Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Night Mix




Mudflap Girl

by Keith Barry

If you’ve driven anywhere in the past 30-odd years, chances are you’ve seen the chromed silhouette of a reclining woman affixed to the mudflaps of a big rig. She’s known far and wide as Mudflap Girl, but Ed Allen has another name for her: Mom.

Allen, a fashion designer in Washington, D.C., claims the image was designed by his father Stewart, a long-haul trucker who always decorated his rig with an image of his wife, Rachel Ann. Now, Ed Allen is paying homage to Mudflap Girl, er, mom, with a line of shirts bearing her voluptuous profile, for which he now owns the trademark.

“She’s one of the few really hot women that your wife will still let you wear, because we all remember her,” Allen said.

Before we could page Dr. Freud, Allen let us know the original image was quite innocent, a simple vacation photo of mom in a bathing suit. It was nothing the whole family hadn’t seen countless times before.

Dad kept the photo in the cab of his truck, which always bore his wife’s name on the hood. When a new corporate owner forbade Stewart from decorating a company-owned vehicle, Stewart put his wife’s silhouette on his trailer’s mudflaps so his boss couldn’t see her when the truck was backed up to a loading dock.

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The Best Art Films of 2010

by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

This is the last of my lists of the best films of 2010, and the hardest to name. Call it the Best Art Films. I can't precisely define an Art Film, but I knew I was seeing one when I saw these. I could also call them Adult Films, if that term hadn't been devalued by the porn industry. 
These are films based on the close observation of behavior. They are not mechanical constructions of infinitesimal thrills. They depend on intelligence and empathy to be appreciated. 
They also require acting of a precision not necessary in many mass entertainments. They require directors with a clear idea of complex purposes. They require subtleties of lighting and sound that create a self-contained world. Most of all, they require sympathy. The directors care for their characters, and ask us to see them as individuals, not genre emblems. That requires us to see ourselves as individual viewers, not "audience members." That can be an intimate experience. I found it in these titles, which for one reason or another weren't on my earlier lists. Maybe next year I'll just come up with one alphabetical list of all the year's best films, and call it "The Best Films of 2011, A to Z."

The Sacred Child

Goa, India, 2009. A shimmering white beach. Clear blue water, a cloudless sky. The rush of waves and a constant din from jet skis. Behind us: rust-coloured sand, skinny cows browsing among trash and dry bushes.

I'm lounging on the sun bed with a mystery novel and keeping half an eye on my three-year-old daughter, who is sitting in pink swimming pants and playing with a bucket and spade. She is blonde, blue-eyed and unbelievably cute. People here stare at her, ensorcelled, love-struck, touching her hair, pointing at her. The other day the restaurant waiter - stoned? - approached and bit her tenderly on her yummy upper arm. And above all, they want to take her picture. In this country headed headlong into the future - the little dirt track back to the hotel that we walked when we arrived a week ago has already been tarred over with asphalt - every Indian seems to have a camera phone. Often they ask me, or more rarely my wife, civilly if they may take a picture. Having been brought up on Swedish school pedagogics, I relay the question to my daughter: "Is it OK for you if they take your picture?" I guess I think it's her decision.

A well-dressed slender Indian man in white pants and shirt wanders past on the beach. He smiles and coos at the playing Swedish child and takes out his cell phone. My sister-in-law is already there, asks my daughter, who says no. The man pays no attention, takes the pictures anyway.

My daughter is clearly stressed and uneasy with the situation, the strange man who stands before her with his phone portraying her, laughing lightly. My sister in law tells him off sharply, "Please! No!". He pays no mind, takes some more pictures.

I run down to the water and confront the man. "You respect my daughter!" I yell repeatedly. He apologises, looks nervous, says something in Hindi that I don't understand and points at his phone, as if showing that hey, he just took some pictures, what's the harm? He hurries away.

One of the beach guards soon catches up with him and takes the phone, clearly in order to flip through the photo folder. The man, by now visibly sweating and piteous, explains and gesticulates to the grim guard. Apparently there is nothing on the phone to suggest that the man is a sex tourist or pedophile, as he soon gets his phone back and slips off.

I sit back heavily on the sun bed. Conflicting emotions. I feel indignant and aggrieved - dammit, I should have thrown that phone into the sea, would have served that perv right. Uncertain - OK, he shouldn't have done that, but what if he's really just an everyday Indian guy who loves to see European kids on the beach and wanted a lovely holiday souvenir? Is that really such a big deal?

No more strangers take any pictures of my daughter on the trip. I quit offering her to decide. I just say no, categorically. Her image becomes untouchable. Her likeness becomes sacred.

I should perhaps begin with the disclaimer we all seem forced to start with when we talk about this issue. To wit: I hate everything about child molestation. I hate pedophiles, child porn, all the dirt and darkness and nauseating shit those awful people do. I have two little daughters and I'm prepared to kill or die to protect them against that kind of evil.

This is not actually an essay on child pornography, at least not if we take that to mean images of children being sexually abused, images that could not exist unless children had been violated, defiled, victimised. But in 2011, in Sweden, that is not the definition of child pornography. Instead there is a boundary zone between images that are OK (legitimate though potentially provocative) and such that are a crime to produce, disseminate and possess. That gray zone raises a number of difficult questions about children, art, society and sexuality. Those questions have rarely been more topical than today, and they touch upon the most personal, forbidden and sacred of issues.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Progress

Fridays


Pocket Fresnel Lens


[ed.  What a great idea.  And so simple.  I always forget my glasses, but not my wallet.]

I'm a maintenance electrician and sometimes need to read tiny serial numbers in dark dirty places, or the color code of a resistor or some other value or rating that is difficult to accurately read with the naked eye, and for the past six months I have found that this wallet lens to be the perfect solution. Outside of magnifying small text, I have even used this to start a fire.

