Tuesday, March 28, 2017

US Consumers Lose Privacy Protections for Their Web Browsing History

US politicians voted Tuesday to kill privacy rules meant to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from selling users’ web browsing histories and app usage histories to advertisers.

The planned protections, proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and scheduled to take effect by the end of 2017, would have forced ISPs to get people’s consent before hawking their data.

Republicans in the House of Representatives followed their colleagues in the Senate with a vote – of 215 to 205 – to approve a resolution that uses the Congressional Review Act to prevent the privacy rules from taking effect.

Without these protections, ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are free to track your browsing behavior and sell that data to advertisers without consent. This represents a huge treasure trove of personal data, including your health concerns, shopping habits and visits to porn sites. ISPs can find out where you bank, your political views and sexual orientation simply based on the websites you visit. The fact that you’re looking at a website at all can also reveal when you’re at home and when you’re not.

“Give me one good reason why Comcast should know what my mother’s medical problems are,” said congressman Mike Capuano during the hearing before the vote, explaining how he had researched her condition after a trip to the doctor. “Just last week I bought underwear on the internet. Why should you know what size I take? Or the color?”

“Consumers should be in control of their own information,” added congressman Jared Polis. “They shouldn’t be forced to sell it to who knows who simply for the price of admission to access the internet.” (...)

Those in favor of repealing the privacy rules argued that it levels the playing field for internet service providers who want to get into the advertising business like Google and Facebook. According to ISPs, scrapping the rules will allow them to show the user more relevant advertising and offers, which would give the companies better return on the investment they have made in infrastructure. They argue that web browsing history and app usage should not count as “sensitive” information.

In the run-up to the hearing, privacy campaigners argued that ISPs should be treated differently from Google and Facebook, as in many cases consumers only have one choice of broadband provider. You can choose not to use Facebook or Google’s search engine, and there are lots of tools you can use to block their tracking on other parts of the web, for example, Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit civil liberties group.

It’s much harder to prevent ISPs from tracking you. To mask all of your browsing behavior you can use a VPN service (which incurs a subscription cost) or try using Tor, both of which make browsing more complicated.

What’s the next step for privacy campaigners? The EFF’s Jeremy Gillula said: “It’s certainly a bit of a Hail Mary, but I think we’d try to convince President Trump that signing a bill that helps big corporate interests by eliminating Americans’ privacy and weakening their cybersecurity isn’t exactly ‘draining the swamp’.”

by Olivia Solon, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Selling Water

Bottled water is starting to seem more like soda, and sometimes taste like it, too.

As bottled water surges in popularity, Coke, Pepsi and other companies are using celebrity endorsements, stylish packaging and fancy filtration processes like "reverse osmosis" to sell people on expanding variations of what comes out of the tap. They're also adding flourishes like bubbles, flavors or sweeteners that can blur the lines between what is water and what is soda.

For this year's Super Bowl, PepsiCo even ran an ad for its new Lifewtr, promoting the drink in a spotlight typically reserved for sodas. Also running their first Super Bowl ads were Fiji and Bai Brands, which sell "enhanced waters" made with fruit juice and stevia sweetener.

Michael Simon, Bai's chief marketing officer, says its drinks "give people that healthy profile they're looking for, but now they no longer have to sacrifice on taste with the neutrality of water."

Bottled water has been gaining ground for years, and overtook soda as the No. 1 drink in the U.S. by sales volume last year, industry tracker Beverage Marketing Corp. said. Some of the fizzy, sweetened drinks are considered water by the companies or industry trackers in some cases, as the distinctions between them lose meaning. Companies aren't as interested in the big, economy packs of plain bottled water that have been fueling the growth, says Ali Dibaj, a Bernstein analyst who covers the industry, since those are less profitable than sodas and are a "horrible business to be in."

