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Date: Friday, 18 Apr 2014 11:37

Imagine a mountainous kingdom at the edge of a lush, tropical continent, where one house has clung to power for hundreds of years. The aged king passed away after ruling for more than six decades in one of history's longest reigns. He fathered more than 200 children but left no heir, unleashing an epic struggle between the queen regent and a handful of challengers in the royal court. Eventually, a 14-year-old boy, the product of one of the king’s hundreds of illegitimate affairs, was chosen as successor, and his mother was wedded to the dead leader’s corpse to legitimize the plot. Selected as a puppet, the new king quickly outgrew his courtiers and became notoriously cruel and corrupt.

Today, the new king rules from a castle and employs a royal guard to protect his 15 wives. He often picks a new wife in a national festival each summer where his servants round up tens of thousands of the most beautiful young virgins from all across the land. There, they dance shirtless, and the king examines each one, choosing his next bride.

This is a feudal society where the majority of the population are poor farmers, tilling land supervised by the royal palace. Through his relationships with foreigners, the king earns plenty of coin, but hardly any of it trickles down to the poor. Although surrounded by spectacular and exotic plants and animals, the king's subjects suffer from a lack of basic goods and modern medicine. More than one in four adults is afflicted with an incurable, often-fatal disease.

His Majesty has no rivals. Under his banner of a golden lion, he dictates the future of his people after chatting with his small council. Political parties are illegal, and any defiance or criticism of the royal family is outlawed. Even insulting the king’s name is liable to be punished by imprisonment. The king controls all feudal lands and local barons, along with the court system, press, police, and army. Any who choose not to bow their heads to his decree are rewarded with a stay in the royal dungeons, where a pair of leg irons, or worse—an ancient and excruciating form of foot torture—is the punishment of choice.

Considered the father of his people, the king’s legitimacy rests on ritual and superstition. To protect himself against demons, the king imbibes charms and potions. His royal court and ministers routinely grovel on the ground. If His Majesty deigns fit to visit a subject’s home, the chair in which he sits must be destroyed—or else, it is feared, an evil sorcerer might attack him.

We who write this are not on the production team of HBO’s Game of Thrones. We work in a human-rights organization in 2014. Yet we could be describing King’s Landing. Regrettably, however, this is no tale from Westeros: It is an accurate description of Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a tiny country near the continent’s southeastern coast called Swaziland.

King Mswati III, the real-life ruler of Swaziland, has held total dominion over this realm since 1986. Of course, Mswati’s lifestyle also includes the trappings of modernity: Maybach limousines, a DC-9 jet aircraft, and foreign bank accounts worth billions of dollars. The habitual treatment of his critics might be medieval, but his corruption parallels that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and Equatorial Guinea strongman Teodoro Obiang.

Mswati does, in fact, select his new wives from tens of thousands of half-naked women crammed into a stadium. Elsewhere, 80 percent of the Swazi population makes less than two dollars per day. HIV, the incurable illness mentioned earlier, afflicts 31 percent of the country’s adults, the highest national rate on Earth. The average Swazi can only expect to live about 50 years.

Amid this bleakness, Swaziland is also home to some larger-than-life heroes whose bravery rivals that of any character found in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. This week, for instance, the human-rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu sat in prison, on trial for the crime of questioning the independence of Swaziland’s judicial system.

Last year, King Mswati violated a constitutional ban on foreign-born judges and personally installed Michael Ramodibedi of Lesotho, a pliable Mswati loyalist, as Swaziland’s chief justice. This February, Maseko and Makhubu wrote defiant articles in The Nation—the country’s only independent media outlet—excoriating Ramodibedi for imprisoning Bhantshana Gwebu, the national motor-vehicle inspector. Gwebu was just doing his job, but a car he impounded happened to be owned by one of Ramodibedi’s colleagues. Gwebu has been released on bail, pending his trial.

In Swaziland, following the law instead of a royal judge’s decree lands you in jail. So, in retaliation for their investigative journalism on Gwebu’s arrest, Mswati’s police raided Maseko and Makhubu’s homes, violently seized them, and brought them to “justice.” In true Westerosi style, they were arraigned not in a court of law with due process, but in the chief justice’s private chambers. As you read this, Maseko and Makhubu are in leg irons, lumped in dungeons with common criminals. The day before his arrest last month, Maseko accepted an invitation to speak in Norway at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which is organized by the Human Rights Foundation, about the state of human rights in his country. He’s scheduled to speak on May 13—if he’s released from jail in time.

“There is peace” in Swaziland, the head of the country’s only trade union once remarked. “But it’s not real peace if every time there is dissent, you have to suppress it. It’s like sitting on top of a boiling pot.”

Author: "Thor Halvorssen" Tags: "International"
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Date: Friday, 18 Apr 2014 11:31

Call me a sucker, but I cried during Heaven Is for Real. Guessing by the occasional sniffles and gasps, at least one of the other eight people in the movie theater did, too. The film is based on a “true story” about four-year-old Colton Burpo, who visits heaven during a high-risk operation on his burst appendix. After the surgery, Colton tells his father, preacher Todd Burpo, about the color of Jesus’s horse and the angels who sang to him. He speaks of meeting the sister who “died in Mommy’s tummy” and a young version of the great-grandfather he never knew. The town of Imperial, Nebraska, is torn by Colton’s story—even Burpo and his wife can’t agree on what to do about their suddenly prophet-like toddler. But the last scene shows the pastor giving a sermon, offering some kind of conclusion. “Was Colton in heaven?” he asks. “Yes, he was. He was in the heaven that God showed him.”

If my tears are any indication, this movie succeeds at inspiring sadness and empathy and comfort. But the spiritual experience it offers is a very specific one: tapping into emotions via the mysterious experience of a very cute, likeable child. The filmdoesn’t try to convince people that heaven is real; it tries to make them feel as though heaven is real. Call it spirituality porn—faith as a purely visceral experience.

Which is not to say the movie ignores the possibility of doubt or skepticism about what a little kid said he saw in the afterlife. When the pastor first starts talking to Colton about his experiences, he’s unsure of what to think, and that makes for some really, really bad sermons. His church’s board calls him in for a meeting, and he asks why they disagree with his choice to share his son’s story. “I don’t like it,” says a woman named Nancy. She doesn’t want Crossroads Wesleyan Church to become a place for people who only want simple answers, she says—“people who want to take their brains out of their heads and beat them with the Bible. Heaven and hell are concepts that have been used to control people.”

This could have been the most powerful point in the movie. The prospect of an afterlife is most poignant in moments of crisis—when a young child is in the hospital with appendicitis, or when a fire consumes the house of a lonely old man, as it did in the movie. It would be comforting to know for sure—“for real”—that this terror is only temporary, that paradise awaits. It’s not manipulative to explore the question of heaven, or even share what you believe, but it is manipulative to use people’s fear to try to get them to believe, too.

Instead of engaging this point, the plot backtracks. Toward the end of the movie, we see Nancy and the pastor sitting together before her son’s grave—he died in military service at 19. “I’m not really mad at the church, or you, or your son,” she admits. “I’m mad at God.”

In other words, she wants comfort. “Do you think my son is in heaven?” she asks the pastor. “Do you think God loves your son less than he loves mine?” he replies.

This scene provides clarity about the mission of the movie, which is to provide emotional catharsis about life and death. But it also highlights what the film does best: showing the fragility of everyday life. The film’s characters face crisis after crisis—sick kids, bullies on the playground, a looming job loss, kidney stones—and they react in human ways. There are fights in the kitchen and tentative reconciliations, moments of un-gracefulness and ashamed apologies, and tears—many tears. The Burpo family faces a mountain of debt, yet the pastor is fixated on whether there’s truth in Colton’s story. “Don’t you think we need to be talking about this life?” his wife angrily demands.

There’s an important difference between testifying to your beliefs and hawking comfort to others.

All of this makes the movie seem emotionally authentic, even if it’s not theologically robust. On balance, that’s not a bad thing—it’s okay to seek comfort, get angry, be scared. Just as some people like scrolling through artisanal food pictures on Instagram, some people will enjoy the wholesome emotional rollercoaster of Heaven Is For Real.

That doesn’t mean the movie is any less exploitative, though. If I had to make a non-cynical guess about why the real-life Todd Burpo wrote a book about his son and turned it into a movie, I would say he probably saw it as a form of testifying. He believes God revealed something to his son, and his son revealed that to the world. He probably thought the story would bring inspiration and comfort to others, and judging by the three consecutive years the book has spent on The New York Times bestseller list, he was probably right.

