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Eastern Europe has the largest population loss in modern history

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Eastern European population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history.

The population has declined dramatically in war ridden countries like Syria as well as in some advanced economies in peacetime, like Japan. But a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of Southern Europe in the last five years and Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

The UN estimated that there were about 292 million people in Eastern Europe last year, 18 million less than in the early 1990s, that’s more than the population of the Netherlands disappearing from the region. The fall corresponds to a drop of six per cent, give or take.

The contraction began after the fall of the Soviet bloc and accelerated until the early 2000s when it began to slow down.


Emigration is one of the main reasons behind the decline. Eastern Europeans migrated to Western Europe, enticed by the prospect of higher earnings and better welfare systems. The main destinations for Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians were the UK and Ireland. Estonians left for Finland, Romanians went to Italy and Spain. More recently, Norway has emerged as a popular destination.

But this is not only a story of emigration made possible by the enlargement of the European Union. People from the region had begun emigrating even before Accession, and countries that are not part of the union have also seen a strong outflow.

Romania, for example, lost 9 per cent of its population in the fifteen years to 2005. In 1990 alone, nearly 100,000 Romanian citizens settled permanently abroad, with similar figures in the following few years. According to an OECD report, in the early days Romanian emigration largely concerned ethnic minorities. Most recently, it’s been job seekers. By 2007- the year in which Romania joined the EU- the majority of Romanian emigrants had already left the country.

Similarly, Bulgaria- which joined the EU in the same year- had a net migration rate of over eight per thousand in the first half of the 1990s, which progressively decreased to just over 1 per thousand in the last five years.

Albania, which is not an EU member, experienced an even larger outflow of migrants.

Falling fertility

Those who stayed started having fewer children. Eastern European women had an average of 2.1 children each in the late eighties. Ten years later this had dropped to 1.2.

Economic and political uncertainty in the post-Soviet era had a significant effect on fertility rates, along with the absence of an adequate welfare system.

Although other countries, like Germany, experienced a similar drop in fertility, the effect is much bigger in countries which do not have similar levels of immigration. The result is that from the mid-1990s in most Eastern European countries deaths outnumbered births.

Institutions have started firing alarm bells

When the OECD looked into the impact of emigration in the Baltic and Eastern European countries it raised alarm over the long-term economic impact:

“While this [emigration] served as a safety valve in a time of poor employment opportunities and led to high levels of remittances, the longer term implications appear less positive: smaller working-age population, loss of educated youth, and skills shortages.”

The European Commission shares similar concerns. This is what it said of Romania:

“Strong outward migration, including of the highly-skilled workers, coupled with an ageing population represent a challenge to support a competitive economy.”

It is Eastern European countries which will suffer the steepest drops in the size of working-age population within Europe, according to the European Commission. By 2060 they will have the highest “old age dependency ratios”- meaning the proportion of older, inactive citizens relative to workers – in the region.

Policies are not helping much

Most Eastern European countries took measures to reverse these trends in fertility and emigration, with poor results. Poland gave cash benefits to those who had two or more children, one of many family policies trashed by Oxford University.

“The majority of extant family policies in CEE countries suffer from a variety of shortcomings that impede them from helping to generate optimal family welfare and to provide conditions for cohort fertility to increase,” the study says.

The OECD delivered a similar verdict for policies aimed at making emigrants return:

“Return policies have met with limited success (..). Job fairs aimed at emigrants from Romania did not lead to many returns. Polish programmes to bring back emigrants were stymied by insufficient planning, by negative economic conditions and by the requirement not to favour returnees over non-migrants.”

The narrowing of the wealth gap – more effective

Most Eastern European economies are growing at an incredibly rapid pace, largely because they’re catching up.

What this means is that the difference in GDP per capita with Western Europe is narrowing. Broadly speaking, improving conditions in the region should reduce the incentives to emigrate. Better job opportunities and higher wealth should also lead to higher fertility rates.

The GDP per capita of the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia is now about eighty per cent or over that of the European Union. It used to be 50 per cent in Slovakia in the mid-1990s.

All these countries have seen their populations expand in the last decade.

But in poorer countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania the size of the population is still declining.

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2011 days ago
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Through This Chemical Loop, Dogs Win Our Hearts

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Wolves are wild, powerful, and fearsome predators, capable of bringing down even large prey. And yet, tens of thousands of years ago, some wolves started forming close associations with humans. They became more docile. Their bodies changed. They turned into domestic dogs. Today, we share bonds with them that can be as strong as those that tie us to other people. How did this happen? How did we go from fear to friendship? How did dogs start inspiring such genuine feelings of love and affection?

Miho Nagasawa at Azabu University, Japan has a possible answer. It involves oxytocin, a mammalian hormone that draws our attention to social cues. In yesterday’s post, I described mouse experiments which show how oxytocin sensitises an inexperienced mother to the distress calls of her pups, and eventually cements the bond between them. Dogs seem to have hijacked this chemical connection between mother and child, to cement a similarly strong bond with their owners.

Nagasawa showed that a dog’s gaze raises the oxytocin levels in its owner, prompting more social contact. In return, the owner’s gaze raises oxytocin levels in the pooch. This chemical loop unites the brains of two different species. “[It’s] a powerful mechanism through which dogs win our hearts—and we win theirs in return,” write Evan MacLean and Brian Hare from Duke University, in an accompanying editorial.

First, Nagasawa allowed thirty dog owners to interact with their animals for half an hour. She collected urine samples from both parties before and after that period, so she could measure the oxytocin levels in their bodies.

