Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rory vs. the Robot

[ed. Rory McIlroy vs. a mouthy robot.]

The Supreme Court Just Handed Real Estate Developers a Huge Win

The Supreme Court handed down a decision Tuesday morning that's gotten considerably less attention than this term's blockbuster battles over same-sex marriage and voting rights. But Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District will likely prove a historic property-rights ruling, with far-reaching implications for the leverage local land-use agencies may use to extract concessions from property owners and developers for the common and environmental good.

The question lurking behind the case – how much and what can the public ask for when a private property owner's actions cause wider harm or societal burdens? – has the potential for much broader impact than the technical details of one Florida man's property dispute would suggest. And the 5-4 ruling surprised court-watchers who felt the government made a convincing case at oral arguments in January. In a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court sided with the property owner.

"It’s a very important decision that seriously undermines the authority of local communities across the country," says John Echeverria, a legal scholar at the University of Vermont Law School who has written extensively on "takings" law. The two factions of the Supreme Court, on the other hand, disagree over whether this ruling will "work a revolution in land-use law."

The case revolves around a 14.9-acre property – primarily wetlands – east of Orlando purchased by Coy Koontz, Sr., in 1972. In the 1990s, he sought a permit from the local water management district to develop 3.7 acres of the land, dredging and filling it in to construct a building, a parking lot, and a retention pond. Under Florida law designed to protect the state's dwindling wetlands, anyone who wants to dredge or fill wetlands must get a special permit. And the land-use agencies that issue those permits can require property owners to offset any environmental damage to get one.

In this case, Koontz offered to permanently conserve the rest of his land from development in exchange for the permit to develop the 3.7 acres. The St. Johns River Water Management District argued that his offer was insufficient. The agency proposed instead that he develop only one acre and conserve the rest, or that he pay for contractors who would make improvements to other government-owned wetlands within the same watershed but several miles away. Koontz turned down both options and sued instead. In the 11 years this case has been winding through the legal system, Koontz died. The property owner is now his son, Coy Koontz, Jr.

The legal issue at play here comes from the Fifth Amendment – the Just Compensation Clause that states "...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." There is a long and complicated legal history sketching out what constitutes a government "taking" of private property, and when public agencies must compensate property owners for that taking. In Koontz, the central question was whether or not the St. Johns River Water Management District violated Koontz' property rights by denying him a permit when he wouldn't agree to the District's conditions to develop his land.

by Emily Badger, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: EPA

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jay Musler, Cityscape

Magpie. Woodcut by Allen William Seaby, ca. 1903 (via British Museum)

Fukushima: One Man's Story

Before the disaster, there was always something reassuring about life by the sea in Ukedo, on the Fukushima coastline. Farther up Japan’s north-eastern shores, the rias, or inlets, would often become deathtraps when tsunamis barrelled up the narrow coves, crashing over isolated villages before the residents had time to flee. But in Ukedo, which lies on a smooth grey beach, ruffled in the early morning only by gulls’ feet and crabs’ claws, the Pacific Ocean was typically gentler. In summer, surfers would lie idly for hours out at sea waiting for a wave big enough to ride. If ever the waves did rise, giant concrete sea walls stood between them and the village like grim-faced centurions.

For generations, villagers came together twice a year to celebrate the bounty of the ocean. At New Year, dozens of fishing boats, festooned with flags, would join a parade out to sea, their horns blaring. In the lead was the vessel that had caught the most fish the year before. Two months later, when the sea was cold and rough and the fishermen needed an excuse to stay on shore drinking, the main matsuri, or Shinto festival, was held. It honoured the sea and the paddy fields of Ukedo, which together provided the two staple ingredients of every Japanese table: fish and rice. Children would dress up in gaudy costumes, with red and yellow flowers on their hats, speckled robes and red clogs, dancing to songs that celebrated life by the sea. Young fishermen would strip down to a pair of tight white shorts, and, fired up with slugs of the village’s sake, they would hurl themselves into the icy water, carrying heavy wooden shrines that sloshed about on the waves. The name of the festival spoke to the success of their entreaties to the Shinto spirits of the sea. It was called the Amba Matsuri, or Festival of the Safe Wave.

Morihisa Kanouya, then 71, had long reaped the benefits of the safety of those waves. A second-generation fisherman, he was often among the first five in the New Year’s parade because of the size of his catches. His working life was as regular as the movement of the tides. He would rise at 2am, six days a week, at his home close to the sea. Hisako, his cheery wife, would get up with him, handing him a small bento box that she had prepared before going to bed, with a snack that he would eat in the chilly darkness out at sea. He would set out with only his eldest son for company. In a few hours they would haul in anything from 50-200kg of fish, including flounder, octopus, sea bream and squid. By 7am, they would be back home in time for Hisako’s breakfast. Then from 9am, Kanouya-san (as everyone knows him) would unload his catch at the wholesale market, from where it would be trucked to Tsukiji, one of the world’s biggest fish markets, in Tokyo. By the early afternoon, he would have scrubbed his nets, and a bit later he would be tucking into his first glass of sake. A strapping, broad-chested man, he can still put away a few litres a day, he reckons. But by 8pm, he was usually home and in bed.

His income had long been as steady as his hours. Off Japan’s north-eastern coast, the collision of the warm Kuroshio current with the cold Oyashio current coming down from the Arctic Ocean produces some of the world’s richest fishing. It is not for nothing that many fishermen view the sea as a liquid bank, providing a recurring flow of cash year in, year out. For the fishermen of Ukedo, there was a bonus. Since 1971, when Japan’s biggest utility, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), had opened its first nuclear-power plant on the Fukushima coastline a few miles south of their village, they had been offered generous financial support for agreeing to give up their fishing rights, so that Tepco could pour the warm overflow from its nuclear cooling systems into the ocean. Ukedo’s fishermen took the lion’s share of the first big subsidy. Every time Tepco built a new reactor in the vicinity—there were six in total—the fishermen received a generous top-up. It had enabled Kanouya-san and his colleagues to buy new engines and upgrade their trawlers, making them more reliable and extending their reach out to sea. Fishing became far more lucrative than farming, and even when Japan’s economy stalled in the 1990s, Ukedo continued to prosper. For years Kanouya-san was one of its top seadogs, as head of the local fishing co-operative.

But in 2011 he had finally decided it was time for a change. He resolved to hang up his white fisherman’s boots, leave his job at the co-operative, and take Hisako on a trip—around Japan, and even the world, if possible. The news delighted her, he recalls. So when, on the afternoon of March 11th, he felt the biggest earthquake to jolt Japan in at least 1,000 years, he rushed home, only to find her laughing with friends. They had been having tea together when the quake struck. Now she was giggling and gossiping nervously with them, using a broom to sweep up the bits of crockery that had fallen to the floor. She was oblivious to the risk of a tsunami. He wasn’t. Some 17 of his fellow fishermen had done the most sensible thing under the circumstances: they had jumped into their trawlers and headed out to sea, knowing they could ride over the swelling tide before it would crash onto the coastline. But Kanouya-san’s first concern was his wife. (...)

