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30 Aug 18:01

Here Today, Gone Forever?

by Sue Halpern
by Sue Halpern


Buried – sorry – in Biz Carson’s fascinating obituary of Hal Finney, who died this week from ALS, is a small aside with large implications. Finney, who was 58, was the first owner of bitcoins besides developer Satoshi Nakamoto (not his real name). This was in 2008, in a somewhat serendipitous turn of events, which Finney chronicled last year, typing via an eye tracker.

When Satoshi announced the first release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test. I carried on an email conversation with Satoshi over the next few days, mostly me reporting bugs and him fixing them. After a few days, bitcoin was running pretty stably, so I left it running… I mined several blocks over the next days. But I turned it off because it made my computer run hot, and the fan noise bothered me.

So the question is, now that he has died, what happens to Finney’s virtual currency?

It’s the same question any one of us can ask, looking ahead, about our virtual “possessions,” whether they are documents stored on Dropbox, or passwords to our email accounts, or game characters.

Finney, who has been cryogenically preserved, was clearly a forward-looking guy. Before he died, he secured his bitcoins in a safe deposit box. But will it be enough to ensure that his son and daughter inherit them? And what about our stuff, stored “up there,” somewhere, “in the cloud,” where there is no safe deposit box?

Last month, in an unprecedented move, Delaware became the first state to enact a digital inheritance law. The Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act is meant to give authorized individuals brief, “peek and copy” access to third-party accounts. Apparently, the tech companies are not pleased and have formed the “State Privacy and Security Coalition” to fight it. They will be even less pleased when some version of the law is adopted in other states, as it is expected to be:

Jim Halpert of DLA Piper, a law firm that represents the coalition, told the Wall Street Journal that the group opposes the laws because accounts may contain information the deceased do not want to disclose, and because they may “conflict with a 1986 federal law forbidding consumer electronic-communications companies from disclosing digital content without its owner’s consent.”

But Jeff John Roberts thinks this is weak:

Neither of these explanations are particularly convincing, however. Despite the companies’ profession of privacy concerns for their late users, the reality is that people have been dying — and leaving behind artifacts for relatives and others to find — for a very long time. The digital dimensions of our personal lives don’t change that.

[Note to self: do not leave will on iCloud.]

(Photo of bitcoins by Steve Garfield)

30 Aug 16:00

thefrogman: [video]

29 Aug 20:00

fer1972: Illustrations by Adam Oehlers


Illustrations by Adam Oehlers

08 Aug 17:02

Tracking Down the Most Ambitious Operation in CIA History

“We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”—@CIA, entering the Twitterverse on June 6, 2014

I tiptoe onto the old woman’s lawn, just like every other morning, and switch the two newspapers: her copy of the Washington Post for mine. We have a routine down by now, me and her, and I know within a few seconds there’ll be a signal (or not) telling me whether the mission was a success.

Some agents go for an upside-down flag in a window, others for a chalk mark on a bench—tradecraft, we call it—but I’m dealing with a particularly old-school spook. For a few seconds, nothing. Then in a flash, almost imperceptible to someone not in our line of work, it appears. The curtains sway ever so slightly. She has seen.

Failure. Every day a failure! Let me tell you something—when your six-month-old puppy rips up the newspaper of your elderly neighbor, and I mean rips it to smithereens, and you’re trying to do the right thing by replacing that shredded copy with an intact one of your own, take it from me: Make sure the house isn’t owned by retired spies. ’Cause they don’t miss a thing.

Welcome to my neighborhood. My street is a five-minute drive to the main gate of the CIA. For 16 years, I’ve craned my neck driving by that entrance, each time hoping to see something other than a disappearing road. All of us knew that both Mr. and Mrs. Carlson spent their lives working for the Agency. Around here, it’s more of a question of who isn’t retired CIA. I mean, I’m not—but I do love a good story.

Rod and Pat Carlson had stories by the boatload but never told them. They moved onto the block in 1967 and rarely chitchatted with us newcomers. Rod had a gaunt, Amish look about him—I always expected to see him swinging an ax. Pat was a wisp, so frail that I worried she’d get blown over on windy days. I’d be in line at Safeway and she’d suddenly appear behind me, very ghosty but always very sweet, too.

It’s funny—for years the Carlsons lived a hundred feet from me and I never asked what they did at the Agency. He died in 2004, and for the next eight years she was on her own. I always did my best to shovel her walk after a snowstorm. She’d rarely come out, but the drapes would sway ever so slightly and I knew she had appreciated it. That was her way. Only after she died did I begin to realize what our block had lost.

I couldn’t attend the memorial service, though everyone said it was nice. “Her children were all there,” our neighbor Kasey said. “In fact, one of them said something funny.”

“Oh, crap,” I said. “Don’t tell me it had anything to do with Cooper ripping up her mom’s newspapers. I apologized years ago, I swear!”

“Nah,” said Kasey laughing. “What she said was ‘Well, now that Mom and Dad are both dead, there go the last two people who could have told you who killed JFK.’ ”

Photograph by Black Star/Newscom.

Every block has a couple of homes where the sounds of crying babies subsided decades ago and the lights go out earlier. Old neighbors. The odds say that at least some led clandestine lives. Washington is a town full of spies—they’re everywhere and nowhere—and decades from now their top-secret stories, which could never be told when they were young and vibrant, will start to disappear.

Years ago, I remember, it was summer and a few of us were sitting around on the lawn trading stories. One neighbor told a tale about his days in the Coast Guard. I followed with the time I made three cross-country flights in a single day, one of them in a tanker accompanying a squadron of F-117 stealth fighters. It was 1990, the Gulf War was looming, and I was a wire-service photographer. For someone who hates to fly, it was a good day. Then an older neighbor spoke.

“Back when I was at the Agency . . . .”

Boom. My stealth story was DOA. Whatever the next words out of his mouth, they would certainly be better than mine.

“Back when I was at the Agency,” he said, “we once pulled a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”

You did what? A submarine?? From where?!? I didn’t want to be the guy in the movie theater who asks a million questions before the title sequence has finished, but . . . he had me from “Agency.”

My neighbor launched into one of the greatest CIA stories barely told, a tale of high-seas espionage on a ship named the Hughes Glomar Explorer and audaciousness to rival the moon shot. It’s a story that’s celebrated inside the Agency as one of the greatest missions ever undertaken but that today, exactly 40 years later, is still shrouded in secrecy and, sadly, obscurity.

That night on the lawn years ago, I got the broad outlines of the tale. It stayed with me for years, and after the Carlsons died I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I poked around for the full version.

Here goes.

Dawn is still a few hours away on February 25, 1968, when the ballistic-missile submarine K-129 skims out of its berth in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. With a crew of 98, a Ukrainian commander (yes, hard to fathom these days), and three one-megaton nuclear warheads, her mission is a routine patrol. Then, on March 11, as the story goes, catastrophe: There’s an explosion.

K-129 loses propulsion, can’t blow ballast. And in a matter of minutes, just like that, 2,820 tons of metal capable of launching a nuclear attack on America tumbles three miles to the ocean floor.

For six long years, while K-129 slumbered, the Russians agonized and searched. Not us. In secret briefings at the Pentagon and Langley, we just schemed. Wrapped inside the sub’s fire-ravaged hull lay the sailors—men with names like Motovolov and Tokarevskiy—but also her codes and code books, those missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes. K-129 was a gold mine of intelligence. We wanted it, we found it. And Russia didn’t have a clue.

Of course, that wasn’t any consolation to the American spy apparatus in those first months. Sure, we had located K-129, but now what? No one had ever thought about recovering something from that depth—certainly not an enemy sub, in a raging Cold War, and with the specter of a very real war should the Russians find out.

Perspective? The Titanic lay at only 12,500 feet, almost a mile shallower. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is presumed to be at around 15,000. There’s still hope of locating its data recorder, but you don’t hear anyone discussing bringing up the fuselage. K-129 was deeper still. Almost 17,000 feet down, in an era before modern computing. (Your iPhone has more processing speed than anyone in the 1960s did.) It seemed hopeless.

Or was it?

What if Argo was the easy one? What if, with all due respect, getting some embassy staff through the Iranian airport wasn’t the most ambitious accomplishment in the long history of the CIA, no matter what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says?

Because you can’t build a 63,300-ton ship in secret, the CIA got a billionaire to pretend he wanted the Glomar (below) for ocean mining. Thousands of workers had to keep its real mission—pulling up a wrecked Russian sub—a secret. The day it sailed to pick up special equipment for the lift (above), the crew had to shoo away boaters on the California coast who wanted a look. Photograph of beach courtesy of David Sharp Private Collection; Photograph of Glomar by Bettmann/AP.

“Are subs okay?” Dave Sharp e-mails before our first meeting. He’s asking about lunch, but the irony isn’t lost. A few days later, we’re sitting in his home on the shore of the South River near Annapolis. Trim, with a head of white hair, Sharp is 80 now, and age has cleaned him up nicely. Back in the 1970s, his daughter used to joke that he looked like Wolfman Jack, long hair covering what he calls his “markers” (“your ears are just like a fingerprint”) and an alias, Dave Schoals, covering his tracks.

You never know what CIA folks are supposed to look like—they’re just out mowing the grass like my neighbor Rod Carlson used to do—and Sharp doesn’t seem particularly Mission: Impossible to me. Mostly just soft-spoken. But he occupies some rarefied territory: He was on the ground floor of Project AZORIAN, the code name the Agency bestowed upon its plan to recover K-129, and he’s the only CIA employee ever given a green light to write a book about it.

The US Navy had first crack at the sub. For a year, it kicked around plans that mostly involved floating the sub to the surface, but nothing stuck. So the problem got handed off to the CIA. “If we had any marine engineering experience,” Sharp says, “we would have never dared to take on the job.”

The CIA decided to turn to experts at Global Marine, a California drilling company. It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start. The first time two of its executives came to Langley, Sharp writes in his book, The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation, they were explicitly told to sign their hotel register as the bogus firm “Graham Pharmaceuticals,” which would have been fine if either man could spell “pharmaceuticals.”

But there was, at least, a plan. Global Marine could build the CIA a ship. A ship with 17,910 feet of steel pipe, pieced together in pairs of 30-foot sections—“doubles,” they were called—that would extend from above deck all the way to the ocean bottom. At the end of the pipe, there’d be a mammoth claw—known as the capture vehicle, or “Clementine”—that would scoop the Russian sub and cradle it on its journey up.

If you think spy stories involve miniature cameras and trench coats, try a 63,300-ton ship on for size. You can’t exactly build something that big without people noticing. So the folks at Global Marine proposed the cover of all covers: that the ship, the Glomar Explorer, pose as a vanity project of one of the world’s most eccentric billionaires, Howard Hughes (the Elon Musk of his day, you might say). Glomar would pretend to be a mining ship looking for untapped and potentially profitable mineral deposits.

The plan still makes Ray Feldman, an 81-year-old former Lockheed engineer who worked aboard Glomar, giddy. “That was the icing on the cake, getting Howard Hughes involved, ’cause he was known to do all sorts of wild stuff and he owned his company outright. Didn’t have to answer to stockholders. And he was weird. Everyone knew he was weird!”

The Navy was dubious. Sharp says one official put it like this: “They must be smoking something to even believe they can do that.”

A few months after my neighbor Pat passed away in 2012, her children put the house up for sale and we did what neighbors do at open houses: We snooped.

My wife and I walk down the block and enter the home, now empty, save for a piano the movers haven’t gotten out yet. A real-estate agent asks us to sign in. “Maybe we should make up Russian-sounding names like Olga and Boris,” my wife, Maya, jokes.

She goes upstairs, and I wander into the den, where a few straggler books linger on the shelves—some gardening titles, nothing much else of note. That’s when I see it, in a bronze dust jacket, sticking out like a sore thumb: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento.

As others stroll by, I peruse the index for Rod’s name. After his daughter’s who-killed-JFK remark, I found myself suddenly curious about what my neighbor had actually done at the CIA. Was he a desk guy? A field agent? Did he ever kill someone with an exploding pen?

The index lists a “Rodney Carlton,” with a “t,” on page 247. Mildly dejected about the misspelling, I skip back a couple hundred pages, expecting to find a sentence or two about the man I only knew when I saw him cleaning his gutters. Instead, I stumble head first into the mother lode. Rod is there all right, but not just in the author’s printed words. No—he has scribbled notes all over the pages. In a book about spies, my neighbor the spy took the time to correct the record. Repeatedly!

“Maya,” I whisper. “Come here, quick.”

“What is it?”

“Um, look at this. Act nonchalant.” We both start reading on page 246.

“Penkovsky passed more film in Moscow at the Queen’s Birthday reception at the British Embassy and at a Fourth of July celebration at the American Embassy.” I have no clue who Penkovsky is, but already I’m liking the Queen part. And Moscow, too! Then I see what Rod has written in the margin: “Wrong. No pass then.”


I skim farther down: “At this point, the British turned the operation over to the CIA out of fear of its being further compromised.” Rod underlined that sentence. “Wrong.”

Down again: “Penkovsky’s last attempt to deliver film at a U.S. Embassy reception on September 5 failed because he did not recognize Aybidian in the crowd.” This time Rod goes ballistic. “Totally wrong! Aybidian was long gone. P and I met but decided not to try a pass.”

He calls him “P”! I flip back a page or two so I can see what year we’re talking—1962. I flip back again, still trying to get the larger picture, and find this: “Penkovsky’s photographs caused hearts to swoon at the CIA. The pictures delivered across-the-board intelligence that meant Penkovsky had access to all sorts of Soviet military secrets.”

Here I am, surrounded by folks looking for Corian countertops and hardwood floors, reading furiously about spies in Moscow in ’62. The big picture finally emerges. It’s not all that difficult to grasp, especially when one sentence contains the phrase “Penkovsky’s sentence was death by firing squad” and the next chapter begins on an island south of Florida: My neighbor Rod was at the genesis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Passing film with one of the most infamous double agents in history!

My mind is racing in the best, most excited way. I want to get home and Google all this stuff, but there’s a more pressing issue. “Maya, um, how do you steal a book about spies from a dead spy’s house?”

She laughs. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious. This is going to be thrown out with the trash on Monday. We need to liberate it. Now!”

“You’re the chattiest Long Island Jew I know. You couldn’t steal anything! They’d torture you and you’d spill the beans in all of three seconds.”

Well, she has a point there but I’m not going to let Mr. Trento’s history with all of Rod’s annotations get tossed into a landfill. “Look,” she says, “you stay here. I’ll go distract the Realtor with some questions about the asking price, and then you can just put it under your sweater.”

Five minutes later, she returns and I’m still there. She’s right. I’d make a terrible spy.

The Glomar’s claws lift part of the sub in a painting by Gareth Hector called “We Are Limited Only by Our Imagination.” The sole way to see it until now was to get inside CIA headquarters, where it hangs in a corridor near a Starbucks. Painting courtesy of the CIA.

By the end of march 1974, the Glomar was ready to go. She had taken two years to complete—pretty quick, all things considered. “We’ve had houses in this neighborhood take longer than that,” Dave Sharp says, laughing.

But not everyone was entirely optimistic. “When we were getting ready to go to sea, I think at best we thought 50-50,” Ray Feldman says. The sea trials didn’t all go smoothly, Sharp explains, and prompted a couple of key personnel to quit “because of safety concerns.”

What kind of concerns?

“That the ship was gonna sink,” Sharp says.

See, there was a massive “moon pool” in the belly of the Glomar, and we’re not talking the cruise-ship variety. Sealed off from the rest of the ship, it was designed to open and welcome in the sub, then get drained once she was safely inside.

Before the sea trials, “we hadn’t thought that much about the dynamics of what happens when all that water is in there,” Sharp tells me. “We had 30-foot waves going up and down crashing into one end of the well.”

Like a tide within the ship? “More like a storm,” he says.

The men aboard Glomar were worried that any malfunction with the 17,910-foot-long pipe could send it rocketing back up past the moon pool and through the top of the boat. “The ship,” Sharp says, “would break in half.”

During the trials, Glomar had gone to Catalina Island to meet up with Clementine, the claw, which was built separately inside a barge. They were sunk in shallow water, in plain view of sunbathers. “It was a job to keep the boaters away,” Sharp says. “We had little powerboats with security warning people, ‘Don’t get close! Danger!’ We didn’t want anybody diving under the ship and seeing what was really being put into it.”

After dark, Glomar had positioned itself over the submerged barge. Retractable covers and doors on both were opened, and in one very secret coupling maneuver, the Glomar Explorer went from a “white” mining vessel to a “black” spy ship with a mission.

All of this was in Sharp’s book, though the first time he submitted his manuscript to the CIA’s publication review board, it came back with every single word redacted. “It was hostile. There were some suggestions that what I was doing was treasonous,” he recalls. “One of my good friends, a security officer on the mission, was adamant that nothing should be published.” He smiles. “Although he bought about 40 copies to give to his friends.”

He’s convinced larger issues are at work: “I’ve always speculated that perhaps the Agency has this feeling like they want to have one program that is never declassified. And they want AZORIAN to be that one.”

Illustration by Tod Detwiler.

On June 20, 1974, Glomar left her berth in Long Beach. By the Fourth of July, she was in place, floating over the target, about 1,500 miles off Hawaii. And she had company. For two weeks, the Soviet salvage ship SB-10 sat nearby and watched.

To the Russians, Glomar probably didn’t appear to be doing anything out of the ordinary. More likely, the sight of her was just a welcome distraction from the otherwise monotonous horizon. Above deck, every half hour or so, her crane would pick up another “double” of steel pipe and add it to the ever-lengthening extension. “Like a giant praying mantis,” Ray Feldman says.

Below deck was where the real action was. From Glomar’s underside, the pipe was extending farther and farther, its claw descending toward the sea floor, preparing for a feat unlike anything ever attempted—and you can take that all the way back to the Phoenicians.

The mangled sub, after all, wasn’t wrapped in a neat and tidy package. “It’s like trying to pick up a piece of Jell-O,” retired Global Marine engineer Sherman Wetmore says. “You go down with a fork, and maybe if it’s cold enough the Jell-O will stay together. Maybe.”

Global Marine had convinced the CIA there was only one way to do it: a “grunt lift.” Think of it like a dead lift at the gym. You reach down toward the floor, grab a barbell loaded with, say, 275 pounds, and in one smooth motion stand up. That’s it.

But put that same barbell aboard a rowboat in a choppy lake and try to do the same thing. Your balance is instantly challenged. Now attach millions of pounds of steel pipe and claw and, of course, a submarine, all while the seas of the Pacific Ocean swell.

Rock the boat, don’t rock the boat, baby.

Turkey had just invaded Cyprus, President Nixon was inching closer to resignation, and the Cold War was still icy. Everyone’s wearing bell-bottoms, all the guys have mustaches, and transistor radios crackle out the hits of the day. Rock the boat, don’t tip the boat over.

There were some mechanical hiccups that first month, but the pipe continued to make its way down, and by the beginning of August the tines of the capture vehicle were being forced into the soil around K-129. Her legs, designed to remain at the bottom—like the lower portion of the lunar module did on the moon—gave the initial stabilization she needed to break free of the sand, and Sherman Wetmore announced, “We have liftoff.”

