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How the Other Half Works: An Adventure in the Low Status of Software Engineers

Software engineers are paid well, but they still don't seem to move into leadership roles. Church investigates what happened: "There was a time, perhaps 20 years gone by now, when the Valley was different. Engineers ran the show. Technologists helped each other. Programmers worked in R&D environments with high levels of autonomy and encouragement. To paraphrase from one R&D shop’s internal slogan, bad ideas were good and good ideas were great. Silicon Valley was an underdog, a sideshow, an Ellis Island for misfits and led by 'sheepdogs' intent on keeping mainstream MBA culture (which would destroy the creative capacity of that industry, for good) away. That period ended."

PUBLISHED: July 22, 2014
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4316 words)

Dealers Inject Business School Basics In Selling Heroin

Heroin dealers catering to affluent suburban addicts have shifted their operations from back-alley deals in shady parts of town to delivery on demand at downtown offices, high-end malls and suburban homes. But as the heroin business branches out from sketchy back-alleys, tactics have also changed. Now, drugs are marketed, dealers are trained, and the whole operation has been injected with MBA-style techniques.

PUBLISHED: July 2, 2014
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3377 words)

A Doctor’s Quest to Save People by Injecting Them With Scorpion Venom

A profile of Jim Olson, a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher whose lab is looking into whether a scorpion-venom concoction can make cancer cells glow for easy removal:

A scorpion-venom concoction that makes tumors glow sounds almost too outlandish to be true. In fact, Olson explains, that’s what troubled the big grant-­making organizations when he came to them for funding. But when those organizations dismissed his ideas as too bizarre, Olson started accepting donations from individuals—particularly the families of current and former patients—quickly raising $5 million for his research. It was a bold and unprecedented tactic: Though patients and their families are often asked to donate to foundations with broad goals, Olson raised money for one specific, untested technology—a much riskier gamble. But thanks to his efforts, Olson’s fluorescent scorpion toxin is now in Phase I clinical trials, an impressive accomplishment for a compound with such a peculiar lineage. The University of Washington students are clearly awed by the work.

PUBLISHED: June 24, 2014
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4466 words)

Is Coding the New Literacy?

An argument for rethinking how we teach the basics of computer science to everyone:

“Code literate.” Sounds nice, but what does it mean? And where does literacy end and fluency begin? The best way to think about that is to look to the history of literacy itself.

Reading and writing have become what researchers have called “interiorized” or “infrastructural,” a technology baked so deeply into everyday human life that we’re never surprised to encounter it. It’s the main medium through which we connect, via not only books and papers, but text messages and the voting booth, medical forms and shopping sites. If a child makes it to adulthood without being able to read or write, we call that a societal failure.

PUBLISHED: June 19, 2014
LENGTH: 26 minutes (6630 words)

The Disruption Machine

Jill Lepore’s critical look at the language of innovation in tech:

Clay Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. (“Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it,” the organizers of FailCon, an annual conference, implore, suggesting that, in the era of disruption, innovators face unprecedented challenges. For instance: maybe you made the wrong hires?) When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

PUBLISHED: June 18, 2014
LENGTH: 24 minutes (6015 words)

The Thought Experiment

Brain-controlled prosthetics and computers may help paralyzed people in the future:

Scheuermann, who says that in her dreams she is not disabled, underwent brain surgery in 2012 after seeing a video of another paralyzed patient controlling a robotic arm with his thoughts. She immediately applied to join the study. During the surgery, doctors used an air gun to fire the two tiny beds of silicon needles, called the Utah Electrode Array, into her motor cortex, the slim strip of brain that runs over the top of the head to the jaws and controls voluntary movement. She awoke from the surgery with a pounding headache and “the worst case of buyer’s remorse.” She couldn’t believe she’d had voluntary brain surgery. “I thought, Please, God, don’t let this be for nothing. My greatest fear was that it wouldn’t work,” she says. But within days, she was controlling the robotic arm, and with unexpected success: “I was moving something in my environment for the first time in years. It was gasp-inducing and exciting. The researchers couldn’t wipe the smile off their faces for weeks either.”

PUBLISHED: June 17, 2014
LENGTH: 15 minutes (3790 words)

Mother's Mind

A look at new findings on postpartum depression and maternal mental illness:

In New York, State Senator Liz Krueger has introduced a bill to encourage screening and treatment, a proposal that will most likely pass and be approved by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who vetoed a 2013 bill on technical grounds but encouraged the revised legislation.

Jeanne Marie Johnson, in Oregon, may have benefited from state laws encouraging awareness of postpartum mental illness. At her daughter, Pearl’s, two-week pediatric checkup, Ms. Johnson received a questionnaire. Her answers raised red flags and were forwarded to her midwife and a social worker. Ms. Johnson also called a number for a hotline the hospital gave her after a panic attack.

She saw a social worker, but resisted taking medication for months. Afraid to be alone with Pearl, she would insist her mother come over when her husband was out. “I called the doctor hotline constantly,” with nonexistent concerns, “because if I was talking on the phone I wouldn’t do anything harmful.”

Part Two: A Case Study
PUBLISHED: June 16, 2014
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5482 words)

Food For Thought: A Reading List

This week's picks from Emily includes stories from Lucky Peach, Modern Farmer, Ars Technica, The Billfold, and The Walrus.
PUBLISHED: June 8, 2014

The Unlikely History of the Origins of Modern Maps

GIS technology has opened up new channels of understanding how the world works. But where did it begin?

Canada may be a large country, but the flight from Ottawa to Toronto is short – a mere hour. Still, in that time, Pratt and Tomlinson struck up a conversation and began chatting about their work. As Tomlinson listened to Pratt describe his plan to collect and synthesize thousands of maps to document the wealth of the vast Canadian landscape, he felt a rush of serendipity. After all, he’d been thinking about the challenge of representing multitudinous data in a map for most of his short career and was on the cusp of programming a computer system for geographic information.

PUBLISHED: June 2, 2014
LENGTH: 7 minutes (1880 words)