Daily Briefing

Deep buzz for the content-deprived

Every weekday, while you get showered and dressed, we pluck these dewy- fresh, breaking stories from the info-clogged byways of the datasphere. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and stoke up on everything you need to know, or at least enough to fake it.

The Modern American Farmer
Andrea Crawford, Slate | The Modern American Farmer | April 29, 2013

A new magazine hit newsstands last week, and, given the state of print media, that fact alone is notable. But the launch of this magazine also reflects a significant shift in American culture. Its cover resembles that of a design publication: It’s matte-printed on thick paper stock, and it features an arty photograph of a rooster so close up as to appear life-size. The bird’s deep red comb against the dramatic black background directs readers’ eyes upward to where, in an elegant font, the magazine’s title appears: Modern Farmer.         

What kind of person is a modern farmer? That question has been on my mind since I walked last fall into the first meeting of New York City’s Farm Beginnings—a class taught, implausibly, in an old office building amid the concrete canyons of lower Manhattan. Nearly three dozen aspiring farmers gathered every other Saturday over four months to participate in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program to support new farmers. Each developed a business plan, most in preparation to buy or lease land within 200 miles of New York City to meet the requirements for selling at the city’s greenmarkets. The majority of students were minorities and first-generation Americans, immigrants both newly arrived and long established, in their 30s, 40s, and 50s...

How One Tweet Almost Broke US Financial Markets
Nick Baumann, Mother Jones | How One Tweet Almost Broke US Financial Markets | April 26, 2013

When a phony Associated Press tweet reported explosions in the White House, Wall Street's computers reacted as if it were real.

In the January/February issue of Mother Jones, I wrote about Wall Street's embrace of high-speed computer programs that execute thousands of trades per second. These algorithms, some of which can teach themselves and operate almost entirely without human interference, present a new and challenging danger to the stability of global financial markets because they work in timeframes that people can't begin to perceive. By the time an actual person realizes something is wrong, it might already be too late to fix the problem. The concern isn't that one firm's high-speed trading program will make a mistake, but rather that a bunch of them will make the same mistake at once, launching a chain reaction that could undermine the financial system.

On Tuesday, the world saw exactly how fast these sorts of programs can respond to bad news...

The Lack Of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters
Vanessa Veselka, The American Reader | The Lack Of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters | April 26, 2013

Siddhartha wants liberation, Dante wants Beatrice, Frodo wants to get to Mount Doom—we all want something. Quest is elemental to the human experience. All road narratives are to some extent built on quest. If you’re a woman, though, this fundamental possibility of quest is denied. You can’t go anywhere if you can’t step out onto a road. To offer some context for my perspective, the year I was fifteen I hitchhiked 15,000 miles alone, mostly through truck stops. By the time I was nineteen I had hitchhiked another 5,000 miles through Turkey, Greece, and pre-war Yugoslavia, also alone...

Sotrm Thorgerson And The End Of Album Art
Ben Greenman, The New Yorker | Sotrm Thorgerson And The End Of Album Art | April 26, 2013

The death last week of Storm Thorgerson at the age of sixty-nine was both the end of an era and the reminder of the end of another era. Thorgerson was one of the premier rock-album designers of the seventies. His company, Hipgnosis, worked with dozens of artists, including Led Zeppelin (“Houses of the Holy,” “Presence”), T. Rex (“Electric Warrior”), and Peter Gabriel (the first three eponymous records), but they’re best known for their work with Pink Floyd: Thorgerson and Hipgnosis created the cover for the 1973 album “The Dark Side of the Moon,” first and foremost, but also “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals.” The Pink Floyd connection stretched back into childhood: Thorgerson was a classmate of both Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, and he was later the best man at David Gilmour’s wedding. The story behind the cover of “The Dark Side of the Moon” is as unassuming as it is legendary...

Gut Microbe Makes Diesel Biofuel
David Biello, Scientific American via Salon | Gut Microbe Makes Diesel Biofuel | April 25, 2013

Welding bits and pieces from various microbes and the camphor tree into the genetic code of Escherichia coli has allowed scientists to convince the stomach bug to produce hydrocarbons, rather than sickness or more E. coli. The gut microbe can now replicate the molecules, more commonly known as diesel, that burn predominantly in big trucks and other powerful moving machines.

“We wanted to make biofuels that could be used directly with existing engines to completely replace fossil fuels,” explains biologist John Love of the University of Exeter in England, who led the research into fuels. “Our next step will be to try to develop a bacterium that could be deployed industrially.” Love’s work was published April 22 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences...

The Impossible Decision
Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker | The Impossible Decision | April 25, 2013

Graduate students are always thinking about the pleasures and travails of grad school, and springtime is a period of especially intense reflection. It’s in the spring, often in March and April, that undergraduates receive their acceptance letters. When that happens, they turn to their teachers, many of them graduate students, for advice. They ask the dreaded, complicated, inevitable question: To go, or not to go? Answering that question is not easy...

Cooked: A DIY Manifesto
Michael Pollan, M | Cooked: A DIY Manifesto | April 21, 2013

The following is an excerpt from Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, out from the Penguin Press on April 23.

As I grew steadily more comfortable in the kitchen, I found that, much like gardening, most cooking manages to be agreeably absorbing without being too demanding intellectually. It leaves plenty of mental space for daydreaming and reflection. One of the things I reflected on is the whole question of taking on what in our time has become, strictly speaking, optional, even unnecessary work, work for which I am not particularly gifted or qualified, and at which I may never get very good. This is, in the modern world, the unspoken question that hovers over all our cooking: Why bother?...

Meet The Grad Student Who Upended The GOP
Lynn Stuart Parramore, AlterNet via Salon | Meet The Grad Student Who Upended The GOP | April 21, 2013

The party has long relied on a single study to justify austerity measures. Then Thomas Herndon crunched the numbers.

The world of economics has just changed, and somebody has some ‘splaining to do! Please savor the following twisted tale of bad math, academic folly and pundit hubris.

Since 2010, the names of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become famous in political and economic circles. These two Harvard economists wrote a paper, “Growth in the Time of Debt” that has been used by everyone from Paul Ryan to Olli Rehn of the European Commission to justify harmful austerity policies. The authors purported to show that once a country’s gross debt to GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90 percent, economic growth slows dramatically. Debt, in other words, seemed very scary and bad...

Five Myths About Abortion
Rickie Solinger, The Washington Post | Five Myths About Abortion | April 21, 2013

When debating whether a fetus’s “right to life” trumps a woman’s “right to choose” — or whether the news media has paid enough attention to the trial of a Philadelphia doctor who allegedly killed seven babies born alive during late-term abortions, as well as a pregnant woman — Americans are bitterly divided on abortion. Before abandoning facts for rhetoric, let’s tackle some misunderstandings about this procedure’s history and impact...

Al Neuharth, News Executive Who Built Gannett And USA Today, Is Dead At 89
Herbert Buchsbaum, The New York Times | Al Neuharth, News Executive Who Built Gannett And USA Today, Is Dead At 89 | April 20, 2013

Al Neuharth, the brash and blustery media mogul who built the Gannett Company into a communications Leviathan and created USA Today, for years America’s best-selling newspaper, died on Friday at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89...