human behavior

Your Baby Is a Racist—and Why You Can Live With That

It don't come easy: bonding across racial lines requires overcoming some very old genetic programming Hero Images; Getty Images/Hero Images

From humanity's earliest era, we had evolved to distinguish in-groups from out-groups and to assign powerful value to those differences. Call it racism, but it helped us survive

You always suspected babies were no good, didn’t you? They’re loud, narcissistic, spoiled, volatile and not exactly possessed of good table manners. Now it turns out that they’re racists too.

The latest evidence for that decidedly unlovely trait comes from research out of the University of Washington that actually sought to explore one of babies’ more admirable characteristics: their basic sense of fairness. In the study, 15-month-old toddlers watched an experimenter with a collection of four small toys share them either evenly or unevenly with two other adult volunteers. When allowed to choose which experimenters the babies wanted to play with later, 70% of them preferred the ones who had divided the toys evenly.

Nice, but there was an exception: when the two adults who were receiving the evenly or unevenly divided toys were of different races and the race of the one who got more toys matched the babies’ own, the 70% preference for the fair distributor dropped and the share of babies wanting to play with the unfair one rose. The implication: unfairness is bad, unless someone from your clan is getting the extra goodies.

“If all babies care about is fairness, they would always pick the fair distributor,” said University of Washington associate professor psychology of Jessica Somerville, in a statement that accompanied the study. “But we’re also seeing that they’re interested in consequences for their own group members.”

OK, so that doesn’t speak well of human nature at even its sweetest and most ingenuous stage. But here’s the thing: if we weren’t rank racists when we were very little, the species probably never would have survived. The idea of in-group bias is well established in behavioral science, and it has its roots long ago, in humanity’s tribal era. The fact is, the people in your own band are more likely to nurture you, care for you and protect you from harm, while the people from the tribe over the hill are more likely to, well, eat you.

As soon as you become old enough to toddle away from the campfire and wander out on your own, it thus pays to recognize, at a glance, what an alien other looks like. Sometimes it’s dress or hairstyle that provides the telltale cue, but just as often it’s skin tone, hair texture and the shape of facial features. It was the human tendency to migrate and settle in parts of the world with varying climates that caused these physical differences to emerge in the first place.

“We didn’t start off as a multi-racial species,” psychologist Liz Phelps of New York University told me in my upcoming book about narcissism. “We have races simply because we dispersed.” Once we did disperse, however, those differences in appearance—skin tone especially—turbocharged our suspicion of the outsider.

A study by psychologist Yarrow Dunham, now at Yale University, showed that color is an especially salient feature for very young people to overlook. Children in a classroom experiment who were divided into two groups and given two different color t-shirts to wear were, later on, much likelier to remember good things about all of the children who wore their color shirt and bad things about the ones who wore the other. “Kids will begin to show these preferences right away, in the lab, on the spot,” Dunham told me. “It’s not just a preference, it’s also a learning bias—the children actually learn differentially about the in-group and the out-group.”

Sometimes, for small children, there can be a certain sweetness to the bias, since they may feel concern for the person of a different race, the assumption being that anyone who doesn’t look like them must be unhappy about that fact. When my older daughter was three or four years old, we approached an African American cashier in a store and she asked her, “Are you sad that you don’t have light skin?” I winced and began to splutter an apology, but the woman answered, “No, honey. Are you said that you don’t have dark skin?” When my daughter said no, the woman responded, “So you see? We’re both happy with who we are.”

The sweet phase of simply noticing racial differences fades, to be replaced either by a higher awareness of the meaningless of such matters or a toxic descent into assigning ugly, negative values to them. Which way any one baby goes depends on upbringing, community, era, temperament and a whole range of other variables. What we will never be, like it or not, is an entirely post-racial species. Our better impulses may wish that weren’t so, but our ancient impulses will always test us. They are tests we must, from babyhood, learn to pass.


Want To Give Up All Your Legal Rights? Click Here.

General Mills wants to restrict your ability to sue. Welcome to the latest in corporate skullduggery.

My Lucky Charms were too soggy this morning. I’m going to sue.

If you are a consumer products or services company such as General Mills, this is how you see the world: full of very crazy people and very smart lawyers, which you view as a very bad combination that is more than willing to take you to court over the moisture levels of breakfast foods. Or misleading labels. Or unproven health claims. Silly stuff like that.

