New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/mars-m28.html

New research suggests certain parasites may be subtly tweaking our health and even our personalities

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

The parasite made me do it: How a common infection could manipulate our behavior

(Credit: pogonici, via Shutterstock)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanImagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.

The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in

Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.



Within a new host the parasite begins dividing asexually and spreading throughout the host’s body. During this initial stage of the infection, Toxoplasma can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible hosts, leading to extensive tissue damage. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. If a woman is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite may invade the developing fetus, cutting through tissues and organs as it spreads from cell to cell. Infection early in pregnancy can result in miscarriage or birth defects.

In otherwise healthy individuals, however, the only symptoms during this period are brief, flulike discomforts such as chills, fever and body ache. Within days the immune system gets the parasite under control, and Toxoplasma retreats into a dormant state. It conceals itself within a hardened wall in the host’s cells, a structure called a tissue cyst.

This stage of the infection has no other discernible symptoms, but individuals with dormant infections who develop compromised immune systems—because of AIDS, an organ transplant or chemotherapy—may experience severe complications. With the body’s defense systems weakened, Toxoplasma can reactivate and grow uncontrollably.

Once infected, a person will remain a carrier for life. Our immune system is apparently incapable of eliminating the tissue cysts, nor can any known drug. Nevertheless, the infection, detectable with a blood test, has long been viewed as relatively benign. After all, many people carry this parasite with no obvious ill effects. Only recently have scientists begun reexamining this belief.

Eat me, Mr. Kitty

In the 1980s researchers noticed unusual behaviors in Toxoplasma-infected mice. The rodents became hyperactive and groomed less. In 1994 epidemiologist Joanne Webster, then at the University of Oxford, observed that rats harboring tissue cysts behaved differently from their uninfected counterparts. Instead of fleeing from cats, the infected rodents moved toward them—making them easier prey.

Webster suspected that this “fatal feline attraction,” as she called it, was a crafty way for the parasite to get back into a cat’s belly to complete the sexual stage of its life cycle. In the years to follow, this idea gained ground: a large body of work now shows that the parasite can indeed manipulate rodents’ behavior by altering neural activity and gene expression.

Several well-controlled experiments have shown that although uninfected rodents avoid areas that have been infused with cat stench, infected rodents do not seem to mind. Even more bizarre, in 2011 neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, molecular biologist Ajai Vyas of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and their colleagues found that—at least in terms of neural activity—infected rats appeared to be sexually attracted to cat scent.

In the mammalian brain, the “defensive” and “reproductive” neuronal pathways run in parallel. These pathways start at the olfactory bulb, involved in odor detection, and ter-minate at the limbic system, an area critical to basic reactions such as fear and arousal. Their proximity may partially explain how the parasite manipulates rodent behavior.

Working with 18 infected and 18 uninfected male rats, Sapolsky and his colleagues studied the rodents’ behavior when they were exposed to either the odor of female rats or cat urine. Then they sacrificed the animals and looked at their brains. The researchers found a slight enrichment of parasite cysts in the limbic system compared with other brain areas.

They also assessed which parts of the brain had been operating during exposure to odors by staining the cells with a solution that revealed c-Fos, a protein expressed when neurons are active. The Stanford researchers discovered that infected rodents had high levels of engagement in their brain’s reproductive pathway in response to the odor of both female rats and felines. In addition, the team found that infected rodents exposed to cat urine showed activation in the reproductive pathway similar to what uninfected rodents showed for the scent of a female rat. These results suggest that in infected rats, neural activity shifts from the defensive to the nearby reproductive pathway. Instead of smelling danger, the rats smell love.

Scientists are not sure how exactly the parasite elicits this fatal attraction, but one clue surfaced in 2014 in Vyas’s laboratory. Vyas and his colleagues showed that Toxoplasma increases its host’s levels of a neurotransmitter involved in social and sexual behavior. To accomplish this task, the parasite alters DNA methylation. Methylated genes are silent, blocked by a molecular cap. Toxoplasma uncaps a group of genes that spurs the creation of the sex-promoting neurotransmitter. Vyas and his team discovered this trick by performing the process in reverse: when they administered a chemical compound to the infected rats that silences the associated genes, the rats’ peculiar attraction to feline odor vanished.

Kiss and spit

With evidence mounting that Toxoplasma can influence its host’s brain, other scientists set out to understand the parasite’s effects at a much smaller scale: within each host cell. Their findings suggest that this microbe is particularly insidious—the changes it makes may be permanent.

To replicate, Toxoplasma must invade a cell. Stanford parasitologist John C. Boothroyd has dubbed this process “kiss and spit.” The parasite first attaches to the host cell (the kiss) and then releases an arsenal of foreign proteins into that cell (the spit). Toxoplasma then enters the host cell, and the injected proteins help it redecorate its new home.

The parasite’s first act is establishing a protective bubble in which it can divide in peace without attacks from host cell proteins. (Later, during the infection’s dormant stage, these bubbles thicken to become tissue cysts.) The parasite then moves the mitochondria, which serve as the cell’s powerhouses, to be adjacent to the protective bubble. It also acts on the cell’s DNA, inhibiting the expression of some host genes while activating others. Finally, Toxoplasma modifies host proteins to alter their function and inhibit the immune response.

Altogether, these modifications ensure that the host cell will live a long time and supply energy to the parasite, without alerting immune cells that a parasite has moved in. Although these findings have principally been made with rodents, work with human cell cultures suggests that the same changes probably take place in the human body. In our labs, we are studying how Toxoplasma replicates and interacts with its host in an effort to develop new drugs to treat this infection.

