Friday, November 30, 2012

Stray Penises and Politicos

I can remember the specific moment when I swore off the sex lives of the famous as journalistic currency. It was the case of a national sportscaster — I won’t name him, but, alas, most of those old enough will remember the name, which is regrettable — whose sex life had suddenly become the media chow.

This man had been involved in a consensual relationship with another adult and for reasons both ridiculous and obscure, the other adult thought it just and meaningful to reveal herself and her complaints, making explicit all of the unique and varied ways in which she and this man had expressed their sexuality. And my, wasn’t he a weird one. And wasn’t it funny.

When that story broke, I was standing in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun and I remember my growing distaste watching reporters and rewrite men as they were sucked, joking and snickering, into the breaking news. And no one had any doubt that it was news. The man was a national sportscaster, for the love of god. A more public figure this nation cannot muster.

I was no Candide on a first promenade through Paris. I’d held pen and notepad akimbo and reported hypocritically at points. Not a year earlier, I think, I’d been guilty of dragging to the front of the metro section some sad sack who happened to serve on a mayor’s advisory committee — an unpaid position, mind you — and happened to get arrested in a car with a lit marijuana cigarette between his lips. At the price of that misdemeanor, I’d messed that guy up good. Wasn’t my fault he caught that charge; hey, I was just the cop shop reporter calling districts and reporting arrests. Don’t shoot the messenger.

And then, like the shitbird that reporters often are obliged to be, I probably left work that night and smoked a joint with the night editor, after which, we went to Burke’s for onion rings. Which we did just about every other night.

Hypocrisy will never go out of style in American journalism or American life. But sitting there and watching the rewrite and sports desk mobilize to surround the sexual wanderings of a sportscaster, I remember making a decision: Enough. This is just sex. This is nothing more than the odd, notable penis or the odd, notable vagina staggering off the marked path and rubbing against the wrong tree. This is just people.

I told myself that I wasn’t in journalism to chase something so ordinary, so adolescent as other people’s sexuality, that I wouldn’t play this game, that there were better reasons to be a reporter, and there were better things for readers to consume. I knew that one soldier opting out from such a lurid and exalted battlefield of the media wars meant nothing, but I did it anyway. Fuck Gingrich’s divorces. Fuck Lewinsky. Fuck where Anthony Weiner found some happy online moments. I’m not playing anymore. I long ago ceased to even pretend to care.

The arguments about character? That human sexuality isn’t the most compartmentalized element of our nature? That if someone will lie about sex, they’ll lie about other things? Really? No, sorry, fuck that tripe. Character has become the self-righteous rallying cry of far greater hypocrisy than any cheating husband. It’s the excuse that makes our prurient leer seem meaningful and reasoned.

Observe the process by which we remove some of the most essential American figures of the last century for having failed to corral their sexual organs in the marital bedroom: Roosevelt, gone. Eisenhower, gone. Kennedy, gone. Lyndon Johnson, gone. Clinton, gone. Martin Luther King, Jr., gone. Edward Murrow, gone. Follow the gamboling penis to an arid expanse of sociopolitical wasteland, where many of the greatest visionaries and actors can never tred, a desert in which only the Calvin Coolidges and Richard Nixons remain standing. Anyone who looks at the history of mankind and argues that private sexual fidelity exists in direct proportion to political greatness or moral leadership is either a chump or a liar.

And now comes General Petraeus.

by David Simon, The Audacity of Despair |  Read more:

The New Media Priesthood: Learning How to Code

Great news: The New Yorker is hiring!

What are the requirements, you ask, to work at the greatest literary magazine in the English-speaking world? Do you need to have gone to Princeton and edited the august literary magazine The Nassau (b. 1848) before you were 22? Should you have edited Toni Morrison for a decade and done the definitive translation from the Turkish of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s short stories?

No. Not even close.

You need to know computer code.

Or—rather—it would be ideal if you could code. And we know what that means. Your job at the literary magazine would not be fixing commas or assigning foreign stories. It would be running tech projects.

Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker website, posted the tantalizing job listing on Friday. And just so you know, he didn’t whisper it at the Yale Club or the Round Table of the Algonquin Club. He didn’t try to see if someone’s clever ex-boyfriend from the Harvard Crimson and The New Republic wanted it first. Instead, Thompson posted the New Yorker staff opening to Twitter. And this is what he said: “Hiring a digital project manager. Help us at@NewYorker run cool, ambitious tech projects. Ideally, code too. Ping me.”

If you’re making media in this world—prose, journalism, photography, graphics—you ought to know how to code. And you don’t need to type up a letter extolling the legacy of Janet Malcolm and E.B. White on buttery letterhead. Just ping @nxthompson.

Literary work—editorial work—is now computer work. We’ve known it, on some level, for years. But now it’s right there in the job descriptions. And Thompson’s might not have been such a striking tweet if it didn’t come two weeks after Wired magazine announced a new editor in chief. An eloquent TED talker from MIT with three best sellers about digital literacy and neuroplasticity?  (...)

The stories we tell and how we tell them. The content is the form. And how we tell stories—distribute them, display them, monetize them even—is inextricable from the stories themselves.

by Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News |  Read more:

nicholas de stael

Steve Bishop  Staring at Cat Staring at Cat Staring (2007)

Won’t Someone Take iTunes Out Back and Shoot It?

iTunes 11 did not arrive on time. Apple originally promised to deliver the next version of its ubiquitous music-management program in October. Last month, though, the company announced that the release would slip to November, because the company needed “a little extra time to get it right.” This week theWall Street Journal, citing “people who have seen it,” reported that the real cause was “engineering issues that required parts to be rebuilt.”  (...)

Anyway, so iTunes 11 finally hit the Internet today. If you start downloading it immediately, you might be able to get it up and running by the time the ball drops over Times Square. People always wonder why this is—why a simple music player weighs in at around 90 megabytes and requires many long minutes to install and “prepare” your library before it becomes functional. Don’t ask questions—this is just what you get with iTunes. Each new upgrade brings more suckage into your computer. It makes itself slower. It adds three or four more capabilities you’ll never need. It changes its screen layout in ways that are just subtle enough to make you throw your phone at the wall. And it adds more complexity to its ever-shifting syncing rules to ensure that the next time you connect your device, you’ll have to delete everything and resync. At this point, you shake your fists and curse this foul program to the heavens: iiiiiiiiiiiiiTuuuuuuuuuuunes!!!

Apple’s marketing material describes iTunes 11 as “Completely redesigned. For your viewing, listening, browsing, and shopping pleasure.” That sums up the software’s problem. Way back in 2001, Apple launched iTunes as a simple desktop music player for the Mac. It was a great one, too, because while it didn’t have all of the features that more-advanced software had, it was very simple to use. When iTunes was released for Windows, in 2003, it did seem like something truly novel—a great-looking, easy-to-use program for PC users. It was, as Steve Jobs put it, "like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in Hell."

