Monday, April 30, 2012

How Online Black Markets Work

The internet is no stranger to crime. From counterfeit and stolen products, to illegal drugs, stolen identities and weapons, nearly anything can be purchased online with a few clicks of the mouse. The online black market not only can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection, but the whole process of ordering illicit goods and services is alarmingly easy and anonymous, with multiple marketplaces to buy or sell anything you want.

Understanding how the market thrives—unregulated and untraceable—can give you a better sense of the threats (or resources) that affect you and your business.

In our scenario we are going to legally transfer $1,000 USD out of a regular bank account and into a mathematical system of binary codes, and then enter a neighborhood of the Internet largely used by criminals. This hidden world anyone lets anyone purchase bulk downloads of stolen credit cards, as well as a credit card writer, blank cards, some "on stage" fake identities—and maybe even a grenade launcher they've had their eyes on.

A journey into the darker side of the Internet starts with two open-source programs: Bitcoin and the Tor Bundle.

Moving Money 

Bitcoin ( is system tool that will act as a personal bank for storing and investing digital currency on your computer. Once it's installed on your system, it sits empty like a piggy bank, waiting to be filled with untraceable digital cash.

Getting it filled is the tricky part.

The digital monetary system online is predominately operated by the likes of Paypal, Western Union, and banking companies that try to follow government regulations to prevent fraud and money laundering. There are two steps to legally take money and have it converted at the current Bitcoin rate into BTCs in our digital and anonymous bank.

Start by opening a Dwolla ( banking account with no fees. You can use your real information—you aren't doing anything illegal. In about three days you will be given a fraud test and have to identify small transfers in your Dwolla and personal bank account. Once your account is confirmed, wire any amount from your personal bank to Dwolla from a lump sum or the estimated price of your purchase you have in mind. After you confirm the transfers, your legit money will now be stored in a new global bank with less restriction than US banks.

Next you need to set up an account with the largest bitcoin exchanger, MtGox. Due to fraud concerns, MtGox will only allow transfers from banks like Dwolla.

After your Dwolla transfer moves to MtGox, you can use the money to purchase Bitcoins on the open market for a small percentage-based fee. Once this sale is complete, your bitcoins are best stored in your own bank account that is residing digitally on your computer.

The whole process can be completed in less than a week, and the $1,000 USD is now exchanged to $191 BTC. Now you are ready to go shopping on the black market.

by Brandon Gregg, CSO Online,  Read more: 
Photo via:

Take The Skyway

There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway

~The Replacements

Walking has been much in the news lately, or rather, how little Americans seem to be doing it. It’s obvious that walking is good for individual health, but what should perhaps be even more emphasized is the importance of walking for the overall health of the urban fabric. So, in addition to asking ourselves the question of how we can get people to walk more, we also ought to consider equally beneficial ways for designing the built environment, such that all this walking will bring about a result for society. Walking may be an end in itself, but if it is only considered as such, we forego the opportunity that it is a means as well.

The history of walking in American cities is one of the steady erosion of an activity that was so natural that its importance was almost entirely tacit. It is always amazing to realize how malleable our norms are: during the automobile’s first few decades, pedestrian fatalities were commonly greeted with criminal charges such as ‘technical manslaughter’. Drivers were viewed with mistrust, considered reckless and even represented class division. However, pedestrians became increasingly regarded as impediments to the velocity of modern life, and economic progress became increasingly associated with the automobile and the infrastructure that made its hegemony possible.

How did this change come about? As Sarah Goodyear writes in the Atlantic Cities blog,
One key turning point…came in 1923 in Cincinnati. Citizens’ anger over pedestrian deaths gave rise to a referendum drive. It gathered some 7,000 signatures in support of a rule that would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour.
Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation. They even hired pretty women to invite men to head to the polls and vote against the rule. And the measure failed…The industry lobbied [for] the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.

This was the beginning of a long and effective campaign that saw walking legislated and planned almost out of existence. Even now, designers and planners are often hobbled by a perspective which continues to favour the automobile over pedestrian – most ironically, in the name of safety.

by Misha Lepetic, 3 Quarks Daily |  Read more:

Ulf Puder.
Mondsegel, 2008. Oil on linen, 80 x 83”

Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem

Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, was recently captured on video asserting that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party. Of course, it’s not unusual for some renegade lawmaker from either side of the aisle to say something outrageous. What made West’s comment — right out of the McCarthyite playbook of the 1950s — so striking was the almost complete lack of condemnation from Republican congressional leaders or other major party figures, including the remaining presidential candidates.

It’s not that the GOP leadership agrees with West; it is that such extreme remarks and views are now taken for granted.

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its once-legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate — think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel — are virtually extinct.

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

What happened? Of course, there were larger forces at work beyond the realignment of the South. They included the mobilization of social conservatives after the 1973Roe v. Wade decision, the anti-tax movement launched in 1978 by California’s Proposition 13, the rise of conservative talk radio after a congressional pay raise in 1989, and the emergence of Fox News and right-wing blogs. But the real move to the bedrock right starts with two names: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

 by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Washington Post |  Read more:

They Dressed Like Groucho

You could say, with partial plagiarism: It was the best of nights. It was the worst of nights.

I remember thinking that it might be a long time before I saw so many happy people in one place. The place was Carnegie Hall and the people were fans — worshipers might be the more appropriate word — of Groucho Marx.

At least half the eager throng was a young, college-type crowd; it was at the peak of the time when the Marx Brothers — and I, to some extent — were campus heroes. The controversial (mildly put) Erin Fleming (see previous column), the young woman who was running Groucho’s life and household for both good and ill — had hauled the frail fellow out into public once more.

