Full Body Burden: Memoir about family secrets, government secrets, and the risks of industrial pollution

Image: A worker at Rocky Flats handles a piece of plutonium using gloves built into a sealed box. The plutonium was bound for the innards of a nuclear bomb.

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Brandishing the Olympic Torch

Photo: Zoelee

Eggs dismayed at own fate

A is For: Awareness

NewImage For A is For founder and actress Martha Plimpton, the shock of the rhetoric surrounding the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy, as well as the success of the ensuing advertiser boycott, inspired her to gather a group of friends to brainstorm a strategy more formal than clicking “like” on Facebook. The group was united in their outrage and their growing awareness that the status of women’s rights was by no means a done deal. In fact, things that we had all taken for granted, like, um, access to birth control pills, were very much at risk of being gone in our own lifetimes. Our own children, planned or unplanned, may not have the same choices we had when wanting to start, or wait to start, their own families. What could be done to have a real impact?

Plimpton promptly founded A is For, an organization that unifies the diverse voices and issues in the new women’s movement under the reclaimed symbol of the red letter A --that instantly recognizable symbol of excoriation and shame that heroine Hester Prynne was forced to wear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter. Used by Prynne’s Puritan Boston community to brand and shun both her and the baby girl she had out of wedlock, the A stood for Adultery -- and the double standard to which women were held. The group A is For takes back the A by re-appropriating its meaning to one of dignity, defiance, and autonomy, and encourages others to reclaim the A to define what it means to them. A is For Awareness, A is For Affordable Health Care. A is For Ass-kicking. You get the idea.

Immediately, Plimpton proposed starting an “A” ribbon campaign in direct response to the shaming of Sandra Fluke in the attempts to silence her. The group agreed that the new movement needed an ongoing unifying symbol, the red letter A, to serve as a bold historical reminder that women will not be shamed into silence. One major goal would be to distribute the A to every person and organization fighting for women’s human rights in this country and around the world to wear proudly in solidarity. As for immediate change on the ground, within a month of starting the organization, A is For partnered with The Center for Reproductive Rights to be their direct action partner. Money raised via donations for the ribbons would go to CRR to fulfill their mission of “advancing reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right that all governments are legally obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill.” Now A is For had found a way to have a real impact (besides the Facebook “like” button). CRR is currently winning one major battle in their fight at the front lines to keep the one abortion clinic left in the state of Mississippi open.

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Secret UK censorship court orders BBC not to air documentary

A UK judge has ordered the BBC not to broadcast a documentary about England's August 2011 riots, reports The Guardian. The judge also banned the BBC and media from disclosing the court in which the censorship order was made; the judge's name; or the details or nature of the order.

The documentary features actors reading from interviews with rioters, but it's not clear exactly what was deemed worthy of censorship. The BBC "strongly objects" to the ruling and plans to appeal.

Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution - exclusive interview with author Doug Fine

I had a great time interviewing Doug Fine about his latest book: Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution.

Too high to failToo High to Fail covers everything from a brief history of hemp to an insider’s perspective on a growing season in Mendocino County, where cannabis drives 80 percent of the economy (to the tune of $6 billion annually). Investigative journalist Doug Fine follows one plant from seed to patient in the first American county to fully legalize and regulate cannabis farming. He profiles an issue of critical importance to lawmakers, media pundits, and ordinary Americans -- whether or not they inhale. It’s a wild ride that includes swooping helicopters, college tuitions paid with cash, cannabis-friendly sheriffs, and never-before-gained access to the world of the emerging legitimate, taxpaying “ganjaprenneur.”

While researching the book, what did you learn about cannabis and the use of it that surprised you?

Probably the most surprising revelation to me after a year spent on the front lines of the Drug War is how ready Middle America is for the coming Drug Peace -- especially with regard to legalizing cannabis. One collective I researched, in Orange County, CA (yep, Nixon's stomping grounds) had seniors as the majority of membership. These were people for whom cannabis was not political. It was medicine that worked: for arthritis, glaucoma, appetite stimulation. Americans recently polled at 56% in favor of regulating cannabis like alcohol, up from 49% a year ago. So we could be close to the kind of mainstream tipping point that ended alcohol Prohibition. And that surprised me. The "Brains on Drugs" stigma is disappearing, even in the heartland.

