Death on Mount Everest

Back in May, we linked you to the reporting of Outside's Grayson Schaffer, who was stationed in the base camps of Mount Everest, watching as the mountain's third deadliest spring in recorded history unfolded. Ten climbers died during April and May. But the question is, why?

From a technological standpoint, as Schaffer points out in a follow up piece, Everest ought to be safer these days. Since 1996 — the mountain's deadliest year, documented in John Krakauer's Into Thin Air — weather forecasts have improved (allowing climbers to avoid storms like the one responsible for many of the 1996 deaths), and new helicopters can reach stranded climbers at higher altitudes. But those things, Schaffer argues, are about reducing deaths related to disasters. This year, he writes, the deaths that happened on Everest weren't about freak occurrences of bad luck. It wasn't storms or avalanches that took those people down. It wasn't, in other words, about the random risks of nature.

This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.

But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.

It’s a recipe that doesn’t require a storm to kill people. In this regard, things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse.

Read the rest at Outside

Image via Outside and photographer Rob Sobecki

The grisly business of buffalo bones

By this point in your lives, most of you are by no doubt aware of the massive slaughter of buffalo that happened in the United States in the late 19th century. Across the plains, thousands of buffalo were killed every week during a brief period where the hides of these animals could fetch upwards of $10 a pop. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, so it's hard for me to say what that's worth today. But we know from the context that even when the value of buffalo hides dropped to $1 each, the business of killing and skinning buffalo was still considered a damned fine living.)

You might think that the business ended there, with dead, skinned buffalo left to rot on the prairie. And you're sort of right. But, in a story at Bloomberg News, Tim Heffernan explains that, a few years later, those dead buffalo created another boom and bust industry—the bone collection business.

Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar -- a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.

... And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.

... By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.

Read the rest

David Byrne's How Music Works

Former Talking Heads frontman and all-round happy mutant David Byrne has written several good books, but his latest, How Music Works, is unquestionably the best of the very good bunch, possibly the book he was born to write. I could made good case for calling this How Art Works or even How Everything Works.

Though there is plenty of autobiographical material How Music Works that will delight avid fans (like me) -- inside dope on the creative, commercial and personal pressures that led to each of Byrne's projects -- this isn't merely the story of how Byrne made it, or what he does to turn out such great and varied art. Rather, this is an insightful, thorough, and convincing account of the way that creativity, culture, biology and economics interact to prefigure, constrain and uplift art. It's a compelling story about the way that art comes out of technology, and as such, it's widely applicable beyond music.

Byrne lived through an important transition in the music industry: having gotten his start in the analog recording world, he skilfully managed a transition to an artist in the digital era (though not always a digital artist). As such, he has real gut-feel for the things that technology gives to artists and the things that technology takes away. He's like the kids who got their Apple ][+s in 1979, and keenly remember the time before computers were available to kids at all, the time when they were the exclusive domain of obsessive geeks, and the point at which they became widely exciting, and finally, ubiquitous -- a breadth of experience that offers visceral perspective.

There were so many times in this book when I felt like Byrne's observations extended beyond music and dance and into other forms of digital creativity. For example, when Byrne recounted his first experiments with cellular automata exercise for dance choreography, from his collaboration with Noemie Lafrance:

1. Improvise moving to the music and come up with an eight-count phrase (in dance, a phrase is a short series of moves that can be repeated).

2. When you find a phrase you like, loop (repeat) it.

3. When you see someone else with a stronger phrase, copy it.

4. When everyone is doing the same phrase, the exercise is over.

It was like watching evolution on fast-forward, or an emergent lifeform coming into being. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. Then one could see that folks had chosen their phrases, and almost immediately one could see a pocket of dancers who had all adopted the same phrase. The copying had already begun, albeit in just one area. This pocket of copying began to expand, to go viral, while yet another one now emerged on the other side of the room. One clump grew faster than the other, and within four minutes the whole room was filled with dancers moving in perfect unison. Unbelievable! It only took four minutes for this evolutionary process to kick in, and for the "strongest" (unfortunate word, maybe) to dominate.

Read the rest

Meet "Big Trash"

Over the long run, keeping stuff like tree limbs and compostable waste out of landfills is good for cities. There's only so much space in a landfill and getting more land is extremely expensive. So why haven't more cities hopped on the curbside composting bandwagon, or at least banned yard waste from landfills? There's probably a lot of factors that go into those decisions, but one, apparently, is the influence of large, private companies that handle waste collection and see the diversion of re-usable waste as a detriment to their income. (Via Chris Tackett)

The best cat video on the Internet

That is a high claim, I know. But over Labor Day weekend, a combination of dedicated curation and popular vote resulted in Henri 2, Paw de Deux being named the best Internet cat video.

