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Walmart, the world’s biggest company by revenue, employs one in 10 US retail workers, and one out of every 100 US private-sector employees. That’s a lot of human beings—and a lot of pairs of khakis.
Until recently, all of Walmart’s 1.5 million store employees in the US were required a blue or white collared shirt, black or khaki pants, and close-toed shoes. (Following employee backlash in 2015, Walmart loosened this code, permitting khaki-colored denim for all employees, T-shirts for those who work in the garden department, and jeans for those who do physical labor in the back of the store.)
As of April 14, the drab dress code became slightly more hip. Per an updated employee manual obtained by Bloomberg News, employees in some of Walmart’s 4,700 stores are now allowed to wear shirts of any solid color, and blue jeans or “jeggings” (no matter where they work in the store). According to Bloomberg, Walmart is testing the new dress codes in a small number of US stores in the hopes that more relaxed standards will help attract and retain staff in a tightening labor market.
While the nation’s biggest private employer has long-been vilified for its labor policies, employee satisfaction and retention have been top priorities for Doug McMillon since he became CEO in 2014. In 2015, Walmart pledged to give raises to more than 1 million of its workers. Despite a backlash on Wall Street, the company pressed ahead with its pay plan, boosted Walmart’s starting hourly wage to $11 this February, and distributing bonuses of up to $1,000 to a large percentage of US employees.
Small as Walmart’s dress-code reforms may seem, the impact of clothing choice on employee morale shouldn’t be overlooked. Beyond pure aesthetics (even suburban dads really shouldn’t embrace khakis) restrictive workplace dress codes are inherently paternalistic, and often expensive.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra, when she was running HR for the automaker, saw the connection between dress codes and employees’ sense of empowerment, and edited down GM’s dress code to a simple, two-word appeal: “Dress appropriately.”
Walmart probably won’t go as far as that. While the retailer is relaxing the rules in some cases, the updated manual also includes some new restrictions—facial tattoos, for example, are now banned for any employee hired after April 14—and leather, prints, distressed materials, patches, white stitching, bedazzled clothing, yoga pants, sandals, and Crocs all remain prohibited.
Tammy Duckworth brought her 10-day-old daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey to work today—and made history as the first sitting US senator to do so. For that to be possible, the Senate had to vote to change its rules to allow babies on the floor, which required getting straight answers to a series of tough questions, such as whether the Illinois senator planned to change her baby’s diaper, or breastfeed, while in session.
All was cleared (the rule change was voted unanimously), and today (Apr. 19) the senator and Iraq war veteran could roll into the chamber carrying her baby, in order to vote against Trump’s proposed NASA nominee. Both the senator and her newborn were dressed for the occasion:
May have to vote today.Maile’s outfit is prepped.Made sure she has a jacket so she doesn’t violate the Senate floor dress code requiring blazers.Not sure what the policy is on duckling onesies but I think we’re ready pic.twitter.com/Phj6ZAFyKW
— tammyduckworth (@tammyduckworth) April 19, 2018
Despite the initial skepticism, the Senate and its staff reacted to the sight just like any other workplace would—that is to say, it melted. True to the scientific finding that no drug is as powerful as a newborn to turn even the stiffest, most cynical human beings into gooey balls of incoherent, baby excitement, little Maile and her mother were welcomed with great joy. “She’s coming, she’s coming,” senator Claire McCaskill reportedly said as the anticipation built—causing even senator Mitch McConnell to crack a smile.
Sen. Duckworth and the first baby to go on the Senate floor pic.twitter.com/aUusoBJA6z
— Caitlin Owens (@caitlinnowens) April 19, 2018
The Duckworth baby has arrived! pic.twitter.com/6CK39ADG4K
— Alex Gangitano (@AlexGangitano) April 19, 2018
As Duckworth made her entrance, ecstatic female senators and staffers got close to the baby and went straight in for some gentle cuddling, while a (bipartisan) group of well-meaning men stood close by, staring in adoration while classically keeping an awkward distance.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth's baby makes her big debut on the Senate floor.
Duckworth is the first sitting senator to give birth while in office, and the Senate unanimously passed a rule change to allow her to nurse her newborn on Senate floor. https://t.co/VeBjl9Jo1U pic.twitter.com/cRdWOVpXIO
— ABC News (@ABC) April 19, 2018
It was a most heartwarming moment, and a uniquely special one: It’s not every day you see an elected official, or a war hero, going back to work just days after giving birth and winning a formal rule change so that the child could accompany her in her arms.
Incidentally, this is not the first of Duckworth’s children to get into the senate: Her older daughter, Abigail, accompanied her for a rehearsal swearing-in ahead of Duckworth’s formal swearing-in in January 2017.
A major US consumer watchdog organization is doubling down on its warning that Americans should avoid eating all romaine lettuce.
The recommendation by Consumer Reports comes as federal inspectors continue to track down the exact source of E. coli-ridden lettuce coming out of Yuma, Arizona. The outbreak is widespread, spanning 11 states and hospitalizing at least 22 people. Food-poisoning cases linked to the lettuce have been reported from coast to coast, including Washington state, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Idaho, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Virginia.
So far, Consumer Reports has taken a more aggressive tact than the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The CDC has only suggested people avoid buying and consuming bagged, chopped romaine lettuce.
“It is unrealistic to expect consumers to figure out whether their romaine was produced in Arizona or somewhere else, especially when eating in a restaurant,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “The FDA should just advise consumers to avoid romaine lettuce until further notice.”
Food-borne pathogens are tricky to pin down. They’re shape-shifting threats that can find their way to a person through almost any food that hasn’t been fully cooked or processed. They can travel as easily via cheeseburger or even in a box of supermarket cake mix. In recent years, food-safety experts have turned to new technologies—such as genome sequencing—to more quickly assess threats and determine what action to take.
The most recent outbreak is the second time this year that romaine lettuce has been implicated in an E. coli scare. In January, US and Canadian officials reacted to a similar situation after at least 58 people reportedly feel ill from a different strain of the pathogen. It was discovered on lettuce in at least 13 US states. At least one Canadian died from the poisoning.
If you’ve been in downtown San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Washington DC recently, you’ve probably noticed an influx of scooters—electrified versions of the longtime children’s toy—on street corners and sidewalks.
Startups including Bird, founded by former Lyft-then-Uber executive Travis VanderZanden, LimeBike, and Spin, have been dumping internet-connected scooters on city streets over the last year, ostensibly in an effort to fill the gaps in municipal transit.
These startups market their fleets as a cheap and easy way to get around cities plagued by congestion and poor public transit. They’ve been richly funded by venture capitalists, raising a collective $255 million. VanderZanden has implied electric scooters are part of “the biggest revolution in transportation since the dawn of the Jet Age.”
Quartz took a closer look at the technology littered across city sidewalks: a scooter, retailing for $500, made by Chinese electronics company Xiaomi.
Xiaomi is perhaps best-known in the West for producing low-cost smartphones and wearables, but the company actually produces a litany of gadgets under its Mi brand, from cameras and TVs, to computers, appliances, headphones, and even sofas.
A Bird scooter recently inspected by Quartz in San Francisco bore a product sticker on the base that read, “Mi Electric Scooter.” The sticker listed the scooter’s maximum speed at 15.5 miles per hour, and maximum load at 220 pounds. The product was made in Changzhou, China, by Xiaomi’s subsidiary Ninebot, which also owns Segway. Bird states on its online safety page that scooter speeds are “throttled to 15 mile per hour” [sic] and says in its rental agreement that riders must not exceed a maximum weight of 200 pounds. The average weight of a US man is about 196 lbs.
The product sticker on the undercarriage of a Bird scooter shows it to be the Xiaomi Mi scooter.
In China, the Mi scooter sells for 1,999 yuan (roughly $320), but in the US, on sites like Amazon, it can cost about $500. It weighs just shy of 27 lbs and can connect wirelessly over Bluetooth to other apps. The scooter has a maximum travel range of about 18 miles “under specific conditions,” which include mild weather conditions, a load of about 165 lbs, and a “flat road without strong winds,” according to a product description on Amazon. (San Francisco, of course, is not exactly known for its flat roads.)
Spin and Bird’s scooters are almost identical.
Bird refused to confirm that it’s using the Mi scooter, even when Quartz said that it had photos of the scooters showing their model. Spin appears to use the same scooters as Bird, and a spokesperson for Spin confirmed to Quartz that it’s working with Xiaomi to produce and customize its scooter fleet. They added that the devices have been certified by UL, a US testing company that sets safety standards for many consumer products. Bird declined to comment on what safety tests its scooters had been through. Assuming the models are the same, though, should mean that both Spin and Bird scooters won’t repeat the fate that befell the short-lived hoverboard fad.
The self-balancing boards exploded in popularity in 2015, and then just started exploding. To meet the skyrocketing demand, manufacturers seemed to cut corners, shipping models around the world that caught fire and exploded while people were riding or charging the devices. In many cases, shoddy batteries were to blame, leading Amazon to pull many models from its sites, and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to request that UL come up with a test for ensuring hoverboard batteries were safe to sell to consumers. By the time the first UL-certified boards hit the market, the fad was dead.
LimeBike’s proprietary scooter design.
LimeBike told Quartz that its scooters are a proprietary “Lime-S” design, built by a third party overseas. Although it didn’t confirm who that was, it appears the company is using a modified version of a design produced by a range of manufacturers—you can find the design on Amazon under the names Haitral, Logisys, Swagtron, and Partu, to name a few—and retail between about $200 to $400. It’s unclear what sorts of tests these batteries have been through, and LimeBike couldn’t confirm whether its scooters’ batteries were UL certified. It has deployed over 35,000 bikes and scooters across the US since last June.
On the surface, there isn’t much wildly different between these scooter startups. They all have scooters that can travel at roughly the same speeds, that are connected to apps and can unlock with some combination of Bluetooth, cellular data, and GPS. LimeBike told Quartz that it’s building software that can detect if its scooters fall over (so if users are carelessly tossing them on street corners instead of neatly propping them up somewhere, or if they’re being stolen, Lime will know), while Bird and Spin claim to have the operational savvy required to run an on-demand transit network. But really, there isn’t much that makes one of these companies more special than another, at least not yet. Just as Uber and Lyft notoriously have the same drivers, it’s perhaps not surprising that the next wave of mobility startups are using pretty much the same technologies.
Bird has raised $118 million to date from investors including New York-based Tusk Ventures. That gives the company plenty of money to spend on Xiaomi scooters, which it’s presumably purchasing for less than the $500 sticker price. On Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, for example, a minimum of 100 Mi scooters can be purchased for $250 to $299 apiece. At the midpoint of that price range, Bird could buy a fleet of 500 scooters for $137,500, or 0.1% of its total funding. Bird declined to disclose how many scooters it has deployed. (Spin said it has “hundreds” of scooters, and they’re mainly concentrated in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco.)
On the other hand, at Bird’s current rates of $1 per ride plus 15 cents per minute, it would take a long time to recoup the cost of a single scooter. In Bird’s hometown of Santa Monica, for instance, a 2016 study of local transit found that 53% of trips were less than 3 miles and 18% were less than 1 mile. At 15 mph, a Bird scooter could make a three-mile trip in about 12 minutes, which means the entire trip would cost $2.80. If Bird were purchasing scooters in bulk at $275 apiece, it would take about 100 of those trips to offset the initial purchase price. Bird said the majority of its rides were less than 2 miles long.
Additional reporting by Matt Quinn.
In the midst of the Twitter attacks by Donald Trump and his unceremonial firing by the US president in 2017, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that in his 30-plus year career, James Comey prosecuted mafia members, worked in the private sector as the head lawyer for defense contractor Lockheed Martin and later for the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and served as deputy US attorney general. The man must know a thing or two about being a leader.
So despite finding myself completely disinterested in the Trump-Comey beef, I picked up the former FBI director’s new memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. I was excited to find that Trump really doesn’t show up until chapter 12 of 14, and that the book was indeed rife with leadership lessons, on everything from listening and emotional intelligence to team building and the importance of sleep. Here’s a sampling of them:
1. How to be a great listener
The best leaders listen way more than they talk. But listening is more than the passive act of sitting in front of somebody and hearing their words. Active listening requires not only deep concentration, but the parsing of body language “tells,” determining the right questions to ask, and the real-time processing of responses with your existing knowledge. Comey writes:
My marriage has taught me that what I thought of as listening really isn’t listening, either. Like a lot of people, I thought that listening involved sitting silently as someone else talked, and then perceiving what they say. I was wrong. True listening is actually that period of silence and allowing someone’s words to reach your conscious brain, but it also includes something else that’s a little weird: with your posture, your face, and your sounds, you signal to someone, “I want what you have, I need to know what you know, and I want you to keep telling me the things you’re telling me.” Two good friends talking to each other is a stenographer’s worst nightmare. They are talking over each other. When one is speaking formed words, the other is making sounds—“Uh-huh.” “Ooh.” “I know.” “Yup, yup, oh, I’ve seen it, yup. They’ll do that.” They’re listening to each other in a way where each is both pushing information to the other and pulling information out of the other. Push, pull, push, pull. When they are really connecting, it actually runs together—pushpullpushpull. That’s real listening.
2. How to get people to open up
As organizations grow or restructure, it becomes harder to get people to open up, which can impact trust and collaboration. Scott Crabtree, a former Intel engineer and founder of Happy Brain Science, described an exercise his team at Intel used called the Pecha Kucha. The Japanese phrase roughly translates into “chit chat.” Each team member created a 10-slide presentation during which they “could only share things about their lives outside of work.” As FBI director, Comey applied similar techniques to get people to open up:
I worked to build an atmosphere of trust by encouraging leaders to tell the truth about something personal. I asked an entire conference room of FBI senior executives to tell the group something about themselves that would surprise the room, quickly adding, to much laughter, that it should ideally not be something that would jeopardize their security clearance. Weeks later, I went around the room and asked them to tell me their favorite Halloween candy as a child. In November, I requested their favorite food at Thanksgiving, and, in December, their favorite gift of the holiday season. Of course, these could be seen as childish techniques, the kind a teacher might urge on an elementary school classroom, but children open up and trust one another in amazing ways. We were in need of a little more childlike behavior in our lives, because children tend to tell each other the truth more often than adults do.
3. Don’t sleep on sleep
If you’re Arianna Huffington or a Seattle Seahawk, sleep is a high priority. But surely hunting down mobsters and cyberterrorists (or reviewing thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails) excludes you from this wellness imperative? Au contraire, mon frère, says Comey:
When someone is tired, their judgment can be impaired. When they are dragging, it is hard for them to float above a problem and picture themselves and the problem in another place and time, so I gave them another directive: sleep. When you sleep, your brain is actually engaged in the neurochemical process of judgment. It is mapping connections and finding meaning among all the data you took in during the day. Tired people tend not to have the best judgment. And it is not as hard as you may think, I added with a smile. “You can multitask. You can sleep with people you love.”
4. The subtle power of emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Comey shares an anecdote about how during his FBI installation ceremony, then-president Barack Obama had the foresight to exclude the boyfriends of Comey’s daughters from the commemorative photograph, just in case:
[My wife] Patrice and our kids were, of course, in attendance at the ceremony. My two older girls had brought their serious boyfriends along, and we all joined the president for a commemorative photo of the occasion. Remembering what he had learned about our group during the introductions, President Obama smiled for the first photo and then, gesturing toward the boyfriends, said, “Hey, why don’t we take another without the guys. You know, just in case.” He was playful as he said it, and he did it in a way that no one was offended. But I could tell he was also being thoughtful in a way few leaders are. What if things didn’t work out with one or the other of these guys? Would having them in a picture with the president ruin it for the Comeys forever? So Obama gestured the boyfriends out of the shot, to our great amusement. (I’m happy to report that one of the guys is now our son-in-law and the other soon will be.)
Philip Morris International, one of the largest tobacco companies, wants to design a smoke-free future. That’s a tall order for a company that made its name selling Marlboros.
According to the company’s most recent earnings report, the plan is not going swimmingly. Shipments of heated tobacco products—devices that release flavors and nicotine without combustion—have dragged since December. And shipments of cigarettes are down 5.3% from a year ago (paywall). Combined cigarette and heated tobacco shipments are down year-over-year this quarter, too.
The company’s tepid earnings report shaved almost 16% off its share value today (April 19), making it Philip Morris’s worst trading day in a decade.
Philip Morris has spent $4.5 billion on four new smoke-free products. The iQOS, which the company’s website extols as its most advanced smoke-free product, heats but doesn’t burn tobacco. It launched in Japan in 2016, and was initially a success. The hand-held device captured 16% of the tobacco market (paywall), pushing smoking rates down, and exciting investors and public health professionals alike.
A man uses a Philip Morris iQOS e-cigarette in Tokyo.
But excitement over the product has since flagged in Japan. “Device sales were slower than our ambitious expectations,” the company’s chief financial officer, Martin King, said on an earnings call.
King thinks the iQOS already reached the easily adaptable youngsters of Japan. Changing the habits of the age 50-plus smoking population, which make up roughly 40% of adult smokers, is a bigger challenge.
“We are now reaching different socioeconomic strata with more conservative adult smokers who may have slightly slower patterns of adoption,” said King.
Still, the company is convinced iQOS and its other smoke-free products will make a comeback. Heated tobacco sales went up in Japan and South Korea, while the sales of traditional cigarettes fell in Japan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The company says it remains on track to double global sales of heated tobacco products in the near future.
If you’re taking vitamin D and calcium supplements to maintain strong bones and prevent fractures, it might be for naught.
A report released this month by a US government-appointed panel of doctors who have been analyzing research on taking those supplements—alone or together—baldly states: “The evidence does not support a finding of fewer fractures with vitamin D supplementation alone or with calcium.”
That finding runs counter to conventional wisdom about vitamin D and calcium, which has long been touted as a simple way to maintain a healthy skeletal system. Instead, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended against taking certain levels of those supplements on a daily basis by postmenopausal women, in particular. In 2012 about 19% of US adults were taking a standalone vitamin D supplement and close to 35% were taking calcium supplements, the report said. Such figures demonstrate the enthusiasm for supplements even without supporting science.
In many cases, we still don’t know a lot about how supplements affect the body. That’s because a lot of the studies in which supplements are examined have been observational and don’t compare the actual supplement against a placebo in a controlled setting, according to Harvard Medical School. Often, observational studies don’t take into account a person’s exercise habits, their diets, or other important variables.
The need for caution with supplements been echoed in other parts of the world. In December 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association published research showing that a review of medical literature in China also concluded that positive effects of vitamin D and calcium supplements are dubious.
In 2013, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an editorial saying it believes “the case is closed” on most mineral or vitamin supplements having no clear benefit, and in some cases being harmful. Physicians say there are better ways to prevent fractures. One is through exercise and balance activities to prevent falls in the first place.
Medical experts, including JoAnn Manson at Harvard Medical School, have said the best way to get important nutrients is to eat them in food. Calcium is contained in fortified orange juice, milk, yogurt, sardines, and tofu. And vitamin D can be found in milk, yogurt, tuna, and salmon.
