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The Good Listener: Does The World Still Need Cassettes?

Apr 17, 2014

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Stephen Thompson

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the postage-paid crates we'll use to ship home the spring interns is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on cassette tapes and their utility in 2014.

Jennifer Spuehler writes via Facebook: "Will there be a place for cassette tapes in the future? What should I do with cassette tapes — especially those beloved mixtapes — that don't have a place to live anymore?

First, it's important to differentiate between commercially made cassettes — and their even harder-to-store cousins, cassingles — and the homemade mixtapes into which you poured your heart, soul, tears and sad, sticky hormones. When it comes to mixtapes, this depends on your own level of sentimentality, but I don't see any good reason to dispose of such tiny physical manifestations of your personal history. A shoebox full of mixtapes can give your closet just the hint of melancholy it needs! Otherwise, with the right equipment, it's reasonably easy to transfer your homemade tapes to MP3, and I'd strongly recommend doing at least that. Can't hurt, right?

As for commercially made cassettes, I'd have to split my answer between whether there is a future for the medium (yes, to a point) and whether there should be a future for the medium (no, there shouldn't be, sheesh). Next week, a band I love called Horse Feathers will release a limited-edition box set of its three wonderful albums with a bonus set of covers and rarities, and it only exists as a collection of cassettes. It's not the only modern music release to focus on the cassette as its primary means of physical distribution — which, to me, is completely and utterly bonkers.

Why? Because cassettes are, in a word, horrible. To my mind — and please feel free to craft a counterargument in the comments if you think I'm wrong — cassettes offer not a single advantage over other music media. They sound worse. The tape and its casing warp easily when exposed to excessive heat. The tape breaks, or gets wound so tightly that it causes certain players to malfunction. You can't scan easily from track to track, the way you can with CDs, MP3s or even vinyl. They're no more portable than any other format, except vinyl. The cassette boxes are wide and squat in ways that make them extremely difficult to shelve efficiently, and if you've ever had a stack of the damn things slip out of your hand and crash to the floor ... really, need I go on? Cassettes are the worst.

My advice is to upgrade from the accursed medium in any way possible and not look back — and seriously, people, feel free to defend cassettes as vigorously as you'd like in the comments. (If you need inspiration, our own Lars Gotrich gave it his best effort back in 2010.) Once you've made the decision to purge cassettes from your life, do be mindful of what is and isn't in print, whether physically or digitally, because you'll want to hold on to tapes whose music can't be easily or cheaply replaced.

But otherwise? I recommend piling the rest of your cassettes into a heap, setting that heap on fire, feeding the ashes to a large angry animal, feeding that large angry animal to a larger and angrier animal, shooting that animal full of cyanide-tipped arrows, setting the carcass on fire, loading its ashes into a rocket and shooting that rocket into the sun. Or, you know, just recycle them, whatever.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at or tweet @allsongs.

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BP Mobile Incident Commander Keith Seilhan talks with oil cleanup workers in Gulf Shores, Ala., in July 2010. Seilhan has settled with SEC regulators who say he avoided $100,000 in stock and options losses by trading on inside information related to the spill. (AP)

BP Exec Who Led Cleanup Settles On Charges Of Insider Trading

Apr 17, 2014

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A former BP executive who led the company's cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill has agreed to pay $224,000 in penalties and restitution in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly trading on inside information on the disaster.

SEC regulators say Keith A. Seilhan, 47, a 20-year veteran of BP plc, sold his family's $1 million portfolio of BP securities after learning that the public estimates of the extent of the Gulf of Mexico spill were grossly underestimated. The regulators say the sale of the stock and options saved Seilhan from more than $100,000 in losses.

Seilhan has agreed to pay a $105,409 civil penalty and the same amount in "ill-gotten gains" as well as more than $13,000 in prejudgment interest, Reuters says.

Forbes says:

"In his position as Incident Commander [in Houma, Louisiana], Seilhan learned of nonpublic information relating to the seriousness of the disaster, including initial oil flow estimates from the sunken rig that were significantly greater than the public estimate of 5,000 barrels per day. Indeed, those private estimates were between 52,700 and 62,200 barrels per day - a 10x increase than that provided to the public.

