Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Water Lily ~ Jim Wehtje

America’s Confessor

Answering night-time calls at a suicide hotline in Washington DC some years ago, Frank Warren found himself using The Voice. Addressing callers’ problems and telling them where they might seek help, he noticed, was not nearly so important as adopting a certain tone: soothing, hypnotic, passive.

Nowadays, Warren regularly speaks before hundreds of people; he says he sometimes slips into The Voice at these public events, but from what I can tell he seems to talk this way all the time. Whether he is discussing one person’s trouble tuning in to a radio station, or another’s difficulty with childhood sexual abuse, he projects relentless and unflappable sympathy.

With narrow shoulders, grey hair, glasses and a shy smile, Warren, aged 47, looks like an extra from The Office—you can imagine him trying to fix a photocopier. He also bears a resemblance to Dr Drew, America’s most famous television therapist, and like Dr Drew, Warren has risen to prominence by providing a forum where people can air their most closely held (and at times shocking) secrets. Warren has become America’s secular confessor. The question is whether so many people should be entrusting him with their most private thoughts.

Back in 2004, Warren had a small business that managed medical documents and he was bored with it. To amuse himself in his spare time he devised a little project, inspired by a dream he’d had on holiday in Paris the year before. He printed a batch of postcards with brief instructions typed on them: write on a postcard a secret that you’ve never told anyone, design the card however you like, and send it anonymously to the address provided—Warren’s home in Maryland. Warren then handed out these postcards on the streets of Washington, DC and also tucked them into books in shops.

There was an immediate and extraordinary response. The postcards soon began to pour in—and when he launched PostSecret.com on 1st January 2005, the online traffic was heavy. He used the free, bare-bones Google blogging service for amateurs that he still employs today. An armload of web awards and a spate of press attention further boosted the site’s profile. When Warren sits down to pick the 20 postcards that he posts online each Sunday, he is often choosing from a week’s total of more than 1,000, many of which are intricate works of homespun art.

Warren’s house is in a well-kept, upmarket development in Germantown, about an hour’s drive from Washington DC where the suburbs give way to farmland. The postwoman who delivers to his address tells me with a laugh that at least working the route gives her job security. Her confidence is well founded. Independent data that Warren showed me reported 1.7m unique visitors to his site per week and the hit counter on the website has registered more than half a billion visits. There are now French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese versions of the site, some of which are unauthorised. PostSecretUK launched two years ago; it is not affiliated with the original site but credits it as its inspiration.

PostSecret.com provides readers with small, potent doses of humour, sadness and intrigue. “I would rather be hit than ignored,” says one. “I stare at my cleavage when I walk down stairs.” “My mom puts a star on the calendar for every day I haven’t cut myself. I don’t deserve 5 of those stars.” “Is it wrong to thank God every day for the man I’m having an affair with?” “He said my meat loaf wasn’t as good as his Mom’s. Now I put dog food in it. And SMILE when he eats it.” Next to a US Army pin, against the backdrop of an American flag: “I will feel forever guilty for leaving you just like everyone said I would.” Absurdity and heartbreak are often placed side by side, which makes the tone of the website both weird and powerful.

by Evan Hughes, Prospect |  Read more:

Where does the anti-SOPA movement go next?

The last few weeks have witnessed a remarkable convergence of conflicts over copyright: the arrest of Megaupload mastermind “Kim Dotcom” in New Zealand, an unprecedented show of unity among Internet giants such as Wikipedia and Google to fight anti-piracy legislation in Congress, and similar protests in Poland against new copyright measures.  In a world wracked by recession, war and revolution, a topic oft-dismissed by journalists as “arcane” — copyright — has surged to the top of the political agenda.

Indeed, supporters of anti-piracy legislation in Congress have confessed their ignorance of how copyright and the Internet work, saying the details were best left to the “nerds.” Lawmakers soon heard from the nerds, though, as an online insurgency spread to thwart the Stop Online Piracy Act, galvanizing opposition across the political spectrum in a novel way, from the Creative Commons left to right-wing blogs such as RedState. The campaign epitomizes a promising new turn in American politics, as critics of intellectual property law finally find an audience and, more important, the makings of a political constituency.

It was not always so, to say the least.  Advocates of stronger copyright won an almost unbroken string of legislative and political triumphs since the early 1970s. A burst of piracy in the late 1960s, stimulated by the ease of recording on magnetic tape and the appearance of bootlegs of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, prompted Congress to extend protection to sound recordings in 1971.  Thus began a continual expansion of the powers of copyright, with the term of protection extended from a maximum of 56 years to the life of the author plus 50 years in 1976, and another 20 years added in 1998.

Entertainment industries argued they needed protection.  In a deindustrializing economy, they were job creators, net exporters of American goods.  Disney reps in the early 1980s warned Congress that movie piracy would undercut jobs and tax revenue. With trademark bombast, Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti declared in 1982, “We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry that is able to retrieve a surplus of trade and whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery of this machine.”  (He was lobbying against the dreaded VCR.)

Meanwhile, opponents of stronger copyright had little to offer.  Most were tape duplicators, who built their businesses on copying records and making mixtapes.  These “pirates” urged Congress and state legislatures not to extend the length of copyright or bolster the power of rights-holders, but lawmakers paid them little attention.

Only with the rise of a new generation of copyright critics in the 1990s did a credible resistance emerge.  Academics such as Lawrence Lessig, Kembrew McLeod and Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out how excessive copyright protections allow corporate behemoths to push around small competitors while stifling creativity, such as mashups and sampling in hip-hop.

At first, this critique remained limited to a small constituency of tech activists, artists and academics.  But Duke law professor James Boyle offered a prescient diagnosis of the movement’s problems in 1997, when he urged an “environmentalism for the net.” Environmentalism became one of America’s most vital and broad-based new political movements in the late 20th century, but its influence was initially limited.  Scientists and nature lovers worried about environmental degradation, but they faced a difficult challenge persuading others that individual issues — a dam in a public park, suburban sprawl, pollution — were connected in a way that demanded broad public concern.  The idea of the environment encompassed many issues that were different but related.

Critics of copyright, Boyle suggested, needed to theorize about the public domain in the same way nature lovers conceptualized the environment. They needed a framework to explain how intellectual property affected the people as a whole, and not just the librarians, musicians or teachers who might run up against the limits of copyright.  For instance, a handful of polluters might benefit richly from easing clean air standards, while exposure to carcinogens hurts the broader population in a diffuse and indirect way.  Similarly, lawmakers were reforming copyright law at the behest of those who stood most to profit from it — entertainment industries — but at the cost of impoverishing a public domain that most people thought little about.

by Alex Sayf Cummings, Salon |  Read more:

Regrowing Scallions

If you like to cook with scallions (aka green onions or green shallots) did you know you can keep the white root ends from purchased scallions in a glass of water and they will regrow almost indefinitely?