These days, you find Kanouya-san, now 73, living alone on the outskirts of Fukushima City, capital of the eponymously named prefecture. His new home is about 50 miles north-west of Ukedo, across a high mountain range, and he rarely goes back. He lives in a prefabricated, box-like temporary housing complex. During my last visit, in February, an icy wind blowing from Siberia was making the snow billow up against the door of his home. Inside, he sat huddled with his back to the wall, in a coat and scarf, opposite his large Panasonic television. As usual, there were several fisherman’s caps, fedoras and trilbies pegged to the wall above his head; they are his pride and joy and his only decorations. As usual, he greeted us gruffly. No small talk. Even as I struggled to unlace my boots at the door, he turned his back on me and went into his living room. To one side of him is a photograph showing him as a roguish-looking man in the 1970s, with a brown leather jacket and a cap worn at a tilt like Robert Redford in "The Sting". Next to him is Hisako, wearing jeans and with a round, smiling face. Sometimes I have remarked on what a playboy he looks in the photo. He smiles mischievously, as if to acknowledge that, back then, he did indeed have the pick of all the girls.

But now, it’s only the other photo of Hisako that counts. It shows her on her own, austerely dressed in a dark robe, with her hair swept back. Beside it are candles, sticks of incense and flowers, as well as oranges and biscuits that Kanouya-san offers every day as he prays to her. Among them is a small urn with her ashes inside. Hisako is now a spirit, and when he kneels at her shrine, he rings a small bell, lights a stick of incense, and bows his head solemnly.

by Henry Tricks, Intelligent Life |  Read more:
Photo: Jeremie Souteyrat


Ross Nanotechnology has developed a product called Rust-Oleum NeverWet that does just what its name says. Just spray pretty much everything you own with NeverWet and it becomes basically waterproof.

NeverWet is designed to be used on multiple surfaces by creating a superhydrophobic barrier, which repels water. When any liquid hits this barrier, it forms beads that roll of the surface without clinging on. This is often referred to as the Lotus effect.

One video put out by NeverWet shows people dropping a NeverWet-enhanced iPhone in water without destroying it. Another video shows how spraying NeverWet inside a cardboard box creates a quick DIY icebox.

by Dhiya Kuriakose, Mashable |  Read more:
Image: Mashable

Friday, June 28, 2013


Johnny Depp

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of the Rebel Angels

Room for Sex

Morningside, a late-Victorian suburb on the south side of Edinburgh is an extremely good-looking place, possessing an architectural integrity rare in Britain today. Never threatened by wartime bombs, post-war developers, or the vicissitudes of the housing market, this suburb has a direct line to the ‘Victorian city’ — and its morality. Its moral character is there for anyone to see: in the bay windows watching over every inch of street, the church on every corner, and the sheer solidity of the stone. Morningside is propriety in built form.

The suburb’s respectability was a huge attraction for me at the anxious moment of buying a flat. But after a few years of living there, that same respectability had become a bore. Then it became oppressive. The buildings began to represent a desiccated social life, defined by emotional reserve and obligation. Patrolled by curtain-twitching killjoys, Morningside seemed determined to put a stop to fun of any kind.

In retrospect, Morningside itself probably had little to do with it. Moving there coincided with the moment at which my wife and I became fully grown adults. It was a structural problem. With two careers, two kids and no money, there was little time for pleasures, sex included. Of course, we bore it all stoically and, after a while, we learned together that this was simply what adult life was like, a mess of contradictory demands, with neither the time nor the space in which they might all be satisfied. We were hardly alone: every other couple we knew seemed to find themselves in the same situation. Still, our feelings were real enough, and being an academic, I set to reading about them.

It’s odd how little architects have had to say on the subject of sex. If they’re routinely designing the buildings in which sex happens, then you might expect them to spend more time thinking about it. Buildings frame and house our sexual lives. They tell us where and when we can, and cannot, have sex, and with whom. To escape buildings for sex — to use a park, a beach, or the back seat of a car — is a transgression of one kind or another. Most of us keep sex indoors and out of sight.

An important early find in my reading was Mating in Captivity (2006) by Esther Perel, the New York-based sex therapist. According to Perel, sex wastes time, needs space, and (most intriguingly) is inhibited by too much intimacy. All these things have implications for architecture, which in the West has been coloured by the language of efficiency for at least a century. By contrast, in Perel’s terms, sex was profligacy and decadence. She also remarked that ‘sexual desire and good citizenship don’t play by the same rules’.

This struck a chord. I had long been bothered by the architectural concern for civility. The sudden proliferation in the 2000s of National Lottery-funded public spaces in the UK seemed to be rooted in a longing to return to Edwardian times, with all the attendant anxieties about sex and class. This longing was abundantly clear in Foster and Partners’ redevelopment of Trafalgar Square (2003): a magnificent architectural project, but one that limited human behaviour to the polite promenade. Perel’s understanding of the limits of civility, from a sexual point of view, helped me to form a powerful critique of architecture. In sum, architecture was principally about order; sex was not.

by Richard J. Williams, Aeon |  Read more:
Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952). Photo by Stephen Burrows

X is for X-Ray Fish, by Marc Martin

On Early Warning Signs

At a closed meeting held in Boston in October 2009, the room was packed with high-flyers in foreign policy and finance: Henry Kissinger, Paul Volcker, Andy Haldane, and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, as well as representatives of sovereign wealth funds, pensions, and endowments worth more than a trillion dollars—a significant slice of the world’s wealth. The session opened with the following telling question: “Have the last couple of years shown that our traditional finance/risk models are irretrievably broken and that models and approaches from other fields (for example, ecology) may offer a better understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of complex financial systems?”

Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.

Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.

The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.

Consider first the complex interconnections. Economics is not typically thought of as a global systems problem. Indeed, investment banks are famous for a brand of tunnel vision that focuses risk management at the individual firm level and ignores the difficult and costlier, albeit less frequent, systemic or financial-web problem. Monitoring the ecosystem-like network of firms with interlocking balance sheets is not in the risk manager’s job description. Even so, there is emerging agreement that ignoring the seemingly incomprehensible meshing of counterparty obligations and mutual interdependencies (an accountant’s nightmare, more recursive than Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?”) prevented real pricing of risk premiums, which helped to propagate the current crisis.

A parallel situation exists in fisheries, where stocks are traditionally managed one species at a time. Alarm over collapsing fish stocks, however, is helping to create the current push for ecosystem-based ocean management. This is a step in the right direction, but the current ecosystem simulation models remain incapable of reproducing realistic population crashes. And the same is true of most climate simulation models: Though the geological record tells us that global temperatures can change very quickly, the models consistently underestimate that possibility. This is related to the next property, the nonlinear, non-equilibrium nature of systems.

Most engineered devices, consisting of mechanical springs, transistors, and the like, are built to be stable. That is, if stressed from rest, or equilibrium, they spring back. Many simple ecological models, physiological models, and even climate and economic models are built by assuming the same principle: a globally stable equilibrium. A related simplification is to see the world as consisting of separate parts that can be studied in a linear way, one piece at a time. These pieces can then be summed independently to make the whole. Researchers have developed a very large tool kit of analytical methods and statistics based on this linear idea, and it has proven invaluable for studying simple engineered devices. But even when many of the complex systems that interest us are not linear, we persist with these tools and models. It is a case of looking under the lamppost because the light is better even though we know the lost keys are in the shadows. Linear systems produce nice stationary statistics—constant risk metrics, for example. Because they assume that a process does not vary through time, one can subsample it to get an idea of what the larger universe of possibilities looks like. This characteristic of linear systems appeals to our normal heuristic thinking.

