Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Night and SleepEvelyn De Morgan. 1878

Shitty First Drafts

Excerpted from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

Very few writers really know what they arc doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning—sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be some thing great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

I used to write food reviews for California magazine before it folded. (My writing food reviews had nothing to do with the magazine folding, although every single review did cause a couple of canceled subscriptions. Some readers took umbrage at my comparing mounds of vegetable puree with various ex-presidents’ brains.) These reviews always took two days to write. First I’d go to a restaurant several times with a few opinionated, articulate friends in tow. I’d sit there writing down everything anyone said that was at all interesting or funny. Then on the following Monday I’d sit down at my desk with my notes, and try to write the review. Even after I’d been doing this for years, panic would set in. I’d try to write a lead, but instead I’d write a couple of dreadful sentences, xx them out, try again, xx everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron. It’s over, I’d think, calmly. I’m not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. I’m ruined. I’m through. I’m toast. Maybe, I’d think, I can get my old job back as a clerk-typist. But probably not. I’d get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I’d stop, remember to breathe, make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down. Eventually I’d go back and sit down at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes. Finally I would pick up my one-inch picture frame, stare into it as if for the answer, and every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it.

by Anne Lamott, YMFY | Read more:
Image: First Draft of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Charles Emery Ross
15 x 11”, mm/paper

The Printer's Son

Hamilton Chan was the smartest person I knew at Harvard. He was maddening. When I stayed up all night because a paper was due the next day, I worked on the paper. Too often I got a B. When Hamilton pulled an all-nighter, he played computer games, chatted with girls in the dorm, beat all comers at foosball, and napped. At dawn he began to write, and inevitably he got an A. Hamilton graduated with highest honors, was accepted at Harvard Law School, then deferred admission and joined J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong as an investment banker. He chose Hong Kong because he wanted to learn more about where his family had come from. Using the flawless Cantonese and Mandarin he had absorbed by watching Chinese soap operas, he worked 130 hours a week creating financial projections, jetting around Asia, and negotiating deals. Before he was 23, he was making more than $125,000 a year. “He could have made millions,” then-colleague Gary Cheng says. But Hamilton Chan was not happy.

I followed his success from afar, usually by way of conversations with mutual friends. When we were both at home in Los Angeles, we would meet for lunch or a game of pickup basketball. He was slow and stocky, but he was good. He would surprise me with a running hook shot and then flash an easy smile.

Like my mother and father before me, I had become a newspaper reporter, and I thought I was doing pretty well. Hamilton, though, decided to use his deferred law school admission and return to Harvard. By the second year, I’d heard that he was ducking law classes, sleeping in, and spending a lot of time perfecting his left-handed layup.

It didn’t matter. He excelled anyway. In his final year, he interviewed at 26 top law firms and got 26 callbacks. The 12 he chose for final interviews all offered him a position. It was scalp collecting—“a bit psychotic,” Hamilton would tell me. “I applied to all those places to prove myself.” He chose Munger, Tolles & Olson so he could come back to L.A. “They were the most prestigious firm in the western United States,” he said. “More than half the people in that firm graduated summa cum laude. I knew because I counted.” Hamilton, who practiced corporate law, fit right in. He joined the Munger Tolles recruiting committee, even took charge of doling out Laker tickets. His clients included Kobe Bryant. Hamilton helped him buy a basketball team in Italy. But still, Hamilton Chan was not happy.

In 1962, Hamilton’s father had emigrated from Hong Kong to Los Angeles because he wanted success and happiness, especially for his family. His name was Hamilton Charlie Chan. Hamilton seemed harder to say, so he became Charlie. “People started making fun of me,” Charlie recalls. He knew nothing of Charlie Chan, the Chinese American film detective from the 1930s and ’40s who spoke in Confucian aphorisms and raised 14 children, the eldest known as “Number One Son.” By the time the real Charlie Chan became a student at Los Angeles City College, the movie Charlie Chan was seen as a disgraceful stereotype.

The name Charlie Chan also didn’t help much when he applied for jobs. Finally he answered an ad placed by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, which needed agents. A manager handed him the Yellow Pages. “There are your clients,” the manager said. The phone book revealed Charlie’s talent. He could sell insurance to anyone, and now his name seemed to help. When Charlie Chan called, people asked, Is that your real name? It was the opening he needed. Equitable sponsored him for permanent residency, and Charlie Chan was put in charge of an Equitable branch office in the 3400 block of Wilshire Boulevard. He invested in the stock market and lost his savings. But he married a Vietnamese woman of Chinese descent named Christine, and they were happy.

Christine suggested he start a business. He thought of printing. Printers had done well for 500 years, and he figured they would do well for another 500. An Equitable executive tried to talk him out of it; Charlie had 900 regular insurance customers, a solid base for a long and comfortable career. Nonetheless, Charlie and two partners, including a college roommate, opened Chop Chop Printing. The name meant their work would be done quickly and well—chop-chop. But it made introductions difficult: “This is Charlie Chan from Chop Chop Printing.” One partner quit, and in 1971, Charlie reincorporated with the other as Charlie Chan Printing. They reopened just up the street from Equitable. Months in, they had little equipment and no customers, and they were about to shut down when Charlie knocked on the door of another insurance company, a former competitor. Its printer had failed to finish an order of documents. Could Charlie produce thousands of pages in 48 hours? Christine, pregnant with their daughter, helped. They made mistakes collating the order, but they met the deadline and won the account. Word got around, and other insurers followed.

by Joe Matthews, LA Magazine |  Read more:
Photograph by Michael Kelley

Photographic Memory

Sometimes life just passes by, and you don’t have a photo to show for it.

Memoto is the solution to your memory-woes. This tiny, postage-sized, wearable device is an automatic camera, snapping photos every 30 seconds while you go about your day.

Then the camera automatically uploads the photos to a companion site or app, complete with metadata providing GPS locations and timestamps of the photo. The site will even catalog what it believes to be the most interesting moments, making it that much easier for you to search and relive your day. And it won’t stop clicking pics until you put the camera in the dark.

Memoto wasn’t the first of it’s kind. Looxcie is a similar mini camera that documents your life with constant picture-taking. It even records in HD and lets you livestream video.

But lifeblogging also brings with it a question of ethics. People may not realize they are being photographed because of the discreet nature of the camera and certain moments may not be appropriate to be captured in a photo.

Nonetheless, the Kickstarter for the project was so popular, it was funded within five hours of launch.

by Neha Prakash, Mashable |  Read more:

The Finest Wife

When Rose was sixteen years old and five months pregnant, she won a beauty pageant in South Texas, based on her fine walk up a runway in a sweet navy-blue bathing suit. This was shortly before the war. She had been a skinny, knee-scratching kid only the summer earlier, but her pregnancy had just delivered her this sudden prize of a body. It was as though life was gestating in her thighs and ass and breasts, not in her belly. It might have seemed that she was carrying all the soft weights of motherhood spread evenly and perfectly across her whole frame. Those parts of herself that she could not quite pack into the blue bathing suit spilled over it exactly enough to emotionally disturb several of the judges and spectators. She was an uncontested champion beauty.