Remarkably, a study that Boothroyd’s group published in 2012 showed that Toxoplasma not only spits into the cells it invades but also spits into cells that it does not infect. This behavior—spitting proteins in passing without lingering in the cells—is a recent discovery in the microbial world. Consequently, cells that are not harboring Toxoplasma contain parasite proteins that can co-opt and reprogram that cell. In the brains of infected mice, cells that have been spat into but not invaded are even more common than ones containing parasites. This widespread scattering of proteins means Toxoplasma can affect its host at a global level, making it easier to imagine how the parasite might manipulate the activity of an entire animal.

In 2013 biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues found that a rodent’s strange attraction to cat odors may be permanent, even if there are no longer signs of infection. In one study, Eisen exposed mice to a mutant strain of the parasite that does not appear to form brain cysts. Four months later the infected mice had no detectable parasites in the brain, yet they were still attracted to cat odors instead of repelled. This finding suggests that even if the parasite can be removed from the body, behavioral changes may persist. The infection leaves a mark, like a permanent parasite-given tattoo.

The human connection

The fact that people do not throw themselves into the lion cage at the zoo strongly argues that Toxoplasma does not affect humans in the way it transforms mice. Mammalian brains are not all the same, and Toxoplasma‘s tricks are most likely specially suited for rodents. The parasite has little to gain, in evolutionary terms, by adapting to control the human brain. We are, after all, a “dead-end” host—the parasites within us are unlikely to return to the cat gut for breeding. Nevertheless, these cysts lodged in our brains could be manipulating us in subtle, unexpected ways.

A large body of research, mostly conducted by parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, supports the idea that Toxoplasma harbors the potential to change human behavior. In a series of personality assessments spanning more than a decade and involving nearly 2,500 individuals, Flegr and his colleagues found that certain traits often coincide with a Toxoplasma infection. For example, infected men tend to be introverted, suspicious and rebellious, whereas infected women tend to be extraverted, trusting and obedient.

Using a simple reaction time test, Flegr has also found that infected individuals are slower to respond than uninfected peers. This lag may relate to another correlation he has identified. In a 2009 analysis of 3,890 military conscripts in the Czech Republic, those with latent toxoplasmosis who also had a negative blood type, meaning they lacked the protein RhD, were six times more likely to be in a fender bender than those who were Toxoplasma-free or who had a positive blood type. The function of RhD is unknown. Flegr’s results suggest RhD somehow protects people against Toxoplasma‘s effects, but how it does so remains a mystery.

More recently, Flegr and his colleagues found that some of the changes that occur in mice also exist in humans—albeit in a gender-specific manner. In 2011 the researchers asked 34 Toxoplasma-infected students and 134 noninfected students to rate the intensity and pleasantness of urine samples from different animals. Curiously, infected men found cat urine odor more pleasant than uninfected men; in women, the opposite occurred.

Another line of research has focused on a potential link between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. In 2001 psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and neurovirologist Robert Yolken of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported significantly more antibodies associated with Toxoplasma in patients experiencing their first schizophrenic episode as compared with healthy peers. Although this initial study was limited to only 38 people, additional studies in the ensuing years have largely supported this link.

Fascinating and attention-grabbing as these studies may be, they come with several caveats. The sample sizes are relatively small, meaning the findings are preliminary. They do not definitively demonstrate that Toxoplasma causes behavior changes in humans. In the case of schizophrenia, it is important to note that the condition is complex and may involve many triggers. The parasite may be one contributor, but it is also possible that people with schizophrenia may simply behave in ways that make them more likely to pick up an infection. No hard evidence has emerged to date that directly implicates the parasite as a cause for any psychosis, including schizophrenia.

Ultimately these provocative findings probably reflect a complex exchange among various factors. Certain genetic predispositions, for example, or even an interaction between Toxoplasma and another infectious agent could mean that some people are more susceptible to the parasite’s persuasion. Only larger studies from multiple research groups will determine precisely what this parasite may do to the people it infects.

An accidental meddler

As researchers continue to uncover the astonishing effects that Toxoplasma has kept secret for so long, many scientists are beginning to think that Toxoplasma‘s impressive cellular and molecular tricks make it capable of causing disruptions in a human host. At the very least, the findings from human surveys beg for further clarification.

If you are curious whether you carry the parasite, you can get a blood test. In the meantime, you can increase your odds of staying Toxoplasma-free by maintaining good hygiene for you and your feline friends. If cats wander through your yard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing gloves and a mask when gardening and keeping any sandboxes closed up when not in use. Other basic health tips—cleaning fruits and vegetables, thoroughly cooking meats and washing hands regularly—are also important for avoiding an infection.

The notion that Toxoplasma could radically reorient the brain and behavior is certainly disturbing. But perhaps these findings are a reminder of a more basic truth. Each person is actually a rich ecosystem. For every human cell in the body, there are 10 more bacterial cells that influence physiology, metabolism and health. The protozoan Toxoplasma is just another stowaway within the system and one that warrants further study. After all, we will never fully understand ourselves without learning about our microbial companions.

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/27/the_parasite_made_me_do_it_how_a_common_infection_could_manipulate_our_behavior_partner/?source=newsletter

 

To move beyond boom and bust, we need a new theory of capitalism

Finding one is the the holy grail of economics
VARIOUS

The trouble is that people are asking the wrong questions. Photograph: Martin Lee/Rex Features

Terry Jones’s documentary film Boom Bust Boom hits the cinemas this month. Using puppetry and talking heads (including mine), Jones is trying to popularise the work of Minsky, a US economist who died in 1996 but whose name has become for ever associated with the Lehman Brothers crash. Terrified analysts labelled it the “Minsky moment”.

Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.

This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external. It did so by reducing economic thought to the construction of abstract models, which perfectly describe the system 95% of the time, but break down during critical events.

