Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jimmy Scott

Jimmy Scott (born July 17, 1925), aka "Little" Jimmy Scott, is an American jazz vocalist famous for his unusually high contralto voice which is due to Kallmann's syndrome, a very rare genetic condition. The condition stunted his growth at four feet eleven inches until, at age 37, he grew another 8 inches to the height of five foot seven inches. The condition prevented him from reaching puberty, leaving him with a high, undeveloped voice, hence his nickname "Little" Jimmy Scott.

Evolution Made Us All

Four Floors, Eight Stories

[ed.  Expand screen for best effect.]

Book Book

Hardback cover softens the blows.

Protecting your MacBook is a top priority and it’s job one for BookBook. Slip your Mac inside the velvety soft, padded interior. Zip it closed and your baby is nestled between two tough, rigid leather hardback covers for a solid level of impact absorbing protection. The rigid spine serves as crush protection for an additional line of defense. BookBook creates a hardback book structure that safeguards your MacBook like few other cases can. Far better than any floppy neoprene bag ever will. End of story.

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)

It's not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to know.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy.

I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy,
To be calm when you've found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why, think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It's always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

It's not time to make a change,
Just sit down, take it slowly.
You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to go through.
Find a girl, settle down,
if you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy.

All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It's hard, but it's harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them you know not me.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

Going Deeper - The End of Demographics

Marketers have built a temple that needs to be torn down. Demographics have defined the target consumer for more than half a century — poorly. Now, with emerging interest graphs from social networks, behavioral data from search outlets and lifecycle forecasting, we have much better ways of targeting potential customers.

The rise of mass-produced consumer goods also brought the rise of mass-market advertising. In the 1950s and 1960s, the goal of television was to aggregate the most possible eyeballs for advertisers. In order to convince consumers that an advertising message was relevant to them, consumers had to buy the idea that they were just like everyone else.

Marketers created that buy-in by bucketing people into generations. When you lump 78 million people into one group called “Baby Boomers,” it’s much easier to sell them stuff, especially when consumers accepted their generational classification.

But now, that entire system has broken down. The year that someone was born will not tell you how likely he is to buy your product.

Fragmentation is now the norm because the pace of change is accelerating. Generations have been getting smaller because there are fewer unifying characteristics of young people today than ever before:

With the recent rise of the social web, people self-select into groups so small, so fragmented, and so temporal, that no overarching top-down approach could be successful at driving marketing performance.

Marketers have responded by adding more demographic information to the mix, but even that is a losing battle. I worked with one client who was introducing a technology product, and had identified a target market of “connected consumers.” Connected consumers were 34-55, had a household income over $120k, and read technology publications regularly. This target market represented 14 million consumers.

They were targeting 14 million consumers to sell 50,000 units — that means they were hoping for 3.5 sales for every 1,000 people with whom they connected through their marketing.

What if, instead, you could get 500 sales from every 1,000 people you marketed to?

It’s possible through psychographic profiling. Psychographics look at the mental model of the consumer in the context of a customer lifecycle. has long been a leader in this space, through innovations like “recommended products” and “users like me also bought.” Its algorithms have learned to predict its users, and what they are interested in. And now, there are a number of tools that any business can use to leverage psychographics.

As Much as $18 Billion "Missing" in Iraq

From a story posted at Al Jazeera:
Osama al-Nujaifi, the Iraqi parliament speaker, has told Al Jazeera that the amount of Iraqi money unaccounted for by the US is $18.7bn - three times more than the reported $6.6bn... "Iraq's development fund has lost around $18bn of Iraqi money in these operations - their location is unknown. Also missing are the documents of expenditure...

The Bush administration flew in a total of $20bn in cash into the country in 2004. This was money that had come from Iraqi oil sales, surplus funds from the UN oil-for-food programme and seized Iraqi assets. Officials in Iraq were supposed to give out the money to Iraqi ministries and US contractors, intended for the reconstruction of the country...

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Iraqi officials argue that the US government was supposed to safeguard the stash under a 2004 legal agreement it signed with Iraq, hence making Washington responsible for the cash that has disappeared.

Pentagon officials have contended for the last six years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records. The US has audited the money three times, but has still not been able to say exactly where it went...

"Safeguarding the money was up to the Americans ... after the invasion, provisional authority here was run by the American military.

"Piles and piles of shrink-wrapped US dollars came here, but the cash coming in is not the important part - it is what happened to it after [it got here].

"There are no documents to indicate who got it, where it was spent and what was ever built from it."

Neil Young


By Alice Munro
At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. Not a large one, hollowed out by monster machinery, just a minor pit that a farmer must have made some money from years before. In fact, the pit was shallow enough to lead you to think that there might have been some other intention for it—foundations for a house, maybe, that never made it any further.

My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it. “We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,” she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street—the husband—with the life she’d had before.

I barely remember that life. That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture. All that I retain in my head of the house in town is the wallpaper with Teddy bears in my old room. In this new house, which was really a trailer, my sister, Caro, and I had narrow cots, stacked one above the other. When we first moved there, Caro talked to me a lot about our old house, trying to get me to remember this or that. It was when we were in bed that she talked like this, and generally the conversation ended with me failing to remember and her getting cross. Sometimes I thought I did remember, but out of contrariness or fear of getting things wrong I pretended not to.

It was summer when we moved to the trailer. We had our dog with us. Blitzee. “Blitzee loves it here,” my mother said, and it was true. What dog wouldn’t love to exchange a town street, even one with spacious lawns and big houses, for the wide-open countryside? She took to barking at every car that went past, as if she owned the road, and now and then she brought home a squirrel or a groundhog she’d killed. At first Caro was quite upset by this, and Neal would have a talk with her, explaining about a dog’s nature and the chain of life in which some things had to eat other things.

“She gets her dog food,” Caro argued, but Neal said, “Suppose she didn’t? Suppose someday we all disappeared and she had to fend for herself?”

“I’m not going to,” Caro said. “I’m not going to disappear, and I’m always going to look after her.”

“You think so?” Neal said, and our mother stepped in to deflect him. Neal was always ready to get on the subject of the Americans and the atomic bomb, and our mother didn’t think we were ready for that yet. She didn’t know that when he brought it up I thought he was talking about an atomic bun. I knew that there was something wrong with this interpretation, but I wasn’t about to ask questions and get laughed at.

