Saturday, December 31, 2016

From the Archives: Beloit College identifies political touchstones for 2012’s college freshmen

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on August 21, 2012. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Beloit College identifies political touchstones for 2012’s college freshmen

Beloit College – not far from presumptive GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville – has released its latest “Mindset List” of cultural touchstones that are lost on the incoming college class this year, whose members intend to graduate in 2016.

The list includes pop-culture references – for instance, number 10, “On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males” – and sports references, such as number 19, “The Green Bay Packers have always celebrated with the Lambeau Leap.”

Daily life

The list also features items and activities from daily life that have changed since 1994, the year most freshman college students of 2012 were born.

Take number 9: “They have never seen an airplane ‘ticket.’” Or number 30: “There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.”

The 2012 Mindset List also contains several political notes that demonstrate how things have changed – or not – in the past 18 years.

Statesmen and -women

There’s number 8: “Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.”

Or number 12: “For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.”

Some references might seem obscure, like number 24: “White House security has never felt it necessary to wear rubber gloves when gay groups have visited.”

In the category of “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” Beloit College offers number 32: “Newt Gingrich has always been a key figure in politics, trying to change the way America thinks about everything.”

And, a thought that may be shared among many of there elders, there is number 66: “They have no recollection of when Arianna Huffington was a conservative.”

The introduction to this year’s list notes that “each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List, providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall. The creation of Beloit’s former Public Affairs Director Ron Nief and Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride, authors of The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal (John Wiley and Sons), it was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references. It quickly became an internationally monitored catalog of the changing worldview of each new college generation.”

Guest Post: Is New Year the best time for resolutions?

by Simon Crisp, Monash University

For many of us, the start of a new year heralds a new beginning, and an important opportunity to commit to significant personal changes. But why does this single moment in the year hold almost superstitious significance as the optimal time for change?

As a psychologist who counsels people throughout the year, I believe there are several reasons. The end of a calendar year and simultaneous holiday break allows people to reflect on the previous year and take stock of things they’ve achieved – or not.

calendar new year resolutionsThis reflection can provide important information about how successes were achieved, or why desired changes were not: bad timing, lack of preparation, a need to change priorities, diminishing motivation, and so on.

Psychologically, the new year provides a “clean slate” where one can start afresh and leave behind the disappointments, frustrations and “old self” and start again.

So far that all sounds good but, as we all know, few people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. I believe there are several main reasons for this.

One of the most common is that resolutions are impulsive, often-drunken and fanciful fantasies. Caught up in the festive spirit, it may only occur to people to make a resolution during the New Year’s Eve celebrations – hardly an ideal place to select and plan behaviour change.

Afterwards we trivialise our choice of goal and commitment to it as not much more than a whim, not really believing we will actually achieve the goals we set. At this point it really doesn’t look too promising. By the time the hangover has worn off or we’re back from holidays, the resolutions you made might be forgotten, or at least treated as a holiday novelty.

By way of contrast, in my clinical work I see people throughout the year who are motivated to make changes in their lives. On the whole, my clients (thankfully) do make substantial changes in significant areas of their lives, but the difference here, in contrast to many people’s New Year’s resolutions, is that my clients are motivated to change for often very negative reasons, or due to devastating events.

That’s not to say we can’t make important changes for positive reasons with the aim of enhancing our lives, rather than just making ourselves less unhappy. What we can take from this clinical experience are the important elements that can lead to successful life-changes for any person.

It’s vitally important to find the right time for change – a time when you’re in the right mental space and perhaps financial situation to achieve your goal. Arguably, the most important step is putting in the hard work in preparation for the life change.

It’s also important to ensure your goal is realistic, meaningful, worthwhile, desirable, appropriate to your broader needs and, ultimately, whether it’s worth the sacrifices that may be required to achieve it.

Of course, the road to significant and lasting personal change is often fraught with challenges. It’s important to:

  • anticipate set-backs and use them as important learning opportunities
  • establish a team of genuine supporters
  • break larger goals into smaller achievable steps, including something that can be done each day
  • ensure you reward yourself for progress regularly – celebrate each step as it’s achieved.

While ridding yourself of a bad thing (such as excessive alcohol use) can be motivating and worthy, unless you balance such a goal with some positive gain it’s unlikely you’ll be motivated by the process. In fact, without positive gain, you’re likely to feel pessimistic about the significant change.

new year resolutionIn clinical psychology too, it’s essential to introduce “positive psychology”, even to the most troubling issues, including depression, entrenched negative behaviours, or destructive inter-personal relationships.

Positive psychology could include a focus on increased fitness and exercise, rather than simply aiming to lose weight, or increasing opportunities for fun and novelty, rather than simply drinking less.

Time and again, I see that we are more motivated to change if that change includes adding something of value to our lives. Importantly, this change in itself becomes self-rewarding and more likely to repeated – and with enthusiasm.

The pioneering researcher in positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that this leads to “learned optimism” and ultimately greater contentment and increased happiness.

So, while New Year’s day may not be the ideal moment to make a meaningful change, it could still be the first step along a productive and successful path toward important life changes.

