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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Al Yankovic Paradox: He Doesn’t Seem That Weird Anymore

The Al Yankovic Paradox: He Doesn’t Seem That Weird Anymore


The Al Yankovic Paradox: He Doesn’t Seem That Weird Anymore

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 11:02 AM PDT

Al Yankovic — best known as Weird Al, the man who realized the “Amish” has the same number of syllables as “gangsta” — recently tweeted that he would be releasing eight new music videos in the eight days beginning July 14. The videos will feature songs from his forthcoming album Mandatory Fun (out July 15), the titles from which have not yet been announced. This move drew comparisons at Vulture to Beyoncé’s all-at-once strategy, and seems designed to capture some of the headline-grabbing buzz that she earned from deciding not to obey the usual music-release timeline.

But, as his new album approaches its release, Weird Al is in a weird place.

The reason? He just doesn’t seem so weird anymore.

Yankovic’s cultural penetration peaked in the late ’90s with platinum-selling albums like Bad Hair Day and Running With Scissors, which contained songs like “Amish Paradise” and “Pretty Fly For A Rabbi.” Around the release of his most recent album, 2011′s Alpocalypse, he told the AP that he had been “getting kind of cocky” at that point. Even though Alpocalypse broke the top 10 on the album chart, he acknowledged that sales were down and it was getting harder to get performers to approve the use of their music in his parodies. An artist experiencing declining album sales, compared to his ’90s high, is certainly not unique to Yankovich — and the parodist has been keeping fairly busy in the years between Alpocalypse and Mandatory Fun. He went on tour, he denied retirement rumors, he appeared on TV shows like Adventure Time and 30 Rock, he co-wrote three books (two for kids and one about himself) and he appeared frequently in Funny or Die videos.

That last credit is the interesting one. His most popular work was perfectly timed for the last days of pre-YouTube comedy. In the late ’90s, his music videos were some of the easiest-to-access sources of short comedy. Now, the kind of humor that used to make him seem “weird” is pretty much the most mainstream comedy out there. Countless Frozen fans have filled YouTube with “Let It Go” parodies and, since 2005, Saturday Night Live‘s Digital Shorts have been the professional equivalent. Yankovic is clearly aware of this change: in addition to Funny or Die, he’s participated in an “Epic Rap Battles of History” video — which has accumulated 11 million views in one month, versus 22 million for the official “Amish Paradise” video, which has been on YouTube for five years. In this season of Comedy Central’s YouTube-to-TV Drunk History, he plays Adolf Hitler.

All of which is to say that though Yankovic certainly wasn’t the first musical parodist or the most influential one ever — an honor that should likely go to Allan Sherman or Tom Lehrer — it looks like he may just be the last of his kind. In a world where any “weirdo” can rack up hits on a YouTube clip, the designation begins to lose its oomph. And, while it’s normally a good thing for an artist to have anticipated the zeitgeist, the exception is an artist who relies on being outside the mainstream — and “Normal Al” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

If Yankovic’s video-release strategy can make him stand out from the rest of the parody-song bunch, interest in funny clips could be great news for Mandatory Fun and for his weirdness level. It just might work: eight music videos in a week isn’t normal yet. For that matter, neither is his hairdo.

Now You Can Be The Person Who Brews Apple’s Coffee

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:49 AM PDT

If you’re looking to work at Apple but you don’t have a degree in computer science, then there may still be hope. You could apply to be an “iCup Technician.”

The job summary of the listing on Apple’s website, posted June 28, 2014, says, “The Apple iCup Services is specially designed to provide a fresh brew coffee to all Apple employees within their department.”

Applicants may not have to code for the position, but they should have “some computer skills.” The ideal person for this 40-hour-a-week job in Santa Clara Valley, California, would also have “prior experience working with coffee machines” and be someone who “continually grows in knowledge.”

Can’t wait to see how many applicants start their cover letters with “iBrew.”

 

 

 

 

‘Cramming’ Suit Could Mean Big Trouble for T-Mobile

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:41 AM PDT

T-Mobile has spent the last year and a half telling us again and again that it's not like the other wireless carriers. Stuck in fourth place in the market after a failed merger with AT&T, the company transformed into the "Un-Carrier" as a way to differentiate itself from rivals Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. The campaign is part disruptive business model, part slick marketing. T-Mobile has ended two-year contracts, eliminated automatic overage fees and prevented its customers from racking up huge data charges while traveling abroad. And T-Mobile CEO John Legere, once a buttoned-up executive at AT&T, now hurls vulgarities at his competitors and crashes their corporate parties, essentially trolling them the way we all wish we could when our phone bill comes in each month. It's an effective one-two punch that instantly conveys that T-Mobile is a company run by real people that want to help the little guy.