Neal was an actor. In town there was a professional summer theatre, a new thing at the time, which some people were enthusiastic about and others worried about, fearing that it would bring in riffraff. My mother and father had been among those in favor, my mother more actively so, because she had more time. My father was an insurance agent and travelled a lot. My mother had got busy with various fund-raising schemes for the theatre and donated her services as an usher. She was good-looking and young enough to be mistaken for an actress. She’d begun to dress like an actress, too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces. She’d left her hair wild and stopped wearing makeup. Of course, I had not understood or even particularly noticed these changes at the time. My mother was my mother. But no doubt Caro had. And my father. Though, from all that I know of his nature and his feelings for my mother, I think he may have been proud to see how good she looked in these liberating styles and how well she fit in with the theatre people. When he spoke about this time later on, he said that he had always approved of the arts. I can imagine now how embarrassed my mother would have been, cringing and laughing to cover up her cringing, if he’d made this declaration in front of her theatre friends.

Well, then came a development that could have been foreseen and probably was, but not by my father. I don’t know if it happened to any of the other volunteers. I do know, though I don’t remember it, that my father wept and for a whole day followed my mother around the house, not letting her out of his sight and refusing to believe her. And, instead of telling him anything to make him feel better, she told him something that made him feel worse.

She told him that the baby was Neal’s.

Was she sure?

Absolutely. She had been keeping track.

What happened then?

My father gave up weeping. He had to get back to work. My mother packed up our things and took us to live with Neal in the trailer he had found, out in the country. She said afterward that she had wept, too. But she said also that she had felt alive. Maybe for the first time in her life, truly alive. She felt as if she had been given a chance; she had started her life all over again. She’d walked out on her silver and her china and her decorating scheme and her flower garden and even on the books in her bookcase. She would live now, not read. She’d left her clothes hanging in the closet and her high-heeled shoes in their shoe trees. Her diamond ring and her wedding ring on the dresser. Her silk nightdresses in their drawer. She meant to go around naked at least some of the time in the country, as long as the weather stayed warm.

That didn’t work out, because when she tried it Caro went and hid in her cot and even Neal said he wasn’t crazy about the idea.

What did he think of all this? Neal. His philosophy, as he put it later, was to welcome whatever happened. Everything is a gift. We give and we take.

I am suspicious of people who talk like this, but I can’t say that I have a right to be.

Read more:

Married, With Infidelities

by Mark Oppenheimer
Last month, when the New York congressman Anthony Weiner finally admitted that he had lied, that his Twitter account had not been hacked, that he in fact had sent a picture of his thinly clad undercarriage to a stranger in Seattle, I asked my wife of six years, mother of our three children, what she thought. More specifically, I asked which would upset her more: to learn that I was sending racy self-portraits to random women, Weiner-style, or to discover I was having an actual affair. She paused, scrunched up her mouth as if she had just bitten a particularly sour lemon and said: “An affair is at least a normal human thing. But tweeting a picture of your crotch is just weird.”

How do we account for that revulsion, which many shared with my wife, a revulsion that makes it hard to imagine a second act for Weiner, like Eliot Spitzer’s television career or pretty much every day in the life of Bill Clinton? One explanation is that the Weiner scandal was especially sordid: drawn out, compounded daily with new revelations, covered up with embarrassing lies that made us want to look away. But another possibility is that there was something not weird, but too familiar about Weiner. His style might not be for everyone (to put it politely), but the impulse to be something other than what we are in our daily, monogamous lives, the thrill that comes from the illicit rather than the predictable, is something I imagine many couples can identify with. With his online flirtations and soft-porn photos, he did what a lot of us might do if we were lonely and determined to not really cheat.

That is one reason it was a relief when Weiner was drummed from office. In addition to giving us some good laughs, he forced us to ask particularly uncomfortable questions, like “what am I capable of doing?” and “what have my neighbors or friends done?” His visage was insisting, night after night, that we think about how hard monogamy is, how hard marriage is and about whether we make unrealistic demands on the institution and on ourselves.

That, anyway, is what Dan Savage, America’s leading sex-advice columnist, would say. Although best known for his It Gets Better project, an archive of hopeful videos aimed at troubled gay youth, Savage has for 20 years been saying monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage. In Savage Love, his weekly column, he inveighs against the American obsession with strict fidelity. In its place he proposes a sensibility that we might call American Gay Male, after that community’s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.

Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”

The view that we need a little less fidelity in marriages is dangerous for a gay-marriage advocate to hold. It feeds into the stereotype of gay men as compulsively promiscuous, and it gives ammunition to all the forces, religious and otherwise, who say that gay families will never be real families and that we had better stop them before they ruin what is left of marriage. But Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that, Savage says, destroys more families than it saves.

Read more:

Comma Drama

by  Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon

Grammar lovers today were saddened, shocked, and mightily displeased at the news that the P.R. department of the University of Oxford has decided to drop the comma for which it is so justly famed. As GalleyCat reported, the university's new style guide advises writers, "As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write 'a, b and c' not 'a, b, and c'." Cue the collective gasps of horror. The last time the nerd community was this cruelly betrayed, George Lucas was sitting at his desk, thinking, "I shall call him Jar Jar."

The serial comma is one of the sanest punctuation usages in the written language. It gives each element of a series its own distinct place in it, instead of lumping the last two together in one hasty breath. Think about it -- when you bake, you gather up your eggs, butter, sugar, and flour; you don't treat sugar and flour as a pair. That would be crazy. That is why, like evangelicals with "John 3:16" bumper stickers on their SUVs, punctuation worshipers cling to CM 6.19 – the Chicago Manual of Style's decree that "in a series consisting of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction." So valuable is that serial comma that it's on frickin' Page 2 of Strunk and White, right after the possessive apostrophe. And it is good.

There are those who disagree. The AP and New York Times eschew it, and everyone knows what a bunch of hacks that lot is. Here at Salon, meanwhile, I can now reveal that for years one of our great roiling internal tumults was over the serial comma. Our house style, imposed largely by the recently departed despot King Kaufman, was opposed to it. I am, clearly, violently in favor of it, and have spent the better part of the last 15 years enduring the pain of watching our editors systematically remove it from my stories. Oh, how it burns!

Why, in a world where "M I RITE?" constitutes a legitimate conversational volley, would anyone care about an Oxford comma? It's precisely because grammar -- don't even get me started on spelling -- has become so expendable that it's conversely become so precious. A friend tells of a text she got prior to a first date with a new man that read, "I'm looking forward to seeing you, too." As she puts it, "A comma before the 'too'? Nobody does that anymore. I saw that and thought, 'I'm in luuuuuuuv.'"

Read more:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Toro Y Moi

If you like water, you already like 72 percent of me.


Google Image Search

[ed.  Goodbye, TinEye?]

