Monday, December 31, 2012

Uemura Shōen, Snowflakes 1944.

Chihiro Yamanaka

Richard Hamilton. Swinging London III, 1972. Screenprint on paper, 679 x 857 mm.

Lawren Harris, Mountains and Lake

A Pickpocket's Tale

A few years ago, at a Las Vegas convention for magicians, Penn Jillette, of the act Penn and Teller, was introduced to a soft-spoken young man named Apollo Robbins, who has a reputation as a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability. Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn’t have much to work with.

“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”

Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

Robbins, who is thirty-eight and lives in Las Vegas, is a peculiar variety-arts hybrid, known in the trade as a theatrical pickpocket. Among his peers, he is widely considered the best in the world at what he does, which is taking things from people’s jackets, pants, purses, wrists, fingers, and necks, then returning them in amusing and mind-boggling ways. Robbins works smoothly and invisibly, with a diffident charm that belies his talent for larceny. One senses that he would prosper on the other side of the law. “You have to ask yourself one question,” he often says as he holds up a wallet or a watch that he has just swiped. “Am I being paid enough to give it back?”

In more than a decade as a full-time entertainer, Robbins has taken (and returned) a lot of stuff, including items from well-known figures in the worlds of entertainment (Jennifer Garner, actress: engagement ring); sports (Charles Barkley, former N.B.A. star: wad of cash); and business (Ace Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns: Patek Philippe watch). He is probably best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail in 2001. While Carter was at dinner, Robbins struck up a conversation with several of his Secret Service men. Within a few minutes, he had emptied the agents’ pockets of pretty much everything but their guns. Robbins brandished a copy of Carter’s itinerary, and when an agent snatched it back he said, “You don’t have the authorization to see that!” When the agent felt for his badge, Robbins produced it and handed it back. Then he turned to the head of the detail and handed him his watch, his badge, and the keys to the Carter motorcade.

In magic circles, Robbins is regarded as a kind of legend, though he largely remains, as the magician Paul Harris told me, “the best-kept secret in town.” His talent, however, has started gaining notice further afield. Recently, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the military have studied his methods for what they reveal about the nature of human attention. Teller, a good friend of Robbins’s, believes that widespread recognition is only a matter of time. “The popularity of crime as a sort of romantic thing in America is profoundly significant, and Apollo is tapping into that,” he told me. “If you think about it, magic itself has many of the hallmarks of criminal activity: You lie, you cheat, you try not to get caught—but it’s on a stage, it has a proscenium around it. When Apollo walks onstage, there’s a sense that he might have one foot outside the proscenium. He takes a low crime and turns it into an art form.”

by Adam Green, New Yorker |  Read more:
Photograph by Martin Schoeller

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Zinaida Serebryakova - In the Kitchen, 1923.

The Gift of the Fungi

As I recall now, the first mysterious object I found nestled in the sunflower seeds in my bird feeder was a wizened, black mushroom.

Weeks later I noticed several bright-red rose hips in the feeder, plucked from a spray of branches my wife had gathered and artfully arranged in a tall, ceramic pot by the front door. Occasionally, I’d find a rock, each stone about the size of a peanut or walnut, lying in the seeds.

No inanimate force conveyed those objects. The feeder is in an angle of the house protected on three sides from the wind, and the nearest tree is about 30 yards away. So nothing fell into the feeder, and the wind didn’t blow rocks, rose hips, or mushrooms into it. I am the sole custodian of the bird feeder. My wife and granddaughter love to watch the visiting birds, but I feed them.

Gifting behavior

By this process of elimination, I have deduced that an animal left the objects. My initial list of suspects was short: black-capped chickadees and black-billed magpies. Sometimes a flock of pine grosbeaks loiters about the feeder for a few weeks, and I occasionally spot a downy woodpecker or common redpoll. Only one of these species – the magpie – has the physical strength and quirkiness to deposit rocks in the feeder.

Magpies are frequent visitors. They eat seeds and small fruits like rose hips; however, magpies seldom debase themselves by eating the sunflower seeds preferred by many smaller songbirds. Like crows and ravens, magpies prefer meat. Because I like magpies, I often toss scraps of meat or fat, even the bony remains of a holiday turkey, into the feeder.

Some corvids – ravens, crows, magpies – have left objects in place of food provided by humans. Are these tokens, some form of nonverbal communication, or are the items merely discarded to pick up a tasty morsel?

Scientists have only recently become interested in the phenomenon of “gifting behavior.” John Marzluff and Tony Angell attempted to explain the intelligent, playful and deliberative behaviors of crows, ravens and magpies in "Gifts of the Crow." Their book provides several anecdotal accounts of gifting behavior.

For example, a family of crows in Port Townsend, Wash., has left a red poker chip, a safety pin, a blue glass bead, colored rubber bands, and a Cap’n Crunch figurine at a feeding site. Marzluff and Angell seem to believe that corvids practice interspecies gifting behavior. And so do I.

by Rick Sinnott, Alaska Dispatch |  Read more:
Photo: Rick Sinnott

Chuang Che (Zhuang Zhe), As Lofty As A Mountain

Ohara Koson, Tree Sparrow and Bamboo.

Dark Ecology

I've recently been reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. Some books do that, from time to time, and this is beginning to shape up as one of them.

It’s not that Kaczynski, who is a fierce, uncompromising critic of the techno-industrial system, is saying anything I haven’t heard before. I’ve heard it all before, many times. By his own admission, his arguments are not new. But the clarity with which he makes them, and his refusal to obfuscate, are refreshing. I seem to be at a point in my life where I am open to hearing this again. I don’t know quite why.

Here are the four premises with which he begins the book:
1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.
Kaczynski’s prose is sparse, and his arguments logical and unsentimental, as you might expect from a former mathematics professor with a degree from Harvard. I have a tendency toward sentimentality around these issues, so I appreciate his discipline. I’m about a third of the way through the book at the moment, and the way that the four arguments are being filled out is worryingly convincing. Maybe it’s what scientists call “confirmation bias,” but I’m finding it hard to muster good counterarguments to any of them, even the last. I say “worryingly” because I do not want to end up agreeing with Kaczynski.  (...)

If the green movement was born in the early 1970s, then the 1980s, when there were whales to be saved and rainforests to be campaigned for, were its adolescence. Its coming-of-age party was in 1992, in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. The 1992 Earth Summit was a jamboree of promises and commitments: to tackle climate change, to protect forests, to protect biodiversity, and to promote something called “sustainable development,” a new concept that would become, over the next two decades, the most fashionable in global politics and business. The future looked bright for the greens back then. It often does when you’re twenty.

Two decades on, things look rather different. In 2012, the bureaucrats, the activists, and the ministers gathered again in Rio for a stock-taking exercise called Rio+20. It was accompanied by the usual shrill demands for optimism and hope, but there was no disguising the hollowness of the exercise. Every environmental problem identified at the original Earth Summit has gotten worse in the intervening twenty years, often very much worse, and there is no sign of this changing.

The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing. There is no likelihood of the world going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?

There are plenty of people who think they know the answer to that question. One of them is Peter Kareiva, who would like to think that he and his kind represent the future of environmentalism, and who may turn out to be right. Kareiva is chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, which is among the world’s largest environmental organizations. He is a scientist, a revisionist, and one among a growing number of former greens who might best be called “neo-environmentalists.”  (...)