The pocket Fresnel makes a brilliant addition to my kit of tools at my job but also is a useful survival tool when I'm outdoors. It fits in my wallet which I'm never without. Even when my kids play with my keys and I can't find them afterwards (or use the tools on my keyring) I know I've still got one tool tucked away. Best part of this lightweight super practical EDC? It's super cheap! I got mine in a 6-pack from Lee Valley, but you can get similar ones elsewhere online.

Pocket Fresnel Lens
$2

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Fuel

Friday Book Club - Infinite Jest

[ed. In honor of David Foster Wallace's postumously released novel The Pale King, this week's selection is Infinite Jest, his masterpiece (at 1079 pages, it may take more than a weekend of reading).]

by  Benjamin Kunkel

Back in 2002 I had a running debate with a friend of mine on the subject of “dignity.” She claimed that this was something I was excessively concerned about. She didn’t think it was possible for people like us to be really dignified in the old (and possibly imaginary) way of prior generations and characters in classic novels. We were endlessly self-reflexive individuals who had been marked by dabbling in drugs and semiotics; the media world we inhabited made life feel squalid, disposable, and fearful; we could hear, when we opened our mouths, the culture industry’s language and not always our own. We were trapped inside ourselves—and in there wasn’t even a “self.” More like an empty lot crisscrossed by gusts of addictive compulsion, and littered with cultural debris. The situation made you feel ashamed. It bankrupted concepts like “dignity.”

I disagreed somehow. If critique and art—critique and art combined—were possible, I felt there was some way out. Right now I’m not in the mood to consider whether I still believe this.

The point is simply that our running debate was conducted by continuous reference to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. We took it for granted that the book possessed an incontrovertible anthropological authority about the country and time we lived in and, more than that, the people we were. This was in spite of Wallace’s funny and grotesque decision to open up the future calendar to corporate sponsorship (The Year of Glad, and so on), and to set the action of his novel in the Organization of North American Nations. The exaggerations in Infinite Jest felt particularly true. And the novel’s authority was like its status as a masterpiece: it went without saying. If dignity were possible or impossible, if we were trapped or free, or redeemable or not, this could best be proved by citing Wallace.

Maybe the strongest part of my own, more optimistic case was simply the example of Wallace himself. One part of life in the early and mid-‘90s was the sense of true and pathetic historical belatedness. Our parents’ generation looked like it would turn out to have made all the money as well as most of the good music. Even the novel of exhaustion was exhausted. In politics, Clinton’s Third Way was the only way. I doubted we would have our own Thomas Pynchon—our own indisputable titanic genius—any more than 1968 would come again. This was all confused. But there it was.

The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 seemed to show up despair as a mistake. You didn’t have to have read the book yet—and I didn’t start until 1998—to get a sense of historical, generational redemption. The few critics I trusted, plus the smartest people I knew in college, agreed that Wallace had done something amazing. When I finally read the book, it confirmed what before was mostly a set of willful, abstract premises: literature can matter as much now as ever; the age is no bar to greatness; even this world before our eyes can be represented in a novel. My friend and I ended up arguing about dignity by way of Infinite Jest because it supplied the fullest and clearest, as well as the most intelligent and beautiful, picture of the life around us.

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Burning Hot

Increased metabolic rate may lead to accelerated aging

A recent study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) found that higher metabolic rates predict early natural mortality, indicating that higher energy turnover may accelerate aging in humans.

Higher energy turnover is associated with shorter lifespan in animals, but evidence for this association in humans is limited. To investigate whether higher metabolic rate is associated with aging in humans, this study examined whether energy expenditure, measured in a metabolic chamber over 24 hours and during rest predicts natural mortality.

“We found that higher endogenous metabolic rate, that is how much energy the body uses for normal body functions, is a risk factor for earlier mortality,” said Reiner Jumpertz, MD, of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Phoenix, Ariz., and lead author of the study. “This increased metabolic rate may lead to earlier organ damage (in effect accelerated aging) possibly by accumulation of toxic substances produced with the increase in energy turnover.”

“It is important to note that these data do not apply to exercise-related energy expenditure,” added Jumpertz.  “This activity clearly has beneficial effects on human health.”

In this study, researchers evaluated 652 non-diabetic healthy Pima Indian volunteers. Twenty four hour energy expenditure (24EE) was measured in 508 individuals, resting metabolic rate (RMR) was measured in 384 individuals and 240 underwent both measurements on separate days. Data for 24EE were collected in a respiratory chamber between 1985 and 2006 with a mean follow-up time of 11.1 years. RMR was evaluated using an open-circuit respiratory hood system between 1982 and 2006 with a mean follow-up time of 15.4 years.

During the study period, 27 study participants died of natural causes. Researchers found that as energy expenditure increased, there was also an increase in risk for natural mortality.

“The results of this study may help us understand some of the underlying mechanisms of human aging and indicate why reductions in metabolic rate, for instance via low calorie diets, appear to be beneficial for human health,” said Jumpertz.

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Finding Good In Bad Girls

by Harriet Walker

From Donna Summer to Dante, everybody loves a "bad girl". She is a social construct that runs the cultural gamut from classical to cartoonish and back again, wearing only high heels and a smirk. She is literary artifice and historical fact combined; she is both retrograde and modern, a product of the patriarchy and yet empowered; she is every man's worst nightmare and his best daydream too. No plot is complete without her, no soap opera or great tragedy doesn't boast a brace. We are a society obsessed with bad girls, and we always have been.

But what's the allure of this mythical creature? There's no specific definition – it's a catch-all phrase which scoops up sulky teens and hard-faced ballbusters alike – but we all have a vision of what it means to be a bad girl. It goes something along the lines of Bettie Page in an Eighties power suit, teamed with Wonder Woman boots and wielding a bazooka – that is to say, a hybridised version of any given cliché of female independence. So far, so foggy.

The bad girl, and all her attendant archetypal baggage, has however become less of a personage and more a mental motif in the latterday power struggle between men and women. American psychiatrist Carole Lieberman has recently published a self-help book, entitled Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets, which argues that a bad girl mentality is something we could all use to our advantage – even if we're undeniably good girls.

