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The famous cautionary tales of X emerged from the rave scene, where a small number of users died from overheating (the result of both the dancing and the drug, which can interfere with temperature regulation). A few others died from drinking too much water—a precaution they took to avoid overheating. As a stimulant, X can also raise heart rate and blood pressure, a danger to some people with heart problems.




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The most terrifying and widely publicized study on small amounts of ecstasy appeared in Science in 2002 and claimed that the amount of X consumed by a typical user in one night could cause permanent brain damage in primates. But embarrassingly, this work was retracted in 2003, because the researcher had somehow swapped methamphetamine for MDMA in his lab.




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In the mid-1980s, a group of physicians, psychotherapists, and researchers petitioned the Drug Enforcement Administration, requesting that MDMA not be made a Schedule 1 drug. An administrative-law judge agreed with them, deciding that the less-restrictive Schedule 3 would be more appropriate. But the DEA classified MDMA as Schedule 1 anyway. See here for a summary.




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Much of the Dutch data have not been published yet. The work is potentially significant because it is prospective instead of retrospective—meaning that it follows subjects forward through time, rather than looking back at past events and behaviors, which may be hard for people to recall accurately. But the findings may still be confounded somewhat by subjects' use of other drugs. And the short-term effects of X use, even if confirmed, may turn out to be transient.



mixing desk
jTunes
The insanely great songs Apple won't let you hear.
By Paul Collins
Tuesday, January 23, 2007, at 12:48 PM ET

"Killer Tune" is just that: It sounds like the Killers, and it is killer. It's one of the most popular iTunes downloads for the band Straightener—but you haven't heard it.

You can't hear it.

The iTunes Music Store has a secret hiding in plain sight: Log out of your home account in the page's upper-right corner, switch the country setting at the bottom of the page to Japan, and you're dropped down a rabbit hole into a wonderland of great Japanese bands that you've never even heard of. And they're nowhere to be found on iTunes U.S. You can listen to 30-second song teasers on the Japanese site, but if you try purchasing "Killer Tune"—or any other tune—from iTunes Japan with your U.S. credit card, you'll get turned away: Your gaijin money's no good there.

Go to iTMS Japan's Terms of Sale, and the very first three words, which berate you in all caps, are:

JAPAN SALES ONLY

So, what's going on here?

Music labels have a good reason to lift up the drawbridge: iTunes spans 22 countries, often with somewhat uneven pricing between them, and the specter of cross-border music discounting has already been raised by services such as Russia's much-sued allofmp3.com. But in Japan's case, the blockade becomes downright tragic. If your knowledge of Japanese music barely extends beyond the Boredoms, you're in for a shock at iTMS Japan: There are thousands of Japanese bands that play circles around ours—and they're doing it in English.

It hasn't happened overnight. Japan's long been a music geek's paradise, a Valhalla of reverent remasters of American and British albums that time and fashion have passed by in their native lands. Want a CD release of Rick Wakeman's 1976 LP No Earthly Connection? There's no such thing over here—but there is in Japan, and you can even buy it from the Disk Union chain at a downtown Tokyo store dedicated entirely to prog-rock. Like the British invaders of 40 years ago, the Japanese seem to care more about our music than we ourselves do.

The result? Japan's bands are by turns bracingly experimental and jubilantly retro, a land where our own greatest music returns with an alienated majesty. How else can one describe the King Brothers' "100%," a song that could make the Black Crowes eat Humble Pie? Or Syrup16g's Elvis Costello-esque "I Hate Music"? Or "Johnny Depp" by Triceratops, an amp-crunching reanimation of Physical Graffiti-era Zep? And you'd swear that the Pillows' "Degeneration" was a hidden track on Matthew Sweet's Altered Beast. Other bands, less easily categorized, are no less revelatory: The Miceteeth's "Think About Bird's Pillow Case" conjures up a Japanese troupe stranded in a 1930s British music hall, while NICO Touches the Walls' "泥んこドビー" boils Franz Ferdinand over into a waltz.

