Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 10th, 2020

How Anger Affects Your Brain and Body, Part 1 — with links to Parts 2 and 3

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Part 2 and Part 3.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 7:20 pm

Computer Scientists Achieve ‘Crown Jewel’ of Cryptography

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Erica Klarreich writes in Quanta:

In 2018, Aayush Jain, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, traveled to Japan to give a talk about a powerful cryptographic tool he and his colleagues were developing. As he detailed the team’s approach to indistinguishability obfuscation (iO for short), one audience member raised his hand in bewilderment.

“But I thought iO doesn’t exist?” he said.

At the time, such skepticism was widespread. Indistinguishability obfuscation, if it could be built, would be able to hide not just collections of data but the inner workings of a computer program itself, creating a sort of cryptographic master tool from which nearly every other cryptographic protocol could be built. It is “one cryptographic primitive to rule them all,” said Boaz Barak of Harvard University. But to many computer scientists, this very power made iO seem too good to be true.

Computer scientists set forth candidate versions of iO starting in 2013. But the intense excitement these constructions generated gradually fizzled out, as other researchers figured out how to break their security. As the attacks piled up, “you could see a lot of negative vibes,” said Yuval Ishai of the Technion in Haifa, Israel. Researchers wondered, he said, “Who will win: the makers or the breakers?”

“There were the people who were the zealots, and they believed in [iO] and kept working on it,” said Shafi Goldwasser, director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California, Berkeley. But as the years went by, she said, “there were fewer and fewer of those people.”

Now, Jain — together with Huijia Lin of the University of Washington and Amit Sahai, Jain’s adviser at UCLA — has planted a flag for the makers. In a paper posted online on August 18, the three researchers show for the first time how to build indistinguishability obfuscation using only “standard” security assumptions.

All cryptographic protocols rest on assumptions — some, such as the famous RSA algorithm, depend on the widely held belief that standard computers will never be able to quickly factor the product of two large prime numbers. A cryptographic protocol is only as secure as its assumptions, and previous attempts at iO were built on untested and ultimately shaky foundations. The new protocol, by contrast, depends on security assumptions that have been widely used and studied in the past.

“Barring a really surprising development, these assumptions will stand,” Ishai said.

While the protocol is far from ready to be deployed in real-world applications, from a theoretical standpoint it provides an instant way to build an array of cryptographic tools that were previously out of reach. For instance, it enables the creation of “deniable” encryption, in which you can plausibly convince an attacker that you sent an entirely different message from the one you really sent, and “functional” encryption, in which you can give chosen users different levels of access to perform computations using your data.

The new result should definitively silence the iO skeptics, Ishai said. “Now there will no longer be any doubts about the existence of indistinguishability obfuscation,” he said. “It seems like a happy end.”

The Crown Jewel

For decades, computer scientists wondered if there is any secure, all-encompassing way to obfuscate computer programs, allowing people to use them without figuring out their internal secrets. Program obfuscation would enable a host of useful applications: For instance, you could use an obfuscated program to delegate particular tasks within your bank or email accounts to other individuals, without worrying that someone could use the program in a way it wasn’t intended for or read off your account passwords (unless the program was designed to output them).

But so far, all attempts to build practical obfuscators have failed. “The ones that have come out in real life are ludicrously broken, … typically within hours of release into the wild,” Sahai said. At best, they offer attackers a speed bump, he said.

In 2001, bad news came on the theoretical front too: The strongest form of obfuscation is impossible. Called black box obfuscation, it demands that attackers should be able to learn absolutely nothing about the program except what they can observe by using the program and seeing what it outputs. Some programs, Barak, Sahai and five other researchers showed, reveal their secrets so determinedly that they are impossible to obfuscate fully.

These programs, however, were specially concocted to defy obfuscation and bear little resemblance to real-world programs. So computer scientists hoped there might be some other kind of obfuscation that was weak enough to be feasible but strong enough to hide the kinds of secrets people actually care about. The same researchers who showed that black box obfuscation is impossible proposed one possible alternative in their paper: indistinguishability obfuscation.

