Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Marriage Decision

It’s John Deere’s Tractor, You’re Just Driving It

It's official: John Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway.

In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.

Several manufacturers recently submitted similar comments to the Copyright Office under an inquiry into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. DMCA is a vast 1998 copyright law that (among other things) governs the blurry line between software and hardware. The Copyright Office, after reading the comments and holding a hearing, will decide in July which high-tech devices we can modify, hack, and repair—and decide whether John Deere’s twisted vision of ownership will become a reality.

Over the last two decades, manufacturers have used the DMCA to argue that consumers do not own the software underpinning the products they buy—things like smartphones, computers, coffeemakers, cars, and, yes, even tractors. So, Old MacDonald has a tractor, but he owns a massive barn ornament, because the manufacturer holds the rights to the programming that makes it run.

(This is an important issue for farmers: a neighbor, Kerry Adams, hasn’t been able to fix an expensive transplanter because he doesn’t have access to the diagnostic software he needs. He’s not alone: many farmers are opting for older, computer-free equipment.)

Over the last two decades, manufacturers have used the DMCA to argue that consumers do not own the software that powers the products they buy.

In recent years, some companies have even leveraged the DMCA to stop owners from modifying the programming on those products. This means you can’t strip DRM off smart kitty litter boxes, install custom software on your iPad, or alter the calibration on a tractor’s engine. Not without potentially running afoul of the DMCA.

What does any of that have to do with copyright? Owners, tinkerers, and homebrew “hackers” must copy programming so they can modify it. Product makers don’t like people messing with their stuff, so some manufacturers place digital locks over software. Breaking the lock, making the copy, and changing something could be construed as a violation of copyright law.

And that’s how manufacturers turn tinkerers into “pirates”—even if said “pirates” aren’t circulating illegal copies of anything. Makes sense, right? Yeah, not to me either.

It makes sense to John Deere: The company argues that allowing people to alter the software—even for the purpose of repair—would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.” The pièce de résistance in John Deere’s argument: permitting owners to root around in a tractor’s programming might lead to pirating music through a vehicle’s entertainment system. Because copyright-marauding farmers are very busy and need to multitask by simultaneously copying Taylor Swift’s 1989 and harvesting corn? (I’m guessing, because John Deere’s lawyers never explained why anyone would pirate music on a tractor, only that it could happen.)

by Kyle Wiens, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Mardis Coers/Getty


When Labor is Cheap

Labor is cheap in India which leads to some differences from the United States.

The first couple of times I took a taxi to a restaurant I was surprised when the driver asked if I wanted him to wait. A waiting taxi would be an unthinkable expense for me in the United States but in India the drivers are happy to wait for $1.50 an hour. It still feels odd.

The cars, the physical capital, in India and the United States are similar so the low cost of transportation illustrates just how much of the cost of a taxi is the cost of the driver and just how much driverless cars are going to lower the cost of travel.

Everything can be delivered.

Every mall, hotel, apartment and upscale store has security. It’s all security theatre–India is less dangerous than the United States–but when security theatre can be bought for $1-$2 an hour, why not?

Offices are sometimes open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not that anyone is in the office, just that with 24 hour security there is no reason to lock up, so the office physically stays open.

by Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution |  Read more:
Image: Wikimedia

Jerusalem Hotels: Unlikely Hotbeds of Furtive, Meticulous Romance

Just inside the ornate glass doors stands a cluster of modestly dressed young women, not too overtly scanning the crowd.

The objects of their attentions are sitting restlessly in the lobby, periodically getting up to pace the floor. Each side is looking for the prearranged clue — a gold necklace, a forest green tie — that’ll identify their partner.

One by one pairs form. Each man leads a woman to a corner where they’ll spend the next hour, maybe two. Both hope that the person sitting across from them just might be the one.

It’s the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Central Jerusalem and these young men and women are engaged in “shidduch dating,” a system of matchmaking used by religious Jews, from the liberal Modern Orthodox to the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

Tourists sharing the lobby stare openly at the daters. There’s something about the shidduch date process — the constrained romance, perhaps — that piques curiosity, even envy.

A friend of mine recently wondered why she couldn’t just “outsource her love life to a shadchan” — a Jewish matchmaker. Even though they’d been best friends for over a year, my yoga teacher’s first date with her now-husband was a “shidduch-style” meeting at the King David Hotel just down the road. While they weren’t fully part of the culture, they tapped into a process that evidently works for many.

The ultra-organized world of shidduch dating follows a strict set of practices to guide young people from the time they are deemed of age all the way through to the chuppah, the altar, Jerusalem matchmaker Sarah Dena Katz explained. That could be 18 for women and early 20s for men, although the ages vary according to custom and religiosity.

Additionally, especially in Haredi communities, parents take the lead in finding acceptable candidates for their children. They compose shidduch resumes and, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of college honors societies, compile lists of references to be contacted for further research by a prospective date’s parents.

Kippa or bald spot?

Jenna Bazelon, 26, is the founder of FrumGirlProblems, a private Facebook group with over 9,500 members, all women. Sporting the tagline, “Is that a kippa? Oh, no… just a bald spot,” the group spun from Bazelon’s desire to enjoy the process of shidduch dating by finding the humor in it with like-minded young women.

She recalled that one time, a potential date called her directly without any pre-vetting or involvement of an intermediary. Confused, Bazelon asked if he was calling her as a reference for someone else. “No,” he said, “for you. I was just looking through a stack of resumes and I saw yours. It looked interesting and I thought I would give you a call.”

“What?” Bazelon said she asked the man. “’Why did you think that you could just give me a call?’ It was so out of the blue, so inappropriate.”

Naturally, he did not get a date. Like the Passover Seder, there’s an order to things, and it’s best to stick to it for positive results.

Once the resumes have been read, the references have been called, and both parties and parents have agreed to the match, a time and location are set and the preparation can begin. For many, the first date is also the first interaction with a member of the opposite sex outside of their family. The shadchan preps the novices on the intricacies of having a conversation, ordering off a menu, and tipping.

by Tracy Frydberg, The Times of Israel | Read more:
Image: Nati Shohat/Flash90

Monday, April 24, 2017

Alessandro Trincone

Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”

There is an obvious political dimension to the claim that wellbeing, with the right attitude, can be produced spontaneously. Months after being elected leader of the most right-wing government in recent British history, yogurt-featured erstwhile PR man David Cameron launched an ill-fated “happiness agenda.” The scheme may have been better received if the former prime minister were not simultaneously engaged in decimating health care, welfare, and higher education—the very social structures that make life manageable for ordinary British people. As part of Cameron’s changes to the welfare system, unemployment was rebranded as a psychological disorder. According to a study in the Medical Humanities journal, in the teeth of the longest and deepest recession in living memory, the jobless were encouraged to treat their “psychological resistance” to work by way of obligatory courses that encouraged them to adopt a jollier attitude toward their own immiseration. They were harangued with motivational text messages telling them to “smile at life” and that “success is the only option.”

