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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 21:45

WASHINGTON—A pro-Kremlin lawmaker spawned a tsunami of scorn in Russia this week by alleging that Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi's Perestroika-era anthems were composed by CIA operatives trying to destabilize the Soviet regime. 

Friends, acquaintances, and fans of the late frontman of the legendary band, Kino, call the claims ridiculous. But the U.S. government was keenly aware of the power of rock and roll to rattle its Cold War rival, according to Free to Rock, a new documentary that explores the impact of rock music on Soviet society.

The White House, in fact, played a hands-on role in this soft-power strategy when U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s administration helped send the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to the Soviet Union in 1977 for the first tour of an American rock band on Soviet soil, said Jim Brown, the film’s New York-based producer. "Carter was more involved than any of us thought,” Brown told me. "He thought rock and roll could kind of undermine the system."

Carter is one of several former officials and prominent musicians from both sides of the Iron Curtain interviewed for the film. Others include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose perestroika and glasnost reforms allowed the country’s vibrant underground rock scene to explode into the mainstream in the late 1980s.

“He was a fan of Elvis Presley, he liked rock and roll,” Brown said of Gorbachev. “He felt rock was for young people and that young people wanted rock ’n’ roll. And I think he takes pride in the fact that after wasting, you know, trillions of dollars on weapons, that words and actions and culture brought these two countries together.”

* * *

A rock subculture had been percolating in the Soviet Union for decades by the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, fueled largely by bootleg basement recordings that spread hand-to-hand across the country’s 11 time zones. And the cradle of this movement was in Riga, the capital of Soviet-controlled Latvia, according the prominent Russian rock critic Artemy Troitsky.

The Revengers in Sigulda, Latvia, in 1963. (Valery Saifudinov via RFE/RL)

That is where a 13-year-old boy named Valery Saifudinov and his band—with the grammatically challenged name “The Revengers”—took the stage in front of 700 factory workers at a New Year’s Eve party in 1962 and electrified the crowd with Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry covers.

The boss was less enthused. “The director of the factory wanted to turn the electricity [off],” Saifudinov told me. “He was outraged, jumped on stage and was yelling and screaming. You know, the workers just never heard anything like that. They loved it. And they got him drunk and let the party go.”

Saifudinov went on to rock the Riga scene in another band but eventually managed to emigrate in early 1970s after years of hounding from Soviet authorities over his music and the circle of longhairs he moved in. He eventually landed in California, where he has run recording studios since the 1980s.

It was about a decade ago that Saifudinov began mulling a documentary about rock and roll and its impact on him and his erstwhile Soviet compatriots. “My original idea was to have a kind of a documentary, or the story, to show Americans that, I think, forgot what an incredible impact it had on the world,” said Saifudinov, who is now based in San Diego.

He teamed up with a singer-songwriter named Nick Binkley and began working on the idea about seven years ago before they eventually brought on Brown, an Emmy Award-winning producer and director. In 2011, the project secured a $550,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities.

Brown, who produced a documentary currently airing on Showtime about American rock musician Billy Joel’s 1987 performances in the Soviet Union, said he sees U.S. public broadcaster PBS as a potential platform to air the new film. His company has reached an agreement for Hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland to narrate the documentary, which was originally titled Rockin’ the Kremlin, Brown said.

Valery Saifudinov, a pioneer of Soviet rock music, sings at his last concert in Riga in 1974 before emigrating to the United States. (Valery Saifudinov via RFE/RL)

One of the difficulties Brown encountered was tracking down video footage of the underground years of Soviet rock. The stars of the scene, after all, were largely unacknowledged—at least officially—by the government-run recording label. Some rare footage, however, was gathered by Joanna Stingray, an American musician and producer who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1984 and ensconced herself in the world of Leningrad’s most popular rock musicians.

Stingray would go on to befriend artists at the vanguard of the Leningrad scene, including Boris Grebenshchikov, the front man for the band Akvarium, and Tsoi, the late Soviet rock icon accused recently by Russian State Duma member Yevgeny Fyodorov of collaborating with the CIA.

In a video that surged through the Russian blogosphere this week, Fyodorov claims that in the final years of the Soviet Union, Hollywood writers composed songs for Tsoi as part of a CIA operation to chip away at the authority of the Soviet government. He alleges that the United States has employed similar tactics to engineer unrest in Ukraine.

As evidence he cites the whimsical tone of Tsoi’s earlier songs, such as “Aluminum Cucumbers,” compared to Tsoi’s politically tinged later work in songs like “Peremen” (“Change”). (Below: Viktor Tsoi and Kino playing "Peremen.")

Fyodorov states that Tsoi’s alleged CIA links were uncovered by KGB operatives tracking the Leningrad rock scene. It’s unclear from the video whether Fyodorov is suggesting that Stingray was involved in a CIA plot to control Tsoi. She is, after all, from Hollywood. And she did pen English-language lyrics to Tsoi’s songs.

Stingray, who now lives in Beverly Hills, was the producer of “Red Wave,” which in 1986 became the first album of Soviet rock artists to be released in the United States. She told me that the allegation that Tsoi worked with the CIA is absurd.

“I was too much a part of all that,” said Stingray, who was previously married to the guitarist in Tsoi’s band, Kino. “There’s no way that could have been going on without my knowing.” The CIA declined to comment on Fyodorov’s allegation. But one U.S. official disputed the claim, saying it “smacked of Russian propaganda.”

Stingray, 53, said a typical day during her first years in Leningrad would include hanging out for hours in the apartment of an underground artist or musician, where eventually someone would take down an acoustic guitar hanging on the wall. “It was so creative and so magic. And what’s interesting is that was when it was still communist. It was two years before Gorbachev,” she said. “So ’84 to ’86 I found to be an incredible time there creatively. What these people were doing behind closed doors was amazing.”

Even behind closed doors, the KGB was keeping a close watch in the former Czarist capital, according to former KGB officer and defector Oleg Kalugin, who is interviewed in Free to Rock. “As renegade Western rock culture began to grown in Leningrad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Communist Party officials became increasingly alarmed,” Kalugin wrote in his 2009 memoir. “It was believed to present a danger to Communist ideology, and the Party bosses wanted the KGB to stamp out these insidious influences.”

The KGB’s machinations against rock music—which included secretly running Leningrad's legendary Rock Club—proved feeble after Gorbachev loosened restrictions and enacted a private entrepreneurship law in 1988 that allowed musicians to legally make money from their art. (Below: Joanna Stingray interviews Tsoi and members of Kino.)

Numerous Western rock acts began traveling to the Soviet Union to perform, including at festivals featuring some of the biggest hard rock bands in the world at the time. On September 28, 1991, hundreds of thousands of fans packed the Tushino airfield outside Moscow to hear hard-rock bands like Metallica and AC/DC at a concert sponsored by Time Warner.

The concert, which Brown says features toward the end of Free to Rock, came five weeks after an unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev by Communist Party hard-liners and three months before the Soviet Union collapsed. “I think we make a compelling argument that rock and roll was a factor—a contributing factor of many—in ending the Cold War,” Brown said.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.








Author: "Carl Schreck" Tags: "International"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 21:12

“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams once said, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  

Adams, however, was not an appellate court judge. In jurists’ hands, facts and evidence sometimes are surprisingly compliant. That’s true even though a basic legal principle declares that on appeal, the court may not rely on anything but the record submitted. Appellate judges are supposed to decide law, leaving the facts to the courts below.

The indefatigable Josh Blackman recently called attention to an opinion by Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit. The employees of a chicken processing plant sought overtime pay for removing their protective gear (“sterilized jacket, plastic apron, cutresistant gloves, plastic sleeves, earplugs, and a hairnet”) at lunchtimes and putting it back on afterwards. The parties had disagreed about how long the process took, so Posner apparently videoed his clerks, or some other luckless underlings, doing it.

“The videotape” (which is not available to the public) “reveals that the average time it takes to remove the clothing/equipment is 15 seconds and the average time to put it on is 95 seconds,” Posner wrote.  The workers’ complaint, he concluded, was what lawyers call “de minimis,” a mere trifle.

In a separate opinion, Judge Diane Wood pointed out two problems. First, she said, appellate judges are really not supposed to do that. “To the extent (even slight) that the court is relying on this experiment to resolve a disputed issue of fact, I believe that it has strayed beyond the boundaries” established by the federal rules that dictate how courts operate. 

Beyond that, she noted, it wasn’t a fair test. Unlike judicial employees, poultry workers spend their shifts wallowing in raw chicken guts. They are required by law to wash thoroughly before going among humans. (Posner blew this off by saying that they “would doubtless do it without being told to.”)

The problem isn’t new. Posner’s Seventh Circuit colleague, Frank Easterbrook, stirred a similar controversy a quarter-century ago when he brushed aside a defendant’s apparently airtight alibi. Witnesses, relying on a hospital clock, testified that the defendant would not have had time to commit the crime. Easterbrook just reached back and reset the clock: “Suppose the clock at the Hospital was a few minutes fast (digital watches were rare in 1967).”

Nor is it confined to the Seventh Circuit. Earlier in April, Simon Lazarus detailed how Judge Raymond Randolph of the D.C. Circuit spouted misinformation from the bench about the “unmitigated disaster” and “sky-high” costs of the Affordable Care Act launch—talk-radio points that were not in the record and, indeed, were clearly false.

We shouldn’t be entirely surprised that judges are sometimes a little confused about whether facts are really all that stubborn. Sometimes the confusion stems from procedure. Many cases come to the Court without a trial; the  “facts” are just claims, and specific rules require the judges’ to assume one or the other version is correct—even if that version seems ridiculous or implausible. 

In other cases, the parties strategically allow the record to mislead. In Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texasfor example, author Dale Carpenter details the reshaping of “facts” in a challenge to Texas’s law against same-sex sodomy. The two men charged with sodomy barely knew each other, and probably actually weren’t having sex when arrested. As it moved up the appellate chain, though, the story became one of two men consummating their love within a loving relationship. 

No one else is allowed to talk back to these judges; why should mere reality be an exception? In some cases, their opinions slowly become less factual and more, to adapt a concept from Stephen Colbert, “facty.”

For example, some judges seem to regard Knight Rider or 24 as part of the record. Plumhoff v. Rickard, argued March 4, concerned a woman shot to death by police while she was a passenger in a fleeing car. Scalia scoffed at the idea that police shouldn’t shoot at a fleeing driver. “You think it is clearly established law, clearly established law, that you cannot shoot to kill a driver whose  . . . car is moving?” he asked lawyer for the woman’s family.  “You watch the movies about bank robberies, you know, it happens all the time. Are these movies unrealistic?” 

And then there are times when the justices seem to want to overrule the laws of mathematics.

Consider the oral argument in Hall v. FloridaThis case, argued March 3, tests the Court’s holding in 2002 that states cannot put “mentally retarded” defendants to death. After that decision, the Florida Supreme Court created a hard-and-fast rule: Any defendant who tests above 70 on an I.Q. test is not “retarded,” may not offer any clinical evidence of intellectual disability, and may be executed.

That rule—followed by eight states—defies the clinical definition of “intellectual disability” (the preferred term), which has three parts: a low IQ score, difficulty adapting to daily life, and onset of symptoms before age 18. An IQ score by itself doesn’t determine anything. That’s in part because designers of IQ tests know their test scores are subject to a “standard error of measurement,” or SEM, which reflects how closely the text reflects the test-taker’s hypothetical “true score.”   

Justice Scalia wondered aloud whether the SEM had been calculated “for the purpose of determining who is so incapable of controlling his actions that he shouldn't be subject to the death penalty?”

The correct answer to that question is “wha’?” There’s no “liberal” SEM or “conservative” SEM. It’s a number. Statisticians reach it through a series of elaborate and careful computations.

Admittedly, the specifics of how they do this—involving square roots and standard deviations—might not be immediately obvious to J.D. degree; I had to spend time on the phone and the Internet to figure it out. But each justice has four clerks, any one of whom could consult the four (page 18, footnote 24) authoritative sources cited in the amicus brief filed by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. That brief is part of the record, and having a clerk check it is a good deal more legitimate than having one doff and don chicken-gutting clothes. 

I’ve begun to worry that the morning paper will report that some court somewhere will hold that Pasteur’s germ theory is “just a theory” because Blackstone didn’t believe it, or that five justices have overruled 186,000 miles per second as the speed of light, arguing in an opinion that “sixty years after Einstein’s death, things have changed dramatically.”








Author: "Garrett Epps" Tags: "National"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 19:00

Our entire lives, when you think about it, are built around rewards—the pursuit of money, fun, love, and tacos.

How we seek and respond to those rewards is part of what determines our overall happiness. Aristotle famously said there were two basic types of joy: hedonia, or that keg-standing, Netflix binge-watching, Nutella-from-the-jar selfish kind of pleasure, and eudaimonia, or the pleasure that comes from helping others, doing meaningful work, and otherwise leading a life well-lived.

Recent psychological research has suggested that this second category is more likely to produce a lasting increase in happiness. Hedonic rewards may generate a short-term burst of glee, but it dissipates more quickly than the surge created by the more selfless eudaimonic rewards.

