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Roundup – Evolution Is, As Evolution Does

Best of the Best:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiously Strong Remains:


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Roundup – A Talking Cat!?!

Best of the Best

This Is How Uber Takes Over a City [Karen Weise on Bloomberg News] (6/23/15)

Soon they sketched out a compromise. Uber would temporarily cease operations in Portland—a first for the company—and the city would put the lawsuit on hold and give Uber the deadline it wanted, promising to have a community task force figure out rules to get Uber back on the street by early April. It was a brilliant agreement. The city could look like it tamed Uber without costly litigation, and Uber cut in line and became a top political priority. It had a firm timeline, and if for some reason the process fell apart, Uber could say it tried to cooperate. The Wall Street Journal cited the agreement to show “How Sharp-Elbowed Uber Is Trying to Make Nice.”

Banned, but Bountiful: Marijuana Coveted by NFL Players as Invaluable Painkiller [Mike Freeman on Bleacher Report]

What’s clear is that numerous players smoke weed. Some because they like it. Some because it helps them deal with the rigors of football. Some because they believe marijuana helps ease the crushing and kaleidoscopic effects of concussions. All of this is done right under the nose of the league…Though not selected for that reason, 15 of the 16 players I surveyed said they smoke pot. All described using marijuana for medicinal purposes, while four said they also used it for recreational reasons. All 15 said they used pot after games to ease the soreness and injuries. They described smoking marijuana to calm the pain of sore ribs or a bruised thigh. None would say where they purchased the marijuana or how many ounces a week they smoke…Jackson said in the Sports on Earth article by Hruby: “There were times I had to take a little bit of pain pills. I always had some remaining in bottle. Never refilled a prescription or had to ask for more. In the back of my mind, I knew they were bad for me. But you’d see some guys popping a lot of pills as part of their normal, daily routine. Some guys were ordering big bottles of them. It’s a big problem. These guys are set up for a lifetime of addiction. I have non-football player friends dealing with opioid addictions. One is still in denial and one is just coming out of it. It’s really, really serious s—.”

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

For gas cars, calculating environmental damage was pretty straightforward. The researchers considered factors like a car’s fuel-efficiency rating (city miles for urban counties, highway miles for non-urban), pollutant dispersion (such as average wind patterns), and number of environmental damages (to health, infrastructure, crops, and so on). Together that data gave them the aggregate emissions of driving a certain gas car one mile in a given U.S. county. Determining the comparable damage from electric vehicles was a bit trickier. Here they used an EV’s fuel-efficiency equivalent (kilowatt-hours per mile) to figure out how much electricity it drew from a regional grid. They also knew the hourly emissions profiles for the five target pollutants at 1,486 power plants across the U.S. So for each county they knew how the grid responded when an EV plugged in, which told them how much environmental damage that car produced at the power plant. The researchers then converted all their damage estimates into dollar values…Metro areas in California performed best, with those in the Midwest doing the worst. Areas where EVs deserved significant subsidies included Los Angeles ($4,958), San Francisco ($3,086), and San Diego ($2,986). Dallas ($1,144) and Houston ($1,140) also fared well. Still, even in Los Angeles, where the environmental benefits of an EV relative to a gas car were highest, the calculations didn’t warrant the current federal subsidy of $7,500 per car…Elsewhere around the country, EVs showed few if any benefits relative to gas cars. At a subsidy of $184, metro New York was essentially a wash. And in many metros, EVs actually produced more environmental damage than gas cars: Atlanta (-$314), Chicago (-$900) and D.C. (-$1,077), among them. Those negative figures indicate that EVs should be taxed, rather than subsidized. In non-urban counties that tax rose to an average of $2,200, and in parts of the Midwest it neared $5,000 per car. On average, a U.S. county warranted an EV tax of $742.

Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools [Azmat Khan on Buzzfeed] (7/9/15)

Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits. As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics — the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent — to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded. But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.

Want to Meet America’s Worst Racists? Come to the Northwest [Casey Michel on Politico] (7/7/15)

Look at Oregon, for instance. As Walidah Imarisha of Portland State University’s Black Studies Department told me, “Oregon was founded as a state, as a territory, as a white homeland. Folks who answered that call wanted to build their perfect white society.” And not in the same vein of a three-fifths-clause South, where black Americans would be tolerated, if in servitude. Oregon would be different. While the state remained in the Union—and actually proved pivotal to Abraham Lincoln’s nomination on the Republican ticket—Oregon’s founders mentioned racial unity in the state’s original documents. To wit, the 1850 Oregon Donation Land Act allowed free land to whites alone. And during an 1857 vote on the constitution’s formulation, some 83 percent of participants voted to prohibit “free negroes” from living or working in the state. Chief Justice George Williams, who later served as attorney general for President Ulysses Grant, summed the sentiment, lobbying voters to “consecrate Oregon to the use of the white man, and exclude the negro, Chinaman, and every race of that character.” According to one researcher, Oregon was “the only state ever admitted with a black exclusion clause in its constitution.” There’s a reason, growing up in Portland, that my seventh-grade teacher informed us Oregon was often considered the most racist state west of the Mississippi. Remarkably, such laws remained in force in Oregon until 1926, allowing a white population to steer a demographic legacy apart from other parts of the country. At one point, Oregon boasted the highest per-capita membership in the Ku Klux Klan. For good measure, Oregon failed to ratify the 15th Amendment, allowing African-Americans the right to vote, until 1959; the state also didn’t formally ratify the 14th Amendment, allowing equal protection under the law, until 1973…Despite its current trappings of progress and tolerance, mid-20th century Portland, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, “was still considered the most segregated and prejudiced city on the West Coast.” Today, not only does Portland remain the whitest major metropolitan area in the country, but the city managed to slough its remaining African-American population even further in the 21st century, dropping from 6.6 percent in 2000 to 6.3 percent in 2010. Seattle’s decline has proven even steeper, with the city’s black population sagging from 8.4 percent to 7.9 percent in just 10 years, with no end to the drop in sight. All through it, Oregon—and the Pacific Northwest more broadly—remained a bastion of white supremacist visions of isolation and conformity. Trends peaked in the mid-1980s with Richard Butler, founder of the Aryan Nations, helping to push the idea of the Northwest Territorial Imperative, of a piece with Covington’s recent push. Butler’s compound in northern Idaho eventually fizzled, but his dream, tied directly to the region’s days of primordial statehood, has continued.

Father of the brave: the man who rescues enslaved women from Isis [Mohammed A Salih on The Guardian] (7/13/15)

Abu Shujaa used to be a local merchant in Sinjar before the Isis assault, occasionally crossing the border into Syria on business. He is not willing to discuss the line of work he was in, but says it was instrumental in developing the network of people he currently manages. He was given his nickname while still a young man. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule he made illegal trips into Syria , the first when he was 18. Had he been caught, it may have cost him his life. He named his youngest son Shujaa too at the request of his friends. Abu Shujaa occasionally posts images and video of some of the people he has rescued on a Facebook page. One post shows an Isis propaganda image featuring a Yazidi boy aiming a pistol at the camera. In a subsequent post dated 10 June, he posted a photograph of himself with the same boy, after he was rescued, still dressed in the same Isis-style gown. Each of Abu Shujaa’s cells consists of between three and seven people and a number of safe houses across Isis-occupied territory in Syria. Six months ago, Isis caught and decapitated two members and placed their heads on poles in the middle of a roundabout in Raqqa, he said.

Could the gangs of Port-au-Prince form a pact to revitalise Haiti’s capital? [Michael Deibert on The Guardian] (7/14/15)

And Ti Bois, as it happens, does not appear to be the only baz that is gradually awakening to the fact that Haiti’s politicians have long used them as little more than cannon fodder, providing precious little in return as their districts sank ever-deeper into poverty. Across town, in the popular quarter of Saint Martin, a rabble-rousing deputy in Haiti’s lower house of parliament – known for his violent background and temper – recently showed up in his constituency to seek support for his political ambitions, as he always had. Instead of finding a receptive audience, he was relieved of his weapon, his money and sent out of the neighbourhood with a message not to return.

The Really Big One [Kathyrn Schulz on The New Yorker] (7/20/15)

When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover* some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says.

It’s The Trailer For ‘Ronda ArouseMe: Grounded And Pounded,’ The Ronda Rousey Porn Parody [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (8/26/15)

When asked about her body, Ronda Rousey famously said, “That’s why I think it’s hilarious when people say my body looks masculine or something like that. I’m just like, ‘Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than fucking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine.’ I think it’s femininely bad-ass as fuck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose. Because, I’m not a do-nothing bitch.” It’s probably one of the most awesomely punk rock athlete quotes in history, and oddly enough, it’s probably one of the reasons that so many porn people (many of whom one might argue do have bodies that are made for fucking millionaires) absolutely love Ronda Rousey.

For late-starting backpacker, at 76, it’s the wander years [Victoria Kim on Los Angeles Times] (8/28/15)

It started with a quote he had heard on television about regret: that at the end of life, you are haunted not by the things you did, but by the things you didn’t do. A few months later, Hyo So booked a hostel bed in Cairo and took off solo from his Pico-Union apartment on his first-ever backpacking trip. Since then, he’s made his way through some 40 countries — crossing the Gobi Desert, chatting with Maasai tribesmen in Kenya, charming fellow backpackers in Kingston by singing “Jamaica Farewell.” He’s been mistaken for a beggar in Central America while holding an empty coffee cup, kept awake in threadbare dorm rooms with more than a dozen other beds, and inflicted with more than his share of traveler’s diarrhea. “Life is experiences — and not just the good, positive ones,” he says. “This is living.” So knows a thing or two about living — he’s 76 years old…Where today’s backpackers snap endless photos, blog about their travels and announce their every move on social media, So is very much analog. He doesn’t take photographs, instead committing to memory scenes like the relief of an angel at a Havana mausoleum that had him pondering his own mortality. His only photos are ones other travelers have taken and emailed to him. What he sees, feels, eats and learns on his travels he scribbles on scraps of paper, sometimes on the back of guitar sheet music. Jotted on those scraps are local words, the day’s weather, exchange rates, bus schedules. There are fleeting thoughts about human control of nature evoked by bonsai in Southeast Asia, insights on marriage derived from Maasai marital rites and their offerings of honey and sugar cane, reflections on religion upon hearing a 5 a.m. Muslim call to prayer in Tanzania. For all the great monuments, vast landscapes and beautiful artifacts he’s seen, what So remembers are the people he’s encountered.

Neighbor Calls Cops Because Black People “Don’t Belong” In St. Charles Subdivision [Danny Wicentowski on The Riverfront Times] (8/24/15)

On May 13, an anonymous resident contacted the St. Charles County Police Department to report suspicious activity: “Several [black male] subjects walking down the street with dogs and snapping pics of homes. Caller [advised] that this is an all white neighborhood and they do not belong.” The dog-walkers were the three children of Maritha Hunter-Butler, who’d moved her family into a 2,600-square-foot home just four days before the anonymous complaint. According to a police report, officers were dispatched to the area and took no action. “If the caller calls back,” the report concluded, “[advise] them that a black family lives in the neighborhood.”

Teacher who was late 111 times says he was eating breakfast [Shawn Marsh on The Associated Press via SFGate] (8/28/15)

In a decision filed Aug. 19, an arbitrator in New Jersey rejected an attempt by the Roosevelt Elementary School in New Brunswick to fire Anderson from his $90,000-a-year job, saying he was entitled to progressive discipline. But the arbitrator also criticized Anderson’s claim that the quality of his teaching outweighed his tardiness. Anderson was late 46 times in the most recent school year through March 20 and 65 times in the previous school year, the arbitrator said. Anderson said he was one to two minutes late to school “at the most” but was prepared and was never late for class. “I have to cut out eating breakfast at home,” he said Friday. Anderson remains suspended without pay until Jan. 1. A message seeking comment was left Friday with the school superintendent’s office. The arbitrator found that the district failed to provide Anderson with due process by not providing him with a formal notice of inefficiency or giving him 90 days to correct his failings before terminating his employment.

Hillary Clinton Has More Than a Million Fake Twitter Followers. What Does It Mean? [Wayne Rash on Yahoo! Tech] (8/27/15)

Fake Twitter followers abound among the U.S. presidential candidates as they gear up for the election in 2016. And Hillary Clinton isn’t the only candidate with more than a million of them. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump also has well over a million fake followers. Other candidates have them, too, but not as many (in large part because they don’t have as many followers, period).

Russell Wilson: The Chosen One [Stephen Rodrick on The Rolling Stone] (8/26/15)

Wilson is an investor in Reliant Recovery Water, a $3-per-bottle concoction with nanobubbles and electrolytes that purportedly helps people recover quickly from workouts and, according to Wilson, injury. He mentions a teammate whose knee healed miraculously, and then he shares his own testimonial. “I banged my head during the Packers game in the playoffs, and the next day I was fine,” says Wilson. “It was the water.” Rodgers offers a hasty interjection. “Well, we’re not saying we have real medical proof.” But Wilson shakes his head, energized by the subject. He speaks with an evangelist’s zeal. “I know it works.” His eyes brighten. “Soon you’re going to be able to order it straight from Amazon.”

