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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Renewing the Library of Congress

<p>Not going anywhere.</p>
 Photographer: Karen Bleier/AFP

NOT GOING ANYWHERE.

PHOTOGRAPHER: KAREN BLEIER/AFP

For 215 years, the Library of Congress has been collecting and organizing the world’s knowledge for the benefit of Americans. Now its longtime leader is exiting amid acrimony, its mission is increasingly muddled and — no small matter — Americans have Google. Is the world’s largest library still necessary?

The answer is yes. But as with every institution in the digital age, it needs to evolve. Its next leader, the 14th Librarian of Congress, will face three big challenges.

The first is boring but critical. The library — with more than 100 million books and manuscripts, a $630 million budget and a staff of more than 3,000 — is sprawling, chaotic and increasingly archaic. As a withering report from the General Accounting Office found earlier this year, its technology is outdated, duplicative and disorganized. Hundreds of new flat-screen monitors have been sitting in a warehouse for years. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted. Have you tried the website?

Fixing all this is a job for a competent bureaucrat. The library churned through five temporary chief information officers in three years before a permanent one was appointed in September. Its next leader should appreciate that modernizing the library’s technology — and hiring better IT staff — is a prerequisite for subsequent reforms, such as digitizing more of its archives and opening more of its research to the public.

The second challenge is more daunting, but potentially more edifying. With many of the nation’s 16,000 public libraries shrinking, closing or morphing into social-service centers (often run by for-profit companies), it’s appropriate to ask whether such institutions are still essential to a 21st-century democracy. The next librarian should have a ready answer — they are — and be able to articulate a vision for libraries in the digital age.

That doesn’t mean awkwardly chasing Silicon Valley trends (the library’s mystifying attempt to collect everything on Twitter comes to mind). But it does mean applying the values that librarians have long upheld to a new era when they’re by no means assured. Simply preserving knowledge, for instance, is shockingly difficult online: Most Web pages disappear within months of their creation. The free exchange of information is diminished when citizens are tracked and prodded by marketers as they journey across the Web, and when much of what they find is dubious or corrupted. Helping ensure that authoritative scholarship and reliable information remain free to the public online should be an overriding priority. Leading an effort tosensibly coordinate — and preserve — the digital collections of public and university libraries would be a good start.

Finally, the next librarian will have to confront the bedeviling issue of copyright reform. The U.S. Copyright Office, a part of the library since 1897, is a crucial component of the global digital economy. But its computer systems are dysfunctional, its staff is overwhelmed, and its decisions too often seem arbitrary. There’s a strong case that it would be better off as an independent agency. Although that’s a question for Congress, the broader issue of copyright — and its uneasy tension with free speech in the age of the remix — will require some clear and creative thinking from the next librarian.

All told, these challenges require a person who combines administrative competence with imaginative leadership — someone, in other words, suited to an institution built on the library of Thomas Jefferson.

 

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Posted by on November 24, 2015 in African American News

 

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Hand gestures say a lot about your intelligence

Bill Gates
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesBill Gates.

Over the past few years, while working on my book, “Brilliant,” I’ve been watching and taking note as a new conceptualization of intelligence takes shape in the social and biological sciences.

This conceptualization involves many lines of inquiry that can be loosely grouped under the title “situated cognition”: The idea that thinking doesn’t happen in some abstract, disembodied space, but always in a particular brain, in a particular body, located in a particular social and physical world.

The moment-by-moment conditions that prevail in that brain, that body, and that world powerfully affect how well we think and perform.

One of the most interesting lines of inquiry within this perspective is known “as embodied cognition”: the recognition that our bodies play a big role in how we think.

Physical gestures, for example, constitute a kind of back-channel way of expressing and even working out our thoughts. Research demonstrates that the movements we make with our hands when we talk constitute a kind of second language, adding information that’s absent from our words.

