The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Category: News

On copyrights and conlangs

One would imagine that if someone invented a language for use in a creative work, that someone could retain copyrights to the use of the language, would he or she not? According to U.S. case law, that might not be so, in the opinions of the Language Creation Society (LCS), a nonprofit organisation created for the promotion and discussion of constructed languages (conlangs). LCS submitted an amicus curiae — unsolicited advice to the courts for pending cases — to the Paramount v. Axanar case, where Paramount Pictures sued Axanar Productions for infringing various parts of its intellectual property over a fan-produced film Prelude to Axanar. These include: Vulcans, likeness of Vulcans, Romulans, uniforms with gold shirts, triangular medals, etc etc., and The Hollywood Reporter has more information on how Axanar is planning to respond to each claim.

What caught my interest was that Paramount laid claim to the Klingon language, which got me thinking: “Can conlangs created for the purpose of creative works be copyrighted?” Paramount has claimed the copyright to the Klingon language, its vocabulary and its graphemes but LCS believes that its claims will not hold in the court of law — indeed, anyone can claim copyright to anything but it is only when copyrights are challenged in courts that they are found to be valid or otherwise.

Citing an 1879 case Baker v. Selden, LCS said that while reproductions of creative works are protected by copyright laws, no laws exist to prevent individuals from using systems and creating their own derivative works with it. Baker v. Selden was a case where Selden created a system for bookkeeping and wrote books about it, hoping to sell the ideas to counties and the government. However, he was unsuccessful. Later on, Baker produced a book on bookkeeping that had systems very similar to Selden’s. Selden’s estate sued Baker, but the courts ruled that:

“[W]hilst no one has a right to print or publish his book, or any material part thereof, as a book intended to convey instruction in the art, any person may practice and use the art itself which he has described and illustrated therein… The copyright of a book on book-keeping cannot secure the exclusive right to make, sell, and use account books prepared upon the plan set forth in such a book.”

Thus Klingon as a language cannot be copyrighted, especially given its status where not only its creator Marc Okrand but also various scholars have contributed to the development and expansion of Klingon. Upon the establishment of linguistic rules of Klingon — syntax, phonology, morphology, etc — the language takes a life of its own and it would be unthinkable that a copyright holder could lay ownership to all and any subsequent derivative works from using that language. LCS cites the translated works of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Epic of Gilgamesh into Klingon, not to mention the technically somewhat-valid native speaker of Klingon, Alec d’Armond Speers, as proof that Klingon is a robust-enough language and trying to enforce copyrights to it would be unreasonable. It would be akin to enforcing a copyright on Esperanto today.

Moreover, the movie Prelude to Axanar isn’t ripping Klingon dialogue verbatim in their fan film, but devising dialogue based on using the Klingon language system. Indeed, besides Baker v. Selden, LCS is citing many other case laws to their effect that Klingon is a free language that cannot be copyrighted, and if anyone’s interested should check out the amicus brief (linked at the top of this post and also embedded below). The brief is also replete with lots of Klingon phrases written in Klingon script and accompanying footnotes, which I think is hilarious but probably not very amusing to the presiding judge.

So what does this mean? Feel free to write your fan-fiction in Quenya, Sindarin, Klingon, Na’vi or even that Atlantean language that Marc Okrand also created for the Disney movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire. As long as one isn’t merely ripping off dialogue (reproduction) but can prove that the utilised language is a product of using the language systems to derive original work, copyrights to the language are unenforceable. Granted, this is merely my opinion, but other folks have voiced similar sentiments (I liked this and this from LCS member Sai), and they’re worth checking out if you’re interested in copyrights and conlangs. We’ll see May 9th how the courts rule, and hopefully it’ll be in the favour of language hobbyists and enthusiasts.

How not to write your headlines

ibtuk

From the International Business Times UK site. Apparently IBT UK is a franchise of IBT Media, and that there are multiple IBT’s all around with no editorial links with each other. There’s IBT Australia, India, UK, and the vanilla IBTimes.com, based in New York. As someone who just wrote about this topic, I can tell you what is wrong with this headline.

Argentine President Fernandez did make a tweet that played on racist Chinese stereotypes while she was in Beijing, but she did not say that the “country’s stupidity is toxic.” What she did say was that her tweet, that so many Western media had jumped on and gotten outraged about, was so highly ridiculous and absurd that it could only have been construed as “humour,” or else it would have been a very toxic tweet — which was definitely not her intention.

