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15 Dec 15:45

A cellphone case that spits out instant photo prints

by Rob Beschizza


Prynt is a $140 printer that's also a (bulky, impractical) phone case. It looks cute and brings instant-print nostalgia to the cellphone you already have and to your very large cargo-pants pocket.

Wired's Molly McHugh reports on the strangely-appealing gadget and its prospects against the resurgent instant cameras from Fujifim and "Polaroid."

The device uses thermal printing technology, so there’s no ink, just heat, to create the image. The Prynt app has all the Instagrammy features you want—filters, namely—plus other effects, like stickers and meme-ify options. The adapter that connects your phone is sold separately, but that’s a decision the company made to allow for multiple adapters to all work with the same base unit. There are currently adapters for iPhone 6s, 6, 5s, 5c, 5, and Samsung Galaxy S5 and S4. It comes in black or white, and while it’s definitely bulkier than a standard phone case, it’s fairly sleek for a printer. It’s a little plastic-y, a bit toyish, and there’s a little finagling to be done to get the adapter connected. But, really, that’s OK—because Prynt is a whole lot of fun.

Interesting datapoint: they went with "physically connected case" rather than "tiny wireless printer" because Bluetooth pairing still isn't reliable enough.

04 Dec 13:46

Why mass shootings don't convince gun owners to support gun control

by David Roberts

Note: This piece was first published in December 2015, in the wake of the San Bernadino shooting.

One thing I often hear in the wake of these endless mass shootings is, "Surely this will convince those gun people. Surely the carnage and suffering are bad enough now that they'll feel compelled to support some gun control."

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the cognitive and emotional dynamics at work. It presumes that mass shootings constitute an argument against guns, to be weighed against arguments in their favor. But to gun enthusiasts, mass shootings are not arguments against guns but for them. The rise in mass shootings is only convincing both sides that they're right, causing them to dig in further.

It's not even clear that opinions on guns and gun violence remain amenable to argument. Over the past few decades, gun ownership in the US has evolved from a practical issue for rural homeowners and hunters to a kind of gesture of tribal solidarity, an act of defiance toward Obama, the left, and all the changes they represent. The gun lobby has become more hardened and uncompromising, pushing guns into schoolschurches, and universities.

This has taken place in the context of a broader and deeper polarization of the country, as Red America and Blue America have become more ideologically homogeneous and distant from one another. The two sides are now composed of people who quite literally think and feel differently — and are less and less able to communicate. The gun issue is a salient example, but far from the only one.

This suggests that if the status quo on guns in the US is to change, it will be through overwhelming political force, not through evidence and argument. Guns have now ascended to the level of worldview and identity, areas largely beyond the reach of persuasion.

fingers in ears (Shutterstock)
Everyone in the gun debate, basically.

Conservatives are from Mars, liberals are from Venus

For years, an accumulating body of psychological and social scientific research has shown that, as Chris Mooney summarized in a 2014 article, "liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics." (Mooney later gathered that research in his somewhat unfortunately titled book The Republican Brain.)

Mooney quotes psychologist John Jost and colleagues, writing in Behavioral and Brain Sciences:

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different.

So, different how?

Jost and colleagues were responding positively to this paper by the University of Nebraska's John Hibbing, which argues, based on a series of experiments, that conservatives display a strong "negativity bias":

In this article, we argue that one organizing element of the many differences between liberals and conservatives is the nature of their physiological and psychological responses to features of the environment that are negative. Compared with liberals, conservatives tend to register greater physiological responses to such stimuli and also to devote more psychological resources to them.

Other research has traced this effect in part to the physiological level, finding that conservatives have larger right amygdalae. (The amygdala is a cluster of neurons in the brain's medial temporal lobe thought to regulate basic pleasure and fear responses; many psychological conditions, including anxiety and PTSD, have been traced to abnormal functioning of the amygdala.)

Heightened sensitivity to negative stimuli can mean a propensity for anxiety, fear, and occasionally alarm. If fear threatens loss of control, many traits common to conservatives can be seen as efforts to reassert control. As Jost and colleagues summarize: "Research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety."

fear (Shutterstock)
"Honey, get the gun. Get the gun!"

Another way of framing the differences is in terms of the five-factor model, a set of five core personality traits many psychologists use for assessment: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

As Mark Mellman wrote in 2015, liberals and conservatives consistently differ on a few of these traits. Liberals are more open to new experiences, novelty and disruption; conservatives prefer stability and the status quo. Liberals are more tolerant of mess, ambiguity, and uncertainty; conservatives prefer tidiness, clarity, and certainty.

Yet another way to frame the difference: Yale psychologist Dan Kahan, whose cultural cognition work Ezra has written about before, divides worldviews along two dimensions, hierarchical vs. egalitarian and individualist vs. communitarian. This creates a four-quadrant space; conservatives are hierarchical-individualists.

These differences can help inform our understanding of current US politics, but first we should head off a few misunderstandings.

Caveats about personality research

Talking about deep personality differences is a sensitive business and inevitably draws some anger. So it's worth clarifying a few things.

1) Everything is a spectrum and everyone is a unique snowflake

All these conservative tendencies put together and pushed to the extreme amount to authoritarianism. The liberal inverse amounts to a kind of drifting libertinism. In practice, very few people lie at the far ends of the bell-curve distribution. Most people are somewhere closer to the middle, an idiosyncratic mix.

What's more, different aspects of personality can be elicited by different circumstances, at different times, around different people. In times of peace and growth, there's a drift toward liberalism. Fear and crisis tend to push everyone the other direction, to shrink boundaries of concern and heighten in-group/out-group sensitivity. So liberal and conservative traits are not static, at the group level or within an individual.