Nonlinear systems, however, are not so well behaved. They can appear stationary for a long while, then without anything changing, they exhibit jumps in variability—so-called “heteroscedasticity.” For example, if one looks at the range of economic variables over the past decade (daily market movements, GDP changes, etc.), one might guess that variability and the universe of possibilities are very modest. This was the modus operandi of normal risk management. As a consequence, the likelihood of some of the large moves we saw in 2008, which happened over so many consecutive days, should have been less than once in the age of the universe.

Our problem is that the scientific desire to simplify has taken over, something that Einstein warned against when he paraphrased Occam: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Thinking of natural and economic systems as essentially stable and decomposable into parts is a good initial hypothesis, current observations and measurements do not support that hypothesis—hence our continual surprise. Just as we like the idea of constancy, we are stubborn to change. The 19th century American humorist Josh Billings, perhaps, put it best: “It ain’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

by George Sugihara, Seed |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

The All-American Bank Heist

[ed. Great story. I missed it when it originally appeared in GQ. Now that I'm more familiar with the area it has even more relevance.]

The ballsiest bank heist in recent memory started off without much fanfare at all.

It was a late September Tuesday, a much needed workday for the dozen guys huddled outside a strip mall in Monroe, Washington, a bedroom community some thirty miles northeast of Seattle. The men had all answered the same curious ad for employment, posted on Craigslist the week before. Its instructions were very specific: Applicants were told to gather in this exact spot, on a small patch of blacktop between the Jack in the Box and the Bank of America at 11 A.M. Not that any of the men thought much about the location. Like the rest of the country, Monroe was getting hammered by the recession, and these guys would meet anywhere if it meant nine days of work and $28.50 an hour.

The author of the post—someone from the Clean Monroe Beautification Project—went on: “All workers must purchase safety glasses or equivalent eye protection, ventilator mask, yellow safety vest, long sleeves and no shorts, along with proper foot protection.” After applying, each man received an e-mail from the supervisor, telling him to show up wearing ablue shirt. “If a project manager is not there,” it concluded, somewhat ominously, “do not leave.”

As the men waited, one landscaper was already going hard at it. He'd been there since before the others arrived, killing weeds outside the Jack in the Box, and he continued working the lawn until exactly 11:05 A.M., when a Brinks armored truck rolled up to the Bank of America branch next door. As the messenger got out and started wheeling bags of cash to the bank, the landscaper stopped spritzing, tossed aside his pesticide sprayer, and sprinted toward the truck. He was only a few paces from the guard when he fired enough pepper spray to stun a 1,000-pound grizzly bear. As the guard clawed at his eyes in pain, his attacker simply grabbed the bags, heavy with cash, and sprinted into the nearby woods.

The whole job took about thirty seconds.

When the police arrived a few minutes later, they surveyed an entire parking lot filled with landscapers matching the thief's description. “We just got scammed!” one shouted to detective Tim “Buzz” Buzzell. A sixteen-year veteran of the force with a lantern jaw and a linebacker's build, Buzz was used to chasing down the occasional stolen four-wheeler. This Thomas Crown Affair shit was new to him. With K9s barking, he ran down behind the strip mall where the crook was last spotted. Along the gravel leading to the woods, he found a trail of discarded items: a blue cap, a long brown wig, a white particle mask, sunglasses. The path stopped at the edge of Woods Creek, a narrow stream less than two feet deep. Buzz stood on the bank, watching the water ripple quietly over the jagged rocks.

An hour of searching, with helicopters circling overhead, turned up nothing. Then one of Buzz's patrol officers called him over to something floating in the water about 200 yards downstream. Buzz raced through the underbrush to where the creek flowed under the concrete pillars of a rusty and abandoned train trestle. Bobbing up against a fallen log was the crook's apparent and bizarre means of escape: a black-and-yellow inner tube, decorated with a picture of a bee next to the word hornet. A few feet away, a blue shirt and a two-way radio had been tossed on the creek's bank. Buzz and his partner, detective Barry Hatch, a former scuba instructor with formidable ears and a crew cut to show them off, stared blankly into the woods.

The bandit was gone, along with $400,000.

Word quickly spread across the Internet about Monroe's outrageous caper. A local radio caller named the crook D. B. Tuber, in homage to the famed 1970s bandit D. B. Cooper, who parachuted from a hijacked plane with $200,000. One blogger dubbed it “the most awesome robbery ever.” Another said the thief was a mastermind who pulled off a “Hollywood” heist.

by David Kushner |  Read more:
Image via:

Australia, Go to Your Room

[ed. See also: this Guardian report.]

I’d like to tell you a story about my country, Australia.

We’re healthy, and things are going well on many fronts. We weathered the GFC better than most nations, with low unemployment (5.5% in May 2013), a strong dollar, contained inflation, and solid economic growth. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund said Australia had the strongest economy in the developed world.

Also, we’re in a state of political disarray.

Until the night of Wednesday 26 June 2013, when there was a coup, our Prime Minister was Julia Gillard. She was Australia’s first female leader and, as it happens, unmarried, childless, an atheist, and from a working-class background. She is a redhead, not skinny, and not young. None of those things should have mattered; they all did.

Gillard’s trip to the top was controversial and dramatic. She has been compared to Lady Macbeth and, while that’s a twisting of the original tale, she did first stand on the podium with blood on her hands.

by Kirsten Alexander, Open Field via Medium |  Read more:
Image: Northern Daily Leader

Fleurs exotiques, Jean Benner-Frais, (1836 - 1909)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

God is not a Good Theory

Sean Carroll
h/t 3 Quarks Daily

Debbie Chow, Plumeria

Warren Chang, Returning Home

How BP Got Screwed on Gulf Oil Spill Claims

Until this year, Tampa attorney Kevin McLean specialized in suing nursing homes for neglecting patients. In January he switched the focus of his practice to a fund BP established to compensate business losses from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In its attempt to dilute a legal and public-relations mess of epic proportions, BP began paying claims within weeks of the disaster and has so far spent more than $25 billion for cleanup and compensation. That hasn’t stemmed demands for more. The installation last year of a particularly generous claims administrator prompted scores of additional plaintiffs’ attorneys to swarm onto the scene, signing up a new wave of clients, many located far from the once-sullied shoreline. Just five months after his pivot, McLean’s three-attorney firm has 260 clients with claims ranging from $20,000 to $4 million apiece. “The craziest thing about the settlement,” he wrote in a solicitation letter, “is that you can be compensated for losses that are UNRELATED to the spill.”

One of McLean’s clients, a real estate agent in Brandon, Fla., an hour from the Gulf, wants $80,000 from BP, reflecting a revenue dip in 2010 that “had nothing to do with the spill,” the attorney candidly admits. (The culprit was the bursting of the Florida real estate bubble.) Under the settlement, though, “that’s a good claim,” McLean says, “and we’re going to get paid.”

He has millions of reasons to be confident. A construction company in northern Alabama, 200 miles from the coast, was recently awarded $9.7 million, even though it does no work near the Gulf of Mexico, according to court records. Attorneys are submitting claims on their own behalf. A law office in central Louisiana that actually enjoyed improved profits in 2010 collected $3.3 million. The compensation process is confidential, so claimants’ identities aren’t a matter of public record, though the amounts are.

