Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

April 15 2014 6:42 PM

Read Carl Sagan's Daughter on What Her Dad Taught Her About Life and Death

Pensive late-night reading material about Carl Sagan and life and death in an excellent piece by Sasha Sagan, his daughter, via The Cut.

As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars.

The melancholy essay is framed by the story of a very big and relatively underpublicized solid that Seth MacFarlane did for Sagan's family.

Incidentally, it must have been a bit of an ego blow for Sasha Sagan's husband to get overshadowed in his own wedding announcement by his father-in-law.

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April 15 2014 6:11 PM

NYPD Disbands Secretive Program That Spied on NYC’s Muslim Community

The New York Police Department announced on Tuesday it was disbanding a decade-old secret surveillance program of the city's Muslim community. The NYPD’s Zone Assessment Unit—previously called the Demographics Unit—was designed, the New York Times reports, “to identify the mundane locations where a would-be terrorist could blend into society.” It turns out the program wasn’t very good at identifying would-be terrorists. In fact, it never generated a single lead.

What the program did do, however, is outrage civil rights groups, create deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement within the city’s Muslim community, and spur two federal lawsuits over the NYPD’s surveillance practices. The eavesdropping program “dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped,” according to the Times.

Here’s more from the Times on the NYPD’s tactics:           

The police mapped communities inside and outside the city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch-counter conversations… The squad, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 “ancestries of interest.” Detectives were told to chat up the employees at Muslim-owned businesses and “gauge sentiment” about America and foreign policy. Through maps and photographs, the police noted where Albanian men played chess in the afternoon, where Egyptians watched soccer and where South Asians played cricket.

During his campaign, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was critical of the surveillence practices and the decision to shutter the program is an indication that new police chief, William Bratton, is “backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor,” according to the Times. A NYPD spokesman said since Bratton took over the department in January, the Demographics Unit has been largely dormant and its personnel assigned elsewhere.

April 15 2014 5:43 PM

Bill O'Reilly Interviews Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari About "Hip-Hop Stuff," "Hustlers," Rape, and Free Drugs

Bill O'Reilly's use of racially-coded dog-whistle language is just part of his crotchety-old-man schtick at this point, and is usually not worth a headline. There's an exception to every rule, though, and last night's interview with Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was over-the-top ridiculous. The Fox News host sat down with Calipari—who was ostensibly there to promote his new book, Players First—and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, began grilling the coach about "hip-hop stuff."

"I mean, you are a good guy coach but, hey, now, the culture has coarsened," said O'Reilly. "I don't know if you listen to this rap stuff and the hip-hop stuff. Has that changed their attitude? I mean, how do you impose discipline on kids who are pretty much gonna do what they want to do?" O'Reilly goes on to express disbelief that Calipari's players don't curse at him, asks him what he does when a girl tells one of his players "hey, you raped me," and states, matter-of-factly, that there are "hustlers everywhere" who are "giving the kids drugs for free."

April 15 2014 4:58 PM

"You Had One Job," Federal Health Insurance Statistics Edition

"You Had One Job" is a thing people say when they find an example of a very simple thing done very badly. E.g.:



The phrase comes to mind this afternoon as the New York Times reports that the Census Bureau picked this year, of all years, to make a change in the way they measure how many Americans have health insurance, the upshot being that it will be "difficult" to measure the effects of the Affordable Care Act on the number of uninsured individuals:

An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument.

In other words, last year's numbers will be apples and this year's numbers will be oranges, which the Census Bureau itself admits is "unfortunate timing." And the Census Bureau is typically "the authoritative source of health insurance data," per the Times, though the question of Obamacare's impact is also being studied via private polling by companies like Gallup.

Also, if you're into this sort of thing, the Times piece's explanation of why it's so hard to get a straight answer to a seemingly simple question like "do you have health insurance?" is pretty interesting, and speaks to the existential difficulty of really being able to know anything at all about anything. Check it out.

