Roundup – Princess of Thrones

Best of the Best:

The Plot Of ‘Paul Blart Mall Cop 2,’ Recreated With Quotes From Angry Critics [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (4/17/15)

This week brings us Paul Blart Mall Cop 2. Source material was more scarce than usual for this one, given that it didn’t screen for US critics and currently has zero positive reviews. Of those that did cover, the general consensus seems to be that it’s a terrible unfunny infomercial for the Wynn Casino. Most noted the copious product placement, the abundance of falling down, and general half-assedness of it all. Oddly, virtually every review, almost to a critic, took pains to point out that Kevin James seems like a nice and likable fellow, even while starring in a movie they all found as painful as catheter filled with hornets. Which he also co-wrote. The man has… something, that’s for sure.

Mean Girls Director Mark Waters Spills 10 Juicy Stories, 10 Years Later [Kyle Buchannan on Vulture] (4/30/14)

The MPAA wanted to give Mean Girls an R rating.
Though Mean Girls was rated PG-13 for “sexual content, language, and some teen partying,” that was a rating Paramount had to fight for, says Waters. “We had lots of battles with the ratings board on the movie. There was the line, ‘Amber D’Alessio gave a blow job to a hot dog,’ which eventually became ‘Amber D’Alessio made out with a hot dog.’ Which is somehow weirder! That’s the thing we found: When you’re trying to make a joke obey the rules and not use any bad words, it can actually become seamier, even.” Still, there were some things that Waters simply refused to change. “The line in the sand that I drew was the joke about the wide-set vagina. The ratings board said, ‘We can’t give you a PG-13 unless you cut that line.’ We ended up playing the card that the ratings board was sexist, because Anchorman had just come out, and Ron Burgundy had an erection in one scene, and that was PG-13. We told them, ‘You’re only saying this because it’s a girl, and she’s talking about a part of her anatomy. There’s no sexual context whatsoever, and to say this is restrictive to an audience of girls is demeaning to all women.’ And they eventually had to back down.”

Dear America, I Saw You Naked [Jason Edward Harrington on Politico] (1/30/14)

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop. Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines. “They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket. We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie [Ben Paynter on Wired] (1/21/14)

Changing the agricultural game is what Monsanto does. The company whose name is synonymous with Big Ag has revolutionized the way we grow food—for better or worse. Activists revile it for such mustache-twirling practices as suing farmers who regrow licensed seeds or filling the world with Roundup-resistant super­weeds. Then there’s Monsanto’s reputation—scorned by some, celebrated by others—as the foremost purveyor of genetically modified commodity crops like corn and soybeans with DNA edited in from elsewhere, designed to have qualities nature didn’t quite think of. So it’s not particularly surprising that the company is introducing novel strains of familiar food crops, invented at Monsanto and endowed by their creators with powers and abilities far beyond what you usually see in the produce section. The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps boost antioxidant levels. Stark’s department, the global trade division, came up with all of them…But here’s the twist: The lettuce, peppers, and broccoli—plus a melon and an onion, with a watermelon soon to follow—aren’t genetically modified at all. Monsanto created all these veggies using good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same tech­nology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia. That doesn’t mean they are low tech, exactly. Stark’s division is drawing on Monsanto’s accumulated scientific know-how to create vegetables that have all the advantages of genetically modified organisms without any of the Frankenfoods ick factor. And that’s a serious business advantage. Despite a gaping lack of evidence that genetically modified food crops harm human health, consumers have shown a marked resistance to purchasing GM produce (even as they happily consume pro­ducts derived from genetically modified commodity crops). Stores like Whole Foods are planning to add GMO disclosures to their labels in a few years. State laws may mandate it even sooner.

The Inside Story of Tor, the Best Internet Anonymity Tool the Government Ever Built [Dune Lawrence on Bloomberg Businessweek] (1/23/14)

Tor, an acronym for “the onion router,” is software that provides the closest thing to anonymity on the Internet. Engineered by the Tor Project, a nonprofit group, and offered free of charge, Tor has been adopted by both agitators for liberty and criminals. It sends chat messages, Google (GOOG) searches, purchase orders, or e-mails on a winding path through multiple computers, concealing activities as the layers of an onion cover its core, encrypting the source at each step to hide where one is and where one wants to go. Some 5,000 computers around the world, volunteered by their owners, serve as potential hop points in the path, obscuring requests for a new page or chat. Tor Project calls these points relays. Its users are global, from Iranian activists who eluded government censors to transmit images and news during the 2009 protests following that year’s presidential election, to Chinese citizens who regularly use it to get around the country’s Great Firewall and its blocks on everything from Facebook (FB) to the New York Times. In addition to facilitating anonymous communication online, Tor is an access point to the “dark Web,” vast reaches of the Internet that are intentionally kept hidden and don’t show up in Google or other search engines, often because they harbor the illicit, from child porn to stolen credit card information. It’s perhaps the most effective means of defeating the online surveillance efforts of intelligence agencies around the world, including the most sophisticated agency of them all, the NSA. That’s ironic, because Tor started as a project of the U.S. government. More than half of the Tor Project’s revenue in 2012, or $1.24 million, came from government grants, including an $876,099 award from the Department of Defense, according to financial statements available on the project’s website.

