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18
May
15

Roundup – Arcades in Movies

Best of the Best:

The Deadly Global War for Sand [Vince Beiser on Wired] (3/26/15)

Sand—small, loose grains of rock and other hard stuff—can be made by glaciers grinding up stones, by oceans degrading seashells, even by volcanic lava chilling and shattering upon contact with air. But nearly 70 percent of all sand grains on Earth are quartz, formed by weathering. Time and the elements eat away at rock, above and below the ground, grinding off grains. Rivers carry countless tons of those grains far and wide, accumulating them in their beds, on their banks, and at the places where they meet the sea. Apart from water and air, humble sand is the natural resource most consumed by human beings. People use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. There’s so much demand that riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare. (Desert sand generally doesn’t work for construction; shaped by wind rather than water, desert grains are too round to bind together well.) And the amount of sand being mined is increasing exponentially. Though the supply might seem endless, sand is a finite resource like any other. The worldwide construction boom of recent years—all those mushrooming megacities, from Lagos to Beijing—is devouring unprecedented quantities; extracting it is a $70 billion industry. In Dubai enormous land-reclamation projects and breakneck skyscraper-building have exhausted all the nearby sources. Exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs.

The 27 Club is a myth: 56 is the bum note for musicians [Dianna Theadora Kenny on The Conversation] (11/18/14)

I would like to give some comfort to those who might grieve the demise of the 27 Club. While the actual numbers of pop musician deaths don’t show a spike in deaths at age 27 and hence do not support the 27 Club, there appear to be qualities shared by the 27-ers that stand them apart from many other deceased young pop musicians, which may go some way to understanding how this club entered the pop culture psyche. These qualities include exceptional talent, the contribution of groundbreaking innovations in their musical genre, intense psychological pain, a squalid death at their peak, and immortalisation – each of “the tragic six” has become a cult figure.

-See Also: Stairway to hell: life and death in the pop music industry [Dianna Theadora Kenny on The Conversation] (10/26/14)

Music to die for: how genre affects popular musicians’ life expectancy [Dianna Theadora Kenny on The Conversation] (3/22/15)

For male musicians across all genres, accidental death (including all vehicular incidents and accidental overdose) accounted for almost 20% of all deaths. But accidental death for rock musicians was higher than this (24.4%) and for metal musicians higher still (36.2%). Suicide accounted for almost 7% of all deaths in the total sample. However, for punk musicians, suicide accounted for 11% of deaths; for metal musicians, a staggering 19.3%. At just 0.9%, gospel musicians had the lowest suicide rate of all the genres studied. Murder accounted for 6.0% of deaths across the sample, but was the cause of 51% of deaths in rap musicians and 51.5% of deaths for hip hop musicians, to date. This could be due to these genres’ strong associations with drug-related crime and gang culture. Heart–related fatalities accounted for 17.4% of all deaths across all genres, while 28% of blues musicians died of heart-related causes. Similarly, the average percentage of deaths accounted for by cancer was 23.4%. Older genres such as folk (32.3%) and jazz (30.6%) had higher rates of fatal cancers than other genres. In the case of the newer genres, it’s worth pointing out that members of these genres have not yet lived long enough to fall into the highest-risk ages for heart- and liver-related illnesses. Consequently, they had the lowest rates of death in these categories.

Americans Love Big Hot Suburbs [Derek Thompson on The Atlantic] (3/26/15)

If you pretend that the United States is populated exclusively by twentysomething graduates of national research universities, you’ll develop the sense that everybody is moving to the city centers of New York, Chicago, San Jose, and Boston. In fact, all three of those metro areas have seen more Americans leaving than coming in the last five years. The cities with the highest levels of net domestic migration since 2010 are Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Denver, and San Antonio. Once again, we’re talking about Texas. More broadly, we’re talking about sprawly metros with fast-growing suburbs in the Sun Belt. The unavoidable takeaway from the Census report is that Americans have resumed the westward suburban ho of the early 21st century, before the Great Recession came crashing down. None of the 20 fastest-growing metros are in the northeast. Rather, they’re in the sunny crescent that swoops from the Carolinas down through Texas and up into the west toward the Dakotas. Americans are back to sun-worshipping.

-See Also: How Widespread Is Population Growth in the States? [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (3/26/15)

America’s Socialist Sports League: The NFL [Dave Berri on The Atlantic] (3/26/15)

The NFL equally shares its nearly $5 billion of national television revenue among all its teams. It also shares a substantial portion of its ticket and merchandise revenue, but not revenue from suites, sponsorships, or naming rights. All of this means that the link between a team’s record and the revenue it brings in is quite weak. In a recent paper published in the International Journal of Sport Finance, Michael Leeds, Peter von Allmen, and I look at the statistical link between a team’s wins and its total revenue in the NFL, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball. With respect to baseball we found that a 10 percent increase in regular season wins for an average team would lead to a 2.7 percent increase in revenue. The same result was uncovered for the NBA. In both of these leagues the national television revenue is shared, but other revenue streams, such as local media, gate revenue, and sponsorship revenue are—relative to what we see in the NFL—not shared as much. In the NFL, by contrast, a 10 percent increase in regular season wins for an average team only leads to a 0.14 percent increase in revenue. Because the NFL has embraced much more sharing, the financial incentive to win is muted. The impact of wins in the NFL is only a small fraction of what you see in the other two major North American sports.

Can States Slow the Flow of Military Equipment to Police? [Jake Grovum on Stateline] (3/24/15)

One reason the reaction to images of militarized police in Ferguson has reverberated in other states is the 1033 Program has been an equal-opportunity distributor, sending equipment all over the country to satisfy law enforcement requests. A Stateline analysis of 1033 Program data shows that the 50 states hold nearly $1.7 billion worth of equipment, an average of nearly $34 million per state. Per capita, equipment values held by states range from less than $1 for Alaska, Pennsylvania and Hawaii to more than $14 for Alabama, Florida, New Mexico and Tennessee. The type of gear the states have also varies widely. Alaska law enforcement, for example, has 165 rifles and almost $170,000 in night vision equipment, among other items. But law enforcement in Florida, has 47 mine-resistant vehicles, 36 grenade launchers and more than 7,540 rifles. In Texas, there are 73 mine-resistant vehicles and a $24.3 million aircraft. In Tennessee, there are 31 mine-resistant vehicles and seven grenade launchers. North Carolina has 16 helicopters and 22 grenade launchers…The steady flow of gear has made the program popular among law enforcement, some of which say it’s necessary to combat criminals who have access to ever-more-powerful weaponry…The Pentagon also defends the program. “Ninety-five percent of the property that is transferred to local law enforcement through this program is not tactical,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said last August. “It’s not weapons. It’s shelving, office equipment, communications gear, that kind of thing — furniture. I think it’s important to keep this thing in perspective.”

Chinese Maternity Tourists and the Business of Being Born American [Susan Berfield on Bloomberg News] (5/12/15)

She’d arrived in November as a customer of USA Happy Baby, one of an increasing number of agencies that bring pregnant Chinese women to the States. Like most of them, Happy Baby is a deluxe service that ushers the women through the visa process and cares for them before and after delivery. There are many reasons to have a baby in the U.S. The air is cleaner, the doctors generally are better, and pain medication is dispensed more readily. Couples can evade China’s one-child policy, because they don’t have to register the birth with local authorities. The main appeal of being a “birth tourist,” though, is that the newborn goes home with a U.S. passport. The 14th Amendment decrees that almost any child born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen; the only exception is a child born to diplomats. He and her husband paid USA Happy Baby $50,000 to have an American son. If they had to, she says, they’d have paid more. After the birth, He observed yuezi, the traditional month of recovery for new mothers. She, her mother, and her 2-year-old daughter stayed in Rancho Cucamonga, a city about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Her apartment, in a complex with a pool, fitness center, and mountain views, was rented by USA Happy Baby. Her nanny was supplied by USA Happy Baby. She ate kidney soup and pork chops with green papaya prepared by a USA Happy Baby cook. She secured her son’s U.S. birth certificate, passport, and Social Security card with USA Happy Baby’s assistance…Homeland Security and the IRS have been investigating the growing business of “birth tourism,” which operates in a legal gray area, since last June. The industry is totally unregulated and mostly hidden.

Portland Has World’s First Vegan Mini-Mall [Maria L. La Ganga on The Los Angeles Times via Governing Magazine] (5/6/15)

And Bryan Zurek working the check-out stand _ a 27-year-old who hasn’t used an animal product since 2006, who plays in a punk band and whose right arm is covered with “animal revenge” tattoos…You’re wandering the well-stocked aisles of Food Fight!, a rare, all-vegan grocery store in the middle of what is billed as the world’s first vegan mini-mall. In Portland. In Oregon.

Police Struggle With Loss of Privileged Position [Noam Scheiber on The New York Times] (5/5/15)

During the urban crime epidemic of the 1970s and ’80s and the sharp decline in crime that began in the 1990s, the unions representing police officers in many cities enjoyed a nearly unassailable political position. Their opposition could cripple political candidates and kill police-reform proposals in gestation. But amid a rash of high-profile encounters involving allegations of police overreach in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., the political context in which the police unions have enjoyed a privileged position is rapidly changing. And the unions are struggling to adapt…In contrast to the unions’ hard-line public stance, many can be pragmatic behind the scenes when dealing with prosecutors over individual allegations of misconduct. In Baltimore, for example, there have been several recent instances when the police union declined to fund the legal defense of an officer whose behavior it had concluded was beyond the pale.

Shaq’s Still Scoring in Retirement [Ira Boudway on Bloomberg Businessweek] (4/24/14)

After 19 seasons in the NBA, O’Neal retired in 2011. He was one of the most dominant big men in the history of the game, a 7-foot-1, 325-pound behemoth with quick feet and explosive power. He won four championships and a Most Valuable Player award, played in 15 All-Star games, scored 28,596 points, and collected $292 million in paychecks from six teams. O’Neal is still hustling. During four days in New Orleans, he’ll make three stops on his never-ending promotional tour and be on national television every night. O’Neal is determined not to become an NBA relic, a legend kept forever young in highlight reels while he grows old in obscurity. He wants to be in your living room and on your Twitter feed as Shaq, the friendly giant who cracks wise and nudges you to buy a Buick or Gold Bond lotion. So far, he’s succeeding. Perry Rogers, his agent, says O’Neal makes more money now from endorsements, partnerships, and TV—$21.2 million last year—than he made from similar work when he was playing.

Special Report: The Real Story Behind Rising CEO Pay [Elliot Blair Smith on The Fiscal Times] (5/2/14)

his four-part series presents CEO pay and compensation consultants through a new lens, reporting how an executive is paid can be as important as how much — and detailing how Ira Kay of Pay Governance LLC and other executive-compensation specialists are little-known architects of pay-bracket bulge for the 1 percent.

GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower [Tim Higgins and Nick Summers on Bloomberg Businessweek] (6/18/14)

The “Valukas Report,” named for former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, who assembled it at GM’s request from interviews with 230 witnesses and 41 million documents, blamed a culture of complacency for the more than decade-long delay before the company recalled millions of faulty vehicles. It described employees passing the buck and committees falling back on the “GM nod”—when everyone in a meeting agrees that something should happen, and no one actually does it. On page 93, a GM safety inspector named Steven Oakley is quoted telling investigators that he was too afraid to insist on safety concerns with the Cobalt after seeing his predecessor “pushed out of the job for doing just that.” Reading the passage, Kelley felt like he’d been punched in the gut. The predecessor Oakley was talking about was Kelley.

Kelley had sued GM in 2003, alleging that the company had dragged its feet addressing dangers in its cars and trucks. Even though he lost, Kelley thought that by blowing the whistle he’d done the right thing and paved the way for other GMers to speak up. Now he saw that he’d had the opposite impact: His loss, and the way his career had stalled afterward, taught others at the company to stay quiet. “He stood in the doorway of our bedroom with a stunned look on his face,” Beth Kelley, his wife of 23 years, says. “Maybe we’re just extremely naive, but we really thought that since this all happened, that something good would come out of it.” Kelley declined to comment for this article, but his allegations are laid out in court records and depositions. A number of friends and family did speak for the record. Kelley had been the head of a nationwide GM inspection program and then the quality manager for the Cobalt’s predecessor, the Cavalier. He found flaws and reported them, over and over, and repeatedly found his colleagues’ and supervisors’ responses wanting. He thought they were more concerned with maintaining their bureaucracies and avoiding expensive recalls than with stopping the sale of dangerous cars. Eventually, Kelley threatened to take his concerns to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Frustrated with the limited scope of a recall of sport-utility vehicles in 2002, he sued GM under a Michigan whistle-blower law. GM denied wrongdoing, and the case was dismissed on procedural grounds. Kelley’s career went into hibernation; he was sent to work in another part of the company, and GM kept producing its cars.

Breaking Bad Meets Fargo at Underbelly of Shale Boom [Alex Nussbaum and David Voreacos on Bloomberg News] (6/18/14)

“If I disappear or wake up with bullets in my back, promise me you will let everyone know that James Henrikson did it.” Those were the words Doug Carlile spoke to his family about his business partner before a masked gunman cut him down in the kitchen of his Spokane, Washington, house last December. Police say that Carlile’s murder was probably motivated by a series of complex business transactions that “went bad” in North Dakota’s oil fields. Spurred by breakthroughs in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, North Dakota now produces more than 1 million barrels of crude a day, surpassing OPEC members such as Qatar and Ecuador. The Bakken’s output, along with surges in Texas and elsewhere, has the U.S. poised to overtake Saudi Arabia next year as the world’s biggest source of crude. Where Teddy Roosevelt once hunted bison, drilling rigs and work camps now crowd the horizon. Along with oil prosperity has come a spasm of crime unlike any before on the prairie. Where farmers once sealed deals with a handshake, authorities now contend with drug gangs, meth labs, violent crimes, prostitution and investor fraud, all with the same aim in mind: making a quick score.

Airbnb’s Battle for New York [Felix Gillette and Sheelah Kolhatkar on Bloomberg Businessweek] (6/19/14)

Last summer, Podziba heard from his building’s superintendent that one of his tenants appeared to be frequently subletting her apartment. Every few nights a new set of occupants was seen coming and going from the third-floor unit. Podziba says he was concerned about safety. He didn’t want a bunch of people he hadn’t vetted constantly passing through the building. There was no doorman on-site to intervene if something should go wrong. At first Podziba didn’t know what to do. He did some research and learned that legislators in Albany had passed a law in 2010 explicitly prohibiting residents in multiunit dwellings such as his from renting out their apartments for less than 30 days, unless they were present. So not only was his tenant apparently violating her lease, which prohibited commercial use of the apartment, she also appeared to be breaking the law. Podziba contacted the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement to register a complaint. To his surprise, the regulatory agency informed him that in New York, the hefty fines for short-term rental violations aren’t levied against guests or hosts. They’re levied against building owners. After consulting with his lawyer, Podziba installed a surveillance camera to gather evidence, capturing the arrival and departure of all the luggage-toting visitors. He then hired a private investigator, who jumped on Airbnb and booked a stay in the tenant’s apartment. According to Podziba, his tenant—who was paying him $1,400 a month for the rent-controlled one-bedroom—was charging $220 to $260 a night to Airbnb guests. Podziba sent an e-mail to Airbnb, explaining how the renegade tenant was breaking various laws on his property and requesting that Airbnb remove her illegal listings. Airbnb e-mailed back a terse response: “As a platform, we do not arbitrate disputes between our users and third parties.” After a long and expensive struggle, Podziba got rid of his Airbnb-loving tenant, but he continues to harbor a strong grudge against the company—which has created a system that directly affects his property and yet will not accept his feedback at any level.

All 40 Runners Fail at 100-Mile Tennessee Mountain Race [Mike Buteau on Bloomberg News] (3/30/15)

None of the 40 runners who attempted to finish the 100-mile Barkley Marathons in the mountains of eastern Tennessee completed the race, the first time since 2007 that the endurance test had no finishers…In 30 years, 14 out of about 1,100 runners have completed the race, made up of five loops around a mountainous 20-mile course. With a finisher rate of about 1 percent, the Barkley has been labeled by many as the world’s hardest race. The 60-hour time limit passed Monday with no one having completed the race. A search began for the final runner on the course — Jamil Coury of Phoenix — when Coury hadn’t checked in 7 hours after the 48-hour limit to finish his fourth lap. He showed up before dark.

A group of Chicago hospitals have found a groundbreaking new way to battle a deadly ‘superbug’ [Julie Steenhuysen and Sharon Begley on Reuters via Business Insider] (3/25/15)

The CDC is pointing to the success of the Chicago Prevention Epicenter, one of five such CDC-funded programs nationally that coordinate research between local scientists and public health officials. The Chicago study focused on four long-term acute care hospitals, which tend to have above average rates of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, called a “nightmare bacteria” because even the strongest antibiotics fail to subdue it…The program involved testing all patients for CRE infections at the time of admission and again two weeks later. Patients who developed CRE were isolated in a private room or in a ward with other CRE-infected patients. Healthcare workers wore protective gowns while tending to them, using some of the procedures used when caring for patients with Ebola. All infected patients were bathed in chlorhexidine gluconate, an antiseptic commonly used in hospitals. At the end of three years, cases of CRE infections fell by half, Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease expert at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told Reuters. Lin said the exact protocol might not be suitable for the average U.S. hospital, but shows how a focused strategy can help the CDC reach its goals.

In More Cities and States, Car Commuting is on the Skids [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (11/14/14)

Nationwide, the percentage of workers who commute by car declined from 88 percent in 2000 to 86 percent in 2010-2013, according to a Stateline analysis of census numbers.  Car commuting percentages were down dramatically in some urban areas, but also in smaller Western towns that are making a focused effort to promote alternatives. The places with the most dramatic declines include the District of Columbia, where the rate declined 11 percentage points to 39 percent; the Bronx, New York, where it was down 9 percentage points to 28 percent; and Hudson County, New Jersey (home of Jersey City), where it was down 8 percentage points to 47 percent. The rate increased in only three states—Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota—where new oil and gas jobs prompted people to travel long distances to work.

Steep Costs of Inmate Phone Calls Under Scrutiny [New York Times via Governing Magazine] (3/30/15)

Until the 1990s, inmates could place and receive calls to lawyers and family members at rates similar to those outside prison walls. But the prison phone system is now a $1.2 billion-a-year industry dominated by a few private companies that manage phones in prisons and jails in all 50 states, setting rates and fees far in excess of those established by regular commercial providers. The business is so considerable — some 500 million prison and jail phone calls totaling more than six billion minutes in 2014 — that it has caught the eye of private equity firms.

At Kodak, Clinging to a Future Beyond Film [Quentin Hardy on The New York Times] (3/20/15)

Rochester today is a much diminished place. According to the Census Bureau, median household income is about $30,900, about half the overall New York State level, and the F.B.I. says the murder rate is about five times that of New York City…Kodak tried to change and grow. It diversified into pharmaceuticals, paying $5.1 billion for Sterling Drug in 1988. Kodak’s researchers invented digital photography and put the technology in professional cameras in the 1990s. There were plans to move to digital consumer cameras, but the cash Kodak made on traditional photography made it complacent. By 2001, even before smartphone cameras, film sales started to fall by 20 to 30 percent every year. A huge expenditure to get Kodak into home printing, a last bid for the consumer, failed. Mr. Clarke isn’t pursuing anything so ambitious. And while Kodak was synonymous with Rochester for decades, the new C.E.O. lives across the country in San Francisco, where he stayed after the HP merger. While he has appeared at some local events, he has yet to meet Rochester’s mayor and rarely stays in town more than a few nights at a time. Few see him in the traditional Kodak mold, an executive who will be around for decades. “Clarke is what Kodak needs,” said William Pollock, who runs the Kingsbury Corporation, the small Rochester-area manufacturer that is teaming up with the new Kodak on touch-based sensors. “He’s more like an entrepreneur, and he never sleeps in the same place two nights running. People say, ‘He’s not Rochester, he’s not Kodak.’ I say, ‘Good for him.’ ”

The Brain’s Empathy Gap [Jeneen Interlandi on New York Times] (3/19/15)

In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to map empathy’s pathways in the brain. We know that the ability to identify other people’s thoughts and feelings as separate from our own (what psychologists refer to as having a “theory of mind”) is associated with a handful of interconnected brain regions known collectively as the “theory-of-mind network.” And we’ve begun to pin specific tasks — like identifying other people’s mental states, or making moral judgments about their actions — to specific parts of this network. But the picture remains incomplete. We still need to map a host of other empathy-related tasks — like judging the reasonableness of people’s arguments and sympathizing with their mental and emotional states — to specific brain regions. And then we need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? Why is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus? So far, Bruneau says, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. Many f.M.R.I. studies on empathy involve scanning subjects’ brains while they look at images of hands slammed in doors or of faces poked with needles. Scientists have shown that the same brain regions light up when you watch such things happen to someone else as when you experience them or imagine them happening to you. “To me, that’s not empathy,” Bruneau says. “It’s what you do with that information that determines whether it’s empathy or not.” A psychopath might demonstrate the same neural flashes in response to the same painful images but experience glee instead of distress. Similarly, stronger neural activity might correlate with how relevant a group or individual is to us, not what we feel for them. In a 2012 study, Bruneau showed that Arabs and Israelis displayed equal amounts of neural activity in their theory-of-mind regions when they read articles about their own group’s suffering as when they read about the other group’s suffering. But when they read about the suffering of South Americans — a group with whom they were not in direct conflict — their theory-of-mind regions quieted down. As far as the brain is concerned, he says, the opposite of love might not be hate but indifference.

‘They Didn’t Believe the Camels Were Ours’: What a journalist’s seven-year walk around the world reveals about global policing [Ken Armstrong Interviews Paul Salopek on The Marshall Project] (3/23/15)

To retrace humankind’s migration out of Africa, American journalist Paul Salopek is walking around the world, starting in Ethiopia and ending in Tierra del Fuego. His journey is the ultimate exercise in slow journalism, allowing him to canvass secluded reaches and capture remote voices, all at three miles an hour. He is now on the third year of his seven-year, 21,000-mile trek – and so far, he has been stopped by police and various security forces 42 times, all of them charted.

A Team of Biohackers Has Figured Out How to Inject Your Eyeballs With Night Vision  [Max Plenke on Science.Mic] (3/25/15)

Science for the Masses, a group of biohackers based a couple hours north of Los Angeles in Tehachapi, California, theorized they could enhance healthy eyesight enough that it would induce night vision. To do this, the group used a kind of chlorophyll analog called Chlorin e6 (or Ce6), which is found in some deep-sea fish and is used as an occasional method to treat night blindness.

Rolling Stone’s investigation: ‘A failure that was avoidable’ [Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, and Derek Kravitz on The Columbia Journalism Review] (4/5/15)

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from. In late March, after a four-month investigation, the Charlottesville, Va., police department said that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and had concluded, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.” The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail. As at other once-robust print magazines and newspapers, Rolling Stone’s editorial staff has shrunk in recent years as print advertising revenue has fallen and shifted online. The magazine’s full-time editorial ranks, not including art or photo staff, have contracted by about 25 percent since 2008. Yet Rolling Stone continues to invest in professional fact-checkers and to fund time-consuming investigations like Erdely’s. The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.

Want Kids to Learn Math? Stop Teaching It [Susan Engel via Bloomberg Views] (4/6/15)

learning math can give us intellectual strengths different from the ones we get reading novels, studying history or poking around in a petri dish. However, these kinds of thinking are not necessarily tied to numbers, certainly not at the novice level. Advanced mathematics requires students to reason logically, be patient, methodical and playful in trying out solutions to a problem, imagine various routes to the same end, tolerate uncertainty and search for elegance. They need to know when to trust their quantitative intuitions and when to engage in counterintuitive thinking. However, such abilities are usually precluded by the typical K-12 curriculum — a dizzying array of isolated skills and procedures, which many college professors say they spend too much time getting students to “unlearn.” Research has shown that many students who do perfectly well on math tests often can’t apply a single thing they have learned in any other setting. We end up missing a chance to teach them what they would really need in order to go on to higher-level math or to think well. Instead of a good score in algebra, children need three things: 1. Time. For the most part, children think concretely when they are young, and become more capable of abstract thought later. A huge industry has grown up around the idea that we can game the human system and teach children to think abstractly before they are ready. Such strategies haven’t been very successful, and they preclude activities that would be much more compelling and useful to young minds. 2. Reading. Research has demonstrated that literacy is crucial to abstract thought. Children who read become capable of specific kinds of conceptual and logical thought not available to others. This opens the door to thinking about things that are not part of one’s immediate tangible experience, a crucial aspect of higher mathematics. 3. Intellectual challenges. Children who are immersed in informal quantitative reasoning come to more formal math tasks, at a later age, with much greater ease. Similarly, children who are asked to give reasons for their thinking, or speculate about the past and future, are well positioned to learn various kinds of logic and argument.

The Good Old Days Were Fine. These Days Are Better [Charles Kenny on Bloomberg News] (4/6/15)

This veneration of the past is widespread. A recent poll asked Americans which decade of the 20th century they would most like to go back to; the most popular answer was the 1950s. That’s linked to a human tendency to judge things on a relative basis. For those who lived through them, the 1950s were a happy time of growth in both income and opportunity, while the past decade has witnessed stagnation and rising inequality. Yet by almost every other objective measure, life is simply much better now than it was in the ’50s for just about everyone—and that should give us considerable confidence that progress will continue in the future. It’s hard to find a measure of the quality of life in the U.S. that was not markedly lower in 1950 than it is today. In that year the median family income was $28,000, compared with $64,000 in 2013. Life expectancy at birth was 68 years, vs. 79 today, and tuberculosis, syphilis, whooping cough, and measles were still considerable killers—with prevalence between 10 and more than a hundred times today’s levels. One reason for poorer health was lower-quality housing: About a third of houses still lacked decent indoor plumbing (compared with fewer than 2 percent today), and air conditioning was a rare luxury. The homicide rate did climb in the 1960s and ’70s, but it has dropped since, and the 1950s level was higher than today’s. The year 1950 was also when the Korean War broke out—1.5 million American men were drafted to fight, and more than 36,000 died (five times the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The mobile-home trap: How a Warren Buffett empire preys on the poor [Mike Baker and Daniel Wagner on Seattle Times and The Center for Public Integrity] (4/2/15)

The disastrous deal ruined their finances and nearly their marriage. But until informed recently by a reporter, they didn’t realize that the homebuilder (Golden West), the dealer (Oakwood Homes) and the lender (21st Mortgage) were all part of a single company: Clayton Homes, the nation’s biggest homebuilder, which is controlled by its second-richest man — Warren Buffett. Buffett’s mobile-home empire promises low-income Americans the dream of homeownership. But Clayton relies on predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees, and interest rates that can exceed 15 percent, trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance, an investigation by The Seattle Times and Center for Public Integrity has found.

‘Iraq Is Finished': Tribal leaders reflect on the enemy destroying their country from within [Emma Sky on The Atlantic] (4/8/15)

Another explanation came from Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar, the paramount sheikh of the Shammar tribe, which has around 5 million members in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Last summer, in the wake of the Daesh takeover of Mosul, his mother and brother managed to escape just hours before their palatial 27-room house near Rabiah—northwest of Mosul on the Syrian border—was blown up, his photos and carpets destroyed, his horses scattered to the wilds. It was a house that I knew well and had visited many times. From 2003 onward, Abdullah had decided that he and his family would cooperate with international coalition forces to secure their area, rather than fight against them. Daesh did not suddenly take control of Mosul last summer, Abdullah told me over dinner with his family at his house in Amman. For years, there had been so much corruption in local government that Daesh had been able to buy influence and supporters. Government in Iraq, he said, was a business—a family business in which politicians in Baghdad and Mosul had stolen millions of dollars worth of the country’s wealth. Daesh had then been able to exploit this situation to take control, presenting itself as a better alternative to corrupt local government.

Gun Trouble [Robert H. Scales on The Atlantic] (January/February 2015)

One afternoon just a month and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, Christopher Spencer, the creator of a seven-shot repeating rifle, walked Abraham Lincoln out to a grassy field near where the Washington Monument now stands in order to demonstrate the amazing potential of his new gun. Lincoln had heard about the mystical powers of repeating rifles at Gettysburg and other battles where some Union troops already had them. He wanted to test them for the rest of his soldiers. The president quickly put seven rounds inside a small target 40 yards away. He was sold. But to Army bureaucrats, repeaters were an expensive, ammunition-wasting nuisance. Ignorant, unimaginative, vain, and disloyal to the point of criminality, the Army’s chief of ordnance, General James Wolfe Ripley, worked to sabotage every effort to equip the Union Army with repeating rifles, mostly because he couldn’t be bothered. He largely succeeded. The Civil War historian Robert V. Bruce speculated that had such rifles been widely distributed to the Union Army by 1862, the Civil War would have been shortened by years, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Ripley’s bureaucratic victory over Lincoln was the beginning of the longest-running defense scandal in American history. I should know. I was almost one of Ripley’s victims. In June of 1969, in the mountains of South Vietnam, the battery I commanded at Firebase Berchtesgaden had spent the day firing artillery in support of infantry forces dug into “Hamburger Hill.” Every person and object in the unit was coated with reddish-brown clay blown upward by rotor wash from Chinook helicopters delivering ammunition. By evening, we were sleeping beside our M16 rifles. I was too inexperienced—or perhaps too lazy—to demand that my soldiers take a moment to clean their guns, even though we had heard disturbing rumors about the consequences of shooting a dirty M16. At 3 o’clock in the morning, the enemy struck. They were armed with the amazingly reliable and rugged Soviet AK‑47, and after climbing up our hill for hours dragging their guns through the mud, they had no problems unleashing devastating automatic fire. Not so my men. To this day, I am haunted by the sight of three of my dead soldiers lying atop rifles broken open in a frantic attempt to clear jams. With a few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.

