Best of the Best:
Higher Pay? Some Disabled Say No, Thanks, as U.S. Forces It [Lorraine Woellert on Bloomberg News] (10/23/14)
Grossman, 36, has Down syndrome and is one of thousands of disabled adults who work for less than the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Some earn only pennies doing menial tasks in settings that more resemble day care than work. The practice, which has roots in a 1938 law, has been called a godsend by some and exploitation by others. Now the system slowly is being dismantled as Congress and President Barack Obama advance policies to raise wages for the disabled and move more people into mainstream employment. Swept up in the change are people like Grossman, his parents and his employer. All worry the new rules might leave physically and developmentally impaired adults with even fewer opportunities than they have now…Sub-minimum wage work will be in shorter supply beginning Jan. 1, when federal contractors are required to begin paying employees at least $10.10 an hour. The rule applies to hundreds of non-profit contractors that provide jobs to adults with disabilities. Many of those workers will get a raise, but others might be unemployed as companies make hard choices about who they can afford to keep on the payroll.
Making the world’s problem solvers 10% more efficient [Steven Levy on Medium] (10/17/14)
The IIT is India’s version of MIT and Stanford combined, and has produced a long list of now-celebrated engineers and executives at Internet companies here and abroad. But even in that elite school, it was difficult for students to get hold of relevant scholarly materials. For Indian high schoolers, it was nearly impossible. ‘If you knew the information existed, you would write letters,’ he says, ‘That’s what I did. Roughly half of the people would send you something, maybe a reprint. But if you didn’t know the information was there, there was nothing you could do about it.’ Acharya was haunted by the realization that the great minds were deprived of inspiration, and the wonderful works that did have the impact they would have because of their limited distribution. The eventual solution to this problem would be Google Scholar, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this November. Some people have never heard of this service, which treats publications from scholarly and professional journals as a separate corpus and makes it easy to find otherwise elusive information. Others have seen it occasionally when a result pops up on their search activity, and may even know enough to use it for a specific task, like digging into medical journals to gather information on a specific ailment. But for a significant and extremely impactful slice of the population: researchers, scientists, academics, lawyers, and students training in those fields — Scholar is a vital part of online existence, a lifeline to critical information, and an indispensable means of getting their work exposed to those who most need it.
The psychology of torture [Malcolm Harris on Aeon Magazine] (10/7/14)
In Behind the Shock Machine (2012), the Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry assailed the very validity of the Milgram experiments. Although she initially came to the study of Milgram with sympathy for the haunted doctor, Perry quickly found a more worthy object for her feelings: Milgram’s subjects. Reviewing transcripts from the experiments in the Yale archive, she found a lot of disobedience hidden in the obedience numbers, and a number of confounding variables. For example, Milgram made sure subjects knew the payment for participation was theirs even if they walked away, but in the transcripts this seems to have triggered reciprocity with the experimenters. One subject continues only after the experimenter tells him he can’t return the money. Another obedient subject remonstrates after she’s finished obeying, because she quickly understands what the experiment was really about and is disgusted. In the drive for quantitative results, the procedure ignored valuable qualitative information. ‘I would never be able to read Obedience to Authority again without a sense of all the material that Milgram had left out,’ Perry writes, ‘the stories he had edited, and the people he had depicted unfairly.’ In an unpublished paper Perry found in the archive, Milgram was quite candid with regard to his experiment’s true purpose: ‘Let us stop trying to kid ourselves; what we are trying to understand is obedience of the Nazi guards in the prison camps, and that any other thing we may understand about obedience is pretty much of a windfall, an accidental bonus.’ Milgram didn’t write a hypothesis for an experiment, he made a script for a play. It’s poor science, Perry writes, but it might be great art.