It’s learning’s secret code: Gesture reveals what we know. It reveals what we don’t know. And it reveals (as Donald Rumsfeld might put it) what we know, but don’t yet know we know. What’s more, the congruence — or lack of congruence — between what our voices say and how our hands move offers a clue to our readiness to learn.

Christina MillianSteven Lawton/Stringer/Getty ImagesChristina Millian.

Many of the studies establishing the importance of gesture to learning have been conducted by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “We change our minds by moving our hands,” writes Goldin-Meadow in a review of this work published in a recent issue of the journal Cognitive Science.

Particularly significant are what she calls “mismatches” between verbal expression and physical gestures. A student might say that a heavier ball falls faster than a light one, for example, but make a gesture indicating that they fall at the same rate, which is correct. Such discrepancies indicate that we’re in a transitional state, moving from one level of understanding to another.

The thoughts expressed by hand motions are often our newest and most advanced ideas about the problem we’re working on; we can’t yet assimilate these notions into language, but we can capture them in movement.

When a child employs gesture, Goldin-Meadow notes, “the information about the child’s cognitive state is conveyed “sub rosa” — below the surface of ordinary conversation.” Such gesture-speech mismatches have been found in toddlers going through a vocabulary spurt, in elementary-school children describing why the seasons change, and in adults attempting to explain how a machine works.

Goldin-Meadow’s more recent work shows not only that gesture is an index to our readiness to learn, but that it actually helps to bring learning about. It does so in two ways.

First, it elicits helpful behavior from others around us. Goldin-Meadow has found that adults spontaneously respond to children’s speech-gesture mismatches by adjusting their mode of instruction. Parents and teachers apparently receive the signal that children are ready to learn, and they act on it by offering a greater variety of problem-solving strategies.

Oprah WinfreyFrederick M. Brown/Stringer/Getty ImagesOprah Winfrey.

The act of gesturing itself also seems to accelerate learning, bringing nascent knowledge into consciousness and aiding the understanding of new concepts. A 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, reported that third-graders who were asked to gesture while learning algebra were nearly three times more likely to remember what they’d learned than classmates who did not gesture.

Another experiment conducted by Cook determined that college students who gestured as they retold short stories they’d seen recalled the details of the stories better, suggesting that gesturing as we’re remembering helps retrieve the information from memory.

So how can you crack learning’s secret code?

First, pay attention to your own gestures.

Research has found that watching a teacher gesture encourages young learners to produce gestures of their own. Learning improves even when children are given a specific gesture by someone else, rather than generating it themselves.

In a 2009 experiment, Goldin-Meadow demonstrated that fourth-graders learning how to solve a math equation identified the correct answers more often when they imitated a helpful gesture shown to them by an adult than when they simply repeated the grown-up’s words.

Second, train yourself to attend to others’ gestures.

Notice in particular the gestures that diverge from speech — when people say one thing and motion another, they are primed to take advantage of instruction and direction from others. And encourage your kids to move their hands when they talk. Studies show that children instructed to gesture make more speech-gesture mismatches — that is, they increase their readiness to learn.

By broadening our notion of how and where thinking takes place, we can effectively add to our repertoire another way to be smart.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in African American News

 

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12 Business Books You Should Read Right Now

Stack of books on pedestal
Chris Ryan—Getty Images/Caiaimage

The surprising key to business success: reading.

Reading is the best way to gain experience without having been there yourself. As Warren Buffett’s business partner Charlie Munger said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” While there are mounds of terrible business books out there, there are some hidden gems. Read on for what I think are the best 12 business books and why you should read them.

Self-improvement

1. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Carnegie’s classic book was first published in 1936 and remains a best-seller today . The crux is Carnegie’s idea that “the person who has technical knowledge plus the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people — that person is headed for higher earning power.” Buffett took a course on the book when he was 20 and said the experience “changed my life.”

2. Choose Yourself! by James Altucher
In this book, Altucher demonstrates that it’s up to you, and easier than ever, to take charge of your life and create both inward and outward success. He offers lessons learned through accounts of the trials, tribulations, and heartbreaks of his own life.