The Fembots of Ashley Madison [Annalee Newitz on Gizmodo] (8/27/15)

It appears that as much as they tried, Ashley Madison was unable to create a process that was more automated and efficient than simply hiring people to generate fake profiles by hand. There’s definitely something dark and hilarious in Biderman’s huffing about profile-makers’ “creativity problems.” But generating thousands of real-sounding fake profiles is hard work. These emails make clear that the company engaged in a deliberate, elaborate, multi-year campaign to create fake profiles for audiences all over the world. And it was something that many senior employees know about. Indeed, earlier this week, the Daily Dot’s Dell Cameron reported that former Ashley Madison spokesperson Louise Van der Velde threatened to expose the “false data” on the site, writing in an email to the company’s general counsel that there are “really no women.” In a possibly deliberate irony, Ashley Madison’s logo is nearly identical to the poster for the remake of The Stepford Wives, a movie about a gated community where all the men replace their wives with beautiful, cheerful robots. And yet somehow, Ashley Madison kept growing and luring more men into its house of mirrors. Two software auditors who looked at the recent dump of the site code told me that you could see that the company’s main technical struggle had been with scaling. The original database appears to have been dumped into a newer, bigger schema at some point, and admins kept stretching the database beyond its limits, adding more and more profiles to keep up with demand.

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law [Jeannie Suk on The New Yorker] (12/15/14)

Until the mid-nineteen-eighties, rape law was not taught in law schools, because it wasn’t considered important or suited to the rational pedagogy of law-school classrooms. The victims of rape, most often women, were seen as emotionally involved witnesses, making it difficult to ascertain what really happened in a private encounter. This skepticism toward the victim was reflected in the traditional law of rape, which required a woman to “resist to the utmost” the physical force used to make her have intercourse. Trials often included inquiries into a woman’s sexual history, because of the notion that a woman who wasn’t virginal must have been complicit in any sex that occurred. Hard-fought feminist reforms attacked the sexism in rape law, and eventually the topic became a major part of most law schools’ mandatory criminal-law course. Today, nobody doubts its importance to law and society. But my experience at Harvard over the past couple of years tells me that the environment for teaching rape law and other subjects involving gender and violence is changing. Students seem more anxious about classroom discussion, and about approaching the law of sexual violence in particular, than they have ever been in my eight years as a law professor. Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well… I focus on cases that test the limits of the rules, and that fall near the rapidly shifting line separating criminal conduct from legal sex. These cases involve people who previously knew each other and who perhaps even previously had sex. They cover situations in which the meaning of each party’s actions, signals, and desires may have been ambiguous to the other, or misapprehended by one or both sides…I often assign students roles in which they have to argue a side—defense or prosecution—with which they might disagree. These pedagogical tactics are common to almost every law-school topic and classroom. But asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject…Now more than ever, it is critical that law students develop the ability to engage productively and analytically in conversations about sexual assault. Instead, though, many students and teachers appear to be absorbing a cultural signal that real and challenging discussion of sexual misconduct is too risky to undertake—and that the risk is of a traumatic injury analogous to sexual assault itself. This is, to say the least, a perverse and unintended side effect of the intense public attention given to sexual violence in recent years. If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss—above all to victims of sexual assault.

Price for TSA’s failed body scanners: $160 million [Jennifer Scholtes on Politico] (8/17/15)

And for that money, lawmakers privy to classified reports say, the TSA has gotten a woeful failure rate. Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson has such low confidence in the scanners’ ability to catch explosives and weapons that he says the agency should make fliers walk through metal detectors after passing through the body imaging machines.

Donald Trump: Leader of the Mercantilist Zombie Apocalypse [Streetwise Professor] (8/25/15)

Perhaps to give him more intellectual credit than he deserves, Trump is a died-in-the-wool mercantilist who believes trade is a zero sum game, and who favors protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor currency policies. He talks like it is the late-80s, and Japan is still an economic juggernaut that will overwhelm the US, completely overlooking the fact that Japan’s crypto-mercantilist policies gifted it a 25 year long lost decade, and that neo-mercantilist China is on the brink of the same fate. If it is lucky. Adam Smith is spinning in his grave. But alas, mercantilism is a like a zombie. It has no brain, and has proven impossible to kill. Which means, I guess, that in Donald Trump, it has found its perfect advocate.

Exclusive: Dozens of Clinton emails were classified from the start, U.S. rules suggest [Jonathan Allen on Reuters] (8/21/15)

While the department is now stamping a few dozen of the publicly released emails as “Classified,” it stresses this is not evidence of rule-breaking. Those stamps are new, it says, and do not mean the information was classified when Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner in the 2016 presidential election, first sent or received it. But the details included in those “Classified” stamps — which include a string of dates, letters and numbers describing the nature of the classification — appear to undermine this account, a Reuters examination of the emails and the relevant regulations has found. The new stamps indicate that some of Clinton’s emails from her time as the nation’s most senior diplomat are filled with a type of information the U.S. government and the department’s own regulations automatically deems classified from the get-go — regardless of whether it is already marked that way or not. In the small fraction of emails made public so far, Reuters has found at least 30 email threads from 2009, representing scores of individual emails, that include what the State Department’s own “Classified” stamps now identify as so-called ‘foreign government information.’ The U.S. government defines this as any information, written or spoken, provided in confidence to U.S. officials by their foreign counterparts. This sort of information, which the department says Clinton both sent and received in her emails, is the only kind that must be “presumed” classified, in part to protect national security and the integrity of diplomatic interactions, according to U.S. regulations examined by Reuters.

The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t [Steven Johnson on The New York Times] (8/19/15)

The problem with the O.E.S. data is that it doesn’t track self-­employed workers, who are obviously a large part of the world of creative production. For that section of the culture industry, the best data sources are the United States Economic Census, which is conducted every five years, and a firm called Economic Modeling Specialists International, which tracks detailed job numbers for self-­employed people in specific professions. If anything, the numbers from the self-­employed world are even more promising. From 2002 to 2012, the number of businesses that identify as or employ ‘‘independent artists, writers and performers’’ (which also includes some athletes) grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue generated by this group grew by 60 percent, far exceeding the rate of inflation. What do these data sets have to tell us about musicians in particular? According to the O.E.S., in 1999 there were nearly 53,000 Americans who considered their primary occupation to be that of a musician, a music director or a composer; in 2014, more than 60,000 people were employed writing, singing or playing music. That’s a rise of 15 percent, compared with overall job-­market growth during that period of about 6 percent. The number of self-­employed musicians grew at an even faster rate: There were 45 percent more independent musicians in 2014 than in 2001. (Self-­employed writers, by contrast, grew by 20 percent over that period.) Of course, Baudelaire would have filed his tax forms as self-­employed, too; that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also destitute. Could the surge in musicians be accompanied by a parallel expansion in the number of broke musicians? The income data suggests that this just isn’t true. According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999. The census version of the story, which includes self-­employed musicians, is less stellar: In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation. And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves. Somehow the turbulence of the last 15 years seems to have created an economy in which more people than ever are writing and performing songs for a living.

Trump’s mass deportation idea was tried in the 1930s [Russell Contreras on The Associated Press] (8/30/15) – RW

During the Great Depression, counties and cities in the American Southwest and Midwest forced Mexican immigrants and their families to leave the U.S. over concerns they were taking jobs away from whites despite their legal right to stay. The result: Around 500,000 to 1 million Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans were pushed out of the country during the 1930s repatriation, as the removal is sometimes called. During that time, immigrants were rounded up and sent to Mexico, sometimes in public places and often without formal proceedings. Others, scared under the threat of violence, left voluntarily. About 60 percent of those who left were American citizens, according to various studies on the 1930s repatriation. Later testimonies show families lost most of their possessions and some family members died trying to return. Neighborhoods in cities such as Houston, San Antonio and Los Angeles became empty.

Even for Companies, the U.S. Is Split Between Haves and Have-Nots [Sam Wilkin on Harvard Business Review] (8/27/15)

Economywide ROIC has trended downward since the 1980s, falling from above 6% in the mid-1960s to 5% in 1980, then to 3% in 1990, and to only a bit more than 1% by 2010. Deloitte attributes this fall in part to rising competitive intensity, as a result of new technologies and lower entry barriers. But this phenomenon of rising competitive intensity does not, evidently, apply to all firms. An increasing number of U.S. companies have enjoyed supernormal rates of return. In 1960, only a tiny proportion of major American firms earned an ROIC of 50% or more. The proportion rose slowly and relatively steadily, reaching 5% by the mid-1990s. It then leapt suddenly to 14% by the 2005–2007 period. So although you might expect that in a hypercompetitive environment, ambitious companies would constantly wrest market share from the leading firms, the reality is quite the opposite…What are the underlying drivers of this trend? There are many. But the one I would point to first is the rising popularity and growing applicability of patents. McKinsey notes that since the 1960s, the industries that have sustained the highest average returns are those that “rely on sustainable competitive advantages such as patents and brands.” And patenting activity has recently exploded. The number of patents filed in the U.S. doubled over the 30 years from 1960. The figure then grew by about 3.5 times over the subsequent 20 years. This acceleration was in part driven by the extension of patent law to apply to software in the 1980s, and then by its further extension to business processes in 1998.

The Lowly Lightbulb Outshines Solar and Wind on U.S. Power Grids [Naureen Malik on Bloomberg News] (8/13/15)

Lighting accounts for about 5 percent of a home’s energy budget and switching to more efficient bulbs is one of the fastest ways to cut those costs, according to the Energy Department. LEDs use 75 to 80 percent less energy than incandescents and last 25 times longer. LEDs will account for 83 percent of the lighting market share by 2020 and almost all of it 10 years later, the Energy Department says. The cost of the bulbs has fallen by more than 85 percent in six years, according to ACEEE, a Washington-based non-profit that promotes conservation. Bulbs are now available for less than $5.

This Company Is Still Making Audio Cassettes and Sales Are Better Than Ever [Jeniece Pettitt on Bloomberg News] (9/1/15)

The audiocassette tape is not dead. In fact, one Springfield, Mo., cassette maker says it has had its best year since it opened in 1969. “You can characterize our operating model as stubbornness and stupidity. We were too stubborn to quit,” said National Audio Company President Steve Stepp. NAC is the largest and one of the few remaining manufacturers of audiocassettes in the U.S. The profitable company produced more than 10 million tapes in 2014 and sales are up 20 percent this year…NAC has deals with major record labels like Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group as well as a number of small contracts with indie bands. About 70 percent of the company’s sales are from music cassettes while the rest are blank cassettes. “There was a drive from the independent bands to get that warm analog sound again, and it just continued to grow and grow,” said NAC Production Manager Susie Brown. The company still uses machines built in the 1970s in its production lines.

Music Festivals: Peace, Love and a Business Battle [Neil Shah on The Wall Street Journal] (7/30/15)

The competition shows how much the $6 billion North American concert industry—long focused on arenas, amphitheaters, and stadiums—is tilting toward music festivals, which offer dozens of artists, specialty foods and other amenities…Consolidation of the festival business could mean more homogenous festival lineups, music experts say, if Live Nation and AEG Live push major acts with whom they have established relationships. The big companies’ ability to centralize deals with suppliers and headliners could potentially bring down ticket prices, although critics point out they’ll have more power to raise prices as well…For years, Live Nation and AEG Live kept a relatively low profile in the fledging U.S. festival scene. Long popular in Europe, the multiact, multiday concerts emerged in force in the U.S. only in the 2000s, and often were a niche entertainment for young, hard-core music fans…Outdoor festivals are expensive to produce, often lose money in their initial years and are vulnerable to factors like weather. Much of the proceeds from ticket sales goes to performers. But festivalgoers are a captive audience for one, two or three or more full days, which means more splurges on water, food and alcohol. Festivals also provide revenue streams via things like VIP packages, corporate sponsorships and live-streaming online. These revenues are largely controlled by the promoter. Festivals can be much more profitable than traditional shows for promoters. For a large, established weekend festival, a promoter’s profits could be $5 million to $10 million, according to Jim Glancey, head of the Bowery Presents, a top promoter that runs many of New York City’s best-known music venues. For a traditional sold-out show for a single artist, where tickets sold for $50 to $75, the promoter’s profits might be around $40,000 to $45,000.

Are Republicans Becoming the Party of White Identity Politics? [on Reason Magazine] (8/21/15) – RW

In the minds of many conservatives, identity politics represents the very worst of special-interest-mongering and “playing the race/gender/whatever card.” As with political correctness, criticism of American identity politics isn’t entirely unwarranted, but it gets muddied by folks who invoke the phrase anytime constituencies suggest they have social or legal concerns not directly relevant to straight, white, Christian men. In Europe, meanwhile, straight, white, Christian men and women have become their own sort of special-interest group, and one whose particular identity politics now form a core tenet of right-populist political movements. Could the same thing happen here? The Federalist’s Ben Domenech is worried that it could, with the rise of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump representing the proverbial canary in the coal mine. “Donald Trump could transform the Republican Party into a coalition focused on white identity politics,” reads the subhead on Domenech’s article. “We’ve seen this in Europe, and it’s bad.”