In the decade since, Apple has added arsenic to the water, drip by drip. What’s iTunes for now? As its unpithy tagline explains, it’s for everything. It’s for music and movies and TV shows and books and podcasts and university lectures and apps and, most of all, for shopping. There were legitimate reasons for Apple to have added all these features. As its devices morphed from music-playing iPods into do-everything gadgets like the iPhone and iPad, iTunes had to grow to accommodate their capabilities. Eventually iTunes became less a music player than a sync-master—the software you used to set up and manage your iGadgets. Indeed, up until just a couple years ago, the only way to get a new iPhone or iPad up and running was to plug it into iTunes first. Apple’s “post-PC” machines still needed a PC to work—and, specifically, they needed a big, honking piece of bloated software.

The problem wasn’t that Apple added so much to iTunes. It was that it seems to have done so indiscriminately, without much thought to design or performance. The bigger iTunes got, the slower it felt, each new feature seeming to add a new weight atop its aging foundation. Now, every time I open iTunes, whether on a Mac or a Windows machine, I expect delay. The only other program I remember inducing such consistent panic was Microsoft’s Outlook 2003, which I was forced to use by office IT people before Gmail came along. In building the world’s most-downloaded Windows program, Apple has fallen victim to Microsoft-esque feature creep.

by Farhad Manjoo, Slate |  Read more:
Illustration: Justin Sullivan

Head c. 2500 BC-2000 BC  Cyclades Marble

Who Do Online Advertisers Think You Are?

Beginning in the “Mad Men” era and continuing into the early Internet age, TV networks and magazine publishers sold ad space by persuading advertisers that their audiences included demographic groups likely to buy particular products. In the 1950s, it has been said, 95 percent of the success of advertising agencies came from the creative department, which designed the ads, and only 5 percent from the media department, which paid to place the ads. But the rise of independent media-buying firms has made it possible to identify the individuals most likely to be receptive to ads. This is bad news for magazines and newspapers: once advertisers were able to track and reach specific consumers, they became less interested in where their ads appeared and more interested in who, specifically, was seeing them.

This shift is transforming the economy of online advertising. Google still depends largely on ads tied to search. These are based merely on whatever terms you enter at a particular moment: search for “Hawaiian vacations,” and ads for Hawaiian hotels are likely to pop up on the results page. Such ads, which resemble old-fashioned classifieds, produced a vast majority of Google’s nearly $38 billion in revenue in 2011. On the other hand, only 0.1 percent of all display ads, which are more like magazine ads, with text and images that can appear anywhere, are clicked, according to one estimate.

But as consumers flock to devices like smartphones and tablets, the potential of personalized display ads is making them increasingly popular with advertisers. Since 1994, when Lou Montulli, an employee at Netscape, created the cookie as a way of distinguishing online shoppers, it has been possible to track the activities of individual users on particular Web pages. It wasn’t until the following decade, however, that real-time bidding first used cookies to tag individual Web browsers so that their users could be sent display ads at various Web sites. This makes it possible to build comprehensive profiles of users and then conduct an auction among advertisers to show a display ad to targeted users across tens of thousands of Web sites. Google hopes its revenue from ads that are not tied to search queries will grow significantly. In 2010, the worldwide business in display ads was about $25 billion, Neal Mohan, Google’s vice president of display advertising, told me. But, he added, “there’s no reason that $25 billion couldn’t be $100 billion in a few short years” — as the industry delivers more and more ads to mobile phones, tablets, smartphones and even interactive televisions.

When I visited the offices of BlueKai last year, I met Omar Tawakol, who helped found the company in 2008. After studying mechanical engineering at M.I.T., Tawakol went to grad school for computer science at Stanford, where he became obsessed with the idea that data about individual Internet users could be valuable in itself, regardless of where it was collected. “Right now, data looks like black, gooey material,” Tawakol told me at his office in Cupertino, Calif. “Oil was to the industrial revolution as data is to our information economy.” His sense of the potential scope of the marketplace he would help create is reflected in the name he chose for his company: “kai” means “ocean” in Hawaiian.

BlueKai’s customers — which have included travel sites, like Kayak and Expedia, that want to advertise to individual consumers — now track more than 80 percent of the U.S. online population and have created more than 200 million individual profiles based on what we browse and buy online. (By some estimates, there are more than two profiles for every person in the United States.) At the time of my visit, Tawakol told me that over the previous 30 days, BlueKai’s cookies indicated that 38 million people had been to travel sites, and 635,000 of them had plugged in “Hawaii” as a destination. Next, he explained how the BlueKai data exchange then worked. Let’s say you’re planning a trip to Hawaii. You visit a travel site that works with a data intermediary like BlueKai. With the travel site’s cooperation, BlueKai puts a cookie on your computer that records the fact that you have looked up flights from San Francisco to Maui with a seven-day advance purchase. BlueKai’s extensive partnership network enables it to follow more than 160 million people every month who are looking to buy things like cars, financial services, retail and consumer goods or travel accommodations. By sorting users into categories based on our interests and purchasing power — “midscale thrift spenders,” for example, or “safety-net seniors” — BlueKai’s software helps advertisers determine how much each of us is worth following, and at what price. Advertisers for Hawaiian hotels, restaurants, car-rental companies, souvenir shops and so on then place bids starting at one or two cents for each anonymous consumer.

The winning bidder — the Maui Hyatt Regency, for instance — next goes to an advertising exchange, like Google’s DoubleClick Ad Exchange, which conducts a separate auction to determine what the Hyatt has to pay to send you an ad whenever you show up on a Web page that has a relationship with DoubleClick. The Hyatt bids against the entire pool of other would-be advertisers who may not know that you want to vacation in Hawaii and therefore bid less to send you an ad. The automated auction is conducted in real time, which means that as soon as the Maui Hyatt wins the auction, its ad shows up within milliseconds of your loading a given Web page. “What real-time bidding did is to open up a world where the advertising buyer can come in and very specifically, person per person, decide who they want at what price,” Tawakol said. On one occasion after I searched for flights to Maui on Orbitz, the display ad that suddenly showed up at the top of The New Republic home page was for package deals to Kahakuloa Bay.

Two years ago, Tawakol concluded that businesses would rather create their own user profiles and restructured his data exchange accordingly. BlueKai no longer collects and sorts data about consumers; it provides the software that enables Web sites to track their users and put them into market segments. A travel site where you look into flights to Honolulu, for example, will take your profile to a real-time bidding exchange and bid on the right to flood you with ads about Hawaiian hotels, no matter where you show up on the Web. “This is shockingly big, now that people are using their own data,” Tawakol told me. “We’re talking about 80 billion times a day” that ad transactions are taking place. In addition to changing the structure of the data exchange, Tawakol also expanded a separate BlueKai service — its “data management platform” — that allows advertisers to send customers ads or discounts across a range of digital platforms — from the Web to mobile devices and eventually to Web TV.

As Tawakol contemplates the future, he imagines a personalized world that extends beyond users’ Web experiences. “There will be a concept of a unique and anonymous consumer across platforms — online, offline, mobile and digital TV,” he said. “If you’re looking for a trip to Hawaii online, you will see an offer on your mobile phone and your home TV.” Tawakol added that “once we figure out the privacy rules” the tracking will all be connected: “Ads you see on TV will be informed by where you logged in, what you saw online and what products you’re using.”

by Jeffrey Rosen, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration by Edward del Rosario

Rich Man, Poor Man

Jack Whittaker's big Powerball win cost him -- and everyone around him -- dearly

It was coming up on Christmas, and Brenda-the-biscuit-lady was inexplicably happy as she walked to work in the predawn darkness. Brenda didn't just make biscuits over at the C&L Super Serve for $6 an hour. She served up good cheer.