This mode of coercion has been adopted by employers, too, as Cederström and Spicer note. Zero-hour-contract laborers in an Amazon warehouse, “although they are in a precarious situation . . . are required to hide these feelings and project a confident, upbeat, employable self.” All of which begs the question: Who exactly are we being well for?

The wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease. The rigors of both work and worklessness, the colonization of every public space by private money, the precarity of daily living, and the growing impossibility of building any sort of community maroon each of us in our lonely struggle to survive. We are supposed to believe that we can only work to improve our lives on that same individual level. Chris Maisano concludes that while “the appeal of individualistic and therapeutic approaches to the problems of our time is not difficult to apprehend . . . it is only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken.”

The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

by Laurie Penny, The Baffler |  Read more: 
Image: Joanna Slodownik

Soft, Smooth and Steady

Drugs and music. Music and drugs. Sometimes, they go together. At least, in the popular imagination. If jazz was haunted by heroin, and rock bloomed on acid, and disco darlings preened on cocaine, and ravers got touchy-feely on ecstasy, Lana Del Rey’s recent single, “Love,” sounds like two milligrams of Xanax crushed into dust and set adrift on the Pacific breeze in your mind. “Don’t worry, baby,” she sings repeatedly during the ballad’s gentle send-off, her voice plunging low, enunciation going slack. It’s the kind of song that quietly levitates you out of your life, then disappears.

Listening to “Love” on Xanax might feel redundant, but in today’s freaked-out America — where relief-seekers are swallowing opioids and benzodiazepines in record numbers — the connection between our sounds and our substances feels pervasive. When everyone seems to be on drugs, everyone’s music sounds more and more like pill-pop.

One could argue that drugs and pop have always worked more in parallel than in tandem — both attempt to relieve the symptoms of the era. But much of today’s pop music explicitly asks to be heard in a pharmacological context. Brand names keep popping up in our singalongs, particularly in rap music, where Xanax, Percocet and other pharmaceuticals have long been praised for their abilities to numb the agony of existence.

The whole of 21st-century pill-pop has a sound, too. It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isn’t new, but it’s increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges. Out on the dance floor, it’s most evident in the cushiony pulse of tropical house, a softer style that Kygo and other big-time producers have used to mitigate the intensity at various EDM festivals in recent years.

In a way, modern music has always been pill music. Drugs and pop were both permanently stitched into America’s cultural fabric shortly after World War II, back when a menu of new psychotropics was being sent to market around the same time rock-and-roll was being born. Both have provided comfort ever since — a parallel that surely isn’t lost on Del Rey, whose inconspicuous lullabies frequently conjure the blurry romance of yesteryear’s American Dream. (...)

More acutely sobering is the role that prescription drugs have played in the deaths of our most beloved pop stars, especially over the past decade. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince each died with painkillers, antianxiety drugs or both coursing through their systems. And because opioids and benzodiazepines are so widely prescribed in tandem, each of these shocking deaths felt strangely familiar. The gods of pop music, indestructible in song, died taking the same drugs that everyone takes.

Regardless of how directly today’s drugs are altering how today’s music gets made, they appear to be having a more significant influence on how that music is being heard. As online streaming services gain traction at the center of music culture, they continue to shape our listening habits in ways that feel entirely compatible with a recreational Xanax habit.

by Chris Richards, Washington Post | Read more:
Image: Eric Petersen

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Silicon Valley’s $400 Juicer May Be Feeling the Squeeze

One of the most lavishly funded gadget startups in Silicon Valley last year was Juicero Inc. It makes a juice machine. The product was an unlikely pick for top technology investors, but they were drawn to the idea of an internet-connected device that transforms single-serving packets of chopped fruits and vegetables into a refreshing and healthy beverage.

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force—“enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands. Two backers said the final device was bulkier than what was originally pitched and that they were puzzled to find that customers could achieve similar results without it. Bloomberg performed its own press test, pitting a Juicero machine against a reporter’s grip. The experiment found that squeezing the bag yields nearly the same amount of juice just as quickly—and in some cases, faster—than using the device.

Juicero declined to comment. A person close to the company said Juicero is aware the packs can be squeezed by hand but that most people would prefer to use the machine because the process is more consistent and less messy. The device also reads a QR code printed on the back of each produce pack and checks the source against an online database to ensure the contents haven’t expired or been recalled, the person said. The expiration date is also printed on the pack.

The creator of Juicero is something of a luminary in the world of juicing. In 2002, Evans helped start Organic Avenue, a chain of juice bars selling cold-press concoctions in glass jars. The New York franchise drew rave reviews from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow. After working on the business for a decade, Evans sold controlling interest to an investor, who pushed him out. The company lumbered toward bankruptcy as Evans got to work on his next project.

Evans, 50, follows a diet of mostly raw, vegan foods. Technology was a new thing for him, but he picked it up quickly. He said he spent about three years building a dozen prototypes before devising Juicero’s patent-pending press. In an interview with technology website Recode, he likened his work to the invention of a mainstream personal computer by Apple’s Jobs. “There are 400 custom parts in here,” Evans told Recode. “There’s a scanner; there’s a microprocessor; there’s a wireless chip, wireless antenna.”

by Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Snopes
[ed. I don't even get the 'buying juice packs' part of this. See also: The Very Serious Lessons of Juicero]

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

At five-foot-six and 270 pounds, the bank robber was impossible to miss. On April 19, 1995, he hit two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. Security cameras picked up good images of his face — he wore no mask — and showed him holding a gun to the teller. Police made sure the footage was broadcast on the local eleven o’clock news. A tip came in within minutes, and just after midnight, the police were knocking on the suspect’s door in McKeesport. Identified as McArthur Wheeler, he was incredulous. “But I wore the juice,” he said.