But there’s an important difference between testifying to your beliefs and hawking comfort to others. At one point in the movie, a journalist asks to interview Colton, talking to him about what heaven looks like while he plays with his toys. She follows him over to the swing set in the Burpos’ yard, where he asks her, “They don’t believe me, do they?” She makes a little “oho” noise, which I personally recognize as the “this-is-going-to-make-a-fabulous-quote” sound. She knew this little boy would make a good story, so she tells it. The Burpos—and their publisher, Thomas Nelson, and their movie company, Sony Pictures—knew that people are desperate to know whether heaven is “for real.” So that’s how they told Colton’s story: The movie pretends to offer truth, but it actually sells lost souls a hit of existential ease.

Author: "Emma Green" Tags: "Entertainment"
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Date: Friday, 18 Apr 2014 02:27

For background on the EMR saga, see this original article and previous installments one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven. Today, let's talk technical and business specifics of electronic-record software.

First, from someone in this business, a vivid and specific illustration of the overall distortion of the medical marketplace.

I'm an independent IT consultant, working mostly with solo practitioners and small (2-10 doctors) practices. My clients choose their practice management and EMR software (sometimes they ask me for advice, but usually the choice has already been made by the time I get involved) and I help them make it work.

Over the past few years, I've worked with about 15 different EMRs, and I've developed a theory: all EMRs suck; they just suck in different ways.

However, despite my frustrations, I'm convinced that this is a good and necessary thing to do, and will lead to advantages not only for wider patient care but for doctors themselves (though they'll kick and scream even while they benefit; it's just something they do.)

I thought I'd indulge myself (and bore you, no doubt) with a few observations:

- Software companies in "vertical" markets have never been magnets for top programming talent...

- Nowhere is the lack of star talent more glaringly obvious than in user-interface design. To be fair, there is an awful lot of information to be captured, and Medicare* frowns on too-great indulgence in boilerplating - but sometimes I am staggered by the sheer number of clicks required to get through even the simplest of screens, and there are far too many screens.

- Counterintuitively, some of the most physician-UNfriendly interfaces I've seen were designed by physicians. With very few exceptions, users are lousy at designing their own tools! One of the best I've seen is Practice Fusion, which is a relatively new company started by Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 types (breaking the old vertical-software paradigm.)

- The back-turned-to-the-patient issue is an easy one to solve: use a tablet, or a laptop on a rolling stand, and face the patient (or stand next to them.) The fact that such an easily-solved problem is so widely cited as a deal-breaker says more, I think, about the mindset of physicians than about the technology itself.

- Nuance Communications has a virtual lock on the voice-recognition market**, and they exploit it in ways that I frankly find appalling. Dragon Dictate Home Edition is about $50; Premium is around $100-150; Professional around $500... but Dragon Medical is $1500. The only real difference between Premium and Medical is a pre-trained vocabulary; I can see charging extra for that if the user wants it - but all non-Medical editions of Dragon check for EMR software and will not run if it's present. If you're a doctor, no edition of Dragon but Medical will run on your machine. Furthermore, updates for other editions are available on Nuance's website so that if you upgrade, e.g. from Windows XP to 7, you don't have to buy a new copy of Dragon - but Medical users are left twisting in the wind. [JF note: I agree. I like and use Dragon/Nuance software but have been astonished by the tiered pricing. For the record, I've bought and personally paid for the Professional version.]

- Data interchange between competing EMRs is laughable. There are national and international standards for this (HL7, CCR/CCD, etc.), but no EMR company takes this seriously - they generally do an OK job of exporting data but are completely clueless about importing it. (If CERN, ARPA, and the big universities had acted like these guys, there'd be no Internet.) The biggest player in "gluing" various systems/equipment/etc. together is an open-source software project called Mirth, and the company/foundation that looks after it (think Mozilla, basically.) Earlier this year, Mirth was purchased by NextGen, one of the largest EMR companies. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that NextGen will adopt Mirth's mission of connecting the medical world... but I fear that Mirth will simply wither and die.

* Medicare _and all the other insurers_, but Medicare's the one with real teeth so I use them as shorthand.

** There used to be several other players in the voice-recognition market - SpeechWorks, ViaVoice, Jott, Loquendo, Transcend, etc. - but Scansoft (now Nuance) bought them all and either killed them off or folded them into Dragon. Google's speech recognition engine is the only real competition left (Siri, of course, is powered by Dragon), and Google doesn't provide a product that works with EMRs.

Now, about the public-health advantages that may offset some of the individual-practitioner annoyances:

I've been following all the different pieces around the EMR/EHR work--and it feels like a lot of the folks who've been writing in are really missing the forest for the trees--everyone's really missing is how important these innovations are to population health. Even working in a medically underserved community, this has changed how I work with leaps and bounds over the past five years.

Want to know how many smokers there are in a specific zip code who are served by your clinic or hospital? Want to be alerted whenever one of your patients go into the ED? Want to see a panel of what percentage of patients have diet-related co-morbidities? Want to know who a patient's Primary Care Provider? Want to geographically hot-spot specific health problems?  All these things are infinitely easier with the existences of both EMRs/EHRs.

In other words, we can know so much more in so much less time. Rather than sending some poor soul into stacks upon stacks of ill-organized and non-standard hard copy medical records to sort through items, you can simply find it through a relatively (though not completely) understandable electronic system.

An example from my work is telling...we work with a variety of hospitals and clinics on a large public health project, which requires them to pull data, quarterly, on how many diabetic patients they have and how many of those diabetic patients smoke. For those few facilities still using hard copy records, we can only ask them to pull a sample of their data--and it takes two full days for their entire team to pull that information. At our EMR/EHR facilities, one person can pull all of the necessary information in a fraction of that time.

Yes, its almost certainly more cumbersome for practitioners --but it makes a drastic improvement in the quality of care coordination and the quality of data collected. 

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Author: "James Fallows" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Friday, 18 Apr 2014 00:00

From here on Earth, the planet Kepler-186f is a faint spot in the chaotic and twinkling universe. Its star is dim and far, far away.

But Kepler-186f is making headlines on Earth because, despite its distance, it looks a lot like our own planet.

The Kepler-186 system is in the constellation Cygnus, which stargazers will know as the easy-to-spot swan in the northern hemisphere's summertime sky. 

From a human perspective, that makes it unusual. Kepler-186f is the first Earth-like planet in the habitable zone around its star that scientists have ever found. (!)

We know Kepler-186f is about 10 percent bigger than Earth and that it's cooler and dimmer than the environment back home. Its star is about half the size of the sun. If we could travel to the planet, we'd feel heavier due to a stronger gravitational pull and everything would look kind of orange. 

From here on Earth, some 500 light years away, we can't see Kepler-186f at all. But you can still look in its direction. 

You won't see how awesome Cygnus is by just looking up. Molecular dust clouds in the region form a veil called the Great Rift, which makes it hard to see anything more than a hint of what's happening there. And, oh, is it happening.

Cygnus is home to the Kepler system and our newly discovered first-cousin planet, but the constellation is also known for being a major star factory.

You might even call it "a bubbling cauldron of star birth," as NASA did. 

Author: "Adrienne LaFrance" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 22:52

Our new issue is out. I know that you've already Subscribed! Meanwhile, apart from all the other value between its covers -- and really, a lot of exceptional pieces in this issue -- these housekeeping points involving me:

  • I have a one-page precis of some exciting developments in the non-exciting-seeming realm of battery technology. This is based on an interview with Steven Chu -- former Secretary of Energy, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, now professor at Stanford -- and Yi Cui, another Stanford professor who is at the frontier of battery research. Batteries don't get the big headlines, but as these professors explain, they're the key to most hopes for shifting to cleaner energy sources.
  • That precis came from a much longer interview. We'll have an extended-play version of that interview available online soon. Stay tuned.
  • By the luck of the draw, the past two issues of the magazine have included articles by me each of which had an unfortunate typo. In this battery story, it was "electrode" in a sentence that should have said "electron." We've fixed the online version. In the previous month's story, a sentence that should have said that Burlington, Vermont's minor league baseball team "was" the Reds -- as they were, when then-mayor Bernie Sanders brought them to town -- instead said that the team "is" the Reds. As anyone who has been to Vermont knows, the current team is of course the Vermont Lake Monsters.

    We try harder, and do better, than most publications in avoiding mistakes of all sorts, including typos. But I am chagrined that in the millions of words we/I put out, these consequential letters were wrong: de rather than ns in one article, and i rather than wa in another. 

