Wednesday, August 31, 2011

So You've Decided to Drink More Water

by Mallory Ortberg

On the first day, you make the decision. “I’m going to drink more water,” you say. “Eight glasses a day, to start with. Maybe more.” Suddenly you realize the break room has gone silent. The sun sinks below the horizon as a sign of respect. You begin right away, finishing the cup of water already in your hand.

The next morning, you open your eyes after eight uninterrupted hours of deep sleep. The sun spills through the window onto the fresh white linens on your bed, and a glass of water sits on your nightstand, sparkling in the morning light. You drink it and realize that you no longer have the urge to eat breakfast. The water is enough.

Later, on the subway, a beautiful, serene older woman comes over to you and lays her gloved hand gently on your arm. “Your skin,” she murmurs. “It’s positively glowing. So fresh. So luminous. May I ask — it’s water, isn’t it?” You smile. She plants a tender kiss on your forehead and glides away.

A week passes. You go in for your yearly physical. “I don’t understand,” your doctor mutters as she looks at your chart. “A woman your age — it just doesn’t make any sense.” You shift nervously on the papered table. “Your body doesn’t have a single toxin. They’ve all disappeared. It’s as if something just ... flushed them away overnight.” She shakes her head. “I’m not even sure how to tell you this. Have you found yourself experiencing a decreased appetite lately? Difficulty finishing meals?” You nod, unsure of where this is going. “This is extremely rare, but your entire digestive system has been transmuted into pure mother-of-pearl.”

“I see,” you say slowly. You pull a bottle of water out of your purse and take a sip, and her face breaks into a relieved smile. “You didn’t tell me you’d started drinking water! Eight glasses of water a day? Of course! Is that why every inch of your skin is radiating a soft and healthy glow?” You nod again. She laughs and takes off her stethoscope. “I can see we won’t be needing this anymore!”

You start to carry water with you everywhere. Sometimes after getting home from work you drink from the kitchen faucet in great, hiccuping gulps. In no time at all you’ve moved from eight cups a day to a few gallons. Anyone else might have died of hyponatremia by now, but not you. You only grow stronger and more beautiful.

Every publication in the world, from The Lancet to Maxim to Mother Jones, wants to know your secret. “Tell us,” they beg you. Their eyes are hungry (thirsty?). “We have to know. How do you do it?” You sigh exquisitely. “I just like to drink water,” you tell them. Still their eyes bore into yours, pleading. “Sometimes I put a slice of cucumber or lemon in it. For the taste.” Upon hearing these words, an envious Anna Wintour sets herself on fire.

Grown men sink to their knees as you pass, their faces crumpling into shameless sobs. Mothers lift their children up to you in mute and expectant appeal. You bless them all.

Every country in the world bans the drinking of any beverage other than water. All droughts cease; deserts erupt in a riot of frondescence. You twirl in delight, slowly at first, round and round, as the entire world joins you in drinking more water. Everyone is drinking more water now. A soft, cool rain begins to fall. “She’s the one,” you hear someone whisper before you ascend to a plane of existence where human vocalizations no longer mean anything to you. “The one who drinks a lot of water.”


A Matter of Life and Death

[ed.  Ms. Williams died in January 2005, at the age of 47.  This is a clear-eyed and poignant memoir about her battle with cancer and the process of assimilating life's finality.  Different from all other stories and definitely worth reading.]

by Marjorie Williams

The beast first showed its face benignly, in the late-June warmth of a California swimming pool, and it would take me more than a year to know it for what it was. Willie and I were lolling happily in the sunny shallow end of my in-laws’ pool when he—then only seven—said, “Mommy, you’re getting thinner.”

It was true, I realized with some pleasure. Those intractable 10 or 15 pounds that had settled in over the course of two pregnancies: hadn’t they seemed, lately, to be melting away? I had never gained enough weight to think about trying very hard to lose it, except for sporadic, failed commitments to the health club. But I’d carried—for so many years I hardly noticed it—an unpleasant sensation of being more cushiony than I wanted to be. And now, without trying, I’d lost at least five pounds, perhaps even eight.

I suppose I fell into the smug assumption that I had magically restored the lucky metabolism of my 20s and 30s, when it had been easy for me to carry between 110 and 120 pounds on a frame of five feet six inches. True, in the months before Willie’s observation, I’d been working harder, and more happily, than I had in years—burning more fuel through later nights and busier days. I’d also been smoking, an old habit I’d fallen into again two years earlier, bouncing back and forth between quitting and succumbing, working up to something like eight cigarettes a day.

Of course Willie noticed it first, I now think: children major in the study of their mothers, and Willie has the elder child’s umbilical awareness of me. But how is it that I didn’t even question a weight loss striking enough for a child to speak up about? I was too happy enjoying this unexpected gift to question it even briefly: the American woman’s yearning for thinness is so deeply a part of me that it never crossed my mind that a weight loss could herald something other than good fortune.

As it happened, I took up running about a month later, in concert with quitting smoking for good. By the end of the summer I was running about four miles a day, at least five days a week. And with all that exercise I found I could eat pretty much anything I wanted without worrying about my weight. So more weight melted away, and the steady weight loss that might have warned me something was going badly wrong disguised itself instead as the reward for all those pounding steps I was taking through the chill of early fall, the sting of winter, the beauty of spring’s beginning. I went from around 126 pounds, in the spring of 2000, to about 109 a year later.

Somewhere in there my period became irregular—first it was late, then it stopped altogether. Well, I’d heard of this: women who exercise heavily sometimes do become amenorrheic. I discussed it with my gynecologist in January, and he agreed it was no real cause for alarm. He checked my hormone levels and found I definitely hadn’t hit perimenopause, but what I most remember about that visit is the amazed approval with which he commented on the good shape I was in.

Around that time—I can’t pinpoint exactly when—I began to have hot flashes, almost unnoticeable at first, gradually increasing in intensity. Well, I said to myself, I must be perimenopausal after all; a gynecologist friend told me that hormone levels can fluctuate so much that the test my doctor had done wasn’t necessarily the last word on the subject.

