Friday, October 31, 2014

Cory Sever

Stefanie Thiele Face Yourself, 2014

On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning

[ed. Repost. Given the recent controversy over street harassment that has the whole internet aflame, perhaps it's time for a more poignant perspective.]

One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo’s fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.

Tell you the truth, she’s not that good-looking. She doesn’t stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn’t young, either - must be near thirty, not even close to a “girl,” properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She’s the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there’s a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.

Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl - one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers, or you’re drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I’ll catch myself staring at the girl at the next table to mine because I like the shape of her nose.

But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived type. Much as I like noses, I can’t recall the shape of hers - or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It’s weird.

“Yesterday on the street I passed the 100% girl,” I tell someone.

“Yeah?” he says. “Good-looking?”

“Not really.”

“Your favorite type, then?”

“I don’t know. I can’t seem to remember anything about her - the shape of her eyes or the size of her breasts.”


“Yeah. Strange.”

“So anyhow,” he says, already bored, “what did you do? Talk to her? Follow her?”

“Nah. Just passed her on the street.”

She’s walking east to west, and I west to east. It’s a really nice April morning.

Wish I could talk to her. Half an hour would be plenty: just ask her about herself, tell her about myself, and - what I’d really like to do - explain to her the complexities of fate that have led to our passing each other on a side street in Harajuku on a beautiful April morning in 1981. This was something sure to be crammed full of warm secrets, like an antique clock built when peace filled the world.

After talking, we’d have lunch somewhere, maybe see a Woody Allen movie, stop by a hotel bar for cocktails. With any kind of luck, we might end up in bed.

Potentiality knocks on the door of my heart.

Now the distance between us has narrowed to fifteen yards.

How can I approach her? What should I say?

“Good morning, miss. Do you think you could spare half an hour for a little conversation?”

Ridiculous. I’d sound like an insurance salesman.

“Pardon me, but would you happen to know if there is an all-night cleaners in the neighborhood?”

No, this is just as ridiculous. I’m not carrying any laundry, for one thing. Who’s going to buy a line like that?

Maybe the simple truth would do. “Good morning. You are the 100% perfect girl for me.”

No, she wouldn’t believe it. Or even if she did, she might not want to talk to me. Sorry, she could say, I might be the 100% perfect girl for you, but you’re not the 100% boy for me. It could happen. And if I found myself in that situation, I’d probably go to pieces. I’d never recover from the shock. I’m thirty-two, and that’s what growing older is all about.

We pass in front of a flower shop. A small, warm air mass touches my skin. The asphalt is damp, and I catch the scent of roses. I can’t bring myself to speak to her. She wears a white sweater, and in her right hand she holds a crisp white envelope lacking only a stamp. So: She’s written somebody a letter, maybe spent the whole night writing, to judge from the sleepy look in her eyes. The envelope could contain every secret she’s ever had.

I take a few more strides and turn: She’s lost in the crowd.

Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would have been a long speech, though, far too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical.

Oh, well. It would have started “Once upon a time” and ended “A sad story, don’t you think?”

by Haruki Murakami, YMFY |  Read more:
Image via:: City Block, Geoffrey Johnson. Represented at the Hubert Gallery here

My Week With a Flip Phone

“Oh, is that an iPhone 6?” someone asks. Two-thirds of the dinner party turns to look at the girl who’s just taken her phone out to check a message. “Can I hold it?” someone else asks. “Does it really bend when you sit?” “Man, that’s huge.” “How’s the camera? I hear it’s the best camera.”

The girl passes it around with a shrug and offers a few low-key Luddite excuses for her embrace of new and exciting technology. “I didn’t even want one, really,” she says. “My other screen was just so cracked. So I thought, If I have to get a new phone, why not?”

Another woman turns to me. “I’m just, like, so not into technology,” she says, just loudly enough. “I still have an iPhone 4! And I don’t even load music on it.” I ask her what she does on long walks or the subway.

“I just look at the world. I mean, God, can’t people just do that anymore?”

I’m at a gathering of people I don’t really know, many of whom have septum rings and stick-and-poke tats, so I wasn’t exactly expecting to be the coolest person at the jamboree. Normally, I would just shut up at this point and fume at the insufferable nature of people who claim they don’t need music on the subway. But tonight, I have an ace in my pocket.