On April 9, Tammy Duckworth became the first US senator to give birth in office. Now the Illinois Democrat has achieved another milestone: On Wednesday (April 18), her colleagues approved her resolution allowing senators to bring their young children onto the floor during votes.
The resolution passed unanimously, despite some rumblings from the predominantly-male body of senators. “But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?” Utah senator Orrin Hatch fretted. Other senators purportedly voiced concerns about whether babies would be breastfed on the Senate floor, and what would happen if the baby cried during a vote.
At the heart of these concerns is an underlying fear that allowing new parents to bring their babies onto the Senate floor will alter the governing body’s rules of decorum. In fact, Duckworth’s resolution almost certainly will change Senate culture—and that’s a good thing. Many of the Senate’s current rules and traditions are out of touch with contemporary society, and can certainly make female senators (of which there are now 22) feel unwelcome.
Consider, for example, that when a record 20 women were elected to the 113th Senate in 2012, they discovered that their restroom had only two stalls. They arranged to expand the Senate women’s bathroom in 2013. Meanwhile, the female members of the House had to wait until 2011 to get a restroom near the House floor.
As recently as 2009, the Senate swimming pool was male-only; it took an intervention from former senator Kay Hagan and senator Chuck Schumer to make the pool co-ed. Why? Because some of the male senators liked to swim naked.
And in the present day, because US senators have to be physically present to vote from the floor, working from home while nursing an infant is not an option, and taking maternity leave means giving up the right to vote or to sponsor legislation. That’s created plenty of hurdles for new mothers. Back in 2009, senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked to preside over the Senate from 5 to 7pm, which was when she needed to nurse her son. In her memoir, Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand wrote: “I tried to explain to the young male Senate staffer who issued my orders that these hours were impossible: I had an infant whom I needed to nurse at that time, and if I didn’t feed him, I’d be extremely uncomfortable. … The staffer didn’t care.” Because of Senate rules, she couldn’t hand her child to a staffer while she voted, nor could she bring him onto the Senate floor with her. So Gillibrand got permission to hover at the threshold of a door to the Senate floor, holding her son while leaning her head in to vote.
In all of these ways, the institutional rules and culture of the Senate have served as barriers to remind women that they are intruders into what was, until quite recently, an all-male space. That’s why senator Duckworth’s new bill is such an important step. It signals to female senators that having a child is no longer considered a pre-existing condition that prevents them from doing their jobs.
At least some senators welcomed the cultural shift. “I think it would do us good, every once in a while, to see a pacifier next to the antique inkwells on our desks, or a diaper bag next to a brass spittoon that hasn’t been used in decades,” Illinois senator Dick Durbin said in a statement. “Perhaps the cry of a baby will shock this Senate into speaking up and even crying out on the issues that confront our nation and world.” And senator Marco Rubio said he was unconcerned about the Senate being overrun by infants. “Why would I object to it?” he joked. “We have plenty of babies on the floor.”
Inspired by NASA’s partnerships with companies like SpaceX, the Department of Defense is turning to the private sector for a contest meant to accelerate the process of putting small satellites in space.
Southwest Airlines on Tuesday (April 17) experienced the first accident-related fatality on a US passenger airline since 2009 after an engine failure. Now the Associated Press and Reuters report that Southwest had previously opposed a recommendation by its engine manufacturer to inspect fan blades within 12 months, arguing that it needed more time for the inspections.
The revelation, reported today (April 19), comes a day after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would order inspections on the fan blades of some CFM56 engines made by CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric and French company Safran SA.
According to federal investigators, a fan blade on the Southwest jet broke off mid-flight, causing the CFM56 engine to explode and debris to shatter a window. The passenger seated by that window later died. The blade that broke off showed signs of metal fatigue, the weakening of metal from repeated use that can result in microscopic cracks.
The US National Transportation Safety Board said metal fatigue was the cause of another case of engine failure on a Southwest plane two years prior. In August 2016, a Southwest jet was forced to make an emergency landing in Pensacola, Florida, after a fan blade had separated from the CFM56 engine. It was after that incident that CFM had recommended ultrasonic inspections on some fan blades within 12 months to look for cracks.
Southwest, however, said airlines needed 18 months to perform the inspections and that only some of the 24 blades should be checked, according to Reuters. Southwest was not the only airline to oppose the recommendation.
“SWA does NOT support the CFM comment on reducing compliance time to 12 months,” the airline wrote in a comment to the FAA.
Jim Bridenstine, perhaps the most politically controversial NASA administrator in history, was confirmed today (April 19) on a party-line vote in the Senate, giving the US space agency a permanent leader for the first time in 15 months.
The 50-49 vote puts the Oklahoma congressman in charge of the sprawling space agency and its $20-billion annual budget.
While NASA administrators in recent memory were confirmed unanimously, Bridenstine’s nomination languished due to his lack of experience managing large organizations, his record as a conservative Republican who criticized climate-change research and LGBT Americans, and his reputed willingness to shake up NASA’s culture. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat long influential on space issues, led the opposition to Bridenstine.
Why Bridenstine sparked debate
A procedural vote to move his nomination forward nearly failed yesterday when Arizona Republican Jeff Flake opposed it to win concessions on unrelated issues, then gave in under pressure from party leadership. The imminent retirement of Robert Lightfoot, a longtime NASA civil servant who has been the agency’s interim leader since January 2017, increased pressure on the key Republican hold-out, Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio also wanted to avoid intra-party scuffles ahead of the critical 2018 senate race in Florida that pits Republican governor Rick Scott against Nelson, senate sources tell Quartz.
Bridenstine has won over advocates of a more efficient NASA that relies on private companies to get to space, who see him as a potential change-maker, and also some non-partisan figures like Bill Nye, the science educator and CEO of the Planetary Society. He also walked back his harsh words for climate change and Americans with different identities than his.
Bridenstine, a long-time aerospace enthusiast and former Marine aviator, won’t be the first administrator without deep knowledge of engineering and spaceflight. But he lacks the managerial experience boasted by previous administrators like Sean O’Keefe, who had run the Navy’s Pentagon bureaucracy and led the federal budget process, or the legendary James Webb, who had also been a budget director and undersecretary at the State Department. Bridenstine’s tenure in charge of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum was at best a failure of fiscal management, and the nonprofit’s support of a troubled aerial-racing venture Bridenstine had invested in raised allegations of self-dealing.
What he’ll need to get done at NASA
President Donald Trump re-constituted the National Space Council under vice president Mike Pence last year. The administration has been pushing for a broader, more coordinated strategy across government that leverages the investment of a new wave of private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, while using their competitive threat to push for cheaper and better service from the traditional prime contractors of the US space program such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Bridenstine’s initial challenge will be convincing US lawmakers to fund the president’s priorities at NASA, which Congress has proven reluctant to do. He will try to win over private sector and international partners for a mooted future moon habitat and figure out a plan for someone else to pay for the International Space Station. He will also supervise the return of human spaceflight to the US as Boeing and SpaceX prepare to fly astronauts in early 2019, and the completion of the Space Launch System to send an unmanned mission to the moon expected in December 2019.
Perhaps the biggest question on the minds of the space community, however, will be the identity of Bridenstine’s deputy at the agency, expected to be someone with far more experience in the space community. That person will play a vital role in making any change of direction at the space agency more than rhetoric.
Donald Trump and his advisors are increasingly worried that Michael Cohen—Trump’s longtime lawyer, whose home and offices were raided by the FBI last week—will be impelled to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
“They’re going to threaten him with a long prison term and try to turn him into a canary that sings,” Alan Dershowitz, who consulted with Trump and White House staff last week, told Politico.
Cohen has not yet been accused of any crimes, but the raid suggests that prosecutors believe they have overwhelming evidence of a crime or crimes. The former personal injury lawyer and longtime Trump Organization fixer, known for his combative verbal style, raised some eyebrows in the Trump administration when he said the federal agents raiding his office were “extremely professional, courteous and respectful.”
Quartz spoke with a criminal defense attorney who has extensive experience dealing with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and in high-profile cases where the government seeks to “flip” a defendant in order to target a more prominent target. The attorney, who has no direct knowledge of the Cohen case, requested anonymity in order to offer a more candid assessment of the situation.
How are the feds going to use what they have to get what they want? Based on what you know from other cases like this.
You think there are other cases like this?
Fair point. Let’s start with: Are prosecutors moving forward based on the evidence they already had on Cohen? Or on what they found in his offices?
I don’t have direct knowledge of this case. But I do know how federal prosecutors work.
I think they had enough for an arrest before they got the warrant, but they don’t know the extent of what it is. Now they’re filling in the blanks and tightening it up.
Because it all originated with Mueller. He went to the Southern District of New York 1 and said, “Here’s what I have. I don’t have a mandate to prosecute Cohen, but I’ve learned about other crimes committed in SDNY.”
What’s Mueller’s thinking there?
“I’ve got Trump’s guy in my crosshairs. But politically it’s a big problem because it’s outside of my mandate.” So he walks into the Southern District of New York, which has jurisdiction, and says, “Here’s what we have.” The SDNY is headed by [Geoffrey Berman] Trump’s hand-picked replacement for Preet [Bharara] 2.
And in the US Attorney’s manual, they have clear guidelines 3 about what you have to do to get a search warrant, and what you have to do to search a lawyer’s office. You have to have the approval of the US attorney themselves and the criminal division.
To go to the Southern District and get this warrant, you need an unbelievable amount of evidence. It’s a very high bar—not just to search an attorney’s office, but the attorney of the president, and you have to show there’s a legitimate belief that contraband or instrumentalities of the crime will be present. Practically, they would want to explain to the judge there’s a legitimate fear that the evidence might just disappear [with a subpoena]. 4
If Cohen lied on the home equity loan he says he took out to pay Stormy Daniels 5, how damning would that be? And would Trump be protected by attorney-client privilege in that case?
If it is about bank fraud, and you can make the connection to the Stormy Daniels payment, and Trump is complicit, then there would be a crime fraud exception 6 to privilege. But candidly, what I have been seeing in the media makes me wonder if there is any privilege at all, given the nature of the relationship.
If Cohen said “I’m going to take care of this for you,” then Trump is probably a co-conspirator. Or if Trump says “just make her go away.” Or, God forbid, Trump says “We can’t afford this right before the election.” That’s the one thing they didn’t have on John Edwards 7.
I would bet you a significant amount of money the Southern District of New York had way more than they needed to charge Cohen when they conducted the raid. They had him dead to rights before they obtained the warrant.
The warrant application probably said, “These are the crimes we believe Cohen has committed, and we believe the evidence of these crimes is contained there, because we have reason to believe he’s taping this conversations and is keeping the notes and ledgers of these conversations in his office.” Now they’re sifting through what they have to put icing on the cake.
What’s the process from here on out, starting with judge Kimba Wood’s forthcoming ruling?
A taint team is a completely separate group of lawyers from the DOJ—if you really wanted to carve them out, you’d get a team from the Eastern District, send the documents over there, and they’d make the determination of what is and is not privileged. Then they’d send the not-privileged stuff back to the Southern District.
If the judge goes with a special master, she will appoint someone like Louis Freeh 10,who would be perfect for this. Let his team of lawyers sort this out. Judge Wood could also pick someone like a retired federal judge, or a big name like Bob Bennett at Hogan Lovells, someone with unlimited resources, who could put 50 lawyers on it and get this done in a week.
How long will it really take?
Let’s say the taint team might get this thing done by July 1, and the special master gets it done Aug. 1. I don’t think it’s really going to make a difference. Then [prosecutors] have still have to fit the seized evidence into what they already had and put their case together.
I would expect they’re ready to do a reverse proffer 11 with Cohen in August. You’re going to want to get this right, because everybody’s watching. August or September, they’ll sit down with Cohen’s criminal lawyer and lay out just how bad it really is.
At this point, is it about the original suspected charges, or could it be anything?
Annnnnything. You get through the door because you’re looking at bank fraud, then you’re like holy shit, this is tax fraud, or money laundering, or FCPA stuff 12. Once the camel’s nose is under the tent, you can’t keep the camel out.
If you’ve got Cohen dead to rights, what do you do next?
Say you’re the SDNY and everything comes back and you confirm that there is an airtight case of bank fraud, that gives them all the bargaining power in the world. You sit down with Cohen’s people and say: “We’re going to indict you on bank fraud, on campaign finance violations, on tax fraud, on wire fraud, and on obstruction of justice or whatever else they found from the search. We are 100% certain of a conviction on bank wire fraud, it’s as clear as the hand in front of your face. I’m definitely going to win on these.”
You make the pitch: “I’ve got you on this stuff. You’re either going to plead on this, or I’m going to indict you.” And Cohen says, “if you’re going to indict me, why should I plead?” And you say, “if you make us indict you and go to trial I’m also going to add the campaign finance and the tax fraud and who knows what else. I won’t add this stuff if you plea, but your plea requires that you debrief on this other thing—POTUS 13.”
There’s stuff prosecutors know you’re gonna get, and stuff that’s a little more iffy, and that’s how the negotiation goes. And the big divide, the big factor—and it’s the same for Manafort 14—is how the sentence is calculated.
2b1.1 is the section of the sentencing guideline that will drive the negotiations. Bank fraud, wire fraud, all of the frauds, the loss tables lay out how the numbers drive the jail time. Over $100,000, over a million, etc.
And what’s the number going to be?
You may think, ok, Stormy Daniels, the bank fraud amount is $130,000. But the fraud could actually be the total value of the house on which the loan was based. If your house is worth $1 million, the fraud could be $1 million. What the government is allowed to use for a loss is so, so unfair. It’s not actual loss, it’s potential loss, the biggest number that it’s touching. The tax fraud, it’s not the $5,000 you cheated on, it’s the $500,000 you filed on.
So they’ll add those things together and then threaten Cohen, “If you are convicted, we’re going to get a restitution order and take every goddamn thing you own: your house, your car, your watch.”
However, if you agree to forfeit $150,000 and plead to bank fraud and cooperate, then you could be looking at any sentence, even probation. That’s cooperation credit, 5k1.1, what they call substantial assistance to the prosecution.
Almost every federal judge in the country will follow a sentencing recommendation on the guidelines and if Cohen is looking at a big number, he is going to go to jail. The only way to get out of that is to get the cooperation credit. I’ve had a guy go from a guideline range of 30 years to a sentence of probation because he pled and cooperated.
So then how would SDNY loop back and connect Cohen’s cooperation to the special counsel investigation?
Let’s say SDNY have Cohen at their mercy: “Look dude, do you want to do 10 plus years, or six months? Be financially crippled, or pay $150,000? Those are your options.” When you come in—remember the movie Goonies, when they grab Chunk and hold his hand over the blender, “Tell us everything”? That’s what it is when you go in and cooperate. You just—blergh, spew everything and let them sort out what they want. Everything you tell, you get credit for.
He can roll over on his neighbor, his accountant, his mistress, anyone that is committing or has committed a federal crime. But of course, what they really want is Trump.
Sometimes there is an intermediate step—an attorney proffer. If Cohen’s lawyer comes in and says, “he can give you X, what are we looking at?” The prosecutor says, “if he can give us X, I think we’re looking at a plea to one count of false statements and—no promises on the sentence, wink wink—and then we’ll see where we are.”
With obstruction, you’re now down from a 20-year to a 5-year offense, and there’s no loss calculation with false statement, it’s just a better deal all around. Look at Michael Flynn 15. He went from FARA 16 and who knows what else (including charges against his son) to one count of false statements. Same for Gates 17. He pled to one conspiracy and one false statement, even after indictment. Both gave themselves a real chance to avoid jail all together.
Now the real genius part, after Cohen comes in and gives it all up.
The SDNY prosecutors say “oh, this is so interesting! This sounds like something that’s within the mandate of Bob Mueller! So crazy! We should call someone on Bob Mueller’s team and tell them we have something they should hear!”
Mueller then has a perfect response to anyone who accuses him of violating his mandate, “Hey, I got a call out of the blue from the SDNY about that case referral I gave them. This Republican Trump appointee called me and said ‘I’ve got a guy in my office who’s profferring, you should hear what he’s got to say.’”
What could anyone on Fox News or in Congress say—that he should hang up the phone?
So this is a diabolical move by Mueller?
Basically, Bob Mueller is playing three-dimensional chess, and Trump is playing tiddlywinks. Mueller is pummeling the shit out of him, and every lawyer on the planet can see it.
Here’s how I know: Every lawyer I know who has been contacted by the White House has represented terrible people in the past, and they all said, “no thanks.” 18
Two reasons: One is the traditional stuff, he’s a terrible client who won’t listen and won’t pay—a disaster combo. The second reason is the stink of it. Their job is not to divine who’s good and who’s bad—defense attorneys ensure that even the most disgusting among us get due process.
But this has other value judgements—no one wants to take a case with all these other headaches and go down in flames in front of the entire world. Be associated with this guy, spend all your time and not get paid, alienate all of your other clients (current and future) and lose dramatically? There is just no upside. Those with the big names already don’t need it and the up and comers don’t want all the risks.
It’s one thing to take a case that’s really tough, we all do that every day. It’s an entirely different thing to take hold of a fucking rock and jump off a ship and sink to the bottom.
Update: Shortly after this interview was published, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was previously the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, joined Trump’s legal team. He told the Washington Post: “I’m doing it because I hope we can negotiate an end to this for the good of the country.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Whichever way you look at it, the wealth inequality gap between black and white Americans is staggering. It’s far worse than income inequality, and one of the reasons why racial inequality hasn’t improved in the US over the past 50 years, and in some ways has gotten even worse. In the US, the average black family has just one-tenth of the wealth of the average white household.
Black Americans living near the poverty line have, on average, zero net wealth—that is, their debts and other liabilities are about equal to their assets. White Americans near poverty, by contrast, have on average $18,000 of wealth, a much more considerable safety net. At the other end of the spectrum, blacks make up less than 2% of America’s wealthiest 1%. The average black family in the top 1% is worth about $1.6 million, but white families in the top 1% are worth on average $12 million. In the US, fewer than 2% of black households are millionaires or better, compared with 15% of white households.
These figures come from a new study published this week (pdf) by William Darity Jr. of Duke University, Darrick Hamilton of The New School, and others, which uses vast amounts of wealth data to dismantle some long-held beliefs about the best ways to address inequality. Conventional ideas include promoting greater educational attainment, hard work, better financial decisions, and “other changes in habits and practices on the part of blacks.”
“There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the racial wealth gap,” the researchers conclude. Instead, concerted financial intervention by the government is needed.
While higher levels of educational attainment can improve an individual’s income to some extent, the evidence suggests that even college can’t improve inequality. In the US, a college-educated black person has less wealth than a white person with less than a high school education.
One of the other “myths” the study seeks to debunk is that boosting homeownership rates among black Americans will improve wealth inequality. Federal Reserve data from the past two decades show a consistently large gap in homeownership rates by race.
However, closing this gap doesn’t address wealth inequality because it fails to acknowledge the racial gap in home values as well. In 2016, the median value of the primary residence of a white household was $200,000, versus $124,000 for the typical black household.