"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology found last year.

As Emily Esfahani Smith wrote at the time, “While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do ... Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.”

But of course, we don’t always peruse the psychological literature before reaching for that fourth beer. Some people naturally seek out delights that are more corporeal and decadent—The Wolf of Wall Street comes to mind—and others will gladly spend the afternoon helping grandma paint her dining room because it’s “a good thing to do.”

Over the years, scientists have found they can measure the amount that a person enjoys something by taking MRIs of activation levels in the ventral striatum—the “reward center” nestled in the bullseye of the brain. The ventral striata of teens, in particular, tend to light up especially brightly in response to all kinds of rewards. Because teens brains are so sensitive to these little jolts of pleasure—or lack thereof—late adolescence is also when depression peaks for many people.

In a new study, researchers aimed to figure out how the tender brains of adolescents reacted to the more bacchanalian rewards, like video games and drugs, versus the more pro-social ones, like “helping others in need, expressing gratitude, and working toward long-term goals.” Would the teens who get their jollies from volunteering be happier, in the long run, than those who live only for Grand Theft Auto?

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

Depressive symptoms declined among teens who made the selfless decision (left), but they rose in teens who made selfish decision (right). (PNAS)

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

"For example," the authors write, "adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family."

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

So, good luck convincing teenagers of that.








Author: "Olga Khazan" Tags: "Health"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 17:55

Update, 5:30 pm: By a 5 to 4 vote, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a new stay, halting the scheduled executions pending resolution of the injection-secrecy issues. It is unclear whether the Court of Criminal Appeals will honor this stay, although court watchers in Oklahoma say that will likely be the case.

How chaotic has the fight over lethal injection secrecy become? The top two courts in Oklahoma today are in conflict with one another over whether two condemned men should be executed there this month before state officials have to disclose basic information about the drugs they intend to use to carry out the executions. It is conceivable that both men will be executed, even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared that the legal issues the men have raised about injection secrecy ought to be fully adjudicated before their deaths.

It is almost certain that these two unsympathetic defendants ultimately will be put to death for their crimes. Clayton Lockett, convicted of murdering teenager Stephanie Neiman in 1999, is scheduled to die by lethal injection tomorrow. Charles Warner, convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month-old baby in 1997, is scheduled to be executed one week later, on April 29th.

But lawyers for both men argue that Oklahoma has violated both state and federal law by refusing to disclose where it obtained the drugs to be used on Lockett and Warner, how the drugs were manufactured, what their efficacy may be, and other basic information necessary to determine whether the upcoming executions would violate the "cruel and unusual" punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. It is an argument being made by other attorneys in other death penalty states that are suddenly scrambling to find new execution drugs.  

The Oklahoma Supreme Court, which handles civil cases, seems to believe a stay of execution is necessary to look further into the issues the men have raised.  But that court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles criminal cases, can't agree about which of them has the power to enter a stay. The Supreme Court says it's the OCCA. The OCCA says it can't and won't enter a stay because the prisoners have not filed a substantive claim there. And the prisoners say they can't challenge the protocol without the drug information they seek.

So now there is a dispute between the courts over whether the issues raised by the prisoners are "civil" or "criminal" in nature and, if they are "civil" whether the executions should be delayed. It's like a skit from Alphonse and Gaston. Only Texas has such a bifurcated appellate system that one high court handles civil cases and another handles criminal cases. But even in Texas—which, like Oklahoma, now conceals material information about injection drugs—the courts have not been as divided as they have in this Oklahoma case.

* * *

The problem at the root of the Oklahoma conflict is the same problem that vexes officials in other states still actively pursuing the death penalty. In 2011, the manufacturers of sodium thiopental, the key ingredient in the lethal "cocktail" states then were using, announced they would stop making the drug due to objections about its use for capital punishment. Since then, state officials have struggled to come up with new combinations of drugs that can kill in a way that is arguably "humane" under the Eighth Amendment.

In many instances, since supplies of sodium thiopental ran out, state officials have had to rely upon "compounding pharmacies" to procure the drugs to be used for lethal injections. But the products produced by these pharmacies have long been considered unsafe and controversial—so much so that the Obama Administration last November signed the Drug Quality and Security Act, federal legislation designed to regulate the industry.

The use of these murky pharmacies has raised legitimate questions that did not need to be considered when a respected drug manufacturer was doling out lethal doses of sodium thiopental. What lawyers for Lockett and Warner want to know—indeed what attorneys for hundreds of death row inmates in Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Louisiana, Georgia want to know—is whether the new cocktails to be used upon their clients are "safe"—that is, whether they will inflict undue pain upon the dying.

It seems like an absurd concern. The whole point of the death penalty, its supporters say, is to inflict some measure of pain upon the condemned as death comes. But there is a point along the spectrum of pain where an otherwise lawful execution becomes "cruel," and thus unlawful, under the Constitution. What defense attorneys now argue is that they cannot even begin to evaluate whether the state will encroach upon that line if they have no idea about the origins of the drugs to be used. And right now, in Oklahoma, they don't.

Over the past few years, Oklahoma's relentless drive to keep executing inmates has produced a flurry of changes to the state's injection protocols. In November 2011, lawmakers changed state law to add a secrecy provision—to keep hidden information about the origins of injection drugs. In January 2014, the state executed an inmate named Michael Wilson, who said as he died, "I feel my whole body burning." One defense expert cited in court papers says this may be because Oklahoma was using a contaminated compounded drug.

* * *

Today, Oklahoma is trying something new—and largely untested. It now says it wants to execute Lockett and Warner, and perhaps future death row inmates, using a three-drug combination of midazolam, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. State officials notified defense attorneys that this brew would be used against their clients three weeks ago—less than one month before the scheduled executions and just a few days after the state's injection secrecy law was declared unconstitutional.

Oklahoma has never before used midazolam in an execution. There has to be a first for everything, right? Except that no other state that has ever used midazolam to execute a man has ever used it in the dosage now suggested by Oklahoma. So not only are the origins and efficacy of these drugs unknown but there is no record suggesting one way or the other whether the combination Oklahoma plans for Lockett and Warner will inflict unconstitutional pain.     

To the Oklahoma Supreme Court these issues—essentially new to death penalty law—warrant further review. In late March, for example, a state trial judge ruled that the state's injection secrecy law was unconstitutional—"I do not think this is even a close call," the judge declared—and that ruling still has not been fully vetted by either of the two appellate courts. How could Oklahoma execute two men under a law already declared unconstitutional before judicial review is completed? That's the essence of the argument this court is making.

To the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the issue is equally clear. In an order published late Friday, a divided court concluded that it does not have to issue a stay of execution just because the Oklahoma Supreme Court has concluded that there are "civil" issues that ought to be resolved before any more executions take place.

This conflict, it appears, falls in a crack between the two courts. So the Oklahoma Supreme Court  is waiting to hear the appeal of the ruling that declared the state's secrecy law unconstitutional. And the Court of Criminal Appeals is refusing to stay the pending executions. The men thus evidently have a right to have their case heard but no remedy to spare them from death before it is heard. The United States Supreme Court, to date, has remained virtually silent through this new period of chaos over lethal injection secrecy, allowing one condemned man after another to be executed without intervening.

* * *

In a concurrence to Friday's ruling, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Gary Lumpkin, a former Marine and prosecutor, accused the defense lawyers of seeking to "take advantage of our bifurcated system of justice" by raising their claims in "civil" court instead of in criminal court where they belong. But that begs the question, still unresolved in Oklahoma or elsewhere, of whether these new and numerous injection secrecy matters are "criminal" or "civil" in nature or (as I suspect) some combination of both.

What Judge Lumpkin is doing, actually, is setting a trap. For as soon as the lawyers for Lockett and Warner file their claims as "criminal" matters, those claims will be denied in the state's criminal courts. You cannot sustain an Eighth Amendment claim here unless you can establish that the drugs to be used will cause pain to the condemned, these judges will conclude—and you cannot prove that they’ll cause pain because you have no right to demand that state officials share information about the drugs with you.

Oklahoma law is Oklahoma law and the state is entitled to foster and tolerate the sort of judicial dissonance we see here. The truth is that both courts make reasonable arguments. Death penalty cases, and the means of execution, are inherently "criminal" proceedings. But inasmuch as the defense lawyers here are not challenging the convictions and sentences of their clients, they are making arguments that traditionally have sounded in "civil" courts. The conflict today is about secrecy and transparency—not guilt or innocence or crime or punishment.

And it's also about the nature of the judicial process in capital cases. Both high appellate courts in Oklahoma ought to be required to agree before an execution there can proceed. Either court ought to be willing to ensure that the other court is satisfied that no state constitutional violation will occur. But if the Court of Criminal Appeals has its way, these two men will be executed before the state Supreme Court even has all of the briefs filed in their appeals. That surely can't be what Oklahoma intended by splitting its courts. 

And that is why no case better illustrates the need for the justices in Washington to intervene in this burgeoning conflict. Not only are different rules now applied in different states to core Eighth Amendment principles, but now we have a state that cannot agree within its own borders about the nature of these new challenges. The United States Supreme Court must not permit these executions to proceed, so long as the state Supreme Court believes the men have raised legitimate issues about the means and manner of the death that awaits them.








Author: "Andrew Cohen" Tags: "National"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 17:39

A majority of Americans don't believe in even the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics, which 99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences do: that our universe began with an enormous explosion, the Big Bang.

51 percent of people in a new AP/GFK poll said they were "not too confident" or "not at all confident" that the statement "the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang" was correct. 

In fact, fewer Americans were confident in that statement that any other on the list, which covered topics like vaccines, evolution, and the Earth’s age.

AP/GFK

It is worth noting, however, that the way the question was framed gathers at least two possible different groups into the "not confident" bin: A) people who hold a different belief about the beginning of the universe and B) people who just don't know, and might have been scared off from saying they were "confident" in an answer. 

No matter, the Big Bang question data was enough to "depress and upset some of America's top scientists," the AP said

If so, they haven't been paying attention to the data about the scientific knowledge that Americans possess. The National Science Board (a part of the National Science Foundation) has produced an annual survey of American beliefs about science called the Science and Engineering Indicators since the 1980s. 

Up until 2010, they asked the following question: True or false, the universe began with a huge explosion.

Since 1990, the number of people answering true to that question has bounced between 32 and 38 percent. (The number was anomalously higher in 1988, a discrepancy that they do not explain.)

Americans both seem to find the Big Bang confusing—I mean, it's not intuitive science—and to have faith-based conflicts with the scientific conclusions of cosmology. 

On questions of evolution and the Big Bang, Americans respond scientifically at "significantly lower [rates] than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked," according to the 2008 version of the report.  

In 2012, the National Science Board tried to parse out why Americans were different by adding 'according to astronomers' into the Big Bang question for half the survey respondents. Like this:

According to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion.

60 percent of Americans said this statement was true, versus 39 percent who said so when the "according to astronomers" was not present. This would suggest that 40 percent of people know the science, 40 percent of people don't, and 20 percent have heard the science, but believe otherwise. 

Before you lament the fall of the republic, consider that very little has changed in the public awareness of scientific knowledge over the past 20 years. The 2014 report put it bluntly: "The public’s level of factual knowledge about science has not changed much over the past two decades."

But here's the good news. On a general level, Americans' understanding of science is comparable to people in other countries. For example, the NSB notes that in a 22-question 2011 survey of 10 European countries and the US, the American mean was 14.3 correct answers, ranking behind Denmark (15.6), the Netherlands (15.3), Germany (14.8), and the Czech Republic (14.6) but ahead of Austria (14.2), the UK (14.1), and France (13.8). 

Not so bad, though probably not too heartening to our Nobel Prize winners. 








Author: "Alexis C. Madrigal" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 17:20

Next Monday, a battery-powered, 40-foot bus is set to roll off the assembly line in a former recreational vehicle factory in Lancaster, California, a blue-collar desert community north of Los Angeles, and be delivered to the local transit authority.

There’s no missing the symbolism—a defunct manufacturing plant that once made massive, gas-hogging RVs is reborn to produce carbon-free transportation (and local jobs)—as the world tips toward climate catastrophe.

But here’s who’s driving this $800,000 bus: China. The owner of the factory and the technology that lets the eBus go 155 miles on a charge is BYD, the $38 billion Chinese conglomerate that makes everything from electric cars to LED lighting to solar panels. (The company is best known in the United States for the owner of 10 percent of its shares—a Nebraskan investor named Warren Buffett.)

As I wrote in The New York Times last October about BYD’s move into Los Angeles:

THERE’S a newcomer to this city’s auto row. Compared to the shiny showrooms displaying the latest Mercedeses and Toyotas, the Chinese carmaker BYD’s outpost in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers looks rather forlorn.

Just two of its models — a red electric sport utility vehicle and a brown gasoline-powered sedan — are on view in an otherwise empty storefront. But it’s the pair of 40-foot-long battery-powered buses parked across the street that is driving the company’s ambitions to become the first Chinese automaker to break into the United States market.