Then one day in April I was lying on my back, talking idly on the telephone (strangely, I don’t remember to whom), and running my hand up and down my now deliciously scrawny stomach. And just like that I felt it: a mass, about the size of a small apricot, on the lower right side of my abdomen. My mind swung sharply into focus: Have I ever felt this thing before, this lump? Well, who knows, maybe this is a part of my anatomy I was just never aware of before—I had always had a little layer of fat between my skin and the mysteries of the innards. Maybe there was some part of the intestine that felt that way, and I had just never been thin enough to notice it before.

You know how you’ve always wondered about it: Would you notice if you had a sudden lump? Would you be sensible enough to do something about it? How would your mind react? For all of us, those wonderings have a luxuriantly melodramatic quality. Because surely that isn’t really how it works; you don’t just stumble onto the fact that you have a lethal cancer while you’re gabbing on the phone like a teenager. Surely you can’t have a death sentence so close to the surface, just resting there, without your being in some other way aware of it.

Read more:

Black Shine On Black Matte Manicure

[ed.  Looks cool.]

The Most Poisonous Rivalry in Sports

by Ben Austen

Last January, two weeks after the Auburn Tigers vanquished the Oregon Ducks for the national championship, Paul Finebaum, the host of a radio sports show in Birmingham, took a call from a listener who went by the name "Al." Al's real name, police would later learn, was Harvey Updyke. A 62-year-old retired Texas highway patrolman, Updyke had moved to Alabama only two years before to be close to his favorite football team, the Crimson Tide. His first year in his new home, he'd attained sports-fan nirvana. The Tide had won the 2009 national title, and Updyke had been in the stands to see it. His second year in Alabama was more like sports-fan hell.

In November he'd pilgrimaged to Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl, the regular-season Auburn-Alabama showdown. In the second half, the Tigers overcame a twenty-four-point deficit to humiliate the Tide on their home field, 28–27. On Finebaum's show, Bama partisans harped on the illegitimacy of Auburn's star quarterback, Cam Newton, who was nearly banned from the game after it was discovered his father had shopped him around as part of a pay-for-play scheme. For them, the Iron Bowl proved that Auburn could win only by cheating, that the "West Georgia" team was devoid of all honor, that—fuck it—look at our thirteen championships to your two. Roll Tide!

Updyke told Finebaum he'd seen Auburn fans outside the Iron Bowl dressing the statue of the late, great Paul "Bear" Bryant in a "Scam" Newton jersey. He claimed to have seen a newspaper clipping that showed how years back, Auburn fans celebrated Coach Bryant's death by "rolling" the live oaks at Toomer's Corner, the gateway to the Auburn campus where students mark wins by streaming the trees with toilet paper. So here's what Updyke said he did: He drove down to Toomer's Corner and doused the venerated trees with Spike 80DF, a lethal herbicide.

"Did they die?" an incredulous Finebaum asked.

"They definitely will die," said Updyke.

"Is that against the law—to poison a tree?"

"Do you think I care?" Updyke said. "I really don't. Roll damn Tide!" Arborists later confirmed that the trees had been poisoned. Police traced the call and charged Updyke with several felony counts. His disheveled, puffy-faced mug shot made the national news. Many Tide devotees were eager to write him off as a lunatic, a pathological fan. But the highway patrolman was not without his defenders. On Tide fan sites, some even called on the school to build a statue of Updyke next to the ones of Bryant and the other Bama heroes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rest by Winslow Homer, 1885
Photo by Lloyd Ullberg
Philadelphia, 1935
Samuli Heimonen

Stuff Moms Say: The Bracket

Moms say amazing things, so we asked a bunch of Hairpin pals to anonymously pass along their moms' best, and we made it into a tournament. An impartial judge picked the "winners."

1. [I baked crappy-looking brownies for the sixth-grade bake sale, and no one bought them, so I came home crying. My mom gave me shots of Baileys, and told me:] "I will always be here with shots when your first boyfriend breaks up with you and when you don't get into the college you want to go to."

2. "Don't touch me!" ["Oh. Why?"] "Because it doesn't feel good."

3. "It's such a shame that in this age of disease and danger you'll never be able to enjoy purely casual sex in the way I did."

4. "Don't ever have sex."

5. "I told [my boyfriend] I was too old to have children, but he said we could just use your eggs..." [She looks at me curiously]

Read more:

Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library

[ed. I read this today and went back to the author's originial article, which I remembered vaguely but had largely forgotten. On one level, I miss DFW like I miss other immensely talented literary, scientific, political and cultural giants who leave too soon - with the sadness of what might have been and will now never be. But in DFW's case, I, like many others in this article, miss his gentle soul and his "regular-guyness", despite his obvious genius. My winter project is to re-read Infinite Jest. This time I expect it to go much quicker, knowing the basic plotline (as there is) and the various characters ahead of time. I've heard it's much more enjoyable the second (or third!) time around, when you're better able to appreciate nuances in the narrative and style without getting bogged down in details. And I will read all the footnotes!]

by Maria Bustillos

"Humility—the acceptance that being human is good enough—is the embrace of ordinariness." —underlined by David Foster Wallace in his copy of Ernest Kurtz's The Spirituality of Imperfection.

"True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world." —David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Among David Foster Wallace's papers at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin are three hundred-odd books from his personal library, most of them annotated, some heavily as if he were scribbling a dialogue with the author page by page. There are several of his undergraduate papers from Amherst; drafts of his fiction and non-fiction; research materials; syllabi; notes, tests and quizzes from classes he took, and from those he taught; fan correspondence and juvenilia. As others have found, it's entirely boggling for a longtime fan to read these things. I recently spent three days in there and have yet to cram my eyeballs all the way back in where they belong.

Wallace committed suicide in 2008. There has been a natural reluctance to broach questions surrounding the tragedy with his family and friends, just as there was reluctance to ask him directly about his personal history when he was alive. But there are indications—particularly in the markings of his books—of Wallace's own ideas about the sources of his depression, some of which seem as though they ought to be the privileged communications of a priest or a psychiatrist. But these things are in a public archive and are therefore going to be discussed and so I will tell you about them.

One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.

Much of Wallace's work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace's legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace's work.

All his life, he'd been the smartest boy in class, the gifted athlete, the super brain, the best writer. He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst, writing two senior theses, one in philosophy and one in English, both praised to the skies; the latter was published as a novel, The Broom of the System, when he was just 24. When Infinite Jest appeared, in 1996, acclaim came in like a tidal wave from nearly every critic of stature. "A work of genius." "The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow." "Exhilarating." "Truly remarkable." "Taking the next step in fiction." The New York Times was relatively restrained in its praise, but still called Wallace "a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything."

