April 19, 2019

VIPKid: The rise of online tutoring in China for learning English


From the Economist:


Amanda Spikes, aged 27, sits in her tiny bedroom in Brooklyn, New York, talking through her headset to eight-year-old Joey in Hebei province, northern China.

On the wall behind her are felt hangings that read "Team Amanda" and "VIPKid, the company for which she works.

On the screen are images of her, Joey, and some teaching materials.

"Happy New Year, Joey!" says Ms. Spikes, enunciating very clearly.

Then she sings him a little song: "I like food, I like fruit, fruit tastes good in the morning," and claps when Joey repeats it.

This lesson is going better than the last one, when Joey messed up the technology by licking the iPad screen.

VIPKid is the biggest of a number of companies using technology to provide teachers in the West for Asian children who want to learn English.

Stephenie Lee, a senior product lead, describes the company as "the Uber of education… We provide the limos and the trained chauffeurs."

Its 60,000 teachers are mostly people with classroom experience who prefer the freelance life.

Amanda has 10-12 regular customers and teaches five or six 25-minute lessons a day, for which she gets paid $10.50 a time.

Since it was founded in 2013, VIPKid has won half a million customers.

It provides 180,000 lessons a day. At 140 yuan ($21) each (less for bulk purchases), these add up to revenues of over $1bn, which cover, aside from the teachers’ salaries, the costs of the platform and customer acquisition, although Ms, Lee says they get most of their clients through word of mouth.

VIPkid provides a curriculum and materials to help teachers "make the best of that little rectangle," she explains.

That includes digital costumes in which teachers dress up to amuse their pupils.

Online tutoring works better than older people might expect.

Nine-year-old Zhang Yutong in Tianjin wasn't making much progress in her 30-strong class at school; now, says her mother, "I feel she is truly happy when she talks to VIPKid's tutors. She is quite willing to express herself."

Yutong's teacher, Jessica, asks her to propose an alternative ending to the gentle tale of Miss Snowball's cat.

"The cat could die," says Yutong cheerfully, making them both laugh.

Ms. Spikes says she has a better connection with her online pupils than she did when teaching an actual classroom-full of them in South Korea: "I feel really invested in these little kids."

Her youngest pupil, astonishingly, is three.

"Getting her to make the right sounds is a really big thing," she says.

But she admits that the parents face a bigger challenge, just getting the child to sit still.

For her, the flexibility the job offers is crucial.

"I love to travel. I've done it from Korea, Mexico, Spain, Canada. I couldn't do the travel without the job."

She says the company also attracts disabled or retired people who would not be able or willing to go into a classroom — but who, thanks to technology, have joined a new class of American exporters to China.

April 19, 2019 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book Cover Challenge

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Wrote Guy Trebay in the New York Times: "This innocuous game asks users to post photos of book covers on a social media platform every day for a week. It quickly becomes, as one participant put it, 'a fall down a very welcome rabbit hole.'"

From CindyGoesBeyond: "The rules are simple. For seven days, post a photo of a book cover on Facebook or Instagram, without including an explanation or a review. Then tag a friend to play along."

April 19, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Periodic Table Shower Curtain

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Bathe in your element.

From the website:


You cannot deny its usefulness.

How many times have you showered wondering what is the right order of actinides or which is heavier: calcium or magnesium?

The horror?

Now you can enjoy a long bath and brush up on your knowledge of transition metals or lanthanides.

Jog those brain cells with some steaming hot water and a giant six-foot tall periodic table printed in large friendly letters and colors.

Features and Details:

• 71" square

• Polyester



April 19, 2019 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 18, 2019

The best things in life are free: The wisdom of Garfield


April 18, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BehindTheMedspeak: Two spoonfuls of honey may limit damage from button batteries

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That's news to me: since button battery swallowing by little kids became a thing, all I've ever seen have been stories about life-threatening complications and deaths from their ingestion.

From the New York Times:


There has been a dramatic rise in the number of young children ingesting coins, toys and other foreign objects, including potentially fatal button batteries, a new study has found.

According to the report, which was published last week in the journal Pediatrics, the rate of foreign-body ingestions among children under the age of 6 in the United States nearly doubled between 1995 and 2015, rising by about 92% during the 21-year study period — and increasing by about 4% annually.

