NPR Picks

Monday
Nov142011

Stephen King Plots To Save JFK in '11/23/63'

"Stephen King's latest novel deals in horror — not the evil of monsters and supernatural beings, but the horror of a real national tragedy. In 11/22/63, King tells the story of a small-town teacher who goes back in time to stop one of the watershed events of American history — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy."

"Writing this book was a departure for the science-fiction master. 'There are so many actual happenings,' King tells NPR's Audie Cornish. 'A lot of the characters in 11/22 are real people. That was the challenge, but it was also the fun of the book.'"

Saturday
Nov122011

"Stairway to Heaven" Turns 40

"'Stairway to Heaven.' Those three little words have come to mean so much. Led Zeppelin's eight-minute classic turns 40 this week, and it still sets the bar for headbanging chutzpah, if not sophisticated songcraft."

"Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were woodshedding in Wales when they devised their faery-strewn folk-metal psychedelia masterwork. Bassist/arranger John Paul Jones added mood-setting recorders and drummer John Bonham brought his protean thwunk to the game. The song may or may not have borrowed key elements from an instrumental by the American band Spirit, with whom they once toured. But nobody but Zep could have molded those chord progressions into such a masterpiece of excess."

Friday
Nov112011

For Gertrude Stein: Collecting Art Was a Family Affair

"A reunion of art is taking place in Paris right now. Works that haven't been there together in almost a century are reunited once again. The art was collected by writer Gertrude Stein and her brothers starting in the early 1900s. The Steins bought paintings right out of the studios of young avant-garde artists — Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and others who would become masters as the 20th century progressed."

"The Steins' tiny apartment — situated on a narrow, tree-lined street — was jammed full of paintings. Gertrude's brother, Leo, got there first, in 1902, and Gertrude moved in the next year."

"The Rue de Fleurus apartment was smaller than most people's dining rooms," says Rebecca Rabinow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the show will open in February. "These pictures were just stacked from floor to ceiling. There was no electric light at the beginning, so people would sometimes light matches so they could see the pictures in the dark comers."

Wednesday
Nov092011

Walmart Plans Ambitious Expansion Into Medical Care

"WalMart wants to be your doctor."

"The nation's largest retailer is planning to offer medical services ranging from the management of diabetes to HIV infections, NPR and Kaiser Health News have learned."

"In the same week in late October that Wal-Mart said it would stop offering health insurance benefits to new part-time employees, the retailer sent out a request for partners to help it 'dramatically ... lower the cost of healthcare ... by becoming the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation.'"

Tuesday
Nov082011

The Plutonium Problem: Who Pays For Space Fuel?

"When NASA's next Mars rover blasts off later this month, the car-sized robot will carry with it nearly eight pounds of a special kind of plutonium fuel that's in short supply."

"NASA has relied on that fuel, called plutonium-238, to power robotic missions for five decades."

"But with supplies running low, scientists who want the government to make more are finding that it sometimes seems easier to chart a course across the solar system than to navigate the budget process inside Washington, D.C."

Monday
Nov072011

Secret 'Watch List' Reveals Failure To Curb Toxic Air

"The system Congress set up 21 years ago to clean up toxic air pollution still leaves many communities exposed to risky concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and many other hazardous chemicals."

"Pollution violations at more than 1,600 plants across the country were serious enough that the government believes they require urgent action, according to an analysis of EPA data by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. Yet nearly 300 of those facilities have been considered "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency for at least a decade."

"About a quarter of those 1,600 violators are on an internal EPA "watch list," which the agency has kept secret until now."

Friday
Nov042011

Degas' Dancers: Behind The Scences, At The Barre

"It's not often that an art show makes visitors stand up straighter. But Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint — an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. — has that effect. Ballet dancers in gauzy skirts stretch and bend and twist on oil and pastel canvases in the museum's galleries, which showcase more than 30 works by Edgar Degas."

"The last gallery even includes two mirrors and a real ballet barre, mounted at hip height along one mirror. When a dancer from the Washington Ballet reached the end of the exhibit, she couldn't resist stretching one leg on the barre."

"You can't just walk past it," says Morgann Rose, a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet. "I see a ballet barre, and I have to do something — [it's] kind of an addiction," she laughs.