Complex organic molecules discovered in infant star system: Hints that building blocks of chemistry of life are universal [European Southern Observatory – ESO via Science Daily] (4/8/15)

For the first time, astronomers have detected the presence of complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life, in a protoplanetary disc surrounding a young star. The discovery reaffirms that the conditions that spawned the Earth and Sun are not unique in the Universe.

It’s the Weekend! Why Are You Working? [Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats on The Harvard Business Review] (4/10/15)

One reason so many of us work on the weekend is that we receive pleasure from feeling productive. In a recent study, one of us (Francesca) asked a group of over 500 employed individuals to think about and describe one of four experiences: a time when they felt productive at work, very busy, unproductive, or not busy at all. When people wrote about a time when they felt productive, they reported feeling at their best and happy with life — more so than in any other condition. It is by feeling productive, these data suggest, that we believe we are making some sort of a difference in the world. But research also suggests another answer to the question of why we work when we’re supposed to be taking it easy: We tend to forego leisure in favor of working and earning beyond our needs. In a series of laboratory studies, Christopher K. Hsee of the University of Chicago and his collaborators showed this was true even when they eliminated possible reasons participants could use for over-earning, such as uncertainty about the future and a desire to pass on money to others.

The True Story of Pretty Woman’s Original Dark Ending [Kate Erbland on Vanity Fair] (3/23/15)

That’s not exactly what happened, though Ziskin certainly contributed to the film’s conclusion. And while it would also be a good, dark Hollywood story if screenwriter J.F. Lawton were devastated by the way his gritty drama, originally called 3,000, was turned into the uber-rom-com Pretty Woman, that’s not what happened either. Lawton was a struggling screenwriter when he first wrote 3,000 in the late 1980s, a dark drama that drew inspiration from films like Wall Street and The Last Detail. As Lawton tells it, he was just trying to do something new to get a gig. “I was a screenwriter who was trying to get a job, I was unemployed and I was working in post-production and I was trying to sell scripts, and I had been writing all of these ninja scripts and comedies, and I just couldn’t get any attention.” So, it was time for a change. “I suddenly said, ‘Well, maybe I need to do something more serious and dramatic,’ and I had written a script called Red Sneakers which was about a one-legged lesbian standup comic who was an alcoholic, and all of a sudden, I got a lot of attention. People were really interested! People were talking to me.”

The Pentagon’s $10-billion bet gone bad [David Willman on The Los Angeles Times] (4/5/15)

Leaders of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency were effusive about the new technology. It was the most powerful radar of its kind in the world, they told Congress. So powerful it could detect a baseball over San Francisco from the other side of the country. If North Korea launched a sneak attack, the Sea-Based X-Band Radar — SBX for short — would spot the incoming missiles, track them through space and guide U.S. rocket-interceptors to destroy them. Crucially, the system would be able to distinguish between actual missiles and decoys. SBX “represents a capability that is unmatched,” the director of the Missile Defense Agency told a Senate subcommittee in 2007. In reality, the giant floating radar has been a $2.2-billion flop, a Los Angeles Times investigation found. Although it can powerfully magnify distant objects, its field of vision is so narrow that it would be of little use against what experts consider the likeliest attack: a stream of missiles interspersed with decoys. SBX was supposed to be operational by 2005. Instead, it spends most of the year mothballed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The project not only wasted taxpayer money but left a hole in the nation’s defenses. The money spent on it could have gone toward land-based radars with a greater capability to track long-range missiles, according to experts who have studied the issue. Expensive missteps have become a trademark of the Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon charged with protecting U.S. troops and ships and the American homeland. Over the last decade, the agency has sunk nearly $10 billion into SBX and three other programs that had to be killed or sidelined after they proved unworkable, The Times found.

[on Outside Online]

No cookie-cutter training plan is ever going to work. I’m a great example. Before my senior year of high school, I got up to 85 miles per week of training, which isn’t a lot for a pro, but was a lot for someone my age. When I came to college, I really got interested in physiology and took a scientific approach to my training. I found I was better at cross-country by training 35 miles per week with hill intervals instead of doing 85 miles per week. People need to pay attention to their training plans, because if something is not working for you as well as the next guy, it may be your biology, so you should try another plan…The cookie cutter approach to training is purely a facet of having a large group of people to train. If you’re writing a training book, then you have to be more broad. In the book, there’s a Danish scientist who biopsies his athletes and he’s found guys with huge fast twitch muscles and he tells them, “You’re working out too much because you’re causing your fast twitch muscles to take on the properties of more endurance muscle fibers.”…I think part of the genius of Usain Bolt is that if you read his biography, 9.58, he talks about how lazy he is and he likes his coach because his coach realizes he won’t show up for practice some days. Who knows what his proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, but probably it’s huge. Those guys get hurt if they train too much, or they convert their super-fast-twitch muscle fibers into normal fast twitch. They take on the properties of endurance muscle fibers. Bolt will ramp up to peak when he needs too. For some guys, less training is the best medicine.

How a bee sting saved my life: poison as medicine [Christie Wilcox on Mosaic Science] (3/24/15)

The idea that the same venom toxins that cause harm may also be used to heal is not new. Bee venom has been used as a treatment in East Asia since at least the second century BCE. In Chinese traditional medicine, scorpion venom is recognised as a powerful medicine, used to treat everything from eczema to epilepsy. Mithradates VI of Pontus, a formidable enemy of Rome (and also an infamous toxinologist), was said to have been saved from a potentially fatal wound on the battlefield by using steppe viper venom to stop the bleeding. “Over millions of years, these little chemical engineers have developed a diversity of molecules that target different parts of our nervous system,” says Ken Winkel, Director of the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne. “This idea of applying these potent nerve toxins to somehow interrupt a nervous disease has been there for a long time. But we haven’t known enough to safely and effectively do that.” Despite the wealth of history, the practical application of venoms in modern therapeutics has been minimal. That is, until the past ten years or so, according to Glenn King at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. In 1997, when Ellie was bouncing around from doctor to doctor, King was teasing apart the components of the venom from the Australian funnel-web, a deadly spider. He’s now at the forefront of venom drug discovery…Over the course of the 20th century, suggested venom treatments for a range of diseases have appeared in scientific and medical literature. Venoms have been shown to fight cancer, kill bacteria, and even serve as potent painkillers – though many have only gone as far as animal tests. At the time of writing, just six had been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for medical use (one other – Baltrodibin, adapted from the venom of the Lancehead snake – is not FDA approved, but is available outside the US for treatment of bleeding during operations). The more we learn about the venoms that cause such awful damage, the more we realise, medically speaking, how useful they can be. Like the melittin in bee venom. Melittin does not only cause pain. In the right doses, it punches holes in cells’ protective membranes, causing the cells to explode. At low doses, melittin associates with the membranes, activating lipid-cutting enzymes that mimic the inflammation caused by heat. But at higher concentrations, and under the right conditions, melittin molecules group together into rings creating large pores in membranes, weakening a cell’s protective barrier and causing the entire cell to swell and pop like a balloon. Because of this, melittin is a potent antimicrobial, fighting off a variety of bacteria and fungi with ease. And scientists are hoping to capitalise on this action to fight diseases like HIV, cancer, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. For example, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, have found that melittin can tear open HIV’s protective cell membrane without harming human cells. This envelope-busting method also stops the virus from having a chance to evolve resistance.

Inside the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors [Peter Pomerantsev on The Guardian] (4/9/15)

The thing that Margo Gontar found easiest to deal with were the dead children. They were all over her computer screens – on news sites and social media – next to headlines that blamed the deaths on Ukrainian fascist gangs trained by Nato. It was early 2014, Crimea had just been taken over by soldiers who seemed Russian and sounded Russian but who were wearing no national insignia, and who Vladimir Putin, with a little grin, had just told the whole world were not Russian at all. Now eastern Ukraine was being taken over by separatists. Gontar was trying to fight back. She could usually locate the original images of the dead with a simple Google search. Some of the photographs were actually from other, older wars; some were from crime scenes that had nothing to with Ukraine; some even came from movies. Gontar posted her research on a myth-busting website called StopFake, which had been started in March by volunteers like her at the journalism school of Mohyla University in Kiev. It felt good being able to sort truth from lies, to feel some kind of certainty amid so much confusion. But sometimes things could get more complicated. Russian state-television news began to fill up with plump, weeping women and elderly men who told tales of Ukrainian nationalists beating up Russian-speakers. These witnesses seemed genuine enough. But soon Gontar would see the same plump women and the same injured men appearing in different newscasts, identified as different people. In one report, a woman would be an “Odessa resident”, then next she would be a “soldier’s mother”, then a “Kharkiv resident” and then an “anti-Maidan activist”…Before long, she found herself, and StopFake, becoming part of the story. Russian media had begun to cite StopFake in their own reports – but would make it look like Gontar was presenting the falsified story as truth, rather than debunking it. It was like seeing herself reflected in a mirror upside down. She felt dizzy. At times like this, she had always reached out to western media for a sense of something solid, but this was starting to slip too. Whenever somewhere like the BBC or Tagesspiegel published a story, they felt obliged to present the Kremlin’s version of events – fascists, western conspiracy, etc – as the other side, for balance. Gontar began to wonder whether her search for certainty was futile: if the truth was constantly shifting before her eyes, and there was always another side to every story, was there anything solid left to hold on to?

Why Colt Can’t Shoot Straight [Paul M. Barrett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/29/14)

In the 1970s, Colt and other American gunmakers, following the bad example of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, grew smug and lazy. Like Japanese and German car companies, more nimble foreign gunmakers grabbed market share. By the 1980s, Smith & Wesson had lost the U.S. police to Austria’s Glock, while Colt saw Italy’s Beretta snatch its main U.S. Army sidearm contract. In 1985, Colt plant employees who belonged to the United Auto Workers launched a protracted strike for higher pay. Replacement employees weren’t up to the task, and “quality suffered badly,” says Feldman, then an organizer for the National Rifle Association. In 1988 the Pentagon gave Colt’s M16 contract to FN Herstal of Belgium. Four years later, Colt filed for bankruptcy court protection from its creditors. “With the end of the Cold War,” says Hopkins, the firearms marketer, “it seemed like the company might never recover.”…Other gun industry veterans look at Colt and shake their heads. “I don’t know what it is about them—they just can’t get their act together, and this is not anything new,” says Paul Jannuzzo, an independent consultant based in Savannah, Ga. He headed Glock’s U.S. subsidiary from the early 1990s through 2003. During that period, the Austrian handgun maker didn’t bother to keep up closely with what Colt was doing, because the Connecticut company wasn’t a competitive threat, he says. Despite that, Jannuzzo continues, Colt retains a place in the hearts of many American gun owners. “For logo recognition, historical fame, and brand status, I would take Colt over any other name,” he says. “Perhaps Colt should just leave the Connecticut Valley and change their karma.”

See Also: Glock vs. Smith & Wesson: A Shootout for the Pentagon’s New Pistol Contract [Paul M. Barrett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (12/4/14)

Wounded turtle can return to the ocean thanks to a 3D-printed beak [Mariella Moon on Engadget] – RW

The company recreated the reptile’s upper and lower jaws through software, and it printed out the resulting design using medical-grade titanium. That beak has been surgically attached recently so the critter’s still in recovery, but it’s doing just fine, as you can see in the video below. Once it’s done recovering, the rescuers plan to release back to the ocean to live a normal turtley life. We’re happy for it — we really are! — but we’re also kinda sad that it would probably never meet the tortoise with a 3D-printed shell.

Every Killer Car in Mad Max: Fury Road Explained [Hannah Elliot on Bloomberg News] (5/12/15) – Clavennas

Colin Gibson is the man responsible for creating the movie’s pantheon of automotive insanity. As in previous movies, cars in this post-Apocalyptic desert wasteland are your weapons and your god. (The last one with Mel Gibson, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, came out 30 years ago.) They possess personalities as important as the leather-and-metal-clad maniacs who drive them. This film is one long car chase in a world drunk on “guzzoline.” As the head production designer and art director, Gibson previously worked with series writer and director George Miller on decidedly lighter fare: Babe. (He also led production for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.)…For the main story line, Gibson created 88 final cars, each with its own story and team of mechanics. But all told, he made 150 Frankenbeast vehicles—because when you’ve got one man with nothing to lose going up against a frothing militia of white-dusted War Boys, you’ve got to have some to burn. “There were cars that would only drive in reverse, and some had to snap in half,” Gibson says. Many of the wide-range shots were filmed with helicopters and drones at up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour. All the stunts were real. “The camera department was terrified,” he says. “When you have 80 cars flying at 80-km per hour, occasionally you have some that don’t keep up. We destroyed more than half of those in the actual making of the film.” After all that, Gibson has no injuries to report. “We had a lot of chapped lips,” he says, laughing. “I made the mistake of not putting in windscreens.”

Curiously Strong Remains:

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12
May
15

Roundup – ALL THE NAMES FROM EXPECT NO MERCY!

Best of the Best:

Neuroaesthetics: Researchers unravel the biology of beauty and art [Anjan Chatterjee on The Scientist] (5/1/14)

One type of damage that can affect artistic ability occurs in frontotemporal dementias, a group of degenerative neurological diseases in which patients experience profound personality changes. Such people can be disinhibited and disorganized, exhibit obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and have problems with language, attention, and the ability to make decisions. A few people with such dementias develop a propensity to produce art. This artwork is typically realistic, obsessive, and detailed—the graphical embodiments of acquired obsessive-compulsive traits. Some case studies support the hypothesis that disorders characterized by obsessive-compulsive traits can be accompanied by a preternatural ability to produce art. For example, one autism-afflicted child named Nadia could draw lifelike horses by the age of three despite many cognitive and social developmental delays. Among the most intriguing examples are those in which artists suffer some sort of brain injury or neurodegenerative disease that changes the way they paint in interesting new ways, as was the case with de Kooning. Another artist, German painter and printmaker Lovis Corinth, had a stroke that damaged the right side of his brain in 1911. Damage to the right hemisphere can stunt processing of information on the opposite side of one’s body and artists suffering such brain damage often neglect the left side of images that they produce. After his stroke, Corinth sometimes omitted details on the left side of his subjects’ faces, and textures on the left often blended into the background. (These later works were regarded highly by critics, one of whom wrote that Corinth had “become prescient for the hidden facets of appearance,” according to Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.1) Damage to the right side of the brain can also result in spatial processing impairment. After American artist Loring Hughes experienced a right-hemisphere stroke, she had difficulty coordinating the spatial relationship between lines, which forced her to abandon her realistic style and adopt a more expressive one. Artists with damage to the left side of their brains sometimes introduce more vivid colors and change the content of their imagery. The Bulgarian painter Zlatio Boiadjiev was known for his use of earth tones and a natural and pictorial style. Following a stroke that affected the left side of his brain, Boiadjiev’s paintings became richer, more colorful, fluid, energetic, and even fantastical. Similarly, when the Californian artist Katherine Sherwood suffered a left-hemisphere hemorrhagic stroke, her “highly cerebral” style, in which she incorporated esoteric images of cross-dressers, medieval seals, and spy photos, changed to a style that critics have described as “raw” and “intuitive.” Forced to use her left hand, she found it to be “unburdened,” allowing her to enjoy an ease and grace with the brush that her right hand never had.2 The Assessment of Art Attributes (AAA), which I published with collaborators in 2010, allows researchers to quantitatively assess an artwork’s formal visual attributes, such as overall complexity, balance, and color saturation and temperature, as well as the qualities of its content, including abstractness, realism, and symbolism. My lab recently applied the AAA to the works of Corinth, Boiadjiev, and Sherwood to reveal that the right hemisphere is not dominant for artistic production, as is commonly believed.3 Rather, the paintings of all three artists, two of whom had left-brain injuries, became more abstract and distorted, less realistic and accurate, following brain injury. The works were also rendered with looser strokes, more flatness, and greater vibrancy. Clearly, both hemispheres participate in artistic production. Clinical evidence also points to the effects of brain damage on art appreciation. Damage to the right frontal lobe, for example, impairs judgments of abstractness, realism, animacy, and symbolism, while damage to the right parietal lobe also impairs judgments of animacy and symbolism.4

The Trade of the Century: When George Soros Broke the British Pound [Rohin Dhar on Priceonomics] (5/15/14)

As Europe slept, Soros borrowed and sold pounds from anyone that he could. The Quantum Fund’s position exceeded $10 billion shorting the pound. Other hedge funds got wind of the the trade and the report from the Bundesbank and started following suit, also borrowing and selling pounds. By the time London markets opened for business and British treasury officials started their day, tens of billions of pounds had been sold and the the pound was dangerously close to trading below the levels mandated by the ERM. The Bank of England was about to have a very shitty day.

The Rise of Nintendo: A Story in 8 Bits [Blake J. Harris on Grantland] (5/14/14)

At first glance, Radarscope may have appeared to be just another shoot-’em-up space game, but it distinguished itself with incredibly sharp graphics and an innovative 3-D perspective. After receiving positive feedback from test locations around the Seattle area, Arakawa invested much of NOA’s remaining resources in three thousand units. But a few weeks later, before the rest of the arcade cabinets even arrived, Arakawa felt an ominous chill upon revisiting the test locations, where he noticed that nobody was playing his crucial new game. That foreboding was validated after the three thousand units finally arrived and Stone and Judy found that operators had little interest. Radarscope was fun at first, the consensus appeared to be, but it lacked replay value. With so much invested in this game, the last remaining hope was for a designer in Japan to quickly create a game and send over processors with that new game to America, where NOA employees could swap out the motherboard and then repaint the arcade cabinets. This task was given to Shigeru Miyamoto, a floppy-haired first-time designer who believed that videogames should be treated with the same respect given to books, movies, and television shows. His efforts to elevate the art form were given a boost when he was informed that Nintendo was close to finalizing a licensing deal with King Features, enabling him to develop his game around the popular cartoon series Popeye the Sailor Man. Using those characters, he began crafting a game where Popeye must rescue his beloved Olive Oyl by hopping over obstacles tossed in his way by his obese archenemy, Bluto. Shipments containing the code for Miyamoto’s new game began to arrive. Due to last-minute negotiation issues with King Features, Nintendo had lost the rights to Popeye, which forced Miyamoto to come up with something else. As a result, Arakawa, Stone, Judy, and a handful of warehouse employees didn’t know what to expect. They inserted the new processor into one of the thousands of unsold Radarscope machines and then watched the lights flicker as the words “Donkey Kong” came to life on the arcade screen. The initial impression was that this was a silly game with an even sillier name. Who would possibly want to play a game where a tiny red plumber must rescue his beloved princess by hopping over obstacles tossed in his way by an obese gorilla? Yet, with no remaining options, Stone and Judy set out across the country to sell it. Never before had there been a quarter magnet quite like Donkey Kong. It was so successful, in fact, that it eventually attracted the attention of a major Hollywood studio, whose high-priced legal team believed that the game violated copyrights, and they threatened to crush Nintendo. To avoid this potentially crippling blow, Arakawa turned to the only lawyer he knew in Seattle: Howard Lincoln, an elegant, imposing former naval attorney whose only claim to fame was having modeled for Norman Rockwell’s painting The Scoutmaster when he was a child.

Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers [Jesse Katz on Los Angeles Magazine] (4/14/14)

Under Major League Baseball’s byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department’s outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent—and score a fat contract—is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing. The five men piloting Puig’s vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. At least two were fugitives—one, on the run from a federal indictment in Miami, was alleged to have extorted Cubans traveling this very route. They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel, which charged the smugglers a “right of passage” to use Isla Mujeres as a base.

Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified? [Molly Ball on The Atlantic] (5/14/14)

In state after state where labeling has been proposed, the politicians pushing it—mostly Democrats—tell the same story. The issue, they say, was hardly on their radar until a massive amount of constituent pressure put it there. In Vermont, the campaign for labeling was spearheaded by a coalition of organic farms and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Campaigners knocked on 80,000 doors and got 30,000 Vermonters to send postcards to their state legislators. Labeling proponents have focused their message not on attacking GMOs themselves but on consumers’ right to information…No widely accepted science supports the idea that GMOs are inherently dangerous to people’s health or the environment. To proponents, including many in the agribusiness industry, opposition to GMOs is nothing more than a dangerous mania, and the people in the grip of it are akin to those who refuse to vaccinate their children or who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate. Yet the grassroots fervor around the topic—driven by Internet rumors, liberal anti-corporatism, and mothers concerned about their children—is undeniable. More than a million people have signed a petition to the Food and Drug Administration asking it to label GMOs, the most of any petition in the agency’s history.

Allis Markham, Hollywood Taxidermy’s Rising Star [Caroline Winter on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/22/14)

In March, Markham began offering eight-person beginner taxidermy classes in Prey’s studio. The students, mostly women (and mostly tattooed), pay $265 for nine hours of instruction, during which they take a dead starling from frozen to mounted. “Starlings are big pests,” Markham tells a group of students in April, explaining that their specimens had been killed by a farmer in Wisconsin and mailed to her in a plastic English muffin bag. “They were introduced by a naturalist who thought it was a shame we didn’t have any of the birds Shakespeare wrote about, and now they’re among the most numerous birds in North America.” Markham walks around the room checking on her students’ progress. First they gut the birds, remove their brains and eyeballs, and clean all the tissue away from the bones. Next they remove fat from the skin using a spinning metal brush called a fleshing wheel. After rolling the birds in Chinchilla dust to remove excess oil, they blow-dry the feathers, reinforce the skulls with clay, and stick in tiny glass eyeballs. “I’m going to call my bird Clarice, after Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs,” says one student with pink hair. So far, Prey’s 11 classes have all sold out. Markham’s next project is to procure vintage taxidermy for an indie film. She’s so booked that she recently had to turn down jobs for Christian Louboutin—the shoe company wanted birds and butterflies for a press event—and I-D magazine, which asked for a “full-size ostrich in an upright position” for an editorial. After a long day, Markham’s happy to go home to her husband and her living foster dogs. “I come in smelling like heifer or tiger meat or whatever I’ve been working on, and the dogs go wild,” she says. “They must think I’m, like, the best hunter in the world.”

Beauty ≠ truth [Philip Ball on Aeon Magazine] (5/19/14)

Why shouldn’t scientists be allowed their own definition of beauty? Perhaps they should. Yet isn’t there a narrowness to the standard that they have chosen? Even that might not be so bad, if their cult of ‘beauty’ didn’t seem to undermine the credibility of what they otherwise so strenuously assert: the sanctity of evidence. It doesn’t matter who you are, they say, how famous or erudite or well-published: if your theory doesn’t match up to nature, it’s history. But if that’s the name of the game, why on earth should some vague notion of beauty be brought into play as an additional arbiter? Because of experience, they might reply: true theories are beautiful. Well, general relativity might have turned out OK, but plenty of others have not. Take the four-colour theorem: the proposal that it is possible to colour any arbitrary patchwork in just four colours without any patches of the same colour touching one another. In 1879 it seemed as though the British mathematician Alfred Kempe had found a proof – and it was widely accepted for a decade, because it was thought beautiful. It was wrong. The current proof is ugly as heck – it relies on a brute-force exhaustive computer search, which some mathematicians refuse to accept as a valid form of demonstration – but it might turn out to be all there is. The same goes for Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, first announced in 1993. The basic theorem is wonderfully simple and elegant, the proof anything but: 100 pages long and more complex than the Pompidou Centre. There’s no sign of anything simpler. It’s not hard to mine science history for theories and proofs that were beautiful and wrong, or complicated and right. No one has ever shown a correlation between beauty and ‘truth’. But it is worse than that, for sometimes ‘beauty’ in the sense that many scientists prefer – an elegant simplicity, to put it in crude terms – can act as a fake trump card that deflects inquiry. In one little corner of science that I can claim to know reasonably well, an explanation from 1959 for why water-repelling particles attract when immersed in water (that it’s an effect of entropy, there being more disordered water molecules when the particles stick together) was so neat and satisfying that it continues to be peddled today, even though the experimental data show that it is untenable and that the real explanation probably lies in a lot of devilish detail.

Where Are the Most Child Tax Credits Claimed? [Alan Cole on Tax Foundation] (4/29/15)

There is substantial variation among counties. In total, the range spans from a high of 31% in Shannon County SD to a low of 5% in Sumter County FL. There is even strong variation among counties within the same state. In California, for example, only 7% of filers in San Francisco County take the CTC. However, a couple hundred miles down I-5 in Kings County, 25% of filers take the CTC. There are several reasons for this variation. One of the most obvious of these is that highly urban areas are usually populated with more single adults than families. For this reason, San Francisco County (7%), Arlington County VA (6%), and New York County NY (6%) all have very few CTC takers. These are three of the four lowest proportions – but, as mentioned, the absolute lowest number comes from Sumter County in Florida (5%). Sumter County is a different story, one shared with Charlotte County (9%) and Citrus County (10%) in the same state, as well as several counties in northern Michigan. These counties have so few CTC takers because they have so many more retirees than the national average…In Sumter County, for example, almost half of all personal taxable income comes from Social Security, pensions, or private retirement accounts. There are other factors besides age, though. The CTC is means-tested, meaning that families with high incomes are often not eligible. For this reason, Falls Church VA (9%) has very few people taking the credit, even though it is a perfectly nice place to raise children. Falls Church is simply too wealthy, and many of its residents are ineligible.

Ten Days in Kenya With No Cash, Only a Phone [Charles Graeber on Bloomberg Businessweek] (6/5/14)

I had traveled from New York to Nairobi to learn how to do exactly this—to pay for things with a phone—and to understand why Kenya has gained a reputation as the mobile payments future. Almost everyone in the country uses M-pesa (M, for mobile; pesa is payment in Swahili) to transfer money from one phone to another via encrypted short message service, or SMS. In all, there are about 18.2 million active customers in a nation twice the size of Colorado…It is Safaricom’s version of mobile money that has become common currency in Kenya. The company grew out of Kenyan Posts & Telecommunications, the former state monopoly, and has been publicly traded since 2002. It introduced M-pesa in 2007, and people now make about 80 billion shillings in monthly M-pesa transactions and move more than 130 billion shillings in and out of the mobile system via 45,000 independent agents throughout the country. M-pesa took off almost instantly because it made it safer for Kenyans to send money home (instead of having cash carried by a cousin, say, on a bus prone to breakdowns, traffic accidents, and theft) and because M-pesa on a SIM card allowed millions of Kenyans without a bank account to become their own personal ATMs, especially appealing to farmers between harvests. If a Kenyan didn’t have a phone, she could simply borrow one; all she needed was a SIM card to be in business.

Welcome to Baku, the Filthy-Rich Capital of Azerbaijan [Christopher Bagley on Bloomberg News] (6/6/14)

Since 2006, when the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline prompted a surge in crude oil exports — up to a million barrels a day travel through neighboring Georgia and on to Turkey and the West — there’s been no shortage of cash in Baku. Now, the city is eager for the prestige that goes with it…If you’re not in the oil or gas business, or a follower of the Eurovision Song Contest, which this city hosted in 2012 after speed-building a purpose-made arena, it’s unlikely that Baku is top of mind. Despite a handful of recent news articles anointing it as the Caucasus’s answer to Dubai, Azerbaijan is not yet an established tourist destination, in part because of its draconian visa policy, which requires many foreigners to obtain an official invitation, usually from a hotel or registered Azerbaijani travel agent.

The Rise of the Tribute Band [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (5/19/14)

Similar to how “cover bands” play hit songs written or popularized by famous bands instead of their own material, “tribute bands” do not perform original songs. Instead, they exclusively perform songs by the band they pay tribute to, usually mimicking the band’s appearance, style, and name. With Only One Direction, fans get to see a performance very similar to One Direction at a fraction of the price. The success of Only One Direction is not an anomaly. While a few tribute acts are overzealous fans badly imitating their heroes, select tribute bands have enjoyed fame since tributes to The Beatles first sold out venues that once hosted The Beatles themselves. Tribute bands got their name from their roots reproducing the experience of seeing a performance by a band whose members died or split up. Today, however, you can book a Coldplay, Adele, or even Justin Bieber tribute act. A surprising number sell out major venues in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, hire an agent, and even record albums. Tribute bands make an obscene amount of business sense. It’s also unclear whether they are legal. Regardless, an increasing number of musicians seem to be enjoying the benefits of performing as second string music stars…Many bars don’t realize they need to pay for permission to host a band playing a few AC/DC songs (and cafes and stores often don’t realize that they have to pay to play CDs). So agents from BMI and ASCAP cross the country to educate them, while lawyers back up that education with legal threats that angry owners often compare to shakedowns. But as BMI and ASCAP represent almost the entire catalogue of copyrighted work, once a venue has paid them, it can play any music in any format, whether that means pushing play on a Spice Girls CD, paying a cover band to play hits from the eighties, or bringing in a Kiss tribute band.