To the dismay of friends and relatives, who feared that in these sadly waning years, Groucho, with formidable powers decreasing noticeably, lacked the stamina, let alone the desire to perform again, Erin had lined up a series of “concerts,” the true purpose of which many felt was less to get Groucho back in the limelight than to get Fleming into it with him.

There were two fears. Would he be physically able to get through a full-length concert, enfeebled as he was most days then, and what would it do to him if only a handful of people showed up? Could he survive that? That last fear proved unfounded.

When the big night came, I had the cabdriver let me off out front, instead of at the stage door, to assess the crowd.

There was a touching aspect to the milling, chatting, laughing throng. Some carried pictures of Groucho and his siblings, some had painted on Groucho mustaches. Hurrying back to the stage door I must have seen at least a dozen fully-got-up Grouchos complete with swallow-tail coat. There were even a few Harpos and Chicos. (I saw no Zeppos.) Nice kids in a troubled time.

It was 1972 — not a nice time in the country — and there was something so sweet about these kids that I couldn’t manage to ditch the thought that some equally nice kids might have loved to be there but for their having been, just two years earlier, shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State.

Pushing dark thoughts aside, I went inside and up to the dressing room. I recall now that the words and melody of Groucho’s friend Harry Ruby’s “Everyone Says I Love You” began to play in my head in Groucho’s voice, sung by him on my show a few years earlier. This was going to be a great evening.

I entered the dressing room and was horrified. Groucho was slumped on a couch looking more frail and papery than I had ever seen him. The famous voice was a hoarse whisper. I thought of those milling kids outside in a near frenzy to see their hero and here he (all but) lay before me, looking like moribundity warmed over. Clearly it would be a miracle if we could get him downstairs and to the stage, let alone through a two-hour concert.

“How do you feel, Grouch?” I asked with forced brightness.


by Dick Cavett, NY Times |  Read more: 
Photo: Wikipedia

Aspirin Really Is Kind of a Wonder Drug

The evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) medications can benefit our long-term health in meaningful ways keeps accruing. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen all have various health benefits, but aspirin is emerging as a key player in the fight against cancer. Three new studies by the same research team have shown that aspirin over the long term can reduce the risk of cancer - and its spread through the body.
One type of cancer called metastatic adenocarcinoma, which can affect the prostate, lungs, and colon, was reduced by 46 percent in people who took aspirin.

The team's earlier work had shown that daily aspirin could reduce cancer risk over the next 20 years. Now, Peter M. Rothwell and his team have expanded on their original findings. In one large scale review of 51 earlier studies, people who took less than 300 mg of aspirin every day had a 25 percent reduced risk of developing any type of cancer after three years. It reduced the risk of death from cancer by about 15 percent. The longer people took aspirin, the better: after five years, the risk of death was reduced by 37 percent in aspirin-takers.

Another study determined how aspirin affected the spread of cancer once it had developed. People who took at least 75 mg of aspirin a day had a 36 percent reduced risk of metastatic cancer than non-aspirin takers. One type of cancer called metastatic adenocarcinoma, which can affect the prostate, lungs, and colon, was reduced by 46 percent in people who took aspirin.

by Alice G. Walton, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Photo: Melinda Fawver/Shutterstock

Sunday, April 29, 2012

David Dallas

A Universe from Nothing?

Some of you may have been following a tiny brouhaha (“kerfuffle” is so overused, don’t you think?) that has sprung up around the question of why the universe exists. You can’t say we think small around here.

First Lawrence Krauss came out with a new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (based in part on a popular YouTube lecture), which addresses this question from the point of view of a modern cosmologist. Then David Albert, speaking as a modern philosopher of science, came out with quite a negative review of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog (with interesting voices in the comments), a long interview with Krauss in the Atlantic, comments by Massimo Pigliucci, and another response by Krauss on the Scientific American site.

Executive summary

This is going to be kind of long, so here’s the upshot. Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.

How the universe works

Let’s talk about the actual way physics works, as we understand it. Ever since Newton, the paradigm for fundamental physics has been the same, and includes three pieces. First, there is the “space of states”: basically, a list of all the possible configurations the universe could conceivably be in. Second, there is some particular state representing the universe at some time, typically taken to be the present. Third, there is some rule for saying how the universe evolves with time. You give me the universe now, the laws of physics say what it will become in the future. This way of thinking is just as true for quantum mechanics or general relativity or quantum field theory as it was for Newtonian mechanics or Maxwell’s electrodynamics.

Quantum mechanics, in particular, is a specific yet very versatile implementation of this scheme. (And quantum field theory is just a particular example of quantum mechanics, not an entirely new way of thinking.) The states are “wave functions,” and the collection of every possible wave function for some given system is “Hilbert space.” The nice thing about Hilbert space is that it’s a very restrictive set of possibilities (because it’s a vector space, for you experts); once you tell me how big it is (how many dimensions), you’ve specified your Hilbert space completely. This is in stark contrast with classical mechanics, where the space of states can get extraordinarily complicated. And then there is a little machine — “the Hamiltonian” — that tells you how to evolve from one state to another as time passes. Again, there aren’t really that many kinds of Hamiltonians you can have; once you write down a certain list of numbers (the energy eigenvalues, for you pesky experts) you are completely done.

We should be open-minded about what form the ultimate laws of physics will take, but almost all modern attempts to get at them take quantum mechanics for granted. That’s true for string theory and other approaches to quantum gravity — they might take very different views of what constitutes “spacetime” or “matter,” but very rarely do they muck about with the essentials of quantum mechanics. It’s certainly the case for all of the scenarios Lawrence considers in his book. Within this framework, specifying “the laws of physics” is just a matter of picking a Hilbert space (which is just a matter of specifying how big it is) and picking a Hamiltonian. One of the great things about quantum mechanics is how extremely restrictive it is; we don’t have a lot of room for creativity in choosing what kinds of laws of physics might exist. It seems like there’s a lot of creativity, because Hilbert space can be extremely big and the underlying simplicity of the Hamiltonian can be obscured by our (as subsets of the universe) complicated interactions with the rest of the world, but it’s always the same basic recipe.

