Sunday, April 22, 2018
Perspective

Time Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers

With Time magazine declaring "silence breakers" the Person of the Year for 2017 comes an acknowledgement: Nothing will ever be the same. A magazine canít wipe out sexual harassment. Roy Moore may very well get elected to the U.S. Senate despite multiple allegations of preying on teenage girls. Donald "grab Ďem" Trump still occupies the highest office in the land. But to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: The arc of the moral universe is long, but itís starting to bend toward justice.

"Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but donít even seem to know that boundaries exist," Time writes. "Theyíve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they canít afford to lose. Theyíve had it with the code of going along to get along. Theyíve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women." #MeToo, but now what? A recent Time survey of American adults found that 85 percent of respondents say they believe the women making allegations. They. Believe. The. Women. By breaking their silence, survivors made 2017 the year we finally started listening. And their voices will echo for decades, in ways we canít even begin to measure.

And we have a blueprint for talking to our daughters and sons about sexual harassment: Donít be a bystander. Use your voice. Speak up. Speak and speak and speak and speak some more until someone listens.

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

Americans "are in greater pain than citizens of other countries" and have been growing steadily more miserable for decades, according to a new working paper by David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick.

For their paper, Blanchflower and Oswald investigate claims about happiness made by the Brookings Institutionís Carol Graham in her recent book, Happiness For All?. In the book, Graham draws primarily on Gallup data to argue American happiness is faltering as a rational response to growing inequality. Among Grahamís most striking finding is, as she puts it, "markers of well and ill-being, ranging from life satisfaction to stress, are more unequally shared across the rich and the poor in the U.S. than they are in Latin America, a region long known for high levels of inequality." Blanchflower and Oswald wanted to see if other data sources corroborated Grahamís findings.

As one marker of psychological distress, Blanchflower and Oswald looked at cross-country data on the experience of pain. In 2011, the International Social Survey Programme asked respondents in over 30 nations how often they had experienced bodily aches and pains in the past month. Americans were the most likely to report frequent pain, with 34 percent saying they experienced it "often" or "very often." The average across all countries surveyed was just 20 percent.

"As the U.S. is one of the richest countries in the world, and in principle might be expected to have one of the most comfortable lifestyles in the world, it seems strange ó to put it at its mildest ó that the nation should report such a lot of pain," Blanchflower and Oswald write. (Donít blame Trump here; the pain survey is from the Obama years.) Aware that some of this could be attributable to cultural differences (Americans may just be more predisposed to complain about pain than others), the authors ran the numbers controlling for age, gender, marital status, labor force status and education. The United States remained an outlier even when these factors were accounted for. All told, the data underscore how country-level material wealth can be a poor indicator for the well being of its inhabitants.

Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

Spencer Sleyon, a 22-year-old rapper and producer from East Harlem, and his friends were going around the room in October, talking about who their closest friends were. When it was his turn, he said: "My best friend is an 81-year-old white woman who lives in a retirement community in Florida." He was exaggerating. They werenít quite best friends, but the joke set off a chain of events that led to his flying to Palm Beach to actually meet Rosalind Guttman, the woman he had known only through the Words With Friends game on his phone.

"When I met her it was so natural," he said. "It wasnít like anything spectacular, or different than you speaking to one of your friends." Based on the flood of positive reaction on Twitter, it seems people appreciated hearing about an unlikely friendship that formed despite countless boundaries that would often keep people apart.

Their friendship began entirely at random when Words With Friends, a Scrabble-like phone game, assigned the two strangers to play each other last summer. They would eventually play hundreds of games together.

