Tag Archives: quotes

New York City’s Final Frontier: Underground

Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.

Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”

New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.

Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.

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Instagram Wants to Make the Internet a Nicer Place to Be

Is it possible to make the internet a kinder place? Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom thinks so. In Wired, Nick Thompson reports on how Instagram has been working to clean up its photo sharing platform, creating tools for users to close comments on certain posts and ban offensive words—or, in one notable case, offensive emojis:

In mid July 2016, just after VidCon, Systrom was faced with just such an ophiological scourge. Somehow, in the course of one week, Taylor Swift had lost internet fights with Calvin Harris, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian. Swift was accused of treacherous perfidy, and her feed quickly began to look like the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo. Her posts were followed almost entirely by snake emoji: snakes piled on snakes, snakes arranged numerically, snakes alternating with pigs. And then, suddenly, the snakes started to vanish. Soon Swift’s feed was back to the way she preferred it: filled with images of her and her beautiful friends in beautiful swimsuits, with commenters telling her how beautiful they all looked.

But Instagram can’t build that world with simple technical fixes like automated snake emoji deletion.

This was no accident. Over the previous weeks, Systrom and his team at Instagram had quietly built a filter that would automatically delete specific words and emoji from users’ feeds. Swift’s snakes became the first live test case. In September, Systrom announced the feature to the world. Users could click a button to “hide inappropriate comments,” which would block a list of words the company had selected, including racial slurs and words like whore. They could also add custom keywords or even custom emoji, like, say, snakes.

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Exploiting Mexico’s Indigenous People to Get the West Its Drugs

In the 1600s, Northern Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara tribe escaped Spanish incursions by moving deep into the rugged Sierra Madre. There, they cultivated the steep canyons, maintained their cultural identity and traditions, and developed into some of the world’s best long-distance runners, able to run for days without stopping. The Tarahumara people have earned international renown for their phenomenal marathon endurance. Tarahumara runners have appeared on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. They’re the subject of the best-selling book Born to Run, and they compete in many international races, yet many of their villages still lack running water and electricity. As they’ve suffered drought and famine, Mexico’s drug cartels have preyed on them. Cartels clear-cut their ancient pine forests. They converted their land to marijuana and opium poppy fields, and forced these peaceful reclusive people to work for them or leave.

At Texas Monthly, Ryan Goldberg tells the tribe’s story — which is Mexico’s story — and how cartels now offer the Tarahumara endurance runners money to run drugs across the border. The dire need to keep their families fed and keep violence out of their villages has turned too many village men into felons after they get caught at the border. Although Goldberg’s article isn’t polemical, the narrative puts the responsibility in the hands of Western consumers: if you buy Mexican drugs, you are funding the destruction of these indigenous people. Even if your Saturday night coke party is an occasional weekend extravagance, it comes with a huge human cost, not just to your body. Your purchases are part of an international supply chain, and the West’s appetite for drugs is the root of this problem. Supply and demand itself is simple in theory: no demand for Mexican drugs, no cartels. The reasons for demand are varied and complicated, and addiction is very different than recreational drug use. But America is still complicit in the Tarahumara’s suffering.

As the cartel war ricocheted from one canyon to the next, Urique became one of the last towns to be engulfed by intense violence. It had once served as an outpost for tourists exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding canyons, which helped keep it relatively tranquil until a Sinaloa boss’s nephew was murdered there, in late 2014. From then on gunfire could routinely be heard in the town and up the canyon. In the days leading up to the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco, an eight-hour battle erupted in a village along the planned racecourse. International runners arrived to find armed gangs in the streets of Urique, while local government officials assured the competitors there were no problems. A day before the race, however, Juárez hit men stormed the police station, seizing two officers and a teenager, and American organizers called off the race. Most of the visiting runners, who had come from 23 countries, made their way out under military escort. More than five hundred Tarahumara, Silvino included, resolved to carry on anyway, and the mayor agreed to a version that cut out the downriver loop, where the major shoot-out had occurred.

A few months later, Sinaloa won control of the area—nearly a dozen planes flew out of the town of Urique in one day with the remaining Juárez fighters—but conditions worsened. With the Sinaloa in command, land theft and poppy growing increased.