Which is part of the explanation of why General Mills, the owner of popular brands such as Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Nature Valley, Yoplait, Old El Paso, and Progresso, has changed the legal terms for using its web site, or even buying one of its products. As the New York Times pointed out in a delightful piece of reporting, if you so much a download a coupon from the General Mills website it’s the equivalent, in the company’s view, of signing a contract that prohibits you from suing or joining a class action suit against it. Parsing General Mills’s privacy and legal sections will cost you about 7,000 words of reading time, but the operative ones are as follows: “These terms are a binding legal agreement (‘Agreement’) between you and General Mills.” You probably didn’t think that buying a pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla would imply a contractual obligation on your part.

If the Bisquick hits the fan, in other words, you can’t go running to court. You are required to deal with the company in a private arbitration — hey, Mills will even pick up the cost. So downloading a 50-cent-off coupon on your next purchase of Hamburger Helper discounts your legal recourse. Sure seems like Big Business operating in a this-is-why-we- hate-them-model, with the corporate legal department playing its traditional starring role. “General Mills is proud to market some of the world’s most-trusted brands,” the company says in the introduction to this fine print.

It’s you that Mills doesn’t trust.

There’s a ton of fine print in our everyday lives that we almost have to ignore. Each time you download an iPhone operating system update, for instance, up pops an agreement a mile long. I still don’t know what it says, but knowing Apple it probably claims that you should be grateful Apple even lets you own one of its precious gadgets. Don’t even think about legal action. And have you ever read your cable service agreement? I dare you.

Forced arbitration isn’t all that unusual. It’s part of every brokerage agreement, for instance. If you lost a lot of money because your broker sold you risky junk bonds when you thought you’d be getting safer treasury bonds, any dispute coming out of it goes to arbitration. And it’s common among corporations, too, which makes sense if they want to avoid litigation. (Oddly enough, I found a New York state court case in which General Mills sued to void a mandatory arbitration clause in a contract it had with another company.)

But what’s outrageous here is that General Mills seems to be seeking shelter from class action or consumer advocate cases even if it engages in bad corporate behavior: violating nutritional labeling laws, say. Consumers in Florida and California, for instance, sued the company over health benefit claims made by its Yoplait YoPlus and Nature Valley products. The company says its health and nutrition claims are correct — and doesn’t see why it should be subject to a class action claim. You got a beef over yogurt, let’s go to arbitration.

There’s a lot at stake. For decades, the corporate bar and the tort bar — which handles personal injury and class action cases — have been a war over who can sue and under what conditions. Corporations see themselves as victims of overzealous (read ambulance chasing) lawyers. And that’s been true in some abusive disputes such as asbestos litigation. To some degree legislators have agreed with them. Bad corporate behavior, though, never seems to go out of fashion. And given the ineffectiveness of regulators or legislators in reining it in, tort lawyers have acted as the biggest restraint against misbehaving companies.

So maybe as consumers we have to turn the tables on the corporate lawyers. Dear General Mills, please read and endorse this e-mail agreement which states the terms under which I am willing to become a consumer of your trusted brands. You understand that I can’t trust you, because corporate behavior since the Pure Foods Act of 1906 has told me not to. I understand that if my Betty Crocker cake fails to rise— my bad. As for everything else, all bets are off. And by the way: By clicking on this article, you’ve already agreed.


Dear Religion, I Quit You!

I've discovered grace and I'm sticking with it.

When I was a kid, my dad would let me stay up and watch “Cheers” each week. Granted it’s not the most “kid friendly” show, but I could’ve cared less. I was getting to stay up past my bedtime!

My parents divorced when I was 3, and from about 3rd grade on, my big brother and I, grew up with our dad. That’s right…3 bachelors. And what better way to establish top notch parenting skills than to immediately let this 3rd grader start staying up past 9pm central time to watch “Cheers!” You must remember, the Disney channel didn’t really exist yet, so it was up to Sam Malone, Cliff Clavin and Norm to give this kid a few life lessons.

Ahhh Norm. I LOVED Norm. Forget ever understanding any of the jokes. All I knew was, every week, Norm would walk through that door and the whole place would yell “NORM.” Heck I was yelling it too!

