Tuesday, March 28, 2017

US Consumers Lose Privacy Protections for Their Web Browsing History

US politicians voted Tuesday to kill privacy rules meant to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from selling users’ web browsing histories and app usage histories to advertisers.

The planned protections, proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and scheduled to take effect by the end of 2017, would have forced ISPs to get people’s consent before hawking their data.

Republicans in the House of Representatives followed their colleagues in the Senate with a vote – of 215 to 205 – to approve a resolution that uses the Congressional Review Act to prevent the privacy rules from taking effect.

Without these protections, ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are free to track your browsing behavior and sell that data to advertisers without consent. This represents a huge treasure trove of personal data, including your health concerns, shopping habits and visits to porn sites. ISPs can find out where you bank, your political views and sexual orientation simply based on the websites you visit. The fact that you’re looking at a website at all can also reveal when you’re at home and when you’re not.

“Give me one good reason why Comcast should know what my mother’s medical problems are,” said congressman Mike Capuano during the hearing before the vote, explaining how he had researched her condition after a trip to the doctor. “Just last week I bought underwear on the internet. Why should you know what size I take? Or the color?”

“Consumers should be in control of their own information,” added congressman Jared Polis. “They shouldn’t be forced to sell it to who knows who simply for the price of admission to access the internet.” (...)

Those in favor of repealing the privacy rules argued that it levels the playing field for internet service providers who want to get into the advertising business like Google and Facebook. According to ISPs, scrapping the rules will allow them to show the user more relevant advertising and offers, which would give the companies better return on the investment they have made in infrastructure. They argue that web browsing history and app usage should not count as “sensitive” information.

In the run-up to the hearing, privacy campaigners argued that ISPs should be treated differently from Google and Facebook, as in many cases consumers only have one choice of broadband provider. You can choose not to use Facebook or Google’s search engine, and there are lots of tools you can use to block their tracking on other parts of the web, for example, Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit civil liberties group.

It’s much harder to prevent ISPs from tracking you. To mask all of your browsing behavior you can use a VPN service (which incurs a subscription cost) or try using Tor, both of which make browsing more complicated.

What’s the next step for privacy campaigners? The EFF’s Jeremy Gillula said: “It’s certainly a bit of a Hail Mary, but I think we’d try to convince President Trump that signing a bill that helps big corporate interests by eliminating Americans’ privacy and weakening their cybersecurity isn’t exactly ‘draining the swamp’.”

by Olivia Solon, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Selling Water

Bottled water is starting to seem more like soda, and sometimes taste like it, too.

As bottled water surges in popularity, Coke, Pepsi and other companies are using celebrity endorsements, stylish packaging and fancy filtration processes like "reverse osmosis" to sell people on expanding variations of what comes out of the tap. They're also adding flourishes like bubbles, flavors or sweeteners that can blur the lines between what is water and what is soda.

For this year's Super Bowl, PepsiCo even ran an ad for its new Lifewtr, promoting the drink in a spotlight typically reserved for sodas. Also running their first Super Bowl ads were Fiji and Bai Brands, which sell "enhanced waters" made with fruit juice and stevia sweetener.

Michael Simon, Bai's chief marketing officer, says its drinks "give people that healthy profile they're looking for, but now they no longer have to sacrifice on taste with the neutrality of water."

Bottled water has been gaining ground for years, and overtook soda as the No. 1 drink in the U.S. by sales volume last year, industry tracker Beverage Marketing Corp. said. Some of the fizzy, sweetened drinks are considered water by the companies or industry trackers in some cases, as the distinctions between them lose meaning. Companies aren't as interested in the big, economy packs of plain bottled water that have been fueling the growth, says Ali Dibaj, a Bernstein analyst who covers the industry, since those are less profitable than sodas and are a "horrible business to be in."

So Coke and Pepsi are focusing on pricier options that compete with brands like Evian and Perrier. And they're introducing fizzy and fruity varieties to get a better foothold in increasingly crowded marketplace where options like LaCroix and others are gaining popularity. Showing just how blurry the lines are getting, PepsiCo launched a drink last week that it describes as "sorta juice, sorta soda, sorta sparkling water." Such options can capture people looking to cut back on sodas or juices, and may get people who might buy lower-priced waters to upgrade.

by Candice Choi, AP |  Read more:
Image: Matt Rourke/AP

For the Love of Caddieing

Some are household names among golf fans. Mike (Fluff) Cowan—and his walrus mustache—comes to mind. A few struck it rich, such as Steve Williams in his 13 years with Tiger Woods, and Jim (Bones) Mackay, who has worked with Phil Mickelson since 1992. But those are the exceptions, and they work on the PGA Tour. Among caddies, they are the haves.

The have-nots are those who shoulder bags on the LPGA Tour, trying to survive where the prize money—and potential income—is one-fifth of what’s available on the men’s tour, with the same lack of job security, healthcare and pension.

Looping on the LPGA Tour is a labor of love laced with economic hardships requiring perseverance, imagination and a supportive family. It’s a life where veteran caddies say only about 30 percent last more than 10 years. Yet, a hardy handful of lifers have blown past the quarter-century mark.

John Killeen, 58, is among those captivated by the lifestyle that is alien and often absurd. He has been a caddie on the LPGA Tour for nearly 35 years, with Patty Sheehan, Juli Inkster, Ayako Okamoto, Meg Mallon, Cristie Kerr and others, before landing his current gig with Mirim Lee, winner of last week’s Kia Classic.

Last year, when Killeen was still working for Angela Stanford, he said goodbye to his wife, two teenage kids and home near Atlanta for a swing that took him to the Bahamas, Florida, Thailand, Singapore, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Texas and Alabama. From mid-May, when he took a week off for his son’s high school graduation, until the Olympics in August, Killeen had only one other scheduled week off.

How do you make a life like that work financially and emotionally? For starters, you need a lot of help from your friends. Imagine that house you shared with your buddies in college and the fun you had. Now imagine that house moves around the country—one golf tournament after another. That’s what life is like for Killeen and a handful of his fellow caddies who share living quarters when possible to save money and find sanity in each other’s company. They love the life, each other, golf and the competition. It’s not the money that keeps them chasing this nomadic existence.

In recent years, Killeen was one of eight caddies who rented a house at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix. I spent a week with them, and there are few experiences more valuable and fun for a journalist than hanging with caddies. They know everything—or at least think they do. And they know how to have a good time. (...)

Eking Out a Living

... “You have to finish in the top 40 [on the money list] out here to have a significant year,” says Killeen, who in 1984 at age 23 and planning to be a stockbroker, told his mother and girlfriend in Portland, Ore., he’d be back after a two-week stint caddieing, then came home eight months later and said he’d found his calling.

In Phoenix, the eight men in the house paid $430 each for rent. There were two rental cars, plus Castrale’s car he drove from Palm Desert, Calif. Food and drink came to $125 a man, with the rental cars totaling $100 each. Castrale says the seven guys who flew in averaged about $250 for airfare. That put the total expenses per person at $905 for the week, much less than it would have cost to stay in a hotel, not to mention food and drink.

“Some weeks, like Asia events, all we pay for is food and hotel because we have no rental cars and 99 percent of the players pay for international caddie flights,” says Castrale. “But then Hawaii and San Francisco, for example, I spend $1,500 at least. Overall, $1,000 to $1,200 per week is our typical average expense for the 25 to 30 events played.”

The way it works, the caddies say, is they get on average a guarantee of $1,000 to $1,500 for each week the player competes. If your player misses the cut, that’s all you get. On average, a caddie gets 5 percent of a made-cut check, 7 percent of a top-10 check and 10 percent for a win. Some players are more generous than others.

Now what kind of money are we talking here? No. 40 on the LPGA money list last year—Moriya Jutanugarn, older sister to player-of-the-year Ariya—earned $446,948 in 29 starts with two top-10 finishes. Those two top-10s earned $170,895, with the caddie’s 7-percent share coming to $11,962.65. The other 22 cuts made earned $276,053, and 5 percent of that is $13,802.65. Assume the caddie got $1,000 a week, and the total for the year would be $54,765.30 before taxes. And then there is about $35,000 in expenses. That’s a break-even proposition. (...)