In the aftermath of the crisis – which threatens some countries with a phase of stagnation lasting decades – Minsky’s insight has been acknowledged. But his supporters face a problem. The mainstream has a model; the radicals do not. The mainstream theory is “good enough” to run a business, a finance ministry or a central bank – as long as you are prepared, in practice, to ignore that theory when faced with crises.

That, effectively, describes the situation among the policymaking elite today. They are trying to wrestle the economy back into a state where their models can cope with it again, using measures their theories say are not needed: quantitative easing, bank nationalisations, partial debt defaults and currency devaluations.

The radical, pro-Minsky faction is at a disadvantage because it does not possess a complete alternative model of capitalism. Some have generated computer programs showing how financial crises happen. But, by their own admission, they do not have a complete alternative model of how capitalism works. They are, admits Dutch finance professor Theo Kocken, “roughly right” rather than “exactly wrong”. Kocken’s solution is to concentrate on why we misperceive risk. Behavioural economics has had a field day since 2008, identifying problems for the human brain when faced with complex risks: oversimplification, overconfidence and “confirmation bias”, where we ignore facts that challenge our existing beliefs. But adding behavioural insights to the Minsky model of financial mania does not turn it into a theory of capitalism.

Here, the parallels with events in physics are obvious. After Einstein’s big breakthrough, we were left with two competing – and mutually incompatible – accounts of the laws of physics. Einstein himself was dissatisfied with this, pursuing from the 1920s a “theory of everything”. It is a laudable aim in economics too. And this is where we come to the turning point. The defenders of orthodox economics and the Minsky rebels are, essentially, asking the same question: “What does capitalism normally look like?” The one answers “stable”; the other “unstable”. But it’s the wrong question. The right question is: Where are we in the long arc of capitalist development? Nearer the beginning, the middle or the end? But that question goes to the heart of darkness.

For the mainstream, their convictions about equilibrium and abstract models were always founded on the belief that capitalism is an eternal system: the social arrangement most completely reflecting human nature. Minsky’s followers, as with all followers of JM Keynes, assume that a better understanding of financial mania can stabilise an inherently unstable system. But even physicists, who study a universe that has lasted 13bn years, are prepared to countenance – indeed, are obsessed with modelling – its death.

So the pursuit of theory is obligatory in economics. The holy grail is not a new orthodoxy, cobbled together from Minsky and the remnants of mainstream thought so that bankers can construct trading models to iron out problems created by the way our brains work. The aim should be something bigger to model capitalism’s current crisis within an understanding of its destiny.

For me, the most fundamental question in economics still concerns the 2008 crisis. Was this event the last in a series of shocks needed to allow a third technological revolution to take off? Or was it evidence that capitalism’s tendency to adapt and reshape in response to technology has stalled, or is even finished? That is the shadow we have to jump over in economics. Amid a mania for “new economic thinking”, it is what we need to think hardest about.

Paul Mason is economics editor of Channel 4 News. Follow him @paulmasonnews

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/22/to-move-beyond-boom-and-bust-need-new-theory-capitalism?CMP=fb_gu

 

 

A Sucker Is Optimized Every Minute

CreditIllustration by Javier Jaén

Not long ago, our blockbuster business books spoke in unison: Trust your gut. The secret to decision-making lay outside our intellects, across the aisle in our loopy right brains, with their emo melodramas and surges of intuition. Linear thinking was suddenly the royal road to ruin. Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” tracked the extravagant illogic of our best judgment calls. The “Freakonomics” authors urged us to think like nut jobs. In “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell counseled abandoning scientific method in favor of snap judgments. Tedious hours of research, conducted by artless cubicle drones, became the province of companies courting Chapter 11. To the artsy dropouts who could barely grasp a polynomial would go the spoils of the serial bull markets.

In 2007, when Barack Obama first visited Google’s headquarters as a candidate, he announced himself as less a torchbearer than a data connoisseur. “I am a big believer in reason and facts and evidence and science and feedback,” he told the Google crowd. “That’s what we should be doing in our government.” This was music to the company’s ears, as one of its proudest internal inventions was “A/B testing” — an optimization process, now widespread, that constantly tests design tweaks on us to see how they perform.

Dan Siroker, a Google employee, was so smitten with this rhetoric that he went to work on Obama’s campaign, creating an audience for electoral propaganda by optimizing the campaign’s “squeeze page,” which is where a site bilks visitors of their email addresses. Now Siroker is chief executive of Optimizely, a “web-testing firm” that doubles as the Oval Office for the ascendant ideology of everything-optimization.

Optimization sounds dignified and scientific, and sometimes it is, mindbogglingly so. But in lifestyle headlines it has become something less than common sense. In the last few years, The Huffington Post has doled out advice on how to “optimize” your three-day weekend, your taxes, your Twitter profile, your year-end ritual, your sex drive, your website, your wallet, your joy, your workouts, your Social Security benefits, your testosterone, your investor pitch, your news release, your to-do list and the world itself. I’m not giving away trade secrets when I reveal that, according to HuffPo, the Big Three ways to optimize your sex drive are: exercise, relax and don’t drink too much. Equally snoozy is the optimization strategy for a three-day weekend: Plan well and turn off your phone.

Like the best corporate argot, “optimize” is back-formation. Some uses seem to have derived from the Latin optimus, which the poet Horace used to mean “morally good and indifferent to trivia.” But others appear to come from “optimist” — which is rich, given that optimizers consider themselves cold-eyed realists. If they want to improve anything, it’s not America’s topsoil or fellow-man stuff but rather something more Ayn Randian: efficiency, maybe, or performance.