The company beat American competitors to win contracts to build electric buses for transit agencies in Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach. BYD is also pursuing deals to supply electric shuttle buses to rental car agencies, amusement parks and Silicon Valley technology companies. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a two-month road-test of BYD’s battery-powered eBus in September.

Media attention, though, has focused on BYD’s rocky entry into the U.S. market. California state regulators last year docked the company $99,245 for violating state labor laws by under-paying Chinese engineers it brought over to work at the Lancaster factory. The labor commission later dropped that charge and reduced the fine to $37,803 for minor infractions of state labor laws.

Then in March, the Long Beach transit board canceled its $12.1 million deal with BYD for 10 buses because federal officials, who are providing most of the money for the transit project, said BYD had not been an eligible recipient of U.S. funding at the time of the bidding.   

Those setbacks are distractions from the real story: China has begun to emerge as a green tech and energy innovator.

Take the 324 kilowatt-hour iron phosphate battery that powers the eBus. BYD has built another factory in Lancaster to assemble battery packs, which can also be used to store renewable energy from solar panels or wind turbines. A smaller version of the battery pack powers the e6 SUV, giving it a range of 186 miles on a charge, compared to 75 miles for most electric cars currently on the market.

While Americans tend to focus on invented-in-Silicon-Valley technology—Tesla!—the rest of the world is jumping onboard the eBus. BYD has signed deals to supply the vehicle to countries in Asia, Europe and South America. And the e6 has started to appear in taxi fleets around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you hop in one at LAX sometime in the next few years.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., there’s a paucity of homegrown competitors in the electric bus market, with the leading rival being a South Carolina company called Proterra.

So count on continued coverage of Tesla Motors’ plans to sell its luxury electric sports sedan to China’s 1 percent—Elon Musk!—while China quietly moves the masses around Southern California and Silicon Valley in its silent-running eBuses.








Author: "Todd Woody" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 16:42

“How many people have ever heard of the Putative Father Registry?” I ask this every semester when I teach my family law class at Syracuse University. No one ever raises a hand. Only blank stares.

“What about deadbeat dads? Ever heard of them?” Students nod, self-satisfied in their recognition. I move to my next question.

“This one is for the men. Have you ever revealed to the government the name of every woman you’ve ever had sex with?” This is met with complete silence, confused looks, nervous smiles. As one young woman muttered under her breath, this may sound like “some dystopian shit.”

But it’s not. Since the 1970s, 33 states have created Putative Father Registries, designed as a way to link unmarried men to the mother of their child. States expect men to report—voluntarily and honestly—information about all their sexual partners; otherwise, they forfeit their right to be contacted if a partner pursues adoption. The registry is not a petition for custody or a determination of paternity—only a right to notification. Without registry, the wishes of the biological father are irrelevant. 

Consider the case of Chris Carlton, a veteran whose girlfriend, Shalonda Brown, put their baby up for adoption without his consent. The couple first met in Pennsylvania, and after Brown got pregnant, the two lost contact. Carlton worked as a military contractor, and his employer transferred him to Afghanistan. While abroad, Brown reached out to Carlton to inform him that she had a baby boy in Utah who died shortly after birth. Upon his return home, he discovered that the child was actually alive, female, and adopted.

This situation could have been prevented if Carlton had registered as a putative father in Utah. Registration would have linked his name to Brown’s, and he likely would have been notified of the adoption. Even if Brown willfully withheld Carlton’s name at delivery and adoption, the state would have known his identity.

State governments see this as the simple solution to the logistical problem of keeping track of unwed fathers. The Supreme Court agrees—in 1983, it ruled in Lehr v. Robertson that registering is as easy as “mailing a postcard.” Most states also have free registration, so cost shouldn’t prohibit any man from participating. So when a man fails to register and subsequently loses a child, courts uniformly respond, “Your loss.”

But this system has some big flaws. For one thing, it’s relatively unknown. In Florida, only 47 people registered in 2004, but there were 90,000 nonmarital babies born. And even for the few people who seem to be aware of their right to register, the process can be hard to navigate. Some states require men to indicate their partners’ height, weight, social security number, and more. You had a one-night stand? Don’t wait three days to call—better to register, and quick. New relationship? Verify her identity and get a social security number. Just moved in with your girlfriend? Bed, Bath, and Beyond isn’t the only place you should register. As Michael Higdon, a law professor at the University of Tennessee has argued, the burdens of registering are rooted in suspicion and mistrust. ‘Lest the mother get out of his sight,” he writes, “nonmarital fathers are being sent the message…to keep tabs on where she is at all times.”

State registry systems can also seem like bureaucratic afterthoughts. When I asked a staff member at the Alabama Department of Human Resources if all men should register, he said it was a good idea to “cover all your bases.” He wasn’t entirely sure of the intricacies of the law, but he promised to send me some forms in the mail, since men can’t register online in Alabama.

A few days later, I received a thick envelope containing a form labeled “Putative Father Intent to Claim Paternity Registration.” It asked for the man’s name, race, and social security number. It also asked for the woman’s name, race, birthday, and social security number, as well as a “Possible Date(s) of Sexual Intercourse.” The form was hand-typed and crooked from what looked like a rushed copy—or even mimeograph—job. The year on the form was listed as “19___.”

And every state is different. In Illinois, men can register online. Texas requests a driver’s license number. Utah requires an in-person court hearing and an affidavit stating plans for custody, child support, and pregnancy expenses. Illinois demands height, weight, and eye color.

But what happens when a father doesn’t know all this information? A staff member at the Arizona Office of Vital Records advised that fathers should collect as much information as possible. But “if you don’t have all the info,” she said, “it’s going to be hard for us to link to her.”

Some may see the registry as a way of forcing a pregnant mother to maintain an unwanted connection with past partners. She may withhold information for reasons of safety and well-being: domestic violence, mental distress, or financial pressures. She could have become pregnant from a sexual assault or experience regret about an unwanted pregnancy. She might also disagree with the father about her reproductive choices to terminate the pregnancy or place the child with another family.  Privileging the mother’s rights over the father’s recognizes her right to bodily autonomy.

States also presume that most unmarried men don’t want children. Men who impregnate women outside of marriage are caricatured: lazy, irresponsible, careless, oversexed. Serious concerns—that a man is stalking his partner, has threatened her, has tried to coerce her—can unfairly overshadow a father’s legitimate desire for custody.

But many putative-father cases involve men who only want to keep their children, and most are caused by disagreements about putting a child up for adoption. If a woman chooses to leave or cut off communication with a partner, it can be very difficult for a man to stay involved with her pregnancy, mostly because it may be impossible to locate her. To preserve their rights fully, men are expected to fill out forms in every state where their partner may give birth—even if they didn’t know their partner was pregnant. Every state has a different registry, though, and none of them communicate with each other. Plus, they all have different requirements. Arizona requires action no less than 30 days after the child’s birth. Montana allows only 72 hours after the birth to “protect your right to receive notice of a hearing.” Only a handful of states accept registration any time before the adoption of the child.

When I asked a staff member at the Texas Vital Statistics office whether men should register everywhere and for every partner, she just replied, “My, my, my. You have to register.” Many fathers lose custody cases because it is difficult for them to develop an actual, enduring relationship with their child when the mother has relocated. Putative Father Registries pose significant challenges for unmarried men trying to protect their parental rights—doing so would require constant vigilance about regulations, registrations, and every relationship they’ve ever had. Even for fully-informed men with the best of intentions, the honest desire to be a parent may get lost in red tape.








Author: "Kevin Noble Maillard" Tags: "National"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 16:38

Four years ago yesterday, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men and spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf. This Thursday is the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

What has happened in the time since these disasters? BP was barred from drilling in U.S. deepwater—until last month. Western clothing brands are upgrading Bangladeshi factories, but the fundamentals of their business haven’t changed: Brands outsource production to factories serving multiple clients in low-wage, low-regulation countries (not just Bangladesh).

The lack of fundamental change in these industries—and others, such as financial services after the 2008 crisis—suggests disasters like these are bound to happen again.

Indeed, every corporate crisis evokes a sense of déjà vu. The Rana Plaza catastrophe bore echoes of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The unfolding story of General Motors’ faulty ignition switches brings back 1970s memories of the Ford Pinto, whose infamously fire-prone fuel tanks went unfixed because upgrading them would have cost more than the $200,000 Ford set for a human life.

Why does the corporate world fail to learn from its tragic past?  From 1999 to 2008, I worked for BP in Indonesia, China, and at the company’s London headquarters. It was my job to assess and mitigate the social and human rights risks to communities living near major BP projects, a role that existed because the executives I worked with understood that what was good for those communities was good for our business. I did innovative, progressive work bringing in experts and setting up partnerships and programs to benefit contract workers and neighbors of big BP projects in the developing world. But, obviously, I did not manage to prevent the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the 2005 explosion of a BP refinery in Texas City that killed 15 people and injured many more.

I wanted an answer to that question, and I decided to write a book, reflecting on both my own experience and, also, documenting the experiences of my peers in other companies who similarly thought they were making progress mitigating risks to stakeholders, but then were faced with evidence to the contrary: supply chain managers in apparel companies who were sourcing at Rana Plaza; tech executives working to protect privacy but still seeing users persecuted with the data their companies collect.

Why, with this global invisible army of people working to prevent them do these disasters still happen? Why do they still happen when there are an unprecedented number of CEOs talking about corporate social responsibility (CSR)? More importantly, what does this "invisible army" need to succeed?

Here are some of the themes that emerged from my interviews and reflections:

1. People lie. More than one person I interviewed told me a story of touring a factory, doubling back on the pretense of forgetting something, and catching workers turning in their goggles or other protective gear. Factory owners will hide bad news if failing an audit means losing business. A few companies like H&M; are said to have committed to multi-year contracts with suppliers, which are hoped to strengthen relationships between firms and suppliers, enabling them to address problems together, and remove incentives for suppliers to lie about conditions for fear of losing business. But in the meantime, as Jeremy Prepscius of BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), where I’m a human rights advisor, told me, “There’s always one good factory, and there’s always one that lies better than everybody else. So guess which one would have the cheaper price?”

2. People don’t talk to each other. Big organizations often operate in distinct, siloed divisions, and multi-disciplinary issues like human rights and sustainability often fall through the cracks. As director of corporate citizenship at Microsoft, Dan Bross oversees assessments that cut across multiple functions like legal and product development to identify potential risks to users. He told me, “I have a horizontal job in a vertical world.”

3. Safety and responsibility cost money—and no one gets rewarded for disasters averted. Even those companies not living explicitly by Ford’s 1970s model have to perform some sort of cost-benefit analysis. Since the work that I did for BP and that my peers do for their companies is preventative and complex, it can be hard to justify the expense of any one intervention.

In retrospect, I realize that I had so much support for community investment around the BP project I worked on in Indonesia because there were examples in the country of whopping price tags when things go wrong. Freeport-McMoran’s Grasberg copper and gold mine in the same province has seen decades of violence: People who live nearby resent the company for polluting and not employing enough local residents. Consequently, Freeport reportedly spent $28 million on its own security force there in 2010 alone. ExxonMobil’s gas plant in Aceh had to halt production for four months in 2001 because of the surrounding social unrest, which some accused the company of exacerbating; that shutdown was reported to have cost anywhere from $100 million to $350 million.

But many safety, ethics, and sustainability efforts require a leap of faith that the investment is worthwhile, much to the frustration of those who lead those efforts. One supply-chain head for a major multinational told me how angry she was when one of her company’s prestigious internal awards went to a colleague who managed a major safety disaster. “Really?” she marveled. “What about those of us who made sure we didn’t have any safety disasters?”

Ebele Okobi leads Yahoo!’s efforts to protect privacy and free expression on the internet. She told me: “A big part of what you do is prevent bad things from happening. So being good at your job means that people start thinking, ‘Do we really need this?’”

4. Few people bear witness. Sadly, if an executive doesn’t see problems firsthand, he or she is much less likely to commit resources to addressing them. Even the most numbers-driven executive can only be brought so far with a spreadsheet.

The people I interviewed see it as part of their job to bring stories of the communities their companies affect into the cocoon of corporate headquarters. Darryl Knudsen, senior advisor on business and human rights at Gap Inc., shared with me a wrenching account of his visit to a hospital in Bangladesh following a factory fire there to meet survivors and their families. “I need to be confident in representing the choices we’re making as a company, and I need to know I’m going to fight hard for the right choices,” he told me, and such encounters are how he does that. “If it gets too abstract you can get lost.”

Sean Ansett, who’s worked in supply-chain roles for numerous brands told me that he brought into a management meeting photographs of a factory in China where the company was sourcing, “and people were appalled.” He told me that the CEO and CFO followed up with him, asking for updates, and that he got a 15 percent budget increase the following year. “If this is presented in a monitoring report or a dashboard,” he said, “There’s no story behind that, no face behind the name of a factory in a province they’ve probably never been to in a town they have never been to. The image alone was enough to connect them.”