Ah journalism. We do our best. 

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Author: "James Fallows" Tags: "Personal"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 22:34

It’s often said that the works of Colombian novelist and short-story writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez are quintessential examples of “magic realism”: fiction that integrates elements of fantasy into otherwise realistic settings. In his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which ambles through a century in the lives of one family in the enchanted Latin American hamlet of Macondo, magic carpets fly, ghosts haunt villagers, and trickles of blood from a killing climb stairs and turn corners to find the victim’s mother in her kitchen.

When Garcia Marquez, who died today at age 87, spoke to William Kennedy in an extensive interview published in the January 1973 issue of The Atlantic, he explained why he and other Latin American authors chose to weave fantastical details into their stories:

In Leaf Storm, the old doctor sits down to a pretentious, bourgeois dinner and startles everybody by saying to a servant: "Look, miss, just start boiling a little grass and bring that to me as if it were soup." "What kind of grass, doctor?" the servant asks. "Ordinary grass, ma'am," the doctor says. "The kind that donkeys eat."

Surreal? Not to García. "A man said that in my house," he said.

He believes that Faulkner differs from him on this matter in that Faulkner's outlandishness is disguised as reality.

"Faulkner was surprised at certain things that happened in life," García said, 'but he writes of them not as surprises but as things that happen every day."

García feels less surprised. "In Mexico," he says, "surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."

About two weeks before he talked, a newsman had called to ask García for his reaction to an occurrence in a rural Colombian town. About ten in the morning at a small school, two men pulled up in a truck and said, "We came for the furniture." Nobody knew anything about them, but the schoolmaster nodded, the furniture was loaded onto the truck and driven off, and only much later was it understood that the truckmen were thieves.

"Normal," says García.

"One day in Barcelona," he continued, "my wife and I were asleep and the doorbell rings. I open the door and a man says to me, 'I came to fix the ironing cord.' My wife, from the bed, says, 'We don't have anything wrong with the iron here.' The man asks, 'Is this apartment two?' 'No,' I say, 'upstairs.' Later, my wife went to the iron and plugged it in and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it."

García likes the principles of surrealism but not the surrealists themselves. Given a choice, he prefers the painters to the poets, but he does not think of himself as being like any of them. And it is true that his work is based more in the anecdote than in the symbolic or random flow of events so important to the surrealists; true also that his aim is to be accessible, not obscure. And yet, a surreal quality, a rendering of the improbable and impossible as real, pervades his work.

In 1982, Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and three years later, he published the widely acclaimed novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Read Kennedy’s full interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez here.

Author: "Ashley Fetters" Tags: "Entertainment"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 21:53

From about 1915, when the statistical record begins, until 1980, about one in every 50 babies born was a twin, a rate of 2 percent. 

Then, the rate began to increase: by 1995, it was 2.5 percent. The rate surpassed 3 percent in 2001 and hit 3.3 percent in 2010. Now, one out of every 30 babies born is a twin.

That's a lot of "extra" twins above the 1980 baseline, but how many?

When the CDC calculated the number through 2009, they pegged it at 865,000. Now that several years more data is available, I recalculated the number. I took the number of twins that would have been born if the 1980 twin rate had held, and subtracted it from how many twins were actually born. 

The result: 1,009,337! That's a million extra twins from 1981 through 2012, the most recent year for which data is available.

A few years ago, the Centers for Disease Control researchers looked into the phenomenon. Plural pregnancies have an "unfavorable impact on key indicators of perinatal health such as rates of preterm birth and low birthweight." So, they wanted to know: what was causing this large increase in twin births?

The blue portion of the columns indicate how many twin births would have occurred if the twin rate had stayed at the 1980 level. The red portion shows the number of twins born above the 1980 rate for each year (Computed from CDC data/Alexis Madrigal).

Older women tend to have more twins than younger women—and older women are having more of the nation's babies. The researchers found this demographic phenomenon accounted for one-third of the increase.

They attributed the rest of it to the increase in infertility treatments, specifically in-vitro fertilization and "ovulation stimulation medications." 

The increase in the twin birth rate, however, does seem to be leveling off. "The 2012 twin birth rate was 33.1 per 1,000 total births, and was essentially unchanged from 2009-2011," another CDC report found.

Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

That is, in part, because assisted reproductive technology procedures have changed. For example, the number of embryos implanted during IVF has a direct relationship with the number of multiple births. So, implanting two (or even three) embryos increases the chance that at least one of them will grow and develop, but simultaneously ups the risk of a plural pregnancy. 

In 2000, three or more embryos were implanted in two-thirds of IVF cycles. During the 2000s, though, the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology and American Society for Reproductive Medicine published guidelines that recommended fewer embryo transfers, particularly for younger women. So, from 2003 until 2010, one study found that the average number of embryos transferred had fallen from 2.6 to 2. In 10 percent of cases, the prospective parents chose to go with a single embryo transfer, too, which was unheard in earlier decades.

These changes have slowed the increase in the twin birth rate, but have not reversed it yet. Still, every year, more than 50,000 extra twins are still born, joining the million others driving their parents crazy. 

Author: "Alexis C. Madrigal" Tags: "Health"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 21:01

If a new class of startups find success, we’ll soon see videos like the one above fairly regularly.

Right now, though, they’re astonishing. 

This is high-definition satellite video of the Burj Khalifa—which is, at more than half-a-mile high, the world’s tallest building. It was taken by a satellite owned and operated by Skybox Imaging, a Silicon Valley startup that hopes to fill low-Earth orbit with dozens of small satellites that can take HD video like this. Skybox released other HD video late last year, but this might be the most impressive yet.

Mostly because: LOOK, IN THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE FRAME. YOU CAN SEE THE PLANE FLY. That is what a plane looks in flight from above. And that vague shadow, which appears in the top right of the screen during the video’s last few seconds, seems to be the shadow of the same plane.

The Burj Khalifa astonishes, too, and there are other major features in the video worth noticing. The darkest shapes you see are shadows. The vast and flatter building to the Burj’s right is the Dubai Mall, the largest mall by land area in the world. In the top-left corner, you can see the lanes and ramps of the E11, the longest road in the United Arab Emirates. 

The video is filled not only with landmarks but also with detail. When discussing the value of satellite imagery, analysts often mention counting cars in a Walmart lot: If you can estimate how many cars fill the American big-box giant’s parking lots on Black Friday, they say, you could better estimate the company’s holiday earnings. In the video above, you can see the Dubai Mall’s parking lot. (Though it's not clear how useful this particular image could be.)

Other details hold less utility than beauty. Notice the ripples in the water that surrounds the tower. As the satellite passes east-to-west and views the scene from more of a slant, you can begin to see the drains and pipes at the bottom of that pool. Cars, meanwhile, glint as they drive on the highway, catching the sun.

Skybox isn’t the only company that hopes to capture high-definition video like this. As I reported in January, there are at least two other companies with similar ambitions. Skybox’s leaders hope to move beyond this frame, though, and eventually create a sort of computational cloud full of data about the Earth.

Little wonder, then, that last week TechCrunch reported Google was interested in purchasing the startup.

Videos like the one above transfix us. This one in particular strikes me as James Bond-like. This shadowed grayscale is what satellite imagery is supposed to look like; this seems like imagery that really could be “enhanced!” Every frame here possesses exquisite detail, detail as valuable to companies and those with power as it is beautiful to those of us with web connections. 

Author: "Robinson Meyer" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 20:35

Yahoo is huge. It is the fourth-biggest Internet domain in the United States. It is the fourth-biggest seller of online ads in the country. It is the most popular destination for fantasy sports, controls one the most-trafficked home pages in news, and owns the eighth-most popular email clientIn the last three months, it collected more than $1 billion in revenue. It's very rich.

It's also totally worthless.

Technically, it's worse than worthless. Worthless means without worth. Worthless means $0.00. But Yahoo's core business—mostly search and display advertising—is worth more like negative-$10 billion, according to Bloomberg View's Matthew C. Klein.

The math: Yahoo's total market cap is $37 billion. Its 24 percent stake in Alibaba, the eBay of China, is worth an estimated $37 billion (Alibaba hasn't IPO'd yet, so this figure will vary), and its 35 percent stake in Yahoo Japan is worth about $10 billion. That means its core business is valued around negative-$10 billion.

It also suggests, as Klein points out, that Yahoo’s core ad-sale business has lost $12 billion in value since Marissa Mayer took over as CEO.

How is this possible? Yahoo is a profitable company. How could those profits be worth less-than-zero to shareholders?