The Grand Illusion [Jim Holt on Lapham’s Quarterly]
One way researchers have tried to measure the subjective flow of time is by asking people of different ages to estimate when a certain amount of time has gone by. People in their early twenties tend to be quite accurate in judging when three minutes had elapsed, typically being off by no more than three seconds. Those in their sixties, by contrast, overshot the mark by forty seconds; in other words, what was actually three minutes and forty seconds seemed like only three minutes to them. Seniors are internally slow tickers, so for them actual clocks seem to tick too fast. This can have its advantages: at a John Cage concert, it is the old people who are relieved that the composition 4’33” is over so soon. The river of time may have its rapids and its calmer stretches, but one thing would seem to be certain: it carries all of us, willy-nilly, in its flow. Irresistibly, irreversibly, we are being borne toward our deaths at the stark rate of one second per second. As the past slips out of existence behind us, the future, once unknown and mysterious, assumes its banal reality before us as it yields to the ever-hurrying “now.” But this sense of flow is a monstrous illusion—so says contemporary physics. And Newton was as much a victim of this illusion as the rest of us are. It was Albert Einstein who initiated the revolution in our understanding of time. In 1905, Einstein proved that time, as it had been understood by physicist and plain man alike, was a fiction. Our idea of time, Einstein realized, is abstracted from our experience with rhythmic phenomena: heartbeats, planetary rotations and revolutions, the swinging of pendulums, the ticking of clocks. Time judgments always come down to judgments of what happens at the same time—of simultaneity. “If, for instance, I say, ‘That train arrives here at seven o’clock,’ I mean something like this: ‘The pointing of the small hand of my watch to seven and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events,’” Einstein wrote. If the events in question are distant from each other, judgments of simultaneity can be made only by sending light signals back and forth. Einstein proved that whether an observer deems two events at different locations to be happening “at the same time” depends on his state of motion. Suppose, for example, that Jones is walking uptown on Fifth Avenue and Smith is walking downtown. Their relative motion results in a discrepancy of several days in what they would judge to be happening “now” in the Andromeda galaxy at the moment they pass each other on the sidewalk. For Smith, the space fleet launched to destroy life on earth is already on its way; for Jones, the Andromedan council of tyrants has not even decided whether to send the fleet.
Porsche: The Hedge Fund that Also Made Cars [Rohin Dhar on Priceconomics] (10/24/14)
The company’s operational performance improved tremendously under Wiedeking’s decade-long management, and the company sold thousands of cars at very lucrative profit margins. And so, the CEO set his sights on an even bigger financial coupe: He’d acquire Volkswagen, the largest car manufacturer in Germany. At the time, Volkswagen produced 50 times more cars than Porsche. But, starting in 2005, the smaller competitor quietly bought up Volkswagen shares and options; by October 2008, Porsche announced that it controlled 74% of VW. At that moment, the hostile takeover of massive Volkswagen by little Porsche seemed inevitable. But just five months later, Porsche’s plan fell apart: just before completing the acquisition, the global financial crisis worsened and the company ran out of money. Porsche had gone severely into debt to buy out VW; all of a sudden, banks were very anxious to get their $13 billion in loans repaid. Porsche was left scrambling for a white knight to save it from its financial woes. In a stunning turn of events, that white knight ended up being Volkswagen, the very company Porsche had attempted to acquire.
The man with the golden blood [Penny Bailey on Mosaic Science] (10/21/14)
Forty years ago, when ten-year-old Thomas went into the University Hospital of Geneva with a routine childhood infection, his blood test revealed something very curious: he appeared to be missing an entire blood group system. There are 35 blood group systems, organised according to the genes that carry the information to produce the antigens within each system. The majority of the 342 blood group antigens belong to one of these systems. The Rh system (formerly known as ‘Rhesus’) is the largest, containing 61 antigens. The most important of these Rh antigens, the D antigen, is quite often missing in Caucasians, of whom around 15 per cent are Rh D negative (more commonly, though inaccurately, known as Rh-negative blood). But Thomas seemed to be lacking all the Rh antigens. If this suspicion proved correct, it would make his blood type Rhnull – one of the rarest in the world, and a phenomenal discovery for the hospital haematologists. Rhnull blood was first described in 1961, in an Aboriginal Australian woman. Until then, doctors had assumed that an embryo missing all Rh blood cell antigens would not survive, let alone grow into a normal, thriving adult. By 2010, nearly five decades later, some 43 people with Rhnull blood had been reported worldwide. Hardly able to believe what she was seeing, Dr Marie-José Stelling, then head of the haematology and immunohaematology laboratory at the University Hospital of Geneva, sent Thomas’ blood for analysis in Amsterdam and then in Paris. The results confirmed her findings: Thomas had Rhnull blood. And with that, he had instantly become infinitely precious to medicine and science. Researchers seeking to unravel the mysteries of the physiological role of the intriguingly complex Rh system are keen to get hold of Rhnull blood, as it offers the perfect ‘knockout’ system. Rare negative blood is so sought after for research that even though all samples stored in blood banks are anonymised, there have been cases where scientists have tried to track down and approach individual donors directly to ask for blood. And because Rhnull blood can be considered ‘universal’ blood for anyone with rare blood types within the Rh system, its life-saving capability is enormous. As such, it’s also highly prized by doctors – although it will be given to patients only in extreme circumstances, and after very careful consideration, because it may be nigh on impossible to replace.
