Scientists Peek Inside The 'Black Box' Of Soil Microbes To Learn Their Secrets

Microorganisms play a vital role in growing food and sustaining the planet, but they do it anonymously. Scientists haven’t identified most soil microbes, but they are learning which are most common.

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A tablespoon of soil contains billions of microscopic organisms. Life on Earth, especially the growing of food, depends on these microbes, but scientists don’t even have names for most of them, much less a description.

That’s changing, slowly, thanks to researchers like Noah Fierer, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Fierer think microbes have lived in obscurity for too long. “They do a lot of important things for us, directly or indirectly, and I hope they get the respect they deserve,” he says.

These microbes create fertile soils, help plants grow, consume and release carbon dioxide, oxygen and other vital elements. But they do it all anonymously. Scientists haven’t identified most of these species and don’t know much else about them, either, such as “what they’re doing in soil, how they’re surviving, what they look like,” Fierer says.

According to Fierer, they’ve been extremely difficult to study, in part, because most of them refuse to grow anywhere but in the dirt, “so we can’t take them out of soil and study them in the lab.”

Some scientists call the community of soil microbes a “black box.” You can’t see inside.

Fierer and other scientists, however, have come up with new ways to open up that box just a little. They collect samples of soil and extract all the DNA contained in that sample, from all the organisms living there. That’s a lot of diversity, even in a small sample. “Thousands of bacterial species can be found in a given teaspoon of soil,” Fierer says.

They study the DNA in each sample. They look, specifically, at a particular region of DNA that’s common to all living organisms. And by making a catalog of all the different versions of that region, they can tell how many different kinds of microbes live in that sample. They also can tell how common each type of microbe is. There’s a huge consortium of scientists, called the Earth Microbiome Project, using this approach to study soil microbes.

Fierer, who’s a member of that collaboration, discovered that even though there may be millions of soil microbes, there’s a relatively small group that seems to dominate. The microbes show up in large numbers in soil samples from deserts, grassy prairies and forests. Fierer’s report appears this week in the journal Science.

Fierer made a list of 500 bacteria that often account for almost half of all soil bacteria. In the quest to understand the soil ecosystem, he says, it makes sense to start by focusing on these dominant species. He calls it a “most-wanted list,” but it’s also a list of question marks.

“Most of the microorganisms that made our most-wanted list — they don’t have a species name,” he says. “They’re un-described.”

Janet Jansson, a top scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., is helping to lead the Earth Microbiome Project. She says scientists will be looking closely at these commonly found microbes.

“They probably play an important role, because they are dominant and ubiquitous, so I think that’s what the next step has to be: Characterizing what they do, and how they are impacted by change — climate change, for example,” she says.

Jansson also says it may be possible to piece together the entire genetic sequence of these microbes, so that even if you can’t grow the microbes in a lab, scientists may be able to figure out what they’re doing just from looking at their genes.

These soil microbes, whether they’re common or rare, could also be the source of important new discoveries, she says, including biotechnologies like “new enzymes that remain to be discovered. Novel antibiotics that remain to be discovered.”

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What's The Best Way To Help Refugees Land A Job?

Syrian Kurds take cover from the rain after crossing the border between Syria and Turkey.

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It wouldn’t make any sense to send a French-speaking refugee to a German-speaking town in Switzerland.

But under Switzerland’s current system of placing refugees, that’s a situation that can easily happen. This problem isn’t unique to Switzerland, and it’s not the only kind of mismatch that might happen.

The solution, says a new study from Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab and ETH Zurich, is the creation of an “algorithm” — in layman’s terms, the set of rules given to a computer that will enable it to reach a specific goal. The algorithm described in the study, published online Thursday in the journal Science, uses data to predict where a refugee — or one person in a family of refugees — has the best chance of getting a job.

It’s especially important to improve the placement process now, during the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, says Jens Hainmueller, a Stanford professor and one of the study’s lead authors.

“There are big questions about how you can facilitate the integration of refugees into host countries, set them up for success and make sure they become productive contributors to the host country’s economy and society,” he says. “It’s a significant challenge for governments that are facing these increasing numbers of refugees.”

Using the algorithm in the U.S. would have improved the employment rates of about 900 refugees by an expected 40 percent, the authors found. Their sample of refugees were those who arrived to the U.S. in the third quarter of 2016 (the most recent data available) who were free to be assigned to any location. They also did a separate test using data from refugees in Switzerland, finding that it would have improved refugee employment rates there by about 70 percent.

