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Clockwise from upper left: The Bots, Perfume Genius, Zammuto, The Rentals (Courtesy of the artists)

New Mix: The Rentals, Perfume Genius, The Bots, Zammuto

Jul 22, 2014

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We kick off this week's episode of All Songs Considered with the sludgy, shoegaze-y sounds of Whirr, a band started by Nick Bassett, bassist for one of co-host Robin Hilton's favorite acts of 2014, Nothing. We follow up with a new track from The Bots, two young brothers from L.A. whose "All I Really Want" is a two-minute sugar rush of high-powered pop-punk.

Later on the show we welcome NPR Music's Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Jacob Ganz to the studio to play some of their favorite new tunes. Daoud opts for "Explanation," a punchy rock number from Ohio trio Delay, while Jacob plays Perfume Genius' surging new track "Queen."

Daoud and Jacob stick around as Robin puts on "Hegemony," a super-melodic, percussion-heavy track from Zammuto, the project of The Books' Nick Zammuto, recorded in a Vermont shed. Finally, Bob rounds out the show with a premiere from long-dormant rock group The Rentals, called "It's Time To Go Home" that features Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius on vocals. Taking the words to heart, the studio empties out with the last ringing chord.

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The French horns of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA -- a yearly summer project organized by Carnegie Hall -- rehearsed Saturday in Purchase, N.Y. in advance of their tour around the country. (Courtesy of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA)

America's Youth Orchestra Hits The Road — This Time, Playing For U.S.

Jul 22, 2014

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Last year, the Carnegie Hall-organized National Youth Orchestra of the USA launched amid a rush of media attention from across the country and around the world, with performances in Moscow, St. Petersburg and London. This week, a fresh crop of very talented young musicians, all between the ages of 16 and 19 and hailing from 35 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are hitting the ground running with a concert tonight at New York's Carnegie Hall.

Their first performance was Wednesday evening, when our friends at the NPR-distributed program From the Top taped their newest show at Purchase College. It featured four NYO-USA musicians playing Saint-Sans and Faur alongside host and pianist Christopher O'Riley, as well as selections from their full 2014 concert program.

I went to the 2014 orchestra's first full concert on Sunday in Purchase to hear a program that was right in the pocket of their conductor, St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson — and showed off their youthful exuberance and considerable technical command. The concert included a sparkling new work called Radial Play by 28-year-old composer Samuel Adams (son of John Adams, whom he strongly resembles physically); Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; and Britten's stunning but drastically underheard Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham, who made a fantastic recording of it not long ago on his Canary Classics label.

These young artists couldn't ask for a better guide in playing American music than St. Louis Symphony Music Director Robertson — who, as it happens, made one of my favorite recordings of the first half of this year, an album featuring the music of Samuel Adams' father, another thoroughly American voice on the scene.

In the Bernstein suite, Robertson teased out every last hint of swing in the score — not just in the most famous sections, but also in the gossamer-light moments the violins have in the Scherzo. The Adams piece, Radial Play, with its glittering bursts of color and texture arranged in dense skeins of counterpoint that project out of a single note, was a welcome thrust into 21st-century music, and a piece that deserves to make it onto other orchestras' programs in the seasons to come.

You can hear Radial Play now courtesy of From the Top, who recorded the NYO-USA world premiere:

Though there were occasional slips of stamina and attack in the Mussorgsky that tipped off the musicians' ages, it was a raring outing nonetheless for some greatly beloved music. But even more exhilarating was their performance of the Britten. Shaham treated them as real collaborators in this harrowing piece, which the British composer wrote as a response to the gathering clouds of war across Europe, and specifically after the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica.

Carnegie Hall has been releasing a string of videos to celebrate this year's ensemble, including a performance of the group's encore, music from Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. (And no, that's not David Robertson leading the charge, it's NYO-USA Orchestra Director James Ross.)

The 2014 players have also made a bunch of little videos showcasing their personalities — some of them sweet (like a group of cellists covering "What A Wonderful World"), many of them a little goofy (percussionists, of course). My favorite is one that a clever YouTube commenter has dubbed "gang violins" — you'll see why.

After their date at Carnegie Hall tonight, the 2014 NYO-USA players head out on tour across the United States, with stops at Tanglewood, Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival, the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, Sonoma State University in Northern California, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. And for the program's 2015 participants? A tour of China with conductor Charles Dutoit and pianist Yundi.

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Ryan Adams will headline the first night of the Newport Folk Festival. (Courtesy of the artist)

Ryan Adams, Live In Concert: Newport Folk Festival 2014

Jul 22, 2014

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Ryan Adams used to be the picture of ramshackle prolificacy — a man with Prince's desire to flood the market with product, not to mention an equally slippery grip on the quality-control lever. But Adams has calmed down dramatically in recent years, for reasons ranging from a stabler personal life to his battles with Mnire's disease, which attacks the inner ear and affects hearing and balance.

In September, the former Whiskeytown singer returns with his self-titled 14th studio album, which comes out nearly three years after his lightly brooding Ashes & Fire. Adams will showcase some of his new songs — and many others from his long and frequently glorious catalog — in a performance webcast live from the 2014 Newport Folk Festival on Friday, July 25 in Newport, R.I.

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It took more than superstition to build Egypt's famous pyramids. It took some very clever engineering to move the heavy stones used in construction across the area's shifting sands. (AFP/Getty Images)

Rituals That Work And Why

by Tania Lombrozo
Jul 22, 2014

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These are canonical examples of rituals — actions performed in a prescribed way, often with the intention of bringing about some desired end: a statue transported across sand, a winning game, a successful crop.