Kareiva’s ideas are a good place to start in understanding the neo-environmentalists. He is an outspoken former conservationist who now believes that most of what the greens think they know is wrong. Nature, he says, is more resilient than fragile; science proves it. “Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment,” he says, “and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well.” Wilderness does not exist; all of it has been influenced by humans at some time. Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them from having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “Today, coyotes roam downtown Chicago, and peregrine falcons astonish San Franciscans as they sweep down skyscraper canyons. . . . As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.” Now that “science” has shown us that nothing is “pristine” and nature “adapts,” there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as, for example, protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon . . . feasible?” he asks. “Is it even necessary?” Somehow, you know what the answer is going to be before he gives it to you.  (...)

Beyond the field of conservation, the neo-environmentalists are distinguished by their attitude toward new technologies, which they almost uniformly see as positive. Civilization, nature, and people can only be “saved” by enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering, and anything else with the prefix “new” that annoys Greenpeace. The traditional green focus on “limits” is dismissed as naïve. We are now, in Brand’s words, “as gods,” and we have to step up and accept our responsibility to manage the planet rationally through the use of new technology guided by enlightened science.

Neo-environmentalists also tend to exhibit an excitable enthusiasm for markets. They like to put a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests, and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services,” which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up. Tied in with this is an almost religious attitude toward the scientific method. Everything that matters can be measured by science and priced by markets, and any claims without numbers attached can be easily dismissed. This is presented as “pragmatism” but is actually something rather different: an attempt to exclude from the green debate any interventions based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection, or simple human feeling.

by Paul Kingsnorth, Orion |  Read more:
Image: Wikipedia

Sonnet 90

I thought I was dying, I felt the cold up close
and knew that from all my life I left only you behind:
my earthly day and night were your mouth,
your skin the republic my kisses founded.

In that instant the books stopped,
and friendship, treasure relentlessly amassed,
the transparent house that you and I built:
everything dropped away, except your eyes.

Because while life harasses us, love is
only a wave taller than the other waves:
but oh, when death comes knocking at the gate,
there is only your glance against so much emptiness,

only your light against extinction,
only your love to shut out the shadows.

                                  ~ Pablo Neruda

Image via: 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Semplica-Girl Diaries (Fiction)

Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really? How clothes smelled and carriages sounded? Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passé? Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night? Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight? Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window. Will future people be aware of concept of “demons”? Will they find our belief in “demons” quaint? Will “windows” even exist? Interesting to future generations that even sophisticated college grad like me sometimes woke in cold sweat, thinking of demons, believing one possibly under bed? Anyway, what the heck, am not planning on writing encyclopedia, if any future person is reading this, if you want to know what a “demon” was, go look it up, in something called an encyclopedia, if you even still have those!

Am getting off track, due to tired, due to those fighting cats.

Hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night, no matter how tired. (If discouraged, just think how much will have been recorded for posterity after one mere year!)


Oops. Missed a day. Things hectic. Will summarize yesterday. Yesterday a bit rough. While picking kids up at school, bumper fell off Park Avenue. Note to future generations: Park Avenue = type of car. Ours not new. Ours oldish. Bit rusty. Kids got in, Eva (middle child) asked what was meaning of “junkorama.” At that moment, bumper fell off. Mr. Renn, history teacher, quite helpful, retrieved bumper (note: write letter of commendation to principal), saying he too once had car whose bumper fell off, when poor, in college. Eva assured me it was all right bumper had fallen off. I replied of course it was all right, why wouldn’t it be all right, it was just something that had happened, I certainly hadn’t caused. Image that stays in mind is of three sweet kids in back seat, chastened expressions on little faces, timidly holding bumper across laps. One end of bumper had to hang out Eva’s window and today she has sniffles, plus small cut on hand from place where bumper was sharp.

Lilly (oldest, nearly thirteen!), as always, put all in perspective, by saying, Who cares about stupid bumper, we’re going to get a new car soon anyway, when rich, right?

Upon arriving home, put bumper in garage. In garage, found dead large mouse or small squirrel crawling with maggots. Used shovel to transfer majority of squirrel/mouse to Hefty bag. Smudge of squirrel/mouse still on garage floor, like oil stain w/ embedded fur tufts.

Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. Went in happy, not mentioning bumper, squirrel/mouse smudge, maggots, then gave Eva extra ice cream, due to I had spoken harshly to her.

Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy, stressed guy in bad car.

When will I have sufficient leisure/wealth to sit on hay bale watching moon rise, while in luxurious mansion family sleeps? At that time, will have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life, etc., etc. Have a feeling and have always had a feeling that this and other good things will happen for us!


Very depressing birthday party today at home of Lilly’s friend Leslie Torrini.

House is mansion where Lafayette once stayed. Torrinis showed us Lafayette’s room: now their “Fun Den.” Plasma TV, pinball game, foot massager. Thirty acres, six garages (they call them “outbuildings”): one for Ferraris (three), one for Porsches (two, plus one he is rebuilding), one for historical merry-go-round they are restoring as family (!). Across trout-stocked stream, red Oriental bridge flown in from China. Showed us hoofmark from some dynasty. In front room, near Steinway, plaster cast of hoofmark from even earlier dynasty, in wood of different bridge. Picasso autograph, Disney autograph, dress Greta Garbo once wore, all displayed in massive mahogany cabinet.

Vegetable garden tended by guy named Karl.

Lilly: Wow, this garden is like ten times bigger than our whole yard.

Flower garden tended by separate guy, weirdly also named Karl.

Lilly: Wouldn’t you love to live here?

Me: Lilly, ha-ha, don’t ah . . .

Pam (my wife, very sweet, love of life!): What, what is she saying wrong? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you love to live here? I know I would.

In front of house, on sweeping lawn, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze, and Lilly says, Can we go closer?

Leslie Torrini: We can but we don’t, usually.

Leslie’s mother, dressed in Indonesian sarong: We don’t, as we already have, many times, dear, but you perhaps would like to? Perhaps this is all very new and exciting to you?

Lilly, shyly: It is, yes.

Leslie’s mom: Please, go, enjoy.

Lilly races away.

Leslie’s mom, to Eva: And you, dear?

Eva stands timidly against my leg, shakes head no.

Just then father (Emmett) appears, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out.

The kids can eat later, in the tree house, Leslie’s mom says.

She indicates the tree house, which is painted Victorian and has a gabled roof and a telescope sticking out and what looks like a small solar panel.

Thomas: Wow, that tree house is like twice the size of our actual house.

(Thomas, as usual, exaggerating: tree house is more like one-third size of our house. Still, yes: big tree house.)

Our gift not the very worst. Although possibly the least expensive—someone brought a mini DVD-player; someone brought a lock of hair from an actual mummy (!)—it was, in my opinion, the most heartfelt. Because Leslie (who appeared disappointed by the lock of mummy hair, and said so, because she already had one (!)) was, it seemed to me, touched by the simplicity of our paper-doll set. And although we did not view it as kitsch at the time we bought it, when Leslie’s mom said, Les, check it out, kitsch or what, don’t you love it?, I thought, Yes, well, maybe it is kitsch, maybe we did intend. In any event, this eased the blow when the next gift was a ticket to the Preakness (!), as Leslie has recently become interested in horses, and has begun getting up early to feed their nine horses, whereas previously she had categorically refused to feed the six llamas.