She found that the volunteers whose dogs gazed at them for the longest time experienced the biggest surges in oxytocin. They, in turn, spent more time looking back at their dogs, touching them, and talking to them. And the dogs that received the most reciprocal attention also experienced the biggest oxytocin spikes. Nagasawa had already shown the dog-to-human part of this loop in 2009 but she has now closed it, demonstrating that both species raise oxytocin levels in each other.

The same can’t be said for wolves. Nagasawa did the same experiment with eleven pure-bred wolves that were hand-reared by people. They weren’t pets, but they did have daily contact with their owners, who fed them and occasionally played with them. Despite their dog-like existence, these wolves did not make regular eye contact with their owners, and their gaze didn’t trigger a rise in oxytocin. The cross-species oxytocin loop only works between humans and domestic dogs.

Next, Nagasawa injected 27 dogs with oxytocin and placed them in a room with their owner and two strangers. After the injections, the dogs—but only the female ones—spent more time gazing at their owners, who then experienced a rise in oxytocin. It’s not clear why only the female dogs responded in this way. They might be more sensitive to the hormone, or less wary about the presence of unfamiliar people. Whatever the case, this second experiment confirmed that an oxytocin spike in one species can trigger a similar spike in the other.

These results offer important clues about the events that transformed wild wolves into domestic dogs. “During dog evolution, we have probably selected for a behaviour in dogs that elicits a physiological response in us that promotes bonding,” says Larry Young from Emory University. “That behaviour is eye-gazing.”

Among wolves, eye contact is a threat, which is why they rarely look directly at each other. Young suspects that wolf pups might communicate with their mothers through looks, triggering the same kind of affectionate cycle that exists in humans. “This just goes away as they mature,” he speculates. Perhaps as wolves evolved into dogs, they simply kept this child-like means of communication, just as they also retained some of the physical traits of their younger selves. In this way, they could have tapped into the oxytocin loop that strengthens bonds between human mothers and their babies, and triggered an almost parental affection.

Indeed, brain-scanning experiments have shown that there are overlaps in the brain regions that become active when human mothers look at images of their children or their dogs. “Diverse aspects of our biology appear to be tuned into dogs and children in remarkably similar ways,” write MacLean and Hare.

Reference: Nagasawa, Mitsui, En, Ohtani, Ohta, Sakuma, Onaka, Mogi & Kikusui. 2015. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds. Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1261022

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2417 days ago
Why we care about Dogs but not Wolves
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★ The Apple Watch

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Apple Watch is, in many ways, the Bizarro iPhone — in some ways parallel and similar, but in others, the inverse, the opposite.

Both were introduced as three things in one. Steve Jobs, introducing the iPhone back in 2007: “The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” Tim Cook, introducing the Apple Watch: “In addition to being a beautiful object, Apple Watch is the most advanced timepiece ever created, it’s a revolutionary new way to connect with others, and it’s a comprehensive health and fitness companion.”

An iPod, a phone, and an “Internet communicator”.

A watch, a “new way to connect with each other”, and a health and fitness companion.

The iPhone did more than just those things. Apple Watch does more than just these things. But with both devices, Apple framed our introduction to these fundamentally new products with similar “it does three main things” formulations. The reason seems clear: to simplify complex products, and to root something new and unknown in old and familiar contexts.

But there are fundamental differences — between the iPhone and Apple Watch as products, and between the way Apple has approached them, in terms of both design and marketing. Amidst all the interviews and media access Apple has granted in the run-up to the watch hitting the market, the most informative statement, to my mind, was this, from Jony Ive to The Financial Times’s Nick Foulkes:

However, it was not without some trepidation that he embarked on the watch. “It was different with the phone — all of us working on the first iPhone were driven by an absolute disdain for the cellphones we were using at the time. That’s not the case here. We’re a group of people who love our watches. So we’re working on something, yet have a high regard for what currently exists.”

He believes it was the intimacy of the watch that made it desirable, almost necessary, for Apple to tackle.

Everything that makes Apple Watch interesting, everything that makes it unprecedented, is right there in that bit from Foulkes’s profile.

Loosely, the path of all consumer electronic categories is to evolve as ever more computer-y gadgets, until a tipping point occurs and they turn into ever more gadget-y genuine computers. The sample size (in terms of product categories) is small, but Apple seemingly tries to enter markets at, or just after, that tipping point — when Moore’s Law and Apple’s ever-increasing engineering and manufacturing prowess allow them to produce a gadget-y computer that the computer-y gadgets from the established market leaders cannot compete with.1 That was the iPod. That was the iPhone.

That, they hope, is Apple Watch.

It wasn’t just pre-iPod “MP3 players” that sucked, it was all portable music players that sucked. CDs only held a dozen songs. I spent my teenage years with Sony Walkmen — devices I truly adored — that played cassette tapes. The appeal of hard-drive-based MP3 players was obvious to everyone, and the superiority of the iPod (especially in combination with iTunes) was obvious to almost most everyone outside the speeds and feeds Slashdot mindset.

Pre-iPhone mobile phones were either dumb phones that didn’t do much other than make phone calls and text by painstakingly pecking out messages on numeric keypads, or “smartphones” that at best did one thing well — text messaging — and in most cases did nothing well.

But as Ive points out, this time, the established market — watches — is not despised. They not only don’t suck, they are beloved. And the best and most-beloved watches aren’t even electronic. They’re purely mechanical — all gadget, no computer.

It was obvious that portable media players were being computerized. It was obvious that mobile phones were being computerized. Who better to enter the market, in both cases, than the world’s world’d best personal computer maker? It is not obvious — based on the watch market today — that wrist watches should or will be computerized.

