Monthly Archives: May 2016

For Your Consideration: Epigenetics and Identity, Vulgar Vocabulary, Learning to Learn, and the Sublimity of Mike Rowe

1. The Science of Identity and Difference

Why are identical twins alike? In the late nineteen-seventies, a team of scientists in Minnesota set out to determine how much these similarities arose from genes, rather than environments—from “nature,” rather than “nurture.” Scouring thousands of adoption records and news clips, the researchers gleaned a rare cohort of fifty-six identical twins who had been separated at birth. Reared in different families and different cities, often in vastly dissimilar circumstances, these twins shared only their genomes. Yet on tests designed to measure personality, attitudes, temperaments, and anxieties, they converged astonishingly. Social and political attitudes were powerfully correlated: liberals clustered with liberals, and orthodoxy was twinned with orthodoxy. The same went for religiosity (or its absence), even for the ability to be transported by an aesthetic experience. Two brothers, separated by geographic and economic continents, might be brought to tears by the same Chopin nocturne, as if responding to some subtle, common chord struck by their genomes.

One pair of twins both suffered crippling migraines, owned dogs that they had named Toy, married women named Linda, and had sons named James Allan (although one spelled the middle name with a single “l”). Another pair—one brought up Jewish, in Trinidad, and the other Catholic, in Nazi Germany, where he joined the Hitler Youth—wore blue shirts with epaulets and four pockets, and shared peculiar obsessive behaviors, such as flushing the toilet before using it. Both had invented fake sneezes to diffuse tense moments. Two sisters—separated long before the development of language—had invented the same word to describe the way they scrunched up their noses: “squidging.” Another pair confessed that they had been haunted by nightmares of being suffocated by various metallic objects—doorknobs, fishhooks, and the like.

The Minnesota twin study raised questions about the depth and pervasiveness of qualities specified by genes: Where in the genome, exactly, might one find the locus of recurrent nightmares or of fake sneezes? Yet it provoked an equally puzzling converse question: Why are identical twins different? Because, you might answer, fate impinges differently on their bodies. One twin falls down the crumbling stairs of her Calcutta house and breaks her ankle; the other scalds her thigh on a tipped cup of coffee in a European station. Each acquires the wounds, calluses, and memories of chance and fate. But how are these changes recorded, so that they persist over the years? We know that the genome can manufacture identity; the trickier question is how it gives rise to difference…

2. Is Swearing a Sign of a Limited Vocabulary? | Scientific American

When words fail us, we curse. At least this is what the “poverty-of-vocabulary” (POV) hypothesis would have us believe. On this account, swearing is the “sign of a weak vocabulary”, a result of a lack of education, laziness or impulsiveness. In line with this idea, we tend to judge vulgarians quite harshly, rating them as lower on socio-intellectual status, less effective at their jobs and less friendly.

But this view of the crass does not square with recent research in linguistics. For example, the POV hypothesis would predict that when people struggle to come up with the right words, they are more likely to spew swears left and right. But research shows that people tend to fill the awkward gaps in their language with “ers” and “ums” not “sh*ts” and “godd*mnits.” This research has led to a competing explanation for swearing: fluency with taboo words might be a sign of general verbal fluency. Those who are exceptionally vulgar might also be exceptionally eloquent and intelligent.  Indeed, taboo words hold a particular purpose in our lexicon that other words cannot as effectively accomplish: to deliver intense, succinct and directed emotional expression. So, those who swear frequently might just be more sophisticated in the linguistic resources they can draw from in order to make their point.

New research by cognitive scientists at Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts attempts to test this possibility, and further debunk the POV hypothesis, by measuring how taboo word fluency relates to general verbal fluency. The POV hypothesis suggests that there should be a negative correlation: the more you swear, the lower your verbal prowess. But the researchers hypothesized just the opposite: the more you swear the more comprehensive your vocabulary would be.