"How you doin', honey?" she'd greet customers, with such enthusiasm that they had no choice but to smile back.

"Dad-gonnit, you are growing up on me!" she'd call to schoolchildren, just to see them grin. "What grade you in now?"

At 39, Brenda Higginbotham didn't have much to show for a lifetime of good cheer. No car. No home. No picture-book Christmas on the horizon. In spite of that, in spite of everything, she had a sense of her place in the world as unsullied as a holiday snowfall before folks trample it ugly, like folks do. That abiding sense was Brenda's gift.

"What do you need, dear?" she'd ask a weary workman eyeing her hot-food carryout case. For a moment, Brenda could make the man with chapped hands and muddy boots feel like somebody was looking after him.

"You want a roll with that, baby?" she'd say, smiling even bigger.

Of all her customers, the person Brenda loved to josh with most was the cowboy-man who pulled into the C&L Super Serve in Hurricane, W.Va., by 6:30 a.m. weekdays to gas up and buy breakfast. Brenda would spy him out at the pumps and start his order: two of her famous biscuits stuffed with bacon.

Brenda and the cowboy-man joshed so much that fellow clerks teased they must have some kind of "rendezvous deal" going on. Brenda would laugh and say, "It ain't like that!" She didn't even know that the cowboy-man's name was Jack. Jack Whittaker. She just knew he dressed in black like Johnny Cash and carried himself big -- big as the cowboy hat he always wore. She liked how polite and cheerful he acted, as if trouble were a stranger.

In the days before Christmas in 2002, Jack bought a Powerball lottery ticket along with his biscuits. Some fools couldn't get enough of those tickets. Not the cowboy-man. He'd buy one only when the jackpot got big, like anything less than a couple hundred million wasn't worth his trouble.

On Christmas Day, the lottery ticket-buying frenzy peaked at 3:26 p.m. In convenience stores and gas stations across West Virginia, 15 people every second commemorated Jesus's birthday by plunking down $1 for a chance at a different kind of salvation: that Powerball jackpot.

It was about 11 o'clock Christmas night 2002 when Channel 3 out of Charleston announced what it said were the winning Powerball numbers. Jack was slumbering when his wife of nearly 40 years, Jewell, jostled him awake to say that his lottery ticket matched four out of five. Jack was clueless about what kind of payoff a four-number match brought, but he figured it had to be good for at least $100,000. He went back to sleep while visions of a six-figure windfall danced in his head.

The next morning, as always, he rose at 4:30 to get to work. Jack, 55, had been working construction since he was a poor 14-year-old in the hills. He'd built himself a nice life in this patch of West Virginia hard by the Kentucky and Ohio borders. He had a wife and a granddaughter who basked in his attentions, a brick house in a nice subdivision in neighboring Scott Depot, and a water and sewer pipe-laying business that employed more than 100 people. At 5:15 a.m., Jack snapped on the television and heard, to his surprise, that the winning ticket had been sold at the C&L Super Serve. What are the odds, Jack later said he was thinking, that one little convenience store would sell two lucky tickets? Just then the winning numbers flashed. The numbers broadcast the night before had been wrong. He had a match on all five numbers, not four.

Jack Whittaker had just won $314 million, the largest undivided lottery jackpot in history.

A few hours later, he ambled into the C&L Super Serve and calmly handed Brenda a bill, saying he'd been meaning to give it to her before Christmas. Brenda figured it was a $1 tip for helping him diet, taking care to pinch a little dough out of his bacon biscuits so the cowboy-man's big burly wouldn't go soft.

"He handed me a $100 bill!" Brenda recalls. "I looked at it, and I'm, like, 'Oh, no, no, no. I'm not taking this from you.' And he's, like, 'Oh, yes, you are.'"

Then it hit her.

"Did you win?" Brenda whispered.

Jack nodded and grinned.

The day would come when many West Virginians recalled the story of Jack's Powerball Christmas with a shudder at the magnitude of ruination: families asunder, precious lambs six feet under, folks undone by the lure of all that easy money.

But for now, Jack's big win was viewed as one of the greatest Christmas gifts in his poor state's history, a holiday miracle to be heralded around the globe. Jack proclaimed that he would tithe a biblical 10 percent of his winnings, donate millions to his family's favorite pastors and build big new churches. He vowed to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. "I just want to thank God for letting me pick the right numbers . . . or letting the machine pick the right numbers," he said as he claimed his check.

by April Witt, Washington Post (2005) |  Read more:
Photo: John Sommers - Reuters

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Robert Rauschenberg - Quiet House, Black Mountain ca. 1949.

The Letter, Christopher Thompson

It was all so sad. But it was all so beautiful, too.
— Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

Shadow Banking

[ed. It's not just Wall Street, it's the world; no wonder financial regulation is so difficult. Think about it: $67 trillion. I wonder how much of that is real money, in actual circulation?  More on Shadow Banking here:]

The system of so-called "shadow banking," blamed by some for aggravating the global financial crisis, grew to a new high of $67 trillion globally last year, a top regulatory group said, calling for tighter control of the sector.

A report by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) on Sunday appeared to confirm fears among policymakers that shadow banking is set to thrive, beyond the reach of a regulatory net tightening around traditional banks and banking activities.

The FSB, a task force from the world's top 20 economies, also called for greater regulatory control of shadow banking.

"The FSB is of the view that the authorities' approach to shadow banking has to be a targeted one," the group wrote in a report, noting the current lax regulation of the sector.

"The objective is to ensure that shadow banking is subject to appropriate oversight and regulation to address bank-like risks to financial stability," it said.

Officials at the European Commission in Brussels also see closer oversight of the sector as important in preventing a repeat of the financial crisis that has toppled banks over the past five years and rocked the euro zone.

The study by the FSB said shadow banking around the world more than doubled to $62 trillion in the five years to 2007 before the crisis struck.

But the size of the total system had grown to $67 trillion in 2011 - more than the total economic output of all the countries in the study.

The multitrillion-dollar activities of hedge funds and private equity companies are often cited as examples of shadow banking.

But the term also covers investment funds, money market funds and even cash-rich firms that lend government bonds to banks, which in turn use them as security when taking credit from the European Central Bank.

Even the man credited with coining the term, former investment executive Paul McCulley, gave a catch-all definition, saying he understood shadow banking to mean "the whole alphabet soup of levered up non-bank investment conduits, vehicles and structures," such as the special investment vehicles that many blamed for the financial crisis.

by John O'Donnell, Reuters |  Read more:
Image: Wikipedia

Learning from Psychopaths

It’s too simplistic to think of psychopaths as being murderers or law-breakers, says Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton.

In his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Dutton examines what we can learn from those who lack conscience but are also bold and highly resilient to stress.

What exactly is a psychopath?

No sooner is the word out of someone’s mouth than images of [serial killers] like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind. It doesn’t automatically mean that you’re a criminal or serial killer. When psychologists talk about psychopaths, what we refer to are people with a distinct set of personality characteristics including ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, a charismatic personality and lack of conscience and empathy.