April 15 2014 3:22 PM

Meet a 13-Year-Old Mongolian Girl Whose Hunting Partner is a Golden Eagle

Ashol-Pan lives in the Altai mountains of western Mongolia. A member of the Kazakh ethnic group, she's part of the tiny (and traditionally male) community of living humans who train and keep golden eagles to hunt. And, yes, she's 13. Travel photographer Asher Svidensky captured Ashol-Pan—and her eagle—in action in a majestic series of photos you can see on the BBC's website.

"You don't really control the eagle. You can try and make her hunt an animal - and then it's a matter of nature. What will the eagle do? Will she make it? How will you get her back afterwards?" Svidensky said. Ashol-Pan, he said, is at ease with the beast.

The BBC, with details about the actual hunting:

They hunt in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40C (-40F). A hunt begins with days of trekking on horseback through snow to a mountain or ridge giving an excellent view of prey for miles around. Hunters generally work in teams. After a fox is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released.

Swap dragons for a golden eagle and Ashol-Pan is Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, from Game of Thrones. Only she's 13 and this is real life.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post featured a photo of a buzzard, misidentified as a golden eagle.

April 15 2014 1:32 PM

The Beer Data Is In: America's Hottest Microbrewer Is Lagunitas

Over at the Atlantic, John Tierney performs the important service of analyzing Beverage Industry magazine's 2014 U.S. Beer Category Report. The biggest takeaway for beer fans: Northern California's Lagunitas Brewing Company is hot and on fire.


John Tierney/Atlantic

That 84 percent sales increase from 2012 to 2013 is far and away the largest jump of any of the top-10-selling "craft" brands. Lagunitas is now the fifth-largest microbrewer in the country. (Sam Adams is still on top of the category by a wide margin.) And if the "Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale" your Slatest editor saw on draft last night at a Manhattan restaurant among more typical selections like Goose Island and Hoegaarden is any indication, 2014 is going to be a good year for Lagunitas too.

This post has been updated.

April 15 2014 11:51 AM

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Highly Isolated Confinement May Not Be Entirely Justified

Today is the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing, and the New York Times has a piece on the isolated confinement of surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who isn’t allowed to speak to or be around other inmates, use TV or radio, or correspond on non-legal matters with anyone besides his family—who he can call and write only once a week—despite little evidence that he could perpetrate further violence via interaction with outsiders.

[Tsarnaev is] effectively walled off from the outside world, imprisoned under so-called special administrative measures approved by the United States attorney general. The restrictions are reserved for inmates considered to pose the greatest threat to others — even though, privately, federal officials say there is little of substance to suggest that Mr. Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother Tamerlan were anything but isolated, homegrown terrorists.

Tsarnaev has, however, gotten a good deal of incoming money and attention—the piece says at one point last May he had $1,000 donated by “supporters” in a bank account, and his lawyer says he’s gotten at least a thousand pieces of mail from Christian evangelists and people who believe he is innocent. A woman from Wisconsin who has written to him ten times tells the Times that “you can tell he didn’t do it” because “there is too much suspicious stuff going on in this case.”

April 15 2014 10:22 AM

Even a Robot Submarine Couldn't Get Down Far Enough to Look For the Malaysia Plane Yesterday

The area of the ocean floor being scanned for remnants of MH370 is so far underwater that a robotic submarine used by the Navy for deep-water tasks had to head back to the surface after reaching its maximum depth on Monday's search mission. From the AP:

Search crews sent the U.S. Navy's Bluefin 21 into the depths Monday to begin scouring the seabed for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 after failing for six days to detect any new signals believed to be coming from its black boxes.
But the 16-hour mission was cut short when the unmanned sub, which is programmed to hover 30 meters (100 feet) above the seabed, entered a patch that was deeper than its maximum depth of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet), the search coordination center and the U.S. Navy said.

There are other submersibles that can go deeper—James Cameron has been in person to the deepest goddang part of the ocean, 36,000 feet below the surface—but the search team hasn't yet found one that's available.