The Conversation

Simon Crisp, Clinical Psychologist, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Guest Post: 2016 lasts a little longer thanks to a leap second

by Darryl Veitch, University of Technology Sydney

To the time-poor of the world: take heart, for 2016 is a generous year. Not only were you granted a leap day on 29 February, you will soon score a New Year’s Eve countdown bonus, a leap second, to hold off 2017 for a final sip or regret.

Whereas leap years add a day to align the calendar with the seasons, leap seconds align our everyday clocks with the Sun’s position in the sky, that is, with the Earth’s rotation.

clock leap second leap year 2016 timeCurrently our planet takes roughly 86,400.00183 seconds (on average) to turn, instead of the expected 86,400 seconds you get by multiplying 24 hours by 60 minutes by 60 seconds. This may not sound like a great difference, but it amounts to a full second every 18 months. If left unchecked, it would become noticeable over time, and ultimately become problematic.

How did we get into this awkward situation? Why not just define a second so that there are exactly the right number? This sensible idea was tried in 1874, but hit a snag: the Earth keeps changing.

In terms of today’s standard SI second (defined via atomic physics), the above discrepancy is due to the fact that the day is losing about 0.0015 seconds per century, due largely to tidal friction.

Not only that, it also changes quite erratically due to mass redistribution.
For example, it is slowed by oceanic thermal expansion due to global warming, just as a playground spinning seat slows, via the conservation of angular momentum, when you place your body farther from the centre.

Leap seconds are used to make sure our usual timekeeping system, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), never gets more than 0.9 seconds away from the Earth-tracking alternative, Universal Time (UT1).

But unlike leap years, leap seconds cannot be calculated centuries in advance. Because the Earth moves erratically, it must be observed closely, and leap seconds scheduled on an as-needed basis.

In UT1, seconds actually vary in duration, being stretched and compressed to match the Earth’s variations. In UTC, all seconds are standard SI seconds, which is much simpler, but it means that if you want to slow down or speed up UTC, there is no alternative but to jump.

All the leap seconds so far have been “positive”, meaning that an extra second is inserted, corresponding to jumping the clock back, and so slowing it down.

Time’s up for the leap second?

The leap second system has been with us since 1972. It represents an important chapter in the entangled history of civilian timekeeping, and of the definition of the second itself. Its days, however, may well be numbered.

For a number of years, support has been growing within the International Telecommunications Union, the standards body governing leap seconds, to abolish it.

carousel new year carnival
The chief reason is complexity. Simply put, hardware and software can and do get things wrong. And the potential impacts are serious, from failures in navigation leading to collisions, to erroneous financial transactions, computer crashes and the inability to specify UTC times reliably into the future, because the leap second times are not yet known!

Because UTC jumps back at a leap second, effectively the second before the leap is repeated. Managing such “time travel” is inherently complex and error prone, so much so that in many cases the recommended action is to simply shutdown the system and restart it after the leap.

A dramatic illustration of the problem can be found in the internet. All computers have software clocks that generally rely on communication with time servers over the network to synchronise to UTC. Network timekeeping is a core internet service, and at its heart are the Stratum-1 servers, which have direct access to reference hardware such as atomic clocks.

We collected data from around 180 such servers around the world during the June 2015 leap second event, and assessed them from two points of view.

First, the clocks themselves: did they jump cleanly and sharply exactly as required?

Second, at the protocol level, that is with respect to the messages the servers send to the computers that rely on them: did they inform them properly of the upcoming leap?

Overall, we found that, at most, 61% of the servers were performing correctly. Many of the servers are well known and highly utilised, potentially impacting thousands of clients, possibly resulting in security vulnerabilities.

An expanded experiment is currently underway for the 2016 event, involving almost 500 servers, including from the widely used ntppool project.

This is part of a broader network timing project at UTS led by myself together with Dr Yi Cao, which aims to refashion the global system, and in particular to make it scale in a trusted way to the Internet of Things.

Finally, we must point out that leap seconds occur simultaneously across the globe, and it can’t be midnight everywhere.

Thus, as I confirmed with Dr Michael Wouters, responsible for Australia’s reference time at the National Measurement Institute, for us it will occur at 11am AEDT on January 1, 2017. Save the last sip till then.

The Conversation

Darryl Veitch, Professor of Computer Networking, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

From the Archives: Aviation policy expert Robert Poole talks about transportation privatization

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on April 10, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Aviation policy expert Robert Poole talks about transportation privatization

A Cato Institute briefing on Capitol Hill on Friday, April 9, asked the question, “When Does Rail Transit Make Sense?” and featured policy experts Randal O’Toole and Ronald Utt. The event attracted mostly young congressional staff members but also in the audience was Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation’s director of transportation studies.

As it happened, the lead article in the commentary section of the Washington Times that day was written by Poole, in which he argued that the federal government should get out of the business of screening airport passengers. He made two primary recommendations:

“First, TSA should be divested of its airport screening duties. TSA should regulate and oversee security, but each airport should be responsible for all aspects of its security (passenger and baggage screening, perimeter security, etc). Airports would be free to hire their own security forces or contract with TSA-certified firms.

“Second, the cost of airport security should be paid for by those who use airports: a combination of airlines and passengers. This change would cut billions from the federal budget, eliminating the large portion of airport security costs not covered by current airport or airline security taxes. It also would make the costs of airport security more visible to airlines and travelers.”