Altogether, 17 million pounds, six years, and $500 million (more than $2 billion today) worth of unparalleled espionage by the Central Intelligence Agency hanging in the balance—the whole awkward configuration stretched like a rubber band.

Yet it worked. For the first time since March 1968, K-129 began to move.

Then, trouble.

Early on August 1, 1974, there was an issue with the heave compensator, the part of Glomar’s pipe-lifting system that made adjustments for the swells of the sea. As the crew worked to repair it, the capture vehicle and the sub were temporarily lowered back onto the ocean bottom.

Twenty hours later, the lifting resumed. By August 4, Clementine was up some 7,000 feet when the crew of Glomar suddenly felt a shudder. “I went up to the control center, and everything looked normal there,” Sharp says. “They’re all still looking at the submarine and the claws, and I said, ‘You know, you sure you got all the targets there?’ ”

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” came the response.

And then: “Oh, wait a minute—we haven’t refreshed the closed-circuit TV.”

“They were looking at old images,” Sharp says. “They refreshed the closed-circuit images and . . . gone.”

In an instant, a big chunk of K-129, six years in the taking, tumbled back to the ocean floor. After all that, Sharp says, “it fell away.”

The CIA is in a cheery mood one spring morning this year, which is a bit off-putting. I dialed the main switchboard to ask if the Agency was planning any special AZORIAN commemoration this summer and was connected to a woman named Lisa in the media department.

“I’m so glad you called!” she says, which is about the last thing you expect to hear when you phone the CIA. Truth be told, I was kind of hoping for a Glomar Response.

Photograph courtesy of The New York Times.

When the first snippets about the mission leaked in 1975, a media feeding frenzy ensued. One journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking facts about CIA contracts during Glomar’s construction. She was rebuffed, needless to say, but it’s how she was rebuffed that still resonates.

The Agency responded by saying—wait for it—that it “could neither confirm nor deny” the existence of such materials.

There’s a first time for everything, and in a way, Glomar was it for that choice bit of Washington-speak. A court fight between the media and the CIA catapulted the phrase into the vernacular. Since then, the phrase has become standard operating procedure for Agency lawyers, politicians playing defense, and teens trying to avoid Mom and Dad’s prying. So much so, it was even the first thing @CIA wrote when it joined Twitter this June.

The response worked just as well with the Russians as with reporters. Denying that the mission existed “would tell the Soviets that we didn’t recover any missiles,” Sharp says. “On the other hand, they can’t say we did get missiles.” The Glomar Response left the Russians in a sort of no man’s land, keeping them guessing about what was recovered.

“I have a feeling—just a feeling and no evidence—that it was kind of against international law to go poking around some other navy’s remains,” Sherman Wetmore tells me. “I’ll bet it had to have been a big embarrassment to the Russians—the Russian Navy and the Russian intelligence.”

I think of these things a few weeks after my chat with Lisa. I’m meeting with David Robarge, the CIA’s chief historian, and Toni Hiley, its museum director, and we’re all staring at a beautiful 38-by-48-inch canvas in a corridor at the Agency. (Finally I get to go inside the CIA, and instead of exploding pens I’m looking at art.)

Drawn in deep-blue hues, the eerily beautiful painting shows a crumpled submarine resting inside a huge claw. “We had very little in the way of resource material that we could give the artist,” Hiley says. “I had maybe seven or eight line drawings.”

You quickly realize this might be as good as it ever gets for Glomar. There are no existing photographs of this moment in history, just this one canvas hanging on a wall in a hall most Americans will never get to see. An hour earlier, Robarge, the historian, was explaining the Agency’s historical perspective in words that now seem ironic as we all gaze upon the secret artwork.

“The more the American public appreciate our successes and our failures, the challenges that we face, the complexities of the world as we address it throughout our history, they’ll have a much better appreciation for the work we do,” he said. “Maybe in the long term it will have a beneficial effect on the public perception of us. That we’re not a bunch of evil geniuses or incompetent dolts. . . . And that it’s not a mix of the two, either, because both are wrong. It’s something else in the middle, just a lot of hard-working intelligence people trying to approach complicated problems like ‘What about this submarine?’ in innovative and creative ways.”

After part of the sub fell away, and after some initial (highly unrealistic) demands from Langley that they try to pick it up again—Dave Sharp had the unenviable job of telling his bosses that was not in the cards—the Glomar crew continued pulling up pipe. Two-thirds of their haul might have fallen away, but the men aboard Glomar knew they still had something on the line.

As if this crisis weren’t stressful enough, that ragtag crew aboard the Soviet tugboat was only 150 feet away. The closer the remains (of the remains) of K-129 got to the underside of Glomar, the more she began to burp up bits and pieces of debris.

Were the Russians seeing this?

Nope. On August 6, 1974, with their lost submarine literally right under its nose, the Soviet boat decided it had seen enough of all this “deep ocean mining,” and left for home. As the tugboat passed Glomar for the final time, the Russians rendered an unexpected salute: They dropped their pants and mooned.

“The Soviets cheered and blew their whistle and took off across the horizon,” Sharp says. “We never saw ’em again.”

A month later, it was all over.

Even with the loss, we had managed to do the impossible, an effort so ambitious that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers cites AZORIAN as one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time.

And yet, 40 years later, the biggest question about Glomar lingers: What did we get?

Officially, that part of the tale is still top-secret.

There were the bodies of six Soviet sailors, buried at sea, but mostly, at least according to the old spies and contractors I know, the answer is always some version of “I’m not going to get into that too much.” They seem to hint that we didn’t hit a payload of intelligence. “The key thing we wanted to keep secret,” Sharp says coyly, “is how much did we learn. Or didn’t learn. Equally important.”

I ask Sharp if he got a slap on the back when he returned. “No, not that I recall,” he says. “It was an operational failure.” Wetmore puts a better spin on it: “Magnificent failure.”

“That’s the better story for AZORIAN,” says Robarge, the CIA historian. “It’s not that something happened to one of the claws and we lost a portion of it and we didn’t get out of it what we wanted. It’s that we even got there at all, to the point that we were already a third of a mile up and then catastrophe hit.”

Two weeks after the Glomar pulled up the piece of K-129, Sharp received a package aboard the ship. In it were the cremated remains of John Graham, the ship’s designer from Global Marine, who had died on shore while the mission was ongoing. “Just a plastic bag of ashes,” Sharp says. “He decided he wanted to be buried from that ship, that it was the finest thing he felt he’d ever done in his career.”

Ten years after my neighbor Rod Carlson passed away and three years after Pat followed, I finally had a chance to speak with their daughter. Ingrid Carlson is 52 and still lives in Arlington. She’s an accountant.

We laugh about my inability to “steal” the CIA history book from her parents’ empty home. “You just walk out with it,” Ingrid says over the phone without hesitation, and I can see she’s got her father’s genes.

I ask her when she discovered what her parents did for a living.

“I guess Dad told us when I was in high school. But I have to say that it went over my shoulders. When you’re that age, you’re only worried about what’s going on in your own life. It just seemed so normal. I didn’t think anything about it until I was much older.” She pauses for a second and then adds, “Until you go out into the real world and realize how boring your job is.”

Her mother and father met on a blind date at the Agency, she tells me, and Dad would dress up as Abe Lincoln for Halloween when she was little. Ingrid also tells a funny story—or maybe not so funny—about the family’s time in Moscow when she was just a year old and her sister, Karen, was born.

“Mom was supposed to fly to Copenhagen to have the baby, because who would want to have a baby in a Moscow hospital back then?” But her mother went into labor early and that’s exactly what happened. So the spy who was secretly meeting with a soon-to-be-executed Russian double agent was now dependent on a Soviet hospital to deliver his daughter. “I remember my dad saying they were leaving the hospital in the middle of the night and cars started following them.”

You always want to know more before it’s too late. I was just a neighbor, and I wanted to know more. Ingrid was his daughter.

“I wanted to ask him a lot more questions, but he died so suddenly,” she says. “Why didn’t I ask those?” She knows the answer. All the spy stories, all the danger, her entire youth—“It was just a blur to me. He was just my dad.”

Ray Feldman knows this feeling, too. He’s very close with his daughter. “Maybe a month or two ago,” he tells me, “she said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I’ve always considered you my hero.’ She said that. That was kind of nice.”

Dave Sharp, who didn’t even own a dinghy before he became involved in AZORIAN, now can’t get away from the water. He still holds out hope that a movie studio will do for Glomar what it did for Argo. “We have had some interest from a company called Mainline Pictures, which had a big hit in January called Texas Chainsaw 3D. But I don’t think they’re . . . .” His voice trails off.

With a promise to get together sometime, I hang up with Ingrid and get ready to walk my dog past the house where her mom and dad once lived. I wonder if the curtains will still sway.

Matt Mendelsohn ( is a writer and photographer in Northern Virginia. This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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29 Aug 04:15

Libertários deveriam aceitar mais repressão às drogas em troca de menos impostos e privatizações?

by Valdenor Júnior

Por Valdenor Júnior

O candidato Batista é um conservador ou um libertário muito pragmático? A questão foi muito debatida recentemente em seguida ao meu texto “Contra o conservadorismo travestido de liberalismo nas eleições e na mídia“, em fóruns de discussão nas redes sociais compostos por liberais e libertários.

O programa dele, de fato, é muito mais parecido com um programa do Partido Republicano do que do Partido Libertário, se compararmos com o cenário dos Estados Unidos. A ênfase na privatização e no corte de impostos, associado com a proposta de alterar a atual política da prefeitura de São Paulo de redução de danos em relação às drogas (especificamente, o problema social relativo à dependência do crack na chamada “cracolândia”) para uma política de tolerância zero com o usuário e o traficante, portanto, uma política mais repressiva, usando como exemplo o que foi aplicado em Nova York.

 paulo(Como já mostrado no texto anterior, isso faz parte da campanha oficial dele, grifos nosso)

Então, isso sinalizaria que ele seria um candidato conservador. Mas várias pessoas reclamaram que isso não era verdade, e disseram que ele se considera um libertário, que em alguns momentos ele teria dito que era um, etc. Para tentar solucionar esta controvérsia, algumas pessoas fizeram perguntas a ele mais explícitas sobre as drogas, e em geral as respostas foram evasivas, nenhuma na qual afirmasse ser a favor da legalização. Mas, na última quarta-feira (26/08/2014), finalmente obtiveram uma resposta direta, a partir da postagem de um mene que sugeria uma maior abragência ao “raio privatizador”:


Após isso, outra pessoa pediu uma resposta direta sobre a “tolerância zero” contida em seu programa oficial, ao que Batista respondeu:

“Olá caro amigo,

1) Sou contra o incentivo do Estado, conhecido como bolsa crack, e com a apropriação de uma região da cidade por usuários da droga e por traficantes, considero isso uma violação ao PNA ferindo dois princípios fundamentais, a liberdade e a propriedade, sendo direitos fundamentais eles precedem a discussão da “guerra das drogas” (deixando claro que eu como um Libertário respeito a liberdade individual do individuo em usar entorpecentes). Quando gravei o vídeo da minha campanha na região conhecida como crackôlandia, fui recebido com pedaços de paus e pedradas dos viciados, pude ouvir da população várias reclamações sobre assaltos e roubos nas redondezas que fazem com que os moradores evitem tal área, além disso, as propriedades próximas a região sofreram forte desvalorização.

2) Eu como candidato a deputado estadual não legislo sobre a política de drogas, ficando a cargo dos deputados federais.

Espero ter respondido seus questionamentos, obrigado pela visita.”

Foi questionado novamente, nesse mesmo post,  para falar diretamente da tolerância zero, e esclarecê-la, mas nenhuma resposta mais foi fornecida até a publicação deste texto.

Vamos resumir essas respostas mais seu programa, para entender o que Batista propõe: 1) É favorável à legalização do consumo de drogas (não falou diretamente sobre o comércio, mas acho que ficou implícito); 2) É contra o bolsa-crack (apelido pejorativo atribuído ao programa social Braços Abertos) porque este seria uma forma de financiar o consumo com dinheiro dos impostos; 3) É contra a continuação da existência da “cracolândia”, porque esta consistiria em uma apropriação de uma região da cidade por usuários de drogas e traficantes, com assaltos, roubos, e desvalorização de propriedade; 4) Defende a tolerância zero com o usuário e com o traficante (repressão); 5) Irá falar na Assembléia Legislativa em defesa da legalização das drogas; 6) Propõe tratamento sério ao dependente, acompanhamento psicológico e reintegração social; 7) Governo estadual deverá recuperar áreas degradadas, “estabelecendo políticas habitacionais e incentivos fiscais para cidadãos e empresas que venham a ocupar tais espaços – locais hoje tomados por traficantes, prostitutas e usuários de crack“.

A questão é: como tudo isso pode ser satisfeito simultaneamente? Como um candidato pode defender a legalização das drogas no longo prazo, mas fortalecer a repressão no curto? Como a “cracolândia” irá desaparecer por intermédio de suas propostas de tolerância zero + tratamento de dependentes +políticas habitacionais e incentivos fiscais para cidadãos e empresas ocuparem os espaços, sem ferir ainda mais a liberdade? Algumas opções: prendendo traficantes e usuários; internando compulsoriamente todos os usuários, de modo que os traficantes irão embora; usando da política pública (habitacional e fiscal) e da polícia para “higienizar” a área, expulsando habitantes marginalizados. Mas isso realmente seria um ganho de liberdades individuais em relação ao “bolsa crack”?

A política de tolerância zero mencionada como exemplo (Nova York) baseava-se na “teoria das janelas quebradas”, onde punir pequenos delitos automaticamente, com detenções e/ou detenções seguidas de obrigação de comparecer em juízo (cujo não comparecimento pode resultar em prisão), poderia desestimular o crime mais grave, ao estabelecer a ordem pública necessária para que os cidadãos tenham uma sensação de segurança e controle sobre as ruas.

Exemplos de pequenos delitos: vadiagem, embriaguez pública (ou simplesmente beber em público), urinar em público, prostituição de rua, mendicância agressiva, senhorios que alugam a baixo custo em bairros mais pobres que aceitam pequenos traficantes de drogas como inquilinos, pichação, delitos menores relacionados às drogas, etc.

De fato, em termos mais gerais de Estados Unidos, a tolerância zero em matéria de drogas significa ter como alvo os usuários de drogas, ao invés dos transportadores ou vendedores, sob o pressuposto de que sentenças duras e a imposição estrita da lei quanto ao uso pessoal reduziria a demanda, e, portanto, a causa do tráfico de drogas. Portanto, tolerância zero significa uma imposição mais rígida da proibição das drogas, com um policiamento mais agressivo cujo alvo são pessoas que cometem delitos não tão graves assim.

Batista afirma ser contra a apropriação de parte da cidade por traficantes e usuários, porque esta seria uma violação ao princípio de não (iniciação da) agressão por parte deles. A agressão consistiria nos relatos de assaltos nas redondezas e na desvalorização das propriedades. Queria entender bem também o que se entende por “apropriação de parte da cidade”. Um morador de rua apropria-se de parte do espaço público ao dormir ou vagar por ali? Ou um conjunto de moradores de rua apropriam-se indevidamente de um espaço público ao dormirem ou vagarem por ali? Ele também não deixa bem claro o que entenderia por isso, mas afirma que esta seria a causa de assaltos e desvalorização de imóveis na região, o que feriria o direito à propriedade.

Ou seja, trocando em miúdos: Batista quer que os moradores de rua (parte deles ao menos) saíam dali, porque aí deixaria de existir apropriação do espaço público. Como? Se seguirmos ao pé da letra, ele estaria defendendo uma política baseada na detenção pelo uso de drogas, mas, mesmo que queira argumentar futuramente que quer apenas prender aqueles que roubarem, fica a pergunta: como isso cessaria a desvalorização das propriedades e a “apropriação de parte do espaço urbano pelo fato das pessoas morarem e vagarem por ali”?

Para que Batista cumpra sua promessa, é preciso remoção de um contingente significativo de pessoas, e isso, no mínimo, demandaria ou detenção de usuários ou sua internação compulsória, e, acessoriamente, o uso da política pública (habitacional e fiscal) e da polícia para que outras pessoas ocupem os espaços com a saída dos habitantes marginalizados, inviabilizando o retorno destes nas mesmas proporções (o que ele de fato defendeu, inclusive, mencionando pejorativamente as prostitutas ).

Usar uma política de tolerância zero para com o uso de crack para acabar com a “cracolândia” (por intermédio de alguns dos ou todos os instrumentos supracitados) significa tornar essa população um alvo ainda mais vulnerável da repressão policial, como o neurocientista Carl Hart comentou, em entrevista, que o mesmo ocorreu nos Estados Unidos:

“Vendo a experiência brasileira, acho que vocês vão reviver o pesadelo que vivemos nos anos 80. E o pesadelo não é o crack em si, mas as políticas públicas que surgem como resultado do seu uso. Quando o crack fica fora de controle e quando a população tem a noção disto, o governo dá permissão à polícia para que ela faça o que for preciso. Algumas das medidas serão pessoas mortas, presas e daí por diante. E isto terá a aprovação da sociedade.”

Não consigo entender, portanto, como reprimir usuários por meio da coerção estatal seja ferir menos a liberdade do que a desvalorização de imóveis. O que nos leva a outro ponto.

Batista propõe a tolerância zero como substituto ao “bolsa crack”, que ele deseja abolir. Mas o programa “Braços Abertos” (denominado pejorativamente de bolsa crack) é um exemplo de política de drogas que nós chamamos de “redução de danos”, que é muito menos repressiva, coercitiva e violenta que a política de tolerância zero!

Segundo a International Harm Reduction Association,

“Redução de danos refere-se às políticas, programas e práticas que buscam reduzir os danos associados com o uso de drogas psicoativas em pessoas incapazes ou indispostas a parar. As características-chave são o foco na prevenção do dano, ao invés da prevenção no uso da droga por si só, e o foco sobre pessoas que continuam a usar drogas.” (tradução livre)

A redução de danos coloca-se, portanto, entre a total legalização e a total repressão às drogas, uma vez que retira o fardo da repressão e do encarceramento que seria imposto ao usuário em um regime de tolerância zero.

A prefeitura Haddad, independente de críticas que possam ser dirigidas ao formato do programa Braços Abertos, adotou a política de redução de danos, reduzindo a repressão e coerção sofridas pelos dependentes de crack em situação de marginalização. Esse tipo de política é mais liberal do que propor mais repressão e coerção como faz Batista.

Então, resta demonstrado que a proposta de Batista, no que se refere às drogas, é mais coerção, mais repressão, mais restrição à liberdade de um grupo relativamente marginalizado. Ou, pelo menos, se ele pretender de fato cumpri-la, não tem como evitar tal resultado.

Mas alguns defendem que o combate ao crack é uma troca menor que libertários deveriam estar dispostos a fazer para ter mais privatizações e cortes de impostos.

