Ago

by Joel Hruska

On October 29, 1969, the first successful message was sent over ARPANET. UCLA student Charley Kline transmitted from an SDS Sigma 7 computer to an SDS 940 machine at the Stanford Research Institute. The initial message was inauspicious — the letters “lo” were sent before the machine crashed. The very first message sent over ARPANET was, therefore, “lo,” which means the internet’s grandfather managed to use slang (or at least Orson Scott Card’s version of it) before transmitting an intelligible command. In retrospect, we probably should have interpreted this as an ominous clue.

“It was inadvertent, but it turned out to be prophetic and powerful that the message we delivered was ‘LO,’ as in ‘lo and behold,'” said UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, who was hired to head the project.

The first genuine command transmitted over ARPANET, incidentally, was “login.”

ARPANET was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the forerunner of DARPA today. ARPANET was the ancestor of the modern internet. It was the first packet-switching network to implement the TCP/IP protocol. The TCP/IP protocol was designed to be latency and fault-tolerant in a way that existing telephone networks were not. The major goal of the project was to allow for the more efficient sharing of computer resources. Computers were rarer in the 1960s than they are today, and not everyone who worked on an ARPA project had access to the horsepower they needed. The idea of connecting to a remote machine to tap non-local resources is so common today, it’s difficult to remember there was a time when the feature had to be invented out of whole cloth. Nevertheless, it was.

There’s disagreement over whether ARPANET had a specific goal of robust communication in the face of nuclear war. The RAND corporation has drawn a link between some of the early work it did on packet-switched networks (as opposed to circuit-switched networks) and the comparative robustness of the former. The Internet Society and Charles Herzfeld, former ARPANET director, have both argued that ARPANET was not conceived of as a means of creating a network that would survive a nuclear war. While RAND published some theoretical work on packet-switched networks at the same time researchers were creating what would become part of ARPANET, the two projects were not connected and the two groups were not aware of each other.

First ARPANET IMP log: the first message ever sent via the ARPANET, 10:30 pm PST on 29 October 1969 (6:30 UTC on 30 October 1969). This IMP Log excerpt, kept at UCLA, describes setting up a message transmission from the UCLA SDS Sigma 7 Host computer to the SRI SDS 940 Host computer. Image and caption via Wikipedia

The initial proposals for ARPANET were anything but lauded. According to Wikipedia, “Most computer science companies regarded the ARPA proposal as outlandish, and only twelve submitted bids to build a network; of the twelve, ARPA regarded only four as top-rank contractors.” An article at The Conversation makes a similar point.

Predictably, the new network was scarcely used at the beginning. Excluding, in fact, the small circle of people directly involved in the project, a much larger crowd of potential users (e.g. graduate students, researchers and the many more who might have benefited from it) seemed wholly uninterested in using the ARPANET. The only thing that kept the network going in those early months was people changing jobs. In fact, when researchers relocated to one of the other network sites – for instance from UCLA to Stanford – then, and only then, the usage of those sites’ resources increased.

It’s easy to look back today and see the modern internet as the inevitable result of technological progress. It wasn’t. It was a slow process of creating communication protocols to bridge the gaps between incompatible systems and to develop common languages and approaches to communication challenges, all done with a fraction of the computing power available in a modern smartphone. The initial four locations connected to ARPANET were UCLA, Stanford’s Augmentation Research Center, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah School of Computing. From there, it extended to Massachusetts. By 1981, the network had grown to 213 machines.

ARPANET was formally shut down in 1990, succeeded by the internet. Upon its decommissioning, Vint Cerf, the architect of TCP/IP, wrote the following lament:

It was the first, and being first, was best,
but now we lay it down to ever rest.
Now pause with me a moment, shed some tears.
For auld lang syne, for love, for years and years
of faithful service, duty done, I weep.
Lay down thy packet, now, O friend, and sleep.

Requiescat in Packet, ARPANET. And happy birthday. Your grandkid is kind of a big deal.

Top image credit: DARPA

Now Read:

29 Oct 19:21

Cory Doctorow on Reclaiming Technologies of Oppression

by Cory Doctorow
29 Oct 19:12

The Origin of Consciousness in the Brain Is About to Be Tested

by Shelly Fan

Here’s something you don’t hear every day: two theories of consciousness are about to face off in the scientific fight of the century.

Backed by top neuroscientist theorists of today, including Christof Koch, head of the formidable Allen Institute for Brain Research in Seattle, Washington, the fight hopes to put two rival ideas of consciousness to the test in a $20 million project. Briefly, volunteers will have their brain activity scanned while performing a series of cleverly-designed tasks targeted to suss out the brain’s physical origin of conscious thought. The first phase was launched this week at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in Chicago, a brainy extravaganza that draws over 20,000 neuroscientists each year.