One possibility is that investors are discounting Yahoo's stake in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan by a lot, because the government would heavily tax whatever value the company would try to pass along to shareholders after selling its shares. But even if Yahoo sold its shares in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan and took the tax hit, the remaining profitable company—call it Core Yahoo—would have to trade above $0.00. You can't have a public company trade at a negative-$10 billion valuation. And Yahoo isn't "worthless" by at least one very important measure: Its ad division is profitable!

Matthew Levine calls this paradox the "conglomerate discount." Core Yahoo might be valued at less-than-zilch now that it's a part of the conglomerate bundle called Yahoo Inc. But as an independent company, Core Yahoo's value would trade at a higher price. "Core Yahoo is worth less than zero because it's an arithmetic residue of taking a bunch of businesses with very public price tags on them and applying a conglomerate discount," Levine writes.

Yahoo's shareholders, upon gaining a full appreciation that they own a profitable ad business that the market is valuing at a deliriously low price, will perhaps start screaming even louder for the company to sell its holdings. Even a Yahoo Inc worth $0.01 would mean unlocking more than $10 billion in value.

Beyond the finances, Yahoo's big picture is that digital advertising remains a pretty horrible business, where massive audience translates into pennies-worth of value (at best!). The future of our eyes and ears is digital, but the online world looks to be dominated by two non-Yahoo companies: Facebook and Google. Yahoo doesn't have social scale and it doesn't control search. Instead, it merely has massive digital attention, something so cheap that even its profits are easily ignored.

Author: "Derek Thompson" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 20:01

The golf world saw a glimpse of its not-too-distant future on Sunday: A final round was played at the Masters without Tiger Woods. Immobilized after back surgery two weeks ago, Woods missed the tournament for the first time in 20 years—he probably couldn’t even watch it.

Many people predicted that the tournament’s bottom line, from television ratings to corporate attendees, would suffer. Those people were right.

The final round featured a duel between two likable Americans: 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, a budding superstar who turned pro at 19 and played with no fear in his first Masters, and 2012 champion Bubba Watson, who pulled away on the back nine to win a second green jacket. And yet fewer people watched the final round than in any year since 2004, when Phil Mickelson’s victory fell on an Easter Sunday. The 2014 Masters got a 7.8 rating for Sunday’s final round, meaning that just 7.8 percent of television viewers were watching. Over the full weekend, the Masters saw its smallest TV audience since 1993.

An underwhelming TV rating at the Masters is not by itself a catastrophe. But the larger concern for golf and its economic backers is that there is no one who can even come close to replacing Woods’s impact on golf’s revenues, global popularity, or crossover cultural appeal. Woods’s six-year major drought—and, more importantly, his long list of injuries—calls into question his long-term future as an elite golfer. The question is simple: When Tiger Woods is competitively irrelevant, what happens to golf?


For more than 15 years, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods has been the engine fueling the exponential growth of golf's revenues, purses, and endorsement deals, and he's a bigger draw for casual fans than the rest of the sport combined. For starters, he's brought in younger fans through his sheer cult of personality on the golf course. Woods, at the peak of his powers, was cool like Jordan or Ali—he can’t be compared to any other golfer in terms of his effect on the sport’s popularity among the masses. He's frequently referred to by his first name, a larger-than-life designation that he shares with such sports luminaries as Wilt and Rafa.

This is all a long way of saying that Woods is unique among all golfers, past and present. Golf pundits can debate whether Woods or Jack Nicklaus was the better golfer for the next 100 years, but there’s no debating who was the most influential golfer of all time. When Woods turned pro in 1996, the total purse at the Masters was $2.5 million and the winner got $450,000. The purse for this year’s Masters was $9 million, and Watson’s winning prize was $1.62 million. The impetus for that growth, before the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize or the rise in golfers with lucrative endorsement deals, was tournaments like Woods’s 15-shot victory at the 2000 U.S. Open and commercials like his iconic spot for Nike.

Woods’s impact on fan interest in golf can be seen in Masters ratings since he turned pro in 1996. The Wire’s Eric Levinson found that weekend television viewership averaged 12.2 million when Woods was within five shots of the lead and only 11 million when he was more than five shots behind. That’s a 10 percent drop in viewers just when Woods fell out of contention, and this year’s anemic numbers showed the effect of his absence not just from the leaderboard, but the entire tournament.

Equally sobering for the business of golf is that there is no one waiting in the wings to maintain interest and attract young players to the game. The only pro golfer who comes close to matching Woods’s commercial appeal is Mickelson, the charismatic lefty who has won three Masters and five major championships overall. But Mickelson, 43, is battling psoriatic arthritis, and last week he missed the cut at the Masters for the first time since Woods’s historic rout in 1997. And even with Mickelson in a featured group for the first round, ESPN’s Thursday ratings fell off 30 percent from last year.

Woods’s demise is another blow to golf’s popularity worldwide when it’s taken some hard hits already. Roughly four out of every five Americans live in an urban area, a trend that threatens younger people’s access to golf courses. In 1920 roughly 50 percent of the U.S. population was in urban areas—by 2000 it was 81 percent. Despite golf outreach programs like The First Tee, which has a presence in most major cities, access to golf courses or even driving ranges remains limited. The cohort of people playing golf, too, is aging, and none of Woods’s potential successors as Undisputed Best Golfer in the World has ever matched—or even remotely approached—Woods’s appeal to younger fans.No golfer besides Woods and Mickelson cracked the top 20 on Forbes’ 2013 list of the 100 highest-paid athletes. Only three other golfers cracked the top 100: potential young superstar Rory McIlroy, 44-year-old Ernie Els, and Brandt Snedeker, who made the list thanks to the $10 million he earned for winning the 2012 FedEx Cup.

And other than Woods, no non-white U.S. golfer has become a global star—a definite impediment to spreading the historically lily-white game among minorities.


The obvious choice for next breakout star is McIlroy, 24, a bushy-haired Northern Irishman with two runaway major victories and a world of ballstriking talent. Nike made him Woods’s heir apparent in early 2013, signing him to a lucrative deal and placing him in commercials with Woods as if to say: This guy’s the next Tiger. But since switching to Nike clubs as part of his contract, McIlroy has won just won one tournament (the relatively unheralded Australian Open last fall) and he blew a four-shot final round lead at a PGA Tour event in March. It’s far too early to write off McIlroy, on or off the course. But he will have to duplicate not just Woods’s major wins, but his domination of elite non-majors year after year. And McIlroy can’t walk off the course mid-round like he did last year, an immature moment that was hopefully an aberration.

The other budding superstar who could be a golfing great is Spieth, the runner-up from this year’s Masters who can’t even drink legally yet. The instantly likeable Texan won his first Tour event at 19, and he already has a long-term deal with budding Nike rival UnderArmour. Spieth said Monday that his second-place finish will motivate him to get even better, and he has the all-around game to win majors for the next 20 years.

Perhaps learning from Woods’s overly candid interviews early in his career, Spieth and his team have already crafted a public persona designed to keep his private life very private. When he pouted after several tee shots at the Match Play Championship in February, Spieth apologized on Twitter after the round. Contrast that with the comments of the man who beat Spieth, Bubba Watson, a devout Christian who, controversially, called homosexuality a sin.

Spieth has not yet been the center of an UnderArmour ad blitz, but that could change if he wins a major later this year. McIlroy could see a similar bump if he can add a third major to his resume, especially if it’s another runaway win. But unless one of them, or another marketable golfer, starts dominating in the overpowering, varsity-vs.-JV way that Woods did from 1999 to 2008 (13 wins in 39 majors), golf will struggle to hold onto the economic gains and crossover appeal that it has gained during the Woods era. 

The sport is never going to match the global popularity of football, soccer, or basketball, and it’s never going to resonate with the American masses like baseball or NASCAR. But millennials like me—and people who otherwise wouldn’t know Augusta National from Augusta, Maine—have followed golf because of Woods. Sure, there was his adultery and his messy divorce and his reams of steamy texts with women other than his wife. But even after all that, Woods remained the one golfer who could generate moments so special that a five-year-old watching him on TV could fall instantly in love with the game. Grantland founder Bill Simmons saw that light in his son’s eyes after the 2011 Masters, when Woods made a front-nine final round charge before finishing fourth.

I don't need Tiger to teach my child how to behave. I need him to teach my son that it's fun to watch golf. Yesterday was the first lesson. There was a putt, and a roar, and a fist pump, and then my son screaming "Again!" Only Tiger Woods could have made it happen. It's a gift. 