Em fóruns de discussão nas redes sociais, vi autodeclarados anarcocapitalistas defendendo que falar contra o programa Braços Abertos dá voto, e devemos ceder, pragmaticamente, neste ponto, já que, assim, poderíamos eleger um candidato liberal.

O que esses libertários estão dizendo é: deveríamos aceitar uma política de drogas mais repressiva em troca de mais privatizações e cortes de impostos.

E isso é um absurdo, um grave equívoco.

A legalização das drogas é uma das pautas mais urgentes de nosso tempo. O sofrimento, o encarceramento, a violência homicida, as limitações sobre as liberdades civis, os pretextos para brutalidade policial, e a fonte de financiamento rápido para o crime organizado que a guerra às drogas gerou são muito maiores do que qualquer dano que o consumo de drogas causaria aos seus usuários, e o benefício da legalização em reduzir privações de direitos básicos como vida e liberdade é maior do que o de realizar privatizações e corte de impostos para reduzir restrições ao exercício da propriedade privada (onde, inclusive, ainda há o risco de focar-se na privatização ao invés da liberalização, esta última sim o mais importante, e de privatizar-se de maneiras que nem economistas liberais como Milton Friedman concordariam).

Falando em Milton Friedman, os liberais brasileiros deveriam se inspirar nele, ao invés de adotar um pragmatismo que não compreende ou entende superficialmente a grande agressão que a guerra às drogas causa a todos nós, em especial aos menos favorecidos. Em entrevista à Folha, assim se pronunciou:

“Folha – “Legalize já”?

Milton Friedman – Sim. É imoral que os Estados Unidos proíbam as chamadas drogas ilegais. Sou a favor da legalização de todas as drogas, não apenas da maconha. O atual estado das coisas é uma desgraça social e econômica. Veja o que acontece todos os anos neste país: colocamos milhares de jovens na prisão, jovens que deveriam estar se preparando para o seu futuro, não sendo afastados da sociedade. Além disso, matamos milhares de pessoas todos os anos na América Latina, principalmente na Colômbia, na tal “Guerra contra as Drogas”.
Nós proibimos o uso das drogas, mas não podemos garantir que elas não sejam de fato consumidas. Isso só leva à corrupção, à violação de direitos civis. Acho que o programa contra as drogas dos EUA é uma monstruosidade e ele é que devia ser eliminado. A maconha é apenas um pequeno pedaço desse problema, mas essa equação pode ser aplicada a qualquer droga hoje em dia ilegal.”

Acreditar que assistência social a dependentes de crack paga por meio de impostos seja tão ruim quanto a repressão a eles por meio da polícia e do aparato punitivo estatal é uma postura que fere todo bom senso e rejeita a tradição liberal de reduzir os danos que o Estado causa aos menos favorecidos.

Isso desconsidera como a própria guerra às drogas estatal tem contribuído para cenários de marginalização como os que vemos na cidade de São Paulo, e que o problema social gerado pela proibição das drogas precisa ser lidado de forma criativa e sensível por liberais comprometidos com o maior bem-estar aos menos favorecidos. Se o Estado causou estas injustiças, há um dever de retificação, que, inclusive, justificaria programas de assistência no curto prazo (aplicando-se um argumento mais geral e abstrato usado por Robert Nozick), independente se o Braços Abertos é a melhor forma de fazê-lo ou não.

Contudo, perceba: mesmo que você rejeite qualquer programa de assistência no curto prazo (e, por exemplo, apoia programas de assistência voluntários), equivaler o equívoco do governo gastar impostos na reabilitação de dependentes de crack aos custos humanos da repressão total às drogas é afirmar que menos “x” reais no bolso dos pagadores de impostos seja tão ruim quanto vidas arruinadas pelo encarceramento em massa por crimes sem vítima ou pela violência gerada desnecessariamente.

Aceitar uma guerra às drogas mais repressiva, mesmo que temporariamente, para obter em troca privatizações e cortes de impostos, é coadunar com a intensificação de uma das formas mais brutas de injustiça estatal, internalizar a lógica do poder, e abertamente promover uma política estatal que promove mais marginalização e exclusão e privação de direitos civis dessas pessoas à margem da sociedade.

Em suma, esse liberalismo fora de contexto, que aceita tal pragmatismo (ao ponto de adotar uma agenda conservadora estranha ao pensamento liberal), acaba resultando em pretexto à injustiça social e econômica, ao aceitar o fortalecimento de uma política que arruína vidas e liberdades civis em troca de uma leve diminuição da carga tributária.


Valdenor Júnior é advogado. Editor no site Mercado Popular. Escreve também para o site internacional Centro por uma Sociedade sem Estado (C4SS) e para o site brasileiro Liberzone, e mantém o blog pessoal Tabula (não) Rasa & Libertarianismo Bleeding Heart. Seus principais interesses são filosofia política liberal, economia mainstream e institucional, ciência evolucionária, naturalismo filosófico, teoria naturalizada do Direito, direito internacional dos direitos humanos e psicologia cognitiva.

29 Aug 06:46

Who’s Serving Who?

by Greg Ross

This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.

On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”

“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”

28 Aug 18:36

Death Valley's sailing stones mystery solved - Unexplained Mysteries

One of Death Valley's mysterious sailing stones. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 Pirate Scott

A team of researchers has finally managed to explain how such large boulders can move all by themselves.

The phenomenon, which was discovered in the 1940s, pertains to the inexplicable movement of extremely heavy boulders across a dry lake bed situated in Death Valley National Park.

Nobody has ever seen the boulders move directly but long trails left behind them in the sand seem to suggest that they have somehow traversed significant distances all by themselves. Some of the rocks that have shifted even weigh upwards of 320kg.

In an effort to solve the mystery once and for all a team of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography visited the site in 2011 and set up a high-resolution weather station and 15 rocks fitted with GPS devices to measure even the slightest movements with impeccable accuracy.

It would take a further two years for anything to happen, but eventually during a visit to the site in December 2013 the team discovered that the area had been submerged in 3 inches of water.

As it turned out the movement of the rocks occurs under a very specific set of circumstances that requires there to be just enough water to cover the ground but not enough to submerge the rocks. The actual movement occurs due to a combination of strong winds, the freezing of the water during the night and the thawing of the ice by the hot sun during the day.

"It's possible that tourists have actually seen this happening without realising it," said co-author Jim Norris. "It is really tough to gauge that a rock is in motion if all the rocks around it are also moving."

Source: Scripps | Comments (0)

Tags: Death Valley, Sailing Stones

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04 Aug 02:42

Short-eared dog? Uncovering the secrets of one of the Amazon's most mysterious mammals

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Bichinho legal.

Meet Oso: how a 'pet' short-eared dog helped scientists shed light on this cryptic carnivore

Oso, the short-eared dog that revealed the secrets of his species, at age four. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Oso, the short-eared dog that revealed the secrets of his species, at age four. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

Fifteen years ago, scientists knew next to nothing about one of the Amazon's most mysterious residents: the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis). Although the species was first described in 1883 and is considered the sole representative of the Atelocynus genus, biologists spent over a century largely in the dark about an animal that seemed almost a myth. But all this changed when veterinarian and researcher, Renata Leite Pitman, embarked on a long-term study of these enigmatic carnivores, even having the good fortune of being guided by a semi-wild short-eared dog named Oso.

"My first thought when I heard about this ghost-like animal was that people must have been mistaking it for a similar-looking species, like a tayra or a jaguarundi," Leite Pitman told "So I looked into the literature on the short-eared dog and found it was full of contradictions. One book had it occurring in this region, the other didn't. One said the species was diurnal, and the other nocturnal. This mismatching information made me very curious,"

In fact, here was a good-sized mammal—a carnivore nonetheless—that was totally unheard of outside the Amazon and even little-known by locals there.

Although Leite Pitman first heard of the short-eared dog in 2000, it's taken the dauntless scientist over a decade to begin to piece together some of the basic behaviors of this enigmatic canine. For one thing, Leite Pitman has discovered that while the short-eared dog prefers meat when it can get it, it's actually a major fruit-eater. The species even plays a vital role in the Amazon ecosystem by dispersing the seeds of many key plants. Leite Pitman and her team also discovered the short-eared dog depends a lot on another cryptic mammal, the giant armadillo, for its burrows, which the short-eared dog squats in once the armadillo has done the hard work of digging them out.

Before releasing Oso into the wild in 2010, Renata Leite Pitman (left) and Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia (right) do one last check-up. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Before releasing Oso into the wild in 2010, Renata Leite Pitman (left) and Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia (right) do one last check-up. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Finally, although a capable predator—tackling small mammals and large birds—the short-eared dog is just as often prey: Leite Pitman and her team have recorded short-eared dogs being killed by boa constrictors and jaguars, not to mention human hunters as well. In one case, Leite Pitman lost a short-eared dog she was tracking via radio signal to a big snake.

"We got there and found the signal going straight to a four-meter long, 40-kilogram boa constrictor. This was one kilometer from the house were I lived with my husband and two kids. So while we were measuring the boa it started to regurgitate the dog. Unfortunately this is not the Little Red Riding Hood story, and the dog was dead," Leite Pitman noted.

While Leite Pitman has succeeded in radio-collaring several wild short-eared dogs and tracking their movements, her most important subject has been a dog named Oso.

"In December 2006, a logger found a [short-eared dog] puppy in the woods near Puerto Maldonado and took him to the Puerto Maldonado market. The puppy was bought by a local for 50 soles, and taken to his farm near the border with Brazil, where he was raised with domestic dogs," explained Leite Pitman.

Eventually, Leite Pitman obtained Oso and the permits required to study this semi-wild short-eared dog. Taking Oso on structured walks, Leite Pitman and her team were able to monitor what foods he preferred, how he behaved around other species, and, most importantly, how he related to other short-eared dogs, including interested females. One of the most important discoveries was that male short-eared dogs don't hit sexual maturity until three years of age, when their testicles descend (before this Leite Pitman thought about renaming the dog the "small-balled dog") and they start making weird sounds.

The handsome Oso at age two. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
The handsome Oso at age two. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
"[Oso] started to make complex calls, similar to some species of owl calls. We recorded these sounds and played them in an area where we know a female lives, and the female came right away. Sexual maturity at three years is kind of late for a dog, and very important data for a species action plan," said Leite Pitman.

The team released Oso into the wild in 2010—and was able to track him for the next three years—before his collar ran down.

The short-eared dog is only found in the Amazon Rainforest, distinguishing it from many other Amazon mammals—such as jaguars, tapirs, bushdogs, anteaters, and armadillos—which are also found in a variety of other ecosystems. This means the short-eared dog depends wholly on the health and survival of the world's largest tropical forest, which is imperiled by deforestation, mining, road-building, fossil fuel exploitation, and climate change.

But Leite Pitman says the other big threat to the short-eared dog in particular is its distant relative: the domestic dog.

"Domestic dogs are everywhere, and hunters take them into the forest 10, 20 kilometers away from towns. Since most dogs carry distemper and parvo viruses, hunting dogs inoculate powerful and deadly viruses deep in the forest. Parvovirus is active in any secretion of a contaminated animal, and can survive in the environment for up to one year," Leite Pitman explained.

In a 2014 interview with, Renata Leite Pitman talks about how the short-eared dog first came to her attention, how she's managed to track and catch so many individuals, and the rocky future for this still little-known mammal.


Flying over the seemingly endless forest of the West Amazon, while searching for short-eared dogs. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Flying over the seemingly endless forest of the West Amazon, while searching for short-eared dogs. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Mongabay: What's your background? Renata Leite Pitman: I am a Brazilian Wildlife Veterinary Doctor with a Masters in forest sciences. During vet school I worked at a local zoo as a lab technician for six years, and after getting my degree 22 years ago I started to work with wild animals in nature. I worked first with capybaras on an island off the Atlantic coast of Brazil, and since then have worked with jaguars and pumas in Brazil, carnivores in northern India, swallow-tailed kites in the U.S., and endangered mammals in Peru.

I took a course in wildlife conservation and management at the Wildlife Institute of India, where my grandfather is from, and a course in Amazonian forest ecology at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil. In 2003, after working in one of the most remote areas in the Peruvian Amazon, the Alto Purus region, my husband and I edited a book as part of a campaign to create a national park there. The wind blew in our favor, and one year after our book was published the 2.5 million-hectare Alto Purus National Park was created in the area, the largest park in Peru. Assuring the protection of places is my ultimate goal, and I am also glad to have worked towards creating a State Park next to my house in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Serra da Baitaca State Park) and an Ecological Station on the island where I studied capybaras (Ilha do Mel Ecological Station).

Mongabay: Considering that the short-eared dog is one of the least known large mammals in the Amazon, how did you first find out about it? Renata Leite Pitman: It was March 2000. I had just arrived in North Carolina at the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University to help Dr. John Terborgh analyze 5,000 canopy photographs from Peru. One day Dr. Terborgh mentioned that during the first 20 years he worked in Cocha Cashu Biological Station the short-eared dog was never seen despite intensive mammal surveys, but that since 1990 it had been sighted at least once a year.

Short-eared dog, Lacy, at one of her dens in 2005. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Short-eared dog, Lacy, at one of her dens in 2005. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

My first thought when I heard about this ghost-like animal was that people must have been mistaking it for a similar-looking species, like a tayra or a jaguarundi. So I looked into the literature on the short-eared dog and found it was full of contradictions. One book had it occurring in this region, the other didn't. One said the species was diurnal, and the other nocturnal. This mismatching information made me very curious. So I decided to interview the people who claimed to have seen the short-eared dog at Cocha Cashu. And I got very surprised to see that their description matched perfectly with the short-eared dog. At that point I had started on a trip with no return.

Mongabay: What draws you to this species? Renata Leite Pitman: Basically curiosity and fate. I marveled at John Terborgh's stories about Cocha Cashu The way he spoke about the place, and about this ghost animal, was so emphatic that it still echoes in my mind. Working every day with thousands of hemispherical photos of Cashu's trees and thinking about the 10 sightings of the short-eared dog left me no doubt that I should be there. That is when he offered me an opportunity to go to Cocha Cashu to help manage the station and conduct a basic search for the species. I headed to Cocha Cashu for three months, not imagining that I would spend the next 14 years in Peru working with the species. The bait was set, and I was trapped.

Mongabay: This animal has its own genus. What do researchers think that it's most related to? Renata Leite Pitman: I think most researchers agree that the species is most related to another forest dog, the bush-dog (Speothos venaticus). The two coexist in the Amazon, and at the same sites. However, the bush dog can be found in other ecosystems, like savannas, wetlands, and dry forest, while, as far as I can tell, the short-eared dog is an Amazonian endemic. Its distribution overlaps a little with that of the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) and some individuals of Cerdocyon have been confused as Atelocynus. In some camera trap pictures, the two species look really similar.


Pitman with the first-ever tagged short-eared dog in 2002. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Pitman with the first-ever tagged short-eared dog in 2002. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Mongabay: You've managed to capture five short-eared dogs and collar them to track their movements. How did you manage to find and capture such a rare and elusive animal? Renata Leite Pitman: By being persistent. By learning from scratch, dedicating lots of time to observations and tests, and hiring field assistants as persistent as I am. No one had any experience trapping this species. Trapping them was very time-consuming, and it required 14 years working in the Amazon, five of them living full-time in a biological station. I tested several kinds of traps and baits for the species.

Mongabay: What have you learned from radio-collaring these dogs?

A wild short-eared dog caring a fruit in the Pouteria species. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
A wild short-eared dog caring a fruit in the Pouteria species. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Renata Leite Pitman: Tracking animals in the Amazon isn't easy, because the dense forest makes it difficult to spot them and hard to transmit signals (VHF and GPS). This means animals have to be tracked from a very short distance. Short-eared dogs are very suspicious animals, and not at all easy to observe.

With camera traps we have recorded more than 100 photos of the species under different situations, and the time those pictures were taken show us that they are partly diurnal, partly nocturnal, with peaks of activity around dawn and dusk. Through captures and radio-collaring, we learned that a female gave birth right at the peak of fruiting season, and concentrated her movements around some species of fruits she preferred. We learned that the dogs have a sort of daily routine, spending about two hours resting in shelters (mostly burrows made by giant armadillos) and two hours walking. We learned that males are very territorial and do not accept other males in their areas. We learned that they eat several species of fruit, that they hunt and kill large birds and small mammals, and that they can eat carcasses of large animals, around which they spend several days. We observed a mother leave its territory to its six month-old baby and establish a new home range several miles away. We have learned about their predators, their diet, their shelters, and the areas they use to live.

Mongabay: You've discovered that these dogs eat a lot of fruit—was this surprising? Does this mean the dog may play an important role as seed disperser? Renata Leite Pitman: I suspected they ate fruit, but I was surprised to see how many different kinds of fruit they eat and how often they eat it. And yes, the dog does play an important role as a seed disperser.

Mongabay: One of your study dogs was eaten by a boa constrictor. Will you tell us about this and what other species prey on them?

Measuring the four-meter long boa that ate one of the tagged females, Lacy. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Measuring the four-meter long boa that ate one of the tagged females, Lacy. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: This was a young male dog that was establishing his home-range. He basically repeated the same movement every day, from his den to a place a mile away and back. But one day he stopped in the middle and stayed there. His collar had an activity signal, so we could see he was moving, but within a very small area. We got there and found the signal going straight to a four-meter long, 40-kilogram boa constrictor. This was 1 kilometer from the house were I lived with my husband and two kids. So while we were measuring the boa it started to regurgitate the dog. Unfortunately this is not the Little Red Riding Hood story, and the dog was dead.

Another dog that we were monitoring spent part of the night inside a giant armadillo burrow, which he left at 2 AM (recorded by camera trap). At 6 AM we found him killed by a jaguar, and we found his hair in the jaguar's scat a few days later.

A man killed one short-eared dog in Alto Purus, saying he had confused it with an agouti. Also in Alto Purus, a baby was found and raised on a manioc mush diet, and died a short while later.

Mongabay: You've also discovered that short-eared dogs depend on giant armadillos. What's the relationship here? Renata Leite Pitman: Short-eared dogs are very subtle and delicate animals. They need to hide from jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and the large herds of peccaries in the region. Giant armadillo burrows offer them a great refuge, and we have documented one dog using up to 13 different burrows in one day, and several other species using those same burrows on the same day.


Oso on his leash at age three. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Oso on his leash at age three. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Renata Leite Pitman: Tracking animals in the Amazon isn't easy, because the dense forest makes it difficult to spot them and hard to transmit signals (VHF and GPS). This means animals have to be tracked from a very short distance. Short-eared dogs are very suspicious animals, and not at all easy to observe.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about Oso? Renata Leite Pitman: In December 2006, a logger found a puppy in the woods near Puerto Maldonado and took him to the Puerto Maldonado market. The puppy was bought by a local for 50 soles, and taken to his farm near the border with Brazil, where he was raised with domestic dogs. At this time, Oso (the name given to the puppy by his first owner) was around three months old. It didn't take long for this story to reach me, and in January 2007 a friend gave me the picture below. Knowing what a rare event this was, and thinking it might be a great opportunity to learn more about the ecology of the species, I immediately got in touch with INRENA (Peru's National Environmental Agency) to understand the legal requirements to conduct field research with the animal.