For a kid feeling like I was being tossed around between parents, the idea of a place where you were accepted day in and day out resonated deeply within me! Even the theme song to “Cheers” was practically a church hymn because it stirred me so much. “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came!” Man I would belt that at the top of my lungs the same way I am right now as I write this. Dang that’s a great song!

I’m 41 now. I’m married to the most amazing woman and have 5 kids. And I’m just now understanding my connection to that show. I’ve spent my whole life looking for grace. REAL grace. Not religion, but grace. There’s a difference ya know. I found “religion” at 13. I bought in hook, line and sinker. Grace? I discovered grace about 2 years ago. It has changed me to the core, and I ain’t going back.

Religion says “Give 110%.”

Grace says “Rest in the finished work of the Cross.”

Religion says “Don’t disappoint God.”

Grace says “God has been pleased with you since the day you called His name!”

Religion says “Being good is a start.”

Grace says “Christ on the cross is enough.”

Religion says “Get it right!”

Grace says “I’ll be there when you get it wrong!”

Religion says “We’re bad people trying to be good…you sin, you’re out”

Grace says “We’re Holy, righteous and redeemed. So when you do sin, it’s ok.”

Religion says “Your heart cannot be trusted.”

Grace says “You have the heart and mind of Christ

Religion says “Try harder.”

Grace says “Rest.”

Religion says “Please God.”

Grace says “Trust God.”

Religion says “Give more.”

Grace says “Give up.”

I did everything religion told me to do for a long time only to end up frustrated, beat down and jaded. I couldn’t keep up. No matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. So I decided to quit. And I did.

Then the craziest thing happened. Grace appeared. No, I take that back…I stopped long enough to see grace. I believe my life has been covered by grace since I trusted in Christ at age 13. I just had to turn 40 to notice.

Let me put it this way, if you were drowning, you wouldn’t really be in a place to lend a hand as far as being rescued. You’d be at the mercy of the lifeguard. Once pulled out, you may be a little out of it, not sure where you are, but safe nonetheless.

Then it sinks in. You start to realize someone just saved your life! How could you ever repay this person for saving you? You don’t have to be reminded to be grateful…you are freaking ALIVE! You have a new lease on life! From that point on, nothing will ever be the same.

I was rescued at 13. I realized it at 40. For me, life has just begun! I no longer have to be reminded to be grateful because I am freaking ALIVE! When I walked out on religion, I walked into a place where, as if I were Norm himself, grace screamed,”BARRRRRRRT!!! IT’S ABOUT STINKING TIME!”

Bart Millard is the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum selling band MercyMe, who just released their eighth studio project, “Welcome to the New,” which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Listen to “Greater,” which appears on MercyMe’s latest album, below.


Barbara Brown Taylor: In Praise of Darkness

Christianity has never had anything nice to say about the dark.

“Darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me — that I want no part of — either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love — if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.

At least I think I would. The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.

The problem is that there are so few people who can teach me about that. Most of the books on the New York Times “How-To” bestseller list are about how to avoid various kinds of darkness. If you want to learn how to be happy and stay that way, how to win out over your adversaries at work, or how to avoid aging by eating the right foods, there is a book for you. If you are not a reader, you can always find someone on the radio, the television, or the web who will tell you about the latest strategy for staying out of your dark places, or at least distract you from them for a while. Most of us own so many electronic gadgets that there is always a light box within reach when any kind of darkness begins to descend on us. Why watch the sun go down when you could watch the news instead? Why lie awake at night when a couple of rounds of Moonlight Mahjong could put you back to sleep?

I wish I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark. Plus, Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness. From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today: Deliver us, O Lord, from the powers of darkness. Shine into our hearts the brightness of your Holy Spirit, and protect us from all perils and dangers of the night.

Since I live on a farm where the lights can go out for days at a time, this language works at a practical level. When it is twenty degrees outside at midnight and tree branches heavy with ice are crashing to the ground around your house, it makes all kinds of sense to pray for protection from the dangers of the night. When coyotes show up in the yard after dark, eyeing your crippled old retriever as potential fast food, the perils of the night are more than theoretical. So I can understand how people who lived before the advent of electricity — who sometimes spent fourteen hours in the dark without the benefit of so much as a flashlight — might have become sensitive to the powers of darkness, asking God for deliverance in the form of bright morning light.