Leadership and management

1. The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker
This is the classic management book by business guru Drucker. For Drucker, executives’ key job is to “get the right things done.” He identifies five essential practices to business effectiveness for executives: “managing time, choosing what to contribute, knowing where and how to mobilize strength, setting the right priorities, and effective decision-making.” A favorite of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, this book offers many valuable lessons.

2. Turn This Ship Around! by L. David Marquet
Marquet was a submarine captain who turned around the USS Santa Fefrom the worst submarine in the U.S. Navy to the best. The book teaches timeless principles of empowering leadership. Fortune Magazine called the book the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”

Strategy

1. The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen
The book teaches the theory of disruptive innovation and why great companies fail when they ignore disruptive products in their competitive space. A favorite of Bezos, Steve Jobs, and countless other great CEOs, the book challenges conventional wisdom on what businesses should be focused on and when they should deviate from business as normal.

2. Competition Demystified by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn
Written by the current head of the Columbia Business School’s Value Investing program, Bruce Greenwald, this book presents a way to analyze the competitive structure of any industry, and pairs it with the idea of moats, market niches, and competitive advantage.

Marketing

1. Influence by Robert B. Cialdini
This book could also be titled defense against the dark arts of marketing and persuasion. It explains the psychology of marketing and persuasion, which you can learn for using yourself or for defending yourself against it. In the early 1990s, Charlie Munger gave a series of talks on the psychology of human misjudgment (which have been combined and condensed in his book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack ) in which he heaped praise on the book for filling gaps in his knowledge. This is the book that I give most often as a present and is my top recommendation on this list.

2. Purple Cow by Seth Godin
The book that made the word “remarkable” clear to me (worth remarking on). This book delves into the importance of differentiation and of creating things that other people find worth pointing out. I would also highly recommend Seth Godin’s blog where he has published once a day for 12 years now.

Entrepreneurship

1. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Written by a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, this book doesn’t sugarcoat how hard it is to run your own business. Filled with practical wisdom from Horowitz’s business experiences, including the near failure of his own company, this is a worthwhile read for aspiring entrepreneurs and managers alike.

2. Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
This book came out of the notes Masters took when Thiel (founder of PayPal, Palantir, Thiel Fellows and Clarium Capital, and lead investor in Facebook) taught a Stanford University class on start-ups. The book title comes from the idea that “Doing what someone else already knows how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1.” You can read the book, or go straight to the notes if you are curious.

General business

1. Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
The book on rethinking how businesses work. This book provides a new framework for thinking about how businesses create and capture value through an intense look at how customers, distribution channels, partners, revenue streams, costs, and a business’s core value proposition all interconnect.

2. The Essays of Warren Buffett by Warren Buffett and Lawrence A. Cunningham
Buffett has long been praised for his concise writing and easy-to-understand metaphors of complex business concepts. This book compiles and condenses the best of Buffett’s letters to investors and other writings into a single book organized thematically. Everyone can learn from this book, but I would still highly recommend investors read Buffett’s collected letters to shareholders in full; they can be found on the Berkshire Hathaway website.

Learning is the key to success

The most successful people in the world become that way by continuously learning and improving themselves. It doesn’t happen overnight. Pick one of these books and start reading, you will be surprised at how much you’ll learn.

 

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3 Reasons You Should Have More Plants In Your Home

by Dan McNulty

Plants are a powerhouse of wellness for your home. They’ll provide you with a host of benefits, and they’ll make your house look great while doing it. I’ll admit, I’ve been kind of obsessed with this idea lately, and I think you’ll find the concept intriguing as well after learning about the myriad benefits they offer.

1. They purify your air.

You probably know that plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen; plants in your home are no exception. Oxygen affects every part of your body and mind, and making sure you get quality air is essential to your well-being.

Did you know NASA uses plants on the International Space Station to help with air quality? Certain species purify the air of toxins like benzene, formaldehyde, and more. In order to do this efficiently, the researchers at NASA recommend at least one plant per 100 square feet of home or office space.

