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    This March Madness, we’re using machine learning to predict upsets

    What surprises will this year’s tournament have in store? AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

    “Beware the Ides of March.” Yes, it’s finally that time of year again: when the emperors of college basketball must watch their backs, lest the lowly bottom seeds of the tournament strike.

    Before March 15, millions around the world will fill out their March Madness brackets. In 2017, ESPN received a record 18.8 million brackets.

    The first step to a perfect bracket is correctly choosing the first round. Unfortunately, most of us can’t predict the future. Last year, only 164 of the submitted brackets were perfect through the first round – less than 0.001 percent.

    Many brackets are busted when a lower-seeded team upsets the favored higher seed. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, at least eight upsets occur on average each year. If you want to win your bracket pool, you better pick at least a few upsets.

    We’re two math Ph.D. candidates at the Ohio State University who have a passion for data science and basketball. This year, we decided it would be fun to build a computer program that uses a mathematical approach to predict first-round upsets. If we’re right, a bracket picked using our program should perform better through the first round than the average bracket.

    Fallible humans

    It’s not easy to identify which of the first-round games will result in an upset.

    Say you have to decide between the No. 10 seed and the No. 7 seed. The No. 10 seed has pulled off upsets in its past three tournament appearances, once even making the Final Four. The No. 7 seed is a team that’s received little to no national coverage; the casual fan has probably never heard of them. Which would you choose?

    If you chose the No. 10 seed in 2017, you would have gone with Virginia Commonwealth University over Saint Mary’s of California – and you would have been wrong. Thanks to a decision-making fallacy called recency bias, humans can be tricked into to using their most recent observations to make a decision.

    Recency bias is just one type of bias that can infiltrate someone’s picking process, but there are many others. Maybe you’re biased toward your home team, or maybe you identify with a player and desperately want him or her to succeed. All of this influences your bracket in a potentially negative way. Even seasoned professionals fall into these traps.

    Modeling upsets

    Machine learning can defend against these pitfalls.

    In machine learning, statisticians, mathematicians and computer scientists train a machine to make predictions by letting it “learn” from past data. This approach has been used in many diverse fields, including marketing, medicine and sports.

    Machine learning techniques can be likened to a black box. First, you feed the algorithm past data, essentially setting the dials on the black box. Once the settings are calibrated, the algorithm can read in new data, compare it to past data and then spit out its predictions.

    A black box view of machine learning algorithms.
    Matthew Osborne, CC BY-SA

    In machine learning, there are a variety of black boxes available. For our March Madness project, the ones we wanted are known as classification algorithms. These help us determine whether or not a game should be classified as an upset, either by providing the probability of an upset or by explicitly classifying a game as one.

    Our program uses a number of popular classification algorithms, including logistic regression, random forest models and k-nearest neighbors. Each method is like a different “brand” of the same machine; they work as differently under the hood as Fords and Toyotas, but perform the same classification job. Each algorithm, or box, has its own predictions about the probability of an upset.

    We used the statistics of all 2001 to 2017 first-round teams to set the dials on our black boxes. When we tested one of our algorithms with the 2017 first-round data, it had about a 75 percent success rate. This gives us confidence that analyzing past data, rather than just trusting our gut, can lead to more accurate predictions of upsets, and thus better overall brackets.

    What advantages do these boxes have over human intuition? For one, the machines can identify patterns in all of the 2001-2017 data in a matter of seconds. What’s more, since the machines rely only on data, they may be less likely to fall for human psychological biases.

    That’s not to say that machine learning will give us perfect brackets. Even though the box bypasses human bias, it’s not immune to error. Results depend on past data. For example, if a No. 1 seed were to lose in the first round, our model would not likely predict it, because that has never happened before.

    Additionally, machine learning algorithms work best with thousands or even millions of examples. Only 544 first-round March Madness games have been played since 2001, so our algorithms will not correctly call every upset. Echoing basketball expert Jalen Rose, our output should be used as a tool in conjunction with your expert knowledge – and luck! – to choose the correct games.

    Machine learning madness?

    We’re not the first people to apply machine learning to March Madness and we won’t be the last. In fact, machine learning techniques may soon be necessary to make your bracket competitive.

    You don’t need a degree in mathematics to use machine learning – although it helps us. Soon, machine learning may be more accessible than ever. Those interested can take a look at our models online. Feel free to explore our algorithms and even come up with a better approach yourself.

