This smart light from GE works with Alexa to make your life brighter (and easier)

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Use Alexa to control your ring light.
Use Alexa to control your ring light.

Image: GE

TL;DR: Light up your home with the GE Sol WiFi Alexa Enabled Smart Light, on sale for $89.99 as of Jan. 17, giving you a 55% savings.


You’re probably used to ring lights being associated with TikTokers or YouTubers who use the inventive design to, well, make them look better on screen. You may have even noticed someone on a Zoom call with a bright circle illuminated in their pupils, which is another dead giveaway that someone’s using a ring light. But if you’ve ever found yourself leaving yours on to illuminate your space, there’s actually a ring light on the market that’s specifically made for home decor. The futuristic lamp is designed to be left on and helps cozy up a little corner of your house.

Even better, this one from GE comes with Alexa-enabled abilities. The GE Sol (pronounced like soul) is the world’s first light product with Alexa built-in. That means you can use it for all the things you’d normally use your voice assistant for — like scheduling meetings, making grocery lists, playing your favorite music, and even updating you on the current weather. Clock radios are, after all, so 20 years ago.

The Sol features 360-degree omni-directional audio, which means you don’t have to invest in a Bluetooth speaker in addition to this light (or a separate Amazon Alexa device) if you don’t want to. It offers high-quality and immersive sound, so you can pare down on purchasing extra items. When you provide voice control for Alexa, it’ll hear you even from further away, since it includes two far-field microphones. It’s perfect for city living and can even be kept near a bustling, noisy window.

Here’s a look at everything the Sol can do:

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Normally, a light fixture that can do all of this and boasts innovative design to boot can run you close to $200 (or more). But for a limited time, the GE Sol is on sale for 55% off, knocking the price down to just $89.99.

Prices subject to change.

7 of the best online learning platforms to advance your career (or side hustle)

When we spend so much of our time online, we’re bound to learn something while clicking and scrolling. Discover something new with Mashable’s series I learned it on the internet.

In the past few years, technological advancements and high demand for accessible, low-cost education have led to ridiculous growth in the online learning sector. (For some perspective, experts predicted in 2018 that the e-learning industry would hit $325 billion by 2025 — that’s triple its revenue from ten years prior.) So, while the coronavirus pandemic didn’t launch the online learning boom, it sure didn’t hurt its case. 

Yet even after several semesters of mandatory distance learning, an important question lingers: Can an online education truly replace in-person learning? 

It’s not a universal panacea, but for many of us, absolutely — especially if you want to kickstart a career, move up in your current field, make the switch to a completely different industry, or pursue a new hobby.

What are the pros and cons of online learning?

According to BestColleges’ 2020 Online Education Trends report, just over half of students who pursue an online education instead of in-person learning do so for the sheer convenience factor: When you can learn from anywhere at your own pace, you’ve got more flexibility to study around other commitments (be it a job or family responsibilities) and play catchup on evenings and weekends.

Online learning programs, even whole-ass degrees, also tend to be significantly cheaper than their in-person counterparts. (Student loans? In this economy?) More on that in a moment.

Just over half of students who pursue an online education in favor of in-person learning do so for the sheer convenience factor.

Of course, online learning presents its own challenges. Zoom fatigue is very real, as many of us have learned. There are also distractions aplenty — good luck trying to slog through a boring assignment on the same device that could otherwise connect you to social media or run The Sims. It doesn’t help that most programs offer very little oversight from an instructor to keep you on task, either.

Overall, though, the benefits of online learning seem to outweigh any issues it poses: A whopping 94% of the students surveyed for that aforementioned trends report said online learning has (or will have) a positive return on investment, with 95% of them recommending online education to other prospective learners.

What kinds of online classes are out there?

Along with traditional online courses and degrees, which are restricted to students at certain universities and typically require an admissions process with prerequisites, you’ll also run into “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, their more affordable and widely available cousins.

MOOCs are virtual classes that are available to anyone with an internet connection; popular online courses can enroll thousands of students at any given time, hence the “massive” part. They’re often free, focus on a single topic, and usually feature pre-recorded, self-paced video lectures, though “synchronous” versions with real-time lessons by course creators are also a thing.

For the purpose of this piece, we’ll be focusing primarily on MOOCs and MOOC providers (or third-party online learning platforms). 

What does it mean if a class or school is “accredited”?

“Accredited” programs have been officially recognized and approved by some sort of institution after meeting a set of standards. Accreditation is basically the mark of a great reputation.

For what it’s worth, the vast majority of MOOCs and MOOC providers are not accredited (though the rare platform like Coursera will work with leading universities and companies to offer some accredited coursework). That doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely: Taking a MOOC online course can help you figure out whether you’re actually interested in a given subject or industry before you pursue it full-time (and spend a good amount of money doing so). Besides, any sort of professional development you do in your free time is a sign to employers that you’re a real go-getter.

Can I earn certificates online?

Most online learning platforms only dole out certificates of completion once you’re done with a class — sometimes for a fee, and sometimes in the in the form of an achievement “badge”/icon that can be displayed on social sites (which is an easy way to to showcase your achievements to prospective employers).

Those that do offer professional certificates in select subject areas are fewer and far between. If you want to go that route, look for platforms like Coursera that officially partner with colleges and business.

How much does it cost to take a MOOC?

Some good news: Tons of MOOCs are completely, totally free, though you’ll probably have to make an account on their hosting platforms to enroll.

Depending on the site, paid classes are usually either sold à la carte for anywhere from $20 to $200 apiece (see: Udemy) or as a part of an all-access subscription for a couple hundred bucks a year (hi, MasterClass). Note that most MOOC providers offer a mix of free and paid classes.

Relatedly, keep an eye out for platforms that offer enterprise plans for businesses and teams — you might be able to get your employer to pay for your continuing education.

Who teaches MOOCs?

It’s not ubiquitous, but many MOOCs are created and taught by industry experts, not trained teachers or professors who have put in years at a university. Instructor vetting also varies from platform to platform: Some require a thorough application with essays and video demonstrations of their teaching style, while others let just about anyone publish a class (barring explicit, offensive, or dangerous topic restrictions). 

This means coursework quality and production value can vary greatly from class to class even on the same site, which one of the biggest drawbacks to this type of learning.

All things considered, what are the best online learning platforms?

Now that you’re an expert on all things MOOC, keep reading to check out our top picks. 

Looking for the scoop on the best online learning platforms for kids, specifically? Click here.


Lifetime access to all course materials • Learn at your own pace • Student ratings are readily accessible on every course’s landing page • Certificates of completion available for paid classes • 30-day money-back guarantee • Offline viewing on the Udemy mobile app available for iOS and Android) • Frequent sales • Lots of free classes • Huge range of topics
Instructors are experts in their respective fields, but most aren’t actual teachers/professors
The most affordable way to dip your toes into a new industry or hobby.

Udemy

With tens of thousands of classes on both hard and soft skills, Udemy lets you curate your own education on a budget.