Wheeler told police he rubbed lemon juice on his face to make it invisible to security cameras. Detectives concluded he was not delusional, not on drugs — just incredibly mistaken.

Wheeler knew that lemon juice is used as an invisible ink. Logically, then, lemon juice would make his face invisible to cameras. He tested this out before the heists, putting juice on his face and snapping a selfie with a Polaroid camera. There was no face in the photo! (Police never figured that out. Most likely Wheeler was no more competent as a photographer than he was as a bank robber.) Wheeler reported one problem with his scheme: The lemon juice stung his eyes so badly that he could barely see.

Wheeler went to jail and into the annals of the world’s dumbest criminals. It was such a feature, in the 1996 World Almanac, that brought Wheeler’s story to the attention of David Dunning, a Cornell psychology professor. He saw in this tale of dim-witted woe something universal. Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack. This observation would eventually become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dunning and a graduate student, Justin Kruger, embarked on series of experiments testing this premise. They quizzed undergraduate psychology students on grammar, logic, and jokes, then asked the students to estimate their scores and also estimate how well they did relative to others (on a percentile basis). The students who scored lowest had greatly exaggerated notions of how well they did. Dunning had expected that, but not the magnitude of the effect. His first reaction to the results was “Wow.” Those who scored near the bottom estimated that their skills were superior to two-thirds of the other students.

Later research went far beyond the university. For one experiment, Dunning and Kruger recruited gun hobbyists at a trapshooting and skeet-shooting competition. Volunteers took a ten-question gun safety and knowledge quiz adapted from one published by the National Rifle Association. Again, the gun owners who knew the least about firearm safety wildly overestimated their knowledge.

Like most rules, this one has exceptions. “One need not look far,” Dunning and Kruger wrote, “to find individuals with an impressive understanding of the strategies and techniques of basketball, for instance, yet who could not ‘dunk’ to save their lives. (These people are called coaches.)” But of course coaches understand their own physical limitations. Similarly, “most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct a V-8 engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect requires a minimal degree of knowledge and experience in the area about which you are ignorant (and ignorant of your ignorance). Drivers, as a group, are subject to the effect — bad drivers usually think they’re good drivers — but those who have never learned how to drive are exempt.

Since Dunning and Kruger first published their results in the 1999 paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” the effect named for them has become a meme. It strikes a universal chord: As Dunning put it, the overconfident airhead “is someone we’ve all met.” Actor John Cleese concisely explains the Dunning-Kruger effect in a much-shared YouTube video: “If you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are … And this explains not just Hollywood but almost the entirety of Fox News.” But the 1999 paper makes clear the authors’ opinion that the first place to look for a Dunning-Kruger ignoramus is in the mirror.

There is now an active field of research into how the internet is changing what we learn and remember.

by William Poundstone, Science of Us | Read more:
Image:Jedrzej Kaminski / EyeEm / Getty Images

Why Would Congress Bail Out Miners’ Pensions?

For decades, being a coal miner has come with a deal: Work in dangerous, unpleasant conditions for years, and in exchange, get lifelong health-care benefits and a decent pension. Now, though, part of that deal is jeopardy, as the funds that provide those benefits have dwindled.

When Congress returns next week, legislators will be under intense pressure to fund health-care benefits and pension plans for coal miners that are otherwise set to expire at the end of April. The United Mine Workers Association is urging Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act, which would use money from a fund dedicated to cleaning up abandoned mines to instead shore up former mine workers’ health care and pension plans, which have been decimated as coal companies have filed for bankruptcy and stopped contributing to health-care and pension funds. America has a “moral commitment” to the nation’s retired miners, UMWA president Cecil E. Roberts wrote in a statement last month.

But does it really? The miners argue that Congress has an obligation to step in because of a deal signed between the federal government and the United Mine Workers in 1946 to end a nationwide strike. The federal government had taken control of the mines, and in order to get the miners to return to work, United Mine Workers president John King and Interior Secretary Julius Krug signed a deal that required coal companies to pay into a pension fund and a health insurance fund for miners. Today, the United Mine Workers of America refers to that deal as “The Promise,” and says that it means that the government (since Secretary Krug was one of the signees) committed to providing miners with health care and pensions for life.

But Congress is in a tight spot. If it bails out the miners, why stop there? Why not bail out all of the other pension funds, private and public, that are on the brink of insolvency? Miners are not the only group that is in danger of losing health care and pensions as their employers go bankrupt. One of the biggest private pension funds in the country, the Central States Pension Fund, which provides benefits for truck drivers, is also almost out of money and is proposing cutting benefits for current and future retirees. The miners and truckers funds are examples of defined-benefit multi-employer pension plans, meaning they provide a certain amount of money every month to covered workers from a number of companies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, such plans have $850 billion worth of benefit obligations, but have assets of only $400 billion. According to the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, there are 1,300 such multi-employer pension plans, covering millions of workers.

“If you open the door here to the United Mine Workers, then you have 1,300 other plans waiting there to say, ‘Where's my bailout? Why is it fair that you preserved 100 percent of coal miners’ benefits?’” argues Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

There is, however, a federal backstop for failing private pension plans (though not for failing health-care plans). When the automaker Studebaker went out of business in 1963, it terminated its pension plan and more than 4,000 workers lost most or all of their promised pension benefits. That eventually motivated Congress to pass the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which set up the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which pays out reduced pensions in the event that a private pension fund becomes insolvent. (The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation itself is running out of money, which is another problem.)

by Alana Semuels, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Gene J. Puskar / AP

Friday, April 21, 2017

Who Among Us Has Not Misplaced an Aircraft Carrier?

OK, somebody needs to explain how these things happen. From the NYT:
The problem was, the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the four other warships in its strike force were at that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula. White House officials said on Tuesday they were relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from a premature announcement of the deployment by the military's Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that an American armada was racing toward the waters off North Korea. By the time the White House was asked about the Carl Vinson on April 11, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia, fanning fears that Mr. Trump was considering a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea. It was portrayed as further evidence of the president's muscular style two days after he ordered a missile strike on Syria while he and President Xi Jinping of China were finishing dessert during a meeting in Florida.
Let us catch our breath for a minute and take stock.

