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Rescuing Science From The Military ... With Comics?

by Etelka Lehoczky
Aug 31, 2014

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Etelka Lehoczky

Pouty lips, flowing hair and ... oligonucleotide synthesizers? Two of these things don't seem to belong — at least, not in a comic that seeks to expose high-level Defense Department research to the critical light of day. Human physicality seems somehow out of place in the sterile confines of a government lab.

Comic creator Matt Hawkins has a different view. With Think Tank, collected here in a three-volume box set, he hopes his sexy characters will help bring some of the government's most complex and sinister projects to the attention of a broad audience. Or, heck, even a narrow audience. After all, it's no easy task to make hypersonic technology vehicles and electronic counter-countermeasures accessible to the average reader, particularly one who's inclined to share Hawkins' dovish views on the military. People who understand this kind of thing tend to be part of that forbidding subculture that memorizes the specs of Black Hawk helicopters and is uncritically entranced by new tech.

Hawkins has clearly thought about this problem. His hero is Dr. David Loren, a Bradley Cooper lookalike with a naughty smirk, a sharp wit and a knack for explaining scientific jargon. Recruited by the government before he even entered college, David has since decided he doesn't want to help kill anymore. "I watched what I built punch a hole through a man they just left to rot in the sun," he says. "I'm no liberal whack job. I get the need for defense. ... I just don't want to be the one doing it."

But the government won't let David walk away. He's too valuable a resource, both for what he knows and what he's capable of. Think Tank is largely a chronicle of his rebellions, which range from extreme passive-aggressiveness to outright flight from the high-security facility where he lives. His attempts to back out of his devil's deal — or, failing that, to undercut his own effectiveness as a killing tool — make for a compelling story.

Even so, Hawkins' project would be impossible without artist Rahsan Ekedal. If not for him, Think Tank would probably get bogged down in indistinguishable military personnel and static "talking" scenes. But Ekedal is exactly the kind of artist who can bring warmth and dimension to a book like this. He doesn't bother to draw all the details of aircraft carriers and drones, but he pulls out all the stops with the characters' faces.

And what faces! Except for a couple of irredeemable bad guys, Ekedal's characters all have big, round irises, cute dimples and lips that look ready to kiss. His pen seems bored by straight lines, constantly on the verge of breaking out in a fit of curlicues. (Ekedal gets to let loose with the hair of Mirra Sway, David's unpredictable girlfriend, and his delight is palpable.) There's still a lot of yakking in Think Tank, but each panel has as much going on as Ekedal can manage.

Then there's David himself. Ekedal lavishes care on his cheek stubble, and makes his hair tumble into art nouveau arabesques. David even dresses interestingly, lounging around the lab around in sweatpants and socks like someone's boyfriend on a Saturday morning. Unfortunately, while his government military handlers tolerate his penchant for video games and remote-control toys, they're also determined to get him working again. And "working," in this case, means developing horrifying new ways to kill.

The resulting struggle is a potent metaphor for our country's entanglement with the military-industrial complex. A few bad decisions he made years ago cage David as surely as steel bars. Again and again, he sees his creativity hopelessly corrupted. Even his loose, unmacho physical style expresses the conflict, creating an ever-present contrast between the geek and the soldier-jock, the organic and the mechanical, the flesh and the high-tensile-strength polymer.

David isn't all that great a guy; his curiosity drives him to develop dangerous technologies almost in spite of himself. It's debatable whether he's any more admirable than Mirra, his compliant friend Dr. Pavi, or even his archenemy, Gen. Diana Clarkson. And yet somehow, none of David's flaws lessens his basic charisma — which is just as Hawkins intended.


Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.

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Barbara Bush helps a nun to fit on a hearing device during a 2012 event in Gulu, Uganda. She says was interested in architecture as a college student but became a global health activist after visiting East Africa with her parents. (Reuters/Landov)

A Trip With Her Folks Turned Barbara Bush Into A Global Activist

by Linda Poon
Aug 31, 2014

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Barbara Bush may be known as the quieter of the Bush twins, but when it comes to global health, she's anything but. At 32, the Yale graduate is co-founder and CEO of Global Health Corps, a nonprofit organization that pairs young volunteers — she calls them "fellows" — with health and development organizations.

They work in countries like Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and even the United States, which is not immune from global health issues, Bush reminds us. In five years, the organization has recruited nearly 500 fellows and have sent another 128 off this July.

We caught up with Bush earlier this summer at the U.N., where she spoke about the role of entrepreneurs at this year's Global Accelerator conference, which discussed innovations needed to tackle issues like reproductive health, job creation and water and sanitation.