  • Accredited:
    No
  • Price:
    Select classes are free; paid courses range from $19.99 to $199.99
  • Free trial:
    No
  • Number of courses available:
    130,000+
  • Subject areas:
    Design, development, marketing, IT and software, personal development, business, photography, and music
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    Yes (Udemy for Business)
Udemy is an extremely popular online platform with hundreds of free video classes and tens of thousands of paid ones starting at just $19.99. (Pro tip: They can get even cheaper if you catch one of its regular sales.) Each class is sold à la carte, so you’ll only pay for the skills you really want to learn.
You’ve got plenty to choose from, too. Subject-wise, Udemy’s course “marketplace” covers the broadest range of personal and professional development topics we’ve seen — everything from finance, Python, and digital marketing to soapmaking and watercolor landscape paintings. Plus, they’re all self-paced and include lifetime access, in case you ever need a refresher; once you buy a class, the course material is yours to learn from and revisit anytime.
Here are the three most popular classes on Udemy as of Jan. 2021:

1-month free trial • Free with LinkedIn Premium • Most classes offer “badges” that can be showcased on your LinkedIn profile • Learn at your own pace • 50+ new classes released every week • Offline viewing through the LinkedIn Learning mobile app (available for iOS and Android) • Classes are available in 7 languages
Classes are taught by “real-world practitioners” and professionals, not professors • Not as useful if you aren’t active on LinkedIn • You’ll lose access to paid course content if you cancel your subscription • Very corporate vibe
A serious résumé-booster that unlocks all the perks of LinkedIn Premium.

LinkedIn Learning

This subscription-based e-learning platform from the site that powers your job search can help you flesh out the “professional skills” portion of your résumé.

  • Accredited:
    No
  • Price:
    $29.99/month or $239.88/year; free with LinkedIn Premium
  • Free trial:
    Yes
  • Number of courses available:
    16,000+
  • Subject areas:
    Project Management Institute (PMI), programming languages, illustration, drawing, leadership skills, spreadsheets, NASBA Continuing Professional Education (CPE), data analysis, design thinking, personal effectiveness, data science careers, creativity, job searching, big data, and web design business
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    Yes
Your résumé may claim that you’re proficient in Excel, but are you really? Enter: LinkedIn Learning (previously Lynda.com). 
Members get access to its library of instructional videos and receive personalized class recommendations based on their LinkedIn profiles, though you’re free to go off-script if you’re considering a different career path — dozens of new courses covering in-demand creative, business, and tech skills are added every week. For a deeper dive into specific topics or career tracks, you can also pursue “learning paths” that curate several related classes.
Note that LinkedIn Learning comes free with a LinkedIn Premium subscription, which get you further professional benefits like InMail messaging, application insights, interview prep, and improved search features.
Here are the three most popular LinkedIn Learning courses of 2020: 

7-day free trial for new members • Thousands of free classes • Big course library • Offline viewing available to Premium members via the Skillshare mobile app (for iOS and Android) • Students can share work and offer feedback among themselves
You’ll lose access to class videos and any downloadable learning content if you cancel your Premium membership • No certificates offered (professional or completion) • Course creators are “working professionals, experts, and subject matter enthusiasts,” not professors
An excellent resource for right-brainers.

Skillshare

Skillshare students come out of its hands-on classes with strong, portfolio-worthy projects.

  • Accredited:
    No
  • Price:
    Select courses are free; upgrade to Skillshare Premium for $19.99/month or $99.99/year
  • Free trial:
    Yes
  • Number of courses available:
    29,000+
  • Subject areas:
    Animation, design, illustration, lifestyle, photo/film, business, technology, and writing
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    Yes (Skillshare for Teams)
If you’ve been biding your time in quarantine by watching crafting tutorials on TikTok and YouTube, consider signing up for Skillshare. The recently revamped educational platform covers mostly artsy-fartsy and DIY topics, with a sprinkling of business and personal development lessons added to the mix for all you entrepreneurial spirits out there (in case you want to turn a side hustle into your main gig). More than 2,000 of its offerings are free, but a $20/month Skillshare Premium membership gets you unlimited access to all 29,000-plus of them.
Most courses are bite-sized at about 30 to 40 minutes; each one features pre-recorded video lessons capped off by a project that allows you to get some real-world experience with your new skills. Skillshare won’t give you a professional or completion certificate for completing them, unfortunately, but you can always pad your portfolio with those projects.
Here are the three most popular classes on Skillshare as of Jan. 2021:

Offers accredited classes • Financial aid and scholarships available • 7-day trial to enroll in a Specialization for free • Instructors are extremely qualified (either professors from leading universities or experts from top companies) • 14-day money-back guarantee for Coursera Plus • Partnered with top universities • MasterTrack Certificate programs include live instruction • Most classes have flexible deadlines • Student ratings for each course are readily accessible • College students can enroll in unlimited Guided Projects and one course/year with a free Coursera for Campus Student plan (sign up with school email) • Lots of free classes • Audit paid courses for free • Offline viewing • Mobile app available for iOS and Android
Convoluted pricing • Certificates of completion aren’t free • Many courses have specific enrollment periods
A university-level education with fewer strings attached.

Coursera

From short, portfolio-worthy projects you can complete in an afternoon to full-fledged online degrees, Coursera is your one-stop shop for an online college-level education.

  • Accredited:
    Coursera itself is not accredited, but some of its classes are
  • Price:
    Free to $99 per course; $9.99 per Guided Project; $39 to $99/month per Specialization; $39 to $99/month per Professional Certificate; approx. $2,000 $6,000 per MasterTrack Certificate; approx. $9,000 – $45,000 per degree; $399/year for Coursera Plus
  • Free trial:
    Yes
  • Number of courses available:
    4,600 courses plus 1,000 Guided Projects, 500+ Specializations, 45 certificates, and 25 degrees
  • Subject areas:
    Arts and humanities, business, computer science, data science, IT, health, math and logic, personal development, physical science and engineering, social sciences, language learning
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    Yes (Coursera for Business)
Founded by a pair of Stanford University professors, Coursera is the rare MOOC provider that’s partnered with top universities and companies to offer a solid mix of accredited and non-accredited online learning.
Its website is structured in a way that makes it tough to compare all of its different online course programs and pricing without creating an account, so we reached out to its press team for a detailed breakdown. Here’s the scoop:

  • Individual Courses are comprised of video lectures, auto-graded and peer-reviewed assignments, and discussion forums. Some are self-paced, while others have set enrollment periods; either way, they last about four to six weeks each.
  • Guided Projects are brief assignments that offer real-world experience with different tools and skills. They can be finished in two hours or less, and all necessary learning materials (like software and data) are provided via cloud desktops.
  • A Specialization is a curated set of courses and projects that’ll turn you into an expert on a specific topic. They tend to be more involved, and most take three to six months to complete.
  • Coursera’s Professional Certificates are three- to nine-month training programs run by leading universities and companies (think IBM and Google). They’re designed to prep you for a job in a new field and/or industry certification exams.
  • A MasterTrack is an online module of an accredited university Master’s degree program with live instruction and hands-on projects. Upon completion, you’ll earn a certificate and credit that can be applied toward the full degree. 
  • Online Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree programs on Coursera take one to four years to finish and are typically far cheaper than their in-person counterparts. 

Not sure which program’s right for you? A $399/year Coursera Plus subscription unlocks unlimited access to more than 3,000 classes, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates. For an even more flexible approach, you can also audit most paid classes to unlock all course materials for free.


