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‘Less is more’: Minimalists share their ethos on giving up physical possessions

Minimalism is an increasingly popular lifestyle choice that involves voluntarily reducing the number of possessions owned to a bare minimum | Aspioneer

I recently spoke to a man named Adam who told me that every object he owns could fit in one of Ikea’s famous shelving units. He owns two pairs of jeans and T-shirts in just three colours. He is so concerned with the ethical and environmental impacts of his possessions, that he once spent two months researching a pair of jeans to buy. Then when he finally took them to the till, he didn’t buy them as he noticed a tiny square of leather on the back.

Adam is a “minimalist”. Minimalism is an increasingly popular lifestyle choice that involves voluntarily reducing the number of possessions owned to a bare minimum. It is based on the premise that “less is more”, as reducing physical possessions is seen to make way for the important non-material things in life such as personal wellbeing and everyday experiences.

The term minimalism surfaced after the 2008 financial crash and has become popular in the US, Japan and Europe over the past decade. Figureheads have emerged, such as US-based Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus who have released two feature-length films about minimalism on Netflix, and state on their website that they “help over 20 million people live meaningful lives with less”.

Intrigued by the rising popularity of minimalism, I started researching minimalist, books, online content and podcasts. As an academic interested in fashion and sustainable consumption, I also wanted to know about the main motivations and values of minimalists, and how it played a part in people’s everyday lives.

To find out more, I conducted in-depth interviews with 15 people across the UK who defined themselves as minimalists. Some lived in homes with relatively few possessions and others could fit all their possessions in just a few storage boxes.

Why minimalism?

The people interviewed explained they were mainly minimalists due to the personal benefits it provides. This includes being able to travel and move house easily, having more time (as they spend less time shopping, cleaning and repairing their possessions) and feeling happier (due to having less stress from clutter and a firmer control of their personal finances due to less shopping).

Some discovered minimalism later on in life and had big clear outs of their possessions. Others decluttered occasionally and some never decluttered at all, explaining that they had never accumulated a lot of possessions, having always had minimalist tendencies before the term even emerged.

Many of the minimalists were concerned about decluttering and issues of waste and landfill. Those who had decluttered didn’t mention throwing things away. Instead, they tended to sell on higher value items and gave other things away to charity shops, which they saw as more convenient and they liked the idea of another person being able to find value in the item.

Many of the minimalists strongly disliked shopping, consumer culture and materialism. Some said they didn’t want to buy things in order to “keep up with the Joneses” and saw minimalism as a way in which they could avoid feeling like they had to. Also, some (but not all) of the minimalists were motivated to shop less in order to be more sustainable.

Everyone I interviewed reduced their possessions by trying to buy less and by repairing and maintaining what they already had. When they do buy things, they are very considered – questioning if they really need something carefully, avoiding impulse purchases, taking time to research goods (like Adam and his jeans) and trying to purchase less by buying “quality over quantity”.

A sustainable (non-)consumer lifestyle?

Some of the minimalists were extremely motivated by sustainability and try to only buy second-hand products or new products that are sustainably and/or ethically made. Others saw not buying very much as a sustainable “by-product” of their minimalist lifestyle, rather than a main motivation. And some were not motivated by sustainability concerns at all.

However, minimalism still has largely sustainable outcomes, even if this is not always the main motivation. Practices like highly reduced and carefully considered consumption, or carefully choosing what to dispose of to avoid things going into landfill, are clearly better for the environment than default disposable culture.

Regardless of their sustainability motivations, everyone I interviewed said minimalism made them happier. This perhaps explains its increasing popularity and also demonstrates its potential importance. By offering personal benefits and pleasures, minimalism may encourage more people to adopt a more sustainable anti-accumulation lifestyle – even if sustainability isn’t always the main intent.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Apple’s new emojis are more ammunition for the online generation wars

With 3,353 characters available and 5 billion sent each day, emojis are now a significant language system | Aspioneer

When I saw the news that Apple would be releasing 217 new emojis into the world, I did what I always do: I asked my undergraduates what it meant to them. “We barely use them any more,” they scoffed. To them, many emojis are like overenthusiastic dance moves at weddings: reserved for awkward millennials. “And they use them all wrong anyway,” my cohort from generation Z added earnestly.

My work focuses on how people use technology, and I’ve been following the rise of the emoji for a decade. With 3,353 characters available and 5 billion sent each day, emojis are now a significant language system.

When the emoji database is updated, it usually reflects the needs of the time. This latest update, for instance, features a new vaccine syringe and more same-sex couples.

But if my undergraduates are anything to go by, emojis are also a generational battleground. Like skinny jeans and side partings, the “laughing crying emoji”, better known as 😂, fell into disrepute among the young in 2020 – just five years after being picked as the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 Word of the Year. For gen Z TikTok users, clueless millennials are responsible for rendering many emojis utterly unusable – to the point that some in gen Z barely use emojis at all.