The Watch

There are two types of people in the world: those who wear a watch, and those who don’t. Watch wearers, in my experience, recognize that non-wearers are manifold. Those who don’t wear a watch, on the other hand, often seem under the impression that few people wear watches anymore. They’re wrong — fewer people wear watches than in the past, but many do.2

Apple is targeting people from both groups. They want watch wearers to switch, and they want non-watch wearers to start wearing one. Those are two wholly separate marketing and product design challenges.

The emphasis on Apple Watch as, in Apple’s words, “the most advanced timepiece ever created” is an attempt to bridge that gap. To casual watch wearers, it says, “You’ll still be able to do with Apple Watch what you do with your current watch: tell the time (and if you want, the date) at a glance and trust that it’s accurate.” To non-watch wearers, it says “Apple Watch is a great watch.

The funny thing about this marketing angle is that it rings utterly hollow to serious watch people. $30 quartz watches generally keep very accurate time — much more accurately than mechanical watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The gold standard for quality watch movements is COSC certification — a series of tests administered by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute. To be COSC-certified, a mechanical watch need be accurate only to -4/+6 seconds per day. Apple is advertising Apple Watch as being accurate to 5 hundredths of a second. Accuracy isn’t even close to the primary appeal for mechanical watch aficionados.

Apple time-keeping accuracy braggadocio feels puffed up from the perspective of computers, too. Computers tend to have very accurate clocks (at least compared to mechanical watches), and with network time servers, they can be programmed to regularly correct themselves to within a few milliseconds of Coordinated Universal Time. In the eight days I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch, its timekeeping has never been anything but perfectly accurate — but so too has been the timekeeping on my iPhone, my iPad, and my Macs. All of these devices show the exact same time, all the time.

What matters as a timepiece is what it’s like using Apple Watch to check the time. My big concern, from the get-go, is the fact that Apple Watch’s screen remains off until you tap the screen (or one of the buttons) or it detects, via its accelerometer and gyroscope (and perhaps other sensors?) that you’ve moved your wrist into a “tell the time” position. I’m generally wary of “magic” features, and a watch that detects when you’re looking at it is “magic”.

This feature, which Apple calls “Activate on Wrist Raise” works pretty damn well. It’s not perfect, alas, but it’s far more accurate than I feared it would be. The way it seems to work is that if the watch thinks you’re looking at the face, it turns the screen on for about 6 seconds, then turns it off again — even if you’re still holding your wrist in the looking-at-it position. If you turn the display on by tapping the screen or pressing the side button or digital crown, it stays on for about 17 seconds before turning off. I presume the difference is because it’s far more likely that you’ll trigger a false positive for a wrist raise than that you’ll accidentally tap the screen or press one of the buttons. So, the display only stays on for 6 seconds for a wrist raise to avoid wasting battery life for false positives.

In Settings: General: Activate on Wrist Raise, you can turn this feature off. (It’s on by default, and I think the overwhelming majority of users will keep it on.) When it’s on, you can also specify where you go when the screen activates: Clock Face (the default) or Last Used App. Let’s say you’re using the Messages app. When you’re done, you just lower your wrist, and the display will soon go to sleep. By default, after 30 seconds, the next time the display wakes up you’ll be back at the clock face. (Unless you wake it back up within a few seconds of it going to sleep — in that case it does the right thing and keeps you where you were, regardless of your settings.) If you change this to “Last Used App”, you’ll instead be right back where you were when the display went to sleep. “Last Used App” makes Apple Watch work more like an iOS device. But it’s not an iOS device, and I think Apple’s default here is correct.

I wish, though, for one more setting: I’d like an option for the display to stay on for a longer duration with Wrist Raise turned on. Battery life on Apple Watch has been fine (see below for details) — more than good enough that, for me at least, it would still get through the day with room to spare even if the display remained on for the same 17-second-or-so duration with Wrist Raise detection as it does for a button push or screen tap.

I’ve worn a watch every day since I was in 7th grade, almost 30 years ago. I’m used to being able to see the time with just a glance whenever there is sufficient light. Apple Watch is somewhat frustrating in this regard. Even when Wrist Raise detection works perfectly, it takes a moment for the watch face to appear. There’s an inherent tiny amount of lag that isn’t there with a regular watch.

Some other specific examples. I was in New York last week, and stopped to have coffee with a friend in the afternoon. He had a meeting to get to, and I wanted to catch a 4:00 train home to Philadelphia. I was sitting on a low bench, leaning forward, elbows on my knees. It got to 3:00 or so, and I started glancing at my watch every few minutes. But it was always off, because my wrist was already positioned with the watch face up. The only way I could check the time was to artificially flick my wrist or to use my right hand to tap the screen — in either case, a far heavier gesture than the mere glance I’d have needed with my regular watch.

Similarly, it turns out I regularly check the time on my watch while working at my desk, typing. I didn’t even know I had this habit until this week, when it stopped working for me because I was wearing an Apple Watch. Again, because in this position the watch face is already up, the display remains off. My wrist doesn’t move when I want to check the time with my fingers on the keyboard — only my head and eyes do. And yes, my Mac shows the time in the menu bar. I can’t help that I have this habit, and Apple Watch works against it.

Here’s one more scenario. I grind my coffee right before I brew it. I put a few scoops of coffee in my grinder, cap it, and press down with my right hand to engage the grinder. I then look at my left wrist to check that 20 or so seconds have expired. But with Apple Watch, the display keeps turning off every 6 seconds. There are ways around this — I could switch to the stopwatch, start it, and then start grinding my coffee. But my habit is not to even think about my watch or the time until after I’ve already started grinding the beans, at which point my right hand is already occupied pressing down on the lid to the grinder.