Rose’s father, too, saw the pin-up shape that his daughter had taken, and, five months too late, he started worrying about the maintenance of her graces. Soon after the pageant, her condition became obvious. Her father sent her to a facility in Oklahoma, where she stayed until she experienced four days of labor and the delivery of a stillborn son. Rose could not actually have any more children after that, but the lovely figure was hers to keep, and she ended up eventually married, once again on the basis of a fine walk in a bathing suit.

But she didn’t meet her husband until the war was over. In the meantime, she stayed in Oklahoma. She had developed a bit of a taste for certain types of tall, smiling local men in dark hats. Also, she had developed a taste for certain types of churchgoing men and also for left-handed men, and for servicemen, fishermen, postmen, assemblymen, firemen, highwaymen, elevator repairmen, and the Mexican busboys at the restaurant where she worked (who reverently called her La Rubia—the Blond—as if she were a notorious bandit or a cardsharp).

She married her husband because she loved him best. He was kind to waitresses and dogs, and was not in any way curious about her famous tastes. He was a big man himself, with a rump like the rump of a huge animal—muscled and hairy. He dialed telephones with pencil stubs because his fingers didn’t fit the rotary holes. He smoked cigarettes that looked like shreds of toothpicks against the size of his mouth. He couldn’t fall asleep without feeling Rose’s bottom pressed up warm against his belly. He held her as if she were a puppy. In the years after they got a television, they would watch evening game shows together on the couch, and he would genuinely applaud the contestants who had won cars and boats. He was happy for them. He would clap for them with his big arms stretched out stiffly, the way a trained seal claps.

They moved to Minnesota, eventually. Rose’s husband bought a musky flock of sheep and a small, tight house. She was married to him for forty-three years, and then he died of a heart attack. He was quite a bit older than she was, and he had lived a long time. Rose thought that he had passed the kind of life after which you should say, “Yes! That was a good one!” Her mourning was appreciative and fond.

When he was gone, the sheep became too much work, and she sold them off, a few at a time. And when the sheep were all gone—spread across several states as pets, yarn, dog food, and mint-jellied chops—Rose became the driver of the local kindergarten school bus. She was damn near seventy years old.

by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Rumpus |  Read more:

Are You On It?

Every generation has its defining psychiatric malady, confidently diagnosed from afar by armchair non-psychiatrists. In the fifties, all those gray-suited organization men were married to “frigid” women. Until a few years ago, the country of self-obsessed boomers and reality-TV fame-seekers and vain politicians and bubble-riding Ponzi schemers made narcissistic personality disorder—diagnosis code 301.81 in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition—the craziness of the moment. And who among us has not proudly copped to our own “OCD” or “ADD,” deemed a mercurial sibling “seriously bipolar,” written off an erratic ex as “obviously borderline,” or nodded as a laid-off friend pronounced his former boss a “textbook sociopath”? Lately, a new kind of head case stalks the land—staring past us, blurting gaucheries, droning on about the technical minutiae of his boring hobby. And we are ready with our DSM codes: 299.00 (autistic disorder) and 299.80 (Asperger’s disorder). (...)

But this is not a story about Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families. It is, instead, a story about “Asperger’s,” “autism,” and “the spectrum”—our one-stop-shopping shorthand for the jerky husband, the socially inept plutocrat, the tactless boss, the child prodigy with no friends, the remorseless criminal. It’s about the words we deploy to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.

Like the actual clinical disorder, the cultural epidemic in scare quotes may have less to do with changes in the world than with changes in those seeing it. To some degree, the spectrum is our way of making sense of an upended social topography, a buckled landscape where nerd titans hold the high ground once occupied by square-jawed captains of industry, a befuddling digital world overrun with trolls and avatars and social-media “rock stars” who are nothing like actual rock stars. It is, as the amateur presidential shrinks would have it, a handy phrase for the distant, cerebral men with the ambition and self-possession necessary to mount a serious run for the White House. When quants and engineers are ascendant, when algorithms trump the liberal arts, when Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber tweet about the death of Steve Jobs, when the hyperspecialist has displaced the generalist and everyone is Matrix-ed into the Internet, it’s an Other-deriding tool to soothe our cultural anxiety about the ongoing power shift from humanists to technologists. As the coders inherit the Earth, saying someone’s on the spectrum is how English majors make themselves feel better.

But anxiety alone (generalized anxiety disorder: 300.02) doesn’t fully explain it. There’s something admiring, too, in the cultural uses of Asperger’s, which makes it different from the psych put-downs du jour of previous eras. The popular but mostly false image of Rain Man–like asocial geniuses (whether on the sitcoms Big Bang Theory and Community, say, or in best-selling books like Jodi Picoult’s novel House Rules and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short) has helped create a mystique around high-functioning autism, and the idea that Asperger’s offers selective advantages has midwifed a generation of self-outers: See, for example, Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic Tim Page’s Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s, or contestant Heather Kuzmich’s appearances on America’s Next Top Model.

And so we find ourselves in a weird place. A psychiatric diagnosis first observed in four boys more than half a century ago has become common slang, a conceptual gadget for processing the modern world. Weirder still: At the same time it soothes the insecurities of those who would weaponize it as insult, it flatters the vanity of those who’d appropriate it as status credential.

by Benjamin Wallace, New York Magazine |  Read more:
Illustration by Gluekit

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

HMS Bounty: A Tall Ship’s Final Hours

The tall ship began to die early Monday morning in the hurricane-ravaged waters off the North Carolina coast. One of the HMS Bounty’s generators failed. Water flooded everywhere. The 180-foot-long, three-masted tall ship was losing power and propulsion.

By about 3 a.m., the Bounty’s once-optimistic Facebook page, which on Sunday had posted “So far so good!” in its daily updates, had issued a new message for its followers: “Your Prayers are needed.”

Ninety minutes later, the Bounty finally lost its battle with 40 mph winds and 18-foot seas. Its captain ordered all hands to abandon the sinking ship, a shocking demise for a celebrity vessel built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

The ship, which had been trying to make its way around Hurricane Sandy, carried a crew of 16. When the rescue operation ended about 10 a.m. Monday, 14 of the crew members had been saved by Coast Guard helicopters. Two people, Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, and Claudene Christian, 42, were missing.

Christian’s body was recovered Monday night, but Walbridge remained unaccounted for.

The HMS Bounty, owned by New York businessman Robert Hansen, began its journey Thursday, departing from New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., where the ship has docked for years. In addition to its star turns in the 2006 “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel and other Hollywood movies, the ship was used to teach the “nearly lost arts of square rigged sailing and seamanship,” its Web site said. It also offered sailing, teamwork and leadership classes for the general public.

