Monday, September 30, 2013

Carl Moser, Pavone con tre ciliegie 1905-06

The Beatles

Holy Crap

There are a dozen sit-down toilet stalls in the New Braunfels Buc-ee’s men’s room. On a recent Sunday, all of them were occupied, door locks slid to red, even as a good number of urinals—and there are 33 to choose from—went unmanned. The convenience store’s facilities are different from almost every other men’s room in America—not because they’re huge, and not because they’re busy (although both those things are true), but because elsewhere, stalls are usually a last resort. At Buc-ee’s, which prides itself on restroom cleanliness, men use the stalls because they can.

“The Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee’s: Number 1 and Number 2,” reads one of the company’s many roadside billboards. While there’s no shortage of relief options along Interstate 35 between Dallas and San Antonio, the New Braunfels Buc-ee’s is the reigning champion of the annual “America’s Best Restroom” contest, held by bathroom and service supplier Cintas.

As another sign boasts, these are “Rest-rooms You Have to Pee to Believe.” The men’s urinal area has 28 privacy-walled white Kohlers, and there are 5 more in the stall area. Each urinal is numbered for clean-up purposes (“We need a quick mop under number seventeen!”) and, like each stall, has its own Purell dispenser. All told, the men’s room has eight sparkling sinks, twelve always-humming automated EnMotion towel dispensers, and nine Buc-ee’s beaver–logoed pink-gel-soap dispensers (not to mention six additional public Purells). The floor-to-ceiling stall dividers eliminate the kind of, er, crawl space present at airports, and with four double-rolled dispensers of toilet paper beside each toilet, you’d never have to pass a roll between them anyway.

“People will hold it so they can go here,” said 21-year-old Texas State University student Scott Sommerlatte, one of the five maintenance “associates” in red shirts and khaki pants who man the restroom 24/7.

by Jason Cohen, Texas Monthly |  Read more:
Image: Jason Cohen

Stop That Bus (I Want to Get On)

It’s 6:45 on Monday morning in Noe Valley, and, as usual, I’m pumping away on a stationary bike in a storefront gym. The spin class instructor’s iPhone is plugged into a portable speaker, hip-hop lite urging us on. I’m breathing hard. I feel good. Suddenly, light splashes across the room—a bus has pulled up outside, its towering sides reflecting the morning sun. Pure white and spotless. Dark-tinted windows. No label, but an LED sign over the door: “GBUS TO MTV.”

Two or three people in their 20s who’ve been waiting outside, accompanied by their well-behaved dogs, climb aboard. Then the door eases closed and the bus glides away, heading 35 miles south to the immaculate town of Mountain View, to the Googleplex.

I keep on pedaling, going nowhere, nagged by the question that’s been dogging me the past several months: Was that the future leaving me behind?

The corporate perk I just witnessed has become an achingly familiar one in these parts, and a noisy, flashy metaphor for whatever we feel about the tech industry in our midst: annoyance, resentment, paranoia, even something like hate. In the Mission district in May, affordable housing protesters bashed a piñata in the shape of the Bus; in June’s Pride Parade, another group of activists leased a white bus as part of an elaborate, unflattering parody of the techies; and no less a social critic than George Packer in the New Yorker called the Bus “a vivid emblem of the tech boom’s stratifying effect in the Bay Area.” There is nothing like a shining white chariot sailing through the streets to remind us on the sidewalk that we are not the anointed. The implication pisses off a fair number of San Franciscans.

But what if you don’t hate, or resent, or self-righteously mock the Bus? What if you want to be on the Bus? What if, when you are pedaling madly at 6:45 in the morning and watching the Bus pull away, the emotion you feel is not anger, but envy?

My own fixation on the Bus began in April, when I lost my job at age 54. For more than 20 years I’d survived in the tempestuous media ocean by surfing jobs from reporter to critic to editor. For the last dozen years I had been a high-ranking magazine editor—first in the Midwest, then in New York, and ultimately here—helping steer some of the industry’s biggest and most lucrative powerhouses: Better Homes and Gardens, Oprah, Sunset.

I was a success in a profession that was growing less successful every day. Print media, as we all know, is on a downward trajectory, its audiences increasingly distracted, its advertising revenues diverted into all things digital, leaving us print people watching anxiously as our staffs shrink and our budgets crumble. When Steve Jobs held up the first iPad almost four years ago, I got editor goose bumps—that was where everything that I put together, words and images and ideas, would live. That was exciting. But rather than streaming me into a digital expansion, my job more often involved trimming line items and laying people off. Finally, unable to reinvent my calling fast enough, I was shown the door myself.

A New York recruiter I’ve known for years called me when she heard that I was job-free. “Now’s your chance!” she said, meaning that I now had the opportunity to exit the death spiral of print publishing once and for all. She sounded almost jealous. At the time, it made me feel a bit better about getting fired. But I still wasn’t clear on how to turn the situation into some kind of luck. In the old world, I had mastered the rules and the etiquette and the language of career advancement. Now all of that seemed less certain. All I knew was, I wanted to be on the side that is reimagining the new, not defending the old.

by Kitty Morgan, SF Magazine |  Read more:
Image: Dan Escobar

Leah Giberson, Garden Chairs, April 2003

Collage 254 by kimama

Freedom of Information

At eight-thirty on the morning of June 21st, Alan Rusbridger, the unflappable editor of the Guardian, Britain’s liberal daily, was in his office, absorbing a lecture from Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary to Prime Minister David Cameron. Accompanying Heywood was Craig Oliver, Cameron’s director of communications. The deputy editor, Paul Johnson, joined them in Rusbridger’s office, overlooking the Regent’s Canal, which runs behind King’s Cross station, in North London. According to Rusbridger, Heywood told him, in a steely voice, “The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Attorney General, and others in government are extremely concerned about what you’re doing.”

Since June 5th, the Guardian had been publishing top-secret digital files provided by Edward Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security Agency. In a series of articles, the paper revealed that the N.S.A., in the name of combatting terrorism, had monitored millions of phone calls and e-mails as well as the private deliberations of allied governments. It also revealed, again relying on Snowden’s documents, that, four years earlier, the Government Communications Headquarters (G.C.H.Q.), Britain’s counterpart to the N.S.A., had eavesdropped on the communications of other nations attending the G20 summit, in London.

Such articles have become a trademark of the Guardian. In 2009, it published the first in a torrent of stories revealing how Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids had bribed the police and hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians, and the Royal Family. In 2010, the Guardian published a trove of WikiLeaks documents that disclosed confidential conversations among diplomats of the United States, Britain, and other governments, and exposed atrocities that were committed in Iraq and Afghanistan; in August, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a private in the U.S. Army, was sentenced to up to thirty-five years in prison for his role in the leak.

Now Rusbridger was poised to publish a story about how the G.C.H.Q. not only collected vast quantities of e-mails, Facebook posts, phone calls, and Internet histories but shared these with the N.S.A. Heywood had learned about the most recent revelation when Guardian reporters called British authorities for comment; he warned Rusbridger that the Guardian was in possession of stolen government documents. “We want them back,” he said. Unlike the U.S., Britain has no First Amendment to guard the press against government censorship. Rusbridger worried that the government would get a court injunction to block the Guardian from publishing not only the G.C.H.Q. story but also future national-security stories. “By publishing this, you’re jeopardizing not only national security but our ability to catch pedophiles, drug dealers, child sex rings,” Heywood said. “You’re an editor, but you have a responsibility as a citizen as well.” (Cameron’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Rusbridger replied that the files contained information that citizens in a democracy deserved to know, and he assured Heywood that he had scrubbed the documents so that no undercover officials were identified or put at risk. He had also taken steps to insure the story’s publication. Days earlier, Rusbridger had sent a Federal Express package containing a thumbnail drive of selected Snowden documents to an intermediary in the U.S. The person was to pass on the package to Paul Steiger, the former editor of the Wall Street Journal and the founding editor of the online, nonprofit news site ProPublica; if the Guardian was muzzled, Steiger would publish the documents on ProPublica. Besides, Rusbridger reminded Heywood, the government’s reach was limited: Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian blogger and columnist with whom Snowden had shared the documents, lived in Brazil, and was edited by Janine Gibson, a Guardian editor in New York.

