05
Nov
15

Roundup – Bloodsport & Mentos

Best of the Best:

The Iran I Saw [Christopher Schroeder on Politico] (6/28/15)

This is a tale of two Irans. This is, specifically, the tale of the other Iran. The tale we hear most often focuses on natural resources like oil as their greatest asset or nuclear power as their greatest threat—a narrative frozen in time, stretching back decades with remembered pain on both sides. For many Americans, the reference point for Iran is still centered on the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran over 35 years ago; for others, it has focused on Iranian support for destabilizing regional actors against our interests and costing lives. At the same time, of course, Iranians have their own version of this tale: Many remember well U.S. support for a coup of their elected leadership, our support for a dictatorial regime and later encouragement of a war in Iraq that cost nearly a half-million Iranian lives. Politics, power, mistrust: This is one version of how the media frames discussion of Iran. It’s very real, and it has much caution and evidence to support it. But there’s another tale, one I saw repeatedly in my trip there last month. It was my second visit within the year, traveling with a group of senior global business executives to explore this remarkable and controversial nation. This tale focuses on Iran’s next generation, an entirely new generation that came of age well after the Islamic Revolution, and on human capital, the greatest asset a country can have.  It’s about technology as the driver for breaking down barriers even despite internal controls and external sanctions. People under age 35 represent nearly two-thirds of Iran’s population at this point: Many were engaged in the Green Movement protests against the Iranian presidential election in 2009. Most are utterly wired and see the world outside of Iran every day—often in the form of global news, TV shows, movies, music, blogs, and startups—on their mobile phones.

Welcome to Astana, Kazakhstan: one of the strangest capital cities on Earth [Giles Fraser and Marina Kim in Astana on The Guardian] (7/28/15)

At 30,000 feet, a few lonely lakes polka-dot the landscape. There is no evidence of human activity. There are scarcely any trees and few distinguishing landmarks. On and on it goes – Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe, and so unremittingly flat, it’s as if some gigantic plasterer has skimmed the land. Here wolves outnumber people. Little wonder the Soviets chose this vast emptiness to hide their Gulags and their space programme, and to test their nuclear weapons. Much of it radioactive, it’s an agoraphobic’s vision of hell. And then, out of nowhere, Astana comes glistening into view, all shiny metal and glass, implausibly rising up from the Kazakh steppe like some post-modern lego set that has stumbled into the opening sequence of Dallas. Welcome to Astana, one of the strangest capital cities on earth. There was some early talk of Astana – which means “capital” in Kazakh – being named after the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. After all, his name and vision are omnipresent. Since independence from the USSR in 1991, he was the first – and has been the only – president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, with an electoral victory earlier this year in which he received a comedy 97.7% of the vote…Given the billions of barrels of oil and gas that have been discovered in the country, and its very low population of only 16 million, every Kazakhstani should be a millionaire by now. One look at Astana and you can see where much of the money has gone: everywhere it’s big, flashy signature buildings, all wearing their architects’ names like fashion labels, all competing for attention like a collection of spoiled teenagers insecurely shouting: “Look at me!”

This Medical Charity Made $3.3 Billion From a Single Pill [John Tozzi on Bloomberg News] (7/7/15)

In 2012, a pill called Kalydeco became the first drug approved to treat the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis (CF) in a small subset of patients. The CF Foundation had since the late 1990s given drugmaker Vertex, which developed Kalydeco, around $150 million in exchange for something unusual—a share of the royalties for any treatment Vertex’s research yielded. Two weeks before the foundation’s December meeting, it sold its royalty rights to an investment company. For $3.3 billion. Suddenly, the CF Foundation was the largest disease-focused charity in the country as measured by net assets. Most medical charities don’t get any money from the research they fund, and none had ever gotten a windfall so big. The CF Foundation now has more to spend on future research than the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association combined. The approach yielded more medical advances as well. Orkambi, another Vertex drug that will treat the most common genetic mutation behind CF, was approved by the FDA last week.

The Hunt for the Financial Industry’s Most-Wanted Hacker [Dune Lawrence on Bloomberg News] (6/18/15)

In any global outbreak, it’s important to identify Patient Zero…In the nine-year online epidemic that helped create cybercrime as we know it, you get “fliime.” That was the name used by somebody who went on the online forum Techsupportguy.com on October 11, 2006, at 2:24 a.m., saying he’d found some bad code on his sister’s computer. “Could someone please take a look at this,” he wrote. Fliime probably didn’t realize this was history in the making. But the malicious program that had burrowed into the PC was a new breed, capable of vacuuming up more user logins and website passwords in one day than competing malware did in weeks. With repeated enhancements, the malware and its offspring became juggernauts of cyber bank robbery—turning millions of computers into global networks of zombie machines enslaved by criminals. Conservative estimates of their haul reach well into hundreds of millions of dollars. Investigators studying the code knew its creator only by aliases that changed almost as frequently as the malware itself: A-Z, Monstr, Slavik, Pollingsoon, Umbro, Lucky1235. But the mystery coder gave his product a name with staying power; he called it ZeuS. Like the procreation-minded god of Greek mythology, this ZeuS fathered powerful descendants—and became a case study of the modern cybercrime industry.

Rain is sizzling bacon, cars are lions roaring: the art of sound in movies [Jordan Kisner on The Guardian] (7/22/15)

It is a central principle of sound editing that people hear what they are conditioned to hear, not what they are actually hearing. The sound of rain in movies? Frying bacon. Car engines revving in a chase scene? It’s partly engines, but what gives it that visceral, gut-level grist is lion roars mixed in. To be excellent, a sound editor needs not just a sharp, trained ear, but also a gift for imagining what a sound could do, what someone else might hear. Lievsay is one of the best. He won an Academy award in 2014 for his work on Gravity. He was awarded the 2015 Career Achievement award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors society. Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Do The Right Thing – his work. He is also the only sound editor the Coen Brothers work with, which means that he is the person responsible for that gnarly wood chipper noise in Fargo, the peel of wallpaper in Barton Fink, the resonance of The Dude’s bowling ball in The Big Lebowski and the absolutely chilling crinkle of Javier Bardem’s gum wrapper in No Country for Old Men. Trying to sum up what makes Lievsay special, Glenn Kiser, the head of the Dolby Institute and the former head of Skywalker Sounds, told me: “What separates tremendously gifted designers comes down to taste. Skip has an unfailing sense for the right sound, and how to be simple and precise. He’s not about sound by the pound.” Jonathan Demme, who first worked with Lievsay on The Silence of the Lambs, put it more concisely: “He’s a genius.”

The California “Energy Miracle” [Dan Kopf on Priceonomics] (8/10/15)

California’s per capita electricity consumption plateaued in 1970, while the rest of the United States saw a substantial increase. And, like many advocates of energy efficiency initiatives, Chu implied that this trend is evidence that California’s energy efficiency policies have been effective. This seems sensible. But is it true? In his paper, “California energy efficiency: Lessons for the rest of the world, or not?”, the environmental economist Arik Levinson challenges this assumption. He suggests this relationship is a classic case of spurious correlation. “The vast majority of California’s apparent conservation relative to the rest of the country comes from coincidental features of geography and demographics,” writes Levinson. In a subsequent paper and on the Freakonomics radio show, Levinson voiced his skepticism not just about the impact of California’s energy efficiency policies, but on energy efficiency policy more generally.

How Russia’s ‘most controversial artist’ persuaded his interrogator to change sides [Ivan Nechepurenko for The Moscow Times, part of the New East network on The Guardian] (7/28/15)

When investigator Pavel Yasman was tasked with interrogating performance artist Petr Pavlensky, known for his shocking political protests, he never imagined that their conversations would change his life. After several months interviewing the St Petersburgbased artist as part of a government case against him, Yasman quit his job at Russia’s Investigative Committee – described as the equivalent of America’s FBI – and decided to join the team supporting the artist, who has become known across Russia for his wince-inducing stunts, including sewing his mouth shut, wrapping himself in barbed wire, and nailing his scrotum to the Red Square.