One more ding against Apple Watch as a watch: every other watch I’ve ever owned, with the exception of my beloved boyhood Superman mechanical watch, has been sufficiently water resistant to wear while swimming. Apple describes Apple Watch’s water resistance thus:

Apple Watch is splash and water resistant but not waterproof. You can, for example, wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended. Apple Watch has a water resistance rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529.

I understand why this is difficult: Apple Watch has a speaker and a microphone, a side button, and — perhaps trickiest of all water resistance-wise — the digital crown. But I’m used to wearing a watch I can wear while swimming without any worries.

There is also one scenario where Apple Watch is far superior to my regular watches when checking the time: in the dark. Also, though it sounds trivial, I enjoy the perfect 60 FPS smoothness of Apple Watch’s second hand — a smoothness no mechanical watch could ever match.

For non-watch wearers, Apple Watch’s functionality as a timepiece should be just fine. Flicking your wrist or tapping the screen is far more convenient than taking your iPhone out of your pocket or bag to check the time. But for regular watch wearers, it’s going to take some getting used to, and it’s always going to be a bit of an inconvenience compared to an always-glance-able watch. It’s a fundamental conflict: a regular watch never turns off, but a display like Apple Watch’s cannot always stay on.

Time telling is where Apple Watch fares worst compared to traditional watches. That was inevitable. The primary purpose of traditional watches is telling time. Apple Watch is a general purpose computing device, for which telling time is an important, but not primary, use.

In short, I think Apple Watch might be a tougher sell to current watch wearers than non-watch wearers. Non-watch wearers have an open wrist, and if they cared about the glance-able convenience of an always-visible watch dial, they would be wearing a traditional watch already. Watch wearers, on the other hand, already have something on their wrist that Apple Watch needs to replace,3 and the reason they already have a watch on their wrist is that they care about telling time at a glance — something Apple Watch is (and only ever will be, I suspect) merely OK at, not great at.

The Object

The review unit loaned to me by Apple is the 42 mm stainless steel watch with link bracelet. They asked, and that was the size and bracelet style I requested. They also loaned me a Sport Band (white — they didn’t ask for a color preference).

It has the finest fit and finish of any Apple product I’ve ever used. It is a wonderfully well-constructed and designed object. Everything about it feels good, and material-wise, it looks great. The side button has a very nice clickiness, and the digital crown feels great as you spin it. (The digital crown does feel somewhat different than I recall from my hands-on time back in September, but that could be faulty memory on my part. My recollection from September was that it had more of an oily feel, more lubricity.)

The link bracelet is quite comfortable, and the user-removable links work as well as advertised for sizing it to fit. The clasp is elegant and clever. The link bracelet is very good — but I expected it to be very good.

The Sport Band is a downright revelation — I’d go so far as to call it the most comfortable watch band I’ve ever worn. I’ve rolled my eyes at Apple’s use of fluoroelastomer in lieu of rubber to describe the material of these bands, but it truly does have a premium, richly supple feel to it. The way the end of the band tucks under the other side of the strap — a design Marc Newson first used at Ikepod — is brilliant. Up until now, it struck me as odd that the $10,000 Edition models came with the same bands4 as the entry-model $349/399 Sport watches. Having worn it, it now strikes me the other way around — that the $349/399 Sport watches are equipped with straps that can genuinely be described as luxurious, fluoroelastomer or not.

At first, I found swapping watch bands to be a bit fiddly. I can see why Apple wasn’t allowing anyone to do so in the hands-on areas at the press events. But once you do it a few times, you get the hang of it. They really are rather easy to remove, yet they feel very secure once clicked into place. My advice: pay attention to the angle of the slot as you slide them into place.

In most lighting conditions, the entire face of the watch, regardless if the display is on or off, appears uniformly black. In bright sunlight and certain severe indoor lighting, you can see the display apart from the surrounding bezel. But in most cases, Apple Watch doesn’t look like a gadget with a display — it looks like a watch with a black face. This however, is another difference from traditional watches. A high-end mechanical watch looks better in direct sunlight — the more light, the better you can see its details. With Apple Watch, bright light exposes the truth behind its seemingly seamless black face.

Functionality aside — a big thing to put aside, but bear with me — I would not choose a rectangular-faced watch. But you can’t put functionality aside — the whole point of Apple Watch is that it does many things that have never been possible with a traditional watch, and most of those features are better suited to with a rectangular display. A rectangular display can fit a circular watch face; a circular display is inherently ill-suited for anything other than radial dials like watch hands or the gauges on a dashboard.

For all the variety in watch bands and clock faces that Apple is offering — not to mention what is surely a coming tidal wave of third-party straps and bands — the most striking thing about Apple Watch is its singular gender-neutral shape. In addition to size differences, most traditional watches embrace decidedly male or female design cues; Apple Watch distinguishes itself by embracing neither. It thus cuts a distinctive and unabashedly modern figure on the wrist.

The quality of Apple Watch simply as an object is meaningful. When you wear something, it matters how it feels, and it matters how you think it looks. And much like with time-telling as a feature, Apple Watch may well appeal more to those who aren’t currently watch wearers than to those who are.