So Coke and Pepsi are focusing on pricier options that compete with brands like Evian and Perrier. And they're introducing fizzy and fruity varieties to get a better foothold in increasingly crowded marketplace where options like LaCroix and others are gaining popularity. Showing just how blurry the lines are getting, PepsiCo launched a drink last week that it describes as "sorta juice, sorta soda, sorta sparkling water." Such options can capture people looking to cut back on sodas or juices, and may get people who might buy lower-priced waters to upgrade.

by Candice Choi, AP |  Read more:
Image: Matt Rourke/AP

For the Love of Caddieing

Some are household names among golf fans. Mike (Fluff) Cowan—and his walrus mustache—comes to mind. A few struck it rich, such as Steve Williams in his 13 years with Tiger Woods, and Jim (Bones) Mackay, who has worked with Phil Mickelson since 1992. But those are the exceptions, and they work on the PGA Tour. Among caddies, they are the haves.

The have-nots are those who shoulder bags on the LPGA Tour, trying to survive where the prize money—and potential income—is one-fifth of what’s available on the men’s tour, with the same lack of job security, healthcare and pension.

Looping on the LPGA Tour is a labor of love laced with economic hardships requiring perseverance, imagination and a supportive family. It’s a life where veteran caddies say only about 30 percent last more than 10 years. Yet, a hardy handful of lifers have blown past the quarter-century mark.

John Killeen, 58, is among those captivated by the lifestyle that is alien and often absurd. He has been a caddie on the LPGA Tour for nearly 35 years, with Patty Sheehan, Juli Inkster, Ayako Okamoto, Meg Mallon, Cristie Kerr and others, before landing his current gig with Mirim Lee, winner of last week’s Kia Classic.

Last year, when Killeen was still working for Angela Stanford, he said goodbye to his wife, two teenage kids and home near Atlanta for a swing that took him to the Bahamas, Florida, Thailand, Singapore, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Texas and Alabama. From mid-May, when he took a week off for his son’s high school graduation, until the Olympics in August, Killeen had only one other scheduled week off.

How do you make a life like that work financially and emotionally? For starters, you need a lot of help from your friends. Imagine that house you shared with your buddies in college and the fun you had. Now imagine that house moves around the country—one golf tournament after another. That’s what life is like for Killeen and a handful of his fellow caddies who share living quarters when possible to save money and find sanity in each other’s company. They love the life, each other, golf and the competition. It’s not the money that keeps them chasing this nomadic existence.

In recent years, Killeen was one of eight caddies who rented a house at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix. I spent a week with them, and there are few experiences more valuable and fun for a journalist than hanging with caddies. They know everything—or at least think they do. And they know how to have a good time. (...)

Eking Out a Living

... “You have to finish in the top 40 [on the money list] out here to have a significant year,” says Killeen, who in 1984 at age 23 and planning to be a stockbroker, told his mother and girlfriend in Portland, Ore., he’d be back after a two-week stint caddieing, then came home eight months later and said he’d found his calling.

In Phoenix, the eight men in the house paid $430 each for rent. There were two rental cars, plus Castrale’s car he drove from Palm Desert, Calif. Food and drink came to $125 a man, with the rental cars totaling $100 each. Castrale says the seven guys who flew in averaged about $250 for airfare. That put the total expenses per person at $905 for the week, much less than it would have cost to stay in a hotel, not to mention food and drink.

“Some weeks, like Asia events, all we pay for is food and hotel because we have no rental cars and 99 percent of the players pay for international caddie flights,” says Castrale. “But then Hawaii and San Francisco, for example, I spend $1,500 at least. Overall, $1,000 to $1,200 per week is our typical average expense for the 25 to 30 events played.”

The way it works, the caddies say, is they get on average a guarantee of $1,000 to $1,500 for each week the player competes. If your player misses the cut, that’s all you get. On average, a caddie gets 5 percent of a made-cut check, 7 percent of a top-10 check and 10 percent for a win. Some players are more generous than others.

Now what kind of money are we talking here? No. 40 on the LPGA money list last year—Moriya Jutanugarn, older sister to player-of-the-year Ariya—earned $446,948 in 29 starts with two top-10 finishes. Those two top-10s earned $170,895, with the caddie’s 7-percent share coming to $11,962.65. The other 22 cuts made earned $276,053, and 5 percent of that is $13,802.65. Assume the caddie got $1,000 a week, and the total for the year would be $54,765.30 before taxes. And then there is about $35,000 in expenses. That’s a break-even proposition. (...)