This disparity in housing values can be traced back to the US’s history of blatantly racist housing policies such as redlining, discrimination in federal home loan subsidy programs, and things like contract buying schemes. (This short video explains it all.) Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, residential segregation still persists.
“Inequality is preserved by policy and often created by policy; I would contend it’s a major source of racial inequality in the United States,” said Thomas Shapiro, the author of Toxic Inequality, in a speech at the London School of Economics this year.
Shapiro’s research for the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University has tracked the wealth of the same group of families over the past 25 years. Among these families, he said, the largest driver of inequality was housing, namely the differences in home values. At the speech in London, he said:
The ceiling of that accumulation is much greater in communities that tend to be homogenous white and communities that tend to be homogenous in terms of upper or upper-middle class status. And the foundation of that in the United States is persistent residential segregation, where communities are divided by race, ethnicity, and by socioeconomic status. The real estate market reflects that. That’s how value is created in that particular set of institution dynamics.
Policy continues to play a role, he argued, because the tax system is used to redistribute wealth to the rich by subsidizing homeownership. The government puts far more money into subsidies for mortgages than supporting renters or people who live in affordable housing, for example.
The disparity in home equity makes addressing wealth inequality through homeownership more complicated. Darity Jr. says that the focus of federal intervention should be to help black people increase their wealth in general, and then let them decide if they want to put that wealth into homeownership. “You can’t get into the homeownership game with significant equity in your home unless you already have wealth,” Darity Jr. told Quartz.
It’s important to consider wealth, then, independent of homeownership. Black Americans have a larger portion of their wealth in housing than white Americans. The disparity here matters when you consider that the median net worth of a black homeowner is less than the median value of a black home. That’s to say that other household liabilities eat into black families’ home equity. The same cannot be said for the average white household.
To address wealth inequality, “America must undergo a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies,” the report states. The authors recommend a reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws, or policies that seek to address wealth inequality among all Americans, with outcomes that would disproportionately benefit black Americans on account of their extraordinarily low levels of wealth.
But while the data show that more needs to be done to address racial inequality, particularly in housing, there is a worrying change of tone at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under Trump-appointed secretary Ben Carson, the department has scaled back enforcement of fair housing laws and is considering changing the department’s mission statement to remove references to promoting “inclusive” communities that are “free from discrimination.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 3% of black households are millionaires or better. In fact, fewer than 2% are.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos disclosed on Wednesday (Apr. 18) that the Prime program has more than 100 million members. But buried in the company’s latest financial disclosures was an even more revealing number.
In Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Dr. Evil’s team briefly abandons its traditional hostage-taking tactics and conspires to instead take over the world by investing in Starbucks.
Nineteen years later, it’s not quite so funny. Starbucks bills itself as “a third place between work and home.” It’s a private company that markets itself as a public space, marketing its coffee shops as venues where people can meet, relax, and work for hours on end. Starbucks has integrated itself into our lives, increasingly influencing how we gather in public. As two recent instances of racial discrimination show, though, it doesn’t offer its spaces to all equally.
The rise of coffee houses
The influence of coffee shops on society is not a modern phenomenon; the rise of coffee houses in 18th-century Britain has been credited with facilitating democratic discourse and the rise of a bourgeois class. But the coffee-shop landscape in earlier centuries was considerably different. By the first decade of the 1700s, there were 3,000 coffee houses in London alone, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote in his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, but there was no single, giant, uniform coffee chain.
Men from the middle and upper classes went to these independent coffee houses to discuss literature and debate politics. Newspapers were passed around—two publications, Tatler and The Spectator, began as coffee-house periodicals—and coffee houses became the bedrock of the public sphere.
“The coffee house not merely made access to the relevant circles less formal and easier; it embraced the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers,” wrote Habermas. Because of their diverse clientele and facilitation of political debate, coffee houses “were considered seedbeds of political unrest,” he wrote.
Today, Starbucks has built its business by co-opting this legacy. “Modern democratic debate began at the coffee house,” says Kazys Varnelis, historian of architecture and director of research nonprofit Netlab. “Starbucks, if anything, is trying to recapture that time.”
The rules for who could linger in a coffee house may not have been any less discriminatory in the 18th century than they are today—no women were allowed in these men’s only spaces—but they were certainly clearer. Varnelis explains that it wasn’t necessary to buy food or even coffee 200 or 300 years ago, but everyone had to pay an entrance fee: one penny. “They were called ‘penny universities’ because of the idea they were alternative educational structures,” he says.
It isn’t clear how everyone came to agree on the one-penny admission fee, but it was transparently and widely known. The rules on how Starbucks treats its customers, by contrast, are corporate and opaque, “It’s not one person, it’s an entity. We don’t know the rules,” says Varnelis. “It would be good if they did have some kind of clarity. I often wonder, what does it mean to use a toilet in a place where you don’t buy anything?” Starbucks hasn’t published clear rules on whether it allows people to use the toilet without buying anything or how long someone can stay after buying the cheapest coffee on the menu. In practice, Starbucks employees are often too busy to actually keep track of who buys is what, but as the latest videos show, store managers can take it upon themselves to kick people out.
How corporate ownership changes the coffee house
Starbucks is an international corporation and its cafes feel that way. There are none of the local quirks or communal conversations that there would have been in earlier coffee houses that served as the foundations of the public sphere. Nor can Starbucks truly be home to political debate and dissent, as coffee houses were in the 18th century. Whereas an individual cafe owner might be happy to allow boisterous political debates to hold forth on their venue, Starbucks store managers will always be thinking of their supervisors’ view, and inevitably trying to mute outlandish behavior. Holding a meeting of the socialist league at Starbucks “isn’t going to work out for anybody,” says Varnelis.
This may seem inconsequential to all but those planning immediate grassroots political movements, but public space is essential for community, quality of life, and democratic public discourse. “Is it uncomfortable that they pretend to be public or an extension of our homes when they aren’t. It appears to be public, it appears to be ours, and yet it isn’t. It’s a for-profit institution,” says Varnelis.
Starbucks’ mimicry of public space is successful in part because of the erosion of genuine public space. “There’s the expansion of places that appear to be public but really are private,” says Varnelis. Venues where people can gather in public are increasingly rare as governments allow private companies to manage parks and permit restaurants to spill onto the sidewalk, creating privately owned public spaces. People go to Starbucks to use the restroom because, quite simply, there’s nowhere else to go.
In some cases, the coffee chain has attempted to emulate its 18th-century predecessors’ role as sociocultural catalyst. In 2015, Starbucks launched a “Race Together” campaign, which encouraged customers to talk about race in America, but was disparaged as a facile response to a complex issue. It was one of many signs that the company cannot credibly take on the sort of public role that these sorts of initiatives suggest while operating as private corporation with opaque rules.
If Starbucks wants to function as a private company, it can demand that customers buy something whenever they enter. If it wants to be a public space, it should expect people to use the restroom and linger in the seats—and publicize clear rules around this sort of usage. Starbucks will never be a true public venue, as the chain will always have to please its corporate owners first. But, in claiming to be a “third place,” Starbucks turns a shallow imitation of public space into a privatized commodity that we have to pay to use.
French president Emmanuel Macron finally visited Angela Merkel in Berlin today (April 19) to get things rolling on his European reform proposals.
First stop was the building site of the new city palace—a fitting backdrop, since Macron wants to rebuild a better EU, and the German chancellor is trying to build consensus among her obstinate conservative bloc on how far Berlin is willing to go to back him.
Macron presented his European vision to the EU parliament in Strasbourg this week, with a plea for “EU-wide sovereignty.” He wants complete reform of the EU banking system, a dedicated EU finance minister, and to transform the EU bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund that would aid member states.
Merkel told reporters that Europe could only achieve its interests together, adding “we need an open debate and, in the end, the ability to compromise.” Still, she looks set to trim Macron’s ambitions to fit the demands of her government.
The chancellor, now in her fourth term and weakened by a disappointing election result for her Christian Democratic Union and six months of coalition negotiations, is grappling with a belligerent sister party, the Christian Social Union. CSU leader Horst Seehofer is determined to move the party further right and re-capture the voters it lost to the far-right Alternative for Germany.
Opposition to Macron’s plans is already vocal in Berlin. Senior CSU leader Alexander Dobrindt said: “We are opposed to an EU finance minister.” CDU parliamentarian Ralph Brinkhaus asked: “Why should the euro zone, in addition to the European Union, have an extra budget?”
Yesterday, Merkel told lawmakers from her CDU/CSU alliance that she wasn’t against a European Monetary Fund, but that it may require a new EU treaty and approval by national parliaments—a long, painful process. The parties also demanded that Germany have the right to impose tough conditions on how the current EU bailout fund would be transformed.
Macron has much work to do courting Berlin before the big EU summit in June, because without Germany, his reforms simply won’t succeed.
Why are these dinos creeping around people’s homes? What do they want? How’d they get in there without breaking anything? The trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has a lot of explaining to do.
Universal Pictures released the final trailer for the upcoming Jurassic World sequel yesterday (April 19), and it wildly changed perceptions of what the film is about. Previous trailers focused on Chris Pratt’s expert raptor trainer Owen Grady returning to the infamous dino-infested Isla Nublar for reasons that seemed foggy at best: ostensibly to save the remaining prehistoric creatures from a large volcanic eruption.
But the new trailer makes clear that Grady’s (apparently botched) rescue operation only constitutes the very beginning of the film. From there, he unwittingly helps bring the dinosaurs back to human society, where they do things like chill out on rooftops and lurk outside your bedroom window the way a masked intruder in a home invasion film would.
The horror-film aesthetic of Fallen Kingdom confirms that Universal has sadly chosen not to go with one of our suggestions for the sequel from 2015, which included a pitch in which the dinosaurs enslave and then clone Chris Pratt, opening up a theme park of their own: Chris Pratt World. Fortunately, Universal has already announced plans for a Jurassic World 3 (tentatively slated for June 2021), so there’s still time for the franchise to use our idea.
While “Jurassic Park meets Halloween” may be a silly premise, it’s probably better than the alternative: yet another film that takes place on Isla Nublar, the setting of both Jurassic World and the original Jurassic Park. It makes no sense that humans would continue hanging around the site of so much death and destruction—except, of course, to rescue the dinosaurs and bring them back to populated areas so that they can munch on people in their homes.
Fallen Kingdom looks like it’ll fit in nicely with the recent spate of “creature features,” including Rampage and The Meg—two films featuring extremely large predators wreaking havoc upon humanity. Those films could generously be called Jurassic Park homages, taking the genre to its logical extreme. And the longer the Jurassic World series goes on, the more they resemble its preposterous knock-offs.
Universal is fine with that, so long as the dino flicks still rake in lots of cash. 2015’s Jurassic World made $1.6 billion globally, making it the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time. Fallen Kingdom likely won’t hit that mark, but a billion is still a good bet.
Legal weed is having its moment in the US.
All but four states have legalized cannabis in some form, and the US pot market is booming. It took in almost $9 billion in legal sales in 2017. And that’s before California, the most populous state, opened its massive retail market on Jan. 1, which is estimated to reach $5.1 billion alone this year.
Marijuana is also gaining traction among the political class—Vermont became the first state to pass legalization through its legislature in January; New Jersey governor Phil Murphy won with cannabis as a central issue of his campaign platform and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon appears to be following his lead.
More Americans then ever support legalizing weed
As more states move to legalize, public support for marijuana is at an all-time high. Sixty-one percent of Americans favor of legalizing cannabis in some form according to Pew Research. That’s nearly double the number of those who supported legalization in 2000.
The growing destigmatization of marijuana may be the reason it’s the most commonly used illicit drug in the US. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 24 million Americans, 9% of the population, aged 12 or older were monthly cannabis users in 2016.
A 2017 Marist-Yahoo poll puts monthly-use puts estimates even higher, at 14 % of Americans 18 and older.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year Justice Department may step up enforcement in jurisdictions that have legalized the drug. Despite the threat of federal prohibition, legalization is gaining traction as state governments eye hundred of millions of dollars in potential tax revenue that could go towards funding schools and infastructure.
Are more people smoking weed than before?
Yes and no.
Around the world, pot use has been pretty flat. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2015 about 4% of the global population had used cannabis in the past year, a percentage that hasn’t changed for a decade.
And marijuana use is increasing significantly in the United States. The UNOFC estimates that pot use among Americans 12 and older increased by 34% from 2007 to 2015. And the highest increase in new users isn’t among kids or college students—it’s among adults over 26, a trend that’s been increasing since 2002.
The UN says the primary increase has been in regular and heavy pot smokers, which nearly doubled between 2002 and 2015. And potheads may have reason to be optimistic: So far, studies of drug use in states with legal weed haven’t revealed any significant negative effects, and in some cases, has even shown health benefits.
April 20 marks the unofficial high holiday of stoner culture, when marijuana enthusiasts around the world celebrate the fine art of smoking pot (or eating it or vaping it or drinking it). This has been a huge year for marijuana legalization, and there are more places to legally light up on 4/20 than ever.
The origins of the term 420 (pronounced “four-twenty”) are a bit hazy. Urban myths swirled for years that 420 was California state penal code for marijuana use, or numbers from a Bob Dylan song multiplied, or even related to Hitler’s birthday. All wrong.
The best evidence points to a group of California high schoolers known as “The Waldos“ who in the early 1970s would meet up after school every day at 4:20pm to get high. The term was then picked up by Grateful Dead followers and spread globally with the help of counter-culture publications like High Times.
What was once a secret code in stoner circles is now so mainstream corporate brands get in on it. This year, Lyft is offering riders in states where marijuana is legal a $4.20 discount. Restaurant chain Hooters is celebrating the release of the sequel to the cult stoner comedy Super Troopers on 4/20 with limited edition “Snozzberry Sauce.”
Where is weed legal in the United States in 2018?
Marijuana is legal in some form in 46 US states, though the majority only allow use for medical purposes.
For Americans who want to spark up legally on 4/20, recreational use is allowed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington DC (with Vermont to follow later this year).
It’s been a landmark year for marijuana legalization in the US, despite the best efforts of attorney general Jeff Sessions.
On Jan. 1, California opened the world’s largest legal market for recreational marijuana, which is estimated to reach $5.1 billion this year (researchers have compared the growth rate of the legal weed market to broadband internet in the early 2000s).
Then, Vermont became the first state legislature to legalize recreational marijuana (as opposed to by voter referendum). It will take effect in July. The law doesn’t allow sales, only possession and growing, though governor Phil Scott has ordered an advisory board to study regulating and taxing a legal marketplace.
The US is now home to a growing multibillion-dollar pot industry that isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and elected officials have seen the benefits marijuana tax revenue brings to fund schools and infrastructure.
Colorado senator Cory Gardner staunchly criticized the US Justice Department’s January decision to rescind an Obama-era memo discouraging prosecutors from pursuing cases in states where legalization had passed. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy proved it was possible to run a successful political campaign with marijuana legalization as a central issue, and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon appears to be following his lead (her campaign website even has a $4.20 donation button).
Where is weed legal around the world?
Recreational pot use is gaining acceptance around the globe, though there are still relatively few places where it is fully legal.
- Uruguay became the first country to fully legalize marijuana in 2013 and last year began allowing sales in local pharmacies (though purchase is limited to citizens).
- Canada is drafting regulations to have a system for legal recreational cannabis use for adults in place by July.
- In Peru possession of marijuana isn’t punished as long as it’s for personal, private, immediate use. A bill in October will legalize medical marijuana, allowing the production, sale, and importation of cannabis oil.
- Spain has a very laid-back attitude when it comes to weed, and its citizens aren’t penalized for growing or consuming privately. Sale is technically illegal, but there more than 800 (link in Spanish) “private” cannabis clubs where membership requires nothing more than a bit of paperwork.
- Marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but authorities will generally turn a blind eye. Selling cannabis is “illegal but not punishable” so officials tolerate it as long as shops follow certain rules, like not advertising or causing a nuisance. Only citizens are allowed to buy marijuana, though Amsterdam’s infamous coffeeshops are exempt from that rule.
Kindland has a list of all the places around the world where marijuana is legal or has been decriminalized.
The other was that more than half of the stuff sold on Amazon in 2017 came from third-party sellers, not Amazon.
Amazon’s third-party marketplace has helped thousands of small and medium-sized businesses reach shoppers online. But it also gets Amazon into trouble with both brands and shoppers over counterfeits and plainly inappropriate products. The bigger it gets, the bigger the problem is likely to get.
Here’s what the CEO says in his letter:
In 2017, for the first time in our history, more than half of the units sold on Amazon worldwide were from our third-party sellers, including small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Over 300,000 U.S.-based SMBs started selling on Amazon in 2017, and Fulfillment by Amazon shipped billions of items for SMBs worldwide…Our Global Selling program (enabling SMBs to sell products across national borders) grew by over 50% in 2017 and cross-border ecommerce by SMBs now represents more than 25% of total third-party sales.
The sheer size of that marketplace, though, makes it impossible for Amazon to police every product that goes up for sale. Earlier this year Amazon had to pull children’s clothing posted by a third party that read, “Slavery gets shit done,” set against a backdrop of Egypt’s pyramids.
In a statement, Amazon said all its marketplace sellers “must follow our selling guidelines and those who don’t will be subject to action including potential removal of their account.” But it highlighted how much Amazon relies on the sellers to follow the rules themselves.
The company has also been fighting against people selling counterfeits on its marketplace. Birkenstock has publicly attacked Amazon and pulled its business from the site over the issue, and it accused Amazon of being complicit in profiting off the fakes. Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, made a similar claim over sales of fake Mercedes wheel center caps. (Amazon isn’t alone in this; Alibaba has faced similar accusations overs its Taobao marketplace.)
Customers may or may not know they’re buying fake products. Either way, the brands claim it’s causing serious damage to their image and reputation.
Amazon’s dominance in US e-commerce, much of which comes from its giant marketplace, gives it considerable leverage, too. Nike didn’t sell through Amazon directly until recently. It signed up partly in hopes that working with Amazon would give it more control over the sea of Nike products being sold by independent sellers on the site.
Meanwhile, the bigger its third-party marketplace gets, the more Amazon profits, and the harder it gets to monitor what’s for sale.
We humans are not a stagnant species.Take the Bajau (pronounced Bah-joe). They’re a group of about 5,000 people that have lived on one of Indonesia’s ‘s 17,500 islands for centuries. The Bajau they live close to the water and spend a lot of their time diving for food in the sea, a hydrophilic lifestyle that has left a genetic imprint on the population. In fact, a study published today (April 19), in the journal Cell, reports that the Bajau have evolved to have spleens that are 50% larger than those of us who spend more time on land.
Like all animals with backbones, humans have a physiological reaction (paywall) that kicks in any time we’re holding our breath and have our faces fully submerged in water. Expecting to have to cope with a severe lack of air in the near future, our hearts slow down and the veins near our extremities constrict, saving oxygenated blood-supply for our brains and hearts. Then, the spleen works its magic: It contracts like a stress ball to squeeze out a reserve of red blood cells, which can usually give us between 3% and 9.5% more oxygen than normal.
