Thursday, June 30, 2016

Amazon Has Swallowed Downtown Seattle

Walk down Seventh Avenue in downtown Seattle and you can't miss them: three gigantic spheres resembling melted-together Milk Duds rising in the shadow of Amazon’s new 500-foot-tall office tower. The architectural oddity has already become a tourist attraction and social media phenomenon. Passersby snap photographs and watch construction crews attach glass panes to the steel frames. Images stream through Instagram and Twitter.

When they open in 2018, the 100-foot-tall orbs—Amazon calls them Biospheres—will host more than 300 plant species from around the world, creating what the company sees as the workplace of the future. Amazonians will be able to break from their daily labors to walk amid the greenery along suspension bridges and climb into meeting spaces resembling bird nests perched in mature trees, where the company expects them to brainstorm—and perhaps even invent the next billion-dollar opportunity.

Amazon's new headquarters was designed to project a forward-thinking company eager to help employees be more productive, creative and happy by providing a connection to nature. But the most trend-setting and appealing feature of the new complex is most likely its location: plopped between glass and steel high-rises on a busy street in downtown Seattle where food trucks are abundant, apartments are within walking distance and Happy Hour greets employees at quitting time.

Over the years, founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos has made clear his disdain for the free lunches, massages and other perks commonplace in the suburban enclaves of Google, Apple and Facebook. His big advantage in the amenities arms race is a commitment to preserving an urban campus, no matter how big his company gets.

Other tech companies are following his lead by squeezing new offices into cities where millennials prefer to live. LinkedIn consolidated staff scattered around San Francisco into a 26-story tower in March. will be the anchor tenant in a 61-story skyscraper a few miles away that will be the city's tallest upon completion in 2018. Uber has plans for a new headquarters in San Francisco's Mission Bay. Industrial-age leviathans are doing it, too. General Electric is shifting from suburban Connecticut to Boston, while McDonald's is moving from Oak Brook, Illinois, to Chicago.

Amazon's is the most ambitious gambit of them all. When its spheres and three surrounding towers are completed, the company will have 10 million square feet of office space in Seattle, more than 15 percent of the city's inventory, on a campus that occupies more than 10 square blocks. That will provide space for Amazon to more than double in size, to 50,000 Seattle workers in the next decade. "How big can Amazon get and stay in Seattle—that’s what they’re trying to find out," says Glenn Kelman, founder and CEO of online real estate company Redfin. "Can you create a massive company in the middle of a city?"

Amazon's commitment to Seattle began long before the spheres were conceived. In 2010, the company moved to South Lake Union from leased space it was outgrowing in an old medical building. Amazon leased retail space on the ground floor of its office buildings to hand-picked bars, restaurants and coffee shops, speeding the neighborhood's transformation from a hodgepodge of car dealerships and second-hand stores into a vibrant business district where people could work, live and hang out.

Veteran fine-dining restaurateur Tom Douglas was among the businesses lured by a growing concentration of well-paid tech workers. His survey of Amazon workers indicated they wanted cheap burgers and beer, which encouraged him to break from his traditional model and open the Brave Horse Tavern with a wide assortment of local brews, pub fare and long tables for family-style seating. "I'm sure glad we did that survey, because we might not have gone with this concept otherwise," Douglas said. "At the time, none of us realized how big and fast Amazon would grow." The economic ripples from Amazon have since pushed beyond burger joints and cafes. Yellow cranes mark the skyline where new office towers, hotels and luxury apartments are rising.

Just six years after relocating, Amazon has outgrown South Lake Union and is marching toward the city's urban core. The spheres, designed by architecture firm NBBJ, are Amazon's boldest statement yet in the first project it's building from the ground up.

They were inspired by Amazon research indicating that a key thing missing from typical work environments is a link to the natural world, said John Schoettler, the company's global real estate director. The challenge was creating an environment conducive to plants without being hot and muggy like a greenhouse; the spheres had to be comfortable for humans.

A staff horticulturist scoured the globe for species that can thrive in a cool, dry environment. Many of the plants are endangered species, meaning that the spheres double as a conservation project. Schoettler said the design was chosen to be an architectural focal point in the city, similar to the iconic Space Needle. "We wanted to create a place employees would be proud of and proud to bring their families," he said.

Inevitably, the company's growing presence is making it a scapegoat for common urban woes such as traffic jams and rising rents. New, luxury, one-bedroom apartments packed with amenities that appeal to young urban tech workers fetch upwards of $4,000 a month, putting them out of reach of the Starbucks barista.

To some long-time Seattleites, the new South Lake Union feels sterile, like an open-air mall. Wide sidewalks are devoid of cigarette butts and shattered beer bottles. Street people banging bongos and strumming acoustic guitars with mangy dogs in tow, a common sight in Seattle’s retail and financial districts, are conspicuously absent. South Lake Union has become "a dormitory for Amazon and now Facebook and Google," said Jeff Reifman, a tech consultant.

by Spence Soper and Peter Robison, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg

Coming Soon: Gut Bacteria That Actually Cure Your Disease

Everybody's talking about gut bacteria.

Pick a disease or disorder, and somebody, somewhere, has said that a probiotic supplement—an over-the-counter, unregulated pill usually filled with a single strain of friendly gut bacteria—might cure it, whether it’s cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a yeast infection.

But there’s very little evidence that probiotic supplements do any good. “There’s a lot of promise here but not a lot of proof yet,” said Cliff McDonald, associate director for science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

That promise has built a $34 billion market as of last year, according to a new report from BCC Research, $6 billion of which was in supplements. The biggest share of the probiotics market was in food and beverages, at $24.8 billion.

Seres Therapeutics, a microbiome-based biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Mass., is developing a pill, subject to a rigorous approval process under the Food and Drug Administration, to tackle recurrent Clostridium difficile. (The digestive system's microbiome is the community of healthy gut bacteria that normally reside in the body.) Half a million people a year are infected with C. diff in the U.S., the CDC estimates, with 29,000 annual deaths related to the diarrheic bacterium. More than 65 percent of C. diff infections involve exposure in a health-care facility, according to a 2015 study, creating more than $4.8 billion in excess health-care costs at acute-care facilities alone.

Seres aims to put the science behind a proven treatment of recurrent C. diff, fecal transplants, in a pill, which wouldn't require a colonoscopy. Like probiotic supplements, it’s a gut bacteria product. Unlike the supplements, by the time it’s available it will have gone through the FDA wringer. It will contain about 50 strains of bacteria proven effective in treating C. diff and will require a doctor's prescription.

Recurrent C. diff is an obvious entry point for Seres, said Chief Executive Officer Roger Pomerantz. “We asked, what is the lowest-hanging fruit?” But it’s hardly the end. The company has built a microbiome library of 14,000 strains of human bacteria it hopes will help it treat a range of diseases, eventually without needing feces at all.

Seres has embarked on the research with some pretty lofty goals, including finding treatments for obesity, liver disease, and cancer. It has partnerships with Massachusetts General Hospital, the Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and other respected medical institutions.

“We will figure out exactly what’s wrong with the microbiome, design a drug, and then pull the organisms out with our library, never touching a human donation,” Pomerantz said.

For nearly two thousand years, doctors have looked to this unlikeliest of places for medicine. One of the earliest documented applications is from the fourth-century Chinese medical doctor Ge Hong, whose “yellow soup” recipe to treat diarrhea included a healthy person’s dried or fermented feces. Sixteen hundred years later, in 1958, patients infected with C. diff received the first known human fecal transplants.