How the U.S. Government Tested Biological Warfare on America [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (10/30/14)
As leaves turned red, and as San Francisco segued into the smoky autumn of 1950, Edward Nevin lay dying in a hospital bed. A rare bacteria had entered his urinary tract, made its way through his bloodstream, and clung to his heart — a bacteria that had never been seen in the hospital’s history. Before researchers could hypothesize the bacteria’s root cause, ten more patients were admitted with the same infection. Doctors were baffled: how could have this microbe presented itself? For nearly thirty years, the incident remained a secret — until Edward Nevin’s grandson set out to bring about justice. What ensued was a series of terrifying revelations: for two decades, the United States government had intentionally doused 293 populated areas with bacteria. They’d done this with secrecy. They’d done this without informing citizens of potentially dangerous exposure. They’d done this without taking precautions to protect the public’s health and safety, and with no medical follow-up. And it had all started in 1950, with the spraying of San Francisco.
We Are All Confident Idiots [David Dunning on Pacific Standard] (10/27/14)
The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance. In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
The Great Paper Caper [Wells Tower and Satoshi Hashimoto on Gentlemen’s Quarterly]
Frank’s self-image may be described as not merely healthy but hyperpituitary. When I asked him where he found the lunatic gumption not only to enter into the risky business of counterfeiting but to do so at the unheard-of scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, Frank replied with a shrug: “I can do anything I want. I can go to the moon. I’m good at figuring out stuff. I could do a heart transplant if I wanted to.” Are we to take Frank at his word? Should he be allowed by NASA to attempt a lunar landing? Should he perform your father’s triple bypass? I will say only this: Do not discount someone who apparently launched a currency-fraud scheme so cunning that he was able to rook the Secret Service and the Canadian government and then walk away from the whole mess a free and wealthy man. Possibly out of bureaucratic discretion, possibly sore from their humiliating dealings with the counterfeiter, the legal authorities here and abroad would say very little on the record about the Bourassa case. So what follows is largely a tale straight from the mouth of the guilty party, who was only too delighted to relate the long career of outrages he has visited upon the law.
Pipino: Gentleman Thief [Joshua Davis and David Wolman on Medium] (10/27/14)
By the early 1990s, the police viewed Pipino as the most talented thief in modern Venetian history. Over the previous three decades, he had been responsible for a string of daring and idiosyncratic heists. He was best known for stealing masterworks from the homes of Venice’s nobility and was thought to have excellent taste in art. He was also versatile: He once infiltrated the Swiss Consulate and made off with 150 million lira in cash. In the late 1970s, he tailed Cary Grant, who portrayed one of the most famous thieves in film history, and robbed him while he slept in his hotel room. Later, he freed a forlorn gorilla from the zoo in Rome (he felt bad for the animal), and robbed the Venice Casino, all of which made him a local legend. Pipino had a simple philosophy: Aristocrats liked to flaunt their wealth; thieves liked to take it. Sometimes the burglar took something important and aristocrats would pay to get the item back. Pipino had heard that some palazzo owners took it as a badge of honor that he had slipped through their windows because it confirmed their good taste. He viewed it as the price the rich had to pay every so often to exhibit their wealth and taste. Usually, the police negotiated “an arrangement” to get the works back. As Pipino saw it, everybody won. The police got to look like heroes, the bourgeois could brag that they’d been robbed by a famous thief, and Pipino made a living.
Taylor Swift Is the Music Industry [Devin Leonard on Bloomberg Businessweek] (11/12/14)
Swift’s success is an anomaly in an ailing industry that’s been in decline since 2000. Last month the Recording Industry Association of America reported that sales of CDs for the first half of 2014 were down 19 percent from the year before, to 56 million. In 2002 total album sales in the U.S. hovered at 681 million (down from 2001’s 763 million). The top 10 albums of 2002, after The Eminem Show and the 8 Mile soundtrack, included Nellyville (4.9 million albums sold), Avril Lavigne’s Let Go (4.1 million), and the Dixie Chicks’ Home (3.7 million). Compare that with this year: Before 1989, the year’s biggest album was Coldplay’s Ghost Story, which did a piddling 383,000 copies in its first week and has sold a total of 737,000 since its release in May. That’s roughly a third of Swift’s first-week sales, and 1989 is expected to sell another 400,000 copies in its second week. Swift is so far ahead of the pack that they can’t even see her. For a while, there was hope that digital downloads would make up for low album sales, but the RIAA reports that sales for this format declined by 14 percent in the first six months of 2014. Meanwhile, revenue from streaming services like Spotify rose 28 percent. But artists are often paid a fraction of a penny each time users stream a song.
