Tuesday, April 30, 2013

[ed. Club life...Copenhagen.]

Red Star

[ed. Haven't seen it, but it looks, um ...interesting.]

Red Star Motel is the clever, action-packed series by Beijing photographer Chi Lei, “Chili”, that reads like an unraveling drama brimming with sex, drugs, murder and chaos.

First Live Performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

[ed. Damn, I miss grunge.]

It’s over 20 years ago now that Nirvana’s video for “Smells like Teen Spirit” debuted on MTV’s 120 Minutes and, for better or worse, inaugurated the grunge era. The video arrived as a shock and a thrill to a generation too young to remember punk and sick of the steady stream of cheesy corporate dance music and hair metal that characterized the late-80s. For everyone outside the small Seattle scene that nurtured them and the tape-trading kids in the know, the band seemed to arrive out of nowhere as a total angst-ridden package, and the MTV video, by first-time director Samuel Bayer, seemed bracingly anarchic and raw at the time.

But a look at the first live performance of “Teen Spirit” (above) makes it seem pretty tame by comparison. The video’s a little grainy and low-res, which suits the song just fine. Live, “Teen Spirit’s” disturbing undertones are more pronounced, its quiet-loud dynamics more forceful, and the energy of the crowd is real, not the thrashing around of a bunch of teenage extras. Not a cheerleader in sight, but I think this would have grabbed me more than the pep rally-riot-themed MTV video did when it debuted a few months later. Despite their anti-corporate stance, Nirvana was a casualty of their own success, eaten up by the machinery they despised (...)Also don’t miss Nirvana’s Home Videos: An Intimate Look at the Band’s Life Away From the Spotlight (1988).

via: Open Culture

The 'Public Safety Exception'

[ed. And why it matters.]

The initial debate over the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev focused on whether he should be advised of his Miranda rights or whether the "public safety exception" justified delaying it. In the wake of news reports that he had been Mirandized and would be charged in a federal court, I credited the Obama DOJ for handling the case reasonably well thus far. As it turns out, though, Tsarnaev wasn't Mirandized because the DOJ decided he should be. Instead, that happened only because a federal magistrate, on her own, scheduled a hospital-room hearing, interrupted the FBI's interrogation which had been proceeding at that point for a full 16 hours, and advised him of his right to remain silent and appointed him a lawyer. Since then, Tsarnaev ceased answering the FBI's questions.

But that controversy was merely about whether he would be advised of his Miranda rights. Now, the Los Angeles Times, almost in passing, reports something which, if true, would be a much more serious violation of core rights than delaying Miranda warnings - namely, that prior to the magistrate's visit to his hospital room, Tsarnaev had repeatedly asked for a lawyer, but the FBI simply ignored those requests, instead allowing the interagency High Value Detainee Interrogation Group to continue to interrogate him alone:
"Tsarnaev has not answered any questions since he was given a lawyer and told he has the right to remain silent by Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler on Monday, officials said.
"Until that point, Tsarnaev had been responding to the interagency High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, including admitting his role in the bombing, authorities said.A senior congressional aide said Tsarnaev had asked several times for a lawyer, but that request was ignored since he was being questioned under the public safety exemption to the Miranda rule."
Delaying Miranda warnings under the "public safety exception" - including under the Obama DOJ's radically expanded version of it - is one thing. But denying him the right to a lawyer after he repeatedly requests one is another thing entirely: as fundamental a violation of crucial guaranteed rights as can be imagined. As the lawyer bmaz comprehensively details in this excellent post, it is virtually unheard of for the "public safety" exception to be used to deny someone their right to a lawyer as opposed to delaying a Miranda warning (the only cases where this has been accepted were when "the intrusion into the constitutional right to counsel ... was so fleeting – in both it was no more than a question or two about a weapon on the premises of a search while the search warrant was actively being executed"). To ignore the repeated requests of someone in police custody for a lawyer, for hours and hours, is just inexcusable and legally baseless.

As law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky explained in the Los Angeles Times last week, the Obama DOJ was already abusing the "public safety" exception by using it to delay Miranda warnings for hours, long after virtually every public official expressly said that there were no more threats to the public safety. As he put it: "this exception does not apply here because there was no emergency threat facing law enforcement." Indeed, as I documented when this issue first arose, the Obama DOJ already unilaterally expanded this exception far beyond what the Supreme Court previously recognized by simply decreeing (in secret) that terrorism cases justify much greater delays in Mirandizing a suspect for reasons well beyond asking about public safety.

But that debate was merely about whether Tsarnaev would be advised of his rights. This is much more serious: if the LA Times report is true, then it means that the DOJ did not merely fail to advise him of his right to a lawyer but actively blocked him from exercising that right. This is a US citizen arrested for an alleged crime on US soil: there is no justification whatsoever for denying him his repeatedly exercised right to counsel. And there are ample and obvious dangers in letting the government do this. That's why Marcy Wheeler was arguing from the start that whether Tsarnaev would be promptly presented to a federal court - as both the Constitution and federal law requires - is more important than whether he is quickly Mirandized. Even worse, if the LA Times report is accurate, it means that the Miranda delay as well as the denial of his right to a lawyer would have continued even longer had the federal magistrate not basically barged into the interrogation to advise him of his rights.

by Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Reuters

Advanced Style

Most of us are aware that there are two types of old these days. There is baby-boomer old, an audacious, aspirational sort of old. Common depictions include couples sky-diving for their 40th anniversaries; Richard Branson doing all manner of macho rich-guy nonsense; and the woman of a certain age on a seashore holding a fluttering piece of voile toward the winds of freedom.

Then there is old old, a realm often belonging to the parents of the baby boomers. This is nursing-home old. This is prunes-for-breakfast old. This is “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” old.

Yet a few months ago, arriving on my desk like so many pounds of zeitgeist, an unlikely third way appeared in the form of a coffee-table book called “Advanced Style.” The book features old people, often very old people, mainly women, photographed on the street, dressed up lively for the winters of their lives. They are buttressed by pullquotes like: “When you are younger, you dress for other people. When you are older, you dress for yourself.” One photo is of a 100-year-old woman holding a seasoned ostrich purse in one hand and a walking stick in the other; her facial expression suggests a certain curiosity as to why in God’s name this boychik with a digital camera wants so much to take her picture.