Everyone is unique. No individual is predicted or explained by this research. These are general tendencies, heuristics, fluid and context-sensitive.

2) The research draws no value judgments

Whichever of these personality traits, or clusters of traits, you might prefer, the research itself does not characterize any as better or worse. It's easy to imagine circumstances in which sensitivity to threat and commitment to stability are valuable and others in which risk-taking and innovation are valuable. And it's likely valuable to have a mix, a balance, no matter the circumstances.

3) Liberal and conservative do not always map to political left and right

As Mooney is at pains to emphasize in his book, personality does not dictate ideology. There's no law of nature that conservatives are confined to the political right. The 20th century offers no shortage of authoritarian leftists. When the political left dominates the political order, those prone to defending the status quo will tend to be leftists.

There was a period in the mid-20th century US when liberals and conservatives were somewhat more evenly distributed across the parties — there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. But the past four or five decades have seen a slow (lately accelerating) process of polarization. Americans have sorted themselves: Almost all liberals are now Democrats; almost all conservatives are now Republicans. In Congress, the leftmost Republican is to the right of the rightmost Democrat.

US political polarization over the past century.

Guns have become a last-ditch effort to impose control on a world slipping away

Let us imagine, then, a conservative gun owner — an older white gentleman, let's say, in his 50s, living in the Rust Belt somewhere. When he was growing up, there was living memory of a familiar order: men working in honorable trade or manufacturing jobs, women tending home and children, Sundays at church, hard work yielding a steady rise up the ladder to a well-earned house, yard, and car.

That order was crumbling just as our gun owner inherited it. The honorable jobs are gone, or going. It's hell to find work, benefits are for shit, and there isn't much put aside for retirement. The kids are struggling with debt and low-paying jobs. They know, and our gun owner knows, that they probably aren't going to have a better life than he did — that the very core of the American promise has proven false for them, for the first time in generations.

It's a bitter, helpless feeling. And for someone naturally attuned to "order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity," it's scary. The role he thought he was meant to play in the world, the privileges and respect that came along with it, have been thrown into doubt. Everything is shifting under his feet.

Over the last few years, our gun owner has found a whole network of TV channels, radio shows, books, blogs, and Facebook groups that speak directly to his unease. They understand the world he heard about from his father and grandfather, the world that's being lost; they understand the urgency of saving what's left of it.

Most of all, with his already heightened sensitivity to threat further aggravated by economic uncertainty, they finally help him see who's to blame. They show him the immigrants crowding in, using up jobs and benefits that were promised to American workers. They show him minorities demanding handouts that are paid for with his taxes, even as they riot, even as they kill each other and the police. They show him terrorists making a mockery of weak American leadership. They show him elitist liberals, professors and entertainers, disdaining his values and mocking his religion.

And it is such a relief, to finally put a face to all the ambient dread, to have some clarity again, to know who the good guys and bad guys are. Our gun owner is a good guy, thankfully, from the kind of self-reliant stock that settled this country.

gun flag

It seems like America's decline is a done deal, that the tide of liberal rot is unstoppable. But the one place he knows he can draw the line is at his door, on his private property, because he has a gun. He can defend his own. If the minorities riot again, or immigrant criminals move in nearby, or terrorists attack, or some wackjob goes on a shooting spree, or Obama comes for his guns ... well, that's what the guns are for. He's given up a lot, but he won't give up his autonomy or the safety of his family. He'll defend that to the end.

To our gun owner, another mass shooting is not an argument for getting rid of guns. It's a confirmation of his every instinct, another sign of moral and societal decay, another reason to arm himself and defend what he's got left.

You can tell him about Canada and Australia until you're blue in the face — the lower rate of gun deaths, the hunting exemptions, the seemingly intact freedoms. You can cite high popular support for restrictions on gun and ammunition sales. You can tell him that not every incremental tightening of standards is a slippery slope, that no one wants to confiscate his guns.

But you're just another self-righteous liberal on another self-righteous crusade, too blind or stupid to see how governments always use people like you to disarm their citizenry. You've taken enough — of his taxes, his freedoms, his culture. He won't give you any more.

A cherished myth of American politics (indeed, of democracy generally) is that it's fundamentally about persuasion, the contest of ideas. But in a political system already biased against action, in which members of both parties are becoming more ideologically and even psychologically distant, persuasion on issues that activate tribal identities is all but impossible. Our gun owner is not going to change his mind; everything gun control proponents consider evidence for their side, he considers evidence for his. The differences run deeper than evidence.

If there are ever to be gun laws passed in the US, any kind of policy response to the rising tide of mass shootings, it will be because the people who want it amass the political power to overwhelm the power of the gun lobby. It will be because they organize and deploy more intensity, money, and votes than their opponents. More mass shootings are not going to do the job for them.

VIDEO: America's gun problem explained in 90 seconds

04 Dec 13:28

Why the NRA is so powerful

by Matthew Yglesias

Any good political fight needs a bad guy, and for liberals upset about congressional resistance to gun control legislation, the National Rifle Association is the bad guy of choice. And it's not a bad choice by any means. The NRA really does carry enormous clout on Capitol Hill.

But liberals — like Igor Volsky from ThinkProgress in this video — often like to express this clout in terms of the NRA's campaign contributions.

This is wrong. Money matters in politics, and the NRA does have money. But lots of lobbying groups have more money than the NRA and almost none of their clout. The NRA's true sources of power are twofold — people and focus.

Money only explains so much

According to Open Secrets, the NRA spent $11,159,167 on the 2012 election cycle, making it one of the biggest spenders on that election.