“Hitler Didn’t Snub Me — It Was Our President” [Lawrence W. Reed on Foundation for Economic Education] (8/21/15) – RW

Owens won the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 sprint relay. In the process, he became the first American to claim four gold medals in a single Olympiad. Owens waved at Hitler and Hitler waved back, but the nasty little paper-hanger expressed his annoyance privately to fellow Nazi Albert Speer. He opined that blacks should never be allowed to compete in the games again. A side story of Owens’s Berlin experience was the friendship he made with a German competitor named Lutz Long. A decent man by any measure, Long exhibited no racial animosity and even offered tips to Owens that the American found helpful during the games. Of Long, Owens would later tell an interviewer, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler.… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.” Back home, ticker tape parades feted Owens in New York City and Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came out to cheer him. Letters, phone calls, and telegrams streamed in from around the world to congratulate him. From one important man, however, no word of recognition ever came. As Owens later put it, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”

Trump Has Done Well, but Not as Well as the Stock Market [The Associated Press via The New York Times] (8/20/15)

By the measure of success he holds most dear — wealth — Donald Trump has done well. Since 1987, when the real estate mogul published his best-seller “Art of the Deal,” his net worth has jumped 300 percent to $4 billion, according to figures from wealth-tracker Forbes magazine. Turns out, though, there was an easier way for Trump to add to his wealth than all the deal-making and TV shows — and far more effective. It’s the same strategy many wealth advisers are telling middle-class families to follow: Stick your money in an index fund tracking the stock market and forget about it. If Trump had done that in 1988, he would be worth $13 billion today, more than triple the Forbes estimate.

The Late, Great Stephen Colbert [Joel Lovell on Gentlemen’s Quarterly] (8/17/15)

And then he talked about the Food Network show Chopped. The reason he loves Chopped is that it’s a show that is wholly about process, about creation within a limited range of possibilities. “This show,” he said, meaning The Late Show, “is Chopped. Late-night shows are Chopped. Who are your guests tonight? Your guests tonight are veal tongue, coffee grounds, and gummy bears. There, make a show.… Make an appetizer that appeals to millions of people. That’s what I like. How could you possibly do it? Oh, you bring in your own flavors. Your own house band is another flavor. You have your own flavor. The audience itself is a base dish, like a rice pilaf or something. And then together it’s ‘Oh shit, that’s an actual meal.’ And that’s what every day is like at one of these shows. Something is one thing in the morning, and then by the end of the day it’s a totally different thing. It’s all process.”…He was part of the same Second City class that included Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello and Chris Farley. “Our first night professionally onstage,” he said, the longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.” “It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.” (You’re welcome, Dune nerds.)

Selfie madness: too many dying to get the picture [Matt Siegel on Reuters] (9/3/15)

Yet despite the risks, selfies are more popular than ever, according to data from Google Trends. Searches for the term were up eight times in 2014 over the previous year, leading the Internet search giant to dub it “The Year of the Selfie”. Selfies tend to attract a type of person already more likely to push the boundaries of normal behavior, says Jesse Fox, an assistant professor of communications at Ohio State University. Her research says people exhibiting the so-called Dark Triad of personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy – are likely to pursue selfie glory regardless of who gets hurt in the process. “It’s all about me. It’s putting me in the frame. I’m getting attention and when I post that to social media, I’m getting the confirmation that I need from other people that I’m awesome,” Fox told Reuters. “You don’t care about the tourist attraction you’re destroying; you don’t care about annoying people in your social media feed … you’re not even thinking about the consequences of your actions, so who cares if you’re dangling off the side of the Eiffel Tower?”

Obama’s Econ Advisers: Occupational Licensing Is a Disaster [Mikayla Novak on The Foundation for Economic Education] (9/2/15) – RW

The data show that licensed workers earn on average 28 percent more than unlicensed workers. Only some of this observed premium is accounted for by the differences in education, training and experience between the two groups. The rest comes from reducing supply, locking competitors out of the market and extracting higher prices from consumers. What makes professional licensing so invidious is that it serves as a barrier to entry in the labor market, simply because it takes so much time and money to obtain a license to work. For young people, immigrants, and low-income individuals, it can be extremely difficult to stump up the cash and find the time — sometimes hundreds or even thousands of hours — to get licensed. The fees to maintain a license can also be exorbitant. Compounding the problem is that licensing requirements are spreading into more industries, such as construction, food catering, and hairdressing — occupations where it used to be easy to start a career…Defenders of occupational licensing say that workers need to be licensed because without it consumers would be harmed by poor service. In the absence of licensing, children will be taught improperly at school, patients won’t get adequate health care in hospital, home owners will not get their leaky sinks fixed, and somebody could fall victim to an improper haircut. But, in the name of promoting quality, licensing regulations perversely raise costs and reduce choices for consumers. The CEA concludes that, by imposing entry barriers against potential competitors who could undercut the prices of incumbent suppliers, licensing raises prices for consumers by between 3 and 16 percent. Moreover, the effect of licensing on product quality is unclear. The report notes that the empirical literature doesn’t demonstrate an increase in quality from licensure. By restricting supply, licensing dulls the incentive for incumbents to provide the best quality products because the threat of new entrants competing with better offerings is diminished. Perversely, the inflated prices offered by licensed providers may force some consumers to seek unlicensed providers, or to use less effective substitutes, or to do jobs themselves — in some cases increasing the risk of accidents. In a blow to the notion of efficient government bureaucracy, the CEA indicates that government licensing boards routinely fail in monitoring licensed providers, contributing to the lack of improvement in quality.

The Plot Of Faith-Based Domestic Drama ‘War Room,’ Recreated With Reviews [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (9/4/15)

Last weekend, War Room, a little-known “faith-based” film from Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the writing/directing team behind Fireproof (Kirk Cameron vs. internet porn) and Facing the Giants (Christian football movie, not to be confused with Riding Giants), became the highest-grossing new movie of the weekend. It trounced both No Escape and We Are Your Friends, despite opening on half as many screens as WAYF and a third as many as No Escape. I’d heard only bits and pieces about the film, directed by Southern, Baptist-preaching brothers, like that it apparently counseled prayer as a way to cure domestic violence.

The Unlikely Cities That Will Power the U.S. Economy [Christopher Cannon, Patrick Clark, Jeremy Scott Diamond, and Laurie Meisler on Bloomberg News] (9/3/15)

Like many high-tech locales, Huntsville owes its 21st century economy to an initial burst of funding for government research. It was a town of 16,000 residents working in cotton mills and on watercress farms when, in 1950, the U.S. Army relocated a team of rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal, a local installation that produced chemical munitions during World War II. In the decades that followed, NASA designed, assembled, and tested the rockets that put the first men on the moon. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of lesser-known aerospace and defense companies have swarmed to Huntsville.

Students Bombed the SAT This Year, in Four Charts [Natalie Kitroeff and Janet Lorin on Bloomberg News] (9/3/15)

This year’s high school graduates did worse on the SAT than their peers last year. And there’s more bad news for the College Board, which administers the test: Fewer people are taking the SAT than are taking the ACT, its top competitor. Students in the high school class of 2015 turned in the lowest critical reading score on the SAT college entrance exam in more than 40 years, with all three sections declining from the previous year. Meanwhile, ACT Inc. reported that nearly 60 percent of all 2015 high school graduates took the ACT, up from 49 percent in 2011.

The Ketamine Cure [Caroline Winter on Bloomberg News] (8/19/15)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved ketamine for the treatment of mood disorders, but dozens of medical studies show that it can quickly alleviate severe depression. There’s no regulation to stop doctors like Brooks from administering ketamine for nonapproved uses—a practice known as “off-label” treatment—but insurers typically don’t cover it. Over the past three years, Brooks has treated about 700 patients, some who’ve traveled from as far away as Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Israel, and Europe. He gets six to 10 daily inquiries from potential patients online. Of those Brooks treats, he estimates that about 70 percent show improvement…researchers at Yale, including Dennis Charney, who’s now dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, stumbled upon the drug’s promise as a mood stabilizer. They’d set out to study how depression is affected by glutamate, a neurotransmitter essential for brain functions including memory, learning, and the regulation of emotions. To do so, they gave seven clinically depressed patients ketamine, which is known to block certain glutamate receptors in the brain…The group’s findings, published in Biological Psychiatry in 2000, were largely ignored. The study was tiny, and because of ketamine’s reputation as a party drug, scientists were reluctant to follow up…Six years later, Charney, who’d gone on to work for the National Institutes of Health, initiated a replica study with 17 patients. “This was a population that had failed on average six different antidepressants, and some had also failed electroconvulsive therapy, which is generally regarded as a treatment of last resort,” says Husseini Manji, one of Charney’s co-authors, who’s now the global head of neuroscience for Janssen Research & Development, a Johnson & Johnson company. Within a day of getting one ketamine infusion, 70 percent of the subjects went into remission. Since then, scientists at institutions including Yale, Mount Sinai Hospital, and Baylor College of Medicine have performed dozens more studies that corroborate the findings. Additional studies show that ketamine works by producing long-lasting changes in the brain, reversing neural damage caused by stress and depression and potentially decreasing inflammation and cortisol levels.

First female US army rangers ‘open up new doors for women’ [Alan Yuhas on The Guardian] (8/20/15)

Erickson Krugh, a second lieutenant, admitted that he was “pretty skeptical” about the women’s ability to keep up in the physical challenges. “Honestly, that was smashed pretty fast,” he said. “I completely believed they were going to run into the walls, just physical walls and break down. That was just never the issue,” he said. Instead, he and Griest echoed comments by army leadership and observers, who found that the women struggled more with the tactical leadership segments of the course. Those skills are taught in basic training for male combat infantry units, they noted, and male students often struggle with them as well. Two other male rangers said that they, too, were skeptical – until during arduous marches they discovered that Haver and Griest, in their respective teams, were the only rangers willing to take up their load despite being as “broken” as the men. Every man who was asked said they trusted the women and did not care whether the ranger on their right or left was a man or woman.

Judge: Missouri right-to-farm doesn’t cover marijuana [The Associated Press on Governing Magazine] (9/2/15)

A new constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to farm doesn’t protect a woman who reportedly grew marijuana in her home, a Missouri judge ruled this week. Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green ruled against a woman Tuesday whose public defender tried to argue that cultivating marijuana falls under the farming-rights amendment, the Jefferson City News Tribune reported. Public defender Justin Carver argued that Green should set aside a grand jury indictment against Lisa A. Loesch. She was charged in 2012 after Jefferson City police arrested her for allegedly growing pot in her basement…Green ruled that the amendment only applies to livestock and “legitimate” crop cultivation, and even those practices still are subject to regulations. The “argument that growing marijuana in a basement constitutes a ‘farming or ranching practice’ goes way beyond the plain meaning of ‘farming or ranching practice,'” Green wrote. “Simply put, marijuana is not considered a part of Missouri’s agriculture.” Carver also said the right-to-farm amendment removed marijuana from the state’s criminal code, which Green rejected. Green countered Carver’s arguments that laws against growing pot violate state and federal rights.

Russian town besieged by hungry bears [Alec Luhn on St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (9/4/15)

Dozens of hungry bears have besieged a small town in Russia’s far east, roaming the streets and attacking residents. In the past month, more than 30 bears have entered inhabited areas in Russia’s Primorsky region, located between China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan. Local authorities have had to shoot at least two animals. Luchegorsk, a town of 21,000 on the river Kontrovod near the Chinese border, has been particularly affected. Two large bears – a brown bear and a Himalayan bear – are now “ruling over” Luchegorsk, wandering the streets and scaring local people, the Primorskaya newspaper reported. Asian black bears have also been seen, and a further three dozen bears are circling the town, according to other reports. Local people say they are afraid to leave their homes and that the streets are filled with the sounds of sirens and loudspeakers telling citizens not to go outside for their own safety, VladNews reported.

How I Broke the Internet [Stephen L. Carter via Bloomberg Views] (8/19/15)

The 2015 Ad Blocking Report, released earlier this month by PageFair and Adobe, estimates that some 16 percent of U.S. consumers used ad blocking in the second quarter of 2015, a 48 percent jump in a single year. The global news isn’t much better for online advertisers: In Europe, for instance, the year-over-year increase was 35 percent. The report estimates lost global revenue due to blocking software at nearly $22 billion. “For at least some players in the media industry,” wrote tech reporter Mathew Ingram in Fortune, “this looks like a cross between a Class 5 hurricane and a neutron bomb headed straight for their balance sheets.” Adblock Plus (the dominant app, and the one that I use) hides animated, pop-up and video ads, plus those that otherwise “obscure page content.” Unobtrusive ads are allowed, and advertisers can apply to be added to the “whitelist” of ads that are permitted past the filters. The idea is to balance the need of websites to generate revenue with the irritation of users forced to click their way past annoying ads to get where they are going. It’s the whitelist that leads to advertiser complaints. Some have even compared the tactic to blackmail.