Today the effectiveness of fecal transplants (formally known as fecal microbiota transplants) to treat recurrent C. diff is supported by a long list of studies, with researchers attributing the results to the restoration of the microbiome. OpenBiome, a nonprofit stool bank, shipped 1,828 treatments in 2014, a number that ballooned to 7,140 treatments in 2015 and looks to be eclipsed this year, with 4,323 treatments shipped to its clinical partners through May 31. And these numbers don’t take into account the transplants performed through directed fecal donations.

Seres's lead product candidate, SER-109, will treat recurrent C. diff with four capsules taken orally instead of with transplants. While fecal matter is the raw material for the pills, the final product consists only of the spores necessary to treat the infection, which will have been extracted and purified.

by Deena Shanker, Bloomberg | Read more:
Image: Dr. Kari Lounatmaa/Getty Images

Manolo Millares
(Spanish, 1926-1972), Cuadro III, 1959.

The Undermining of American Charity

Most Americans have never heard of donor-advised funds and would be surprised to learn that, measured in donated dollars, the second-most-popular “charity” in 2015 (just behind the United Way) was not the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or Harvard or other universities. It was Fidelity Charitable, an organization created and serviced by Fidelity Investments for the purpose of holding charitable donations. Fidelity Charitable acts as a middleman, attracting its customers’ charitable donations and managing them in separate client accounts. Money in such donor-advised funds is invested and held until the clients give instructions (“advise”) about distributions to operating charities.

Because of a 1991 IRS ruling obtained by Fidelity (and similar rulings obtained by other commercially sponsored DAFs), clients get the same tax benefits when they transfer property to their donor-advised funds that they would get by making outright contributions to a museum, soup kitchen, university, or any other federally recognized charity. But no deadline is imposed for the eventual distribution of these funds to an operating charity. If a donor fails to distribute the account during her lifetime, she can pass on the privilege of making distributions to her children or grandchildren or anyone else she chooses. The effect of these rules is that assets that have been given the tax benefits of charitable donations can be held in a DAF for decades or even centuries, all the while earning management fees for the financial institutions managing the funds, and producing no social value.

Although Fidelity was the first financial institution to create this type of charitable middleman, Schwab and Vanguard soon thereafter created Schwab Charitable and Vanguard Charitable—and together these organizations have all made it to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual top ten charities in overall donations (squeezing out more traditional charities like the American Cancer Society). Goldman Sachs, T. Rowe Price, Raymond James, and many others have also created donor-advised funds, making charitable giving a growing part of the financial world’s business model for attracting and servicing its clientele.

This business plan has been highly successful. Many billions of dollars have been drawn into the orbit of charitable middlemen, and there is no end to their growth in sight. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, annual contributions to DAFs hit an all-time high of $19.66 billion in 2014. The increase in contributions, combined with a rising stock market, “drove total donor-advised fund assets above $70 billion for the first time.” The leader, Fidelity Charitable, has had particularly strong growth and it is widely expected that in 2016 it will surpass the United Way and receive more donations than any other charity in the country.

One of the most surprising aspects of the rise of DAFs is that donors participate in this $70 billion industry without any legal protections regarding their control over the distribution of the assets held in DAFs. When donors open donor-advised fund accounts they do so because they expect to have continuing control over their donations. This expectation is reinforced by marketing materials that allude to control. For example, one leading DAF sponsor, National Philanthropic Trust, describes DAFs as follows:

An easy way to think about a donor-advised fund is like a charitable savings account: a donor contributes to the fund as frequently as they like and then recommends grants to their favorite charity when they are ready.

Despite such references to control, legal agreements between donors and DAF sponsors in fact provide that the donor cedes all legal control over donated funds. Although a donor is given the right to make recommendations (sometimes referred to as “advisory privileges”), this is not much of a “right.” DAF sponsors are legally allowed to ignore donors’ advice about the disposition of their DAF funds.

For most donors, this will have little practical effect; donors will advise and the DAFsponsor will follow the donor’s advice. This is because the business model of commercial DAF sponsors is to profit from the fees they secure and not from appropriating donor funds. However, not all donors have been so lucky. In one case, aDAF sponsor went bankrupt and the donated funds were seized to pay its creditors. In another case, the DAF sponsor used donated funds to pay its employees large salaries, hold a celebrity golf tournament, and reimburse the cost of litigation when a dissatisfied donor sued. In both cases, courts ruled against the donors and upheld the rights of the fund sponsor to exert full legal control over DAF funds.

The larger question raised by this arrangement is, why would donors and DAFsponsors enter into legal agreements that fail to reflect their expectations? Who benefits? Who is harmed?

by Lewis B. Cullman and Ray Madoff, NYRB | Read more:
Image: New York City, 1977; by Susan Meiselas

For Some at Wimbledon, Nike’s Dress Just Doesn’t Do It

For the female tennis players wearing Nike at Wimbledon, one style did not fit all.

Instead of the typical outfits Nike offers most players who are paid to wear its apparel, the company issued a loosely hanging, short dress. It was white, in accordance with Wimbledon’s dress code. But it was not exactly ideal for competitive tennis, according to several players. Wardrobe changes have ensued.

“When I was serving, it was coming up, and I felt like the dress was just everywhere,” Rebecca Peterson of Sweden said. “In general, it’s quite simple, the dress, but it was flying everywhere.”

Peterson played with a long-sleeved shirt over her dress to hold the dress somewhat in place.

Katie Boulter improvised by tying a headband around her waist to serve as a belt, which held the fabric somewhat more in place. Lucie Hradecka wore leggings underneath the dress, effectively turning it into a shirt.

Hradecka’s coach, Jiri Fencl, said Hradecka had felt cold in the cool English summer with only the light dress on, and had expressed some concerns about playing in the dress instead of her normal, more form-fitting competition apparel, especially given her two-handed groundstrokes and the crouching she does in doubles.

“That was the first dress she ever tried on in practice,” Fencl said. “She saw it was very short and that it flies, so she was trying it. Sometimes, with two hands you can grab the dress if it flies a lot. I think every player was like, ‘Hmm, that’s short.’ She was worried about it in doubles, too, because when you get up from I-formation, you can grab it.”

This was not what Nike had in mind. In a news release distributed before the tournament, the company touted the dress: “NikeCourt female team athletes will compete in the one-piece NikeCourt Premier Slam Dress, which represents a departure from the skirt-top combinations worn in previous Grand Slams.” The release said: “Despite the traditional aesthetic, the dress features modern design elements such as power pleats and racerback construction, which work in tandem to enable the athlete’s movement.”

But once put to the test during qualifying last week, the dress quickly proved problematic. It was largely shapeless, with long fabric hanging freely in the front and back. It most resembled the “babydoll” style, developed in 1942 by the New York designer Sylvia Pedlar to cope with wartime fabric shortages — and is more commonly associated with lingerie and sleepwear than athletic performance.

by Ben Rothenberg,  NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Cal Sport Media, via Associated Press

The Weird Redemption of SF’s Most Reviled Tech Bro

[ed. Pretty much confirms everything you've read or heard about Silicon Valley's approach (or cluelessness) to solving large social issues. See also: The Moral Economy of Tech]

In the hours before Greg Gopman lost control of his image — going from “killing it” to the city’s most reviled tech bro — he was munching on a Show Dog on Market Street. Maple sausage, egg, grilled onions: his fave go-to in San Francisco, his fave city in the world. It was December 10, 2013, and he gazed out the window of the gourmet sausage shop, flanked by the startups that had recently accepted a city tax break to open on a stretch of hustlers, homeless people, and payday loan shops. Nowhere were the city’s two polarized income brackets — sleek tech wealth and a shambling underclass — in closer contact.