But the League of Conservative Voters spent almost as much ($10.8 million), and the large labor unions SEIU ($13.7 million) and AFSCME ($12.4 million) both spent more. These are all, as you would expect, big and influential groups. When labor unions came out swinging hard against Trade Promotion Authority this year, most Democrats in Congress lined up behind them. But the NRA is far more popular than that. A sizable minority of Democrats — including the president of the United States — broke with labor over Trade Adjustment Assistance, and at the end of the day it passed.

Republicans, by contrast, essentially march in lockstep with the NRA, and red-state Democrats fear its wrath. Money alone doesn't convey that kind of power, especially when the gun control cause can now put Michael Bloomberg's money in the field to counter NRA cash in cases where gun control is a high-profile issue in the campaign.

People and focus are much rarer than money

What the NRA has that relatively few other DC interest groups have is a genuine mass membership. The NRA's 5 million members give it ground troops who mobilize to call congressional offices, volunteer in campaigns, and share political views with friends and neighbors. The mere fact that a person would bother to have voluntarily joined a political advocacy organization sends a powerful signal to politicians that he or she is an engaged member of the electorate who will pay attention to political events and show up on Election Day.

This membership is made all the more valuable by the fact that the NRA is focused.

Most other advocacy groups with broad membership serve a wider range of purposes. The American Federation of Teachers has 1.6 million members, but those members didn't necessarily join the union because they agree with AFT about a particular policy agenda. Labor unions do lots of things that aren't political advocacy, after all, and they advocate on a wide range of issues. That means that on any given issue, union leaders can only realistically tap so much of their membership clout and that politicians know they don't need to agree with the union leadership on everything to be seen broadly as a good guy.

But the NRA really only does one thing: It opposes gun regulations. So when NRA leaders show up in Congress or in a state legislature with members behind them, people know the members are serious. And that even if politicians manage to cook up a gun bill or seven that does well in polls or focus groups (and liberals have gotten pretty good at this), the leadership of the organization can credibly communicate back to its members that the bill is bad for gun rights and should be opposed.

There are lots of groups in Washington with money, some groups with mass membership, and a bunch of groups with narrow focus. But since there tends to be a trade-off between focus and breadth of membership, the NRA is almost unique in combining the two.

This is why the NRA’s scorecards are far more powerful than its political donations.

03 Dec 17:05

A Brand New UI: Alpha Centauri Redux

by Adam Smith

Alpha Centauri is one of the best strategy games ever made. It casts a long shadow, such that a game like Civilization: Beyond Earth [official site] cannot escape comparison, even though it wasn’t intended to be the direct spiritual successor many saw it as. But how would you improve on Meier and Reynold’s sci-fi masterpiece? Keegan Chua has some ideas. His Alpha Centauri Redux project is a fully documented attempt “to completely redesign the look and feel of the user interface in the Sid Meier classic”.

… [visit site to read more]

03 Dec 16:56

Booze, Bards, And Ballads: Big Dwarf Fortress Update

by Adam Smith

DF is one of those games that I'm terrible at, but am glad they exist. Amazing to see that it's still being updated.

An early Christmas present has arrived. On December 1st 2015, one of the largest and most complicated works in the history of the realm known as EarthDwelling received new embellishments. The work known as Dwarf Fortress [official site] has been upgraded by master craftsmen and now contains designated leisure zones, performances and procedural art forms, unique to each civilisation. And that’s not all. Details below.

… [visit site to read more]

03 Dec 15:43

Financial crises are great news for far-right politicians

by Zack Beauchamp

We all know the 2008 financial crisis was devastating to the global economy. But the effects aren't just economic: Financial crises also can screw up political systems, empowering extremists and making effective governance a lot harder.

According to a new study by a group of German economists, we've actually been underestimating how badly financial crises screw up politics in advanced democracies — which means the aftereffects of the 2008 crisis may have been even worse than we thought, in ways that are still with us today.

The authors of the study — Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch — found that financial crises are associated with a stunning rise in support for extreme right-wing parties. They also found a sharp uptick in anti-government demonstrations, falling support for the governing party, and a rise in the number of smaller parties in government. The result is a political system that's less capable of passing new laws to deal with the economic catastrophe and more open to far-right policy agendas.

"Political radicalization, declining government majorities and increasing street protests appear to be the hallmark of financial crises," they write. "Preventing financial crises also means reducing the probability of a political disaster."

Financial crises empower the hard right — but not their left-wing equivalents

May Day Protest In Paris (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
A 2009 rally by France's far-right Front National.

Funke and company compiled information on legislative elections in 20 advanced democracies between 1970 and 2014, a data set that covers about 800 individual elections. They used it to compare the politics in each of those countries in the first five years before a major financial crisis and the next five years afterward, to see how things changed as a result of the crisis.

Their first finding, as they explain in a write-up at VoxEU (no relation), is that "politics takes a hard right turn following financial crises." Specifically, they found that the number of votes going to far-right parties is about one-third higher five years after the crisis than it was before the crisis.

This historical trend holds true today. "In the aftermath of the 2007-08 global crisis," Funke and his colleagues write, "far-right and right-wing populist parties more than doubled their vote share in many advanced economies." For example, France's xenophobic, far-right Front National party increased its vote share from just 4.3 percent in 2007 (right before the global financial crisis) to a stunning 13.6 percent in 2011.

You might expect this to happen because of generic frustration with the political system: People just experienced a massive economic collapse and are looking for some kind of radical alternative. But if that were true, the far left should also benefit from the crisis.

It turns out that doesn't happen. The study's authors found that "on average, the far left did not profit equally from episodes of financial instability." Here's what that looks like charted:

 (Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch)
Average changes in vote share for far-left and far-right parties after financial crises, 1870-2014.

So while support for far-right parties dramatically increases in the wake of major financial crises, support for far-left parties stays about the same.