At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?

If you have ever belonged to such a community, however, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says. The first time you speak of these things in a full solar church, you can usually get a hearing. Continue to speak of them and you may be reminded that God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. All that is required of you is to have faith. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.

Having been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, I do not think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them and begged me to come back into the light.

If I could have, I would have. There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence. All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.

Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of “Learning to Walk in the Dark” (HarperOne), from which this piece is excerpted. Read TIME’s interview with Taylor here, or in our April 28 issue.


Are You Making the Most Out of Life? Here’s How You Can.

When Does “More” Finally Become “Enough”?

You probably have far more now than you ever had in the past but you’re probably not much happier.

And, instinctively, we think the problem can still be fixed by more. More of whatever.

More money. More food. More things. Generically, more.

We’re not even sure what we need more of, but whatever we have now sure as hell isn’t doing it so turn it up to 11, Bertha.

This isn’t an anti-capitalist rant or your grandfather saying you kids don’t appreciate anything.

It’s another example of our instincts gone awry. So what’s the problem here?

Two researchers figured it out.

“Am I making the most out of my life?”

In their book Just Enough, Howard Stevenson and Laura Nash wanted an answer to the question we all ask ourselves:

“Am I making the most out of my life?“

The question wasn’t “What makes me feel good?” There’s no shortage of that.

The problem is that in the quest for “What makes me feel good” there’s no finish line. It’s a pie eating contest and first prize is more pie.

What combination of things makes us feel we have enough? What kills the need for more?

What, in this world of infinite perpetually screaming options, makes us lean back from the table and calmly say, “I’m good, thanks”?

So they studied really successful people. They did more than 60 interviews with very high achieving professionals.

Turns out most of those people didn’t know the answer either.

But what was interesting was that they made consistent mistakes.

And by looking at these mistakes the researchers were able to get a handle on what we need in life and the best way to go about it.

Mistake 1: You Can’t Use Just One Yardstick

We all know the good life means more than just money… but none of us is exactly sure what those other things are or how to get them.

Let’s face it: Money’s pretty easy to count and it consistently brings some happiness for at least a short period of time.

We all know love and friends and other stuff is important too…

But they’re a heck of a lot more complicated and you can’t just have them delivered to your house by Amazon Prime. So inconvenient.

But evaluating life by one metric turned out to be a key problem. In Just Enough they refer to it as a “collapsing strategy.”

Collapsing everything into one barometer of whether or not your life is on track.

Most of us find it easy to just focus on money and say “make the number go up.” It’s like a video game.

Convenient, simple and dead wrong.

The problem isn’t that money is a terrible metric, the problem is there’s more than one metric that matters.

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

Enduring success isn’t about one set of values, it’s about knowing how to apply values to multiple goals.

And we see this in our lives. A lot of people these days talk about FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out.

Even insanely successful people felt they were missing out in another area of life.

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

Jim Warner’s study of 200 CEOs primarily drawn from the high-achieving Young Presidents Organization, revealed that 70 percent reported feeling “driven” to achieve financial independence and 60 percent felt ready for a life change for negative reasons: They felt they were losing out on something else.

Studying is good… but so is time with friends. When we try and collapse everything into one metric we inevitably get frustrated.

The researchers realized multiple yardsticks for life were necessary.

For instance, to have a good relationship with your family you need to spend time with them. So hours spent together is one way to measure.

But if that time is spent screaming at each other, that’s not good either. So you need to measure quantity and quality.

What metrics matter for a good life? The study came up with four.

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

  • 1. Happiness: Feelings of pleasure or contentment in and about your life.
  • 2. Achievement: Accomplishments that compare favorably against similar goals others have strived for.
  • 3. Significance: A positive impact on people you care about.
  • 4. Legacy: Establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success.



Just reading this list, it makes intuitive sense.

We all know people who succeed at number one… but eventually feel like losers because they ignored number 2. And vice versa.

Interestingly, some of those interviewed seemed aware of the four categories and did not try to condense them into a single bucket.

But they made another error: they figured they could handle them one at a time. Turns out that doesn’t work either.