Although it’s fun to recite the caddie creed of “Show Up, Keep Up, Shut Up,” the job is way more complicated than that. Pretty much the only time off is the weeks your player is not competing. Monday and Tuesday used to be an opportunity for a caddie to sneak in some golf. Now those days are reserved for working with players on the range or playing a practice round.

The days of the hard-living bag-toter who would close the bars at night and work the next day through bloodshot eyes are mostly gone. These loopers are more than mere porters lugging around a 45-pound staff bag. Caddies have evolved into a mix of mathematician, psychologist, cartographer and bodyguard, all while remaining a Sherpa.

“Oh, my, those early days,” says Killeen, smiling. “At our house in Oakmont in 1992 [for the U.S. Women’s Open] we had empties stacked up this high,” he said, holding his hand over his head. “What do I like the most about this job? The people. The travel. The fact I have half the year off.”

And Killeen clearly relishes his role as house father of the group.

by Ron Sirak, Golf Digest |  Read more:
Image: J.D. Cuban
[ed. See also: Tommy's Honour, coming soon.]

Blue Lies

Donald Trump tells lies.

His deceptions and misleading statements are easy to unmask. In the latest example—after hundreds of well-documented lies—FBI director James Comey told Congress this week that there is “no information that supports” Trump’s claim that President Obama tapped his phone.

But Trump’s political path presents a paradox. Far from slowing his momentum, his deceit seemed only to strengthen his support through the primary and national election. Now, every time a lie is exposed, his support among Republicans doesn’t seem to waver very much. In the wake of the Comey revelations, his average approval rating held at 40 percent.

This has led many people to ask themselves: How does the former reality-TV star get away with it? How can he tell so many lies and still win support from many Americans?

Journalists and researchers have suggested many answers, from hyper-biased, segmented media to simple ignorance on the part of GOP voters. But there is another explanation that no one seems to have entertained. It is that Trump is telling “blue” lies—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group.

Children start to tell selfish lies at about age three, as they discover adults cannot read their minds: I didn’t steal that toy, Daddy said I could, He hit me first. At around age seven, they begin to tell white lies motivated by feelings of empathy and compassion: That’s a good drawing, I love socks for Christmas, You’re funny.

Blue lies are a different category altogether, simultaneously selfish and beneficial to others—but only to those who belong to your group. As University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee explains, blue lies fall in between generous white lies and selfish “black” ones. “You can tell a blue lie against another group,” he says, which makes it simultaneously selfless and self-serving. “For example, you can lie about your team's cheating in a game, which is antisocial, but helps your team.” (...)

Around the world, children grow up hearing stories of heroes who engage in deception and violence on behalf of their in-groups. In Star Wars, for example, Princess Leia lies about the location of the “secret rebel base.” In the Harry Potter novels (spoiler alert!), the entire life of double-agent Severus Snape is a lie, albeit a “blue” one, in the service of something bigger than himself.

That explains why most Americans seem to accept that our intelligence agencies lie in the interests of national security, and we laud our spies as heroes. From this perspective, blue lies are weapons in intergroup conflict. As Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok once said, “Deceit and violence—these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.” Lying and bloodshed are often framed as crimes when committed inside a group—but as virtues in a state of war.

This research—and those stories—highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial—compassionate, empathic, generous, honest—in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence—and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” says George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.

If we see Trump’s lies not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to see why his supporters might see him as an effective leader. From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency.

by Jeremy Adam Smith, Scientific Amercian | Read more:
Image: Alberto Ruggieri Getty Images

Monday, March 27, 2017

Spinach Leaf Transforms Into Sheet of Beating Human Heart Cells

To create artificial tissue with functioning vasculature, tissue engineers looked no further than their salad bowls.

By peeling away the cells from a spinach leaf and seeding the cellulose matrix left behind with heart cells, researchers were able to create a beating sheet of human heart tissue—complete with a functional vascular system. The proof-of-concept experiment, appearing in the May issue of Biomaterials, provides an intriguing plant-based approach to generating realistic tissues for grafts and transplants.

Vasculature has been a sticking point for bioengineers. Modern methods for creating artificial tissues and organs, such as 3D printing, haven’t included a good way to recreate the vital conduits. Yet the success (and survival) of any bioengineered tissue or organ hinges on whether it’s equipped with an extensive network of blood-carrying vessels, which drop off oxygen and critical nutrients to cells while flushing away molecular garbage.

Though the vasculature of plants is fundamentally different from that of animals, the structures and cell access are similar. Plus, cellulose—the main organic polysaccharide left standing in de-celled leaves—is known to be biocompatible, that is, it’s safe in humans and already used in other tissue-engineering applications, such as wound healing. This sparked ideas in the study's authors, led by bioengineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

“When I looked at the spinach leaf, its stem reminded me of an aorta,” Joshua Gershlak, first author on the study and a researcher at WPI, said in a press release. “So I thought, let’s perfuse right through the stem. We weren’t sure it would work, but it turned out to be pretty easy and replicable. It’s working in many other plants."

Basically, the researchers first pumped a detergent solution through the leaves’ veins, which stripped away the plant cells over several days. Then, the researchers pumped in cells that blanket human blood vessels so they could re-line the leaves' pipes. Lastly, the researchers seeded the outside of the leaves with human heart cells, which took to their plant-based skeleton.

Over the course of a 21-day experiment, the heart cells started spontaneously beating, like normal heart tissue. The researchers also found that mock-blood could flow through the system. The researchers did similar experiments with parts of parsley and peanut plants.

by Beth Mole, Ars Technica |  Read more:
Image: Worcester Polytechnical Institute

[ed. Even if this doesn't work out, isn't science great? (for the most part)]
Tom Gauld
via:

Home Inspectors on Their Weirdest Discoveries

When a home is sold, its many secrets can come out of the closet. Brokers, potential buyers and home inspectors step inside properties that may have been completely private for years. They peer into basements, attics and electrical panels and find a home’s shortcomings. Such moments offer a rare glimpse inside the workings of a place, and can uncover shoddy renovations, failed do-it-yourself projects, neglect and, in the case of Mr. Burns, baffling remnants of the lives of the former occupants.

Sometimes, owners hide flaws in the hopes a buyer will miss an expensive problem. Other times, homeowners are caught completely unaware that, say, a family of raccoons has taken up residence in the chimney. The home inspector, whom buyers and some sellers hire to uncover flaws, is often the one who has to explain to a stunned seller that the new insulation in the attic was installed improperly, or not at all. Or perhaps the inspector has to inform an eager buyer that the stylish white shag rug in a luxury Flatiron apartment is hiding serious, and ongoing, water damage. Sometimes it is the broker who discovers that, say, a vagrant has set up residence in a vacant property.

And so begins a delicate dance to inform an anxious buyer that a dream home is not perfect, or let a seller know that it is not O.K. to sever the main support beam of a house to make room for an entertainment center’s electrical cables, an unfortunate modification that Blaise Ingrisano, a home inspector on Long Island, once uncovered.

For the last two years, John C. Quinn, the owner of Homerite, a Long Island home inspection company, has compiled an annual list of quirky home inspection photos collected from other inspectors in the area. Last year’s winners included an in-ground pool that had been filled with soil and sodded with grass to hide its existence. The rectangular walkway and ladder rail gave it away.

In another photograph, a new addition to a house was built atop a working chimney, enclosing it in the attic. “You could have a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning,” Mr. Quinn said. “It was just unbelievable.”

Mr. Quinn blames duct tape for many D.I.Y. fails. “They use duct tape for everything,” he said. “I’ve seen shower enclosures covered with duct tape. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a large wound.” Other inspectors have seen the tape used to fix plumbing leaks, secure electrical wiring and hold rotted-out windows in place.

An ambitious, but unskilled homeowner can wreak havoc on a house. Watch enough shows on HGTV or spend enough time on YouTube, and it’s hard not to want to take a sledgehammer to the bathroom wall all by yourself. “You look at the ingenuity of some of these guys. It’s like ‘Wow,’” said Frank Lesh, the executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors, an industry trade group. “They see a YouTube video and say, ‘I can do that!’ But it’s more than just monkey see, monkey do.” (...)