“It was a little like watching two Queen’s Counsel barristers in a head-to-head struggle, two very polished performers engaging each other,” Johnson, the deputy editor, said. The Guardian has a reputation as a leftish publication that enjoys poking the establishment; its critics object that it allows commentary to occasionally slip into its headlines and news stories. Rusbridger, who is fifty-nine, has been its editor for eighteen years. He wears square, black-framed glasses and has a mop of dark hair that sprawls across his head and over his ears. He could pass for a librarian. “His physical appearance doesn’t tell you how tough he is,” Nick Davies, the investigative reporter whose byline dominated the Murdoch and WikiLeaks stories, said.

After an hour, Rusbridger ushered Heywood and Oliver out with a thank-you. He had taken what he considered a cautious approach to publishing the Snowden revelations. He consulted Guardian lawyers. He called Davies back from vacation and summoned the longtime investigations editor, David Leigh, out of retirement for advice and to help analyze the documents. He sought the opinion of two associates: the centrist Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins and the liberal Observer columnist Henry Porter. “He doesn’t buckle,” Porter, who is a close friend, said. “He’s extremely calm. He could easily head up any of the three intelligence agencies here.”

At 5:23 p.m., roughly eight hours after the encounter in his office, Rusbridger ordered the Guardian to post the G.C.H.Q. story on its Web site and then in its print edition. Although the British government had taken no further action, the mood in the Guardian’s offices was anxious. As the stories based on Snowden’s revelations were taking shape, Rusbridger had hired additional security for the building and established a secure office two floors above the newsroom, just down the corridor from the advertising department, to house the documents. When he flew to New York to work with his team there on the stories, “he couldn’t talk on the phone,” his wife, Lindsay Mackie, said. “He couldn’t say what was going on.”

It has been the Guardian’s biggest story so far. With eighty-four million monthly visitors, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Guardian Web site is now the third most popular English-language newspaper Web site in the world, behind London’s Daily Mail, with its celebrity gossip and abundant cleavage, and the New York Times. But its print circulation, of a hundred and ninety thousand, is half what it was in 2002. The Guardian, which is supported by the Scott Trust, established nearly eighty years ago to subsidize an “independent” and “liberal” newspaper, has lost money for nine straight years. In the most recent fiscal year, the paper lost thirty-one million pounds (about fifty million dollars), an improvement over the forty-four million pounds it lost the year before.

Last year, Andrew Miller, the director of the trust and the C.E.O. of the Guardian Media Group, warned that the trust’s money would be exhausted in three to five years if the losses were not dramatically reduced. To save the Guardian, Rusbridger has pushed to transform it into a global digital newspaper, aimed at engaged, anti-establishment readers and available entirely for free. In 2011, Guardian U.S., a digital-only edition, was expanded, followed this year by the launch of an Australian online edition. It’s a grand experiment, he concedes: just how free can a free press be?

by Ken Auletta, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: James Day

An Oral History of George Plimpton: The Man Does Everything Rather Well

[ed. I know I just did a post by George Plimpton last week (on the occasion of his 10th year of passing), but I stumbled upon this article this morning and it's too good not to share. What a life, what a unique individual.]

If Manhattan can be said to have a man of letters, few would argue with bestowing that title on George Plimpton, editor since 1953 of The Paris Review , inventor of participatory journalism, host of an endless stream of literary parties in his East 72nd Street town house. In his new book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career , Mr. Plimpton, as he did with Edie Sedgwick and Robert F. Kennedy, has created an oral biography of an American icon. One could say that Mr. Plimpton, given his literary output and after-hours enthusiasms, prolongs Capote’s motif of writers and society locked in a treacherous, giddy dance.

In that vein, here is an oral biography of George Plimpton.

Mr. Plimpton was born in Manhattan in 1927 and raised in Huntington, L.I. His father co-founded the law firm Debevoise Plimpton. Mr. Plimpton attended Phillips Exeter Academy but graduated from a high school in Daytona, Fla. He attended Harvard University, was editor of The Harvard Lampoon , graduated in 1950. He studied for two years at King’s College, Cambridge, then moved to Paris, where, with Peter Matthiessen and Harold (Doc) Humes, he founded The Paris Review . In 1955, he moved back to New York. In 23 books and countless magazine pieces, he invented a new brand of journalism: playing for both the Detroit Lions and the New York Philharmonic, circus trapezing, photographing centerfolds for Playboy . In 1968, he married his first wife, Freddy Espy, and had two children. In 1992, he married Sarah Whitehead Dudley; they had twins. He still edits The Paris Review out of his town house and gets around Manhattan on a bicycle. (...)

Nan Kempner, socialite: I met George in 1951, when I was at the Sorbonne, and he was at Cambridge. He had just been skiing in Chamonix, and he had broken his leg, and I was the date of someone else. We went punting on the Cam and, of course, by the time we got out of the punt, George and I were in love. He was one of the most dynamic, dramatic, attractive men I’d ever met. We had a little period where he would fly to Paris, and I would fly to London, and we had an awfully good time. We were both too young for it to be anything but innocent. He was a good kisser. He was good at everything.

Peter Duchin, society band leader: When he came to Paris in his early Paris Review days, George stayed with us some nights on the barge that Bob Silvers [current editor of The New York Review of Books ] and I shared near the Pont d’Alma. He slept on an army cot which wasn’t quite as long as he was. His feet stuck out the bottom. In the morning, he would walk up to the Plaza Athénée hotel, one of the fanciest in Paris, and do his correspondence on their stationery.

George Plimpton: In Paris, there was a beautiful girl who was the publisher of Merlin , a literary magazine. Jane Lougee, a very stunning girl. Her great lover at that time was Alex Trocchi, the editor of Merlin . They lived together but he was happy to pass her around to other people, I’ll guarantee you. We went to the Quat’zarts Ball, it was a group of art students, and you were supposed to have a tableau to be judged. Every balcony had one of these tableaux. So Alex Trocchi suggested that he and Jane Lougee make love on the balustrade of this balcony, and I was standing holding a fan. This was very risqué, even for Paris at that time. So there was Jane, naked, lying there getting ready, and this big searchlight was moving through, picking up tableau after tableau, and it came to ours and there I was, fanning. She was lying there naked waiting for Alex to start making love to her, and he, while running up the little stairway, knocked his head and knocked himself out, so there was nobody to make love to her, which upset him. He said “Why didn’t you take my place?” The idea never crossed my mind, I must say. (...)

Gay Talese, writer: I remember one time, at the height of Camelot, this party, a mixed bag of people, a couple black people and a couple socialites and a couple beatniks, I remember when Jacqueline Kennedy walked in. She was on George’s arm, and tall as he is, he was looking over the crowd, craning his neck, surveying, you know, a hundred people, and I watched his eyes moving around the room, and at certain points, his eyes would stop and lock on to a person he saw, and I could see registered in his brain that, “Yes, I will introduce that person to Jackie,” and, “No, I will not introduce this person to Jackie,” and “Yes, I will introduce that person to Jackie,” and it reminded me of a slot machine, because I saw the eyes rolling, rolling, and then they would stop, and you knew you had either a good or a bad reaction. In a way, he was surveying his life, he was surveying the eclectic gathering of people with whom he associates himself-but, on this occasion, he found himself looking at his collected force of friends in a way that was somewhat … I’m not saying critical … I merely saying here that he was looking upon the gathering, and into his world walks the First Lady-and I am just saying, he had to make a decision. You have to draw the line somewhere, and so he did. Certainly, he would not introduce the First Lady to Norman Mailer. That is a foregone conclusion. I mean, Mailer is out. We’re talking about the 1960′s. Do you understand? Put this in context. You don’t introduce her to this macho Mailer. God knows what he is going to say to her. I am merely saying that George Plimpton had to be an editor, not of The Paris Review , but more than that-within his own house, he had to edit out those people who were going to be risky when being introduced to the First Lady. (...)

