Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Long before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.

The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies. (...)

Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”

“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”

Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.

In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, journalism, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais‘s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.

“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.

by Stanford University |  Read more:
Image: Pantheon cover

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[ed. The Amiga 1000, my first computer. As Byte magazine said, "the first multimedia computer... so far ahead of its time that almost nobody—including Commodore's marketing department—could fully articulate what it was all about" .]

1,000 True Fans

The long tail is famously good news for two classes of people; a few lucky aggregators, such as Amazon and Netflix, and 6 billion consumers. Of those two, I think consumers earn the greater reward from the wealth hidden in infinite niches.

But the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist’s works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales.

Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?

One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

To raise your sales out of the flatline of the long tail you need to connect with your True Fans directly. Another way to state this is, you need to convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans.

Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day-wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.

The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love.

The technologies of connection and small-time manufacturing make this circle possible. Blogs and RSS feeds trickle out news, and upcoming appearances or new works. Web sites host galleries of your past work, archives of biographical information, and catalogs of paraphernalia. Diskmakers, Blurb, rapid prototyping shops, Myspace, Facebook, and the entire digital domain all conspire to make duplication and dissemination in small quantities fast, cheap and easy. You don’t need a million fans to justify producing something new. A mere one thousand is sufficient.

This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans. These folks will not purchase everything you do, and may not seek out direct contact, but they will buy much of what you produce. The processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans. As you acquire new True Fans, you can also add many more Lesser Fans. If you keep going, you may indeed end up with millions of fans and reach a hit. I don’t know of any creator who is not interested in having a million fans.

But the point of this strategy is to say that you don’t need a hit to survive. You don’t need to aim for the short head of best-sellerdom to escape the long tail. There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for.

by Kevin Kelly, The Technium |  Read more:
Image: CBBC News

First Class Seats on the Internet

The Federal Communications Commission, America's telcoms regulator, has formulated a plan to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to charge companies for the right to "premium" access to its customers. This is the worst internet policy news imaginable. It should strike terror into the heart of anyone who cares about fairness, politics, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, fair trade, entrepreneurship, or innovation. The FCC now stands as the world's foremost symbol for "regulatory capture," and its chairman – a former cable executive lobbyist – is the poster child for an unhealthy relationship between industry and its regulators. 

What's at stake is "network neutrality," which is the simple principle that your ISP should give you the bits you ask for, as quickly as it can, and not deliberately slow down the data you're looking for.

(There are valid arguments to be made about network management techniques that try to slow down some customers' connections in order to ensure that other customers get their fair share of the internet, but anyone who brings up those arguments in this context is just trying to sow confusion by changing the subject. Whatever network management is, it's not an ISP discriminatorily slowing down Netflix streams and delivering its own, competing streams with less jitter and delay because Netflix hasn't paid protection money this month.)

The ISPs say they only want to get paid for the use of their service, but the problem is, they're already getting paid. You pay your internet bill every month. Netflix, Google, Yahoo, the Guardian and Boing Boing all pay their internet bills every month. The ISPs aren't seeking to get paid, they're seeking to get paid twice: once by you, and a second time because you are now their hostage and the companies you want to do business with have to get through them to get to you.

There's a useful analogy to the phone company that I've written about here before: you pay for your phone service every month. The pizza place on the corner also pays for its phone service every month. When you want to order a pizza from Joe's Corner Pizzeria, you call their number. If their phone isn't engaged, it rings and you get to place your order. If they get more orders than they can handle on one line, they buy a second line, a third, even 10 lines to take their orders. Provided one of those lines is free, your call goes through to someone when you ring.

But what if your phone company decided that the way to bring in higher profits was to go around to all the pizza places and shake them down for "premium" access to "their" customers? If Joe's Corner Pizzeria turned them down, your call to Joe's might get a busy signal, even if there were plenty of free lines at Joe's place. Meanwhile, an order to the monied, tasteless sultan of global cardboard pizza-ite, that is, the company who has plenty of money for "premium" access – is easy to reach, because your phone company has promised them that every call will be put through.

The thing is, Joe's is paying for its lines. You're paying for your line. The phone company exists solely to connect people to the numbers they dial. But because there are "natural monopolies" in phone service (because there are only so many mobile frequencies and underground cable space), they can abuse their position to extort additional payments from the services you want to talk to. And the more popular a service is, the better it is, the more the ISP stands to profit from this racket. (...)

If you think of a business idea that's better than any that have come before – if you're ready to do to Google what Google did to Altavista; if you're ready to do to the iPod what the iPod did to the Walkman; if you're ready to do to Netflix what Netflix did to cable TV – you have to start out with a bribery warchest that beats out the firms that clawed their way to the top back when there was a fairer playing-field.

by Cory Doctrow, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Nacho Doce/Reuters/Corbis

The Ford Show is Riveting, but Soon We’ll Stop Believing It

From: The producer

To: The writers

Re: The Rob Ford Show

When you pitched me a show about a rogue mayor from Toronto, I thought you were nuts. Toronto? What ever happens in Toronto? As my man Bill Clinton said, the show smashes every stereotype about Canadians. But I was wrong. The Rob Ford Show is a crazy success – like, Game of Thrones crazy. The whole world is watching. Jimmy Kimmel is obsessed. Your creation Rob Ford is the most compelling TV character since Tony Soprano, only funnier.

You had me hooked right from the start. I howled when you had him call the cops on the comedienne in the breast plate. I had fits when he was caught reading behind the wheel and giving the finger to that mom from his van. I died when he tackled that lady councillor in the council chamber. Boom! I could watch that in slo-mo a million times.

Last season, when you showed me the crack scripts, I thought you were going too far. A mayor of Toronto smoking crack? In a crack house, with crackheads? I was wrong again. It was good to go dark. Dark is big box office these days. Except that Rob Ford makes Breaking Bad look like The Care Bears. Walter White has nothing on your Rob.

The mystery packages in the gas station? The partying at city hall? The sketchy friends like “Sandro” and “Princess.” Princess! Ha! Courtney Love kills it in that role.

The show keeps getting weirder. “Enough to eat at home”? Those stiffs at broadcast standards weren’t happy about that one, believe me. And who dreamed up the episode where Rob rants about the police chief at the (adore the name) Steak Queen? In Jamaican! Whatever you guys are smoking back there, smoke some more – and bill me.

by Marcus Gee, Globe and Mail | Read more:
Image: Randy Holmes

The Adjunct Revolt

Mary-Faith Cerasoli has been reduced to “sleeping in her car, showering at college athletic centers and applying for food stamps,” The New York Times recently reported. Is she unemployed? No, in fact, she is a college professor— but an adjunct one, meaning she is hired on a short-term contract with no possibility of tenure.