Although it’s fun to recite the caddie creed of “Show Up, Keep Up, Shut Up,” the job is way more complicated than that. Pretty much the only time off is the weeks your player is not competing. Monday and Tuesday used to be an opportunity for a caddie to sneak in some golf. Now those days are reserved for working with players on the range or playing a practice round.

The days of the hard-living bag-toter who would close the bars at night and work the next day through bloodshot eyes are mostly gone. These loopers are more than mere porters lugging around a 45-pound staff bag. Caddies have evolved into a mix of mathematician, psychologist, cartographer and bodyguard, all while remaining a Sherpa.

“Oh, my, those early days,” says Killeen, smiling. “At our house in Oakmont in 1992 [for the U.S. Women’s Open] we had empties stacked up this high,” he said, holding his hand over his head. “What do I like the most about this job? The people. The travel. The fact I have half the year off.”

And Killeen clearly relishes his role as house father of the group.

by Ron Sirak, Golf Digest |  Read more:
Image: J.D. Cuban
[ed. See also: Tommy's Honour, coming soon.]

Blue Lies

Donald Trump tells lies.

His deceptions and misleading statements are easy to unmask. In the latest example—after hundreds of well-documented lies—FBI director James Comey told Congress this week that there is “no information that supports” Trump’s claim that President Obama tapped his phone.

But Trump’s political path presents a paradox. Far from slowing his momentum, his deceit seemed only to strengthen his support through the primary and national election. Now, every time a lie is exposed, his support among Republicans doesn’t seem to waver very much. In the wake of the Comey revelations, his average approval rating held at 40 percent.

This has led many people to ask themselves: How does the former reality-TV star get away with it? How can he tell so many lies and still win support from many Americans?

Journalists and researchers have suggested many answers, from hyper-biased, segmented media to simple ignorance on the part of GOP voters. But there is another explanation that no one seems to have entertained. It is that Trump is telling “blue” lies—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group.

Children start to tell selfish lies at about age three, as they discover adults cannot read their minds: I didn’t steal that toy, Daddy said I could, He hit me first. At around age seven, they begin to tell white lies motivated by feelings of empathy and compassion: That’s a good drawing, I love socks for Christmas, You’re funny.

Blue lies are a different category altogether, simultaneously selfish and beneficial to others—but only to those who belong to your group. As University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee explains, blue lies fall in between generous white lies and selfish “black” ones. “You can tell a blue lie against another group,” he says, which makes it simultaneously selfless and self-serving. “For example, you can lie about your team's cheating in a game, which is antisocial, but helps your team.” (...)

Around the world, children grow up hearing stories of heroes who engage in deception and violence on behalf of their in-groups. In Star Wars, for example, Princess Leia lies about the location of the “secret rebel base.” In the Harry Potter novels (spoiler alert!), the entire life of double-agent Severus Snape is a lie, albeit a “blue” one, in the service of something bigger than himself.

That explains why most Americans seem to accept that our intelligence agencies lie in the interests of national security, and we laud our spies as heroes. From this perspective, blue lies are weapons in intergroup conflict. As Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok once said, “Deceit and violence—these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.” Lying and bloodshed are often framed as crimes when committed inside a group—but as virtues in a state of war.

This research—and those stories—highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial—compassionate, empathic, generous, honest—in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence—and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” says George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.

If we see Trump’s lies not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to see why his supporters might see him as an effective leader. From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency.

by Jeremy Adam Smith, Scientific Amercian | Read more:
Image: Alberto Ruggieri Getty Images

Monday, March 27, 2017

Spinach Leaf Transforms Into Sheet of Beating Human Heart Cells

To create artificial tissue with functioning vasculature, tissue engineers looked no further than their salad bowls.

By peeling away the cells from a spinach leaf and seeding the cellulose matrix left behind with heart cells, researchers were able to create a beating sheet of human heart tissue—complete with a functional vascular system. The proof-of-concept experiment, appearing in the May issue of Biomaterials, provides an intriguing plant-based approach to generating realistic tissues for grafts and transplants.

Vasculature has been a sticking point for bioengineers. Modern methods for creating artificial tissues and organs, such as 3D printing, haven’t included a good way to recreate the vital conduits. Yet the success (and survival) of any bioengineered tissue or organ hinges on whether it’s equipped with an extensive network of blood-carrying vessels, which drop off oxygen and critical nutrients to cells while flushing away molecular garbage.