Research can help explain these spats over emojis. Because their meaning is interpreted by users, not dictated from above, emojis have a rich history of creative use and coded messaging. Apple’s 217 new emojis will be subjected to the same process of creative interpretation: accepted, rejected or repurposed by different generations based on pop culture currents and digital trends.

Face the facts

When emojis were first designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, they were intended specifically for the Japanese market. But just over a decade later, the Unicode Consortium, sometimes described as “the UN for tech”, unveiled these icons to the whole world.

In 2011, Instagram tracked the uptake of emojis through user messages, watching how 🙂 eclipsed 🙂 in just a few years. Old-style smileys, using punctuation marks, now look as outdated as Shakespearean English on our LED screens: a sign of fogeyness in baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) or an ironic throwback for the hipsters of gen Z.

The Unicode Consortium now meets each year to consider new types of emoji, including emojis that support inclusivity. In 2015, a new range of skin colours was added to existing emojis. In 2021, the Apple operating system update will include mixed-race and same-sex couples, as well as men and women with beards.

Bitter boomers?

Not everyone has been thrilled by the rise of the emoji. In 2018, a Daily Mail headline lamented that “Emojis are ruining the English language”, citing research by Google in which 94% of those surveyed felt that English was deteriorating, in part because of emoji use.

But such criticisms, which are sometimes levelled by boomers, tend to misinterpret emojis, which are after all informal and conversational, not formal and oratory. Studies have found no evidence that emojis have reduced overall literacy.

On the contrary, it appears that emojis actually enhance our communicative capabilities, including in language acquisition. Studies have shown how emojis are an effective substitute for gestures in non-verbal communication, bringing a new dimension to text.

A 2013 study, meanwhile, suggested that emojis connect to the area of the brain associated with recognising facial expressions, making a 😀 as nourishing as a human smile. Given these findings, it’s likely that those who reject emojis actually impoverish their language capabilities.

Creative criticism

The conflict between gen Z and millennials, meanwhile, emerges from confused meanings. Although the Unicode Consortium has a definition for each icon, including the 217 Apple are due to release, out in the wild they often take on new meanings. Many emojis have more than one meaning: a literal meaning, and a suggested one, for instance. Subversive, rebellious meanings are often created by the young: today’s gen Z.

The aubergine 🍆 is a classic example of how an innocent vegetable has had its meaning creatively repurposed by young people. The brain 🧠 is an emerging example of the innocent-turned-dirty emoji canon, which already boasts a large corpus.

And it doesn’t stop there. With gen Z now at the helm of digital culture, the emoji encyclopedia is developing new ironic and sarcastic double meanings. It’s no wonder that millennials can’t keep up, and keep provoking outrage from younger people who consider themselves to be highly emoji-literate.

Emojis remain powerful means of emotional and creative expression, even if some in gen Z claim they’ve been made redundant by misuse. This new batch of 217 emojis will be adopted across generations and communities, with each staking their claim to different meanings and combinations. The stage is set for a new round of intergenerational mockery.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is your baby’s food safe?

Out of 168 baby food products, 95% contained at least one heavy metal | Aspioneer

Heavy metals including lead, arsenic and mercury can be found in commercial baby foods at levels well above what the federal government considers safe for children, a new congressional report warns.

Members of Congress asked seven major baby food makers to hand over test results and other internal documents after a 2019 report found that, out of 168 baby food products, 95% contained at least one heavy metal. Foods with rice or root vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, had some of the highest levels, but they weren’t the only ones.

How concerned should parents be and what can they do to reduce their child’s exposure?

As a professor and pharmacist, I have investigated health safety concerns for several years in drugs and dietary supplements, including contamination with heavy metals and the chemical NDMA, a likely carcinogen. Here are answers to four questions parents are asking about the risks in baby food.

How do heavy metals get into baby food?

Heavy metals come from the natural erosion of the Earth’s crust, but humans have dramatically accelerated environmental exposure to heavy metals, as well.

As coal is burned, it releases heavy metals into the air. Lead was commonly found in gasoline, paint, pipes and pottery glazes for decades. A pesticide with both lead and arsenic was widely used on crops and in orchards until it was banned in 1988, and phosphate-containing fertilizers, including organic varieties, still contain small amounts of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead.

These heavy metals still contaminate soil, and irrigation can expose more soil to heavy metals in water.

When food is grown in contaminated soil and irrigated with water containing heavy metals, the food becomes contaminated. Additional heavy metals can be introduced during manufacturing processes.

The United States has made major strides to reduce the use of fossil fuels, filter pollutants and remove lead from many products such as gasoline and paint. This reduced exposure to lead in the air by 98% from 1980 to 2019. Processes can now also remove a proportion of the heavy metals from drinking water. However, the heavy metals that accumulated in the soil over the decades is an ongoing problem, especially in developing countries.

How much heavy metal is too much?

The World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have defined tolerable daily intakes of heavy metals. However, it’s important to recognize that for many heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, there is no daily intake that is completely devoid of long-term health risk.

For lead, the FDA considers 3 micrograms per day or more to be cause for concern in children, well below the level for adults (12.5 micrograms per day).

