December 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
One of Sunday’s 60 Minutes segments was on the effects that continual screen time has on children’s brains. In particular, they looked at a study currently being conducted by the National Institutes of Health, a study looking at brain scans of 11,000 nine- and ten-year-olds over the course of a decade.
One of the experts interviewed on the show was Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager. His comments were actually made last year for another story on 60 Minutes titled “What Is ‘Brain Hacking’? Tech Insiders on Why You Should Care.” In the clip, Harris talks about the competition among developers to find ways to hook us on their apps. He calls it “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.”
(Here’s the entire segment from 2017. It’s well worth watching. But since it’s more than 13 minutes long, maybe you should keep reading and come back to it. I don’t want you to give up before you get to the second video below.)
So where do we find the off ramp from the highway to addiction? Gamification guru Gabe Zicherman tells the news show that we shouldn’t expect the creators of the technology to show us the way, as they’re not inherently inclined to make their products less habit forming. “Asking tech companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask,” he says. “It feels impossible. And also it feels anti-capitalistic. This isn’t the system we live in.”
Hmmm . . . maybe capitalism can produce solutions of its own. Take, for instance, this example of capitalism filtered through a Swedish furniture company in Taiwan. It uses technology to thwart technology. And it uses smartphones to get things cooking—literally. (Thanks for the link, Peter.)
July 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
“South African-Lithuanian Stuffed Matzah Balls”
9. Divide the matzah meal mixture into 8-10 balls of equal size.
10. Flatten the balls, then and place 1 tsp of meat filling in the center of each. Enclose the filling, pinch the edges together and form into balls.
11. Place the matzah balls into the rapidly boiling salted water and simmer 20 minutes.
12. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
13. Drain the matzah balls and place in a pan greased with chicken fat; cover with remaining 4 tsp chicken fat and sprinkle with cinnamon.
14. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until slightly browned.
May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
Nöden är uppfinningarnas moder.
That’s Swedish for “Necessity is the mother of invention” (unless I’m just completely mistaken).
For Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, industrial design students at Sweden’s Lund University in 2005, the necessity was a new law that required children under the age of 15 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. They understood that many people, including kids, don’t like wearing traditional bike helmet’s, so they wanted to create something that people would enjoy wearing and that would still keep them safe. The result was a collar worn around the neck that uses an accelerometer to detect a crash and instantly inflates an airbag to surround the head when needed.
In 2011 the Hövding (or “Chieftain”) passed required safety testing in Europe, receiving CE certification, and is now sold in 17 European countries—as far east as Istanbul—and in Japan. So, to readers in the US, when will you see one on a street near you? Probably not soon.
At first I assumed that the major issue was that Americans just aren’t sold on the idea, so I was hoping for some brave early adopters here to get the ball rolling. (I have the same hope for the Ostrich Pillow, another headgear innovation that I’d like to be the second or third on my block to own.) Or maybe it’s the cost: about $350—and it has to be replaced after deploying. But no, that’s not what’s holding it back, at least not yet. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to get one here.
First of all, according to the company’s website, the Hövding hasn’t met American testing standards for bicycle helmets. Second, it can’t be mailed outside of Europe (Japan has them because the airbags are made there). And third—because I know you’re thinking you’ll take your next vacation to Sweden and bring one back with you—TSA won’t allow one on your flight because of its CO2 cartridge.
As for the safety-standards factor in the States, a 2016 Stanford study shows the product’s potential. Mehmet Kurt, part of the Stanford research team, states that “air bag helmets, with the right initial pressure, can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet.” But the kicker is that “right initial pressure.” If the airbag doesn’t inflate with the maximum amount of air, then a forceful impact could cause the helmet to “bottom out,” and the head would strike the ground (or other obstacle) through the cushioning.
But maybe someday . . . here. The Stanford group calls for a general updating of US helmet standards and testing, which, they say, “are very far behind.” And then they want a more in-depth look at several aspects of the Hövding: how it protects against rotational accelerations and forces, how it performs when dropped from greater heights, what can be done to eliminate bottoming-out issues, and how to make it “smarter.”
Here’s hoping all that can get worked out and the Hövding, or something like it, can make it to our shores. Not only would having “invisible helmets” in the US prevent injuries, but it would also increase my odds of getting to not see one firsthand.