After the Cato briefing, Poole replied to a question from the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about the future of transportation privatization.

“It’s very up in the air right now,” Poole said. With regard to surface transportation, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) “wants to basically create a federal czar to have the last word, to say yes or no at the eleventh hour on any proposal for privatizing highways. That’s got the whole industry really, really nervous because nobody wants to take the risk of proposing and researching a project, then having it vetoed at the last minute after they’ve spent millions on putting their numbers together.”

In terms of airports, Poole said, “we have a little boomlet going on right now of cities that want to lease their airport under the federal airport privatization pilot program. I’m guardedly optimistic about that. Midway Airport is the most visible one but there are four others, at least, that have filed applications with the FAA.”

While none of these airports are in Virginia, there is one close by, Poole explained:

“Baltimore has talked about it but they haven’t filed. The state runs the airports in Maryland, and the governor said he would be open to an offer for BWI, which I was astonished to hear, but glad to hear. New Orleans and San Juan are two of the other leading candidates; they have applications filed. It could happen this year.”

Poole recommended that readers interested in transportation privatization issues should check out the Reason Foundation’s annual privatization report and Reason’s Airport Policy and Aviation Security Newsletter.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

From the Archives: Former U.S. Transportation Sec’y Mary Peters: ‘not convinced’ on high-speed rail

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on March 4, 2011. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Former U.S. Transportation Sec’y Mary Peters: ‘not convinced’ on high-speed rail

On the morning of Friday, March 4, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Governor Rick Scott (R) has the authority to cancel a high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando and return.

The seven Florida justices unanimously rejected a lawsuit filed by state legislators challenging Scott’s decision to return approximately $2.4 billion to the federal government that had earlier been earmarked by the Obama administration for the Tampa-Orlando rail line.

No more ‘business as usual’

Hours after the Florida announcement, the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner met with former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and asked her about high-speed rail and what U.S. transportation priorities should be.

The government cannot “continue business as usual,” said Peters, who served as Transportation Secretary from 2006 to 2009, and previously was head of the Federal Highway Administration. “We need to look at a new paradigm of how we fund, how we operate, how we make project decisions. In the future, that has to be based on cost effectiveness.”

The government has to spend the taxpayers’ money, she said, in a way “that gives them the best possible return. We simply have not been doing that.”

Is high-speed rail cost-effective?

When asked specifically about high-speed rail – a prestige priority of President Obama and current Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – Peters repeated her emphasis on cost-effectiveness.

“I need to be given the proof that it is indeed cost effective,” she declared.

“We have finite resources right now,” Peters explained, “not just in transportation but in the U.S. budget overall. So every dime we spend, we have to consider, is there a higher, better use of this funding that will give Americans a better return?” Can it, for instance, “reduce the deficit [or] reduce our debt?” she asked.

“I am not convinced that high speed rail is cost effective,” she said.

Leveraging federal dollars

Peters’ top priority for federal transportation policy is to “fully fund TIFIA” – the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which, she explained, “can make loans to projects that can attract private investment and help leverage the federal dollar.”

That idea, she added, “segues into the second” priority: Federal transportation policy, she argued, “should give precedence, if you will, to those projects that can take a dollar of federal money and leverage it, perhaps with a dollar of state money and two dollars of private money, to give us more transportation solutions for the same investment.”

Finally, she made the case for consolidation of federal grantmaking programs in the transportation field.

“I would get rid of all these categories,” Peters said. “We have 108 different categories of funding right now” and they should be replaced with block grants to the states, which could make their own decisions on what to spend on transportation projects based on local conditions and circumstances.

The block grants, she said, would not give the states carte blanche, but rather would be aimed at letting them “meet the highest priorities” and would come attached with “measurements” requiring the states to “take care of their Interstate systems at this level” and “maintain their transit systems to a certain level, as well.

In her view, Peters concluded, “I would just block-grant the programs to the states [as] a step toward devolution.”

Guest Post: How the American Civil War cemented modern Christmas traditions

by David Anderson, Swansea University

Shortly before Christmas Day 1864, Abraham Lincoln received an extraordinary Christmas present – Savannah, Georgia. Union General William Sherman presented the captured city to the president via telegram, noting his gift included guns, ammunition, and several thousand bales of cotton.

Thomas Nast Civil War Christmas
Thomas Nast, couple separated by Civil War, 1863
An unusual gift, but the tale hints at how traditions bend during wartime. By the time the war broke out, the majority of Christmas traditions that we would recognise – and indeed celebrate today – were in place in America. Many of these built upon traditions from Europe. But the way these were upheld during the war went a long way towards cementing aspects of the American Christmas that has since been commercialised and exported around the globe.

Victorian-era Americans popularised Christmas trees, decorations, Christmas cards, gift giving, carol singing, and even Santa Claus. In doing so, they inaugurated holiday commercialism, transforming the American Christmas from the sacred to the secular and a celebration couched around the virtues of family life, particularly the joy of children.

Christmas tends to assume a strong sense of its own significance in times of protracted conflict. On the Civil War home front, wives, mothers and sisters greeted Christmas during the war with ominous foreboding, worrying about absent husbands, fathers and sons. Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut offered her thoughts in verse:

Darkest of all Decembers

Ever my life has known

Sitting here by the embers

Stunned – helpless – alone.