Millennials: Living on the Edge of the Big City [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (7/23/15)

Millennials like Piirto, the generation born after 1980 and the first to come of age in the new millennium, still love urban areas but are finding they want more space, affordability, cars and the parking spaces for them as they gain more wealth and get ready to settle down and have children. Many millennials see close-in suburbs like Hoboken, with its youthful vibe and picture-window views of Manhattan’s skyline, as a likely compromise…As the leading edge of the generation reaches its child-rearing age, choosing where to live is increasingly urgent. And it’s one many local governments are responding to in a desire to attract or retain the economic activity and tax dollars created by what’s now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. Communities are making way for more dense and affordable development, with retail stores within walking distance and public transportation, for an age group that has shunned cars out of economic necessity or preference. It’s happening in the Virginia commuter suburbs west of Washington, D.C., for example. And Hunterdon County, New Jersey, an hour’s drive from Hoboken, has devised a strategy to remake itself and stem its millennial exodus. The payoff is great if communities can attract or retain millennials, as they tend to be highly educated and to bring about greater economic productivity, according to research published last year by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

The reckless plot to overthrow Africa’s most absurd dictator [Andrew Rice on The Guardian] (7/21/15)

When the employees of Songhai Development, an Austin building firm, arrived at work on Monday 5 January, they discovered the FBI had visited their offices over the weekend and seized all the company’s computers. The company’s owner, Cherno Njie, was spending the holidays in west Africa. But Doug Hayes, who managed construction for Njie, expected his boss back at any moment – they had an apartment project that was about to face an important zoning commission hearing…By the end of that Monday, Njie’s name was all over the international news. He had been arrested as he got off a plane at Dulles international airport near Washington DC, and charged with organising a failed attempt to overthrow Yahya Jammeh, the military ruler of the Gambia, a slender riverine nation of fewer than 2 million people. One alleged co-conspirator, a Gambian who had served with the US army, had already confessed to US investigators, telling them he was one of a small group of men from the diaspora who had taken part in a botched nighttime attack in December on Jammeh’s residence. The outcome was disastrous, both for the men involved and for the long-suffering citizens of the Gambia. But back in America, it played as a weird, farcical tale. “Meet The Man Who Wanted To Rule The Gambia”, read the headline on a Buzzfeed news story, above a photo from Njie’s LinkedIn profile. The alleged coup plotters were middle-aged immigrants, who had made good lives for themselves in America over the course of decades, with careers, wives, children, savings, suburban houses, citizenship – the whole archetypal dream. They only visited the Gambia occasionally, if at all, and they had little connection to politics in their homeland. What could have possessed them to risk everything in a foolhardy attempt to topple one of the world’s strangest dictators?

Confessions of a Seduction Addict [Elizabeth Gilbert on The New York Times] (6/24/15)

If the man was already involved in a committed relationship, I knew that I didn’t need to be prettier or better than his existing girlfriend; I just needed to be different. (The novel doesn’t always win out over the familiar, mind you, but it often does.) The trick was to study the other woman and to become her opposite, thereby positioning myself to this man as a sparkling alternative to his regular life.

Unhealthy Fixation [William Saletan on Slate] (7/15/15)

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up. I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust. Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes. Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

The Father of the Emoticon Chases His Great White Whale [Rachel Wilkinson on Narrative.ly]

Few inventions are so universally popular as the emoticon — an estimated six billion are sent every day —or as prescient — when the emoticon was created in 1982, the world’s best-selling computer was the month-old Commodore 64, so named for its then cutting-edge sixty-four kilobytes of RAM. But its birth was less an epiphanic moment than an office joke. Fahlman invented the smiley when his CMU colleagues were having trouble recognizing sarcasm on an electronic bulletin board. The boards were a precursor to today’s Internet forums and included “flame wars,” heated debates between users. The need for a “joke marker” arose after a series of posts speculating about various things that could happen in a free-falling elevator. Would a pigeon in the elevator keep flying? Would a lit candle go out? What would a puddle of mercury do? It was “tech-nerd humor,” explains Fahlman. But the whole thing went off the rails when some users misinterpreted the messages as real elevator safety warnings.

Whistle-blower: How doctor uncovered nightmare [Laura Berman on The Detroit News]

Doctors rotated through Fata’s practice, perhaps staying long enough to find evidence of disorganization and dysfunction, rather than proof of ill intent. But by July 4, 2013, when Maunglay first looked in on Fata’s patient, he was well-situated to uncover deeper wrongs: He had caught Fata in an outright lie a few months before, when Fata had insisted the clinics were enrolled in a professional quality program. Maunglay’s growing distrust and disenchantment with his employer had led him a few weeks earlier to give notice of his resignation, effective Aug. 9 — enough time to help patients move to new doctors, to transfer records, without disturbing their lives or disrupting the practice. During that window of waiting, he encountered Flagg. That July 4 evening, after seeing Fata’s patient at Crittenton in Rochester Hills, he shared the case fundamentals with his wife [a radiology resident]. Even if she hadn’t been eight months pregnant and tired, she would have been baffled by her husband’s description of the patient’s condition and treatment. He ticked off the notes from the patient’s chart — all normal readings — and then the cancer diagnosis, the chemotherapy drug used to treat multiple myeloma. “Are you trying to trick me?” his wife asked, confused. Flagg talked that night to her husband, Steve Flagg, too, explaining that the doctor who’d visited her asked a lot of questions about her diagnosis. “It was as if he didn’t think I had cancer,” she confided, with hope in her voice.

Is organic food any healthier? Most scientists are still skeptical. [Brad Plummer on Vox] (6/5/15)

In 2009, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency reviewed 67 studies on this topic and couldn’t find much difference in nutrient quality between the two food types. In 2012, a larger review of 237 studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also found that organic foods didn’t appear to be any healthier or safer to eat than their conventionally grown counterparts. But there have long been dissenters who argue that there must be some health benefits to organic. And a July 2014 study in the British Journal of Nutrition, led by Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University, reopened this debate by adding a small twist. The researchers’ reviewed 347 previous studies and found that certain organic fruits and vegetables had higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown crops. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prove very much by itself. No one knows if those moderately higher levels of antioxidants actually boost your health. For that to happen, they’d have to be absorbed into your bloodstream and distributed to the right organs — and there just hasn’t been much good research showing that. For now, there’s little evidence to suggest concrete health benefits from eating organic.

The surprisingly sad saga of the Oregon State Library Girl [EJ Dickson on The Daily Dot] (2/19/15)

The transition from student to Internet porn celebrity has not been easy for Sunderland. Aside from the public indecency citation, which comes with a fine of up to $6,250, she’s lost friends over the incident, as well as earned the censure of her former OSU student colleagues…Sunderland’s parents, who both work at an Oregon hospital, weren’t thrilled, and she was also put in the unenviable position of having to explain to her grandparents both her criminal record and her new adult career. But after the porn website BangYouLater magnanimously offered to relieve the charge (but not before releasing numerous splashy press releases about the infamous Oregon State Library Girl), Sunderland apparently decided to lean into her newfound fame. She says she’s pursuing many business opportunities in the vein of modeling, and her manager says she’s been camming on her own website, Playwithkendra.com, as of Valentine’s Day. Although she’s been getting porn offers, she doesn’t want to pursue them, though, she says, “it’s not my decision at this time.”

Addiction is not a disease: A neuroscientist argues that it’s time to change our minds on the roots of substance abuse [Laura Miller on Salon] (6/27/15)

This conception of addiction as a biological phenomenon seemed to be endorsed over the past 20 years as new technologies have allowed neuroscientists to measure the human brain and its activities in ever more telling detail. Sure enough, the brains of addicts are physically different — sometimes strikingly so — from the brains of average people. But neuroscience giveth and now neuroscience taketh away. The recovery movement and rehab industry (two separate things, although the latter often employs the techniques of the former) have always had their critics, but lately some of the most vocal have been the neuroscientists whose findings once lent them credibility. One of those neuroscientists is Marc Lewis, a psychologist and former addict himself, also the author of a new book “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease.” Lewis’s argument is actually fairly simple: The disease theory, and the science sometimes used to support it, fail to take into account the plasticity of the human brain. Of course, “the brain changes with addiction,” he writes. “But the way it changes has to do with learning and development — not disease.” All significant and repeated experiences change the brain; adaptability and habit are the brain’s secret weapons. The changes wrought by addiction are not, however, permanent, and while they are dangerous, they’re not abnormal. Through a combination of a difficult emotional history, bad luck and the ordinary operations of the brain itself, an addict is someone whose brain has been transformed, but also someone who can be pushed further along the road toward healthy development. (Lewis doesn’t like the term “recovery” because it implies a return to the addict’s state before the addiction took hold.) “The Biology of Desire” is grouped around several case studies, each one illustrating a unique path to dependency…Each of these people, Lewis argues, had a particular “emotional wound” the substance helped them handle, but once they started using it, the habit itself eventually became self-perpetuating and in most cases ultimately served to deepen the wound. Each case study focuses on a different part of the brain involved in addiction and illustrates how the function of each part — desire, emotion, impulse, automatic behavior — becomes shackled to a single goal: consuming the addictive substance. The brain is built to learn and change, Lewis points out, but it’s also built to form pathways for repetitive behavior, everything from brushing your teeth to stomping on the brake pedal, so that you don’t have to think about everything you do consciously. The brain is self-organizing. Those are all good properties, but addiction shanghais them for a bad cause.

