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Security Failure: EpiPen's Database Of Everyone Who's Allergic To Bees Has Been Obtained By Bees

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"We do not know what they plan to do with it, but we can confirm that bees have a list of everyone who has ever purchased an EpiPen," reads a prepared statement published on the company's website. "Bees have your information now. We are very sorry."

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4 hours ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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S Korea’s ‘kimchi deficit’ hits record


South Korea’s trade deficit in kimchi, its proud traditional side dish of fermented cabbage, reached an all-time high last year as low-priced Chinese imports flooded the market, statistics showed yesterday.

The spicy foodstuff is emblematic of Korean cuisine and accompanies almost every meal served in the nation, whatever its culinary origins, with kimchi-making still an important annual ritual for many families.

However, the commercial market has been deluged by Chinese producers in recent years, resulting in what has been dubbed the “kimchi deficit.”

South Korea imported more than 275,000 tonnes of kimchi last year, 99 percent of it from China, the Korea Customs Service (KCS) said, and exported just more than 24,000 tonnes.

The deficit stood at US$47.3 million by value, up 11 percent year-on-year and the largest since the KCS began tracking the data in 2000.

Price is a major factor in the trade, with imports costing just US$0.50 per kilogram in 2016, according to Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp, while exports — primarily destined for Japan — averaged US$3.36 per kilogram.

According to South Korea’s World Institute of Kimchi, 89.9 percent of the kimchi purchased by South Korean restaurants in 2016 was imported from China.

The kimchi trade first went into deficit in 2006, triggering soul-searching and a headline-grabbing scandal.

UNESCO inscribed South Korean kimchi on its intangible cultural heritage list in 2013, saying: “It forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences.”

There are regional differences in the product, UNESCO said, and the specific methods and ingredients are considered an important family heritage, typically transmitted from a mother-in-law to her newly married daughter-in-law.

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1 day ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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Split the Baby. Drink the Poison. Carry the Hot Iron. Swear on the Bible

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You probably remember the story of King Solomon and the baby. Two women come before the monarch claiming to be a child's mother. Neither has evidence to show. So Solomon proposes the following: He'll cut the baby in half. Each woman will receive an equal share. This will be equitable, if a bit messy.

On the face of it, the king was either a baby-hating madman or an idiot. Killing an infant and divvying up its corpse hardly seems like a reasonable response to a maternity dispute. But if you know the story, you know what Solomon had in mind: The baby's true mother would rather sacrifice her child's custody than her child's life. She would turn down the king's proposal, and then he would award the baby, in its entirety, to her.

We can learn a couple of things from Solomon. First, judicial procedures that seem downright stupid may in fact be very wise. Second, when "ordinary" evidence is lacking, judicial officials may still be able to get to the bottom of things by creating clever rules—even ones that are based on a lie ("when maternity is in doubt, cut the child in half "). Such clever rules can manipulate people's incentives, leading them to reveal information only they have access to through the choices they make.

Burn, Baby, Burn

"Ordeals" were medieval European judicial officials' version of splitting the baby. From the ninth through the 13th centuries, two types flourished: hot and cold.

In a hot water ordeal, a priest boiled a cauldron of water into which he threw a stone or ring. The task of the "proband"—the ordeal taker—was, as Bishop Eberhard of Bamberg's 12th century breviary instructed, to "plunge his hand into the boiling water" and pluck it out. Afterwards his hand should "be immediately sealed up." If he's innocent, he'll "bring forth his hand safe and unharmed from this water. But if he be guilty and presume to plunge in his hand," it will show burn injuries on inspection three days later.

The hot iron ordeal was similar, except the proband carried a piece of burning iron nine paces instead. The formula for deciding guilt was the same: If it burns you, you did it.

The cold water ordeal dispensed with the hot stuff in favor of a tepid pool. The ninth century theologian Hincmar of Rheims described it this way: "He who is to be examined by this judgment is cast into the water bound, and is drawn forth again bound." If he's guilty and "seeks to hide the truth by a lie," he "cannot be submerged." In other words, guilty people float. Innocent people sink.

Medieval law reserved ordeals for certain kinds of cases, typically those involving accusations of serious crimes, such as homicide, robbery, or arson. Punishments for failing them ranged from fines to mutilation to death.

The law also reserved ordeals for cases that judges couldn't confidently decide without them. "The ordeal of hot iron is not to be permitted except where the naked truth cannot otherwise be explored," 12th century English law decreed. Or as 13th century German law put it, "It is not right to use the ordeal in any case, unless the truth may be known in no other way."

If a defendant confessed or reliable witnesses testified against him, judges would convict him straightaway, without an ordeal. If enough acceptable "oath helpers" swore his innocence, he would be acquitted. But when such "ordinary" evidence was silent, judges unwilling to convict or exonerate accused criminals indiscriminately needed another way to determine how to rule. That way was ordeals.

These were justified on the grounds that they were iudicia Dei—judgments of God. Where man couldn't correctly assign criminal status, he recruited the Lord. "The judges may decide that which they clearly know," a Carolingian capitulary directed, "but that which they cannot know shall be reserved for Divine judgment."

According to medieval Christian belief, if priests performed the appropriate rituals, God would reveal individuals' guilt by letting the boiling water or burning iron harm them or by making the holy water reject their guilty bodies; He would reveal their innocence by miraculously saving their limbs from harm or accepting their guiltless bodies into his blessed pool.

This may seem, well, stupid. But similar to King Solomon's baby-dicing idea, lurking below was a good deal of wisdom.

The Secret Solution

Contrary to what you might expect, ordeals exonerated the majority of people who underwent them. That's right: Boiling water rarely boiled those who put their hands in it, and burning iron rarely burned those who carried it.