Gopman belonged squarely in the first group, as the 29-year-old founder and outgoing CEO of AngelHack, a hackathon host and startup incubator that hooked up young developers with connections and, sometimes, money. Gopman had already had some brush-ups with the homeless. When he first moved across the country in 2011 to San Francisco as “such a nobody,” he’d actually sought them out. One of his initial startup ideas had the working name Herobi (a play on “Be a hero”), inciting people to pay forward good deeds. Gopman would post photos on Facebook of cash he’d tucked in homeless people’s cups, hoping it would catch on. (“I learned people don’t actually get inspired by you posting good acts on Facebook. It looks pretty bad.”) He’d also doled out leftover pastries from AngelHack’s early hackathons to folks on the street.

Yet as he now passed the homeless on his daily walk to the office, a growing sense of #WTF set in. One morning, a bedraggled lady had kicked him in the shin. Another time, a guy had flashed him a fistful of heroin needles, which really grossed him out. That day at Show Dogs, he spotted a guy whose pants were falling down past his bare buttocks.

Gopman got out his iPhone, opened Facebook, and started to type.

Maybe it was inevitable that in 2013, as San Francisco was mired in Peak Backlash against its influx of highly paid newcomers, a techie would take the fall.

Decades of NIMBY housing policy in a cramped city meant there was no room for the tens of thousands of incoming tech employees unless someone with less money was kicked out. Protestors circled a Google bus. They stood in front of Twitter carrying a coffin labeled “Affordable Housing.” In another two months, a dude in a dive bar would famously rip a pair of Google Glasses off a woman’s face.

Gopman had dismissed the headlines as the work of a few zealots, and wasn’t thinking about potential opposition as he typed out his thoughts. After all, his instincts had transformed him, in just two years, from an ambitious 27-year-old dude who’d driven out from Miami Beach into a minor Silicon Valley kingmaker — an anointer of princelings. In South Florida he had been itching to bust through the glass ceiling he’d reached: paying himself more than $100K while selling repaired cellphones on eBay. In San Francisco he’d built up AngelHack from a DIY event at Adobe’s headquarters to a global hackathon juggernaut with himself as its public face, enough of a pulpit for him to have Mark Cuban in his contacts and many thankful founders who credited him with their lucky break. In a TEDx talk just a few months earlier, Gopman had said, “Nice guys finish first. The startup world is small.”

Right there in the hot dog joint Gopman hit publish on his Facebook post:

That evening, friends came over to his Soma Grand 15th floor pad to welcome him back to town. Drinking. Smoking. Gopman checked his phone, and saw that his post had set off a comment war on Facebook. Some responders quipped that tech bros like him were ruining the city. Other tech people shared his grievances. His profile was public — he used it as a self-promotional tool — and Gopman had never gotten so much traction on a post. He’d always wanted to be a thought leader, and here he was, leading a raucous debate. “I was like fuck yeah!”

So Gopman typed out a new boozy message, going even deeper than the last:

“The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay.

In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city…You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn’t made anyone’s life better in a while.”

Gopman went to bed, happy with the attention. The next morning, a text message pinged.

Dude, you got Valleywagged. And it’s bad.

Valleywag licked its lips: “Happy Holidays: Startup CEO Complains San Francisco Is Full of Human Trash.” A photo showed Gopman at his most duck-face douchebag, modeling a hackathon’s giveaway sunglasses. The cyber pile-on began in the story comments and spilled onto social media. Some folks took the opportunity to announce that Gopman had always struck them as arrogant. “Silicon Valley groupie.” “Pretentious Florida party boy.” “Eugenicist.” The Huffington Post’s headline joined the metastasizing media coverage: “AngelHack CEO’s Attack On Homeless May Be Biggest Social Media Blunder Of 2013.”

Bevan Dufty, the city’s homeless czar at the time, had his own view of Gopman’s post. “What would we call it?” he muses. “‘Bromlessness.’ They’re like the bros and they’re just aimless and concerned about homelessness — affecting them.” He chuckles.

For San Francisco, Gopman’s rant was the delicious schadenfreude that the city was thirsting for: the unwitting techie who wandered into this class opera, shooting off his mouth to reveal a slimy, elitist core.

Gopman hovered over his laptop. “Pure. Adrenaline. Terror,” he now recalls. “I’m like going through and deleting and reading shit. It was the worst fucking moment of my life.” Gopman dashed off an apology. A media friend gave it some tweaks: it came across sounding corporate and hollow. Gopman wondered where the bottom was.(...)

The day after Gopman got Valleywagged, a city bureaucrat from the mayor’s office emailed him, wanting to talk about how to “leverage the potential of the tech community for good in our city.” A PR company asked him to face off with a homeless-helping reverend at a church: “a chance to build some bridges in a city that’s under some pressure right now, and, a chance for you to help shape your story/message as well.” Gopman interpreted all these offers to mean: save your skin, and hook us up with your rich contacts.

A Facebook DM from a city economic development worker named Ellyn Parker (unsanctioned by City Hall, she says) struck him as more sincere. They met on the roof of Soma Grand while Parker explained the web of nonprofits and city departments that spends $241 million a year on the city’s more than 6,000 homeless residents, a population count that has stayed nearly unchanged for 25 years. “He was in education and humbling mode,” Parker says. She suggested that maybe he could create a database to track each homeless person as they get services from various entities. Maybe he could help a nonprofit that was getting evicted.

Gopman may well have been the lightning rod that took the highest-volt hazing of all the tech victors of San Francisco’s boom. But he wasn’t going to follow anyone else’s idea on how to dig his way out. Gopman decided he had to go Full Gopman: some amalgam of save-the-world hubris and save-my-ass savvy, and an indefatigable belief in the startup mentality curing all.

by Lauren Smiley, Backchannel |  Read more:
Image: Molly Matalon and uncredited

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


[ed. Uncanny resemblance.]
Images: George Booth and markk

Dame Fortune

It is not difficult to be wise occasionally and by chance,
but it is difficult to be wise assiduously and by choice.

—Joseph Joubert

You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.
__Cormac McCarthy

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins posts the odds on the chance encounter and then fertile union of sperm and egg in my mother’s womb at a number outnumbering the sand grains of Arabia. Long odds, but longer still because “the lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own.” Work back the thread of lucky breaks through all the antecedents animal, vegetable, and mineral that are the sum of mankind’s time on earth, and wherefrom consciousness and pulse if not at the hand of the bountiful blind woman, Dame Fortune?

The incalculable run of luck I’m unable to comprehend as a number; I hear it as a sound. Thirty-five years ago in a labor room at New York Hospital, the sonogram of my wife’s belly picking up the heartbeat of my youngest child on final approach to the light of the sun. He’d come a long way. Atoms wandering in the abyss, then in the womb for the nine months during which a human embryo ascends through a sequence touching on over 3 billion years of evolutionary change, up from the shore of a prehistoric sea, traveling as amphibian, fish, bird, reptile, lettuce leaf, and mammal to a room with a view of the Queensboro Bridge. I heard the sound then, hear it now, as the chance at a lifetime shaped from the dust of a star.