"Kate Middleton is the quintessential example of a good girl who used bad girl strategies to win the heart of her prince," she explains. "When she was rated two out of ten by the boys in her class, she did a total makeover to make herself more appealing. Later, she strutted down the runway of her college fashion show in 'the dress' that got Prince William to stop thinking of her merely as a friend, and to fall head over heels for her."

A case of "ask not what you can do for yourself, but what a bad girl can do for you", perhaps. "I am not trying to turn good girls into bad girls," clarifies Lieberman, whose penchant for flowers, hearts and all things pink marks her clearly as one of the former. "I am trying to help good girls discover the secrets that bad girls use to win men's hearts."

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Nuclear Nightmare

[ed.  This sounds depressingly similar to the Minerals Management Service prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.]

by Jeff Goodell

Five days after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, triggering the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, America's leading nuclear regulator came before Congress bearing good news: Don't worry, it can't happen here. In the aftermath of the Japanese catastrophe, officials in Germany moved swiftly to shut down old plants for inspection, and China put licensing of new plants on hold. But Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reassured lawmakers that nothing at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors warranted any immediate changes at U.S. nuclear plants. Indeed, 10 days after the earthquake in Japan, the NRC extended the license of the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor — a virtual twin of Fukushima — for another two decades. The license renewal was granted even though the reactor's cooling tower had literally fallen down, and the plant had repeatedly leaked radioactive fluid.

Perhaps Jaczko was simply trying to prevent a full-scale panic about the dangers of U.S. nuclear plants. After all, there are now 104 reactors scattered across the country, generating 20 percent of America's power. All of them were designed in the 1960s and '70s, and are nearing the end of their planned life expectancy. But there was one problem with Jaczko's testimony, according to Dave Lochbaum, a senior adviser at the Union of Concerned Scientists: Key elements of what the NRC chief told Congress were "a baldfaced lie."

Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, says that Jaczko knows full well that what the NRC calls "defense in depth" at U.S. reactors has been seriously compromised over the years. In some places, highly radioactive spent fuel is stockpiled in what amounts to swimming pools located beside reactors. In other places, changes in the cooling systems at reactors have made them more vulnerable to a core meltdown if something goes wrong. A few weeks before Fukushima, Lochbaum authored a widely circulated report that underscored the NRC's haphazard performance, describing 14 serious "near-miss" events at nuclear plants last year alone. At the Indian Point reactor just north of New York City, federal inspectors discovered a water-containment system that had been leaking for 16 years.

As head of the NRC, Jaczko is the top cop on the nuclear beat, the guy charged with keeping the nation's fleet of aging nukes running safely. A balding, 40-year-old Democrat with big ears and the air of a brilliant high school physics teacher, Jaczko oversees a 4,000-person agency with a budget of $1 billion. But the NRC has long served as little more than a lap dog to the nuclear industry, unwilling to crack down on unsafe reactors.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shoot

Washington On The Rocks

by  Alfred McCoy and Brett Reilly

Imperial powers hedge their bets. The most striking recent example we have of this is in Egypt. While the Pentagon was pouring money into the Egyptian military (approximately $40 billion since 1979), it turns out -- thank you, WikiLeaks! -- that the U.S. government was shuttling far smaller amounts (millions, not billions) to various “American government-financed organizations” loosely connected with Congress or with the Democratic and Republican parties. Some of that money, in turn, was being invested in “democracy-building campaigns” aimed at teaching young Egyptian activists how to organize a movement against their autocratic ruler, how to make the best use of social networking sites, and so on.

In other words, in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Middle East), Washington was funding both the autocrats and the young activists who opposed them and who, in Egypt, would be crucial players in the Tahrir Square movement that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. As one of those activists told the New York Times, “While we appreciated the training we received through the NGOs sponsored by the U.S. government, and it did help us in our struggles, we are also aware that the same government also trained the state security investigative service, which was responsible for the harassment and jailing of many of us.”

Meanwhile, thanks to other State Department documents WikiLeaks recently released, we know that, in at least one Middle Eastern country where Washington did not enthusiastically support the local autocrat -- Syria -- the State Department was channeling significant sums of money into “secretly financ[ing]... political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country.“ It was, in other words, preparing a new elite for a “regime change” future. Think of it as a kind of grim irony that a significant part of the Egyptian military’s high command was in northern Virginia, attending an annual U.S.-Egypt Military Cooperation Committee meeting in late January, when all hell broke loose in Tahrir Square, thanks to those Egyptian activists, some trained with Washington’s money. The creation or support of elites has, as Alfred McCoy and Brett Reilly write, always been crucial to running global empires. And yet client elites are one of those subjects seldom given much thought, even though Great Britain, for instance, ruled its Indian Raj with striking, if oppressive, efficiency for endless decades with surprisingly few personnel from England. How else, after all, could a global empire continue? And yet, as a great power’s strength and influence wane, those bets -- like the one Washington placed in Egypt -- begin to go awry, from an imperial point of view.

Music Painting



[ed.  Quite creative and beautiful.  I especially liked the tree near the middle of this piece.]

The Plot To Turn On The World

The Leary/Ginsberg Acid Conspiracy 

Timothy Leary, Los Angeles, March 1992. Photo by Allen Ginsberg, used with permission of the Allen Ginsberg Estate. (Allen is visible in the mirror.)

by Steve Silberman

In November of 1966, the poet Allen Ginsberg made a modest proposal to a room full of Unitarian ministers in Boston. “Everybody who hears my voice try the chemical LSD at least once,” he intoned. “Then I prophecy we will all have seen some ray of glory or vastness beyond our conditioned social selves, beyond our government, beyond America even, that will unite us into a peaceful community.”

The poet had been experimenting with drugs since the 1940s as a way of achieving the state that his Beat Generation friends named the “New Vision,” methodically keeping lists of the drugs he sampled — morphine with William Burroughs, marijuana with fellow be-bop fans in jazz clubs, and eventually the psychedelic vine called ayahuasca with a curandero in Peru.