A spate of research about the contingent academic workforce indicates that Cerasoli’s circumstances are not exceptional. This month, a report by the American Association of University Professors showed that adjuncts now constitute 76.4 percent of U.S. faculty across all institutional types, from liberal-arts colleges to research universities to community colleges. A study released by the U.S. House of Representatives in January reveals that the majority of these adjuncts live below the poverty line.

Over spring break, Cerasoli publicly protested her working conditions on the steps of New York Department of Education wearing a vest emblazoned with the words “Homeless Prof” on it. Her efforts dovetail with a national labor movement in which thousands of adjuncts are fighting for change within the higher-education system. In the short-term, adjuncts are demanding a living wage, but they are also proposing long-term solutions to structural problems ailing universities. Many argue that the dependence on contingent labor is part of a larger pattern of corporatizing the university, which they believe is harming not just professors and students, but society more broadly. (...)

How did it come to this? Jeffrey Selingo, author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students, argues that the shift towards contingent labor occurred because university administrators began to focus on enhancing the student experience outside—rather than inside—the classroom. “We moved away from a faculty-centric university to one focused on serving students,” he told me. “To attract students, universities need amenities to keep up in an arms race with other institutions,” he says. Instead of being an institution of public good, the university began to look more and more like a business in which the student was the customer.

Selingo points out that university administration costs have ballooned over the last two decades, as universities hired non-faculty staff to run the growing list of campus amenities. Given these skyrocketing expenses, administrators felt pressure to cut costs. “As professors started to retire, administrators realized that if they did not hire tenure-track professors, they could have more flexibility with their workforce,” explains Selingo. At the same time, graduate schools were churning out large numbers of Ph.D.s willing to teach single courses for a few thousand dollars, so hiring adjuncts seemed like a simple solution.

Maisto argues that in the midst of these changes administrators lost sight of the university’s mission. “This adjunct crisis did not happen because of some grand, nefarious plot,” she told me. “It has to do with the reactive character of university leadership who got caught up in short-term thinking rather than intentional, long-term strategic planning.” Yet, Maisto and other activists believe that it is not too late to change the system.

by Elizabeth Segran, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Jamie Long

Whitewood Under Siege

There are approximately two billion wooden shipping pallets in the United States. They are in the holds of tractor-trailers, transporting Honey Nut Cheerios and oysters and penicillin and just about any other product you can think of: sweaters, copper wire, lab mice, and so on. They are piled up behind supermarkets, out back, near the loading dock. They are at construction sites, on sidewalks, in the trash, in your neighbor’s basement. They are stacked in warehouses and coursing their way through the bowels of factories.

The magic of these pallets is the magic of abstraction. Take any object you like, pile it onto a pallet, and it becomes, simply, a “unit load”—standardized, cubical, and ideally suited to being scooped up by the tines of a forklift. This allows your Cheerios and your oysters to be whisked through the supply chain with great efficiency; the gains are so impressive, in fact, that many experts consider the pallet to be the most important materials-handling innovation of the twentieth century. Studies have estimated that pallets consume 12 to 15 percent of all lumber produced in the US, more than any other industry except home construction.

Some pallets also carry an aesthetic charge. It’s mostly about geometry: parallel lines and negative space, slats and air. There is also the appeal of the raw, unpainted wood, the cheapest stuff you can buy from a lumber mill—“bark and better,” it’s called. These facts have not escaped the notice of artists, architects, designers, or DIY enthusiasts. In 2003, the conceptual artist Stuart Keeler presented stacks of pallets in a gallery show, calling them “the elegant serving-platters of industry”; more recently, Thomas Hirschhorn featured a giant pallet construction as part of his Gramsci Monument. Etsy currently features dozens of items made from pallets, from window planters and chaise lounges to more idiosyncratic artifacts, such as a decorative teal crucifix mounted on a pallet. If shipping containers had their cultural moment a decade ago, pallets are having theirs now.

Since World War II, most of America’s pallet needs have been met by several thousand small and mid-sized businesses. These form the nucleus of not just an industry, but a sprawling, anarchic ecosystem—a world, really, complete with its own customs, language, and legends, with a political class, with its own media. This world is known as “whitewood.” There are approximately forty thousand citizens of whitewood, ranging from pallet pickers (who salvage pallets from the trash) to pallet recyclers (who repair broken pallets and make them whole) to pallet manufacturers, pallet consultants, pallet academics, pallet thieves, and pallet association presidents. Whitewood includes people who crisscross the country selling pallet repair machinery, preaching the gospel of tools such as the Rogers Un-Nailer.

Not all pallets belong to the world of whitewood. The most important other category—and whitewood’s chief antagonist—is the blue pallet. These blues are not just a different color; they are also built differently, and play by different rules, and for the past twenty-five years, the conflict between blue and white has been the central theme in the political economy of American pallets. The person most identified with this conflict is a soft-spoken, middle-aged man from Kansas named Bob Moore. Currently embroiled in a legal battle over a pallet deal gone bad, Moore is a singular figure in the industry and a magnet for controversy. When not in federal court, he can sometimes be found piloting a Mooney Acclaim Type S turboprop airplane, which he prefers, when possible, to flying commercial. The Mooney is a good place to concentrate, one imagines. And it is important to concentrate when plotting the future of pallets.

by Jacob Hodes, Cabinet |  Read more:
Image: Laszlo Bilki

Eric Fischl

Monday, April 28, 2014


One of the most common insults to today’s emerging adults is that they’re lazy. According to this view, young people are ‘slackers’ who avoid work whenever possible, preferring to sponge off their parents for as long as they can get away with it. One of the reasons they avoid real work is that have an inflated sense of entitlement. They expect work to be fun, and if it’s not fun, they refuse to do it.

It’s true that emerging adults have high hopes for work, and even, yes, a sense of being entitled to enjoy their work. Ian, a 22-year-old who was interviewed for my 2004 book, chose to go into journalism, even though he knew that: ‘If I’m a journalist making $20,000 a year, my dad [a wealthy physician] makes vastly more than that.’ More important than the money was finding a job that he could love. ‘If I enjoy thoroughly doing what I’m doing in life, then I would be better off than my dad.’ Emerging adults enter the workplace seeking what I call identity-based work, meaning a job that will be a source of self-fulfillment and make the most of their talents and interests. They want a job that they will look forward to doing when they get up each morning.

You might think that this is not a realistic expectation for work, and you are right. But keep in mind it was their parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, who invented the idea that work should be fun. No one had ever thought so before. Baby Boomers rejected the traditional assumption that work was a dreary but unavoidable part of the human condition. They declared that they didn’t want to spend their lives simply slaving away – and their children grew up in this new world, assuming that work should be meaningful and self-fulfilling. Now that those children are emerging adults, their Baby Boomer parents and employers grumble at their presumptuousness.