This explains why a major revival of Marxist politics, much predicted after the 2008 crisis, didn't really happen (and no, Bernie Sanders doesn't count). Parties whose political agendas center on xenophobia and exclusion seem to profit more from financial disaster than do parties critical of capitalism itself.

It's not just the far right

The political consequences of financial crises go far beyond just empowering the far right: They also make it harder to govern. According to Funke et al., a variety of things happen in the wake of financial crises, all of which complicate governance:

  • Support for governing parties drops by an average of 10 percent within the first two years, and opposition parties increase their vote share by roughly the same amount. But the governing party's vote share rebounds in the next three years. This kind of inconsistency can make pursuing a coherent response to the crisis hard.
  • The number of parties in the legislature tends to increase sharply, making it harder to corral majorities for new policies.
  • Strikes, street protests, and riots surge:
(Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch)

These effects, together with the surge of far-right governments, very likely combine to make recovering from financial crises harder — which partly explains why both the economic and political situation around the developed world — think Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain — seemed so bad so long after the 2008 crisis.

"These developments likely hinder crisis resolution and contribute to political gridlock," Funke et al. conclude. "The resulting policy uncertainty may contribute to the much-debated slow economic recoveries from financial crises."

The effects are temporary — but how temporary, exactly?

golden dawn flag (Milos Bicanski/ Getty Images)
A man waves the flag of Golden Dawn, a Greek neo-Nazi party, on February 1, 2014.

The good news is that the political effects of a major financial crisis appear to be temporary. "A decade after the crisis hits, most political outcome variables are no longer significantly different from the historical mean," the study's authors write. "This is true for far-right voting and also for government vote shares. ... Only the increase in the number of parties in parliament appears to be persistent."

But even while the immediate political effects may fade after about a decade, they can have much longer-lasting consequences. If the authors are right and these temporary surges in political instability cause slow economic recoveries, then these political effects are responsible for millions of people remaining unemployed and impoverished long after crises have ended. Moreover, a lot of European states still haven't really recovered from the crisis itself, which is part of why the eurozone feels like it's constantly on the brink of falling apart.

The effects might even be even longer-lasting: Long-term unemployment can render large numbers of people virtually unemployable, indefinitely raising unemployment rates. It's part of a problem that economists call hysteresis: Temporary periods of intense economic crisis can do long-term damage to the economy.

The rise of the far right can also have longer-lasting political consequences. Take Hungary, for example: The 2008 financial crisis helped rocket the far-right, anti-Semitic Jobbik party to third place in Hungary's 2010 national parliamentary elections. The governing right-wing party, Fidesz, suddenly feared competition from its right flank — prompting Prime Minister Viktor Orban to start engaging in xenophobic and anti-Semitic politics.

Today, Orban is perhaps the most prominent European leader advocating that the EU close its borders to Syrian refugees.

"His assistants have been making anti-Semitic speeches; his government has been erecting statues to fascists; they've revamped the national school curriculum, and are assigning many authors who are overt fascists," Kim Lane Scheppele, a Hungary expert at Princeton University, told me in September. "The more Jobbik has nipped at his heels, the more overt about this he becomes."

Hungary isn't a perfect test case for Funke and his colleagues' theory —for one thing, Jobbik's surge in the polls has yet to really subside even though we're past the five-year window. And one study shouldn't be seen as a bible that fully explains something as complicated as post-crisis politics.

But it does offer a sophisticated look at the political effects of financial crises — and it suggests that we may still be living with the Great Recession's effects for a lot longer than we thought.

03 Dec 13:41

Racist algorithms: how Big Data makes bias seem objective

by Cory Doctorow


The Ford Foundation's Michael Brennan discusses the many studies showing how algorithms can magnify bias -- like the prevalence of police background check ads shown against searches for black names. (more…)

24 Nov 03:46

There are way more gifted kids from disadvantaged backgrounds than we usually find

by Matthew Yglesias

Gifted and talented programs at most school districts that have them disproportionately feature kids from higher-income families. There are a lot of factors behind that, but new research from David Card and Laura Giuliano, who studied "one of the largest and most diverse" school districts in the nation (the actual district is anonymized), shows that a fairly simple administrative tweak can greatly close the gap.

Depressingly, however, the research also shows that even though the tweak was extremely successful, it was abandoned rapidly in the face of budgetary pressure, and all the gains for low-income kids have since been erased.

The rise and fall of low-income gifted kids

The basic story is that the district in question used to rely on an informal referral process wherein teachers would get certain first- and second-grade kids tested for admission to the gifted and talent program. Then the pool of recommended kids was narrowed by IQ testing as well as by evaluations for motivation, creativity, and adaptability. The district offered free IQ testing, but affluent parents also could (and did) pay for private psychologists to administer extra tests to kids whose parents wanted them to try again if they fell short.

 Card & Giuliano

The result, as you might expect, was a huge gap in the socioeconomic status of the admitted students.

Then, starting in 2006, the district changed the system. In addition to the informal referrals, it gave all second-graders an aptitude test and pushed everyone who met certain thresholds on to the next level of screening. This resulted in a small increase in the number of affluent students who qualified as gifted and talented and a large increase in the number of low-income G&T students. And it was all achieved without any relaxation in G&T standards. The number of Hispanic students increased by 130 percent and the number of black students by 80 percent.

A huge triumph!

But then it all unraveled in subsequent years. Universal screening meant conducting more IQ tests, and the extra 1,300 annual tests required money for overtime. When the recession hit, the school district starting cutting back overtime, and enrollment in the G&T program started to fall. In 2011, to save money, it eliminated universal screening entirely and went back to the old system that had systematically undercounted promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The result? Promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now just as undercounted as they were back in 2005, before the reform.