To create the algorithm, researchers entered data about refugees who had already been resettled, including their country of origin, language skills, age, resettlement location and employment status. They used that data to create a model that can predict the place within the host country where a refugee (or one person in a family of refugees) awaiting resettlement has the best chance of getting a job. Using those insights, the algorithm then makes recommendations for refugee placements that take into account limitations such as the number of available spots at each location.

“What we focus on is the probability that at least one person in the family finds a job, which makes sense from a family self-sufficiency standpoint,” Hainmueller says.

And the researchers say their inability to point to any one variable as the key to determining refugees’ success in finding a job seems to show that the algorithm is taking advantage of sometimes subtle interactions between variables that humans might not be able to pinpoint.

“There are some places that are just better for refugees in general. They might have stronger labor markets that make it more likely for any refugees to find employment,” he says. “We also found that certain places ended up being a better fit for certain types of refugees depending on their characteristics, things like their age, their gender, their language skills or the ethnic network,” says Kirk Bansak, one of the study’s lead authors. He’s a doctoral candidate at Stanford and a data scientist at the Immigration Policy Lab.

The idea for the algorithm came from workshops the authors had with refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. and the Department of State about potentially improving the process of deciding where refugees are placed. (They collaborated with one agency on the study but declined to name it.)

“We had heard about all these other potential interventions, like cash assistance or training programs, but our attention very much focused initially on these [resettlement] allocations because we figured out pretty quickly that where you send refugees is a really important driver of their potential integration success,” Hainmueller says.

At the end of 2016, there were 22.5 million refugees around the world, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency. This year, the U.S. will resettle up to 45,000 refugees (in fiscal year 2018) — about half as many as it admitted in 2016.

The way the system works now is that placement officers consider factors such as medical conditions, the availability of interpreters and the location of other family members in the U.S. to help determine where a refugee will live in the U.S.

For refugees who don’t have existing ties in the U.S., placement officers at the International Rescue Committee, one of nine resettlement agencies in the U.S., look at factors such as employment rates and public transportation systems within cities, explains Robin Dunn Marcos. She’s the senior director of resettlement and processing at the International Rescue Committee.

Marcos sees this algorithm as a potential complement to the agency’s placement process.

“Many of the variables that would feed into the algorithm are things that we’ve been using for placement decisions,” she says. “The algorithm definitely seems like a valuable addition to our current approach.”

And as new data is added to the algorithm, it adapts to changing conditions, the researchers say. For example, if an agency adds data that shows newly-resettled refugees aren’t getting jobs in a certain city, the algorithm will be less likely to recommend they be placed there.

Cindy Huang, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who wasn’t involved in the study, says this algorithm is an example of how innovation can help vulnerable people. (One of the study’s co-authors, Jeremy Weinstein, is a non-resident fellow at CGD.) And it’s an improvement on other ideas she’s seen that involve attempts to use existing technology, like e-learning platforms, to help refugees — but that aren’t cost-effective because they weren’t designed with refugees in mind.

“What the study shows is that you can improve employment outcomes, which are critical to longer-term integration,” she says. “More refugees should be resettled, but this is a way to do more with the number that have already been accepted into a country.”

But since the findings from the algorithm are based on historical data, she cautions that it’s still unproven in a practical setting.

“To validate the findings and see how it works in the messy world, the next step is a trial to see how it performs in the field,” Huang says.

Bansak and his colleagues hope to create user-friendly software and data integration that would allow resettlement agencies to use the algorithm. They’ll need about $100,000 to make that happen, Bansak says.

Marcos sees a potential wrinkle in putting this algorithm into practice in the U.S.: current policies on refugee resettlement.

“When they first started looking at this, it was in the last administration when we were bringing in a much higher number of refugees,” she says. “Not only has the ceiling been slashed in half, but the additional bureaucratic steps that have been put in place have slowed everything down.”

Courtney Columbus is a multimedia journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area. She covers science, global health and consumer health. Her past work has appeared in the Arizona Republic and on Arizona PBS. Contact her @cmcolumbus11.

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'Den Of Thieves' Offers An Epic Cops And Robbers Tale, Re-'Heat'ed

Gerard Butler stars in Den of Thieves.