You write that you think your father was a psychopath…

It sounds like a crazy thing to say, but there’s no doubt at all about it. He was a nailed down psychopath. He wasn’t violent. He was a market trader [in the U.K., a person who sells things at an open-air street market]. One of the central messages of the book is that you don’t need to be violent to be a psychopath. My dad was ruthless, fearless and also extremely charming. He could have sold shaving cream to the Taliban.

So what would be an example of his psychopathic behavior?

When I was a kid, probably about 9 or 10 [years old], we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Just as my dad was about to pay, he suddenly tinked his spoon against his glass and stood up. The whole restaurant went silent. My dad said, “I’d just like to thank you all for coming; some from just round the corner, some from much further afield. You’re all most welcome to join us for a little drinks reception across the road.’

And so an entire restaurant of strangers who had never seen us before were all applauding wildly because they didn’t want to be seen as gatecrashers. We just took off. He [told me] we’re not going to the pub really and [explained that his] old friend Malcolm had [just opened a new pub across the street].

If you think about the front you need to do that: it’s a whole different kind of personality. On a personal level, I guess I wrote the book to figure out my old man.

Were you afraid you might have gotten some of those genes?

I have some psychopathic characteristics. I’m not so ruthless. I’m pretty fearless. Not much phases me. I’ve got mental toughness; people say I’m quite persistent. But what lets me down in the psychopath stakes is that I do have a heck of a conscience and am rather empathetic. I’m high on some characteristics and low on others.

Psychopaths don’t have the caring part of empathy, but they are better than average at the “mind reading” part where they can predict other people’s behavior in order to manipulate it.

It’s a real paradox. Some years ago, I interviewed a psychopath — and I can’t work out for the life of me whether he being manipulative or telling the truth — it was probably a bit of both, but he said, ‘If you had a deaf guy standing watching a building burn down and had a child in the building screaming in pain and the deaf guy didn’t go in, you wouldn’t hold him to blame. Imagine if you’re emotionally deaf. You can hear the sound, but it doesn’t do anything for you. You don’t feel that emotional kick in the backside to go in and do something.’

That means psychopaths must miss out on some of life’s greatest pleasures, too. If the happiest moments of our lives tend to involve sharing joy with others—falling in love, having fun with people we care about— they don’t have any of that.

In a sense, they never had that so they’re not going to miss it. We think, because we have empathy, ‘Gosh how terrible it must be to not have it.’ But if you never had it to start with, you don’t miss it. I agree as an empathetic person, I find it horrendous to imagine [living a life] where you couldn’t take pleasure from others and didn’t feel love and compassion.

What do you think makes one psychopath a serial killer while the other winds up on Wall Street?

Let’s say you are a psychopath and you get a poor start in life. You’re low in intelligence and also dispositionally violent. Just due to natural biology, some people are more aggressive than others from the word go. Your prospects, to be perfectly honest, are not great. You’re going to end up as a low level thug or enforcer in a criminal gang and either way, you will wind up in prison.

Now, remove violence from the equation. You are a psychopath who is nonviolent but you don’t get a good start. Your prospects are a little better, you end up as a small time con artist or drug dealer. You’re also going to wind up in prison very quickly.

Then [consider] a psychopath who is not dispositionally violent. You get a good start in life and are intelligent. Now, it’s a different story. Now, you’re more likely to kill in the market than anywhere else. If you’re an intelligent psychopath and violent [and get a good start], there are any number of exciting occupations, anything from special forces operative to head of a criminal syndicate.

by By Maia Szalavitz, Time |  Read more:

Early Arrival

Kotex, the company that first capitalized on the concept of “feminine hygiene” more than 90 years ago, recently gained newfound success after it began targeting an underserved market: girls who start their periods before they start middle school. With hearts, swirls and sparkles, the U brand offers maxi pads and tampons for — OMG! — girls as young as 8, promoted through a neon-hued website with chatty girl-to-girl messages and breezy videos. “When I had my first period I was prepared,” reads one testimonial. “It was the summer before 4th grade….”

Today it has become common for girls to enter puberty before discovering Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Over the second half of the 20th century, the average age for girls to begin breast development has dropped by a year or more in the industrialized world. And the age of first menstruation, generally around 12, has advanced by a matter of months. Hispanic and black girls may be experiencing an age shift much more pronounced.

The idea of an entire generation maturing faster once had a strong cadre of doubters. In fact, after one of the first studies to warn of earlier puberty in American girls was published in 1997, skeptics complained in the journalPediatrics that “many of us in the field of pediatric endocrinology believe that it is premature to conclude that the normal age of puberty is occurring earlier.” Today, more than 15 years later, a majority of doctors appear to have come around to the idea. Have a conversation with a pediatric endocrinologist, and it isn’t long before you hear the phrase “new normal.”

“If you basically say that the onset of puberty has a bell-shaped distribution, it seems to many of us the whole curve is shifting to the left,” says Paul Kaplowitz, chief of the division of endocrinology and diabetes at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. More girls, he says, are starting puberty before age 8, putting them at “the lower end of the new normal range.”

Researchers are now turning their attention to what could be driving the trend. Many scientists suspect that younger puberty is a consequence of an epidemic of childhood obesity, citing studies that find development closely tied to the accumulation of body fat. But there are other possibilities, including the presence of environmental chemicals that can mimic the biological properties of estrogen, and psychological and social stressors that might alter the hormonal makeup of a young body.

These possibilities could also be occurring simultaneously in ways that are not understood. A study published in September in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children with high levels of a common environmental pollutant were more likely to be obese. “Although I’m convinced that obesity is part of the story, I’m no longer convinced it’s the whole story,” Kaplowitz says.

Scientists hope more research will help explain why the puberty trend for boys isn’t as clear as it is for girls, though a recent study in Pediatrics does suggest that boys, too, may be maturing earlier. The concern is not parental squeamishness but the potential for future health consequences. Children reaching puberty too young, some data suggest, face a higher risk of cancer, bone fractures and other problems in adulthood. Doctors also fear a body that belies true age, especially in girls, could put children at risk for sexual abuse and other problems.

“The early maturing girl has greater vulnerabilities and is more likely to be involved in risky behaviors,” says Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. When a 9-year-old looks 12, “her peers and adults take the cues from what she looks like. But she’s still a 9-year-old.”

by Laura Bell, Science News |  Read more:
Nancy Honey/Getty Images

Hiroshige - Grand Series of Fishes

Proposed Ban on Anchored Putting

[ed. The issue currently roiling the golf world. For more reactions see The Long and Short of It]

Golf's ruling bodies are ready to put an end to the style of putting that has been used by the winners of three of the last five major championships.

Less than a year after announcing they were going to take a fresh look at the topic, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews announced a proposed rule change today that in 2016 would prohibit the anchored style of putting, the same style that was used by the winners of both the U.S. and British Open this year. The proposed rule would not ban belly or long putters, but it would ban any stroke where the grip or hand is anchored "directly" to any "anchor point" on the body.

The ruling bodies are seeking comment from golfers and the golf industry over the next three months before making a final decision. Assuming the timeline remains unchanged, the rule will be approved by both the USGA and the R&A this spring, and the anchored stroke ban would go into effect with the next official revision of the rules in January 2016.