Leslie’s mom: So guess who ended up feeding the llamas?

Leslie, sharply: Mom, don’t you remember back then I always had yoga?

Leslie’s mom: Although actually, honestly? It was a blessing, a chance for me to rediscover what terrific animals they are, after school, on days on which Les had yoga.

Leslie: Like every day, yoga?

Leslie’s mom: I guess you just have to trust your kids, trust that their innate interest in life will win out in the end, don’t you think? Which is what is happening now, with Les and horses. God, she loves them.

Pam: Our kids, we can’t even get them to pick up what Ferber does in the front yard.

Leslie’s mom: And Ferber is?

Me: Dog.

Leslie’s mom: Ha-ha, yes, well, everything poops, isn’t that just it?

After dinner, strolled grounds with Emmett, who is surgeon, does something two days a week with brain inserts, small electronic devices? Or possibly biotronic? They are very small. Hundreds can fit on head of pin? Or dime? Did not totally follow. He asked about my work, I told. He said, Well, huh, amazing the strange, arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to even hold their heads up?

Could not think of response. Note to self: Think of response, send on card, thus striking up friendship with Emmett?

Returned to Torrinis’ house, sat on special star-watching platform as stars came out. Our kids sat watching stars, fascinated. What, I said, no stars in our neighborhood? No response. From anyone. Actually, stars there did seem brighter. On star platform, had too much to drink, and suddenly everything I thought of seemed stupid. So just went quiet, like in stupor.

Pam drove home. I sat sullen and drunk in passenger seat of Park Avenue. Kids babbling about what a great party it was, Lilly especially. Thomas spouting all these boring llama facts, per Emmett.

Lilly: I can’t wait till my party. My party is in two weeks, right?

Pam: What do you want to do for your party, sweetie?

Long silence in car.

Lilly, finally, sadly: Oh, I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.

Pulled up to house. Another silence as we regarded blank, empty yard. That is, mostly crabgrass and no red Oriental bridge w/ ancient hoofprints and no outbuildings and not a single SG, but only Ferber, who we’d kind of forgotten about, and who, as usual, had circled round and round the tree until nearly strangling to death on his gradually shortening leash and was looking up at us with begging eyes in which desperation was combined with a sort of low-boiling anger.

Let him off leash, he shot me hostile look, took dump extremely close to porch.

Watched to see if kids would take initiative and pick up. But no. Kids only slumped past and stood exhausted by front door. Knew I should take initiative and pick up. But was tired and had to come in and write in this stupid book.

Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle. We are very, very lucky. I know that. But still, it is not right that rich people make us middle people feel dopey and inadequate.

Am writing this still drunk and it is getting late and tomorrow is Monday, which means work.

Work, work, work. Stupid work. Am so tired of work.

by George Saunders, New Yorker |  Read more:
Illustration by Martin Ansin.
h/t Longreads

‘I Just Want to Feel Everything’: Hiding Out With Fiona Apple, Musical Hermit

Fiona Apple was upstairs, alone, stalking the small suite of her boutique hotel in Soho. It was noon, in May, and she had arrived in New York, the city where she grew up, a few days earlier from Paris, where she was shooting a music video. She was at this moment supposed to be sitting in the hotel bar answering questions about her new album and her life in general, a life that, with the exception of sporadic performances — at her hometown club, Largo, in Los Angeles — she keeps almost hermetically sealed. She’d dressed herself in a long black nylon skirt, a tank top, and a thin green hooded sweatshirt; she applied no makeup. She wore her hair tied up. Despite being late, she was consulting her laptop, which she often struggles to operate, typing the words mirror neurons into Google. With a pencil she began scribbling onto a piece of hotel stationery. The morning — which is to say the hours after midnight — had unfolded well, sunrise had come smoothly, she’d felt good, and she’d seriously debated continuing straight through, as she does most often, but with a busy day ahead, she’d figured it best to rest, and, to her surprise, slipped into unconsciousness beneath the coffee table. When she’d awoken at ten, she’d felt different. She’d felt bad. She’d returned to the window she’d spent the morning staring down from, the man clearly on drugs still hobbling along the same block of Grand Street, picking up twigs and moving them. In her head she heard the refrain from the seventies song: “Do it, do it, till you’re satisfied.”

She was, now, exhausted. While she has struggled with sleep since she was a child, it has become in recent years a constant antagonist, to the point where she finds climbing into a normal bed torturous (back home in Venice, California, she and her dog, Janet, often lie down on an air mattress in her backyard). And so it was only natural that sleep, or the lack thereof, would seep into the two other themes — sanity and love — that imbue most of her music, including the first single off her new album, The Idler Wheel … , her fourth in sixteen years and a full seven years since the last. It is called “Every Single Night,” and it is, at least in its simplicity, unlike any single in memory. It begins with a music box striking a ringing C-major chord in slow, plodding four-four time, moving only a few steps up and down from there.
Every single night
I endure the flight
Of little wings of white-flamed
Butterflies in my brain.

These ideas of mine
Percolate the mind
Trickle down the spine
Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze—

That’s when the pain comes in,
Like a second skeleton,
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can’t fit the feelings in

Every single night’s a fight
With my brain
There is a very strong argument to be made that Fiona Apple, 34, is the greatest popular musician of her generation. This, on its face, might seem like something of a misnomer, since Apple moves paltry numbers of “units” and is the antithesis of prolific. She also happens to be a longtime critic of the record industry, specifically her employer, Sony Records. (Strictly for comparison purposes, in the six-year span between Apple’s second and third albums, Britney Spears released five CDs, including both her debut and “greatest hits.”) Apple wrote the majority of her first album, Tidal, during adolescence; released in 1996, when she was 18, it was nominated for three Grammys. Her next two — When the Pawn … and Extraordinary Machine, released in 1999 and 2005, respectively—were similarly nominated and appeared atop virtually every top critic’s list of the best albums of the year (Kanye West has said Extraordinary Machine made him want to be the “hip-hop Fiona Apple”). But it is her latest—a stripped-down rhythmical and confessional tour de force—which, in its restraint alone, stands as her strongest work yet.

Her unique musical DNA—fusing jazz and the old standards with a dose of post-sixties singer-songwriter — seems inextricable from her biological one, a line of workman American performers steeped in vaudeville, big band, theater, and cable television. So that, in “Every Single Night,” the lines “Little wings of white-flamed / Butterflies in my brain” come with a slight fluttering; there is a quickening, a crescendo through “Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze”; until, by the time “That’s when the pain comes in,” her contralto rings, erupting to accent when in an E-flat that, taken out of context, could be Callas’s, not to mention the almost diabolical use of robato to construct a chorus out of “brain,” stretched into ten notes, ten slurring syllables, in what it occurs to me very early one morning later in her living room in California, the two of us altered to the precipice of poisoning, green stars orbiting above us, her extraordinary voice ricocheting across space: musical onomatopoeia.

by Dan P. Lee, |  Read more
Photo: uncredited:
h/t Longreads

Don't Stop Running

I have never been a physically daring man. I'm afraid of heights such that my palms begin to sweat when I go up high flights of stairs in shopping malls. I'm awful at skiing, made slow and hesitant by an unyielding and morbid fear that I will propel into a tree or somehow shatter my femur in a devastating tumble. In middle school, when I joined the football team, in an attempt to realize my father’s thinly veiled desire that I be a quarterback, I was decidedly not one of the star players. To be very good at football, you need to be able to snuff out the voice inside of you that says it's better for everyone if you do not hurtle your body at great speeds into another person's body. I couldn't squelch that voice, which only got louder after I watched a massive and overeager boy named Ryan bend my friend Mike's leg the wrong way during a hitting drill, breaking it in two places.

