The Benefits of Being Distracted

29. November 2016

Date: 29-11-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Older people’s lack of focus is associated with greater creativity in problem solving, studies show

Most people are more easily distracted as they get older. There might be a benefit to that.

Research is finding that greater distractibility and a reduced ability to focus—what scientists call decreased cognitive control—is often associated with greater creativity in problem solving. It also can facilitate learning new information, according to a review of more than 100 studies that was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences earlier this month.

There are things that people learn faster and remember better when they are not exercising careful control over what they’re doing,” says Lynn Hasher, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and senior author of the study. “Younger adults are focused on their goal and they’re missing all this other information. Read the rest of this entry »

Dem Alter begegnen – Anmeldeschluss in 10 Tagen!

25. March 2015

DAB 2015DAB 2015 Detail

Pope Issues Blistering Critique of Vatican Bureaucracy

22. December 2014

Date: 22-12-2014
Source: The Wall Street Journal

FranziskusDenounces Living of Hypocritical Double Lives, Lusting for Power at All Costs

Pope Francis greets the crowd during the audience to the Vatican employees, on Monday.

VATICAN CITY— Pope Francis issued a blistering critique Monday of the Vatican bureaucracy that serves him, denouncing how some people lust for power at all costs, live hypocritical double lives and suffer from “spiritual Alzheimer’s” that has made them forget they’re supposed to be joyful men of God.

Francis’ Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was no joyful exchange of holiday good wishes. Rather, it was a sobering catalogue of 15 sins of the Curia that Francis said he hoped would be atoned for and cured in the New Year.

He had some zingers: How the “terrorism of gossip” can “kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood.” How cliques can “enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body” and eventually kill it by “friendly fire.” About how some suffer from a “pathology of power” that makes them seek power at all costs, even if it means defaming or discrediting others publicly. Read the rest of this entry »

Genes and intelligence: The 3% solution

9. May 2014

Date: 08-05-2014
Source: The Economist

A potent source of genetic variation in cognitive ability has just been discovered

Genes IntelligencePEOPLE are living longer, which is good. But old age often brings a decline in mental faculties and many researchers are looking for ways to slow or halt such decline. One group doing so is led by Dena Dubal of the University of California, San Francisco, and Lennart Mucke of the Gladstone Institutes, also in San Francisco. Dr Dubal and Dr Mucke have been studying the role in ageing of klotho, a protein encoded by a gene called KL. A particular version of this gene, KL-VS, promotes longevity. One way it does so is by reducing age-related heart disease. Dr Dubal and Dr Mucke wondered if it might have similar powers over age-related cognitive decline.

What they found was startling. KL-VS did not curb decline, but it did boost cognitive faculties regardless of a person’s age by the equivalent of about six IQ points. If this result, just published in Cell Reports, is confirmed, KL-VS will be the most important genetic agent of non-pathological variation in intelligence yet discovered.

Dr Dubal and Dr Mucke made their discovery when they looked at 220 volunteers aged 52 to 85, to study the effects of KL-VS on ageing. They assessed their volunteers’ faculties of memory, attention, visuo-spatial awareness and language. From these, they constructed a composite measure of cognition. Read the rest of this entry »

Philosophy on Top

9. April 2014

Date: 09-04-2014
Source: Project Syndicate


Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, is the author of Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, One World, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), The Life You Can Save, and the forthcoming The Point of View of the Universe (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek). In 2013, he was named the world’s third “most influential contemporary thinker” by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.

MELBOURNE – Last year, a report from Harvard University set off alarm bells, because it showed that the proportion of students in the United States completing bachelor’s degrees in the humanities fell from 14% to 7%. Even elite universities like Harvard itself have experienced a similar decrease. Moreover, the decline seems to have become steeper in recent years. There is talk of a crisis in the humanities.

I don’t know enough about the humanities as a whole to comment on what is causing enrollments to fall. Perhaps many humanities disciplines are not seen as likely to lead to fulfilling careers, or to any careers at all. Maybe that is because some disciplines are failing to communicate to outsiders what they do and why it matters. Or, difficult as it may be to accept, maybe it is not just a matter of communication: Perhaps some humanities disciplines really have become less relevant to the exciting and fast-changing world in which we live.

I state these possibilities without reaching a judgment about any of them. What I do know something about, however, is my own discipline, philosophy, which, through its practical side, ethics, makes a vital contribution to the most urgent debates that we can have.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Specialization Myth

31. December 2013

Date: 30-12-2013Hausmann CC
Source: Project Syndicate


Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, is a professor of economics at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for International Development.