Battery Life

After more than a week of daily use, Apple Watch has more than alleviated any concerns I had about getting through a day on a single charge. I noted the remaining charge when I went to bed each night. It was usually still in the 30s or 40s. Once it was still over 50 percent charged. Once, it was down to 27. And one day — last Thursday — it was all the way down to 5 percent. But that day was an exception — I used the watch for an extraordinary amount of testing, nothing at all resembling typical usage. I’m surprised the watch had any remaining charge at all that day. I never once charged the watch other than while I slept.

That said, compared to a traditional watch, daily charging is terrible. Most quartz watches run for several years on a $10 battery. Mechanical automatic watches are self-winding — their mainsprings stay wound from the natural motion of your arm while you wear them. I have a Citizen Eco-Drive watch powered by solar energy that I bought six years ago and without ever having done a thing to power it other than expose it to light, it still keeps nearly perfect time.

Here’s how Apple describes the watch’s magnetic inductive charger:

You’ll want to use Apple Watch all day long. So we gave it a battery that lasts up to 18 hours and made charging it at the end of the day utterly effortless. In fact, our goal was to make Apple Watch easy to charge in the dark. Without looking. While being only partially awake. We arrived at a solution that combines our MagSafe technology with inductive charging. It’s a completely sealed system free of exposed contacts. And it’s very forgiving, requiring no precise alignment. You simply hold the connector near the back of the watch, where magnets cause it to snap into place automatically.

I find every word of that description (including the 18 hours of battery life) to be accurate and free of hyperbole. I’d love to see a charging system like this for the iPhone.

Health and Fitness

With time-telling and with the watch as a personal object, a statement of style, Apple is playing defense. Apple Watch is competing with traditional watches that are unbeatable in those regards. Apple has acquitted themselves well in both regards — adequately in terms of telling time, and very well in terms of the watch as an object of style and design.

In every other regard, Apple Watch is doing things traditional watches do poorly or can’t do at all. Health and fitness monitoring is one such area. These features are not something I am suited to review in depth. But I’m not the person to review these features extensively. I don’t own any fitness tracking devices, and I don’t have much of an interest in them. To me, Apple Watch’s health and fitness tracking features might be like what the iPhone’s camera is to someone with no interest in photography. I’m glad it’s there, and I’ll surely wind up using it in some ways, but it’s not a reason why I would buy it in the first place.

Clearly, much thought was put into the fitness reminders and achievements. I haven’t changed any of the defaults, and it feels like Apple has struck a careful balance between successfully motivating me to move (and stand) more throughout the day, without crossing over the line to badgering.

I sit while I write, and it usually takes me a long time to work up some momentum. Apple Watch’s “It’s time to stand” reminders — as helpful though they may be for my well-being — wreak wreck havoc on my productivity if I pay attention to them while I’m in the flow. I’ve started ignoring them while writing, but if I’m doing anything else while at my desk, I stand up when the watch tells me to. Handoff is helpful in this regard — if I’m reading something in Safari, I’ll just use Handoff to send it to my iPhone or iPad and continue reading while I wander around the house for a few minutes.

In addition to the allure of carrying (well, wearing) fewer standalone devices — step counter, heart rate monitor, etc. — Apple Watch’s fitness tracking features have the benefit of the iPhone serving as an intelligent central hub for the data. For example, if you walk around wearing only your Apple Watch, then walk around with both the watch and your iPhone in your pocket, then take off the watch and walk some more carrying only the phone — the stats aggregated in the Activity app on your iPhone seems to keep all this straight and do the right thing. Steps neither get missed nor counted twice. This could prove useful for someone who wants to wear an Apple Watch only while working out, but who carries an iPhone the rest of the day. You should get accurate overall statistics for the day.

Taptic Engine, Force Touch, and the Digital Crown

At Apple Watch’s introduction and several times since, Apple has emphasized that each breakthrough product in the company’s history, starting with the Macintosh, has required new input technology to support the interaction design. The mouse for the Mac. The click wheel for the iPod. Multitouch for the iPhone. (Unmentioned: the stylus for the Newton.) Apple invented none of these things (with the possible exception of the click wheel), but Apple was the first to bring each of them to the mass market.

For Apple Watch, Apple is billing the Digital Crown as the breakthrough input device. And, to be sure, there’s no other watch, smart or otherwise, with a crown like this. Eight years of daily iPhone use had me swiping the Apple Watch touchscreen to scroll at first, but I quickly learned to adopt the digital crown instead. It truly is a good and clever idea, and, presuming it is patent-protected strongly enough, the lack of a digital crown is going to put competitors at a disadvantage. You can scroll the screen by swiping it, but scrolling the crown is better.

But fundamentally, what’s novel about the digital crown is the context of the wrist. As a concept, it’s pretty much the same idea as a scroll wheel on a mouse — you rotate it up and down to scroll/zoom, and you press it to click.

To me, the breakthrough in Apple Watch is the Taptic Engine and force touch. Technically, they’re two separate things. The Taptic Engine allows Apple Watch to tap you; force touch allows Apple Watch to recognize a stronger press from your finger. But they seem to go together. hand-in-hand. The new MacBook trackpad has both haptic feedback and recognition of force touches, and Apple Watch has both, too. I don’t think Apple will ever release a device that has one but not the other.

This is the introduction of a new dimension in input and output, and for me, it’s central to the appeal of Apple Watch. By default, Apple Watch has sounds turned on for incoming notifications. I can see why this is the default, but in practice, I keep sounds turned off all the time, 5 not just in contexts where I typically silence my phone. Taps are all I need for notifications. They’re strong enough that you notice them, but subtle enough that they don’t feel like an interruption. When my phone vibrates, it feels like it’s telling me, Hey, I need you now. When the Apple Watch taps me, it feels like it’s telling me, Hey, when you get the chance, I’ve got something for you.