Chocolate: Can Science Save the World’s Most Endangered Treat? [Mark Schatzker on Bloomberg News] (11/14/14)
Mark your calendar: January 1, 2020. As this future year unfolds, the gap between how much cocoa the world wants to consume and how much it can produce will swell to 1 million metric tons, according to Mars Inc. and Barry Callebaut AG (BARN), the world’s largest chocolate maker. By 2030, the predicted shortfall will grow to 2 million tons. And so on. Because of disease, drought, rapacious new markets and the displacement of cacao by more-productive crops such as corn and rubber, demand is expected to outstrip supply by an additional 1 million tons every decade for the foreseeable future. Here, now, as you read these words, the world is running out of chocolate.
Dunkin’ and the Doughnut King [Greg Nichols on The California Sunday Magazine] (11/2/14)
Eight thousand miles from Modesto, along the southern tail of the Mekong River, the man who brought Cambodians into the California doughnut business stands to make a toast. Ted Ngoy is 74. His graying hair has retreated to the crown of his head, and his loose slacks cut an equatorial line across his small paunch. Only his doughnut-fed cheeks remain incongruously youthful. Before him, about 15 members of Cambodia’s upper crust nod appreciatively around a tamarind wood table. Among them are the official spokesperson for the royal government, a senator, a doctor whose name adorns a university, and the owner of the upscale butchery in which they all sit. They are in Phnom Penh, the muggy capital of Cambodia, a country of remembered atrocity and sputtering rebirth, of doughnut magnates–turned–high-society players. Several of those gathered have direct ties to the doughnut industry in California, where refugees from the war-torn nation taught one another to bake in neighborhood shops up and down the state, and where a few savvy businessmen amassed fortunes that allowed them to return to Cambodia and wield influence.
Health Tip: Find Purpose in Life [James Hamblin on The Atlantic] (11/3/14)
There are a handful of junctures in life when a person’s sense of purpose is prone to twinkle and fade. In unemployment or professional stagnation; in financial or romantic straits, or after the death of a loved one; and, predictably, in retirement. To that point, the program Experience Corps seems to have stumbled into an elegant solution. For the past decade, the nonprofit has paired people ages 55 and older with students in kindergarten through third grade who need academic help. Across 19 U.S. cities, volunteers have taken up literacy coaching and proven that in their spare time they can significantly increase students’ test scores and morale. Which is great, of course. But the unexpected side effect of the programs was that the adults experienced significant health improvements, both mental and physical. The tutors’ rates of depression fell; and their physical mobility, stamina, and flexibility increased. They also showed improvements in executive functioning and memory. One of the drivers of those health benefits, according to Eric Kim, a doctoral candidate examining the intersection of social connection and physical health at the University of Michigan, is that the tutors developed a renewed sense of purpose in their lives. In research published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kim and colleagues found that people with greater senses of purpose in life were more likely to embrace preventive healthcare: things like mammograms, prostate exams, colonoscopies, and flu shots. In the study, people rated their own sense of purpose on a multidimensional questionnaire that included incisive prompts like, “I sometimes feel I’ve done all there is to do in my life” and “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality.” Even after the researchers accounted for socioeconomic factors that predict a person’s likelihood of getting preventive care, people with purpose in their lives were clearly more engaged in their own health.
The Banality of Islamic State: How ISIS Corporatized Terror [Cam Simpson on Bloomberg News] (11/20/14)
During a routine January 2007 patrol in Anbar province, in a town along the Euphrates called Tuzliyah al Gharbiyah, a unit of U.S. Marines stumbled on a cache of nine documents in a roadside ditch. They included financial records, payrolls, supply purchase records, administrative records, and other details of fund flows into and out of a single local cell in Anbar of a group then calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq.” Not long after, Iraqi militiamen working with the U.S. stormed a home in a town farther down the Euphrates. They found a computer hard drive holding ledgers with 1,200 files detailing the finances and operations of provincial-level managers overseeing the cell and others like it across Anbar province. Taken together, the Anbar records allowed for a forensic reconstruction of the back-office operations of a terrorist insurgency from its local level up to its divisional headquarters. The data were handed over to the National Defense Research Institute of Rand Corp., a U.S. Department of Defense-funded think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. Seven researchers set out to determine what the ledgers, receipts, memos, and other records meant. What they concluded in a 2010 report, written for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, should be familiar to students of business management: The group was decentralized, organized, and run on what’s called the “multidivisional-hierarchy form” of management, or M-form for short.