CAMBRIDGE – Some ideas are intuitive. Others sound so obvious after they are expressed that it is hard to deny their truth. They are powerful, because they have many nonobvious implications. They put one in a different frame of mind when looking at the world and deciding how to act on it.

One such idea is the notion that cities, regions, and countries should specialize. Because they cannot be good at everything, they must concentrate on what they are best at – that is, on their comparative advantage. They should make a few things very well and exchange them for other goods that are made better elsewhere, thus exploiting the gains from trade. Read the rest of this entry »

The web giants pumping us for data

2. September 2013

Date: 02-09-2013
Source: The Guardian

As society becomes more networked, the information available to the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of this world will increase exponentially

Rich resources … Like an oilfield, big data offers potentially huge profits for the corporations tapping into it.

Should you be looking for an example of hucksterish cynicism, then the mantra that “data is the new oil” is as good as they come. Although its first recorded utterance goes as far back as 2006, in recent times it has achieved the status of an approved corporate cliche, though nowadays “data” is generally qualified by the adjective “big”. And if you want a measure of how deeply the cliche has penetrated the collective unconscious, ponder this: a Google search for “big data” turns up more than 1.5bn results. And a search for “data mining” turns up 167m results.

The idea of big data as a metaphor for oil is seductive. It’s also revealing in interesting ways. Given that the oil business is one of the biggest industries in the history of the world, for example, the metaphor hints at untold future riches. But it conveniently skates over the fact that oil wealth overwhelmingly benefits either ruling elites in corrupt and/or authoritarian countries, or huge corporations in democratic states.

But at least oil is a physical, non-renewable resource that is extracted from the earth. Big data, on the other hand, is extracted from the activities of people and machines. As society becomes more and more networked, and as the so-called “internet-of-things” evolves, the amounts of data available to be “mined” will increase exponentially. And, unlike fossil fuels, these data reserves are infinitely renewable.

“Big data”, says Kenneth Cukier, co-author of the best book on the subject to appear so far, “will transform how we work, how we live and how we think”. He argues that, at least in the case of data, “more is not just more; more is different”, by which he means that quantitative abundance can lead to qualitative change. The availability of huge amounts of data turbocharges machine learning; for example, turning hitherto impossible tasks – like accurate, instantaneous language translation – into delivered realities.

The key question about any major technological development is: who benefits? The answer in the case of big data is: huge corporations – the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of this world, which are the only outfits (outside of the US National Security Agency) with the computational resources to mine, analyse and process the data torrents unleashed by us as we go about our networked lives. The companies don’t talk about it this way, of course. Instead they have soothing patter about how their analytical capabilities enable them to serve you better: how the ability to analyse the web searches conducted by you and your friends enables them to provide better search results, for example; or how analysis of your online behaviour enables Amazon to suggest products that you might like; and so on.

All true, of course, but skilfully avoiding the awkward fact that you are the resource that is being mined and that the playing field that is cyberspace is tilted in favour of the corporations who have come to dominate it.

Which brings us to another aspect of the subject: open data. Since 2005, activists have been campaigning for “open government data” initiatives – demanding the publication of public datasets in machine-readable, freely reusable formats. The argument for this is impeccable: the data is collected by public bodies; it should therefore be available to the public that paid for it. The motivations behind the campaigns are likewise admirable: if the data is available, then civic-minded geeks can do useful things with it.

The open government data campaigns have been surprisingly successful in both the US and the UK. Huge swaths of public data are now available. I can download a vast spreadsheet containing details of every contract worth more than £500 entered into by my local authority, for example. And in many cases, people have already developed useful services on top of public data. For example, provides a helpful online tool for planning a journey by bus in London.

There’s lots more in that vein, and it’s all good stuff. At first sight, therefore, open government data looks encouraging. But there are a couple of flies in the ointment. The first is that there is a difference between open data and open government. The current Hungarian administration, for example, has been quite good at publishing public data, but is morphing into one of the most secretive and authoritarian regimes in Europe.

And then there’s that awkward question again: who benefits? Certainly the public, to some extent. But there are signs that open government data favours private companies bidding for local authority contracts. The companies know what it costs the authority to collect the refuse, for instance; but their own finances are opaque, so it’s impossible to judge whether they would really be more efficient than a public body.

And the moral? Be careful what you wish for.