Preparing for the Impact of Driverless Cars [Tory Gattis on New Geography] (8/19/15)

[Y]es, there will be fewer cars, but I suspect there will be a similar number of car *trips* (for example, one taxi providing 20 trips/day instead of 10 owned cars each providing two trips/day), and that means just as much wear and tear on the roads,unless a lot more car sharing happens (i.e. one vehicle carrying multiple people on separate trips at the same time)…A key question is how much car sharing will occur, which reduces prices and increases efficiency by picking up and dropping off multiple people along routes. It can be a bit awkward sharing a vehicle with strangers. I would not be surprised to see someone like Uber custom design a vehicle with individual personal compartments. Imagine 5-6 private individual seating compartments in a 6-door SUV-sized vehicle. When it pulls up, an indicator tells you which door to get into for your compartment, and then alerts you again when it’s time for you to get out, based on the destination you put into your smart phone. Private ride, shared prices and efficiency – best of both worlds. Mass adoption of shared rides would solve our traffic congestion problems almost overnight.

Why some billionaires are bad for growth, and others aren’t [Ana Swanson on The Washington Post] (8/20/15)

A new study that has been accepted by the Journal of Comparative Economics helps resolve this debate. Using an inventive new way to measure billionaire wealth, Sutirtha Bagchi of Villanova University and Jan Svejnar of Columbia University find that it’s not the level of inequality that matters for growth so much as the reason that inequality happened in the first place. Specifically, when billionaires get their wealth because of political connections, that wealth inequality tends to drag on the broader economy, the study finds. But when billionaires get their wealth through the market — through business activities that are not related to the government — it does not.

Rape, ignorance, repression: why early pregnancy is endemic in Guatemala [Linda Forsell and Kjetil Lyche on The Guardian] (8/27/15)

Last year, 5,100 girls under 15 became pregnant in Guatemala. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of 10- to 15-year-olds who gave birth increased by almost 25%. According to the UN population fund (UNFPA), Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region in the world where births to girls under 15 are on the rise. The agency predicts the increase will continue. Cultural practices, endemic violence and the hold of the Catholic church over decisions on reproductive health make girls in Guatemala easy prey for abuse and vulnerable to early pregnancy…Between January 2012 and March 2015, the National Institute of Forensic Sciences registered 21,232 cases of rape; so far, guilty verdicts have been reached in only 974 of them…An analysis of pregnancy among adolescents found that for girls under 14 the biggest threat of sexual violence comes from their own fathers. One out of four reported cases involved a girl’s father, while 89% of cases involved a family member or someone known to the family…Resistance to introducing sex education to the curriculum is fierce, primarily from the Catholic church, which believes talking about sex would encourage young people to have sexual relationships…In Guatemala, girls are legally allowed to marry at 14, with their parents’ consent. But among younger girls, forced marriage is not uncommon. Roughly 30% of young women between the ages 20 and 24 were married before they were 18. About 7% were married by 15.

Making Decisions in a Complex Adaptive System [Farnam Street Team on Farnam Street Blog] (8/24/15)

One mistake we make is extrapolating the behaviour of an individual component, say an individual, to explain the entire system. Yet when we have to solve a problem dealing with a complex system, we often address an individual component. In so doing, we ignore Garrett Hardin’s first law of Ecology, you can never do merely one thing and become a fragilista. [“They think that the reasons for something are immediately accessible to them, even if they have no clue…The fragilista defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent.”]

“Cowboy Doctors” and Health Costs [Zara Zhang on Harvard Magazine] (September-October 2015)

Who’s driving up U.S. healthcare costs? A recent study by Harvard professors and colleagues revealed that the culprits may be “cowboy doctors”—physicians who provide intensive, unnecessary, and often ineffective patient care, resulting in wasteful spending costing as much as 2 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product—hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The authors, including Eckstein professor of applied economics David Cutler and assistant professor of business administration Ariel D. Stern, found that physicians’ beliefs in clinically unsupported treatment procedures can explain as much as 35 percent of end-of-life Medicare expenditures, and 12 percent of Medicare expenditures overall.

The man who mistook his wife for a hat [Oliver Sacks on The London Review of Books] (5/19/83)

His visual acuity was good: he had no difficulty seeing a pin on the floor, though sometimes he missed it if it was placed to his left. He saw all right, but what did he see? I opened out a copy of the National Geographic Magazine, and asked him to describe some pictures in it. His eyes darted from one thing to another, picking up tiny features, as he had picked up the pin. A brightness, a colour, a shape would arrest his attention and elicit comment, but it was always details that he saw – never the whole. And these details he ‘spotted’, as one might spot blips on a radar-screen. He had no sense of a landscape or a scene. I showed him the cover, an unbroken expanse of Sahara dunes. ‘What do you see here?’I asked. ‘I see a river,’ he said. ‘And a little guesthouse with its terrace on the water. People are dining out on the terrace. I see coloured parasols here and there.’ He was looking, if it was ‘looking’, right off the cover, into mid-air, and confabulating non-existent features, as if the absence of features in the actual picture had driven him to imagine the river and the terrace and the coloured parasols. I must have looked aghast, but he seemed to think he had done rather well. There was a hint of a smile on his face. He also appeared to have decided the examination was over, and started to look round for his hat. He reached out his hand, and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to lift it off, to put it on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat! His wife looked as if she was used to such things.

The ‘Dark, Paradoxical Gift’ [Oliver Sacks on The New York Review of Books] (4/11/91)

Hull’s description of the steady loss of his own visual images, memories, concepts, etc., is strongly suggestive to me of the development of a cortical blindness—in his case, owing not to any primary injury of the brain, but to the fact that the visual cortex now has nothing to work with: it cannot manufacture images indefinitely, when there is no longer any stimulus or input from the eyes. There may also be a slow process of degeneration in the cortex, with the cessation of neural input from the eye. Thus although it is the eyes that are damaged in the first place with him, this goes on to a sort of cortical blindness: it is the phenomenology of central blindness, and a sort of ideational blindness, which is so richly described in his book. Thus, in one entry (What Do I Look Like? June 25, 1983) he speaks of the loss of his shoulder, his face, his “appearance,” his self: “When I was about seventeen I lost the sight of my left eye. I can remember gazing at my left shoulder and thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’ll see you without looking in a mirror!” To lose the shoulder is one thing, but to lose one’s own face poses a new problem. I find that I am trying to recall old photographs of myself, just to remember what I look like. I discover with a shock that I cannot remember. Must I become a blank on the wall of my own gallery? To what extent is loss of the image of the face connected with loss of the image of the self? Is this one of the reasons why I often feel I am a mere spirit, a ghost, a memory? Other people have become disembodied voices, speaking out of nowhere, going into nowhere. Am I not like this too, now that I have lost my body?”

The Pig Tooth That Spurred A Century Of Debate About Evolution [Esther Inglis-Arkel on io9] (6/19/15)

Nebraska Man’s legacy, in the scientific community, ended with a whimper. In the creationist community, Nebraska Man’s legend lives on. A quick search for Nebraska Man brings up the requisite Wikipedia entry, and then creationist site after creationist site. To a certain extent, that’s understandable. When Osborn announced the finding of primate fossils, newspapers, journals, and the scientifically-minded responded not just with enthusiasm but with an overwhelming smugness. Some wanted to name Nebraska Man after William Jennings Bryan, with the understanding that Nebraska Man was the more intelligent and sophisticated of the two. This built up a lot of bad will, which has been vented ever since. On the other hand, most sites make the point that no one would have been fooled into thinking that Nebraska Man existed if no one believed in evolution. While true, this is a bit like saying that people who don’t believe in mammals won’t get fooled into believing in Bigfoot. It’s not wrong, but it’s also not right in a very important way.

U.S. doctor sanctioned for ‘abhorrent and abnormal’ troop training [John Schiffman on Reuters] (6/19/15)

A state board revoked the license of a former U.S. Army doctor on Friday, finding that he plied students with hypnotic drugs during battlefield-trauma training and performed dangerous procedures, including intentionally inducing shock. The doctor, John Henry Hagmann, was cited for training he provided in 2012 and 2013 in Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and Great Britain. Students testified on Friday that Hagmann also performed penile nerve blocks and instructed them to insert catheters into one another’s genitals…Reuters reported on Wednesday that military officials had long known about Hagmann’s methods. A four-star general briefly halted them in 2005, but the doctor resumed his government contracts, earning at least $10.5 million since then.