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

I’m not talking about relaxed armchair or even structured classroom learning. I’m talking about resisting the bias against doing new things, scanning the horizon for growth opportunities, and pushing yourself to acquire radically different capabilities—while still performing your job. That requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again: an extremely discomforting notion for most of us.

Over decades of coaching and consulting to thousands of executives in a variety of industries, however, my colleagues and I have come across people who succeed at this kind of learning. We’ve identified four attributes they have in spades: aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity, and vulnerability. They truly want to understand and master new skills; they see themselves very clearly; they constantly think of and ask good questions; and they tolerate their own mistakes as they move up the learning curve.

Of course, these things come more naturally to some people than to others. But, drawing on research in psychology and management as well as our work with clients, we have identified some fairly simple mental tools anyone can develop to boost all four attributes—even those that are often considered fixed (aspiration, curiosity, and vulnerability).

4. The Importance of Being Dirty: Lessons from Mike Rowe

**If you didn’t already adore Mike Rowe this conversation will make you. Amazingly interesting guy on top of everything you thought you knew. Also, The Tim Ferriss Show is hands down one of my favorite podcasts. Light in tone but deep in intellectual curiosity about an immense variety of topics.
—-

“Just because you love something doesn’t mean you can’t suck at it.” – Mike Rowe

Stream Here: http://traffic.libsyn.com/timferriss/Tim_Ferriss_Show_-_Mike_Rowe.mp3

Mike Rowe (@mikeroweworks) is perhaps the best storyteller and pitchman I’ve ever had on the show.

You might know Mike from his eight seasons of Dirty Jobs, but that’s just a tiny piece of the story.

His performing career began in 1984 when he faked his way into the Baltimore Opera to get his union card and meet girls, both of which he accomplished during a performance of Rigoletto. His transition to television occurred in 1990 when — to settle a bet — he auditioned for the QVC Shopping Channel and was promptly hired after talking about a pencil for nearly eight minutes. There, he worked the graveyard shift for three years, until he was ultimately fired for making fun of products and belittling viewers.  Now, he is a massively successful TV host, writer, narrator, producer, actor, and spokesman.

Why listen to this episode? You will learn:

  • Secrets of the perfect pitch
  • How Mike flew around the world for free (until he got caught)
  • Why to pursue opportunity instead of passion
  • How being different can help you win in business and life
  • The business of Mike Rowe
  • Favorite books, voice-over artists, and much, much more…

If you’re in a rush and just want a fantastic 5-minute story about his selling pencils for the QVC audition, click here.

“We are infected by our own misunderstanding of how our own minds work.” – Kevin Kelly

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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For Your Consideration: Hacking Elections, Boosting Conspiracy Theories, Presence vs. Advice, and Earth Imaged Daily

1. How to Hack an Election

Two thousand miles away, in an apartment in Bogotá’s upscale Chicó Navarra neighborhood, Andrés Sepúlveda sat before six computer screens. Sepúlveda is Colombian, bricklike, with a shaved head, goatee, and a tattoo of a QR code containing an encryption key on the back of his head. On his nape are the words “</head>” and “<body>” stacked atop each other, dark riffs on coding. He was watching a live feed of Peña Nieto’s victory party, waiting for an official declaration of the results.

When Peña Nieto won, Sepúlveda began destroying evidence. He drilled holes in flash drives, hard drives, and cell phones, fried their circuits in a microwave, then broke them to shards with a hammer. He shredded documents and flushed them down the toilet and erased servers in Russia and Ukraine rented anonymously with Bitcoins. He was dismantling what he says was a secret history of one of the dirtiest Latin American campaigns in recent memory.

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. On that July night, he cracked bottle after bottle of Colón Negra beer in celebration. As usual on election night, he was alone.

Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.
2. Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories

The filter bubble—the idea that online recommendation engines learn what we like and thus keep us only reading things we agree with—has evolved. Algorithms, network effects, and zero-cost publishing are enabling crackpot theories to go viral, and—unchecked—these ideas are impacting the decisions of policy makers and shaping public opinion, whether they are verified or not.

