Warning Labels

Do warning labels really work?

Consider this pack of Gauloises that I saw on a bench at a nearby dock. It notes that smoking not only kills — quit now! — but also increases the risk of blindness. And to make the point visually, the pack features a large blind eye.

But did the warnings stop the smoker from buying the pack of Gauloises, or cause him to quit the habit that could blind and kill him? Nope! So what did the warnings accomplish, really?

Whiz Kids

The younger generation gets a pretty bad rap these days.  They’re often depicted as shallow, selfie-obsessed snowflakes who spend all of their time looking at their phones, texting emoticons to each other, and failing to actually experience the real world.

imgNo doubt some young people fit that mold — but not all.  Consider Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from Ireland who just won the $50,000 grand prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair for coming up with a process for removing microplastics from the ocean.

Plastics of all kinds are clogging our waterways and oceans, wreaking havoc for marine life.   Larger pieces of plastic can be removed with nets and mesh scoops, but microplastics — which are defined as bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm long — pose a different problem.  They are so small that they escape water filtration systems, end up in rivers and oceans, and are ingested by all kinds of fish and marine animals.  They end up in humans, too — especially if the humans tend to drink a lot of bottled water.  But how can something so small be successfully removed from the world’s waterways?

Fionn, who lives in a coastal town in southwest Ireland, noticed tiny bits of plastic sticking to an oil-covered rock.  Based on that observation, he began experimenting with a substance called ferrofluids to see whether they also would attract microplastics — because chemistry teaches that like attracts like.  His experiments showed that microplastics adhere to ferrofluids, and ferrofluids, and the microplastics attracted to them, can then be removed from waters through the use of magnets — leaving the water free of microplastics.

Fionn Ferreira’s use of ferrofluids to attract microplastics is an elegant but practical solution to a significant problem, and it’s based on a real-world observation — which is often the source of scientific discovery.  Thank goodness he didn’t have his head buried in his cellphone when he passed that oily rock on the Irish coast!

Reviving The RCYB

When I was a student at the Ohio State University in the late ’70s, one of the many political groups on campus was the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade.  You would see them out on the Oval, advocating for their communist causes and trying to recruit new members.  There weren’t many takers for what they were selling.

Apparently that view has changed.

communism-topic-gettyimages-89856241According to a recent survey, millennials — defined as those between ages 23 and 38 — look far more favorably on communism and socialism than older generations.  The results of the poll indicate that an astonishing 36 percent of millennials approve of communism, and 70 percent responded that they are extremely likely or somewhat likely to vote for a socialist in the upcoming election.  In addition, about half of millennials and members of Generation Z — those between ages 16 and 22 — have a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable view of capitalism.  It’s not surprising, then, that 22 percent of millennials believe “society would be better if all private property was abolished,” and that 45 percent of Generation Z members and millennials believe that “all higher education should be free.”

The results of the poll, which was conducted by YouGov and released by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, are pretty amazing — until you consider the life experiences of the various generations.  When I was in college the Cold War was in full swing, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exposing the horrors of the gulags, and the world was only a decade away from the death of countless people in China’s “Cultural Revolution.”  It wasn’t difficult to form a negative view of communism.  Millennials and Generation Zers, on the other hand, grew up in a post-Soviet world where China is largely viewed as a producer of electronic gear and its repressive tendencies, whether in Hong Kong or in its treatment of ethnic minorities, are often ignored or overlooked.  How much have millennials and Generation Z been taught about the true nature of communism and its bloody history?

What will this embrace of communist and socialist ideology among young people mean for the upcoming Democratic primaries, where some candidates are advocating for policies that are openly described as socialist?  It all depends on whether those millennials and Generation Zers who want free college will register and cast their vote in a free and open election — which, incidentally, doesn’t happen in communist countries.  But then, millennials and Generation Zers may not be aware of that.

Money And Mouth

LeBron James got into some hot water this week for making some statements about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

The drama began when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted a message supporting the Hong Kong protesters:  “Fight for Freedom.  Stand with Hong Kong.”  The tweet provoked an angry backlash from the Chinese Communist government, which is trying to figure out how to deal with the pro-democracy protests, and caused it to cancel and change certain events surrounding the NBA’s annual tour of China — which is viewed as a big, and growing, broadcasting, merchandising, and sponsorship market for the NBA.

34siop24cjgffnpmwtq4iwgubqThe Chinese government’s response affected LeBron James, who was in China with  the Los Angeles Lakers to play a basketball game as part of the NBA tour.  James then spoke out, saying that Morey “wasn’t educated” on Hong Kong and had put the Lakers through a “difficult week” in China.  “So many people could have been harmed not only financially but physically, emotionally and spiritually. So just be careful with what we tweet, and we say, and we do,” James said.  He later added:  “Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of (Morey’s) tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”

As a result of the comments, LeBron James has been depicted in some quarters as a kind of sell-out who has kowtowed to the Communist government in the interests of the money that could be made in China.  His comments were popular on official Chinese social media platforms but drew criticism among the Hong Kong protesters, who accused him of supporting totalitarianism.  Some others have risen to James’ defense, arguing that there was nothing wrong with what he said.