Albert Einstein didn’t wish to believe that God “plays dice with the world,” but the equations posted on the blackboards of twentieth-century physics—among them Einstein’s own proof of wave-particle duality, Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Max Planck’s quantum mechanics—suggest that chance is a force of nature as fundamental as gravity. So does the consensus of opinion in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Except for sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin, who believed there is no such thing as fortune and chance, that “all events are governed by the secret counsel of God,” the witnesses called to testify on the pages that follow regard Dame Fortune as a presence to be reckoned with, visible to the eye of history, glimpsed across the bridges of memory and metaphor in the words of the occasionally wise.

Heisenberg conceived of all facts as momentary perceptions of probability; so did Titus Lucretius Carus, the Roman poet who in the first century BC composed the 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse On the Nature of Things infused with the thought of Greek philosopher Epicurus, who in the third century BC taught that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else. No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the elementary particles of matter (“the celestial seeds of things”) constantly in motion, colliding and combining in the inexhaustible wonder of everything that exists—sun and moon, the wind and the rain, “bright wheat and lush trees, and the human race, and the species of beasts.” (...)

At the age of eighty-one I still can’t say whether the vessel of my life is on or off course, but I do know that its design was none of my own doing. Born in San Francisco of sound mind and body to loving parents in a neighborhood under the protection of money, I understood before I was ten that I’d been dealt favorable cards; I also knew that the playing of them was another game of chance. The realization I count as a stroke of fortune (the happiest of the lot) because when and if I can bear it in mind it allows me to live in the freedom of the present and hold at bay the fear of death.

Looking for a how or where or why I came up with the idea, I see my grandfather at a card table constituted as he was in 1943, a Falstaffian figure then in his sixties, white-haired, round-bellied, and boisterous, fond of quoting the wise fools in Shakespeare’s forests. A captain of infantry in World War I, Roger D. Lapham had gone missing in the battle of Château-Thierry, after five days given up for lost and presumed dead, his family so notified and his personal effects shipped home to New York. Six weeks later he was found in a barn drinking calvados with the French peasant who had dragged him, unconscious and half-buried in mud, from the womb of a shell hole. Grandfather’s leg being broken, he was unable to walk, but he had emerged from the shadow of the valley of death believing it was better to be lucky than good. Before the war he conducted himself in the manner of a sober, self-denying Calvinist; he returned from France as a practicing pagan, reckless in pursuit of pleasure, ardent in his passion for gambling. At the bridge table he liked to bid his hand without looking at his cards, and between the ages of eight and ten I was often drawn into the game as his partner because nobody else in the family would play with him unless favorably situated as his opponent. His trusting to luck the family deemed immoral; I thought it deserved a medal.

by Lewis H. Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly |  Read more:
Image: The Finding of Moses, by Paolo Veronese

photo: markk

Fashioning Cast-Iron Pans for Today’s Cooks

American cooks have frequent affairs with spiralizers, dry fryers and other shiny new toys. But they also have a deep, lasting relationship with one of the oldest cooking tools in the kitchen: the cast-iron skillet.

“There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful,” said Ronni Lundy, a historian of the food and agriculture of Appalachia, where cooking in a well-seasoned heirloom skillet is a touchstone of heritage.

It’s true that my grandmother’s china is gathering dust. Your great-grandfather’s gold watch (admit it) lies unused in a drawer. But my parents’ 50-year-old cast-iron pans, with their glassine black cooking surfaces, are the inheritance I crave.

“I have two that are just coming along now,” Ms. Lundy said in the nurturing tone usually reserved for children, sourdough starters and rosebushes.

Well-seasoned cast-iron pans are the new broken-in jeans: proof of both good taste and hard use. In just the last five years, three new companies promising to make improved cast-iron skillets with a combination of traditional handwork and modern technology have begun production.

And cast-iron collecting has taken off. Buyers seek rare skillets like the Erie Spider, the Griswold Slant and the Wapak Chickenfoot; an elusive Sidney No. 8 is listed on eBay for $1,500.

With cast iron’s mystique comes mystery. The responsibility of seasoning a pan can be daunting; the idea of a pan that is never washed with soap can be alarming.

But it is worth overcoming these obstacles because a well-used, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is truly an all-purpose pan: nonstick enough to cook eggs, hot enough to sear anything and completely functional for roasting, stewing, simmering and baking.

“You can caramelize a crust in cast iron in a way that would never happen in a sheet pan,” said Charlotte Druckman, who has just written a book on cast-iron baking.

The nonstick surface of a cast-iron pan is achieved with natural ingredients like flaxseed oil, lard and time, not with synthetic coatings like Teflon or Thermolon.

For all these reasons, even cooks without a tradition of cooking in cast iron now want to start one. Finex in Portland, Ore., Borough Furnace in Syracuse and the not-yet-settled Field Company all got initial funding on Kickstarter from hundreds of small backers, who eventually receive pans in return for their sponsorship.

The Field Company, run by Chris and Stephen Muscarella (neither of whom is trained in metallurgy, casting or cooking), raised more than $1.6 million; their first pans will ship soon from a foundry they adapted in the Midwest. Finex is making 200 skillets a day and barely keeping up with demand from the United States and abroad, according to Mike Whitehead, a founder.

The Finex 10-inch skillet sells for $165; the Borough Furnace equivalent for $280; the Field skillet for about $100.

Why would anyone pay nearly $300 for a modern “artisanal” cast-iron skillet when a perfectly functional equivalent, made in South Pittsburg, Tenn., by the venerable Lodge company, costs $16 at Walmart?

The answer lies in the craftsmanship of the past. The cast-iron pots — skillets, spiders (which sit in the embers of a fire) and Dutch ovens — made in the United States from the 18th century through the first half of the 20th, were different from today’s: lighter, thinner and with a smoother cooking surface.

The Muscarella brothers grew up cooking with their mother’s old cast-iron pans — far from being collectors’ items, rusty skillets used to be offered two for a quarter at barn sales — and wondered why the pans they bought when they went out on their own were so comparatively unwieldy.

To find out why, “we went down a rabbit hole,” said Chris Muscarella, and came out determined to produce new pans in the old style. Modern all-machine casting, he said, cannot produce pans that are as thin and smooth.

by Julia Moskin, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Cole Wilson 

photo: markk

Beyond the Brexit Debate

Hostility to the EU, not just in Britain, but throughout Europe, has been driven by frustrations about democracy and resentment about immigration. The Remain (pro-EU) campaign, recognizing that it has few answers, has largely avoided both issues, focusing almost entirely on economic arguments. Leave (anti-EU) campaigners have been equally opportunistic in the way they have addressed questions of democracy and immigration.

Many EU supporters dismiss the charge that the EU is undemocratic, pointing to the existence of the European parliament whose members are elected by all EU citizens. This is not only to overstate the influence of MEPs on policy making, it is also to miss the point about popular resentment. The reason that people see the EU as undemocratic is not because they don't think they can vote in EU elections. It is because they feel that despite their vote, they have little say in the major decisions that shape their lives. (...)

But while the EU is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, leaving the EU would not, in itself, bridge the democratic deficit. There exists today a much more profound disenchantment with mainstream political institutions, a disenchantment that is evident at national, as well as at European, level and which, throughout Europe, has led to an upsurge in support for populist parties.

The background to this disenchantment is the narrowing of the ideological divides that once characterized politics. Politics has become more about technocratic management than social transformation. One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt. The sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within the traditional working class, whose feelings of isolation have increased as social democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies. As mainstream parties have discarded both their ideological attachments and their long-established constituencies, so the public has become increasingly disengaged from the political process. The gap between voters and the elite has widened, fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics. The EU has come to be an institutional embodiment of this new political landscape.