Some people don't have a voice urging reticence and caution. My friend Chris doesn't, largely due to the influence of his father, Leo. Leo grew up in Tucson, Arizona, which at that time wasn't even the mid-sized strip-mall Mecca it's become today. Though in many ways he’d had an average middle-class upbringing, Leo’s father was an abusive alcoholic, prompting him to move away from home and get his own place as soon as he could put together enough money, which he earned laying pipe for a construction company. He married his high-school sweetheart, a half-Japanese woman with permanently rosy cheeks named Martha, and soon they were having children. Chris was first, and then his sister, Kelle.

When I met Leo, I was about six or seven. Chris and I went to the same elementary school and had become close quickly ("I think black people are funner and funnier than white people," he once told me excitedly after we first started hanging out). We ended up enrolling in the same karate class so we could spend even more time with each other. His mom or dad, whose house was near our school, would drop us off, and my mom would pick me up later.

I remember being in awe of Leo, a short but solid log of a man, partially because of how different he was from my dad. After working as a pipe layer, Leo hauled scrap from construction sites for a living, while my dad was a lawyer. Leo, with his bushy handlebar mustache, usually wore jeans and work boots, while my dad favored pressed slacks and a clean-shaven face. Leo drove a pickup truck, and not in the way guys in big cities who want to play cowboy drive pickup trucks. Leo's truck was caked in mud and scratched and dented, a victim of the abuses people and things receive in the desert, on dirt roads, around horses, around large men building things with their hands. My dad drove a Saab.

What I appreciated most about Leo, and what was most different about him from my parents, was how much time he spent in the outdoors. My father once said to me, "All the camping I need to do in this life I already did in Vietnam"; my mother, while lovely and doting, always preferred a bridge game to a fishing rod. I grew up a child who found many of my most enriching experiences indoors, in front of a computer or a book or a movie. For that reason, Leo's stories about his far-flung wilderness adventures were exotic to me, stirring a curiosity deep from within, as if I were listening to an alien describe a cocktail party on the moon.

Besides pictures of his children, Leo's walls were embellished with mounted heads of deer and javelina (small desert pigs) he'd killed with arrows and bullets, and then gutted himself. He angled on lakes and streams and the ocean, sometimes fighting for hours to reel in fish that were roughly the size of human babies. When mere rods grew tiresome, Leo would throw on snorkeling gear and leap into the water to fish with a spear gun. He skied on snow and water, and he scuba dived. Once, not having the slightest idea how to sail, Leo bought a small sailboat anyway and made Chris accompany him on the vessel's maiden voyage. For half a day they got thrown haphazardly around a lake in northern Arizona by gusts of wind neither of them knew how to navigate, eventually capsizing the boat and having to wait for the only other boat on the water to come and rescue them. But tenacity prevailed, and by the time dusk began to settle on the painted rock formations ringing the water, the novices had become a halfway passable skipper and first mate. Soon thereafter, Leo was signing them up for sailing races in Mexico.

by Cord Jefferson, The Awl |  Read more:
Photo: Uncredited

Milton AveryOffshore Island. 1958. Oil on canvas.

by Ryan Harding, Untitled

Citizen Coupon

Imagine there was no such thing as a library, and that members of the current neoliberal policy consensus were to sit down today and invent it. They might create complicated tax expenditures to subsidize the poor purchasing and reselling books, like the wage support of the earned income tax credit. They might require people to rent books from approved private libraries, with penalties for those who don’t and vouchers for those who can’t afford it, like the individual mandate in the latest expansion of health care. They might come up with a program where they take on liability for books that go missing from private libraries and thereby boost profits for lenders themselves, like federally backed private student loans. Or maybe they’d create means-tested libraries only accessible to the poor, with a requirement that patrons document how impoverished they are month after month to keep their library card. Maybe they’d exempt the cost of private library cards from payroll taxes, or let anything calling itself a library pay nothing in taxes.

Of course, there’s no saying exactly what the neoliberal library would look like. But we know one option that wouldn’t be on the table: the straightforward public library, open to all, provided and run by the government, which our cities and towns enjoy every day.

Whatever the furor around Obamacare, the fundamental ideological conflict surrounding the welfare state in the United States is no longer over the scope of government, but instead over how the government carries out its responsibilities and delivers services like education, health care, old-age pensions, and a wide variety of other primary goods. Conservatives and neoliberals envision a government that provides a comparable range of benefits to the one advocated by earlier American liberals. But rather than designing and delivering services directly, the neoliberal government provides coupons for citizens. Coupons—often defined in anodyne terms such as “vouchers,” “premium support,” or “tax subsidies”—can be used to purchase services in the private market. Whenever neoliberals have sought to expand the scope of the welfare state or conservatives have tried shrink it, they have come bearing coupons.

Over the past thirty years, efforts to privatize what government does and replace it with vouchers have taken hold in elite policy circles. But recent popular pushback against the privatization of Social Security, the use of private military contractors, and the voucherization of Medicare in Paul Ryan’s budget shows that the way we provision government services is still a point of contention.

A voucher is generally a subsidy that gives an individual a limited amount of purchasing power for specific kinds of goods and services. Vouchers place limits on the types of goods and services that can be provided but allow for a large amount of choice within those limits. Direct, public provisioning and vouchers should be thought of as existing along a continuum. Public provisioning can range from government monopolies, like defense, to public options that are in competition with private options, such as K-12 schools and universities.

Advocates of the coupon state point to many advantages. Individuals can choose among market competitors, best satisfying their own preferences and elevating the best products. In a competitive market, the sellers respond by increasing the quality and quantity of a good for a given price, bringing efficiency to bear. This unleashes the advantages of market competition while still allowing the government a role in helping with the allocation of certain goods. And since the amount the voucher is worth is capped, it allows for better state budget control by forcing additional costs onto the individual, if that becomes a goal of policy makers.

There are major drawbacks, however. The benefits of vouchers skew upward, because taking advantage of them requires information and resources. Coupons delivered through the tax code or steady employment regressively benefit those who pay the most in taxes or receive the most benefits from their employers. These programs are less visible to the public, giving the impression that the private market is more “natural” while hiding the government’s role in creating these markets. Meanwhile, voucher systems create new coalitions of business interests, providers, middlemen, and conservatives to defend their version of the welfare state.

by Mike Konczal, Dissent |  Read more:
Illustration: Uncredited

Better Than Human

It’s hard to believe you’d have an economy at all if you gave pink slips to more than half the labor force. But that—in slow motion—is what the industrial revolution did to the workforce of the early 19th century. Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields. Those who once farmed were now manning the legions of factories that churned out farm equipment, cars, and other industrial products. Since then, wave upon wave of new occupations have arrived—appliance repairman, offset printer, food chemist, photographer, web designer—each building on previous automation. Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.

