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Climate observer mothballed

The world’s most advanced climate observer has been on ice for almost a decade. In a feature for Popular Science‘s April 2011 issue, writer Bill Donahue tracks down the earth-monitoring satellite DSCVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory) that was supposed to be launched back in 2001. He finds the $100 million device stowed in a Maryland warehouse — a probable victim of politics and inter-agency bureaucracy.

Standing in a small, carpeted nook, I was able to look through a small observation window into a high-ceilinged, white-walled clean room where a white metal crate was shoved into a corner, beneath a stairwell. DSCOVR sat inside. A green tube supplied the box with a steady feed of nitrogen, to minimize contaminants. It looked to me like forgotten hardware—last year’s cellphone gathering dust in a desk drawer.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)

DSCVR isn’t the only climate satellite with problems: Donahue’s piece refers to the “delayed” Glory project but doesn’t mention that it actually crashed in a failed launch attempt last month. And in 2009, the OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) satellite similarly succumbed to mechanical defects and was lost before reaching orbit.

A new climate research satellite — the OCO-2 — is slated for launch early in 2013, but given current budget negotiations and a push from House Republicans to slash federally-funded climate change research, OCO-2 may find itself relegated to another government warehouse.

Dan Savage brings his ‘It Gets Better’ message to bookstores

When popular sex columnist Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better Project” video project, which was designed to reach out to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth struggling with anti-gay bullying, he never thought it would become the viral sensation of 2010. Now, seven months after the video project’s inception, Savage has co-authored the “It Gets Better” book with his partner Terry Miller. The compilation of stories is inspired by the thousands of submissions they received from people all over the world in response to the video project.

I recently spoke to Savage about the popular videos and his book.

Dreux Dougall: You created the “It Gets Better Project” in September 2010 with your partner, Terry Miller. What prompted that decision and what did you initially hope to accomplish?

Dan Savage: What prompted the decision was the realization that in the YouTube era, as a gay adult, I no longer needed the permission of parents to talk to LGBT kids, or an invitation from a school. Billy Lucas was this kid in Greensburg, Ind., who killed himself. He was bullied for being gay. He wasn’t out, he may or may not have been gay — not all victims of anti-gay bullying or violence are gay.

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‘The Wire,’ now readable as a Victorian novel

“The word I’m thinking about is ‘Dickensian.’ We want to depict the Dickensian lives of city children and then show clearly and concisely where the school system has failed them.”

These words are spoken by James Whiting, the very fictional executive editor of the very real Baltimore Sun on episode two of the fifth season of HBO’s “The Wire.” Whiting is asking his editorial staff to focus their efforts on a new investigative piece on Baltimore’s flagging education system. When certain members of the staff counter that there are many factors contributing to the turmoil of the city’s children, Whiting retorts, “What do you want? An educational project or a litany of excuses? I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.”

“The Wire” itself is sometimes thought of as a show with a Dickensian bent, investigating the social strata of one city, as opposed to one singular character. That may be true to some extent, though the show’s creator, David Simon, might balk at it.

In an interview with Vice, Simon said, “The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, ‘But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.’ In the end, the guy would punk out.”

This comparison shines through in an oddly brilliant new deconstruction of “The Wire” in a post on The Hooded Utilitarian by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson. “‘When It’s Not Your Turn’: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s ‘The Wire’” re-imagines the television show as a serialized Victorian novel written by Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, a fictional contemporary of Dickens. The post presents itself as an essay on the works of Ogden, complete with photocopies of pages from the “original novel.”

Delyria and Robinson note the troubles “The Wire” faced with Victorian readers, which humorously mirror the problems that the show faced with modern viewing audiences: “Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before.”

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The Kingdom of Zarahemla, and other ‘micronations’

Updated | March 11 There’s a reason the United Nations refers to its constituent states as “members” and not “nations,” apparently: The organization’s leaders aren’t actually sure how many nations there really are.

That’s because the world also has hundreds of so-called “micronations,” unofficial nation-states that for various reasons have not been recognized by world governments or legitimate international organizations. The U.N. does not keep a registry of all the nations in the world, nor do U.N. officials consider it within their purview to decide what constitutes a legitimate country and what doesn’t.

When Canadian filmmaker Jody Shapiro asked the U.N. how many countries there are, officials there told him, “We are not an authority on the topic. Please consult your local library or world almanac.” Shapiro, who’s debuting a new film called “How to Start Your Own Country,” told Mother Jones in an interview that the U.N. doesn’t actually keep track.

