NPR Picks

Monday
Jun042012


"Like a lot of people with autism, Jeff Hudale has a brain that's really good at some things."

"'I have an unusual aptitude for numbers, namely math computations,' he says."

"Hudale can do triple-digit multiplication in his head. That sort of ability helped him get a degree in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. But he says his brain struggles with other subjects like literature and philosophy."

"'I like working with things that are rather concrete and structured,' he says. 'Yeah, I like things with some logic and some rules to it.'"

"So Hudale, who is 40, does fine at his job at a bank. But he doesn't do so well with social interactions, where logic and rules aren't so obvious."

Sunday
Jun032012

Look Up Stargazers: June 5 Is the Transit of Venus

"It's been a good season for stargazers, a veritable meteor shower of astronomical goodies, from a supermoon to a solar eclipse. Next up? On Tuesday, June 5, astronomy enthusiasts can witness the Transit of Venus — one of the rarest astronomical events."

"During the six-hour transit, Venus moves in between the Earth and the sun. It's a daytime phenomenon: "Instead of seeing Venus as the brightest object in the night sky, you see Venus as a tiny black dot crossing the burning disc of the sun," explains Andrea Wulf, author of Chasing Venus."

"It's an event that happens in pairs eight years apart — and then not again for more than a century. "I think we will be the last living people to see one because the next one is going to be in 2117," Wulf tells NPR's Rachel Martin."

Saturday
Jun022012


"Today, Americans take bananas for granted. They're cheap, they're ripe, they're everywhere. But take a moment and consider: How did a pale, fragile tropical fruit become so commonplace in America? Immigrants arriving at the South Ferry terminal, where the Ellis Island ferry landed, were once handed bananas and told, 'Welcome to America.'"

"The man who made the banana an exotic emblem of affluence for mass consumption was himself a poor immigrant. Samuel Zemurray came to America as a teenager, amassed a fortune to rival the Rockefellers and built great cultural institutions. But Zemurray would also help foment coups, rip up countrysides and impose his will, wiles and schemes all over Central America. Zemurray is the subject of Rich Cohen's new book, The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King."

"Zemurray was a Jewish immigrant who grew up on a wheat farm in western Russia and was sent to the U.S. alone in his early teens. Unlike a lot of his compatriots, he was a giant man," Cohen tells NPR's Scott Simon. "At the time he was like 6 feet 3 inches and he was a big, tough guy.'"

Friday
Jun012012

Antibiotic Free Meat Business is Booming Thanks to Chipotle

"It's no longer just foodies at farm markets or Whole Foods buying antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meats."

"Increased demand is coming from lots of big players, includingHyatt Hotels; institutional food providers such as Bon Appetit Management Co., which caters to schools and companies; and the fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill. And it's changing the game."

"In fact, this year, Chipotle, which is growing so quickly that it's opening about three new locations each week, will slowly braise and sell about 120 million pounds of naturally raised pork, chicken and beef that meets its antibiotic-free standards."

Monday
May072012

'Wired To Run': Runners High May Have Been Evolutionary Advantage

"Endurance athletes sometimes say they're "addicted" to exercise. In fact, scientists have shown that rhythmic, continuous exercise — aerobic exercise — can in fact produce narcoticlike chemicals in the body."

"Now researchers suggest that those chemicals may have helped turn humans, as well as other animals, into long-distance runners."

"The man behind the research is University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen, a runner himself. He does about 25 miles a week."

"Being human, Raichlin has some tools that help — short toes that don't get in the way, for example, and big joints in the legs to absorb shock. But he thinks humans are also 'wired to run.'"

Sunday
May062012


"President Obama says the country has come too far in the last four years to change course now. He kicked off his re-election campaign Saturday with a pair of high-profile rallies in two pivotal states, Ohio and Virginia."

"Obama acknowledged the economic recovery still has a long way to go. Yet he argued his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, would move the country backward, not forward."

"The president's first official re-election rallies had some of the trappings of his 2008 campaign: huge crowds, stirring music, even the old standby chant of 'Fired Up, Ready to Go.'"