Household weblog Homemade Serenity shares how scallion ends can regrow in in a glass of water. Just put the root ends in a glass of water and put that glass in a sunny window. After a few days you should be able to begin harvesting the green ends of the scallions. Make sure you change the water every so often and cut what you need with scissors before cooking.

You can see in the next picture how the roots grow and tangle in the cup of water. If you want to do this at home, it's simple. The next time you have green onions, don't throw away the white ends. Simply submerge them in a glass of water and place them in a sunny window. Your onions will begin to grow almost immediately and can be harvested almost indefinitely. We just use kitchen scissors to cut what we need for meals. I periodically empty out the water, rinse the roots off and give them fresh water.

Homeade Serenity via: Lifehacker

Monday, January 30, 2012

Zainichi Funk

Made Better in Japan

It used be that the Japanese offered idiosyncratic takes on foreign things. White bread was transformed into shokupan, a Platonic ideal of fluffiness, aerated and feather-light in a way that made Wonder Bread seem dense. Pasta was almost always spaghetti, perfectly cooked al dente, but typically doused with cream sauce and often served with spicy codfish roe. Foreign imports here took on a life of their own, becoming something completely different and utterly Japanese.

During the robust economy of the '80s, Japan's exports ruled, and the country would import the best that money could buy from the rest of the globe, including Italian chefs and French sommeliers. Which made Japan an haute bourgeoisie heaven where luxury manufacturers from the West expected skyrocketing sales forever.

But now 20-plus years of recession have killed that dream. Louis Vuitton sales are plummeting, and magnums of Dom Pérignon are no longer being uncorked at a furious pace. That doesn't mean the Japanese have turned away from the world. They've just started approaching it on their own terms, venturing abroad and returning home with increasingly more international tastes and much higher standards, realizing that the apex of bread making may not be Wonder Bread–style loaves, but pain à l'ancienne.

Japanese chefs are now cooking almost every cuisine imaginable, combining fidelity to the original with locally sourced products that complement or replace imports. When they prepare foreign foods, they're no longer asking themselves how they can make a dish more Japanese—or even more Italian, French or American. Instead they've moved on to a more profound and difficult challenge: how to make the whole dining experience better.

As a result of this quest, Japan has become the most culturally cosmopolitan country on Earth, a place where you can lunch at a bistro that serves 22 types of delicious and thoroughly Gallic terrines, shop for Ivy League–style menswear at a store that puts to shame the old-school shops of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spend the evening sipping rare single malts in a serene space that boasts a collection of 12,000 jazz, blues and soul albums. The best of everything can be found here, and is now often made here: American-style fashion, haute French cuisine, classic cocktails, modern luxury hotels. It might seem perverse for a traveler to Tokyo to skip sukiyaki in favor of Neapolitan pizza, but just wait until he tastes that crust.

by Tom Downey, WSJ |  Read more:
Photograph by Tung Walsh

Smart Bullets

The US military is now using a rifle that reads like a science fiction novel: each bullet has a computer chip that calculates trajectory and then blows up when it is near its target, killing the enemy with shrapnel:
via The Economist
The XM25, as the new gun is known, weighs about 6kg (13lb) and fires a 25mm round. The trick is that instead of having to be aimed directly at the target, this round need only be aimed at a place in proximity to it. Once there, it explodes—just like Shrapnel’s original artillery shells—and the fragments kill the enemy. It knows when to explode because of a timed fuse. In Shrapnel’s shells this fuse was made of gunpowder. In the XM25 it is a small computer inside the bullet that monitors details of the projectile’s flight.
A handful of XM25s are now being tested in Afghanistan by the Americans. So far, they have been used on more than 200 occasions. Most of these fights ended quickly, and in America’s favour, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Shawn Lucas, who is in charge of the weapon’s field-testing programme. Indeed, the programme has been so successful that the army has ordered 36 more of the new rifles.
A new equaliser
Each rifle bullet is programmed, before it is fired, by a second computer in the rifle itself. To determine the distance to the target, the gunman shines a laser rangefinder attached to the rifle at whatever is shielding the enemy. If that enemy is in a ditch, a nearby object—a tree trunk behind or to the side of the ditch, perhaps—will do. Looking through the rifle’s telescopic sight, the gunman then estimates the distance from this object to the target. He presses a button near the trigger to add that value to (or subtract it from) the distance determined by the rangefinder.
When the round is fired, the internal computer counts the number of rotations it makes, to calculate the distance flown. The rifle’s muzzle velocity is 210 metres a second, which is the starting point for the calculation. When the computer calculates that the round has flown the requisite distance, it issues the instruction to detonate. The explosion creates a burst of shrapnel that is lethal within a radius of several metres (exact details are classified). And the whole process takes less than five seconds.
Just how the turn-counting fuse works is an even more closely guarded secret than the lethal radius—though judging by the number of failed attempts to hack into computers that might be expected to hold information about it, many people would dearly like to know. Certainly, the trick is not easy. An alternative design developed in South Korea, which clocks flight time rather than number of rotations, seems plagued by problems. Last year South Korea’s Agency of Defence Development halted production of trial versions of the K-11, as this rifle is called, and announced a redesign, following serious malfunctions.
The XM25, in contrast, appears to work well. It is accurate at ranges of up to 500 metres. That is almost as far as America’s main assault rifle, the M-16, can shoot conventional bullets with accuracy. More pertinently, it is nearly double the range of the AK-47, a rifle of Soviet design that is used by many insurgent groups. And according to Sergeant-Major Bernard McPherson, part of the XM25’s development programme in Virginia, it is receiving rave reviews from soldiers in the field.
We are moving into a world where all designed objects will be connected, and calculating: everything is potentially smart, not just our phones.

Smart coffee mugs, smart toilets, smart money, smart business cards, smart doorknobs.

via: Stowe Boyd

Hollywood Fixer Opens His Little Black Book

Straight actors who wanted to pay for sex in the 1990s had Heidi Fleiss. Gay ones during the late 1940s and beyond apparently had Scotty Bowers.

His story has floated through moviedom’s clubby senior ranks for years: Back in a more golden age of Hollywood, a guy named Scotty, a former Marine, was said to have run a type of prostitution ring for gay and bisexual men in the film industry, including A-listers like Cary Grant, George Cukor and Rock Hudson, and even arranged sexual liaisons for actresses like Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.

“Old Hollywood people who have, shall we say, known him would tell me stories,” said Matt Tyrnauer, a writer for Vanity Fair and the director of the 2008 documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” “But whenever I followed up on what would obviously be a great story, I was told, ‘Oh, he’ll never talk.’ ”

Now, he’s talking.

