5 Intriguing Things: Monday, 2/18

Attention deficits, for the love of tunnels, the last beret maker in France, the oppression of the ugly, and fallout.

1. A reason to be bearish about the future of face computers.

"I would not use Glass while driving, but I did use the turn-by-turn directions app while my wife drove us to a party. I’m glad I was in the passenger seat. I spent so much time fiddling with Glass that I would almost certainly have veered off the road, driven through a stop sign, or worse. The issue isn’t taking my eyes off the road—it’s that Glass steals away my attention. AAA’s Martin backs me up, pointing to a growing body of research showing that 'hands-free cell-phone use offers no safety benefits over handheld cell-phone use' and that 'voice-activated texting or e-mailing is one of the most mentally distracting activities a driver can engage in.'"


2. One man's love affair with a piece of infrastructure

"He’d lug three plastic orange barricades out to the middle of Atlantic Avenue, pry off the manhole cover with a crowbar, and steady a thin ladder into the narrow shaft, the only entrance to the tunnel. Tourists would line up in the middle of the busy road, descending one by one into a tight passageway. It led to an Alice in Wonderland-sized doorway that opened up on a large staircase, built by Diamond and his colleagues in the ‘80s. The stairs lead down into a massive, spooky hall that is 2,570 feet long, 21 feet wide, and 17 feet tall."


3. On the last beret maker in France.

"The company plans to produce 200,000 hats this year, up from 160,000 in 2013. Half of its beret production goes to armies around the world. The rest goes to the fashion industry and to traditional wearers of the headgear...

The traditional French beret is made with half-a-mile (800 meters) of merino wool and has a ring of leather inside to help it fit snuggly on the head, Saunders said. It’s waterproof and resistant to ultraviolet light. It keeps its shape even after it’s been rolled.

While factories started making them industrially in the early 19th century, the 'beret Basque' was at first a cottage industry, with the headwear made in the homes of shepherds.

It became fashionable for women in the 1930s and turned into a symbol of the French resistance during the German occupation in World War II. It also started being used by armies in France and the rest of the world in the 20th century.

'Cote d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries used to have Chinese, Pakistani or Indian berets, but they switched,' Saunders said. 'They became aware that it’s a technical product and it’s useless to get a cheap version.'"


4. A philosopher confronts the oppression of the ugly.  

"The faces and forms of oppression are many, but nearly all of them flow from injustice, the treatment of people otherwise than they deserve. It’s hard to say what exactly any one person deserves, of course, but in the modern world we tend to think that desert is somehow related to what people can control. The colour of your skin is not up to you, for example, so treating you badly on its basis is oppressive. The treatment in question doesn’t have to be explicit: a society that marginalises homosexuals might not be as oppressive as one that imprisons them, but it is oppressive nonetheless. Sexuality and race are fairly obvious fault lines for oppression, as are class and gender. But if oppression is treating people otherwise than they deserve, there’s another category that tends to slip under our radar, namely the oppression of the ugly.

We don’t choose the configuration of our facial features any more than we choose our skin colour, yet people discriminate based on looks all the time. As the psychologist Comila Shahani-Denning put it, summarising research on the topic in Hofstra Horizons in 2003: ‘Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students, voter preferences for political candidates and jury judgments in simulated trials … attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants.’ From the toddler gazing up at the adult to the adult gazing down at the toddler, we ruthlessly privilege the beautiful. The ugly get screwed."


5. It's not possible to internalize what this map shows.

"Oak Ridge National Laboratory fallout estimates from a Soviet nuclear attack against USA, mid-1980s. "


Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip:

a(p)panage. (Orig. province or lucrative office given to younger children of kings; now perquisite; natural accompaniment.) Either form will do; appa- is preferred in US, and in Brit. is perhaps commoner in general use, & apa- in learned use.


Department of Corrections: My link to Machinenangst, the Italian futurist play, was incorrect. Which is too bad, because the costume and set design sketches are excellent. Go here: The Anguish of the Machines


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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