Though the vasculature of plants is fundamentally different from that of animals, the structures and cell access are similar. Plus, cellulose—the main organic polysaccharide left standing in de-celled leaves—is known to be biocompatible, that is, it’s safe in humans and already used in other tissue-engineering applications, such as wound healing. This sparked ideas in the study's authors, led by bioengineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

“When I looked at the spinach leaf, its stem reminded me of an aorta,” Joshua Gershlak, first author on the study and a researcher at WPI, said in a press release. “So I thought, let’s perfuse right through the stem. We weren’t sure it would work, but it turned out to be pretty easy and replicable. It’s working in many other plants."

Basically, the researchers first pumped a detergent solution through the leaves’ veins, which stripped away the plant cells over several days. Then, the researchers pumped in cells that blanket human blood vessels so they could re-line the leaves' pipes. Lastly, the researchers seeded the outside of the leaves with human heart cells, which took to their plant-based skeleton.

Over the course of a 21-day experiment, the heart cells started spontaneously beating, like normal heart tissue. The researchers also found that mock-blood could flow through the system. The researchers did similar experiments with parts of parsley and peanut plants.

by Beth Mole, Ars Technica |  Read more:
Image: Worcester Polytechnical Institute

[ed. Even if this doesn't work out, isn't science great? (for the most part)]
Tom Gauld
via:

Home Inspectors on Their Weirdest Discoveries

When a home is sold, its many secrets can come out of the closet. Brokers, potential buyers and home inspectors step inside properties that may have been completely private for years. They peer into basements, attics and electrical panels and find a home’s shortcomings. Such moments offer a rare glimpse inside the workings of a place, and can uncover shoddy renovations, failed do-it-yourself projects, neglect and, in the case of Mr. Burns, baffling remnants of the lives of the former occupants.

Sometimes, owners hide flaws in the hopes a buyer will miss an expensive problem. Other times, homeowners are caught completely unaware that, say, a family of raccoons has taken up residence in the chimney. The home inspector, whom buyers and some sellers hire to uncover flaws, is often the one who has to explain to a stunned seller that the new insulation in the attic was installed improperly, or not at all. Or perhaps the inspector has to inform an eager buyer that the stylish white shag rug in a luxury Flatiron apartment is hiding serious, and ongoing, water damage. Sometimes it is the broker who discovers that, say, a vagrant has set up residence in a vacant property.

And so begins a delicate dance to inform an anxious buyer that a dream home is not perfect, or let a seller know that it is not O.K. to sever the main support beam of a house to make room for an entertainment center’s electrical cables, an unfortunate modification that Blaise Ingrisano, a home inspector on Long Island, once uncovered.

For the last two years, John C. Quinn, the owner of Homerite, a Long Island home inspection company, has compiled an annual list of quirky home inspection photos collected from other inspectors in the area. Last year’s winners included an in-ground pool that had been filled with soil and sodded with grass to hide its existence. The rectangular walkway and ladder rail gave it away.

In another photograph, a new addition to a house was built atop a working chimney, enclosing it in the attic. “You could have a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning,” Mr. Quinn said. “It was just unbelievable.”

Mr. Quinn blames duct tape for many D.I.Y. fails. “They use duct tape for everything,” he said. “I’ve seen shower enclosures covered with duct tape. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a large wound.” Other inspectors have seen the tape used to fix plumbing leaks, secure electrical wiring and hold rotted-out windows in place.

An ambitious, but unskilled homeowner can wreak havoc on a house. Watch enough shows on HGTV or spend enough time on YouTube, and it’s hard not to want to take a sledgehammer to the bathroom wall all by yourself. “You look at the ingenuity of some of these guys. It’s like ‘Wow,’” said Frank Lesh, the executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors, an industry trade group. “They see a YouTube video and say, ‘I can do that!’ But it’s more than just monkey see, monkey do.” (...)