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There’s something unfair about comparing any policier to Michael Mann’s Heat, even if you dissent from the popular — and one hundred percent correct — notion that Heat is the best cops-and-robbers movie ever made. For one thing, Heat is more like a movie-plus-expansion pack, a remake of a film Mann had written and directed for network television some years earlier, upgraded with a lavish budget and an A-list cast. It was at least the third Mann project to draw inspiration from the life of Chuck Adamson, a retired Chicago police detective Mann had befriended and helped into a second career as a TV producer and screenwriter. (Heat also borrowed thematic material and even dialogue from Adamson’s ’80s NBC series Crime Story, on which Mann served as executive producer.) Mann would make other significant films afterward, but Heat is the document that feels most singularly like his life’s work.

If you happened to be born the day Heat was released, you’re 22 years old now. So the statute of limitation on remaking it — as London Has Fallen screenwriter/rookie director Christian Gudegast has done, without actually saying so, in his otherwise-not-half-bad new Den of Thieves — has certainly expired. But in his wannabe epic about professional crooks who aspire to nothing less than the daylight burglary of the Los Angeles Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, Gudegast doesn’t sweat his own brazen larceny that much.

In the first hour especially, he leans into his beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene, almost character-by-character debt to that other movie. Where Heat featured an unhinged, heavily ad-libbing Al Pacino as the flamboyant head of an elite Los Angeles Police Department unit with a flaming-crater personal life in pursuit of a cool, methodical ex-con burglar, DoT features a — for whatever this might be worth—never-better Gerard (Geostorm) Butler as the flamboyant head of an elite Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department unit, with a flaming-crater personal life in pursuit of … you see where this is going.

Anyway, the methodical ex-con he’s after is played by Pablo Schreiber from Orange is the New Black and American Gods. If Schreiber won’t make you forget DeNiro, he’s still a magnetic presence, the most cerebral-looking of DoT’s many, many beard-bros with swollen arms and neck tattoos.

Among the other notable cast members are Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as the family-man member of the heist crew. (Tom Sizemore held this position in Heat). There’s a funny scene, original to this movie in fact, wherein he makes a point of introducing his daughter’s prom date to his tatted-up, ‘roided-out colleagues. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. — famous for having played his own father as a young man in Straight Outta Compton — is quite good as a bartender at a German brewhaus who moonlights as the gang’s wheelman. (His day job earns him the nickname fraulein from Butler’s character.) To the extent that Gudegast tries to do anything new within the canon of Cops and Criminals Are Two Sides of the Same Grimy Coin, it’s when he sometimes tries to frame his sprawling tale through the eyes of Jackson’s character, seemingly a beta forever abused by the alphas. But Gudegast deviates from this approach too frequently for it to lend the movie any sense of invention.

Still, Jackson Jr. gets more screen time in DoT’s more engrossing back half, when it opens up to borrow from more recent prestige coffee-table action flicks like Sicario, as well as from another highly-regarded 1995 crime thriller — no, not Heat, are you obsessed with that movie or something? — that I’d be spoiling things by naming. The particulars of the Federal Reserve job are worked out with a Soderberghian precision that feels at least vaguely plausible while you’re watching the movie; it’s something about the crooks stealing only “unfit” currency that the treasury was going to remove from circulation and destroy anyway. And if you can stomach another movie where two parties fire machine guns at one another while the death, injury, and general panic of the dozens of civilians trapped between them goes unobserved and unremarked, Gudegast has an exciting gun battle for you.

Here and there, Gudegast feels the tug of art, trying — as Mann did — to make the whole thing feel like some grand opera. But the real tragedy is that a movie that wants so badly to earn a place among the great Los Angeles crime pictures—Double Indemnity,Chinatown, To Live and Die in L.A., Drive, Nightcrawler, that other one I named several times — was shot in Atlanta. When Edgar Wright realized he couldn’t afford to film Baby Driverin Los Angeles like he’d planned, he rewrote the script to turn the Atlanta setting into a feature rather than a bug. But Gudegast & Co. do everything they can to make the East Coast look West. So much for honor among thieves.

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Baltimore Schools' Heating Crisis A 'Day Of Reckoning' For The City And State

Teacher Loraine Wilson, top right, helps bundle up pre-kindergarten students as they wait to be picked up at the end of a school day at Lakewood Elementary School in Baltimore on Jan. 9. The day before, Lakewood students were sent back home just after arriving when pipes burst in the school.

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Baltimore public schools’ heating crisis earlier this month was a “day of reckoning” for the system, the city, and the state said public schools CEO Sonja Santelises. The crisis, she said in an interview with WYPR Wednesday, exposed the truth that Baltimore city school buildings are less than functional. As many as 85 of public schools in the city suffered heating problems over the course of a week, leaving students needing to wear coats inside classrooms that hovered around 40 degrees inside.