"If we suppose that few or none escaped conviction who exposed themselves to these fiery trials," the historian Robert Henry warns, "we shall be very much mistaken. For the histories of those times contain innumerable examples of persons plunging their naked arms into boiling water, handling red-hot balls of iron, and walking upon burning ploughshares, without receiving the least injury."

The Regestrum Varadinense, an ordeal register from Várad, Hungary, records the outcomes of 208 hot iron ordeals administered by clerics in the basilica of Nagyvárad between 1208 and 1235. Probands passed in 130 cases, or 62.5 percent of the time. Unless nearly two-thirds of ordeal-officiating priests didn't understand how to heat iron, something funny must've been going on.

Another source for ordeal outcomes is the English plea rolls, which were kept by the royal courts between 1194 and 1219. These contain outcomes for just 19 probands, but they point to the same phenomenon. Sixteen defendants underwent cold water ordeals; 14 passed. All three defendants who underwent hot iron ordeals were unscathed, too. Here, ordeals exonerated their takers 89 percent of the time.

Consider a medieval fellow named Frithogar. Suppose his neighbor, a farmer, accuses him of stealing. Frithogar denies it. The farmer has no witnesses but is well respected. Frithogar isn't, so the court orders him to the hot water ordeal.

Frithogar believes in iudicium Dei—that priests, by performing the appropriate rituals, can get God to reveal the truth, performing a miracle that prevents the boiling water from burning him if he's innocent, letting him burn if he's not.

What will Frithogar do?

Suppose he stole from the farmer. He knows he's guilty, but nobody else does. In this case, if Frithogar undergoes the ordeal, he expects to burn. Moreover, he expects to suffer the legal punishment for theft upon being convicted—a large fine.

His other option is to decline the ordeal, confessing his crime or settling with the farmer instead. Both of these alternatives punish Frithogar, but neither is as punishing as the fine for stealing, and neither will burn him. Thus, if he's guilty, he will choose to decline the ordeal.

Now suppose that Frithogar didn't steal from the farmer. He knows he's innocent, but nobody else does. In this case, if Frithogar undergoes the ordeal, he expects to pull his arm from the boiling water unburned. Moreover, he expects to avoid legal punishment upon being exonerated. If Frithogar declines the ordeal and confesses or settles instead, he suffers punishment for a crime he didn't commit. Thus, if he's innocent, he will choose to undergo the ordeal.

According to medieval Christian belief, God would reveal individuals' innocence by miraculously saving them from harm. This may seem, well, stupid. But similar to King Solomon's baby-dicing idea, lurking below was a good deal of wisdom.

The specter of the ordeal sorts Frithogar by his guilt or innocence. Leveraging his belief in iudicium Dei incentivizes him to choose one way if he hasn't stolen from the farmer and another way if he has, revealing his criminal status through how he chooses. This is similar to the way that King Solomon leveraged the specter of cutting the baby in half to incentivize the disputing women to reveal their true maternal status.

Of course, ordeals work only if they exonerate those who undergo them. But as you already heard, that's exactly what they did in most cases.

Rigging the System

Short of genuine iudicia Dei, how can boiling water be made innocuous to human flesh? By iudicia cleri. Because of the way ordeals sorted the accused, the clerics who administered them went in knowing that willing probands were innocent. They could therefore fix the tests to find the "correct" result.

Let's say Frithogar is innocent and thus chooses to undergo the ordeal. The cleric can lower the water's temperature so it doesn't burn him. Frithogar plunges his arm into the cauldron expecting to be unharmed, and his expectation is fulfilled—not by God but by an informed priest.

To rig ordeals, priests required latitude. And plenty was given to them by ordeal instructions, prescribed by liturgical ordines (directions for religious services) and royal dooms (the laws of the land). Consider the instructions for conducting the hot iron ordeal from 10th century England:

"We enjoin in the name of God and by the command of the archbishop and of all our bishops that no one enter the church after the fire has been brought in with which the ordeal is to be heated except the priest and him who is to undergo judgment.…Then let an equal number from both sides enter and stand on either side of the judgment place along the church.…And no one shall mend the fire any longer than the beginning of the hallowing, but let the iron lie on the coals until the last collect…and then let the hand with which he is about to carry the iron be sprinkled, and so let him go" to the ordeal.

Several features of these instructions seem fishy. First, only the priest and proband are initially allowed in the church. This gives the priest an opportunity to manipulate the ordeal fire, and hence the temperature of the iron. The doom indicates that before the proband begins the ordeal, "two men from each side go in and certify that [the iron] is as hot as we have directed it to be." But the priest's isolation until this point allows him to defraud the certifiers—for example, by providing them with a different iron for inspection than he provides the proband.

Second, the instructions forbid mending the fire after the communion consecration. The iron has to remain on dying coals until the priest makes his final prayer. This seems strange too—unless, of course, the goal is to give clerics a chance to let the ordeal iron cool before the proband handles it. If the priest fails to cool the fire or switch the iron, he can do just that by drawing out the final prayer.

Third, the ordeal instructions require observers to align along the church's walls for the ordeal's duration. In a reasonable-sized church, this puts them a considerable distance from the ordeal "stage," facilitating priestly chicanery.

Finally, the instructions direct the priest to sprinkle the proband's hand with holy water immediately before he carries the iron. It's easy to imagine how "sprinkling" could become dousing under a manipulative priest's control. The water helps offset any injurious heat remaining on the iron that fire fixing or iron tampering doesn't address.

Ordeal formulas also granted clerics discretion in deciding ordeal outcomes. They directed that the proband's "hand be sealed up, and on the third day" for the priest to examine "whether it is clean or foul within the wrapper." But they were silent about what it meant for a hand to be "clean or foul." That depended on the priest's judgment. A severely burned arm that when unwrapped looked like Freddy Krueger's face would certainly qualify as "foul" to any disinterested onlooker. But for the many degrees of foulness short of this state, the priest had leeway to declare the proband's innocence.

