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Cute Dog Video Answers Mystery Of The Cosmos. Maybe.

Sep 2, 2014

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The path from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light and from purposelessness to puppies goes something like this:

  • Around 400 BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus and other "atomists" make the radical proposition that below all the worlds' appearances, all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles.
  • Around 2,000 years later (in the 1680s), the fundamental laws of force and motion governing those atoms are laid down by the super-genius and generally angry guy Isaac Newton.
  • In 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell, a mild-mannered professor in Scotland, reveals new laws governing electromagnetic fields that extend across space and time and are capable of exerting forces on particles.
  • In 1890, desperate to understand the glow emerging from heated bodies, German physicist Max Planck imagines that light (electromagnetic radiation) comes fundamentally in tiny discrete bundles. Contradicting the established wisdom of the day, Planck starts the quantum revolution.
  • In 1936, British mathematician Alan Turing proposes the concept of a universal computing machine (now called Universal Turing Machine) that reads instructions on a long tape and carries them out sequentially. It is the archetype of all modern computers.
  • In 1948, electrical engineer Claude Shannon makes a brilliant leap forward associating the thermodynamic behavior of matter with the information content of a signal. Information Theory is born.
  • In the early 1960s, under the auspices of a government funded research program, the first computers are networked together.
  • In 2014, my sister sends me a cute video of a dog with different fruits and vegetables placed on its head.

My sister, like many Internet users, has a soft spot for puppy porn. She often sends links of puppy videos around to friends and family. Now don't tell her I told you this, but, curmudgeon that I am, I often doesn't look at the links. It's not that I don't like puppies. (Who doesn't like puppies?) It's just my innate reaction as computational scientist.

Here is my thinking:

For 2,500 years we've been uncovering nature's deepest structures and most subtle mysteries. For 2,500 years we've built ever more miraculous machines with this hard fought knowledge of cosmic laws and universal patterns. But what we do have to show for it?

Puppies.

We have lots videos of puppies distributed over the Internet. And let's face it: Puppies are the least of what we've done with the Internet. How can it be that we humans could take something built on the revealed truths of electromagnetism, quantum physics and information theory and reduce it nothing more than a puppy porn delivery system? Doesn't this show us how empty and vacuous we are as species?

That is what I used to think. But now, upon reflection, I have decided it shows just the opposite.

The noble-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg once said "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it (also) seems pointless." He was, in effect, saying the universe was without meaning — just a random collection of randomly moving atoms. You hear this kind of thing a lot in certain circles. But I think my sister's cute dog video shows us something quite different about the universe.

The thing is, it's a good cute dog video. It's really good. The fruit and vegetables are quite artfully composed on the pooch's head. The choice of music is perfect in its slightly sinister surf-punk rumblings. The editing skillfully weaves the dogs repeated vegetable-ejection head tilt into the song's pauses. And the dog, who is incredibly cute, is also quite the canine ham.

Whoever made the video took some time with it. They thought about it. Then, from their time and experience, they used the tools at hand and made something creative.

In that way, they created meaning. They made meaning for themselves and for everyone who watched. And that is the point.

Without the remarkable tools based on the remarkable physical laws — the digital camera, the computer with the video editing software, the YouTube site for uploading and dissemination — none of it would have been possible and none of it would exist. But the creation of meaning, human meaning, was an irrevocable part of the discovery of all those physical laws too. Newton's laws, Quantum Mechanics, Information Theory — these fundamental rules of existence may be of the universe, but they find expression in the human world for human purposes. And in that way they have been part of the creation of something new that did not exist before — something just as real as galaxies or planets or stars.

The universe is not without meaning. With the emergence of life and, most of all, sentience, meaning took its place as part of the architecture of the cosmos. Is that important? Well that depends on your perspective. From ours (or any other sentience in the vast universe), it's the most important thing that ever happened. But what about from the universe's own perspective? Well, you let me know when you figure out how to ask it that question.

So for me, for now, that cute dog video my sister sent me has suddenly gotten a whole lot more meaningful.