Mr. Bowers, 88, recalls his highly unorthodox life in a ribald memoir scheduled to be published by Grove Press on Feb. 14, “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.” Written with Lionel Friedberg, an award-winning producer of documentaries, it is a lurid, no-detail-too-excruciating account of a sexual Zelig who (if you believe him) trawled an X-rated underworld for over three decades without getting caught.

“I’ve kept silent all these years because I didn’t want to hurt any of these people,” Mr. Bowers said recently over lemonade on his patio in the Hollywood Hills, where he lives in a cluttered bungalow with his wife of 27 years, Lois. “And I never saw the fascination. So they liked sex how they liked it. Who cares?”

He paused for a moment to scratch his collie, Baby, behind the ears. “I don’t need the money,” he continued. “I finally said yes because I’m not getting any younger and all of my famous tricks are dead by now. The truth can’t hurt them anymore.”

Twenty-six years after Hudson’s death from AIDS and more than four decades after “Hollywood Babylon” was first published, it will come as a surprise to no one that the images the movie factories created for stars of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — when Mr. Bowers was most active — were just that: images. The people who fed the world strait-laced cinema like “The Philadelphia Story” and perfect-family television like “I Love Lucy” were often quite the opposite of prudish in private.

At the same time, a lot of what Mr. Bowers has to say is pretty shocking. He claims, for instance, to have set Hepburn up with “over 150 different women.” Other stories in the 286-page memoir involve Spencer Tracy, Cole Porter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and socialites like the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. “If you believe him, and I do, he’s like the Kinsey Reports live and in living color,” said Mr. Tyrnauer, who recently completed a deal to make a documentary about Mr. Bowers.

by Brooks Barnes, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Stephanie Diani

The Behavioral Sink

How do you design a utopia? In 1972, John B. Calhoun detailed the specifications of his Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice: a practical utopia built in the laboratory. Every aspect of Universe 25—as this particular model was called—was pitched to cater for the well-being of its rodent residents and increase their lifespan. The Universe took the form of a tank, 101 inches square, enclosed by walls 54 inches high. The first 37 inches of wall was structured so the mice could climb up, but they were prevented from escaping by 17 inches of bare wall above. Each wall had sixteen vertical mesh tunnels—call them stairwells—soldered to it. Four horizontal corridors opened off each stairwell, each leading to four nesting boxes. That means 256 boxes in total, each capable of housing fifteen mice. There was abundant clean food, water, and nesting material. The Universe was cleaned every four to eight weeks. There were no predators, the temperature was kept at a steady 68°F, and the mice were a disease-free elite selected from the National Institutes of Health’s breeding colony. Heaven.

Four breeding pairs of mice were moved in on day one. After 104 days of upheaval as they familiarized themselves with their new world, they started to reproduce. In their fully catered paradise, the population increased exponentially, doubling every fifty-five days. Those were the good times, as the mice feasted on the fruited plain. To its members, the mouse civilization of Universe 25 must have seemed prosperous indeed. But its downfall was already certain—not just stagnation, but total and inevitable destruction.

Calhoun’s concern was the problem of abundance: overpopulation. As the name Universe 25 suggests, it was not the first time Calhoun had built a world for rodents. He had been building utopian environments for rats and mice since the 1940s, with thoroughly consistent results. Heaven always turned into hell. They were a warning, made in a postwar society already rife with alarm over the soaring population of the United States and the world. Pioneering ecologists such as William Vogt and Fairfield Osborn were cautioning that the growing population was putting pressure on food and other natural resources as early as 1948, and both published bestsellers on the subject. The issue made the cover of Time magazine in January 1960. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, an alarmist work suggesting that the overcrowded world was about to be swept by famine and resource wars. After Ehrlich appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1970, his book became a phenomenal success. By 1972, the issue reached its mainstream peak with the report of the Rockefeller Commission on US Population, which recommended that population growth be slowed or even reversed.

But Calhoun’s work was different. Vogt, Ehrlich, and the others were neo-Malthusians, arguing that population growth would cause our demise by exhausting our natural resources, leading to starvation and conflict. But there was no scarcity of food and water in Calhoun’s universe. The only thing that was in short supply was space. This was, after all, “heaven”—a title Calhoun deliberately used with pitch-black irony. The point was that crowding itself could destroy a society before famine even got a chance. In Calhoun’s heaven, hell was other mice.

So what exactly happened in Universe 25? Past day 315, population growth slowed. More than six hundred mice now lived in Universe 25, constantly rubbing shoulders on their way up and down the stairwells to eat, drink, and sleep. Mice found themselves born into a world that was more crowded every day, and there were far more mice than meaningful social roles. With more and more peers to defend against, males found it difficult and stressful to defend their territory, so they abandoned the activity. Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers. Left on their own in nests subject to invasion, nursing females attacked their own young. Procreation slumped, infant abandonment and mortality soared. Lone females retreated to isolated nesting boxes on penthouse levels. Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.

by Will Wiles, Cabinet |  Read more:

The Art of the Obituary

As obituaries editor of the Telegraph, I’m often asked if I find my job depressing. “Doesn’t it get you down?” people say in hushed, sympathetic tones, as though we were huddled together in the plushly upholstered confines of a Mayfair undertakers. “I mean, dealing with that relentless tide of death…” At which point I trot out a line well worn by those in my particular area of journalism: “Obituaries are not about death,” I insist. “They are a celebration of life.”

To illustrate my case, nothing more is required than a quick reference to the lives that have crossed my desk that day. How about the chap who traversed the Himalayas in a hovercraft? Or the spy who saved Churchill at the Tehran Conference? Or even the man who provided the voice for the puppet George (a “shy, pink and slightly camp hippopotamus”) on the children's television programme, Rainbow? In the obituary world, all human life is there – every barmy, uplifting scrap of it.

And if by some chance my morale was to falter for a second, then a moment’s reflection on the existence of Gay Kindersley, the amateur jump jockey who died last April, would restore the spirits. He wasn’t particularly famous, or the finest horseman of his generation, but as our obit recalled, Kindersley was “blessed with a barrel-load of charm”. It must have come in handy when he conducted the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on a tour of his house at East Garston, only to step into a room with the royal visitor and find a couple in flagrante. “How nice,” she murmured. It’s hard to get too down in the dumps when presented with tales like that. And on the obits desk we are constantly presented with tales like that.

It seems that we are not the only ones to take this view. Next weekend London’s Southbank Centre is running a festival entitled “Death: Festival for the Living”. It aims to examine the rules and regulations, customs, traumas, idiosyncrasies, mysteries – and, yes, even joys – that surround mankind’s attitude to mortality.

According to Jude Kelly, the Southbank’s artistic director, it will be anything but melancholy. “I expect it to be a very jolly event,” she says. That sounds about right to me. After all, the most celebrated sketch in British comedy involves death (albeit of a certain Norwegian Blue parrot: “He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to his perch he’d be pushing up the daisies!”) Visitors to newspaper offices have been known to inquire: “Who are those people over there, laughing?” only to receive the answer, “Ah, that’s the obits desk.”