As a PhD candidate studying genetics at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, Melissa Ilardo heard about the Bajau and was intrigued. Diving is inherently dangerous; the longer a diver holds his breath, the more at risk he is of losing consciousness and drowning. Yet Bajau reportedly can reach 70 meters (about 230 feet) at once, and there are accounts of some divers holding their breaths for 13 minutes. She wondered if they’re diving skills weren’t due to regular practice, but rather to a genetic predisposition that gave them larger spleens.
Ilardo spent months in a coastal town called Jaya Bakti, where some love the sea so much they’ve built their homes on stilts above the water. “It was really important to me that it felt like a collaborative study [with the Bajau people],” says Ilardo. She learned their language, spent time on the island, and tried her best to learn about the culture. Eventually, she found locals who were interested in her work, and wanted to learn about their own genetics.
Ilardo took saliva samples from and performed ultrasounds on 43 Bajau people and 34 Saluan people, who live on a nearby island but are predominately farmers. She found that while Saluan people had an average spleen size of about 100 cubic centimeters, Bajau spleens averaged 150 cubic centimeters—about the size of a tennis ball.
There’s no human gene specifically associated with spleen size, so next she and her team combed through Bajau genes to find any that appeared more frequently compared to Saluan and Han Chinese genes, the latter of which was available through a public database from previously conducted research. They found 25 possible genetic candidates, and honed in on one specifically that appears to amplify a thyroid hormone called T4. Mice models show that T4 partially controls spleen size, leading the team to believe that this is a genetic link to the Bajau’s physiology.
Any kind of evolution depends on who is around and healthy enough to have kids. Although we don’t face the same kind of pressures in the wild, scientists are aware that there are some circumstances where some traits have been passed down more often than others. Take being able to digest milk: People with European ancestry are more likely to be lactose-tolerant than other populations, although scientists aren’t sure why. Some people living in Tibet have evolved to tolerate higher altitudes better than the average person. And groups of native people in Greenland are genetically predisposed to produce more enzymes capable of tolerating high-fat diets.
From a medical standpoint, this particular research on the Bajau can help illustrate why some people are better at surviving in low-oxygen settings than others. For example, during surgery, there are often short periods where patients have low oxygen levels; some are able to tolerate these moments better than others, and Ilardo thinks understanding their genetics could explain why.
More importantly, Ilardo’s team’s work highlights the need to work with minority populations. “There’s incredible genetic diversity [in Indonesia], and it’s really under-characterized,” she says. People who are not white are chronically omitted from medical research, which leaves huge holes in scientific literature.
On the evening of February 17, 2018, Professor Mary Beard posted on Twitter a photograph of herself crying. The eminent University of Cambridge classicist, who has almost 200,000 Twitter followers, was distraught after receiving a storm of abuse online. This was the reaction to a comment she had made about Haiti. She also tweeted: “I speak from the heart (and of cource (sic) I may be wrong). But the crap I get in response just isn’t on; really it isn’t.”
In the days that followed, Beard received support from several high-profile people. Greg Jenner, a fellow celebrity historian, tweeted about his own experience of a Twitterstorm: “I’ll always remember how traumatic it was to suddenly be hated by strangers. Regardless of morality—I may have been wrong or right in my opinion—I was amazed (later, when I recovered) at how psychologically destabilizing it was to me.”
Those tweeting support for Beard—irrespective of whether they agreed with her initial tweet that had triggered the abusive responses—were themselves then targeted. And when one of Beard’s critics, fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, a woman of Asian heritage, set out her response to Beard’s original tweet in an online article, she received her own torrent of abuse.
There is overwhelming evidence that women and members of ethnic minority groups are disproportionately the target of Twitter abuse. Where these identity markers intersect, the bullying can become particularly intense, as experienced by black female MP Diane Abbott, who alone received nearly half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs during the run-up to the 2017 UK general election. Black and Asian female MPs received on average 35% more abusive tweets than their white female colleagues even when Abbott was excluded from the total.
The constant barrage of abuse, including death threats and threats of sexual violence, is silencing people, pushing them off online platforms and further reducing the diversity of online voices and opinion. And it shows no sign of abating. A survey last year found that 40% of American adults had personally experienced online abuse, with almost half of them receiving severe forms of harassment, including physical threats and stalking. 70% of women described online harassment as a “major problem”.
The business models of social media platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, promote content that is more likely to get a response from other users because more engagement means better opportunities for advertising. But this has the consequence of favoring divisive and strongly emotive or extreme content, which can in turn nurture online “bubbles” of groups who reflect and reinforce each other’s opinions, helping propel the spread of more extreme content and providing a niche for “fake news”. In recent months, researchers have revealed many ways that various vested interests, including Russian operatives, have sought to manipulate public opinion by infiltrating social media bubbles.
Our human ability to communicate ideas across networks of people enabled us to build the modern world. The internet offers unparalleled promise of cooperation and communication between all of humanity. But instead of embracing a massive extension of our social circles online, we seem to be reverting to tribalism and conflict, and belief in the potential of the internet to bring humanity together in a glorious collaborating network now begins to seem naive. While we generally conduct our real-life interactions with strangers politely and respectfully, online we can be horrible. How can we relearn the collaborative techniques that enabled us to find common ground and thrive as a species?“There is a lot of evidence that cooperation is a central feature of human evolution.”
“Don’t overthink it, just press the button!”
I click an amount, impoverishing myself in an instant, and quickly move on to the next question, aware that we’re all playing against the clock. My teammates are far away and unknown to me. I have no idea if we’re all in it together or whether I’m being played for a fool, but I press on, knowing that the others are depending on me.
I’m playing in a so-called public goods game at Yale University’s Human Cooperation Lab. The researchers here use it as a tool to help understand how and why we cooperate, and whether we can enhance our prosocial behavior.
Over the years, scientists have proposed various theories about why humans cooperate so well that we form strong societies. The evolutionary roots of our general niceness, most researchers now believe, can be found in the individual survival advantage humans experience when we cooperate as a group. I’ve come to New Haven, Connecticut, in a snowy February, to visit a cluster of labs where researchers are using experiments to explore further our extraordinary impulse to be nice to others even at our own expense.
The game I’m playing, on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online platform, is one of the lab’s ongoing experiments. I’m in a team of four people in different locations, and each of us is given the same amount of money to play with. We are asked to choose how much money we will contribute to a group pot, on the understanding that this pot will then be doubled and split equally among us.
This sort of social dilemma, like all cooperation, relies on a certain level of trust that the others in your group will be nice. If everybody in the group contributes all of their money, all the money gets doubled, redistributed four ways, and everyone doubles their money. Win–win!
“But if you think about it from the perspective of an individual,” says lab director David Rand, “for each dollar that you contribute, it gets doubled to two dollars and then split four ways—which means each person only gets 50 cents back for the dollar they contributed.”
Even though everyone is better off collectively by contributing to a group project that no one could manage alone—in real life, this could be paying towards a hospital building, or digging a community irrigation ditch—there is a cost at the individual level. Financially, you make more money by being more selfish.
Rand’s team has run this game with thousands of players. Half of them are asked, as I was, to decide their contribution rapidly—within 10 seconds—whereas the other half are asked to take their time and carefully consider their decision. It turns out that when people go with their gut, they are much more generous than when they spend time deliberating.
“There is a lot of evidence that cooperation is a central feature of human evolution,” says Rand. Individuals benefit, and are more likely to survive, by cooperating with the group. And being allowed to stay in the group and benefit from it is reliant on our reputation for behaving cooperatively.
“In the small-scale societies that our ancestors were living in, all our interactions were with people that you were going to see again and interact with in the immediate future,” Rand says. That kept in check any temptation to act aggressively or take advantage and free-ride off other people’s contributions. “It makes sense, in a self-interested way, to be cooperative.”
Cooperation breeds more cooperation in a mutually beneficial cycle. Rather than work out every time whether it’s in our long-term interests to be nice, it’s more efficient and less effort to have the basic rule: be nice to other people. That’s why our unthinking response in the experiment is a generous one.
Throughout our lives, we learn from the society around us how cooperative to be. But our learned behaviors can also change quickly.
Those in Rand’s experiment who play the quickfire round are mostly generous and receive generous dividends, reinforcing their generous outlook. Whereas those who consider their decisions are more selfish, resulting in a meagre group pot, reinforcing an idea that it doesn’t pay to rely on the group. So, in a further experiment, Rand gave some money to people who had played a round of the game. They were then asked how much they wanted to give to an anonymous stranger. This time, there was no incentive to give; they would be acting entirely charitably.
It turned out there were big differences. The people who had got used to cooperating in the first stage gave twice as much money in the second stage as the people who had got used to being selfish did. “So we’re affecting people’s internal lives and behavior,” Rand says. “The way they behave even when no one’s watching and when there’s no institution in place to punish or reward them.”
Rand’s team have tested how people in different countries play the game, to see how the strength of social institutions—such as government, family, education and legal systems—influences behavior. In Kenya, where public sector corruption is high, players initially gave less generously to the stranger than players in the US, which has less corruption. This suggests that people who can rely on relatively fair social institutions behave in a more public-spirited way; those whose institutions are less reliable are more protectionist. However, after playing just one round of the cooperation-promoting version of the public goods game, the Kenyans’ generosity equalled the Americans’. And it cut both ways: Americans who were trained to be selfish gave a lot less.
So is there something about online social media culture that makes some people behave meanly? Unlike ancient hunter-gatherer societies, which rely on cooperation and sharing to survive and often have rules for when to offer food to whom across their social network, social media have weak institutions. They offer physical distance, relative anonymity and little reputational or punitive risk for bad behavior: if you’re mean, no one you know is going to see.
I trudge a couple of blocks through driving snow to find Molly Crockett’s Psychology Lab, where researchers are investigating moral decision-making in society. One area they focus on is how social emotions are transformed online, in particular moral outrage. Brain-imaging studies show that when people act on their moral outrage, their brain’s reward centre is activated—they feel good about it. This reinforces their behavior, so they are more likely to intervene in a similar way again. So, if they see somebody acting in a way that violates a social norm, by allowing their dog to foul a playground, for instance, and they publicly confront the perpetrator about it, they feel good afterwards. And while challenging a violator of your community’s social norms has its risks—you may get attacked—it also boosts your reputation.
In our relatively peaceful lives, we are rarely faced with outrageous behavior, so we rarely see moral outrage expressed. Open up Twitter or Facebook and you get a very different picture. Recent research shows that messages with both moral and emotional words are more likely to spread on social media—each moral or emotional word in a tweet increases the likelihood of it being retweeted by 20%.
“Content that triggers outrage and that expresses outrage is much more likely to be shared,” Crockett says. What we’ve created online is “an ecosystem that selects for the most outrageous content, paired with a platform where it’s easier than ever before to express outrage”.
Unlike in the offline world, there is no personal risk in confronting and exposing someone. It only takes a few clicks of a button and you don’t have to be physically nearby, so there is a lot more outrage expressed online. And it feeds itself. “If you punish somebody for violating a norm, that makes you seem more trustworthy to others, so you can broadcast your moral character by expressing outrage and punishing social norm violations,” Crockett says. “And people believe that they are spreading good by expressing outrage—that it comes from a place of morality and righteousness.”
“When you go from offline—where you might boost your reputation for whoever happens to be standing around at the moment—to online, where you broadcast it to your entire social network, then that dramatically amplifies the personal rewards of expressing outrage.”
This is compounded by the feedback people get on social media, in the form of likes and retweets and so on. “Our hypothesis is that the design of these platforms could make expressing outrage into a habit, and a habit is something that’s done without regard to its consequences—it’s insensitive to what happens next, it’s just a blind response to a stimulus,” Crockett explains.
“I think it’s worth having a conversation as a society as to whether we want our morality to be under the control of algorithms whose purpose is to make money for giant tech companies,” she adds. “I think we would all like to believe and feel that our moral emotions, thoughts and behaviors are intentional and not knee-jerk reactions to whatever is placed in front of us that our smartphone designer thinks will bring them the most profit.”
On the upside, the lower costs of expressing outrage online have allowed marginalized, less-empowered groups to promote causes that have traditionally been harder to advance. Moral outrage on social media played an important role in focusing attention on the sexual abuse of women by high-status men. And in February 2018, Florida teens railing on social media against yet another high-school shooting in their state helped to shift public opinion, as well as shaming a number of big corporations into dropping their discount schemes for National Rifle Association members.
“I think that there must be ways to maintain the benefits of the online world,” says Crockett, “while thinking more carefully about redesigning these interactions to do away with some of the more costly bits.”Much antisocial behavior online stems from the anonymity of internet interactions—the reputational costs of being mean are much lower than offline.
Someone who’s thought a great deal about the design of our interactions in social networks is Nicholas Christakis, director of Yale’s Human Nature Lab, located just a few more snowy blocks away. His team studies how our position in a social network influences our behavior, and even how certain influential individuals can dramatically alter the culture of a whole network.
The team is exploring ways to identify these individuals and enlist them in public health programs that could benefit the community. In Honduras, they are using this approach to influence vaccination enrolment and maternal care, for example. Online, such people have the potential to turn a bullying culture into a supportive one.
Corporations already use a crude system of identifying so-called Instagram influencers to advertise their brands for them. But Christakis is looking not just at how popular an individual is, but also their position in the network and the shape of that network. In some networks, like a small isolated village, everyone is closely connected and you’re likely to know everyone at a party; in a city, by contrast, people may be living more closely by as a whole, but you are less likely to know everyone at a party there. How thoroughly interconnected a network is affects how behaviors and information spread around it, he explains.
“If you take carbon atoms and you assemble them one way, they become graphite, which is soft and dark. Take the same carbon atoms and assemble them a different way, and it becomes diamond, which is hard and clear. These properties of hardness and clearness aren’t properties of the carbon atoms—they’re properties of the collection of carbon atoms and depend on how you connect the carbon atoms to each other,” he says. “And it’s the same with human groups.”
Christakis has designed software to explore this by creating temporary artificial societies online. “We drop people in and then we let them interact with each other and see how they play a public goods game, for example, to assess how kind they are to other people.”
Then he manipulates the network. “By engineering their interactions one way, I can make them really sweet to each other, work well together, and they are healthy and happy and they cooperate. Or you take the same people and connect them a different way and they’re mean jerks to each other and they don’t cooperate and they don’t share information and they are not kind to each other.”
In one experiment, he randomly assigned strangers to play the public goods game with each other. In the beginning, he says, about two-thirds of people were cooperative. “But some of the people they interact with will take advantage of them and, because their only option is either to be kind and cooperative or to be a defector, they choose to defect because they’re stuck with these people taking advantage of them. And by the end of the experiment everyone is a jerk to everyone else.”
Christakis turned this around simply by giving each person a little bit of control over who they were connected to after each round. “They had to make two decisions: am I kind to my neighbors or am I not; and do I stick with this neighbor or do I not.” The only thing each player knew about their neighbors was whether each had cooperated or defected in the round before. “What we were able to show is that people cut ties to defectors and form ties to cooperators, and the network rewired itself and converted itself into a diamond-like structure instead of a graphite-like structure.” In other words, a cooperative prosocial structure instead of an uncooperative structure.
In an attempt to generate more cooperative online communities, Christakis’s team have started adding bots to their temporary societies. He takes me over to a laptop and sets me up on a different game. In this game, anonymous players have to work together as a team to solve a dilemma that tilers will be familiar with: each of us has to pick from one of three colours, but the colours of players directly connected to each other must be different. If we solve the puzzle within a time limit, we all get a share of the prize money; if we fail, no one gets anything. I’m playing with at least 30 other people. None of us can see the whole network of connections, only the people we are directly connected to—nevertheless, we have to cooperate to win.
I’m connected to two neighbors, whose colours are green and blue, so I pick red. My left neighbor then changes to red so I quickly change to blue. The game continues and I become increasingly tense, cursing my slow reaction times. I frequently have to switch my colour, responding to unseen changes elsewhere in the network, which send a cascade of changes along the connections. Time’s up before we solve the puzzle, prompting irate responses in the game’s comments box from remote players condemning everyone else’s stupidity. Personally, I’m relieved it’s over and there’s no longer anyone depending on my cackhanded gaming skills to earn money.
Christakis tells me that some of the networks are so complex that the puzzle is impossible to solve in the timeframe. My relief is shortlived, however: the one I played was solvable. He rewinds the game, revealing for the first time the whole network to me. I see now that I was on a lower branch off the main hub of the network. Some of the players were connected to just one other person, but most were connected to three or more. Thousands of people from around the world play these games on Amazon Mechanical Turk, drawn by the small fee they earn per round. But as I’m watching the game I just played unfold, Christakis reveals that three of these players are actually planted bots. “We call them ‘dumb AI’,” he says.
His team is not interested in inventing super-smart AI to replace human cognition. Instead, the plan is to infiltrate a population of smart humans with dumb-bots to help the humans help themselves.
“We wanted to see if we could use the dumb-bots to get the people unstuck so they can cooperate and coordinate a little bit more—so that their native capacity to perform well can be revealed by a little assistance,” Christakis says. He found that if the bots played perfectly, that didn’t help the humans. But if the bots made some mistakes, they unlocked the potential of the group to find a solution.
“Some of these bots made counter-intuitive choices. Even though their neighbors all had green and they should have picked orange, instead they also picked green.” When they did that, it allowed one of the green neighbors to pick orange, “which unlocks the next guy over, he can pick a different colour and, wow, now we solve the problem”. Without the bot, those human players would probably all have stuck with green, not realizing that was the problem. “Increasing the conflicts temporarily allows their neighbors to make better choices.”
By adding a little noise into the system, the bots helped the network to function more efficiently. Perhaps a version of this model could involve infiltrating the newsfeeds of partisan people with occasional items offering a different perspective, helping to shift people out of their social media comfort-bubbles and allow society as a whole to cooperate more.
Much antisocial behavior online stems from the anonymity of internet interactions—the reputational costs of being mean are much lower than offline. Here, bots may also offer a solution. One experiment found that the level of racist abuse tweeted at black users could be dramatically slashed by using bot accounts with white profile images to respond to racist tweeters. A typical bot response to a racist tweet would be: “Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.” Simply cultivating a little empathy in such tweeters reduced their racist tweets almost to zero for weeks afterwards.
Another way of addressing the low reputational cost for bad behavior online is to engineer in some form of social punishment. One game company, League of Legends, did that by introducing a “Tribunal” feature, in which negative play is punished by other players. The company reported that 280,000 players were “reformed” in one year, meaning that after being punished by the Tribunal they had changed their behavior and then achieved a positive standing in the community. Developers could also build in social rewards for good behavior, encouraging more cooperative elements that help build relationships.
Researchers are already starting to learn how to predict when an exchange is about to turn bad—the moment at which it could benefit from pre-emptive intervention. “You might think that there is a minority of sociopaths online, which we call trolls, who are doing all this harm,” says Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, at Cornell University’s Department of Information Science. “What we actually find in our work is that ordinary people, just like you and me, can engage in such antisocial behavior. For a specific period of time, you can actually become a troll. And that’s surprising.”
