TIME Media

Martha Stewart: Why I Love My Drone

Martha Stewart attends the "Get On Up" premiere at The Apollo Theater on July 21, 2014 in New York City.
Martha Stewart attends the "Get On Up" premiere at The Apollo Theater on July 21, 2014 in New York City. Jemal Countess—Getty Images

Because it's a useful tool. And imagine what Louis XIV could have accomplished at Versailles if he'd had one.

There’s been a lot of discussion and a tremendous amount of speculation lately about the nature of drones and their role in our society as useful tools and hobbyist toys.

Last year, while celebrating my birthday in Maine, I was given a drone fitted with a high-definition camera. After a quick introduction to the mechanics of operating the contraption and a few words about its idiosyncrasies, I loaded the appropriate app on my iPad and went down to the beach.

In just a few minutes I was hooked. In near silence, the drone rose, hovered, and dove, silently and surreptitiously photographing us and the landscape around us. The photos and video were stunning. By assuming unusual vantage points, the drone allowed me to “see” so much more of my surroundings than usual. The view I was “seeing” on my iPad with the help of the drone would have otherwise been impossible without the use of a private plane, helicopter, or balloon. With any of those vehicles, I would have needed a telephoto lens, and all of them would have made an unacceptable commotion on the beach. What’s more, I would not have been in the photos!

So much has been done in the past without drones, airplanes, hot air balloons, or even extension ladders. It is hard to imagine André Le Nôtre laying out the exquisite landscape designs for Vaux-le-Vicomte, and later the magnificent Château de Versailles, with no high hill to stand on, no helicopter to fly in, and no drone to show him the complexities of the terrain. Yet he did, and with extreme precision, accuracy, and high style.

Earlier, Henri IV drew up complicated plans for the immense and elegant redesign of Paris, capital of France. In England, Capability Brown somehow had the innate vision and perspicacity to reconfigure thousands of acres into country estates fit for royalty. He and Sir Humphry Repton invented an entirely new style of landscape design that had little to do with the grand châteaux of France. It became all about the “axis of vision” — relaxed, looming views of the distance that, without an aerial view, required the utmost in fertile imagination.

In the late 1800s, more people wanted the bird’s eye view of city and country and went to extreme lengths to rig up guy-wired telescoping towers, build extension ladders of dangerous lengths, and man hot air balloons, from which intrepid photographers could capture remarkable images—such as those of the Chicago Union Stock Yards and the U.S. Steel Corporation—from heights of 2,000 feet.

What about the Great Wall of China, or the Nazca Lines in southern Peru? I began reflecting on how the engineers and architects of the past accomplished so much without the modern tools we have at our disposal.

My mind started racing and I imagined all the different applications for my drone. I knew that every type of use had already been thought of by others (governmental agencies, businesses, Amazon.com, Google Maps), and I knew I could not even begin to fathom even a fraction of the social, ethical, and political challenges the widespread use of drones would create.

Do they raise legitimate privacy concerns? Should they be regulated? Should we have a national debate?

I don’t have all the answers. But I forged ahead, using a Parrot AR Drone 2.0, photographing my properties, a party, a hike in the mountains, and a day at the beach. I did my best to master the moves and angles that would result in most arresting pictures and video.

An aerial photo of Martha Stewart’s farm in Bedford, New York, taken with her drone. Martha Stewart

One of my farm workers used his drone, a DJI Phantom flying camera, to capture amazing images of my 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York. Suddenly we could see with astonishing clarity the layout of the open fields, the horse paddocks, the chicken coops, the greenhouses, the hay barn, the cutting gardens and henhouses, the clematis pergola, and the long allée of boxwood. The photos were so good I posted them to my blog on Marthastewart.com. The response was phenomenal!

Henry Alford wrote a satirical essay about me and my drones in The New Yorker that was really funny but missed the point about why I love my drone. Drones can be useful tools, and I am all about useful tools. One of my mottos is “the right tool for the right job.”

A few facts:

The hobbyist drones we can all purchase online or in stores are technically known as UAS: unmanned aerial systems. Many can fly up to 900 feet. With practice, a novice photographer can take really great photos.

The shots of my farm were breathtaking and showed not only a very good landscape design — thanks to the surveyors and landscapers who worked with me on the overall vision, much as le Notre worked with Louis XIV — they also showed me what more I can do in the future, and revealed unexpected beauty.

An aerial shot of the vegetable garden looked very much like my Peter Rabbit marzipan embellished Easter cake, which was designed without the help of a drone.

Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Emmy Award-winning television show host, entrepreneur and bestselling author, is America’s most trusted lifestyle expert and teacher.

TIME Parenting

If Cars Can Monitor Left-On Headlights and Rear Obstructions, They Should Be Able To Save Trapped Kids’ Lives

Today, technology saves your car battery—tomorrow, it could save your child

Thursday is National Heatstroke Prevention Day, so here is a little fact for your awareness: In the past 20 years more than 670 U.S. children have died of heatstroke in hot cars. To date this year KidsAndCars.org has recorded 18 such fatalities, including the death last week of a 10-month-old girl in Wichita, Kansas, who was unknowingly left in a vehicle on a 90-degree day.

