É raro um episódio isolado mudar o rumo da história. Mas é isso o que aconteceu há 30 anos, quando José Sarney e Raul Alfonsín se encontraram pela primeira vez.
Graças à abertura de documentos secretos, agora é possível compreender a excepcionalidade do encontro de Foz do Iguaçu, em novembro de 1985. Com gestos inesperados, os presidentes mudaram para sempre as relações internacionais da América do Sul.
Eles atuaram de supetão e no improviso, sem planejamento nem negociações prévias. A ideia original foi de Alfonsín, que a desenvolveu numa conversa informal com assessores abordo do avião presidencial, pouco antes de pousar em Foz.
O princípio era simples. Ao pousar no Brasil, Alfonsín quebraria o protocolo: diria a Sarney ter interesse em visitar a represa de Itaipu, a poucos quilômetros de distância. "Vamos agora."
Itaipu era uma ferida mal cicatrizada. Quando o Brasil decidira fazer ali uma usina gigantesca, a Argentina lançara campanha contrária na ONU e em todos os foros sul-americanos. A obra, argumentam os argentinos, modificaria a vazão das águas do rio Paraná, que bordeia as principais cidades portuárias do país. Mas o Brasil tocou a obra de Itaipu mesmo assim.
Alfonsín queria uma foto em Itaipu ao lado de Sarney. Era o melhor sinal de que o tema estava superado e que não havia espaço para a rivalidade com um vizinho que tinha de ser visto como sócio.
O passo seguinte de Alfonsín foi ainda mais ousado.
Durante a longa jornada em Foz, Alfonsín convidou Sarney a visitar a instalação nuclear de Pilcaniyeu, em Bariloche. Era ali que a ditadura argentina tocara seu programa clandestino de enriquecimento de urânio.
Ao levar Sarney a tiracolo para um lugar tão sensível, Alfonsín também sinalizava uma ideia poderosa ao público argentino: se a Argentina for ter um programa nuclear, terá de ser às claras e sem levantar suspeitas no Brasil.
Havia algo mais.
Se Sarney aceitasse a proposta da visita, seria forçado a reciprocar o convite. Alfonsín queria visitar Aramar, onde os militares brasileiros enriqueciam urânio.
O esquema de visitas presidenciais cruzadas a instalações nucleares criou um gatilho automático, forçando as partes a adotar níveis crescentes de cooperação.
Sarney entrou no jogo com convicção. Quando um colaborador lhe sugeriu que rejeitasse o convite, o presidente brasileiro o ignorou. E quando o chefe do Exército brasileiro deu declarações públicas a favor da construção de uma bomba atômica, em vez de recuar, Sarney pisou no acelerador. Antes distante, a Casa Rosada virou aliada.
Adam Victor Brandizzi
I'll not drop the cup but it is good to be aware.
When you look at the vintage advertisement above, it’s hard not to notice some things about it that you wouldn’t see in ads today.
For one, you’d of course never see a company these days depicting spanking. And though it’s still around, you never see ads for Sanka anymore, period.
But there’s another interesting difference on display in the old ad: a public recognition that drinking caffeine may have some ill-effects.
Today, caffeine is America’s most popular drug — touted as an energy-boosting, focus-enhancing wonder supplement without any downside.
But is this really the case? Setting aside all the hype created from millions of dollars spent by the marketers of coffee and energy drinks, what’s the truth about caffeine? And is it possible that quitting it just might help you become a better man?
I can remember when I first started consuming caffeine in a deliberate attempt to enhance my performance. Before that point, I didn’t drink Coke or Dr. Pepper hoping it would help me run faster or think better; I drank soda because it tasted good with my Mazzio’s pizza.
But my relationship to caffeine changed during my junior year of high school football. Looking for any advantage I could get during games, I started drinking Red Bull before I took the field and during half-time. I guess I thought it helped, because I stuck with this energy drink regimen throughout the rest of my high school football career.
But football games were the only time I drank energy drinks. I didn’t use caffeine to wake up (even though I was rising at 5:45AM for early morning scripture study with some other high school kids) and I didn’t really drink caffeine during the day, except for an occasional soda on the weekends.
But then I got to college. One semester my sophomore year, I had to pull an all-nighter to finish a project for class. There was a 7-Eleven right next to my apartment complex, so I walked over and got a Big Gulp of Diet Mountain Dew. The fizzy, citrus taste was wonderful, and the 162 mg of caffeine in my 32oz cup kept me alert and awake through the night.
Of course, I was tired the next morning. So on my walk to campus, I made a detour to the 7-Eleven and got another Big Gulp to enjoy on my trek. And I did it again the next morning. And the next one after that. Pretty soon, swigging 32 ounces of neon yellow elixir became a regular part of my balanced breakfast.
Then I learned about 5-hour Energy. They were too expensive for my broke college student budget, so I only used them when I thought I really needed an edge, like before a big exam or when writing a research paper. The daily morning Diet Mountain Dew continued, and after I got married, I even got Kate drinking the stuff — though she was satisfied with just a few sips.
Fast forward to law school, and my morning Dew habit just wasn’t enough to keep me going through my long days in the library, so I expanded to a second one at lunch. 5-hour Energy made more frequent appearances in my routine too. On exam days, I’d have one shot in the morning and another right before starting the test.