It’s also alarming. I mentally flick back through my own recent tweets, hoping I haven’t veered into bullying in some awkward attempt to appear funny or cool to my online followers. After all, it can be very tempting to be abusive to someone far away, who you don’t know, if you think it will impress your social group.
Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil has been investigating the comments sections below online articles. He identifies two main triggers for trolling: the context of the exchange—how other users are behaving—and your mood. “If you’re having a bad day, or if it happens to be Monday, for example, you’re much more likely to troll in the same situation,” he says. “You’re nicer on a Saturday morning.”
After collecting data, including from people who had engaged in trolling behavior in the past, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil built an algorithm that predicts with 80% accuracy when someone is about to become abusive online. This provides an opportunity to, for example, introduce a delay in how fast they can post their response. If people have to think twice before they write something, that improves the context of the exchange for everyone: you’re less likely to witness people misbehaving, and so less likely to misbehave yourself.
The good news is that, in spite of the horrible behavior many of us have experienced online, the majority of interactions are nice and cooperative. Justified moral outrage is usefully employed in challenging hateful tweets. A recent British study looking at anti-Semitism on Twitter found that posts challenging anti-Semitic tweets are shared far more widely than the anti-Semitic tweets themselves. Most hateful posts were ignored or only shared within a small echo chamber of similar accounts. Perhaps we’re already starting to do the work of the bots ourselves.
As Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil points out, we’ve had thousands of years to hone our person-to-person interactions, but only 20 years of social media. “Offline, we have all these cues from facial expressions to body language to pitch… whereas online we discuss things only through text. I think we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re having so much difficulty in finding the right way to discuss and cooperate online.”
As our online behavior develops, we may well introduce subtle signals, digital equivalents of facial cues, to help smooth online discussions. In the meantime, the advice for dealing with online abuse is to stay calm, it’s not your fault. Don’t retaliate but block and ignore bullies, or if you feel up to it, tell them to stop. Talk to family or friends about what’s happening and ask them to help you. Take screenshots and report online harassment to the social media service where it’s happening, and if it includes physical threats, report it to the police.
If social media as we know it is going to survive, the companies running these platforms are going to have to keep steering their algorithms, perhaps informed by behavioral science, to encourage cooperation rather than division, positive online experiences rather than abuse. As users, we too may well learn to adapt to this new communication environment so that civil and productive interaction remains the norm online as it is offline.
“I’m optimistic,” Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil says. “This is just a different game and we have to evolve.”
Advice and support on dealing with online abuse is available from a range of organizations, such as HeartMob, Stop Online Abuse, ConnectSafely, and the social media services themselves, for example Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Can a CEO be effective without having to make a lot of executive decisions?
Reed Hastings is living proof that it can be done. In an interview with TED curator Chris Anderson in Vancouver last week, the 57-year-old Netflix CEO and co-founder piqued the audience with his leadership philosophy: “I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter,” he said. “Sometimes I can go a whole quarter without making any decisions.”
The key, Hastings says, lies in giving each employee agency to make their own wise decisions on behalf of the organization.
That’s no throwaway line at a place like Netflix. The company, which was founded two decades ago and brought in $11.7 billion in revenue last year, ranks “independent decision-making by employees” as its top core value. The ideas of freedom and responsibility course through its oft-quoted Culture Deck: “We believe that people thrive on being trusted, on freedom, and on being able to make a difference…We are dedicated to constantly increasing employee freedom to fight the python of process.” This translates to an open leave policy, no set rules on expense accounts or travel, and no spending ceilings on contract signings. Good judgment, not administration, is the operating principle.
To create that sense of ownership, Hastings says, sharing information across the ranks is essential. “We’re like the anti-Apple,” he says. “You know how they compartmentalize? We do the opposite. [At Netflix,] everybody gets all the information. What we’re trying to do is build a sense of responsibility in people and empower them to do things.”
Hastings wasn’t always so chill about handing over the reins. Before Netflix, he led companies that were steeped in procedures. “The problem was we were trying to dummy-proof the system, and eventually only dummies wanted to work there,” he said. When he co-founded Netflix with serial entrepreneur Marc Randolph 20 years ago, they envisioned an organization that would run “with no process but no chaos.”
So far, their experiment in radical openness seems to be working. Netflix topped the rankings for employee satisfaction and employee pay from a 2017 study by Blind, a platform that conducts anonymous polls about employee experience. And Netflix’s growth—it now has 120 million subscribers all over the world except for in China, Crimea, North Korea, and Syria—continues to surprise Wall Street analysts.
Don’t expect Hastings to take all the credit, though. “I find out about big decisions that have been made all the time and I had never even heard about it—which is great!” he said on stage in Vancouver. “And mostly they go well.”
“So you wake up and read about it on the internet, like, oh we’re in China?” challenged Anderson. Hastings nodded. “Sometimes, yeah,” he said. “That would be a big one.”
A night in a hotel is, by definition, single-use. After each guest’s stay, the sheets are cleaned, the minibar restocked, a new keycard issued—with each individual amenity leaving its own impact on the environment.
Ian Schrager’s boutique luxury hotel chain EDITION Hotels, which is co-owned by Marriot, is trying to cut down on the most environmentally damaging of those resources: single-use plastic. In honor of Earth Day on April 22, they’ve pledged to eliminate single-use plastic from all their hotels by this time next year—and to serve as a leader in the hospitality industry for a plastic free moment-turned-movement.
The campaign has been spearheaded by EDITION’s vice president of brand experiences, Ben Pundole, who says he’s been inspired by the recent anti-plastic activism in the UK, spurred in part by Sir David Attenborough’s widely-viewed Blue Planet series.
“In the hospitably business, we don’t think about how many touch points there are, whether there’s a keycard, or a minibar, to-go food at the pool, or a toothbrush,” Pundole said, referring to places where the guest consumes something disposable. “And I realized I was in a position where I could effect some change.”
Pundole says EDITION’s four existing properties in London, New York, Miami, and Sanya, China have already seen radical reductions in plastic use; minibars, straws, toothbrushes, food containers, and coffee cup lids are just some of the swaps that have been made thus far. Pundole says there are a a few tricky hold-outs like keycards and bathroom amenities for which he’s still seeking—and intends to find—viable solutions. EDITION’s seven properties opening in the next 18 months, however, will be all plastic-free at launch.
While environmental campaigners have warned about the unsustainable nature of single-use plastic for years, Pundole says the current momentum around plastic feels different. Far from being seen as a frugal or inconvenient decision, he says ditching plastic is now seamlessly aligned with the new definition of luxury that EDITION’s guests expect. In other words, it’s less Nalgene water bottles and camping sporks and more S’well water bottles and bamboo tableware.
“Until very recently, this kind of initiative didn’t happen in the luxury space and it’s only just beginning,” Pundole said. “I think it really helps that luxury brands like Gucci have committed to being a lot more sustainable. There’s been a kind of conscious approach to next steps from companies that you never though you’d see doing this.”
In addition to plastic reductions throughout its properties, EDITION is leading a campaign committee of influential hoteliers—which Pundole hopes will include the likes of Design Hotels, Soho House, and Chiltern Firehouse—to look at industry-wide solutions to the plastic problem. He says the hurdles are not guests—”guests are really behind this kind of thing”—but rather making a business case to financiers that “it’s the right decision even though it’s not cost neutral.”
If Pundole gets his way, the future of luxury hospitality will be plastic free.
If America went vegan, we’d free up enough extra farmland to feed 350 million more people, finds a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
By switching beef, pork, poultry, dairy, and egg farming for crops that have equivalent nutritional content, we could generate between two and 20 times more food with the same amount of land, the researchers found. On the other hand, maintaining the status quo would result in what the researchers call an “opportunity loss”, because meat farming produces so much less protein per acre of land than plants.
They rated animal-based food products on this scale of loss, finding that egg farming was the most efficient in terms of land-use–though it still resulted in a 40% loss of potential plant protein production. Chicken farming amounted to a 50% loss, and pork farming equated to a 90% loss. By far the biggest losses occur in cattle farming: a plot of land that produces four grams of protein from beef farming would generate 100 grams of protein from plants, because plants use land and resources that much more efficiently. Effectively, that means beef farming constitutes a 96% loss of food production.
In light of this, switching even just beef for plant-based foods could make a huge dietary impact, the researchers explain: “Every two typical Americans who choose to substitute beef in their diet with a nutritionally equivalent combination of plant items will save enough resources to fully feed an additional third.” At the other extreme, replacing all meat products with plant substitutes would generate enough food to feed another 350 million Americans–more than the country’s current population. That’s also more food than we’d save even by eradicating all food waste from the US supply chain.
One way to meet the food needs of the 9.8 billion people who will walk this planet by 2050 is to reduce the amount of food that’s wasted in the first place, the researchers note. And they argue that America’s traditional high-meat diet itself could be framed as a kind of food waste, because it uses up land that could instead be repurposed to produce so much more food. “Unlike conventional food loss,” they write, “opportunity food loss is hidden food that can be recovered via changes in diets.”
It seems improbable that a nation as carnivorous as the US could be persuaded to completely ditch meat. Switching to plant-based protein would also undermine the large economic contribution that livestock farming makes to the country’s GDP each year. But, thinking optimistically, the researchers point out that this loss could ultimately be replaced by the gradual growth of plant-based imitation meat products–a market that’s already growing rapidly in the US. And in any case, food production isn’t the only motivation for reducing meat consumption: switching to a plant-heavy diet could save the US up to $80 billion, the study shows, by averting greenhouse gas emissions and the national cost of health problems that stem from unhealthy diets.
Above all, the study makes a bid to extend the definition of food waste to include the diets we choose, the researchers say. “Opportunity food loss must be taken into account if we want to make dietary choices enhancing global food security.”
Source: Shepon et. al. “The opportunity cost of animal based diets exceeds all food losses.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018.
This piece was originally published on Anthropocene Magazine, a publication of Future Earth dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.
“StartUpify Inc.” is making a big splash on the tech scene. It’s been around for two years and is the newest VC darling. Everyone is talking about it.
The founders raised their $10 million Series A round of funding in what felt like 10 minutes, and they’re now on a hiring spree.
They have reported they’re going to double the size of the team this year and have signed a lease for a new 15,000 square-foot office. Their Twitter feeds are filled with and emojis.
They’re crushing it … right?
How many companies can you think of that followed the pattern above? Did they end up being unicorns or did they end up fizzling out after a few more years? For every Dropbox, Stitch Fix, and HubSpot you hear about, there are a thousand companies that have quietly faded away. Not surprisingly, you just don’t hear about them.
When it comes to growth, every company has a unique path to follow. Part of the challenge in determining how quickly you should grow is knowing which path you are on. It is a lot like driving: Driving on a country dirt road is very different from the Autobahn. Hitting a speed bump going 2 mph could stop your car outright on a dirt road because you aren’t going fast enough. Hitting that same speed bump at 120mph could flip your car and kill you. In this case, you’re going, or growing, too fast.
Based on 15 years’ experience at six companies, here are three startup trends I see that can lead companies in the wrong direction if they don’t put it in the context of their own circumstances.
The “we like to run lean” approach
Chances are that if you work in any function other than sales or engineering, you have heard this one. This is a great philosophy and one I theoretically subscribe to.
Don’t spend too much money.
Cash is king.
In practice though, what this frequently looks like is a company saying we want some of you to run lean.
Finance/people ops/systems/marketing end up rubbing sticks together to make a fire so the company can add more engineering and sales talent.
Telling your team that you want to double revenue year-over-year and that some teams are going to keep using the same systems with no additional support means that you are setting them up for failure. It’s essential to have salespeople who can close deals, but what happens when your finance team’s software doesn’t allow them to collect customer payments?
If a company is going to succeed as one team, your business model has to allow for scalability throughout your organization as you grow. If you don’t, you end up with one team that is staffed appropriately for growth, and you end up with another team that becomes a very rapid bottleneck.
Invest smart, but don’t be cheap. Otherwise, it will create more problems later on.
The “let’s hit the gas!” approach
This approach is textbook “we-closed-our-Series-A” move. The first big check is in the bank account, and the investors want you to start scaling yesterday.
If you have product-market fit and the technology is ready to go — fantastic, hit the gas now that there is fuel in the tank.
However, I have yet to meet that company. More often, there is still chicken wire and duct tape holding your tech together. It’s difficult to have enough money coming off your seed round to build out your team and your tech fully, and there is a high likelihood that you don’t entirely have product-market fit completely figured out yet.
If you blindly follow the “you raised money, so now, double the size of your team” adage and you don’t have all your tech and team ducks in a row — you will likely rip through cash very quickly by over-hiring and paying too much for a few hires. This can result in needing to do a big reset with a down round and layoffs 12–18 months out. You may still survive the turmoil and regroup, I know companies that have, but if you are slightly more thoughtful in your planning and scaling, you can avoid that entire cycle of pain and not lose a year of growth.
The “more perks = happier employees” approach
General wisdom says that to stay ahead of your competition, you must attract and retain the best talent. And with today’s talent shortage, companies are turning to creative ways to attract, retain, and engage top talent. With the increase in salary transparency, a popular trend which has emerged is offering company perks to employees to attract talent. I started noticing this trend about ten years ago with things like free food and beer in the office, but with the escalation in the past five years — everything from massage to dog walking to egg freezing — we have hit an inflection point.
As a three-time CFO and two-time COO, my aversion to the expanding perks strategy is no secret.
My stance isn’t that there’s a problem with offering perks, or the perks themselves — there are many valuable perks out there (e.g., student loan forgiveness, gym memberships, hubway rentals, etc.,) — it’s that they do not align with individual employee needs or with company culture.
When companies offer perks and their team cannot take advantage of them — whether it’s because they are in a different stage of life (post college grads have different needs than the married with children crowd), they have allergies, they are remote, or they have different needs/goals, the unintended consequence is that they end up feeling neglected or isolated.
Not everyone wants student loan forgiveness, hubway rentals, an on-site company gym, free beer, or a candy wall.
The Bureau of Labor recently shared a shocking statistic; ~31% of an American’s compensation, money beyond salary, is in the form of perks and benefits. So if your employees are not taking advantage of the perks, they’re missing out on compensation which the company allocates to them.
The company perks approach also bring up some challenges for the HR team. Few people are aware that process of managing perks is antiquated. Teams are still using email and spreadsheets to track what perks are being offered, when, and to how many people. The process is still completely manual.
To offer more perks, the company needs to hire more people to manage, operate, and maintain them.On top of it all, it’s impossible to calculate their ROI for the company and team. Collectively, these issues lead to overwhelming operational inefficiencies, accumulating administrative burden, and worse, increasingly unhappy employees.
There are many paths to becoming a successful company, but all to often companies are derailed by following the typical startup acceleration playbook. In my experience, the startups that succeed do so despite following this “conventional wisdom”, certainly not because of them.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.
Silicon Valley investors don’t usually pay a whole lot of attention to fish. But the world’s protein shortage is convincing venture capitalists that there’s money to be made in aquaculture, the ancient art of rearing aquatic animals and plants for food.
Demand for new ways to feed the world’s 10 billion or so humans by 2050 will inevitably rely increasingly upon the food humans can raise themselves. As wild fish stocks have plummeted, aquaculture is picking up the slack. Today, aquaculture supplies half of all fish for human consumption (up from 26% in 1994), according to the UN (pdf). Investors have taken notice. Since 2013, the number of venture-backed deals in aquaculture-related companies shot up from basically zero to nine last year, according to private equity research firm PitchBook.
Much of the recent investment centers on machine learning, and machine vision in particular. Researchers are exploring how to precisely track, count, and manage millions of fish and shellfish. Since the subjects are often swimming in challenging underwater environments, recent advancements in the use of digital cameras and high-speed computing promise to be a big help in the effort. This year, two of the biggest investments to date have been in Aquabyte ($3.5 million) and XpertSea ($10 million), which announced funding on Apr. 17. Both companies are focused on using technology to improve aquaculture techniques.
“The technology for aquaculture is effectively the same used thousands of years ago,” Andrew Beebe of Obvious Ventures (which backed XpertSea) said in an interview. XpertSea claims that its artificial intelligence and computer vision device count and size live feed such as shrimp larvae, so aquaculture growers can better avoid wasting feed. Just as with terrestrial farms, Beebe argues that the digital technology of factories will be adapted to grow seafood delivering just the right amounts of feed, medicines and other resources. “Our view is that aquaculture is the next phase of precision agriculture,” he said.
What happens when you hear someone do any of the following: smacking their lips while eating, slurping drinks, breathing, yawning, sniffling, humming, tapping their fingers, typing or texting with the keyboard clicks switched on? If you have a strong emotional response and a desire to escape or stop the sound, you may have misophonia.
Literally meaning a “hatred of sound”, misophonia is a neurophysiological condition in which people have a disproportionately negative reaction to specific sounds. People with the condition are aware that they overreact to certain sounds, it’s just that their reaction is not within their control.
The trigger sounds that people with misophonia react to can vary from person to person. However, some categories are more common than others and they tend to be related to the mouth or eating, breathing or nasal sounds, and finger or hand sounds. Evidence suggests that this aversion develops in childhood and tends to get worse over time.
People with misophonia find trigger sounds more distressing if they are produced by family members rather than by strangers. This may make family meals particularly problematic for misophonics.
Misophonic responses tend to be emotional, with anger being the most common response, ranging from mild annoyance to extreme rage. People can also feel other strong emotional responses such as anxiety or disgust. Physiological responses include an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, sweating, and muscle contractions.
You might assume that everyone has, to some degree, a negative response to certain sounds, such as a sudden, loud bang or high-pitched squeal. Yet in misophonia, people can react to sounds that are not widely considered unpleasant, such as whispering or soft breathing. Quiet sounds can evoke as much of a reaction in misophonics as loud sounds.
Researchers have investigated whether misophonia is linked to, or caused by, other psychiatric or physical conditions, such as tinnitus, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The evidence suggests that, although some association exists with these conditions, none of these disorders can fully explain misophonic symptoms, suggesting misonphonia is a separate and independent condition in its own right.
Fight or flight
Simply ignoring annoying sounds is not possible for misophonics. It appears that selective attention may be impaired in people with the condition, particularly when exposed to their trigger sounds. So if every time someone is close to their worst sounds, and their attention becomes fixated on it, the only options may be fight or flight.
A study of misophonics found that 29% became verbally aggressive when hearing their trigger noise, with a further 17% directing their aggression towards objects. A small but significant proportion of the sample (14%) reported that they had been physically aggressive towards others on hearing their trigger sound.
Misophonics have also reported that the condition has had such a negative effect on their lives that they have avoided social situations, relationships have broken down, and some have even thought about taking their own life.
Unfortunately, our understanding of the condition is in its infancy and so are treatments, although some evidence suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy may help. But given that the condition was only identified in 2001, we still have a long way to go in understanding it.
Q: I constantly get emails from people who are in town in two months and want to know if I have any availability to grab a coffee: How do I just say no to a meeting request?
Dear Busy Bee,
Learning to say “yes” more frequently to others comes with benefits like a bigger professional network, but as any successful working pro knows, learning to say “no” is an equally important skill in today’s jam-packed working world. So how can you field all those incoming emails or LinkedIn requests (especially from strangers), and be respectful of those who reached out, without burning bridges? Until they invent 30-hour workdays, the answer is to learn how to say both “yes” and “no” in one fell swoop.