Santelises was responding to weeks of anger from parents and educators, including at an impassioned board meeting last week. “Shame on us,” Lacheryl Jones, parent and education advocate, told the school board. When school buildings are decrepit and need to close because of unsafe conditions, she said, “[the children] are being prevented access to one of the greatest weapons they will ever have in this lifetime: the weapon of knowledge and empowerment through education.” And the heating issue in the schools is just the tip of an iceberg of structural issues that have persisted for years, parents, advocates, and some legislators say.

In the weeks since the school problems, Baltimore city leaders have pulled together city agencies and private companies to make what emergency repairs they could to the public schools that saw pipes burst, boilers and furnaces break down, and ceilings collapse. But longer term fixes require money. And when it comes to the schools’ funding, there’s plenty of baggage — and blame — to go around.

Santelises will be traveling to the state capitol to advocate for what she calls fair and equitable funding throughout the 2018 General Assembly. She’s encouraged parents and educators to do the same.

Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan initially said he would not send aid to the schools because they had already received “record funding” that wasn’t being spent wisely. Then, a day before the public school board meeting, Hogan announced he would send $2.5 million to city schools.

“Let me be clear, this is not to reward the people who are responsible who have failed. This funding is literally about saving kids from freezing in winter,” Hogan said. “We simply cannot allow children to be punished year after year because their adult leaders are failing.”

But Santelises denied any fiscal mismangement, telling WYPR and the school board there has been chronic “underfunding and underresourcing of Baltimore city schools.”

The buildings are old and the weather was unprecedented, said city schools Santelises at that meeting, acknowledging she should have done better at communicating with parents and monitoring temps. She said at the time, they struggled to understand if the problems within a school were isolated to one or two classrooms or if the entire school was without heat.

She pledged to fix those internal problems that left students, teachers, and families out in the cold, but, she said, what was also exposed were decades of under-investment, guided year to year by “systemic policies that are undermining equitable access to high quality education.”

At the board meeting, Santelises referred to hostile emails and phone calls from parents. She said she’d take all of it, because she knew they had the right to be angry. But what she also wanted to address in the public sphere was the mentality that “we ain’t worthy of what everyone else is worthy of – that’s the fight I want to have.” Santelises said she needs the parents and grandparents to join her when she goes to the Maryland Statehouse to get the funding city students are due.

The losing end of a funding formula

The schools’ funding formula is in the spotlight right now. The Baltimore city school board is not elected and how much money each pupil gets is decided by the state. In various ways, governors of the past and present manipulated the school funding formula – and that almost always negatively affected Baltimore city. For example, in 2008 (FY09) the state cut the inflation factor – a critical part of the education funding formula to ensure that school districts can keep up with growing costs (health care premiums, energy, transportation, food, etc.) That shorted city schools by $290 million dollars annually, says Frank Patinella, senior education advocate for the ACLU of Maryland’s Education Reform Project.

City Schools were also promised money when casinos opened eight years ago. That revenue is in the billions. Some of it is going to city schools, but every year state lawmakers dump it in and take some money out for roads or other state projects. It replaces and doesn’t add money to the city schools’ coffer, which was the promise when it went on ballot.

News reports showed that Baltimore city schools returned $66 million in construction money to the state because they couldn’t complete the projects in the time-frame allotted, which Hogan cited as evidence of mismangement. But the Baltimore city school administration often didn’t have the money to front-fund the projects. Other school districts have that ability. While many said this shows a process that’s not working at the statehouse, the governor pointed to this as an example of mismanagement and ineptitude by school leaders.

But, Santelises said the city schools are owed more than $358 million through FY15, according to the outside organization Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates. They were hired by the state of Maryland to conduct a study of adequacy of education funding in Maryland. She said she welcomed the numerous audits that have been done on Baltimore city schools in the past 18 months. The latest of those audits was performed by CliftonLarsonAllen. It showed similar findings to other audits: no fiscal mismanagement. Those audits – performed by CliftonLarsonAllen – showed no fiscal mismanagement.

“You can hold me accountable,” she told the public at the school board meeting. “We know the reasons why the narrative is always about incompetence in the city of Baltimore and it is obviously linked to the demographics of our city. We know why. We know why the knee jerk reaction is always ‘let’s do another audit of Baltimore city’ … because it MUST be that we have done something wrong.”