Next, there's power pop. If ever a song cried to be played on late and lamented The O.C., it's "4645" by the Radwimps. Like many J-pop songs, "4645" is almost entirely sung in English. After pop diva Yumi Matsutoya started mixing bilingual lyrics in the 1970s, bands perfected the art of seamlessly fusing Japanese verses with English choruses. You can mondegreen their songs in the shower for weeks without even realizing it.

So, what happens when this irresistible rock encounters immoveable corporations? Inevitably, Straightener's "Killer Tune" has shown up in its entirety on YouTube, where the band amuses themselves in an exuberantly goofy lip-sync. With YouTube sporting the clever animated video for the blistering follow-up "Berserker Tune," American fans might get the Straightener they need after all.

Meanwhile, a back door has appeared in the Music Store itself: While iTunes Japan pegs foreign undesirables from their credit card numbers, it can't screen fake Japanese addresses provided by prepaid iTunes Card users. There's a small but ardent underground economy among Americans in dummy addresses and e-mailed scans of Japanese iTunes Cards, picked up by friends in Tokyo convenience stores or openly sold online.

It certainly beats buying CDs. Import shops and Amazon.com lack most Japanese bands, and while Amazon.co.jp maintains a somewhat-English-language version, you may find yourself plunged into hair-raisingly incomprehensible pages while entering credit card information. If, for instance, this audio clip of the math-rock single "Japanistan" by the band Stan sends you running for their album Stan II, you'll find nothing at U.S. Amazon. Buying it from Amazon Japan costs 3,090 yen ($25) with international shipping. And, since Amazon Japan pages often lack audio samples, you have to already know what you're looking for. If you didn't catch that Stan video on NHK while jet-lagged in a Shinjuku hotel, you're out of luck.

iTunes United States maintains its own hamstrung Japanese Music playlist, where a few bands have broken into our realm of 99-cent downloads. Listen to the Rodeo Carburettor's head-rattling "R.B.B. (Rude Boy Bob)," the stuttering art-punk of the Emeralds' "Surfing Baby," and the propulsive stop-time of "Riff Man" by the Zazen Boys—a room-clearing roar of gloriously unhinged vocals—and you start to sense what's maddeningly out of reach across the Pacific.

And there are 20 more countries where iTunes users can lurk among the samples, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and Australia. They won't let you buy their songs, either. You can find an EP of Scottish sensations the Fratellis at iTunes United States, for instance, but their hit glam singalong "Chelsea Dagger" is in nearly every country except the United States. (Their randy burlesque video for it, naturally, is all over YouTube.)

Even so, window-shopping in the Japan store remains particularly instructive. Why? Because variable pricing—a label demand that Apple loudly and successfully fought off in other countries—has quietly appeared there in the form of 150- and 200-yen songs. Whether "Killer Tune" gets the success it deserves or not, someday we might all be turning Japanese.

==============================



Log on to iTMS for Slate's "jTunes iMix" playlists: one at iTunes Japan of Japan-only songs, including those mentioned in this article (foreign users can sample, but not purchase, them), and this domestic Slate jTunes iMix of songs available for purchase by U.S. users. U.S. iTMS users must log out of their account and switch countries at the bottom of their screen before accessing the Japanese iMix.

Note: Occasionally iTMS Netherlands refuses to allow you to change countries from the bottom of the home page. Simply click any song's "Buy" button, and a prompt asking if you're from abroad will get you to the Country Selection menu.



moneybox
Look Who's Starting a Hedge Fund!
Madeleine Albright's money machine.
By Daniel Gross
Monday, January 22, 2007, at 6:11 PM ET

Long before Washington even had a K Street, public servants have been cashing in via the private sector. Till recently, there was no better way to monetize government service that a late career switch to lobbying or law. But now there's a new business for the over-the-hill Washington player: hedge funds.