"It's been a polarizing issue, and for many years you've had people who genuinely care about the game sit on both sides of it," USGA Executive Director Mike Davis told "It's been fairly divisive and it's only gotten more so in the last year, but this decision gets back to the USGA and R&A feeling that fundamentally golf for 600 years has been about picking up the club, gripping it with two hands and making a free swing away from the body.

"We don't write rules to make the game easier, but we don't write rules to make the game harder, either. We write them to define the game, clarify the game, and in this case, the game has always been about swinging the club freely, and the anchored stroke is really a diversion from that."  (...)

Although a ban on anchored putting has been decried as unfair by some current belly and long putter users, including Bradley and Tim Clark, both of whom have suggested they might pursue legal avenues, others, including ESPN legal expert Lester Munson, believe precedent is in the favor of the ruling bodies. Tiger Woods, who in the past has made clear his opposition to the belly and long putter, indicated in his press conference at the World Challenge that his opinion was still firm.

"We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same. It should be a swinging motion throughout the entire bag.," he said Tuesday, indicating he was especially concerned that youngsters were copying the pros' anchored putting style. "That's something that I think for the greater good of the game needs to be adjusted."

by Mike Stachura, Golf Digest |  Read more:
Photo: Lucas Dawson, Warren Little / Getty Images via:

How to Find True Friends (and Love) in 45 minutes

Can you make someone become intimately close to you -- even fall in love with you -- in less than an hour? Just ask Arthur Aron.

Dr Aron -- known to friends as Art -- runs the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University in upstate New York, and he has love on his mind. Passionate love, unreciprocated love, romantic attraction, unexpected arousal, pure lust -- all aspects of human intimacy that fascinate this much-published psychology professor specialising in what causes people to fall in and out of love and form other deep relationships ("the self-expansion model of motivation and cognition in personal relationships", as his CV puts it). He has built his reputation on papers with titles such as "The neural basis of long-term romantic love", "Motivations for unreciprocated love" and "A prototype of relationship boredom". But such dry academic language belies the shockingly powerful nature of some of his team's lab work.

Back in 1997, Aron and colleagues published a paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on "The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness". They wanted to know if they could create lab conditions that would make strangers quickly bond and form close friendships, even romantic engagements, after just a few minutes.

They arranged volunteers in pairs, and gave them a list of 36 questions that, one by one, they were both asked to answer openly over an hour "in a kind of sharing game". Even before the hour was up, respondents typically said they felt unusually close to the person they had shared questions with.

But would the "fast friends" experiment also work with more worldly senior executives and entrepreneurs? Ever since I discovered the experiment three years ago, I have been looking for an opportunity to put it into practice among a group of curious and open-minded strangers.

I found my opportunity at WPP's recent Stream conference in Athens (...)

"Take part in a psychological experiment, and make friends fast," I scribbled on the whiteboard where session hosts competed for delegates' attention. The brave 18 people curious enough to show up discovered that this was no false advertising: the experiment really did promote incredibly fast bonding.

Like Aron, I paired the high-achieving entrepreneurs, investors, editors and executives to answer 36 questions. And like Dr Aron's participants, mine were told that their task, which sounded fun, was "simply to get close to your partner" over an hour. They were given the questions, printed out in order, and told that both partners should answer each of them in turn.

The questions began simply enough:

- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

- Would you like to be famous? In what way?

- Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

- What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?

- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

by David Rowan, Wired |  Read more:
Photo: J.D. Hancock

How To Go Viral On YouTube

As an entrepreneur, one of the most sought after marketing anomalies is the creation of the viral video.

With over 4 billion views on YouTube each day, the opportunity for exposure is tremendous. But don’t be fooled. Just because your video is on Youtube and YOU think it’s great doesn’t mean it’ll capture the kind of attention you are hoping for.

So what does it take to achieve the coveted status of viral video? Is this a phenomenon of chance, or can it be intentionally engineered?

One creative California agency believes they’ve not only cracked the viral code, but can also inject a message within the entertainment.

Introducing Mekanism

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Brendan Gahan, Director of Social Media for Mekanism, an award winning creative agency.

Mekanism has created viral campaigns for clients such as Pepsi, Virgin Mobile, Axe and 20th Century Fox.

Most recently added to their collection of viral hits is the creation of Hovercat which launched on June 9th, 2012 to promote animal adoption through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). (...)

The Candy With The Medicine

In order to generate massive views, Mekanism uses something they call “Candy with the Medicine,” a philosophy that recognizes a message is best received within entertainment.

Therefore, the first item on the agenda is to ENTERTAIN – that’s the “candy.”

The second step is to inject the MESSAGE – that’s the “medicine.”

David Horowitz, Mekanism Creative Director explains how this was executed.
The challenge was making something that promoted the ASPCA and made people smile. Ultimately, pets are fun. Look on YouTube and you’ll see thousands of animal videos with huge view counts for that very reason – pets do funny things, and people like watching pets do funny things. We wanted to use that truth as the selling point. But unlike a video a kid makes at home, we couldn’t just find a cat and wait for it to fall into a box or jump on a ceiling fan. If we wanted to have our own cat viral hit, we needed to create something that would have a hook – a concept that could be described in the title itself. Thus, Hovercat was born.”
by Lewis Howes, Forbes |  Read more:

The Myth of American Meritocracy

Just before the Labor Day weekend, a front page New York Times story broke the news of the largest cheating scandal in Harvard University history, in which nearly half the students taking a Government course on the role of Congress had plagiarized or otherwise illegally collaborated on their final exam.1 Each year, Harvard admits just 1600 freshmen while almost 125 Harvard students now face possible suspension over this single incident. A Harvard dean described the situation as “unprecedented.”

But should we really be so surprised at this behavior among the students at America’s most prestigious academic institution? In the last generation or two, the funnel of opportunity in American society has drastically narrowed, with a greater and greater proportion of our financial, media, business, and political elites being drawn from a relatively small number of our leading universities, together with their professional schools. The rise of a Henry Ford, from farm boy mechanic to world business tycoon, seems virtually impossible today, as even America’s most successful college dropouts such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg often turn out to be extremely well-connected former Harvard students. Indeed, the early success of Facebook was largely due to the powerful imprimatur it enjoyed from its exclusive availability first only at Harvard and later restricted to just the Ivy League.