We do laugh. And it is precisely because obituaries are about the juicy stuff of life that we do not usually mention the dry details about causes of death, unless they are strictly pertinent. When subjects have made a shockingly youthful departure, we will include a brief note to illuminate readers, who are naturally curious to learn what it was that killed a brilliant cellist, for example, just as she was reaching her prime.

Some of our counterparts on American newspapers extend this principle to the very elderly, and insist on noting that the centenarian hero they are obituarising was dispatched by congestive this, or complications of an infectious that. But we assume that our readers, if they feel the need to muse on what has done for a 117-year-old veteran of the silent film era, will assume that he or she has simply succumbed to old age. Or, as I’ve heard it put, “contracted an incurable case of death”. We all catch it in the end.

Mask for 'Day of the Dead' (dia de los muertos) in Mexico Photo: Getty images

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jackson Browne

The Alarming Outlook for Urban Water Scarcity

By 2020, California will face a shortfall of fresh water as great as the amount that all of its cities and towns together are consuming today.


US Drought Monitor (by: Laura Edwards, SDSU via U of Nebraska)

When you look at the official US drought monitor map, you immediately see that many American cities may be in the wrong places for long-term water sustainability.  In particullar, note the presence of “long-term,” severe-to-extreme drought conditions across most of Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.

It’s a very sobering set of facts, especially when you consider that essentially every high-growth part of the US is experiencing significant dryness.  Now let’s look at a second map, this time world-wide:

areas of water stress worldwide (by: World Reources Institute vis 8020 Vision)

This is not just a US Sun Belt problem but a major international problem.  Here are a few facts and projections extracted from a very good summary of the issues by Jay Kimball on his blog 8020 Vision:

  • By 2020, California will face a shortfall of fresh water as great as the amount that all of its cities and towns together are consuming today.
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in conditions of absolute
 water scarcity, and 65 percent of the world’s population will be water stressed.
  • In the US, 21 percent of agricultural irrigation is achieved by pumping groundwater at rates that exceed the water supplies ability to recharge.
  • There are 66 golf courses in Palm Springs. On average, they each consume over a million gallons of water per day.
  • The Ogalala aquifer, which stretches across 8 states and accounts for 40 percent of water used in Texas, will decline in volume by a staggering 52 percent between 2010 and 2060.
  • Texans are probably pumping the Ogallala at about six times the rate of recharge.
by Kevin Benfield, Think Progress |  Read more:

The Caging of America

A prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.

That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded. “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” Dylan sings, and while it isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

by Adam Gopnik, New Yorker |  Read more:
Photograph by Steve Liss

Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust

John Doerr was crying. The billionaire venture capitalist had come to the end of his now-famous March 8, 2007, TED talk on climate change and renewable energy, and his emotions were getting the better of him. Doerr had begun by describing how his teenage daughter told him that it was up to his generation to fix global warming, since they had caused it. After detailing how the public and private sectors had so far failed at this, Doerr, who made his fortune investing early in companies that became some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names—Netscape, Amazon.com, and Google, among others—exhorted the audience and his peers (largely one and the same) to band together and transform the nation’s energy supply. “I really, really hope we multiply all of our energy, all of our talent, and all of our influence to solve this problem,” he said, falling silent as he fought back tears. “Because if we do, I can look forward to the conversation I’m going to have with my daughter in 20 years.”

As usual, Doerr’s timing was perfect. Just weeks earlier, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had won an Oscar for best documentary. (Gore is now a partner in Doerr’s green tech team at the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.) Interest in climate change had never been higher. And as the economy recovered from the dual shocks of the Internet bubble and 9/11, Doerr’s fellow Silicon Valley VCs were already looking to clean technology as the next big thing. What followed was yet another Silicon Valley gold rush, as the firms on Sand Hill Road were pulled along by the promise of new fortunes and the hope that they would be the ones to wean America off of fossil fuels. The entrepreneurs and tech investors who had transformed media and communications were ready to make Silicon Valley the Saudi Arabia of clean energy.

Never mind the fact that green technology had been struggling to achieve critical mass for decades. “You had folks who came in with the hubris to say, ‘I know these guys have been working on this for 50 years,’” says Andrew Beebe, chief commercial officer for Suntech, the Chinese solar manufacturer. “‘But I’ve got $50 million and I can blow the doors off this thing.’”

In 2005, VC investment in clean tech measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The following year, it ballooned to $1.75 billion, according to the National Venture Capital Association. By 2008, the year after Doerr’s speech, it had leaped to $4.1 billion. And the federal government followed. Through a mix of loans, subsidies, and tax breaks, it directed roughly $44.5 billion into the sector between late 2009 and late 2011. Avarice, altruism, and policy had aligned to fuel a spectacular boom.

Anyone who has heard the name Solyndra knows how this all panned out. Due to a confluence of factors—including fluctuating silicon prices, newly cheap natural gas, the 2008 financial crisis, China’s ascendant solar industry, and certain technological realities—the clean-tech bubble has burst, leaving us with a traditional energy infrastructure still overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels. The fallout has hit almost every niche in the clean-tech sector—wind, biofuels, electric cars, and fuel cells—but none more dramatically than solar.

by Juliet Eilperin, Wired |  Read more:
Photo: Dan Forbes

Saturday, January 28, 2012

LCD Soundsystem

The Fourth State of Matter

The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up. She’s staring at me with her head slightly tipped to the side, long nose, gazing eyes, toenails clenched to get a purchase on the wood floor. We used to call her the face of love.

She totters on her broomstick legs into the hallway and over the doorsill into the kitchen, makes a sharp left at the refrigerator—careful, almost went down—then a straightaway to the door. I sleep on my feet in the cold of the doorway, waiting. Here she comes. Lift her down the two steps. She pees and then stands, Lassie in a ratty coat, gazing out at the yard.

In the porch light the trees shiver, the squirrels turn over in their sleep. The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings. It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.

The dog turns and looks, waits to be carried up the two steps. Inside the house she drops like a shoe onto her blanket, a thud, an adjustment. I’ve climbed back under my covers already but her leg’s stuck underneath her, we can’t get comfortable. I fix the leg, she rolls over and sleeps. Two hours later I wake up and she’s gazing at me in the darkness. The face of love. She wants to go out again. I give her a boost, balance her on her legs. Right on time: 3:40 A.M.

There are squirrels living in the spare bedroom upstairs. Three dogs also live in this house, but they were invited. I keep the door of the spare bedroom shut at all times, because of the squirrels and because that’s where the vanished husband’s belongings are stored. Two of the dogs—the smart little brown mutt and the Labrador—spend hours sitting patiently outside the door, waiting for it to be opened so they can dismantle the squirrels. The collie can no longer make it up the stairs, so she lies at the bottom and snores or stares in an interested manner at the furniture around her.