Taps go hand-in-hand hand in hand with force touch. When you initiate a force touch, tap, the watch gives you haptic feedback — thus there’s no confusion whether you tapped hard enough to qualify as a force touch. (Force touches also carry visual feedback — on any force touch in any context, the display animates back in a “bounce”, even in contexts where force touch has no meaning. Also, I believe that on Apple Watch, force touch has no location — the only target for force touch is the entire display. There’s never any scenario where you force touch this button or that button. Makes sense on a display this small.) The Taptic Engine meaning.) The taptic engine also ties in with the digital crown. Scroll to the end of a list and Apple Watch has a rubber band “bounce” animation, much like iOS. But on Apple Watch, the rubber band animation coincides with haptic feedback that somehow conveys the uncanny sensation that the digital crown suddenly has more tension. It feels like you’re stretching a rubber band. Now that I’m getting used to this on Apple Watch, it makes the haptic-less rubber band end-of-scrollview bounce on iPhone and iPad feel thin.

And without taps, Apple Watch is rather dull. The first unit I received from Apple seemingly had a hardware defect. Taps worked at first, but I found them surprisingly weak — so weak they were easy to miss, even with the watch strapped relatively snugly to my wrist. By the end of the first day, taps weren’t working at all. Apple sent me a replacement unit the next day, and it was like an altogether different experience. Without the Taptic Engine, Apple Watch is not a compelling device.

Digital Touch

Which brings us to the last of Apple’s triumvirate of tentpole uses for Apple Watch: the “new way to connect with each other”.

Apple Watch also has old ways to communicate, like initiating phone calls and sending text messages. But the new ways are all about touch. Touch input from the sender, touch output to the recipient. And they only work between Apple Watches.

There are three forms, in increasing intimacy: doodles, taps, and your heartbeat. Touch communication. What the telephone was for voice, what video was for seeing, Apple Watch is for touch. No, you’re not really touching someone, but when you call someone, you’re not really hearing them, either. When you FaceTime them, you’re not really seeing them, you’re looking at a picture of them on a screen. But a phone call feels like you’re talking to someone. A FaceTime call feels like you’re looking at someone. And with digital touch on Apple Watch, it feels, in a very real sense, like you’re touching and being touched by another person.

Touch is an intimate sense. I see and hear dozens, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in a day. Most days, I touch only a few. Some days, I only touch two: my wife and my son.

Apple, as a company, is famously averse to extraneous hardware buttons. Sometimes they’re averse to useful hardware buttons (e.g. the mute switch/rotation lock that was removed from the latest iPads). Which makes the “side button” on Apple Watch all the more conspicuous. It serves other purposes — you double tap it to initiate an Apple Pay transaction, and you press it in conjunction with the digital crown to take a screenshot — but I don’t think this button would exist if not for the communication mode it invokes when you simply tap it. Apple thinks communication initiated from Apple Watch is important enough to justify that button. And I think that means digital touch.

I’m old enough, and cynical enough, that I rolled my eyes (at least figuratively) back in September when Apple first demonstrated sending taps and heartbeats to other Apple Watch users. But then I looked past my cynicism, and my eyes were opened.


You’re 16. You’re in school. You’re sitting in class. You have a crush on another student — you’ve fallen hard. You can’t stop thinking about them. You suspect the feelings are mutual — but you don’t know. You’re afraid to just come right out and ask, verbally — afraid of the crushing weight of potential rejection. But you both wear an Apple Watch. So you take a flyer and send a few taps. And you wait. Nothing in response. Dammit. Why are you so stupid? Whoa — a few taps are sent in return, along with a hand-drawn smiley face. You send more taps. You receive more taps back. This is it. You send your heartbeat. It is racing, thumping. Your crush sends their heartbeat back.

You’re flirting. Not through words. Not through speech. Physically flirting, by touch. And you’re not even in the same classroom. Maybe you don’t even go to the same school.

I’m not saying digital touch is only for teenagers. I’m not saying it’s only for flirting. But the scenario above exemplifies the ways that digital touch opens the door to forms of remote communication that most of us haven’t ever considered. Non-verbal, non-visual, physical communication across any distance. This could be something big.

If you’re the only person you know with an Apple Watch, your timekeeping will still be precise, your activity tracking will still be accurate — but digital touch as a form of communication will be pointless. Digital touch only works, only becomes a thing, if Apple Watch becomes a thing. Digital touch is not designed for an isolated product. It is designed as a tentpole feature for a hit product with widespread appeal and adoption. The single most innovative feature of Apple Watch — the most intimate feature of the company’s most personal device — will only matter if some of the people you care most about wear one too.

  1. My case for why RIM was screwed from back in 2008, while the Blackberry was still flying high in terms of growth and market share, boiled down to just this point. 

  2. My theory: watch wearers, even casual ones, tend to notice the watches other people wear. Non-watch wearers don’t, and don’t even notice whether other people are even wearing a watch at all. 

  3. Sure, in theory one could wear a traditional watch on one wrist and an Apple Watch on the other, but that strikes me as severely uncouth. 

  4. Well, nearly the same bands — the Edition Sports bands have solid gold pins.  

  5. Conspicuously absent in this nearly 6,000-word review is any mention of Apple Watch’s user interface or interaction model. That’s not because I don’t have significant comments, but because I have so many. It’ll be another full review unto itself. But I might as well explain how to toggle the mute switch. From the watch face, swipe up to show Glances. Glances, effectively, are like widgets. The leftmost (first) Glance is locked in place: it’s like Control Center on iOS, with four controls: toggles for Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, and Mute, and a “find my iPhone” button that makes your paired iPhone play a sound. 

