Best of the Best:
Neuroaesthetics: Researchers unravel the biology of beauty and art [Anjan Chatterjee on The Scientist] (5/1/14)
One type of damage that can affect artistic ability occurs in frontotemporal dementias, a group of degenerative neurological diseases in which patients experience profound personality changes. Such people can be disinhibited and disorganized, exhibit obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and have problems with language, attention, and the ability to make decisions. A few people with such dementias develop a propensity to produce art. This artwork is typically realistic, obsessive, and detailed—the graphical embodiments of acquired obsessive-compulsive traits. Some case studies support the hypothesis that disorders characterized by obsessive-compulsive traits can be accompanied by a preternatural ability to produce art. For example, one autism-afflicted child named Nadia could draw lifelike horses by the age of three despite many cognitive and social developmental delays. Among the most intriguing examples are those in which artists suffer some sort of brain injury or neurodegenerative disease that changes the way they paint in interesting new ways, as was the case with de Kooning. Another artist, German painter and printmaker Lovis Corinth, had a stroke that damaged the right side of his brain in 1911. Damage to the right hemisphere can stunt processing of information on the opposite side of one’s body and artists suffering such brain damage often neglect the left side of images that they produce. After his stroke, Corinth sometimes omitted details on the left side of his subjects’ faces, and textures on the left often blended into the background. (These later works were regarded highly by critics, one of whom wrote that Corinth had “become prescient for the hidden facets of appearance,” according to Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.1) Damage to the right side of the brain can also result in spatial processing impairment. After American artist Loring Hughes experienced a right-hemisphere stroke, she had difficulty coordinating the spatial relationship between lines, which forced her to abandon her realistic style and adopt a more expressive one. Artists with damage to the left side of their brains sometimes introduce more vivid colors and change the content of their imagery. The Bulgarian painter Zlatio Boiadjiev was known for his use of earth tones and a natural and pictorial style. Following a stroke that affected the left side of his brain, Boiadjiev’s paintings became richer, more colorful, fluid, energetic, and even fantastical. Similarly, when the Californian artist Katherine Sherwood suffered a left-hemisphere hemorrhagic stroke, her “highly cerebral” style, in which she incorporated esoteric images of cross-dressers, medieval seals, and spy photos, changed to a style that critics have described as “raw” and “intuitive.” Forced to use her left hand, she found it to be “unburdened,” allowing her to enjoy an ease and grace with the brush that her right hand never had.2 The Assessment of Art Attributes (AAA), which I published with collaborators in 2010, allows researchers to quantitatively assess an artwork’s formal visual attributes, such as overall complexity, balance, and color saturation and temperature, as well as the qualities of its content, including abstractness, realism, and symbolism. My lab recently applied the AAA to the works of Corinth, Boiadjiev, and Sherwood to reveal that the right hemisphere is not dominant for artistic production, as is commonly believed.3 Rather, the paintings of all three artists, two of whom had left-brain injuries, became more abstract and distorted, less realistic and accurate, following brain injury. The works were also rendered with looser strokes, more flatness, and greater vibrancy. Clearly, both hemispheres participate in artistic production. Clinical evidence also points to the effects of brain damage on art appreciation. Damage to the right frontal lobe, for example, impairs judgments of abstractness, realism, animacy, and symbolism, while damage to the right parietal lobe also impairs judgments of animacy and symbolism.4
The Trade of the Century: When George Soros Broke the British Pound [Rohin Dhar on Priceonomics] (5/15/14)
As Europe slept, Soros borrowed and sold pounds from anyone that he could. The Quantum Fund’s position exceeded $10 billion shorting the pound. Other hedge funds got wind of the the trade and the report from the Bundesbank and started following suit, also borrowing and selling pounds. By the time London markets opened for business and British treasury officials started their day, tens of billions of pounds had been sold and the the pound was dangerously close to trading below the levels mandated by the ERM. The Bank of England was about to have a very shitty day.
The Rise of Nintendo: A Story in 8 Bits [Blake J. Harris on Grantland] (5/14/14)
At first glance, Radarscope may have appeared to be just another shoot-’em-up space game, but it distinguished itself with incredibly sharp graphics and an innovative 3-D perspective. After receiving positive feedback from test locations around the Seattle area, Arakawa invested much of NOA’s remaining resources in three thousand units. But a few weeks later, before the rest of the arcade cabinets even arrived, Arakawa felt an ominous chill upon revisiting the test locations, where he noticed that nobody was playing his crucial new game. That foreboding was validated after the three thousand units finally arrived and Stone and Judy found that operators had little interest. Radarscope was fun at first, the consensus appeared to be, but it lacked replay value. With so much invested in this game, the last remaining hope was for a designer in Japan to quickly create a game and send over processors with that new game to America, where NOA employees could swap out the motherboard and then repaint the arcade cabinets. This task was given to Shigeru Miyamoto, a floppy-haired first-time designer who believed that videogames should be treated with the same respect given to books, movies, and television shows. His efforts to elevate the art form were given a boost when he was informed that Nintendo was close to finalizing a licensing deal with King Features, enabling him to develop his game around the popular cartoon series Popeye the Sailor Man. Using those characters, he began crafting a game where Popeye must rescue his beloved Olive Oyl by hopping over obstacles tossed in his way by his obese archenemy, Bluto. Shipments containing the code for Miyamoto’s new game began to arrive. Due to last-minute negotiation issues with King Features, Nintendo had lost the rights to Popeye, which forced Miyamoto to come up with something else. As a result, Arakawa, Stone, Judy, and a handful of warehouse employees didn’t know what to expect. They inserted the new processor into one of the thousands of unsold Radarscope machines and then watched the lights flicker as the words “Donkey Kong” came to life on the arcade screen. The initial impression was that this was a silly game with an even sillier name. Who would possibly want to play a game where a tiny red plumber must rescue his beloved princess by hopping over obstacles tossed in his way by an obese gorilla? Yet, with no remaining options, Stone and Judy set out across the country to sell it. Never before had there been a quarter magnet quite like Donkey Kong. It was so successful, in fact, that it eventually attracted the attention of a major Hollywood studio, whose high-priced legal team believed that the game violated copyrights, and they threatened to crush Nintendo. To avoid this potentially crippling blow, Arakawa turned to the only lawyer he knew in Seattle: Howard Lincoln, an elegant, imposing former naval attorney whose only claim to fame was having modeled for Norman Rockwell’s painting The Scoutmaster when he was a child.
Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers [Jesse Katz on Los Angeles Magazine] (4/14/14)
Under Major League Baseball’s byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department’s outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent—and score a fat contract—is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing. The five men piloting Puig’s vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. At least two were fugitives—one, on the run from a federal indictment in Miami, was alleged to have extorted Cubans traveling this very route. They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel, which charged the smugglers a “right of passage” to use Isla Mujeres as a base.
Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified? [Molly Ball on The Atlantic] (5/14/14)
In state after state where labeling has been proposed, the politicians pushing it—mostly Democrats—tell the same story. The issue, they say, was hardly on their radar until a massive amount of constituent pressure put it there. In Vermont, the campaign for labeling was spearheaded by a coalition of organic farms and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Campaigners knocked on 80,000 doors and got 30,000 Vermonters to send postcards to their state legislators. Labeling proponents have focused their message not on attacking GMOs themselves but on consumers’ right to information…No widely accepted science supports the idea that GMOs are inherently dangerous to people’s health or the environment. To proponents, including many in the agribusiness industry, opposition to GMOs is nothing more than a dangerous mania, and the people in the grip of it are akin to those who refuse to vaccinate their children or who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate. Yet the grassroots fervor around the topic—driven by Internet rumors, liberal anti-corporatism, and mothers concerned about their children—is undeniable. More than a million people have signed a petition to the Food and Drug Administration asking it to label GMOs, the most of any petition in the agency’s history.
Allis Markham, Hollywood Taxidermy’s Rising Star [Caroline Winter on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/22/14)
In March, Markham began offering eight-person beginner taxidermy classes in Prey’s studio. The students, mostly women (and mostly tattooed), pay $265 for nine hours of instruction, during which they take a dead starling from frozen to mounted. “Starlings are big pests,” Markham tells a group of students in April, explaining that their specimens had been killed by a farmer in Wisconsin and mailed to her in a plastic English muffin bag. “They were introduced by a naturalist who thought it was a shame we didn’t have any of the birds Shakespeare wrote about, and now they’re among the most numerous birds in North America.” Markham walks around the room checking on her students’ progress. First they gut the birds, remove their brains and eyeballs, and clean all the tissue away from the bones. Next they remove fat from the skin using a spinning metal brush called a fleshing wheel. After rolling the birds in Chinchilla dust to remove excess oil, they blow-dry the feathers, reinforce the skulls with clay, and stick in tiny glass eyeballs. “I’m going to call my bird Clarice, after Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs,” says one student with pink hair. So far, Prey’s 11 classes have all sold out. Markham’s next project is to procure vintage taxidermy for an indie film. She’s so booked that she recently had to turn down jobs for Christian Louboutin—the shoe company wanted birds and butterflies for a press event—and I-D magazine, which asked for a “full-size ostrich in an upright position” for an editorial. After a long day, Markham’s happy to go home to her husband and her living foster dogs. “I come in smelling like heifer or tiger meat or whatever I’ve been working on, and the dogs go wild,” she says. “They must think I’m, like, the best hunter in the world.”
Beauty ≠ truth [Philip Ball on Aeon Magazine] (5/19/14)
Why shouldn’t scientists be allowed their own definition of beauty? Perhaps they should. Yet isn’t there a narrowness to the standard that they have chosen? Even that might not be so bad, if their cult of ‘beauty’ didn’t seem to undermine the credibility of what they otherwise so strenuously assert: the sanctity of evidence. It doesn’t matter who you are, they say, how famous or erudite or well-published: if your theory doesn’t match up to nature, it’s history. But if that’s the name of the game, why on earth should some vague notion of beauty be brought into play as an additional arbiter? Because of experience, they might reply: true theories are beautiful. Well, general relativity might have turned out OK, but plenty of others have not. Take the four-colour theorem: the proposal that it is possible to colour any arbitrary patchwork in just four colours without any patches of the same colour touching one another. In 1879 it seemed as though the British mathematician Alfred Kempe had found a proof – and it was widely accepted for a decade, because it was thought beautiful. It was wrong. The current proof is ugly as heck – it relies on a brute-force exhaustive computer search, which some mathematicians refuse to accept as a valid form of demonstration – but it might turn out to be all there is. The same goes for Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, first announced in 1993. The basic theorem is wonderfully simple and elegant, the proof anything but: 100 pages long and more complex than the Pompidou Centre. There’s no sign of anything simpler. It’s not hard to mine science history for theories and proofs that were beautiful and wrong, or complicated and right. No one has ever shown a correlation between beauty and ‘truth’. But it is worse than that, for sometimes ‘beauty’ in the sense that many scientists prefer – an elegant simplicity, to put it in crude terms – can act as a fake trump card that deflects inquiry. In one little corner of science that I can claim to know reasonably well, an explanation from 1959 for why water-repelling particles attract when immersed in water (that it’s an effect of entropy, there being more disordered water molecules when the particles stick together) was so neat and satisfying that it continues to be peddled today, even though the experimental data show that it is untenable and that the real explanation probably lies in a lot of devilish detail.