I can take almost anything at this point. For instance, that my vanished husband is neither here nor there; he’s reduced himself to a troubled voice on the telephone three or four times a day.

Or that the dog at the bottom of the stairs keeps having mild strokes, which cause her to tilt her head inquisitively and also to fall over. She drinks prodigious amounts of water and pees great volumes onto the folded blankets where she sleeps. Each time this happens I stand her up, dry her off, put fresh blankets underneath her, carry the peed-on blankets down to the basement, stuff them into the washer and then into the dryer. By the time I bring them back upstairs they are needed again. The first few times this happened, I found the dog trying to stand up, gazing with frantic concern at her own rear. I praised her and patted her head and gave her treats until she settled down. Now I know whenever it happens, because I hear her tail thumping against the floor in anticipation of reward. In retraining her I’ve somehow retrained myself, bustling cheerfully down to the basement, arms drenched in urine, the task of doing load after load of laundry strangely satisfying. She is Pavlov and I am her dog.

by Jo Ann Beard, New Yorker |  Read more:

Four Loko, America's Most Hated Beer

Creating a drink designed to keep the party going all night would seem a vocation straight out of Animal House. So it’s no surprise that Four Loko began with an idea first hatched by these three former college buds when they were still in their 20s. Long before they imagined launching their own brand, Wright, Freeman and Hunter had in fact been serious consumers of caffeine mixed with alcohol—at frat parties and club nights at Ohio State University. “We were our own target market,” Freeman says.

In the late ‘90s, when they were still in college, Red Bull and vodka was the hot new concoction on campus. But before the distinctive silver-and-blue can’s ubiquity, Hunter and Wright, who lived together at the Kappa Sigma house, tried to sell an original Thai version of bottled caffeine to other guys in the house. “We told everyone we were importing the stuff from abroad,” recalls Wright, still amused by the deceit. “But we were buying it at the Asian grocery store down the street and selling it to our fraternity brothers at five dollars a pop.”

In 2005, four years out of school, the ruse came full circle when Hunter approached his old buddy Freeman with an entrepreneurial scheme. “What do you think?” he asked one evening, as they sat around downing cans of Sparks—a blend of brew and caffeine. Launched by a tiny San Francisco brewery in 2002, Sparks was America's first alcoholic energy drink. Despite minimal promotion, the concoction proved to be a big hit on college campuses across the country. The beer was quickly acquired by Miller Brewing Company a few years later. By then, Hunter, a successful club promoter at O.S.U., had landed a plum job in the booze business—working for a Chicago startup that produced Blavod and Players Club vodkas. He came across Sparks for the first time during a California sales blitz. If people enjoy Red Bull and vodka, he wondered, why wouldn't they enjoy this, too? “This is a great idea,” he said, sounding like a Mark Zuckerberg mixologist. “This is the evolution—but we can do it better.”

That simple realization encouraged him to build a legitimate business, recruiting his friends for their particular skills. When Hunter called, Freeman, a star hockey player at O.S.U., was working in the Chicago office of the international banking firm A.B.N. Amro. Wright, who’d been the vice president of their frat, had settled in Scottsdale, where he was selling industrial gases to aerospace and food-and-beverage clients. But eager for independence, they each agreed to take a role in the business, devoting evenings, weekends, and vacations to the new venture. Freeman would handle finance, Wright manufacturing, Hunter marketing and sales. But what, exactly, did they intend to produce?

Like Sparks, the drink would capitalize on the nationwide mania for energy drinks, driven by Red Bull and a flurry of new competitors—a business then worth an estimated $2.5 billion. They agreed on a name—the new drink would be simply called Four—and on a concept, adding a fourth ingredient to the Sparks recipe. Along with taurine, guarana and caffeine, their new drink would also contain wormwood—the supposed psychoactive ingredient in absinthe, which was just making a comeback on the American market. While these “energy beers,” were already coming under attack for targeting entry-level drinkers, Four's founders were undaunted. Where public health advocates saw trouble, Hunter, Freeman, and Wright saw a potential goldmine. “We couldn't go wrong with this thing,” Freeman recalls. “This was our billion-dollar idea.”

by Jay Cheshes, The Fix |  Read more:

Photo: Herb Ritts Richard Gere - Poolside, 1982

Swallowed by a whale — a true tale?

If, I’ll pretend for a moment, you were swallowed, it would happen like this: You would first be chewed.  Sperm whales’ teeth are 8 inches long – longer than most blades in your knife drawer. Then you would be gulped to the fauces, the back of the mouth, and forced down. Here is where Bartley apparently touched the quivering sides of the throat. You would also touch the throat, perhaps claw at the sides of the throat like you would sliding down an icy slope. There would be no air, and you’d suffocate in acid and water, but, we’re saying, you somehow survive. Imagine a black and mucous-smothered tube sock slipping over you.

You would then enter the first stomach, coined by 19thcentury naturalist Thomas Beale as the holding bag. It’s lined with thick, soft and white cuticle. At 7 feet long by 3 feet wide and shaped like a big egg, the first stomach would easily fit you. If you were kept in the holding bag for over 24 hours, you would likely be joined by squid, but a coconut or shark might come, too. Most squid that sperm whales swallow are bioluminescent — the neon flying squid is a favorite. So in no time at all you’d be bathing in a pool of phosphorescence, a slew of green-yellow light winking around you like you were standing in a field in Maine come July when all the fireflies are sparking up. The rest would be black, very black.

As the stomach acids broke you down, you would continue through three smaller stomachs — a chain of membranous, acid-filled cavities. The second stomach is S-shaped, and the third is more like the first, only smaller. Then, liquidated, you would ooze into the intestine, and eventually leave the whale as excrement, floating out of the anus and into the cold deep ocean, dissolving still further until you had become so small as debris that you were indistinguishable from the ocean itself. You would lap against whaling ships looking for whales.

The only part of you that might not be digested would be your bones. Squid beaks, equally, aren’t digested — they pass through the sperm whale’s intestines wholly. Along the way, the beaks scrape the intestinal lining, creating scar tissue, which is then passed in its new form, ambergris — the intoxicating, aromatic substance used in the most potent perfumes that was worth, in 1869, $97.50 per pound.  That’s $1,600 per pound today. The Egyptians burned it as incense. Your sharp fingerbones or splintery skull would rub on the whale’s intestinal lining, and your remains would scrape up the most beautiful smell on earth.

by Ben Shattuck, Salon |  Read more:

Saul Leiter - Snow, 1960

Maki, Haku, 1924-2000   [+]
Work 74-51

Study Finds Virus to Be Fast Learner

Viruses regularly evolve new ways of making people sick, but scientists usually do not become aware of these new strategies until years or centuries after they have evolved. In a new study published on Thursday in the journal Science, however, a team of scientists at Michigan State University describes how viruses evolved a new way of infecting cells in little more than two weeks.