13 Nov 16:16

10,000 wax cylinders digititzed and free to download

by Cory Doctorow


The University of California at Santa Barbara library has undertaken an heroic digitization effort for its world-class archive of 19th and early 20th century wax cylinder recordings, and has placed over 10,000 songs online for anyone to download, stream and re-use. (more…)

05 Nov 20:42

3 Depressing Findings From A Huge New Study Of The Gender Pay Gap

by Bryce Covert

No matter their industry, education, or job level, women can expect to make less.

The post 3 Depressing Findings From A Huge New Study Of The Gender Pay Gap appeared first on ThinkProgress.

05 Nov 14:15

Foodborne Outbreaks: More Complex, Deadlier, Harder To Stop

by Maryn McKenna

The complex paths that ingredients take to become the foods we eat, and that foods follow to reach our plates, are creating foodborne disease outbreaks that occur in many places at once and are more common and more deadly than ever before.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released Tuesday at the same time that fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill is struggling with an outbreak of E. coli that has sickened 37 of it customers in several states. More than half of the deaths due to food that occurred in the United States between 2010 and 2014 came from multi-state food-related outbreaks, the CDC said. Overall, outbreaks that crossed state lines accounted for only 3 percent of the 4,163 food-related outbreaks the agency analyzed—but those outbreaks accounted for much more illness and death than usual, including 11 percent of the 71,747 food-related illnesses, 34 percent of the 4,247 hospitalizations, and 56 percent of the 118 deaths attributed to food.

Produce is the leading cause of outbreaks, the CDC said.
Produce is the leading cause of outbreaks, the CDC said.
Pixabay, CC

Such outbreaks are becoming more virulent: The multi-state outbreaks were more likely to be caused by Salmonella, Listeria or toxin-producing strains of E. coli, while outbreaks that were confined to individual states tended to be caused by the vomiting disease norovirus. They are also becoming more common: There were fewer than three per year between 1973 and 1980. The CDC said Tuesday that there are an average of 24 per year now.

“On average, there are about two (outbreaks) per month, and they can be big and they can be lethal,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the CDC’s director, said in a briefing for reporters.

Frieden said the disease-detective agency hopes the food industry will work with federal officials to take more responsibility for delineating the complex processes that both assemble ingredients into finished foods and also distribute them through nationwide—sometimes worldwide—networks.

The Chipotle outbreak of pathogenic E. coli, which has affected customers in two states, sending 12 of them to hospitals, has led the chain to close 43 of its West Coast restaurants. The company is meeting with federal officials, according to Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer of the Food and Drug Administration, who shared the media briefing with Frieden.

Even the simplest foods can have astoundingly complex “supply chains.” In the graphic below, the European nonprofit Forest 500 traces the components of a burger, fries and packaging from a typical fast-food meal served in Europe, and identifies 75 different supply chains that escort the various ingredients through more than a dozen countries, sometimes traveling halfway around the world.

The nonprofit organization Forest 500 estimates that the ingredients and packaging for a typical burger (served in Europe) come from 75 supply chains.
The nonprofit organization Forest 500 estimates that the ingredients and packaging for a typical burger (served in Europe) come from 75 supply chains.
Graphic by Forest 500, original here.

And at the 2013 Digital Disease Detection conference in San Francisco, former military epidemiologist Amy Kircher, DrPH, director of the University of Minnesota’s Food Protection and Defense Institute, said the average American burger contains the products of 82 supply chains—and that importing those components opens a portal not just for naturally occurring diseases but for deliberate contamination as well.

The CDC sad Tuesday that 15 percent of complicated outbreaks over the past five years originated in imported food, mostly from Mexico and secondarily from Turkey. Fruit, nuts and seeds, fish and vegetables, and bagged salad mix were the main foreign culprits.

Frieden said the CDC is relying on the reorganization of federal food safety created by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA for short), which gave the FDA new tracking and enforcement powers, and aims to push the responsibility for detecting contaminated imports from the very limited federal workforce to foreign governments cooperating with the US.

But, as Helena B. Evich of Politico reported in an investigation published last July, the 2010 FSMA is effectively an unfunded mandate, all but abandoned by the administration that pushed so hard for its passage. The FDA, she said, is $276 million short of what it needs to implement the law’s sweeping changes and has not been able to implement any of the tough new rules it created.

Funding is the critical component that would allow federal food safety to peer into supply chains and keep such large outbreaks from occurring again, agreed Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts. She points out that, according to the CDC’s report,  fresh produce causes an ever-larger proportion of complex outbreaks, and that the unpredictable contamination that occurs in fields demands sophisticated, predictive responses that agencies can’t now afford.

“These outbreaks underscore the need for FDA’s new prevention-based safety standards for fruits and vegetables,” she said. “However, If FDA does not receive the funding necessary to effectively implement these standards, then consumers will continue to be sickened with foodborne illnesses that are largely preventable.”


05 Nov 14:12

If A Girl Isn’t Interested In Science, It’s Not Because She’s A Girl

by Melissa L. Bates

Illustration from a 14th century copy of Euclid's Elementa. via the British Library (Wikimedia Commons)

A woman using narrative to teach geometry? Gee golly, we didn't know it was possible.

I think a lot about the reasons I became a scientist. There are so many aspects of science that I adore. I love the feeling of having new data to pour over. I love analysis and statistics and creating mathematical models to explain my findings. I love tinkering with equipment in the laboratory. I love soldering and wiring and getting my hands dirty. I love generating new hypotheses and testing them, and I love to harass my fellow scientists about whether their experiments contain the proper controls. There is no doubt that I find joy and fulfillment in the technical aspects of my job.