For Ginsberg, drugs were not merely an indulgence or form of intoxication; they were tools for investigating the nature of mind, to be employed in tandem with writing, an approach he called “the old yoga of poesy.” In 1959, he volunteered to become an experimental subject at Stanford University, where two psychologists who were secretly working for the CIA to develop mind-control drugs gave him LSD; listening to recordings of Wagner and Gertrude Stein in the lab, he decided that acid was “a very safe drug,” and thought that even his suburban poet father Louis might like to try it.

By the time he addressed the Unitarian ministers in Boston, Ginsberg had become convinced that psychedelics held promise as agents of transformative mystical experience that were available to anyone, particularly when combined with music and other art forms. In place of stiff, hollow religious observances in churches and synagogues, the poet proposed “naked bacchantes” in national parks, along with sacramental orgies at rock concerts, to call forth a new, locally-grown American spirituality that could unify a generation of Adamic longhairs and earth mothers alienated by war and turned off by the pious hypocrisy of their elders.

Ginsberg’s potent ally in this campaign was a psychology professor at Harvard named Timothy Leary, who would eventually become the most prominent public advocate for mass consumption of LSD, coining a meme that became the ubiquitous rallying cry of the nascent 20th-century religious movement as it proliferated on t-shirts, black-light posters, and neon buttons from the Day-Glo Haight-Ashbury to swinging London: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.

Artificial Floating Islands Revive Dead Zones

by Dan Ferber

Sometimes, all a polluted lake needs is a little love from an island—a “floating treatment wetland.” Load soil or sod onto a loofah-like mesh of plastic (made from recycled carpet and water bottles, of course), float it, add seeds, and let the plants take over. Their roots become home to biofilms that gobble nitrates and phosphates, denying those nutrients to algal blooms. Small critters eat the biofilms, fish eat the critters, and the water gradually gets cleaner. Bruce Kania, CEO of Floating Island International, says he modeled the version he sells on the floating peat islands on the waters of Wisconsin’s Lake Chippewa Flowage, near where he grew up. His company has sold more than 4,000 of the plant rafts in a dozen countries. But filtration islands aren’t a cure-all. According to Bill Crumpton, a wetland expert at Iowa State University, only healthy, conventional wetlands can completely restore water systems. Still, Kania says his islands could one day revive dead zones in bays and estuaries and be solid enough for people to live on. “Nature is an incredible model,” he says. “It’s the ultimate inventor.”

st_floatingislands1_f
st_floatingislands2_f 

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The Ancient Art of Almadraba fishing


Spanish fisherman Rafael Marquez, 40, is seen next to “Almadraba” tunas caught during the opening of the season for tuna fishing near to the coast of Barbate, Cadiz province, southern Spain, Wednesday, April 27, 2011. Almadraba tuna is caught in an elaborate and age-old Andalusian fishing method, used in Spanish coastal areas close to the Strait of Gibraltar since Phoenician times. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)Almadraba tuna is tuna caught by an elaborate and age-old Andalusian technique of setting nets in a maze that leads to a central pool called “copo”.

The maze uses just two net lines, called “raveras”. One net is connected to the shore and other line is secured in deeper water. Those lines have smaller oblique lines which lead to the central pool. This simple maze works because tuna are not able to see the exit from the central pool, and remain inside. The floor of the central pool is then raised in order to catch the tuna and when that floor is held up, there is little room left for tuna and they are then caught easily and slaughtered.

The circle of wooden boats off Spain’s Atlantic coast gradually becomes smaller as the men of the almadraba – to the rhythmic sound of shouts and laughter – pull in the huge nets by hand. Suddenly, the surface of the water begins to turn white and within seconds it’s become a frothing, heaving mass of huge fish, their fins slicing through the water in a frenzied attempt to escape their fate.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Place Your Bets

What happens when a city’s entire real estate market collapses, leaving only vultures behind?

A big, nasty fight ensues for the scraps.

by  Cristohpher Maag

Las Vegas, synonymous with gambling and vice, now has a new reputation: it’s the city where the housing bubble burst most spectacularly. One in 28 homes in Las Vegas were foreclosed upon in the first quarter of 2010, giving the city the highest foreclosure rate in the nation—one that is five times the national average, according to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper. The city now has one of the highest home vacancy rates in the nation, second only to Detroit, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That leaves few regular people buying houses in Las Vegas. Instead, the vast majority of home sales there involve investors looking to buy when the market is low and then sell at a profit, says Bill Uffelman, president of the Nevada Bankers Association.

That normally simple process is made complicated by Nevada’s unique and vague real estate laws, which say that homeowner associations are entitled to nine months’ worth of unpaid fees after a home goes into foreclosure. The home’s new owner would be responsible for paying the HOA fees.

Does the law also force these new homeowners to pay collections agencies fees they incurred while trying to collect the unpaid debts, efforts that may have stretched back years before a home has gone into foreclosure?

Of course it does! That, at least, is what the collection companies say.

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Man For All Seasons

Sean Connery
via:

The New Geopolitics of Food

by  Lester R. Brown

In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family's dinner table.

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year's harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile -- and a whole lot more contentious -- than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

Until recently, sudden price surges just didn't matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.

In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.

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Cranking

1.

Nothing wrecks your living room decor quite like a giant, rented hospital bed.

The one my Dad laid in for a couple months in the fall of 1974 was an alarmingly stiff and sturdy affair, the frame of which was forged of impossibly heavy iron, with half a dozen jaggy coats of putty-flesh latex paint doing a shit job of concealing the dings and dents kissed by dozens of clutches of burly rental guys trying to navigate unaccommodating residential doors.

Jammed cattywampus between a teddy-bear brown sectional, an antiqued rococo credenza, and what had until recently been my Father's favorite armchair, the hospital bed left little room for easy socializing, let alone aesthetic speculation. This was a living room where a very ill person would mostly die soon.