On Saturday, Walbridge reported that he expected to face the hurricane’s brunt that night, according to the ship’s Facebook page. The HMS Bounty Organization, which ran the ship, knew its tall-ship devotees might be skeptical of the vessel’s path, so it tried to reassure its 8,000 Facebook followers.

“Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands,” the Facebook page’s administrator wrote. “Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision . . . NOT AT ALL . . . irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is . . . A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”

But Sunday night, the hurricane was proving too much for the Bounty. The ship sent out a distress signal at 9 p.m., according to the Coast Guard. Two hours later, the HMS organization called the Coast Guard, confirming that it had lost radio contact with the vessel.

A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft arrived at the scene an hour later to make direct contact with the Bounty and survey the scene, about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras.

When the captain ordered everyone off the ship about 4:30 a.m., three people struggled to climb into the two lifeboats and were smacked by a wave, the Coast Guard said. One man fell into the water, but others pulled him into one of the boats. Walbridge and Christian were thrown into the water and disappeared.

While the HMS Bounty and its crew foundered in the dark, Steve Bonn was woken from a sound sleep in Camden, N.C., about 4:15 a.m. by his ringing cellphone. The 44-year-old Coast Guard helicopter pilot was needed for a mission: A big boat was sinking.

One rescue helicopter had already been dispatched. Bonn, who has rescued ship passengers near the cold waters of Alaska, boarded a Jayhawk chopper with three others: a co-pilot, a flight mechanic and 27-year-old rescue swimmer Daniel Todd.

The first rescue helicopter arrived about 6:30 a.m. Monday, found two lifeboats and focused on one of them. Bonn’s chopper showed up 45 minutes later, and he zeroed in on the second lifeboat, about a mile away from the other. Six people huddled inside.

Bonn piloted his Jayhawk about 50 feet from the life raft, he said, far enough so the propeller draft wouldn’t overturn the lifeboat. But close enough so Todd could quickly muscle his way to the lifeboat. Bonn and his team also had to move fast. They had about an hour to conduct the rescue so they could make it back to their air base without running out of fuel.

Bonn kept his chopper in place, while the flight mechanic lowered Todd into churning waters. Wearing a dry suit, the rescue swimmer shimmied into the black lifeboat.

“Hey, how are you all doing? I hear you need a ride,” he said he told the passengers. “There’s a couple things I need to know. Are you all accounted for? Who has injuries?”

by Ian Shapira, Washington Post |  Read more:
Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

You Are Listening to New York

You Are Listening to New York
[ed. Click the play button at the top for NYPD radio stream, second button to change soundtrack.]
Photo: Zemlinki!

The Bookstore Brain

If you could create a bookstore, what would you put in it? What would you exclude? Would you specialize in any particular genre? Would your organizing principle be quantity or quality, or would you devise a way to have both?

Nearly all bibliophiles—that peculiar breed of people who feel more at home in bookstores than in their actual homes—have at some point posed such questions and daydreamed about the utopian store they would construct in answer to them, the store that would smoothly combine expertise and aesthetic preference with comfort and commercial viability.

Except for the quixotically determined few who actually open a store, most book lovers must be content to tend to the garden of their own libraries. But for a few years, I had the chance to put speculation into practice. I worked at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the retail arms of the venerable New York H.I.V./AIDS nonprofit that was started in the nineteen-eighties by members of ACT UP. Like the organization’s thrift stores, the bookstore is run largely by volunteers and receives its stock entirely from donations. So at any given time, crowded under the steam pipes of the store’s basement and sub-basement, are scores of boxes of books—from publishers or magazines getting rid of their overflow, from the apartments of lifelong readers who have died, or simply from the shelves of New Yorkers who need to clear space. In those boxes is the raw material to make a bookstore. My job was to sift their contents, relying on my tastes and book-floor experience to select the stock. And influenced by the same fond madness that allows booksellers to continue to believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the book-buying public still wants their guidance, I am certain that you will be interested in reading an essay about book sorting. (...)

I have worked at four bookstores. Two were Barnes & Nobles, the unjustly maligned chain megastore. It’s true that the mind governing these stores is corporate, but the staff tends to be far better read and more informed than detractors allow, and the selection is large and egalitarian.

I worked, too, at the Strand bookstore, the Manhattan institution that boasts the impossible-to-verify claim of having eighteen miles of books. The Strand’s most distinctive characteristic is its lupine voracity. It opened on Book Row in the nineteen-twenties among dozens of other bookshops, but like some apex predator, it is the only one that has survived. It is hungry for your books—it wants to buy them cheap and sell them slightly less cheap. Watching the process is mesmerizing: A potential seller will appear and present the carefully culled fruits of his library. His books are instantly snatched up and spread like entrails over the counter. The grizzled buyers, who have worked at the store for decades, claw at them for a moment and then shout out a non-negotiable offer. Seconds later the man staggers away with two wrinkled tens and a kick in the behind. It’s rough handling, but the visitor benefits, because the sheer volume of the stock makes the browsing otherworldly.

But my favorite job was at Housing Works, where I stood at the sluice gates of the incoming book donations and was tasked with judging which ones would be elevated to the shelves on the book floor. Housing Works is a fascinating case study, because its floor inventory and its online inventory (also housed in the building’s basements) are separate entities. It’s almost like two bookstores in one—the first for browsing and surfing the serendipity of the stacks, the second for title-searched Internet ordering. On average there, thirty per cent of book sales are made in person and the remainder are made online. A book sorter needs to keep this ratio in mind when determining whether a book should go to the book floor or to the online division. Apart from that consideration, he follows his own lights. Here, for the curious, are some of the precepts that guided me.

by Sam Sacks, New Yorker |  Read more:
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Rudolf Dischinger -Gramophone, 1930

Good Raymond

I met Raymond in the fall of 1977, not really so long ago, although of course almost half of that time he’s been gone. We met at one of those semi-fancy literary festivals that still take place in American universities. A mixed group of writers—poets and prosers—get themselves invited to a college campus (in this case it was S.M.U., in Dallas). Public readings go on every evening, panel discussions, classes with students in the afternoons, late nights in the Hilton Hotel bar with pals, occasionally some low-grade high jinks, nothing too serious—all of it on the cuff. It’s what occupies the space of a literary life outside of New York.

Ray and I were lesser lights in a larger group that included Philip Levine and E.L. Doctorow—distinct literary stars, even then. A friend of ours at S.M.U. had included us on the “faculty” as a way of putting some money in our pockets and giving us some needed exposure. I had published a novel the year before, to no special acclaim. Ray had published his first collection of stories, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” which had been nominated for the National Book Award.

