May 29, 2015
Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the most important cotton organizations in the state. ... But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford. ... The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to. ... “Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation … because they knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.” ... The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the reluctance to make choices that seem obvious.
Altman, 30, had been a marginal figure in Silicon Valley until February 2014, when he was named president of YC and instantly became a tech celebrity. "There are these surreal moments when people come up to me and ask, ‘What’s it like to run the most powerful startup organization in the world?’ " says Altman, who now receives 400 meeting requests a week from founders and investors. What they want, mostly, is access—an introduction to a current YC–backed hotshot or a YC partner, or a chance to enter the program themselves. Founders who are accepted relocate to the Bay Area for three months, giving Altman’s firm 7% of their companies in exchange for $120,000 and the chance to be advised by a stable of tech bigwigs. The best graduates can expect to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, to hire the best engineers, to get any meeting they ask for—in short, to be made men and women of Silicon Valley. ... There’s audacity here, and hubris too. Y Combinator was, for years, a one-man show, fueled by the charisma of its founder. Now Altman has to prove he can turn it into an institution.
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In the fall of 1996, Hughes Network Systems introduced the country’s first consumer-grade broadband satellite Internet access. Glover and Dockery signed up immediately. The service offered download speeds of up to four hundred kilobits per second, seven times that of even the best dial-up modem. ... he could share files. Online, pirated media files were known as “warez,” from “software,” and were distributed through a subculture dating back to at least 1980, which called itself the Warez Scene. The Scene was organized in loosely affiliated digital crews, which raced one another to be the first to put new material on the IRC channel. Software was often available on the same day that it was officially released. Sometimes it was even possible, by hacking company servers, or through an employee, to pirate a piece of software before it was available in stores. The ability to regularly source pre-release leaks earned one the ultimate accolade in digital piracy: to be among the “elite.” ... In 1996, a Scene member with the screen name NetFraCk started a new crew, the world’s first MP3 piracy group: Compress ’Da Audio, or CDA, which used the newly available MP3 standard, a format that could shrink music files by more than ninety per cent. On August 10, 1996, CDA released to IRC the Scene’s first “officially” pirated MP3: “Until It Sleeps,” by Metallica. Within weeks, there were numerous rival crews and thousands of pirated songs. ... At work, Glover manufactured CDs for mass consumption. At home, he had spent more than two thousand dollars on burners and other hardware to produce them individually. His livelihood depended on continued demand for the product. But Glover had to wonder: if the MP3 could reproduce Tupac at one-eleventh the bandwidth, and if Tupac could then be distributed, free, on the Internet, what the hell was the point of a compact disk?
Hunting the thieves behind a rash of six-figure wine heists ... “They’re not crawling under laser beams or anything. They’re using sledgehammers and crowbars. But they know what wine they want. This is wine stolen to order.” ... The FBI thinks so, too. The agency’s San Francisco bureau has been tracking the crimes for similarities. The thefts usually occur over a holiday, when the targeted restaurant is closed. Only certain types of wine are taken–usually French or Californian, priced at thousands of dollars a bottle. ... A wine theft is notoriously hard to investigate. It’s often compared to an art heist, because once a bottle is stolen it usually makes its way through a series of black market dealers before winding up in somebody’s private collection, where it remains unseen for years. But unlike art, if stolen wine does resurface, it’s difficult to prove what it is or where it came from. ... Downey trained as a sommelier before becoming a part-time wine fraud investigator. For the past 10 years she has been on a one-woman crusade to rid the wine industry of counterfeit and stolen wine. And there’s a lot of it out there. The French newspaper Sud Ouest estimates that 20 percent of wine sold in the world is either fake or stolen; Wine Spectator puts it at around 5 percent.
The interior of Madagascar is ringed by razor-sharp rock, impenetrable jungle, and invisible perils that even seasoned explorers dread. No wonder more men have been to the moon. ... "This place is almost completely inaccessible, an actual no-man's-land!" Simon Donato was explaining over the telephone. He was going on an expedition to this remote spot halfway around the world, a chunk of rocky forest near Madagascar's west central coast called the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, and I was hoping to join him. "Right now, we probably know more about what isn't in there than what is. No trails. No infrastructure. It isn't really visible even on Google Maps, because of its tree cover." ... now that the chief qualification to climb Everest is a large checking account balance, and luxury cruisegoers to Antarctica can snap penguin-packed selfies without having to miss their predinner cocktails. Africa is probably the continent most mysterious to North Americans. Madagascar, the massive island nation sometimes called the Eighth Continent because of the uniqueness and diversity of its flora and fauna, is Africa's Africa — an even less-known place. Which makes the Tsingy, as Winston Churchill once said of another strange land, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.