5. No one knows what corporate responsibility is. Right now we’re in a free-for-all in which “CSR” means whatever a company wants it to mean: From sending employees out in matching t-shirts to paint a wall for five hours a year, to recycling, to improving supply-chain conditions, to diversity and inclusion. This makes it difficult to have a proper conversation about what corporate responsibilities are and should be. In some respects, that’s okay: The breadth of the concept brings companies to the table to discuss their role in society. Then, as Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR told me, “The trick is to get them to the table, then move the table.”

In recent years human rights has emerged as a way to frame business’s responsibilities, which is a useful development: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights spells out the thirty rights and freedoms that “every organ of society” (in the language of its preamble), including governments and companies, must not violate. There is no Universal Declaration of Corporate Responsibility.

6. Consumers won’t pay more. One report showed that ensuring good working conditions would add less than one dollar to the price of a pair of blue jeans. But despite responding to surveys that they care about ethics, shoppers refuse to pay more. In one study, only half of customers chose a pair of socks marked “Good Working Conditions” even when they were the same price as an unmarked pair; only one quarter of customers paid for the socks when they cost 50 percent more.

Until the general public acknowledges the true cost of consumption, the people inside companies fighting for more responsible practices will be waging an uphill battle.

If we are to stop harm associated with business, we have to understand why people fighting the good fight inside companies fail, and what they need in order to succeed. We all have a role to play: The general public has to recognize the real costs of safety and sustainability, and define what corporate responsibility really means to us. Companies must bear witness to their impacts, improve internal communication, reduce incentives to lie, and reward prevention. The lives of workers and communities around the world—and of the planet itself—depend on it.

 


Editor's note: The author holds BP shares that she was awarded during her time as an employee there.








Author: "Christine Bader" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 15:30

Postpartum depression is a condition diagnosed in mothers—birth mothers, specifically—coming home from the hospital after giving birth and feeling that something is off. That the joy they thought they should be feeling is nowhere to be found.

While hormonal changes associated with birth can play a role, according to the Mayo Clinic, hormones are just one ingredient in a stew of risk factors that also includes sleep deprivation, lifestyle, and environment. All of these other factors can affect any new parent. And they do.

Research shows “postpartum” or early parenthood depression occurring in all kinds of parents—biological, nonbiological, adoptive, gay, or straight.

A new longitudinal study out of Northwestern University examined more than 10,000 men over 23 years, tracking their depressive symptoms throughout their lives, for both fathers and non-fathers, fathers who lived with their children and fathers who didn’t. The data for nonresident fathers was not statistically significant, perhaps due to a small sample size, but the researchers found that for resident fathers, depressive symptoms increased by 68 percent during their child’s first five years of life. And as the study notes, “for children, the 0 to 5 years are key developmental years when attachment, security, and the ability to safely explore…are of paramount importance.”

“Dads have doubled the amount of time they spend in childcare from 1965 to 2011,” says Dr. Craig Garfield, lead author on the study and associate professor in pediatrics hospital-based medicine and medical social sciences at Northwestern. “If we know that dads who are depressed are more likely to use physical punishment and less likely to read to their kids, this has an effect on the child as well…Dads are key players. They have contributions to make, and they can be positive or negative contributions.”

Postpartum depression may be more likely to go undiagnosed in men, though, as men are traditionally less likely to ask for help than women, and are more willing to report problems like irritability and fatigue than feelings of sadness or worthlessness.

“I’m not sure that the male/female part has as much to do with it as we all thought,” says Karen Kleiman, founder and director of the Postpartum Stress Center and author of This Wasn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression. “It’s just hard to have a baby. It’s hard to have a baby and continue to work, at work and at your relationships.”

Intellectually, most of us know this. That having a baby changes everything is stale, cliché—if true—advice. But there’s a difference between knowing and doing, and even parents who are prepared and eager to have a child can easily find themselves overwhelmed during the transition. Whether that will translate into depression for a particular person is impossible to predict, but stems from an elusive combination of genetics, psychology, and the support available to the parent.

One thing that seems to play into all this is the dissonance between a person’s expectations of parenthood and the reality.

“It’s like holding your breath for a really long time,” Kleiman says. “Then all of a sudden we get what we think we want and think, ‘I finally have what I want, why do I feel so bad? And now on top of that I feel guilty for feeling so bad.’”

Unmet expectations play a particularly key role in the development of depression in adoptive patients, according to Dr. Karen Foli, an assistant professor at the Purdue University School of Nursing and author of The Post-Adoption Blues. “The adoptive process is a pretty rigorous investigation,” she says. “The adoptive parent is kind of selling themselves as being worthy of a license to parent. After the placement of the child, no parent can uphold that.”

No parent can be that kind of super-parent all the time, just as no child can be the perfect child parents may build up in their heads while waiting to adopt. Many adopted children may come to their new homes with challenging behaviors, depending on their pasts. Adoptive mothers Foli studied were more likely to experience depressive symptoms if they reported having expectations of themselves, the child, or family and friends. Foli says the rate of depression is similar in adoptive mothers and birth mothers—around 7 to 8 percent. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the rate at 8 to 19 percent for birth mothers, and about 4 percent for fathers).

“Examine some of those expectations,” Foli advises. “Are they realistic? Have you set yourself up to be something that’s not attainable as a parent?”

In the realm of nonbiological parents, nonbiological lesbian mothers are often in a unique situation where their partners give birth to the baby and they can be left to struggle for their role in the family, both legally in places where parental rights for gay couples are hard to come by, and socially, when they don’t have pregnancy as a visual cue that they, too, are becoming mothers.

Studies that have been done on this so far have been qualitative, not quantitative, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that these mothers experience depression, too.

Dr. Michele McKelvey wrote her dissertation at the University of Connecticut on this concept of “the other mother,” and interviewed 10 nonbiological lesbian mothers about their experiences. McKelvey told me about one woman who felt that she went through postpartum depression more than her wife who had given birth, and how their strong relationship got her through it. Another woman had a worse experience, in which she felt that she had to stay in an unhealthy relationship with her partner, because the place where she lived didn’t offer her any parental rights as the non-birth mother. So if she left, she might not get to see her child.

“She was a legal stranger to her daughter,” McKelvey says. “Those were the words she used… [The women I talked to told me they were] fighting for every piece of motherhood.”

Some women reported feeling invisible as mothers, something that could contribute to depressive symptoms. “There’s so much recognition of mothers in our society,” McKelvey says. “When a woman becomes pregnant, you have a baby shower for her.”

When you don’t get that kind of recognition, it can feel like your experience is less validated, even though in getting a child, you’re going through the same transition, the same joy and uncertainty that any parent does. Foli notes that things can fall similarly flat sometimes for adoptive parents. “There are casseroles sent, and there’s a little bit more celebration sometimes for the birth of a child,” she says.

Whatever depression’s causes, when it hits a parent in the wake of a new child, it can take a toll on the whole family. There is a risk for negative outcomes for the child if the depression goes untreated, although Kleiman says that “most women who are experiencing depression continue to take good care of their children, maybe at their own expense.”

Postpartum depression is also associated with marital dissatisfaction, though it’s hard to know which comes first.

“The truth is just sort of obvious,” Kleiman says. “When depression descends, resources are depleted, partners become weary. Even the most loving partners become tired of taking care of each other when they’re not getting a lot back.” She says that even so, among couples she’s worked with, the other partner “generally rises to the occasion and does what needs to be done.”

As with all mental illnesses, the important thing is to talk about it and seek treatment. That can be hard, though, especially because, as Kleiman notes, while mental illness is stigmatized, when you combine it with parenthood, the taboo gets worse. “We don’t like talking about moms and dads who don’t feel like being moms and dads,” she says. 








Author: "Julie Beck" Tags: "Health"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 15:30

It took David Perdue about 20 seconds of speechifying to expose a tension roiling the Republican Party. Speaking in January, the former business executive turned Georgia candidate for U.S. Senate asked a group of local Republicans to parse the resumes of his primary foes.

"There's a high-school graduate in this race, okay?" said Perdue, referring to his opponent, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. "I'm sorry, these issues are so much broader, so complex. There's only one candidate in this race who's ever lived outside the United States. How can you bring value to a debate about the economy unless you have any understanding about the free-enterprise system and what it takes to compete in the global economy?"

The two-pronged swipe elicited cries of condescension and elitism that eventually forced Perdue to apologize. And it revealed a vital reality about the state of the Republican Party as its members prepare to select a standard-bearer for the 2016 presidential primary: The GOP has long ago shed its stereotype of being the party catering to the wealthy.

These days, the GOP tone and agenda are set by a voting bloc of mostly white, blue-collar workers whose sensibilities skew more toward NASCAR than golf. In a general election, the party's most reliable supporters are white voters without college degrees. And they increasingly control the contest for the White House nod: In 2008, according to a tabulation of exit-poll data acquired by the National Journal, blue-collar workers made up 51 percent of all GOP primary voters.

It's why Perdue's remark was so costly. He wasn't just mocking Handel; he was mocking many of the very voters whose support he wants during the May primary. Sarah Palin, whose anti-elitist message best personifies the party's working-class turn, summed up the feelings of many Republican voters when she campaigned for Handel last month: "There are a lot of good, hard-working Americans who have more common sense in their pinky finger than a lot of those Ivy League pieces of paper up on a wall."

The problem for some Republican candidates like Perdue, the former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, is that many of them still hail from the party's managerial ranks. And that leaves them on unsure footing as they try to communicate with a base whose experiences and outlook are fundamentally different than their own.

That tension is one its White House hopefuls will have to navigate carefully ahead of the 2016 primary.

"Ten years ago a Republican primary was decided by who has the best resume," said Joel McElhannon, an Atlanta-based GOP strategist. "Having broader experience was considered a big plus, but we've seen this shift over the last several years. There is this populist strain going through the Republican primary electorate, and now it's less about experience and it's more about being an outsider. It's less about being qualified than who is more angry and more likely to ruffle feathers."

The two political parties have essentially traded places over the last few decades. Democrats, who once depended heavily on blue-collar workers, have become increasingly the party of white-collar workers, at least among whites. And as downscale whites leave the Democratic Party, they've joined the GOP, whose cultural values often align with their own.

"Blue-collar whites have been migrating to the Republican Party ever since Ronald Reagan called them Reagan Democrats," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It's a culture that is heavily family based, more small-town and rural. It's very pro-gun, and very patriotic. We're talking about a group of folks who see Democratic efforts at gun control as a cultural assault, an attack on their values."

They played a pivotal role in the 2012 Republican primary, prolonging Mitt Romney's ascendancy to the nomination long after most of his backers would have liked. In the critical early state of South Carolina (where Newt Gingrich won), voters without a college degree made up 53 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls. In Ohio (where Romney barely held off Rick Santorum), they constituted 55 percent of the electorate. Iowa's caucus was 48 percent blue-collar.

Romney won the nomination despite his private-equity background and numerous cringe-inducing gaffes—like saying his friends were NASCAR team owners or challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet. But in 2016, the competition among potential candidates like Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio will be stiffer for every vote.

And they're not just competing for base voters, either. They're also trying to win over well-heeled donors to fund their campaigns. And that's where the tension between the two sides of the Republican Party settles in.

"There's a complete lack of understanding of what primary voters are all about," said one GOP strategist involved in a potential presidential candidate's campaign, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "You go around and hang out with big Republican donors, and if you were to take all their advice on how to win, you'd be screwed beyond belief, particularly in a primary."








Author: "Alex Roarty" Tags: "Politics"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 14:16

1. Astra Taylor's new book on what happened to the Internet, The People's Platform, looks really good.

"I was struck by how ours is a diminished utopianism. It wasn’t that we would use these machines to free us from labor; it was that now in our stolen minutes after work we can go online and be on social media. How did it come to this, that’s that all we can hope for? And the answer is in how the economy has been reshaped by neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it over the last few decades.

+ The book itself.

 

2. The Wall Street Journal says Square keeps losing more money—and their path to profitability is not clear.

"Square's square-shaped credit-card readers are used by nearly one million merchants, who attach them to their smartphones or tablets, allowing them to accept credit or debit-card payments anywhere. Last year, the startup processed more than $20 billion in transactions, yielding revenue of about $550 million, according to three people familiar with the company's performance. But Square's business yields razor-thin profit margins, if any. Square typically charges merchants 2.75% to swipe credit cards through its reader, according to the company's website. About four-fifths of that money is spent on fees to payment networks like Visa and MasterCard, other financial intermediaries and fraud costs."

 

3. A most excellent premise for a novel.

"In Parasite, Mira Grant imagines a near future in which genetically modified tapeworms are a universal health-care solution. Once implanted, the worm provides immune-system support, making its human host healthy for the duration of its life — though like any good piece of commodified progress, the worms have planned obsolescence and need to be replaced regularly."

+ The non-fiction version.

 

4. The history of randomized control trials.

"'Let us take out of the Hospitals, out of the Camps, or from elsewhere, 200 or 500 poor People, that have Fevers, Pleurisies, etc. Let us divide them in halfes, let us cast lots, that one half of them may fall to my share, and the other to yours; I will cure them without bloodletting… we shall see how many Funerals both of us shall have.'"