Simmons is right. Only Tiger Woods can make those moments happen. And if Spieth or McIlroy or some other budding star can’t duplicate his success on the course and his persona off it, those singular golf moments will disappear with him.

Author: "Jake Simpson" Tags: "Entertainment"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 19:43

Right now, 500 light years away from Earth, there's a planet that looks a lot like our own. It is bathed in dim orangeish light, which at high noon is only as bright as the golden hour before sunset back home. 

NASA scientists are calling the planet Kepler-186f, and it's unlike anything they've found. The big news: Kepler-186f is the closest relative to the Earth that researchers have discovered. 

It's the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star—the sweet spot between too-hot Mercury-like planets and too-cold Neptunes— and it is likely to give scientists their first real opportunity to seek life elsewhere in the universe. "It's no longer in the realm of science fiction," said Elisa Quintana, a researcher at the SETI Institute. 

But if there is indeed life on Kepler-186f, it may not look like what we have here. Given the redder wavelengths of light on the planet, vegetation there would sprout in hues of yellow and orange instead of green. 

"It's perhaps more like Earth's cousin than Earth's twin," said Tom Barclay, a NASA researcher who spoke about the finding in conference call with reporters. 

For decades, scientists have looked for signs of life by scanning space for patterns that could be the imprints of distant technology or natural clues that demonstrate a living planet.

"They're looking for radio signals, some kind of beacon from the star," said Victoria Meadows of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "If you're talking about life that doesn't have technology on the surface, we look for biosignatures... like gases in the atmosphere that seem to have a constant flux from the surface. We'd look for things like oxygen from photosynthesis."

Kepler-186f is about 10 percent larger than Earth and it orbits a sun that is cooler, dimmer, and about half the size of our own. The effects of gravity would be "slightly" more apparent there, so "you would feel heavier," Meadows said. 

Our cousin avoids many of the problems that reduce the likelihood of life on other Earth-like planets. Some are too big, too cold, too gaseous, or have gravity problems that scorch oceans. So far, Kepler-186f appears almost to be a Goldilocks — not too big, not too far from its star, maybe just right. 

The planet has a shorter year than we do, orbiting its star once every 130 days. On Earth, of course, we take 365 days to make it around the sun. (Though that hasn't always been the case. Scientists believe that something like 380 million years ago, there were 410 days in an Earth year.)

Researchers aren't yet sure what Kepler-186f is made of, but given its size and other characteristics, they think it's a rocky combo like Earth. (It could be pure iron or frozen in Hoth-like ice, too, though.)

A mission to learn more is in the works. The first step will be attempting to characterize the planet's atmosphere, beginning with determining that it has one. 

We may not find life on Kepler-186f, but scientists are confident we could find signs on planets just like it. This is a staggering prospect because of just how many planets like Kepler-186f are out there—so many that scientists are hesitant to even offer ballpark figures. Much closer to us, there are a "huge" number of them, Barclay said. 

Today we know that Earth is special. What we don't know is how long we'll be able to say that. 

Author: "Adrienne LaFrance" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 18:37

1. The math of large numbers means that companies with lots of employees are going to try to optimize everything.

"Technology means that no matter what kind of job you have — even if you're alone in a truck on an empty road — your company can now measure everything you do. In Earle's case, those measurements go into a little black box in the back of his truck. At the end of the day, the data get sent to Paramus, N.J., where computers crunch through the data from UPS trucks across the country. 'The data are about as important as the package for us,' says Jack Levis, who's in charge of the UPS data. It's his job to think about small amounts of time and large amounts of money. 'Just one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million,' Levis says."


2. Are exotic species bad? Not always

"Despite numerous examples of invasive species harming eco-systems, exotic species may actually be able to fill ecological gaps in their new home, such as those left by native species that have become extinct... A collaborative research project between scientists at the University of Canterbury and the University of Oviedo, Spain, has examined the role of exotic birds in dispersing the seeds of native New Zealand trees and shrubs... 'Many of our native species have already become extinct and sometimes we need new species to fill their role. Although they often do harm, we can’t always assume that non-native species are the bad guys in our constantly changing eco-systems,' Professor Tylianakis says."


3. From 1980 to 2009, the twin rate for non-Hispanic white women doubled. 

"The number of twin births more than doubled from 1980 through 2009, rising from 68,339 to more than 137,000 births in each year from 2006 to 2009. In 1980, 1 in every 53 babies born in the United States was a twin, compared with 1 in every 30 births in 2009... If the rate of twin births had not changed from the 1980 level, approximately 865,000 fewer twins would have been born in the United States over the three decades."


4. Meet Muriel Cooper. She's badass.

"Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) was a graphic designer who spent the bulk of her career working at MIT. In the mid-50s, she started as a designer in the Office of Publications. By the mid-60s she was the first Design Director at the MIT Press, where she rationalized their production system and designed classic books like The Bauhaus (1969) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), along with about 500 others. In the mid-70s she founded the Visible Language Workshop in MIT’s Department of Architecture, where she taught experimental printing and hands-on production. And by the mid-80s, she was a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, designing early computer interfaces."


5. A great post and comment discussion (!) on the state of cognitive science and what we call artificial intelligence.

"Neuroscience has given us an incredibly sophisticated picture of the anatomy of the brain. It has done remarkably little to tell us about the cognitive process of the brain. In a very real way, we’re still stuck with the same crude Hebbian associationism that we have been for 50 years. Randy Gallistel (who, in my estimation, is simply the guy when it comes to this discussion) analogizes it to a computer scientist looking at the parts of a computer. The computer scientist knows what the processor does, what the RAM does, what the hard drive does, but only because he knows the computational process. He knows the base-2 processing system of a CPU. He knows how it encodes and decodes information. He knows how the parts work together to make the input-output system work. The brain? We still have almost no idea, and looking at the parts is not working. It’s great that people are doing all of these studies looking at how the brain lights up in an MRI when exposed to different inputs, but the actual understanding that has stemmed from this research is limited."

+ It references this brilliant profile of Douglas Hofstadter in The Atlantic by wunderkind James Somers. 


Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip:

basal, basic. These un-English-looking adjectives, neither of which existed before the 19th c., were manufactured merely as adjuncts to certain technical uses of the noun base in botany, chemistry, & architecture , where fundamental would have been misleading. But they are now supplanting fundamental, with its 500-year tradition, in both general & fig. contexts. 


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Small Amounts of Time and Large Amounts of Money

Author: "Alexis C. Madrigal" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 18:00

I'm a rabbi whose marriage isn't, strictly speaking, kosher. That is to say, we didn't marry according to standard understandings of Jewish law.

On purpose. It could be argued that one key part of the Jewish wedding ceremony involves the formal acquisition of the bride (or possibly "just" exclusive rights to her sexuality) by the groom. And I didn't really want to get bought by anyone—not even by my partner.

Certainly, it's complicated. There are myriad interpretations of any Jewish text, and many people argue that during the betrothal ceremony—known as kiddushin, nowadays part of the wedding itself—the groom is only acquiring his obligations to the bride, not the actual woman. But I, and plenty of scholars along with me, think that's a pretty hard sell. The original second-century text draws parallels between the acquisition of a woman through marriage to the acquisition of slaves, animals, property, and land. And even understood in the most optimistic possible way, kiddushin is still a gendered ceremony with a heavy power dynamic that favors the husband.

For some people, that's fine—this is, after all, how Jewish law has staked out matrimony for the entire history of the religion. But others are not as enthusiastic about sanctifying their love in a way that would, both symbolically and legally, enshrine a non-egalitarian dynamic. Shouldn't ritual—and Jewish law—reflect our highest aspirations for our relationships on the ground?

To further complicate matters, kiddushin is a transaction between a woman and a man—so for Jewish same-sex couples looking to wed, the classic marriage model is not even available.

So, then what? What do you do you're getting married, but you don't want to—or can't—get married using traditional kiddushin? And what do you do if you're committed enough to the Jewish tradition that the legal framework in which it exists matters to you?

For those who believe, as I do, that rituals do things, there's a certain alchemy to the fact that a dunk in the ritual bath can transform a non-Jew into a Jew, that lighting two candles can, palpably and viscerally, bring in the Sabbath. There's a certain danger to mucking around with the source code, with the ways in which a religious tradition has been refined over hundreds or even thousands of years to bring us as close as possible to the sacred. Taking ritual alchemy seriously means that it might not work to slap any old thing together in place of these ancient mechanisms for binding two people to each other. And taking LGBT relationships seriously means finding a way for same-sex nuptials to have the same heft and substance that we assume straight weddings to have.