So within that framework, what does it mean to talk about “a universe from nothing”? We still have to distinguish between two possibilities, but at least this two-element list exhausts all of them.

by Sean Carroll, Discover Magazine |  Read more:

China Digs It: How Beijing Cornered the Rare Earths Market

In September 2010, after Japan arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain in disputed waters in the East China Sea, Beijing allegedly retaliated by holding back shipments to Tokyo of rare earths, a group of 17 elements used in high-tech products. Arcane names such as cerium, dysprosium, and lanthanum -- elements that populate the bottom of the periodic table and whose unique properties make them ideal materials in the batteries that power iPhones and electric vehicles -- suddenly commanded global attention. It mattered little whether Beijing actually carried through with the threat (reports are murky), the damage was already done: The world had awoken to the fact that overreliance on China for rare-earths supplies could put the international high-tech supply chain at risk.

Today, China produces more than 90 percent of the global supply of rare earths but sits on just about one-third of the world's reserves of the elements -- with the rest scattered from the United States (13 percent) to Australia (5 percent). That was not always the case. A few decades ago, the United States led production, primarily through a large mine in California owned by the mining firm Molycorp. But as California's environmental regulations tightened in the 1990s, costs rose and profits declined, prompting the American industry eventually to shutter.

In the meantime, China started assuming the role of global supplier, spurred on by the Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's supposed proclamation that "there is oil in the Middle East, but there are rare earths in China." In the last few decades, Chinese production of rare earths skyrocketed, more than offsetting declining production elsewhere. And consumers grew accustomed to what seemed to be a low-cost and reliable supplier in China.

Yet behind the façade of stability was an industry marked by mismanagement. First, a perceived abundance of the resources led to a general disregard for efficient and scalable production. In the early days of the Chinese rare-earths rush, preservation of resources was an afterthought, as private entrepreneurs, sensing a lucrative market, dove in. Many of these small-scale miners operated off the books and with little concern for environmental degradation. They were so numerous that the Chinese government could not keep track of them.

Even so, their efforts added up. Between 1990 and 2000, Chinese production of rare earths skyrocketed from just 16,000 tons to 73,000 tons. And in the decade since, China has essentially come to monopolize rare-earths mining. At its peak in 2009, China accounted for 129,000 of the 132,000 tons produced worldwide -- in other words, 97 percent of total global output. Meanwhile, it exported roughly 40-50 percent of what it produced.

Yet as demand for these raw materials rose, Beijing became increasingly unhappy that it was "selling gold to foreigners at the price of Chinese radishes," as one Chinese expression had it. Nationalistic voices in Chinese op-ed pages argued that China should create an OPEC-like rare-earths cartel or strategic reserve. Those calls were colored by an unsubstantiated belief among many Chinese that Japan was keeping just such a strategic reserve of its own, in which it had squirreled away 20 years' worth of rare earths that it had imported from China.

by Damien Ma, Foreign Affairs |  Read more:
Photo: Smelting lanthanum in Inner Mongolia. (David Gray / Courtesy Reuters)

Le piège. 35x35cm ; technique mixte sur toile
Lou Ros 2012

My Mom Is My BFF

Amid the weeknight din of Ruby Foo’s, the hostess bore complimentary cocktails—a peace offering, for making Julie and ­Samantha wait twenty minutes for their reserved table. She offered one drink to Julie and one to … Wait a minute. Peering at Samantha, she said, “I want to give this to you, but …”

Samantha, who had just been listening to her mother describe what an “awful, awful slob” she was as a teenager, nodded toward Julie and said, “You should give it to her.”

At one point at Ruby Foo’s, it occurred to me that the hostess had made an honest calculation when settling on her genre of olive branch. The gift of pretty drinks assumed a friendship. The cocktails said, “Enjoy your girls’ night out!”

And from a distance anyone might’ve figured mother and daughter for pals. Samantha refrained from the typical teenage indicators of mother-induced misery. No mortified slumping, no glassy stare, no snapping, no sighing, no episodic glaring, no thumbing out one cell-phone SOS after another. And Julie? When Samantha spoke, Julie listened until her daughter had completed her thought. Which I assumed happened only in dreams and completely unrealistic movies.

Seriously, was there no discord? They assured me that there was. Sometimes they fought “all day long.”

Over what?

Hmm. “Clean up your room?” “Don’t make me clean my room? I like my stuffed animals on the floor. I’m comfortable with my stuffed animals on the floor. Let me be me!”

I watched them closely. Humans are only so good at hiding jealousies and tensions, even for short periods of time. We all come with our little tells, and mothers and daughters are human control panels of buttons waiting to be pushed. There’s not a teenager alive who hasn’t considered her mom intolerable and embarrassing, or pretended not to know her in public, but based on what I was seeing, it was possible to achieve the opposite.

Watching Julie and Samantha felt a little like seeing a fantasy come to life. My mom hasn’t let me finish a sentence since 1975. We have never shared clothes. We do not text. She often e-mails me, hilariously, in all-caps, because it’s easier than finding the uncap key. Neither she nor I have ever uttered the word sex in the other’s presence. In fact, I’m positive my mom has never spoken the word at all. I now understand all of that; her parenting approach was a generational mandate. But sometimes, as a pre-­Gilmore Girls teenager, I had this idea that mothers and daughters should walk arm-in-arm down leafy autumn roads wearing artfully knotted scarves, exchange gentle information on mean-girl management and boyfriends, and race home through the dappled sunlight to make cocoa. Once, in college, I tried to achieve this scenario with an aunt. It just felt weird.