 

5. Taking urban ecological habitats seriously. For example:

"The chain-link fence is one of the more specialized habitats of the urban environment. They provide plants — especially vines — with a convenient trellis to spread out on and a measure of protection from the predation of maintenance crews. Chain-link fences also provide 'safe sites' for the germination of seeds, a manifestation of which are the straight lines of spontaneous urban trees that one commonly finds in cities, long after the fence that protected the trees is gone. Root suckering species such as Ailanthus grow particularly well along chain-link fence lines."

 

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

bear (market), bearish, with reference to the stock market, came into use in the 18th c.: a bearskin jobber, presumably suggested by the saying, 'to sell the bearskin before one has caught the bear.'

 

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Author: "Alexis C. Madrigal" Tags: "Technology"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 14:09

There are Americans so wealthy that their children stand to inherit billions of dollars. Think of those kids and their power. Now imagine if the Obama Administration invited them to the White House: 100 fantastically rich heirs to massive fortunes. That would be news, right? 

Sure enough, the New York Times covered it. What I find bizarre are the decisions the newspaper made in its coverage. The article appeared in the Style Section, on page 8. Its headline: "Including the Young and the Rich." Here's how it begins:

On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.

Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

The well-heeled group seemed receptive.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.

A freshman at Georgetown University, Mr. Gage was among the presenters at a breakout session, titled “Combating Human Trafficking,” that attracted a notable group of his peers. “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,“ he said. “And when I told her about trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that.’ ”

Justin McAuliffe, a 24-year-old heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, was similarly impressed by the crowd. “Hilton, Marriott and Carlson,” he said. “That is cool.”

By golly. If only we'd have thought to connect multi-billionaires to one another and to political elites before, we'd probably have already beat human trafficking. How selfless of everyone involved to take time out of their schedules for networking that will redound to the benefit of sex slaves more than anything else.

Subtract the sarcasm from the last paragraph and you have the overall approach to this article:

The daylong conference was organized by Thomas Kalil, a deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the help of Nexus, a youth organization based in Washington that seeks to “catalyze” the next generation of billionaire philanthropists and other stakeholders.

Mr. Kalil moved nimbly among the affluent participants and through the ornate halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the summit was held. “A lot of this is not just, you know, collaborations between the administration and philanthropists,” he said, “but philanthropists finding each other, finding other philanthropists with shared interests.”

Hope. Change. And helping heirs to billion-dollar fortunes to find one another, and one another's shared interests, on federal property. I don't mean to imply that the heirs who attended behaved nefariously, or that I don't understand why the Democratic Party would want to court them. What galls me is a newspaper treating this great meeting of power as if there are no mercenary motives or problematic consequences.  

The story borrows the language of objective journalism to tell us that not only was this networking event a portent of great things to come—it also came at the optimal time!

Policy experts and donors recognize that there’s no better time than now to empower young philanthropists. Professionals in the field, citing an Accenture report from 2012, estimate that more than $30 trillion in wealth will pass from baby boomers to younger generations by around 2050. At the same time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (no relation to this reporter) and the nonprofit consulting group 21/64 have concluded in a recent study on philanthropic giving that heirs are becoming involved in family foundations at an earlier age—specifically in their 20s and 30s—and imprinting them with the social values of their generation. [emphasis added]

That is thin evidence for a sweeping characterization. What if I argued that a better time to empower young philanthropists would have been during the Great Depression, when America's need for their private wealth was much greater? Would the author protest that, having done the historical research necessary to make claims about there being no better time than now, I am wrong? I somehow doubt it. 

Let's meet one of these philanthropists: 

A case in point is Zac Russell, an eloquent 26-year-old whose grandfather made a fortune with the asset management firm Russell Investments and who officially joined the board of the Russell Family Foundation last year. While not an ardent supporter of the Obama administration, he decided to attend the conference to consult, he said, with White House experts on climate change and to discuss grass-roots efforts to improve water quality in Puget Sound, where the foundation is based.

“It’s not just seen as some old guy writing checks anymore,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s young people who want to solve real problems.”

Sporting scraggy Brooklyn-style facial hair and a loosely fitting suit without a necktie that contrasted with the stately White House surroundings, Mr. Russell spoke with an air of cynicism. “Their head of public affairs contacted me and said, ‘Let’s talk,’ and so we’ll talk,” he said.

If the young man is eloquent, why use those quotes? The surfeit of positive adjectives in this story made it all the easier for me to zero in on this journalistic disclosure:

(Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.)

That could have made for an interesting first-person reflection on the event. It makes no sense for someone with that conflict of interest to write a third-person reported piece. And it makes no sense to report on this event without exploring the insidious connections between wealth and politics in America and the questions raised when the executive branch goes out of its way to court the next generation of billionaires.








Author: "Conor Friedersdorf" Tags: "Politics"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 14:00

Hardly a day goes by without an article predicting, lamenting, or celebrating America's decline. The turmoil in Crimea and Syria, the polarized and frequently gridlocked U.S. political system, the deepening income and wealth inequalities in the United States, and the growing clout of rivals like China and Russia are all offered as proof of waning American power.

These weaknesses surely exist, and some—like mounting economic inequality—are truly alarming. But the doomsayers often fail to see the ways in which America is gaining rather than losing global influence. And nowhere is this truer than the manufacturing sector. The combination of lower energy prices, innovative information technologies, and advances in robotics and materials science are powering a manufacturing revolution that will reinvigorate the U.S. economy and make many of its industrial sectors the most competitive in the world.

According to Martin Baily and Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institution, for the past 50 years industrial production in the U.S. has grown at the same rate or even faster than the economy as a whole. This means that contrary to conventional wisdom, manufacturing has not lost ground in terms of its importance in the U.S. economy. Until 2011, when China inched slightly ahead, the United States boasted the world’s largest manufacturing sector, and it continues to be an industrial powerhouse. The general impression that factories in America are disappearing may be true for some sectors and in some regions and cities, but it is inaccurate in the aggregate. We perceive an industry in decline because the great strides that have been made in efficiency and productivity have not generated a proportional increase in jobs. More is being produced, and fewer workers are needed. Between 2000 and 2010, the United States lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs.

One reason for these job losses is the economic crisis that began in 2008. But another, more fundamental explanation is the manufacturing industry’s uneven growth. Most of the expansion of U.S. manufacturing has taken place in one specific sector: computers and electronics, while the 90 percent of manufacturing outside this branch—automobiles, aviation, appliances or chemicals, for example—is showing slower growth.

Another issue is the trade deficit. Since the early 1980s, the United States has been importing more manufactured goods than it exports. And in the past decade, most of these imports have come from Asia, and mainly from China. The numbers are striking. In 2000, more than 75 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods was comprised of the gap between what it imported and exported to Asia. By 2012, this difference represented roughly 100 percent of the deficit—meaning that Asia is the only region in the world from which the U.S. imports more manufactured goods than it exports. Furthermore, while in 2000 trade with China accounted for one-third of America’s manufacturing trade deficit with Asia, by 2012 that share had ballooned to an enormous 72 percent.

The good news is that American manufacturing is on the verge of dramatic change. According to Baily and Bosworth, major revolutions are underway in energy, robotics, materials, and applied information technology.

The changes taking place in the energy sector are huge. The United States has the second-largest shale-gas reserves in the world and has pioneered the development of new technologies to exploit it. Fracking, in which gas and oil is extracted from shale rocks by fracturing them, is driving an energy boom in the U.S. that will soon lower natural-gas prices to well below the world average, thus giving American manufacturers a unique competitive advantage.

The automation and robotization of manufacturing plants will further increase efficiency and precision. As robotic capabilities continue to expand, the cost to produce them is shrinking. The downside, of course, is that this will have serious repercussions for job creation, as these machines are likely to displace many workers. America's dominance in computing and electronics gives it a unique edge in the automation of manufacturing processes.

The emergence of new materials that combine nanotechnology and biotechnology offer the promise of products and production processes that other countries cannot easily replicate. As Baily and Bosworth write: “Applying the technology to carbon nanotubes and graphene has allowed the creation of high-performance transistors and ultra-strong and light composite  materials. Fluorescent nano-particles are used in biological labeling and solar cells. In biotechnology, nanoenabled technologies allow more rapid diagnosis of illnesses, detect contaminants, and provide glucose monitoring and many other applications.”

And finally, innovative uses of the Internet and other information technologies (Big Data, 3-D printing, and growing communication between devices, also known as the “Internet of things”) are poised to transform the manufacturing industry. Companies like General Electric are already relocating operations from Asia to Silicon Valley to take advantage of the proximity to information-technologies clusters. And they’ll reap great savings in transport costs from Asia in addition to benefiting from lowered energy costs at home.

Not everything is on the right track in the United States. But in some areas, it’s a mistake to describe America as a power in decline.








Author: "Moisés Naím" Tags: "Business"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 13:30

Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller discuss the latest episode of Mad Men.


Heller: If Mad Men ever summed itself up in a single line, it’d be this one: “Keep pretending. That’s your job.” It’s fitting that the quote didn’t come from any of the power-playing stalwarts at Sterling Cooper and Partners, too. No, it’s the lowly secretary who drops some series-defining knowledge on us all, precisely at the moment when Don and Peggy are doubting the lies they’ve told for years. All hail Dawn!

Ashley, I’m interested to see what you thought of “A Day’s Work.” I can’t recall another Mad Men episode that so clearly illustrated the uneasy tensions that smolder between characters along race and gender lines. It’s not just Bert Cooper’s ridiculous bigotry. It’s the way Shirley code-switches when she’s talking to Peggy, the pause in Dawn’s conversation with Shirley when a white secretary walks into the break room, and the way Joan handles Lou’s command to get him his “own girl.” I saw a lot of remarkably complex ideas about race and gender in these scenes. How’d you react?

Fetters: Early in Season Six, our roundtable discussed whether Mad Men could ever be as good at addressing race as it had always been at addressing gender. Our general consensus was that it addressed race in a much shallower way than gender, but was starting to make some decent strides toward portraying race relations in a thought-provoking way.

I’d say that assessment still stands, overall. In this episode, for example, Bert Cooper’s discomfort with having a black receptionist seemed predictable (old people were unprogressive in 1969, too!? shocking). But Pete Campbell realizing at the same time as the audience that his Betty Draper-lookalike cupcake of a girlfriend isn’t just a pretty plaything but a real person with a real job she takes seriously? That was electric.

You’re right, though, about that scene between Dawn and Shirley in the break room. It was fabulous, and it had a strong whiff of some early-season break-room scenes in which secretaries confer with one another about how to best manage their relations with their male bosses. Only this time, it’s the black secretaries advising each other on how to handle their white bosses (of both genders) rather than the female secretaries advising each other on their male bosses. That’s an interesting shift on the show’s part, trading one uncomfortable power dynamic for another.

And I thought Dawn calling Shirley “Dawn” while Shirley calls Dawn “Shirley”—presumably their way of playfully commiserating over the fact that they’re frequently mistaken for each other—was a great touch.

Heller: I hope we see a lot more Dawn this season. She’s arguably the most moral character on the show: She helps Don during his exile, she refuses to take any money for the extra work, and she recognizes when she has the freedom to criticize Lou. (She was totally right, too. Who forgets to buy a gift on Valentine’s Day?) My guess is that she’ll play a big role in the coming episodes. She appears to be sitting right next to the conference room, and now, she’s got a reason to spy for Don.

Fetters: Oh, wow. “The most moral character on the show” makes me want to immediately re-watch all six existing seasons with a tally chart in my lap. But in this episode, Dawn did show a remarkable commitment to the trifurcated cliches of “doing the right thing,” "standing up for what you believe in," and “going the extra mile.” Remind you of another former secretary of Don’s who had an incorruptible moral compass and bailed Don out of jail in the middle of the night once? Maybe Dawn is the new Peggy.

Meanwhile, speaking of characters who are underratedly sane, we saw no Megan this week—but she was an integral part of a very necessary conversation that finally happened between Sally and Don. Don admitted to Sally that the only reason he’s not moving out to California is because he’s foolishly waiting for Megan to come back to New York to fix everything for him. That’s a new, sad twist on the Drapers’ failing bicoastal marriage, right?

Heller: It's a new twist of an old flavor. Last week, we wondered what Don meant when he said he needed to “get back to work.” Well, he’s back in Manhattan now—and I have to say, his life looks an awful lot like what I did when I skipped class in college. The mandatory snooze button, mornings that start at noon, a bag of potato chips for breakfast, marathons of The Little Rascals, and no reason to put on clothes until 8 p.m. I remember it being a lot more fun than it looked in this episode.

Is this what rock bottom looks like for Don? If not, the heartbreaking moment when Sally wished him a happy Valentine’s Day must be a reassuring sign for what’s to come. Don was finally honest with someone, and that honesty was reciprocated with love. (Okay, it was the monotone-voiced “I love you” of a teenager—but still!) What do you think, Ashley? Will Sally help pull her father out of his pitiful spiral?