I mean, she’s in Beijing trying to get the country to invest money in her ailing economy! While her tweet was ill-advised, it was definitely not ill-intentioned, and that IBT UK’s headline is the statement that is truly “toxic.”

So is Zuckerberg fluent in Chinese or not?

Image: Tsinghua University

Image: Tsinghua University

Mark Zuckerberg recently made news because of a dialogue he gave at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, where he spoke (Mandarin) Chinese. Here’s the link to the full video, 30 minutes long.

There have been news coverage about Zuckerberg’s Chinese language skills, from laudatory “Of course he speaks fluent Mandarin” headlines to less-than-favourable comparisons to that of a seven-year old. It turns out that there is a problem with the mixed coverage of Zuckerberg’s student dialogue — the news and the public often get confused what language “fluency” is.

Zuckerberg’s spoken Chinese, while mostly coherent, and with some interruptions, mangled most of the tones that the Chinese language is widely known for. BBC’s coverage pointed out that Zuckerberg’s failure to properly produce tones led him to claim that Facebook had just “11 mobile users” instead of “one billion.”

To understand how “fluent” one is when talking about mastery of a foreign language, one needs to understand the difference between “competence,” “performance,” “fluency,” and “proficiency” — four terms often used in such discussions. I’ll attempt to explain the differences between these four concepts.

Language competence and performance are the two biggest things that people are actually talking about when discussing a person’s L2 (foreign-language) “fluency.” Simply put, competence is a person’s grasp on the language’s grammar, phonological/phonetic rules, etc. Thus a person can be completely competent in a language but unable to perform as well. An example would be a person completely able to understand and speak Spanish, but unable to roll one’s R’s.

The distinction between competence and performance was notoriously made by Noam Chomsky in 1965. However, Chomsky’s notion of grammatical and phonological (linguistic) competence was expanded by Dell Hymes in 1966.  It included the knowing of appropriateness of topics and politeness (sociolinguistic), understanding how to combine language structures into different oral and written types (discourse), and knowing how to repair communication breakdown in the presence of interference (strategic). These concepts came to be known as “communicative competence” in literature.

Zuckerberg’s Chinese performance with his tones was bad, but he understood most of the questions asked. He was also able to answer simple to moderately complex questions in grammatically-sound Chinese. His use of humour and appropriate politeness further signals competence. It can be said that he’s mostly competent in Chinese.

Fluency is the measure of the ease of production of the language. It can be measured by speed, sustainment, and/or lack of breaks. Fluency includes not only speech fluency, but reading, writing, and even listening. Thus a person could be illiterate and have a limited vocabulary, but can be considered fluent if the speech occurs at a smooth pace. Zuckerberg’s speech does contain many pauses in parts of his speech, to the point that it might be hard for the listener to understand what he’s trying to say. He may not be very fluent, but through context of his speech, listeners (especially native speakers) are able to repair the content of his speech mostly.

Lastly, proficiency is the mastery of how well one uses the language, and can usually be tested by means such as the TOEFL or JLPT. One thing that was pointed out to me is that in language testing, proficiency is usually norm-referenced; that means that test takers are tested on how well they did in comparison to other test takers. This is different from criterion-referenced tests, such as the GCEs and GCSEs, where test takers are measured if they meet a set of pre-defined criteria. Once again, a speaker can be fluent in the language, but not necessarily proficient.

All Men In North Korea Are Now Reportedly Required to Get the Same Haircut as Kim Jong Un

This is way too funny not to reblog. At least the “undercut” was popular in North Korea before it even hit the States!

The covenant between a reporter and an interviewee

Bitcoin traders Kolin Burges, right, of London and Aaron, an American who gave only his first name, hold protest signs in front of the office tower housing Mt. Gox in Tokyo on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

Bitcoin traders Kolin Burges, right, of London and Aaron, an American who gave only his first name, hold protest signs in front of the office tower housing Mt. Gox in Tokyo on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

The Story

An article on the Wall Street Journal today on Bitcoins, Shutdown of Mt. Gox Rattles Bitcoin Market, jointly written by Robin Sidel, Michael Casey, and Eleanor Warnock, talked about the closure of Mt. Gox, the Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange, and the lack of regulation of the virtual currency.