But, as I work to establish a new lab at a new university, where I will lead a group of scientists in making their own discoveries, I am aware that my job will involve more than just data collection and technical work. My new job will rely heavily on my ability to be an effective teacher, communicator, and fundraiser. I am excited to be starting this new adventure, but traveling this path hasn’t been easy, especially as a woman scientist. I am painfully aware of the limited number of women in my field. That’s why it seriously chaps my hide when someone suggests that the reason there are so few senior women in science is because there is something inherent to our biology that makes us unsuited for these careers.

In her recent article “If a girl isn’t interested in science, don’t force her to be,” Telegraph columnist Mary Kenny claims that women are inherently less interested in science. Science, she argues, is based in fact and the “laboratory testing of elements,” career features that interest men alone. Women, meanwhile, are interested in careers where the story or narrative is important and the job is centered around people; “biography, psychology and language” are a few of the career examples she gives. This fundamental difference between men and women deters women from science careers, she concludes.

What Kenny misunderstands is that science is narrative. If she believes that women’s sole interest in narrative is what keeps them out of science, then her article only highlights how out of touch she is with modern science. In fact, I would expect that if a love for narrative were the critical factor determining women’s success in science, women should be excelling. Yet they are leaving science disproportionately. Women don’t leave science en masse as girls. They leave after they’ve received all of their technical training and have put in years of commitment to their fields. They leave when they reach the narrative part of their career.

As a new professor and group leader, my primary job is the narrative. Although I’ve had more than a decade of technical training from biologists, engineers, and surgeons, the majority of my time is now spent mentoring students and helping them find the story in their data so that we can communicate their findings to others. I believe it is critical to teach these younger scientists to find their narrative and to tell their story flawlessly. Importantly, because research dollars are becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain, the success of my research program depends on my ability to craft a convincing narrative. If I want to keep my research afloat, my narrative skills are critical in convincing funding agencies to support our work.

However, my use of the narrative is not born purely of necessity. I love telling people about our work, especially non-scientists. In one of my favorite experiments, which we recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, we studied a group of adults that were born as preemies in the late 1990’s. These folks looked and acted completely normal when we met them—but when we stressed them by giving them low oxygen to breathe, they responded completely abnormally. Unlike our subjects that had been born full-term, they didn’t increase their breathing to compensate for the low oxygen. This novel finding certainly has consequences for future problems they may develop as they age. Not only did we make sure to communicate this to our physician and scientist colleagues by publishing our work, but I also spent a lot of time talking to members of the media about our findings and explaining why our future work is so important.

Women face bigger challenges than our biology and our nature. We still receive unequal pay as faculty, have to make headway in a system that favors an “old boy’s network”, we tend to doubt our abilities more and ask for less, our careers are their most vulnerable during our childbearing years, and our training requires frequent, long distance moves. There are so many factors that keep women from advancing in science, none of which is our love for a good yarn. While Kenny’s hypothesis about the lack of narrative keeping women out of science is provocative, it’s based in a fictional world. If we want to create a narrative about women leaving science, let’s ground it in reality.

Melissa L. Bates, PhD
University of Wisconsin, Pediatric Critical Care Medicine and
The John Rankin Laboratory of Pulmonary Medicine

10 Aug 14:01

Turn a Shoe Rack into a Toy Car Wall Garage

by Melanie Pinola

If you’re a parent whose kid likes toy cars, you’ve probably got toy car clutter. A cheap, DIY solution to ditch that clutter: A shoe rack.


06 Jul 13:05

Social networking illusion makes things look falsely popular

by Rob Beschizza

Things we perceive to be virally popular online are often not. Sometimes we fall victim to an illusion emerging from the nature of social networking that makes rare things seem common. Read the rest

05 Nov 15:52

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, in 20 minutes

by Cory Doctorow

Piketty's bestselling economics book is seismic, a vital infusion of data into the ideological debate over economics -- but it's also 700 pages long. Read the rest

05 Nov 15:41

Color palette generator for designers in a hurry

by Andrea James

Coolors is "the super fast color scheme generator for cool designers." Just hit the space bar to see a new palette, and get inspired. Read the rest

05 Nov 15:32

Supreme Court disinterest leaves Sherlock Holmes firmly in the public domain

by Ivan Hernandez

After the US Supreme Court declined to hear the Conan Doyle estate's appeal in a case against author Leslie Klinger, the character of Sherlock Holmes has been firmly entrenched in the public domain. Read the rest
14 Oct 19:22

GME! Anime Fun Time Episode #06 – Princess Jellyfish

by gooberzilla


September has come and gone, but let’s all pretend this was published on time. It’s the sixth episode of GME! Anime Fun Time, in which Clarissa and Gerald of Anime World Order join me to talk about Princess Jellyfish. Topics of discussion include embarrassing real-life otaku experiences, in-group vs. out-group behavior, the way perception and self-image shape social interactions, and whether there is an intrinsically gendered component to the concept of character growth. CLICK HERE or on the promotional image above to download our review of the show.


jellyfish princess_president_chiba

We sort of forgot to mention that Kuranosuke’s uncle (that’s him on the left) is the Prime Minister of Japan.

06 Oct 14:07

Survey of women who left tech: "it's the culture"

by Rob Beschizza

Fortune's Kieran Snyder surveyed women who left tech, and finds that "the industry’s culture is the primary culprit, not any issues related to science education." Read the rest

25 Jul 12:54

This Free MIT Photojournalism Course Helps You Take Meaningful Photos

by Alan Henry

This Free MIT Photojournalism Course Helps You Take Meaningful Photos

We highlight a number of free online courses in our Lifehacker U series, but this free course from MIT on documentary photography and photojournalism is completely free, open to the public, and will teach you to improve your photography skills, even if you're not trying to catch a scoop.


