Keith A. Spencer

How physics got 'stuck' — and why we desperately need a new Einstein

Albert Einstein's work so revolutionized physics that it is difficult to discuss him without slipping into hagiography. Indeed, his brilliance is so storied that his surname has become synonymous with "genius," and his brain preserved for study.

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Robert Reich breaks down how oligarchs are 'cashing in' on the pandemic

Robert Reich is probably the most outspoken former secretary of labor. I mean, have any others become a household name, with an outsize presence on progressive news and social media sites to match? (Okay, maybe Frances Perkins.) This is all to say that the career trajectory of Mr. Reich, who was Clinton's labor secretary from 1993 to 1997, is more unusual than the average elder statesman. Rather than settle into a comfortable retirement, Reich has spent the past 23 years as an engaged activist, writing and speaking publicly about income inequality in the United States. That issue, Reich argues forcefully, is the singular thread that devolves all other aspects of our democracy; nearly every ill, from police violence to the rise of the far-right to the ascension of Trump, stem from the starkly unequal economic situation we find ourselves trapped in.

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A pulmonologist who's recovering from coronavirus describes what it feels like to survive COVID-19’s dreaded 'cytokine storm'

Of all the possible compounding effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the cytokine storm is one of the most feared. An immune system overreaction in which the body is flooded with the eponymous signaling molecules, those who suffer a cytokine storm are at risk of dying at the hand of their own immune system, as an indirect effect of the virus they are fighting.

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A computational social scientist's study shows the hard data that proves 'Bernie Bros' are a myth

Mainstream pundits and politicians continue to obsess over the stereotype of the "Bernie Bro," a perfervid horde of Bernie Sanders supporters who supposedly stop at nothing to harass his opponents online. Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens have all helped perpetuate the idea that Sanders' supporters are somehow uniquely cruel, despite Sanders' platform and policy proposal being the most humane of all the candidates.

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Historically, rich people have fought to stop politicians like Sanders — making his rise all the more unlikely

My favorite uncomfortable interview moment arises in a 1996 BBC segment featuring linguist and scholar Noam Chomsky. In the interview, conducted by British journalist Andrew Marr for the BBC show "The Big Idea," Marr tells viewers he has come to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to talk to the professor and dissident about "bias in the media." The interview came about eight years after the publication of Chomsky and  Edward S. Herman's 1988 book "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media"; the term "manufacturing consent" that the two co-authors adopted refers to how mainstream media outlets shape coverage in order to present an agenda that benefits the ruling class.

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The myth of 'Bernie Bros': How a misunderstanding of social media is driving elites to push an easily disprovable stereotype

The nature of punditry makes it hard to tell which myths media personalities earnestly believe in, and which they perpetuate in bad faith. Consider the "welfare queen," a villainous trope popularized by Ronald Reagan in stump speeches in the 1970s, and which never actually existed. Despite being a clear fiction, the idea was tantalizing both to politicians and pundits, and hence the welfare queen became embedded in culture. Pundits and politicians today still invoke the racist caricature, often through dog-whistles.

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The art of scientific deception: Former Assistant Secretary of Labor explains how corporations use 'mercenary science' to whitewash harmful products

One curious difference between humans and corporations is our capacity to harm others and emerge unscathed. If you or I were to poison someone on camera in broad daylight, we would be given a trial and sent to prison in a hurry. But if you or I were a corporation, we could hire consulting firms to produce research papers that claim that the poisoning didn't happen, and/or question the existence of the poison, or claim that said concoction actually does good rather than harm. If that failed, we could then gum up the legal and political system with lobbyists and lawyers for decades.

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'Our chances of ever exiting the nightmare are shrinking': Paul Krugman explains how the GOP is getting worse

It is a great detriment to civil discourse that the divide between left and right in the United States is often depicted as being purely cultural — as if one's politics were solely mediated by aesthetics, such as whether one prefers shooting guns or drinking lattes. This fabulist understanding of politics is harmful inasmuch as it masks the real social effects of the policy agendas pushed by left versus right. Seeing politics as aesthetic transforms what should be a quantitative debate — with statistics and numbers about taxation and public policy, questions of who benefits more or less from policy changes — and devolves it into a rhetorical debate over values.

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A new psychological study perfectly explains why being online makes you cynical

Those of us who spend too much time on social media are familiar with how profoundly our online interactions differ from real ones. Face-to-face with another human, I cannot say I have ever been issued a death threat; but through the online veil of pseudonymity, I have — like most people who work in journalism — received plenty.

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How Facebook misunderstands free speech

Only three months ago, social media megalith Facebook made the universally-reviled announcement that they would not be fact-checking, censoring, or otherwise banning political ads that deceive or mislead. “We don’t believe [that] it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny,” a Facebook spokesperson said at the time. The controversy over the announcement was so heated that the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began to trend, while presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren mocked the policy (and the company's CEO) in her own promoted Facebook post.

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'Blue Lives Mickey': What the worst t-shirt in the world says about America

I had been in the Magic Kingdom for all of 15 minutes when I saw it out of the corner of my eye: the shirt. The worst shirt in the world, likely.