In most cases (with exceptions such as obvious form letters and inquiries from a suddenly reappearing “long-lost uncle in Nigeria”), a response is merited. You should begin with “Thanks! Appreciate you dropping a line…” But if you don’t have the time to take the call, or want to field the meeting request? It’s OK to follow these statements with qualifiers, such as:
- “However, I’m on deadline—could you follow up in a few weeks’ time?” If the person truly needs to reach you, or feels there’s merit in the connection, he or she won’t be shy about reaching out again. By setting a boundary everyone can understand and keeping exact timing ambiguous (strangers can’t expect to be privy to the specifics of your schedule), you can simultaneously create space for yourself and test to see if they’re truly serious about connecting.
- “Although right now, I’m incredibly busy at work, and I’m confining my calendar to existing appointments. Thank you for your understanding—perhaps we might connect later down the road?” Again, pushing the timeline out while remaining ambiguous leaves room for other opportunities and buys both parties time to decide whether there’s true merit to be had in pursuing a conversation.
- “But my schedule is jam-packed at the moment, and the soonest it’ll free up is 5 pm on [choose a date/time several months out into the future].” By sending a simple message—that you’re swamped, and if others would like your time, they’d best have something important to say—you can further weed out the serious from the spammers.
- “Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the best person to speak to about this. You might want to talk with my colleague [John/Jane Doe] or speak with [insert company name here], the agency that represents us for these types of requests. They’re more familiar with the topic and can get you a decision sooner.” Call it delegation or deflection, but if someone else is better equipped to field the topic, there’s no shame in pointing others in the right direction.
- “Alas, I’m going triple-time on a project right now. Is there something in particular you’d like to discuss? A bullet-point overview would be especially helpful.” We all know what it’s like to be strapped for time, and asking these simple questions (a.k.a. what would you like to discuss and how can I help?) can often help you get a 30-second summary of what might otherwise have taken a 30-minute call to explain.
In any event, I recommend keeping the flow of information via email open (at least at first, until you have a better idea of the ask). Often you’ll find that typing is a far more succinct and efficient way to field requests than meeting for coffee or scheduling a phone call.
While you can’t field every incoming request for your time and attention, a few simple strategies can help you weed out important queries from less high-priority communiques, determine whether it’s worth following up, and make a more direct one-on-one connection.
Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit to Scott by emailing email@example.com.
In his annual letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos addressed the subject of high standards, including the importance of knowing what they look like, and how much work is required to reach them.
Since Amazon’s customers are never satisfied—”divinely discontent” in his words—he said the company’s 560,000 employees should be constantly striving to improve. But they also need to fully understand what it takes to up their game. To illustrate the point, Bezos offered the example of a friend who wanted to master a perfect free-standing handstand. “No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good,” Bezos specified.
According to Bezos, she hired a coach, who instructed her about the danger of unrealistic expectations:
On the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope —often hidden and undiscussed—kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be—something this coach understood well.
Bezos then translated the lesson of the perfect handstand to something core to Amazon’s business culture: the six-page memo.
Before meetings, in lieu of delivering PowerPoint presentations, Amazon executives prepare memos which get read by the assembled group and are used to spark discussion. The quality of the memos can vary widely, Bezos said, because executives don’t always understand how much work is required to master them.
“They mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right,” he wrote.
The lesson, Bezos concluded, isn’t that all Amazon employees need to be great memo writers—but they do need to learn how much work it takes to become one.
In his latest letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos details the company’s march to global domination. The company employs 560,000 Amazonians—aka people—and Amazon Prime now has more than 100 million members, a figure greater than the population of Germany, Vietnam, or Egypt.
What’s the key to the company’s success? High expectations, according to Bezos. He explains that in order for high expectations to work, they have to meet several standards. “They are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope,” so people know what it takes to reach them, he writes.
Bezos goes on to explain how high expectations apply to a staple of Amazon operations: The company memo. Amazonians do not come to meetings armed with PowerPoint presentations or any other kind of slide presentation, but with “narratively structured six-page memos,” which attendees read silently at the start of the meeting. He writes:
Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
Bezos admits that it’s pretty tough to identify exactly what it takes to write more like angels singing than fingernails screeching along a blackboard. But he does know one thing: it takes time. In other words, Amazon employees need to understand the scope of the expectation.
The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two.
Lest this scare bad writers away from applying to Amazon, fret not. It is teams that submit memos, anonymously, rather than individuals. So if you can’t write your way out of a paper bag, hopefully you can spot good writing when you see it—and maybe offer to buy your teammates some beer.
A recent report from Bloomberg revealed that only five of the wealthiest zip codes in the US are in big cities—and they’re not in the conventionally wealthy (aka most expensive) neighborhoods you’d expect. In fact, rather than the Bel Airs and Sohos of the world, America’s richest residents actually share a zip code with the city’s financial districts.
And by richest, we mean fattest paychecks according to tax returns. A recent Bloomberg analysis used IRS data to rank 200 different zip codes based on the average income for the residents living in those areas. The winner—that is, America’s wealthiest zip, 33109—is tiny Fisher Island, a private enclave just off of Miami’s South Beach accessible only by water taxi or helicopter.
Beyond Fisher Island, the data also revealed that the top twenty zip codes with the highest earners were, unsurprisingly, in California and New York. Most of those zips were in upscale, non-urban areas. But four of the five times a major city appears at the top of the list—Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as New York at number 21—the zip unexpectedly corresponds with the city’s financial hub.
Century City—Los Angeles’s business district—for instance, snagged spot number seven, a surprising upset when faced with the likes of Hollywood, Beverley Hills, and Bel Air. Likewise, San Francisco’s financial district took 10th place and Boston’s took 12th. New York City’s winning zip code, which was also its richest in 2016, is home to the New York stock exchange and the Federal Reserve. Again, business districts rather than those cities’ long-time exclusive residential neighborhoods—FiDi vs TriBeCa.
The data seems to suggest that if America’s wealthy choose to live in a city—rather than a sprawling suburban mansion or on a private island—they’re living in a financial district, an area that the world’s big banks and consulting firms have traditionally called home.
Anyone who’s visited a financial district knows that it’s not exactly a city’s cultural hub. Populated with suits by day and often silent as a grave by night, these areas seem a curious draw for folks with the highest paychecks in America. So what is luring them there?
Flocking to FiDi
Ralph McLaughlin, founder and chief economist of Veritas Urbis Economics, speculates that the one-percenters living in financial districts are likely financial workers, specifically investment bankers, who work very long hours. Living close to where their offices are located becomes a premium that they’re willing to pay. He adds that “financial districts in big cities are also just expensive places, full stop.” In an industry that relies on knowledge spillover, clustering in one space becomes necessary, driving up costs on land and space.
But not every analyst agrees. Grant Long, senior economist at StreetEasy, says the people who live in financial districts probably don’t work in them. In New York, for example: “We say the financial district because of its history, not because its where most of the financial firms are located,” he says over the phone, noting that most banks have relocated to Manhattan’s midtown area. “I think that the neighborhood is much more diverse than it was traditionally in terms of employment,” he says.
Long also suggests that business districts have, in recent years, emerged as centers of redevelopment, now offering more residential options than they have in the past. While new builds in New York’s packed FiDi are less common, older landmark buildings are being converted into luxury apartments with 24-7 amenities to draw in wealthy professionals. On the West Coast, Century City is also introducing vertical living to LA, with projects like the Century Plaza Towers—two twin 46-story residential buildings flanking the redesigned Century Plaza hotel.
Interestingly, many of these wealthy professional—those who may be responsible for landing their zip code on America’s richest list—might actually be millennials. Long says this would follow a larger trend of affluent young professionals trading in suburb life for city dwelling:
“You have millennials, obviously a big part of the workforce now, getting older getting to a time in their careers where they’re having a lot of earning power. And millennials are increasingly choosing cities over suburbs, and delaying having children, which makes them more flexible and able to live in really dense environments.”
The good news is that mobile phones and the internet are bringing millions of people into the formal financial system, meaning they have bank accounts or a mobile money provider for the first time. This is important because financial inclusion is crucial in helping people save money for an emergency, get loans to start businesses, and escape poverty. The bad news, however, is that the financial-inclusion gap between men and women in developing economies hasn’t improved in the past six years.
Some 3.8 billion people around the world, or 69% of all adults, have a bank account or mobile money provider as of last year, which is up from 62% in 2014, according to the World Bank’s Global Findex database. About 1.2 billion adults have obtained some sort of formal financial account since 2011, when the rate of financial inclusion was just 51%. Still, there are 1.7 billion people around the world who remain outside of the formal financial system. The World Bank notes that two-thirds of these people have a mobile phone, providing a potential platform to open an account in the future.
In developing countries, the gap in financial inclusion between men and women has stalled at nine percentage points. Not every emerging market has this disparity—men and women are equally likely to have an account in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, for instance. Even so, making sure women have equal access to financial services can change lives, said Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the index.
When governments deposit social welfare payments directly into women’s digital bank accounts, for example, it empowers their decision-making at home. Research suggests that when women have more financial autonomy, spending in the home tends to be reprioritized, such as in the interest of children, and can also boost labor force participation among women.
The gender gap is particularly wide in the Middle East and North Africa: Only 35% of women, compared with 52% of men, have a financial account of some sort, which the World Bank says is the widest disparity of any region. As many as 20 million unbanked adults in this region send or receive money domestically using cash or an over-the-counter service. There could be room for rapid improvement, because mobile devices are widespread—among the unbanked, 86% of men and 75% percent of women have a mobile phone.
The size of the gap in financial inclusion between rich and poor also isn’t budging. In high-income economies, 94% of adults have an account compared with 63% in developing economies. The gap between rich and poor adults within economies has also stalled, at about 13 percentage points in recent studies.
There are ways to boost financial inclusion. Digital public pension payments could reduce the number of unbanked adults in Europe and Central Asia by up to 20 million. By making wage payments electronically, businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean could expand account ownership to as many as 30 million unbanked people. Millions in the East Asia and Pacific region still pay utility bills in cash, even though they have mobile phones. And “opportunities abound” in Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank says, where mobile money is already widespread but some 95 million unbanked people still receive cash payments for agricultural products.
South Asia experienced a large improvement in financial inclusion in the past three years, rising 23 percentage points to 70%. This is mostly down to India, where the World Bank attributes the gains to the government’s biometric ID system. While the system has been criticized, particularly due to concerns about data protection, its uptake has brought a lot of women and poorer adults into India’s formal financial sector.
That being said, it matters whether people actually use these accounts rather than just own them. According to the World Bank, about a fifth of account owners hadn’t made a deposit or a withdrawal in the past year, with particularly high rates of inactivity in South Asia.
Of all the questionable fads in human history, trepanation is perhaps the most perplexing.
Trepanation, or the practice of drilling holes in our skulls, dates back to the Neolithic period, some 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found skulls from sites ranging from France to Peru marked by extra holes with clean, chiseled edges. They don’t seem to be the result of trauma, and the way the bone appears to have healed suggests the holes were made while these people were alive.
But even though archeologists found the first of skulls over 300 years ago, they still have no idea why the old braincases have these bizarre holes, and the mystery keeps growing. In a paper published today (April 19) in Nature Scientific Reporters, researchers found evidence of the same type of hole in a cow skull. According to the authors, this suggests people were actually practicing trepanation on some of their animals before moving on to their peers.
About a decade ago, Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist focusing on human remains at the French National Center for Scientific Research, was approached by a colleague, who asked that he examine a strange cow skull. Researchers had excavated it from a site in central France in the late 1970s, and dated it between 5,000 and 5,400 years old, but couldn’t agree on why it had a hole. Rozzi, working with Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, used advanced imaging techniques to compare the cow skull to human skulls with similar holes.
They found that the hole in the cow skull is too precise to be the result of battle with another animal, and there’s no evidence of other blunt trauma. In addition, says, Rozzi, it appears to have been made using similar techniques as the holes in human skulls.
The hole in the cow skull compared to those found in human skulls.
In their study, Rozzi and Froment suggest a few possible answers. It could be that farmers were trying to save the animal from some sort of brain disease, like seizures. “As early as the Neolithic period, these kinds of symptoms were already linked to brain physiology,” the authors write. Perhaps Neolithic humans thought cutting a hole in the head would release some sort of troubling pressure in the brain. (This isn’t a bad idea: to this day, neurosurgeons treat excess swelling in the brain due to an illness, injury, or surgical procedures by removing part of the skull in order to prevent permanent brain damage.) If this were the case, it would be some of the oldest evidence of veterinary surgery.
However, there’s further evidence to suggest otherwise. At this particular site, archaeologists have found the remains of hundreds of cows—but only one had the strange hole. Presumably, if just one cow were sick, there would be no need to perform surgery to save her because she would have been easily replaceable, Rozzi says. And if there was an epidemic, there would have been many surgically altered skulls at the site.
A second theory is that this was part of a ritual. However, the researchers dismiss this, too. Though there are rituals in cultures in other parts of the world involving animals, the study authors argue that this was not a case of religious or cultural ceremony because, they write, it “would have had greater value, practical or symbolic, if performed on a human being rather than on a common animal.”
In Rozzi’s opinion, the best bet is that this cow was practice for someone who was hoping to one day work on the skulls of living humans. Anthropologists have put forth theories that, in some cultures, our human ancestors believed trepanation could alleviate headaches, mental illness, or possession by spirits. But finding test subjects was tricky. Cadavers were no good, because they don’t swell or bleed like the living, and more importantly can’t articulate how they feel. Cows—and pigs, whose skulls have been found with similar holes—could serve as more adequate practice tools, and a nice meal when the practitioner was finished.
These days, excluding a handful of medical circumstances, trepanation is ill-advised. But who knows? Maybe one day 10,000 years from now our descendants will look back on some of today’s wellness trends with the same perplexed wonder as we view those of our ancestors.
Men in the US don’t work as much as they used to. In the late 1950s and 60s, around 97% of men aged 25-54 worked or were looking for work. Today, less than 89% of them do.
People suggest all sorts of reasons for the decline, which has been greatest among men without high school degrees. Globalization and the automation of low-skilled jobs are most frequently cited as culprits. More recently, some researchers argue that the use of opioids and the availability of video games are contributors. An increasingly generous welfare state is also a likely factor. The slight growth in the number of stay-at-home dads accounts for very little of the change.
If they are not working, how do these men get by? Mostly, by relying on the kindness of family.
A recently released report by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group, found that of the nearly 12% of working-age men out of the labor market, the majority live with another adult. Many of these men aren’t doing so badly. The average family income of households with out-of-work men living with another adult is about $42,000 (in 2016 dollars)—below the national average, but significantly above the poverty threshold. With an average income of $12,500, long-term unemployed men who live alone fare much worse.
According to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, one of the authors of the study, the vast majority of these men live with their parents, while a smaller share live with spouses. Also, unlike the typical working-age woman without a job, these men don’t do a lot around the house. The vast majority of their time not spent working it taken up by watching TV, explained Glaeser on the economics podcast EconTalk.
Glaeser and his coauthors point out that the decline in employment among working-age men has been particularly stark in what they call the “eastern heartland”—the inland area that stretches from Mississippi to Michigan. They believe policies that target these areas with programs to encourage work may reverse the downward trend. Specifically, they suggest a large increase in the tax credit for people who have jobs could incentivize more people to look for work.
Europe’s economic powerhouse is still a hotspot for refugees.
Germany alone granted 60% of all positive asylum decisions from in the European Union (EU) in 2017, according to recent data (pdf) by Eurostat. France granted the second highest number of asylum protections, followed by Italy, Austria and Sweden.
Syrian refugees were the largest beneficiaries of humanitarian protection in the EU in 2017, accounting for 33% of positive asylum decisions. Refugees from Afghanistan (19%) and Iraq (12%) rounded up the top three.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees (70%) gained asylum in Germany in 2017. Overall, the number of Syrian refugees gaining asylum in the EU has dropped since 2016, when they accounted for 57% of all positive decisions.
The likelihood of receiving a positive decision vary widely between migrants. Asylum seekers hailing from Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia were the most likely to get their claim accepted, while asylum seekers from Armenia, Kosovo, and Albania were the least likely to gain asylum.
Overall, 538,000 asylum seekers were granted protection within the bloc last year—down by almost 25% from 2016. The number of people applying for asylum has also dramatically reduced. Data released last March show that the number of asylum applications in Europe dropped by nearly half last year. Applications have now returned to levels more commonly seen before the civil war in Syria, which sparked Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.
A phone scam targeting Chinese speakers is reaching an increasing number of people in the US—even people who only speak English.
In several cases examined by Quartz, a robocall alerts the recipient to a purported “emergency notice” from the Chinese Consulate. The caller ID is sometimes (212) 244-9392—the phone number of the Chinese consulate in New York. Diplomats there say the calls aren’t coming from them.
Here’s an example of one:http://qz.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/spam-call-in-chinese.m4a
The scam caller tries to convince their target to reveal payment and personal information (link in Chinese) by claiming that they’re investigating credit card fraud or attempting to deliver a package left at the consulate.
The scam was first reported to consular staff in November 2017, according to a person who answered the Chinese consular assistance and protection phone number. She refused to provide her name.
The New York consulate issued a phone scam alert in August 2017 after receiving dozens of complaints. Three months later, after more reports of the scam were filed to more diplomatic outposts in Canada and the US, the consulate issued a second notice (link in Chinese) to the immigrant community.
Just last month, it issued a third statement (link in Chinese) alerting the community of increased spam calls and some more complex plots, including one that claims the scammer could help exchange yuan to US dollars, then requests a money transfer on Chinese messaging app WeChat.
The scammers’ calls reach not only Chinese immigrants, but others, too. Reports of spam calls with the caller ID of the Chinese consulate in New York have increased on the phone-spam-tracking website Who Calls Me. Despite the small number of reports to Who Calls Me, the trend is indicative.
Multiple Quartz staffers whose phone numbers have New York City area codes also recently got phone calls like these. One Quartz reporter received three calls in one day.
The calls are generally ignored by Americans who do not understand Chinese, but have tricked some Chinese immigrants in New York out of at least $2.5 million since December, according to the New York Police Department.
The woman on the consular assistance and protection and protection line told Quartz that Chinese consulates never request personal information by phone, and that the types of investigations and delivery notifications described by the scammers are not conducted by the consular staff there.
The wooden Stefan chair is not the world’s first piece of AI-assembled flatpack furniture: Robots at MIT built a simple Lack table in 2013. A chair is more complicated. And while a robot can be programmed to do a single assembly-line task efficiently, mastering all of the small tasks that IKEA assembly requires is a bigger challenge. Some of the same things humans struggle with, like fiddling with bags of screws, dowels, and doodads while trying to distinguish the slight variations in shape, are also difficult for robots.
Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University spent three years programming robots to accomplish the specific tasks necessary to build this particular chair. The next stage will be expanding the machines’ intelligence to be able to assemble a chair just by looking at a photograph of the final product, Wired reported.