The main political faultline, throughout Europe today, is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the new globalised, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. These kinds of divisions have always existed, of course. In the past, however, that sense of dispossession and voicelessness could be expressed politically, particularly through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. It is the erosion of such mechanisms that is leading to the remaking of Europe's political landscape. (...)

The real issue is not control of borders but having a democratic mandate for any immigration policy. There is no iron law that the public must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Large sections of the public have become hostile because they have come to associate immigration with unacceptable change. And yet, while immigration has become the most potent symbol of a world out of control, and of ordinary people having little say in the policies that affect their lives, it is not the reason for the social and political grievances that many have to endure.

Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts , such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of rage.

by Kenan Malik, Eurozine |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Can You Get Over an Addiction?

I shot heroin and cocaine while attending Columbia in the 1980s, sometimes injecting many times a day and leaving scars that are still visible. I kept using, even after I was suspended from school, after I overdosed and even after I was arrested for dealing, despite knowing that this could reduce my chances of staying out of prison.

My parents were devastated: They couldn’t understand what had happened to their “gifted” child who had always excelled academically. They kept hoping I would just somehow stop, even though every time I tried to quit, I relapsed within months.

There are, speaking broadly, two schools of thought on addiction: The first was that my brain had been chemically “hijacked” by drugs, leaving me no control over a chronic, progressive disease. The second was simply that I was a selfish criminal, with little regard for others, as much of the public still seems to believe. (When it’s our own loved ones who become addicted, we tend to favor the first explanation; when it’s someone else’s, we favor the second.)

We are long overdue for a new perspective — both because our understanding of the neuroscience underlying addiction has changed and because so many existing treatments simply don’t work.

Addiction is indeed a brain problem, but it’s not a degenerative pathology like Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, nor is it evidence of a criminal mind. Instead, it’s a learning disorder, a difference in the wiring of the brain that affects the way we process information about motivation, reward and punishment. And, as with many learning disorders, addictive behavior is shaped by genetic and environmental influences over the course of development.

Scientists have documented the connection between learning processes and addiction for decades. Now, through both animal research and imaging studies, neuroscientists are starting to recognize which brain regions are involved in addiction and how.

The studies show that addiction alters the interactions between midbrain regions like the ventral tegmentum and the nucleus accumbens, which are involved with motivation and pleasure, and parts of the prefrontal cortex that mediate decisions and help set priorities. Acting in concert, these networks determine what we value in order to ensure that we attain critical biological goals: namely, survival and reproduction.

In essence, addiction occurs when these brain systems are focused on the wrong objects: a drug or self-destructive behavior like excessive gambling instead of a new sexual partner or a baby. Once that happens, it can cause serious trouble.

If, like me, you grew up with a hyper-reactive nervous system that constantly made you feel overwhelmed, alienated and unlovable, finding a substance that eases social stress becomes a blessed escape. For me, heroin provided a sense of comfort, safety and love that I couldn’t get from other people (the key agent of addiction in these regions is the same for many pleasurable experiences:dopamine). Once I’d experienced the relief heroin gave me, I felt as though I couldn’t survive without it.

Understanding addiction from this neurodevelopmental perspective offers a great deal of hope. First, like other learning disorders, for example, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia, addiction doesn’t affect overall intelligence. Second, this view suggests that addiction skews choice — but doesn’t completely eliminate free will: after all, no one injects drugs in front of the police. This means that addicts can learn to take actions to improve our health, like using clean syringes, as I did. Research overwhelmingly shows such programs not only reduce H.I.V., but also aid recovery.

The learning perspective also explains why the compulsion for alcohol or drugs can be so strong and why people with addiction continue even when the damage far outweighs the pleasure they receive and why they can appear to be acting irrationally: If you believe that something is essential to your survival, your priorities won’t make sense to others.

Learning that drives urges like love and reproduction is quite different from learning dry facts. Unlike memorizing your sevens and nines, deep, emotional learning completely alters the way you determine what matters most, which is why you remember your high school crush better than high school math.

Recognizing addiction as a learning disorder can also help end the argument over whether addiction should be treated as a progressive illness, as experts contend, or as a moral problem, a belief that is reflected in our continuing criminalization of certain drugs. You’ve just learned a maladaptive way of coping.

Moreover, if addiction resides in the parts of the brain involved in love, then recovery is more like getting over a breakup than it is like facing a lifelong illness. Healing a broken heart is difficult and often involves relapses into obsessive behavior, but it’s not brain damage.

The implications for treatment here are profound. If addiction is like misguided love, then compassion is a far better approach than punishment. (...)

This makes sense because the circuitry that normally connects us to one another socially has been channeled instead into drug seeking. To return our brains to normal then, we need more love, not more pain.

by Maia Szalavitz, NY Times | Read more:
Image: James Gallagher

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sorry for the interruption. Still traveling. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Pulp Friction

Even by the standards of the ailing book publishing industry, the past year has been a bad one for Barnes & Noble. After the company spun off its profitable college textbook division, its stock plunged nearly 40 percent. Its long-term debt tripled, to $192 million, and its cash reserves dwindled. Leonard Riggio, who turned the company into a behemoth, has announced he will step down this summer after more than 40 years as chairman. At the rate it’s going, Barnes & Noble won’t be known as a bookseller at all—either because most of its floor space will be given over to games and gadgets, or, more ominously, because it won’t even exist.

There’s more than a little irony to the impending collapse of Barnes & Noble. The mega-retailer that drove many small, independent booksellers out of business is now being done in by the rise of Amazon. But while many book lovers may be tempted to gloat, the death of Barnes & Noble would be catastrophic—not just for publishing houses and the writers they publish, but for American culture as a whole.

If Barnes & Noble were to shut its doors, Amazon, independent bookstores, and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart would pick up some of the slack. But not all of it. Part of the reason is that book sales are driven by “showrooming,” the idea that most people don’t buy a book, either in print or electronically, unless they’ve seen it somewhere else—on a friend’s shelf, say, or in a bookstore. Even on the brink of closing, Barnes & Noble still accounts for as much as 30 percent of all sales for some publishing houses.

But the focus on sales masks the deeper degree to which the publishing industry relies on Barnes & Noble. The retailer provides much of the up-front cash publishers need to survive, in the form of initial orders. Most independent bookstores can’t afford to buy many books in advance; a single carton of 24 books would represent a large order. Amazon also buys few books in advance, preferring to let supplies run down so as to prompt online shoppers to “add to cart” because there are “only five left in stock.”

Barnes & Noble, by contrast, often takes very large initial orders. For books it believes will fly off the shelves, initials can reach the mid-five figures—hundreds of thousands of dollars that go to the publisher before a single book is even sold. That money, in turn, allows publishers to run ads in magazines and on Facebook, send authors on book tours, and pay for publicists. Without Barnes & Noble, it would become much harder for publishers to turn books into best-sellers. (...)

Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.

by Alex Shepard, TNR |  Read more:
Image: David Plunkert

Thursday, June 23, 2016

[ed. Traveling again... be back soon.]

The Surprising Relevance of the Baltic Dry Index

On January 11th of this year, online financial circles lit up with dire news. “Commerce between Europe and North America has literally come to a halt,” one blogger wrote. “For the first time in known history, not one cargo ship is in-transit in the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. . . . It is a horrific economic sign; proof that commerce is literally stopped.” Although the Web site that first broadcast this information is prone to hysteria—there are, in fact, many cargo ships on the world’s oceans, in plain sight—more pessimistic market experts, such as Zero Hedge and the Dollar Vigilante, eagerly quoted it for their millions of readers. The story fit neatly into a narrative: the global economy, despite outward signs that it has clawed its way back from recession, is a small step away from an enormous crash.