Many women, both north and south, spent their Christmases making clothes for soldiers, tending to the sick and wounded in hospitals, or preparing holiday food boxes – a gift from home that soldiers keenly anticipated.

But children felt the temper of the times more than most. Toys and decorations for many southern children were usually homemade because of the scarcity of materials and crippling wartime prices. Common gifts included various fruits and assortments of nuts, candy, popcorn and cakes. Other children were not so lucky. Confederate General Howell Cobb’s children were informed that the Yankees had shot Santa Claus.

On the front line

Usually in camp for the winter months, soldiers’ minds inevitably turned toward thoughts of home and hearth at yuletide. Men in both armies tried to replicate the family Christmas in their encampments. One Union solider stated: “In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges, etc.”

Harper's Weekly Civil War Santa Claus
Santa Claus in 1862
Cartoonists’ Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast’s morale-boosting sketches for Harper’s Weekly presented Union soldiers excitedly opening Christmas boxes and gifts. Nast’s famous sketch for the Christmas 1862 edition depicted a patriotic Santa, dressed in a star-spangled banner, distributing seasonal good cheer to Union soldiers from his sleigh. The image of this portly, joyful, white-bearded man carrying a bag full of gifts has since been maintained and become a central part of the international Christmas.

And there were indeed seasonal entertainments to occupy even the most forlorn of souls: parties, games, singing and dancing. Interestingly, there are some examples of seasonal fraternisation between Union and Confederate soldiers – swapping newspapers and coffee, even snowball fights – that bring to mind the famous game of football between British and German soldiers during World War I.

Soldiers huddled around campfires and reminisced of loved ones and festive repasts. But separated from their homes and families, homesickness took hold. William Downer, an imprisoned Confederate cavalryman, cut a dejected figure. “This is Christmas Eve and oh how lonely I feel,” he confessed to his diary in 1864. “The thought of home and my dear wife and children being so far away … confined in prison makes me feel as if I had not a friend on earth.”

Christmas in slavery

For some enslaved African Americans, Christmas meant extra leisure time from daily routines, gifts, additional food rations, as well as relaxed restrictions on movement between plantations and farms. Convinced of their own benevolent rule, masters often permitted their enslaved peoples to attend dances, minstrel shows and tea parties – and to participate in other forms of entertainment such as boxing and wrestling competitions. “Christmas was the greatest holiday time that the slaves had,” remarked Allen Parker in his post-war reminiscence, a chronicle of his early years in servitude along the eastern coast of North Carolina through to his escape to a Union gunboat in 1862.

Of course, the day-to-day realities of antebellum slave life were scarcely as generous or bountiful as nostalgic memoirs, written many years after the events they describe, might suggest. Although Solomon Northup, a free black from New York who was kidnapped into slavery, wrote of Christmas in Twelve Years a Slave as a “time of feasting, and frolicking, and fiddling,” he also recognised that the Christmas holidays amounted to “the only days” when the enslaved were “allowed a little restricted liberty, and heartily indeed do they enjoy it”.

Some slaves insisted that the Christmas season differed little from other plantation holidays while others were threatened that Christmas would not come at all if they misbehaved. Perhaps the most heartrending exposé of a plantation Christmas during the late days of slavery came from Harriet A Jacobs. In her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Jacobs described a Christmas she spent concealed in the crawl space of her grandmother’s house after absconding from her master and his sexual advances.

Careful scrutiny of American Civil War-era letters, diaries, and reminiscences, from civilians and soldiers alike, reveal the hopes and fears of those who lived through this tumultuous period in the nation’s history. The Christmas season served as an occasion to remind mid-19th century Americans of the importance of home and its associations, of invented traditions. Therein evolved the modern Christmas.

The Conversation

David Anderson, Senior Lecturer in American History, Swansea University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

From the Archives: Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation James Burnley sees U.S. at 'crisis point for infrastructure'

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on June 25, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation James Burnley sees U.S. at 'crisis point for infrastructure'

Currently a partner at the law firm Venable LLP, James H. Burnley IV was not yet 40 years old when he became President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation in 1987, having previously served as deputy secretary in that department as well as in the U.S. Department of Justice as an associate deputy attorney general.

In an interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on June 25, Burnley did not mince words in his assessment of the current state of transportation in the United States.

Time to Rethink Roles

"We’re at a crisis point on infrastructure for transportation in this country and we need to start over, rethinking the roles” of the state, federal, and local governments in devising and implementing transportation policy, he said.

Noting that the economic situation today is quite different than it was in the late 1980s, Burnley pointed out that “we had deficits” under President Reagan “but nothing on the scale we have today.”

One matter that is significantly different, he said, is that “the highway user fee trust fund idea has broken down completely. In the last few years $34.5 billion have been transferred from general revenues because we can’t pay for the existing highway programs and the transit programs that are funded, in part, from the highway trust fund.”

That’s why, he said, we have to “go back to a clean sheet of paper and rethink the federal role vis-à-vis the states and cities on transportation.”

Critical of Obama
Burnley was also critical of the Obama administration’s approach to these issues.