But Wallace had already learned to mistrust such praise. There are many, many places where he talks about that mistrust, but here's just one: David Lipsky spoke with him in 1996 in an interview that later grew into Lipsky's book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Here, Wallace explained that he was proud of Infinite Jest in a way that he was not proud of The Broom of the System: "Which I think shows some talent, but was in many ways a fuck-off enterprise. It was written very quickly, rewritten sloppily, sound editorial suggestions were met with a seventeen-page letter about literary theory that was really a not-very-interesting way... really a way for me to avoid doing hard work. [...] I was arrogant, and missed a chance to make that book better."

A bit later, he expanded on what he'd since learned: "I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I'm going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person. [...] It's true that I want very much—I treasure my regular-guyness. I've started to think it's my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I'm pretty much just like everybody else."

Wallace's self-image was fragile and complex, but he was consistent on these points, from then onward. His later work enters into many, many kinds of minds, many points of view, with unvarying respect and an uncanny degree of understanding. Every kind of person was of interest to him.

The love his admirers bear this author has a peculiarly intimate and personal character. This is because Wallace gave voice to the inner workings of ordinary human beings in a manner so winning and so truthful and forgiving as to make him seem a friend.

Wallace seemed always to be trying to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better, and trying visibly to make himself understood—always asking questions, demanding to know more details. He owned his own weaknesses willingly and in the gentlest, most inclusive manner. Also he talked a lot about the role of good fiction, which, he opined more than once, is about making us feel less alone. He offered a lot of himself to his readers, in all his writing; this generosity seemed like his whole project, in a way. This was the outward, public Wallace.

But those who followed his career at all closely always knew that there was another, darker part to his nature. A secret part. Wallace was fairly well known to have been very ill, to have been hospitalized more than once for depression, to have attempted suicide, and to have been in recovery for addiction to alcohol and drugs. The paradox of Wallace's humor and good-natured candor, the qualities so many of his readers enjoyed most, set against the many secrets there have always been around his private life, is laid bare in the Ransom Center documents.

Read more:

A Guitar Lover’s Guide to the CITES Conservation Treaty

[ed.  Gibson Guitar raided by federal agents.  This is insane.  I can understand the good intentions, but I think about these masterpieces sitting in some immense warehouse, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark, gathering dust and being played sporadically by a few janitors, if anyone at all.]

by John Thomas

Coming into Los Angeles

Bringing in a couple of keys

Don't touch my bags if you please

Mister Customs Man

Man, this is not going to end well. I’m on my way to Europe and I’m standing in the security line at the airport, sweating bullets, with a large object strapped to my back. I’m worried about violating CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The object strapped to my back is a guitar, and I’m concerned that I’ll be accused of trying to illegally export products from endangered fauna, like elephant ivory, or flora, like Brazilian rosewood.

Now, I really have no reason to worry, but Arlo Guthrie’s 1969 paean to smuggling (something other than wood) is feeding my paranoia. I had planned on taking one of my old Gibsons on the trip; they have Brazilian rosewood fingerboards and bridges. I called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), our CITES enforcement authority.

“You’ll need a permit, and a permit takes at least 60 days to obtain, and more likely at least 90 days,” an employee told me.

“Uh,” I replied, “what happens if I don’t get a permit?”

“Your guitar will probably be seized, sir, and you won't be able to get it back.”

Hmmm. So, I carefully examined all of my guitars for traces of Brazilian rosewood, ivory and other CITES substances and settled on taking my National M2. Until plywood becomes classified as an endangered floral species, this guitar should be able to cross international borders with ease. You might not want to try this with that old prewar herringbone of yours, though. If your guitar has even the smallest scrap of a listed species, unless you’ve got an export permit from the U.S. (which also works as a re-import permit) and import and export permits from your destination country, you can say goodbye to your holy grail.

See, if you decide to take that old beater ‘bone to do a bit of pickin’ on the beaches of the French Riviera, and someone does look in that case, your guitar will be seized--forever--with no possibility of return or reimbursement. Even if you belatedly obtain the import or export permits, USFWS will not return it, because you’ll be a known violator of international law. USFWS can’t sell the seized guitars to the public because that would be the equivalent of supporting illegal trade.

Read more: 

image credit:

Monday, August 29, 2011

From Green to Red

by Satyajit Das

In Crosstown Traffic, Jimi Hendrix sang: “can’t you see my signals turn from green to red / And with you I can see a traffic jam straight up ahead.” In global financial markets, the signals have changed from green to red. But rather than a simple traffic jam, a full scale credit crash may be ahead.

In financial markets, facts never matter until they do but there are worrying indications.

Fact 1 – The European debt crisis has taken a turn for the worse.

There is a serious risk that even the half-baked bailout plan announced on 21 July 2011 cannot be implemented.

The sticking point is a demand for collateral for the second bailout package. Finland demanded and got Euro 500 million in cash as security against their Euro 1,400 million share of the second bailout package. Hearing of the ill-advised side deal between Greece and Finland, Austria, the Netherlands and Slovakia also are now demanding collateral, arguing that their banks were less exposed to Greece than their counterparts in Germany and France entitling them to special treatment. At least, one German parliamentarian has also asked the logical question, why Germany is not receiving similar collateral.

Of course, Greece, which does not have two Euros to rub together, doesn’t have this collateral and would need to borrow it.

Compounding the problem is Greece’s fall in Gross Domestic Production (“GDP”) was worse than forecast, even before the latest austerity measures become effective. The Greek economy has shrunk by around 15% since the crisis began. 2-year borrowing costs for Greece are now over 40%, pawnbroker levels. The next installment of Greece’s first bailout package is due to be released as at end September. Some members of the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) are already expressing deep misgivings about further assistance to Greece, in the light of the seeming inability of the country to meet its end of the bargain.

A disorderly unwind of the Greek debt problem cannot be ruled out. Ireland and Portugal remain in difficulty. Spain and Italy also remain embattled with only European Central Bank (“ECB”) purchases of their bonds keeping their interest rates down. Concern about the effect of these bailouts on France and Germany is also intensifying.

Concerns about US and Japanese government debt are also increasing.

