Where in the world do people smoke the most dope? According to the United Nations' World Drug Report 2012 released today, it's the Pacific island of Palau. As reported in The Economist, "Nearly a quarter of people aged 15 to 64 (in Palau) smoked pot in the past year. Italians and Americans also like to get high, with rates of 14.6% and 14.1% respectively."
Aditya Chakrabortty writes in The Guardian about the Shard, a titanic building that already towers above London, and explains how it is a microcosm for everything that's wrong with the world today:
So one of London's most identifiable buildings will have almost nothing to do with the city itself. Even the office space rented out at the bottom is intended for hedge funds and financiers wanting more elbow room than they can afford in the City or Mayfair. The only working-class Londoners will presumably bus in at night from the outskirts to clean the bins. Otherwise, to all intents and purposes, this will be the Tower of the 1%.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Shard is that it simply exemplifies a number of trends. First, it merely confirms how far the core of London is becoming, in industrial terms, a one-horse town. Finance, which began in the Square Mile, has now spread to Docklands to the east, to Mayfair in the west and now to the South Bank.
Second, it proves that buildings are no longer merely premises owned by businesses, but are now chips for investment. What's more those chips are increasingly owned by people who barely ever set foot in the country. A study from Cambridge University last year, Who Owns the City?, found that 52% of the City's offices are now in the hands of foreign investors – up from just 8% in 1980. What's more, foreigners are piling into London property at an ever-increasing rate, as they look for relatively safe havens from the global financial turmoil. And yet, as the Cambridge team point out, the giddy combination of overseas cash and heavy borrowing leaves London in a very precarious position. Another credit crunch, or a meltdown elsewhere in the world, would now almost certainly have big knock-on effects in the capital.
Bruce Sterling gave a speech at the North American Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information (NASSLLI) on the eve of the Alan Turing Centenary, and delivered a provocative, witty and important talk on the Turing Test, gender and machine intelligence, Turing's life and death, and art criticism.
If you study his biography, the emotional vacuum in the guy’s life was quite frightening. His parents are absent on another continent, he’s in boarding schools, in academia, in the intelligence services, in the closet of the mid-20th-century gay life. Although Turing was a bright, physically strong guy capable of tremendous hard work, he never got much credit for his efforts during his lifetime.
How strange was Alan Turing? Was Alan Turing a weird, scary guy? Let’s try a thought experiment, because I’m a science fiction writer and we’re into those counterfactual approaches.
So let’s just suppose that Alan Turing is just the same personally: he’s a mathematician, an early computer scientist, a metaphysician, a war hero — but he’s German. He’s not British. Instead of being the Bletchley Park code breaker, he’s the German code maker. He’s Alan Turingstein, and he realizes the Enigma Machine has a flaw. So, he imagines, designs and builds a digital communication code system for the Nazis. He defeats the British code breakers. In fact, he’s so brilliant that he breaks some of the British codes instead. Therefore, the second World War lasts until the Americans drop their nuclear bomb on Europe.
I think you’ll agree this counter-history is plausible, because so many of Turing’s science problems were German — the famous “ending problem” of computability was German. The Goedel incompleteness theorem was German, or at least Austrian. The world’s first functional Turing-complete computer, the Konrad Zuse Z3, was operational in May 1941 and was supported by the Nazi government.
So then imagine Alan Turingstein, mathematics genius, computer pioneer, and Nazi code expert. After the war, he messes around in the German electronics industry in some inconclusive way, and then he commits suicide in some obscure morals scandal. What would we think of Alan Turingstein today, on his centenary? I doubt we’d be celebrating him, and secretly telling ourselves that we’re just like him.
Writer Christine Baumgarthuber has a really interesting article in the June issue of Dissent magazine about what working-class Victorians ate, and how their diets (and health) changed with the introduction of relative convenience foods, cheaper sugar, and margarine.
I don't know the cultural history of food—or the medical history of changes in public health—well enough to know whether Baumgarthuber's piece represents a full, nuanced perspective. (Dissent is a well-written and frequently interesting magazine, but it can't really be called an unbiased source.) But I did want to share a short bit from that article about the invention of margarine, which is absolutely fascinating:
Sometime in the 1860s the enterprising French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made an important discovery. He took a pound of beef tallow soaked beforehand in a solution of 15 percent common salt and 1 percent sulfate of soda, slowly rendered it at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, poured in gastric juices of a pig, and sprinkled it with biphosphate of lime. This curdled mixture he spun in a centrifuge before adding a splash of cream. The resulting opalescent, jelly-like substance tasted much like butter.