Where Are the Most Child Tax Credits Claimed? [Alan Cole on Tax Foundation] (4/29/15)
There is substantial variation among counties. In total, the range spans from a high of 31% in Shannon County SD to a low of 5% in Sumter County FL. There is even strong variation among counties within the same state. In California, for example, only 7% of filers in San Francisco County take the CTC. However, a couple hundred miles down I-5 in Kings County, 25% of filers take the CTC. There are several reasons for this variation. One of the most obvious of these is that highly urban areas are usually populated with more single adults than families. For this reason, San Francisco County (7%), Arlington County VA (6%), and New York County NY (6%) all have very few CTC takers. These are three of the four lowest proportions – but, as mentioned, the absolute lowest number comes from Sumter County in Florida (5%). Sumter County is a different story, one shared with Charlotte County (9%) and Citrus County (10%) in the same state, as well as several counties in northern Michigan. These counties have so few CTC takers because they have so many more retirees than the national average…In Sumter County, for example, almost half of all personal taxable income comes from Social Security, pensions, or private retirement accounts. There are other factors besides age, though. The CTC is means-tested, meaning that families with high incomes are often not eligible. For this reason, Falls Church VA (9%) has very few people taking the credit, even though it is a perfectly nice place to raise children. Falls Church is simply too wealthy, and many of its residents are ineligible.
Ten Days in Kenya With No Cash, Only a Phone [Charles Graeber on Bloomberg Businessweek] (6/5/14)
I had traveled from New York to Nairobi to learn how to do exactly this—to pay for things with a phone—and to understand why Kenya has gained a reputation as the mobile payments future. Almost everyone in the country uses M-pesa (M, for mobile; pesa is payment in Swahili) to transfer money from one phone to another via encrypted short message service, or SMS. In all, there are about 18.2 million active customers in a nation twice the size of Colorado…It is Safaricom’s version of mobile money that has become common currency in Kenya. The company grew out of Kenyan Posts & Telecommunications, the former state monopoly, and has been publicly traded since 2002. It introduced M-pesa in 2007, and people now make about 80 billion shillings in monthly M-pesa transactions and move more than 130 billion shillings in and out of the mobile system via 45,000 independent agents throughout the country. M-pesa took off almost instantly because it made it safer for Kenyans to send money home (instead of having cash carried by a cousin, say, on a bus prone to breakdowns, traffic accidents, and theft) and because M-pesa on a SIM card allowed millions of Kenyans without a bank account to become their own personal ATMs, especially appealing to farmers between harvests. If a Kenyan didn’t have a phone, she could simply borrow one; all she needed was a SIM card to be in business.
Welcome to Baku, the Filthy-Rich Capital of Azerbaijan [Christopher Bagley on Bloomberg News] (6/6/14)
Since 2006, when the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline prompted a surge in crude oil exports — up to a million barrels a day travel through neighboring Georgia and on to Turkey and the West — there’s been no shortage of cash in Baku. Now, the city is eager for the prestige that goes with it…If you’re not in the oil or gas business, or a follower of the Eurovision Song Contest, which this city hosted in 2012 after speed-building a purpose-made arena, it’s unlikely that Baku is top of mind. Despite a handful of recent news articles anointing it as the Caucasus’s answer to Dubai, Azerbaijan is not yet an established tourist destination, in part because of its draconian visa policy, which requires many foreigners to obtain an official invitation, usually from a hotel or registered Azerbaijani travel agent.
The Rise of the Tribute Band [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (5/19/14)
Similar to how “cover bands” play hit songs written or popularized by famous bands instead of their own material, “tribute bands” do not perform original songs. Instead, they exclusively perform songs by the band they pay tribute to, usually mimicking the band’s appearance, style, and name. With Only One Direction, fans get to see a performance very similar to One Direction at a fraction of the price. The success of Only One Direction is not an anomaly. While a few tribute acts are overzealous fans badly imitating their heroes, select tribute bands have enjoyed fame since tributes to The Beatles first sold out venues that once hosted The Beatles themselves. Tribute bands got their name from their roots reproducing the experience of seeing a performance by a band whose members died or split up. Today, however, you can book a Coldplay, Adele, or even Justin Bieber tribute act. A surprising number sell out major venues in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, hire an agent, and even record albums. Tribute bands make an obscene amount of business sense. It’s also unclear whether they are legal. Regardless, an increasing number of musicians seem to be enjoying the benefits of performing as second string music stars…Many bars don’t realize they need to pay for permission to host a band playing a few AC/DC songs (and cafes and stores often don’t realize that they have to pay to play CDs). So agents from BMI and ASCAP cross the country to educate them, while lawyers back up that education with legal threats that angry owners often compare to shakedowns. But as BMI and ASCAP represent almost the entire catalogue of copyrighted work, once a venue has paid them, it can play any music in any format, whether that means pushing play on a Spice Girls CD, paying a cover band to play hits from the eighties, or bringing in a Kiss tribute band.