    The Conversation

    The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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    This $75 million gift might make higher ed question its obsession with science and tech

    Investor Bill Miller is betting that today’s students can prosper from studying philosophers like Socrates and Plato.

    During his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio made the dubious (and grammatically unsound) assertion that “we need more welders and less philosophers.”

    Bill Miller clearly disagrees with the Florida senator.

    Miller, a prominent investor who spent three years studying philosophy at Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student, recently gave that school US$75 million to support its philosophy department. The famed stock picker’s donation, the largest ever by far to any philosophy program and among the biggest for a specific humanities field, stands out for a good reason. Generosity on that scale to support science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM disciplines, is far more common.

    As the director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, a STEM-steeped institution, part of my job is to counter the pressure from politicians, high school counselors and parents that is driving students into these fields and away from subjects like history, literature or philosophy based on a belief that studying the humanities cannot lead to professional success. Only 25 first-year students in a class of 1,200 at my school said they intended to declare a humanities subject as their primary major.

    I believe gifts like Miller’s will help scholars like me make our case that more students should embrace the humanities.

    Humanities vs. STEM giving

    Miller just doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom about the impracticality of studying the humanities.

    “I attribute much of my business success to the analytical training and habits of mind that were developed when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins,” said the investor, who took a single philosophy class while majoring in economics as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University.

    His gift is part of a broader trend in academic giving, which has bounced back from the sharp decline brought about by the Great Recession.

    Higher-education donations totaled $43.6 billion in 2017, a 6.3 percent increase over the previous year. Johns Hopkins, which just concluded a $5 billion capital campaign, racked up $637 million of that total.

    While relatively little of this money for colleges and universities targeted the humanities, the liberal arts fields devoted to the study of human culture, giving to the humanities has soared over the past decade. These donations rose 26 percent between 2005 and 2015, which is actually less than half the 57 percent climb for higher education overall. Total donations for all colleges and universities increased from $25.6 billion in 2005 to $40.3 billion in 2015.

    Despite being smaller than all of the 14 biggest higher-ed gifts of 2017, Miller’s donation is the largest donation to support the humanities at a university since 2006.

    Studying the humanities vs. STEM

    Hopkins will use Miller’s gift to increase its philosophy faculty from 13 to 22 and expand programs for graduate and undergraduate students at a time when many universities are downsizing humanities departments.

    His bet on philosophy comes as students are losing interest in the humanities.

    The share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in humanities disciplines peaked at 15 percent in 2005, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It fell to 12 percent by 2015, the lowest since 1987, and the total number of students getting these degrees also declined.

    Most commentators see these trends as a sign that students are responding to market needs in the wake of the Great Recession.

    STEM’s questionable crisis

    At the same time, there are scholars who question the arguments driving STEM philanthropy.

    There’s simply no evidence that the U.S. lacks the scientists or engineers it needs, as many donors claim. Indeed, universities often churn out more STEM graduates than the job market can absorb.

    Demographer Michael Teitelbaum debunks conventional STEM thinking in his book, “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.”

    Corporate and political leaders have sounded alarms over a supposed shortage of young workers equipped with STEM degrees five times since the end of World War II, Teitelbaum observes.

    For example, the National Research Council claimed in 2005 that inadequate numbers of scientists and engineers constituted a “creeping crisis” threatening U.S. economic prosperity and security. Teitelbaum finds these claims to be unsubstantiated. He says that explains why STEM enrollment surges after every false alarm, precipitating surplus graduates.

    Oh, the humanities

    Given the recurring glut of scientists and engineers, I believe that Miller is responding to the workforce’s need for the soft skills of the humanities, such as critical thinking, communication and cultural awareness. After all, as Apple’s Steve Jobs once said,

    “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

    Steve Jobs, the humanities proponent, in his own words.

    For all the fretting by the likes of Marco Rubio, employers covet these skills. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences finds that while humanities graduates do earn less than their STEM counterparts, they are in fact employed and making a living. The median salary for a humanities graduate in 2015 was $52,000. That was less than the $82,000 for an engineering graduate, but equal to graduates in the life sciences. And earlier studies show that the income difference between the humanities and other disciplines narrows over time.

    What’s more, at 4.3 percent, the unemployment rate for humanities graduates in 2015 was only slightly higher than the 3 percent rate for graduates in all fields. And humanities graduates are every bit as satisfied with their jobs.