One of the more interesting aspects of this little drama is that many people seem to be surprised that a larger-than-life public figure like LeBron James, who has not been shy about speaking out on social issues, might conceivably be motivated in his views by base considerations like making money and his own personal convenience.  I’m not quite sure why this should come as a surprise to anyone.  James is a human being, after all, and as prone to advancing his own interests as any other person.  Perhaps his Hong Kong dust-up will help to remind people who are interested in what Hollywood stars or pro athletes are tweeting about the public issues of the day that the celebrities and sports stars may not be acting altruistically and may well have their own special personal and financial motivations for their public positions.

The old saying refers to “putting your money where your mouth is.”  The reality is that, in many instances, the mouth follows the money.

The Wearable Chair

In the new product development department, the other day I ran across a news story on the “wearable chair.”  It’s a contraption of bands and extendable aluminum legs;  you strap it to your keister and it allows you to sit wherever and whenever you want to do so.

1693822_web1_lex-chair-It’s an ungainly looking device, to be sure, and it gives the people sitting on it a distinctly bionic, quasi-insectoid appearance.  It seems like a pretty clumsy thing to wear around, and if you’re in a crowd it looks like it would take up space that might not be appreciated by the other people on, say, the subway train.  Presumably there are rigorous weight limits for the wearable chair, too.  It’s supposed to help with your posture, though — which doesn’t surprise me, because the photos of the product make it look like you need to sit in a particular, erect way or weight distribution issues would otherwise cause you to go tumbling to the ground.  No slouching when you are strapped into the wearable chair!

I guess we’ll find out whether there’s a market for the wearable chair.  It seems hard to believe that there are enough people who become so fatigued at the spur of the moment that they can’t find a chair or bench — or even spot on the grass — where they can sit, and would rather extend limbs from an exoskeleton on their butt and draw curious attention to themselves.  Maybe modern people have become so lazy and in need of instant comfort that the wearable chair will be a big success.  In a world struggling with obesity, however, it seems like we’d all be better off if people had to actually stand while waiting for a bus or train rather than plopping down wherever they wanted.

How long do you suppose it will be before somebody decides to combine a wearable chair with a standing desk?

Asking “What Could Go Wrong”?

Most actions have a potential upside, and a potential downside.  Some people are very good at envisioning about the rosy, positive consequences of an action, but not so good at identifying the possible negative outcomes.

Take scientists, for example.

aedes-aegypti-696x392In Brazil, disease-carrying mosquitoes are a huge problem.  Authorities there are keenly interested in wiping out the pests that spread the Zika virus, dengue, and malaria, but the issue is how to do it in an environmentally safe way.  Some scientists then came up with the idea of using gene-hacking techniques to tackle the problem.  The scientists would modify the genes of a control group of male mosquitoes so that their offspring would immediately die, release the mosquitoes into the wild, and then watch as the mosquitoes mated and the mosquito population plummeted.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Initially, the mosquito population did decline, but then it returned to its prior level.  Puzzled scientists looked into what had happened, and discovered that the genetically modified control group had in fact mated with wild mosquitoes — but at least some of their offspring survived.  What’s worse, the offspring carried genetic modifications that may make them even more resistant to future attempts to wipe them out.  In short, the gene-hacking experiment may have produced a new strain of superbugs that are more robust than their predecessors.

One of the researchers who looked into the issue commented:  “It is the unanticipated outcome that is concerning.”  No kidding!  We should all remember those words the next time somebody proposes messing with DNA and genetics and confidently assures us that their efforts will produce nothing but positive benefits.  Just because somebody wears a white lab coat doesn’t make them infallible.

Only In France

For all of the talk about globalization, every once in a while we get a reminder that there are still a lot of differences between countries.  One such reminder came this week, in a news story about a court ruling from France.

man-woman-holding-hands-table-with-glasses-wine-restaurant_23-2148016832

It’s a story about the unfortunate Xavier. a security technician who worked for a railway company near Paris.  Xavier was sent on a business trip to central France by his employer.  One night on the trip, the amorous Xavier had an extramarital relationship with a woman at her home one night — and then keeled over, dead, from a heart attack apparently related to the encounter.  A health insurance fund concluded that Xavier’s demise was the result of a work-related accident, making the employer liable.  The employer appealed, saying Xavier should be viewed, instead, as having interrupted his work-related trip for his tryst, so that the company was not responsible for his post-coital death.

Earlier this year a French court rejected the employer’s arguments.  Under French law, any accident that happens on a business trip is considered to be work-related, even if the activity is not closely related to the purpose for the trip.  The court ruled that French law protects employees engaged in everyday activities during business trips, unless they interrupted planned business activities, and the employer couldn’t show that Xavier was supposed to be working when he was having his fatal sexual encounter.  And get this:  the court noted that the insurance fund argued that sex was part of everyday life, “like having a shower or a meal.”

Casual sex with a stranger while you’re on a business trip is akin to taking a shower or eating breakfast?  Only in France.