Remar Sutton, writer: The Harvard Lampoon had decided in the early 70′s for George to build the world’s largest firework. George and I end up in Florida on a narrow sand spit in the Indian River with a two-ton steel cylinder. The Grucci family is with us, there are about 25,000 people lying along the shoreline, and a crane is putting in a 700-pound firework into this cylinder. We’re on this tiny sand spit with a lot of reporters, a lot of fancy people, having a cocktail party. Once we have the charge set, we’re supposed to start the timer and then jump on this little cabin cruiser and go. And in the midst of the cocktail party, old man Grucci accidentally sets the timer off, and he says, “Oh, my God, I’ve set the timer off.” All of a sudden, everybody’s running. Mary Bubb, a very famous reporter, refused to get her shoes wet, so George threw her over his shoulder, all 6 foot 4 of him, threw her into this boat, then he runs through the cabin, grabs a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch, he runs up to the bow and we are stuck on a sand bar. So George and I call everybody to the front of the boat and have them jumping up and down. The boat takes off, George passes around the Dewar’s, everyone’s laughing. This thing’s supposed to go up to 2,000 feet. It went up about 30. It sent a shock wave across the water into Titusville, Fla., cracked the foundations of two houses, knocked all of the windows out of the Sears Roebuck. When the boat came ashore, there were police to arrest George and me. They said, “Do you know what’s happened?” They’re telling us about this complete devastation, and George quietly turned to me and simply said, “Marvelous.”

Sarah Plimpton, Mr. Plimpton’s second wife and mother of his twins: Everybody’s first introduction to George is him walking by bleary-eyed, answering the door wearing his boxer shorts.

Jeanne McCulloch, former managing editor of The Paris Review : Everyone who has ever worked with George is familiar with his boxer shorts. It rarely dawns on him to get dressed until late in the morning, and by that time the magazine is in full swing, interns collating papers, editors checking galleys, George on the phone, but all of this is accomplished while he’s in his pale blue boxer shorts.

George Plimpton: I don’t have much to say on the boxer shorts. Once, Frank Sinatra had been here, he lived right across the street, and we’d had a big argument about Robert Kennedy, whom he didn’t like and I did like, and it got to be 4 A.M. and we finally decided to talk about it another day and I went to bed. Not more than an hour later, this cat burglar appeared in the bedroom.… I had this Luger pistol from the Army and I picked up the pistol and ran after this guy, wearing my boxer shorts. By this time, it was almost dawn, and I’d had quite a lot to drink, and I remember the enormous feeling of power running down the street with this Luger and bare feet and I chased the guy into a garage and I never found him in there. When I came out, it was 7 o’clock in the morning and people were going to work, and here I was dressed in boxer shorts and a big pistol.

by George Gurley, NY Observer |  Read more:
Image: Wikipedia

The Tweakers or The Ghosts

You know you’re close when the fog thins out, when the dull pink behind cuts through, when the hills along the highway become vacant and brown. Staples, Starbucks, Target, In-N-Out; casinos and check cashing. The spires of the oil refinery silhouetted and pumping exhaust that smudges across the sky. The last exit before the Carquinez Bridge, before the end of the East Bay, and you take it. Turn left, turn left again, past the Dead Fish Restaurant with its rattling neon, back under the freeway, beneath the hissing and the headlights and you are there.

Crockett: a little cluster of buildings at the bend of the Carquinez Strait, wedged between the hills and the shoreline, the highway and the bridge, like food caught between teeth. Home to saloons and antique stores and the C&H Sugar Refinery; to the stubby remains of hundred-year-old piers and a set of railroad tracks that freights still rumble down a few times a day.

A high school boyfriend FBs me that he and his sister have bought a bar in Crockett. Tom’s new band is playing, he writes, and I should come out. So I do. Because it’s a Thursday night, because I have a friend’s car at my disposal, and because I have fuck all to do. A little old-school would do me good, I tell myself, descending the steep incline of Crockett’s small downtown. A cruise through memory lane. A field trip into what remains. (...)

I’m driving down Second Avenue—really, there are only three avenues—and I’ve already forgotten the name of Matt’s bar. I figured I wouldn’t have to bother remembering it and I’m right: I pass a neon martini glass with the silhouette of a naked girl inside, extending one leg in the air, and I know that must be it. The letters run down the side, right beneath the second-story bay window: Toot’s. (...)

I feel suddenly self-conscious, not sure what to do with my hands. I put them in my pockets. “What’s up?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Just this,” he glances over his shoulder with a smile and he’s proud, I can tell.

He’s running the place, he tells me, managing and bartending some too. His sister does the books and I should see how big she’s gotten, how much of a woman she is. He’s spending most nights here. He’s living in Rodeo and I have to ask where that is. “Another town around the corner, like ten minutes from here,” and I wonder how many towns like this there are, tucked into the crooks and crevices of this part of California.

He stubs his cigarette in the sand. “Can I get you a drink?” he asks and I squint at him a little. I wonder if maybe he doesn’t remember—doesn’t recall that a month after we broke up, I got clean and stayed clean. That I later made amends to him for the shady way I dumped him and the story I wrote about El Sob, telling him that I was fucked-up then—not telling him that I was still fucked-up and always would be, that a piece of me was trapped in those blackout nights and wouldn’t ever leave.

That information is lost somewhere in the crooks of his memory, the terrain inside him. “A soda water would be great,” I tell him instead.

We go inside and he asks the bartender for a soda water: “This lovely lady is having a soda water,” he says. A dude on a stool turns around to look at me—Carhatt overalls and a beard and those hard deep wrinkles. The bartender says, “You want a lime?” And I inhale as though I’m seriously debating it, then say, “Fuck it, Thursday night, let’s go crazy.” Which is what I always say, and they all three smile, the way people always smile when I say it.

The inside of the bar is painted deep red and there are taxidermied mounts of the walls, deer and elk heads turned at different angles, as though they were frozen in the moment they heard the rifles’ pop. There’s a pool table and those old-timey mirrored beer signs. A woman with saggy knees and wedge sandals fingers a beer label, leans suggestively towards a man with a moustache, and I think, “America!” And I think, “Salt of the earth!” And I distinctly try not to think, “Redneck!” which is what I always tried not to think while hanging out in Crockett.

Here is where I could tell you about the history of the place, how Crockett came to be and how I came to be there. I could start with the boom times: the railroad and the ferries and the shipyards and the mills and the refineries. I could start with industry men, the seekers with their bushy beards and pocket watches, their sharp eyes and big dreams. I could tell you about the workers, the two-bit hustlers and bootleggers, about the smuggling and the gambling in the brothels and saloons. I could start with the land parcels after the Mexican-American War, the squatters and the gun-totters, the Russians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the wayward Westward-running Americans. I could start with the Spanish Missions and the diseases they spread, the way the native Karkin Indians died inside those white-washed walls. I could start with the Karkins, a tiny sect of the Ohlones who occupied pretty much the exact territory of the incorporated towns today. I could start with the bears that used to line the shores, hunting for salmon that don’t swim there anymore.