So, yes, emerging adults today have high and often unrealistic expectations for work, but lazy? That’s laughably false. While they look for their elusive dream job, they don’t simply sit around and play video games and update their Facebook page all day. The great majority of them spend most of their twenties in a series of unglamorous, low-paying jobs as they search for something better. The average American holds ten different jobs between the ages of 18 and 29, and most of them are the kinds of jobs that promise little respect and less money. Have you noticed who is waiting on your table at the restaurant, working the counter at the retail store, stocking the shelves at the supermarket? Most of them are emerging adults. Many of them are working and attending school at the same time, trying to make ends meet while they strive to move up the ladder. It’s unfair to tar the many hard-working emerging adults with a stereotype that is true for only a small percentage of them.

Is striving for identity-based work only for the middle class and the wealthy, who have the advantages in American society? Yes and no. The aspiration stretches across social classes: in the national Clark poll, 79 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that: ‘It is more important for me to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money,’ and there were no differences across social class backgrounds (represented by mother’s education). However, the reality is quite different from the aspiration. Young Americans from lower social class backgrounds are far less likely than those from higher social backgrounds to obtain a college education and, without a college degree, jobs of any kind are scarce in the modern information-based economy. The current US unemployment rate is twice as high for those with only a high-school degree or less than it is for those with a four-year college degree. In the national Clark poll, emerging adults from lower social class backgrounds were far more likely than their more advantaged peers to agree that ‘I have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education I need.’ That’s not their fault. It is the fault of their society which short-sightedly fails to fund education and training adequately, and thereby squanders the potential and aspirations of the young.

Another widespread slur against emerging adults is that they are selfish. Some American researchers – most notoriously Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and a well-known writer and speaker – claim that young people today have grown more ‘narcissistic’ compared with their equivalents 30 or 40 years ago. This claim is based mainly on surveys of college students that show increased levels of self-esteem. Today’s students are more likely than in the past to agree with statements such as: ‘I am an important person.’

With this stereotype, too, there is a grain of truth that has been vastly overblown. It’s probably true that most emerging adults today grow up with a higher level of self-esteem than in previous generations. Their Baby Boomer parents have been telling them from the cradle onward: ‘You’re special!’ ‘You can be whatever you want to be!’ ‘Dream big dreams!’ and the like. Popular culture has reinforced these messages, in movies, television shows and songs. Well, they actually believed it. In the national Clark poll, nearly all 18- to 29-year-olds (89 per cent) agreed with the statement: ‘I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.’

But – and this is the key point – that doesn’t mean they’re selfish. It certainly doesn’t mean they are a generation of narcissists. It simply means that they are highly confident in their abilities to make a good life for themselves, whatever obstacles they might face. Would we prefer that they cringed before the challenges of adulthood? I have come to see their high self-esteem and confidence as good psychological armour for entering a tough adult world. Most people get knocked down more than once in the course of their 20s, by love, by work, by any number of dream bubbles that are popped by rude reality. High self-esteem is what allows them to get up again and continue moving forward. For example, Nicole, 25, grew up in poverty as the oldest of four children in a household with a mentally disabled mother and no father. Her goals for her life have been repeatedly delayed or driven off track by her family responsibilities. Nevertheless, she is pursuing a college degree and is determined to reach her ultimate goal of getting a PhD. Her self-belief is what has enabled her to overcome a chaotic childhood full of disadvantages. ‘It’s like, the more you come at me, the stronger I’m going to be,’ she told me when I interviewed her for my 2004 book.

by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Aeon | Read more:
Image: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Leo Kottke

Goodbye Net Neutrality - Life in the Fast Lane

The principle that all Internet content should be treated equally as it flows through cables and pipes to consumers looks all but dead.

The Federal Communications Commission said on Wednesday that it would propose new rules that allow companies like Disney, Google or Netflix to pay Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon for special, faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers.

The proposed changes would affect what is known as net neutrality — the idea that no providers of legal Internet content should face discrimination in providing offerings to consumers, and that users should have equal access to see any legal content they choose.

The proposal comes three months after a federal appeals court struck down, for the second time, agency rules intended to guarantee a free and open Internet.

Tom Wheeler, the F.C.C. chairman, defended the agency’s plans late Wednesday, saying speculation that the F.C.C. was “gutting the open Internet rule” is “flat out wrong.” Rather, he said, the new rules will provide for net neutrality along the lines of the appeals court’s decision.

Still, the regulations could radically reshape how Internet content is delivered to consumers. For example, if a gaming company cannot afford the fast track to players, customers could lose interest and its product could fail.

The rules are also likely to eventually raise prices as the likes of Disney and Netflix pass on to customers whatever they pay for the speedier lanes, which are the digital equivalent of an uncongested car pool lane on a busy freeway.

Consumer groups immediately attacked the proposal, saying that not only would costs rise, but also that big, rich companies with the money to pay large fees to Internet service providers would be favored over small start-ups with innovative business models — stifling the birth of the next Facebook or Twitter.

“If it goes forward, this capitulation will represent Washington at its worst,” said Todd O’Boyle, program director of Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. “Americans were promised, and deserve, an Internet that is free of toll roads, fast lanes and censorship — corporate or governmental.”

If the new rules deliver anything less, he added, “that would be a betrayal.”

by Edward Wyatt, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

Hubert Wolfs (Belgian, 1899-1937), Composition with fish, 1926.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Possibility of Self-Sacrifice

Normally, death is present in our lives as an ending-yet-to-arrive. For most of us, Simone Weil writes, “Death appears as a limit set in advance on the future.” We make plans, pursue goals, navigate relationships—all under the condition of death. We lead our lives under the condition of death; our actions are shaped by it as a surface is shaped by its boundaries.

However, as we approach this boundary, when our end is present, we are nothing but terror. All pursuits disintegrate, and our self-understanding collapses. At once we are expelled from the sphere of meaning. We are nothing more than this body. This body and its last breath. It is not simply that we cannot survive our own death; we cannot bear the sight of it. We do not want to die. Not now.

And yet the possibility of self-sacrifice suggests that this terror can be overcome, that death can be meaningful. One recent example is that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 and whose death put in motion the massive uprising known as the Arab Spring. But there are many less noted acts of self-sacrifice. In different places and moments in time, in different languages and cultures, soldiers, activists, lovers, friends, and parents exhibit a willingness to die that demands our attention.

Such acts, so difficult to comprehend, may seem at first sight unworthy of serious consideration. But rushing to this conclusion would be a mistake. It is not only that by dismissing acts of self-sacrifice as unintelligible we disavow a prevalent and influential human phenomenon. Understanding these acts may also shed light on the way we value things more generally. Indeed, we will see that even if most of us will never actually take such extreme measures, the possibility of self-sacrifice is part of living a meaningful life.

