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Cheap Oil Helps China Unseat Canada as Top U.S. Trade Partner [Victoria Stillwell on Bloomberg News] (11/4/15)

China is poised to become the biggest U.S. trading partner this year, eclipsing Canada for the first time as the slump in oil prices reduces the value of energy exports for America’s neighbor to the north. Trade in goods with China reached $441.6 billion this year through September, exceeding the $438.1 billion balance with Canada for the first time in U.S. Commerce Department data going back to 1985.

The Russian Recession Is Helping Airbnb Win Moscow [Ilya Khrennikov on Bloomberg News] (11/2/15)

A record number of Russians are opening their apartments and cars to strangers to supplement their salaries, helping to lift the siege mentality the Kremlin’s been promoting since the U.S. and other former Cold War foes imposed sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine last year…The lodging website’s Russian business has more than doubled in the past year, elevating Moscow into the top 10 cities by outbound bookings as travelers seek cheaper alternatives to hotels. And unlike several other cities, such as New York and Barcelona, Moscow’s government says it has no plans to introduce special regulations or tax rules for Airbnb…BlaBlaCar, the long-distance ride-sharing service that was valued at $1.6 billion in a fundraising round in September, said it’s been astounded at how fast it has grown since entering the Russian market early last year…BlaBlaCar connects drivers and passengers, estimates gasoline costs and recommends each traveler pay a third. In most of Europe, the company takes a commission of about 12 percent, but its Russian service will be free until more people get used to the concept. Ildar Valeev, a 26-year-old motor-oil salesman who has to drive between cities for work, said he loves not only having companions but also choosing them. BlaBlaCar users are asked to indicate their music preferences and degree of chattiness (Bla, BlaBla or BlaBlaBla) to help ensure compatibility.  He said his favorite trip is one he took recently from Izhevsk to Ufa, cities 340 kilometers apart, with three colorful characters who were very “BlaBlaBla.” “I had a bodybuilder, a stripper and a museum worker,” Valeev said. “There was a lot to talk about.”

Climate Change Kills the Mood: Economists Warn of Less Sex on a Warmer Planet [Eric Roston on Bloomberg News] (11/2/15)

Three economists studied 80 years of U.S. fertility and temperature data and found that when it’s hotter than 80 degrees F, a large decline in births follows within 10 months. Would-be parents tend not to make up for lost time in subsequent, cooler months. An extra “hot day” (the economists use quotation marks with the phrase) leads to a 0.4 percent drop in birth rates nine months later, or  1,165 fewer deliveries across the U.S. A rebound in subsequent months makes up just 32 percent of the gap…Control over the climate at home might make a difference. The researchers suggest that the rise of air conditioning may have helped offset some heat-related fertility losses in the U.S. since the 1970s.

Over 40 percent of China’s online sales counterfeit, shoddy: Xinhua [Adam Jourdan on Reuters] (11/2/15)

More than 40 percent of goods sold online in China last year were either counterfeits or of bad quality, the official Xinhua news agency said, illustrating the extent of a problem that has bogged down the fast-growing online sector. According to the report, which was delivered to China’s top lawmakers on Monday, just under 59 percent of items sold online last year were “genuine or of good quality”, Xinhua said.

Ian Fleming: Pussy Galore was a lesbian… and Bond cured her [Alison Flood on The Guardian] (11/4/15)

A letter in which Ian Fleming asserts that his lesbian Bond girl Pussy Galore “only needed the right man to come along … to cure her psycho-pathological malady” will be sold at auction later this month. The letter, which is also included in the just-published collection of Fleming’s James Bond letters, The Man With the Golden Typewriter, was written in response to a Dr Gibson…In his June 1959 letter to Gibson, Fleming writes that Galore “only needed the right man to come along and perform the laying on of hands in order to cure her psycho-pathological malady”. Gibson was, Fleming’s nephew Fergus Fleming notes in the book, one of the Bond creator’s “most diligent motoring correspondents”, and the letter also thanks him for his “kind invitation” for Bond to join the Aston Martin Owners’ Club

New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators [Jon Marcus on New England Center for Investigative Reporting via The Huffington Post] (2/6/14)

The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures. The disproportionate increase in the number of university staffers who neither teach nor conduct research has continued unabated in more recent years, and slowed only slightly since the start of the economic downturn, during which time colleges and universities have contended that a dearth of resources forced them to sharply raise tuition…Universities and university associations blame the increased hiring on such things as government regulations and demands from students and their families—including students who arrive unprepared for college-level work—for such services as remedial education, advising, and mental-health counseling.

‘It’s very white’: Las Vegas audience exposes Bernie Sanders’ Latino problem [Rory Carroll on The Guardian] (11/9/15)

A mariachi band, a Latino neighbourhood, Spanish language posters and bold immigration pledges: Bernie Sanders was pulling out the stops for Nevada’s Hispanic vote. Short of dancing salsa, the Democratic candidate did all he could to woo this crucial constituency at a rally on a soccer field in Las Vegas on Sunday night. He surrounded himself with Latinos on stage and promised to fight for agricultural workers and to shelter families from deportation. It signalled the start of an effort to narrow Hillary Clinton’s wide lead with the state’s Latinos. There was just one problem: the audience at the Cheyenne sports complex was mostly white. Latinos largely shunned the call to “feel the Bern”, leaving the crowd to dance stiffly to the Mexican music and a question mark over the campaign’s prospects in Nevada.

Humans have created a new top predator that is taking over the Northeast [Jennifer Welsh on Business Insider] (11/1/15)

One recent example is the creation of the coywolf — a hybrid of the coyote and the wolf that is also known as the Eastern coyote. According to a new article from The Economist, their population seems to have reached more than a million. These animals have a completely new genetic makeup: Their genes are about one-quarter wolf DNA and two-thirds coyote DNA; the rest is from domesticated dogs. A 2013 study suggests this dog DNA is mostly from a few specific breeds, including German Shepherds and Doberman Pincers. Human activity likely played a role in the species’ creation. As humans cut down wolves’ forest homes and hunted down their populations, the lack of available partners for wolves led them to search elsewhere for mates, leading them to coyotes and dogs. Scientists think this intermixing began with wild wolves in southern Ontario about a century or two ago. The coywolves’ success is astounding scientists. According to The Economist: “The animal’s range has encompassed America’s entire north-east, urban areas included, for at least a decade, and is continuing to expand in the south-east following coywolves’ arrival there half a century ago. This is astonishing. Purebred coyotes never managed to establish themselves east of the prairies. Wolves were killed off in eastern forests long ago. But by combining their DNA, the two have given rise to an animal that is able to spread into a vast and otherwise uninhabitable territory.”

The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy [Ross Anderson on The Atlantic] (10/13/15)

The Kepler Space Telescope collected a great deal of light from all of those stars it watched. So much light that Kepler’s science team couldn’t process it all with algorithms. They needed the human eye, and human cognition, which remains unsurpassed in certain sorts of pattern recognition. Kepler’s astronomers decided to found Planet Hunters, a program that asked “citizen scientists” to examine light patterns emitted by the stars, from the comfort of their own homes. In 2011, several citizen scientists flagged one particular star as “interesting” and “bizarre.” The star was emitting a light pattern that looked stranger than any of the others Kepler was watching. The light pattern suggests there is a big mess of matter circling the star, in tight formation. That would be expected if the star were young. When our solar system first formed, four and a half billion years ago, a messy disk of dust and debris surrounded the sun, before gravity organized it into planets, and rings of rock and ice. But this unusual star isn’t young. If it were young, it would be surrounded by dust that would give off extra infrared light. There doesn’t seem to be an excess of infrared light around this star. It appears to be mature. And yet, there is this mess of objects circling it. A mess big enough to block a substantial number of photons that would have otherwise beamed into the tube of the Kepler Space Telescope. If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now…Boyajian, the Yale Postdoc who oversees Planet Hunters, recently published a paper describing the star’s bizarre light pattern. Several of the citizen scientists are named as co-authors. The paper explores a number of scenarios that might explain the pattern—instrument defects; the shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup; an impact of planetary scale, like the one that created our moon. The paper finds each explanation wanting, save for one. If another star had passed through the unusual star’s system, it could have yanked a sea of comets inward. Provided there were enough of them, the comets could have made the dimming pattern. But that would be an extraordinary coincidence, if that happened so recently, only a few millennia before humans developed the tech to loft a telescope into space. That’s a narrow band of time, cosmically speaking…Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

Have Green Card, Will Travel: More Immigrants Relocating to Texas [Teresa Wiltz on Stateline] (10/20/15)

[R]ecently, demographers have noticed a surprising new migration pattern: Increasingly, foreign-born professionals are opting to leave their initial U.S. homes, often in California, Florida, Illinois and New York, and pulling up stakes to head to the Lone Star State. Immigrants generally have become much more mobile over the last few decades. And California, the nation’s most populous state, still receives the lion’s share of international migrants. But Texas leads the nation in the growth of its foreign-born population — and that’s because more immigrants are moving there from other states, according to a new report by the Texas Office of the State Demographer. Today, foreign-born migrants are one of the largest drivers of population growth in the nation’s second most populous state. The foreign-born population of Texas, in total numbers and share of the overall population, is greater than at any point since statehood in 1845. One in six Texas residents was born in a foreign country, and roughly 40 percent of them moved from somewhere else in the U.S., according to the Texas Demographer report. This shift has significant policy implications for the state, particularly for education.

An Engineering Theory of the Volkswagen Scandal [Paul Kedrosky on The New Yorker] (10/16/15)

In a powerful book about the disintegration, immediately after launch, of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed seven astronauts in January of 1986, the sociologist Diane Vaughan described a phenomenon inside engineering organizations that she called the “normalization of deviance.” In such cultures, she argued, there can be a tendency to slowly and progressively create rationales that justify ever-riskier behaviors. Starting in 1983, the Challenger shuttle had been through nine successful launches, in progressively lower ambient temperatures, across the years. Each time the launch team got away with a lower-temperature launch, Vaughan argued, engineers noted the deviance, then decided it wasn’t sufficiently different from what they had done before to constitute a problem. They effectively declared the mildly abnormal normal, making deviant behavior acceptable, right up until the moment when, after the shuttle launched on a particularly cold Florida morning in 1986, its O-rings failed catastrophically and the ship broke apart. If the same pattern proves to have played out at Volkswagen, then the scandal may well have begun with a few lines of engine-tuning software. Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time: detect this, change that, optimize something else. At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives. Instead, it would have slowly and insidiously led to the development of the defeat device and its inclusion in cars that were sold to consumers. If this was, in fact, the case, then Horn was basically right that engineers were responsible. The scandal wouldn’t have been caused by a few rogue engineers, though, so much as by the nature of engineering organizations themselves. Faced with an expensively engineered diesel engine that couldn’t meet strict emissions standards, Volkswagen engineers “tuned” their engine software. And they kept on tuning it, normalizing deviance along the way, until they were far from where they started, to the point of gaming the emissions tests by detecting test conditions and re-calibrating the engine accordingly on the fly.

Copyrights and Wrongs [Tim Hartford via The Financial Times] (10/6/15)

The truth is that 10 years of copyright protection is probably sufficient to justify the time and trouble of producing most creative work — newspapers, films, comic books and music. Thirty years would be more than enough. But we’re moving in the opposite direction, with copyright periodically and retroactively extended — as though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or James Joyce could ever have been motivated by the anticipation that, long after their deaths, copyright terms would be pushed to yet more ludicrous lengths. Why don’t we see a more sensible system of copyright? Two words: Mickey Mouse. That is an oversimplification, of course. But the truth is that a very small number of corporations and literary estates have a lot to gain from inordinately long copyright — and since it matters a lot more to them than to the rest of us, they will focus their lobbying efforts and get their way. Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in 2024 — unless copyright terms are extended yet again.

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently [Heidi Grant Halvorson on Harvard Business Review] (2/25/11)

When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. “Lose 5 pounds” is a better goal than “lose some weight,” because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions that need to be taken to reach your goal. Just promising you’ll “eat less” or “sleep more” is too vague — be clear and precise. “I’ll be in bed by 10pm on weeknights” leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you’ve actually done it.

A history of nudity: Playboy’s censorship is a throwback to the medieval era [Jonathan Jones on The Guardian] (10/14/15)

Playboy is to abolish the nude. Many people will celebrate this, even if the magazine once seen as the bible of sexual liberation is getting out of the business of soft porn because it has been outdone by the internet, and not for any idealistic feminist reason. But don’t open any champagne until you have visited a few art museums. If you look at enough art, you may feel more like putting on a black armband. For this could be the end of civilisation as we know it. All great civilisations have celebrated the naked beauty of women. All barbaric ages have feared it. In the measly middle ages, nudity was loathed and dreaded; the bare flesh of women was an object of hatred, as were witches. A stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral reveals the intensity of medieval contempt for the human body. It shows people worshipping a nude statue – but the pagan idol has horns and is literally demonic…This hatred for the body, enunciated by key Christian thinkers including St Paul, expresses itself in art as a contempt for women, a portrayal of the supposed poisonous truth behind the lie of beauty. When you realise this is what they were rebelling against, it is impossible to keep up the unhistorical, hackneyed view that sees artists like Titian and Rubens as old sexist masters slavering voyeuristically over naked women. Not only do medieval images exclude or demonise the nude, but late medieval portraits in northern Europe cover as much of women’s flesh as they can with tightly fitting headresses. The bodies of women are dangerous, they can bewitch you. By contrast the loving, luscious nudes of the Italian Renaissance can be properly understood not as 500-year-old icons of the patriarchal gaze but liberating, even empowering images of women set free from religious hatred…Surveying art history, it just does not seem that nude images have ever been the best way to oppress anyone. Societies that praise naked beauty tend to be democratic – the nude was invented in ancient Athens and revived by Italian republics – and forward looking. Cultures that fear and suppress naked art are more likely to be religiously hidebound and to control and fear women.

Egypt Vote Is a Sign of Arab Winter [Noah Feldman via Bloomberg View] (11/19/15)

Egypt tried democracy and saw it fail. Can citizens of other Arabic speaking countries credibly hope for improvement in the foreseeable future? It seems their states will remain a global exception to democratic progress. As was the case before 2011, Arab thought leaders will have to ask themselves why dictatorship has been so much more durable in their countries than, say, Latin America, which is also poor, also formerly colonized, and yet has turned the corner to democratization. Some answers include the weakness of civil society and the middle class. But there’s another looming: the failure of the experiment with democratically oriented political Islam. Islamic democracy held the promise of empowering the middle class and generating a locally distinctive, legitimate form of constitutional democracy. Yet in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was born and was most significant to political life, the experiment failed. Unlike Tunisia, where political Islam compromised and was integrated into democratic life, Egypt will be a decisive example for Arabic-speaking countries for the next generation at least. None of this was inevitable. The explanation for the multiple and varied failures of the Arab Spring isn’t an example of the iron laws of history. If the Tunisian exception has any regional importance, it’s to remind us that under roughly comparable circumstances, different results were possible. A full understanding of the Arab Winter would require careful assessment of what’s actually happened in different countries, and what those developments mean for the future. In the broad view, the civil society component shouldn’t be overlooked. The Nobel committee was onto something when it gave the peace prize to the leaders of four Tunisian civil society institutions. In practice, these figures weren’t the definitive players in the emergence of Tunisian democracy — far from it. But their organizations mattered to the transition, as recognized nongovernmental sources of social organization. When politics seemed to be deadlocked, they had the legitimacy to speak collectively and productively — even though no one ever elected them.

This Newly Declassified Video of the US Testing Chemical Weapons Is Insane [Jason Koebler on Motherboard on Vice] (10/12/15)

It’s no secret that the United States is one of the few countries in the world to have used chemical and biological weapons. But it’s still surprising to watch this newly declassified video, which talks at length about the Navy’s development and testing of biological and chemical weapons, including two large-scale tests on the California and Carolina coasts. The 1952 video, called “Naval Concepts of Chemical and Biological Warfare,” appears to be a training video produced by the US Naval Photographic Center. It details at length “offensive biological and chemical warfare” tactics and capabilities of the Navy, and features footage from two specific tests carried out with non-pathogenic agents in the United States. The video’s narrator does not say what specific chemicals were used in the tests but notes that they are stand-ins for biological weapons.

Guys Retire to Hang With Their Wives. And the Wives? [Suzanne Woolley on Bloomberg News] (10/27/15)

About 60 percent of men cite spending more time with their wives as one of the strongest motivations to retire, according to a new survey based on more than 12,000 defined-contribution plan participants 55 or older. Just 43 percent of women say the same. The research, from Fidelity Investments and Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, is based on 401(k) savers and recent retirees in plans for which Fidelity is the record-keeper…A large chunk of pre-retirees under the age of 60 cite spending time with a spouse or partner as a big reason they want to retire. The older people get, though, the less likely they are to cite this as an incentive…The more money pre-retirees have saved, the likelier they are to want to retire to spend time with their spouse or partner. For women, the data suggest, grandchildren are the big pull. In the survey, 70 percent cited spending more time with their grandkids as one of the strongest incentives to retire. A working paper (PDF) out of the National Bureau of Economic Research, summed up in an article on the Harvard Business Review‘s website,1 found that the arrival of a new grandchild increases by more than 8 percent the probability that a woman approaching retirement age will indeed retire, all other things being equal.

Policing Free Speech at the University of Missouri [Noah Feldman via Bloomberg View] (11/11/15)

The legal issues follow from those I wrote about in March when the University of Oklahoma expelled two fraternity members for leading a racist chant. On the one hand is the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech against state actors like a public university. On the other hand are federal laws that, as interpreted by the Department of Education, require the university to ensure it isn’t a racially or sexually hostile educational environment. In practice, that certainly requires regulating some harassing, discriminatory speech. Reconciling the tension between these laws isn’t easy. The prevailing theory that allows the government to outlaw discriminatory speech acts is that the government isn’t actually prohibiting speech. It’s prohibiting a course of conduct, namely discrimination. Discrimination can be accomplished by a range of means, one of which is speech. There’s not much case law to clarify the right way for courts to think about this analysis.