"It is a very upward trajectory," said Dr. Danielle Orsagh-Yentis, the lead author of the study and a pediatric gastroenterology motility fellow at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, calling the trend "jarring."The researchers analyzed nearly 30,000 cases where children under 6 had ingested foreign objects.

They then estimated that more than 759,000 children had been evaluated in United States emergency departments for such ingestions during the two decades studied, and the number of estimated cases grew from more than 22,000 in 1995 to nearly 43,000 in 2015.

It was unclear how much of the increase could be attributed to improvements in case reporting over the years.

But Dr. Orsagh-Yentis said she thought the rise was partly because of the proliferation of electronics with button batteries, which are found in a multitude of household items including thermometers, remote control, and toys.


As a whole, battery ingestions increased 150-fold during the study period, the researchers reported.

Button batteries, which can be fatal if ingested, were found to be the most common type of battery that young children swallowed.

"They're in everyone's house, whether they realize it or not," Dr. Orsagh-Yentis said.

When a battery is swallowed, it can trigger a series of chemical reactions that could result in burns, causing "significant tissue injury even within two hours," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and potentially lead to perforation or hemorrhage.

The A.A.P. suggests giving two teaspoons of honey to children older than 1 year who have recently swallowed button batteries.

Researchers have found that it can help protect the tissue near the battery and reduce injuries. 

But doctors warn not to delay medical treatment."It's definitely something you don't wait on. It should be a trip to the emergency room," said Dr. Aldo Londino, a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "Early detection is the key to effective treatment."

Foreign-body ingestions are common "in a general sense" among children under 6, Dr. Orsagh-Yentis said.

In 2017, these ingestions were the fourth most common reason for calls to poison control centers in the United States for children in this age group, according to the National Poison Data System, and accounted for nearly 64,000 reports.

At Mount Sinai, Dr. Londino said he had noticed a trend where he and other doctors were "getting called more and more for foreign body removal."

In the last six months, he said, he has removed a marble; the bottom half of a Lego man, "which was a challenge because of the shape"; and a coin — each from the esophagus.

Getting to the doctor quickly is critical for safe and successful extraction, he added, especially given how dangerous some objects can be.

According to the study, the most commonly ingested items were coins, most often pennies.

In 2015, coins accounted for more than 58% of ingestions, and of all of the patients hospitalized during the two decades studied, nearly 80% had ingested coins.

Other types of objects ingested included toys, jewelry, nails, screws, hair products, magnets, and Christmas decorations.

Most of the ingestions occurred among children ages 1 to 3, the study said.

Jewelry and hair products were disproportionately ingested by girls, whereas boys were more likely to ingest screws and nails.

The researchers used data obtained from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which reports on product-related injuries treated in emergency departments in about 100 hospitals in the United States.

The study said that because the data did not include children who were cared for by their primary care providers (nor those who made calls to poison-control centers or who didn’t seek medical treatment at all) the actual number of children who swallowed such objects may be larger. 

Dr. Orsagh-Yentis said the study underscores the need for more vigilance and to keep unsafe products as safely stored as possible.

"That means keeping them at elevated locations so the children can't get to them as easily, keeping them in secure locations and, particularly, keeping them out of children's sight so they're not even thinking about them," she said.

If parents believe that a child might have swallowed something dangerous, Dr. Orsagh-Yentis recommended bringing the physician an example of the object or the packaging it came in if there is time to do so.

Taking a picture of the type of object swallowed can also be "immeasurably helpful" to a doctor, she added.

April 18, 2019 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Circumventing Paywalls

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[Robert Cottrell is the editor of The Browser]

April 18, 2019 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Christo to wrap Arc de Triomphe in Paris


From Dezeen:


Artist Christo will finally realize plans to envelop Paris' Arc de Triomphe in 25,000 square meters of silvery recyclable fabric and 7,000 meters of red rope.

L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped was first conceived by Christo and Jeanne Claude, his late art partner and wife, in 1962.


Now, after nearly 60 years, the architectural artwork will be realised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou.

It will be on view to the public for two weeks — April 6-19, 2020.


The project will see the iconic 49.5 meter-tall monument on the Champs-Élysées sheathed in a silvery blue fabric made from recyclable polypropylene, secured with 7,000 metres of red rope.