So, as if I’m just casually checking an incoming message, as one does, I pull out my brand-new phone — a Samsung flip phone. A flip phone.

Lately the flip has been discussed as a sort of “status phone” among cool people, like pretentious technophobes and Anna Wintour, so I’m wondering if my newly acquired flip phone will provide me entry to this club. With a satisfying fwaaap! and a flick of the wrist — like I’m opening a switchblade — I pop that faux Luddite’s over-inflated bubble. There’s a moment of silence as I pretend to text away — slowly, precisely, laboriously. For I am on a flip phone, and I revel in my slow text messaging, much as a slow-food early adopter would revel in raising her own chickens.

“Whoa,” says Zoe, a particularly cool redhead who was seconds ago blowing cigarette smoke in my face as if I were invisible, “is that a flip phone? Rad.”

Does the hipness of the flip represent a rebellion against mindless iPhone addicts? A fear of the hackable Cloud? A desire to return to simpler, more social times? As a smartphone addict who literally sleeps with my iPhone clutched in my hand (it’s an alarm clock!), the idea of something that allows me to communicate but can free me from the attention-prison of a smartphone is enticing. And I’m not alone. A Pew study revealed that 9 percent of American adults don’t use smartphones, including 15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 13 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds. So a few weeks ago, after reading this Medium essay heralding the flip phone as the phone of cool girls, I decided to give smartphoneless life a shot.

by Allison P. Davis, NY Magazine |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Myths And Misconceptions Of Our Wearable Future

Wearables as a second brain. The Internet of Self and Things. One trillion sensors….

There’s no doubt that a sensor-laden world is the buzz of the town. The next Big Thing. In fact, there is so much buzz that many consumers probably dismiss it as hype. Yet, in spite of all this hype, as a 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley’s semiconductor and sensor industry, this is about as exciting a space I’ve ever been in.

The reality is of course more nuanced. Yes it’s true that the market is growing extremely fast and there will be many winners — but there will be even more losers in the space. Sensors are getting amazingly accurate, but wearable products continue to be clunky and provide a poor user experience. In fact, studies have found that 40 percent of consumers who buy and try a wearable fitness tracker leave it sitting on their bedside after a month or two.

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done.

Unfortunately, PR hype and science-fiction-fueled ideas, have pushed consumer expectations to an all-time high, and have raised the bar for just about any company (look at Apple, for example). Meanwhile, vaporware that takes advantage of this enthusiasm, mixed with crowdfunding campaigns, are a real danger and risk affecting the industry’s credibility if companies do not deliver. At this point, it is critical to separate over-promised functionality from a reality that is still, by any measure, incredibly exciting.

In this article, we’ll review myths and misconceptions that are prevalent around hardware and that may mislead consumers.

by Hamid Farzaneh, TechCrunch | Read more:
Image:Bryce Durbin

Georgetown, Seattle 2014
photo: markk

Major Cyber Attack Expected by 2025

A major cyber attack will happen between now and 2025 and it will be large enough to cause “significant loss of life or property losses/damage/theft at the levels of tens of billions of dollars,” according to more than 60 percent of technology experts interviewed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. (...)

A key concern for many of the experts Pew interviewed is infrastructure, where very real cyber vulnerabilities do exist and are growing. Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency and a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson told Pew, “Cyberwar just plain makes sense. Attacking the power grid or other industrial control systems is asymmetrical and deniable and devilishly effective. Plus, it gets easier every year. We used to worry about Russia and China taking down our infrastructure. Now we have to worry about Iran and Syria and North Korea. Next up: Hezbollah and Anonymous.”

Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist working with the National Science Foundation as program director for Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace, said, “Damages in the billions will occur to manufacturing and/or utilities but because it ramps up slowly, it will be accepted as just another cost (probably passed on to taxpayers through government rebuilding subsidies and/or environmental damage), and there will be little motivation for the private sector to defend itself.”

Today, cities around the world use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to manage water, sewage, electricity, and even traffic lights. Last October, researchers Chris Sistrunk and Adam Crain found that these systems suffer from 25 different security vulnerabilities. And it’s not unusual for them to have the same security passwords that came direct from the manufacturer. As writers Indu B. Singh and Joseph N. Pelton pointed out in The Futurist magazine, the failure to take even the most basic security precautions leaves these systems open to remote hacking.

