The real story of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen"

Back in the 80s, Ronald Reagan paid a lot of rhetorical attention to the story of an anonymous "welfare queen" who drove a Cadillac and lived high on the taxpayer's dime. I'd long assumed that Reagan's queen was a fictional construct, but the truth is much, much more fascinating.

At Slate, Josh Levin has a long read on the life and times of "Linda Taylor" (in quotes because that's only one of her many, many aliases), the real woman who served as the basis for Reagan's story. Taylor really did drive a Cadillac and perpetrate a decent amount of welfare fraud. But her story isn't really representative of the typical sort of welfare fraud — let alone the typical welfare recipient, in general. In fact, Taylor was the sort of person that gets armchair diagnosed as a sociopath. She spent most of her life grifting somebody and was possibly involved in the deaths of multiple people. Read the rest

A crazed battle against the crazy ants

At The New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem has a story about a fight against an invasive species that began with a man called Mike the Hog-a-Nator shop-vac'd five gallons worth of ants out of his air conditioning ducts. Read the rest
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The neurosurgeon who saw heaven

In Esquire, you can read a deeply researched and very well-written profile of Dr. Eben Alexander, a former neurosurgeon whom you probably know best as the guy with the best-selling book about a near-death experience that's gotten major traction with both the Fox News crowd (because it features a sciency secular guy denouncing secularism) and the touchy-feely Chicken Soup for the Soul crowd (for obvious reasons). Now, Luke Dittrich takes you though Alexander's biography and his experience from a very different perspective — one that ties Alexander more to the ongoing problem of fabulists in the memoir genre than to god. (Note: Some people seem to be hitting a $1.99 paywall on this story. I didn't and I'm not sure why. Trying to figure that out.) Read the rest

The power of the swarm

At Wired, Ed Yong has an incredible long-read story about the researchers who are figuring out how and why individual animals sometimes turn into groups operating on collective behavior. That research has implications far beyond the freakish, locust-filled laboratories where Yong's story begins. Turns out, bugs and birds can teach us a lot about the brain, cancer, and even how we make predictions about our own futures. Read the rest

The 2013 Edge Question: What *Should* We Be Worried About? Xeni's essay: "Cancer."

Photo: "Clematis 2013" Copyright © 2013 by Katinka Matson. View larger size.

Each year, literary über-agent and big idea wrangler John Brockman of poses a new question to an assortment of scientists, writers, and creative minds, and publishes a selection of the responding essays. This year's question, which came from George Dyson, is "What *Should* We Be Worried About?"

We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying.
Many people more interesting than me responded—here are the 2013 contributors, and the list includes some amazing minds: Brian Eno, Daniel Dennett, Esther Dyson, George Dyson, David Gelernter, Danny Hillis, Arianna Huffington, Kevin Kelly, Tim O'Reilly, Martin Rees, Bruce Schneier, Bruce Sterling, Sherry Turkle, and Craig Venter, to name just some. And here's an index of all the essays this year.

Following is the full text of my contribution, "Science Has Not Brought Us Closer To Understanding Cancer." Read the rest

A suicide draws attention to the ethics of psychiatric drug testing

This is a really important long read that we all need to pay attention to. It concerns how we treat people with who are suffering from paranoid delusions — and how we treat people whose families worry that they are a threat to others. It concerns the relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. It concerns the ethics of clinical trials — the risks we run as we test potential treatments that could help many, or hurt a few, or both. If we want to reform mental health care, this needs to be part of the discussion.

In 2004, Dan Markingson committed suicide. The story behind that death is complicated and depressing. At the Molecules to Medicine blog, Judy Stone documents the whole thing in three must-read chapters. Many people find help in psychiatric drugs, and credit those drugs with making their lives better. (Full disclosure, I'm one of them. I have used Ritalin for several years. I am temporarily on an anti-depressant.) But we have to pay attention to how those drugs get to us. This isn't just about treating people. It's about the process that gets us there. Because, if that process is compromised, the treatments we get won't be as effective and lives will be lost along the way.

Markingson began to show signs of paranoia and delusions in 2003, believing that he needed to murder his mother. He was committed to Fairview Hospital involuntarily after being evaluated by Dr. Stephen Olson, of the University of Minnesota. He was subsequently enrolled on a clinical trial of antipsychotic drugs—despite protests from his mother.