Sometimes, property owners try to hide flaws. Vincent Fundaro, the owner of Square One Professional Home Inspectors in Levittown, N.Y., was inspecting a ground floor condominium on West 22nd Street in Manhattan last April. The apartment, which was listed for $1.8 million, had new kitchen cabinets and new floors. As he walked through the garden level, he tripped over a white shag carpet, revealing the floorboards, which were floating in water. The owner had covered the boards with newspaper and plastic to keep the water from seeping through, but the water problem was unmistakable. “It was definitely saturated,” Mr. Fundaro said. “You would step on it and float.”

The buyer, who was supposed to put down a large deposit that afternoon, was livid. The seller’s broker tried to assure her that the problem could be easily fixed. But Mr. Fundaro spoke up. “I turned around and said it’s not a simple glue and patch fix,” he said. He never found out what effect his findings had on the sale.

by Ronda Kaysen, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

When An Animal Dies Mysteriously in Alaska, This Woman Gets the Call

When they captured her off Cohen Island in the summer of 2007, she weighed 58 pounds and was the size of a collie. The growth rings in a tooth they pulled revealed her age — eight years, a mature female sea otter.

They anesthetized her and placed tags on her flippers. They assigned her a number: LCI013, or 13 for short. They installed a transmitter in her belly and gave her a VHF radio frequency: 165.155 megahertz. Then they released her. The otter was now, in effect, her own small-wattage Alaska radio station. If you had the right kind of antenna and a receiver, you could launch a skiff into Kachemak Bay, lift the antenna and hunt the air for the music of her existence: an occasional ping in high C that was both solitary and reassuring amid the static of the wide world.

Otter 13, they soon learned, preferred the sheltered waters on the south side of Kachemak Bay. In Kasitsna Bay and Jakolof Bay, she whelped pups and clutched clams in her strong paws. She chewed off her tags. Some days, if you stood on the sand in Homer, you could glimpse her just beyond Bishop's Beach, her head as slick as a greaser's ducktail, wrapped in the bull kelp with other females and their pups.

"They're so cute, aren't they?" said the woman in the gold-rimmed eyeglasses. She was leaning over 13 as she said this, measuring a right forepaw with a small ruler. The otter's paw was raised to her head as if in greeting, or perhaps surrender.

"They're one of the few animals that are cute even when they're dead."

Two weeks earlier, salmon setnetters had found the otter on the beach on the far side of Barbara Point. The dying creature was too weak to remove a stone lodged in her jaws. Local officials gathered her up, and a quick look inside revealed the transmitter: 13 was a wild animal with a history.

This made her rare. She was placed on a fast ferry and then put in cold storage to await the attention of veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek, who now paused over her with a sympathetic voice and a scalpel of the size usually seen in human morgues.

Burek worked with short, sure draws of the knife. The otter opened.

"Wow, that's pretty interesting," Burek said. "Very marked edema over the right tarsus. But I don't see any fractures."

The room filled with the smell of low tide on a hot day, of past-expiration sirloin.

A visiting observer wobbled in his rubber clamming boots.

"The only shame is if you pass out where we can't find you," said Burek without looking up. She continued her exploration. "This animal has such dense fur. You can really miss something."

She made several confident strokes until the pelt came away in her hands, as if she were a host gently helping a dinner guest out of her coat. The only fur left on 13 was a small pair of mittens and the cap on her head, resembling a Russian trooper's flap-eared ushanka. (...)

Important work in Alaska

Burek often spends her days cutting up the wildest, largest, smallest, most charismatic and most ferocious creatures in Alaska, looking for what killed them. She's been on the job for more than 20 years, self-employed and working with just about every organization that oversees wildlife in Alaska. Until recently, she was the only board-certified anatomic pathologist in a state that's more than twice the size of Texas. (There's now one other, at the University of Alaska.)

She's still the only one who regularly heads into the field with her flensing knives and vials, harvesting samples that she'll later squint at under a microscope.

Nowhere in North America is this work more important than in the wilds of Alaska. Scientists say 2016 was the planet's hottest year on record, beating out 2015.

As human-generated greenhouse gases continue to trap heat in the world's oceans, air and ice, and carbon dioxide reaches its greatest atmospheric concentration in 800,000 years, the highest latitudes are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

Alaska was so warm last winter that organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race hauled in snow from Fairbanks for the traditional start in Anchorage (though the snow was never used). The waters of the high Arctic may be nearly free of summertime ice in little more than two decades, something human eyes have never seen.

If Americans think about the defrosting northern icebox, they picture dog-paddling polar bears. This obscures much bigger changes at work. A great unraveling is underway as nature gropes for a new equilibrium.

Some species are finding that their traditional homes are disappearing, even while the north becomes more hospitable to new arrivals. On both sides of the Brooks Range — the spine of peaks that run 600 miles east to west across northern Alaska — the land is greening but also browning as tundra becomes shrub-land and trees die off. With these shifts in climate and vegetation, birds, rodents and other animals are on the march. Parasites and pathogens are hitching rides with these newcomers.

"The old saying was that our cold kept away the riffraff," one scientist told me. "That's not so true anymore."

During this epic reshuffle, strange events are the new normal. In Alaska's Arctic in summertime, tens of thousands of walruses haul out on shore, their usual ice floes gone. North of Canada, where the fabled Northwest Passage now melts out, satellite-tagged bowhead whales from the Atlantic and Pacific recently met for the first time since the start of the Holocene era.

These changes are openings for contagion. "Anytime you get an introduction of a new species to a new area, we always think of disease," Burek told me. "Is there going to be new disease that comes because there's new species there?"

A lot of research worldwide has focused on how climate change will increase disease transmission in tropical and even temperate climates, as with dengue fever in the American South. Far less attention has been paid to what will happen — indeed, is already happening — in the world's highest latitudes, and to the people who live there.

Put another way: The north isn't just warming. It has a fever.

She'll see epidemics first

This matters to you and me even if we live thousands of miles away, because what happens in the north won't stay there. Birds migrate. Disease spreads. The changes in Alaska are harbingers for what humans and animals may see elsewhere. It's the front line in climate change's transformation of the planet.

This is where Burek comes in. Fundamentally, a veterinary pathologist is a detective. Burek's city streets are the tissues of wild animals, her crime scenes the discolored and distended organs of tide-washed seals and emaciated wood bison.

"She's the one who's going to see changes," says Kathi Lefebvre, a lead research biologist at Seattle's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. "She's the one who's going to see epidemics come along. And she's the one with the skills to diagnose things."

As the planet enters new waters, Burek's work has made her one of the lonely few at the bow, calling out the oddness she sees in the hope that we can dodge some of the melting icebergs in our path.

It's a career that long ago ceased to strike Burek as unusual, and she moves without flinching through a world tinged with blood and irony. The first time we spoke on the phone, Burek offhandedly said of herself and a colleague, "We've probably cut up more sea otters than anybody else on the planet."

"Congratulations," I said.

"We all got to brag about something," she replied. (...)

Surprisingly little is known about the diseases of wildlife. As a result, many veterinary pathologists end up focusing on a few species. Thanks to Burek's curiosity and her gifts, and to a necessary embrace of the Alaska virtue of do-it-yourself, her expertise is broad. "Anyone who gets into this kind of thing, you like a puzzle," she told me. "You have to pull together all kinds of little pieces of information to try to figure it out, and it's very, very challenging."

Over the years, Burek has peered inside just about every mammal that shows up in Alaska field guides. One morning, as we drank coffee at her kitchen table, she rattled off a few dozen examples. Coyotes. Polar bears. Dall sheep. Five species of seals. Many whales, including rare Stejneger's beaked whales.

As we talked, I wandered into the living room. On a wall not far from the wedding photos hung feathery baleen from the mouths of bowhead whales and the white scimitars of walrus tusks. Upstairs in a loft lay an oosik — the baculum, or penis bone, of another walrus. It was as long as a basketball player's tibia. Atop the fireplace mantel, where other families might display pictures of wattled grandparents, grinned a row of skulls: brown bear, lynx, wood bison. Burek tapped one of the skulls in a spot that looked honeycombed. "Abscessed tooth," she said. "Wolf. One of my cases."