On the face of it, iO doesn’t seem like an especially useful concept. Instead of requiring that a program’s secrets be hidden, it simply requires that the program be obfuscated enough that if you have two different programs that perform the same task, you can’t distinguish which obfuscated version came from which original version.

But iO is stronger than it sounds. For example, suppose you have a program that carries out some task related to your bank account, but the program contains your unencrypted password, making you vulnerable to anyone who gets hold of the program. Then — as long as there is some program out there that could perform the same task while keeping your password hidden — an indistinguishability obfuscator will be strong enough to successfully mask the password. After all, if it didn’t, then if you put both programs through the obfuscator, you’d be able to tell which obfuscated version came from your original program.

Over the years, computer scientists have shown that you can use iO as the basis for almost every cryptographic protocol you could imagine (except for black box obfuscation). That includes both  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Math, Software, Technology

Conservatives backed the ideas behind Obamacare, so how did they come to hate it?

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Christopher Robertson, Professor of Law, Boston University, and Wendy Netter Epstein, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Jaharis Health Law Institute, DePaul University, write in The Conversation:

The Affordable Care Act is back before the U.S. Supreme Court in the latest of dozens of attacks against the law by conservatives fighting what they now perceive to be a government takeover of health care.

Yet, in an odd twist of history, it was Newt Gingrich, one of the most conservative speakers of the House, who laid out the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act as early as 1993. In an interview on “Meet the Press,” Gingrich argued for individuals’ being “required to have health insurance” as a matter of social responsibility.

Over time, he drew on ideas from the conservative Heritage Foundation and Milton Friedman to suggest “that means finding ways through tax credits and through vouchers so that every American can buy insurance, including, I think, a requirement that if you’re above a certain level of income, you have to either have insurance or post a bond.”

If Gingrich laid the blueprint for the ACA, how did the law become a punching bag for right-wing politicians and their appointees in the courts? As experts (Robertson | Epstein) on health law and policy, we will be watching the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the ACA. If the court strikes it down, we expect that it will force Congress to someday enact a single-payer system, which will be legally invincible. Let us explain.

A bipartisan consensus

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed a law called EMTALA – the Emergency Treatment and Active Labor Act – recognizing that uninsured Americans would get sick and would show up at emergency rooms needing health care.
Reagan and his Republican Senate majority, led by Bob Dole, agreed with their Democratic colleagues in the House that, as a society, we simply cannot turn away fellow Americans to die on the streets. So, to this day, EMTALA requires hospitals to provide emergency health care. But it provides no funding mechanism to do it. Hospitals can try to shift those costs to other payers, or try to go after the patients themselves, who often have no alternative but bankruptcy.

With EMTALA in place, conservatives began to embrace the goal of getting everyone into the insurance system. Conservatives viewed having insurance as a matter of personal responsibility, to avoid passing health care costs on to others.

Conservatives also turned to the Gingrich model, because they long feared the alternative of a single-payer system. What we now call Medicare for All would leave out insurance companies and instead rely on the federal government as the single insurer. Indeed, Reagan got his start in national politics during the 1960s campaigning against the enactment of Medicare. He claimed it would lead to a socialist dictatorship that would “invade every area of freedom we have known in this country.” So, with single-payer off the table, an individual mandate for private health insurance was the conservative solution.

The debate over preexisting conditions

Today, our society has made another moral commitment that insurers cannot turn away the sick. But the market cannot let people wait until they are sick to buy insurance. That would be like buying homeowners insurance when your house is already on fire. If insurers insured only sick people, premiums would have to be exorbitantly high. Rather, insurers must be able to spread the risk of any of us getting sick over a large base of healthy subscribers.

Accordingly, when Republican Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, he spearheaded a landmark reform that protected patients with preexisting conditions. He also recognized the need to pay for it. Through bipartisan legislative debate and bargaining emerged the individual mandate – a way to encourage people to buy insurance, even when they were healthy.

When Barack Obama was elected president, he initially resisted the idea of an individual mandate. But he lacked the votes for a single-payer approach. In the ACA, he settled on a weak mandate with a low monetary penalty for failure to comply, an expansion of Medicaid through the states, and subsidies so everyone could afford coverage on the private market, just as Newt Gingrich proposed so many years ago.