The Way We’re Testing Antibiotics Is All Wrong [John Tozzi on Bloomberg News] (10/13/15)

For 50 years, hospitals have used a single test to decide how to treat the most stubborn infections. But according to a growing body of research, that test is now wrong more often than we’d thought. All because of the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that behave one way in lab tests and another way in the human body. The findings have huge implications for how doctors fight the growing problem of so-called superbugs, which can’t be easily treated with antibiotics. The bacteria infect 2 million people each year in the U.S. alone, and kill 23,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Wrongly Convicted Prisoners’ Freedom on Hold Because of Illinois’ Budget Fight [Lolly Bowean on Chicago Tribune] (10/13/15)

Long before he was exonerated of a 1994 home invasion, robbery and sexual assault, Christopher Coleman imagined starting a real estate business in his hometown of Peoria. Coleman, now 41, thought he was steps away from opening that business after he was released in 2013 after nearly two decades in prison. His plan: to use a July payout from the state Court of Claims for his wrongful imprisonment — $220,732 — as seed money. He said he even quit his job and began lining up business deals. But instead of repairing and renting out houses as he hoped, Coleman is one of several wrongly convicted inmates whose compensation has been delayed by the state’s budget impasse. He has no idea when he’ll actually receive his money…After more than four months of negotiations, lawmakers have yet to pass a budget, leaving dozens of agencies, programs and initiatives along with untold number of residents in limbo. The Court of Claims, which handles compensation for the wrongly convicted, cannot make payments to those who are exonerated. That money, based on a formula that considers how long inmates were incarcerated, typically helps them begin a new life, get job training and medical care, and take advantage of educational opportunities.

What Are a Hospital’s Costs? Utah System Is Trying to Learn [Gina Kolata on The New York Times] (9/7/15)

Only in the world of medicine would Dr. Vivian Lee’s question have seemed radical. She wanted to know: What do the goods and services provided by the hospital system where she is chief executive actually cost? Most businesses know the cost of everything that goes into producing what they sell — essential information for setting prices. Medicine is different. Hospitals know what they are paid by insurers, but it bears little relationship to their costs. No one on Dr. Lee’s staff at the University of Utah Health Care could say what a minute in an M.R.I. machine or an hour in the operating room actually costs. They chuckled when she asked. But now, thanks to a project Dr. Lee set in motion after that initial query several years ago, the hospital is getting answers, information that is not only saving money but also improving care…The linchpin of this effort at the University of Utah Health Care is a computer program — still a work in progress — with 200 million rows of costs for items like drugs, medical devices, a doctor’s time in the operating room and each member of the staff’s time. The software also tracks such outcomes as days in the hospital and readmissions. A pulldown menu compares each doctor’s costs and outcomes with others’ in the department. The hospital has been able to calculate, for instance, the cost per minute in the emergency room (82 cents), in the surgical intensive care unit ($1.43), and in the operating room for an orthopedic surgery case ($12). With such information, as well as data on the cost of labor, supplies and labs, the hospital has pared excess expenses and revised numerous practices for more efficient and effective care.

Cautious chic: photographing women, style and beauty in North Korea [Charlotte Jansen and Mihaela Noroc on The Guardian] (10/28/15)

Over the last two years, 30-year-old Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc has travelled the world with a backpack and camera shooting portraits of women. So far she’s visited 45 countries for The Atlas of Beauty, a project she hopes will offer insight into how social, cultural and political values shape and define women’s roles and femininity. Noroc’s latest journey took her to North Korea, where she was able to take almost 30 portraits. Her images hint at the reality of everyday life for women in the secretive state…Noroc explains: “I approached women in the street, accompanied by my two female guides, who helped me explain my project – this was the routine for most of the portraits. In most countries I’ve observed that women smile in front of the camera and that tended to be the case when I shot women in North Korea – but I here I tried to find something more profound, to get them to open up and reveal something more authentic, to see a story in their eyes.”…Though women in North Korea might be unfamiliar with global fashion and beauty because of the regime’s tight control on the flow of information, Noroc noted that this doesn’t mean they are not concerned with their appearance: high heels and conservative outfits – accessorised with a pin of the chest of their country’s leader – are common…Access to the internet or foreign television is almost nonexistent in the country – so entertainment must take different forms. Noroc noted that people loved to sing and dance, with concerts in public squares and mass dances for celebrations. The Moranbong Band, an all-female music group whose members were selected by the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, are “hugely popular, a phenomenon,” the photographer says. “You hear their songs everywhere and everyone knows their lyrics – this singer [pictured below] also sang some of their songs. I also saw a military marching band performing one of their songs.”

Russia’s new princelings: who is Putin’s rock’n’roll daughter? [Stephen Grey, Andrey Kuzmin and Elizabeth Piper on Reuters via The Guardian] (11/11/15)

His younger daughter, Katerina, has largely escaped public attention since her father became president in 2000. But in January this year, a Russian blogger reported that she was active at Moscow State University and had taken the surname Tikhonova, after her grandmother, Yekaterina Tikhonovna Shkrebneva. Examining Tikhonova’s business deals, properties and oligarch connections builds a picture of a new generation of Russia’s ruling elite, and a rare insight into the family life of Russia’s most powerful man. After unconfirmed media speculation, this week Reuters reported that a senior Russian business figure who knew Katerina Tikhonova said she was indeed Putin’s daughter. The news agency said that two senior academics – one at Moscow State University and a scientist with close contacts there – also confirmed her relationship to Putin. Tikhonova, 29, has described herself as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a long-time friend of the president. Shamalov senior is a shareholder in Bank Rossiya, which US officials have described as the personal bank of the Russian elite…Tikhonova holds a successful academic post running publicly funded projects at Moscow State University, and helps direct a $1.7bn plan to expand its campus. Her official advisers at Moscow State University include five members of Putin’s inner circle – including two former KGB officers who served with her father in the 1980s when he was deployed to Dresden, in former East Germany. According to the university’s website, she is currently attached to the mechanics and mathematics faculty. She is listed as an author, along with other academics, of a chapter in a maths textbook and at least six scientific papers since 2011. The papers include studies on medicines and space travel; one is listed as a study of how the human body reacts to zero gravity…Tikhonova is also active beyond the university. Under her grandmother’s name, she has competed for years as an acrobatic rock’n’roll dancer. In 2013, she and her dancing partner came fifth in a world championship event in Switzerland. Today, she is chairman of two organising committees of the All-Russian Acrobatic Rock’n’Roll Federation, according to its website. The Federation’s sponsors include Sibur, Novatek and Gazprombank – companies that are co-owned or co-controlled by friends and associates of the president. These people include Timchenko; Kirill Shamalov; and his elder brother, Yury. The same companies are also mentioned on Innopraktika’s website as among its corporate partners.

Post-Mortem: Can We Watch ‘The Leisure Class’ And ‘Project Greenlight’ In Reverse To See What Went Wrong? [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (11/9/15)

The odd thing about The Leisure Class is that it’s almost unwatchable, yet it’s not bad in many of the traditional ways. It’s not maudlin. It isn’t hokey or convoluted. It doesn’t make bad creative choices. It’s almost as if it doesn’t make creative choices. It feels like a school assignment where a directing student had to work with a script in a foreign language. At worst, it’s tedious, the kind of story where you can’t stop breaking in to ask “Wait, why are you telling me this?” It feels like someone took the script from Houseguest starring Sinbad and shot it like it was The Firm. Or tried to remake Wedding Crashers with two uncharismatic English guys and shot it as a drama. It’s truly odd. Not so much an unfunny comedy as a thing that doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy…They made the decision to go with Jason Mann largely on the strength of his unique take on their three-minute script assignment, valuing the director-for-hire assignment more highly than the original story. Which is an odd choice. They were going to surround the winner with a professional crew regardless — why choose based on look? In retrospect, this may have been a great way to end up with a director who rarely joked but cared deeply about anti-helation layers. To say nothing of the fact that they hired a director largely based on what he could do with someone else’s script, and then immediately turned around and let him shoot his own…Critically speaking, here’s the track record for the movies that came from the show: Stolen Summer: 36% on RottenTomatoes; The Battle of Shaker Heights: 41%; Feast: 56%; The Leisure Class: 0%; And of course, none of them have been financially successful so far, at least not counting the success of the show. That’s a pretty bad track record, and you could blame the show for that. But is it any worse than any other way of making movies? M. Night Shyamalan is like two for 12 now. Making movies is hard. At the very least, Project Greenlight is a fun cooking experiment. You just might not want to taste the results.

Afghanistan’s female marathon runner defies danger to go the distance [Sune Engel Rasmussen on The Guardian] (10/28/15)

In August, she ran an unofficial marathon from the Paghman Valley to Kabul with three other young women. As they entered the capital, they were bombarded with the kind of insults reserved for Afghan women who have the audacity to do anything out of the ordinary in public. “The children were stoning us, the people said bad words like ‘prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam’,” Zainab recalled. The women had to cut the race short. After that, the father of her training partner, Nilofar, forbade his daughter to run the Bamiyan marathon. Zainab’s own parents are proud of her running, she said. Her mother does worry about her athletic daughter, though she sometimes joins her running around the backyard, along with Zainab’s sisters. Her brother, a student in Germany, has taken up kickboxing and runs regularly with his friends.

Welcome to ‘Norway’, Texas: where Norwegians think ‘crazy’ is normal [Tom Dart on The Guardian] (10/28/15)

Put it down to polite Scandinavian reticence, perhaps. But though Norwegians have been using “texas” as slang for “wild and crazy” for decades, as Texas Monthly reported last week, apparently no one told the residents of the Norwegian Capital of Texas – and yes, there is one. An estimated 30-40% of residents in Clifton, population 3,500, can trace their heritage back to the land of fjords, social progressivism and $15 beers. Thousands of tourists have visited in recent years to see the Norwegian historical sights and festivals. Yet, “texas” as this might sound, the linguistic quirk is news to the locals…They saw the story on the internet last week: it went viral after a Texas Monthly article noted that “texas” is Norwegian slang for a crazy atmosphere – as in “Det var helt texas” – “It was totally nuts!”

Summer same-sex wedding spending exceeded $800 million [Quentin Fottrell on Marketwatch] (11/12/15)

Some 96,000 same-sex couples got married between July 2015 and October 2015, bringing the total number of married same-sex couples in the U.S. to 486,000, which accounts for 45% of all same-sex couples, according to a separate study by research firm Gallup, which interviewed nearly 9,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans. Approximately one in 10 summer weddings in the U.S. was held by same-sex couples. Gallup asked those who report being married or living with a partner whether their spouse or partner is the same sex as them.

Report highlights the obscene price of NFL’s paid patriotism [Lee Carpenter on The Guardian] (11/5/15)

By late Wednesday afternoon the depth of just how much patriotism the defense department has been selling to sports teams had come clear in a report commissioned by Republican senators John McCain and Jeff Flake – both of Arizona. And it was extreme, if not obscene. According to the report, taxpayers spent close to $7m on patriotic displays at professional and college sporting events over the last four years. This included the unfurling of a gigantic flag held by service members at an Atlanta Falcons game, the re-enlistment ceremony for 10 soldiers at Seattle’s Century Link Field and the recognition of Air Force officers at a Los Angeles Galaxy soccer game. In fact the report lists 74 pages of examples where military branches (mostly the National Guard) paid more than 50 sports teams for patriotic acts that were disguised as benevolent contributions by the teams themselves…For years, sports teams have wrapped themselves in gigantic flags like those unfurled across fields for the national anthem. But until the costs for such displays leaked out back in the spring no one much knew the Georgia National Guard paid the Falcons $879,000 the last four years – in part – to have its soldiers hold one of those enormous flags. McCain and Flake’s report leave open the possibility more abuse exists. These were just the contracts the senator’s staffers could find in records searches.

Afghan refugees in Iran being sent to fight and die for Assad in Syria [Saeed Kamali Dehghan on The Guardian] (11/5/15)

Iran is recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, promising a monthly salary and residence permits in exchange for what it claims to be a sacred endeavour to save Shia shrines in Damascus. The Fatemioun military division of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Syria is now the second largest foreign military contingent fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, after the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Iranian state-affiliated agencies reported in May that at least 200 Fatemioun members had been killed in Syria since the beginning of the war. How many more have died since is not clear. Iran has always claimed it is participating in an advisory capacity in Syria, dispatching senior commanders to plan and oversee operations, but the Afghan involvement shows it is using other methods.

Curiously Strong Remains:


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Roundup – Dark Blarts

Best of the Best:

Why Candidates With No Experience Are Winning Over Voters [Alan Greenblatt on Governing Magazine] (9/25/15)

In August, Robert Gray, a truck driver by trade who spent zero dollars on the race, won the Democratic nomination for governor of Mississippi. Gray hadn’t even bothered informing his mother, who lives with him, that he was running. He also didn’t bother voting for himself. Gray’s situation may sound unusual, but something like it actually seems to occur just about every election cycle. There are plenty of nominations barely worth pursuing around the country in low-profile races against formidable incumbents. But in the South, neither the press nor voters pay much attention to many Democratic primary races, making the region particularly fertile ground for political unknowns to win statewide nominations.

The Most Expensive Place in the World to Live [Nick Timiraos on Real Time Economics on The Wall Street Journal] (9/22/15)

New York City takes the top spot in the annual ranking of the world’s most expensive cities, according to an analysis by UBS. The cost of goods and services was higher in just two other cities—Zurich and Geneva—but they were less expensive than New York after including rent. The Swiss cities were markedly more expensive than in last year’s study because of the Swiss National Bank’s decision in January to discontinue its minimum exchange rate. Prices in Japanese and European cities, meanwhile, fell over the past year as the euro and yen weakened against the dollar. Including rent, other U.S. cities among the most expensive included Chicago (7th), Miami (11th) and Los Angeles (13th). The cheapest cities last year among the 71 surveyed: Kiev, Ukraine, and the Bulgarian capital city, Sofia. Prices were 2.5 times higher in the Swiss cities than in those Eastern European capitals.

Yogi Berra Was One Of A Kind [Rob Arthur on FiveThirtyEight] (9/23/15)

By quality, he was one of the best catchers ever, amassing the fifth-most total wins above replacement at the position and the 11th-most WAR per game.1 By quantity, he played in 13.2 percent of all of the Yankees games in history and more World Series games than any other single player. But more than the obvious accolades — the three Most Valuable Player awards, the 10 World Series wins — Berra was exceptional by virtue of his improbability. As a 19-year-old, Berra participated in the D-Day invasion as a member of the U.S. Navy, fighting from a boat at Omaha Beach, where there were some 2,000 casualties. He was later injured in Marseilles and earned a Purple Heart. After he returned to baseball, he played in just 77 minor-league games before advancing to the majors. Because of his service, Berra didn’t begin his career in earnest until he was 21 years old. Berra was unlikely even as a baseball player: All of 5 feet 7 inches tall, he launched 358 home runs during his career, 90 more than anyone his height or shorter.2 Berra was an unusually disciplined batter, striking out in only 4.9 percent of his plate appearances. That combination of power and plate discipline is exceptionally rare in MLB history.

One Reason Women Aren’t Getting the Promotion: They Don’t Want It [Rebecca Greenfield on Bloomberg News] (9/25/15)

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), incorporates nine studies conducted on various high-achieving groups. Combined, the research indicates that women value power less than men, and the studies try to explain the phenomenon. In one of the studies, conducted on 650 recent MBA graduates, researchers had participants rank their current position in their industry, their ideal position, and the highest position they could realistically attain. Women had no doubt they could “realistically attain” the same level of success as men, but they listed lower ideal positions. Another one of the studies helps explain that finding, by suggesting women have more negative associations with power than men do. “Women expect more stress, burden, conflicts, and difficult trade-offs to accompany high-level positions,” said Alison Wood Brooks, a co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard. One explanation for why power stresses women out: They have less time in which to attain a greater number of goals. In another of the nine studies, researchers asked about 800 working adults to rank their goals, defined as “things that occupy your thoughts on a routine basis, things that you deeply care about, or things that motivate your behavior and decisions.” The women surveyed not only listed more goals, but a smaller proportion of those goals were related to achieving power.

The Joy of Six: Short-lived football rule changes [Paul Doyle and Nick Miller on The Guardian] (9/25/15)

When football first crawled into being with the codification of the first standardised rules in 1863, there was actually no such thing as a specialist goalkeeper, with anyone allowed to catch the ball, but not carry it. However, in 1870 an amendment to the laws was added: ‘The goalkeeper may, within his own half of the field of play, use his hands, but shall not carry the ball.’ For the next 40-odd years (and, admittedly, it might be a slight stretch to call 40 years shortlived), football trundled on fairly well, making additions here and there, but the goalkeeper rule remained – until Roose came along. Roose’s ruse was to exploit the loophole in the ‘no carrying’ law by bouncing the ball up to the halfway line, battering opponents out of the way as he went, from where an attack would be launched. This, as you can imagine, proved unpopular, with several opposing clubs complaining to the FA, to the point that when Roose retired in 1912, the law was altered.

The Risk of a Billion-Dollar Valuation in Silicon Valley [Steven Davidoff Solomon on The New York Times] (9/22/15)

The liquidation preference is among the most important of these protections. This feature provides that the venture capital firm’s investment will be repaid before the founders and employees are rewarded. If the firm has particular leverage, it can negotiate an even more protective form, known as the senior liquidation preference, which provides that the firm will be paid not only before the common stockholders but also before anyone else who bought preferred stock in earlier rounds. These provisions apply in a sale but not in an initial public offering of stock. The idea is to ensure that even if the investment does not perform well, the venture investor will still get back its initial money. According to a recent survey by the law firm Fenwick & West of 37 unicorns — private companies with valuations of $1 billion or more — every investment had a liquidation preference. Let’s reflect on this. In the public markets, you invest your money and there is no guarantee what return you will get. But in Silicon Valley, you can get a guarantee of minimum proceeds in any sale, over and above what other investors receive. It’s a sweet deal, and it goes a long way toward explaining why venture capital firms are comfortable with lofty valuations. Such a guarantee very likely pushes valuations even higher.