In a nutshell, it talked about Mt. Gox stopped all transactions on Tuesday, and that it has been experiencing technical difficulties for months, including a hacking attempt two weeks ago and an alleged loss of almost 750,000 Bitcoins, about 6% of the Bitcoins in existence and valued at $400 million. Overall, it cast a pretty grim outlook on the future of Bitcoins as a reliable trading currency due to its volatility and lack of regulation.

One of the subjects interviewed for this story was Erik Voorhees, a Panama City-based investor of Bitcoin startups, whose mention in the story was:

Erik Voorhees, another investor in bitcoin startups, said he has given up on a stash of more than 550 bitcoins that he has at Mt. Gox. At current prices, they are valued at about $300,000.

“That’s gone now,” said Mr. Voorhees, who is based in Panama City, Panama. “There’s no chance of getting that back now.”

No one knows how many investors face possible losses or how much money is at stake. Mt. Gox has been losing trading volume in recent months to rival exchanges. Efforts to reach Mt. Gox officials were unsuccessful.

Voorhees (whom the author misspelled as “Veerhoos” originally) felt that his quote was heavily misrepresented, and his interest in the matter completely warped. He posted an open letter to the reporter, Casey, on Reddit:

Hello Mr. Casey,

I read your WSJ article today. I feel deceived by you.

You requested to speak with me, so I took time out of my day to do so. We talked for 20 minutes, during which time I conveyed to you my sentiments about the Bitcoin ecosystem and the matter of MtGox’s collapse. My message was unambiguously a positive one. I didn’t focus whatsoever on the personal funds I lost at Gox. Indeed, the impetus for your call was my heartfelt post on Reddit.

Yet, you ignored everything I said. The only quote that you published from me in the Journal’s cover story was “”That’s gone now,” said Mr. Veerhoos, who is based in Panama City, Panama. “There’s no chance of getting that back now.””

Is that really the takeaway you had from our call and from my letter? Is that your idea of journalism? Did I come across with the sentiment of a despairing investor whose confidence has been rattled? It seems you were happy to completely ignore my sentiments, preferring instead to cherry pick the one fact that is least important, in order to paint a narrative that Bitcoin’s biggest problem is that it’s not “regulated.” I didn’t expect you to quote everything I said, but should you not have maintained at least a modicum of fidelity to my message?

I have dedicated my life to building and supporting the Bitcoin project. I don’t give a damn about the money I lost at Gox. That’s not important. What is important is that Bitcoin is resilient and enduring, and will continue to grow and change the world for the better. It is a story of human progress through technology. It is a story of the good seeping into the cracks of a corrupted financial system. It is a story of passionate people struggling against all odds to remedy the calamities brought down upon society from the most potently misguided people and institutions on Earth.

Next time you spend your efforts casting a pall over this cause, please don’t ask me to contribute mine.

-Erik Voorhees

PS – I will be posting this letter openly on Reddit. I will post your reply if you’d like. And if I do, I won’t cherry pick the most misleading points of it, and I will spell your name correctly.

The Ethics

This invites the the question of the integrity of journalists — constrained by word space and the angle they have to push, how much liberty can journalists take with regards to the quotes they get from their interviewees? Any reasonable reading of the article will find not a shred of a positive light regarding Bitcoins, what with lines like:

But the unregulated currency isn’t backed by a central bank, raising alarms about which bodies can intervene when crises arise.

Or:

The Mt. Gox mess hasn’t changed the enthusiasm of Overstock.com, which began accepting bitcoin for payment in January.

It is clear that the authors were trying to push the angle of the unreliability of Bitcoins. However, interviewee Voorhees’ given interview was that of a positive one with regards to Bitcoin usage and its future, according to his post on Reddit. The reporter Casey then seems to have misrepresented Voorhees’ interest by cherry-picking quotes and placing them out of context.

From an ethical point of view, that seems dastardly. I understand that writers have to pick a strong, consistent angle to sell the story, and Casey picked the one about the unreliability of Bitcoins, and had to ensure that the theme is consistent throughout the article. But when the trust in journalists to protect the integrity of given interviews is lost by the interviewees, who will be left to give any more interviews in the future? While not on the same level as Judith Miller refusing to disclose her sources, there is an expectation from interviewees that the journalists whom they have agreed to grant an interview to will no misrepresent them. This is a covenant between the reporter and the interviewee that should never be broken.