Thursday
Nov032011

How Technology Is Eliminating Higher-Skill Jobs

"The U.S. economy hit an important milestone last week: Gross domestic product, the sum of all goods and services produced in the country, returned to pre-recession levels. But the gains were made with millions fewer workers. Part of the reason is technology, as computers and machines continue to replace humans."

We used to think about machines taking over mundane jobs, like twisting a screw into a toaster on an assembly line over and over again. But more recently, technology is eliminating higher-skill jobs.

To talk about this, some of the nation's top technologists and economists came to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week for a jobs conference called Race Against the Machine. There was a very impressive machine on hand: Watson, the powerful Jeopardy-playing computer built by IBM that recently beat the all-time human Jeopardy game show champion.

Tuesday
Nov012011

John Hodgeman And Robert Siegel Consider 'All' Things, Some Of Them Rather Dubious

"Rejoice and be glad, therefore, that today's ATC brings you a Siegel interview with John Hodgman, who joins us to share selected tidbits of wisdom from That Is All — the third and last in his trilogy of eccentric almanacs. Unexpected truths, none of them especially self-evident, that are contained therein:

  • On September 18th, 2012, the people of Madison, Wisc., will take a vow of no-cannibalism. It will last seven days.
  • In Korea, it is common to give glass figurines as gifts — especially figurines of Vincent D'Onofrio, the Koreans' favorite actor.
  • When SCUBA does not stand for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing American, it stands for Southern Cuba Un-Communist Business Association."

"Strange facts, and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Also utterly bogus, of course."

Monday
Oct312011

7 Billion: How Did We Get So Big So Fast?

"The U.N. estimates that the world's population will pass the 7 billion mark on Monday."

"Much of that growth has happened in Asia — in India and China. Those two countries have been among the world's most populous for centuries. But a demographic shift is taking place as the countries have modernized and lowered their fertility rates. Now, the biggest growth is taking place in sub-Saharan Africa."

"Due in part to that region's extreme poverty, infant mortality rates are high and access to family planning is low. The result is high birth rates and a booming population of 900 million — a number that could triple by the end of the century. Population expert Joel Cohen points out that, in 1950, there were nearly three times as many Europeans as sub-Saharan Africans. If U.N. estimates are correct, there will be nearly five sub-Saharan Africans for every European by 2100."

Saturday
Oct292011

Eating Your Way To A Healthy Heart (If You're A Python)

"It's a huckster's dream: 'Try the new Burmese Python Diet. No calorie counting or special foods. Eat whatever comes along, up to a quarter of your body weight. Not only is it good for your waistline; it's good for your heart.'"

"Trouble is, what works in pythons probably won't work for humans."

"Pythons employ what scientists call a "sit and wait foraging tactic." In other words, they lie around in a Burmese jungle and wait for the food to come to them. And of course, this can mean months between meals."

Friday
Oct282011

Hormones and Metabolism Conspire Against Dieters

"There are some fresh insights from Australia that help explain why it's so difficult for dieters to keep off the weight they lose."

"Willpower will only take you so far, in case you haven't run that experiment yourself. Turns out our bodies have a fuel gauge, not entirely unlike the gas gauge on our cars, that tell us when it's time to tank up on food."

"The gauge relies on hormones that signal to the brain when and how much to eat. But as Dr. Louis Aronne, who directs the comprehensive weight control program at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, explains, the human fuel gauge can sometimes be way off the mark — especially for dieters."

Wednesday
Oct262011

A DNA Check Reveals Widespread Fish Mislabeling In Massachusetts

"Beware, Massachusetts fish fans: If you're buying or ordering red snapper, white tuna, local cod or haddock, there's a pretty good chance that's not what you're going to get."

"Two intrepid reporters at the Boston Globe set out to figure out just how bad one form of fish fraud — mislabeling — is in restaurants, markets and grocery stores across the state. They collected 183 samples of fish from 134 sites and hired a laboratory in Canada to check the DNA. And they published their results in a two-part series this week: scientists found that 87 of 183 were sold with the wrong species name — some 48 percent."