Our national advocacy nonprofit works year-round to educate parents and caregivers about these dangers, including a nationwide “Look before you lock” program. But education is not enough when all it takes is a simple change in a daily routine to cause a parent to drive past their childcare center and forget their child in the back seat. Current state laws require putting your baby in a rear-facing child safety seat, which has saved the lives of thousands of children in car crashes. An unintended consequence of this shift is that when out of sight, quiet little unobtrusive passengers can slip out of mind.

How can we prevent this failure of memory? The auto industry obviously recognizes that we’re human and our memories often fail us: our cars are able to warn us if we leave our headlights on, our keys are in the ignition, a door is open, we’re low on fuel, if our seatbelt isn’t buckled… If we can monitor our headlights or gas levels, we should be able to get a signal that a child has been forgotten.

Some of the technology options currently on the market include car seat monitors and alert systems, key fobs connected to car seats that sound a reminder and weight-sensitive mats. One system activates when the driver has opened the back door to strap in the car seat, and then sounds a reminder chime when the driver leaves the vehicle. Mobile apps have hit the market, such as Cars-n-Kids Carseat Monitor, which connects with the carseat via a sensor, or the Amber Alert GPS, which tracks your child in or out of the car.

These after-market systems may be useful reminders to some people, but they have not all been tested, and they are not the failsafe solution we need in every vehicle. Furthermore, a 2012 study on “Evaluation of Reminder Technology” sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that a few of these systems were not always reliable.

Safety is something every family deserves. It shouldn’t be optional, like 4WD or leather seats. And it shouldn’t be political. The federal government and automakers along with safety advocates have the ability to solve this problem.

KidsAndCars.org recently launched a petition to push the Obama Administration to authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide funding for research and development of innovative technologies to detect a child left alone in the rear seat of a vehicle, such as infrared breathing sensors (a technology that already exists in certain baby monitors for the home). We also spearheaded an initiative to adopt federal safety standards that require all vehicles to be equipped with trunk release latches to prevent trunk entrapment, safer power window switches to prevent strangulation, and brake transmission shift interlock systems so children cannot inadvertently knock a vehicle into gear. In March, the DOT issued a rule requiring rear visibility systems, such as cameras, as standard equipment on all new passenger vehicles by May 2018.

Today, technology saves your car battery. Tomorrow, it could save your child.

Susan Pepperdine is the public relations director of KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit group dedicated to preventing injuries and deaths of children in and around motor vehicles.

TIME foreign affairs

How Hamas Wields Gaza’s Casualties as Propaganda

Israeli airstrike on Gaza
Smoke rises from a building following the Israeli attacks in Gaza City on July 25, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

The terrorist group casts Israel’s military as indiscriminate and civilian deaths as disproportionate, but Hamas-affiliated fatality figures should be viewed with suspicion

An informational battle of competing messages directed at international audiences parallels the military fighting between Israel and Hamas. Accompanying a barrage of wrenching images are Palestinian fatality statistics alleging disproportionate numbers of non-combatants. These figures are crucial because they form the basis of accusations that Israel uses excessive and indiscriminate force.

Hamas, the terrorist group controlling Gaza, endeavors to turn Israel’s military superiority to its own advantage by portraying the Israeli response to intense rocket and mortar fire as disproportionate and indiscriminate. In doing so, it hopes to turn public opinion against the Jewish state, as well as bolster its own standing at the expense of the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.

Fatality figures provided by Hamas and other groups should be viewed with suspicion. Not only do Israeli figures cast doubt on claims that the vast majority of fatalities are non-combatants, but a careful review of Palestinian sources also raises doubts.

Analyses of the casualties listed in the daily reports published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based organization operating under Hamas rule, indicate that young males ages 17 to 30 make up a large portion of the fatalities, and a particularly noticeable spike occurs between males ages 21 to 27, a pattern consistent with the age distribution typically found among combatants and military conscripts. Palestinian sources attempt to conceal this discrepancy with their public message by labeling most of these young men as civilians. Only a minority is identified as members of armed groups. As a result, the PCHR calculates civilian fatalities at 82% as of July 26. PCHR provides the most detailed casualty reports of the various Palestinian agencies from Gaza that provide figures to the media and to international organizations like the UN. Its figures closely match those of the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry and other groups.

We have seen this before. A similar dispute over casualty figures occurred during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip in January 2009. The Israelis contended that the majority of the fatalities were combatants; the Palestinians claimed they were civilians. The media and international organizations tended to side with the Palestinians. The UN’s own investigatory commission headed by Richard Goldstone, which produced the Goldstone Report, cited PCHR’s figures along with other Palestinian groups providing similar figures. Over a year later, after the news media had moved on, Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad enumerated Hamas fatalities at 600 to 700, a figure close to the Israeli estimate of 709 and about three times higher than the figure of 236 combatants provided by PCHR in 2009 and cited in the Goldstone Report. Initially, playing to the international audience, it was important for Hamas to reinforce the image of Israel’s military action as indiscriminate and disproportionate by emphasizing the high number of civilians and low number of Hamas combatants among the fatalities. However, later on, Hamas had to deal with the flip side of the issue: that Hamas’s own constituency, the Gazan population, felt they had been abandoned by the Hamas government, which had made no effort to shelter them.

Scrutiny of Palestinian figures in the current conflict reveals a spike in fatalities among males ages 21 to 27 and an over-representation from ages 17 to 30. Data gleaned from the daily reports of the PCHR show that from July 8, the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” through July 26, 404 out of 915 fatalities tallied from daily reports in which the ages were identified occurred among males ages 17 to 30, comprising 44% of all fatalities among a group representing about 10% of Gazans.