Fetters: It’s starting to look as though if anybody can, it’s Sally. He told Sally, before his wife or anyone else in his family, that he’d been forced to take a break from work because he’d “told the truth about himself” to the wrong people and at the wrong time. “I was ashamed,” he says, and that feels significant. How many times on this show has Don Draper admitted that he was wrong? Answering that, too, might require a tally chart, but I think it’s safe to say "rarely."

This episode was all about how the tiniest, seemingly innocuous disturbances can throw off the orbit of a person’s life, sending him or her careening off and colliding into other people’s paths: a misplaced purse, a malfunctioning conference-call box, a love note removed from a vase of flowers. (And that’s what Mad Men is so, so good at: the inevitable yet somehow still surprising consequences of actions we don’t think matter at the time.) It seems Sally came crashing into Don’s ever-more-depressing little universe at just the right moment, offering him what might be the most unconditional love he’s ever known. 








Author: "Ashley Fetters" Tags: "Entertainment"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 13:10

"I've fallen, and I can't get up," Mrs. Fletcher, an elderly woman alone in a blue smock, shouts from her bathroom floor. By some fortune, Fletcher is wearing a Life Call remote control device. Rattled but systematic, she presses a button that activates her speakerphone. A dispatcher responds, and she is able to yell to the phone in the room adjacent. She cannot go to it because, you’ll remember, Mrs. Fletcher cannot get up.

Life Call, 1987

"We're sending help immediately, Mrs. Fletcher," says the collected voice on the other end of the line. The owner of said voice, Gerald, is concerned but in control. He is in the sweet spot of his career; old enough to be authoritative and expert, but not so old as to be stereotyped as waning in competence. Despite being a phone dispatcher, Gerald wears a white uniform with a tie and an emblem on the shoulder, like a pilot. He wanted to be a pilot once, and that didn't happen. Sometimes things don’t happen the way you hoped they might.

Life Call, 1987

You may remember this scene from a famous 1987 commercial for the Life Call remote control emergency device. It was both a subject of parody and a point of widespread awareness for this type of safety-monitoring product.

In the next three decades, the number of Americans over 65-years-old will double. That's good news if you are the proprietor of any retirement homes, retirement villages, or retirement centers. But as many Americans opt to "age in place"—a popular term that might conjure the stagnation of a potted plant but is used in rebellion to the nursing-home-exile trope, describing continued independent living in one's own home—there will be an increasing need for affordable, large-scale systems to monitor for emergencies.

U.S. Bureau of the Census / U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The most common injury-related reason that elderly people are admitted to the hospital is that they fell over. It has been reported that almost one in one thousand of those falls results in death. Wearable devices and home-monitoring video cameras have become widely popular, but they have drawbacks in that they can be invasive or annoying. So an expert in radar imaging is on the case.

Dr. Moeness Amin is the director of the Center for Advanced Communications in the college of engineering at Villanova University. He was the lone academic representative at several NATO conferences on through-the-wall radar imaging. Amin’s research focuses on various applications for radar motion-detection technology, including search and rescue, military, and law enforcement such as robberies and hostage situations. Now it also includes using radar to identify when people fall in their homes.

For national defense and security, this technology is used when you are trying to find out whether there are people behind walls, inside enclosed structures, and to know how many are there. “We could detect a female versus male walking, a child versus a dog,” Amin tells me. “If somebody is shot, for example, the way he or she walks is different than a regular walk. This has been really of interest for the defense industry for many, many years.”

Radar monitoring in living spaces is appealing as an alternative to cameras, Amin says. “There’s a privacy issue if you put cameras in bedrooms or bathrooms. People don’t like that.”

Radar motion detection is also an alternative to wearable devices such as the Life Alert bracelet that, Amin says, people may forget or find uncomfortable. The device is meant to work through walls, just like spy equipment. If you put the unit anywhere in the house, it can detect that motion and classify it through different rooms. Though one living space could require multiple units, depending on the type of walls. For example, penetrating a bathroom wall of ceramic tiles could be challenging. If a person falls behind a metal file cabinet, they could be lost.

Spectrograms of typical motion patterns (Amin et al.)
Fall experiment setting

The radar device emits and receives frequencies that vary depending on the motion of a person’s body. At the most basic level, the radar will detect movement and classify the frequencies it receives in one of two ways: fall or no fall. That’s not always an easy distinction, though. Since a radar signal might look similar when a person is plopping down in a bed and when they are slowly falling forward as their walker slides out of reach, the challenge is in minimizing false alarms. “The last thing you want,” Amin says, “is to alert the first responder that somebody fell; they rush in, and the person is just sitting down drinking tea.”

The last, last thing you want is for the device to think a person is drinking tea when in fact they have sustained a serious fall. So the algorithm must be well trained to know the difference.

The system he is working on would learn an individual person’s ways of moving. He calls it a Doppler Frequency Signature. It’s what you look like on radar when you’re walking, sitting, standing, or falling. An algorithm would learn your habits and know how to differentiate a sit from a fall. For people who use walkers or canes, their patterns will look different from people who don’t, and the system can learn to recognize them. “I want to train the radar to say, this person is, let’s say paralyzed, so the way this person walks is different than the general population," Amin says. "So that when this person falls, the radar knows how this person falls, not how [just] anybody falls.”

“In the future, I think the radar is going to be like a companion, living with the person, learning about the habits of the person, the way he walks, the way he sits, the way he stands.”

Amin’s goal with the algorithm is to be able to offer something extremely reliable, “so that when we say there is a fall, then we are very sure it is a fall.” The proposed technique to process radar Doppler signatures for fall detection involves three parameters: extreme frequency magnitude, extreme frequency ratio, and length of the event. The algorithm looks something like this, but it goes on for 53 pages.

And a fall is not a fall. “There are drop falls—heart-attack falls where a person is standing and then boom. That is very dangerous. There are also tripping falls and the radar can actually distinguish between the two, because a tripping fall, the signature is very different. If it’s a person tripping, you will find the person trying to reach to a chair or a table to try to prevent the fall. It’s different from a heart-attack fall, which is boom. Drop.”

The system will not only detect and classify, but also localize the fall. It will say that the person fell in the living room. The radar can make a decision and route and alert to family member’s cell phone or LED display in someone else’s home. Also, when there are other people in the house, “the radar should detect that and switch off, because you don’t want to confuse the radar.”

Radar imaging of various movements (Amin et al.)

In developing the initial algorithm, Amin’s test subjects are not elderly people. They are mostly Villanova students. “A young man falling is different than an elderly man falling,” Amin says. So, we have a nurse practitioner who is coaching our students on how to walk and as though they were much older, so that the radar can be well trained.”

After the algorithm is complete, which Amin believes will be the end of this year, development will be a matter of finding a company that will put it on a platform. “That should not be difficult,” Amin says. “The only challenge I see is basically selling this technology, not in terms of whether it is good or bad or efficient, in terms of whether the person will be comfortable having a radar unit.”

“The psychology aspect of it, how the elderly will receive or accept that technology as an alternative to these wearable devices or cameras—that will be interesting.”








Author: "James Hamblin" Tags: "Health"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 12:32

On some fundamental level, all videogames are comical. Dark Souls II’s stats screen—overflowing with cryptic emblems and sly description—is comic in its excess. Call of Duty’s AI—shooting a thousand-yard stare into the middle distance until nudged in the right direction—is comic in its absurdity. Even at the simplest level, there’s something comic in the realization that the same button you push to slay a dragon in one game examines a bookshelf in another.

Peel away the narrative grandeur and graphical sheen, and the core language of videogames is unwittingly hilarious. Every idiosyncratic animation and pop-out number is a punchline waiting to be delivered, an in-joke for the cynical eye. It’s the reason why videos of glitches are so popular; why Soulja Boy could famously laugh at the po-faced Braid; or why any given “Let’s Play” is likely to lapse into an impromptu comedy routine. Viewed from the right angle, even a game as self-serious as The Last of Us can fall victim to our laughter.

This is in large part because videogames are artificial—not only insofar as the worlds they present are fictional, but that the workings of these worlds are wholly divorced from our own. Hell-beasts are felled by mathematical calculations, while progress is presented on sliding scales. The systems we interact with are fundamentally abstract, reliant on the player’s unfaltering suspension of disbelief—a willingness to accept a new reality—stats screens, button combos, and all. Whether through blind faith or Stockholm syndrome, it’s a reality that most of us are happy to accept.

Videogames like Jazzpunk, however, ask us to resist. They ask us to suspend our suspension of disbelief, and reconsider the nature of the worlds we immerse ourselves in. A comedy above all else, Jazzpunk derives its humor from the tacit acknowledgement that all games are artificial, and does everything it can to remind us of this fact.

Necrophone

In a surreal twist, opening a pizza box in Jazzpunk’s first area reveals it to be a games console, one that abruptly transports the player into a meta-fictive game-within-a-game; a comic, hack-n-slash world that owes equal debts to survival horror and Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Stuck within its confines, the player has no choice but to play along, held hostage within a game that is clearly a joke, but mechanically feels all-too familiar. For the player, it’s the first reminder that nothing in Jazzpunk is real, that the only thing separating normality from obscurity is a quick texture change.

If the language of videogames is comedic, Jazzpunk changes the phrasing to highlight it. The simple idea of a button press is complicated tenfold, the expected interaction of opening a pizza box, or talking to an NPC, is subverted again and again. Descriptive text becomes a physical construct used to manoeuvre around the environment. In-game computers play Jazzpunk. An NPC coldly states, “You are good at doing things.” This is a game gleefully aware of the medium’s artifice, one that bulldozes any pretence of reality and expects you to play in the rubble, laughing both with and at it.

Yet Jazzpunk never betrays its roots as a videogame: the “interact” button will always interact; the radical difference is what happens on the other side. The player’s conscious goal is to persist: to navigate through the game’s countless abstractions and adapt to a language in flux. They are encouraged to revel in the absurd, and even add to it; to explore and experiment, to probe at its edges. It’s right there in the title: jazz and punk, improvisation and anarchy, coming together.

This approach is not new. Over the last few years, more and more games have started using reflexive comedy to take stock of gaming’s idiosyncrasies. Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving, challenged by the idea that videogaming was veering towards cinematic spectacle, took the concept to its natural conclusion with a narrative full of disorienting—albeit decidedly “cinematic”—jump-cuts. Similarly, his earlier Gravity Bone poked at the idea of player-as-narrator, casting its player as someone who, as it turns out, is little more than a bit-part in a larger narrative—a narrative that they will never see unfold. These aren’t just games with punch lines, but games in which the idea of a game in itself is a punchline.

All of these games are part of a recent trend that is systematically disassembling and lampooning the systems we use to tell stories, placing them in figurative pizza boxes where their artifice is plain to see. The cult hit Space Funeral, for example, turns a comic eye towards turn-based role playing games, showing us a world that is coyly incompatible with the genre’s tropes. In it, “morality” is a status effect just as valid as “poison,” melancholy dances are offensive weapons, and combat is largely superfluous—rarely presenting a challenge, but instead proving little more than a mock hindrance. Space Funeral will be the first to tell you that none of it matters. It’s all artificial. Fake. Unreal.

It’s an ideology reflected in the game’s visuals: a gaudy mix of toxic greens, pinks and yellows, seemingly dredged from the darkest depths of MS Paint. It is—needless to say—knowingly incongruous with anything that has come before or since. Similar games adopt similar abstractions. It’s no surprise that Jazzpunk’s introduction should riff so heavily on the works of Saul Bass, doubly that its visual aesthetic during play should follow suit. Bass’ famous introductions to films like Anatomy of a Murderwere figurative representations of larger concepts, that Jazzpunk never truly steps out from under their shadow is telling. It never progresses into the “real,” but instead traps its player within a world that is consciously artificial.

As a result, the biggest surprise for the player is to discover that in spite of this artificiality, these are games like any other, firmly rooted within their larger traditions. Chung’s games, for example, although highly stylized and experimental, are rooted firmly within the first-person shooter genre, having been built in theQuake 2 engine and utilizing a similar control scheme. As conceptually abstract as his games may occasionally prove to be, the means of progression are the same as they are in any other first-person game; a linear challenge from point A to point B.

Similarly, for all of its anarchic posturing, Space Funeral’s greatest revelation is arguably that it is just a role-playing game like any other, albeit one dressed in the skin of a game wholly more subversive. The process of understanding it—as with JazzpunkGravity Bone, and Thirty Flights of Loving – is simply a case of adapting to its language. Here, gaming’s artificiality is consciously presented as a barrier to understanding.

Of course, with any self-referential work, there is always a danger of falling into the tedium of navel-gazing. Where the likes of Jazzpunk differ, however, is in their willingness to criticize and debase themselves as much as they do the wider tradition. They are closer to gonzo experiments in form than objective critiques. They don’t quite bring the medium to its knees, but instead give it vital context, asking us to consider videogaming as a whole from a critical perspective. Through laughter, we’re encouraged to see through the pomp of videogame design and inspect its underlying systems up close.

