Magical Mystery Cars

Ed Wallace:

We all know, down in our suspicious hearts, that there’s a miracle vehicle or propulsion system out there that, for some probably profit-related reason, has been kept a deep, dark secret. That’s why we’re so ready to believe in gas pills, cars that create their own hydrogen from water and run forever on nothing, and other such rabbits plucked from invisible hats. But until now, no respected automaker has promised something so esoteric.

As of now, however, just such an automaker is framing its latest promised vehicle as embodying “one of the great propulsion secrets of the automotive industry.” At least, that’s how one of Peugeot’s engineers relayed the story to Tim Lewis of the Guardian newspaper. He told the reporter about a breakthrough technology, so incredible that the car it powers would deliver more than 80 miles per gallon, would be cheaper than a Toyota Prius, and has new technology so sensitive that Peugeot’s engineers couldn’t even tell their wives and children about it. Yes, this is Peugeot’s Hybrid Air, launched at this year’s Geneva Auto Show with the latest promise to “change the automotive industry from this day forward.”

The only problem with all of this is the fact that Peugeot’s Hybrid Air system isn’t really so clever at all.

State-Wrecked: The Corruption of Capitalism in America

David Stockman:

When it bursts, there will be no new round of bailouts like the ones the banks got in 2008. Instead, America will descend into an era of zero-sum austerity and virulent political conflict, extinguishing even today’s feeble remnants of economic growth.

THIS dyspeptic prospect results from the fact that we are now state-wrecked. With only brief interruptions, we’ve had eight decades of increasingly frenetic fiscal and monetary policy activism intended to counter the cyclical bumps and grinds of the free market and its purported tendency to underproduce jobs and economic output. The toll has been heavy.

As the federal government and its central-bank sidekick, the Fed, have groped for one goal after another — smoothing out the business cycle, minimizing inflation and unemployment at the same time, rolling out a giant social insurance blanket, promoting homeownership, subsidizing medical care, propping up old industries (agriculture, automobiles) and fostering new ones (“clean” energy, biotechnology) and, above all, bailing out Wall Street — they have now succumbed to overload, overreach and outside capture by powerful interests. The modern Keynesian state is broke, paralyzed and mired in empty ritual incantations about stimulating “demand,” even as it fosters a mutant crony capitalism that periodically lavishes the top 1 percent with speculative windfalls.

The culprits are bipartisan, though you’d never guess that from the blather that passes for political discourse these days. The state-wreck originated in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt opted for fiat money (currency not fundamentally backed by gold), economic nationalism and capitalist cartels in agriculture and industry.

Under the exigencies of World War II (which did far more to end the Depression than the New Deal did), the state got hugely bloated, but remarkably, the bloat was put into brief remission during a midcentury golden era of sound money and fiscal rectitude with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and William McChesney Martin Jr. at the Fed.

Why Innovators Get Better With Age

Tom Agan:

In reality, though, these examples are the exception and not the rule. Consider this: The directors of the five top-grossing films of 2012 are all in their 40s or 50s. And two of the biggest-selling authors of fiction for 2012 — Suzanne Collins and E. L. James — are around 50.

According to research by Alex Mesoudi of Durham University in England, the age of eventual Nobel Prize winners when making a discovery, and of inventors when making a significant breakthrough, averaged around 38 in 2000, an increase of about six years since 1900.

But there is another reason to keep innovators around longer: the time it takes between the birth of an idea and when its implications are broadly understood and acted upon. This education process is typically driven by the innovators themselves.

For Nobel Prize winners, this process usually takes about 20 years — meaning that someone who is 38 at the time of discovery will most likely be nearly 60 when he or she receives the prize. For most eventual laureates, that interval is spent attending and making presentations at conferences, networking with colleagues, writing additional papers, editing academic journals and talking with the press.

When Simplicity Is the Solution

Alan Siegel:

At the beginning of “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau makes a concise case against the complexity of modern life. “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he writes. “[L]et your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail….Simplify, simplify.”

That was the 19th century, though, and we live in the 21st. In a typical day, we encounter dozens—if not dozens upon dozens—of moments when we are delayed, frustrated or confused by complexity. Our lives are filled with gadgets we can’t use (automatic sprinklers, GPS devices, fancy blenders), instructions we can’t follow (labels on medicine bottles, directions for assembling toys or furniture) and forms we can’t decipher (tax returns, gym membership contracts, wireless phone bills).

How to Make a Computer from a Living Cell

Katherine Bourzac:

If biologists could put computational controls inside living cells, they could program them to sense and report on the presence of cancer, create drugs on site as they’re needed, or dynamically adjust their activities in fermentation tanks used to make drugs and other chemicals. Now researchers at Stanford University have developed a way to make genetic parts that can perform the logic calculations that might someday control such activities.

The Stanford researchers’ genetic logic gate can be used to perform the full complement of digital logic tasks, and it can store information, too. It works by making changes to the cell’s genome, creating a kind of transcript of the cell’s activities that can be read out later with a DNA sequencer. The researchers call their invention a “transcriptor” for its resemblance to the transistor in electronics. “We want to make tools to put computers inside any living cell—a little bit of data storage, a way to communicate, and logic,” says Drew Endy, the bioengineering professor at Stanford who led the work.

Timothy Lu, who leads the Synthetic Biology Group at MIT, is working on similar cellular logic tools. “You can’t deliver a silicon chip into cells inside the body, so you have to build circuits out of DNA and proteins,” Lu says. “The goal is not to replace computers, but to open up biological applications that conventional computing simply cannot address.”

Good Friday

A Martin Luther Sermon on Good Friday:

1. In the first place, some reflect upon the sufferings of Christ in a way that they become angry at the Jews, sing and lament about poor Judas, and are then satisfied; just like by habit they complain of other persons, and condemn and spend their time with their enemies. Such an exercise may truly be called a meditation not on the sufferings of Christ, but on the wickedness of Judas and the Jews.