Expanding the age range from 17 to 39 and including those identified as combatants whose ages were not given increases that number to 551 fatalities, or 57% of all fatalities, even though this group represents less than one-sixth of Gazans. By contrast, adult female fatalities were less than 10% of total fatalities for a group that comprises a quarter of the total population.

Children, here defined as those under age 17, represented 194 of fatalities, 20% of the total. Any child fatality is a tragedy, but it is important to note that children make up over half the population of Gaza.

Despite the discrepancies noted, the substantial number of civilian fatalities leaves room for further scrutiny. In seeking an alternate explanation for the excess of young male fatalities, it might be posited that this reflects some behavioral feature of this group separate from combat-related activities. However, the shape of the fatality demographic makes this unlikely. What feature would explain the sharp increase from age 17, peaking at ages 22 to 25 and then declining rapidly after age 30?

A more plausible explanation is that the age demographic of the fatalities reflects the relative involvement of different age bands in hostilities. Of course, some of those in the most represented age-bands aren’t combatants. However, balancing that, Palestinian and Israeli sources confirm that a portion of the fatalities over age 40 were senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives targeted by Israel.

Furthermore, this overall breakdown of the number of fatalities doesn’t address important issues like the portion of female and children casualties who were family members of targeted combatants who failed to heed Israeli evacuation warnings or were perhaps intimidated into remaining as “human shields.”

The demographic analysis of the fatalities in the Gaza conflict has limitations. It can’t identify who is or isn’t a combatant. But the spike in fatalities among males starting in their late teens and peaking in their early to mid-twenties, and the divergence of the pattern of fatalities from the demographic pattern of the population, raises considerable doubt about claims that as many as 75% or more of the fatalities are non-combatants. In light of evidence—provided by groups that monitor Arabic language media (like the Middle East Media Research Institute)—that Hamas has instructed Gazans to describe anyone killed as a civilian, journalists have a responsibility to convey this uncertainty to their audiences and not present figures provided by Hamas and Hamas-affiliated sources as unqualified fact.

Steven Stotsky is a senior analyst with The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a U.S.-based group that monitors the news media for what it considers to be anti-Israel bias.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 29

1. As voter turnout falls, primary elections can be hijacked by small groups with narrow agendas. Primaries often fail to attract much media attention, depressing voter turnout in the future. We can break this cycle with a National Primary Election Day.

By Elaine Kamarck at the Brookings Institution Center for Effective Public Management

2. To help defeat ISIS, the Muslim world must enact new regulations to stop the flow of money.

By Carol E. B. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy at Yale Global

3. Tech startups are finally creating blue-collar jobs.

By Sam Rosen in Re/Code

4. No hope: The Defense Intelligence Agency chief fears there will be no Mideast peace in his lifetime.

By Yochi Dreazen in Foreign Policy

5. To achieve real social change, make your goals public and invite collaboration — with accountability.

By Jigar Shah in LinkedIn

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME

Negotiation Tactics: The 10 Minute MBA Course on Negotiation

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David Lees—Getty Images

Want to learn the negotiation tactics of an MBA?

I’ve cleaned up and distilled notes from the excellent negotiating course I took in MBA school taught by MIT lecturer John Richardson.

 

Preparation

  • Always, do your homework. Success in negotiation is strongly correlated with time spent preparing.
  • Preparing in a group helps; others will come up with things you didn’t.
  • Be ambitious. There’s usually a connection between aspiration level and what people get. (Obviously, you can go too far, so look at your benchmarks.)
  • It’s very valuable to have things you don’t want in a negotiationso you can give them away for things you do.

 

Early In The Negotiation

  • Focus on influencing them, not being passive and waiting for them to decide. If you want to influence them be clear and consistent. Influencing is like teaching. You are teaching the other group to negotiate. Explicitly talk with the other side about not just substance (making money) but also process (rules of the game.)
  • Act with a purpose, don’t react. Most people act without thinking. Decide how you want them to act and what you need to do to encourage that. People’s behavior is not to be predicted, it’s to be affected.
  • Small talk before a negotiation is good.
  • Be careful what behavior you reward.
  • Your first goal in every negotiation should be to find out more.
  • Always begin with the frame “Should this deal be made?” not “How should I make this deal?”

 

Smart Things To Do

  • Any time someone presents a benchmark number, evaluate it, don’t just accept it. Ask “Where did that number come from?” If they don’t have a good reason, they’ll need to come up with another number. If you’re not sure about it, a good response is always “Let me look at this and call you back.”
  • In ongoing relationships concealing things becomes very stupid because the chance of getting caught and retaliation are too big. Be less concerned with what you get in any one round. If either side wins all the time it will not be a successful ongoing relationship. You should want to win each one, but not to win them all.
  • Being perceived as fair is key. People don’t respond well to being treated unfairly, even if the alternative is, objectively, even worse.
  • Sometimes people don’t know what their problem is; you need to figure it out and solve it for them. Being purely positional and transactional can hurt you here. Making efforts to understand them and help them solve their problem can be win-win.
  • Let them talk and explain their story. If you can show them you understand their reasons, you take away the “you don’t get it” defense. And if you still disagree with them after, it makes them curious to know where you’re coming from.
  • If you can explain their argument even better than they can it shows you understand and they’ll be much more receptive to your POV. Don’t make their argument sound stupid.
  • Always attach a fairness argument to whatever you propose: “Here’s what I’m offering and here’s why it works for you.” This is much better than a positional “I want $100,000 because I deserve it.” A fairness argument allows you to be flexible. If they give you new information, you can alter your reasoning versus being stuck with an arbitrary number that no longer makes sense.
  • In salary negotiations: using third party information, verify what other comparable people in the field are making. It will make it much harder for them to justify giving less. If they can’t do better, work on bonuses and perks.
  • What should you ask for? The most aggressive thing you can request with a straight face. And you need a reason why it’s fair.