I can honestly say I didn’t know who Raymond Carver was at the time. That his name would become a household word in the next ten years, his stories a standard for the form, and he himself elevated to the station of “the American Chekhov” did not seem quite evident then. (It’s difficult, of course, to re-create the condition of not knowing once experience has made so much known. It is, though, a phenomenon writers all puzzle about as we try to make made-up experience seem real.)

It’s possible I’d heard the name Ray Carver before, knew of some wild and woolly literary drinking episodes in the Bay Area or Iowa City, two places I knew little of. (I, improbably enough, lived in Princeton.) But I’m certain I hadn’t read a Carver story. I was thirty-three, and Ray was vaguely thirty-nine. Neither of us had much gotten our head up out of the foggy ether young writers live in—sometimes for years, sometimes forever—in which you’re indistinctly aware of a “writing world,” conscious of a few names on its periphery, a few stories, an occasional significant breakthrough into print, but mostly are just beavering away trying to make isolation and persistence into a virtue, and anonymity your sneak attack on public notice. (...)

Ray was my opposite, at least in appearance: a man who truly had other things on his mind. Ray Carver was hungry in 1977, and not for a square meal. You could also say he looked haunted. Bad things were not very far behind him, and he meant to be watchful. He laughed hurriedly, then slipped back into a kind of serious but uncertain reserve. His eyes darted a little. His big shoulders were slightly hunched. He seemed to want to come near you, to agree with you about something important you and he knew together, something literary, if possible—admiration for somebody’s book or poem—but not to come all the way to you. “Yes, yes, oh yes. Oh by God I couldn’t agree more.” His voice was hoarse, deep. His eyes would move away but find you again, as if he were testing something—your opinion of him. He seemed vulnerable, good. And everything—his clothes, his hands, his hair (if you put your hands on his shoulders, as we all did a lot then, and drew close)—everything smelled like smoke. Though everything did not smell like booze. Booze was over.

The night I met Ray he gave a reading in some big, cold and barny, echoing multipurpose room on the S.M.U. campus. Other people, even if I didn’t, seemed to know who Raymond Carver was, because lots of them turned up to listen. Ray read a story that was then called “What Is It?” and that is still my favorite. (Later, an overweening editor convinced Ray to call it “Are These Actual Miles?”—a terrible title for giving away the story’s keystone line.) The story concerns a couple on the brink of bankruptcy and dispossession who decide to sell their prized convertible (an emblem of palmier times) before whoever is going to foreclose or serve papers or slap a lien on them arrives at the door. She leaves to do the selling. He stays home, full of apprehension and loathing, drinking Scotch. The story, which is from “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” is shockingly brief—ten pages in my Vintage edition—especially in view of the broad emotional distances it traverses while still being full of memorable moments and lines. In the passage of an afternoon and evening, a man’s entire spiritual life is laid bare then bludgeoned in ways that make the reader both laugh and cringe: his marriage is possibly sacrificed to hardship; he is almost certainly cuckolded by a used-car dealer his wife has only that night become acquainted with; great fury and indignation are fruitlessly unleashed; his wife’s distaste for him is revealed. And, of course, his car is sold.

Ray read the story in near-dark conditions, hugely hunched over a glaring little podium lamp, constantly fiddling with his big glasses, clearing his throat, sipping water, beetling down at the pages of his book as if he’d never really thought of reading this story out loud and wasn’t finding it easy. His voice was typically hushed, seemingly unpracticed, halting almost to the point of being annoying. But the effect of voice and story upon the listener was of actual life being unscrolled in a form so distilled, so intense, so chosen, so affecting in its urgencies as to leave you breathless and limp when he was finished. It was a startling experience—wondrous in all ways. And one learned, from the story, many things: Life was this way—yes, we already knew that. But this life, these otherwise unnoticeable people’s suitability for literary expression seemed new. One also felt that a consequence of the story was seemingly to intensify life, even dignify it, and to locate in it shadowed corners and niches that needed revealing so that we readers could practice life better ourselves. And yet the story itself, in its spare, self-conscious intensity, was such a made thing, not like life at all; it was a piece of nearly abstract artistic construction calculated to produce almost giddy pleasure. That night in Dallas, Ray put on a blatant display of what a story could do in terms of artifice, concision, strong feeling, shapeliness, high and surprising dramatics. The story was definitely about something, and you could follow it easily—it was about what two people did in adversity which changed their lives. But here was no ponderous naturalism. Nothing extra. There were barely the rudiments of realism. This was highly stylized, artistic writing with life, not art, as its subject. And to be exposed to it was to be bowled over.

On the way out of the building into the watery Texas night, I came up beside Ray and patted him on the back. (We were always doing that.) “Gee,” I said, “that was a terrific story, Ray. And you read it just perfectly [hesitantly, painfully, reluctantly, almost inaccessibly, as if all the horrors and poignance and comedy were straight from true life, which they probably were].”

“Oh God, Richard, really?” Ray said, looking nearly astonished and grinning. “Did you like that? Did you? Oh Christ, I’m glad to hear that. I really am.” He stopped and shook his head. “I hadn’t read a story sober in longer than I can remember. Maybe never. I was shaking in my boots. I was afraid I couldn’t finish it. But that you liked it means the world to me. Thanks a lot, my friend. I’m pleased. I really am. Thanks. Thanks.”

by Richard Ford, The New Yorker (1998) |  Read more:
Photo: Wikipedia

The Bloody Patent Battle Over a Healing Machine

A patent royalty is a beautiful thing. It is so much sweeter than found money because it is more than just good luck. It means that one party is paying another to use an invention. And before the lawyers got to arguing over claim constructions and prior art, before the government regulators and hospitals screamed enough was enough, and before the Russians came to Texas to explain Soviet-era library policies, there were few things more beautiful or lucrative in the world of patent royalties than the VAC.

It's pronounced "vack" and stands for vacuum-assisted closure. Here's what it is: You cut a piece of foam to size and place it in a wound as a barrier and protector. Then you cover the wound and seal it up. One end of a tube goes through the seal and the other goes into a small pump. The pump produces negative pressure, creating an even vacuum through the foam, and the wound is pulled together and heals. If it sounds simple, it's because it is simple.

For much of the past 20 years this device was controlled by a San Antonio company called Kinetic Concepts Inc. The VAC transformed KCI from a second-tier medical manufacturer into a global juggernaut.

For Wake Forest University, which licensed the VAC patents to KCI, the device has meant about $500 million in royalties. Based almost entirely on the VAC deal, the university was ranked fifth by the Association of University Technology Managers in its most recent survey of licensing income, trailing only Columbia, New York University, Northwestern, and the University of California system. In recent years the KCI payments have propped up the bottom line of the university's medical center, and the VAC money has paid for research, recruiting, and construction that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.

As you might imagine, all that success gave KCI and Wake Forest a powerful incentive to build a fence, to protect the patents at all cost. And it gave everybody else an equally powerful incentive to find a way through the fence.