Korea Craft Beers Get Boost in Challenge to $1.3 Billion Duopoly [Heesu Lee on Bloomberg News] (1/23/14)

The smell of fresh paint lingers at the renovated Vaneheim microbrewery in northeast Seoul, a sign of owner Kim Jung Ha’s optimism after a decade of struggling with the economics of South Korea’s lopsided beer market. Under revisions to alcohol laws announced by the finance ministry yesterday, house brewers like Kim will be allowed to distribute their beer through other bars and restaurants for the first time, while paying a lower rate of tax. The changes are expected to bring more competition to a $1.3 billion beer market that grew 6 percent in 2013 and is dominated by Hite Jinro Co. (000080) and Oriental Brewery Co., re-acquired this week by the world’s biggest beer maker Anheuser-Busch InBev NV.

Hesitate [Steve Fleming on Aeon Magazine] (1/8/14)

It has been known for many years that the subjective ease with which we process information — termed ‘fluency’ by psychologists — affects how much we like or value things. For example, people judge fluent statements as more truthful, and easy-to-see objects as more attractive. This effect has consequences that extend beyond the lab: the psychologists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer, of the Stern School of Business in New York and the Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles respectively, found that if it a company name is easy to pronounce, it tends to have a higher stock price, all else being equal. The interpretation is that fluent processing of information leads people implicitly to attach more value to the company Fluency not only affects our perceptions of value; it also changes how we feel about our decisions. For example, if stimuli are made brighter during a memory test people feel more confident in their answers despite them being no more likely to be correct…Fluent decisions, therefore, are associated with feelings of confidence, control, being in the zone. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in California, has termed this the feeling of ‘flow’. For highly practised tasks, fluency and accuracy go hand in hand: a pianist might report feelings of flow when performing a piece that has been internalised after years of practice. But in novel situations, might our fondness for fluency actually hurt us?

The Apollo of Gaza: Hamas’s Ancient Bronze Statue [Vernon Silver on Bloomberg Businessweek] (1/30/14)

The Apollo of Gaza is almost six feet tall and made of bronze. He has finely wrought curly hair, one intact inlaid eye, an outstretched right hand, and a green patina over most of his body, which weighs about 1,000 pounds. His slim limbs are those of a teenager, and he’s so unusually well preserved that his feet are still attached to the rectangular bronze base that kept him upright centuries ago. On the international market, bronzes have become the rarest and most disputed artifacts of antiquity. Few survive today; over the past 2,000 years most have fallen victim to recycling: melted in antiquity for weapons or coins and later for church bells and cannon. The survivors are mostly those saved by mishaps or disasters—sinking in shipwrecks or buried by volcanic ash. A find like the Gaza bronze does not happen often. In 1996 a recreational diver in Croatia discovered a heavily encrusted bronze statue of an athlete, which the government restored and sent on an international museum tour. In 1972 a snorkeler off Italy’s Calabria region found the Riace Warriors, a pair of bronzes later honored with a postage stamp and brought to life as animated stars in tourism advertisements…“A bronze of this size is one of a kind,” says Giacomo Medici, a dealer whose 2004 conviction in Rome for acting as a hub of the global antiquities trade led to the repatriation of works from the world’s biggest museums and richest collectors, including the Getty and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the Apollo could be sold, such a statue would bring “20, 30, 40 million euros, maybe more, 100 million for the highest quality,” Medici says, speaking by phone from house arrest at his villa north of the Italian capital. “You could make it a centerpiece of a museum or private collection.” By way of comparison, an ancient bronze a little more than half the Apollo’s size, depicting the goddess Artemis with a stag, sold for $28.6 million at Sotheby’s (BID) in New York in 2007. “That’s a good guide” for understanding the value of the Gaza bronze, says James Ede, chairman of London-based antiquities dealer Charles Ede. “Of course, it’s worth a lot of money if it can be sold, but it can’t be,” he says. A thicket of issues surrounding the Apollo’s provenance and ownership will make it hard to establish legal title, he says. It doesn’t help that Gaza is governed by Hamas, the Islamist movement considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Says Ede, “It would be a hell of a furor if they tried to sell it.”

