The premature death of physical media

Maybe I should spend some time at the tape and DVD sections at the library and thrift stores. Of course, then I would need a DVD player and VCR.

Matt isn’t just a funny guy or an enthusiastic movie buff; increasingly, he’s the kind of movie fan that home video distributors are dependent on. Casual buyers might not have noticed, but sometime in the middle of the last decade, people stopped buying movies on disc. Not everyone, of course — DVD and Blu-ray remains a lucrative source of ancillary revenue — but after nearly a decade of double-digit year-to-year growth, DVD sales flatlined in 2005 and 2006, and fell for the first time in 2007. The causes of that fall (which has continued over every subsequent year, and is expected to extend through this decade) were multifold: the recession, the uncertainty caused by the “format war” of Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, consumer reluctance to keep buying DVDs in the face of those superior formats, general distaste for the notion of buying all their movies over again a mere decade after DVD supplanted VHS.

And then there was Netflix, which launched its video streaming service in 2007 as a supplement to its DVD-by-mail business, only to see the former take over the business so quickly that, by 2011, the company (unsuccessfully) attempted to sever the physical media arm of the service. By that time, thanks to the convenience and low price of both their DVD mailing and Instant Viewing services, Netflix had all but decimated the disc rental market; Blockbuster Video had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010, having itself put the bulk of independent video retailers and competing chains out of business years earlier.

Now, home viewers watch movies via Netflix and other streaming and download services like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and iTunes. But with each new iteration of the home viewing experience, the volume of available titles decreases. All of the movies available on celluloid never made it to VHS. All of the movies available on VHS never made it to DVD (40-45% never crossed over, according to estimates). And not all of the movies available on DVD are streaming — it’s not even close.

Source: Netflix, Streaming, and the Premature Death of Physical Media | Flavorwire

How science might save chocolate

You have science to thank for your chocolate. At least, once they figure out how to make a better tree through gene sequencing.

The Roche 454 sequencers have been used to unravel the genetic mysteries of strawberries, bacteria and Neanderthals; they have produced data that have helped scientists understand disease resistance in the developing world; and, in one memorable case, diagnosed a young American boy whose condition stumped doctors for years.

But one of the most interesting things a Roche 454 has done is possibly help secure the future of chocolate.

About 25 years ago, many people became deeply concerned about the world’s chocolate supply. Chocolate as we know it—in its sweet, delicious form—is made from cacao beans, which are the product of the Theobroma cacao tree.

T. cacao is native to Central and South America, and people have been harvesting its beans for centuries. Europeans first came across the cacao tree in early trips to what they called the New World. The natural product of cacao beans is bitter, so Europeans started mixing chocolate with sugar, and a craze began that has yet to end. Chocolate is a multi-billion dollar business today with growing demand coming from countries like China, India, Russia and Brazil.


In the late 1980s, a devastating blight with a fanciful name—witches’ broom fungus—began to blossom on cacao trees in the Brazilian region of Bahia. Witches’ broom gets its name from the tiny, broom-shaped clusters of branches that form on infected trees. In just a decade, Bahia’s chocolate production dropped by more than half. Scientists and candy makers became terrified that witches’ broom—or frosty pod, another devastating fungus that infects cacao trees—would reach farms in the West African countries of Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, home to many of the world’s top cocoa bean exporters.

“Our issue was that we needed to be able to breed trees that are resistant to frosty pod and witches’ broom before those diseases make it to West Africa,” says David Kuhn, a research molecular biologist for the USDA in Miami. “Because if [that] happens, your candy bar will be $35.”

If a $35 candy bar does not seem like a catastrophe, consider that an estimated 6.5 million farmers depend on chocolate for their livelihoods and an abrupt change in the market could result in devastating effects.

Scientists in Miami were looking at breeding disease-resistant trees, but it was slow going. Kuhn explains that “tree breeding by its nature is a very slow process. You have to make a cross, hand-pollinate the trees, get the pods, take the seeds, plant them, and then you wait three to five years for those trees to flower and then you’ll be able to evaluate them.” In other words, it takes three to five years before scientists can figure out whether a particular crop of trees has been successfully bred to yield disease-resistant beans.

Source: The Big, Refrigerator-Sized Machine That Saved Chocolate | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

Are stadiums a bad investment?

The usual argument is that stadiums bring prestige to a city, and that’s hard to quantify. I like football and basketball, but I don’t care too much where it’s played since I don’t go to games, and I don’t do the tribalism thing.

Personally, I think the money would be better spent on public services and public spaces. I’m sure most cities need training, therapy, and housing for the homeless and poor more than they need a stadium.

Over the past 15 years, more than $12 billion in public money has been spent on privately owned stadiums. Between 1991 and 2010, 101 new stadiums were opened across the country; nearly all those projects were funded by taxpayers. The loans most often used to pay for stadium construction—a variety of tax-exempt municipal bonds—will cost the federal government at least $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to bondholders. Stadiums are built with money borrowed today, against public money spent tomorrow, at the expense of taxes that will never be collected. Economists almost universally agree that publicly financed stadiums are bad investments, yet cities and states still race to the chance to unload the cash.