Both sides agree to make the fight as fair as possible: they’ll collaborate on the task design, pre-register their predictions on public ledgers, and if the data supports only one idea, the other acknowledges defeat.

The “outlandish” project is already raising eyebrows. While some applaud the project’s head-to-head approach, which rarely occurs in science, others question if it’s all a publicity stunt. “I don’t think [the competition] will do what it says on the tin,” said Dr. Anil Seath, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex in Brighton UK, explaining that the whole trial is too “philosophical.” Rather than unearthing how the brain brings outside stimuli into attention, he said, the fight focuses more on where and why consciousness emerges, with theories growing by the numbers every year.

Then there’s the religion angle. The project is sponsored by the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), a philanthropic foundation that tiptoes the line between science and faith. Although spirituality isn’t taboo to consciousness theorists—many embrace it—TWCF is a rather unorthodox player in the neuroscientific field.

Despite immediate controversy, the two sides aren’t deterred. “Theories are very flexible. Like vampires, they’re very difficult to slay,” said Koch. Even if the project can somewhat narrow down divergent theories of consciousness, we’re on our way to cracking one of the most enigmatic properties of the human brain.

With the rise of increasingly human-like machines, and efforts to promote communications with locked-in patients, the need to understand consciousness is especially salient. Can AI ever be conscious and should we give them rights? What about people’s awareness during and after anesthesia? How do we reliably measure consciousness in fetuses inside mother’s wombs—a tricky question leveraged in abortion debates—or in animals?

Even if the project doesn’t produce a definitive solution to consciousness, it’ll drive scientists loyal to different theoretical aisles to talk and collaborate—and that in itself is already a laudable achievement.

“What we hope for is a process that reduces the number of incorrect theories,” said TWCF president Andrew Serazin. “We want to reward people who are courageous in their work, and part of having courage is having the humility to change your mind.”

Meet the Contestants

How physical systems give rise to subjective experience is dubbed the “hard problem” of consciousness. Although neuroscientists can measure the crackling of electrical activity among neurons and their networks, no one understands how consciousness emerges from individual spikes. The sense of awareness and self simply can’t be reduced down to neuronal pulses, at least with our current state of understanding. What’s more, what exactly is consciousness? A broad stroke describes it as a capacity to experience something, including one’s own existence, rather than documenting it like an automaton—a vague enough picture that leaves plenty of room for theories to how consciousness actually works.

In all, the project hopes to tackle nearly a dozen top theories of consciousness. But the first two in the boxing ring are also the most prominent: one is the Global Workspace Theory (GWT), championed by Dr. Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris. The other is the Integrated Information Theory (IIT), proposed by Dr. Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and backed by Koch.

The GWT describes an almost algorithmic view. Conscious behavior arises when we can integrate and segregate information from multiple input sources—for example, eyes, ears, or internal ruminations—and combine it into a piece of data in a global workspace within the brain. This mental sketchpad forms a bottleneck in conscious processing, in that only items in our attention are available to the entire brain for use—and thus for a conscious experience of it. For another to enter awareness, previous data have to leave.

In this way, the workspace itself “creates” consciousness, and acts as a sort of motivational whip to drive actions. Here’s the crux: according to Dehaene, brain imaging studies in humans suggest that the main “node” exists at the front of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex, which acts like a central processing unit in a computer. It’s algorithmic, input-output based, and—like all computers—potentially hackable.

IIT, in contrast, takes a more globalist view. Consciousness arises from the measurable, intrinsic interconnectedness of brain networks. Under the right architecture and connective features, consciousness emerges. Unlike the GWT, which begins with understanding what the brain does to create consciousness, IIT begins with the awareness of experience—even if it’s just an experience of self rather than something external. When neurons connect in the “right” way under the “right” circumstances, the theory posits, consciousness naturally emerges to create the sensation of experience.

In contrast to GWT, IIT believes this emergent process happens at the back of the brain—here, neurons connect in a grid-like structure that hypothetically should be able to support this capacity. To IIT subscribers, GWT describes a feed-forward scenario that’s similar to digital computers and zombies—entities that act conscious but don’t truly posses the experience. According to Koch, consciousness is rather “a system’s ability to be acted upon by its own state in the past and to influence its own future. The more a system has cause-and-effect power, the more conscious it is.”

The Showdown

To test the ideas, 6 labs across the world will run experiments with over 500 people, using 3 different types of brain recordings as the participants perform various consciousness-related tests. By adopting functional MRI to spot brain metabolic activity, EEG for brain waves and ECoG (a type of EEG with electrodes directly placed on the brain), the trial hopes to gather enough replicable data to assuage even the most skeptical of opposing fields.