Cold water ordeal instructions gave priests opportunity for manipulation, too. While priests couldn't manipulate the density of water (well, not easily, anyway), they could control outcomes through other avenues, such as their authority to grade pass or fail.

A Carolingian capitulary describing cold water ordeals required a knot to be made in the rope attached to the proband at a prescribed length from his body, defining the depth to which he had to sink to prove his innocence. It also required the proband to be lowered gently into the water to prevent splashing. Still, scope for priestly discretion remained. Whether a proband had indeed sunk to the "depth of innocence" could be ambiguous. And cold water ordeal formulas didn't specify how long he had to spend at that depth to prove himself.

A priest could improve the chance that his proband would sink by directing him to exhale before entering the water. In fact, he could do better: Order the proband to fast for several days in holy preparation for the trial—a sort of medieval Gas-X, which made him more likely to sink.

Now, a corrupt cleric could abuse his powers of ordeal administration to sell a judicial verdict. But there was a check on priestly corruption. Priests worked for bishoprics whose revenues depended on judicial honesty.

Bishopric owners exercised the rights of local governments, including collecting taxes connected directly to local productivity. If crime was higher, resident productivity would be lower and bishopric revenues would suffer. Bishopric owners therefore had an incentive to limit activities that undermined productivity, such as priestly corruption. Their ability to do so was imperfect. Still, by controlling the selection of clerical administrators in their territories and these individuals' finances, bishopric owners could exercise at least some oversight.

What About Skeptics?

If defendants aren't completely sure that ordeals are genuine judgments of God, things get a bit more complicated. A 100 percent acquittal rate might seem suspicious to some. In fact, people may have been skeptical about ordeals for other reasons as well. The presence of observers, for instance, suggests that some medieval citizens at least entertained the idea that ordeal outcomes could reflect worldly influences in addition to otherworldly ones.

This poses a potential problem. Innocent skeptics may decide they don't want to hazard ordeals because they fear the possibility that boiling water will boil them or burning iron will burn them. If everyone passes, this fear disappears. But then guilty skeptics may decide they want to hazard ordeals instead. In both cases, the sorting breaks down, destroying the ability of ordeals to distinguish the guilty from the innocent.

But surely people clever enough to come up with the idea of using ordeals to sort criminal defendants in the first place wouldn't let this get in the way of their ability to do so. Ordeal-administering priests had a simple solution to the problem of skeptics: Condemn some probands.

It turns out that as long as defendants possessed even the faintest faith in the possibility that ordeals were genuine judgments of God, there existed some proportion of probands whom priests could condemn that would accomplish this goal. The more skeptical people were that ordeals were iudicia Dei, the more probands priests had to condemn to save the sorting feature of ordeals. The less skeptical people were, the fewer they could get away with condemning.

The probands whom priests had to condemn in this case were, of course, innocent ones—since innocents are the only people willing to undergo ordeals when they're sorting properly. This too poses a problem.

When priests don't have to condemn any innocent people, ordeals reinforce people's belief that they're legit. The guilty always decline ordeals, so their belief in iudicium Dei is never challenged; the innocent always undergo ordeals and are exonerated, so their belief is always fulfilled. But when priests have to condemn some innocent people, this is no longer true. Some probands now have experiences that contradict their belief that ordeals are iudicia Dei—they know they're innocent, but the ordeals they undergo say otherwise.

This problem, however, was minor. After all, what could an innocent person condemned by an ordeal do? Proclaim his innocence and tell everyone that ordeals are a sham? Maybe. But this is the same thing a truly guilty person would do, so no one's belief is affected. Exploit his knowledge that ordeals are a sham by committing crimes and hoping to be sent to them? I doubt it. But suppose he did: Now he repeatedly confronts the priest, who becomes suspicious and condemns him, foiling his plan.

The real potential danger wasn't that innocent people would tattle or become career criminals. It was that events would contradict ordeal results. One medieval defendant who was accused of murder, for instance, underwent an ordeal, failed, and was hanged. A few weeks later the man he murdered came home.

Such incidents threatened to initiate a process that could destroy the operation of ordeals. An occasional contradictory incident could be explained away, but belief that ordeals were iudicia Dei would weaken considerably if failures were frequent.

But they weren't, for two reasons. First, the cases in which judges used ordeals militated against such situations. Those cases, recall, were when ordinary evidence was lacking. The prospect that evidence would come back later to contradict ordeal results was therefore slim.

Second, medieval citizens' belief that ordeals were iudicia Dei was strong, so priests didn't have to condemn many probands to ensure that ordeals sorted properly.

Why were the folks of the day believers? Well, citizens of that time tended to be the religious kind. Ordeal ceremonies capitalized on this and were arranged to access and remind probands of their religious beliefs.

One way they did so was by rendering ordeals explicitly religious—nearly sacramental, in fact—rituals. "The Church," historian Henry Lea points out, "followed the policy of surrounding [ordeals] with all the solemnity which her most venerated rites could impart." Priests administered ordeals in churches as part of ordeal Masses. "After the celebration," one set of instructions read, "let the priest go with the people to the place of the ordeal, the Gospel in his left hand, the cross, censer and relics of the saints being carried ahead, and let him chant seven penitential psalms with a litany."

Even the mechanics of iudicia Dei in ordeals were grounded in citizens' religious beliefs. In the hot water ordeal, Hincmar informs us, "The guilty are scalded and the innocent are unhurt, because Lot escaped unharmed from the fire of Sodom." In the cold water ordeal, the guilty float because anyone who "seeks to hide the truth by a lie, cannot be submerged in the waters above which the voice of the Lord God has thundered."

As Lea put it, "In those ages of faith, the professing Christian, conscious of guilt, must indeed have been hardened who could undergo the most awful rites of his religion, pledging his salvation on his innocence, and knowing under such circumstances that the direct intervention of Heaven could alone save him from having his hand boiled to rags, after which he was to meet the full punishment of his crime, and perhaps in addition lose a member for the perjury committed."