Official forecasts show that America’s national debt will increase by $3.5 trillion from its existing $14.5 trillion over the next decade. These forecasts are unlikely to be met unless the political deadlock over the budget is overcome and economic growth recovers. Japan was downgraded to AA- and its longer-term economic prognosis continues to be poor.

Facts 2 – Problems with banks have re-emerged.

Banks globally, especially European banks, are seen as increasingly vulnerable to European debt problems. The total exposure of the global banking system to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy is over $2 trillion. French and Germany banks have very large exposures.

If there are defaults, then these banks will need capital, most likely from their sovereigns. As they are increasingly themselves under pressure, their ability to support the banking system is unclear. The pressure is evident in the share prices of French banks; Societe Generale’s share price has fallen by nearly 50% in a relatively short period of time.

In the US, concerns about Bank of America (“BA”) have emerged, with analysts suggesting that the bank requires significant infusions of capital. The major concerns relate to BA’s investment in US mortgage originator Countrywide including continuing litigation losses, exposure to European banks, loans to commercial real estate and the quality of other assets, such as mortgage servicing rights and goodwill resulting from its acquisition of Merrill Lynch.

Read more:

Profiting in the War on Terrorism

by Glenn Greenwald

The Los Angeles Times examines the staggering sums of money expended on patently absurd domestic "homeland security" projects: $75 billion per year for things such as a Zodiac boat with side-scan sonar to respond to a potential attack on a lake in tiny Keith County, Nebraska, and hundreds of "9-ton BearCat armored vehicles, complete with turret" to guard against things like an attack on DreamWorks in Los Angeles.  All of that -- which is independent of the exponentially greater sums spent on foreign wars, occupations, bombings, and the vast array of weaponry and private contractors to support it all -- is in response to this mammoth, existential, the-single-greatest-challenge-of-our-generation threat:
"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.
Last year, McClatchy characterized this threat in similar terms: "undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism."  The March, 2011 Harper's Index expressed the point this way: "Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year : 8 -- Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning: 29."  That's the threat in the name of which a vast domestic Security State is constructed, wars and other attacks are and continue to be launched, and trillions of dollars are transferred to the private security and defense contracting industry at exactly the time that Americans -- even as they face massive wealth inequality -- are told that they must sacrifice basic economic security because of budgetary constraints.

Despite these increasing economic insecurities -- actually, precisely because of them -- the sprawling domestic Security State continues unabated.  The industry journal National Defense Magazine today trumpets: "Homeland Security Market ‘Vibrant’ Despite Budget Concerns."  It details how budget cuts mean "homeland security" growth may not be as robust as once predicted, but "Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman . . . have been winning more contracts from DHS"; as a Boeing spokesman put it: "You’ll still continue to see domestically significant investment on the part of the government and leveraging advances in technology to stand up and meet those emerging threats and needs.”

Meanwhile, much of the anti-Terrorism weaponry in the U.S. end up being deployed for purposes of purely domestic policing.  As the LA Times notes: those aforementioned BearCats are "are now deployed by police across the country; the arrests of methamphetamine dealers and bank robbers these days often look much like a tactical assault on insurgents in Baghdad."  Drones are used both in the Drug War and to patrol the border.  Surveillance measures originally justified as necessary to fight foreign Terrorists are routinely turned far more often inward, and the NSA -- created with a taboo against domestic spying -- now does that regularly.

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The Lost Art of Postcard Writing

by Charles Simic

Here it is already August and I have received only one postcard this summer. It was sent to me by a European friend who was traveling in Mongolia (as far as I could deduce from the postage stamp) and who simply sent me his greetings and signed his name. The picture in color on the other side was of a desert broken up by some parched hills without any hint of vegetation or sign of life, the name of the place in characters I could not read. Even receiving such an enigmatic card pleased me immensely. This piece of snail mail, I thought, left at the reception desk of a hotel, dropped in a mailbox, or taken to the local post office, made its unknown and most likely arduous journey by truck, train, camel, donkey—or whatever it was— and finally by plane to where I live.

Until a few years ago, hardly a day would go by in the summer without the mailman bringing a postcard from a vacationing friend or acquaintance. Nowadays, you’re bound to get an email enclosing a photograph, or, if your grandchildren are the ones doing the traveling, a brief message telling you that their flight has been delayed or that they have arrived. The terrific thing about postcards was their immense variety. It wasn’t just the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, or some other famous tourist attraction you were likely to receive in the mail, but also a card with a picture of a roadside diner in Iowa, the biggest hog at some state fair in the South, and even a funeral parlor touting the professional excellence that their customers have come to expect over a hundred years. Almost every business in this country, from a dog photographer to a fancy resort and spa, had a card. In my experience, people in the habit of sending cards could be divided into those who go for the conventional images of famous places and those who delight in sending images whose bad taste guarantees a shock or a laugh.

Read more:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ryan Adams

[ed.  Love this one...]

There's No Wrong Way to Play Monopoly

by Andy Baio

Marco Arment just linked to this great article about how everyone plays Monopoly wrong. If you read the actual rules, it's a completely different game than the one you likely grew up with — one that moves much, much quicker.

Five things I never knew about Monopoly's official rules:
1. If a player decides not to buy a property, it immediately goes up for auction by the bank and is sold to the highest bidder. This blew my mind.
2. Houses must be built, and sold, evenly across a color-group. For example, you can't build three houses on Park Place without having two houses on Boardwalk first.
3. It's the property owner's responsibility to ask for rent. If you forget to ask for rent before the end of the next player's turn, you're out of luck.
4. Rent is doubled on properties without houses in a monopoly.
5. Income tax is calculated from your total net worth, including all properties and buildings, not just your cash. And you have to decide whether to pay 10% or $200 before you add it up.
While these official rules gradually disappeared from common play, other unofficial "house rules" came to take their place. We always put funds collected from Chance/Community Chest cards into a "kitty" that was given to whoever landed on Free Parking. Many others gave $400 when landed on "Go," or didn't allow rent to be collected while in jail.

Many of us learned Monopoly like we learned the rules of dodgeball or rock-scissors-paper — spread by word-of-mouth from family and friends.

It's interesting to see a commercial game see the same sort of cultural variation as other children's folk games.

But maybe that's appropriate for a game that was itself derived from another board game. Contrary to popular belief, Charles Darrow didn't invent Monopoly in 1933 from scratch. It was heavily based on The Landlord's Game, an innovative board game patented in 1904 by Lizzie Magie, to be a "practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences."