This substance not only won Mège-Mouriès a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who desperately sought a cheap, long-lasting, and easy-to-produce substitute for butter to feed the poor and his antsy army; it also secured him a place in history as the father of oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. Two years later he sold the patent. Not long after a German pharmacist, who adapted the Frenchman’s formula, commenced its industrial production by establishing the Benedict Klein Margarinewerke.
I grew up eating mostly margarine, rather than butter. In my memory, that's what all of my friends at as well. In fact, I distinctly remember reading Matilda for the first time in grade school and being confused by the book's portrayal of eating margarine as a sign that someone was truly poor. From my perspective back then, butter was a hard, un-spreadable, depressing thing that you only bought when you couldn't afford a tub of Country Crock.
That personal memory made the article really interesting for me, as it traces the history of why margarine was food-for-the-poor. It also adds some background to that Matilda memory by quoting some contemporary public moralizing from the UK about poor people and their dietary choices. Since growing up, I've been able to put my childhood confusion into context in a number of ways, but this is the first time I've read some real background on the history of margarine in a cultural context. Really neat!
Sean Hathaway stuck 80 Teddy Ruxpins on a gallery wall and hooked them up to a sentiment-analysis engine fed by a social media scraper. Snippets of emotional, throwaway text are turned into synthetic ruxpin-utterances, accompanied by emotional music:
TED is a large, wall-based installation consisting of an array of 80 Teddy Ruxpin dolls that speak emotional content gathered from the web via synthetic speech with animated mouths. The speaking of the emotional content is accompanied by one of twenty-four musical vignettes that have been paired to the emotional content being spoken. Each vignette, representing one of twenty-four subtle variants of human emotion, have been composed in such a way that the beginnings and ends of the short pieces will seamlessly dogleg in any possible configuration and stream endlessly as a unified whole. The installation is allowed to drift about freely through the emotional landscape being driven only by those who are contributing content to the piece whether unwittingly or consciously. As such the overall presentation of the piece can vary greatly based on external conditions such as seasons, world events and even time of day. The piece is essentially taking the instantaneous emotional pulse of the internet and this collective pulse, like a human pulse, varies over time.
My friend Nicole Tindall turned me on to the fantastic 8tracks.com mixes of SpaceBunnySounds. After-Hour Space Lair Groovin' offers rare groove and sci-fi instrumentals from Klaud Doldinger, Aaron Neville, and Don Gere. The opener is Gere's blazing main theme for Werewolves On Wheels, a 1971 film whose soundtrack was recently reissued by the tireless crate diggers at Finders Keepers. Following the Space Groovin', I moved on to SpaceBunnySounds' more challenging Satan Is Your Gentleman Caller with noisy experimental cuts by the likes of Big Black, Swans, Sonic Youth, and Butthole Surfers. And those are only two of this music fiend's 143 mixes. 8tracks: SpaceBunnySounds
Banana slugs are hermaphrodites. Every slug has both a penis (which pops out of a pore on its head, like you do) and a vagina. Or, rather, every slug should have a penis. The truth is that quite a few of them don't and the story behind that discrepancy is rather strange and horrifying. Since there's little I love more than strange and horrifying stories from nature, you get to hear all about it.
At The Last Word On Nothing, Cassandra Willyard tells the story of a nearly 100-year-old effort by scientists to understand why some banana slugs appear to be missing their penises, or have penises that are stunted. We have known since 1916 how those penises came to be missing. Willyard describes the situation, which you can also watch in action in the video above:
Banana slugs begin their mating with a few vicious love nips. Then the animals curl around each other, forming a bright yellow yin-yang symbol. Next, they insert their penises. (Remember, they both have one.) In some cases, one slug provides sperm and the other slug receives it. More often, the slugs swap sperm. Copulation can last many hours. Then, in most cases, the slugs withdraw and part ways.
Heath caught a couple of slugs in the act. He noted the biting and the insertion. And then Heath observed something puzzling. As the slugs were withdrawing their penises, “one of the animals turned its head and commenced to gnaw upon the walls of the organ,” Heath wrote. The biting was “unusually vigorous,” he added, “and within a very few minutes the penis was entirely severed.”