Little-Known Candidate Dominates Airwaves in South Carolina Presidential Primary [Tim Higgins on Bloomberg News] (9/24/15)

Robby Wells, the former head football coach of Savannah State University and now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, has paid for commercials to run 220 times on broadcast stations in Charleston, Columbia, and Myrtle Beach since Aug. 1 as part of his bid for the White House, according to data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political ads. That makes him the biggest buyer among the Democratic presidential hopefuls at the moment in the early primary state.

Hawaii Lawyers Warned Not to Help Medical Marijuana Businesses [Anita Hofschneider on Honolulu Civil Beat] (9/22/15)

Hawaii lawyers can’t help clients apply for high-stakes medical marijuana dispensary licenses authorized under a new state law, according to a formal opinion of the Hawaii Supreme Court Disciplinary Board. Attorneys can provide legal advice regarding the state’s newly enacted medical marijuana dispensary law, but shouldn’t provide legal services to help establish or operate businesses because that would assist in committing a federal crime, the board said. Hawaii legalized medical marijuana 15 years ago, but patients have had to grow their own or rely on the black market for access to their medicine. A new law approved this year allows eight companies to receive licenses to grow and sell marijuana at up to 16 dispensaries as early as next summer. Several entrepreneurs have already hired attorneys to help them prepare applications to enter what’s expected to be a multi-million-dollar industry. But the decision by the Disciplinary Board, an 18-member appointed group made up of volunteers who conduct investigations and prosecutions of attorneys suspected of unethical actions, is bad news for lawyers hoping to get involved in the industry and those who are relying on them. Attorneys who violate ethics rules risk losing their ability to practice law in Hawaii.

Rich Kids Eat a Ton of Fast Food Too [John Tozzi on Bloomberg News] (9/15/15)

Kids from low-income families are more likely to be obese than wealthier children, research suggests. But the relationship is complex, and scientists are still trying to untangle the links between income and such factors as diet and exercise that contribute to obesity. New data make those connections even more complicated. Low-income kids—from households earning less than $31,500 for a family of four—got about the same percentage of their calories from fast food as wealthier kids, according to a federal survey of more than 5,000 people, including children of all ages, from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Head to head [Jacob Burak on Aeon Magazine] (10/8/15)

The social drama of rivalry, with its hostility and aggression, masks a deeper subconscious dynamic. We might think of our nemesis as the polar opposite of ourselves, but as Kilduff’s research suggests, our rivals are much more like us than we dare admit. While this might seem counter-intuitive, it follows that rivalry can actually be good for us: acknowledging that our rivals share our most essential traits, good and bad, can help us up our game and gain some of the insight we need for greater success.

How Cartrivision’s 1972 VCR Foresaw—And Forfeited—The Time-Shifted Future [Ross Rubin on Fast Company] (9/21/15)

Three years before Sony’s Betamax, more than a decade before Blockbuster, and 25 years before Netflix offered rented movies by mail, a team based in San Jose, California, ushered Americans into the era of time-shifting and on-demand video with the first consumer videotape recorder available in the U.S. Cartridge Television’s Cartrivision could record and play back color-TV programs, play prerecorded videos, act as a closed-circuit security camera, and even play back home movies recorded on its companion video camera. It was an ambitious, versatile machine. Within 13 months, it flopped.

Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice’s Emails Only ‘Mildly Pornographic’ [Craig R. McCoy on The Philadelphia Inquirer via Governing Magazine] (10/20/15)

“Mildly pornographic.” No worse than what “appears commonly in Playboy.” That was what a Pennsylvania board determined late last year when it cleared state Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin of misconduct _ even though he’d received about 50 pornographic emails on state computers.

Obama Administration Hits Back at Student Debtors Seeking Relief [Natalie Kitroeff on Bloomberg News] (10/14/15)

On Tuesday, the Department of Education intervened in the case of Robert Murphy, an unemployed 65-year-old who has waged a three-year legal battle to erase his student loans in bankruptcy. Unlike almost every single form of consumer debt, student loans can be erased only in very rare circumstances. Murphy’s case, which is currently being heard in a federal court in Boston, could make things a little easier for certain borrowers. A win for Murphy would relieve him of $246,500 in debt and could loosen the standard used to determine how desperate someone needs to be to qualify for relief. The court asked the Education Department to weigh in on the matter. In a document submitted to the court on Tuesday, government lawyers urged the federal judges not to cede any ground to borrowers who say they are in dire financial straits. Doing so would imperil “the fiscal stability of the loan program” that has existed for half a century.

The CIA director was hacked by a 13-year-old, but he still wants your data [Trevor Timm on The Guardian] (10/20/15)

The world’s most powerful spy, CIA chief John Brennan, was bested on Monday by a self-described “stoner” 13-year-old and an associate, who broke into his America Online email account and started posting some of its contents on Twitter. At least some of Brennan’s private emails seemed to contain extremely sensitive information including his security clearance application and the social security numbers of several CIA officers.

How bloated pensions contribute to police brutality [Radley Balko on The Washington Post] (10/15/15)

And so as the country is in the midst of a heated discussion about police brutality and police shootings, as the city of Chicago is still sorting out the torture scandal from the 1980s and new allegations about “black sites” and secret interrogations, it brought in a guy who was just profiled in the New York Times as an apologist for police shootings . . . to train the body in charge of investigating police shootings. I’d argue that the fact that this comes just as the mayor was pushing a plan that would let the city underpay its obligation to the police pension fund is no coincidence. The Emanuel administration is sending a clear signal to the police union and its supporters about where it stands in the police brutality debate. And they’re hoping to buy themselves some goodwill. It would also explain why Emanuel recently blamed the city’s increase in homicides on anti-police brutality protest groups like Black Lives Matter, why he defended the promotion of a cop under investigation for helping cover up a murder investigation, why he replaced a police chief who held bad cops accountable with one who promised that he would “[get] cops’ backs,” and the various other decisions he’s made that have left the city’s police department less accountable and less transparent.

The Assassination Papers [Jeremy Scahill on The Intercept]

Drones are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination…The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars — between 2011 and 2013. The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides. The Intercept granted the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers…Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.

Snowden Says Hillary Clinton’s Bogus Statements Show a “Lack of Political Courage” [Jenna McLaughlin on The Intercept] (10/16/15)

Hillary Clinton twice this week has insisted, contrary to the facts, that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden could have accomplished his goals and avoided punishment if he’d raised his concerns through the proper channels. Clinton first made that assertion at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, and again at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Friday…During Tuesday’s debate, Clinton said Snowden “could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.” (She also inaccurately claimed that the Snowden files had “fallen into a lot of the wrong hands.”) But media outlets and advocates quickly noted that Snowden was not in fact entitled to whistleblower protections, which do not apply to contractors. Snowden has also maintained that he did try going through established channels, to no avail. And the official response to his leaks strongly suggests that no one in his chain of command was interested in letting his concerns reach the public…PolitiFact rated Clinton’s claim as “mostly false.”

Surge in immigrant driver’s licenses may have spurred more organ donors [Brenna Lyles on The Sacramento Bee] (10/19/15)

Long-debated legislation that granted driver’s licenses to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants may have sparked a recent spike in organ and tissue donor registrations and donations in California, state officials say. Since Assembly Bill 60 went into effect in January, the state’s organ and tissue registry, operated by the nonprofit organization Donate Life California, has seen its donor list grow by 30 percent. At the same time, Sacramento saw a 14 percent surge in organ and tissue donations from deceased people in the first half of this year, compared to the average for the period over the past three years, according to Sacramento’s organ transplant network Sierra Donor Services. Overall, California witnessed an 8 percent rise in deceased organ donations in the same period, found the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Demand for organs remains high across the state. More than 23,000 Californians, including 1,300 people in the Greater Sacramento region, remain on transplant waiting lists, according to Sierra Donor Services.

Germany Appears to Have Bought Right to Host 2006 Tournament [Der Spiegel] (10/16/15)

In what could turn out to be the greatest crisis in German football since the Bundesliga bribery scandal of the 1970s, SPIEGEL has learned that the decision to award the 2006 World Cup to Germany was likely bought in the form of bribes. The German bidding committee set up a slush fund that was filled secretly by then-Adidas CEO Robert Louis-Dreyfus to the tune of 10.3 million Swiss francs, which at the time was worth 13 million deutsche marks. It appears that both Franz Beckenbauer, the German football hero who headed the bidding committee, and Wolfgang Niersbach, the current head of the German Football Federation (DFB), and other high-ranking football officials were aware of the fund by 2005 at the latest.

Obscure, Yet Powerful, Jobs in State and Local Government [Louis Jacobson on Governing Magazine] (9/30/15)

Delaware has long had tax-friendly laws, which is one reason that about half of U.S. public corporations have incorporated in the state. The court that holds jurisdiction over those companies — and, as a result, that wields significant power nationally and even internationally — is the Delaware Court of Chancery. The five members of the court “are among the most respected judges in the country,” said G. Marcus Cole, a Stanford University law professor who has studied Delaware’s role in business regulation. “Academics regard them as among the most scholarly bench to be found anywhere. Corporate lawyers know them by name and temperament in much the same way that others know the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Their published opinions and academic articles are influential in other states and with the federal judiciary.”

Heroin Overburdening Foster Care Systems [Sophie Quinton on Stateline via Governing Magazine] (10/9/15)

In Ohio and other states ravaged by the latest drug epidemic, officials say substance abuse by parents is a major reason for the growing number of children in foster care. In Clermont County, east of Cincinnati, more than half the children placed in foster care this year have parents who are addicted to opiates, [Clermont County’s assistant director of child protective services Timothy] Dick said. The number of children living in foster care started rising in 2013 after years of decline. Last year, about 415,000 children were living in foster care, according to federal statistics released last week. Fifteen percent of them hadn’t yet passed their second birthday. It’s not clear how many child-welfare cases nationwide involve parents abusing drugs or alcohol, said Nancy Young, director of the federally funded National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare.

The Taliban Is Capturing Afghanistan’s $1 Trillion in Mining Wealth [Eltaf Najafizada on Bloomberg News] (10/20/15)

The Afghan government will earn about $30 million in 2015 from its mineral sector for the third straight year, far short of a previous projection of $1.5 billion, according to Mines and Petroleum Minister Daud Shah Saba. That’s also a quarter of what smugglers — mostly linked to the Taliban and local warlords — earn annually selling rubies and emeralds, he said…Afghanistan’s struggles to generate cash signal that it could be decades before Kabul’s leaders wean themselves off funds from the U.S. and its allies. U.S. President Barack Obama last week decided to keep 5,500 troops in the country indefinitely after 2016, underscoring the Taliban’s strength after 14 years of war. International donors led by the U.S. are paying for about two-thirds of Afghanistan’s $7.2 billion budget this year. The country’s mineral wealth — estimated at $1 trillion to $3 trillion — is crucial to bridging that gap.

Oklahoma Earthquakes Are a National Security Threat [Matthew Philips on Bloomberg News] (10/23/15)

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. security officials assessed the top targets for potential terrorist attacks, the small town of Cushing, Okla., received special attention. Even though it is home to fewer than 10,000 people, Cushing is the largest commercial oil storage hub in North America, second only in size to the U.S. government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The small town’s giant tanks, some big enough to fit a Boeing 747 jet inside, were filled with around 10 million barrels of crude at the time, an obvious target for someone looking to disrupt America’s economy and energy supply. The FBI, state and local law enforcement and emergency officials, and the energy companies that own the tanks formed a group called the Safety Alliance of Cushing. Soon, guards took up posts along the perimeter of storage facilities and newly installed cameras kept constant surveillance. References to the giant tanks and pipelines were removed from the Cushing Chamber of Commerce website. In 2004, the Safety Alliance simulated a series of emergencies: an explosion, a fire, a hostage situation. After the shale boom added millions of additional barrels to Cushing, its tanks swelled to a peak hoard of more than 60 million barrels this spring. That’s about as much petroleum as the U.S. uses in three days, and it’s more than six times the quantity that triggered security concerns after Sept. 11. The Safety Alliance has remained vigilant, even staging tornado simulations after a few close calls. Now the massive oil stockpile faces an emerging threat: earthquakes. In the past month, a flurry of quakes have hit within a few miles of Cushing, rattling the town and its massive tanks…Now that quakes appear to have migrated closer to Cushing, the issue of what to do about them has morphed from a state issue to one of natural security. The oil in Cushing props up the $179 billion in West Texas Intermediate futures and options contracts traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Not only is Cushing crucial to the financial side of the oil market, it is integral to the way physical crude flows around the country. As U.S. oil production has nearly doubled over the past six years, Cushing has become an important stop in getting oil down from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and into refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. If even a couple of Cushing’s tanks had to shut down, or a pipeline were damaged, the impact could ripple through the market, probably pushing prices up. That outcome is especially likely if a spill were to knock Cushing offline for a period of time—a scenario no less dangerous than a potential terrorist attack.

Feds Investigate Florida Police Money Laundering [Michael Sallah on The Miami Herald via Governing Magazine] (10/26/15)

The ongoing probe follows a Miami Herald series, License to Launder, which showed the task force officers from Bal Harbour and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office posed as money launderers while they jetted into a dozen cities to pick up drug cash in a sting operation to clean money for cartels and other groups with the stated goal of arresting suspects. Ultimately, they kept at least $2.4 million for themselves for arranging the deals — returning the rest of the money to the same criminal groups — but never made any arrests of their own.

Here’s Proof That Age Discrimination Is Widespread in the Job Market [Steve Matthews on Bloomberg News] (10/26/15)

Age discrimination is pervasive in the U.S., despite laws that prohibit it. And the older you are, the more discrimination you face, according to the authors of a National Bureau of Economic Research study out Monday. Older women have it particularly tough.

Drug use now rivals drunk driving as cause of fatal car crashes, study says [Ashley Halsey III on The Washington Post] (9/30/15)

In surveys and focus groups done in two states — Colorado and Washington — regular marijuana users said they felt their habit did not impair their ability to drive and, in some cases, improved it. “They believed that they can compensate for any effects of marijuana, for instance by driving more slowly or by allowing greater headways,” the GHSA report said. “They believed it is safer to drive after using marijuana than after drinking alcohol.”

Nobel Laureates Who Were Not Always Noble [Mark Strauss on National Geographic] (10/6/15)

Danish scientist Johannes Fibiger won the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering what he thought was a cancer-causing parasite—a bold idea that turned out to be phenomenally wrong. Fibiger studied wild rats with warty growths, which Fibiger believed was a form of cancer caused by parasitic worms. His Nobel Prize was awarded with the declaration that these findings were “the greatest contribution to experimental medicine in our generation.” Only, it wasn’t. While it’s true that some infections can lead to cancer, his rats’ disease wasn’t caused by parasites. It wasn’t even cancer. The warty bumps in the rats’ stomachs were actually caused by a Vitamin A deficiency, exacerbated by the parasites. Why the Nobel? “The dawn of the microbial age was at the end of the 19th century, and he was in the early 20th century,” says Stanford professor of epidemiology Julie Parsonnet. “People were very excited about this possibility that infections caused everything.” And it certainly didn’t hurt that Fibiger had friends on the Nobel committee.

The Top 10 Counties Where People Are Moving [Mike Macaig on Governing Magazine] (10/7/15)

Counties recording the largest net migration losses were Los Angeles County, Calif., (-53,670); Cook County, Ill., (-49,142); Manhattan, N.Y., (-28,123); and Brooklyn, N.Y., (-27,416). Population losses for these counties are largely offset by international migration, most of which is not reflected in the IRS data.

Hotel sex parties are not free speech: a small Connecticut town’s big legal win [Alan  Yuhas on The Guardian] (10/5/15)

For more than three years, the small Connecticut town of Windsor Locks has spent time, energy and cash to fend off a lawsuit brought by Sharok Jacobi, the owner of a hotel that played host to sex parties and concerts that violated state laws. In 2012 Jacobi sued the town and police department, alleging that they had infringed on free speech and association rights, violated its privacy, and unfairly targeted the hotel because it catered to an African American and Hispanic clientele. Complaints about Jacobi’s hotel began in 2007, when neighbors and staff called police over rowdy parties, fights and at least two gunfights there. Before long, police heard from a man who claimed that he could see sexual acts in the hotel from a cafe across the street. Two liquor control agents met with the tipster at a Dunkin Donuts, and were shown photos of a swingers’ party in the hotel bar. The agents promptly signed up for a party at the hotel, known over the years as Club 91 and the Windsor Lounge, organized by a group called “Hot Couples”. From the hotel bar, they had “a clear view into a sitting area” despite someone’s attempt “to obstruct viewing with plants”, according to court documents…Jacobi also alleged that the secret identity of the cafe informant threw into question police procedures: the concerned citizen was in fact John Moylan, the operator of a competing sex group known as the New England Swingers, and a man with “an obsessive interest in stopping [Hot Couples] events”, according to Jacobi.