Thanks, Google! Now you can use an image to start your Google search.

Sweet! Now you can find the source/creator of a “lost” image.
This is great for us people who hate posting an image without a source.
Help spread the word, guys!

Lap Dances Are Awful

by Spencer Lund

I recently returned from a good friend’s bachelor party in Tampa, Florida, and after reading Kat’s treatise on bachelor parties, I had to share a little secret. No, we did not participate in lewd bacchanals fueled by cocaine and Ted Nugent Condominiums, but we did go to a couple different strip clubs. Kat's right: No stripper is going to sleep with you or your fiancé. It’s just not in the cards, and if hubby-to-be is really looking to cheat, he’ll spend the money on a prostitute and be done with it. Cheating isn’t generally going to happen at a bachelor party, but lap dances are.

Here’s where the secret comes in. Lap dances are awful.

I don’t want to say the idea of a lap dance is awful, because it isn’t. Naked women gyrating do generally appeal to typical heterosexual men, but the inherent awkwardness usually leaves men, or some men at least, feeling gross and confused about why they just gave $30 (the typical cost at a nice strip club) to a woman they don’t know.

In this particular county of Tampa, as in some other places, fully nude strip clubs mean no alcohol. And when my group learned of the laws in this particular county of Tampa (no one had bothered to Google ahead) many in attendance groaned. Who wants to go to a strip club where you can’t drink?

It turns out A LOT do!

I’m currently sober, so when I first decided to go on this bachelor party excursion in the supposed strip club capital of the United States (this was the selling point for the organizer — seriously), I decided I would rent a Cadillac and be the designated driver. So I was sober for this bachelor party and subsequent strip club attendance. Before you fire back with “of course you’re going to think lap dances suck when you’re sober!” know that I grew up in Rochester, New York, a short hour and a half drive to Niagara, Canada, home of one of the best strip clubs I’ve ever been inside. I was never sober growing up, and I spent a lot of time gambling and drinking in Niagara, where the legal drinking age is 18. So I’ve had some experience with lap dances both sober and drunk; they suck in both conditions.

Read more:

101 Fast Recipes for Grilling

There, in all of their Fourth of July glory, are 101 grilling ideas begging to be tried. A vast majority take less time to prepare and grill than it takes to watch your coals turn white. (If you use gas, they’re still almost as fast as heating up the grill.) Some of them feature ingredients like corn, eggplant and tomatoes, which will be better a month from now, at least in the Northeast. But there are also suggestions for foods in season right now that not everybody thinks of putting on the grill. Please note that salt and pepper are (usually) understood.

Vegetables and Fruits

1. A winter dish, summer style: Brush thick slices of fennel bulbs with olive oil and grill over not-too-high heat. Cut oranges in half and grill, cut-side down. Put fennel on a bed of arugula or watercress, squeeze grilled oranges over top. Garnish with fennel fronds.

2. Best grilled artichokes: Cut artichokes in half, scoop out the choke, parboil until tender. Grill, cut-side down, until lightly browned; grill a couple of halved lemons, too. Combine the juice from the grilled lemons with melted butter and spoon over the artichokes. Finish with parsley.

3. Tahini tofu steaks. Thin tahini with lots of lemon juice and some minced garlic. Cut a brick of firm tofu into four slabs and brush with sesame oil. Grill over a moderate fire, turning a few times, until marked and crisp outside and custardy inside. On the last turn, baste with the tahini sauce. Serve on thick tomato slices with a drizzle of soy sauce and chopped basil, Thai if possible.

Read more:

Masters Degree from the University of Pissing About on the Internet

I’ve just spoken at the opening plenary of the second day of the World Conference of Science Journalists at Doha, Qatar. It’s a panel called “Am I a science journalist?”with myself, my fellow Discover blogger Chris Mooney, Mo Costandi, Homayoun Kheyri, and Cristine Russell.

Here’s the description of the panel:

In the evolving world of science communication, how do we define a science journalist? This panel will discuss whether the venerable word “journalist” can or should be applied to some, all, or none of the new generation of science bloggers and educators who are remaking the field.

And this is what I said:

I want to talk about polar bears. Polar bears are famously in trouble because the ice of their Arctic home is melting. One of the consequences of this is that grizzly bears are encroaching into polar bear territory. These are two very similar species that tend to avoid each other, but they’re now being shoved into close contact. And they’re breeding – they’re creating hybrids called grolar bears.

I empathise with the grolar bear.

I’ve been writing a science blog called Not Exactly Rocket Science for 5 years. I’ve also been freelancing for magazines and newspapers for most of that time. I have variously called myself a science blogger, a science writer and a science journalist, and I know people who would disagree with the last of those. In five years, I have seen this “debate” about bloggers and journalists rear its head again and again. Do bloggers “count” as journalists? Are blogs journalism? And I’ve come to realise that this debate is exactly like the film Titanic: it is tedious, it goes on forever, everyone’s a caricature and they’re stuck on a massive sinking ship.

I am not kidding when I say that it goes on forever. I thought we were done with it years ago. But here’s BBC journalist Andrew Marr from last year: “Most bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting.” Of course, one cannot expect a columnist to let facts and reality get in the way of cheap rhetoric but indulge me for a moment, while I consider my reality.

When I write for my blog, I do so in exactly the same way as I would for a mainstream organisation. I ask whether stories are worth telling. I interview and quote people. I write in plain English. I provide context. I fact-check… a lot. I do not use press releases, much less copy them. I don’t even own pajamas.

My point, and it has been said many times before, is that blogs are simply software. They are a channel, a medium, a container for all sorts of things including journalism. Meanwhile, journalism is a craft. It is about involving accuracy, the collection of information, the telling of stories, that can be practiced anywhere by anyone with the right set of skills. It is not a newspaper. It is not a job title.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who starts writing or talking is automatically a journalist – there is more to it than that. But I am saying that anyone can be. I have no training in science journalism and I never did an internship. All I have is what I call my Masters from the University of Pissing About on the Internet. I almost stumbled into this profession, and there are many others taking the same weird amateur route.

Read more:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Scanning the Supermarket Barcode, from Punch Cards to Vanity Branding

Thirty-seven years ago today, a strange new computer technology entered the supermarket. On June 26, 1974, a white male by the name of Clyde Dawson entered Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. He loaded up his cart with groceries and approached the checkout line. The cashier that day was Sharon Buchanan. At 8:01 a.m., she picked a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum out of his cart and scanned it.

The gum has now been immortalized at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. That first scan signified a radical transformation of the supermarket, ushering in the era of the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.)—the nondescript, monochrome rectangle that adorns nearly every retail item we purchase. Today, it’s become a standard for consumer products in the electronic age.