Mistake #2: You Cannot Put The Good Life On Hold

“First I’ll work a job I hate and make a lot of money and THEN I’ll have a family and THEN I’ll do what I want and be happy.”

This is what Just Enough refers to as the “sequential strategy.”

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

Sequential strategies methodically take the idea of delayed gratification to an extreme. It’s the pattern of choice for many young people today, especially the so-called dot-comers who saw promises of fast riches just down the road.

Clay Christensen wisely addresses this problem in his powerful book, How Will You Measure Your Life?:

The relationships you have with family and close friends are going to be the most important sources of happiness in your life. But you have to be careful. When it seems like everything at home is going well, you will be lulled into believing that you can put your investments in these relationships onto the back burner. That would be an enormous mistake. By the time serious problems arise in those relationships, it often is too late to repair them. This means, almost paradoxically, that the time when it is most important to invest in building strong families and close friendships is when it appears, at the surface, as if it’s not necessary.

And nowhere is this more true than with children.

Via How Will You Measure Your Life?:

One of the most common versions of this mistake that high-potential young professionals make is believing that investments in life can be sequenced. The logic is, for example, “I can invest in my career during the early years when our children are small and parenting isn’t as critical. When our children are a bit older and begin to be interested in things that adults are interested in, then I can lift my foot off my career accelerator. That’s when I’ll focus on my family.” Guess what. By that time the game is already over. An investment in a child needs to have been made long before then, to provide him with the tools he needs to survive life’s challenges— even earlier than you might realize.

But does this theory hold up to scrutiny? It’s very hard to scientifically analyze the results but some informal proof came from talking to retirees.

Turns out the happiest older folks had balanced their lives across the four categories.

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

We learned this lesson most clearly from some of our interviewees who had experienced retirement. Those who’d saved up all their life for this moment of pleasure by never experiencing happiness had no idea what to do with themselves. They only had achievement skills. They had no community, and few social skills beyond those that could be bought with a corporate title. They often drove their spouses crazy. On the other hand, those who tried to keep up their former pace and make one more grand killing in the marketplace often found themselves not quite so satisfied about going to work, taking on the next problem. They feared that they may have lost their fast ball. Those who seemed most balanced in retirement had invested healthy doses of activity in all four categories over their lifetime.

We see more and more examples of overcommitment to one area and neglect of the others. The brilliant computer programmer with zero social skills.

The hard-charging businesswoman who waits too long to have kids. The career-climbing man who doesn’t spend any time with the kids he has.

We excel by focusing our effort, as with deliberate practice.

But the danger is that we become one dimensional — an efficient machine designed to do only one thing.

So that porridge was too hot, and that porridge was too cold. Which one is just right?

Success Is A Lifetime Process

In Just Enough, Stevenson and Nash call the good strategy “spiraling and linking.”

You cycle through the four needs on a regular, if not daily, basis.

If you ignore any of them you’re headed for a “collapsing” strategy and if you delay, you’re in “sequential” territory.

I’ve been experimenting with this. Frankly, it’s a pain in the ass because I’m wired to pick one thing and destroy everything in my path to get to it.

But I am happier. The Good Life is a balance, and must be, because there isn’t a finish line. This was one of their findings:

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

If you think, like many people today, that success is about delaying happiness while you achieve, and that the final point of success should be to put aside all effort and lead a happy life, you are unlikely to achieve real success or happiness. All scientific research shows that happiness has a fading quality: the first taste of the hot fudge sundae is terrific, but if you ate four of them, you would find little pleasure. You have to renew happiness on a regular basis, not look for some state of unending pleasure.

The comedian Steven Wright once quipped:

I took my dog for a walk, all the way from New York to Florida. I said to him “There, now you’re done.”

Very funny. It doesn’t work for dogs and it doesn’t work for us either.

Aim for a bit of the four each day:

Via Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life:

  • 1. Happiness: Feelings of pleasure or contentment in and about your life.
  • 2. Achievement: Accomplishments that compare favorably against similar goals others have strived for.
  • 3. Significance: A positive impact on people you care about.
  • 4. Legacy: Establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success.

Measuring life by one yardstick won’t work. And moving through the four sequentially is a mistake too.

A favorite quote of mine by Warren Buffett sums it up:

I always worry about people who say, “I’m going to do this for ten years; I really don’t like it very well. And then I’ll do this…” That’s a lot like saving sex up for your old age. Not a very good idea.