It will be run in collaboration with the Centre des Monuments Nationaux and the Centre Pompidou — the latter of which will also be dedicating an exhibition to Christo and Jeanne-Claude starting March 18, 2020.


Christo has illustrated the anticipated result in a series of drawings and photographs overlaid with pencil, wax crayon, and enamel paint.

The spaces beneath the famous arch, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, will be maintained and accessible throughout the period when the artwork is in situ.


L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped will be the first Wrapped piece realised since Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009.

It comes 35 years after the duo wrapped the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris.

The temporary artwork will be entirely funded by Christo through the sale of his preparatory studies, drawings, and collages of the project, as well as scale models, works from the 1950s and 1960s, and original lithographs.

Independently funding their own public and free-to-view work was always central to the mission of the art duo.

"I won't give a millimeter of my freedom [away] and damage my art," Christo told Dezeen in a 2018 interview.

The Centre Pompidou exhibition, which will run until June 15, 2020, will explore the historical context of the period during which Christo and Jeanne-Claude lived and worked in Paris from 1958 to 1964, as well the story of the Pont-Neuf Wrapped project from 1975 to 1985.

In 1995 the Wrapped project saw the artists cover the German Reichstag in Berlin with 100,000 square metres of silver fabric and blue rope in 1995 for two weeks.

Christo's latest realised project was The London Mastaba — a 20-meter-high stack of brightly coloured barrels floating on the Serpentine Lake in London's Hyde Park, which the artist installed last summer as his first large-scale sculpture in the UK.

The artist told his life story and discussed some of his best-known works in an exclusive two-part video filmed with Dezeen last year.

"Many people have difficulty reading our projects," he said. "They're not normal sculptures, they're not normal paintings. They're many things."

April 18, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wearable Futon — "Sleeping gear coat, bed for office"



From the website:



Whether you just want a way to get some sleep whenever the need takes you, or you want a way to sleep which means you are always ready to get up and go whatever emergency arises, the Wearable Futon Air Mat Set is the most convenient and smartly designed item you could imagine for the task.

Ideal for having in the office when you are pulling an all-nighter, it fits into a compact folder to be pulled out and worn just like a kind of coat.

The coat-like wearable futon can be fastened at the neck and the bottoms of the legs folded up to adjust for different heights or to make it snugger in colder seasons.

The pack includes an air mat so you have a full blanket and futon set that is comfortable and quick to prepare (there's even an air pump included to help).

The wearable futon can be rolled up into a sack like a sleeping bag while the air bed-like mat flattens, making it super easy to store in the A4 file-sized pack.


Features and Details:

• Air mat (in use): 113" x 28"

• Air mat maximum load: 441 lbs.

• Wearable futon (in use): 63" x 24"

• Wearable futon coat weight: 1.5 lbs. 

• Materials: nylon, polyethylene, polyester

• Instructions: Japanese (but easy to understand)

• Includes air pump, sack/bag for futon, box for storage



April 18, 2019 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 17, 2019

Alternative Musical Keyboard




ipsa loquitur.

April 17, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

How I communicate with people


• Here: note direct link to my Twitter/YouTube/email in sidebar

• Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookofjoe — anyone in the world can tweet me or, if they prefer to do so privately, DM

• YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/bookofjoe 

• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bookofjoe/

• Muck Rack: https://muckrack.com/joseph-stirt-md


Though I have three (!) Instagram accounts, that's only because I still can't figure out how to easily post stuff. So don't bother with those. To make it easier for you not to bother, I'm not linking to them here.

April 17, 2019 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

When Origami Met Rocket Science


Origami master Robert J. Lang, 58, was a laser physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before moving to a private technology firm in Silicon Valley.

In 2001 he threw it all overboard in favor of origami.

Rachel Saslow's Washington Post story about Lang's remarkable journey follows.

Photos of Lang's work appear above and below.



Robert J. Lang had a good career as a laser physicist. He worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, researching semiconductor lasers used in fiber-optic communications, before switching to a private technology firm in Silicon Valley, where he held positions such as chief scientist and vice president of research and development.

Then in 2001, he gave it all up. To fold paper.