Twinkie’s Miracle Comeback: The Untold, Inside Story of a $2 Billion Feast [Steven Bertoni on Forbes] (4/15/15)

Before they could reinvent Hostess, the new owners had to rebuild it–no small thing. The deal closed in April 2013. For their $410 million Metropoulos and Apollo got those cake brands, the recipes and five factories. There were no employees, no marketing, no delivery routes, no shelf space–no sugar or cocoa or flour. No one had bought a Twinkie or a Ding Dong for six months. Moreover, the new business plan called for the same output using a fraction of the labor. The old Hostess dessert division required 9,000 employees and 14 factories to pump out just under $1 billion worth of cakes a year. The new plan called for 1,000 people and five plants (that number was soon cut to three as one was sold, another shuttered). William Toler, a veteran of Metropoulos turnarounds, was brought in as CEO. Metropoulos’ recipe was threefold. First he spent $110 million modernizing the remaining factories–everything from a utomation (massive, new $20 million Auto Bakers) to improving air flow in the bakeries so they’d be more tolerable for workers in the hot summer months. “You must improve employee conditions, fix the cracks on the floor and those types of things,” says Metropoulos. “It affects the pride, energy and culture of the plant, and that translates into everything.” Next came a $25 million SAP software system to manage inventory and logistics. Shipping posed the biggest challenge of all. Because Wonder Bread had a shelf life of only a few days, the old Hostess relied on more than 5,000 delivery routes to drop off product to individual stores several times a week. It was incredibly expensive (each route required a driver, a truck, gas and insurance), eating up 36% of revenue each year. Worse, it limited the stores that c ould be reach ed. Gas stations and convenience stores were too small to warrant a stop. Dollar stores and pharmacies used independent distributors and were unreachable with this network. Since the new Hostess just had the cakes, not the bread, it could rethink everything. A switch to a centralized–warehouse model would both save money and get Hostess products into more shops. The problem: Twinkies–with a reputation as the cockroach of the food kingdom, able to survive flood, famine and nuclear war–had a shelf life of only about 25 days. And since the warehouse model meant food might have to sit in storage as long as two weeks, even Twinkies risked going stale. The magic bullet turned out to be chemistry. Metropoulos spent millions on R&D, working with food lab Corbion to tweak the formula of starches, oils and gums in Twinkies, finally arriving at an acidity level that would prevent staleness and discoloration. The singular goal: Make the Twinkie warehouse-friendly. And while none of this will make Alice Waters’ heart flutter, the team succeeded in making the indestructible snack even more so–it’s shelf life was more than doubled, to 65 days. Hostess switched to a warehouse system.

Increase in Bike Deaths Prompts Concerns [Daniel C. Vock on Governing Magazine] (10/28/14)

The number of U.S. bicyclists killed in traffic increased in 2011 and 2012, despite an overall decline in cycling fatalities that stretches back to the 1970s, according to a new analysis by a traffic safety group. A total of 722 American cyclists died in motor vehicle crashes in 2012, compared to 680 deaths in 2011 and 621 in 2010, reported the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state transportation safety agencies. The 16 percent uptick in bicycle deaths during that period came at a time when motor vehicle deaths increased by 1 percent. There are some indications that the increase in cyclists deaths correspond with an increase in the number of cyclists overall, but the data is limited. We don’t really know that more Americans are riding bycycles at all…Most of the cyclist deaths in the three-year period occurred in California, Florida, Texas, New York, Illinois and Michigan. Florida had the largest increase in the country, with 37 more deaths in 2012 than in 2010. Michigan had the largest decrease from 2012 to 2010, with 10 fewer deaths.

In South Africa, Ranchers Are Breeding Mutant Animals to Be Hunted [Kevin Crowley on Bloomberg News] (3/11/15)

Operators don’t guarantee kills, yet to leave hunters disappointed is generally seen as bad business, says Peet van der Merwe, a professor of tourism and leisure studies at South Africa’s North-West University. Killing lions was the biggest revenue generator for the country’s hunting industry in 2013, followed by buffalo, kudu, and white rhinos. As the hunting industry has grown, so have the numbers of large game animals that populate South Africa’s grasslands. In other parts of Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania, the opposite has been true: Large mammal populations have been decimated as farms and other human activities encroached on wild areas. But South Africa is one of only two countries on the continent to allow ownership of wild animals, giving farmers such as York an incentive to switch from raising cattle to breeding big game.

Which Companies Get the Most Federal Subsidies? [Mike Maciag on Governing Magazine]

Good Jobs First, an economic development watchdog group, published Tuesday what it considers to be the first comprehensive database of corporate subsidies at the federal level, tallying awards from 137 different programs. In all, the federal government has awarded grants and allocated tax credits totaling $68 billion since 2000. Spanish electric utility company Iberdrola was identified as the largest single recipient of federal grants and tax credits in the group’s report. The company has received nearly $2.2 billion since 2000, mostly stemming from investments in power generation facilities supported by the Recovery Act.

How To Make $500,000 A Year On Twitter [Nicole Laporte on Fast Company]

But for a one-man operation, the schedule was challenging, he says, and earlier this year he was called out by BuzzFeed and Gizmodo for posting a number of untrue, or, in some cases, untrue-ish, facts. (One of the latter had to do with a Huggies diaper that sends out a tweet when a baby pees; Sanchez maintains that a prototype of the diaper was made, even if it didn’t actually hit the market.) “There are so many tweets going out each day that it was tough for one person, being me, to make sure that every single one of them was completely true,” he says, adding, “Anything that I posted up there, I thought was true. And I’m always bummed to find out that it isn’t.” Sanchez is visibly still hurt by the incident—which he calls “my first public mess”—though he’s eager to talk about it, perhaps because it wound up prompting a major maturation in himself and his company. “It was really the first time I was really publicly attacked on the Internet. And, you know, BuzzFeed is a really popular website. And it was Lindsay Lohan’s face and my face on their front page. It was after that that I was like, okay, UberFacts needs to be treated like a real brand. It has a large following and I want to put more work in it and make it better. I just want to increase the quality of it.”

Zimbabwe Can’t Pipe Water so Taxes Private Supplies Instead [Brian Latham on Bloomberg News] (10/22/14)

Zimbabwe’s government hasn’t been able to supply piped water to much of the southern African nation’s capital, Harare, for most of the past decade. Now it’s taxing private suppliers as it struggles to pay state workers. The levy on water pumped from boreholes and supplied by tankers to private houses, imposed on Oct. 1, is one of a host of taxes that the government has put in place, ranging from duties on cellphone airtime to increased import duties on cars and motor fuel, to shore up sagging revenue amid slowing economic growth…In addition to an inadequate water and power supplies, most roads are riddled with potholes, and few streetlights work. That’s a legacy of the almost decade-long recession that began in 2000, triggered by a botched land reform program that slashed exports of crops such as tobacco, and has reduced the size of the economy by half, according to government estimates. The state is struggling to pay salaries that consume 76 percent of the budget.

Coens’ Wood Chipper Draws Crowds as Fargo Laments Image [on Bloomberg News] (10/24/14)

Jason Gireto donned a plaid hunting cap to pose for the requisite souvenir: a photo with colleagues shoving a white-socked mannequin leg into the wood chipper used in the 1996 Academy Award-winning dark comedy “Fargo.” Yet even as hundreds of visitors a year flock to the machine made famous in a vivid bit of movie mayhem, local leaders are working to update the perception of Fargo, the place. The world should know the North Dakota city as a diversified engine of regional growth — not the peculiar locale depicted in the film by the Coen brothers and an FX television series, they say.

Administration sets record for withholding government files [Ted Bridis on The Associated Press] (3/18/15)

The Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press. The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged. Its backlog of unanswered requests at year’s end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000. It also cut by 375, or about 9 percent, the number of full-time employees across government paid to look for records. That was the fewest number of employees working on the issue in five years. The government’s new figures, published Tuesday, covered all requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2014 under the Freedom of Information law, which is heralded globally as a model for transparent government. They showed that despite disappointments and failed promises by the White House to make meaningful improvements in the way it releases records, the law was more popular than ever. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The U.S. spent a record $434 million trying to keep up. It also spent about $28 million on lawyers’ fees to keep records secret.

States Not Eager to Regulate Fertility Industry [Michael Ollove on Stateline] (3/18/15)

States are split about whether surrogacy contracts, usually between prospective parents and an egg donor, are permissible. But other aspects of ART are simply unaddressed by the states. For example, states don’t regulate how many children may be conceived from one donor, what types of medical information or updates must be supplied by donors, what genetic tests may be performed on embryos, how many fertilized eggs may be placed in a woman or how old a donor can be. Lawmakers are wary of touching assisted reproduction, Darnovsky said, because of the incendiary politics that surround the issue of abortion, which touches on conception and embryos. In terms of the number of people involved, the issue is significant. The CDC reports that about 12 percent of women of childbearing age have used infertility services and that 1.5 percent of all infants born in the U.S. are conceived using ART.

Ultra-Orthodox ‘Superwomen’ Demand Place With Men in Israeli Parliament [Alisa Odenheimer on Bloomberg News] (1/5/15)

Esty Shushan, an Israeli mother of four, dutifully cast her ballot for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in every election until two years ago. By then, the 37-year-old Shushan, an advertising and marketing consultant, had had it with voting for a party that won’t put women on its parliamentary ticket. Ahead of March 17 parliamentary elections, Shushan and other like-minded women are campaigning to change that policy by rebelling against ultra-Orthodox parties at the ballot box. “Not only will I not vote for them, I’m going to try and reach out to as many other women as possible,” Shushan said. “I’m going to explain to them: They can’t ask for your vote without giving you representation.” This ballot box challenge to parliament’s two ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, factions is another trial for a community seeking to preserve its way of life and grappling with a new law that would force its men to comply with the country’s compulsory military service. Shushan and her backers say they are frustrated by the political sidelining because haredi women often singlehandedly support families of eight and more to let their husbands engage in the full-time religious study the community so prizes.

Lucasfilm Owns All of Your Droids [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (12/19/14)

“Droid” is a pretty popular word these days. It’s the name brand of a variety of popular smart phones produced by Verizon. It graces the pages of hundreds of science fiction novels and appears in countless films. It is used to describe a wide array of robots, both human-like and and not-so-human-like. And in every instance of its use, Lucasfilm either makes money, or takes legal action. That’s because technically, George Lucas invented the word in 1977 — and some 30 years later, just before Verizon rejuvenated “Droid”, Lucas trademarked it. For some companies, this has come with financial and/or time-consuming repercussions.

Behind the Driving Increase [Wendell Cox on New Geography] (3/18/15)

Ridership and road travel data also shows that there has been little relationship between the annual changes in driving and transit use over the period of the gas price increases and the subsequent decrease. Advocates of greater transit funding have claimed for decades that transit can be effective in attracting drivers from their cars. This was transit’s time. However, the highly publicized transit ridership increases have been small in context and have shown virtually no relationship to the changes in automobile use in urban areas…Driving volumes have risen and fallen, with little response in transit ridership. If there were a significant relationship between transit ridership and travel by car, the two lines on the chart would nearly follow one another. However, the lines show virtually no relationship. In relation to the actual changes in travel by car and light vehicle, the changes in transit are imperceivable. Transit ridership remains relatively small, at approximately two percent of all trips and five percent of work trips.

Gone in 30 Seconds: Motorcycle Thieves, Stunt Riders, and One Wild CHP Sting [Greg Nichols on The Los Angeles Times] (3/18/15)

Trudeau and Watson tapped a young investigator, Gary Clifford, who was new to the unit. The trio came up with a plan: Watson and Clifford, a pair of tall, fit white guys who could reasonably pass for shady characters, if not entirely menacing ones, would pose as underworld players from Las Vegas. (A few high-profile vehicle theft rings had been dismantled in Vegas in recent years, so the story had an air of credibility.) The undercover officers—“UCs” in law enforcement parlance—would be introduced to the suspect through an informant and claim they were looking for bikes and parts to take back to Nevada, where vehicles registered in California are hard to trace. Trudeau, the details man, would run surveillance and coordinate a perimeter security team. Over the course of a few transactions, the UCs would build a rapport with the crotch rocket marauder, ply him for incriminating information, and take him down.

Inside Graphene City, Birthplace of a Wonder Material [Victoria Turk on Motherboard on Vice] (3/9/15)

Back in 2010, graphene sprung into the public eye when two UK-based scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work on the two-dimensional material. It was hailed as a wonder material: stronger than steel yet many times lighter, more conductive than copper, more flexible than rubber. The British government bet big on graphene in the following years, pledging £50 million funding for research and development in 2011. There was talk of a new industrial revolution. “We’re going to get Britain making things again,” said ​George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer. Four years later, and graphene is still making headlines. But despite the hype, questions abound over how it could actually be used. When will we see the material making its way into everyday products? What can you actually do with graphene?

“The First Roadie—Ever” [Ben Cullum on Texas Monthly] (3/13/15)

Known far and wide as “Lovey,” after his preferred endearment for everyone he meets, Dorcy is credited by Willie with being the first-ever roadie—and as “the world’s oldest living roadie” by nearly everyone else. Given the tangled switchbacks of history, it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Dorcy, who turns 90 in May, started as a bandboy in 1950 for Hank Thompson—in that day, more a personal valet than the seasoned road crew celebrated in songs by Motorhead and Tenacious D, or on screen in the 1980 cult classic filmed in Austin, Roadie, starring Meat Loaf. In the 65 years since then, Dorcy has toured and/or worked with Ray Price (with whom he relocated to Nashville for half a decade), Elvis Presley (“when he was young”), Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Leon Payne, Johnny Bush, Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and Willie, among countless others lost to time. This colorful legacy extends beyond the stage, where he served as a muse of sorts to Waylon Jennings (“Ode to Ben Dorcy”), Red Sovine (“Big Ben Dorsey the Third”), and Kinky Friedman, who based a character on him in Roadkill, his novel set aboard Willie’s bus. Even before he found his life’s calling, Dorcy was already a veteran of the nomadic lifestyle: Dropping out of high school in San Antonio, he toured with the Ice Capades, a kind of ice-skating spectacle, and may have been bound for the Winter Olympics before WWII interceded. He served on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, and still carries shrapnel in his knee from a Japanese Zero at the Battle of Cape Gloucester. During a five-year diversion to Hollywood in the sixties, he was a deliveryman for Nudie Cohn (tailor to the Singing and later Rhinestone Cowboys), and later a gardener and chauffeur for John Wayne, whom he met while playing a Tennessee Volunteer in The Alamo (filmed in Brackettville). Along the way, he danced with Ann-Margaret; rubbed shoulders with Sinatra, and shared a private joke with Marilyn Monroe.

We Live in an Age of Irrational Parenting [Jennifer Senior on New York Magazine]

If you fancy yourself a normalish, reasonably rational parent, you probably read, with equal parts horror and fascination, about the recent travails of a Maryland couple that tried to allow their children to walk the one mile from a local park to their home in Silver Spring. They were charged by child protective services with “unsubstantiated” child neglect —  itself a near-oxymoronic and self-canceling term —  which means their case will be held on file for five years. There are many things wrong with this action, not least what it says about the excesses of parenting culture (more on this in a bit), but among the most egregious is that it runs completely contrary to the trends in child safety that have emerged in the past couple of decades. Bluntly put: It’s hard to think of a safer time and a better place than the United States of 2015 to raise children — but we act as though the opposite were true…Canvass a modest-size group of parents, and you’ll hear that all of them, at some point or another, have been rebuked for making judgment calls that were theirs alone to make. Leaving a child unattended in a locked car for five minutes, because that’s what their mothers used to do. Strapping a child into the back of a taxi or car without a car seat. Back in the 1980s, the psychologist Jerome Kagan presciently noticed that something was happening to American parents: Absent having any other conspicuous way to prove moral worth — by taking care of their own parents, say, or heading up local civic organizations — we instead try to show our virtue through parenting. It’s become our new plumage, how we parent, peacockishly displayed on Facebook and in playgrounds and at birthday parties; the result is a culture of surveillance and judgment rather than compassion and collaboration, and frankly, it’s exhausting — nor is it doing anyone one lick of good.

Who Invented the Computer Virus? [Rosie Cima on Priceonomics] (3/17/15)

In 1981, Richard Skrenta was in 9th grade and a force to be reckoned with. He was mischievous, very, very clever, and armed with an Apple II. One of his favorite things to do with it was write code to prank his friends’ pirated computer games…Eventually Skrenta’s friends stopped letting him touch their floppy disks — they stopped lending him games, they stopped playing games he had pirated, etc. But Skrenta was a determined prankster, and Apple was a very different company back then, one that welcomed tinkerers of all stripes. The Apple II was much closer to a Raspberry Pi than a Macbook Pro. Skrenta pored over technology books, looking for holes in the Apple II’s system. Eventually, he worked out a way to insert code that would execute, onto games, without ever touching the disks himself: “I hit on the idea to leave a residue in the operating system of the school’s Apple II. The next user who came by, if they didn’t do a clean reboot with their own disk, could then be touched by the code I left behind.” He took two weeks to write this “residue,” in assembly language. He called the program Elk Cloner. Elk Cloner was what is known as a “boot sector” virus. This is how it spread: when an uninfected disk was inserted into an infected computer (the school computer), the computer infected the floppy disk, i.e. it made a copy of Elk Cloner in the floppy disk’s boot sector — code that runs automatically on boot. When a student brought any infected floppy disk (and Skrenta seeded many) to another computer, and booted the computer with the infected floppy disk inside, the computer was infected with a copy of Elk Cloner. The virus caused subtle errors, until the 50th time you inserted the disk into a computer. Then, instead of your game starting, the following poem came on the screen: “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality / It will get on all your disks / It will infiltrate your chips / Yes, it’s Cloner! / It will stick to you like glue / It will modify RAM too /Send in the Cloner!” This timed-release was to let the program go undetected for longer, thus give it a better chance of spreading — by the time a user saw this message, they could have already spread Elk Cloner to hundreds of disks and computers, and they would be seeing the message everywhere, for weeks and weeks…Spread it did. In a scene right out of a movie, Elk Cloner ended up on Skrenta’s math teacher’s graphing software. The teacher was very upset and, suspecting Skrenta, accused him of breaking into his office. His cousins in Baltimore caught it (Skrenta lived in Pittsburgh), and, years later, he discovered that a sailor in the US Navy had, too. Scientific American mentioned it, a few years later, when the relatively benign Elk Cloner had been replaced by a host of much more malignant viruses.

The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous [Gabrielle Glaser on The Atlantic] (April 2015)

Nowhere in the field of medicine is treatment less grounded in modern science. A 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University compared the current state of addiction medicine to general medicine in the early 1900s…The American Medical Association estimates that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identify themselves as addiction specialists. (The Columbia report notes that there may be additional doctors who have a subspecialty in addiction.) Most treatment providers carry the credential of addiction counselor or substance-abuse counselor, for which many states require little more than a high-school diploma or a GED. Many counselors are in recovery themselves. The report stated: “The vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”

See Also: Why Alcoholics Anonymous Works [Jesse Singal on New York Magazine] (3/17/15)

DOT&E Report: The F-35 Is Not Ready for IOC and Won’t Be Any Time Soon [Mandy Smithberger on The Strauss Military Reform Project on The Center for Defense Information at The Project On Government Oversight] (3/12/15)

Inside-the-Beltway wisdom holds that the $1.4 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is too big to cancel and on the road to recovery. But the latest report from the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) provides a litany of reasons that conventional wisdom should be considered politically driven propaganda. The press has already reported flawed software that hinders the ability of the plane to employ weapons, communicate information, and detect threats; maintenance problems so severe that the F-35 has an “overdependence” on contractor maintainers and “unacceptable workarounds” (behind paywall) and is only able to fly twice a week; and a high-rate, premature production schedule that ignores whether the program has demonstrated essential combat capabilities or proven it’s safe to fly. All of these problems are increasing costs and risks to the program. Yet rather than slow down production to focus resources on fixing these critical problems, Congress used the year-end continuing resolution omnibus appropriations bill—termed the “cromnibus”—to add 4 additional planes to the 34 Department of Defense (DoD) budgeted for Fiscal Year 2015. The original FY2016 plan significantly increased the buy to 55, and now the program office is further accelerating its purchase of these troubled planes to buy 57 instead. At some point, the inherent flaws and escalating costs of a program become so great that even a system with massive political buy-in reaches a tipping point. The problems described in the DOT&E report show that the F-35 has reached a stage where it is now obvious that the never-ending stream of partial fixes, software patches, and ad hoc workarounds are inadequate to deliver combat-worthy, survivable, and readily employable aircraft. This year’s DOT&E report also demonstrates that in an effort to maintain the political momentum of the F-35, its program office is not beneath misrepresenting critically important characteristics of the system. In sum, the old problems are not going away, new issues are arising, and some problems may be getting worse.

The myopia boom [Elie Dolgin on Nature Magazine] (3/18/15)

The modern rise in myopia mirrored a trend for children in many countries to spend more time engaged in reading, studying or — more recently — glued to computer and smartphone screens. This is particularly the case in East Asian countries, where the high value placed on educational performance is driving children to spend longer in school and on their studies. A report last year3 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the average 15-year-old in Shanghai now spends 14 hours per week on homework, compared with 5 hours in the United Kingdom and 6 hours in the United States. Researchers have consistently documented a strong association between measures of education and the prevalence of myopia. In the 1990s, for example, they found that teenage boys in Israel who attended schools known as Yeshivas (where they spent their days studying religious texts) had much higher rates of myopia than did students who spent less time at their books4. On a biological level, it seemed plausible that sustained close work could alter growth of the eyeball as it tries to accommodate the incoming light and focus close-up images squarely on the retina. Attractive though the idea was, it did not hold up. In the early 2000s, when researchers started to look at specific behaviours, such as books read per week or hours spent reading or using a computer, none seemed to be a major contributor to myopia risk5. But another factor did. In 2007, Donald Mutti and his colleagues at the Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus reported the results of a study that tracked more than 500 eight- and nine-year-olds in California who started out with healthy vision6. The team examined how the children spent their days, and “sort of as an afterthought at the time, we asked about sports and outdoorsy stuff”, says Mutti. It was a good thing they did. After five years, one in five of the children had developed myopia, and the only environmental factor that was strongly associated with risk was time spent outdoors6. “We thought it was an odd finding,” recalls Mutti, “but it just kept coming up as we did the analyses.” A year later, Rose and her colleagues arrived at much the same conclusion in Australia7. After studying more than 4,000 children at Sydney primary and secondary schools for three years, they found that children who spent less time outside were at greater risk of developing myopia.

The Shrinking Middle Class, Mapped State by State [Tim Henderson on Stateline] (3/19/15)

The struggles of middle-class American families and growing income inequality have risen to the top of the national agenda. A new Stateline analysis shows that in all 50 states, the percentage of “middle-class” households—those making between 67 percent and 200 percent of the state’s median income—shrunk between 2000 and 2013. The change occurred even as the median income in most states declined, when adjusted for inflation. In most states, the growing percentage of households paying 30 percent (the federal standard for housing affordability) or more of their income on housing illustrates that it is increasingly difficult for many American families to make ends meet.

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05
May
15

Roundup – Kickstart My Heart

Best of the Best:

Inside the Powerful Lobby Fighting for Your Right to Eat Pizza [Andrew Martin on Bloomberg News] (3/5/15)

For decades, pizza makers have relied on the food’s natural advantage: Everybody loves it. Some 41 million Americans — more than the population of California — eat a slice of pizza on any given day. If pizza were a country, its sales would put it in the top 100 of global gross domestic product…Until recently the U.S. government was inclined to agree. Pizza is such an efficient cheese-delivery vehicle that a farmer-funded promotional agency, authorized and overseen by the federal government, pushed fast-food chains to load up pizzas with more cheese. That effort led to Pizza Hut’s 2002 “Summer of Cheese” campaign and partially funded Domino’s 2009 introduction of its “American Legends” pizzas — pies topped with 40 percent more cheese. “These specialty pizzas are as American as apple pie,” Domino’s crowed, as part of its marketing campaign. More recently, though, pizza has become a target, lumped into a nutritional axis of evil along with French fries and soda. New federal nutrition standards for school lunches, part of a 2010 law, squarely targeted pizza’s dominance in cafeterias. Menu-labeling rules, which take effect later this year, have seemed particularly onerous to pizzeria owners. And in the popular imagination, no less than First Lady Michelle Obama and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, though they claim to love the stuff, have emerged as enemies of pizza in their push for healthier school lunches.

A League of His Own: How Sepp Blatter controls soccer [Tariq Panja, Andrew Martin, and Vernon Silver on Bloomberg News] (4/30/15)

Every four years FIFA’s roughly 475 employees put on a tournament of a sport so simple it essentially requires just one piece of equipment, a ball. Under its “Fair Play” banner, FIFA also acts as a global rulemaker and regulator for competition among its 209 ­national member associations, which are ­organized into six regional confederations, such as the one meeting in the Bahamas. Sponsors and broadcasters pay dearly to be part of the action. A combined 30 billion viewers in more than 200 countries made the 2014 World Cup the most-watched televised event in history. Over the four years ended December 2014, the fiscal four-year cycle for a World Cup, FIFA grossed about $5.72 billion, mostly from broadcast rights, but also from sponsorships from the likes of Coca-Cola and Adidas. Of that, $358 million went to prize money for the teams that actually played, with World Cup expenses totaling $2.22 billion. (Host countries are responsible for most of the expenses, such as stadiums.) Brazil spent more than $10 billion on its 2014 World Cup. That was even after it rejected FIFA requests such as motorcycle escorts for board members, says Luis Fernandes, Brazil’s former deputy sports minister. Over the past decade, as income has surged, FIFA has banked cash reserves of $1.52 billion, up from essentially zero. As for the rest of the billions, it’s not clear precisely where that money went. There are some clues. FIFA’s personnel ­expenses were $397 million. But good luck finding Blatter’s pay in the annual report. “We have hidden it so you cannot find it,” says Markus Kattner, FIFA’s head of finance and administration. “We’re not publishing it, first of all, because we don’t have to.” As long ago as 2002, Blatter made 1 million Swiss francs a year, plus bonuses, a FIFA executive at the time says. Several estimates based on the size of FIFA’s compensation pool put his current pay in the low double-digit millions. FIFA also paid $27 million, mostly from its marketing budget, to make the 2014 film United Passions, a flattering retelling of the soccer federation’s history starring Tim Roth as Blatter. One item FIFA proudly announces as its biggest nonevent expense: $1.56 billion spent over the past four years on ­“solidarity” programs for member nations, including $1 billion for practice fields, local coaching, and other handouts. It’s pure pork ­barrel politics. Most of the money goes to small associations from places without much of a soccer program or any chance at all at a World Cup, such as the Cayman Islands or Montserrat.

Leonard Cohen’s Montreal [Bernard Avishai on The New Yorker] (2/28/15)

The Quiet Revolution transformed Montreal, at least for a while, into a kind of Andalusia: contesting religious-linguistic cultures rubbing each other the right way. Jews shared professional and literary ties with les Anglais, but we shared an affinity with French Catholics, for religious traditions that were thickly esthetic and that we, each in our own way, both loved and loved to distance ourselves from. We also intuitively understood congregational routine, authoritative interpretation of sacred literature, the prestige of historical continuity—we understood that messiahs matter in this world, that the divine emerged within the precincts of a discipline, commandments, and the mass, all of which produced decorum before they produced grace. As Cohen writes in “Hallelujah,” you cannot feel so you learn to touch: works, not just faith alone. Our rivalry with Catholics at times seemed fuelled by an unacknowledged tenderness, theirs for our historical struggles, professional erudition, and exegetical trenchancy, ours for their majestic spaces, genuflecting hockey champions, and forgiving, suffering servant—a Jew, after all. “I love Jesus,” Cohen told his biographer, Sylvie Simmons. “Always did.” But, he said, “I didn’t stand up in shul and say, ‘I love Jesus.’ ” My mother—the amiably innocent scion of another Bialystoker family—took me, overdressed (oisgeputzt), to Eaton’s department store to see the Christmas pageantry; and then, more reverentially (and to my father’s dismay), she took me to the Shrine’s wax museum, to see depictions of the passions of the saints. When I first heard a recording of Judy Collins’s iconic rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne,” at McGill in the fall of 1967, a year after my mother’s sudden death—heard about the lonely wooden tower and its occupant searching out the drowning—it occurred to me that I had never expected much empathy from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It also occurred to me that Cohen, whose father had died when he was nine, knew loss, and that the distance from mama’s boy to ladies’ man could be short. Which brings me, finally, to McGill. If our emancipation was not in civil society, it was on that campus. The university had been chartered in 1821 to provide English and Scottish Protestants a colonial piece of the Enlightenment, above the atavism of habitant manors and parishes; the student population at the Arts and Sciences Faculty, in the mid-sixties, was something like forty-per-cent Jewish. Cohen was a legend by the time I got there. He had graduated in 1955, and had published three books of poetry and two novels; the National Film Board had made a fawning documentary about him. It was at McGill that Cohen found Irving Layton (he said of Layton, “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever”). Klein, Layton’s teacher, had been there in the thirties, studied law, and went on to simultaneously write “The Rocking Chair,” a poetic tribute to French Canada, and edit The Canadian Jewish Chronicle. (Secretly, he also wrote speeches for Sam Bronfman). By the time Cohen got to McGill, Klein had fallen silent, spiralling into, among other sources of melancholy, a never-completed exegesis of Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

A Death [Stephen King via The New Yorker] (3/9/15)

The wind gusted, bringing the sound of singing. It was coming from the church. It was the Doxology.