The Landlord's Game and its variations like "Auction Monopoly" and "The Fascinating Game of Finance" spread by word of mouth throughout the early-20th century with evolving rules and hand-drawn boards, popular among the Quakers and used as a teaching aid for university students.

In 1933, Charles Darrow played a homemade version of The Landlord's Game printed on oil cloth, saw the market potential, and tried to patent the new "Monopoly" as his own. After finding great success selling handmade versions, he sold the rights to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers bought Magie's patent for $500 to have an undisputed claim to the board game, but was threatened by other popular competitors and homemade variations. Through a process of litigation, acquisition, and quiet settlements during the late-1930s, Parker Brothers wiped all the other derivative versions of The Landlord's Game off the map.

By the 1970s, Parker Brothers' revisionist history was canon — the official Monopoly rules and a 1974 book on the history of the game stated that the game was created solely by Charles Darrow.

So, when someone says you're playing Monopoly wrong, tell them you're playing your own version... just like Darrow did.


The Recording Industry's Evolution in 30 Seconds


by Megan Greenwell

There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing about threats to the music industry, whether from technology or piracy. But hearing reports of dismal album sales is one thing; seeing the tidal shift in a 30-second gif is quite another.

Digital Music News created this simple animated pie chart to illustrate how the sources of music revenue have changed. It begins with the year 1980, when LP and EP sales were still on the rise. By 1982, cassette sales have begun to expand, but their moment of dominance was brief—they were quickly surpassed by CDs. In 2002, CDs held a whopping 95 percent of the market, but we all know what happened from there. In 2010, CD sales comprised less than half of all music revenue for the first time since 1990. And of course, those numbers don’t even include the albums or singles downloaded illegally.

Taken together, the 31 pie charts are one part nostalgia trip (remember mix tapes?) and one part thought-provoking question about what the future of music will hold. In another 30 years, it’s entirely possible that the entire concept of owning music will look as antiquated as those old EPs.


Racial Profiling First Hand

by Xeni Jardin

Via the ACLU and the Boston Globe, a first-hand account of how "security theater" makes us no safer, and a lot less free.

Massachussetts-based folk musician Vance Gilbert, a law-abiding citizen who is black, 6 feet tall, and loves poodles, was harassed and humiliated on a flight out of Boston—apparently in part because he was reading book about old-time airplanes.

The TSA scanners and screeners had no problem with him. His problems began after he boarded his United Airlines flight, and appear to have been the work of the flight crew.

Here is his account, shared with the ACLU. He titled it "Racial Profiling First Hand," and signs the essay, "Flying While Black & Reading Antique Aviation Books." Snip:
Policeman: "Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?"
Me: "No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It's my wallet, even though there's only 30 bucks in it…And all that was done without belligerence, or words for that matter…it was all good. A few beats...
Policeman: "Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?"
Me: "Yes sir I was. I am a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946."
Policeman: "Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?"
I go back onto the plane - all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2. After a couple of minutes he says, "Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff..."
Me: "Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1..."
"Read more: (, via @lizditz


ed.  A sunny summer morning, with a touch of fall crispness.]
click for larger image

The Buddha in the Attic

by Alida Becker

In the Japanese art of sumi-e, strokes of ink are brushed across sheets of rice paper, the play of light and dark capturing not just images but sensations, not just surfaces but the essence of what lies within. Simplicity of line is prized, extraneous detail discouraged. Although Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California and trained as a painter in the Western tradition, she seems perfectly attuned to the spirit of sumi-e. Otsuka claims to have been a failure as an artist, but she might only have erred in choosing the wrong medium. Proof arrived almost a decade ago, long after she’d traded painting for writing, with the publication of her first novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” a spare but resonant portrait of one Japanese-­American family’s daily life, at home and in the internment camps, during World War II. Now she returns with a second novel, also employing a minimalist technique, that manages to be equally intimate yet much more expansive.

Like its predecessor, “The Buddha in the Attic” unfurls as a sequence of linked narratives, some no longer than a paragraph. While it appears to hold the characters at a formal distance, that reticence infuses their stories with powerful emotion. The central figures in Otsuka’s first book, a mother and her children identified merely as “the boy,” “the girl” and “the woman,” were followed from their home in Berkeley to a barracks in the high Utah desert, then back again. As the string of vignettes proceeded, the questions they asked, the observations they made, the illusions they cherished created a bond with the reader. With their sometimes uncomfortably familiar hopes and fears, Otsuka’s characters emerged as particular individuals even as their concerns took us far beyond the particulars of the Japanese-­American experience. In these nameless people, we confronted our own uncertainties about where we truly belong, where our loyalties lie, where we should place our trust.

There are plenty of names in Otsuka’s new novel, but this time the cast is composed of an entire community of families. The voice that speaks to us here is the “we” of the Japanese women who arrived in California in the aftermath of World War I, most of them young and inexperienced, most bearing photographs of men they had agreed to marry, sight unseen: “On the boat we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were 20 years old. . . . That when we first heard our names being called out across the water one of us would cover her eyes and turn away — I want to go home — but the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.”

“The Buddha in the Attic” is, in a sense, a prelude to Otsuka’s previous book, revealing the often rough acclimatization of a generation of farm laborers and maids, laundry workers and shop clerks whose husbands would take them for granted and whose children would be ashamed of their stilted English and foreign habits. Otsuka’s chorus of narrators allows us to see the variety as well as the similarity of these women’s attempts to negotiate the maze of immigrant life. Each section of the novel takes them one step further, from the ship to the farm or the shop or the servants’ quarters, from bearing their children to watching those children grow up and away, from blindly obeying husbands and employers to making clear-eyed moves toward self-reliance, albeit often of necessity rather than choice. As their families become less Japanese and more American, the women gradually establish a new equilibrium, only to have it shattered in a passage, simply called “Traitors,” that returns to the forced removals of World War II.

Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry, but it’s far from the genteel stereotype of “short, melancholy poems about the passing of autumn that were exactly 17 syllables long.” The swift, mostly brutal encounters in “First Night” remove any such illusions: “That night our new husbands took us quickly. . . . They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them. They took us even though we insulted them . . . and screamed out for help (nobody came). . . . They took us cautiously, as though they were afraid we might break. You’re so small. They took us coldly but knowledgeably — In 20 seconds you will lose all control — and we knew there had been many others before us. They took us as we stared up blankly at the ceiling and waited for it to be over, not realizing that it would not be over for years.”