Twinkie’s Miracle Comeback: The Untold, Inside Story of a $2 Billion Feast [Steven Bertoni on Forbes] (4/15/15)
Before they could reinvent Hostess, the new owners had to rebuild it–no small thing. The deal closed in April 2013. For their $410 million Metropoulos and Apollo got those cake brands, the recipes and five factories. There were no employees, no marketing, no delivery routes, no shelf space–no sugar or cocoa or flour. No one had bought a Twinkie or a Ding Dong for six months. Moreover, the new business plan called for the same output using a fraction of the labor. The old Hostess dessert division required 9,000 employees and 14 factories to pump out just under $1 billion worth of cakes a year. The new plan called for 1,000 people and five plants (that number was soon cut to three as one was sold, another shuttered). William Toler, a veteran of Metropoulos turnarounds, was brought in as CEO. Metropoulos’ recipe was threefold. First he spent $110 million modernizing the remaining factories–everything from a utomation (massive, new $20 million Auto Bakers) to improving air flow in the bakeries so they’d be more tolerable for workers in the hot summer months. “You must improve employee conditions, fix the cracks on the floor and those types of things,” says Metropoulos. “It affects the pride, energy and culture of the plant, and that translates into everything.” Next came a $25 million SAP software system to manage inventory and logistics. Shipping posed the biggest challenge of all. Because Wonder Bread had a shelf life of only a few days, the old Hostess relied on more than 5,000 delivery routes to drop off product to individual stores several times a week. It was incredibly expensive (each route required a driver, a truck, gas and insurance), eating up 36% of revenue each year. Worse, it limited the stores that c ould be reach ed. Gas stations and convenience stores were too small to warrant a stop. Dollar stores and pharmacies used independent distributors and were unreachable with this network. Since the new Hostess just had the cakes, not the bread, it could rethink everything. A switch to a centralized–warehouse model would both save money and get Hostess products into more shops. The problem: Twinkies–with a reputation as the cockroach of the food kingdom, able to survive flood, famine and nuclear war–had a shelf life of only about 25 days. And since the warehouse model meant food might have to sit in storage as long as two weeks, even Twinkies risked going stale. The magic bullet turned out to be chemistry. Metropoulos spent millions on R&D, working with food lab Corbion to tweak the formula of starches, oils and gums in Twinkies, finally arriving at an acidity level that would prevent staleness and discoloration. The singular goal: Make the Twinkie warehouse-friendly. And while none of this will make Alice Waters’ heart flutter, the team succeeded in making the indestructible snack even more so–it’s shelf life was more than doubled, to 65 days. Hostess switched to a warehouse system.
Increase in Bike Deaths Prompts Concerns [Daniel C. Vock on Governing Magazine] (10/28/14)
The number of U.S. bicyclists killed in traffic increased in 2011 and 2012, despite an overall decline in cycling fatalities that stretches back to the 1970s, according to a new analysis by a traffic safety group. A total of 722 American cyclists died in motor vehicle crashes in 2012, compared to 680 deaths in 2011 and 621 in 2010, reported the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state transportation safety agencies. The 16 percent uptick in bicycle deaths during that period came at a time when motor vehicle deaths increased by 1 percent. There are some indications that the increase in cyclists deaths correspond with an increase in the number of cyclists overall, but the data is limited. We don’t really know that more Americans are riding bycycles at all…Most of the cyclist deaths in the three-year period occurred in California, Florida, Texas, New York, Illinois and Michigan. Florida had the largest increase in the country, with 37 more deaths in 2012 than in 2010. Michigan had the largest decrease from 2012 to 2010, with 10 fewer deaths.
In South Africa, Ranchers Are Breeding Mutant Animals to Be Hunted [Kevin Crowley on Bloomberg News] (3/11/15)
Operators don’t guarantee kills, yet to leave hunters disappointed is generally seen as bad business, says Peet van der Merwe, a professor of tourism and leisure studies at South Africa’s North-West University. Killing lions was the biggest revenue generator for the country’s hunting industry in 2013, followed by buffalo, kudu, and white rhinos. As the hunting industry has grown, so have the numbers of large game animals that populate South Africa’s grasslands. In other parts of Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania, the opposite has been true: Large mammal populations have been decimated as farms and other human activities encroached on wild areas. But South Africa is one of only two countries on the continent to allow ownership of wild animals, giving farmers such as York an incentive to switch from raising cattle to breeding big game.
Which Companies Get the Most Federal Subsidies? [Mike Maciag on Governing Magazine]
Good Jobs First, an economic development watchdog group, published Tuesday what it considers to be the first comprehensive database of corporate subsidies at the federal level, tallying awards from 137 different programs. In all, the federal government has awarded grants and allocated tax credits totaling $68 billion since 2000. Spanish electric utility company Iberdrola was identified as the largest single recipient of federal grants and tax credits in the group’s report. The company has received nearly $2.2 billion since 2000, mostly stemming from investments in power generation facilities supported by the Recovery Act.
How To Make $500,000 A Year On Twitter [Nicole Laporte on Fast Company]
But for a one-man operation, the schedule was challenging, he says, and earlier this year he was called out by BuzzFeed and Gizmodo for posting a number of untrue, or, in some cases, untrue-ish, facts. (One of the latter had to do with a Huggies diaper that sends out a tweet when a baby pees; Sanchez maintains that a prototype of the diaper was made, even if it didn’t actually hit the market.) “There are so many tweets going out each day that it was tough for one person, being me, to make sure that every single one of them was completely true,” he says, adding, “Anything that I posted up there, I thought was true. And I’m always bummed to find out that it isn’t.” Sanchez is visibly still hurt by the incident—which he calls “my first public mess”—though he’s eager to talk about it, perhaps because it wound up prompting a major maturation in himself and his company. “It was really the first time I was really publicly attacked on the Internet. And, you know, BuzzFeed is a really popular website. And it was Lindsay Lohan’s face and my face on their front page. It was after that that I was like, okay, UberFacts needs to be treated like a real brand. It has a large following and I want to put more work in it and make it better. I just want to increase the quality of it.”
