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That’s All, Folks! The End of the Blockbuster Era in Alaska

In this March 16, 2018 photo, costumers arrive and leave a Blockbuster video rental store in Bend, Ore. Alaska's last two Blockbuster video stores are calling it quits, leaving just one store in Bend, Ore., open in the U.S. (Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin via AP)

What’s the major difference between renting a movie at Blockbuster and streaming it on Netflix? As Justin Heckert reports for The Ringer, as the last Blockbuster video stores close in Alaska, people won’t just miss the blissful comfort and simplicity of family movie night. They’ll miss the human interaction that can be the best part of visiting the video store in person: the colorful people, the jokes, the laughs, and the delightful camaraderie of discovering a shared favorite film at the checkout counter.

“People are going to lose the personal touch,” he said. “There are some people who can’t get high-speed internet, and can get only dial-up. Some places that can’t get internet at all. A lot of people don’t have internet here, can’t get it. It’s so far out here, and when [the customers] come in, they get to talk to people — to us.”

He busied himself with tasks that broke up the time, as if he just pretended the store wasn’t closing, maybe it wouldn’t. He opened DVD cases to make sure there was a movie inside, straightened the candy aisle, the popcorn buckets and Snickers bars and Hot Mama pickles and microwavable pork rinds that he would never order again. It would be worst in the coming winters, he knew. When he was working somewhere else, and the residents of Soldotna and Kenai and the little villages were forced by the cold to withdraw from the outside world. When everyone faced the winter with their blankets and Blockbuster movies, the harshest element there being the darkness itself. He didn’t know what people there would do for entertainment. They had always rented movies.

As closing time approached at 10 o’clock, there was a serious question of what might be the last movie ever rented there. Maybe something from the GOLD SECTION, a top seller, a movie like Bridesmaids or Training Day. As Justin went to lock the doors, he let one last customer in. A 28-year-old named Jacklyn Souza, who’d barely made it, who had just gotten off her shift at Don Jose’s Mexican Restaurant, she was almost breathless; she didn’t have Wi-Fi or cable at her house, and this was a ritual for her, and she had rushed in to get a copy of a show she had been bingeing, and at the counter she said “Aaaaah!” when she found out she had a $35.74 late fee. Which she paid. And she had lived there four years, having moved from California because she loved salmon fishing, and the random thing she wanted to watch became the accidental metaphor for something that had long outlived itself: The Big Bang Theory Season 10.

“I’ll tell you one story,” Kevin said. “We had to close the Wasilla store; this little girl, about 7, just cute as a button, she’s just crying. ‘What’s wrong?’ I say. She says, ‘You don’t understand, every Friday, my mommy and I would come out and go to the pizza place.’ … It was called Alaska Pizza Company. They’d order a pizza, come over, get their movies, go home, and have a pizza night every Friday night. And she goes, ‘I don’t have that anymore.’”

t was still better. That’s what the customers said. What the employees said. That was the unofficial slogan of Blockbuster Alaska, and maybe if someone heard that enough, someone from the Lower 48 who’d been streaming movies for years — maybe if they spent some time there, isolated from the horrible internet, they’d get that feeling, too. They’d want to believe it was real. They would go to Blockbuster, for the first time in forever, bidden by nostalgia, to see whether it was still better; better than what they had 4,000 miles back home.

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Should We Really Confide in Siri?

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 14: A man uses 'Siri' on the new iPhone 4S after being one of the first customers in the Apple store in Covent Garden on October 14, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

As it turns out, people don’t just ask Siri to do metric-imperial conversions or find the nearest burger — they also share their deepest, most private feelings. At Aeon, Judith Duportail and Polina Aronson explore not only how artificial intelligence is shaping (or perhaps misshaping) human growth and experience, but how cultural norms affect what constitutes a proper response from a robot and how developers need to be vigilant about the information they’re feeding the machines in order to learn.

In September 2017, a screenshot of a simple conversation went viral on the Russian-speaking segment of the internet. It showed the same phrase addressed to two conversational agents: the English-speaking Google Assistant, and the Russian-speaking Alisa, developed by the popular Russian search engine Yandex. The phrase was straightforward: ‘I feel sad.’ The responses to it, however, couldn’t be more different. ‘I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,’ said Google. ‘No one said life was about having fun,’ replied Alisa.