The report is being published in the midst of a controversy over a deadly bird flu virus that researchers manipulated to spread from mammal to mammal. Some critics have questioned whether such a change could have happened on its own. The new research suggests that new traits based on multiple mutations can indeed occur with frightening speed.

The Michigan researchers studied a virus known as lambda. It is harmless to humans, infecting only the gut bacterium Escherichia coli. Justin Meyer, a graduate student in the biology laboratory of Richard Lenski, wondered whether lambda might be able to evolve an entirely new way of getting into its host.

The standard way for lambda to get into a cell is to latch onto its outer membrane, attaching to a particular kind of molecule on the surface of E. coli. It can then inject its genes and proteins into the microbe.

Mr. Meyer set up an experiment in which E. coli made almost none of the molecules that the virus grabs onto. Now few of the viruses could get into the bacteria. Any mutations that allowed a virus to use a different surface molecule to get in would make it much more successful than its fellow viruses. “It would have a feast of E. coli,” Dr. Lenski said.

The scientists found that in just 15 days, there were viruses using a new molecule — a channel in E. coli known as OmpF. Lambda viruses had never been reported to use OmpF before.

Mr. Meyer was surprised not just by how fast the change happened, but that it happened at all. “I thought it would be a wild goose chase,” he said.

by Carl Zimmer, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration: Justin Meyer

How Yelp Destroyed the Thrill of Exploring

What’s the best thing in your city?

Which mani-pedi place represents the pinnacle of nail care according to the aggregated opinions of hundreds of people ranking all the mani-pedi places on a scale of one to five?

Thanks to online tools like Yelp, you can now know the answer to questions like that. These crowdsourcing tools have transformed the way we experience cities, often for the better — they help us streamline our lives and avoid wasting time with subpar businesses. It’s now easier than ever to avoid bad meals and dingy hotel rooms. Jeff Howe, author of “Crowdsourcing,” sums it up nicely: “I’m a guy with three jobs and the parent of nettlesome little children,” he says. “I don’t really have time for a lot of bad experiences.”

But for all Yelp’s virtues, pre-screening every experience can inhibit us, too. These days, many of us wouldn’t think of trying a new hairstylist or hotel without first checking others’ impressions online. “There’s something about Yelp that creates hesitancy,” says Howe. “Before going to a trivia night at an East Village bar I check out the bar’s Yelp page to see what others have said about it, what it looks like, what types of people go there — what I’m essentially looking for is, does this look like me? Do people like me go here?”

I know exactly what he means. I pre-screen everything these days. Usually I’m trying to avoid feeling awkward — I’ve ended up at too many bars where I’m the only patron who remembers life before cable. Last year I decided not to attend the annual Time’s Up! “Fountain Ride” after a YouTube video of one of the past rides convinced me I’d feel insufficiently artsy.

But am I dodging uncomfortable situations, or missing out on great ones? “The efficiency that the Web has brought has downsides,” says Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture. “On balance, it works against happy accidents.” Tenner calls this counter-serendipity: when preconceived notions prevent lucky flukes. For instance, a poorly rated restaurant on Yelp might have a few die-hard fans — outliers who, for whatever reason, love the place. Their reviews might even be posted. But many of us go with the general consensus, writing off anywhere with a three-star ranking or less. “Is it possible that a place you really would have liked doesn’t have many positive comments, but you would have been one of the few positive ones?” asks Tenner.

Even if the ranking doesn’t deter us, by the time we do go to the club or the restaurant, we’ve sometimes seen so much of the place online that we’ve basically pre-experienced it. Having online access to so many venues might make us more adventurous in one sense, prompting us to try things we never would have tried or even have known about. But in another sense, it becomes a less-adventurous adventure, certified for us by hundreds of others who’ve already checked it out, assured us we’ll like it, testified to its quality, cleanliness and safety.

by Will Doig, Salon |  Read more:

It's Cold

Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images

Pablo Picasso, The Dreamer, 1932

The Long Goodbye

We thought Daddy was going to die in 2001. He was staggering around the house in his underwear, gasping in pain, his eyes hollow, his face slashed from shaving with an old-fashioned safety razor. He was eighty-two years old. We took him to a doctor, who said his spine was deteriorating, gave him pills, and suggested he pray. A few days later, Daddy fell at the mailbox, bounced his head on the pavement, and crawled up the driveway, scraping the skin off his knees before collapsing on the front steps. Mama sat in her recliner in front of the TV, worried and clueless, until a neighbor called an ambulance. The EMTs got Daddy propped up in his recliner. He refused to go with them. When I arrived, Daddy was gulping down whiskey. I called the ambulance back, and they took him to DeKalb Medical. Doctors found prostate cancer and operated. My sister and I cried, sure Daddy was in his last days.
Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

That was eleven years ago. Since then, Daddy’s long goodbye has drained his retirement income and life savings of more than $300,000. Where’s that money gone? Assisted living, mostly. Of course, that amount doesn’t account for his medical bills, most of which have been paid by Medicare and insurance policies that were part of his retirement. Daddy’s income—Social Security, plus monthly checks from two pensions—pays for the facility where he lives, his taxes, his life insurance policy premiums, and such incidentals as a visiting podiatrist to clip his nails.

And he has been kicked out of two hospices for not dying.

Daddy is ninety-three now and wears a diaper, is spoon-fed, and urinates through a catheter, drifting in and out of deep sleep in which he gasps for air and appears to be dead. Trisha, my sister, texted a picture of him in October to one of her daughters, who texted back: “Happy Halloween!” When he wakes up, his caregivers dress him and plop him in a wheelchair. He rolls around like a child until it’s time to eat again.

I cannot imagine that this once-dignified Southern gentleman, who clawed his way out of the grit of a Depression-era tobacco farm in North Carolina and bought a snazzy double-breasted suit with one of his first paychecks, would be anything but humiliated by what is happening to him now—if he had all his faculties. Yet as one of his nurses told me, “Your father has no interest in dying.” It is not heroic measures keeping him alive; he just keeps ticking. He takes only two medicines: an antibiotic for a urinary tract infection and OxyContin for the pain in his spine.

At sixty-four, I am at the leading edge of baby boomers who have ringside seats to the slow-motion demise of the Greatest Generation, watching our parents pass away slowly and stubbornly, dying piece by piece over a decade or more, often unwilling or unable to share their feelings. Most of us, such as my sister and I, head into the turmoil of caring for an aging Immortal utterly unprepared.

Daddy used to laugh at Trisha and me whenever we suggested discussing assisted living and long-term care insurance with him. He insisted—with the unshakable confidence of a career civil engineer—that he didn’t need to make such plans, that he would simply drop dead one day and that would be the end of it. He refused to discuss it further.