“Advanced Style” was created by a 31-year-old street-style photographer from San Diego named Ari Seth Cohen. He started the project as a photo blog, and both the “Advanced Style” book and blog share the standout quality of being so of their time that they feel nearly peculiar — at once familiar and like nothing you’ve ever seen.

“Advanced Style” has sold out four printings since it was first published last spring. Its popularity has made Cohen — by all photographic evidence something of a nebbish, a guy who says that if he hadn’t made it in the style world, he would have gone to work at a nursing home — one of New York City’s more unlikely tastemakers. (...)

It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking new interest in the aged exists simply because the boomers, still the largest generation in the Western Hemisphere, are now careering into seniorhood. But it’s worth remembering that, notwithstanding their aging, the boomers are still the generation that gave us the famous boardroom credo “Nobody wants to see old people on TV/in the movies/in advertisements.” In the 1980s, the peak years of boomer creative influence, if you were on television with more than six decades to your name, you were most likely flying into a snowy moonscape pulled by reindeer. “The Golden Girls” was what it meant to be acceptably ancient on prime time. Rue McClanahan was a fit 51 when she took the role of Blanche Devereaux on that show.

So it’s not the new old who are driving this fascination. It’s the young. Scratch the surface of youth culture, and a kind of Eldertopia is revealed, a pro-aged paradise lovingly promoted by people who are themselves not even close to middle-aged.

by Mireille Silcoff, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Beatrix Ost via:

Monday, April 29, 2013

Archangel Angela by studio Judith

Chuck Berry & Nirvana by Mark Seliger

Sorry, Siri: How Google Is Planning to Be Your New Personal Assistant

The responsive relationship between user and data that Huey is describing -- the conversational default -- is "kind of the next step for where search is going," Scott Huffman, Google's vice president of engineering, told me. Google's engineers, he said, have long been preoccupied with the idea of search not just as a box on a screen, but as a personal, and personalized, assistant. And "as we thought about it," he says, "a really great assistant brings you information before you ask for it." An assistant, ideally, knows your desires even better, and even sooner, than you do: Siri, but smarter. So Google has applied that longstanding workplace logic to the mobile devices that help you navigate the world. The basic idea of Google Now, Huffman says -- and the logic that is driving its extension across different mobile platforms -- is Google working "as a powerful assistant that wants to help me get through my day."

Which does not mean (um, yet?) a Google product that can read your mind, or even your voice. The capabilities here are still very much in their early stages. But the extension of Google Now, and the double-down on its approach to search, suggests how Google sees itself within an environment that finds the firm's core competency -- searching the Internet -- competing with new waysof organizing the world's information. Ways that often treat information exactly as it is: discursive and dynamic and, ultimately, personal. "Google Now is probably the first example of a new generation of intelligent software," Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, put it. Will you hit traffic in your regular commute? Google would like to warn you. Is there a cool museum nearby? Google would like to tell you. Has your flight been delayed? Google would like to break the bad news.

With its investments in Google Now, Google is moving away from, or at least expanding, the interface that has driven search since its earliest days -- "keywords in a box," Huffman puts it -- to something the firm hopes will be more sophisticated and intuitive and, for better or for worse, friction-free. This is, or it's trying to be, the Google that knows you. The Google that reads you. The Google that treats you, to some extent, as the site to be indexed. "Our goal," Larry Page put it in a recent earnings call, "is to get you the right information, at just the right time."

Google is betting that, armed with its deep knowledge of users and the world they live in, it will understand what "just the right information" and "just the right time" actually are -- almost as well as, and sometimes even better than, you do.

One key component of that bet is a related technology: voice control. More than half of the U.S. population now owns smartphones with voice capabilities, a Google rep pointed out to me, and -- per a survey the firm conducted -- two in three of them are aware of those capabilities. Already, Google's voice commands allow users to do things like set timers, send texts, dictate notes, and, of course, search for stuff on the Internet. But there's a broader market to be tapped here, Google believes. "Voice commands are going to be increasingly important," Page declared during the same earnings call, noting the obvious ("it's just much less hassle to talk than type").

After all, one of the most crucial skills of a good assistant is communication: He or she has to be able to listen and reply to you effectively for anything else to make much difference. Haptic commands, fingers on a keyboard or screen, can be a clunky way to have a conversation, Huffman points out, "whereas voice is much more natural." That's not merely a matter of convenience. Voice lends itself to a kind of dialogue -- to an interaction with a device that seems to take place on relatively human terms -- much more readily than fingers do. Siri may be far from perfect, but it (she?) is onto something big in that respect. Voice, Huffman says, is "just a much more powerful way to interact with a mobile device."

by Megan Garber, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Coming Out: NBA Center Jason Collins

I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.

I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, "I'm different." If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.

My journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement began in my hometown of Los Angeles and has taken me through two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons.

I've played for six pro teams and have appeared in two NBA Finals. Ever heard of a parlor game called Three Degrees of Jason Collins? If you're in the league, and I haven't been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates' teammates. Or one of your teammates' teammates' teammates.

Now I'm a free agent, literally and figuratively. I've reached that enviable state in life in which I can do pretty much what I want. And what I want is to continue to play basketball. I still love the game, and I still have something to offer. My coaches and teammates recognize that. At the same time, I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful.

Why am I coming out now? Well, I started thinking about this in 2011 during the NBA player lockout. I'm a creature of routine. When the regular season ends I immediately dedicate myself to getting game ready for the opener of the next campaign in the fall. But the lockout wreaked havoc on my habits and forced me to confront who I really am and what I really want. With the season delayed, I trained and worked out. But I lacked the distraction that basketball had always provided.

The first relative I came out to was my aunt Teri, a superior court judge in San Francisco. Her reaction surprised me. "I've known you were gay for years," she said. From that moment on I was comfortable in my own skin. In her presence I ignored my censor button for the first time. She gave me support. The relief I felt was a sweet release. Imagine you're in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know -- I baked for 33 years.

When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.

I realized I needed to go public when Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford and now a Massachusetts congressman, told me he had just marched in Boston's 2012 Gay Pride Parade. I'm seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn't even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I'd been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, "Me, too."

by Jason Collins with Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated | Read more:
Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Blima Efraim - Hemingway Cat in a Bath

Bags of Cash

For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader.

“We called it ‘ghost money,’ ” said Khalil Roman, who served as Mr. Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005. “It came in secret, and it left in secret.”

