If you're the socially conscious type, a quick run to the supermarket can be a daunting task. It's never clear whether the cereal you're buying contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or whether Koch Industries—the multinational corporation owned by notorious conservative activists Charles and David Koch—owns the brand that made that roll of paper towels. Thankfully, though, a new app called Buycott makes it easier for you to make informed decisions about what goes in your pantry. Available for free download on iPhone and Android, Buycott lets you scan the barcode on supermarket products to get a readout of the company that owns the product, and the corporation that owns the company. If you sign up to one of the app's campaigns—say, Demand GMO Labeling—Buycott will advise you on whether the product you've scanned gels with your personal principles. And so, you'll know to leave that can of Medaglia d'Oro Espresso Coffee on the shelf because its corporate owner donated to the campaign against Prop. 37, the California initiative that would've required special labeling for foods that contain GMOs.
Ctrl + alt lit
"Alt lit"—or Internet literature—can be such a drag. While some authors have successfully captured the anxiety, enlightenment and ironic detachment of the connected millennial generation, most of it feels too inconsequential to qualify for print, or like discarded LiveJournal posts. However, author Sam Pink has the unique gift for running these recognized alt-lit characteristics through an absurd Mitch Hedberg-ian filter, making his book Rontel the funniest thing I've read in a long time. Typical of the genre, Rontel's plot is thin—it's basically the inner monologue of a marginally employed, 20-ish Chicagoan during the course of a couple unremarkable days—but Pink's feverish observations of everyday minutiae are hysterical. Whether he's writing an online review for earplugs ("Wow, just... disappointing") or adding "Let me show you how a real man" to his thoughts ("Let me show you how a real man obeys traffic law"), Pink's narrator will appeal to anyone who's ever felt insane for trying to fit into modern society.
Listen and learn
What a difference 28 years makes. The 1985 film Real Genius spoofed on college-student laziness with quick shots of a full beginning-of-semester classroom and an end-of-semester classroom filled with tape recorders—the bulky cassette kind that require you to push "play" and "record" at the same time. Now, UCSD students can skip the tape recorder and instead download a podcast of their class from podcast.ucsd.edu (attendance still counts: not all courses, nor all classes in a course, are podcasted). Even better, the general public can access podcasts from scores of classes—mostly those from quarters past. Some examples of publicly available lectures: internationally known social scientist James Fowler's May 13 "Art, Culture and Technology" class; audio and video of Joel Watson discussing game theory; and, especially salient right now, Leslie Lewis' engaging discussion of the U.S. healthcare system. UCSD instructional technologist Joan Holmquist says the university records and posts about 300 hours' worth of lectures each week. The program was piloted in spring 2007, and many previous years' courses are archived.
—David Taube and Kelly Davis
Gently into the night
Last year, PBS boosted its ratings with the U.S. debut of Sherlock, a BBC modernization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the master of deduction. Only six episodes have run, with the next batch slated for this fall. For jonesing fans, I recommend Dirk Gently, another mystery series featuring an eccentric, but gifted detective based on the works of another British literary giant—Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Played by Stephen Mangan (who's like the human version of Shrek's Donkey), Dirk Gently is a "holistic detective" who solves surreal crimes (often related to missing cats or androids and involving time travel and Pentagon spies) by following fate as it unravels. Like Sherlock Holmes, he's a near-sociopathic savant, but unlike Holmes, you're never quite sure if Gently's a genius or a deadbeat who gets by by bilking old ladies. Sadly, only a pilot and three episodes aired before the show was cancelled, but all are now available on DVD and for streaming online.
What a mouthful
Anyone curious about how the human body works has a friend in Mary Roach, or an enemy if you're the squeamish type. The popular-science writer has delved into dead bodies (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) and gone (balls?) deep on the subject of sex (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex). Now, Roach explores even grosser territory with Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. The alimentary canal, for those who've remained blissfully unaware, is the tube that runs from the mouth to the butthole. She details everything from how food is digested and how much you can eat before blowing out your gut to farts, poop and all that nastiness that fascinates weirdoes, and she does it in a way that's fun and engaging. Indeed, this is a very compelling read if youíre a science nerd with a penchant for fart jokes.