    Perhaps advocates for the humanities don’t need to be defensive about the declining interest in pursuing degrees in these fields, which can lead to a meaningful as well as lucrative career.

    For, as investor Bill Miller has said with his big gift, the humanities are just as as important for the fabric of our society and our economy as science, technology, engineering and math.

    The Conversation

    Peter E. Knox works for Case Western Reserve University. He has previously received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation. He is a representative to the National Humanities Alliance.

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    Orangutan shot 130 times in Indonesia, in second killing reported this year

    JAKARTA — A second orangutan has been found killed in Indonesian Borneo in as many months, this time shot more than 100 times with a pellet gun, a conservation group has reported. An X-ray on the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) that died in East Kalimantan province on Feb. 6 revealed 130 pellets in its body. Authorities carrying out an autopsy managed to recover 48 of them, according to a statement from the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), a conservation NGO. Most of the pellets were located in the animal’s head; it had also been shot multiple times in the arms, legs and torso. The total number of pellets found is “the most ever in the history of human-and-orangutan conflicts in Indonesia,” said Ramadhani, habitat protection manager at the COP. Indonesian officials in eastern Borneo on Tuesday identified 130 pellets in the body of an orangutan through an X-ray. They managed to recover 48. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Orangutan Protection. The critically endangered ape was found barely alive on Feb. 5 by officials from the Kutai National Park Agency, following a report of a badly injured orangutan stuck in a tree. It died of its extensive injuries the following day. The autopsy also revealed palm fruit kernels in the orangutan’s colon, and pineapple remnants in its stomach, suggesting it had been feeding in crop farms. “Our team is investigating the area where the orangutan was found,” Ramadhani said. Plantation operators in regions of Borneo and Sumatra inhabited by orangutans…

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    Indonesia hints rhino sperm transfer to Malaysia may finally happen this year

    JAKARTA — Indonesia has signaled it may finally send a sample of Sumatran rhino semen to a breeding program in Malaysia, amid a growing urgency to keep the species alive. Conservationists in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, where only two Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) remain, have since 2015 sought a frozen sample of sperm taken from a rhino in Indonesia’s own captive-breeding program in Sumatra to kick-start an artificial insemination attempt — but to no avail, as the Indonesian government repeatedly ignored its requests. Now, though, a senior official says the sperm being stored at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) may be sent to Malaysia sometime this year. “We have discussed all of the aspects of the request, and submitted our analysis to the [environment] minister,” Wiratno, the head of conservation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, told reporters in Jakarta last week. “It will be a valuable lesson for both countries, as we are also dealing with rhinos which are losing their habitats,” he added. Andalas, right, and Bina meet at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Dedi Candra. If approved, the plan would be to combine the sperm from Andalas, a captive-bred rhino at the SRS, with viable eggs from Iman, the last remaining female Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, to produce an embryo that could then be implanted into one of the females back at the Indonesian sanctuary. The fertilization would preferably happen in Malaysia because frozen semen travels better than eggs. Malaysia has agreed to let Indonesia…

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    This year’s severe flu exposes a serious flaw in our medical system

    Approximately 80 percent of all pharmaceuticals used by Americans are produced overseas. Beer5020/shutterstock.com

    Flu season in the U.S. typically peaks in February, but this year’s outbreak is already one of the worst on record. As of Jan. 6, 20 children have died from the flu, and overall mortality caused by the flu is already double that of last year’s.

    One reason the flu is so severe this season is that the dominant strain is H3N2, which has an impressive ability to mutate and is particularly aggressive against Americans over 50.

    Making the threat worse is the fact that most of the IV saline bags used in common medical treatments and procedures – including severe cases of the flu – are made in Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from Hurricane Maria. Hospitals in some areas around the country that are operating at or above capacity because of the flu are quickly running low on saline, resorting to time-consuming and potentially dangerous treatments of patients.

    The IV saline shortage is unlikely to cause a life-threatening breakdown of medical treatments. But the shortage does expose a dangerous flaw in the medical supply chains that everyone relies on to counter disease outbreaks or bioterrorism. Many different types of important medical equipment and medicines either come from abroad or rely on a single producer.

    Global supply chains

    Globalization has changed the way we produce, transport and store almost anything, including medicines and medical supplies. Now that it’s inexpensive to transport goods, many can be easily produced abroad at substantially lower costs. In nearly all cases, that benefits producers and consumers alike.