Some Tarahumara activists tried to make their plight known, like Irma Chávez Cruz, a 25-year-old mother who was a friend of Silvino’s. Chávez had learned Spanish as a teenager, to serve as an interpreter for her people, then earned a university degree in ecology and gotten elected to local government. She worried about Tarahumara children losing their running traditions, so she regularly put on races in the region, including all-female events called ariweta. She helped organize the largest-ever recorded rarajipari in Chihuahua—Silvino led one of the teams—and together they traveled to Brazil, in October 2015, for the inaugural World Indigenous Games. The next year, Chávez ran in the Boston Marathon (possibly the first Tarahumara woman to do so) and, while there, spoke on a panel about indigenous running traditions. Together with her father, an activist, musician, and poet known as Makawi, she pleaded for government officials in Chihuahua to help prevent drug traffickers from stealing their land and their water. But help never came, and speaking out became risky. According to the Mexico City–based magazine Proceso, at least five indigenous activists were assassinated in 2015 and 2016.

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How Patagonia Continues to Operate As a Model of Responsible Capitalism

How serious are you about saving the planet? Many marketing types say that activism is the new hot advertising strategy, but some businesses actually believe in the philosophies they espouse, like Patagonia. Founded in 1973, the California-based company has always aimed to balance responsible production with environmental activism, by funding environmental causes, refining its business model and manufacturing practices, and empowering like-minds. With the Trump administration’s move to dismantle environmental protections on public land and climate change, Patagonia’s staff believes that too many companies in the outdoor industry have been too passive for too long, and the time has come to spend more company profits fighting the political forces that not only threaten America, but humanity’s future. At OutsideAbe Streep examines the ways Patagonia reaches consumers, manages its factories, thinks of its role in a revolution, and urges other businesses to step up. With power and influence comes great responsibility, which puts brands in the position to influence social good. Interestingly, this socially responsible model has quadrupled Patagonia’s profits during the last ­seven years. The question is: are those other companies committed to long-term political activism?

For decades, Patagonia sought to demonstrate that profitability and environmentalism can go hand in hand—to show a better way by, for example, encouraging fair-trade practices in foreign factories. The company advised Walmart, helping the retail behemoth clean up its supply chain, and worked with Nike to create the Textile Exchange, a nonprofit that encourages more sustainable practices in the apparel industry. Chouinard now believes that he was mistaken in trying to influence publicly traded companies. “I was pretty naive thinking you could do that,” he told me.

Marcario presented an alternative: grow Patagonia into a much bigger brand so that everything it did would have greater impact. She was uniquely qualified to make this argument. In her youth, she was an outspoken progressive activist, arrested during protests on issues like LGBT rights, AIDS, and women’s health. “She understands the need for revolution,” Chouinard has said. But she also understands business. Upon taking the CFO job, she streamlined distribution and shipping, installed industry-standard software, and focused on improving e-commerce. “Doing things that, you know, like, retailers do,” she laughs. During her first year, in 2008, the global economy crashed, but Patagonia—and much of the outdoor industry—didn’t: the company experienced growth in the high single digits. Casey Sheahan, Patagonia’s CEO at the time, told me that this was due to people “aligning themselves tribally” at a time of strife. It was a hint of the opportunity that would come with the rise of Trump.

Sheahan also told me that, at the time he left Patagonia, more than 50 percent of the revenue came from direct-to-­consumer business via Patagonia’s stores and e-­commerce. He suspects that the percentage is bigger today. (The company wouldn’t confirm or deny this.) Selling directly to a consumer, rather than through a third-party retailer like Backcountry.com or REI, ­increases both revenue and influence. According to Joe Flannery, a veteran outdoor-industry marketer and senior VP of technical apparel for Newell Brands, which owns Marmot and Coleman, Patagonia’s direct-to-consumer sales “represents one of the most powerful mechanisms of any brand. When you have that direct interaction, that means the consumer is digesting what you’re saying.”

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Swabbing Filthy Surfaces for Tomorrow’s Cures

I don’t know about you, but the last two winters where I live have been plagued by extreme flu seasons, with scores of friends and coworkers complaining about getting sicker than they had in ages. Now that it’s summer, I don’t want to think about the hacking and nose-blowing of winter, but a lot of people have started asking an important question: are pathogens getting stronger?

Statistically, we know that many infections have become resistant to drugs. Between overused antibiotics and America’s obsession with antibacterial hand gel, we have created an evolutionary arms races that’s produced super bugs and drug-resistant strains. Some experts fear that resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. Fortunately, scientists are out there fortifying our defenses. At The AtlanticMaryn McKenna writes about the scientist who revived a largely abandoned technique: collecting germs from filthy places. Gathering samples from everything from train station handrails to dog dishes to the bottom of peoples’ shoes, Adam Roberts believes that the answers to our global resistance problem lies not simply in gene-research, but in what’s called the natural microbial world, which is were our first antibiotics came from.