One then would also have to wonder about the blame of the editor, who is responsible for making sure the story is as sell-able as possible. In this case, we have not heard back from Casey regarding the decision to cherry-pick Voorhees’ quotes, whether was it his editor that pushed for that decision or was it purely Casey’s. While it is the reporter’s job to do the legwork of collecting the facts and quotes, the editor, who puts things together and rearranges them, is as much a part of the journalistic process as is the journalist.

Interestingly, Chris Lamprecht, known as the first person in the world to be banned from the internet, commented on Voorhees’ predicament.

Erik,

A long time ago, in 1995, I was the first person banned from the Internet, and my case was in the news. An honest journalist once told me something very important that I never forgot. I was asking him if he could include certain things in his article. He said:

“Chris, you have to understand that journalists are not your PR agency. Journalists have their own agenda. They are going to write whatever story they want to, or whatever story their editor told them to write.”

Any honest journalist will tell you something similar. Unfortunately, not enough journalists care about writing an accurate story.

Thanks for being a good voice for Bitcoin.

Truer words never spoken, and an unfortunate but accurate description for what journalists were and still are today. Why do we tolerate such shoddy standards though? It is not as if journalism has to be that way.

The Answer?

Journalism has always been a reader-led effort — not only what the readers want to read, but how they want to read it, journalism has always answered and provided. If readers want salacious content, then salacious content becomes “journalism.” If readers want their content speedy, where the first medium to produce the article is the most efficient, then hasty journalism becomes journalism as well.

And then we proceed to complain about why journalism these days is so poor in content, and poorly fact-checked.

We have to realise that journalism is what we want to read, and until we decide that we want accurate, fair, and balanced journalism, we will always have shoddy, subpar works that obfuscates as much as it tries to tell a story.

So much bad reporting about the Obamacare-Little Sisters brouhaha

Little Sisters of the Poor. Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Image credit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

One of the news stories that came out around the turn of 2013/14 was the story of a religious group of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who aid the elderly. The story reported by many publications basically says this:

Obamacare is forcing a religious group of nuns to provide contraception to their employees! Shame on Obamacare!

Related arguments include: The Obama administration doesn’t think the Little Sisters are religious enough to qualify for church exemptions; the government shouldn’t force religious entities to do anything that goes against their moral beliefs.

Currently, the majority of news sites that tout this stance are mostly Op-Eds, as well as, of course, Fox News, and some others infamous for being less credible news sources, such as the NY Post.

However, given some of the facts of the case that were made available from the beginning of the case that really undermines the Little Sister’s standing, it’s unbelievable that writers are still deliberately ignoring those points and writing pieces with only side of the story — much bad journalism indeed. Well, I suppose sensationalising stories is nothing new, especially with some news sites whose purpose are not so much to enlighten but to build narratives.

However, some sites, such as the Huffington Post and the Denver Post, have also been guilty of reporting only one the side of the story where the Obama administration is being the overpowering encroacher. For them, it shouldn’t have been hard to do a quick search to find out what the facts are, should it?

I’ll summarise the facts and developments of the story:

  • On January 1st, 2014, a mandate from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as “Obamacare,” would require employers providing insurance to is employees to include contraception coverage, or face fines.
  • Religious organisations, such as churches and synagogues, are exempt.
  • The Little Sisters of the Poor is a religious-affiliated non-profit, not a religious organisation, so they are still required to provide contraception coverage.
  • However, a provision in the ACA states that religious-affiliated groups, such as the Little Sisters, can opt out by filling out a conscientious objection form.
  • The objection form will then pass the burden of providing contraception coverage onto a third-party insurer.
  • Little Sisters says that even signing the form goes against their religious beliefs, because it makes them complicit in providing of contraception.
  • However, their arguments have a flaw: their employees are using a “church plan” insurance, which pre-dates the ACA, and under the church plan, the Little Sisters doesn’t have to provide contraception coverage anyway.
  • Little Sisters appeals for an injunction of the ACA mandate on them, appeal was rejected. On December 31, one day before the ACA mandate takes effect, Justice Sotomayer grants a stay on the rejection of the appeal, until a decision is reached.
  • The U.S. government has asked the Supreme Courts not to extend the exemption

There is a law, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), that sets the standards for benefits provided to employees, should employers choose to provide them, and those under the church plan provision of ERISA don’t have to provide contraception coverage. Since it pre-dates the ACA, it limits the federal government’s authority over the health plan that the Little Sisters has, the Obama administration argues, and under ERISA the Feds couldn’t intervene or penalize it.

