Torquay is a beach resort in the part of southwest Britain known as the English Riviera for its abundant sun (relative to the rest of the country, anyway). Agatha Christie was born here in 1890. By the mid-1970s, the TV show Fawlty Towers was emphasizing Toquay's shabby aspects over its glamour. And now, well, the town has seen better days.
This time of year, the wear on Torquay is evident. On a recent blustery afternoon, the pier was nearly empty and the tour boats were all tied up in the harbor. Jenny Vowden and her husband were out for a walk. Having spent most of their 70-odd years here, they worry about how their land is changing.
"One of the dangers that we see in this country is that we are losing our British-ness," Vowden says. "I mean, we are a Christian country. We always have been. And we feel that we would prefer to keep it that way."
This is part of the UK Independence Party's appeal.
"UKIP," as it is known, is a minority party with an outsize influence on British politics, particularly on issues of immigration and membership in the European Union.
A growing number of Britons fear that immigrants are taking British jobs and changing British culture. Some immigrants come here through the European Union's "open borders" law, which lets people move freely from one country to another. So, as its name suggests, UKIP wants U.K. independence from Europe.
At the Riviera Convention Center overlooking the Torquay coastline, a catchy song with a soft-rock vibe plays on repeat: Au revoir, auf wiedersehen mein frau. Arrivederci, I don't mean ciao. Goodbye, goodbye, it's time to leave you now.
A bunch of mostly white-haired men arrive in the main conference hall wearing purple and yellow UKIP lapel pins. It's the party's national convention, where one speaker after another talks about the need to break free from the rules and regulations that flow from the European Union in Brussels.
A party official named Steve Crowder gives a speech called "Out of Europe and Into the World."
"We must be able to choose who comes to live in our country," he says to thunderous applause. "And we cannot while we remain in the E.U.!"
UKIP has no seats in Britain's Parliament, but the party exerts a strong force on the ruling coalition government. For example, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that if Conservatives win next year's elections, the people of Britain will get to vote on whether to leave the E.U.
In this respect, UKIP resembles the Tea Party in the United States. It's a center of gravity that pulls the Conservative Party farther to the right than it would prefer to go. Both Tea Party and UKIP members talk about "taking the country back."
But unlike the Tea Party, UKIP is an actual political party, with a charismatic leader named Nigel Farage.
"This country, in a short space of time, has frankly become unrecognizable," he says during his keynote address. "In many parts of England, you don't hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren."
Part of UKIP's appeal lies in Farage's larger-than-life persona. He has survived a plane crash, a car crash and cancer. He is known for downing a few drinks with lunch. And though he's not yet 50, Farage smokes like a man from an earlier generation.
At this conference, vendors sell tote bags printed with Farage's face in bright purple ink.
"He looks a bit like Walter Matthau but slightly melted," says Steve Morgan, a consultant who advises businesses on the British political system.
"Nigel Farage does [espouse] these very right-wing policies in a very pleasant way," Morgan says. "You would go to the local bar and drink with Nigel Farage, and you'd feel good about that because he talks your language in a very straight way."
The UK Independence Party was created 20 years ago — a timespan known as "score" in British terminology. Now the party is hoping for big wins in the European elections this May and hoping to pick up UKIP's first British Parliamentary seats in next year's general elections.
And all around the convention center, signs and key chains say, "Ready for another score."
Neil Young wants to start a revolution against the MP3, against the CD, poorly made vinyl and poor audio quality in general. He wants people to hear the music the way it was made.
So at SXSW yesterday (and on Kickstarter, which I'll get to in a moment), Young introduced Pono. In Hawaiian, the word means righteous or goodness. For the world of sound it's a audio player that Young says he's been working on for two-and-a-half years, one that's capable of playing music at the same quality at which it was recorded. (You can listen to his speech via the audio player this page.)
Right now, most portable players are capable of playing music at about the quality of a CD. In his talk at SXSW, Young pointed out again and again that when music is originally captured in studios, the quality of that recording can be better than a CD. Pono is built around the idea that whatever sound the musician records will be played back on the device without any manipulation. It's not format specific — MP3s will play on the Pono devices Young's team is selling, just as the super-high quality digital files he speaks so lovingly about.
Below, you can read some of the highlights of Young's speech, but the whole thing is worth listening to. At the end of the address, he played a video full of testimonials about Pono's sound by musicians including David Crosby, Sting, Jack White, Beck, Eddie Vedder, Arcade Fire, Gillian Welch, Norah Jones and dozens more. You can see that video here too — it's the same one on Pono's Kickstarter page. That Kickstarter drive had an $800,000 goal when it launched last night. By now, it's already got over $1.5 million pledged.