Working on wild animals, often in situ, routinely presents her with job hazards that simply aren't found in the Lower 48.

Anchorage sits at the confluence of two long inlets. When Burek performs necropsies on whales on Turnagain Arm, she has to keep a sentry's eye on the horizon for its infamous bore tide, when tidal flow comes in as a standing wave, fast enough that it has outrun a galloping moose. Knik Arm is underlain in places by a fine glacial silt that, when wet, liquefies into a lethal quicksand. Burek's rule of thumb in the field is never to sink below her ankles. Not long ago, while taking samples from a deceased beluga, she kept slipping deeper. Exasperated, she finally climbed inside the whale and resumed cutting.

Then there's the problem of the whales themselves. "Whales are just like Crock-Pots," Burek said. "They're kind of encased in this thick layer of blubber that's designed to keep them warm. They might look OK on the outside, but inside everything is mush."

Decay is the nemesis of the pathologist. Decay erodes evidence. "Fresher is always better," Burek said, sounding like a discerning sushi chef. It isn't possible every time.

Colleagues told me about a trip with Burek to a remote beach outside Yakutat, to do a postmortem on a humpback. There were several in the group, including a government man with a shotgun to keep away the brown bears that sometimes try to dine on Burek's specimens. It was raining and cold, and the whale had been dead for a while. Inside, the organs were soup. The pilot who retrieved them had to wear a respirator.

"My wife," Henry told me, "has a high threshold for discomfort."

by Christopher Solomon, Alaska Dispatch | Read more:
Image: Joshua Corbett

[ed. One of my first jobs as a wildlife technician with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game involved retrieving, skinning, dismembering and incinerating a 700lb muskox that had died giving birth and been laying in the sun for a few days. It took me a week. Every day - all day - I was covered in blood, fat, hair and flies (talk about a motivation killer for the daily commute). Working alone in the autopsy lab (a large open air garage), it felt like I'd been transported into a horror movie (and won't even try to describe the smell). Kudos to folks like Kathy who get so little recognition, but do the hard work that everyone needs to get done.] 

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Fritz Ruoff - Schwarz über Blau, 1967
via:

Sean Costello

The Great Forgetting

I'm the youngest by far of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, so chagrined by this chronological indiscretion that she tried to hide the pregnancy from her sister. My mortified oldest brother didn’t want to tell his high-school friends that a new baby was on the way, but it was a small town. Word spread.

My mother’s age and my late arrival in the family felt burdensome to me too, especially when I started school in 1957 and met my classmates’ mothers. They were still having babies! Still piling their children into cars and heading off to picnics at the river or hikes into the lava-capped, wild flower-rampant plateau outside town. They still had to mediate hair-pulling and toy-snatching. But by the time I started first grade, my siblings were gone, the oldest three to college and the youngest to a residential school four hours away, and we went from a very noisy household to a very quiet one.

My family has told me stories about those years before everything changed. How my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘Ubangi’ because my hair grew in tight fat curls close to my head. How my other brother liked to ambush me around corners with a toy crocodile because it never failed to make me shriek in terror. How my oldest sister carried me around like a kangaroo with her joey. But I can offer very few stories of my own from those early years.

My strongest recollection is a constant straining to be with my brothers and sisters. I remember having to go to bed when it was still light out, kicking at the sheets as I listened for their voices coming down the hall or through the windows from the back yard. Sometimes I could smell popcorn. The next morning, I’d search the living room rug for their leftovers and roll the unpopped kernels around in my mouth. I do remember that, probably because it was something that played out night after night – our father loved popcorn.

Several years ago, I thought I might have the chance to recover that lost past when we were all tightly clustered together in one house. My brothers had driven to Bucks Lake up in the Sierras of northeastern California where, until I was around three years old, our family had leased a house every summer to escape the Sacramento Valley heat. They found our old cabin unchanged. Even a table built by a local sawmill was still in the living room. They knocked on the door and, weirdly enough, my younger brother knew the current lessee. He invited them in and then invited the rest of us back for a look.

With our father, we set off a few months later, up highways that narrowed into dusty roads through dark pines and past bright stony summits. When we got to the cabin, my siblings scattered to claim their favourite outdoor spots, but I was rooted near the car, struck by how much this place differed from what I thought I remembered.

I recalled that the water was a long walk across a sandy beach from the house; I had an image of my mother standing on that wide beach, her dress whipped by the wind, her hand cupped near her mouth. But the pebbled shoreline was just a few feet away. I recalled the spine of a dam jutting from the water not far from the house, a perilous and sudden cliff at the edge of the lake that my siblings had once ventured too close to. But even though the lake is a man-made one, the dam wasn’t visible from the house. I followed my father inside, where the tininess of the kitchen fascinated him. He kept opening cabinet doors and laughing as they banged each other in the narrow aisle. ‘Mother just hated this kitchen!’ he said. ‘She always made big breakfasts – eggs and sausage and pancakes – and as soon as she finished cleaning up, you kids would come running back in the house wanting lunch.’

I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember the table. I didn’t remember anything about the place. My siblings tugged me through the house, pointing out where everyone had slept – they said I had been in a little alcove in the hallway, though I recalled staying in my parents’ room and watching them sleep in the early morning light. They pointed out other features tied to the life that we all lived in the cabin, eager for me to remember, but there was nothing. I even dropped to my knees and circled the living room at toddler level, peering at dusty windowsills and sniffing at the knotholes in the pine walls and running my fingers over the floorboards. Nothing.

I now know that it would have been unusual for me to remember anything from that time. Hardly any adult does. There is even a term for this – childhood amnesia, coined by Sigmund Freud in 1910 – to describe the lack of recall adults have of their first three or four years and our paucity of solid memories until around the age of seven. There has been some back and forth over a century of research about whether memories of these early years are tucked away in some part of our brains and need only a cue to be recovered. That’s what I was hoping when I revisited our old cabin with my siblings. I intended to jostle out a recalcitrant memory with the sights, sounds, smells and touch of the place. But research suggests that the memories we form in these early years simply disappear.

Freud argued that we repress our earliest memories because of sexual trauma but, until the 1980s, most researchers assumed that we retained no memories of early childhood because we created no memories – that events took place and passed without leaving a lasting imprint on our baby brains. Then in 1987, a study by the Emory University psychologist Robyn Fivush and her colleagues dispelled that misconception for good, showing that children who were just 2.5 years old could describe events from as far as six months into their past.

But what happens to those memories? Most of us assume that we can’t recall them as adults because they’re just too far back in our past to tug into the present, but this is not the case. We lose them when we’re still children. (...)

‘So much has to happen biologically to store a memory,’ the psychologist Patricia Bauer of Emory University told me. There’s ‘a race to get it stabilised and consolidated before you forget it. It’s like making Jell-O: you mix the stuff up, you put it in a mould, and you put it in the refrigerator to set, but your mould has a tiny hole in it. You just hope your Jell-O – your memory – gets set before it leaks out through that tiny hole.’

In addition, young children have a tenuous grip on chronology. They are years from mastering clocks and calendars, and thus have a hard time nailing an event to a specific time and place. They also don’t have the vocabulary to describe an event, and without that vocabulary, they can’t create the kind of causal narrative that Peterson found at the root of a solid memory. And they don’t have a greatly elaborated sense of self, which would encourage them to hoard and reconsider chunks of experience as part of a growing life-narrative.

Our first three to four years are the maddeningly, mysteriously blank opening pages to our story of self. As Freud said, childhood amnesia ‘veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it’. During that time, we transition from what my brother-in-law calls ‘a loaf of bread with a nervous system’ to sentient humans. If we can’t remember much of anything from those years – whether abuse or exuberant cherishing – does it matter what actually happened? If a tree fell in the forest of our early development and we didn’t have the brains and cognitive tools to stash the event in memory, did it still help shape who we are?