7-day free trial • Techdegree graduates earn a certificate • Learn at your own pace • Advanced students can test out of subjects they already know • In-house teachers (all instructors are full-time staffers) • Offline viewing available • Lots of projects for practical, hands-on experience and portfolio material
No certificates of completion for individual courses and tracks • Minimal support/resources available if you’re not pursing a Techdegree • No mobile app
Expand your programming skillset while building a network.

Treehouse

Friendly and collaborative, Treehouse is the place to go for a coding education that’ll help you land a sweet gig in tech.

  • Accredited:
    No
  • Price:
    $29.99/month for access to Treehouse’s library of courses and tracks; $199/month per Techdegree
  • Free trial:
    Yes
  • Number of courses available:
    285 individual classes, 93 practice exercises, 196 workshops, 41 tracks, and 5 Techdegrees
  • Subject areas:
    21st-century skills, Android, APIs, business, C#, computer science, CSS, data analysis, databases, design, development tools, digital literacy, EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), Go, HTML, Java, JavaScript, learning resources, machine learning, PHP, Python, quality assurance, Ruby, and security
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    Yes (Treehouse for Teams)
Learning on Treehouse is done across thousands of hours of on-demand video classes covering all things coding and web design/development (including game and mobile dev), which are geared toward n00b and advanced programmers alike. (You can test out of subjects you already know, which is really nice if you’ve already mastered the basics — you don’t have to waste time rehashing stuff.)
Treehouse offers two different membership tiers: Thirty bucks a month gets you unlimited access to its community forum along with a collection of individual courses and “tracks,” which are mini-programs comprised of several classes on a particular skillset. For a more intense learning experience that dives deep into a specific topic, you can instead opt to pursue a self-paced, project-based, bootcamp-style “Techdegree” for $200 a month. (Students in these programs get exclusive access to Treehouse’s Slack community, where they can build a network of professional contacts; unlock live chat support; have the option of participating in weekly office hours; receive guided learning paths; and earn certificates upon graduation.) At the time of writing, Treehouse offered Techdegrees in Front End Web Development, Full Stack JavaScript, PHP Development, Python Design, and UX Design.
Not sure where to begin your online education with Treehouse? Click here to take its placement quiz.

Distance learning resources • Free tool to combat Zoom fatigue • Educational content available anytime, anywhere • Earn badges for completing challenges • Self-paced • Test and college prep • Lots of former teachers on staff • Recommends lessons based on your performance on previous tests • Customizable accessibility settings for those with low vision or colorblindness, students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and learners who are sensitive to animations • Lessons offered in 46 languages • Two mobile apps for iOS and Android (Khan Academy and Khan Academy Kids for children ages 2-7) • Download any videos for offline learning
Minimal human interaction • Strictly academic topics • No language-learning classes • No certificates (professional or completion)
Back to basics without breaking the bank.

Khan Academy

This nonprofit educational platform won’t bring any extra pizazz to a résumé, but if you need to brush up on some core academic skills (or help your kiddo with their homework), it’s just the ticket.

  • Accredited:
    No
  • Price:
    Free
  • Free trial:
    N/A
  • Number of courses available:
    Not specified, but there are 70,000 practice problems available in addition to videos, articles, and quizzes
  • Subject areas:
    Math, science, computing, test prep, arts and humanities, economics, reading and language arts, and life skills
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    N/A

Khan Academy offers free online courses, learning resources, and test prep on STEM and history topics for toddlers through young adults. The former are comprised of highly accessible readings, video lectures, and interactive quizzes; some are taught by founder Sal Khan, while others are led by the organization’s in-house team of former teachers and industry experts. You can track your progress across its “Mastery System,” where points are dolled out for mastering different skills, and earn badges for acing different challenges. 
For these ~unprecedented times~, check out Khan Academy’s distance learning guides and free Zoom fatigue tool if the grind of remote learning is wearing on you.


Unlimited courses for one annual fee • Stellar video quality/production value • New classes added all the time • Wide range of subjects • Suitable for all skill levels • 30-day money-back guarantee • PDF workbooks included with every class • Select number of video courses can be downloaded for offline viewing on the iOS app • TV app available • A fun gift!
No certificates (professional or completion) • No offline viewing on the Android app • You’ll lose access to all content if you end your subscription • Smaller range of topics compared to other online learning platforms • Zero student/teacher interaction
Like TED Talks but better.

MasterClass

MasterClass isn’t a replacement for a traditional education, but its celebrity instructors’ video demonstrations make for some fascinating TV.

  • Accredited:
    No
  • Price:
    $15/month billed annually
  • Free trial:
    No
  • Number of courses available:
    100+
  • Subject areas:
    Sports and gaming, arts and entertainment, music, writing, food, design and style, science and tech, business, home and lifestyle, community and government, and wellness
  • Team/enterprise plans available:
    No
More edutainment than anything, MasterClass gives you an up close and personal look at the skills and talents your faves are known for — a peek into their genius, if you will.
One of the platform’s biggest draws is the super high production value on its pre-recorded video lectures and demos — the lighting is great, the audio is crystal-clear, and the course structure is easy to follow. Each one’s divided into about twenty 10-minute lessons and includes in-depth workbooks and notes. 
The other appeal of MasterClass is, of course, its ever-updating lineup of A-list instructors. Who better to teach cooking than Gordon Ramsay, or TV writing than Shonda Rhimes? (As of Jan. 2021, its most recent additions include Issa Rae’s class on how to make it big in Hollywood and an art/creativity course led by Jeff Koons.)

What else do I need to know about choosing an online learning platform?

Above all, a good MOOC provider will put its student reviews front and center so you know exactly what you’re getting into in terms of teacher quality/teaching style, time commitment, and course difficulty level.

It’s also nice to be able to fall back on a platform’s free trial or money-back guarantee, in case your schedule changes, you wind up straight-up hating a subject, or you don’t mesh well with an instructor’s teaching style.

I’m interested in a very specific topic. How can I find online classes on it?

This one’s easy: Just head to Class Central, a search engine and reviews site for more than 15,000 free online classes.

Twitter taught me I have no visual imagination

When we spend so much of our time online, we’re bound to learn something while clicking and scrolling. Discover something new with Mashable’s series I learned it on the internet.


On a summer Friday a few years ago, I collapsed on my living room floor in a transformative defeat. I sprawled out in the middle of the carpet, tightly clutched a throw pillow to my face, and squeezed my teary eyes shut before impatiently repeating the words, “BEACH. SAND. OCEAN. LIFEGUARD CHAIR. COME ON.” I said them out loud — with real feeling — in hopes that the sheer sounds would trigger my brain to do what I’d just learned it wasn’t capable of: creating a mental image.

Minutes before taking refuge on the floor I was scrolling through Twitter. (I know. Classic pre-anxiety attack words.) My timeline was its usual mess of memes and politics, but a tweet that linked to an experience piece from The Guardian, titled “I can’t picture things in my mind” caught my attention. “How sad,” I naively thought while clicking to learn what exactly the writer meant. By the time I finished reading the excerpt, however, I could tell this stranger was about to describe my own lifelong experience with mental visualization. 