He decided to start where pharmaceutical chemistry had left off decades earlier: in the messy real-world settings where bacteria duke it out. He launched his campaign, called Swab and Send, in February 2015. For £5, participants got a sample tube, a mailing envelope, and an explanation of what Roberts wanted them to look for: a spot in the environment where bacteria were likely to be competing for nutrition and room to reproduce. He asked them to use their imagination. The less sanitary, the better.

In a departure from the first antibiotic searches, Roberts does not ask his sample-collectors to focus on soil. Instead he wants them to search in places his predecessors may have overlooked. “There’s such a rich microbial environment everywhere around us,” he says. “Every single place is a niche, where bacteria will have evolved and adapted independently. Soil may have evolved biological warfare, if you like, completely differently than a marine environment, or a muddy environment, or contaminated pond water. There’s a possibility of different chemistry everywhere.”

The Swab and Send campaign fired people’s enthusiasm: Within two months, Roberts received more than £1,000, and hundreds of swabs. Small checks continue to arrive by mail. (The price of participation has gone up, to £30 for five swabs.) Elementary schools invite Roberts to make presentations, and he gives the kids swabs to take home. He has taken sample tubes to parties and to newsrooms. He has two swabs that were swiped across desks in the Houses of Parliament.

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The Flavor of Childhood: Sweet Medicine

Even if you were more partial to the taste of purple Dimetapp cough syrup or the fake banana flavor of some prescription whose name I can no longer remember, you know the flavor of pediatric amoxicillin. Everyone loved that pink medicine. Its chalky, anonymous fruit flavor has generated loving blog posts and subreddits of impressive lengths. One writer loved it so much as a kid she went on a quest to taste it one more time. At The Atlantic, Julie Beck searches for that peculiar pink flavor of childhood to learn where it came from and how taste shapes a child’s experience of illness.

Taste is a factor in children’s medicine in a way that it’s just not for adults, who are prescribed pills for most things. And children often need the extra enticement of a familiar flavor to be coaxed into taking their medicine. But flavor used to be considered a more integral part of medicine for all ages—more than just something added to make it palatable.

Under the humoral theory of medicine, Berenstein says, “tastes themselves were correlated with the body’s humors.” So if someone’s four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—were seen to be out of balance, they’d likely be advised to avoid certain tastes, and eat more of others. A melancholic person, for example, might want to avoid vinegar (sour—just like them), and eat more sugar to balance themselves out. “It wasn’t about a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down,” Berenstein says. “A spoonful of sugar was the medicine.”

And for bitter herbal preparations that served as medicine, Greene adds, the bitter taste was “proof of efficacy”: If it tastes gross, it must be working. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Western understanding of medicine came to focus on active ingredients. What Greene calls “the sensuous dimensions of medicine” got “systematically written out of the stories we tell ourselves about pharmaceuticals and the way they work.” But medicines “nonetheless have physical properties,” he says, “and those physical properties certainly influence our experience of them.”

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A Son’s Ambitious Plans to Give His Father Everlasting, Artificial Life

When James Vlahos learned that his father, John, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, he set out to save his dad’s memories by programming them into a chatbot that he could pull up from his phone. The chatbot, nicknamed “Dadbot,” could emulate John in text conversations, bringing up various stories from John’s life. Vlahos wrote about his experience in Wired, and recounts the first time his mother interacted with “Dadbot”:

The Dadbot gives my mom a few other pointers, then writes, “Finally, it is critical that you remember one final thing. Can you guess what it is?”

“Not a clue.”

“I will tell you then. The verb ‘to be’ takes the predicate nominative.”

My mom laughs as she reads this stock grammar lecture of my father’s. “Oh, I’ve heard that a million times,” she writes.

“That’s the spirit.” The Dadbot then asks my mom what she would like to talk about.

“How about your parents’ lives in Greece?” she writes.

I hold my breath, then exhale when the Dadbot successfully transitions. “My mother was born Eleni, or Helen, Katsulakis. She was born in 1904 and orphaned at three years old.”

“Oh, the poor child. Who took care of her?”

“She did have other relatives in the area besides her parents.”

I watch the unfolding conversation with a mixture of nervousness and pride. After a few minutes, the discussion ­segues to my grandfather’s life in Greece. The Dadbot, knowing that it is talking to my mom and not to someone else, reminds her of a trip that she and my dad took to see my grandfather’s village. “Remember that big barbecue dinner they hosted for us at the taverna?” the Dadbot says.