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Democrats don't want to serve everyone pie — they want us to fight for a few more crumbs

My grandfather has plenty of wild stories about his undergraduate years at the University of California, but none is wilder (to me) than his stories about paying tuition. From when he started as an undergraduate until the day he graduated, the cost of a semester at UC Berkeley was a mere $27.50. Even by the standards of inflation, that is paltry: $27.50 in 1947 dollars is $362.92 today. The cost of undergraduate tuition for Berkeley for the 2019–2020 academic year is $7127 per semester, meaning tuition has increased 21.8 times as fast as inflation since 1947.

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Welcome to Amazon's post-truth society

This year’s election for Seattle city council was a referendum — not on any issue or party, but on the ability of Amazon, the 13th largest corporation on Earth, to manipulate public opinion and subvert democracy in order to maintain political control over its hometown.

Among all seven city council seats that were up for election, there was a pro-Amazon candidate and a candidate that favored populist will over the needs of massive corporations.  Amazon spent money to support seven different candidates, one for each open seat. As you might expect, all of the candidates Amazon backed were neoliberals — an excellent, general political term to refer to these politicians' collective belief in social liberalism (as long as it doesn't interfere with the profit margins of corporations) and economic policy of deferring to the ruling elite and their consultant-class lackeys on such policy matters.

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How capitalism created the post-truth society — and brought about its own undoing

No economic system has lasted forever. And I imagine that some day, when historians are studying the rise and fall of capitalism, they might look back at Glenn Beck's 2010 Earth Day meltdown as a seminal moment  — an exemplar for how capitalism created the post-truth society that seems destined to doom its ability to function.

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Historian on the implications of corporate imperialism: Here's what happens when a corporation colonizes a country

In all the history courses that I ever took, I was taught that the British Empire colonized India. Yet, as William Dalrymple's eminently readable new book, "The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire" details, that story is far more nuanced — and more horrific — than we were ever taught. It is more accurate to say not that the British Empire colonized India itself, but rather that a British corporation, the East India Company, colonized what we call India today on its own private terms. Hence, for around a century, India was essentially controlled by said corporation, which amassed a mercenary army in India twice as large as the British Army. It was only upon being dissolved and nationalized by the British government in the late nineteenth century — an early exemplar of a company deemed “too big to fail” — that one could accurately say that the British Empire formally colonized the Indian subcontinent.

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Why unmoderated online spaces always degenerate into fascism

8chan, an image and message board modeled after 4chan but committed to even less moderation, is in the news again after the revelation that the El Paso shooter used the forum to post his far-right manifesto moments before his killing spree. If confirmed, that would mark the third time a right-wing mass shooter has posted his plans and/or manifesto on the site.

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Liberal policies are incoherent because Democrats have been polluted by these two failed world-views

There are no hippies on Haight Street anymore. Along the eponymous road in the storied San Francisco neighborhood, arguable birthplace of the counterculture movement, tourist shops hawk tie-dye memorabilia to commemorate hippie culture, music and style. Yet aside from physical tchotchkes, the spirit of the 1960s no longer permeates the Haight: gone are the grinning, barefoot peaceniks, as are the free clinic and the Diggers. In their place? Aggrieved, techie millionaire property-owners whose primary spiritual tenets are not free love but property values.

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Scientists thought all black holes emerged from exploding or collapsed stars. New evidence throws a wrench in that

Astrophysicists have found indirect evidence regarding the formation of black holes that, if confirmed, could upend our understanding of these stellar phenomena.

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The hard data by economist Thomas Piketty that shows why a 'centrist' candidate like Joe Biden would lose

The Republican Party has earned a reputation as the anti-science, anti-fact party — understandably, perhaps, given the GOP's policy of ignoring the evidence for global climate change and insisting on  the efficacy of supply-side economics, despite all the research to the contrary. Yet ironically, it is now the Democratic Party that is wantonly ignoring mounds of social science data that suggests that promoting centrist candidates is a bad, losing strategy when it comes to winning elections. As the Democratic establishment and its pundit class starts to line up behind the centrist nominees for president — mainly, Joe Biden, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — the party's head-in-the-sand attitude is especially troubling.

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The lessons millennials can learn from Boomers

It has become in vogue among millennials to mock the Baby Boomer generation as out-of-touch, reactionary, and complicit in destroying the planet. The media loves sensationalizing this purported generational divide. Business Insider recently published interviews with 21 different millennials explaining “why Boomers are the problem.” An Axios-SurveyMonkey poll found that 51% of millennials agreed that Baby Boomers had made things worse for their generation.  Meanwhile, there are multiple Facebook groups devoted to mocking the oft-inane or offensive images that Boomers share on social media.

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Four industries Big Tech has ruined

The word “innovation” has become synonymous with Silicon Valley to the point of absurdity. Indeed, the tech industry's entrepreneurs and "thoughtfluencers" throw it around as casually as a dodgeball in a middle-school P.E. class; what it really means is perpetually unclear and purposefully hazy. It is vague enough to be suitable in nearly any situation where a new product, service or "thing" is advertised as superior to the old — never mind if the so-called "old" thing has some distinct advantages, or if the new thing's superiority is solely that it makes more money than the old thing, or if there are other old things that are actually superior yet which won't make anyone rich. (Consider Apple removing the headphone jack from its new phones to be Exhibit A.)