These people misplaced an entire carrier attack group and then tried to bluff their way past it in a way guaranteed to make a crazy guy with a bad haircut and a huge army nervous.

by Charles P. Pierce, Esquire |  Read more:
Image:  via:
[ed. My vote for best title of the year. See also: A Fake and a Fraud]

Lookace Bamber

Thursday, April 20, 2017

This Lawsuit Goes to 11

In comedy, as in rock ’n’ roll, nothing is quite as easy as it looks. And so it makes sense that several years before the 1984 release of the legendary rock ’n’ roll mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, director Rob Reiner and stars and co-writers Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer first had to make a shorter version of the same movie: a sort of sample-size Spinal Tap, meant to whet the appetite of studios that might bankroll the real thing. Titled The Final Tour, this 20-minute demo reel about a past-its-prime, unselfconsciously ridiculous band makes for an uncanny viewing experience today, if for no other reason than how fully conceived the idea already was. It’s on YouTube if you’re curious.

There’s Reiner as the band’s earnest interlocutor, Tony Hendra of National Lampoon as the hapless manager, and Bruno Kirby as the cranky limo driver with a thing for Sinatra. There’s the drummer who dies in a bizarre gardening accident—and the other drummer who spontaneously combusts. There’s Shearer’s airport metal-detector scene, where the problem is in his pants. There’s the touching piano number with the surprisingly bawdy title that can’t be printed here. And there are most of the memorable songs: Big Bottom, Sex Farm, Gimme Some Money, Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight, and, of course, Stonehenge, fully staged, complete with that catastrophically tiny prop (they’d expected 18 feet and got 18 inches) and two costumed little people dancing around it.

“I was amazed when I last looked at it,” says Shearer, who plays Derek Smalls, the band’s bare-chested, mutton-chopped, pipe-smoking bassist. “We had this little pittance”—a $60,000 screenplay fee from a company that eventually rejected the idea—“to shoot characters and performances.” He remembers his long black wig costing about $5, and that it took an hour and a half to remove once the shoot was over (the costumer had used super glue). Shearer, Reiner (who plays Marty DiBergi, the fake documentarian), Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel), and McKean (as vocalist David St. Hubbins) had been nursing and developing the idea since 1978. They first performed as the band in a 1979 variety show called The T.V. Show. Then they wrote seven new songs, played a few gigs in costume in Los Angeles, and worked out a complete band history to ensure that their improvisations had a narrative spine they all could rely on. “Michael McKean, I believe, still has the napkin on which the possible names and the possible misspellings were outlined,” Shearer recalls, “because I think at one point we thought maybe S-p-y-n-a-l?”

Armed in 1980 with that demo reel, Reiner and the others were rejected by every studio they pitched. Finally, in 1982, they got $2 million from Embassy Pictures Corp., a tiny studio run by Norman Lear, whom Reiner knew well from his days in the cast of All in the Family. (Lesson No. 1 in Hollywood: It helps to have powerful friends.) By the time the movie came out, Lear had left Embassy, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite an appearance by the band as musical guest on Saturday Night Live, the movie performed anemically in theaters and faded quickly.

But then a funny thing happened: Tap refused to die, thanks in no small part to repeat viewings on VHS. “We may have been the first nonporn home video to do well,” Shearer says. In just a few years, This Is Spinal Tap became a sort of comedy-nerd Casablanca, a classic so infinitely quotable that it practically generated its own language. (If anyone has ever told you that something “goes to 11,” you probably haven’t required an explanation.) And like a low-IQ, longhaired Pinocchio, Spinal Tap transformed into the real thing, recording albums and even touring. “The thing that we joke about is called the Spinal Tap curse,” Shearer says, “where we have to go through everything that we’ve made fun of.”

It’s hard to think of another movie from the past 50 years that’s had a bigger impact on modern comedy. Spinal Tap pioneered a mock-doc genre that’s influenced everything from the long run of improvisational films directed by Guest (Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show among them) to docu-styled sitcoms such as The Office and Modern Family. This made it all the more surprising when, about four years ago, Shearer became the first of his fake bandmates to learn lesson No. 2 in Hollywood: No matter how well your movie does, there’s no such thing as net profit. (...)

Sometimes it takes a malcontent to disturb something as intractable as Hollywood accounting practices. By the terms of the contract they signed in 1982 with Embassy Pictures, the four creators of Spinal Tap are entitled to a portion of income from the film, including merchandise and music, provided certain benchmarks are hit. Given the wild afterlife of This Is Spinal Tap, it seems impossible that anyone with a piece of the movie hasn’t made money. And yet this is Hollywood, where studios have claimed that some of the highest-grossing films—hits such as Return of the Jedi, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy—somehow haven’t turned a profit. As David Zucker, one of the creators of Airplane!, once said of his own sleeper hit, “It made so much money that the studio couldn’t hide it fast enough.”

by Robert Kolker, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: MPTV Images

France in the End of Days

For some time France has been a country that does not like itself. Somewhere on the road from its humiliation in World War II to its disappointment with European integration to its discomfort with globalization, France slid into moroseness. High-speed trains purred; France pouted. Grumbling became a way of life, the response to lost grandeur. Now France seems ready to vent this slow-ripening anger in an election that could see the extreme right return to power for the first time since the 1940s and Europe revert to a turbulence not seen since that epoch.

If Marine Le Pen of the National Front wins, she says she will take France out of the euro, the shared European currency, and restore the franc. Exit from the European Union could follow. This would constitute an economic and political rupture so violent that even Donald Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote to leave the union would pale beside it. Europe, and not just its markets, would be upended. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been meddling, would be happy.

A Le Pen victory is far from assured, plausible if not probable. Returning to France late last month, to the glow of Paris and the gloom of the provinces, I was struck by how much Le Pen’s party, whose racist ideology was once taboo, has joined the mainstream. The pattern that has prevailed throughout the Fifth Republic — alternation of center-left and center-right — seems dead. The French are tired of increasingly indistinguishable Socialist and Republican presidents. President François Hollande, a socialist with a single-digit approval rating, decided not to run for a second term. As elsewhere in the West, traditional parties bereft of compelling ideas are in crisis, buffeted by social-media-driven mobilizations.

The first round of voting on April 23 is almost certain to send Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old upstart leader of a new catchall centrist movement, into the runoff on May 7: the xenophobic nationalist versus the pro-Europe neophyte.