The article explained that a number of people go through life with “aphantasia,” a term coined by neurologist Adam Zeman in 2015 to describe a lack of visual imagination. When most people try to imagine a beach they likely conjure some sort of picture in their heads, be it fuzzy or crystal clear, of sand, water, and perhaps a lifeguard chair. When I try to imagine a beach, though, I close my eyes and only see darkness. I encounter the same frustrating block when trying to picture anything. My childhood home, the Mashable office, and the face of loved ones I’ve known all my life are stored somewhere in my brain as memories, but I can’t intentionally summon mental pictures of them no matter how hard I try.

“Aphantasia is a lack of a mind’s eye. By mind’s eye, I mean the capacity that most of us have to visualize things in their absence,” Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at University of Exeter, explained on a call. “Most people, if they’re asked to think of an apple, or their front door, or their best friend, can have an experience which has a visual field. It’s not usually as good as seeing the thing in the flesh, but they can usually get some of the way there. People with aphantasia can think about things just fine, but they can’t visualize them.”

You’ve likely never heard of aphantasia as it’s still not a widely recognized, everyday term. But an estimated 2 to 3 percent of people can’t form mental imagery.

Before seeing that tweet, I had no idea aphantasia existed let alone that my own imagination was something out of the ordinary. I simply assumed all people saw the same vapid, nondescript nothingness when they closed their eyes, and that the majority of language associated with mental imagery — such as picturing your happy place or counting sheep to fall asleep — was metaphorical rather than literal.

When I learned that wasn’t the case, I questioned everything.

Learning you’ve been living life in the dark

When I finally picked myself up off the floor on that August day, I returned to my laptop and descended into an aphantasia Google hole. I read numerous articles that described similar surprise realizations, and even watched half a TED Talk before reaching out to two friends for comfort. I hammered them with visual imagination questions, but each response only confirmed what I feared: People were living with a remarkable ability that I lacked.

I assumed all people saw the same vapid, nondescript nothingness when they closed their eyes.

I called my mom to break the news, but much like the mom detailed in The Guardian piece she was in denial and tried to reassure me that I have a wonderful imagination. “You’re telling me you can’t picture Barack Obama’s face?” she asked in a baffled tone. “I can’t even picture your face!” I sobbed.

My mind kicked into overdrive and hastily cycled through a series of concerns: Does a lack of visual imagination mean I’m not creative? How did I major in creative writing? Is this why I sucked at penning concrete details in poetry class? Should I even be a writer? Does this explain my struggle to focus when reading fiction? Is Lorde’s “Supercut” about a *literal* supercut in her head? Can people just direct personal short films and watch their wildest fantasies play out whenever they damn well please?

That last thought hit me the hardest. As someone who worships television and cinema to a borderline unhealthy extent, the realization that I was essentially missing a screen in my mind that contained endless possibilities — a place where I could project and replay scenes from my own life, envision an endless string of future scenarios, and visually conceptualize my most ambitious and outlandish ideas  — was soul crushing.

How to tell if you have aphantasia

If my experience sounds at all like your own, you may be aphantasic, too. Welcome to the unique, albeit slightly stressful, club.

Since individual visualization can be difficult to describe, a tool I find helpful when explaining aphantasia is the below image of a person picturing an apple. I’m a hard five on this scale, but my friend who identifies as a one claims he can not only picture the apple on a black background, but he can rotate the piece of fruit, change the background to whatever his heart desires, and perform an endless slew of other impressive mental feats.

You can try to imagine an apple as a test, but Zeman suggests picturing a few different things before assessing your capabilities.

“Think of a scene: the sun setting over the mountains in a misty sky. Think of your breakfast table, or your mum. Once you’ve run through a few possibilities, if somebody says they see nothing at all you’ve got the beginnings of evidence that they’re aphantasic,” he explained. As part of Zeman’s aphantasia-centered research with the University of Exeter, his The Eye’s Mind study also includes an online survey you can take to help further assess your visual imagery.

It’s crucial to note that aphantasia isn’t a singular experience. A group of people who lack visual imaginations may also struggle with prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize familiar faces). And though ordinary memory in those with aphantasia is fine, about one-third of aphantasic people have poor autobiographical memory, give less rich descriptions when recalling past events, and have trouble imagining future events. For some, it can affect the ability to imagine sensations associated with touch, smell, or sound, too.

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“There’s a question about whether that lack extends to other senses, and that seems to vary between people with aphantasia. Some people say they have no mind’s ear or that they can’t imagine the touch of velvet. Whereas other people say that it’s just a visual limitation. They have quite vivid imagery in other senses,” Zeman explained. “But for most people with aphantasia it’s across the board. It affects imagery generally.”

“There’s a question about whether that lack extends to other senses, and that seems to vary between people with aphantasia.”

Though aphantasic people can’t voluntarily conjure mental images, some, including myself, are able to see pictures in their mind when they’re sleeping, because images associated with dreaming are called upon or unlocked involuntarily. 

“There’s a group of people, maybe about 30 percent, who say they don’t [dream]. So it’s not everyone, but certainly many do. That’s really a quite interesting dissociation, isn’t it? The differentiation between wakeful and dreaming imagery,” Zeman noted.

There’s also speculation that hallucinogenic drugs may allow folks with aphantasia to freely see imagery. But the research is scant, and taking a trip to free your mind may be illegal where you live. Even if you never can trick your mind into seeing what others see naturally, know that at least you’re not alone.

Why isn’t aphantasia more well known?

Everyone I’ve come across who has aphantasia came to the realization by reading an article, seeing a social media post, or chatting with someone about the mind’s eye. My editor, for instance, had no idea she was aphantasic until I pitched this piece. And if I hadn’t stumbled across that article in 2018 I might still be under the impression that my visual imagination is perfectly normal.

An estimated two to three percent of people have aphantasia, but because it’s still not a recognizable, everyday term it’s possible that people can go their whole lives without even learning it exists. So why isn’t a lack of visual imagination more well-known in 2021?

Zeman started researching aphantasia in the 2000s after a 65-year-old man who lost the ability to mentally picture things after undergoing a medical procedure sought him out. Prior to hearing the man’s story, Zeman had never encountered this particular symptom before, and though he isn’t aphantasic himself (he describes his visualizations as “very average”) he was intrigued by the new neurological phenomenon.

Upon researching blindness of the mind’s eye, Zeman discovered so little information on the subject that he dubbed the lack of attention a “historical oddity.” In 1880, Francis Galton, an anthropologist and eugenicist, touched on the topic after asking 100 men to recall the lighting, definition, coloring, and details of their breakfast tables. Galton, who was a relative of Charles Darwin, found 12 of the men lacked positive visualization and he reported their struggle to conjure mental images. In 2009, American psychologist and professor Bill Faw also wrote about a lack of visual imagination after administering a questionnaire to 2,500 people and determining that about two percent of people surveyed struggled to conjure mental imagery. But until Zeman really invested in research, the neurological phenomenon largely remained a mystery.

“I think the trick was to produce a name. That’s very useful. It kind of allows people to identify what’s unusual about them,” Zeman explained. Another reason he feels aphantasia is so difficult to discover is because “we all take our own experience to be the standard.”

“Until you have some moment of realization, we assume that everyone else is similar to us. And that reflects the fact that that visualization is a very private experience. It’s something in your head, not something that other people can inspect and kind of check against the norm,” Zeman explained. “And it’s quite easy to assume the language people are using to describe imagery is metaphorical… So it’s easy to persuade yourself that that’s the case.”