I could start with my high school, trace the bus routes, the nearest train station, the left-side exit ramp Matt’s dad drove me off once. I could probably still tell you how to get to Matt’s old house, could point out the bombed-out methhouse down the block, describe the sharp chemical sting it emitted for weeks. I could tell you about Hell Hole and the landfill and coming out of a blackout on the train tracks in Port Costa—how the gravel crunched beneath my sneakers and the lights glinted in my eyes and the horn rumbled in my chest. I could tell you the way our bodies slid in the back of B’s truck when he took a sharp turn, the way the death metal blared through the speakers, the way the smoke curled and clung—how black the nights got out there.

And I could tell you how it all ended: that my time partying in El Sob and Crockett were some of my last months using; that I was tracing the contours of my bottom while I dated Matt; that I left and got clean and never looked back. I could tell you how the automobile killed the freight traffic; how the factories burned and the old piers rotted; how the lavish ferry the industry men once rode was abandoned and sank into the Strait waters slowly, over the course of decades. I could tell you the way everything was consumed: fires and earthquakes and toredo worms eating into the structure of those men’s dreams, drinking and whoring and gambling eating into them. I could tell you how the little townships like Crockett slowly faded in the landscape, got incorporated into larger towns, and eventually disappeared, how Crockett only avoided this fate because of the C&H Factory and the jobs it provided. I could tell you about the secret passageways that remain, the architecture of the past: backrooms and crawlspaces, and the rumored ghosts who walk them.

What I can’t tell you is what actually happened. What I did in Crockett, what the nights were like or how those people lived in them. That part is gone.

by Lauren Quinn, Vela |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Friends by Arsenic

Gold Rush Alaska

When I went to Alaska this past December, it wasn’t the cold that surprised me, but the light. The sun still rises in southern Alaska during winter, but it lies low in the sky, making long shadows, and the short days are bookended by stretches of cerulean twilight. It’s a dream for filmmakers and photographers: the golden hour lasts most of the day.

I was in Alaska to visit Whittier, a small town on the western side of the Prince William Sound, with my friend Reed, a photographer who shoots portrait series of communities all over the world. It was our third trip together. Earlier that year we’d photographed people in an El Paso neighborhood, and in 2010, we traveled to a fishing town in Alabama that had been affected by the BP oil spill. It’s not the type of work I usually do, but Reed needs someone to write profiles of his subjects and I need an excuse to get out of New York. He also needs someone to hold the lights. (...)

Over the past few years, the number of reality television shows set in Alaska has skyrocketed. In 2012, more than a dozen aired on major cable networks. Most of the programming is of the “man versus nature” variety: shows like Deadliest Catch, Gold Rush Alaska, and even Ice Road Truckers tend to focus on the strange and dangerous professions of the Last Frontier. But forays into human drama have been made. This past fall the Military Wives series held a casting call in Anchorage, and in 2011, TLC aired the short-lived Big Hair Alaska, a show about Wasilla’s Beehive Beauty Shop, where Sarah Palin used to get her hair done. The film and television industry in Alaska has grown so rapidly that in 2010 the Anchorage Daily News started a blog called “Hollywood Alaska,” which reports on the latest industry news and routinely asks whether the state is getting enough return on this media gold rush.

The Lower 48’s obsession with the Last Frontier isn’t the only cause of the boom. In 2009, the Alaskan government began offering subsidies that allowed producers to recoup up to 44 percent of their spending in the state. The subsidy program—one of the most generous in the country—has been controversial. Before 2009, shooting an entire feature film or TV series in Alaska tended to be prohibitively expensive. (Northern Exposure, the famous 1990s show about a Jewish doctor from New York who moves to a small town in Alaska, was shot entirely in Washington State.) More filming means more out-of-state film crews spending money on food and lodging, and could potentially be a boon for tourism, but the latest reports from the Alaska Film Office show that only around 15 percent of the total wages paid by these tax-subsidized productions have gone to Alaskans over the past three years. On the 2010 season of Deadliest Catch, Alaskan workers earned less than $20,000, while out-of-state workers took home more than $1.3 million. And although an Alaskan setting is central to the plotline of most of the films and shows that are shot here, some production companies have come under fire for abusing the subsidy. Baby Geniuses 3, a movie about crime-fighting babies and toddlers, paid less than 6 percent of all wages to in-state employees, and its plot brought little attention to “Alaskan issues.”

Even when money or recognition does reach Alaskans, its effects are uncertain. Audiences typically tune in to Alaska-based reality TV for “real men in danger,” not upwardly mobile characters. “Suddenly there’s a lot of money floating around Tanana,” a woman told us of the village where Yukon Men is filmed, “but no one can go out and buy a new Carhartt jacket, because on the show they’re supposed to look like they’re just barely hanging on.” The Discovery Channel synopsis claims that Tanana is “part of an unknown America where men hunt and trap to survive, subsisting like modern day cavemen.” One of the stars complained that after he brought home a deer he’d slaughtered, producers asked him to empty his fridge and freezer, so that when he filled them with meat it would look like he’d had nothing to eat before.

At first I was surprised that people in Whittier were so nonchalant about being documented—media-savvy, even. When we told one man with a Santa Claus beard that we’d like to take his portrait, he suggested he get a haircut first, but then his friend jumped in. “No, they want that swag. They want to see a guy who can hold a job with a beard like that. It’s so Alaska.” As long as the town of Whittier has existed, outsiders have been fascinated by the way its citizens live, but with the current glut of reality television in the state, it seemed that everyone we met knew someone who’d recently been on-camera. The mayor had a friend on the taxidermy show Mounted in Alaska. A local had worked as a deckhand on a boat that was chartered for The Last Frontier, and when she tuned in, excited to see her boat on TV, she was surprised to find that she herself was on the show. The day after the episode aired, someone belatedly called to ask for permission to use her likeness.

Our first week in town, we hurried to finish as many portraits as possible before the production companies showed up. We weren’t exactly in competition with the TV crews, but we did worry that people would tire of interviews and cameras. “Are you the TV people?” they asked. So many residents were relieved when we said no that we began to introduce ourselves by saying, “Hi, we’re from New York, and we’re not with a reality show.” Most of the town, it seemed, was murmuring about TV. Some feared they’d be made to look stupid. Others worried that onscreen drama would cause rifts in the community. Most thought the town was too boring for anyone to actually go through with a show. “People get scared about who will be picked to be on the show,” said the city manager, “because they all think their neighbors are idiots.”

by Erin Sheehy, N+1 |  Read more:
Image: Reed Young

We Like You So Much and Want to Know You Better

My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.

The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then a flea market, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s day care center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too, 400 acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world. The sky above was spotless and blue.

Mae was making her way through all of this, walking from the parking lot to the main hall, trying to look as if she belonged. The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees, and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. “Dream,” one said, the word laser-cut into the stone. “Participate,” said another. There were dozens: “Find Community.” “Innovate.” “Imagine.” She just missed stepping on the hand of a young man in a gray jumpsuit; he was installing a new stone that said, “Breathe.”

On a sunny Monday in June, Mae stopped in front of the main door, standing below the logo etched into the glass above. Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo — a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center — were already among the best known in the world. There were more than 10,000 employees on this, the main campus, but the Circle had offices all over the globe and was hiring hundreds of gifted young minds every week. It had been voted the world’s most admired company four years running. (...)

After lunch and an elaborate tour of campus, Annie deposited Mae back at her desk, where a man was sitting, his posture rounded and serene.

“Jared, you lucky son of a bitch,” Annie said.

The man turned, his face unlined. His hands rested patiently and unmoving in his ample lap. He smiled at Annie. “Hello, Annie,” he said, closing his eyes.

“Jared will be doing your training, and he’ll be your main contact here at CE. Dan’s the head of the department, as you know, but your direct report is Jared. Isn’t he wonderful?” Mae didn’t know what to say, and Annie didn’t care. This was how she always talked, always had. “Jared, you ready to get Mae started?”

“I am,” he said. “Hi, Mae.” He stood and extended his hand, and Mae shook it. It was soft, like a cherub’s.

“It’s an honor.”