But if sober-minded, mainstream economists were tempted to dismiss this ostensible trade calamity outright, they found that they couldn’t. The index that inspired these warnings, known as the Baltic Dry Index, was until recently viewed as a credible, if obscure, source—one that has accurately signalled prior systemic failures, and one that economists of all stripes have routinely consulted as a trusted proxy for trade activity. Based in London, this gauge reflects the rates that freight carriers charge to haul basic, solid raw materials, such as iron ore, coal, cement, and grain. As a daily composite of the tonnage fees on popular seagoing routes, the B.D.I. essentially mirrors supply and demand at the most elementary level. A decrease usually means that shipping prices and commodities sales are dropping (the latter because shippers are competing over fewer consignments). Shipping is a direct indicator of whether people want goods, and softness in shipping prices is therefore a sign of weakness in manufacturing and construction.

In January, when the B.D.I. surfaced as a heated topic in certain geeky economic corners of the Internet, it had fallen to a record low of 429, an eighty-per-cent decline from December, 2013, and far below its record high, in May, 2008, of 11,793. It continued to plunge for another month, hitting a nadir of 291 on February 12th. The index has rebounded a little since then, but not enough to dampen some concerns raised by its descent. While the catastrophic scenarios offered by the pessimists aren’t quite plausible, the B.D.I.’s dramatic plunge does appear to have indicated a genuinely alarming economic trend about the strength of global trade, with implications for jobs and corporate profits, that many economists had overlooked. Which raises the question: Why did economists color their judgment by discounting the B.D.I. in the first place? (...)

It was at St. Mary Axe that the Baltic Dry Index débuted, in 1985, in response to technological advances that allowed the exchange to conduct its dealings electronically. The index was conceived as a way of standardizing global cargo prices, by taking a daily canvas of Baltic’s network of sea-based freight brokers and compiling the costs of booking shipments of raw materials. The price list that resulted would allow freighter transactions to be agreed upon with little haggling or human intervention, no matter where buyers and sellers were located. “We created the index to lubricate shipping, especially as shipping agreements are increasingly consummated over long distances and electronically,” Jeremy Penn, the C.E.O. of the exchange, told me. “We didn’t create it to be used for any other purpose.”

But economists saw things differently. To them, the Baltic Dry Index was a rare gem: a coincident indicator. You might be familiar with lagging indicators, such as the prime rate, which reflect the economy as it was months earlier. And you may also have come into contact with leading indicators, such as initial claims for unemployment insurance and the S. & P. 500, which supposedly presage the short- to medium-term future state of the economy. But their predictive track record is poor, because any number of exigencies—from a terrorist attack to a devastating natural disaster to an overnight rate change in Europe—could intervene to detour the economy.

By contrast, a coincident indicator, like non-farm payroll and industrial production, is an immediate and frequent snapshot of some aspect of the economy. Absent extenuating circumstances, any sharp and continuous movement in a coincident indicator will more than likely foreshadow a significant change, even if its implications aren’t immediately obvious. Indeed, the simplicity of the Baltic Dry’s message is what made it so attractive to global financial analysts.

by Jeffrey Rothfeder, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Carlos Jasso, Reuters

Jacques Majorelle (French, 1886 - 1962). Young woman under banana trees (Jeune femme sous les bananiers), N/D

Seattle’s Cat Fox on Three Decades of Repairing Guitars

At the Weiser Fiddle Festival in Idaho, a seed was planted in the imagination of Cat Fox. Some guy was repairing guitars out of a tricked out, converted sheep wagon he towed behind his truck from festival to festival. That brief visage held court in her young mind. Years later, Fox is driving around in her VW van, lost and bummed out, having recently dropped out of University of Puget Sound with a great scholarship opportunity. When it came time to mouth the inescapable question, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ she knew a few things. She liked woodworking, she liked to hang out with musicians, and she loved to party. And here again is the guy with the sheep wagon flashing front and center in her memory. Fox was going to be a luthier.

But women don’t build guitars! At the time, few women were playing guitars, let alone making them, but Fox’s gutsy resolve had taken root.

Upon graduation from the luthier program at Minnesota Technical College in Red Wing, with completed guitar firmly in hand, she packed everything into her VW van and drove to Massachusetts. She arrived at the door of Bill Cumpiano, world-renowned luthier and author of the definitive bible of the craft, Guitar Making Tradition and Technology. Fox recalls Cumpiano’s stern and uncompromising tone on the phone as he gives her an opening, “No guarantee I will take you on but I will observe your work.” Fox thinks to herself, “Of course he’ll take me on!” He does, of course, take her on as his apprentice for two years followed by another four years as his repair technician. To this day, the best compliment she ever received was from Cumpiano, “If you decide to build guitars, I hope you go far, far away.” So she did…all the way to Seattle.

The jerky cadence of raindrops can be heard on the corrugated metal roof of Fox’s Fremont studio, Sound Guitar Repair, in a space she shares with guitar builder and husband Rick Davis. Fox works in a studio within a studio, a cozy oasis among band saws and jigs of all sizes and dimensions. Fox has never had to advertise to fill her busy schedule. Her clients range from the rich and famous to the parlor picker to the street musician. Word of mouth is all she has needs to stay busy.

Her clients include musicians the likes of Bill Frisell and Danny O’Keefe, but her favorite story is when the Everly Brothers came knocking at her door. Out of the blue she gets a call from a guy saying he’s with the Everly Brothers and can she fix one of their guitars? Apparently a roadie had tripped and badly damaged one of their iconic black Steinegger signature Ike Everly guitars. Incredulous…and convinced her friend Doug was up to his old tricks, her eyes widened when a big truck with the words “Everly Brothers” on the side rolled up to her shop. She repaired two big splits from the block and the next day, when asked about the bill, she sheepishly said,“$500.00? Is that too much?” to which the stagehand replied, “Honey, this is the Everly Brothers”.

How does a woman gain the type of respect that Cat Fox has earned in a profession which counts women luthiers in America on one hand? “I care very deeply,” are her precise words. That, and her unflagging “I can do that!” attitude. Fox sees women inherently well suited to the work of building and repairing guitars. Precise work, attention to detail, and the ability to listen and interpret what your client needs even if its not what they’re saying – these are all skills that come naturally to women.

by Sarah Gardner, Fretboard Journal |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

The Death of a Study

In the spring of 2009, researchers started showing up in the neighborhoods of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, clipboards in hand, to enroll expecting mothers and their unborn children in a huge environmental and health study that was going to last for decades. They asked probing questions whenever a woman answered the doorbell: Was she between the ages of 18 to 49? Was she pregnant, and if yes, how far along? If she wasn’t, could the researchers stay in touch with her until she knew she was having a baby?

The National Children’s Study (NCS), as it was called, had set out to enroll and follow 100,000 children from conception until the age of 21 in an effort to unlock some of our most enduring medical mysteries — from the prevalence of asthma and attention-deficit disorder to the rise of autism. Montgomery County, a bedroom community northwest of Philadelphia, was one of its test sites, and the women targeted for recruitment came from painstakingly selected households. They would answer dozens of questions about their own health, family medical histories, jobs, and personal habits. They would provide clippings of their hair and fingernails, and dust from their houses. When they went into labor, hospital staff would be on hand to sample cord blood, placenta, the infant’s first bowel movement, and other biological specimens — each a window into the prenatal chemical milieu.