Don’t let aphantasia get you down

If you’ve made it this far and are now wrapped up in the same mind-blowing emotional spiral I experienced, trust me, I get it. But Zeman has some words of encouragement.

Since 2015 when he and his team published a study on aphantasia based off questionnaires taken by 21 people, he estimates around 15,000 people have reached out to discuss the neurological phenomenon — either because they’re interested or have aphantasia themselves.

Aphantasia can occasionally be a symptom of something that’s happened to the brain, but it shouldn’t be regarded as a medical condition or disorder, rather “a variant of normal human experience.” Though you may encounter some mental imagery-related FOMO, having aphantasia isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“There are many ways of imagining which don’t require visualization. So I think you can be perfectly imaginative and aphantasic.”

“Although [aphantasia] makes a big difference to the inner experience, it doesn’t make much difference to performance. People with aphantasia get along fine… even possibly, in some ways, they get along better than the rest,” Zeman said, listing high-achievement individuals who have aphantasia, including Craig Venter, the geneticist who decoded the genome; Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios; Blake Ross, co-creator of the Mozilla Firefox; and neurologist Oliver Sacks. 

“There are many ways of imagining which don’t require visualization. So I think you can be perfectly imaginative and aphantasic,” he said. “It’s just one piece of the big jigsaw. We’re complicated beings.”

Zeman, who’s also consultant for The Aphantasia Network, a resource for people to learn more about aphantasia and connect with others who have it, plans to continue his research and data collection on the mind’s eye. He encourages people to get in touch with questions or to partake in studies.

Pre-order Samsung’s latest range of Galaxy smartphones

TL;DR: Pre-order the new Samsung Galaxy S21 range of smartphones before Jan. 28 to claim your free Galaxy Buds Pro and Galaxy SmartTag. 


The world of smartphones can go really quiet for months, and then all of a sudden you’re hit with big news from the biggest of brands. Samsung is the latest brand to launch a new range of smartphones, and you can now pre-order a Samsung Galaxy S21, S21 Plus, or S21 Ultra.

If you pre-order these devices before midnight on Jan. 28, you can claim a free gift from Samsung. This isn’t one of those free gifts that nobody really wants. Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro and Galaxy SmartTags are up for grabs, which is a pretty impressive incentive to pre-order sooner rather than later.

We have checked out all the pre-order deals on offer for the new smartphones, and lined up a selection of your best options:

You can also get up to £330 when you trade-in your old Samsung phone, which makes upgrading even easier on your wallet. 

Pre-order the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones and pick up your free gift.

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TikTok’s algorithms knew I was bi before I did. I’m not the only one.

When we spend so much of our time online, we’re bound to learn something while clicking and scrolling. Discover something new with Mashable’s series I learned it on the internet.


Here’s a shortlist of those who realized that I — a cis woman who’d identified as heterosexual for decades of life — was in fact actually bi, long before I realized it myself recently: my sister, all my friends, my boyfriend, and the TikTok algorithm.

On TikTok, the relationship between user and algorithm is uniquely (even sometimes uncannily) intimate. An app which seemingly contains as many multitudes of life experiences and niche communities as there are people in the world, we all start in the lowest common denominator of TikTok. Straight TikTok (as it’s popularly dubbed) initially bombards your For You Page with the silly pet videos and viral teen dances that folks who don’t use TikTok like to condescendingly reduce it to.

Quickly, though, TikTok begins reading your soul like some sort of divine digital oracle, prying open layers of your being never before known to your own conscious mind. The more you use it, the more tailored its content becomes to your deepest specificities, to the point where you get stuff that’s so relatable that it can feel like a personal attack (in the best way) or (more dangerously) even a harmful trigger from lifelong traumas.

For example: I don’t know what dark magic (read: privacy violations) immediately clued TikTok into the fact that I was half-Brazilian, but within days of first using it, Straight TikTok gave way to at first Portuguese-speaking then broader Latin TikTok. Feeling oddly seen (being white-passing and mostly American-raised, my Brazilian identity isn’t often validated), I was liberal with the likes, knowing that engagement was the surefire way to go deeper down this identity-affirming corner of the social app. 

TikTok made lots of assumptions from there, throwing me right down the boundless, beautiful, and oddest multiplicities of Alt TikTok, a counter to Straight TikTok’s milquetoast mainstreamness.

Home to a wide spectrum of marginalized groups, I was giving out likes on my FYP like Oprah,  smashing that heart button on every type of video: from TikTokers with disabilities, Black and Indigenous creators, political activists, body-stigma-busting fat women, and every glittering shade of the LGBTQ cornucopia. The faves were genuine, but also a way to support and help offset what I knew about the discriminatory biases in TikTok’s algorithm.

My diverse range of likes started to get more specific by the minute, though. I wasn’t just on general Black TikTok anymore, but Alt Cottagecore Middle-Class Black Girl TikTok (an actual label one creator gave her page’s vibes). Then it was Queer Latina Roller Skating Girl TikTok, Women With Non-Hyperactive ADHD TikTok, and then a double whammy of Women Loving Women (WLW) TikTok alternating between beautiful lesbian couples and baby bisexuals.

Looking back at my history of likes, the transition from queer “ally” to “salivating simp” is almost imperceptible. 

There was no one precise “aha” moment. I started getting “put a finger down” challenges that wouldn’t reveal what you were putting a finger down for until the end. Then, 9-fingers deep (winkwink), I’d be congratulated for being 100% bisexual. Somewhere along the path of getting served multiple WLW Disney cosplays in a single day and even dom lesbian KinkTok roleplay — or whatever the fuck Bisexual Pirate TikTok is — deductive reasoning kind of spoke for itself.

But I will never forget the one video that was such a heat-seeking missile of a targeted attack that I was moved to finally text it to my group chat of WLW friends with a, “Wait, am I bi?” To which the overwhelming consensus was, “Magic 8 Ball says, ‘Highly Likely.'” 

Serendipitously posted during Pride Month, the video shows a girl shaking her head at the caption above her head, calling out confused and/or closeted queers who say shit like, “I think everyone is a LITTLE bisexual,” to the tune of “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. When the lyrics land on the word “you,” she points straight at the screen — at me — her finger and inquisitive look piercing my hopelessly bisexual soul like Cupid’s goddamn arrow.

Oh no, the voice inside my head said, I have just been mercilessly perceived.

As someone who had, in fact, done feminist studies at a tiny liberal arts college with a gender gap of about 70 percent women, I’d of course dabbled. I’ve always been quick to bring up the Kinsey scale, to champion a true spectrum of sexuality, and to even declare (on multiple occasions) that I was, “straight, but would totally fuck that girl!”

Oh no, the voice inside my head returned, I’ve literally just been using extra words to say I was bi.

After consulting the expertise of my WLW friend group (whose mere existence, in retrospect, also should’ve clued me in on the flashing neon pink, purple, and blue flag of my raging bisexuality), I ran to my boyfriend to inform him of the “news.” 

“Yeah, baby, I know. We all know,” he said kindly.

“How?!” I demanded.