Young children’s bodies are smaller than adults, and lead can’t be stored as readily in the bone, so the same dose of heavy metals causes much greater blood concentrations in young children where it can do more damage. In addition, young brains are more rapidly developing and are therefore at greater risk of neurological damage.

These lead levels are about one-tenth of the dose needed to achieve a blood lead concentration associated with major neurological problems, including the development of behavioral issues like aggression and attention deficit disorder. That doesn’t mean lower doses are safe, though. Recent research shows that lower blood lead levels still impact neurological function, just not as dramatically.

For other heavy metals, the daily intake considered tolerable is based on body weight: mercury is 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight; arsenic is not currently defined but before 2011 it was 2.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.

Like with lead, there is a considerable safety margin between the tolerable dose and the dose that poses high risk of causing neurological harm, anemialiver and kidney damage and an increased risk of cancer. But even smaller amounts still carry risks.

One example of the exposure infants can face is a brand of carrot baby food found to have 23.5 parts of lead per billion, equivalent to 0.67 micrograms of lead per ounce. Since the average 6-month-old eats 4 ounces of vegetables a day, that would be 2.7 micrograms of lead a day – almost the maximum tolerable daily dose.

What can parents do to reduce a child’s exposure?

Since the amount of heavy metals varies so dramatically, food choices can make a difference. Here are a few ways to reduce a young child’s exposure.

1) Minimize the use of rice-based products, including rice cereal, puffed rice and rice-based teething biscuits. Switching from rice-based products to those made with oats, corn, barley or quinoa could reduce the ingestion of arsenic by 84% and total heavy metal content by about 64%, according to the study of 168 baby food products by the group Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

Using frozen banana pieces or a clean washcloth instead of a rice cereal based teething biscuit was found to reduce the total heavy metal exposure by about 91%.

2) Switch from fruit juices to water. Fruit juice is not recommended for small children because it is laden with sugar, but it also is a source of heavy metals. Switching to water could reduce the intake of heavy metals by about 68%, according to the report.

3) Alternate between root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. The roots of plants are in closest contact with the soil and have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other vegetables. Switching from carrots or sweet potatoes to other vegetables could decrease the total heavy metal content on that day by about 73%. Root vegetables have vitamins and other nutrients, so you don’t have to abandon them altogether, but use them sparingly.

Making your own baby food may not reduce your child’s exposure to heavy metals. It depends on the heavy metal dosage in each of the ingredients that you are using. Organic may not automatically mean the heavy metal content is lower because soil could have been contaminated for generations before its conversion, and neighboring farm water runoff could contaminate common water sources.

Is anyone doing anything about it?

The congressional report calls for the FDA to better define acceptable limits for heavy metals in baby food. It points out that the heavy metal levels found in some baby foods far exceed the maximum levels allowed in bottled water. It also recommends standards for testing in the industry, and suggests requiring baby food makers to report heavy metals amounts on their product labels so parents can make informed choices.

Baby food manufacturers are also discussing the issue. The Baby Food Council was created in 2019 to bring together major infant and toddler food companies and advocacy and research groups with the goal of reducing heavy metals in baby food products. They created a Baby Food Standard and Certification Program to work collaboratively on testing and certification of raw ingredients. Ultimately, baby food makers will need to consider changing farm sources of raw ingredients, using fewer seasonings and altering processing practices.

The U.S. has made important inroads in reducing heavy metals in air and water since the 1980s, dramatically lowering exposure. With additional focus, it can further reduce heavy metal exposure in baby food, too.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on political communication

The social impact of COVID is self-evident | Aspioneer

The social impact of COVID is self-evident. It has touched the everyday aspects of each of our lives, from simple tasks such as shopping, to meeting family members on Zoom, to (not) socialising with friends. Each of these has been transformed over the last year in ways never imagined before March 2020.

This can also be said of the kind of language politicians use – and of the expectations their audiences have when listening to them. This is because politicians are no longer to appear in front of crowds, be they large or small. They don’t meet voters or their parties, and even in parliament they are only speaking in front of a small, socially distanced group of fellow MPs.

All this affects the quality of our liberal democratic discourse. It also changes the kinds of arguments politicians use to justify their decisions (and the extent to which such changes are exposed to genuine democratic scrutiny). For example, since March 2020, changes to the norms, values and expectations of a free society have changed at speed with little parliamentary or media scrutiny. In order to impose lockdowns, freedoms have been restricted. These changes were done for public health reasons but they still pose a significant challenge to conventions of a democratic society.

Pandemic PMQs

Ordinarily, prime minister’s questions would be a riotous occasion in the House of Commons. Party leaders seek to expose the intellectual and political deficiencies of their opponent and their arguments. The conventional purpose of this exercise is for each leader to whip their backbenchers into a vocal frenzy of support, thereby showing they can lead their party to potential future victory at the polls.

COVID has dialled back the volume considerably. The pandemic has removed most of the physical audience (MPs), and changed the tone of questions and answers so that they are now more comparable to a forensic select committee. Gone are loud displays of support, or the need for the Speaker to regularly demand “order!” Under the current circumstances, PMQs has been transformed into a sedate exchange of questions and answers. There is little to no interaction with the physical or virtual audiences of MPs.