Consider, then, three famous individuals whose deaths are often seen as examples of self-sacrifice. As we consider their deaths, we will come to realize that only one of them found meaning in her own life and that, surprisingly, of the three it is only her death that may properly be called an act of self-sacrifice.

Three Sights of Death
First: a seventy-year-old man. His beard elongates his stocky face. He has an exceptionally broad and flattened nose. Its nostrils flare with each breath, as if each drawing of air originates in a new, voluntary decision to inhale. We watch him in the early hours of dawn, sitting quietly in his prison cell. The skin on his forehead is wrinkled and soft and covered with dried sweat. He has not bathed during these days of waiting, of which this day is second to last.

The old man’s eyes are fixed on the spot where his friend and disciple had just stood. Only a moment ago his friend spoke hopefully, pleading with the old man to flee this jail, to come with him, to save himself. Perhaps the old man is considering the state of mind his friend must be in now: walking back, his mission unfulfilled, unable to understand why his wish that life prevail was shattered by the wisest of men.

Crito has left, and Socrates, who thrived most amongst the crowds, is now alone­ in his cell, having turned down his last chance of survival. On the day after tomorrow he will drink a cup of poisoned hemlock and expire in accordance with the decision of the Athenian court. The sun rises in the sky outside and daylight fills the dank, dusty cell. Socrates breathes calmly, his nostrils flare and contract. It is summer, 399 BCE.

Socrates could not acknowledge that his death would be a terrible loss.

Second: two months short of his forty-sixth birthday, a man in uniform steps from a balcony into an office that is not his own. The office belongs to the commandant of the Japan Self-Defense Force, who is tied and held at sword-point near the wall. “I don’t even think they heard me,” the man says, as he undoes the last button of his uniform jacket.

A moment ago, standing on the balcony, he had called upon the 800 soldiers of the 32nd Regiment to rise against Japan’s liberal-democratic constitution in the name of the country’s history and tradition: “Will you abide a world in which the spirit is dead and there is only a reverence for life?” he asked. The soldiers jeered and hissed, “Let the commandant go!” “Come down off there!” He was not able to finish his speech and decided to move forward with his plan. He motioned to his soldier, Morita, and together they called out, “Long live his imperial Majesty! Long live his imperial Majesty! Long live his imperial Majesty!”

Having failed to inspire a coup d’état, the man sits on the floor of the commandant’s office, and Morita takes his place behind him and slightly to his left, a sword raised above his head. The man grasps a short sword with both hands and points it to his stomach. His strong eyebrows sharpen, but his face is still imprinted with vulnerability. He was a tender, sickly child, and though his features have hardened over the years, though he is now the commander of his own army, the Shield Society, the fragile essence of his face has remained: his right eye slightly larger than his left and higher on his face.

The next moment, the man will disembowel himself. He will then be decapitated by Morita, with the help of another soldier, Furu-Koga, who will, in turn, decapitate Morita and thereby complete the seppuku ritual and the effort of the Shield Society to revive “the spirit of Japan.” This will be the end of one of Japan’s most celebrated and prolific authors, Yukio Mishima, in Tokyo, November 25, 1970.

Third: a forty-year-old woman in the midst of a great crowd of people huddled around the Epsom Downs Racecourse, south of London. Her thin lips are pressed together, her eyes, normally weary and doubtful, are filled with intent. She stands close to the barrier that separates the masses from the racetrack and watches the horses’ hooves thump the ground.

The socialites, the gamblers, the peddlers, the riff-raff, the jockeys, King George V and his wife Queen Mary—all are present and following the race. None entertains a shred of doubt that the Derby will run its course. Emily Wilding Davison, a militant suffragette, resists this overwhelming certainty. She stands still, around her the incessant movement of things and events, the habitual pattern of human and animal affairs. She clasps the metal bar and takes a deep breath. She slips under the railing, the suffragettes’ flag on her body, and runs to the king’s horse, which has appeared around the bend. Days later she will die of her injuries. It is June 4, 1913—Derby Day.

Socrates, Yukio Mishima, and Emily Wilding Davison. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is their public embrace of death. All three had sufficient time and leisure to consider their options, to choose their ending, and all saw death as their final, life-affirming action.

by Oded Na’aman, Boston Review | Read more:
Image: uncredited

Dexter Dalwood

How BP's Gulf Settlement Became Its Target

The oil rig fire and the nearly unstoppable fountain of oil that followed at the Macondo Prospect on April 20, 2010, was the largest marine oil spill in the nation’s history. The oil poured into the gulf for 87 days, fouling an estimated 68,000 square miles of waters and almost 500 miles of coastline from Louisiana to Florida.

With complex ripple effects and lingering uncertainty about the health of the gulf, the economic impact remains nearly impossible to quantify. But BP, exceeding its obligations under the federal Oil Pollution Act to compensate victims, set up a multibillion-dollar program and turned to Kenneth R. Feinberg, an expert in administering complicated programs like the Sept. 11 victims compensation fund, to run it. (...)

But in meeting halls and boardrooms along the gulf, Mr. Feinberg’s compensation program was criticized as being confusing and unpredictable.

“I can’t tell you how many times we did our financials,” said Michael Hinojosa, the owner of Midship Marine, a boat building company in Harvey. “They always asked for more documentation. They kept asking for more and more, and we kept giving it to them.”

With anger and criticism mounting, BP and a committee of plaintiffs’ lawyers began to work out, over nearly 150 negotiating sessions, a broad settlement that could help the company limit the scope of any coming litigation. Negotiators envisioned a program very different from Mr. Feinberg’s. The new claims process was intended to be accessible, and the explicitly stated goal was to help claimants get the largest amount for which they qualified.

Both sides agreed on a claims administrator: Patrick Juneau, a laid-back Louisiana lawyer and a veteran administrator of major settlement funds, including the one resulting from lawsuits over the painkilling drug Vioxx.

A central element of the agreement, however, would prove to be a time bomb. Instead of having claims calculators contend with different kinds of arguable evidence to prove that damage was linked to the spill, the negotiators came up with a formula that relied solely on financial data for proof of harm. If a business was in a certain region and could prove that its income dropped and rose again in a specific pattern during 2010, that would be enough to establish a claim.

To David A. Logan, the dean of the law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, this was a creative way to avoid endless minitrials. “The whole idea is to make this proceed without laborious technical findings on causation,” he said.

The deal covered a broad array of businesses in the gulf states, stretching all the way to the Tennessee state line. It offered those claiming damages the potential of maximizing compensation. For BP, it promised to sharply reduce the number of litigants it would face.

The agreement was unusual in another critical way: There was no limit on the overall payout. Aside from a fund for the seafood industry capped at $2.3 billion, BP had agreed not to turn off the spigot as long as there were legitimate claims to pay.