Well for one, he pointed out, every time we came across a video of a hot girl while scrolling TikTok together, I’d without fail watch the whole way through, often more than once, regardless of content. (Apparently, straight girls do not tend to do this?) For another, I always breathlessly pointed out when we’d pass by a woman I found beautiful, often finding a way to send a compliment her way. (“I’m just a flirt!” I used to rationalize with a hand wave, “Obvs, I’m not actually sexually attracted to them!”) Then, I guess, there were the TED Talk-like rants I’d subject him to about the thinly veiled queer relationship in Adventure Time between Princess Bubblegum and Marcelyne the Vampire Queen — which the cowards at Cartoon Network forced creators to keep as subtext!

And, well, when you lay it all out like that…

But my TikTok-fueled bisexual awakening might actually speak less to the omnipotence of the app’s algorithm, and more to how heteronormativity is truly one helluva drug.

Sure, TikTok bombarded me with the thirst traps of my exact type of domineering masc lady queers, who reduced me to a puddle of drool I could no longer deny. But I also recalled a pivotal moment in college when I briefly questioned my heterosexuality, only to have a lesbian friend roll her eyes and chastise me for being one of those straight girls who leads Actual Queer Women on. I figured she must know better. So I never pursued any of my lady crushes in college, which meant I never experimented much sexually, which made me conclude that I couldn’t call myself bisexual if I’d never had actual sex with a woman. I also didn’t really enjoy lesbian porn much, though the fact that I’d often find myself fixating on the woman during heterosexual porn should’ve clued me into that probably coming more from how mainstream lesbian porn is designed for straight men.

The ubiquity of heterormativity, even when unwittingly perpetrated by members of the queer community, is such an effective self-sustaining cycle. Aside from being met with queer-gating (something I’ve since learned bi folks often experience), I had a hard time identifying my attraction to women as genuine attraction, simply because it felt different to how I was attracted to men.

Heteronormativity is truly one helluva drug.

So much of women’s sexuality — of my sexuality — can feel defined by that carnivorous kind of validation you get from men. I met no societal resistance in fully embodying and exploring my desire for men, either (which, to be clear, was and is insatiable slut levels of wanting that peen.) But in retrospect, I wonder how many men I slept with not because I was truly attracted to them, but because I got off on how much they wanted me

My attraction to women comes with a different texture of eroticism. With women (and bare with a baby bi, here), the attraction feels more shared, more mutual, more tender rather than possessive. It’s no less raw or hot or all-consuming, don’t get me wrong. But for me at least, it comes more from a place of equality rather than just power play. I love the way women seem to see right through me, to know me, without us really needing to say a word.

I am still, as it turns out, a sexual submissive through-and-through, regardless of what gender my would-be partner is. But, ignorantly and unknowingly, I’d been limiting my concept of who could embody dominant sexual personas to cis men. But when TikTok sent me down that glorious rabbit hole of masc women (who know exactly what they’re doing, btw), I realized my attraction was not to men, but a certain type of masculinity. It didn’t matter which body or genitalia that presentation came with. 

There is something about TikTok that feels particularly suited to these journeys of sexual self-discovery and, in the case of women loving women, I don’t think it’s just the prescient algorithm. The short-form video format lends itself to lightning bolt-like jolts of soul-bearing nakedness, with the POV camera angles bucking conventions of the male gaze, which entrenches the language of film and TV in heterosexual male desire. 

In fairness to me, I’m far from the only one who missed their inner gay for a long time — only to have her pop out like a queer jack-in-the-box throughout a near year-long quarantine that led many of us to join TikTok. There was the baby bi mom, and scores of others who no longer had to publicly perform their heterosexuality during lockdown — only to realize that, hey, maybe I’m not heterosexual at all?

Flooded with video after video affirming my suspicions, reflecting my exact experiences as they happened to others, the change in my sexual identity was so normalized on TikTok that I didn’t even feel like I needed to formally “come out.” I thought this safe home I’d found to foster my baby bisexuality online would extend into the real world. 

But I was in for a rude awakening. 

Testing out my bisexuality on other platforms, casually referring to it on Twitter, posting pictures of myself decked out in a rainbow skate outfit (which I bought before realizing I was queer), I received nothing but unquestioning support and validation. Eventually, I realized I should probably let some members of my family know before they learned through one of these posts, though.

Daunted by the idea of trying to tell my Latina Catholic mother and Swiss Army veteran father (who’s had a crass running joke about me being a “lesbian” ever since I first declared myself a feminist at age 12), I chose the sibling closest to me. Seeing as how gender studies was one of her majors in college too, I thought it was a shoo-in. I sent an off-handed, joke-y but serious, “btw I’m bi now!” text, believing that’s all that would be needed to receive the same nonchalant acceptance I found online.

It was not.

I didn’t receive a response for two days. Hurt and panicked by what was potentially my first mild experience of homophobia, I called them out. They responded by insisting we need to have a phone call for such “serious” conversations. As I calmly tried to express my hurt on said call, I was told my text had been enough to make this sibling worry about my mental wellbeing. They said I should be more understanding of why it’d be hard for them to (and I’m paraphrasing) “think you were one way for twenty-eight years” before having to contend with me deciding I was now “something else.”

But I wasn’t “something else,” I tried to explain, voice shaking. I hadn’t knowingly been deceiving or hiding this part of me. I’d simply discovered a more appropriate label. But it was like we were speaking different languages. Other family members were more accepting, thankfully. But I know more harsh lessons in bringing what I learned about myself online into the real world. There are many ways in which I’m exceptionally lucky, my IRL environment as supportive as Baby Bi TikTok. Namely, I’m in a loving relationship with a man who never once mistook any of it as a threat, instead giving me all the space in the world to understand this new facet of my sexuality.

I don’t have it all figured out yet. But at least when someone asks if I listen to Girl in Red on social media, I know to answer with a resounding, “Yes,” even though I’ve never listened to a single one of her songs. And for now, that’s enough.

The ‘WandaVision’ fake commercials may hide the show’s big secret

WandaVision’s charming emulation of classic TV sitcoms is an unexpected and experimental choice for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first streaming series, even though Wanda and Vision’s cheery charade is clearly hiding something sinister beneath its surface. One of the more innovative uses of the sitcom format is including fake commercials between scenes in the Wanda and Vision show — commercials that may hold the key to the show’s biggest unanswered questions.

First of all, it’s bizarre that whatever “in universe” show Wanda and Vision are starring in (which is apparently viewable by characters in the MCU’s real world) has commercials in the first place. If Wanda is intentionally or even unintentionally creating this reality with her powers, why would her sitcom life need to be broken up with ad breaks? Secondly, both of the commercials shown in the show’s first two episodes directly relate to two of Wanda Maximoff’s greatest traumas. 

The first episode’s commercial is for a toaster made by Stark Industries that beeps ominously when the toast is nearly done. The beeping is reminiscent of a countdown to a bomb’s explosion, referencing Wanda’s Avengers: Age of Ultron origin story: Wanda’s parents died in a bombing, and a second bomb landed in the ruins of her house but did not go off. Wanda and her twin brother Pietro were trapped by the unexploded shell and saw that the bomb, like the toaster, was created by Stark Industries. 

‘WandaVision’ isn’t forthright with its secrets in the first two episodes, but there are a few throwaway details that suggest something very dark is going on.