Good dog.


You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

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A woman gathers shells along the ocean near the Revel Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., early Tuesday. The casino resort has closed, a little over two years after opening with the promise of helping to renew Atlantic City. (AP)

After Just Two Years, Huge Atlantic City Casino Shuts Down

Sep 2, 2014

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After operating for only two years, the Revel Casino Hotel has closed down, part of a trend that will reportedly shutter a third of Atlantic City's big gambling halls by the end of September. It cost $2.4 billion to build the Revel facility.

"It's a tragedy," massage therapist Lori Bacum, who worked at the resort's spa, tells NJ.com. "There were some warnings, but none of us thought it would happen. We felt so safe, because this was the place that was going to take (the city) to a new level."

From the AP:

"By mid-September, four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos will have closed, but none will be a costlier failure than Revel.

"It started construction just before the Great Recession hit and had to take on so much debt it never could turn a profit.

"The Showboat closed on Sunday, Trump Plaza is closing Sept. 16, and the Atlantic Club closed in January."

The closures come as casinos in Atlantic City and surrounding areas struggle to attract customers in a region that's becoming saturated with gambling options — as NPR's David Greene reports for today's Morning Edition.

The arrival of new casinos in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh - and Baltimore, where Maryland's fifth casino recently opened — is giving gamblers more options. And that makes it harder for any one town to attract customers from miles around.

"Pennsylvania is a terrific example," Suzette Parmley of The Philadelphia Inquirer tells David. She says the casinos are expected to bring money pouring into resources for senior citizens and boosting tax revenue.

"From 2012 to 2013, it was booming - billions of dollars coming into Pennsylvania," Parmley says. But now, she adds, "Pennsylvania has already flattened out; it's actually on a slight decrease this year in revenue, from last year. It's still making a lot, but already the trajectory is going downward because you have Maryland in the mix now, you have Ohio in the mix."

In Atlantic City, Revel opened in April of 2012; its owners twice sought bankruptcy protection. The last hotel guests left Monday. And by Tuesday morning, workers had removed the resort's name and put up a yellow chain to block access.

"At the end of the month, some 6,500 jobs will have been lost" in Atlantic City, David says.

As CBS News reports, Revel's unique approach of emphasizing its hotel qualities seemed to backfire:

"The idea behind Revel was to open a totally different resort, a seaside pleasure palace that just happened to have a casino as one of its features. That included Atlantic City's only total smoking ban, which alienated many gamblers; the lack of a buffet and daily bus trips to and from the casino; and the absence of a players' club. By the time those decisions were reversed, it was already too late. High room and restaurant prices hurt, too."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Getting to this point can be very expensive if in-vitro fertilization is involved. (iStockphoto)

Sharing Risk Can Help Tame The Cost Of Infertility Treatment

by Michelle Andrews
Sep 2, 2014 (Kaiser Health News)

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Infertility treatment is a numbers game in some respects: How many treatments will it take to conceive a child? And how much can you afford?

Even as insurance plans are modestly improving their coverage of such treatments, clinics and others are coming up with creative ways to cover the costs to help would-be parents reduce their risk for procedures that can run tens of thousands of dollars. Some even offer a money-back guarantee if patients don't conceive, while one online program lets people pool some funding.

Shady Grove Fertility, a large center with sites in Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., has a number of options to help people afford infertility treatment. The center pioneered a "shared-risk" program for in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment years ago that offered a 100 percent refund if a couple didn't have a baby. Now the center offers a similar option for couples who use donor eggs to conceive. Other fertility centers offer their own versions.

Both Shady Grove shared-risk programs allow couples to try up to six cycles of IVF or donor eggs for a flat fee. If they don't have a baby, they get the full amount back; couples can also stop at any point in the process and get a full refund. The program costs twice as much as a single cycle — $20,000 for shared-risk IVF and $30,000 for shared-risk egg donor.

"In reality, patients who get a baby on the first cycle are subsidizing those who don't get a baby," says Michael Levy, president and IVF director at Shady Grove. "We see this as an opportunity to give patients security regarding the financial risk that they face."