Elizabeth Cabraser, a member of the group of lawyers representing damage claimants, described the deal, which runs to more than a thousand pages including exhibits, as “the most detailed, highly defined settlement agreement that I’ve ever seen.”

“It was a model,” she said. “Up until the day it wasn’t.” (...)

Lawyers all along the Gulf Coast tell the same story: of taking a casual look at the agreement, reading it with increasing disbelief and then immediately encouraging their partners to read it, too. Accountants were hired, chambers of commerce were contacted, and clients — doctors, nonprofit organizations, just about any type of enterprise — were urged to gather financial documents. Law firms, also eligible for claims under the deal, began to look at their own account books.

One lawyer in Tampa, Fla., sent out a mass mailing, later highlighted in court filings by BP, saying that “the craziest thing about the settlement is that you can be compensated for losses that are UNRELATED to the spill.”

by Campbell Robertson and John Schwarz, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: U.S. Coast Guard, via Reuters

Damon Albarn

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The World of Digital Perfume Finders

[ed. It's like another universe.]

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not your average fragrance consumer. I have been a beauty editor for 10 years, which has afforded me unprecedented access to hundreds of perfumes, often before they come to market. My fragrance affections being fleeting, however, I still find myself in search of that elusive "signature scent": an early love affair with a cyprus-tinged men's scent from L'Occitane preceded a brief fling with Costume National's Scent Sheer, which I recently followed with a multiparty tryst starring Acqua di Parma's Colonia, Byredo's Seven Veils and Frédéric Malle's Geranium Pour Monsieur.

Last March, I'd grown tired of them all. Wandering the streets of Paris while in the city covering fashion shows, I walked into Nose, a newly opened perfume shop in the Second Arrondissement. Intrigued, I sat down at the perfume bar, and a bearded, bow-tied gentleman in jeans assisted me with one of the iPads ranged along the counter. The tablet—and the denim—were signs that a department-store fragrance-buying experience, this wasn't.

That said, it's increasingly less rare to find a digital element in the perfume world. The fragrance-technology industry has been growing steadily, with iPhone apps like reference tool "The Ultimate Perfume Encyclopedia" and personality-driven scent-seeker "Perfumance." Last year, the Japanese company ChatPerf Inc. launched "Scentee," a small atomizer that plugs into a smartphone's headphone jack and mists a preloaded scent to notify you of an email or as an alarm.

At Nose, my affable adviser turned out to be one of the store's founders, Nicolas Cloutier, a former international I.T.-management consultant turned perfume purveyor. "We are geeks who are good at art direction," Mr. Cloutier later said of himself and a few of the seven partners with whom he launched the shop.

Using the iPad's touch screen, I entered the names of my favorite perfumes, allowing the system's algorithm to create a personal "olfactive pyramid," which then produced five personalized recommendations. Key to the Nose experience was a blind sniff test of each scent, intended to de-emphasize packaging, a strategy in line with the store's ethos: to help consumers find fragrances "without the marketing bulls—t," Mr. Cloutier said.

And it worked. I walked out with Etat Libre d'Orange's Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes, a spicy Oriental with hints of ginger, shiso and leather that snapped me right out of my fragrance rut. Nose's algorithm—currently available online, and soon to debut at a second brick-and-mortar branch in the U.S.—made me ponder the idea of online-dating my way to true perfume love.

by Celia Ellenberg, WSJ |  Read more:

Real Rothko?

One man’s nearly three-decade quest to authenticate a potential Mark Rothko painting purchased at auction for $319.50 plus tax has turned up convincing evidence in the work’s favor, but the experts seem unlikely to issue a ruling, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The painting, which features Rothko’s iconic stacked rectangular blocks of color, bears the artist’s signature and the name of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where Rothko taught in 1949.

A lifelong collector, Douglas Himmelfarb, spotted the painting at a South Los Angeles auction preview, and immediately did his research. When he made the connection between Rothko and the school, he knew he had to the buy the piece. After the sale, Himmelfarb traced the canvas to the collection of Mollye Teitelbaum, who had owned it since at least 1964. From there, Himmelfarb began the arduous process of finding proof that his auction find was the real deal.

In the years since, Himmelfarb has found little support from the art establishment, while his personal fortunes have taken a dramatic downturn: the government recently foreclosed on his Hawaii home. If his Rothko is real, it could be his salvation, but it seems that no one is willing to issue an opinion.

The authentications business, as another WSJ article recently highlighted, has become particularly fraught, as estate-run committees for artists such as Keith Haring and Andy Warhol have shut down rather than face the threat of litigation as a result of issuing an unpopular or erroneous opinion.

Rothko expert David Anfam, who published the artist’s catalogue raisonné in 1998, has been familiar with Himmelfarb’s painting since the late 1980s. The scholar even discovered a black-and-white photograph of the work in the archives held by Rothko’s family, but still declined to include the work in his book.

by Sarah Cascone, Artnet |  Read more:
Image: Mark Rothko?

Judgmental Maps

San Francisco by Dan Steiner via:
[ed. Now this is a map I could use! Hobo blowjobs, baseball hatted fitness overachivers, commie gymnast figure skaters.... check out Las Vegas and New York.]
h/t Boing Boing

Ten Best Sentences

[ed. I can think of a number of other authors whose works might have been included (eg. Raymond Carver, Reanaldo Arenas, Annie Dillard, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gabrial Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, the list goes on and on), but I guess that's what makes this fun, sort of like a Rolling Stone 10 Greatest Guitar Solos exercise. American Scholar article here.]

The editors of American Scholar have chosen “Ten Best Sentences” from literature, and readers have suggested many more. They threw in an eleventh for good measure. This lovely feature caught me in the middle of a new book project, “Art of X-ray Reading,” in which I take classic passages such as these and look beneath the surface of the text. If I can see the machinery working down there, I can reveal it to writers, who can then add to their toolboxes.

With respect and gratitude to American Scholar, I offer brief interpretations below on how and why these sentences work:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

This sentence is near the end of the novel, a buildup to its more famous conclusion. It begins with something we can “see,” vanished trees. There is a quick tension between the natural order and the artificial one, a kind of exploitation of the land that is as much part of our cultural heritage as the Myth of the West and Manifest Destiny. “Vanished” is a great word. “The Great Gatsby” sounds like the name of a magician, and he at times vanishes from sight, especially after the narrator sees him for the first time gazing out at Daisy’s dock. What amazes me about this sentence is how abstract it is. Long sentences don’t usually hold together under the weight of abstractions, but this one sets a clear path to the most important phrase, planted firmly at the end, “his capacity for wonder.”