Polls show them both with clear, if tightening, leads over the scandal-plagued Republican candidate, François Fillon, and an extreme leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Unbowed France movement, whose support has surged in recent days. The left, still singing the Internationale and plotting class struggle, is in disarray. The inclination to blow up the system has found fertile ground. People have had it with experts. “Ça suffit!” — “Enough!” — is a much-heard cry; and if disruption leads to deluge, so be it.

Such end-of-days gloom is puzzling. Near 10 percent unemployment and near invisible growth cannot explain it. French infrastructure is a rebuke to American decay. French universal health care works. Savoir-vivre, the art of living, is not a French phrase for nothing. From the United States to China, the French hold on the world’s imagination endures. It is a land of unique pleasures.

Yet this seems to offer scant comfort. Instead the French are focused on their country’s failures: its dispatch under Vichy of Jews to their deaths, its painful colonial past in Algeria, its faltering attempts to integrate one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, its vulnerability to terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, its expensive and sometimes rigid welfare state, its ambiguous relationship to global capitalism, its fraying model of “laïcité” (or secularism) designed to subsume religious difference in the values of the French republic — all are endlessly agonized over.

“There is a certain French masochism,” Pascal Bruckner, an author, told me. “We are a country that does not unleash its potential. We ruminate on the past. After 1989, we thought Europe would become French. But the models of Germany and Thatcher did much better. And so we lapse into mediocrity.” Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist, put it this way: “France suffers from cultural and civilizational insecurity. Many people feel somehow dispossessed.”

This sense of dispossession, of loss, is what the National Front has exploited: loss of identity, jobs, national borders; loss of faith in a corrupt political system. “On est chez nous!” — roughly “We are at home!” — is the party’s strange battle cry, chanted at every rally. But why such pathological need to reaffirm belonging, and who exactly are “we”? Millions of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, many of them Muslims, do not appear to make the cut.

“There is no right or left. This election is about patriotism versus globalization,” Nicolas Bay, the secretary-general of the National Front, told me. “That is why we would end immigration. If it’s Le Pen against the globalist Macron in the second round, it will be clear what the contest is about: Do we defend the nation, or is the nation finished?”

by Roger Cohen, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Pierre Terdjman

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin

Alec Baldwin collapses onto his dressing-room couch at Saturday Night Live like a man participating too enthusiastically in a trust fall. He is 58 years old. He has three children under 4. He has been dividing what’s left of his time between filming a movie with Emilio Estevez in Cincinnati and answering the call from NBC whenever it comes, which, because of his now-signature portrayal of Donald Trump, has been many weeks this season. His appearances gather eyes like car accidents; some clips have been watched on YouTube more than 20 million times. Those legions of viewers have formed a kind of makeshift resistance, a community of the gaslit, together feeling a little less crazy for knowing that at least Alec Baldwin can see what they are seeing. Turning the president into a running joke might prove the most consequential work of his career. It’s at least been the most consuming.

Baldwin has bags under his eyes, his normally enviable hair appears as though it’s been beaten flat with a tire iron, and he has two blood-red spots on the bridge of his nose. His whole body looks like it aches. He is keeping it going by alternating between a bottle of Diet Coke and some grainy concoction from Starbucks served in a bucket. This week he is hosting SNL for a record 17th time, expectations are soaring, and the pressure, like the workload, is telling on him like a terrible secret. It’s only Tuesday.

There is a knock at the door. It’s time for Baldwin to go to makeup. Among his many chores today, February 7, he has to pose for this week’s “bumpers,” the photos of the host that bookend SNL’s commercial breaks. His wife, Hilaria, is coming in later with their kids for what will be a lovely family portrait, but the first shot is of Baldwin as Hamlet, holding the skull of the ill-fated court jester Yorick, with Baldwin’s Trump wig on it. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.

Baldwin walks down the hall slowly, listing a little, as though he’s walking on a ship. When he reaches his destination—bright lights, mirrors, and a bunch of people who are really happy to see him—he straightens up and smiles, jolted to life by the affection. He climbs into a chair, and a woman surveys his hair for half a second before firing up her clippers. A makeup artist asks whether he can put cooling pads under Baldwin’s eyes, and Baldwin beckons him forward as if to say, “You think I’d rather look like this?”

On a shelf behind him, his custom-made Trump wig shines golden on a life-size model of Baldwin’s head. The shelf contains the disembodied heads of every cast member, each labeled with a name and a size. Vanessa Bayer has the smallest; Baldwin’s dome is tied with several others’ for the biggest. There have been rumors that he will wear the wig for the entire show—that on Saturday, February 11, he will play Trump in every sketch. The team here in makeup has heard as much.

“No,” Baldwin says. “No. That would be a horrible idea.” He slips into Jack Donaghy, the executive he played so well on 30 Rock, dry as straight gin (“What am I, a farmer?”). “There’s a lot of talented people here. When I show up, I’m really only one of several people who make the show worthwhile. Sometimes I’m the least of what makes the show worthwhile.” He returns to playing himself. “That’s the most idiotic idea I’ve heard in my life. Ninety minutes of me walking around, like—”

Then it happens.

Baldwin’s face spasms almost uncontrollably, seized by muscle memory. He opens his left eye wide, he nearly closes his right eye, and he pushes out his wet lips as far as his chin will allow, his mouth turned suddenly into a bottomless black pit. His hands fly up, his fingers doing ridiculous, discordant things. He turns his head as though he’s been startled by a loud noise, and the woman cutting his hair has to snatch away her clippers with a jerk, her face gone urgent with the realization of how close she came to disaster.

“These are my golf clubs,” Baldwin says, his trademark voice transformed into Trump’s strange muffle, his naturally seamless, rapid-fire cadence turned halting. “They were given to me as a gift from Qaddafi. We’re doing a lot of business together, Muammar and I.”

Baldwin stops there. “Muammar,” he repeats, his mouth pushed out to the point of rupture, now satisfied that he has it right.

Everyone but the very professional hairstylist is in stitches. “Careful,” she says. “You’ll have a bald spot.” Baldwin relaxes. She moves quickly to finish her work, exchanging the clippers for scissors. She can’t help but marvel at the magnificence taking shape before her. “It’s unbelievable,” she says to no one and everyone at once. “He has gorgeous hair.”Baldwin sometimes wishes Trump would appear next to him on SNL. “If he was smart, he’d show up this week. It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”

Baldwin looks at himself in the mirror. “I don’t have anything else left,” he says. “It’s so sad. Seriously: age. Now you see why Cary Grant retired. People will do that to me on the internet. ‘Oh, here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU WERE HOT.’ ” He puts on his best polite voice. “Thank you! THANK YOU, SUZIE.” He’s quiet for a moment, and then he’s back to playing the imaginary Suzie. “Here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU LOOKED GOOD.” (...)