This Stealth Attack Boat May Be Too Innovative for the Pentagon [Caroline Winter on Bloomberg Businessweek] (8/21/14)

A major challenge for Ghost is that the Navy’s policy is to buy only technologies in which it has announced interest. “It is not procedure to procure a system without established requirements,” says Commander Thurraya Kent, spokeswoman for the Navy’s research, development, and acquisitions arm. In the fall of 2009 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) briefly expressed interest in funding the Ghost project, but Sancoff declined its request for a formal proposal because the agency required use rights to all of Juliet Marine’s patents. “I’m a startup company—this is how I’ll earn money, by owning the technology,” says Sancoff. Darpa declined to comment. Over the years, Sancoff sent the Office of Naval Research images of his design. “They laughed at me; they thought I was crazy,” he says. “‘Those jet engines can’t run underwater in those tubes. That boat can never be stable. You can never supercavitate those hulls.’ Obviously I was discouraged.” In October 2009, after about six months working in the hangar, Sancoff got a frantic call from his patent attorney. “He said, ‘I got something in the mail, I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been practicing for 35 years,’ ” remembers Sancoff. The letter, from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, with a recommendation from the Office of Naval Research, turned out to be a secrecy order, forbidding Juliet Marine from filing its patents internationally or talking with anyone, including potential investors, about its technology. “They didn’t explain why. … They wouldn’t talk with my lawyer. They wouldn’t talk with me,” says Sancoff. For two summers, Ghost’s trial runs were conducted only at night. “We were going out at like 3 a.m.,” says Joseph Curcio, a marine engineer who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and designed robotic systems for the Navy before joining Juliet Marine in 2010 as vice president of research and development. “We’d have to cover the [propellers] with a blanket and move the boat in the dark. We weren’t allowed to let anyone take pictures.” The secrecy orders were lifted after two years, also without explanation. That’s when Kinsella of Avalon Ventures heard about Ghost and joined the company’s board, investing $10 million.

Why This Movie Perfectly Re-Created a Picasso, Destroyed It, and Mailed the Evidence to Picasso’s Estate [Kate Calautti on Vanity Fair] (4/25/14)

Such was the case for scenic artist Michael Stockton’s copy of Guernica, in the film Basquiat. Turns out, when you want to feature a famous painting in a movie, you can’t simply slap a poster of a Monet or a Picasso in a frame and yell, “Action!”—nor can you cart the real thing from its space on a museum wall to the set (there’s too much margin for loss or destruction). The task is often a “thorny challenge,” as described by Basquiat production designer Dan Leigh, and it involves a rights-clearance process so time-consuming and detail-oriented, it’s worthy of a department unto itself. And once an image is supplied for use in a film, its disposal is governed by an entirely separate set of rules—Guernica’s being a particularly unique example. It wasn’t always this complicated. Prior to the mid-90s, art-image rights were less regulated—until two major copyright lawsuits, for 12 Monkeys and The Devil’s Advocate, resulted in major compensation for production studios. “Rights issues are generally more restrictive now than in the past,” explained The Devil’s Advocate’s art director Dennis Bradford. He wasn’t involved in Advocate’s clearance issues or its ensuing consequences, but believes, “Studios are now more risk averse and take a more conservative approach in their policies in general.” A painting image’s journey from conception to perception is labyrinthine—and wildly different—from film to film.

The Front Page 2.0 [Michael Kinsley on Vanity Fair] (May 2014)

There will always be a demand for high-quality news—enough demand to support two or three national newspapers, on papyrus scrolls if necessary. And the truth is that if only two or three newspapers survive, in national or global competition, that will still be more competition than we have now, with our collection of one-paper-town monopolies. A second truth is that most newspapers aren’t very good and wouldn’t be missed by anybody who could get The New York Times or USA Today and some bloggy source of local news. A third truth is that former roadblocks—people’s refusal to get their content online or to pay for it—are melting away like the snow. A fourth truth is that rich foundations and individuals appear downright eager to jump in and supply foreign or other prestige news if newspapers won’t. Former Times executive editor Bill Keller just quit the paper to help start a nonprofit to cover justice issues. Paul Steiger, formerly managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, founded ProPublica—a nonprofit that produces top-quality investigative journalism. Somewhere in that agglomeration of developments, newspapers will survive in some form or other at least equal to any available today. It will all work out somehow.

How America’s Overmedicating Low-Income and Foster Kids [Chris Kardish on Governing Magazine] (March 2015)

Children in the United States are on drugs for longer and more often than kids in any other country. And for children on Medicaid or in foster care, the numbers are far higher. In Kentucky, for example, a child in the Medicaid program is nearly three times as likely to be prescribed a mind-altering psychotropic medication as a kid under private insurance. For a Kentucky foster child, the likelihood is nearly nine times the norm. Kentucky is hardly alone in overprescribing psychotropics, a class of drugs that ranges from stimulants to antidepressants and antipsychotics. Between 1997 and 2006, American prescriptions for antipsychotics increased somewhere between sevenfold and twelvefold, according to a report by the University of Maryland. And just as in Kentucky, the nationwide numbers for children in foster systems or on Medicaid are startlingly higher than for other children. An average of 4.8 percent of privately insured children are prescribed these drugs every year; among kids on Medicaid, the number is 7.3 percent, according to the most recent study, which looked across 10 states. For children in foster care, it’s a whopping 26.6 percent.

Medicaid ADHD Treatment Under Scrutiny [Christine Vestal on Stateline] (10/8/14)

Doctors have considerable leeway in deciding the best course of treatment for a child with the condition, no matter who is paying the bill. But children covered by Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for the poor, are at least 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder. Georgia alone spends $28 million to $33 million annually on these treatments out of its $2.5 billion Medicaid budget, according to the Barton Child Law and Policy Center here at Emory University. That is partly because of the toll poverty takes on kids and a lack of resources in poorer schools. But some states believe there are other factors at work. Several have begun to investigate whether doctors and mental health providers who bill Medicaid for ADHD are rigorously using evidence-based guidelines when diagnosing and treating it.

What is Google’s Market Share for Search? [Rohin Dhar on Priceonomics] (2/20/15)

This 68% market share number appears to be the generally accepted number in the press for Google’s market share in the U.S. and is based off of reports by comScore, the leading company of tracking web market share statistics. comScore puts its data together by tracking the website usage of the users in its panel, as well as by placing tracking cookies on various websites. Combined, that provides a sample to estimate how much traffic websites are getting from search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. But is this figure actually correct?…In our experience, 68% market share for Google feels wrong. If anything, based on years of looking at the actual traffic numbers for various websites, it seems way too low: Google is much more dominant than that.

Fact-checking grandma [Lyz Lenz on Aeon Magazine] (2/24/15)

In 2012, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, both at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, analysed 7,000 articles from The New York Times to assess what made stories go viral. What they discovered was that stories which elicited strong emotion – both positive and negative – were the ones that got shared most often. People believe the stories that they connect to, the ones that affirm their view of the world, truth be damned…There is more at stake here than just ideology and truth. When Amanda Reith in Pennsylvania saw her daughter in a viral image, she felt outraged and upset. Reith’s daughter is now a healthy teenager but in 2007 she underwent treatment for stage IV neuroblastoma, and the image showed her aged seven, bald and smiling, in a cheerleading outfit and holding pom-poms. Reith had shared the picture in a community forum in 2009 and was later shocked to see the image being shared on Facebook with the message: ‘“Like” to show this little girl you care. “Share” to tell her she’s beautiful. Pray for her to beat cancer.’ Worse, the picture was being used to promote spam. Ostensibly, Facebook users were sharing and ‘liking’ the image to support a little girl with cancer. In reality the Facebook page that published the picture was using it to garner ‘likes’ with the intention of selling the page to someone else or using it to sell products. Reith told CNN that, while she was happy to help raise awareness for cancer, seeing her daughter’s picture shared as a hoax was painful. ‘What makes me truly angry, though, is knowing that they’re using it as an insidious way to make money,’ Rieth said. ‘That’s not what her survival is about to us.’

The Email Scam with Centuries of History [Rosie Cima on Priceonomics] (3/5/15)

This kind of scam is called advance fee fraud, because the victim is asked to pay a small fee in advance of receiving a large payment (which never comes). It’s also called a “Nigerian money offer” because many of these email scams — although certainly not all of them — are operated out of Nigeria, and Nigerian criminals led the wave to revive these scams in the Internet era. In the 1980s, Nigeria was home to a bunch of mail and fax-based advance fee scams. It’s also called a 419 scam, which is the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud. This scam’s history reaches much farther back than that, though. In fact, a 1898 New York Times description of the scam could easily describe the version still in circulation today, only they call the con the “Spanish Prisoner.” From an article titled “An Old Swindle Revived”:…The letter details the trials and tribulations of one “Serge Solovieff,” an imprisoned Russian banker, who needs help recovering funds he’s hidden in America. The envelope enclosed a newspaper clipping about Solovieff’s arrest. One copy of this letter was discovered in the 2000s by Richard Seltzer. Seltzer posted it online, and many more people, who had found almost identically worded letters, found his by googling Solovieff’s name and got in touch with him. You can see photos of these other examples on the website. Their letters were written in different handwriting, suggesting that none of them were written by Solovieff…The Times article quoted above — which again dates from 1898 — cited police authorities as saying the swindle had been in operation for “more than 30 years,” and warned Americans against it. But it turns out that the French had suffered these spammy letters even longer ago than that.  The 1832 memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, a French criminal-turned-private-investigator, detail a swindle executed by prisoners. “[Prisoners] obtained the address of certain rich persons living in the province,” Vidocq writes. “Which was easy from the number of prisoners who were constantly arriving. They then wrote letters to them, colloquially referred to as ‘letters of Jerusalem.’”…The letter had a 20% response rate, according to Vidocq.

The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of ‘Friends’ [Andy Greenberg on Wired] (3/1/15)

That smuggling mission was planned and executed last September by the North Korea Strategy Center and its 46-year-old founder, Kang Chol-hwan. Over the past few years, Kang’s organization has become the largest in a movement of political groups who routinely smuggle data into North Korea. NKSC alone annually injects around 3,000 USB drives filled with foreign movies, music, and ebooks. Kang’s goal, as wildly optimistic as it may sound, is nothing less than the overthrow of the North Korean government. He believes that the Kim dynasty’s three-generation stranglehold on the North Korean people—and its draconian restriction on almost any information about the world beyond its borders—will ultimately be broken not by drone strikes or caravans of Humvees but by a gradual, guerrilla invasion of thumb drives filled with bootleg episodes of Friends and Judd Apatow comedies. Kang likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions.

The Vanishing [Sean Flynn on Gentlemen’s Quarterly] (March 2014)

I met captain Desmond Ross, a leading aviation-security expert, at his local pub in the Pyrmont neighborhood of Sydney. He was born in Belfast, was taught to fly by the Royal Air Force, and has spent most of his career in aviation security, including years in Southeast Asia. He understands, as all aviation professionals understand, that certain protocols should be followed when civilian airliners blink off radar screens. Ho Chi Minh control should have been in contact with Kuala Lumpur within three minutes of MH370 not showing up, preferably two, and most definitely not seventeen. Civilian controllers should have contacted their military counterparts, and there should be a record, written and audio, of those communications. If they exist, they’ve never been released. More important, when unidentified and unresponsive aircraft appear on military screens, fighter jets are supposed to be scrambled. Those pilots are supposed to visually identify the rogue plane, waggle their wings as a signal to land if need be, drift in close if there’s no response. “They can look into the cockpit. If the pilot’s not there, they can see that. If the pilot’s dead, they can see that,” Ross said. “This is not rocket science. That is standard operating protocol. Everybody knows it, everybody understands it.” If any of that had happened, the fate of MH370 would likely be known. That those things did not happen leaves, to Ross’s mind, a binary choice. “Either incompetence, total dereliction of duty, which amounts to criminal negligence,” he said, “or a conspiracy. What else is there?” He let that hang for a moment. Then: “You have to discard most of the conspiracy theories.” He ticks off the main ones, and a few variations of each. There’s no evidence either the pilot or co-pilot was suicidal. “There’s no point in hijacking it and not taking credit,” he said, “unless they fucked up and they’re keeping it under wraps because they want to try again.” At that point, nine months after the fact, no one had. And stealing it? “If someone is really believing in this day and age that they can hide an aircraft and 239 people,” he said, “they’re kidding themselves.” That leaves incompetence, gross dereliction of duty, and so forth. Ross favors that option. Which would explain why questions aren’t answered and records aren’t released and there are wide, yawning holes in the narrative begging to be filled with conspiracies. “Malaysia’s dug themselves a trench because they’re trying to save face,” he said. “Do not underestimate that, saving face. If that’s the case, they’ve dug themselves such a fucking trench they could bury all of Kuala Lumpur.”

Wet Wipes Box Says Flush. New York’s Sewer System Says Don’t. [Matt Flegenheimer on New York Times] (3/13/15)

The city has spent more than $18 million in the past five years on wipe-related equipment problems, officials said. The volume of materials extracted from screening machines at the city’s wastewater treatment plants has more than doubled since 2008, an increase attributed largely to the wipes.

How Luck Works [Carlin Flora on Aeon Magazine] (3/6/15)

If behaviour influences luck, do people who think of themselves as lucky behave differently from the rest of us? A 2009 study co-authored by Maia Young assessed whether students believed in stable luck as a trait they themselves possessed. She found a relationship between the belief in stable luck (versus fleeting luck) and measures of achievement and motivation, including whether or not the students persisted at tasks or chose challenging ones to begin with. Lucky people, it seems, are go-getters. ‘You can see how someone who believes in stable luck will be more motivated to pick difficult goals and then stick with them. If you believe luck is this chance, fleeting luck that you can’t rely on because it ebbs and flows, you might be less motivated to stick with hard tasks, the challenging tasks,’ explains Young. Young’s finding dovetails with the work of Richard Wiseman, a former magician who is now Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and author of the book The Luck Factor (2003). The best way to look at luck, Wiseman argues, is as a stable trait – not one that people are born with, but one they can cultivate. Wiseman searched for people who considered themselves consistently very lucky or unlucky until he gathered 400 subjects. He found that ‘lucky’ people are adept at creating and noticing chance opportunities (such as meeting an important businessman at a café), listen to their intuition, have positive expectations that create self-fulfilling prophesies, and have a relaxed and resilient attitude about life’s trials. Poor unlucky souls are more tense and anxious than lucky ones. Wiseman broke down the tendencies of the lucky group into behavioural interventions such as getting people to imagine how things could have been worse when they were faced with misfortune or, more generally, asking them to ‘switch up your daily routine’. As a result, 80 per cent of the unlucky group reported that, after just a month, they were happier, more satisfied with their lives, and yes, luckier.

The Berlin Wall’s great human experiment [Leon Neyfakh on The Boston Globe] (10/12/14)

Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln used data from a German survey administered in 1997, and split the respondents into two groups based on where they had lived before reunification. What they found was that, at that point, people from the East still tended to believe in the social-service model. They were also more likely to support a robust government program to help the unemployed, and significantly more inclined to believe that social conditions, rather than individual will, determined a person’s lot in life…The differences between the two Germanys went far beyond economic ideology. West Germans all had access to Western television networks, including one that was American-controlled; they watched uncensored newscasts, shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” and commercials for everything from Corn Flakes to Volkswagens. Most East Germans could get those broadcasts too, but a significant proportion of them—between 10 and 15 percent—lived in areas the signal didn’t reach. These people, concentrated mainly in Dresden and the surrounding Elbe Valley, were sometimes referred to as “the valley of the clueless,” forced to watch “political propaganda and Soviet-produced movies,” wrote Leonardo Bursztyn, a management professor at UCLA, and his German coauthor Davide Cantoni. Western television, Bursztyn and Cantoni found, had an impact on East Germans and how they spent their money: Those who’d had access to it were much more inclined to buy Western products they’d seen advertised than those who had not…Television affected people’s mindset in other ways as well. In a separate but related study, it was shown that watching Western TV had actually shaped East Germans’ views about work and chance, making them “more inclined to believe that effort rather than luck determines success in life.” Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of life in East Germany was the surveillance state…Economists Helmut Rainer and Thomas Siedler used survey data to try to figure out whether living that way had left a psychological scar. They looked at the results of a Germany-wide survey that had been administered twice a year since 1980: According to their analysis, East Germans were much less trusting toward other people than their counterparts. Perhaps discouragingly, their mistrust did not lift easily when the Stasi’s reign ended. When the researchers compared survey data collected not long after reunification to data collected in 2002, it was clear that living in a democracy for a decade had not made East Germans significantly more trusting of others. Other studies have shown additional lasting differences. One found that, because in East Germany women were encouraged to work more than they were in the West, East Germans were significantly more likely to believe that men and women are equal. Another found that, because the East German regime ran official doping programs for athletes, East Berliners were much more accepting than West Berliners of performance-enhancing drugs 20 years after reunification. Another paper, by Tarek Hassan of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, looked at how businesses grew and spread when the border fences fell, and found that they tended to follow networks of personal connections. Ossis who did a lot of business with the former Wessis after reunification were disproportionately likely to have had friends, or friends of friends, on the other side of the wall before it was torn down.

Liberals and Conservatives Consume News Differently, Study Finds [John McCormick on Bloomberg News] (10/21/14)

The study found that hard-core conservatives:

  • Are tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than other groups in the survey, with 47 percent citing Fox News as their main source for government and political information.
  • Express greater distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey. At the same time, 88 percent trust Fox News.
  • Are more likely than those in other ideological groups to hear political opinions on Facebook that are in line with their own views.
  • Are more likely to have friends who share their own political views. Two-thirds say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics.

When it comes to those who hold “consistently liberal” views, the study found:

  • Less uniformity in media loyalty. They rely on a greater range of news outlets, including some—like National Public Radio and the New York Times—others use far less.

  • More trust than distrust in 28 of the 36 news outlets in the survey. NPR, PBS and the BBC are the most trusted news sources for consistent liberals.

  • More likely than those in other ideological groups to block or “defriend” someone on a social network—as well as to end a personal friendship—because of politics.

  • A greater tendency to follow issue-based groups, rather than political parties or candidates, in their Facebook feeds.

The Church of In-N-Out Burger [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (9/8/14)

While the verses grapple with longevity, trust, obedience, and faith, they all espouse a common message: adhere to God’s word. Shortly after they were printed on In-N-Out’s wares, Richard Snyder felt he had to sermonize this belief a bit more forwardly. At the time, In-N-Out had a well-known, 30-second jingle (“In-N-Out: that’s what a hamburger’s all about!”) that aired on California radio stations. On Christmas eve, 1987, Snyder decided to switch things up, despite many people in the company advising him against it. The same familiar melody played, but a solemn question replaced the words — “wouldn’t you like salvation in your life?” — followed by In-N-Out’s endorsement. While the campaign stirred some controversy, it was never Snyder’s intention to offend: according to one journalist, “If he went up to Heaven and saw Jesus, he didn’t want [Jesus] to think he’d been too afraid of what people might think not to [spread his word].” To this day, each Christmas, several radio stations in Los Angeles country still play the modified advertisement.

The Many Accents of California [Anita Creamer on The Sacramento Bee via Governing Magazine] (9/11/14)

Vowel sounds are big in the study of linguistics. In the mouths of Californians, coastal and noncoastal alike, vowels are on the move – from the front of the mouth to the back for some vowels but, in the case of others, the reverse. “Back” has gradually become “bock” in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, as the vowel sound has moved away from the front of the mouth. But in San Francisco, “boot” has shifted in the opposition direction, into a slightly softened “beaut” sound. The same shifts are happening in the Central Valley, too, only a little more slowly, D’Onofrio said.

How Stimulus Money Went to Companies That Rob State and Federal Treasuries of Billions Each Year [Franco Ordonez and Mandy Locke on Governing Magazine] (9/8/14)

A review of public records in 28 states uncovered widespread cheating by construction companies that listed workers as contractors instead of employees in order to beat competitors and cut costs. The federal government, while cracking down on the practice in private industry, let it happen in stimulus projects in the rush to pump money into the economy at a time of crisis. Companies across the country avoided state and federal taxes and undercut law-abiding competitors. They exploited workers desperate for jobs, depriving them of unemployment benefits and often workers’ compensation insurance. Exactly how much tax revenue was forfeited on stimulus projects isn’t clear. This is: The government enabled businesses bent on breaking the rules. Regulators squandered the chance to right a rogue industry by forcing companies’ hands on government jobs. The scheme persists in federal contracting, while government officials acknowledge the mistreatment of hourly wage workers and steep losses to the U.S. treasury. The result? In Florida, a McClatchy analysis shows nearly $400 million a year in squandered tax revenue from construction firms and their workers. In North Carolina, nearly $500 million a year. And in Texas, a staggering $1.2 billion. The problem known as misclassification is so well-understood in the U.S. economy that government has vowed to fix it for years. Federal investigators have hammered private companies doing private work, collecting millions in back wages from restaurateurs, nail salon owners and maid services. But when American tax dollars are at stake, as with President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, few in government even talked about the problem, let alone prevented it.

Baseball Caught Looking as Fouls Injure 1,750 Fans a Year [David Glovin on Bloomberg News] (9/9/14)

About 1,750 spectators get hurt each year by batted balls, mostly fouls, at major-league games, or at least twice every three games, a first-of-its-kind analysis by Bloomberg News has found. That’s more often than a batter is hit by a pitch, which happened 1,536 times last season, according to Elias Sports Bureau Inc. The 8-year-old boy was one of four fans injured at the May 20 game, according to a “foul-ball log” and other first-aid records at the Braves’ Turner Field. Unlike the National Hockey League, which mandated netting behind the goal line and higher Plexiglas above the side boards after a teenage fan was hit by a puck and died in 2002, Major League Baseball has done little to reduce the risk. Its policy is that each team is responsible for spectator safety…To the delight of devotees, about 53,000 of the 73,000 fouls hit each season enter the seats, according to Edwin Comber, creator of foulballz.com, a website that analyzes the most likely location in each ballpark for them to land. Many spectators greet them eagerly, lunging or racing for fouls. Others want to avoid them but can’t react in time.

Homemade Tank Powered by Game Boy Fights Wars of Future [Flavia Krause-Jackson and Nicole Gaouette on Bloomberg News] (9/9/14)

In a backyard in Aleppo, Syrian rebels built a tank for urban combat. All it took was an Android smartphone to download a do-it-yourself manual. They patched together some rusty car parts, with a Game Boy console and flatscreen television controlling a machine gun. The result: a weapon smaller than a Mini Cooper, an ideal alternative in narrow alleys to the 70-ton Abrams tank the U.S. used in Iraqi deserts and Afghan valleys. From Aleppo to Ukraine’s Donetsk, combat and war planning are moving to urban settings where Internet access facilitates 21st-century guerrilla tactics. With 1.5 million people a week migrating to cities — mostly in the developing world — the new battlefields will be slum-ridden yet wired megalopolises such as Lagos and Mumbai, where insurgents and crime bosses can exploit technology to control lawless rings of territory.

Southern States Are Now Epicenter of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. [Teresa Wiltz on Stateline] (9/8/14)

The original face of AIDS was that of a middle-class, often white gay man living in New York City or San Francisco. That picture has changed over time as people of color have become disproportionately affected by the epidemic. Today, the face of AIDS is black or Latino, poor, often rural—and Southern. Southern states now have the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses, the largest percentage of people living with the disease, and the most people dying from it, according to Rainey Campbell, executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, a non-profit group serving the 16 Southern states and Washington, D.C. Fifty percent of all new HIV cases are in the South. The HIV infection rate among African-American and Latina women in the South now rivals that of sub-Saharan Africa. In some Southern states, black women account for more than 80 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women. States in the South have the least expansive Medicaid programs and the strictest eligibility requirements to qualify for assistance, which prevents people living with HIV/AIDS from getting care, according to a Southern AIDS Coalition report. In the South, Campbell said, people living with HIV have to reach disability status before they qualify for aid. This is significant, because nationally the vast majority of HIV/AIDS patients rely on Medicaid for their health insurance, according to research conducted by the Morehouse College of Medicine.

Bionic Hands Mimic Human Control With Sensation of Touch [Michelle Fay Cortez on Bloomberg News] (10/9/14)

In one study, U.S. surgeons connected electrodes to nerves in a man’s forearm that were stimulated when someone placed something in his bionic hand. The procedure allowed the patient to tell when he was touching something without having to see it. In the other report, Swedish scientists surgically connected a titanium rod to existing bone, nerves and muscles in an undamaged part of the arm, then ran wires through the prosthesis helping the patient control its use more precisely. “What is fascinating about this is the perception of touch actually occurs in the brain, not in the hand itself,” said Dustin Tyler, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Research University in Cleveland, who led the U.S. effort. “Losing the limb is just losing the switch that turns that sensation on or off.” Both results were reported yesterday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Igor Spetic, 48, said he vividly remembers the first time he felt his right hand again, two years after it was amputated following an industrial accident. Researchers working to craft his prosthetic pulled a curtain to limit his view and then placed a large, hard block into his palm. “I hadn’t felt anything other than pain for two years,” he said by telephone. The new sense of feeling “was amazing. It felt like my hand was actually working, that I didn’t have a prosthetic. That’s how close to reality it was for me.” The new hand allows Spetic to perform routine tasks in a laboratory without serious thought or concentration, he said, including picking up and drinking from a flimsy water bottle without squirting it all over or plucking stems from a cherry without bursting it. There are currently 19 spots on the prosthetic that Spetic can feel. That’s likely to double or triple within a year, Tyler said in a telephone interview.

Can Graffiti Be Copyrighted? [Gabe Friedman on The Atlantic] (9/21/14)

This past spring, Miami street artist David Anasagasti’s work started popping up in Japan and South America. It was the type of global exposure that Anasagasti didn’t want: American Eagle Outfitters had built an international advertising campaign around his best-known, oldest image—half-squinting, drowsy eyeballs layered on top of one another…In July, Anasagasti hired a lawyer and filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit, accusing American Eagle of stealing his work and seeking monetary damages. If it sounds novel to apply copyright to graffiti art, that’s because it is: Lawyers who work in this area say it’s not clear anyone has ever tried this in court. Copyright law, as its name suggests, lays out the rules for when it’s okay to copy something. But does it extend to art that’s on public walls? It very well may. “Given what I know of the case, this is one of the most blatant examples of copyright infringement,” said Philippa Loengard, assistant director of Columbia Law School’s Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts.

A New Look at Why Surgical Rates Vary [Michael Ollove on Stateline] (9/23/14)

Several years ago, a California study showed that a half-dozen elective surgeries were being performed far more often in Humboldt County than they were in the rest of the state. The procedures included hip and knee replacements, hysterectomies and carotid endarterectomies, a surgery to remove plaque buildup in the carotid arteries. Geographical variation in the delivery of health care can harm patients and increase costs. That is especially true when it comes to surgery, which is usually more expensive and riskier than less invasive treatments. Medicaid makes up a huge portion of state budgets, so the issue of health care variation is a pressing one for states looking to hold down costs. In Humboldt County, doctors, hospitals, and others involved in health care wondered why surgeons in their area operated so often, and if they could do anything to get closer to the state norms. To find out, they launched the Humboldt County Surgical Rate Project, which brought together doctors, health-care advocates, community organizations, unions, colleges and small employers…As it turned out, a large part of “what was actually happening out there” was surprisingly simple: Patients in Humboldt County weren’t playing a big enough part in their own health care decisions.

Domestic Abuse is Challenge for States [Teresa Wiltz on Stateline] (9/22/14)

Because the movement to help battered women largely has been driven by white, middle-class women, said Deer, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, “the attention is on generic domestic violence, (without legislators) really thinking about the nuances of race and class.” Advocates stress that states must consider the influence of race, culture and other demographic factors to craft effective strategies. African-American women, for example, are most likely to be killed by an intimate partner. Domestic abuse among Asian/Pacific Islander communities often involves more than one family member battering the same victim in the home, according to the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence. And Latinas are less likely to seek help from a shelter, preferring to find protection from friends and family. Gays and lesbians experience domestic violence at rates equal to or greater than the general population; 50 percent of transgender people experience domestic violence.

The Invention of the Chilean Sea Bass [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (4/28/14)

As recounted in Hooked: A True Story of Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish, in 1977 an American fish merchant named Lee Lantz was scouring fishing boats in a Chilean port. Lantz’s business was finding new types of fish to bring to market, and he became excited when he spotted a menacing looking, five-foot long toothfish that inspired him to ask, “That is one amazing-looking fish. What the hell is it?” The fishermen had not meant to catch the fish, which no one recognized. But as the use of deep-water longlines became more common, toothfish, which dwell in deep waters, started appearing in markets. Taking it for a type of bass, Lantz believed it would do well in America. But when he tried a bite of the toothfish, fried up in oil, it disappointed. It had almost no flavor. Nevertheless, as G. Bruce Knecht, author of Hooked, writes:

[Lantz] still thought its attributes were a perfect match for the American market. It had a texture similar to Atlantic cod’s, the richness of tuna, the innocuous mild flavor of a flounder, and its fat content made it feel almost buttery in the mouth. Mr. Lantz believed a white-fleshed fish that almost melted in your mouth — and a fish that did not taste “fishy” — could go a very long way with his customers at home.

But if the strength of the toothfish (a name Lantz didn’t even know — he learned that locals called it “cod of the deep”) was its ability to serve as a blank canvas for chefs, it needed a good name. Lantz stuck with calling it a bass, since that would be familiar to Americans. He rejected two of his early ideas for names, Pacific sea bass and South American sea bass, as too generic, according to Knecht. He decided on Chilean sea bass, the specificity of which seemed more exclusive…It took a few years for Lantz to land contracts for his new find. Initially, he made only a few small sales to wholesalers and other distributors despite offering samples far and wide. Finally, in 1980, a company struggling with the rising cost of halibut that the company used in its fish sticks bought Lantz’s entire stock, banking on people not tasting the difference between halibut and toothfish beneath the deep fry.  From there, Chilean sea bass quickly worked its way up the food chain. Chinese restaurants purchased it as a cheap replacement for black cod (Chilean sea bass is, after all, a type of cod). Celebrity chefs embraced it, enjoying, as Knecht writes, it ability to “hold up to any method of cooking, accept any spice,” and never overcook.