The World’s Biggest Pet Store Has 250,000 Animals [Ben Crair on Bloomberg News] (8/18/15)

Today, Zajac’s pet shop fills a 130,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial part of Duisburg. It’s called Zoo Zajac, and it unfurls, like an airport terminal, along a horseshoe in the road. It’s more than twice the size of the White House and three times as large as a Whole Foods Market. It is, according to Guinness World Records, the biggest pet shop in the world. A visitor can spend as much as €9,000 ($10,000) on a two-toed sloth or as little as €1.19 on a box of crickets. She can buy armadillos, meerkats, coatis, and monkeys; or fill aquariums with jellyfish, tetras, shellfish, and piranhas. Zoo Zajac sells 50 species of tarantula and maintains one of the finest reptile collections in western Europe—better, even, than many zoos. It houses about 250,000 individual animals of 3,000 different species. A walk around the place is essentially an endurance sport, which is why Zajac, a heavy man with two bad knees, zips up and down the aisles on a black moped. The vehicle never leaves the premises and logs more than 2,500 miles a year…In 2012, Zajac added a controversial mammal to his inventory. Animal-rights activists picketed the store and called him greedy and irresponsible. More than 25,000 people sent a protest letter from PETA that included a cartoon of Zajac strangling the creature with a price tag around its neck. Zajac says he received multiple bomb and death threats. One pet food manufacturer withdrew its products from the store’s shelves. Even the German Pet Trade & Industry Association didn’t support him. “He offers some animals that we, the association of this industry, aren’t very happy with,” Schreiber says. The addition wasn’t vicious or endangered, but the most conventional pet of all. Zoo Zajac started selling puppies.

Kids from Larry Clark’s Kids: ‘We were like the United Nations of skateboarding’ [Kiron Heirot-Darragh on The Guardian] (8/19/15)

Alex Corporan, a Kids cast member, one of the first skateboarders for Supreme, and a cultural attaché for lifestyle brands, started out as a metal head in lace-up Doc Martens. “Skateboarding in New York, prior to Kids, was a clubhouse,” he says. “No one really liked us, no one cared about us. We were part of a scene that no one understood – a bunch of mixed-race kids together, hanging out. “We shared everything, did everything together. It was a circle of trust; you had that, and that’s all you had.”…When Zoo York released “Mixtape” in 1997, the east coast scene was in full swing. By the late 1990s, merchandise was being sold all over the world. “It’s everywhere now,” says Estevez. “Skateboarding wasn’t [always] cool. We’d show up to the party and everyone would get bummed out, like ‘Ugh, who invited the skaters? Fuuuuck. Hide the beer.’”

China stock probes send shivers through investment community [Pete Sweeney and Engen Tham on Reuters] (9/1/15)

Chinese fund managers say they have come under increasing pressure from Beijing as authorities’ attempts to revive the country’s stock markets hit headwinds, with some investors now being called in to explain trading strategies to regulators every two weeks. One manager at a major fund – part of the “national team” of investors and brokerages charged with buying stocks to revive prices – said a friend, also an executive at a large fund, was recently summoned for a meeting with regulators, along with all other mutual funds that had engaged in short-selling activity. “If I don’t come back, look after my wife,” his friend told him, handing the manager his home telephone number…While foreign investors are unlikely to be a major factor behind stock market swings, given their relatively low participation in the market compared with domestic players, they are seen as more politically vulnerable to investigations. “The foreign fund community definitely feels like it is being monitored more carefully than it’s been in a very long time,” said one foreign fund manager. “Nobody is pointing at you and saying you are doing anything illegal. But it’s enough to ask people to walk through all their trades, and ‘why is this account trading so much?’ That ramps up the pressure”. Some Chinese believe the collapse in Chinese stocks was engineered by foreigners, and there has been speculation that it was caused by the U.S. government to embarrass China as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) considered including the yuan in its currency basket. There are no signs yet the pressure has caused foreign funds to withdraw from the market altogether or pull out staff from the country.

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Roundup – Imagine All Star People

Best of the Best:

Big Oil Is About to Lose Control of the Auto Industry [Reed Landberg on Bloomberg News] (4/16/15)

Costs are plunging in the electric car business as quickly as they did in the solar industry in the last decade. The price of lithium-ion batteries that power most electric cars has fallen 60 percent from 2010 and will keep declining at the same pace, BNEF estimates. That will bring the price of no-pollution cars within striking distance of ones that require gasoline within a decade. Fuel-cell cars also are moving from the laboratory to the showroom, starting in Japan with models from Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. By 2018, Japan will be the biggest market for fuel-cell vehicles, with 4,200 cars on the road, almost double the figure for the U.S., according to BNEF researcher Claire Curry. The future is not uniformly bright for clean energy. Investment in biofuels has plunged 90 percent since peaking at $29.8 billion in 2007. Gasoline substitutes made from corn and sugar in the form of ethanol represent about 10 percent of the U.S. fuel supply, but efforts to make an alternative from crops that can’t be eaten have stalled. And lower oil costs eat away at the economic rationale for cleaner fuels. See Also: – Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables [Tom Randall on Bloomberg News] (4/14/15) – Why Nuclear Power Is All but Dead in the U.S. [Eric Raston on Bloomberg News] (4/15/15) – Musk’s Cousins Battle Utilities to Make Solar Rooftops Cheap [John Lippert and Chris Martin on Bloomberg News] (4/14/15)

The Ugly Truth About What’s Going Wrong in American Law Schools [Paul Barrett on Bloomberg News] (4/16/15)

My colleague Natalie Kitroeff ably chronicles the dismal times in legal education. “Fewer people with high Law School Admission Test scores are applying to and enrolling in law school, and less-qualified students are filling their slots,” she reports in her latest dispatch, and she’s got the stats to prove it. In December, Kitroeff investigated a burgeoning controversy over why bar exam passage rates plummeted last year, a trend, she notes, that appears to be persisting, if at a more moderate rate, as results begin to trickle in this year.Are law students getting dumber, foreshadowing a future dip in the talents available to legal clients nationwide? Or are aspiring attorneys getting a bad rap? The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), the nonprofit that creates the multiple-choice portion of the test used by many states, goes with the diminished-intellect theory. “The group that sat [for bar exams] in July 2014 was less able than the group that sat in July 2013,” NCBE President Erica Moeser said in a blunt memo to law deans last October. “That’s just baloney,” Brooklyn Law School’s Dean Nick Allard tells me. An innovative leader scrambling to keep his venerable institution afloat in a shrinking legal job market, Allard alleges darkly that unnamed pooh-bahs are fixing the system to exclude his scrappy students. “It’s a jaw-dropping story,” he says. “The NCBE is a powerful testing organization with a web of financial interests that has an outsize role in determining the future careers of law school graduates.” Tens of thousands of law school graduates, he adds, “are ripped off by the bar exam scam twice a year.” The NCBE’s Moeser flatly denies there’s anything awry. Her group rechecked its scoring and determined “the results are correct.” The best dispassionate analysis I’ve found suggests a testing snafu last year, but one that doesn’t account entirely for the larger air of crisis. Blogging at Law School Cafe, Deborah Merritt, a law professor at Ohio State University, explained in late March how a severe software glitch exacerbated test-taker anxiety and, through the magic of esoteric scoring techniques, rippled across the country. It’s a complicated account, well worth reading in full. Tallying the damage, Merritt estimates that “hundreds of test takers—probably more than 1,500 nationwide—failed the bar exam when they should have passed.” That’s not the tens of thousands of casualties mourned by Allard, but it’s a lot of people whose exams deserve another look. Over to you, NCBE. See Also: –The Smartest People Are Opting Out of Law School [Natalie Kitroeff on Bloomberg News] (4/15/15) –Is the Bar Exam Broken? Or Are Law Students Dumber? [Natalie Kitroeff on Bloomberg News] (12/10/14)

The end of Moore’s law [The Economist] (4/19/15)

If Moore’s law has started to flag, it is mainly because of economics. As originally stated by Mr Moore, the law was not just about reductions in the size of transistors, but also cuts in their price. A few years ago, when transistors 28nm wide were the state of the art, chipmakers found their design and manufacturing costs beginning to rise sharply. New “fabs” (semiconductor fabrication plants) now cost more than $6 billion. In other words: transistors can be shrunk further, but they are now getting more expensive. And with the rise of cloud computing, the emphasis on the speed of the processor in desktop and laptop computers is no longer so relevant. The main unit of analysis is no longer the processor, but the rack of servers or even the data centre. The question is not how many transistors can be squeezed onto a chip, but how many can be fitted economically into a warehouse. Moore’s law will come to an end; but it may first make itself irrelevant.

Malled: The Hollowing Out of an American Institution. ‘We Surrender’ [Matt Townsend on Bloomberg News] (11/21/14)

On a crisp Friday evening in late October, Shannon Rich, 33, is standing in a dying American mall. Three customers wander the aisles in a Sears the size of two football fields. The RadioShack is empty. A woman selling smartphone cases watches “Homeland” on a laptop. “It’s the quietest mall I’ve ever been to,” says Rich, who works for an education consulting firm and has been coming to the Steeplegate Mall in Concord, New Hampshire, since she was a kid. “It bums me out.” Built 24 years ago by a former subsidiary of Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD), Steeplegate is one of about 300 U.S. malls facing a choice between re-invention and oblivion. Most are middle-market shopping centers being squeezed between big-box chains catering to low-income Americans and luxury malls lavishing white-glove service on One Percenters. It’s a time of reckoning for an industry that once expanded pell-mell across the landscape armed with the certainty that if you build it, they will come. Those days are over. Malls like Steeplegate either rethink themselves or disappear. This summer Rouse Properties Inc. (RSE), a real estate investment trust with a long track record of turning around troubled properties, decided Steeplegate wasn’t salvageable and walked away. The mall is now in receivership. As management buys time by renting space to temporary shops selling Christmas stuff, employees fret that if the holiday shopping season goes badly, more stores will close. Should the mall lose one of its anchors — Sears, J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) and Bon-Ton Stores Inc. (BONT) — the odds of survival lengthen. “Rouse is basically saying ‘We surrender,’” said Rich Moore, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets who has covered mall operators for more than 15 years. “If Rouse couldn’t make it work and that’s their specialty, then that’s a pretty tough sale to keep it as is.” Rouse, based in New York, declined to comment beyond an e-mailed statement saying it had determined Steeplegate “would not meet our long-term return on investment criteria.”

The Waning Power of Political Dynasties [Louis Jacobson on Governing Magazine] (4/21/15)

This pattern was even stronger in last year’s U.S. Senate races. No fewer than six U.S. Senate candidates with noteworthy family ties lost races in 2014, all of them Democrats — Nick Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Udall of Colorado, Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Of course, a couple gubernatorial candidates with family histories in their state did win governorships last fall: Democrats Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, and Republicans Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas and Larry Hogan in Maryland, the son of a former congressman. (Although that fact was not widely known in Maryland, making it essentially a nonfactor in the race.) Still, 2014 results illustrate a growing tendency: Partisan affiliation increasingly trumps longstanding familiarity and accumulated goodwill from bearing a famous political name. In last year’s gubernatorial races, Democrats Brown and Cuomo won largely because they were running in two of the nation’s bluest states, while Hutchinson was running in one of the reddest. Carter, by contrast, faced an uphill climb as a Democrat in a red state, no matter his famous name.

Leonardo da Vinci’s resume [Marc Cenedella] (4/13/15)

Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

Baseball is struggling to hook kids — and risks losing fans to other sports [Marc Fisher on Washington Post] (4/5/15)

According to Nielsen ratings, 50 percent of baseball viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent 10 years ago. ESPN, which airs baseball, football and basketball games, says its data show the average age of baseball viewers rising well above that of other sports: 53 for baseball, 47 for the NFL (also rising fast) and 37 for the NBA, which has kept its audience age flat…Baseball’s economic model is different from that of other sports. Its TV audience is primarily local and strong in pockets. In 11 markets where the sport does well — St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati and Boston top the list — the home team’s games are the most-watched programs on TV all summer…But many of those who study baseball’s appeal say they don’t see evidence that pace is the problem or the solution. Football games are often longer than baseball games, and few complain about their length, says Michael Haupert, an economist at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse who studies the business of baseball…But baseball’s troubles have at least as much to do with larger changes in society as with the rules of the game. In a time of rapidly shifting family structure, increased sports specialization and declining local identity, baseball finds itself at odds with social change. Participation in all sports has dropped by more than 9 percent nationwide over the past five years, according to an annual study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Only lacrosse has shown double-digit growth over that period. Baseball participation dropped 3 percent, basketball fell by 2 percent, and football lost 5 percent of its tackle players and 7 percent of touch players. About half of American children do not participate in any team sport. What’s distinctive about baseball’s decline is that kids leave the sport at a younger age than they fall away from basketball or football, though the dropoff is even steeper for soccer. A primary reason for kids switching out of baseball is rising pressure on youths to specialize in one sport. See Also: What the NBA gets that the other big sports leagues don’t [Roberto A. Ferdman on Washington Post] (4/6/15)

Returning to the Exurbs: Rural Counties Are Fastest Growing [Teresa Wiltz on Stateline] (4/15/15)

Winding up Route 400, a good 40 minutes’ north of Atlanta’s traffic-snarled freeways, are miles of farmhouses, interspersed with mobile homes, McMansions and thrift shops. Here, too, is Dawson County’s biggest draw: The North Georgia Premium Outlets, where tourists hunt for bargains at Burberry, Armani and Restoration Hardware. Despite the designer outlets, the vibe is decidedly rural Americana. Tractors chug the roads. Masonic symbols emblazon the county government building. It’s a “small town feel” that Ginny Tarver says drew her to the area from Naples, Florida, to get married and work as an executive  assistant in the county building. Dawson is one of the fastest growing counties in Georgia and reflects a demographic shift in the nation: a return to exurbia. New census data show that for the first time since 2010, the outermost suburban counties are growing faster than urban counties and close-in suburbs, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution. People are moving back to the exurbs, some for jobs, others for bigger and more affordable homes in a more wide-open space.