The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State [Christoph Reuter on Der Spiegel] (4/18/15)
Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi was the real name of the Iraqi, whose bony features were softened by a white beard. But no one knew him by that name. Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was. But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history.
How to Become a Russian Billionaire With No Help from the Kremlin [Ilya Khrennikov on Bloomberg News] (11/20/14)
The record shows that on Aug. 14 FC Krasnodar beat Spartak Moscow 4-0. But the score line was about more than soccer, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its December issue. Galitskiy’s team, from a city of fewer than 1 million people 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the Black Sea, had trounced a big, metropolitan club, a nine-time Russian champion. Spartak is owned by Leonid Fedun, who was worth $4.4 billion as of Sept. 26. A former Soviet Army officer, Fedun in the 1990s oversaw the privatization of what became OAO Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil producer. Once again in his storied rise to become Russia’s biggest retailer, Galitskiy had proved to himself and the wider public that he, a self-made billionaire from the Russian hinterland, could more than compete with the country’s richest industrialists. He stands out because he’s not among the Moscow-based oligarchs who made their fortunes by using government ties to buy state oil refineries and metals plants at bargain prices in the 1990s. Nor is he among those who amassed their fortunes as friends and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin…Galitskiy, who was worth $12.3 billion as of Sept. 26, is the founder and largest shareholder of OAO Magnit. (MGNT) He started out in the business with a single store, called Tander, on Uralskaya Street in Krasnodar. At the end of September, Magnit had 9,020 stores scattered across Russia. With more than 240,000 employees, Magnit (Russian for magnet) is the country’s largest nonstate employer.
My Grandma the Poisoner [John Reed on Vice] (10/27/14)
When I was four or five, sometimes I’d walk into my grandmother’s bedroom to find her weeping. She’d be sitting on the side of the bed, going through boxes of tissues. I don’t believe this was a side of herself she shared with other people; she may have felt we had a cosmic bond because I had her father’s name as my middle name and his fair features. She was crying for Martha, her daughter, who died of melanoma at the age of 28. Ten years later, after Norman—her youngest child, my uncle—died, also at 28, she would weep for him. People were always dying around Grandma—her children, her husbands, her boyfriend—so her lifelong state of grief was understandable. To see her sunken in her high and soft bed, enshrouded in the darkness of the attic, and surrounded by the skin-and-spit smell of old age, was to know that mothers don’t get what they deserve. Today, when I think back on it, I don’t wonder whether Grandma got what she deserved as a mother; I wonder whether she got what she deserved as a murderer.
The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis [Jonathan Rauch on The Atlantic] (December 2014)
[I]n the 1990s, happiness economics resurfaced. This time a cluster of labor economists, among them David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, got interested in the relationship between work and happiness. That led them to international surveys of life satisfaction and the discovery, quite unexpected, of a recurrent pattern in countries around the world. “Whatever sets of data you looked at,” Blanchflower told me in a recent interview, “you got the same things”: life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood. The pattern came to be known as the happiness U-curve. Meanwhile, Carol Graham, a development economist (she is now at the Brookings Institution, where I’m a senior fellow), was looking at Peruvians who had emerged rapidly from poverty. “How do these people think they’ve done?” she wanted to know. She told me she was startled to find that objective life circumstances did not determine subjective life satisfaction; in Peru, as in other countries, many people who had moved out of poverty felt worse off than those who had stayed poor. “I didn’t know how to explain it,” she said. Hunting around, she discovered the sparse literature on the economics of happiness, plunged into survey data, and found the same U-shaped pattern, first in Latin America and then in the rest of the world. “It was a statistical regularity,” she said. “Something about the human condition.”…The curve tends to evince itself more in wealthier countries, where people live longer and enjoy better health in old age. Sometimes it turns up directly in raw survey data—that is, people just express less overall satisfaction in middle age. But here’s a wrinkle: in many cases (including the two analyses I just cited), the age-based U-curve emerges only after researchers adjust for such variables as income, marital status, employment, and so on, thus looking through to the effects of age alone. Some scholars—including Easterlin, the grand old man of the field—take a dim view of making such adjustments. Carol Ryff, a psychologist who directs the University of Wisconsin’s Institute on Aging, told me, “To my mind, that’s how you obscure the story; that’s not how you clean it up.” But filtering out important life circumstances suggests something intriguing: there may be an underlying pattern in life satisfaction that is independent of your situation. In other words, if all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times. Blanchflower and Oswald have found that, statistically speaking, going from age 20 to age 45 entails a loss of happiness equivalent to one-third the effect of involuntary unemployment.