“I don’t think that the policies that the Obama administration seems to be intent on implementing are taking us in that direction – unfortunately,” he said. “Rather, their policies, under the so-called ‘livability doctrine’ seem to be designed to have the federal government play a much more intrusive, heavy-handed role in state and local transportation decisions. I’m sorry to see that happening.”

One proposal, pushed heavily by the Obama administration, is to build and expand high-speed rail across the United States. Burnley is skeptical.

This is, he said, “an issue that ultimately will be determined by how much we as a country are willing to spend because it will never pay for itself and it requires enormous capital investments by someone.”

There are questions that have to be asked in the debate over high-speed rail, Burnley said. “Is that money available from any source, and, if so, where does it come from? The federal government? State government? Private capital, which I think is not very likely?”

Funding, he said, is “the ultimate determinative factor, which is where is the money going to come from, and is it an investment as a country that we want to make?”

High-Speed or Low-Speed?
One issue that is emerging is that federal stimulus funds claimed to be for high-speed rail are going to projects far removed from that concept.

“Part of the $8 billion in stimulus money that was set aside last year for high speed rail that’s not going to the two greenfield projects in California and in Florida has been spread out by the federal [Department of Transportation] among the states to be spent on existing railroad lines,” Burnley explained, which, outside of the Northeast Corridor – where the lines are owned by Amtrak – are owned by freight railroads.

“What we think about as the high-speed rail program” besides those greenfield projects and Acela -- “we’re talking about increasing speeds by 2, 3, 4 miles an hour, very modest increases.”

As a result, that stimulus “money is, in fact, going as direct subsidies to the freight railroads because those are the lines upon which the passenger trains run outside the Northeast Corridor,” said Burnley. “You can argue the merits of that but, factually, I think, it’s important to note that that’s what’s happened. That’s where those billions of dollars are going.”

In other words, federal money designated for “high-speed rail” is subsiding “slow rail” instead.

Guest Post: Scandinavian winters of old were less hygge, more Nordic Noir

by Hannah Burrows, University of Aberdeen

This winter hygge has replaced Nordic Noir as the UK’s favourite Scandi-import. But the festive season in the Nordic world has not always granted an opportunity for cosy mindfulness. Medieval sources offer a decidedly more terrifying vision of Christmas, or jól (yule), its proximity to the winter solstice putting it at the heart of icy nightmares.

In the tenth century, King Hákon the Good (c. 920-961) ordered that the pre-Christian festival of yule should be observed at the same time Christians celebrated Christmas, Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) tells us. The word jól was not replaced when it came to designate the Christian feast and related terms are still used in the modern Scandinavian languages. Both festivals involved drinking and feasting – but Old Norse texts also make a firm correlation between yuletide and the supernatural.

Understandably in such a northern climate, Norse mythology associated wintry weather with hostile forces. It was said that a mighty winter lasting three years would lead up to ragnarök, the apocalypse. The giants that constantly threaten the civilisation of the gods are associated with rime and frozen altitudes – one even has an icicle-beard that tinkles as he moves. It’s no surprise in Game of Thrones that those living north of the Wall are referred to as “wildlings” by the citizens of the Seven Kingdoms, or that the truly terrifying White Walkers come from the “Lands of Always Winter” in the Far North.

Yuletide ghosts

In the Icelandic sagas, hauntings are particularly rife at Christmas, with draugar, the corporeal ghosts of the deceased, returning to wreak havoc in their former households.

In the saga of Grettir Ásmundarson, for example, the fearsome shepherd Glámr engages in a mutually fatal Christmas Eve battle with an “evil creature” beleaguering the farm. But Glámr returns posthumously to damage property and terrorise the population by night. The hauntings lessen as the days grow longer, but next Christmas Eve the cycle begins again. In the third year, the pattern is broken by the eponymous hero Grettir, who – after an almighty tussle – is able to defeat the revenant by cutting off its head and placing it beside its buttocks (though not before being cursed so that Grettir is forever afraid of the dark).

And in The Saga of the People of Eyri (Eyrbyggja saga), a household is beset just before yule by a supernatural seal popping up through the fireplace – a far less welcome visitor than Santa coming down the chimney. Every attempt to club the seal only makes it rise further, until a boy whacks it with a sledgehammer “and the seal went down as if he were driving in a nail”. The ghostly return of six drowned men is at first celebrated, but the revenants outstay their welcome and are eventually dispatched through a combination of religious rites and legal proceedings.

In latitudes where midwinter offers at best four or five hours of daylight, it is natural that beliefs imbued with a fear of the dark should transpire. It has been suggested that the association of revenants with winter may have been heightened because solidly frozen ground or heavy snowdrifts could hamper normal burial procedures, leading to a consequent fear that the dead could more easily rise.

Freaky feasts

Even kings can’t avoid their Christmas parties being ruined by supernatural happenings. In Snorri’s Heimskringla, his chronicle of the kings of Norway, all the food for King Hálfdan’s (c. 810-860) yule banquet is spirited away. King Harald Fine-Hair (c. 850-932), on the other hand, drinks a love-potion disguised as Christmas mead, driving him so mad with desire he neglects his kingly duties until the object of his new affections dies and is cremated.

Aristocratic Christmases are also documented by the skalds, medieval Scandinavia’s court poets. Here we find all the elements now associated with a merry Christmas – eating, drinking and gift-giving – but given a typically dark and martial twist.