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Why this San Francisco city council candidate Dean Preston is embracing the 'democratic socialist' label

Like much of California, the San Francisco Bay Area has a one-party political system. That’s not to say there isn’t strife among the all-Democrat city councils and leadership here; however, having city councils composed entirely of Democrats does makes it more difficult to understand the political divisions, as they are not so black and white — er, red and blue — as labels like “Democrat” and “Republican.” For years, the San Francisco Chronicle described San Francisco’s city council as consisting of two “wings” — mainstream, and progressive, Democrats. Yet that delineation doesn’t totally work: Centrist Democrats love clinging to the word “progressive,” given its positive connotations here in the socially liberal Bay Area. Even the word "progressive" has lost its meaning, it seems.

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Silicon Valley libertarianism was all the rage — but now tech industry socialists are on the rise

In mid-March the employees at Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform, announced their plans to unionize. Those efforts are ongoing, but if successful this would be the first union of white-collar employees at a major tech company.

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This was humanity's 236-year path to seeing a black hole

Black holes are a particularly unusual astronomical phenomenon in that they were theorized centuries before anyone had any idea they were a real thing. More remarkably, the lag time between their theorization and their direct imaging was over two centuries. Just today, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration presented the first-ever direct image (as seen in the header of this article) of a black hole.

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Internet infrastructure in the US is hopelessly compromised by an oligopolistic telecom industry — that doesn't want your connection to be fast

The internet is an ethereal concept. The language we use to describe it contributes to that etherealness: we speak of servers being in "the cloud," as though they were weightless in heaven, and most if not all of our internet access happens wirelessly. Indeed, for most Americans, the internet has little physicality at all anymore: it is probable that you’re reading this article via the miracle of a wireless signal, either wi-fi or cell.

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Inside the sordid — and very creepy — world of 'Meth Tumblr'

Three months since Tumblr banned all “adult content” from its platform, scouring the microblogging site for common sexual slang terms yields zilch: type “#camgirl”, “#porn”, “#nsfw” or “#sex” in the search bar, and you’ll be met with a blank page.

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Uber and Airbnb show different lessons for how we can live in a digital economy

Adapted excerpt from "How to Be Human in the Digital Economy" by Nicholas Agar. Copyright 2019 MIT Press.
We know that human workers face a threat from very efficient digital technologies. I would not trust a 2019 driverless car to navigate the streets my hometown Wellington, New Zealand. But for Waymo, Uber, Tesla, and the rest, Wellington’s awkward highways and byways are work in progress. We should expect driverless cars that navigate them more safely than any human. Woe betide the many humans who make their livings driving us around.

Airbnb is a digital age disruptor with different implications for the economic value of what humans do for each other. With the 2016 launch of “Experiences” (“activities designed and led by inspiring locals"), Airbnb monetizes what you offer when you take strangers on a tour of your favorite places. For this Airbnb takes a 20 percent cut.

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'Anti-Vax Mom' and unsubtle sexism: Why the Internet's latest meme is more about mocking women than mocking pseudoscience

There is not one simple sociological explanation as to why the anti-vaccination movement is increasingly popular. Yes, people are reaching for answers in a postmodern, post-truth world, where both government and science seem untrustworthy, and a friend's opinion on Facebook far more tangible. And sure, for some people who feel undervalued in our society, denying one's child vaccinations is a way to reassert control over their universe, and feel powerful for a fleeting moment. You could also argue the anti-vax movement is an extension of the reactionary "natural" foods movement, which misunderstands the idea of chemicals and/or inserts "organic" and "natural" into concepts to which they do not apply. The political underpinnings of these beliefs may be curable, but the unvaccinated children often aren't: the current measles outbreak in Washington is likely to permanently scar its victims, if not kill some.

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Netflix's Fyre Festival documentary tells an all-too-familiar tale of bad managers and exploited contractors

The real schadenfreude of the Fyre Festival — the ill-planned, ill-executed Coachella-in-the-Bahamas VIP music festival that convinced thousands of really rich people to to schlep to a Bahamian island where they were forced to sleep on damp mattresses in hurricane shelter tents — derived from how unrelatable the debacle was to the average person. Who among us has been hoodwinked into spending five or six figures on such a lascivious gambit? Fyre Festival was billed as an elite, exclusive event, and seeing the rich get soaked — literally — in a moment of historically high income inequality was cathartic for the public.

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Here's why 'platforms' like Tumblr are a totalitarian threat

On December 17, when microblogging site Tumblr instituted its nudity ban, thousands of sex workers — many of whom did cam-work remotely for clients — spontaneously lost a major source of income. There is a particularly Kafkaesque echo to the social media site’s decision: Certainly, no one likes feeling like a cog in the vast machinations of an incomprehensibly large, uncaring corporation. And yet, such a sensation has become the norm among Silicon Valley’s platforms, who have amassed such immense power over our lives that their ivory tower decisions can have sweeping repercussions for millions, spontaneously and seemingly randomly thrusting any one of us into poverty overnight.

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