The C.I.A., which declined to comment for this article, has long been known to support some relatives and close aides of Mr. Karzai. But the new accounts of off-the-books cash delivered directly to his office show payments on a vaster scale, and with a far greater impact on everyday governing.

Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining Washington’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

“The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

The United States was not alone in delivering cash to the president. Mr. Karzai acknowledged a few years ago that Iran regularly gave bags of cash to one of his top aides.

At the time, in 2010, American officials jumped on the payments as evidence of an aggressive Iranian campaign to buy influence and poison Afghanistan’s relations with the United States. What they did not say was that the C.I.A. was also plying the presidential palace with cash — and unlike the Iranians, it still is.

American and Afghan officials familiar with the payments said the agency’s main goal in providing the cash has been to maintain access to Mr. Karzai and his inner circle and to guarantee the agency’s influence at the presidential palace, which wields tremendous power in Afghanistan’s highly centralized government. The officials spoke about the money only on the condition of anonymity. (...)

Like the Iranian cash, much of the C.I.A.’s money goes to paying off warlords and politicians, many of whom have ties to the drug trade and, in some cases, the Taliban. The result, American and Afghan officials said, is that the agency has greased the wheels of the same patronage networks that American diplomats and law enforcement agents have struggled unsuccessfully to dismantle, leaving the government in the grips of what are basically organized crime syndicates.

by Matthew Rosenberg, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

Battle for Buddha

When Janice Marturano conducted the “mindful leadership experience” workshop last January at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, she was hoping for an audience of 20—at most. “I was prepared for one or two,” the founder and executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Mindful Leadership admits. She needn’t have worried. There was a lineup; people were even turned away. More than 70 of the world’s most influential people crammed into the room, many standing for 90 minutes to learn “techniques for developing focus, clarity and compassion.” The next morning, Marturano led a meditation—a Davos first—that drew 40 people, two-thirds of whom had never meditated before.

The spectre of masters of the universe chanting Om at Davos serves as only one measure of how “mindfulness” has become the new Western mantra. The technique, linked to Buddhist practice, teaches being present in the moment, always attentive to, and accepting one’s thoughts and responses, without judgment. In a 1977 study, mindfulness pioneer Jack Kornfeld presented the approach as a remedy to Western excesses, or “the egoistic, hedonic treadmill of continually avoiding discomfort and seeking pleasure from outside sources that are ultimately unsatisfying and short-lived.”

Mindfulness entered the medical mainstream in the 1980s as a clinically proven method for alleviating chronic pain and stress. Since then, it has metastasized into an omnibus panacea—to help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder concentrate, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder recover and, now, Fortune 500 executives compete. In Paul Harrison’s upcoming documentary, The Mindfulness Movie, psychologist Guy Claxton frames the benefits in mercantile terms: “At the most basic level, mindfulness enables you to get value for money out of life,” he says.

What has gripped Western attention is mindfulness’s ability to improve performance—of Olympic athletes, parents, and even nations, as promised in U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan’s 2012 bestseller, Mindful Nation: How a simple practice can help us reduce stress, improve performance and recapture the American spirit. Institutions and companies are racing to adopt “mindful” practices—among them Google, the U.S. military and Monsanto. Jeff Weiner, CEO of the social-networking site LinkedIn, is a disciple, boasting that “compassion” and “listening to others” are now his central management tenets.

A mindfulness industry has taken root, seen in a boom in corporate coaching, “yin” yoga (which develops mindfulness by holding poses at a point of intensity for five to 10 minutes) and books such as Raji Lukkoor’s Inner Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Meand 10 Mindful Minutes by actress Goldie Hawn, who runs a mindfulness foundation. The first mass-market magazine devoted to the topic, Mindful, has just launched; the first issue of the Halifax-based bimonthly bills itself as “your guide to less stress and more joy” with features such as “The science of changing your brain.” Publisher Jim Gimian says he wants to send “a very broad message that mindfulness is a lifestyle, a broadly appealing part of life and not something esoteric or foreign.” Even the ads are “curated” to reflect this message, he says; placing a full-page ad for women’s clothing line Eileen Fisher on the first page was strategic: the company also advertises in Vogue.

The trend to mindfulness would seem to signal mass recognition of the need to slow down and pay attention in a turbo-driven, reactive society. Yet its migration from ashram to boardroom is not without tensions. High-profile Buddhists are taking off the gloves, albeit thoughtfully; they say mindfulness is part of a continuum—one of the seven factors of enlightenment—not a self-help technique or “a path which can lead to bigger profits,” as the Financial Times put it. And long-time practioners worry that mindfulness repackaged as a quick fix or a commercial platform could in fact lead to mindlessness, and reinforce the very problems it’s trying to heal.

by Anne Kingston, Macleans |  Read more: 
Illustration by Taylor Shute

The Impossible Decision

Graduate students are always thinking about the pleasures and travails of grad school, and springtime is a period of especially intense reflection. It’s in the spring, often in March and April, that undergraduates receive their acceptance letters. When that happens, they turn to their teachers, many of them graduate students, for advice. They ask the dreaded, complicated, inevitable question: To go, or not to go?

Answering that question is not easy. For graduate students, being consulted about grad school is a little like starring in one of those “Up” documentaries (“28 Up,” ideally; “35 Up,” in some cases). Your students do the work of Michael Apted, the series’s laconic director, asking all sorts of tough, personal questions. They push you to think about the success and failure of your life projects; to decide whether or not you are happy; to guess what the future holds; to consider your life on a decades-long scale. This particular spring, the whole conversation has been enriched by writers from around the Web, who have weighed in on the pros and cons of graduate school, especially in the humanities. In addition to the usual terrifying articles in the advice section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a pair of pieces in Slate—“Thesis Hatement,” by Rebecca Schuman, and “Thesis Defense” by Katie Roiphe—have sparked many thoughtful responses from bloggers and journalists. It’s as though a virtual symposium has been convened.

I’m a former humanities graduate student myself—I went to grad school in English from 2003 through 2011 before becoming a journalist, and am still working nights on my dissertation—and I’m impressed by the clarity of the opinions these essays express. (Rebecca Schuman: “Don’t do it. Just don’t”; Katie Roiphe: “It gives you a habit of intellectual isolation that is… useful, bracing, that gives you strength and originality.”) I can’t muster up that clarity myself, though. I’m very glad that I went to graduate school—my life would be different, and definitely worse, without it. But when I’m asked to give students advice about what they should do, I’m stumped. Over time, I’ve come to feel that giving good advice about graduate school is impossible. It’s like giving people advice about whether they should have children, or move to New York, or join the Army, or go to seminary.