Another arena to have rhetorically been affected by COVID are media engagements. Sit-down interviews occasionally continue in a socially distant way on some of the bigger weekly programmes but on the rolling news channels, politicians are now “Zoomed in” from their home offices which, in themselves, send interesting messages to the audience. Politicians will use these settings to try to convince audiences of their rhetorical character using props such as books, framed pictures or other items such as plants. The aim is to make the interview slightly more open and potentially more composed by placing the political figure in a domestic setting, yet this set up lacks the conventional confrontational framing provided by a face-to-face interview which is often required for genuine scrutiny.

Party faithful, I think you’re on mute?

Finally, the party conference has inevitably been substantially affected by COVID and with it the ability of party leaders to engage with their supporters. Normally the keynote party leader speech would be a chance to articulate an ideological renewal strategy. It’s the leader’s chance to show they are capable of continuing to lead their party and to enjoy their support through audience reactions such as applause.

The virtual conference cuts out a key measure of how much support a leader really has – the sound of the audience. Without that feedback, party leaders are left speaking into a camera in the hope that the audience accepts their arguments without really knowing if it does. That affects the vocal tone of their delivery and overall speaking style. This has been a significant issue for Labour leader Keir Starmer, especially as he has yet to appear before the Labour Party conference in person as leader.

Why it matters

The impact of COVID on these rhetorical arena affects the ability of one of our key democratic norms to function – communication. Without communication (or rhetoric), there is no meaningful liberal democratic society or scrutiny of our political leaders. This is not to suggest our liberal democracy has ceased to function (indeed, its move into the virtual realm is a testament to its strength). However, the manner in which PMQs is currently functioning impedes not just scrutiny but also the ability of party leaders to lead their parliamentary parties.

The use of virtual interviews affects the ability of interviews to truly hold political leaders to account, given the changing tone in the environment. And the digital party conference prevents activists from showing their support for party leaders through applause. It is important that a party leader solicits applause from their supporters as it shows the wider electorate that they lead a supportive party. Without applause, it is unclear if they have a united party behind them that supports their leadership or broader agenda.

Needless to say, these situations are unavoidable during the COVID pandemic because safety rightly comes first. However, it is important that in a post-COVID world, the norms and expectations of political communication are returned to their liberal democratic norms of vocal and uncomfortable accountability for healthy engagement between political leaders and voters to return. When it is safe to do so, it is vital that in these areas the “new normal” resembles the “old normal”.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

3 ways VR could transform mental health treatment

girl sitting on a bench
With one in four of us expected to experience a mental health problem at any one time, increasing access to treatment has become essential. But doing so is challenging | Aspioneer

With one in four of us expected to experience a mental health problem at any one time, increasing access to treatment has become essential. But doing so is challenging. Therapists require extensive training, and the most effective forms of therapy involve coaching patients in everyday situations, which is time-consuming and therefore costly.

Delivering psychological therapies in virtual reality (VR) may provide a solution. Here are three ways VR could transform mental health treatment.

1. “In-situ” coaching

The most successful therapeutic interventions help people to modify the way they think, react, and behave in the very situations they find most challenging. This could be anything from getting on a crowded bus, to going to a social event, to simply leaving the house.

We tend to remember information best when we’re in the same physical or mental state as we were when the memory was initially formed. This is known as state dependent learning. So for example, if we want someone to remember a technique that will help reduce their anxiety while food shopping, it’s generally best to actually visit a supermarket during the therapy session in order to train and practise the technique.

Such active “in-situ” coaching can rarely happen in mental health services because of factors like cost and time. This is where VR can help.

VR environments create immersive simulations of real world environments, allowing you to walk around and interact with the environment as if it were real. You can enter the situations you typically find challenging, and learn psychological techniques to overcome your difficulties alongside a virtual or real-life therapist.

Crucially, although we know the VR environment is just a simulation, we nonetheless respond as we would in the corresponding real-world environment, both psychologically and physiologically. As a result, any learning that’s made in VR transfers to the real world.

In one study of 30 patients with severe paranoid beliefs, fear of real-world social situations halved after a single VR coaching session. Similar findings have been seen for a range of other experiences, such as fears of height and social anxiety.

2. Flexibility

Not only is VR more practical, but people are generally more willing to enter virtual versions of the situations they find anxiety-provoking because they know it’s only a simulation. It’s also easier to repeatedly try things out that are too scary or perhaps too embarrassing to try in the real world.

VR scenarios can also be graded in difficulty or even personalised for each person. In a VR study at the University of Oxford on treating fear of heights, participants began in the virtual atrium of a ten-storey building and were then able to choose which floor to go to. The idea was to begin practising on the lower, less scary floors, and work their way up as they became more confident.

VR also allowed the researchers to make some of the scenarios more fun for participants – such as having tasks where you rescued a kitten or had to pop bubbles. This added flexibility in how participants were able to confront their fear may be one reason why their reductions in fear of heights exceeded those seen in traditional exposure therapy.