Shared-risk and other financing options are popular in part because health insurance coverage for infertility treatment, while slowly improving, is still sparse. Fifteen states require insurers to cover infertility treatment to varying degrees, according to Resolve, an infertility advocacy group.

Among employers with more than 500 workers, 65 percent cover a specialist evaluation, 41 percent cover drug therapy and 27 percent cover in vitro fertilization, according to human resources consultant Mercer's 2013 employer benefits survey. Thirty-two percent of large companies don't cover infertility services at all.

There are other ways to manage the cost of infertility treatment. In addition to shared-risk programs, many fertility clinics offer other discounts and financing options to help couples afford treatment. Other companies also offer financing and/or infertility insurance to help cover the costs for couples who are working with a surrogate to have a baby, for example, or for IVF treatments.

Glow is one of the most recent companies to help address the financial uncertainties around infertility and treatment. The company, which is best known for an app that helps women track ovulation and other pregnancy-related health data, started Glow First last August for couples worried about infertility.

Participants pay $50 monthly for up to 10 months. The money is pooled with contributions from people who also entered the pool that month. At the end of 10 months, those who haven't become pregnant split the pot of money; Glow will pay their share to an accredited infertility clinic once they submit their bills for fertility testing or other services. The company does not take a cut, according to the Glow website, but there are no refunds for participants who change their minds.

The first group that began contributing in October 2013 has just ended. Roughly 50 people participated, according to the company. The payout to those who didn't become pregnant was $1,800.

"This relatively minimal contribution will help to offset those downstream and very high costs" of fertility testing and treatment, says Jennifer Tye, Glow's head of marketing and partnerships.

Copyright 2014 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.

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Alt-J will perform its new album, This Is All Yours, live on Sept. 2. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen Live: Alt-J, 'This Is All Yours'

by Russ Borris
Sep 2, 2014 (WFUV-FM)

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A unique band with a sound that's hard to pin down, alt-J makes music that's electronic but somewhat folky; it's got elements of dub but isn't exactly danceable. At a time when it's difficult for musicians to set themselves apart, alt-J has created a truly fresh, unpredictable sound.

An Awesome Wave, the band's 2012 debut, won a well-deserved Mercury Prize and spawned appearances at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Coachella and the Glastonbury Festival in 2013. So how does the British band face a potential sophomore slump? It's simply gone and made another beautiful and strange record that sounds like alt-J and nobody else. Join NPR Music and WFUV for a Live First Listen to This Is All Yours on Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 9 p.m.

Copyright 2014 WFUV-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfuv.org.

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Hozier, performing his new song "Jackie and Wilson" (Courtesy of the artist)

Hozier, 'Jackie And Wilson'

Sep 2, 2014 (WFUV-FM)

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The song title "Jackie and Wilson" is a playful nod, of course, to the great R&B singer Jackie Wilson. And don't worry — Hozier, the 24-year-old Irish soul singer and guitarist, has the grace and the backbeat to make it work.

Andrew Hozier-Byrne has already released two hit-filled EPs, and on Oct. 7, he'll finally release his first album. A version of this song will be on that record, but in the meantime, you can watch Hozier perform it live with his band in the studio.

When asked to elaborate about the song title, Hozier wrote us an email to explain his love for the great Jackie Wilson, who died 6 years before Hozier was born:

"He's a big influence for me, he's fantastic. I think Elvis was the white Jackie Wilson, rather than any other way 'round. I suppose the song is about being lost. There's sometimes a recurring theme of looking from the outside in and idealising some idea of somebody or something as a cure for oneself. It's also me trying to enjoy writing something more fun, playing something more fun."

I particularly love the payoff line in this song: "We'll name our children / Jackie and Wilson / Raise them on rhythm and blues."

We've had Hozier play a Tiny Desk Concert here at NPR, and it's another nice peek into his heartfelt live performance. He's about to start a tour and many of the shows are already sold out. If you can make it to a concert, I'd say do it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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