It all started in Southern California, where grocery stores evolved into single-story supermarkets with names like McDaniel’s, Ralph’s Grocery Company, and Alpha Beta, according to Richard W. Longstreth’s The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941. Supermarkets were designed for one-stop shopping. Readily accessible by automobile? Check. Stocked with more products than ever before? Check. Low prices? Check. Personal attention? Unlikely. A systematic method for keeping track of their stocks? Not so much.

Soon, supermarkets began looking for ways to better manage an ever-increasing inventory. In 1932, a Harvard business student named Wallace Flint conceived of a punch-card system, much like the one developed for the 1890 U.S. Census, but the cards were easily damaged and the devices for reading them unwieldy. Then, in 1948, Bernie Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, began working with Joe Woodland on the idea of making the Morse Code visible. Woodland later took a job at IBM. His patent for the primitive bar code was eventually sold to Philco/RCA.

Read more:


By Mark Slouka, Paris Review

It was raining as they drove out of Tacoma that morning. When the first car appeared he could see it from a long way off, dragging a cloud of mist like a parachute, and when it passed he touched the wipers to clear things up and his mind flashed to a scene of a black road, still wet, running toward mountains larded with snow like fatty meat. For some reason it made him happy, and he hadn’t been happy in a while. By seven the rain was over. The line of open sky in the east was razor sharp.

He looked over at the miniature jeans, the sweatshirt bunched beneath the seat belt’s strap, the hiking boots dangling off the floor like weights. “You OK?” he said. “You have to pee?” He slowed and drove the car onto the shoulder and the boy got out to pee. He looked at him standing on that rise in the brome and the bunchgrass, his little hips pushed forward. When the boy walked back to the car he swung the door open for him, then reached over and pulled the door shut and bumped out on the empty road.

Not much had changed, really. A half hour out of Hoquiam he began to see the clear-cuts through the firs: a strange, white light, as if the world dropped away fifty feet out from the pavement. He hoped the boy wouldn’t notice. The two of them had been talking about what to do if you saw a mountain lion (don’t run, never run), and what they’d have for lunch. Twenty minutes later they were past it, and the light behind the trees had disappeared.

He’d been at the house by dawn, as he’d promised. He sat in the driveway for a while looking at the yard, the azaleas he’d planted, the grass in the yard beaten flat by the rain. For a long time he hadn’t wanted her back, hadn’t wanted much of anything, really. He went inside, wiping his shoes and ducking his head like a visitor, and when the boy came running into the living room he threw him over his shoulder, careful not to hit his head on the corner of the TV, and at some point he saw her watching them, leaning against the kitchen counter in her bathrobe, and when he looked at her she shook her head and looked away and at that moment he thought, maybe—maybe he could make this right.

The forest-service road had grown over so much that only his memory of where it had been told him where to turn off. The last nine miles would take them an hour. This is it, kid, the old man would say whenever they turned off the main road, you excited? Every year. The car lurched and swayed, the grass hissing against the undercarriage. He could see him, standing in the river hacking his lungs out, laying out an eighty-foot line. “Almost there,” he said to the little boy next to him. “You excited?”

He slowed under the trees to let his eyes adjust and when he rolled down the window the air shoved in and he could hear the white noise of the river. God, how he needed this place, the nests of vines like something scratched out, the furred trunks, soft with rot. He’d been waiting for this a long time. A low vine scraped against the roof. He smiled. Go ahead and scrape, you fucker, he thought, scrape it all.

Eight years. It didn’t seem that long. Where the valley widened out he could see what the winter had left behind: the gouged-out pools, the sixty-foot trunks rammed into the deadfalls, the circles of upturned roots like giant blossoms of Queen Anne’s lace. A gust of warmer air shoved in: vegetation, sunlight, the slow fire of decay. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to know how to go, how to keep things alive. Sometimes the vise got so tight you could forget there was anything good left in the world. But he’d been talking about this place—the rivers, the elk, the steelhead in the pools—since the boy was old enough to understand. And now it was here. He looked at the water, rushing slowly like flowing glass over car-size boulders nudged together like eggs.

He explained it all as they lay out their things in the mossy parking place at the road’s end. The trail continued across the Quinault; they’d ford the river, then walk about three miles to an old settler’s barn where they could spend the night. They’d set up their tent inside anyway because the roof was pretty well gone. Of course they’d have a campfire—there was a fire ring right there—and sometimes, if you were quiet, herds of elk would graze in the meadow at dusk.

When they came out of the trees and onto the stony beach he felt a small shock, as if he were looking at a house he’d grown up in but now barely recognized. The river was bigger than he remembered it, stronger; it moved like a swiftly flowing field. He didn’t remember the opposite shore being so far off. He stood there, listening to it seething in its bed, to the inane chatter of the pebbles in the shallows, the hollow tock of the stones knocking against each other in the deeper water. Downstream, a branch caught in a deadfall reared up like something shot, then tore loose. For a moment he considered pulling out, explaining . . . but there was nowhere else to go. And he’d promised.

“Well there she is,” he said.

They took off their packs and squatted down next to each other on the embankment. “You want to take your time, kiddo,” he said. “People in a hurry get in trouble.” The boy nodded, very serious. He’d bring their packs over and then come right back for him. It would take a little while, but he’d be able to see him the whole time. He’d wave when he got to the other side.

He took off his pants and socks and boots, stuffed the pants and socks into the top of the pack, then tied the boots back on over his bare feet. The boy’s weightless blue backpack, fat with his sleeping bag and teddy bear, he strapped to the top as well, then swung the whole thing on his back. No belt. He looked at the boy. “First rule of river crossing—never buckle your waist belt. If you go down, you have to be able to get your pack off as quickly as possible, OK?” The boy nodded. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

It wasn’t too bad. He took it slow, carefully planting the stick downstream with his right arm, resisting the urge to look back. Ten yards out the water rose above his knees and he slowed even more, feeling for the edges of the rocks with his boots, moving from security to security. The heavier current swept the stick before it touched the bottom, making it harder to control, and he began drawing it out and stabbing it down ahead of himself and slightly upstream to make up for the drift, and then he was on the long, gravelly flat and across. He threw down the packs and looked back. The boy was just where he’d left him, sitting on the rocks, hugging his knees. He waved quickly and started back. You just had to be careful. So what do you do if you fall? he remembered asking once—how old could he have been, seventeen?—and the old man calling back over his shoulder, “Don’t fuckin’ fall.”