The flexibility of VR also means it can be adapted to help treat a range of mental health problems. VR treatments have been developed for many other phobias, such as spiders, as well as for other disorders such as PTSDsocial anxietydepressioneating disorderspsychosis, and addiction.

3. Automation

Perhaps the most significant advantage of VR therapies is that they can be automated. This means that in VR there can be a virtual coach with you who explains the therapy and teaches you the psychological techniques to try out.

For example, our team has developed a virtual coach named Nic, who is used in our ongoing research into VR for mental health treatment. Nic provides encouragement to users and gives them ideas of psychological techniques to try during treatment.

Virtual coaches like Nic can work like a therapist without a therapist actually needing to be present at every VR session. Instead, a graduate psychologist or peer supporter (such as someone who has lived through a similar experience) can lead the sessions with the user, providing support and guidance alongside the virtual coach.

Because there are many more graduate psychologists and peer supporters available than highly trained therapists, VR therapy can help ensure more people are able to access the treatment they may need, without delay. VR treatment is also likely to be more affordable for the same reason.

Continuous improvements to VR hardware mean it’s becoming increasingly affordable and feasible to potentially use this technology in mental health services in the near future for the treatment of a range of conditions. While it would never replace therapists, it could improve the number of people able to access therapy.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Uber drivers ruling could reshape the gig economy

a person driving a car
The court ruling certainly strengthens the message – from both academia and an official 2017 review of modern working practices – to other online platforms in the gig economy that the “misclassification” of their workforce will not be tolerated | Aspioneer

It’s been a long old journey for former Uber drivers James Farrar and Yasseen Aslam. But after a five year legal battle, the pair arrived at their chosen destination – a court ruling that drivers for the taxi app firm should be treated as workers rather than independent contractors.

It is a distinction which could have significant implications for the earning rights of Uber drivers, at a potentially heavy cost to the firm, which is fighting similar challenges around the world. The ruling could also have a marked effect on the wider gig economy, paving the way for similar claims that could come from online tutors, supply teachers or freelancers.

Future cases are likely to test how far the February 2021 judgment stretches. But the court ruling certainly strengthens the message – from both academia and an official 2017 review of modern working practices – to other online platforms in the gig economy that the “misclassification” of their workforce will not be tolerated. For example, the judgment may encourage Deliveroo riders who were previously unsuccessful at asserting their employment status in court.

The Uber case began when Aslam, Farrar and their fellow claimants successfully took on the firm in an employment tribunal in 2016, contending they were workers and therefore entitled to a minimum wage and paid leave.

Uber lost a string of subsequent appeals, culminating in the latest unanimous judgment against them by the UK’s Supreme Court. Giving the judgment, Lord Leggatt held that the original employment tribunal was correct for five key reasons: 1. drivers have no say over their fares 2. a standardised written agreement is essentially imposed on drivers 3. Uber exercises a significant amount of control over drivers, including penalising those whose acceptance rate falls below Uber’s expectations 4. Uber dictates the way in which drivers should deliver their service and uses a rating system to manage this 5. communication between passengers and drivers is restricted by Uber (preventing the formation of any future relationship between the driver and the passenger).

The balance of power

In short, the Supreme Court believed the drivers were subordinate to Uber, leading to an imbalance of power. Beyond increasing the hours spent working via the platform, drivers had no means of improving their economic position through entrepreneurship – something which could reasonably be expected of an independent contractor.

The judgment was welcomed by Farrar and Aslam, who told the BBC they were “thrilled and relieved” by the ruling.

Farrar added: “This is a win win win for drivers, passengers and cities. It means Uber now has the correct economic incentives not to oversupply the market with too many vehicles and too many drivers. The upshot of that oversupply has been poverty, pollution and congestion.”

For its part, an Uber spokesman said: “We respect the court’s decision which focused on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016. Since then we have made some significant changes to our business, guided by drivers every step of the way. These include giving even more control over how they earn and providing new protections like free insurance in case of sickness or injury.

He went on: “We are committed to doing more and will now consult with every active driver across the UK to understand the changes they want to see.”

Whatever changes lie ahead, the landmark judgment is indeed a major step in tackling how vast numbers of working people are treated, with the the potential to change the shape of the gig economy as we know it.

But it is worth noting that this judgment has been five years in the making. What is that compared to the speed at which online platforms like Uber can update its terms and conditions or business models?

It seems as though the law has engaged in a game of cat and mouse in attempting to hold platforms accountable for the way they treat their workforce. It may be that a future legislative response at government level will be required to level the playing field for workers who may otherwise feel bound by the terms of their agreements.

For now, drivers have found a rare moment of certainty in the ever-changing gig economy. But while the drivers have won this battle, the question remains over who will win the war. We might be in for a bumpy ride.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Has Facebook shot itself in the foot?