“There is no statutory authority to regulate the third-party administrator of a self-insured church plan and no legal compulsion for that administrator to provide contraceptive coverage where an eligible organization with a self-insured church plan invokes the accommodation, ” the government lawyers argued in an earlier Circuit Court brief.

So the Little Sisters is essentially just against the signing of the form, where if they do sign it, nothing changes from status quo — no contraception coverage will be provided, not even by third-party insurers. Yet if the Denver group doesn’t invoke that “accommodation” by self-certifying, it is still subject to hefty fines under the Affordable Care Act, at $6,700 a day, or $4.5 million a year, which comprises a third of their budget. Are they then petitioning against potential spiritual complicity, not even actual spiritual complicity, where signing the form equates to providing for the possibility of complicity, where if I sign, were I not under a church plan, I’d possibly have to provide contraception coverage, and that is against my moral beliefs? Can people actually petition against a counterfactual situation? The Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, which is also defending a similar case for Hobby Lobby, a private company that refused to provide contraception coverage because of their religious values, has taken up the Little Sisters’ case.

There is no deadline for court action, and Sotomayor can make the decision herself or refer it to the whole court, in which case all nine justices will decide.

Miyazaki: Not retiring from making retirement announcements any time soon

hayao-miyazaki

Good news for all Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli fans. Miyazaki is (once again) not retiring! The studio’s iconic film-maker’s apparent retirement was disputed when Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki talked about Miyazaki’s current project.

From the Guardian:

The news that the 72-year-old film-maker is continuing to draw was broken by Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki on the Japanese TV show Sekai-ichi Uketai Jugyō. “I think he will serialise a manga,” said Suzuki when asked how Miyazaki was enjoying his retirement. “From the beginning, he likes drawing about his favourite things. That’s his stress relief.” Suzuki then confirmed the project’s Warring States setting, but added: “He’ll get angry if I talk too much. Let’s stop talking about this.”

This marks the seventh time Miyazaki has announced his retirement, and came back each time:

  1. 1986: Castle in the sky
  2. 1992: Porco Rosso
  3. 1997 : Princess Mononoke
  4. 2001: Spirited Away
  5. 2004: How’s Moving Castle
  6. 2008: Ponyo
  7. 2013: The Wind Rises

The New Yorker’s guide to playing Nostradamus for 2014

Want to sound like you know what’re you’re talking about, when prompted for opinions on the outlook for 2014 when at a dinner party? The New Yorker provides a cheat-sheet on world events that will matter in 2014 based on the developments of the previous year, so that one can make impressive-sounding informed predictions for the year.

1. Can Obama recover? Sure he can. After all the troubles of the past couple of months, his approval rating is already rebounding a bit. According to the Gallup daily tracking poll, he ended 2013 with a forty-four per cent approval rating. That’s not great, but it’s higher than his numbers throughout much of 2010 and 2011. Surprisingly enough, it’s also higher than his ratings in the summer of 2012, just before he waxed Mitt Romney in the general election. How high can Obama go? That depends upon the answers to the next two questions.

2. Will the economy accelerate? Yes. Barring some great cataclysm, this should be the year when G.D.P. growth finally rises above three per cent—a rate of expansion it hasn’t seen since 2005. According to the latest figures, all the major sectors of the economy are picking up, withmanufacturing and construction leading the way. Job creation has increased, and economic-policy decisions are helping. The Fed remains committed to keeping interest rates at record lows, and the recent budget deal between Democrats and Republicans means that fiscal policy will be a bit less restrictive than it was last year, when it reduced growth by about one and half percentage points.

3. Will Obamacare work? Yes, but there will continue to be problems. On New Year’s Eve, the government announced that six million Americans had already signed up for health coverage. About 2.1 million have found private insurance policies through the online exchanges operated by the federal government and the states; another 3.9 million have signed up for the expanded Medicaid program. So much for the idea that the Affordable Care Act was unworkable.

The potential problems are threefold. Enrollment through healthcare.gov, although it has picked up sharply, remains below the Administration’s projections. And it’s not clear who is signing up. If, as some observers suspect, it is mainly older people and folks with preëxisting conditions, then this will create problems for the insurance companies, who will be tempted to raise prices for 2015. That could lead to more complaints about people losing their existing policies and being forced to buy more costly plans.