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2426 days ago
Excellent and very interesting review of the iWatch.
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Why Killer Whales Go Through Menopause But Elephants Don’t

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Last summer, I met Granny. I was on a whale-watching boat that had sailed south from Vancouver Island, in search of a famous and well-studied group of killer whales (orcas). Two hours after we set off, we started seeing black fins scything through the unusually calm and glassy water. We saw a dozen individuals in all, and our guide identified them by the shape of their fins and the white saddle patches on their backs. Granny, for example, has a distinctive half-moon notch in her dorsal fin.

Seeing her, I felt an intense and solemn respect. She is the oldest member of the group, perhaps the oldest orca on the planet. Her true age is unknown, but a commonly quoted estimate puts her at 103, which would make her a year older than the Titanic, and far more durable. Imagine all that she has seen in that time: the generations of her children and grandchildren; the countless pursuits of fleeing salmon; the increasingly noisy presence of fishermen, scientists and gawking tourists. Decades of knowledge and wisdom live in her brain. Ad that knowledge might explain one of the most unusual features of killer whale biology—their menopause.

Animals almost always continue to reproduce until they die. There are just three exceptions that we know of: humans, short-finned pilot whales, and killer whales. In all three species, females lose the ability to have children, but continue living for decades after. That’s menopause. Female killer whales go through in their 30s or 40s. Why? Why sacrifice so many future chances to pass on your genes to the next generation?

One of the most compelling explanations is called the grandmother hypothesis. Proposed in 1966, it suggests that older females forgo the option to bear more children so they can support their existing ones. By helping their children and grandchildren to survive and thrive, they still ensure that their genes cascade down the generations.

In 2012, Darren Croft at the University of Exeter found evidence to support this hypothesis. His collaborator Ken Balcomb had been studying the resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest since the 1970s; his astonishingly thorough census had captured the lives, deaths, and family ties of hundreds of these whales.

By ploughing through the data, student Emma Foster showed that if a male orca’s mother died before his thirtieth birthday, he was three times more likely to die the next year. If she passed away after he turned thirty, he was eight times more likely to subsequently snuff it. And if mum had gone through menopause, his odds of dying went up by fourteen times. The data were clear: mothers help their sons well into adulthood, and older mums are especially helpful.

“But that left a big unanswered question,” says Croft. “Old females are keeping their offspring alive, but how? What is it that they’re doing to confer the survival benefit?”

One reasonable guess involves salmon. Salmon makes up 97 percent of the diet of these particular orcas, and salmon are unpredictable. “They’re not distributed equally in space,” says Croft. “There are hotspots that differ with season, year, tide.” So just like human fishermen, the orcas need to know when and where to go to catch their fish. Do they stay at sea or swim inland? Do they go up their inlet or that one? The oldest females might be better at making these decisions, thanks to their accumulated experience.

To test this idea, the team turned to video footage of the southern residents, which Balcomb’s team had captured between 2001 to 2009. Graduate student Lauren Brent analysed over 750 hours of video to work out which whales were swimming together, and who was following whom. She also collected data from nearby fisheries to work out how big the salmon stocks were at different times.

She found that adult females are more likely to lead a group than adult males, and older post-menopasual females (who make up a fifth of the pod) were more likely to lead than younger ones. This bias was especially obvious in seasons when salmon stocks were low. And, as Foster found, there was a sex bias—males were more likely to follow their mother than females were.

These simple trends support the idea that the post-menopausal orcas are “repositories of ecological knowledge”. They lead the others to food, and their skills are especially important at times when food is scarce. And in doing so, they help their young to survive, which offsets the costs of forgoing any further reproduction. “That doesn’t tell us why they stop reproducing,” says Croft. “You could share information while still being reproductive. Why did they stop? That’s the next question.”

The same principles apply to human menopause, too. Some scientists have suggested that human menopause is merely a side effect of our longer lifespans, brought about by medicine and sanitation. But that can’t be right. Among many hunter-gatherers, like the Ache of Paraguay or the Hadza of Tanzania, around half of women survive to 45, and continue living into their late 60s. Like killer whales, they live long after the stop reproducing. And like killer whales, the longer they live, the more they know. In 2001, anthropologist Jared Diamond wrote:

“Old people are the repositories of knowledge in preliterate societies. In my field studies of New Guinea birds, I start work in a new area by gathering the oldest hunters and quizzing them… When the hunters are stumped by my asking about some especially rare bird, they answer: “We don’t know, let’s ask the old man (or woman).” We go into another hut, where we find a blind and toothless old person who can describe a rare bird last seen 50 years ago. Some of that stored information is essential to the survival of the whole village, whose members include most living relatives of the old person. The information encompasses wisdom about how to survive dangers — such as droughts, crop failures, cyclones and raids — that occur at long intervals but that could kill the whole tribe if it did not know how to react.”

Why, then, don’t elephants go through menopause? They are also long-lived animals that stay in family groups, and the old females—the matriarchs—are vital. They are better at recognising friendly faces and they know the best anti-lion moves. They provide their herds with the same benefits that orcas like Granny bestow upon their pods.

But resident killer whales differ from elephants in one critical respect: their sons and daughters stay in the groups where they were born. This means that as a female grows older, her pod becomes increasingly full of her own children and grandchildren. Over time, she becomes increasingly related to her neighbours, and she shares more and more of her genes with her neighbours. This creates a powerful impetus to shift her efforts away from having more children, and towards helping her existing descendants.