It was also at law school that I discovered pre-workout supplements. I started off with one scoop that contained 100 mg of caffeine, but I adapted rather quickly to it. It was only a matter of weeks before I was throwing back four scoops at once. By this time, I could afford to buy 12-packs of 5-hour Energy, and I’d knock one back at lunch, and take another when the 3PM drowsiness started kicking in. At dinnertime, I’d often have some sort of caffeinated soda with my food, so I’d have the energy to do some work after the kids went to bed. And I’d sometimes take a few sips of 5-hour Energy right after dinner as a “palette cleanser.”
Doctors and scientists recommend that folks consume no more than about 300-400 mg of caffeine a day. I didn’t know it, but I was averaging over a 1,000 mg a day.
I never noticed any overt signs that the caffeine was having any ill-effects on my health. My body had developed such a tolerance for it, that even after imbibing caffeine all day long, I could still fall sleep by 11PM, and I slept pretty well through the night. My blood pressure was a bit elevated, but not too much. I learned after getting my genome sequenced at 23andMe that I’m a fast caffeine metabolizer, meaning I can consume 100 mg of caffeine, and the effects will be gone within 30 minutes. This probably explains why I didn’t notice any obvious effects, as well as why I felt like I needed to consume greater and greater amounts of caffeine to feel any “buzz.”
But during my ten years of increasing consumption, a few subtle changes started popping up. I got moodier. Pissy would be the more accurate word. Now, as I’ve discussed in my series on depression, I’m kind of morose by nature, but I had always considered myself a pretty laid back, friendly guy. But little things started to annoy me and my resilience began to shrink. Even Kate noticed that something was different, but neither of us connected my increasing anger and irritability with caffeine. I just figured that increasing irritability came with increasing responsibility with work and fatherhood; I just needed to meditate, write in my journal more, or double-down on my study of stoicism.
My dandruff also started proliferating, and I even started getting these red scales on my scalp. I also started getting an irritating rash that would appear now and then on my cheeks and nose. I had never had the problem before, so I went to a dermatologist and was told it was seborrheic dermatitis. She prescribed me a really expensive cream and shampoo to treat it.
Then, about two months, ago, I felt impressed to give up caffeine. I’m not sure why; the idea just kind of came to me, and I figured I’d give it a 30-day trial simply to see what would happen. I slowly decreased my daily intake over a week and then my no caffeine experiment began, and I quit cold turkey.
I had a pretty bad headache my first day without any caffeine, but I got through it with some aspirin. After that it was pretty much smooth sailing. I thought I would be dragging throughout the day and that I would have little or no focus, but the complete opposite occurred. I actually felt like I had more energy and better, steadier attention. The monkey mind went away. I had a bit of a tired slump in the afternoon, but didn’t feel any more fatigued than when I would take an energy shot to supposedly thwart it. Even more interesting, when I was drinking boatloads of caffeine, I’d be super drowsy by 9PM and would be ready to hit the hay. Without caffeine, I didn’t fall into that evening crater of fatigue. Sure, I was tired, and could fall asleep easily, but I could still do some reading without feeling like I was about to pass out.
My dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis started clearing up too, and I found myself using the prescription shampoo and cream less and less.
The biggest change though was in my mood. The pissiness? Gone. Little things that would once cause me to fly off the handle no longer bothered me. I just felt more patient, steady, and calm. I even felt more genuinely happy, a feeling that, due to my morose nature, doesn’t usually come easily for me. Kate and the kids readily noticed the change, and I felt like I became a better husband and father.
When it came to irritability and the responsibilities of adulthood, I had mixed up correlation and causation. I thought my full plate was making me irritable, but instead it had just led me to think I needed more and more caffeine, and it was the caffeine that was actually making me feel perennially pissed off.
After my month-long break from caffeine, I figured that maybe I had reset my body and mind, and I could go back to drinking energy drinks or soda. In moderation, of course. But even just a couple scoops of pre-workout in the morning or a single 5-hour Energy would cause my cheeks to flare up with seborrheic dermatitis the next day. And my pissiness quickly returned. So after a week of moderate caffeine use, I decided to say goodbye to the drug indefinitely (with the exception of using it before doing an obstacle race or staying up all night for a GoRuck Challenge). For caffeine and I, it was a good 10-year run, but I’m tired of being a pissy, dandruff-covered crank.
Might quitting caffeine have the same kind of benefits for you that it had for me? Today we’ll take a look at America’s most popular drug: how it works, why you might consider giving it up, and methods you can use to kick your own caffeine habit.
The popular conception of caffeine is that it gives you scot-free energy. But the reality is more complicated.
Throughout the day, your brain produces a neurotransmitter called adenosine. When it binds to adenosine receptors in your neurons, nerve activity in the brain slows down, and you start feeling drowsy. To a nerve cell, caffeine looks just like adenosine, which means caffeine can bind to a neuron’s adenosine receptor. When caffeine does this, actual adenosine can no longer bind to the neuron, which means the brain can’t get its “time to get drowsy” message. Because your brain isn’t getting adenosine, instead of slowing down, neural activity starts speeding up.