The hospital bed's defining feature was the theoretical ease with which the human trunk slumped in its top half could be raised or lowered by turning a shitty little crank at the foot of its lower half. Like the bed itself, the shitty little crank was ugly and obtrusive and hard to live with. Mom and I tripped over the crank a lot.

The theoretically useful but ultimately shitty little crank made the hospital bed look like those old-timey cars we'd see in the bad silent movies they showed down at Shakey's Pizza.

Mom and Dad despised the saltines-and-ketchup style of pizza served at Shakey's. To them, LaRosa's over on Cheviot had way better pizza plus a pretty good jukebox. But, I really liked Shakey's. They gave away cool styrofoam boater hats with a red paper band that said, "Shakey's Pizza Parlor." Which I thought looked smashing. So, they used to take me to Shakey's.

In practice, the hospital bed's shitty little crank functioned mostly as a recalcitrant and pinch-inducing mechanism for eroding my father's dignity.

Dad would lay in the hospital bed that filled our living room while my Mom slowly cranked. He'd try to make jokes. (Dad had always been the funniest person any of his friends knew.) The hospital bed creaked. Mom cranked. Dad's tired upper half would haltingly rise and bob with reluctant help from the bed's upper half. Mom sweated at the crank. Dad laid there and watched. Dad couldn't help. He watched. He was in the hospital bed. Mom did all the cranking. Dad watched. He watched while his wife turned a shitty little iron crank, trying impotently to make her best friend just a tiny bit more comfortable as his body worked to finally finish eating itself. But, he couldn't help out. I think he wanted to help out. But, he couldn't help out.

She couldn't really help my Dad. My Dad couldn't really help her. But they sure tried.

She cranked and cranked.

I was seven. I didn't know how to help anyone.


2.

The last time I saw my Dad, he was in a different hospital bed. That one was a much more functional and aesthetically appropriate unit neatly fitted into an overlit semi-private room in the highly-regarded Jewish Hospital located on E. Galbraith Road. We weren't Jewish. We were just sick.

Frankly, I forget what the crank on the second hospital bed looked like, but I seem to recall that it worked just fine.

This was maybe a week before my Dad died.

From what I can gather, he and my Mom had wanted to time things so that I could be with him as long and as late as possible--but not so late that I'd have to see him in the kind of condition I have to assume he was in during the full week he was too ill for his boy to visit him. Pretty bad condition, I'm guessing.

In the almost forty years since Dad's last week in any hospital bed, my Mom and I haven't talked much about it. If there are things to say about that week, I'm not sure even forty years is long enough to prep for them. I know I'm still not ready. I should ask my Mom if she's ready. She was forty then. Just under half her life ago.

What I do know is my Mom lived by that second hospital bed most every minute of Dad's last week. Just like she'd been by the first hospital bed in her living room for the months before. Only now she was the one sleeping on the wrong bed. There are limits to the physical comforts you can offer a woman who's determined to stay by her husband's second hospital bed until it's time.

But she was there that whole time. Up to the last time my sweet Dad ever said anything to anyone.

As he laid in that second hospital bed, I'm told that the last thing my Dad said to anyone was something he said to my Mom. He told my Mom:

Take care of The Big Guy.

That was me. I was "The Big Guy." My Dad always called me "Big Guy," and I always loved when he said that. It made me feel strong. It made me feel tall. It made me know that my Dad and I were best pals.

I still love knowing I was my Dad's best pal.

by  Merlin Mann, 43 Folders |  Read more:

U.S. - Mexico Border (25 Pics)

[Guess which is which.]

US-Mexico Border (25 pics)

US-Mexico Border (25 pics)

US-Mexico Border (25 pics)

The Humor Code


By Joel Warner

The writer E. B. White famously remarked that “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” If that’s true, an amphibian genocide took place in San Antonio this past January. Academics from around the world gathered there for the first-ever comedy symposium cosponsored by the Mind Science Foundation.

The goal wasn’t to tell jokes but to assess exactly what a joke is, how it works, and what this thing called “funny” really is, in a neurological, sociological, and psychological sense. As Sean Guillory, a Dartmouth College neuroscience grad student who organized the event, says, “It’s the first time a roomful of empirical humor researchers have ever gotten together!”

The first speaker at the podium, University of Western Ontario professor Rod Martin, began with a lament over the lack of comedy scholarship. He pointed out that you could fill a library with analyses of subjects like mental illness or aggression. Meanwhile, the 1,700-plus-page Handbook of Social Psychology—the preeminent reference work in its field—mentions humor once.

The crux of Martin’s argument involves semantics. It takes issue with the imperfect terminology we use to describe the emotional state that humor triggers. Standardizing language would help humor studies earn the respect of related fields, like aggression research. Martin exhorted his audience to adopt his preferred word for the “pleasurable feeling, joy, gaiety of mind” that humor elicits. Happiness, elation, and even hilarity don’t quite fit, to his mind. The best word, he said, is mirth.

For those curious about the physiology of humor, Helmut Karl Lackner of the Medical University of Graz, Austria, presented his research on the relationship between humor, stress, and respiration. By tracking breathing cycles and heart rates, he has determined that social anxiety makes things less funny. (Fittingly, he seemed nervous as he read his paper in halting English.) Nina Strohminger, a researcher at the University of Michigan, explained how she’s been exposing test subjects to unpleasant odors. She extolled the virtues of a spray called Liquid Ass, which can be purchased at fine novelty stores everywhere. (Her conclusion: Farts make everything funnier.) The audience members take the subject of amusement very seriously, yet they couldn’t help but chuckle at this.
Other speakers peppered their talks with multivariate ANOVAs and mesolimbic reward systems. Some presented research on whether people with Asperger’s syndrome get jokes and how to determine the social consequences of put-downs. But as the sessions wound on, no one had addressed the underlying mechanism of comedy: What, exactly, makes things funny?

That question was the core of Peter McGraw’s lecture. A lanky 41-year-old professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, McGraw thinks he has found the answer, and it starts with a tickle. “Who here doesn’t like to be tickled?”