That impetus doesn’t exist in elephants because their sons eventually leave their birth group to find new ones. Females become less related to their group-mates over time or, at least, no more related. A matriarch’s best bet, then, is to carry on reproducing until she dies.

And humans? Many anthropologists believed that we started off with female-biased dispersal—that is, daughters would leave to join new groups. “When she joins, she has zero relatedness to the rest of the group,” explains Croft. “But as she ages, she has offspring and her local relatedness increases.” Then again, other animals like hamadryas baboons and the Seychelles warbler also have female-biased dispersal and don’t go through menopause. “So, it’s not just about the dispersal patterns but also the role that old females can play in the group,” says Croft.

In killer whales, the old females might also be better at catching salmon, which they then share with their kin. Perhaps they understand the hierarchies and structures of other groups, and mediate fights between their sons and rivals. These ideas are harder to test. “We have so little information on them,” says Croft. “We see them at the surface and we know so little about their lives.”

Reference: Brent, Franks, Foster, Balcomb, Cant & Croft. 2015. Ecological Knowledge, Leadership, and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales. Current Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.01.037

More on menopause:

Why do killer whales go through menopause?

Did conflict between old and young women drive origin of menopause?

The heavy cost of having children

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2460 days ago
Incredibly fascinating
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Baby Sign Language: Does It Work?

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. What if babies could tell us what they want, before they start crying for it? Bring in baby signing, a system of symbolic hand gestures for key works such as “milk,” “hot” and “all gone” that are taught to hearing babies as a way to communicate before they can talk. The sign for milk, for example, is made by opening and closing the hand, while the sign for “more” by tapping the ends of the fingers together. Now new research
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2488 days ago
Baby Sign Language is completely useless. "…made no significant impact on their language development."
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What gambling monkeys teach us about human rationality

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We often make stupid choices when gambling, says Tom Stafford, but if you look at how monkeys act in the same situation, maybe there’s good reason.

When we gamble, something odd and seemingly irrational happens.

It’s called the ‘hot hand’ fallacy – a belief that your luck comes in streaks – and it can lose you a lot of money. Win on roulette and your chances of winning again aren’t more or less – they stay exactly the same. But something in human psychology resists this fact, and people often place money on the premise that streaks of luck will continue – the so called ‘hot hand’.

The opposite superstition is to bet that a streak has to end, in the false belief that independent events of chance must somehow even out. This is known as the gambler’s fallacy, and achieved notoriety at the Casino de Monte-Carlo on 18 August 1913. The ball fell on black 26 times in a row, and as the streak lengthened gamblers lost millions betting on red, believing that the chances changed with the length of the run of blacks.

Why do people act this way time and time again? We can discover intriguing insights, it seems, by recruiting monkeys and getting them to gamble too. If these animals make dumb choices like us, perhaps it could tell us more about ourselves.

First though, let’s look at what makes some games particularly likely to trigger these effects. Many results in games are based on a skill element, so it makes reasonable sense to bet, for instance, that a top striker like Lionel Messi is more likely to score a goal than a low-scoring defender.

Yet plenty of games contain randomness. For truly random events like roulette or the lottery, there is no force which makes clumps more or less likely to continue. Consider coin tosses: if you have tossed 10 heads in a row your chance of throwing another heads is still 50:50 (although, of course, at the point before you’ve thrown any, the overall odds of throwing 10 in a row is still minuscule).

The hot hand and gambler’s fallacies both show that we tend to have an unreasonable faith in the non-randomness of the universe, as if we can’t quite believe that those coins (or roulette wheels, or playing cards) really are due to the same chances on each flip, spin or deal.

It’s a result that sometimes makes us sneer at the irrationality of human psychology. But that conclusion may need revising.

Cross-species gambling

An experiment reported by Tommy Blanchard of the University of Rochester in New York State, and colleagues, shows that monkeys playing a gambling game are swayed by the same hot hand bias as humans. Their experiments involved three monkeys controlling a computer display with their eye-movements – indicating their choices by shifting their gaze left or right. In the experiment they were given two options, only one of which delivered a reward. When the correct option was random – the same 50:50 chance as a coin flip – the monkeys still had a tendency to select the previously winning option, as if luck should continue, clumping together in streaks.

The reason the result is so interesting is that monkeys aren’t taught probability theory as school. They never learn theories of randomness, or pick up complex ideas about chance events. The monkey’s choices must be based on some more primitive instincts about how the world works – they can’t be displaying irrational beliefs about probability, because they cannot have false beliefs, in the way humans can, about how luck works. Yet they show the same bias.

What’s going on, the researchers argue, is that it’s usually beneficial to behave in this manner. In most of life, chains of success or failure are linked for good reason – some days you really do have your eye on your tennis serve, or everything goes wrong with your car on the same day because the mechanics of the parts are connected. In these cases, the events reflect an underlying reality, and one you can take advantage of to predict what happens next. An example that works well for the monkeys is food. Finding high-value morsels like ripe food is a chance event, but also one where each instance isn’t independent. If you find one fruit on a tree the chances are that you’ll find more.

The wider lesson for students of human nature is that we shouldn’t be quick to call behaviours irrational. Sure, belief in the hot hand might make you bet wrong on a series of coin flips, or worse, lose a pot of money. But it may be that across the timespan in evolution, thinking that luck comes in clumps turned out to be useful more often than it was harmful.

This is my BBC Future article from last week. The original is here

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2490 days ago
Monkey gamblers are as stupid as human gamblers, but with good reason
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