4. Can the Republicans take the Senate in the midterms? It’s not out of the question. To gain control, the Republicans need to gain six seats, which is a big swing. But the Democrats are defending seats in seven states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Early polls show the G.O.P. candidates leading or close in all of these states. Democrats will be hoping to hold at least a couple of them. Two of their best bets may be Louisiana and North Carolina, where the Democrats, Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan, have plenty of money and strong organizations. In Georgia, Democrats also have hopes that Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, will take the seat being vacated by G.O.P. senator Saxby Chambliss. Throughout the country, much depends on whether the Republicans can put up mainstream candidates, or whether, as in 2012, they will be burdened with Tea Party extremists.

5. Will Hillary Clinton launch a second bid for the Presidency? Yes. In a recent interview with Barbara Walters, she said that she would decide in 2014. She has a lot of support in the Democratic Party; her poll ratings, although they have slipped back over the past twelve months, are still decent; and, since she is now sixty-six, this is probably her last chance to become the first female President. Not long ago, I spoke to somebody close to Hillary who said that the chances of her running were seventy-thirty. I reckon the real figure is about ninety-ten.

6. Will the Iranians agree on a permanent nuclear deal? Only Ayatollah Khamenei and his fellow mullahs know the answer. So far, they have supported President Rouhani’s outreach to the West, which resulted in an interim agreement that suspended nuclear enrichment in return for limited relief from sanctions. But talks on a broader agreement have already run into difficulties,and reaching a deal would necessarily involve the Iranians making a series of concessions that they have hitherto stoutly rejected. “It remains uncertain if Iran recognizes the extent to which it will have to roll back its infrastructure to reach a deal,” Robert Einhorn, a non-proliferation expert at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal.

7. Will the civil war in Syria end? No. Now that both the Obama Administration and many of the Islamist rebels have effectively given up on the Free Syrian Army, the only victor in the war is likely to be Bashar al-Assad and his government forces. But the United States, along with Assad’s traditional enemies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will be loath to accept this reality. Together, they’ll provide enough weapons and logistical support to keep a hodgepodge of anti-Assad forces in the field, while the international community tries to cobble together some sort of face-saving peace deal. The likely result: more bloodshed and more refugees.

8. Will John Kerry produce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians?No. With its security policies working, and Palestinian terror attacks greatly reduced, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu sees no need to make the sort of compromises that a peace treaty would entail. Earlier this week, as Kerry arrived in Tel Aviv to try and revive the peace process, Ze’ev Elkin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said, “The Jordan Valley must be under Israeli sovereignty forever.” He added that “the 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders.” A great many Palestinians, meanwhile, see the 1967 borders as the basis for a negotiated solution.

9. Will the Chinese economic miracle continue? Yes. After thirty years of rapid growth, the Chinese economy is now threatening to overtake the U.S. economy as the world’s largest, according to some measures. But there’s still plenty of scope for so-called “catch-up growth.” In terms of G.D.P. per person, the United States is still about five times as rich as China. Even middle-income countries such as Latvia and Chile are twice as rich. But with the formerly Communist nation still spending close to fifty per cent of its G.D.P. on infrastructure projects, education, and other forms of investment, the gap is likely to keep closing for some time. That’s what happened in other fast-growing Asian economies that industrialized earlier, such as Japan and Korea, and there’s no reason to expect China will be different.

10. Will the bitcoin bubble burst? Perhaps. In recent months, the online currency has gone from a cult object to an economic phenomenon that governments and investors are starting to take seriously. Even Ben Bernanke said that such currencies “may hold long-term promise.” But that doesn’t mean that bitcoins are worth their current price in the market. Underlying all the hype and discussion is a bit of a contradiction. If bitcoins are the next-generation means of payment for global online commerce, which is what some of the currency’s techie boosters believe, we are going to need a lot more of them in circulation. But once there are lots more of them going around, their scarcity value will diminish, and so will their price.