Who Runs Freedom Industries? West Virginia’s Chemical Spill Mystery [Paul M. Barrett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (1/30/14)

Before the lawsuits and the retreat into federal bankruptcy court, before the change in ownership in a veiled roll-up by an out-of-state coal baron, before the Justice Department’s environmental-crimes investigation, the presidentially declared emergency, and the National Guard’s arrival—nine years before all of that—the co-founder of Freedom Industries, the company at the center of the Jan. 9 chemical spill that cut off tap water for 300,000 West Virginians, was convicted of siphoning payroll tax withholdings to splurge on sports cars, a private plane, and real estate in the Bahamas. And 18 years before that, in 1987, before he started Freedom Industries, Carl Kennedy II was convicted of conspiring to sell cocaine in a scandal that brought down the mayor of Charleston. Little known, even locally, Freedom was born and operated in a felonious milieu populated by old friends who seemed better suited to bartending at the Charleston-area saloons they also owned.

How Well Do Blindfolded Monkeys Play the Stock Market? [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (1/31/14)

In a kind of inversion of the high frequency trading performed by Wall Street algorithms, Golden spent 5 hours a day arbitraging this loophole. His huge victory reminds us of the clearest example of how finance professionals can perform better than random chance: cheating, loopholes, and investing in ways impossible for the rest of the market to match.

Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now [Mark Danner on The New York Review of Books] (12/13/13)

The American military had not yet become Rumsfeld’s military, with its emphasis on Special Forces; it was CIA officers who led the charge on horseback through Afghanistan, pointing their laser target finders to guide US bombers. Taliban fighters took punishment, then retreated, slipped away; as Wolfowitz had said the targets soon ran out. And when the critical moment came, with Osama bin Laden and much of his al-Qaeda force cornered at Tora Bora, Rumsfeld—so he tells us in his memoir—left the critical decisions to his combatant commander, General Tommy Franks:

Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run…was worth the risks…. Still, the emphasis on bin Laden concerned me. To my mind, the justification for our military operations in Afghanistan was not the capture or killing of one person. Our country’s primary purpose was to try to prevent terrorists from attacking us again. There was far more to the threat posed by Islamist extremism than one man.

Still, “I made it clear to Franks that if he believed he needed more troops, he would get them as quickly as possible,” and “if someone thought bin Laden was cornered, as later claimed, I found it surprising that [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet had never called me to urge Franks to support their operation.” We would hear echoes of this in Iraq. As Nixon discovered, the deft shedding of responsibility was a Rumsfeld trademark.

The Economics of Infomercials [Jon Nathanson on Priceonomics] (11/14/13)

The Graveyard Slot is an inverse inflection point in the profit curves of two very different businesses. For local TV stations, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Producing content to air on these hours would cost more than it would return. Selling the timeslot for pennies on the dollar isn’t ideal, but it’s a better alternative to airing color bars or going dark. But for certain companies – the kinds of companies who make Snuggies and ShamWows – the Graveyard is primetime. It’s dirt-cheap media space. It’s highly efficient for testing products and messaging against targeted consumer segments…These products certainly put the “fringe” in Post Late Fringe. It boggles the mind that anyone would want to buy them. But they’re serious business. Collectively, the U.S. market for infomercial products stood at $170 billion in 2009 and could exceed $250 billion by 2015. In fact, with the worth of the entire U.S. network and cable industry estimated at $97 billion as of 2013, DRTV is much bigger than TV itself. If nobody’s watching TV during the Fringe/Graveyard shift, who’s buying $200-250 billion worth of product? To put that into perspective: $250 billion will represent at least an entire percentage point of the U.S. GDP in 2015. Infomercials may be uniquely American, but how can they account for such a giant slice of America?…These products, like many others in the DRTV space, are not one-hit wonders, spawned in a garage by a couple of wackos with a pipedream. Rather, they are bets in the portfolios of much larger, highly capitalized intellectual property holding companies. Telebrands, maker of the PedEgg, is one such company. With revenues exceeding $500 million a year, it’s one of the major players in the DRTV products business. It’s the firm that brought you the Slice-O-Matic, the Pocket Hose, the Hurricane Spin Mop, and at least several hundred more pieces of single-purposed shlock. It’s also a chief participant in the “As Seen On TV” program. “As Seen On TV” is a sort of informal trade affiliation and open-source brand mark representing major DRTV brands in the retail business. As we’ll see, it’s the endgame behind most of today’s DRTV campaigns. The infomercials themselves are just appetizers; getting stocked at Walmart is the main course. That’s where the real money is made. (Retail sales account for approximately 90% of Telebrands’ revenues.)