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
—James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

This sentence also comes near the end of the novel, but is not the very end. It has the feel of an anthem, a secular credo, coming from Stephen Dedalus, who, in imitation of Joyce himself, feels the need to leave Ireland to find his true soul. The poet is a maker, of course, like a blacksmith, and the mythological character Dedalus is a craftsman who built the labyrinth and constructed a set of wings for his son Icarus. The wax in those wings melted when Icarus flew too close to the sun. He plunged into the sea to his death. This is where the magic of a single word comes into play: “forge.” For the narrator it means to strengthen metal in fire. But it also means to fake, to counterfeit, perhaps a gentle tug at Stephen’s hubris.

This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.
—John Hersey, “Hiroshima”

Great writers fear not the long sentence, and here is proof. If a short sentence speaks a gospel truth, then a long one takes us on a kind of journey. This is best done when subject and verb come at the beginning, as in this example, with the subordinate elements branching to the right. There is room here for an inventory of Japanese cultural preferences, but the real target is that final phrase, an “atavistic urge to hide under leaves,” even in the shadow of the most destructive technology ever created, the atomic bomb.

by Roy Peter Clark, Poynter |  Read more:
Image: Berenice Abbott via:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

[ed. See also: The Picketty Panic and The Picketty Phenomenon.]

Thomas Piketty just tossed an intellectual hand grenade into the debate over the world’s struggling economy. Before the English translation of the French economist’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, hit bookstores, it was applauded, attacked and declared a must-read by pundits, left, right and center. For good reason: it challenges the fundamental assumption of American and European politics that economic growth will continue to deflect popular anger over the unequal distribution of income and wealth.

“Abundance”, observed the late sociologist Daniel Bell was “the American surrogate for socialism.” As the economic pie expands, everyone’s slice grew bigger.

The three-decade long boom that followed World War II seemed to prove Bell’s point, tossing Karl Marx’s forecast of capitalism’s collapse into the dustbin of history.

Marx predicted that as markets expand, profits from technological innovation would gradually dry up, depressions would get more severe and capitalists would drive labor’s share of income in the advanced industrial economies so low that revolution was inevitable.

But twentieth-century capitalism proved more resilient than Marx thought. New technologies continued to generate more profits and jobs. Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies prevented cyclical business downturns from triggering depressions. And the investor class, threatened by the specter of communism, agreed, grudgingly, to the New Deal model of strong unions, social insurance and other policies that forced them to share the profits from rising productivity with their workers.

In the United States, the portion of income going to the richest dropped from over 45 percent in the 1920s to under 35 percent by the 1970s. Between 1959 and 1973 the percentage of Americans living in poverty was cut in half. Other industrial countries followed the same pattern.

Ultimately, it was the communist system that collapsed, unable to match capitalism’s performance in providing the proletariat with a house, a car and the other totems of a middle-class life.

The idea that capitalism naturally led to greater equality was codified in a 1955 landmark study by the American economist Simon Kuznets, whose data showed that after an initial period of rising inequality (e.g., our nineteenth-century gilded age) the wealth generated by market economies is distributed between labor and capital more evenly. When workers’ productivity rose, so do their wages. The “Kuznets Curve” quickly became conventional wisdom for both mainstream economists and the politicians they advised. As the nautical John F. Kennedy put it: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The central question for Western economists then became how to keep the tide of growth rising. Liberals favored more active government interventions, conservatives more incentives for private investors. Income and wealth distribution—the issue that had preoccupied economists since Adam Smith—was narrowed to studies of the characteristics of the poor (their race, their gender, their sex life, etc.) that prevented them from rising with the tide. Almost no one studied the rich.

Then, in the late 1970s, the trend toward equality reversed. Workers’ output-per-hour continued to rise, but their wages and benefits flattened. Almost all of the gains from the increased productivity of the last three and a half decades went to corporate investors and their top managers. The poverty rate rose by a third. And the pain spread steadily up the socioeconomic ladder. (...)

Over the longer term, the prospects can be downright grim. The venerable Robert Gordon, an economist known for careful analysis, thinks that the innovation that has driven growth for over a century might well slow from its average of 2 percent per year since 1891 to 0.2 percent for the foreseeable future. Add tightening environmental costs and constraints and the good ship Abundance sinks to the sea floor.

The pessimists of course could be wrong. It’s certainly possible, if not plausible, that some unpredicted burst of entrepreneurial energy or a simultaneous reconversion to Keynesianism could propel growth faster than even Obama’s optimistic economists forecast. Couldn’t that be enough to float us back to Kuznets’s curve of rising equality?

Enter Thomas Piketty, whose impressively researched analysis (600 pages plus a detailed 165-page online technical appendix) concludes that Simon Kuznets was wrong. Not only does capitalist growth not reduce inequality; it increases it.

Using data and computer power unavailable to Kuznets, Piketty pored through 200–300 years of the economic history of the largest capitalist economies—principally the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Sweden and Japan. The numbers show that that since roughly 1700, with one exceptional period, the returns to capital (profits and interest) have exceeded the rate of overall economic growth. Since the rich own most of the re-investable capital, their wealth accumulates faster than the wealth of the vast majority of people whose income depends on wages and salaries.

The exceptions to the historical trend were the years 1914–75 in Europe and 1929–75 in the United States, in which inequality shrunk in almost all western nations. According to Piketty this era was unique: the consequences of two world wars, the Great Depression and the social democratic character of the postwar recovery in Europe, Japan and North America. Once those forces were spent, capitalism returned to its normal function as a machine for producing “inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

Moreover—and this is a key point—contrary to what we’re taught in Economics 101, markets appear to have no self-correcting mechanism that can halt the worsening misdistribution of wealth. If allowed to go unchecked, a tiny number of capitalists will own just about everything, with social consequences that Piketty sees as “potentially terrifying.”

by Jeff Faux, The Nation |  Read more:
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau

Friday, April 25, 2014

Winter Faces by Andrea D’Aquino

[ed. Nice swing.]

Van Morrison

[ed. How many people have the ability to play a sax and sing at the same time?]

Larry Page, The Untold Story

Everyone knows the Steve Jobs story — how he was fired from the company he founded — Apple — only to return from exile decades later to save the business.

What’s less-well understood is that Apple’s board and investors were absolutely right to fire Jobs. Early in his career, he was petulant, mean, and destructive. Only by leaving Apple, humbling himself, and finding a second success (with Pixar) was he able to mature into the leader who would return to Apple and build it into the world’s most-valuable company.

Larry Page is the Steve Jobs of Google.

Like Jobs, Page has a co-founder, Sergey Brin, but Page has always been his company’s true visionary and driving force.

And just as Apple’s investors threw Jobs out of his company, Google’s investors ignored Page’s wishes and forced him to hire a CEO to be adult supervision.