The “Un-Carrier” image is now in peril, thanks to a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission claiming that T-Mobile profited from bogus charges for unwanted premium text message services on customers' bills. The annoying spam texts for things like flirting tips and horoscopes cost $9.99 per month and were charged to customers via third-party companies in a process known as "cramming." T-Mobile kept as much as 40 percent of the money from these fees, generating hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the FTC. The Commission also claims T-Mobile buried these charges deep in users' bills and refused to refund some customers' money when they complained. T-Mobile could be on the hook for millions of dollars to repay customers for the charges, according to the FTC.

T-Mobile, however, says the allegations are without merit. In a statement, CEO John Legere said the company stopped billing for premium texting services last year and has already launched a program to refund customers for fraudulent charges. "T-Mobile is fighting harder than any of the carriers to change the way the wireless industry operates and we are disappointed that the FTC has chosen to file this action against the most pro-consumer company in the industry rather than the real bad actors," he said.

Whatever punishment the courts might levy, the real cost to T-Mobile is in how this legal battle could affect its image. The company claims to be on a righteous campaign to save customers from petty charges from their cellphone carriers. Burying unwanted fees for daily horoscopes in customers' bills is the antithesis of the "Un-Carrier" ethos.

"It does hurt T-Mobile's brand because obviously it's built around consumer-friendliness," Chetan Sharma, a mobile industry analyst, says of the FTC complaint. "I was a bit surprised that T-Mobile didn't just try to settle it."

In Legere’s statement, the T-Mobile chief pointed out that deceptive charges from shady third parties have plagued the entire wireless industry for a long time. Last fall, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint all signed an agreement with 45 states to stop billing customers for premium text messages. Verizon did not sign the specific agreement but committed to the same principle. Meanwhile, the FTC is also pursuing non-carriers involved in cramming schemes, like companies that feed wireless carriers false phone numbers for billing, several of which it has already sued.

An FTC spokesman declined to comment on the cramming practices of other wireless carriers or whether the agency would file legal action against them as well.

It's likely that T-Mobile's actions regarding cramming were not out of the ordinary for the wireless industry—and the problem itself, a relic of the days when people bought digital goods through SMS rather than through online app stores, has mostly been eradicated. But this is supposed to be a company that’s about flouting the rules, not playing by them. A T-Mobile without the arrogant CEO and the customer-first mentality is just a fourth-place carrier with a wireless network that can’t stack up to AT&T’s or Verizon’s in many areas. Now that the company has been singled out by the FTC, it will be critical for T-Mobile that it proves it has customers' best interest at heart.

"They should probably put out the data on [cramming] as to how big of an issue it is so people can understand the scale," Sharma says. "The FTC's lawsuit makes us believe that it's a much bigger problem than it might be. Without the numbers, it's very hard to say which way it is."

Disney Is Making an Enchanted Sequel

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:33 AM PDT

Seven years after Amy Adams charmed Patrick Dempsey and audiences alike with her live-action princess routine, Enchanted is back for a second adventure, Deadline reports.

Disney has hired J. David Stem and David N. Weiss, who co-wrote Shrek 2 and The Smurfs, to pen the sequel, according to Deadline. Anne Fletcher (The Proposal and The Guilt Trip) will direct the movie.

There doesn’t seem to be any word yet on whether Adams, Dempsey, James Marsden, Idina Menzel, Susan Sarandon or any of the other original stars will return this time. But with Menzel’s surge in popularity from Frozen, you can bet Disney is hoping she’ll be involved.

While Disney has not released plot details, the first movie closed with a fairly straightforward “happily ever after,” so the sequel will likely have a totally new storyline. The long gap between the original movie and this one could allow for Robert’s (Dempsey) daughter to be Disney princess-aged, which might give the filmmakers a fun plot to follow.

[Deadline]

Target ‘Respectfully’ Requests No Guns in Stores

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:30 AM PDT

Target addressed the “open carry” debate on Wednesday by releasing an online statement that requests customers not pack heat in their stores.

The “open carry” movement supports the right to visibly carry a gun in public and it’s up to states on whether they allow or outlaw it. “Our approach has always been to follow local laws, and of course, we will continue to do so,” said John Mulligan, interim CEO. “But starting today we will also respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target – even in communities where it is permitted by law.”

Mulligan added that having firearms in Target stores “creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.”