Oso as a puppy. This photo alerted Pitman to the captive short-eared dog pup. Photo by: JJ Escudero.
Oso as a puppy in December 2006. This photo alerted Pitman to the captive short-eared dog pup. Photo by: JJ Escudero.

In February 2008, when Oso was a year and a half old, INRENA endorsed our study and ACCA approved our research at the Los Amigos Biological Station, where we have been studying the short-eared dog population since 2003. After quarantining at the Amazon Shelter in Puerto Maldonado and vaccinating to prevent any transmission of disease to wildlife, I took Oso to Los Amigos. My goal was to take Oso on structured walks through an area of forest that approximated the range size of adult short-eared dogs (about seven square kilometers), and record his behavior towards other species and maybe other individuals of the same species. These walks included documenting foraging behavior in the field and testing whether Oso was an effective disperser of the fruits he consumed.

Key to the success of the study was Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia, an excellent local field assistant. Emeterio, like many others in the local community, came to Madre de Dios from the Cusco region 20 years ago dreaming about gold. Like other miners, he made some money and hunted in the region until 2004, when I hired him to open up some trails. As soon as I met him I knew he was made for much bigger things and time proved me right: Emeterio turns out to be one of the brightest people I have ever met.

With his natural talent, he quickly made Oso comfortable on the trail system at CICRA, took video footage of Oso's behavior towards several species of predators and prey, and even more exciting, documented (with video, pictures, and very good written descriptions) encounters with wild short-eared dogs. On February11th 2009, while Emeterio was walking Oso on the leash in the woods, a wild male followed them for 15 minutes. On May 18th 2009, while Emeterio was walking with Oso, a female approached them and followed them for one hour. Emeterio documented their mating behavior, the first ever recorded in the wild, although copulation wasn't possible because Oso was on the leash.

During one of the walks with Oso on a leash to accustom him to the forest, he was followed by a wild female in heat for an hour. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
During one of the walks with Oso on a leash to accustom him to the forest, he was followed by a wild female in heat for an hour. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

As soon as I saw the opportunity to film the species' mating behavior, I started to search for the technology that would do the trick. That is when I found the crittercam, a Nat Geo device to capture images from an animal's point of view. So I wrote a proposal and got the crittercam team interested. I wrote a proposal for the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, and got their support to deploy a crittercam on Oso to film his mating behavior with the female, and then release him with a GPS/VHF devices.

So everything was set. We had a permit from INRENA, equipment from NGS/Waitt, the field team on site (including a biologist and engineer from NGS), Oso ready to go, and a female short-eared dog in heat spotted at 6 AM. At 9 AM we released Oso just where the female was spotted a few hours before. We expect him to romance her, get images for us, and return to sleep in the cage where he had slept for the past 2.5 years. But we were wrong. It took him 10 days to return, and when he came back he didn't have the crittercam. He had lost it somewhere, and although it was equipped with a tiny radio transmitter and we made an incredible effort to find it from the ground and from 60-meter towers, we didn't find it. So we decided to postpone Oso's release, in order to have another crittercam sent to us. Then something happened that we really didn't expect: a wild male came after Oso, walking into the middle of the station, and stopping to pee at the places where Oso liked to pee.

Wild male in the station. On releasing Oso, the team expected to take videos of him meeting with the female in the forest, but instead got several photos and video of a wild male coming after him, showing very territorial behavior. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Wild male in the station. On releasing Oso, the team expected to take videos of him meeting with the female in the forest, but instead got several photos and video of a wild male coming after him, showing very territorial behavior. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

Mongabay: Tell us how Oso has contributed to your research? Renata Leite Pitman: He contributed enormously to what we know about the ecology of the species. We have done several food preference studies, indicating that whenever he had meat and fruit available, he chose meat. With so many competitors in the forest, this might be the most critical item in their diet. To learn what attracts the species to a certain place in the forest (which is important to know for trapping), I hid all kinds of baits in the forest while my assistant walked with him and filmed his reaction towards specific baits. We also set audio recordings of predators and prey to see how he reacted. When we exposed him to old jaguar scat he didn't react, but when we exposed him to fresh jaguar scat or played a recorded jaguar sound, he got crazy and ran away. Since he was removed from nature at a very young age, he probably didn't learn this from his mother, meaning it is an innate behavior.

During these walks we also recorded any natural item that Oso chose to eat in the forest, and any encounter with wildlife. We recorded his encounter with a saki monkey group, with a curassow that he tried to hunt, with a tapir, and with several other species. But our biggest delight was to record his behavior towards other short-eared dogs, and their behavior towards him. On one walk a wild female showed sexual interest in him and followed him for an hour, and when we released him after her he went in her direction. This says a lot, because if we reintroduced him we didn't know whether he would reproduce and if a female would be interested in him, considering he was raised in captivity. And we learned that wild males did not accept him in his area.

Mongabay: What secrets has Oso shown? Renata Leite Pitman: One is that the males don't all have small balls. For years I was surprised to see how small the dogs' balls appeared in camera trap pictures—so surprised that I was thinking to propose changing the common name to "small-balled dog," since its ears aren't that small (bush dogs have proportionally smaller ears). But when Oso turned three years old, his balls descended and he became a big-ball guy. At the same time, he started to vocalize. Until this moment, he was mostly silent, only making whining noises or roaring at the presence of people he didn't like.

Yes, roaring, you can see Oso roaring at the video below!

But at the same time his balls descended he started to make complex calls, similar to some species of owl calls. We recorded these sounds and played them in an area where we know a female lives, and the female came right away. Sexual maturity at three years is kind of late for a dog, and very important data for a species action plan.

Mongabay: Is Oso still 'working' for you? Where is he now? Renata Leite Pitman: Oso was released in October 2010. We did a very fine tracking of him using a GPS system with an accelerometer for three months. He also had a VHF device that allowed us to follow him for three years. During these three years, he moved 50 kilometers towards the northeast, into an area that is often visited by indigenous groups in voluntary isolation. Out of respect for their wish for no contact with outsiders, for security reasons (they usually shoot arrows at people they see), and out of respect for local policies, I didn't recapture him to change the collar. But considering that he survived for three years after being released, it is easy to conclude that he made it, and that is our biggest prize in this story.


Mongabay: What is threatening this species? Renata Leite Pitman: I think the biggest threats are domestic dogs and the loss of pristine habitats. Domestic dogs are everywhere, and hunters take them into the forest 10, 20 kilometers away from towns. Since most dogs carry distemper and parvo viruses, hunting dogs inoculate powerful and deadly viruses deep in the forest. Parvovirus is active in any secretion of a contaminated animal, and can survive in the environment for up to one year.

Mongabay: Do people ever hunt short-eared dog?

Pitman with her first tagged female short-eared dog, Dominga in 2004. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Pitman with her first tagged female short-eared dog, Dominga in 2004. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: Unfortunately, yes. Many hunters kill anything that moves. But luckily hunters have no particular interest in short-eared dogs.

Mongabay: The animal is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Do you think this is accurate? Renata Leite Pitman: A team of experts reviewed the species' status in Brazil recently. The short-eared dog is now considered Vulnerable in that country, which is the biggest part of its distribution. The IUCN should be updating their evaluation soon.

Mongabay: Any guess on population estimates for the animal? Renata Leite Pitman: Based on its patchy distributional range I would say roughly fewer than 10,000 individuals, but there is no science behind that estimate. We don't know yet how females overlap territories, and the Amazon is so large that is hard to estimate where the species is and where it is not. With the popularization of camera trap studies, especially in the Amazon, we can do a better job of figuring out where the species is never recorded and where it is.

Mongabay: Why should people care about the short-eared dog? Renata Leite Pitman: Because it is a fragile species facing so many threats that it could easily go extinct soon. In the forest, it faces so many predators and competitors. The impact of domestic dogs is almost invisible, but short-eared dogs are probably getting sick in the forest and dying in remote places where people can't see them. This is happening before we even know the species well. And because they are known to inhabit mostly pristine places, or little-impacted areas, their presence can indicate whether a habitat is healthy or not.

Renata Leite Pitman is member of the Species Survival Commission-SSC / IUCN Canid Specialist Group since 2000. She is Research Associate at the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University and at the Frankfurt Zoological Society - Avisa/Peru. She is the Director of the Center for Atlantic Forest Conservation in Brazil, and Volunteer at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA. She spends her time in between U.S,, Peru and Brazil, where she owns a four-acre reserve in one of the most threatened forests: the Araucaria Forest, entangled in the middle of the also threatened Atlantic Forest, where she and her husband are recovering its natural vegetation since 1998.

Her research wouldn't be possible without the help of DGFFS (Direccion General de Fauna e Flora Silvestre)—SERFOR/Peru, Wildlife Materials, Ideawild, Disney Conservation Fund, CI-Conservation International, Word Wildlife Fund, Amazon Conservation Association, The Conservation, Food and Health Foundation and National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants, and the effort of over 40 volunteers who gave the best fuel to this project.

This is what it looks like when a four meter long boa constrictor regurgitates a short-eared dog. This was Lacy's unfortunate fate. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
This is what it looks like when a four meter long boa constrictor regurgitates a short-eared dog. This was Lacy's unfortunate fate. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

Lacy eating a fruit from the species, Onychopetalum krukovii. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Lacy eating a fruit from the species, Onychopetalum krukovii. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book. Google+

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28 Aug 22:41

Dominica Will Become First Country in the World to Adopt Bitcoin

Bit Drop Stadium in Dominica.

Bit Drop Stadium in Dominica. (@TheBitDrop)

EspañolFor the first time in history, a country will officially adopt bitcoin as its currency: Dominica, an island republic in the middle of the Caribbean. An event to mark the occasion will be held in March 2015, thanks to an agreement between local authorities and representatives of Coinapult, Aspen Assurance, Bitcoin Beauties, and the College Cryptocurrency Network (CCN).

The initiative, known as “Let the Bit Drop,” will send a small of amount of bitcoin to every island resident via text message. This effort will turn Dominica, and its more than 70,000 residents, into the most densely concentrated bitcoin community in the world.

“The objective is simply to increase bitcoin adoption. We are going to create tens of thousands of new bitcoin users overnight. Of course, we hope that these people enjoy and continue to use bitcoin, and that the project provides proof of concept to similar communities all around the world. We want a thousand Bit Drops,” said Ira Miller, CEO of Coinapult, in an exclusive interview with the PanAm Post.

Enigmatic Release Date a Tribute to Mathematics

The launch date chosen by organizers, March 15, 2015, at 9:26 a.m., coincides with Pi Day, a global celebration of the mathematical constant.

“Pi is an objective, mathematical truth, not a human creation. Everyone can understand, use, and be empowered by Pi. Bitcoin applies the same objectivity and openness to financial transactions,” says Miller, referring to the underlying mathematical principles of bitcoin that he believes allows the currency to provide security and transparency.

“Also, Pi Day is conveniently right after Carnival, one of the most glorious of all imperfect, human creations,” he added.

The day of the “Bit Drop,” organizers will celebrate the currency launch with a nationwide party with various musicians and celebrities in attendance. They plan to hold raffles and host informational booths with introductory and educational material related to the cryptocurrency.

Another project partner, the Cryptocurrency College Network (CCN) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will be in charge of distributing educational material throughout the island and explaining bitcoin’s various uses and advantages. They will also work to educate local Dominican retailers on the benefits of accepting bitcoin as payment.

Coinapult CEO, Ira Miller, and Kenneth Darroux, Dominican Minister of Environment and Planning.

Coinapult CEO, Ira Miller, and Kenneth Darroux, Dominican Minister of Environment and Planning. (Coinapult)

Funding for the purchase of bitcoins that will be distributed for free to the general public will come from donations and sponsors wishing to participate in the project.

As for the connection between organizational partners and the authorities of the island, Miller says his relationship with local officials is primarily for educational purposes.

According to the CEO of Coinapult, the officials he has spoken with are open to the initiative because they believe in the economic potential that bitcoin can offer the Caribbean island.

Those interested in donating to help the project see a successful launch can visit Sarah Blincoe, the leader of the project, told the PanAm Post that those who donate 0.1 bitcoins or more will be entered into a drawing to win an all-inclusive trip to join the celebration.

Dominica’s Bitcoin Opportunity

Geographically, Dominica is located in the Caribbean, north of Venezuela and southeast of the Dominican Republic. Dominica is a republic that forms part of the British Commonwealth, with an unemployment rate of 23 percent and a low annual rate of inflation of 2.1 percent.

According to data from the Heritage Foundation, Dominica is above the world average in terms of its economic liberalization, but has high levels of internal corruption.

In 2008, Dominica joined ALBA, the regional commercial alliance led by Hugo Chávez, which maintains a socialist economic view.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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29 Aug 00:00

Writing Skills

I'd like to find a corpus of writing from children in a non-self-selected sample (e.g. handwritten letters to the president from everyone in the same teacher's 7th grade class every year)--and score the kids today versus the kids 20 years ago on various objective measures of writing quality. I've heard the idea that exposure to all this amateur peer practice is hurting us, but I'd bet on the generation that conducts the bulk of their social lives via the written word over the generation that occasionally wrote book reports and letters to grandma once a year, any day.
28 Aug 21:44

Teaching A Fish To Walk

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

Carl Zimmer unpacks a fascinating new study on bichirs (a type fish that “mostly live in lakes and rivers” but “will sometimes crawl across dry land with their fins”):

McGill scientists wondered what would happen if they forced the fish to grow up out of the water. To find out, they reared eight bichirs in a terrarium with a pebble-strewn floor. To prevent the bichirs from drying out, the scientists installed a mister to keep their skin moist. The fish grew for eight months, clambering around their terrarium instead of swimming.

Then the scientists examined these fish out of water. They found that eight months on dry land (or at least moist land) had wreaked profound changes to the bichirs.

For one thing, they now walked differently. Overall, they were more efficient. In each step, they planted their fins on the ground for less time, and they took shorter strides. Instead of flapping their fins out to each side, they placed their fins under their bodies. Their fins slipped less when they pushed off of them. They made smaller movements with their tails to go the same distance as a bichir raised underwater. Aquatic bichirs walk on land with an irregular gait. The terrestrial bichirs, on the other hand, walked more gracefully, planting their fins in the same spot relative to their bodies time after time.

Noah Baker adds that, beyond the fishes’ new walking style. “their bone structure and musculature changed to be more suited to a walking lifestyle”:

The results provide evidence for developmental plasticity, in which organisms alter their anatomy and behaviour in response to environmental change. The team suggests that this process, as demonstrated by the bichir, could have given the earliest tetrapod ancestors the ability to venture onto land. In doing so, claims [lead author Emily] Standen, they would have become exposed to the selective pressures of a terrestrial environment, thereby speeding up the evolutionary transformation from fins for swimming into limbs for walking.

28 Aug 18:00

Conversations That Servers in Portugal Might Have Had After Dealing With Me and My Mother

by Leila Sales

OUR WAITRESS: Thanks for meeting me for a drink, babe. Wow, do I need it after the crazy time I had at the restaurant tonight.


WAITRESS: These two American women came in to be seated. Mother and daughter, they looked like. I tried to seat them in the nice part of the restaurant, but a guy was smoking a cigarette at the table next to them, so they flat-out refused.

BOYFRIEND: That’s dumb. It’s not like they were going to get lung cancer over the course of dinner.

WAITRESS: I know! But I didn’t want to say anything because I was hoping they’d tip me if I was polite. You know how Americans love to tip. Anyway, I finally get them seated, and then the daughter has a million questions about every item on the menu. Like, what kind of vegetables are in the vegetable soup? Is the chicken dark meat or light meat? Is the rice brown or white?

BOYFRIEND: Why does she need to know any of that?

WAITRESS: I have no earthly idea. After I answer all her questions, she proceeds to order the one menu item that she didn’t ask anything about. Her mom orders the California rolls, only—get this—without the shrimp.

BOYFRIEND: That is crazy! The shrimp is the best part.

WAITRESS: Totally. So I bring over the daughter’s order, which she immediately tries to send back, claiming it’s not what she ordered.

BOYFRIEND: Was it what she ordered?

WAITRESS: Of course. And I bring the mother’s shrimp-free California rolls. When I come back, she has systematically picked out all the raw salmon from them.

BOYFRIEND: No shrimp or raw salmon? What the heck was left in the California rolls?

WAITRESS: Rice. And mango. I would almost think they don’t have California rolls in America, but of course that is silly, because California is in America.

BOYFRIEND: Was that the end of it, at least?

WAITRESS: Yes. Oh, except for one other thing: they kept pouring out their water glasses into these plastic bottles that they were carrying in their bags.

BOYFRIEND: Wait. What?

WAITRESS: Like, multiple times. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they actually grabbed the big water bottle from my station and emptied it into their bottles. I was totally looking, though.

BOYFRIEND: You can’t be serious.

WAITRESS: Oh, and then they tipped me three euros.

HUSBAND: That wouldn’t even cover the cost of the stolen water!

WAITRESS: I know. Ugh. Let’s do another round of shots.


OUR WAITER: What do you know about Americans?

OUR WAITER’S WIFE: They often seem to wear gym shoes, even when they are not going to the gym. Why?

WAITER: I had a baffling experience with those two American women who just left the restaurant. They ordered the bacalhau.

WIFE: Ah, yes. Bacahlau, the traditional Portuguese salted codfish that our people have been cooking for generations, since the days of Vasco de Gama. The fish which I myself have been making for our customers for nearly my entire life, using the recipe passed down to me by my mother, God rest her soul.

WAITER: Yes, that bacahlau. The Americans ordered it all confident-like, like some seafood experts. But after I brought it over to her, they tried to send it back!

WIFE: My codfish?

WAITER: They said they couldn’t swallow it! The younger woman pointed to all these masticated white chunks that she’d hidden under the rim of her plate, like as “proof” that the fish was unchewable.

WIFE: My codfish?!

WAITER: Don’t worry, honey. I ate a bite of it myself, in front of her, to prove that it was edible.

WIFE: You are truly a supportive husband.

WAITER: And then I brought out all the frozen cod from our fridge so she could understand our process.

WIFE: I bet that showed her.

WAITER: It should have. But even then she didn’t eat another bite of the bacalhau, no matter how long I stood over her, chanting, “Eat, eat.”

WIFE: Do you think she will write a bad TripAdvisor review of our restaurant? I live in fear of that.

WAITER: I don’t think so. She seemed to really like our bottled water, so I’m sure that made up for her lack of chewing skills.


OUR WAITRESS: Seeing that homeless man outside the train station just now reminds me of these two American ladies who ordered the chocolate bread at the café today.


WAITRESS: I know, but somehow they couldn’t finish it, even though there were two of them. They only had a little bit left, but they spent ten minutes trying to figure out how to take it away with them. The younger one went through like fifteen paper napkins, trying to wrap it up. The older one tried shoving it inside an umbrella bag.