Optimization addresses itself not to our inner hero but to our inner bean counter. Perhaps the reason it has such appeal is that it doesn’t require Olympian talent or Randian ambition. To do it, you need only to have a computer or to evince a computer-like immunity to boredom. All of that data — the insight that, say, 70 percent of three-day weekends suffer when 10 percent less planning is done — must intrigue you. You feel better in the mornings when you take B vitamins the night before, but only when you’ve ingested dairy products at the same time? Whoa, there: Your ingenuity as an optimizer now lies in your capacity to recognize this as a data bonanza.

On the web, “optimizing” has become a fine art — and, if not a dark art, at least a dim one that has become dimmer (and finer) since Siroker did it for Obama in 2007. For years, search-engine optimization, or S.E.O., has turned web pages into Googlebait. These days, optimizers of squeeze pages, drawing lessons as much from the labcoats at Optimizely as from the big daddies at Google, recommend creating a three-to-10 minute video that’s introduced by a “magnetic headline” (“Find the Perfect Lampshade for Any Lamp”) and quickly chase it with an “information gap” like “You’re Not Going to Believe the Trick I Use While Lampshade Shopping.” (Article of faith among optimizers: humans find information gaps intolerable and will move heaven and earth to close them.) Next you get specific: “Click the play button to see me do my lampshade trick!” — after which the video unspools, only to stall at the midpoint with a virtual tollbooth. You can’t go on unless you hand over an email address. Presto.

A sucker is optimized every minute.

For optimizers, all values flatten: There’soptimal at one end and the dread suboptimalat the other. This can be freeing for those who get worked up by emotional, political or moral language. In theory, through optimization, arguments can be dispassionately adjudicated and then resolved without tears. You find Inkwell, the true black-and-white Instagram filter, beautiful? Sorry: Instagram photos filtered with the purplish monochrome Willow get way more hearts than Inkwell photos. I’m just saying. I mean, it’s just data.

Earlier this month, when Hillary Clinton defended her use of a personal email account for communications of state, she refused to acknowledge an ethical breach — only a optimizational one. “Looking back, it would have been better for me to use two separate phones and two email accounts,” she said. “I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way.” Her choice was neither right nor wrong, then, neither honest nor sinister. It was merely, as the blog TechPresident put it, “less than optimal.”

“Of course it is sinister,” wrote Andrew Meier, the author of “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service,” via email. “It’s venomous, even. Stalin is all about optimization. Take the gulag, the greatest example, and achievement, of Soviet optimization. The lords of the gulag had charts and charts re: minimum food intake and maximum work output.”

Maximum work, minimum food. Such was optimization pre-Google. A grim application, perhaps, but we shouldn’t be surprised that the systems-obsessed Soviets possessed the will to optimize early on. In “Red Plenty,” a novelized history of the Bolshevik promise of abundance, Francis Spufford explains Moscow’s real “potato-optimizing program” of the 1960s. To get potatoes into the hands of as many Muscovites as possible and thus create the impression of agricultural bounty, a B.E.S.M. mainframe — Large Electronically Computing Machine, in English — churned through 75,000 variables, subject to 563 constraints. Spufford spells out why optimization and computers grew up together: “This problem is out of reach of fingers and slide rules. But thanks to computers, thanks to the B.E.S.M.’s inhuman patience at iterating approximate answers over and over again, it is a problem that can be solved.”

The Large Electronically Computing Machine, with its remarkable capacity for optimizing, was the direct precursor of our own data-amassing and refining machines. B.E.S.M., after all, was built on the math of Leonid Kantorovich, the economist and Nobel Laureate who is widely considered the father of linear programming. Not long after that, in the United States, George Dantzig made complementary discoveries in linear programming and developed the simplex algorithm. In 1973 Dantzig founded the Systems Optimization Laboratory at Stanford, which is now about a 12-minute drive from the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. — America’s leading producer of data, algorithms and optimization.

The Apple Watch, which arrived on March 9 to the sort of popular rubbernecking that new machinery occasioned in the 1930s, is a Very Small Electronically Computing Machine with some prodigious optimizing chops. After time keeping, the watch’s chief feature is “fitness tracking”: It clocks and stores physiological data with the aim of getting you to observe and change your habits of sloth and gluttony. Evidently I wasn’t the only one whose thoughts turned to 20th-century despotism: The entrepreneur Anil Dash quipped on Twitter, albeit stretching the truth, “Not since I.B.M. sold mainframes to the Nazis has a high-tech company embraced medical data at this scale.”

And yet what attracts me to the Apple Watch are my own totalitarian tendencies. I would keep very, very close tabs on the data my body produces. How much I eat. How much I sleep. How much I exercise and accomplish. I’m feeling hopeful about this: If I watch the numbers closely and use my new tech wisely, I could really get to minimum food intake and maximum work output. Right there in my Apple Watch: a mini Gulag, optimized just for me.

Correction: March 19, 2015
An earlier version of this article erroneously cited an award for George Dantzig. He did not win a Nobel Prize. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/magazine/a-sucker-is-optimized-every-minute.html

Toronto strikes back against neoliberal education

By ROAR Collective On March 20, 2015

Post image for Toronto strikes back against neoliberal educationThe university strikes in Toronto are a powerful articulation of an emergent student and academic staff movement that is growing on campuses globally.

Article written by various rank and file members of CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. Photo by Daniel Kwan.

As we enter now into the third week of strikes at two of Canada’s largest universities — the University of Toronto and York University — we believe this is a vital moment to reflect upon the aims shared by members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 3902 and 3903, representing over 10,000 teaching assistants and course instructors with the majority of them graduate students at both University of Toronto and York University, and to explore the larger structural issues that led to strike actions at both campuses.

We contend that the casualization of academic labor and the commodification of education must be seen as components of the larger framework of the neoliberalization of state and society. This is seen quite sharply in the demands put forth by members of both CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. The authors of this piece are a collective comprised of rank-and-file members from both CUPE locals. Our aim is to provide an analysis of the present situation with united voices, exploring linkages between these specific articulations and the ways in which our strikes are situated on the horizon of a growing movement.