For example, one experiment will track the brain’s response as a participant becomes aware of an image: the GWT believes the prefrontal cortex will activate, whereas the IIT says to keep your eyes on the back of the brain.

According to Quanta Magazine, the showdown will get a top journal to commit to publishing the outcomes of the experiments, regardless of the result. In addition, the two main camps are required to publicly register specific predictions, based on their theories, of the results. Neither party will actually collect nor interpret the data to avoid potential conflicts of interest. And ultimately, if the results come back conclusively in favor of one idea, the other will acknowledge defeat.

What the trial doesn’t answer, of course, is how neural computations lead to consciousness. A recent theory, based on thermodynamics in physics, suggests that neural networks in a healthy brain naturally organize together according to energy costs into a sufficient number of connection “microstates” that lead to consciousness. Too many or too few microstates and the brain loses its adaptability, processing powers, and sometimes the ability to keep itself online.

Despite misgivings, TWCF’s Potgieter sees the project as an open, collaborative step forward in a messy domain. It’s “the first time ever that such an audacious, adversarial collaboration has been undertaken and formalized within the field of neuroscience,” he said.

Tononi, the backer of IIT, agrees. “It forces the proponents to focus and enter some common framework. I think we all stand to gain one way or another,” he said.

Image Credit: Image by Beyond Timelines from Pixabay

29 Oct 19:01

How proximity bias holds employees (and workplaces) back

by Rebecca Corliss

Many companies still hold on to the idea that workers who physically come into the office are more productive than their remote counterparts.

Successful businesses depend on their ability to make the right decisions. That’s why interest in “cognitive bias”—the set of faulty perceptions which can often taint our judgments—is not only growing in clinical psychology: it’s a growing focus in the boardroom, too. There are many forms of cognitive biases, but one, in particular, is often overlooked. I’m calling it “proximity bias.”

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29 Oct 19:01

How to Keep Your Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant Voice Recordings Private

by Lily Hay Newman
Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant now all give you ways to opt out of human transcription of your voice snippets. Do it.
29 Oct 18:59

The unbelievable timeline of how Benioff and Weiss went from ‘Game of Thrones’ gods to ‘Star Wars’ goats

by Frances Katz

The wild ride down for the once high-flying showrunners

What a long, strange trip it’s been for David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the Game of Thrones showrunners and now former Star Wars writer/producers. The Emmy-winning pair who oversaw all eight seasons of the groundbreaking (and in the end, bitterly polarizing) HBO series say they’re leaving the galaxy far, far away to devote more time to their upcoming, and as yet unspecified, Netflix projects.

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28 Oct 22:34

Forget poisoned candy and razor blades. Here’s the real Halloween horror

by Beth Mole
Trick-or-treaters set out at sundown.

Enlarge / Dun-dun-duun. (credit: Getty | Los Angeles Times)

You've likely heard the spooky stories: adorable, sugar-crazed kids gleefully toddle from door to door in their homemade costumes and festive masks—only to be handed razor-blade-stuffed apples or cyanide-laced pixie sticks by wicked, faceless strangers.

As such, many a trick-or-treater has hauled their cloying bounties home over the decades only to surrender them to parental authorities for thorough inspection. At some points, hospitals even offered free X-ray screenings for candy to make sure that the sweet loot was safe. Subsequent research found that this costly endeavor failed to turn up any threats. But it still seemed worthwhile.

Through the years, media reports continued to gather terrifying tales of deadly Halloween candy handed out by evildoers—a phenomenon dubbed "Halloween sadism" in the press. There was little 5-year-old Kevin Toston of Detroit, who died from heroin-laden Halloween candy in 1970. And 8-year-old Timothy O'Bryan of Pasadena, Texas, who died from cyanide poisoning after eating tainted Halloween candy in 1976.

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28 Oct 22:31

Pink Petro and our role in the energy transition

by Katie Mehnert
Pink Petro and the Energy Transition

7,902 total views, 268 views today Change is hard. A few years ago Wall Street made a statement with this photo. They told the world and the free markets it’s time we change. The statue was symbolic. It created a ruckus. It sent the message that we are ready to embrace the reality that a gender-balanced workforce […]

The post Pink Petro and our role in the energy transition appeared first on Pink Petro.

28 Oct 22:30

Artist paints a panorama on a sphere

by Mark Frauenfelder

This is a spherical painting of a street intersection somewhere in Japan. I don't know who the artist is, but the effect is amazing.

Panoramic painting on a sphere from r/Damnthatsinteresting

23 Oct 19:43

Controversial copyright bill inches closer to becoming law as House approves

by Kate Cox
The United States Capitol Building, the seat of Congress, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Enlarge / The United States Capitol Building, the seat of Congress, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (credit: Omar Chatriwala | Getty Images)

In a change of pace for the modern era, the House of Representatives yesterday agreed on a bill and passed it by an overwhelming majority. Unfortunately, the bill in question, known as the CASE Act, is a controversial measure that critics argue could penalize ordinary Americans as much as $30,000 for something as simple as photo sharing, while also emboldening copyright trolls.

