Sunday 08.18.2013 New York Times Digest

18PENPALS-articleLarge

1. Dear Emma…

“Many of us who are online tend to blame the ease and speed of the Internet for our staccato attention spans. Yet some things remain more valuable simply because they are hard to do. Handmade gifts, home-cooked meals, letters. Letters take time to write and mail. I realize now how easily such value attached itself to the words themselves, and how naturally it graced a growing friendship.”

2. Master’s Degree Is New Frontier of Study Online

“Some educators think the leap from individual noncredit courses to full degree programs could signal the next phase in the evolution of MOOCs — and bring real change to higher education.”

3. Trash Into Gas, Efficiently? An Army Test May Tell

“The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and synthetic natural gas that can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel. The FastOx is now being prepared for delivery to Sierra Energy’s first customer: the United States Army.”

4. Expecting the Unexpected From Jeff Bezos

“This is, after all, a man who once said the quality he most wanted in a wife was the ability to spring him from a third-world prison.”

5. When You Can’t Tell Web Suffixes Without a Scorecard

“Advocates of Internet freedom contend that such an expanded address system effectively places online control over powerful commercial and cultural interests in the hands of individual companies, challenging the very idea of an open Internet. Existing generic domains, like .net and .com, overseen by Verisign Inc., a domain registry, have an open-use policy; that means consumers can buy domain names ending in .com directly from retail registrars like GoDaddy. With a new crop of applicants, however, Icann initially accepted proposals for closed or restricted generic domains, a practice that could limit competing views and businesses.”

6. Sunday Dialogue: Tumult in the Book World

“As a lifetime voracious reader, I consider the hours spent browsing in independent bookstores to be among my favorite activities. I have amazing memories of the sensory delight of the Strand (New York), the Tattered Cover (Denver), BookPeople (Austin), Powell’s (Portland), and my favorite local bookstore, Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle). These are places to lay your hands on the books, to savor them, to read the back cover, to listen to authors speak, to talk to other readers and to get spot on recommendations from the amazingly well-read booksellers.”

7. Not All Industrial Food Is Evil

“The basic question is this: Are the processes and products healthy, fair, green and affordable?”

8. Is Big Data an Economic Big Dud?

“What is sometimes referred to as the Internet’s first wave — say, from the 1990s until around 2005 — brought completely new services like e-mail, the Web, online search and eventually broadband. For its next act, the industry has pinned its hopes, and its colossal public relations machine, on the power of Big Data itself to supercharge the economy. There is just one tiny problem: the economy is, at best, in the doldrums and has stayed there during the latest surge in Web traffic. The rate of productivity growth, whose steady rise from the 1970s well into the 2000s has been credited to earlier phases in the computer and Internet revolutions, has actually fallen. The overall economic trends are complex, but an argument could be made that the slowdown began around 2005 — just when Big Data began to make its appearance.”

9. Tech Love Isn’t Forever

“It should come as no surprise that companies and products are overtaken by others in a competitive economy. What’s harder to appreciate is how we become convinced of the longevity of devices or businesses, especially those that have an aura of indispensability about them.”

10. A Comic Quits Quitting

“Mr. Chappelle hasn’t done any interviews (aside from a radio appearance in 2011) or appeared on podcasts or talk shows. He doesn’t even have a Web site. He joined Twitter last year, then quit after 11 tweets.”

11. Still Tingling Spines, 50 Years Later

“It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.”

12. Loose Cannons, Now Firing Freely

“Odd Future, from Los Angeles, and the ASAP Mob, from New York, developed in parallel, with essentially no overlap. Aesthetically, they’re almost at odds. Odd Future favors skateboarding, tie-dye, and images of cats with their eyes blacked out. The ASAP Mob tends toward Rick Owens, gold teeth and silk. But both are modern hip-hop outfits in that they borrow widely, and catholically. Both crews were ready-made for the Tumblr generation of image-hounding rebloggers, understanding that building a music career in this era means more than releasing songs, it means delivering a fully packaged worldview. And neither crew would have gotten as far as it did without an intensely magnetic pathbreaker at the fore.”

13. Hollywood’s New Stars: Pedestrians

“Here, we drive ourselves to jog, to bike, to attend spin class and to hike, and it’s not unusual for a dinner gathering of three couples to involve five or six cars. All of which contributes to how much we sit. When we are not sitting on the freeways, we are sitting at our computers, in meetings, at restaurants or in front of the TV. And by we, in this case I mean me, at least until recently.”

14. Penn Jillette: By the Book

Moby-Dick and the Bible are always on board; I just finish them and start them again.”

15. Is It Nuts to Give to the Poor Without Strings Attached?

“I didn’t find anyone who drank their money away or started sitting around waiting for the next handout. Although people did like to gossip about what their neighbors did with the money. One man actually pointed to a nearby house, and told me that the owner had nothing to show for his windfall. I later learned that the man, whose first wife had died, used the money to pay a dowry so he could remarry.”

16. Who Made That Water Bed?

“The popularity of the water bed crested in the 1980s as American embraced the idea that a heated, womblike mattress could soothe arthritis, slipped disks and other ills.”

17. Peter Berg Threw Himself Under a Bus. Now What?

“He once researched a TV series by living in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital, where, he said, ‘I started to question my own sanity.’ I asked him if he worried about not being let out. He didn’t smile. Berg is a serious man.”

18. How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

“Greenwald installed encryption software and began communicating with the stranger. Their work was organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind. ‘Operational security — she dictated all of that,’ Greenwald said. ‘Which computers I used, how I communicated, how I safeguarded the information, where copies were kept, with whom they were kept, in which places. She has this complete expert level of understanding of how to do a story like this with total technical and operational safety. None of this would have happened with anything near the efficacy and impact it did, had she not been working with me in every sense and really taking the lead in coordinating most of it.’”

19. The Hard Life of Celebrity Elephants

“The typical wild elephant is a social, nomadic creature that bathes in rivers and spends much of its time eating as it walks. In Kerala, the typical captive elephant is a celibate male chained to one spot (sometimes for 24 hours at a time), bathed with a hose and isolated from other elephants except when working — a marginally better life than in a circus but harder than in many zoos, where the global trend is toward more-natural habitats. The animal that haunts me most is one I saw in the elephant yard at Kerala’s Guruvayur temple, one of the largest collections of captive elephants in the world. He was missing a tusk, and the remaining one had a deep groove worn into it, about a foot from the tip. Day after day he’d been using it to try to file away at his chains.”

20. The Strange Ascent of ‘Strained Pulp’

“The movies I mentioned — Haywire, Drive, The American — struck me as art-house renderings of grindhouse pleasures, self-aware tributes to movies whose apparent lack of self-awareness has always been part of their allure. Let me be clear that I’m not talking about what we used to call, back in the ’90s, ;irony,’ though a better term might have been ‘insincerity.’ There was a time when just about anything — dumb commercial entertainment, ugly clothes, the weird dishes your grandmother used to serve — could be appreciated and appropriated in quotation marks. Strained pulp is not quite that — its celebration of the formerly marginal and disreputable is serious and sincere. The condescension is not overt but is latent in the desire to correct and improve the recipes retrieved from the past, to finish vernacular artifacts with a highbrow glaze.”

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