While the particular details of each local’s bargaining position are specific to existent relations within each university, upon brief reflection it becomes remarkably clear that the foundational concerns raised in each case are symptomatic of the neoliberal restructuring of the university system, and indeed, of society at large, and represent a concerted push-back against austerity and the casualization and precarization of labor within and beyond the academic institution.

In conjunction with increasingly assertive organizing on the part of adjunct faculty across the continent, with a second round of student strikes about to kick off in Quebec, and with student occupations taking off across the Atlantic inLondon and Amsterdam, these concurrent strikes have become increasingly powerful articulations of an emergent student and contract labor movement growing across university campuses globally.

Sparking the match

CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto was the first to declare the strike, on Friday, February 27, with York joining shortly thereafter. The University of Toronto strike deadline had been set months prior, but the employer had delayed bargaining until the very last minute, when at 3am, after a marathon negotiation session, it tried to push through a lackluster deal which the membership would swiftly and decisively reject.

The tentative agreement offered by the University of Toronto included minor wage increases, some limited financial allocations available by application for those in the final years of PhD studies, and several modest improvements in the language of the collective agreement, but it did not address the substantive issues members had entrusted the bargaining team to negotiate. In fact, written into the deal was the employer’s assertion that CUPE 3902 does not have the mandate to negotiate on either of the core matters which membership had authorized it to negotiate — an increase in the overall guaranteed minimum funding package of $15,000 per year, and a reduction or remission of tuition fees for graduate students beyond the funded years.

Given that teaching assistant and course instructor work is a requirement to fulfill more than half of that funding guarantee, this was widely seen as a political attempt by the administration to limit graduate students’ capacity to deploy our collective power as unionized workers and address the terms of our relationship with the university holistically.

In response to this insult, CUPE 3902 members raised picket lines at all three University of Toronto campuses the following Monday, and were joined by CUPE 3903 at York the very next day. Similarly, York’s offer also evaded the union’s core bargaining points, which included tuition indexation for all members, job security for contract faculty members, and a reasonable funding package for graduate assistants.

Tuition indexation ensures that every dollar added to graduate tuition fees is met in kind by additions to graduate student compensation. This was already won through a protracted strike in 2000-’01, and secured for all members of the local, but York’s administration recently reinterpreted the language and now claims that it only applies to students already under the collective agreement, excluding incoming students. As a result, the tuition fees of international graduate students increased by a whopping $7,000 in 2014.

A second core demand at York is for an increase in the guaranteed minimum funding to Research Assistants and Graduate assistants, currently set at $9,000 per year. In a city such as Toronto, in which the Low Income Cutoff (LICO) is set at $23,000, it is clear that guaranteed minimum funding at both universities leaves graduate students struggling substantially below a livable income.

The financial enterprise of knowledge production

The systemic indifference of university administrators towards the experience of graduate students and course instructors reflects the extent to which institutionalized knowledge-production has become a financial enterprise. In fact, this indifference marks a class conceit particular to the neoliberal moment. As David Graeber argues, the neoliberal university is exemplary of the emergence of a modern class alliance between financial elites and corporate bureaucrats, which he terms the professional-managerial class; a class position which university administrators have increasingly come to occupy over the past few decades.

Alongside the casualization of academic labor that marks diminishing prospects for the attainment of tenure-track professorship and replacement with highly insecure and poorly compensated adjunct teaching positions, there persists a hiring spree of senior administrators with progressively higher salaries and compensation packages emulating that of corporate executives. A brief glance at the Ontario Sunshine List, which shows the annual salaries throughout the past decade of any publicly employed person making over $100,000, reveals the bloated and rapidly increasing salaries of administrators at both universities.

Meanwhile, the ratio between senior administrators and tenured faculty is decreasing dramatically across universities in Ontario. This exemplifies an ongoing trend in which universities have become sites for the reproduction of the professional-managerial class; a reproduction that we emphatically insist comes at the expense of the political place of labor in our society.

The form this class reproduction assumes is unequivocally corporate. Universities are constantly engaged in orienting their policy outlook to the private interests of investors and shareholders, where “revenue shortfalls” and “budget surpluses” dictate policy, albeit without any change in employee working conditions either way, as the conditions of our current strikes reveal. After all, although U of T reported a budget surplus of $200million last year it refuses to negotiate the value of its guaranteed graduate funding, which hasn’t seen an increase since 2008. Meanwhile the average salary of a University of Toronto dean has risen by $20,000 since then.

Prioritizing “fiscal responsibility,” often at the expense of educational quality, universities are becoming technocratic financial institutions in all but name. Consequently “asset management” and “market value” have come to signify the quality of research and education on offer, both of which achieve popular mass consumption in the form of global institutional rankings, themselves evocative of corporate performance reviews.

And yet for all their pomp and “prestige,” such global indices belie the exploitative conditions that await international graduate students whose untenable economic position at our universities exemplifies the extreme edge of precarity experienced across the graduate student population. The often undervalued contributions graduate students make as cutting-edge researchers and contract education workers are essential to the international prestige of these institutions, and indeed, their very functioning.

The pedagogy of student indebtedness

Another crucial dimension in the reproduction of the neoliberal university is student indebtedness. With tuition fees increasing well above the rate of inflation on an annual basis in Ontario (by provincial law, universities can increase tuition by up to 5 percent per year), and with meager stipends that fall well below the poverty line, graduate students and course instructors are often forced to debt-finance the completion of their degrees.