The blowout of the Macondo well cost 11 men their lives and, according to the government, spewed 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. It shut down fisheries and despoiled beaches. Oystermen and charter boat captains lost months and, in some cases, years of work. While much of the Gulf economy has recovered, degraded oil remains in coastal marshes in Louisiana. Some ruined small businesses never reopened.

BP apologized and opened its checkbook to make amends. One component of the company’s response, an economic-damages fund initially expected to dole out $7.8 billion, now appears likely to cost billions more, BP said in an appellate court brief filed in May. The British company blames the overage on Patrick Juneau, a Louisiana-based court-appointed administrator whom it accuses of compensating “fictitious and inflated losses.” On June 21, the controversy intensified when Juneau suspended an attorney on his staff amid allegations of kickbacks. Juneau announced that he’s investigating. People familiar with the situation but who are not authorized to speak on the record say the FBI has been alerted.

Even as it continues a cheerful quarter-billion-dollar print and television ad campaign about how the Gulf has returned to normal, BP is crying foul. “It was never our intention for the company to become an open cash register for every claim or project anyone could dream up,” says spokesman Geoff Morrell. Locals say BP may have been naive. “This is Louisiana, after all,” says Danny Abel, a longtime New Orleans plaintiffs’ lawyer not involved in the case. “A big foreign company with deep pockets and you’re surprised there’s a feeding frenzy? Come on, man.”

by Paul M. Barrett, Bloomberg Businessweek |  Read more:
Photo: NASA

Michele Wie Still Puttering Along

It was a brutally hot, late-May Thursday morning in Galloway, New Jersey -- pro-am day at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. Five golfers and their caddies were gathered around the 12th tee of the Bay Course at the Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club, seeking shade wherever they could find it. At 8:00 a.m., the temperature was already approaching 90 degrees.

After four amateurs hit their drives, the group's lone professional, ranked 100th in the world, stepped up to the tee. Clad in an orange Nike polo shirt, with a dyed-pink ponytail pulled through her cap, she took a couple of practice swings with a fairway wood. The young golfer examined the hole, a sharp dogleg right, and took her stance.

Up close, her swing is a marvel to behold. At six feet tall, her lean frame gives her the ability to create a long and fluid motion, with incredible extension. Her flexibility is off the charts.

But the end result of that magnificent roundhouse swing on the 12th tee was a wayward drive, which tailed away from the center. She leaned, trying to coax it back toward the fairway, to no avail.

Michelle Wie found the rough -- a place that she has become all too familiar with.

The fact that she's a dismal 144th in driving accuracy on the LPGA tour only begins to tell the story of what is wrong with Michelle Wie's game. In no statistical category does she presently rank in the top 25. At 44th in putts per round, 68th in greens in regulation, and 82nd in sand saves, she is completely out of sync from tee to green.

Those dreadful stats have, not surprisingly, translated to poor results. In 10 starts this year prior to the ShopRite, Wie missed the cut five times. Her best finish was a tie for 28th at the LPGA Lotte, in her home state of Hawaii. She'd amassed less than $30,000 in purse earnings in 2013. Two seasons ago, she made roughly that amount per tournament.

Somehow, Wie, now 23, has managed to remain incredibly upbeat -- at least when she's between the ropes. During the ShopRite pro-am, she frequently offered encouragement to her playing partners. At one point, when one of the amateurs was struggling, Wie spoke to him for several minutes, in an effort to get him to relax and have fun. It worked: He began to play better after the chat.

"People get nervous when they play in pro-ams," Wie said. "There's no need to be embarrassed. I try to remind them to have fun out there."

It's possible that the specter of playing with the one-time wunderkind intimidated the amateur. The daunting seaside layout and the spectacular views offered at a number of the holes may also have contributed to his nerves. One thing that certainly couldn't be blamed, though, was the size of the gallery. Michelle Wie's parents, mother Bo and father B.J., were the only two spectators.

They stood approximately 50 yards apart as they watched their daughter's tee shot on 12. These positions are the norm. They are seldom together on the course. Many times, they're actually on opposite sides of the hole, in an effort to secure prime viewing positions. On pro-am day, with no one else in the gallery, this was not an issue. Still, they frequently kept their distance. And after the shot was hit, they made their way down the fairway with an intensity normally reserved for Sunday at Augusta.

Wie followed her errant tee shot with a mediocre approach on the par-4, 40 feet away from the flag. She walked down the fairway, taking practice swings with an invisible club, searching for the form that propelled her into the national consciousness a decade ago, when she was just 13 and played in the final group at the prestigious Kraft Nabisco Championship -- an LPGA major. Looking lost, Michelle Wie called out for help.

"Omma!" The Korean word for mom.

Omma was close by. She usually is.

by Joe DePaolo, Sports on Earth | Read more:
Image: Getty Images

Goodbye Miami

When the water receded after Hurricane Milo of 2030, there was a foot of sand covering the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontaine­bleau hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage occurred not from the hurricane's 175-mph winds, but from the 24-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city. In South Beach, the old art-deco­ buildings were swept off their foundations. Mansions on Star Island were flooded up to their cut-glass doorknobs. A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater-treatment plant on Virginia Key, forcing the city to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human excrement stoked fears of cholera. More than 800 people died, many of them swept away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale; 13 people were killed in traffic accidents as they scrambled to escape the city after the news spread – falsely, it turned out – that one of the nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, an aging power plant 24 miles south of Miami, had been destroyed by the surge and sent a radioactive cloud over the city.

The president, of course, said Miami would be back, that the hurricane did not kill the city, and that Americans did not give up. But it was clear to those not fooling themselves that this storm was the beginning of the end. With sea levels more than a foot higher than they'd been at the dawn of the century, South Florida was wet, vulnerable and bankrupt. Attempts had been made to armor the coastline, to build sea walls and elevate buildings, but it was a futile undertaking. The coastline from Miami Beach up to Jupiter had been a little more than a series of rugged limestone crags since the mid-2020s, when the state, unable to lay out $100 million every few years to pump in fresh sand, had given up trying to save South Florida's world-famous­ beaches. In that past decade, tourist visits had plummeted by 40 percent, even after the Florida legislature agreed to allow casino gambling in a desperate attempt to raise revenue for storm protection. The city of Homestead, in southern Miami-Dade County, which had been flattened by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, had to be completely abandoned. Thousands of tract homes were bulldozed because they were a public health hazard. In the parts of the county that were still inhabitable, only the wealthiest could afford to insure their homes. Mortgages were nearly impossible to get, mostly because banks didn't believe the homes would be there in 30 years. At high tide, many roads were impassable, even for the most modern semiaquatic vehicles.

But Hurricane Milo was unexpectedly devastating. Because sea-level­ rise had already pushed the water table so high, it took weeks for the storm waters to recede. Salt water corroded underground wiring, leaving parts of the city dark for months. Drinking-water­ wells were ruined. Interstate 95 was clogged with cars and trucks stuffed with animals and personal belongings, as hundreds of thousands of people fled north to Orlando, the highest ground in central Florida. Developers drew up plans for new buildings on stilts, but few were built. A new flexible carbon-fiber­ bridge was proposed to link Miami Beach with the mainland, but the bankrupt city couldn't secure financing and the project fell apart. The skyscrapers that had gone up during the Obama years were gradually abandoned and used as staging grounds for drug runners and exotic-animal traffickers. A crocodile nested in the ruins of the Pérez Art Museum.