As Lynnley Browning reported in the New York Times last Friday, Richard Breeden, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is now a hedge-fund manager, complete with $500 million under management, a Cayman Islands registry, and an office in hedge-fund capital Greenwich, Conn.—even though he "has no investing experience." Browning reported that, "Mr. Breeden is now perhaps the most senior former government official ever to run a hedge fund."

But not for long. Last week, Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has the same amount of investing experience as Breeden (zero)—announced the formation of an emerging-markets hedge fund. Albright Capital Management is backed with $329 million in seed money from PGGM, a Dutch pension.

Albright and Breeden are following what has become a well-worn path. In October, mammoth hedge fund/private-equity firm D.E. Shaw appointed Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as a part-time managing director, and Cerberus Capital, another mammoth hedge-fund/private-equity firm, named departing Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow as chairman.

Let's set aside the question of whether the arrival of politicians is a neon sign to hedge-fund investors to Cash Out Now! Instead, let's try to explain the phenomenon. There are several reasons—millions of them, actually—why high-ranking former officials are signing up with hedge funds. The money is excellent. Instead of billing by the hour or receiving retainers, principals of hedge funds and private-equity firms hold stakes in very lucrative businesses. At most hedge funds, managers generally receive a 2 percent annual asset-management fee and 20 percent of the profits they generate. K Street can make you comfortable. Hedge funds can make you filthy rich.

But Madeleine Albright and Larry Summers have no record of generating above-market returns. Why would a hedge fund want them?

First, hedge funds and private-equity funds are in a constant state of raising funds—from public-employee pension funds like CALPERs, from U.S. investors, and from investors around the globe. In a world of 8,000 hedge funds, many of them run by very rich but generally anonymous traders, it helps to bring boldface names along for sales pitches.

In addition to acting as highly paid greeters, former government officials can also function as doorkeepers. Firms like Cerberus and D.E. Shaw, which started life as rapid-trading hedge funds, are evolving into asset managers that seek long-term returns by buying and selling entire companies. In many instances, the less-crowded foreign markets offer the most compelling opportunities. Cerberus' list of holdings includes regulated foreign companies such as Air Canada and banks in Japan and Germany. Given the political issues that frequently surround international investments, funds need gray-haired globe-trotters to smooth the way. (Here's how another Cerberus employee, former Vice President Dan Quayle, describes his role at the fund: "travels throughout the US, Europe and Asia to meet with the heads of investment banks, corporations, buyout shops, potential investors, and other business leaders.") D.E. Shaw, the world's third-largest hedge fund, has similarly global ambitions. Who better to take along on forays into new markets than former treasury secretary, Harvard University president, and current Financial Times columnist Larry Summers?

The most recent duo of public servants turned hedge-fund managers is seeking to apply public-sector experience directly to the management of private capital. Rather than buy and sell dozens of stocks and trade them quickly, Breeden, who has landed consulting gigs monitoring bankrupt WorldCom and investigating shenanigans at Conrad Black's Hollinger, said he planned to buy a handful of stocks at undervalued companies—and then use his status as a corporate-governance expert to prod management into boosting shareholder value. In December Breeden announced his firm had amassed a 5.25 percent stake in underperforming restaurant chain Applebee's, and was nominating four members for the board of directors, including Breeden.

Albright is taking it a step further. Former foreign-policy hands such as Henry Kissinger supply advice to hedge funds and Fortune 500 companies on how geopolitical events affect their investments. Albright is taking this practice a few rungs up the value chain. Rather than simply sell advice based on her experience and connections, she's selling investment-management services based on her experience and connections. Investment management has much higher profit margins.