Repatriation Blues: Expats Struggle With the Dark Side of Coming Home [Debra Bruno on Expat on The Wall Street Journal] (4/15/15)

The struggle of repatriation is not just one of psychological adjustment. Multinational companies are finding that while they are using plenty of resources to prepare employees for an international transfer, they are less attentive to the other end of the move. The result, according to research by Brookfield Global Relocation Services, is that about 12 percent of employees leave the company within a few years of repatriation. While that percentage is similar to the overall attrition rate for companies, the number is a concern, “given the inordinate cost of international assignments,” says Diane Douiyssi of Brookfield.

Florida’s Hurricane-Free Stretch Has Insurer Bracing for Storms [on Bloomberg News] (4/15/15)

Wilma was the last hurricane to strike the state, in October 2005. It killed five people in Florida and caused $20.6 billion of damage, according to a National Hurricane Center report. The state hasn’t gone this long without a hurricane in records going back to 1851, NHC data show.

An Oral History Of How “Game Of Thrones” Went From Crazy Idea To HBO’s Biggest Hit [Nicole Laporte on Fast Company] (4/10/15)

GoT became an even bigger risk for HBO when the BBC, which had originally signed on a production partner, pulled out. With its elaborate sets and huge cast, the show costs a reported $6 million per episode. Now HBO would have to foot the whole bill.

‘Impossible’ Quantum Space Engine Actually Works – NASA Test Suggests [Arjun Walia on Collective Evolution] (2/3/15)

The propellant-less thruster is called the Cannae Drive, invented by Guido Fetta, and was tested by NASA over an eight day testing campaign that took place in August of 2013. It showed that a small amount of thrust was indeed achieved inside a container, again, without the use of any fuel. The results were then presented at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio in July the next year. You can access the paper (titled “Numerical and Experimental Results for a Novel Propulsion Technology Requiring no On-Board Propellant”) that was presented at the conference here and inventor Guido Fetta’s paper here. The paper is also available on NASA’s website, you can view it here, it’s the first link you see but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work…“Approximately 30-50 micro-Newtons of thrust were recorded from an electric propulsion test article consisting primarily of radio frequency (RF) resonant cavity excited at approximately 935 megahertz. Testing was performed on a low-thrust torsion pendulum that is capable of detecting force at a single-digit micronewton level” (source) According to, the inventor is claiming that the version NASA tested is flawed, which resulted in them collecting far lower thrust readings than the original model can provide. However, that point is irrelevant; the fact remains that there is thrust being generated from the vacuum.

The Student-Loan Problem Is Even Worse Than Official Figures Indicate [Josh Mitchell on Real Time Economics on The Wall Street Journal] (4/14/15)

Student loans are proving to be a much bigger burden on households than previously thought. Nearly one in three Americans who are now having to pay down their student debt–or a staggering 31.5%–are at least a month behind on their payments, new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests. That figure is far higher than official delinquency measures reported by the Education Department and the New York Fed. And it’s also likely the most accurate. Here’s why: The official measures reflect delinquencies as a share of all Americans with student debt, but millions of borrowers aren’t even required to make payments yet. Many are currently in college or grad school and thus don’t have to make payments until six months after they leave. Others are out of school and past that grace period but have received permission by their lender—the federal government in most cases—to suspend payments for a range of reasons, such as being unemployed. Including these borrowers in the broader pool of student-loan debt makes official delinquency rates artificially low. For example, figures from the New York Fed’s quarterly report on household credit shows roughly 17% of all student-loan borrowers were at least 30 days behind on a payment at the start of this year. That’s still a very high number, but misleading nonetheless. A more precise way of measuring delinquencies is to just look at borrowers who are required to make payments. In their new paper, St. Louis Fed researchers Juan M. Sánchez and Lijun Zhu determined that, as of Jan. 1, more than half of student-loan debt–55%– was held by borrowers who were in repayment. The remaining 45% weren’t in repayment. Stripping out the borrowers not in repayment, they concluded that 31.5% of Americans with student debt were at least 30 days behind on a payment at that time. This matches up with previous research from the New York Fed suggesting the actual delinquency rate is likely double the official delinquency measure, when excluding borrowers not in repayment.

A record 125 people were exonerated of crimes in 2014. Here are 6 of their stories. [German Lope on Vox] (1/29/15)

Cooperation with law enforcement helped increase the number of Americans absolved of previous criminal convictions to 125 in 2014 — a record high since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking such cases in 1989…Some other findings in the report:

  • Six of the people exonerated in 2014 had been sentenced to death — three in Ohio, two in North Carolina, and one in Louisiana. Each had been imprisoned for 30 years or more.
  • Forty-seven of the 125 defendants exonerated in 2014 had pled guilty.
  • Most exonerations in 2014 — 103 of 125 — were done without DNA evidence.
  • In about 54 percent of cases, the exonerations dropped some convictions but left others on a defendant’s record.
  • There were exonerations in 27 states and some federal jurisdictions, including Washington, DC, in 2014.

Maurice Possley, senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations, said it’s possible that the total 2014 numbers will increase in the future. And it’s likely that some of the rise in exonerations since 1989 is due to the registry’s increased ability to find such cases.

The Alphabet of Satire [Stefan Kanfer on City Journal] (Winter 2015)

Yet today, Goldberg would be a forgotten celebrity—like hizzoner himself—had he confined himself to comic strips. Though his gags rapidly found their way into public conversation, they dated just as quickly. The pictures were amusing enough, but character was never his strength. “Mike & Ike—They Look Alike,” for example, concerned two morons who punned on standard phrases: “Ike, use the word ‘icing’ in a sentence.” “Sure, Mike—the patriotic gentleman rose and sang, ‘Sweet land of liberty, of thee “I sing.” ’ ” But all along, the graduate engineer had been waiting for an opportunity to express himself. From college onward, Goldberg had been fascinated with the devices that were changing America—vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, the telephone, the telegraph, the automobile, the airplane. Finally, as the Roaring Twenties ended, a national magazine gave him the space for comic commentaries. “The Inventions of Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts” first appeared in the January 26, 1929, issue of Collier’s. “In my cartoons,” Rube noted, “Professor Butts invented elaborate machines to accomplish such Herculean tasks as shining shoes, opening screen doors, keeping moths out of clothes closets, retrieving soap in the bathtub and other innocuous problems. Only, instead of using the scientific elements of the laboratory, I added acrobatic monkeys, dancing mice, chattering false teeth, electric eels, whirling dervishes and other incongruous elements.”

Dear Meerkats, Pay No Attention to the Human Stalking You [Patrick McGroarty on The Wall Street Journal] (4/28/15)

Habituation is a common tactic among researchers and rangers seeking close encounters with the continent’s wild beasts. The practice expanded rapidly in the latter half of the twentieth century in tandem with an explosion of tourism and study of African fauna. Now, an army of habituators across the continent’s parks and reserves are busy befriending everything from hornbills to hippos. Meerkat mollification is painstaking work: Habituators spend months ingratiating themselves to the peripatetic colonies, edging closer and closer until the meerkats learn to ignore them. Some habituators talk to themselves on approach to familiarize skittish meerkats to human voices. The goal is to train the meerkats not to scurry when high-paying guests descend from safari vehicles for a closer look…Based in the sand and scrub of southern Africa’s Kalahari desert, habituators are the toast of selfie-snapping visitors. They also draw the ire of some environmentalists who say their work infringes on the desert’s natural order…But many scientists say familiarizing African animals and humans is the only way to ensure tourists will catch a glimpse of them. Those visitors provide nearly all the revenue used to protect the elephants, lions and apes that still roam Africa’s shrinking wilds, they say…Winning over the animals requires constant affirmation. Each day, Mr. Satekge or a colleague arrives before the meerkats emerge from their burrows, and returns at dusk before they scamper underground in a puff of dust…The fruits of their labors are evident. Leopards in South Africa’s Kruger National Park today use game-viewing trucks to step down from treetop perches. In East Africa’s Virunga Mountains, gorillas turn somersaults for tourists who pay hundreds of dollars to spend time among their shrinking numbers. Intrepid visitors to Cape Town plunge into the frigid Atlantic alongside great white sharks drawn to the chum tour companies use to draw them near.

Soccer Violence Escalates in Europe [Naftali Bendavid on The Wall Street Journal] (4/29/15)

Eruptions have become too frequent to list. In Spain, a 43-year-old fan died in a bloody 200-person brawl in November outside a Madrid stadium. Dutch fans in February rampaged through Rome, damaging a priceless 400-year-old fountain. Greece briefly suspended its soccer leagues this year after a series of violent outbreaks. Racist incidents, from throwing bananas at black players to anti-Semitic or antigay chanting, also appear to be rising; the U.K.-based group Kick It Out counted 71 discriminatory incidents in Britain this season compared with 43 at this point last year…Experts say statistics on soccer-related violence should be treated with caution, but some, at least, are troubling. In Germany, officials reported 7,863 soccer-related offenses last season, up from 4,576 in 2005-06. Italy saw 1,515 last year, up from 1,161. In Spain, penalties for sports-related offenses jumped by 22% last season from the previous year. Elsewhere figures suggest a halting improvement; Britain and Romania reported drops in many categories.

Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away [Andy Greene on The Rolling Stone] (4/14/15)

Withers has been out of the spotlight for so many years that some people think he passed away. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not. I said to him, ‘Let me check.’ ” Others don’t believe he is who he says: “One Sunday morning I was at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. These church ladies were sitting in the booth next to mine. They were talking about this Bill Withers song they sang in church that morning. I got up on my elbow, leaned into their booth and said, ‘Ladies, it’s odd you should mention that because I’m Bill Withers.’ This lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You’re too light-skinned to be Bill Withers!’ ”

This Is How Fast America Changes Its Mind [Alex Tribou and Keith Collins on Bloomberg News] (4/26/15)

Eleven years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, the Supreme Court on April 28 will hear arguments about whether to extend that right nationwide. The case comes amid a wave of gay marriage legalization: 28 states since 2013, and 36 overall. Such widespread acceptance in a short amount of time isn’t a phenomenon unique to gay marriage. Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.

Key Takeaways From New Census Population Data on Cities [Mike Macaig on Governing Magazine] (5/21/15)

Population growth picked up in several of the nation’s largest cities in recent years. Some of the better-known destination cities, like Austin and Denver, continue to experience impressive population gains year after year. But others that didn’t fare as well over the prior decade also appear to be welcoming more residents. Dallas’ population, for example, has grown 6.7 percent since 2010 after changing little between 2000 and the 2010 decennial Census. A few others that lost population during the prior decade have seen their population tallies stabilize, as is the case in Chicago and Baltimore. While growth slowed somewhat over the past 12 months, the population increases still represent an improvement over what many cities experienced a decade ago. When compared to July 2010 data, no city with at least a half million residents lost population with the notable exception of Detroit. These larger cities grew an average of 4.9 percent over the four-year period. That’s a faster average rate than that of mid-size and smaller cities, representing a reversal of what occurred over the prior decade.

2015’s Most Diverse Cities in America [Richie Bernardo on WalletHub]

And thanks to its ever-expanding diversity, the U.S. remains forward-looking and extremely adaptable to change. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, economies generally fare better when they openly embrace and capitalize on new ideas. Conversely, those relying on old ways and specialized industries tend to be more susceptible to the negative effects of market volatility. As the culmination to our series on diversity studies, this final installment combines our previous reports on economic class diversity, ethno-racial and linguistic diversity, and diversified economies with household diversity to paint the clearest image of America’s cities today. Recognizing that economic opportunity follows diversity, where in the U.S. would you rather live? Better yet, where would your unique background be most valuable to society?

Where Has Housing Grown the Fastest Since 2010? [Jake Grovum on Stateline] (5/21/15)

In every state except for Rhode Island, the number of housing units increased between 2010 to 2014. North Dakota outpaced the rest of the states with 10% growth, more than double the next closest state, Texas, with 4.3%. On average, the number of housing units in the states and the District of Columbia grew 1.8%.