As one CUPE 3902 union member succinctly puts it, when we speak about precarity in the university, we are primarily speaking about debt. Exemplary of a neoliberal strategy beginning in the 1970s, the right to a publicly funded education is increasingly being substituted with easy access to credit. And although the university is not a primary issuer of student loans, it plays a formative role in the financialization process by intentionally fostering mass student loan debts. Thus it is through student debt that we can more clearly discern how the university articulates and produces a larger neoliberal order based in the reproduction of financial capital.

Most importantly, student indebtedness designates a pedagogical dimension of the neoliberal university, one central to the reproduction of the professional-managerial class (or, more accurately, the sensibilities associated with this class). That is to say, in the name of their professionalization, students are taught through their debt to reflect on their status as human capital, or as University of Toronto administration has termed its students, “Basic Income Units.”

In order to acquire the habit of valorizing themselves through personal “investment” in their (unforeseeable) futures, they are taught to make an enterprise of themselves, engaging incessantly (and anxiously) in acts of self-marketing. As such, an audit-culture is instituted in the neoliberal university through an ethos of indebtedness whereby student-debtors are incessantly interpolated as manager-professionals split between the contrarian injunction to embrace risk and the prudent warning to take precautions against making bad investments.

Whose university? Our university!

At a recent solidarity rally outside the administrative offices of the University of Toronto, thousands of graduate and undergraduate students together chanted “Whose university? Our university!” With blinds tightly shuttered and campus police standing guard at each locked entrance, our voices rang in unison so that we might be clearly heard, if not seen, by the administrators cloistered within.

While our respective strikes are but a beginning, the terms in which they are articulated show clear linkages with a wider global struggle to reclaim the university as a public space for free and guaranteed accessible education for all. In this sense, the fight of striking student union members at the University of Toronto and York University for increases to the basic funding package, tuition relief and/or tuition indexation, and improvements to overall working conditions, cannot be separated from the wider global struggle for broad structural transformation within the fiscal and pedagogical governance of the contemporary university.

Students in Canada have been at the forefront of the struggle for high quality accessible education for all, with the 2012 student strikes in Quebec a telling example. The struggle of Quebec students against austerity challenged multiple aspects of neoliberal governance within and beyond the university setting. As striking Quebec students in 2012 articulated opposition to both proposed tuition increases and the sweeping northern development project Plan Nord, this movement cannot be separated from the struggle against the exploitation of land and resources, and the ongoing internal colonization of Indigenous territories. Indeed, in 2012 lines of solidarity were produced between Indigenous and student activists articulating an overall critique of neoliberal restructuring in all sectors, and a shift toward alternate visions for the futurity of political-economic relations.

The momentum of the present movement is escalating rapidly. Our own administrations have taken hard offensive lines against our unions necessitating prolonged strikes, while concurrently, Quebec students from 24 student unions across six Montreal campuses have declared a second wave of student strikesbeginning March 21. From the picket lines on Keele, Mississauga, Scarborough, and St. George campuses in Toronto to the occupied Maagdenhuis (the main administration building of the University of Amsterdam), one thing is clear: resistance against the neoliberal regime within and beyond the university setting is growing, and it transcends the bounds of academia.

At present, we need solidarity across all universities and workers’ unions, whether through active participation in pickets, the launch of mirror strikes on other campuses, or the drafting of strong letters of support. CUPE 3902 and 3903 members must escalate our tactics in solidarity with supporters within and beyond the city of Toronto, and demonstrate the extent to which our labor is fundamental to the effective functioning of the university. Following a victory regarding our specific aims, we must ensure that any “back to work” agreement does not end in the abandonment of this wider struggle.

A victory for striking graduate student workers will signify a decisive step toward the reversal of neoliberal policy and provide an example and a source of inspiration for others moving forward. The momentum for a campus-based global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement is strong at present. Our moment is now. We invite you to join us on the picket lines, out on the streets, and inside occupied administrative buildings. Together, We Strike to Win!

Authors:

Jennifer Gibson, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
George Mantzios, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Sardar Saadi, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Behnam Amini, MA student in Social and Political Thought, York University
Gülay Kılıçaslan, PhD student in Sociology, York University

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/graduate-intructor-strike-toronto/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Chappie: Is the sum greater than the parts?

By Christine Schofelt
21 March 2015

South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is set in a 2016 Johannesburg plagued by violent street crime. Through the deployment of battalions of robotic police, crime rates are cut dramatically and orders for scores more robots are placed with weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, which produces the machines.

Chappie

When the young scientist who developed the robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), brings company president Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) a program that will render the robots sentient, giving them the ability to think independently and, among other examples he excitedly cites, appreciate art, she flatly refuses to allow him to upload the program or even experiment with it. Bradley declares with barely disguised amusement that he must realize he has entered the office of a “publicly traded” military equipment company proposing to create a robot that writes poetry.

Undaunted, Deon steals a robot that had been slated for the scrap heap. On his way home he is kidnapped by Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yo-landi Visser of rap group Die Antwoord [“The Answer” in Afrikaans], for whom Blomkamp developed the roles), small-time criminals who need the clichéd “one big heist” to clear themselves of debt and get out of crime for good.

The somewhat hackneyed question in all stories involving artificial intelligence (AI) boils down to: Can a robot have a soul? Chappie treats the question as having been answered, and that answer being “yes,” but not in a religious sense. It goes further in its trans-humanistic outlook in stating that this is the next evolutionary step. Life, in whatever form, metal or flesh, is important. What is “inside” must be preserved.

The world the criminals inhabit is brutal. Miserably poor, despite being surrounded by stolen equipment of great value, the group lives in an abandoned industrial complex in Soweto. Ninja is a desperate, angry man, and models this behavior for the resistant, but eager-to-fit-in robot-child, Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Ninja’s coming to grips with a different way of communicating—the robot is frightened off by violence and refuses to commit crimes, due to a promise he’d made to Deon—and his development of a sense of remorse regarding his actions toward Chappie are realistically drawn. The relationship develops unevenly, with setbacks that seem natural and gains that are honestly arrived at.