The second commercial for a Strücker watch also hearkens back to Age of Ultron. Baron Strücker was the Hydra scientist who experimented on dozens of people in an attempt to give them powers with the Mind Stone hidden in Loki’s scepter. Every subject in the experiment died horribly except for Wanda and Pietro, who developed the superpowers of reality warping and super speed, respectively. The process for Wanda’s enhancement was painful and tied to a dark period in her life, which makes a Strücker watch emblazoned with the Hydra logo an odd choice of advert for her new reality. 

The third odd thing about the commercials is that both ads star the same two actors, a man in a black suit and a vacant-eyed woman. These characters don’t appear anywhere else in these WandaVision episodes, but maintain a consistent dynamic in the two commercials. Since the rest of the people in the world of WandaVision appear to be citizens of Westview, the fact that these two exist outside of Wanda’s perceived reality is suspect, suggesting that they may have something to do with the situation Wanda and Vision have found themselves in. 

And what is that situation, exactly? WandaVision isn’t forthright with its secrets in the first two episodes, but there are a few throwaway details that suggest something very dark is going on. In Episode 2, Wanda’s icy blonde neighbor Dottie says “the devil is in the details,” to which her other neighbor Agnes responds “that’s not the only place he is.” In that same episode, Agnes lets Wanda borrow her pet rabbit Señor Scratchy, aka Mr. Scratch, a 19th-century nickname for the devil.

The 'WandaVision' fake commercials may hide the show's big secret

Image: Disney+

The fact that both of these references to the devil come from Agnes is important, since there are further hints that Agnes knows more about Wanda’s presence in Westview than she lets on. When she approaches Wanda with Señor Scratchy in tow, she greets her by saying “it’s the star of the show,” possibly alluding to her knowledge that Wanda is indeed “starring” in a meta-show. Agnes then reveals that the star she was talking about was not Wanda, but Señor Scratchy the devil-rabbit. 

As it so happens, the Marvel universe has a devilish villain who some have already theorized has a hand in WandaVision’s plot. Mephisto, a demonic character who rules over an alternate dimension called Hell, appeared in a comic arc with a character named Agatha Harkness and an interest in Wanda and Vision’s twin sons Billy and Tommy. Since Wanda mysteriously became pregnant at the end of episode 2, it’s possible some reimagining of that Mephisto plot is taking place just out of view. 

Agatha’s role in this is still a mystery, but if Mephisto is involved in Wanda’s predicament, it would be a bummer to think that the show hasn’t dropped a bigger hint about who he might be. Except, perhaps, it already has. Maybe Mephisto is appearing in the guise of a well-dressed man whose innocuous presence centers around memories meant to torture Wanda in her pocket reality. Perhaps, like the devil has appeared before, he’s a slick salesman with a devilish glint in his eye and a place above, but not among the mortals of Westview… 

Calling it now: Commercial Guy is Mephisto. Maybe it’s Commercial Lady too. Either way, it will take a while for WandaVision to confirm or refute any of this. So for now, stay tuned and don’t touch that dial!

WandaVision is now streaming on Disney+

Netflix’s smart and funny ‘History of Swear Words’ is a perfect binge

Swear words are a fascinating aspect of language. Where do they come from? Who decided they’re bad? What the fuck do they really mean?

With host Nicolas Cage, a few language experts, and a handful of entertaining guests, Netflix’s History of Swear Words answers these questions and many more, focusing on six iconic swear words across six episodes. The series enlightens viewers on such words as shit, damn, and pussy, digging into the words’ roots, their usage, and how they fit into modern society.

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Each episode of Netflix’s new, bingeable series focuses on a single word for roughly 20 minutes, starting with one of the most notorious: “Fuck.” The entire first season is about two hours long, making for a great little afternoon diversion that left me feeling both a little smarter and a little lighter.

As the premise suggests, there is a ton of swearing in this series. Between Cage, the experts, and entertainers like Sarah Silverman, Open Mike Eagle, Nick Offerman, and Patti Harrison, the rate of profanity per minute is rather high. How could it not be?

At first the abundance of curses seem almost gimmicky, but each episode gets to the meat of the matter quickly enough and with enough facts that it feels more educational than anything. But there’s still plenty of humor and references to iconic movie lines and song lyrics to keep it all from feeling like a language lecture.

In the first two episodes, “Fuck” and “Shit,” we learn a bit about our relationship with swear words as humans, where they reside in our brains, and how using or hearing them can affect us on a primal level. One interesting experiment involving people putting a hand into a bucket of ice water showed that those who could swear were able to endure the unpleasant experience longer. It turns out throwing around words like fuck and shit can release adrenaline and give us some physical catharsis.

The next three episodes, “Bitch,” “Dick,” and “Pussy” weave in discourse around gendered language and how the meanings of these words change based on context, who’s using them, and who or what they’re directed at. The discussions are both frank and fascinating examinations of our language and society.

The final episode, “Damn,” focuses on the mildest and most innocuous curse in the English lexicon but manages to be one of the more illuminating episodes, digging way back in history to outline what, exactly, curse words really are and revealing damn’s full arc from a regular word into a forbidden word into a toothless word.

History of Swear Words delivers on its promise of being an entertaining and educational romp through the words that we deem bad, with discussions of N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” appearances from iconic “shiiiiiit” dropper Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and unearthing of defunct, ancient swears like “God’s bones.”

It’s just a really solid series that’s very easy to digest. As long as you don’t mind hearing a shitload of swear words.

History of Swear Words is streaming now on Netflix.

Netflix’s ‘Bling Empire’ puts a glittery new spin on a reality TV staple

From Keeping Up with the Kardashians to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the greater Los Angeles area has no shortage of rich people ready to ascend to reality TV stardom. But the cast of Netflix’s “docusoap” Bling Empire takes that old challenge to glittery new heights in their fun first season.

Inspired by the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians, the glossy unscripted series follows a group of hyper-affluent Asian and Asian-American Californians as they navigate their opulent, pre-pandemic lives. It’s a classic low-stakes, high-spectacle setup with the narrative drama driven by the series’ tremendously watchable personalities and their “more is more” approach to luxury.

Across eight episodes, we meet socialite Anna Shay; plastic surgeon Dr. Gabriel Chiu and his wife, entrepreneur Christine Chiu; real estate heir Kane Lim; denim heiress Cherie Chan; musician and DJ Kim Lee; Hollywood producer Kelly Mi Li; their less wealthy friend/casual himbo Kevin Kreider; and a smattering of influencers (including YouTuber-turned-musician Guy Tang) who run in their orbit. 

Kane Lim: lover of shoes and, honestly, the voice of reason most of the time.

Kane Lim: lover of shoes and, honestly, the voice of reason most of the time.

Image: netflix

They’re a surprisingly likable friend group, who slowly reveal the layers of their interpersonal turmoil through an evenly paced — if not, vaguely relaxing — carousel of Rodeo Drive shopping sprees, five-star dining experiences, surprise trips to Paris, poolside gossip sessions, and sweeping shots of the Los Angeles skyline. It’s nothing reality TV fans haven’t seen hundreds of hours of on E! and Bravo before — you know, breakups, feuds, thrown drinks, skinny dipping, babies, etc.

But even if the content is familiar, the feel of Bling Empire is infused with the freshness that comes from a cast largely underrepresented in the genre. 

