December 15, 2018 in 3,540 words


To set my mood • • •


The most screwed-up employee perk in America (and the man who just might fix it)

VITAL SIGNS


The last time Atul Gawande started a company, he named it after a Greek myth.

Ariadne Labs, based in Boston, Massachusetts—where Gawande also works as a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and teaches at Harvard—has been trying since 2012 to innovate in an area that has historically resisted innovation: healthcare delivery. You may not have heard of Ariadne, but you’ve certainly heard her story. It’s the one about the Labyrinth and the Minotaur.

If you don’t know her name, it’s because most tellings cast Theseus, the prince of Athens who eventually slays the monster, as the hero of the tale. But a closer read makes clear that, really, it’s Ariadne, the princess of Crete and the minotaur’s half-sister, who matters. She falls in love with Theseus, and saves his life by wisely instructing him to take a ball of twine and attach the thread to the labyrinth’s entrance so he can find his way through the maze, and by bravely risking her life to hide his sword so he can retrieve it in time. Theseus kills the minotaur, escapes the labyrinth, and leaves Crete with Ariadne, bound for Athens and marriage.

Explaining his new company’s name and mission in 2013, Gawande told WBUR public radio, “We’re in the simple threads business, to show there are ways out of the labyrinth of healthcare complexity.”


Here’s why Elizabeth Koch, the daughter of a GOP megadonor, chose science over politics

THE PLASTIC MIND


Elizabeth Koch has been renovating her brain.

Elizabeth Koch is obsessed with the self—not just hers, but yours and mine, too.

She’s the founder of a neuroscience nonprofit called the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, which aims “to understand the nature of consciousness and its place in nature.” There, researchers are working on figuring out the physical processes underlying the mental experience of existence. They’re trying to uncover the mechanics of mind and matter, asking how the two work together to produce a sense of self.

Notably, Koch is the daughter of industrialist Charles Koch, the eighth-richest man in the world and half of the GOP mega-donor duo known as “the Koch brothers.” And her interest in how we construct the self is partly rooted in her unusual experience of being born into an enormous fortune, yet raised by a father who warned her of the perils of wealth.

Sure, she knows you’re probably rolling your eyes at the idea that an heiress from Wichita, Kansas, with every advantage, struggles with existence. But if you met Koch, as I just did at Unlikely Collaborators—her annual conference about the brain and personal transformation—you might feel some relief that your family doesn’t represent wealth itself, and that your name isn’t synonymous with American privilege and influence.


What is behind the spread of a mysterious allergy to meat?

Thousands of people are developing life-threatening reactions to animal products – and a single tiny creature is to blame.

It was early morning in early summer, and I was tracing my way through the woods of central North Carolina, steering cautiously around S-curves and braking hard when what looked like a small rise turned into a narrow bridge. I was on my way to meet Tami McGraw, who lives with her husband and the youngest of their kids in a sprawling development of old trees and wide lawns just south of Chapel Hill. Before I reached her, McGraw emailed. She wanted to feed me when I got there.

“Would you like to try emu?” she asked. “Or perhaps some duck?”

These are not normal breakfast offerings. But for years, nothing about McGraw’s life has been normal. She cannot eat beef or pork, or drink milk or eat cheese or snack on a gelatine-containing dessert without feeling her throat close and her blood pressure drop. Wearing a wool sweater raises hives on her skin; inhaling the fumes of bacon sizzling on a stove will knock her to the ground. Everywhere she goes, she carries an array of tablets that can beat back an allergy attack, and an auto-injecting EpiPen that can jolt her system out of anaphylactic shock.

McGraw is allergic to the meat of mammals and everything else that comes from them: dairy products, wool and fibre, gelatine from their hooves, char from their bones. This syndrome affects thousands of people in the US and an uncertain but likely larger number worldwide, and after a decade of research, scientists have begun to understand what causes it. It is created by the bite of a tick, picked up on a hike or brushed against in a garden, or hitchhiking on the fur of a pet that was roaming outside.


5 Commercials That Hate You, The Customer

A commercial’s only job is to convince you that your life will be better with its product — a new phone keeps you connected to family, a new car inspires you to go on adventures, a different brand of toilet paper will grant you the glorious and shining asshole of your dreams. But sometimes, in their zealous attempts to sell you a better version of yourself, advertisers will cross the line and accidentally insinuate you’re a pathetic loser instead. We can’t imagine why.