“Hell, yeah, it is, Jared,” Annie said, squeezing Mae’s shoulder. “See you after.”

Annie left, and Jared retrieved another chair, offering it to Mae. They sat side by side, facing the three screens set up on her desk. “So, training time. You feel ready?”


“You need coffee or tea or anything?”

Mae shook her head. “I’m all set.”

“O.K. As you know, for now you’re just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers. They send a message to Customer Experience, and it gets routed to one of us. Random at first, but once you start working with a customer, that customer will continue to be routed to you, for the sake of continuity. When you get the query, you figure out the answer, you write them back. That’s the core of it. Simple enough in theory. So far so good?”

Mae nodded, and he went through the 20 most common requests and questions and showed her a menu of boilerplate responses.

“Now, that doesn’t mean you just paste the answer in and send it back. You should make each response personal, specific. You’re a person, and they’re a person, so you shouldn’t be imitating a robot, and you shouldn’t treat them like they’re robots. Know what I mean? No robots work here. We never want the customer to think they’re dealing with a faceless entity, so you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process. That sound good?”

Mae nodded. She liked that: No robots work here.

by Dave Eggers, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Gabrielle Plucknette

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Four-Figure Denim for (Only) Your Figure

When a customer comes to see Scott Morrison at his shop, Mr. Morrison sits the visitor down and asks, "What do you really love about your jeans?" This is the beginning of a conversation that can get rather personal, and can end with a client paying up to $1,200 for a bespoke pair of jeans.

It's an exchange that isn't only taking place in the confines of 3x1, Mr. Morrison's specialty store in New York, but throughout the denim industry. Both small shops and major brands like Levi's are attempting to capitalize on a slice of the market looking for made-to-measure.

While the bulk of Mr. Morrison's business is wholesale—Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and upscale retailers all over the world sell 3x1 brand jeans for men and women off the rack—about half of the business in his SoHo location comes from custom work. Clients can simply choose a fabric from the rolls of denim suspended from the walls and specify one of six fits ($525 to $750), or they can opt for a bespoke process ($1,200 for the first pair; $525 to $750 for subsequent ones)—both completed in the in-store factory, a hive of seamstresses sitting inside a glass cube. The majority of Mr. Morrison's custom-buyers are male. "Historically nine out of 10 custom orders are men but more recently we've been seeing an uptick on the women's end," he said.

Ordering customized jeans isn't unlike having a pair of trousers made for a suit: There are fittings, a pattern is drawn, the cloth is cut into pieces and finally sewn into pants. But denim can be trickier than other fabrics. Ranging in weight from 5 to 32 ounces per yard, it continues to evolve well after its been sewn. Mr. Morrison's staff is not just tailoring, they're laying a foundation for a fabric that will adjust to the wearer's body.

For Mr. Morrison, who has been in the denim business for 16 years (he started the brands Paper Denim & Cloth and Earnest Sewn), the cut matters but the denim itself is key. "You realize that a measurement is just a number and it's not going to articulate how a fabric is going to feel on your body," he said. Mr. Morrison's shop carries 320 denims—some as thin as an oxford shirt, others as thick as a carpet. He mails swatches of new fabric arrivals to his regular customers every week.

Like most players in the premium-denim game, Mr. Morrison worships at the altar of selvage, the high-quality, old-school denim made on small-scale shuttle looms. This material was the standard back when denim was workwear, before jeans went mainstream in the 1960s. Selvage was all but extinct in the U.S. by the 1980s. Shuttle-loom denim has been revived in Japan, where much of the best selvage denim can be found (Italy, the U.S. and Turkey are also key producers).

by John Ortved, WSJ |  Read more:
Image: Daniel Bernauer/3x1


[ed. I could watch this all day. There's nothing like a weiner dog...]

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente, 1879

Neko Case

Ernst HaasWestern Skies Motel, Colorado, 1978

Harry Callahan, Providence, 1978

Friday, September 27, 2013

Looting the Pension Funds

In the final months of 2011, almost two years before the city of Detroit would shock America by declaring bankruptcy in the face of what it claimed were insurmountable pension costs, the state of Rhode Island took bold action to avert what it called its own looming pension crisis. Led by its newly elected treasurer, Gina Raimondo – an ostentatiously ambitious 42-year-old Rhodes scholar and former venture capitalist – the state declared war on public pensions, ramming through an ingenious new law slashing benefits of state employees with a speed and ferocity seldom before seen by any local government.

Called the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011, her plan would later be hailed as the most comprehensive pension reform ever implemented. The rap was so convincing at first that the overwhelmed local burghers of her little petri-dish state didn't even know how to react. "She's Yale, Harvard, Oxford – she worked on Wall Street," says Paul Doughty, the current president of the Providence firefighters union. "Nobody wanted to be the first to raise his hand and admit he didn't know what the fuck she was talking about."

Soon she was being talked about as a probable candidate for Rhode Island's 2014 gubernatorial race. By 2013, Raimondo had raised more than $2 million, a staggering sum for a still-undeclared candidate in a thimble-size state. Donors from Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, Bain Capital and JPMorgan Chase showered her with money, with more than $247,000 coming from New York contributors alone. A shadowy organization called EngageRI, a public-advocacy group of the 501(c)4 type whose donors were shielded from public scrutiny by the infamous Citizens United decision, spent $740,000 promoting Raimondo's ideas. Within Rhode Island, there began to be whispers that Raimondo had her sights on the presidency. Even former Obama right hand and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel pointed to Rhode Island as an example to be followed in curing pension woes.

What few people knew at the time was that Raimondo's "tool kit" wasn't just meant for local consumption. The dynamic young Rhodes scholar was allowing her state to be used as a test case for the rest of the country, at the behest of powerful out-of-state financiers with dreams of pushing pension reform down the throats of taxpayers and public workers from coast to coast. One of her key supporters was billionaire former Enron executive John Arnold – a dickishly ubiquitous young right-wing kingmaker with clear designs on becoming the next generation's Koch brothers, and who for years had been funding a nationwide campaign to slash benefits for public workers.

Nor did anyone know that part of Raimondo's strategy for saving money involved handing more than $1 billion – 14 percent of the state fund – to hedge funds, including a trio of well-known New York-based funds: Dan Loeb's Third Point Capital was given $66 million, Ken Garschina's Mason Capital got $64 million and $70 million went to Paul Singer's Elliott Management. The funds now stood collectively to be paid tens of millions in fees every single year by the already overburdened taxpayers of her ostensibly flat-broke state. Felicitously, Loeb, Garschina and Singer serve on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a prominent conservative think tank with a history of supporting benefit-slashing reforms. The institute named Raimondo its 2011 "Urban Innovator" of the year.

The state's workers, in other words, were being forced to subsidize their own political disenfranchisement, coughing up at least $200 million to members of a group that had supported anti-labor laws. Later, when Edward Siedle, a former SEC lawyer, asked Raimondo in a column for how much the state was paying in fees to these hedge funds, she first claimed she didn't know. Raimondo later told the Providence Journal she was contractually obliged to defer to hedge funds on the release of "proprietary" information, which immediately prompted a letter in protest from a series of freaked-out interest groups. Under pressure, the state later released some fee information, but the information was originally kept hidden, even from the workers themselves. "When I asked, I was basically hammered," says Marcia Reback, a former sixth-grade schoolteacher and retired Providence Teachers Union president who serves as the lone union rep on Rhode Island's nine-member State Investment Commission. "I couldn't get any information about the actual costs."

This is the third act in an improbable triple-fucking of ordinary people that Wall Street is seeking to pull off as a shocker epilogue to the crisis era. Five years ago this fall, an epidemic of fraud and thievery in the financial-services industry triggered the collapse of our economy. The resultant loss of tax revenue plunged states everywhere into spiraling fiscal crises, and local governments suffered huge losses in their retirement portfolios – remember, these public pension funds were some of the most frequently targeted suckers upon whom Wall Street dumped its fraud-riddled mortgage-backed securities in the pre-crash years.