The right wing pivots

One might have imagined a round of conservative applause, but instead Republicans pivoted to attack mode. Even Gingrich started arguing that the individual mandate was “clearly unconstitutional.” The law ultimately passed with no Republican votes.

The first challenge to the ACA that reached the Supreme Court was in 2012, NFIB v. Sebelius. The issues were the constitutionality of the mandate that people buy insurance or face a penalty, and congressional expansion of state Medicaid coverage for poorer patients.

On the first point, conservative Supreme Court justices decided that Congress lacked the power under the Constitution’s commerce clause to enact the mandate. Although conservative justices normally look to the “original intent” of the founders, the five conservatives ignored the fact that in 1790 and 1798, George Washington and John Adams each signed laws requiring the purchase of health insurance by ship owners and sailors.

Still, Chief Justice Roberts saved  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 2:37 pm

The Right’s Long History of Ignoring the Will of the People

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A very interesting interview (that can be downloaded as a podcast) of Rick Pearlstein:

BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Amid obvious attempts to suppress the vote and then the president’s legal efforts to get the vote counters to quit while he was ahead in those states and in Michigan, weirdly, where he wasn’t, this week presents yet more evidence that the Conservative Party is not a political ideology enamored of free elections. A while back, Matthew Sitman, host of the New Year Enemy podcast, explained to us how and why in recent years, an expanding array of Republican politicians and thinkers have dropped the pretense of being concerned with democracy and how it has become unafraid to impose the will of the minority on the majority. For, what it deems, the greater good. Rick Perlstein, historian of American conservatism and author most recently of Reagan Land America’s Right Turn, 1976 to 1980, has tracked this anti majoritarian current to the American right back centuries. Sure, he says, conservatives are happy to win and keep power by means of a majority coalition. But Perlstein says they’ve long sought to win and hold power even in its absence. It’s a tradition that began pretty much with the birth of the nation.

RICK PERLSTEIN Well, of course, the invention of the Senate and the idea that slaves would be counted as three fifths of a person were not majoritarian ideas, right? I mean, even then, you had big states and small states.

BROOKE GLADSTONE But he says the modern minoritarian project of the American right really got going in the 1950’s.

RICK PERLSTEIN In the nineteen fifties, the conservative coalition, which included both reactionary Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans in the North, were very dismayed to learn that the first Republican president since the New Deal, Dwight D. Eisenhower, bought into the New Deal. And then, of course, you get Brown versus the Board of Education. Guys who eventually became the people who ended up drafting Barry Goldwater as the Republican nominee for president. Their first idea was to run a right wing former IRS commissioner named T. Coleman Andrews, who not only was a segregationist but believed that the federal income tax should be banned. And their idea was quite explicitly that if they can only get a few electoral votes safe from his own state of Virginia or from Mississippi or from Alabama or more of the above, and if they could deny the Democrats and the Republicans a majority in the Electoral College, they could basically throw the election into the House of Representatives, where there was, in fact, pretty much a liberal majority, but they could do so for concessions.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Was it successful?

RICK PERLSTEIN Absolutely not. But they tried again. So going into 1960, they had the idea of putting up for president Southern segregationists in the South as a Democratic candidate in primaries, Orval Faubus, and to get a conservative in the north. And then when they lost at their respective party conventions, they would choose one of them to run for president and this kind of united conservative southern and northern ticket. And again, the idea was only to deny a majority of electoral votes and then they would negotiate for the kind of concessions they wanted to say. And Brown versus the Board of Education completely indifferent to the fact that these were completely minority positions. Then they fell in love with this guy, Barry Goldwater, and they realized he had a lot of the same ideas, but they could draft him as a Republican for president in 1960. You know, he didn’t go for it, but the Republican Party itself was very weak. It’s basically gliding along on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s charisma. All these kind of precinct organizations in every county and every state could be taken over. And the guy who actually authored this strategy was a Republican operative named F. Clifton White. And he literally described his method as having been borrowed by the Stalinists that he had seen in the 1930s and 1940s who were able to take over liberal organizations by exploiting parliamentary procedure, keeping the meeting going until 2:00 a.m. and then call a vote when no one was there and they would have control and they were able to get Barry Goldwater the nomination in 1964.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Just by exhausting the people who were there?

