NPR Picks


Researchers Find 115 Plastic Cups In Dead Whale's Stomach

"A dead sperm whale found in Indonesia had at least 13 pounds of garbage in its stomach, including 115 plastic cups and two sandals, according to a team of researchers including the World Wide Fund For Nature."

"'Although we have not been able to deduce the cause of death, the facts that we see are truly awful,' Dwi Suprapti, a marine species conservation coordinator at WWF Indonesia, told The Associated Press."

"The dead animal was found earlier this week on Kapota Island, Southeast Sulawesi by a team from Wakatobi National Park, according to The Jakarta Post. The newspaper reported that the animal was starting to decompose when it was found."

"In addition to the cups and sandals, the WWF said the following items were found in the animal's stomach: 19 pieces of hard plastic, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, and about seven pounds of rope."


Optimized Prime: How AI And Anticipation Power Amazon's 1-Hour Deliveries

"By the time someone clicks "buy" on Amazon, Jenny Freshwater's team has probably expected it."

"Freshwater is a software director in Amazon's Supply Chain Optimization Technologies group. Her team forecasts demand for everything sold by Amazon worldwide."

"This task, into which NPR got exclusive insight, underlies the entire Amazon retail operation. And it's central to Amazon's wooing of some 100 million people who shell out up to $119 a year for a Prime subscription, which guarantees two-day shipping."

"Inside Amazon, corporate executives like to evoke magic when they talk about fast delivery. For months, they used the code name Houdini before launching their fastest service, Prime Now, which delivers household basics within hours."

"But a lot of it is thanks to artificial intelligence. With AI, computers analyze reams of data, making decisions and performing tasks that typically require human intelligence. AI is key to Amazon's retail forecasting on steroids and its push to shave off minutes and seconds in the rush to prepare, pack and deliver."



Airbnb Plans To Remove Listings In Israeli Settlements

"Property-renting company Airbnb says it plans to remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank."

"Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin described it as a 'disgraceful surrender,' while senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called it an 'initial positive step.'"

"Broadly, settlements are viewed as an obstacle to peace by Palestinians and the international community, and the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. Security Council have said settlements on land captured by Israel are illegal under international law."

"Airbnb said in a statement that its decision impacts about 200 Airbnb listings. It said it had previously allowed listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank 'because we believe that people-to-people travel has considerable value,' adding that it had made the latest decision after weighing the issue over time and speaking to experts."



Michael Bloomberg Gives $1.8 Billion To Financial Aid At Johns Hopkins University

"In what is the largest individual donation ever made to a single university, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Sunday that he is donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University to assist students with financial aid."

"The donation is designed to make the private research university in Baltimore both need blind and loan-free. 'Need-blind' means the school will no longer take financial need into account during the admissions process, instead focusing solely on the merit of the applicant. 'Loan-free' means the school will no longer package loans in their financial aid award letters, replacing that money with scholarships that don't need to be paid back."

"Bloomberg announced the donation in an op-ed published in The New York Times."

"America is at its best when we reward people based on the quality of their work, not the size of their pocketbook," he wrote. "Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity."

"Bloomberg — who earned a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins in 1964, using federal student loans and a campus job to help pay his way — went on to urge donors both big and small to focus their philanthropic efforts on financial aid."



Science, Technology, Math, Engineering And Now Congress

"Chrissy Houlahan has done a lot with her industrial engineering degree over the last 30 years including serving in the Air Force, working in the aircraft manufacturing industry, being the COO of a sports apparel company and even teaching high school chemistry."

"Houlahan says her science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – background has allowed her to be fluid in her career by helping her tackle everyday problems through a unique lens."

"'Somebody with a technical background might think in a little bit different than the way, for instance, that a lawyer would think,' Houlahan says. This was one of her biggest motivators for running for office in Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District, she says."

"'I think a person with a technical background could be really useful in Washington,' says Houlahan, noting that Congress is called to pass laws on issues the Founding Fathers would have never thought imaginable."



Buzz, Buzz: Bitter Tasters Like Coffee Better

"If you hold your nose and take a sip of coffee, mostly what you'll taste is a bitter liquid. Much of the gustatory pleasure we take from coffee comes from its aroma."

"But a new study suggests people's sensitivity to that bitter taste plays a role in how much coffee they drink. And though it seems counterintuitive, the study shows that the more sensitive you are to the bitter taste of coffee, the more of it you tend to drink."