It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation. Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines. In other words, robot replacement is just a matter of time. This upheaval is being led by a second wave of automation, one that is centered on artificial cognition, cheap sensors, machine learning, and distributed smarts. This deep automation will touch all jobs, from manual labor to knowledge work.

First, machines will consolidate their gains in already-automated industries. After robots finish replacing assembly line workers, they will replace the workers in warehouses. Speedy bots able to lift 150 pounds all day long will retrieve boxes, sort them, and load them onto trucks. Fruit and vegetable picking will continue to be robotized until no humans pick outside of specialty farms. Pharmacies will feature a single pill-dispensing robot in the back while the pharmacists focus on patient consulting. Next, the more dexterous chores of cleaning in offices and schools will be taken over by late-night robots, starting with easy-to-do floors and windows and eventually getting to toilets. The highway legs of long-haul trucking routes will be driven by robots embedded in truck cabs.

All the while, robots will continue their migration into white-collar work. We already have artificial intelligence in many of our machines; we just don’t call it that. Witness one piece of software by Narrative Science (profiled in issue 20.05) that can write newspaper stories about sports games directly from the games’ stats or generate a synopsis of a company’s stock performance each day from bits of text around the web. Any job dealing with reams of paperwork will be taken over by bots, including much of medicine. Even those areas of medicine not defined by paperwork, such as surgery, are becoming increasingly robotic. The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic.

And it has already begun. (...)

To understand how robot replacement will happen, it’s useful to break down our relationship with robots into four categories, as summed up in this chart:

The rows indicate whether robots will take over existing jobs or make new ones, and the columns indicate whether these jobs seem (at first) like jobs for humans or for machines.

Let’s begin with quadrant A: jobs humans can do but robots can do even better. Humans can weave cotton cloth with great effort, but automated looms make perfect cloth, by the mile, for a few cents. The only reason to buy handmade cloth today is because you want the imperfections humans introduce. We no longer value irregularities while traveling 70 miles per hour, though—so the fewer humans who touch our car as it is being made, the better.

And yet for more complicated chores, we still tend to believe computers and robots can’t be trusted. That’s why we’ve been slow to acknowledge how they’ve mastered some conceptual routines, in some cases even surpassing their mastery of physical routines. A computerized brain known as the autopilot can fly a 787 jet unaided, but irrationally we place human pilots in the cockpit to babysit the autopilot “just in case.” In the 1990s, computerized mortgage appraisals replaced human appraisers wholesale. Much tax preparation has gone to computers, as well as routine x-ray analysis and pretrial evidence-gathering—all once done by highly paid smart people. We’ve accepted utter reliability in robot manufacturing; soon we’ll accept it in robotic intelligence and service.

Next is quadrant B: jobs that humans can’t do but robots can. A trivial example: Humans have trouble making a single brass screw unassisted, but automation can produce a thousand exact ones per hour. Without automation, we could not make a single computer chip—a job that requires degrees of precision, control, and unwavering attention that our animal bodies don’t possess. Likewise no human, indeed no group of humans, no matter their education, can quickly search through all the web pages in the world to uncover the one page revealing the price of eggs in Katmandu yesterday. Every time you click on the search button you are employing a robot to do something we as a species are unable to do alone.

While the displacement of formerly human jobs gets all the headlines, the greatest benefits bestowed by robots and automation come from their occupation of jobs we are unable to do. We don’t have the attention span to inspect every square millimeter of every CAT scan looking for cancer cells. We don’t have the millisecond reflexes needed to inflate molten glass into the shape of a bottle. We don’t have an infallible memory to keep track of every pitch in Major League Baseball and calculate the probability of the next pitch in real time.

We aren’t giving “good jobs” to robots. Most of the time we are giving them jobs we could never do. Without them, these jobs would remain undone.

Now let’s consider quadrant C, the new jobs created by automation—including the jobs that we did not know we wanted done. This is the greatest genius of the robot takeover: With the assistance of robots and computerized intelligence, we already can do things we never imagined doing 150 years ago. We can remove a tumor in our gut through our navel, make a talking-picture video of our wedding, drive a cart on Mars, print a pattern on fabric that a friend mailed to us through the air. We are doing, and are sometimes paid for doing, a million new activities that would have dazzled and shocked the farmers of 1850. These new accomplishments are not merely chores that were difficult before. Rather they are dreams that are created chiefly by the capabilities of the machines that can do them. They are jobs the machines make up.

by Kevin Kelly, Wired |  Read more:
Photo: Peter Yang

Friday, December 28, 2012

R.L. Burnside (Feat. Lyrics Born)

Mark Knopfler

Eros and Psyche

Composites: Nude, negatives, 1966; prints, 1984, Ray K. Metzker.

Soul Men

First thing in the morning, the king of Hollywood receives a phone call. The call always comes from New York. The reason is simple. New York, being three hours ahead of Los Angeles, always has The Numbers. And The Numbers—daily accountings of every dollar spent, every box-office receipt—are all that matter.

That’s how Lew Wasserman sees it. And if Lew Wasserman sees it that way, that’s the way it is. This is what makes him Lew Wasserman, the feared and omnipotent head of Universal Pictures.

It is October 1979, and The Numbers are not to Wasserman’s satisfaction. The culprit is Universal’s big-ticket production The Blues Brothers, a movie that pretty much defies logic and description. Some call it a musical; others, a comedy; others, a buddy movie; others, a bloated vanity project.

One thing is clear. The movie is behind schedule and burning through its budget, which Wasserman considered too big to begin with. That Wasserman feels this way about every film’s budget is incidental.

Goddammit!” Wasserman says to his second-in-command, Ned Tanen, the president of Universal. Tanen then finds the executive one rung lower. This is Sean Daniel, Universal’s vice president in charge of production. Tanen, shouting “I’m getting killed here!,” orders Daniel to do something, anything, to stanch the bleeding.

Daniel calls the movie’s director, John Landis. Landis then appeals to one of the film’s two stars, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The latter is always easy to find and to deal with. He is also, by a mile, the best way to reach Belushi.

Everything revolves around Belushi, the most electric and popular comic actor of his time. It would be inaccurate to blame all the movie’s problems on Belushi. He isn’t responsible for the late-developing script or the unwieldy action sequences. It would be even more inaccurate to say Belushi isn’t responsible. He has become a blessed wreck, thanks mostly to his spiraling (and ultimately lethal) addiction to cocaine.

On days when coke gets the best of Belushi, production stalls. And when production stalls, money burns. And when money burns, Lew Wasserman burns.

by Ned Zeman, Vanity Fair |  Read more:
Photo: Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone

Herbert James Draper, The Sea Maiden, oil on canvas, 1894.

Source: unknown

Alex Roulette. Smoke Bomb, 2012. Oil on panel, 33 x 44”.

She Can’t Sleep No More

Marissa Mayer was recently made CEO of Yahoo, the struggling online media giant. The board knew they needed a sort of miracle, something so extraordinary that it’d jolt the company into success, so they took a deep breath, prayed and threw a Hail Mary pass: they hired a pregnant woman. A pregnant woman who had occupied the top tier of Google, but still a rare bird. A few months later, Mayer received a further plaudit, albeit a less lucrative one: she topped Business Insider’s list of “19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep.” “She used to put in 130 hour weeks [when she worked] at Google,” explained Insider, and “she managed that schedule by sleeping under her desk and being ‘strategic’ about her showers.”