Given the importance of religious belief to the operation of ordeals, it should come as no surprise that when the Church's support for them ended, ordeals did too. That didn't happen until the 1200s, but the road to the demise of ordeals was already being paved a century earlier.

Lie-detector tests are bullshit. The scientific community overwhelmingly rejects their validity. But if people believe polygraphs can discover whether someone is lying or telling the truth, they facilitate sorting in the same way as ordeals.

High-ranking ecclesiastics began to seriously question the relationship of ordeals to their religion in the 12th century. Critics of ordeals argued that they lacked scriptural support. The Bible contains but one instance of what might be construed as an actual judicial ordeal: In the Book of Numbers, an accused adulterer undergoes an ordeal of bitter waters—poison ingestion—to prove her fidelity. And medieval ordeals didn't use bitter waters.

A still bigger problem, the critics charged, was that ordeals violated an important Christian proscription with plenty of scriptural support: "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." Yet trials of fire and water required priests to command the Almighty to perform miracles at their whim.

These factors led the Fourth Lateran Council to reject ordeals' legitimacy in 1215 and ban priests from participating in them. No longer sanctioned by religion, trials by fire and water became useless for sorting criminal defendants, and judicial systems abandoned them.

A Modern Incarnation

It wouldn't make sense for America to use medieval-style ordeals because (1) technological advances have made fact finding infinitely cheaper than it once was, and (2) most of us don't believe that trials of fire and water are iudicia Dei. But under less technologically advanced conditions, for people who did have such belief, ordeals could be a sensible option even today. In fact, where these conditions prevail, people continue to rely on them—in Liberia, for example.

Liberia, if you're not familiar, is a political-economic basket case. Its government is corrupt, its public judicial institutions are dysfunctional, its people are impoverished, and a large portion of them have strong superstitions supporting the effective use of judicial ordeals. Enter sassywood.

In fact, sassywood is a catchall term for a variety of medieval-style ordeals currently in use there, including hot water and hot iron ordeals. The sassywood ordeal, however, is trial by poison ingestion. It takes its name from the concoction that criminal defendants in Liberia are asked to drink, made from the toxic bark of the Erythrophleum suaveolens tree.

Like medieval ordeals, sassywood is reserved for important crimes in difficult cases, where ordinary evidence is lacking. Accused criminals can respond to the charges against them by confessing their guilt or proclaiming their innocence. In the latter case, they're invited to undergo sassywood.

A spiritual leader mixes the brew, administers it, and acts as the trial's judge. The defendant's physiological reaction to imbibing the potion decides his guilt or innocence: "If the drinker by vomiting throws up all the [poison] before the sunrise the following morning or much more if he does it during the very trial then he is innocent and publicly declared not guilty of the crime for which he was accused. But if he should die on the spot," or display signs of intoxication, "then he is believed and proclaimed Guilty."

According to a widely held Liberian superstition, sassywood's power to correctly identify the drinker's criminal status resides in a spirit that "accompanies the draught, and searches the heart of the suspected individual for his guilt. If he be innocent, the spirit returns with the fluid in the act of ejection, but if guilty, it remains to do more surely the work of destruction."

Given the paucity of conventional evidence-gathering technologies, such as reliable police and government courts, there's little for residents to go on when criminal accusations are made. But given their superstitions, these communities can tap into defendants' private information about their guilt or innocence through ordeals. So that's exactly what they do.

Such practices aren't limited to Africa. America's legal system leverages superstition to improve its judicial outcomes, too. Our "ordeals" just have a fancier name: polygraph tests.

Better known as lie-detector tests, more than a dozen states permit polygraph results under certain circumstances as evidence in judicial proceedings. Police departments use lie-detector tests, the FBI uses them, even the CIA.

Lie-detector tests are bullshit. Like astrology, they have their supporters, but the scientific community overwhelmingly rejects their validity. There's about as much science supporting the idea that you can physiologically measure whether someone is lying or telling the truth by strapping them to one of those funny-looking machines as there is supporting the idea that God intervenes in trials of fire and water to reveal defendants' guilt or innocence.

Although lie-detector tests don't really discover whether people are lying or telling the truth, if people believe they do, they can facilitate sorting in the same way as ordeals.

The innocent believer has nothing to fear by taking a polygraph. He expects it to exonerate him, and therefore has an incentive to take the exam. The guilty believer fears being outed by the results. He expects to be condemned, giving him an incentive to refuse.

Polygraph administrators probably realize this, and they interpret the sophisticated-looking squiggly lines on the polygraph paper accordingly.

This works only if people hold the appropriate belief—that lie detectors are really capable of discovering whether they're lying or telling the truth. But lots of modern Americans who pride themselves on their scientific approach to life nevertheless heed this superstition. So law enforcement officials keep on truckin'.

Superstitious elements in modern America's legal system don't stop at the polygraph test. You can also find them in at least one other notable place: the courtroom.

Ever notice that movies depict people swearing an oath to tell the truth in God's name, even on the Bible, before testifying in court? That's not movie magic: Until relatively recently, God swearing was, and in some cases still is, customary in the United States. The country's religious history may be part of the reason for this. But a more important part may be the very same logic discussed above.

When testifying is voluntary, and testifiers have to swear before God to speak the truth, who do you think is more likely to provide testimony: truth tellers or bullshit artists? If people believe that swearing before God has real meaning—that God might punish them if they lie—the answer will be the former.

In fact, God swearing may produce more reliable testimony even when testifying is mandatory. If you have to swear to tell the truth in God's name before you testify, and you believe that God dislikes lying, you're going to think twice before committing perjury. God swearing helps the legal system weed out horse hockey.