WAITRESS: Eventually I offered them a paper bag. They were super-grateful. It was weird, because the whole piece of chocolate bread only costs seventy-five cents. It’s like they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

GIRLFRIEND: That is so sad.


OUR WAITER: What do you think of those roasted red peppers I make?

OUR WAITER’S BOYFRIEND: I don’t know, they’re pretty good. Nothing like your bacalhau, of course, but yeah. Why?

WAITER: At the restaurant these two American chicks were almost crying over how good my roasted red peppers were. It was as if they had won the lottery. “These are the first vegetables we have had in a week,” they said to me. (In English, of course.) “We had nearly forgotten what vegetables taste like. You have saved us.”

BOYFRIEND: Oh, come on. They did not say all that. You are such an exaggerator.

WAITER: They did!

BOYFRIEND: Bullshit.


OUR WAITRESS’S HUSBAND: Hey, hon, how was work today?

WAITRESS: Seriously fucked-up. The women staying in Room 242 kept going back to the breakfast buffet.

HUSBAND: So? It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet; everyone goes back multiple times.

WAITRESS: But they weren’t going back for more of those mini-sausages, like everyone else does. They kept going up and refilling their glasses with water. Then they’d return to their table, empty their glasses into bottles from their purses, and then they’d go back up to refill their glasses again.


WAITRESS: They did this four times in a row.

HUSBAND: I suddenly don’t understand how their nation holds such a strong geopolitical position. They’re on the U.N. Security Council and everything.

WAITRESS: It’s all so hard to wrap my head around. I feel like I have watched a great deal of American TV in my life, but somehow two hundred episodes of Friends did nothing to prepare me for the encounter I had today.

HUSBAND: I hope they made it back to their home country without dying of dehydration.

WAITRESS: I guess we will never know.

Read more Conversations That Servers in Portugal Might Have Had After Dealing With Me and My Mother at The Toast.

04 Aug 02:41

Chip-based credit cards are a decade old; why doesn’t the US rely on them yet?

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Interessante artigo, mas me surpreendo com a leveza com que fulano reclama de melhoras possíveis pedindo para esperar algo que não existe.

Earlier this week, mobile payments company Square announced that it had developed a credit card reader that will verify purchases from an embedded chip on the card. Currently, US consumers primarily rely on swipe-and-sign credit cards, which give card details to a merchant through the magnetic stripe on the back. But because the swipe-and-sign system became overburdened with instances of fraud, MasterCard, Visa, and other financial groups decided in 2012 that they would transition their systems to a chip-based setup called EMV (eponymous for EuroPay, MasterCard, and Visa, the three primary developers of the standard) by October 2015.

Square is hoping to capitalize on this transition by being one of the first companies out of the gate in the US to offer small and medium-sized business owners a smaller, less-expensive alternative to buying a whole new set of credit card terminals.

The EMV standard works using a chip that's embedded in a credit card, which effectively acts as a mini-computer. Instead of swiping quickly and having your card give its details to a merchant's point of sale (POS) system, an EMV card creates a unique code for each transaction and (ideally) requires the consumer to enter a PIN associated with the card instead of relying on a signature. Because of this, EMV is often called chip-and-PIN. Making a purchase with an EMV card also requires the card to be present in the card reader throughout the transaction.

But this technology is not new. The EMV standard was first developed in 1994 as a way to reduce magnetic stripe credit card fraud. Most of Europe, as well as Australia, Brazil, and other major countries, have been using EMV for years. So what's taken the US so long? And now that the standard is decades-old, do we even want it anymore?

The inevitable

Although moving to a chip-and-PIN system in the US had been in the works for years, the end of 2013 was a particularly bad year for high-profile credit card fraud—Target specifically saw breaches that lead to the loss of 40 million credit card numbers as well as information belonging to 70 million customers. Similar scams were soon uncovered at Neiman Marcus, Michaels, and a host of other big-name retailers. Regulators, banks, and retailers themselves were in a position to push hard for a transition to chip-and-PIN. Even if the system wouldn't necessarily have prevented the credit card breaches, it was still an alternative that could reduce fraud in general. In February, Target's CEO, as well as some payments experts, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to promise that big-name banks and merchants alike would adopt EMV by late 2015.

As Ars reported in January, Target's breach was likely the result of malware on the retailer's POS systems that watched the systems' memory, searching for “credit card data before it has been encrypted and sent to remote payment processors.” Julie Conroy, research director for Aite Group’s Retail Banking practice, wrote in a June paper that “While EMV would not have stopped the [Target] breach, it certainly would have impeded the criminals' ability to monetize it,” because EMV makes it more difficult to counterfeit cards after the cards' information has been stolen.

What were we waiting for?

The United Kingdom was one of the first places EMV was rolled out. In the early 2000's "the authorization environment was a key driver for the UK's high card fraud figures," a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta attests. In a conversation with Ars, Conroy explained that before EMV was first made available in the early 2000's, telecommunications infrastructure in places like the UK was relatively expensive to use constantly, “so when you went to make a purchase at that time, when the credit card got scanned through, you had an offline authorization process where the credit card would get swiped, and the merchant would store up all of the transactions for the day.” At the end of the day, the merchant would send the credit card details back to the issuer for verification, but that lag meant that criminals had more time to commit fraud.

That telecom cost was not as prevalent in the US, where merchants didn't need to batch up transactions to send back to the issuer. Instead, merchants sent off credit card information as they received it, and merchants could be alerted more quickly to the use of a stolen card. According to Conroy, in 2004, 0.14 percent of total credit card transactions were fraudulent in the UK, whereas 0.05 percent were fraud-based in the US where card information was not kept in batches.

So in the early 2000's, it was cost-effective to move to chip-and-PIN for UK merchants and banks, but not as necessary for US banks. Indeed, according to Aite Group's research, after the move to chip-and-PIN, counterfeit card fraud losses in the UK decreased almost 66 percent from 2005 to 2013, and fraud losses from lost or stolen cards decreased almost 44 percent.

Beth Kitchener, a MasterCard representative, explained the US's lagging transition to the EMV standard to Ars in more colorful terms. “Keep in mind that it’s no small feat to migrate an entire payments system,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It is comparable to declaring that US drivers will now drive on the left-hand side of the road and changing all the road signs and highway entrance and exit ramps and reprogramming all the GPS systems.”

Surely that metaphor is a little hyperbolic, but without a monetary incentive it's difficult to convince merchants that they need to buy new terminals, even if credit card companies are already issuing cards with embedded chips to customers. Square is pioneering a product for small-scale businesses to equip themselves for the October 2015 transition, and it thinks it will make quite a bit of money off that. “Let’s just say, we’re a five-year-old company that’s spent more than a year anticipating a shift that’s more than a year away,” a spokesperson at Square told Ars in an e-mail. Even at that, the Square EMV reader isn't a true chip-and-PIN solution yet, because at launch it won't be able to accept a PIN from the card holder—the reader is currently only set up to accept a signature to verify the card details.

Enlarge / Square's new EMV reader.

A decades-old standard is not a solution

For all the benefits that the EMV system apparently offers, there are a few problems with it as well. Of course, EMV doesn't eradicate credit card fraud. It only reduces it. Since the UK implemented chip-and-PIN, criminals hardly sat back and accepted defeat; instead they've looked for ways to break the standard, with some success. The Aite report says, “The organized crime rings behind the attacks on the financial services value chain ... adjusted their tactics and found ways to skim and capture the PIN, and as a result, the UK's lost/stolen fraud increased 2011 through 2013, while counterfeit card fraud increased slightly in 2012 and 2013.”

Furthermore, oft-cited research from the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge has showed that it is possible to hack card-reader terminals so that the terminal will accept any PIN the criminal inputs. “EMV is a toolkit with which you can produce fairly secure systems or totally rubbish ones,” Professor Ross Anderson, one of the researchers who contributed to the Cambridge research, told Ars in an e-mail. “It all depends on implementation, as we've shown in a series of papers over the years. Not all US banks will get it right—you can bet on that!”

Square says that in building its EMV reader, the company “worked closely with EMVco for certification and you can find Square listed on their official site.”

“For the Square Reader for chip cards, we wrote everything from scratch,” Square added.

Another concern is the liability shift that will happen when EMV becomes the standard. Today in the US, law dictates that the card issuer will bear the responsibility for fraud. During the transition, that liability will shift to the merchants until the transition is complete, at which point liability will go back to the card issuer. Conway explained: "If there is counterfeit card fraud at the point of sale, issuers bear that liability. In a post-EMV enviroment, if the card itself was EMV capable, but the terminal at the merchant was not, the merchant is laibale. If both sides of the equation are EMV capable, the issuer will still bear liability for fraud."

But not everyone thinks the liability shift will be as simple as that. Credit card companies notoriously charge high fees to merchants for transactions, as insurance for having to cover fraud liability. Anderson urged caution in thinking that everything would go back to normal after the liability shift: “Once merchants use EMV, the fraud risk passes to the bank—which will look for ways to blame the customer.”

If EMV has all these issues, why should the US move over to the new, old standard in the first place? Some suggest that we should wait for a newer and more secure standard before expending resources shifting systems. According to a study by The Nilson Report, in 2012 the US accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s payment card volume, but it incurred almost half of the fraud losses. And instances of fraud increased by 14.6 percent from 2011. Numbers like that have the credit card industry, the US government, and many major retailers itching to do something, even if the solution is not quite perfect. Their sentiment may be best summed up by Conway, who told Ars, “Chip-and-PIN is proven, if we were try try and wait for something to leapfrog chip-and-PIN, we would see increases in fraud go to the 20 or 30 percent range, and lose basic interoperability [with other countries]. Taking this incremental step is the right thing to do."

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28 Aug 17:23

An Actual Exit from Climate Hell

by Bill McKibben
by Bill McKibben

Earlier today I went after libertarians for their troubles with climate change. But it’s conservatives in general that have been the real hypocrites here, given that the least conservative thing you can possibly imagine would be running the temperature of the earth way out of the range where human civilization has previously thrived. And the irony is, some of the most obvious ways out are… kinda conservative. Or at least should appeal to conservatives who are not, in reality, shills for the fossil fuel industry. Yes, given that we’ve delayed as long as we have we need a big government effort to put in renewable energy, and yes we need wholesale shifts in who holds power (the key new text on climate change will be Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, due for release next month). We also need to provide massive aid for the countries we’ve endangered by our unchecked carbon emissions. But one of the big changes we require is remarkably conservative in nature.

It’s called Cap and Dividend, long proposed in one form or another by the great climate scientist James Hansen and by an excellent advocacy group called the Citizens Climate Lobby. It derives from the work of Peter Barnes, who has a fine new book called With Liberty and Dividends for All. Let today’s Washington Post editorial page explain:

A prominent member of Congress has proposed a comprehensive national climate-change plan. It’s only 28 pages long, it’s market-based, and it would put money into the pockets of most Americans.

His proposal would put a limit on the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a cap that would decline each year. Beneath that cap, companies would have to buy permits for the emissions their fuels produce. The buying and selling of permits would set a market price for carbon dioxide. The government would rebate all of the revenue from selling permits back to anyone with a Social Security number,more than offsetting any rise in consumer prices for 80 percent of Americans. Most upper-income people, who use more energy, and government, which would get no rebate, would pay more under the plan.

Every time you ratcheted down the cap on carbon (in order to keep the planet from being wrecked, which would be… expensive) the dividend check would rise; therefore there’d be far less political opposition to doing the right thing. And this plan posits a different understanding of the world: if anyone owns the atmosphere, it’s us, not Exxon. Since the fossil fuel industry currently gets to use the atmosphere as a free dump, there will doubtless be opposition from the likes of the Kochs. But this is a sensible, straightforward plan.

27 Aug 15:12

Why Legal Pot is Better Than the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS

by Nick Gillespie

The ice bucket challenge has raised a huge amount of awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or "Lou Gehrig's Disease," which affects about 30,000 Americans.

Writing in The Hill, Andrew Gargano talks about an existing, effective way to ameliorate the disease's devastating symptoms: Medical marijuana.

A number of studies have shown that cannabis functions in many ways that are beneficial to those with ALS, from serving as an analgesic to acting as a soothing muscle relaxant. Cannabis also functions as a saliva reducer, and so it has the ability to reduce symptoms of uncontrollable drooling that is common among those with ALS. Additionally, cannabis has been found successful in use as an antidepressant, results which have also been confirmed by an anonymous, self-reported survey of ALS patients conducted by the the MDA/ALS Center at the University of Washington.

Most importantly, however, is that a 2010 study found that cannabis offered anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects when tested on laboratory mice. The researchers found that cannabis slowed the progression of the disease and prolonged cell survival, ultimately concluding that “it is reasonable to think that cannabis might significantly slow the progression of ALS, potentially extending life expectancy and substantially reducing the overall burden of the disease.”

While this information may seem incredibly relieving to anyone who suffers from ALS, only 34 percent of Americans live in the 23 states, and the District of Columbia, that currently recognize the important medical uses of cannabis.

Read the whole thing.

Hat Tip: Students for Liberty Twitter feed.

28 Aug 12:32

The Working Class Have Little Room For Error

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

David Sheff was struck by that fact during a recent visit to the impound lot:

I took a cab and entered a single-story brick building where a few dozen people were crowded together in a scene that evoked Kafka; weariness, frustration and anger were palpable. Some stood in line, some paced and some sat hunched on the floor. A family huddled in a corner, an infant asleep on the father’s shoulder. A woman on a pay phone wept as she begged whomever was on the line to find money so she could get her car back–she said she needed $875. “I’m gonna lose my job if I’m not there at 5.”

Clerks sat on stools behind Plexiglas. At a window, a man pleaded with an agent, “I have to pick up my kids in less than an hour. What am I supposed to do?” At the next window, another man railed loudly and furiously, yelling, “How the hell am I supposed to get my goddam money if I can’t get to goddam work?” The clerk said, “If you can’t get cash, you can pay by credit card or cashier’s check.” The man shouted, “And if I had a goddam limousine, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

25 Aug 21:18

This Brilliant Entrepreneur Is Making Money Off You Without You Even Noticing | Business Insider India

Luis von Ahn

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Luis von Ahn, creator of Duolingo and a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

When he was 12 years old, Luis von Ahn came up with a plan to make gyms free.

People exercising on machines can generate electricity, he figured, and that energy is valuable. So why not eliminate gym fees, hook all the machines to a power grid, and sell the wattage produced to a major electric company? Everyone could go free of charge, the world would have a new source of power, and people would be healthier to boot.

"It turns out it's not a very good idea," von Ahn, now 34, chuckles. "People aren't very good at generating electricity. It's much better to charge a membership fee."

While that idea didn't pan out, the computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University has been dreaming up innovative business models ever since. And he's done it well. Over the past eight years, von Ahn has created and sold two projects to Google. His new venture, free language-learning app Duolingo, is a perpetual favorite in the Android and iOS app stores and has already accrued more than 12 million users. In 2006, he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius" grant.

If there is true genius to be found in von Ahn's work, it lies in the theory that underscores all of his projects: the idea that by using technology and a little bit of fun, you can harness tiny bits of time and energy from people all around the world and make them collectively useful. In what might be the cleverest application of crowdfunding principles yet, von Ahn is turning our mindless Internet activities into something productive.

Von Ahn's entrepreneurial ventures began in earnest in 2004 with an idea he had for a new kind of online game. The program would randomly pair each player with another user on the web, and show them a series of images. Both players were instructed simply to "type whatever the other guy is typing." The more overlap you produced, the better your score was. So, for example, if a picture of a dog appeared, both users would probably type "dog" along with other words like "animal," "pet," "puppy," or "cute."

It's the kind of time-killer that most of us love: a perfect medley of fun images, competitive quizzing, and mindlessness. But for von Ahn, it would have a second use. "When people play the game they help determine the contents of images by providing meaningful labels for them," he and his co-author wrote in a 2004 paper. "If the game is played as much as popular online games, we estimate that most images on the Web can be labeled in a few months."

Take a moment to consider that proposition. A tremendous number of unlabeled images are floating around on the web, which impairs everything from the accuracy of image searching to the blocking of inappropriate content. Tech companies have created an entire job category for people who review content and flag it for various graphic violations. Von Ahn was proposing that much of this could be outsourced to your everyday person, if only it were made a little fun.

The program launched in 2005 as The ESP Game. Within four months, it had lured 13,000 bored web cruisers into producing 1.3 million labels for roughly 300,000 images, Wired reported in 2007. Von Ahn's demo of the game at Google caught the eye of both Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and just months later it had been acquired and relaunched as the Google Image Labeler.

Von Ahn's next venture, reCAPTCHA, also managed to utilize the work of unsuspecting web users. In the early years of his Ph.D. study, von Ahn had helped his advisor, CMU computer science professor Manuel Blum, develop a handy identity verification device known as a CAPTCHA. Think of those distorted words you're asked to translate after attempting to log into your email too many times to verify that you're human. Those are CAPTCHAs. Initially invented to help keep spambots out of chat rooms, these tests are effective because computers have a difficult time reading distorted text, while people are rather good at it.

Von Ahn watched the work on CAPTCHA and decided it had potential beyond distinguishing humans from robots - the extra 10 seconds people were taking to access their email and other accounts could be put to use. In 2006, von Ahn launched reCAPTCHA. Unlike its predecessor, reCAPTCHA challenged users with two distorted words to decode, and looks something like this:

The brilliant twist is that this test isn't just verifying your humanity; it's also putting you to work on decoding a word that a computer can't. The first word in a reCAPTCHA is an automated test generated by the system, but the second usually comes from an old book or newspaper article that a computer scanner is trying (and failing) to digitize. If the person answering the reCAPTCHA gets the first word correct (which the computer knows the answer to), then the system assumes the second word has been translated accurately as well.

In 2009, Google acquired reCAPTCHA for an undisclosed amount (von Ahn says the sum was somewhere between $10 million and $100 million) and put the program to work on a tremendous scale, digitizing material for Google Books and the New York Times archives. In 2012, it was translating about 150 million distorted words a day.

"The CAPTCHA was really my idea," says Blum. "Getting humans involved and getting them to help do this stuff was Luis's idea. He was the one that pointed out, 'Look how many hours have gone into building the Panama Canal or the Pyramids - and with all the people that are on the web now, you can get a lot more hours.'"

The latest incarnation of this theory is Duolingo, von Ahn's popular language-learning game. The free service offers lessons in Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese, and uses a computer-game structure with level-ups, un-lockable bonus skills, and a virtual currency to intrigue users. It's classic gamification.

"When you talk to people using Duolingo, they usually say 'I'm playing Duolingo,'" von Ahn notes. "If you ask people the main reason they're using Duolingo, it's not because they're learning something but because it's fun."

Duolingo Luis von Ahn

Courtesy of Duolingo

The app's 12.5 million active users spend, on average, 30 minutes a day with Duolingo, but it's also designed for people to pull out for two or three minutes as a time-killer while waiting in line at the grocery. Von Ahn says his research shows that spending 34 hours on Duolingo teaches the equivalent of one semester of a college language course. Eighty percent of traffic to the app comes from mobile.