Maybe I’ve been in school too long; doctoral study has a way of turning your head into a never-ending seminar, and I’m now capable of having complicated, inconclusive thoughts about nearly any subject. But advice helps people when they are making rational decisions, and the decision to go to grad school in English is essentially irrational. In fact, it’s representative of a whole class of decisions that bring you face to face with the basic unknowability and uncertainty of life.

by Joshua Rothman, New Yorker |  Read more:
Illustration by Michael Crawford

Sunday, April 28, 2013

LARC - Awesome Cat Shelter on Lanai

[ed. Feral cats used to be everywhere on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, now there are virtually none. Instead, they're all (300+) housed, fed and cared for at this adoption facility:
The sanctuary is a spacious open air 15,000 square foot enclosure. This enclosure is complete with spacious cubicles for sleeping, “pallet palaces” for hiding, large 8-foot long irrigation pipes for hiding in or chasing each other through and kitty-climbing jungle gyms. The enclosure also boasts numerous bushes, long grasses for catching zzzzz’s under and trees for climbing. Some of these trees also provide sleeping perches for those more adventuresome felines. On many a day you can spot up to 6 or 8 cats swaying in the breeze in the crooks of the tree branches. We are privileged to have a “purrrfect” welcoming committee greet guests when they enter this feline sanctuary.
I had a hard time leaving when I visited. Wherever I went there were seven or eight cats following me, wanting attention, hoping to be petted. For very little funds LARC does a great community service and is a deeply caring organization. If you'd like to help out, or even adopt a kitty, here's their website where you can read more about what they do: http://lanaianimalrescue.org/ ]

Where Vitamin Supplements Come From

I don’t know about you, but ever since I swallowed my first Flintstones’ chewable, I envisioned vitamin supplements coming from a magical fairyland where wizards would squeeze all the nutrients from whole vegetables and fruits. Do you have these visions too?

People that use vitamin supplements likely start with good intentions. But where do these products actually come from? Are vitamin supplements any more natural than white flour or pharmaceuticals?

Where do vitamin supplements come from?

When people think of drugs, most think “artificial.” When people think of vitamin supplements, most think “natural.”

But both drugs and vitamin supplements can be artificial or natural. Many vitamin supplements produced today are artificial. Meanwhile, the world of “natural” isn’t all hopscotch tournaments and fairy dances. Poison hemlock, hallucinogenic mushrooms, rhubarb leaves and sprouted kidney beans are all natural – and potentially deadly.

There are six categories of nutrients used in the manufacturing of vitamin supplements.

1. Natural Source

These include nutrients from vegetable, animal or mineral sources. But before making it into the supplement bottle, they undergo significant processing and refining. Examples include vitamin D from fish liver oils, vitamin E from vegetable oils, and natural beta-carotene.

When a vitamin is marked “natural”, it only has to include 10% of actual natural plant-derived ingredients. The other 90% could be synthetic.

Consider vitamin E tocopherols, which can be extracted from vegetable oils (often soybean, due to low costs).
  1. First, the soybeans are crushed and the protein is removed by precipitation.
  2. Second, the resultant oil is distilled off to become bottled vegetable oil.
  3. Third, the remaining materials are solubilized to remove any carbohydrates.
  4. Fourth, the vitamin E is solvent extracted away from the remaining waxes and lecithin.
Synthetic alpha-tocopherol is a combination of eight isomers, natural alpha-tocopherol is just one isomer, and consuming various isomers can decrease bioavailability.

Natural vitamin E – notice the D-alpha tocopherol

Synthetic vitamin E (notice the dl-alpha)

Another example is vitamin D3. The manufacturing starts with 7-dehydrocholesterol (usually from wool oil), which turns into cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) when exposed to ultraviolet light.

by Ryan Andrews, Precision Nutrition |  Read more:
Images: uncredited

We Copy Like We Breathe

When Cory Doctorow started his Keynote speech at this year's SIGGRAPH conference he started bravely by granting the audience "unequivocal permission to record video, audio, and to use those recordings ... in all media now known or yet to be invented throughout the known universe." This past Wednesday, two days after the speech, the Keynote was available on YouTube.

In the speech, Doctorow, co-editor of Boing Boing, outlined copyright and digital rights management's current state of affairs by providing details and examples that took the conversation far beyond the typically polarized copyright debate that divides the analysis into two mutually exclusive parts - either bad or good. In warming up to a proposal of his own set of laws he outlined an important issue that affects those experimenting on multiple portable platforms such as the iPhone, iPad, Android, and other emerging devices. Apple worked as the central example because of their sophisticated management of DRM, supported by the fact that they are generally good at what they do. Doctorow's concern about Apple's proprietary restrictions on transferring purchases from iTunes or the App Store were compounded by a recent announcement in the Guardian that German patent court has granted Apple a preliminary injunction that would prevent any import of Samsung's new Galaxy tablet into the country. This is certainly a concern for consumers and adds to the importance of Doctorow’s speech - but it’s an even bigger concern for artists who are experimenting on these platforms. As more artists make apps for the App Store they are opting into a restricted environment. If a consumer buys their app, and wants to transfer it to another device, they have no recourse except to ask Apple for permission. The chance that Apple will forego their ownership of the app's DRM for creative freedom is slim. Combined with the myriad of extraneous copyright laws that Doctorow outlines and the fact, as he states it, that artists are by far the most aggressive content copiers and producers - there is definitely a reason to be concerned.

The second half of the Keynote was spent reviewing Doctorow's three laws:
1: "Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won't give you the key, they didn't put the lock there for your benefit."
2: "Fame won't guarantee fortune, but no one has ever gotten rich by being obscure."
3: "Information doesn't want to be free, people do."
Throughout his explanation of the laws, Doctorow raises many interesting points and manages to make a few well-timed jokes - there is even one about kittens. In the end, the laws serve more to highlight the unfair copyright practices currently in use around the world and give his argument a more critical angle. Before his speech’s conclusion he made a universal plea asking for freedom for his daughter, his country, and our collective digital future. He finished with a charge to take action and call for laws friendly to creatives and creative industries - laws that encourage production without the fear of surveillance or a loss of rights.

by Jason Huff, Rhizome (2011) |  Read more (transcript):

If This Was a Pill, You’d Do Anything to Get It

When Ken Coburn has visitors to the cramped offices of Health Quality Partners in Doylestown, Pa., he likes to show them a graph. It’s not his graph, he’s quick to say. Coburn is not the sort to take credit for other’s work. But it’s a graph that explains why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s a graph he particularly wishes the folks who run Medicare would see, because if they did, then there’s no way they’d be threatening to shut down his program.