During this period, we have witnessed a huge national decline in well-paid middle class jobs in the manufacturing sector and other sources of employment for those lacking college degrees, with median American wages having been stagnant or declining for the last forty years. Meanwhile, there has been an astonishing concentration of wealth at the top, with America’s richest 1 percent now possessing nearly as much net wealth as the bottom 95 percent.2 This situation, sometimes described as a “winner take all society,” leaves families desperate to maximize the chances that their children will reach the winners’ circle, rather than risk failure and poverty or even merely a spot in the rapidly deteriorating middle class. And the best single means of becoming such an economic winner is to gain admission to a top university, which provides an easy ticket to the wealth of Wall Street or similar venues, whose leading firms increasingly restrict their hiring to graduates of the Ivy League or a tiny handful of other top colleges.3 On the other side, finance remains the favored employment choice for Harvard, Yale or Princeton students after the diplomas are handed out.4

The Battle for Elite College Admissions

As a direct consequence, the war over college admissions has become astonishingly fierce, with many middle- or upper-middle class families investing quantities of time and money that would have seemed unimaginable a generation or more ago, leading to an all-against-all arms race that immiserates the student and exhausts the parents. The absurd parental efforts of an Amy Chua, as recounted in her 2010 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, were simply a much more extreme version of widespread behavior among her peer-group, which is why her story resonated so deeply among our educated elites. Over the last thirty years, America’s test-prep companies have grown from almost nothing into a $5 billion annual industry, allowing the affluent to provide an admissions edge to their less able children. Similarly, the enormous annual tuition of $35,000 charged by elite private schools such as Dalton or Exeter is less for a superior high school education than for the hope of a greatly increased chance to enter the Ivy League.5 Many New York City parents even go to enormous efforts to enroll their children in the best possible pre-Kindergarten program, seeking early placement on the educational conveyer belt which eventually leads to Harvard.6 Others cut corners in a more direct fashion, as revealed in the huge SAT cheating rings recently uncovered in affluent New York suburbs, in which students were paid thousands of dollars to take SAT exams for their wealthier but dimmer classmates.7

But given such massive social and economic value now concentrated in a Harvard or Yale degree, the tiny handful of elite admissions gatekeepers enjoy enormous, almost unprecedented power to shape the leadership of our society by allocating their supply of thick envelopes. Even billionaires, media barons, and U.S. Senators may weigh their words and actions more carefully as their children approach college age. And if such power is used to select our future elites in a corrupt manner, perhaps the inevitable result is the selection of corrupt elites, with terrible consequences for America. Thus, the huge Harvard cheating scandal, and perhaps also the endless series of financial, business, and political scandals which have rocked our country over the last decade or more, even while our national economy has stagnated.

Just a few years ago Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden published The Price of Admission, a devastating account of the corrupt admissions practices at so many of our leading universities, in which every sort of non-academic or financial factor plays a role in privileging the privileged and thereby squeezing out those high-ability, hard-working students who lack any special hook. In one particularly egregious case, a wealthy New Jersey real estate developer, later sent to Federal prison on political corruption charges, paid Harvard $2.5 million to help ensure admission of his completely under-qualified son.8 When we consider that Harvard’s existing endowment was then at $15 billion and earning almost $7 million each day in investment earnings, we see that a culture of financial corruption has developed an absurd illogic of its own, in which senior Harvard administrators sell their university’s honor for just a few hours worth of its regular annual income, the equivalent of a Harvard instructor raising a grade for a hundred dollars in cash.

An admissions system based on non-academic factors often amounting to institutionalized venality would seem strange or even unthinkable among the top universities of most other advanced nations in Europe or Asia, though such practices are widespread in much of the corrupt Third World. The notion of a wealthy family buying their son his entrance into the Grandes Ecoles of France or the top Japanese universities would be an absurdity, and the academic rectitude of Europe’s Nordic or Germanic nations is even more severe, with those far more egalitarian societies anyway tending to deemphasize university rankings.

by Ron Unz, The American Conservative |  Read more:
Illustration: Michael Hogue

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Moral Machines

Google’s driver-less cars are already street-legal in three states, California, Florida, and Nevada, and some day similar devices may not just be possible but mandatory. Eventually (though not yet) automated vehicles will be able to drive better, and more safely than you can; no drinking, no distraction, better reflexes, and better awareness (via networking) of other vehicles. Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car, and even if you are allowed, it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.

That moment will be significant not just because it will signal the end of one more human niche, but because it will signal the beginning of another: the era in which it will no longer be optional for machines to have ethical systems. Your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path. Should your car swerve, possibly risking the life of its owner (you), in order to save the children, or keep going, putting all forty kids at risk? If the decision must be made in milliseconds, the computer will have to make the call. (...)

With or without robotic soldiers, what we really need is a sound way to teach our machines to be ethical. The trouble is that we have almost no idea how to do that. Many discussions start with three famous laws from Isaac Asimov:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.
The trouble with these seemingly sound laws is threefold. The first is technical: at least for now, we couldn’t program a machine with Asimov’s laws if we tried. As yet, we haven’t figured out how to build a machine that fully comprehends the concept of “dinner”, much less something as abstract as “harm” or “protection.” Likewise, we are a long way from constructing a robot that can fully anticipate the consequences of any of its actions (or inactions). For now, a robot is lucky if it can predict would happen if it dropped a glass of water. A.I. has a long way to go before laws as abstract as Asimov’s could realistically be encoded in software.

Second, even if we could figure out how to do the programming, the rules might be too restrictive. The first and second laws, for example, preclude robots from ever harming other humans, but most people would make exceptions for robots that could eliminate potential human targets that were a clear and present danger to others. Only a true ideologue would want to stop a robotic sniper from taking down a hostage-taker or Columbine killer.

Meanwhile, Asimov’s laws themselves might not be fair—to robots. As the computer scientist Kevin Korb has pointed out, Asimov’s laws effectively treat robots like slaves. Perhaps that is acceptable for now, but it could become morally questionable (and more difficult to enforce) as machines become smarter and possibly more self-aware.

The laws of Asimov are hardly the only approach to machine ethics, but many others are equally fraught. An all-powerful computer that was programmed to maximize human pleasure, for example, might consign us all to an intravenous dopamine drip; an automated car that aimed to minimize harm would never leave the driveway. Almost any easy solution that one might imagine leads to some variation or another on the Sorceror’s Apprentice, a genie that’s given us what we’ve asked for, rather than what we truly desire. A tiny cadre of brave-hearted souls at Oxford, Yale, and the Berkeley California Singularity Institute are working on these problems, but the annual amount of money being spent on developing machine morality is tiny
by Gary Marcus, New Yorker |  Read more:
Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty.

“The way we met, it all happened so fast” - Prince Hat

How Does Nitroglycerin Stop Heart Attacks?

Dear Cecil:

Recently a friend of the family had a heart attack. While he was in the hospital, they gave him nitroglycerin pills to stop the attack and ease his chest pains! I consider myself as having a rational mind, but the ingestion of explosives (no matter how small the amount) does not on the surface seem to be a great way to promote cardiovascular health! In fact, it would seem that nitro might have caused a few heart attacks (especially around the Fourth of July). How does nitroglycerin stop heart attacks?

— Steve S., Salt Lake City

People nowadays are such wimps. If you're looking for strong medicine, how can you do better than a high explosive? The nitroglycerin in the pills, patches, and sprays that heart patients use for angina (chest pain) is in fact the same stuff you find in dynamite--the residue the drug leaves on patients' skin and clothing is often enough to set off airport bomb-sniffing machines. The medicinal dose is tiny and diluted with inert material, so it's completely nonexplosive; even so, nitroglycerin is one medicine I'd hesitate to shake before use.

I'm kidding, of course. Still, straight nitroglycerin (an oily yellow liquid) isn't something you'd want to take a swig of--even if we ignore the fact that it's poisonous, the merest jolt will detonate it. The man who discovered it in 1846, Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, had his face scarred by a laboratory explosion. The Swedish inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, made his pile after figuring out in the 1860s that mixing nitro with diatomaceous earth would produce a relatively stable explosive paste that was much safer to use.