Zimbabwe Can’t Pipe Water so Taxes Private Supplies Instead [Brian Latham on Bloomberg News] (10/22/14)
Zimbabwe’s government hasn’t been able to supply piped water to much of the southern African nation’s capital, Harare, for most of the past decade. Now it’s taxing private suppliers as it struggles to pay state workers. The levy on water pumped from boreholes and supplied by tankers to private houses, imposed on Oct. 1, is one of a host of taxes that the government has put in place, ranging from duties on cellphone airtime to increased import duties on cars and motor fuel, to shore up sagging revenue amid slowing economic growth…In addition to an inadequate water and power supplies, most roads are riddled with potholes, and few streetlights work. That’s a legacy of the almost decade-long recession that began in 2000, triggered by a botched land reform program that slashed exports of crops such as tobacco, and has reduced the size of the economy by half, according to government estimates. The state is struggling to pay salaries that consume 76 percent of the budget.
Coens’ Wood Chipper Draws Crowds as Fargo Laments Image [on Bloomberg News] (10/24/14)
Jason Gireto donned a plaid hunting cap to pose for the requisite souvenir: a photo with colleagues shoving a white-socked mannequin leg into the wood chipper used in the 1996 Academy Award-winning dark comedy “Fargo.” Yet even as hundreds of visitors a year flock to the machine made famous in a vivid bit of movie mayhem, local leaders are working to update the perception of Fargo, the place. The world should know the North Dakota city as a diversified engine of regional growth — not the peculiar locale depicted in the film by the Coen brothers and an FX television series, they say.
Administration sets record for withholding government files [Ted Bridis on The Associated Press] (3/18/15)
The Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press. The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged. Its backlog of unanswered requests at year’s end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000. It also cut by 375, or about 9 percent, the number of full-time employees across government paid to look for records. That was the fewest number of employees working on the issue in five years. The government’s new figures, published Tuesday, covered all requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2014 under the Freedom of Information law, which is heralded globally as a model for transparent government. They showed that despite disappointments and failed promises by the White House to make meaningful improvements in the way it releases records, the law was more popular than ever. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The U.S. spent a record $434 million trying to keep up. It also spent about $28 million on lawyers’ fees to keep records secret.
States Not Eager to Regulate Fertility Industry [Michael Ollove on Stateline] (3/18/15)
States are split about whether surrogacy contracts, usually between prospective parents and an egg donor, are permissible. But other aspects of ART are simply unaddressed by the states. For example, states don’t regulate how many children may be conceived from one donor, what types of medical information or updates must be supplied by donors, what genetic tests may be performed on embryos, how many fertilized eggs may be placed in a woman or how old a donor can be. Lawmakers are wary of touching assisted reproduction, Darnovsky said, because of the incendiary politics that surround the issue of abortion, which touches on conception and embryos. In terms of the number of people involved, the issue is significant. The CDC reports that about 12 percent of women of childbearing age have used infertility services and that 1.5 percent of all infants born in the U.S. are conceived using ART.
Ultra-Orthodox ‘Superwomen’ Demand Place With Men in Israeli Parliament [Alisa Odenheimer on Bloomberg News] (1/5/15)
Esty Shushan, an Israeli mother of four, dutifully cast her ballot for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in every election until two years ago. By then, the 37-year-old Shushan, an advertising and marketing consultant, had had it with voting for a party that won’t put women on its parliamentary ticket. Ahead of March 17 parliamentary elections, Shushan and other like-minded women are campaigning to change that policy by rebelling against ultra-Orthodox parties at the ballot box. “Not only will I not vote for them, I’m going to try and reach out to as many other women as possible,” Shushan said. “I’m going to explain to them: They can’t ask for your vote without giving you representation.” This ballot box challenge to parliament’s two ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, factions is another trial for a community seeking to preserve its way of life and grappling with a new law that would force its men to comply with the country’s compulsory military service. Shushan and her backers say they are frustrated by the political sidelining because haredi women often singlehandedly support families of eight and more to let their husbands engage in the full-time religious study the community so prizes.
Lucasfilm Owns All of Your Droids [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (12/19/14)
“Droid” is a pretty popular word these days. It’s the name brand of a variety of popular smart phones produced by Verizon. It graces the pages of hundreds of science fiction novels and appears in countless films. It is used to describe a wide array of robots, both human-like and and not-so-human-like. And in every instance of its use, Lucasfilm either makes money, or takes legal action. That’s because technically, George Lucas invented the word in 1977 — and some 30 years later, just before Verizon rejuvenated “Droid”, Lucas trademarked it. For some companies, this has come with financial and/or time-consuming repercussions.