Kim Jong-un’s recipe for success: private enterprise and public executions [Andrei Lankov on The Guardian] (10/7/15)

The greatest success of the young dictator has been the reform of agriculture, similar to what the Chinese did in the late 1970s. Fields, while technically state-owned, are given for cultivation to individual households and farmers work for a share of the harvest (30%-70%). The results of the reforms were predictable: the past few years have seen record-level harvests, and North Korea is now close to self-sufficiency in food production. This year a major drought prompted concern but it now seems that farmers, working not for the party’s glory but for their own gain, managed to fix the problem, and this year’s harvest is going to be high – perhaps even a record breaker. If plans for industrial reforms (decentralisation and partial privatisation of what is left of state industries) are taken into account, the general picture seems clear. Kim Jong-un wants to apply to his country a model of authoritarian capitalism, a so-called “developmental dictatorship”…North Korea has a problem not faced by China nor Vietnam: the existence of a rich twin state in the south. South Korea’s per capita income is at least 15 times higher, while its population speaks the same language and is officially part of the same nation, which is supposed to eventually, somehow, unify. To put it in context, the per capita gap between the two German states in the 1980s was merely threefold. This gap is the reason why the North Korean state has maintained a level of isolation no other communist regime could think of: even ownership of a tuneable radio is a crime. However, a relaxation could mean the populace learning about South Korea’s unbelievable prosperity and doing what East Germans did 25 years ago in a rather similar situation. This threat was well understood by Kim Jong-il, and was the major reason why he did not dare to launch reforms. His son made a different decision, but in order to stay in power he cannot afford any political relaxation, so economic liberalisation is now combined with public executions. This gives Kim Jong-un the chance to succeed in reforming his country without being overthrown and lynched by a revolutionary mob. Alas, the price for this strategy, which makes perfect sense to the elite, will be paid by common people.

2,000% Drug Price Surge Is a Side Effect of FDA Safety Program [Robert Langreth and Cynthia Koons on Bloomberg News] (10/6/15)

Colchicine, a gout remedy so old that the ancient Greeks knew about its effects, used to cost about 25 cents per pill in the U.S. Then in 2010 its price suddenly jumped 2,000 percent. That’s just one of the side effects of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration plan to encourage testing of medicines that have been around longer than the modern FDA itself, and so have never gotten formal approval. Companies that do the tests are rewarded with licenses that can temporarily give them monopoly pricing power as most rivals are eased or kicked off the market. The result has been a surge in the cost of drugs used in treatments from anesthesia to heart surgery and eye operations.

Meet the Winners of the World’s First Sugar Baby Beauty Contest [Jaya Saxena on Mic] (9/22/15)

Seeking Arrangement is a website that facilitates sugar dating, which is usually defined as the act of explicitly exchanging goods and/or cash for companionship and often (but not always) sex. While sugar dating has historically been something of an unspoken arrangement, thanks to the rise of the Internet the practice has become more visible, which means an increasing number of women are signing up for the site…Sites like Seeking Arrangement have prompted a slew of pearl-clutching thinkpieces and 20/20 segments warning parents that their daughters are eschewing $8/hr work-study jobs to shack up with wealthy older men. The latest entry in this subgenre is a GQ story by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the “bold new transactional-love economy,” which polled sugar babies and Daddies from Seeking Arrangement about their experiences. In the piece, which quickly came under fire as exemplary of the double standard against women in sex work, Brodesser-Ackner concluded that sugar dating wasn’t a consensual arrangement, but rather a scam that exploited young women. “These girls think they’re getting what they want,” she wrote. “But you can’t get what you want in this world without a scam, without thinking you are the grifter and not the mark.” When Mic spoke to the sugar babies in the competition, however, they said the website was far from exploitative. Rather, they saw their presence on Seeking Arrangement as a way to help them further their career goals, while simultaneously providing mutually satisfying companionship for older men…If in the sharing economy every hour is a billable one, sugar dating then becomes a sort of two-in-one. It’s a job, but it’s also dating; it’s socializing, but with an extra monetary incentive. It’s a relationship that doesn’t take time or energy away from getting paid. It’s part of the hustle…”As more and more women and men are willing to publicly declare their desire for such a relationship (via posting said desire on a website), more and more people have the opportunity to get up in arms [about it],” she told Mic. “This results in repudiation and moralizing. ‘Those poor young women!’ ‘Those slutty young vixens!'” That form of slut-shaming might stem at least in part from the fact that there are aspects of sugar dating that, while consensual on websites like Seeking Arrangement, mirror non-consensual situations elsewhere. There have been women who have felt pressured to “give it up” after being treated to dinner, just as there are men who feel “entitled” to sex if they buy a woman jewelry. In sugar dating, however, these pressures and expectations are consensually agreed upon beforehand — ideally, before a relationship even begins…But what is perhaps most subversive about sugar dating is how closely it mirrors tropes that are hidden, if not explicitly discussed, in the mainstream dating world. In its purest form, sugar dating is a mutually beneficial arrangement: She gets money, he gets sex or some form of emotional intimacy. On Seeking Arrangement, both parties’ motivations for being in a relationship are laid bare, in a way they wouldn’t be in the IRL dating world. In some ways, this type of mutual honesty about what’s to be expected from a relationship is refreshing…But it also tends to rankle a lot of people — especially because sex and money, two of the biggest taboos in our culture, are both involved. We believe relationships should be free of such sordid context. We don’t think genuine friendships or partnerships are based on such cynical arrangements as sex for money, or money for sex. We’re supposed to get nothing out of our lovers besides emotional support and emotional support is supposed to be free. If nothing else, sugar dating proves this idea dead wrong.

Denmark puts ad in Lebanese newspapers: Dear refugees, don’t come here [Adam Taylor on The Washington Post] (9/7/15)

The advertisement lists a number of factors that would make Denmark an undesirable destination for refugees, including recent legislation that would reduce social benefits to arriving refugees by 50 percent. Pointedly, it notes that anyone hoping to gain permanent residence in Denmark would have to learn Danish. Arabic and English versions of the advertisement, placed by Denmark’s Ministry of Immigration, Integration and Housing, ran in four newspapers on Monday. Denmark has taken a stricter stance on immigration since the center-right Liberal Party formed a minority government in June. While Germany and Sweden have embraced larger numbers of refugees over the past year, Denmark has cut back, imposing laws designed to discourage migrants from traveling to the country, including a severe cut to the benefits offered to refugees.

Instructor at Harris-Stowe gets almost $5 million in racial discrimination suit [Koran Addo on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (11/3/15)

A St. Louis Circuit Court jury has awarded a former Harris-Stowe State University instructor $4.85 million after finding that the historically black university discriminated against the instructor because she is white. The suit, filed in 2012, zeroes in on one particular administrator, accusing her of subscribing to the “Black Power” mantra and working systematically to purge Harris-Stowe’s College of Education of white faculty. The Missouri attorney general’s office, which represented Harris-Stowe, declined to comment on the verdict.

Curiously Strong Remains:


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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 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]

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,, 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.

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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:


The content on this site is provided as general information and entertainment only and should not be taken as investment advice. All site content shall not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell any security or financial product, or to participate in any particular trading or investment strategy. The ideas expressed on this site are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of firms affiliated with the author. The author may or may not have a position in any security referenced herein and may or may not seek to do business with companies mentioned via this website. Any action that you take as a result of information or analysis on this site is ultimately your responsibility. Consult your investment adviser before making any investment decisions.


Roundup – THE BUTTON

Best of the Best:

Outlook: Negative [Jacob Burak on Aeon Magazine] (9/4/14)

Of all the cognitive biases, the negative bias might have the most influence over our lives. Yet times have changed. No longer are we roaming the savannah, braving the harsh retribution of nature and a life on the move. The instinct that protected us through most of the years of our evolution is now often a drag – threatening our intimate relationships and destabilising our teams at work. It was the University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, an expert on marital stability, who showed how eviscerating our dark side could be. In 1992, Gottman found a formula to predict divorce with an accuracy rate of more than 90 per cent by spending only 15 minutes with a newly-wed couple. He spent the time evaluating the ratio of positive to negative expressions exchanged between the partners, including gestures and body language. Gottman later reported that couples needed a ‘magic ratio’ of at least five positive expressions for each negative one if a relationship was to survive. So, if you have just finished nagging your partner over housework, be sure to praise him five times very soon. Couples who went on to get divorced had four negative comments to three positive ones. Sickeningly harmonious couples displayed a ratio of about 20:1 – a boon to the relationship but perhaps not so helpful for the partner needing honest help navigating the world. Other researchers applied these findings to the world of business. The Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada, for instance, studied 60 management teams at a large information-processing company. In the most effective groups, employees were praised six times for every time they were put down. In especially low-performing groups, there were almost three negative remarks to every positive one. Losada’s controversial ‘critical positivity ratio’, devised with psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and based on complex mathematics, aimed to serve up the perfect formula of 3-6:1. In other words, hearing praise between three and six times as often as criticism, the researchers said, sustained employee satisfaction, success in love, and most other measures of a flourishing, happy life. The paper with the formula, entitled ‘Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing’, was published by the respected journal American Psychologist in 2005.

The Uranium Sting: Did Homeland Security Catch a Smuggler or Create One? [Stuart A. Reid on Bloomberg Businessweek] (9/11/14)

Since Sept. 11, undercover operations launched in the name of national security have become a common tactic in U.S. law enforcement. Of the more than 500 terrorism charges the federal government filed from 2001 to 2011, about 30 percent came from stings. While critics have faulted federal law enforcement for making fake terrorists out of vulnerable young men, government officials argue that stings deter would-be terrorists and round up “lone wolves” who might otherwise fall prey to real terrorist recruiters. Yet Campbell’s case represents a particularly baffling twist to the controversial practice. He was hardly a threat. As his e-mails and conversations with Cruzcoriano make clear, he revealed himself early on as a remarkably unsophisticated businessman and a highly suggestible target. It’s doubtful he would have even taken part in the deal absent the constant encouragement he received. “This went beyond a fishing expedition,” says Mike German, a former undercover FBI agent and a prominent critic of federal law enforcement. “It’s fishing in a place where you know there are no fish.”

The Human Factor [William Langewiesche on Vanity Fair] (October 2014)

NASA talked the airline into lending it a full-motion simulator at the San Francisco airport with which to run an experiment on 20 volunteer Boeing 747 crews. The scenario involved a routine departure from New York’s Kennedy Airport on a transatlantic flight, during which various difficulties would arise, forcing a return. It was devised by a self-effacing British physician and pilot named Hugh Patrick Ruffell Smith, who died a few years later and is revered today for having reformed global airline operations, saving innumerable lives. John Lauber was closely involved. The simulator runs were intended to be as realistic as possible, including bad coffee and interruptions by flight attendants…It all depended on the captains. A few were natural team leaders—and their crews acquitted themselves well. Most, however, were Clipper Skippers, whose crews fell into disarray under pressure and made dangerous mistakes. Ruffell Smith published the results in January 1979, in a seminal paper, “NASA Technical Memorandum 78482.” The gist of it was that teamwork matters far more than individual piloting skill. This ran counter to long tradition in aviation but corresponded closely with the findings of another NASA group, which made a careful study of recent accidents and concluded that in almost all cases poor communication in the cockpit was to blame.

Documents reveal how poultry firms systematically feed antibiotics to flocks [Brian Grow, P.J. Huffstutter and Michael Erman on Reuters] (9/15/14)

Major U.S. poultry firms are administering antibiotics to their flocks far more pervasively than regulators realize, posing a potential risk to human health. Internal records examined by Reuters reveal that some of the nation’s largest poultry producers routinely feed chickens an array of antibiotics – not just when sickness strikes, but as a standard practice over most of the birds’ lives. In every instance of antibiotic use identified by Reuters, the doses were at the low levels that scientists say are especially conducive to the growth of so-called superbugs, bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines used to treat people. Some of the antibiotics belong to categories considered medically important to humans. The internal documents contain details on how five major companies  – Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s and Koch Foods – medicate some of their flocks.

The calculus of contagion [Adam Kucharski on Aeon Magazine] (9/16/14)

[Kermack] and McKendrick eventually published their findings in 1927, in a paper titled ‘A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Epidemics’ in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Over the course of 20 pages, they tackled one of the most important questions in epidemiology: what causes an epidemic to end? From influenza to plague, the number of cases in a real epidemic often rises exponentially at first. After a while, the disease reaches a peak level, and then the number of new cases starts to decrease. When McKendrick and Kermack began their research, people generally gave two possible reasons for the decline. Either the epidemic faded away because the infection had become less potent over time, or because there were no susceptible people left – everyone had been infected and either died or become immune. In their model, McKendrick and Kermack assumed that the pathogen stayed the same throughout the epidemic; the infection did not weaken over time. And yet the model still produced an eventual decline in cases. When the pair compared the model to the 1905 outbreak of plague in Bombay, the predicted number of cases matched the real disease level. So was the decrease in infection caused by a lack of susceptible people? Apparently not: in the model, there were always some susceptible individuals remaining at the end of the outbreak. McKendrick and Kermack had demonstrated that epidemics don’t necessarily decline because everyone has been infected. They can also end because there aren’t enough infected people left to sustain transmission. Once enough people are immune, infected individuals are unlikely to meet another susceptible person, which means that they generally recover before infecting others. This effect is inevitable in the later stages of an outbreak, but it is also possible to force an epidemic into this situation. In Ross’s model, the reduction in infection came from getting rid of mosquitoes. During a vaccination campaign, it comes from targeting a large chunk of the susceptible population.

Engineer modifies Segway to invent hands-free wheelchair [Madhumita Murgia on The Telegraph] (10/20/15)

A Segway rebuilt into a hands-free electric wheelchair with a top speed of 20km per hour is on the verge of mass production. The Ogo, built in a shed in New Zealand by Kevin Halsall, is based on Segway technology that enables the user to move intuitively, more precisely and hands-free. Mr Halsall began designing the prototype when his best friend Marcus Thompson was left paraplegic after a skiing accident and took four years to develop. It is now a finalist in the National Innovators Awards and is in the process of being commercialised.

Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials [Stacy Schiff on Smithsonian Magazine] (November 2015)

Portions of her March account would soon fall away: The tall, white-haired man from Boston would be replaced by a short, dark-haired man from Maine. (If she had a culprit in mind, we will never know who it was.) Her nine conspirators soon became 23 or 24, then 40, later 100, ultimately an eye-popping 500. According to one source, Tituba would retract every word of her sensational confession, into which she claimed her master had bullied her. By that time, arrests had spread across eastern Massachusetts on the strength of her March story, however. One pious woman would not concede witchcraft was at work: How could she say as much, she was asked, given Tituba’s confession? The woman hanged, denying—as did every 1692 victim—any part of sorcery to the end. All agreed on the primacy of Tituba’s role. “And thus,” wrote a minister of her hypnotic account, “was this matter driven on.” Her revelations went viral; an oral culture in many ways resembles an Internet one. Once she had testified, diabolical books and witches’ meetings, flights and familiars were everywhere. Others among the accused adopted her imagery, some slavishly. It is easier to borrow than invent a good story; one confessor changed her account to bring it closer in line with Tituba’s. There would be less consensus afterward, particularly when it came to Tituba’s identity. Described as Indian no fewer than 15 times in the court papers, she went on to shift-shape herself. As scholars have noted, falling prey to a multi-century game of telephone, Tituba evolved over two centuries from Indian to half-Indian to half-black to black, with assists from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who seemed to have plucked her from Macbeth), historian George Bancroft and William Carlos Williams. By the time Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, in 1952, Tituba was a “Negro slave.” She engaged in a different brand of dark arts: To go with her new heritage, Miller supplied a live frog, a kettle and chicken blood. He has Tituba sing her West Indian songs over a fire, in the forest, as naked girls dance around. Sounding like a distant cousin of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she says things like: “Mister Reverend, I do believe somebody else be witchin’ these children.” She is last seen in a moonlit prison sounding half-crazed, begging the devil to carry her home to Barbados. After The Crucible, she would be known for her voodoo, of which there is not a shred of evidence, rather than for her psychedelic confession, which endures on paper.

The Science of Picking the Right Music at Work [Seth Porges on Bloomberg News] (10/26/15)

Research by Teresa Lesiuk, Ph.D, a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, has found that when workers are engaged in complex, brain-intensive tasks, listening to the music of their choice can improve their mood and productivity. The musical advantage is greater for some workers than others, however. For folks who were either complete novices or experts in their field, Lesiuk found little change in productivity. It was the moderate-skill workers in the middle who got the greatest output bump from listening. So if you need to keep your spirits up because you’re a middling coder who’s been tackling a tough script for hours, the right music to choose is, simply, your favorite music (study participants had their choice of song to listen to). A note to any bosses tempted to put the kibosh on their employees’ headphones habit: This is one area where you may not want to intervene. In a study that looked at computer programmers (a group that’s used to listening to music while they work), Lesiuk found that, after several weeks of being allowed to listen to whatever they wanted to, turning off the tunes caused a noticeable dip in both mood and productivity.