Rituals are sometimes dismissed as superstitious nonsense. But sometimes they work. (And not just by making us feel better, though they can do that, too.) Different rituals work for different reasons and the reasons may not be what you think.

Take the ancient Egyptians. It's been a longstanding mystery how they managed to transport the enormous stones used to build the pyramids. Some paintings depict materials transported by sledge. But even with this technology, overcoming the sliding friction created by the sand beneath would make the task of pulling all but impossible.

It turns out the answer has been recorded all along, in a wall painting at the tomb of Djehutihotep. The painting depicts a sledge headed by a person pouring water from a vessel, just in front of its leading edge. Egyptologists speculated that the water was part of a purification ritual. But a new paper published in Physical Review Letters suggests the water was the key to overcoming the sliding friction on the sand: with some water, but not too much, the force required to pull a heavy sledge over sand is greatly reduced.

What appeared to be "merely" ritual turned out to be a crucial part of the causal story explaining how the Egyptians constructed the pyramids. In a case like this, ritual is technology: a tool for effectively applying science, whether or not its users understand exactly how it works.

Now consider the soccer player who ties and reties his shoes, hoping to win the upcoming game. This example is only one of many performance-related routines: other athletes eat special pregame foods, try to catch imaginary balls or get a haircut before each game. In a recent article, psychology professor Cristine Legare explains:

"The lack of a transparent cause-and-effect explanation simply doesn't prevent people from engaging in rituals. In fact, the lack of a logical rationale behind these odd, seemingly idiosyncratic behaviors is part of the point. Rituals provide a socially sanctioned opportunity to exert personal control in the face of uncertainty ... "

"If the illusion of control rituals provide give athletes more confidence and reduces anxiety, they may provide a competitive edge."

In these cases, the rituals might work, but it's thanks to human psychology. Illustrating this same point, one study found that people completed a set of anagrams more successfully when they had a personal lucky charm, in part because the charm increased their feelings of self-efficacy and their persistence on the task. So retying one's shoes might indeed improve performance, just not by optimizing the biophysics of footwear. For athletes and for others, these rituals are quirky but effective self-interventions.

Finally, consider the birds. In a fascinating article at Aeon Magazine, Michael Schulson explains why the Kantu' method for selecting farming sites isn't so crazy. (Hint: It isn't because the birds reflect relevant ecological indicators — they probably don't.) It's because the success of the Kantu's tropical slash-and-burn agriculture is so unpredictable that it's better to hedge one's bets with a few random gambles than to risk everything on a plausible causal factor that's unlikely to hold up. Schulson explains:

"In the face of such uncertainty ... the human tendency is to seek some kind of order — to come up with a systematic method for choosing a field site, and, in particular, to make decisions based on the conditions of the previous year."

"Neither option is useful. Last year's conditions have pretty much no bearing on events in the years ahead (a rainy July 2013 does not have any bearing on the wetness of July 2014). And systematic methods can be prey to all sorts of biases. If, for example, a Kantu' farmer predicted that the water levels would be favourable one year, and so put all his fields next to the river, a single flood could wipe out his entire crop. For the Kantu', the best option was one familiar to any investor when faced with an unpredictable market: they needed to diversify."

In other words, the Kantu' method for site selection is better than alternatives precisely because it doesn't track plausible causal factors — factors that turn out not to support effective predictions, and that might lead to risky under-diversification. Better to make decisions that are effectively random, Schulson suggests, than to make them based on reasons that are neutral at best, and harmful at worst. For the Kantu', the site selection ritual is an elaborate roll of the dice.

So here's the surprising lesson to draw from the Egyptian builders, the soccer players and the birds: (some) rituals (sometimes) work. I don't just mean that they sometimes make us feel better, or that they generate side effects like social cohesion, valuable as these may be. Rather, I mean that they sometimes help bring about the very outcomes at which they're directed, like winning games or planting successful crops.

But rituals might not work for the reasons they seem to. Sometimes they're technology. Sometimes they're self- or social intervention. Sometimes they're intricate methods of random assignment. And sometimes they don't work at all. But working isn't always the point.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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It took more than superstition to build Egypt's famous pyramids. It took some very clever engineering to move the heavy stones used in construction across the area's shifting sands. (AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Appeals Court Deals Blow To Obama's Health Law

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 22, 2014

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A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday dealt a significant blow to the Affordable Care Act, when it threw out an IRS regulation that governs subsidies.

In essence, the decision throws out subsidies in the 36 states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will be appealed.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said the Obama administration will ask the case to be heard by the full 11-judge panel.

"We believe that this decision is incorrect, inconsistent with Congressional intent, different from previous rulings, and at odds with the goal of the law: to make health care affordable no matter where people live," Emily Pierce said in a statement. "The government will therefore immediately seek further review of the court's decision. In the meantime, to be clear, people getting premium tax credits should know that nothing has changed, tax credits remain available."

According to California Healthline, an industry digest, this decision has the potential to affect nearly five million — or most — Americans who signed up for Obamacare through federal exchanges.

"Losing the subsidies would mean that millions of U.S. residents could become uninsured, since health plans sold through the exchange might be unaffordable without the assistance," Healthline reports.

The court here was looking at some language of the Affordable Care Act. The court was deciding whether Congress intended to provide subsidies for Americans who purchased insurance through exchanges set up by states and the federal government on behalf of states.

In his concurring opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Raymond Randolph wraps up the panel's opinion succinctly:

"As Judge Griffith's majority opinion—which I fully join—demonstrates, an Exchange established by the federal government cannot possibly be 'an Exchange established by the State.' To hold otherwise would be to engage in distortion, not interpretation. Only further legislation could accomplish the expansion the government seeks."

One of the three judges dissented, saying the majority failed to find ambiguity in the language, where there clearly was.

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