High Times on Wall Street [Dune Lawrence on Bloomberg Businessweek] (6/19/14)

Reliable figures are hard to come by, but the market for marijuana is large and growing. From 2002 to 2010, the amount of marijuana consumed in the U.S. likely increased about 40 percent, with consumers spending $30 billion to $60 billion in 2010, according to a February report by Rand Corp. for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Regulatory and legal questions, as well as the stigma associated with cannabis, muddy the prospects for investors. Privateer Holdings, another private equity fund focusing on the industry, is an instructive example. Privateer started by approaching 10 billionaires, all outspoken advocates of legalization, all of whom passed, says Chief Executive Officer Brendan Kennedy (no relation to Michael Kennedy). It took Privateer 18 months starting in 2011 to raise $7 million. Over four years, executives of the fund approached 20 banks about setting up a basic business checking account. Seventeen turned them down, and the three that initially agreed ended up closing the accounts. The money is starting to flow more easily. Privateer raised $15 million in February and expects to secure more than $50 million in July. One of the companies it has invested in, Leafly, is an online competitor to High Times, calling itself “the world’s largest cannabis information resource.”

How A Lawsuit Over Hot Coffee Helped Erode the 7th Amendment [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (5/10/14)

Despite the rhetoric of businesses under attack by greedy Americans, the evidence does not show an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits winning jackpots. As Priceonomics wrote previously, rather than exploding, the number of tort (injury) cases in America decreased 25% from 1999 to 2008 and fell 9% in the nineties. Only 5% of civil cases result in punitive damages for an average $50,000 to $60,000, not millions. Today, the full story of the McDonalds coffee case has gone viral. A quick Google search will reveal many media outlets that ran stories on the case. Recently Upworthy posted a video produced for the New York Times about Liebeck’s story and it went viral. But the main reason revealing the truth of Liebeck’s case finds such an interested audience is that the misinterpretation of Liebeck as a greedy woman who won the lottery through her lawsuit is accepted as fact. And that has a lot to do with how it was used as a public relations strategy by special interests.

The end of sleep? [Jessa Gamble on Aeon Magazine] (4/10/13)

It is very difficult to design a stimulant that offers focus without tunnelling – that is, without losing the ability to relate well to one’s wider environment and therefore make socially nuanced decisions. Irritability and impatience grate on team dynamics and social skills, but such nuances are usually missed in drug studies, where they are usually treated as unreliable self-reported data. These problems were largely ignored in the early enthusiasm for drug-based ways to reduce sleep. They came to light in an ingenious experimental paradigm designed at the government agency Defence Research and Development Canada. In 1996, the defence psychologist Martin Taylor paired volunteers and gave each member of the duo a map. One of the two maps had a route marked on it and the task was for the individual who had the marked map to describe it accurately enough for their partner to reproduce it on their map. Meanwhile, the researchers listened in on the verbal dialogue. Control group volunteers often introduced a landmark on the map by a question such as: ‘Do you see the park just west of the roundabout?’ Volunteers on the stimulant modafinil omitted these feedback requests, instead providing brusque, non-question instructions, such as: ‘Exit West at the roundabout, then turn left at the park.’ Their dialogues were shorter and they produced less accurate maps than control volunteers. What is more, modafinil causes an overestimation of one’s own performance: those individuals on modafinil not only performed worse, but were less likely to notice that they did. One reason why stimulants have proved a disappointment in reducing sleep is that we still don’t really understand enough about why we sleep in the first place. More than a hundred years of sleep deprivation studies have confirmed the truism that sleep deprivation makes people sleepy. Slow reaction times, reduced information processing capacity, and failures of sustained attention are all part of sleepiness, but the most reliable indicator is shortened sleep latency, or the tendency to fall asleep faster when lying in a dark room. An exasperatingly recursive conclusion remains that sleep’s primary function is to maintain our wakefulness during the day.

Citizen Bezos [Steve Coll on New York Review of Books] (7/10/14)

Among the management books Bezos read devotedly were ones by and about Walmart executives. He became inspired by Walmart’s example of delivering low prices to customers and profits to shareholders by wringing every dime possible out of suppliers. By 2004, Amazon had acquired significant market power. It then began to squeeze publishers for more favorable financial terms. If a book publisher did not capitulate to Amazon, it would modify its algorithms to reduce the visibility of the offending publisher’s books; within a month, “the publisher’s sales usually fell by as much as 40 percent,” Stone reports, and the chastened victim typically returned to the negotiating table. “Bezos kept pushing for more” and suggested that Amazon should negotiate with small publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” This remark—a joke, one of Bezos’s lieutenants insisted—yielded a negotiating program that Amazon executives referred to as “the Gazelle Project,” under which the company pressured the most vulnerable publishers for concessions. Amazon’s lawyers, presumably nervous that such a direct name might attract an antitrust complaint, insisted that it be recast as the Small Publisher Negotiation Program. Around this time, Amazon also jettisoned its in-house writers and editors and replaced them with an algorithm, Amabot, that relied on customer data rather than editorial judgment to recommend books. The spread of aggression and automation within Amazon as the company grew larger and larger echoed classics of the science fiction genre to which Bezos was devoted. An anonymous employee bought an ad in a Seattle newspaper to protest the change. “DEAREST AMABOT,” the ad began. “If you only had a heart to absorb our hatred… Thanks for nothing, you jury-rigged rust bucket. The gorgeous messiness of flesh and blood will prevail!” Will it, though? Over the last decade, Amazon’s growing market share and persistent bullying, particularly in the realm of digital books, where it now controls about two thirds of the market, raise the question of how well competition and antitrust law can protect diverse authors and publishers. Amazon has become a powerful distribution bottleneck for books at the same time that it is also moving to create its own books, in competition with the very publishers it is squeezing.

Everything You Need to Know About Facebook’s Controversial Emotion Experiment [Michelle N. Meyer on Wired] (6/30/14)

For one week in 2012, Facebook altered the algorithms it uses to determine which status updates appeared in the News Feed of 689,003 randomly selected users (about 1 of every 2,500 Facebook users). The results of this study were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). As the authors explain, “[b]ecause people’s friends frequently produce much more content than one person can view,” Facebook ordinarily filters News Feed content “via a ranking algorithm that Facebook continually develops and tests in the interest of showing viewers the content they will find most relevant and engaging.” In this study, the algorithm filtered content based on its emotional content. A post was identified as “positive” or “negative” if it used at least one word identified as positive or negative by software (run automatically without researchers accessing users’ text). Some critics of the experiment have characterized it as one in which the researchers intentionally tried “to make users sad.” With the benefit of hindsight, they claim that the study merely tested the perfectly obvious proposition that reducing the amount of positive content in a user’s News Feed would cause that user to use more negative words and fewer positive words themselves and/or to become less happy (more on the gap between these effects in a minute). But that’s not what some prior studies would have predicted. Previous studies both in the U.S. and in Germany had found that the largely positive, often self-promotional content that Facebook tends to feature has made users feel bitter and resentful—a phenomenon the German researchers memorably call “the self-promotion-envy spiral.” Those studies would have predicted that reducing the positive content in a user’s feed might actually make users less sad. And it makes sense that Facebook would want to determine what will make users spend more time on its site rather than close that tab in disgust or despair. The study’s first author, Adam Kramer of Facebook, confirms —on Facebook, of course—that they did indeed want to investigate the theory that seeing friends’ positive content makes users sad.

The Power of Two [Joshua Wolf Shenk on The Atlantic] (July/August 2014)

For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done. The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.

Inside Monsanto, America’s Third-Most-Hated Company [Drake Bennett on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/3/14)

In a Harris Poll this year measuring the “reputation quotient” of major companies, Monsanto ranked third-lowest, above BP and Bank of America and just behind Halliburton. For much of its history it was a chemical company, producing compounds used in electrical equipment, adhesives, plastics, and paint. Some of those chemicals—DDT, Agent Orange, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—have had long and controversial afterlifes. The company is best known, however, as the face of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. On May 24, cities worldwide saw the second annual “March Against Monsanto.” In New York City, a couple thousand protesters gathered in Union Square, next to a farmers’ market, to hear speakers charge that the company was fighting efforts in states all over the country to mandate the labeling of GM foods; that organic crops were being polluted by GM pollen blown in on the wind, only for Monsanto to sue the organic farmers for intellectual-property theft; that Monsanto had developed a “Terminator” gene that made crops sterile. Some of the protesters were dressed as bees—studies have found a connection between the colony collapse die-off of honeybees and a common class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. (Monsanto does not make neonicotinoids, but it does incorporate them into some of its seed treatments.)…Widespread public suspicion of GM crops has not stopped their spread: According to the Department of Agriculture, 90 percent of the corn and cotton and 93 percent of the soybeans planted in the U.S. last year were genetically modified. These are commodity crops used mostly for animal feed and fuel ethanol, but they also provide the corn syrup in bottled beverages and the soy lecithin in chocolate bars. And with the public still leery of the technology, it was perhaps inevitable that after a stretch of relative quiet the GMO wars would heat up again. The latest front is over food labeling: In the past two years, ballot initiatives that would have mandated labeling narrowly lost in Washington State and California; in May, Vermont’s governor signed a bill into law. While the debate about the impact of GM crops on the environment continues, the question of their effect on human health looks increasingly settled. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, Britain’s Royal Society, the European Commission, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others, have all surveyed the substantial research literature and found no evidence that the GM foods on the market today are unsafe to eat. One of the few dissenting research papers, a 2012 study in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that found tumors in rats fed modified maize, was retracted by the journal last fall after questions were raised about the researchers’ methodology.

Pablo Escobar’s hippos: A growing problem [William Kremer on BBC News] (6/26/14)

It was in 2007, 14 years after Escobar’s death, that people in rural Antioquia, 200 miles north-west of Bogota, began phoning the Ministry of Environment to report sightings of a peculiar animal. “They found a creature in a river that they had never seen before, with small ears and a really big mouth,” recalls Carlos Valderrama, from the charity Webconserva He went to look, and found himself faced with the task of explaining to startled villagers that this was an animal from Africa. A hippopotamus. “The fishermen, they were all saying, ‘How come there’s a hippo here?'” he recalls. “We started asking around and of course they were all coming from Hacienda Napoles. Everything happened because of the whim of a villain.” Situated halfway between the city of Medellin and Bogota, the Colombian capital, Hacienda Napoles was the vast ranch owned by the drugs baron Pablo Escobar. In the early 1980s, after Escobar had become rich but before he had started the campaign of assassinations and bombings that was to almost tear Colombia apart, he built himself a zoo. He smuggled in elephants, giraffes and other exotic animals, among them four hippos – three females and one male. And with a typically grand gesture, he allowed the public to wander freely around the zoo. Buses filled with schoolchildren passed under a replica of the propeller plane that carried Escobar’s first US-bound shipments of cocaine…When Hacienda Napoles was confiscated in the early 1990s, Escobar’s menagerie was dispersed to zoos around the country. But not the hippos. For about two decades, they have wallowed in their soupy lake, watching the 20sq km (8 sq mile) park around them become neglected and overgrown – and then transformed back into a zoo and theme park, complete with water slides. All the while, the hippos themselves thrived, and multiplied. Nobody knows how many there are. The local environmental authority, which bears responsibility for them, estimates between 50 and 60, with most living in the lake at the park. But 12 are known to have paddled past the flimsy fence and into the nearby Magdalena River – and maybe many more.

India’s ‘Plastic Man’ Turns Litter Into Paved Roads [Akash Kapur on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/10/14)

As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled. Most of it sits in open dumps such as the one in Madurai, leaching into the soil and contaminating groundwater. Some of it is burned, releasing dioxins and other toxic chemicals into the air. Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily. Although the nation’s per capita consumption of plastic is low compared with that of the U.S., it’s expected to double over the next five years as India continues to develop. This poses huge environmental, social, and economic challenges…Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s devised a way to transform common plastic litter—not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers—into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt. In recent years his method has been gaining recognition. He’s become known as Plastic Man and travels throughout India instructing engineers how to apply it. The college holds a patent for his technique but often licenses it for free. To date, more than 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) of plastic roads have been laid in at least 11 states. The Central Pollution Control Board and the Indian Roads Congress, two leading government bodies, have endorsed the method.