Who stands to profit from keeping cannabis illegal, and who will profit if it is regulated like alcohol?

Well, I first off like to always impart a sort of Humility Preface before prognostication. We don't know exactly what the future may bring, but we do have a lot of history as an example. Prohibition breeds organized crime. That's who profits from the status quo, on the business side. With the regulation of cannabis like alcohol, I heard some of today's farmers worry that we'll get a few Coors type overlords. That may be, but when Jimmy Carter changed the brewing rules, the microbrewery age exploded, and the farmers I cover in Too High to Fail are confident that there will likewise always be room for the top shelf craft farmer, the way that there's always room for Sierra Nevada or New Belgium today. I agree with them: we're talking about a multibillion dollar industry that's already bigger than corn and wheat combined. Imagine the tax revenue! Another beneficiary of the coming Drug Peace era is the American people, in the form of energy independence: a USDA biologist told me that when it comes to cannabis as a biofuel source, “It’s magnitudes more productive than corn- or soy-based ethanol. But it’s not even on our blackboard because it’s a federal crime.” Thus were the farmers I followed practicing a kind of patriotic civil disobedience. One day they'll be teaching university courses to students dubious that their crop was ever really illegal.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire casts Sam Claflin as Finnick

Lionsgate has apparently cast the all-important role of Finnick Odair in the sequel to The Hunger Games, the victor from District 4 who is best known for being a bit of a firecracker and also for being very, very handsome. Sam Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) has reportedly snagged the role, beating out bigger names like Armie Hammer and Garrett Hedlund. Zap2It asks if this is the Finnick we pictured, and actually... yes! Cut his hair a bit shorter, and he comes pretty darn close. (via Zap2It)

Rosemary's Baby special edition from Criterion

Rosemaryyyyy-1

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) is my favorite horror film of all time. The story is exquisitely creepy, the tension is profound, and Mia Farrow is absolutely sublime. I was thrilled to learn that the film is getting a new Criterion treatment with a Polanski-approved special edition DVD and Blu-Ray due out around Halloween. Along with new interviews with Polanski, Mia Farrow, and producer Robert Evans, this edition also includes an interview with the novel's author Ira Levin and a feature documentary on composer Krzysztof Komeda who created the film's gorgeous noir lullaby theme and score.

Rosemary's Baby

The physics of time travel

The majority of physicists say time travel probably won't work (at least in the Hollywood-go-anytime-you-wanna sense). Several time traveler parties have gone famously unattended by time travelers (at least, any willing to fess up about it). In general, science is kind of a buzz-kill on this one.

But if you want some justification for your daydreams, the person to talk to is Ronald Mallett, a theoretical physicists at the University of Connecticut who is most well-known for being the guy who thinks time travel is totally possible. (Mark wrote about him here back in 2007.) In fact, in 2006, Mallett predicted that time travel would be figured out within a decade.

I honestly have not researched this enough to give you my opinion on Mallett's ideas. His fellow physicists have addressed it, though. You can read one response to Mallett at arXiv. All of that is a long, context-relevant introduction to the video above, where Mallett explains his theories. I wanted to post the video because it's interesting and I thought you all would dig it. I'm also interested in the new video series this comes from—EPIPHANY, a daily video about big ideas taken from interviews with journalists, tech thinkers, scientists, and more. Mallett makes an interesting kick off for a series like this.

My hope, though, is that EPIPHANY doesn't only focus on scientific ideas that are kind of on the fringe. There's so many amazing discoveries that have the bulk of evidence behind them, it seems like a waste of a good platform to not cover the stuff that's more likely to be true.

Check out the rest of the EPIPHANY videos. So far, the series includes clips from interviews with Ronald Mallett, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, and filmmaker Jason Silva.