Read the rest

Steve Jobs, Romantic

At O'Reilly Radar, Doug Hill with a worthy read on the late Apple CEO: "I’d like to talk here about a spirit that Jobs carried within himself. It’s a spirit he relied on for inspiration, although he seemed at times to have lost track of its whisper. In any event, what it says can tell us a lot about our relationship to machines. I refer to the spirit of Romanticism. I spent much of this past summer reading about the Romantics — the original Romantics, that is, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — and it’s remarkable how closely their most cherished beliefs correspond to principles that Jobs considered crucial to his success at Apple." Read the rest
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"Do things that have never been done before,” says guy who invented computer

Joel Runyon writes about "An Unexpected Ass Kicking," intellectually speaking, which he received in a Portland coffee shop from Russell Kirsch—the 80-year-old man who invented America's first internally programmable computer. Kirsch isn't a big fan of Apple products. Read the rest

"Everyone Only Wants Temps"

In Mother Jones, Gabriel Thompson goes gonzo with a stint doing "on demand" grunt work for one of America's hottest growth industries: temping.

I grab a chair from a stack in the corner and take a seat, studying a sign that implores me to be "true" and "passionate" and "creative." In reality, passion and creativity have nothing to do with it. Labor Ready provides warm bodies for grunt work that pays minimum wage or thereabouts. "Here's a sledgehammer, there's the wall," is how Stacey Burke, the company's vice-president of communications, characterized the work to Businessweek back in 2006.

Read the whole piece here: "Everyone Only Wants Temps" (Mother Jones). Read the rest

"How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet"—Mat Honan

An excellent long-read about Flickr and Yahoo by Mat Honan at Gizmodo today. Anyone who has loved and been let down by the once-great photo-sharing site now caught in the purple zombie's death spiral will nod in agreement throughout. The opening graf:

Web startups are made out of two things: people and code. The people make the code, and the code makes the people rich. Code is like a poem; it has to follow certain structural requirements, and yet out of that structure can come art. But code is art that does something. It is the assembly of something brand new from nothing but an idea.

Read: How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet. (Gizmodo) Read the rest

Margie Profet: a controversial scientist who went missing

Margie Profet did not have a Ph.D. In fact, she didn't even have a bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology, the field that most of her work revolved around. But she won a McArthur Genius grant and presented some really interesting theories on the body's defenses against cancer and poisonous substances that might turn out to be correct. And then she disappeared.

Nobody has seen or heard from Margie Profet since at least 2004 or 2005, writes Mike Martin at Psychology Today. His piece is an interesting biography of a woman who was incredibly intelligent, and who also likely suffered from some serious symptoms of mental illness for years. Only her closest family and friends seem to have been aware of what was going on in Profet's personal world. Over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s, Profet shut them, and everyone else, out of her life so successfully that nobody is really sure when she vanished.

This is one of those long reads that will take you a little while to get through, but it's worth checking out. Even aside from the mysterious disappearance, I found Martin's explanation of Margie Profet's contribution to science really fascinating. Profet presented several, interconnected theories suggesting that allergies, morning sickness, and menstruation all evolved as means of blocking or removing poisonous, cancer-causing, and disease-causing substances from the body. Read the rest

After 20 years, a former teacher returns to Tanzania

Frank Bures is a friend of mine here in the Twin Cities. He's also one of the best travel writers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. You might remember his work from a post a couple of years ago, about Bigfoot hunting in northern Minnesota.

He has a more-serious piece out in the recent issue of The Washington Post magazine. Twenty years ago, Frank spent a little over a year working as an English teacher in Tanzania, just outside the town of Arusha. Recently, he went back, both to re-connect with the people he'd met so many years ago, and to make a trip he'd always regretted not taking the first time around—climb Mount Meru.

Unlike most people who travel to Tanzania, I had no desire to climb Kilimanjaro, which seemed like an overrun fundraising cliche. But Meru was different. Meru was difficult, unforgiving, temperamental, with an air of hard beauty and mystery.

Our bus rolled forward, and I stared out the window at the mountain’s outline. After all these years, it looked the same, though much else had changed. Seeing it again reminded me of my last glimpse of it through a bus window, and of the ache of departure, of the bitterness of leaving all my friends and students and neighbors, but also of the sweetness of having known them.

This was a reunion of several kinds. After too long I was back in this place — to reconnect with people, to find out how things had changed.

Read the rest

Lions on the lam

Remember last fall when an entire small zoo's worth of exotic animals briefly ran amok through an Ohio town? GQ has a feature that explains what the hell happened. Read the rest

Steve Jobs, the Inhumane Humanist

The current print issue of Reason has a wonderful, thoughtful piece by Mike Godwin about the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. I know it's hard to imagine there's anything new to say about this hyper-covered book about a hyper-covered popular figure, but: Godwin shows that yes, there is. Read the rest

New Yorker on the origins of OWS

For your post-Thansksgiving long read list, "Pre-Occupied: The origins and future of Occupy Wall Street," in the New Yorker today by Mattathias Schwartz. "It's very tl;dr," said the friend who forwarded it, but we both agree it's an essential read. Not everything fits in 140 characters, after all. Read the rest

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