Today, the same Wall Street crowd that caused the crash is not merely rolling in money again but aggressively counterattacking on the public-relations front. The battle increasingly centers around public funds like state and municipal pensions. This war isn't just about money. Crucially, in ways invisible to most Americans, it's also about blame. In state after state, politicians are following the Rhode Island playbook, using scare tactics and lavishly funded PR campaigns to cast teachers, firefighters and cops – not bankers – as the budget-devouring boogeymen responsible for the mounting fiscal problems of America's states and cities.

Not only did these middle-class workers already lose huge chunks of retirement money to huckster financiers in the crash, and not only are they now being asked to take the long-term hit for those years of greed and speculative excess, but in many cases they're also being forced to sit by and watch helplessly as Gordon Gekko wanna-be's like Loeb or scorched-earth takeover artists like Bain Capital are put in charge of their retirement savings.

It's a scam of almost unmatchable balls and cruelty, accomplished with the aid of some singularly spineless politicians. And it hasn't happened overnight. This has been in the works for decades, and the fighting has been dirty all the way.

by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone |  Read more:
Image: Victor Juhasz

Keola Beamer

Olga Chagaoutdinova, Plants and fridge, 2007

Lujiazui skyscrapers, Shanghai by Brady Fang (flickr)

Memento Mori

“Death… the most awful of evils,” says Epicurus, “is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.” My experience in the New Haven hospital demonstrated the worth of the hypothesis; the books I read in college formed the thought as precept; my paternal grandfather, Roger D. Lapham, taught the lesson by example.

In the summer of 1918, then a captain of infantry with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, he had been reported missing and presumed dead after his battalion had been overwhelmed by German poison gas during the Oise-Aisne offensive. Nearly everybody else in the battalion had been promptly killed, and it was six weeks before the Army found him in the hayloft of a French barn. A farmer had retrieved him, unconscious but otherwise more or less intact, from the pigsty into which he had fallen, by happy accident, on the day of what had been planned as a swift and sure advance.

The farmer’s wife nursed him back to life with soup and soap and Calvados, and by the time he was strong enough to walk, he had lost half his body weight and undergone a change in outlook. He had been born in 1883, descended from a family of New England Quakers, and before going to Europe in the spring of 1918 was said to have been almost solemnly conservative in both his thought and his behavior, shy in conversation, cautious in his dealings with money. He returned from France reconfigured in a character akin to Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, extravagant in his consumption of wine and roses, passionate in his love of high-stakes gambling on the golf course and at the card table, persuaded that the object of life was nothing other than its fierce and close embrace.

Which is how I found him in the autumn of 1957, when I returned to San Francisco to look for work on a newspaper. He was then a man in his middle seventies (i.e., of an age that now surprises me to discover as my own), but he was the same vivid presence (round red face like Santa Claus, boisterous sense of humor, unable to contain his emotions) that I had known as a boy growing up in the 1940s in the city of which he was then the mayor.

A guest in his house on Jackson Street for three months before finding a room of my own, most mornings I sat with him while he presided over his breakfast (one scrambled egg, two scraps of Melba toast, pot of coffee, glass of Scotch) listening to him talk about what he had seen of a world in which he knew that all present (committee chairman, lettuce leaf, and Norfolk terrier) were granted a very short stay. Although beset by a good many biological systems failures, he regarded them as nuisances not worth mention in dispatches. He thought it inadvisable to quit drinking brandy, much less the whiskey, the rum punch, and the gin. At the bridge table he continued to think it unsporting to look at his cards before bidding the hand.

My grandfather’s refusal to consult doctors no doubt shortened his length of days on Earth, but he didn’t think the Fates were doing him an injustice. He died in 1966 at the age of 82 on terms that he would have considered sporting. The grand staircase in his house on Jackson Street was curved in a semicircle rising 30 feet from the entrance hall to a second-floor landing framed by a decorative wooden railing. Having climbed the long flight of stairs after a morning in the office and the afternoon on a golf course, Roger Dearborn Lapham paused to catch his breath. It wasn’t forthcoming. He plunged head first through the railing and was dead -- so said the autopsy -- before his body collided and combined with the potted palm at the base of the stairwell. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and his death had come to him in a way he would have hoped it would, as a surprise.

An Immortal Human Head in the Clouds

About the presence of death and dying I don’t remember the society in the 1950s being so skittish as it has since become. People still died at home, among relatives and friends, often in the care of a family physician. Death was still to be seen sitting in the parlor, hanging in a butcher shop, sometimes lying in the street. By the generations antecedent to my own, survivors of the Great Depression or one of the nation’s foreign wars, it seemed to be more or less well understood, as it had been by Montaigne that one’s own death “was a part of the order of the universe… a part of the life of the world.”

For the last 60 or 70 years, the consensus of decent American opinion (cultural, political, and existential) has begged to differ, making no such outlandish concession. To do so would be weak-minded, offensive, and wrong, contrary to the doctrine of American exceptionalism that entered the nation’s bloodstream subsequent to its emergence from the Second World War crowned in victory, draped in virtue.

Military and economic command on the world stage fostered the belief that America was therefore exempt from the laws of nature, held harmless against the evils, death chief among them, inflicted on the lesser peoples of the Earth. The wonders of medical science raked from the ashes of the war gave notice of the likelihood that soon, maybe next month but probably no later than next year, death would be reclassified as a preventable disease.

That article of faith sustained the bright hopes and fond expectations of both the 1960s countercultural revolution (incited by a generation that didn’t wish to grow up) and the Republican Risorgimento of the 1980s (sponsored by a generation that didn’t choose to grow old). Joint signatories to the manifesto of Peter Pan, both generations shifted the question from “Why do I have to die?” to the more upbeat “Why can’t I live forever?”

The substituting of the promise of technology for the consolations of philosophy had been foreseen by John Stuart Mill as the inevitable consequence of the nineteenth century’s marching ever upward on the roads of social and political reform. Suffering in 1854 from a severe pulmonary disease, Mill noted in his diary on April 15, “The remedies for all our diseases will be discovered long after we are dead, and the world will be made a fit place to live in after the death of most of those by whose exertions have been made so.”

His premonition is now the just-over-the-horizon prospect of life everlasting bankrolled by Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multimillionaire, vouched for by the Dalai Lama and a synod of Silicon Valley visionaries, among them Hiroshi Ishiguro and Ray Kurzweil. As presented to the Global Future 2045 conference at Lincoln Center in New York City in June 2013, Itskov’s Avatar Project proposes to reproduce the functions of human life and mind on “nonbiological substrates,” do away with the “limited mortal protein-based carrier” and replace it with cybernetic bodies and holograms, a “neohumanity” that will “change the bodily nature of a human being, and make them immortal, free, playful, independent of limitations of space and time.” In plain English, lifelike human heads to which digital copies of the contents of a human brain can be downloaded from the cloud.

The question “Why must I die?” and its implied follow-up, “How then do I live my life?,” both admit of an answer by and for and of oneself. Learning how to die, as Montaigne goes on to rightly say, is unlearning how to be a slave. The question “Why can’t I live forever?” assigns the custody of one’s death to powers that make it their business to promote and instill the fear of it -- to church or state, to an alchemist or an engineer.

by Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch |  Read more:
Image:Norman Parkinson via:

Craig Cole 2013. No junk or bills. oil on canvas 1.2x1.8


The Truth About GMOs

Mama Moses has been growing bananas on her farm in southwestern Uganda for twenty years. She farms only bananas, which is typical of subsistence farmers in Sanga, the impoverished village where she lives. Last year, when she saw the flowers on her banana plants begin to shrivel and yellow bacteria ooze from the cut stems, she knew her crop was doomed. Within months the bacterial infection turned her healthy crop into a black, wilted mess.