The graph shows the U.S. death rate for infectious diseases between 1900 and 1996. The line starts all the way at the top. In 1900, 800 of every 100,000 Americans died from infectious diseases. The top killers were pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea. But the line quickly begins falling. By 1920, fewer than 400 of every 100,000 Americans died from infectious diseases. By 1940, it was less than 200. By 1960, it’s below 100. When’s the last time you heard of an American dying from diarrhea?

“For all the millennia before this in human history,” Coburn says, “it was all about tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases and all the other infectious disease. The idea that anybody lived long enough to be confronting chronic diseases is a new invention. Average life expectancy was 45 years old at the turn of the century. You didn’t have 85-year-olds with chronic diseases.”

With chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease you don’t get better, or at least not quickly. They don’t require cures so much as management. Their existence is often proof of medicine’s successes. Three decades ago, cancer typically killed you. Today, many cancers can be fought off for years or even indefinitely. The same is true for AIDS, and acute heart failure and so much else. This, to Coburn, is the core truth, and core problem, of today’s medical system: Its successes have changed the problems, but the health-care system hasn’t kept up.

Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the health policy and management school at Emory University, estimates that 95 percent of spending in Medicare goes to patients with one or more chronic conditions — with enrollees suffering five or more chronic conditions accounting for 78 percent of its spending. “This is the Willie Sutton rule,” he says. “If 80 percent of the spending is going to patients with five or more conditions, that’s where our health-care system needs to go.”

Health Quality Partners is all about going there. The program enrolls Medicare patients with at least one chronic illness and one hospitalization in the past year. It then sends a trained nurse to see them every week, or every month, whether they’re healthy or sick. It sounds simple and, in a way, it is. But simple things can be revolutionary.

Most care-management systems rely on nurses sitting in call centers, checking up on patients over the phone. That model has mostly been a failure. And while many health systems send a nurse regularly in the weeks or months after a serious hospitalization, few send one regularly to even seemingly healthy patients. This a radical redefinition of the health-care system’s role in the lives of the elderly. It redefines being old and chronically ill as a condition requiring professional medical management.

Health Quality Partners’ results have been extraordinary. According to an independent analysis by the consulting firm Mathematica, HQP has reduced hospitalizations by 33 percent and cut Medicare costs by 22 percent.

Others in the profession have taken notice. “It’s like they’ve discovered the fountain of youth in Doylestown, Pa.,” marvels Jeffrey Brenner, founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.

Now Medicare is thinking of shutting it off.

by Ezra Klein, Washington Post |  Read more:
Image: Amanda Voisard, for The Washington Post

Eyvind Earle, Soft Green Meadows

Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples

Every Fall at Maine's Common Ground Country Fair, the Lollapalooza of sustainable agriculture, John Bunker sets out a display of eccentric apples. Last September, once again, they covered every possible size, shape, and color in the wide world of appleness. There was a gnarled little yellow thing called a Westfield Seek-No-Further; a purplish plum impostor called a Black Oxford; a massive, red-streaked Wolf River; and one of Thomas Jefferson's go-to fruits, the Esopus Spitzenburg. Bunker is known in Maine as "The Apple Whisperer," or simply "The Apple Guy," and, after laboring for years in semi-obscurity, he has never been in more demand. Through the catalog of Fedco Trees, a mail-order company he founded in Maine 30 years ago, Bunker has sown the seeds of a grassroots apple revolution.

All weekend long, I watched people gravitate to what Bunker ("Bunk" to his friends, a category that seems to include half the population of Maine) calls "the vibrational pull" of a table laden with bright apples. "Baldwin!" said a tiny old man with white hair and intermittent teeth, pointing to a brick-red apple that was one of America's most important until the frigid winter of 1933-34 knocked it into obscurity. "That's the best!"

A leathery blonde from the coast held up a Blue Pearmain in wonder. "Blue Peahmain," she marveled. "My ma had one in her yahd."

Another woman got choked up by the sight of the Pound Sweet. "My grandmother had a Pound Sweet! She used to let me have one every time I hung out the laundry."

It wasn't just nostalgia. A steady conga line of homesteading hipsters—Henry David Thoreau meets Johnny Depp—paraded up to Bunk to get his blessing on their farm plans. "I've got three Kavanaghs and two Cox's Orange Pippins for fresh eating, a Wolf River for baking, and three Black Oxfords for winter keeping, but I feel like there are some gaps I need to fill. What do you recommend for cider?" Bunk, who is 62, dished out free advice through flayed vocal cords that made his words sound as if they were made of New England slate.

Most people approached with apples in hand, hoping for an ID of the tree that had been in their driveway or field ever since they bought the place. Some showed him photos on iPhones. Everywhere he travels in Maine, from the Common Ground Country Fair to the many Rotary Clubs and historical societies where he speaks, Bunk is presented with a series of mystery apples to identify. He's happy to oblige, but what he's really looking for are the ones he can'tidentify. It's all part of being an apple detective.

In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct—but not quite biologically extinct.

by Rowan Jacobsen, Mother Jones |  Read more:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rob Hann

Pinging the Whole Internet

You probably haven’t heard of HD Moore, but up to a few weeks ago every Internet device in the world, perhaps including some in your own home, was contacted roughly three times a day by a stack of computers that sit overheating his spare room. “I have a lot of cooling equipment to make sure my house doesn’t catch on fire,” says Moore, who leads research at computer security company Rapid7. In February last year he decided to carry out a personal census of every device on the Internet as a hobby. “This is not my day job; it’s what I do for fun,” he says.

Moore has now put that fun on hold. “[It] drew quite a lot of complaints, hate mail, and calls from law enforcement,” he says. But the data collected has revealed some serious security problems, and exposed some vulnerable business and industrial systems of a kind used to control everything from traffic lights to power infrastructure.

Moore’s census involved regularly sending simple, automated messages to each one of the 3.7 billion IP addresses assigned to devices connected to the Internet around the world (Google, in contrast, collects information offered publicly by websites). Many of the two terabytes (2,000 gigabytes) worth of replies Moore received from 310 million IPs indicated that they came from devices vulnerable to well-known flaws, or configured in a way that could to let anyone take control of them.