Kevin Mack's cool 3D art

The Avant/Garde Diaries asked me to interview someone that I admired, so I chose artist and special effects supervisor Kevin Mack.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer, editor, and illustrator who came of age in the halcyon days of handmade zines and punk rock. He carried that DIY ethos with him as the co-founder and editor of the zine-turned-blog bOING bOING, a self-proclaimed "directory of wonderful things," which focuses on technology and inspiration. These days, he is the editor-in-chief of MAKE, a magazine that teaches and encourages do-it-yourself living. Frauenfelder first discovered Kevin Mack through his special effects work on the film Fight Club; however, it was Mack's strictly artistic work that really piqued Frauenfelder's interest. Mack's art takes the vast and still uncharted area of digital technology and brings it into the physical world. The results are images printed on canvas which vacillate between abstraction and photorealism, and virtual sculptures transformed into the tangible via three-dimensional printing technology.

Between Order and Chaos: Mark Frauenfelder and Kevin Mack

Mark Frauenfelder & Kevin Mack - Between Order and Chaos from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo. Directed by Francesca Mirabella & Peter J. Brant / Produced by Benjamin Gilovitz / Music by Nicholas Krgovich / Sound design by Brent Kiser.

Religion, space, and the power of cultural connections

That's a picture of an Orthodox Christian priest, blessing the launch of a Soyuz spacecraft.

It seems like a weird and outdated pairing: Religion and space exploration. But they're actually a lot more intertwined than you might think, writes Rebecca Rosen at the Atlantic. A lot of astronauts are religious. A lot of astronauts that aren't really religious seem to have an urge to carry the cultural traditions of religion into space. And religion returns the favor. For instance, The Book of Common Prayer now includes an astronaut option in its prayer for travelers: "For those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord."

I'm sorry. I'm an atheist and that just kind of gave me the shivvers. Basically, being out in space, so far from your fellow humans and in such an alien environment, makes for a really good example of the way religion (and ritual) can serve as a tie binding us to the rest of humanity. For some people, it's a connection to a bigger sense of history. And when they look the future (and/or the vast emptiness of space) full in the face, they need that connection to humanity. It doesn't work for everybody. But the relationship between religion and space travel is a good place to start when you want to have a conversation about the fact that there really don't have to be conflicts between religion and science. (Really, people. For serious.)

Here's the scene: It's Christmas Eve, 1968. The spaceship with three men on board had hurtled toward the moon for three days, and they have now finally entered the moon's orbit, a move requiring a maneuver so dicey that just a tiny mistake could have sent the men off into an unwieldy elliptical orbit or crashing to the moon's surface. But all went smoothly, and they are orbiting the moon. On their fourth pass (of 10), astronaut William Anders snaps the famous Earthrise shot that will appear in Life magazine. On their ninth orbit, they begin a broadcast down to Earth. Astronaut Frank Borman introduces the men of the mission, and, then, this:

"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said, 'Let there be light," Borman read.

Read the rest of the article at The Atlantic

I can't remember who sent this story to me. If it's you, let me know, and I will credit you here!

A journey to Aquarius—the last underwater research lab

Brian Lam—former editor at Gizmodo, current editor at the ocean-centric Scuttlefish blog—got to visit the world's last remaining underwater scientific research station. Aquarius was built in the late 1980s and launched in 1992, but it was preceded by a huge 1960s-era boom in underwater laboratory development. Conshelf, Sealab, Tektite—these should all be familiar names. But they're all gone now. Which sucks, because having a place where you can study the ocean from inside the ocean is pretty damned useful.

For instance, if you study fish behavior, there's only so much you can learn from watching them in captivity or going on short dives in nature. As Sylvia Earle—grand doyenne of oceanography and the leader of the current Aquarius mission—told Lam, it's actually surprisingly uncommon to see one fish eat another (living, breathing, not-being-tossed-into-a-tank-as-food) fish. And understanding those predatory relationships can be really important to understanding species and ecology.