22 Jul 12:27

Seriously, Fuck You, "Kindle Unlimited"

by Maria Bustillos
by Maria Bustillos

0y1FZ1pZjopvtctnlyX0BUDro1_1280Last week, Amazon informed us that for ten dollars per month, Kindle users can have unlimited access to over six hundred thousand books in its library. But it shouldn't cost a thing to borrow a book, Amazon, you foul, horrible, profiteering enemies of civilization.

For a monthly cost of zero dollars, it is possible to read six million e-texts at the Open Library, right now. On a Kindle, or any other tablet or screen thing. You can borrow up to five titles for two weeks at no cost, and read them in-browser or in any of several other formats (not all titles are supported in all formats, but most offer at least a couple): PDF, .mobi, Kindle or ePub (you'll need to download the Bluefire Reader—for free—in order to read ePub format on Kindle.) I currently have on loan Alan Moore's Watchmen, Original Sin by P.D. James, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King.

Perhaps you would prefer to download books onto your Kindle, and keep them there permanently. In that case, please hie yourself over to Project Gutenberg, which has been offering free public domain e-texts since 1971. There, you may download any of over forty-five thousand books onto your Kindle. Or one of thousands of Librivox audiobook recordings made by volunteers, all in the public domain. (R.I.P. Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg and one of the Internet's greatest benefactors.)

You can do anything you like with the public domain books and recordings you download from Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive: Make a literary Girl Talk-type mashup with them, hide Satanic messages in there via "backmasking," make letterpress reprints of the books and illuminate them by hand with gold leaf like a medieval monk and sell the results on Etsy. It's all free and legal. That is what "public domain" means. (By the bye, I wrote to the PR contact supplied by Amazon in the subject press release, and asked how many of these six hundred thousand titles offered through Kindle Unlimited are in the public domain and therefore, already free to the public, but did not receive an answer.)

Are you interested in borrowing the most recent titles? Perhaps you belong to a public library. I live in Los Angeles, and am a grateful and loyal patron of the Los Angeles Public Library, and of all the lucky things in this world, I live about ten minutes' drive away from our gloriously beautiful and fantastic main library downtown. But maybe I don't feel like driving ten minutes—in which case I can use my Kindle to check out e-books from the library, zillions of them. There are all different e-book programs, such as OverDrive, and countless recent popular books to check out, including Insurgent, which is the sequel to that daft Divergent book. (I saw the movie on the plane, I don't know! I can't help myself.)

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles. She also started an auction site for rare books, once upon a dot com.


The post Seriously, Fuck You, "Kindle Unlimited" appeared first on The Awl.

11 Jul 12:37

Star Trek Mirror Mirror beach towel

by Cory Doctorow

The Star Trek Mirror Mirror beach towel ($20) features Juan Ortiz's retro-art celebrating one of the greatest classic Star Trek episodes, and the origin of the evil-twin/goatee trope.

07 Jul 12:48

Noisetrade Collects Free and Legal Ebooks and Music

by Dave Greenbaum

Noisetrade Collects Free and Legal Ebooks and Music

Although we've covered many ways of getting free books and music before, Noisetrade has a huge selection of both—and it's all legal.


30 Jun 12:57

Contribution Explorer Shows Who Is Contributing to Politicians

by Dave Greenbaum

Contribution Explorer Shows Who Is Contributing to Politicians

If you've ever wondered who contributed to your Congressional delegation, you could use public records to look it up. Brian Clifton has created a web site that will do all that looking up for you.


30 Jun 12:51

Cyber-crooks turn to Bitcoin extortion

by Cory Doctorow

Security journalist Brian Krebs documents a string of escalating extortion crimes perpetrated with help from the net, and proposes that the growth of extortion as a tactic preferred over traditional identity theft and botnetting is driven by Bitcoin, which provides a safe way for crooks to get payouts from their victims. Read the rest

30 Jun 12:50

Publishers offer free/discounted ebooks of the print books you own with Bitlit

by Cory Doctorow

I'll have to try this out to see if the particular service works, but this sort of free or extra cheap access to digital versions of stuff you bought physically is a thing that should happen.

Bitlit works with publishers to get you free or discounted access to digital copies of books you own in print: you use the free app (Android/Ios) to take a picture of the book's copyright page with your name printed in ink, and the publisher unlocks a free or discounted ebook version.

Read the rest
26 Jun 13:18

How to make those disgusting, disneyland smoked turkey legs

by Jason Weisberger

Attention Gerald


Amazing Ribs offers this recipe for making festival-style smoked turkey legs. Unnaturally, there is some additive to get that gross color: Prague powder.

26 Jun 13:00

That Big Study About How the Student Debt Nightmare Is in Your Head? It's Garbage

by Choire Sicha
by Choire Sicha

The worries are exaggerated: Only 7% of young adults with student debt have $50,000 or more.

— David Leonhardt (@DLeonhardt) June 24, 2014

Doesn't that sound like a fact? Well, it's something that might be a fact.

The Brookings Institute Institution (!!!) is here to tell you that the whole fable of debt-panicked young people in America is a lie! And their study comes complete with a huge announcement in the New York Times, which puts a rather snide slant on the whole thing. It's all in your head, millennials! "Only 7 percent of young-adult households with education debt have $50,000 or more of it," summarizes the Times up top. (There's a quiet and enormous caveat in that sentence, which we'll get to shortly!)

But then they must backtrack from this tale a bit:

The first thing to acknowledge is that student debt has risen over the last two decades. In 2010, 36 percent of households with people between the ages of 20 and 40 had education debt, up from 14 percent in 1989. The median amount of debt—among those with debt—more than doubled, to $8,500 from $3,517, after adjusting for inflation.