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WikiLeaks World

by Caitlin Dickson

The New York Times prominently features "The Guantanamo Files," a synthesis of "700 classified military documents" obtained by WikiLeaks, about the Cuba prison's current and former inmates. It's the latest blockbuster data cache to be trumpeted by the paper. And though the paper has had a complicated relationship with the secret-sharing site run by Julian Assange since the two partnered up for a post-Thanksgiving barrage of "State's Secrets" last year, the paper has become increasingly reliant on its documents.

By our count, on 63 days so far this year the paper's reporters have relied on WikiLeaks documents as sources for their stories. Since April 25th is the 115th day of the year, that's over half of all their issues this year. And just to be clear, we didn't count stories that merely mentioned WikiLeaks or Julian Assange or Bradley Manning, only the ones that used documents from the site as a reporting source.

It now seems routine for WikiLeaks to serve as a source when it comes to American diplomacy, especially regarding the Middle East. Sometimes these stories are billed as revelations from WikiLeaks' cache, such as the March 2 story by James Risen on the Qaddafi sons' bitter business battles which was headlined, "2 Qaddafis Fought Over Business, Cables Show." But often the WikiLeak-ed documents are used as a stand-in for an American diplomatic spokesperson, source or expert. A typical example is the recent feature on Muammar Qaddafi's illegitimate means of acquiring wealth. The seventh paragraph of the front-page story reads:
The government not only exploited corporations eager to do business, but willing governments as well. Libya’s banks apparently collected lucrative fees by helping Iran launder huge sums of money in recent years in violation of international sanctions on Tehran, according to another cable from Tripoli included in a batch of classified documents obtained by WikiLeaks. In 2009, the cable said, American diplomats warned Libyan officials that its dealings with Iran were jeopardizing Libya’s enhanced world standing for the sake of “potential short-term business gains.”
And it's not just Libya. Times readers have learned about Cairo's top military officials wrestling for control of post-Mubarak Egypt, Pakistan's nuclear might, and American diplomats' role in selling Boeing jetliners to foreign leaders all thanks to WikiLeaks.

Conspiracy Theory

How did the president get into those Ivy league schools?

- "The dean looked over Barack's transcript and college boards and then suggested in a kindly way that he apply to some less competitive colleges in addition to Columbia."

- "There were no class rankings at his high school, but Barack never made honor roll even one term, unlike 110 boys in his class."

- "His SAT scores were 566 for the verbal part and 640 for math. Those were far below the median scores for students admitted to his class at Columbia: 668 verbal and 718 math."

- "At Columbia, Barack Obama distinguished himself primarily as a hard partier, and he managed to be detained by police twice during his university years: once for stealing a Christmas wreath as a fraternity prank and once for trying to tear down the goalposts during a football game at Princeton."

- "Obama's transcript at Columbia shows that he was a solid C student. Although a history major, he sampled widely in the social sciences and did poorly in political science and economics while achieving some of his best grades (the equivalent of a B+) in philosophy and anthropology. The transcript indicates that in Obama's freshman year, the only year for which rankings were available, he was in the twenty-first percentile of his class—meaning that four-fifths of the students were above him. Yet at the same time that he was earning Cs at Columbia, Obama displayed a formidable intelligence in another way. At his induction into the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity, he and others were asked to name all fifty-four pledges in the room. Most were were able to name only five or six. When it was Obama's turn, he named every single one. Later he rose to become president of DKE, and he was also tapped into Skull and Bones, an elite secret society to which his father had also belonged."

And then he somehow got into Harvard for graduate school.

Drinking With The Stars

Just for the record, if it were me out there appearing in a different town every night, I’d be incredibly specific about what I wanted waiting for me backstage. There’s not much more fearful in life than strangers trying to be fancy. It leads to all kinds of gussied-up crap, like those selections of “special” crackers that are like biting into particle board when, really, a box of Cheez-Its would be just fine. You dispatch an errand-running gofer to buy wine for a visiting star and there’s no telling what kind of swill-in-a-novelty-collector-bottle you’re likely to end up with.

Considering that, a survey of the contract riders at Smoking Gun shows a remarkable tolerance when it comes to ordering wine to be served in dressing rooms. For the most part, traveling musicians seem willing to settle for just about anything.

Desperately perky and highly professional gal-who-knows-what-she-wants Kathie Lee Gifford wants two bottles of white wine, and she doesn’t care what kind it is — just have it chilled and waiting for her when she arrives. Ludacris wants a bottle of white Zinfandel. Lady Gaga requires “two bottles of white wine with wine opener — Kendall-Jackson or Robert Mondavi preferred.” Sting wants “good quality” Champagne, “full-bodied” red wine, and Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. Shania Twain wants one bottle of Pinot Grigio and two bottles of Kendall-Jackson Cabernet. Relic-of-a-regrettable-era Cher goes the other way, specifying “No Kendall-Jackson” be placed in either her dressing or contractually required wig room. Beck — who, like Cher, finds one name sufficient — takes no varietal chances, specifying Merlot, Cabernet or Pinot Noir only. Kelly Clarkson wants four bottles of “GOOD” red wine, and suggests “Jordan, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot”. Amy Winehouse (pictured above) specifies “rioja,” apparently not realizing it is a place and thus should be capitalized. Wayne Newton asks for both Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages and Stag’s Leap Merlot. Also, pretzels.

Eric Clapton is a wine and cheese man, but seems to care more about the cheese than the wine. His rider asks for two non-specific bottles of red wine and a “small cheese board” which the guitar god will use to serve cheese he brings himself. Kelly Pickler, on the other hand, requires cheese but not wine. Barenaked Ladies requires neither cheese nor wine, but is apparently bringing a little something from home because they want wine glasses and a corkscrew.

Sky High Fly Buy

by  Olivia Solon

Two booksellers using Amazon's algorithmic pricing to ensure they were generating marginally more revenue than their main competitor ended up pushing the price of a book on evolutionary biology -- Peter Lawrence's The Making of a Fly -- to $23,698,655.93.