The pituitary gland observes the increased brain activity as a signal that some sort of an emergency is going on, so it releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone, and it has a number of effects on your body, including dilating your pupils, increasing your heartbeat, and releasing sugar from the liver into the bloodstream for extra energy. These reactions are why you feel a buzz after you consume caffeine.
Besides adrenaline, your body also releases cortisol when you consume caffeine. Cortisol stays in the bloodstream much longer than adrenaline and works with adrenaline to prepare your body to fight or flee. It constricts blood vessels, increases the amount of glucose and insulin in your blood (for quick energy), and increases and partially shuts down the immune system.
Basically, caffeine allows you to activate your physiological fight-or-flight reaction on demand. This stress response was designed to help humans deal with immediate challenges and threats, which is why occasional, short-term bouts of it can indeed be beneficial — making you feel more alert and focused. But dialing up the stress response, and elevating your cortisol all the time, even when you’re sedentary and relatively relaxed, can create problems and deleterious effects in the long-term.
And of course that exactly describes the average American’s daily consumption of caffeine.
Caffeine use is not without its advantages. Research has shown that the moderate, long-term use of caffeine may provide benefits such as: improving memory, boosting testosterone, warding off Alzheimer’s, reducing the risk of kidney stones, reducing weight (by suppressing appetite), and providing protection from type-2 diabetes. The key word here, though, is moderate consumption (300-400 mg a day). Most people don’t know how much caffeine they’re actually consuming; a big 12-ounce mug of coffee can contain as much as 300 mg of caffeine. So if you drink 4 “cups” of it a day, you’ll easily consume 4X the recommended amount.
Research has also shown that caffeine can ward off fatigue during workouts and improve focus. But keep in mind that these studies are based on occasional consumption; if you use caffeine every day, you will develop a tolerance for it that mitigates and even eliminates these benefits. In other words, you only get a buzz when your caffeine use is sporadic.
So caffeine does have benefits, but with important caveats. On the flip side of the coin, quitting caffeine, or at least dialing back your consumption of it, comes with its own set of potential advantages:
Decreased depression and anxiety. Research has shown that heavy caffeine consumption can exacerbate existing depression. This may be because the increased dopamine release that accompanies caffeine can eventually desensitize your dopamine receptors. One symptom of depression is the lack of motivation to do things that once brought you joy. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of motivation, so if your brain is desensitized to it, motivation decreases, and you sink deeper into a funk. Thus if you’re already susceptible to depressive moods, caffeine might increase your vulnerability to visits from the black dog.
Caffeine can also exacerbate anxiety. The stress hormones that are released in response to caffeine can create jitters, heighten stress, and trigger anxiety attacks. If you’ve ever taken a weight loss drug, like Hydroxycut, which is packed with caffeine, you know it can make you feel insane.
Less irritability. The research is split on whether caffeine increases anger and aggression. Some studies say it doesn’t; others have shown that the stress arousal caffeine triggers can cause irritability, and that eliminating its consumption can decrease feelings of hostility.
The mixed results are probably rooted in the fact that caffeine seems to affect each individual differently. Some may be more sensitive than others. Kate drinks a pre-workout before running on an empty stomach in the mornings, and it doesn’t seem to affect her irritability. But for me, removing caffeine from my diet caused a night and day change in my pissiness. I was much less angry off caffeine than I was when I was drinking it every day. Becoming less irritable made quitting caffeine completely worth it for me.
Clearer skin. The stress hormones released by caffeine cause inflammation which shows up for some folks in the form of acne breakouts and other skin problems like dandruff. If you’ve been a grown-ass man for some time but are still fighting zits like a fifteen-year-old, you might look into eliminating caffeine from your diet to see if it helps.
Lower blood pressure. Caffeine does two things to increase your blood pressure. First, it constricts blood vessels, and second, it increases your heart rate. Several studies have shown that individuals who regularly consume high amounts of caffeine have elevated blood pressure levels compared to non-caffeine users. Even when caffeine users abstain from the stimulant, it typically takes a few days for resting blood pressure levels to decrease to a normal amount. If cardiac problems run in your family, you might consider giving up caffeine to protect your heart health.
More money. While you could get your caffeine by popping cheap pills of No-Doz, most folks prefer a liquid caffeine-delivery system. And these drinks are often expensive. The website Caffeine Informer put together some back-of the-napkin estimates on the amount folks spend per year to get their buzz and came up with the following numbers:
Many people are using a combination of the above drinks, so there’s a chance they’re spending $2,000+ a year to get their fix. What would you do with an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a year if you quit caffeine?
Greater antifragility. Strengthening antifragility in all areas of my life is a goal of mine, but my caffeine consumption worked against this aim. If I were somewhere I couldn’t get my fix, I’d get a headache and feel like crap. I’d have to remember to pack a 5-hour Energy when I went camping or on a trip. It affected me psychologically too; if I didn’t get my pre-workout in the morning, then I just didn’t think I’d have that great of a workout. Or if I didn’t get my energy shot in the afternoon, I felt like I couldn’t be as productive or creative in my work. I hated feeling emotionally and physically dependent on a substance to be able to function normally.
Better sleep. If you’ve had trouble sleeping, caffeine may be the culprit. If you don’t want to give up caffeine completely, at least consider cutting yourself off before 3PM so you can get a more restful slumber.