Read more:

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gillian Welch, David Rawlings

[ed.  If there's anyone I'd like to play like, it's David Rawlings.]

The Secret Language Code

by Gareth Cook

Are there hidden messages in your emails? Yes, and in everything you write or say, according to James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker has been a leader in the computer analysis of texts for their psychological content. And in his new book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” he argues that how we use words like “I,” “she,” and “who” reveal secrets of our psychology. He spoke recently with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook​.

COOK: How did you become interested in pronouns?

PENNEBAKER: A complete and total accident. Until recently, I never thought about parts of speech. However, about ten years ago I stumbled on some findings that caught my attention. In the 1980s, my students and I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. In an attempt to better understand the power of writing, we developed a computerized text analysis program to determine how language use might predict later health improvements. In other words, I wanted to find if there was a healthy way to write.

Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that the ways people used pronouns in their essays predicted whose health would improve the most. Specifically, those people who benefited the most from writing changed in their pronoun use from one essay to another. Pronouns were reflecting people’’s abilities to change perspective.

As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts -- blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.

COOK: What would make you think that the use of pronouns would be meaningful?

PENNEBAKER: Never in a million years would I have thought that pronouns would be a worthwhile research topic. I ran study after study and initially found large and unexpected differences between people in their pronoun use. In hindsight, I think I ignored the findings because they didn’’t make sense. One day, I lined up about 5 experiments that I had conducted and every one revealed the same effects. It was that day that I finally admitted to myself that pronouns must be meaningful.

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Glen Campbell: One Last Love Song

by Simon Hattenstone

When you first listen to Glen Campbell's new album, Ghost On The Canvas, nothing seems amiss. His voice is rich and clear, the songs intimate reflections on his 75 years. There is plenty to reflect on – the drink and drugs, the four wives and eight children, the fame and fortune, 50-odd years as one of the world's great singers and guitarists. It's only when you listen closely that a recurrent theme emerges – of confusion. In A Better Place, he sings:

Some days I'm so confused, Lord,
My past gets in my way.
I need the ones I love, Lord,
More and more each day.

On the sleeve notes he writes: "Ghost On The Canvas is the last studio record of new songs that I plan to make. I've been saying it to friends and family, but now that it's in writing it really seems final." In June, Campbell revealed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease six months earlier and that he was going to do a farewell tour before retiring. The announcement was shocking in its bluntness. Many of us still remember Glen Campbell as the eternally youthful hunk with huge shoulders or the naive boy-man who stars alongside John Wayne in True Grit. Glen Campbell wasn't made for growing old.

Malibu, California. The road winds round the hills until I reach a private estate. I am buzzed through the intercom and welcomed in warmly by a huddle of people and a couple of large dogs. After a few minutes a big, strong elderly man in shorts and T-shirt enters the room, doing a brilliant Donald Duck impression. He smiles, grabs my hand, says, "Well howdyado?" and makes good eye contact. "Well howdyalikeitoverhere?"

It's strange talking a man who is drifting in and out of the present. I'm waiting for his wife Kim to arrive – it feels wrong to start the interview before she does. We try to talk about the new album, which really is rather wonderful. "Well, thank you," he says. "Now, what album are we talking about?" I tell him it's called Ghost On The Canvas, and that he has said it's going to be his final record. "Well, I dunno about that," he says. "If I ran into five or six good songs, I would make another. Yeah, I'm sure I will. I dunno. Let me see how old I am now? I'm 75. Yeah, yeah, 75."

Before his successful solo career he was a member of the Wrecking Crew, a group of musicians that worked on numerous classic songs including You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', Strangers In the Night and Viva Las Vegas. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that Campbell enjoyed his greatest success with songs such as Galveston, Gentle On My Mind, Wichita Lineman and Rhinestone Cowboy. And he did look like an all-American cowboy – blond as the sun, solid as a bale of hay, simple values. Classic beefcake. (In True Grit his character is called La Boeuf). Yet he was a supremely subtle, and surprisingly mournful, interpreter of songs, especially those by Jimmy Webb. In Wichita Lineman, which contains my favourite ever lyric ("And I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time"), Campbell brings an incredible melancholy to the story of the lineman hearing the ghost of his absent girlfriend in the wires he's working on.

Campbell was one of 12 children born to a sharecropper father in Pike County, Arkansas. His Uncle Boo taught him guitar and at 16, he left for Albuquerque, New Mexico. Five years later he moved to Los Angeles as a session musician. He worked hard, lived hard, loved hard. By the time he married Kim in 1981 he'd been through three wives. They met on a blind date. She was a young dancer with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, he was a wreck. He had just come out of a tempestuous relationship with country singer Tanya Tucker, who claimed he had knocked her teeth out, an allegation he denied.

"JJ get outta here," says Kim, who has just joined us. She shoos the alsatian away. "Dog get outside. He's just a big old baby. Get outtahere dog."

She hands her husband the lyrics to A Better Place as a reminder. He looks at them and starts singing, falteringly at first, as he searches for the tune. "I've tried and I have failed, Lord." He slurps his cranberry juice through a straw with relish. "Yeah, that's a good one…" He's more relaxed with Kim by his side, but is still trying to make sense of why I'm here. Where did the album title come from? "I dunno. They just said that's OK." His voice is slurred, drunk-sounding, though he's been off the booze for an age. "They just said, 'Are you gonna put something on an album or'… what d'you call this thing here?" He looks at the CD cover and then to Kim for guidance.

Kim: "A CD."

"A CD, yes. It's cool."

Read more:
Bobby Boud
Moving Clouds - oil on paper with silk screen
Sandy bird by Dmitry Dubikovskiy (Tadrart , Algeria)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Good Night, Irene

Whatever happens, here are a few tips to ride out the storm.

If you've ever wondered what total disaster preparedness looks like, here it is:

Another hurricane to-do list, this one a little more relevant to New Yorkers:

Finally, don't take it too personally.