Target is not the only chain straddling the “open carry” divide. Starbucks’ Howard Schultz asked customers last September to leave their guns out of their shops. Whole Foods, Buffalo Wild Wings and Ikea have gone even further and are known for no-gun policies in their establishments.

Red Panda That Escaped From The National Zoo Is Now a Dad

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:14 AM PDT

The Smithsonian National Zoo announced Wednesday that its red pandas Rusty and Shama have given birth to three cubs — and they have already weaseled their way into our hearts. The video above shows Shama cuddling with her babies after giving birth on June 26.

“All four red panda pairs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., successfully bred and had cubs this year,” according to the National Zoo’s website. “Of the 10 cubs, more born at SCBI than any other year, seven have survived.”

You may remember Rusty as the little dude that literally had zoo officials seeing red when he escaped from his enclosure in the Asia Trail section last summer. Rusty was later found in Adams Morgan, a D.C. neighborhood known for its nightlife. Time will only tell whether the cubs will inherit their father’s penchant for party animal antics.

(h/t DCist)

Blockbuster Stem-Cell Studies Retracted Because of Fraud

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:06 AM PDT

In an editorial published on Wednesday, editors at the scientific journal Nature announced their decision to retract two papers that received wide media attention, including by TIME, for apparently dramatically simplifying the process of creating stem cells. Genetically manipulating older, mature cells are the only confirmed methods for reprogramming them back to their embryonic state, but in the Nature papers, Japanese scientists claimed to have accomplished the feat by physical means, using an acidic bath or physical stress.

Several months after the papers were published, one of the co-authors, from the RIKEN Institute, called for their retraction, saying "I'm no longer sure that the articles are correct." RIKEN's own probe determined that the studies' lead author, Haruko Obokata, was guilty of misconduct.

At the time, Nature launched its own investigation into concerns that some of the figures in the paper contained errors, and that parts of the text were plagiarized. The journal now says that "data that were an essential part of the authors' claims have been misrepresented. Figures that were described as representing different cells and different embryos were in fact describing the same cells and the same embryos."

MORE: Stem-Cell Scientist Guilty of Falsifying Data

While scientific journals have peer-review processes to check researchers' work, they rely on the fact that the scientists are presenting their data in their entirety and without any biases—something that didn't occur in this case.

Nature's editors say they are reviewing their review process and intend to improve on the way they select articles to ensure that such mistakes are minimized.

Here’s Why Tibetans Can Live Comfortably At Crazy-High Altitudes

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 10:00 AM PDT

When you or I go up to high altitude, we gasp for a while, maybe faint, and then gradually adapt. The way we do it is by furiously generating more red blood cells, to increase the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, which gets thinner the higher we go. But we pay a price: all of those extra blood cells can make the blood sticky, leading to a risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and, in pregnant women, the delivery of low-birth-weight babies.

We pay that price, that is, unless we’re natives of the Tibetan plateau, where people live more or less cheerfully at altitudes of 13,000 feet and more. The secret lies in their genes—mostly in a gene known as EPAS1, which allows them to absorb scarce oxygen without creating extra blood cells. But while genetic traits are often created by mutations within a given species, this one evidently came from outside. According to a paper just published in the current Nature, the Tibetans’ ancestors evidently mated with a now extinct human species known as the Denisovans, which went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago.

It’s no surprise that matings have happened between modern humans and other human species. We share a fair number of genes with the more familiar Neanderthals, for example, who were the Denisovan’s distant cousins. But it’s not clear (although it’s certainly possible) that Neanderthal genes gave our ancestors any specific evolutionary advantages.

For Tibetans, though, the high-altitude gene allowed them to colonize a region nobody else could survive (some Han Chinese, which make up more than 90% of the population of China, also have the gene, but it’s relatively rare). “We found part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans,” said lead author Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement, ” and very different from all other humans.”

What’s perhaps even more surprising is that the scientists had Denisovan genes to work with in the first place. “The only reason we can say that this bit of DNA is Denisovan, said Nielsen, “is is because of this lucky accident of sequencing DNA from a little bone found in a cave in Siberia. We found the Denisovan species at the DNA level, but how many other species are out there that we haven’t sequenced?”

The Real Reason You Should Be Worried About That Facebook Experiment

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 09:59 AM PDT

People are up in arms about the recent revelation that Facebook manipulated its users during a psychological study. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by researchers at Cornell University and at Facebook (full disclosure: I know the authors and the article's editor), showed that people who saw more happy messages in their news feed were more likely to post happy messages too. The researchers interpreted this as support for the theory of "emotional contagion": that emotions can spread through online posts and interactions.