Laborers in Nobel's factories were the first to feel nitroglycerin's therapeutic effects. When they arrived at work each morning, those with heart problems found that their chest pains subsided (though almost everybody on the job noticed that sometimes their heads hurt like hell). Turned out the nitroglycerin vapor in the factory air was acting as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow both to the heart (which needed it, at least in the case of the angina sufferers) and to the head (which didn't).

Nitroglycerin pills have been a standard treatment for angina and heart attack symptoms since 1879--doctors prescribed them for Nobel himself not long before his death in 1896 (he refused to take them--couldn't brook the headaches). But more than a century passed before scientists understood how they worked. In the 1970s, researchers established that the body converts nitroglycerin into nitric oxide, and in the '80s they demonstrated that nitric oxide is a messenger molecule that tells the smooth muscles surrounding blood vessels to relax. (A heart attack basically means that not enough blood is reaching your cardiac muscles.) In 1998 three scientists who'd been instrumental in unlocking the mystery of nitroglycerin were collectively awarded--I'm telling you, this story has irony out the wazoo--the Nobel Prize in medicine.

by Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope |  Read more:
Photo: Everyday Health

End the Charade: Let Athletes Major in Sports

That collegiate sports is tainted by chicanery and a host of moral dilemmas is nothing new. Rarely does a week pass without some embarrassing deviance being uncovered and scrutinized by the ever-vigilant news media. A steady stream of scandalous disclosures depicting illicit communications and relationships among athletes, agents, and coaches, not to mention forced resignations, expulsions, and sanctions, reveals deep dysfunction in college athletics.

Countless published articles, letters to the editor, and essays have railed against those ethical violations for decades in well-intentioned efforts to provide solutions. A recent investigationby The Chronicle's Brad Wolverton revealed a host of quick, cheap, and easy academic credits available to athletes in danger of losing their eligibility to play.

What bothers me as a retired academic with decades of service­—and as an avid college-sports fan to boot—is an issue that may be integral to a good portion of such travesties.

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

Acquisition of athletic skills is what significant numbers of NCAA Division I student athletes want to pursue. And this is undeniably why they've gone to their campus of choice. Their confessions about their primary interest are readily proclaimed and by no means denied or repressed. These athletes are as honest in recognizing and divulging their aspiration as is the student who declares a goal of performing some day at the Metropolitan Opera or on the Broadway stage. Student athletes wish to be professional entertainers. This is their heart's desire.

Their family members, friends, and high-school coaches acknowledge and support that goal, so why not let them step out of the closet and declare their true aspiration­—to study football, basketball, or baseball? Why not legitimize such an academic specialty in the same manner that other professional performance careers, such as dance, voice, theater, and music, are recognized and supported? Why treat preparation for professional sports careers differently? Why not establish a well-planned, defensible, educationally sound curriculum that correlates with a career at the elite level of sports?

by David Pargman, Chronicle of Higher Education |  Read more:
Illustration: Tim Foley

Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?

After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”

Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.

Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.

Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.  (...)

Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world. You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened.  (...)

In fact there is just one scientist who has been culturing Turritopsis polyps in his lab consistently. He works alone, without major financing or a staff, in a cramped office in Shirahama, a sleepy beach town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, four hours south of Kyoto. The scientist’s name is Shin Kubota, and he is, for the time being, our best chance for understanding this unique strand of biological immortality.

Many marine biologists are reluctant to make such grand claims about Turritopsis’ promise for human medicine. “That’s a question for journalists,” Boero said (to a journalist) in 2009. “I prefer to focus on a slightly more rational form of science.”

Kubota, however, has no such compunction. “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” he told me the first time I called him. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

I decided I better book a ticket to Japan.

by Nathaniel Rich, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Takashi Murai for The New York Times

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kenneth Josephson, Chicago, 1961.

End of the Line in the ICU

Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”

She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”

Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit.

We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband.

You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.

I cared for a woman in her 90s whose family had considered making her a DNR,but decided against it. After a relatively minor stroke that left her awake but not lucid, Helen* went into kidney failure and started on continuous hemodialysis. Because she kept pulling out her IV lines and the feeding tube we had dropped into her nose and down to her stomach, we put boxing glove-like pillow mitts on her hands. When I approached with her medicine, Helen batted at me with her boxing gloves, saying, “NO. STOP.” She frowned, shook her head and then her fist at me. Her wishes were pretty clear, but technically she was “confused,” because when asked her name, the date, and her location, she failed to answer.

During the next shift, Helen’s heart stopped beating. But despite talking with the doctors about her advanced age and the poor state of her health, her family had nonetheless decided that we should “do everything we can” for her, and so Helen died in a frenzy of nurses pumping her with vasopressors and doing chest compressions, probably cracking several ribs.

That was a situation in which a patient’s family made a decision that probably caused Helen to suffer and did not help her. But there are circumstances where it is the healthcare team that chooses to push on with intensive interventions. And there are circumstances where bureaucracy, miscommunication, and the relatively low priority, among very busy physicians, of making decisions about how far to pursue medical care cause patients to linger in the ICU weeks past the point when any medical professional thought meaningful recovery was possible.

by Kristen McConnell, The Health Care Blog |  Read more:

Land of the Seven Moles

Even before I arrived, Abigail had prepared a schedule of restaurants and markets we absolutely had to visit. In my first market visits, I was reminded that the intense interest Oaxaqueños have in eating includes insects—particularly grasshoppers, known there as chapulines, and maguey worms. In Oaxacan markets, some venders who seem to have brought a bit of whatever’s in their garden will have a basket of chapulines as well, and some chapulín specialists will have as many as seven or eight large baskets, each piled high with a specific size of grasshopper. (Chapulines of any size are prepared roughly the same way—sautéed in oil that’s been seasoned with chilis and garlic and lime and salt.) I grew up in Kansas City, which, I think it’s fair to say, is not in a major insect-eating area. Where I come from, worms were something you definitely didn’t want to have anywhere near your digestive tract. Grasshoppers were thought of mainly as a threat to the wheat crop.

When it comes to eating, I’m not wildly adventurous. Sometimes I think that I’m too cautious. Looking back at those moments when I wasn’t setting the sort of example a parent should set, I can hear Abigail saying, while the two of us were perusing the menu at a restaurant in Cuzco, Peru, “I guess you’re going to wimp out on the guinea pig.” I haven’t felt inspired by those who talk about having downed a great variety of gruesome foodstuffs. Eating, say, iguana spleen strikes me as sort of like bungee jumping: the point is not to do it but to have done it. When I’m asked about my willingness to eat the ostensibly inedible, I usually tell the story of finding on the menu of a restaurant in Hong Kong an item listed as double-boiled deer penis. “I thought about ordering it,” I always say, “but I was afraid when they brought it to the table I’d take one look at it and say, ‘Maybe you could take it back and have him boil it one more time.’ ”

On the other hand, I usually like to try the local specialty. In Ecuador, I eventually did eat guinea pig. Given my experience with nutria in Louisiana some years before, in fact, I suppose that, if I hadn’t been raised to prize modesty, I could describe myself as a man with relatively broad experience in rodent consumption. As I studied the mounds of various sizes of grasshoppers in the markets, though, I found myself with a question similar to the one that goes through my mind when I see someone in Chinatown reach into a barrel of live frogs and pull one out for inspection: What, exactly, does one look for in a grasshopper? I thought I might ease into grasshopper-eating, following the general rule that anything is edible if it’s chopped up finely enough. That’s apparently the route my granddaughters had taken. Both of the girls had sampled grasshopper, although neither of them seemed keen on making a habit of it. Given Rebecca’s reputation as someone with an almost limitless appetite for corn tortillas—a woman across the road from the house Abigail and Brian had rented makes three hundred a day on a traditional earthenware griddle called a comal, and it’s clear that, left unchecked, Rebecca could put a considerable dent in a day’s inventory—Isabelle, who’s ten, had a simple explanation for how her little sister, who’s only seven, happened to consume grasshoppers, mixed with some other things: “Rebecca will eat anything that’s wrapped in a tortilla.”

by Calvin Trillin, New Yorker |  Read more:
Photograph by TrujilloPaumier

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fiona Apple

Robert Gill

Positive Thinking is for Suckers!