Bauer says yes. Even if we don’t remember early events, they leave an imprint on the way we understand and feel about ourselves, other people, and the greater world, for better or worse. We have elaborate concepts about birds, dogs, lakes and mountains, for example, even if we can’t recall the experiences that created those concepts. ‘You can’t remember going ice-skating with Uncle Henry, but you understand that skating and visiting relatives are fun,’ Bauer explained. ‘You have a feeling for how nice people are, how reliable they are. You might never be able to pinpoint how you learnt that, but it’s just something you know.’

And we are not the sum of our memories, or at least, not entirely. We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves.

by Kristen Ohlson, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Kristin Ohlson

The End of Smartphone Innovation

This autumn Apple will release a new iPhone design, and the fact that it postponed a new design and kept the 6 design for three years instead of two suggests it has something that will attract attention. However, it will really still 'just' be another iPhone. Meanwhile, we have some indications that Apple is working on AR glasses (of which more later) and certainly was working on a car project - but neither of these is likely to see a mass-market consumer release for a year or two at the least (cars perhaps longer). So, expect a lot more 'innovation dead at Apple!' stories.

This is paralleled at Android, I think: the new developer release of version 'O' has lots of good work and solid worthy stuff, but nothing world changing. Again, the cry will go up, "innovation is dead!"

Really, though, this reflects where we are in the product cycle. New technology of any kind tends to follow an S Curve - at first improvement and innovation seems slow as the fundamental concepts are worked out, then there's a period of very rapid change, innovation and feature expansion, and then, as the market matures and the 'white space' is filled in, perceptible improvement tends to slow down. You could see this in cars, or aircraft - far more obvious change in the middle decades of the 20th century than in the first decade of the 21st - and you can see it in PCs or increasingly smartphones now. The PC curve has been completely flat for years and smartphones are now starting to flatten out as well. There will still be substantial improvement in cameras, and in GPUs (driven by VR), but the war is over.

This means that the questions change. We don't ask 'will this work?' or 'who will win?' - Apple and Google won (Google only outside China, of course), and their victory is now complete, just as Microsoft's was in 1995. Rather, we ask what can we do now that there are 2.5bn people with a smartphone, growing to 5bn in a few years.

There's a paradox here, perhaps: slowing innovation in the iPhone and in Android doesn't mean weakness ("Apple doomed!" "Android falling behind!") but strength: it reflects the fact that we are in a phase in which they're unassailable. The fact that almost all of the white space has been filled in - the big problems solved - also means that we have left the part of the S Curve in which a new idea or execution could overturn the incumbent. They're too feature-rich and, of course, have too much scale in units and ecosystem.

Of course, that is only true until the next S curve comes along and resets the score, just as the iPhone did to both Microsoft and Nokia. The trend this year is to say that this new S-Curve will be voice (I'm skeptical) or just AI in general (yes, but I'm not sure it changes the dynamics in phones). AI certainly is the new S-Curve in the tech industry, but for actual devices you carry around with you, I increasingly think that augmented reality is the next fundamental platform shift. AR, in the sense not of waving your phone at something but of glasses that can place objects into the world around you, can probably be the new universal interface, replacing multitouch just as multitouch is replacing the windows/mouse/keyboard model.

by Benedict Evans |  Read more:
Image: Andreesen Horowitz

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Disease Killing White Americans Goes Way Deeper Than Opioids

In rich countries, death rates are supposed to decline. But in the past decade and a half, middle-aged white Americans have actually been dying faster. Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton first pointed out this disturbing trend in a 2015 study that highlighted three “diseases of despair”: drugs, drinking and suicide.

On Thursday, the pair released a deeper analysis that clears up one of the biggest misconceptions about their earlier research.

The problem of dying whites can’t only be blamed on rising rates of drug overdoses, suicides and chronic alcoholism, they say. More and more, middle-aged white Americans are dying for all kinds of reasons — and the underlying issue may have less to do with opioids and more to do with how society has left behind the working class.

“Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline,” they write.

This is slightly different than what they said in their first paper, where they emphasized that the trend of rising white mortality was “largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” That's technically correct — but by focusing only on the increase in death rates, Case and Deaton distracted from the larger picture.

The alarming fact isn't just that middle-aged whites are dying faster, but also that mortality rates have been dramatically declining in nearly every other rich country. The United States is getting left behind.

In the last 15 years, a chasm opened up between middle aged whites in America and citizens of European countries like France, Germany and the United Kingdom. While white death rates in America rose slightly, death rates in those other countries continued to plummet. In comparison to what happened in Europe, the situation for American whites starts looks much more dire — and it's a bigger problem than opioids or suicides can explain. It's not just about what went wrong in America, but what stopped going right.

by Jeff Guo, Washington Post |  Read more:
Image: Jim Cole/AP

[ed. Finally, a more nuanced perspective on factors fueling opioid abuse in America. People are dealing with a sense of loss and purpose in their lives, and a diminished likelihood of meaningful employment in the future, so why wouldn't they embrace something that makes each day easier to take and dulls the pain? It's a completely rational coping strategy, and the same reason people turn to marijuana to make boring, repetitive tasks more acceptable. As far as I know, there's been very little research into the efficacy of  using opioids to treat depression, but I suspect many are using them for that purpose. Our current reactionary policy of rescheduling pain-killers and restricting prescriptions (and pharmaceutical controls) has had little effect other than forcing people to find alternatives in the street, thus making the situation worse than it needs to be (and more dangerous), and therefore exacerbating the problem. Give people the opportunity to live meaningful lives and the problem will correct itself. But that won't happen if income equality stays the same, which is a much larger problem to deal with (and which no one seems in a hurry to fix). Better to let the disenfranchised kill themselves than redistribute the wealth and opportunities that might make society's discarded workforce replace drugs for hope.]

Politics 101

The No True Scotsman Fallacy

No true Scotsman is a kind of informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. Rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule ("no true Scotsman would do such a thing"; i.e., those who perform that action are not part of our group and thus criticism of that action is not criticism of the group).

Examples

Philosophy professor Bradley Dowden explains the fallacy as an "ad hoc rescue" of a refuted generalization attempt. The following is a simplified rendition of the fallacy:
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
Person B: "But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge."
Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
The essayist Spengler compared distinguishing between "mature" democracies, which never start wars, and "emerging democracies", which may start them, with the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. Spengler alleges that "political scientists" have attempted to save the "US academic dogma" that democracies never start wars from counterexamples by maintaining that no true democracy starts a war.

Origin

The introduction of the term is attributed to British philosopher Antony Flew, because the term originally appeared in Flew's 1971 book An Introduction to Western Philosophy. In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking, he wrote:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: "No true Scotsman would do such a thing."

Tomer Hanuka, "Spring Awakening"

The True Meaning of Nostalgia

I recently had a brief chat with a hundred-year-old Jew. His name is Manuel Bromberg, and he’s a resident of Woodstock, New York. Mr. Bromberg had written me a letter, to tell me that he had read and liked my latest book, and in the letter he mentioned that in a few days he would be hitting the century mark, so I thought I’d call him up and wish him a happy hundredth.

An accomplished artist and professor for most of his very long life, Mr. Bromberg painted murals for the W.P.A. and served as an official war artist for the U.S. Army during the Second World War, accompanying the Allied invasion of Europe with paints, pencils, and sketch pad, his path smoothed and ways opened to him by the presence in his pocket of a pass signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, just like the Eisenhower pass carried by “my grandfather,” the nameless protagonist of my novel. After the war, this working-class boy from Cleveland rode the G.I. Bill to a distinguished career as a serious painter, sculptor, and university professor.

Mr. Bromberg sounded strong and thoughtful and sharp as a tack on the other end of the line, his voice in my ear a vibrant connection not just to the man himself but to the times he had lived through, to the world he was born into, a world in which the greater part of Jewry lived under the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Hapsburg Emperor, in whose army Adolf Hitler was a corporal. As we chatted, I realized that I was talking to a man almost exactly the same age as my grandfather, were he still alive—I mean my real grandfather, Ernest Cohen, some of whose traits, behaviors, and experiences, along with those of his brothers, brothers-in-law, and other men of their generation in my family, of Mr. Bromberg’s generation, helped me to shape the life and adventures of the hero of that book, as my memories of my grandmothers and their sisters and sisters-in-law helped shape my understanding of that book’s “my grandmother.”