Unfortunately for the researchers, the explosive response to their study over social media confirms their findings. Negative emotion can easily go viral.

Why is this study is so controversial? Psychologists have known for years that individuals' emotions can be influenced by their social surroundings. Sociologists have also shown that that people act like their friends or the people around them in order to fit in. Just like no one wants to be a Debbie Downer at a party, posting sad stories online when your friends are posting happy tales seems to be a no-no. If anything, the findings contribute to a long list of Internet studies that argues against "digital dualism" — the notion that we behave differently online than we do offline — by showing that the online world plays an active role in shaping our social lives and experiences.

But if the study's findings are not controversial, its methods certainly are. Whether we like it or not, tech companies experiment with their users in precisely this way all the time. User Interface designers and researchers at places like Google, Facebook or Yahoo! regularly tweak the live site's interface for a subset of visitors to see whether users behave differently in response. While this technique shines new light on user behavior, the overall goal is to bring the company more revenue through more users, clicks or glances at ads. Stories of the designer who made their company millions more dollars in advertising revenue just by altering a single pixel on the homepage are legendary in Silicon Valley.

That's why any tech company worth its salt has a research department staffed with PhD scientists to analyze their data. That's also why Facebook is actively hiring and reaching out to social scientists to help them better understand their data and reach new user populations.

Researchers, for their part, are increasingly joining forces with tech companies. There are many reasons to do so. From location check-ins to threaded conversations, from tweets in times of crisis to shared family photos, the reams of data present a fascinating slice of social life in the 21st Century. These platforms also provide an unprecedented venue for a "natural experiment" at scale. With only a few tweaks, and without users knowing, researchers can witness which simple changes make for tremendous effects.

As a sociologist of technology, I've witnessed these changes firsthand. I have grants from Microsoft and Yahoo!; Intel funds my colleagues' students; our graduates staff the labs at Facebook and Google. These collaborations aim to keep Internet research both current and practical.

But there are other reasons why social scientists are turning to tech companies. Public money for social science research is being slashed at the federal level. The committee that oversees the National Science Foundation wants to cut between $50 and $100 million of social, behavioral and economics funding for the next two years (again, full disclosure: I have received NSF funding). The bill, called FIRST: Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology, aims to improve American competitiveness by funding research that supports a U.S. industry advantage. Yet the committee has called specifically for the NSF to stop giving grants to study social media, online behavior or other Internet research.

Ironically, at precisely the time when American technology companies are looking to social science to help understand their users and improve their business, this research is being denigrated in the House. And at exactly the time when independent research on Internet practices is needed, scholars must turn to companies for both data and funding.

This is a short-sighted move. On the one hand, it means that we will train fewer social scientists to rigorously and responsibly answer the new questions posed by big data. But it also pushes basic research about social life online exclusively into the private sector. This leaves the same companies that make the technologies we use to talk, shop and socialize responsible for managing the ethics of online experimentation. No wonder that esoteric questions like informed consent are suddenly headline news.

The recently released study, then, does present reasons to be alarmed, though not for the reasons most of us think. Facebook isn't manipulating its users any more than usual. But the proposed changes in social science funding will have a more lasting effect on our lives both online and offline. That should inspire some emotions that are worth sharing.

Janet Vertesi is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, where she is a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy.

Game of Thrones Headed to Spain for Season 5

Posted: 02 Jul 2014 09:58 AM PDT

Game of Thrones fans may be seeing a whole new kingdom next season.

Part of the HBO fantasy drama’s fifth season will be shot in southern Spain, near Seville, the network announced Wednesday.

Filming will take place later this year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and no specific locations will be revealed until closer to the shoots.

This announcement confirms earlier comments by U.S. ambassador to Spain and former HBO executive James Costas that the company was in "firm negotiations" with the Andalusia Film Commission to find filming locations in Spain.

Spain is filled with Moorish castles like Seville’s spectacular Alcazar and buildings like Osuna University with its castle-like spires, which the Reporter speculates would make it the perfect setting for the Kingdom of Dorne — home of Prince Oberyn, the [spoiler alert] ill-fated Dornish royal who met a grisly end in Season 4.

Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss told Entertainment Weekly last month that season five would feature Dorne, saying: “Who wouldn't want to hang out in Dorne? They have admirable values and priorities. And have you seen Oberyn's coat?”

Spain will now join the long list of locations that have served as host to the popular show, following Croatia, Northern Ireland, Malta, Morocco, Iceland and the United States.

[Hollywood Reporter]

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