“We are engaged in more audits this year in this city than any other jurisdiction in the state and you know why we do it? Because I know our young people have to have that money.” she continued, “I am willing to have us called everything in the book because we’re going after the money.” The majority of Baltimore city students are black and qualify for free and reduced price meals.

Santelises told the public, who was irate about the heating problems, to go deeper and take on the systemic underfunding at the state level. “An informed community is a powerful community,” she told WYPR.

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Documentary 'The Final Year' Offers Behind-The-Scenes Look At Obama's Foreign Policy

Greg Barker’s TheFinal Year finds former President Barack Obama grappling with foreign policy decisions. Figures from left: Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama.

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The first half hour of The Final Year is as pointlessly hectic as one of those action movies that’s all incidents and no plot. But gradually documentarian Greg Barker’s look at Barack Obama’s foreign policy team comes into focus, thanks in large part to the counterpoint played by the Trump campaign.

Shot over a bit more than a year in 2015-16, Barker’s film primarily follows Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes. National Security Advisor Susan Rice appears occasionally, although she has a smaller role than Obama himself. The president is glimpsed in the West Wing and other locations that are usually off-camera, but is seen mostly while making official appearances overseas.

The movie is neither an in-depth analysis of Obama’s foreign policy nor a candid depiction of the internal tensions of the policy makers. Viewers who didn’t follow world news at the time might not even be able to tell that the president favored a less aggressive approach to international crises than Kerry and especially Power.

Somewhere toward the middle is Rhodes, said to have a “mind-meld” with Obama. Rhodes supported stronger U.S. intervention in Syria, but came to agree with his top boss that it would be a mistake, much like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Frustratingly, viewers don’t get to see conversations that led Rhodes to change his mind, or even to hear if any Obama staffer drew the distinction between starting a war in Iraq and interceding in one the U.S. didn’t cause in Syria.

Rather than detail such complicated discussions, The Final Year is keyed to emotional moments. The Irish-born Power extols the importance of immigration to the U.S. in a speech at her nanny’s naturalization ceremony, and in Nigeria sympathizes with families whose daughters were abducted by Boko Haram. Obama hugs an A-bomb survivor during his unprecedented visit to Hiroshima, and is the first American president to visit Laos, where unexploded U.S. bombs remain a constant hazard.

American power’s potential to injure innocents is encapsulated by off-screen mishaps on a much smaller scale than the Iraq War: A young boy is hit by a car in Power’s motorcade, and a U.N. convoy carrying humanitarian aid in Syria is accidentally shelled by U.S. bombs. The staffers’ reactions to these incidents give a sense of the burden of making geopolitical strategy.

Less telling are the movie’s occasional flashbacks, which include a section on Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam War and a montage of Obama’s visits to ancient monuments in Britain, Greece, Egypt, and Jordan. The arc of history is long, but in these sequences it doesn’t bend toward anything in particular.

The film’s most sobering element is not the Obama administration’s obligation to great bygone civilizations, but the historical fluke named Donald Trump. While the narrative doesn’t end until inauguration day, it climaxes with election-night TV-watching parties during which the Obama camp’s hope ebbs and finally crumbles. Barack Obama may have aspired to Olympian detachment, but The Final Year‘s most compelling moments reveal chagrin, regret, and shock.

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'Forever My Girl': A Familiar Tune, Played (Too) Simply

Country, Wronged: Music star Liam Page (Alex Roe) returns to his hometown, and his ex Josie (Jessica Rothe), whom he left to pursue his career.

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Based on a YA novel by Heidi McLaughlin, the endearingly old-fangled Forever My Girl is basically a stretched-out country music song with eye-catching Southern visuals and a familiar loop of lovelorn sorrow topped with uplift you can see coming from scene one.

The woe comes on fast when a dewy young bride named Josie (Jessica Rothe) gets jilted at the altar by her high-school sweetheart, Liam, a pretty, green-eyed fellow with a lot of fetching chin stubble. He and his music are nicely played by Alex Roe, who is British but not so’s you’d notice. Eager to hit the big time, a panicked Liam takes off for New Orleans, though why he can’t take Josie with him is a mystery that will languish unexplained until shortly before the close.

Eight years pass, and we find Liam, a deeply unhappy country music god in all the usual ways — drugs, booze, groupies. He writes and performs songs with blaring themes like “I’d Give it All Up for You.” Concertgoers, average age thirteen, are ecstatic, but Liam sits around pining over a message on an ancient cell phone until a convenient tragedy propels him homeward. There he lands in deep doo-doo with a singularly unreceptive Josie, to say nothing of his entire hometown populace and his father, who happens to be the local pastor.