RICK PERLSTEIN By exhausting this week organization. They said it was so easy, it was like pushing on an open door. So here they were with this nominee that according to one poll that came out during the Republican convention and seven out of eight issues, the majority of Republicans disagreed with Barry Goldwater. So this is a minoritarian coalition even within the Republican Party. But one of the things that really took off during the 1964 election at an organizational level was the sort of panic over supposed Democratic voter fraud.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Generated by the minoritarian Republican-supporting Barry Goldwater?

RICK PERLSTEIN Yes, they started something called Operation Eagleye. It came out of this folklore, the idea that the Democrats stole the election in 1960, supposedly by voting dead people in Chicago. Literally, they had a guy that explained that you should challenge anyone who doesn’t look like a real voter. One of the people who was in charge of this very similar system of claiming Democratic voter fraud in order to intimidate voters so they don’t go to the polls and can’t cast their votes. Was a friend of Barry Goldwater from Arizona named William Rehnquist, went on to an illustrious career.

BROOKE GLADSTONE As a chief justice appointed by Reagan.

RICK PERLSTEIN Right, so both in his Senate hearings to become Supreme Court justice and then to be chief justice, it came up that he had intimidated voters in the polls in 1962, and 1964 by forcing Spanish speaking people to read the Constitution. That there were people posted at voting places with very scary looking uniforms. So again, this very continuous idea that if more people vote, Republicans are disadvantaged. One of the things that Jimmy Carter realized when he became president was that it was very hard to register to vote. A lot of people who want to vote had a hard time voting. The same kind of stuff we see now. So one of the first major initiatives he undertook as president in the spring of 1977 was to come up with a comprehensive voting reform plan that he presented to Congress, proposing to have a constitutional amendment to end the Electoral College and to have same day registration. When he announced this, there was overwhelming support from both parties. The head of the Republican National Committee, a guy named William Brock, said that it was a quote unquote, Republican idea. But lo and behold, the right wing of the party cried foul. The right wing magazine Human Events called it euthanasia for the GOP. Another figure enters the story: Reagan, the former governor of California who is making a tidy living, writing newspaper columns and giving radio addresses every day. He calls this a horrifying prospect, and he revives that story of civil servants voting because their bosses tell them to of dead people voting. One of Reagan’s arguments was that Jimmy Carter won in Minnesota because of same day registration and that this proved that he wanted to use this kind of same day registration scheme to assure Democrats won every election. And once again, the argument is Republicans are harmed when more people vote. In 1980, the Christian Right held a massive rally for ministers in Dallas. One of the speakers said that the Republicans had to be the good government party and then up stepped to the microphone – a Christian right pioneer, a new right organizer named Paul Weyrich, who gave a very famous speech. . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 2:13 pm

Good idea: Fresh rosemary in the spice grinder

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I have a small cheap electric whirling-blade coffee grinder (like this) that I use daily to grind flaxseed (1 tablespoon) before adding them to my breakfast and also use from time to time to grind spices — whole allspice, fennel seed, and the like.

I’ve read not to use dried herbs on roasted vegetables because they can burn and be bitter, but fresh herbs are quite good, and rosemary is a natural. So…

I stripped the green needles from a long twig of rosemary, put them in the grinder, and let ‘er rip. It worked great. I was worried about sticky sap residue remaining, but nothing, and the rosemary is quite fine.

I’m going to try it out now.