Caffeine will actually work when you really need it. If you’ve been drinking caffeinated beverages regularly, you’ve likely developed a tolerance for it, meaning it really doesn’t affect you or give you any kind of boost, beyond warding off effects of withdrawal. You drink it not to feel great, but just to avoid feeling bad; you’re basically spending money merely to maintain the status quo.
Caffeine is best reserved for use as a secret weapon — something you’ve got in your backpocket when you really do need a buzz, like before a race or an all-night study session.
Ultimately everybody has to decide for themselves if the benefits of caffeine are worth the price of the downsides. It’s a balancing act for sure, and each person is going to be different.
If you’ve decided you’d like to experiment with eliminating caffeine from you life, here are some tips on how to successfully break the habit:
Some folks just decide to give up caffeine completely. The big benefit of going cold turkey is that you can kick the habit faster and enjoy the benefits of a caffeine-free life sooner than if you took a more gradual approach. The big downside is that you may experience severe withdrawal symptoms like a pounding headache (the headache comes from the blood vessels in your head opening back up to their normal size and normal blood flow returning). These withdrawal symptoms may lead some to prematurely throw in the towel.
If you decide to go cold turkey, consider starting on a Friday, so you have the weekend to deal with the severe withdrawal symptoms that happen early in the quitting process. Drink plenty of water and have aspirin at the ready. Don’t give up even if it seems unbearable.
A less painful method is to wean yourself off caffeine gradually. The upside of this method is you can reduce or even eliminate withdrawal symptoms. The downsides are that it takes longer to become caffeine free, and it requires you to be much more mindful of the amount of caffeine you’re drinking.
To wean yourself off, gradually reduce the amount of caffeinated beverages you drink over time. So if you’re a coffee drinker, you can reduce the amount of cups you drink by ¼ each day. If you drink energy drinks, cut back by half a can each day. If you’re doing a pre-workout, reduce your scoops by one each week. You get the idea.
You can control the pace at which you cut back; you can reduce to zero in a matter of days or you can give yourself a few weeks to eliminate caffeine. Experiment with the pace and see what works for you.
The reason people generally get their caffeine from drinks rather than tablets, is that they’re after more than the drug itself. Drinking a hot cup of coffee or a cold, fizzy energy drink is an enjoyable ritual to start the day or make it through a boring afternoon.
So instead of just going cold turkey or weaning yourself from caffeine to nothing, it can be beneficial to replace your usual caffeinated fare with non-caffeinated alternatives. Replacing your old drinks with plain old water can be effective for some folks, but you may need something that feels a little “richer” to fill the gap. So, for example, as you reduce the amount of caffeinated coffee, you could replace it with decaf (this substitute is popular among folks quitting joe) or herbal tea. As you decrease the amount of caffeinated soda you drink, you could swap it for sparkling seltzer. I really like to drink something with a little flavor in the morning, so I replaced my pre-workout supplement for one with just branch chain amino acids (this has the added benefit of possibly helping with my post-workout recovery, since I exercise in a fasted state).
Of course these replacements cost money, which will reduce the cost-saving benefit of quitting caffeine, but if it helps you break the habit, it can be worth it. Remember that whenever you “hack the habit loop” you keep the same routine as before, but replace the reward you used to get from your old behavior, with a new reward.
Another method I’ve come across to reduce the ill-effects of caffeine isn’t to completely eliminate it from your life, but rather to replace your caffeinated beverages with a milder form. Green tea and yerba mate are the most popular coffee and energy drink alternatives. There are also chocolate beverages out there that provide a mild energy boost in the form of theobromine. These alternative drinks have much less caffeine, but still provide a gentle stimulating effect. What’s more, they offer a myriad of health benefits.
If you’re working on something especially challenging, and need a boost in focus, without the physiological effects of caffeine, try a nootropic.
Like most things in life, caffeine has its pros and cons. But also like most things in life, we often give very little thought to the two sides of the issue. We mindlessly knock back our caffeinated beverages because that’s what we’ve always done, and that’s what we see seemingly everyone else doing. There’s so much money invested in the energy drink business, and thus so much pro-caffeine hype out there, that you rarely run into a discussion of the drug’s potential downsides. But those downsides are at least worth considering.
By doing my own experiment, I’ve personally learned that caffeine isn’t for me, and that my life is better off without it. How does caffeine affect you? Do its pros outweigh the cons in your life? If you’re not sure, and especially if you feel like something’s not right with your life, but you don’t know what’s wrong, try your own experiment. If you don’t notice much of a change, then keep on keeping on with your caffeinated life. No harm, no foul. If do you notice a significant improvement in some areas of your life, then you can decide if giving it up altogether, or using it just for special occasions, might be a decision that helps you become a better man.
Caffeine edited by Gene A. Spiller
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske
Here’s my art for the upcoming pen and paper RPG Mutant: Maskinarium.
Fria Ligan has a kickstarter for it: (in Swedish):
Die Fünf Filmfreunde
Der erste Trailer zum Live-Action-Dschungelbuch ist endlich da und jagt einem gleich jede Menge Gänsehaut ein. Ich wollte mir einfach nicht vorstellen, dass es möglich sei, dass Disney ihre eigenen Klassiker noch einmal aufleben lassen könnte, aber hier kann man mal sehen wie man sich täuschen kann.
