Cantino Planisphere

Another featured photo from Wikipedia: the Cantino planisphere, a map completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, during the European Age of Discovery. It depicts the world as it became known to the Europeans after voyages to the Americas, Africa, and India.

It is considered one of the most valuable cartographic documents of all time, displaying a remarkable degree of accuracy for its period, and being the oldest surviving map to show Europe’s early geographic discoveries. It provides us with unique historical information about the way maritime exploration was conducted and how nautical cartography evolved.

It is now kept in the Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy.

Sleep and Ethics

Coming shortly after my blog about the consequences of sleep deprivation, a common issue in our society, Mic.com published an article about a Harvard study that found yet another negative effect from insufficient rest: bad ethics.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to become more unethical as the day goes on, but the Harvard team wanted to see if people with different sleeping patterns had different responses to temptation. So the researchers separated study participants into morning larks and night owls and gave them two different decision-making tasks that actually tested their honesty.

The Harvard team found that “larks will be more unethical at night than in the morning, and that owls will be more unethical in the morning than at night” — the more tired people felt, the more they were inclined to lie.

Here’s a chart showing the correlation between lack of energy and lack of ethical scruples:

The results are not too surprising, given that lack of sleep has been linked to a wide variety of mental and emotional problems, including increased likelihood of irritability, depression, impaired judgement, and so on.  It stands to reason that a mind weakened by lack of sleep would under-perform in other areas as well.  You simply won’t be thinking as much or as clearly.

As with my previous post on the subject, the implications of this finding take us back to the socioeconomic paradigms of our society: namely a business culture that makes people work increasingly unpalatable hours that are simply not conducive to optimal physical or mental performance. The Mic article makes a similar note:

Studies like this challenge the notion of a traditional 9-5 workday: If people are naturally inclined to be more productive and ethical at different hours of the day, isn’t it inefficient and ultimately dangerous for a company to ask everyone to work the same hours?

The Harvard team think so. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.”

As technological advances make it easier for people to telecommute or restructure their schedules, it’s up to managers to decide whether they want to allow flexible workdays. If you can get people to operate at optimum efficiency and moral uprightness for their shift, does it matter when they do the work?

Unfortunately, Americans employers overall have a bad track record of heeding, much less implementing, such evidence-backed recommendations. There has already been good evidence, not to mention historical precedence, showing that people are more productive when paid better and given more leisure time; yet the trend has increasingly been in the opposite direction, regardless (for their part, most government agencies and school administrations have not followed suit either).

Barring a few forward-thinking and largely niche businesses, it does not seem likely that the average employer will be willing to provide that much flexible without legal and/or organized pressure (though in fairness, I could see some individual local managers in non-9-to-5 jobs designing their schedules to work with their employees’ preferences).

Otherwise, we should do our best, whenever possible, to maintain schedules that are more conducive to the wellness of our minds, bodies, and souls. The connection between our physical health and mental health cannot be understated.

Work and Worth

What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.

Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?

On the other hand, what’s the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.

How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.

What’s the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their ben pans? Surely higher than their median wage of$11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.

Or of child care workers, who get $10.33 an hour, $21.490 a year? And preschool teachers, who earn $13.26 an hour, $27,570 a year?

Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?

Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.

Before you conclude that’s generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.

One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.

And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.

At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.

They’re getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.

I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose jobs entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).

They don’t even build the economy.

Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.

They’re paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.

It’s said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.

In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.

They demand ever more cunning innovations but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.

Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society — if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.

Graduates of Ivy League universities are more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.

For example, in 2010 (the most recent date for which we have data) close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance (down from the pre-financial crisis high of 46 percent in 2006). Add in management consulting, and it was close to 60 percent.

The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids’ admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.

But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching.

Robert Reich

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The company that made your iPhone is reluctantly bringing democracy to Chinese labor

Eupraxsophy:

The world’s largest labor force is slowly, but surely, becoming aware of its collective power. What does the future hold for the Chinese and global working force, particularly in the developing world?

Originally posted on Quartz:

In late June, a 25-year-old assembly line worker at Foxconn Technology Group’s largest factory, in Shenzhen, noticed a post on the Weixin account of the Foxconn Trade Union promoting upcoming elections for union representatives. The worker, who asked only to be identified by the surname Wang, had been reading about the law and workers’ rights over the past year and thought that if he won, he could help negotiate for things like higher wages, more time off, and longer bathroom breaks.

He signed up at the union office, prepared a speech, and waited for a phone call that never came. The election was over by the end of August. Wang didn’t run; he didn’t even vote.

“I asked this department and that department what was going on with the election, but no one knew. There was no form of participation. I didn’t participate at all,” Wang, a bookish high school graduate from central China…

View original 2,391 more words

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).