How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future [Eileen Gunn on Smithsonian Magazine] (May 2014)

Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist at the Seattle-based tech company LaserMotive, who has done important practical and theoretical work on lasers, space elevators and light-sail propulsion, cheerfully acknowledges the effect science fiction has had on his life and career. “I went into astrophysics because I was interested in the large-scale functions of the universe,” he says, “but I went to MIT because the hero of Robert Heinlein’s novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel went to MIT.” Kare himself is very active in science fiction fandom. “Some of the people who are doing the most exploratory thinking in science have a connection to the science-fiction world.” Microsoft, Google, Apple and other firms have sponsored lecture series in which science fiction writers give talks to employees and then meet privately with developers and research departments. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the close tie between science fiction and technology today than what is called “design fiction”—imaginative works commissioned by tech companies to model new ideas. Some corporations hire authors to create what-if stories about potentially marketable products.

The inventor of everything [Ben Popper on The Verge] (4/14/14)

I take a left turn down Calle San Pablo into an unassuming industrial park, the research and development center for Cool Planet, a young company that claims it can use leftover plants to produce a miraculous fuel: a $1.50 gallon of gasoline that also bolsters sustainable agriculture and even combats climate change. I’m here to meet Mike Cheiky, the founder of Cool Planet and a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. In 1975, he started Ohio Scientific, one of the earliest personal-computing companies. He followed that with a string of startups whose innovations included biofuels, touchscreens, batteries, voice recognition, and fuel injectors. Cheiky’s ventures have always done well raising money. Two weeks ago Cool Planet announced a $100 million round of funding from names like Google Ventures, British Petroleum, General Electric, and ConocoPhillips. All told, his last three companies — Cool Planet, Zpower, and Transonic — have raised at least $300 million from some of the biggest players in Silicon Valley…I press him on the science behind Cool Planet. What about quantum chemistry, an esoteric and largely theoretical field, that he boasted was key to the company’s technology during a talk at Google’s Solve For X event? He responds with a bewildering string of scientific terms: zeolite catalysts, quantum wells, substitute benzene rings, angstroms, and hydrocarbon fragments…I later run his comments by three experts, including professors in quantum chemistry and zeolite catalysts. They tell me Cheiky’s got his science a bit mixed up and is making exaggerated claims. But it’s not until I call the University of Wisconsin that I really find the smoking gun. I reach William Banholzer, PhD, a chemical engineer who previously spent eight years as the chief technology officer at Dow Chemical. “I actually use Cool Planet as a teaching example of outrageous claims that defy common sense,” Banholzer says. He means that quite literally: Banholzer has created a PowerPoint presentation using Cheiky’s claims from his Google Solve for X talk, along with early Cool Planet presentations and charts. He doesn’t need to know exactly how Cheiky’s patented process works to conclude that it’s wrong: there simply isn’t enough energy in most plants to get the quantity and quality of fuel Cheiky claims he can produce. “And if you’re going to make biochar,” says Banholzer, “everything I just said about the amount of plant material you’d need gets even worse.” Banholzer is uniquely qualified to assess whether someone is selling snake oil or pitching solid science. In addition to working as Dow Chemical’s CTO, he spent years helping to manage its venture capital arm. He saw hundreds of companies claim to have amazing new technology and learned to separate fact from fiction. His lesson on Cool Planet is meant to help business students do the same. “Students get sucked in, because they want to believe,” says Banholzer. “They see GE and these other big people put their money in. Because these companies put their money in, the students immediately jump to the idea, ‘Oh well they must know what they’re doing, it means there is something pretty good there.’ So I use Cool Planet as an example of ‘Don’t forget your engineering.’”

Writing Mother’s Day Cards at Hallmark: An Inside Look [Claire Suddath on Bloomberg Businessweek] (5/1/14)

Hallmark didn’t invent the greeting card—that credit belongs to a London art shop way back in 1846—but its modern-day form is almost exclusively the creation of Joyce Hall. He founded the company in 1910, when, as an 18-year-old traveling salesman, he arrived in Kansas City and started selling postcards out of two shoeboxes. Five years later he’d switched to greeting cards; after a fire destroyed his inventory, he purchased printing presses to make them himself. In 1932, just four years after Mickey Mouse’s first film, Hall licensed Disney characters to put on his cards—a prescient move that makes the Hallmark-Disney collaboration one of the oldest licensing agreements still in existence. Then, in 1935, the company asked store owners to stop selling cards behind the counter. Instead, it provided free-standing display shelves that look a lot like the ones in greeting card aisles today.

The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease [Nina Teicholz on The Wall Street Journal] (5/6/14)

“Saturated fat does not cause heart disease”—or so concluded a big study published in March in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. How could this be? The very cornerstone of dietary advice for generations has been that the saturated fats in butter, cheese and red meat should be avoided because they clog our arteries. For many diet-conscious Americans, it is simply second nature to opt for chicken over sirloin, canola oil over butter. The new study’s conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with modern nutritional science, however. The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.

Is This How We’ll Cure Cancer? [Matthew Herper on Forbes] (5/7/14)

Blood was taken out of 6-year-old Emily’s body, passed through a machine to remove her white cells and put back in. Then scientists at the University of Pennsylvania used a modified HIV virus to genetically reprogram those white cells so that they would attack her cancer, and reinjected them. But the cells attacked her body, too. Within days Emily was so feverish she had to be hospitalized. Hallucinating, she asked her father, “Why is there a pond in my room?” She was sent to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator. A doctor told her family that there was only a one-in-1,000 chance she would survive the night. Then the miracle breakthrough: Doctors gave Emily a rheumatoid arthritis drug that stopped the immune system storm–without protecting the cancer. Emily awoke on her 7th birthday and slowly recovered. A week later her bone marrow was checked. Emily’s father, an electrical lineman named Tom Whitehead, remembers getting the call from her doctor, Stephan Grupp: “It worked. She’s cancer free.” She still is, two years later–taking piano lessons, wrestling with her dog and loving school, which she couldn’t attend while sick. “I’ve been an oncologist for 20 years,” says Grupp, “and I have never, ever seen anything like this.” Emily has become the poster child for a radical new treatment that Novartis , the third-biggest drug company on the Forbes Global 2000, is making one of the top priorities in its $9.9 billion research and development budget…But the developments at Penn point, tantalizingly, to something more, something that would rank among the great milestones in the history of mankind: a true cure. Of 25 children and 5 adults with Emily’s disease, ALL, 27 had a complete remission, in which cancer becomes undetectable. “It’s a stunning breakthrough,” says Sally Church, of drug development advisor Icarus Consultants. Says Crystal Mackall, who is developing similar treatments at the National Cancer Institute: “It really is a revolution. This is going to open the door for all sorts of cell-based and gene therapy for all kinds of disease because it’s going to demonstrate that it’s economically viable.” There are still huge hurdles ahead: Novartis has to run clinical trials in both kids and adults at hospitals around the world, ready a manufacturing plant to create individualized treatments for patients and figure out how to limit the side effects that nearly killed Emily. But Novartis forecasts all that work will be done by 2016, when it files with the FDA.

Sonic Boom [Megan Garber on The Atlantic] (5/1/14)

And it’s work that hints at questions that are much broader, and much older, than Bourbon Street itself. How do you design cities and civic spaces in ways that account for people’s varied reactions to sound itself? Where does “sound” end, and “noise” begin?

Curiously Strong Remains:

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30
Apr
15

Roundup – Fake Movies in Movies

Best of the Best:

Why I fled Argentina after breaking the story of Alberto Nisman’s death [Damian Pachter on Haaretz] (1/25/15)

When my source gave me the scoop on Alberto Nisman’s death, I was writing a piece on the special prosecutor’s accusations against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, her (Jewish) Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, two pro-Iran “social activists” and parliamentarian Andrés Larroque. I learned that Nisman had been shot dead in his home. The vetting process wasn’t too tough because of my source’s incredible attention to detail. His name will never be revealed. Two things stood in my mind: my source’s safety and people’s right to know what happened that day, though not necessarily in that order. Of course, for both speed and the contagion effect, Twitter was the way to go. The information was so solid I never doubted my source, despite my one or two colleagues who doubted me because I only had 420 Twitter followers — a number now eclipsing 10,000. As the night went on, journalists contacted me in order to get the news from me even more directly. The first to do so was Gabriel Bracesco. Once I tweeted that Nisman had died, hundreds of people quickly retweeted the news and started following me. That was my first of many sleepless days. “You just broke the best story in decades,” lots of people said. “You’re crazy,” was another take. Either way, nobody questioned that the situation was very grave.

Ancient Wall in Istanbul Gives No Defense in Property Fight [Jack Fairweather and Onur Ant on Bloomberg News] (1/21/15)

For centuries, Istanbul’s ancient walls safeguarded the city from attack. What remains of those 1,600-year-old battlements has become the source of conflict. Residents and elected officials are fighting over preservation and development in the ancient Turkish crossroads, whose 14 million people make it the sixth-largest city in the world. “The city should be protecting its heritage rather than allowing swaths of concrete to be laid and new homes built,” said Ali Hacialioglu, a member of the board of the Chamber of Istanbul Architects. While emerging megacities such as Mumbai, Cairo and Rio de Janerio have all witnessed families tossed out of their homes to make way for high rises, Istanbul is one of the few to displace residents in the name of historic preservation, Hacialioglu says. The tensions have deepened not only because of evictions but from residents’ doubts that protecting the Ottoman inheritance is the real motivation. The drama is especially powerful because it follows a confrontation over developing Gezi Park, adjacent to central Taksim Square. A plan to build on a patch of green space there led to anti-government protests that claimed the lives of nine protesters and saw about 8,000 injured in 2013. Not far from landmarks such as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, bulldozers have begun demolishing homes, some of which date to the 17th century, to create a buffer zone around a four-mile stretch of the historic city wall…Turkish officials have said in statements they’re following recommendations by the experts at the agency, whose full name is United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Residents fear that the resulting space will soon be built upon. Two other areas along the barricade already have been turned into apartments.

How to Build a Better Flu Vaccine Than This Year’s Fiasco [Sonja Elmquist on Bloomberg News] (1/22/15)

With this season’s flu vaccine only protecting 1 in 4 people, scientists are working on new manufacturing techniques and virus-killing methods to update the creaky, 80-year-old process now used to inoculate the population. Sometime this season, after many people got vaccinated, a strain of influenza that causes unusually serious illness evolved, letting the bug circumvent a protection that is still only about 60 percent effective in a good year. This year’s vaccine is much worse, at just 23 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To make the vaccine more effective, scientists and companies are reworking everything from its production to its distribution to the way it attacks the virus. The goal is to find methods that offer more protection and can react more quickly to unexpected changes. The flu virus can replicate in eight hours, so when it mutates, the change can slip past people’s immunity and quickly become dominant, said Ruben Donis, associate director for policy, evaluation and preparedness in the CDC’s influenza division. That makes it difficult for the world’s flu experts, who meet every February to formulate a vaccine for the next flu season in North America, as little as eight months away…Using a process discovered in 1931 and used in vaccines since 1935, manufacturers grow the virus by getting it to replicate in chicken eggs. That typically takes about a month, but can take weeks longer if the year’s dominant viruses don’t thrive well enough in the eggs, said Leonard Friedland, director of scientific affairs and public health in GlaxoSmithKline’s North American vaccines division. So why not just find a way to make manufacturing shorter? Two companies — Novartis AG (NOVN) and Protein Sciences Corp. — are already on it, with approval to sell vaccines in the U.S. that take just weeks to produce. Still, they represent a small share of the market, which remains dominated by the doses made using the traditional six-month egg process. Novartis’s cell-culture vaccine was approved in the U.S. in 2012, and its U.S. production plant was licensed by the Food and Drug Administration last year. Protein Sciences’ Flublok vaccine, made with a technology that manufactures the proteins that provoke an immune response without first growing the entire virus, was approved for all adults in October. The closely held company plans to increase production to be able to supply enough doses for the entire country in two years, Chief Executive Officer Manon Cox said in an interview.

Know What’s Killing More People in Nigeria Than Boko Haram? Lack of Drinking Water [Yinka Ibukun and Chris Kay on Bloomberg News] (1/26/15)

The lack of running water killed more people in Nigeria last year than Boko Haram. While the terror campaign claimed more than 4,000 lives, the shortage of potable water and poor sanitation led to about 73,000 deaths, according to WaterAid, a London-based nonprofit. The water deficit isn’t limited to isolated areas in the country’s vast north. In Lagos, about 15 million of the coastal metropolis’ 21 million have limited access to piped water.

Kim Jong Un Relies on Improbable Pair of Women Amid Purges [Sam Kim on Bloomberg News] (1/26/15)

While Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju and younger sister Kim Yo Jong are currently allies in sustaining one of the world’s most reclusive leaders, their overlapping influence makes them potential rivals in a regime where family ties aren’t strong enough to protect against Kim’s penchant for purges. These women of Pyongyang offer insight to an opaque regime that, while struggling to feed its people, is capable of maintaining 1.2 million men under arms and threatening neighbors with nuclear annihilation. Ri commands a growing following among the wives of North Korean elite while Kim Yo Jong now holds a senior position in the ruling Workers’ Party and serves as an adviser to her brother. “Uneasiness is inevitable in a relationship like this,” Kang Myong Do, a son-in-law of North Korea’s former Prime Minister, Kang Song San, said by phone. “The wife wouldn’t like it if her husband got too close to his sister; the sister wouldn’t like it if her brother got too close to his wife.” The sister would try to oust Ri if the first lady — a “rag-tag commoner” compared to Kim Yo Jong — sought political power beyond the role of burnishing her husband’s public image, said Kang, who now teaches North Korean studies at Kyungmin University near Seoul.

Some Lottery Retailers Beat the Odds—and Cost States [Jeffrey Stinson on Stateline] (1/27/15)

Most often, lottery officials say, the scams involve retailers who are cashing in winning tickets for a fee for people who don’t want to collect their jackpots personally bec ause they owe back taxes, child support payments or other debts that states generally deduct from lottery winnings. Or, they’re in the country illegally. States generally require prizes of $600 or more be claimed in person, and winners must show identification and their Social Security numbers. In addition to deducting delinquent taxes or other debts owed the state, states withhold federal and state income taxes from the payouts of larger prizes, usually $5,000 or more…Another scam involves unscrupulous retailers who shortchange unsuspecting customers who have returned to the store to scan their tickets. Clerks will tell them they’ve won less money than they really have, pay them the lesser amount and then claim the bigger prize money.

Can the U.S. Ever Fix Its Messed-Up Maternity Leave System? [Claire Suddath on Bloomberg News] (1/27/15)

For all Sweden’s efforts at gender equality, men still make about 35 percent more than women, according to a 2012 Swedish government report. And although the top five spots on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index are all held by Nordic countries, their percentage of female chief executive officers is no higher than the 5 percent achieved by Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. “I just know I’d get a promotion three years later than a colleague who is a man,” says Rydberg. “That’s how it is.” Intentionally or not, Sweden seems to have routed women onto the “mommy track,” a slower, less demanding career path for women with children. In the U.S. it often comes under the guise of the purposefully vague term “caregiver status,” which companies use when offering reduced hours and a lower salary to parents who need flexibility. In academia, universities will often pause the so-called tenure clock for female professors who take time off to have children. Some of these policies can be helpful. But they also have the side effect of segregating those who use them into positions where they’re just not expected to advance.

The Power of Story [Elizabeth Svoboda on Aeon Magazine] (1/12/15)

Our mental response to story begins, as many learning processes do, with mimicry. In a 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, the psychologist Uri Hasson and his Princeton University colleagues had a graduate student tell an unrehearsed story while her brain was being scanned in an fMRI machine. Then they scanned the brains of 11 volunteers listening to a recording of the story. As the researchers analysed the data, they found some striking similarities. Just when the speaker’s brain lit up in the area of the insula – a region that governs empathy and moral sensibilities – the listeners’ insulae lit up, too. Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction, which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller. What’s more, the stories we absorb seem to shape our thought processes in much the same way lived experience does. When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened – one story, for instance, was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet. The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound. ‘I can almost feel the physical sensations,’ one of Immordino-Yang’s subjects remarked after hearing one of the stories. ‘This one is like there’s a balloon under my sternum inflating and moving up and out. Which is my sign of something really touching.’ Immordino-Yang reported her findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 and in Emotion Review in 2011.

Grenades Cheaper Than a Coke Menace Central African Republic [Ilya Grindeff on Bloomberg News] (2/2/15)

In Bangui, one anti-balaka member said in an interview that a Chinese-made grenade would sell for as little as $1. At the meeting, the man, wearing a Christian cross around his neck, casually pulled one of the small black explosive balls from his leather satchel. It was for his defense, he said. As a safety measure, he’d wrapped sticky tape around the pin. Chinese, Sudanese and European arms and ammunition have poured into Central African Republic from neighboring countries, the Brussels-based Conflict Armament Research consultancy said in a report last month. Its investigators found vast quantities of cheap Chinese-made grenades throughout Central African Republic, some that were originally supplied to the Nepalese army, according to the group’s director of operations, Jonah Leff. “It is not yet clear why the grenades are in such wide circulation and precisely how they were transferred to CAR,” he said in an e-mail. Hand grenades often sell for less than bullets for AK-47 assault rifles, he said.

A Target and a Threat: What It’s Like to Be a Black Cop in America [Esmé E Deprez on Bloomberg News] (2/3/15)

For Sims, the combination of black skin and blue uniform makes him feel, by turns, like a threat and a target. Last summer, his beat partner almost died after being shot in the head, an event that still haunts him. He empathizes with minorities who feel unfairly treated, yet he’s also been the target of their scorn. As an officer, he says, he upholds the law, regardless of a lawbreaker’s race.

The Real Story Behind Jeff Bezos’s Fire Phone Debacle And What It Means For Amazon’s Future [Austin Carr on Fast Company] (1/6/15)

Bezos drove the team hard on one particular feature: Dynamic Perspective, the 3-D effects engine that is perhaps most representative of what went wrong with the Fire Phone. Dynamic Perspective presented the team with a challenge: Create a 3-D display that requires no glasses and is visible from multiple angles. The key would be facial recognition, which would allow the phone’s cameras to track a user’s gaze and adjust the 3-D effect accordingly. After a first set of leaders assigned to the project failed to deliver, their replacements went on a hiring spree. One team even set up a room that they essentially turned into a costume store, filling it with wigs, sunglasses, fake moustaches, and earrings that they donned for the cameras in order to improve facial recognition. “I want this feature,” Bezos said, telling the team he didn’t care how long it took or how much it cost. Eventually, a solution was discovered: Four cameras had to be mounted at the corners of the phone, each capable of identifying facial features, whether in total darkness or obscured by sunglasses. But adding that to the phone created a serious battery drain. And team members simply could not imagine truly useful applications for Dynamic Perspective. As far as anyone could tell, Bezos was in search of the Fire Phone’s version of Siri, a signature feature that could make the device a blockbuster. But what was the point, they wondered, beyond some fun gaming interactions and flashy 3-D lock screens. “In meetings, all Jeff talked about was, ‘3-D, 3-D, 3-D!’ He had this childlike excitement about the feature and no one could understand why,” recalls a former engineering head who worked solely on Dynamic Perspective for years. “We poured surreal amounts of money into it, yet we all thought it had no value for the customer, which was the biggest irony. Whenever anyone asked why we were doing this, the answer was, ‘Because Jeff wants it.’ No one thought the feature justified the cost to the project. No one. Absolutely no one.”…In late July, the Fire Phone finally went on sale, and it didn’t take long for the company to discover that consumers considered its smartphone effort utterly misguided. Reviewers knocked the device for its gimmicky features, especially Dynamic Perspective, which most found worthless and distracting. They also took issue with the Fire Phone’s bland industrial design and disappointing ecosystem; Amazon simply doesn’t offer the same library of apps or cohesion of services as Apple. But what Amazon got most wrong, they said, was the cost: The Fire Phone was too expensive for its customers. According to three sources familiar with the company’s numbers, the Fire Phone sold just tens of thousands of units in the weeks that preceded the company’s radical price cuts.

A License to Braid Hair? Critics Say State Licensing Rules Have Gone Too Far [Jenni Bergal on Stateline] (1/30/15)

Earl and Christine McLean, a hair braider in Little Rock, are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the state of Arkansas. They are among more than a dozen hair braiders who have sued in 12 states, with the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, arguing that occupational licensing laws impede their constitutional right to earn a living. The hair-braiding lawsuits are among many licensing battles that have erupted in numerous states. States with occupational licensing laws require that people who want to work in a particular occupation or profession for compensation must meet certain standards. Often, the individual must pass a test, undergo a specific amount of education or training and pay a fee. The boards that oversee licensure generally are comprised of people from that industry. Supporters of occupational licensing laws, which regulate everyone from doctors and dentists to door repair contractors and auctioneers, say that they are necessary to protect consumers and provide oversight. But a growing chorus of critics argues that many state licensing requirements are burdensome and create barriers to competition and job growth. They say that those who have licenses have an incentive to keep others out of the market, because with less competition they are free to charge consumers more.

America’s best-selling cars and trucks are built on lies: The rise of fake engine noise [Drew Harwell on The Washington Post] (1/21/15)

Fake engine noise has become one of the auto industry’s dirty little secrets, with automakers from BMW to Volkswagen turning to a sound-boosting bag of tricks. Without them, today’s more fuel-efficient engines would sound far quieter and, automakers worry, seemingly less powerful, potentially pushing buyers away. Softer-sounding engines are actually a positive symbol of just how far engines and gas economy have progressed. But automakers say they resort to artifice because they understand a key car-buyer paradox: Drivers want all the force and fuel savings of a newer, better engine — but the classic sound of an old gas-guzzler. “Enhanced” engine songs have become the signature of eerily quiet electrics such as the Toyota Prius. But the fakery is increasingly finding its way into beefy trucks and muscle cars, long revered for their iconic growl. For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers. Afterward, the automaker surveyed members of Mustang fan clubs on which processed “sound concepts” they most enjoyed. Ford said in a statement that the vintage V-8 engine boom “has long been considered the mating call of Mustang,” but added that the newly processed pony-car sound is “athletic and youthful,” “a more refined growl” with “a low-frequency sense of powerfulness.” Among purists, the trickery has inspired an identity crisis and cut to the heart of American auto legend. The “aural experience” of a car, they argue, is an intangible that’s just as priceless as what’s revving under the hood.

The Death of Music Sales [Derek Thompson on The Atlantic] (1/25/15)

The recorded music industry is being eaten, not by one simple digital revolution, but rather by revolutions inside of revolutions, mouths inside of mouths, Alien-style. Digitization and illegal downloads kicked it all off. MP3 players and iTunes liquified the album. That was enough to send recorded music’s profits cascading. But today the disruption is being disrupted: Digital track sales are falling at nearly the same rate as CD sales, as music fans are turning to streaming—on iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and music blogs. Now that music is superabundant, the business (beyond selling subscriptions to music sites) thrives only where scarcity can be manufactured—in concert halls, where there are only so many seats, or in advertising, where one song or band can anchor a branding campaign. Nearly every number in Nielsen’s 2014 annual review of the music industry is preceded by a negative sign, including chain store sales (-20%), total new album sales (-14%), and sales of new songs online (-10.3%). Two things are up: streaming music and vinyl album sales. Somewhere in America, an enterprising sociologist is fitting this into an interesting theory about how the emergence of new technologies in media ironically amplifies our interest in pop-culture anachronisms. So what about vinyl? It is rising, yes, rising like a wee baby phoenix, from a prodigious pile of ashes. Nine million two hundred thousand vinyl LPs were sold in 2014, up 51 percent annually, even faster than the growth in video streams. Nine million is a lot more than zero, but commercially speaking, its overall impact on the market is meager. Vinyl accounts for 3.5 percent of total album sales. The CD market (which is dead, remember) is 15-times larger.

Getting Out Of Afghanistan [E.B. Boyd on Fast Company] (1/28/15)

What’s made getting out of Afghanistan harder, more dangerous, and more expensive is that while the military is genius at optimizing everything involved in winning battles, it’s not as good at setting itself up for a smooth and efficient exit. “It’s like any large organization,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank. “The focus is on the cool things, not the enablers.” Historically, less energy has been invested in capturing lessons about how to leave a war than how to win one. As one Army historian told me when I asked for details on previous demobilizations, “It’s just not a well-studied topic.” We ended up having more supplies on the ground in Afghanistan than we really needed and therefore more to pack up. We scrambled to set up the right systems to move everything home. And the deficiencies in our inventory processes meant we spent a lot of time simply trying to locate gear. In the end, the military did manage to pull it off. And it was a noteworthy feat. Some of it was due to the on-the-ground innovation by the troops (and civilians) handed this dog’s breakfast of a task. Some of it was due to lessons learned in Iraq’s wake, where planners struggled to get their arms around the task of packing up a theater. Some of it was just due to sheer brute force. But some of the pain and expense could have been avoided if the military as an institution thought as strategically about how to wrap up a war as it does about developing new weapons systems or mastering battlefield strategy.

Inside the box [on The Economist] (1/3/15)

Propst thought workers should have standing and sitting desks. He designed a perching seat, dreamed up display surfaces and created a prototype napping pad, an inch and a quarter thick and two feet wide (3cm by 60cm), that could be hung up for storage. Sleeping in the office, he thought, would make people more productive. He was, in many ways, ahead of his time. His ideas culminated in the first modular office system, the “Action Office 2”, in 1968. At that time many firms put managers in offices and their subordinates in open “bullpens”, at pedestal desks lined in rows. Now this space could be broken up by vertical panels that slotted together in many ways. Propst suggested giving each worker a clamshell arrangement that offered both privacy and a view, and equipping it with desks of different heights. Areas for informal meetings and coffee could be created. The possibilities were endless. Best, Propst believed, would be to join the panels at 120º angles. But his customers realised that they could squeeze more people in if they constructed cubes. A rigid 90º connector was therefore designed to join a panel to one, two or three more. Thus was born the cubicle, and Propst came to be known as its creator. He was horrified.

The Changing Face of Heroin [Teresa Wiltz on Stateline] (2/4/15)

Between 2006 and 2013, the number of first time heroin users nearly doubled, from 90,000 to 169,000, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Ninety percent of the people who tried the drug for the first time in the past decade are white, compared to an equal number of white and nonwhite users who got their start before the 1980s, according to a study published last year in JAMA Psychiatry. “Heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas,” researchers concluded. Perhaps not coincidentally, the past two years have seen a remarkable uptick in “harm reduction” laws that focus on saving lives, rather than incarcerating users.

‘From Atoms to Bits': A Brilliant Visual History of American Ideas [Derek Thompson on The Atlantic] (2/9/15)

Another theme of Packalen and Bhattacharya’s research is that innovation has become more collaborative. Indeed, computers have not only taken over the world of inventions, but also they have changed the geography of innovation, Bhattacharya said. Larger cities have historically held an innovative advantage, because (the theory goes) their density of smarties speeds up debate on the merits of new ideas, which are often born raw and poorly understood. But the researchers found that in the last few decades, larger cities are no more likely to produce new ideas in patents than smaller cities that can just as easily connect online with their co-authors.

Why Samsung Design Stinks [Mark Wilson on Fast Company Design] (2/17/15)

Kevin Lee calls it “Steve Jobs Syndrome.” As the former head of product strategy and user experience design at Samsung Design America, Lee watched as the $100 billion Korean tech giant wrote check after check to countless Western design firms to develop future products for the Korean company. The designers would dig in their heels, refusing to budge on their grand idea or see how it might fit into Samsung’s vast production line. And Samsung management would either discard the idea entirely, or water it down so much that the product became another meaningless SKU in the hundreds of products Samsung sells today.

The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’ [Spencer Ackerman on The Guardian] (2/24/15)

The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site. The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights. Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include: Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases; Beating by police, resulting in head wounds; Shackling for prolonged periods; Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility; Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15. At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.

The Mysterious, Murky Story Behind Soy-Sauce Packets [Tanya Basu on The Atlantic] (2/4/15)

But as ubiquitous as soy-sauce packets are, no one knows where they first came from. The major players in the to-go soy-sauce industry today—KariOut and W Y Industries—don’t claim to have created the packet. Some have attributed the design to Ben Eisenstadt—the founder of the sugar-substitute manufacturer Sweet’N Low and the designer of his company’s trademark bubblegum-pink packets—but that connection remains unconfirmed. The first sign of a soy-sauce packet that resembles the one popular today is a 1955 patent, filed by two men named Harold M. Ross and Yale Kaplan, that outlines a “dispensing container for liquids.” The packet would hold “a single serving” of “sauce or syrup,” which could be extracted with a squeeze.

Illinois Cops Pay Hackers $500 Ransom to Unlock a Computer [Matt Stroud on Bloomberg News] (2/23/15)

A suburban Chicago police department paid hackers $500 in Bitcoins to unlock a computer they had remotely disabled, according to a report. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Midlothian Police Department was the latest government department to be targeted by the virus known as Cryptolocker, which can disable a computer until an untraceable fee is paid…According to the report, which was the result of a Freedom of Information Act request, someone at the department opened an e-mail that contained the virus, which locked down the computer.  A pop-up window demanded $500 “in exchange for a virtual code that would return access,” according to the Tribune. The department felt it had no option but to pay up. Records show the department paid $606 in a money order, which included bank fees and surcharges, to a New York Bitcoin cafe. Hackers extorted $572 from a Tennessee sheriff’s office in a similar scam last year. In November, it was revealed that the City of Detroit refused to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars demanded by hackers because locked files weren’t pivotal to the city’s functioning.