Aquarius sits on the sea floor, just off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. In a Gizmodo post, Brian Lam describes what's inside the 20-year-old research station, and what it's like to be a visitor there.

In its 20 years of operation, the base has gone from being a pristine piece of yellow painted metal—an alien outpost placed here by man—into an overgrown native of the reef, where sea life and humans live side by side. Fish hang out and pass by every viewport all day, unafraid of the humans inside or visitors like ourselves. Corals grow onto bolts and view ports need to be scraped free of biofouling every week or so using 3m non abrasive pads.

The day before their descent, they placed their clothing, computers, cameras, dive equipment into garbage bags that would be "potted down" into the habitat. They each had to decide what to bring, since space is limited in the habitat. Books are a luxury and some were left behind. Food was potted down, too, which mostly consisted of snacks and junk, with a few fruits that would last. Peanut M&M's were sent in a ration of "at least 3 pounds." They're going to be here for a while.

The wi-fi network is unsecured, but good luck connecting to it from outside of the base.

Read the rest of Brian Lam's tour story at Gizmodo

And check back here later this week for more from Brian Lam about Aquarius, Sylvia Earle, and the science of the ocean!

Warning labels can act as nocebos

Remember the nocebo effect? It's the flip side of placebos. Placebos can make people feel better or even relieve pain (to a certain extent). Nocebo happens when a placebo causes negative side-effects—nausea, racing heart, dizziness, etc. And here's one more weird thing to add to this veritable bonfire of weirdness: When we tell people about the possible negative side-effects of a real drug, that might make them more likely to experience those side-effects.

In one study, 50 patients with chronic back pain were randomly divided into two groups before a leg flexion test. One group was informed that the test could lead to a slight increase in pain, while the other group was instructed that the test would have no effect. Guess which group reported more pain and was able to perform significantly fewer leg flexions?

Another example from the report: Patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment who expect these drugs to trigger intense nausea and vomiting suffer far more after receiving the drugs than patients who don’t.

And, like placebos and classic nocebos, this isn't just "all in their head"—at least, not in the sense that they're making it up or deluding themselves. There are measurable physical effects to this stuff.

As science writer Steve Silberman says in the article I've quoted from above, what we're learning here is that the feedback we get from other people ("That might make you feel yucky" or "You look tired today") has a physical effect on us. It's a little insane. It's also worth thinking about when we talk about medical ethics. Full disclosure of what treatments you're getting and what the risks and benefits are is generally regarded as the ethically right way to practice medicine. And that's probably correct. But how do you balance that with what we know about placebo/nocebo? What happens when transparency keeps you from using a harmless placebo as a treatment? What happens when transparency makes you more likely to experience negative health outcomes? It's a strange, strange world and it's not always easy to make the right ethical choices.

Read Steve Silberman's full story on the nocebo effect

Gentleman facebutts police dashboard

Seen enough video of auto insurance fraudsters being exposed by front-facing dashboard cameras? One fellow in Russia thought up a clever way to get the police in trouble, but didn't count for the fact that dashcams can be turned around. [Video Link]

Sham's cam slams scam

In this video recorded on a dashboard-mounted camera, Raguruban Yogarajah stops his car in the middle of the highway—then lets it roll back into following traffic. Herman Sham, the other driver, claims to have been subjected to a shakedown as the two motorists examined the damage: $500 cash, or the cops get called.

Thanks to Sham's dashcam, however, it was Yogarajah who received charges: fraud, attempted fraud and public mischief.

Russia appears to be ground zero for this sort of shenanigan. Violent confrontations abound, but my favorite is this driver's ostentatious display of frustration and despair at being rear-ended by such an irresponsible dri--Oh wait, you have a dashcam? I'll be going, then.

There are lots of Dashcams on Amazon, but it looks like you need to spend at least $50 to get something decent. And they all kinda look janky, if you ask me. Would a GoPro be a better bet, or do you need a specialized device for battery-life reasons?