 

 

Five Big Takeaways on Creating Better Cities

In 2007, humanity reached a major, though largely overlooked, milestone: for the first time in history, over half of all humans lived in cities. Only a century before, a mere 15 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. The United Nations estimates that around 64 percent of the developing world, and 85 percent of the developed world, will be urbanized.

Needless to say, the world’s future lies in its cities, which are increasingly  the main drivers of everything from economic growth to cultural development. The science of cities has never been more vital: not only must we create urban areas that better promote human flourishing, but we must also take into account the impact on the environment, which is in an increasingly fragile state.

The City Lab column of The Atlantic reports on some of the findings by researchers involved in the growing field of “urban theory”, who over the years have gleaned some of these key observations and approaches:

Cities generate economic growth through networks of proximity, casual encounters and “economic spillovers.” The phenomenal creativity and prosperity of cities like New York is now understood as a dynamic interaction between web-like networks of individuals who exchange knowledge and information about creative ideas and opportunities. Many of these interactions are casual, and occur in networks of public and semi-public spaces—the urban web of sidewalks, plazas, and cafes. More formal and electronic connections supplement, but do not replace, this primary network of spatial exchange.

Through a similar dynamic, cities generate a remarkably large “green dividend.” It has long been known that cities have dramatically lower energy and resource consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions per capita, relative to other kinds of settlements. Only some of this efficiency can be explained by more efficient transportation. It now appears that a similar network dynamic provides a synergistic effect for resource use and emissions—what have been called “resource spillovers.” Research is continuing in this promising field.

Cities perform best economically and environmentally when they feature pervasive human-scale connectivity. Like any network, cities benefit geometrically from their number of functional interconnections. To the extent that some urban populations are excluded or isolated, a city will under-perform economically and environmentally. Similarly, to the extent that the city’s urban fabric is fragmented, car-dependent or otherwise restrictive of casual encounters and spillovers, that city will under-perform—or require an unsustainable injection of resources to compensate. As Jacobs said, lowly appearing encounters on sidewalks and in other public spaces are the “small change” by which the wealth of a city grows.

Cities perform best when they adapt to human psychological dynamics and patterns of activity. Urban residents have a basic need to make sense of their environments, and to find meaning and value in them.  But this issue is not as straightforward as it may appear. Research in environmental psychology, public health and other fields suggests that some common attributes promote the capacity to meet these human requirements—among them green vegetation, layering, and coherent grouping. Wayfinding and identity are also promoted by iconic structures, and meaning is enriched by art. But for most people most of the time, evolutionary psychology is a more immediate factor to be accommodated. As Jacobs cautioned, a city is not primarily a work of art. That way of thinking is bad for cities—and probably bad for art too.

Cities perform best when they offer some control of spatial structure to residents. We all need varying degrees of public and private space, and we need to control those variations at different times of the day, and over the span of our lives. In the shortest time frames, we can open or close windows and doors, draw blinds, come out onto porches and informally colonize public spaces, or retreat inside the privacy of our homes. Over longer time frames, we can remodel our spaces, open businesses, build buildings, and make other alterations that gradually form the complex dynamic growth of cities.

Interesting stuff. What do you think?

The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Sleeplessness seems to be an intractable part of modern living. Nowadays, few people seem to consistently get the right amount of sleep they need — estimated between seven to nine hours — in order to function optimally. The subsequent day-to-day struggle for energy is increasingly becoming the norm, as a recent article in Mic.com noted:

Just 59% of American adults surveyed by Gallup in 2013 got enough sleep — way down from the 84% who reported sleeping that much in 1942. Just 14% said they got five or fewer. That’s enough to seriously endanger health and well-being in most people. According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is an “epidemic,” with a survey conducted by the agency finding 35.3% of people get less than seven hours of sleep on average. A surprising 37.9% reported being tired enough to doze off during the middle of the day in the past month, while an unnerving 4.7% admitted to sleeping at the wheel of a car.

Aside from the obvious lack of productivity and the increased likelihood of accidents, lack of sleep has been linked to such myriad issues as declining intelligence, numbed sex drive, impaired memory, weight gain, depression, and possibly even permanent damage to brain cells (namely those associated with wakefulness).

The following infographic pretty much sums up the potential risks (the likelihood and severity of which vary from person to person).

One of the key characteristics of 21st century society is its constant activity: 24-hour cycles have gone from novelty to norm, whether for business, news, entertainment, or even daily routines. Based on anecdotal evidence, not to mention personal experience, it is not unusual to stay up all night just reading, watching TV, or doing some other mundane activity.