Now mother-daughter BFFdom is a thing, having morphed its way onto the radar of sociologists, psychologists, ­authors, designers, marketers, and reality-show creators. The willingness to ­exploit one’s pubescent daughter for adult dating and fashion advice must be a Real ­Housewives casting prerequisite, and there’s no telling what the upcoming VH1 reality show Mama Drama will bring as it focuses on the turbo version of bestie mothers: “the partying parent who shares drinks, wardrobe, and social life with her daughter, and occasionally needs to be reminded that she’s the parent.”

Now that the phenomenon is here, it’s a little like watching the genie leave the bottle. You hope you’ve made the right wish.

by Paige Williams, New York Magazine |  Read more:
Photo: Gillian Laub

Yelp, You Cost Me $2000 by Suppressing Genuine Reviews, Here’s How You Fix It

Dear Yelp,

It’s highly likely that you’re costing your users millions of dollars by offering some astonishingly bad recommendations.

For example, I did business with a moving company based on 5 star recommendations that you presented.

As a result I was strong-armed into paying $2000 more than originally quoted. I spent 40 days without any furniture and quite a few of my belongings have been misplaced – forever.

I’ve always loved your site. I love your startup story. I love your crowd sourcing review model. For years now I’ve been using Yelp to help me make decisions about where to eat and what to purchase. Yelp has never steered me wrong. So what happened this time? How come your reviewers were so far off the mark?

They weren’t.

Your reviewers described exactly what I experienced and warned against this company again and again. But you hid all of those reviews.

Wait, what? Why would you do that?

After Googling the issue I found out that some time back you introduced a very difficult to notice and access filter link (screen shot here) to hide reviews that seem to be fake. You also introduced an automated algorithm that flags suspicious looking reviews and shuffles them into the filtered section.

Your algorithm typically hides entries by people who only post one review and who don’t otherwise engage in Yelp. Your assumption is that if a user only posts one review, posts no comments, has no friends etc. then most likely they are fake and trying to game the system.

Let’s call this “Assumption X”.

In the case of the company that I mention above (the one that ripped me off) Assumption X is exactly wrong at least 10 out of 14 times. Just to be clear, 10 honest one star reviews have been hidden from public view. That’s a 71% false positive hit rate.

So why did Yelp get it wrong 10 times?

In each case the one star review was left by someone who would never normally leave a review… they were simply so outraged that they were motivated to signup to Yelp and try to warn others how bad this company is. None of them ever used Yelp again. Furthermore, they didn’t have the knowledge or inclination to try to make their Yelp profile look acceptable to Yelp’s automated suppression systems.

by Justin Vincent, Building Stuff |  Read more:

MF Global: Will Anyone Ever go to Jail?

So the Senate Banking Committee is beginning hearings today on the MF Global scandal, hearings entitled, "The Collapse of MF Global: Lessons Learned and Policy Implications." Apparently the government has already moved to the reflective, introspective, South Park-ian, "You know, I learned something today!" stage in its examination of the scandal, despite the fact that the government’s official "response" hasn’t even started yet, i.e. authorities have yet to arrest a single person in this brazen billion-dollar theft story.  (...)

Nobody disputes the fact that MF Global officials dipped into customer accounts and took over $1.6 billion of customer money. We not only know that company officials reached into customer accounts, we know they brazenly lied to bondholders, ratings agencies and investors about the firm's financial condition ("MF Global's capital and liquidity has never been stronger," wrote the CFO of MF Global’s holding company, on the same day Moody’s downgraded it to junk status).

We even know that eighteen days before the firm went bust, company officers discussed how quickly to return money to customers, and even contemplated, in writing, the possibility of not returning the money right away. This is from a risk-assessment document prepared by company officers entitled "Break the Glass":
…Who do we want to be after the storm? How quickly do we want to send cash back to clients, what is the message if we do not send immediately, what is the strategy if we want to keep the customer and wait until the storm passes?
In the wake of the 2008 crash it’s often been said that one of the major problems in getting the public to grasp the crimes committed by banks and financial companies is the extreme complexity of the transactions used. The mortgage-backed-securities scam by itself was really just a common fraud scheme, but it was cloaked in the extremely complex verbiage and advanced math of derivatives transactions, which made it possible for bankers to bluff their way through an argument that no crimes had been committed.

But MF Global is different. This is not complicated at all. This is just stealing. You owe money, you don’t have the cash to cover it, and so you take money belonging to someone else to cover your debts. There’s no room at all here for an argument that this money was just lost due to a bad investment, an erroneous calculation based on someone's poor understanding of a complex transaction, etc. It’s straight-up embezzlement.

Nonetheless, there’s been an intense effort at trying to convince the public that no crime has been committed. Whoever is handling MF Global’s P.R. (according to Pam Martens in this excellent piece, it’s APCO worldwide, a former Big Tobacco spin factory) appears to have convinced the company’s officers to emphasize the word “chaos” in describing the last days of the firm – as though $1.2 billion wasn’t intentionally stolen, per se, but simply lost in a kind of uncontrolled whirlwind of transactions that magically carried the money out of accounts off to worlds unknown.

I call this the “Wizard of Oz” defense: a Big Twister hit the firm’s customer accounts, chaos ensued, and when the dust settled, no one knew where the heck little Dorothy and her money had gone.

by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone |  Read more:
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Alfred Wertheimer: Hold Me Tight (1956) 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Most Likely to Succeed

Predicting success in football and teaching.