Neil Young on Pono
What he sees as the limits of digital music: "I'm a fan of listening loud. I love to listen loud. That's what it's all about, really, for me. I love to hear rock and roll really loud, and I love to hear even acoustic music really loud. Loud for whatever it is it's being played on. I like to take whatever it is to the limit, and then listen to it right there. When I started doing that with these machines, it started to hurt, and I couldn't do it for very long, so the part of the record-making experience that I used to enjoy became painful. That was a sign to me that something was wrong. I complained a little, and I might have bitched and moaned a little about that too. Then time went by, and I got some better machines, but they weren't really that much better — it didn't change it. But I noticed when I listened to CDs in my car, the same thing happened — it hurt my ears a little bit. And then the MP3 came along, and that's when the recording industry really went into duress."
Why he thinks high quality reproductions are important: "Whatever you believe about where things come from, the human body is unbelievable. I's so sensitive. And when you give it something, it loves it. You give it good food, it grows. It's nourished. And when you give it good input, it loves it. When it sees great art, it feels good. We all are like that. So with our music, we were deprived. And we started getting very little, a minuscule 1/20th of what we [are] capable of getting what we used to listen to. So then one or two listenings, you'd heard it. Your body was not getting anything new after that. you've already figured it out. That's it. Okay, I recognize it. And music even changed a little bit. ... music adapted. It became beat-heavy and it became right for what the media was that was selling it. It became smart, it became clever, tricky."
One reason he was frustrated by the rise of the MP3: "I love making records. That's what I do. I love every song on the record, I love every note on every song on every record. They meant something to me. They're a family of songs that were telling a story of how I was feeling. They weren't just filler. I'm not the only one who feels this way."
How Pono was conceived: "You're all listening to a lot of MP3s. They're very convenient. So what we decided to do was come out with a new system that was not a format, had no rules, respected the arc, respected what the artist was trying to do and did everything that it could to give you what the artist gave, so that you get to feel not just what the artist intended you to feel, but actually what the artist did. And that it what Pono is. Pono plays back whatever the artist decided to do or the artist's producer decided to do."
How he hopes the audiophile world responds to Pono: "All those big things that you had to give away or put in the garage, they can come back now. All those stereo stores that had to close because there's no reason for big speakers any more because people listen to little things that look like lozenges? Because those are the new sound? How cool they could be? You can put it right on the kitchen table next to the toaster and it sounds exactly like an MP3. Now maybe those stores will start to open up again."
The particular assortment of microbes in the digestive system may be an important factor in the inflammatory bowel condition known as Crohn's disease.
Research involving more than 1,500 patients found that people with Crohn's disease had less diverse populations of gut microbes.
"[This] basically for the first time identifies what might be the bacterial changes in patients with Crohn's disease," says Ramnik Xavier, of Masssachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who led the work.
More than a million Americans suffer from Crohn's, which seems to start when an overreactive immune system causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, bleeding, weight loss and other symptoms. Many patients have to take powerful steroids (which can have serious side effects), and some have parts of the digestive tract surgically removed.
Mounting evidence has suggested that microbes living in the gut might contribute to the problem. So Xavier and his colleagues compared the species of bacteria in more than 447 Crohn's patients to the mix of microbes in more than 221 healthy people.
In their paper published in the journal Cell, Host and Microbe, the researchers detailed the clear difference they discovered: The patients with Crohn's seemed to have too many of the sorts of bacteria that rile immune systems.
In addition to having less diversity in their gut microbes, Xavier says, the Crohn's patients had fewer bacteria that that have been associated with reduced inflammation and more bacteria associated with increased inflammation. (The findings were confirmed in 800 Crohn's patients from other studies.)
Interestingly, children whose doctors had tried to treat their Crohn's symptoms with antibiotics before they were properly diagnosed had a mix of microbes that was the most out of whack.
"We may have to revisit the use of antibiotics in [these] patients with early-onset Crohn's disease," Xavier says.
Instead, doctors might eventually do better to identify and prescribe treatments that mimic the helpful bacteria, he says, along with foods or other pharmaceutical agents that reduce or counteract the harmful bacteria.
"There's the possibility that we might be able to identify [some] sort of super-probiotics that might be able to correct the gut back to the healthy state," Xavier says.
UCLA pathologist Jonathan Braun, who studies microbial ecology, says the paper offers important first insights into illnesses beyond Crohn's. "Other diseases are thought to be driven at least in part by bacteria," he says, such as inflammatory and some . "Other inflammatory diseases; certain autoimmune diseases; and even traits like obesity."
Humans should work harder to understand bacteria, Braun says, "and live with them when they're helping us, or get them to serve us better when they are causing harm."
Edward Warren was shocked when he learned that the soldiers in charge of the nation's nuclear-tipped missiles regularly cheated on tests.
In 2009, Warren was fresh out of the Air Force's Recruit Officers' Training Corps. He had just finished training to become a missile launch officer, when he was pulled aside.