    For the medical industry, approximately 80 percent of all pharmaceuticals used by Americans are produced overseas. The majority of this production takes place in China and India.

    Forty-three percent of saline in the U.S. comes from Puerto Rico. The U.S. was already running below optimal levels of saline when Hurricane Maria hit.

    Rapid transportation of goods also allows most industries to rely on “just in time” deliveries. That means goods arrive only shortly before they are needed, rather than arriving in large shipments.

    In most situations, and for most goods, that causes few issues. However, when there’s an insufficient stockpile, delivery delays can be life-threatening. Many of our hospitals receive shipments of critical pharmaceuticals three times a day.

    Unhappy coincidences

    As researchers studying how countries can prepare for disease and disasters, it’s clear to us that the IV saline shortage is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg.

    Destroyed communication satellite in Humacao, Puerto Rico.
    Dan Vineberg, CC BY

    There are two ways the “just in time” system can be disrupted: an unexpected surge in demand or a delay in delivery. In this case, both occurred simultaneously. The U.S. is dealing with an unusually potent strain of the flu, while Hurricane Maria brought production in Puerto Rico to a grinding halt. If only one of the two had occurred, it’s unlikely the U.S. would have experienced a shortage.

    Now, hospitals overrun with flu patients have to turn to alternatives to IV saline. One is an IV push procedure, in which medications are manually “pushed” into the IV line. This can be deadly if not done correctly.

    In the case of IV saline, the simultaneous occurrence of both demand and delay was accidental. Unfortunately, it’s not only possible that such confluence will occur in the future – it’s likely. In the case of pandemics or biological warfare, there will likely be both a surge in demand for important goods and a simultaneous disruption of production and delivery.

    If a pandemic disease severely affected China or India, where large shares of medicines come from, production could be knocked out or slowed. That would leave the rest of the world vulnerable to the disease’s spread, because there would be no supply of crucial medicines to combat it. The 1918 influenza pandemic caused disruptions that prevented coal from being delivered to the northeastern U.S. That left some without heat in the height of winter, causing people to freeze to death and compounding the deadly pandemic.

    Today, such a breakdown could leave hospitals and other crucial infrastructure without electricity. If the spread of the disease is intentional, as in cases of bioterrorism or bio-warfare, adversaries could target global supplies of crucial treatments.

    Preparing for problems

    The destruction in Puerto Rico and the impact it has had on the supply of small IV saline bags in American hospitals is a warning. This time, it’s IV saline. Next time, it might be electricity to run intensive care units or critical antibiotics to treat infections.

    Global supply chains are a massive puzzle, but public health and emergency preparedness officials need to, at a minimum, understand every link in the chain of critical goods. Without a thorough understanding of the supply chain, it’s difficult to preempt problems that could arise in times of emergency. Hospitals and other crucial infrastructure, such as power plants and the transportation industry, may want to diversify their suppliers of critical goods and encourage those suppliers to not focus production in a single area, especially not to an area prone to natural disaster. A final, but far more costly, option is to ensure we can produce most of these goods domestically in times of emergency.

    In our view, the solution depends on a partnership between government and industry. Federal, state and local governments have to alter procedures, but private companies involved in the production and delivery of critical goods have to plan ahead for emergencies.

    If these weaknesses in our global supply chains are not addressed, especially as they relates to medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and other critical goods, we are headed for disaster.

    The Conversation

    The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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    Indonesian parliament pushes for passage of palm oil legislation this year

    JAKARTA — Lawmakers in Indonesia are adamant about passing new legislation on the palm oil industry this year, amid concerns from activists and even the executive branch of government. Environmental groups warn that the bill, in its current form, favors large corporations at the expense of smallholders and rural and indigenous communities. A key criticism is that it advocates the clearing of peatlands  for plantations — a position at odds with the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, which has rolled out measures to protect peat areas. Those measures, introduced following massive land fires in 2015 that blanketed much of the region in a choking haze for months, oblige companies with land concessions that overlap onto peatlands to conserve and restore those areas. The large-scale draining of carbon-rich peat swamps by oil palm and pulpwood planters renders the land highly combustible, and the annual burning has made Indonesia one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Legislators backing the bill appear to acknowledge the issue, but insist that economic growth must be prioritized. “These are regions that have to be protected,” Hamdani, a legislator with the Nasdem Party, who serves on the parliamentary commission discussing the bill, said of peat areas. He added the proposed article implying that palm oil companies were entitled on plant on peatlands “has to be changed.” Nevertheless, Hamdani, whose constituency covers Central Kalimantan, a province that is home to vast expanses of oil palm plantations, said the legislation would promote economic growth. He said…

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    Why Iran’s protests matter this time

    University students attend a protest inside Tehran University as anti-riot Iranian police prevent them from joining other protesters. AP Photo

    A series of urban uprisings in Iran that began on Dec. 28 in its second-largest city shocked the country’s Islamic regime, as well as much of the world.