Brooklyn’s Baddest [Sean Flynn on Gentlemen’s Quarterly] (8/4/14)

In 1973, when Scarcella was sworn in, 1,680 people were murdered in New York City, and about as many were killed the next year and the year after that, all through the ’70s and into the ’80s. And then crime got really bad, and Bernie Goetz shot those kids on the subway, and the Central Park jogger got raped and beaten nearly to death, and the New York Post screamed DAVE, DO SOMETHING! on the front page, meaning Dinkins, the mayor. The murders peaked in 1990, at 2,245—almost seven times as many as in 2013—and didn’t start to dip until 1995, when Scarcella was five years out from his pension. He is 62 years old now, with a heavy brow and shaggy hair that’s only beginning to thin. He’s fit and trim, muscles ropy under the tattoos staining his arms, and he still keeps a duplicate of his gold shield, which has the same number as his father’s gold shield, in his pocket. He doesn’t look like what the papers are calling him, a rogue. When he left the job, he was as famous as a street cop can get, because he broke some of the most heinous cases in a city that stratified crime between horrific and merely appalling…And the rabbi. That case made Scarcella’s name. Chaskel Werzberger survived the Holocaust only to get shot in the face in Williamsburg in 1990. A robbery went bad, the thief panicked and jacked Werzberger’s station wagon to get away, killed him in the street. Dozens of detectives worked that case for weeks, got nothing but dead ends. Six months later, Scarcella and his partner found two men who said they were accomplices, and they fingered a guy named David Ranta as the shooter. Scarcella spent hours with Ranta, coaxing. “You’re Italian, I’m Italian,” Scarcella finally said. “This is your chance to tell me. Tell me what happened.” Scarcella wrote a confession for Ranta on the only thing he had, a manila file folder…But then, in the spring of 2013, something unusual happened: David Ranta was let out of prison. What made Ranta’s release so extraordinary was that prosecutors asked a judge to let him go. In March 2013, after two decades of fighting appeals, district attorneys in Kings County re-evaluated whether Ranta ever should’ve been locked up. And they decided no, he should not have spent twenty-three years in prison, should not have been torn away from his family, should not have lost the prime of his life, for a crime he almost certainly had nothing to do with. Twenty-three years after the fact, a witness said a detective (he did not say which detective) had told him to “pick the guy with the big nose” from a lineup. One of the alleged accomplices, a convicted rapist, says he lied to get a break on his own legal troubles. He says the other accomplice, a junkie with five open robbery cases, lied, too. Take away those witnesses, and all that’s left is a confession that Ranta has always insisted he never made; he says he signed the file folder with his purported statement on it when it was blank, thinking it was a form that would allow him to make a phone call. Ranta’s release was a big story, maybe bigger, even, than Scarcella arresting him. The City of New York agreed to pay Ranta $6.4 million before he even had a chance to sue.

The Mysterious Case of the 113-Year-Old Light Bulb [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (9/22/14)

Citing these advancements, Shelby claimed that its bulbs lasted 30% longer and burned 20% brighter than any other lamp in the world. The company experienced explosive success: According to Western Electrician, they’d “received so many orders by the first of March [1897], that it was necessary to begin running nights and to increase the size of the factory.” By the end of the year, output doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 lamps per day, and “the difference in favor of Shelby lamps was so apparent that no doubt was left in the minds of even the most skeptical.” Over the next decade, Shelby continued to roll out new products, but as the light bulb market expanded and new technologies emerged (tungsten filaments), the company found itself unable to make the massive monetary investment required to compete. In 1914, they were bought out by General Electric and Shelby bulbs were discontinued. Seventy-five years later, in 1972, a fire marshall in Livermore, California informed a local paper of an oddity: A naked, Shelby light bulb hanging from the ceiling of his station had been burning continuously for decades. The bulb had long been a legend in the firehouse, but nobody knew for certain how long it had been burning, or where it came from. Mike Dunstan, a young reporter with the Tri-Valley Herald, began to investigate — and what he found was truly spectacular. Tracing the bulb’s origins through dozens of oral narratives and written histories, Dunstan determined it had been purchased by Dennis Bernal of the Livermore Power and Water Co. (the city’s first power company) sometime in the late 1890s, then donated to the city’s fire department in 1901, when Bernal sold the company. As only 3% of American homes were lit by electricity at the time, the Shelby bulb was a hot commodity…Once settled, the bulb was placed under video surveillance to ensure it was alive at all hours; in subsequent years, a live “BulbCam” was put online. Last year, the bulb’s groupies (of which there are nearly 9,000 on Facebook), received another scare when it lost light…At first it was suspected that the light had finally met its demise, but after nine and half hours, it was discovered that the bulb’s uninterrupted power supply had failed; once the power supply was bypassed, the bulb’s light returned. The 113-year-old bulb had outlived its power supply — just as it had outlived three surveillance cameras. Today, the bulb still shines, though, as one retired fire volunteer once said, “it don’t give much light” (only about 4 watts).

Not So Foolish [Steven Poole on Aeon Magazine] (9/22/14)

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time. Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear. This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? And we do have a choice. Because it turns out that the modern vision of compromised rationality is more open to challenge than many of its followers accept.

Fixing the Best Schools in the World [Amanda Little on Bloomberg Businessweek] (9/24/14)

Shanghai public schools placed first worldwide on the recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams, which are administered every three years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The average scores of Shanghai students in reading, science, and mathematics were more than 10 percent higher than the scores of students in the legendary Finnish school system, which had been top-ranked until 2009, when Shanghai was first included in the testing, and about 25 percent higher than those of the U.S., which ranked 36th. While some critics dispute the PISA rankings, arguing that U.S. schools are evaluated as a national collective, not city-by-city as Chinese schools are, most agree that China produces formidable test takers. The school system in Shanghai, the nation’s largest and wealthiest city, is widely accepted as the most rigorous education system in the world. But Qiu thinks it can do better. Throughout his career he has been pushing the system to improve and adapt alongside China’s fast-changing economy. Today, Qiu is an elder statesman among a growing number of younger, more radical pioneers who think the Chinese education system, for all its success, is archaic and in need of sweeping reform. Qiu and the others believe that test scores alone aren’t a reliable predictor of long-term success—for students or the economy at large…Jiang Xueqin, a teacher at a top Beijing high school who recently published Creative China, a treatise on education reform, stresses that the Chinese system still puts excessive emphasis on rote learning and memorization, and not enough on the skills students need to build careers and an economy that’s innovative and not derivative.

The Bacon Boom Was Not an Accident [David Sax on Bloomberg Businessweek] (10/6/14)

This incessant demand drained the volatility out of the pork belly futures market, and trading on belly contracts slowed to a trickle. In 2012, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ceased the trade in pork belly contracts, due to lack of volume. The shouts of the belly pit, where broad-chested men once made great fortunes on fatty pig parts, fell silent. “[Bacon’s] the reason the market died,” says Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, a market research firm specializing in the pork business. “That market had a well-deserved reason for volatility. It was a speculators playground because it was so vulnerable. As the volatility shrank, the volume of the trades shrank.”

Mechanical Turk: The New Face of Behavioral Science? [Rosie Cima on Priceonomics] (10/15/14)

[I]f you’re doing a study of human psychology or behavior, and sample only consists of American undergraduate students who are either: (a) need beer money, or worse yet (b) are required by the same few professors to volunteer as subjects; you might come away with the mistaken impression that all humans are like western undergraduates. In these fields they’ve become the standard subject for the species at large, which is a status they might not deserve. In a study titled, “The Weirdest People in the World?” researchers conducted a kind of audit of studies that exclusively sample US college students — who, among other similarities, tend to hail from societies that are “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)”. They found that American undergraduates in particular were vastly over-represented…They then compared the results of WEIRD-biased studies to studies that researched the same effect, but sampled subjects from non-WEIRD populations…“The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity.” The problem is, undergrads are easy — they’re around, they’re cheap, they have few qualms about sacrificing themselves for science. They’re at the “top of the vase”. This is called “convenience sampling.”  So how can researchers effectively, and economically, “shake the vase” and get a more representative sample of humans at large? Many think it involves the internet. And a growing number of them think it involves Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The Little-Known Story of How The Shawshank Redemption Became One of the Most Beloved Films of All Time [Margaret Heidenry on Vanity Fair] (9/22/14)

Darabont, a “rabid and devoted” Stephen King fan, nursed a chimera: turning one of the writer’s stories into a film. Not many novelists have seen their work sail past as many movie-studio gatekeepers as King, starting with 1976’s blood-soaked hit Carrie. The author famously hated director Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel The Shining—King felt actor Shelley Duvall’s Wendy was “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film”—but he didn’t punish other filmmakers. Instead, King maintains a policy of granting newbie directors in need of a calling card the rights to his short stories for one dollar. In 1983 a 20-something Darabont handed King a buck to make The Woman in the Room, one of the few amateur short films based on his work that the author enjoyed. But Darabont’s real obsession was a prison yarn, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, from Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas that represented King’s attempt to break out of the genre corner he’d written himself into over the years. With his ultimate goal a feature film, Darabont waited for his résumé to lengthen enough to support his aspirations before approaching King again. “In 1987, my first produced screenplay credit was A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” says Darabont. “And I thought, Perhaps now is the time.” Once Darabont received King’s blessing, he set about adapting Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The 96-page story is anything but cinematic, consisting largely of Red ruminating about fellow prisoner Andy, confounding Hollywood’s predilection for high-concept “Harry Potter meets Die Hard” loglines. Even King “didn’t really understand how you make a movie out of it,” says Darabont. “To me it was just dead obvious.” Still, Darabont says he “wasn’t ready” to sit down at his word processor right away, and five years passed, as he focused on paid jobs writing scripts for The Blob and The Fly II. Darabont, who “wanted to honor the source material,” mimicked the novella’s narrative thrust in his screenplay and even lifted some dialogue verbatim. Other plot points were entirely his invention, sharpening the film’s themes and adding dashes of cinematic violence. In King’s story, a minor character, Brooks, dies uneventfully in an old folks’ home. The movie dedicates a poignant montage to the now more pivotal Brooks’s inability to make it on the outside and his subsequent heart-wrenching suicide by hanging. Tommy, a young con who can clear Andy’s name, trades his silence for a transfer to a minimum-security prison in King’s version. The script has Tommy “chewed to pieces by gunfire.” And Darabont condensed King’s several wardens into the corrupt Warden Norton, who eventually blows his brains out rather than pay Lady Justice for his sins. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said some version of “To make a great film you need three things: the script, the script, and the script.” Robbins says of Darabont’s finished adaptation, “It was the best script I’ve ever read. Ever.” Freeman repeated a variation of that accolade—if not the best script, certainly among the top.

Stepping off the Golden Gate Bridge [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (10/16/14)

Spanning just under two miles from San Francisco to Marin County, the Golden Gate is a grand, towering structure.  On the day it opened to public use in 1937, The Chronicle declared it a “thirty-five million dollar steel harp;” it’s since been deemed “the most beautiful, most photographed structure in the world,” and is a heralded as a marvel of engineering. But the bridge has a dark side not mentioned on its website: it is, by far, the most popular suicide destination in the United States — and the second most popular in the entire world, trailing only China’s Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Estimates of the number of Golden Gate Bridge suicides widely vary — mainly because many victims’ bodies drift out to sea and are never recovered — but in 77 years, over 1,600 have been confirmed. Until 1995, an “official tally” was kept by the media, but as publicity mounted for the 1,000th jump (one local radio host even offered a case of Snapple to the “lucky” victim’s family), the count was disbanded. Still, is it well-documented that between 20 and 40 people jump from the bridge every year…When a person leaps from the platform (220 to 245 feet high, depending on tides), he tumbles through the air for four seconds, before hitting the water at 75-80 miles-per-hour. Roughly 95% of jumpers die from impact trauma — crushed organs, shattered bones, snapped necks; most initial survivors find themselves paralyzed and quickly drown, or succumb to hypothermia in the frigid waters. Incredibly, 34 people have survived the jump, most by way of a fortuitous gust of wind, or a perfect entry (feet-first, at a slight angle). In post-trauma psychological assessments, nearly every survivor relates that the split-second he let go, he immediately wished he hadn’t.

Curiously Strong Remains:


The content on this site is provided as general information and entertainment only and should not be taken as investment advice. All site content shall not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell any security or financial product, or to participate in any particular trading or investment strategy. The ideas expressed on this site are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of firms affiliated with the author. The author may or may not have a position in any security referenced herein and may or may not seek to do business with companies mentioned via this website. Any action that you take as a result of information or analysis on this site is ultimately your responsibility. Consult your investment adviser before making any investment decisions.



Best of the Best:

The Phantom Fame: ‘Space Ghost Coast to Coast,’ Secretly TV’s Most Influential Show [Sean T. Collins on Grantland] (10/7/15)

Williams Street, Space Ghost’s production company, soft-launched the shows that would become its network in a bottle in late 2000 to fill in the gap left when SGC2C went on hiatus. The future ratings powerhouse Adult Swim, which officially debuted as a late-night programming block in September 2001, was effectively a giant Space Ghost spinoff. Two of its initial series, The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, starred Coast to Coast characters; a third, Sealab 2021, followed in the flagship’s Hanna-Barbera-remixing wake. The fourth, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, starred characters created for a rejected Space Ghost episode by staffers David Willis and Matt Maiellaro out of boredom; it would go on to become Adult Swim’s longest-running show, with its writers, producers, and breathlessly bizarre comedy setting the tone for what was to come. What came next conquered much of cable. Like the show that spawned it, Adult Swim is still seen as a diversion for stoners — TV’s equivalent of pizza-flavored Combos. But Adult Swim slowly expanded from a programming block that aired in the wee hours twice a week to take over Cartoon Network’s entire nighttime programming. The reason is simple: Adult Swim has been no. 1 in the ratings among the sweet, sweet target demo of adults 18-34 for over a decade, unceasingly trouncing the more traditional (and much more widely discussed) boys of late night. And the methods with which it first built up and then utilized that dominance are far more diverse and influential than simply adding the distinctive scent of good kush. Without Space Ghost Coast to Coast, none of it would have ever happened.

Schoolboy [Jordan Ritter Conn on Grantland] (10/7/15)

Gunn becomes animated while listing Stanford’s merits, an Englishman defending the uniquely American institution of college athletics. “Let’s look at the academy model in most countries,” he says. “You’re 16, 17, 18 years old, and your entire life revolves around soccer. You’re going to school, but just barely. So you have this system, and it produces some really fantastic players. But what does it do for most of the other players? It just spits them back out. They’d dedicated their lives to soccer, but they’re still not good enough to play professionally. Now what? They don’t have many options. If you’re the club, then that’s great — all you need to do is develop a few really good players. But for society, for developing human beings, is that really something we want? I think we have something really special here in the United States. There’s always talk about how we should be copying these other countries, and in some ways that might be true. But in other ways, they should be copying us.”

5 Things to Know About Oregon’s Now Legal Marijuana Market [Noelle Crombie on The Oregonian] (10/1/15)

— Retail marijuana sales will be limited to dried flowers, plants and seeds. A staggering variety of marijuana-infused foods, candies, drinks and other edibles, as well as potent marijuana concentrates are not available to recreational shoppers. —  The Oregon Health Authority will oversee sales of recreational marijuana at more than 200 medical marijuana dispensaries statewide. Next year, recreational marijuana production, processing and retail sales will be overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which is still drafting rules for the industry. —  For now, pot shoppers in Oregon get a tax holiday. A 25 percent temporary sales tax doesn’t kick in until Jan. 4, 2016. That tax will be replaced late next year with a 17 percent state tax, estimated to generate more than $30 million a year. Local governments may add up to another 3 percent tax, provided their voters approve. —  While sales of recreational marijuana get underway today, numerous Oregon cities and counties are blocking recreational sales, either through opt-out provisions approved by the Legislature or by refusing to give business licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries. —  Marijuana use can still get you fired. Oregon’s new marijuana law doesn’t affect employers’ ability to establish drug-free policies and it doesn’t prevent them from firing you if you test positive for marijuana, even if you’re not impaired on the job.

South Africa ‘a country at war’ as murder rate soars to nearly 49 a day [The Guardian] (9/29/15)

South Africa’s murder rate has jumped 4.6% in the past year, with almost 49 people killed every day. A total of 17,805 murders were committed from April 2014 to March 2015, an increase of 782 deaths from the year before in a population of 54 million. The government admitted authorities were struggling to tackle the problem, but said the 10-year trend showed a decline in overall crime. Opposition parties and analysts criticised the numbers and said there was a lack of clear strategy to bring crime under control. The murder figures, which have risen each year from a low of 15,554 in 2011-12, reflect a reversal of what many had hoped was a long-term progress in reducing violent crime.

The Cities Where Millennials are Taking Over the Housing Market [Patrick Clark on Bloomberg News] (9/28/15)

Most of those cities don’t enjoy reputations for being particularly hip. What they are, generally, is cheap—and probably a little hipper than they get credit for. That makes a difference as young homebuyers finally shake off the effects of the recession and enter the housing market. Historically, people 25-34 have made up the largest share of homebuyers, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for (More specifically, Smoke cited data that showed the age cohort is the most likely to take out a mortgage to buy a home, rather than to refinance.) The explanation is straightforward. People in their early 20s are less likely to be ready to buy, and people past their mid-30s are more likely to have already bought. The millennial generation has bucked that trend, for reasons that have been cause for disagreement and consternation. Slow wage growth, student loan debt, a preference for city living, and a tendency to start families later have all been posited as reasons millennials have been slower to buy than previous generations. The new findings may lower some of the alarm about first-time homebuyers. Thirty-seven percent of mortgage borrowers who bought homes were millennials, up from 31 percent in 2014. A survey conducted by, meanwhile, found the most common reason millennials decided to buy homes this year was that they were making more money.

Teen prosecuted as adult for having naked images – of himself – on phone [Joanna Walters on The Guardian] (9/20/15)

A teenage boy in North Carolina has been prosecuted for having nude pictures of himself on his own mobile phone. The young man, who is now 17 but was 16 at the time the photos were discovered, had to strike a plea deal to avoid potentially going to jail and being registered as a sex offender. Experts condemned the case as ludicrous. The boy was, however, punished by the courts, and had to agree to be subject to warrantless searches by law enforcement for a year, in addition to other penalties. The young man was also named in the media and suffered a suspension as quarterback of his high school football team while the case was being resolved. Cormega Copening, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was prosecuted as an adult under federal child pornography felony laws, for sexually exploiting a minor. The minor was himself.

Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance [Shane Parrish on Farnam Street Blog] (6/11/14)

Simon Ramo, a scientist and statistician, wrote a fascinating little book that few people have bothered to read: Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players. The book isn’t fascinating because I love tennis. I don’t. In the book Ramo identifies the crucial difference between a Winner’s Game and a Loser’s Game. Ramo believed that tennis could be subdivided into two games: the professionals and the rest of us. Players in both games play by the same rules and scoring. They play on the same court. Sometimes they share the same equipment. In short the basic elements of the game are the same. Sometimes amateurs believe they are professionals but professionals never believe they are amateurs. But the games are fundamentally different, which is Ramo’s key insight…In his 1975 essay, The Loser’s Game, Charles Ellis calls professional tennis a “Winner’s Game.” While there is some degree of skill and luck involved, the game is generally determined by the actions of the winner. Amateur tennis is an entirely different game. Not in how it is played but in how it’s won. Long and powerful rallies are generally a thing of the past. Mistakes are frequent. Balls are constantly hit into nets or out of bounds. Double faults are nearly as common as faults…Ramo found this out because he gave up trying to keep track of conventional scores — “Love,” “Fifteen All,” etc. Instead he simply looked at points won versus points lost…After discovering that there are, in effect, two different games and realizing that a generic strategy will not work for both games he devised a clever strategy by which ordinary players can win by losing less and letting the opponent defeat themselves. “… if you choose to win at tennis – as opposed to having a good time – the strategy for winning is to avoid mistakes. The way to avoid mistakes is to be conservative and keep the ball in play, letting the other fellow have plenty of room in which to blunder his way to defeat, because he, being an amateur will play a losing game and not know it.” If you’re an amateur your focus should be on avoiding stupidity.

Putin Faces Growing Exodus as Russia’s Banking, Tech Pros Flee [Irina Reznik, Ksenia Galouchko, and Ilya Arkhipov on Bloomberg News] (9/20/15)

Publicly, the Kremlin has dismissed concerns about any “brain drain.” Still, the subject is sensitive in a country with deep scientific traditions now looking to educated workers and advanced technologies to help diversify its slumping economy from dependence on natural resources. In June, President Vladimir Putin called for a crackdown on foreign groups he accused of “working like a vacuum cleaner” to lure scholars into emigration. Departures of academics have spiked in the last year and a half, Vladimir Fortov, president of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, told state television in March. The outflow goes beyond the high-tech sector, which was showered with Kremlin attention and support under former President Dmitry Medvedev but has seen tightening restrictions since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. Financial and legal professionals also are leaving, according to lawyers and consultants.

Stung by costs, some of Minnesota’s medical marijuana patients back to buying on streets [Kyle Potter on Associated Press via The Minneapolis Star-Tribune] (9/20/15)

Just two months after Minnesota launched its medical marijuana program, some patients turned off by high costs say they are back to buying the drug illegally because it’s the only way they can afford it. State officials and the companies hired to make marijuana products trumpeted the program’s medical approach — pills and oils, no leaf products — when it launched in July. But some patients say the highly restricted and regulated system is costing them hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month— none of it covered by insurance. Company executives defend their prices — a small vial of marijuana extract can run nearly $130 in Minnesota, more than double the cost of a similar product in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal and they’ve sold it medically for more than a decade — and say costs will fall over time. But they’re also taking steps to help some buyers, including raising money to cut the price for lower-income patients. According to state data, nearly one in five of the 491 registered patients hadn’t returned to buy more medication in the last month, though state officials stress there are many possible explanations.

The richest places in America all have one thing in common [Emily Badger and Lazaro Gamio on Washington Post] (9/18/15)

Kansas City, St. Louis and and Baltimore are missing holes on a map of American prosperity. They are relatively low-income, encircled by wealth. Cross their county lines into the suburbs, and households there make, in many cases, nearly twice as much. Same with Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Dallas. The pattern is a classic American one, built through decades of postwar wealthy flight to the suburbs and disinvestment in cities. But it’s striking today how deeply entrenched this geometry remains at the county level, especially in an era when poverty is expanding into the suburbs and wealthier households are moving back in.

20 Years Of ‘Heat’: Michael Mann Discusses His LA Crime Classic [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (9/18/15)

De Niro’s Neil McCauley based on a guy named, you guessed it, Neil McCauley. The real McCauley was a career criminal from the Midwest who did seven years in Alcatraz, where he had a “near spotless conduct record” and worked as the prison’s chief electrician before his release in 1962. In 1963, he sat down for coffee with Chuck Adamson, the major crimes detective who was tracking him, and the two had a conversation very similar to the one in the film. A year later, McCauley and his gang were trying to rob a supermarket, unaware that Adamson had been tracking them the whole time. As McCauley tried to flee on foot, Adamson shot and killed him on someone’s front lawn. Adamson eventually left police work to become a writer, befriending Michael Mann and eventually writing for Mann’s Miami Vice. Mann was taken with the McCauley-Adamson story, especially the idea that two guys could have such a mutual respect, but still be compartmentalized enough that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill each other. Jon Voight’s “Nate,” McCauley’s fencer/fixer was, according to Mann, based on Edward Bunker, an ex-con and LA underworld figure who wrote memoir called No Beast So Fierce.

Data on Use of Force by Police Across U.S. Proves Almost Useless [Matt Apuzo and Sarah Cohen on New York Times] (8/11/15)

When the Justice Department surveyed police departments nationwide in 2013, officials included for the first time a series of questions about how often officers used force…The Justice Department survey had the potential to reveal whether officers were more likely to use force in diverse or homogeneous cities; in depressed areas or wealthy suburbs; and in cities or rural towns. Did the racial makeup of the police department matter? Did crime rates? But when the data was issued last month, without a public announcement, the figures turned out to be almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely. Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted the use of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not. And many departments, including large ones such as those in New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either said they did not know how many times their officers had used force or simply refused to say. That made any meaningful analysis of the data impossible.

How Russian Hackers Stole the Nasdaq [Michael Riley on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/17/14)

As much as hacking has become a daily irritant, much more of it crosses watch-center monitors out of sight from the public. The Chinese, the French, the Israelis—and many less well known or understood players—all hack in one way or another. They steal missile plans, chemical formulas, power-plant pipeline schematics, and economic data. That’s espionage; attack code is a military strike. There are only a few recorded deployments, the most famous being the Stuxnet worm. Widely believed to be a joint project of the U.S. and Israel, Stuxnet temporarily disabled Iran’s uranium-processing facility at Natanz in 2010. It switched off safety mechanisms, causing the centrifuges at the heart of a refinery to spin out of control. Two years later, Iran destroyed two-thirds of Saudi Aramco’s computer network with a relatively unsophisticated but fast-spreading “wiper” virus. One veteran U.S. official says that when it came to a digital weapon planted in a critical system inside the U.S., he’s seen it only once—in Nasdaq…Thus began a frenzied five-month investigation that would test the cyber-response capabilities of the U.S. and directly involve the president. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, under pressure to decipher a complex hack, struggled to provide an even moderately clear picture to policymakers. After months of work, there were still basic disagreements in different parts of government over who was behind the incident and why…While the hack was successfully disrupted, it revealed how vulnerable financial exchanges—as well as banks, chemical refineries, water plants, and electric utilities—are to digital assault. One official who experienced the event firsthand says he thought the attack would change everything, that it would force the U.S. to get serious about preparing for a new era of conflict by computer. He was wrong.

Pitbull: Get Rich or Die Shilling [Emma Rosenblum on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/17/14)

In the decade since, Pitbull has become ubiquitous and is moving into the territory of empire builder, along the lines of 50 Cent or Jay Z. His publicist, Tom Muzquiz, a peppy man with spiky hair who’s lingering at the next table, promised to figure out the perfect day for us to spend together to help me understand his boss’s reach and ambition. And it didn’t involve a yacht or a crazy night out in South Beach or anything to do with his outsize lifestyle. Exciting for Pitbull, now, is thinking about things other than partying, studio time, and ladies. (He has six children with an undisclosed number of women.) This hotel restaurant isn’t just where Pitbull asked to meet on this day, it’s where he conducts business; he doesn’t have a normal office, so he holds meetings here, sometimes jumping from one table to the other. The location is perfect for Pitbull, as it’s private enough but doesn’t deny him the pleasure of a Greek chorus of Yes Men. He asks that I keep it a secret. If it gets out, Muzquiz says, “it could create problems.” Along with Zigel and Muzquiz, the group consists of Pitbull’s manager, Mike Calderon, and a few large, intimidating men whose purpose seems to be laughing when Pitbull tells a joke. At one point someone’s phone goes off. The ringtone is Timber, Pitbull’s most recent No. 1 hit, which features Kesha singing, “It’s going down, I’m yelling Timber!” Pitbull rolls his eyes.

Is Every Speed Limit Too Low? [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (7/23/14)

Every year, traffic engineers review the speed limit on thousands of stretches of road and highway. Most are reviewed by a member of the state’s Department of Transportation, often along with a member of the state police, as is the case in Michigan. In each case, the “survey team” has a clear approach: they want to set the speed limit so that 15% of drivers exceed it and 85% of drivers drive at or below the speed limit. This “nationally recognized method” of setting the speed limit as the 85th percentile speed is essentially traffic engineering 101. It’s also a bit perplexing to those unfamiliar with the concept. Shouldn’t everyone drive at or below the speed limit? And if a driver’s speed is dictated by the speed limit, how can you decide whether or not to change that limit based on the speed of traffic? The answer lies in realizing that the speed limit really is just a number on a sign, and it has very little influence on how fast people drive…Luckily, there is some logic to the speed people choose other than the need for speed. The speed drivers choose is not based on laws or street signs, but the weather, number of intersections, presence of pedestrians and curves, and all the other information that factors into the principle, as Lt. Megge puts it, that “no one I know who gets into their car wants to crash.”…One reason is that a minority of drivers do follow the speed limit. “I’ve found that about 10% of drivers truly identify the speed limit sign and drive at or near that limit,” says Megge. Since these are the slowest share of drivers, they don’t affect the 85th percentile speed. But they do impact the average speed — by about 2 or 3 mph when a speed limit is changed, in Lt. Megge’s experience — and, more importantly, the variance in driving speeds. This is important because, as noted in a U.S. Department of Transportation report, “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.” If every car sets its cruise control at the same speed, the odds of a fender bender happening is low. But when some cars drive 55 mph and others drive 85 mph, the odds of cars colliding increases dramatically. This is why getting slow drivers to stick to the right lane is so important to roadway safety; we generally focus on joyriders’ ability to cause accidents — and rightly so — but a car driving under the speed limit in the left (passing) lane of a highway is almost as dangerous. Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads.

If the World Began Again, Would Life as We Know It Exist? [Zach Zorich on Nautilus] (6/19/14)

In 11 of Lenski’s flasks, the E. coli cells grew physically larger, but bacteria in one flask divided itself into separate lineages—one with large cells and the other with small cells…No other population in the experiment did the same; a historically contingent event seemed to have taken place. Even 26 years later, none of the other E. coli lineages evolved it. In this case, contingency seems to have won out over convergence. In 2003, another contingent event took place. The number of E. coli in one of the flasks increased to the point where the normally translucent nutrient solution turned cloudy. At first Lenski thought that the flask had been contaminated, but it turned out that the E. coli, which normally just feed on glucose in the solution, had developed a way to consume a different chemical in the flasks, called citrate. After 15 years, or 31,500 generations, just one of the populations was able to consume the substance.2 Its population size quickly expanded by a factor of five. This “historical contingency” gave Lenski and his graduate student Zachary Blount a chance to examine the likelihood that it would happen again if they rewound the tape. Blount went to the archive of frozen E. coli, and selected 72 samples collected at different periods in the experiment from the population that later evolved citrate metabolism. He thawed them out, and let them grow. Eventually, four out of the 72 samples acquired the ability. What’s more, the mutations only occurred in populations that had been frozen after 30,500 generations. Genetic analysis showed that several genes had undergone mutations that “potentiated” the evolution of citrate metabolism before that point. In other words, the ability to consume citrate was contingent upon other mutations that had come before it. Those formed a fork in the road, altering the path that generations after would be able to travel.

The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect [Gideon Lewis-Krause on Wired] (7/22/14)

On the subject of judgment, though, it became clear even in those early days that a sort of editorial consciousness was at work in Word’s spell-check and autocorrect systems. Judgement, for example, isn’t a misspelling—just about every dictionary lists it as an acceptable alternative. But autocorrect tends to enforce primary spellings in all circumstances. On idiom, some of its calls seemed fairly clear-cut: gorilla warfare became guerrilla warfare, for example, even though a wildlife biologist might find that an inconvenient assumption. But some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn’t want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check’s most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.” I called up Thorpe, who now runs a Boston-based startup called Philo, to ask him how the idea for the list came about. An inspiration, as he recalls it, was a certain Microsoft user named Bill Vignola. One day Vignola sent Bill Gates an email. (Thorpe couldn’t recall who Bill Vignola was or what he did.) Whenever Bill Vignola typed his own name in MS Word, the email to Gates explained, it was automatically changed to Bill Vaginal. Presumably Vignola caught this sometimes, but not always, and no doubt this serious man was sad to come across like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. His email made it down the chain of command to Thorpe. And Bill Vaginal wasn’t the only complainant: As Thorpe recalls, Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs. Thorpe went through the dictionary and took out all the words marked as “vulgar.” Then he threw in a few anatomical terms for good measure. The resulting list ran to hundreds of entries: anally, asshole, battle-axe, battleaxe, bimbo, booger, boogers, butthead, Butthead …With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.

Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem [Claire Suddath and Duane Stanford on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/31/14)

Americans may not have figured out the answer to the obesity epidemic, but for years they’ve pointed to Coca-Cola and other soda as one of the causes. Coke has tried fighting against this. It’s tried ignoring it. Now it accepts this as a reality. This is the problem Douglas has to confront. He has to persuade people to drink Coca-Cola again, even if they don’t guzzle it like water the way they did before. Cultural shifts don’t happen overnight. They build slowly—a sip of coconut water here, a quinoa purchase there, and suddenly the American diet looks drastically different than it did 10 years ago. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the $75 billion soda industry. For decades, soft-drink companies saw consumption rise. During the 1970s, the average person doubled the amount of soda they drank; by the 1980s it had overtaken tap water. In 1998, Americans were downing 56 gallons of the stuff every year—that’s 1.3 oil barrels’ worth of soda for every person in the country. And then we weren’t as thirsty for soda anymore, and there were so many new drink options that we could easily swap it out for something else. Soft-drink sales stabilized for a few years; in 2005 they started dropping, and they haven’t stopped. Americans are now drinking about 450 cans of soda a year, according to Beverage Digest, roughly the same amount they did in 1986.

Inside YouTube’s Fame Factory [Sarah Kessler on Fast Company] (8/4/14)

A sea of girls is hoisting cell phones into the air. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s a line or whether there’s something extremely interesting toward the center of the mob. A scream erupts from a far corner. “What’s happening?” I ask a tall blonde girl next to me. “I don’t know. Someone came out,” she says…Some kids are here to see beauty vloggers like Michelle Phan (6.7 million subscribers), who posts tutorials about makeup and life advice on her channel. Another, typically older, crowd prefers the Jon Stewart-esque commentary of Philip DeFranco (3.3 million subscribers) and the news-based comedy channel he created called SourceFed (1.4 million subscribers). Others enjoy following daily updates from a family of six that goes by the name “Shaytards” (2.4 million subscribers). The Fine Brothers (9.3 million subscribers), who mostly direct rather than star in videos on their channel, attract an audience that is half comprised of people older than 25, though you’d never guess it here. Other corners of YouTube, like the extremely popular video game YouTubers, aren’t even represented at VidCon, where teenage girls running after cute boy YouTubers are the most visible force. A father-daughter pair have posted themselves strategically between the conference center and hotel, where they have decided there will be the greatest likelihood of spotting a star. Well, one star, in particular: Jenna Marbles (13.5 million subscribers), a 27-year-old with a colorful sense of fashion and a penchant for irreverent sarcasm. The girl’s father pulls his iPhone out of his pocket to show me a video of his daughter crying deliriously with happiness. “This is what happened when Jenna followed her on Twitter.” He turns to his now embarrassed daughter, “show her the notebook.” His daughter rolls her eyes at him before she sheepishly pulls out a thick spiral notebook from her backpack. She has lined its pages with colored construction paper, on which she has pasted frames from each of Jenna Marbles’ more than 200 videos. Written below each photo in marker is her favorite line from that video. “If we can find Jenna Marbles and give her the book, we win, and I can go home,” her father tells me.

The Making of Vladimir Putin [Strobe Talbott on Politico Magazine] (8/19/14)

Putin’s aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock. For years that has meant repudiating the transformational policies of his immediate predecessors and reinstating key attributes of the Soviet system within the borders of the Russian Federation. But there were also indications that, if given a chance, Putin might extend his agenda, his rule, and what he hopes will be his legacy beyond those borders. In 2005, he famously lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Three years later, Russia invaded Georgia and granted “independence” to two breakaway ethnic conclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Not until this year, however, did Russia expand by military conquest and unilateral decree its own territory by seizing Crimea. In doing so, Putin also proclaimed the right to “protect our compatriots and fellow citizens”– i.e., Russian-speaking minorities – elsewhere in the near abroad, from Estonia on the Baltic to Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Therein lies the most malignant manifestation of Putinism: it violates international law, nullifies Russia’s past pledges to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors, carries with it the danger of spinning out of control and sparking a wider conflict, and establishes a precedent for other major powers to apply their own version of the Putin Doctrine when convenient (think of China, for example, and its running feuds with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan over territorial and maritime claims). While Putin has earned the ism that Safire attached to his name more than 14 years ago, the phenomenon he personifies — its content, motivation and rationale, as well as the constituencies behind it — predates the appearance of Putin himself on the scene. A number of students of recent Russian history — including some, like myself, who have dealt with Putin — can, in retrospect, trace the roots of his policies today back more than a quarter century to the battle between Soviet reformers and their reactionary and revanchist foes.