In many ways, it approximates a view of videogames from the outside—of the first-time player struggling to suspend their disbelief if just because the medium itself keeps getting in the way. In one of Space Funeral’s earlier sections, a token NPC tries to direct the player towards his brother’s store with an honest pitch: “It is full of WORTHLESS CRAP.” It’s a simple, but targeted stab at the nature of dialogue and exposition in games, one of many that question the extent to which videogame systems intrude on the telling of a good story.

By confronting their players with videogaming’s underlying artifice, these games knowingly remove their potential to convey a traditional narrative, and in doing so, better approximate an external perspective of videogaming. Free from the overbearing tropes of the medium, they ask their player how a traditional narrative should even be presented. Chung’s games question the necessity of cinematic experience and chosen-one narratives, while on a larger scale, Space Funeral and Jazzpunk do the same to our methods of interaction and the way we tell stories.

By sinking into abstract excess, these games simultaneously offer a compelling argument for and against videogaming’s methods of representation. Videogames, as they stand, are fundamentally funny, and while they remain that way, the likes of Jazzpunk are here to take advantage of it.








Author: "Chay Close" Tags: "Entertainment"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 12:18

This is the future if nothing is done to stop it.

In a secret test of mass surveillance technology, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department sent a civilian aircraft* over Compton, California, capturing high-resolution video of everything that happened inside that 10-square-mile municipality.

Compton residents weren't told about the spying, which happened in 2012. "We literally watched all of Compton during the times that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people," Ross McNutt of Persistence Surveillance Systems told the Center for Investigative Reporting, which unearthed and did the first reporting on this important story. The technology he's trying to sell to police departments all over America can stay aloft for up to six hours. Like Google Earth, it enables police to zoom in on certain areas. And like TiVo, it permits them to rewind, so that they can look back and see what happened anywhere they weren't watching in real time. 

If it's adopted, Americans can be policed like Iraqis and Afghanis under occupation–and at bargain prices:

McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.

“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”

A sargeant in the L.A. County Sheriff's office compared the technology to Big Brother, which didn't stop him from deploying it over a string of necklace snatchings.

Sgt. Douglas Iketani acknowledges that his agency hid the experiment to avoid public opposition. "This system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,"he said. "A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so to mitigate those kinds of complaints we basically kept it pretty hush hush." That attitude ought to get a public employee summarily terminated. 

He also gave this incredible quote:

"Our first initial thought was, oh, Big Brother, we're going to have a camera flying over us. But with the wide area surveillance you would have the ability to solve a lot of the unsolvable crimes with no witnesses, no videotape surveillance, no fingerprints."

Notice that he didn't conclude that the "wide area surveillance" wouldn't be like Big Brother after all, just that Big Brother capabilities would help to solve more crimes. 

So why not try them out?

He later explains that while the public may think its against this, we'll get used to it:

I'm sure that once people find out this experiment went on they might be a little upset. But knowing that we can't see into their bedroom windows, we can't see into their pools, we can't see into their showers. You know, I'm sure they'll be okay with it. With the amount of technology out in today's age, with cameras in ATMs, at every 7/11, at every supermarket, pretty much every light poll, all the license plate cameras, the red light cameras, people have just gotten used to being watched. 

The CIR story reports that no police department has yet purchased this technology, not because the law enforcement community is unwilling to conduct mass surveillance of their fellow citizens without first gaining the public's consent, but because the cameras aren't yet good enough to identify the faces of individuals. It's hard to imagine that next technological barrier won't be broken soon.

I'd be against mass surveillance of innocents in any case. 

But it's especially galling to see law enforcement professionals betray the spirit of democracy by foisting these tools on what they know to be a reluctant public because they deem it to be prudent based on a perspective that is obviously biased.

Many Americans elect their own sheriffs. This is the future if nothing is done to stop them.

*An earlier version of this article erroneously called the aircraft a drone.








Author: "Conor Friedersdorf" Tags: "National"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 11:00

On Friday, an avalanche occurred off the West Shoulder of Mount Everest, knocking between 20 and 25 people down as it swept through an area between the infamous Khumbu Icefall and Camp I, at an altitude of about 19,500 feet. It was the single most devastating Everest accident ever, killing 16 climbers and making April 18, 2014, the deadliest day in the mountain's history.

The avalanche also made the entire 2014 climbing season on Everest as the deadliest ever, since the mountain's annual death toll has, until now, never exceeded 15. It was big news when 10 people died on the mountain, in various incidents and of various causes, in 2012, and the deadliest year before that was 1996, when 8 people died near the summit during a storm in May and 7 more were killed at other times. Into Thin AirJon Krakauer's retelling of that storm in 1996, has long informed popular conceptions of mountaineering disasters. But what happened last week was quite different.

The avalanche victims were not on their way to the summit; at this point in the spring, hardly anyone is venturing higher than Camp II, or 21,000 feet, on the 29,000-foot peak. Most climbers will head for the summit in mid-May. 

These charts, from Richard Salisbury and Elizabeth Hawley's "The Himalaya by the Numbers," show that most successful Everest climbers bag the summit between May 16th and May 24th. (Himalayan Database)

The 2014 climbing season, in fact, has only just begun. And while you might expect the push for the summit to be the most dangerous part of an Everest expedition, that's not necessarily the case. The most dangerous steps on Everest are taken between 18,000 and 21,000 feet, and they're steps that many Western climbers are actually able to avoid—thanks to the Nepalese Sherpas they hire to help install fixed ropes, carry gear, and break tracks on the route to the top. Those who perished in last week's avalanche were all at work ferrying loads of gear between Base Camp and Camp II. They were all Sherpas. 

It's a stark reminder that there are two classes of Himalayan mountaineers—those who pay to climb, and those who get paid to support them. The people spending money, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars each, are foreign adventure enthusiasts. The people earning money, typically several thousand dollars each (or more for head Sherpas), are natives of Nepal for whom Everest expeditions provide lucrative livelihoods to support extended families.  

Throughout the Himalayas, avalanches are the leading cause of death for Sherpas. The chart below, assembled from numbers collected by the Himalayan Database, shows that both Sherpas ("hired") and their customers/bosses (expedition "members"—a telling word choice, implying that Sherpas, though essential embeds in climbing groups, are set apart from the rest of the team) are more likely to die from falls or avalanches than other circumstances. 

The Himalayan Database counts 608 "member" deaths and 224 "hired" deaths on mountains in Nepal, including Everest, between 1950 and 2009. Almost 50 percent of hired deaths were due to avalanches, while nearly 40 percent of member deaths were attributed to falls. 

These patterns have a lot to do with who does what, and where, on mountains like Everest. Sherpas spend much of their time establishing and supplying camps in avalanche-prone zones. Paying expedition members move through those zones as quickly and efficiently as possible to save their energy for summit bids, where the risk of avalanches is lower but the air is thin and falls are more likely to occur. The graph below, again from the Himalayan Database researchers, shows deaths by altitude.

This survey of deaths across all 8,000-meter peaks—including Everest, Annapurna, K2, and 11 other high-profile mountains—shows that the risk of a fatal fall is much greater at higher altitudes. 

The data speaks to the most illuminating lesson of the recent tragedy on Everest—how the (growing) divide between Sherpas and the Western climbers they work for affects each group's mortality on the mountain.

In 2008, a study in the British Medical Journal examined this dynamic, tracking Everest death patterns between 1921 and 2006. The chart below is based on deaths between April and June from 1982 to 2006. 

BMJ 2008;337:a2654 

Most commercial expeditions approach Everest's summit from the Nepalese side, relying heavily on Sherpas to set up camps and transport gear below the South Col. The summit has become the most dangerous place for expedition members—notice how many of them are killed on their way down from the summit to the South Col, and how great the risk of falling is up there. But, arguably, these patterns exist because expeditions members are largely shielded from the mountain's other dangers—the Khumbu Icefall before "Ice Doctors" (Sherpas) have established safe routes through it with ladders and ropes; the exhaustion of carrying equipment between Base Camp, the Icefall, and higher camps; the repeated, precarious steps over crevasses and under ice shelves during multiple gear shuttles between camps. The Sherpas bear the brunt of these risks. 

There has always been a divide between Sherpas and Western summit-seekers, but these tensions have increased in recent years as Everest has become more accessible to unskilled-but-well-heeled climbers. The world's tallest mountain has become much safer for the average Joe than ever before. For the people who live in its shadow, though, and must return to it again and again to earn a living, the risks haven't declined in the same way.  

What are the ethical implications of this divide? Grayson Schaffer at Outside magazine explored this question a year ago in "The Disposable Man," an in-depth look at Sherpa deaths on Everest. On Friday, in a post for Outside, he revisited that question and concluded that the climbing business today "clearly values life on a two-tiered basis: Westerners at the top; Sherpas on the bottom." He continued: 

If, say, 1 percent of American college-aged raft guides or ski instructors were dying on the job—the mortality rate of Everest Sherpas—the guiding industry would vanish. But Himalayan climbing is understood to be extremely dangerous, and people who play the game still cling to its romantic roots in exploration rather than its current status as recreational tourism.

Outside also crunched numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Himalayan Database to generate a comparison of fatality rates for Sherpas and other people who work in harsh environments. Being a Sherpa on Everest these days is far more dangerous than, say, being a soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

OutsideOnline.com

Western expedition leaders are acutely aware of this sobering reality, and many have established funds for the families of fallen Sherpas. It's difficult, though, to assuage the guilt of leaving the mountain with fewer people than you brought there. Melissa Arnot, the Eddie Bauer-sponsored American mountaineer who has summitted Everest five times, had a Sherpa die on an expedition of hers in 2010. Reflecting on this in 2013, she told Schaffer: “My passion created an industry that fosters people dying. It supports humans as disposable, as usable, and that is the hardest thing to come to terms with.”








Author: "Svati Kirsten Narula" Tags: "International"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 02:42

It has been a full and interesting day in the air, from Maryland to Mississippi, and a longer day than expected for a surprisingly touching reason. 

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By chance, en route from KGAI, Montgomery Country Airpark outside Washington, to KUBS, the Lowndes County airport in Columbus, Mississippi, we ended up stopping for gas and a break in a place we hadn't expected. It wasn't the site I'd had in mind in Tennessee (because that would have meant going over the mountains near Asheville while the winds turned out to be stronger than I would have liked for crossing mountains). Nor the one I was thinking of in South Carolina (because the post-storm winds in the area were gustier, and not aligned with the runway, than would be convenient). Nor some other place in Alabama -- but, at the last minute, KTOC, the Toccoa / Stephens County Airport in northern Georgia. At the top of the item you see the way its main runway looked as we decided to head in there.

After we landed, I taxied over to the fuel pump and gassed up the airplane, while Deb went into the FBO office to say hello. A minute later she came back out. "Timing is everything," she said, for the millionth time over the years. On entering what is usually a spartan, utilitarian area for checking weather, filing flight plans, and buy snacks out of vending machines, she was immediately charmed by the aroma of roasted ham, candied yams, creamed green beans and broccoli, and other delicacies that recalled her Midwestern childhood. (Below, a counter in one of the pilot rooms at the Toccoa FBO. You would usually expect to see surfaces covered with flight charts, headsets, and so on.)

You may not be able to see how good this ham and 
accompaniments were, but they were great. Even more 
so for the surprise value.

It was an extended-family potluck Easter banquet right at the FBO, and the families putting it on said: Please join us! And so we (gratefully) did, as part of a multi-generational, multi-family celebration at a little airfield in the middle of the Georgia hills. This was all the more appealing because our presumed alternative had been beef jerky inside the plane.

These people had never seen us before but made us part of the extended family celebration for the afternoon. We heard about why people liked (or didn't) Toccoa, why some people moved away, why others wanted to move there -- and why its famous falls have a vertical drop higher even than Niagara's. Here is where we sat while enjoying ham and everything else.

"We feel very lucky to have ended up here just now," I told the airport manager as we were heading out, toward Mississippi. "Or you could say you were blessed," he said. "You'll remember us, either way!"

We will.

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Author: "James Fallows" Tags: "National"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 02:00

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.


Orr: Another week, another extremely satisfying Game of Thrones episode. “Breaker of Chains” was written by showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, and was directed, like last week’s episode, by Alex Graves. So it’s perhaps fitting that the action picks up directly where it left off, with Cersei cradling her dead son Joffrey and screaming at her brother Tyrion, in grief and rage, “You did this! You did this!”

From that point, the episode follows a simple yet elegant structure, with less jumping back and forth between storylines than we often see. First, the episode offers its (moderately) Big Reveal of Littlefinger as the principal plotter behind the show’s latest nuptial assassination. Next, we eavesdrop on a few family discussions scattered across King’s Landing—between Margaery and Lady Olenna, Tywin and Tommen, and Jaime and Cersei (who, yes, do considerably more than “discuss”). Then we head northward for another installment of On the Road with Arya and the Hound, followed by scenes at the Wall and Dragonstone. We return to the capital for exchanges between Tywin and Oberyn and then Tyrion and Pod. And, finally, the episode concludes with two sets of invaders: the wildlings approaching Castle Black and Daenerys’s army outside the gates of Meereen.