The book, which was published in 1992, is out of print but is commonly used as a reference text by fly experts. A post doc student working in Michael Eisen's lab at UC Berkeley first discovered the pricing glitch when looking to buy a copy. As documented on Eisen's blog, it was discovered that Amazon had 17 copies for sale -- 15 used from $35.54 and two new from $1,730,045.91 (one from seller  profnath at that price and a second from bordeebook at $2,198,177.95).

This was assumed to be a mistake, but when Eisen returned to the page the next day, he noticed the price had gone up, with both copies on offer for around $2.8 million. By the end of the day, profnath had raised its price again to $3,536,674.57. He worked out that once a day, profnath set its price to be 0.9983 times the price of the copy offered by bordeebook (keen to undercut its competitor), meanwhile the prices of bordeebook were rising at 1.270589 times the price offered by profnath.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What's Left of the Left

Paul Krugman’s lonely crusade.

by Benjamin Wallace-Wells

If you are looking not only for clues into Barack Obama’s character but for a definition of what his presidency will mean to the country, then the speech on fiscal policy that he delivered at George Washington University the Wednesday before last is the most significant one he has ever given. It is, in its own way, an astonishing document, alive with the themes that undergirded his Philadelphia speech on race and his Nobel Prize acceptance, on the tragic enmeshment of American limitations and American strength. Obama was responding mostly to the Republican budget plan, and he understood exactly what its author, Representative Paul Ryan, had in his sights: “This vision,” Obama said, “is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”

And yet, having defined the fight so starkly, Obama delivered a plea for compromise. He ended a stirring defense of the welfare state by explaining his plans to gut it. Then he said that even this proposed $2 trillion cut in government spending was only a starting point for negotiation: “I don’t expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today,” he said. “This is a democracy; that’s not how things work.” There were notes of deference, and passivity: If Obama believed that his vision of society was at stake, why place it so squarely on the partisan bargaining table—or why not at least begin with a stronger gambit? This was, at any rate, the point of view of one particular strain of liberal reaction, whose position was summed up with poignant resignation by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “I could live with this as an end result,” he wrote. “If this becomes the left pole, and the center is halfway between this and Ryan, then no.”

For the first two years of the Obama administration, Krugman has been building, in his columns and on his blog, not just a critique of this presidency but something grander and more expansively detailed, something closer to an alternate architecture for what Obamaism might be. The project has remade Krugman’s public image, as if he had spent years becoming a chemically isolate form of himself—first a moderate, then an anti-Bush partisan, and now the leading exponent of a kind of liberal purism against which the compromises of the White House might be judged. Krugman’s counterfactual Obama would have provided far more stimulus money and would have nationalized Citigroup and Bank of America. He would have written off Republicans and worked only with Democrats to fashion a health-care reform bill that included a so-called public option. The president of Krugman’s dreams would have made his singular long-term goal the preservation of the welfare state and the middle-class society it was designed to create.

This purism is not a role Krugman is altogether comfortable with, but it is one he has sought: His blog is titled The Conscience of a Liberal. He uses it as a kind of workroom for his column, and it is now, according to Technorati, the most popular single-author blog online—a more statistically rigorous counterpart to Rachel Maddow’s show and the Huffington Post. The comment section has become a repository for a certain form of liberal anguish, and a community unto itself: “His campaign promised a better, more equitable America. Those who believed him feel betrayed,” wrote one commenter in regard to a recent column titled “The President Is Missing.”And another: “Come on, Professor Krugman, will you lead the people out?”

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Do Secretaries Have a Future?

by  Lynne Peril

THE 1950s and ’60s brought many new things to American offices, including the Xerox machine, word processing and — perhaps less famously — the first National Secretaries Day, in 1952. Secretaries of that era envisioned a rosy future, and many saw their jobs as a ticket to a better life.

In 1961, the trade magazine Today’s Secretary predicted that, 50 years hence, the “secretary of the future” would start her workday at noon and take monthlong vacations thanks to the “electronic computer.” According to another optimistic assessment, secretaries (transported through office hallways “via trackless plastic bubble”) would be in ever-higher demand because of what was vaguely referred to as “business expansion.”

But nearly 60 years later, on the date now promoted as Administrative Professionals Day, we’re living through the end of a recession in which around two million administrative and clerical workers lost their jobs after bosses discovered they could handle their calendars and travel arrangements online and rendered their assistants expendable. Clearly, while the secretary hasn’t joined the office boy and the iceman in the elephant’s graveyard of outmoded occupations, technological advancements haven’t panned out quite the way those midcentury futurists imagined. There are satisfactions to the job, to be sure, but for many secretaries, it remains often taxing, sometimes humiliating and increasingly precarious.

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Odd Couples

Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein

Marlon Brando and Charlie Chaplin

Alice Cooper and Salvadore Dali

Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby

Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates

Hugh Hefner and Doris Day

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy

Teddy Roosevelt and Moose

Digital Peasants

The digital peasants are getting restless. The first signs of unrest are evident in the stirrings of the bloggers filing a suit against the Huffington Post and its parent AOL, which acquired the publication in February for $315 million. The same writers who were happy to contribute for free before the sale are now accusing the publication of turning them into “modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington's plantation." The suit claims that about 9,000 people wrote for the Huffington Post on an unpaid basis, and it argues that their writings helped contribute about a third of the sale value of the site. These bloggers weren’t paid a single penny in the sale—the money went mostly to Huffington and a few investors.

Whether the bloggers have a case or not remains to be seen. The suit, however, brings to the fore tensions inherent in a new kind of production that is emerging today—what we might call “social production.” This kind of work involves micro-contributions from large networks of people who often receive “payment” in the form of fun, peer recognition, and a sense of belonging—that is, in social rather than monetary currencies. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flickr, and many other stalwarts of today’s digital economy are enablers and beneficiaries of such production. They couldn’t possibly exist without the content of social producers, without their unpaid, albeit fun, labor. It is we who create Facebook profiles and post to them, we who share our thoughts on Twitter, we who upload our pictures to Flickr, we who post our medical data on PatientsLikeMe—it is we who are the new producers. Without us making these daily micro-contributions, none of these platforms could persist and grow and create value at the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the Huffington case brings us face-to-face with the reality that we, as social producers, are all becoming digital peasants. By turn, we are the heroic commoners feeding revolutions in the Middle East and, at the same time, “modern serfs” working on Mark Zuckerberg’s and other digital plantations.