This difference isn’t a mere quirk in the data. Instead, it’s likely to be the result of an elaborate and culturally sensitive process of teaching new technologies to understand human feelings. Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer just about the ability to calculate the quickest driving route from London to Bucharest, or to outplay Garry Kasparov at chess. Think next-level; think artificial emotional intelligence.

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Accountability for the Algorithms

Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Wire URN:14461971

The World Wide Web is about to reach an amazing and terrible milestone: soon, 50 percent of the world’s population will be online. For Vanity Fair, Katrina Brooker reports on how Tim Berners-Lee, reflecting on how corporations like Facebook and Google have misused his creation to manipulate and spy on users, is attempting to revive the original promise of an open and safe web for all. He’s building a new platform called Solid, to give users privacy and control over their information.

Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. From the beginning, in fact, Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative. In 2012, Facebook conducted secret psychological experiments on nearly 700,000 users. Both Google and Amazon have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen for mood shifts and emotions in the human voice.

For the man who set all this in motion, the mushroom cloud was unfolding before his very eyes. “I was devastated,” Berners-Lee told me that morning in Washington, blocks from the White House. For a brief moment, as he recalled his reaction to the Web’s recent abuses, Berners-Lee quieted; he was virtually sorrowful. “Actually, physically—my mind and body were in a different state.” Then he went on to recount, at a staccato pace, and in elliptical passages, the pain in watching his creation so distorted.

The forces that Berners-Lee unleashed nearly three decades ago are accelerating, moving in ways no one can fully predict. And now, as half the world joins the Web, we are at a societal inflection point: Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?

For now, the Solid technology is still new and not ready for the masses. But the vision, if it works, could radically change the existing power dynamics of the Web. The system aims to give users a platform by which they can control access to the data and content they generate on the Web. This way, users can choose how that data gets used rather than, say, Facebook and Google doing with it as they please. Solid’s code and technology is open to all—anyone with access to the Internet can come into its chat room and start coding.

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The Town That Camp Built

Vintage large letter postcard illustration, 1940s. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)

At The Bitter Southerner, Michael Adno profiles renovator and land developer David Wolkowsky, age 98, whose particular brand of charm, philanthropy, joie de vivre, and camp has permanently shaped Key West, Florida’s unique allure.

Wolkowsky tells me the story of how he came to know the word: “camp.”

At a party in Philadelphia while Wolkowsky was still a student, he recognized Lucien Beebe, the bicoastal polymath who had started Nevada’s first newspaper. Beebe approached, and “I just handed him my drink,” Wolkowsky tells me. Beebe laughed and replied, “You’re such a camp.” That was the first mention, the flowering, the thread of solidarity that has stuck with Wolkowsky since.

“Michael, the most important thing is camp,” he tells me. “Very few people have it.” He assures me I have it — “but not completely.”

Pausing the movie, we parse the idea of camp — pulling up websites, laying books on their spines, running through examples to ask: What is camp? Or, more specifically, how do we articulate Wolkowsky’s idea of camp?

He agrees with some denotations we find online — theatrical mannerisms, exaggerated humor, a mingling of high and low that challenges the status quo in art. Of course, as many have tried, the word, its sensibilities, and its proxies have remained elusive and difficult to pin down. But camp is as plain as day in Wolkowsky’s home, with its faux paintings that are nearly indiscernible from the real things, the levity with which he addresses all things, his coded language.

In the town, itself, camp seems essential to Key West’s sense of place. While Susan Sontag was heavily criticized for her explication of the word as a sensibility, as a style, she put it well when she wrote in 1964, “Camp is esoteric — something of a private code. To talk about camp is therefore to betray it.” In other words, depending on where and when or with whom, the word holds different meanings, evading classification for decades, maybe deliberately. And while increasingly difficult to articulate, Key West’s brand of camp reflects Wolkowsky’s understanding — never on the nose, always sideways, a place where anonymity feels like an innate right.