"One of my instructors said, 'Hey, just so you know, there is cheating that goes on at the missile bases,'" Warren recalls. "I was repulsed, I thought, 'This can't be, this is terrible.'"
But while serving at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming from 2009-2013, Warren saw lots of cheating. The cause, according to Warren and other former missile launch officers reached by NPR, was a culture driven by constant demand for perfection.
Promotions hinged on perfect test scores, and young officers had a choice, he says: "Take your lumps and not have much of a career, or join in with your fellow launch officers and help each other out, and that is what most people did."
This month, the Air Force is scheduled to release the results of its investigation of cheating at another missile base: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Already, Air Force officials have publically stated that 34 officers have admitted to cheating, and dozens more knew about it. The Air Force has since investigated testing at the two other bases where nuclear missiles are kept: F.E. Warren and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, but they have not yet released the results.
In January, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters she thought the cheating ran deep: "We do have systemic problems within the force," she said.
Interviews suggest cheating may have been widespread for years in the missile forces.
NPR reached eight former missile officers including Warren for this story, who served over decades. All but one admitted that they had participated in some kind of cheating on tests. What's more, they described a culture of cheating that permeated throughout the remote bases which stand guard over the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Being a missile launch officer is a grueling job. Warren and his deputy would regularly drive out onto the windswept planes of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Often they'd pull off the highway onto a remote road to what might be mistaken for a little ranch house. But beneath it was a fortified nuclear bunker crammed with communications equipment, a toilet and a bed.
Warren and his second-in-command spent 24 hours below, in direct control of ten, nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Their job basically came down to this: wait for a launch order from the president of the United States. And if it ever came, launch their missiles. Fast.
"Very fast. The actual number is classified," he says. (Other former missileers told me they could launch within about a minute.)
It's a job where mistakes aren't tolerated, and everything must be done by the book. There really is a book, several actually, filled with hundreds of checklists. Checklists for everything, from launching a nuke, to letting a maintenance crew into a missile silo, right down to getting lunch.
"Whatever you did, whatever action you were taking, you had to be open to the correct checklist," he says.
Missileers are tested three times a month to make sure they know their checklists. To sit in the bunker, to be in charge of the weapons, you have to get better than 90 percent on every test.
But Warren soon discovered the tests are used in another way. Because this is a job that everyone is supposed to do in exactly the same way, the tests became a way for the leadership to decide who got ahead.
"It was pretty obvious that if you wanted to succeed, you wanted to move up, you had to meet that near perfection, you know, 100 percent average, as close as you possibly could to that, or you wouldn't get promoted," he says.
Cheating was especially common for those just joining the missile forces. The so-called Emergency War Order tests, designed to check whether missileers knew when to launch their weapons, were fiendishly complex. Messing up a test could derail a career.
"Most of the time what it really involved was just the senior launch officers looking out for the more junior launch officers, maybe checking their answers before the test was handed in and saying, 'Hey, look out for number five or eleven,'" he says.
Warren counts himself among the cheaters. "I looked out for the more junior launch officers when I was a commander; I made sure they didn't fail, and I received similar help when I was a young officer," he says.
Others went further by doing things like hiding answers in their flight suits, or looking over the other guy's shoulder. At Malmstrom, the 34 officers stand accused sending and receiving answer sets as text messages.
Most officers NPR spoke to agree that cheating was seen as necessary in a culture that demanded perfection. "Everybody I know that cheated did so to survive," says Brian Weeden, another former missile launch officer. "Given a choice, any other choice, I don't know of anybody who would have done it."
Weeden, Warren and others also agreed that most really do know how to do their jobs. Every month, missile officers are also thrown into simulators, and observed by instructors. There's no cheating and they still get it right.
After he finished his tour, Edward Warren left the Air Force. He was proud of his service, but he was tired of having to cheat to get ahead. He's hopeful the Air Force will make changes.
The simplest, he says, is to stop using test scores to determine promotions. More generally, he believes the missile forces must realize that its officers will make an occasional mistake in reading through the hundreds of checklists they have to follow. If they do, there are still plenty of back-up systems that will protect against an accident.
Accepting mistakes in a culture of nuclear weapons may sound unacceptable, but Warren says that the current system is worse. "Right now what we're doing is setting a standard of perfection, of 100 percent all the time, and no one can achieve that," he says. "A perfection standard is no standard at all."
Last week, the city of Jackson, Miss., paid its last respects to Chokwe Lumumba. And according to R.L. Nave of the Jackson Free Press, the affair was the kind of black nationalist/pan-Africanist celebration you might expect for one of the nation's most outspoken black activists:
They came in suits, dresses, dashikis and tunics.
They wore an assortment of headwear, everything from riding caps to berets, kufis, hijab and headwraps.