Drug cops took a college kid’s savings and now 13 police departments want a cut [Christopher Ingraham on The Washington Post] (6/30/15)

In February 2014, Drug Enforcement Administration task force officers at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport seized $11,000 in cash from 24-year-old college student Charles Clarke. They didn’t find any guns, drugs or contraband on him. But, according to an affidavit filled out by one of the agents, the task force officers reasoned that the cash was the proceeds of drug trafficking, because Clarke was traveling on a recently-purchased one-way ticket, he was unable to provide documentation for where the money came from, and his checked baggage had an odor of marijuana. (He was a marijuana smoker.) Clarke’s cash, which says he he spent five years saving up, was seized under civil asset forfeiture, where cops are able to take cash and property from people who are never convicted of — and in some cases, never even charged with — a crime…Two local agencies were involved in the seizure of Clarke’s cash: the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport Police, and the Covington Police Department, which is the home office of the DEA task force officer who detained and spoke with Clarke. But according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties group now representing Clarke in court, 11 additional law enforcement agencies — who were not involved in Clarke’s case at all — have also requested a share of Clarke’s cash under the federal asset forfeiture program. They include the Kentucky State Police, the Ohio Highway Patrol, and even the Bureau of Criminal Investigations within the Ohio Attorney General’s office.

The wolves of Jeff City: Sexual harassment at the Capitol [Jason Hancock and Steve Kraske on The Kansas City Star] (6/26/15)

The isolation of a small-city capital dominated by powerful men away from home — and the idea of what happens in Jefferson City stays there — makes the place hostile territory for women pursuing careers in state government. A recent Harvard study found that geographic isolation of state Capitols reduces accountability. And out of 197 seats in the Missouri General Assembly, only 49 are held by women. In the House, four of the 12 leadership positions are held by women. In the Senate, three of 11 leaders are women.

Americans Are on the Move — Again [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (6/25/15)

Historically, about 17 percent of families move in a given year, but the recession knocked that number down as low as 11 percent, said Kimball Brace, president of Virginia-based Election Data Services. After two straight years of improvement, the number of moving families has partially recovered to about 15 percent…By next year it should be clearer how the moves will affect political power, Brace said. But some Sun Belt states already are expected to gain congressional seats at the expense of Northern states where outbound moves are picking up. Based on current population growth and loss trends, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Virginia would gain congressional seats in 2020, Election Data Services estimated this year. Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia would lose seats. Many areas received a large influx of people last year compared with 2013: Hillsborough County, Florida, Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada, San Joaquin County (Stockton), California, Pinal County (south of Phoenix), Arizona, and Montgomery County (northwest of Nashville), Tennessee. Other counties saw a bigger exodus last year: Cook County (Chicago), Illinois, which lost more than 48,000 people to moves, 17,000 more than the year before; Fairfax County, Virginia, a District of Columbia suburb; Brooklyn and Queens, New York, and Los Angeles County, California.

Documenting Evil: Inside Assad’s Hospitals of Horror [Adam Ciralsky on Vanity Fair] (6/11/15)

On a stifling day in August 2013, a police photographer with chiseled features and a military bearing moved hurriedly about his office in Damascus. For two years, as Syria’s civil war became ever more deadly, he lived a double life: regime bureaucrat by day, opposition spy by night. Now he had to flee. Having downloaded thousands of high-resolution photographs onto flash drives, he snuck into the empty office of his boss and took cell-phone pictures of the papers on the man’s desk. Among them were execution orders and directives to falsify death certificates and dispose of bodies. Armed with as much evidence as he could safely carry, the photographer—code-named Caesar—fled the country. Since then, the images that Caesar secreted out of Syria have received wide circulation, having been touted by Western officials and others as clear evidence of war crimes. The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range—one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies—thousands of them—betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation. Caesar took a number of these pictures, working with roughly a dozen other photographers assigned to the same military-police unit. But Caesar himself, like the intelligence operation of which he became a part, has remained in the shadows. He appeared only once in public, last summer, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he wore a hood and spoke through a translator. He spoke briefly, and in a restricted setting, though I have been able to obtain a copy of his complete testimony. He sought and was granted asylum in a Western European country whose name Vanity Fair has agreed not to disclose, for his personal safety.

The $80 Million Fake Bomb-Detector Scam—and the People Behind It [Jeffrey E. Stern on Vanity Fair] (6/24/15)

The “bomb detectors” sold to Iraq—and, it would later emerge, the versions bought by security forces in dozens of other countries—were based on a gag gift that had been around for decades. When the group modified the devices to sell them all over the world, they invented technical-sounding names like the A.D.E. 651, the Quadro Tracker, the Positive Molecular Locator, the Alpha 6, and the GT200. But all of them were simply rebranded versions of a hollow, five-ounce plastic toy sold as “Gopher: The Amazing Golf Ball Finder!,” whose packaging claims, limply, that “you may never lose a golf ball again!” Even as a toy, the Gopher is unimpressive. It would barely pass muster as a prop in a fourth grader’s camcorded Star Wars tribute. It consists of a cheap plastic handle with a free-swinging antenna, and the way it works is simple: When you tilt the device to the right, the antenna swings right. When you tilt it to the left, the antenna swings left. If you’ve been primed by the right sales pitch, you believe that the antenna has moved as a result of something called nuclear quadrupole resonance, or electrostatic attraction, or low-frequency radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere—each force supposedly drawing the antenna toward the substance you’re scanning for, such as, in the beginning, “the elements used in all golf balls.” Because the salesman is glib and confident, or because people around you aren’t questioning it, or because your superior has ordered you to use it, you ignore the far more obvious force that has actually moved the antenna: gravity. There’s a psychological phenomenon at play, too. It’s known as the ideomotor effect, and it’s the same dynamic that sells Ouija boards: you move something, but persuade yourself you didn’t move it on your own. The phenomenon has been known for centuries—at least since prospectors began using dowsing rods to look for oil and water…Though the device seems plainly absurd, the list of victims is long and far-reaching. The A.D.E. was sold to the Lebanese army, to the Mexican army, to the police in Belgium, and to the Mövenpick Hotel Group’s property in Bahrain. It was sold in Romania and the republic of Georgia. In Asia, there were clients in Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Pakistan, and Vietnam. In the Middle East, the device made it to Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. In Africa, it was bought by Kenya, Libya, Niger, and Tunisia. But no country went for the A.D.E. the way Iraq did. By 2009, the device was everywhere…Joanne Law has traveled to conferences to give warnings about the fake detectors, but there’s no international mechanism for recalling a dangerous device en masse. In some cases, the device has been phased out by local militaries and police forces, but that hasn’t happened everywhere. A year after McCormick’s conviction, the Egyptian military began testing an apparent adaptation of McCormick’s device called the C-Fast, claiming it can detect both AIDS and hepatitis. Last June, 38 people were killed at Jinnah International Airport, in Karachi, when attackers with suicide bombs and rocket launchers got past the airport security force, which has admitted to relying on the A.D.E. 651. Another version of the device was reportedly being used in Thailand. Mexican police looking for drugs have incorporated the device into their stop-and-search procedures; if they ever acknowledge that the device is a fraud, the convictions resulting from those searches would be vulnerable to litigation. In some countries, sheer corruption keeps the device in the hands of soldiers and policemen. Despite the multiple convictions in Britain—and despite the conviction in Iraq of the country’s bomb-squad commander for taking bribes—officials in Baghdad continue to defend the A.D.E. 651. The exact number of people killed and injured because security forces relied on the device is impossible to know, but it is surely well into the hundreds. And the number will rise. As of this writing, Iraq continues to protect itself from terror attacks with a modified golf-ball detector.

‘We Assume the Bad Thing Has Already Happened’ [Michael Riley on Bloomberg News] (6/19/15)

EMC, one of the world’s biggest makers of data storage systems, is a particularly juicy target for cyberspies. With revenue of $24.4 billion last year, the company is a Big Data icon, the leading provider of products and services for mass storage and analysis. Intruders see EMC as a potential gateway to the secrets of banks, technology companies, casinos, power plants, militaries, and governments. Every day, devices protecting EMC’s 60,000 computers register 1.2 billion “events,” a broad term that includes probes by hackers looking for vulnerabilities to exploit later. Between 60 and 80 of those events are serious enough that they’re assigned to someone on the incident response center’s 28-person team for action. About eight times a year, a breach is elevated to what EMC calls internally a “declared incident.” It’s the corporate equivalent of DEFCON 1. Hackers have been identified inside the network, possibly already stealing data. The company makes almost none of those white-knuckle events public.