5. Best Western Thinks The Best Day Of Your Life Involves A Best Western


Chances are, if you’re checking into a Best Western hotel, things aren’t exactly going well. It’s what you do when your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or you’re hiding out from the Nebraskan mafia. According to the upbeat song in this commercial, though, it is the best thing to ever happen to you.

In a completely backward understanding of their brand (which can best be summarized as “We’ll do … for now”), Best Western paid a string of people to feign such ludicrous excitement that they even take selfies with the Best Western sign.

Hey, Best Western, it doesn’t count if the picture has “#sarcasm.”

In another ad, when a woman touches her trance-inducing reward card, she gets warped into a sad dream:

Her hand dives eagerly into a bag of Best Western souvenirs …

… she does a jolly spin by the Best Western van …

… she is happier than anyone has ever been on a treadmill …

… and then she heads to Paris, where they apparently have Best Westerns.

“We’ll always have Paris … stock footage on an extremely obvious green screen.”

When she snaps out of it, she’s back at the check-in desk, unaware that all she’s going to get from her stay is scabies.


Engulfed

Apologizing loudly is expected to serve as a substitute for meaningful change.

THREE YEARS AGO, as an editor for Al Jazeera America’s website, I was assigned to work on an op-ed criticizing Saudi Arabia. The piece, by Georgetown Law Professor Arjun Sethi, excoriated the Saudi monarchy for sentencing fifty dissidents to be executed on a single day. I wrote the blunt headline, “Saudi Arabia uses terrorism as an excuse for human rights abuses,” and I chose the art, a photo from earlier that year of Barack Obama enthusiastically shaking hands with King Salman. Neither I nor my immediate supervisor nor Sethi thought we were doing anything especially brave by running this story. Our editorial mission at AJAM was “to give voice to the voiceless.” The victims of Saudi repression certainly seemed like they could use a voice.

Not long after the article ran, our editor called the opinion team into a small office and informed us that someone in Doha was displeased, and that he had been instructed to avoid running op-eds about any of the Gulf states in the future. We weren’t naive about our Qatari benefactors, but up until that point we had enjoyed the editorial independence we insisted upon (“we’re not RT,” I used to tell skeptical friends), and now we were furious. Grim rumors circulated throughout the newsroom for a few hours, and then, after some tense meetings with senior management, our editor told us not to worry. We were free to cover whatever.

The next day, one of my colleagues in New York related all this to another colleague in Doha, who, it quickly emerged, was unable to access the article. We started emailing acquaintances around the world and determined that someone had geoblocked the article everywhere except the United States. News of this move was quickly leaked to the Intercept, which published a humiliating account of Al Jazeera censoring its own op-ed and took the unusual step of republishing the article so that international audiences could read it. Doha’s response was comical: “After hearing from users from different locations across the world that several of our web pages were unavailable, we have begun investigating what the source of the problem may be and we hope to have it resolved shortly.”

Sethi, meanwhile, immediately became the target of a Saudi bot army, receiving thousands of tweets from Saudi accounts that attacked his work, his South Asian heritage, and his Sikh faith. “If they did this to me living thousands of miles away,” he remembers thinking at the time, “imagine what they do to activists at home.”

Eventually the furor died down and global access to the article was quietly restored. A few weeks later, we learned that Al Jazeera America would be shuttered after two and a half years, billions of dollars squandered trying to break into the US media market, and a series of embarrassing scandals that attracted far more attention than this one.1 Most of that money was spent on a cable news channel that hardly anyone watched, but some fraction of it went to the web team, which meant that a few dozen writers and editors would lose their jobs, too.


Why We Sleep, and Why We Often Can’t

Does our contemporary obsession with sleep obscure what makes it special in the first place?


“Men who sleep badly,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “are always proud of the fact.”

Contemporary sleep evangelizers worry a good deal about our social attitudes toward sleep. They worry about many things, of course—incandescent light, L.E.D. light, nicotine, caffeine, central heating, alcohol, the addictive folderol of personal technology—but social attitudes seem to exercise them the most. Deep down, they say, we simply do not respect the human need for repose. We remain convinced, in contradiction of all the available evidence, that stinting on sleep makes us heroic and industrious, rather than stupid and fat.