Ten Years of Google Maps, From Slashdot to Ground Truth [Liz Gannes on re/code]

In 2005, nobody really knew what would come of online maps, or how they would become such a crucial aspect of daily lives in the Internet-connected world. How Google would partner with Apple to bring online maps to their true home, smartphones, but the alliance would fall apart. How Google Maps would have more than a billion users and become Google’s second-largest property after its search engine. Nobody had any idea, least of all Google. And this was only a decade ago…The grand example for Search by Location was you were supposed to be able to search for coffee shops near Palo Alto. But Taylor remembers that Sun Microsystems put its address at the bottom of every page of its website, and it named its products after coffee (most famously, Java). So that broke the entire example…That original product was made much more accurate by licensing Yellow Pages information, but it wasn’t the dramatic leap forward that people at Google — particularly now-CEO Larry Page — were hoping to make. So Google sought inspiration and talent from outside. Just before it went public, it made three relatively small acquisitions in 2004: Keyhole, Where2 and Zipdash. The three deals were led by Page and Megan Smith, who is now CTO of the United States

The life, death, and rebirth of BlackBerry’s hometown [Kevin Roose on Fusion] (2/8/15)

Much of RIM’s early success, locals tell you, can be traced to the University of Waterloo, a school that has become the Stanford of Canada due to its massive engineering department and record of placing “co-ops,” or paid interns, at huge tech companies. From RIM’s early days, the school provided the company with a steady stream of engineering talent. (RIM hired so many co-ops, the story goes, that it became jokingly referred to as the “University of RIM.”) In return for their labor, the students got four-month stipends, and—perhaps more alluring at the time—their own BlackBerrys with free, unlimited data plans…One of the scariest possibilities for locals was that all the smart, talented engineers who had moved to Waterloo to ride the RIM rocket ship would leave. In the weeks following the RIM layoffs, Apple hosted secret recruiting events in town, and Google and Samsung began wooing senior-level executives away from the region. Faced with the loss of its most valuable employees, Waterloo embarked on a city-wide retention drive. Local entrepreneurs formed a group called Tech Jobs Connex, with the explicit goal of finding new local jobs for laid-off RIM employees. The group hosted job fairs, taught résumé and interview workshops, and identified roughly 120 “tier-one” RIM workers, whom they desperately wanted to keep in the region. But a funny thing happened on the way to a mass exodus: Silicon Valley moved in. Sensing the opportunity to scoop up talented RIM engineers who were unwilling or unable to relocate to California, Google set up an office in Kitchener. Square moved to the region, too, as did Electronic Arts and Intel. Huawei, the huge Chinese electronics manufacturer, has plans to open an office in Kitchener-Waterloo this year. (There are rumors that Facebook, too, is coming to town, but nobody seems to want to jinx it by telling me outright.)

See Also: The Rise and Fall of BlackBerry: An Oral History [on Bloomberg Businessweek] (12/5/13)

How YouTube changed the world [The Telegraph] (2/9/15)

What is beyond debate is YouTube’s influence (spotted by a far-sighted Google in 2006, when it bought the site for $1.65 billion). Almost anyone can upload almost anything to YouTube, for free, and be in with a chance of reaching its one billion monthly users – whether they’re activists, terrorists, politicians or pop stars (or just the proud owner of a “mutant giant spider dog”). It has changed our world.

The Birth of the Philly Cheesesteak [on Priceonomics] (2/2/15)

Recognizing the cabbie as a regular customer, Pat gave half of a steak sandwich to the man for free. At the time, the creation was novel: to Philadelphians’ knowledge, no one had ever  made a steak sandwich before. Over time, word spread of the delicious snack, and demand grew. As winter set in, the brothers bundled up as best they could and battled the elements to sell their sandwiches. At some point, says Frankie Jr., a local bar took pity on them…So, Pat and his brother abandoned their trustworthy cart, moved their operations inside the establishment, and, with the luxury of a full kitchen, started pumping out steak sandwiches like never before…“Eventually,” says Frankie Jr., “Pat took over the bar, took over produce stand, then — lo and behold — bought out the owner and made it into his own restaurant.” The result, Pat’s King of Steaks, quickly became one of the city’s go-to lunch and dinner joints. It was open 24 hours a day — and for 18 of those hours, the brothers could be found in the kitchen, serving up steak sandwiches. They worked relentlessly and tirelessly to garner attention for their restaurant, sometimes conjuring up insanely conniving marketing ploys.

Fraudsters Pose as Cops, Court Officials in Jury Duty Scams [Jenni Bergal on Stateline] (2/13/15)

Det. Daryl Bagnuolo, of the Bergen County (New Jersey) Sheriff’s Office, thought it was strange when a local resident complained last year about a disturbing call his friend had received. The friend had been warned that he’d be arrested for failing to appear for jury duty unless he paid a hefty fine. The caller identified himself as “Major Paul Stevens” from the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office—a person who does not exist. Bagnuolo had no idea that the investigation he ended up launching would uncover a jury duty phone scam run out of a Georgia prison that targeted victims in at least a dozen states.

The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others [Shane Parrish on Farnam Street] (2/4/15)

Remember people change their mind for their reasons not yours. If you’re not effective, it’s probably because you’re looking at things through your lens and not theirs. Continuing to give the same arguments in the same way only solidifies resistance even more. So the next time you’re trying to convince someone of something you’ve already tried to change their mind on, trying picking a different approach. Better yet, pick three or four and use them in combination. Tactics work better when employed together.

Japan’s Oldest Businesses Have Survived for More Than 1,000 Years [Joe Pinsker on The Atlantic] (2/12/15)

Century-old American companies like General Electric and Ford appear ancient when viewed alongside modern upstarts like Google and Facebook. But there are a number of Japanese firms—some of which have been around for more than a millennium—that exist on another scale of time entirely. Japan is home to some of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the world, among them a 1,300-year-old inn and a 900-year-old sake brewer. While this longevity is not confined to East Asia—the Italian gun manufacturer Beretta has operated since at least 1526 and the cymbal maker Zildjian was founded in 1623 in Turkey—these Sequoia-like firms are relatively common in Japan. The country is currently home to more than 50,000 businesses that are over 100 years old. Of those, 3,886 have been around for more than 200 years. As a point of comparison, only one in every four U.S. companies founded in 1994 was still operating in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in the past decade, some of Japan’s oldest businesses have finally shut their doors. Last month, the roughly 465-year-old seafood seller Minoya Kichibee filed for bankruptcy, which came after the news last year that the 533-year-old confectioner Surugaya met a similar fate. In 2007—after 1,429 years in business—the temple-construction company Kongo Gumi ran out of money and was absorbed by a larger company. Three companies going bust doesn’t quite make a trend, but it seems like there has to be something larger going on if a company that’s been around for more than a millennium suddenly blinks out of existence. The first question to ask about a company like Kongo Gumi is why it stuck around so long in the first place. For one thing, these companies tend to be clustered in industries that never really go out of style. Kongo Gumi specialized in building Buddhist temples—a pretty dependable bet in nation with a strong Buddhist history. The company’s first temple, near Osaka, was completed in 593, and has been rebuilt six times since then (by Kongo Gumi, of course). “There’s a pattern,” William O’Hara, the author of Centuries of Success, told The Wall Street Journal in 1999. “The oldest family businesses often are involved in basic human activities: drink, shipping, construction, food, guns.” The other reason these companies proliferate in Japan is because of how the country’s family-run businesses have been passed down through generations. Japanese business owners typically bequeathed entire companies to their eldest sons, and there’s a 10-foot-long 17th-century scroll tracing all of Kongo Gumi’s previous owners. But what fostered corporate longevity was that owners were permitted some leeway if they didn’t trust their offspring to take the helm: They could adopt a son, who would often marry into the family and go on to run the business…In Japan, a 2011 study found, businesses run by adopted heirs consistently outperformed those run by blood heirs. This explains a bizarre statistic about Japanese family life: Unlike in the U.S., where most adoptees are children, 98 percent of Japan’s adoptees are 25-to-30-year-old men.

Culture Brigade: Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror [Joe Parkinson, Ayla Albayrak and Duncan Mavin on The Wall Street Journal] (2/10/15)

Art historians and intelligence officials say that antiquities smuggling by Islamic State has exploded in recent months, aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions. Looting, often with bulldozers, is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finance after oil, Western intelligence officials say. “What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organized transnational business that is helping fund terror,” said Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who is advising the U.S. State Department on how to tackle the problem. “It’s the gravest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”

How RadioShack Helped Build Silicon Valley [David Pierce on Wired] (2/5/15)

Read about the biggest tech stories of the 20th century, and RadioShack keeps popping up: Long before he founded Netscape, Marc Andreessen learned to program tooling around on a TRS-80, one of the first affordable personal computers and one of the first devices RadioShack ever produced. Kevin Mitnick, the first hacker ever on the FBI’s most-wanted list, learned his trade on the demo models at RadioShack because he couldn’t afford a computer of his own. John Draper, the phone phreaker known as “Captain Crunch,” hacked his way into free long-distance calls using a Touch Tone dialer he bought from RadioShack. Woz bought one too, and he says it cost him a fortune. He used it for the now-infamous Blue Box, which he and Steve Jobs used to make their own free calls without interference from Ma Bell. Without RadioShack, there’s no Blue Box. And as Woz tells it, without the Blue Box there’s no Apple. There’d probably be no Dell, either. It was inside his local RadioShack that a high-school-age Michael Dell first began tinkering with computers, all while saving up to buy his own Apple II. Which, as he recalls in “Direct from Dell,” he promptly took apart. (Can’t do that at RadioShack.) His parents were furious, but putting the computer back together was the beginning of the business that was the beginning of Dell. That store was also where he discovered he could buy computer parts, put them together himself, and sell them cheaper by going straight to buyers.

The Ideal Work Schedule, as Determined by Circadian Rhythms [Christopher M. Barnes on Harvard Business Review] (1/28/15)

Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire. On average, after the workday begins, employees take a few hours to reach their peak levels of alertness and energy — and that peak does not last long. Not long after lunch, those levels begin to decline, hitting a low at around 3pm. We often blame this on lunch, but in reality this is just a natural part of the circadian process. After the 3pm dip, alertness tends to increase again until hitting a second peak at approximately 6pm. Following this, alertness tends to then decline for the rest of the evening and throughout the early morning hours until hitting the very lowest point at approximately 3:30am. After hitting that all-time low, alertness tends to increase for the rest of the morning until hitting the first peak shortly after noon the next day. A very large body of research highlights this pattern…Managers who want to maximize their employees’ performance should consider this circadian rhythm when setting assignments, deadlines, and expectations. This requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others. Similarly, employees should take their own circadian rhythms into account when planning their own day. The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness (within an hour or so of noon and 6pm). The least important tasks should be scheduled for times in which alertness is lower (very early in the morning, around 3pm, and late at night). Naps can be a good way to regulate energy as well, providing some short-term recovery that can increase alertness. A large body of evidence links naps to increases in task performance. However, even tired and sleep-deprived employees may find it difficult to nap if they work against their circadian rhythms. Fortunately, there is a nice complementary fit; naps are best scheduled for the low point of alertness in the circadian rhythm. Thus, smart managers and employees will schedule naps around 3pm, when they are less useful for important tasks anyway, such that they will be even more alert later on during the natural high points in their circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, we often get this wrong. Many employees are flooded with writing and responding to emails throughout their entire morning, which takes them up through lunch. They return from lunch having already used up most of their first peak in alertness, and then begin important tasks requiring deep cognitive processing just as they start to move toward the 3pm dip in alertness and energy. We often put employees in a position where they must meet an end-of-workday deadline, so they persist in this important task throughout the 3pm dip. Then, as they are starting to approach the second peak of alertness, the typical workday ends. For workaholics, they may simply take a dinner break, which occupies some of their peak alertness time, and then work throughout the evening and night as their alertness and cognitive performance decline for the entire duration. And in the worst-case scenario, the employee burns the midnight oil and persists well into the worst circadian dip of the entire cycle, with bleary eyes straining just to stay awake while working on an important task at 3:30am. All of these examples represent common mismatches between an optimal strategy and what people actually do. As I briefly noted above, there are of course individual differences in circadian rhythms. The typical pattern is indeed very common, and the general shape of the curve describes almost everyone. However, some people have a circadian rhythm that is shifted in one direction or the other.

When Musicians Unintentionally Steal [J. Wesley Judd on Pacific Standard Magazine] (1/29/15)

Throughout the 1990s, Marsh and his colleagues conducted a number of studies on this issue, the most notable of which used the game Boggle to gauge how well people remembered whether they or their partner (in this case a computer) had thought of a specific word. The results of that particular experiment led Marsh and his colleague, Dr. Gordon H. Bower of Stanford University, to recognize an “unambiguous existence of substantial unconscious plagiarism.” Bower, for his part, gives musicians the benefit of the doubt. “I think most of the cases are inadvertent,” he says over the phone. “Musicians are unaware because they have composed hundreds of songs in the life and heard thousands of songs. The material that they’re now trying to create has to somehow avoid duplication. It’s a herculean task of memory.” In the wake of their research, Marsh and Bower concluded that cryptomnesia is actually a good deal more common than anyone would realize.

Curiously Strong Remains:

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28
Apr
15

Roundup – Too Many Kings

Best of the Best:

Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group [Michael Lipka and Conrad Hackett on Pew Research Center] (4/23/15)

The expected growth of Islam around the world is perhaps the most striking finding in the recent Pew Research Center report projecting the future of religious groups. Indeed, Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2010 and 2050 and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group. While the world’s population is projected to grow 35% in the coming decades, the number of Muslims is expected to increase by 73% – from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion in 2050. In 2010, Muslims made up 23.2% of the global population. Four decades later, they are expected to make up about three-in-ten of the world’s people (29.7%). By 2050, Muslims will be nearly as numerous as Christians, who are projected to remain the world’s largest religious group at 31.4% of the global population.

Panthers Attack Florida Farms [David Fleshler on The Sun Sentinel via Governing Magazine] (12/12/14)

A record number of Florida panther attacks on farm animals and pets took place this year, in what the state wildlife commission says is a consequence of the endangered cat’s increased population. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Friday confirmed 32 incidents of fatal panther attacks on animals such as goats, sheep, calves, dogs and cats, with more than 50 animals killed. This year also saw a record 20 panthers killed by vehicles. The commission attributed the increase in killings to the success of state and federal efforts to increase the panther’s population. The number of panthers today is estimated at 100 to 180, with the top figure representing a recent upward revision from 160. During the 1970s, the population may have fallen as low as 30.

Humala Says He Regrets Greenpeace Group Allowed to Leave Peru [Javiera Quiroga and John Quigley on Bloomberg Businessweek] (12/14/14)

Peru President Ollanta Humala said he regretted that a local court rejected his government’s effort to detain Greenpeace activists suspected of damaging pre-Hispanic desert drawings during an environmental protest. Many of the activists left the country after causing “irreparable” damage to the archaeological site known as the Nazca lines, Humala said in a statement on the presidential website dated yesterday. As many as 20 people entered the archaeological site without authorization last week to place a sign next to one of the geoglyphs, leaving a trail of footprints that may be impossible to remove, Deputy Minister for Cultural Heritage Luis Jaime Castillo said in a Dec. 10 interview. A Nazca court rejected a request from the attorney general’s office to detain the Greenpeace campaigners as their home addresses hadn’t been provided, Peru’s state news agency Andina reported Dec. 12.

Trader goes missing after £130m of clients’ cash disappears [Robert Mendick on The Telegraph] (12/21/14)

In an email sent to clients a fortnight ago, Mr Lewis admitted that his company, JL Trading, had stopped operating in 2009 after suffering heavy losses on disastrous foreign exchange deals. He confessed in the email that he had continued taking people’s money for the next five years in an attempt to turn his fortunes around, but that all those attempts had failed. In an email sent a month earlier – in response to growing concern from investors trying to get their money out – he claimed that his company was having “a stressful time” releasing $197 million (£126 million) from American brokers because of US red tape.

Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss [Keith E. Stanovich on Scientific American] (1/1/15)

I coined the term “dysrationalia” (analogous to “dyslexia”), meaning the inability to think and behave rationally despite having adequate intelligence, to draw attention to a large domain of cognitive life that intelligence tests fail to assess. Although most people recognize that IQ tests do not measure every important mental faculty, we behave as if they do. We have an implicit assumption that intelligence and rationality go together—or else why would we be so surprised when smart people do foolish things? It is useful to get a handle on dysrationalia and its causes because we are beset by problems that require increasingly more accurate, rational responses. In the 21st century, shallow processing can lead physicians to choose less effective medical treatments, can cause people to fail to adequately assess risks in their environment, can lead to the misuse of information in legal proceedings, and can make parents resist vaccinating their children. Millions of dollars are spent on unneeded projects by government and private industry when decision makers are dysrationalic, billions are wasted on quack remedies, unnecessary surgery is performed and costly financial misjudgments are made. IQ tests do not measure dysrationalia. But as I show in my 2010 book, What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, there are ways to measure dysrationalia and ways to correct it. Decades of research in cognitive psychology have suggested two causes of dysrationalia. One is a processing problem, the other a content problem. Much is known about both of them.

Playing Chicken [Sasha Chapman on The Walrus] (January/February 2015)

Most doctors have little to do with animal medicine, unless they’re taking the family pet for a checkup. Likewise, vets rarely take more than a personal interest in human medicine. Each profession keeps to itself, and each tends to collect and analyze its own data separately, making it difficult to share information and identify cross-species health risks. And in the case of zoonotic diseases—those that move from animals to humans—there can be a tendency, between the professions, to develop an us-versus-them mindset. Vets are concerned with their own patients’ health, and doctors with theirs. We segregate these disciplines at our peril. Most of the emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases that have plagued humans in recent decades—including Lyme disease, H1N1, and Ebola—began in animal populations, and were first transmitted to human beings either directly or through our shared environment. Consequences can be devastating, as in the case of plague, which emerges periodically from animal reservoirs. As Hutchinson says, “We are all swimming in the same pool.” That pool has changed significantly in the last sixty years. Or, to be more precise, we changed the pool when we declared open season on bacteria, and began killing them off with antibiotics.

Invasion of the Asteroids [David Owen on Esquire via The Daily Beast] (February 1981)

It’s lunchtime in Manhattan, and the Playland arcade at Forty-seventh Street and Broadway is crowded. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Playland’s traditional clientele of Times Square drifters and truant schoolboys is what appears to be a full-scale assault team from the corporate tower of nearby Rockefeller Center. You can hardly move from one end of the place to the other without grinding your heel on somebody’s wing-tip shoe. Over near the Seventh Avenue entrance, a tall thin man with a briefcase pressed between his knees is hunched over a flashing pinball table called JAMES BOND. At a change station near the center of the room, a portly lawyer type is converting the contents of his wallet into enough quarters to bribe a congressional subcommittee. There are three-piece suits everywhere. But the densest agglomeration of gray wool by far stands at the very front of the arcade by a long bank of thumping, thundering machines, where a veritable legion of young executives is lined up three deep to play Asteroids. Asteroids, at the moment I am writing, is the most popular coin-operated game—video, pinball, or other—in the United States. It jumped to the number one spot not long ago by out-earning Space Invaders, a simple-minded but wildly successful Japanese import that swept this country after 
creating something close to mass hysteria (not to mention a coin shortage) in Japan. Introduced in December 1979, Asteroids quickly became standard equipment in bars, arcades, and airports all over the country. Tavern owners who had previously been scared away from coin-op games by pinball’s underworld reputation now began to clamor for Asteroids. Atari Inc., the game’s manufacturer, had trouble keeping production in step with demand. There are now sixty thousand Asteroids machines on location worldwide, most of them in the United States and most of them
astonishingly popular. Machines in hot locations have been known to bring in as much as one thousand dollars a week, enough to pay for themselves in a little more than a fortnight. Operators who tend fleets of machines are finding they have to make extra trips to their locations just to empty the coin boxes of the Asteroids machines.

How He and His Cronies Stole Russia [Anne Applebaum on The New York Review of Books] (12/18/14)

In other words, the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

Why young gun millennial moved back to Kirkwood [Joe Holleman on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

Not sure if you remember the fit I threw a year back about your article on the under-40 crowd in the city of St. Louis. I moved my wife and 2-year-old daughter from Kirkwood to the city because the historic housing and architecture was so appealing, as was the cost of living. I was ready to stand up and fight for our town and be one of the young guns ready to turn this place around. I’m going to do what my generation hates doing more than anything — especially to those who are older than us — and admit you were right. We only made it a year before we pulled the anchor and headed back to Kirkwood. Sure, it was an atypical summer and fall for the city, but after everything that went down with the Shaw/South Grand (neighborhood) and Ferguson, we bailed out. Back to Kirkwood, where people care about their communities more than by just adding cute coffee shops. I may be a coward for so quickly putting my tail between my legs and scurrying back to the county, but at least I’m doing what’s right for my family.

Parasites Cause Irish Shrimp to Eat Their Young [gordonmjackson on io9] (3/21/15)

The paper is the first to suggest parasites are directly causal to cannibalism.

This Piranha Feeding Frenzy Is The Stuff Of Nightmares [George Dvorsky on io9] (3/20/15)

As terrifying as this video appears, piranhas are rarely dangerous to humans. But as University of Nevada biology professor Zeb Hogan explains in National Geographic, they can be dangerous if they’re trapped in a backwater without food. And as demonstrated in this new video, these piranha are as aggressive as they are because they’re likely being regularly fed by people; when they congregate like this, they act just like they would if trapped in a small pool.

In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas [Judith Shulevitz on The New York Times] (3/21/15)

Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material. Some people trace safe spaces back to the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s, others to the gay and lesbian movement of the early 1990s. In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity. As long as all parties consent to such restrictions, these little islands of self-restraint seem like a perfectly fine idea. But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.

Family arrested in fake kidnapping plot to teach 6-year-old stranger danger, police say [Susan Weich on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (2/6/15)

A 6-year-old boy’s mother, grandmother and aunt are accused of staging a kidnapping, then holding the child for four hours to teach him about “stranger danger.” They hatched the plot to scare the boy because they said he was “too nice” to people, police said. The boy’s mother, Elizabeth Hupp, grandmother, Rose Brewer, and aunt, Denise Kroutil, engaged the help of Nathan Firoved, who worked with Kroutil at a gas station. Firoved waited for the boy to get off his bus after school, then lured the child into his pickup, police say. While in the truck, Firoved, 23, told the boy he would never “see his mommy again,” and he would be “nailed to the wall of a shed,” police said. As the boy started to cry, Firoved showed him a handgun and told the child if he didn’t stop crying he would hurt him, authorities said. Firoved continued driving the boy around in his truck, then because he would not stop crying, Firoved bound the boy’s hands and feet with plastic bags and covered his face with an adult-sized jacket so he couldn’t see, police said. Later, Firoved took the boy — still blindfolded — to the basement of the boy’s home and left him there, authorities said. The boy’s aunt, Kroutil, removed his pants and told him he could be sold into “sex slavery.” She also chastised him because he did not try to resist her. He did not recognize her voice. The child was kept confined in the basement for an undetermined time before he was untied and told to go upstairs. There his family lectured him about staying away from strangers, police said.

‘Lone Ranger’ protester takes to the streets for the first time after St. Louis shooting [Jesse Bogan on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (3/31/15)

She’d heard all the gunfire the night before that killed a man and woman, and injured a 9-year-old girl in the hand. Hawkins, who has a grown daughter in community college, didn’t have any art supplies laying around. She went across the street from her apartment and borrowed two crayons and one sheet of yellow paper from the same rec center that serves as the city’s emergency homeless shelter during cold nights. She drew six hearts on the paper and spelled out the word “PEACE” in large letters. “You don’t need a big crowd to make a big shine,” she said. “The Lone Ranger made a big impact.” She felt encouraged by honks from passing vehicles and the kids who waved from a school bus. “A couple guys gave engaging looks,” she said. “Hey, that’s encouraging, too.”…As Hawkins rounded a corner during her walking protest Tuesday near Menard Street and Park Avenue, she came across the most recent crime scene. She noticed a car pulling up and knew right away that it was full of family members of slain victims. Three women got out of the car and walked toward the spot. Soon after, a man would show up with balloons to tie on a post. “May we offer you peace for your family,” she told them. One of the women was distraught and just said: “Damn. Damn. Damn.” Hawkins left them alone and talked about how “senseless” the killings were. She did what she thought she could do to avoid any more violence by carrying her sign. “You know, we just spread peace one slice at a time,” she said.

The 10 Biggest Blunders in The History Of Espionage [Esther Inglis-Arkell on io9] (2/9/15)

James Jesus Angleton was a dedicated civil servant, and one of the most respected spy hunters in the non-communist world. He was the head of counterintelligence at the CIA for twenty-one years. The fact that he got that position after one particular incident is a testament to his talents. Kim Philby was a shining star in British intelligence, sent to Washington in 1949 to be the liaison between the CIA and MI6. Every week, the two men had lunch. They held court at Harvey’s restaurant in Washington. Angleton was impressed by Philby’s Cambridge background, and since felt proud that he could out drink the British spy, every lunch became a martini drinking contest. In 1951, two of Philby’s friends defected to Moscow. That didn’t look good, but Angleton maintained belief in Philby’s complete innocence. His claim was hollow, considering he burned all the documents pertaining to his long lunches with his friend. To be fair, after years of investigation, MI6 concluded that Philby was innocent as well. Were they right? Here’s a hint – the portrait of Philby in this entry was taken from a Soviet stamp. Philby defected to Moscow and admitted he had been recruited by the USSR whilst at Cambridge. The revelation caused Angleton to become increasingly paranoid, believing that the CIA had been systematically undermined by the KGB, until he eventually left the agency.

In the Crosshairs [Nicholas Schmidle on The New Yorker] (6/3/13)

The session went well. Kilbane told me that he was struck by Kyle’s “aura,” noting that whenever “he walked in the room the dynamic would change, the energy in the room would shift.” Afterward, a larger group went out for dinner, closed the hotel bar, and hung out in Kyle’s suite, drinking until late. The SEALs began telling stories, and Kyle offered a shocking one. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, he said, the law-and-order situation was dire. He and another sniper travelled to New Orleans, set up on top of the Superdome, and proceeded to shoot dozens of armed residents who were contributing to the chaos. Three people shared with me varied recollections of that evening: the first said that Kyle claimed to have shot thirty men on his own; according to the second, the story was that Kyle and the other sniper had shot thirty men between them; the third said that she couldn’t recall specific details. Had Kyle gone to New Orleans with a gun? Rumors of snipers—both police officers and criminal gunmen—circulated in the weeks after the storm. Since then, they have been largely discredited. A spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, told me, “To the best of anyone’s knowledge at SOCOM, there were no West Coast SEALs deployed to Katrina.” When I related this account to one of Kyle’s officers, he replied, sardonically, “I never heard that story.” The SEAL with extensive experience in special-mission units wondered how dozens of people could be shot by high-velocity rifles and just disappear; Kyle’s version of events, he said, “defies the imagination.” (In April, Webb published an article on SOFREP about the incident, but took it down after concluding that Kyle’s account was dubious.) Perhaps this story, like the one about the gas station, contains a kernel of truth. Both narratives, however, portray Kyle as if he really were the Punisher, dispensing justice by his own rules. It was possible to see these stories as evidence of vainglory; it was also possible to see them as attempts by a struggling man to maintain an invincible persona. Kilbane, having read Kyle’s book, knew about his drinking habits and his battles with combat stress. Watching Kyle put down pint glass after pint glass of whiskey-on-the-rocks, he said, “It made me think there were still demons bouncing around in there.”

North Koreans Walk Across Frozen River to Kill Chinese for Food [Bloomberg News] (1/14/15)

A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 880-mile (1,400-kilometer) shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation. The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong Un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money. “Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong Un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea.

Melting Glaciers Imperil Kathmandu, Perched High Above Rising Seas [Natalie Obiko Pearson on Bloomberg News] (1/13/15)

A month’s walk from the nearest sea, Kathmandu — elevation almost a mile — is as vulnerable to climate change as the world’s coastal megacities. The capital of the poorest Asian country after Afghanistan already is feeling the effect: Rising temperatures are crimping power and food supplies as rural migrants stream to a city of 1 million that’s among the world’s most crowded. “Kathmandu is the country’s production and consumption center,” said Mahfuzuddin Ahmed, an adviser in the Manila-based Asian Development Bank’s regional and sustainable development department. “Any climate-related hazards that spill into the national economy will be amplified there.” The mountainous Himalayan nation may have crossed a tipping point of irreversible damage. Its glaciers have lost about a third of their ice reserves since 1977. Just like giant icebergs in the ocean, those glaciers play a critical role in the high-altitude jet streams that can delay monsoons, prolong droughts or spawn storms.

Meet the New Egypt, Same as Old Egypt, Four Years After Uprising [Tarek El-Tablawy on Bloomberg News] (1/20/15)

The blast walls surrounding the state security headquarters in Cairo bear none of the graffiti that covers the rest of the city, yet on it Salama Mohamed sees the latest chapter in the story of Egypt. The imposing, fortress-like compound under former President Hosni Mubarak was home to the most feared of security services, its plain-clothed officers working on extracting confessions. Mohamed knew them well. His father, a mechanic, was picked up for undisclosed reasons years earlier. He was released two weeks later, a shadow of his former self. “He came out from there broken,” said the 28-year-old office clerk, after moving across the street from the headquarters. “Now look at them. They hide behind the walls and then come back out even meaner than they were before.”