Both then underwent a long period in the wilderness. Steve Jobs’ banishment was more severe, but Page also spent years at a remove from the day-to-day world of Google.

As with Jobs, it was only through this long exile that Page was able to mature into a self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses.

Then, like Jobs, Page came back with wild ambitions and a new resolve.

by Nicholas Carlson, Business Insider |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Fish and Game Weakening Land-Use Regulations for Alaska's Wildlife Refuges, Sanctuaries, Critical Habitat Areas

[ed. Some of Alaska's most important fish and wildlife habitats are being threatened by its current governor and state administration. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game used to be one of the most respected and admired conservation and management agencies in the world, but relentless political meddling over the last 14 years has reduced it to a shadow of its former self.

Habitat Division in particular (which was responsible for fish and wildlife policy, planning and permitting throughout the state) bore the brunt of this manipulation. At one point it was completely dismantled and reconstituted so that it might better align with pro-development interests. Now the governor is going after the state's Special Areas - wildlife refuges, sanctuaries and critical habitats. The department leadership that he's installed will do whatever is necessary to ensure that even after this administration is gone Habitat Division (and the Department of Fish and Game in general) will be permanently crippled in its ability to provide meaningful protection for Alaska's bountiful fish and wildlife resources. Part Two of this article is here, and Alaska Public Media describes the "Battle of Dude Creek".]

While many Alaskans are celebrating the demise of House Bill 77, a far more audacious gambit to overturn state regulations is quietly coming to fruition.

HB 77 was Gov. Sean Parnell’s recent attempt to “streamline” permitting for development proposals, primarily by denying tribes and individuals the ability to reserve enough water in rivers and streams to protect salmon and other fisheries from incompatible development. It also would have excluded project reviews and appeals by the public. That bill may be dead for now; however, it’s likely to be reanimated next year.

Few people are aware of another brazen plan to “streamline” permitting because it is cloaked in secrecy. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is repealing and rewriting every management plan that regulates development in state wildlife refuges, sanctuaries and critical habitat areas. Because revoking these regulations doesn’t require legislative approval, Parnell’s secret move is more likely to succeed than HB 77. (...)

You’re probably already aware of the Parnell administration’s attempts to repeal regulations intended to conserve fish and wildlife -- or the public’s ability to review, comment on, and appeal permitting decisions by state agencies.

Parnell and his commissioners advocated giving Alaska’s coastal management program back to the feds, which meant that Alaskans now have little or no say in conserving renewable resources, such as salmon, that residents use for commercial, sport, or subsistence activities. The program had required coordinated public and agency reviews of most projects in the coastal zone and had allowed public appeals of agency decisions. Parnell is the only governor to return a state’s coastal authority to federal control.

Parnell supports the Pebble Project, which would auger one of the world’s largest open-pit mines into the world’s most productive salmon habitat. Most Alaskans are opposed to the mine for that reason.

Echoing Parnell’s preference for development at all costs, his commissioner of natural resources, Dan Sullivan, believing his department’s mission statement -- “to develop, conserve, and enhance natural resources” -- was unconstitutional, dropped the words “conserve” and “enhance.”

But the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has always been reluctant to conserve or enhance natural resources. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has long considered it its mission to conserve wildlife, salmon and other fish. Until now.

by Rick Sinnott, Alaska Dispatch |  Read more:
Image: K. Mueller/FWS photo via flickr

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Hong Kong Skyline

Biotech's Hard Bargain

[ed. Looks like a New Yorker kind of day.]

Few people have done better in the recent stock boom than biotech investors. Biotech was the best-performing market sector last year, and in the past two years its stocks rose a hundred and twenty per cent. But suddenly, in late March, the stocks tanked, some falling more than twenty per cent in a few weeks. The selloff can be explained to some extent as a market correction and part of a wider flight from risk. But the real story concerns a revolutionary new hepatitis-C drug developed by the biotech giant Gilead.

Hepatitis C affects 3.2 million Americans; untreated, it leads to scarring of the liver and to liver cancer. Until now, the best treatments cured only about half of patients and often had debilitating side effects. But in December the F.D.A. approved the first in a new wave of hep-C drugs, Gilead’s Sovaldi. This is huge news—not just in medicine but on Wall Street. Vamil Divan, a drug-industry analyst at Credit Suisse, told me, “Sovaldi and the other new hep-C drugs are great drugs for a tough disease.” Sovaldi can cure ninety per cent of patients in three to six months, with only minor side effects. There’s just one catch: a single dose of the drug costs a thousand dollars, which means that a full, twelve-week course of treatment comes to more than eighty grand.

For Gilead this is great. Take an expensive treatment, multiply by a huge number of hepatitis-C patients, and you get a very lucrative business proposition. It’s also good news for patients. But it’s a big problem for insurers and taxpayers, who—given that hepatitis-C patients have an average annual income of just twenty-three thousand dollars—are going to end up footing much of the bill. There has been an uproar of criticism. Private insurers blasted Gilead’s pricing strategy; the pharmacy-benefit manager Express Scripts said that it wanted its clients to stop using Sovaldi once an alternative appears. Then, on March 20th, three Democratic members of Congress sent Gilead a letter asking it to explain why Sovaldi costs so much. The letter had no force of law, but it spooked investors by raising the spectre of what they most fear—price regulation.

Investors love drug companies in part because they often have tremendous pricing power. Drugs designed to fight rare diseases routinely cost two or three hundred thousand dollars; cancer drugs often cost a hundred grand. And, whereas product prices in most industries drop over time, pharmaceuticals actually get more expensive. The price of the anti-leukemia drug Gleevec, for instance, has tripled since 2001. And, across the board, drug prices rise much faster than inflation. The reason for this is that prices for brand-name, patented drugs aren’t really set in a free market. The people taking the drugs aren’t paying most of the cost, which makes them less price-sensitive, and the bargaining power of those who do foot the bill is limited. Insurers have to cover drugs that work well; the economists Darius Lakdawalla and Wesley Yin recently found that even big insurers had “virtually zero” ability to drive a hard bargain when it comes to drugs with no real equivalents. And the biggest buyer in the drug market—the federal government—is prohibited from bargaining for lower prices for Medicare, and from refusing to pay for drugs on the basis of cost. In short, if you invent a drug that doctors think is necessary, you have enormous leeway to charge what you will.

by James Suroweicki, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Christoph Neiman

Sitting it Out

Ah, spring is here and sidewalk cafés are again blooming across America! Some of my friends are thrilled at this seasonal turn. I am not.

My memories of outdoor dining skew toward the mildly traumatic. Such excursions often begin with companions who all but squeal “Let’s sit outside!” Confronted with such enthusiasm, it’s hard to argue for an indoor seat, and if I do I’m accused of being a troglodyte and killjoy. Enduring a long, silent, and pouty indoor meal is never fun, so I usually capitulate and go outside. Thus I leave the comfort of civilized shade and air-conditioning, and take my seat in the petting zoo set aside for masticating humans.