    Although the Mashhad protests were spearheaded by conservative opponents of President Hassan Rouhani to discredit his economic policies, the organizers lost control of the crowd. Protesters angrily chanted slogans – such as “Leave Syria alone, think about us” and “Death to Hezbollah” – that were aimed at not only Rouhani but the entire Islamic regime.

    In the days that followed, protests spread to 80 cities, leading to at least 22 deaths and over 1,000 arrests. On Jan. 8, Rouhani, who won a second term last May, said they signaled Iranians want not only a stronger economy but also more freedom.

    While the government says it now has the situation under control, that doesn’t eliminate the significance of the largest protests since 2009, when millions came out to oppose the outcome of that year’s presidential election. The government forcefully suppressed that uprising, and two candidates who disputed the results remain under house arrest.

    Why have so many Iranians again taken to the streets and will these protests have a larger impact than those eight years ago? As a close observer of Iran, I believe there are several important differences between the protests today and in 2009 that can help us answer both questions.

    Iran President Hassan Rouhani says the protests show Iranians are crying out for both economic and political change.
    Iranian Presidency Office via AP

    What’s behind the uprising

    Not surprisingly, the conservative faction of the Islamic regime was quick to blame Iran’s adversaries, namely the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. In contrast, reformists say that the protests are about economic grievances such as unemployment, inequality and corruption.

    They do have a point. While the overall economy is growing again, and many indicators have turned positive in the past two years, the gains haven’t been shared by all Iranians.

    The economy grew 13.4 percent in 2016 after oil and financial sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement with the West, which increased the country’s oil and gas production.

    The non-oil sector, however, expanded just 3.3 percent – a clear sign the economy’s recovery has been slow in visibly improving people’s living standards. Real incomes of many segments of the economy remain weak, and the housing and construction sector remains in recession.

    Unemployment is still high, at 12 percent, particularly among young university graduates. But it is much higher in small towns and peripheral regions of the country, where many of the protests occurred, driven by concerns over inequality and poverty.

    Under Iran’s Constitution the supreme leader has broad powers, and even Rouhani has a limited ability to influence key policies, including those concerning the economy. Some key policies are entirely off limits, such as Iran’s involvement in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. These campaigns, which are costing Iran billions of dollars every year, seem to be driving at least some of the protesters’ anger.

    Iranian worshipers chant slogans during a rally against anti-government protestors in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 5.
    AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

    Key differences

    There are three key differences between today’s uprisings and those in 2009.

    In 2009, the demands were political. The reformist faction of the ruling regime, which disputed the results of the presidential election, was the main actor in the protests. Current protests do not have a visible political leader and appear to be directed at the entire regime, including reformists. This is best demonstrated by one of the slogans frequently chanted by protesters, which roughly translates as, “It is over for all of you.”

    Another difference is that the 2009 protests were centered around the capital Tehran and other major cities. While the recent demonstrations involve fewer actual protesters, they are spread over a much larger area of the country, including many small cities that suffer from underdevelopment and low incomes.

    These primarily young protesters, including unemployed university graduates and low-income workers, are also outraged by the frequent reports of corruption and unfair accumulation of wealth among some government officials. Competing factions of the ruling elite have frequently exposed each others’ corruption, revelations that have alienated the marginalized segments of the population that are struggling with poverty and unemployment. Economic issues are far more important today than they were for the primarily middle-class protesters of 2009.

    Finally, the U.S. response to the current uprisings has also been markedly different.

    The Obama administration reacted with caution to the 2009 uprisings and refrained from openly cheering on the protesters, motivated by a fear that overt support would provoke a harsher crackdown.

    In contrast, President Donald Trump and his State Department have actively supported the protesters, and the U.S. is trying to mobilize an international condemnation of the Iranian government’s response. This initiative, however, faces strong resistance from China and Russia in the United Nations.