"After he learned of this information, Seilhan [liquidated his portfolio.] ... By doing so, Seilhan and his family were able to avoid over $100,000 in losses as BP's share price eventually declined 48%. Later, after BP announced it had successfully capped the well, Seilhan repurchased shares of the BP Stock Fund (composed nearly entirely of BP shares) at a lower basis."

Mary McNamara, an attorney for Seilhan, said her client wanted to "avoid further distraction and protracted litigation" by settling the matter, according to Reuters.

"Mr. Seilhan is widely respected for his work helping to lead the cleanup and containment efforts in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010," McNamara added.

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Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd of Black Jungle Squad. (NPR)

Jeremiah Jae And Oliver The 2nd: 'Take It Back To The Essence'

Apr 17, 2014

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Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd are cousins who grew up in Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively. Already from a musical family — Oliver's father, Phil Perry, is a smooth jazz R&B singer and Jeremiah's played keys with Miles Davis and produced a few of his records — they have formed Black Jungle Squad, a collective of relatives and close friends. "Taking it back to the days when there was a lot more crews in hip-hop," says Jeremiah. "Like Native Tongues or Boogie Down Productions. Just the vibe of different people coming together and making stuff."

Last year the two of them made made a conceptual mixtape called RawHyde. This spring Jeremiah produced Oliver's first solo project, called The Kill Off. The next project from the crew, nominally Jeremiah's, builds from another iconic TV show — Good Times. It's a lot of work, but they don't plan to slow down any time soon. When asked what the end goal is, Jeremiah says "If I could just keep doing this 50 years later." "Keep doing this and, more importantly, keep control of this," adds Oliver. "That's the measure of success to me: it's when we substantiate ourselves."


Producers: Mito Habe-Evans, Frannie Kelley, Ali Shaheed Muhammed; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Olivia Merrion, A.J. Wilhelm; Editor: Olivia Merrion; Special Thanks: Friends & Neighbors, Cedric Shine; Executive Producer: Anya Grundmann.

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An artist's rendering of Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit in the habitable zone of a distant star. (NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists Spot A Planet That Looks Like 'Earth's Cousin'

Apr 17, 2014

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The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars.

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Scientists who have been hunting for another Earth beyond our solar system have come across a planet that's remarkably similar to our world.

It's almost the same size as Earth, and it orbits in its star's "Goldilocks zone" — where temperatures are not too hot, not too cold, and maybe just right for life.

But a lot about this planet is going to remain a mystery, because it's 500 light years away.

Researchers detected the planet while poring over data collected by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. The telescope spent years staring at 150,000 stars, watching for tell-tale dips in brightness that might mean a planet was circling around a star.

One small star in the direction of the constellation of Cygnus showed signs of five planets. Four of them are tucked in close to the star, so they're probably too hot for life.

But the fifth planet looked special.

"This planet orbits its star every 130 days," says Elisa Quintana of the SETI Institute and NASA's Ames Research Center. It's called Kepler-186f, and it's just 10 percent bigger than Earth.

At least in our solar system, Earth-sized planets are made of rock and iron and gas, says Quintana, "so we can guess that Kepler-186f, being so close in size to Earth, has a high probability of being rocky also and composed of those sorts of materials."

Conditions on the surface would depend on what kind of atmosphere it had, if any. If it was like Earth, temperatures wouldn't be balmy, Quintana says.

"Being on this planet would probably be like being in San Francisco on a cool day," she says. "It would be a much colder place to live."

It would be warm enough, however, for one thing that's thought to be essential for life. "If this planet had the right atmospheric conditions, and if there were water on the surface, it would be likely in liquid form," says Quintana.

But if it has oceans, they would look different.

"It's not going to have a deep rich blue ocean, such as we have, because there's less blue light coming from the star," says Tom Barclay of NASA's Ames Research Center, another member of the team that describes the planet in the journal Science. "So the ocean would probably be a duller, grayer blue."

And because this planet orbits a dim, red dwarf star, he notes that midday on this planet wouldn't be bright — it would look more like an hour before sunset on Earth.