Secrets of the Creative Brain [Nancy C. Andreasen on The Atlantic] (July/August 2014)

A more empirical approach can be found in the early-20th-century work of Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford psychologist whose multivolume Genetic Studies of Genius is one of the most legendary studies in American psychology. He used a longitudinal design—meaning he studied his subjects repeatedly over time—which was novel then, and the project eventually became the longest-running longitudinal study in the world…Terman eventually used the Stanford-Binet test to select high-IQ students for his longitudinal study, which began in 1921. His long-term goal was to recruit at least 1,000 students from grades three through eight who represented the smartest 1 percent of the urban California population in that age group. The subjects had to have an IQ greater than 135, as measured by the Stanford-Binet test. The recruitment process was intensive: students were first nominated by teachers, then given group tests, and finally subjected to individual Stanford-Binet tests. After various enrichments—adding some of the subjects’ siblings, for example—the final sample consisted of 856 boys and 672 girls…“The Termites,” as Terman’s subjects have come to be known, have debunked some stereotypes and introduced new paradoxes. For example, they were generally physically superior to a comparison group—taller, healthier, more athletic. Myopia (no surprise) was the only physical deficit. They were also more socially mature and generally better adjusted. And these positive patterns persisted as the children grew into adulthood. They tended to have happy marriages and high salaries. So much for the concept of “early ripe and early rotten,” a common assumption when Terman was growing up. But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius, the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize. (Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.) Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college. A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions. As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius. Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

Off the Grid in a Florida Suburb, Fighting Municipal Code [Theodore Ross on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/10/14)

Speronis first took an interest in detaching from the system during the years she spent caring for her husband, Zenny, who suffered from a neurodegenerative disorder. As his condition worsened, she turned to homeopathic treatments and other unconventional regimens: raw foods, colloidal silver, an avoidance of refrigeration and air conditioning, a focus on the promotion of regular bowel movements. It was a struggle to explain to the people around her, but she provided for Zenny without doctors, pharmaceuticals, or any medical assistance until his death at 84 in 2010. She self-published a book about “freeing” him from the health-care system and “home deathing him naturally.” Speronis had worked as a real estate agent and a massage therapist, but most of her savings went to making her husband comfortable in his last days. This included the earlier purchase in 2009 of a $495,000 waterside home on a palm-lined street in Cape Coral. Speronis knew she didn’t have the money to make the mortgage payments, so she engaged in what she called a “strategic default.” Using her knowledge of the real estate industry to delay foreclosure, she stayed afloat by selling off her possessions. After the lender finally took the house in April 2012, Speronis underwent a radical ascetic conversion. She surveyed what remained of her things and asked, “Do I really need this? Is this of value to me?” She got rid of everything, from her BMW convertible to her wedding album, and attempted to establish a fully self-reliant existence. In June of that year, she bought an RV and moved onto a rented property in a nearby wooded area. She stayed for seven months, teaching herself to live without most modern conveniences…In a new home off Del Prado Boulevard, which she bought from a friend, Speronis removed and sold the oven, refrigerator, and air conditioning units, even the ducts. The house was already off the electrical grid. An earlier resident had been stealing municipal power, and the city had cut the lines and removed the meters. Speronis subsisted primarily on a year’s supply of dried and canned food she’d bought while she had the RV. She drank and bathed in rainwater, filling a four-gallon, solar-heated camp shower. Her only connection to city services was the sewer: She flushed waste down the toilet, again with rainwater. In true American fashion, Speronis began writing about her experiences as a pioneer of the subdivision. She started a blog called Off the Grid Living in Southwest Florida—One Woman’s Story. One day last November, Liza Fernandez, a reporter for WFTX, the local Fox (FOX) affiliate, decided to do a story on her. Near the end of the broadcast, Fernandez noted that Speronis’s rudimentary setup violated “most codes and ordinances” in Cape Coral and that “anyone caught living in such a home could be forcibly removed.”…The day after the Fox segment on Speronis aired, an officer from the Cape Coral code compliance division knocked on her door, rousing her two dogs, Suzie, a chihuahua, and Faith, a mixed breed. Speronis didn’t answer. The officer, taking note of the water barrels and severed power lines, stuck a placard on the door declaring the property unfit for human habitation. “Any person entering this property without official authorization,” it read, “is subject to removal and/or arrest.”…Fox continued to run segments on her, gleefully accusing the city of retaliating against her after seeing its report. City representatives offered a series of unconvincing denials, first saying they believed the home was vacant, then citing an open compliance violation—mulch blocking the municipal right-of-way—and finally a “citizen complaint.” Records, however, show the complaint had come from a city employee who had watched the show and alerted his colleagues.

Dov Charney’s Sleazy Struggle for Control of American Apparel [Susan Berfield on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/9/14)

The shareholder meeting lasted about an hour. Close to noon, the five board members entered the conference room with Charney, their chairman, for their annual face-to-face meeting. Allan Mayer, a Hollywood public-relations man whom Charney had put on the board in 2007, gave Charney an ultimatum: Resign voluntarily, give up the voting rights to his 27 percent stake, and receive a multimillion-dollar severance and a four-year consulting contract. Otherwise, be fired for misconduct. Among the charges in the termination letter: Charney had the company pay for a few plane tickets for his family; misused company money in other ways; and violated the company’s sexual-harassment policy. According to the letter, the board “recently learned that you presented significant severance packages to numerous former employees to ensure that your misconduct vis-à-vis these employees would not subject you to personal liability.” The board also cited a case that had received a lot of publicity and had been resolved confidentially. In 2011, Irene Morales, a sales associate, accused Charney of using her as a sex slave and sought damages of a quarter-billion dollars. An arbitrator dismissed those claims but found the company “vicariously liable” for the conduct of another employee who had created a fake blog in Morales’s name. Then the employee posted erotic photos of Morales on it. Charney told some board members and his lawyers that he had photos of Morales and of others accusing him of harassment that showed the women weren’t victims. The board members and lawyers didn’t object to the idea of him using the photos as part of his defense. The photos were sent to several newspapers and websites. But no one imagined that someone would put together a phony blog and post the photos there. At the June 18 meeting, Charney refused to accept either of the board’s choices. He argued that the business was doing well now, that the supposedly new misconduct was really old misconduct, and in any case it didn’t amount to enough to fire him. He noted that since he had renewed his employment contract in 2012, no new sexual-harassment cases had been filed against him. The board listened but was unmoved. An afternoon deadline was extended to early evening. Charney left the conference room several times to call his lawyer, his parents, some colleagues. Nine hours after the meeting began, he told the board he wouldn’t resign. They had a press release ready. It said Charney had been ousted as chairman, suspended as chief executive, and would be officially fired after a 30-day waiting period, as his contract required.

What’s Killing the Children in Jadugora, India? [Rakteem Katakey, Rajesh Kumar Singh and Tom Lasseter on Bloomberg News] (7/8/14)

Sanjay and Rakesh live near Jadugora, a town of 19,500 people about 850 road miles (1,370 kilometers) from New Delhi in east India’s Jharkhand state. Once ringed by lush tribal forests, Jadugora is today a troubling portrait of modern India, its outskirts a postcard of pastel-painted mud houses scattered amid tidy rice fields, its center the hub of India’s uranium mining industry that is fueling an unprecedented nuclear power boom. It’s here that state-run Uranium Corp. of India Ltd. is licensed by the Indian government to gouge hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium ore out of the ground each year, while just over a hill, an easy walk from the village, 193 acres of ponds holding mildly radioactive waste stand largely unguarded save for no-trespassing signs. For years, these desperately poor people living in scattered villages in the shadow of these mines have been tormented by a mystery: What’s causing the wasting diseases that are deforming and killing so many of their children? Sanjay’s 70-year-old grandfather, a bare-chested, barefoot man rendered lean by hard work and a sparse diet, offers an observation shared by many here — that before the mines came, children did not crawl around in the dirt and die. He might be dismissed as an illiterate, grieving relative of a crippled boy and a dead girl except that outsiders, including the Jharkhand High Court and environmental activist groups, suggest he may be right. In February, the High Court in the state capital of Ranchi filed a petition that pointed to the mines operated by Uranium Corp. since 1967. Shocked by photographs of the area’s sick and deformed children in the Indian press, the court ordered the company and relevant government agencies to explain what measures they were taking to protect the health of those living in villages around the mines…In 2007, an Indian physicians group published survey results showing villagers near the mines reported levels of congenital deformities and deaths from such deformities far higher than those 20 miles away. In 2008, the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation, a local activist group, collected water samples from 10 Jadugora-area locations, including wells and streams. Seven were shown to have unsafe levels of heavy metals — including lead, a byproduct of uranium mining, and mercury. Bloomberg News reporters in June took water samples at two sites. Results from an independent testing laboratory found mercury and lead levels within acceptable government guidelines. The lab did find a potentially problematic reading for uranium in water that could make its way into local wells. In response to the High Court’s petition, Uranium Corp. and government agencies in March and April filed 337 pages of affidavits and exhibits, obtained by Bloomberg News and never before made public, amounting to a categorical denial by the company that it bears responsibility for Jadugora-area health issues. A similar query in 2004, one company document said, was dismissed for lack of evidence before India’s Supreme Court. The affidavits also included a document from a provincial regulatory agency detailing Uranium Corp.-backed studies conducted from 2010 to 2012 in 16 villages involving 4,557 examinations of children and adults that produced no cases of congenital malformation. That included three villages near Jadugora where Bloomberg News reporters easily found children and adults with deformities.

Pentagon report predicted West’s support for Islamist rebels would create ISIS [Nafeez Ahmed on Medium] (5/22/15)

A declassified secret US government document obtained by the conservative public interest law firm, Judicial Watch, shows that Western governments deliberately allied with al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups to topple Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad. The document reveals that in coordination with the Gulf states and Turkey, the West intentionally sponsored violent Islamist groups to destabilize Assad, and that these “supporting powers” desired the emergence of a “Salafist Principality” in Syria to “isolate the Syrian regime.” According to the newly declassified US document, the Pentagon foresaw the likely rise of the ‘Islamic State’ as a direct consequence of this strategy, and warned that it could destabilize Iraq. Despite anticipating that Western, Gulf state and Turkish support for the “Syrian opposition” — which included al-Qaeda in Iraq — could lead to the emergence of an ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the document provides no indication of any decision to reverse the policy of support to the Syrian rebels. On the contrary, the emergence of an al-Qaeda affiliated “Salafist Principality” as a result is described as a strategic opportunity to isolate Assad.

Ex-Virginia Lawmaker Vows to Marry the Teenager He Got Pregnant (and Run for Senate) [Travis Fain on The Daily Press (Newport News, VA) via Governing Magazine] (5/22/15)

Former Del. Joe Morrissey promised Thursday to marry the mother of his latest child, which would cement a relationship that got him tossed into the jail cell that served as his nightly home during the last legislative session. Morrissey, 57, held a joint press conference with 19-year-old Myrna Pride Thursday to correct, he said, misinformation floating about their relationship and his fitness as a father. He confirmed that he has four children by four women. Two of the children are adults, one a young child and the latest a two-and-a-half-month old named Chase, he said. Any talk of him not being involved in his younger children’s lives is false, Morrissey said. With Pride seated next to him and Chase in another room at Morrissey’s office the long-time — and once disbarred — criminal attorney known as “Fightin’ Joe” said the three live together in downtown Richmond.

A ‘Pattern or Practice’ of Violence in America [Matt Stroud and Mira Rojanasakul on Bloomberg News] (5/26/15)

DOJ involvement in any form can be expensive. That 2012 consent decree with the New Orleans Police Department came in at more than $10 million. DOJ involvement cost Seattle at least $5 million. Just last week, Albuquerque’s city council agreed to pay $4.5 million for a federal independent monitor of its embattled police department. In the best possible circumstances, the expense and time prove worthwhile. It took DOJ four years to reach a consent decree with the LAPD after opening its investigation in 1996. A Harvard study published in 2009 found that crime rates decreased significantly over the eight years that the consent decree was in force. People became more satisfied with the way officers conducted themselves, complaints of racial biases decreased, and “both the management and the governance of the LAPD have also changed for the better,” the study concludes. Mixed outcomes are more common. After eight years under a consent decree, Pittsburgh’s police department made “long-term improvements in police accountability,” according to a 2005 study by the Vera Institute, a New York-based think tank focused on criminal justice policy. Since then, Pittsburgh’s police department has made headlines involving violent incidents, including the 2010 beating of an unarmed high school student. A former police chief, Nate Harper, is serving time in federal prison for conspiracy and fraud charges. And while New Orleans’ ongoing DOJ consent decree hasn’t led to police chiefs being thrown in federal prison, it’s not going as smoothly as one might hope. Just last week, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan scolded the New Orleans Police Department to “pick up the pace” in implementing much-needed changes to the force. “I’ve made clear that my disappointment is not going to continue,” the judge said.

Instead of Playing Golf, the World’s Elderly Are Staging Heists and Robbing Banks [Carol Matlack on Bloomberg News] (5/28/15)

South Korea reported this month that crimes committed by people 65 and over rose 12.2 percent from 2011 to 2013—including an eye-popping 40 percent increase in violent crime—outstripping a 9.6 percent rise in the country’s elderly population during the period. In Japan, crime by people over 65 more than doubled from 2003 to 2013, with elderly people accounting for more shoplifting than teenagers. In the Netherlands, a 2010 study found a sharp rise in arrests and incarceration of elderly people. And in London, police say that arrests of people 65 and over rose 10 percent from March 2009 to March 2014, even as arrests of under-65s fell 24 percent. The number of elderly British prison inmates has been rising at a rate more than three times that of the overall prison population for most of the past decade. The U.S seems to have escaped the trend: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of elderly crime among people aged 55 to 65 has decreased since the 1980s. While the population of elderly prison inmates has grown, that mainly reflects longer sentences, especially for drug-related crimes.