Baldwin’s ear is so good, he can do three phases of Pacino: early, middle, and late. It is a breathless, almost vaudevillian routine, performed entirely while seated. It is also desperately funny. In 20 minutes, Baldwin has inhabited seven different characters. Of all the parts, Trump is his least favorite to play. “It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s not easy.”

Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.

“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.” (...)

For the next shot he pulls on an ill-fitting suit and too-long tie, and he watches as that same wig is placed on his enormous, groomed head, and he mangles his eyes and pushes out his lips, this tired man made beautiful made ugly. It’s an unsettling transformation to watch. It’s almost as though Alec Baldwin, before he can become Donald Trump, must first become the best version of Alec Baldwin, and then ruin him.

by Chris Jones, The Atlantic | Read more:
Image: Mary Ellen Matthews / NBC

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Joe Jackson

Hans Hartung, T-50 Painting 8

Pure Comedy

The Kentucky Coal Museum just switched over to solar power to save money on energy costs.

An employee of the NRA just shot himself at NRA headquarters.

Morgan Stanley financial advisors in Massachusetts held a contest to see who could give their clients the worst financial advice.

The Secretary of Education hates public schools.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency hates the environment.

The Secretary of Energy didn’t know what department even was until they named him to head it. And that’s after he wanted to shutter it.

The number one book in America right now is Bill O’Reilly talking about how men should treat women. Yes, that Bill O’Reilly.

The President of the United States, who spent two years campaigning on a platform of staying out of the Middle East, just fired 60 missiles at an airstrip in Syria and dropped “the mother of all bombs” on a cave in Afghanistan.

Also, he spent five years screaming about his predecessor’s vacationing costs to the tax payer and he’s on pace to outdo 8 years of them in his first year.

And his predecessor’s golf outings, which he may outdo 8 years of by the end of June.

Protectionist, Nationalist Trump was supposed to be bad for stocks. Except that they went up every day. Since he began his pivot to Globalist Trump, which is what Wall Street was said to have wanted, stocks have gone down every day.

92% of all actively managed stock mutual funds have failed to beat their benchmark over the last 15 years, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. Stated another way, only 8% of thousands of fund products have been able to do what they were supposed to have been able to do.

Can you imagine if 92% of the cars sold by auto companies couldn’t drive? Or if 92% of the pills sold by the pharmaceutical industry were placebos, or worse? What if 92% of the pizzas sold by Domino’s were just Ritz Crackers. How is this a thing that exists?

Don’t worry, nobody knows.

For the ten years ending 12/2015, mutual fund investors, collectively, have received returns that were $545 billion below what the indices would have given them. And for that, they’ve paid $437 billion in fees.

by Joshua M. Brown, The Reformed Broker |  Read more:
Image: via:

Terms of Service

[ed. See also: United Airlines Exposes Our Twisted Idea of Dignity: and United Isn't the Reason Air Travel is So Miserable; and We Need More Alternatives to Facebook]

The video in which police and airport security maul a 69-year-old United Airlines passenger is haunting in its casual brutality. Interpretations of the event’s meaning have bloomed like a bacterial culture, encompassing issues of corporate power, industry consolidation, race and the authority companies can wield against consumers. Uniting many of these critiques is a sense of shock that a company can exert so much control — so much force — over one of its own customers. Somewhere along the way, the traditional compact between companies and consumers became horribly corrupted. How did it get this way?

We are told that this is the era of the empowered consumer: The savvy shopper has oodles of time to browse around, comparing prices among various retailers, perhaps consulting Yelp, Glassdoor or the Better Business Bureau. An almost unlimited menu of choices and information means that anything may be purchased, often at a discount from a warehouse on the other side of the world. Service is king, and business-school professors complain of the “tyranny of the consumer.” Better information means more competition, which means lower prices — all features, of course, of an open marketplace ostensibly presided over by a regulatory authority that, while distant, exists to protect our safety.

This vision is a lie. Air travel is the most concentrated version of an essentially authoritarian experience that can be found throughout today’s economy. We live, work, shop, and travel under a system of grossly asymmetric power relationships, in which consumers sign away most of their rights just by purchasing a ticket and companies deputize themselves to enforce contracts with hired goons. It doesn’t help that the Trump administration is rapidly stripping away as many regulations as it can, promising to repeal two for every new one implemented — an ultra-wealthy administration’s attempt to formalize the plutocratic free-for-all that has followed decades of growing corporate power, defined by massive income inequality, regulatory capture, a revolving door between agencies and the industries they oversee, and steadily eroding consumer rights. The empowered consumer is a figment of our imagination.

Air travel is different from other sectors in degree but not in kind. In a few generations, it has gone from a Tomorrowland-style marvel, accompanied by luxury service, to a series of petty frustrations and humiliations. Like rail travel, which was also once steeped in a certain glamour, it has suffered the effects of a lack of competition and declining investment in public infrastructure. Airlines needlessly demean customers, who are gouged for fees to goose the margins of tottering industry monoliths like United. The process begins when you first shop for your ticket. It is not enough to book passage on a plane. Instead, you are besieged with offers — to book bags, to upgrade, to get more leg room, to gain access to a preflight lounge, to board earlier, to acquire insurance — each of which costs an additional fee. The inducements continue all the way through check-in at the airport and practically until you land at your destination. Any flier who has tried to nap after takeoff knows the exasperation of trying to block out a credit-card ad delivered by airplane public-address system.

This development is part of a larger socioeconomic phenomenon, what the scholar Michael Sandel calls the “skyboxification of American life.” Experiences that used to be standardized are being divided into tiers denoting various rights, access and costs. The result is to both pit consumers against one another — as they compete for a limited pool of guaranteed seats on an airplane, for example — and to extract more money out of better-heeled customers. Those who can pay for early boarding in first class are allowed to, while the rest of us glare at them as we shuffle into our cramped seats in coach, from which we might be booted to make way for an airline employee or a preferred customer. If we violate any of the strictures of the contract we’ve implicitly signed by buying a ticket, then the airline — backed with the imprimatur of state authority, perhaps even with the help of local police — has every right to deny us boarding without apology.