The Internet Cat Film Festival, sponsored by Minneapolis' Walker Museum of Art, drew a live audience of more than 10,000 people last Thursday night. Videos were curated from a massive collection submitted online, and were grouped into thematic categories— foreign films, for instance, or comedies. Henri 2 took home the Golden Kitty, a People's Choice award.

Bonus: If arguing about the merits of Henri 2 weren't enough of a gift to your procrastination tendencies, you can also check out a full list of all the films screened at the festival, including links.

Better services, less piracy

John Brownlee on why he stopped pirating music:

It’s clear to me, in retrospect, that my piracy was mostly mere collecting, and like the most fetishistic of collectors, it was conducted with mindless voracity. A good collection is supposed to be made up of relics, items that conjure up memories, feelings and ideas for the owner so strongly that he gets pleasure in simply being in close contact with them. A tended garden. My collection was nothing like this: it was just a red weed, swallowing up and corroding anything I did care about within its indiscriminating mass.

tl;dr newer streaming/subscription services, such as Spotify and Rdio, have nailed it.

Passing the Drum (video)

[Video Link] The 30 Days Ramadan guys have put out a wonderful new short film in their series of profiles on Muslim life in America. This one was directed by Zeshawn Ali, and focuses on a father-son legacy of music, in Brooklyn. Snip:

Mohammad Boota walks the streets of NYC walking Muslims up with a dhol drum during Ramadan - a rich tradition he inherited from his family in Pakistan. He came to America in 1992 and spent 9 years saving enough money to bring the rest of his family over. Now, fully reunited with his family, he rekindles the bond he has with his son over their love for drumming.

As you watch, remember that these are the regular people the NYPD and DHS want to surveil all the time, every day, solely because of their heritage.

You can subscribe to the 30 Days Ramadan YouTube channel for more great videos like this.

Seed artists support marriage equality

I've written here before about seed art at the Minnesota State Fair. Every year, Minnesotans glue thousands of tiny seeds to heavy backing material to create some surprisingly elaborate examples of portraiture and political commentary. Oddly, given that this is folk art at a state fair in the Midwest, most of that political commentary is solidly liberal.

I wasn't able to make it to the Minnesota State Fair this year, but Minnesota Public Radio's Nikki Tundel was there. At least four different entries in this year's seed art competition feature marriage equality themes—responses to the coming election when Minnesotans will decide whether or not to enshrine discriminatory marriage laws into our state constitution. It's safe to say: Minnesota's seed artists want you to vote "No".

You can see all the marriage equality seed art at the MPR News Tumblr blog

Via the Stuff About Minneapolis blog, and Andrew Balfour

Happy Women Reading Comics in Public Day!

When I was about 10, I developed an obsessive love for The X-Men. It started with the Saturday morning cartoon show, but quickly became about comic books, as well. To this day, long-overwritten plot points from the Marvel universe take up a significant portion of my memory space (as my husband can attest). In my marriage, I am the one who is called upon to flesh out the backstory and conflicts with source material after my husband and I have seen an action-hero movie.

But I didn't own a single comic book until I was 19.

In fact, I'm not sure my parents or friends even knew I liked comic books. All my reading, for nine years, was done in secret. I'd slip into the comic book aisle at the bookstore when nobody was around to see, grab an anthology off the shelf, and spend the next two hours nestled in a corner somewhere — with the comics safely hidden behind a magazine or large book. I did the same thing at the public library. Never even checked one out. If I couldn't finish a library comic anthology in one afternoon, I'd hide it in a seldom-used section and come back the next day. (My apologies to the librarians of the world for that.)

Partly, that shame and fear came was about being labeled a nerd, in general. But there was, for me, also a pretty heavy gender component. Tall, clumsy, nerdy, ignorant of fashion or makeup, and definitely not "attractive" in the way that sheltered pre-teen and teenage society defines it, I spent a good chunk of my adolescence paranoid about my identity as a female. Where and when I grew up, there weren't a lot of good role models for diversity of female experience. My parents always supported who I was, but society and my peers seemed to have a pretty strict definition of who girls were and what they liked ... and I didn't fit. Admitting that I was into comics felt like it would be just one more thing I did wrong. That's why I really, really love Women Reading Comics in Public Day, an unofficial holiday started by the bloggers at DC Women Kicking Ass.