Liam may have been golden among the fleshpots of New Orleans, but when he first blows into town, everyone wants to slug him or ignore him. Everyone, that is, except for a feisty young girl named Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), who is lumbered with dialogue better suited to a cocky teenager, and who is destined to bestow much-needed character-firming on the prodigal from out of town.

Writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf has a deft way with actors, and Peter Cambor is especially good as Liam’s long-suffering but humane manager. The movie flows along atmospherically with a country soundtrack corralling our emotions. The problem is not the well-worn plot or familiar characters, but the fact that Wolf adds no depth or complication to either that would make the film her own.

Marinated in country-music mythology, Forever My Girl extracts every last ounce of juice from the potent fantasy binary of small town integrity versus big city sin, before marrying the two with minimal fuss and bother that must have looked plausible on paper. One sermon about forgiveness from the pastor, and instant turnaround ensues. Copious hugging ensues as well, and in a trice Liam is happily digging flowerbeds and coming on like a mature family man.

Of running time necessity, the love of his life defrosts more slowly, until at last we arrive at the statutory eleventh-hour lapse the almost derails Liam’s makeover, but helps him get in touch with the source of his pain. Not that anyone in this pleasant, glib movie has to sacrifice a thing. Josie may be a small-town girl, but it turns out that she, too, knows how to play to the roar of the crowd in the fleshpots of New Orleans. Cakes are had and eaten, all’s well between the country and the city, and … that’s a wrap.

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Tune-Yards' 'Private Life' Is A Public Self-Examination

Merrill Garbus and her bandmate Nate Brenner. Tune-Yards’ fourth album, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life, is out Friday, Jan. 19.

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For nearly a decade, Tune-Yards‘ Merrill Garbus has been known for drumming, strumming and dancing wildly onstage as she coaxes sound from a handful different instruments and a trusty loop pedal. While the signature sound of Tune-Yards is distinct, Garbus isn’t one to put labels on her music.

“It’s always the hardest thing,” she says. “I appreciate how I’m allowed to maybe not classify the music I play because as soon as you do, assumptions begin to be made and you start shutting out people.”

In the four years since her last album, Nikki Nack, Garbus has shed a few things from Tune-Yards’ presentation: The band’s name is no longer a stylized jumble of upper- and lowercase letters, and the face paint is gone. In their place she’s added new electronic sounds, some influences from Haitian music — and, most strikingly, a dedication to better understanding her position as a white woman in music.

Garbus joined NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly to discuss how that awareness informed the creation of Tune-Yards’ fourth album, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life.

The audio version of this conversation will air on All Things Considered on Friday, Jan. 19 and will be available online that evening.


Interview Highlights

On outgrowing face paint

I’ve been growing up publicly through my 30s. There are songs I would not have written as a 38-year-old that I did write before; there are things that I don’t feel are appropriate now. Face paint to me was replacing … you know, I took lipstick, and [instead] of wearing it on my lips, I wanted to wear it on my nose, or taking eye shadow and running it down my face. For me, it was almost a Picasso-ing of makeup. But now I think so much about cultural appropriation because so many of my influences are various forms of black music — music from Mali, music from South Africa, hip-hop. So, I think I have a lot to answer for when it comes to cultural appropriation, and why not just take the face paint out of it?

On Black Lives Matter and learning from her audience

I looked out at our audiences and saw mostly white people. Around the time of, I believe it was Eric Garner’s death, we played a show and we played our song “Doorstep,” which is specifically about police violence. I looked out and I saw one young black man with his hands up in the “hands up, don’t shoot” position, and I didn’t see any white people’s hands up. I didn’t see anyone around him in solidarity with him. That image is just burned in my mind, and I felt like, “Something’s not right here. Something that we could be doing is not happening. How do I make this happen?” I think my first step was to examine myself and examine how these things live in me, and that’s really where the title of the album came from, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life. It feels like it’s relevant to the surveillance paranoia era that we’re in, the true fears about privacy, but it’s also how these things are living in me — how can I not go call out other people and blame other people, but really look at this in me.