At first it was all business. In the earliest games they didnít use the appís chat function, which is often used for banter about the game. But soon they began discussing current events and the details of their lives. He had no plans to meet her until Amy Butler, the mother of one of his friends, overheard him talking about his online pal. Ms. Butler, a pastor at Riverside Church in Manhattan, wanted to tell the story of their friendship, so she asked if he would put her in touch with Ms. Guttman. Ms. Butler and Mr. Sleyon flew down to Florida this month, and "it was more beautiful than I could have even imagined," she said. "There was no hint of awkwardness," she said. "It was like they were magnetically drawn to each other." They didnít have much time ó just a lunch and a quick tour of Palm Beach ó but the photos he tweeted afterward attracted widespread attention. "A lot of people I saw online said, ĎI needed a story like this, especially with the race relations in this country right now,í" he said.

Ms. Guttman has not spoken to reporters. But according to Ms. Butler, Ms. Guttman doesnít know what all the fuss is about, since "people should be behaving this way with each other all the time."

Daniel Victor, New York Times

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have developed a variety of origami-inspired artificial muscles that can lift up to a thousand times their own weight ó and yet be dexterous enough to grip and raise a delicate flower. The devices, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer a new way to give soft robots super strength. Historically, robots have been made of metal and other hard materials because it gives them strength. But robots also need to be made out of soft, pliant parts to deal with hard-to-reach places, navigate unpredictable environments and safely interact with people. (Consider, for example, the dangers of shaking hands with a robot with a steely grip.)

So scientists have increasingly tried to make robots with soft parts. But unlike robots made out of hard materials, theyíre not exactly power lifters. Researchers solved the problem by drawing upon origami techniques, which have recently proved useful for making many kinds of robots. Origami techniques have the potential to produce many complex designs at low cost because they use small amounts of material and surprisingly simple processes. For this work, the scientists used origami techniques to create musclelike structures that could give a limb flexibility but still allow it to move without needing any hard parts.

They designed folded structures specifically meant to shorten, curl, twist or bend into specific shapes when they were compressed. The researchers sealed those long folded structures in a bag of polymer "skin" and filled them with air or another fluid. When a vacuum sucked the fluid out, the origami structure squeezed together, contorting into the shape determined by its folding patterns.

The researchers found that some origami muscles could squeeze down to a tenth of their original size, or lift up to a thousand times their own weight. They could produce roughly six times as much force per unit of area as mammalian muscle.

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

Conservationists have been warning of the damage invasive species can cause to habitats and native animals for years. But in Florida, an invasive snail might be helping an endangered bird species come back from the brink, researchers say. The population of North American snail kites ó birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades ó had been dwindling, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat.

But the number of snail kites in the Everglades grew during the decade after the invasion of the larger snails. The reason, according to a study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is that the snail kites have rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to handle the bulkier snails.

"We were very surprised," said Robert Fletcher, Jr., an ecologist at the University of Florida and an author of the study. "We often assume these large-bodied animals canít keep up with changes to the system, like invasions or climate change, because their generation times are too long. And yet we are seeing this incredibly rapid change in beak size of this bird."

The researchers found that beak and body sizes had grown substantially (about 8 percent on average, and up to 12 percent) in the years since the invasion. Natural selection appears to play a role. Young snail kites with larger bills were more likely to survive their first year than snail kites with smaller bills, presumably because the large-billed birds were better able to eat the invasive snails. By tracking the birdsí pedigrees, researchers found that large-beaked parents gave birth to large-beaked offspring, setting the stage for large-scale evolutionary change.

Douglas Quenqua, New York Times

Because jellyfish are 95 percent water and so low in calories, it has been thought that most predators would not benefit from eating them. But a recent study has identified a new, unexpected jelly-eater: penguins.

Like other warm-blooded animals, penguins have high caloric demands and typically seek energy-dense foods, like fish and krill. In a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, however, an international consortium of scientists strapped miniature video cameras to the penguins, the scientists documented nearly 200 strikes on jellies at seven sites. The team saw penguins eating only carnivorous jellies, not herbivorous ones, like salps. Itís possible that the penguins are gaining nutrients from the food eaten by carnivorous jellies, which include crustaceans that are too small for the penguins to target themselves.

Steph Yin, New York Times

   
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