 

Things That Help In A Negotiation

  • Accurate information sharing.
  • Structure the negotiation so there is no incentive to bluff (starting with what you don’t want works here).
  • Simultaneous revelation (write down and show offers at same time).
  • Keeping commitment for the end.
  • Creating multiple options.
  • Both sides like each other and want the other person to be happy.

 

Fisher’s 7 Elements Definition Of Success

  • You want no deal or a deal that meets your interests, not your positions. Interests are why you want things, positions are what you say you want. (Interests: “I want a job that makes me happy”, Positions: “I want 100K a year.”) Failure is when the result fulfills your positions but not your interests (“Got the salary but also got a crappy boss, little vacation time and a dead-end role.”)
  • Leverage negotiation tactics that create value. Work with the other person to create more options and opportunities for both sides to be happy, not just settling on the first thing everyone says.
  • All proposals should be supported by valid criteria. What’s the story of why this offer makes sense?
  • Know your alternatives and make sure this deal is better than those alternatives.
  • Use negotiation tactics that build a working relationship. You end up dealing with the same people often so lay the groundwork for smooth negotiations going forward.
  • You want a deal that leads to a clear reliable commitment. The result has to be something they can and will do, not something that will fall apart.
  • You want to reach a deal with efficient communication so everyone is on the same page.

 

Strategies and Dealing With Dirty Tricks

  • Remember Schelling: One of the most powerful negotiation tactics can be to make it impossible for you to do the deal on terms less than you want (“The money is in the hands of a third party who will not release the funds unless you do XXX”) But there is a cost to doing this, which is you throw away ability to change your mind.
  • Paint a vivid picture of their pain.” Explain what it might be like if they lose this deal. What’s better is to paint a picture of how bad it will be for both of us if this does not work out… “Nobody wants this result.”
  • You need to have a strategy for un-committing people who use self-limiting options. People will back themselves into a corner, “I absolutely cannot go lower than $50!” But they can. You have to allow them to save face so they can reverse that statement, otherwise you both lose.
  • How do you know if they’re lying? Make them talk a lot. Long, involved lies are harder to tell than short lies.
  • If someone says “take it or leave it”, don’t respond. Wait. If they’re still there a minute later, you know it wasn’t legit. A good strategy here is to change the subject because you don’t want them to feel embarrassed and then have to do something even more stupid.

 

How To Keep Improving As A Negotiator

  • Review your negotiations afterward. Make it a habit to prep, do, review.
  • After a negotiation, always ask, “What did the other side do well that I can learn?”
  • Practice with a partner, don’t just read theory.
  • Get feedback from the opposition.
  • Have a particular skill goal in mind that you want to work on and improve.

 

Want To Learn More?

To get my exclusive full interview with former head of FBI international hostage negotiation Chris Voss (where he explains the two words that tell you a negotiation is going very badly), join my free weekly newsletter. Click here.

Related posts:

My interview with Robert Cialdini on the six ways to influence people

6 hostage negotiation techniques that will get you what you want

What are the 6 things that can make you dramatically more persuasive?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Religion

I Want My Christianity Back – Without the Ugly Baggage

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Little chapel Carlos Malvar—Flickr RF/Getty Images

PatheosLogo_Blue

This article originally appeared on Patheos

I don’t like telling people I’m a Christian.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of being a Christian; I’m not – at all. It is just that the word “Christian” comes with so much ugly baggage.

Telling someone I’m a Christian means I must immediately follow it up with, “but not that kind of Christian.” It’s like saying, “Yeah, sure, these are some mind bogglingly ugly suitcases, but I’ve got the coolest stuff on the inside of them. No, really, I do.”

It’s just not worth the effort; and, frankly, I’m tired of lugging these ugly, heavy things around.

Truthfully, I don’t blame people who assume that if you’re Christian you’re anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, anti-real equality, anti-other religions and pretty much anti-anything else that one small but loud subset of Christians find offensive or threatening.

It completely makes sense. It’s why I don’t want to use the word to describe my own beliefs.

I get it.

Who can blame people for thinking Christians are all anti-everything kind of people when members of the U.S. congress like Michele Bachmann present themselves as speaking for all Christians –and via radio waves – accuses gay people of not only threatening the sanctity of “traditional marriage” but claim they are pedophiles who want to “freely prey on little children sexually.”

I get it. I really do.

I don’t want to be that kind of Christian. So, if that’s the only option, I’m opting out. And, I’m not alone. A whole slue of Christians is opting out as well.

As a 2012 Pew Research study indicates that while the number of people who identify as Protestant or Catholic is decreasing, the number of those who consider themselves religious, but identify with no formal religious group is on the rise. An earlier study by The Barna Group defines a big part of the problem: people who aren’t in the Church and many who are in the Church believe the Church is judgmental and hypocritical.