Any number of factors could be responsible for the decline of restful sleep, ranging from the ubiquity of technology (particularly the Internet) as a source of distraction and over-stimulation, to an economic system that demands ever more work at the expense of free-time and energy. It is difficult to find time to sleep when there never seems to be enough time for neither leisure nor work.

Speaking from experience as a former night owl, I can definitely vouch for the positive benefits of getting good sleep. Everything from my depression to my physical fitness have improved markedly since I have made regular sleep a habit. But it took a long time to develop the habits and lifestyle adjustments needed to sleep well: avoiding meals and electronic screens at least an hour before bed, willing myself to cut outings with friends short, and so on.

Eschewing sleep has become so common that it is little wonder so few people even try. Even I continue to flounder at least one or twice a week despite knowing the consequences and benefits firsthand. As usual, taking the long view with regards to health is not easy, especially in our fast-paced and restless society.

 

Chart: Educational Mobility Around the World

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international group of 34 mostly-rich countries, has published its most recent Education at a Glance report for 2014, which ranks countries according to the proportion of adults (those age 25 to 64) who are better educated than their parents. This helps to determine how well member countries are doing at improving educational opportunity.

The full study can be found in the hyperlink above, while The Economist has put together the results in the following chart (note that for the sake of fair comparison, developing countries like Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico are not listed).

The New York Times also reported on this study, providing an even more telling chart:

As the article noted, the U.S. is doing far poorly than a nation of its size and wealth should:

Barely 30 percent of American adults have achieved a higher level of education than their parents did. Only Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic do worse. In Finland more than 50 percent of adults are more educated than their parents.

And matters are getting worse, not better. Among 25- to 34-year olds, only 20 percent of men and 27 percent of women, both out of school, have achieved a higher level of education than their parents.

It’s even bleaker at the bottom: Only one in 20 Americans aged 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. The average across 20 rich countries in the O.E.C.D. analysis is almost one in four.

Moreover, as usual, it is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society that are hit the hardest: there is a wide and ever-growing income gap in the graduation rate of teenagers from lower-income backgrounds versus higher-income ones; one study found a sharp increase in the impact of family income on the likelihood of graduation.

Basically, you need an education more than ever to make decent money, but need more money than ever to get a decent education. In such a competitive, globalized economy, that catch-22 is not sustainable. This is all the more tragic given that the U.S. once lead the way in providing free or affordable education at all levels (the Times piece notes how decades ago, America was already educating far more of its citizens before European countries did).

Given that the OECD’s report runs over 500 pages long, I have not had the chance to read the complete findings. However, one highlight that did catch my attention was the following:

In Brazil, Turkey and the United States, adults without upper secondary education are the most penalised in their wages, earning, at best, 35% less than people with that qualification. In Chile, Brazil and Hungary, those with tertiary education are, comparatively, the most highly rewarded, earning more than double the income of a person with upper secondary education.

This is just a small snippet, but it suggests that education is not as vital for economic success across the board. Some countries, such as Austria and Germany, still manage to have largely prosperous middle-class societies despite low educational mobility, thanks to a relative abundance of vocational schools, job training opportunities, and well-paying low-skill work.

However, the overall trend is clear:

In all OECD countries, adults with tertiary education earn considerably more than adults with below upper secondary education. Between 2005 and 2012, in countries with available data for both years, the relative earnings of adults without upper secondary education either remained stable or fell, to some degree, when compared with earnings of adults with upper secondary education.

In addition, in most of these countries, earnings of tertiary-educated adults relative to earnings of adults with upper secondary education increased or remained stable during the same period; the only exceptions are Hungary and the United States.

These differences suggest that the demand for higher-level and updated skills have grown, and that individuals with lower levels of skills are even more vulnerable today

In much of the rich world — and increasingly in the developing world as well — an education remains more vital than ever for individual and societal prosperity. But is the solution to make education on all levels more accessible and affordable, or to instead develop economies in which even those without a formal education can succeed? Perhaps a bit of both? What are your thoughts?

 

The Enduring Lies About The Iraq War

I began systematically to investigate the answers to those and other related questions, enlisting the help of a team of reporters, researchers and other contributors that ultimately included 25 people. Nearly three years later, the Center for Public Integrity published Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word report with an online searchable database. [4] It was released on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was covered extensively by the national and international news media.

Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to US national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. Perhaps most revealing: the number of false statements made by top Bush administration officials dramatically increased from August 2002 to the time of the critical October 2002 congressional approval of the war resolution and spiked even higher between January and March 2003, between Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address before the United Nations General Assembly and the fateful March 19, 2003, invasion.

– Charles Lewis, in an excerpt of 935 Lies available at BillMoyers.com