2. In the second place, others have pointed out the different benefits and fruits springing from a consideration of Christ’s Passion. Here the saying ascribed to Albertus is misleading, that to think once superficially on the sufferings of Christ is better than to fast a whole year or to pray the Psalter every day, etc. The people thus blindly follow him and act contrary to the true fruits of Christ’s Passion; for they seek therein their own selfish interests. Therefore they decorate themselves with pictures and booklets, with letters and crucifixes, and some go so far as to imagine that they thus protect themselves against the perils of water, of fire, and of the sword, and all other dangers. In this way the suffering of Christ is to work in them an absence of suffering, which is contrary to its nature and character.

3. A third class so sympathize with Christ as to weep and lament for him because he was so innocent, like the women who followed Christ from Jerusalem, whom he rebuked, in that they should better weep for themselves and for their children. Such are they who run far away in the midst of the Passion season, and are greatly benefitted by the departure of Christ from Bethany and by the pains and sorrows of the Virgin Mary, but they never get farther. Hence they postpone the Passion many hours, and God only knows whether it is devised more for sleeping than for watching. And among these fanatics are those who taught what great blessings come from the holy mass, and in their simple way they think it is enough if they attend mass. To this we are led through the sayings of certain teachers, that the mass opere operati, non opere operantis, is acceptable of itself, even without our merit and worthiness, just as if that were enough. Nevertheless the mass was not instituted for the sake of its own worthi-

Is Steven A Cohen Buying off the US Government?

John Cassidy:

Most scandals involving the cozy relationship between Wall Street and its regulators play out behind closed doors. Others happen in plain view, and this is one of the latter. In a Manhattan courtroom Thursday, a federal judge held a hearing on whether to approve a legal settlement in which Steven A. Cohen, one of the richest and most publicity-shy men in the country, appears to be buying off the U.S. government, which for years has been investigating wrongdoing in and around his hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisers.

Unless the judge, Victor Marrero, rejects the settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and SAC, which was announced a couple of weeks ago, Cohen will be free to go about his business, which has long been clouded by suspicions of insider trading, once he writes a check of six hundred and sixteen million dollars to the Securities and Exchange Commission. There will be no further sanctions and no admission of wrongdoing. And in fact, Cohen already appears to be celebrating. According to a report in the Times, he has just purchased a Picasso painting, “Le Rêve,” for a hundred and fifty-five million dollars, and an ocean-front mansion in East Hampton, for sixty million dollars.

To his credit, Judge Marrero has, at least for now, refused to go along with this travesty. Reserving judgement on the case, he asked why the settlement didn’t include an admission of wrongdoing on the part of SAC and Cohen. “There is something counterintuitive and incongruous about settling for six hundred million dollars if it truly did nothing wrong,” the judge said. (A lawyer for SAC told the judge that the firm paid the fine because it didn’t want litigation hanging over its head for years.)

A New Map Of The U.S., Created By How Our Dollar Bills Move

Stan Alcorn:

To theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann, the borders of the United States are out of date.

“Some are kind of arbitrary like New Mexico, Arizona: They’re just kind of drawn on the map,” says Brockmann. “Often, they no longer correlate with our behavior.”

Specifically, they no longer correlate with how we move.

Brockmann was doing research on human mobility in 2005, and struggling to find useful sources of data, when on the way back from a conference in Canada, he stopped by the home of his old friend Dennis Derryberry in the green mountains of Vermont. Over a beer on the porch, he told Derryberry about his research. Derryberry asked: “Do you know about WheresGeorge.com?”

You can think of WheresGeorge.com as a primitive FourSquare for $1 bills. “Georgers”–as users call themselves–”check in” their bills by entering the zip codes and serial numbers, then write or stamp “wheresgeorge.com” on the bill. If someone finds the bill and enters it again, they get a “hit.” The top Georger–an ammunition dealer who goes by the handle Wattsburg Gary–has entered more than 2 million bills and has nearly half a million hits.

The Spy Who Said Too Much

Steve Coll:

In 2007, John Kiriakou was settling into a lucrative life as a former spy. His fourteen-year career as a C.I.A. officer had included thrilling, if occasionally hazardous, tours as a specialist in counterterrorism. In Athens, in 1999 and 2000, he recruited several foreign agents to spy for the United States, and at one point was nearly assassinated by leftists. In Pakistan, in 2002, he chased Al Qaeda members, and when Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda logistics leader, was wounded and captured, Kiriakou guarded his bedside. (Kiriakou recounted many of his exploits in a colorful memoir, “The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the C.I.A.’s War on Terror.”) In 2004, he retired, and soon took a job with the accounting and consulting firm DeLoitte. He worked in the field of corporate intelligence and advised Hollywood filmmakers on the side.

At the time, the press was looking into allegations that C.I.A. officers and contractors were involved in torture, and it wasn’t long before they sought out Kiriakou for comment. For several years, the agency had managed to keep secret the scope of its abusive interrogations of Al Qaeda-affiliated prisoners, which had the formal approval of President George W. Bush. Gradually, however, investigative reporters revealed details of the interrogations, and in 2006 Bush acknowledged the existence of the C.I.A.’s detention program. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained confirming documents through the Freedom of Information Act, but what the public knew often came from journalists quoting anonymous sources.

On December 6, 2007, the Times published a story by Mark Mazzetti revealing that the C.I.A. had made classified videotapes of harsh interrogations, Abu Zubaydah’s among them. The tapes were made in 2002, but the agency destroyed them three years later. Jose Rodriguez, who then led the National Clandestine Service, had ordered the tapes destroyed, despite reservations expressed by others in the Bush Administration. . . .