First it is important to understand the technology that drives the system. Most algorithms work simply: Web companies try to tailor their content (which includes news and search results) to match the tastes and interests of readers. However as online organizer and author Eli Pariser says in the TED Talk where the idea of the filter bubble became popularized: “There’s a dangerous unintended consequence. We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Facebook’s news feed and personalized search delivers results that are tailored just to us because a social network’s business is to keep us interested and happy. Feeling good drives engagement and more time spent on a site, and that keeps a user targetable with advertisements for longer. Pariser argues that this nearly invisible editing of the Internet limits what we see—and that it will “ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.”

In his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin describes a world where our ability to technologically shape reality is so sophisticated, it overcomes reality itself. “We risk being the first people in history,” he writes, “to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”
3. The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.

During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.

By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.
4. A New 50-Trillion-Pixel Image of Earth, Every Day​

But it’s Planet Labs and Terra Bella who seem to be driving the small-satellite industry. Both are born of and based in Bay Area business culture. (Terra Bella’s founders often speak of the Stanford class where they met.) Both companies are now non-negligible in size: Planet Labs has more than 330 employees, evenly split between space-operations and product engineering; Terra Bella numbers more than 180. For reference, DigitalGlobe employs 1,300 people.

And, despite both manufacturing satellites, Planet Labs and Terra Bella both downplay their importance. Dan Berkenstock, Terra Bella’s CEO, even implied its why the company is changing its name: “I think Skybox, in many ways, came to be equated with satellite imaging,” he told me. “And satellite imaging is great—but that’s one piece of the puzzle.” (I also wonder if Skybox sounded too much like the similarly geospatial-minded Mapbox or the recently devalued Dropbox.)

Instead, both companies now talk about how imagery fits into their “Earth information platforms” that bring together lots of different kinds of data about the planet. Both companies offer APIs, aiming to provide something like “cloud” services for Earth information. (As opposed to “cloud” services for the Earth—that would be something else entirely.) Both companies are also cagey about what kind of non-imagery data could get included in these platforms, but meteorological and climate data would make sense.

“The product is information processing—real-time, fact-based data,” says Robbie Schlinger, co-founder of Planet Labs.

For Terra Bella, the uses of its eventual platform revolve around “economic transparency.” Their satellites have sufficiently high resolution to see vehicles, and they record high-definition video, not still frames. They mention executives working on logistics problems, or people checking on a construction project far away, when discussing their project. Their satellites’ resolution also puts a solution to “the Walmart parking-lot problem” in reach: an almost-infamous idea that financiers could scry the direction of the U.S. economy by tabulating how many cars obscure the blacktops of the nation’s big-box retailer.

Planet Labs tends to focus on different situations. As recently as last summer, it was a “unicorn,” valued at more than $1 billion. And unlike Terra Bella, which has leased out some of its manufacturing, Planet Labs still builds all of its extra-large Cubesats in its South of Market headquarters in San Francisco. Next month, the company will begin constructing 120 of them in a six-week span, the fastest manufacture of satellites in history, according to Schlinger.

Its satellites are a better fit for observing land use: the health and types of agricultural crops, the extent of logging and deforestation, the availability of water and the plumpness of reservoirs. (You can still often discern car and truck-sized objects in its photos.) Last year, it started giving imagery of newsworthy areas, like the Syria-Turkey border, to outlets like The New York Times.

 

“If you tell me precisely what it is a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that.” – John von Neumann

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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For Your Consideration: Aphantasia, Learned Resilience, Other People’s Problems, Pirated Science

1. Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind

“I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind.This is not a joke. It is not “blowing my mind” a la BuzzFeed’s “8 Things You Won’t Believe About Tarantulas.” It is, I think, as close to an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh.

Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.

If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course. You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.

I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.

And I grew up in Miami.