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Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

Here are the things proven to make you happier

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.


Russia’s Game in Ukraine

Rising tension Pro-Russian protesters storm a regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka
Rising tension Pro-Russian protesters storm a regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka Alexey Kravtsov—AFP/Getty Images

Putin does not want to risk a takeover. But he does want another pliant leader in Kiev

Earlier this month, as residents of Kiev celebrated the opening of an annual festival of French culture and, days later, the start of one of the country’s largest book fairs, their compatriots in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk were on edge. Armed pro-Russian separatists had seized a regional security-service building and reportedly taken more than 50 people hostage. Though the hostage situation was resolved, there were other instances of separatists causing trouble near the country’s eastern borders with Russia, as the Kremlin began to exert pressure beyond Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it seized in March.

Moscow might deny a role in stoking the unrest, but the fear inside Ukraine was that the tensions in Lugansk and elsewhere in the east would be followed up by a wholesale influx of Russian troops, tens of thousands of whom remain massed at the border. But that did not happen—or at least, it hasn’t happened yet.

Why? Perhaps Russia was put off by the re­inforcements that appeared on the Ukrainian side—Moscow would prefer a Crimea-style takeover, instead of risking a bloody fight, even one that it would be likely to win, given its relative military strength—or maybe it was simply posturing, geared to keep Ukraine preoccupied as Kiev tries to get on with the important business of holding national elections and restructuring its struggling economy. Whatever the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning next, one thing seems clear: Moscow wants Kiev to know that an attack is possible at any moment.

We know this not only because of the troops at the border, or the separatists whipping up trouble inside Ukraine, but also because of the goings-on inside Russia, where it seems that every last nationalist is being encouraged to visit Lugansk, Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine to take part in pro-Moscow demonstrations.

In mid-April, there was further unrest in Sloviansk, where a Ukrainian policeman was killed in a battle with armed separatists. Problems with pro-Russian gunmen also arose in other parts of the east, the country’s industrial heartland.

Besides fear, the developments have also sparked black humor. One story doing the rounds concerns the town of Alchevsk in the Lugansk region, where, it is said, some 150 not very sober people got together for a demonstration, proudly waving French flags instead of Russian ones—an easy mistake to make for outsiders, what with the colors being the same. But there is nothing funny about a crowd of around 2,000 people storming public buildings—which is what happened in Donetsk in early April.

In Crimea, meanwhile, a Russian sergeant shot an unarmed Ukrainian officer who was preparing to transfer to a Ukrainian base on the mainland. No charges have been filed against the sergeant.

All of the above underlines the fact that Russia is not content with annexing Crimea, nor will it simply sit back and allow ordinary Ukrainians to choose a new leader in the upcoming presidential election planned for May 25.

That does not mean Putin wants to seize the whole country. The risks of bloodshed and a more serious—and economically ruinous—confrontation with the West are too great for the Kremlin to march on Kiev. That said, the recent troubles in the east suggest that Putin is not about to let go of Ukraine and walk away either. For Moscow, the goal is another pro-Russian government in Kiev, giving it clout over a former Soviet state without the risks attached to a full-scale military invasion.

Against this backdrop, the May presidential election will be critical in determining what happens next in Ukraine. If the interim government in Kiev can hold a free and fair election, with the new government winning a mandate from the eastern regions, Putin will not be able to continue calling Viktor Yanukovych the country’s “legitimate” President. A successful vote will force Putin to reconsider his strategy. But if Russia succeeds in disrupting the polls, Ukraine would face the prospect of greater unrest.

Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer and the author of the critically acclaimed novel Death and the Penguin


A 7-Step Guide for Rebooting Civilization After the Apocalypse

The world as we know it has ended. A particularly virulent strain of avian flu finally breached the species barrier and hopped successfully to human hosts. Or tensions between India and Pakistan reached the breaking point, culminating in the use of nuclear weapons. Or a rocky asteroid, only around a mile across, slammed into the Earth and fatally changed atmospheric conditions.

Now what?

As recently as the last century, people made the things they used every day. Yet in the span of just a couple generations, we have become a society of consumers rather than makers. Thanks to today’s modern conveniences, we have become disconnected from the basic skills and knowledge on which our lives and our world depend.