That’s Business, Man: Why Jay Z’s Tidal Is a Complete Disaster [Devin Leonard on Bloomberg News] (5/28/15)

At Terminal 5, Jay Z’s backup band halted in the middle of Say Hello to let him freestyle. He laid out the case for Tidal and skewered his competitors in verse: “So I’m the bad guy now, I hear, because I won’t go with the flow?” He said Apple executive Jimmy Iovine had offered him “a safety net,” presumably in the form of a payment for endorsing the company’s forthcoming streaming-music service, and that Google had “dangled around a crazy check.” (Apple and Google declined to comment.) Jay Z dissed “middlemen,” griping that YouTube paid him “a tenth” of what he deserved. “You know n—-s died for equal pay, right? You know when I work, I ain’t your slave, right?” Jay Z even drew parallels between his situation and the police killings of young black men such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

Palestine’s abandoned parliament – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 46 [Ilene Prusher on The Guardian] (5/29/15)

Today, the only life to be found inside what were supposed to be Palestinian corridors of power, is a tired dog who doesn’t bother to bark at us and a desert snake curled up on top of a door frame. The main plenum hall, built in a semi-circle on levels that descend towards a speaker’s platform at the bottom of the hall, is roomy compared to the current space in the city of Ramallah – the meeting place of the Palestinian Legislative Council. When the builders broke ground in 1996, the Israelis were not in the know and several politicians – including Yitzhak Rabin, as Qurei explains in the film – soon raised opposition. When the story hit the press, many Palestinians were sceptical of the very idea of putting a parliament building in Abu Dis. Some embraced the concept as a workable interim solution – a long-term agreement over Jerusalem was to be decided further down the road in the final status talks that never came – but critics viewed it as too big a compromise on their basic principle of a state whose capital is in Jerusalem. Hassan Kazen, a retired construction worker with a heavily lined face, sits on a tattered bench outside the gates of the empty parliament building. He remembers when it was being built and things were infinitely more hopeful. “I’m not optimistic today, but back then, I was. Our parliament should be inside Jerusalem,” he said. “Why did they put it here anyway?”

St. Louis’ ‘Rose Man’ killed in hit-and-run crash; suspect arrested [Joel Currier on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (5/18/15)

A bullet ended the life of St. Louis’ original “Rose Man.” A car took the life of his sibling successor. Jerrel Dean Nixon sold roses in area nightclubs as the “Rose Man,” a nickname he adopted from his brother after he was shot to death in 2008. Nixon was struck and killed Sunday night by a hit-and-run driver in St. Louis. He was 64, the same age as his brother, Lee Nixon, when he was killed seven years ago while selling roses at a Washington Park nightclub. St. Louis police say Jerrel Nixon was crossing Natural Bridge Avenue at Farrar Street in a crosswalk just before midnight Sunday when he was struck. A 2011 Chrysler 200 that was speeding east on Natural Bridge ran a red light and hit Nixon in the crosswalk.

How Ty Cobb was framed as a racist [Kyle Smith on New York Post] (5/31/15)

Why the determination to brand Cobb as the worst racist ever? Stump apparently believed a more sensational book would lead to more sales. But a large part of the story, Leerhsen notes, is simply that the accurate perception of Cobb as a hothead simply got mixed up with the fact that he was born in Georgia in 1886. Bad temper, Southerner: Must have been a racist. That’s both too broadly damning — not only were Southerners not necessarily racist, Cobb’s own father fought for better treatment of blacks — and it lets us off the hook too easily. Detecting sin in someone else is a way of announcing to the world, and to yourself, your own virtue.

Questions surround south city crash involving off-duty St. Louis cop [Jeremy Kohler on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (4/30/15)

Moments after his van crashed into a woman’s property in the Bevo Mill neighborhood just before midnight on March 27, Mark Rodebaugh was the only person those who live there saw around the wreckage. They said he was stumbling and slurring words, telling witnesses that he messed up and that he had insurance. Rodebaugh, an off-duty St. Louis police officer, was not arrested or tested for alcohol. Witnesses said six officers — including Capt. Dan Howard, one of Rodebaugh’s former supervisors — had responded to the crash. Police Chief Sam Dotson said Wednesday night that Rodebaugh had said he wasn’t driving and refused a breath test…The police department acknowledged this week that Mark Rodebaugh was suspended from duty on April 9 for 30 days, but would not discuss the reason. A police source said it was for conduct unbecoming an officer…Police had Rodebaugh’s van towed away. More than a month later, Linda Simon said, no one has compensated her for the damage to the fence. Her insurance company totaled her car and paid off the loan. She hopes her rates don’t go up.

Ferguson shooting leads cop and ex-con to find each other’s humanity [Christine Byers on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch] (5/17/15)

Wood, 58, joined the Bel-Ridge police about 32 years ago, and spent the past 28 in Ferguson. The robust Army veteran looks like he’s wearing a protective vest under his shirt, even when he’s not. Before Aug. 9, he figured retirement was still at least a few years away. But a fellow officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown that day, and the furor that followed, changed everything. He said he saw good officers harassed, threatened and pushed to their mental limits by angry protesters. It made the cops paranoid about responding to calls for service — and even about going home, after their personal information was published on the Internet…Foster, 38, would be an unlikely person to change that outlook. He didn’t have much respect for the police either. His record includes drug charges. He served about seven years in prison. By his own account, “I’m not no perfect person.” His father, Dennis Foster Sr., saw a murder in 1983 and was himself killed later in an apparent attempt to silence him as a witness. His mother was killed in a car crash one day while coming home from work. In the mid-1990s, Foster’s uncle, Emmitt Foster, a condemned killer, died a relatively slow death in a flawed execution. Some of the tattoos covering Foster’s torso, arms and legs tell a story of pain. Teardrops are inked below his right eye. An angel drawn on his back declares: “Cried so many tears.” Since his release from prison last year, Foster has worked a series of odd jobs, most recently with a firm that helps restaurants meet health codes. He cleans vents and fan hoods. He never joined the Michael Brown protests, but he empathized with those who regarded all police as heartless and brutal. His encounter with Wood on April 21 changed that perspective…Foster was leaving his sister’s home, he said, when without provocation his brother, Lorenzo Foster, 39, shot him in the face. Bleeding, he stumbled to the next-door neighbor’s home for help. Lorenzo followed, firing a shot that grazed Dennis Foster’s scalp, and then disappeared…Foster, his jaw broken, could only mumble. With no time to wait, Wood hoisted him over his shoulder and ran toward the SUV, parked about two houses away. He dumped Foster into the back seat and floored the gas pedal. Once Foster was in the ambulance, Wood ran back to the scene, his shirt and vest drenched in the victim’s blood. Wood didn’t hear a small group of protesters nearby, shouting at the police. Their presence at Ferguson police incidents, even sick calls, had become commonplace. But Foster’s aunt, Deanne Winters, who had rushed to the scene out of concern for the safety of both nephews, heard it and became enraged. “Go ahead and kill him already, because that’s what you’re going to do anyway,” she recalled one protester yelling. She and other family members joined hands with a police commander in prayer for the safety of them all, including Lorenzo.

Murderers’ prison break has left New York in ‘crisis situation’, governor says [Joanna Walters on The Guardian] (6/8/15)

He also said that the complicated escape operation, in which the two men cut holes in their steel cell walls and a long network of pipes leading out of the prison to a manhole cover in a public street, could have taken days to accomplish. Matt and Sweat escaped from adjoining cells by cutting holes in pipes in the prison’s heating system and had the time and nerve to leave a note bearing a smiley face and the words “Have a nice day”. They escaped in the early hours of Saturday morning from Clinton correctional facility, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border…Cuomo said authorities did not know how the pair acquired the power tools they would have needed. It was confirmed that the prison’s inventory of tools was intact and the focus was on outside contractors doing refurbishment work at the prison, which houses 3,000 inmates in the village of Dannemora, and was built in 1865.

Why are migrants fleeing Moscow? [Alec Luhn on The Guardian] (6/8/15)

Immigrant life is hard. Wages are low, and workers face discrimination and are poorly integrated into Russian society. Times have recently got more difficult than ever. The rouble has plummeted, and with falling oil prices and western sanctions, the World Bank is predicting that Russia will enter recession this year. Added to that are strict new regulations that cut further into migrant labourers’ earnings, leaving workers like Akbar rethinking their future…Last year saw a mass exodus of tens of thousands of German, American and British citizens. There were also large net decreases in the number of citizens from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, traditionally sources of cheap labour for Russia – although they were partly compensated for by an influx from Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (countries that have or are set to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, established this year) and by a massive 858,000 Ukrainians fleeing conflict. Even so, reports suggest a downward trend in the number of labour migrants. The head of the Federal Migration Service said the number of immigrants entering Russia in the first half of January was 70% less than during the same period the year before. Yusuf Salimov of Tajik Railways said that during seasonal influxes in previous years, some trains carried up to 900 people from Dushanbe to Moscow. This year, he says, it’s been more like 100 to 150.

Satellite Images Show Economies Growing and Shrinking in Real Time [Jeff Kearns on Bloomberg News] (7/9/15)

Tavneet Suri, an associate professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is using a similar strategy to study housing conditions for her native Nairobi, Kenya. In the city’s Kibera slum, she combined surveys from researchers visiting homes with satellite photos that show structures and upgrades such as new metal roofs…GiveDirectly, a New York-based charity that makes payments to the extremely poor in Kenya and Uganda, uses satellite photos to help determine who gets donations. Families in structures with thatched roofs are more likely to receive funds than people in sturdier buildings.

Exhibit of Michael Brown’s death scene ‘atrocious’, activists say [Zach Stafford on The Guardian]

If you’re not careful as you walk into the Gallery Guichard on Chicago’s south side, you could trip over police tape that surrounds a life-size mannequin of Michael Brown’s dead body while a video of Eartha Kitt looks over him singing Angelitos Negros. Nooses and other paraphernalia largely associated with racism in the south decorate the rest of the space, a neon sign spelling out “Strange Fruit” glares against a white wall, and a Confederate flag with the names of the nine victims of the Charleston massacre – with a price tag of $4,500 – hangs behind the Kitt video. The piece sold over the weekend. The goal of this exhibition, entitled Confronting Truths: Wake Up!, by New Orleans-based artist Ti-Rock Moore is to start a larger discussion on the violence she sees white privilege produce in America from her perspective as a white female artist.

Regulating Sex [Judith Shulevitz on The New York Times] (6/27/15)

The hypothetical crime cobbles together two of the draft’s key concepts. The first is affirmative consent. The second is an enlarged definition of criminal sexual contact that would include the touching of any body part, clothed or unclothed, with sexual gratification in mind. As the authors of the model law explain: “Any kind of contact may qualify. There are no limits on either the body part touched or the manner in which it is touched.” So if Person B neither invites nor rebukes a sexual advance, then anything that happens afterward is illegal…The obvious comeback to this is that no prosecutor would waste her time on such a frivolous case. But that doesn’t comfort signatories of the memo, several of whom have pointed out to me that once a law is passed, you can’t control how it will be used. For instance, prosecutors often add minor charges to major ones (such as, say, forcible rape) when there isn’t enough evidence to convict on the more serious charge. They then put pressure on the accused to plead guilty to the less egregious crime…He understands that the law will have to bring a light touch to the refashioning of sexual norms, which is why the current draft of the model code suggests classifying penetration without consent as a misdemeanor, a much lesser crime than a felony. This may all sound reasonable, but even a misdemeanor conviction goes on the record as a sexual offense and can lead to registration. An affirmative consent standard also shifts the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, which represents a real departure from the traditions of criminal law in the United States. Affirmative consent effectively means that the accused has to show that he got the go-ahead, even if, technically, it’s still up to the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he didn’t, or that he made a unreasonable mistake about what his partner was telling him…SO far, no one seems sure how affirmative consent will play out in the courts. According to my informal survey of American law professors, prosecutors and public defenders, very few cases relying exclusively on the absence of consent have come up for appeal, which is why they are not showing up in the case books. There may be many reasons for this. The main one is probably that most sexual assault cases — actually, most felony cases — end in plea bargains, rather than trials. But prosecutors may also not be bringing lack-of-consent cases because they don’t trust juries to find a person guilty of a sex crime based on a definition that may seem, to them, to defy common sense…Nonetheless, it’s probably just a matter of time before “yes means yes” becomes the law in most states. Ms. Suk told me that she and her colleagues have noticed a generational divide between them and their students. As undergraduates, they’re learning affirmative consent in their mandatory sexual-respect training sessions, and they come to “believe that this really is the best way to define consent, as positive agreement,” she says. When they graduate and enter the legal profession, they’ll probably reshape the law to reflect that belief.

Curiously Strong Remains:


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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)

This 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.

How Athletes Get Great [Jeremy Repanich on Outside Online] (8/6/13)

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.”

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Best of the Best:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiously Strong Remains:


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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, 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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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.

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