Read the rest

How the refrigerator got its hum

Technology solves problems. But there's usually more than one way to solve a problem. Cars don't have to run on internal combustion — and they don't have to look like smoothly curved pods. (In fact, when I was in grade school, they didn't.) Our electric grid isn't the result of a rational discussion about ideal technology. Instead, it was built partly based on convenience and speed, and partly based on cost.

Basically, there are lots of ways to solve a problem and for almost every tool we use there's an alternative we chose (somewhere along the line) to not use. I'm working on my second column for The New York Times Magazine, which will come out in September. In the course of researching that, I stumbled across a really fascinating research paper about the history of the refrigerator. See, the electric fridge we're all familiar with wasn't the only option in home refrigeration. In the 20th century, the low hum of the electric refrigerator competed with a silent version powered by natural gas.

"How the Refrigerator Got its Hum" is an article written by science historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan. It was published in 1985, in a book called The Social Shaping of Technology. The article traces the development of the refrigerator and the story of why we use electricity, rather than natural gas, to cool our food today. I couldn't fit it into my NYT column, but it's absolutely fascinating and well worth the read. The key point of Cowan's article: Our world is full of "failed machines", technologies that worked just fine, but that we don't use today.

These are not junked cars and used refrigerators that people leave along roadsides and in garbage dumps, but the rusting hulks of aborted ideas; patents that were never exploited; test models that could not be manufactured at affordable prices; machines that had considerable potential, but were, for one reason or another, actively suppressed by the companies that had the license to manufacture them; devices that were put on the market, but never sold well and were soon abandoned. The publications of the Patent Office and the "new patents" columns in technical magazines reveal that the ration of "failed" machines to successful ones is high, although no scholar has yet devised a formula by which it can actually be determined.

Read the rest of "How the Refrigerator Got its Hum"

Image: Refrigerator in a parking lot., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from memestate's photostream

Great Moments in Pedantry: Librarian critiques Twilight Sparkle's professional practice

At Neatorama, librarian John Farrier helpfully points out some places where fictional pony librarian Twilight Sparkle could stand to improve her professional practice. It is simultaneously a dedicated bit of pony fandom and an interesting overview of the many responsibilities of a real-world librarian.

Conducting a reference interview is the act of translating a patron’s request into terms that are congruent with the library’s resources. It may surprise non-librarians to learn this, but yes: reference interviewing is a skill. And it is one that Twilight should develop.

A good reference interview begins with the librarian conducting him/herself in a manner that is welcoming. Helping the patron is the first priority of a librarian working the reference desk. The patron is not a distraction or an annoyance. In the first reference interview in the series, Twilight interacts with her patron, Rainbow Dash. “Can I help you?” is a good beginning. But her tone and body language suggests that she would rather not.

... Twilight has some good reference interviewing sense. One pitfall that rookie librarians fall into is to give professional advice instead of information—especially medical and legal advice. In “Cutie Pox,” Applejack and Applebloom visit the library and asking for medical advice. Twilight, aware that doing so could expose the library and herself to liability, deftly avoids doing so and refers Applejack and Applebloom to Zecora, a qualified medical professional.

Read the rest of the story at Neatorama

Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public’s fascination with and fear of sharks.

Read the rest

Why does nobody think Usain Bolt cheated?

Covariation theory is a psychological idea that helps explain why we instantly suspect some record-breaking athletes of doping, while giving others the benefit of the doubt. (Via Melanie Tannenbaum)

How old is post-traumatic stress disorder?

It is very hard, and very weird to try to get a handle on how human health has changed between the 19th century and today. Obviously, the way we live has changed dramatically. But understanding how that impacts health (or doesn't) is complicated by the fact that healthcare, science, and public health research changed dramatically during those years, as well.

And all that science hasn't happened in a vacuum. The names we give various disorders change. Whether or not we consider something to be a disorder, at all, might change. And our cultural understanding changes, too—especially when it comes to mental illness.

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughn Bell has an excellent breakdown of two recent studies that try to put the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into a cultural and historical context. Many people assume that PTSD is just a new name for something that has always existed—look at shell shock, which made it onto Downton Abbey last season. But these new papers suggest that the distinction between what soldiers experienced in the past and what they experience today might go deeper than naming conventions.