In an office environment in which success depends on being “strategic” about hygiene, personal time is taken like a Jetson’s meal pill: compressed, trivial, quickly swallowed. Employees, to get ahead, not only work all the hours of the day, but all the hours not in the day, and sleep on the couch with pens slipping from their hands like college students. The ideal worker is the worker whose whole meaningful life happens within the four walls of the office, or whose wage work has expanded to fill the home. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the tech world, land of startups, where one is supposed to identify with the company absolutely.

Silicon Valley’s countercultural vibe has long masked its Wall Street-style labor discipline: a heavy emphasis on smartness, flexibility, and willingness to work more grueling hours than the guy next to you. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has even confessed to “sneaking” out of the office to have dinner with her family so as not to run afoul of overwrought office cultures. So intense is the work expectation that the biography of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs has become a sort of Bible for the aspiringly sleep-deprived. A Wired journalist quotes Steve Davis, the CEO of a software company serving financial institutions, and a professed Jobs acolyte, living the dream. “He explained that he had consciously set aside certain aspects of his family life, since he believes that startups fail when those involved aren’t committed to being available 24 hours a day. Luckily, Davis told me, he was blessed with a wife who picked up the slack.”

The journalist doesn’t say whether Davis’s wife has a job, but if she does, she will likely star in her own magazine article, one in which she “has it all,” hearth and boardroom. Feminism is the latest movement warped into the service of money making, with a new crop of Silicon Valley bosses — Mayer and Sandberg chief among them — celebrated as icons of female achievement. Nary an article about Mayer goes by without wide-eyed appreciation of her miracle birth. She has achieved something greater than the Virgin Mary: becoming pregnant without losing her bonus. And she is super excited about it. “The baby’s been way easier than everyone made it out to be,” Mayer said at the 2012 Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. She won’t take maternity leave.

Rather than a reflection of Mayer, this is an impressive absorption of female biology into a reinforcement of the work ethic. Everyone knows that men can work all the time by ignoring their families. But women give birth. They’re natural nurturers. What if they can perform both roles and somehow center motherhood and CEOship? She becomes a superworker, “balancing” two loads too heavy to be borne in any proportion. Womeninsist that they can “do it all” so as not to appear disadvantaged in comparison to their male colleagues; this scrabbling not to be left behind merely legitimizes the insane work ethic. Women’s desire to break the glass ceiling right under Jobs’s feet — Mayer has referred to him as one of her heroes on Twitter — reinforces the importance of a brutal, dehumanizing schedule. Women can do that too. Only more.

The way this is done by someone like Mayer isn’t a mystery: she hires multiple nannies, a fleet of cars, all the help she could want. But she represents an ideal for the non-millionaire women out there: having it all by doing it all, running the show without losing that most important female credential — motherhood. Mayer does it all by being rich. Most women aren’t so lucky, still doing on average two more hours of housework a day than men and working for wages all the while.

Which points toward the core of the “having it all” debates: time is a feminist issue. Time is a feminist issue because we don’t actually want women to have to birth babies in cyborg wombs — pace Shulamith Firestone — if they’re going to hold their own in society. Pregnancy accounts for a great deal of the wage gap because women take time off or are fired before they can ask for a break. It indicates a vast realm of work—the famed “second shift” — that women perform without compensation in addition to the wage labor they perform outside of the home. This labor mostly falls to women, but it raises questions of pace and time for all workers — one shouldn’t be penalized for no longer being able to sleep under one’s desk. Because it’s barbaric.

by Sarah Leonard, Jacobin |  Read more:
Photo: TechCrunch

China's New Capitalist Nobility

Lying in a Beijing military hospital in 1990, General Wang Zhen told a visitor he felt betrayed. Decades after he risked his life fighting for an egalitarian utopia, the ideals he held as one of Communist China’s founding fathers were being undermined by the capitalist ways of his children -- business leaders in finance, aviation and computers.

“Turtle eggs,” he said to the visiting well-wisher, using a slang term for bastards. “I don’t acknowledge them as my sons.”

Two of the sons now are planning to turn a valley in northwestern China where their father once saved Mao Zedong’s army from starvation into a $1.6 billion tourist attraction. The resort in Nanniwan would have a revolution-era theme and tourist-friendly versions of the cave homes in which cadres once sheltered from the cold.

One son behind the project, Wang Jun, helped build two of the country’s biggest state-owned empires: Citic (6030) Group Corp., the state-run investment behemoth that was the first company to sell bonds abroad since the revolution; and China Poly Group Corp., once an arm of the military, that sold weapons and drilled for oil in Africa.

Today, the 71-year-old Wang Jun is considered the godfather of golf in China. He’s also chairman of a Hong Kong-listed company that jointly controls a pawnshop operator and of a firm providing back-office technology services to Chinese police, customs and banks.

Swiss School

His Australia-educated daughter, Jingjing, gives her home address in business filings as a $7 million Hong Kong apartment partly owned by Citic. Her daughter, 21-year-old Clare, details her life on social media, from the Swiss boarding school she attended to business-class airport lounges. Her “look of the day” posted on Aug. 24 featured pictures of a Lady Dior (CDI) handbag, gold-studded Valentino shoes and an Alexander McQueen bracelet. Those accessories would cost about $5,000, more than half a year’s wages for the average Beijing worker.

The family’s wealth traces back to a gamble taken by General Wang and a group of battle-hardened revolutionaries, who are revered in China as the “Eight Immortals.” Backing Deng Xiaoping two years after Mao’s death in 1976, they wagered that opening China to the outside world would raise living standards, while avoiding social upheaval that would threaten the Communist Party’s grip on power.

New Class

In three decades, they and their successors lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty and created a home-owning middle class as China rose to become the world’s second-biggest economy. Chinese on average now eat six times more meat than they did in 1976, and 100 million people have traded in their bicycles for automobiles.

The Immortals also sowed the seeds of one of the biggest challenges to the Party’s authority. They entrusted some of the key assets of the state to their children, many of whom became wealthy. It was the beginning of a new elite class, now known as princelings. This is fueling public anger over unequal accumulation of wealth, unfair access to opportunity and exploitation of privilege -- all at odds with the original aims of the communist revolution.

To reveal the scale and origins of this red aristocracy, Bloomberg News traced the fortunes of 103 people, the Immortals’ direct descendants and their spouses. The result is a detailed look at one part of China’s elite and how its members reaped benefits from the country’s boom.

by Shai Oster, Michael Forsythe, Natasha Khan, Dune Lawrence and Henry Sanderson, Bloomberg News |  Read more:
Photo: Nelson Ching

A Newspaper's Digital Progress

[ed. In case some haven't seen it, this really is a new and impressive form of storytelling.]

With its spectacular graphics and photography, and its beautifully written narrative, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” was a compelling project, even for those who might not have been particularly interested in the topic.

The effort, which appeared last week, received around 2.9 million visits, and the visitors shared some qualities that are much desired by The Times. First, many of them – maybe as many as one-third — were new visitors to The Times. Second, they spent a lot of time with the project, about 12 minutes, which amounts to eons for a single digital story.

In an e-mail to the newsroom, Jill Abramson, the executive editor, called it a “wildly new reading experience.” She summed it up by noting that “rarely have we been able to create a compelling destination outside the home page that was so engaging in such a short period of time on the Web.”