(Taylor Kubota, “Stanford Researchers Show Air Bag Bike Helmets Have Promise,” Stanford News, October 3, 2016)
May 6, 2018 § 3 Comments
For me, the most powerful moment in the movie The Greatest Showman is when the curtain rises on Jenny Lind and the “Swedish Nightingale” belts out “Never Enough” with joyful ferocity, while P. T. Barnum, who hadn’t before heard her sing, watches from the wings, simply amazed. His expression is what I think gobsmacked looks like.
(I have to include here, that the “Never Enough” performance was a team effort. Rebecca Ferguson, the actress who portrayed Lind didn’t actually sing “Never Enough” for the film. Instead, the words of the song were dubbed over by Loren Allred.)
But that name . . . Jenny Lind. Where had I heard it before? Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Something to do with the NBA? No, that’s Jeremy Lin. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. It wasn’t that I was familiar with her as a singer, even though no less than the German composer Felix Mendelssohn said of Lind, “She is as great an artist as ever lived; and the greatest I have known.” It wasn’t that I’d heard of how she took Europe by storm and sang for Queen Victoria. No, that wasn’t it, either.
And then as I looked into her story, I realized what it was: the Jenny Lind bed—with it’s turned spindles and simple design. I’ve never owned one and can’t say for sure that I’ve seen one in person. I just remember hearing about Jenny Lind furniture, which is only one example from the cottage industry of items using her name to take advantage of Lind-sanity, including Jenny Lind soup, dolls, melons, bread, tobacco, and even a locomotive.
Lind certainly became a global phenomenon, helped in no small part by Barnum. So before I continue on with her story, it will help to backfill a little with the beginnings of Mr. Barnum’s career. (It’s not quite the same as what’s portrayed in the film.)
Well before being labeled “The Greatest Showman,” Barnum began his entertainment career in 1835, at the age of 25, and would have been hard pressed to call himself a good person, much less a great one. As detailed by Becky Little in Biography, Barnum’s first money-making show exploited a blind, ill, enslaved black woman named Joice Heth. Billing her as the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington and “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World,” Barnum had entered into an agreement with an R. W. Lindsay of Kentucky, who “bargained, sold, transferred and delivered” her for the purpose of “possession” and “exhibition” for 12 months (the handwritten contract is shown at The Lost Museum Archive). Lind was actually no more than 80 years old, a fact that was revealed through an autopsy after her death, for which Barnum charged admission.
Several years later, Barnum’s exhibition, as described in the Charlotte Courier, included a platypus, an orangutan, a glass blower, automatons, and a combination ventriloquist and magician. But the main attraction was “the most wonderful curiosity in the world,” the “Feejee mermaid,” which turned out to be the torso of a monkey sewn on to the tail of a fish.
As Barnum’s fame grew and ticket sales rose, he was still seen not as a serious entertainer but as a huckster, and he looked for a way to gain respectability. Enter, in 1950, Jenny Lind.
Lind was born in 1820 to an unmarried schoolteacher in Stockholm, Sweden. Her singing talent was discovered when she was nine and she began performing at the age of ten. Before meeting Barnum, the soprano had already become a hit in Europe with her unmatched abilities, but she’d also retired, at the young age of 29. Four years before stepping away from the stage, Lind had spoken with her friend Harriet Grote about her dissatisfaction with performing. As recorded by Henry Scott Holland in Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851, Grote writes,
I manifested some surprise at hearing her speak of her profession with such dislike. She went on to say that it was the Theatre, and the sort of entourage it involved, that was distasteful to her: that at the Opera she was liable to be continually intruded upon by curious idlers and exposed to many indescribable ennuis: that the combined fatigue of acting and singing was exhausting: that the exposure to cold coulisses, after exertions on the stage in a heated atmosphere, was trying to the chest: the labour of rehearsals, tiresome to a degree: and that, altogether, she longed for the time to arrive when she would be rich enough to do without the Theatre—adding, “My wants are few—my tastes simple—a small income would content me.” She would sing occasionally, she said, both for charity and for her friends, as well as for the undying love she felt for the musical Art; but not act, if she could help it.
While Lind planned to be content to “sing occasionally” for charity and friends, it was her devotion to charity that brought her out of retirement. She saw in the American tour that Barnum offered her an opportunity to make money to provide for others. And in the end, she was greatly successful in that, giving 133 performances in the US—93 with Barnum and 40 independently—and earning an amount that is said to be the equivalent of more than $10 million today (Barnum’s profits were even greater). She gave the vast bulk of this money away to causes such as hospitals, churches, scholarships for poor college students, and pension funds, keeping for herself, writes Holland, only enough money to purchase a cottage in the mountains to serve as her home.