The House voted 410-6 on Monday to adopt the measure, fully named the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019. The bill aims in part to create a new "small claims" Copyright Claims Board within the US Copyright Office. That, proponents argue, would give content creators and rights holders a better, more efficient way to pursue infringement claims, instead of having to spend the time and money on filing a federal court case.

As Schoolhouse Rock taught us, a bill needs approval from both the House and Senate before it can become law. (Though the reality is somewhat more complex). CASE went through committee in both the House and Senate earlier this year, and so the version of the bill the House voted to accept on Monday is ready to go to the Senate floor for a vote.

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22 Oct 20:47

More Than Half of the World's Banks Are Already in a Weak Position Before Any Downturn That May Be Coming

by msmash
A majority of banks globally may not be economically viable because their returns on equity aren't keeping pace with costs, McKinsey said in its annual review of the industry released Monday. From a report: It urged firms to take steps such as developing technology, farming out operations and bulking up through mergers ahead of a potential economic slowdown. "We believe we're in the late economic cycle and banks need to make bold moves now because they are not in great shape," Kausik Rajgopal, a senior partner at McKinsey, said in an interview. "In the late cycle, nobody can afford to rest on their laurels." The decade since the global financial crisis has seen a wave of innovation in financial services, bringing new competitors from fintech startups to giants like Apple and Alphabet's Google. Banks have pondered whether to compete with, partner with or acquire some of these newcomers. Some established firms have sought to rebrand as technology companies, in part to attract hard-to-get talent. McKinsey, whose clients are some of the biggest corporations in the world, consults on topics ranging from strategy and technology to mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing and stock offerings. In its report, the firm said banks risk "becoming footnotes to history" as new entrants change consumer behavior. Most recent attempts by banks to boost efficiency have been "business-as-usual," it said. Banks allocate just 35% of their information-technology budgets to innovation, while fintechs spend more than 70%, McKinsey said. Combined with regulatory factors lowering the barrier to entry -- like open banking and looser requirements for startups -- the environment is increasingly conducive for newer firms to take share from banks.

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22 Oct 18:51

Halloween: Corgi in a spider costume at a pumpkin patch

by Xeni Jardin

“Corgi’s first pumpkin patch.”

What an adorable critter I mean a terrifying spider!

Photo and video by the dog's human, @whynothmm.

Check it out with sound.

Corgi’s first pumpkin patch


22 Oct 18:50

Bipartisan legislation would force Big Tech to allow interoperability with small competitors

by Cory Doctorow

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching” (ACCESS) Act was introduced by Senator Mark Warner [D-VA] and co-sponsored by Senator Josh Hawley [R-MO] and Senator Richard Blumenthal [D-CT]; it mandates the creation of "third party custodial services," regulated by the FTC, that will allow uses of Facebook and other Big Tech platforms to switch to smaller, direct competitors who would then act as an intermediary between these new entrants and the platforms.

The requirement to open their systems to third parties would take effect 120 days after the bill's passage.

This idea is fantastic in concept: as the bill's authors note, interoperability has always been a key to keeping tech markets competitive, and the creation of third-parties that act as conduits -- rather than as service providers themselves -- is a kind of structural separation that could keep everyone's incentives aligned. As intermediaries, rather than as service providers, the third party custodial services would be limited by FTC rules and thus (theoretically) not in the business of locking in or abusing their users.

One important note is that mandated interoperability is not enough: there will be legal, legitimate, pro-competitive activities that aren't in the remit of the third-party custodians, activities that would fundamentally challenge the platforms. For this reason, it's vital that mandatory interoperability should be the floor, not the ceiling, on interop -- we must preserve adversarial interoperability as the upper bound on interoperability.

If approved, the ACCESS Act would allow users to sign up for a third-party data management service that would work as an intermediary for managing their privacy and account settings across platforms. This “third-party custodial service,” as the bill refers to it, would need to register with the Federal Trade Commission and adhere to any rules created by the agency governing them that are spurred from the passage of this bill. Notably, these services will likely not be free for users. The text of the bill explicitly says that these services could charge users a fee, but it doesn’t outline how much that could cost.

“Your data is your property. Period. Consumers should have the flexibility to choose new online platforms without artificial barriers to entry,” Hawley said. “This bill creates long-overdue requirements that will boost competition and give consumers the power to move their data from one service to another.”

Congress could require Facebook to build more open APIs under new bill [Makena Kelly/The Verge]

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching” (ACCESS) Act [Senator Mark Warner, Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Richard Blumenthal]