When looked at together, the findings of these two studies make a lot of sense. An organization whose primary religious figure taught about love has become known for being judgmental against any group they simply don’t like. Is it any surprise Christians are seen as hypocritical?

Christians are being viewed as hypocritical, because many are. Not all of us, of course, but you wouldn’t know that watching mass media. Tragically, Big Media and most of it’s consumers have no interest in coverage of food pantries and other programs across the country that feed hundereds of people each month – all without pushing their beliefs on those in need. On the other hand, the Ku Klux Klan claiming to be a Christian organization? We will Facebook “like” that article into the viral stratosphere.

I want my religion back.

Technically, it wasn’t really taken from me. It’s more like part of it’s been hijacked and held hostage inside all that ugly luggage.

Not surprisingly, the congressperson fear-mongering about gay people coming for your kids and the KKK claiming to be Christian will always make the news. Let’s face it, when the baggage carousel starts rolling around you are going to notice the neon green designer bag with the word “crazy” written across it in pink, but that 26-inch wheeled suitcase in a sensible shade of grey? No one is paying attention to it.

Christians who want to be known more for their love rather than for what they standing over and against need to more fully acknowledge this reality and begin actively speaking out and working against it.

What we see in media isn’t Christianity. Our faith tradition’s core teachings are found in the words of Jesus. The anti-everything Christianity we find on television, radio and in print would remind Jesus much more of the Pharisees than it would remind him of the people actually following his teachings.

It’s a power play. As Napoleon once observed, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”

When you see someone who claims to follow Jesus who has or wants power; when they are saying things about Christianity that cause hurt to other people, when they create divisions, stating beliefs or supporting policies that marginalize already marginalized groups, when they say things that would allow one group of people to exert their will and beliefs on another group of people, you need to immediately question their sincerity and more so their motivation.

Jesus would have advocated none of those attitudes or behaviors. However, they most certainly are tools through which those who already have power maintain their power while keeping those without power divided and bickering amongst themselves rather than focusing their attention on the small fraction of the rich who are nurturing systems that make life unnecessarily difficult for the rest of us – which is also something for which Jesus would not have been an advocate.

Jesus wasn’t a fan of ugly baggage. He confronted the Pharisees every time they tried to unload it onto him or others.

If we want our religion back, we are going to have to do the same.

If we want a Christianity that doesn’t come so unnecessarily cluttered with all of this ugly baggage, we are going to have to start standing up more consistently and begin challenging these power plays wrapped in religion.

Collectively we need to more closely follow the lead of Jesus and lovingly confronting those who want to turn the Prince of Peace into a tool for dividing and marginalizing. Every time anyone tries to exclude a group of people they dislike in the name of the Great Shepherd, we must pronounce the radical inclusion of a loving God.

And when they accuse us of being un-Christian (and they will), we must stand strong and tell them, “You no longer get to own that word. You have used it and abused it and crucified it on crosses of hate, greed, power and control. We are taking our religion back – way back.

All the way back to the teachings of Jesus.”

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South and a co-founder of The Christian Left.

More from Patheos:

TIME Opinion

I Don’t Love Lucy: The Bad Science in the Sci-Fi Thriller

Maybe if the screenwriters had used 20% of their brains...

You use a whole lot more than 10% of your brain—but a common fallacy that says otherwise is nonetheless the central premise of a new movie

Now there are three Lucys I have to keep straight: The 3.2 million year old Australopithecus unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974; the eponymous star of the inexplicably celebrated 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy; and, most recently, the lead character—played by Scarlett Johansson—of the new sci-fi thriller straightforwardly titled Lucy. Going by intellectual heft alone, I’ll pick the millions-year-old bones.

The premise of the movie, such as it is, is that Lucy, a drug mule living in Taiwan, is exposed to a bit of high-tech pharma that suddenly increases her brain power, giving her the ability to outwit entire police departments, travel through time and space, dematerialize at will and yada-yada-yada, cut to gunfights, special effects and a portentous message about, well, something or other.

The movie poster’s teaser line? “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”

Let’s forgive the poster its pronoun problem (the average person—as in just one of us—uses 10% of their brain capacity), because the science problem is so much more egregious. The 10% brainpower thing is part of a rich canon of widely believed and entirely untrue science dicta that include “Man is the only animal that kills its own kind” (tell that to the lion cubs that were just murdered by an alpha male trying to take over a pride) and “A goldfish can remember something for only seven seconds” (a premise that was tested…how? With a pop quiz?).

No one is entirely sure where the 10% brainpower canard got started, but it goes back at least a century and is one of the most popular entries in the equally popular book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. There is some speculation that the belief began with an idle quote by American philosopher William James who, in 1908, wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources,” an observation vague enough to mean almost anything—or nothing—at all.

Some people attribute it to an explanation Albert Einstein offered when asked to account for his own towering intellect—except that Einstein never said such a thing and even if he had it would not make it true. Still others cite the more scientifically defensible idea that there is a measure of plasticity in the brain, so that if the region that controls, say, the right arm, is damaged by, say, a stroke, it is sometimes possible for other parts of the brain to pick up the slack—a sort of neural rewiring that restores lost motion and function.