Fortunately, a few possibilities have emerged over the last 20 or so years that address the twin problems of feminist and queer weddings simultaneously, with varying degrees of dialogue with Jewish law. One way to sacralize the values of equality and egalitarianism is to make sure that weddings don’t require any particular gender to perform specific symbolic roles. (Of course, there are a wide range of gendered customs embedded in the traditional Jewish ceremony, so any couple who chooses to have the bride circle the groom or the butch cover the femme’s face with a veil has those resources available.)

Some of the ceremonies that feminist and queer Jews have been using in place of traditional kiddushin involve a declaration of commitment in the form of a formal oath to God. Rachel Adler, in her landmark book Engendering Judaism, looked to the laws surrounding business partnerships to create a ceremony in which two lovers bind themselves together, legally, as partners. Some people argue that both parties can acquire one another, so it’s an egalitarian, bilateral exchange. Another approach—my personal favorite—looks to a loophole in the Talmud to suggest that there’s a way, coherent within Jewish law, for a couple to get married “in the manner of kiddushin,” without actually invoking kiddushin and its acquisition—so it doesn’t require heterosexual partners, or the husband’s permission to divorce.

Ultimately, the last of these is how my partner and I got married. Rather than him handing me a ring (the "money" in the acquisition) and declaring, "Behold you are consecrated to me," we exchanged rings and both said, "Behold, you are made special to me," using a Hebrew word that connotes both specialness or uniqueness and togetherness.  We also took pains to explain what was happening in our wedding handouts and reworked the language in our ketubah, our wedding contract, so that it, too, reflected the marriage we intended to have.

These sorts of decisions are becoming increasingly widespread as our culture changes on several fronts. Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman suggests that, even though many of the new alternatives to kiddushin came out of an attempt to solve the feminist problem of a woman’s acquisition (or its unsavory twin, Jewish men’s almost unilateral power to divorce), the increasing number of same-sex weddings is influencing straight couples’ decisions about how to marry.

“More and more couples are looking at the options, I think, and saying to themselves, if I can have this [traditional betrothal] or this [newer ceremony that reflects their values], why would I choose something that doesn’t reflect my values?” she muses.

And yet, of the possible ceremonies floating around these days—entire databases full of them—it’s still unclear which will withstand the long trek through history. Judaism has grown and evolved many times over the millennia, and many things that we consider canonical now—such as a substantial amount of our liturgy and the order in which we say it, and many holiday customs—were once hotly debated or competing with alternate versions, sometimes for centuries. I imagine that with this, as with so many other innovations and changes in the tradition, the Jewish community—at least some factions of it—will slowly come to favor one particular formulation of a new betrothal ceremony.

Approaches to the problems of kiddushin have the potential to create splits between different communities. As it stands, issues regarding the status of women and LGBT Jews are major fault lines dividing Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and recently, even within Orthodoxy, questions around women’s participation in Judaism have become major talking points.

But regardless of possible controversy, the revolution in Jewish weddings has already begun, and in recent years it’s began to gather momentum and steam. As for me, I just want to make it possible for couples to create a powerful, transformative bond between them that reflects everything that they hope to engender in the hopefully long life of their marriage. Whatever way they choose to get betrothed, I hope that when they look each other in the eyes under the wedding canopy, they feel that they have a ritual that represents the truth and integrity of who they are together. 

Author: "Danya Ruttenberg" Tags: "Health"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 18:00

Every day, the scene playing out along the Ukrainian border with Russia seems like an act of costumed theater. Pro-Russian protesters wearing balaclavas, or ski masks, armed with military-grade weapons, attempt to take over government buildings by force. The question of who is behind the masks has risen to a level of critical international importance. If the protesters are affiliated with the Russian military, Vladimir Putin’s government is in violation of international treaties and laws. It’s a nearly impossible challenge, but one that the United States military, within its own sphere of operations, is also trying to solve.

Many Western observers now take as fact that groups raiding buildings in places like Donetsk and Kharkiv are, in fact, Russian and not simply Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Consider the recent example of Kharkiv, where pro-Russian protesters first attempted to occupy the city’s opera theater before realizing that it wasn’t City Hall. “Presumably, the local citizens of Kharkiv, if they wanted to take over City Hall, they would have gotten the right building to begin with,” said Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Masked faces on the streets of Donetsk represent the latest example of stealth-invasion, a tactic that is here to stay, according to Steven Metz, writing for World Politics Review. Metz heralds it as the dawn for what he calls unrestricted warfare, defined roughly by its originators as a state of war where “boundaries between the battlefield and what is not the battlefield, between what is a weapon and what is not, between soldier and noncombatant, between state and non-state or supra-state” effectively disappear. It’s a system of war for the future, and one for which the U.S., says Metz, is unprepared. “The United States,” he said, “wants its conflicts and security problems to remain tidily restricted. Its strength is greatest when there is no political ambiguity or ethical confusion, and when partners jump on board. This is precisely why America’s adversaries will not fight this way.”

The only effective strategy in the fight against unrestricted war may be unmasking the combatants. “The sheer fact of wearing a balaclava mask, in the current situation, means that a person is foreign because there is no one to hide your identity from in Ukraine,” said Yegor Anchishkin, a Ukrainian programmer and entrepreneur, and one of the founders of Viewdle, a facial-recognition technology company purchased by Google in 2012.

But how do you identify masked individuals? Iris scanning is a popular method for biometric identity protection in security environments. But these sorts of scans require a near-infrared camera. Extremely sophisticated iris-recognition scanning equipment can work at ranges of 10 feet, but most of the lesser systems that would be available to the Ukrainian government need to be within ranges closer to 3 or 4 feet, according to experts.

Reading entire faces isn’t much easier. Even when the subject of a facial-recognition search is not wearing a mask, getting a positive identification from a photo at a distance remains a difficult problem technologically. Yes, Facebook’s DeepFace program can match faces with up to 97-percent accuracy, and significant progress has been made getting around the classic challenge of age, position, illumination, and expression that have long hobbled facial-recognition programs. But Ukraine isn’t Facebook and the problem, says Anchishkin, is having an understanding of who the people in the photos might be, absent records to match the people in the photographs.

Anchishkin said that while the Ukrainian government, specifically the Security Service of Ukraine, or SSU, maintains a database of photos of Ukrainian citizens who have applied for passports, this sort of analysis is only good for ruling people out as potential Russian military. “This kind of negative matching is hard to achieve with high confidence,” he said. The SSU would not confirm or deny the existence of a database of photos of Ukrainian citizens.

Russian soldiers stand guard near the Ukrainian Navy's command ship Slavutych at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Anti-Russian grassroots organizations such as the website Ukraine Investigation have employed a crowd-sourcing technique similar to the Reddit thread "findbostonbombers" that sprouted up after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Ukraine Investigation founder Andriy Nurzhynskyy said that in many of the reports and user-uploaded photos that cross his desk, the “protesters” are armed with rifles like the Kalashnikov 103, a firearm that is unavailable in Ukraine. Conversely, authentic separatist protesters usually carry sticks. While Nurzhynskyy maintains that his site and others have been able to positively identify a small number of Russian military leaders in Ukraine, he said, “We understand that there are many unidentified persons and our work is not [finished].” He also said the group does “not trust SSU.”

The task of identifying anonymous faces on the battlefield and attempting to calculate the threat that their owners pose is a challenge that the U.S. military has been wrestling with for some time. Biometric scanning of persons of interest was a common procedure for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, where soldiers armed with gadgets like the HIIDE, the handheld inter-agency identification device, routinely subjected people they encountered to iris or other biometric scans. In those instances, U.S. forces faced challenges very similar to the ones meeting the Ukrainian government today, in understanding not only the identity but the threat level of people they were encountering.

The military channeled that data and other bits or relevant information into what it calls a biometrically-enabled watch list, or BEWL, of persons of interest around the world. So far, the database contains 209,000 records on individuals all over the globe, according to the military. “There are people that hit to that BEWL every single day,” Dalton Jones, a forensic, biometrics, and identity intelligence executive at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at the Biometrics for Government and National Security Summit in February. He added that they have up to 25 matches on a weekly basis with the Department of Homeland Security. “That’s people at the border applying for visas. That’s a pretty significant number.” But the program is more than a simple border-security measure. The ultimate goal of the database is not simply to identify individuals but also to characterize them across a spectrum of potential threat.