Then Mr. Bromberg mentioned that he had now moved on to another novel of mine, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and he wanted to tell me about another connection between his life and the world of my books: when he was in junior high, in Cleveland, Ohio, his chief rival for the title of School’s Most Talented Artist was a four-eyed, acne-faced wunderkind named Joe Shuster. One day in the mid-nineteen-thirties, in the school locker room, Mr. Bromberg told me, Joe Shuster came to him looking for his opinion on some new drawings: pencil sketches of a stylized cartoon strongman cavorting in a pair of circus tights, with a big letter-S insignia on his chest. To the young Mr. Bromberg, they seemed to be nothing more than competent figure drawings, but Shuster seemed to be very excited about this “Superman” character that he and a friend had come up with. “I have to be honest with you, Michael,” Mr. Bromberg told me, in a confidential tone. “I was not impressed.”

After we talked, I found myself reflecting on the way that, with his Eisenhower pass and his connection to the golden age of comic books, with his creative aspirations rooted equally in hard work and the highbrow, in blue collar and the avant-garde, Mr. Bromberg had been able to find so much of himself in my writing, as so many Mr. Brombergs, in various guises, can be found in the pages of my books. I think there are a few reasons that the lives of that generation of American Jews have formed my fiction. The first is that I have always been—to a fault, it has at times seemed—a good boy. At family gatherings, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, from the time I was small, among all my siblings and cousins, I always felt a sense of dutifulness about hanging out with the old people, enduring their interrogations, remedying their ignorance of baffling modern phenomena, such as Wacky Packages or David Bowie, and, above all, listening to their reminiscences. As the extent of my sense of obligation about serving this function became apparent, I was routinely left behind with the Aunt Ruths and the Uncle Jacks and the Cousin Tobys, not just by my peers and coevals but by our parents, too. Even to this day, at the weddings and bar mitzvahs of other families, you will often find me sitting alone at a table with an Uncle Jack completely unrelated to me, patiently listening to the story of the plastic-folding-rain-bonnet business he started in Rochester in 1948 with a three-hundred-dollar loan from somebody else’s Aunt Ruth, a story that all of his own relatives tired of hearing years ago, if they ever paid attention at all. (...)

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection. (...)

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

by Michael Chabon, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Eleni Kalorkoti

[ed. ps... If you're a fiction lover and haven't read these yet, I'd highly recommend Mr. Chabon's books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Telegraph Avenue.]

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lee Morgan


I Called Him Morgan
[ed. I've been a Lee Morgan fan since, like forever. Nice to see a new documentary about him.]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Heather Fortner
via:

Impeachment: Is It Just a Fantasy?

On 21 July 2007, George W Bush underwent surgery to have five polyps removed after what was described as a routine colonoscopy. The date may have been lost to history, but for the rare invocation at the time of a constitutional amendment laying out how the transfer of power to the vice-president works in cases of presidential disability.

For 125 minutes – as long as it took for Bush to enter and emerge from partial anesthesia, eat breakfast and display possession of his native wit – Dick Cheney held all the powers attached to the office of the presidency. (Some wags have suggested that Cheney wielded that authority, unofficially, over a much longer time span.)

Even before the FBI director announced on Monday that the bureau is investigating possible collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and Moscow during the 2016 presidential election, the precise rules for how the powers of the presidency might be transferred – or simply rescinded – in case of criminality or emergency had become the subject of newfound and intense focus in the United States.

Whispers about impeachment, the most familiar constitutional procedure for removing a president, began to circulate even before Trump had taken the oath of office. But two months into Trump’s presidency, those whispers – and the search for any other possible emergency exit – have grown into an open conversation that has moved well beyond the realm of a Democratic party daydream. “Get ready for impeachment,” an influential, 13-term Democratic congresswoman tweeted after the bombshell FBI announcement.

The Trump-Russia intrigue has produced a flood of speculation as to whether a new Watergate scandal was afoot. That crisis, which began with a break-in at Democratic party offices inside the Watergate hotel in 1972, brought down President Richard Nixon after two years, in the only resignation of an American president yet.

In a remarkable 77-minute press conference/performance artwork in February, Trump denied inappropriate ties to Moscow, which US intelligence agencies have concluded tampered with the presidential election in Trump’s favor. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump said. “I told you, I have no deals there, I have no anything.”

But the significance of the allegations, and of the FBI investigation, is plain.

“On a 10 scale of Armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9,” wrote Dan Rather, the longtime network news anchor, in a Facebook post. “This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. We may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.”

There are other grounds on which Trump might be removed from the presidency. A movement to impeach Trump for allegedly violating constitutional bans on receiving certain gifts – a problem rooted in the president’s failure to divest from his real estate, hotel and branding businesses – gained 875,000 online signatures in one month, said organizer John Bonifaz.

“I think there are many members of Congress who are deeply troubled,” said Bonifaz, a constitutional law expert and MacArthur fellowship recipient. “I think it’s only a matter of time before a resolution gets introduced in the United States Congress that starts this process of an impeachment investigation in the House of Representatives.”

In yet another scenario, as laid out in the 25th amendment to the constitution, which Bush invoked when he handed off power to Cheney, the vice-president, acting in concert with a majority of the cabinet, might declare the president unfit to serve. This is the most delicious scenario, for connoisseurs of political intrigue, though the amendment has never been invoked to remove power from a president against his will.

So what does the history of impeachment of US presidents tell us about where we might go from here?

by Tom McCarthy, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: UPI / Barcroft Images

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Political -Technological Kryptonite

Nearly a year ago, Donald Trump walked onstage at an aluminum factory in Monessen, Pennsylvania, and began a speech coalescing around his favorite topic from the stump—making America great again. Citing his experience in the real-estate business, Trump said he would personally guarantee that he could ensure the rehabilitation of the rural town and its woebegone manufacturing industry. He discarded a number of potential obstacles—secular trends such as globalization, existing trade agreements, and the increasing preponderance of robotics—and outlined his hope for the resurrection of the American steel business. All he would have to do, so it seemed, was prevent large companies from sending jobs overseas and force them to buy American-made goods.

Trump’s campaign was filled with lies and falsehoods, but this one may be the most damaging of all. Not only does it misunderstand the forces at play in the global economy, but it does not even begin to comprehend the massive changes ahead. And it is those changes that are likely to render Trump not merely a fool but also a political eunuch.

A few years ago, as I was walking through the robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observing prototypes for fold-up driverless cars and digitized prosthetics, among other things one only expects to see in Christopher Nolan movies, I was arrested by a sign that sat upon one student’s desk. “Be nice to the robots,” the placard read, “for they will be in charge one day.” The sign was presumably meant as a joke, but that prophetic mantra stuck with me for years. It seemed so eerily accurate. What I didn’t realize, however, was how quickly that day would arrive.

During the past few years, we have been inundated by research reports from universities and media outlets presaging the dawn of the Robot Revolution. The futurists and roboticists whom I’ve spoken with often predict that the first wave of vanishing jobs will be the “repetitive” ones: meat packers, who recurrently slice open a cow’s carcass; or stockroom attendants, who carry boxes from one shelf to another in a warehouse; and supermarket cashiers who slide your bananas and boxes of cereal across a scanner. All of them will see their functions replaced by an algorithm. Amazon is already working on a prototype in which you enter a grocery store, fill your bag with food, and then simply walk out. Sensors and cameras know exactly what you’ve purchased and will automatically charge your Amazon account. Something along these lines will happen with clothing stores, gas stations, even most restaurants.

But these sorts of advances, while undeniably futuristic, only represent a small fraction of what their underlying technologies can accomplish. The number of jobs that will be affected, and rendered irrelevant, by robots, automation and artificial intelligence is going to be astounding and terrifying. And the day of reckoning is not decades away; it’s only a matter of years from now. Forecasts have noted that entire industries will be overtaken by vehicles that are controlled by little robotic brains and thousands of sensors. Truck drivers will likely be out of work; taxi and Uber drivers will see a decline in the need for their services, too. And this transformation isn’t going to happen simply in a vacuum. We will see cars start to drive themselves down the street while their passengers nap or watch a movie. Rather than fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you might get into your car at bedtime and program a destination so that you could wake up in the peninsula. Many U.P.S., FedEx, and U.S. postal service workers will be replaced by drones. (I’ve seen prototypes for huge gas-powered drones that can carry one-ton packages 40,000 feet in the air at speeds two or three times that of an airplane.) Construction workers will one day be replaced by 3-D printers that can literally print a home in a day by squeezing out cement and other materials like icing atop a cake.