The Hedge Fund and the Despot [Cam Simpson and Jesse Westbrook on Bloomberg Businessweek] (8/21/14)

In March 2008, McGee met secretly with a member of the political machine of Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe and Africa’s most notorious living despot. In 1979, Mugabe had led one of two guerrilla groups that liberated the former Rhodesia from a white-minority regime, a conflict that left an estimated 30,000 dead. Mugabe won democratic elections in 1980 but soon consolidated his power. He unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on a rival guerrilla force, killing an estimated 20,000, including thousands of civilians. The world was slow to react, but finally, in 2003, the U.S. levied sanctions against Mugabe and his cohorts, threatening any U.S. individuals or companies that backed them. By 2008, when McGee was ambassador, Mugabe and his ruling party had wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy and were on the brink of losing power. McGee was deeply skeptical of his informant during their first meeting, but he found one of his tips plausible: The dictator was about to lose a first round of elections, and Mugabe knew it. The regime was cash-starved; its currency was virtually worthless outside the country, with Zimbabwe’s central bank printing money 24 hours a day. Inflation had hit an estimated 500,000 percent. The total value of all the currency in the economy was estimated at just $100 million. The election was five days away; defeat for Mugabe posed a viable threat to his rule for the first time. The informant was right: Mugabe lost that first round to Morgan Tsvangirai. Two weeks after the loss, McGee spoke to the insider again. “He told us the regime was preparing for war,” he recalls. Mugabe’s men were setting up command centers for torture and killing in areas that voted for the opposition, the man told McGee, and regional party leaders like him were told to draw up lists of people to target. The ambassador learned that Mugabe’s government had landed critical funding, totaling $100 million, only days after the vote. The regime even provided hundreds of trucks and other vehicles to ferry militias to regions that favored Tsvangirai. Reports of violence across the country soon poured into McGee’s embassy as Mugabe’s militias sought to punish opposition activists, drive their supporters from their homes, and intimidate the rest into backing Mugabe in the next round of elections…McGee wouldn’t find out for years, but as the attacks were unfolding, and as he worked with Washington to financially isolate Mugabe, a Wall Street consortium provided the $100 million for the dictator’s government. These millions secured the rights to mine platinum, among the most valuable of minerals, from central Zimbabwe. Several firms were involved in the investment, including BlackRock (BLK), GLG Partners, and Credit Suisse (CS). The most vital player was Och-Ziff Capital Management (OZM), the largest publicly traded hedge fund on Wall Street. An Och-Ziff spokesman declined to comment for this article. Now some of its African investments are at the center of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Secret History of Guns [Adam Winkler on The Atlantic] (September 2011)

Opposition to gun control was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale’s view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police…Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. “Article number two of the constitutional amendments,” Malcolm X argued, “provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley…Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as “an arsenal.” William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage…After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice. Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city…The Panthers’ methods provoked an immediate backlash. The day of their statehouse protest, lawmakers said the incident would speed enactment of Mulford’s gun-control proposal…Republicans in California eagerly supported increased gun control. Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”…The fear inspired by black people with guns also led the United States Congress to consider new gun restrictions, after the summer of 1967 brought what the historian Harvard Sitkoff called the “most intense and destructive wave of racial violence the nation had ever witnessed.” Devastating riots engulfed Detroit and Newark. Police and National Guardsmen who tried to help restore order were greeted with sniper fire. A 1968 federal report blamed the unrest at least partly on the easy availability of guns. Because rioters used guns to keep law enforcement at bay, the report’s authors asserted that a recent spike in firearms sales and permit applications was “directly related to the actuality and prospect of civil disorders.” They drew “the firm conclusion that effective firearms controls are an essential contribution to domestic peace and tranquility.” Political will in Congress reached the critical point around this time. In April of 1968, James Earl Ray, a virulent racist, used a Remington Gamemaster deer rifle to kill Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s assassination—and the sniper fire faced by police trying to quell the resulting riots—gave gun-control advocates a vivid argument. Two months later, a man wielding a .22-caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver shot Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. The very next day, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the first federal gun-control law in 30 years. Months later, the Gun Control Act of 1968 amended and enlarged it. Together, these laws greatly expanded the federal licensing system for gun dealers and clarified which people—including anyone previously convicted of a felony, the mentally ill, illegal-drug users, and minors—were not allowed to own firearms. More controversially, the laws restricted importation of “Saturday Night Specials”—the small, cheap, poor-quality handguns so named by Detroit police for their association with urban crime, which spiked on weekends. Because these inexpensive pistols were popular in minority communities, one critic said the new federal gun legislation “was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.”

Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom [Roy Scranton on The Rolling Stone] (7/17/14)

I’d always been ambivalent about being a veteran. On the one hand, I was proud of my service. I’d done something difficult that few Americans show the courage or wherewithal to do, and I’d come out stronger for it. My year in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division was spent mainly on two kinds of missions: For the first six months of our tour, in 2003, we picked up artillery rounds all over Baghdad. We kept Iraqi kids from blowing themselves up and denied insurgents weapons. For the next six months, I drove a Humvee around a Sunni neighborhood in south Baghdad called Dora, and then down the highway to Karbala and Najaf, looking for roadside bombs and snipers. On the other hand, the war was the most dehumanizing experience of my life. Inside the wire, we lived like prisoners, staring at the same walls and the same faces, lifting weights, watching DVDs, killing time until we got to go back home. Outside the wire, we moved in an alien, hostile world luminous with adrenaline and danger. Over time, as we were shot at, mortared and sometimes blown up, fear and rage built up in us like toxins, until we were praying for reasons to shoot – not people, mind you, just fucking hajjis. We harassed and intimidated hajjis on the street. We humiliated hajjis in their homes. We ran hajji cars off the road when they got in our way. We locked hajjis up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of us did worse. Some of us did a lot worse. Meanwhile, the war itself never made any sense. Like many veterans, when it came to my role, I relied on a rhetoric of professionalism, camaraderie and a narrow focus on personal experience to help me ignore heavy questions about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Later, I let the relative peace following America’s 2011 withdrawal confirm the official narrative: We had made mistakes with the invasion, but the surge had worked, and we’d left Iraq a functioning democracy. I had my doubts, but it was a story I wanted to believe. Over time, I took up a mantra of comforting phrases that numbed those doubts and fuzzed out my connection to the big picture: “The war was fucked, but I did my job. I’m proud of my service, but it’s complicated. I did the best I could in a bad situation.” Watching ISIS take Fallujah in January had made me realize just how empty those phrases were. To see an Al Qaeda splinter group take over a third of Iraq, while the so-called democratic government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki revealed itself to be a dysfunctional hybrid of anarcho-capitalism and tyranny, meant having to give up the illusion that we might have done some good in Iraq. It meant having to confront the possibility that we didn’t just leave Iraq – we had lost Iraq.

What Happened to Motorola [Ted C. Fishman on Chicago Magazine] (8/25/14)

Three months after Chris Galvin left Motorola, the company’s numbers began to turn around dramatically. The Razr proved to be a monster hit, with 50 million selling in its first two years on the market. By the end of 2004, Motorola’s market cap—the market value of its outstanding shares—hit $42 billion. The person celebrating was Galvin’s replacement, Ed Zander. Formerly the COO of pioneering computer company Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle), Zander was a skilled corporate showman who entertained with verve and humor. At a leadership seminar in Silicon Valley after he took the job, Zander joked to the audience that the Motorola he inherited was so slow moving, so blind to the coming convergence of telecommunications technologies, that he cried on his first day. With the success of the Razr, he could soon put his tears on hold. Motorola began generating billions in cash. In Zander’s first two years, the stock price doubled. The new CEO rode the Razr as long as possible, producing a dizzying variety in different colors and shapes and with slightly different features. The big carriers demanded it, says Zander, who currently sits on several boards: “Verizon would want the power button on one side, and AT&T would want it on the other.” Meanwhile, in arguably one of the worst decisions ever made by a major corporate CEO, Zander struck a deal with his Silicon Valley friend Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. Together their companies created a Motorola iTunes phone, the first phone connected to Apple’s music store. “We can’t think of a more natural partnership than this one with Apple,” Zander said at the time. Named the Rokr, the phone launched in the fall of 2005. Jobs, who introduced it, called it “an iPod Shuffle right on your phone.” Zander says he believed that by working with Apple, Motorola could become cool again. But much as it had taught the Chinese to compete with it years before, Motorola was teaching one of the most creative, competitive, and consumer-savvy companies of all time how to make a phone.

Curiously Strong Remains:


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Roundup – Evolution Is, As Evolution Does

Best of the Best:

Officials: Islamic State arose from US support for al-Qaeda in Iraq [Nafeez Ahmed on Insurge Intelligence via Medium] (8/13/15)

A new memoir by a former senior State Department analyst provides stunning details on how decades of support for Islamist militants linked to Osama bin Laden brought about the emergence of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS). The book establishes a crucial context for recent admissions by Michael T. Flynn, the retired head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), confirming that White House officials made a “willful decision” to support al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in Syria — despite being warned by the DIA that doing so would likely create an ‘ISIS’-like entity in the region…Back in May, INSURGE intelligence undertook an exclusive investigation into a controversial declassified DIA document appearing to show that as early as August 2012, the DIA knew that the US-backed Syrian insurgency was dominated by Islamist militant groups including ‘the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq.’ Asked about the DIA document by Hasan, who noted that ‘the US was helping coordinate arms transfers to those same groups,’ Flynn confirmed that the intelligence described by the document was entirely accurate. Telling Hasan that he had read the document himself, Flynn said that it was among a range of intelligence being circulated throughout the US intelligence community that had led him to attempt to dissuade the White House from supporting these groups, albeit without success…Having provided extensive support for former al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni insurgents in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 — in order to counter AQI — US forces did succeed in temporarily routing AQI from its strongholds in the country. Simultaneously, however, if Roland Dumas’ account is correct, the US and Britain began covert operations in Syria in 2009. From 2011 onwards, US support for the Syrian insurgency in alliance with the Gulf states and Turkey was providing significant arms and cash to AQI fighters. The porous nature of relations between al-Qaeda factions in Iraq and Syria, and therefore the routine movement of arms and fighters across the border, was well-known to the US intelligence community in 2008. In October 2008, Major General John Kelly — the US military official responsible for Anbar province where the bulk of US support for Sunni insurgents to counter AQI was going — complained bitterly that AQI fighters had regrouped across the border in Syria, where they had established a ‘sanctuary.’ The border, he said, was routinely used as an entry point for AQI fighters to enter Iraq and conduct attacks on Iraqi security forces.

Starting Over [Malcolm Gladwell on The New Yorker] (8/24/15)

What Campanella was describing in New Orleans is the classic pattern of African-American demographic mobility. For crucial periods of this country’s history, African-Americans were far more likely than whites to be mobile—to move across state or regional lines. New Orleans was shaped by the first of those waves: the former plantation slaves who moved to urban areas after emancipation. The second of those waves was the Great Migration, extending into the middle of the last century, when hundreds of thousands of African-American families in the South made the long journey to the industrialized North in search of economic opportunity. But from 1970 to the present the reverse has happened. Black Americans are much more likely to stay in place and much less likely than whites to engage in what the sociologist Patrick Sharkey calls ‘contextual mobility’—moves significant enough to change circumstances and opportunities. Robert Sampson once mapped the movement of African-Americans participating in a Chicago housing experiment over a seven-year period starting in the mid-nineteen-nineties, and the graphic consists of tight clusters of very short lines—spanning a few city blocks, or extending one or two neighborhoods over. How often do African-Americans from the poorest neighborhoods of the South Side leave the city of Chicago? ‘Rarely,’ Sharkey said. What happens instead is ‘churning’—minor moves in which the new home pretty much replicates the environment and the conditions of the old home. The sociologist Stefanie DeLuca recently interviewed poor African-American families in Baltimore and Mobile about their reasons for moving, and No. 1 on the list was ‘unit failure’: their home became so unlivable that they had no choice but to look for another place. They moved not because they were deliberately choosing a better life but because they had to—because the landlord evicted them, or the rent went up, or they suffered through a breakup, or there was a change in their housing subsidy…’The main lesson of our analysis is that intergenerational mobility is a local problem,’ the economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez conclude in a landmark study of U.S. economic mobility, published last year. They mean that the things that enable the poor to enter the middle class are not primarily national considerations—like minimum-wage laws or college-loan programs or economic-growth rates—but factors that arise from the nature of your immediate environment. The neighborhoods that offer the best opportunities for those at the bottom are racially integrated. They have low levels of income inequality, good schools, strong families, and high levels of social capital (for instance, strong civic participation). That’s why moving matters: going to a neighborhood that scores high on those characteristics from one that does not can make a big difference to a family’s prospects…One of the tragedies of Katrina was that so many of New Orleans’ residents were forced to move. But the severity of that tragedy is a function of where they were forced to move to. Was it somewhere on the Salt Lake City end of the continuum? Or was it a place like Fayetteville? The best answer we have is from the work of the sociologist Corina Graif, who tracked down the new addresses of seven hundred women displaced by Katrina—most of them lower-income and black. By virtually every measure, their new neighborhoods were better than the ones they had left behind in New Orleans. Median family income was forty-four hundred dollars higher. Ethnic diversity was greater. More people had jobs. Their exposure to “concentrated disadvantage”—an index that factors in several measures of poverty—fell by half a standard deviation…For reasons of geography, politics, and fate, Katrina also happened to hit one of the most dysfunctional urban areas in the country: violent, corrupt, and desperately poor. A few years after the hurricane, researchers at the University of Texas interviewed a group of New Orleans drug addicts who had made the move to Houston, and they found that Katrina did not seem to have left the group with any discernible level of trauma. That’s because, the researchers concluded, ‘they had seen it all before: the indifferent authorities, loss, violence, and feelings of hopelessness and abandonment that followed in the wake of this disaster,’ all of which amounted to ‘a microcosm of what many had experienced throughout their lives.’ Katrina was a trauma. But so, for some people, was life in New Orleans before Katrina.

The Coddling of the American Mind [Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on The Atlantic] (September 2015)

The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse. The dangers that these trends pose to scholarship and to the quality of American universities are significant; we could write a whole essay detailing them. But in this essay we focus on a different question: What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help?…There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding. But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Pennsylvania AG Refuses to Resign and Blames Her Legal Troubles on Porn  [Craig R. McCoy, Jessica Parks, and Matt Gelbon on The Philadelphia Inquirer via Governing Magazine] (8/13/15)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane proclaimed her innocence on criminal charges Wednesday, and blamed her legal troubles on enemies trying to conceal their involvement in emails laced with “pornography, racial insensitivity, and religious bigotry.” Kane, charged with leaking confidential grand jury information and lying about it under oath, said she would not step down as the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, despite calls to do so from Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat like herself, and other officials…Kane, 49, the first woman and first Democrat to be elected attorney general, is charged with conspiracy, perjury, obstruction, official oppression, and other crimes. The head of her security detail, Patrick Reese, is also charged. Prosecutors say Kane ordered him to illegally spy on others involved in the grand jury investigation by reading their emails. In her first public comments since prosecutors brought the case against her last Thursday, Kane focused not on the criminal acts they say she committed, but instead on the so-called Porngate. That scandal flared last year when Kane revealed that prosecutors, investigative agents, and other staffers in her office had exchanged X-rated emails on state computers on state time, in a practice that began years before she took office. She said Wednesday that her effort to crack down on the porn set in motion events that culminated in the criminal case against her.

China’s Building a Huge Canal in Nicaragua, But We Couldn’t Find It [Michael D McDonald on Bloomberg News] (8/19/15)

It is true, as supporters of the canal quickly point out, that public works of this magnitude tend to move in fits and starts. The Panama Canal itself was decades in the making. However, for a project that made so little sense to so many skeptics from the very beginning, the almost non-existent initial progress — along with the struggles to raise financing — is only fanning those doubts…Many people doubt that [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega — a former guerrilla who rose to international fame when he defeated U.S.-backed forces in the 1980s — and his Chinese partners ever truly intended to build a canal.  Conspiracy theories abound as to what their real intentions are. It has become something of its own cottage industry. A small sampling: The project is a land grab by Ortega; or a tool to whip up support ahead of next year’s elections; or a Chinese plan to threaten U.S. hegemony in the region by mapping out infrastructure designs so close to its shores. While Wang, a billionaire who made his fortune largely in the telecom industry, hasn’t received official public backing from Beijing, China watchers say it’s unlikely he’d have signed such a deal without getting the green light at first from home.  In extending its influence throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world, China’s record on these mega projects is spotty. Several have been put on hold long after companies began the work, like a $3.5 billion resort in the Bahamas and a $1.3 billion refinery upgrade in Costa Rica.

Wisconsin grapples with 6,000 untested sexual assault kits [Andrew Hahn on Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel] (8/8/15)

Thousands of DNA samples taken from victims of suspected sexual assaults have sat untested in police storage across Wisconsin for as long as 19 years, erasing in some cases any chance that suspects could be tried for crimes, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review has found. To sort out the more than 6,000 untested kits — including at least 2,566 in the city of Milwaukee — a team of experts led by the state Department of Justice has developed a protocol to standardize treatment and investigation of sexual assault cases that it hopes to carry out later this year, the conclusion of more than two years of planning. There are many reasons kits could sit untested in storage. In some cases, testing the kit wasn’t necessary for a conviction, but the evidence must be held until the perpetrator serves the complete sentence. In others, victims have not decided whether to press charges. But because incomplete records have been kept with the kits, there is no way to tell why they have not been tested. In short, officials do not know how many kits are in storage that should be tested. Jill Karofsky, executive director of the Department of Justice Office of Crime Victim Services, said officials face hurdles because they don’t know what victims were told when samples were taken.