A quarter of Duolingo's users are from the U.S., but another 35% are from Latin America and Brazil, and 30% are from Europe. This is important to von Ahn, who grew up in an upper-middle class family in Guatemala City before heading to the U.S. for college, and saw firsthand how his fellow citizens struggled to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

"Guatemala is a very poor country," von Ahn says. "Everybody in Guatemala seems to want to learn English, but no one can afford to."

To that end, von Ahn has sworn to keep Duolingo entirely free for users. And using the same logic that built The ESP Game and reCAPTCHA, he's come up with a clever alternative for monetizing the product. When users sign onto Duolingo, one of the options they have for practicing their language is "immersion." In this section, users get a chance to apply what they've learned by trying their hand at translating real documents on the web.

Where do those documents come from? CNN and Buzzfeed, for starters. The major media companies have contracted Duolingo as a translation service for their materials. Even with novice users, the translations are fairly accurate because several people on Duolingo work on each document and then up/down vote other translations before the final version is sent back to the media outlets. For the users, it's another language-learning tool; for Duolingo, it's a way of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As with all von Ahn's projects, the trick in Duolingo comes down to shrewdly harnessing the time people happily spend on one project to do something useful in another. One invention after another, he is satisfying our desire for mindless fun while tricking us into making society as a whole more efficient. The brilliance of the theory, ultimately, is that it's so simple and yet extremely effective.

"It's just taking something that people do anyways," von Ahn says, "and trying to extract value out of it."

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25 Aug 11:00

O que aprendi sobre a Alemanha

by Drunkeynesian
Algumas surpresas que descobri numa curta temporada na terra do lado certo dos 7 a 1 (saque-as naquela discussão de boteco em que alguém solta o inevitável "essas baixarias só acontecem no Brasil"):

—Brandenburg, o novo aeroporto de Berlim, vem sendo construído desde 2006. Inicialmente, a inauguração era prevista para novembro de 2011; depois, foi adiada para junho de 2012. Semanas antes do início das operações, o órgão supervisor anunciou um novo adiamento (de nove meses) por causa de falhas no sistema anti-incêndio. A promessa mais recente de inauguração é 2016, mas os jornais dizem que a estimativa mais realista é 2018. O orçamento inicial, de 2,8 bilhões de euros, foi aumentado em junho para 5,4 bilhões;

—O Hertha, maior time de futebol da capital, é patrocinado pela Deutsche Bahnhof, quase monopolista controlada pelo estado (mas de capital misto, tal qual a Petrobras) responsável pelas ferrovias alemãs;

—Annette Schavan, ministra da educação até fevereiro do ano passado, perdeu o título de doutorado (e o cargo) depois de uma acusação de plágio em sua dissertação;

—O governo de Gerhard Schröder concedeu um empréstimo de um bilhão de euros à petrolífera russa Gazprom semanas antes do fim da liderança dele, em 2005. Logo depois, Schröder foi contratado pela Gazprom para um cargo executivo (esses últimos dois itens estão num texto recente do Perry Anderson que apareceu traduzido em uma edição recente da piauí);

—Bônus, Espanha (também do texto do Anderson): Luis Bárcenas, tesoureiro do partido do primeiro ministro por 20 anos, está preso por ter acumulado 48 milhões de euros em uma conta não-declarada na Suíça. Quando o escândalo estourou, Rajoy mandou uma mensagem de texto a Barcenas dizendo: "Luis, eu entendo. Fique forte. Ligo para você amanhã. Um abraço."
27 Aug 15:19

Breaking: Weed Smokers Less Violent

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

Who’da thunk it?

Past research has indicated that couples who abuse substances are at a greater risk for divorce, in part because substance abuse often leads to an increase in domestic violence. However, new research has found that when it comes to marijuana use, the opposite effect occurs: couples who frequently use marijuana are actually at a lower risk of partner violence.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown parses this research:

Obviously this doesn’t mean marijuana makes people less violent per se—maybe the types prone to pot-smoking are just inherently less violent individuals; or perhaps the types prone to partner violence are categorically less drawn to the drug. But it is interesting to contrast these stats with numbers on alcohol, which has frequently been linked to increased incidences of partner violence.

In one recent study, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors in January 2014, researchers found that “on any alcohol use days, heavy alcohol use days (five or more standard drinks), and as the number of drinks increased on a given day, the odds of physical and sexual aggression perpetration” by college-age men in relationships increased.

Christopher Ingraham looks at who paid for the study:

Perhaps most significantly, the Buffalo study was funded partially by a grant from the National Institute for Drug Abuse. Marijuana reformers have strongly criticized NIDA’s institutional biases against marijuana legalization in the past, including restrictions the agency has placed on the availability of marijuana for research purposes. But the fact that NIDA is funding studies like this one suggests that it, like much of the country, is beginning to change its tune.

27 Aug 19:39

Xeque Boustani e rabino Schlesinger debatem em São Paulo Paz e Jihad

27 Ago 2014 | 15:35

Com lotação mais que total, o Teatro Eva Herz, da Livraria Cultura, em São Paulo, recebeu na noite desta terça, 26 de agosto, muçulmanos e judeus para um debate entre Michel Schlesinger, rabino da Congregação Israelita Paulista (CIP) e representante da Conib para o diálogo inter-religioso, e o xeque Houssam Ahmad El Boustani, que ensina no Brasil islamismo e língua árabe, sob os auspícios do Movimento Futuro, do Líbano. O evento, promovido pela CIP e pela Conib, teve mediação do sociólogo Demetrio Magnoli.

O tema central, “Ensinamentos de islamismo e judaísmo para a paz”, evoluiu para a discussão de questões políticas e históricas, com grande participação do público e visível entusiasmo do xeque, por poder falar também para os judeus.

Boustani iniciou lembrando a “qualidade e o caráter” de todos os profetas, com Maomé sendo o último mensageiro na corrente. Ele notou que no Corão a paz é a regra; a guerra, exceção. “A paz aparece 42 vezes; a guerra, apenas duas. O mais honrado perante Deus é o mais piedoso”.

Schlesinger observou que a palavra mais conhecida da língua hebraica é “Shalom” [Paz], dita quando se chega e quando se sai. E lembrou que no Tratado de Shabat, no Talmud, Deus é chamado de paz.

Para ele, há uma evolução, no Tanach [Velho Testamento], no sentido da paz. “A relação entre irmãos, desde Caim e Abel, é complicada em todo o Tanach, mas o Deus ‘militar’ do Gênesis vai se transformando no Deus do diálogo. Para os profetas, a paz é o principal objetivo de Deus. A conclusão: a paz é construção, conquista”.

Magnoli perguntou a ambos se há algum obstáculo legítimo para a paz no Oriente Médio situado no campo da religião.

Schlesinger respondeu que os fanáticos fazem “uma leitura possível” dos textos sagrados, mas não há barreiras religiosas para a paz. Para Boustani, o Corão é dogmático apenas para os “interesseiros”: “a paz é para pessoas sinceras, sem sinceridade, não há paz”. Ele ressaltou: o problema é o uso “partidário” da religião.

Em pergunta específica a Schlesinger, Magnoli citou o escritor israelense David Grossman, para quem a ocupação dos territórios é um veneno para a sociedade israelense. Michel disse que entende a colocação, mas lembrou que Israel desocupou Gaza em 2005, e teve grande decepção com os resultados.

Para Boustani, a pergunta simétrica: “O antissemitismo no mundo islâmico é um veneno?”. Magnoli lembrou da negação do Holocausto, por Ahmadinejad, a e venda livre do panfleto antissemita “Protocolos dos Sábios de Sião”. O xeque disse que há duas correntes no mundo árabe: uma reconhece o Holocausto; outra não reconhece o número de mortos. “Mas basta ser neutro; Ahmadinejad fazia provocação”.

Magnoli referiu-se ao livro “Secret Landscape”, de Meron Benvenisti, que aborda a mudança de nomes de localidades árabes em Israel, após a Guerra de 1948, denotando o uso da linguagem como “exercício de poder”. Schlesinger respondeu que as narrativas dos dois lados têm verdades e “não é relevante saber quem chegou lá primeiro, mas sim o que fazer hoje”.

Para Boustani, nova pergunta: “O Islã é hoje associado à Jihad, ao atraso. O que o Islã moderno tem a dizer sobre liberdades políticas, individuais, das mulheres, etc?”. O xeque respondeu com outras perguntas: “Quem está por trás disso? Quem quer a guerra? Por que a comunidade internacional não reagiu ai crescimento do ISIS?” Ele acrescentou que Al-Qaeda e Talibã são partidos que usam o nome do Islã e levam a um mau entendimento da palavra Jihad.

O público perguntou sobre a “falta de direitos das mulheres, em ambas as religiões”. O xeque disse que há governos, mas não há um Estado islâmico. “Os governos religiosos não entendem o respeito ao outro. Eu sou favorável a um Estado laico. O Corão tem capítulos específicos dedicados às mulheres, mas os direitos delas são ignorados por muçulmanos ignorantes”. Ele se referiu à Arábia Saudita, onde as mulheres são impedidas de dirigir: “Nos tempos de Maomé, as mulheres andavam a cavalo! A proibição não tem qualquer base, o governo saudita está errado!”.

Schlesinger observou que a maior parte das linhas do judaísmo é igualitária, incluindo correntes dentro da ortodoxia.

Uma questão política vinda do público causou a maior oposição entre xeque e rabino: Schlesinger é a favor da solução de dois Estados para a paz; Boustani prefere um Estado binacional.

Perguntado sobre a posição de partidos religiosos em Israel que defendem a ocupação de territórios pela “antiguidade judaica” na região – um cemitério judaico de 3.000 anos foi citado -, Schlesinger foi taxativo: “Para os fanáticos, a expansão é mais importante que a vida humana.  Não podemos nos preocupar com os cemitérios e sim com aqueles que estão vivos”.

O público pediu a Boustani que abordasse o caso da Turquia, país muçulmano de Estado laico. O xeque comparou-a com a Arábia Saudita. Na primeira, há modernidade; na segunda, tradições e costumes. É o primeiro modelo que o agrada – ele citou também Malásia e Indonésia como exemplos.

Uma pergunta simples levou à resposta mais longa da noite: “O que significa Jihad?”. Boustani veio preparado. Ele abriu uma pasta especial e tirou suas anotações.

“Há um grande engano! Jihad significa ‘esforço’. Não é luta, não é guerra. A palavra é citada quatro vezes no Corão, com dois significados: debate e caminho de Deus”.

Com relação ao primeiro: “O esforço é mental, de estudo, para combater adversários no campo das ideias, mostrando a riqueza na divergência”.

“E o caminho de Deus? Será a luta armada? Há uma Jihad menor, que é o esforço no campo de batalha, e uma Jihad maior, que é a luta espiritual contra os inimigos invisíveis (ganância, inveja, ódio, etc) e pela conciliação. Rabino, fazemos Jihad agora!”.

Magnoli fez a última pergunta: “Nas redes sociais, notamos que os dois lados querem a paz e ato contínuo, criticam o outro. Não poderiam também criticar a si mesmos?”.

Schlesinger afirmou que somos muito eloquentes com relação ao outro; e pouco, com relação a nós mesmos. “As mídias sociais demonizam o outro. Eu mesmo recebi mensagens pouco simpáticas em minha página pessoal, por promover este debate”.

Magnoli resumiu o espírito da noite: “Na guerra, os covardes ficam nas trincheiras. Os corajosos saem e podem tanto levar tiros do inimigo como vaias dos seus. Rabino e xeque são pessoas de coragem”.

Houssam comemorou: “Parabéns, Michel. Nossos filhos nos estão vendo aqui!”.

Rabino e xeque. Foto: Tahia Macluf.

Michel Schlesinger, Demetrio Magnoli e Hassam Boustani. Foto: Tahia Macluf.

Público no Teatro Eva Herz. Foto: Tahia Macluf.


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27 Aug 20:00

Anos atrás, ganhei com um edredom estampado com manchetes. Esta...

Anos atrás, ganhei com um edredom estampado com manchetes. Esta é especialmente engraçada agora…

(Foi presente da sogra. Obrigado, sogrinha!)

09 Aug 12:23

Pregnancy is a war between mother and child – Suzanne Sadedin – Aeon

Adam Victor Brandizzi

"To their shock they found instead that – implanted in the brain, testis or eye of a mouse – the embryo went wild."
Obviamente, só lembrei de

What sight could be more moving than a mother nursing her baby? What better icon could one find for love, intimacy and boundless giving? There’s a reason why the Madonna and Child became one of the world’s great religious symbols.

To see this spirit of maternal generosity carried to its logical extreme, consider Diaea ergandros, a species of Australian spider. All summer long, the mother fattens herself on insects so that when winter comes her little ones may suckle the blood from her leg joints. As they drink, she weakens, until the babies swarm over her, inject her with venom and devour her like any other prey.

You might suppose such ruthlessness to be unheard-of among mammalian children. You would be wrong. It isn’t that our babies are less ruthless than Diaea ergandros, but that our mothers are less generous. The mammal mother works hard to stop her children from taking more than she is willing to give. The children fight back with manipulation, blackmail and violence. Their ferocity is nowhere more evident than in the womb.

This fact sits uncomfortably with some enduring cultural ideas about motherhood. Even today, it is common to hear doctors talking about the uterine lining as the ‘optimal environment’ for nurturing the embryo. But physiology has long cast doubt on this romantic view.

The cells of the human endometrium are tightly aligned, creating a fortress-like wall around the inside of the uterus. That barrier is packed with lethal immune cells. As far back as 1903, researchers observed embryos ‘invading’ and ‘digesting’ their way into the uterine lining. In 1914, R W Johnstone described the implantation zone as ‘the fighting line where the conflict between the maternal cells and the invading trophoderm takes place’. It was a battlefield ‘strewn with... the dead on both sides’.

When scientists tried to gestate mice outside the womb, they expected the embryos to wither, deprived of the surface that had evolved to nurture them. To their shock they found instead that – implanted in the brain, testis or eye of a mouse – the embryo went wild. Placental cells rampaged through surrounding tissues, slaughtering everything in their path as they hunted for arteries to sate their thirst for nutrients. It's no accident that many of the same genes active in embryonic development have been implicated in cancer. Pregnancy is a lot more like war than we might care to admit.

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So if it’s a fight, what started it? The original bone of contention is this: you and your nearest relatives are not genetically identical. In the nature of things, this means that you are in competition. And because you live in the same environment, your closest relations are actually your most immediate rivals.

It was Robert Trivers, in the 1970s, who first dared to explore the sinister implications of this reality in a series of influential papers. The following decade, a part-time graduate student named David Haig was musing over Trivers’s ideas when he realised that the nurturing behaviour of mammal mothers creates a particularly excellent opportunity for exploitation.

It is in your mother’s genetic interests, Haig understood, to provide equally for all her children. But your father might never have another child with her. This makes her other children your direct competitors, and also gives your father’s genes a reason to game the system. His genome would evolve to manipulate your mother into providing more resources for you. In turn, her genes would manoeuvre to provide you with fewer resources. The situation becomes a tug-of-war. Some genes fall silent, while others become more active, counterbalancing them.

Even with the help of modern medicine, pregnancy still kills about 800 women every day worldwide

That insight led Haig to found the theory of genomic imprinting, which explains how certain genes are expressed differently depending on whether they come from your father or your mother. Armed with this theory, we can see how conflicts of genetic interest between parents play out within the genomes of their offspring.

Because both parental genomes drive each other to keep ramping up their production of powerful hormones, should one gene fail, the result can be disastrous for both mother and infant. Normal development can proceed only as long as both parental genotypes are correctly balanced against one another. Just as in a tug-of-war, if one party drops its end, both fall over. This is one reason why mammals cannot reproduce asexually, and why cloning them is so difficult: mammalian development requires the intricate co-ordination of paternal and maternal genomes. A single misstep can ruin everything.

Diaea ergandros, the ultimate mother, doesn’t have to worry about this, of course. She will never have more than one brood, so there is no need for her to restrain her offspring. But most mammal mothers breed more than once, and often with different males. This fact alone ensures that the paternal and maternal genomes work against one another. You can see the tragic consequences of this hidden war throughout the class Mammalia. Yet there is one species where it ascends to really mind-boggling heights of bloodiness.


For most mammals, despite the underlying conflict, life goes on almost as normal during pregnancy. They flee from predators, capture prey, build homes and defend territories – all while gestating. Even birth is pretty safe: they might grimace or sweat a bit during labour, but that’s usually the worst of it. There are exceptions. Hyena mothers, for example, give birth through an impractical penis-like structure, and about 18 per cent of them die during their first delivery. But even for them, pregnancy itself is rarely perilous.

If we look at primates, however, it’s a different story. Primate embryos can sometimes implant in the Fallopian tube instead of the womb. When that happens, they tunnel ferociously towards the richest nutrient source they can find; the result is often a bloodbath. And among the great apes, things look even dicier. Here we start to see perhaps the most sinister complication of pregnancy: preeclampsia, a mysterious condition characterised by high blood pressure and protein discharge in the urine. Preeclampsia is responsible for around 12 per cent of human maternal deaths worldwide. But it’s very much just the start of our problems.

The mother is a despot: she provides only what she chooses

A list of the reproductive ills that afflict our species might start with placental abruption, hyperemesis gravidarum, gestational diabetes, cholestasis and miscarriage, and carry on from there. In all, about 15 per cent of women suffer life-threatening complications during each pregnancy. Without medical assistance, more than 40 per cent of hunter-gatherer women never reach menopause. Even with the help of modern medicine, pregnancy still kills about 800 women every day worldwide.

So, we have a bit of a mystery here. The basic genetic conflict that makes the womb such a battle zone crops up across innumerable species: all it takes for war to break out is for mothers to have multiple offspring by different fathers. But this is quite a common reproductive arrangement in nature, and as we saw, it doesn’t cause other mammals so many problems. How did we humans get so unlucky? And does it have anything to do with our other extraordinary feature – our unparalleled brain development?

In most mammals, the mother’s blood supply remains safely isolated from the foetus. It passes its nutrients to the foetus through a filter, which the mother controls. The mother is a despot: she provides only what she chooses, which makes her largely invulnerable to paternal manipulation during pregnancy.

In primates and mice, it’s a different story. Cells from the invading placenta digest their way through the endometrial surface, puncturing the mother’s arteries, swarming inside and remodelling them to suit the foetus. Outside of pregnancy, these arteries are tiny, twisty things spiralling through depths of the uterine wall. The invading placental cells paralyse the vessels so they cannot contract, then pump them full of growth hormones, widening them tenfold to capture more maternal blood. These foetal cells are so invasive that colonies of them often persist in the mother for the rest of her life, having migrated to her liver, brain and other organs. There’s something they rarely tell you about motherhood: it turns women into genetic chimeras.

Perhaps this enormous blood supply explains why primates have brains five to ten times larger than the average mammal. Metabolically speaking, brains are extremely expensive organs, and most of their growth occurs before birth. How else is the fetus to fund such extravagance?

Is this unfettered access to maternal blood the key to the extraordinary brain development we see in young primates?