The Death of Golf [Karl Taro Greenfield on Men’s Journal] (Aug 2015)

By any measure, participation in the game is way off, from a high of 30.6 million golfers in 2003 to 24.7 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF). The long-term trends are also troubling, with the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 showing a 30 percent decline over the last 20 years. Nearly every metric — TV ratings, rounds played, golf-equipment sales, golf courses constructed — shows a drop-off…During the boom, most of those 20-somethings who were out hacking every weekend were out there because of one man: Tiger Woods. Golf’s heyday coincided neatly with Tiger’s run of 14 major golf championships between 1997 and 2008. If you listen to golf insiders, he’s the individual most to blame for those thousands of Craigs­list ads for used clubs. When Tiger triple-bogeyed his marriage, dallied with porn stars, and seemingly misplaced his swing all at once, the game not only lost its best player; it also lost its leading salesman. The most common answer given by golf industry types when asked what would return the game to its former popularity is “Find another Tiger.” But you can’t blame one man’s wandering libido for the demise of an entire sport. The challenges golf faces are myriad, from millennials lacking the requisite attention span for a five-hour round, to an increasingly environmentally conscious public that’s reluctant to take up a resource-intensive game played on nonnative grass requiring an almond farm’s worth of water, to the recent economic crisis that curtailed discretionary spending…Combine the game’s cost with the fact that golf is perceived as stubbornly alienating to everyone but white males — Augusta National, home of the Masters and perhaps the most famous golf club in the world, didn’t accept black members until 1990 and women until 2012 — and it’s no wonder young people aren’t flocking to it.

The story of the invention that could revolutionize batteries—and maybe American manufacturing as well [Steve LeVine on Quartz] (6/22/15)

There may be a way to revolutionize batteries, he says, but right now it is not in the laboratory. Instead, it’s on the factory floor. Ingenious manufacturing, rather than an ingenious leap in battery chemistry, might usher in the new electric age. When it starts commercial sales in about two years, Chiang says, his company will slash the cost of an entry-level battery plant 10-fold, as well as cut around 30% off the price of the batteries themselves. That’s thanks to a new manufacturing process along with a powerful new cell that adds energy while stripping away cost. Together, he says, they will allow lithium-ion batteries to begin to compete with fossil fuels. But Chiang’s concept is also about something more than just cheaper, greener power. It’s a model for a new kind of innovation, one that focuses not on new scientific invention, but on new ways of manufacturing. For countries like the US that have lost industries to Asia, this opens the possibility of reinventing the techniques of manufacture. Those that take this path could own that intellectual property—and thus the next manufacturing future.

Last Week’s Hot Links, With Laremy: ‘Ted 2,’ Sex Clubs, A Man That’s An Ant, And The Twitter! [Laremy Legal on FilmDrunk] (6/29/15)

“With $32.9 million in 3,442 theaters Ted 2, however, didn’t really make a run at the spot, making less than even the most pessimistic pundits had placed it.” I know why this happened. It was because Ted 2 sucked on rails. It had these odd musical asides that were more “Family Guy” than the original Ted. The opening credits were brutal. The plot was both nonsensical and totally unhelpful to the comedy. Much as when the Jim Beam guys need inspiration, Mila Kunis was missed. And finally, they left soooo many potential jokes on the floor. It was as if this was supposed to be a more serious pivot into “acting” for Ted the bear. Really odd.

Uniqlo sex video: film shot in Beijing store goes viral and angers government [on The Guardian] (7/16/15)

A viral sex video that set the Chinese internet alight this week struck a severe blow to the country’s “core socialist values”, Beijing’s online watchdog has said. The one-minute film, which leaked on to social media on Tuesday night and has since been viewed by millions of people, shows a bespectacled man and a woman having sex in a Beijing branch of Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo. The X-rated footage spread like wildfire on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, leaving internet censors scrambling to keep up. In a statement, Beijing’s internet watchdog claimed Chinese “internet users are highly concerned and strongly condemn the acts”. But the general reaction was one of delight not disgust. Commemorative t-shirts celebrating the Uniqlo encounter could be found on online shopping portals such as Taobao and Tmall…On Thursday morning dozens of young Chinese could be seen snapping selfies outside the Uniqlo outlet where the sex tape was shot.

Black Drivers Were 75 Percent More Likely to Be Stopped Than White Ones, AG Says   [Sarah Fenske on The Riverfront Times] (6/1/15)

Black drivers were significantly more likely to be stopped by police in Missouri in 2014 than white drivers, a new report from Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has found. In fact, the state’s disparity index between black and white drivers — which describes the difference between the rate at which members of each racial group are stopped, as measured against its share of the driving-age population — is the highest it’s been since Missouri began tracking that number in 2000, the AG says…Blacks make up just 10.9 percent of Missouri’s population, yet comprised 18 percent of all traffic stops, the report found. White drivers, who make up 82.76 percent of the state’s population, comprised only 78.3 percent of stops. That gave black drivers a disparity index value of 1.66, while white drivers’ index value was 0.95…Interestingly, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and people of unknown race were also stopped at rates below their proportion of the driving population, the report found. However, once they were pulled over, Hispanic drivers joined their black counterparts in being more likely to be searched than whites. Compared to white drivers, black drivers were 1.73 percent more likely to be searched; Hispanic drivers were 1.9 percent more likely to be searched. That’s true even though, on average, black and Hispanic drivers were less likely to be found with contraband, according to the study. For white drivers, contraband was found in 26.9 percent of searches; for black drivers, that was true of just 21.4 percent of searches, and for Hispanics, just 19.5 percent of searches.

Foreigners should pay to use NHS say three quarters of GPs who fear they are becoming a gateway for migrants abusing the system [Sophie Borland on The Daily Mail] (2/27/15)

At present, GP appointments and treatment are free for all overseas patients although they are meant to pay for most hospital procedures. But family doctors say that the current system makes them a gateway for foreigners abusing free hospital treatment. This is because staff rarely bother to check patients’ nationalities and whether they should be paying as they assume that if they have a GP referral they are eligible for free NHS care. A survey of 515 GPs by Pulse magazine found that 77 per cent were in favour of ‘upfront’ charges for foreign patients.

Squabbling, Hesitation and Luck Had Roles in Manhunt for New York Prison Escapees [Benjamin Mueller on The New York Times] (6/29/15)

In the end, neither convict made it more than 40 miles from Clinton Correctional Facility, and in their last days the men — separated for the first time in years — showed signs of growing desperation as they left a trail of chocolate wrappers and opened bottles of grape gin and rum. Investigators capitalized, ending the inmates’ flight without any known injuries to the public or law enforcement officials. A week distinguished by DNA discoveries and well-organized sweeps was the final stage of a 23-day slog that was hampered, at times, by missed signals.

How Cincinnati Got Its Cops to Support Community Policing [Liz Farmer on Governing Magazine] (7/8/15)

After nearly a year of working on the agreement to reform the city’s police department, everyone was frustrated with the lack of progress. One afternoon, [former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom] Streicher found himself alone in a courtroom hallway with local civil rights lawyer Scott Greenwood, who had sued the police department more times than either could remember. “What do you really want out of this?” Streicher asked him. “Every time you sue me, what are you really trying to do?” “I live here – I’m invested in this,” said Greenwood, as Streicher tells it. “I want things to be better. I’ve been beating my head against a wall in a courtroom for 20 years. But I truly want to make things better.” Streicher paused. “Are you serious?” “Yeah,” Greenwood said. Up until that point, Streicher had thought that Greenwood was simply trying to make a name for himself by harassing the police department. The more they talked, the more they developed a mutual respect for one another. “I realized,” Streicher says today, “we weren’t that dramatically different. There was a lot about policing he didn’t understand, and there’s a lot I didn’t understand about his perspective.”