Update: Tried it on a couple of turnips: cut in half, and then each half into quarters, so 8 pieces per turnip. Tossed with olive oil, a little salt, and pepper, sprinkled with some of the finely ground fresh rosemary, and roasted at 400ºF for 40 minutes. Mashed, added some lemon juice: very tasty.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 1:16 pm

The Republican Party Needs To Be Razed and the Earth Salted Behind It

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Kevin Drum lays it on the line:

Why do I think the Republican Party is beyond redemption? I view their policy positions as mostly appalling, but that’s not the reason. I’m going to disagree with pretty much any conservative party, after all. It’s more about the underlying nature of the party leadership and what it believes it has to do in order to win. Over just the past decade or so, the Republican Party:

  • Chose Donald Trump as its presidential nominee.
  • Has openly strategized about suppressing the Black vote because Black voters heavily favor Democrats.
  • Plays footsie with insane conspiracy theories like QAnon.
  • Spent the entire Obama presidency ginning up fake scandals.
  • Lies relentlessly about its dedication to reducing the deficit.
  • Lies equally relentlessly about its dedication to passing a health care bill.
  • Lies (and lies and lies) about the impact of its tax bills on the rich.
  • Has killed untold thousands of people by making mask-wearing into a partisan football during a pandemic.
  • Has openly appealed to racial bigotry as a way of increasing its share of the white vote.
  • Denies the obvious reality of destructive climate change solely for partisan benefit.
  • Is currently doing its best to convince its base that the entire 2020 election was fraudulent.

This is, needless to say, not an exhaustive list, and none of it has anything to do with conservative policy. It speaks solely to the moral judgments of the party’s leaders, and these moral judgments are now so ingrained that I see no hope they’ll ever be abandoned. Perhaps in a different media universe they would have already paid a price for this, but in a conservative media universe dominated by Fox News, talk radio, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page they can get away with almost anything. Most Republican voters probably don’t even know their party has sunk to this level.

The key question is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Daily life

How to Tell the Story of a Cult: NXIVM in soft focus and NXIVM analyzed

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Sophie Gilbert writes in the Atlantic:

Not 20 minutes into the vowHBO’s enthralling-then-ultimately-gasbaggy docuseries, things started to feel concerningly familiar to me. Sarah Edmondson—an engaging Canadian actor with big valedictorian energy who had joined the Albany-based organization NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um)—was describing how she was first drawn into a group that she would later expose as a sex cult. Edmondson’s career had stalled, and she was looking for a sign from the universe. A chance meeting on a cruise with a documentarian named Mark Vicente led her to her first five-day NXIVM seminar, where, between clunky taped interludes with ’80s fitness-video graphics, Edmondson says, she had a revelation.

The part that grabbed her came midway through, when NXIVM’s co-founder Nancy Salzman theorized that people with low self-esteem let their “limiting beliefs” curb their potential. “I thought that was just the way that I was,” Edmondson says. “And then all of a sudden, like, I could systematically evolve to be the ideal version of myself. To write my own character.” The jargon comes thick and fast in The Vow: “disintegrations,” “possibilities,” “human-potential program.” To the uninitiated, this might read like so much innocuous psychobabble. But during an intensive self-development workshop, when you’re sleep-deprived, isolated, and being love-bombed by peppy idealists who speak in emphatic cadences, these kinds of ideas can feel like the secrets of the universe are being unlocked.

Reader, it happened to me. In 2006, when I was floundering after college and my father was dying of cancer, my mother enrolled me in a personal-development program she’d recently taken and couldn’t say enough good things about. Edmondson’s description of suddenly awakening to the idea of profound personal change tracked with what I found on day three, having identified my own limiting beliefs and witnessed dozens of fellow attendees “transform” emotionally onstage. Pepped up on possibility, I decided to apply to journalism school. During one of the breaks, compelled by the session leader, I called my dad and told him I loved him. (Because we were both English and therefore hopelessly emotionally repressed, this was the moment my stepmother decided I was in a cult.) For years afterward, I told people how much the course had helped me, and encouraged them to consider it. My interpretation of the program was, until recently, colored by the immersive experience of the whole thing—of being surrounded by joyful, trippily tired people committing themselves to being better human beings. What could be so bad about that?