But none of that remotely justifies the 10% silliness. The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs. At birth, babies actually have up to 50% more neural connections among the billions of brain cells than adults do, but in the first few years of life (and, to a lesser extent, on through sexual maturity) a process of pruning takes place, with many of those synaptic links being broken and the ones that remain growing stronger. That makes the brain less diffuse and more efficient—which is exactly the way any good central processing unit should operate. It also allows it to use up fewer calories, which is critical.

“We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

Added Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, “The thing that’s really astonishing might not be that we lose so many connections, but that the brain’s plasticity and growth are able to continue for as long as they do.”

OK, so the Lucy screenwriters aren’t psychologists or directors of cognitive studies institutes. But they do have the same 100 billion neurons everybody else’s brains have. Here’s hoping they take a few billion of them out for an invigorating run before they write their next sci-fi script.

TIME Business

The Suburbs Will Die: One Man’s Fight to Fix the American Dream

The End of the Suburbs
The End of the Suburbs Courtesy Penguin Press

Engineer Charles Marohn worked his whole life trying to make his community better—until the day he realized he was ruining it.

If you looked up “Minnesota nice” in the dictionary you might see a picture of Charles Marohn. Affable and mild-mannered, Marohn, who goes by Chuck, grew up the eldest of three sons of two elementary school teachers on a small farm near Brainerd, the central Minnesota city best known as the backdrop for the movie Fargo. Marohn (pronounced “mer-OWN”) graduated from Brainerd High School, entered the National Guard on his seventeenth birthday, and went on to study civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. He now lives with his wife, two daughters, and two Samoyeds in East Gull Lake, a small city north of Brainerd. Marohn, forty, likes the Minnesota Twins, reads voraciously, and is a proud Republican. He’s the friendliest guy you’re likely to meet. He’s also a revolutionary who’s trying to upend the suburbs as we know them.

After graduating from college, Marohn went to work as a municipal engineer in his hometown and spent several years working with the small towns around the greater Brainerd area, putting projects together that would build roads, pipes, storm drains, and all kinds of infrastructure. It was the mid-1990s, the area was booming, and Marohn was laying down the systems that helped the area grow. “I built sprawl,” he now says.

Often his work required him to knock on the doors of residents, many of whom he knew from growing up, and tell them about changes that might impact their property. In order to make the town’s roads safer, he would explain, engineers were going to have to widen the road in front of their house or cut down a tree in their yard. When his neighbors would get upset and ask why or try to protest—the roads were hardly trafficked at all, and sparse enough to almost be rural, they would point out—he’d explain that the town was required to make these changes in order to comply with the book of engineering standards to which it had to adhere. The code, put in place by the town but derived from state and national standards, dictated that roads must have an ample “recovery zone,” or a wide berth to accommodate cars that veer off the road, and that drivers have improved “sight distance,” the distance a driver needs to be able to see in order to have enough room to be able to react before colliding with some- thing in the roadway. When residents pointed out that the recovery zone was also their yard, and that their kids played kick ball and hopscotch there, Marohn recommended they put up a fence, so long as it was outside the right-of-way. He was sorry, he told them, but the standards required it. The trees were removed, the roads widened, the asphalt paved and repaved. “I never stepped back from my own assumptions to consider that I wasn’t making anything safer,” Marohn says. “In reality, I was making their street more dangerous, and in the process, I was not only taking out their trees, I was pretending I knew more than them.”

In 2000, Marohn found himself assigned to fix a leaky pipe in Remer, a small town north of Brainerd. It was a routine project, but it would ultimately lead him to an epiphany. A sewer pipe that sat under a highway had a leak that was allowing clean groundwater to flow in. That meant that the clean water was getting pumped out to sewage treatment ponds, which were exceeding their capacity and would soon overflow. It was easily fixable, but it would cost $300,000, a hefty sum considering the town’s total budget for such projects was $120,000 a year; sure enough, the town said no. But the pipe was going to cause the sewage ponds to overflow, undermine the dike, knock down its wall, and pour into the neighboring river “in like a catastrophic way,” Marohn says. So he decided to find a federal grant to pay for it.

He discovered that the project was too small; grant agencies didn’t seem to be interested in a $300,000 renovation, he found, presumably because it wasn’t worth the time in administration costs. So he expanded the project, proposing the government pay not just to fix the pipe but also to extend the sewers, expand the size of the pumps, and more, at a cost of $2.6 million. The grant agency gave the green light; the state and federal government put up all the money except for

$130,000, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture financed at below-market rates over a forty-year time period. Marohn was hailed a hero. “Everybody was super thrilled with me because I got this project approved out of nowhere,” he says. And since the project would connect more homes, it would allow the town to promote the fact that it was creating capacity for the city to grow.

But over the next several years, as Marohn went back to Remer to do additional work—he had by then gotten a degree in urban planning—and saw that the town was in the process of doing a similar project with their water system, he realized he had created an unsustainable financial situation. Thanks to the leaky pipe he fixed, the town now had to bear the maintenance costs of a system that was double the size of the one it had before. “I bought them time,” he says, “but I gave them a giant unfunded liability.”

Marohn started questioning the rationale of this kind of system. The government paid the up-front costs of the massive project, but there was no accounting for the significant cost to maintain the system. The town’s property taxes wouldn’t come close to covering those costs, which meant the city would ultimately need to take on more debt. And the system was likely to need replacing well before forty years were up—the duration of the financing he’d procured—which would require an investment of equal or larger size. Marohn began to wonder whether all the work he’d been doing to supposedly help the city grow was really necessary or whether it was going to end up hurting it and, on top of that, whether the roads he was helping to “improve” were designed to accommodate the way people lived or were that way simply because the planning books said that was the way they had to be built.