Odin with his ravens Huginn and Muninn
Odin with his ravens Huginn and Muninn
When the poet Grani praises Harald Hardrada (1015-1066) for “prepar[ing] a yule-feast for the retinue of Huginn”, the implications are darker than they seem: Huginn is one of Odin’s pet ravens – and a feast for carrion birds consists of dead bodies. Grani is in fact lauding Harald’s success in battle. For the skalds, Christmas was just another occasion to boast of their patron’s brutal brand of bravery.

The medieval period didn’t have a monopoly on creepy Christmases. Iceland’s Grýla may be a giantess known to Norse myth, but her tendency to devour naughty children at Christmastime – and her pet cat who gobbles up those without new clothes – are recorded hundreds of years later. Modern-day figures have become more good-natured, though: Grýla’s sons, known as the “Yule Lads”, are now more likely to be found distributing Christmas gifts than scaring the population into good behaviour.

Winter is coming” still resounds with menace in modern storytelling, but we can all sleep snug in our beds knowing we probably won’t have to contend with a supernatural seal while hanging the stockings this Christmas.

The Conversation

Hannah Burrows, Lecturer in Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

From the Archives: Former Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shirley Ybarra discusses rail, roads, and HOT lanes

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on June 25, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Former Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shirley Ybarra discusses rail, roads, and HOT lanes

Now a senior transportation analyst at the Reason Foundation, Shirley J. Ybarra served as Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Virginia during the administration of Governor James Gilmore. She previously served as deputy secretary under Governor George Allen.

Ybarra attended a luncheon seminar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on June 25, where the topic was high speed rail. After the presentation ended, she spoke briefly with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner on transportation issues facing Virginia.

The biggest single issue she identified is “congestion, particularly in Northern Virginia,” adding that in “the Virginia Beach area, same issues. It’s road congestion, quite honestly.”

To address the congestion problem, Ybarra said, “we’re seeing some solutions in Northern Virginia, with the Beltway HOT lanes and,” eventually, “the I-95/395 corridor HOT lanes.” She noted that those high-occupancy toll lanes are “not just for cars; that puts bus rapid transit on those HOT lanes also.”

High-Speed Rail in Virginia?
As to whether there is a role for high-speed rail (HSR) in Virginia, Ybarra said probably not.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to find a role for high speed rail,” she said. “A project that was started when I was Secretary was something called ‘the Third Rail’ between Washington and Richmond.

“That was because they were using the freight railroad tracks and they needed sidings and a new bridge down by Fredericksburg and that would allow the passenger trains not to be delayed by the very long freight trains like the ‘Juice Train’ that goes through right at the time it’s needed for the VRE service,” that is, the Virginia Railway Express commuter line. VRE, which runs from Manassas in the west and Fredericksburg in the south to downtown Washington, pays “freight railroads for the use of the tracks,” Ybarra explained, “because it is their track.”

McDonnell Administration Efforts
Assessing the successes and failures of the administration of Governor Bob McDonnell in transportation so far, Ybarra said “they are certainly trying to continue with public-private transportation acts, or what the rest of the world calls, public-private ventures, to bring some of the capacity and the private sector into road building,” as well as in transit.

One obstacle facing the McDonnell administration is that has substantially smaller budget “available than I did so they need to bring in the private sector and I know [the governor is] pushing that.” She noted that public-private ventures in transportation were part of McDonnell’s campaign platform and that suggestions to refine that promise have come out of a recent study commissioned by the administration.

Moreover, Ybarra added, McDonnell will be “putting in a dedicated group of people” to study transportation issues, “which we were unable to do when I was there. We all just did our regular job plus that job” of looking into future solutions for transportation problems.

“I think the dedicated group of people will help” in policymaking efforts, she concluded.

Guest Post: Five ways Christmas affects your brain

by Kira Shaw, University of Sussex

Christmas is a time of year like no other; gifts are exchanged, little-spoken-to relatives are contacted, and appetising treats are consumed with great gusto. Christmas can be both a time of stress and a time of relaxation. But whether you love or hate Christmas it’s pretty difficult to avoid – and so your brain may be altered by the experience one way or another. Here are some of the main facets of the Christmas experience, and how they might affect your brain.

Christmas festive ornament
The festive spirit: The joy surrounding Christmas may influence some of the chemicals in your brain (dopamine and serotonin) which affect your happiness levels. Dopamine is known to be involved with reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking and serotonin is thought to increase our feelings of worth and belonging. So when people talk about “Christmas cheer” they may be on to something.

In fact, researchers at the University of Copenhagen conducted an imaging study to try and find the “centre” of the Christmas spirit in the human brain. Here, participants were shown Christmas-themed images and, in those participants who actively celebrated Christmas, there was increased brain activation in the sensory motor cortex, the premotor and primary motor cortex, and the parietal lobule. Previously these brain areas have been associated with spirituality, bodily senses and recognising facial emotions. While these results should be interpreted with some caution, it is interesting to note the physical effects that feeling festive can exert on your brain.