(Image: Taking things very personally on Van Dyke Street in Red Hook., a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from Shelley Bernstein's photostream, via @adrianchen


Friday Book Club - The Road

by William Kennedy

Cormac McCarthy’s subject in his new novel is as big as it gets: the end of the civilized world, the dying of life on the planet and the spectacle of it all. He has written a visually stunning picture of how it looks at the end to two pilgrims on the road to nowhere. Color in the world — except for fire and blood — exists mainly in memory or dream. Fire and firestorms have consumed forests and cities, and from the fall of ashes and soot everything is gray, the river water black. Hydrangeas and wild orchids stand in the forest, sculptured by fire into “ashen effigies” of themselves, waiting for the wind to blow them over into dust. Intense heat has melted and tipped a city’s buildings, and window glass hangs frozen down their walls. On the Interstate “long lines of charred and rusting cars” are “sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber. ... The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.”

McCarthy has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don’t address it are not serious. Death reaches very near totality in this novel. Billions of people have died, all animal and plant life, the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea are dead: “At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death.” Forest fires are still being ignited (by lightning? other fires?) after what seems to be a decade since that early morning — 1:17 a.m., no day, month or year specified — when the sky opened with “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” The survivors (not many) of the barbaric wars that followed the event wear masks against the perpetual cloud of soot in the air. Bloodcults are consuming one another. Cannibalism became a major enterprise after the food gave out. Deranged chanting became the music of the new age.

A man in his late 40’s and his son, about 10, both unnamed, are walking a desolated road. Perhaps it is the fall, but the soot has blocked out the sun, probably everywhere on the globe, and it is snowing, very cold, and getting colder. The man and boy cannot survive another winter and are heading to the Gulf Coast for warmth, on the road to a mountain pass — unnamed, but probably Lookout Mountain on the Tennessee-Georgia border. It is through the voice of the father that McCarthy delivers his vision of end times. The son, born after the sky opened, has no memory of the world that was. His father gave him lessons about it but then stopped: “He could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own.” The boy’s mother committed suicide rather than face starvation, rape and the cannibalizing of herself and the family, and she mocks her husband for going forward. But he is a man with a mission. When he shoots a thug who tries to murder the boy (their first spoken contact with another human in a year) he tells his son: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” And when he washes the thug’s brains out of his son’s hair he ruminates: “All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” He strokes the boy’s head and thinks: “Golden chalice, good to house a god.”

McCarthy does not say how or when God entered this man’s being and his son’s, nor does he say how or why they were chosen to survive together for 10 years, to be among the last living creatures on the road. The man believes the world is finished and that he and the boy are “two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” But the man is a zealot, pushing himself and the boy to the edge of death to achieve their unspecified destination, persisting beyond will in a drive that is instinctual, or primordial, and bewildering to himself. But the tale is as biblical as it is ultimate, and the man implies that the end has happened through godly fanaticism. The world is in a nuclear winter, though that phrase is never used. The lone allusion to our long-prophesied holy war with its attendant nukes is when the man thinks: “On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.”

Read more:

image credit:

The Decemberists

Michael Schur, the co-creator of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, has had a long-running fascination with David Foster Wallace’s sprawling magnum opus, Infinite Jest.  So when his favorite band, The Decemberists, asked him to shoot a video for their new track “Calamity Song,” he knew the creative direction he wanted to take. And so here it is — the newly-premiered video that makes “Eschaton” its creative focus. Fans of DWF’s novel will remember that Eschaton — “basically, a global thermonuclear crisis recreated on a tennis court” — appears on/around page 325. The New York Times has more


Kind of Screwed

[ed.  I hate to keep harping on this, but copyright law and the concept of fair use in this digital age is a mess.  I firmly believe that many transformative and aggregative efforts actually benefit copyright holders by promoting wider awareness and appreciation of their work; yet, studies examining this effect are relatively few.  In the mean time, copyright opportunists (and their lawyers) continue to work off an old template and exploit this confusion by attempting to extract as many dollars as they can from people who are some of their most ardent admirers.]

by Andy Baio 

The Long Version

Remember Kind of Bloop, the chiptune tribute to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue that I produced? I went out of my way to make sure the entire project was above board, licensing all the cover songs from Miles Davis's publisher and giving the total profits from the Kickstarter fundraiser to the five musicians that participated.
But there was one thing I never thought would be an issue: the cover art.

Before the project launched, I knew exactly what I wanted for the cover — a pixel art recreation of the original album cover, the only thing that made sense for an 8-bit tribute to Kind of Blue. I tried to draw it myself, but if you've ever attempted pixel art, you know how demanding it is. After several failed attempts, I asked a talented friend to do it.

You can see the results below, with the original album cover for comparison.

Original photo © Jay Maisel. Low-resolution images used for critical commentary qualifies as fair use. (Usually! Sometimes!)

In February 2010, I was contacted by attorneys representing famed New York photographer Jay Maisel, the photographer who shot the original photo of Miles Davis used for the cover of Kind of Blue.

In their demand letter, they alleged that I was infringing on Maisel's copyright by using the illustration on the album and elsewhere, as well as using the original cover in a "thank you" video I made for the album's release. In compensation, they were seeking "either statutory damages up to $150,000 for each infringement at the jury's discretion and reasonable attorneys fees or actual damages and all profits attributed to the unlicensed use of his photograph, and $25,000 for Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violations."

After seven months of legal wrangling, we reached a settlement. Last September, I paid Maisel a sum of $32,500 and I'm unable to use the artwork again. (On the plus side, if you have a copy, it's now a collector's item!) I'm not exactly thrilled with this outcome, but I'm relieved it's over.

But this is important: the fact that I settled is not an admission of guilt. My lawyers and I firmly believe that the pixel art is "fair use" and Maisel and his counsel firmly disagree. I settled for one reason: this was the least expensive option available.

At the heart of this settlement is a debate that's been going on for decades, playing out between artists and copyright holders in and out of the courts. In particular, I think this settlement raises some interesting issues about the state of copyright for anyone involved in digital reinterpretations of copyrighted works.

Fair Use?

French street artist Invader recreates Joel Brodsky's iconic Jim Morrison photo with Rubik's Cubes

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about "fair use" on the Internet. Everyone thinks they know what fair use is, but not even attorneys, judges, and juries can agree on a clear definition. The doctrine itself, first introduced in the 1976 Copyright Act, is frustratingly vague and continually being reinterpreted.