Here, then, are a few of the skills you’ll need to survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Survive the immediate aftermath

Aside from dodging raiding bandits, the single most important thing you can do to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world without antibiotics is to stop yourself picking up infections in the first place. Ensure your drinking water is not contaminated — boil it if necessary, or even disinfect using diluted bleach scavenged from any abandoned household. Soap is enormously effective at protecting against gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, and can be made by treating animal fat or plant oil with quicklime (roasted chalk or limestone) and soda (see below).

Scavenge what you need

For a certain grace period you’ll be able to dine-out on the left-overs of our fallen civilization — stockpiles of canned food in the supermarkets — before you need to redevelop agriculture to stop yourself starving to death. You’ll need viable, preserved seeds, and the Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Svalbard will be well-worth a post-apocalyptic recovery expedition. This is a doomsday-proof facility dug deep into the arctic permafrost and represents an ideal agricultural SAVE file.

Reconstruct the calendar

The bane of our working lives today, the calendar is in fact critical to reliable agriculture and survival as it allows you to track your passage through the cycle of the seasons and so predict the best time for planting and harvesting.

In the northern hemisphere, summer solstice is the day the sun rises from its northern most point on the horizon (which you can in turn determine with a magnetized needle) — this falls around 21st June and so you can use this observation to peg the rest of the calendar. As your agriculture becomes increasingly efficient it’ll demand a lower and lower fraction of your population, freeing people to specialize in other skills and for your society to grow in complexity and capability.

Restart a chemical industry

Advancing civilization is not just about ensuring food surplus or exploiting windmills or steam engines to ease human labor, but also about providing vital substances. One of the most crucial classes of chemicals throughout history has been alkalis like potash (potassium carbonate) and soda (sodium carbonate), as these are needed in making glass, paper and soap. Potash can be simply extracted from the ashes of a wood fire by soaking water through them. Discard the insoluble minerals that settle on the bottom, and then recover the dissolved potash by evaporating away the water. Soda is made in the same way, from burning seaweed.

Tree-powered cars

Once all the remaining gasoline and diesel is gone you’ll struggle to drill for your own oil: the easily-accessible reserves have already been pumped dry. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to abandon automobiles and mechanization — astonishingly, the internal combustion engine can be run on flammable gases released by the thermal-breakdown of lumber. Wood gasifier cars were common during WWII, with a tall combustion chamber strapped on the back and a pipe delivering the flammable gases into the engine cylinders.

Reestablish contact with remote communities of other survivors

If there are no functioning radios left, you can create your own receiver with surprising simplicity from scavenged materials, as was demonstrated by POW ingenuity during WWII. The key component is the rectifier that strips the sound away from the carrier wave: the contact between a pencil and rusty razor blade functions for this. A crude transmitter can be built for Morse code broadcasts using a spark generator.

How to relearn all else

By far the most important thing to try and protect and preserve through the apocalypse is the technique you need to apply to relearn everything else for yourself, to rediscover how the world works and then exploit that knowledge for developing novel technology and improving your life. This tool is the scientific method. The core principle is that you can only reliably understand the world by observing it first-hand and by quizzing it with carefully constructed questions (“experiments”) to test which of your explanations works best.

Lewis Dartnell is a UK Space Agency research fellow at University of Leicester and author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild the World from Scratch (The Penguin Press). Read more at


The New Cop on the Beat May Be a Bot

Knightscope K5 promises enhanced policing capabilities, courts controversy


Have we as a species learned nothing from Robocop?

A Silicon Valley company called Knightscope is currently testing a prototype robot designed to detect and monitor criminal activity, much the way a police officer or a security guard would.

The Knightscope K5 is a five-foot-tall autonomous robot (one presumes that its resemblance to a Dalek is merely coincidental) that roams around your neighborhood, observing and gathering data and trying to predict where and when criminal activity will occur.

It carries no weaponry, but it has a pretty complete sensor package that includes thermal imaging, license plate reading and facial recognition.

This takes public surveillance a step beyond stationary cameras, and the challenges to personal privacy are clear. The K5 could do a whole lot of good by deterring crime, especially in neighborhoods that lack the resources to field an adequate police presence.

But where do you draw the line?

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