"A team of researchers conducted their analysis using data stored in something called the UK Biobank. More than 500,000 people have contributed blood, urine and saliva samples to the biobank, which scientists can use to answer various research questions. The volunteers also filled out questionnaires asking a variety of health-related questions, including how much coffee they drink."

"Part of what determines our sensitivity to bitter substances is determined by the genes we inherit from our parents. So the researchers used genetic analysis of samples from the biobank to find people who were more or less sensitive to three bitter substances: caffeine, quinine (think tonic water) and a chemical called propylthiouracil that is frequently used in genetic tests of people's ability to taste bitter compounds."

"Then they looked to see if people sensitive to one or more of these substances drank more or less coffee than people who were not sensitive. To the researchers' surprise, people who were more sensitive to caffeine reported increased coffee consumption compared with people who were less sensitive."



William Goldman, Writer Behind 'Butch Cassidy,' 'Princess Bride,' Dies At 87

"Novelist and screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote the beloved cult classic The Princess Bride and won Oscars for writing All the President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, has died at 87."

"Goldman's son-in-law, Mike Pavol, tells NPR that Goldman died Friday morning in New York City."

"His legend was cemented in Hollywood, but Goldman himself was an avowed New Yorker. He was born in Chicago, went to Oberlin College in Ohio, served briefly in the military and got a master's in English from Columbia University in New York."

"He launched a successful literary career immediately after graduating from Columbia with his first novel, The Temple of Gold. A series of well-received and sometimes best-selling novels followed."

"Then, in 1965, Goldman started to shift into movie territory. He helped on the script for Masquerade (1965) and adapted Harper (1966). Then he wrote his first-ever original screenplay."


A Toy Monkey That Escaped Nazi Germany And Reunited A Family

"The monkey's fur is worn away. It's nearly a century old. A well-loved toy, it is barely 4 inches tall. It was packed away for long voyages, on an escape from Nazi Germany, to Sweden and America. And now, it's the key to a discovery that transformed my family."

"The monkey belonged to my father, Gert Berliner, who as a boy in Berlin in the 1930s rode his bicycle around the city. Clipped to the handlebars was the toy monkey."

"'I liked him," recalls my dad, who is now 94. "He was like a good luck piece.'"

"In pictures from his young days in Berlin, my father looks confident, a tad rebellious with a wry smile. But his life was about to be eviscerated. The Gestapo would steadily crush every aspect of Jewish life in the city."

"It exploded in a wave of violence — in November 1938 — on Kristallnacht, the 'Night of the Broken Glass.' Jewish shops, schools and homes were smashed and burned by German civilians and Nazi storm troopers. Thousands of innocent Jewish men were rounded up."



Counting The Bugs And Bacteria, You're 'Never Home Alone' (And That's OK)

"You may be shocked by what's living in your home — the bacteria, the fungi, viruses, parasites and insects. Probably many more organisms than you imagined.""

"'Every surface; every bit of air; every bit of water in your home is alive,' says Rob Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. 'The average house has thousands of species.'"

"Dunn started out studying microorganisms and insects in rain forests, but his focus gradually shifted toward backyards and houses. 'I eventually found myself in homes with the realization that a lot of what I'd done in jungles ... we could do under the bed and showers,' he says. 'And we were making the same kinds of discoveries I'd make in Bolivia or Ghana or Australia or anywhere else.'"

"Dunn's new book, Never Home Alone, describes the tiny life forms he's found living in different parts of the home, including on floors and water faucets and in basements and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems."

"Dunn warns that, too often, people attempt to scrub away all microbes — without considering that some of the organisms may actually be beneficial. Take antibacterial soaps, for instance. Dunn notes that although antibacterial soaps kill pathogens, they also tend to favor some bacteria that are harmful to humans."

"'They're really a great example of where we've gone too far in trying to kill everything around us, and it's had unintended consequences,' he says."


Say Au Revoir To That Hunk Of Metal In France That Has Defined The Kilogram

"The world is about to say au revoir to Le Grand K, a cylinder of platinum and iridium that has long reigned over the world's system of weight measurement."

"Le Grand K was forged in 1879 and is held in a locked vault outside Paris — revered and kept under lock and key because its mass, a little over two pounds, is the official definition of the kilogram."

"But this is will soon change. On Nov. 16, the international General Conference on Weights and Measures will meet in Versailles to vote on whether to redefine the kilogram."