He connected with a few friends in the local planning community who shared his concerns. In November 2009 they started a Web site called Strong Towns to start raising questions about America’s approach to land use and the financial impracticalities suburban sprawl encourages. Rich in case studies and educational materials, Strong Towns lobbies for communities that are financially productive and grow responsibly. But it’s also a screed against what Marohn sees as development patterns that go against the logic of design, finance, and the best interests of residential communities and everyday Americans.

One night soon after he started the Web site, Marohn wasn’t sure what to write about, so he composed a blog post on his experience tearing down trees in his neighbors’ yards, an idea that had been bouncing around in his head for a while. Declaring his work “professional malpractice,” he described how the wider, faster streets he was sent to build weren’t only financially wasteful but unsafe. “In retrospect, I understand that it was utter insanity,” he wrote in the essay, which he called “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.” “Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people,” he wrote, referring to statistics of traffic deaths each year that, in his view, were a direct result of poor design. He penned the piece in less than an hour and went to bed. When he got up, his in-box was full of comments from people in the planning community with whom his words had resonated.

The Web site soon became a nonprofit, which became a series of podcasts, videos, and live neighborhood events around the country called the “Curbside Chat.” A local nonprofit threw in three years’ worth of funding, and in mid-2012 Marohn quit his job to focus on Strong Towns, which is now a robust site packed with in-depth articles, podcasts, a Curbside Chat companion booklet for public officials, and a “Strong Towns University” section with instructional videos featuring Marohn and his partners discussing things like the ins and outs of wastewater management. Marohn’s work has brought him attention within the planning community; he now travels all over the country speaking at conferences, hosting Curbside Chats, and spreading his message. But all, he says, for the greater good. “We’re not bomb throw- ers,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as intellectual disruptors.”

Marohn primarily takes issue with the financial structure of the suburbs. The amount of tax revenue their low-density setup generates, he says, doesn’t come close to paying for the cost of maintaining the vast and costly infrastructure systems, so the only way to keep the machine going is to keep adding and growing. “The public yield from the suburban development pattern is ridiculously low,” he says. One of the most popular articles on the Strong Towns Web site is a five-part series Marohn wrote likening American suburban development to a giant Ponzi scheme.

Here’s what he means. The way suburban development usually works is that a town lays the pipes, plumbing, and infrastructure for housing development—often getting big loans from the government to do so—and soon after a developer appears and offers to build homes on it. Developers usually fund most of the cost of the infrastructure because they make their money back from the sale of the homes. The short-term cost to the city or town, therefore, is very low: it gets a cash infusion from whichever entity fronted the costs, and the city gets to keep all the revenue from property taxes. The thinking is that either taxes will cover the maintenance costs, or the city will keep growing and generate enough future cash flow to cover the obligations. But the tax revenue at low suburban densities isn’t nearly enough to pay the bills; in Marohn’s estimation, property taxes at suburban densities bring in anywhere from 4 cents to 65 cents for every dollar of liability. Most suburban municipalities, he says, are therefore unable to pay the maintenance costs of their infrastructure, let alone replace things when they inevitably wear out after twenty to twenty-five years. The only way to survive is to keep growing or take on more debt, or both. “It is a ridiculously unproductive system,” he says.

Marohn points out that while this has been an issue as long as there have been suburbs, the problem has become more acute with each additional “life cycle” of suburban infrastructure (the point at which the systems need to be replaced—funded by debt, more growth, or both). Most U.S. suburbs are now on their third life cycle, and infrastructure systems have only become more bloated, inefficient, and costly. “When people say we’re living beyond our means, they’re usually talking about a forty-inch TV instead of a twenty-inch TV,” he says. “This is like pennies compared to the dollars we’ve spent on the way we’ve arranged ourselves across the landscape.”

Marohn and his friends are not the only ones warning about the fix we’ve put ourselves in. In 2010 the financial analyst Meredith Whitney wrote a now-famous report called The Tragedy of the Commons, whose title was taken from the economic principle that individuals will act on their own self-interest and deplete a shared resource for their own benefit, even if that goes against the long-term common good. In her report, Whitney said states and municipalities were on the verge of collapse thanks in part to irresponsible spending on growth. Likening the municipalities’ finances and spending patterns to those of the banks leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, Whitney explained how spending has far outpaced revenues—some states had spent two or three times their tax receipts on everything from infrastructure to teacher salaries to libraries—all financed by borrowing from future dollars.

Marohn, too, claims we’ve tilled our land in inefficient ways we can’t afford (Whitney is one of Marohn’s personal heroes). The “suburban experiment,” as he calls it, has been a fiscal failure. On top of the issues of low-density tax collection, sprawling development is more expensive to build. Roads are wider and require more paving. Water and sewage service costs are higher. It costs more to maintain emergency services since more fire stations and police stations are needed per capita to keep response times down. Children need to be bused farther distances to school. One study by the Denver Regional Council of Governments found that conventional suburban development would cost local governments $4.3 billion more in infrastructure costs than compact, “smart” growth through 2020, only counting capital construction costs for sewer, water, and road infrastructure. A 2008 report by the University of Utah’s Arthur C. Nelson estimated that municipal service costs in low-density, sprawling locations can be as much as 2.5 times those in compact, higher-density locations.