Unter der Regie von Jon Favreau (Iron Man) können die Tier sogar sprechen, ohne albern zu wirken: Panther Baghira wir von Ben Kingsley gesprochen, Bär Balu von Bill Murray, der Tiger Shir Khan von Idris Elba, Christopher Walken macht den Affenkönig Louie, Lupita Nyong’o spricht die Wölfin Raksha und Scarlett Johansson lispelt die Schlange Kaa.
Ob die deutsche Synchronisierung wenigstens die deutschen Pendants machen, oder ob wir Otto Waalkes, ein bis zwei Dschungelcamp Gewinner und einen beliebigen Ochsenknecht hören werden, habe ich jetzt erstmal nicht finden können. Hoffen wir das Beste.
Sometimes you’re a genius and you make a comic, what can I tell you?
Just spotted this in Dublin’s fair city 😂 👠 #dublin #dublincity
High quality news reporting.
I can’t belive I actually did it.
(photo via imgur)
You are just a lowly beaker cleaner…until fate intervenes. When the Fake Science Laboratories come calling, you answer—and it turns out to be the greatest adventure of the last 15 minutes.
Can YOU make the mistakes that will save/destroy/do nothing notable to the lab? Can YOU turn the pages? Can YOU really read?
Sign up to be alerted the exact moment of release!
We’ve seen a number of interesting projects lately that attempt to bring art from inside museums into the outdoors. Artist Stan Herd has been doing just that for years by using fields as his canvas for both original compositions and interpretations of historical art. His latest work is a monumental 1.2-acre interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1889 Painting “Olive Trees” planted in Minneapolis. The piece was commissioned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and involved weeks of mowing, digging, planting, and earthscaping to create the piece viewable from the air near the Minneapolis airport. If you happen to see the piece when flying into the city, you can head to the museum to see the real thing.
Herd’s first outdoor land art piece (he refers to them as “earthworks”) was an ambitions 160-acre portrait of Kiowa Indian chief Satanta, that he physically carved into a Kansas prairie in 1981. He’s since created dozens of works around the world, and notably inspired Japanese artists in Inakadate province north of Tokyo to plant a series of incredible rice paddy artworks.
The Van Gogh field will be on view through the fall in Minneapolis, after which Herd plans to mow it down in concentric circles similar to the Dutch artists’s iconic painting style. You can read more about the piece in the StarTribune. (thnx, Randy!)
All images by Tõnu Tunnel
The soothing sounds of nature have never been easier to hear after a group of interior architecture students from the Estonian Academy of Arts decided to infiltrate a nearby forest with three giant wooden microphones. The sound-amplifying installation is near RMK’s pähni nature centre, an area where one can currently rest within the grooves of one of three megaphones to intently listen to the detailed rustling of leaves or chirping of birds both near and far.
Valdur Mikita, a writer who has often covered the way Estonian culture is tied to the 51% of forests that comprise it said, “It’s a place to listen, to browse the audible book of nature – there hasn’t really been a place like that in Estonia before.”
According to interior architect Hannes Praks the three-metre diameter megaphones will act as a “bandstand” for the environment around it. “We’ll be placing the three megaphones at such a distance and at a suitable angle, so at the centre of the installation, sound feed from all three directions should create a unique merged surround sound effect,” said Praks.
The structures will not only be available for solo meditation, but also serve as stages for intimate events and protective structures for spending the night in the woods—which in this forest you can do for free. (via Mental Floss)
Adam Victor Brandizzi
Elogio muito merecido ao SEP.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may be the most interesting website on the internet. Not because of the content—which includes fascinating entries on everything from ambiguity to zombies—but because of the site itself.
Its creators have solved one of the internet’s fundamental problems: How to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers. It’s something the encyclopedia, or SEP, has managed to do for two decades.
The internet is an information landfill. Somewhere in it—buried under piles of opinion, speculation, and misinformation—is virtually all of human knowledge. The story of the SEP shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet. But sorting through the trash is difficult work. Even when you have something you think is valuable, it often turns out to be a cheap knock-off.
The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it. A place where actual knowledge is sorted into a neat, separate pile instead of being thrown into the landfill. Where the world can go to learn everything that we know to be true. Something that would make humans a lot smarter than the internet we have today.
The online SEP has humble beginnings. Edward Zalta, a philosopher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, launched it way back in September 1995, with just two entries.Philosophizing, pre-internet.(Flickr/Erik Drost—CC-BY-2.0)
That makes it positively ancient in internet years. Even Wikipedia is only 14. Sites that have been around 20 years mostly belong to brands that predate the internet—like Bloomberg or MTV—or they’re old sites that just happen to still work, like the classic Space Jam.
The SEP is neither pre-internet, nor is it ossified. It now contains nearly 1,500 entries, and changes are made daily. The site gets over a million page views per month—a respectable number, given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs. The American Library Association’s Booklist review called it “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print, the 10-volume offerings from Routledge and Macmillan—and that was nearly a decade ago.
John Perry, the director of the center, was the one who first suggested a dictionary of philosophical terms. But Zalta had bigger ideas. He and two co-authors later described the challenge in a 2002 paper (pdf, p. 1):
A fundamental problem faced by the general public and the members of an academic discipline in the information age is how to find the most authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date information about an important topic.