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Inside Google+ How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social

Google, the world’s largest search company, is formally making its pitch to become a major force in social networking. The product it announced Tuesday is called Google+, and observers might wonder whether it’s simply one more social effort by a company that’s had a lousy track record in that field to date.

‘On Facebook I overshare. On Twitter, I undershare. If Google hits that spot in the middle, we can revolutionize social interaction.’ — Shimrit Ben-Yair, product manager in charge of the social graph.

Parts of it certainly seem to appear similar to what we’ve seen before. One significant component is a continuous scroll called “the stream” that’s an alternative to Facebook’s news feed — a hub of personalized content. It has a companion called “Sparks,” related to one’s specified interests. Together they are designed to be a primary attention-suck of Google users. Google hopes that eventually people will gravitate to the stream in the same way that members of Facebook or Twitter constantly check those continuous scrolls of personalized information.

The second important app is Circles, an improved way to share information with one’s friends, family, contacts and the public at large. It’s an management tool that’s a necessary component of any social network — a way to organize (and recruit) fellow members of the service.

But as I learned in almost year of following the project’s development, with multiple interviews with the team and its executives, Google+ is not a typical release. Developed under the code name Emerald Sea, it is the result of a lengthy and urgent effort involving almost all of the company’s products. Hundreds of engineers were involved in the effort. It has been a key focus for new CEO Larry Page.

The parts announced Tuesday represent only a portion of Google’s plans. In an approach the company refers to as “rolling thunder,” Google has been quietly been pushing out pieces of its ambitious social strategy — there are well over 100 launches on its calendar. When some launches were greeted by yawns, the Emerald Sea team leaders weren’t ruffled at all — lack of drama is part of the plan. Google has consciously refrained from contextualizing those products into its overall strategy.

That will begin now, with the announcement of the two centerpieces of Google+. But even this moment — revealed in a blog post that marks the first limited “field tests” outside the company — will be muted, because it marks just one more milestone in a long, tough slog to remake Google into something more “people-centric.”

“We’re transforming Google itself into a social destination at a level and scale that we’ve never attempted — orders of magnitude more investment, in terms of people, than any previous project,” says Vic Gundotra, who leads Google’s social efforts.

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Embrace Lovers-II by egon-Schiele, 1917

How China Sees The World

by Thanassis Cambanis

The specter of a China with rising influence in the world has long provoked anxiety here in America. Like a speeding car that suddenly fills the rearview mirror, China has grown stronger and bolder and has done it quickly: Not only does it hold colossal amounts of American currency and boast a favorable trade deficit, it has increasingly been able to play the heavy with other nations. China is forging commercial relationships with African and Middle Eastern countries that can provide it natural resources, and has the clout to press its prerogatives in more local disputes with its Asian neighbors—including last week’s face-off with Vietnam in the South China Sea.

With China emerging more forcefully onto the world stage, understanding its foreign policy is becoming increasingly important. But what exactly is that policy, and how is it made?

As scholars look deeper into China’s approach to the world around it, what they are finding there is sometimes surprising. Rather than the veiled product of a centralized, disciplined Communist Party machine, Chinese policy is ever more complex and fluid—and shaped by a lively and very polarized internal debate with several competing power centers.

There’s a clear tug of war between hard-liners who favor a nationalist, even chauvinist stance and more globally minded thinkers who want China to tread lightly and integrate more smoothly into international regimes. And the Chinese public might be pushing a China-first mentality more than its leadership. Scholars believe that the boisterous nativism on display in China’s online forums appears to be a major factor pushing Chinese foreign policy in a more hard-line direction.

Today, for all its economic might, China still isn’t considered a global superpower. Its military doesn’t have worldwide reach, and its economy, while prolific, still hasn’t made the transition to producing technology rather than just goods for the world marketplace. Because of its sheer size and the dispatch with which it has moved from Third World economy to industrial powerhouse, however, China’s arrival as a power is considered inevitable.

As it does, understanding its foreign policy becomes only more important. Overall, the contours of its internal policy debates suggest a China that’s more isolated, unsure, and in transition than its often aggressive rhetoric would suggest. The candid discussion underway in China’s own public sphere underscores that China’s positions are still under negotiation. And one thing that emerges is a picture of a powerful state that is refreshingly direct in engaging questions about how to behave in the world as it embarks on what it fully expects will be China’s century.

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Million-Dollar Murray

by Malcolm Gladwell

Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.

Murray Barr was a bear of a man, an ex-marine, six feet tall and heavyset, and when he fell down—which he did nearly every day—it could take two or three grown men to pick him up. He had straight black hair and olive skin. On the street, they called him Smokey. He was missing most of his teeth. He had a wonderful smile. People loved Murray.

His chosen drink was vodka. Beer he called "horse piss." On the streets of downtown Reno, where he lived, he could buy a two-hundred-and-fifty-millilitre bottle of cheap vodka for a dollar-fifty. If he was flush, he could go for the seven-hundred-and-fifty-millilitre bottle, and if he was broke he could always do what many of the other homeless people of Reno did, which is to walk through the casinos and finish off the half-empty glasses of liquor left at the gaming tables.

"If he was on a runner, we could pick him up several times a day," Patrick O'Bryan, who is a bicycle cop in downtown Reno, said. "And he's gone on some amazing runners. He would get picked up, get detoxed, then get back out a couple of hours later and start up again. A lot of the guys on the streets who've been drinking, they get so angry. They are so incredibly abrasive, so violent, so abusive. Murray was such a character and had such a great sense of humor that we somehow got past that. Even when he was abusive, we'd say, 'Murray, you know you love us,' and he'd say, 'I know—and go back to swearing at us."

"I've been a police officer for fifteen years," O'Bryan's partner, Steve Johns, said. "I picked up Murray my whole career. Literally."

Johns and O'Bryan pleaded with Murray to quit drinking. A few years ago, he was assigned to a treatment program in which he was under the equivalent of house arrest, and he thrived. He got a job and worked hard. But then the program ended. "Once he graduated out, he had no one to report to, and he needed that," O'Bryan said. "I don't know whether it was his military background. I suspect that it was. He was a good cook. One time, he accumulated savings of over six thousand dollars. Showed up for work religiously. Did everything he was supposed to do. They said, 'Congratulations,' and put him back on the street. He spent that six thousand in a week or so."