John James Audubon: America's Rare Bird


by  Richard Rhodes

The handsome, excitable 18-year-old Frenchman who would become John James Audubon had already lived his way through two names when he landed in New York from Nantes, France, in August 1803. His father, Jean, a canny ship’s captain with Pennsylvania property, had sent his only son off to America to escape conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. Jean Audubon owned a plantation near Valley Forge called Mill Grove, and the tenant who farmed it had reported a vein of lead ore. John James was supposed to evaluate the tenant’s report, learn what he could of plantation management, and eventually—since the French and Haitian revolutions had significantly diminished the Audubon fortune—make a life for himself.

He did that and much, much more. He married an extraordinary woman, opened a string of general stores on the Kentucky frontier and built a great steam mill on the Ohio River. He explored the American wilderness from GalvestonBay to Newfoundland, hunted with Cherokee and Osage, rafted the Ohio and the Mississippi. Throughout his travels, he identified, studied and drew almost 500 species of American birds. Singlehandedly, Audubon raised the equivalent of millions of dollars to publish a great, four-volume work of art and science, The Birds of America. He wrote five volumes of “bird biographies” chock-full of narratives of pioneer life and won fame enough to dine with presidents. He became a national icon—“the American Woodsman,” a name he gave himself. The record he left of the American wilderness is unsurpassed in its breadth and originality of observation; the Audubon Society, when it was initially founded in 1886, decades after his death, was right to invoke his authority. He was one of only two Americans elected Fellows of the Royal Society of London, the preeminent scientific organization of its day, prior to the American Civil War; the other was Benjamin Franklin.

Shrimp and Mango Tacos

by Martha Rose Schulma, NY Times

This sweet and pungent combination of mango, shrimp, chilies and cumin is as quick to put together as a stir-fry. Indeed, if you don’t have corn tortillas on hand, serve the shrimp with rice.

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 pound medium or small shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 Serrano or bird chilies, or 1 large jalapeño, minced
1 large mango, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
4 to 5 tablespoons lime juice
8 corn tortillas

1. Heat a large, heavy skillet or wok over medium-high heat, and add the canola oil. When the oil is hot, add the shrimp, salt to taste and the garlic. Sauté, stirring or shaking the pan, until the shrimp begins to color, about two minutes. Add the cumin, and continue to cook until the shrimp is pink and opaque, about three minutes. Add the chilies, mango and cilantro, and stir together for one minute. Stir in the lime juice, and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings.

2. Wrap the tortillas in a heavy kitchen towel, and place in a steamer basket over 1 inch of boiling water. Cover the pot, and steam for one minute. Turn off the heat, and allow to sit for 15 minutes without uncovering. Alternatively, wrap the tortillas in a towel, and heat in the microwave for one minute.

Warm the shrimp briefly in the pan. Place 2 tortillas on each plate, top with the shrimp, fold over the tortillas and serve with rice.

Yield: Serves four.

via:

It's Not a Secret

[ed.  This is not uncommon.  When I worked in a bookstore (quite a while ago), we used to tear the covers off a couple hundred unsold paperbacks and magazines each week.  It was a cheaper way to document returns to the distribution agency, and the contents got shredded.  What a waste.]


A regular Victoria's Secret shopper, Marie Wolf brought an unworn pair of "Pink" brand sweatpants back to the store at Westshore Plaza a few weeks ago, and planned to buy something else. The clerk happily gave her a refund, then took a pair of scissors and started cutting the pants in half.

"I was shocked, because, mind you, these were $70 sweatpants, and there's nothing wrong with them," Wolf said. "The clerk just said, 'I know, but it's our policy.' "

Outraged, Wolf confronted a store manager, then called the parent company and found, indeed, Victoria's Secret does cut up some returned items so they can't be resold — even if they're in fine condition.

Apparently, the clerk's only mistake, Wolf said, was to cut up the clothes in front of customers, and not in a back room out of sight.

"I asked about donating them to Salvation Army, what about Goodwill, what about all the people who lost everything in the tsunami?" Wolf said. "I told them I won't ever shop with them anymore, and neither will anyone in my family."

Officials with Victoria's Secret owner Limited Brands declined to comment on the record about their return policy and procedures, though calls to local stores confirmed the practice. And they're not the only big retailer that destroys some items that customers return.

Winter Coat

Bad Education


by  Malcolm Harris

The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting.

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.

What kind of incentives motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?

During the expansion of the housing bubble, lenders felt protected because they could repackage risky loans as mortgage-backed securities, which sold briskly to a pious market that believed housing prices could only increase. By combining slices of regionally diverse loans and theoretically spreading the risk of default, lenders were able to convince independent rating agencies that the resulting financial products were safe bets. They weren’t. But since this wouldn’t be America if you couldn’t monetize your children’s futures, the education sector still has its equivalent: the Student Loan Asset-Backed Security (or, as they’re known in the industry, SLABS).

SLABS were invented by then-semi-public Sallie Mae in the early ’90s, and their trading grew as part of the larger asset-backed security wave that peaked in 2007. In 1990, there were $75.6 million of these securities in circulation; at their apex, the total stood at $2.67 trillion. The number of SLABS traded on the market grew from $200,000  in 1991 to near $250 billion by the fourth quarter of 2010. But while trading in securities backed by credit cards, auto loans, and home equity is down 50 percent or more across the board, SLABS have not suffered the same sort of drop. SLABS are still considered safe investments—the kind financial advisors market to pension funds and the elderly.

Time Flies