"Obama said this campaign is still about hope and change, though he acknowledged many hopes were dashed by the severe recession that cost 3 million jobs in the six months before he took office."

Thursday
May032012


"For decades, teachers, managers and parents have assumed that the performance of students and employees fits what's known as the bell curve — in most activities, we expect a few people to be very good, a few people to be very bad and most people to be average."

"The bell curve powerfully shapes how we think of human performance: If lots of students or employees happen to show up as extreme outliers — they're either very good or very bad — we assume they must represent a skewed sample, because only a few people in a truly random sample are supposed to be outliers."

"New research however suggests that rather than describe how humans perform, the bell curve may actually be constraining how people perform. Minus such constraints, a new paper argues, lots of people are actually outliers."

Wednesday
May022012


"It's perhaps the most reproduced piece of art ever created. It has adorned key chains and coffee mugs, and the cover of Time magazine. Andy Warhol used it, and now one of the four versions of The Scream, Edvard Munch's iconic work — the only one outside Norway — is coming up for auction at Sotheby's in New York. Sale estimates are as high as $80 million."

"When I think of The Scream, it takes me back to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. The image was everywhere on T-shirts and posters; it seemed to be both a personal scream from the abyss and a symbol of that particular horror. Created in the 1890s, it seemed to portend two world wars and the Holocaust. Simon Shaw, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's in New York, says it's been a talisman in times of crisis that "crystallizes our fears and anxieties. In recent times, the financial crisis and the global turbulence, we have seen more and more use of The Scream since 2007 than ever before," he says."

Tuesday
May012012


This is the first in a series of stories on losing faith.

"Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she's terrified to reveal."

"'I'm currently an active pastor and I'm also an atheist,' she says. 'I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday's right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false.'"

"MacBain glances nervously around the room. It's a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists' convention in Bethesda, Md."

Monday
Apr302012


"Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are no strangers to D.C. politics. The two of them have been in Washington for more than 40 years — and they're renowned for their carefully nonpartisan positions."

"But now, they say, Congress is more dysfunctional than it has been since the Civil War, and they aren't hesitating to point a finger at who they think is to blame."

"'One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition,' they write in their new book,It's Even Worse Than It Looks."

Saturday
Apr282012


"It is the weirdest thing. There are more ways than ever to communicate with people, yet it sometimes seems like it is more difficult to connect — and stay connected — with anyone."

"Should you shoot off an email? Tap out a text? Post a private message on Facebook? Write on their Facebook wall? Skype, poke, ping or conjure them up on a digital tin can phone?"

"And once you reach someone, you wonder: Is he paying attention? How do you know? Even with the techno-ease of countless communication devices, conversations can still be troublesome. Questions are asked and answered out of order. Instructions and directions go half-read. Meetings are botched. Feelings are hurt."

Saturday
Apr282012

Paul Krugman's Prescription For a Depression

"In his new book, End This Depression Now! Paul Krugman states that the U.S. is in the throes of a depression — not merely an economic crisis. TheNew York Times columnist and Nobel laureate argues that Keynesian economics got us out of a much worse depression in the 1930s, so if we were to follow Keynesian prescriptions now, we could get out of this one too."

"Krugman says he uses the term depression to describe today's economy because "it's qualitatively similar to the Great Depression." He tells NPR's Robert Siegel, 'It is a sustained period of really lousy economic performance and an enormous amount of suffering.'"

"Krugman worries that we're becoming accustomed to this reality. 'We've kind of settled into the notion that this is the new normal,' he says. 'But it shouldn't be. And it's not something we should accept.'"

Thursday
Apr262012


"For the past eight seasons, actor Hugh Laurie has played Dr. Gregory House on the Fox medical series House. House is brash, narcissistic, unsympathetic, addicted to painkillers, confrontational — and 100 percent American."

"Laurie is none of those things."

"'I am not playing House today, so I am dressed as an Englishman and speaking as an Englishman,' he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. 'I'm wearing a bowler hat and carrying a furled umbrella. It's nice to have a day every now and then off from the vocal exercises.'"

Monday
Apr232012

Steinbeck In Vietnam: A Great Writers Last Reports

"The last piece of published writing from one of America's greatest writers was a series of letters he sent back from the front lines of war at the age of 64."