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image credit: Eric Pouhier

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret

by Ted Genoways

On the cut-and-kill floor of Quality Pork Processors Inc. in Austin, Minnesota, the wind always blows. From the open doors at the docks where drivers unload massive trailers of screeching pigs, through to the "warm room" where the hogs are butchered, to the plastic-draped breezeway where the parts are handed over to Hormel for packaging, the air gusts and swirls, whistling through the plant like the current in a canyon. In the first week of December 2006, Matthew Garcia felt feverish and chilled on the blustery production floor. He fought stabbing back pains and nausea, but he figured it was just the flu—and he was determined to tough it out.

Garcia had gotten on at QPP only 12 weeks before and had been stuck with one of the worst spots on the line: running a device known simply as the "brain machine"—the last stop on a conveyor line snaking down the middle of a J-shaped bench called the "head table." Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. They scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible ("everything but the squeal," wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman next to Garcia would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.

On the other side, Garcia inserted the metal nozzle of a 90-pounds-per-square-inch compressed-air hose and blasted the pigs' brains into a pink slurry. One head every three seconds. A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket. (Some workers say the goo looked like Pepto-Bismol; others describe it as more like a lumpy strawberry milkshake.) When the 10-pound barrel was filled, another worker would come to take the brains for shipping to Asia, where they are used as a thickener in stir-fry. Most days that fall, production was so fast that the air never cleared between blasts, and the mist would slick workers at the head table in a grisly mix of brains and blood and grease.

Tasks at the head table are literally numbing. The steady hum of the automatic Whizard knives gives many workers carpal tunnel syndrome. And all you have to do is wait in the parking lot at shift change to see the shambling gait that comes from standing in one spot all day on the line. For eight hours, Garcia stood, slipping heads onto the brain machine's nozzle, pouring the glop into the drain, then dropping the empty skulls down a chute. And then, as the global economy hit the skids and demand for cheap meat skyrocketed, QPP pushed for more and more overtime. By early December, Garcia would return home spent, his back and head throbbing. But this was more than ordinary exhaustion or some winter virus. On December 11, Garcia awoke to find he couldn't walk. His legs felt dead, paralyzed.

His family rushed him to the Austin Medical Center, not far from the subdivided Victorian they rented on Third Street. Doctors there sent Garcia to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, about an hour away. By the time he arrived, he was running a high fever and complaining of piercing headaches. He underwent a battery of exams, including MRIs of his head and back. Every test revealed neurological abnormalities, most importantly a severe spinal-cord inflammation, apparently caused by an autoimmune response. It was as if his body was attacking his nerves.

By Christmas, Garcia had been bedridden for two weeks, and baffled doctors feared he might be suicidal. They sent a psychiatrist to prepare him for life in a wheelchair.

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War on Rats

In his dystopian science fiction novel "1984," George Orwell described the rat as "the worst thing in the world." His protagonist, Winston Smith, is not alone in his fear and loathing; musophobia, or the fear of mice and rats, is one of the most common phobias known to man. Anyone who's spent a decent amount of time in a major city has at least a couple of horror stories involving rodents (or in the case of New Yorkers, six to 12). As upsetting as it may be to spy them scuttling along your local subway platform, the havoc wrought by infestations on the island of Manhattan pales in comparison to that of the ecologically fragile archipelagos in the Aleutians and New Zealand.

In his new book, "Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue," wildlife writer William Stolzenburg reveals that these feral little beasts, most of which have been introduced to the islands by man, are destroying native bird populations one pilfered egg at a time. The stakes are higher than they may appear. Many of these rodent transplants threaten to drive several species to extinction and quicken our planet's already rapid rate of biotic impoverishment. Stolzenburg offers a fascinating, if occasionally grisly, peek into the emerging science of preservation through eradication, as conservationists scattered across the five oceans have begun independent campaigns to save their islands' endangered species from one of our greatest biological weapons: the rat.

Over the phone, we discussed the ethics of extermination, the ways in which rodents (even rats) are often misunderstood -- and the perilous state of our planet's biodiversity.

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by Larry David

On the par-3, 175-yard fourteenth hole at Riviera, I hit my tee shot a mere ninety yards and a physics-defying thirty degrees to the right—almost sideways. It’s a miracle I got my right leg out of the way, or I could have shattered it with the club. As I walked to the ball, I remarked to my friend that after seventeen years of playing this course I’d never seen someone hit a ball anywhere near where mine ended up. He had never seen it, either. “What’s more,” I said, “I couldn’t care less.” My friend was taken aback. But I meant it. I didn’t care, and I didn’t particularly care about the next shot, either. I felt liberated, not unlike the way I felt when my wife left me, except this time I didn’t take up skipping.

Finally, after years of pain and struggle, I had accepted the fact that I would never be a good golfer. No matter how many hours I practiced, no matter how many instructors I saw, how many books and magazines I read, or how many teaching aids I tried. Then it hit me. According to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book “On Death and Dying,” Acceptance was the final stage of grief that terminal patients experience before dying, the others being Anger, Denial, Bargaining, and Depression. I was in the final stage! When I started thinking about it, I realized that I’d gone through every one of those stages, but not as a terminal patient . . . as a golfer.

My first stage: Anger. There was a time when I was always angry on the course. Driving fast in the cart. Throwing clubs. Constantly berating myself. “You stink, four-eyes! You stink at everything. You can’t even open a bottle of wine! You can’t swipe a credit card at the drugstore! You can’t swipe. And you’ve never even been to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim! And call your parents, you selfish bastard!” Then I’d walk off the course and vow never to play again, only to return the following week for more of the same. I hardly ever finished a round. Once, I bought a brand-new set of clubs, and then, after a particularly terrible day, I gave them to the caddy at the sixteenth hole and left.

The Anger phase lasted for years, and then I entered the next phase, Denial. “All I need are some lessons,” I told myself. “Why should everyone else be able to do it and not me? Why are they good? I’m coördinated. I have a jump shot! I can go to my left. Obviously I have it in me. I have it in me! Next year, I’ll go to Orlando and spend a week taking lessons with Leadbetter. I don’t care what it costs. How can you spend a week with Leadbetter and not get better? It’s impossible.” But I did, and I didn’t.

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image credit:  Vector_Golf by DaPino Webdesign

Looking for Someone

by Nick Paumgarten

“Internet dating” is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t date online, you meet people online. It’s a search mechanism. The question is, is it a better one than, say, taking up hot yoga, attending a lot of book parties, or hitting happy hour at Tony Roma’s?