Clearly, this is something The Times hopes to do more of, and others will undoubtedly do it, as well. The Web site PaidContent wrote about it at length in a piece this week on a major media trend of 2012, “The Rise of the E-Single.”

by Margaret Sullivan, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Chase Jarvis

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Helmut Newton

Ordinary Folks Losing Faith in Stocks

Defying decades of investment history, ordinary Americans are selling stocks for a fifth year in a row. The selling has not let up despite unprecedented measures by the Federal Reserve to persuade people to buy and the come-hither allure of a levitating market. Stock prices have doubled from March 2009, their low point during the Great Recession.

It's the first time ordinary folks have sold during a sustained bull market since relevant records were first kept during World War II, an examination by The Associated Press has found. The AP analyzed money flowing into and out of stock funds of all kinds, including relatively new exchange-traded funds, which investors like because of their low fees.

"People don't trust the market anymore," says financial historian Charles Geisst of Manhattan College. He says a "crisis of confidence" similar to one after the Crash of 1929 will keep people away from stocks for a generation or more.

The implications for the economy and living standards are unclear but potentially big. If the pullback continues, some experts say, it could lead to lower spending by companies, slower U.S. economic growth and perhaps lower gains for those who remain in the market.

Since they started selling in April 2007, eight months before the start of the Great Recession, individual investors have pulled at least $380 billion from U.S. stock funds, a category that includes both mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, according to estimates by the AP. That is the equivalent of all the money they put into the market in the previous five years.

Instead of stocks, they're putting money into bonds because those are widely perceived as safer investments. Individuals have put more than $1 trillion into bond mutual funds alone since April 2007, according to the Investment Company Institute, a trade group representing investment funds.

Selling during both a downturn and a recovery is unusual because Americans almost always buy more than they sell during both.

Since World War II, nine recessions besides the Great Recession have been followed by recoveries lasting at least three years. According to data from the Investment Company Institute, individual investors sold during and after only one of those previous downturns — the one from November 1973 through March 1975. And back then a scary stock drop around the start of the recovery's third year, 1977, gave people ample reason to get out of the market.

The unusual pullback this time has spread to other big investors — public and private pension funds, investment brokerages and state and local governments. These groups have sold a total of $861 billion more than they have bought since April 2007, according to the Federal Reserve.

Even foreigners, big purchasers in recent years, are selling now — $16 billion in the 12 months through September.  (...)

The number of shares traded each day has fallen 40 percent from before the recession to a 12-year low, according to the New York Stock Exchange. That's cut into earnings of investment banks and online brokers, which earn fees helping others trade stocks. Initial public offerings, another source ofWall Street profits, are happening at one-third the rate before the recession.

by Bernard Condon, AP |  Read more:
Photo: Chris O'Meara

The Wanderer Stilled

The Zen master hit my hand and asked: ‘Where did the sound go?’ I had no idea. Meeting Zen masters in South Korea was fraught with the risk of appearing a little stupid but I did not mind. It was also fun, like playing the young student Grasshopper in an episode of Kung Fu, or meeting Yoda, the grandmaster of the Jedi council.

It was in South Korea in 1975 that I decided to become a Zen nun. I had wanted to see if meditation would enable me to change my mind. I’d been idealistic from a very young age: from 11 onwards, I’d wanted to save the world. I became an anarchist and read Bakunin; then I dreamed of taking the Magic Bus to India from rural France. But at the ancient age of 18, I realised it wasn’t that easy to change the world, let alone myself. So when I read a Buddhist text that suggested meditation might help, I decided to find a teacher and a practice. I ended up in a Zen Buddhist monastery in South Korea where, for 10 hours a day, I silently asked the question: ‘What is this?’

The Zen word ‘koan’ is sometimes used in common parlance — as in ‘What is the koan of my life?‘ Or ‘Is this is a koan for me?’ The hero of Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) realises that his lack of Spanish enables him to speak in ‘enigmatic koans’. At the University of Warwick, there is a six metre-high sculpture called theWhite Koan by Lilian Lijn, which rotates and is illuminated by fluorescent lights. On MTV, Skrillex, the American electronic musician, recently introduced a DJ duo from Bristol who call themselves Koan Sound after their unusual bass sound. And in June this year, the columnist Paul B Farrell wrote an article headlined ‘The ultimate Zen Koan? Your retirement’. They all used the word ‘koan’ to signify, among a multitude of ideas, a question, a mystery, a concern, an enigma, a riddle, something strange.

‘What is this?’ is one of the most popular koans used in Korea. It is not a riddle with a definite answer. Traditionally, it is seen as a method of radical questioning that will enable one to see one’s true nature and thus become a Buddha. But it is not as easy as that: it takes more than just a weekend meditation intensive to attain the way. It requires years and years of sitting on a cushion and asking until you develop a sensation of questioning so powerful that it ‘explodes’, as the tradition says. In Korean Zen, they say that to accomplish this you need to have great faith, great courage and great questioning. However, I was not so interested in slowly awakening to my own true nature: I wouldn’t have minded if it had suddenly and unexpectedly happened to me. I wanted all along to cultivate wisdom and compassion and, more than anything else, dissolve my restrictive and painful habits of mind and heart.  (...)

After a few months wandering in India and Thailand, I arrived at the monastery of Songgwangsa in South Korea. At the time, this was the only temple in the country that accepted foreigners. I showed up while the largest ceremony of the year was taking place. So I went to help in the kitchen, washing vegetables. During a break, a Korean laywoman asked me about my life. When she realised that I had no ties — no work, no husband, no children, no study — she was delighted for me. If she were me, she said, she would become a Zen nun. I pondered this for a while. She’s right, I thought. Why not stay here for a year or two, and do something totally different? Maybe in this place and tradition I could find a way to stop repeating the same painful mistakes. So, as is customary for meditation monks and nuns in Korea, twice a year, in winter and in summer, for three months at a time, I started to ask ‘What is this?’ for 10 hours a day. Rather than experience the ‘whizz bang’ of enlightenment, I simply found that a greater awareness and compassion were growing within me. This is why I ended up staying in Korea for 10 years.

Two things happened early on, which convinced me that this was all worthwhile. A month into my second three-month retreat, I was sitting on my cushion asking ‘What is this?’ when I suddenly became very aware of what was going on in my mind. It was all about me being at the centre of the universe — what I wanted, what I hoped for, what I did not like, and so on. At the time, I was practising with four other young women, and I realised that they too were doing exactly the same thing. Self-interest was the basis of our identity. This clear awareness did not make me sad or upset. Instead, I found it funny. It exposed my fundamental mis-perception of myself as an incredibly compassionate and selfless person. This experiential awareness led to a deep self-acceptance. I saw clearly for the first time the obstacle at the centre of my suffering and what was needed to transform it. This made me feel lighter. I wasn’t in the dark any more about the conditions that had caused me to keep making the same mistakes again and again.