Not a great deal of consequence happens this week, but that seems appropriate in the immediate aftermath of the Purple Wedding. Just as the final episodes of seasons one through three were largely about rearranging the game board following penultimate episodes that upended it (Ned’s beheading, the reversal on the Blackwater, the Red Wedding), so too this installment needed to reckon with the ripples of another king’s death.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that, scene by scene, the whole episode crackles in conversation, thanks to sharp writing by Benioff and Weiss. I loved the Tyrell tete-a-tete in which the Margaery laments her streak of murdered husbands—“I must be cursed”—only to have her grandmother correct her: “Nonsense. Your circumstances have improved markedly.” Tywin’s lecture on kingship to Tommen likewise offers just the right balance between genuine wisdom, self-serving advice, and Tywinesque scorn for his progeny. (“Your brother was not a good king. If he had been, he might still be alive.”)

A few other favorite bits of dialogue:

Arya: “You’re the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms.”
The Hound: “There’s plenty worse than me.”

Ser Davos: “If you’re a famous smuggler, you’re not doing it right.”

Tyrion: “[Cersei] is the only one I’m absolutely sure had nothing to do with this murder, which makes it unique as King’s Landing murders go.”

Things are at last getting interesting at the Wall—the scene in which Ygritte and the other wildlings massacre a Northern village certainly raises the stakes—and there are signs of imminent movement at Dragonstone. Daenerys has one of her occasional regal speeches. (The catapulted slave collars were a nice kicker.) And if we must have sexposition—and it appears we must—I’d just as soon it be narrated by the terrific Oberyn Martell and Elaria Sand. Finally, I quite liked the scene with Tyrion and Podrick, which offers the latter a nice moment of recognition on his way out the door. (I was reminded of the touchingly awkward wolf-loaf that Hot Pie baked for Arya before she moved on without him last season.)

But I feel I have to find something to complain about, and given the absence this episode of my usual hobbyhorses, Ramsay and Shae, I offer the following quibbles:

1) What’s with Littlefinger’s over-the-top stage whisper as he talks to Sansa on the boat off King’s Landing? For a minute, I thought I was listening to Christian Bale’s Batman.

2) I know you, Amy, are fond of Daario Naharis 2.0. But I find him lame beyond words. The duel with the champion of Meereen would have been so much more striking had Benioff and Weiss kept last season’s Surfer Daario: He was more physically formidable, more swaggering, more “exotic,” and way less like some guy you’d find singing “A Horse with No Name” on open-mic night. Instead, when this season’s version (played by Treme and Nashville vet Michiel Huisman) began his little speech on why Daenerys should choose him to represent her, I envisioned it continuing:

I was the last to join your army. I’m not your general or a member of your Queen’s Guard or the commander of your Unsullied. Hell, I’m played by some new guy in a generic beard who bears no resemblance to the character in the novels or even the guy who played that character last season. The showrunners have done everything but hang a sign around my neck that says “expendable.” Why not risk my life? Even if I survive, they’ll probably recast the role again next season.

But apart from Raspy Petyr Baelish and Boring Daario Naharis, I thought this episode hit pretty much every one of its marks. And what makes this accomplishment all the more impressive—and promising—is that so much of the material is original. This last week I took a toe-dip back into A Storm of Swords, the George R. R. Martin novel from which this season is primarily adapted. And I was surprised to see that most of the scenes in this episode don’t appear in the book at all but rather are additions and variations supplied by Benioff and Weiss.

Don’t get me wrong: In contrast to some past infidelities—the replacement of one boring Qarth storyline with another, equally boring Qarth storyline; the total mucking up of the Ramsay character—the tweaks and tinkers on display this episode all adhere to the general plot arc of the Martin novels. But because those novels are told in point-of-view chapters by a limited number of characters, scenes that do not involve at least one POV character can only be relayed secondhand. Neither Margaery nor Olenna are POV characters, for example, so their scene this episode couldn’t have taken place in Martin’s framework. Ditto Tywin and Oberyn. Indeed, one of the ways Benioff and Weiss have often managed to improve on the books is by erasing the distinction between the major (that is, POV) characters and the minor ones. Most of the characters who are better onscreen than they were on the page (Tywin, Margaery, Bronn, Ygritte, Oberyn, Olenna, the Hound, etc.) are beneficiaries of this more democratic storytelling style.

An episode this good that draws mostly on the imaginations of Benioff and Weiss would be good news under any circumstances. But it’s particularly good news given where the series may be headed after this season. As readers of the books know (and many non-readers have heard), in the fourth and especially fifth novels, Martin begins spiraling farther and farther outwards, introducing an ever-multiplying array of characters, storylines, and venues. (Braavos! Pentos! Dorne! Oldtown!) The longstanding question has been how Benioff and Weiss might be able to save this material from itself, and I think this episode offers the hints of an answer.

Specifically, it suggests that rather than continually broaden the story (as Martin does), the showrunners can instead deepen it, staging delectable scenes that are only implicit in the books, giving minor characters their due (I’m again reminded of Pod’s magnanimous sendoff), and generally enriching Martin’s central plots while hopefully excising some of the secondary ones. Can Benioff and Weiss pull this off? Only the Lord of Light knows. But three episodes into season four I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been.

In any case, I’m getting ahead of myself. Setting the future aside, what did you guys think of “Breaker of Chains”?


Kornhaber: I enjoyed the episode, though I’ll confess that fact has me concerned for my soul and yours. This week, Game of Thrones followed its latest grotesque character death with even more horrors. A shadowy pimp callously cross-bolted a loyal knight; Wildlings slaughtered an innocent hamlet and promised the sole surviving child they’d eat his dead parents; brother raped sister at the their son’s coffinside.

Garden-variety concessions to what True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto referred to as cable television’s “mandate” for explicitness? Maybe. Helpful visual accompaniment to Olenna’s aphorism that “the world is full of horrible things, but they're all a tray of cakes next to death?” Of course.

But I think there’s something else going on, too. A lot of observers last week complained that Joffrey’s death underwhelmed; sure, there was gagging and vomiting and bulging eyeballs, but, as Amy wrote, Joffrey’s long career of terribleness would seem to warrant a long and more-terrible death. Even showrunner Weiss referred to the poisoning as “anti-climatic,” going on to say that “the standard move would be to give you a sense of release, a sense of happiness … the idea somehow the moral calculus of the world has been made right.”

Yet as Jon Snow said by way of explanation for why the mutineer crows must die, “It’s not about justice.” Indeed, whoever killed Joffrey was almost certainly unconcerned with righting the “moral calculus of the world”—they likely did it because it’d put them ahead in the game of thrones. The reveal of Littlefinger as apparent Purple Wedding maestro only underscores that fact. This is the guy whose power lust creeps even Varys out, who laid down the show’s “chaos is a ladder” ethos, whose idea of comfort for Sansa is to offer a Machiavellian fortune cookie: “Gold buys a man's silence for a time. A bolt in the heart buys it forever.”

By this point, we should all recognize that Thrones is a study in the harsh virtues of realpolitik. But the yin-yang shocks of the Red Wedding and the Purple Wedding had kicked back up suspicions that good and evil, right and wrong, and crime and punishment, might be relevant concepts in Westeros. Tonight’s hour filleted those suspicions. When the Hound responds to accusations of amoral shittiness, he’s addressing the audience as much as he’s addressing Arya: “I just understand the way things are. How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure it out?”

Importantly, though, the show is doing more than reiterating the “you win or you die” philosophy. It’s demonstrating that that philosophy is ascendant, and that it’s turning Westeros into a hellscape. Introducing the Thenn raid from the point of view of the workaday villagers was the kind of cinematic trick I don’t recall Thrones pulling before; the effect was to remind us that even likable badasses like Ygritte are cool with murdering innocents. The guy with the stew-making daughter is, as Sandor says, a good man who’s not fit to survive his times; over dinner, we hear him testify to just how dangerous things have become for commonfolk since the War of the Five Kings.

All of which makes me ambivalent about Daenerys’s messiah march through Essos. This week, once again, we saw her score another win by relying on the unmatched talents of her hunky groupies and the straightforward appeal of her slavery=bad preaching. Lofty, ethical beliefs and a personal desire for revenge seem to motivate her quest, but it’s unsettling that she, in defiance of everything we viewers have learned, acts like amassing power doesn’t have to be a dirty game. I wonder, and actually hope, that there comes a point where she has to choose between being a conquering Khaleesi and a righteous human being.

As for the most important issue facing the show—Daario Naharis’s appearance—I have thoughts. Amy’s right that the new Daario is handsomer, but Chris is right that the old one was more memorable—and that’s because actor Ed Skrein stood out from the rest of the cast with his '90s Matthew McConaughey clean-shaven stoner vibe. Now that we’re in the era of Rust Cohle, my theory is that Skrein’s previous-commitment excuse was BS, and the show really recast him to so that the Mother of Dragons’ love interest would fit in with our scruffy, Brooklyn-dominated zeitgeist. All the better to stoke Daarionys shippers on Tumblr! But: Researchers in Australia this week announced that culturally, we may have hit “peak beard,” meaning that the attractiveness advantage bros gain from facial hair can only decline from here on.  Baby faces may be cool again soon—so perhaps the show’s big twist next season will be Skrein’s return.  Is that in the books?

This hot-or-not talk reminds me we’ve yet to tackle the sexual dynamics of this episode. I’m going to find it easier to root for Oberyn as someone who maintains alpha-male status while openly embracing his midrange Kinsey score—especially when it has the added, hilarious effect of denying Tywin a clean bed to sit on. Meanwhile, I’m going to find it a lot harder to root for Jaime after he sexually assaulted Cersei in the most ghastly circumstances imaginable. Amy, as a noted Kingslayer fan, what did you make of that scene? This can only lead to Joffrey’s rebirth as a demon baby, right?


Sullivan: Um, yeah. Was it just last week I was singing Jaime’s praises and declaring him rehabilitated as a wholly sympathetic figure? It’s been a while since I read the books. Clearly I forgot that Westeros’ favorite lovers from the same mother can always make their relationship even more twisted. Although, I’m not sure even they can top incestuous coffin-side rape. And if they can, I really don’t want to see it.

I’m sorry to hear you’re both still unmoved by the charms of Michiel Huisman. You’ll want to avoid the new season of Orphan Black. (I know! It’s as if someone said, “Cast that man in all of Amy Sullivan’s favorite shows!”) I honestly don’t see how Surfer Daario would have improved the duel at all—I thought it was pretty badass, the better for not being a typical mano-a-mano tussle but instead letting Daario end it before it ever really began. 

Agree to disagree. Littlefinger, on the other hand, was indeed distracting—and not just because of his creepy, raspy delivery. Has Aidan Gillen’s Irish accent ever been this strong on the show before? Maybe when Littlefinger gets out of King’s Landing, he doesn’t feel the need to keep up the manor-born act. Whatever the case, it’s hard to feel relieved for poor Sansa, who has finally escaped the control of Cersei and Joffrey. She couldn’t have stayed in King’s Landing, we know that. But she has no idea where she’s headed. And her rescuer is a creep who was slightly obsessed with her mother and taunts Sansa about her naiveté. Sleep with one eye open, girl.

Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, everyone but Cersei seems to be moving with lightning speed past the death of Joffrey. Not that anyone could blame Margaery for failing to mourn her dead husband-for-a-few-hours, but maybe she could hold off for a few days on the “So, am I the queen?” questions. Even Lady Olenna corrects her etiquette: “This would not be an opportune time to press the issue.”

Olenna’s rival for power, Lord Tywin, takes the opposite approach: This is precisely the time to bring young, passive Tommen under his control and consolidate power once again. Cersei is appalled that her father chooses to do this in the temple, over Joffrey’s corpse—in her reactions during this scene, you can see her horror both at her father’s calculating coldness and his blithe disparagement of Joffrey: “Your brother was not a wise king. Your brother was not a good king. If he had been, perhaps he’d still be alive.” Charles Dance is a treasure, and that line reading alone made the episode for me.

Even Tommen doesn’t seem too put off by big brother’s untimely death—one gets the sense that Joffrey wasn’t exactly the chummiest sibling. When Jaime moves to comfort him, Tommen is all, totally fine, dude.

Overall, I enjoyed the episode—although to nitpick, Chris, that Oberyn and Ellaria scene was not sexposition but just good old gratuitous sex—and it made me optimistic about both where this season and the whole series is going. The middle books do tend to get bogged down, as Martin has to send his characters off to the corners of the Seven Kingdoms so that he can gather them back by the end of the series. (There might even be an entire book or so that could be whittled down to, say, an episode…) If the showrunners can continue to pare down some of the less compelling storylines while deepening plots for some of the better characters, we’re in for some good television and some excellent storytelling.

Spring has come to Washington, but winter is coming, guys. This might be a good time to work on your crossbow skills if you’re rusty. You don’t want to be caught unaware by a pack of marauding Thenns when you’re cooking potatoes. 








Author: "Spencer Kornhaber" Tags: "Entertainment"
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