Facebook logo
Facebook said the ban was a direct response to the federal government’s news media code legislation, which is expected to become law soon and would require digital platforms such as Facebook and Google to pay news media companies whose content they host | Aspioneer

Facebook made good on its threat to block Australians from accessing or posting news content. The ban includes blocking links to Australian and overseas news publishers.

Facebook said the ban was a direct response to the federal government’s news media code legislation, which is expected to become law soon and would require digital platforms such as Facebook and Google to pay news media companies whose content they host.

Why has Facebook done this?

The move is either a last-ditch attempt to gain concessions in the legislation, or a simple cut-and-run by Facebook.

The social media giant claims news publishers derive more value from news sharing than Facebook does. This is plausible, as news content makes up only 4% of sharing on the platform, whereas many news sites gain a large fraction of their traffic from Facebook referrals.

But this is probably more about flexing some muscle. Facebook may be demonstrating to the Federal government that if it doesn’t like the rules, it can damage national interests.

Collateral damage

Australians will feel some short-term negative impacts of Facebook’s flex.

Certain government Facebook pages, such as those belonging to the Bureau of Meterology and some health department sites, have been caught up in the ban. Facebook says this is due to the wording of the legislation, stating:

As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted.

While Facebook says it will restore non-news pages, the action will put pressure on the government to define more clearly what it means by news content.

In the meantime, the move will affect Australians’ access to vital information related to emergencies and the COVID pandemic. Without a concerted effort to ensure online behaviour change from users, this could be dangerous.

Misinformation risk

We can also expect to see a short-term proliferation of misinformation as Facebook’s news feed will have a vacuum of professionally sourced and fact-checked news.

A significant number of Australians discuss news on Facebook, both via their newsfeed and in groups. Being able to source factual information from news sites is part of the everyday political and social participation that social media platforms facilitate.

The democratic impact of Facebook’s ban will be felt – and is counter to Facebook’s stated principle of connecting people and its recent pledge to tackle misinformation.

Will it hurt Facebook?

The impact of this action against the legislation on Facebook itself is yet to be seen.

The reputational damage from blocking important sites that serve Australia’s public interest overnight – and yet taking years to get on top of user privacy breaches and misinformation – undermines the legitimacy of the platform and its claimed civic intentions.

Facebook’s actions may send a message to the government, but they will also send one to their Australian users.

Readers are likely to find other ways to get their news. If we learn from the experience of Google’s news ban in Spain, we can see that after an initial dip in traffic, most major news organisations in Spain regained much of their web traffic after about a year.

Surfing social waves

Tools such as Facebook are only useful if people want to use them. And for some existing users, the lack of news might be a dealbreaker.

Facebook already faces a long-term problem of an ageing user demographic, as under-25s turn to Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok for news and information.

Young people may have Facebook profiles, but they are less likely to be active users.

News organisations are already following their lead. For example, The Conversation Australia has 325,735 Facebook followers and will probably feel the impact of the loss of engagement there.

But it also has more than 21,000 Instagram followers and counting. It is increasingly making visual news “tiles” to cater for the younger demographic of users who source news from other platforms. It has also been working to reach readers directly via regular email newsletters, which one in five US readers now say is their primary way of accessing news.

News organisations have already learned how to pivot fast. When Facebook changed its algorithms in 2018 to deprioritise news publishers, many took action to reduce their reliance on Facebook’s traffic, analytics or digital advertising dollars.

What now?

Larger news organisations will be OK in the long run. But Australia’s smaller outlets, including local publishers and non-profits that produce public interest journalism, will need protection.

The long-term task for news organisations and journalists is to convince the public – especially young people – that it’s worthwhile to actively seek out professional news and journalism as part of their daily online lives, rather than simply reading whatever comes across their feed.

As for Facebook, going back to its original purpose of facilitating personal connection and social networking, rather than posing as a forum for public information, may not be a bad thing. But the reputational damage and publisher exodus will eventually damage its core business: digital advertising revenue.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Debunking the four environmental myths of Bitcoin

With more and more people enticed by the heady rewards, bitcoin mining on some days uses as much energy as Poland and generates 37 million tonnes of CO2 each year | Aspioneer

The price of bitcoin has reached US$50,000 (£36,095) – another all-time high. It’s hard to believe that 10,000 bitcoin would only buy a couple of pizzas ten years ago. It’s even stranger to think that bitcoins are completely virtual. You can’t hold one, except on a hard drive, and there’s no underlying asset to them. A bitcoin is simply a digital representation of the computer power needed to make one, what’s called its “proof-of-work”.

This isn’t actually a new idea though. Rai stones were one of the first forms of money used on the Micronesian islands of Yap. To get hold of a Rai, you had to row a canoe for 500km or so to Palau and chisel away at some local limestone. Then you needed to take the 3m-wide lump of rock back to Yap without sinking in the Pacific. No one is quite sure when it started, but the practice is at least several centuries old. Yapese money had no inherent value. For everyone to respect the proof-of-work, the process was deliberately inefficient and incredibly resource-intensive, just like bitcoin.