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Architecture and Religious Bias: A California Case Study

In the green hills east of San Francisco, a group of peaceful Sufis proposed a gigantic sanctuary in the town of Saranap. Many Saranap homeowners resisted, claiming their semi-rural, unincorporated village of native oaks was being taken from them, blemished, they said, by a bubble-looking building straight from the Buckminster Fuller playbook, if Fuller was from Azerbaijan. The Sufis felt discriminated against, and when they dug in their heals, the kind, quiet religious order showed a newly aggressive side of its personality. At the heart of the battle were issues of domain and inclusion that lie at the heart of America itself: who gets to decide who becomes part of a community or not? Why do communities tolerate one religion over another? No surprise that race, class, and wealth are involved. Oh, and the Cheesecake Factory’s wealthy CEO. At The FADER, Amos Barshad tells this story of clashing cultures and religious bias.

But ugly, explicit religious hatred would surface. “The Sufis’ project is a mosque with teachings from the Koran,” railed a fortysomething man named Steven, incoherently, in one meeting. “What other buildings in the area are made of glow-in-the-dark circles, to no end, like the sign of infinity, the time our neighborhood will be dealing with this monstrosity? We don’t care that you eat a lot of cheesecake.” Then he laid down what sounded like a threat.

Others had argued that construction would trigger aggression and cause permanent hearing loss in children, or force homes teetering off the sides of cliffs. Steven, dressed mildly in a white polo shirt and sweater vest, went further: he promised that if construction somehow harmed his own family, “I will make sure there is hell to pay.”

Later in the same session, Pascal Kaplan of Sufism Reoriented took to the lectern. Dapper in a light summer suit, speaking calmly and quietly, he recalled his doctoral studies in theology at Harvard, where he’d read extensively about “unintended religious bias.” He explained that it comes “not out of malice” but simply because people are “unfamiliar with the tenets, symbols, and theology” of the faiths they are biased against. Respectfully, he pushed back.

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Roger Federer Isn’t Stopping Any Time Soon

Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon singles title this weekend, and is the oldest man to do so in the Open Era. Federer won the tournament without losing a single set, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at an age when most professional players retire (also: a special shoutout to Venus Williams, who at 37, was the oldest woman since Martina Navratilova to reach a Wimbledon singles final).

Federer was recently profiled in ESPN Magazine, and discussed how he’s been methodically choosing which tournaments to play to avoid exacerbating old injuries and play his best as long as he can:

The run seems to be helping him ignore expectations — and retirement chatter — as he picks and chooses the tournaments he plays while his younger rivals push through the ATP tour schedule. Thinking about saving energy, going easy on his surgically repaired left knee and extending his playing days as long as he can, Federer recently opted out of the upcoming French Open; clay courts often mean long, grinding matches, and the surface doesn’t favor Federer’s quick game.

“I can just play the tournaments I want to play and enjoy the process,” he says. “If I do show up and play, I love it. When I’m in training, I enjoy being in training. When I’m not in training, if I’m on vacation, I can enjoy that. I’m not in a rush. So I can take a step back and just actually enjoy.”

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The Celebrity Jesuit Connecting With LGBTQ Catholics

In May, a teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep, a Catholic high school in Chicago, was reportedly outed, harassed by his students, and fired for being gay. The school cited a single shirtless photo on Matt Tedeschi’s OKCupid profile as the reason for his dismissal. It was latest incident in the decades-long struggle of LGBTQ Catholics who seek to integrate identity, spirituality, and vocation, while held to higher standards than their straight, cisgender brethren.

In a new book, Father James Martin allies himself with LGBTQ Catholics and calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between the queer Catholic community and the Church. In an interview with Kaya Oakes at Religion Dispatches, Martin discusses the particulars of his informal ministry and the danger of believing God is on your side.

One of the great shocks in the last few months is that this ministry is not just about the LGBT person, but about a much greater population. It’s about their grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and friends. I was giving a talk at the Catholic center at Yale on Jesus, and afterwards this woman came up to me who looked like she was out of central casting for grandmother roles. She leaned over, and I thought she was going to say, “My favorite saint is Therese of Lisieux,” or “I’m going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” and she said, “My granddaughter is transgender and I love her so much. And my greatest hope for her is that she feels at home in the Catholic Church.” And I thought, this issue hits not just the LGBT Catholic, but a whole population of people who know and love LGBT Catholics. What’s more, for millennials, even if they’re not LGBT, many don’t want to belong to a church that excludes their LGBT friends. That’s a non-negotiable for a lot of people. While we might think the issue affects just a small percentage of Catholics, it actually affects a great many of them.

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