Banana Xanthomonas wilt disease (BXW) is one of the greatest threats to banana production in Eastern Africa. Cultural practices provide some control, but they are ineffective during epidemics. More than a thousand kinds of banana can be found worldwide, but none has robust resistance to BXW. Even if resistance were identified, most scientists believe that breeding a new variety using conventional methods would take decades, assuming it is even possible.

BXW creates precisely the sort of food insecurity that affects the world’s poorest people. Bananas and plantains are the fourth most valuable food crop after rice, wheat, and maize. Approximately one-third of the bananas produced globally are grown in sub-Saharan Africa, where bananas provide more than 25 percent of the food energy requirements for more than 100 million people.

For anyone worried about the future of global agriculture, Mama Moses’s story is instructive. The world faces an enormous challenge: with changing diets and population growth of 2–3 billion over the next 40 years, UNESCO predicts that food production will need to rise by 70 percent by 2050. Many pests and diseases cannot, however, be controlled using conventional breeding methods. Moreover, subsistence farmers cannot afford most pesticides, which are often ineffective or harmful to the environment.

Yet many emerging agricultural catastrophes can almost certainly be avoided thanks to a modern form of plant breeding that uses genetic engineering (GE), a process that has led to reduced insecticide use and enhanced productivity of farms large and small.

In spite of these benefits, genetic engineering is anathema to many people. In the United States, we’ve seen attempts to force labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In much of Europe, farmers are prohibited from growing genetically engineered crops and so must import grain from the United States. And “GMO-free” zones are expanding in Japan.

The strong distrust of GE foods is curious. Opponents typically profess a high degree of concern for human welfare and the environment. They want the same things that scientists, farmers, food security experts, and environmentalists want: ecologically sound food production accessible to a growing global population. But their opposition threatens the great strides that have been made toward these goals through deployment of new technologies.

For 10,000 years, we have altered the genetic makeup of our crops. Conventional approaches are often crude, resulting in new varieties through a combination of trial and error, without knowledge of the precise function of the genes being moved around. Such methods include grafting or mixing genes of distantly related species through forced pollinations, as well as radiation treatments to induce random mutations in seeds. Today virtually everything we eat is produced from seeds that we have genetically altered in one way or another.

Over the last twenty years, scientists and breeders have used GE to create crop varieties that thrive in extreme environments or can withstand attacks by pests and disease. Like the older conventional varieties, GE crops are genetically altered, but in a manner that introduces fewer genetic changes. Genetic engineering can also be used to insert genes from distantly related species, such as bacteria, directly into a plant.

Given that modern genetic engineering is similar to techniques that have served humanity well for thousands of years and that the risks of unintended consequences are similar whether the variety is derived from the processes of GE or conventional gene alteration, it should come as no surprise that the GE crops currently on the market are as safe to eat and safe for the environment as organic or conventional foods. That is the conclusion reached by diverse agricultural and food experts. There is broad consensus on this point among highly regarded science-based organizations in the United States and abroad, including the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and European Commission Joint Research Centre. In the seventeen years since GE crops were first grown commercially, not a single instance of adverse health or environmental effects has been documented.

by Pamela Ronald, Boston Review |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

The Eagles' Greatest Hit

[ed. See also: The Tao of Joe Walsh.]

I never put much thought into the Eagles. In high school, my friends and I assumed they were just another famous '70s band that splintered, then found an extended afterlife on classic rock stations. They stood out only because they sold a remarkable number of "Greatest Hits" albums. Everyone — and I mean everyone — had the first one. Their songs popped up consistently at our parties, but so did the Steve Miller Band and the Allman Brothers and 12 other groups from that era. I don't remember arguing about the Eagles, debating the meaning of "Hotel California," or even joking about Glenn Frey being pissed about Don Henley's then-scorching solo career.

Did I know that music critics picked them apart for being more successful than they should have been? Absolutely not. I never knew the band abused their bodies and went through groupies like they were Marlboro Reds. I never knew three different Eagles guitarists left the band for stereotypically awesome reasons: jealousy, infighting, warring creative visions, credit jockeying, even a beer that was derisively poured on Frey's head. I never knew when the Eagles split up, much less why, or if it mattered. That ubiquitous classic rock format kept every '70s band relevant. The Eagles were broken up, but really, they weren't.

Two years after I graduated college, they reunited for 1994's "Hell Freezes Over" tour, a shameless money grab disguised as their long-awaited reunion. Nostalgia rock had been generating big bucks for every past-its-prime act. Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones sold out stadiums like it was 1975. Billy Joel and Elton John toured America together, even overlapping for a few songs every show. And now, the Eagles were freezing hell. I remember having a chance to see them and quickly passing. Take it easy, Eagles.

From that point on, I never thought about them unless Chris Berman was involved. That changed this spring, right after Showtime started showing Alison Ellwood's documentary about them. I have watched The History of the Eagles, Part One five times, not counting all the other times it sucked me in for 15-minute stretches. I have participated in multiple Eagles-related e-mail chains that I may or may not have started. I have gone down Eagles-related rabbit holes on Google so cavernous that I once typed the words "Stevie Nicks Don Henley abortion." (Yes, things come up.) Two different times, a friend e-mailed me just to say, "I was talking about the Eagles doc with [fill in our mutual friend]. I had no idea you loved it, too!" (...)

You know what else? The Eagles were significantly bigger than I ever realized. Really, there wasn't a more successful, popular or famous American band in the 1970s. Even today, their first greatest hits album (released in 1976, almost one year before Hotel California came out) is still battling neck and neck with Thriller as the highest-selling album of all time. That dumbfounding fact alone made the Eagles worthy of a documentary, even if a 215-minute treatment was unquestionably overboard. Part One handles their creation and ascent, their battles with fame and cocaine (since when were those six words anything but awesome?), every major fight they ever had (ditto), every possible reason they broke up (ditto), and then their actual breakup after an acrimonious concert highlighted by Glenn Frey repeatedly threatening to kick a band mate's ass (even though Frey probably weighed a buck fifty at the time).

In my humble opinion, it's the finest documentary ever made about the rise and fall of a memorable rock band, as well as a superb commentary on the dangers of fame and excess. You'll recognize pieces of Almost Famous in it, and that's not by accident — Cameron Crowe covered them for Rolling Stone, eventually creating Stillwater as a hybrid of the Allman Brothers and the Eagles (with a little Led Zep mixed in). There's more than a little Frey and Henley in Jeff Bebe and Russell Hammond.

The film should have ended there. But since the band wanted something covering their entire history from 1971 until today, Part Two sprawlingly covers their post-breakup careers and their reunion. It's excessive, to say the least. I would have been fine with an eight-minute epilogue. Although I did enjoy Part Two's attempt to make Frey's acting career seem successful, as well as any Eagle pretending they returned for any reason other than "gobs and gobs of money." There's one unintentionally hilarious part: Henley and Frey painstakingly rehashing the creative process for "Get Over It" as if they're discussing "Hotel California" or something. I also enjoyed guitarist Don Felder bitching about reunion royalties; Felder believed he should be earning as much money as Henley and Frey when, again, he was Don Felder. It was like the 1993 Bulls reuniting, then Horace Grant fighting to be paid as much as Michael and Scottie.