So let's see: people with college debt saw their debt double, and also the number of those households with debt more than doubled. That is not exactly undermining this supposedly fake narrative of the increase of student debt! What's more, the Times notes, tuition and fees at public colleges are up 50% in the last ten years.

Then they must come to this graph.

Do you see where that says "based on households with people between 20 to 40 years old with at least some education debt"? That's actually quite a bit of a fudge!

What's the deal with these numbers? GLAD YOU ASKED. It's not what it sounds like!

• Those aren't households with people between 20 and 40; those are households headed by people between 20 and 40. Which is to say, this data excludes all people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults. The way Brookings put this is: "households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40." Just another way to say it excludes all households led by anyone over 40! (Those households might be identical in student debt to "young" households! Or they might not? WHO KNOWS!)

• One effect of this age spread sample is that it includes college graduates from up to almost 20 years ago. This is literally not at all a study of college graduates of the last five years, or even ten years. We're talking about people up to the age of 40, well into Gen X.

• Also, in this survey, when there are multiple people in the household, the Brookings Institution simply divided the amount of college debt by number of people in the household. So one person's $20,000 college debt becomes two people's $10,000 college debt. This works out mathematically, of course, but not structurally.

• And finally: The number of the people making up this data is quite small.

Where does it come from? GLAD YOU ASKED.

All this data comes from the Survey of Consumer Finances, which is conducted by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the Department of Treasury. It takes place every three years, since 1983. It samples about 4500 households in the U.S., usually, but recently expanded to 6500 households. And this isn't new data; this is the data from their 2010 survey. (The 2013 survey will be published in 2015.)

Of all the households in that study, only about 1711 have "household heads" that are younger than 40. That's what they're extrapolating from. (And, intriguingly, a small number of those have a head of household younger than 18.) This is not a big sample!

What, obviously, does this data completely omit? Well, one obvious thing is… households who are headed by someone who is not under 40. One thing we know is that, in 2012, 36% of Americans aged 18 to 31 were not their head of household, because they were living with their families.

This survey also clearly combines family and non-family households. (Also, there's some unknown amount of statistical imbalance from same-sex households; 31% of same-sex households are likely to have two college-degreed people, compared to 24% of opposite-sex married households and just 12% of opposite-sex cohabitating households.)

And finally… this survey is, essentially, of rich people. No, literally!

We apply survey weights throughout the analysis so that the results are representative of the U.S.
population of households. The use of survey weights is particularly important in the SCF because
the sample design oversamples high-income households to properly measure the full distribution of
wealth and assets in the United States. This high-income sample makes up approximately 25 percent of
households in the SCF.

Literally what they are saying there is that the information on which they are basing a sweeping assessment of American student loan debt is based on a sample in which 25% of those surveyed were "high-income households." This is insane. (Update: I wanted to clarify that I get it that they are weighting this over-representation down to represent the population at large; that's not my beef, entirely. Mostly I think it shows a further weakness in their non-rich sample at large.)

Here's a fun footnote in the actual Brookings Institution report:

These statistics are based on households that had education debt, annual wage income of at least $1,000,
and that were making positive monthly payments on student loans. Between 24 and 36 percent of
borrowers with wage income of at least $1,000 were not making positive monthly payments, likely due
to use of deferment and forbearance….

So… they… set aside as much as 1/3rd of people in the survey sample because they weren't paying off their student debt. That's an intriguing class of debtors, don't you think? They claim that dismissing these people from the sample did not "qualitatively alter the pattern of results reported above"; so why dismiss them at all?

It's shocking that the Times presents this survey in this way. This study does actually tell us things! It's not actually a pack of lies. It just doesn't tell us necessarily what people are saying it's telling us. And no one of course will actually read the whole survey, so its repackaging will now enter the narrative, thanks to bloggers….

Great @dleonhardt piece on research by @chingos and @bethakersed suggesting the sky isn't falling on student debt

— Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt) June 24, 2014

The new DC parlor game: Find some random economic or social shift. Blame it on student loan debt. Ignore data. Repeat yourself. Meme started

— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) June 24, 2014

… and professional policy wonks alike. And that's a huge disservice.


I wanted to specifically call attention to this criticism at Quartz, which actually… doesn't really disagree with anything either here or in the report. It's full of good points, but what it's not is any kind of defense of either the Brookings Institution study or of the marketing of that study. Saying that it's a small-ish percentage of debt-havers that are carrying massive amounts of debt isn't controversial or unreasonable. It's actually probable! But presenting a definitive landscape of America's student debt based on heavily sampled data most recently updated in 2010 and heavily weighted to "reflect" America as a whole is lot less useful. (Have we not been through this on a daily basis with the Huffington Post Science section, after all?)


The post That Big Study About How the Student Debt Nightmare Is in Your Head? It's Garbage appeared first on The Awl.

24 Jun 12:52

The Best Things to Buy at Whole Foods for Better Value

by Dave Greenbaum

The Best Things to Buy at Whole Foods for Better Value

We've already covered what some of the best buys are at Costco and Trader Joe's , but another popular shopping destination is Whole Foods. Believe it or not, some items are cheaper at Whole Foods when compared with other stores.


20 Jun 13:17

Last Unicorn clothes

by Cory Doctorow

Zack writes, "From the horse's mouth, so to speak (read: author Peter S. Beagle): A line of clothes based on Beagle's classic fantasy novel, memorably adapted as a 1982 animated film and an IDW graphic novel. If you've ever wanted 'Schmendrick Leggings,' or a 'Red Bull Poncho Tank,' now's your chance.

The Last Unicorn (Thanks, Zack!) Read the rest