And still, the waters kept rising, nearly a foot each decade. By the latter end of the 21st century, Miami became something else entirely: a popular snorkeling spot where people could swim with sharks and sea turtles and explore the wreckage of a great American city.

Even more than Silicon Valley, Miami embodies the central technological myth of our time – that nature can not only be tamed but made irrelevant. Miami was a mosquito-and-crocodile-filled swampland for thousands of years, virtually uninhabited until the late 1800s. Then developers arrived, canals were dug, swamps were drained, and a city emerged that was unlike any other place on the planet, an edge-of-the-world, air-conditioned dreamland of sunshine and beaches and drugs and money; Jan Nijman, the former director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Miami, called 20th-century Miami "a citadel of fantastical consumption." Floods would come and go and hurricanes might blow through, but the city would survive, if only because no one could imagine a force more powerful than human ingenuity. That defiance of nature – the sense that the rules don't apply here – gave the city its great energy. But it is also what will cause its demise.

You would never know it from looking at Miami today. Rivers of money are flowing in from Latin America, Europe and beyond, new upscale shopping malls are opening, and the skyline is crowded with construction cranes. But the unavoidable truth is that sea levels are rising and Miami is on its way to becoming an American Atlantis. It may be another century before the city is completely underwater (though some more-pessimistic­ scientists predict it could be much sooner), but life in the vibrant metropolis of 5.5 million people will begin to dissolve much quicker, most likely within a few decades. The rising waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the destructive power of hurricanes. "Miami, as we know it today, is doomed," says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

by Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone |  Read more:
Image: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Social Media’s Wildest 24 Hours

For 24 hours, the world of social media rocked like a roller coaster off its tracks. The outbursts of rage over the Supreme Court’s decision to annul a key section of the Voting Rights Act Tuesday morning had barely subsided before environmentalists began obsessively tweeting every nuance of President Obama’s climate change speech a few hours later. As afternoon became evening, Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas Legislature became a legend-in-the-making, complete with a stunning chaotic denouement watched in real time streaming video by hundreds of thousands. The following morning, a rolling tide of ecstasy and joy swept across the Internet within seconds of the news that the Supreme Court had ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Of course, I should be clear: This was my world of social media. We are filtered by whom we follow and friend. If I associated with a different motley crew, the cries of joy and rage could easily flip places. Social conservatives believe that what happened in Texas Wednesday night was a travesty of democracy and that Jesus is weeping in dismay over the prospect of a flood of gay marriage in California. And they’re on Twitter too.

But something is still happening here. The social media noise and clamor — 9,000 tweets per second on DOMA right after the Court’s decision! — over the past 24 hours isn’t just partisan froth. Our society and politics are headed in a direction; there is a clear narrative in play. And social media is influencing, reinforcing and assisting that narrative. If, as Martin Luther King so famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then what we’ve witnessed (and tweeted and liked) over the last 24 hours is social media increasing its leverage over that laborious transition. Heisenberg understood this: You can’t observe something without affecting it. And we’re observing more now than ever before.

Is that too bold? Calculating the political consequences of our social-media filtered world is tricky. Can we really say that Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Imgur chatter are influencing political change? Or are they just reflecting what’s already happening? One more conservative judge on the Supreme Court, after all, and DOMA still stands. The evisceration of the Voting Rights Act is a giant backward step. President Obama made what many environmentalists considered a solid promise not to approve the Keystone pipeline, but would all the anguished tweets in the world make a damn bit of difference if he weaseled out of that promise in the weeks to come? My social media friends might be ready to elect Wendy Davis as president in 2016, but most of the country still has no idea who the woman is.

But let’s look at the big picture. The Republican Party depends on socially conservative white males as the bedrock of its political support. But everyone knows that the country at large is getting more diverse. Young people, women and minorities — who, by and large, trend more liberal on social issues — have delivered the presidency to Democrats two elections in a row. Plug all the sound and fury on social media in the last 24 hours into that framework, and you will see something that must make conservative politicians very, very nervous: A changing country that is increasingly self-aware and on the alert.

by Andrew Leonard, Salon |  Read more:
Image: Facebook

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Booz Allen, the World's Most Profitable Spy Organization

It’s safe to say that most Americans, if they’d heard of Booz Allen at all, had no idea how huge a role it plays in the U.S. intelligence infrastructure. They do now. On June 9, a 29-year-old Booz Allen computer technician, Edward Snowden, revealed himself to be the source of news stories showing the extent of phone and Internet eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. Snowden leaked classified documents he loaded onto a thumb drive while working for Booz Allen at an NSA listening post in Hawaii, and he’s promised to leak many more. After fleeing to Hong Kong, he’s been in hiding. (He didn’t respond to a request for comment relayed by an intermediary.)

The attention has been bad for Booz Allen’s stock, which fell more than 4 percent the morning after Snowden went public and still hasn’t recovered. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, has called for a reexamination of the role of private contractors in intelligence work and announced she’ll seek to restrict their access to classified information. Booz Allen declined to comment on Snowden beyond its initial public statement announcing his termination.

The firm has long kept a low profile—with the federal government as practically its sole client, there’s no need for publicity. It does little, if any, lobbying. Its ability to win contracts is ensured by the roster of intelligence community heavyweights who work there. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper—President Obama’s top intelligence adviser—is a former Booz Allen executive. The firm’s vice chairman, Mike McConnell, was President George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence and, before that, director of the NSA. Of Booz Allen’s 25,000 employees, 76 percent have classified clearances, and almost half have top-secret clearances. In a 2003 speech, Joan Dempsey, a former CIA deputy director, referred to Booz Allen as the “shadow IC” (for intelligence community) because of the profusion of “former secretaries of this and directors of that,” according to a 2008 book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. Today Dempsey works for Booz Allen.

It’s possible that fallout from the Snowden revelations will lead to significant changes in intelligence contracting. The Senate intelligence committee has been pressuring spy agencies for years to reduce their reliance on contractors. And in the age of the sequester, even once untouchable line items such as defense and intelligence spending are vulnerable to cuts.

Yet conversations with current and former employees of Booz Allen and U.S. intelligence officials suggest that these contractors aren’t going anywhere soon. Even if Snowden ends up costing his former employer business, the work will probably just go to its rivals. Although Booz Allen and the rest of the shadow intelligence community arose as stopgap solutions—meant to buy time as shrunken, post-Cold War agencies tried to rebuild after Sept. 11—they’ve become the vine that supports the wall. As much as contractors such as Booz Allen have come to rely on the federal government, the government relies on them even more.

Edward Snowden was not hired as a spy. He’s a mostly self-taught computer technician who never completed high school, and his first intelligence job was as a security guard at an NSA facility. In an interview in the Guardian, he says he was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency for his computer skills to work on network security. In 2009 he left for the private sector, eventually ending up at Booz Allen. The job he did as a contractor for the NSA appears to have been basic tech support and troubleshooting. He was the IT guy.

People in intelligence tend to divide contract work into three tiers. In the first tier are the least sensitive and most menial jobs: cutting the grass at intelligence facilities, emptying the trash, sorting the mail. In classified facilities even the janitors need security clearances—the wastebaskets they’re emptying might contain national secrets. That makes these jobs particularly hard to fill, since most people with security clearances are almost by definition overqualified for janitorial work.