On Tuesday, Moore published results on a particularly troubling segment of those vulnerable devices: ones that appear to be used for business and industrial systems. Over 114,000 of those control connections were logged as being on the Internet with known security flaws. Many could be accessed using default passwords and 13,000 offered direct access through a command prompt without a password at all.

Those vulnerable accounts offer attackers significant opportunities, says Moore, including rebooting company servers and IT systems, accessing medical device logs and customer data, and even gaining access to industrial control systems at factories or power infrastructure. Moore’s latest findings were aided by a similar dataset published by an anonymous hacker last month, gathered by compromising 420,000 pieces of network hardware.

by Tom Simonite, MIT Technology Review |  Read more:
Image by Carna Botnet

Cheryl Kelley, 396, 2009, oil on aluminum panel, 36 x 48"


Traditionally, people undergo a bit of self-examination when faced with a ­potentially fatal rupture in their long-term relationship. Thirty-two-year-old Henry* admits that what he did was a little more extreme. “If you’d told me that I wasn’t going to masturbate for 54 days, I would have told you to fuck off,” he says.

Masturbation had been part of Henry’s daily routine since childhood. Although he remembered a scandalized babysitter who “found me trying to have sex with a chair” at age 5, Henry says he never felt shame about his habit. While he was of the opinion that a man who has a committed sexual relationship with porn was probably not going to have as successful a relationship with a woman, he had no qualms about watching it. Which he did most days.

Then, early last year and shortly before his girlfriend of two years moved to Los Angeles, Henry happened to watch a TED talk by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo called “The Demise of Guys.” It described males who “prefer the asynchronistic Internet world to the spontaneous interactions in social relationships” and therefore fail to succeed in school, work, and with women. When his girlfriend left, Henry went on to watch a TEDX talk by Gary Wilson, an anatomist and physiologist, whose lecture series, “Your Brain on Porn,” claims, among other things, that porn conditions men to want constant variety—an endless set of images and fantasies—and requires them to experience increasingly heightened stimuli to feel aroused. A related link led Henry to a community of people engaged in attempts to quit masturbation on the social news site Reddit. After reading the ­enthusiastic posts claiming improved virility, Henry began frequenting the site.

by Emily Witt, New York Magazine | Read more:
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Pierrot and Harlequin - Anya Stasenko & Slava Leontiev

Life in the City Is Essentially One Giant Math Problem

The systematic study of cities dates back at least to the Greek historian Herodotus. In the early 20th century, scientific disciplines emerged around specific aspects of urban development: zoning theory, public health and sanitation, transit and traffic engineering. By the 1960s, the urban-planning writers Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte used New York as their laboratory to study the street life of neighborhoods, the walking patterns of Midtown pedestrians, the way people gathered and sat in open spaces. But their judgments were generally aesthetic and intuitive (although Whyte, photographing the plaza of the Seagram Building, derived the seat-of-the-pants formula for bench space in public spaces: one linear foot per 30 square feet of open area). “They had fascinating ideas,” says Luís Bettencourt, a researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank better known for its contributions to theoretical physics, “but where is the science? What is the empirical basis for deciding what kind of cities we want?” Bettencourt, a physicist, practices a discipline that shares a deep affinity with quantitative urbanism. Both require understanding complex interactions among large numbers of entities: the 20 million people in the New York metropolitan area, or the countless subatomic particles in a nuclear reaction.

The birth of this new field can be dated to 2003, when researchers at SFI convened a workshop on ways to “model”—in the scientific sense of reducing to equations—aspects of human society. One of the leaders was Geoffrey West, who sports a neatly trimmed gray beard and retains a trace of the accent of his native Somerset. He was also a theoretical physicist, but had strayed into biology, exploring how the properties of organisms relate to their mass. An elephant is not just a bigger version of a mouse, but many of its measurable characteristics, such as metabolism and life span, are governed by mathematical laws that apply all up and down the scale of sizes. The bigger the animal, the longer but the slower it lives: A mouse heart rate is around 500 beats per minute; an elephant’s pulse is 28. If you plotted those points on a logarithmic graph, comparing size with pulse, every mammal would fall on or near the same line. West suggested that the same principles might be at work in human institutions. From the back of the room, Bettencourt (then at Los Alamos National Laboratory) and José Lobo, an economist at Arizona State University (who majored in physics as an undergraduate), chimed in with the motto of physicists since Galileo: “Why don’t we get the data to test it?”

Out of that meeting emerged a collaboration that produced the seminal paper in the field: “Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities.” In six pages dense with equations and graphs, West, Lobo and Bettencourt, along with two researchers from the Dresden University of Technology, laid out a theory about how cities vary according to size. “What people do in cities—create wealth, or murder each other—shows a relationship to the size of the city, one that isn’t tied just to one era or nation,” says Lobo. The relationship is captured by an equation in which a given parameter—employment, say—varies exponentially with population. In some cases, the exponent is 1, meaning whatever is being measured increases linearly, at the same rate as population. Household water or electrical use, for example, shows this pattern; as a city grows bigger its residents don’t use their appliances more. Some exponents are greater than 1, a relationship described as “superlinear scaling.” Most measures of economic activity fall into this category; among the highest exponents the scholars found were for “private [research and development] employment,” 1.34; “new patents,” 1.27; and gross domestic product, in a range of 1.13 to 1.26. If the population of a city doubles over time, or comparing one big city with two cities each half the size, gross domestic product more than doubles. Each individual becomes, on average, 15 percent more productive. Bettencourt describes the effect as “slightly magical,” although he and his colleagues are beginning to understand the synergies that make it possible. Physical proximity promotes collaboration and innovation, which is one reason the new CEO of Yahoo recently reversed the company’s policy of letting almost anyone work from home. The Wright brothers could build their first flying machines by themselves in a garage, but you can’t design a jet airliner that way.

Unfortunately, new AIDS cases also scale superlinearly, at 1.23, as does serious crime, 1.16. Lastly, some measures show an exponent of less than 1, meaning they increase more slowly than population. These are typically measures of infrastructure, characterized by economies of scale that result from increasing size and density. New York doesn’t need four times as many gas stations as Houston, for instance; gas stations scale at 0.77; total surface area of roads, 0.83; and total length of wiring in the electrical grid, 0.87.