Behind the Driving Increase [Wendell Cox on New Geography] (3/18/15)
Ridership and road travel data also shows that there has been little relationship between the annual changes in driving and transit use over the period of the gas price increases and the subsequent decrease. Advocates of greater transit funding have claimed for decades that transit can be effective in attracting drivers from their cars. This was transit’s time. However, the highly publicized transit ridership increases have been small in context and have shown virtually no relationship to the changes in automobile use in urban areas…Driving volumes have risen and fallen, with little response in transit ridership. If there were a significant relationship between transit ridership and travel by car, the two lines on the chart would nearly follow one another. However, the lines show virtually no relationship. In relation to the actual changes in travel by car and light vehicle, the changes in transit are imperceivable. Transit ridership remains relatively small, at approximately two percent of all trips and five percent of work trips.
Gone in 30 Seconds: Motorcycle Thieves, Stunt Riders, and One Wild CHP Sting [Greg Nichols on The Los Angeles Times] (3/18/15)
Trudeau and Watson tapped a young investigator, Gary Clifford, who was new to the unit. The trio came up with a plan: Watson and Clifford, a pair of tall, fit white guys who could reasonably pass for shady characters, if not entirely menacing ones, would pose as underworld players from Las Vegas. (A few high-profile vehicle theft rings had been dismantled in Vegas in recent years, so the story had an air of credibility.) The undercover officers—“UCs” in law enforcement parlance—would be introduced to the suspect through an informant and claim they were looking for bikes and parts to take back to Nevada, where vehicles registered in California are hard to trace. Trudeau, the details man, would run surveillance and coordinate a perimeter security team. Over the course of a few transactions, the UCs would build a rapport with the crotch rocket marauder, ply him for incriminating information, and take him down.
Inside Graphene City, Birthplace of a Wonder Material [Victoria Turk on Motherboard on Vice] (3/9/15)
Back in 2010, graphene sprung into the public eye when two UK-based scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work on the two-dimensional material. It was hailed as a wonder material: stronger than steel yet many times lighter, more conductive than copper, more flexible than rubber. The British government bet big on graphene in the following years, pledging £50 million funding for research and development in 2011. There was talk of a new industrial revolution. “We’re going to get Britain making things again,” said George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer. Four years later, and graphene is still making headlines. But despite the hype, questions abound over how it could actually be used. When will we see the material making its way into everyday products? What can you actually do with graphene?
“The First Roadie—Ever” [Ben Cullum on Texas Monthly] (3/13/15)
Known far and wide as “Lovey,” after his preferred endearment for everyone he meets, Dorcy is credited by Willie with being the first-ever roadie—and as “the world’s oldest living roadie” by nearly everyone else. Given the tangled switchbacks of history, it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Dorcy, who turns 90 in May, started as a bandboy in 1950 for Hank Thompson—in that day, more a personal valet than the seasoned road crew celebrated in songs by Motorhead and Tenacious D, or on screen in the 1980 cult classic filmed in Austin, Roadie, starring Meat Loaf. In the 65 years since then, Dorcy has toured and/or worked with Ray Price (with whom he relocated to Nashville for half a decade), Elvis Presley (“when he was young”), Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Leon Payne, Johnny Bush, Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and Willie, among countless others lost to time. This colorful legacy extends beyond the stage, where he served as a muse of sorts to Waylon Jennings (“Ode to Ben Dorcy”), Red Sovine (“Big Ben Dorsey the Third”), and Kinky Friedman, who based a character on him in Roadkill, his novel set aboard Willie’s bus. Even before he found his life’s calling, Dorcy was already a veteran of the nomadic lifestyle: Dropping out of high school in San Antonio, he toured with the Ice Capades, a kind of ice-skating spectacle, and may have been bound for the Winter Olympics before WWII interceded. He served on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, and still carries shrapnel in his knee from a Japanese Zero at the Battle of Cape Gloucester. During a five-year diversion to Hollywood in the sixties, he was a deliveryman for Nudie Cohn (tailor to the Singing and later Rhinestone Cowboys), and later a gardener and chauffeur for John Wayne, whom he met while playing a Tennessee Volunteer in The Alamo (filmed in Brackettville). Along the way, he danced with Ann-Margaret; rubbed shoulders with Sinatra, and shared a private joke with Marilyn Monroe.
We Live in an Age of Irrational Parenting [Jennifer Senior on New York Magazine]
If you fancy yourself a normalish, reasonably rational parent, you probably read, with equal parts horror and fascination, about the recent travails of a Maryland couple that tried to allow their children to walk the one mile from a local park to their home in Silver Spring. They were charged by child protective services with “unsubstantiated” child neglect — itself a near-oxymoronic and self-canceling term — which means their case will be held on file for five years. There are many things wrong with this action, not least what it says about the excesses of parenting culture (more on this in a bit), but among the most egregious is that it runs completely contrary to the trends in child safety that have emerged in the past couple of decades. Bluntly put: It’s hard to think of a safer time and a better place than the United States of 2015 to raise children — but we act as though the opposite were true…Canvass a modest-size group of parents, and you’ll hear that all of them, at some point or another, have been rebuked for making judgment calls that were theirs alone to make. Leaving a child unattended in a locked car for five minutes, because that’s what their mothers used to do. Strapping a child into the back of a taxi or car without a car seat. Back in the 1980s, the psychologist Jerome Kagan presciently noticed that something was happening to American parents: Absent having any other conspicuous way to prove moral worth — by taking care of their own parents, say, or heading up local civic organizations — we instead try to show our virtue through parenting. It’s become our new plumage, how we parent, peacockishly displayed on Facebook and in playgrounds and at birthday parties; the result is a culture of surveillance and judgment rather than compassion and collaboration, and frankly, it’s exhausting — nor is it doing anyone one lick of good.