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The Crushing, Ever-Present Weight of Debt

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After both of M.H. Miller’s parents lost their jobs during the financial crisis and his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, Chase bank foreclosed on the family home. To create a better life for their son, the family had borrowed to cover his education, resulting in crushing student loan debt to faceless financial institutions unwilling to refinance to help the family make ends meet. In this harrowing piece at The Baffler, M.H. Miller shares his family’s story of financial collapse and explores the crippling effects of long-term debt.

After the dust settled on the collapse of the economy, on my family’s lives, we found ourselves in an impossible situation: we owed more each month than we could collectively pay. And so we wrote letters to Citibank’s mysterious P.O. Box address in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, begging for help, letters that I doubt ever met a human being. We grew to accept Citibank as a detestable Moloch that we feared and hated but were made to worship. The letters began to comprise a diary for my father in particular, a way to communicate a private anguish that he mostly bottled up, as if he was storing it for later. In one letter, addressed “Dear Citi,” he pleaded for a longer-term plan with lower monthly payments. He described how my mother’s mounting medical bills, as well as Chase Bank’s collection on our foreclosed home, had forced the family into bankruptcy, which provided no protection in the case of private student loans. We were not asking, in the end, for relief or forgiveness, but merely to pay them an amount we could still barely afford. “This is an appeal to Citi asking you to work with us on this loan,” he wrote to no one at all.

Still, following completion of this degree, I enrolled in night school because the cost of a French class at New York’s Cooper Union, an action that deferred my having to start paying off the debt, was cheaper than making the monthly payments I owed. Once I could no longer delay and the payments began, a question echoed through my head from the moment the day began, and often jolted me awake at night. I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans (my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess), and the price of a loan payment. The question was: What will you do when the money from the paycheck is gone?

I never arrived at an answer to this question. At my lowest points, I began fantasizing about dying, not because I was suicidal, but because death would have meant relief from having to come up with an answer.

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You Don’t Move to Sarasota, the Spirit Moves You

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Writer Michael Adno grew up in Sarasota, Florida, home to an unusually large bevy of palmists, mediums, and others able to connect with unseen spirits and energies. As he notes, while some dismiss these services as scams, others see them as a way to find that one thing many of us desire as human beings: a deeper connection with ourselves and our loved ones. Read his piece at The New York Times and divine the truth for yourself.

As a native, I’ve heard stories about Sarasota’s energy grids, vortexes, a Calusa force field that prevents hurricanes and the 99-percent quartz-crystal sand at Siesta Key. All of it helps draw the metaphysical community. “You don’t move to Sarasota; you’re called,” a man told me. When I was growing up, the string of roadside psychics along Route 41 was as omnipresent as the car dealerships and pawn shops with their neon signs burning late into the night. It is where many psychics live and work today. In retrospect, it seemed absurd not to be more aware of the deep spiritual community here straddling the line between the physical and metaphysical worlds, but throughout my childhood, it was unclear what was simply Southern lore or if Sarasota truly held spiritual significance, what was real and what many deemed a “scam.”

Ms. Rosenbaum believes that most people are looking for peace in their lives — whether it’s the courage to take risks, pursue a dream or just fend for themselves. She and other mediums try to teach people to “stop living like other people.”

Ultimately, it comes down to listening — a prosaic pursuit with profound outcomes: “It’s a beautiful thing to watch people become themselves.”

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Could Kratom End the Opioid Crisis?

(AP Photo/Mary Esch, File)

At BuzzFeed, Azeen Ghorayshi reports on kratom, a plant-based substance that has helped some opioid abusers to overcome addiction. When users ingest kratom, it latches on to the same brain receptors as heroine and fentanyl, blocking the crippling withdrawal symptoms that prevent many users from breaking their habit. The problem is, because it does latch on to those same receptors, the US government’s not sure if they should classify it as an opioid and restrict it as a Schedule I controlled substance, even though it comes without a high.

By the time Courtney True found the Reddit thread about kratom in December 2016, she hadn’t touched an opioid for 48 hours. She was in bad shape — stomach cramps, diarrhea, jitters, hot sweats, cold sweats, and body aches that made even her teeth hurt. Sitting at her kitchen table hunched over a laptop, she recalled, “I felt like I wanted to rip my skin off and step out of it.”