One of the big promises of driverless cars has been that the technology will help erase the preponderance of automobile accidents. There are currently some 33,000 people in the United States who died each year in car crashes, and 94 percent of accidents, indeed, are caused by human error. Yet even this hopeful, life-saving efficiency will negatively affect doctors, ambulance drivers, people who work in body shops, glass-repair shops, and other related industries. Then there are auto auctioneers, the telemarketers who answer the phone at call centers when you need to call A.A.A., or get a new lease quote. Loan underwriters, credit managers, actuaries, rental-car agents, people who work in driving schools.

The list goes on and on. Traffic courts will completely vanish. (You can’t speed if you’re not driving.) And think about all the easy money that would be siphoned away from the car industry and government. Americans rack up $6.2 billion in speeding tickets a year. Gone. Billions of dollars in parking tickets. Gone. A truck with no one behind the wheel doesn’t need to stop to get a burger in the middle of the night or use the restroom. All of this makes the people who work at rest stops and motorway hotels useless.

Here’s a scary thought: many of the states with the most truckers also have the most gun owners. So it should be interesting to see if they go quietly into the night when they are out of work. And if you’re a Republican, here’s an even scarier thought: these are many of the states that voted for Donald Trump last November under the misguided hope that his attacks on migrant workers and companies who off-shored jobs could somehow erase the most inconvenient truth of all. Globalization was once the greatest threat to the middle class. Now it’s automation. And the wreckage is only about to begin.

While it might seem unlikely to us dumb humans, driving is actually a rather easy task for a machine to learn. Roads are a specific width and length, motorways generally operate at a certain type of speed, city streets at another, and networked cars can learn together very quickly how to avoid obstacles.

Automation and artificial intelligence are going to be able to do far more complex jobs. Eventually, doctors, most specifically surgeons, could be replaced by nano-robots that are (or will be) so tiny that they could be dropped into your blood supply and perform surgery on you, or fight cancer or a virus, while you watch TV at home. (Presuming we still watch TV in the future, that is.) There will be less of a need for military and soldiers on the battlefield (drones have already facilitated this transition), and infantrymen will be replaced by terrifying-looking robots that can run faster than a cheetah, or swarms of fighter drones, before being rendered useless themselves as the world presumably transitions to cyber or biological warfare, which could lead to a lot more casualties than traditional wars.

And then there’s people like me. If you think a robot or algorithm can learn to be a lawyer or surgeon, or drive a truck across America but can’t learn to draw or paint, write a song or edit a story, you’re failing to grasp just how pervasive this Robot Revolution is going to be. Art directors and copywriters will be replaced by an algorithm that can A/B test 500 versions of an advertisement to see which is best for a specific audience. Eventually, as in Minority Report, each ad will be tailored to each person who views it. Business books, or how-to guides, could be written by machine-learning algorithms. Even thrillers and novels. Films and TV shows will have computer-generated actors and actresses that don’t complain about the size of their trailer. Films will be edited by algorithms. Robots, automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and a slew of other technologies will learn to write pop songs and greatest hits. And while there will be standouts (think La La Land, among last year’s manufactured hits) most consumers won’t know the difference between those made by humans and those made by machines.

People who are building this future predict that America will have to implement a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, in which Americans who lose their jobs to automation are paid a wage by the government. But let’s think about that for a moment. Can you imagine the Republicans getting on board with such an idea? Paul Ryan and his band of cohorts behind Trumpcare can’t even fake enough morality to help the poor get health insurance. Do you really think they are going to pay millions of out-of-work truck drivers to stay at home and do nothing? Good luck with that one.

So what will happen when we all lose our jobs to automation? Some theorize that, in the same way that the Industrial Revolution made way for a new class of creative jobs that didn’t exist before, the Robot Revolution will free up the proletariat from the labors of driving cars or trading stocks, and an entirely new industry will be born from all our free time. Maybe they’re right. But there is major difference between these two consequential revolutions. The Industrial Revolution took place during the course of nearly a century, from the mid 18th century to the mid 19th. The speed with which we will become servile to robots is going to happen with such rapidity we won’t know what’s happened until an estimated 75 percent of Americans are out of a job by the end of the century.

by Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair |  Read more:
Image: via:

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The original Doom (1993) was a first-person shooter noted, even notorious, for its comically intense graphic violence and early, immersive pseudo-three-dimensional world. What it lacked for in plot (and it lacked intensely in plot), it made up for by bringing the speed and fluidity of arcade style gameplay to the nascent FPS genre at home. This past year, while much of the world was transfixed by the increasingly bizarre American presidential election, a niche but still mass market of gamers saw id Software release the long-delayed DOOM (2016), a reboot of the 1990s game. What in May looked like a bizarre retread, an uninvited “blast from the past,” looks considerably different in cold winter light. Everything old is new again, and DOOM knows how you feel.

It is often assumed that a fundamental question in games is one of “agency” — particularly the player’s ability to make meaningful “choices” within a game world. However, DOOM is built with a different, and, I would hazard, more accurate assumption in mind: games work primarily on an affective plane. The question they ask is not “what will you do?” but rather “how do you feel?” And DOOM doesn’t think you’re feeling particularly good at the moment.

At first glance, DOOM is unremarkable. The mining of recent cultural memory and nostalgia for cheap commercial cash-ins has reached near parodic proportions, with no “intellectual property” deemed too insignificant to be recreated ad nauseum. But one does not need to spend long with DOOM to know that the game is in on the scam. In DOOM, you play as a nameless, faceless “space marine” so bereft of characterization or quality that across the many iterations of Doom, internet commentators have come to call the protagonist, simply, “doomguy.” Doomguy was a useful skeleton to hang the 1993 game on — a game far more focused on introducing then-new game mechanics and game coding practices. Now DOOM plays doomguy’s emptiness back at the game-playing public.

Doomguy sells. DOOM (2016) sold approximately one million copies by the end of summer 2016, and likely many more since then. This is probably around $50–$60 million in sales at least (not counting fall of 2016). For a game with its unusual design — and one that is not part of a dominant franchise (Call of Duty, Pokémon, FIFA, et cetera) — it did quite well. The global market for video games is estimated at somewhere between $91 billion and an optimistic $99.6 billion mark. Some projections put a 2017 market peg at approximately $106 billion. In just the first three days after its debut in 2015, Call of Duty: Black Ops III was responsible for 550 million of those dollars, with Call of Duty being probably the largest first-person shooter franchise, and also the most generic. So DOOM is neither a tiny, independent game nor a powerhouse juggernaut. It’s a revival of a dormant one, which came on strong to mostly positive critical reception. DOOM sits in an interesting interstitial space economically and culturally: mass market but niche, known but not ubiquitous. (...)

Following these opening moments, we quickly learn the setting of DOOM through a series of voice-over conversations, holographic corporate PR messages, and, for the truly curious, endless reams of hilarious flavor text exposition. The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself.

The UAC is played as one long, ghoulish gag reel of neoliberalism’s greatest hits. The entire game — with a nudge and a wink — reminds you that the contemporary ruling class would rather tap a rich vein in Hell than release the reins one inch to non-doomguys and gals everywhere. It also presents the player with constant reminders of the self-help-inflected, corporate newspeak of our era. (...)