One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is “value added” analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

It’s only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students’ test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What’s more—and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world—the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker |  Read more:
Illustration: Joost Swarte

Leonard Cohen

[ed. An abbreviated, but still very nice version of Hallelujah (for reasons known only to Mr. Cohen). Also. listen to Jeff Buckley's cover of the full song.]


The Limits to Environmentalism

[ed. If you find this article interesting be sure to read the comments section. I'm a firm believer that economic growth and good environmental stewardship are quite compatible, if you start with good design. Many degraded environments can be restored simply by correcting elements of bad design already in place. In other words, want new solutions? Stop creating (debating and accepting) old problems. As one commenter notes: "One of the places that environmentalism would be unrecognizable vis-a-vis the 70s is in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. Perhaps landscape architecture especially – all fields concerned with modernity and technology. Today, there is a dynamic and creative embrace of technology in these fields." (see previous post on Communities for People)]

If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.

Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity.

For example, you may have heard that a bunch of scientists produced a landmark report that concludes the earth is destined for ecological collapse, unless global population and consumption rates are restrained. No, I’m not talking about the UK’s just-published Royal Society report, which, among other things, recommends that developed countries put a brake on economic growth. I’m talking about that other landmark report from 1972, the one that became a totem of the environmental movement.

I mention the 40-year old Limits to Growth book in connection with the new Royal Society report not just to point up their Malthusian similarities (which Mark Lynas flags here), but also to demonstrate what a time warp the collective environmental mindset is stuck in. Even some British greens have recoiled in disgust at the outdated assumptions underlying the Royal Society’s report. Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, told the Guardian: “What an astonishingly weak, cliché ridden report this is…’Consumption’ to blame for all our problems? Growth is evil? A rich economy with technological advances is needed for radical decarbonisation. I do wish scientists would stop using their hatred of capitalism as an argument for cutting consumption.”

Goodall, it turns out, is exactly the kind of greenie (along with Lynas) I had in mind when I argued last week that only forward thinking modernists could save environmentalism from being consigned to junkshop irrelevance. I juxtaposed today’s green modernist with the backward thinking “green traditionalist,” who I said remained wedded to environmentalism’s doom and gloom narrative and resistant to the notion that economic growth was good for the planet. Modernists, I wrote, offered the more viable blueprint for sustainability:

“Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future. His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better.”

by Keith Kloor, Discover Magazine |  Read more:

Earth to Ben Bernanke

When the financial crisis struck in 2008, many economists took comfort in at least one aspect of the situation: the best possible person, Ben Bernanke, was in place as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Bernanke was and is a fine economist. More than that, before joining the Fed, he wrote extensively, in academic studies of both the Great Depression and modern Japan, about the exact problems he would confront at the end of 2008. He argued forcefully for an aggressive response, castigating the Bank of Japan, the Fed’s counterpart, for its passivity. Presumably, the Fed under his leadership would be different.

Instead, while the Fed went to great lengths to rescue the financial system, it has done far less to rescue workers. The U.S. economy remains deeply depressed, with long-term unemployment in particular still disastrously high, a point Bernanke himself has recently emphasized. Yet the Fed isn’t taking strong action to rectify the situation.

The Bernanke Conundrum — the divergence between what Professor Bernanke advocated and what Chairman Bernanke has actually done — can be reconciled in a few possible ways. Maybe Professor Bernanke was wrong, and there’s nothing more a policy maker in this situation can do. Maybe politics are the impediment, and Chairman Bernanke has been forced to hide his inner professor. Or maybe the onetime academic has been assimilated by the Fed Borg and turned into a conventional central banker. Whichever account you prefer, however, the fact is that the Fed isn’t doing the job many economists expected it to do, and a result is mass suffering for American workers.

What the Fed Can Do

The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate: price stability and maximum employment. It normally tries to meet these goals by moving short-term interest rates, which it can do by adding to or subtracting from bank reserves. If the economy is weak and inflation is low, the Fed cuts rates; this makes borrowing attractive, stimulates private spending and, if all goes well, leads to economic recovery. If the economy is strong and inflation is a threat, the Fed raises rates; this discourages borrowing and spending, and the economy cools off.

Right now, the Fed believes that it’s facing a weak economy and subdued inflation, a situation in which it would ordinarily cut interest rates. The problem is that rates can’t be cut further. When the recession began in 2007, the Fed started slashing short-term interest rates until November 2008, when they bottomed out near zero, where they remain to this day. And that was as far as the Fed could go, because (some narrow technical exceptions aside) interest rates can’t go lower. Investors won’t buy bonds if they can get a better return simply by putting a bunch of $100 bills in a safe. In other words, the Fed hit what’s known in economic jargon as the zero lower bound (or, alternatively, became stuck in a liquidity trap). The tool the Fed usually fights recessions with had reached the limits of its usefulness.

by Paul Krugman, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration by Kelsey Dake
 Industrial Farming. Almería Province, Spain

On the arid plains of southern Spain, produce is grown under the world's largest array of greenhouses and trucked north. Greenhouses use water and nutrients efficiently and produce all year—tomatoes in winter, for instance. But globally the challenge is grain and meat, not tomatoes. It takes 38 percent of Earth's ice-free surface to feed seven billion people today, and two billion more are expected by 2050.

From the essay: Enter the Anthropocene - Age of Man

Photo: Edward Burtynsky
via: National Geographic

Friday, April 27, 2012

Talking Heads

Lost on the Gene Map

A tiny dot of DNA, thousands of times smaller than a pinhead, exists in almost every cell of our bodies. Stored in its tightly wound double helix is the wisdom of nearly four billion years of evolution — the hereditary information that decides our hair colour, whether we might stutter, or if we have the potential to win an Olympic gold medal. Human DNA is typically divided into forty-six chromosomes, twenty-three inherited from each parent; the DNA on one chromosome includes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of genes. These gene segments of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) encode data that the cell expresses as proteins to build and operate the various parts of the body. The seven billion faces in the world, all different, reveal individual differences in our genetic makeup. But so much of our collective DNA is the same that we share a common genetic heritage: the human genome.