On whiteness as a “vacuum of culture”

So I don’t know that I was appropriating something specifically, and certainly there are much more heinous acts of cultural appropriation that we see in pop culture. But I think what whiteness does is it’s kind of a vacuum of culture … because it isn’t real. Cultures that are now described as white were put there for a very political reason, and for economic reasons. I’m just beginning to explore, as a white person, how disconnected I am from the cultures that I come from, and where this idea of whiteness comes from.

Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernándezcontributed to this story.

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Cryptocurrency Investors Worry, Wait After Bitcoin Price Drop

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Over the last month, in a series of volatile swings, the price of the cryptocurrency bitcoin rose to a record high — then plunged to less than half that value.

The abrupt changes have inspired comparisons to the dot-com bubble, and underscored the extremely speculative nature of investing in cryptocurrency.

By Wednesday, the price of bitcoin fell below $10,000 for the first time since Dec. 1, at one point dropping to less than $9,300 on one exchange (still significantly higher than the price just a few months ago). The price has risen back to around $12,000, but economists and investors are unsure how long it will stay there.

Some speculate the recent slide was due to fear over regulatory crackdowns on the cryptocurrency market.

Cryptocurrency trading hotbed South Korea has suggested a ban on trading might be possible, though the country has not yet finalized any plans. Similar reports recently circulated about China. The anxiety over anticipated crackdowns may have helped trigger a selloff across the cryptocurrency market Tuesday.

The largest and best-knownof hundreds of digital currencies, bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency that is bought and sold in exchanges internationally.

“It’s not based in dollars,” Timothy Lee, a senior reporter at Ars Technica, told NPR’s Scott Simon. “Instead, it has its own currency, just called the bitcoin. And its value floats against other currencies the same way the dollar and the euro float against each other.”

“Bitcoin is based on a revolutionary technology. Users say it’s got this very effective system for verifying transactions,” NPR’s Uri Berliner reports. “And bitcoin believers point out that this currency’s not tied to the whims of any government. And they say that’s a good thing.”

But the recent price fall may not be a good thing for investors, who are still trying to figure out what the crash means for the future of the cryptocurrency. Many other digital currencies have shown similar swings in recent days.

In the wake of this week’s crash,the top post in the Reddit forum /r/CryptoCurrency was about how to contact a suicide hotline, apparently a response to distress on the part of recent investors.

Some economists say this is a familiar pattern.

“Twenty years ago, the technology stocks and new Internet stocks achieved an excess valuation of $7 trillion because of speculation,” said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors. “The prices of shares were bid up to very high levels. When they collapsed, investors … they got very hurt. We see similar characteristics in cryptocurrencies right now.”

Bitcoin investors know this trend as well.

Investors saw a similar rise and fall in bitcoin prices in December 2013. Bitcoin hit what was a record price of around $1,150 and fell by 40 percent just days later, after China announced that it was banning banks from trading the cryptocurrency.

And there have been dramatic rises and falls in the price of the cryptocurrency within the last year.

Early in 2017, bitcoin was valued around $900. It tripled its value within months — then, by the end of the year, tripled again.

“I think [cryptocurrencies] are highly speculative,” Kotok said. “Putting money into cryptocurrencies is a speculative thing to do. You might make a profit, but what we are seeing is people who — in the last month or two — put money into bitcoin, are having trouble getting cash back when they sell and are now watching the price fall and panicking.”

My shower this morning after looking at my portfolio during this crash. #HODL#Bitcoin#FUDpic.twitter.com/Ew0pn9gBZF

— CryptoBouse (@CryptoBouse) January 16, 2018

Some say that bitcoin shows promise. Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund invested between $15 million and $20 million in the digital currency this month, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Economists aren’t so sure. Some analysts believe that the cryptocurrency might be trying to find a temporary price floor, but Citigroup analysts think that the price of bitcoin could plummet again to half of its current value, CNBC reports.

On Dec. 9, Ars Technica’s Lee had an uncertain prediction for the future of the cryptocurrency.

“I think it’s going to continue to be volatile,” Lee said. “I think it will probably go up more, but I don’t know how much more. And then I think it will probably crash. But I don’t know how much — you know, how far down it will decline.”

Asia Simone Burns is an intern with NPR Digital News.

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More States Turning To Toll Roads To Raise Cash For Infrastructure

Vehicles are seen at the toll bridge of the Holland Tunnel as snow covers the road during a snowstorm on Feb. 9, 2017, in Jersey City, N.J. More states are turning to tolls as a way to fund long-standing transportation needs.