2. They’re truly local produce.

A lot of people don’t live in a climate where it’s possible to plant something like a lemon tree or a lime tree outside, but did you know there are dwarf versions of these? They thrive while potted indoors virtually everywhere in the US. They even have dwarf banana trees, pineapple trees, avocado trees, fig trees, and more. All that fruit right in your sun room or living room window!

Imagine picking stevia leaves right off the stem, enjoying a fresh avocado for breakfast, or making a drink with limes and mint leaves that were grown right in your kitchen. A fully fruited lemon tree at a party would probably make for quite the conversation piece as well. There are some things you just won’t find in a Midwest or Northeastern farmer’s market, and fresh local citrus fruits or locally grown avocados are usually some of those things. Having these growing right in your own house is as local as it gets.

3. They make your house a home.

This is probably the best catchall for all those intangible qualities that having more plants will bring to your home. Plants are living things, and when you’re surrounded by living things you will feel better; you’re literally bringing more life into your house! There’s something about bringing live pieces of nature inside that just radiates a healthy energy throughout the room.

Fragrant plants like dwarf Kaffir lime trees will also fill the room with the most wonderful scents. It’s an all-natural alternative to those wall plug-ins filled with artificial fragrance chemicals. Other aromatics like mint, lemon grass, bay leaves, and basil (as well other others) have the added bonus of naturally repelling bugs as well!

All in all, when you have a lot of plants in your house, the benefits reach multiple aspects of your life. You’re improving the air you breathe, getting a healthy renewable ultra-local agricultural pipeline, naturally freshening your air, repelling insects, and bringing a unique energy into your home. With a little botanical maintenance, the rewards are endless.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in African American Health

 

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Decline and Fall of America’s Working Class

<p>A conundrum for economics.</p> Ty Wright for/Washington Post/Getty Images

TY WRIGHT FOR/WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES

A CONUNDRUM FOR ECONOMICS.

One big piece of news in the past couple of weeks has been the release of a new paper by recent economics Nobel winner Angus Deaton and his co-author Anne Case. The paper highlights a very disturbing trend — death rates are increasing for white people in America, especially for working-class middle-aged whites. The increase looks like it has been going on since the late 1990s.

Among other American groups, such as Hispanics and blacks, mortality has fallen across all age and income groups during the past decade and a half. Death rates have also plunged in Europe and in other rich countries. Although some statisticians later found that the mortality increase was a bit less than reported in the Deaton-Case paper, even a slight increase stands in stark contrast to the decline among all other groups.

The trend is concentrated among the less educated. For college-educated whites, mortality fell, much as it did for other racial groups and other nations. For those with some college, mortality was unchanged — a poor result, but not disastrous. But for white Americans with no college education, deaths have soared.

Something very troubling and very unique is happening to American working-class whites.

The immediate causes of the increase are not hard to identify. Drugs and suicide are the culprits. There is an epidemic of prescription painkiller, alcohol and heroin abuse among American whites. Deaths from alcohol and drug poisoning among middle-class whites have skyrocketed. White suicide rates have also risen dramatically to more than 20 per 100,000 people in the 45-54 age cohort.

But this doesn’t give us a real answer. Why are working-class whites turning to drugs and alcohol? Why are they killing themselves in record numbers? The trend started long before the 2009 recession, so that can’t be the main explanation. Falling household wealth isn’t the reason either, since mortality kept on increasing during the housing boom in the early 2000s. Nor is obesity the obvious cause; Case and Deaton find that obese and non-obese people report similar increases in pain and mental-health problems.

What about economic insecurity and falling wages? Starting in about 1980, job security stagnated and wages began to fall for the less-educated. But as economist Lane Kenworthy notes, mortality continued to fall among middle-aged uneducated whites from 1979 to 1995, and only later began to rise. In addition, economic insecurity and wage stagnation have been an even bigger problem for blacks and Hispanics, and yet those groups are seeing their mortality fall.