521 – Cartography’s Favourite Map Monster: the Land Octopus [Frank Jacobs on Big Think] (2011)
Real octopi are sea creatures, of course. But the Cartographic Land Octopus – CLO for short – need not worry about being in the right ecosphere. Being fictional, it is not restricted to the sea. It can (and need) do only one thing: instill map-readers with fear and revulsion. But the CLO’s pedigree does stretch back to the ocean. It is clearly descended from an older monstrosity, equally fictional but wholly sea-bound: the Kraken, a giant squid whose enormous tentacles dragged whole ships down to their watery graves. I suspect it’s those tentacles that explain why the octopus became cartography’s favourite land monster. They turn the CLO into a perfect emblem of evil spreading across a map: its ugly head is the centre of a malevolent intelligence, which is manipulating its obscene appendages to bring death and destruction to its surroundings. This is perfect for demonstrating the geographic reach of an enemy state’s destructive potential. It can even be used on a more abstract level, showing dangerous ideologies insipidly infiltrating and/or strangling the world. The Cartographic Land Octopus was born two-thirds into the 19th century, when the intra-European tensions were slowly gearing up towards the First World War; it flourished until the end of the Second World War. But it still maintains its grip on the cartographic imagination today.
Salvage Beast [William Langewiesche on Vanity Fair] (December 2014)
Every ocean voyage involves risk. This has always been, and will always be. Currently about 100,000 large merchant ships sail the seas. If past patterns hold, during the next 10 years some 25,000 of them will be categorized as insurance casualties. Another 1,600 will be lost—roughly one ship every two and a half days. Some fraud is involved, but most of the losses are real. Though safety is said to be improving, it is evident that the oceans remain wild and will not soon be tamed. In that light one of the greatest seafarers at work today is neither a naval commander nor an old-salt merchant mariner but a certain marine salvage master with a taste for chaos and a genius for improvisation. He is a burly South African, aged 53, by the name of Captain Nick Sloane. His job is to intervene where other captains have failed, and to make the best of ships that are sinking, burning, breaking apart, or severely aground. Usually those same ships are threatening to leak bunker fuel—the sludge that powers them—along with crude oil or other toxins in quantities that could poison the environment for years to come. Sloane boards the ships with small teams—by helicopter from overhead, or by Zodiac from oceangoing tugs—and once he arrives he stays aboard and fights, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. He is tenacious in part because of the financial stakes involved. By well-wrought tradition, rescuers are not recompensed for saving lives at sea, but those who save a ship have a claim to a large part of its value, including its cargo. The final payout involves calculations not only of the ship’s total value but also of the difficulty and danger involved in making the save. Today the payout is usually determined through Lloyd’s of London, after the work is done, and on average amounts to perhaps 12 percent of the assessed value, except in disputed cases referred to arbitration, where the payout may climb higher. Such cuts amount to millions of dollars. On the other hand, expenses have to be paid out of pocket, and if the salvors fail to save the ship, they may win nothing at all—not even a thank-you for trying. For bounty hunters this is known as the principle of “No Cure, No Pay,” a formulation printed in bold at the top of the Lloyd’s Open Form, the predominant salvage contract. In recent years, insurers have softened the edges by recognizing the value of attempting to avoid environmental damage even if a ship is ultimately lost, but to a large degree the business remains an all-or-nothing gamble.