American Wages Might Explain Puerto Rico’s Economic Troubles [Governing Magazine] (7/2/15)

Puerto Rico’s long-simmering debt crisis owes much to an economy that has been shedding jobs for years. And blame for that, economists say, stems in part from how the island operates under the same wage rules as the more prosperous 50 states. The commonwealth is subject to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, even though local income and productivity are significantly lower than in Mississippi, the poorest American state. The minimum wage in Puerto Rico is equal to 77% of per capita income, compared with 28% in the U.S. overall. Roughly one-third of workers earned the minimum wage on the island in 2010, compared with just 16% for the U.S. mainland, according to a 2012 report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank. That report concluded the minimum wage contributed to a lack of jobs for lower-skilled workers, in part because businesses can relocate to lower-wage nearby countries.

Old before your time? People age at wildly different rates, study confirms [Ian Sample on The Guardian] (7/6/15)

A study of nearly one thousand 38-year-olds found that while most had biological ages close to the number of birthdays they had notched up, others were far younger or older. Researchers used 18 physiological markers, including blood pressure, organ function, and metabolism, to assess the biological age of each of the participants…The researchers drew on data gathered on 871 people enrolled in the Dunedin study, a major investigation that has tracked the health and broader lives of around 1000 New Zealanders born in 1972 or 1973 in the town of Dunedin, New Zealand. Of the original group, 30 had died by the age of 38 due to serious diseases such as cancer, or by accidents, suicides and drug overdoses…The scientists drew up a list of 18 biological markers that together reflect a person’s biological age. They included measures of kidney and liver function, cholesterol levels, cardiovascual fitness and the lengths of teleomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes. The set of markers were measured when the volunteers were aged 26, then 32, and finally at the age of 38. The researchers then looked to see how much the markers changed over time, to produce a “pace of ageing” figure. Across the group, the biological ages of the 38-year-olds varied from 28 to 61. If a 38-year-old had a biological age of 40, it implied a “pace of ageing” of 1.2 years per year over the 12 year study period. Details of the study are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…The scientists went on to see whether volunteers’ biological ages matched how they old they looked. They invited students to view photos of the study participants and guess their ages. The biologically older people were consistently rated as looking older than their 38 years.

Making the Cut [Marshall Allen and Olga Pierce on ProPublica] (7/13/15)

It’s conventional wisdom that there are “good” and “bad” hospitals — and that selecting a good one can protect patients from the kinds of medical errors that injure or kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. But a ProPublica analysis of Medicare data found that, when it comes to elective operations, it is much more important to pick the right surgeon…many hospitals don’t track the complication rates of individual surgeons and use that data to force improvements. And neither does the government. A small share of doctors, 11 percent, accounted for about 25 percent of the complications. Hundreds of surgeons across the country had rates double and triple the national average. Every day, surgeons with the highest complication rates in our analysis are performing operations in hospitals nationwide. Subpar performers work even at academic medical centers considered among the nation’s best.

Where Electric Vehicles Actually Cause More Pollution Than Gas Cars [Eric Jaffe on The Atlantic CityLab] (6/29/15)

A view from the tailpipe gives EVs a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe. So the truth of the matter hinges on perspective—and, it turns out, geography. That’s the sobering lesson from an incredibly sophisticated new working study by a group of economists. Using a fine-grained, county-level measure of U.S. vehicle emissions traced to tailpipes and electricity grids, the researchers mapped where gas cars and EVs cause more respective pollution. In some places electrics do so much relative harm that instead of being subsidized, as is currently the case, they should actually be taxed…For the electric Focus, environmental damage was far more regional. In the West, where the power grid tends to be clean, electric vehicles did little damage (again, about a cent a mile). But in the Midwest and Northeast, where the electricity grid tends to rely on coal power plants, the damage from emissions ranged back up toward five cents a mile. Texas and the South were in the middle of the pack…Within these broad trends there’s considerable nuance. Some places, like Los Angeles, are big EV winners. The city’s air shed traps pollutants from gas cars, leading to local smog; meanwhile, electricity is drawn from a clean grid in places like Nevada, so the environmental damage is both remote and minimal. On the flipside you have a typical county in South Dakota, where gas cars are relatively cleaner. There the damage done by pollutants on the sparse local population is minimal; electricity, drawn from coal-fired plants in denser places like Illinois, is dirty by comparison.

How Democrats Suppress The Vote [Eitan Hersh on FiveThirtyEight] (11/3/15) – RW

Voters of all political stripes prefer consolidated elections, and by wide margins. But that’s especially true for people who identify as Democrats, who prefer consolidated elections 73 percent to 27 percent. Consolidation is popular, and during the decade-long period between 2001 and 2011 that Anzia studied, state legislatures across the country considered over 200 bills aimed at consolidating elections. About half, 102 bills, were focused specifically on moving school board election dates so that they would coincide with other elections. Only 25 became law. The consolidation bills, which were generally sponsored by Republicans, typically failed because of Democratic opposition, according to Anzia. By her account, Democrats opposed the bills at the urging of Democratic-aligned interest groups, namely teachers unions and municipal employee organizations.

The Resurrection of America’s Slums [Alana Semuels on The Atlantic] (8/9/15)

The number of people living in high-poverty areas—defined as census tracts where 40 percent or more of families have income levels below the federal poverty threshold—nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, to 13.8 million from 7.2 million, according to a new analysis of census data by Paul Jargowsky, a public-policy professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a fellow at The Century Foundation. That’s the highest number of Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods ever recorded. The development is worrying, especially since the number of people living in high-poverty areas fell 25 percent, to 7.2 million from 9.6 million, between 1990 and 2000. Back then, concentrated poverty was declining in part because the economy was booming. The Earned Income Tax Credit boosted the take-home pay for many poor families. (Studies have shown the EITC also creates a feeling of social inclusion and citizenship among low-income earners.) The unemployment rate fell as low as 3.8 percent, and the first minimum wage increases in a decade made it easier for families to get by. Programs to disassemble housing projects in big cities such as Chicago and Detroit eradicated some of the most concentrated poverty in the country, Jargowsky told me.

The 10% Treasury That’s Older Than a Lot of Traders Matures Tomorrow [Alexandra Scaggs on Bloomberg News] (8/14/15)

The bond was issued on Aug. 15, 1985, and is one of just five Treasury bonds left with coupons of 9 percent or higher. All of them mature in the next three years. And as the ranks of high-coupon government bonds have gotten smaller, so has the number of traders and analysts who were on Wall Street desks when high yields and worries about rising prices were the norm.

Scott Walker’s Making Taxpayers Provide $400 Million for New Basketball Arena [Tim Jones and John McCormick on The Tribune News Service via Governing Magazine] (8/11/15)

Gov. Scott Walker’s fiscal conservatism will collide with the reality of sports-team subsidies when he commits Wisconsin taxpayers to pay $400 million for a new basketball arena. At Wednesday’s signing, the Republican presidential candidate’s message of being a tightfisted taxpayer champion will be weighed against public costs spread over 20 years. The ceremony also may draw attention to the $200,000 that the co-owners of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks donated to a group backing his campaign.

Michigan Lawmakers Pressured to Resign Amid Bizarre Sex Scandal [Kathleen Gray on The Detroit Free Press via Governing Magazine] (8/10/15)

The business office for the Michigan House of Representatives worked throughout the weekend to examine e-mail and personnel records of state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, a pair of Republican lawmakers caught up in an alleged cover-up of an extramarital affair. Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, ordered the investigation after news broke Friday morning that the pair allegedly concocted a plan to distribute an e-mail accusing Courser of paying for gay sex outside a Lansing nightclub — what Courser described in a conversation taped by an aide, who was later fired, as a “complete smear campaign” that would make reports of a straight extramarital affair with Gamrat seem mild by comparison…The e-mail, which was widely sent to Republicans in May, was an over-the-top indictment of Courser as a sexual deviant. The aide urged him to forget the scheme and resign. Neither Courser nor Gamrat, both of whom are married with kids — Courser has four and Gamrat has three — returned phone calls for comment on Sunday.

The Mystery of ISIS [Anonymous on New York Review of Books] (8/13/15)

The rise of Ahmad Fadhil—or as he was later known in the jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—and ISIS, the movement of which he was the founder, remains almost inexplicable. The year 2003, in which he began his operations in Iraq, seemed to many part of a mundane and unheroic age of Internet start-ups and a slowly expanding system of global trade. Despite the US-led invasion of Iraq that year, the borders of Syria and Iraq were stable. Secular Arab nationalism appeared to have triumphed over the older forces of tribe and religion. Different religious communities—Yezidis, Shabaks, Christians, Kaka’is, Shias, and Sunnis—continued to live alongside one another, as they had for a millennium or more. Iraqis and Syrians had better incomes, education, health systems, and infrastructure, and an apparently more positive future, than most citizens of the developing world. Who then could have imagined that a movement founded by a man from a video store in provincial Jordan would tear off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq, shatter all these historical institutions, and—defeating the combined militaries of a dozen of the wealthiest countries on earth—create a mini empire?