This isn't to say most Americans think God will smite them if they lie after swearing to tell the truth in His name. But a few probably do. Given that the practice costs next to nothing to use, it's not hard to see why it would have some role in the courtroom.

Superstition, it turns out, can provide a useful foundation for securing criminal justice. And even clever people, it turns out, can believe in superstition.

Societies of superstitious but nevertheless clever people, past and present, have developed institutions that leverage their beliefs to incentivize fact finding. Beneath the strikingly senseless surface of medieval judicial ordeals, Liberian sassywood trials, and even American polygraph tests and courtroom God swearing, there's actually a lot of sense.

This article was adapted from WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird by permission from Stanford University Press. © 2017

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1 day ago
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Practically-A-Book Review: Luna Whitepaper


They say money can’t buy love. But that was the bad old days of fiat money. Now there are dozens of love-based cryptocurrencies – LoveCoin, CupidCoin, Erosium, Nubilo – with market caps in the mid nine-figures. The 17-year-old genius behind CupidCoin just bought the state of Tennessee. You think I’m joking, but can you be sure? How weird is “too weird to be true” these days, and how confident are you in your answer?

Case in point: Luna, which bills itself as blockchain-optimized dating. They caught my attention by hiring Aella, previously featured on this blog for her adventures taking LSD megadoses weekly for a year. They kept it with their cutesy story about how the name “Luna” comes from founder Andre Ornish’s first word – adorable, until you consider that any baby whose first word is in Latin is definitely possessed. And they maintained it because – well, goodness knows we need new dating sites now that OKCupid has devolved into an off-brand Tinder clone. So let’s look through the white paper and see what they’ve got.

Most dating sites suffer from attention imbalance: men scrounge around for anyone willing to acknowledge their existence; women get inundated with countless desperate messages they don’t want. Luna solves this by making attention a commodity tradeable on the free market. Users who want to catch someone else’s attention can bid the local cryptocurrency, Stars, to get their message to the top of another user’s queue; all Stars spent in this way go to the user receiving the message. Stars can be bought with dollars and vice versa, so popular users can actually earn money reading all the messages sent to them.

This system has some pretty powerful advantages. Market forces are the known solution to the problem of connecting resources to their highest-value use. So if you treat user attention as a resource you can trust the market to allocate it optimally – in this case, to the guy who’s just realized he’s your soulmate, rather than the guy who’s spamming everyone with five dick pics.

But everywhere this solution is tried, it runs up against its one great weakness – rich people with mild preferences can outbid poor people with strong ones. I can’t predict how this particular market will clear, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a big problem here. If the market rate for a certain user’s messages were $1, then even the poorest person could afford to send a message to a potential soulmate. And even a well-off person might hesitate to send out a hundred messages a day, every day. And if he didn’t? Well, getting paid $100/day to read messages on a dating site doesn’t sound like the worst outcome. Also, really good information about preferences in exchange for a biased system that favors the wealthy has been the deal Capitalism has been offering since Adam Smith first put quill to paper; it seems kind of weird to back out now.

A more practical issue: how long before someone finds a photo of a supermodel, limits their profile to “I AM A NYMPHOMANIAC”, and watches everyone trip over themselves to send paid messages? Luna alludes to vague plans to “verify” profiles, which could mean anything from “you have to Photoshop a picture halfway convincingly” to “you have to get an actual pretty girl to help with your scam”. Neither of these seem like too high a bar. Better is their offer to provide data, including how often users respond to messages and how often users meet with other users:

When choosing to attach Stars to his message, Bob should receive information such as the number of unread messages in Alice’s queue, an internally calculated reply quality indicator, and confirmation on whether Alice’s account is verified.

I’m still skeptical. I have bots pretending to be pretty women try to friend me on Facebook something like once a week, even though I have no idea what their endgame is or how this results in them making money. If Luna gives a real incentive for the scam, they’re going to have to beat Facebook pretty handily if they want to succeed here.

More promising than any individual claim they make about how they’re going to fix things, is their claim that they’re incentivized to fix them. OKCupid famously wrote about Why You Should Never Pay For Online Dating, the answer being that it incentivizes dating sites to keep you single – after all, the longer you’re single, the longer you’ll keeping spending money on dating sites. Even if that sounds a little cartoon-villainish, at the very least it doesn’t incentivize sites to do a good job matching you up. Luna claims that their model gives them a profit only when it succeeds:

At Luna, we intend to structure the token economy in such a way that our system is rewarded when users achieve their goals, thus aligning our own incentives with those of our users and ensuring that all data, AI, and machine learning technology will be used to actually connect people…the approach consists of two parts:

1. Fees which comprise Luna’s revenue only occur in the case of successful communication. As described in Ÿ 3.1, when a user receives and reads a message boosted with Stars, they also receive the Stars used to boost that message. Luna intends to take a small fee for this transaction, but only if the recipient responds to the message within a window of a number of days yet to be determined. If the recipient does not respond, or only responds after more than this number of days, this fee will be re-paid to the sender. The number of Stars transferred to the recipient, however, will remain the same, whether they respond to the message or not. In this way Luna’s nancial incentives will be aligned with users’ goals at Stage IV in the exchanging of messages.

2. Possibility of tipping in case of successful offline dates. Another way to provide incentive for Luna to help achieve its users’ goals is to allow users to tip the platform after the achievement of Stage V in the completion of a successful date. As described in 3.2.4, we intend to make feedback polls available after dates. Once users have rated their experience, Luna will then allow them to choose whether to leave a tip of their choice in the form of Stars. As this is a voluntary option, it should have no effect on user feedback. Tipping a platform is an infeasible idea in the context of currently existing dating apps; however, the free and direct-to-user benefits of Luna may register to users as something more resembling the mechanisms of Wikipedia: a free, friendly, and user-contributed service, rather than a platform like Match.com, which can feel exploitative. A tipping option may thus encourage a feeling of alliance with Luna in the user.