Four main factors come into play:
  1. The purpose and character of your use: Was the material transformed into something new or copied verbatim? Also, was it for commercial or educational use?
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market
For each case, courts take these factors into account and render a verdict, occasionally contradicting the opinions of past judges and juries.

Why Math Education Needs to Adapt to the Real World


"When am I ever going to use this?"

Chances are you've asked a math teacher that question. Maybe the teacher told you about a few real-world applications of the law of cosines, but if you're not working as a mathematician or engineer, you probably haven't thought about it since you last closed your trigonometry book. On the other hand, your job very likely requires you to know how to analyze data and statistics, or do basic finance and accounting. An op-ed in The New York Times argues that math education must adapt to reflect the practical ways we actually use it to solve real-world problems.

Sol Garfunkel, executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications and David Mumford, emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown, argue that instead of teaching each student the same sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus courses, those should be replaced with practical, skills-based math classes in finance, data and basic engineering. "In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages," they offer as an example.

So does that mean students should be put on two different kinds of math education tracks—one for students that plan to enter STEM fields, and one for everyone else? Not necessarily; all students need to learn some of the more abstract mathematical concepts too. There needs to be a place for both "useable knowledge and abstract skills," the authors conclude.

If our math curricula actually creatively connected students to the "why" through project-based learning or teaching real-life applications (for example, using taxes to teach calculus), students would remember much more of what they learned in class. Everyone—including students who go on to become scientists, engineers and mathematicians—would gain a deeper understanding of how math applies to the world, while also being able to comprehend the federal budget.

If we don't make the switch to grounding math in the real world, we're just setting ourselves up for another generation of students who will keep asking when they'll ever use what's being taught. With no concrete answer from their teachers, they'll keep tuning out of class.


photo  (cc) via Flickr user lexicon10055805

TED: How Algorithms Shape Our World


Kevin Slavin argues that we're living in a world designed for -- and increasingly controlled by -- algorithms. In this riveting talk from TEDGlobal, he shows how these complex computer programs determine: espionage tactics, stock prices, movie scripts, and architecture. And he warns that we are writing code we can't understand, with implications we can't control.


Cosmic Bling

by Mark Brown

An international team of astronomers, led by Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology professor Matthew Bailes, has discovered a planet made of diamond crystals, in our own Milky Way galaxy.

The planet is relatively small at around 60,000 km in diameter (still, it’s five times the size of Earth). But despite its diminutive stature, this crystal space rock has more mass than the solar system’s gas giant Jupiter.

Radio telescope data shows that it orbits its star at a distance of 600,000 km, making years on planet diamond just two hours long. Any closer and it would be ripped to shreds by the star’s gravitational tug. Putting together its immense mass and close orbit, researchers can reveal the planet’s unique makeup.

It’s “likely to be largely carbon and oxygen,” said Michael Keith, one of the research team members, in a press release. Lighter elements, “like hydrogen and helium would be too big to fit the measured orbiting times”. The object’s density means that the material is certain to be crystalline, meaning a large part of the planet may be similar to a diamond.

Read more:

Raphael Saadiq

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Creation Myth


Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation

by Malcolm Gladwell

In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.

Xerox PARC was the innovation arm of the Xerox Corporation. It was, and remains, on Coyote Hill Road, in Palo Alto, nestled in the foothills on the edge of town, in a long, low concrete building, with enormous terraces looking out over the jewels of Silicon Valley. To the northwest was Stanford University’s Hoover Tower. To the north was Hewlett-Packard’s sprawling campus. All around were scores of the other chip designers, software firms, venture capitalists, and hardware-makers. A visitor to PARC, taking in that view, could easily imagine that it was the computer world’s castle, lording over the valley below—and, at the time, this wasn’t far from the truth. In 1970, Xerox had assembled the world’s greatest computer engineers and programmers, and for the next ten years they had an unparalleled run of innovation and invention. If you were obsessed with the future in the seventies, you were obsessed with Xerox PARC—which was why the young Steve Jobs had driven to Coyote Hill Road.

Apple was already one of the hottest tech firms in the country. Everyone in the Valley wanted a piece of it. So Jobs proposed a deal: he would allow Xerox to buy a hundred thousand shares of his company for a million dollars—its highly anticipated I.P.O. was just a year away—if PARC would “open its kimono.” A lot of haggling ensued. Jobs was the fox, after all, and PARC was the henhouse. What would he be allowed to see? What wouldn’t he be allowed to see? Some at PARC thought that the whole idea was lunacy, but, in the end, Xerox went ahead with it. One PARC scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor. He was given a couple of tours, and he ended up standing in front of a Xerox Alto, PARC’s prized personal computer.

An engineer named Larry Tesler conducted the demonstration. He moved the cursor across the screen with the aid of a “mouse.” Directing a conventional computer, in those days, meant typing in a command on the keyboard. Tesler just clicked on one of the icons on the screen. He opened and closed “windows,” deftly moving from one task to another. He wrote on an elegant word-processing program, and exchanged e-mails with other people at PARC, on the world’s first Ethernet network. Jobs had come with one of his software engineers, Bill Atkinson, and Atkinson moved in as close as he could, his nose almost touching the screen. “Jobs was pacing around the room, acting up the whole time,” Tesler recalled. “He was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could do onscreen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’ ”

Xerox began selling a successor to the Alto in 1981. It was slow and underpowered—and Xerox ultimately withdrew from personal computers altogether. Jobs, meanwhile, raced back to Apple, and demanded that the team working on the company’s next generation of personal computers change course. He wanted menus on the screen. He wanted windows. He wanted a mouse. The result was the Macintosh, perhaps the most famous product in the history of Silicon Valley.

“If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities,” Jobs said, years later, “it could have been as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined—and the largest high-technology company in the world.”

This is the legend of Xerox PARC. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance. In the past thirty years, the legend has been vindicated by history. Xerox, once the darling of the American high-technology community, slipped from its former dominance. Apple is now ascendant, and the demonstration in that room in Palo Alto has come to symbolize the vision and ruthlessness that separate true innovators from also-rans. As with all legends, however, the truth is a bit more complicated.

After Jobs returned from PARC, he met with a man named Dean Hovey, who was one of the founders of the industrial-design firm that would become known as IDEO. “Jobs went to Xerox PARC on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I saw him on the Friday afternoon,” Hovey recalled. “I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”