Discussions of identity and status offer flecks of sincerity from Bling Empire‘s stars, effectively elevating what could be a monotonous been-there-done-that into a valuable new perspective on supreme wealth in the City of Angels. We see the cast celebrate holidays like Chinese New Year and Singapore Day, navigate family expectations in the modern age, and otherwise explore cultural tradition within their very ample means.

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Of course, there’s plenty of mess to go along with all of that more mature commentary. Anna and Christine fight for the completely meaningless title of Queen of Beverly Hills. Kelly struggles to deal with her moody boyfriend, who also happens to be a former Power Ranger. When Kevin’s not pulling his butt out, he’s stripping off his shirt (for no discernible reason) and otherwise wowing the cameras with his “witty” perspective on these crazy rich people.

Viewers who aren’t already fans of KUWTK-style reality TV aren’t likely to be swayed by Bling Empire; nothing outrageous enough happens to call it a must-watch. But if you are somebody who likes this sort of show, then you’ll want to add this to your queue — and maybe start begging Netflix for new episodes after that spectacular season finale.

Bling Empire is now streaming on Netflix.

Kangaroos Can Learn To Communicate With Humans, Researchers Say

SYDNEY, Dec 16 (Reuters) – Kangaroos can learn to communicate with humans similar to how domesticated dogs do, by using their gaze to “point” and ask for help, researchers said in a study published on Wednesday.

The study involved 11 kangaroos that lived in captivity but had not been domesticated. Ten of the 11 marsupials intently gazed at researchers when they were unable to open a box with food, according to the report. Nine alternately looked at the human and at the container, as a way of pointing or gesturing toward the object.

“We interpreted this as a deliberate form of communication, a request for help,” Alan McElligott, the Irish researcher who led the study, told Reuters in a call from Hong Kong.

“Wild species are not really expected to behave as those subjects were, and that’s why it is surprising.”

The findings challenge the notion that only domesticated animals such as dogs, horses or goats communicate with humans, and suggests many more animals could grasp how to convey meaning to humans, the paper asserts.

“We’ve previously thought only domesticated animals try to ask for help with a problem. But kangaroos do it too,” concluded co-researcher Alexandra Green from the University of Sydney.

“It’s more likely to be a learned behavior when the environment is right.”

(Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Karishma Singh)

‘ASMR toys’ at big box stores may just be fidget toys in disguise

Launched in October, just in time for the holiday shopping season, was a line of multicolored, brightly packaged toys that promised to be “oddly satisfying,” and give you tingles. 

Two out of six of the products came in blind bag packaging, which has become a children’s toy industry trend in and of itself, with price points ranging between three and 20 dollars. Each toy had tactile and auditory features such as plastic gears that make a clicking noise. 

ASMR had come to the shelves of Wal-Mart. 

Since its quiet emergence onto the internet in 2010, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) has become a cultural phenomenon and a viable interpersonal community. It has led to thousands of ASMR creators and 13 million videos on YouTube alone, including Cardi B’s W Magazine ASMR video which garnered well over 46 million views. While rigorous studies of the sensation are in short supply, there are self reported benefits of relaxation and improved sleep among people who experience it. 

This is not the first time that ASMR has bled into the world of marketing. In 2017, Ritz Crackers ran an ASMR-inspired campaign and noticed a 33% increase in sales relating to their launch. ASMR reached its advertising pinnacle, however, when Michelob Ultra’s Pure Gold commercial starring Zoe Kravitz aired during the Superbowl in 2019. Kravitz, seen tapping on a glass beer bottle and whispering into a microphone, gave mainstream audiences a glimpse into what advertisers believed was ASMR’s marketing potential. 

Now ASMR has made the inevitable transition from niche internet community to commodity. 

Strategic placement in the children’s toy aisle would lend consumers to believe that kids are the intended target of the company’s marketing. This fact remains unclear considering the age demographic of ASMR participation falls within the 18-24 range. Kids’ participation in ASMR is also a controversial subject. If this is the case, then are these toys simply a clever venture to recreate the success of toys we have already seen before?

The toys’ reception by the ASMR vanguard has been lukewarm. Karuna Satori, who runs a successful ASMR YouTube channel, reviewed the Sensory FX toys earlier this fall and came away less than impressed. She noted the overt similarities they shared with fidget toys.

“The Mega Cube is basically a re-edition of the fidget cube,” Satori said in her video.

The ASMR Bars and the ASMR Pods are meant to be collected, the former to be used alone or in conjunction with either of the largest toys in the line – The Mega Bar and The Mega Cube. The last two toys both have a rudimentary built in recording system, a feature that Satori found disappointing due to static during playback.  

“The microphone is really cheap,” said Satori, who nevertheless said the The Mega Cube was the best of the bunch. She said  “…you get the recorder, there’s more to do, and you don’t need to collect them all.”

This is not to say that all ASMR toys serve no purpose. 

Craig A.H. Richard, Ph.D., is a professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University, and the founder of ASMR University. Richard suggests that the manufacturer may not have considered the fact that the ASMR experience is contingent on demonstrative elements

“ASMR is usually stimulated when you are in the presence of a kind or caring person who may be speaking gently, moving gently, or making gentle sounds with something they are holding or demonstrating,” said Richard. “These toys can be used to stimulate ASMR, but not in the user of the toys.”

Dr. Richard explains the possible reason for this in his hypothesis written in 2014, regarding the origin theory of ASMR. He suggests that relying on a demonstrating individual for tingles may harken to something biological – ASMR and bonding behaviors share similar triggers and consequently stimulate the release of the same feel good chemicals in the brain. 

“Triggers that stimulate ASMR in individuals may actually be activating the biological pathways of interpersonal bonding and affiliative behaviors…These bonding behaviors and molecules [endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin]  may provide a good explanation for most of the triggers and responses associated with ASMR,” Richard said. 

This would render The Mega Cube and The Mega Bar as the only toys within the Sensory FX lineup that might ostensibly create ASMR sans a demonstrator. 

The best way to predicate ASMR toys’ effectiveness would be to analyze them through the familiar lens of the fidget toy, popularized among children in 2017.   

Dr. Richard purports that fidget toys can mitigate the effects of anxiety, ADHD, and sensory processing disorders among individuals. 

“Any curious toy that strongly engages the interest of a child will decrease the global activity across the brain to result in more specific active areas of the brain,” says Richard.  “In short, a focused child is a focused brain, and a focused brain may help to calm a child.”

Like fidget toys, Sensory FX’s smaller toy offerings, such as the ASMR Bars and the ASMR Pods, are portable, making them readily available. There’s even a small carrying case for the Pods that resembles a keychain. Though they can be valuable for some students, many popular fidget toys were banned outright by schools

According to Richard, while fidget toys can be any small and engaging item that encourages the user to manipulate it, they may move too fast or be too loud to be good at stimulating ASMR in an observer. 

This would suggest that Sensory FX has attempted to rebrand fidget toys as ASMR toys, perhaps in order to capitalize on a growing trend and the buying power of millennial money.

Dr. Richard says that, “All items labeled as ‘ASMR toys’ would probably work well as fidget toys, but not all fidget toys would fit the criteria of an ideal ‘ASMR toy.’”

So if you want that tingly feeling, the aisles of Wal-Mart may not be the best place to get it.