In this way, rather than recreating disparities which exist between the goals of current dating platforms and their users, Luna’s financial incentives and user goals will coincide.

I can imagine all sorts of horrible misalignments between maximizing-number-of-responded-to-messages and maximizing user satisfaction, but for now I’ll just admit this seems nice and I appreciate the effort.

Luna’s last major promise is to use cutting-edge machine-learning techniques to come up with a good match algorithm:

Despite significant technological advances in information processing, storage, and retrieval, online dating has yet to optimally integrate machine learning for the user’s benefit. A typical ML task for online dating might be to predict the level of compatibility between two users from a given set of input data, thus predicting for example whether one user is likely to respond to another user’s message […]

Luna may adopt a collaborative filtering algorithm developed by Dr. Kang Zhao. In addition, Luna may use advanced NLP techniques in conjunction with IBM Watson to integrate additional information from the contents of messages sent in-app, as well as from social media sources such as Twitter, if users choose to provide that information.

They’re right that this seems like a perfect use case for machine learning techniques, and that this possibility has been woefully underexplored. With all due respect to OKCupid’s excellent match algorithm (my girlfriend played with it one day and found that her two highest matches in the entire world were me and her ex), there’s a lot of room for improvement here. I find the idea of letting users link their social media accounts to provide more data really fascinating, and this reassures me that the attempts at incentive-alignment above really do have them thinking about how they can do better.

One part of the white paper I still don’t understand: why is it on a blockchain? They write:

For us to ever find out [how to design a match algorithm that really increases human happiness], we are going to require an open data ecosystem around computer dating. Blockchain is an integral part of that – it’s what pays the bills to do the science and, in the case of Luna, it nicely and accurately solves one of the key problems in the computer dating arena: cut-and-paste messages spammed over huge numbers of people, resulting in an ever-lower number of good quality genuinely interested messages, hidden in an ever larger sea of dating spam. Just getting rid of that dynamic once and for all would be a great result, but I think that Luna offers far, far more.

By establishing the decentralized paradigm in dating, Luna helps to remake dating culture. Luna is not a service or a place, like Tinder or a bar. Luna is a method, and a method which can be continually improved using techniques like A/B testing, until it is genuinely producing better lives for people. Because blockchain techniques allow for sophisticated tools to be developed to align economic interests between (say) search algorithm designers and individual users, or between users and other users who don’t like spam (i.e. everybody), the possibility exists to not only solve the questionable agency of the current generation of dating app providers, but to create positive agency to do something really, really new. We could pay the best people in the world to design algorithms to match other people, and make them happy.

I don’t know what they mean by “open data ecosystem”. I assume they’re not going to let everybody see all the data – I don’t necessarily want my parents to be able to know who I just sent a message to. But if not, how does “open data” help other people design match engines? Why is their crypto token more efficient than paying for Second Life in Linden Dollars, or any of the other silly token currencies that have existed forever on the Internet?

So what is blockchain doing for them? The null hypothesis might be: the same thing it does for Long Island Blockchain Tea and half a million other scams. I have hopes that Luna isn’t a scam. It employs some people I know and trust. The incentives and economics of their product seem very well-thought-through – so much so that if it’s a scam somebody else ought to be doing the same thing for real. And they’re partnered with GiveWell and other effective charities in a way that suggests they want a lot of the money to go to altruism anyway. These are…signs. But I’ve been told you can’t be too paranoid in this area these days.

But I really do hope Luna isn’t a scam. Because if it’s real, it represents everything good about Silicon Valley. Some people use Intellect to wrest a secret from Nature: an elegant reduction of the chaos of human interaction into comprehensible and exploitable principles. To test their prize they build a Sampo, a machine churning out a hundred varieties of human happiness – from loving marriages to ecstatic sex to just sitting on the couch cuddling on rainy days. They give it to the public gratis. In the process they all get super rich and donate the money to curing malaria, good compounding upon good. Also, the whole thing is done in a weird and pointlessly-complicated format that adds nothing except a giant middle finger aimed at government regulators. What could be more beautiful than this?

One last thought on the blockchain issue: whenever I study intentional communities, I’m struck by how little the community’s principles matter, compared to the brute fact of it being an intentional community. An anarchist commune may have some spectacularly brilliant collaborative dispute-solving mechanism, but none of that matters, because the people involved will be the sorts of people who would join an anarchist commune, ie ridiculous and completely ungovernable.

So the most interesting and distinguishing feature of Luna, at least to start with, might not be the tokens, or the incentives, or the machine learning. It might be that it’s a place you can go to meet the sort of people who want to date on the blockchain. I could make a lot of cheap jokes here, but whatever weird hyperplanes through categoryspace further the difficult and desperate project of human-seeking-human are good and worthwhile in my book. I hope that lots of libertarian women find lots of security-conscious men and make lots of beautiful, high-price-volatility babies.

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3 days ago
"Whenever I study intentional communities, I’m struck by how little the community’s principles matter, compared to the brute fact of it being an intentional community." Works for marriage too.
Lafayette, LA, USA
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3 days ago
Love the final paragraph.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Infrugality

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Before we had kids, people told me I'd stop enjoying jokes about torturing children. WELL LOOK AT ME NOW, BABY.

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Londonoids! Submit your proposal to be part of BAHFest!

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Lafayette, LA, USA
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It's been 10F outside for days and the water bottles in my attic didn't freeze. I wasn't concerned; clearly my dad didn't raise me right.

Mental Illness in the Web Industry

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The picture of the tortured artist has endured for centuries: creative geniuses who struggle with their metaphorical demons and don’t relate to life the same way as most people. Today, we know some of this can be attributed to mental illness: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and many others. We have modern stories about this and plenty of anecdotal information that fuels the popular belief in a link between creativity and mental illness.