Survey the economic landscape and you’re likely to find similarly scrambled power relationships. During the foreclosure crisis, banks acted like arms of the state, with local sheriffs becoming the banking industry’s eviction force. Health insurers dictate access to health care for millions while a small coterie of chief executives reaps huge payouts. The telecommunications industry has consolidated into a handful of industry behemoths that maintain regional monopolies. The result is a lack of competition and slow, pricey service. And soon, thanks to a provision recently passed into law by Congress, our ISPs will have the rights to sell all of our browsing data to whomever they choose.

by Jacob Silverman, Washington Post |  Read more:
Image: Nam Y. Huh/AP

Margaret Preston

#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement

Emily King and Corey Smith had been dating for five months when they took a trip to Central America, in February, 2012. At a surf resort in Nicaragua, Smith helped a lanky American named Foster Huntington repair the dings in his board. When the waves were choppy, the three congregated in the resort’s hammock zone, where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest. One afternoon, Huntington listened to the couple have a small argument. Something about their fond irritation made him think that they’d be suited to spending long periods of time together in a confined space. “You guys would be great in a van,” he told them.

The year before, Huntington had given up his apartment in New York and his job as a designer at Ralph Lauren, and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. He spent his days surfing, exploring, and taking pictures of his van parked in picturesque locations along the California coast. It was the early days of Instagram, and, over time, Huntington accumulated more than a million followers. He represented a new kind of social-media celebrity, someone famous not for starring in movies or recording hit songs but for documenting an enviable life. “My inspiration,” went a typical comment on one of his posts. “God I wish my life was that free and easy and amazing.” Huntington tagged his posts with phrases like #homeiswhereyouparkit and #livesimply, but the tag he used most often was #vanlife.

King and Smith left Nicaragua for Costa Rica, but the idea of the van stuck with them. King, a telegenic former business student, had quit her job at a Sotheby’s branch when she realized that she was unhappy. Smith, a competitive mountain biker and the manager of a kayak store, had never had a traditional office job. They figured they could live cheaply in a van while placing what they loved—travelling, surfing, mountain biking—at the center of their lives. When King found out that she’d been hired for a Web-development job that didn’t require her presence in an office, it suddenly seemed feasible.

King and Smith, who are thirty-two and thirty-one, respectively, had grown up watching “Saturday Night Live” sketches in which a sweaty, frantic Chris Farley character ranted, “I am thirty-five years old, I am divorced, and I live in a van down by the river!” But, the way Huntington described it, living in a vehicle sounded not pathetic but romantic. “I remember coming home and telling my mom, ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” King said. “She thought I was going to say we were getting married or having a baby. But I said, ‘We’re going to live in a van.’ ”

Huntington’s vanlife hashtag was a joking reference to Tupac’s “thug life” tattoo. “You know, it’s not thug life—it’s van life!” he told me. Six years later, more than 1.2 million Instagram posts have been tagged #vanlife. In 2013, Huntington used Kickstarter to fund “Home Is Where You Park It,” a sixty-five-dollar book of his vanlife photographs, which is now in its fourth printing. In October, Black Dog & Leventhal will publish his second book on the topic, “Van Life.”

Scroll through the images tagged #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of photos that don’t have much to do with vehicles: starry skies, campfires, women in leggings doing yoga by the ocean. Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. It’s a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.

Vanlife is an aesthetic and a mentality and, people kept telling me, a “movement.” S. Lucas Valdes, the owner of the California-based company GoWesty, a prominent seller of Volkswagen-van parts, compared vanlife today to surfing a couple of decades ago. “So many people identify with the culture, the attire, the mind-set of surfers, but probably only about ten per cent of them surf,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to tap into.”

“You could buy these vans ten years ago for pennies on the dollar,” Harley Sitner, the owner of Peace Vans, a Volkswagen-van repair and rental shop in Seattle, told me. Sitner, who is forty-nine, said that his generation’s adventurous rite of passage was more along the lines of “backpacking through Southeast Asia, eating mushrooms on a beach in Thailand.” Around five years ago, he began to notice that young people were increasingly interested in old VW vans. “It’s men in their thirties with huge beards, and they’re pretty much all stay-at-home dads,” he said. “Their wives work office jobs and they work on the vans so the family can go out and vanlife on the weekend.”

Part of the fun of vanlife, Sitner theorized, is the old-fashioned, analog pleasure of tinkering. But vanlife, as a concept and as a self-defined community, is primarily a social-media phenomenon. Attaching a name (and a hashtag) to the phenomenon has also enabled people who would otherwise just be rootless wanderers to make their travels into a kind of product. “There are now professional vanlifers,” Huntington told me, sounding slightly scandalized. (...)

Some vanlifers drive shiny new Mercedes Sprinter vans or practical Ford Econolines, but the quintessential van is the Volkswagen Vanagon, beloved for its bulky, unaerodynamic shape. “It’s the Swiss Army knife of the R.V. world,” Smith explained.

by Rachel Monroe, New Yorker | Read more:
Image:Jeff Minton

The Growing Case for Geoengineering

[ed. See also: NASA Designs Suit Capable Of Protecting Humans Hoping To One Day Live On Earth]

David Mitchell pulls into the parking lot of the Desert Research Institute, an environmental science outpost of the University of Nevada, perched in the dry red hills above Reno. The campus stares over the tops of the downtown casinos into the snow-buried Pine Nut Mountains. On this morning, wispy cirrus clouds draw long lines above the range.

Mitchell, a lanky, soft-spoken atmospheric physicist, believes these frigid clouds in the upper troposphere may offer one of our best fallback plans for combating climate change. The tiny ice crystals in cirrus clouds cast thermal radiation back against the surface of the earth, trapping heat like a blanket—or, more to the point, like carbon dioxide. But Mitchell, an associate research professor at the institute, thinks there might be a way to counteract the effects of these clouds.

It would work like this: Fleets of large drones would crisscross the upper latitudes of the globe during winter months, sprinkling the skies with tons of extremely fine dust-like materials every year. If Mitchell is right, this would produce larger ice crystals than normal, creating thinner cirrus clouds that dissipate faster. “That would allow more radiation into space, cooling the earth,” Mitchell says. Done on a large enough scale, this “cloud seeding” could ease global temperatures by as much as 1.4 °C, more than the planet has warmed since the Industrial Revolution, according to a separate Yale study.