"The vote is expected to be unanimous, a mere formality after years of work. Going forward, the world's system of mass measurement will not be based on some special hunk of metal, but rather on unalterable features of the universe — such as the speed of light, time and Planck's constant."

"'It's fantastic! It's great! It's history in the making,' enthuses Zeina Kubarych of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland, which specializes in the science of measurement."


New Physical Activity Guidelines Urge Americans: Move More, Sit Less

"You've likely heard the idea that sitting is the new smoking."

"Compared with 1960, workers in the U.S. burn about 140 fewer calories, on average, per day due to our sedentary office jobs. And, while it's true that sitting for prolonged periods is bad for your health, the good news is that we can offset the damage by adding more physical activity to our days."

"The federal government has just updated recommendations for physical activity for the first time in 10 years, essentially to get that message across. Based on a review of several years of new research, the key takeaway of the new guidelines, released Monday, is: Get moving, America!"

"'The new guidelines demonstrate that, based on the best science, everyone can dramatically improve their health just by moving — anytime, anywhere, and by any means that gets you active,' Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a release."

"With a few exceptions, the advice in the new guidelines is not so different from what we were told in the 2008 guidelines. But, here's the trouble: Only about 20 percent of Americans meet them. This lack of physical activity is linked to $117 billion in annual health care costs, according to a report published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that lays out the new guidelines."



100 Years Ago, A U.S. Pilot Saw An 'End To The Sorrow' On Armistice Day

"This Sunday 100 years ago, Nov. 11, 1918, the Allies of World War I and Germany agreed to a cease-fire signifying the end of the 'war to end all wars.'"

"Representatives of the two sides signed the agreement in Compiègne Forest, in northern France, on the day of the year now recognized as Armistice Day."

"It came into effect at 11 a.m. French time: 'the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.'"

"Fenton Caldwell was in France that day, too — or, technically, over it. Hundreds of miles to the south, near Bordeaux."

"'I was at about 10,000 feet in the air, flying a De Havilland DH-4 airplane,' the Army Air Corps pilot told his family in 1975. He was on a reconnaissance mission, unaware that the armistice had begun."

"Caldwell's family recorded his memories 57 years later. His niece, Joy Panagides, shared her family's audio treasure with NPR."

"'Uncle Fenton was my favorite uncle, he had wonderful stories,' Panagides tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro. 'He enchanted everybody in the family with his very good memory for details.'"



100 Years On, The 'Hello Girls' Are Recognized For World War I Heroics

"In a rehearsal space near New York's Times Square, the cast is preparing for the opening of a musical, The Hello Girls, that's been a century in the making."

"'Very few people have heard this story,' said Cara Reichel, director of the production that premieres off-Broadway on Nov. 13, two days after the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I."

"Reichel hadn't heard of the Hello Girls either, until a few years ago. Here's how she describes them:

'America's first women soldiers, the first women to serve actively in the military, who were bilingual French-English translators, who served on the front lines in World War I' as telephone operators."


Researchers Uncover A Circuit For Sadness In The Human Brain

"Scientists may have caught a glimpse of what sadness looks like in the brain."

"A study of 21 people found that for most, feeling down was associated with greater communication between brain areas involved in emotion and memory, a team from the University of California, San Francisco reported Thursday in the journal Cell."

"'There was one network that over and over would tell us whether they were feeling happy or sad,' says Vikaas Sohal, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF."

"The finding could lead to a better understanding of mood disorders, and perhaps new ways of treating them."

Previous research had established that sadness and other emotions involve the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass found in each side of the brain. And there was also evidence that the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, can play a role in emotion.

But Sohal and the other researchers were curious about precisely what these and other brain areas are doing when someone's mood shifts.



Oysters On The Half Shell Are Actually Saving New York's Eroding Harbor

"Across New York City, more than 70 restaurants are tossing their oyster shells not into the trash or composting pile, but into the city's eroded harbor. It's all part of Billion Oyster Project's restaurant shell-collection program."

"The journey from trash to treasure begins after an oyster half shell is turned upside down and left on an icy tray. Once discarded, it joins hundreds of thousands of other half shells collected in blue bins and picked up (free of charge) from restaurants five days a week by Billion Oyster Project's partner, The Lobster Place, a seafood supplier. The shells are trucked over to Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood and once a month are brought en masse to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor, just yards away from both Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. There, rolling shell hills sparkle in the sun while "curing" out in the elements for one year, a process that rids them of contaminants."