Stress: Not everyone finds Christmas an entirely joyful and festive time – many people find it very stressful. In fact, the burdens of navigating through a busy shopping centre to find the ideal gift for your other half, or of cooking the perfect turkey for a house full of hungry people, is enough to rattle even the calmest person. Stress can exert a physical response in your body, with the automatic release of adrenaline and cortisol. Further, cortisol has been shown to have a profound effect on the hippocampus, which may decrease your memory and ability to multitask.

Giving gifts: The giving and receiving of gifts is an age-old Christmas tradition and there’s no better feeling than seeing your loved one’s eyes light up when you’ve found the perfect gift for them. But why does giving make us feel so good? Generosity has been linked with the reward circuitry of our brain, causing the release of dopamine and endorphins. Researchers have described a “helpers’ high”, which is experienced after giving. The chemicals that cause this high can reduce stress and increase your desire to repeat these acts of kindness. So, while you may resent being out of pocket after buying your great aunt that pair of slippers, your brain at least ensures that you are compensated with a chemical reward.

Bonding with family and friends: The quintessential Christmas experience involves sitting around a table with your loved ones. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine the festive period without thinking of your family and friends. The bond between you and those special to you can result in the release of a hormone called oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin – sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” – drives maternal behaviour, trust, and social attachment. As such, this hormone may help towards explaining that warm, fuzzy feeling you get at Christmas when surrounded by those you love and trust.

Overindulging: Indulging in our favourite food and drinks is all part of the Christmas experience – but overeating can affect your brain. It has been shown to activate a pathway linking the hypothalamus in the brain to the immune system. This leads to an immune response and low-grade inflammation, which may explain why you can feel unwell after eating too much. Of course, this doesn’t do much harm to your body after one extravagant Christmas meal – but, when overeating becomes a long-term issue, this inflammation can become chronic, and contribute to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But for now, don’t worry too much if you’ve got Christmas on the brain, you’ll soon be back to your usual self come January.

The Conversation

Kira Shaw, Postdoctoral Researcher in Neuroscience, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, December 26, 2016

From the Archives: Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan explores ethics of voting

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on July 31, 2011. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan explores ethics of voting

“Every day you see the same message: ‘get out the vote, get out the vote, get out the vote,’” says philosophy professor Jason Brennan.

“What if all the sentiments underlying that were just wrong?” he asks. What if they “could be shown to be wrong pretty easily?”

According to Brennan, his new book, The Ethics of Voting, shows those underlying sentiments to be, in fact, wrong.

Brennan, an assistant professor of business and philosophy at Georgetown University, summarized his book at a Cato Institute forum on July 21. After his presentation, he spoke with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about what motivated him to write The Ethics of Voting, how the book has been received by academics, and his new research on private behavior and the common good.

Brennan has long been interested in the topic of the ethics of voting.

Is voting special?

“Growing up,” he said, “I kept hearing, over and over again, the American civic religion [says] that voting is special, that political participation is special, that serving in the military makes you an especially good person.”

These claims were not satisfying to Brennan, he explained.

“I never found myself gripped by that,” he said. “I always wondered: What were the grounds underlying that? Why did people believe it?”

He also discovered, he continued, that “at the same time, there’s a kind of interesting philosophical question about what you should do in situations where we as a group are doing something bad but that your individual input doesn’t make a difference. That happens a lot in politics.”

Those two different but related things brought him to this topic.

Is voting rational?

He had read some of the literature about voter behavior but George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan’s 2008 book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, provided extra stimulus to write his own book.

“After reading that, I asked myself, suppose he’s right that voters are irrational. What does that mean about what they should do?”

The answer is not simple, he said. One cannot simply say, “Well, if they’re rational they shouldn’t vote, because individual votes don’t make a difference.” Instead, “it’s actually a real philosophical puzzle as to why it would even matter at all [with regard to] what an individual does and why they should vote well or not.”

Caplan’s book, Brennan said, was “like the last straw” in how it “pushed me over the edge to have to write something more about the philosophy behind” the ethics of voting.

Reaction from scholars

Brennan has received feedback from other academic philosophers, as well as from political scientists. Most of it has been positive.

Jason Brennan at Cato Institute, July 2011
The reaction he has had from philosophers, he said, “has been overwhelmingly very positive. Even if they disagree with the conclusions -- and many of them do -- what they’ve tended to like about it is that it takes on common sense. What it does is start with rather simple, plausible premises and leads to counterintuitive results. Philosophers tend to like that.”

Moreover, he added, “what a lot of philosophers have recognized, too, is that there are just a lot of unfounded assumptions about how politics works and what we should do. At the very least, I’m being a devil’s advocate in challenging” those assumptions, and that challenge makes philosophers “recognize that common sense [claims] about voting need to be justified, if they are justified” at all.

The reaction of political scientists, he said, “has largely been the same,” but faculty in political science departments who do political theory, “which is sort of philosophy but done in political science,” have a tendency “to be more skeptical because they tend to have a much more strongly emotional attachment to democracy than philosophers do.”

Private behavior as a public good

Brennan is now conducting new research on how private behavior contributes to the public good, something “that ended up being a major premise even in this book.”

He explained that “we can express civic virtue anywhere: by running a good business that helps people [and] makes them richer, by coming up with inventions, by making art, and so on.”

All these things, he said, help “promote the common good. They’re doing as much good as politics is doing, perhaps even more.”