To comprehend genomes is to begin to unlock the mysteries of life. One of the aims of the Human Genome Project, an international research program launched in 1990, was to map and then sequence every bit of DNA in a composite human genome. The project was heralded as the first step toward personalized medicine, a new age in health care when prevention and treatment of illnesses would be guided by examining a person’s genome and genetic predispositions. Understandably, expectations for the Human Genome Project ran high, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton glowingly foretold a not-too-distant future in which parents, armed with a map of their newborn’s genetic structure, could identify the risks for illness. In his vision, the fruits of the project would help “organize the diet plan, the exercise plan, the medical treatment that would enable untold numbers of people to have far more full lives.”

When the HGP was completed in 2003, that vision was still out of reach. Thanks to technological advances, it’s now on the horizon. The expense of genomic sequencing is falling fast; in Canada today it costs $10,000 to sequence an individual genome. “Once a whole genome costs $1,000 or less, entire families will get their genomes sequenced,” says Michael Hayden, director of the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia. “But what will they do with that information?” Whole-genome sequencing generates enormous amounts of raw data that must be analyzed by highly qualified medical geneticists and genetic counsellors, both in short supply (Canada has about eighty medical geneticists and 230 genetic counsellors). “DNA Sequencing Caught in Deluge of Data,” ran one recent headline in the New York Times, reflecting a common view that modern medicine doesn’t yet have the expertise to tell us what this data means, much less how to act on it.  (...)

As the demand for whole-genome sequencing grows, so will profits, but the big money in personalized medicine will come from the development of treatments. Progress to date has been slow and confined to monogenic diseases such as Huntington’s, whose origin lies in a mutation on a single gene inherited from one parent. Because monogenic diseases are relatively rare, sequencing the genomes of those affected generates a manageable amount of data. Yet only 10 percent of monogenic diseases have yielded to treatment. On the other hand, multigenic disorders, such as cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, result from a complex interplay of genetic mutations and environmental factors. A given mutation on a person’s genome may not necessarily express as a malignant disease, so identifying the probability of a multigenic disease is extremely challenging. Traditional indicators such as family history, diet, and lifestyle may still be far more predictive than genetic testing for individual risk.

Compounding the problem, the bodily pathway of a multigenic disorder is complex and difficult to trace, and each person’s metabolism responds in a highly idiosyncratic way to the conditions that cause disease. To discover how individuals’ systems respond to the genetic risk for a multigenic disease requires comparing data gathered from the genomes of thousands of test subjects, ideally involving research findings and tissue samples from bio-banks worldwide. And once potential treatments for these disorders are identified, they require long-term clinical trials.

Convincing governments and other funders to support these kinds of initiatives rather than searching for a magic bullet to cure a disease such as cancer presents a challenge. “Getting population cohort studies launched in Canada is very difficult,” says Tom Hudson, president and scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. “It’s less sexy than funding basic human genome research.” Hudson has made consulting with clinicians and assessing their requirements a high priority. “We need to turn the question around,” he says. “We have to identify the medical need and make sure our research programs create paths to address those clinical questions. It’s like starting a puzzle from the end.”

More problematic is the reality that the human genome is still a vast catalogue of the unknown and scarcely known. The Human Genome Project’s most startling finding was that human genes, as currently defined, make up less than 2 percent of all the DNA on the genome, and that the total number of genes is relatively small. Scientists had predicted there might be 80,000 to 140,000 human genes, but the current tally is fewer than 25,000 — as one scientific paper put it, somewhere between that of a chicken and a grape. The remaining 98 percent of our DNA, once dismissed as “junk DNA,” is now taken more seriously. Researchers have focused on introns, in the gaps between the coding segments of genes, which may play a crucial role in regulating gene expression, by switching them on and off in response to environmental stimuli.

by Mark Czarnecki, The Walrus |  Read more:
Illustration by Alain Pilon

How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke

What the hell happened here? Seven floors above the iced-over Dallas North Tollway, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail is revisiting the question. It's December, and Ismail is sitting in the boardroom of Chapwood Investments, a wealth management firm, his white Notre Dame snow hat pulled down to his furrowed brow.

In 1991 Ismail, a junior wide receiver for the Fighting Irish, was the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Instead he signed with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts for a guaranteed $18.2 million over four years, then the richest contract in football history. But today, at a private session on financial planning attended by eight other current or onetime pro athletes, Ismail, 39, indulges in a luxury he didn't enjoy as a young VIP: hindsight.

"I once had a meeting with J.P. Morgan," he tells the group, "and it was literally like listening to Charlie Brown's teacher." The men surrounding Ismail at the conference table include Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, Cowboys wideout Isaiah Stanback and six former pros: NFL cornerback Ray Mickens and fullback Jerald Sowell (both of whom retired in 2006), major league outfielder Ben Grieve and NBA guard Erick Strickland ('05), and linebackers Winfred Tubbs ('00) and Eugene Lockhart ('92). Ismail ('02) cackles ruefully. "I was so busy focusing on football that the first year was suddenly over," he says. "I'd started with this $4 million base salary, but then I looked at my bank statement, and I just went, What the...?"

Before Ismail can elaborate on his bewilderment—over the complexity of that statement and the amount of money he had already lost—eight heads are nodding, eight faces smiling in sympathy. Hunter chimes in, "Once you get into the financial stuff, and it sounds like Japanese, guys are just like, 'I ain't going back.' They're lost."