It didn’t work out according to that plan, and there was no other plan.

by Doug Monroe, Atlanta Magazine |  Read more:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lots of Strings Attached

I love my six strings, I really do. I never pine for more, not even a seventh. In fact, most of us are okay with six, but some people just have to break new boundaries and head into the unknown. I have joyfully experienced a number of these musicians and their seemingly crazy quest to make music with bunches of strings, although three seem to separate themselves from the pack with their unique guitars and music. The music is certainly worth checking out, but the technical aspects of these axes will simply blow your mind.

At the top of the list is the Pikasso. Its name is ostensibly derived from its likeness in appearance to the cubist works of Pablo Picasso. The one pictured belongs to Pat Metheny, one of the most famous jazz guitar players of our time. In Pat’s hands, this guitar is not just for show. He works the daylights out of this thing. The Pikasso guitar was built for him by luthier Linda Manzer in 1984 and it has 42 strings. This 42-string beast with three necks has been popularized by Pat and can be heard on his song “Into the Dream” and on the albums Quartet, Imaginary Day, Jim Hall & Pat Metheny, Trio Live, and Metheny Mehldau Quartet his 2007 second collaboration with pianist Brad Mehldau. The guitar can also be seen on the Speaking of Now Live and Imaginary Day DVDs. Metheny has also used the guitar in his guest appearances on other artists’ albums and on a Jazz TV show, Legends of Jazz, where he referred to it simply as a 42- string guitar. I wonder how often those strings get changed.

by Rick Wheeler, Premier Guitar |  Read more:

The Invention of the Heterosexual

If you met Hanne Blank and her partner on the street, you might have a lot of trouble classifying them. While Blank looks like a feminine woman, her partner is extremely androgynous, with little to no facial hair and a fine smooth complexion. Hanne’s partner is neither fully male, nor fully female; he was born with an unconventional set of chromosomes, XXY, that provide him with both male genitalia and feminine characteristics. As a result, Blank’s partner has been mistaken for a gay woman, a straight man, a transman — and their relationship has been classified as gay, straight and everything in between.

Blank mentions her personal story at the beginning of her provocative new history of heterosexuality, “Straight,” as a way of illustrating just how artificial our notions of “straightness” really are. In her book, Blank, a writer and historian who has written extensively about sexuality and culture, looks at the ways in which social trends and the rise of psychiatry conspired to create this new category in the late 19th and early 20th century. Along the way, she examines the changing definition of marriage, which evolved from a businesslike agreement into a romantic union centered around love, and how social Darwinist ideas shaped the divisions between gay and straight. With her eye-opening book, Blank tactfully deconstructs a facet of modern sexuality that most of us take for granted.

Salon spoke to Blank over the phone about the origins of heterosexuality, the evolution of marriage and why the rise of the “bromance” is a very good thing.

Men and woman have been having sex for as long as there have been humans. So how can we talk about there being a “history” of heterosexuality?

We can talk about there being a history of heterosexuality in the same way that we can talk about there being a history of religions. People have been praying to God for a really long time too, and yet the ways people relate to the divine have specific histories. They come from particular places, they take particular trajectories, there are particular texts, and individuals that are important in them. There are events, names, places, dates. It’s really very similar.

So where does the term “heterosexual” come from?

“Heterosexual” was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word “homosexual,” [in the mid-19thcentury], by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing and campaigning and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.

by Thomas Rogers, Salon |  Read more:

Will the Maine Coon become an American Icon?

“The most masculine of cats,” tout defenders of the breed, and they are indeed rugged, solid creatures who look as if they ought to be de-mousing a lighthouse on the stormy coast of Maine rather than sprawling on the settee. That is, after all, what they were probably bred for. Picture a cat, a large one, with tufted ears and a lumbering gait and a cheerful disposition; a coat with an undercoat of insulation, and oversized paws fit for trampling snow or scurrying up a tree trunk. Drooping whiskers, a propensity to sprout extra toes on his feet, an unusually expressive tail, and a dour, owlish expression that is almost a pout complete the Maine Coon, a creature on the cusp of entering America’s national pantheon of icons.

The Maine Coon is fast approaching the status of charismatic megafauna like orcas and eagles and howling white wolves. No other breed of cat has starred in so many viral videos, has inspired so many airbrushed t-shirts or so many wretched – and even a few not-so-wretched – tchotchkes as the Maine Coon. A search for “Maine Coon” returns 56.4 million search results, while its longhaired cousin the Persian returns only 8.1 million and the Abyssinian returns a mere 3.4 million. The Coon’s combination of rugged looks and an undeniably goofy disposition seem thoroughly plugged into that folksy vein of Americana that generated Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox Babe. There is also an almost mystical air to the cat’s provenance.

No one really knows when the first Maine Coon came lumbering out of Maine’s timberlands to sprawl in front of wood stoves, though there are some pretty compelling creation myths floating around on the internet. For the cat to truly become part of America’s enduring iconography of log cabins and cowboys and ironclads and the Stars and Stripes, however, one of these peculiar stories will have to stick. Which one will it be?  The most enduring stories cleave close to the facts, and there are a few Maine Coon milestones that are part of the public record.

by James McGirk, 3 Quarks Daily |  Read more:

Joe Paterno (December, 1926 - January, 2012)

Joe Paterno, who won more games than any other major-college football coach, and who became the face of Pennsylvania State University and a symbol of integrity in collegiate athletics only to be fired during the 2011 season amid a child sexual abuse scandal that reverberated throughout the nation, died Sunday in State College, Pa. He was 85.

His family announced his death in a statement released Sunday morning. The cause was lung cancer, according to Mount Nittany Medical Center, where he had been treated. Paterno’s family announced in mid-November that he had received a diagnosis of lung cancer after a visit to a physician regarding a bronchial illness a few days earlier. He lived in State College.

During his 46 years as head coach, as he paced the sideline in his thick tinted glasses, indifferent to fashion in his white athletic socks and rolled-up baggy khaki pants, Paterno seemed as much a part of the Penn State landscape as Mount Nittany, overlooking the central Pennsylvania campus known as Happy Valley.

When Penn State defeated Illinois, 10-7, on Oct. 29, 2011, the victory was Paterno’s 409th, and he surpassed Eddie Robinson of Grambling for most career victories among N.C.A.A. Division I coaches. Penn State’s president at the time, Graham B. Spanier, presented Paterno with a commemorative plaque in a postgame ceremony shown on the huge scoreboard at Beaver Stadium.

It would be Paterno’s last game. Within days his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted and arrested on multiple charges of sexually abusing young boys extending back to his time on Paterno’s staff. On Nov. 9, Paterno and Spanier were fired by the university’s board of trustees because of their failure to go to the police after they were told of an accusation against Sandusky in 2002.