The diagnosis of PTSD involves having a traumatic experience and then being affected by a month of symptoms of three main groups: intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing ... there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

But until now, few studies have systematically looked for PTSD or post-trauma reactions in the older historical record. Two recent studies have done exactly this, however, and found no evidence for a historical syndrome equivalent to PTSD.

A study just published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders looked at the extensive medical records for soldiers in the American Civil War, whose mortality rate was about 50-80 greater than modern soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, there would have been many more having terrifying experiences but despite the higher rates of trauma and mentions of other mental problems, there is virtually no mention of anything like the intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of PTSD.

Read the rest at Mind Hacks

David Dobbs adds some more context to Bell's post at the Neuron Culture blog.

The social science of IUDs

IUDs are the weird form of birth control. We don't really know exactly how they work, for instance. And they've been largely unpopular my entire lifetime—really, ever since a couple of poorly designed IUDs set off a mini-panic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But IUDs are effective birth control. The ones that you can buy today are safe. And, more importantly, they represent birth control that you don't have to think about, and birth control that is really hard to get wrong.

If you've ever done research on the effectiveness of various methods of birth control, you'll notice that the statistics usually come with a little asterisk. That * represents a concept that few of the people who rely on birth control ever think about—perfect use. Let's use condoms as an example. With perfect use, 2 out of 100 women will get pregnant over the course of a year's worth of condom-protected sex. Without perfect use—maybe you don't use a condom every time, maybe you don't put it on right when you both get naked—the number of accidental pregnancies jumps to 18 out of 100. The same basic problem affects birth control pills, as well. Ladies, did you know you're supposed to take those things at the same time of day every day? That's the kind of use error that can make a difference between 1 out of 100 women getting pregnant in a year, and 9 out of 100 getting pregnant.

In contrast, IUDs represent a fit-it-and-forget-it method of birth control. Which is a big part about why they're up there with outright sterilization as the most effective means of birth control available. Bonus: Depending on which kind you use, you can avoid hormonal side effects. This, experts say, is why IUDs are experiencing something of a resurgence in popularity. In an article at Wired, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes that 5.5 percent of American women who use birth control use IUDs. That's up from only 1.3 percent in 1995.

Somewhat unbelievably, no one is quite sure how they work, but the theory goes like this: The human uterus has one overriding purpose, which is to protect and sustain a fetus for nine months. If you stick a poker-chip-sized bit of plastic in there, the body reacts the way it does to any foreign object, releasing white blood cells to chase after the invader. Once those white blood cells are set free in the uterus, they start killing foreign cells with efficient zeal. And sperm, it turns out, are very, very foreign. White blood cells scavenge them mercilessly, preventing pregnancy. In copper- containing IUDs, metal ions dissolving from the device add another layer of spermicidal action.

... Most modern IUDs incorporate copper, which has an assortment of benefits, including increased durability and effectiveness. They’re also free of hormones and can be made cheaply, a boon for women in developing countries. But copper IUDs can cause heavy menstrual bleeding and cramping. The Mirena solves that problem by forgoing the metal for a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone. Here again, the mode of action isn’t completely understood, but researchers suspect that the hormone thickens cervical mucus, which makes it nearly impossible for sperm to swim upstream. It may also thin the uterine lining, rendering it inhospitable to an embryo should fertilization occur. The hormone-based IUD has the opposite side effect of the copper ones: It sometimes leaves women with little uterine lining to shed, so they hardly get any period at all.

... Even though many more doctors are comfortable with the IUD, a generation of doctors didn’t get practice inserting it. And if they don’t know how to put one in, they’re less likely to recommend it as an option. Also, the devices are expensive—the ParaGard costs $500, the Mirena $850. “It’s absolute highway robbery that these companies charge so much,” Espey says. “If you went to Home Depot and got the raw materials for a copper IUD, it would cost less than 5 cents.” And the hormones don’t contribute much more to the cost, she adds. In fact, amortized over years of use—10 for the ParaGard and five for the Mirena—an IUD is far cheaper than birth control pills, which can cost $30 or more a month. But the initial outlay is difficult for some women to manage, and it’s not always covered by insurance.

Read the rest of the story at Wired

Read more about different kinds of birth control, their effectiveness, and how to use them correctly at Planned Parenthood

Via Scicurious

Image: X-Ray showing an IUD in place. Photo taken by Wikipedia user Nevit Dilmen, used via CC license.