“We have achieved the low level capability to teach the robot ‘how to do it’ and then in the next five to 10 years, high level reasoning—the ‘what to do’—could be done too,” researcher Quang-Cuong Pham told Reuters.
AI-assisted furniture assembly won’t just save time and headaches: It could also save your marriage. The dynamics of flatpack furniture assembly contain a minefield of relationship conflict triggers, to the point where IKEA-related conflicts come up with surprising frequency in marriage counseling sessions.
“Couples tend to extrapolate from the small conflicts that arise while shopping for and building furniture that perhaps they aren’t so made for one another after all,” Maisie Chou Chaffin, a London-based clinical psychologist who works with couples, previously told Quartz. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Nanyang robots’ successful assembling of a chair is that they did it without fighting.
If you’re getting wet at work, your pay is likely lower than most. US jobs where workers are exposed to “wetness” either occasionally or constantly typically get paid half of the always-dry workforce, according data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The moisture itself isn’t the culprit for lower pay, of course. It’s simply indicative of how certain lower-paying and menial jobs—like food preparation or elder care—require getting a little wet sometimes, whereas higher-paying jobs like CEO don’t.
To arrive at these figures, and others, we analyzed BLS data on job requirements and wages to determine how various features of jobs relate to pay. Here are some other things the data show:
Sitting jobs pay more
An active job—one that requires moving around during the workday—on average pays less than one that just requires sitting at a desk. The data show a correlation between hours of sitting and income. Desk jobs pay more.
The jobs with the highest median pay require roughly six hours of sitting and two hours of standing or walking. Jobs with more than six hours of sitting—such as telemarketers and ambulance dispatchers—tend to pay less. One exception is computer programmers, who sit an average of 7.2 hours a day and get a median pay of $79,800.
Jobs with constant communication pay less
While you might be a people person, jobs that demand constant interaction with coworkers and clients typically pay less. As the data show, the type of jobs that require check-ins with coworkers once or twice a day have the highest median pay, though some of the best-paying managerial positions require hourly contacts with coworkers.
Occupations that require continuous communication with clients, customers, or suppliers also have lower pay.
Fast-paced jobs pay less
Some rapid-paced jobs (like nurses) have an annual median income over $50,000, but most do not. The best-paid managers work at a steady pace.
Picking your career
There’s more to a career choice than maximizing pay, and there are ways to change your working conditions without changing jobs. Desk workers can opt for a standing desk without fear of losing pay. Front-line workers might request shifts in the warehouse or stockroom if customer interactions are getting tiresome. (If you want to have more “wetness” in your office I’m sure none of your colleagues would mind if you washed their dishes)
If you like the style of your current work but want to be paid more, consider switching to a job that still fits your style but happens to pay better. Take our quiz to get a list of jobs that fit your work style, and discover the ones that would increase your pay if you made the switch.
What is the height of the London Eye in feet? Who started the first curry house in the UK, and what street it was on?
These are just a few of questions listed in the British government’s official handbook on which it bases the UK’s citizenship test, known as the Life in the UK test. This study guide and exam, which immigrants have to pass to become naturalized citizens, has been criticized by the House of Lords as inaccurate and largely irrelevant to British life.
In a report published yesterday, the Lords Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement say that the third edition of the handbook, published in 2013, contains “factual errors.” The handbook incorrectly states the number of parliamentary constituencies and has facts which were correct at the date of publication, but “which might reasonably have been expected not to be accurate for long.” For example, the handbook states Margaret Thatcher is still alive, which was true for only two months after the book’s publication.
Since 2005, all immigrants interested and eligible to become British citizens have to pass a citizenship test. The 45-minute test features 24 questions about British customs, law, and history. It is based on a 80-page Life in the UK manual, which was last updated in 2013. Approximately 70% of applicants pass the test, which requires getting at least 18 questions right. The pass rates vary widely by country or origins; Australians had a pass rate of 98%, but Bangladeshis only 44%.
The Lords committee also criticized the study guide’s inclusion of several hundred dates. “Given the purpose of the book, applicants might believe they could be tested on them, but in fact they seldom appear in tests,” the report notes.
The handbook also contains “inconsistencies,” according to the report. While the study guide makes no mention of the UK Supreme Court, it does discuss most lower courts. There are also some important omissions; the current edition of the handbook doesn’t require knowledge about the National Health Service, educational qualifications, subjects taught in schools, how to contact emergency services, and “other everyday knowledge all new citizens should know,” the report says. The committee argues that the test and handbook should focus on knowledge required for “active citizenship,” not trivia.
In March of this year, the government announced a review of the Life in the UK test. The Lords committee welcomed this review, and urged that the handbook accompanying the exam be entirely re-written.
When presidents attend global business forums, they typically focus on saying the kinds of things to attract investor interest and dollars. But, at the Commonwealth Business Forum yesterday (April 18), Nigeria’s president Buhari showed his compatriots why his communications team probably don’t like him having a microphone thrust in front of him..
Given a chance to highlight the prospects of Nigeria’s young population as a willing and able workforce for possible investors, president Buhari inexplicably painted a rather unflattering picture. “More than 60% of the population is below the age of 30,” Buhari said to a room of business and global leaders. “A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria is an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.”
His comments have drawn ire from Nigerians on social media but it’s not the first time the president has made a major gaffe while speaking off the cuff during foreign trips. In London, two years ago, Buhari blamed Nigeria’s troubled global image on the high number of Nigerians in foreign prisons who “made it difficult” for Western countries to accept Nigerians. In Germany, standing next to Angela Merkel, the world’s most powerful woman, president Buhari said his wife, who had criticized him a few days before, “belongs” to the kitchen.
With an election just 10 months away, the president’s supporters are already in campaign mode and have jumped to his defense as being misunderstood or misinterpreted. That may very well be true. But it again raises the problem of his weak communication skills, an important component of leadership in a country with scores of hot button issues.
Now, you know why the Presidency hides Buhari from media engagement. Because, Buhari unscripted clears your doubt.
— Oluseun Onigbinde (@seunonigbinde) April 18, 2018
More than anything else, Buhari’s comments represent a missed opportunity to extol young Nigerians doing remarkable things, especially in the tech space—valued at $2 billion, Lagos has become Africa’s most valuable tech ecosystem. Ironically, Buhari’s dour comments came a day after vice-president Yemi Osinbajo went on a tour of promising startups in Lagos.
— Nicholas Audifferen (@naudiff) April 17, 2018
The president is right about one thing though: millions of young Nigerians do nothing and are jobless. In itself however, that’s an indictment on Buhari as, under his watch, Nigeria’s unemployment has nearly doubled. Given Nigeria’s young median age (18) and expected population increase—Nigeria’s population will pass the 300 million mark by 2050—it’s likely to be an enduring problem. A more convincing pitch to possible investors may have been the first of many steps to solving the critical jobs problem.
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The US and China’s tit-for-tat jabs in trade and tariffs are moving in tandem with each country’s anxieties over dominance in the global tech industry. And as those tensions escalate this week, one company is set to suffer—San Diego-based chipmaker Qualcomm.
On April 19 a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Commerce said that it had found “issues that are hard to resolve” as it conducted a preliminary review over Qualcomm’s planned acquisition of Dutch chip maker NXP.
That signals a further delay for a deal that Qualcomm has allotted over $40 billion for and waited over a year to close. After first announcing its plan to purchase NXP in November 2016, the company earned approval from antitrust regulators in the US in early 2017, and then in Europe and South Korea in January 2018 (paywall). China, however has stalled. In March, Bloomberg reported that domestic Chinese chip companies are lobbying the government to not approve the deal, arguing that it will give Qualcomm more power to charge patents for new technologies.
The planned purchase of NXP would help expand Qualcomm’s business away from smartphones and into new segments like autonomous vehicles, a vital shift because revenues and profits have slowed as the demand for smartphones plateaus globally.
The comments from China’s Ministry of Commerce come days after the US Department of Commerce barred US companies from supplying hardware and software components to ZTE, a Shenzhen-based maker of smartphones and networking equipment. The order was issued based on the department’s conclusion that ZTE had failed to adequately uphold the terms of a deal it made in March 2017, when it pled guilty to violating US sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
Those measures will likely handicap ZTE in the immediate future, relegating it to being a manufacturer of devices that don’t support LTE or even Android. But they’ll also impact Qualcomm, which supplies chips for all of ZTE’s phones in the US and over 50 percent of the phones it sells overseas. Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research, told Reuters he estimates that Qualcomm will lose about $500 million dollars in revenue over the next year.
Qualcomm did not reply to Quartz’s request for comment for this piece.
Ironically, one of the measures the US government took against China was made in defense of Qualcomm. In March, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the Unites States (CFIUS), a branch of the Treasury Department that vets cross-border deals, helped kill a roughly $130 billion hostile acquisition of Qualcomm from Singapore-based Broadcom. In a public letter, the agency stated that the deal would weaken Qualcomm’s positioning in 5G at the expense of Chinese rivals, thereby endangering national security.
Yet the ZTE measures look set to do exactly that—deprive Qualcomm of sales, while further spurring Chinese investment in domestic semiconductors.
The pollution problem in many African cities goes beyond just the air quality.
Over the years, governments across the continent have attempted to tackle the noise pollution problem in major cities. In addition to the daily bustle and commercial activities, much of the noise comes from the thousands of religious places of worship that dot these cities.
In Accra, Ghana’s capital city, the government is turning to technology to hopefully serve as a panacea: local mosques have been asked to send text and WhatsApp messages as a substitute for the adhan, or the call to prayers, to Muslim members rather than loud calls made using megaphones and speakers.
It’s an enduring problem elsewhere as well. In February, Rwanda closed down about 700 churches for breaking building regulations and excessive noise pollution. In March, the government also banned mosques in the capital, Kigali, from using loudspeakers during the call to prayer.
Lagos, Africa’s largest city which is home to an estimated 20 million people, has for some years been looking to clamp down on public noise levels. Local churches and mosques have been advised to take down external speakers from worship centers and adhere to noise limits of 60 decibels during the day and 50 decibels (pdf) at night—similar to noise level stipulations in the United Kingdom’s Environment Protection Act of 1997.
In 2016, the state shut 90 places of worship for excessive noise levels. Residents in the city are also encouraged to report noise pollution incidents. But enforcement is tricky with thousands of places of worship in need of monitoring ranging from makeshift structures home to a handful of worshipers and mushroomed in dense residential areas to vast megachurches on the city outskirts with auditoriums that hold congregations of up to 200,000 people.
Worshippers, dressed in traditional attire, attend a church service at the Living Faith Church, also known as the Winners’ Chapel, some 40 miles outside Lagos
A balancing act
From Germany and Israel to the US and even in Muslim-majority nations like the United Arab Emirates, broadcasting religious sermons or adhan over speakers has been a contentious issue across the world. The World Health Organization has also warned of the long-term health problems of noise, including cardiovascular effects, poorer work and school performance, and hearing impairment.
Yet urging churches and mosques to desist from noise pollution has been tricky, especially among Africans who have consistently ranked religion as a “very important” component in their lives. Recent crackdowns also come as government antagonism towards religious minorities in Africa increase, according to a Pew Research study from last year.
Shutting down places of worship or restricting some of their practices can also be seen as disrupting community norms and generating social animosity. This is the case in Rwanda, where the government’s closure of 1,500 Pentecostal churches is perceived as a measure to control the messaging in houses of prayers. In 2016, Egypt started delivering government-scripted Friday sermons in a bid to stifle dissent and what it views as extremist religious views from mosques.
In Kenya, after the environmental agency stipulated noise regulations in 2009 including a ban on the adhan, Muslims deemed it an infringement on their constitutional right of worship—pushing then-prime minister Raila Odinga to exempt them from the laws. The agency’s decision also coincided with the Somali Muslim community’s heavy investment in property in Kenya, and especially in the capital Nairobi, where they built several places of worship in residential estates and business centers. Their acquisitions were often attributed to money laundering and piracy flooding in from neighboring Somalia, drawing ire from other Kenyan communities.
A similar scenario also unfolded in South Africa, especially in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town. A Muslim-majority, anti-apartheid enclave, the neighborhood has faced gentrification in recent years, attracting white South Africans and foreigners who have jacked up property taxes. As daily calls to prayer and sermons ring out over the neighborhood, newcomers’ complaints have drawn indignation from long-term residents who say their culture and traditions face erasure.
Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Ghana’s environment minister, says he recognizes how “controversial” the new policy might be but is banking on technology—websites, online clocks, and apps—to help Muslims track prayer time. But there’s an obvious drawback: just 35% of the country’s 28 million population have access to the internet, according to the World Bank.
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In a scene from the 1962 film James Bond film Dr. No, Sean Connery sits and pretends to drive an unmoving car. Using the money-saving cinematic technique known as “rear projection,” the screen behind him makes it look as if he’s in the midst of a dangerous car chase. The trickery in the scene takes on new meaning in Negar Djavadi’s breakout novel Disoriental, in which the immobile car chase serves as an unusual, but apt metaphor for the experiences of refugees.
Once refugees reach a safe country, they are forced to finally reckon with their exile. Most cannot return to their homeland; either they are political exiles, or their homes and neighborhoods have been obliterated. Yet they cannot truly leave their native countries behind. Memories of their homeland flicker through their minds, making it hard to stay in the present. Thinking about and reliving the memories of the past “makes her think she’s moving, even though she’s not,” Djavadi writes of one character.
The novel, first published in French in 2016, was translated into English by Tina Kover and will be released this month by the American publisher Europa Editions. The novel is narrated by a young girl called Kimiâ Sadr. Kimiâ fled Iran in the middle of the night at the age of 10 with her family to seek asylum in France in 1981. Now 25, Kimiâ is forced to piece together what she remembers of her home, the events that led to her family’s expulsion from Iran, and her family’s struggle to find a new normal in France.
Disoriental pinpoints an often-unacknowledged aspect of the refugee experience: The particular form of bereavement experienced by refugees. The Sadrs, a family of intellectuals who opposed to the regimes both of the Shah, then of Khomeini, grieve for their lost love ones. But they also grieve for the political debates they had in cafes, the bonds they built with their neighbors, and the courtyard that their children played in. They long for a time and place to which they will never be able to return. “That’s the tragedy of exile. Things, as well as people, still exist, but you have to pretend to think of them as dead,” Djavadi writes.
Djavadi isn’t the first to make the connection between bereavement and exile. Researchers use the term “cultural bereavement” to describe the psychological distress that refugees experience from the sudden loss of their home countries’ social structure and culture. In his 1991 paper on the topic, Maurice Eisenbruch, a psychology professor at Monash University in Australia, defines cultural bereavement as “the experience of the uprooted person—or group—resulting from loss of social structures, cultural values and self-identity: the person—or group—continues to live in the past.”
For some refugees, research suggests that this sense of displacement and loss can be just as debilitating as the experience of war and persecution. One 2016 paper, written by psychologists Ken Miller and Andrew Rasmussen, advocates for a new model of understanding refugees’ mental health issues. In contrast to previous research, which focused on pre-war trauma to understand refugees’ distress, Miller and Rasmussen propose a model that incorporates the psychological impact of displacement—from social isolation in a new country to inadequate housing, poverty, discrimination, and uncertainty regarding asylum status.
Indeed, in a 2007 paper on mental health issues among Somali immigrants in the US, one woman says that she found dodging bullets and bombs in her war-torn country less stressful, and more predictable, than American life. In the US, she says, she must deal with a range of stressors including a barrage of letters from social services, living in unfit housing under the threat of eviction, learning English, and trying to understand how the school system worked.
The Sadrs are better off than many refugee families. They already spoke French when they fled Iran, and were familiar with the French political system and culture. Still, the family of five is crammed into a woefully overcrowded apartment in Paris, and suffers from deep social isolation. The father walks alone for five or six hours every day in the middle of the day. The mother rarely travels beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood, while their children are gripped by anxiety and depression.
Through the Sadrs, Disoriental contests the myth that refugees’ trauma ends when they find safety for themselves and their family. Kimiâ’s mother “would stop right in the middle of the street, lost, her brain teeming with disturbing questions,” the novel explains. “Was she really in Paris? Why didn’t she go home? Where was her home?” For this character, like so many refugees, it is impossible to be present in her new life without first coming to terms with her past. Djavadi’s important, moving tale spans generations and thousands of miles in order to put that struggle front and center.
A sun-burnt woman sinks to her knees on the shore, fatigued and forlorn. In the distance, a group of men unload the meagre belongings that they have carried with them in a small boat as they have made their way across the Bay of Bengal from their homes in Myanmar to the safety of Bangladesh.
This striking picture is the work of Danish Siddiqui, one of two Indians in the seven-member Reuters team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for their series documenting the violence faced by Myanmar’s minority Rohingya community and their mass exodus to Bangladesh starting from August 2017. The prestigious awards, given out by Columbia University in New York, were announced on Monday (April 16).
“A photo should draw people and tell them the whole story without being loud,” Siddiqui told Scroll.in. “You can see the helplessness and the exhaustion of the woman, paired with the action that is happening in the background with the smoke. This was the frame I wanted to show the world.”
Adnan Abidi was the other Indian in the team that won the prize. The other members of the Reuters team were Mohammad Ponir Hossain, Soe Zeya Tun, Hannah McKay, Damir Sagolj, and Cathal McNaughton.
The Rohingyas, who are mainly Muslim, have been fleeing their homes in Rakhine state for several years, alleging that they are being discriminated against by the government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Myanmar maintains that the Rohingyas are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The exodus in August was prompted by an intense campaign of violence in Rakhine. Myanmar’s military said that it had launched “clearance operations” against Rohingya militants. It denied that civilians had been targeted.
Smoke is seen on the Myanmar border as Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, in September 2017.
Siddiqui was one of the first international photographers to be sent to the field at the outset of the crisis. The photographer had been on vacation in August when he saw the crisis unfold on news channels. “I told my editors that I wanted to cover the story and within 48 hours I was on the first flight from Mumbai to Dhaka and then to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh,” Siddiqui said. “Since I was one of the first wave of journalists to land up there, there weren’t many restrictions, and I was permitted to even click pictures in no man’s land.”
Siddiqui spent around three weeks in the coastal villages of Bangladesh and in refugee camps. “It was completely chaotic,” he recalled. “Fishermen were carrying the refugees illegally from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The boats off coast were not going on the jetty and were landing in the middle of nowhere. Since the waves were really high, the boats were toppling and some people even died. Most of them were so traumatised. What they told me was that nobody should witness these kinds of things in their lives. For them, the first priority was to get food and water for their family.”
Adnan Abidi said that the situation was frantic. “Everybody was in pain,” he said. “We knew it was our job to shoot, but I did not want to randomly go in and click pictures. So I spoke to them and then started shooting. Everybody has lost everything and were living in a 10-by-6 plastic sheet for shelter.”
Abidi spent about 15 days in Bangladesh between late October and early November. “I have worked at Reuters for over 14 years now, but this is the most challenging story I have done till now, including the Nepal earthquake” of 2015, he said.
Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sept. 24, 2017.