They invoked Jesus Christ, Allah and the Yoruba orishas. [...]
The program last almost five hours and included several musical and poetry tributes.
Jackson State University professor C. Liegh McInnis recited an original poem he wrote titled "Free the Land Man," a reference to the phrase with which Lumumba often began speeches. McInnis described Lumumba as "our own Afro-American Robin Hood with MXG on his chest," referring to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an organization Lumumba co-founded.
During his life, Lumumba had big plans for black people. As an attorney, he defended Black Panthers and advocated for reparations for slavery. And at one point, he was the vice president of the Republic of New Afrika, intended to be an independent black nation carved out of the American South.
But during the last eight months of his life, he was the mayor of Jackson, Miss., and he was managing more quotidian political concerns: he needed the streets fixed.
"In his short term in his office, his crowning achievement was raising the local sales tax to fix potholes," Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told me. "And he earned high marks by focusing on the things that mayors are supposed to focus on."
And a lot of the other stuff was beyond his purview. "There was nothing in the Jackson city charter that would have allowed him to turn it into the Republic of New Afrika," Gillespie quipped.
Even his skeptics conceded how effective Lumumba had been at building coalitions and working with business leaders during his short tenure. "I must confess to you that this time last year, I was concerned [he] was going to divide the city," Bill Winter, the state's former governor, said at Lumumba's funeral. "I could not have been more wrong."
("I guess they were expecting a monster," Lumumba said last month. "And I'm just Chokwe Lumumba, the same person I've always been.")
It made us wonder, though: just how did a black revolutionary who still threw up the Black Power salute on occasion become the mayor of a mid-sized American city in the Deep South?
Gillespie told me that those things aren't necessarily in tension: part of the reason Lumumba was able to sell wonky, pragmatic things like raising taxes to fix the streets and sewers (the increase needed to be voted on, and needed a 60-percent majority to pass) was because he had that revolutionary street cred. Lumumba's background might have effectively disqualified him from seeking elected office in another city, but Jackson is 80-percent black and was the home of prominent civil rights activists like Medgar Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams. Gillespie said that context was a big reason Jacksonians would be less inclined to hold his radical past against Lumumba.
And Lumumba, notably, never distanced himself from that past. The day after he was elected mayor, he openly questioned the historical importance of Christopher Columbus and suggested that the city's overwhelmingly black schools might pursue a more Afrocentric curriculum.
But Gillespie told me that it was a little odd that Lumumba's background proved to be an asset in 2013. There are lots of folks who went from marching and protesting to hold elected office — among others, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Atlanta's former mayor Andrew Young were both lieutenants of Martin Luther King, while the former Black Panther Bobby Rush has been in Congress for decades — but Gillespie said they assumed office when black politics was more left of center. "Part of it was the novelty of it ... it was the first time that blacks would have been running for election and could have won," she said. "You get your Richard Hatchers, your Coleman Youngs, your people coming out of the movement running for office."
Today's black elected officials tend to pitch themselves as moderates or market-oriented technocrats like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was formerly the mayor of Newark.
(Lumumba's victory also owes itself to the idiosyncrasies of Jackson's political system and environment. The city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Lumumba needed only to force and win a runoff with other Democratic candidates to effectively win the mayoralty.)
Ravi Perry, a professor of political science at Mississippi State University, says that Lumumba had a noticeable effect on the city's politics. Prior to his time as a council member and mayor, Perry says that the city's politicians were inclined to a "classic conservative civil rights agenda style" — that is, conservative in approach, if not ideology.
But Perry says Lumumba was more hands-on, more grassroots. He brought some of his activist organizing principles with him to City Hall. "He, for instance, got elected because his people's forums — which he had every three months as a councilman — were so popular," the writer and activist dream hampton told NPR's Michel Martin. "The people of Jackson just didn't have experience with having the kind of direct communication and then results from that communication, those forums in their city. They didn't have that kind of experience of open forum and participatory democracy."
His mayoral platform would come out of those People's Assemblies.
Perry compared Lumumba to Harold Washington, Chicago's first African American mayor. Like Washington, Perry said, Lumumba didn't shy away from talking about race, but he managed to win converts and allies to his practical governing approach. "Even though his views were not mainstream, he was able to convince people that he could govern in a mainstream way without selling out to only support middle-class values and without selling out his own values and vision," Perry told me. "In a city that's hindered by poverty, in a state that's last on every list, for him to be able to convince people in that city that there was a new possible vision, that's a remarkable rhetorical feat."
But also like Washington, Perry says Lumumba's death during his first mayoral term might give many folks reason to wonder about the long-term viability of their political approaches and concerns. "Running [and winning] on lower-class interest and running for re-election on lower class interests in a city that isn't particularly progressive ... there's kind of a question [as to whether that can work]."