True had been dependent on opioids since she was a 14-year-old growing up in Mississippi, when a doctor prescribed her Percocet to treat chronic migraines. By the age of 24, she was shooting OxyContin. A decade after that — after moving to Maine, becoming a nurse, and having two kids — the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on sketchy online pharmacies that sold pills, and True started on heroin.

Her husband drove her a half hour to a smoke shop in downtown Portland. She bought a little of everything: a small bag of crushed kratom leaves, some capsules, and two tiny bottles of extracts, all for about $100.

Back in the car, heater blasting, she swallowed some of the capsules and downed a bottle, then sat waiting, skeptically, to feel something like a high. She never did, but within 20 minutes her withdrawal symptoms had faded away. “It was like a fog had cleared,” True said. “They were just gone.”

Now 18 months have passed, and True has been heroin-free for 17. She drinks a murky kratom-grapefruit juice mix several times a day, and credits the plant for saving not only her own life, but also her family’s.

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Johnny Depp: We Are Concerned

GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 22: American actor Johnny Depp introduces his film "The Libertine" on day 1 of the Glastonbury Festival 2017 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 22, 2017 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Ki Price/Getty Images)

You’d think, after years as Jack Sparrow, not to mention roles in 36 movies, that Johnny Depp would be swimming in a sea of dubloons. A penchant for spending, generosity, and a laissez-faire approach to the fine details of his accounts has left Johnny’s treasure chest nigh on empty. At Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick attempts to see through the haze of hash to try and understand why Johnny Depp’s ship is sinking.

“So are you here to hear the truth?” asks Depp as Russell brings him a glass of vintage red wine. “It’s full of betrayal.”

We move to the dining room for a three-course meal of pad thai, duck and gingerbread with berries. Depp sits at the head of the table and motions toward some rolling papers and two equal piles of tobacco and hash, and asks if I mind. I don’t. He pauses for a second. “Well, let’s drink some wine first.”

This goes on for 72 hours.

Over the past 18 months, there has been little but bad news for Depp. In addition to the financial woes, there were reports he couldn’t remember his lines and had to have them fed to him through an earpiece. He had split from his longtime lawyer and agent. And he was alone. His tabloid-scarred divorce from actress Heard is complete, but not before there were persuasive allegations of physical abuse that Depp vehemently denies. Depp’s inner circle had begged him to not wed Heard or to at least obtain a prenup. Depp ignored his loved ones’ advice. And there were whispers that Depp’s recreational drug and alcohol use were crippling him.

During my London visit, Depp is alternately hilarious, sly and incoherent. The days begin after dark and run until first light. There is a scared, hunted look about him. Despite grand talks about hitting the town, we never leave the house. As Depp’s mind leads us down various rabbit holes, I often think of a line that he recited as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland: “Have I gone mad?”

I want to go home, but feel reluctant to leave. One of the most famous actors in the world is now smoking dope with a writer and his lawyer while his cook makes dinner and his bodyguards watch television. There is no one around him who isn’t getting paid.

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On Saving the Cuban Crocodile from American Invasion

The Cuban crocodile, C. rhombifer (Getty Images)

At Hakai Magazine, Shanna Baker reports on the ongoing bid to preserve C. rhombifer, the breed of Cuban crocodile beloved of Fidel Castro, who was known to send living and embalmed versions of the animal to allies around the world. The Cuban croc is endangered, not only due to shrinking habitat, but also to hybridization as its gene pool gets polluted by natural encounters with the bigger, shyer American crocodile.

Beside a spit of land jutting into a swampy enclosure, a female crocodile breaks the waterline, the bony ridges on her back jagged like an electrocardiogram. Her eyes track six sweat-soaked men standing in a haphazard semicircle, gripping poles twice their own height, as mosquitos orbit their straw hats. Another man works quickly with a hoe, leveling the dried grasses of her nest and chewing up the earth until he finds her unborn brood, laid just three days ago. The crocodile thrashes and lunges forward, but two men raise their weapons, ready to deliver a hard thump to the snout if she approaches.