Right place at the right time
Each of the 16 photographs in the series portrays a different aspect of the vast human tragedy. A great news photograph, says Siddiqui, is the result of both knowledge and chance. “You have to be at the right place at the right time,” he said. “It is also important to know the history and culture behind a place. You need to also know the history of the conflict. And in cases like these you have to do research on the monsoon waves. But again, news photography does not involve too much planning. We must think of what the readers want to see.”
Behind Abidi’s picture of a young boy bearing a scar, there is a Rohingya translator’s presence of mind, the photographer said. “I was very tired that particular day and was having tea at a small dhaba in the camp when my translator, Mohammad Farooq, noticed that this kid had a scar,” Abidi said. “I quickly went to them and spent some time with them. The father explained that the seven-year-old boy had been shot on his chest.”
The picture speaks volumes. “I decided that I did not want to show the face of the kid and instead show just his chest and the father’s hands because that image says everything,” Abidi said.
Mohammed Shoaib, 7, who was shot in his chest before crossing the border from Myanmar in August, is held by his father outside a medical centre near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 5, 2017.
A story to tell
But not everything can ride solely on coincidence, the two photographers noted. When Abidi was in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, there was an influx of more than 3,000 refugees across the Naf river on Nov. 01. Covering such sudden events needs quick thinking, Abidi said. “We could see a thin line of people crossing the river from around 2 km away from a village,” Abidi said. “So we walked to the river and when we reached there the light was really good. But there was a guard standing at the bank of the river who did not let us go inside to shoot. We pleaded with him to not send us back. He finally let us in and we kept shooting till 11 in the night.”
For Siddiqui, the biggest challenge was physical. “We had to sometimes walk hours to get to a point,” he said. “One day I had to a climb a mountain and walk for six hours barefoot, with leeches on my leg. But you could see that the refugees are also coming from the same side. As a journalist you want to be strong in front of them because I had to tell their story. They should feel that connection with me. If they see me walking by with a bottle of water before them, it will not be nice. You have to be like them.”
Rohingya siblings cross the Naf River along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 1, 2017.
The seven members of the Reuters team each spent about two weeks in Bangladesh on rotation. “We had photographers from different language backgrounds from Bangaldesh, India, Northern Ireland, Britain, and Bosnia,” Siddiqui said. “We had a complete story. We also had pictures from the other side in Myanmar as well, which many don’t. Also as a [news] agency, we are very fast and work on getting raw emotions in a photo.”
The rotations helped the photographers cope with emotional exhaustion, Abidi said. “I followed around this kid who had lost his father and was living with his mother and eight siblings,” he recalled. “This kid was taking care of his family. There were people from NGOs and religious communities who were distributing food and money at certain camps. This kid used to follow them for many kilometers and knew where to find them just to get supplies for his family. A week of following the boy broke me down and I then decided that I could not shoot after that.”
Rohingya refugees walk along an embankment after fleeing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 2, 2017.
Finding new eyes
Siddiqui hopes that the Pulitzer Prize will attract new attention to the tragedy. “I just hope that this award makes a positive difference in the lives of these refugees,” he said. “I hope through these pictures and recognition, more people would get to know about the problem. Because it is not over yet. The crisis is not over yet. These makeshift camps are built on muddy hills which are prone to landslides when the heavy monsoon starts.”
Adnan Abidi (left) and Danish Siddiqui.
Siddiqui added that his field experience had opened up his mind to the various narratives about the Rohingya community and its displacement. In August 2017, the Indian government announced that it was planning to deport all 40,000 Rohingya refugees living in the country, telling the supreme court in an affidavit in September that the refugees posed a “serious national security ramifications and threats.” The Supreme Court did not allow any deportations.
“How the narative in India is played out is totally different from what I saw on the ground,” Siddiqui said. “You do not know what is happening unless you are on the ground. Another big takeaway was how too much nationalism can destroy a community of more than one million people. The narrative in Myanmar is totally different. When I went there I could see how helpless people were. They had to fight for a bottle of water. Reading news reports on the crisis was completely different from being on the field and experiencing it first hand.”
This piece was first published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The last decade has seen a massive push for improved sanitation in urban and rural India, and progress has been substantial with several hundred million Indians now having access to toilets. However, while the public eye has been on big campaigns like the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, the inner workings of sanitation systems and the state of sanitation workers in these systems have often been ignored.
Sanitation systems in urban India were designed with one unfortunate assumption, which is that human labour would always be available to service them. This is a fundamental issue, and brings up challenges on many fronts.
At various steps across our sanitation value chain—from the toilets to the treatment plants—workers must interact with faecal matter in extremely unsafe ways. They are often offered inadequate safety equipment and training, and are socially and culturally ostracised. An overwhelming majority of them are from the lowest Dalit sub-castes—representational of India’s traditional caste hierarchies and the manner in which these function.
Usually engaged through informal contracts, they work for local governments and private operators, or are contracted by households directly. As a result, most have poor financial and health outcomes.
While the issues faced by sanitation workers have attracted some attention, the subject at large has been treated as a matter for civil society organisations to tackle. Government efforts tend to take on a singular, narrow point of view, which focuses typically on rehabilitating rural latrine cleaners through self-employment schemes that have had mixed success.
But there has been very little strategic focus on the full range of issues that arise from unsafe sanitation work in urban areas.
A portrait of India’s sanitation workers
Motivated to fill this gap in understanding, Dalberg, a strategy and policy advisory firm focused on global development, conducted a 12-week study of sanitation workers in India, based on over 100 interviews with sanitation workers, government officials, and experts. The intent behind the study was to create a set of clear, cognisable, and actionable insights, with which stakeholders can act towards improving the working conditions and livelihoods of sanitation workers across the country.
Some key takeaways from the report are:
- Though sanitation workers have been a large unorganised category, we identified nine distinct types of sanitation work that demand separate consideration: sewer cleaning, septic tank cleaning, railway (track) cleaning, latrine cleaning, treatment plant work, community/public toilet cleaning, school toilet cleaning, sweeping/drain cleaning, and domestic work
- Only a small fraction of these workers are formally recognised. We estimate that there is a total of 5 million full-time-equivalents of sanitation workers, including domestic workers (who clean toilets in residential and commercial areas)
- Our estimates suggest that about 2.5 million of these workers face high occupational hazards in their work
- The absence of formal recognition for these workers results in very poor access to schemes and programmes purportedly designed to help them
- About 1.1 million of them are in urban areas, primarily engaged in sewer cleaning, septic tank cleaning, railway cleaning, and community/public toilet cleaning
- More than half a million urban sanitation workers are women, mostly engaged in school toilet and drain cleaning
- From our interviews and other existing research on this issue, it is clear that over 90% of the workers belong to the lowest Dalit sub-castes and are historically tied to sanitation work. As these workers migrate from rural to urban areas, they find it difficult to penetrate other job markets due to their caste labels
- Women face a specific set of challenges as they are often forced to become primary earners—since spousal income is unreliable—and they are frequently harassed on the job
- Workers often have dependencies on alcohol and other substances and suffer from poor mental health. They not only have low life expectancy and poor physical health outcomes, but many report regular fever, respiratory illnesses, and skin diseases, with an average life expectancy said to be less than 50 years
- A large proportion of these workers are in contracts with the various city corporations’ contractors and receive below-minimum wages. Often, what they earn is just one-third of what they would if employed directly by the city. To worsen matters, most do not have provident funds (PF) or health benefits either
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Today, Africa sits on the second largest of these plates and her physical landscape is not a permanent fixture. It’s being constantly shaped by massive geological forces that reach deep down into the interior of the Earth. This is the central organising idea in the earth sciences: the theory of plate tectonics.
When plates collide, slide past or bump into each other, they cause the earth to shake. This shaking is picked up by sensors, called seismometers, which are often buried in vaults underground. Some have been formed into seismic networks across the globe. The longest and continuously running of these are owned and operated by an international consortium consisting of many countries including the US, France, Japan and China.
As a computational seismologist, I use these sensors to build images of the earth’s interior. It’s like holding a stethoscope to the earth’s surface and using a computer to reconstruct the anatomy of the planet. From mountain peaks to the inaccessible red hot depths of Earth’s inner core, the invisible is made visible.
I am DrOh the #EarthDoctor: I unlock the information digitized by ever increasing, globe-encircling sensors that have been listening to our Earth-shaking (excerpts from https://t.co/a6UCgTFofu). pic.twitter.com/y4539SUobZ
— Tolulope Olugboji (@tolumorayo) April 10, 2018
The information detected and recorded has many important uses. Aside from helping us understand how plate tectonic forces shape the landscape, they can provide valuable information about natural disasters, the location of resources (like oil or minerals) and even environmental changes. This could be particularly useful for Africa.
Listening to the earth
The process to unlock this information starts with the recordings, from the sensors, of ground vibrations. These vibrations happen whenever plates shake and move and could also be caused by waves crashing on seashores, hurricanes shaking the earth, gravity waves and even nuclear test explosions set off by North Korea.
From these basic recordings we then extract the seismic signals from ambient noise and use high performance computers to reconstruct images of the Earth’s interior. This map, for example, shows the shallowest rocks of the continental US.
— Tolulope Olugboji (@tolumorayo) June 12, 2017
The image is derived from about 2,000 sensors, deployed throughout the last decade, which detect and record ambient seismic noise. The map was then generated at the University of Maryland using powerful computers.
This remote sensing technology is incredibly useful.
It can provide unique information on changes to the climate and environment through glacier systems, ocean waves, underground waste and carbon sequestration – the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
It can tell us how plate tectonics is implicated in natural disasters. For example in Botswana, scientists can reveal where (and how) the buried faults – fractures in the ground – rupture. This allows them to reveal exactly where earthquakes strike and what their intensity is. The sensor images also inform scientists on when volcanoes, like Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania, may erupt. This data can be used in earthquake detection and quantification and early warning systems for tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
Without digging up the earth, the sensors can also map the distribution of Africa’s undiscovered underground resources. This data is critical to hydrocarbon and resource exploration. It can, for instance, show where to find South Africa’s diamonds or the mineral, oil and gas resources of Nigeria or Angola.
This seismic technology can also reveal why certain features, like mountains, formed on the African plate. It also explains why bodies of water exist where they do. For example, the great lakes of Tanganyika, Nyasa and Victoria were all formed by a new breaking up of the African plate – as Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda prepare to break off from the rest of Africa.
One way this can be improved is by growing the AfricaArray initiative. It was launched 20 years ago and sees scientists working on continent wide linked projects, sharing training programmes and observational networks. AfricaArray currently has a seismic network which covers much of southern and eastern Africa. But this needs to be expanded into central and western Africa.
With a larger footprint of earth sensors in the west African region it will mean more vibrations, illumination and better images. This will allow more Earth scientists, like me, to build spectacular 3D images of Africa’s interior. This will enable us to better understand earthquake hazards, the history and drivers of plate tectonics, as well as the composition and evolution of the African continent.
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India’s supreme court today (April 19) decided there will be no further probe into the death of Brijgopal Harkishen Loya.
A judge presiding over a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court, Loya died under seemingly peculiar circumstances in December 2014. The special CBI court was looking into the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who was gunned down by the Gujarat police in 2005.
The supreme court bench comprising chief justice Dipak Misra and justices DY Chandrachud and AM Khanwilkar dismissed multiple petitions seeking an investigation into Loya’s death. The bench had earlier transferred to itself all such pleas, ordering other courts to not entertain any more petitions related to the case.
“There is no reason to disbelieve the sequence of events leading to the death as narrated by the four judicial officers namely Shrikant Kulkarni, Shriram Modak, R Rathi, and Vijay Kumar Barde and the assertions of Bombay high court justices Bhushan Gawai and Sunil Shukre,” the bench said, according to legal news website Live Law.
The matter of Loya’s death resurfaced late last year after The Caravan magazine published a series of reports questioning the circumstances surround his passing and pointed at major procedural discrepancies.
According to medical records, Loya suffered a cardiac arrest which caused his death, although forensic experts raised doubts over the records. It was reported that Loya’s autopsy may have been manipulated. His family had also said that, days before his death, the judge was offered Rs100 crore ($15 million) for a favourable ruling in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case, which allegedly also involved Amit Shah, previously Gujarat’s minister of state for home affairs and current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president. Within days of Loya’s death, the replacement judge discharged Shah in the case, saying there was no need for a trial.
The controversy around an investigation into Loya’s death may have also played a part in the unprecedented crisis in the supreme court this January when four sitting justices publicly took on chief justice Misra over the apex court’s administration. Among other things, the judges were concerned about the allocation of certain cases to specific benches.
With today’s ruling, a senior supreme court advocate said, “the court has played safe but may have lost the perception battle.”
At a time when India’s $150 billion IT sector is in the throes of a massive transformation, the sector’s industry body Nasscom has brought in a new leader at its helm: Rishad Premji, the chief strategy officer of India’s third-largest IT services firm, Wipro.
The 40-year-old leads mergers and acquisition strategy at Wipro, the vegetable product company his father Azim Premji turned into an IT behemoth.
Among other things, the younger Premji is the brain behind the company’s startup funding arm, Wipro Ventures, a $100 million fund set up in 2015 to back early and mid-stage startups. The fund has so far invested in 11 startups, way more than many competitors like Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) have backed.
Now, Premji, as the chairman of Nasscom, will attempt to lead the industry body through a period of unprecedented disruption. A wave of protectionism, automation, and other technology and geo-political challenges are forcing the sector to adapt.
In an email interview with Quartz, Premji outlined his plans. Edited excerpts:
Do you think the Indian IT industry will undergo a complete overhaul over the next decade?
We see a fundamental shift, from being a provider of traditional technology services and solutions to a leader of client transformation (with transformational projects like shifting to cloud) through innovation and digital technologies and processes.
The three big changes likely to play out soon are: First, a significant shift of business mix from traditional technology to digital solutions. Second, capabilities will evolve from narrow specialisation to full stack, comprising multiple technologies, domain, and architecture skills. Finally, there will be a significant focus on and investments in innovation ecosystems…startups, expert networks, academia, and technology partners.
What do you believe are some of the sector’s biggest strengths and challenges?
The Indian IT industry is well-placed, given its deep and diverse footprint across three dimensions—industries, a full-service portfolio, and presence and scale across key markets globally. The industry’s capabilities have matured significantly to cover technology, engineering, and process services.
With opportunities come challenges, which need to be addressed as the industry continues to rapidly evolve new ways of working. For example, changing mindsets to be startup-like and agile in thought and action is not an easy shift to make for the tenured talent. Changing mindsets to be startup-like in thought and action is not an easy shift for the tenured talent in IT industry.
Secondly, the industry needs to move away from the traditional model of innovating within to innovating outside. The ability to work and thrive in collaborative ecosystems with startups, digital companies, and academia will foster a different culture, mindset, and DNA.
Lastly, an appetite for risk-taking will be critical given the need to tap into rapidly evolving technologies and acquire different skills. This will require inorganic investments to acquire differentiated talent and culture.
What do you think the leaders at India IT companies need to do differently today?
Leaders need to acknowledge change and act decisively to drive organisational transformation from traditional hierarchical structures to evolving, flat, and seamless micro-units. It is imperative to drive reskilling at scale and to hire different types of talent from the arts and align them with technology talent.
The ability to form partnerships with clients, not only from a sell-to-business standpoint but as partners driving joint business opportunities, will be a significant shift to make. Lastly, investing in the future and having the risk appetite to tap into venture and innovation ecosystems must be a priority as well.
The new leader.
Given the increased use of automation, will Indian IT continue to create thousands of entry-level jobs?
Automation is an opportunity, not a challenge—it will enable employees to upgrade their skills and allow companies to restructure their processes in a cost-effective manner. We must adopt a people-first approach, whereby automated services and solutions are deployed to optimise innovation, growth, and development. Newer technologies can be used to reimagine the country’s healthcare, education, services, and security sectors.
India has the advantage of a demographic dividend and the ability to…become the global talent hub for technology…There will be more jobs created in newer areas related to digital skills. Therefore, building a skilled talent pool will be a key determinant in India moving up the global value chain.
How significant is the concern about the Donald Trump administration’s protectionist ideology?
It is illogical to believe that IT specialists working on temporary visas are displacing jobs when there is, in fact, a skills deficit. While there has been some administrative action around this, nothing has changed legislatively. It’s important to recognise that the shortage of STEM talent in the US, and even globally, is a skill gap bridged by high-skilled workers on temporary non-immigrant visas.
However, protectionism will have a limited impact on the Indian technology sector as there is a continued influx of global companies looking to tap our talent pool.
Thus, it is illogical to believe that IT specialists working on temporary visas are displacing jobs when there is, in fact, a skills deficit. India has skilled workforce and talent in surplus at a time when many other countries are facing skill shortages. All projections indicate that gaps will not only persist but widen.
Xi Jinping’s bookshelf includes not only classics on communism but also works on artificial intelligence, as TV viewers spotted during his new year’s speech this year. One of the books that helps the Chinese president understand AI is The Master Algorithm, a 2015 bestseller by Pedro Domingos.
In a recent interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, Domingos, who teaches computer science at the University of Washington, said that when he saw his book on Xi’s bookshelf, he found it “both exciting and scary.” The machine-learning expert explained:
Exciting because China is developing rapidly, and there are all sorts of ways the Chinese and the rest of the world can benefit from AI. Scary because this is an authoritarian government, going full tilt on using AI to control their population. In fact, what we are seeing now is just the beginning. Like any technology, AI gives you the power to do good and evil. So far, we have been focusing on the power to do good, and I think it is enormous. But the power to do evil is there, too.
China has vowed to become an AI powerhouse, with the goal of making the domestic industry worth $150 billion by 2030. The country is already home to some of the world’s most valuable AI startups, such as Face++ and SenseTime, whose facial recognition technologies have been enlisted by police to build surveillance networks nationwide that can identify people quickly. The far western region of Xinjiang, where most of the nation’s Uighur Muslim minority lives, is turning into a laboratory for testing high-end spying technologies.
The Master Algorithm is an introduction to machine learning and how it relates to everyday life. The answer to all the learning problems of AI technology, according to Domingos, is an ultimate “master” algorithm that gives itself feedback to develop endlessly. The book is recommended by Bill Gates as a must-read on AI.
Domingos said autocrats like Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are interested in AI because they “unfortunately see the authoritarian and less the libertarian potential.” China’s advantage in the AI arms race, he said, is the huge data pool that fuels machine learning. In addition, the government and big corporations in China are willing to “help each other with little compunction,” as Domingos predicted leading AI companies will become more nationally controlled during future retrenchments.
China’s big three tech giants—Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—are all betting big on AI, focusing on areas ranging from self-driving cars to health care. According to a new cybersecurity law, companies must store all of the data they generate from China inside the nation’s borders. And there have been incidents where tech firms, both foreign and domestic, have been asked to hand over personal data to the Chinese government.
At the end of the day, Domingos said, it’s not AI making the decisions but those who control it. “Who will be steering the major algorithms? Is it us—or is it Xi Jinping? That’s the question.”
“We could end up in a world that China may not formally control, but they effectively do because they rule the cyberworld,” he said.