The practical effect of this for individuals is that, “if you’re a person who is publicly spirited and you want to promote the common good, that doesn’t mean you have to get out of the market and go to the forum,” Brennan explained. “It might instead mean you should stay in the market and work there.”

Giving two prominent examples, Professor Brennan pointed out that “Thomas Edison did a lot more for us with his inventions than he ever would have done as a voter. Michelangelo did a lot more with his art than he ever would have done as a voter.”

He concluded by noting that “private civil society is really important for promoting the common good. If civic virtue is about promoting the common good, then private civil society might be the way to do it.”

Brennan wrote The Ethics of Voting while he taught at Brown University; it was published in April by Princeton University Press.

Guest Post: Boxing Day's journey from Pepys to shopping petitions and parliament

by Nelson Blackley, Nottingham Trent University

British members of Parliament have been debating whether shops should remain open on Boxing Day. Some 30 or 40 years years ago, shops stayed closed for longer during the holiday season – and on Boxing Day family time was the focus and leftover turkey the star of the show. But in recent years Boxing Day has fired the starting gun for the January sales, created (yet another) key moment in the British retail calendar and forced retail staff into work.

This growing commercialisation has created a backlash. In 2015, a petition on the government’s website to ban shops from opening on Boxing Day gathered a modest 27,525 signatures, but 2016 has seen the campaign gather greater momentum. Two similar petitions have been active this year. The first, also on the government’s official website, calls for all retailers to close on Boxing Day, claiming: “Some things are needed over the festive period, retail isn’t one of them.” It has received more than 140,000 signatures, easily meeting the required level of support to warrant the parliamentary debate. A similar petition on the website claims has gathered more than 230,000 signatures.

So what is the historical background to Boxing Day and why are we so attached to it? Is it possible that this recent groundswell of support could begin to loosen the grip of consumerism during the Christmas break?

Pepys show

The Oxford English Dictionary claims the earliest use of the term “Boxing Day” is from 1830s England. It was “the first weekday after Christmas Day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box”. This relates to a seasonal British custom for tradespeople to collect boxes of money or presents after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year.

This is actually linked to an even older English tradition, mentioned by Samuel Pepys’ in a diary entry from December 19, 1663, when servants of the wealthy, who would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, were allowed the next day to visit their families. Employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food.

Stony-faced. A statue of Samuel Pepys in London.

The 2016 parliamentary debate about the modern nature of Boxing Day did not involve a vote and so there will be no immediate change in the law. However it was a chance for MPs to demonstrate whether it is an issue with much parliamentary support. In response to the petitions, the government has said:

We do not believe it is for central government to tell businesses how to run their shops or how best to serve their customers. Therefore we are not proposing to ban shops from opening on Boxing Day.

Even if there is general support in Parliament, I don’t believe the UK government will amend the current trading laws and so prevent large stores from opening on Boxing Day any time soon – for several reasons.


First, and most importantly, the retail sector is a critical part of the UK economy – and in fragile economic times it would be a brave government indeed that took any action that might damage it. Sales in the sector were £339 billion in 2015 (generating 5% of the UK’s GDP) and, with almost 3m working in retail, it was the UK’s largest private-sector employer.

There is also an important international dimension. The UK’s in-store sales on Boxing Day are boosted by an influx of foreign shoppers.

The second key factor reflects the radical changes seen in consumer habits as a result of online shopping, a point also acknowledged by the government in its response to previous Boxing Day petitions:

Consumers are now used to the freedom to buy what they need at any time that suits them. The government believes that all businesses should be allowed flexibility to meet their customers’ needs and offer consumers choice about when and how they want to shop. This will help drive competition, productivity and the local economy, as well as helping create jobs

Unsurprisingly, this is a view echoed by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) the trade association whose members represent 70% of the turnover of the UK retail sector.

Sacred time

That leads onto a third factor behind the government’s decision making. According to the Guardian, shoppers last year were more willing than ever to interrupt Christmas Day itself for some online bargain hunting.

Online sales in the UK on Dec 25, 2015 were the highest ever, up 21% on 2014 according to web services group PCA Predict – whose founder Jamie Turner highlighted the “convenience of being able to browse online throughout the entire Christmas period to find deals and discounts”.

However, there is one thing that seems to remain sacred. Experian and online retail trade association IMRG reported a dip in online between 1pm and 4pm on Christmas Day as families enjoyed Christmas lunch together (and perhaps even watched the Queen’s speech), then rising again in the evening as people sat down to relax and watch television.

At the heart of this debate lies the fear of missing out. For the government, for retailers and their shareholders, and for millions of bargain-hunting consumers. According to the BRC, the UK retail market is the “most competitive in the world” and in that context it becomes almost unimaginable that any large retailers would now make a voluntary decision to close on Boxing Day and so lose sales and market share to rivals.

The British boom in online shopping – the UK has the highest level of penetration in the world – has also brought with it the “click-and-collect” phenomenon. In other words, both parts of the UK retail industry work hand-in-hand – there will be millions of UK consumers who want to order products online over the Christmas holiday period and collect from a store on Boxing Day. More, you have to conclude, than the 140,000 petition signatories who long for a Christmas free from the ringing of the nation’s cash registers (or the sound of clicking on the pay now button).

The Conversation

Nelson Blackley, Research Associate - National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.