“It’s just not enough to know who is coming through, but what that individual is and has done,” said John Boyd, director of Defense Biometrics and Forensics, at the summit. “I’ve had petty officers say, ‘Sir, I don’t care what the guy’s name is. What do I do with him? Do I let him go? Do I take him back? Do I shoot him?’ These are the type of questions that you get.”

In addition to being effective on the border, Boyd said the system has “absolutely saved lives on the battlefield.” In the right hands, it’s the sort of capability that would transform the situation in Ukraine into something that looked very different. In the future, it may be our best hope against unrestricted war.

Author: "Patrick Tucker" Tags: "International"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 17:14

Right now, five human spacecrafts study Mars by hanging out near it. Two do it from the Martian surface—the Curiosity rover, which began its mission in 2012, and the more-than-a-decade-old Opportunity rover—and three do it while orbiting around the red planet. 

Earlier this month, one of those kinds of spacecraft happened to see the other. 

On April 11, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed near Aeolis Mons, a mountain near the equator in the planet’s eastern hemisphere. It photographed a hilly region nearby known as the Kimberley, and there it caught a robot that’s been hanging out among the hills for the past few months: the Mars Curiosity Rover.

That image—which has been slightly color-tweaked—is above. Curiosity is the blue, almost-beetle-like object in the center: It’s about the size of an SUV. Behind it, 9-foot-wide tracks snake and curve through the landscape. You can see them enter the picture near the top, and the whole photo captures a little over a month of rover tracks. According to NASA, the rover entered the area being imaged on March 12, 2014.

The entire image is 1,200 feet wide, about a fifth of a mile. 

This isn’t the first time the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has seen Curiosity. In August 2012, it captured the rover parachuting into the Martian atmosphere. And just this January, it caught the rover inspecting a crater nearby.

NASA, in fact, purposefully pilots the orbiter near the rover. Like on Earth, it helps scientists to get a view of the terrain from multiple angles. The rover, too, has been taking photos of this area.

Flyby photos of this type don’t just happen on Mars. Earlier this year, the youngest satellite in the Landsat program—a long-running U.S. Geological Survey project to continuously photograph the Earth’s surface—captured an image of an earlier Landsat satellite zooming below. Unlike the stable Curiosity Rover, the Landsat craft looked, in the image, like a black smear. 

Author: "Robinson Meyer" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 16:58

Washington, D.C. & New York, NY (April 16, 2014)- The Society of Professional Journalists announced today that Andrew Cohen has been awarded the 2013 Sigma Delta Chi award for Online Column Writing (Affiliated) for his “American Gulag” series on TheAtlantic.com.

The multipart series explores the issues within the American penal system, including the treatment of inmates, lack of help for those with mental illness, and deteriorating prison conditions. Articles in the series recognized by this award include:

The Sigma Delta Chi awards recognize the best in professional journalism. Cohen, along with the other Sigma Delta Chi award winners, will be honored at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on June 21st.

For more from Andrew Cohen, visit TheAtlantic.com.

Author: "Press Releases" Tags: "Personal"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 16:53

A group of MIT scientists want to revive the nuclear industry in the post-Fukushima era by moving it offshore.


In a paper to be presented at a conference this week, the MIT researchers argue that the way to make nuclear power plants impervious to earthquakes and tsunamis is to build them in shipyards and then tow the structures five to nine miles out to sea to the deep ocean.

These Offshore Small Modular Reactors (OSMR) would just generate 300 megawatts of electricity or less but would eliminate “the possibility of land contamination and public exposure from severe accidents, and reducing the risk from terrorist threats,” wrote the paper’s lead author Jacopo Buongiorno, an associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

(The impact of an uncontained core meltdown on dolphins, whales and other marine life is another matter.)

When the seaborne nuke plants reach the end of their lives they can be simply towed ashore and decommissioned, note the authors, who include a University of Wisconsin, Madison, researcher and representatives from Chicago Bridge & Iron, which despite it’s 19th century-sounding name is a nuclear power plant and offshore platform builder.

Defending these “nuclear islands” from possible terrorist assault ­­– by attack ships and submarines – though would require some James Bond-like like machinations:

In addressing these scenarios, the guiding principles are as follows: first, use of automatic remote early detection systems and wide-area surveillance technologies to see and identify threats from a distance; second, increase the time for response to threats by introduction of delays to access to vital areas through the use of physical barriers and designing plant layout to minimize intrusion pathways (e.g., the deck is designed so that access to board from a small boat is extremely difficult); third, minimize security threats by reducing structures and systems needing essential protection, i.e., simplify safety systems and operational systems to concentrate points that must be defended; and fourth, improve threat response capabilities by providing physical deterrents (including use of automatic weaponry to the extent possible).

Floating nuclear power plants are not a new idea – one is under construction in Russia, for instance. But none have been built outside tsunami zones or have deployed two technologies that make the OSMR possible ­­– small nuclear reactors and offshore platforms like those developed for deep-ocean oil drilling. What could go wrong?

The OSMR would look more or less like a nuclear power plant plopped on top of an oil-drilling platform, except the reactor would be submerged.

Southeast Asia is an ideal region for nukes-on-the-sea, note the authors, not just due to its propensity for earthquakes and tsunamis but because it has limited energy resources and populations concentrated on coasts and thus relatively close to transmission lines that would be run from offshore.

Floating nuclear power plants, conclude the authors, “would broaden the number of suitable sites for nuclear plants, thus potentially opening vast new markets in East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America, Africa, small island countries, large mining operations, and [military] bases.”

Author: "Todd Woody" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 16:52

Pad Chinese doesn't have the same ring to it, but it might be a bit more accurate.

Pad Thai, the now-ubiquitous noodle dish made with chewy, stir-fried rice noodles, vegetables, bean sprouts, peanuts, and egg, among other things, is so popular it’s become the de facto measure by which Thai restaurants in New York, London, and other storefronts around the world are judged. But not too long ago, it could hardly be found in Thailand. That is, until Plaek Pibulsonggram, or Phibun, as the late Thai prime minister is also known, introduced it to his people.

The popularization of the noodle dish, as it turns out, was but one of several measures taken by Thai authorities in the 1930s and 1940s to both Westernize and modernize the country. The others, as The New York Times noted over the weekend, included changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand, banning local languages and dialects from the nation’s schools, and promoting the word sawasdee as a means of greeting. “Part of Phibun’s nation-building strategy was to develop 'Thai-ness' and impose a ‘Thai Great Tradition’ to demonstrate the strength and unity of the Thai nation,” Penny Van Esterik wrote in her book Materializing Thailand.

But pad Thai wasn’t just about unity; it was also about nutrition. The late 1930s were a particularly difficult time economically for the country, and rice noodles, which were both cheap and filling, provided a much-needed antidote. Couple that with vegetables, bean sprouts, and inexpensive protein, and it was the perfect, nutritious meal. “[Phibun's] series of decrees from 1939–1942 suggested what could be done to strengthen the Thai economy, to instill national image and pride—and to improve the national diet. Popularizing a noodle dish was one means to that end,” Esterik wrote. Phibun’s government not only disseminated the recipe for pad Thai, but encouraged street vendors to make and sell it throughout the country.

“It may be the original fast food in Thailand,”  Nitya Pibulsonggram, Thailand’s former ambassador to the United States and former minister of foreign affairs, told Gastronomica in 2009.

What’s most fascinating about pad Thai, however, is that it probably isn’t even Thai. Noodles, stir-fry, and, especially, noodle stir-fries are quintessentially Chinese. In fact, just about every ingredient found in pad Thai isn’t native to the people after whom the dish is named. “The only really Thai ingredient is the pounded dried chillies,” the Bangkok Post admitted in February. Even the dish’s full name, kway teow pad Thai nods to its Chinese origins (kway teow is Chinese for rice noodles). “Its name literally means ‘Thai-style stir-fried noodles,’ and for a dish to be so named in its own country clearly suggests an origin that isn’t Thai,” local chef Kasma Loha-unchit notes in her own recipe. Indeed, the Thai seem to agree—in Thailand, it’s explicitly referred to as a Chinese noodle dish.

There were some 11,600 Thai restaurants worldwide in 2007, many of which have donned the name of Thailand’s most popular noodle dish, according to Gastronomica. Given that pad Thai can now be found in more than 2 million Google entries, it would certainly seem unfit to call it by any other name. But it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, either.

Author: "Roberto A. Ferdman" Tags: "International"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 16:48

You want a time machine, don't you?

Because one in 10 Americans do—at least that's what they said when Pew Research Center asked what futuristic technology they would like to own.