This is the story of what happens when there are billions of dollars wrapped up in a prosaic piece of technology that at its core is closer to your kid's science-fair entry than the Human Genome Project, one that despite all the commercial success and some 4 million or so patients still has its share of doubters in the medical community. It's a story about luck and timing and the squeezing of the health care dollar. It is about betrayal and wrangling over patents. And mostly it is about invention, the tenuous and uncertain act of breathing life into an idea that may or may not have been yours all along.

by Ken Otterbourg, Fortune |  Read more:
Image: Josue Evilla

The Story Behind The Famous FedEx Logo, And Why It Works

My ten-year-old daughter points out the logo on a FedEx truck every time she sees one. She’s done that without fail ever since she learned to sound out letters. But she doesn’t do that with any other logo. What’s special about the FedEx logo isn’t the vibrant colors or the bold lettering. It’s the white arrow between the E and the x.

“There’s the white arrow that no one on my gymnastics team knows about,” she’ll say.

The FedEx logo is legendary among designers. It has won over 40 design awards and was ranked as one of the eight best logos in the last 35 years in the 35th Anniversary American Icon issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Nearly every design school professor and graphic designer with a blog has at some point focused on the FedEx logo to discuss the use of negative space. I wanted to hear the full history of how it all went down, not to mention impressing my daughter, so I called on Lindon Leader, the designer who created the mark in 1994 while working as senior design director in the San Francisco office of Landor Associates, a global brand consultancy known for executing strategy through design. Lindon now runs his own shop in Park City, Utah, where he continues to work the white space in creating marks and logos for a wide array of organizations.

We spoke at length about visual impact, his creative process, and his story of the FedEx logo development. I began by telling him how my daughter points out FedEx trucks when she sees them.

“It’s those kinds of stories that are the most gratifying for me, most rewarding,” he says. “I’m always asked what it’s like to see your work everywhere, and does it ever get old. It never does.” (...)

It was that kind of artistry that Lindon was after in developing the FedEx logo. “Back then, the company was still officially Federal Express,” he recalls. “The logo was a purple and orange wordmark that simply spelled out the name. By the way, people in focus groups thought it was blue and red, but it wasn’t. It had this incredible customer-created brand. Everyone said ‘FedEx’ and used it as a verb.” Although there was enormous cachet around the term, a global research study revealed that customers were unaware of Federal Express’s global scope and full-service logistics capabilities.

“People thought they shipped only overnight and only within the U.S.,” Lindon explains. “So the goal was to communicate the breadth of its services and to leverage one of its most valuable assets--the FedEx brand.” Lindon remembers that FedEx’s CEO, Fred Smith, placed high value on design and had an intuitive marketing sense: “Any designer worth a lick will tell you great clients make for great design. He said okay to a brand name change and authorized a new graphic treatment. He said do whatever we wanted, under two conditions. One was that whatever we did, we had to justify it: ‘You can make them pink and green for all I care; just give me a good reason why,’ he said. The second one was about visibility. ‘My trucks are moving billboards,’ he said. ‘I better be able to see a FedEx truck loud and clear from five blocks away.’ That was it! So off we went.”

by Matthew May, Fast Company Co.Design |  Read more:
Image via: Takedesigns

Monday, October 29, 2012

Diana Adams, Western Reaches, 2010.

Mirko Hanak

Killing the Computer to Save It

Many people cite Albert Einstein’s aphorism “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Only a handful, however, have had the opportunity to discuss the concept with the physicist over breakfast.

One of those is Peter G. Neumann, now an 80-year-old computer scientist at SRI International, a pioneering engineering research laboratory here.

As an applied-mathematics student at Harvard, Dr. Neumann had a two-hour breakfast with Einstein on Nov. 8, 1952. What the young math student took away was a deeply held philosophy of design that has remained with him for six decades and has been his governing principle of computing and computer security.

For many of those years, Dr. Neumann (pronounced NOY-man) has remained a voice in the wilderness, tirelessly pointing out that the computer industry has a penchant for repeating the mistakes of the past. He has long been one of the nation’s leading specialists in computer security, and early on he predicted that the security flaws that have accompanied the pell-mell explosion of the computer and Internet industries would have disastrous consequences.

“His biggest contribution is to stress the ‘systems’ nature of the security and reliability problems,” said Steven M. Bellovin, chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission. “That is, trouble occurs not because of one failure, but because of the way many different pieces interact.”

Dr. Bellovin said that it was Dr. Neumann who originally gave him the insight that “complex systems break in complex ways” — that the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy.

The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security, voiced alarmingly this month by the defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, who warned of a possible “cyber-Pearl Harbor” attack on the United States.

It is remarkable, then, that years after most of his contemporaries have retired, Dr. Neumann is still at it and has seized the opportunity to start over and redesign computers and software from a “clean slate.”

He is leading a team of researchers in an effort to completely rethink how to make computers and networks secure, in a five-year project financed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, with Robert N. Watson, a computer security researcher at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory.

“I’ve been tilting at the same windmills for basically 40 years,” said Dr. Neumann recently during a lunchtime interview at a Chinese restaurant near his art-filled home in Palo Alto, Calif. “And I get the impression that most of the folks who are responsible don’t want to hear about complexity. They are interested in quick and dirty solutions.”

by John Markoff, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Jim Wilson

David Hockney, Pearblossom Highway, 1986.

What Does Ownership Mean?

On Monday, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that pits a major textbook publisher against Supap Kirtsaeng, a student-entrepreneur who built a small business importing and selling textbooks.

Like many Supreme Court cases, though, there's more than meets the eye. It's not merely a question of whether the Thai-born Kirtsaeng will have to cough up his profits as a copyright infringer; the case is a long-awaited rematch between content companies seeking to knock out the "first sale" doctrine on goods made abroad (not to mention their many opponents). That makes Wiley v. Kirtsaeng the highest-stakes intellectual property case of the year, if not the decade. It's not an exaggeration to say the outcome could affect the very notion of property ownership in the United States. Since most consumer electronics are manufactured outside the US and include copyrighted software in it, a loss for Kirtsaeng would mean copyright owners could tax, or even shut down, resales of everything from books to DVDs to cellphones.

"First sale" is the rule that allows owners to resell, lend out, or give away copyrighted goods without interference. Along with fair use, it's the most important limitation on copyright. So Kirtsaeng's cause has drawn a wide array of allies to his side. These include the biggest online marketplaces like eBay, brick-and-mortar music and game retailers, and Goodwill—all concerned they may lose their right to freely sell used goods. Even libraries are concerned their right to lend out books bought abroad could be inhibited.

John Wiley and Sons, the textbook publisher suing Kirtsaeng, has its share of backers as well, including the movie and music industries, software companies, and other book publishers. Those companies argue differential pricing schemes are vital to their success, and should be enforced by US courts. Nearly 30 amicus briefs have been filed in all.