Sometimes, property owners try to hide flaws. Vincent Fundaro, the owner of Square One Professional Home Inspectors in Levittown, N.Y., was inspecting a ground floor condominium on West 22nd Street in Manhattan last April. The apartment, which was listed for $1.8 million, had new kitchen cabinets and new floors. As he walked through the garden level, he tripped over a white shag carpet, revealing the floorboards, which were floating in water. The owner had covered the boards with newspaper and plastic to keep the water from seeping through, but the water problem was unmistakable. “It was definitely saturated,” Mr. Fundaro said. “You would step on it and float.”

The buyer, who was supposed to put down a large deposit that afternoon, was livid. The seller’s broker tried to assure her that the problem could be easily fixed. But Mr. Fundaro spoke up. “I turned around and said it’s not a simple glue and patch fix,” he said. He never found out what effect his findings had on the sale.

by Ronda Kaysen, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

When An Animal Dies Mysteriously in Alaska, This Woman Gets the Call

When they captured her off Cohen Island in the summer of 2007, she weighed 58 pounds and was the size of a collie. The growth rings in a tooth they pulled revealed her age — eight years, a mature female sea otter.

They anesthetized her and placed tags on her flippers. They assigned her a number: LCI013, or 13 for short. They installed a transmitter in her belly and gave her a VHF radio frequency: 165.155 megahertz. Then they released her. The otter was now, in effect, her own small-wattage Alaska radio station. If you had the right kind of antenna and a receiver, you could launch a skiff into Kachemak Bay, lift the antenna and hunt the air for the music of her existence: an occasional ping in high C that was both solitary and reassuring amid the static of the wide world.

Otter 13, they soon learned, preferred the sheltered waters on the south side of Kachemak Bay. In Kasitsna Bay and Jakolof Bay, she whelped pups and clutched clams in her strong paws. She chewed off her tags. Some days, if you stood on the sand in Homer, you could glimpse her just beyond Bishop's Beach, her head as slick as a greaser's ducktail, wrapped in the bull kelp with other females and their pups.

"They're so cute, aren't they?" said the woman in the gold-rimmed eyeglasses. She was leaning over 13 as she said this, measuring a right forepaw with a small ruler. The otter's paw was raised to her head as if in greeting, or perhaps surrender.

"They're one of the few animals that are cute even when they're dead."

Two weeks earlier, salmon setnetters had found the otter on the beach on the far side of Barbara Point. The dying creature was too weak to remove a stone lodged in her jaws. Local officials gathered her up, and a quick look inside revealed the transmitter: 13 was a wild animal with a history.

This made her rare. She was placed on a fast ferry and then put in cold storage to await the attention of veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek, who now paused over her with a sympathetic voice and a scalpel of the size usually seen in human morgues.

Burek worked with short, sure draws of the knife. The otter opened.

"Wow, that's pretty interesting," Burek said. "Very marked edema over the right tarsus. But I don't see any fractures."

The room filled with the smell of low tide on a hot day, of past-expiration sirloin.

A visiting observer wobbled in his rubber clamming boots.

"The only shame is if you pass out where we can't find you," said Burek without looking up. She continued her exploration. "This animal has such dense fur. You can really miss something."

She made several confident strokes until the pelt came away in her hands, as if she were a host gently helping a dinner guest out of her coat. The only fur left on 13 was a small pair of mittens and the cap on her head, resembling a Russian trooper's flap-eared ushanka. (...)

Important work in Alaska

Burek often spends her days cutting up the wildest, largest, smallest, most charismatic and most ferocious creatures in Alaska, looking for what killed them. She's been on the job for more than 20 years, self-employed and working with just about every organization that oversees wildlife in Alaska. Until recently, she was the only board-certified anatomic pathologist in a state that's more than twice the size of Texas. (There's now one other, at the University of Alaska.)

She's still the only one who regularly heads into the field with her flensing knives and vials, harvesting samples that she'll later squint at under a microscope.

Nowhere in North America is this work more important than in the wilds of Alaska. Scientists say 2016 was the planet's hottest year on record, beating out 2015.

As human-generated greenhouse gases continue to trap heat in the world's oceans, air and ice, and carbon dioxide reaches its greatest atmospheric concentration in 800,000 years, the highest latitudes are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

Alaska was so warm last winter that organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race hauled in snow from Fairbanks for the traditional start in Anchorage (though the snow was never used). The waters of the high Arctic may be nearly free of summertime ice in little more than two decades, something human eyes have never seen.

