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Reddit's role in measuring the cultural temperature
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin spent six years writing the definitive history of Reddit.
- Senior Inc. writer Christine Lagorio-Chafkin has published We Are The Nerds, the definitive history of Reddit.
- The website has been at the center of First Amendment battles for years.
- In many ways, the culture is measured through discussions occurring on Reddit.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can last months, or years, or a lifetime, especially if that lifetime is cut short by suicide. The most common reasons include war, sexual abuse, assault, and accidents. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 7 to 8 out of every 100 people will experience it at some point in their lives.
Why some people are susceptible to PTSD and others come through traumatic experiences relatively unscathed is, in part, a matter of biology. Pinpointing an exact neurochemical cocktail leading to this disorder might take a while, if ever, to discover. Understanding physiology is only one step; therapy follows. Yet that too might not be enough. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk phrases it this way:
The act of telling the story doesn't necessarily alter the automatic physical and hormonal responses of bodies that remain hypervigilant, prepared to be assaulted or violated at any time. For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.
The unimaginable horrors of desert combat, child abuse, and rape are understandable mechanisms for triggering PTSD. These are the often the first images to mind when trying to empathize with victims. In popular culture, it is the army veteran or the abused woman going through such ordeals.
How about a CEO trying to migrate his entire San Francisco company to Daly City so he has a shorter commute in his Tesla each morning? Not exactly the picture of suffering. And yet, by the time you read former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong's meltdown 300 pages into Christine Lagorio-Chafkin's new book, We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet's Culture Laboratory, it's hard not to empathize.
It wasn't only Wong who was suffering. Reddit has long been considered one of the darker corners on the mainstream Internet, second perhaps only to 4chan in its widespread dissemination of disturbing content. As Lagorio-Chafkin, a senior Inc. writer who spent six years working on this exhaustive history, tells it,
Exposure to graphic messages, abrupt and out-of-context threats, and extremist viewpoints has plagued generations of Reddit employees. To the designated community team, it was staring at violent images, racist words, and sussing out what precisely constituted child pornography. It was the work of reporting bomb threats, possible suicide attempts, and illegal images of underage girls and boys to investigators. It was hearing the voices through the phone of young women whose jilted ex-lovers had posted pornographic images of them online, women violated and terrified about their futures.
Wong's tenure was short. Others have emerged out of the chaos, though how well is up for debate. We Are the Nerds predominately focuses on co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, as well as early employees Chris Slowe and Aaron Swartz, the latter whose suffering did in fact lead to suicide. If you want a deep dive into what made Reddit one of the most popular websites in the world, you'll find it here.
Ohanian and Huffman met while freshmen at the University of Virginia. The two bonded over a shared passion for gaming and tech. Huffman, the coder, and Ohanian, the salesman, moved into an apartment together during their junior year. They both launched a number of projects and shared war stories from internships. But it was a meeting with computer scientist Paul Graham, one of the minds behind Lisp, that set them on their course.
The duo traveled to Cambridge to pitch MMM, a cell phone-based restaurant delivery service idea they'd concocted—how quaint a notion in 2004! Graham was launching a micro-funding tech think tank, Y Combinator, and was interested in having this duo in the pilot program. Incredibly, he rejected their proposal, yet had a change of heart; his phone call landed when they were halfway back to Virginia on the train. They hopped off at the next stop and crossed the platform to head north again.
MMM didn't last and the duo wasn't aware of Digg, but they were interested in a site that would become "the front page of the Internet." Graham was interested in a more robust version of del.icio.us, but the site featured longer articles and journals. This was not do for in a society whose attention span was being halved by the day. It took a while to land on a name—Breadpig was the frontrunner, while poplex and aggpop were contenders—but on a whim Ohanian bought Reddit.com, a play on "read it." Even today, Graham doesn't think it's a very good name.
Lagorio-Chafkin's history is detailed, but I'm mostly fascinated by the stories within the larger story: the unmasking of Violentacrez, a somewhat respected moderator who also ran a subreddit on "jailbait" (among many other questionable topics) and what that says about freedom of speech versus freedom of anonymity; Reddit's role in disseminating nude celebrity photos after an iCloud breach; the false identification of two men at the tragic Boston Marathon; a Reddit post that led to 2010's "Gathering to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," led by Stephen Colbert and John Stewart; Barack Obama jumping on to the most famous subreddit, Ask Me Anything, to directly engage with the public in 2012.
In many ways, Reddit has provided the cultural temperature more than any other site. In 2017, Huffman remarked that Trump's ascendency to the presidency was not a surprise, given the activity on one of the site's most notorious channels, r/The_Donald. Tech giants like Facebook, Apple, and Google have been under constant scrutiny for questionable security, privacy, and marketing practices. The content on Reddit has been questionable since day one, yet the site has escaped the broader scrutiny these other companies have had to endure.
Not that the site has been without its share of controversies. In fact, one could argue they lead in that category: questionable kidney donations, a celebrated and well-educated feminist taking over the reigns only to be petitioned out of her role, internal battles waged by ardent Trump supporters, banning alt-right activity, the hiding of Russian troll interference. Reddit is the true ground zero for free speech battles, as well as bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia.
Which is what happens when the journey from prefrontal cortex to eyeballs is mediated by the screen instead of transmitted in person. It's easy to blather at a screen; not so much in the presence of others. There is little accountability, not sense of agency on message boards, which causes us to forget real humans read the disgusting and profane content put forward over the years. As Lagorio-Chafkin writes,
The very concepts that made it possible for Reddit to become home to thousands of open, brutally honest, ingenuity-dappled forums that felt so much more genuine than the rest of the airbrushed-and-Photoshopped Internet had allowed users to hide behind u/names and cartoon alien avatars to say and do terrible things to one another. The real humans interacting there still had bodies, and those bodies—their colors, their shapes, their quirks—were fodder for abuse, hatred, and harassment.
Yet, though it all, Reddit is by some measures the true voice of the people. Democracy is messy; humans aren't perfect. This isn't to condone egregious behavior: death threats and child porn have no place anywhere, period. Xenophobia and racism exist, but we don't have to give it a platform—and no, denying them access does not equate to censorship, but an attempt to maintain the bare minimum sense of dignity. Civil rights were not supported by a majority of Americans in the early sixties. Sometimes you have to move ahead despite popular sentiment.
The most inspired moments in Lagorio-Chafkin's book happen when Redditors leave their digital lairs to commune in person. Online communities are benign; the intent makes the collection. By diving into the history of this incredible project, those people come alive. We Are the Nerds is an important reminder that the voice on the screen and the one infiltrating your ears are not necessarily the same. We need to grapple with both in the digital age. Sure, the shadows of Reddit are often most discussed by the media, but Lagorio-Chafkin does a wonderful job at humanizing the people behind the technology.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>