Supporters of Kirtsaeng are mobilized, following an alarming—but not precedential—loss in an earlier case, Omega v. Costco. On a call with reporters this week, librarians and lawyers for pro-Kirtsaeng companies painted a stark picture of what might happen should he lose the case. If the appellate court ruling against Kirtsaeng is allowed to stand, they suggest copyright owners could start to chip away at the basic idea of "you bought it, you own it."

"This case is an attempt by some brands and manufacturers to manipulate copyright law, to control the distribution and pricing of legitimate, authentic goods," said eBay's top policy lawyer, Hillary Brill. "When an American purchases an authentic item, he shouldn't have to ask permission from the manufacturer to do with it what he wants."

Without "first sale" doctrine in place, content companies would be allowed to control use of their goods forever. They could withhold permission for resale and possibly even library lending—or they could allow it, but only for an extra fee. It would have the wild effect of actually encouraging copyrighted goods to be manufactured offshore, since that would lead to much further-reaching powers.

"When we purchase something, we assume it's ours," said general counsel Mark Griffin. "What is proposed by [the content companies] is that we change the fundamental notion of ownership rights."

by Joe Mullin, ARS Technica | Read more:
Photo: Aurich Lawson / Thinkstock

Mosque of Najaf, Iraq

Giorgio de Chirico, The Melancholy of Departure, 1916.

Prisoners of Cable

On the Internet, news and entertainment famously want to be free. But in June, tens of thousands of people staged an online protest that was bizarre for its medium. They offered—begged, even—to pay an entertainment company for its content. Almost as strangely, the company told them: “No way.”

The Web site attracted more than 160,000 people in 48 hours, each one promising to pay HBO an average of $12 a month for its streaming app, HBO Go, which offers every episode of the channel’s original programming, plus movies, but is currently available only to cable subscribers. The cheeky site might seem insignificant, but it created a media firestorm around the question of cable TV’s future. Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner, the media company that owns HBO, tried to dismiss the issue, saying, “The whole idea that there’s a lot of people out there that want to drop [cable] and just have a Netflix or an HBO—that’s not right.” And indeed, pay-TV services added 200,000 U.S. customers in 2011; HBO and Cinemax subscriptions grew by 7 million globally in the first half of this year.

The cable bundle is under increasing popular assault these days, at least as measured by Web diatribes and water-cooler complaints. Nobody likes to feel forced to buy more than they want, and cable television sticks us with eye-popping bills for hundreds of channels that we couldn’t possibly watch even if we wanted to. The argument behind and its ilk is that this massive bundle could be easily unraveled and sold à la carte, by channel or even by individual show, if we just broke free of cable’s monopoly. Alas, it isn’t so simple.

Your monthly TV bill—if you belong to one of the 83 percent of U.S. households that subscribes to a pay-TV service—is in fact three bundles nestled inside each other. Cable channels (such as TBS) are bundles of shows. Media companies (such as Time Warner, which owns TBS) offer bundles of channels that they refuse to sell one by one. Finally, pay-TV companies—which I’ll call cable companies for short, but which also include satellite companies like DirecTV and telcos like Verizon—bundle and sell the media companies’ offerings. When you pay $80 or so each month for cable, roughly half goes to the cable company to pay for the cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure to transport the content, and the other half goes to the media companies, which divvy it up among channels.

When you turn on your television, there is a 95 percent chance that the channel you tune in to will be owned by one of just seven media companies, such as News Corp (which owns Fox News Channel) or Viacom (which owns Comedy Central). The Big Seven use their oligopolistic power to drive a hard bargain. Cable providers that want to run Viacom’s popular networks, like Comedy Central, must also agree to buy its less popular channels, like MTV2. After dealing with all seven media companies, the cable providers are left with something millions of households will recognize: a bloated offering of channels at an arrestingly high price. The bundle isn’t something Comcast or DirecTV invented to make their customers hate them. It’s something that the largest media companies demand, in take-it-or-leave-it fashion.

But media companies are not the only players with a big stake in the current system. Channels, too, find it congenial to their interests. HBO is a perfect example: Weaned off its media company, Time Warner, HBO would see its costs skyrocket. It would have to build a streaming infrastructure and pay for its own marketing, customer service, and billing. More than 90 percent of HBO’s content is viewed on a television, versus 1 percent through HBO Go. The channel is not about to blow up its business model for that 1 percent. (...)

The gadget war among the largest U.S. tech companies started on computers, shifted to phones and tablets, and is moving, slowly but certainly, back toward that original home screen: the television. Some tech evangelists pray that a swashbuckling disrupter might radically transform how (and how much) we pay for TV—the way the Internet made newspapers effectively free, or the way Napster and Apple forced music labels to sell their songs à la carte for 99 cents a pop.

But more bad news awaits these hopefuls. The tech giants now eyeing television—Apple, Google, Microsoft—don’t care about à la carte programming as some philosophical ideal. They see the television as the next logical battleground in the fight for your attention and your money, and their plans do not intuitively lead to an anti-bundling strategy.

by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Kevin Van Aelst

Terry Callier (May, 1945 - Oct., 2012)

Data-Gathering via Apps Presents a Gray Legal Area

Angry Birds, the top-selling paid mobile app for the iPhone in the United States and Europe, has been downloaded more than a billion times by devoted game players around the world, who often spend hours slinging squawking fowl at groups of egg-stealing pigs.

While regular players are familiar with the particular destructive qualities of certain of these birds, many are unaware of one facet: The game possesses a ravenous ability to collect personal information on its users.

When Jason Hong, an associate professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, surveyed 40 users, all but two were unaware that the game was storing their locations so that they could later be the targets of ads.

“When I am giving a talk about this, some people will pull out their smartphones while I am still speaking and erase the game,” Mr. Hong, an expert in mobile application privacy, said during an interview. “Generally, most people are simply unaware of what is going on.”

What is going on, according to experts, is that applications like Angry Birds and even more innocuous-seeming software, like that which turns your phone into a flashlight, defines words or delivers Bible quotes, are also collecting personal information, usually the user’s location and sex and the unique identification number of a smartphone. But in some cases, they cull information from contact lists and pictures from photo libraries.

As the Internet goes mobile, privacy issues surrounding phone apps have moved to the front lines of the debate over what information can be collected, when and by whom. Next year, more people around the world will gain access to the Internet through mobile phones or tablet computers than from desktop PCs, according to Gartner, the research group.

The shift has brought consumers into a gray legal area, where existing privacy protections have failed to keep up with technology. The move to mobile has set off a debate between privacy advocates and online businesses, which consider the accumulation of personal information the backbone of an ad-driven Internet.

by Kevin J. Obrien, NY Times |  Read more
Image: Amazon

sry gotta bail mayb nxt tme

[ed. I would use the term 'assholeness' rather than 'flakey', but that's just me.]