She hadn't set out to work in this field, she told us.

"If you'd talked to me when I was a freshman in college, I thought I would be in architecture, working in design," she said. It wasn't until the summer of 2003, right before her senior year, when she traveled across East Africa with her parents to launch the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that her plans changed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

What caught your attention in East Africa?

Hundreds of people waiting in the streets for [medicines] that were readily available in the United States. That spoke to both the massive scale of the problem and also the purely inadequate systems.

Was there a moment that stuck with you?

In Uganda, I was talking to a woman who had brought her little beautiful daughter to the launch of PEPFAR. As I was talking to the mother, [who] had dressed her little girl up, I said, "How old is your daughter, she's so beautiful. Is she 3?" And the mom said, "No, she's 7." She was just small, not because she was young but small because she was born [HIV positive] at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was unclear whether her daughter would live that much longer but what the access to drugs meant for her daughter's future was worth this mother traveling with her daughter, to be there.

Why focus on issues overseas when there are problems here in the U.S.?

Actually, since we started Global Health Corps in 2009, we have fellows working in the United States. Acknowledging that global health issues affect the U.S., we started off our very first class of fellows [working] to address global health issues here.

We can learn so much from what's working in other countries and apply it to the United States. Global health issues are our issues as well. We don't want it to be an us-versus-them conversation.

How did your parents feel about your venture?

I think they were excited that I found something I was so interested in, that I would want to spend my life [doing].

Several children of politicians are involved with global health: Chelsea Clinton, Vanessa Kerry, you and your sister. Why do you think that's the case?

[Laughs] I honestly haven't thought about it. In terms of myself and my sister, we have been lucky enough to have parents who are, first of all, serving others by working in policy. We're all very lucky to have the exposure that we had to issues that are pressing. Of course my own career was shaped by getting to travel with my parents and getting to meet unbelievably influential people [such as] Wendy Kopp, who started Teach For America.

Your volunteers are all 30 or younger. What advantages do young people have in the global health field?

Our fellows can bring in new ways of thinking because they have fresh eyes. But also, if they're 26 years old, they can work on these issues for 30 more years.

Tweet of advice to someone looking to volunteer abroad?

Listen and be curious because you won't have the answers. People in the communities have the answers and you're there to learn from them.


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DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince said it themselves: There's no need to argue. (YouTube)

The Good Listener: Parents Just Don't Understand?

Aug 31, 2014

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We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the gigantic bottle of Marmite we probably shouldn't have ordered on a late-night whim is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on getting your parents into your favorite music.

Erik writes via Facebook: "How do you get your parents to respect the music of today?"

In the nearly two years I've been writing this column, I've heard several variations on this question, all of which boil down to, "How can I compel a loved one to love the things I love?" There's nothing inherently wrong with that line of thinking — with wanting people we care about to celebrate our favorite works — but I'd strongly encourage an inversion of your thinking. If your [parents, romantic partners, mail carriers] wanted to get you into their favorite music, what would be the best way to go about it? Should they even bother?

As frequently as folks toss around words that challenge the authenticity or relevance of people's tastes — "hipsters," "poseurs," "fogeys," et al — most people really do come about their tastes honestly. Some put less thought into them than you do, while others obsess more than you could imagine, but most of us are out there enjoying the things we enjoy because, well, we enjoy them. To get your parents (or anyone) to stop dismissing contemporary music, I'd start by interrogating your own openness to the music they love. Taste-making, like so many human interactions, is a two-way street.

Then, I recommend putting that open-mindedness into practice by offering I-will-if-you-will trades. Look for gateway records that might ease your folks in to sounds you enjoy — think in terms of, "What of my music would they love if they'd only give it a chance?" — and ask them to give one particular album a try. Accompanying that request is a genuine plea for a homework assignment of your own: They get to pick out an album of theirs, and you promise to listen closely for the things they want you to hear. In a few days, or in a week, or on Thanksgiving, or whenever, you all promise to sit down and offer your thoughts. What did you each like, dislike, and want to hear more of — and why?

Speaking as someone who's done an awful lot of intergenerational music-sharing — in both directions, across three generations — I can tell you that most parents would go wild for such an arrangement, especially if they know you'll stick to your end of the bargain. The greatest gift you can give your parents is your time and respectful attention. Hand that over, and they'll likely take anything else you're looking to give them.