Snowden, with his computer expertise, fit in the middle tier: people with specialized skills. When the U.S. military first began ramping up its use of contractors during the Vietnam War, these jobs made up much of the hiring—the Pentagon was desperate for repairmen for its increasingly complex weapons and transport systems. Also in this tier are translators, interrogators, and investigators who handle background checks for government security clearances. Firms such as CSC and L-3 Communications  specialize in this tier. Booz Allen competes for some of that work, but it tends to focus on the highest tier: big contracts that can involve everything from developing strategies to defeat al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to designing software systems to writing speeches for senior officials. Tier three contractors often are, for all intents and purposes, spies—and sometimes spymasters.

by Drake Bennett and Michael Riley, Bloomberg Businessweek |  Read more:
Image via: Wired

Only the Lonely

In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems. I hate having only myself to come home to. If I have a book to write, it’s fine. I’m up so early in the morning that even I pop out for an early supper I am happy to go straight to bed, eager to be up and writing at dawn the next day. But otherwise…

It’s not that I want a sexual partner, a long-term partner, someone to share a bed and a snuggle on the sofa with – although perhaps I do and in the past I have had and it has been joyful. But the fact is I value my privacy too. It’s a lose-lose matter. I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone. Perhaps this is just a form of narcissism, vanity, overdemanding entitlement – give it whatever derogatory term you think it deserves. I don’t know the answer.

I suppose I just don’t like my own company very much. Which is odd, given how many times people very kindly tell me that they’d put me on their ideal dinner party guestlist. I do think I can usually be relied upon to be good company when I’m out and about and sitting round a table chatting, being silly, sharing jokes and stories and bringing shy people out of their shells.

But then I get home and I’m all alone again.

I don’t write this for sympathy. I don’t write it as part as my on going and undying commitment to the cause of mental health charities like Mind. I don’t quite know why I write it. I think I write it because it fascinates me.

And perhaps I am writing this for any of you out there who are lonely too. There’s not much we can do about it. I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.

Loneliness is not much written about (my spell-check wanted me to say that loveliness is not much written about – how wrong that is) but humankind is a social species and maybe it’s something we should think about more than we do. I cannot think of many plays or documentaries or novels about lonely people. Aah, look at them all, Paul McCartney enjoined us in Eleanor Rigby… where do they all come from?

The strange thing is, if you see me in the street and engage in conversation I will probably freeze into polite fear and smile inanely until I can get away to be on my lonely ownsome.

Make of that what you will.

by Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles |  Read more:
Image via:

The Borg Of The Digital World

The latest Facebook data breach – which exposed personal contact information that Facebook had harvested on 6 million of its users – is a reminder that even if you’re not handing over all your contact data to Facebook, it is obtaining and triangulating that data anyway. And even if you’re not on Facebook yourself, your contact data likely is because the social network is building a shadow profile of you by data-mining other people.

You might never join Facebook, but a zombie you — sewn together from scattered bits of your personal data — is still sitting there in sort-of-stasis on its servers waiting to be properly animated if you do sign up for the service. Or waiting to escape through the cracks of another security flaw in Facebook’s systems.

Facebook is a crowd-fueled, data-mining machine that’s now so massive (1.11 billion monthly active users as of March 2013) that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t ever signed up yourself to sign over your personal data. It has long since passed the tipping point where it can act as a distributed data network that knows something about almost everyone. Or everyone who leaves any kind of digital/cellular trace that can be fed into its data banks.

Chances are someone you have corresponded with — by email or mobile phone — has let Facebook’s data spiders crawl through their correspondence, thereby allowing your contact data to be assimilated entirely without your knowledge or consent. One such example was flagged to TechCrunch on Saturday when one of the users was informed by Facebook they had been affected by its latest breach found it had harvested an email address they had never personally handed over.

This behaviour casts Facebook as the Borg of the digital world: resistance is futile. It also underlines exactly why the NSA wants a backdoor into this type of digital treasure trove. If you’re going to outsource low-level surveillance of everyone, then Facebook is one of a handful of tech companies large enough to have files on almost everyone. So really, forget the futuristic Borg: this ceaseless data-harvesting brings to mind the dossier-gathering attention to detail of the Stasi.

by Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis

What about the ratings agencies?

That's what "they" always say about the financial crisis and the teeming rat's nest of corruption it left behind. Everybody else got plenty of blame: the greed-fattened banks, the sleeping regulators, the unscrupulous mortgage hucksters like spray-tanned Countrywide ex-CEO Angelo Mozilo.

But what about the ratings agencies? Isn't it true that almost none of the fraud that's swallowed Wall Street in the past decade could have taken place without companies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's rubber-stamping it? Aren't they guilty, too?

Man, are they ever. And a lot more than even the least generous of us suspected.

Thanks to a mountain of evidence gathered for a pair of major lawsuits by the San Diego-based law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, documents that for the most part have never been seen by the general public, we now know that the nation's two top ratings companies, Moody's and S&P, have for many years been shameless tools for the banks, willing to give just about anything a high rating in exchange for cash.

In incriminating e-mail after incriminating e-mail, executives and analysts from these companies are caught admitting their entire business model is crooked.

"Lord help our fucking scam . . . this has to be the stupidest place I have worked at," writes one Standard & Poor's executive. "As you know, I had difficulties explaining 'HOW' we got to those numbers since there is no science behind it," confesses a high-ranking S&P analyst. "If we are just going to make it up in order to rate deals, then quants [quantitative analysts] are of precious little value," complains another senior S&P man. "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card[s] falters," ruminates one more.

Ratings agencies are the glue that ostensibly holds the entire financial industry together. These gigantic companies – also known as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations, or NRSROs – have teams of examiners who analyze companies, cities, towns, countries, mortgage borrowers, anybody or anything that takes on debt or creates an investment vehicle.

Their primary function is to help define what's safe to buy, and what isn't. A triple-A rating is to the financial world what the USDA seal of approval is to a meat-eater, or virginity is to a Catholic. It's supposed to be sacrosanct, inviolable: According to Moody's own reports, AAA investments "should survive the equivalent of the U.S. Great Depression."

It's not a stretch to say the whole financial industry revolves around the compass point of the absolutely safe AAA rating. But the financial crisis happened because AAA ratings stopped being something that had to be earned and turned into something that could be paid for.

That this happened is even more amazing because these companies naturally have powerful leverage over their clients, as they are part of a quasi-protected industry that enjoys massive de facto state subsidies. Largely that's because government agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission often force private companies to fulfill regulatory requirements by retaining or keeping in reserve certain fixed quantities of assets – bonds, securities, whatever – that have been rated highly by a "Nationally Recognized" ratings agency, like the "Big Three" of Moody's, S&P and Fitch. So while they're not quite part of the official regulatory infrastructure, they might as well be.

It's not like the iniquity of the ratings agencies had gone completely unnoticed before. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission published a case study in 2011 of Moody's in particular and discovered that between 2000 and 2007, the agency gave nearly 45,000 mortgage-backed securities AAA ratings. One year Moody's doled out AAA ratings to 30 mortgage-backed securities every day, 83 percent of which were ultimately downgraded. "This crisis could not have happened without the rating agencies," the commission concluded.