But science has also started asking questions about the link between mental illness and creativity. A recent study has suggested that creative professionals may be more genetically predisposed to mental illness. In the web industry, whether designer, dev, copywriter, or anything else, we’re often creative professionals. The numbers suggest that mental illness hits the web industry especially hard.

Our industry has made great strides in compassionate discussion of disability, with a focus on accessibility and events like Blue Beanie Day. But even though we’re having meaningful conversations and we’re seeing progress, issues related to diversity, inclusion, and sexual harassment are still a major problem for our industry. Understanding and acceptance of mental health issues is an area that needs growth and attention just like many others.

When it comes to mental health, we aren’t quite as understanding as we think we are. According to a study published by the Center of Disease Control, 57% of the general population believes that society at large is caring and sympathetic toward people with mental illness; but only 25% of people with mental health symptoms believed the same thing. Society is less understanding and sympathetic regarding mental illness than it thinks it is.

Where’s the disconnect?  What does it look like in our industry? It’s usually not negligence or ill will on anybody’s part. It has a lot more to do with people just not understanding the prevalence and reality of mental illness in the workplace. We need to begin discussing mental illness as we do any other personal challenge that people face.

This article is no substitute for a well-designed scientific study or a doctor’s advice, and it’s not trying to declare truths about mental illness in the industry. And it certainly does not intend to lump together or equalize any and all mental health issues, illnesses, or conditions. But it does suspect that plenty of people in the industry struggle with their mental health at some point or another, and we just don’t seem to talk about it. This doesn’t seem to make sense in light of the sense of community that web professionals have been proud of for decades.

We reached out to a few people in our industry who were willing to share their unique stories to bring light to what mental health looks like for them in the workplace. Whether you have your own struggles with mental health issues or just want to understand those who do, these stories are a great place to start the conversation.

Meet the contributors

Gerry: I’ve been designing websites since the late ‘90s, starting out in UI design, evolving into an IA, and now in a UX leadership role. Over my career, I’ve contributed to many high-profile projects, organized local UX events, and done so in spite of my personal roadblocks.

Brandon Gregory: I’ve been working in the web industry since 2006, first as a designer, then as a developer, then as a manager/technical leader. I’m also a staff member and regular contributor at A List Apart. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002 and almost failed out of college because of it, although I now live a mostly normal life with a solid career and great family. I’ve been very open about my condition and have done some writing on it on Medium to help spread awareness and destigmatize mental illnesses.

Stephen Keable: I’ve been building and running websites since 1999, both professionally and for fun. Worked for newspapers, software companies, and design agencies, in both permanent and freelance roles, almost always creating front-end solutions, concentrating on a user-centered approach.

Bri Piccari: I’ve been messing around with the web since MySpace was a thing, figuring out how to customize themes and make random animations fall down from the top of my profile. Professionally, I’ve been in the field since 2010, freelancing while in college before transitioning to work at small agencies and in-house for a spell after graduation. I focus on creating solid digital experiences, employing my love for design with [a] knack for front-end development. Most recently, I started a small design studio, but decided to jump back into more steady contract and full-time work, after the stress of owning a small business took a toll on my mental health. It was a tough decision, but I had to do what was best for me. I also lead my local AIGA chapter and recently got my 200-hour-yoga-teacher certification.

X: I also started tinkering with the web on Myspace, and started working on websites to help pay my way through college. I just always assumed I would do something else to make a living. Then, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My [original non-web] field was not a welcoming and supportive place for that, so I had to start over, in more ways than one. The web industry hadn’t gone anywhere, and it’s always been welcoming to people with random educational histories, so I felt good about being able to make a living and staying healthy here. But because of my experience when I first tried to be open about my illness, I now keep it a secret. I’m not ashamed of it; in fact, it’s made me live life more authentically. For example, in my heart, I knew I wanted to work on the web the entire time.

The struggle is real

Mental health issues are as numerous and unique as the people who struggle with them. We asked the contributors what their struggles look like, particularly at work in the web industry.

G: I have an interesting mix of ADD, dyslexia, and complex PTSD. As a result, I’m an incomplete person, in a perpetual state of self-doubt, toxic shame, and paralyzing anxiety. I’ve had a few episodes in my past where a requirement didn’t register or a criticism was taken the wrong way and I’ve acted less than appropriately (either through panic, avoidance, or anger). When things go wrong, I deal with emotional flashbacks for weeks.

Presenting or reading before an audience is a surreal experience as well. I go into a zone where I’m never sure if I’m speaking coherently or making any sense at all until I’ve spoken with friends in the audience afterward. This has had a negative effect on my career, making even the most simple tasks anxiety-driven.

BG: I actually manage to at least look like I have everything together, so most people don’t know I have bipolar until I tell them. On the inside, I struggle—a lot. There are bouts of depression where I’m exhausted all day and deal with physical pain, and bursts of mania where I take unnecessary risks and make inappropriate outbursts, and I can switch between these states with little or no notice. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and I work very hard to keep it together for the people in my life.

SK: After the sudden death of my mother, I started suffering from panic attacks. One of which came on about 30 mins after getting to work, I couldn’t deal with the attack at work, so suddenly went home without telling anyone. Only phoning my boss from a lay-by after I’d been in tears at the side of the road for a while. The attacks also triggered depression, which has made motivation when I’m working from home so hard that I actually want to spend more time at the office. Luckily my employer is very understanding and has been really flexible.

BP: Depending upon the time of year, I struggle greatly, with the worst making it nearly impossible to leave my apartment. As most folks often say, I’ve gotten rather good at appearing as though I’ve got my shit together—typically, most people I interact with have no idea what I’m going through unless I let them in. It wasn’t until recently that my mental health began to make a public appearance, as the stress of starting my own business and attempting to “have it all” made it tough to continue hiding it. There are definitely spans of time where depression severely affects my ability to create and interface with others, and “fake it till ya make it” doesn’t even cut it. I’m currently struggling with severe anxiety brought on by stress. Learning to manage that has been a process.

