Let Public Radio Talk You Through the Financial Crisis

Over the past few months, some exciting (perhaps heart-stopping) action has played out on the world financial stage. There's a credit crunch, a mortgage crisis, commercial paper is frozen, banks are failing, and T-notes are the new mattresses. What does it all mean? I admit, I know nothing about finance, and hearing the increasingly dire news reports wasn't really helping to break it down in terms that I could follow. Until I discovered what's happening over at National Public Radio and Public Radio International. If you're wondering about the financial situation, I've got links below to help you learn about it -- in a way that human beings can understand.

The first salvo from public radio's crisis-explaining squad came on May 9. On that evening's All Things Considered program, PRI's This American Life Producer Alex Blumberg (who sounds uncannily like Ira Glass, but isn't) teamed up with NPR Business and Economics Correspondent Adam Davidson to deliver a thirteen-minute piece called Global Pool of Money Got Too Hungry. This was presented in a much longer (and better) form on This American Life as The Giant Pool of Money. The latter is the best explanation I've heard of global finance, including what exactly is going on with these crazy mortgages: what they are, how they're bundled, how money changes hands on a global scale, and why the mortgage system was so crazy. So your first assignment is to listen to The Giant Pool of Money (you can click the "Full Episode" link on the left of the page to launch the free player). Trust me, you'll be fascinated, and you'll learn a lot. Warning: Ira Glass has a really scratchy voice on this episode. Fortunately he pretty much leaves it up to Blumberg and Davidson to narrate the actual story.

Last week, This American Life followed up with Another Frightening Show About the Economy (here's a direct MP3 link). This show explained the US market bailout/rescue plan, and delved further into topics like credit default swaps, commercial paper, regulation (or the lack thereof), and toxic assets.

Honestly, this episode was even more interesting than the previous explanation of the global economy -- probably because it's so topical; we all want to know exactly what the Paulson Plan is, whether it's a good idea, and exactly how bad the whole situation is. Changes are coming fast and furious, and the information in this program is less than a week old. Now is the time to listen.

Planet MoneyIn addition to the aforementioned hour-long programs, Blumberg, Davidson, and friends have created a blog and podcast called Planet Money. The blog is updated many (MANY!) times daily, and the podcast is updated every few days. It's extremely topical stuff. Recorded at the end of the business day in New York, the podcast features interviews with economists and traders, and it's hosted by producers who can actually explain the financial jargon. For the layperson, the podcast is the best source I've found to explain the financial crisis. The blog is good too, but there's so much content there that it almost seems daunting. Anyway, check out the Planet Money blog, and if you're a podcast listener (and really, why shouldn't you be? You don't need an iPod...), I strongly recommend the Planet Money podcast. It's currently the top podcast on iTunes, and guess who's second? This American Life.

Note that if you don't want to subscribe to the podcast, you can browse through the episodes using iTunes and just double-click an episode to listen to it.

So where do you get your news on the financial situation? Or are you just hiding in a bunker, waiting for it all to pass? Share your finds and fears in the comments. (Keep in mind that you can post URLs as long as you leave off the 'http' business.)

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Oli Scarff, Getty Images
How a Particle Accelerator Is Helping to Unearth Long-Lost Pieces of Art
Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

A particle accelerator is revealing the people in 150-year-old photographs whose features had been lost to time, Science News reports.

For the first time, Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. candidate at Canada’s Western University, and a team of scientists used an accelerator called a synchrotron to scan daguerreotypes, an ancestor of modern photography.

before and after image of a damaged dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

Invented by French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre, daguerreotypes were popular from around the 1840s to the 1860s. They were created by exposing an iodized silver-coated copper plate to a camera (the iodine helped make the plate's surface light-sensitive). Subjects had to sit in front of the camera for 20 to 30 minutes to set the portrait, down from the eight hours it took before Daguerre perfected his method. Photographers could then develop and fix the image with a combination of mercury and table salt.

Because they’re made of metal, though, daguerreotypes are prone to tarnish. Scientists can sometimes recover historical daguerreotypes by analyzing samples taken from their surface, but such attempts are often both destructive and futile, Kozachuk wrote in a study published in Scientific Reports.

Kozachuk found that using a particle accelerator is a less invasive and more accurate method. While some scientists have used X-ray imaging machines to digitally scan other historical objects, such instruments are too large to scan daguerreotypes. Reading the subtle variations on a daguerreotype surface requires a micron-level beam that only a particle accelerator can currently produce. By tracing the pattern of mercury deposits in the tarnished plate, the researchers were able to reveal the obscured image and create a digital photo of what the daguerrotype looked like when it was first made.

before and after image of a recovered dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

“When the image became apparent, it was jaw-dropping,” Kozachuk told Science News. “I squealed when the first face popped up.”

Scanning one square centimeter of each 8-by-7 centimeter plate took about eight hours. The technique, though time-intensive, may allow museums and collectors to restore old daguerreotypes with minimal damage.

“The ability to recover lost images will enable museums to expand their understanding of daguerreotype collections, as severely degraded plates would not otherwise have been able to be studied or viewed by interested scholars,” Kozachuk wrote.

[h/t Science News]

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Courtesy of October Films
This Scientist's Idea of the 'Perfect' Human Body Is Kind of Terrifying
Courtesy of October Films
Courtesy of October Films

The perfect human body has the legs of an ostrich, the heart of a dog, and the eyes of an octopus, according to anatomist Alice Roberts. And it’s utterly terrifying.

With the help of anatomical artist Scott Eaton and special effects designer Sangeet Prabhaker, Roberts created a life-size replica of herself that fixes many design flaws inherent to the human body, Motherboard reports. Roberts unveiled the sculpture on April 23 at the Science Museum in London. On June 13, the BBC released a documentary about the project.

Among the flaws Roberts’s sculpture corrects are humans’ inferior ears, spine, and lungs. Roberts borrowed anatomy from reptiles, birds, and other mammals to create a Frankenstein-esque creature straight from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The sculpture of Alice 2.0, left, with Alice Roberts, right
Courtesy of October Films

The sculpture has legs like an ostrich because, as Roberts says on her website, the human knee is complex and prone to failure. Like humans, ostriches are bipedal, but they are far better runners. Bird-like lungs that keep air flowing in one direction, not two, make running and other aerobic activities easier for the perfect human to manage. And a chimpanzee’s sturdier spine and a dog’s heart (which has more connected arteries, leading to lower heart attack risk) make Roberts’s alternate self more resistant to injury and disease.

Roberts’s ideal human body also has skin like a frog that can change shades based on the environment, and large, bat-like ears that amplify sound. Roberts also fixed humans’ backwards retina, which produces a natural blind spot, by borrowing from octopus eye anatomy.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the baby head poking out of the sculpture’s marsupial pouch. Roberts says marsupial pregnancy would be far easier on the human body and more convenient for parents on the go.

“This could be a human fit for the future,” Roberts says at the end of a trailer for her BBC documentary.

[h/t Motherboard]

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