“If we don’t continue to chip away at our collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success, we’ll never be able to restore sleep to its rightful place in our lives,” Arianna Huffington wrote a couple of years ago, in her best-selling how-to guide “The Sleep Revolution.” By way of inspiration, she offered her own conversion story. She was once lackadaisical about getting enough rest. She thought that to get on she had to stay up. Only when months of chronic exhaustion led her to pass out and break her cheekbone on her desk did she wake up, as it were, to the madness and masochism of her work ethos and set about repairing her “estranged relationship with sleep.” These days, she retires at an eminently sensible hour each night, takes a hot bath with Epsom salts, drinks a cup of lavender or chamomile tea, and, just before getting into bed, writes a list of the things she is grateful for—which is a great way, she tells us, to “make sure our blessings get the closing scene of the night.” As a consequence of her sleep-hygiene regimen, not only has her quality of life improved but her business has done fabulously, too. Sleep isn’t the enemy of success and ambition, she’s discovered, it’s the royal road to the corner office. “Sleep your way to the top!” she jauntily enjoins us.

Although Huffington’s book has doubtless been helpful for many, her proselytizing leaves the misleading and slightly infuriating impression that sleep is a life-style choice, a free resource, available to all who care enough to make it a priority. It is a beguiling idea, that one might transform one’s sleep, and the rest of one’s life, with a few virtuous acts of renunciation—no electronics in the bedroom, no coffee after 2 p.m.—and a few dreamy self-care rituals involving baths and tea. But the fact that some of the leading indicators for poor sleep and sleep loss are low household income, shift work, food insecurity, and being African-American or Hispanic suggests that the quest for rest is not so simple. Huffington does acknowledge, in passing, that “the vicious cycle of financial deprivation also feeds into the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation,” but she goes on to note, piously, that “the more challenging our circumstances, the more imperative it is to take whatever steps we can to tap into our resilience to help us withstand and overcome the challenges we face.” The tone here is reminiscent of Mrs. Pardiggle, in “Bleak House,” distributing improving literature to the slum-dwelling poor. Try telling the lady at the food bank that she should tap into her resilience and sleep her way to the top.

Or try offering that advice to an insomniac. Chronic insomnia, a condition that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, currently afflicts some forty million Americans, is not really caused by coffee and Facebook, although it may certainly be aggravated by these things. According to the neuroscientist Matthew Walker—in his 2017 book, “Why We Sleep”—insomnia, strictly defined, is a clinical disorder most commonly associated with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, and it is triggered, typically, by worry and anxiety. Insomniacs can write twee lists of their blessings until the cows come home, but their cortisol levels will still tend to look as if they’re gearing up to storm the Bastille. Walker likens the insomniac’s problem to that of a laptop that won’t stop running, even after its lid is closed: “Recursive loops of emotional programs, together with retrospective and prospective memory loops, keep playing in the mind, preventing the brain from shutting down and switching into sleep mode.”


Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Noah: ‘Law and order’ becomes ‘break the law in order to become president’
From Michael Cohen’s sentence to a tabloid figure gone rogue, late-night hosts sifted a tumultuous week for the White House

Late-night hosts broke down the meaning of “law and order” and “catch and kill”.

Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah sorted through the defections from Donald Trump’s camp on the Daily Show, starting with his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal campaign payments.

David Pecker, president of the media company AMI, which owns the National Enquirer tabloid, then confirmed that Trump was in the room for discussions with Cohen about buying and locking away the story of his affair with a former Playboy Playmate.

Though it’s not illegal to pay hush money to bury a story, Noah explained, it is a felony if that money is used to sway an election.

Trump’s alleged presence “is a big deal”, said Noah, “because remember, he wasn’t even in the room when his own son was hatched”.

More ridiculous than most of the National Enquirer’s headlines, Noah continued, were Republicans’ twisted defense of Trump.


Inspired by a substitute teacher who told children that Santa isn’t real, Neal Brennan drops some harsh truths all over the Daily Show audience.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available to embed.