Marohn thinks this is all just too gluttonous. “The fact that I can drive to work on paved roads where I can drive fifty-five miles an hour the minute I leave my driveway despite the fact that I won’t see another car for five miles,” he says, “is living beyond our means on a grand, grand scale.”

Marohn is one of a growing number of sprawl refugees I encountered during my reporting—people who at one point helped enable the building of modern-day suburbia but now spend their days lobbying against it with the zeal of religious converts. Some, like Marohn, focus on the unsustainability of the financial structure. Others focus on the actual physical design of the suburbs and point to all the ways it’s flawed. Most of them argue for the development of more walkable communities closer to public transportation. But their unifying criticism is that our spread-out development pattern was manufactured, packaged, and sold to Americans as part of an American Dream that fails to deliver on its promises.

Leigh Gallagher is an assistant managing editor at Fortune and a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among other national television and radio news shows. She lives in New York City. This article is excerpted from Gallagher’s book, The End of the Suburbs, out now in paperback.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 28

1. Hamas doesn’t want to beat Israel in the current battle of Gaza, they want to beat Fatah for the hearts of the Palestinian people.

By Hicham Mourad in Al-Ahram

2. The State Department is fighting a losing social media war with terrorists.

By Jacob Silverman in Politico

3. We shouldn’t need a guide: When to use ethnic slurs.

By Eric Liu in the Atlantic

4. Beyond producing more scientists, STEM education gives us creative problem-solvers who thrive in business and leadership.

By Jonathan Wei in Quartz

5. Giving while living: Americans should engage in philanthropy when they’re young.

By Christopher Oechsli in the Chronicle of Philanthropy

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME psychology

Creativity at Work: 6 Ways to Encourage Innovative Ideas

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Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, says there are three components to creativity at work:

  • Expertise (People who aren’t any good at physics rarely come up with relativity theory.)
  • Creative thinking skills (Are you even trying to think outside the box?)
  • Motivation (Personal interest like curiosity beats monetary bonuses.)

Her research produced 6 things that companies and managers can do to support and inspire creative work:

 

1) Challenge

It’s all about assigning the right person to the right project — but most companies don’t bother to get to know their employees well enough to do that.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Of all the things managers can do to stimulate creativity, perhaps the most efficacious is the deceptively simple task of matching people with the right assignments. Managers can match people with jobs that play to their expertise and their skills in creative thinking, and ignite intrinsic motivation. Perfect matches stretch employees’ abilities. The amount of stretch, however, is crucial: not so little that they feel bored but not so much that they feel overwhelmed and threatened by a loss of control.

That final sentence, I think, is key. Amabile doesn’t reference the word, but it sounds like what this does is help engineer “flow“.

creativity-at-work

 

2) Freedom

Companies should define goals but let workers have some autonomy in how to get there.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

When it comes to granting freedom, the key to creativity is giving people autonomy concerning the means–that is, concerning process–but not necessarily the ends. People will be more creative, in other words, if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn’t let them choose which mountain to climb. In fact, clearly specified strategic goals often enhance people’s creativity.

 

3) Resources

Too little time or money can both dampen creativity at work.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones. The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout. In either case, people feel overcontrolled and unfulfilled–which invariably damages motivation. Moreover, creativity often takes time…They keep resources tight, which pushes people to channel their creativity into finding additional resources, not in actually developing new products or services.

 

4) Work-Group Features

Companies kill creativity by encouraging homogenous teams.

These groups do find solutions more quickly and have high morale–but their lack of diversity doesn’t lead to much creativity.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

If you want to build teams that comes up with creative ideas, you must pay careful attention to the design of such teams. That is, you must create mutually supportive groups with a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. Why? Because when teams comprise people with various intellectual foundations and approaches to work–that is, different expertise and creative thinking styles–ideas often combine and combust in exciting and useful ways.

 

5) Supervisory Encouragement

Support and recognition by bosses isn’t just nice, it’s essential to creativity at work.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Certainly, people can find their work interesting or exciting without a cheering section–for some period of time. But to sustain such passion, most people need to feel as if their work matters to the organization or to some important group of people.

 

6) Organizational Support

Companies that mandate information sharing and collaboration while discouraging politics will see creativity thrive.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Most important, an organization’s leaders can support creativity by mandating information sharing and collaboration and by ensuring that political problems do not fester. Information sharing and collaboration support all three components of creativity… That sense of mutual purpose and excitement so central to intrinsic motivation invariably lessens when people are cliquish or at war with one another. Indeed, our research suggests that intrinsic motivation increases when people are aware that those around them are excited by their jobs.

 

Final Note

Of the three big factors in creativity that Amabile calls out, where most companies go wrong is motivation.

They either ignore it or try to achieve it by money — a very inefficient mechanism at best.

The best employees are motivated from inside and companies that nurture that passion see the best results.

Amabile calls upon Michael Jordan as a perfect example.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

And Michael Jordan, perhaps the most creative basketball player ever, had “a love of the game” clause inserted into his contract; he insisted that he be free to play pickup basketball games anytime he wished.

For more tips on creativity from “Family Guy” writer Andrew Goldberg sign up for my free weekly email update here.

Related posts:

Creative companies: What are the 10 secrets of innovative offices?

Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be more effective at work?

What seven things can geniuses teach us about being more creative?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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