At 10:52 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Andy Cohen was preparing to host his weeknight talk show on Bravo, “Watch What Happens Live,” when a text message arrived.

Though the 20-seat studio has a month long waiting list, he had set aside two tickets for a friend. But now the friend was canceling just minutes before going live. “It didn’t happen,” the friend wrote. “Dinner going long.”

At 9 a.m. the other Monday, Paul Wilmot, a public relations executive in New York, was meeting a colleague at Cafe Cluny in the West Village. After he waited for a half-hour, an e-mail arrived from his breakfast date, saying he was on his way.

Not long before that, Leandra Medine, the 23-year-old fashion blogger behind Man Repeller, sat down at the SoHo restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda and waited for her three friends. As she nursed a glass of wine, she glanced down at her phone to learn, via text, that all of her friends had bailed.

Random missed connections? Not quite.

Texting and instant messaging make it easier to navigate our social lives, but they are also turning us into ill-mannered flakes. Not long ago, the only way to break a social engagement, outside of blowing off someone completely, was to do it in person or on the phone. An effusive apology was expected, or at least the appearance of contrition.

But now, when our fingers tap our way out of social obligations, the barriers to canceling have been lowered. Not feeling up for going out? Have better plans? Just type a note on the fly (“Sorry can’t make it tonight”) and hit send.

And don’t worry about giving advance notice. The later, the better. After all, bailing on dinner via text message doesn’t feel as disrespectful as standing up someone, or as embarrassing.

New Yorkers with social-driven ambitions and hyper schedules seem to be especially prone to this. And it is practically endemic among those in their 20s and younger, who were raised in the age of instant chatter.

“Texting is lazy, and it encourages and promotes flakiness,” Mr. Cohen said. “You’re not treating anything with any weight, and it turns us all into 14-year-olds. We’re all 14-year-olds in suits and high heels.”

Not that he is above it, either. “I’m a victim of it, and I do it, too,” he said.

Digital flakiness seems to apply equally to last-minute plans and engagements booked way in advance. Ashley Wick, the founder of Wick Communications, a firm based in New York, organized an intimate dinner this fall to introduce a designer she represents to about 10 editors. Invitations were sent out two weeks earlier, but that afternoon almost half of the confirmed attendees canceled via e-mail.

“Offline rules of etiquette no longer seem to apply,” Ms. Wick said. “People hide behind e-mail or text messages to cancel appointments, or do things that feel uncomfortable to do in person.”

The face-to-face consequences of being a flake have all but disappeared. If the unpleasantness of having to disappoint a host or dinner date was one reason commitments were honored in the past, technology has rendered that moot.

“People don’t feel bad shooting someone a text to cancel, but no one would ever pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s have dinner next week because I want to go to this party instead,’ ” said Danielle Snyder, 27, a founder of the jewelry line Dannijo. “But when you say it out loud, you realize how bad it sounds.”

by Carolyn Tell, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration: Leah Haynes

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Pierre Auguste Cot - The Storm (1880)

Peeling Away Health Care’s Sticker Shock

In the early 1950s, it was nearly impossible to know the value of an automobile. They had prices, yes, but these would differ radically from dealer to dealer, the customer a pawn in the hands of the seller. This all changed in 1958, when US senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma shepherded a bill through Congress requiring that official pricing information be glued to the window of every new automobile sold in the US. The “Monroney sticker,” as it came to be known, has been with us ever since. It became an effective means of disclosing the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or MSRP, and a billboard for other data disclosures to the consumer: the car’s fuel economy, its environmental rating, and so on.

The sticker price was one of the triumphs of consumer-rights legislation and has made buying a car an easier—though never altogether easy—experience. What’s more, window stickers made automobile pricing rational and understandable. A customer who knows the base price going in will expect more value coming out. In economic terms, the sticker turned a failed market flummoxed by information asymmetry into something resembling a functioning, price-driven marketplace.

If there is ever an industry in need of a Senator Monroney today, it is health care, in which 1950s-era thinking still rules the day, and irrational and inexplicable pricing is routine. The health care industry plays a gigantic game of Blind Man’s Bluff, keeping patients in the dark while asking them to make life-and-death decisions. The odds that they will make the best choice are negligible and largely depend on chance. Patients need to have data, including costs and their own medical histories, liberated and made freely available for thorough analysis. What health care needs is a window sticker—a transparent, good-faith effort at making prices clear and setting market forces to work.

How bad is it? Uwe Reinhardt, a leading health care economist, described the pricing of hospital services as “chaos behind a veil of secrecy.” Chaos due to lack of predictability; veil of secrecy because many organizations take a proprietary attitude toward data.

Consider a recent study of the costs of routine appendectomies performed throughout California. Though the procedures were largely identical, the charges varied more than 100-fold—from $1,529 at the cheapest to $182,955 at the most expensive.

What accounted for this bizarre spread? Good question—but efforts to discover the answer turned out to be futile. Although the research highlighted how large the bills for these hospitalizations were, various costs were declared to be trade secrets. The providers (i.e., the hospitals) and insurers involved in the study would not share how much the insurers actually paid for the visits, only what the providers charged. To me, understanding the logic here requires a chain of reasoning that could appear only in Alice in Wonderland. We don’t just need an MSRP sticker—we need a medical Freedom of Information Act!

In business, as time goes on, weak industry participants will try to improve their status, and, of course, incumbents will attempt to protect their positions. Two common ways of imposing or maintaining market power are by forming coalitions or by outright acquisitions, and that’s what has happened in medicine. Consolidation among health care providers has resulted in a number of large organizations becoming even more powerful as they’ve started to use their size and reach. And they’ve wielded this power to keep a lid on some of the information that would make for better health care.

The past several decades have seen major strides in technology of all kinds. Improvements in semiconductors have allowed faster computation and communications, as well as the construction of databases that outdo themselves every year. In many industries, technology development has spurred further improvements in efficiency—a virtuous cycle. In health care, this process is happening at a much slower rate. It has taken decades to complete even relatively simple tasks such as digitizing medical records.

by Andy Grove, Wired |  Read more:

Chenyang Liu

The Plot to Destroy America's Beer

Brian Rinfret likes imported beer from Germany. He sometimes buys Spaten. He enjoys an occasional Bitburger. When he was 25 years old, he discovered Beck’s, a pilsner brewed in the city of Bremen in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law of 1516. It said so right on the label. After that, Rinfret was hooked.

One Friday night in January, Rinfret, who is now 52, stopped on the way home from work at his local liquor store in Monroe, N.J., and purchased a 12-pack of Beck’s. When he got home, he opened a bottle. “I was like, what the hell?” he recalls. “It tasted light. It tasted weak. Just, you know, night and day. Bubbly, real fizzy. To me, it wasn’t German beer. It tasted like a Budweiser with flavoring.”