That paper is so old that it mentions “CD-ROMs” in the second sentence. But for all the years that have passed, the basic problem remains unsolved. The requirements are an “impossible trinity”—like having your cake, eating it, and then bringing it to another party. The three requirements the authors list—”authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date”—are to information what the “impossible trinity” is to economics. You can only ever have one or two at once. It is like having your cake, eating it, and then bringing it to another party.
Yet if the goal is to share with people what is true, it is extremely important for a resource to have all of these things. It must be trusted. It must not leave anything out. And it must reflect the latest state of knowledge. Unfortunately, all of the other current ways of designing an encyclopedia very badly fail to meet at least one of these requirements.
Book Authoritative: √ Comprehensive: X Up-to-date: XPrinted encyclopedias: still a thing(Princeton University Press)
Printed books are authoritative: Readers trust articles they know have been written and edited by experts. Books also produce a coherent overview of a subject, as the editors consider how each entry fits into the whole. But they become obsolete whenever new research comes out. Nor can a book (or even a set of volumes) be comprehensive, except perhaps for a very narrow discipline; there’s simply too much to print.
Crowdsourcing Authoritative: X Comprehensive: X Up-to-date: √
A crowdsourced online encyclopedia has the virtue of timeliness. Thanks to Wikipedia’s vibrant community of non-experts, its entries on breaking-news events are often updated as they happen. But except perhaps in a few areas in which enough well-informed people care for errors to get weeded out, Wikipedia is not authoritative. Basic mathematics entries on Wikipedia were a “a hot mess of error, arrogance, obscurity, and nonsense.” One math professor reviewed basic mathematics entries and found them to be a “a hot mess of error, arrogance, obscurity, and nonsense.” Nor is it comprehensive: Though it has nearly 5 million articles in the English-language version alone, seemingly in every sphere of knowledge, fewer than 10,000 are “A-class” or better, the status awarded to articles considered “essentially complete.”
Speaking of holes, the SEP has a rather detailed entry on the topic of holes, and it rather nicely illustrates one of Wikipedia’s key shortcomings. Holes present a tricky philosophical problem, the SEP entry explains: A hole is nothing, but we refer to it as if it were something. (Achille Varzi, the author of the holes entry, was called upon in the US presidential election in 2000 to weigh in on the existential status of hanging chads.) If you ask Wikipedia for holes it gives you the young-adult novel Holes and the band Hole.
In other words, holes as philosophical notions are too abstract for a crowdsourced venue that favors clean, factual statements like a novel’s plot or a band’s discography. Wikipedia’s bottom-up model could never produce an entry on holes like the SEP’s.
Crowdsourcing + voting Authoritative: ? Comprehensive: X Up-to-date: ?
A variation on the wiki model is question-and-answer sites like Quora (general interest) and StackOverflow (computer programming), on which users can pose questions and write answers. These are slightly more authoritative than Wikipedia, because users also vote answers up or down according to how helpful they find them; and because answers are given by single, specific users, who are encouraged to say why they’re qualified (“I’m a UI designer at Google,” say).
But while there are sometimes ways to check people’s accreditation, it’s largely self-reported and unverified. Moreover, these sites are far from comprehensive. Any given answer is only as complete as its writer decides or is able to make it. And the questions asked and answered tend to reflect the interests of the sites’ users, which in both Quora and StackOverflow’s cases skew heavily male, American, and techie.
Moreover, the sites aren’t up-to-date. While they may respond quickly to new events, answers that become outdated aren’t deleted or changed but stay there, burdening the site with a growing mass of stale information.
So is the impossible trinity just that—impossible? Not according to Zalta. He imagined a different model for the SEP: the “dynamic reference work.”
Dynamic reference work Authoritative: √ Comprehensive: √ Up-to-date: √
To achieve authority, several dozen subject editors—responsible for broad areas like “ancient philosophy” or “formal epistemology”—identify topics in need of coverage, and invite qualified philosophers to write entries on them. If the invitation is accepted, the author sends an outline to the relevant subject editors.
This is not somebody randomly deciding to answer a question on Quora. “An editor works with the author to get an optimal outline before the author begins to write,” says Susanna Siegel, subject editor for philosophy of mind. “Sometimes there is a lot of back and forth at this stage.” Editors may also reject entries. Zalta and Uri Nodelman, the SEP’s senior editor, say that this almost never happens. In the rare cases when it does, the reason is usually that an entry is overly biased. In short, this is not somebody randomly deciding to answer a question on Quora.
An executive editorial board—Zalta, Nodelman, and Colin Allen—works to make the SEP comprehensive. They steer the encyclopedia away from the “wiki-hole”—having to open endless Wikipedia pages defining jargon in order to understand the topic at hand. “We tell our authors to try to write an entry that is self-contained,” Nodelman explains.Edward Zalta presents the SEP to the 2015 Wikimania conference.(Aasrubio—CC BY-SA 4.0)
Of course, it’s not just single entries that have to be comprehensive, but the encyclopedia as a whole. The board sees to this too, looking for cases where one long entry should be split up, or where one should absorb another. “We had an entry on brains in a vat, but that was subsumed by ‘skepticism and external content,'” Nodelman adds (in easily the most philosophy-department line I’ve heard since earning my bachelor’s degree). Subject editors help with this as well, by identifying areas that deserve more attention and soliciting writers.