Fine, you got me — I've watched Part Two twice even though it's 70 minutes too long. I can't help it. But Part One? Part One is magnificent. It's one of my favorite documentaries ever. Without further ado, my 20 favorite things about The History of the Eagles, Part One.

by Bill Simmons, Grantland |  Read more:
Image: Ken Garduno

The Shadow Commander

Last February, some of Iran’s most influential leaders gathered at the Amir al-Momenin Mosque, in northeast Tehran, inside a gated community reserved for officers of the Revolutionary Guard. They had come to pay their last respects to a fallen comrade. Hassan Shateri, a veteran of Iran’s covert wars throughout the Middle East and South Asia, was a senior commander in a powerful, élite branch of the Revolutionary Guard called the Quds Force. The force is the sharp instrument of Iranian foreign policy, roughly analogous to a combined C.I.A. and Special Forces; its name comes from the Persian word for Jerusalem, which its fighters have promised to liberate. Since 1979, its goal has been to subvert Iran’s enemies and extend the country’s influence across the Middle East. Shateri had spent much of his career abroad, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, where the Quds Force helped Shiite militias kill American soldiers.
Shateri had been killed two days before, on the road that runs between Damascus and Beirut. He had gone to Syria, along with thousands of other members of the Quds Force, to rescue the country’s besieged President, Bashar al-Assad, a crucial ally of Iran. In the past few years, Shateri had worked under an alias as the Quds Force’s chief in Lebanon; there he had helped sustain the armed group Hezbollah, which at the time of the funeral had begun to pour men into Syria to fight for the regime. The circumstances of his death were unclear: one Iranian official said that Shateri had been “directly targeted” by “the Zionist regime,” as Iranians habitually refer to Israel.

At the funeral, the mourners sobbed, and some beat their chests in the Shiite way. Shateri’s casket was wrapped in an Iranian flag, and gathered around it were the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, dressed in green fatigues; a member of the plot to murder four exiled opposition leaders in a Berlin restaurant in 1992; and the father of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah commander believed to be responsible for the bombings that killed more than two hundred and fifty Americans in Beirut in 1983. Mughniyeh was assassinated in 2008, purportedly by Israeli agents. In the ethos of the Iranian revolution, to die was to serve. Before Shateri’s funeral, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, released a note of praise: “In the end, he drank the sweet syrup of martyrdom.”

Kneeling in the second row on the mosque’s carpeted floor was Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force’s leader: a small man of fifty-six, with silver hair, a close-cropped beard, and a look of intense self-containment. It was Suleimani who had sent Shateri, an old and trusted friend, to his death. As Revolutionary Guard commanders, he and Shateri belonged to a small fraternity formed during the Sacred Defense, the name given to the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and left as many as a million people dead. It was a catastrophic fight, but for Iran it was the beginning of a three-decade project to build a Shiite sphere of influence, stretching across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Along with its allies in Syria and Lebanon, Iran forms an Axis of Resistance, arrayed against the region’s dominant Sunni powers and the West. In Syria, the project hung in the balance, and Suleimani was mounting a desperate fight, even if the price of victory was a sectarian conflict that engulfed the region for years.

Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, “and no one’s ever heard of him.”

When Suleimani appears in public—often to speak at veterans’ events or to meet with Khamenei—he carries himself inconspicuously and rarely raises his voice, exhibiting a trait that Arabs call khilib, or understated charisma. “He is so short, but he has this presence,” a former senior Iraqi official told me. “There will be ten people in a room, and when Suleimani walks in he doesn’t come and sit with you. He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn’t speak, doesn’t comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him.”

At the funeral, Suleimani was dressed in a black jacket and a black shirt with no tie, in the Iranian style; his long, angular face and his arched eyebrows were twisted with pain. The Quds Force had never lost such a high-ranking officer abroad. The day before the funeral, Suleimani had travelled to Shateri’s home to offer condolences to his family. He has a fierce attachment to martyred soldiers, and often visits their families; in a recent interview with Iranian media, he said, “When I see the children of the martyrs, I want to smell their scent, and I lose myself.” As the funeral continued, he and the other mourners bent forward to pray, pressing their foreheads to the carpet. “One of the rarest people, who brought the revolution and the whole world to you, is gone,” Alireza Panahian, the imam, told the mourners. Suleimani cradled his head in his palm and began to weep.

by Dexter Filkins, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Krzysztof Domaradzki.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nukes of Hazard

On January 25, 1995, at 9:28 a.m. Moscow time, an aide handed a briefcase to Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. A small light near the handle was on, and inside was a screen displaying information indicating that a missile had been launched four minutes earlier from somewhere in the vicinity of the Norwegian Sea, and that it appeared to be headed toward Moscow. Below the screen was a row of buttons. This was the Russian “nuclear football.” By pressing the buttons, Yeltsin could launch an immediate nuclear strike against targets around the world. Russian nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers were on full alert. Yeltsin had forty-seven hundred nuclear warheads ready to go.

The Chief of the General Staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, had a football, too, and he was monitoring the flight of the missile. Radar showed that stages of the rocket were falling away as it ascended, which suggested that it was an intermediate-range missile similar to the Pershing II, the missile deployed by nato across Western Europe. The launch site was also in the most likely corridor for an attack on Moscow by American submarines. Kolesnikov was put on a hot line with Yeltsin, whose prerogative it was to launch a nuclear response. Yeltsin had less than six minutes to make a decision.

The Cold War had been over for four years. Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned on December 25, 1991, and had handed over the football and the launch codes to Yeltsin. The next day, the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence. By 1995, though, Yeltsin’s popularity in the West was in decline; there was tension over plans to expandnato; and Russia was bogged down in a war in Chechnya. In the context of nuclear war, these were minor troubles, but there was also the fact, very much alive in Russian memory, that seven and a half years earlier, in May, 1987, a slightly kooky eighteen-year-old German named Mathias Rust had flown a rented Cessna, an airplane about the size of a Piper Cub, from Helsinki to Moscow and landed it a hundred yards from Red Square. The humiliation had led to a mini-purge of the air-defense leadership. Those people did not want to get burned twice. (...)

But most of the danger that human beings faced from nuclear weapons after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to do with inadvertence—with bombs dropped by mistake, bombers catching on fire or crashing, missiles exploding, and computers miscalculating and people jumping to the wrong conclusion. On most days, the probability of a nuclear explosion happening by accident was far greater than the probability that someone would deliberately start a war. (...)

A study run by Sandia National Laboratories, which oversees the production and security of American nuclear-weapons systems, discovered that between 1950 and 1968 at least twelve hundred nuclear weapons had been involved in “significant” accidents. Even bombs that worked didn’t work quite as planned. In Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, only 1.38 per cent of the nuclear core, less than a kilogram* of uranium, fissioned (although the bomb killed eighty thousand people). The bomb dropped on Nagasaki, three days later, was a mile off target (and killed forty thousand people). A test of the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini atoll, in 1954, produced a yield of fifteen megatons, three times as great as scientists had predicted, and spread lethal radioactive fallout over hundreds of square miles in the Pacific, some of it affecting American observers miles away from the blast site.

These stories, and many more, can be found in Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control” (Penguin), an excellent journalistic investigation of the efforts made since the first atomic bomb was exploded, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, to put some kind of harness on nuclear weaponry. By a miracle of information management, Schlosser has synthesized a huge archive of material, including government reports, scientific papers, and a substantial historical and polemical literature on nukes, and transformed it into a crisp narrative covering more than fifty years of scientific and political change. And he has interwoven that narrative with a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980, which he renders in the manner of a techno-thriller:
Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about seventy feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose. 
“Oh man,” Plumb thought. “This is not good.”
“Command and Control” is how nonfiction should be written.

Schlosser is known for two popular books, “Fast Food Nation,” published in 2001, and “Reefer Madness,” an investigative report on black markets in marijuana, pornography, and illegal immigrants that came out in 2003. Readers of those books, and of Schlosser’s occasional writings in The Nation, are likely to associate him with progressive politics. They may be surprised to learn that, insofar as “Command and Control” has any heroes, those heroes are Curtis LeMay, Robert McNamara, and Ronald Reagan (plus an Air Force sergeant named Jeff Kennedy, who was involved in responding to the wounded missile in the Arkansas silo). Those men understood the risks of just having these things on the planet, and they tried to keep them from blowing up in our faces.

by Louis Menard, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Shout