11. Will the stock market crash? Over the long term, U.S. corporations are a much safer bet than bitcoins, but this year could be a tricky one for the market. It’s not just that prices have gone up a lot—in 2013, the Dow jumped thirty per cent. The bigger problem is that long-term interest rates are rising, which often portends trouble for stocks. Paradoxically, the biggest danger is from a strong economy. If G.D.P. growth accelerates dramatically, investors will start to worry about the Fed shifting back to normal faster than expected, and this could lead to a sell-off in stocks. Wall Street is hoping for the “Goldilocks” recovery to continue, with growth strong enough to boost corporate profits, but not strong enough to spook the Fed.

12. Will Brazil win the World Cup? No. With an experienced coach in Luiz Felipe Scolari,and gifted young stars like Neymar (Barcelona)Oscar (Chelsea), and Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Brazil has the talent to match anybody. But in such a soccer-made nation, and with a relatively inexperienced team, the pressure of winning at home will prove too much.

The changing face of the New York Time’s webpage

 

 

nyt

The New York Times launched their new webpage today.

From the Atlantic:

This week, The New York Times will be launching a redesign of its website. The updated version of NYTimes.com, the paper promises in a promo, will be “sleeker,” “faster,” “more intuitive,” and “enhanced” than its forebears*. “We’ve streamlined our article pages,” the paper explains, “and created a more responsive interface with faster load times.”

Another thing that’s being streamlined? The site’s homepage. The front door to the country’s paper of record has been remodeled, with a new emphasis on interstitial spaces and sleek blacks and whites. Above, you can see that evolution in action—via a GIF featuring screen-captures of homepages dating from the past to the present: the years 2001, 2004, 2007, 2012, and the soon-to-come version of 2014.

Hat tip Chris Heller

 

Learn to separate the GMO hate from anti-corporatism

Greggor Ilagan, county council who initially sought to ban GMO in Hawaii, rethinks his position after deciding to learn about GMO himself through scientists, rather than self-styled “experts.” Image credit New York Times

There has been so much GMO food (genetically-modified organisms) hate going round the internet for as long as GMO has been around. Scary pictures depict GMO as a sort of “Frankenfood” that will ultimately give us all cancers and destabilise society. In fact, the New York Times just reported on how Hawaii passed a bill for vote to ban all GMOs on Hawaii, with much support from policy-makers and the voting crowd. Unsurprisingly, the ones most worried about the passing of such a ban are the papaya growers of the island, and county council member Greggor Ilagan, who undertook an effort to actually learn about what GMOs are, found many of the misconceptions he had about genetically-modified food debunked.

While it is true that not everything is known about GMO, the fight against GMO is, if one were to look carefully at the vitriol thrown against the technology, is half-parts resisting the actual technology itself, and half-parts decrying the unscrupulous practices of the corporations such as Monsanto that control the industry. It is important to not to lump corporatism with what is perceived to be the ills of GMO foods, because they’re separate things.

But the sad thing is, the “evidence” given against the science of GMO have mostly been disproved, yet these untruths still are touted around as legit reasons to completely throw GMO out the window. For example:

  • Gilles-Éric Séralini and a group of French researchers published a peer-reviewed study that rats fed GMO corn developed giant tumours and died prematurely — This is one of the most often cited study as to why GMO will kill us all. The study has been criticised for many reasons: 1) The rats chosen for the study were of a strain extremely prone to tumours. 2) Sample size problems. Where the OECD recommends at least 50 rats for carcinogenicity studies per testing group, Séralini only used 10, making it results more likely to be error-prone. 3) Statistical cherry-picking: Séralini did not publish crucial information about the study. The journal that published Séralini’s paper has since retracted it.
  • Judy Carman, Australian researcher, claims that pigs fed GM corn and GM soybean meal showed increased incidence of stomach inflammation. This too has been debunked for the following reasons: 1) While they showed pictures of GM-fed pigs with stomach inflammation, the pigs that were fed non-GM food actually developed more inflammations than the ones fed GM-food. 2) The pigs were subject to terrible living conditions, and that 60% of pigs of both groups developed pneumonia anyway, evidence of bad husbandry. 3) Statistic-fudging: The researchers separated the groups into different bands of inflammation and ran separate statistical tests so that their P-values could limbo underneath the P < 0.05 mark to be confident in. That is, they went fishing for the right values to validate their hypothesis, which was chosen after the experiment run–stomach inflammation.
  • GMO food causes autism. A mere error of confusing correlation and causation, something that can happen.
  • GMO crops pollinate with weeds, passing on their foreign-inserted genes, causing superweeds. GMO crops do not pollinate with weeds (except in rare cases, but that’s a different story). “Superweeds” are caused by improper and excessive use of the pesticides, without rotating types of pesticides used, nor were there other forms of weed control practices used other than pesticides. This led to the weeds gaining a resistance to the pesticides. Unfortunately, because of these superweeds caused by excessive use of pesticides, farmers end up having to use more and more pesticide to kill off these resistant strands, sometimes reverting to the use of pesticides that these GM crops were supposed to phase out.
  • The foreign-introduced genes in GM-food will be passed onto humans when we ingest it, possibly leading to health complications down the road. There are no conclusive studies that have proven this. On the other hand, there have been no studies that can conclusively say that there are absolutely no risks to eating GM-food, but as far as studies can show up to this point, they have been proven safe enough to eat.