Can something so thorough be up-to-date? The editors have ways to make sure that it is.
A new entry is expected to contain the freshest possible information and research on a topic. As soon as it is published, the clock starts ticking on a new deadline. In exactly four years—or earlier if research has moved on significantly—the author must again hand in the most up-to-date entry on the topic.
In effect, therefore, each entry is on its own publishing schedule. “This is the only rational way to somehow keep track of all of the arcane topics out there,” adds Zalta. “We are processing updates and changes daily,” says Nodelman. An ever-changing What’s New page shows the SEP revisions and additions for each day.The ever-changing SEP(SEP)
Updates come from a variety of sources. Quartz spoke to several SEP authors and editors, some of whom said that the encyclopedia is used frequently both as a reference and as a teaching tool. This means that philosophers are some of the SEP’s core readers, and they can alert authors or subject editors to incorrect or insufficient entries. Knowledgable readers are encouraged to do the same, even if they’re not philosophers.
The fact that there is a specific author and editor, and that the SEP has become so important to philosophy, helps make all of this easier. Any errors reflect poorly on the contributors, and someone who spots a slip-up can talk to a real person about it—neither of which is true with Wikipedia. And if an author is slow or unwilling to respond, the editorial board will transfer his or her responsibilities to a brisker philosopher.
There are a bunch of other benefits to this approach. Chief among them is giving the encyclopedia what Zalta calls an “authorial voice.”
“Profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man.”—The SEP on Socrates After regularly trawling through the internet information trash heap, it’s easy to forget exactly what that means: something written by a professional writer who has deep knowledge of the material at hand and an actual personality.
An exemplary SEP entry in this regard is the one on Socrates, written by Debra Nails, a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy. It contains a section called “Socrates’ strangeness” that captures the man in a way that’s much too elegant and confident to be on Quora or Wikipedia.
Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates. An ugly man with an authorial voice.(Public Domain)
The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant. He didn’t change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night.
This authorial voice also avoids the tendency of crowdsourcing to be unhelpfully uncontroversial. For a long time, Wikipedia’s introductory line on Immanuel Kant read that he was “a central figure of modern philosophy.” The SEP, on the other hand, confidently calls him “the central figure in modern philosophy.” It’s a difference of only one word, but it explains the consensus of the philosophical community and conveys Kant’s true significance. (While I was writing this, Wikipedia updated that line to read “the central figure,” but quoting and attributing the SEP.)
Another benefit of the SEP’s not being crowdsourced is that minority views get more exposure. Wikipedia’s overview of feminist philosophy is hopelessly short. The SEP has dozens of meticulously researched entries. A 2012 survey by Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s parent organization, found that about 90% of its volunteers were men. “Its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy,” said the MIT Technology Review in its article The Decline of Wikipedia, which criticizes its byzantine editing hierarchy. The same goes for an important idea in philosophy: feminism. Wikipedia’s overview of feminist philosophy is hopelessly short. The SEP, on the other hand, is home to dozens of meticulously researched entries on the topic.
So the SEP model works, and it has 1,500 fact-checked, peer-reviewed entries to prove it.
You might think all this can only be possible courtesy of a wealthy patron underwriting generous fees for authors and a large staff of editors. Not at all.
To be fair, Stanford does pay most of the operating costs. But the SEP has a paid staff of only three—Zalta, Nodelman, and Allen—plus five other Stanford employees who spend 20% of their time on technical support. Neither the authors, nor the dozens of subject editors, get so much as a dime for their troubles.
Neither the authors, nor the dozens of subject editors, get so much as a dime for their troubles. And all the authors and editors I spoke to seemed perfectly happy with this arrangement, even though some entries are a long time in the making. Siegel, the philosophy of mind editor, said that most take at least a few months from start to finish. The longest one she has overseen “stretched out for some years.”
There are a few reasons why contributors are willing to put in the time. First, these are already things that they are deeply interested in and enjoy. Peter Adamson, author of the entries on Al-Kindi and the Theology of Aristotle, noted that he had already written books on these topics. Siegel mentioned that being an editor allowed her to “keep up with interesting segments of the field.”
“I am very lucky to be able to do philosophy for a living,” writes Adamson, “and I am interested in doing things that would justify why I should be allowed to make a living in this rather nice way, where I am effectively paid to do something that I would do for free, as a hobby.”
“I’m absolutely sure more people have read my [SEP] entries on Frege than all my other publications combined.” Then there is the fact that the SEP allows academic philosophers to reach a wider audience. This helps them gain recognition and bring ideas they think are important to the world outside universities and conferences.
“I thought writing this entry would be a good way to bring attention to the many interesting and socially relevant debates that were taking place among feminist philosophers and gender and sexuality theorists about sex markets,” said Laurie Shrage, author of Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets.
Zalta put it more bluntly: “I’m absolutely sure more people have read my entries on Frege than all my other publications combined.”
But perhaps the overriding motivation of SEP contributors is simply to further the enterprise of philosophy by creating a place to better understand it.