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

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Across Washington State, hydroelectric dams are blocking salmon as they migrate to their spawning grounds. Enter the salmon cannon. (Flickr)

The Salmon Cannon: Easier Than Shooting Fish Out Of A Barrel

by Martha Ann Overland
Aug 31, 2014

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Ever since rivers have been dammed, destroying the migration routes of salmon, humans have worked to create ways to help the fish return to their spawning grounds. We've built ladders and elevators; we've carried them by hand and transported them in trucks. Even helicopters have been used to fly fish upstream.

But all of those methods are expensive and none of them are efficient.

Enter the salmon cannon.

The device uses a pressure differential to suck up a fish, send it through a tube at up to 22 mph and then shoot it out the other side, reaching heights of up to 30 feet. This weekend, it will be used to move hatchery fish up a tributary of the Columbia River in Washington.

The device was developed by Whooshh Innovations in Bellevue, Wash. CEO Vince Bryan tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that the word "cannon" is a bit of a misnomer: the device looks like a cannon, and shoots fish out like a cannon, but unlike the weapon, this device is designed to move items gently.

Bryan says that despite their journey — which takes them out of the water for the duration of their flight — the fish don't seem worse for the wear.

"From the very beginning of the test that was a concern," Bryan says. "It may be just ten seconds to go as much as 250 feet ... [but] there seems to be no effect. The fish enter the water and swim away."

Compared to scaling a 350-foot high dam, it's a relatively easy way to get from point A to point B. Although the first test is with hatchery fish, state agencies are studying the cannon to see if it can be used in rivers where federally protected species of wild salmon are migrating.

Bryan says his company's vacuum technology was originally designed to transport fragile fruit in Washington's apple and pear orchards. Whooshh created a vacuum tube that allowed pickers to drop the fruit into a tube attached to their waist, where it was sucked up and sent down the line — all with no damage to the fruit.

In fact, a lot of things were sent through the vacuum contraption before salmon, Bryan says, including potatoes — with a French fry cutter on one end of the tube.

"So the potatoes went through the tube as a whole potato and when they came out the other side they were French fries," he says.

They've also had human volunteers, although Bryan says that the company hasn't created a tube that's large enough.

"There really is no limit to what we can move," he says.

He says the physics works the same whether it's a fish or person — the tricky part is sticking the landing.

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David Mitchell's previous books include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas. (Paul Stuart)

'Why Not?' David Mitchell On Mixing Fantasy And Reality In 'Bone Clocks'

by NPR Staff
Aug 31, 2014

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The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book — he's best known for 2004's Cloud Atlas, which was made into a movie with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. Mitchell's many fans have been eagerly waiting for this new one, hoping it would present the same kind of fascinating puzzles as Cloud Atlas, which featured a very complicated set of nesting plots.

But Mitchell's done something different in this book — building it around one character that we follow for several decades: Holly Sykes. Mitchell tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that Holly starts out as a rebellious teenage punk in the first section, "and she's there either as the narrator or a minor character turning into a major character in each of the six novellas that the book is made up of." Writing a female protagonist was a challenge, but an attractive one, he says.


Interview Highlights

On the influence of Dickens on Holly Sykes and her name

He's a master, of course I've read him, of course if you're going to write a large, complex, teeming kind of novel, you're a fool to ignore him. So if this book works in the ways I hope it does work, it's in large part because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants, and one of those giants is him. I chose "Sykes" ... just because, thanks to Dickens, it kind of smells slightly of the East End of London. Holly starts out in one of the less salubrious exit points of London, on the South Bank of the Thames. It's also quite a spiky name, don't you think? Holly is already a spiky name, thanks to the plant, and Sykes is quite close to spikes ... it did take a long time to find that name, but until you get just the right name for a character, they're not properly alive.

On The Bone Clocks' abrupt turn into alternate reality

That's what I like as a reader, I like being surprised, I liked having the rug pulled from under my feet. The rules have to be fair, and I have to trust the writer that it's not being done gratuitously ... I'm interested in genre, I think it's an underused set of colors in a writer's paintbox. I think interesting things could happen if a book moves through these sort of rooms of genre, these chambers — if, within the books's own terms, this is logical, if it has its own reasons for doing it. Then, I kind of think, why not?

On mixing literary fiction and fantasy

It's what the book wanted to be — I know I'm in charge of it, I'm not trying to shirk my responsibility here, but this book wanted many diverse things in it. It's a big commitment to write something, it takes three or four years. I have to be deeply in love with it to get through that amount of time and still want to show up at my desk in the morning. And with an easier, safer, more predictable book, I just can't get excited enough.

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

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