This is how it’s always been for me, and this is how I thought it was for you. Then a “Related Article” link on Facebook led me to this bombshell in The New York Times. The piece unearths, with great curiosity, the mystery of a 65 year-old man who lost his ability to form mental images after a surgery.
What do you mean “lost” his ability? I thought. Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever that ability?
Neurologists at the University at Exeter in England showed the man a photo. Who is that? Tony Blair, of course. Brain scans showed the visual sectors of his brain lighting up.

Then they removed the photo and asked him to imagine Tony Blair. The man knew characteristics—his eye color, his hair—but he could not “see” the image in his mind’s eye. Brain scans showed the visual sectors didn’t activate this time. In fMRIs of other men, many of the same sectors activated whether the subjects were looking at a photo or simply imagining one.”

2. How People Learn to Become Resilient

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.

It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing.

The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

3. The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems

The “reductive seduction” is not malicious, but it can be reckless. For two reasons. First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.

There are so many examples. As David Bornstein wrote in The New York Times, over four decades of Westerners working on clean water has led to “billions of dollars worth of broken wells and pumps. Many of them functioned for less than two years.”

One classic example: in 2006, the U.S. government, The Clinton Foundation, The Case Foundation, and others pledged $16.4 million to PlayPump, essentially a merry-go-round pump that produced safe drinking water. Despite being touted as the (fun!) answer to the developing world’s water woes, by 2007, one-quarter of the pumps in Zambia alone were in disrepair. It was later estimated that children would need to “play” for 27 hours a day to produce the water PlayPump promised.

We are easily seduced by aid projects that promise play. The SOCCKET, an energy-generating soccer ball, made a splash in 2011 when it raised $92,296 on Kickstarter. Three short years later, the company that created it wrote to its backers: “Most of you received an incredibly underwhelming product with a slew of manufacturing and quality control errors… In summary, we totally f*#ked up this Kickstarter campaign.”

Reading their surprisingly candid mea culpa, I couldn’t help but wonder where the equivalent message was to the kids in energy-starved areas whose high hopes were darkened by a defunct ball.

In some cases, the reductive seduction can actively cause harm. In its early years, TOMS Shoes — which has become infamous for its “buy one give one” business model, wherein they give a pair of shoes for every one sold — donated American-made shoes, which put local shoe factory workers out of jobs (they’ve since changed their supply chain).

Some development workers even have an acronym that they use to describe these initiatives: SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want). AIDWATCH, a watchdog development blog, created a handy flow chart that helps do gooders reality check their altruistic instincts. It begins with the simplest of questions — “Is the stuff needed?” — and flows down to more sophisticated questions like, “Will buying locally cause shortages or other disruptions?”

4. Why one woman stole 50 million academic papers — and made them all free to read

Many academic journals are extremely expensive. Want to read just one article? That could cost you around $30. The best way to access academic papers is through universities or libraries. But those institutions can pay millions of dollars a year to subscribe to a comprehensive collection.

Alexandra Elbakyan has had enough.

Elbakyan is a Russia-based neuroscientist turned academic Robin Hood. In 2011 she founded the website Sci-Hub, which has grown to host some 50 million academic papers — Elbakyan claims this is nearly all the paywalled scientific knowledge that exists in the world. These papers are free for anyone to view and download.

For students and researchers around the globe who can’t afford academic journals, Elbakyan is a hero. For academic publishers that have historically been shielded from competition, she’s a villain.

Either way, what she’s doing is most definitely illegal.

Last year, leading journal publisher Elsevier took action against Sci-Hub, claiming it violated US copyright laws and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits the fraudulent access of computer systems. In October, a New York district court orderedthat the site be taken down. Elbakyan was unfazed. Soon after, in November Sci-Hubreemerged with a new overseas domain.

This story is bigger than a single court ruling. It’s a new front in the academic publishing wars. What’s at stake is the question of who has access to scientific knowledge: wealthy institutions, or anyone with an internet connection?

If Sci-Hub wins, the age of academic paywalls may effectively be over.

No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.
-Ruth Benedict

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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