There won’t be a Christmas party at the White House for the press this year, which is awful news for journalists who like being called ‘the enemy of the people’ while wearing sweaters.


Iowa’s Republican Congressman Steve King had some serious gripes with Apple. So he raised them with the CEO of Google.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.


Ed. The word idiot. You’re welcome.


箱に食われたまる。Maru was bitten by the box.




FINALLY . . .

Meet Alexa: inside the mind of a digital native

She is 24 and Instagram is her life, even though she sometimes wishes it wasn’t. But what happens when she meets a guy who doesn’t feel the same way about social media?
She is 24 and Instagram is her life, even though she sometimes wishes it wasn’t. But what happens when she meets a guy who doesn’t feel the same way about social media?


Alexa was choosing a dress for a party. It was taking a while. This always happens, she gets carried away with every little thing. She was late, but she wasn’t worried because everyone’s always late, apart from her boyfriend Olly, who is always on time and was already there, which she felt bad about because he was only going to the party to support her, just like he always did. The decision about what to wear was painful because she had to figure out what would look right. Not what would look right to someone else, or even to herself, but what would look right in a photo. She’s always thinking about how things will look in a photo. She’d already posed the dilemma to her followers on her story, Instagram’s video feature which self-deletes after 24 hours, and there were dresses strewn across her bed. The party was a press launch for an ethical jewellery company called 64Facets, which sells conflict-free diamond necklaces and bracelets for upwards of $10,000. It was happening at an opulent bar in Blakes, a hotel in South Kensington, and there’d be pictures all over the internet, so the outfit had to be right. There was the flowing dress which meant she wouldn’t have to suck in her stomach all night, or the dress that covered her upper arms which she generally liked to keep hidden, or the dress she thought made her look like a chunky bat. She couldn’t decide. She always does this – she’ll try on everything in her wardrobe and have a frickin’ panic attack and then she’ll be back in the first thing by the time the Uber has arrived. The trick for the photos is getting the blogger pose right, where you sort of flip forward a knee to make your legs look longer, which is different to the mirror-selfie pose, where you contort your body and pop your bum out, so that you’re in a full S-shape, Kardashian-style. Make-up’s easier because it’s always the same: cat eyes, foundation and contoured cheekbones which is another Kardashian thing, although she doesn’t actually give a shit about the Kardashians, she thinks they’re a joke. The one thing she knows is that she’s not going to wear tights for maybe the third time in her life. She used to be so self-conscious about her legs. If you’d told her a year ago she’d be going out with no tights on, she’d have laughed in your face.

Alexa Abraham, @alexa.abraham, @rexrayy, is 24 years old. She is small and likes being small and has straightened dark hair that frames her face. She shares her name with Amazon’s virtual assistant, a coincidence that once made her cry when she discovered that the only reason her boss had hired her was because she liked the idea of having a real-life Alexa to order about. She was born in New York but grew up in London, and her parents and two younger siblings now live back in America. Sometimes she feels like she’s having an identity crisis because although she sounds American, and can only vote in America (Hillary, or it would have been if her postal ballot had arrived in time), she doesn’t always get their cultural references as she didn’t spend her teens there. At the same time there’s plenty she doesn’t get about Britain either, like the lack of healthy alternative food options and the limited range of equipment in gyms.

Alexa lives in a flatshare on the third floor of an ex-council block in west London, which looks a little worn from the outside, with concrete staircases and faded white balconies, but has been jazzed up on the inside, with a shiny red-lacquer kitchen and two en-suite bathrooms. It’s always immaculate because Alexa loves to tidy. Her dad, an ex-banker, pays her rent for now. She works at a PR startup, called Prezzroom, which represents clients with wellness and fitness products, such as KIN Nutrition (vegan protein powder), Boundless Nuts (nuts activated to release nutrients using Aztec and Aboriginal techniques of soaking and baking) and New Motion Fitness (techno-soundtracked gym and yoga workouts). Alexa started there a year ago, as an intern, and literally had to write out a script for herself before cold-calling. Within a few months she found she had a knack for sourcing clients on Instagram. The original CEO promoted her to co-founder, and now Alexa can just march into a room and pitch to a bunch of 40-year-olds.


Ed. More tomorrow? Possibly. Maybe. Probably Not? Groundhog Day.