And here I sit — next to an overflowing dumpster screened partially from view but not in the least from aroma by cheap latticework from Home Depot. Or I’m curbside on a city street where every few minutes a bus passes and emits a great sooty plume of diesel exhaust, which gently alights upon my meal like finely ground pepper. Or, perhaps in the saddest tableaux of all, I’m sitting outside in front of a strip mall, corralled by some cagelike ironwork posted with stern wording against seating yourself, and overlooking an asphalt lagoon consisting of thousands of car windshields each reflecting the sun’s rays directly at me, as if I’m part of an experiment involving thresholds for scorched retinas. I once had to wear two pairs of sunglasses to make it through a lunch.

Truthfully, I’m actually not entirely opposed to outdoor dining — I’ve spent long afternoons in Europe overstaying my welcome at several beautiful cafés. And even in America I’ve lingered over coffee and drinks at a few lovely outdoor spots — in New York, in New Orleans, along the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami.

But the great majority of them just don’t seem to get it right. They might have the appropriate Bistro Collection Café Chairs. But everything else is slightly awry and amiss, as if designed by someone whose understanding of European café culture arose from having once, long ago, seen the Disney film The Aristocats. The café is poorly positioned, poorly arranged, or too exposed to loud traffic and passing cellphone shouters. Most U.S. cafés seem to relate to street life in an adversarial manner rather as a contributor. The technical term for this sort of design, I believe, is “fucked-up feng shui.”

by Wayne Curtis, The Smart Set |  Read more:
Image: metamerist via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Steve Buscemi

Death and Anger on Everest

[ed. See also: Climbers Leave Everest Amid Regrets and Tensions Among Sherpas.]

For many years, the most lucrative commercial guiding operation on Mt. Everest has been a company called Himalayan Experience, or Himex, which is owned by a New Zealand mountaineer named Russell Brice. In the spring of 2012, more than a month into the climbing season, he became increasingly worried about a bulge of glacial ice three hundred yards wide that was frozen tenuously to Everest’s West Shoulder, hanging like a massive sword of Damocles directly over the main route up the Nepal side of the mountain. Brice’s clients (“members,” in the parlance of Himalayan mountaineering), Western guides, and Sherpas repeatedly had to climb beneath the threatening ice bulge as they moved up and down the mountain to acclimatize and establish a series of higher camps necessary for their summit assault. One day, Brice timed how long it took his head guide, Adrian Ballinger (“who is incredibly fast,” he wrote in the blog post excerpted below), to climb through the most hazardous terrain:
It took him 22 min from the beginning to the end of the danger zone. For the Sherpas carrying a heavy load it took 30 min and most of our members took between 45 min and one hour to walk underneath this dangerous cliff. In my opinion, this is far too long to be exposed to such a danger and when I see around 50 people moving underneath the cliff at one time, it scares me.
Adding to Brice’s concern, some of his most experienced Sherpas, ordinarily exceedingly stoical men, approached him to say that the conditions on the mountain made them fear for their lives. One of them actually broke down in tears as he confessed this. So on May 7, 2012, Brice made an announcement that shocked most of the thousand people camped at the base of Everest: he was pulling all his guides, members, and Sherpas off the mountain, packing up their tents and equipment, and heading home. He was widely criticized for this decision in 2012, and not just by clients who were forced to abandon their dreams of climbing the world’s highest mountain without receiving a refund for the forty-three thousand euros they had paid him in advance. Many of the other expedition leaders also thought Brice was wildly overreacting. The reputation of Himex took a major hit.

After what happened last Friday, though, it’s hard to argue with Brice’s call. On April 18th, shortly before 7 A.M. local time, an overhanging wedge of ice the size of a Beverly Hills mansion broke loose from the same ice bulge that had frightened Brice into leaving Everest in 2012. As it crashed onto the slope below, the ice shattered into truck-size chunks and hurtled toward some fifty climbers laboring slowly upward through the Khumbu Icefall, a jumbled maze of unstable ice towers that looms above the 17,600-foot base camp. The climbers in the line of fire were at approximately nineteen thousand feet when the avalanche struck. Of the twenty-five men hit by the falling ice, sixteen were killed, all of them Nepalis working for guided climbing teams. Three of the bodies were buried beneath the frozen debris and may never be found.

Although many news reports indicated that all the victims were Sherpas, the legendary mountain people who comprise just half of one per cent of the Nepali population, three of the sixteen were members of other, much larger ethnic groups: one was Gurung, one was Tamang, and one was a member of the Hindu Chhetri caste. All, however, were employed as high-altitude climbing Sherpas—an élite profession that deservedly commands respect and admiration from mountaineers around the world. (...)

There is no denying that climbing Everest is a preposterously dangerous undertaking for the members who provide the Sherpas’ income. But running counter to the disturbing trend among Sherpas, climbing Everest has actually grown significantly safer for Western guides and members in recent years, according to the available data. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Western climbers now use bottled oxygen much more liberally than they did in the past; many Western climbers now prophylactically dose themselves with dexamethasone, a powerful steroid, when they ascend above twenty-two thousand feet, which has proven to be an effective strategy for minimizing the risk of contracting high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), potentially fatal ailments that are common on Everest; and weather forecasts are much more accurate than they were eighteen or twenty years ago. (...)

The reason the risk remains so much greater for Sherpas can be traced to several things. Sherpas aren’t provided with nearly as much bottled oxygen, because it is so expensive to buy and to stock on the upper mountain, and they tend to be much better acclimatized than Westerners. Sherpas are almost never given dexamethasone prophylactically, because they don’t have personal physicians in their villages who will prescribe the drug on request. And perhaps most significant, Sherpas do all the heavy lifting on Everest, literally and figuratively. The mostly foreign-owned guiding companies assign the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs to their Sherpa staff, thereby mitigating the risk to their Western guides and members, whose backpacks seldom hold much more than a water bottle, a camera, an extra jacket, and lunch. The work Sherpas are paid to do—carrying loads, installing the aluminum ladders, stringing and anchoring thousands of feet of rope—requires them to spend vastly more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain, particularly in the Khumbu Icefall—the shattered, creaking, ever-shifting expanse of glacier that extends from just above base camp, at seventeen thousand six hundred feet, to the nineteen-thousand-five-hundred-foot elevation. The fact that members and Western guides now suck down a lot more bottled oxygen is wonderful for them, but it means the Sherpas have to carry those additional oxygen bottles through the Icefall for the Westerners to use.

by Jon Krakauer, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image:Christian Kober/JAI/Corbis