That's a notable percentage of people, especially when you consider that survey respondents came up with "time machine," unprompted, out of every possible future invention they could imagine. (Naturally, flying cars were popular, too.)

The curious thing is that Pew found people's level of interest in time travel had a lot to do with how old they are. About 11 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds said a time machine was the one futuristic device they'd want to own, but only 3 percent of people older than 65 said so. 

And looking across demographics of the entire study group, people under 50 were way more into time-travel than people older than 50.

Why is that? 

It's not as though time-travel is a concept tied to a certain generation. Such stories have been around for centuries. And a "major time-travel work" has come out pretty much every decade since H.G. Wells published "The Time Machine" in 1895. That's according to Kij Johnson, associate director at Kansas University's Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. She also sees why the concept may become less appealing to someone as she gets older. 

"What do people do when you give them time travel? They go right to the unhappiest moment of their life and they go back again and again and again trying to fix it," she said. "As an older person, there are more of those events. I'm 54. Do I really want to go back to the core terrible experiences and reengage with them, or do I feel like I've moved past them or around them?"

James Gunn, 90, is the founding director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Gunn says for the first time in his life he can now acknowledge the fact that he won't read everything he wants to read. He'd no longer take a trip to outer space if given the chance. But he would like to revisit his childhood and see his parents when they were young, maybe offer some romantic advice to his younger self. 

"If I had an opportunity to use a time machine, I probably would," Gunn told me. "I'd maybe tell my younger self to be a little more sociable, less bookish."

Later, having given the question more thought, he emailed with more ideas about his itinerary through time. "My older son died of problems associated with colon cancer. I wish I could go back and make him have a colonoscopy as soon as problems began to appear. Or put a light in the hall so my wife didn't fall over our cat in the middle of the night and break her leg. Or [tell] my younger self not to go out golfing with my brother in shorts and get a bad sunburn on my legs... Nothing that would affect the course of life but would avoid pain."

But the Pew study offers another interesting layer by which to assess differences in generational attitudes because researchers also asked how people feel about real-life technology.

The older respondents who were less likely to say they wanted time machines were also much less interested in future inventions of any kind. Some 15 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 15 percent of those who are 65 and up said they weren't interested in any futuristic inventions. Even larger percentages of those groups (25 percent and 41 percent, respectively) said they simply didn't know what futuristic device they might want.

These older adults were as optimistic as younger people about long-term changes associated with technology, they just weren't as engaged with the specifics. In other words, Americans older than 50 are less enthusiastic about both emerging technologies and imagined ones. 

 "Technology changes people," Gunn said. "I find myself at this stage in my life saying I don't really need a cell phone. I don't need a tablet. I'm far more interested in simplifying existence rather than complicating it."

The interplay between science fiction and reality can be revealing. How we think about technologies that don't exist is directly connected to how we think about the devices that already do. 

Maybe it's just the realism that comes with life experience. The Pew study asked respondents for all kinds of predictions about the next 50 years of science technology, and the oldest cohort tended to have more modest ideas about what might be achievable.

"Whether that's the eternal optimism of youth or the eternal realism of people who have lived a lifetime and seen the scope of change, you could definitely see a lesser expectation of what humanity can achieve among older folks," said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew. 

These differing expectations—about real science and science fiction—also say something about how aging might affect the way we engage with questions about where humans are headed. 

"If you're 70 years old, your brain is a time machine," said Pew's Smith. "You have seven decades of technological, social, geopolitical change. People who are going back in time would be going back to things you remember and already lived through."

Of course the lesson in most time-travel stories echoes what we learn from even seemingly minor technological shifts: The smallest changes yield important, unpredictable consequences. Usually it's not worth it, we discover. Adapting to the future is easier than screwing around with the past. 

Author: "Adrienne LaFrance" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 16:46

SÃO PAULO, Brazil—Many devout Christians believe the Bible condemns homosexuality, a fact that has prompted countless culture (and legal, and Twitter) wars worldwide. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” The word "sodomy" originated from the eponymous Old Testament city, which, as some interpretations have it, was destroyed by God in retribution for homosexual deeds.

But according to Lanna Holder, the lesbian pastor behind the Cidade de Refúgio evangelical church in São Paulo, this is all a big misunderstanding—the result of a shoddy translation eons ago.

“In the original version of the Bible, it didn’t curse homosexuality, just immorality,” she told me one recent afternoon. “The problem is in the translation. In Leviticus, the issue was that laying with man was against Jewish tradition … but that goes for eating pork, too.”

Thus, “it is possible to live under God's will and be homosexual,” as Cidade’s website proclaims.

Tucked into a strip mall in São Paulo’s Santa Cecilia neighborhood, the church building looks more like a 70s-era youth rec center than a traditional house of worship.

The upstairs of the technicolor space can fit 200 people, and there’s an overflow room where hundreds more can follow Holder’s teachings on a projector. The services, which run Wednesdays through Sundays, veer toward the dramatic: Worshipers close their eyes and stretch their hands toward the ceiling, and Holder asks newcomers to publicly declare their faith.

Rocha (left) and Holder. (Olga Khazan)

Holder and her wife, singer and co-pastor Rosania Rocha, welcome everyone, but the majority of the parishioners are gay. Many have been pushed out of other churches that view homosexuality as a grievous sin.

Holder knew from a young age that she was gay, but it wasn’t until she was struggling to recover from alcohol and drug abuse at age 21 that she converted to Christianity. She convinced herself that she had not only kicked her substance habit, but also that she had turned straight. She traveled to proselytize the story of her apparent recovery from homosexuality, married a male pastor, and had a son.

But when she met Rocha on a trip to the U.S., it became clear that while, “Jesus had changed everything he could change in me,” as she once told Vice, he hadn’t changed everything.

The stage at the Cidade de Refúgio church. (Olga Khazan)

“Today, I'm not an alcoholic, do not do drugs, but my sexuality remains the same,” she explained.

Rocha and Holder established the church in 2011, and they’ve been spreading their message of acceptance ever since. A small church library is packed with DVDs and books on Christian homosexuality, many emblazoned with Holder’s and Rocha’s grinning faces.

The couple now disavows their history with the ex-gay movement. The flip-flop has earned them some foes, who occasionally turn up at the church yelling, "I tried to be hetero because of you!" Rocha said.

“But you have to show them you cannot be what you're not,” she added. “There's no such thing as a former gay. People who are truly gay stay gay.”

Theirs is a small but crucial piece of Brazil’s religious jigsaw puzzle, representing both the charismatic Protestantism that’s gaining ground here and the country’s historic progressiveness on gay rights.

Between 2000 and 2010, Catholics dipped from 74 percent of Brazil’s population to 65 percent. Protestants, meanwhile, grew from 15 percent to 22 percent, propelled largely by the spread of Pentecostal churches in favelas and other working-class neighborhoods.

Pew Research Center

And though discrimination is still common in the country’s rural areas, Brazilian gay couples have most of the same legal rights that straight couples do.

These societal forces are starting to meld: One study found that there are at least 10 gay-centric evangelical churches in Brazil, mostly concentrated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

But not all of the country’s Protestant superstars are as open-minded as Holder and Rocha are. The Protestant contingent of Brazil’s congress, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front, has pledged to expand its current 73 seats by 30 percent in elections this fall. In the past, the evangelical bloc has pushed to extend the country's ban on abortions—which are already all but illegal here—to include cases where the fetus is missing part of its skull. One prominent evangelical politician, Marco Feliciano, served as human rights commissioner in 2013, but his tenure was marred by racist and homophobic statements that he posted on Twitter, including that the "rot of homosexual feelings leads to hatred, crime, rejection,” and that AIDS is “gay cancer.” Silas Malafaia, a prominent televangelist, has in past elections mailed out hundreds of thousands of DVDs advocating against legalizing abortion or improving gay rights.

Holder and others at the Cidade church said policymakers like Feliciano don’t reflect their version of Christianity, though.

Olga Khazan

“Feliciano doesn't represent the Christian people,” Fernanda Dias, 23, a Cidade press representative, told me. “The only person who could do that is Jesus.”

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff seems to be increasingly catering to evangelical powerbrokers as she runs for re-election this year. But Holder isn’t worried that a rise of Protestants in government will roll back any of the gay rights she embraces from the pulpit.

The proliferation of evangelical churches in the world’s largest Catholic country, to her, is only a rapturous sign.

“So what if every corner has a Protestant church?” Holder said. “Every corner also has a liquor store and a prostitute. The devil is working, so God is working too.”

Olga Khazan is reporting from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.

Author: "Olga Khazan" Tags: "International"
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