One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake [Andrew McMillen on Medium] (2/3/15)
Giraffedata is something of a superstar among the tiny circle of people who closely monitor Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the English-speaking world. About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page. And only 30,000 or so people make at least five edits per month to the quickly growing site. Giraffedata—a 51-year-old software engineer named Bryan Henderson—is among the most prolific contributors, ranking in the top 1,000 most active editors. While some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error. Henderson has now made over 47,000 edits to the site since 2007, virtually all of them addressing this one linguistic pet peeve. Article by article, week by week, Henderson redacts imperfect sentences, tightening them almost imperceptibly. “I’m proud of it,” says Henderson of the project. “It’s just fun for me. I’m not doing it to have any impact on the world.” Every Sunday night before going to bed, Henderson follows an editing routine that allows him to efficiently work on the approximately 70 to 80 new ‘comprised of’ errors that appear on the encyclopedia each week. The entire process takes an hour, at most. He begins by running a software program that he wrote himself, which sends a request to Wikipedia’s server for articles containing the phrase ‘comprised of.’…The program then compares these titles against an offline database of articles that Henderson has edited within the last six months. Any matches get removed from the list. (He does this to avoid hitting the same article too often and pissing off overprotective editors who claim ‘ownership’ of certain articles.)…Henderson is more than happy to explain the trouble with ‘comprised of.’ Take the following sentence, for example: “The Wikipedia editorial community is comprised of many interesting people.” The problem is rooted in confusion over the verbs ‘to comprise’ and ‘to compose.’ Most style manuals advise against this usage. Better alternatives to the above example include the following: “The Wikipedia editorial community is composed of many interesting people.” Or: “The Wikipedia editorial community consists of many interesting people.” In a 6,000-word essay, Henderson lays out his case for why that phrase is ungrammatical. It is one of the top Google results for ‘comprised of.’
The Long, Strange Purgatory of Casey Kasem [Amy Wallace on Gentlemen’s Quarterly] (1/27/15)
When Casey Kasem’s wife got angry, it didn’t matter that the old man couldn’t walk and could barely talk. When Jean Kasem felt possessive, it just didn’t matter that her ailing husband—the legendary deejay whose warm, husky voice had once reached a reported 8 million listeners in seventeen countries—couldn’t swallow and was at risk for aspiration. Jean was upset that Casey’s two daughters from his first marriage had dared to visit their father without her permission. Her will would be done. It was after midnight on May 7, 2014, when Jean arrived at the Santa Monica convalescent hospital where her 82-year-old husband was suffering from Lewy body dementia, a disease similar to Parkinson’s. She told the nurse on duty that it was unacceptable that Kasem’s eldest daughters had come by the day before to talk with him and hold his hand. Jean said the facility offered “no privacy for Mr. Kasem,” according to the nurse’s sworn declaration, and therefore she was removing him immediately. The nurse told Jean that such a move could kill him. Kasem’s feeding tube, which was surgically implanted in his stomach, would require immediate medical intervention if it became dislodged, and Kasem’s doctor had refused to issue discharge orders. Jean didn’t relent. At 2:30 A.M., the sometime actress—a zaftig blonde who once played Loretta, the wife of Nick Tortelli, on six episodes of Cheers—put her bedridden husband in a wheelchair and rolled him out into the night. It had been just five years since Kasem signed off on his final countdown, but to look at him, you’d think it might have been much longer. Frail and bewildered, he was loaded into a white SUV that was driven by a private caregiver. Jean and Liberty, her 23-year-old daughter with Kasem, piled into a different SUV, this one black, and sped away. Just over a month later, Kasem would be dead—and about to embark on a posthumous journey that would take him halfway around the world.
News Corp.’s $1 Billion Plan to Overhaul Education Is Riddled With Failures [Laura Colby on Bloomberg News] (4/7/15)
The tablets were supposed to help revolutionize schools and upend a sector that News Corp.’s Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch said in 2010 was “waiting desperately to be transformed.” That hasn’t happened. By the end of June, Murdoch’s News Corp. will have invested more than $1 billion in Amplify, its division that makes the tablets, sells an online curriculum and offers testing services. Amplify, which never set a timetable for turning a profit, has yet to do so. It reported a $193 million loss last year, and its annual revenue represented only about 1 percent of News Corp.’s sales of $8.6 billion. The education effort has been riddled with technology failures, fragile equipment, a disconnect between tablet marketers and content developers, and an underestimation of how difficult it would be to win market share from entrenched rivals such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. in the kindergarten to high school education market.