If Americans think about the defrosting northern icebox, they picture dog-paddling polar bears. This obscures much bigger changes at work. A great unraveling is underway as nature gropes for a new equilibrium.

Some species are finding that their traditional homes are disappearing, even while the north becomes more hospitable to new arrivals. On both sides of the Brooks Range — the spine of peaks that run 600 miles east to west across northern Alaska — the land is greening but also browning as tundra becomes shrub-land and trees die off. With these shifts in climate and vegetation, birds, rodents and other animals are on the march. Parasites and pathogens are hitching rides with these newcomers.

"The old saying was that our cold kept away the riffraff," one scientist told me. "That's not so true anymore."

During this epic reshuffle, strange events are the new normal. In Alaska's Arctic in summertime, tens of thousands of walruses haul out on shore, their usual ice floes gone. North of Canada, where the fabled Northwest Passage now melts out, satellite-tagged bowhead whales from the Atlantic and Pacific recently met for the first time since the start of the Holocene era.

These changes are openings for contagion. "Anytime you get an introduction of a new species to a new area, we always think of disease," Burek told me. "Is there going to be new disease that comes because there's new species there?"

A lot of research worldwide has focused on how climate change will increase disease transmission in tropical and even temperate climates, as with dengue fever in the American South. Far less attention has been paid to what will happen — indeed, is already happening — in the world's highest latitudes, and to the people who live there.

Put another way: The north isn't just warming. It has a fever.

She'll see epidemics first

This matters to you and me even if we live thousands of miles away, because what happens in the north won't stay there. Birds migrate. Disease spreads. The changes in Alaska are harbingers for what humans and animals may see elsewhere. It's the front line in climate change's transformation of the planet.

This is where Burek comes in. Fundamentally, a veterinary pathologist is a detective. Burek's city streets are the tissues of wild animals, her crime scenes the discolored and distended organs of tide-washed seals and emaciated wood bison.

"She's the one who's going to see changes," says Kathi Lefebvre, a lead research biologist at Seattle's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. "She's the one who's going to see epidemics come along. And she's the one with the skills to diagnose things."

As the planet enters new waters, Burek's work has made her one of the lonely few at the bow, calling out the oddness she sees in the hope that we can dodge some of the melting icebergs in our path.

It's a career that long ago ceased to strike Burek as unusual, and she moves without flinching through a world tinged with blood and irony. The first time we spoke on the phone, Burek offhandedly said of herself and a colleague, "We've probably cut up more sea otters than anybody else on the planet."

"Congratulations," I said.

"We all got to brag about something," she replied. (...)

Surprisingly little is known about the diseases of wildlife. As a result, many veterinary pathologists end up focusing on a few species. Thanks to Burek's curiosity and her gifts, and to a necessary embrace of the Alaska virtue of do-it-yourself, her expertise is broad. "Anyone who gets into this kind of thing, you like a puzzle," she told me. "You have to pull together all kinds of little pieces of information to try to figure it out, and it's very, very challenging."

Over the years, Burek has peered inside just about every mammal that shows up in Alaska field guides. One morning, as we drank coffee at her kitchen table, she rattled off a few dozen examples. Coyotes. Polar bears. Dall sheep. Five species of seals. Many whales, including rare Stejneger's beaked whales.

As we talked, I wandered into the living room. On a wall not far from the wedding photos hung feathery baleen from the mouths of bowhead whales and the white scimitars of walrus tusks. Upstairs in a loft lay an oosik — the baculum, or penis bone, of another walrus. It was as long as a basketball player's tibia. Atop the fireplace mantel, where other families might display pictures of wattled grandparents, grinned a row of skulls: brown bear, lynx, wood bison. Burek tapped one of the skulls in a spot that looked honeycombed. "Abscessed tooth," she said. "Wolf. One of my cases."

Working on wild animals, often in situ, routinely presents her with job hazards that simply aren't found in the Lower 48.