The second thing happened a few months later. This was during the ‘free season’, when instead of meditating one could travel about in Korea and take care of errands in town. I went to a bank to change some money. The bank teller made an error and gave me more than I should have received. My first thought was to take the money as it would be one against the capitalist system — and more for me, of course. But I stood still, unable to move. I could not do it, could not take the loot. I gave the excess money back. I did not want the bank teller to get into trouble for his error. I was so surprised that I had not reacted in my old habitual way. It had not felt like an intellectual or rational act — forcing myself to do something out of high-minded Zen idealism — but an experiential one. Something seemed to have arisen unbidden as a spontaneous response to the situation.

I came to see that meditation was not about suddenly lighting up like a Christmas tree, but about releasing something and letting go. It became clear that meditation functioned in a subtle subterranean way. At the time, I could not have explained how or why. It was only after I left the monastic life and encountered Buddhist vipassana meditation that I understood how this process worked.

by Martine Batchelor, Aeon |  Read more:
Photo: Martine Batchelor

Swimming by Robert LaDuke, 2012

Don't Pick Up

Parental engagement even in the lives of college-age children has expanded in ways that would have seemed bizarre in the recent past. (Some colleges have actually created a "dean of parents" position—whether identified as such or not—to deal with them.) The "helicopter parents" who hover over nearly every choice or action of their offspring have given way to "snowplow parents" who determinedly clear a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way.

Now, as a professor I have had some experiences with "hel­icopter" parents, and were weather patterns on the West Coast slightly more rigorous, I'm sure I would have encountered "snowplow" parents as well. Indelibly etched on my brain, I tell the class, is a phone call I received one winter break from the aggrieved mother of a student to whom I had given a C-minus in a course that fall. The class had been a graduate course, a Ph.D. seminar, no less. The woman's daughter, a first-year Ph.D. student, had spoken nary a word in class, nor had she ever visited during office hours. Her seminar paper had been unimpressive: Indeed it was one of those for which the epithet "gobsmackingly incoherent" might seem to have been invented. Still, the mother lamented, her daughter was distraught; the poor child had done nothing over the break but cry and brood and wander by herself in the woods. I had ruined everybody's Christmas, apparently, so would I not redeem myself by allowing her daughter to rewrite her seminar paper for a higher grade? It was only fair.

While startled to get such a call, I confess to being cowed by this direct maternal assault and, against my academic better judgment, said OK. The student did rewrite the essay, and this time I gave it a B. Generous, I thought. (It was better but still largely incomprehensible.) Yet the ink was hardly dry when the mother called again: Why wasn't her cherished daughter receiving an A? She had rewritten the paper! Surely I realized ... etc. One was forced to feign the gruesome sounds of a fatal choking fit just to get off the phone.

Did such hands-on parental advocacy—I inquired—trouble my students? My caller obviously represented an extreme instance, but what did they think about the wider phenomenon? Having internalized images of themselves (if only unconsciously) as standard-bearers of parental ambition—or so Lambert's article had it—their peers at Harvard didn't seem particularly shocked or embarrassed by Ma and Pa's lobbying efforts on their behalf. According to one survey, only 5 to 6 percent of undergrads felt their parents had been "too involved" in the admission process. Once matriculated (there's an interesting word), most students saw frequent parental contact and advice-giving as normal: A third of Harvard undergraduates reported calling or messaging daily with a parent.

Yet here it was—just at this delicate punctum—that I found myself reduced (however briefly) to speechlessness. Blindsided. So how often do my students—mostly senior English majors, living in residential dorms—text or talk to their parents? Broad smiles all around. Embarrassed looks at one another. Whispers and some excited giggling. A lot. Well, how much exactly? A lot. But what's a lot? They can't believe I'm asking. Why do I want to know? I might as well be asking them how often they masturbate. And then it all comes tumbling out:

Oh, like, every day, sometimes more than once.

At least two or three times a day. (Group laughter.)

My father e-mails me jokes and stuff every day.

My mother would worry if I didn't call her every day. (Nodding heads.)

Well, we're always in touch—my parents live nearby so I go home weekends, too.

Finally, one student—a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded—confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day: We're like best friends, so I call her whenever I get out of class. She wants to know about my professors, what was the exam, so I tell her what's going on and give her, you know, updates. Sometimes my grandmother's there, and I talk to her too.

I'm stunned; I'm aghast; I'm going gaga. I must look fairly stricken too—Elektra keening over the corpse of Agamemnon—because now the whole class starts laughing at me, their strange unfathomable lady-professor, the one who doesn't own a television and obviously doesn't have any kids of her own. What a freak. "But when I was in school," I manage finally to gasp, "All we wanted to do was get away from our parents!" "We never called our parents!" "We despised our parents!" "In fact," I splutter—and this is the showstopper—"we only had one telephone in our whole dorm—in the hallway—for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell from your room, Tell them I'm not here!"

After this last outburst, the students too look aghast. Not to mention morally discomfited. No; these happy, busy, optimistic Stanford undergrads, so beautiful and good in their unisex T-shirts, hoodies, and J.Crew shorts; so smart, scrupulous, forward-looking, well-meaning, well-behaved, and utterly presentable—just the best and the nicest, really—simply cannot imagine the harsh and silent world I'm describing.

At the time, I wasn't sure why this conversation left me dumbfounded, but it did. It stayed with me for weeks, and I told numerous pals about it, marveling again at the bizarreness of contemporary undergraduate life. One said she talked to her mother five times a day! In the moment, the exchange had awakened in me a fairly dismal psychological sensation I'd sometimes felt in classes before (one hard to acknowledge, so out of step with official norms does it seem): namely, that teaching makes me feel lonely. Not all the time, but enough to notice. Lecturing before students, I will suddenly feel utterly bereft. A cloud goes over the sun. Though putatively in charge, I'm estranged from my charges—self-conscious, alone, in a tunnel, the object of attention (and somehow responsible for everything taking place) but unable to speak a language anyone understands. I feel sad and oppressed, smothered almost, slightly panicky. It's a sensation one might have in an anxiety dream—the sort in which you feel abandoned and overwhelmed and without something you desperately need. They've gone away and left me in charge of everything. At least in my own head, it's the sensation of orphanhood. (...)

Now, lest one wonder, I should say upfront I am not an orphan—or at least not in the official sense. At the time of writing, both my parents are still alive—in their mid-80s, but frail, beginning to fail. They don't live together. In fact, despite residing less than a mile apart, they haven't laid eyes on one another for almost 40 years. Not even by accident in the Rite Aid store. Don't ask. They've had five rancorous marriages between them. I haven't seen my father more than 10 or 12 times over the past decade. That my recurrent sense of psychic estrangement—not to say shock at my students' hooked-in, booked-up, seemingly bountiful lives—might be in some way connected with these Jolly Aged P's is a topic that would no doubt require a posse of shrinks to explore thoroughly. But even without reference to private psychodrama, I think I now at least half-grasp the reason why my students' overscheduled lives, so paradoxically conjoined (I felt) with intense bonds with parents, discombobulated me so thoroughly.

Unsurprisingly, orphanhood—that painful thing—has everything to do with the case. Orphanhood conceived, that is, in the broadest sense: as a metaphor for modern human experience, as symbol for unhappy consciousness, as emblem of that groundwork—that inaugural experience of metaphysical solitude—that Martin Heidegger deemed necessary for the act of philosophizing. About orphanhood conceived, in other words, as a condition for world-making—as both the sorrow and creative quintessence of life.

by Terry Castle, The Chronicle Review |  Read more:
Photo: Chris Scott for The Chronicle Review