The New Kings of Pop [Josh Dean on Bloomberg News] (4/17/15)
Kidz Bop was formed in 2002 and, for the first seven years and 16 records, was essentially a marketing concept—a popular series of compilation albums featuring a rotating cast of young session singers who covered pop hits. Craig Balsam and Cliff Chenfeld, the two record executives who created Kidz Bop, could easily have kept on with that successful formula, putting out albums of covers performed by anonymous kids, but they realized that the product would be even more attractive to its audience if those cheerful voices were attached to identifiable personalities. And so they shifted to a star-centric concept. Kidz Bop is now periodically replenished with personable preteens who are promoted almost as furiously as their albums, which are still covers of hit pop songs. Doing A&R for Kidz Bop has to be one of the least stressful jobs in music. Today’s foursome is the third lineup. They appear in Kidz Bop commercials, shill for McDonald’s and Macy’s, and star on a YouTube channel with almost 18 million views in a little more than a year. In 2014, Kidz Bop got its Sirius station, and the band/brand launched its first tour, performing 45 concerts across the U.S. This year, after a decade of putting out two records annually, Kidz Bop will release four, plus the occasional seasonal specials. In an industry filled with uncertainty, where a battle rages between artists and labels over the future of distribution, Kidz Bop is a rare success. The last album, Kidz Bop 27, made its debut at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart, the 10th consecutive Kidz Bop record to appear in the top five. Only eight artists in history have had more top-10 records than Kidz Bop’s 21, and more than 15 million Kidz Bop albums have been sold since the brand’s inception. Billboard has named Kidz Bop the “#1 Kids’ Artist” for five consecutive years, and in 2013 the band accounted for 18.8 percent of all children’s music units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The Shazam Effect [Derek Thompson on The Atlantic] (December 2014)
Shazam became available in 2002. (In the days before smartphones, users would dial a number, play the song through their phones, and then wait for Shazam to send a text with the title and artist.) Since then, it has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to identify some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps in the world. It has also helped set off a revolution in the recording industry. While most users think of Shazam as a handy tool for identifying unfamiliar songs, it offers music executives something far more valuable: an early-detection system for hits. By studying 20 million searches every day, Shazam can identify which songs are catching on, and where, before just about anybody else…In fact, all of our searching, streaming, downloading, and sharing is being used to answer the question the music industry has been asking for a century: What do people want to hear next? It’s a question that label executives once answered largely by trusting their gut. But data about our preferences have shifted the balance of power, replacing experts’ instincts with the wisdom of the crowd. As a result, labels have gotten much better at understanding what we want to listen to. This is the one silver lining the music industry has found in the digital revolution, which has steadily cut into profits. So it’s clearly good for business—but whether it’s good for music is a lot less certain.
Curiously Strong Remains:
- In Conversation: Marc Andreessen [Kevin Roose on New York Magazine] (10/19/14)
- Obama Is Too Cool for Crisis Management [Joshua Green on Bloomberg Businessweek] (10/23/14)
- The Police Are Still Out of Control [Frank Serpico on Politico Magazine] (10/23/14)
- In Search of Uber’s Unicorn [Alison Griswold on Slate] (10/27/14)
- Speed Kills [on The Chronicle of Higher Education] (10/20/14)
- Jimmy Page: “Led Zeppelin was an Affair of the Heart” [David Fricke on Rolling Stone] (10/28/14)
- The $9 Billion Witness: Meet JP Morgan Chase’s Worst Nightmare [Matt Taibbi on Rolling Stone] (11/6/14)
- Ebola: Doctors Without Borders Shows How to Manage a Plague [Brad Wieners and Makiko Kitamura on Bloomberg Businessweek] (11/13/14)
- The Creepy New Wave of the Internet [Sue Halpern on The New York Review of Books] (11/20/14)
- The War of the Words [Keith Gessen on Vanity Fair] (December 2014)
- Against Productivity [Quinn Norton on Medium] (11/7/14)
- The Gaming Industry’s Greatest Adversary Is Just Getting Started [Sheelah Kolhatkar on Bloomberg Businessweek] (11/26/14)
- What Happens When Islamic State’s Foreign Fighters Return? [Cam Simpson on Bloomberg Businessweek] (12/1/14)
- Fall of the Bond King: How Gross Lost Empire as Pimco Cracked [Mary Childs on Bloomberg News] (12/3/14)
- Dave Chappelle Is Back (This Time We’re 100% Sure It’s Maybe Totally for Real) [Mark Anthony Green on Gentlemen’s Quarterly] (11/12/14)
- The Secret Sauce: How Buffalo Wild Wings Turned the Sports Bar Into a $1.5 Billion Juggernaut [Bryan Gruley on Bloomberg News] (4/6/15)
- An Emotional Audit: IRS Workers Are Miserable and Overwhelmed [Devin Leonard on Bloomberg News] (4/8/15)
- Out of the ashes [Lewis Dartnell on Aeon Magazine] (4/13/15)
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