Comedy Newspaper Editor Discusses Hilarious State of Newspaper Industry

Question: How has the move from Wisconsin to New York affected the Onion?

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Joe Randazzo: I think it’s been beneficial. You know it’s sort of the thing about The Onion is it’s despite kind of how popular it continues to become we still sort of think of ourselves as outsiders. It was kind of founded on that idea, a very rooted in a very Gen-X perspective on the world of these slackers kind of sitting around poking fun at everything that was going on and because of that I think there is an inherent Gen-X slash slacker mentality at the core of what The Onion is, so it’s good that we came to New York because it sort of allowed us more exposure and we’re more in the heart of where the media is happening and can just bring more sort of interesting **** people into The Onion sphere than you would have been able to find perhaps in just Madison, Wisconsin, which is a great town, but you know a little bit smaller than New York. So yeah, I mean and it’s a strange kind of almost paradox in a way because we’re satirizing… The Onion’s character is this huge mega corporation that is cold, callous and uncaring and unconcerned about anything but profit, like actively dislikes its readers, will sell itself out for anything, but the integrity that we have with The Onion, in the actual operation The Onion is exactly the opposite of that. We try really hard to be a little more conservative with the kinds of ads that we’ll allow on our site, on our website and in our paper. I think we have the standards that are as high as like The Guardian in the UK I think is the only one that when you look at the kinds of ad models that we work with and that we won’t, the only people with standards as high as ours is The Guardian. I’ve seen stuff on The New Yorker and or New York Magazine and New York Times and you know that ads that will like blow you away. You know they take over content, and I don’t want to promise something that we can’t deliver on.

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Question: Has the recession affected you more as a comedy outlet or a newspaper?

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Joe Randazzo: I think it’s the same kind of stuff. We rely on advertising and advertising dollars have just really dried up. I mean there is definitely companies that we would love to take money from, but who are a little bit afraid of the content. You know we’re not afraid to put a big top story about a pedophile on our front page and you know a large corporation with an image and a brand to protect might be a little bit hesitant to have itself be associated with that in any way. So that I think is the thing that’s specific to comedy that we face is our content is very R rated and I think it frightens off some advertisers, but at the same time I don’t think that we’ve faired as badly as lots of other places. We certainly haven’t had to close down. Lots of print organizations have been just closing up shop. Ad dollars are down, but they’re down everywhere and I think if you look at… compare us to a lot of other organization we’re doing pretty well because we have I think a solid brand that people… that readers have a good association with and a lot of companies want to be associated with that and we have a lot of loyal readers and we put out pretty funny stuff every week, so we haven’t seen them totally dry up, but people aren’t shooting themselves in any offices yet, but we’ll see.

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Question: Does the Onion aspire to more, or is it comfortable where it is?

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Joe Randazzo: I think we’re pretty comfortable. I mean I would like for everybody to… you know a million more people to buy our books and know about us, but I think there is a sort of you know I never want to be standing in my corner office one stormy night with a glass of brandy looking at my reflection and asking what I’ve become due to The Onion growing too large, so I think there is somewhat of a finitude. I mean we can never be Disney, and we don’t reach the number of people that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert can reach because we’re not broadcast in that way. We’re not on TV. So maybe some of these things can change. I mean I think it would be a terrible paradoxical shame if The Onion actually became a huge heartless corporation that distained its readers, but I guess the nature of capitalism and the free market is that a company wants to become as big as it can, so we’ll just have to see what happens. Maybe The Onion will turn into a monster. I don’t know.

Recorded on November 30, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Amidst the worst media climate in decades, The Onion editor frets about "standing in his corner office one stormy night with a glass of brandy," having sold his paper’s soul.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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