In the fall of 1964, on a visit to the World’s Fair, in Queens, Lewis Altfest, a twenty-five-year-old accountant, came upon an open-air display called the Parker Pen Pavilion, where a giant computer clicked and whirred at the job of selecting foreign pen pals for curious pavilion visitors. You filled out a questionnaire, fed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale—your ideal match. Altfest thought this was pretty nifty. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I.B.M., and they began considering ways to adapt this approach to find matches closer to home. They’d heard about some students at Harvard who’d come up with a program called Operation Match, which used a computer to find dates for people. A year later, Altfest and Ross had a prototype, which they called Project TACT, an acronym for Technical Automated Compatibility Testing—New York City’s first computer-dating service.

Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. One section asked subjects to choose from a list of “dislikes”: “1. Affected people. 2. Birth control. 3. Foreigners. 4. Free love. 5. Homosexuals. 6. Interracial marriage,” and so on. Another question, in a section called “Philosophy of Life Values,” read, “Had I the ability I would most like to do the work of (choose two): (1) Schweitzer. (2) Einstein. (3) Picasso.” Some of the questions were gender-specific. Men were asked to rank drawings of women’s hair styles: a back-combed updo, a Patty Duke bob. Women were asked to look at a trio of sketches of men in various settings, and to say where they’d prefer to find their ideal man: in camp chopping wood, in a studio painting a canvas, or in a garage working a pillar drill. TACT transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I.B.M. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man.

In the beginning, TACT was restricted to the Upper East Side, an early sexual-revolution testing ground. The demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated subway line set off a building boom and a white-collar influx, most notably of young educated women who suddenly found themselves free of family, opprobrium, and, thanks to birth control, the problem of sexual consequence. Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on.

Over time, TACT expanded to the rest of New York. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. Ross and Altfest enjoyed a brief media blitz. They wound up in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune and in Cosmopolitan. The Cosmo correspondent’s first match was with a gym teacher who told her over the phone that his favorite sport was “indoor wrestling—with girls.” (He stood her up, complaining of a backache.) One of TACT’s print advertisements featured a photograph of a beautiful blond woman. “Some people think Computer dating services attract only losers,” the copy read, quoting a TACT subscriber. “This loser happens to be a talented fashion illustrator for one of New York’s largest advertising agencies. She makes Quiche Lorraine, plays chess, and like me she loves to ski. Some loser!”

One day, a woman named Patricia Lahrmer, from 1010 WINS, a local radio station, came to TACT to do an interview. She was the station’s first female reporter, and she had chosen, as her début feature, a three-part story on how New York couples meet. (A previous installment had been about a singles bar—Maxwell’s Plum, on the Upper East Side, one of the first that so-called “respectable” single women could patronize on their own.) She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross. The batteries died on her tape recorder, so they made a date to finish the interview later that week, which turned into dinner for two. They started seeing each other, and two years afterward they were married. Ross had hoped that TACT would help him meet someone, and, in a way, it had.

After a couple of years, Ross grew bored with TACT and went into finance instead. He and Lahrmer moved to London. Looking back now, he says that he considered computer dating to be little more than a gimmick and a fad.

The process of selecting and securing a partner, whether for conceiving and rearing children, or for enhancing one’s socioeconomic standing, or for attempting motel-room acrobatics, or merely for finding companionship in a cold and lonely universe, is as consequential as it can be inefficient or irresolute. Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstance—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute.

Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way. They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand. They rely on algorithms, those often proprietary mathematical equations and processes which make it possible to perform computational feats beyond the reach of the naked brain. Some add an extra layer of projection and interpretation; they adhere to a certain theory of compatibility, rooted in psychology or brain chemistry or genetic coding, or they define themselves by other, more readily obvious indicators of similitude, such as race, religion, sexual predilection, sense of humor, or musical taste. There are those which basically allow you to browse through profiles as you would boxes of cereal on a shelf in the store. Others choose for you; they bring five boxes of cereal to your door, ask you to select one, and then return to the warehouse with the four others. Or else they leave you with all five.

It is tempting to think of online dating as a sophisticated way to address the ancient and fundamental problem of sorting humans into pairs, except that the problem isn’t very old. Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out. Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves. The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac. Happiness, self-fulfillment, “me time,” a woman’s needs: these didn’t rate. As for romantic love, it was an almost mutually exclusive category of human experience. As much as it may have evolved, in the human animal, as a motivation system for mate-finding, it was rarely given great consideration in the final reckoning of conjugal choice.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Under the Radar

[ed.  Yani  won yet another major today and is the most dominant player on either tour.  What's the matter with the media?  I guess if you're a woman you have to be photogenic (e.g., Michele Wie, Paula Creamer) to garner much attention these days, despite your achievements.]

Maybe Yani Tseng should try ordering pints of Guinness.

Nothing else seems to have attracted a sliver of the attention golf's best female player deserves. And if you happen to be asking, "Who is Yani Tseng?'' thanks for making our point.

Northern Ireland's chubby-cheeked Rory McIlroy is 22 years old, and he won the U.S. Open on Sunday for his first major championship. McIlroy has golf falling all over itself to raise a mug of his country's favorite ale in celebration.

Tseng, meanwhile, is 22 years old, a native of Taiwan, and tees off in Thursday's opening round of the LPGA Championship with the world's No. 1 ranking and three majors already under her belt.

"It is pretty spectacular," LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said.

Unfortunately for Tseng, comparing the PGA Tour and the LPGA isn't apples to oranges -- it's oceans to lakes, Costco to Joe's Corner Market.

Still, at some point and by any yardstick, doesn't Tseng's level of excellence deserve acknowledgment?

"I am still trying to work on that," Tseng said after an early-week practice round, with barely a shrug to the suggestion of unfairness. "I tell myself if I play better and play good, more people will put attention on me."

Is that possible? Look at what Tseng is doing right now.

In the four-plus seasons since Tseng turned professional in 2007, she has recorded 15 worldwide victories, including seven on the LPGA tour.

Oh yeah, and after Thursday's opening round at Locust Hill Country Club, she's on top of the leaderboard at 6-under par, one shot in front of American Paula Creamer.

"I hit lots of fairways," Tseng said. "This course is tight. So narrow. I just hit it on the fairways. More chances to put it on the green. More chances for birdie."

Tseng's first LPGA win came in the 2008 LPGA Championship, making her, at the time, the youngest major winner in the tour's history. Last year she added the Kraft Nabisco and the Women's British to become the youngest LPGA player to win three majors.