Instead of relying on intrepid voyagers, bitcoin uses a global network of competing computers. Like safe crackers at a safe-cracking contest, these bitcoin mining machines guess the combination to a digital lock (a long string of digits) with the correct combination winning a few new bitcoins. The combination changes every ten minutes, and the contest continues.

This might all sound like a harmless game of digital bingo. But with more and more people enticed by the heady rewards, bitcoin mining on some days uses as much energy as Poland and generates 37 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

New institutional investors, like the carmaker, Tesla, are driving the asset’s price skywards while ignoring bitcoin’s climate-changing appetite. And to keep the bull market charging, supporters are working hard to argue for bitcoin’s green credentials.

For the sake of a stable climate, these myths need debunking.

Myth one: bitcoin mining is becoming more efficient

Bitcoin’s carbon emissions are not the network’s only dirty secret. In 2011, competing miners could win the bitcoin bingo with an average laptop. Today, viable operations require investing in warehouses filled with specialised hardware known as Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC). As the majority of mining costs come from energy to run these units, bitcoin miners are always careful to use the cheapest. To avoid wasting energy, the global arms race for bitcoin requires ASICs to be replaced for newer and more efficient models every year.

ASICs can’t be easily repurposed for general computing. Redundant units create around 11,500 tonnes of hazardous electronic waste each year, much of which is dumped on cities in the global south.

Myth two: bitcoin encourages investment in clean energy

Chinese hydroelectric power plants are popular spots for bitcoin mining. While China cracks down on the industry, 61% of bitcoin mining is powered by fossil fuels.

Cheap coal in Australia has found new buyers through bitcoin, as formerly redundant coal mines are reopened to power mining. Miners are willing to move anywhere for residual energy, increasing the profitability of natural gas in Siberia and supporting oil drilling in Texas.

In Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, bitcoin miners are getting special access to cheap, clean energy produced by an EU-funded hydroelectric plant. The plant was designed to help locals find livelihoods beyond poaching and stop them resorting to scouring parkland for wood fuel. Bitcoin miners employ armies of computer servers, not the ex-combatants the plant could help.

Myth three: bitcoin replaces the need for gold mining

Gold mining is one of the world’s most destructive industries. Bitcoin was originally intended as a digital replacement for gold that was also a deflationary means of exchange, capable of rendering wasteful banks and regulators redundant.

But for many institutional investors, gold is being bought to hedge against bitcoin’s volatility. Tesla poured US$1.5 billion into bitcoin, but also declared an interest in gold. While bitcoin is currently experiencing all-time price highs, gold hit one of its own in 2020.

Nor has bitcoin displaced traditional finance institutions. Major banks are vying to get very rich indeed on the back of it.

Myth four: corporate players will boost market for ‘green bitcoin’

Some argue that institutional investors can turn bitcoin green. Yves Bennaim, the founder of Swiss cryptocurrency think tank 2B4CH, claims that as investors like Tesla push prices up, “there will be more incentive to make investments in renewable sources of energy” for bitcoin mining. But miners will always use the cheapest option to maximise returns. It’s not possible to allocate additional rewards to miners using renewables, because it’s difficult to know exactly which bitcoin miners use renewables.

Unfortunately, there is currently no such thing as a “green bitcoin”.

Not all cryptocurrencies are as energy-intensive as bitcoin, though. There are alternatives to proof-of-work. The second biggest blockchain project, ethereum, is switching to proof-of-stake, a new system which is supposed to remove the need for data miners and perpetual hardware updates. Bitcoins are dirty things, but pointing this out to would-be investors should not mean throwing the blockchain baby out with bitcoin’s bath water.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to rebrand a fish so that it sounds tastier

four fishes in a plate
British fishermen have decided to rename two of their biggest exports as they turn to local markets to overcome some Brexit-related difficulties with shipping products abroad | Aspioneer

British fishermen have decided to rename two of their biggest exports as they turn to local markets to overcome some Brexit-related difficulties with shipping products abroad. What used to be known as the megrim sole and spider crab will now be Cornish sole and Cornish king crab in order to make them more appealing to the local market. The question is whether a simple name change will make the megrim sole or the spider crab more likeable to the British consumer.

Humans really can eat with their ears, as lots of research has demonstrated the sound heard while eating or drinking can affect the way people think about food. Hearing “bitter sounding” music when eating a toffee results in the eater perceiving it to be significantly bitterer. Chewing is not only felt but also heard, and this helps to establish whether the food is perceived as “crunchy” or “crisp”. Crispy has been described as a short, high-pitched sound experienced during the first bite and crunchy as a loud and lower-pitched sound, experienced over several chews.

Volume is also a factor. Potato crisps that sound louder when you bite into them are deemed to taste crispier and fresher. People also tend to think that the smell of potato crisps are more pleasant after hearing the sound of someone else eating them. All of this demonstrates that sound can make a big difference to how food is perceived.

The sound of a name

How a brand sounds when spoken out loud also has a fundamental role to play in how consumers view it. When we hear the name of a product we instantaneously attach meaning to it and form an idea of whether we perceive it positively, even before we have actually seen the product. This happens because different types of sounds have symbolic meaning, something that is apparent from the fact that people infer specific meaning from unfamiliar brand names. For example, certain vowels, such as i, ā, ē and e, can lead to a perception that the brands are smaller, lighter, milder, thinner, softer, faster, colder, friendlier and even more feminine.