    Concern about a stronger reaction from the Trump administration might explain the cautious and measured approach of Iran’s security forces in confronting the current protesters. The response was more violent and brutal in 2009.

    What might change

    The protestors’ focus on economic rather than political issues enables some moderate members of the regime to meaningfully address their grievances rather than being forced to keep silent or issue outright condemnations, as they did in 2009.

    While condemning the acts of violence by some protesters, many of Iran’s political leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have expressed sympathy for their economic concerns.

    They have also led to some changes in fiscal budget and economic reform priorities. Planned increases in prices of fuel and bread, for example, have been suspended.

    While it’s encouraging that the government is reacting to protester concerns at all, stalling important economic reforms is not the right way to do it. These steps will surely be welcomed by lower-income Iranians, ensuring they’re politically popular, yet they may lead to more hardship down the road by worsening the budget deficit and potentially fueling inflation.

    Instead of keeping prices of essential items artificially low, which leads to considerable waste and inefficiency in the economy, it would be more effective to offer targeted subsidies to the poor while doing more to fight corruption and political nepotism, a primary cause of rising income and wealth disparities in Iran.

    What won’t

    Will the recent unrest serve as a wake-up call for the political elite that more needs to be done?

    Unfortunately, an inefficient populist response is probably as far as the country’s supreme leader will be willing to go – at least for now. Protesters’ more political demands, such as tackling corruption, limiting Khamenei’s powers or reducing Iran’s role in regional conflicts, are unlikely to be addressed anytime soon.

    Iran’s political system carefully screens candidates for public office and thus remains closed to ordinary citizens, leaving Iranians with few options for influencing government policy besides the streets. And neither political faction, reformist or conservative, has yet offered any practical solution for how to change that.

    For most Iranians, however, corruption, poverty and economic inequality can not be addressed without serious reforms. And that suggests that while the most recent uprising may be winding down, similar uprisings are likely in the future.

    The Conversation

    Nader Habibi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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    This new year — rethinking gratitude

    What really is the art of gratitude? Joanne Morton, CC BY-NC

    It’s a new year, which means that it’s also time to imagine new beginnings and better futures. It’s time, in short, for New Year’s resolutions.

    Gratitude, in particular, has become a popular resolution. For many of us, living gratefully seems to promise more happiness in our lives.

    But what if we’ve got gratitude all wrong?

    I began writing my book “The Art of Gratitude” because I too believed that gratitude might offer an antidote to the anger, fear and resentment that characterize contemporary life. But as I read one self-help book about gratitude after another, it had the opposite effect on me. The more I read, the less grateful I felt.

    I came to ask, does the problem lie in how gratitude tends to be defined?

    The debt of gratitude

    Gratitude is often defined as a feeling of obligation and indebtedness toward those who give us a gift or help us out in some way. Consider how often many of us use the phrase, “I owe you a debt of gratitude,” or “One good turn deserves another.”

    What is the framework of gratitude?
    Eugene Kim, CC BY

    The debt of gratitude idea dates back to the foundations of Western culture, to Aristotle, Cicero and the New Testament.

    According to a leading contemporary expert on gratitude, UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, “To be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of recipient – to feel indebted and aware of one’s dependence on others.” Or, as Emmons argues elsewhere, gratitude is “an acknowledgement of debt,” and ingratitude “the refusal to admit one’s debt to others.”

    In this framework, people are debtors and the givers of debt. According to philosopher Shelly Kagan, “If someone does you a favor, you owe them something; you owe them a debt of gratitude.” People judge the value of others based on what they can offer. Emmons writes:

    “Gratitude requires that a giver give not only a gift but also a gift dear to himself – a ‘pearl of great price,’ as it were. … The degree to which we feel gratitude always hinges on this internal, secret assessment of cost: It is intrinsic to the emotion, and perfectly logical, that we don’t feel all that grateful for gifts that we receive that cost little or nothing to the giver.”

    In other words, gifts and kindnesses involve a calculation of “cost,” which extends to repayment: Gifts are calculated gestures that must be repaid with an expression of thanks and, if possible, reciprocal gifts.

    Thinking in such terms might encourage people to see their relationships in economic terms – as transactions to be judged by market criteria of gain and loss.