The storytelling in The Vow can be both similarly open-minded and similarly blinkered. From the outset, the show’s directors, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, appear intent on countering the reductive “sex cult” portrayals of NXIVM with a persuasive portrait of how intelligent, empathetic people became so swayed by the promise of infinite human potential sold by NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs that some ended up agreeing to be branded with a cauterizing iron. As Edmondson publicly revealed in 2017, NXIVM wasn’t just running self-improvement seminars. Within the larger organization was a smaller cult of personality in which some female members (including the Smallville actor Allison Mack) reportedly recruited other women into sexual servitude for NXIVM’s co-founder Keith Raniere, a soft-spoken, unprepossessing volleyball enthusiast.

“We didn’t join a cult,” the NXIVM member turned whistleblower Mark Vicente says in one scene, frustrated. “Nobody joins a cult. They join a good thing. And then they realize they were fucked.” Much of The Vow’s footage is taken directly from the propaganda videos Vicente made as he abandoned his directing career to climb higher in the NXIVM ranks, which may explain why the show feels curiously defensive. It dreamily weaves ex-members’ reminiscences through abundant scenes of Raniere working his schtick—expounding vaguely on topics such as integrity and trauma. The emphasis is always on understanding, not judgment.

Some crucial context is missing, though. Amer has said that he and Noujaim are filmmakers, not journalists; according to Noujaim, their mission was to document a crisis of faith, not tell the comprehensive story of NXIVM. (Noujaim enrolled in a few NXIVM workshops herself and has spoken about being swayed by the group’s supposedly idealistic mission.) But The Vow’s fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing how NXIVM unraveled means it treats both its apostates and Raniere himself—sentenced last month to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes—with a dubiously soft touch.

It’s easier to see the series’s blind spots when it’s viewed as a companion piece with a new Starz series on the same subject, the finale of which airs tonight. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult undercuts The Vow’s approach. Its directors interview cult experts in tandem with former NXIVM members to better understand Raniere’s tactics. The Starz series also includes information so pertinent to understanding NXIVM that it seems inexcusable for The Vow to omit it. Before watching Seduced, I had seen the particulars of the workshop I took (14-hour days, no alcohol, no snacking, no painkillers for headaches) as quirks designed to impress upon participants the importance of self-discipline, rather than coercive techniques to make them more psychologically and emotionally pliable. My own account of the course was incomplete, because my ability to interpret it critically had been fundamentally manipulated and impaired. The same thing is true of The Vow. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 11:14 am

UX design in action: The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

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Allan Richarz writes in Bloomberg City Lab:

It is a scene that plays out each weekday morning across Tokyo. Suit-clad office workers, gaggles of schoolchildren, and other travelers gamely wend their way through the city’s sprawling rail stations.

To the casual observer, it is chaos; commuters packed shoulder-to-shoulder amid the constant clatter of arriving and departing trains. But a closer look reveals something more beneath the surface: A station may be packed, yet commuters move smoothly along concourses and platforms. Platforms are a whirl of noisy activity, yet trains maintain remarkable on-time performance. Indeed, the staggering punctuality of the Japanese rail system occasionally becomes the focus of international headlines—as on May 11, when West Japan Railways issued a florid apology after one of its commuter trains left the station 25 seconds early.

Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest train stations, with the capital’s rail operators handling a combined 13 billion passenger trips annually. Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.

Rail stations, whether in Japan or elsewhere, are also great places to see “nudge theory” at work. Pioneered by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who was awarded the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize for his work, and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, the theory posits that gentle nudges can subtly influence people towards decisions in their own (or society’s) best interests, such as signing up for private pension schemes or organ donation. In the U.K., there’s a government office devoted to the idea, the Behavioural Insights Team (or “nudge unit”), and their work often shows up in the transit realm.

In 2016, for instance, London Underground operator Transport for London partnered with the behavioral science department at the London School of Economics to develop ways of encouraging riders to queue on both sides of station escalators as a means of increasing their capacity in the capital’s Holborn Station. Among other measures, simple hand and footprints were also painted on each side of the “up” escalators. In Australia, researchers conducted an experiment with lighted directional arrows on signposts to improve flows of departing passengers. Using a camera system designed to recognize and distinguish brisk-walking businesspeople from dawdling tourists, for example—green arrows would flash to direct commuters in an efficient route towards the exit.