Obama’s Lists: A Dubious History of Targeted Killings in Afghanistan [Der Spiegel] (12/28/14)

Death is circling above Helmand Province on the morning of Feb. 7, 2011, in the form of a British Apache combat helicopter named “Ugly 50.” Its crew is searching for an Afghan named Mullah Niaz Mohammed. The pilot has orders to kill him. The Afghan, who has been given the code name “Doody,” is a “mid-level commander” in the Taliban, according to a secret NATO list. The document lists enemy combatants the alliance has approved for targeted killings. “Doody” is number 3,673 on the list and NATO has assigned him a priority level of three on a scale of one to four. In other words, he isn’t particularly important within the Taliban leadership structure.The operations center identified “Doody” at 10:17 a.m. But visibility is poor and the helicopter is forced to circle another time. Then the gunner fires a “Hellfire” missile. But he has lost sight of the mullah during the maneuver, and the missile strikes a man and his child instead. The boy is killed instantly and the father is severely wounded. When the pilot realizes that the wrong man has been targeted, he fires 100 rounds at “Doody” with his 30-mm gun, critically injuring the mullah. The child and his father are two of the many victims of the dirty secret operations that NATO conducted for years in Afghanistan. Their fate is described in secret documents to which SPIEGEL was given access. Some of the documents concerning the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the NSA and GCHQ intelligence services are from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Included is the first known complete list of the Western alliance’s “targeted killings” in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks, but were in fact part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan. The list, which included up to 750 people at times, proves for the first time that NATO didn’t just target the Taliban leadership, but also eliminated mid- and lower-level members of the group on a large scale. Some Afghans were only on the list because, as drug dealers, they were allegedly supporting the insurgents…A new chapter begins in Afghanistan next week. A new government has been elected, and the majority of NATO troops have been withdrawn. It is now up to the Afghans to decide what their future will look like. The West has achieved some of its goals. Al-Qaida has been defeated, at least in Afghanistan, and its former leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead. But the Taliban remains undefeated, as it demonstrated with the recent attack on a Pakistani school. It will be impossible to bring peace to Afghanistan without involving the Taliban. A 2009 CIA study that addresses targeted killings of senior enemy officials worldwide reaches a bitter conclusion. Because of the Taliban’s centralized but flexible leadership, as well as its egalitarian tribal structures, the targeted killings were only moderately successful in Afghanistan. “Morover, the Taliban has a high overall ability to replace lost leaders,” the study finds.

The Story Behind AOL’s Iconic Yellow Running Man [Adrienne LaFrance on The Atlantic] (12/11/14)

Early on, we didn’t really do a lot of focus grouping or testing. The hierarchy was very flat. There was a lot of, you could almost say gut instinct. [AOL leadership] was very brave in terms of being behind such a wholesale digital and functional redesign of the service. We were able to do something that was very different from everything else. The color schemes that I had were not standard. It was warm, friendly. It was a very different direction to take. So sort of going back to where the running man came from, that’s where he came from. Because the company at the time was moving very quickly. The AOL Instant Messenger team actually took the man and started using it for AIM. Pretty soon he was just used everywhere. It was a very organic thing that just sort of evolved and pretty soon he was just attached to the brand.

Cancer Largely Due to Biological ‘Bad Luck’ Rather Than Behavior [Chitra Somayaji on Bloomberg News] (1/2/15)

A formula that plotted the number of stem-cell divisions over a lifetime against the risk of cancer showed a correlation and explained two-thirds of cases, according to a research paper published this week in the journal Science. The study, conducted by mathematician Cristian Tomasetti and geneticist Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, is based on previously published cancer statistics. The research may bolster arguments that cancer often can’t be prevented, with risky behavior such as smoking and excessive exposure to the sun being less of a cause than chance. That would support focusing more resources on diagnosing the disease in early stages and on treatments to reduce mortality rates.

Anti-terror plan to spy on toddlers ‘is heavy-handed’ [Robert Mendick on The Telegraph] (1/4/15)

The document accompanies the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, currently before parliament. It identifies nurseries and early years childcare providers, along with schools and universities, as having a duty “to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”. The consultation paper adds: “Senior management and governors should make sure that staff have training that gives them the knowledge and confidence to identify children at risk of being drawn into terrorism and challenge extremist ideas which can be used to legitimise terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups. “They should know where and how to refer children and young people for further help.” But concern was raised over the practicalities of making it a legal requirement for staff to inform on toddlers.

Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy [Catherine Brahic on The New Scientist] (7/16/14)

Unlike any other living thing on Earth, electric bacteria use energy in its purest form – naked electricity in the shape of electrons harvested from rocks and metals. We already knew about two types, Shewanella and Geobacter. Now, biologists are showing that they can entice many more out of rocks and marine mud by tempting them with a bit of electrical juice. Experiments growing bacteria on battery electrodes demonstrate that these novel, mind-boggling forms of life are essentially eating and excreting electricity.

Making Craft Brew in Mississippi, the Land That Beer Forgot [Patrick Clark on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/28/14)

When Mark and Leslie Henderson opened Lazy Magnolia Brewing in 2004, their hometown of Kiln, Miss., was an unlikely place to make beer…While the nation has become obsessed with local brews, Mississippi has resisted the trend. It may be the driest place in the country: The state enacted its own version of Prohibition in 1907, 13 years before the 18th Amendment took effect, and was the last state to rescind its ban on making alcohol—in 1966. Until recently, Lazy Magnolia was the lone dot on Mississippi’s beer map. The Hendersons almost didn’t get on the map at all. First they had to persuade state regulators that operating a packaging brewery—one that makes beer for distribution, as opposed to consumption on the premises—was even legal. One state official warned Mark Henderson that he could be fined $25,000 and sent to jail for six months. An incredulous local banker turned the couple down for a loan. “You’re going to sell a bunch of froufrou beer to South Mississippians?” Mark Henderson, 40, recalls the man asking.

The Tragedy of the American Military [James Fallows on The Atlantic] (January/February 2015)

If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness. Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress…Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades…Because he felt strongly enough about that failure of elite accountability, Moulton decided while in Iraq to get involved in politics after he left the military. “I actually remember the moment,” Moulton told me. “It was after a difficult day in Najaf in 2004. A young marine in my platoon said, ‘Sir, you should run for Congress someday. So this shit doesn’t happen again.’ ”

Why Cairo Recycles Better Than New York City in Waste-Picking Tale [Salma El Wardany on Bloomberg News] (1/19/15)

Milad Tadros is a magician. He makes trash disappear — at zero cost to taxpayers. The 32-year-old is part of Cairo’s army of about 70,000 zabbaleen, Arabic for garbage people, serving the city of 12 million. For decades, they’ve weathered dictatorship and revolution to create one of the world’s greenest waste-management systems in a capital known for its dirt. How they scratch a living out of 15,000 tons of daily garbage — equivalent to 35 loaded Boeing 747 jumbo jets — is an extreme lesson in the invisible hand of the market at work. Two-thirds is recycled, more than in New York City, without any technology. The zabbaleen work for cash tips and sell plastic bottles, paper, glass and aluminum cans to factories. Pigs — kept out of sight — gobble up the organic waste. “Over the years, the garbage collectors have created an enviably efficient model that is both viable, profitable and costs the government nothing,” said Suzie Greiss, the head of Egypt’s Association for the Protection of the Environment, a local nonprofit group working in the area. For Tadros and company, life’s about to change. The government is putting him on the payroll for the first time and ending the effort undertaken by ousted President Hosni Mubarak to contract the services to foreign companies. That effort failed because residents never got the hang of carrying their trash to dumpsters.

The music in you [Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis on Aeon Magazine] (1/8/15)

In 1999, the same authors, working with their colleague Elizabeth Johnson, demonstrated that infants and adults alike track the statistical properties of tone sequences. In other words, you don’t have to play the guitar or study music theory to build up a nuanced sense of which notes tend to follow which other notes in a particular repertoire: simply being exposed to music is enough. And just as a baby cannot describe her verbal learning process, only revealing her achievement by frowning at the word squash, the adult who has used statistical learning to make sense of music will reveal her knowledge expressively, clenching her teeth when a particularly fraught chord arises and relaxing when it resolves. She has acquired a deep, unconscious understanding of how chords relate to one another. It’s easy to test out the basics of this acquired knowledge on your friends. Play someone a simple major scale, Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti, but withhold the final Do and watch even the most avowed musical ignoramus start to squirm or even finish the scale for you. Living in a culture where most music is built on this scale is enough to develop what seems less like the knowledge and more like the feeling that this Ti must resolve to a Do. Psychologists such as Emmanuel Bigand of the University of Burgundy in France and Carol Lynne Krumhansl of Cornell University in New York have used more formal methods to demonstrate implicit knowledge of tonal structure. In experiments that asked people to rate how well individual tones fitted with an established context, people without any training demonstrated a robust feel for pitch that seemed to indicate a complex understanding of tonal theory. That might surprise most music majors at US universities, who often don’t learn to analyse and describe the tonal system until they get there, and struggle with it then. Yet what’s difficult is not understanding the tonal system itself – it’s making this knowledge explicit. We all know the basics of how pitches relate to each other in Western tonal systems; we simply don’t know that we know.

How Lego Became The Apple Of Toys [Jonathan Ringen on Fast Company] (1/8/15)

About a decade ago, it looked like Lego might not have much of a future at all. In 2003, the company—based in a tiny Danish village called Billund and owned by the same family that founded it before World War II—was on the verge of bankruptcy, with problems lurking within like tree rot. Faced with growing competition from video games and the Internet, and plagued by an internal fear that Lego was perceived as old-fashioned, the company had been making a series of errors. Day-to-day management had been handed in 1998 to a “turnaround expert” with no toy background who continued to live in Paris, as business writer David C. Robertson outlines in his 2013 Lego history, Brick by Brick. There were disastrous detours away from the core experience, including the abysmal morning cartoon ­Galidor, and experiments with bigger, more macho minifigures with a line called Jack Stone. The company kept opening Legoland theme parks around the world, despite having limited expertise in hospitality. Sales of several of Lego’s most successful products, including Lego’s Star Wars and Harry Potter lines, bobbed up and down based on movie release schedules over which Lego had no control. And the company wildly increased the number of products it released each year, resulting in a dreadful 2002 Christmas season, when major retailers ended up with around 40% of their Lego stock unsold. Enter Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a deeply process-based thinker—and, not incidentally, a father of four—who arrived from ­McKinsey & Co. in 2001 and was promoted to CEO three years later, when he was 36. (He took over from Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, grandson of Lego founder Ole Kirk Christiansen.)…Knudstorp began turning the company around by making several key moves: improving processes, cutting costs, and managing cash flow. Then came stabilization. “But after that, we knew there’d be a third phase of organic growth,” he says. That required figuring out what a modern Lego should even be, which Knudstorp accomplished in part by investing in a kind of research the company had never done before—deep ethnographic studies of how kids around the world really play. Today, Lego may know as much about that subject as any organization on earth.

Cities Forge Policy Apart From States [Jenni Bergal on Stateline] (1/15/15)

Republicans have seized their largest state lawmaking majorities since the 1920s, but many Democratic-dominated cities are likely to take matters into their own hands this year by passing progressive measures that go beyond or even conflict with state laws. On issues ranging from the minimum wage to fracking to drones, a number of cities acted on their own in 2014, and the trend is expected to continue—even in states where Democrats control state government. Meanwhile, some states are pushing back by barring local governments from adopting such measures.

Seven of the Most Unintentionally Creepy Ads of All Time [Natalie Kitroeff on Bloomberg Businessweek] (1/13/15)

3. Kay Jewelers, Part 2

Here, a step-dad shows off his totally normal relationship with his future stepdaughter by giving her the same necklace he gave her mother.

Curiously Strong Remains:

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24
Apr
15

Roundup – T-FORCE

Best of the Best:

To Stop the Coffee Apocalypse, Starbucks Buys a Farm [Bryan Gruley and Leslie Patton on Bloomberg Businessweek] (2/13/14)

Caressing the leaves of Par 1 Plan 1, Mario says it’s a cross between a Costa Rican variety known for the bright flavor favored by U.S. coffee drinkers, and an African breed with a bitter taste but the resilience to battle a fungus ravaging Latin America’s coffee crop. After a year in the nursery, a few hundred of these seedlings will be replanted nearby. Seeds from the trees that can fend off disease and yield the most abundant, high-quality beans will be replanted again in a cycle that could take five years before Par 1 Plan 1 is ready for Costa Rican farmers. The plant Mario is holding might never be responsible for a Starbucks venti latte, but its grandchild or great-grandchild might. “We have hopes,” he says.

How the Beatles Went Viral: Blunders, Technology & Luck Broke the Fab Four in America [Steve Greenberg on Billboard Magazine] (2/7/14)

Suspending all sales and promotion staff vacation during Christmas week, Capitol sprung into action on Dec. 26, its promotion men hand-delivering the Beatles’ 45 single to key stations by 9 a.m. Before the morning was over, top 40 stations around the country were hammering the record. Record stores were immediately besieged, as teens rushed to spend their Christmas money. As one New Jersey retailer told Billboard, “Sales started out like an explosion.” Moving the release date up had an unexpected benefit. In 1964, the average American teen listened to the radio for more than three hours per day. With kids out of school for Christmas week, that number was undoubtedly even higher. And, equally important, the most common stocking-stuffers received by teens that Christmas were transistor radios, which had become cheaper than ever. Although popular since the mid-’50s, the Japanese-made transistor radio experienced exponential sales growth in the mid-’60s, as inexpensive off-brands proliferated. While 5.5 million radios had been sold in the United States in 1962, by 1963 that number nearly doubled to 10 million. So ubiquitous was the transistor radio as a holiday gift in 1963 that the popular comedy songwriter Allan Sherman recorded a “12 Days of Christmas” parody keyed around having received a Japanese transistor radio “on the first day of Christmas,” with more details about the radio piling up with each successive verse: “It’s a Nakashuma/It’s the Mark 4 model-that’s the one that’s discontinued/And it comes with a leatherette case with holes in it so you can listen right through the case/And it has a wire with a thing on one end that you can stick in your ear.” The transistor radio was the technological spark that lit the fuse of teen culture in the ’60s. Like the Internet in the last decade, it was a vehicle of public music discovery and sharing. Like the Walkman in the ’80s, it made music portable and private in new ways that energized listeners. One could take it anywhere-the schoolyard, the beach, wherever-and share music with friends. But one could also listen through an earplug while walking down the street, sitting in the back of the class or lying in bed at night, under the covers, so parents wouldn’t know. Prior radios had neither portability nor the earplug. Subsequent technologies-the boom box, Walkman, iPod-enhanced the public or private listening experience, but not both. The Maysles’ documentary shows the Beatles taking their Pepsi-branded transistor radio everywhere, listening both collectively and through earplugs to top 40 stations. In a meta moment, they do a face-to-face interview with a DJ in their hotel suite while simultaneously listening to the interview being broadcast live on their radio. So imagine, if you will, teenagers across America turning on their new transistor radios during Christmas vacation in 1963, listening for hours, everywhere, alone and with their friends, and hearing -over and over again-a new sound that excited them even more than their new piece of hardware.

Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex? [Lori Gottlieb via The New York Times] (2/6/14)

Is the trade-off of egalitarian marriage necessarily less sexual heat? It’s possible that the sexual scripts we currently follow will evolve along with our marital arrangements so that sameness becomes sexy. Regardless, more people marrying today are choosing egalitarian setups for the many other benefits they offer. If every sexual era is unhappy in its own way, it may be that we will begin to think of the challenges of egalitarian marriages less as drawbacks and more like, well, life, with its inherent limitations on how exciting any particular aspect can be. “It’s the first time in history we are trying this experiment of a sexuality that’s rooted in equality and that lasts for decades,” Esther Perel said. “It’s a tall order for one person to be your partner in Management Inc., your best friend and passionate lover. There’s a certain part of you that with this partner will not be fulfilled. You deal with that loss. It’s a paradox to be lived with, not solved.”

Why Abercrombie Is Losing Its Shirt [Matthew Shaer on The Cut on New York Magazine] (2/9/14)

From 1992, when he was hired at Abercrombie, to the early aughts, Jeffries presided over one of the more impressive runs in the history of modern American retail. And he did it by turning an all-but-moribund clothing brand, best known as a fusty safari outfitter, into a multibillion-dollar behemoth with more than a thousand storefronts and a style that competitors were tripping over one another to imitate. Unlike his peers, who tended to view the youth market with clinical detachment, Jeffries had a Peter Pan–like ability to commune with the whims of the average American teen. As a former colleague once said, ideally, Jeffries “would like to be a guy with a young body in California.” He was able to predict what his customers desired because that’s what he desired too. But by the early aughts, Jeffries was eager to expand the company, and that spring, he summoned a group of executives to his office to discuss the creation of a new line of apparel to be developed under the code name “Concept Four.” At the time, Abercrombie comprised three separate brands. Abercrombie Kids was for grade-schoolers; Hollister, a SoCal-inspired line launched in 2000, was for young teenagers; and Abercrombie & Fitch, with its prep-meets-vintage aesthetic, was for high-school and college kids. Concept Four, Jeffries announced, would target the professional crowd that had aged out of the core Abercrombie brand. It would still be recognizably Abercrombie—jeans, button-ups, polos—but slightly more muted: no shorts with racy language scrawled across the rear…Concept Four launched in 2004 as Ruehl No. 925, complete with a fictional backstory, involving a nineteenth-century Greenwich Village merchant, concocted by the marketing department. Initially, Jeffries was optimistic, and he spoke publicly of Ruehl as embodying “the fantasy of college kids of America moving from Indiana to the big city.” He invested heavily in an expensive ad campaign featuring black-and-white close-ups of lower-­Manhattan brownstones—a self-consciously classier approach than the nude black-and-white images that graced Abercrombie storefronts and shopping bags. And in order to enforce the luxury nature of the brand, he stipulated that apparel prices should be 25 to 35 percent higher than they were at Abercrombie stores. But Jeffries badly mistimed his entry into the market. Already, online sales were generating an ever-growing pile of revenue for the apparel industry, and fast-fashion retailers such as H&M were churning out low-price approximations of high-end items. Consumers failed to see the appeal of a line that trafficked in the same basic style as Abercrombie, especially when it was prohibitively expensive. In 2009, after spending untold millions, Abercrombie closed all 29 Ruehl storefronts nationwide.

Oil Thieves of the Niger Delta [Alex Okeowo on Bloomberg Businessweek] (2/20/14)

We met at the bar before setting out, and Sekibo introduced me to a friend of his, a 34-year-old who asked that his name not be published. (Sekibo’s name has been changed to protect his identity, too.) His friend said he’d been stealing oil for six years. The government, he said, needs to give everyone a basic salary of 70,000 naira a month (about $427); otherwise the theft will not stop. Although oil companies operating in the delta have paid villages reparations after especially bad oil spills, the region remains underdeveloped, with few roads, little electricity or clean water, and impoverished schools. The nearest hospital is two hours away. Several in the bar were wary of a visiting journalist, but Sekibo assured me, “I’ve explained to them why it’s important you watch us work. For people to know how we are suffering here.” More than 90 percent of Nigeria’s budget comes from oil and gas; until recently, the country was Africa’s leading exporter of oil. And yet Nigeria refines less than one-fifth of its own output—so little, in fact, that it has to reimport its own oil, refined elsewhere, at a higher cost. This is the situation that Sekibo and his peers exploit. In their eyes, not only are they stealing oil as a tax on the companies that pollute their communities, but they are also providing a much-needed and more affordable source of domestic fuel. And even though politicians floated the idea of building refineries in the delta, it hasn’t happened, and there are few jobs. A 2011 report by the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta finds the youth unemployment rate in the region is 40 percent.

The True Story of the Monuments Men [Jim Morrison on Smithsonian Magazine] (2/7/14)

Nowhere, notes Nicholas, were more of those treasures collected than at Altaussee, where Hitler stored the treasures intended for his Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria, a sprawling museum complex that Hitler planned as a showcase for his plunder. On that first foray, Kirstein and Posey (portrayed in pseuodyminity by actors Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, respectively) had also discovered Michelangelo’s Madonna, which was spirited out of Bruges, Belgium, by the Nazis in September 1944 as the Allies advanced on the city. Within days, they’d also found priceless works by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. They summoned the only Monuments Man for the job, George Stout, who had pioneered new techniques of art conservation before the war working at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Early in the war, Stout (given the name Frank Stokes as played by George Clooney in the film) unsuccessfully campaigned for the creation of a group like the Monuments Men with both American and British authorities. Frustrated, the World War I veteran enlisted in the Navy and developed aircraft camouflage techniques until transferred to a small corps of 17 Monuments Men in December 1944. Stout had been crossing France, Germany and Belgium recovering works, often traveling in a Volkswagen captured from the Germans.  He was one of a handful of Monuments Men regularly in forward areas, though his letters home to his wife, Margie, mentioned only “field trips.”

The Unlikely Tale of How ARM Came to Rule the World [Ashlee Vance on Bloomberg Businessweek] (2/24/14)

ARM is basically a company of chip engineers. The business model it invented is simple: Tech companies shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they need a new chip for a product. Instead, they can look over ARM’s roster of chip parts, buy some basic things, and then do a bit of extra custom design work of their own to make their product unique. Other companies have similar models, but none offer the product breadth of ARM, which has chips that can run pretty much anything that has a computer, from coffee pots to data-center servers and everything in between. About half of ARM’s revenue comes from mobile products, while the rest comes from chips that go into TVs, media players, sensors, cars, printers, and other gear. Companies pay ARM in two basic ways. The first is a kind if all-you-can-eat subscription to ARM designs. For about $10 million per year, a major player like Samsung can pick and choose from the entire chip catalog. The second way is royalties. Mobile phones bring in 20¢ to 40¢ apiece—a bit more for smartphones—and there are pennies or fractions of a penny to be had from other devices…ARM’s top-tier customers such as Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia employ hundreds of their own chip designers for customization work. Much of Apple’s success has come from the snappy performance of its products and its long-lasting batteries. The features are a direct result of tweaks Apple made to ARM designs, and the ways in which Apple married its software to the silicon. Despite having its own large chip team, Apple still saves hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars a year by not having to produce everything from scratch. The ARM model is based on this idea of spreading risk, R&D investments, and profits. ARM does the underlying dirty work and makes more money when its customers sell more things. Companies like Apple and Samsung get to focus their attention on higher-level innovations instead of grunt work. And the contract chipmakers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSM) and Global Foundries cater to dozens of ARM customers and can divvy up their orders among factories to keep them running at full capacity.

The Kingpin at Rest [Alma Guillermoprieto on The New York Review of Books] (2/25/14)

His capture was so easy that one wonders if he was tired of the hard life, looking to be caught, needing some relief from the pressure of transporting thousands of tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, you name it, in addition to the daily agony of deciding whom to kill, whom to trust. And then there was all the money requiring cleaning, tons of that too, literally, barrels and cratefuls of cash coming in every week: What to do with the boxes of it left over once the bodyguards, spies, goons, hit men, police officers, judges, mayors, governors, customs officials, army generals, prison guards, railroad workers, trucking bosses, journalists, ranch hands, relatives, cabinet ministers, bank officers, helicopter, jet, and airplane pilots, business associates, and barbers have been paid off? This last item is not negligible; the person who comes in to wield scissors very close to your neck once a month or so and monitor your half-hearted attempts at a disguise—a moustache, a dye job—is someone you definitely want to tip richly if you’re Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán. Everyone has to be tipped, in fact, every single person you come into contact with—if you’re Guzmán and there’s a seven-million-dollar reward on your head. Tipped and feared. The jefe was reported to drive around Sinaloa and the states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Sonora with an army of bodyguards, in armored cars, lookouts everywhere. It’s a tiresome business, and so it becomes a real question: What was Guzmán doing, slumbering in an apartment building right on Mazatlan’s main tourist drag, five days after Navy special forces knocked down the reinforced metal door to one of his seven houses in the Sinaloa capital of Culiacán, giving him just enough time to escape through one of the tunnels that connected the houses to each other and to the public water system? In the mountains and craggy valleys of the Sierra Madre, Guzmán has been impossible to capture even on those occasions when the security forces showed some interest in doing so. But he fled from Culiacán last week not to the Sierra but to Mazatlán. Perhaps he thought he’d been tipping to everyone´s satisfaction, and miscalculated.

In Fake Classes Scandal, UNC Fails Its Athletes—and Whistle-Blower [Paul M. Barrett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (2/27/14)

Acting as an unnamed source, Willingham had been feeding information since 2011 about academic fraud to a reporter with the News & Observer in Raleigh. The coverage had put UNC on the defensive. But rather than seriously investigate the connection between sports and classroom corruption, top university administrators used vague committee reports to obfuscate the issue. Willingham’s conversations with the elderly Friday hadn’t addressed the tradecraft of whistle-blowing. Still, he’d encouraged her to act on her concerns. “At his memorial,” she says, “I realized I had to speak up.” In November 2012, she went public with what she knew. College sports is a $16 billion business, and it coexists uneasily with its host—nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions dedicated to education and research. The tension has become acute at UNC, in large part because of Willingham’s decision at Friday’s memorial service. What she disclosed has devastated UNC’s image of itself and may potentially hobble its athletic program. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing at least through 2011, UNC’s Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies offered more than 200 lecture courses that never met. The department also sponsored hundreds of independent study classes of equally dubious value. Internal reviews have identified forged faculty signatures and more than 500 grades changed without authorization. The students affected were disproportionately football and basketball players.

Where Have All the Lobbyists Gone? [Lee Fang on The Nation] (2/19/14)

On paper, the lobbying industry is quickly disappearing. In January, records indicated that for the third straight year, overall spending on lobbying decreased. Lobbyists themselves continue to deregister in droves. In 2013, the number of registered lobbyists dipped to 12,281, the lowest number on file since 2002. But experts say that lobbying isn’t dying; instead, it’s simply going underground. The problem, says American University professor James Thurber, who has studied congressional lobbying for more than thirty years, is that “most of what is going on in Washington is not covered” by the lobbyist-registration system. Thurber, who is currently advising the American Bar Association’s lobbying-reform task force, adds that his research suggests the true number of working lobbyists is closer to 100,000. A loophole-ridden law, poor enforcement, the development of increasingly sophisticated strategies that enlist third-party validators and create faux-grassroots campaigns, along with an Obama administration executive order that gave many in the profession a disincentive to register—all of these forces have combined to produce a near-total collapse of the system that was designed to keep tabs on federal lobbying. While the official figure puts the annual spending on lobbying at $3.2 billion in 2013, Thurber estimates that the industry brings in more than $9 billion a year. Other experts have made similar estimates, but no one is sure how large the industry has become. Lee Drutman, a lobbying expert at the Sunlight Foundation, says that at least twice as much is spent on lobbying as is officially reported. Trade association documents, bankruptcy filings and reports from political consulting firms reviewed by The Nation show that many of America’s largest corporations have spent much more on lobbying than they’ve officially disclosed. In some cases, the quarterly registration system, used by the public and journalists, shows only one-tenth of the amount that firms spend to win favorable treatment by the federal government.

The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates [Christine Gross-Loh on The Atlantic] (2/12/14)

“The foundation of our course is based on correcting a misconception: that to make a marriage work, you have to find the right person. The fact is, you have to be the right person,” Solomon declares. “Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person. Given that we’re dealing with 19-, 20-, 21-year olds, we think the best thing to do at this stage in the game, rather than look for the right partner, is do the work they need to understand who they are, where they are, where they came from, so they can then invite in a compatible suitable partner.”

American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga [Alexis C. Madrigal on The Atlantic] (2/24/14)

In the worst-case Delta earthquake scenario presented by the state, 600 people would die and there would be $500 billion in damage. “But only 20 percent of that economic loss was due to reduced water exports or a loss of the water pumping system,” Michael noted. The real costs would be to the infrastructure of the Delta itself, not to mention its property owners, and the state isn’t unveiling any big plan to guard against those damages. In fact, by strengthening the levees, instead of building the tunnels, the state could get more flood protection for the water supply. The levee system is actually improving, thanks to smart investments by the state over the last 25 years. And for only a few billion dollars more, Michael maintains, the state could seismically upgrade the Delta’s levees, securing the water supply and the people who live behind them. Then, the state could pour the rest of the proposed tunnel outlay, more than $10 billion, “into local and alternative water supplies”—a bunch of different water fixes in a bunch of different places. That would make local communities more self-reliant and help solve the Delta’s environmental problems, because the pumps wouldn’t need to pull so much water out of the Delta. A grid of small solutions is exactly what UCLA’s Mark Gold, director of the school’s Coastal Center, thinks could get Los Angeles to zero imported water by 2050. He rattles off actions could be taken in the near future: Invest in technological breakthoughs and infrastructure operations research. Change the laws that restrict the use of treated wastewater. Capture more stormwater. Desalt groundwater.

How Microryza Acquired the Domain Experiment.com [Rohin Dhar on Priceonomics] (2/19/14)

Instead of working on the rebranding, Denny surfed the web, wistfully looking at domains that would not be theirs. On a whim, he typed in Experiment.com. He found that the name was not being used for anything, so he fired off an email to the owner of the site (the owner’s email address was listed in the domain’s public registration info). Denny explained in the email that Microyza helped crowdfund scientific experiments and enquired whether the domain was for sale. The owner of Experiment.com wrote Denny back within 30 minutes. A few minutes later, they were on a Skype video call, even though it was around midnight. The owner of the domain loved the team’s mission. He had a masters in physics and had bought the domain in 1996 hoping that one day it would be used for some noble purpose. At the end of the call, the owner of the domain told Denny that he would consider selling Experiment.com to them because he liked their work.