Remarkably, this phenomenon applies to cities all over the world, of different sizes, regardless of their particular history, culture or geography. Mumbai is different from Shanghai is different from Houston, obviously, but in relation to their own pasts, and to other cities in India, China or the U.S., they follow these laws. “Give me the size of a city in the United States and I can tell you how many police it has, how many patents, how many AIDS cases,” says West, “just as you can calculate the life span of a mammal from its body mass.”

by Jerry Adler, Smithsonian |  Read more:
(Illustration by Traci Daberko

Their Master’s Voice - Michael Sowa

Everything is Rigged: The Biggest Price-Fixing Scandal Ever

Conspiracy theorists of the world, believers in the hidden hands of the Rothschilds and the Masons and the Illuminati, we skeptics owe you an apology. You were right. The players may be a little different, but your basic premise is correct: The world is a rigged game. We found this out in recent months, when a series of related corruption stories spilled out of the financial sector, suggesting the world's largest banks may be fixing the prices of, well, just about everything.

You may have heard of the Libor scandal, in which at least three – and perhaps as many as 16 – of the name-brand too-big-to-fail banks have been manipulating global interest rates, in the process messing around with the prices of upward of $500 trillion (that's trillion, with a "t") worth of financial instruments. When that sprawling con burst into public view last year, it was easily the biggest financial scandal in history – MIT professor Andrew Lo even said it "dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets."

That was bad enough, but now Libor may have a twin brother. Word has leaked out that the London-based firm ICAP, the world's largest broker of interest-rate swaps, is being investigated by American authorities for behavior that sounds eerily reminiscent of the Libor mess. Regulators are looking into whether or not a small group of brokers at ICAP may have worked with up to 15 of the world's largest banks to manipulate ISDAfix, a benchmark number used around the world to calculate the prices of interest-rate swaps.

Interest-rate swaps are a tool used by big cities, major corporations and sovereign governments to manage their debt, and the scale of their use is almost unimaginably massive. It's about a $379 trillion market, meaning that any manipulation would affect a pile of assets about 100 times the size of the United States federal budget.

It should surprise no one that among the players implicated in this scheme to fix the prices of interest-rate swaps are the same megabanks – including Barclays, UBS, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and the Royal Bank of Scotland – that serve on the Libor panel that sets global interest rates. In fact, in recent years many of these banks have already paid multimillion-dollar settlements for anti-competitive manipulation of one form or another (in addition to Libor, some were caught up in an anti-competitive scheme, detailed in Rolling Stone last year, to rig municipal-debt service auctions). Though the jumble of financial acronyms sounds like gibberish to the layperson, the fact that there may now be price-fixing scandals involving both Libor and ISDAfix suggests a single, giant mushrooming conspiracy of collusion and price-fixing hovering under the ostensibly competitive veneer of Wall Street culture.

Why? Because Libor already affects the prices of interest-rate swaps, making this a manipulation-on-manipulation situation. If the allegations prove to be right, that will mean that swap customers have been paying for two different layers of price-fixing corruption. If you can imagine paying 20 bucks for a crappy PB&J because some evil cabal of agribusiness companies colluded to fix the prices of both peanuts and peanut butter, you come close to grasping the lunacy of financial markets where both interest rates and interest-rate swaps are being manipulated at the same time, often by the same banks.

"It's a double conspiracy," says an amazed Michael Greenberger, a former director of the trading and markets division at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and now a professor at the University of Maryland. "It's the height of criminality."

The bad news didn't stop with swaps and interest rates. In March, it also came out that two regulators – the CFTC here in the U.S. and the Madrid-based International Organization of Securities Commissions – were spurred by the Libor revelations to investigate the possibility of collusive manipulation of gold and silver prices. "Given the clubby manipulation efforts we saw in Libor benchmarks, I assume other benchmarks – many other benchmarks – are legit areas of inquiry," CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton said.

But the biggest shock came out of a federal courtroom at the end of March – though if you follow these matters closely, it may not have been so shocking at all – when a landmark class-action civil lawsuit against the banks for Libor-related offenses was dismissed. In that case, a federal judge accepted the banker-defendants' incredible argument: If cities and towns and other investors lost money because of Libor manipulation, that was their own fault for ever thinking the banks were competing in the first place. (...)

Libor, which measures the prices banks charge one another to borrow money, is a perfect example, not only of this basic flaw in the price-setting system but of the weakness in the regulatory framework supposedly policing it. Couple a voluntary reporting scheme with too-big-to-fail status and a revolving-door legal system, and what you get is unstoppable corruption.

Every morning, 18 of the world's biggest banks submit data to an office in London about how much they believe they would have to pay to borrow from other banks. The 18 banks together are called the "Libor panel," and when all of these data from all 18 panelist banks are collected, the numbers are averaged out. What emerges, every morning at 11:30 London time, are the daily Libor figures.

Banks submit numbers about borrowing in 10 different currencies across 15 different time periods, e.g., loans as short as one day and as long as one year. This mountain of bank-submitted data is used every day to create benchmark rates that affect the prices of everything from credit cards to mortgages to currencies to commercial loans (both short- and long-term) to swaps.

Dating back perhaps as far as the early Nineties, traders and others inside these banks were sometimes calling up the company geeks responsible for submitting the daily Libor numbers (the "Libor submitters") and asking them to fudge the numbers. Usually, the gimmick was the trader had made a bet on something – a swap, currencies, something – and he wanted the Libor submitter to make the numbers look lower (or, occasionally, higher) to help his bet pay off.

Famously, one Barclays trader monkeyed with Libor submissions in exchange for a bottle of Bollinger champagne, but in some cases, it was even lamer than that. This is from an exchange between a trader and a Libor submitter at the Royal Bank of Scotland:

SWISS FRANC TRADER: can u put 6m swiss libor in low pls?...
SWSISS FRANC TRADER: ive got some sushi rolls from yesterday?...
PRIMARY SUBMITTER: ok low 6m, just for u
SWISS FRANC TRADER: wooooooohooooooo. . . thatd be awesome

Screwing around with world interest rates that affect billions of people in exchange for day-old sushi – it's hard to imagine an image that better captures the moral insanity of the modern financial-services sector.

by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone |  Read more:
Illustration by Victor Juhasz

Christian Faur, Crayon Photography

Searing Squid

Squid is easy to cook but hard to sear. It releases so much moisture when it hits the pan that it tends to steam rather than brown. And since it cooks so quickly (two to three minutes will do it), it is usually done before much of the liquid evaporates.