Yolandi treats the robot as if it were her child. At one point reading it a book, explaining what a black sheep is—how the outside of a person doesn’t matter—and telling the robot she loves it. She is a bright young woman trapped in horrible circumstances, and one gets the sense of someone who belongs to a lost generation, mired in poverty and crime.

Chappie

There is an unexpected innocence to the interactions between these characters, all of whom are well drawn, and the rest of the world. Blomkamp, in several interviews, has stated that the idea of “What if Die Antwoord were criminals raising a robot” provided the genesis for the film, so this is to be expected. Given free artistic reign, though sticking to the script, the group members act with a surprising naïveté, and are in many ways little more than children themselves. These are people who are doing everything they can to survive in a sector of society that has completely broken down. Their loyalty is to each other, but anything beyond that is questionable.

On the other hand, we have Tetravaal and the people who work for it. Here the characters are very clear-cut—to the point of being stereotypes. Deon, the good scientist dreaming of a better future, has an enemy in Vincent Moore (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Jackman).

In an interview, Blomkamp notes that he and Jackman wanted to make the character an outrageous parody of a certain type of Australian, yet—stylistic flourishes aside—the ex-SAS killer turned contractor, hyper-Christian bully is of a social type that could find a comfortable home in many countries. His combination of militaristic bloodthirstiness and reactionary religious horror regarding the advance in AI Deon has achieved is unnerving to watch at times. Weaver’s Michelle Bradley is simply a bottom-line businesswoman primarily concerned with the company’s shareholders.

This is typical of Blomkamp, as we saw in Elysium, in which Jodie Foster’s scheming, fascistic Delacourt was likewise simplistically drawn. In the face of such characters, we are given leave to shake our heads and tsk-tsk, but little light is shed on the conditions and social relationships that give rise to these anti-human elements. To explain “bad” actions through “bad” people is a tautology that explains little.

After Vincent creates a crisis to provoke the deployment of his own rejected killing machine, The Moose, we are treated to scenes of utter mayhem in the streets of Johannesburg. Here there is an element of cynicism—the rapidity with which the criminal element forms a rioting mob on word that the police robots have been taken offline is questionable at best.

Chappie

While it is clear from the portrayal of Tetravaal and its CEO that Blomkamp bears no love for the military industrial complex, far from it, what does he make of the majority of the South African population?

And what is the filmmaker’s attitude toward the massive police deployment—human or otherwise—apparently needed to quell a situation described more than once as the “city eating itself”?

One is struck by the wasted opportunities, or only half-developed themes and material, in Blomkamp’s works. The subject matter chosen for his three major films— Elysium, involving issues of social inequality; District 9, with its themes of immigrants and poverty; and now Chappie with severe poverty, crime and a militarized police force—is obviously serious, but it begs for more profound and critical treatment.

Science fiction is entirely capable of exploring and exposing social problems. When Blomkamp dismisses in interviews the notion that his films have any socio-political intentions or significance and when he takes artistic shortcuts in character and plot development, he devalues his own work, ultimately offering the equivalent of a dismissive and self-deprecating “just kidding.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/21/chap-m21.html

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

RIAA: U.S. Digital Streaming Revenue

Surpassed CD Retail Sales In 2014

 

Green Dollars      The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) this week reported that music streaming has eclipsed the sale of physical CDs and is closing in on digital downloads as the largest source of revenue in the U.S. recorded music industry. According to RIAA figures, revenues from subscription streaming (e.g., Spotify and Rhapsody) and streaming radio services including Sirius XM hit $1.87 billion in 2014, a 29% increase vs. 2013 and equivalent to 27% per cent of total music industry revenues. CD sales slipped 12.7% to $1.85 billion. As noted by the Financial Times, downloads have been the U.S. music industry’s largest source of digital revenue for a decade, but they peaked in 2012 and have been in decline ever since. In 2014, download revenues fell 8.7% vs. 2013 to $2.58 billion, equivalent to 37% of total industry revenues.

“The music business continues to undergo a staggering transformation,” RIAA Chairman/CEO Cary Sherman said in a statement. “Record companies are now digital music firms, earning more than two-thirds of their revenues from a variety of digital formats.”

In aggregate, the various kinds of streaming outlets generated $1.87 billion, up nearly 29% from the year before – and, for the first time, slightly more than the total for CDs. That figure includes not only paid subscription outlets like Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody, but also such internet radio services as Pandora, which does not let users pick exactly what songs they will hear, and outlets like YouTube and Spotify’s free tier, which let users pick specific songs and are generally supported by advertising.

Performance royalty fees paid by streaming radio services grew sharply from $590 million in FY:13 to $773 million last year. All physical music sales together – including CDs, vinyl and music videos – slipped below a third of the industry’s total revenues for the first time, falling from 35% in 2013 to 32% last year. Total U.S. retail revenues were flat for the fifth year in succession at $6.97 billion. 

Shift From Sales To Digital Streaming

Is Causing Growing Pains For Artists

 

     This week the RIAA reported streaming music services have begun to overtake sales of physical CDs and music downloads in revenue (see story, above), a shifting business model that has many artists seeing red in more ways than one. While advertisers, listeners, and some label execs are embracing this change, the money collected via subscription and ad-supported license fees slows to a trickle by the time it reaches the music creators. That’s one reason Taylor Swift pulled her tracks from Spotify when she released her 1989 album last fall, and other artists continue to withhold their catalogs from the service.

