Good Reads: From gray areas in science, to new-media ventures, to Internet monsters

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes an explanation of how we use math to describe things we can't see, a dearth of hits from black recording artists, the lawsuit around the Washington Redskins, new-media ventures, and the Internet myth of Slender Man.

NASA /JPL-Caltech/Reuters
An illustration of a supermassive black hole with an enormously dense center.

There are few scientific phenomena more vivid than black holes. These collapsed stars pack in so much gravitational force that not even light can escape their grasp. But a new paper from physicist Stephen Hawking declares that “there are no black holes.”

Mr. Hawking does not deny the existence of a massive gravitational phenomenon lurking at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Instead, he says the way scientists imagine black holes is wrong. The problem, explains Geraint Lewis on Space.com, lies in how we use math to describe things we can’t actually see.

Our current understanding of black holes relies on two different concepts: Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (which explains gravity) and quantum mechanics (which wants nothing to do with gravity). Until scientists come up with ways to better link the two, Mr. Lewis says, “the best we can do at the moment is sticky-tape the equations together.” This fudging leads to flaws in how we describe black holes, says Hawking.

Lewis’s full piece explains this new theory about not-quite-black holes and why some scientists are skeptical of the idea.

Where are the black recording artists?

Three big names took home most of this year’s big Grammy awards: robot-helmeted Daft Punk, New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, and the jokey rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They all are heavily influenced by hip-hop, a genre that has penetrated deep into American culture. And they are also white.

In 2013, not a single African-American artist had a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. “That’s never happened before in the chart’s 55-year history,” writes Chris Molanphy in Slate. “In 2004, literally every song that topped the Hot 100 was by a person of color.”

Several trends may have contributed to this massive reversal. Billboard’s secret formula now includes digital purchases and YouTube views, not just radio airtime play and CD sales. Many of last year’s most popular songs did feature people of color, such as Pharrell Williams’s prominent role in Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Also, several major black artists, such as Beyoncé and Kanye West, released music in 2013 that focused more on the complete album than individual tracks.

When a name isn’t just a name

The US Patent and Trademark Office must decide if the term “Washington Redskins” is offensive. A lawsuit brought by a group of native Americans argues that the National Football League (NFL) team should lose its registered trademark status because the name is disparaging. The federal agency “is expected to make its decision at any time,” according to Theresa Vargas of The Washington Post, which found that precedent leans heavily against the football team.

Since 1992, the patent office has refused to issue trademarks to at least 11 other applicants that had hoped to use the term, according to the Post. The most recent rejection came in January, when the agency turned down a trademark on “Redskin Hog Rinds” because the name contained “a derogatory slang term.”

If officials strike down the NFL’s team trademark, owner Daniel Snyder will not be forced to change the name of the Washington team. Losing the trademark simply means anyone could use the name without licensing it from Mr. Snyder or the NFL.

Ever shifting new-media landscapes

Longtime political columnist Ezra Klein has left The Washington Post to start an online news venture. “Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened,” he writes in his announcement of the as-yet-unnamed news site on The Verge.

Pushing for better, more context-heavy news seems to be a mantra among a new coterie of journalists. At least four new-media news outlets plan to open their doors in 2014, driven by popular reporters that have left their old-media jobs behind. Nate Silver, once the numbers whiz at The New York Times, will team up with ESPN and ABC News to rebuild his FiveThirtyEight politics blog. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal just launched a new technology outlet called Re/code. EBay founder Pierre Omidyar has promised former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald $250 million to set up an online, nonprofit/for-profit fusion venture. All four will ostensibly fight for the same audience: the educated, curious elite that advertisers love – as do countless other news outlets.

How Slender Man became ‘real’

A new monster has joined the ranks of vampires and Sasquatch – creatures of folklore with countless creepy tales and imaginative retellings. Slender Man is the Internet’s monster. Online searches turn up pages of historical “evidence” pointing toward a tall, faceless figure with impossibly gangly arms and a penchant for sneaking up on children in the woods. There are videotaped sightings on YouTube, stories of run-ins, and woodblock prints depicting the monster – so much fan-created mythos that some people refuse to believe that Eric Knudsen invented Slender Man in 2009. WNYC’s podcast TLDR interviewed Mr. Knudsen about the monster that has taken on a life of its own.

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