When it come to passenger manipulation, what sets the stations of Japan apart from their counterparts is both the ingenuity behind their nudges and the imperceptible manner in which they are implemented. Japan’s nudges reflect a higher order of thinking. The orderliness of society is taken as a given—Japanese commuters know how to queue on an escalator and can easily navigate the confusing, but wide-open, spaces of Tokyo’s rail stations without assistance. This allows rail operators to instead focus on deeper psychological manipulation.

The ultimate in mood lighting

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among OECD nations, and often, those taking their own lives do so by leaping from station platforms into the path of oncoming trains, with Japan averaging one such instance each day. It is a brutal, disruptive end that can also wreak havoc across the transit system.

To address the issue, stations across Tokyo and the rest of Japan installed chest-high barriers as a means of preventing suicide attempts. But platform barriers are expensive, and about 70 percent of Japan’s largest and most-travelled stations do not have the platform space or structural strength to accommodate them. While there are hopes to have platform barriers installed in all 243 of Tokyo’s train stations by 2032 (at a cost of $4.7 billion), rail operators in the interim have come up alternative approaches.

Standing at either end of a platform in Tokyo’s labyrinthine Shinjuku Station, one might detect a small square LED panel emitting a pleasant, deep-blue glow. Nestled among vending machines and safety posters, the panel might be dismissed as a bug zapper. But these simple blue panels are designed to save lives.

Operating on the theory that exposure to blue light has a calming effect on one’s mood, rail stations in Japan began installing these LED panels as a suicide-prevention measure in 2009. They are strategically located at the ends of each platform—typically the most-isolated and least-trafficked area, and accordingly, the point from which most platform jumps occur. Some stations, such as Shin-Koiwa Station in Tokyo, bolster their LED regime with colored roof panels, allowing blue-tinted sunlight to filter down on to platforms.

It is an approach that has proven to be surprisingly effective. According to a study by researchers at the University of Tokyo published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2013, data analyzed over a 10-year period shows an 84 percent decline in the number of suicide attempts at stations where blue lights are installed. A subsequent study revealed no corresponding increase in suicide attempts at neighboring stations lacking such lights.

The idea has been picked up in the U.K.: Several stations in England now emulate the Japanese approach, with blue LED light panels on station platforms.

A song for a more peaceful departure

Commuting during rush hour in Japan is not for the faint of heart. The trains are jam-packed at as much as 200 percent capacity during the height of rush hour, and razor-thin connection times to transfer from one train to another leave little margin for error. Compounding the stressful nature of the commute in years past was the nerve-grating tone—a harsh buzzer used to signal a train’s imminent departure. The departing train buzzer was punctuated by sharp blasts of station attendants’ whistles, as harried salarymen raced down stairs and across platforms to beat the train’s closing doors.

To calm this stressful audio environment, in 1989 the major rail operator JR East commissioned Yamaha and composer Hiroaki Ide to create hassha melodies—short, ear-pleasing jingles to replace the traditional departure buzzer.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim is to notify commuters of a train’s imminent departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, most melodies are composed to an optimal length of 7 seconds, owing to research showing that shorter-duration melodies work best at reducing passenger stress and rushing incidents, as well as taking into account the time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

The tunes feature whimsical titles like “Seaside Boulevard” and range from the wistful to the jaunty. Most stations have their own melodies, forming  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 10:38 am

Planet Java Hive

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The Simpson Emperor handle, like the handle of the Vie-Long I used yesterday, has a somewhat bulbous base that offers a comfortable grip, but the Emperor has a ridge of demarcation about the base that adds a touch of formality.

In loading the brush I noticed I did not need to add water as I did yesterday, but it’s unclear whether that’s due to the soap (yesterday was a Milksteak soap) or the brush (yesteerday was a horsehair brush). I’ll use a Milksteak soap again tomorrow with a brush similar to the Emperor just to see.

The lather was excellent — Phoenix Artisan’s CK-6 is a wonderful formula — and I love that coffee + honey fragrance of Planet Java Hive. Three passes with an Edwin Jagger head on a Maggard Handle left my face smooth, and then another shot of coffee and honey from the aftershave splash and I’m ready for the day.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 9:38 am

Posted in Shaving

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