"The shells then get a final cleaning and are moved to Billion Oyster Project's hatchery at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school on Governors Island that offers technical and vocational training in the marine sciences. In an aquaculture classroom's hatchery, student-grown oysters produce larvae in an artificially induced springtime environment. In one to two weeks, each larvae grows a "foot" — a little limb covered in a kind of natural glue — and then is moved to a tank full of the "cured" restaurant shells, which serve as anchors for all of those sticky feet. This phase is critical: If larvae can't find a place to attach, they die. One reclaimed shell can house 10 to 20 new live oysters, depending on shell size."



Giraffes Inherit Spot Patterns From Their Mamas, Study Says

"The mottled spots giraffes are known for aren't random, according to a new study that suggests that the patterns are inherited maternally — and that they may impact the chances of a calf surviving its first few months of life."

"The roundness and smoothness of a giraffe's spots are inherited through its mother, wildlife biology researchers reported in the academic journal PeerJ last week."

"Giraffe coat markings are more complex and variable than the eye suggests: The researchers studied 11 spot attributes in total. The researchers did not document any mother-offspring similarity between the number of spots and their area and perimeter."

"The study has produced the first data of its kind. Scientists have previously hypothesized that variation in spot patterns may camouflage newborns against predators and that the animals' spots are conferred at random. One prominent biologist, Anne Dagg, described similarities between parents and offspring in a zoo population in 1968, but analysis and objective measurements of spot characteristics were lacking in wild giraffes until now."



In Changing Climate, Endangered Right Whales Find New Feeding Grounds

"Amy Knowlton pilots the 29-foot research vessel Nereid out of Lubec harbor and into the waters of the Bay of Fundy, off of easternmost Maine. A scientist with the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life Knowlton points to harbor porpoises chasing fish in the wind-swept waters on a recent morning."

"Then something much larger appears off the stern."

"'Whale behind us,' Knowlton says, steering closer. 'It's probably a humpback or fin whale, we'll get a better look.'"

"It turns out to be two humpback whales — a cool sighting, but not the kind she is after."


A Brain Scientist Who Studies Alzheimer's Explains How She Stays Mentally Fit

"As a specialist in Alzheimer's prevention, Jessica Langbaum knows that exercising her mental muscles can help keep her brain sharp."

"But Langbaum, who holds a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology, has no formal mental fitness program. She doesn't do crossword puzzles or play computer brain games."

"'Just sitting down and doing Sudoku isn't probably going to be the one key thing that's going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer's disease,' she says."

"Instead of using a formal brain training program, she simply goes to work."

"'My job is my daily cognitive training,' says Langbaum, the associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix."

"And that's true of most working people. 'While you're still in the work force you are getting that daily challenge of multitasking, of remembering things, of processing information,' she says."



The Robots Are Coming To Las Vegas

"At the Vdara Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas, robots are at the front line of room service. "Jett" and "Fetch" are delivery robots, designed to look like dogs, each about three feet high."

"They can bring items from the hotel's cafe right to your room. Among their many capabilities, they can travel alone across the lobby, remotely call for an elevator, and even alert guests when they arrive at their hotel room through an automated phone message."

"It's not just Vdara that's experimenting with this technology. Other Las Vegas hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental and Renaissance Las Vegas, are using automation to cater to customers' needs. And at bars like the Tipsy Robot, it's the machines that are making the drinks."

"It's a growing trend that could mean big changes for the 300,000 people who work in the city's gaming and hospitality industries. A recent study by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA) found that two-thirds of all jobs in Las Vegas will most likely be automated by 2035."



Scientists Find What Could Be A History-Making Moon

"Scientists may have detected the first moon orbiting a planet in a far-off solar system, though they caution that they still want to confirm the finding with another round of telescope observations."

"'The fact is, it's so strange and it's the first of its kind,' says David Kipping, an astronomer at Columbia University. 'That demands a higher level of rigor and skepticism than you would normally apply to a run-of-the-mill detection.'"

"Still, he and colleague Alex Teachey say in the journal Science Advances that they have good evidence that a Neptune-size moon is orbiting a Jupiter-like planet, in a solar system about 8,000 light-years away."

That planet, called Kepler-1625b, is one of thousands that scientists have recently detected around distant stars. No one, however, has ever conclusively found an alien moon.