Anchorage sits at the confluence of two long inlets. When Burek performs necropsies on whales on Turnagain Arm, she has to keep a sentry's eye on the horizon for its infamous bore tide, when tidal flow comes in as a standing wave, fast enough that it has outrun a galloping moose. Knik Arm is underlain in places by a fine glacial silt that, when wet, liquefies into a lethal quicksand. Burek's rule of thumb in the field is never to sink below her ankles. Not long ago, while taking samples from a deceased beluga, she kept slipping deeper. Exasperated, she finally climbed inside the whale and resumed cutting.

Then there's the problem of the whales themselves. "Whales are just like Crock-Pots," Burek said. "They're kind of encased in this thick layer of blubber that's designed to keep them warm. They might look OK on the outside, but inside everything is mush."

Decay is the nemesis of the pathologist. Decay erodes evidence. "Fresher is always better," Burek said, sounding like a discerning sushi chef. It isn't possible every time.

Colleagues told me about a trip with Burek to a remote beach outside Yakutat, to do a postmortem on a humpback. There were several in the group, including a government man with a shotgun to keep away the brown bears that sometimes try to dine on Burek's specimens. It was raining and cold, and the whale had been dead for a while. Inside, the organs were soup. The pilot who retrieved them had to wear a respirator.

"My wife," Henry told me, "has a high threshold for discomfort."

by Christopher Solomon, Alaska Dispatch | Read more:
Image: Joshua Corbett

[ed. One of my first jobs as a wildlife technician with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game involved retrieving, skinning, dismembering and incinerating a 700lb muskox that had died giving birth and been laying in the sun for a few days. It took me a week. Every day - all day - I was covered in blood, fat, hair and flies (talk about a motivation killer for the daily commute). Working alone in the autopsy lab (a large open air garage), it felt like I'd been transported into a horror movie (and won't even try to describe the smell). Kudos to folks like Kathy who get so little recognition, but do the hard work that everyone needs to get done.] 

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Fritz Ruoff - Schwarz ├╝ber Blau, 1967
via:

Sean Costello

The Great Forgetting

I'm the youngest by far of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, so chagrined by this chronological indiscretion that she tried to hide the pregnancy from her sister. My mortified oldest brother didn’t want to tell his high-school friends that a new baby was on the way, but it was a small town. Word spread.

My mother’s age and my late arrival in the family felt burdensome to me too, especially when I started school in 1957 and met my classmates’ mothers. They were still having babies! Still piling their children into cars and heading off to picnics at the river or hikes into the lava-capped, wild flower-rampant plateau outside town. They still had to mediate hair-pulling and toy-snatching. But by the time I started first grade, my siblings were gone, the oldest three to college and the youngest to a residential school four hours away, and we went from a very noisy household to a very quiet one.

My family has told me stories about those years before everything changed. How my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘Ubangi’ because my hair grew in tight fat curls close to my head. How my other brother liked to ambush me around corners with a toy crocodile because it never failed to make me shriek in terror. How my oldest sister carried me around like a kangaroo with her joey. But I can offer very few stories of my own from those early years.

My strongest recollection is a constant straining to be with my brothers and sisters. I remember having to go to bed when it was still light out, kicking at the sheets as I listened for their voices coming down the hall or through the windows from the back yard. Sometimes I could smell popcorn. The next morning, I’d search the living room rug for their leftovers and roll the unpopped kernels around in my mouth. I do remember that, probably because it was something that played out night after night – our father loved popcorn.

Several years ago, I thought I might have the chance to recover that lost past when we were all tightly clustered together in one house. My brothers had driven to Bucks Lake up in the Sierras of northeastern California where, until I was around three years old, our family had leased a house every summer to escape the Sacramento Valley heat. They found our old cabin unchanged. Even a table built by a local sawmill was still in the living room. They knocked on the door and, weirdly enough, my younger brother knew the current lessee. He invited them in and then invited the rest of us back for a look.

With our father, we set off a few months later, up highways that narrowed into dusty roads through dark pines and past bright stony summits. When we got to the cabin, my siblings scattered to claim their favourite outdoor spots, but I was rooted near the car, struck by how much this place differed from what I thought I remembered.