“I liked the fact that the SEP was going to be open access, and it was becoming a very important resource for students, instructors, and scholars in related fields,” said Shrage, when I asked why she contributed. Siegel echoed this altruistic motive: “Philosophy is a complicated subject,” she said. “People feel invested in the SEP in part because it helps philosophers at all stages orient themselves to philosophical problems and figures that may be new to them.”
If the SEP ever shuts down, Stanford promises to give the libraries that contributed all their money back, with interest. To pay running expenses not covered by Stanford, the team obtained nearly $2 million in grants over the first 15 years. But they wanted something more sustainable, so they hired a business consultant (this is Stanford, after all), Javier Ergueta, and he proposed an idea that now provides around a third of the budget. The SEP asks academic libraries to make a one-time contribution. That doesn’t get them access to the SEP, since it’s already freely accessible, but they enjoy some extra “member benefits,” like the ability to use their own branding on a version of the encyclopedia, and to save the full archives.
Moreover, their money goes into an SEP endowment, managed by the same company that takes care of Stanford University’s endowment of over $20 billion. If the SEP ever shuts down, Stanford promises to give the libraries that contributed to SEP all their money back, with interest. “It became a no-risk investment for the libraries, and it’s a way for them to invest in open access,” says Zalta.
Libraries were enthusiastic. The SEP was able to raise over $2 million from the long list of contributors, and Stanford added $1 million to the library endowment. The university also provides 60% of SEP’s budget—not much to ask from such a rich institution. The remaining 10% comes from a “friends of the SEP” program, which for $5, $10, or $25 a year lets individual users download nicely formatted PDFs of the articles, good for printing or archiving for personal use.The SEP makes high-quality PDFs like this available to members.(SEP)
All this creative business thinking means the SEP can continue to exist long beyond these 20 years. “Our grant application days are over,” says Zalta. “We are practically self-sufficient as long as we don’t try to grow too much or too fast.”
The SEP is a highly rare case of knowledge being separated from the trash heap. The question is, can we make more of the internet like this?
The model cannot apply universally. Wikipedia is still necessary for its uncanny ability to provide basic (if often flawed) introductions to nearly everything. And StackOverflow probably offers the best chance at bringing some order to the ever-changing world of computer programming, where new languages and frameworks rise and fall with the sun.
Indeed, it might seem like philosophy is almost uniquely well-suited to the SEP’s model. It is a slow-moving discipline practiced by, literally, “lovers of wisdom,” willing to share lots of their time to spread that wisdom around. The SEP method has been tried in other fields, without success. Big tech companies could play the role of Stanford, putting money and staff into an encyclopedia of software development. “People have contacted us from linguistics, to Egyptian studies, to a music department that wanted to make an online reference work,” Zalta says. None have been able to make a full dynamic reference happen.
Still, there are two reasons why it could be replicated.
First, even fast-moving, young disciplines like computer science or economics have core concepts that deserve comprehensive and authoritative explanation. StackOverflow is great at providing answers to highly specific programming questions, like how to round a number to two decimal points in Python, but fails to explain abstract or technical things like the theory of algorithms or the fundamentals of cryptography. In economics, there are dozens of excellent blogs, but where do you go to get an in-depth, impartial, picture of the marginal theory of value or comparative advantage?
These core ideas are fundamental. Self-taught programmers are wont to “solve” problems by copy-and-pasting code straight from StackOverflow and crossing their fingers, with little sense of what the code is doing or why it works. Economics blogs might tell you that Greece’s economy needs to become more competitive, but it’s hard to understand what exactly that means without an intuition for these central concepts.
The second reason an SEP-like model could work more broadly is that the unpaid labor put in by SEP writers and editors isn’t something new to academia. Refereeing papers, editing journals, and other work outside an academic’s core research and teaching are typically unpaid in most fields. “It hadn’t been done this way for reference works,” Zalta says; but having changed in philosophy, where writing for the SEP has become just another way to spend time working to make the field better, it could change elsewhere.
Nor does it just have to be only academics who contribute to online reference works. In computer science, say, it would make just as much sense for big tech companies to play the role of Stanford, putting money and staff into an authoritative encyclopedia of software development. Given the shortage of well-trained developers for hire, they have an incentive to do so. “I think our model could be reproduced if you get the right people involved.” And large companies are already used to this form of self-interested altruism: They work on open-source code that benefits other programmers as well as their own.
What would it take to make this happen? The SEP’s model contains lots of clever insights on how to create a reference that stands the test of time—the library funding, the archiving for citation, the automatic deadline for article updates. But Zalta’s ultimate prescription requires nothing clever at all. Just old-fashioned resolve.
“What we had was several people single-mindedly focused on making this work,” he said. “I think our model could be reproduced if you get the right people involved.”
The SEP is likely too rigorous to be the standard against which all information online is compared. But it shows we can create many more places that explain clearly the things humans know to be true. Bewildered Googling and tab-opening, tumbling indefinitely down the wiki-hole (if such a thing can even be said to exist), could be a thing of the past, if we only tried. It would be a lot more like the internet we always wanted.
Image of Rodin’s The Thinker at the Cleveland Museum of Art by Erik Drost on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. Image of Edward Zalta by Aasrubio on Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons 4.0 license.
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