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Evgeny Morozov on the era of cyber-pragmatism

As the furor of public protest continues to sweep across the Arab world – first in Egypt and Tunisia, and now in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain – it has become almost trite to begin another discussion about what the Internet can and cannot do when it comes to revolutions. The debate has seemed to tire itself out; any declarations of “The revolution will be Twittered!” almost inevitably are followed by “Well, social media is useful, but it didn’t cause the revolution” and then, “Well, nobody said it caused the revolution, but it facilitated it,” and so forth.

Some have gone as far as to proclaim that “the Twitter revolution debate is dead,” and it does seem to be so. No one can deny that the Internet and social media have had an impact on the speed and scope of social mobilization within these authoritarian societies, but the specific degree of its influence is something that is difficult to measure. And in the short history of social networking, it’s nearly impossible to predict what kind of lasting impact this technology will have.

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The life and death of climate legislation, in graphic form

What if legendary comic book writer Alan Moore were to take up the cause of climate change? Might President Obama appear at first a savior, only to be unmasked, along with his fellow Democrats, as weak and ineffectual? Would Tea Party members be portrayed not as ordinary citizens but as zombies? And would the story end on an ominous note, full of uncertainty and existential despair?

We’ll probably never know what that comic would look like. But should Moore and his most notable collaborator, Dave Gibbons, decide to reunite for a contemporary update to their classic series “Watchmen,” they might take their cues from David Roberts and Thomas Pitilli, the duo behind a new six-page comic strip detailing the short life and gritty death of the landmark climate change bill in Congress last year.

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Rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and sex (in that order)

On November 3, 1964, the mayor of Cleveland, Ralph S. Locher, banned the Beatles and what The New York Times called “similar singing groups” from performing at the city’s venerable Public Hall. The mayor’s reasoning: “Such groups do not add to the community’s culture or entertainment.” The ban would go into effect that night, immediately following the appearance of what the Times referred to as “another group of shaggy-haired English singers” — the Rolling Stones.

There’s an easy irony to be had pointing out that Cleveland is now home to the Rock and  Roll Hall of Fame, which presumably would treat a 1964-era lock of that hair as a holy relic.

But a more telling irony is found in another Times piece from the era, this one about how musicologists were “astonished” by the popularity of the Beatles and their shaggy ilk. (Back then, it seems, there was very little written about the Stones that didn’t mention the Beatles, too.) In a 1965 piece entitled “Beatles Stump Music Experts Looking for Key to Beatlemania,” The Times noted that “The Stones, as they are called, have a rough, wild style in which everyone seems to go his own way.”

Wrong. What the Stones had was a rough, wild style in which just the opposite occurred – which brings me to “Life,” Keith Richards’ pleasingly anecdotal, breezily amoral memoir that well proves that point, containing generous helpings of Richards’ own brand of musicology to go along with the requisite tales of debauchery and criminality.

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The poetry of drinking

At this time of year, there are so many reasons to drink to excess. The forced gaiety of holiday parties. Prolonged contact with other carriers of your genetic material. Days that are nastily cold and brutishly short. The looming of that annual moment of reckoning — a.k.a. New Year’s Eve — when you tally your petty wins and stinging losses and discover (ouch!) on which side of the ledger you fall.

Who better to shepherd us through this season of mild melancholia and existential dread than a phalanx of hard-drinking poets, steeped as they are in thoughts of death, decay and poor book sales? For your viewing pleasure, we present a few of the nation’s most libertine bards as they imbibe on camera and read selections from the recently published, “In Their Cups: An Anthology of Poems About Drinking Places, Drinks and Drinkers.”

Pour your favorite poison, and let’s all raise our glasses to foolish dreams, persevering in the face of impossible odds and the restorative power of an occasional bender. Cheers!

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Taking conspiracy theories seriously

A police explosives expert prepares a controlled blast of a suspected parcel bomb in Athens on Nov. 1, 2010. Photo: AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

Every now and then, I come across a publication conferring incisive analytic heft to cultural phenomena that society usually considers undeserving of serious consideration. The last great one I read, for example, was Harry Frankfurt’s treatise, On Bullsh*t. When deftly executed, such writing can start with a knowing wink, but quickly plunge the reader into the unexpected depths of seemingly shallow waters. I recently found a paper from U.K. think tank Demos that provided just such a dunking.

The Power of Unreason: Conspiracy Theories, Extremism and Counter-terrorism is a discourse on how many extremist groups use conspiracy theories as a “radicalizing multiplier” of their ideologies; in some cases, even as a spur to violent behavior. The topic has certainly been explored before, but the Demos paper is a more thoughtful wake-up call to the real life impact that conspiracy theories may have on the rest of us sheep-like masses.

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