The man who claims that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio, and — according to the orange man — I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever.” I’m skeptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America’s “most popular business motivational seminar,” and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.

“So you wanna know?” asks the octogenarian, who is Dr. Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texas basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.

“Here it is, then,” Dr. Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading “MOTIVATE!” and “SUCCEED!,” seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. “Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.” Then he barks a single syllable — “Cut!” — and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘… the word ‘impossible’ out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!”

The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. “You are the master of your destiny!” Schuller goes on. “Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! … Positive thinking works in every area of life!’

The logic of Schuller’s philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts — banish the spectres of sadness and failure — and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today’s seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours’ time, by George W . Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr. Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as “negativity thinking.” To criticize the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven’t really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.

The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase — with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms — hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. Staged roughly once a month, in cities across North America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner. Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism.

As befits such celebrity, there’s nothing dingy about the staging, either, which features banks of swooping spotlights, sound systems pumping out rock anthems, and expensive pyrotechnics; each speaker is welcomed to the stage amid showers of sparks and puffs of smoke. These special effects help propel the audience to ever higher altitudes of excitement, though it also doesn’t hurt that for many of them, a trip to Get Motivated! means an extra day off work: many employers classify it as job training. Even the United States military, where “training” usually means something more rigorous, endorses this view; in San Antonio, scores of the stadium’s seats are occupied by uniformed soldiers from the local Army base.

Technically, I am here undercover. Tamara Lowe, the self-described “world’s No. 1 female motivational speaker,” who along with her husband runs the company behind Get Motivated!, has been accused of denying access to reporters, a tribe notoriously prone to negativity thinking. Lowe denies the charge, but out of caution, I’ve been describing myself as a “self-employed businessman” — a tactic, I’m realizing too late, that only makes me sound shifty. I needn’t have bothered with subterfuge anyway, it turns out, since I’m much too far away from the stage for the security staff to be able to see me scribbling in my notebook. My seat is described on my ticket as “premier seating,” but this turns out to be another case of positivity run amok: at Get Motivated!, there is only “premier seating,” “executive seating,” and “VIP seating.”

In reality, mine is up in the nosebleed section; it is a hard plastic perch, painful on the buttocks. But I am grateful for it, because it means that by chance I’m seated next to a man who, as far as I can make out, is one of the few cynics in the arena — an amiable, large-limbed park ranger named Jim, who sporadically leaps to his feet to shout I’m so motivated!” in tones laden with sarcasm.

He explains that he was required to attend by his employer, the United States National Park Service, though when I ask why that organization might wish its rangers to use paid work time in this fashion, he cheerily concedes that he has “no fucking clue.” Dr. Schuller’s sermon, meanwhile, is gathering pace. “When I was a child, it was impossible for a man ever to walk on the moon, impossible to cut out a human heart and put it in another man’s chest … the word ‘impossible’ has proven to be a very stupid word!” He does not spend much time marshaling further evidence for his assertion that failure is optional: it’s clear that Schuller, the author of “Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking” and “Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do!,” vastly prefers inspiration to argument. But in any case, he is really only a warm-up man for the day’s main speakers, and within fifteen minutes he is striding away, to adulation and fireworks, fists clenched victoriously up at the audience, the picture of positive-thinking success.

It is only months later, back at my home in New York, reading the headlines over morning coffee, that I learn the news that the largest church in the United States constructed entirely from glass has filed for bankruptcy, a word Dr. Schuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary.

For a civilization so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task. One of the best-known general findings of the “science of happiness” has been the discovery that the countless advantages of modern life have done so little to lift our collective mood. The awkward truth seems to be that increased economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income, above a certain basic level, doesn’t make for happier people. Nor does better education, at least according to some studies. Nor does an increased choice of consumer products. Nor do bigger and fancier homes, which instead seem mainly to provide the privilege of more space in which to feel gloomy.

Perhaps you don’t need telling that self-help books, the modern-day apotheosis of the quest for happiness, are among the things that fail to make us happy. But, for the record, research strongly suggests that they are rarely much help. This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the “eighteen-month rule,” which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book — one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems. When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn’t especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you’ll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; “How to Win Friends and Influence People” advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people’s first names a lot. One of the most successful management manuals of the last few years, “Fish!,” which is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

As we’ll see, when the messages get more specific than that, self-help gurus tend to make claims that simply aren’t supported by more reputable research. The evidence suggests, for example, that venting your anger doesn’t get rid of it, while visualising your goals doesn’t seem to make you more likely to achieve them. And whatever you make of the country-by-country surveys of national happiness that are now published with some regularity, it’s striking that the “happiest” countries are never those where self-help books sell the most, nor indeed where professional psychotherapists are most widely consulted. The existence of a thriving “happiness industry” clearly isn’t sufficient to engender national happiness, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse.

Yet the ineffectiveness of modern strategies for happiness is really just a small part of the problem. There are good reasons to believe that the whole notion of “seeking happiness” is flawed to begin with. For one thing, who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place? Religions have never placed much explicit emphasis on it, at least as far as this world is concerned; philosophers have certainly not been unanimous in endorsing it, either. And any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that evolution has little interest in your being happy, beyond trying to make sure that you’re not so listless or miserable that you lose the will to reproduce.

Even assuming happiness to be a worthy target, though, a worse pitfall awaits, which is that aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” observed the philosopher John Stuart Mill, “and you cease to be so.” At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. (We tend to remember having been happy in the past much more frequently than we are conscious of being happy in the present.) Making matters worse still, what happiness actually is feels impossible to define in words; even supposing you could do so, you’d presumably end up with as many different definitions as there are people on the planet. All of which means it’s tempting to conclude that “How can we be happy?” is simply the wrong question — that we might as well resign ourselves to never finding the answer, and get on with something more productive instead.

But could there be a third possibility, besides the futile effort to pursue solutions that never seem to work, on the one hand, and just giving up, on the other? After several years reporting on the field of psychology as a journalist, I finally realized that there might be. I began to think that something united all those psychologists and philosophers — and even the occasional self-help guru — whose ideas seemed actually to hold water. The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. They didn’t see this conclusion as depressing, though. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a “negative path” to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them. Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumptions about what “happiness” really means.

by Oliver Burkeman, Salon |  Read more:
Photo: Pete Souza