To understand this stadium trend, and why it’s so hard for opponents to thwart public funding, look to Wisconsin. Last month, Governor Scott Walker signed a bill to spend $250 million on a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. (The true cost of the project, including interest payments, will be more than $400 million.) Milwaukee Common Council, the city’s lawmaking body, will weigh the arena proposal on September 22, after a series of public hearings. If the council-members approve it—and if recent history is any indicator, they will—construction could begin as early as October. When the Bucks step onto the court to start the 2017–18 NBA season, they could very well do so in a shiny, subsidized, half-billion-dollar arena.

Source: The Impossible Fight Against America’s Stadiums – Pacific Standard

World Shattered: Mavis Beacon isn’t real

I always suspected.

Earlier this month, VICE ran a story about the now-famous Berenstein/Berenstain Bears conspiracy theory, positing that we live in a Matrix-style reality simulation, not the reality of our childhoods, where “Berenstain” had a third “e” in it. Conspiracy theories, aside, however, it’s spelled “Berenstain” and it always was.

But maybe it’ll also blow your mind that there was never a living, breathing human being named Mavis Beacon, and that you learned to type from an emotionless robot with a human face slapped on it.

“She’s our Betty Crocker. She’s our symbol of excellence,” Joe Abrams, one of Mavis Beacon’s creators told VICE in an interview. Abrams was one of the founders of The Software Toolworks, the company that designed Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!.

Link: What's Mavis Beacon Up To These Days? Nothing. She's Fake | VICE | United States.

English is the universal language of science

And this article makes an argument that it’s a problem.

Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin; Einstein’s first influential papers were written in German; Marie Curie’s work was published in French. Yet today, most scientific research around the world is published in a single language, English.

Since the middle of the last century, things have shifted in the global scientific community. English is now so prevalent that in some non-English speaking countries, like Germany, France, and Spain, English-language academic papers outnumber publications in the country’s own language several times over. In the Netherlands, one of the more extreme examples, this ratio is an astonishing 40 to 1.

A 2012 study from the scientific-research publication Research Trends examined articles collected by SCOPUS, the world’s largest database for peer-reviewed journals. To qualify for inclusion in SCOPUS, a journal published in a language other than English must at the very least include English abstracts; of the more than 21,000 articles from 239 countries currently in the database, the study found that 80 percent were written entirely in English. Zeroing in on eight countries that produce a high number of scientific journals, the study also found that the ratio of English to non-English articles in the past few years had increased or remained stable in all but one.

Link: Why English as the Universal Language of Science Is a Problem for Research – The Atlantic.

Social media stars are okay. It’s okay to like them.

The nice thing about hanging out with furries is that a lot of them are right at the edge of the demographic for these kinds of things. I can’t say I’m particularly interested in it, but I rarely say “Who?,” and I have no ill conceits about the kind of people who are interested in it. I know they’re smart, kind, and accepting, so I’d never think ill of them for liking some YouTube star.

For the past two days, E! Online has been at war with a million irate teens. And as the battle winds up, we must conclude: The teens are winning.

It all began in the wake of Sunday night’s Teen Choice Awards, when Seija Rankin — a 30-something editor for the celebrity network — published a tongue-in-cheek listicle that spent a lot of real estate hating on the social media stars at the show. Maybe Rankin was joking and her jokes were bad; maybe Rankin was serious. In either case, she appeared shocked to see awards for Vine, YouTube and Twitter celebs, and — of several top social media stars — wrote only, “who is this?”

Both the “unknown” luminaries and their fans were, suffice it to say, upset about the debacle: In the day after the post published, many of YouTube’s top stars tweeted their complaints — to thousands of RTs from a peeved teen audience.

Link: Why social media stars really, truly matter: An explainer for over-30s and E! Online – The Washington Post.

Cable-only Presidential debates are not the new poll tax

The “debates” have been a farce as long as I’ve paid attention. The real debate happens in blogs, news sites, and social media, and the spectacle is barely mentioned. It’s just not relevant as more than a source of punchlines.

All that aside, the article’s overview of the history of cable policy is interesting.

As a matter of American history and civics, this should be shocking. But when I told a friend of mine that this bothered me, he said, snarkily, “Oh, right, because you can’t pay for cable. Of course you can. What’s your problem?”

So it seems to me maybe a little re-education (or myth-busting) might be useful. There are all kinds of public values at stake here, and we shouldn’t glide past them. This is the place where the increasingly blurry public/private line should, for many people, stand out in sharp relief. There is no speech more central to civic life than a political debate. And yet we have allowed access to that speech by way of the common medium of our era — high-speed Internet access — to be controlled by a cabal of private actors.

The thing is that Fox News Channel owes its existence — completely — to a federal statutory regime aimed at supporting the “public trustee” role of traditional TV broadcasters. And yet all the “public-ness” of that deal has been washed away: Fox News felt no need to ensure that online viewers could watch the debate. That meant that cord-cutters and cord-nevers — basically, Millennials and an ever-increasing chunk of Americans — whose high-speed Internet access wasn’t sold to them by a cable company had to wait for re-runs.

Link: Cable-Only Presidential Debates are the New Poll Tax — Backchannel — Medium.