Affirmative Consent: Are Students Really Asking? [Sandy Keenan on The New York Times] (7/28/15)

An estimated 1,400 institutions of higher education now use some type of affirmative consent definition in their sexual assault policies, according to the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a for-profit consulting group. California was the first state to institute standards, last fall, followed by New York. Among states that have introduced affirmative consent bills are New Jersey, New Hampshire and Connecticut. New York’s law standardizes prevention and response policies and procedures relating to sexual assault. The consent definition within it, officials say, is not intended to micromanage students’ sex lives but to reorient them on how to approach sex and to put them on notice to take the issue seriously. So how are students incorporating the code into practice? Are they tucking pens and contracts into back jean pockets alongside breath mints and condoms? To take the pulse of consent culture, I spoke with several dozen students at the University at Albany. Only a few knew about the standards.

China’s crusade to remove crosses from churches ‘is for safety concerns’ [Tom Phillips on The Guardian] (7/29/15)

A Communist party campaign during which crosses have been stripped from the roofs of more than 1,200 Chinese churches is being conducted “for the sake of safety and beauty”, a government official has claimed. Human rights activists accuse authorities in Zhejiang province in eastern China of using the protracted campaign to slow Christianity’s growth in what is one of the country’s most churchgoing regions. By some estimates, China is nowhome to 100 million Christians, compared with the Communist party’s 88 million members. Since the government campaign began in late 2013, hundreds of places of worship have had bright red crosses removed. Some churches have been completely demolished, while civil servants have been banned from practising religion. Some observers suspect the campaign has the backing of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and could be a “pilot project” before a nationwide crackdown.

These Superhumans Are Real and Their DNA Could Be Worth Billions [Caroline Chen on Bloomberg News] (7/22/15)

Steven Pete can put his hand on a hot stove or step on a piece of glass and not feel a thing, all because of a quirk in his genes. Only a few dozen people in the world share Pete’s congenital insensitivity to pain. Drug companies see riches in his rare mutation. They also have their eye on people like Timothy Dreyer, 25, who has bones so dense he could walk away from accidents that would leave others with broken limbs. About 100 people have sclerosteosis, Dreyer’s condition. Both men’s apparent superpowers come from exceedingly uncommon deviations in their DNA. They are genetic outliers, coveted by drug companies Amgen, Genentech, and others in search of drugs for some of the industry’s biggest, most lucrative markets.

When Prosecutors Believe the Unbelievable [Dahlia Lithwick on Slate] (7/16/15)

Three years ago, one of the strangest criminal cases in recent memory began in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live, when a young woman sent a series of text messages telling her boyfriend that a man had abducted her, followed by a series of texts, allegedly from her captor, taunting her boyfriend with threats of sexual violence. Her story was strange, and the case was fraught with complications from the get-go, but the accused ended up in prison long after the doubts outweighed the evidence. This story is bizarre, but it’s not all that unusual: Prosecutors can prosecute even the weakest, most clearly flawed cases relentlessly, and innocent people can end up in jail.

1-800-HIRE-A-CROWD [Dan Schneider on The Atlantic] (7/22/15)

These days, if a candidate or protest organizer is short on numbers, he or she can simply pick up the phone and call a company like Crowds on Demand, a Los Angeles-based company that provides rental crowds for campaign rallies and protests. The company was founded in late 2012 by Adam Swart, a UCLA grad who majored in political science. It is among a very small number of U.S. companies that offers rental crowd services in the U.S. (including Crowds for Rent and the Trump-hired Extra Mile Casting), and perhaps the only one that does so openly. While Crowds on Demand was initially geared toward corporate events and PR stunts, Swart says that soon after the company’s founding, would-be elected officials began reaching out for his services in order to give their campaigns a boost. Some have used his services to protest opposing candidates; others have used them to create the appearance of larger turnouts at their own events.

Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up. [Amy Maxmen on Wired]

Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people…Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs.

How Different Groups Think about Scientific Issues [Lee Rainie and Cary Funk on Pew Research Center] (2/12/15)

When asked to pick among three choices, 50% said that climate change is occurring mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, 23% said that climate change is mostly because of natural patterns in earth’s environment, and another 25% said there is no solid evidence the earth is getting warmer. That contrasts with views among scientists; fully 87% of AAAS scientists say the earth is warming due to human activity, 9% say the earth is warming due to natural changes in the earth’s environment and just 3% say there is no solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer.

Fish oil pills: A $1.2 billion industry built, so far, on empty promises [Peter Whoriskey on The Washington Post] (7/8/15)

For anyone wondering about whether to take a fish oil pill to improve your health, the Web site of the National Institutes of Health has some advice. Yes. And no. One page on the Web site endorses taking fish oil supplements, saying they are likely effective for heart disease, because they contain the “beneficial” fatty acids known as omega-3s. But another page suggests that, in fact, the fish oil pills seem useless: “Omega-3s in supplement form have not been shown to protect against heart disease.”…People in the United States spend about $1.2 billion annually for fish oil pills and related supplements even though the vast majority of research published recently in major journals provides no evidence of a health benefit. The “accrual of high-level evidence,” according to a review of studies published last year in an American Medical Association journal, shows “that the supplements lack efficacy across a range of health outcomes.” While the persistent popularity of fish oil may reflect the human weakness for anything touted as a life-extending elixir, it also reflects that, even among scientists, diet notions can persist even when stronger evidence emerges contradicting them. Scientists, sometimes, are reluctant to let go of ideas.

After Ferguson, St Louis hip-hop gets serious [Ben Westhoff on The Guardian] (9/9/15)

Last decade St Louis was known almost exclusively for its party raps. In the wake of Nelly, who urged us to take off all our clothes and became one of the best-selling rappers in history, came Chingy, who liked the way we did that right thurr, and J-Kwon, who got tipsy thanks to his fake ID. In 2009, Huey taught us to Pop, Lock & Drop It. Those days are over. The major labels aren’t really calling any more, and the mood of the city has changed. In the year since Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, St Louis hip-hop is now mostly focused on politics and repression, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Revealed: how Indigenous Australian storytelling accurately records sea level rises 7,000 years ago [Joshua Robertson on The Guardian] (9/16/15)

Indigenous stories of dramatic sea level rises across Australia date back more than 7,000 years in a continuous oral tradition without parallel anywhere in the world, according to new research. Sunshine Coast University marine geographer Patrick Nunn and University of New England linguist Nicholas Reid believe that 21 Indigenous stories from across the continent faithfully record events between 18,000 and 7000 years ago, when the sea rose 120m. Reid said a key feature of Indigenous storytelling culture – a distinctive “cross-generational cross-checking” process – might explain the remarkable consistency in accounts passed down by preliterate people which researchers previously believed could not persist for more than 800 years.

Hollywood needs to change its game in the age of Rotten Tomatoes [Ben Child on The Guardian] (9/8/15)

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter described the box office “tracking” system, which studios use to predict how well movies will fare on a given weekend, as “broken”. The trade bible’s verdict came after Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Trainwreck and Straight Outta Compton radically outperformed expectations in the US this summer. Meanwhile, Fantastic Four, The Man from UNCLE, We Are Your Friends and Terminator: Genysis all found themselves falling way below their predicted take. The successful films all picked up high scores on the critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and benefitted from the ensuing positive word of mouth on social media, while the underperforming efforts all struggled to convince critics and Twitter and Facebook users of their charm. And no amount of marketing cash could make the blindest bit of difference to the outcome. In the case of Fantastic Four, this sea change must have come as a huge shock to 20th Century Fox, which previously posted strong box-office results for poorly reviewed superhero films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: The Last Stand and two previous Fantastic Four movies. Suddenly, they discovered that the old tricks no longer do the business.

‘Archaeology on steroids’: huge ritual arena discovered near Stonehenge [Ian Sample on The Guardian] (9/6/15)

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a massive stone monument buried under a thick, grassy bank only two miles from Stonehenge. The hidden arrangement of up to 90 huge standing stones formed part of a C-shaped Neolithic arena that bordered a dry valley and faced directly towards the river Avon.

Fish Farming Becomes Bigger Business Than the Open Sea [Isis Almeida on Bloomberg News] (8/17/15)

For the first time, the world is eating more fish from farms than from the open sea, spurring billions of dollars of takeovers as one of the largest food companies seeks to capitalize on rising demand.

