5 Intriguing Things: Monday, 12/30

Why governments leak, metaorganisms other communication system, Fukushima cleanup, a more interesting sharing economy, and the English accent you can't understand.
Fukushima (Reuters).

1. Why (and how) governments leak

"The leak laws are so rarely enforced not only because it is hard to punish violators, but also because key institutional actors share overlapping interests in maintaining a permissive culture of classified information disclosures. Permissiveness does not entail anarchy, however, as a nuanced system of informal social controls has come to supplement, and all but supplant, the formal disciplinary scheme. In detailing these claims, the Article maps the rich sociology of governmental leak regulation and explores a range of implications for executive power, national security, democracy, and the rule of law."


2. Never thought about it this way: Bacterial communities encode social information by fermenting mammal sweat

"Since the mid-1970s, biologists have suspected that in many mammals a microbial community ferments various sweats, oozes and excretions into distinctive scents that reveal age, health and much more to knowing noses in a select social circle...

With modern genetic tools to identify bacteria, Kevin Theis of Michigan State University in East Lansing and his colleagues are revisiting the classic hypothesis of messaging by fermentation. His scent-marking research subjects are spotted and striped hyenas.

'Pretty robust,' is how Theis rates the funk wafting off hyena scent marks. Both species evert a pouch just under the tail and dab a pungent paste produced by sebaceous glands onto a grass stem or other convenient landmark. The paste smells to Theis like pine mulch fermenting after a rain. It could encode territorial information as well as olfactory gossip such as who’s growing eager for a mate, already pregnant or perhaps ill."


3. Japanese "labor recruiters," who may or may not be mobbed up, are signing up homeless people to do the dirty work of radioactive clean-up at Fukushima.

"In January, October and November, Japanese gangsters were arrested on charges of infiltrating construction giant Obayashi Corp's network of decontamination subcontractors and illegally sending workers to the government-funded project.

In the October case, homeless men were rounded up at Sendai's train station by Sasa, then put to work clearing radioactive soil and debris in Fukushima City for less than minimum wage, according to police and accounts of those involved. The men reported up through a chain of three other companies to Obayashi, Japan's second-largest construction company.

Obayashi, which is one of more than 20 major contractors involved in government-funded radiation removal projects, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But the spate of arrests has shown that members of Japan's three largest criminal syndicates - Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai - had set up black-market recruiting agencies under Obayashi."


4. The Sustainable Economies Legal Center's more interesting (and radical) take on what the "sharing economy" should be.

"SELC provides essential legal tools — education, research, advice, and advocacy — to support this transition to localized, resilient economies. Our work focuses on practices that promote justice and sharing, including cooperativescommunity currenciescommunity enterpriseslocal investingcohousingurban agriculture, and other innovative economic strategies."



5. Geordie, a nearly impossible to understand English accent from NE England.

"It's an accent that missed the great vowel shift in English of 1400-1500, and has a fair number of words and conjugations unique to their part of England's North East. Certainly the pronunciation is distinctive, if not distinct."


Today's tip from 1957's American-English Usage by Oxford University Press:

acoustic. Pronunciation varies between -ow- & oo; in US oo is preferred. The noun acoustics, the science of sound, is both sing. & pl., but is usually treated as sing.

Which reminds me why I love this book so much. Take an everyday, unconsidered thing — the pronunciation of acoustic — and provide it with a different path of development. We could all be walking around talking about Bob Dylan's switchover to "acowstic" music and it would seem entirely natural. American-English Usage is a book of alternate realities. 


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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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