The confusing part is why the hell they do this to each other.
Willyard says the best idea so far is that the penis eating represents a sort of sperm competition—a way of ensuring that the slug you just mated with isn't going to get a shot at mating with anybody else. But that's really just an educated guess.
What I like best about this story (besides the shock and awe) is that it handily illustrates one of the difficulties inherent in scientific research. In many cases, it's quite easy to answer the question, "What happens?" A century ago, scientists could easily observe and document the penis-eating behavior. All it took was somebody with sufficient interest in the question that they were willing to spend time watching many, many examples of slug sex.
Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) has finished her first album of new material since 2006’s The Greatest. It’s called SUN and it’s out on September 4. Chan played every bit of music on the record, and it comes on the heels of what sounds like a brutal breakup with Giovanni Ribisi. We'll have to wait and see how much of that pain ends up on display in the rest of the songs. The first single is called "Ruin" and you can grab it below. It's perky by Cat Power standards, with a nifty keyboard bit that complements Chan’s haunting voice. Her signature fierceness is there, and the song rocks. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the record.
I love these images of diseased cells that are currently for sale on Etsy. The photos appear to be prints made from slides taken at Duke University in the 1970s. You can pick up a set of six 8x10s for $24 or four 8x10s for $16.
Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld's sculptures in a Berlin park were meant to promote world peace, but the 79-year-old German now finds himself at war with a Venezuelan tribe which accuses him of stealing a sacred pink stone known to them as "Grandmother".
The Venezuelan government is championing the Pemon Indians of the "Gran Sabana" region by demanding the return of the polished stone from Berlin's Tiergarten park - putting the German government in something of a dilemma.
With Caracas calling it robbery, and the sculptor arguing that the stone was a legal gift, the monolith is emitting more negative energy than its esoteric fans in Berlin are used to.
Blissfully unaware of the diplomatic tug-of-war, Robert, a Berlin gardener, got off his bicycle to light joss sticks among the stones from five continents that form the "Global Stone Project", awaiting friends for an afternoon shamanic ritual.
The Life's Little Mysteries blog is in the midst of a string of posts that are, basically, like Marvel Comics "What If?" series as applied to the scientific history of Earth.
For example: What if humans had evolved to include more than two sexes, or to need three or more sex cells in order to procreate? What if Pangea (everybody's favorite supercontinent) had never split into chunks? What if Earth had never been in a massive collision with another, huge space object—meaning, what if the Moon didn't exist?
Now, if you've read very many of the comics you know that the answer to "What If?" is almost always "everybody dies". This series of posts is a bit less fatalistic. But, still, the point is made—these changes would radically alter life as we know it, and not necessarily in ways that sound like a lot of fun.
Take that question about the Moon. The implications of a Moon-less Earth are farther-reaching than you might guess:
Huge tides generated by the moon – which orbited much closer to Earth when it formed – washed the chemical building blocks for life from land into the oceans and helped "stir up the primordial soup," said Neil Comins, a professor of physics at the University of Maine.
The moon's gravity has helped slow Earth's rotation from an initial six-hour day to our current 24-hour day, while also stabilizing the tilt of our planet's axis, and thereby moderating the seasons. Life forms on a moonless Earth would therefore have different patterns of activity per the short days and nights, Comins told Life's Little Mysteries. These creatures might need to migrate more frequently to cope with extreme climate swings as well.
Thatcher Wine, a designer, has a firm called Juniper Books that does a roaring trade in designing custom book-jackets that form shelf-mosaics: "What makes Juniper Books special is that it can manufacture new covers in-house on a large-format printer. So instead of scouring second-hand shops for an aesthetically pleasing array, Wine's four-person team can design, print, and assemble a beautiful bespoke library." (Joseph Flaherty/Wired)
Over at Discover, Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn makes an interesting point about flaws in our current healthcare system. Historically, we've put a lot of effort into innovation, and not enough into building solid bases of evidence about which treatments actually work. Her argument: Americans would be better off if we had fewer options when it came to medical care. The assumption she's making (and it's not out of line) is that if we did more of the kind of large-scale, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that offer useful evidence about effectiveness and safety, then many of the treatments options we now have would turn out to be useless.