    To that end, the Christian radio show host Nancy Leigh DeMoss advises keeping a gratitude journal just like a bank statement or a checkbook registry, as a place to manage gratitude debts.

    “I want to encourage you to think of gratitude as being a debt you owe, the same way you’re called upon to pay your monthly bills.”

    The art of gratitude

    Gratitude is about more than individual happiness. My happiness is bound with yours and with everyone else’s.

    Gratitude authors, who urge us to focus on the debts we owe to others, are reminding us of this fact. I, however, argue in “The Art of Gratitude” that the rhetoric of the debt of gratitude sets us down a dangerous road. The trouble is that the value of our relationships cannot be calculated with numbers on the page, and trying to do so might make us miss out on what is most important.

    Take, for example, a recent gift I received – of a nice aluminum water bottle. A friend said that she saw it and thought of me. Of course, I thanked her. But rather than immediately calculate the cost of the gift and determine how I would repay her, I asked: “Why did you choose a water bottle?”

    She told me where she grew up in the United States, she did not have access to clean water. I travel a lot, and she wanted me to take clean water with me wherever I went. Moreover, she hoped that it would help to cut down on plastic bottle waste, because, she said, we all share this planet.

    I might have missed all of this had I only pondered on how best to repay it. Instead, this gift prompted a conversation that reminded me of our fundamental interconnectedness. My actions, she was saying, impacted her life, just as her actions impacted my own.

    Gratitude is an opportunity, not a debt.
    InesBazdar via www.shutterstock.com

    This interconnected world

    It is crucial to recognize that our daily practices of gratitude have broader social and political implications.

    Say I feel gratitude for access to clean air in Central Pennsylvania. I feel this gratitude because I grew up with asthma, and I know how hard it can be to breathe polluted air. I need not feel indebted to anyone for this clean air. Clean air is not a gift. I am grateful because clean air is necessary for life.

    Same is true for clean water. There is currently, however, a potentially grave challenge to clean water in Centre County, Pennsylvania, where I live.

    Looking through grateful eyes, attuned to the support necessary to live and thrive, I can recognize a threat to clean water as a personal threat. Though it is personal, it cannot be remedied alone. I must reach out to others who will also be affected, so that we can act together to manage it.

    The takeaway of my book is that indebtedness is not the only way to relate. Examples like these prove that all of us are deeply dependent upon the material support of the earth, and that also speaks to our interconnectedness.

    My resolution this year is therefore to practice the art of gratitude by imagining my life, and the world in which I live, as an opportunity, not a debt. I resolve to focus on what is necessary, and to work together with others to make it possible for all to live and to live well, because we live together. I hope that you will join me.

    The Conversation

    Jeremy David Engels does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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    Original Post by The Conversation

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    In-store shopping still matters this holiday season

    In-person shopping remains popular. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

    It surprises most millennials to learn that only about 10 percent of all retail purchases are actually made online. Each semester, when I ask hundreds of undergraduate business students to estimate, they consistently guess that between a quarter and half of all retail spending happens on the internet. But this holiday shopping season, as ever in the past, the overwhelming majority of purchases will still happen within four physical walls of a store.

    This should encourage the thousands of retailers anchored in strip malls, lifestyle centers and mixed use developments. The National Retail Federation expects holiday retail sales – not counting car, gas and restaurant purchases – in November and December this year to increase up to 4 percent over last year, to as much as US$682 billion.

    Stores will need the money in order to avoid being added to 2017’s record-breaking roster of retail bankruptcies, store closures and layoffs, which included landmark brands like Toys R Us and RadioShack.

    A reason to visit

    Traditional retailers must give consumers good reasons to visit their stores, beyond product selection and good value. Joe Pine and James Gilmore’s 1999 book “The Experience Economy” foretold how savvy companies, like Apple and American Girl, excel by staging compelling experiences that teach, entertain or inspire customers.

    The main asset of a physical store in a digital world is human staffing. Even if a shopper doesn’t want help, a smile acknowledging his or her presence encourages connection. Front-line employees can ask customers about their kids, in-laws or Thanksgiving meal planning. That can lead to an authentic personal connection through which employees can discover a shopper’s unique wants and respond with products on the shelves, or ordered and shipped for free to the customer’s home. An in-person encounter can become a seamless blend of the online and physical worlds.

    Even Walmart, America’s largest retailer, is moving to a more experiential model. In hopes of boosting sales, its 4,700 stores will host 20,000 parties with Santa before the New Year. Customers will be able to take pictures, test out toys and get tots excited.