Now, we move on to the criticism of the corporatism aspects resulting from the GMO industry.

  • GM cotton has led to farmer suicides in India. Vandana Shiva, an environmental and feminist activist from India, repeated an alarming statistic: “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she said. Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds, containing a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, cost five times that of local varieties. This caused scalpers to mix the Bt seeds with conventional ones to sell them at lower prices, and the sham seeds usually result in crop failures, adding on to the farmers’ financial problems. But while the total number of suicides in India grew from just under 100,000 to more than 120,000 in 2007, the number of farmer suicides remained constant at around 20,000 per yer. Yields actually grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains.
  • Monsanto will sue you for growing their GMO if the pollen blows through your field and sprouts. Monsanto has shown no evidence of intentionally bringing a lawsuit against a farmer whose field was accidentally pollinated. Monsanto has filed suits against 145 farmers since 1997, for intentionally planting their patented seeds without having purchased the rights to do so. They’ve only proceeded through trial in eleven of the cases, all of which they won. The idea of “Monsanto suing for accidental cross-pollination” came from the 1999 case of the Canadian canola farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who claimed that his 95% GMO-seeded field was an accident. The judge eventually found Schmeiser to have intentionally planted the seeds, but since he derived no benefit from the planting, did not have to pay any damages.
  • Corporations like Monsanto make seeds that are sterile, and force farmers to constantly have to buy seeds from them each planting. From NPR: “This idea presumably has its roots in a real genetic modification (dubbed the Terminator Gene by anti-biotech activists) that can make a plant produce sterile seeds. Monsanto owns the patent on this technique, but has promised not to use it.””Now, biotech companies — and Monsanto in particular — do seem to wish that this idea were true. They do their best to keep farmers from replanting the offspring from GMOs. But they do this because, in fact, those seeds will multiply.”However, relying on corporations for seeds isn’t new. By the time Monsanto got into the seed business, most farmers in the U.S. and Europe were already relying on seed that they bought from seed companies. This shift started with the rise of commercial seed companies, not the advent of genetic engineering. But Monsanto and GMOs certainly accelerated the trend drastically.
  • The majority of our foods are GM already. Actually, not quite so. Currently, only eight crops (alfafa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and zucchini) are widely-grown GM, with some others at risk for contamination. Of the GM crops, corn and sugar beets have a lot of derived products made from them, such as aspartame, amino acids, high-fructose corn syrup, and xanthan gum, amongst some.

I’m sure I’ve missed out on some of the criticisms, but these are the usual suspects raised against GMO.

I’m certainly uneasy with the monopoly these major corporations have over our food production methods, when only one or two major companies supply the majority of seeds sold to farmers. I can certainly understand the companies’ desires to patent their seeds, since they’ve spent time and money into researching them, but not all GM work like Monsanto. Looking at Hawaii’s GM “Rainbow” papayas, it was developed primarily by scientists at academic institutions, has no patent protecting it, and it was a model for how the technology could benefit small farmers. This GM almost single-handedly saved Hawaii’s papayas from an outbreak of the ringspot virus in the mid-90s.

But just because we’re uneasy with the corporation, doesn’t mean the science of GMO is bad. What we should work towards is better regulation of standards and rigorous testing of GM food, and creating a framework of ethical standards that straddles a balance between profit for the corporations as well as understanding that such technology is ultimately created for the benefit of mankind and ending food shortages, not a mere means to a pretty penny. The fear-mongering of sensationalised untruths against GMO is only going to hurt not only the farmers, but ultimately the people as well.