Barnum was eager to showcase not only Lind’s talents but her virtue, as well. As he writes in his autobiography, Barnum’s pre-tour promotion included the following in New York papers:
Perhaps I may not make any money by this enterprise; but I assure you that if I knew I should not make a farthing profit, I would ratify the engagement, so anxious am I that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity, and goodness personified.
And according to The Literary World, at the end of Lind’s first concert in the US, Barnum gave her the title “that Angel” and made sure the audience knew that the proceeds from the evening would go to the fire department.
In the film The Greatest Showman, Lind is smitten by Barnum and tries to manipulate him with a kiss in front of reporters. In real life, though, there is no reason to think that she had such feelings for him and would certainly not have treated him in that way. Neither did she fall in love with Mendelssohn or the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, even though both of them have been reported to have fallen in love with her. It is thought that Andersen used her as the inspiration for his story “The Nightingale.” Of her, he writes,
With the perfect feeling of a brother I prize her; I feel myself happy that I know and understand such a soul. May God send her peace, that quiet happiness which she desires for herself! Through Jenny Lind did I first know the holiness of art; through her did I first learn that one must forget one’s self in the service of the Supreme. No books, no men have worked on me as a poet in a better or more ennobling manner than Jenny Lind. . . .
Lind eventually married the German composer Otto Goldschmidt, with whom she lived until her death in 1887.
With the tour of Jenny Lind, Barnum gained at least some of the respect in the entertainment world that he had hoped for, and he found respect in other realms as well, earning election to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1865. By the time the Civil War ended, Barnum’s views on racial equality had evolved, and in a speech he gave to the legislature in support of voting rights for African-Americans, he said,
Let the educated free negro feel that he is a man; let him be trained in New England churches, schools and workshops; let him support himself, pay his taxes, and cast his vote, like other men, and he will put to everlasting shame the champions of modern democracy, by the overwhelming evidence he will give in his own person of the great Scripture truth, that “God has made of one blood all the nations of men.” A human soul, “that God has created and Christ died for,” is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit; and amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to color or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.
I will not say that all of Barnum’s opinions, and vocabulary, in his speech would play well today (read the above quotation in context to see what I mean), but he had come a long way from his mistreatment of Joice Heth. Just as Barnum had used his promotional skills to help Lind raise money for charity, maybe, by her example of grace and benevolence, Lind played a part in reforming his views about humanity.
That is the kind of legacy that is much more important than a furniture style—or even a locomotive.
(Becky Little, “‘The Greatest Showman’ Sidesteps P.T. Barnum’s Most Controversial Act, Biography, December 22, 2017; “Joice Heth Contract,” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions; “The Feejee Mermaid,” The Museum of Hoaxes; Henry Scott Holland, Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851 : A Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind Goldschmidt, Her Art-Life and Dramatic Career, from Original Documents, Letters, MS. Diaries, &c., Collected by Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, Scribner, 1893; Phineas Tayler Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum: Written by Himself, Redfield, 1855; Evert Augustus Duyckinck and George Long Duyckinck, eds., “Illustrations of Humbug,” The Literary World, September 17, 1853; Hans Christian Andersen, The Story of My Life and In Sweden, Routledge, 1852; “P. T. Barnum’s Speech on Negro Suffrage, May 26, 1865 (excerpts)” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions)
March 18, 2018 § Leave a comment
On March 18, 2012, here’s what I wrote in my first post for Clearing Customs:
During our 10 years as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, we wrote about 120 newsletters. In each one, we included a small section on some news coming out of Taiwan, a fact about the country, or an insight on Chinese culture. When we came back to the States in 2011, we switched the topic from Taiwan to globalization. Globalization means different things to different people, but the aspect we focused on is how the world is shrinking and cultures are more and more interacting with and affecting each other.
Soon, we’ll write our last newsletter, but I wanted to continue gathering and sharing information on the aspects of globalization that interest me. The first few posts come from our newsletter, so some go back a little while, but I’ll be catching up soon. Thanks for joining me.
Since the beginning, I’ve written 415 posts here, and I do appreciate all who’ve joined in, with your views, likes, share, and comments.
And over the years I’ve enjoyed seeing links to my posts popping up in interesting places. For example, Syracuse University, George Washington University, and the University of South Wales have linked to this blog in their online courses. The Physician Assistant Education Association referred to a post in an article on cultural competence. And just last week, a writer for the Atlantic linked to a post in his review of a new album by the former lead singer of the Talking Heads.
It’s been fun for me, and I’ve learned some things along the way. I hope the same can be said for you.