Two of a Kind?: What Facebook Profile Similarity Says About Couples [Fred Cavel on The Science of Relationships] (9/3/15)

It turns out that similarity between two partners’ profiles is a useful piece of information; profile overlap tells us something about couple’s relationships. Partners who felt like they overlapped or were one and the same with their partners tended to also have Facebook profiles with more overlap with their partner’s Facebook profiles. Additionally, partners who said they were more committed and those who had made more investments in their relationships tended to have profiles that included more mutual friends, mutual photos, and mutual likes (this wasn’t true of partners who felt more satisfied). Interestingly, when people reported that alternatives to their relationships were of low value, they tended to have more Facebook profile overlap with their partners, but did not necessarily report feeling like they overlapped with their partners. The authors argue that people’s views of alternatives might be more closely related to Facebook profile similarity because Facebook profiles include newsfeeds, which provide individual users with up-to-the-minute information about and from potential alternatives. For partners with highly overlapping profiles, more of these potential alternatives are mutual friends, which might reduce the appeal of these other people (though this assertion has yet to be tested).

When and Why We iSnoop on Others [Dr. Tim Loving on The Science of Relationships] (9/1/15)

As with other forms of information seeking (such as, oh I don’t know, simply speaking to someone directly), everything stems from uncertainty discrepancy, or perceiving that you don’t know enough about a specific partner’s life. Those that felt they need to know more experienced more anxiety. And anxiety in and of itself motivates people to seek information about important people in their lives. But here’s the rub: anxiety also made people less confident that snooping would reveal good information and undermined their confidence that they would be able to cope effectively with what they uncover. Put another way, anxiety motivates us to dig up information on others but undermines how we think we’ll feel about that information.

The lost genius of Mozart’s sister [Sylvia Milo on The Guardian] (9/8/15)

Maria Anna (called Marianne and nicknamed Nannerl) was – like her younger brother – a child prodigy. The children toured most of Europe (including an 18-month stay in London in 1764-5) performing together as “wunderkinder”. There are contemporaneous reviews praising Nannerl, and she was even billed first. Until she turned 18. A little girl could perform and tour, but a woman doing so risked her reputation. And so she was left behind in Salzburg, and her father only took Wolfgang on their next journeys around the courts of Europe. Nannerl never toured again. But the woman I found did not give up. She wrote music and sent at least one composition to Wolfgang and Papa – Wolfgang praised it as “beautiful” and encouraged her to write more. Her father didn’t, as far as we know, say anything about it. Did she stop? None of her music has survived. Perhaps she never showed it to anybody again, perhaps she destroyed it, maybe we will find it one day, maybe we already did but it’s wrongly attributed to her brother’s hand.

All Women Lie [Dawn Maslar on The Science of Relationships] (8/5/15)

Researchers have found discrepancies in what a woman says she wants in a dating partner and the man she actually picks to date. For example, researchers at Rice University wanted to know if a man flaunting a flashy red Porsche would get more dates than a man in a more economical car like the Honda Civic.1 They conducted a study asking a woman to pick whom she would most likely go out on a date with, the Porsche guy or the Civic guy. The researchers found that most women picked the Porsche guy. But there is a catch. A woman was most likely to select the Porsche guy for a date, but the Civic guy was more desirable to marry. In another study from University of British Columbia, participants were asked to rate pictures based solely on gut sexual attraction and not which person would make the best boyfriend or girlfriend. The researchers asked over 1,000 women to rate the pictures’ sexual attractiveness and found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men. This is contrary to what women say they want in a relationship. For example, in an online survey of more than 1,000 American women between the ages of 21 to 54, the women were asked to rate their top personality traits for men. They stated that the most desirable trait was a sense of humor. Yet when selecting men from the pictures these women were more attracted to men who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed – characteristics often displayed by the iconic “bad boy” types.

The Renowned German Artist Who May Not Exist [Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg View] (9/4/15)

An elaborate scam — or call it a postmodern art project — is coming to an end in Germany. Kunsthaus Dresden, the city’s contemporary art gallery, has removed works by an artist named Karl Waldmann after the police announced it was investigating whether there ever was anyone with that name. Waldmann,  according to his biography on the website of the virtual “Waldmann Museum,” was a German-born Dadaist who never exhibited any of his work and “disappeared” in 1958. A French journalist supposedly acquired all of his known oeuvre — more than 1,000 works — in a flea market in Berlin in 1989. The “rediscovered” collages in a style reminiscent of the Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky or the German Karl Hermann Trinkaus, have since wound up at auctions, in private collections and in group exhibitions in various European countries. “Boundary Objects” — the show at Kunsthaus Dresden — is supported by government grants, and has traveled to South Africa and Benin. Late last month, the journalist Thomas Steinfeld wrote in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Waldmann probably was an invention. No references to the artist can be found during his alleged lifetime, and none of the curators who have selected Waldmann’s works for their exhibitions have had any idea of the collages’ true provenance. Chemical analysis of the paper used in the collages has found chemicals that could only have been used since the 1940s, although the works’ style is firmly fixed in the first 30 years of the 20th century. The only source of information about Waldmann is the Belgian art dealer Pascal Polar, who has been selling works signed KW for 10,000 euros ($11,100) to 20,000 euros. He insists Waldmann existed and expresses bewilderment at the interest German police have shown in the matter.

Debunking 6 Myths About Men, Women, and Their Relationships [Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman on The Science of Relationships] (7/20/15)

(1) A much-used measure of romanticism, the Romantic Beliefs Scale, asks people to rate the extent to which they agree with statements like, “There will only be one real love for me,” and, “If I love someone, I know I can make the relationship work, despite any obstacles.” But it turns out that men typically outscore women on this measure. Men are also more likely than women to believe in the romantic notion of “love at first sight.”…Many studies have shown that when men and women are asked which characteristics they prefer in a mate, men rate physical appearance as more important than women do. However, closer examination of this data reveals that both men and women think looks are important, with men rating it somewhat higher than women. In one seminal study, men and women ranked a series of characteristics for potential mates. Men ranked looks, on average, as the fourth-most-important trait; women ranked it about sixth. So both genders ranked it highly, but not at the top…

(2) In a more recent study, researchers examined the preferences of college students participating in a speed-dating event. Prior to their speed-dates, the students rated how important different characteristics would be in making their selections, and the expected gender differences emerged, with women rating physical attractiveness as less important than men. But when the researchers examined who participants actually chose during the event, the gender difference disappeared: Both men and women preferred physically attractive partners, with no gender difference in how much looks influenced their choices…

(3) While, overall, men are more interested in—and more willing to accept offers for—casual sexual encounters, women’s interest in casual sex has been underestimated…

(4) Focusing only on gender differences when dealing with our partners tends to oversimplify things and exaggerate the truth, leading to less, not more, understanding of one another…

(5) Most research suggests that men and women do not differ significantly in their responses to relationship conflict. But there is a kernel of truth to this myth: Some couples engage in a destructive “demand/withdraw” pattern of conflict, in which one person, the demander, presses an issue and insists on discussing it, while the other withdraws and avoids the debate. The more a demander pushes an issue, the more a withdrawer retreats, only causing the demander to become more intent on discussing the issue, and creating a vicious cycle that leaves both partners frustrated. And when this pattern occurs, it is much more likely that a woman is the demander…

(6) [I]t is true that the injuries suffered by female domestic violence victims tend to be more serious than those suffered by male victims, and that the abuses inflicted by men are likely to be more frequent and severe. Nonetheless, males are also frequently the victims of domestic violence. In a recent survey of British adults, it was found that about 40% of domestic violence victims were male. In one national survey in the United States, it was found that 12.1% women and 11.3% of men reported that they had committed a violent act against their spouse in the past year. Other studies have found that women are just as likely as men to initiate violent encounters with spouses. It’s the stereotype that men can’t be victims of domestic violence, and fears of being stigmatized, that often discourage men from reporting abuse or seeking help. But men are quite likely to be victims of physical abuse, even if it is less severe.

Brides’ and Fiancés’ Weight Leading Up to the Wedding [Dr. Gary Lewandowski on The Science of Relationships] (6/11/15)

Partners’ weights and heights were associated such that lighter brides had lighter fiancés; Heavier brides had heavier fiancés. In the 6 months leading up to the wedding, equal numbers of brides lost, gained, and stayed the same weight, while most men stayed the same weight. Women who were more similar in weight to their fiancés were more likely to lose weight. Overall, women seem to feel a need to be thinner than their male partners, especially leading up to the wedding.

Curiously Strong Remains:

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