The Economics of Selling Out [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (12/11/13)

The Wikipedia page for “selling out” describes Metallica as “an example of an artist being accused of selling out.” The group began as a heavy thrash metal band that attracted distinctly non-mainstream supporters. (Not only is metal a niche, but stylistic choices like a nine-minute stretch without lyrics in their second studio album clashed with the average listener’s expectations and radio play formats.) For their sixth studio album, Metallica hired a producer who had worked with Aerosmith and Bon Jovi and moved away from thrash and metal toward a more general rock sound. The producer explained that the band’s sound changed “to make the leap to the big, big leagues.”  And they did, as the album became one of the most commercially successful of all time. Fans debate if and when Metallica sold out (and whether they accept the change as an “evolution” of musical style, much like Rubio supporters debate the sincerity of his bipartisanship), but to many, their actions were clear: Metallica had given up their sound in favor of more generic, mainstream songs that would sell outside the thrash metal niche. One conception of selling out focuses on figures that use their work or position for commercial gain. This is especially true of musicians who sell the rights to their songs for advertising purposes. Fans want the purity of a true artist. They don’t want Lady Gaga featuring Miracle Whip in a music video because the company paid for the product placement. The other conception, which we’ve focused on, is the move mainstream. And remembering the principle of minimum differentiation, we can see why fans and supporters hate it so much: It leaves the market underserved. Fans of niches like thrash metal find that their favorite groups are continually tempted away from the genre. They are like the people on the beach, far away from the hot dog stand, and voters on the far left or far right who can’t find a champion to represent them. Politicians’ (bands’) move to center results in a world of bland, inoffensive, and identical candidates (music). Snobs complaining about popular bands’ later albums and figures blasting politicians’ bipartisanship can be annoying. They also serve as the only force fighting the market failure that pushes everyone toward the middle. But there’s more to people’s hatred of sellouts. With all due respect to artistic integrity, if the only obstacle between the average starving artist and a platinum album was his artistic sensibilities, all music would sound exactly the same. Being bland is helpful to famous names who want to maintain a big tent. But sounding mainstream doesn’t help artists without name recognition. They’ll just be lost in the crowd. It doesn’t matter how big your tent is if no one is going in. Instead, new musicians (politicians) need to stand out. The consumers (voters) who seek out unknown names have fringe musical tastes (voter preferences) that the bland mainstream is underserving. So artists (and politicians and so on) need to differentiate when they start their careers to attract members of the energized, disaffected niches — the thrash metal devotees, the Tea Partiers — who can propel them to major music venues or a high office. It’s only once these niches have fueled an artist’s or politician’s rise that the logic of going mainstream applies.

Big Hair on Campus [William D. Cohan on Vanity Fair] (January 2014)

One project The Donald isn’t crowing about on Twitter—or anywhere else, for that matter—is the public-relations problem known first as Trump University and then as the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, his effort to teach the great unwashed (for as much as $35,000 a head) his vaunted investing techniques. If Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, is to be believed, this particular (now defunct) Trump enterprise was nothing short of out-and-out fraud. Touré, a host of The Cycle on MSNBC, appears to agree. He tweeted to The Donald, “Why did you rob all those Trump University students out of their money?” Schneiderman thinks that’s a good question, and he wants a good answer. Last August the attorney general’s office filed suit against Trump and his associates for more than $40 million in New York State Supreme Court, claiming that between 2005 and 2011 they “intentionally” misled “over 5,000 individuals nationwide,” including some 600 New York State residents, who paid to “participate in live seminars and mentorship programs with the promise of learning Trump’s real estate investing techniques.” Schneiderman asserted that Trump personally made about $5 million from the endeavor—although Trump said he intended to donate any profits to charity. (Now he says that between legal fees and refunds no money is left to do so.)

Your “Thoughtful” Gifts Are Suboptimal [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (12/20/13)

The problem is that previous (and very unsentimental) research cited in the paper has found that gift givers consistently overestimate how much recipients will appreciate the amount of time, thought, or money put into a gift. It’s a finding from experimental conditions and in the aggregate, but it could be more true than we care to admit.