She sinks back as the man in the middle of the mob loads her few dozen eggs plus a second set from a nearby nest into a plastic pail, cushioning them between layers of dirt. At the top, he places four last eggs—the rejects—each the size of a small mango. They feel like unpolished marble and all bear a sizable dent. The tiny would-be Cuban crocodiles (Crocodylus rhombifer) inside are goners—the membranes are too damaged—but the others are destined for an incubation room, where air conditioners humming round the clock will hopefully hold them at a steady temperature. If all goes as planned, in 75 days or so, hatchlings will emerge and help move the needle on C. rhombifer’s prospects for survival.

Conserving the Cuban croc was one of Fidel Castro’s first priorities after he steamed into power in 1959. Just months into his rule, he ordered the creation of the Criadero de cocodrilos, Ciénaga de Zapata—or Zapata Swamp Captive Breeding Facility—a cluster of ponds, rows of concrete-block pens, and a couple of narrow one-story buildings split into modest offices and workspaces for staff two and a half hours south of Havana. Castro always had a predilection for wild spaces and things, says environmental historian Reinaldo Funes-Monzote of the University of Havana. Whether he cherished endemic species because they fit with his hypernationalistic sensibilities, or he related to their untamed energy, or he was just enlightened to the inherent value of wildlife is a guess, though crocodiles must have become a point of pride for him at some stage—he eventually developed a habit of gifting them, either living or embalmed, to foreign allies.

The Cuban is bolder and hunts during the day. It has a stubby snout, a reputation for jumping, and a tendency to walk with its belly high off the ground. The American is bigger, more apt to hide, searches for prey at night, sports dark bands on its back and sides, and has a long, pointed snout and extra webbing on its hind toes. The differences are as distinct as red from blue.

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Meet Spitty, the Whippet Who Holds Five World Records

NEW YORK - AUGUST 04: Purina Dock Diving Dogs visit the "Late Show With David Letterman" at The Ed Sullivan Theater on August 4, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images)

For Outside, Christopher Solomon profiles the little-known sport of dock diving and one incredible athlete who already has five world records under his belt, or rather, collar: a 5-year-old whippet named Spitfire, Spitty for short.

About 20 years ago, a marketing guy recruited some dogs to leap into the water as a time-filler during ESPN’s forgettable Great Outdoor Games. The diversion, though, was a hit. This, in retrospect, should not have come as a surprise to anyone. It is a truth universally acknowledged that no pleasure is so cheaply bought, and so unmarred by complexity, as the simple joy of seeing a dog hurl itself into a pond in pursuit of a slobbery stick. Science has proven the impossibility of the human brain to register self-pity, or maunder on about the generally sorry state of things, while in the presence of canine bellyflops.

Today, more than 1,000 dock-diving competitions are held annually around the U.S., estimates Kristi Baird, who is Spitty’s trainer, with competing organizations that have names such as DockDogs and North America Diving Dogs. These competitions can attract big crowds, and booming soundtracks, and booming emcees often lured from monster-truck shows. The largest events have total purses of $30,000 cash. One group’s dock-diving rulebook now runs to 60-plus pages.

The athlete wandered up and gave a perfunctory sniff of hello to a stranger, then wandered away again. He has a whippet’s thin, patrician snout, a brief, upturned tail, and bulging brown eyes, as if the maker did not think to leave room for them in his small whippet skull. His coloring is a formal gray, with patches of white on his prosternum and rear pasterns that, along with the reserved mien that he shares with others of his kind, lend the sense that he is wearing a tuxedo. Spitty is a racing whippet, Sydney explained. There is not a pinch of fat on him. Slats of ribs showed on his sides, like flannel over bone. His rear legs shifted with muscle. “Firm, proud buttocks,” as Mr. Burns said approvingly of the family greyhound in “The Simpsons.” This was an athlete. Whippets are a sighthound, originally bred for chasing down game such as rabbits, and their speed is explosive. From a dead stop, a whippet can reach nearly 35 miles per hour in seconds. Spitty now walked around the pool deck with the stiff yawing gait of a sprinter, relaxed yet coiled.

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