    The company has another advantage over online sellers, too: nine in 10 Americans live within 15 minutes of a Walmart store. A thousand Walmarts now let customers drive up to the storefront to pick up online grocery orders the same day they’re purchased, at no additional charge. That rivals Amazon’s Fresh grocery service, which comes at an extra cost and often doesn’t deliver until the next day.

    Emotional connection in a digital age

    Beyond face-to-face service, successful companies today must develop a deeper connection with their customers, whether online or off. Store-based retailers can show their values in ways that at times can take on a very personal meaning for shoppers and store owners alike. I have been a loyal customer of Gallery Furniture in Houston for years. Owner Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack,” is a marketing maverick known for his decades of zany TV commercials pledging to “Save you money!

    After the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, he opened his stores to anyone in need of a place to stay. Some came by boat, with only the clothes they were wearing. McIngvale welcomed thousands of Houstonians to sleep on his inventory of mattresses. He sheltered, fed and prayed for flood victims.

    On Halloween, McIngvale flew 50 first responders to Game 6 of the World Series in Los Angeles, giving those lucky Astros fans a once-in-a-lifetime experience and emotional lift in the wake of natural disaster.

    Like other retailers gearing up for the holidays, Gallery Furniture is promoting “monster sales.” But with the floodwaters gone and the Astros crowned as baseball’s world champions, McIngvale’s community spirit seems to have positioned his chain as more than a brand, destination or store. Beyond capturing market share, Gallery Furniture may have an advantage in customer sentiment.

    Best Buy is buzzing again

    Community involvement isn’t the only way retailers can regain strength. National electronics chain Best Buy has ridden a roller coaster over the last 20 years: In 2004 it was recognized by Forbes magazine as “Company of the Year.” By 2012 it was dismissed as a real-world showroom for cheaper online retailers. In August 2017, though, its stock price hit an all-time high.

    As Amazon grew, Best Buy defended itself, becoming a top 10 retailer in sales by matching competitors’ prices and investing in personal services like Geek Squad. The company also trained workers to help customers understand technology: Product descriptions can list a camera’s functions, but a knowledgeable employee can explain how it works with lenses, editing software or with other devices. That allows the company to take advantage of the ever-increasing number of tech-connected items in smart homes, from Nest thermostats to 4K TVs – which require more instruction to set up and operate than their analog predecessors.

    In the face of online competition, brick-and-mortar retailers must give consumers unique in-store experiences that build emotional connections with shoppers. Black Friday promos on toasters or iPads won’t cut it. They have to provide heartfelt feelings like surprise, delight and excitement – and actual help and useful advice. Shopping on a couch via a mobile app is efficient, but a store can be magical and memory-making.

    The Conversation

    The Center for Retailing Studies is funded through annual donations made by retailers (see: crs.mays.tamu.edu) to underwrite student education in retail studies at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University. Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies, is a state employee of Texas and currently engages in no external industry consulting.

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    Original post by The Conversation

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    Is the Forest Stewardship Council going to stay ‘fit for purpose’ for this century? (commentary)

    Held every three years, the General Assembly (GA) is supposed to be the top Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) platform for decision-making. The idea is that members of the three FSC chambers — social, environmental, and economic — come together to shape the future of the certification system by discussing and voting on motions that fundamentally affect the way FSC is run. But is that really still the case? Reflecting on the recent General Assembly in Vancouver, held earlier this month, has me questioning whether FSC is going to stay fit for purpose for this century, or whether it is going to be held back by misguided economic self-interest. Thankfully, there were some positives, where the FSC family did what it does best at General Assemblies — listened to each other and, with cross-chamber collaboration, negotiated motions that have broad support (you can read about all motions that passed here). For example, the smallholder/community ‘super motion,’ which combined a whole set of motions, had unanimous support and will provide further impetus for continued progress toward addressing this uncomfortable weakness in the FSC system. A negotiated neutral motion on ‘controlled wood’ (wood mixed into FSC products but not fully certified) passed, urging implementation of the current standard that requires, in particular, Free, Prior, & Informed Consent of indigenous peoples and protection of High Conservation Value landscapes. Motion 7 on continuing to address what restoration and restitution a company that has breached the 1994 conversion cut-off rule would have to do to get…

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    Original Post by Mongabay

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