Who Invented the Computer Virus? [Rosie Cima on Priceonomics] (3/17/15)
In 1981, Richard Skrenta was in 9th grade and a force to be reckoned with. He was mischievous, very, very clever, and armed with an Apple II. One of his favorite things to do with it was write code to prank his friends’ pirated computer games…Eventually Skrenta’s friends stopped letting him touch their floppy disks — they stopped lending him games, they stopped playing games he had pirated, etc. But Skrenta was a determined prankster, and Apple was a very different company back then, one that welcomed tinkerers of all stripes. The Apple II was much closer to a Raspberry Pi than a Macbook Pro. Skrenta pored over technology books, looking for holes in the Apple II’s system. Eventually, he worked out a way to insert code that would execute, onto games, without ever touching the disks himself: “I hit on the idea to leave a residue in the operating system of the school’s Apple II. The next user who came by, if they didn’t do a clean reboot with their own disk, could then be touched by the code I left behind.” He took two weeks to write this “residue,” in assembly language. He called the program Elk Cloner. Elk Cloner was what is known as a “boot sector” virus. This is how it spread: when an uninfected disk was inserted into an infected computer (the school computer), the computer infected the floppy disk, i.e. it made a copy of Elk Cloner in the floppy disk’s boot sector — code that runs automatically on boot. When a student brought any infected floppy disk (and Skrenta seeded many) to another computer, and booted the computer with the infected floppy disk inside, the computer was infected with a copy of Elk Cloner. The virus caused subtle errors, until the 50th time you inserted the disk into a computer. Then, instead of your game starting, the following poem came on the screen: “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality / It will get on all your disks / It will infiltrate your chips / Yes, it’s Cloner! / It will stick to you like glue / It will modify RAM too /Send in the Cloner!” This timed-release was to let the program go undetected for longer, thus give it a better chance of spreading — by the time a user saw this message, they could have already spread Elk Cloner to hundreds of disks and computers, and they would be seeing the message everywhere, for weeks and weeks…Spread it did. In a scene right out of a movie, Elk Cloner ended up on Skrenta’s math teacher’s graphing software. The teacher was very upset and, suspecting Skrenta, accused him of breaking into his office. His cousins in Baltimore caught it (Skrenta lived in Pittsburgh), and, years later, he discovered that a sailor in the US Navy had, too. Scientific American mentioned it, a few years later, when the relatively benign Elk Cloner had been replaced by a host of much more malignant viruses.
The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous [Gabrielle Glaser on The Atlantic] (April 2015)
Nowhere in the field of medicine is treatment less grounded in modern science. A 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University compared the current state of addiction medicine to general medicine in the early 1900s…The American Medical Association estimates that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identify themselves as addiction specialists. (The Columbia report notes that there may be additional doctors who have a subspecialty in addiction.) Most treatment providers carry the credential of addiction counselor or substance-abuse counselor, for which many states require little more than a high-school diploma or a GED. Many counselors are in recovery themselves. The report stated: “The vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”
See Also: Why Alcoholics Anonymous Works [Jesse Singal on New York Magazine] (3/17/15)
DOT&E Report: The F-35 Is Not Ready for IOC and Won’t Be Any Time Soon [Mandy Smithberger on The Strauss Military Reform Project on The Center for Defense Information at The Project On Government Oversight] (3/12/15)
Inside-the-Beltway wisdom holds that the $1.4 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is too big to cancel and on the road to recovery. But the latest report from the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) provides a litany of reasons that conventional wisdom should be considered politically driven propaganda. The press has already reported flawed software that hinders the ability of the plane to employ weapons, communicate information, and detect threats; maintenance problems so severe that the F-35 has an “overdependence” on contractor maintainers and “unacceptable workarounds” (behind paywall) and is only able to fly twice a week; and a high-rate, premature production schedule that ignores whether the program has demonstrated essential combat capabilities or proven it’s safe to fly. All of these problems are increasing costs and risks to the program. Yet rather than slow down production to focus resources on fixing these critical problems, Congress used the year-end continuing resolution omnibus appropriations bill—termed the “cromnibus”—to add 4 additional planes to the 34 Department of Defense (DoD) budgeted for Fiscal Year 2015. The original FY2016 plan significantly increased the buy to 55, and now the program office is further accelerating its purchase of these troubled planes to buy 57 instead. At some point, the inherent flaws and escalating costs of a program become so great that even a system with massive political buy-in reaches a tipping point. The problems described in the DOT&E report show that the F-35 has reached a stage where it is now obvious that the never-ending stream of partial fixes, software patches, and ad hoc workarounds are inadequate to deliver combat-worthy, survivable, and readily employable aircraft. This year’s DOT&E report also demonstrates that in an effort to maintain the political momentum of the F-35, its program office is not beneath misrepresenting critically important characteristics of the system. In sum, the old problems are not going away, new issues are arising, and some problems may be getting worse.