Islamic State’s Medieval Morals [Noah Feldman on Bloomberg Views] (8/16/15)

It’s been 150 years since U.S. law allowed masters to rape enslaved girls and women. Almost all modern Muslim societies banned slavery in the last century. So why is Islamic State turning back the clock, actively embracing and promoting enslavement of Yazidi women, thereby enabling them to be raped under one interpretation of classical Islamic law? Islamic State’s goal isn’t primarily about money or sex, but about sending the message that they are creating an Islamic utopia, following the practices of the era of the Prophet Muhammad. They want to go back in time, to the days of the earliest Muslims and the Prophet’s companions. The more medieval the practice, the more they like it. Our horror at this self-conscious neo-medievalism should teach us a lesson about the evolution of our beliefs and what it means to be modern. Begin with the sober acknowledgment that we aren’t light years ahead of Islamic State — more like a century and a half. Slavery in the U.S. isn’t a distant relic. We’re still dealing with its aftereffects, in the form of persistent racial inequality and long-lived symbols of the Confederacy. And we would do well not to forget that American slavery, particularly in its last half-century before abolition, was one of the most brutal slave systems in recorded human history. In comparison, the history of Islamic slavery is relatively mild. Slaves of African descent were not only tortured to increase cotton yields, but also, in the case of the women, subjected to systematic and lawful rape. My Harvard Law colleague Annette Gordon-Reed has shown in her work on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson that there were occasional examples of more complicated, partially mutualistic relationships between slave women and masters. But this was, she points out, the exception rather than the rule — and it became increasingly rare as slavery in the Deep South reached its brutal climax, before abolition came by the sword…As modern people, we’re always gambling that we will make things better when we change them. Sometimes we’re wrong. It would be naive to think that history, including modern history, is a series of gradual improvements. From the excesses of the French and Russian revolutions to the horrors of fascism and totalitarianism, the modern age has given us plenty of examples of modernism gone awry. The fact that something is new and seems good is no guarantee that it is moral, any more than antiquity is proof of morality. But part of being modern is recognizing an emerging consensus on the wrongness of past practices like slavery.

Miami’s Model for Decriminalizing Mental Illness in America [John Buntin on Governing Magazine] (August 2015)

In the early 2000s, some 113,000 people were arrested in Miami-Dade County every year. An estimated 20 percent suffered from a mental illness. As a result, at any given moment in time, some 1,700 individuals with mental illnesses were in the county lockup. Until recently, they were housed on the upper floors of the Y-shaped, 10-story detention center, making it the largest psychiatric facility in Florida. The fact that Florida’s largest mental health facility was — and is — a county jail isn’t unusual. The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles is California’s largest psychiatric facility; Chicago’s Cook County Jail is Illinois’. Both incarcerate about 3,000 mentally ill occupants at any given time. State prisons house large numbers of people with mental illnesses too. Indeed, prisons today contain more than 10 times the number of people with mental illnesses than all state psychiatric hospitals combined. That’s partly the result of decisions taken by governors and lawmakers during the most recent recession. Between 2009 and 2012, states cut funding for the mentally ill by slashing spending on so-called behavioral health services by some $4.35 billion, even as demand for those services was rising. Not surprisingly, the number of people with mental illnesses in jails surged. According to the Council of State Governments, jails in this country now report that between 20 and 80 percent of their inmates suffer from a mental illness. Miami-Dade County has long had a more acute problem than most. By one estimate, more than 9 percent of Miami residents suffer from a mental illness — a rate that is approximately three times higher than the national average. It also has a large homeless population, most of whom have mental health issues and substance abuse problems. Yet over the course of the past decade, Miami-Dade County has emerged as a national model for how a county can develop strategies to combat the criminalization of mental illness…In short, the county is trying to build a comprehensive system. That’s due largely to the efforts of one person, Judge Steve Leifman. Since joining the bench in 1996, Leifman has pushed police to adopt a pre-arrest diversion program that keeps thousands of people picked up by police agencies across the county out of jail. He’s created a model postbooking diversion program that offers people charged with misdemeanors and second- and third-degree felonies an opportunity to get out of jail and go into treatment. Leifman has also developed a network of case managers and peer specialists to support people with mental illnesses who enter the postbooking diversion program, and worked with researchers, corporations and pharmaceutical companies to develop innovative ways to identify and address the needs of the neediest members of this population. In addition, he’s been one of the leaders of an effort that has brought the legislature to the brink of passing the first major overhaul of the laws governing treatment of the mentally ill in 41 years, while also convincing the state and county to sign over a 180,000-square-foot facility to serve as a comprehensive treatment center. Conditions in metro Miami certainly aren’t perfect. For one thing, the U.S. Justice Department continues to monitor the Pre-Trial Detention Center closely. Yet Miami-Dade County’s experience also suggests something hopeful: When local government thinks in terms of systems rather than programs, dramatic improvements can result — even with a problem as difficult as dealing with people with mental illnesses who encounter the criminal justice system.

Latinos Now the Majority in Watts, But Blacks Still Hold Power [Esmeralda Bermudez and Paloma Esquivel on The Los Angeles Times via Governing Magazine] (8/11/15)

Nearly 40 percent of residents in the neighborhood live below the poverty line, and 50 percent have less than a high school degree. The population is also relatively young, with almost 40 percent under the age of 18. Of the four elected officials who represent the area at the city, state and federal level, two are white and two are black. The four housing developments are primarily run by all-black boards. Why Latinos have so little power is a complex, sensitive topic in the neighborhood, which saw its demographics shift rapidly in the 1990s.

The Difficult Task of Determining Real Medical Costs [Martha Bebinger on Kaiser Health News via Governing Magazine] (8/17/15)

The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy research group, called the offices of 96 dentists, ophthalmologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists across the state last month, asking for the price of five basic services. The results show that prices vary widely. But getting the information wasn’t easy. Dentists tended to have prices handy and offer them without resistance, said Anthony, the study’s author. “Ophthalmologists were pretty good. Dermatologists were problematic. Their staffs did not know that there is a law in place.” Anthony, who was the undersecretary for consumer affairs in Massachusetts when the law took effect, says the fact that some offices she contacted refused to provide price information is very disappointing.

Spygate to Deflategate: Inside what split the NFL and Patriots apart [Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham on ESPN OTL]

The makeup call carried public fallout. In his 40-page decision on Sept. 3 that vacated Brady’s suspension over Deflategate, Judge Richard M. Berman rebuked Goodell and the NFL, saying that the commissioner had “dispensed his own brand of industrial justice.” Columnists, analysts and even some NFL players immediately pounced, racing to proclaim that Goodell finally had suffered a crushing, perhaps legacy-defining defeat. From the Saints’ Bountygate scandal through Deflategate, Goodell is 0-5 on appeals of his high-profile disciplinary decisions. Even an influential team owner, Arthur Blank of the Falcons, publicly said Goodell’s absolute disciplinary power should be reconsidered, an extraordinary proposal that quickly gained momentum. It didn’t matter that Berman only ruled on whether the league had followed the collective bargaining agreement, not on Brady’s guilt or innocence. It didn’t matter that the Patriots had accepted the league’s punishment in May. For the second time in less than a decade, in the eyes of some owners and executives, Goodell had the Patriots in his hands, and let them go. The league lost, again. The Patriots won, again. “In 20 years,” says a coach of another team, “nobody will remember Deflategate.” And so it was that in mid-June, while Deflategate’s appeal rolled on, Kraft hosted a party at his Brookline estate for his players and coaching staff. Before dinner, the owner promised “rich” and “sweet” desserts that were, of course, the Super Bowl champions’ rings. On one side of the ring, the recipient’s name is engraved in white gold, along with the years of the Patriots’ Super Bowl titles: 2001, 2003, 2004 and, now, 2014. A photograph snapped at the party went viral: There was a smiling Tom Brady, in a designer suit, showing off all four of his rings, a pair on each hand. On the middle finger of his right hand, Brady flashed the new ring, the gaudiest of the four, glittering with 205 diamonds — and no asterisks.

5 Charts Showing How Nearly Every Age Group Is Less Employed [Mike Macaig on Governing Magazine] (9/4/15)

The employment-to-population ratio tells a different story. This measure has declined over the last 15 years, a fact that’s often partially attributed to the aging of the workforce. Breaking down the employment-to-population ratio by age group, though, shows all segments of the workforce are employed at rates below pre-recession levels, with the notable exception of the oldest workers.

It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner [Ariana Eunjung Cha on The Washington Post] (8/11/15)

In reality, it turns out that having a child can have a pretty strong negative impact on a person’s happiness, according to a new study published in the journal Demography. In fact, on average, the effect of a new baby on a person’s life in the first year is devastatingly bad — worse than divorce, worse than unemployment and worse even than the death of a partner. Researchers Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskylä followed 2,016 Germans who were childless at the time the study began until at least two years after the birth of their first child. Respondents were asked to rate their happiness from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied) in response to the question, ‘How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?’…The study’s goal was to try to gain insights into a longstanding contradiction in fertility in many developed countries between how many children people say they want and how many they actually have. In Germany, most couples say in surveys that they want two children. Yet the birthrate in the country has remained stubbornly low — 1.5 children per woman — for 40 years. Margolis, a sociology researcher at the University of Western Ontario, and Myrskylä, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, found that most couples in their study started out pretty happy when they set out to have their first child. In the year prior to the birth, their life satisfaction ticked up even more, perhaps due to the pregnancy and anticipation of the baby. It was only after birth that the parents’ experiences diverged. About 30 percent remained at about the same state of happiness or better once they had the baby, according to self-reported measures of well-being. The rest said their happiness decreased during the first and second year after the birth. Of those new mothers and fathers whose happiness went down, 37 percent (742) reported a one-unit drop, 19 percent (383) a two-unit drop and 17 percent (341) a three-unit drop. On average, new parenthood led to a 1.4 unit drop in happiness. That’s considered very severe. To put things in perspective, previous studies have quantified the impact of other major life events on the same happiness scale in this way: divorce, the equivalent of a 0.6 ‘happiness unit’ drop; unemployment, a one-unit drop; and the death of a partner a one-unit drop. The consequence of the negative experiences was that many of the parents stopped having children after their first. The data showed the larger the loss in well-being, the lower the likelihood of a second baby. The effect was especially strong in mothers and fathers who are older than age 30 and with higher education. Surprisingly, gender was not a factor.

States Turn to Smokers for Band-Aid Budget Fixes [Michael Macaig on The Guardian] (August 2015)

In the long term, cigarette taxes represent a less-than-ideal revenue source, because the money they bring in is gradually declining. An analysis by the Government Accountability Office estimated Americans consumed 299 billion cigarettes in 2010, down from 456 billion in 2000. “If you’re depending on cigarette revenue for education, you better be thinking about the years down the road,” says Norton Francis, a researcher with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. They also don’t raise as much money as projected, even in the short run. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation reported that tobacco tax collections failed to meet initial revenue targets in 72 out of 101 recent tax increases. States typically route most tobacco tax revenue to their general funds. A portion of the money does go to tobacco control programs aimed at smoking cessation and preventing kids from starting to smoke. However, as of 2011, only two states were funding tobacco control programs at levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Woman who claims she was tricked into sex with friend was lesbian, court told [Helen Pidd on The Guardian] (9/9/15)

Newland denies five counts of sexual assault between February and June 2013. The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had earlier testified to having willingly worn the blindfold during numerous sexual encounters with someone she believed was Kye Fortune. She said Kye told her he was recovering from a brain tumour and did not want her to see his scars…The court heard that the pair spent at least 100 hours together in person after striking up an intense online relationship over two years, and even became engaged. At each meeting, the complainant wore a blindfold, not just when they had sex but when they sunbathed or watched films together and even on one occasion when they went out in Kye’s car. The woman told the court she only uncovered the deception after ripping her blindfold off and seeing she had actually been having sex with Newland. The jury was shown packaging found in Newland’s flat after her arrest, which had contained an “ultra cyberskin penis”. Her alleged victim testified that it was the same as the one she had seen strapped to Newland when she removed her blindfold.

Cab Companies Sue Florida Over Uber, Lyft [Michael Asulen on The Miami Herald via Governing Magazine] (9/9/15)

Taxi companies in Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale have sued the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the latest attempt to curb the growth of tech companies like Uber and Lyft. The lawsuit filed Tuesday said that smartphone apps and GPS tracking used by ridesharing companies should be treated the same as taxis’ fare meters under Florida law and be subject to testing and approval by the state.

What Do Women Want? This Year, a Ford Mustang [Hannah Elliot on Bloomberg News] (9/8/15)

Global sales of the Mustang hit 76,124 vehicles for the first half of 2015, up 56% year to date, according to Polk/IHS global sales data. Total sales among women in particular are up 40 percent over last year, giving Mustang 36 percent of the entire female sports car market…Merkle said ladies tend to choose the (4-cylinder, more efficient) EcoBoost engine option over the V6 and V8 versions more often than men. They also tend to choose the drop-top option slightly more often than their male counterparts, he said: 15 percent of female Mustang buyers choose the convertible versus 13 percent for men…In the U.K., Ford has logged more than 2,000 orders for the Mustang since January and scheduled extra production to meet the greater-than-expected demand. Several European sales lists sold out in minutes, according to Ford. Australia and New Zealand have each exceeded demand as well, with 3,000 orders placed in Australia and 400 in New Zealand. In China, which saw sales start last winter, Mustang is already nearly the top-selling sports car there, with popular hubs in Beijing, Guangdong, and Shanghai.

State streamlines roadkill-reporting process [Sari Lesk on Stevens Point Journal Media via PostCrescent] (8/4/15)

Motorists who kill deer in auto crashes no longer need to contact local police to get a permit allowing them to keep the game meat. A new state Department of Natural Resources call center can issue permits at any time of day or night. Previously, a motorist who wanted to keep a roadkill carcass had to contact local police who then had to send an officer who would issue a permit before the animal could be removed from the site. The law changed to save both drivers and officers time after crashes — particularly important when officers may be busy with emergencies, Portage County Sheriff Mike Lukas said. And there are a lot of crashes in Wisconsin — about 26,000 deer are killed by vehicles every year, according to the DNR.

Of Balloons and Bagels: Unusual State Taxes Flummox Consumers [Elaine S. Povich on Stateline] (8/17/15)

A ride on a tethered balloon is subject to Kansas’ 6.5 percent sales tax (along with any local taxes) because the ride is labeled an amusement. A ride on an untethered hot air balloon, however, is categorized as transportation, and is not taxed. In New York, home to unrivaled bagels, if you buy a whole roll with a hole at a bagel shop or supermarket, you don’t pay tax. If, however, you buy that bagel sliced, with lox and cream cheese (New York style), it’s subject to a 4 percent state sales tax, along with local taxes. That can add up to a levy of nearly 9 percent in some jurisdictions…In New York, those nicely dressed bagels are taxable because they are sold ready to eat, especially if they are toasted. According to Geoffrey Gloak, spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, the general rules go like this: If it’s heated, it’s taxable. If it’s a sandwich, it’s taxable. If it’s served ready to eat on the premises, it’s taxable. If it’s sold for off-premises consumption (to go) the same way a supermarket would sell it—cold and in a bag—it’s not taxable.

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II [Mike Dash on The Smithsonian Magazine] (1/28/13)

Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer–a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900. Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest. That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents’ stories. The family’s principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, ‘was for everyone to recount their dreams.’

New Fossil Discovery May Change What We Know About Human Evolution [Danny Lewis on The Smithsonian Magazine] (9/10/15)

On October 7, 2013, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger posted a job ad on Facebook looking for fellow scientists with a very particular set of skills: they had to have caving experience, be small enough to fit through an opening barely seven inches wide and be able to leave immediately for South Africa. Berger chose six women out of 60 applicants and sent them down a narrow channel deep inside a cave about 30 miles from Johannesburg. Inside, they found a trove of fossilized remains belonging to a previously unknown human relative. Named Homo naledi—naledi means “star” in the local Sotho language—the ancient species could offer new insight into the story of human evolution…Back in 2013, Berger, a researcher at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, was alerted to a possible find by a pair of spelunkers visiting Rising Star Cave, a popular site for caving expeditions. Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter were exploring less-traveled sections of the well-mapped cave system and decided to try scrambling through a crevasse known as Superman’s Crawl. Once through, they discovered a small cavern filled with fossil skeletons and bone fragments. When Tucker and Hunter later sent photos and video of the site to Berger, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic…The resulting find has been one of richest ever discovered in a region that was already called The Cradle of Humanity for its wealth of fossilized hominid remains. By the time Berger’s team finished their dig, they had collected about 1,550 fossil specimens belonging to about 15 individuals—more than any other ancient human dig site in Africa, Jamie Shreeve writes for National Geographic. But while Berger and his team had expected the bones to be from an early ape-like ancestor such as Australopithecus, they soon realized that this was something different—something more human.

The Aftermath of Break-Up: Can We Still Be Friends? [Dr. Gary Lewandowski on The Science of Relationships] (9/22/15)

In other words, the best predictor of whether partners will remain close after break-up was how strongly a person desired to maintain the relationship while it was intact. A few other interesting correlations that emerged from their data: – Pre-breakup satisfaction did not relate to post-breakup closeness. So simply being happy or sad in your relationship before it ended didn’t reveal much about how the relationship would evolve after break-up. – Perceiving higher quality of potential alternative partners was associated with fewer negative emotions about the ex-partner post-breakup. In this case it may be easier to have less negative feelings about your ex when you think other potential partners are high quality. – Those who invested more in the relationship pre-breakup had more contact with their partner post-breakup, but had more negative emotions about their ex…what’s in it for the highly committed by staying friends? The researchers tested whether it had to do with wanting to get back together, but the likelihood and desire for reunion didn’t make a difference. One possibility is that commitment has more to do with dedication to the person rather than dedication to the relationship itself. Thus, once the romantic aspect of the relationship dissipates, a person can still remain committed to the person but in a non-romantic way. Continued closeness also suggests that the partner may be more rewarding (e.g., good to talk to, fun to hang out with) which may also explain why there was greater commitment during the relationship. You never want to make too much of correlations, but the investment findings have a bit of an, “I can’t quit you” feeling to them. It appears that when people put a lot into the relationship (e.g., time, money, effort) while it was intact they have more contact post-breakup, but it increases negative feelings toward the ex. People may seek increased closeness to help ease feelings of loss, but at the expense of feeling worse about the ex-partner.

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