What Blackwater Founder Erik Prince Learned About the Business of War [Drake Bennett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (11/21/13)

Civilian Warriors is an angry book, and some of Prince’s contentions have made immediate headlines: He argues that ill-conceived State Department regulations led to Blackwater’s many firefights in Iraq; he has accused former CIA Director Leon Panetta of blowing his cover as an intelligence asset; and he contends that, had Blackwater still been providing security for America’s diplomats, Chris Stevens, the ambassador killed in Benghazi, would be alive today. And yet, Civilian Warriors is not just a rant about government incompetence. It’s also the tale of how Prince founded, ran, and then lost his company. Like many a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Prince never saw Blackwater as simply a moneymaking venture. He wanted it to prove two things he strongly believed in: the dynamism of the private sector, and that some of the world’s most frustrating problems—piracy, warlords, genocide—could be solved by small groups of highly trained men with guns.

How Do You Make Money Off Stolen Art? [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (11/21/13)

One solution is to steal artwork on commission for a private collector. The collector is unlikely to offer the full price, but stealing on commission removes all the risk for the thieves of trying to find a buyer. Which in the art world, where pliers have been used to steal million dollar paintings, can seem like the only risk. (For this reason, investigators believe museum employees and curators who steal pieces for personal enjoyment to be a major source of art theft.) There are, however, two major players in the art world who continue to see the stolen work as extremely valuable: the museum from which the art was stolen and the insurance company on the hook for covering the full cost of the stolen pieces.  According to an excellent article in the New York Times Magazine, it is the desire of the original owners (and their insurers) to reclaim stolen artwork that makes them valuable. The author notes that the going rate for stolen art on the black market is around 7% to 10% of its full value. This could be seen as the equivalent of buying a stolen iPhone or bike for a fraction of its value, but the author argues that the buyer is really acquiring the original owner’s desire to reclaim the artwork.

The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was a Psychopath [Joseph Stromberg on Smithsonian Magazine] (11/22/13)

“I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he says, noting that it showed low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. Knowing that it belonged to a member of his family, Fallon checked his lab’s PET machine for an error (it was working perfectly fine) and then decided he simply had to break the blinding that prevented him from knowing whose brain was pictured. When he looked up the code, he was greeted by an unsettling revelation: the psychopathic brain pictured in the scan was his own. Many of us would hide this discovery and never tell a soul, out of fear or embarrassment of being labeled a psychopath. Perhaps because boldness and disinhibition are noted psychopathic tendencies, Fallon has gone all in towards the opposite direction, telling the world about his finding in a TED Talk, an NPR interview and now a new book published last month, The Psychopath InsideIn it, Fallon seeks to reconcile how he—a happily married family man—could demonstrate the same anatomical patterns that marked the minds of serial killers.

Penny Lane: Gitmo’s other secret CIA facility [Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo on The Associated Press]

In these buildings, CIA officers turned terrorists into double agents and sent them home. It was a risky gamble. If it worked, their agents might help the CIA find terrorist leaders to kill with drones. But officials knew there was a chance that some prisoners might quickly spurn their deal and kill Americans. For the CIA, that was an acceptable risk in a dangerous business. For the American public, which was never told, it was one of the many secret trade-offs the government made on its behalf. At the same time the government used the threat of terrorism to justify imprisoning people indefinitely, it was releasing dangerous people from prison to work for the CIA. Nearly a dozen current and former U.S officials described aspects of the program to The Associated Press. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the secret program, even though it ended in about 2006. The program and the handful of men who passed through these cottages had various official CIA codenames. But those who were aware of the cluster of cottages knew it best by its sobriquet: Penny Lane.

The Truth About Pork and How America Feeds Itself [Ted Genoways on Bloomberg Businessweek] (12/5/13)

A Fremont worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals in the workplace, describes a recent incident involving a “gut snatcher,” the person responsible for pulling innards from the abdominal cavity. One day last year, the snatcher still had one of his hands inside the carcass when a saw cut through the spine of the animal and sliced off four of his fingers. “I think he lose two of these,” the witness says, pointing to his middle and ring fingers. Then as if an afterthought, he adds that he too has lost part of a finger—the tip of his left pinkie—to a rib cutter. And his wife also lost her index finger, severed by a fat trimmer. In every case, he says, “they washed it up but never stopped production.” Equally troubling, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has raised concerns that faster line speeds could compromise food safety. In May, the OIG released a report finding enforcement of protocols at the five pilot plants was so lax that between 2008 and 2011 three ranked among the top 10 violators of food safety requirements. That’s out of 616 pork-packing plants nationwide. As recently as last year, inspectors at the five test plants found hog carcasses bound for processing with lesions from tuberculosis, septic arthritis (with bloody fluid pouring from joints), and fecal smears. The OIG’s assessment warned that “recurring, severe violations may jeopardize public health.”

Curiously Strong Remains:


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