The myopia boom [Elie Dolgin on Nature Magazine] (3/18/15)
The modern rise in myopia mirrored a trend for children in many countries to spend more time engaged in reading, studying or — more recently — glued to computer and smartphone screens. This is particularly the case in East Asian countries, where the high value placed on educational performance is driving children to spend longer in school and on their studies. A report last year3 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the average 15-year-old in Shanghai now spends 14 hours per week on homework, compared with 5 hours in the United Kingdom and 6 hours in the United States. Researchers have consistently documented a strong association between measures of education and the prevalence of myopia. In the 1990s, for example, they found that teenage boys in Israel who attended schools known as Yeshivas (where they spent their days studying religious texts) had much higher rates of myopia than did students who spent less time at their books4. On a biological level, it seemed plausible that sustained close work could alter growth of the eyeball as it tries to accommodate the incoming light and focus close-up images squarely on the retina. Attractive though the idea was, it did not hold up. In the early 2000s, when researchers started to look at specific behaviours, such as books read per week or hours spent reading or using a computer, none seemed to be a major contributor to myopia risk5. But another factor did. In 2007, Donald Mutti and his colleagues at the Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus reported the results of a study that tracked more than 500 eight- and nine-year-olds in California who started out with healthy vision6. The team examined how the children spent their days, and “sort of as an afterthought at the time, we asked about sports and outdoorsy stuff”, says Mutti. It was a good thing they did. After five years, one in five of the children had developed myopia, and the only environmental factor that was strongly associated with risk was time spent outdoors6. “We thought it was an odd finding,” recalls Mutti, “but it just kept coming up as we did the analyses.” A year later, Rose and her colleagues arrived at much the same conclusion in Australia7. After studying more than 4,000 children at Sydney primary and secondary schools for three years, they found that children who spent less time outside were at greater risk of developing myopia.
The Shrinking Middle Class, Mapped State by State [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (3/19/15)
The struggles of middle-class American families and growing income inequality have risen to the top of the national agenda. A new Stateline analysis shows that in all 50 states, the percentage of “middle-class” households—those making between 67 percent and 200 percent of the state’s median income—shrunk between 2000 and 2013. The change occurred even as the median income in most states declined, when adjusted for inflation. In most states, the growing percentage of households paying 30 percent (the federal standard for housing affordability) or more of their income on housing illustrates that it is increasingly difficult for many American families to make ends meet.
Curiously Strong Remains:
- World Cup Shootout: Can Nike Beat Adidas at Soccer? [Brendan Greely on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/15/14)
- Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar [Vernon Silver on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/15/14)
- Too Rich, Too Thin, Too Tall? [Paul Goldberger on Vanity Fair] (May 2014)
- Animal Magnetism [David P. Barash on Aeon Magazine] (5/13/14)
- America dumbs down [Jonathon Gatehouse on MacLean’s] (5/15/14)
- The Trouble With IBM [Nick Summers on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/22/14)
- The Great Smartphone War [Kurt Eichenwald on Vanity Fair] (June 2014)
- Top Metro Area Economies Mapped [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (4/30/15)
- The Case of The Vanishing Bees [Tom Turner on EarthJustice] (5/2/14)
- Xiaomi’s Phones Have Conquered China. Now It’s Aiming for the Rest of the World [Brad Stone on Bloomberg Businessweek] (6/4/14)
- Sacrament [Ross Anderson on Aeon Magazine] (5/27/14)
- “Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry”: Silicon Valley is in a bubbly race to wash your clothes better, faster, and cooler [Jessica Pressler on New York Magazine] (5/21/14)
- Escape From Tiananmen: How Secret Plan Freed Protesters [Bloomberg News] (5/27/14)
- Everything is Broken [Quinn Norton on The Message] (5/20/14)
- How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star [Amy Nicholson on Los Angeles Weekly] (5/20/14)
- The World’s First Self-Driving Semi-Truck Hits the Road [Alex Davies on Wired] (5/5/15)
- Pats Fans Want You to Know That Every Team Is Bad [Spilly on KSK] (5/8/15)
- Peter King Just Knows We’re All Going To Hate Roger Goodell’s Idiotic Decision On Ballghazi [Christmas Ape on KSK] (5/11/15)
- Patriots Fans React Completely Reasonably [Spilly on KSK] (5/7/15)
- That’s Not How It Works [David Thorne on 27b/6]
- The World’s Most Painful Insect Sting [Zoe Gough on BBC News]
- Finding Marlowe [Daniel Miller on The Los Angeles Times] (11/1/14)
- The Nonprofit Behind Billions in Mortgage Aid Is a Mess [Tom Schoenberg and Clea Benson on Bloomberg News] (3/18/15)
- The Psychology of Irrational Fear [Olga Khazan on The Atlantic] (10/31/14)
- Crumbling Castles Haunt East Germany 25 Years After Wall [Dalia Fahmy on Bloomberg News] (11/1/14)
- The Hong Kong Murders: A Kiss on the Cheek and She Was Gone [Frederik Balfour, Fitri Wulandari and Cathy Chan on Bloomberg News] (11/5/14)
- It’s Cheaper to Buy a Judge Than a State Senator [Joe Pinsker on The Atlantic] (11/2/14)
- ‘Mom Turned Into a Monster’: 10,000 Seniors Go Missing in Japan [Kanoko Matsuyama on Bloomberg News] (11/3/14)
- Saudi Arabia jails human rights activist Mohammed al-Bajadi [Agence France-Presse via The Guardian] (3/11/15)
- Building a Boston in Cape Town: $13 Billion Dream Rises From Ashes of Apartheid [Dylan Griffiths and Mike Cohen on Bloomberg News] (10/22/14)
- Filmmakers Clash as Rouhani’s Agenda Leaves Iranians Divided [Ladane Nasseri on Bloomberg News] (10/28/14)
- Inside Beijing’s airpocalypse – a city made ‘almost uninhabitable’ by pollution [Oliver Wainwright on The Guardian] (12/16/14)
- Life in Ukraine After One Year of War [Guy Martin on Bloomberg News]
- The CIA Just Declassified the Document That Supposedly Justified the Iraq Invasion [Jason Leopold on Vice News] (3/19/15)
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