How worrisome is the drought caused by the shift to streaming? As AdWeek pointed out this week, Pharrell’s “Happy” arguably was the song of 2014, topping the charts in the U.S. and selling 6.45 million copies. It also was in heavy rotation on the digital radio platform Pandora, streaming 43 million times in the first quarter alone. Despite all that exposure, Sony/ATV Music Publishing says it received just $2,700 from Pandora for plays of the tune during that period, which it split with writer Pharrell Williams.

“Streaming services are going to be the major method in the way music is accessed [but] I don’t think enough money trickles down to the songwriters,” says Sony/ATV CEO Marty Bandier.

By contrast, Pandora argues that its model is justified, with CEO Brian McAndrews insisting that “we want to be an indispensable partner to music makers, and that involves paying a tremendous amount in royalties.”

Of course, AM/FM radio has never paid performance royalties to labels or artists, but the difference here is that digital streaming appears to be replacing music sales, while traditional radio served to promote it. As AdWeek asks (somewhat rhetorically), are music streaming services in as much trouble as the record business they were meant to give new life to? Or are these merely the growing pains of an emerging medium?

 

Forbes: Internet Radio Poised To

Be “Ad Opportunity Of The Future”

 

     Owners of AM/FM radio stations might not agree (or even want to read further), but internet radio has the potential to be the most ubiquitous form of media ever – and the biggest advertising opportunity of the future. That’s the word from Forbes, which this week detailed the reasons digital streaming – no longer a fledgling medium – is set to become an essential part of the targeted media mainstream. As the magazine’s David Porter points out, one third of Americans used their phones to stream music last year, and those 18-24 listened to internet radio more than terrestrial. Additionally, two of the top five most-popular apps in the U.S. (Pandora and Youtube) are used for streaming music, which increasingly is becoming personalized to individual listening tastes and experiences.

“Internet radio will need to match every part of your day,” Porter wrote in an industry analysis this week. “Imagine passively being pushed the right music that helps you wake up, motivates you to run faster, work more productively, and more. This type of personalization has already begun in advertising…[and] the barriers to this type of hyper-personal internet radio are slowly being eliminated. The swath of personal data that comprise our tastes is growing, which in turn means we are also able to better understand the tastes of similar people.”

Porter explains that, with the decreasing costs of streaming, collecting and storing large sums of data – as well as growth of powerful tools to analyze it – the ability to explore and draw inferences from this wealth of information is seemingly endless. “With the inevitable growth of internet radio, as we continue to shift digitally, the abundance of listener data will provide advertisers improved targeting, as well as awareness of their demographic,” he says. “This new paradigm will offer companies an unprecedented opportunity to connect with the right listeners at the perfect moment. The only question remaining, what will your station look like?”

 

iTunes Has Banned “Soundalikes”

Designed To Fool Paying Customers

 

     Apple’s iTunes store last month responded to a surge of “soundalikes” – cover tracks designed to mimic the original song – by aggressively banning them from the online store. As reported by Forbes writer Shawn Setaro, soundalikes are meant to fool listeners into thinking they’re the real deal, and streaming services are flooded with them. Example: The Cheer Squad’s soundalike of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” both of which can be found on virtually every streaming music platform.

While someone listening to a streaming service typically can skip to the next song if a soundalike comes on, iTunes customers pay for the track, which can fool consumers into buying the wrong download. Hence, iTunes has sent notices to digital distributors laying out new guidelines that ban titling songs in the search-friendly way common to soundalikes: Having the artist’s name in the song’s title, for example, and nixing phrases like “originally performed by” and “in the style of.” The guidelines called these practices “deceptive and misleading.”

Setaro says these guidelines apply only to iTunes, but they probably will affect all digital music services. Example: Such digital distributors as TuneCore put songs on all the digital music services at the same time, so if a song has one title for iTunes, it has to have the same one for all the other streaming services.

 

Sony Music Buys The Rest Of

The Orchard For $200 Million

 

     Sony Music Entertainment has purchased the remaining equity stake in the Orchard from Dimensional Associates for about $200 million. According to an SEC filing, the Orchard is currently owned by Orchard Assets Holdings, believed to be a joint venture between Dimensional Associates and Sony. According to Billboard, Sony bought what has been consistently described as a majority stake in the Orchard in March 2012. While the exact percentages of Sony’s stake have never been publicly disclosed, sources say Sony owed 51% of the company and Dimensional held the remaining 49%.

The new deal requires regulatory approvals and is expected to close after March 31, 2015. In addition to the Orchard, Sony Music Entertainment also owns RED, widely considered to be one of the biggest indie U.S. distributors.

The Orchard was founded by songwriter/producer Richard Gottehrer and digital music executive Scott Cohen in 1997, and currently has annual revenues of $200 million. 

Rhapsody Subscribers Now Can Share

Music Tracks With Twitter Followers

 

     Rhapsody this week announced its subscribers now can share songs from with their Twitter followers, who will be able to play them in full without leaving the social media site – even if they don’t pay for a Rhapsody subscription. Rhapsody claims it’s the first streaming music service to offer full-track playback on Twitter, using its Audio Cards feature. The music is fully licensed by Rhapsody, with a percentage of revenue going to artists, labels, and publishers.

Rhapsody says one reason for the approach – which will be available only in the U.S. – is “to reinforce that music isn’t free.” The streaming music company is testing the feature to see if it can recoup the licensing fees, over time, by converting the Twitter exposure into new subscribers for its $9.99/month music service. “It’s going to be a huge experiment in how we make music social again,” Rhapsody CFO Ethan Rudin said in an interview with Geek Wire. “We’re extraordinarily confident in the success we’re going to have in converting people to loyal Rhapsody subscribers. If there is the opportunity to fine-tune and make sure this is economically viable in perpetuity, we want to have the proof points to get it right.”

Rudin says Rhapsody will collect audience data and share the results with its industry partners in an effort to find an approach that works. 

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015