At the front of the room Ed Butowsky also does a bobblehead nod. Stout, besuited and silver-haired, Butowsky, 47, is a managing partner at Chapwood and a former senior vice president at Morgan Stanley. His bailiwick as a money manager has long been billionaires, hundred-millionaires and CEOs—a club that, the Steinbrenners' pen be damned, still doesn't include many athletes. But one afternoon six years ago Butowsky was chatting with Tubbs, his neighbor in the Dallas suburb of Plano, and the onetime Pro Bowl player casually described how money spills through athletes' fingers. Tubbs explained how and when they begin earning income (often in school, through illicit payments from agents); how their pro salaries are invested (blindly); and when the millions evaporate (before they know it).

"The details were mind-boggling," recalls Butowsky, who would later hire Tubbs to work in business development at Chapwood. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

What happens to many athletes and their money is indeed hard to believe. In this month alone Saints alltime leading rusher Deuce McAllister filed for bankruptcy protection for the Jackson, Miss., car dealership he owns; Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad put his mansion in Charlotte up for sale on eBay a month after news broke that his entertainment company was being sued by Wachovia Bank for overdue credit-card payments; and penniless former NFL running back Travis Henry was jailed for nonpayment of child support.

In a less public way, other athletes from the nation's three biggest and most profitable leagues—the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball—are suffering from a financial pandemic. Although salaries have risen steadily during the last three decades, reports from a host of sources (athletes, players' associations, agents and financial advisers) indicate that:

• By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

• Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

by Pablo S. Torre, Sports Illustrated |  Read more:
Image via: Balls and Seeds

The Bravest Woman in Seattle

[ed. Winner of this year's Pulitzer prize for feature writing.]

The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night—which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?

She answered the prosecutor's questions, pointing to a map of the small South Park home she used to share with her partner, Teresa Butz, a downtown Seattle property manager. When the two of them lived in this house, it was red, a bit run-down, much loved, filled with their lives together, typical of the neighborhood. Now it was a two-dimensional schematic, State's Exhibit 2, set on an easel next to the witness stand. She narrated with a red laser pointer for the prosecutor and the jury: These windows had curtains that couldn't be seen through. These windows had just a sheer fabric.

Would your silhouettes have been visible through that sheer fabric at night?

Probably. She didn't know for sure. When she and her partner lived in the house, she noted, "I didn't spend a lot of time staring in my own windows."

Everyone in the courtroom laughed a small laugh—a laugh of nervous relief, because here was a woman testifying about her own rape, and the rape and murder of her partner, and yet she was smiling at the current line of questioning, at the weird perceptual cul-de-sac to which it led. She appeared to understand why people might need to hear these answers, though. What happened to her and Butz in that house in the early morning hours of July 19, 2009, is hard to comprehend. A juror, in order to ease into the reality of what occurred, might first need to imagine how the man picked these two women. At least, then, there'd be some sort of arc to the story.

Maybe he stalked them, looked in their windows, decided they would be his victims. A young South Park girl named Diana Ramirez had already told the court that the man looked familiar. "His eyes," Ramirez said. The prosecutor had also pointed out that the women only had a partial fence in their backyard, the yard where they liked to sit on warm evenings, staring at the sky above the South Park Community Center and the trees in the large surrounding park. It would have been easy for the man to approach their home, unseen, through this park at night.

Maybe he'd noticed the women around the neighborhood during the day, both attractive, both shorter than him, working in their front yard, or attending a local festival, or heading to and from their favorite bar, Loretta's. That July it was unusually hot. Butz, a brown-haired dynamo raised in much hotter St. Louis summers, thought it ridiculous to install air conditioning in Seattle, the court was told. Maybe the man saw that these women were keeping some windows open at night.

Maybe he also saw their love for each other, noticed it in silhouette or on a sidewalk, a love that was exploding that summer, making them inseparable, a love that had grown into plans for a commitment ceremony that fall. Maybe he realized he could turn that love against them, mercilessly, use it to control them in their own home, each subdued by the threat that he would kill the other.

They were two and he was one. But maybe he saw that, in a sense, they were one. He was six feet tall, 200 pounds, muscled. He would have two knives with him. Maybe, looking through one of their windows, he thought that if it did become a fight, the numbers would be on his side.

by Eli Sanders, The Stranger |  Read more:
Illustration: Aaron Bagley

The Never-to-Be Bride

Ours was a love affair that knew its finest hours on a screen. Dan and I could plan the next 50 years in a two-hour online conversation.

Maybe we were able to sketch our future so easily because we didn’t think we’d ever see it. In television dramas, I can tell when a wedding won’t go as planned; the clue is when a character rehearses his or her vows before the ceremony. That’s the sign that we, the audience, won’t be hearing them later; what’s worse is the dramatic irony of knowing what one real life never-to-be-bride-or-groom will never get to say.

Years ago, during one of my “off” periods with Dan, when I was feeling devastated by our being “off,” I went to a Buddhist-type therapist in San Francisco who tried an experimental therapy. He said he used this therapy on 9/11 survivors — guiding them through what would happen if the worst happened — to get them to the other side of their greatest fear. And I thought: how dramatic, how creepy, to use this therapy on me, just another heartbroken girl.

I sat on his big soft couch and stared at a painting of mountains and coyotes. He asked me to hold vibrating paddles, one in each hand, and close my eyes. He controlled the intensity of the vibration, and all I did was squeeze while he asked me to imagine Dan’s future wedding to a woman who wasn’t me.

With the cream-colored paddles surging, the therapist asked questions about the ceremony.

“What does Dan look like walking down the aisle?”

“He looks happy.”

“What are you doing while Dan is getting married?”

“I’m writing a novel.”