Given the invasive nature of pregnancy, it’s perhaps not surprising that the primate womb has evolved to be wary of committing to it. Mammals whose placentae don’t breach the walls of the womb can simply abort or reabsorb unwanted foetuses at any stage of pregnancy. For primates, any such manoeuvre runs the risk of haemorrhage, as the placenta rips away from the mother’s enlarged and paralysed arterial system. And that, in a sentence, is why miscarriages are so dangerous.

It’s also why primates make every effort to test their embryos before they allow them to implant. The embryo is walled out by the tight-packed cells of the endometrium, while an intimate hormonal dialogue takes place. This conversation is, in Haig’s words, a ‘job interview’. Should the embryo fail to convince its mother that it is a perfectly normal, healthy individual, it will be summarily expelled.

How does an embryo convince its mother that it is healthy? By honestly displaying its vigour and lust for life, which is to say, by striving with all its strength to implant. And how does the mother test the embryo? By making the embryo’s task incredibly difficult. Just as the placenta has evolved to be aggressive and invasive, the endometrium has evolved to be tough and hostile. For humans, the result is that half of all human pregnancies fail, most at the implantation stage, so early that the mother may not even realise she was pregnant.

Embryonic development becomes a trial of strength. And this leads to another peculiarity of the primate reproductive system – menstruation. We have it for the simple reason that it’s not such an easy matter to dispose of an embryo that is battling to survive. The tissues of the endometrium are partially insulated from the mother's bloodstream, protecting her circulatory system from invasion by a placenta she has not yet decided to accept. But that means her own hormonal signals can struggle to be heard inside the womb. So, rather than risk corruption of the endometrial tissue and ongoing conflict with an embryo, what does the mother do? She just sloughs off the whole endometrium after each ovulation. This way, even the most aggressive embryo has to have her agreement before it can get comfortable. In the absence of continual, active hormonal signalling from a healthy embryo, the entire system auto-destructs. Around 30 per cent of pregnancies end this way.

I said that the mother struggles to pass hormonal signals into the womb. The thing is, once the embryo implants, it gets full access to her tissues. This asymmetry means two things. Firstly, the mother can no longer control the nutrient supply she offers the foetus – not without reducing the nutrient supply to her own tissues. Is this unfettered access to maternal blood the key to the extraordinary brain development we see in young primates? Fascinatingly, the intensity of the invasion does seem to correlate with brain development. Great apes, the largest-brained primates, seem to experience deeper and more extensive invasion of the maternal arteries than other primates. In humans – the largest-brained ape of all – placental cells invade the maternal bloodstream earlier even than in other great apes, allowing the foetus unprecedented access to oxygen and nutrients during early development. This would be one of evolution’s little ironies: after all, if it wasn't for the cognitive and social capacities granted by our big brains, many more of us would die from the rigours of our brutal reproductive cycle. One can imagine how the two traits might have arisen in tandem. But the connection remains speculative. Uteri rarely fossilise, so the details of placental evolution are lost to us.

The second major consequence of the foetus’s direct access to maternal nutrients is that the foetus can also release its own hormones into the mother’s bloodstream, and thus manipulate her. And so it does. The mother counters with manipulations of her own, of course. But there is a strong imbalance: while the foetus freely injects its products into the mother’s blood, the mother is granted no such access to foetal circulation. She is walled out by placental membranes, and so her responses are limited to defensively regulating hormones within her own body.

As the pregnancy continues, the foetus escalates its hormone production, sending signals designed to increase the mother’s blood sugar and blood pressure and thus its own resource supply. In particular, the foetus increases its production of a hormone that prompts the mother’s brain to release cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Cortisol suppresses her immune system, stopping it from attacking the foetus. More importantly, it increases her blood pressure, so that more blood pumps past the placenta and consequently more nutrients are available to the foetus.

The mother doesn’t take this foetal manipulation lying down. In fact, she pre-emptively reduces her blood sugar levels. She also releases a protein that binds to the foetal hormone, rendering it ineffective. So then the foetus further increases its production. By eight months, the foetus spends an estimated 25 per cent of its daily protein intake on manufacturing these hormonal messages to its mother. And how does the mother reply? She increases her own hormonal production, countering the embryo’s hormones with her own that decrease her blood pressure and sugar. Through all this manipulation and mutual reprisal, most of the time the foetus ultimately gets about the right amount of blood, and about the right amount of sugar, allowing it to grow fat and healthy in time for birth. This is the living instantiation of Haig’s tug-of-war between maternal and paternal genomes. As long as each side holds its end up, nobody gets hurt.

But what happens when things go wrong? Since the turn of the millennium, the Human Genome Project has provided a wealth of data, most of which remains incomprehensible to us. Yet by looking for signs of genomic imprinting – that is, genes that are expressed differently depending on whether they are inherited from the father or the mother – researchers have been able to pin down the genetic causes of numerous diseases of pregnancy and childhoods. Genomic imprinting, and the maternal-fetal battle behind it, have been shown to account for gestational diabetes, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, childhood obesity and several cancers. Researchers suspect that it may also underlie devastating psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. In 2000, Ian Morison and colleagues compiled a database of more than 40 imprinted genes. That number had doubled by 2005; by 2010, it had nearly doubled again. Identifying genetic mechanisms does not in itself provide a cure for these complex diseases, but it is a vital step towards one.

Preeclampsia, perhaps the most mysterious disease of pregnancy, turns out to be a particularly good example of the way in which the evolutionary, genetic and medical pictures are all lining up. More than two decades ago, Haig suggested that it resulted from a breakdown in communication between mother and foetus. In 1998, Jenny Graves expanded on this idea, suggesting that it could be explained by failure of imprinting on a maternally inherited gene. It’s only in the past few years, however, that we’ve pieced together how this process occurs.

This story shows how, with the help of evolutionary theory, we are at last starting to make sense of the grim, tangled mess that is human development

So, picture the foetus tunnelling towards the mother’s bloodstream. All else being equal, the arterial expansion of early pregnancy would cause the mother’s blood pressure to drop. Foetal hormones counter this effect by raising her blood pressure.

Several hormones are involved when the maternal arteries expand during early pregnancy. If these chemicals get out of balance, those arteries can fail to expand, starving the foetus of oxygen. If that happens, the foetus sometimes resorts to more extreme measures. It releases toxins that damage and constrict the mother’s blood vessels, driving up blood pressure. This risks kidney and liver damage, if not stroke: the symptoms of preeclampsia.

In 2009, researchers showed that the maternally inherited gene H19 is strongly associated with the disease. This was just as Jenny Graves predicted. H19 is known to be crucial to early growth of the placenta. Changes in several other maternally inherited genes, and some paternally inherited ones, are also suspected of being involved. There’s a lot that has yet to be discovered, but this story shows how, with the help of evolutionary theory, we are at last starting to make sense of the grim, tangled mess that is human development.

Our huge brains and our traumatic gestation seem intimately connected; at the very least, they are both extraordinary features of humanity. Did the ancients guess this connection when they crafted their mythologies? Perhaps the story of Eve, cursed with the sorrows of pregnancy when she ‘ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge’, was once just an intuitive explanation for the cruelty that nature saw fit to visit on our species. Be that as it may, if we want to reduce the danger and suffering of pregnancy, the only way out is through. We need more knowledge – lots of it.

4 August 2014

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24 Aug 02:47

'Acreditei na pacificação, mas é de mentira', diz mãe de mototaxista morto no Alemão - BBC Brasil - Notícias

Adam Victor Brandizzi

As UPPs seguem sobre pesadas críticas devido a suas falhas, mas ainda como único modelo com futuro. Claramente, a invasão do Complexo do Alemão foi o momento em que o controle se perdeu.

Denize e Caio Moraes da Silva | Crédito: Arquivo pessoal
Denize Moraes da Silva diz ter desacreditado no modelo das UPPs após morte do filho

"Quando a morte bate na porta da sua casa, você começa a ver as coisas de uma maneira muito diferente. No começo eu acreditei, quando se falava em UPP com objetivos sociais, colocando esportes, trazendo iniciativas para aproximar a comunidade, mas não foi isso que aconteceu. É uma pacificação de mentira. A gente não está na África nem em Israel, mas vivemos uma guerra também, e aqui no Alemão não se usa bala de borracha e não tem primeira abordagem. Aqui você morre logo."

Denize Moraes da Silva, de 49 anos, nasceu e cresceu no Complexo do Alemão, na zona norte do Rio de Janeiro.

A comerciante perdeu em 27 de maio o filho Caio Moraes da Silva, aos 20 anos, atingido por uma bala no peito quando tentava sair de um tumulto gerado por uma manifestação na favela em que trabalhava como mototaxista. A investigação ainda está em curso, mas Denize acusa a polícia e diz ter testemunhas. Para ela, o clima nas UPPs está ficando cada vez mais tenso.

"Para mim não restam dúvidas de que foi a polícia. Há testemunhas, até mostraram para o meu cunhado o policial que atirou. Foi um tiro no tórax, com a clara intenção de matar. E meu filho era trabalhador, sempre foi. Nunca tinha se envolvido com nada", afirma.

Consultada pela BBC Brasil, a Delegacia de Homicídios (DH), que investiga o caso, diz que o inquérito ainda está em andamento. "Foi realizada perícia de local. Familiares e testemunhas foram ouvidos, além dos policiais militares. As armas foram apreendidas e encaminhadas para confronto balístico, e a delegacia aguardo o resultado dos laudos da perícia", informou a DH em nota.

Ocupado há quase quatro anos pelas Forças Armadas, o complexo de favelas vive hoje o pior momento desde que recebeu quatro bases de UPPs (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora). Com o retorno da lógica de guerra, tiroteios, entrada de tropas do Bope e do Batalhão de Choque, e uma elevação de mortes de civis e de policiais, o momento vivido pela comunidade é emblemático de uma situação que afeta diferentes unidades do programa de pacificação desde o começo do ano.

Somente nas últimas semanas a Rocinha registrou tiroteios frequentes. Nas proximidades do Complexo do Lins (zona norte) houve ônibus incendiados e trocas de tiros numa importante avenida que liga o centro à zona oeste, fechada por mais de cinco horas.

No início da semana o corpo de um policial do Alemão foi encontrado carbonizado dentro do seu carro na Baixada Fluminense. Além disso, três policiais da UPP Jacarezinho (zona norte) estão respondendo por acusação de estupro coletivo, e a lista continua, com denúncias de abusos policiais e a elevação dos números de PMs assassinados e de pessoas que morreram em confronto com a polícia.

"O programa de pacificação no Rio de Janeiro está em crise, e não é nos últimos dias não, é nos últimos meses. Só não vê e não admite isso quem está com a responsabilidade do governo, porque a população não nega, os policiais não negam, e a opinião pública também não nega", diz o sociólogo Ignacio Cano, do Laboratório de Análise de Violência da UERJ.

"É verdade que há uma situação diferente em cada unidade. Em algumas ainda há uma situação positiva, em outras há problemas já bem complicados, e em outras, como no Complexo do Alemão, há um descontrole. A situação lá está fora do controle mesmo", complementa o especialista.

Para ele, apesar do cenário mais ou menos grave em cada unidade, é indiscutível que a política de pacificação no Rio de Janeiro se encontra num momento de fortes revezes. "A questão é que o projeto foi desenvolvido para solucionar o problema em todas as comunidades, não só em algumas, e apesar de ainda haver impacto positivo em certos locais, é possível afirmar, sim, que o programa como um todo está em crise".

Para Denize Moraes da Silva, o que restou após a morte do filho foram os dois netos, de três anos e um ano, que se converteram em sua maior fonte de força. Para ela, a dor a transformou numa defensora dos direitos dos moradores da comunidade.

"Aqui todo mundo está muito desconfiado. Meu avô foi um dos fundadores do lugar onde eu moro, e a gente já viu vários períodos de violência, mas agora estou muito preocupada. Com o tráfico era difícil, mas hoje temos medo da polícia. Medo e antipatia. Tem muito morador inocente morrendo em becos, vielas, eles matam mesmo. E eu não posso me calar, tenho que ajudar a mudar essa história. Hoje sou uma outra pessoa, virei uma guerreira", conta.

Clique Leia mais: Chefe de UPPs rejeita crise e alerta sobre expansão no próximo governo

Crise, desafios e tráfico

Além do retorno da lógica de guerra a algumas comunidades, a cidade tem amargado mortes de policiais, seja em serviço ou de folga. Só em 2014 já foram 73.

Já o número de "autos de resistência", como são caracterizadas as mortes de civis em confronto com a polícia, também sofreu elevação. Segundo o Instituto de Segurança Pública (ISP), houve 139 homicídios do tipo no primeiro semestre de 2014, contra 115 no primeiro semestre de 2013.

Apesar do cenário negativo e do retorno de cenas de confrontos que têm assustado os cariocas, para o coronel Frederico Caldas, coordenador das UPPs que chegou a ser ferido num tiroteio na Rocinha no começo do ano, o momento não é de crise, mas sim de "grandes desafios".

"Em março nós tivemos uma sequência de mortes de policiais no Alemão, uma crise aguda, muito pior. Numa análise do todo, das 38 UPPs, pode-se dizer que hoje a gente vive um momento de estabilidade, mas ainda com esses desafios pontuais no Alemão e na Rocinha, e que não dá para caracterizar isso como uma crise do processo de pacificação, mas sim um desafio proporcional à importância que esses lugares tiveram para o tráfico de drogas", afirma.

Caldas diz que é preciso lembrar que o Alemão é uma região muito extensa e complexa, com topografia difícil, e que até 2010 era um lugar tido como intransponível e inacessível, funcionando como o quartel-general do Comando Vermelho.

Questionado sobre os ataques recentes, o coronel diz que trata-se de uma "nova geração" de traficantes. "Especificamente no Alemão a utilização da mão de obra jovem é algo feito em larga escala. Muitos dos principais líderes foram mortos, presos ou fugiram e com isso a gente observa que houve uma renovação. Nós temos relatos dos nossos policiais, de jovens de 13 anos de idade com pistola na mão. Isso é uma tragédia social".

Quanto ao controle que o Estado detém sobre as regiões que vêm apresentando confrontos e tiroteios, Caldas admite que em alguns pontos há um "controle relativo".

Críticas, futuro e eleições

João Trajano Sento-Sé, doutor em Ciência Política e Sociologia e pesquisador da UERJ, relembra outro fator que coloca em dúvida o futuro das UPPs.

Para ele, o programa tornou-se uma bandeira política do atual governo do Rio de Janeiro, que comandou a Segurança Pública por dois mandatos. Essa lógica política acabou primando pelo que ele avalia como uma "expansão exagerada e não planejada", a ponto de afirmar que a ocupação do Alemão foi um "tiro que saiu pela culatra".

Caio e Denize Moraes da Silva | Crédito: Arquivo pessoal
Caio Moraes da Silva morreu ao ser atingido por uma bala quando tentava sair de tumulto gerado por manifestação em favela

Além da crise atual e das eleições em outubro, outro desafio é iminente para o Rio: a pacificação do Complexo da Maré, ocupado pelas Forças Armadas em março deste ano, onde o Exército vem registrando fortes confrontos. Para especialistas, é preciso aprender com as lições do Alemão e da Rocinha antes de iniciar o processo na Maré.

Na visão de Trajano a ocupação do Complexo do Alemão poderia ter tido um planejamento melhor e deveria ter sido aguardada - o argumento oficial do Estado é de que a tomada do Alemão foi antecipada devido a uma onda de ataques. "Fica difícil você querer um novo padrão de policiamento, sem hostilidade, sem enfrentamento, sem violência. É até irresponsável. Acho que foi um mau passo para o programa como um todo. Surgiu esta crise", diz.

Apesar de mostrar apreensão com o futuro, Trajano diz que não vê outro modelo melhor neste momento e que acredita que as UPPs sejam "o melhor experimento de policiamento do Rio de Janeiro dos últimos 30 anos", mas que acabaram adotando uma lógica política, e não técnica.

"Por isso houve esse crescimento desordenado, para o qual a polícia sequer tinha recursos humanos para responder. Hoje em dia há setores da própria Polícia Militar descrentes do programa, então o novo governo que assumirá a partir de janeiro terá que fazer ajustes necessários para planejar essa expansão, conter um pouco o crescimento, protegendo as UPPs até mesmo do fogo amigo", diz o especialista, que não acredita que um novo governo interrompa o programa.

"Tudo o que um novo governador não precisa é a volta das altas taxas de homicídios", avalia.

Já o coordenador das UPPs, coronel Frederico Caldas, admite a necessidade de um aperfeiçoamento e de uma lógica de expansão que não coloque em risco o programa como um todo, mas cobra do governo mais investimentos em programas sociais e melhorias nas comunidades pacificadas.

"É preciso que ocorram os investimentos sociais, que sejam levados também os serviços essenciais, porque senão fica injusto demais que o policial permaneça sozinho ali sendo o responsável por tudo. Então o futuro da UPP é fazer esses ajustes no processo, avançar com a cautela necessária, para que a gente não perca a possibilidade de controle ou que os problemas se tornem tão grandes a ponto de tornar o programa como um todo muito vulnerável. Já são 9.500 policiais em 38 UPPs, e o lixo continua sendo acumulado, ainda há questões como a vala negra, a escola, a saúde, e sobretudo os empregos. É preciso que haja um futuro, uma ocupação para estes jovens, porque muitos estão sendo cooptados pelo tráfico".

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25 Aug 21:14

Demorei umas duas décadas para descobrir que “Biquíni de...

Demorei umas duas décadas para descobrir que “Biquíni de Bolinha Amarelinha” era uma versão

26 Aug 13:10

Dream thieves: inside America's ban on sleep

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Excelente distopia.

Tim Stoker remembers perfectly the last time he slept. “I was out for seven hours straight,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t even dream, at least not that I can remember. And when I got into rehab, I thought about it for weeks. I was obsessed. Sometimes I wanted to die but... it’s not that I was suicidal, right? I just thought it might be kind of the same.”

When I meet Stoker, the stocky 23-year-old has spent two months in an Amazon work-release program, fulfilling orders in one of the company’s subcontracted warehouses outside Atlanta. The money is minimal, but so are his living expenses -- and it’s a far cry from the fines and jail time he could have received for violating the recently tightened, near-total national ban on sleep. His thin neon polo shirt clashes dubiously with a pair of fresh jeans and $200 Nikes, proudly bought with his first steady paycheck in years. “I want a TV, one of the big ones,” he says, standing in the bare company cafeteria during a 15-minute break. “But I don’t really have a place yet — just family.”

Stoker credits his family with turning his life around. An admitted academic underachiever, he struggled with high-school classes and was prescribed sleeping medication after a series of panic attacks. But with more pills easily available from friends, he quickly began spending hours in a state that he now sees as tantamount to living death. In the end, it took an impaired driving charge, a year of parental support, and thousands of dollars to get him to his current cold-turkey state. And along the way, he's become one of the millions of casualties in what some pundits have wryly termed the “War on Dreams.”