Using symbolic sounds for brands also results in higher levels of likeability and a clearer and stronger positioning in their minds. This is also applicable to food as psychologists found that people believed an ice cream named “Frosh” was creamier than an ice cream called “Frish”. Just altering one sound makes a big difference to the consumer perception. Such effects demonstrate the positive impact that a well-named brand can have on perceived attractiveness of a product, and the creation of brand names should therefore be considered an important part of successful product marketing.

Brand association

While the sound of the name is clearly important so also are the associations coupled with a brand. The adjective Cornish triggers associations with the English county of Cornwall. One of the most commonly visited tourist destinations in the UK, Cornwall is a “brand” in its own right, and its amazing coastline and beaches feature prominently in its marketing. Therefore when people hear the word Cornish, they are likely to instantaneously think of the sea and seafood. This should be beneficial as places with a more recognised reputation for food can benefit from using the name as a promotional tool.

Do consumers have to try it to like it?

Many chefs and restaurants are looking to fine tune their food with multisensory science. For instance diners at The Fat Duck, a restaurant in England run by innovative celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, are played the sounds of waves breaking to enhance the experience of eating a seafood course.

Given developments like this, it is hardly surprising that Cornish fishermen are also considering the importance of a name. It seems the industry thinks that if it can just get people to try its newly branded fish, they will like what they taste. However, with the right-sounding product name consumers won’t even have to try the fish as they will already have made up their minds about whether it is tastes nice. So a simple name change may not be so simple after all.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.

5 ways to reduce your waste at home – and stop it being exported to poorer nations

The trade of waste and shifting of one country’s problem onto another simply cannot continue | Aspioneer

The UK is the largest plastic waste producer in Europe and one of the biggest producers of plastic waste in the world, second only to the US. The UK produces 99kg of plastic waste per person per year. And it exports about two-thirds of this waste to poorer countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Shipping unsorted plastic waste from the European Union to non-OECD countries was banned by the EU from January this year. But the UK continues to export plastic waste to developing countries as part of new post-Brexit regulations.

Most of the plastic waste is sold to these countries as the UK currently does not have the means and capacity to process it at home. But these countries also lack the infrastructure and capacity to recycle imported waste. And waste that can’t be recycled often ends up dumped in landfill or waterways or even burned – releasing toxic fumes into the environment. Indeed, much of the waste sent to these countries is unsorted and dirty plastics which can hardly be recycled anyway.

This trade of waste and the shifting of one country’s problem onto another simply cannot continue. Our behaviour as consumers is central to tackling this huge amount of plastic waste – along with the 26 million tonnes of general household waste produced yearly in the UK. We therefore all need to start taking responsible actions and be held accountable for the waste we generate. Of course, changing behaviour is not easy or straightforward.

Cultivating change

In its latest report, the Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK Government on the path to achieving net-zero carbon, emphasises that change in consumer behaviour is one of the major ways to speed up decarbonisation. But this is not something that can simply be forced on people. As my research shows, people need to support any changes and have a willingness to take up new habits aligned with the zero-waste economy.

The good news is that the COVID-19 crisis has already shown that people are open to changing their consumption habits. Many have started to buy locally, are more interested in buying clothes made out of recycled materials, and aim to consume less meat.

For things to really change, we need an all-embracing approach that engages everyone and intervenes early on in how products are designed and consumed to solve the waste crisis. But there are small things that each one of us can do to prevent and produce less waste. Many of these solutions are based on principles from the circular economy – a concept that promotes the elimination of waste and continual use of products and materials.

Here are some affordable and practical tips:

Use less – stop and reflect on your wasteful consumption practices and simply use less (as many have during lockdown). Rethink your lifestyle and only use what you need for your daily living; not everything may be essential.

Buy local – in the early stages of the pandemic, with flights grounded and entry in and out of countries proving problematic, food shortages were abundant. Buying local proved to be the alternative. Buying local is not only better for the environment but it also helps to support your local economy and local producers.

Be resourceful – try your best to reuse, repair or upcycle before you decide to throw away things you think no longer work. Be creative in how you might repurpose products and materials. It may simply be giving a new lease of life to your old furniture with a touch of non-toxic paint instead of getting new pieces.

Think beyond recycling – recycling is good, but we consume more than we recycle. So avoid buying goods that you cannot recycle. This will push businesses to better design products and ultimately, design out wasteful materials.

Rethink ownership – there is a rise in new businesses adopting “rental”, “pay per use” and “on-demand” models for products ranging from clothes to furniture. So where possible do not buy things you use only occasionally; instead pay for access to these things when you need them.

Above all, it’s important to remember that even very little change to our consumption habits takes us a step closer to reducing the UK’s 26 million tonnes of household waste. Achieve that and it will ultimately put us on track for a more sustainable post-pandemic world.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.