"It's very romantic to imagine there'd be places out there that look like Earth, and that's what we're trying to find — places that remind us of Earth," Barclay says.

Although Kepler-186f shares characteristics with Earth, "it's not an Earth twin," he notes. "It isn't around the same type of star. It's perhaps more of an Earth cousin."

Still, it's the first time anyone has found an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a distant star, Barclay adds. "This is a really profound discovery. It's a major milestone."

Other experts on planets beyond our solar system agree that this discovery is a big deal.

"This planet really is the same size as the Earth and the same temperature," says David Charbonneau of Harvard University. "Up until this point, planets satisfied one of those two, but we really didn't have one that was both those things together."

Both those things are key to life on Earth, Charbonneau says, but we'll probably never know if this new planet has life. "And the reason," he explains, "is that this star system is just too far away from us."

Even though this planet is too distant for follow-up work with other telescopes, it suggests similar worlds might be out there orbiting other red dwarf stars, which are very common.

If scientists could find another planet like this around a nearby star, he says, "we could really study the atmosphere and really figure out something about whether it truly is Earth-like and maybe whether it actually has life on the surface."

That's why Charbonneau and other scientists will keep searching for other Earth-like planets closer to home.

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New research has traced chili peppers back to their origin in eastern Mexico. (iStockphoto)

Chili Say What? Linguistics Help Pinpoint Pepper's Origins

by April Fulton
Apr 17, 2014

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Rows of chilies for sale in the market of the Mexican town Cholula in 1955.

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Count us among those who just can't get enough chili pepper news.

These spicy fruits are beloved around the world for their ability to sex up nearly any cuisine. They're the world's most widely grown spice crop, so it's hard to imagine that their reach was once limited to the early farmers in what is now eastern Mexico.

Now we know just a little bit more about where they came from, thanks to archeologists using paleobiolinguistics — namely, studying ancient languages for words that mean pepper — along with the more traditional ways of figuring out how and where plants are domesticated.

To sleuth a crop origins, scientists typically use plants' genetic makeup in geographic areas with the most diversity and where they have found archaeological remains.

This study added linguistics — "the earliest linguistic evidence that a cultivated chili pepper existed" — to the mix, according to an international team of researchers led by University of California, Davis plant scientist Paul Gepts. They also modeled the areas most environmentally suitable to the plants and their ancestors.

While the genetic evidence had pointed to northeastern Mexico as the domesticated chili pepper's birthplace, the collective evidence from all four lines of study "supports a more central-east region as the area of origin," a UC Davis press release says.

"By tracing back the ancestry of any domesticated plant, we can better understand the genetic evolution of that species and the origin of agriculture — a major step in human evolution in different regions of the world," says Gepts.

The study, which will appear in the April 21 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at 30 ancestral languages of the region and at the words for 41 different crops, including chili pepper, to determine when it was discussed, according to the paper. And it turns out it was discussed a lot.

Scientists say that studies of crop origins like these help us create better breeding programs for chilis and other fruit in the future.

Chili peppers have long attracted creative people who have a yen for thrills and a way with words. The pepper's introduction to the European world in the 16th century via New World explorers inspired English poet Robert Herrick to opine: "Thou never Plow'st the Oceans foame / To seek, and bring rough Pepper home." (Yes, the "gather ye rosebuds" guy. Do we sense a theme here?)

More recently, The New Yorker's Lauren Collins profiled the cutthroat subculture of folks working to grow peppers that burn up the heat chart — the Scoville chile heat chart, that is.

We here at The Salt have also written our fair share about the chili-heads who "have a penchant for sensation-seeking. Think rollercoasters and action flicks," as correspondent Allison Aubrey describes them.

Besides the feelings they invoke, chilis are beautiful. As Collins writes:

"There is a reason no one makes Christmas lights in the shape of rutabagas. Superhots come in the brightest colors and the craziest shapes. Their names, evoking travel and conquest — Armageddon, Borg 9, Naga Morich, Brain Strain — sound as though they were made up by the evil twins of the people who brand body lotions."

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