Lang, 58, is an origami master. Paper cranes? Pshaw. Try a rattlesnake with 1,500 scales, a life-size replica of comedian Drew Carey or an American flag that was photographed for the New York Times magazine. Lang is pushing the limits of what one can make by folding paper, but he's also a leader in an emerging field of study called computational origami, which he boils down to this question: "How do you use rules and math to create an object of art?"

"In both origami and science, you're discovering patterns and relationships that, in a sense, already existed before we discovered them," Lang says. "There's a joy of discovery and of being the first explorer in this little nook."

He and others are using the Japanese art form to solve scientific problems. About 20 years ago, for instance, Lang collaborated with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design a telescope lens that could go to space. Origami principles were ideal for the task because the lens, called the Eyeglass, needed to be big -- about the size of a football field -- once in space but also small enough to be shot into orbit by a rocket. A prototype demonstrated that hinged panes of glass could be used to compact the lens down to dimensions of no more than about 13 feet without degrading the optical performance. But the Eyeglass was never sent into space for lack of funding.

Lang has also worked on computer models for folding car air bags. Simulating air-bag deployment is important because otherwise auto manufacturers would have to crash a lot of cars to determine which ones are safe — an expensive prospect.

Oxford University researchers have used origami techniques to design stents, which must be small enough for doctors to thread through a blood vessel but then pop open big enough to hold the artery or vein open.

"The things we do for fun and pleasure turn out to have practical applications, and in the case of origami, it might save a life," Lang says.

An updated tradition


Art historians aren't sure when origami started, but traditional designs such as cranes and boats existed in the 1700s. The craft didn't change much until the middle of the 20th century, when Akira Yoshizawa inspired a renaissance in paper folding.

Yoshizawa, who died in 2005, developed a language of arrows and lines to show people how to fold different designs. Yoshizawa's instructions included no words, so anyone could understand them.

In the 1990s, the craze for origami morphed into what origamists refer to as "The Bug Wars." After figuring out that it was possible to fold paper into the shape of an insect, origamists began to one-up one another. Someone would fold a beetle with six legs, someone else would create one with eight legs and two antennae, and so on. The Bug Wars have "never really ended," says Lang. In the past few years, he has folded a flying katydid and two praying mantises mating.

There are different genres of origami so there are no "rules," per se, but Lang mostly creates single-sheet origami without any cutting, taping or gluing.

In 2003, Lang published "Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art," a book that has become the bible for complex origami designers; he calls it his magnum opus. (He has also published seven books of folding instructions.) The most recent addition to his oeuvre is Opus 571, a surfer on a surfboard folded from a dollar bill, a design he created for an advertising campaign for The Post. Lang's very first origami model was a variation on the traditional boat, which he designed at age 10.

While it might seem that a career as a Silicon Valley physicist would be more profitable than full-time origamist, Lang has no trouble making ends meet, with a full schedule of lectures plus book royalties, scientific commissions, art sales and commercial advertising projects, including origami creations for McDonald's, Mitsubishi and Toyota.

The wonk factor


Lang isn't the only math and science wonk enchanted by paper folding.

"I remember being 10 years old and unfolding an origami crane and looking at the crease pattern and thinking, 'There are all these nice geometric lines and points. There's got to be math here,' " recalls Tom Hull, an associate professor of mathematics at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. "But I had no clue what it was, because I was 10."

Today, Hull uses origami when he teaches, finding ways to tie it into to concepts in calculus, number theory, geometry and algebra. He says it's a quick way to engage his students and to help them understand vague concepts in a visual way. In 2006, he published "Project Origami," a book filled with activities that teachers can use in math classes.

"Kids are so afraid of math. The world is so afraid of math," Hull says. "But with origami, they're not thinking, 'I'm doing this scary math thing,' they're just folding paper. It's a neat way to break the barriers down."

While most advanced origamists turn to math to fold bigger and better models, Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor Erik Demaine turned to origami to find more difficult geometric problems to solve. In 1996, Demaine was starting a PhD in computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario (he was 15 at the time) and stumbled upon Lang's work. "I thought, 'Oh, that sounds cool. Maybe we can do something new.' "

Now, Lang and Demaine are working together on a mathematical proof of the tree method of origami design. (Their paper is so long now that they might end up publishing it as a book.) The tree method is the idea that origami models can be thought of as stick figures; for instance, an origami beetle's body is the trunk, and each leg is a branch. The proof would rule out the possibility that any origami figure could not be made using this method. Lang has released five versions of TreeMaker, a software program that allows origami artists to sketch stick figures and have their computer spit out a crease pattern that they can follow.