In other words, none of the easy economic or health explanations are very persuasive. When Japan saw a huge rise in suicide in the 1990s, and South Korea in the 2000s, slowdowns in economic growth seemed like the obvious culprit. When alcoholism soared for Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reason appeared equally clear. But none of those explanations works for working-class American whites during the past 15 years.

Economists may yet manage to tease out a reason from among the thicket of trends and variables. But this may simply be one of those times when economic theory isn’t that useful. After all, there exists no good economic model of drug abuse and suicide in the first place. The roots must be somehow sociological and psychological.

In fact, the deterioration of the American white working class is evident in other areas. Divorce rates have risen dramatically for this demographic group, even as they have fallen for the more educated. In other words, family breakdown is now as severe among the white working class as it was among the black working class in the 1960s, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report.

Is family breakdown the cause of alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide? Possibly — after all, families are an incredibly important source of emotional support. But that merely leads us to the question of why family breakdown is occurring in the first place.

Here’s a possible explanation that takes us back to economic factors. Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. economy started trending toward greater inequality. The less-educated lost the semi-skilled jobs that they had held in previous decades. The uneducated class became a floating low-skilled labor force, which decreased themarriageability of white working-class men. That impaired family formation. A couple of decades later, the lack of family support started to take a big bite out of the emotional health of working-class whites, causing them to turn to alcohol, drugs and suicide once they reached middle age.

I don’t know if this explanation is true. But if so, it means that our laissez-faire, neoliberal economic policy, combined with the pressure of competition from China and other low-wage countries, has had steeper social costs than we anticipated. Let’s hope economists find out if this, or something else, is behind this worrying deterioration of the working class.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

 
 

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Big Trouble in Little Data

(Nicu Buculei / Flickr )
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Last week, The New York Post reported a 250 percent increase in New York City’s murder rate: the city saw seven murders last week, compared to two the same week a year earlier. Does that mean the city’s in the grips of a crime wave?The trouble with the Post analysis is that one week of data tells us very little about long-term trends. The city’s murder rate varies way too much from week to week.

As Gawker was quick to point out, if we look at the data from two weeks ago instead, it seems like the murder rate has dropped 50 percent since last year. So which is it: is the murder rate skyrocketing or is it plummeting? Without a lot more data, we should be careful about claiming either.

It’s not just the Post. We all have a tendency to see stories in short-term fluctuations.

When stock prices move in the morning, does it mean something big or is it just noise that will even out? For an illustration of just how hard it is to time the market and identify the start of a real trend, try playing this stock trading game from Bloomberg Business or Quartz‘s historical S & P 500 game.

Sports commentators sometimes read into randomness, too. Part of the problem is that we imagine randomness to be orderly and evenly spaced out, when real randomness generates plenty of streaks and clusters. With lots of athletes playing lots of games, a sport will generate some random outcomes that feel irresistibly like patterns.

If you flip a coin enough times, it would be strange not to have any long runs of one outcome. But last week a CBS Sports headline suggested that the New England Patriots’ winning 19 of their last 25 pre-game coin tosses was “impossible.” Once you consider that streak in context, it looks far from impossible. In fact, with 32 teams in the NFL each playing 16 games a season, you’d expect some team to have a run that “impossible” every few years.

Randomness can fool us when our dataset is small, and it can also lead us astray when the numbers are imprecise. Last Friday’s strong jobs report triggered a flood of reactions (including our coverage from the AP), but The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates job growth with a survey and results get revised over time. As The Upshot illustrated last year, that means there’s a margin of error and a particular number of actual jobs might produce a range of different headlines through statistical noise.

With a presidential election approaching, we’re about to get another big dose of statistical noise: stories based on poll results. With so many polls being taken every week and some randomness in each, surprising results are inevitable. If you focus only on recent results in individual polls, it’ll make for a lot more ups and downs than the longer-term trend. Keep that in mind next time you see the outliers in the news.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2015 in African American News

 

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