Paterno’s abrupt firing at 84 was something that could hardly have been imagined, although he had stubbornly clung to the spotlight at an age when most head coaches, whatever their renown, had retired.

He had held himself to an exceedingly high standard with what he called his “grand experiment”: fielding outstanding teams with disciplined players whose graduation rates far exceeded that at most football powers. His football program had never been tainted by a recruiting scandal. His statue stood outside Beaver Stadium alongside the legend “Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.”

Former players who succeeded in professional life far beyond the football field had told of their debt to him.

“Look how many go to medical school or law school,” said Bill Lenkaitis, a dentist in Foxborough, Mass., who played for Paterno in the 1960s and became a longtime center for the New England Patriots. “Look how many become heads of corporations.”

Many a Pennsylvania home was stocked with Paterno knickknacks: Cup of Joe coffee mugs, Stand-up Joe life-size cutouts, JoePa golf balls bearing his likeness.

Paterno and his wife, Sue, were major benefactors of Penn State. During his nearly half-century as head coach, donors gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the university, helping to shape it into a major research institution, seemingly an outgrowth of his having made Penn State a national brand name through its football teams.

by Richard  Goldstein, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo via: Technorati

marco cazzato

Cracking Teenagers’ Online Codes

With her coordinated zebra-striped scarf, tights and arm warmers (arm warmers?), spiky out-to-there hat and pierced tongue, 34-year-old Danah Boyd provides an electric Gen Y contrast to the staid gray lobby of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Mass., which she enters in a flurry of animated conversation, Elmo-decorated iPhone in hand. In a juxtaposition that causes her no end of mischievous delight, her laptop bears a sticker of Snow White, whose outstretched arm gently cradled the Apple logo.

But Dr. Boyd — a senior researcher at Microsoft, an assistant professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard — is a widely respected figure in social media research. With a number of influential scholarly papers under her name, she travels relentlessly, tweets under the handle Zephoria and has fans trailing her at TED conferences, at South by Southwest and elsewhere on the high-tech speaking circuit.

She is also a kind of rock star emissary from the online and offline world of teenagers. The young subjects of her research become her friends on Facebook and subscribe to her Twitter feed.

“The single most important thing about Danah is that she’s the first anthropologist we’ve got who comes from the tribe she’s studying,” said Clay Shirky, a professor in the interactive telecommunications program at N.Y.U. and a fellow at the Berkman Center.

There’s no shortage of grown-up distress over the dangers young people face online. Parents, teachers and schools worry about teenagers posting their lives (romantic indiscretions, depressing poetry and all), leaking passwords and generally flouting social conventions as predators, bullies and unsavory marketers lurk. Endless back-and-forthing over how to respond effectively — shutting Web sites, regulating online access and otherwise tempering the world of social media for children — dominates the P.T.A. and the halls of policy makers.

But as Dr. Boyd sees it, adults are worrying about the wrong things.

by Pamela Paul, NY Times |  Read more:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond

Many researchers believe that human intelligence or brainpower consists of dozens of assorted cognitive skills, which they commonly divide into two categories. One bunch falls under the heading “fluid intelligence,” the abilities that produce solutions not based on experience, like pattern recognition, working memory and abstract thinking, the kind of intelligence tested on I.Q. examinations. These abilities tend to peak in one’s 20s.

“Crystallized intelligence,” by contrast, generally refers to skills that are acquired through experience and education, like verbal ability, inductive reasoning and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.

To illustrate how crystallized intelligence can operate, Gene D. Cohen, a founder of the field of geriatric psychiatry, related a story about his in-laws from his book “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.” The couple, in their 70s, arrived in Washington for a visit during a snowstorm and found themselves stranded by the train station. When they saw a pizzeria across the street, his father-in-law had an idea. The couple went inside, ordered a pizza to be delivered to their daughter’s house, and then asked if they could ride along.

As Cohen explained, one of the brain’s most powerful tools is its ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem. In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.

by Patrica Cohen, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration: Margaret Riegel

Pitchfork, 1995–Present

One day in early 2010, the internet message board I Love Music began discussing the Pazz and Jop poll, which the Village Voice had recently published on its website. The Voice has conducted Pazz and Jop annually since 1971. Hundreds of music critics submit lists ranking their favorite albums and singles, and the Voice compiles two master lists identifying the year’s best music. It is the main event in American popular music criticism. On I Love Music, the Pazz and Jop thread chugged slowly along for a few hours. Then Scott Plagenhoef, editor-in- chief of the music website Pitchfork, began posting under the name “scottpl,” and things picked up speed. “11 of the top 13 LPs and five of the top six singles are shared between this and the Pitchfork list,” Plagenhoef wrote. “For what it’s worth.”

The suggestion that the nation’s music critics had copied their end-of-the-year charts from a website just over a decade old was a clear provocation, and twenty-four hours and hundreds of posts later the conversation was no longer about Pazz and Jop. “Man, Pitchfork circa 2000 and 2001 vs now is night and day,” Plagenhoef wrote. “The size of the site now utterly dwarfs the site then, and certainly the way it’s run and decisions are made are different.” Plagenhoef did his best to maintain a modest pose (“I don’t beg for credit or claim to be responsible for things”), but in the end it was hard to resist a triumphal note. “We’ve succeeded at a time when nobody else has,” he wrote. “We reach more people right now than Spin or Vibe ever did, even if you use the bs print mag idea that ‘every copy is read by 2.5 people’ . . . hell, I should stop caring, get back to work, and let people keep underestimating us.” Then he posted two more times. Then he wrote, “Alright, I will get out of this thread.” Then he posted eighteen more times.

He may have been bragging, but Plagenhoef was right. In the last decade, no organ of music criticism has wielded as much influence as Pitchfork. It is the only publication, online or print, that can have a decisive effect on a musician or band’s career. This has something to do with the site’s diligently cultivated readership: no genre’s fans are more vulnerable to music criticism than the educated, culturally anxious young people who pay close attention to indie rock. Other magazines and websites compete for these readers’ attention, of course, but they come and go, one dissolving into the next, while Pitchfork keeps on gathering strength. Everyone acknowledges this. And yet everyone also acknowledges something else: whatever attracts people to Pitchfork, it isn’t the writing. Even writers who admire the site’s reviews almost always feel obliged to describe the prose as “uneven,” and that’s charitable. Pitchfork has a very specific scoring system that grades albums on a scale from 0.0 to 10.0, and that accounts for some of the site’s appeal, but it can’t just be the scores. I could start a website with scores right now, and nobody would care. So what is it? How has Pitchfork succeeded where so many other websites and magazines have not? And why is that success depressing?

by Richard Beck, n+1 |  Read more:
Image: Raekwon fans at the Pitchfork Music Festival, 2010. Via kate.gardiner.