The Mammoth Cometh [Nathaniel Rich on The New York Times] (2/27/14)

This cloning method, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, can be used only on species for which we have cellular material. For species like the passenger pigeon that had the misfortune of going extinct before the advent of cryopreservation, a more complicated process is required. The first step is to reconstruct the species’ genome. This is difficult, because DNA begins to decay as soon as an organism dies. The DNA also mixes with the DNA of other organisms with which it comes into contact, like fungus, bacteria and other animals. If you imagine a strand of DNA as a book, then the DNA of a long-dead animal is a shuffled pile of torn pages, some of the scraps as long as a paragraph, others a single sentence or just a few words. The scraps are not in the right order, and many of them belong to other books. And the book is an epic: The passenger pigeon’s genome is about 1.2 billion base pairs long. If you imagine each base pair as a word, then the book of the passenger pigeon would be four million pages long. There is a shortcut. The genome of a closely related species will have a high proportion of identical DNA, so it can serve as a blueprint, or “scaffold.” The passenger pigeon’s closest genetic relative is the band-tailed pigeon, which Shapiro is now sequencing. By comparing the fragments of passenger-pigeon DNA with the genomes of similar species, researchers can assemble an approximation of an actual passenger-pigeon genome. How close an approximation, it will be impossible to know. As with any translation, there may be errors of grammar, clumsy phrases and perhaps a few missing passages, but the book will be legible. It should, at least, tell a good story.

An Oral History of Ghostbusters [Jason Matloff on Esquire] (2/24/14)

IVAN REITMAN: I was told about the idea before, back in the Belushi days. It just didn’t register, and I didn’t pay much attention to it. But finally, I read it and thought, “Wow, this is an amazing idea.” But it would have cost something like $200 million to make. It took place in the future, with many groups of Ghostbusters functioning in an intergalactic setting…I had lunch with Danny [Dan Aykroyd] at Art’s Delicatessen, and I basically said, “There’s a great idea here, but the script you’ve written is impossible to make. Don’t you think we should set it on planet Earth and not in the future, which would make all the extraordinary stuff feel funnier?’, And then I pitched the idea of having them start at a university. Dan was great, and very open. So I called up Harold Ramis and pitched him what I wanted to do.

Who Killed the Romantic Comedy? [Amy Nicholson on Los Angeles Weekly] (2/27/14)

The romantic comedy is dead. In 1997, there were two romantic comedies among the top 20 box office performers. In 1998 and 1999, there were three. Each cracked $100 million in sales. Even as recently as 2005, five romantic comedies topped $100 million at the box office. Contrast that with 2013: There’s not one romantic comedy in the top 50 films. Not even in the top 100. Men and women are still falling in love, of course. They’re just not doing it on screen — and if they do, it’s no laughing matter. In today’s comedies, they’re either casually hooking up or already married. These are comedies of exasperation, not infatuation. It’s not only that audiences are refusing to see romantic comedies. It’s that romantic comedies aren’t getting made, at least not by the major studios. The Big Wedding, 2013’s sole boy-meets-girl-meets-matrimony comedy, was unceremoniously dumped into theaters by big indie Lionsgate and limped to No. 101 on the chart. What happened?

10 Essential Relationship Lessons that Men Should Learn about Women [Science of Relationships]

Men should know that…

  1. …being around an attractive woman can impair his cognitive ability (link).

  2. …women find humor attractive perhaps because it shows his cognitive sophistication and intelligence (link).

  3. …if they ask a woman for casual sex, she may perceive him as dangerous (link).

  4. …women were more in love actually initiated sex less often, perhaps as an invitation for seduction (link).

  5. …women are typically more picky about who they date than men, but that this may have more to do with dating norms (i.e., men are expected to approach women and ask them out rather than vice versa) than with innate differences between men and women (link).

  6. … on average women are more sexually satisfied than men (link).

  7. …they benefit from marriage more than women because it leads them to drink less and eat healthier (link).

  8. … when women fake orgasm, it is likely done to preserve their male partner’s feelings (link).

  9. …they are likely much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa (link).

  10. …they are more likely to find women with higher pitched voices more attractive and that a higher voice may indicate higher fertility (link).

10 Essential Relationship Lessons that Women Should Learn about Men [Science of Relationships]

Women should know that…

  1. …men fall in love faster than they do (link).

  2. …their sense of humor doesn’t typically matter to men (link).

  3. …contrary to stereotypes men associate romantic images with pleasant more than sexual images (link).

  4. …if they’re looking for a man who prefers romance to sex, they should look for a male who is low in extroversion (link).

  5. …men who are more in love act more affectionately (e.g., sharing their feelings, making each other laugh, giving hugs and kisses, etc.) toward them (link).

  6. …men like cuddling more than they may think (link).

  7. …healthier men are likely to have happier relationships and more satisfying sex life (link).

  8. …contrary to popular belief, men are more likely to say “I love you” first in a relationships (link).

  9. …married women drink more alcohol than single women (link).

  10. …there is a good chance their male friends find them physically attractive, even if those male friends are in a romantic relationship (link)

Soccer Club With 200 Fans Earns $14 Million From Transfers [Alex Duff and Lucia Baldomir on Bloomberg News] (3/19/14)

A Uruguayan soccer club led by a U.K. racehorse owner has an unusual sideline: trading elite South American players who never appear in a game. Deportivo Maldonado SAD, which plays in Uruguay’s second-tier championship, was set up in 2010 when Malcolm Caine and London-based lawyer Graham Shear became president and vice-president, according to company registry documents obtained by Bloomberg News in Montevideo. Maldonado had previously operated as a member-owned club since 1928. Routing transfers through Uruguay can ease the tax burden of investors who own player transfer rights, which is common in South America, according to Ariel Reck, a lawyer in Buenos Aires who works on transfer deals. Soccer ruling body FIFA’s regulations allow players to be registered with three clubs in a season and play for two, Reck said…Deportivo Maldonado earned 10.1 million euros ($14 million) since 2011 by trading Brazil’s Alex Sandro to Porto and loaning Paraguay’s Marcelo Estigarribia to Juventus, according to regulatory filings. In January, it loaned another Brazilian, Willian Jose da Silva, to Real Madrid. There is no record of the three players appearing for Deportivo Maldonado, which last season averaged 208 fans at its homes games, according to data on soccer website transfermarkt.com. Maldonado’s player-trading income is about double the average first-division team in Uruguay over the same period, transfermarkt.com data shows.

GM’s Supplier-Squeezing Days Gave Birth to Flawed Models [Keith Naughton, David Welch, Jeffrey Green, Mina Kimes on Bloomberg News] (3/21/14)

As it became clear that GM’s planned Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions wouldn’t get made on a money-saving global design, Gary Altman, the models’ chief engineer, told the group they needed to find other ways to reduce costs, including a suggestion to pull parts from existing models, said a person who was at the meeting in the automaker’s suburban Detroit technical center. Those same Cobalts and Ions are among 1.6 million vehicles that GM recalled last month over an ignition-switch flaw the company says is behind 12 deaths. U.S. investigators and regulators want to know what went wrong, who knew about it and why the nation’s largest automaker took so long to mount a recall of models made a decade ago. Altman’s message, while by no means a directive to build unsafe vehicles, reflected the environment at GM: The cars were the product of a culture of cutting costs and squeezing suppliers, as described by five people with knowledge of the automaker’s engineering, management and suppliers in the decade preceding its 2009 bankruptcy.

What Do People Do on Facebook When They Are Breaking Up? [Dr. Benjamin Le on The Science of Relationships]

Here are the most common ways participants worked through breakups on Facebook:

  • 28% minimized their Facebook use or took a “Facebook vacation,” or tried to keep their breakup and other personal information off of Facebook.
  • 23% engaged in relational cleansing by changing their relationship status on Facebook (e.g., to “single” or “it’s complicated”) or removing or untagging posts and pictures that referenced their past relationship.
  • 10% creeped or stalked their exes (or their exe’s friends/family) on Facebook.
  • 9% avoided their former partner’s profile and/or unsubscribed from their ex’s feed.
  • 8% didn’t change their Facebook behavior and continued to interact with their exes by chatting, commenting on their posts, liking their updates, and tagging them in pictures.
  • 4% actively mourned the loss of their relationship on Facebook by making emotional posts about their partner or end of the relationship.
  • 4% defriended or blocked their former partner (and/or their ex’ friends/family).
  • 4% used status updates or pictures to emphasize the new and fun things they were doing.

He Remade Our World [Mark Danner on The New York Review of Books] (4/3/14)

Bush has finally reached the innermost Russian doll: a score or more of top lawyers in the Justice Department, including the deputy attorney general and possibly the attorney general himself, and the director of the FBI, and perhaps other attorneys at the CIA and elsewhere in the national security bureaucracy, are about to resign en masse over a secret, highly intrusive, warrantless surveillance program less than eight months before Bush will have to face the voters. And it is all going to happen today—and Bush has up until this moment known nothing about it. It will be an enormous scandal with George W. Bush playing hapless witness to his own destruction…Such a mass resignation would certainly have led immediately to high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill, though the intense press coverage probably would have exposed Stellar Wind before they could be convened—exposed it and likely severely curtailed or ended it, given the circumstances: senior Justice Department lawyers, who resigned rather than violate the law, criticizing advocates of a secret program that snooped on Americans’ telephone calls and e-mails without a warrant.

In the Darkness of Dick Cheney [Mark Danner on The New York Review of Books] (3/6/14)

And yet is there not something distinctly odd in pointing, in 2007—not to mention in the memoirs of 2011 and the film interview in 2013—to “the kind of authority and influence we had back in ’03”? Four years after the Americans had declared victory in Iraq—even as the vice-president was “strongly recommending” that the United States attack Syria—more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and nearly five thousand Americans were dead, Iraq was near anarchy, and no end was yet in sight. Not only the war’s ending but its beginning had disappeared into a dark cloud of confusion and controversy, as the weapons of mass destruction that were its justification turned out not to exist. The invasion had produced not the rapid and overwhelming victory Cheney had anticipated but a quagmire in which the American military had occupied and repressed a Muslim country and, four years later, been brought to the verge of defeat. As for “authority and influence,” during that time North Korea had acquired nuclear weapons and Iran and Syria had started down the road to building them. Given this, what exactly had the “demonstration model” demonstrated? If such demonstrations really did “guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity…to flout the authority of the United States,” how exactly had the decision to invade Iraq and the disastrous outcome of the war guided the actions and policies of those authority-flouting countries? The least one could say is that if the theory worked, then that “authority and influence we had back in ’03,” in conquered Baghdad, had been unmasked, as the insurgency got underway, as an illusion. The pinnacle of power had been attained not in Baghdad but long before, when the leaders decided to set out on this ill-starred military adventure. By invading Iraq Bush administration policymakers—and at their head, Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—had managed to demonstrate to the world not the grand extent of American power but its limits. The most one could say is that the “demonstration model” had had the opposite result of that intended, encouraging “rogue states,” faced with the prospect of an aggressive United States determined to wield its unmatched conventional military forces, to pursue the least expensive means by which to deter such an attack: nuclear weapons of their own. Now the Iraq war suggested that even if the Americans did invade, a determined core of insurgents equipped with small arms, suicide vests, and other improvised explosive devices might well be enough to outlast them, or at least outlast the patience of the American public.

Working to Death in China [Charmika Monet on The Diplomat] (3/26/14)

Despite having the some of the world’s best-kept records on the subject, however, death from overwork is far from unique to Japan. Instances of it have been known to occur the world over, not least in China, which now reportedly leads the world in work exhaustion-related deaths. It is estimated that some 600,000 people die from work-related stress and its effects every year in China. This number comes as no surprise to those familiar with the anti-suicide nets in infamous Chinese labor mills such as Foxconn. Long hours, rough conditions, low pay and poor future prospects have been a recipe for work stress-induced suicide at facilities across the country. While such figures remain alarmingly high, they account for a relatively small percentage of the total number of karōshi victims in China. Perhaps surprisingly, manual laborers have largely proved resilient to poor work conditions and strenuous physical demands. It’s the so-called “mental labor” jobs, such as those in the advertising field, that have been the primary contributor to dangerously high levels of work-related stress. These kinds of jobs can be found at all socioeconomic levels, with a slightly disproportionate representation by the middle class. IT employees have shown some of the highest levels of work-related stress with 98.8 percent reporting the negative influence of their job on personal health.

As Cash Use Drops, Do Crime Rates Follow? [Drake Bennett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (3/28/14)

The idea that this reduction in the supply of cash might cut down on street crime has been suggested before. The new paper, by a team of six authors, found a way to test it. In the poor neighborhoods where most American street crime happens, people weren’t early adopters of credit cards. They have not been patronizing coffee shops that take Square, but cash still has drained out of those local economies in its own particular way: People now receive welfare payments in the form of debit cards instead of checks. A lot of the cash circulating in poor neighborhoods comes from public assistance payments, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Those payments once took the form of checks or actual food stamps. TANF recipients, most of whom lacked bank accounts, would take their checks to check-cashing shops, SNAP recipients could trade their food stamps for cash&mdashand all this cash in pockets and homes at a particular time each month meant recipients were targets for theft. In the late 1990s, however, the federal government stopped sending out checks and instituted a program in which the recipients were issued special debit cards onto which the value of the benefits were electronically transferred. Suddenly, people no longer had checks to cash or food stamps to trade. They still had ways to transform the benefits into cash—selling goods bought with SNAP benefits, for example—but these tactics require a bit more ingenuity. The research paper takes advantage of the fact that the program was rolled out in eight phases in Missouri. That meant the researchers could look for an effect by comparing the parts of the state where the so-called Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system had been instituted with otherwise similar areas where it hadn’t. Economists call this a “natural experiment.” In this particular natural experiment, the effect they found was large: a 16.6 percent reduction in total crime per 100,000 persons, a 22.7 percent decline in assault, and drops of 13 percent for burglary and 16.3 percent for larceny. The researchers found no effect on rape, which would be expected, since it’s not a crime typically committed for financial gain. More surprising—and more problematic for the paper’s hypothesis—was that the researchers found no statistically significant effect for robbery. Since assaults showed such a dramatic effect, if the “less cash, less crime” hypothesis were to be true, the assaults most likely to be affected by the EBT move would be those related to getting people’s cash—in other words, robberies…Since the EBT shift took place in the late 1990s, it can’t explain the crime reduction that took place earlier in the decade. And the authors don’t claim that cash causes all the drop in crime even in the period they reviewed. Still, if their results hold up under further examination, they’ve found a real effect.

The Fascinating Neuroscience Of Color [Eric Jaffe on Fast Company] (3/20/14)

Step back for a moment to one of Conway’s biggest findings, which came while examining how monkeys process color. Using a brain scanner, he and some collaborators found “globs” of specialized cells that detect distinct hues—suggesting that some areas of the primate brain are encoded for color. Interestingly, not all colors are given equal glob treatment. The largest neuron cluster was tuned to red, followed by green then blue; a small cell collection also cared about yellow. Knowing that humans might also be hardwired for certain hues could be a gateway into understanding the neural properties of emotion. Since researchers know that certain colors provoke strong feelings in people—blues and purples are more pleasant than yellows, for instance, while greens tend to be the most arousing—they might then work backwards to uncover the basic mechanisms for these feelings. (Designers, meanwhile, could use these emotional connections to help them match color schemes to the mood of a room or a brand or a website.) Emotions are just the start. Take, for example, the crisp and effortless way you distinguish a green from a blue. If researchers like Conway can trace the neural circuitry that guides that distinction, they might enhance our understanding of how the brain categorizes things more broadly—relevant or not relevant, left or right. From there it’s a short step to the architecture of human decision-making.

The Drugging of the American Boy [Ryan D’Agostino on Esquire] (3/27/14)

One of the most shocking studies of the rise in ADHD diagnoses was published in 2012 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. It was called “Influence of Relative Age on Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children.” Nearly one million children between the ages of six and twelve took part, making it the largest study of its kind ever. The researchers found that “boys who were born in December”—typically the youngest students in their class—”were 30 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys born in January,” who were a full year older. And “boys were 41 percent more likely to be given a prescription for a medication to treat ADHD if they were born in December than if they were born in January.” These findings suggest, of course, that an errant diagnosis can sometimes result from a developmental period that a boy can grow out of. And there are other underlying reasons for the recent explosion in diagnoses. Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the editor of Psychological Bulletin, the research publication of the American Psychological Association, presents evidence in a new book that ADHD diagnoses can vary widely according to demographics and even education policy, which could account for why some states see a rate of 4 percent of schoolchildren with ADHD while others see a rate of almost 15 percent. Most shocking is Hinshaw’s examination of the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which gave incentives to states whose students scored well on standardized tests. The result: “Such laws provide real incentive to have children diagnosed and treated.” Children with ADHD often get more time to take tests, and in some school districts, tests taken by ADHD kids do not even have to be included in the overall average. “That is, an ADHD diagnosis might exempt a low-achieving youth from lowering the district’s overall achievement ranking”—thus ensuring that the district not incur federal sanctions for low scores. In a study of the years between 2003 and 2007, the years in which the policy was rolled out, the authors looked at children between ages eight and thirteen. They found that among children in many low-income areas (the districts most “targeted” by the bill), ADHD diagnoses increased from 10 percent to 15.3 percent—”a huge rise of 53 percent” in just four years.

A vast hidden surveillance network runs across America, powered by the repo industry [Shawn Musgrave on BetaBoston on The Boston Globe] (3/5/14)

License plate scanning technology has been around for ­decades — the British police originally adopted it in the 1970s to track the Irish Republican Army members — but it only came into wide use in the last decade as cheaper but highly effective models became available. These scanners use high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technology to capture up to 1,800 plates per minute, even at high rates of speed and in difficult driving conditions. The scanner also ­records the date, time, and GPS location of each scan. Since 2008, more than 60 Massachusetts police departments have started using scanners to track down drivers with unpaid tickets, no insurance, or driving stolen vehicles, but the trend has raised concern about potential privacy invasions. In December, Boston police suspended their use of plate scanners altogether after a Globe inves­tigation reported questionable data management, includ­ing the accidental public release of more than 69,000 ­license plate numbers that had been scanned over six months. Meanwhile, private companies were quietly and rapidly finding ways to profit from much larger databases with little public discussion. Digital Recognition Network, with the help of about 400 repossession companies across the United States, has increased the number of ­license scans in its database tenfold since September 2010, and the firm continues to add another 70 million scans per month, according to company disclosures. Digital Recognition’s top rival, Illinois-based MVTRAC, has not disclosed the size of its database, but claimed in a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview to have scans of “a large majority” of vehicles registered in the United States.

Facebook’s Plan to Conquer the World — With Crappy Phones and Bad Networks [Mat Honan on Wired] (2/24/14)

For many people in the developing world, Facebook is the Internet. And while that may be somewhat true in America too, we Yanks can at least pull up the world’s leading social network on desktops and iPhones and Galaxy S4s with robust Internet connections, gorgeous screens and easy access to a reliable power grid. Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia and South America where Facebook is trying attract another 5 Billion users, that technological sophistication is far from given. Facebook faces massive hurdles there that are just unknown here. As Facebook looked out across the globe it wanted to conquer, it saw a mish-mash of unreliable networks, low resolution screens, and shitty processors. There were all manner of various flavor of Android, problems with local language support, confusion over pricing, and unreliable or non-existent power grids. There’s the question of how you make social connections between people with no address books, no email address, no university affiliation, and who are perhaps the very first person in their village to sign up for Facebook. The challenges weren’t just difficult, they were epic…That infrastructure doesn’t really exist where the world is coming online via mobile networks: typically on feature phone or cheap Android handsets. Instead of broadband LTE, these phones often only have tenuous connections to 2.5G towers. They may only have the ability to charge up once a week, when a truck rolls through town with portable batteries. Data plans can often be eaten up by a single shared photo. Local language support is often non existent. If Facebook wants those users–and it does–it has to give them an entirely other experience than the one it delivers to North America.

Billionaires Buying Islands Off Australia Find Perilous Paradise [William Mellor on Bloomberg News] (3/26/14)

After paying A$12 million ($10.9 million) for lovely Lindeman in 2012, the Chinese-Australian entrepreneur plans to spend more than A$200 million building a luxury resort on the 8-square-kilometer (3-square-mile) island, while keeping a prime secluded site for his own vacation retreat. “When you first see the Great Barrier Reef, it blows your breath,” he says in cheerfully fractured English. “Buying Lindeman was a bargain. It took me 10 minutes to make up my mind.” How much of a bargain is a source of debate within the cloistered world of private-island sales. Although the Great Barrier Reef is renowned as one of the planet’s most beautiful and precious places, it has a perilous history. Over the past 80 years, investors have poured billions into resorts here, only to discover that the reef can be as treacherous for them as it was in 1770 for British explorer James Cook, whose HMS Endeavour ran aground near a spot he aptly named Cape Tribulation.

Myanmar’s Growing—and Dangerous—Jade Trade [Christina Larson on Bloomberg Businessweek] (3/25/14)

Much of the prized jade in Myanmar is mined in northern Kachin state, where the 8,000-person Kachin Independence Army is fighting for independence. The ownership of the mines is unclear; national oversight is impossible; and international monitors and nongovernmental organizations are not able to operate in the region.

Meet the Super Taskers [Kat McGowan on Psychology Today] (1/1/14)

The existence of supertaskers came as a surprise to [David Strayer of The University of Utah], an attention expert. His experiments have proven that while we think we can handle several tasks at once—driving while fiddling with the radio, say—most of us can’t. We slow down, trip up. The very concept of multitasking is a myth. Our brains don’t do two things at once; instead, we rapidly switch between tasks, putting heavy burdens on attention, memory, and focus. In Strayer’s studies, talking on a cellphone while driving (perhaps the most ubiquitous type of multitasking) leaves people as cognitively impaired as if they’d had two or three drinks. About five years ago, however, Strayer found an exception to this rule. He was running an experiment in which people were supposed to use a driving simulator while doing two mental tasks: memorizing the order of words that were interspersed with simple math problems. “It’s really hard to do,” Strayer says. Unsurprisingly, most participants tailgated, smashed into simulated obstacles, and couldn’t correctly solve the math problems. (It’s thanks to such research that laws prohibit texting while driving.) Yet as he crunched the data, Strayer discovered a volunteer who could do all three tasks at the same time—flawlessly. Did the program have a glitch? Did the guy cheat? “Nope,” says Strayer. “This person was phenomenal.” Through other soul-sucking multitasking tests, Strayer has since found that about 2.5 percent of people he studies have exceptional abilities. They don’t get overloaded. In fact, a few actually get better when doing both tasks at once—a paradox that Strayer suspects is related to the reasons why elite athletes or musicians sometimes shine the brightest under the most difficult circumstances.

The Man Who Destroyed America’s Ego [Will Storr on Matter on Medium] (2/25/14)

Thousands and thousands of Americans just knew it in their guts. The idea of self-esteem as a social panacea was too good to question. It spread through the country and much of the Western world. Heads big and small were systematically stuffed full of their own wondrousness. As the 1980s became the 1990s, schools and kindergartens began boosting self-esteem in classes, encouraging children to write letters to themselves, telling themselves how special they are. Five-year-olds in a Texas nursery were made to wear T-shirts that said ‘I’m loveable and capable’ and to recite the mantra daily. High school awards were dropped by the thousands, and grades were inflated to protect the esteem of low achievers. (One teacher argued, “I don’t think it’s grade inflation. It’s grade encouragement.”) Meanwhile, in the courts, judges offered self-esteem boosts to drug dealers, sex workers, and people who wrote bad checks. Court appearances were rewarded with key rings; those who completed periods of drug-free living were given doughnuts…In 1996 Baumeister, now teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, co-authored a review of the literature that concluded that it was, in fact, “threatened egotism” that lead to aggression. Evil, he suggested, was often accompanied by high self-esteem. “Dangerous people, from playground bullies to warmongering dictators, consist mostly of those who have highly favorable views of themselves,” he wrote. It was an astonishing theory because it ran counter to everything that society and the experts who inform it had been saying for years. It wasn’t low self-esteem that caused violence: It was when self-esteem was artificially high.

Welders, America Needs You [Matthew Phillips on Bloomberg Businessweek] (3/20/14)

Decades of attrition have left the U.S. with welders who largely lack the advanced skills needed today. The average age of a welder in the country is 55; the wave of coming retirements will leave manufacturers at a disadvantage. The American Welding Society estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of 290,000 professionals, including inspectors, engineers, and teachers. “We’re dealing with a lost generation,” says Gardner Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. “For 20 years we stopped feeding young people into the trades, and now we’re scrambling to catch up.”

Bot & Dolly and the Rise of Creative Robots [David Pescovitz on Bloomberg Businessweek] (3/20/14)

To do what director Alfonso Cuarón envisioned—but said “could not be done”—Bot & Dolly flipped a typical Hollywood approach on its head. The effect of weightlessness is usually achieved by filming actors flying around a soundstage on wires and adding computer graphics later. In Gravity’s case, Cuarón and visual effects company Framestore animated 3D digital storyboards of the entire film, a technique called previsualization, before live-action shooting with the actors even began. As a result, the live action had to perfectly match the preexisting digital choreography. After a few tests in San Francisco, Bot & Dolly loaded its 3,000-pound robots onto a cargo plane and headed for Cuarón’s set in London. Once there, the machines became part of an elaborate dance in the soundstage. A robot-mounted camera moved around Sandra Bullock in a way that matched the rough computer-generated sequences of a spacecraft interior or of a spacesuit hurtling toward earth. The focus was solely on the actors’ faces, though, as the rest of the film was created entirely inside a computer. Once the live action shots were in the can, that footage was digitally combined with the computer graphics. “Rather than moving an actor through a world, our robots moved the cameras, set pieces, and lights around the actor,” Kinnebrew says. According to Bot & Dolly Senior Producer Bill Galusha, the process was partly inspired by the classic Fred Astaire scene in Royal Wedding where he appears to be dancing on the walls and ceiling.

How Japanese Single Malts Surpassed Scotland’s Finest [Elin McCoy on Bloomberg News] (3/19/14)

The quest to make world-class whisky in Japan began in 1918, when chemist Masataka Taketsuru journeyed to Scotland to pry out the country’s whisky-making secrets. Upon his return, businessman Shinjiro Torii, founder of what would become beverage giant Suntory Holdings Ltd., hired him to set up Japan’s first serious whisky distillery in Shimamoto. (Suntory announced a deal to purchase Beam Inc., maker of Jim Beam bourbon, in January.) Ten years later, Taketsuru left for a site in snowy, remote Hokkaido prefecture that more closely resembled the terroir of the Scottish Highlands. He built the Yoichi distillery and founded rival whisky empire Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Global recognition and appreciation of Japanese whiskies didn’t come until the 21st century. Many people first learned the country was making whisky from the 2003 Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation.”

The Town That Turned Poverty Into a Prison Sentence [Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville on The Nation] (4/14/14)

Harpersville’s experiment with private probation began nearly ten years ago. In Alabama, people know Harpersville best as a speed trap, a stretch of country highway where the speed limit changes six times in roughly as many miles. Indeed, traffic fines are by far the biggest business in the town of 1,600, where there is little more than Big Man’s BBQ, the Sudden Impact Collision Center and a dollar store. In 2005, the court’s revenue was nearly three times the amount that the town received from a sales tax, Harpersville’s second-largest source of income. The fines had become key to Harpersville’s development, but it proved difficult to chase down those who did not pay. So, that year, Harpersville decided to follow in the footsteps of other Alabama cities and hire JCS to help collect. JCS is considered a significant player in the private probation universe. Founded in Georgia in 2001 by a group of locals with backgrounds in law enforcement and the finance industry, the company has since expanded its operations to Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. Business has been good: between 2006 and 2009, JCS more than doubled its revenue, to $13.6 million, according to a profile in Inc. magazine. And while recent revenue statements for the privately held company aren’t available, what is known is that JCS operates in some 480 courts across the country. In larger courts, JCS can net as much as $1 million in probationers’ fees each year, according to an estimate by Human Rights Watch. To keep business booming, JCS representatives crisscross the South promoting the company as a free and effective “supervision services” program (“Helping municipal court clerks kick their heels up in joy,” the company promises in one magazine ad). And yet, if private probation has seemed like a solution for struggling Southern cities, it has been a disaster for the many poor residents increasingly trapped in a criminal justice system that demands money they do not have, then punishes them for failing to pay.

Fur Heritage Fades as Trapper’s Work Canada’s Loneliest [Greg Quinn on Bloomberg News] (3/19/14)

Just 455 Canadians in a population of 35 million called hunting and trapping their job in Statistics Canada’s latest household survey; the least common occupation in a nation that had its origins as a fur-trading colony overseen by Hudson’s Bay Co. Connections to the land are now scarce, with seven in 10 Canadians living in urban areas while demand for fur clothing has waned.

The robots are coming [Michael Belfiore on Aeon Magazine] (3/12/14)

The challenge of enabling a machine to accurately perceive the ever-changing world around it, formulate plans for moving about, and then execute those plans before the information taken in through its sensors becomes hopelessly out of date, (functions that most two-year-old children are pretty good at) is what DARPA programme managers term ‘DARPA-hard’. It’s hard because each one of those functions – perception, planning, movement – requires powerful yet portable computers to make lots of calculations in the shortest amount of time possible. That is why robots have until recently been relegated to controlled environments such as factories, where the number of variables requiring calculation can be kept to a minimum. But DARPA has proven, through the Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge auto races of 2004, 2005, and 2007 that led to the development of driverless cars, that robots can be made to function autonomously in the chaos of the real world. Computers have gotten fast enough and small enough, and sensors and algorithms have gotten powerful enough, to make autonomous navigation through city streets at least possible.

The Story behind the Rob Ford Story [Ivor Tossell on The Walrus] (March 2014)

The journalists say they were just doing their jobs, but the lawyers who defend them when lawsuits materialize say that until recently being a good journalist was not enough. In 2009, the practices that enabled the telling of the Rob Ford story were written into Canadian law, and the change—a new defence for libel—came as no accident. Rather, it represented the culmination of decades-long hard work by a group of lawyers who felt that up until then Canadian libel law had been more intent on protecting reputations than on fostering debate.

Curiously Strong Remains:

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19
Apr
15

Roundup – Princess of Thrones

Best of the Best:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiously Strong Remains:

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