Thanks to these documents, we now know how that happened. And showing as they do the back-and-forth between the country's top ratings agencies and one of America's biggest investment banks (Morgan Stanley) in advance of two major subprime deals, they also lay out in detail the evolution of the industrywide fraud that led to implosion of the world economy – how banks, hedge funds, mortgage lenders and ratings agencies, working at an extraordinary level of cooperation, teamed up to disguise and then sell near-worthless loans as AAA securities. It's the black box in the American financial airplane.

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

Huey Lewis's Old, Weird America

Huey Lewis arrives backstage at a 2,000-seat theater in Wisconsin Dells and takes one look at his dressing room. Pausing, he dryly utters a one-word assessment: "Intimate."

I had seen him in the flesh once before, back when Huey Lewis and the News was touring in support of the album Hard at Play in 1991. I was 13 years old and Lewis was my first favorite rock star. He played at the not-intimate Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, which seats approximately 12 times more people than Wisconsin Dells's Crystal Grand Music Theatre, and was built in the aftermath of a dangerously overcrowded concert that Lewis performed on the grounds in the summer of 1984 — about the time his most popular record, Sports, rose to the top of the Billboard album charts. That concert drew 30,000 people to a space suited for 15,000. (The Marcus Amphitheater could accurately be described as "The House That Huey Built," though I've never heard it actually described that way.)

Wisconsin Dells doesn't have close to 30,000 people in the entire town, which is situated in the south-central part of the state, about a two-hour drive west of Milwaukee. As Wisconsin's tourism hub, its population swells in the summer months depending on the weather — an area dense with woodlands, lakes, water parks, and wax museums, Wisconsin Dells is a relatively cheap place to take the kids on vacation, though omnipresent storm clouds chased away visitors in early June like a great white shark stalking a beach community. Still, all but 100 or so tickets were sold for the night's Huey Lewis and the News concert several hours before showtime. Towns like this are Huey's bread and butter these days.

Many of those ticket buyers were coming to hear the songs from Sports played from front to back. While Sports isn't usually mentioned among the most popular musical blockbusters of the '80s, it belongs in that company. Of the album's nine tracks, five charted in the Top 20: "I Want a New Drug," "The Heart of Rock & Roll," "Heart and Soul," "If This Is It," and "Walking on a Thin Line." (One of those songs might be playing on the "cool FM" oldies radio station in your town at this very second.) Sports was one of only five no. 1 albums during all of 1984, the fewest number in history. The others were Michael Jackson's Thriller, the Footloose soundtrack, Prince's Purple Rain, and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. Huey Lewis held the summit for only one week, but Sports sold 6 million records in '84 alone (on the way to topping 10 million), good for second on the year-end sales list behind Thriller.

"We were opening for .38 Special when Sports was out, and the crowds were finally coming to see us." Lewis says. He sits on a small love seat opposite a wall lined with mirrors and partially concealed by a rack of stage clothes, and relaxes his right hand after hurriedly autographing 50 CD booklets from the recent Sports reissue. "We went out on an arena and coliseum tour, and we were killing them every night because our record was growing by the day. We would show up at the hall at seven and eat the crew meal, put on our clothes at 7:45, go out from eight to nine o'clock and just tear it up, and get as many encores as we want. To their credit, if .38 Special were super-mad about it, they would suck it up and play their show real hard."

Lewis recalls telling his bandmates at the time, "'This is as good as it gets, man. Just have fun with this right here.' And I've been in the business for long enough to know that that's true."

Lewis does not sound bitter when he says this. He's a little older than you remember — the lines on his forehead are deeper, his voice more sandpapery, and he untucks his almond brown button-up shirt to hide his 62-year-old paunch. (He also apparently keeps his collection of Skittles-colored, proto-Arsenio suit jackets in mothballs. They are nowhere in sight in his dressing room.) But for the most part, in appearance and demeanor, Lewis is unchanged from the handsome, confidently smirking cool-dad figure on the cover of Sports. For much of his life, Lewis has been cursed with a face that looks eternally 41, but he's now reached the point where this is a good thing. In person, he's friendly, though not particularly gregarious — he prefers not to do interviews on show days, which is difficult because nearly every day is a show day. After tonight's concert, the band will shower, the crew will load out, and Lewis's 25-person caravan (which he refers to as his "small business") will hop back on their buses and drive 403 miles to Anderson, Indiana, for tomorrow night's gig at a horse track and casino. In the next seven days, Lewis will play five shows in places like Paducah, Kentucky, and Quapaw, Oklahoma, along with bigger cities like Dallas and Cincinnati. Even with the gaudy 1980s sales statistics, Huey Lewis and the News has the work ethic of a 2010s indie band.

by Steven Hyden, Grantland |  Read more:
Photo: Getty Images

Robert Vickrey (1926 – 2001)

Francis Picabia Conversation | 1922

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What Paintbrush Makers Know About How to Beat China

As I toured Israel Kirschner’s Bronx paintbrush factory earlier this month, I couldn’t stop feeling amazed that it was still in business. Many days, Kirschner feels the same way. The charming, energetic 69-year-old joked about his ancient equipment (“That could be 100 years old,” he said of a bristle-cleaning machine); his two least-committed employees, his son and daughter (“They come late, they leave early”); and how his business has been increasingly undercut by Chinese manufacturers. After introducing me to his star brush maker, Fermin Gil, a Mexican immigrant who “can just see” when a brush isn’t right, Kirschner handed me a one-inch boar-bristle brush with a wooden handle. A Chinese manufacturer sells it for 30 cents. If he made it himself, he told me, it would cost significantly more.

Chinese manufacturers long ago wreaked havoc on the U.S. textile, apparel, toy and electronics industries, but the disruption came slowly to the brush business. There are simply so many types of brushes for so many applications that many Chinese manufacturers thought the business wasn’t worth the hassle. For decades, China lagged behind in the main categories (toothbrushes, brooms, mops and, of course, paintbrushes) and only dominated the lowest rung of the business — extracting bristles from boars. “It’s dirty, smelly, foul work,” David Parr, executive director of the American Brush Manufacturers Association, told me. “Nobody wants to go to West Texas to try to catch a boar and figure out how to get the bristles off him.”

The collapse of the housing market in 2007 and the subsequent recession turned out to be a boon for China’s brush exports. With far less construction and far fewer jobs, not as many people needed paintbrushes (or brooms or toothbrushes). Those who did need them chose cheap imports over more expensive products made in America. Retailers, who stood to make more from the cheaper products, jumped at the opportunity to sell them. Now everyone in the business has to account for the Chinese.

That’s a familiar story for U. S. manufacturing. The strange thing here is that there are still more than 200 brush, broom and mop makers in the U.S. These companies have employed two strategies to stave off Chinese competition: 1) change everything all the time, or 2) don’t ever change a thing. Kirschner hasn’t changed a thing. He makes brushes the very same way, employing many of the same machines, that his father did 50 years ago. He told me that he sticks with the old ways because, unlike with toys and T-shirts, a big chunk of the brush business caters to professionals who aren’t merely shopping for price but rather for quality. Michael Wolf, who runs the Greco Brush Company, a supplier to professional house painters, told me that his customers need to know before each job that every single bristle on every single brush will be attached properly. One loose fiber left on a wall can damage a painter’s reputation, which in turn can hurt Wolf’s too. Wolf said that he can buy brushes for between a quarter and a dollar cheaper in China, but he is never sure exactly what he’ll get. Some orders are shoddy; others never arrive. So Greco sticks with the company he knows. “My father did business with his father back in the ’50s,” Wolf told me. “We’re keeping it going, the two of us.”