He examined the label. It said the beer was no longer brewed in Bremen. He looked more closely at the fine print: “Product of the USA.” This was profoundly unsettling for a guy who had been a Beck’s drinker for more than half his life. He was also miffed to have paid the full import price for the 12-pack.

Rinfret left a telephone message with AB InBev, the owner of Beck’s and many other beers, including Budweiser. Nobody got back to him. He had better luck with e-mail. An AB InBev employee informed him that Beck’s was now being brewed in St. Louis along with Budweiser. But never fear, the rep told Rinfret: AB InBev was using the same recipe as always.

He wasn’t satisfied. In March, he posted a plea on Beck’s official Facebook page: “Beck’s made in the U.S. not worth drinking. Bring back German Beck’s. Please.” He had plenty of company. “This is a travesty,” a fellow disgruntled Beck’s drinker raged. “I’m pretty bummed,” wrote another. “I’ve been drinking this beer religiously for over 20 years.” Rinfret kept trashing Beck’s on Facebook. Until, he says, AB InBev unfriended him in May. “They banned me from their site. I can’t post anything on there any longer.”

Rinfret was only temporarily silenced. He now complains on a Facebook page called Import Beck’s from Germany. AB InBev may be paying a price for disappointing Beck’s loyalists like him. According to Bump Williams, a beer industry consultant in Stratford, Conn., sales of Beck’s at U.S. food stores were down 14 percent in the four weeks ending Sept. 9 compared with the same period last year. “They are getting their proverbial asses kicked,” Williams says. “Too many customers were turned off when the switch was made.” Sales of Budweiser in the U.S. have fallen recently, too. And yet AB InBev is extraordinarily profitable.

There has never been a beer company like AB InBev. It was created in 2008 when InBev, the Leuven (Belgium)-based owner of Beck’s and Stella Artois, swallowed Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, in a $52 billion hostile takeover. Today, AB InBev is the dominant beer company in the U.S., with 48 percent of the market. It controls 69 percent in Brazil; it’s the second-largest brewer in Russia and the third-largest in China. The company owns more than 200 different beers around the world. It would like to buy more.

The man in charge of AB InBev is 52-year-old Carlos Brito. The Brazilian-born chief executive is a millionaire many times over. He speaks English fluently and dresses like the manager of a local hardware store. At the Manhattan headquarters, he wears jeans to work and tucks in his shirts. He keeps his company identification badge clipped to his waist where everybody can see it, even though everyone knows who he is. To the rest of the world, he keeps a low profile. He does not, for example, accept interview requests from Bloomberg Businessweek. That might be his character, and it might be calculated. The Busch family is a legendary American dynasty. Many people in the U.S. aren’t thrilled that a foreign company now owns Budweiser, America’s beer.

by Devin Leonard, Bloomberg Businessweek |  Read more:
Image via: Wikipedia


Your Brain on Pseudoscience

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. (...)

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (...)

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

by Steven Poole, The New Statesman |  Read more:
Photo: Getty Images

Lewis Lapham’s Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed

The counter­revolution has its embattled forward outpost on a genteel New York street called Irving Place, home to Lapham’s Quarterly. The street is named after Washington Irving, the 19th-century American author best known for creating the Headless Horseman in his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The cavalry charge that Lewis Lapham is now leading could be said to be one against headlessness—against the historically illiterate, heedless hordesmen of the digital revolution ignorant of our intellectual heritage; against the “Internet intellectuals” and hucksters of the purportedly utopian digital future who are decapitating our culture, trading in the ideas of some 3,000 years of civilization for...BuzzFeed.

Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper’s, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. Suddenly thanks to Google Books, JSTOR and the like, all the great thinkers of all the civilizations past and present are one or two clicks away. The great library of Alexandria, nexus of all the learning of the ancient world that burned to the ground, has risen from the ashes online. And yet—here is the paradox—the wisdom of the ages is in some ways more distant and difficult to find than ever, buried like lost treasure beneath a fathomless ocean of online ignorance and trivia that makes what is worthy and timeless more inaccessible than ever. There has been no great librarian of Alexandria, no accessible finder’s guide, until Lapham created his quarterly five years ago with the quixotic mission of serving as a highly selective search engine for the wisdom of the past.

Which is why the spartan quarters of the Quarterly remind me of the role rare and scattered monasteries of the Dark Ages played when, as the plague raged and the scarce manuscripts of classical literature were being burned, dedicated monks made it their sacred mission to preserve, copy, illuminate manuscripts that otherwise might have been lost forever.

In the back room of the Quarterly, Lapham still looks like the striking patrician beau ideal, slender and silvery at 77 in his expensive-looking suit. A sleek black silk scarf gives him the look of a still-potent mafia don (Don Quixote?) whose beautiful manners belie a stiletto-like gaze at contemporary culture. One can sense, reading Lapham’s Quarterly, that its vast array of erudition is designed to be a weapon—one would like to say a weapon of mass instruction. Though its 25,000 circulation doesn’t allow that scale of metaphor yet, it still has a vibrant web presence and it has the backing of a wide range of erudite eminences.

When I asked Lapham about the intent of his project, he replied with a line from Goethe, one of the great little-read writers he seeks to reintroduce to the conversation: “Goethe said that he who cannot draw on 3,000 years [of learning] is living hand to mouth.” Lapham’s solution to this under-nourishment: Give ’em a feast.

Each issue is a feast, so well curated—around 100 excerpts and many small squibs in issues devoted to such relevant subjects as money, war, the family and the future—that reading it is like choosing among bonbons for the brain. It’s a kind of hip-hop mash-up of human wisdom. Half the fun is figuring out the rationale of the order the Laphamites have given to the excerpts, which jump back and forth between millennia and genres: From Euripides, there’s Medea’s climactic heart-rending lament for her children in the “Family” issue. Isaac Bashevis Singer on magic in ’70s New York City. Juvenal’s filthy satire on adulterers in the “Eros” issue. In the new “Politics” issue we go from Solon in ancient Athens to the heroic murdered dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 21st-century Moscow. The issue on money ranges from Karl Marx back to Aristophanes, forward to Lord Byron and Vladimir Nabokov, back to Hammurabi in 1780 B.C.

Lapham’s deeper agenda is to inject the wisdom of the ages into the roiling controversies of the day through small doses that are irresistible reading. In “Politics,” for example, I found a sound bite from Persia in 522 B.C., courtesy of Herodotus, which introduced me to a fellow named Otanes who made what may be the earliest and most eloquent case for democracy against oligarchy. And Ralph Ellison on the victims of racism and oligarchy in the 1930s.

That’s really the way to read the issues of the Quarterly. Not to try reading the latest one straight through, but order a few back issues from its website,, and put them on your bedside table. Each page is an illumination of the consciousness, the culture that created you, and that is waiting to recreate you.

by Ron Rosenbaum, The Smithsonian |  Read more:
Photo: Lapham's Quarterly