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Taster's Choice

by Frederick Kaufman

It’s springtime in Colombia, and coffee experts from every part of the globe have convened in Santa Marta, a small city on the Caribbean coast. It is time to award the coffee industry’s most prestigious prize. The taste mavens make ready: Alberto Trujillo is deep into his pre-sip calisthenics, which consist of knee bends and alternating leg shakes. The Tijuanan has to prime his body, nose, and mouth for the so-called cupping that’s about to commence. As any java snob can tell you, to cup is to scrutinize the tastes and aromas of freshly brewed coffee. But Trujillo is no ordinary java snob, and what he’s girding for is no ordinary cupping. He has been certified by the Coffee Quality Institute as a licensed Q Grader, a person who can boast experience in everything from roast identification to sensory triangulation. And he’s about to serve as a judge in the annual Cup of Excellence competition.

Alongside Trujillo stands Geoff Watts, vice president of coffee and an unroasted-bean buyer for the Chicago gourmet retailer Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea (winner of Roast magazine’s 2007 Macro-Roaster of the Year award). It’s early morning, the day’s competition will begin in short order, and Watts is sucking deep breaths, recalibrating his olfactory system, waiting for his mouth to reset. “Toothpaste is insidious,” he murmurs.

Trujillo, Watts, and 18 other coffee connoisseurs will soon sample the 29 brews that have made it to the semifinals. Ten of these sit in front of each judge, in identical white cups with only a number to identify them, meticulously arranged in 20 straight lines on six broad tables. Each cup holds 11.5 grams of ground beans, measured out to the hundredth of a gram.

The competition began four weeks before, when 513 fincas (farms) from across this coffee-obsessed nation submitted samples of their finest unroasted beans. Now, after marathon tasting sessions with Colombian judges, the contestants have been whittled down to the chosen few displayed on the white tablecloths of this convention center. In the three hour-long cupping trials that will soon commence, a panel of internationally renowned tasters will reject half of the remaining lots. Tomorrow Trujillo, Watts, and their cohorts will rank Colombia’s top coffees and name the champion.

The vibe among the judges is more geeky than gastronomical. The majority of them are roasting techs and quality-control wonks decked out in socks and sandals. Now they advance toward the cupping tables, clutching clipboards and calculators. Meanwhile, the heavyset chief judge, Paul Songer, tells me about the future of his noble calling. He earned his tasting bona fides after a two-year program in Applied Sensory and Consumer Science at UC Davis, and he believes that coffee gourmandism has the potential to rival oenophilia’s cultish obsessiveness. Watts notes that while the fruit of the vine incorporates about 200 different taste-bestowing elements, more than 800 distinct flavor- and aroma-imparting compounds have been detected in java. “In 30 years or so,” he says, “our taste in coffee will match our taste in wine.”

Of course, this bold future of coffee is already here — it’s just insufficiently blended. The elaborate rituals of, say, a Blue Bottle coffee shop already make a $4 Starbucks latte look like Folgers. But the fetishization of coffee has yet to extend beyond an elite circle of urban stimulant junkies. It will take all the business acumen and marketing wherewithal of coffee nerds like Songer and Watts to see the rest of us through to the day when the humble bean will become one of the most carefully cultivated crops in the world, when a cup of joe will explode into a stratosphere of price and a near-infinite selection of exotic varietals, each as renowned in its own right as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Everyone in this room is banking on the prospect.

The first Cup of Excellence competition was held 12 years ago in Brazil. Any farmer in the nation could submit beans for consideration. A panel of importers, roasters, and expert sippers selected a winner, which was then sold for exorbitant sums in an Internet auction. Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, masterminded the format, which was exported to countries across Latin America and to Rwanda. She now has her eyes set on Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania. “Cup of Excellence has completely changed the infrastructure of how coffees are sold,” she says.

Once upon a time, coffee-growing countries were focused solely on maximizing the volume of beans produced. But the more that bean quality has affected price, the more impassioned coffee-producing nations have become about divergent strains and varietals. At last year’s Colombian Cup of Excellence, the winning beans, called Finca La Loma, caused a scandal. They garnered a score of 94.92, the highest in the history of the Colombian coffee industry, and judges declared that the velvety brew was exceptionally sweet and smacked of clover and watermelon. A 2,000-pound microlot sold at auction to a consortium of international buyers for $40.09 a pound, which translated to a staggering street value of $260 a kilo in Japan.

All this was good news for the peasant who produced Finca La Loma on his 20-acre coffee patch. But it was also good news for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, a nonprofit that represents the country’s half million growers. The organization, known by the nickname Fedecafé, trumpeted the fact that Finca La Loma was Castillo, a newfangled bean varietal bred by its scientific arm. This hybrid had been designed to withstand the dreaded Colombian coffee rust, a fungus that can devastate entire fincas. At Fedecafé’s behest, growers across the country had ripped out heirloom strains like Bourbon, Caturra, and Típica and replaced them with Castillo. But some farmers resisted, largely because they were not convinced that Castillo tasted quite as delicioso as Colombia’s traditional varietals.

Soon after Finca La Loma’s victory, dark rumors began to circulate suggesting that the winning bean was in fact a Caturra strain, delicate and vulnerable to coffee rust but renowned for taste. This was no picayune point of contention, for Colombia had recently registered its lowest level of coffee production in more than three decades. Castillo was supposed to save the industry from what The New York Times dubbed “peak coffee.” Now the Fedecafè9’s creation had been besmirched.

Cafecert, an independent coffee auditor, examined the disputed results, and while it could have deployed near-infrared spectrometry to differentiate between the chemical makeup of Caturra and Castillo, the auditors opted instead to visit the finca and count coffee trees. At which point the truth emerged: The Finca La Loma blend was about 30 percent Castillo—not the PR coup Fedecafé was hoping for, but not totally embarrassing either. The international scandal fizzled into a low-grade brew-haha, but it illustrated just how much the Cup of Excellence has come to matter to the growers, buyers, and comandantes who inhabit this new universe of coffee.

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Driverless Cars Legal in Nevada

[ed.  Crashing your computer now takes on a whole new meaning.]

We recently told you that Google was lobbying Nevada legislators to make driverless cars legal on state roads, and now it’s official – Assembly Bill No 511 just passed! The legislature makes it legal for Google’s automated Prius and Audi TT fleet to cruise Nevada roads. But this isn’t just about the next industry Google is aiming to take over – read on for a closer look.

Several companies have been working hard to create technologies that bridge the gap between today’s driver assistance tech and what they see as tomorrow’s driverless cars. The idea behind this is that driverless cars could avoid more crashes caused by distracted driving.

But just how far can this go – would you trust your car to drive you to work? And who will write the software to make this possible? We know one thing for sure: we’d rather have a Google, Apple or Linux car than risk the Microsoft blue screen of death while traveling 80 miles an hour to work. Check out the video below to see what Mashable thought of the driverless fleet.