Scientists, of course, knew that developing babies and young children are exquisitely sensitive to their environments. They just needed more data, more evidence, to connect early exposures to diseases and disorders later in life — and that’s precisely what the NCS, administered under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, was going to provide: an unprecedented epidemiological portrait of the typical American home.

“We were tapping into a data goldmine,” said Jennifer Culhane, an epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who was directing the study’s local efforts. “There was a sense that we were engaging in something special, and doing more to advance the science of pediatric disease than anyone else in the world.”

Those aspirations came to naught when the NCS was canceled in December 2014, after a 14-year history during which it burned through $1.3 billion in taxpayer dollars without generating much in the way of useful information. The study’s collapse barely registered with the national media, and unlike other major taxpayer-funded failures that have become political bludgeons on Capitol Hill, reaction in Washington has been muted. But the study’s collapse left a bitter legacy of anger and frustration among those who worked on the NCS for years, only to see their efforts wasted on a bungled enterprise that critics say went nowhere and accomplished nothing. Sources interviewed for this story gave a range of reasons for the study’s demise: deep scientific divisions over how it should have been carried out, partisan bickering, and even charges of deliberate dissembling over just how much such study would ultimately cost, to name just a few.

“There is no single factor that led to the failure of the NCS to achieve its goals, but rather a persistent set of challenges facing the design, management, and costs of the study,” said Francis Collins, director of the NIH, in an email message defending his decision to terminate the program.

Still, many critics say those challenges were a result of dysfunctional management, an ever-shifting set of objectives, and even lack of support at the highest levels of the National Institutes of Health.

“Too many people loaded this study with their own desires and wishes for what they wanted it to be without thinking enough about what it could actually achieve,” said Ellen Silbergeld, a former member of an NCS federal advisory committee and a professor of environmental science, epidemiology, and health policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Many of the scientists who worked on the National Children’s Study have since moved on. But virtually all of the participants interviewed suggested that the American public lost a groundbreaking opportunity to answer questions about pediatric disease. Those questions remain as vexing now as when the study was launched nearly two decades ago — and Silbergeld was among many sources interviewed who lamented all the lost time and wasted money.

“This was a scientific humiliation for the United States,” she said.

by Charles Schmidt, Undark | Read more:
Image: uncredited

Dutch Prototype Clean-Up Boom Brings Pacific Plastics Solution a Step Closer

A bid to clear the Pacific of its plastic debris has moved a step closer with the launch of the biggest prototype clean-up boom yet by the Dutch environment minister at a port in The Hague.

On Thursday the 100m-long barrier will be towed 20km out to sea for a year of sensor-monitored tests, before being scaled up for real-life trials off the Japanese coast at the end of next year.

If all goes well, full-scale deployment of a 100km-long version will take place in the “great Pacific garbage patch” between California and Hawaii in 2020. (...)

The snake-like ocean barrier is made out of vulcanised rubber and works by harnessing sea currents to passively funnel trash in surface waters – often just millimetres in diameter – into a V-shaped cone.

A cable sub-system will anchor the structure at depths of up to 4.5km – almost twice as far down as has even been done before – keeping it in place so it can trap the rubbish for periodic collection by boats.

A fully scaled-up barrier would be the most ambitious ocean cleansing project yet, capturing around half of the plastic soup that circles the Pacific gyre within a decade. That at least is the plan.

by Arthur Nesland, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: The Ocean Cleanup

Méduses lamps by Géraldine Gonzalez

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Dystopian Future In Which Everyone Is The Boss

Across a number of professions, bosses have been vanishing. Last year, Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe mega-retailer Zappos, announced that the company would implement Holacracy, a hierarchy-free office model with which Hsieh had become enamored after attending a conference talk by its creators. Under Holacracy—which bills itself as a system that “removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles”—Zappos employees would design their own job descriptions and work with colleagues in autonomous “circles” free from the hovering interference of “people managers.” (Former people managers were to find new roles in the company or accept buyouts.)

Hsieh hasn’t been the only boss to institute a bossless office in recent years. Somewhere between rigid corporate hierarchy and the approximately three hundred worker cooperatives that exist in the US today lies an expanding realm of manager-free workplaces. Most are white-collar and many, like Zappos, are the sorts of tech firms that have been famously predisposed to collaborative work arrangements, casual dress codes, beanbags, and other anti-corporate trappings since the beginning. But there are also industrial operations like Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processing plant, where over 2,000 employees annually sign “Colleague Letters of Understanding” that lay out each worker’s job description and output goals, in lieu of managers to oversee production. In a 2013 overview for New York Magazine on the rise of bossless workplaces, Matthew Schaer reported that even Morning Star’s internal conflicts were resolved without hierarchy: instead of management or HR handling clashes between employees, anywhere from one to ten of the feuding parties’ colleagues would be enlisted to mediate the spat.

Does the bossless office signal progress for workers? The majority of Americans still answer to supervisors, and there are scant few who haven’t grumbled—if not seethed—over incompetent, abusive, or overly controlling managers. A number of studies have unsurprisingly confirmed that bad bosses create undue amounts of stress for workers. Thus, it stands to reason that removing such meddlesome disciplinarians, as companies like Zappos and Morning Star have done, has the potential to improve worker morale vastly. “It’s a beautiful way of structuring a workplace,” Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen told Inc. magazine last year. “Management is not nearly as necessary as it thinks it is.”

Growing evidence suggests that the disappearance of management bureaucracy also makes offices more productive. In an interview with Current, Martha Little, a senior producer at Audible, praised the company’s collaborative work structure and explained that top-down management was quickly becoming an obsolete way of organizing workplaces. “In this very fast-paced, very tech-oriented media-delivery-service world, I don’t think the hierarchies can really keep up with the fast pace of change, flexibility and input of ideas that you need to compete,” she said. In the Wall Street Journal, Tim Clem, an employee at the tech outfit GitHub [ed. no relation], similarly noted of his company’s bossless setup, “It makes you want to do more.”

But if employees at bossless offices often report good spirits and high productivity, outside of true worker cooperatives there is a hard limit to the workplace democracy, and it usually takes the form of the company’s purse strings. As Schaer noted of Morning Star, “The company is privately held, and no employee, no matter how hard-performing, is entitled to a share of the profits.” And different pay grades exist at all of the aforementioned “flattened” companies, no matter whose or how many voices are “heard” at company meetings.

Not only does the bossless office camouflage longstanding monetary inequalities, it also outsources the tasks once assigned to managers to an increasing number of workers. Employees at bossless companies who have supposedly been liberated from their manager overlords are generally compelled to absorb the duties of the now-nonexistent management in addition to whatever roles they might otherwise perform. At the software company Menlo Innovations—which prides itself on its boss-free, non-hierarchical work environment—committees of employees must reach consensus on most HR matters including hiring, firing, and determining employees’ pay. The absence of management, in other words, tends merely to displace “traditional” boss responsibilities onto a new group of people rather than eliminate them entirely.