At the other end of the business is Lance Cheney, 53, the fourth-generation president of Braun Brush, who told me that he would close his company rather than make the same kind of brush, the same way, for 50 years. He is constantly creating innovative brushes so that he never has any competition. Cheney makes a beaver-hair brush that’s solely for putting a sheen on chocolate. He sells an industrial croissant-buttering brush and a heat-resistant brush that can clean hot deep fryers. His clients, he said, now include General Mills (he made a brush for their cereal-manufacturing line) and the energy industry (a line of expensive brushes for cleaning pipes in nuclear reactors). He even developed Brush Tile, fuzzy panels used in artistic wall hangings. He said his proudest creation is a tiny brush that helped Mars rovers dust debris from drilling sites. When Cheney sees other firms making one of his brushes, he often drops the product rather than enter a price war. Braun Brush, he said, has grown at 15 to 20 percent annually for the past five years.

Kirschner’s don’t-change-a-thing strategy has not brought anything like this kind of growth. Last year, he says, “was a disaster.” As was this spring. But June, so far, has been “unbelievably good.” Many of his customers are governmental agencies that prefer “Made in the U.S.A.” products or have precise needs that Chinese imports can’t yet fill. Some of the paint on New York City subways and Texas prisons, for example, was applied by Kirschner brushes.

As I walked through the Kirschner Brush Manufacturing Company factory, I began to think — despite all the doom-and-gloom stories — about just how many similar companies are still plugging along this way in the U.S. There are still more than 200,000 small factories, like Kirschner’s, that provide a solid, if rarely heralded, base line of American business. (At last count, there were 139 brush, broom and mop makers in the country with fewer than 20 employees.) Many of them do things the old way, using old machines (paid off long ago) in old factories, holding on to customers by serving some tiny niche. I recently met a man in Pennsylvania who has a decent business making metal hooks for paint cans using a 50-year-old monstrosity of a machine. In Jamestown, N.Y., I visited a factory that makes metal exhaust hoods for laboratories. The owner, who was in semi-retirement, told me that he would never start such a business today but that because he already had the building, the machines and the workers, he could reasonably turn a profit.

In a sense, the competitive advantage of these companies is that they are not all that ambitious. It’s a strategy that we also sometimes see with various service providers, like tax accountants who are able to find enough customers who don’t like using Turbo Tax and don’t want to pay some big firm, or realtors who have been in a neighborhood forever and don’t use the hard-sell approach of younger brokers. Of course, this isn’t the sexiest strategy, and these businesses rarely expand and are unlikely to help the economy grow. And every year a few drop by the wayside.

by Adam Davidson, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration by Jasper Rietman

Welcome Home

You're back! Isn't it great? Isn't it great to be back in your old room? Or in the room next to your old room, because your old room is now your stepdad's office and the place where he's allowed to TiVo sports? Isn't it great?!

You made it out of Brooklyn without a stick-and-poke tattoo, which is something only a select few can say, so give yourself a little pat on the back. A little pat on the back where that stick-and-poke would have gone. You thought about it. About getting your best friend's initials, or an outline of Brooklyn, or an outline of that Brooklyn coffee shop you loved, or an outline of a cup of coffee and your favorite novel inside the outline of the Brooklyn coffee shop inside the outline of Brooklyn with the slogan “Ain't Nowhere Better, Ladies!” (a slogan you would have made up about Brooklyn while you were drunk on tequila gimlets and your best friend was sticking/poking you). And the best part about making it out without a tattoo, is that now, when your mom walks in on you naked three times in one morning, you have nothing to hide! Go ahead mom! Check this out! The same body you diapered, the same ass you wiped, the same vagina you looked at under a microscope or whatever you did 26 years ago! No need to knock! Absolutely nothing has changed! (Except your bedroom. Which is now your stepdad's sports-watching room.)

You made it out and you're back home, and you're starting to understand why people love exercising so much. You never loved exercising before, but now it's like a religion for you. Exactly like a religion. Like the way Judaism is your religion, where you mostly ignore it and then once in a while you use it to get out of things or as an excuse for telling an off-color joke. And now! Now, exercise is serving a similar purpose, when there's nowhere to go and your house feels smaller and smaller and you can hear your mom downstairs yell up at you “I'm calling my cell phone! Feel for vibrations!” and you've looked through your high school yearbooks eighteen times screaming “WHAT WENT WRONG?” Just get on that exercise bike and pedal the pain away. Just cycle yourself into oblivion. And when your dad calls and says “Let's talk about your health insurance,” just pant heavily and say “I'm on the ol' bike, let me get back to you!” (It doesn't matter if you're actually on the bike. Just like it doesn't matter whether you're actually keeping kosher or you just don't want to eat that weird-looking ham.)

There's not a lot of space for beer in the family fridge. No one else drinks beer, really. You learned how to drink beer in college, and for four years after college, and all you've done for the last 8 years really (sorry, Mom) is drink beer. So you make a family contribution and purchase a six-pack. You stuff it in the vegetable drawer, next to some lettuce your mom picked from her garden. Squished together, the Sierra Nevada and the organic Bibb inside the drawer, a metaphor for you and your mother, living squished together in a house. Or something. Her voice echoes in your head: “You know if I wasn't your mom, we'd be BFFs.” Something she said three days before: “Don't think of me as your mom. Think of me as your fun roommate! Your mom-mate.” That echoes, too.

There are leftovers, though. Always. And if you say really loudly, “I wish we had some chocolate,” sometimes chocolate will actually appear. It will actually appear on your nightstand every day for a week. And one day you'll realize you forgot to change the Brita filter, and you forgot to pay the internet bill this month, and you forgot to set out a mouse trap (a humane one, relax), and you forgot to go grocery shopping. But someone will have already changed the Brita filter, and no one's asking you to pay for your internet, and there are no mice, and the fridge is pre-stocked with so much quinoa you could take an all-quinoa bath. And maybe every time you see your dad, he'll say “Hey, you look great! You know you don't need to exercise so much.” And you'll start to think you really do look great! And one day, if your blush cracks in your purse and gets pink powder everywhere and you have a very important job interview and can't leave the house without your cheeks looking a little pinkish because you have some weird hang-ups, your mom will probably have some blush in her drawer. And a purse you can borrow. She'll probably have other things too, things you haven't bought in 8 years. Luxurious things, like q-tips and cuticle cream. And actually maybe her bathroom will be like running through a Sephora on a very special episode of Supermarket Sweep. And maybe your step-dad is a psychiatrist and he'll say things like, “How are you?” but he'll say it in a way where he looks deeply into your soul and so every night you'll spill your guts about how hard it is to leave your best friends of 8 years behind and move back home. How it sometimes feels like you're 15 again and sometimes it feels like you're 45 and you should just give up. How you can't help but feel like you're doing it all wrong. And so he'll listen, and you won't have to pay for the session. And your mom will offer you a selection of teas.

by Emma Barrie, The Hairpin | Read more:
Image: uncredited