Separately, Demaine is researching the microbiological applications of origami. He suspects that the principles that govern origami might also dictate how protein molecules fold in our bodies -- a process that, when it goes wrong, has been linked to illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

"That would be the endpoint, to predict what nature is doing," Demaine says.

Demaine has three paper sculptures in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, works that he created with his father, visual artist Martin Demaine. In 2003, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" for computational origami. The $500,000 award cited him for "tackling and solving difficult problems related to folding and bending — moving readily between the theoretical and the playful, with a keen eye to revealing the former in the latter."

"It was more the recognition and acceptance that were meaningful," Demaine says. "Computational origami was initially a very crazy idea, and yet it has so many practical applications."


Lang, meanwhile, continues to spread the origami way. At a lecture at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Lang showed photos of his Black Forest Cuckoo Clock, a tree frog, a Roosevelt elk and more. Fittingly, the Walters partnered with Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute to bring him to the area.

April 17, 2019 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Kate Spade

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This wonderful ad appears in the April issue of Harper's Bazaar.

April 17, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

De-Motivational Pencils

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From the website:


The six pencils in this set all feature really un-motivational messages such as "False hope is better than no hope."

All rather entertaining, if not very productive.

6 HB pencils in a themed box.


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April 17, 2019 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

April 16, 2019

Facebook Gone Wild: "All your data are belong to us"

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A great April 10 BuzzFeed story by Katie Notopoulos lifted up one of the many rocks in the Facebook garden: what came to light wasn't pretty.

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Read it, then follow her instructions to take a trip down the rabbit hole wherein resides "all your data are belong to us."

April 16, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Historic Maps of Scotland in 3D

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From Atlas Obscura:


Mapmakers of yore worked hard to remind viewers that a given landscape was much less flat than the paper they were holding.

Cartographers employed contours, hachures, and other shading techniques to indicate slopes and varied terrain, and while these abstractions conveyed the general gist, if you had little else to go on, it could still be hard to glean the "reality of the landscape," writes Chris Fleet, map curator at the National Library of Scotland, in an email.

That nuance mattered, though: "The development of canals, roads, and railways, the location and growth of settlements, and patterns of population density, were often all influenced by relief," Fleet says.

These days, of course, much of the planet has been mapped by satellites, and viewers can parachute in and survey jagged ranges and humped hills the way birds see them.

Meanwhile, a number of historic map collections have rolled out tools for engaging with old maps in new ways, through swooping, zooming, and more.

The National Library of Scotland is among them, and recently revamped its 3D tool by dialing up the vertical exaggeration.

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When the library’s 3D viewer, which uses open-source Cesium ion data, launched in 2016, cartographic explorers could tweak altitude, tilt, and orientation.

Verticality was fixed, though, meaning that any landscape you soared above didn’t look as rugged as it does in real life.

Now that the tool has been refined for verticality, draping old maps over elevation data can help viewers picture gradations more easily.

"Not just where the real heights of the mountains are, or where the valleys are," Fleet writes, "but all the more subtle variations in terrain, too."

Which maps are the best candidates for this treatment?

"It needs to be [one] that can be geo-referenced fairly well, so it locates accurately in the right place and combines with the right elevations," Fleet says.

Beyond that, Fleet notes, maps that used various colors to represent relief are often striking.

Take, for instance, this one by the Edinburgh outfit John Bartholomew & Son, depicting scores of brown mountains flanking the green-blue Loch Lomond, or the detail below, which focuses on Loch Tay.


Soil maps — like this one, surveyed on the Island of Mull in 1972 — are also good contenders, because the hues, which represent different types of soil, tend to correspond to bands of altitude.

Rocky crags and summits are blue and purple, while steep swaths of scree are light brown.

Lower knolls are lighter greens and browns, Fleet says, freckled with moraine from the last Ice Age.

Damp, rain-logged expanses of peat are various shades of purple. While soil doesn't boil down to elevation alone, Fleet adds — rocks and land use play a role, too — "the significant elements of altitude and slope can be easily brought out by draping the map over 3D elevations."

April 16, 2019 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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