If I’m cooking squid in a sauce, the excess pan liquid is an asset. It has a wonderful ocean flavor, like fish stock without the work.

But sometimes, a pale golden sear, with its gentle toasty notes, is what I’m after. The secret is the meeting of an extremely hot pan with some extremely dry squid.

Since squid continues to ooze juices as it sits, the vigilant wiping is a necessity. I like to rinse the sea creatures thoroughly, then cut their slim bodies into rings (tentacles can be left whole or halved as desired). I lay the rings out (cut side up) on a clean dish towel or several layers of paper towels and pat them dry. If I’ve planned ahead, I’ll let them air dry, allowing them to sit out for up to an hour.

Meanwhile, I’ll heat a heavy-duty pan for at least five minutes. Don’t use nonstick here; it impedes browning.

Then (and this is the crucial part) transfer the squid from the towels to a plate before moving it to the pan. The reason for this is that as the squid sits, it will release liquid and glue itself to the toweling. Transferring it to a plate first unsticks it, encouraging it to slide into the hot pan in one fell swoop so all of it cooks at the same rate.

Unless the pan is large and quantity of squid small, cook the squid in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. If you cram the bodies in like a rush-hour subway car in August, they’re bound to sweat.

Seared squid, deeply saline and caramelized, doesn’t need much in terms of seasonings. But garlic, fresh mint and sliced jalapeño add a welcome kick.

Recipe: Sauteed Squid with Chiles, Mint and Lime

by Melissa Clark, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bad Land

America is full of guns—one gun for every citizen—and Americans often use them to shoot one another. After this week’s failure of gun-control legislation to survive the Senate, it’s not enough anymore to say Americans love their guns. The question is: Why do we kill?
The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted. —D.H. Lawrence
(...) When I started my research, I must admit, I assumed the academic literature would turn up unassailable arguments along the lines of this headline from Harvard: “Where there are more guns there is more homicide.”

But the literature on guns is just as messy as the statistics—often completely contradictory, with some studies showing convincing correlation between guns and homicide, while others equally convincingly show none. In the end, most of it shares an unfortunately quality: too much of the language implies causation (or lack thereof) between guns and death but only really shows varying levels of correlation. This is a problem in much social science research, but seems particularly vivid here. A Centers for Disease Control task force in 2003 summed up the situation nicely: “The application of imperfect methods to imperfect data has commonly resulted in inconsistent and otherwise insufficient evidence with which to determine the effectiveness of firearms laws in modifying violent outcomes.”

Talk about a moving target.

But the ambiguity can be useful, if you’re willing to explore the dark gap between correlation and causation. So if we can give up on guns as the root of the problem, just for a while, there are a host of possible other causes for the special American brand of rich country violence. Let’s start with what we are not going to discuss. The list runs very roughly from least relevant to most relevant:

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals
Mental illness
Drug use
Religiosity or lack thereof
Violent media and video games
Gun control laws or lack thereof
Crises of masculinity
Culture of honor
Public faith or lack thereof in government

Of all these, income inequality rings the most true—and there is high correlation between inequality and homicide in studies—but beneath even that there is another issue that transcends all the standard bugaboos of race, class, and poverty, one possibly rooted deep in the primate building blocks of humanity.

It’s called social capital, and while it’s a relatively new term, it is an old concept, with American roots reaching as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville and his classic analysis of the United States in the 1830s, in which he identified both American individualism and an American propensity to gather into groups “very general and very particular, immense and very small.”

“No sooner do you set foot upon the American soil, than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamour is heard on every side; and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the immediate satisfaction of their social wants,” he wrote. “Everything is in motion around you; here, the people of one quarter of a town are met to decide upon the building of a church; there, the election of a representative is going on; a little further, the delegates of a district are posting to the town in order to consult upon some local improvements; or in another place the labourers of a village quit their ploughs to deliberate upon the project of a road or a public school.”

This engagement was central to de Tocqueville’s understanding of American democracy. He saw voluntary groups spreading like wildfire (among primarily white males, of course) and filling a gap between family on the local end and the state on the more distant end. And it was in this middle ground that de Tocqueville perceived a budding sense of a new and better common good.

Both in academia and the wider culture, social capital burst into the national consciousness in the mid-1990s, driven by political scientist Robert Putnam, who defined it as “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other (‘norms of reciprocity’).”

It includes everything from voting to dinner parties to Little League, from religious groups to farmer’s markets and the local zoning board. It includes Facebook, yoga classes, picnics of all kinds, hanging out on the stoop, and watching over the neighbor’s kids. Putnam raised an alarm about declining social capital, pointing to precipitous drops in the very voluntary associations—the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts, the Jaycees—that de Tocqueville had gushed over and writing that “we are becoming mere observers of our collective destiny.” He attributed the decline to sprawl, television, and demographic shifts, but his underlying focus was on the struggles of dual-income middle-class families whose overworked members were not able to participate in wider society as they once did.

There are two kinds of social capital—bonding and bridging—and each impact a society differently. Bonding capital is what you get within a given group. These tend to be closer and more reliable bonds that form the foundation of our social capital. Yet bonding social capital is not always positive: Tight-knit groups can turn insular, reaching their logical conclusion in gangs and militias but with negative effects found in everything from families to groups of friends to certain kinds of religious communities.

In contrast, bridging social capital reaches across a societal divide such as race, region or religion and is by nature weak. But it also promotes empathy and tolerance and enlarges our radius of trust, allowing us to see other people as people, not as a faceless other.

This sense of bridging a divide is especially important in the U.S. because, contrary to popular opinion, we regularly put the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual in a way Europeans don’t. In surveys, Western Europeans are more likely than Americans to say citizens should follow their conscience and break an unjust law or that citizens should defy their homeland if they believe their country is acting immorally.

On the other hand, Americans are more likely to believe they control their own fate and to believe in a more laissez-faire relationship with the state. It’s a more complex mix than our myths allow for, and the end result is that it can be hard to fathom just how different Americans are from the rest of the world.

by Nathan Hegedus, TMN |  Read more:
Image: Georg Baselitz, Das Motiv im Grand Canyon, 2003. Copyright © Georg Baselitz. Courtesy Galleri Bo Bjerggaard, Copenhagen.