DOOM’s rage is telegraphed from the very first moment of the game, but it is only when you are somewhere in the middle of one of its fully fleshed out scenarios, dancing from one platform to another, whirling through your array of weapons, prying the jaws of some Hell beast apart while cursing the utter inane idiocy of DOOM’s world — which is to say our world — that DOOM begins its rage education in earnest. Games are machines for producing affect, but they are also pedagogical ones: DOOM is instructing us. Pankaj Mishra recently argued that ours is an age of anger. Doomguy occupies the subject position of the 21st-century rage agent par excellence: put-upon, yet powerful; crumpling like a fragile heap from just a few demonic projectiles but with a rage potential unmatched; disenfranchised but with so many tools of power at hand. Mishra wisely encourages his readers to turn to the social theorists of the 19th century who took irrationality seriously; to the Darwins, the Freuds, the Webers, and Nietzsches who saw in modern humanity sexual impulses, old Gods, churning natures, and ressentiment instead of simple, orderly, maximizing rationality. But DOOM already knows that. DOOM takes us as we are.

by Ajay Singh Chaudhary, LARB | Read more:
Image: Doom

The Hawaii Cure

Do not eat until you are full; eat until you are tired,” calls Chief Sielu Avea, a Polynesian entertainer who, according to his bio, is “internationally known as the Coconut Man.” Making our way to the plastic table, paper plates wilting in our hands, we are tired already.

Here at the Chief’s Luau, “Aloha” means last to the buffet. The feeders in the “Royal” service tier ($159 per ticket) got first crack at the chafing dishes. And then team “Paradise” ($119) went at the sheet cake and roast pig. And if we stragglers in the Aloha group are not enraptured with our feast of sweetly lacquered chicken chunks and puffy dinner rolls, the fault is ours for booking steerage at $87 a head.

But you do not come to the Chief’s Luau for the food. You come because you have traveled thousands of miles only to fetch up in Waikiki Beach, a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage-dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport. Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles west on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars. The luau leaves no doubt: You are in Hawaii now.

Beyond the buffet, there are traditional activities. Under the instruction of shirtless men in sarongs, you can fling a plastic spear at grass. There is the weaving station, where the spectacle includes a pregnant woman shoving her young daughter for trying to horn in on her work at a frond headband. And there is a fire-starting clinic where we rub sticks on logs in the hope of making flame. This proves no more possible than it was in the forests of our childhoods, but we go on rubbing in the faith that we are in a magical land where the laws of physics bend toward human satisfaction.

And for many of us, it is a magical evening. The magic has to do with the moon, the thud and rustle of the surf. The magic is working on Jed, my 1½-year-old son. He is off to the side of the action, trying to seduce a girl of 7 or so. She is engrossed with her tablet. A cultist of the night sky, Jed touches her wrist, points overhead and says, “Stars.” The girl’s eyes do not flicker from her screen.

My wife is similarly resistant to the enchantment. “This luau is making me feel bad about myself, and it is making me feel bad about humanity,” she says. We are now watching an entertainment where Hawaiian women in grass skirts dance the hula, and Hawaiian men with painted faces do a grunting spear-dance and stick their tongues out tikistyle. To my wife, this smacks uncomfortably of minstrelsy, which, yes, it does. But at least it is a two-way minstrelsy. The dancers pretend to be tiki warriors, and when the chief, in parting, bids us officially welcome to “the land of happy people,” we pretend to believe that such a place exists.

Can it be true? The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?

Not until 2017 has Hawaii held for me even a vague temptation. The 50th state has always seemed to me a meretricious luxury product whose visitors bring happiness with them in the form of money. I am not constitutionally geared for paradise. I am not one for cocktails containing patio equipment, for lazing on talcum-soft sand, eyes gone to pinwheels, grinning madly at the sun. (...)

We are staying in a room at the Waikiki Beach Hilton, which, with its ocean views and high-pressure shower head, is dangerously close to nice. But in the corridor I am pleased to meet a fat and saucy cockroach, thoughtfully dispatched, perhaps, by a concierge who has gotten wind of my preferences. In live-and-let-live aloha spirit, I do not molest the animal. My wife, however, in consideration of the sleeping guests the roach might visit, bruises the creature with a sack of dirty diapers before it jogs off down the hall.

In the lobby, we lay down $12 for two coffees and one banana and browse the morning paper, which proves a clemency from anticipated horrors. The front page of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser bears not a single presidential headline. “Legislature Considers Funding to Combat Rat Lungworm Disease” is the story of the day.

Dawn finds us waterfront on Oahu’s North Shore, downrange of the Banzai Pipeline. The sand has a forthright cornmeal consistency. The water is the blue of telegraph insulators. The waves transmit a disaster-movie feeling with every crash, even after you have watched a thousand of them land. The young and barely clad are out in force, demonstrating physiques that can come only from long and rigorous hours of ignoring national politics. Just up the shore, two young women are seriously engaged in the business of aiming a big professional camera at the tanned, professional butt of a third young woman who, I’m guessing, is a big deal in a modeling niche I didn’t know existed. One thing is sure: No way will I be bathing here.

My son gives not a damn. He uncloaks fully his cloudlike body and hits the sand like an oyster in a breading dredge. The day is perfect room temp with a breeze. In the distant shallows, surfers shoot the tube or gleam the curl or whatever that amazing thing is called. My wife and I breakfast on fresh coconut — neither sweet nor flavorful but fun to gnaw, for the feeling that you’ve acquired termite superpowers. Jed squats and tumbles and packs his nethers with 20-grit. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” is his ecstatic report on the sensation. I am right there with him. It would be overselling things to claim that I’ve achieved rapturous mind erasure my
first morning in Hawaii, but this is, well, rather nice.

For lunch we motor clockwise down the coast to the Kahuku Superette. The Superette is a homely liquor shop/convenience store that from the outside is easily pictured in a newscast with police lights flashing on it. Inside, they dish out poké of world renown. Poké is sashimi salad doused in soy and sesame and other things. We get a tub of traditional shoyu poké and a tub of limu poké with crunchy bits of seaweed. The place to gobble the Superette’s poké is in your hot rental car in the muddy parking lot. Gemlike blocks of tuna nearing a full cubic inch are bright and salty as the sea.

by Wells Tower, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Dina Litovsky/Redux

[ed. So close and yet so far. Here's an excerpt from an email I sent to my son during my last trip over when the power went down for nearly three days. Small town, small island, completely different scenario, but still... There are so many facets to Hawaii that reflect and refract whatever you bring to it:

"It's been crazy. Last Friday the winds started howling, then really began ripping on Sat. all over the islands, peaking Sat. night. We lost 17 power poles at the power plant and the island's been without power for the last few days. Just came back on early this morning. Really interesting to be in a (mini) disaster again... normal barriers break down between people and everyone pulls together and you see the best come out in folks. Everything closed - restaurants, grocery stores, gas station. Nothing hot or cold to eat (I had some canned sardines). No hot water for showers. No electrical outlets to charge phones. No ice. Food spoiled in refrigerators and freezers. People forced to grill whatever they could before it all went bad (and most of it did). Yesterday the stores opened briefly with generators to let people buy whatever non-perishables they could find, but cash only (and the ATMs didn't work either, so I'm down to $6 today). There were lines of 50 people or more at both stores, and they were just letting in a handful at a time, I guess to keep a mob from forming. No cash registers, just hand calculators. Really interesting. Then the gas station opened with generators and the line ran 20+ cars around the back of the station and down the street. $50 limit, cash only there too. Everything cash only, and no place to get cash! But like I say, the best comes out in people...when I was at the bank some lady (a stranger) asked me if I was visiting and when I said yes, she said she would loan me money. A stranger! I declined, then [T.] across the street made the same offer. Declined that too, but today I would have had to take the offer. I shared a loaf of bread and some canned sardines and chili with him. I was also down to fumes in the jeep so couldn't go anywhere, either.

Fun, eh? Then, the sun goes down at 7pm each night and you get to lay in the dark and talk to the geckos until hopefully falling asleep (and waking up at 4am and laying in the dark till sunup at 7am). Nobody knew how long it would take, just hopeful rumors that kept getting dashed. If this went on another couple days I think people would really be desperate. I went to the hospital (I heard their generators) and the people there were nice enough to let me re-charge my phone so I could make sure I had a seat out on a flight, just in case it really got bad.

But, another interesting thing: everybody was OUT. Walking the streets, talking with each other, kids playing and biking and doing kid things. I met a few new people just that way. There was nothing else to do but socialize (and grill). Really nice to see and experience that again. This really is the friendliest Isle."]