Media theorist Alexander Galloway has challenged the assumption that horizontal arrangements are inherently egalitarian. According to Galloway, over the last few decades, labor and culture alike have been increasingly organized as networks—evident in the rise of “flexible” workplaces and cultural phenomena like the rise of social media. While plenty of academics and activists alike continue to believe that the dissolution of official hierarchy (the boss, the state) is synonymous with the dissolution of power, Galloway argues that such processes may only reflect the changing nature of a post-Fordist world. He further cautions, “Centralized verticality is only one form of organization. The distributed network is simply a different form of organization, one with its own special brand of management and control.”

by J.C. Pan, Literary Hub |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

The Secret of Taste: Why We Like What We Like

If you had asked me, when I was 10, to forecast my life as an adult, I would probably have sketched out something like this: I would be driving a Trans Am, a Corvette, or some other muscle car. My house would boast a mammoth collection of pinball machines. I would sip sophisticated drinks (like Baileys Irish Cream), read Robert Ludlum novels, and blast Van Halen while sitting in an easy chair wearing sunglasses. Now that I am at a point to actually be able to realise every one of these feverishly envisioned tastes, they hold zero interest (well, perhaps the pinball machines in a weak moment).

It was not just that my 10-year-old self could not predict whom I would become but that I was incapable of imagining that my tastes could undergo such wholesale change. How could I know what I would want if I did not know who I would be?

One problem is that we do not anticipate the effect of experiencing things. We may instinctively realise we will tire of our favourite food if we eat too much of it, but we might underestimate how much more we could like something if only we ate it more often. Another issue is psychological “salience”, or the things we pay attention to. In the moment we buy a consumer good that offers cashback, the offer is claiming our attention; it might even have influenced the purchase. By the time we get home, the salience fades; the cashback goes unclaimed. When I was 10, what mattered in a car to me was that it be “cool” and fast. What did not matter to me were monthly payments, side-impact crash protection, being able to fit a stroller in the back, and wanting to avoid the appearance of being in a midlife crisis.

Even when we look back and see how much our tastes have changed, the idea that we will change equally in the future seems to confound us. It is what keeps tattoo removal practitioners in business. The psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues have identified the illusion that for many, the present is a “watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives”.

In one experiment, they found that people were willing to pay more money to see their favourite band perform 10 years from now than they were willing to pay to see their favourite band from 10 years ago play now. It is reminiscent of the moment, looking through an old photo album, when you see an earlier picture of yourself and exclaim, “Oh my God, that hair!” Or “Those corduroys!” Just as pictures of ourselves can look jarring because we do not normally see ourselves as others see us, our previous tastes, viewed from “outside”, from the perspective of what looks good now, come as a surprise. Your hairstyle per se was probably not good or bad, simply a reflection of contemporary taste. We say, with condescension, “I can’t believe people actually dressed like that,” without realising we ourselves are currently wearing what will be considered bad taste in the future.

One of the reasons we cannot predict our future preferences is one of the things that makes those very preferences change: novelty. In the science of taste and preferences, novelty is a rather elusive phenomenon. On the one hand, we crave novelty, which defines a field such as fashion (“a field of ugliness so absolutely unbearable,” quipped Oscar Wilde, “that we have to alter it every six months”). As Ronald Frasch, the dapper president of Saks Fifth Avenue, once told me, on the women’s designer floor of the flagship store: “The first thing the customer asks when they come into the store is, ‘What’s new?’ They don’t want to know what was; they want to know what is.” How strong is this impulse? “We will sell 60% of what we’re going to sell the first four weeks the goods are on the floor.”

But we also adore familiarity. There are many who believe we like what we are used to. And yet if this were strictly true, nothing would ever change. There would be no new art styles, no new musical genres, no new products. The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism’s role was in teaching people to want (and buy) new things. Producers drive economic change, he wrote, and consumers “are taught to want new things, or things which differ in some respect or other from those which they have been in the habit of using”.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” as Steve Jobs put it. And even then, they still might not want it. Apple’s ill-fated Newton PDA device, as quaint as it now looks in this age of smartphone as human prosthesis, was arguably too new at the time of its release, anticipating needs and behaviours that were not yet fully realised. As Wired described it, it was “a completely new category of device running an entirely new architecture housed in a form factor that represented a completely new and bold design language”.

So, novelty or familiarity? As is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in between, on the midway point of some optimal U-shaped curve plotting the new and the known. The noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy sensed this optimum in what he termed the “MAYA stage”, for “most advanced, yet acceptable”. This was the moment in a product design cycle when, Loewy argued, “resistance to the unfamiliar reaches the threshold of a shock-zone and resistance to buying sets in”. We like the new as long as it reminds us in some way of the old.

Anticipating how much our tastes will change is hard because we cannot see past our inherent resistance to the unfamiliar. Or how much we will change when we do and how each change will open the door to another change. We forget just how fleeting even the most jarring novelty can be. When you had your first sip of beer (or whisky), you probably did not slap your knee and exclaim, “Where has this been all my life?” It was, “People like this?”

We come to like beer, but it is arguably wrong to call beer an “acquired taste”, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett argues, because it is not that first taste that people are coming to like. “If beer went on tasting to me the way the first sip tasted,” he writes, “I would never have gone on drinking beer.” Part of the problem is that alcohol is a shock to the system: it tastes like nothing that has come before, or at least nothing pleasant. New music or art can have the same effect.

by Tom Vanderbilt, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Aart-Jan Venema

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Brenda Cablayan, Stairs to the Sand

The Second Amendment Doesn’t Give You the Right to Own a Gun

Can we please stop pretending that the Second Amendment contains an unfettered right for everyone to buy a gun? It doesn’t, and it never has. The claims made by the small number of extremists, before and after the Orlando, Fla., massacre, are based on a deliberate lie.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t just say Congress shall not infringe the right to “keep and bear arms.” It specifically says that right exists in order to maintain “a well-regulated militia.” Even the late conservative Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia admitted those words weren’t in there by accident. Oh, and the Constitution doesn’t just say a “militia.” It says a “well-regulated” militia.

What did the Founding Fathers mean by that? We don’t have to guess because they told us. In Federalist No. 29 of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explained at great length precisely what a “well-regulated militia” was, why the Founding Fathers thought we needed one, and why they wanted to protect it from being disarmed by the federal government.

And there’s a reason absolutely no gun extremist will ever direct you to that 1788 essay because it blows their baloney into a million pieces.

A “well-regulated militia” didn’t mean guys who read Soldier of Fortune magazine running around in the woods with AK-47s and warpaint on their faces. It basically meant what today we call the National Guard.

It should be a properly constituted, ordered and drilled (“well-regulated”) military force, organized state by state, explained Hamilton. Each state militia should be a “select corps,” “well-trained” and able to perform all the “operations of an army.” The militia needed “uniformity in … organization and discipline,” wrote Hamilton, so that it could operate like a proper army “in camp and field,” and so that it could gain the “essential … degree of proficiency in military functions.” And although it was organized state by state, it needed to be under the explicit control of the national government. The “well-regulated militia” was under the command of the president. It was “the military arm” of the government.

The one big difference between this militia and a professional army? It shouldn’t be made up of full-time professional soldiers, said the Founding Fathers. Such soldiers could be used against the people as King George had used his mercenary Redcoats. Instead, the American republic should make up its military force from part-time volunteers drawn from regular citizens. Such men would be less likely to turn on the population.

And the creation of this “well-regulated militia,” aka the National Guard, would help safeguard the freedom of the new republic because it would make the creation of a professional, mercenary army “unnecessary,” wrote Hamilton. “This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it,” he wrote.

That was the point. And that was why they wanted to make sure it couldn’t be disarmed by the federal government: So a future “tyrant” couldn’t disarm the National Guard, and then use a mercenary army to impose martial law.

by Brett Arends, Marketwatch |  Read more:
Image: Alexander Hamilton, uncredited