X: I have been fortunate to be a high-functioning bipolar person for about 5 years now, so there really isn’t a struggle you can really see. The struggle is the stress and anxiety of losing that stability, and especially of people finding out. I take medication, have a routine, a support system, and a self-care regimen that is the reason why I am stable, but if work starts [to] erode my work-life balance, I can’t protect that time and energy anymore. In the past, this has started to happen when I’ve been asked to routinely pull all-nighters, work over the weekend, travel often, or be surrounded by a partying and drinking culture at work. Many people burn out under those conditions, but for me, it could be dangerous and send me into a manic episode, or even [make me] feel suicidal. I struggle with not knowing how far I can grow in my career, because a lot of the things you do to prove yourself and to demonstrate that you’re ready for more responsibility involves putting more on your plate. What’s the point of going after a big role if it’ll mean that I won’t be able to take care of myself? The FOMO [(fear of missing out)] gets bad.

Making it work

There are different ways that people can choose to—or choose not to—address the mental problems they struggle with. We’re ultimately responsible for making our own mental health decisions, and they are different for everyone. In the meantime, the rent has to get paid. Here’s how our contributors cope with their situations at work to make it happen.

G: I started seeing a therapist, which has been an amazing help. I’ve also worked to change my attitude about criticism—I ask more clarifying questions, looking to define the problem, rather than get mad, defensive, or sarcastic. I’ve learned to be more honest with my very close coworkers, making them aware of my irrational shortcomings and asking for help. Also, because I’ve experienced trauma in personal and professional life, I’m hypersensitive to the emotions of others. Just being around a heated argument or otherwise heightened situation could put my body into a panic. I have to take extra special care in managing personalities, making sure everyone in a particular situation feels confident that they’re set up for success.

BG: Medicine has worked very well for me, and I’m very lucky in that regard. That keeps most of my symptoms at a manageable level. Keeping my regular schedule and maintaining some degree of normalcy is a huge factor in remaining stable. Going to work, sleeping when I should, and keeping some social appointments, while not always easy, keep me from slipping too far in either direction. Also, writing has been a huge outlet for me and has helped others to better understand my condition as well. Finding some way to express what you’re going through is huge.

SK: I had several sessions of bereavement counseling to help with the grief. I also made efforts to try and be more physically active each day, even if just going for a short walk on my lunch break. Working had become a way of escaping everything else that was going on at the time. Before the depression I used to work from home two days a week, however found these days very hard being on my own. So I started working from the office every weekday. Thankfully, through all of this, my employer was incredibly supportive and simply told me to do what I need to do. And it’s made me want to stay where I work more than before, as I realize how lucky I am to have their support.

BP: Last winter I enrolled in a leadership/yoga teacher training [program] with a goal of cultivating a personal practice to better manage my depression and anxiety. Making the jump to be in an uncomfortable situation and learn the value of mindfulness has made a huge difference in my ability to cope with stress. Self-care is really big for me, and being aware of when I need to take a break. I’ve heard it called high-functioning depression and anxiety. I often take on too much and learning to say no has been huge. Therapy and a daily routine have been incredibly beneficial as well.

X: The biggest one is medicine, it’s something I will take for the rest of my life and it’s worth it to me. I did a form of therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for a couple of years. The rest is a consistent regimen of self-care, but there are a couple of things that are big for work. Not working nights or weekends, keeping it pretty 9–5. Walking to and from the office or riding my bike. I started a yoga practice immediately after getting diagnosed, and the mental discipline it’s given me dampens the intensity of how I react to stressful situations at work. This isn’t to say that I will refuse to work unless it’s easy. Essentially, if something catches on fire, these coping strategies help me keep my shit together for long enough to get out.

Spreading awareness

There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness, in the web industry as much as anywhere else. Some are benign but annoying; others are pretty harmful. Here are some of the things we wish others knew about us and our struggles.

G: Nothing about my struggle is rational. It seems as if my body is wired to screw everything up and wallow in the shame of it. I have to keep moving, working against myself to get projects as close to perfect as possible. However, I am wired to really care about people, and that is probably why I’ve been successful in UX.

BG: Just because I look strong doesn’t mean I don’t need support. Just because I have problems doesn’t mean I need you to solve them. Sometimes, just checking in or being there is the best thing for me. I don’t want to be thought of as broken or fragile (although I admit, sometimes I am). I am more than my disorder, but I can’t completely ignore it either.

Also, there are still a lot of stigmas surrounding mental illness, to the point that I didn’t feel safe admitting to my disorder to a boss at a previous job. Mental illnesses are medical conditions that are often classified as legitimate disabilities, but employees may not be safe admitting that they have one—that’s the reality we live with.

SK: For others who are going through grief-related depression, I would say that talking about it with friends, family, and even strangers helps you process it a lot. And the old cliché that time is a healer really is true. Also, for any employers, be supportive [of those] with mental health conditions—as supportive as you would [be of those] with physical health situations. They will pay you back.

BP: I am a chronically ambitious human. Oftentimes, this comes from a place of working and doing versus dealing with what is bothering or plaguing me at the time. Much of my community involvement came from a place of needing a productive outlet. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have accomplished a lot through that—however, there are times where I simply need a break. I’m learning to absorb and understand that, as well as become OK with it.

X: I wish people knew how much it bothers me to hear the word bipolar being used as an adjective to casually describe things and people. It’s not given as a compliment, and it makes it less likely that I will ever disclose my illness publicly. I also wish people knew how many times I’ve come close to just being open about it, but held back because of the other major diversity and inclusion issues in the tech industry. Women have to deal with being called moody and erratic. People stereotype the ethnic group I belong to as being fiery and ill-tempered. Why would I give people another way to discriminate against me?

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Lafayette, LA, USA
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