I recalled that the water was a long walk across a sandy beach from the house; I had an image of my mother standing on that wide beach, her dress whipped by the wind, her hand cupped near her mouth. But the pebbled shoreline was just a few feet away. I recalled the spine of a dam jutting from the water not far from the house, a perilous and sudden cliff at the edge of the lake that my siblings had once ventured too close to. But even though the lake is a man-made one, the dam wasn’t visible from the house. I followed my father inside, where the tininess of the kitchen fascinated him. He kept opening cabinet doors and laughing as they banged each other in the narrow aisle. ‘Mother just hated this kitchen!’ he said. ‘She always made big breakfasts – eggs and sausage and pancakes – and as soon as she finished cleaning up, you kids would come running back in the house wanting lunch.’

I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember the table. I didn’t remember anything about the place. My siblings tugged me through the house, pointing out where everyone had slept – they said I had been in a little alcove in the hallway, though I recalled staying in my parents’ room and watching them sleep in the early morning light. They pointed out other features tied to the life that we all lived in the cabin, eager for me to remember, but there was nothing. I even dropped to my knees and circled the living room at toddler level, peering at dusty windowsills and sniffing at the knotholes in the pine walls and running my fingers over the floorboards. Nothing.

I now know that it would have been unusual for me to remember anything from that time. Hardly any adult does. There is even a term for this – childhood amnesia, coined by Sigmund Freud in 1910 – to describe the lack of recall adults have of their first three or four years and our paucity of solid memories until around the age of seven. There has been some back and forth over a century of research about whether memories of these early years are tucked away in some part of our brains and need only a cue to be recovered. That’s what I was hoping when I revisited our old cabin with my siblings. I intended to jostle out a recalcitrant memory with the sights, sounds, smells and touch of the place. But research suggests that the memories we form in these early years simply disappear.

Freud argued that we repress our earliest memories because of sexual trauma but, until the 1980s, most researchers assumed that we retained no memories of early childhood because we created no memories – that events took place and passed without leaving a lasting imprint on our baby brains. Then in 1987, a study by the Emory University psychologist Robyn Fivush and her colleagues dispelled that misconception for good, showing that children who were just 2.5 years old could describe events from as far as six months into their past.

But what happens to those memories? Most of us assume that we can’t recall them as adults because they’re just too far back in our past to tug into the present, but this is not the case. We lose them when we’re still children. (...)

‘So much has to happen biologically to store a memory,’ the psychologist Patricia Bauer of Emory University told me. There’s ‘a race to get it stabilised and consolidated before you forget it. It’s like making Jell-O: you mix the stuff up, you put it in a mould, and you put it in the refrigerator to set, but your mould has a tiny hole in it. You just hope your Jell-O – your memory – gets set before it leaks out through that tiny hole.’

In addition, young children have a tenuous grip on chronology. They are years from mastering clocks and calendars, and thus have a hard time nailing an event to a specific time and place. They also don’t have the vocabulary to describe an event, and without that vocabulary, they can’t create the kind of causal narrative that Peterson found at the root of a solid memory. And they don’t have a greatly elaborated sense of self, which would encourage them to hoard and reconsider chunks of experience as part of a growing life-narrative.

Our first three to four years are the maddeningly, mysteriously blank opening pages to our story of self. As Freud said, childhood amnesia ‘veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it’. During that time, we transition from what my brother-in-law calls ‘a loaf of bread with a nervous system’ to sentient humans. If we can’t remember much of anything from those years – whether abuse or exuberant cherishing – does it matter what actually happened? If a tree fell in the forest of our early development and we didn’t have the brains and cognitive tools to stash the event in memory, did it still help shape who we are?

Bauer says yes. Even if we don’t remember early events, they leave an imprint on the way we understand and feel about ourselves, other people, and the greater world, for better or worse. We have elaborate concepts about birds, dogs, lakes and mountains, for example, even if we can’t recall the experiences that created those concepts. ‘You can’t remember going ice-skating with Uncle Henry, but you understand that skating and visiting relatives are fun,’ Bauer explained. ‘You have a feeling for how nice people are, how reliable they are. You might never be able to pinpoint how you learnt that, but it’s just something you know.’

And we are not the sum of our memories, or at least, not entirely. We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves.

by Kristen Ohlson, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Kristin Ohlson