"John Steinbeck's reports shocked readers and family so much that they've never been reprinted — until now."

"Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 for a life's work writing about those who had been roughed up by history — most notably his Depression-era novels, Of Mice And Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Four years later, Steinbeck left for Vietnam to cover the war firsthand."

Sunday
Apr222012


"Members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition sport calluses and legs hardened by three months of hiking through sawgrass, palmetto stands and piney woods."

"On Sunday, these four adventurers mark the end of a 1,000-mile trek across Florida, from the tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp."

"That might have been the easy part. Their next goal is to create a continuous corridor for wildlife running the length of the state. By documenting their journey, they hope to draw attention to the shrinking habitats and remind Floridians of their connection to the environment."

Saturday
Apr212012


"Call it the Cuban Sandwich Crisis. Two cities, Tampa and Miami, are locked in a battle to claim the Cuban sandwich as its own. It's a battle for hearts, minds and bellies. And you get to weigh in. Read on!"

"For the uninitiated, a Cuban sandwich is shredded pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and dill pickles – served either cold or hot-pressed on Cuban bread. Think of it as the ham-and-cheese for the guayabera-wearing set."

"Tampa's version includes salami, and it might have a swipe of mayo, depending on who's making it. Each city uses differently-shaped bread. Those are about the only substantive differences."

Friday
Apr202012


"It's a classic scenario in sentimental fiction: An adorable orphan humanizes a crusty old codger. "Humanize" might not seem the obvious verb for what happens in Chimpanzee, Disneynature's latest kiddie documentary. But it's dead on; this escape to the planet of the apes is anthropomorphic to a fault."

"The story, delivered excitedly by narrator Tim Allen, is about a "precious baby boy," given the only-in-Hollywood tag of Oscar by filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. They call the baby's mother Isha, and the local chimp patriarch Freddy. The leader of a nearby chimp "mob" that threatens Freddy's clan is outfitted with the name Scar (although not with Jeremy Irons' voice)."

After Isha's off-screen death — only partially the fault of Scar and his gang — Oscar is abandoned. None of the other moms in the 35-chimp tribe is prepared to take responsibility for another hungry baby. But before he starves to death, Oscar is adopted by an older male chimp, which is apparently a rare occurrence."

Wednesday
Apr182012

From Silicon Valley, A New Approach to Education

"Last year when Andrew Ng, a computer science professor at Stanford University, put his machine-learning class online and opened enrollment to the world, more than 100,000 students signed up."

"'I think all of us were surprised,' he says."

"Ng had posted lectures online before, but this class was different."

"'This was actually a class where you can participate as a student and get homework and assessments,' he said."

"The class was interactive. There were quizzes and online forums where teaching assistants, fellow students and Ng answered questions. In the end, tens of thousands of students did all the same work and took the same tests that Stanford students took; thousands passed."

Monday
Apr162012


"'Americans now walk the least of any industrialized nation in the world,' says writer Tom  Vanderbilt. To find out why that is, Vanderbilt has been exploring how towns are built, how Americans view walking — and what might be done to get them moving around on their own two feet."

"Talking with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep about what is wrong with Americans' relationship with walking, Vanderbilt says, 'The main thing is, we're just not doing enough of it.'"

"'We've engineered walking out of our existence and everyday life,' Vanderbilt says. 'I even tried to examine the word 'pedestrian,' and it's always had sort of this negative connotation — that it was always better to be on a horse or something, if you could manage it.'"

Sunday
Apr152012


"Census data from the past is really hot. When the National Archives posted details from 72 years ago — the 1940 census — online recently, millions of Americans stampeded the website to try to learn more about their past."

"But imagine how cool it would be if, by some twist of time, the National Archives were to make available detailed census information from nearly 70 years in the future — the 2080 census."

"We asked James Dator, director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, what kind of information census takers will be soliciting seven decades in the future. Dator says that possible questions might include:

—Do you have a home, or "biophysical domicile"? If so, is it on Earth, the moon, Mars or elsewhere?

—What is your current sex?

—What is your permission number for drinking water?"