As more big institutional investors such as pension funds allocate capital to hedge funds, we should expect more such career switches. By 2009, it wouldn't be surprising if investors were listening to sales pitches for CRAM (Condi Rice Asset Management), Dick Cheney's Buckshot Capital (sole holding: Halliburton), and the Stuff Happens Global Fund, an arbitrage operation run by Donald Rumsfeld.



movies
Men With Guns
The absurdly macho pyrotechnics of Smokin' Aces.
By Dana Stevens
Thursday, January 25, 2007, at 5:46 PM ET

Joe Carnahan, please put down the gun (and the flamethrower, and the suitcase full of mysterious torture implements) and back away slowly from the movie camera. Four years ago, you scored a modest hit with Narc, a tightly plotted if ultimately empty buddy-cop-betrayal drama starring Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. Smokin' Aces, a cameo-crammed action comedy with a strangely maudlin twist ending, is another fable about the perils of ratting out your friends and the joys of riding shotgun with Liotta. But it's less Narc II than a throwback to the title of your first, ultra-low-budget feature, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Except for the octane part: Smokin' Aces is awash in ammo and carnage, but it chugs to the finish line with a tank full of sludge.

The film's first act is faux Tarantino, with a huge cast of quirky hit men and down-on-their-luck lowlifes trading insults as they brief one another on a million-dollar mob hit. (Despite this section's rapid-fire dialogue and dizzying introduction of new characters—approximately one per minute—the setup takes a good 20 minutes of screen time.) In the second act, these assorted teams of bail bondsmen, neo-Nazi rednecks, and lovable lesbian assassins converge on Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Vegas magician-turned-mobster holed up in a Lake Tahoe casino penthouse. Buddy has made a deal to snitch on his bosses and henchmen in exchange for the protection of two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds). But the elderly don, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), wants Buddy taken out with extreme prejudice—he's specified that whoever gets the job done should bring him the stool pigeon's heart.

A gruesome Cannonball Run with Piven flesh as the trophy, Smokin' Aces is a depressingly nihilistic entry in the Tarantino/Guy Ritchie/Ocean's Eleven caper genre. It jollies us along with gross-out man banter ("Who jizzed on my jacket?") and lighthearted sadomasochism for three-quarters of its running time, then suddenly lurches into random dramatic interludes that—if the solemn piano music is any cue—we're actually supposed to care about. Most of these involve the slide into coke-addled dementia of Piven's Buddy. But given the utter absence of development or context for this character—we don't even see him do any real magic tricks!—it's impossible to decide whether to root for the victim or his equally uncompelling assassins.

The weirdly magnetic Piven is the only reason I still watch HBO's Entourage (which I've inveighed against here and here). He's a mercurial actor, one of the few I could imagine effecting the transition from magician to gang lord. (Isn't it always the way? One minute they're pulling bunnies from hats, the next they're collecting protection money.) But Piven is powerless to combat the deep stupidity of this role, and his performance ranges from adequate (in the comic scenes) to excruciating (in the "tragic" ones). At the movie's puzzling dramatic nadir, Buddy stares blearily into the bathroom mirror, wearing a single bright-blue contact lens, as a tear rolls down his cheek. I wish my insurance covered Lasik surgery too, but you don't see me crying about it.

I tried to experience Smokin' Aces as a wild amoral thrill ride, but it feels more like a first-person shooter video game. Some of the sitting ducks include Ben Affleck as a bail bondsman with a walrus mustache and teeth like piano keys; Andy Garcia as an FBI boss with an unprecedented Southern Gothic accent; and Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson as lady assassins who also happen to be lovers. Henson, who played the pregnant prostitute in Hustle & Flow, is the movie's strongest dramatic presence, and Jason Bateman, as a degenerate, self-loathing lawyer, provides the funniest two-and-a-half minutes (is there anything Jason Bateman doesn't make funnier?). But cherry-picking performances feels like a sucker's game in Smokin' Aces, an undifferentiated heap of genre clichés that, less than 48 hours after seeing it, is already receding in my memory.