“What is the novel about?”

“It is about a lost man,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.

by Elissa Bassist, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration: Brian Rea

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Communities for People

[ed. Well worth watching, just for the before and after pictures of what livable communities should look like, and how easily they can be achieved with careful planning.]

Dan Burden has spent more than 35 years helping the world get “back on its feet” and his efforts have not only earned him the first-ever lifetime-achievement awards issued by the New Partners for Smart Growth and the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, but in 2001, Dan was named by TIME magazine as “one of the six most important civic innovators in the world.”  Also that year, the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences honored Dan by making him their Distinguished Lecturer.  In 2009, a user’s poll by Planetizen named Dan as one of the Top 100 Urban Thinkers of all time.  Early in his career, starting in 1980, Dan served for 16 years as the country’s first statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation and that program became a model for other statewide programs in the United States.  In 1996, Dan sought to expand his reach and ability to really change the world, so he and his wife Lys co-founded a non-profit organization called Walkable Communities.  Since then, Dan has personally helped 3,500 communities throughout the world become more livable and walkable.

Walkable and Liveable Communities Institute

The A/B Test: Inside the Technology That’s Changing the Rules of Business

Dan Siroker helps companies discover tiny truths, but his story begins with a lie. It was November 2007 and Barack Obama, then a Democratic candidate for president, was at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to speak. Siroker—who today is CEO of the web-testing firm Optimizely, but then was a product manager on Google’s browser team—tried to cut the enormous line by sneaking in a back entrance. “I walked up to the security guard and said, ‘I have to get to a meeting in there,’” Siroker recalls. There was no meeting, but his bluff got him in.

At the talk, Obama fielded a facetious question from then-CEO Eric Schmidt: “What is the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers?” Schmidt was having a bit of fun, but before he could move on to a real question, Obama stopped him. “Well, I think the bubble sort would be the wrong way to go,” he said—correctly. Schmidt put his hand to his forehead in disbelief, and the room erupted in raucous applause. Siroker was instantly smitten. “He had me at ‘bubble sort,’” he says. Two weeks later he had taken a leave of absence from Google, moved to Chicago, and joined up with Obama’s campaign as a digital adviser.

At first he wasn’t sure how he could help. But he recalled something else Obama had said to the Googlers: “I am a big believer in reason and facts and evidence and science and feedback—everything that allows you to do what you do. That’s what we should be doing in our government.” And so Siroker decided he would introduce Obama’s campaign to a crucial technique—almost a governing ethos—that Google relies on in developing and refining its products. He showed them how to A/B test.

Over the past decade, the power of A/B testing has become an open secret of high-stakes web development. It’s now the standard (but seldom advertised) means through which Silicon Valley improves its online products. Using A/B, new ideas can be essentially focus-group tested in real time: Without being told, a fraction of users are diverted to a slightly different version of a given web page and their behavior compared against the mass of users on the standard site. If the new version proves superior—gaining more clicks, longer visits, more purchases—it will displace the original; if the new version is inferior, it’s quietly phased out without most users ever seeing it. A/B allows seemingly subjective questions of design—color, layout, image selection, text—to become incontrovertible matters of data-driven social science.

by Brian Christian, Wired |  Read more:
Photo: Spencer Higgins; Illustration: Si Scott

1960: Marilyn Monroe in Reno captured by Eve Arnold. This picture was taken during the filming of The Misfits directed by John Huston.

Brevity and the Soul

[ed. One of the commenters to this essay mentions Raymond Carver, a master of brevity, and provides a link to one of his stories Popular Mechanics.]

There is the apocryphal story in which Hemingway, sitting in a bar somewhere in Key West, is asked by an antagonistic admirer to follow his minimalism to its logical outcome and to tell a story in six words.  As the story goes, Hemingway picks up a napkin and writes out the following words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This is a pretty good story. The reader has to kind of inhabit it and fill in all that is unsaid (which is pretty much everything), but there’s an inexhaustible sadness there in the spaces between the words.  Everything pared away until there’s almost nothing left. The iceberg theory of fiction.

The genre of short short fiction (or microfiction, or whatever one might want to call it) is itself kinda small, and little of it is worth reading. But there are exceptions.

There’s this: “Sticks,” by George Saunders, perhaps the greatest super short story I’ve ever read:


Originally published in Story, Winter 1995.

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married,  had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.

Here there is an entire novel’s worth of intrigue and emotional complexity and backstory and difficult familial relationships and unhappinesses and losses and redemptions.  One can’t help but think of all those homes run by inexpressive and angry fathers who know something of love’s austere offices, these homes that suddenly erupt in holiday decorations that go waaay beyond the normal or expected.  Rudolphs and Santas and baby Jesuses and lights and holly all over the place.  This phenomenon…the phenomenon of the middle-to-lower-class father who has no creative outlet but finds an avenue in his front yard…this is an important aspect of contemporary life in the U.S., and one that needs more examination.  There are dissertations here.  And Saunders’ story is a most excellent jumping off point.

Then there is David Foster Wallace’s remarkable “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.”

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

I don’t think I’ve ever fully fathomed this one, but the final repetition of “now did one now did one now did one” is wildly suggestive.  It seems to suggest something of the radical uncertainty of what it means to live in a world where everyone is wearing a face to meet the faces on the street.

by Tom Jacobs, 3 Quarks Daily |  Read more:

Bic FlameDisk

[ed. I don't usually do product endorsements but these little instant barbeque pans are the bee's knees. Just pull from the package, place in a small grill or sand pit, light with a match and you're ready to go. When you're done just extinguish and let cool before crumpling and disposing. About the size of a stove-top popcorn pan. Extremely handy in a pinch.]

Photos: markk

Clemens Behr