Julio Cortez/AP

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Julio Cortez/AP

Attention Drivers: Many of those those freeways you’re using may not be free for long. Several states are opening new toll roads this year and rates on many existing turnpikes and tollways are going up.

And the number of toll roads is likely to increase, as the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan may force many more states to use them to fund long-standing transportation needs

“I think 2018 is going to be a very good year for tolling,” says Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facility owners and operators.

“We’re seeing a number of states that do not currently have tolls express an interest in doing so. States like Connecticut, Michigan, Wyoming and others,” Jones says.

And some states are beyond considering it. New toll roads or toll lanes are opening this year in Texas, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Oregon will be adding congestion pricing to highways to help manage congestion in and around Portland later this year.

Austin, Texas, has two new toll road projects slated to open next year and the highway tunnel beneath Seattle begins charging tolls in 2019.

And rates on many existing toll roads and bridges around the country went up on the first of the year, including on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh, N.C., and for the tunnels in Hampton Roads, Va., while voters in the San Francisco area may be asked later this year to raise tolls on bay area bridges.

The reason for this surge? Many states’ transportation budgets are tight and highway funding from Washington is lacking: the federal highway trust fund is nearly insolvent, as the federal gas tax hasn’t been increased in 24 years.

“So states are in many cases on their own,” Jones says. “They are looking for revenues and tolling is a powerful and effective way and a very specific way to pay for new infrastructure as well as generate funds to pay for existing infrastructure.”

Many states are turning to tolling after trying to shore up transportation and infrastructure funding with their own gasoline tax increases.

“I think the states over time have lost hope in the federal government enacting a real, long-term infrastructure package” says Carl Davis, research director for the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “And so they’ve taken matters in their own hands and boosted funding on their own.”

Davis notes that 26 states have increased their gas taxes since 2013, eight of them just last year.

“It’s very unusual to see the states in such lock-step on this issue, especially when it comes to tax increases,” he says, adding that it just underscores how the lack of federal infrastructure funding has hurt states.

The Trump administration is preparing to announce a new national infrastructure plan in the coming weeks that the president has promised would invest a trillion dollars in the nation’s crumbling roads, rails, bridges, airports, tunnels, dams, levees and water systems. But only $200 billion of that will likely be coming from the federal treasury. The administration is planning to use that money to match and leverage the rest from state and local governments and the private sector.

ITEP’s Davis says it’ll be tough for many states to come up with their share.

“With so many states already having dug deep to come up with more money for infrastructure, they’re really going to have to start scrounging through the couch cushions, looking for whatever they can, if they want to participate in a new federal program of the type that’s being talked about.”

That could mean more gas tax increases, if states feel there’s room, but it also likely means a heavier reliance on tolls.

“Which is unfortunate because they really are the worst funding mechanism available,” says Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates. “No other road funding mechanisms come with half as long a list of drawbacks and disruptions for the communities where they’re located.”

Kane says when you turn a freeway into a tollway, drivers will go out of their way to avoid the tolls.

“So you have this awful traffic diversion. Cars end up on secondary roads that were not built to have that volume of traffic, the roads that are surrounding the toll get torn up more quickly, the local communities see a lot more congestion,” she says.

Kane also contends that tolls are a regressive double tax on top of fuel taxes and often disproportionately hurt lower income drivers.

And she says tollways are an inefficient way to collect revenue, as 8 to 11 cents of every dollar collected goes to administrative overhead, collecting the tolls and contruction of electronic tolling apparatus on the roads.

Despite those drawbacks, Kane says members of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, which includes trucking and shipping companies, including Werner Enterprises and UPS, are “extremely concerned about how much the Trump administration’s infrastructure package will rely on tolling.”

Some drivers are concerned, too.

“Everything seems like it’s getting more expensive,” says Nick Pariseman, as he walked his 8-week old puppy at a travel plaza on the I-90 Indiana Toll Road. He was on his way home to Port Clinton, Ohio, from a job site in Iowa and says it’s not the price of tolls that bothers him as much as the poor conditions of the roads. So if toll rates go up or more highways are tolled, “If they’re up kept how it is, I think it’s just going to make people mad,” he said. “I think it will just make them mad and they’ll take a different route.”

But North Carolina truck driver Mike Edwards, who was hauling a load from Portage, Ind., to Harrisburg, Pa., doesn’t mind paying more tolls.

“Actually, I think its a good thing as long as they use the money for what it’s supposed to be, fix the roads,” said Edwards.

But asked what kind of shape the roads are in, he says “They’re pretty rough in a lot of places.”

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