April 14 2014 9:15 PM

Louisiana Lawmakers Vote to Make the Bible the State Book

Louisiana’s state flower is the magnolia. The state’s symbolic drink of choice is milk. What Louisiana is missing, however, is a state book. State lawmakers came up with a solution to that problem last week however, introducing a bill that declares the Bible as Louisiana’s book of choice.

The idea was put to the Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee in the state house, which approved the measure by an 8-5 vote, advancing the bill to the full House. House Bill 503 was submitted by Republican State Rep. Thomas Carmody and proclaims “there shall be an official state book” in Louisiana and “the official state book shall be the Holy Bible.”

Carmody’s choice of symbolic state sanctioned reading proved to be problematic for some Democrats on the committee, according to the Advocate. Their beef? Carmody’s selection of a King James version of the good book. Here’s how that sticking point unfolded via the Advocate:

[It] brought immediate objection from Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, who said his Catholic Bible contains some books that aren’t in the King James version. “A lot of people believe in a Bible that has things different than what’s in there, not just Catholics. It’s also Orthodox,” Ortego said. “Why not put all versions of the Bible? If there’s one, what are we saying about the rest of the people?” added Rep. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego.

Yes, what about the rest of the people. Lest the committee’s back-and-forth on the issue be construed as missing the old-growth forest they were wandering through while quibbling about what trees they liked best, Rep. Ebony Woodruff entered the fray.

“You don’t think it’s offensive to some citizens of this state to select the Bible as the official state book?” asked Rep. Ebony Woodruff, D-Harvey. Woodruff suggested Carmody add “all books of faith like the Quran, the Torah.” Carmody said he thought the Bible was “the appropriate symbol.” Ortego proposed and the committee approved getting rid of the specific King James version in favor of the general Holy Bible.

And so it was. But, what of that pesky church and state not comingling issue? Not a problem. Carmody points out, the Advocate reports, “the state can have more than one state book, just as it has more than one official jelly.” "This is not about establishing an official religion," Carmody told the Times-Picayune.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana is predictably unimpressed. The organization says the bill "represents the use of religion to discriminate against Louisianians of minority faiths or who do not adhere to that particular book as part of their belief system. The bill will create more problems than it will solve by telling some Louisianians that their belief system is not full equal."

The bill will go before the full Louisiana state house later this week, according to KTAL.

April 14 2014 7:06 PM

Biometric Marijuana Vending Machine Unveiled in Colorado

The free market has done wonders for the marijuana entrepreneurial spirit in Colorado. But, could the state position itself as the Silicon Valley of pot? Perhaps. Enter the marijuana vending machine. Developed by a Colorado company, the vending machine called Zazz, debuted in Avon, Colorado on Friday.

The machines aren't operational yet, but that hasn’t stopped some from daydreaming about their disruptive potential on the pot market. “They’re calling it the future of marijuana in Colorado,” Denver’s KDVR muses. “No long lines and no sales person needed.” The Zazz machine looks much like your run-of-the-mill snack machine, except it’s slightly more hi-tech—and doesn’t sell Doritos (although perhaps it should).

Here’s Stephen Shearin, the CEO of the company that manufactures the machines, on how the buying process works via Denver’s KUSA:

"[Customers] would swipe their driver's license at which point multiple cameras would allow us to use some advanced biometrics to make absolutely certain that the person who swiped the card is the owner of that card," Shearin said. The ZaZZZ machine could contain marijuana, pot edibles, and other pot-related products. But, it will not be located in the open public.

The first machine, which at the moment would only cater to medical marijuana users, is set to be installed at the pot dispensary, Herbal Elements, in Eagle-Vail. “We’re looking forward to using the ZAZZ machine to easily track all this inventory … we’re gonna eliminate the middle man. It’ll go straight from the budtender right into our machine.” Herbal Elements owner Greg Honan told KDVR.

And everyone knows the middleman is a total drag.