Dream Thieves FLICKR Dream Thieves FLICKR Eyes Peeled Yoga in Bethesda, MD received the country's first official meditation license last year. (Teakwood)

The slumbering poor

The scientific consensus is that thanks to a broad expansion of the federal vaccine program, sleep is nearly cured. Roughly 85 percent of Americans are capable of operating at somewhere from 0 to 30 minutes a week, and only 3 percent have proved resistant to the combination of synapse incisions and time-released hormones that greatly reduce or altogether eliminate the sleeping urge and ability. A handful – mostly concentrated in Southern right-Evangelical communities – are granted religious exemptions. Of the 10 percent of the population with diagnosed mood disorders like Stoker's, the vast majority are prescribed less than 90 minutes weekly. But these rosy numbers hide a persistent underclass for whom sleep is everything from medicine to recreation.

As quotas have lowered in recent years, restrictions on sleeplike activities have loosened. After some debate, meditation was removed from the DSM-V in 2013, and the current wisdom suggests that within reasonable limits, it bears little resemblance to a traditional unconscious state. To politicians, however, it is something of a Rubicon. Statistically, there is little evidence for conservative claims that meditation functions as a "gateway drug," especially given its popularity among the middle and upper productivity quintiles. Social progressives have accused them of carrying out a class war by proxy, citing the exceptions for largely upper-middle-class tantric variants in proposed bans on public classes.

But the underlying argument – that current laws and DEA action have failed to contain an epidemic among both urban and rural poor – is more difficult to refute. While partisan think-tanks produce wildly different numbers, a 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 11 million people at or below the poverty line slept over five hours per week – and a stunning 45 percent of those are classified as morbidly narcoleptic, with some sleeping as much as five hours a night. In Detroit, America's most sleep-stricken city, approximately 1,000 infants a year do not receive synaptic therapy until six months of age or later, although the CDC notes that the long-term developmental effects on the waggishly named "slumberkind" remain unclear.

"They don't have time to wait for muscle therapy or anti-psychotics."

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), author of the Promoting Alert Industrial Development (PAID) Act, blames Congressional gridlock and a lack of health care facilities for the poorest Americans. "It's a vicious cycle," she said in a phone interview. "Some of these people have four or five jobs – they're working 23 hours a day, they don't have time to wait in line for muscle therapy or anti-psychotics. If you can get knockoff Ambia on the street for a few dollars, what are you going to pick?"

The PAID Act passed committee in June, but amnesty provisions for mothers who sleep with small children have derailed its progress. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has threatened to file suit over the exemption, which he calls "reckless and ridiculous." McCrory ran on an emphatically anti-sleep platform in 2012, in part because of his state's proximity to West Virginia, whose position as a pharmaceuticals hub has made it a nodal point in the DEA's crackdown effort. Companies like Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the country's largest manufacturer of generics, have stepped up background checks and issued harsher punishments to workers found smuggling out pills.

Dream Thieves FLICKR Dream Thieves FLICKR (Nitram242) "I could watch the clock tick by every single minute."

One of those workers is Lyndie Platt, a former quality-assurance technician and mother of two. Platt, 31, had worked at various facilities for 10 years before being caught with a packet of synaptic stimulant zolpilam wrapped in paper towels and concealed in her shoe. She had never, she says, even intended to use them, but the recent death of her partner left her in heavy debt. With little chance of a promotion, it was her first attempt at earning outside income – and her last real job.

"I was proud of how long I'd been there, you know?" says Platt. "And then one mistake – a stupid mistake, but just one – and I never got another chance." As a first-time offender, she served two months under house arrest in a plea bargain, but over a year later, she's held only a few short stints as a warehouse stocker and a hostess at chain restaurant Shoney's.

Platt attempted to compensate by throwing herself into a renovation effort on her small one-story home. "It just drove me crazy," she says. "All my life I've been working 10, then 15, then 20 hours a day – 22 with overtime, at the end. And then suddenly I could watch the clock tick by every single minute. That's just not how I was raised."

Today, Platt's house is impeccably clean, with an elaborately manicured herb garden. But to one side, boards and a cement mixer stand next to a tarpaulin-covered wall. "I didn't have enough money to finish it," she says, wistfully. "Everybody says time is money, but I've got all the time in the world and just nothing to do with it."

Google's employee perks include access to 'therapeutic' padded cots

And that's the paradox: with unemployment hovering over 10 percent for Americans without a college degree, the job market is brutally competitive. And without work, there may be little but sleep to pass the long hours of boredom and lost productivity.

Conservatives, and some liberals, have suggested that generations of poor economic prospects have fostered a culture of time-wasting and even time-theft among the communities most likely to oversleep. "When a kid's father is off dealing sleeping pills and his mother's dead to the world three hours a day, they grow up thinking that's acceptable. Or even that it's cool. A lot of today's media really glorifies it," says McCrory. Provocateur Donald Trump was more direct. "It's oiled-up girls in f---ng pajamas, rolling around like they're dreaming," he said in a controversial Fox News segment. "It goes all the way to the top. Even Obama – Obama admits himself that he's lazy, and what does that mean? It means he's sleeping on the job." Trump later issued a partial apology. "I shouldn't have made it personal," he said. "If I could take back the words, I would. But I'm not gonna take back the sentiment. Poor people like to sleep. And there's a racial component to it. That's just a f---ng fact."

Dream Thieves FLICKR Dream Thieves FLICKR While some hotels have adapted to the hourly model, reduced demand has still decimated the market. (Nitram242)

The cult of awake

But luxurious sleep, historians are quick to point out, was once – and sometimes remains – the province of the rich. Upscale furniture store Williams-Sonoma maintains a stock of flattened feather-down couches, which can sell for thousands of dollars. "They say they're buying it for... you know," said one sales rep, winking, when I visited. "But there's no way some of them aren't falling asleep on them afterwards." Search giant Google's employee perks include access to padded cots for what the company insists are therapeutic reasons. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s lavish lifestyle is rumored to include private "pillow parties" that see celebrities and fellow startup titans bedding down as if in some somnolent modern Bohemian Grove gathering. And while popular erotica trilogy 50 Shades of Grey has been the subject of endless essays about female desire, one of its most shocking scenes is protagonist Ana's 14-hour slumber with sadomasochistic billionaire Christian Grey.

Elon Musk attributes his Hyperloop success to a decade of constant vigilance

By and large, however, the CEOs of Silicon Valley in particular have made a point of rejecting sleep. In a panel last month, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed to have eschewed even the shortest nap since the company's IPO in 2012. "It's just sad," he said. "All that human potential wasted. Imagine what Thomas Edison could have done if he hadn't spent a third of his life practically dead! Or Ben Franklin! Or da Vinci! We could all be flying around with jetpacks by now." Prolific entrepreneur Elon Musk attributes his development of the high-speed Hyperloop transportation system – currently concluding the first stages of construction in California – to a full decade of constant vigilance.

This "cult of awake" does not sit well with everyone. Author, musician, and programmer Jaron Lanier emigrated to the sleep-permissive Netherlands eight years ago, when official limits were tightened to 90 minutes a week. Today, he is one of sleeplessness' greatest critics. "I don't even understand Americans anymore," he says. "Three hours a night, then one, then ten minutes – where does it end? We're treating people like machines, expecting them to spend every second of the day being economically productive. And they love it! All those stupid apps for bragging about how many naps you've skipped, so you have time to develop your own stupid sleep-counting app and become a millionaire. And then what do they do? They keep on working."

Dream Thieves FLICKR Dream Thieves FLICKR The NeuroDreamer anti-hallucinogenic sleep replacement mask raised over $12 million on Kickstarter in 2012; it remains the site's best-funded project. (Mitch Altman)
"We could have used that extra time to understand ourselves. But everyone just pushed their noses closer to the grindstone."

The subject holds a special bitterness for Lanier. The head-mounted virtual reality displays he pioneered in the 1980s have become a standard method for treating work-related hallucinations and providing concentrated reparative bursts of REM-like stimulus. He publicly disowned the technology in 2007.

"I don't regret making them," says Lanier. "But I might regret ever showing them to anybody. I thought we might learn a whole new way of thinking. We could have used that extra time to understand ourselves, to figure out a new way to relate to reality. But everyone just pushed their noses closer to the grindstone. I mean, years back I told people they weren't a gadget," he says, referencing the title of his 2010 bestseller. "But even gadgets sleep. Even your iPhone needs to recharge sometime. Maybe I should have changed the name."

For people like Platt and Stoker, these questions are purely academic. Platt has put in applications at dozens of restaurants, janitorial agencies, even coal processing plants. But for now, she remains at home – rearranging her furniture, shuttling her children to school and a variety of extracurricular resume-builders, polishing a collection of ceramic figurines over and over. "It's funny, I never wanted to sleep before," she says. "But I find myself thinking about it sometimes. If it weren’t for the kids... I just don’t know." Stoker, meanwhile, is still struggling to readjust, often spending his few free hours at the warehouse to avoid temptation. "Most people just don't get it," he says. "They don't know what it's like to fight through the tiredness – all the Adderall in the world can't take it out of your bones once you've got it. But even outside that... do you remember your dreams?" he asks.

When I shake my head, demurring, the hint of a smile crosses his face. "I always used to write them down," he says. "I burned the notebook in rehab, but sometimes I still think about it. Flying, falling, even the nightmares. You could have a billion dollars and never be able to buy anything like it." He blinks hard and looks down at his barcode scanner, resting on the cafeteria table. Then he picks it up and clicks the power button, and the 3AM shift begins.

Lead image credit: Mark Turnaukas.

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26 Aug 15:41

How to Be Polite — The Message — Medium

The Good Boy, 1837.

Most people don’t notice I’m polite, which is sort of the point. I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches. Still, every year or so someone takes me aside and says, you actually are weirdly polite, aren’t you? And I always thrill. They noticed.

The complimenters don’t always formulate it so gently. For example, two years ago at the end of an arduous corporate project, slowly turning a thousand red squares in a spreadsheet to yellow, then green, my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible ass-kisser when we started working together.”

She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.)

She was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.

When I was in high school I used to read etiquette manuals. Emily Post and so forth. I found the manuals interesting and pretty funny. There was good stuff about how to write a note of condolence, and ridiculous stuff about how to behave on boats or at the White House.

I didn’t expect to apply my findings to my daily adolescent life. I was peripheral in high school — uncool but also untortured, voted “most scholarly” of my class, roughly equivalent to “least likely to have sex.” In high school no one noticed my politeness except for one kid. He yelled at me about it. “Why you always so polite, man?” he asked. “It’s weird.” I took it as praise and made a note to hide it further, to be more profane. Real politeness, I reasoned, was invisible. It adapted itself to the situation. Later, that same kid stole my cassette copy of Aqualung.

But no matter. What I found most appealing was the way that the practice of etiquette let you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions. By following the strictures in the book, you could drag yourself through a terrible situation and when it was all over, you could throw your white gloves in the dirty laundry hamper and move on with your life. I figured there was a big world out there and etiquette was going to come in handy along the way.

It didn’t at first. No one needs visiting cards in college (although I’m surprised that they haven’t made a comeback among drama students). And in my twenties I found that I could score points with my elders by showing up and speaking respectfully. But then, suddenly — it mattered. My ability to go to a party and speak to anyone about anything, to natter and ask questions, to turn the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker, meant that I was gathering huge amounts of information about other people.

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. The two raconteurs communicate using hand signals and keep a tally on a sheet of paper or in their minds. You’d think people would notice but they are so amused by the attention that the fact you’re playing Raconteur escapes their attention.

One way to be polite is by not touching people unless they specifically invite it. You’d be amazed at how often people screw this up; just search the Internet for “touch black woman hair” and marvel at the number of articles, posts, and guides. Here’s the New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham, in an interview at The Awl, on hair-touching:

I realize that it might sound like an overstatement to some people, but having someone touch me without my permission just fucks with my day and sense of privacy and personal space and sends me into a k-hole spiral of wondering what unconscious signal I may have given to indicate that it would be OK, even though I know there isn’t one.

I’ve read many narratives about white people just touching black hair and I read them with my mouth open. Not because of the racism, even. Just because as a polite person the idea of just reaching out and touching anyone’s hair makes my eye twitch. When would it be appropriate? If there was a very large poisonous spider in their hair. If I was doing a magic trick. Or after six or more years of marriage.

There are exceptions. I pat the heads of toddlers I’ve known for more than six months. If tiny children volunteer to sit on my lap or ask to ride around on my back while I make horse noises, I make eye contact with their parents first and then comply. Afterwards I might skritch their toddler heads a little. I am not opposed to tousling in certain defined and appropriate circumstances.

But a whole class of problems goes away from my life because I see people as having around them a two or three foot invisible buffer. If there is a stray hair on their jacket I ask them if I can pluck it from them. If they don’t want that, they’ll do it themselves. If their name is now Susan, it’s Susan. Whatever happens inside that buffer is entirely up to them. It has nothing to do with me.

Now, even though I prepped and studied etiquette books, I learned all this the regular way, by screwing it up terribly and having to send emails of apology the next day. The apology emails are pretty embarrassing to mention. They are excruciating to send. I get too drunk and hold forth in a stream of vulgarity. Or say something stupid. And then I wake up and sigh. “I realized,” I’ll write, “that I might have been a truly insufferable person last night.” I’ve never touched anyone’s hair, I don’t think. But of course I could. One thing about being polite is that you know that within you there lurks an incredibly impolite person.

Maybe twenty years ago I read a ’zine interview with a prostitute in which she put down her rules for her johns. Most of the rules were common sense about condoms, showing up on time, and so forth, but the one rule that stuck with me was, “don’t take a shit in my toilet!” It was in bold and underlined with exclamation points (it was a ’zine, remember).

Whenever I read about sex workers—which is often, because our culture is obsessed—this rule pops into my mind. I’ve never had reason to test it. But I like to think that, if my circumstances ever aligned so that I hired a sex worker, I would know how to handle myself in regard to this rule. For example, if it was necessary I’d make a quick stop at Starbucks before heading up to her apartment. And since I was already at Starbucks I should offer to bring coffee. “At Starbucks,” I’d text. “Want anything?” Per her request I’d buy a Caramel Flan Frappuccino® Light Blended Beverage and maybe a Chonga bagel. And yes, I know, it’s immoral for a woman in New York City to want a bagel from Starbucks. But who am I to judge?

That’s where the fantasy ends. It’s just a little rule nestled in my brain, filed under Prostitutes. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of similar just-in-case rules. What if I had to meet the mayor tomorrow? What if I had to go to an expensive restaurant? What if I needed to interview a homeless person for a story? Emily Post couldn’t cover everything, so I have to make do. I am, admittedly, a deeply anxious person. But also a polite one.

Politeness buys you time. It leaves doors open. I’ve met so many people whom, if I had trusted my first impressions, I would never have wanted to meet again. And yet — many of them are now great friends. I have only very rarely touched their hair.

One of those people is my wife. On our first date, we went to a nice bar with blue tables and, in the regular course of conversation, she told me at length about the removal of a dermoid teratoma from her ovaries. This is a cyst with teeth (not a metaphor). I had gone in expecting to flirt but instead I learned about the surgical removal of a fist-sized mutant mass of hair and teeth from her sexual parts. This killed the chemistry. I walked her home, told her I had a great time, and went home and looked up cysts on the Internet, always a nice end to an evening. We talked a little after that. I kept everything pleasant and brief. A year later I ran into her on the train and we got another drink. Much later I learned that she’d been having a very bad day in a very bad year.

Sometimes I’ll get a call or email from someone five years after the last contact and I’ll think, oh right, I hated that person. But they would never have known, of course. Let’s see if I still hate them. Very often I find that I don’t. Or that I hated them for a dumb reason. Or that they were having a bad day. Or much more likely, that I had been having a bad day.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Last week my wife came back from the playground. She told me that my two-year-old, three-foot-tall son, Abraham, walked up to a woman in a hijab and asked “What’s your name?” The woman told him her name. Then he put out his little hand and said, “Nice to meet you!” Everyone laughed, and he smiled. He shared with her his firmest handshake, like I taught him.

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26 Aug 19:00

“I Can Hear the Ocean”: A Cartoon

by Emma Steinkellner
Adam Victor Brandizzi

HAHAHA. Velho, que lindo isso.

Emma Steinkellner’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.


Read more “I Can Hear the Ocean”: A Cartoon at The Toast.

22 Aug 04:50

The Secret Playbook of Internet Trolls

by George Washington

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
What’s confusing you
Is the nature of my game

- The Rolling Stones

The reason that Internet trolls are effective is that people still don’t understand their game.

There are 15 commonly-used trolling tactics to disrupt, misdirect and control internet discussions.

As one interesting example, trolls start flame wars because – according to two professors – swearing and name-calling shut down our ability to think and focus.

And trolls will often spew divisive attacks so that people argue against each other, instead of bad actions and policies of the powers-that-be.   For example, trolls will:

Start a religious war whenever possible using stereotypes like “all Jews are selfish”, “all Christians are crazy” or “all Muslims are terrorists”.

Yesterday, the alternative news site Common Dreams caught a troll using scores of different user names to spew anti-Semitic bile. (Common Dreams discovered that the same troll was behind the multiple user names by tracking their IP addresses. And the troll confessed to Common Dreams.)

The troll is a “a Jewish Harvard graduate in his thirties who was irritated by the website’s discussion of issues involving Israel”.

He posted anti-Semitic diatribes – such as Hitler should have finished the job and killed all Jews – using one alias.  Then – a couple of minutes later – he’d post an attack on the first poster using a different alias, claiming that criticism of Israel is the same thing as anti-Semitism.  (Note: Holocaust survivors and Israeli ministers say it’s not.)

Why would a Jew post vile anti-Semitic comments?  Because normal people are offended by – and don’t want to be associated with – pure, naked anti-Semitism, and so they will avoid such discussions.  If the discussion was originally criticizing a specific aspect of Israeli policy, the discussion will break down, and the actual point regarding policy will be lost.

Similarly, anti-Semitic posts weaken websites by making them seem less reputable. Indeed, Common Dreams says that the troll’s anti-Semitic comments drove away many of that site’s largest donors … dealing a severe blow to its continued viability. That’s exactly what trolls spewing anti-Semitic bile are trying to do: shut down logical discussion and discredit and weaken sites which allow rational criticism of policy.

It is well-known that foreign  governments and large companies troll online. See this, this this, and this. For example, the Israeli government is paying students to post pro-Israeli comments online.

And American students are also attempting to influence internet discussion.

While the Common Dreams troll claims that he’s not sponsored by the state of Israel, government  agencies have manipulated  Internet discussion for years. This includes the use of multiple “socket puppet” aliases.  The potential for mischief is stunning.

Unless we learn their game …

23 Aug 20:06



25 Aug 06:10

Two Blows

by Greg Ross

Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died in the same house on the same day, Valentine’s Day 1884. His wife had just given birth to their daughter Alice, and the pregnancy had hidden her kidney disease. He held her for two hours, had to be torn away to see his mother die of typhoid fever, then returned to his wife, who died in his arms.

In his diary he drew a large X and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” Then he fled west to grieve in private.