Tuesday
Oct252011

Google To Deliver the Amazon Jungle in 3D

"Google has long offered anyone with an Internet connection a street-level view of cities and landmarks around the world, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Roman Coliseum."

"Now, it's teaming up with a Brazilian environmental group to offer a 3-D, on-the-ground view of one of the planet's most remote areas: the hamlet of Tumbira in the center of the Brazilian Amazon. The goal is to show how people in the Amazon live — and educate the public about their effort to protect the forest."

"Once stitched together, the images will be posted on Google Earth Outreach, which offers panoramic, ground-to-sky photographs of isolated spots in places where people and the environment may be under duress."

Monday
Oct242011

Self-Starters Eat Up This Slow-Cooking Technique

"Sous vide cooking was once the province of chefs at fancy restaurants and home cooks willing to shell out close to $1,000 for a water oven. Now, do-it-yourselfers are making their own, inexpensive sous vide cooking rigs."

"With sous vide cooking, meat, fish or vegetables are placed in sealed plastic bags and cooked at relatively low temperatures for long periods of time — like 48 hours or so. The juices are saved, and foods don't get overcooked."

"People who cook at home with sous vide setups tend to rave about their steaks."

Saturday
Oct222011

New Camera Focuses After It Is Shot

"Autofocus cameras hit the stores back in the 1970s, making it dramatically simpler for the average consumer to get a good shot. Later, the digital camera made it possible for just about anyone to process their own pictures at home on a computer. Now comes a camera that could represent another kind of photography revolution: the light field camera. Take the picture, but focus it afterward. Robert Siegel speaks with Lytro founder Ren Ng about the new light field camera that his company is producing."

Friday
Oct212011

What If We Paid Off the Debt? A Secret Government Report

"Planet Money has obtained a secret government report outlining what once looked like a potential crisis: The possibility that the U.S. government might pay off its entire debt."

"It sounds ridiculous today. But not so long ago, the prospect of a debt-free U.S. was seen as a real possibility with the potential to upset the global financial system."

"We recently obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act Request. You can read the whole thing here. (It's a PDF.)"

"The report is called "Life After Debt". It was written in the year 2000, when the U.S. was running a budget surplus, taking in more than it was spending every year. Economists were projecting that the entire national debt could be paid off by 2012."

Thursday
Oct202011

IQ Isn't Set In Stone, Suggests Study That Finds Big Jumps, Dips in Teens

"For as long as there's been an IQ test, there's been controversy over what it measures. Do IQ scores capture a person's intellectual capacity, which supposedly remains stable over time? Or is the Intelligent Quotient exam really an achievement test — similar to the S.A.T. — that's subject to fluctuations in scores?"

"The findings of a new study add evidence to the latter theory: IQ seems to be a gauge of acquired knowledge that progresses in fits and starts."

"In this week's journal Nature, researchers at University College London report documenting significant fluctuations in the IQs of a group of British teenagers. The researchers tested 33 healthy adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16 years. They repeated the tests four years later and found that some teens improved their scores by as much as 20 points on the standardized IQ scale."

Monday
Oct172011

100-Year Old Finishes the Toronto Marathon

Talk about a really amazing race:

"Fauja Singh, 100, finished Toronto's waterfront marathon Sunday evening, securing his place in Guinness World Records as the oldest person — and the first centenarian — to ever accomplish a run of that distance," CBC News reports."

"Singh, a British citizen born in India, crossed the line in just over 8 hours, 11 minutes — and, officially at least, wasn't the last finisher. Four people, who it appears were in a group accompanying Singh, were 1 to 10 seconds behind him according to the electronic chips they carried to record their times."

Sunday
Oct162011

Chance to Spot Rare Supernova Fading Fast

"Supernova 2011fe is bringing out the stargazers. It's one of the brightest supernovas in the last century and it's now visible. It's the kind of event amateur astronomers dream of."

"The supernova will last for more than a decade, but it won't stay this bright. Within the next week, the light that took 21 million years to reach earth will fade out of view for amateur astronomers."

"On a Saturday night in the desert town of Yucca Valley, Calif., two hours east of Los Angeles and far away from the big city lights, the town's community center parking lot is buzzing. There's a group of excited backyard astronomers like Carolina Liechtenstein."