Big questions remain about whether it would really work, what damaging side effects might arise, and whether the world should risk deploying a tool that could alter the entire climate. Indeed, the suggestion that we should entrust the global thermostat to an armada of flying robots will strike many as preposterous. But the real question is: preposterous compared to what?

Without some kind of drastic action, climate change could be killing an estimated half-million people annually by the middle of this century, through famine, flooding, heat stress, and human conflict. Preventing temperatures from rising 2 °C above preindustrial levels, long considered the danger zone that should be avoided at all cost, now looks nearly impossible. It would mean cutting greenhouse-­gas emissions by as much as 70 percent by 2050, and it may well require developing technologies that could suck megatons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But a growing body of research suggests that we probably will not have the time or technology to pull this off. Notably, even if every nation sticks to the commitments it’s made under the politically ambitious Paris climate accords, global temperatures could still soar more than 5 °C by 2100.

“Everyone is looking at two degrees, but to me it’s a pipe dream,” says Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, who was one of President Obama’s top advisors on climate change. “I fear we’ll be lucky to escape four, and I want to make sure nobody ever sees six.”

The difference between two and four degrees is another quarter-billion people without reliable access to water, more than a hundred million more exposed to flooding, and massive declines in worldwide crop yields, according to a study by the Committee on Climate Change, a London-­based scientific group established to advise the U.K. government (see below).

The idea that we could counteract these dangers by reëengineering the climate itself, techniques collectively known as geoengineering, began to emerge from the scientific fringes about a decade ago (see “The Geoengineering Gambit”). Now momentum behind the idea is building: increasingly grim climate projections have convinced a growing number of scientists it’s time to start conducting experiments to find out what might work. In addition, an impressive list of institutions including Harvard University, the Carnegie Council, and the University of California, Los Angeles, have recently established research initiatives.

Few serious scientists would argue that we should begin deploying geoengineering anytime soon. But with time running out, it’s imperative to explore any option that could pull the world back from the brink of catastrophe, says Jane Long, a former associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “I don’t really know what the answer is,” she says. “But I do believe we need to keep saying what the truth is, and the truth is, we might need it.”

by James Temple, MIT Technology Review | Read more:
Image: Tatsuro Kiuchi

Monday, April 17, 2017

Seriously, the Guy Has a Point

Recently most of the Fearless Girl discussions have focused on the complaints by Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor who created Charging Bull. He wants Fearless Girl removed, and that boy is taking a metric ton of shit for saying that. Here’s what I said that got me spanked:
The guy has a point.
This happened in maybe three different discussions over the last week or so. In each case I explained briefly why I believe Di Modica has a point (and I’ll explain it again in a bit), and for the most part folks either accepted my comments or ignored them. Which is pretty common for online discussions. But in one discussion my comment sparked this:
Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.
Which — and this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m okay with saying the obvious — is a perfectly valid response. It’s also one I agree with. As far as that goes, it’s one NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees with, since he said it first (although, to be fair, probably one of his public relations people first said it first).

But here’s the thing: you can completely agree with the woman who responded to my comment AND you can still acknowledge that Arturo Di Modica has a point. Those aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory points of view.

Let me apologize here, because I have to do some history — and for reasons I’ve never understood, some folks actively dislike history. It’s necessary though. So here we go. Back in 1987 there was a global stock market crash. Doesn’t matter why (at least not for this discussion), but stock markets everywhere — everywhere — tanked. Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., responded by creating Charging Bull — a bronze sculpture of a…well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some US$350,000 of his own money. He said he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people”. He had it trucked into the Financial District and set it up, completely without permission. It’s maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.

People loved it. The assholes who ran the New York Stock Exchange, for some reason, didn’t. They called the police, and pretty soon the statue was removed and impounded. A fuss was raised, the city agreed to temporarily install it, and the public was pleased. It’s been almost thirty years, and Charging Bull is still owned by Di Modica, still on temporary loan to the city, still one of the most recognizable symbols of New York City.

And that brings us to March 7th of this year, the day before International Women’s Day. Fearless Girl appeared, standing in front of Charging Bull. On the surface, it appears to be another work of guerrilla art — but it’s not. Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE. And finally, along with Fearless Girl is a bronze plaque that reads:
Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.
Note it’s not She makes a difference, it’s SHE makes a difference. It’s not referring to the girl; it’s referring to the NASDAQ symbol. It’s not a work of guerrilla art; it’s an extremely clever advertising scheme. This is what makes it clever: Fearless Girl derives its power almost entirely from Di Modica’s statue. The sculptor, Kristen Visbal, sort of acknowledges this. She’s said this about her statue:
“She’s not angry at the bull — she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note.”
It’s all about the bull. If it were placed anywhere else, Fearless Girl would still be a very fine statue — but without facing Charging Bull the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about. Whatever. Fearless Girl, without Di Modica’s bull, without the context provided by the bull, becomes Really Confident Girl.

Fearless Girl also changes the meaning of Charging Bull. Instead of being a symbol of “the strength and power of the American people” as Di Modica intended, it’s now seen as an aggressive threat to women and girls — a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.

by Greg Fallis, gregfallis.com |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Frontiers of Science

This Drone Is on a Mission to Rid Your City of Dog Poop

In an unexpected use of rapidly improving sensors and robots, Dutch entrepreneur Gerben Lievers invented a unique tool to solve all these problems at once: a poop-scooping drone.

The drone has already gone through multiple iterations, each improvement aiming to further perfect the technology so that it leaves streets as poop-free as possible.

The team’s first model, a drone called Watchdog 1, used thermal imaging to locate uncollected dog droppings by their warm temperatures compared to the surrounding area. That data was appended with GPS coordinates and sent to a ground-based robot called Patroldog 1, which rolled off to collect its target.

After trying both a vacuum-type collection mechanism and arms that really did ‘scoop’ the poop, the team decided the vacuum worked better because it can pick up material of various consistencies (ick).

Speaking of which, thermal imaging only identifies waste that is, ahem, fresh. What about the stuff that’s been sitting there for hours or days? It’s equally unpleasant, and should also be banished from sidewalks.

To solve this problem, the team added recognition software to the drone, training it to recognize stale poop from above using images.

by Vanessa Bates Ramirez, SingularityHub |  Read more:
Image: Tinki.nl/YouTube
[ed. I think we have a winner for next year's Nobel prize.]