* To download the MP3 file, right-click (Windows) or hold down the Control key while you click (Mac), and then use the "save" or "download" command to save the audio file to your hard drive.

movies
The State of the Oscar
Forget the Dreamgirls snub, what about Volver?
By Dana Stevens
Tuesday, January 23, 2007, at 5:26 PM ET

It's somehow perfect that this year's Oscar nominations coincide with George Bush's sixth State of the Union address. The Oscars and the State of the Union are like the senior proms of their respective spheres of influence: overhyped, meaningless, self-congratulatory shams that somehow matter anyway, if only to give us a common target at which to hurl invective, opinions, and wisecracks. They're as close as our huge, technologized, alienated country gets to a national conversation, and I'll be damned if I'm going to be left out.

Predictions of the likely winners are both dull and, in my case, pointless—I'm not enough of an L.A. insider to know what the industry favorites are, and this is my first Oscar season as a pro film critic. But here's an overview of some of the most egregious disses on the list, a few surprises that are a pleasure to see there, and at least one legitimate, head-scratching, "Huh?"

The pouting about Dreamgirls' supposed cold shoulder from the academy seems a little divaesque, like an onstage hissy fit thrown by one of the movie's heroines, Effie White. The film still got more nominations than any other, even if they were largely spread out among the tech categories that are unjustly ignored every year. (Screw those people who toil away behind the scenes at crafts that take a lifetime to master! They're obscuring my view of Brangelina!) Dreamgirls truly did have some of the best costume design I saw onscreen this year, with those witty period montages and matching '60s frocks. It certainly didn't have the best directing or writing, and even the swooniest fans admit that the movie doesn't cohere as a whole. I love the fact that Dreamgirls is a fan favorite. Jennifer Hudson is a great populist Cinderella, and the moment she takes best supporting actress (or tries to look noble as Abigail Breslin steals it from her) will be the high point of the ceremony. But Dreamgirls is a big, lumbering filmed play without a single hummable number, and its absence from the big lists (best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay) seems defensible to me.

As a longtime Mark Wahlberg nut (I got teased for comparing him to Brando when Boogie Nights came out), I was all atwitter to see him up for best supporting actor for The Departed. And Leo DiCaprio got the Best Actor nomination he deserved—I'm impressed that academy voters bothered to distinguish between his showier turn in the Scorsese film and his deeper, darker work in Blood Diamond. The neglect shown for Catherine O'Hara's amazing performance in the otherwise lackluster Chris Guest comedy For Your Consideration is an eerie echo of the movie itself, in which she plays an actress overlooked for an Academy Award! I hope she's out right now reliving the bender her character went on in the movie, and enjoying every minute of it.

Pedro Almodóvar's near-perfect Volver got nary a nod for best foreign language film, best director, or even best score (Alberto Iglesias' rich, string-heavy soundtrack was the perfect aural equivalent for all those heaving bosoms and crimson mop buckets of blood). Just last week, I was mentioning, in a discussion of Notes on a Scandal, the maddening, ubiquitous drone of Philip Glass' awful music score for that film—and damned if it doesn't get a nomination! Glass also wrote one of my favorite soundtracks this year, the mysterious, swirling music for The Illusionist—but it went unrecognized. The Illusionist's only moment of glory was a cinematography nomination for Dick Pope. Pope's work on that film is a marvel of technical precision and historical rigor—every frame looks exactly like an early photograph. But if there's any justice (which of course there isn't—bemoaning that obvious truth is just another part of the yearly Oscar ritual), Emmanuel Lubezki will win the cinematography prize for his innovative lensing of Children of Men. Not only because it truly is groundbreaking camerawork—DPs will be copying the device he invented for that car-chase scene for years to come—but because that nomination and two others (one for editing, the other for best adapted screenplay) are the only crumbs being thrown to what was, to my mind, the single finest film of the year.

Listen to Dana Stevens discuss the Oscars on NPR's Day to Day.

podcasts
Plastered, Hammered, and Other Euphemisms for Drunk
Plus, help us describe your lazy co-workers.
By Andy Bowers
Thursday, January 25, 2007, at 2:30 PM ET



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