Its one reason why many security watchers were hopeful that the Obama administration’s Cybersecurity Framework, released earlier this year, would force companies that preside over infrastructure components to take these precautions, but many in the technology community were disappointed that the guidelines did not include hard mandates for major operators to fix potential security flaws. (...)

But SCADA vulnerabilities look quaint compared to the exploitable security gaps that will persist across the Internet of Things as more infrastructure components are linked together. “Current threats include economic transactions, power grid, and air traffic control. This will expand to include others such as self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles, and building infrastructure,” said Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA

Other experts told Pew that military contractors, facing declining business for missiles and tanks, have purposefully overblown the threats posed by cyber attacks to scare up an enemy for the nation to arm against.
“…This concern seems exaggerated by the political and commercial interests that benefit from us directing massive resources to those who offer themselves as our protectors. It is also exaggerated by the media because it is a dramatic story,” said Joseph Guardin, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. “It is clear our leaders are powerless to rein in the military-industrial-intelligence complex, whose interests are served by having us fearful of cyber attacks. Obviously there will be some theft and perhaps someone can exaggerate it to claim tens of billions in losses, but I don’t expect anything dramatic and certainly don’t want to live in fear of it.” (...)
Still others, such as lead researcher for GigaOM Research Stowe Boyd, said that the growing cyber capabilities of states like China almost promise bigger cyber attacks of growing international importance.

“A bellicose China might ‘cyber invade’ the military capabilities of Japan and South Korea as part of the conflict around the China sea, leading to the need to reconfigure their electronics, at huge cost. Israel and the United States have already created the Stuxnet computer worm to damage Iran’s nuclear refinement centrifuges, for example. Imagine a world dependent on robotic farm vehicles, delivery drones, and AI-managed transport, and how one country might opt to disrupt the spring harvest as a means to damage a neighboring opponent,” Boyd said.

by Patrick Tucker, Defense One | Read more:
Image: via:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

You Don't Wanna Talk?

[ed. THE viral video of the moment (maybe the year). The comments section on YouTube is just as disturbing. See also: here and here.]

"So many men just don’t understand this issue and a lot of men have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of women in these situations. For them, they see one instance of it happening. They have their own personal experience of one time and they say “hey baby” and that’s it. But what they never see is all the other guys that are doing the exact same thing and none of them get to experience what that collective weight feels like to have that happen day in, day out — being judged and talked about by complete strangers about your hair, how you look, how you’re dressed and just being objectified like that day in, day out."

by Bethonie Butler, Washington Post | Read more:
Video: Rob Bliss Creative

And The Biggest Beneficiary Of QE3 Is...

[ed. QE3 also known as QE-Infinity - the Federal Reserve's decision to implement an open-ended bond buying program in 2012 (at the rate of $40-$85 billion a month).]

Aside from the S&P 500 of course, which made billionaires out of millionaires (even if it failed to make billionaires into trillionaires this time around - we will have to wait for QE4 or QE5 for that), some may wonder: who was the biggest beneficiary of QE3? It certainly wasn't the US middle class, which has seen its real wages decline in 6 of the past 7 months, and its disposable income is back at levels not seen since the mid-1990s. No, the biggest winner of QE3 is the same entity that we noted benefited the most from QE over the past 6 years, and which even the WSJ realized was the primary beneficiary of the trillions in cash created out of thin air by the Fed, when in late September Hilsenrath wrote "Fed Rate Policies Aid Foreign Banks"... something we first said back in 2011 with "Exclusive: The Fed's $600 Billion Stealth Bailout Of Foreign Banks Continues At The Expense Of The Domestic Economy, Or Explaining Where All The QE2 Money Went."

So when it comes to the Fed's QE3 generosity to foreign banks, what was the real number?

Here is the answer.

The first chart below shows that since starting in December 2012, when QE3 was formally launched, and continuing through today, the Fed injected some $1.3 trillion reserves with banks, which has manifested as extra cash held by various banks operating in the US, both domestic, but most importantly, foreign.

by Tyler Durden, Zero Hedge |  Read more:
Image: Zero Hedge

Stop Thanking Me For My Service

[ed. See also: No thanks, I won't "support the troops".]

Last week, in a quiet indie bookstore on the north side of Chicago, I saw the latest issue of Rolling Stone resting on a chrome-colored plastic table a few feet from a barista brewing a vanilla latte. A cold October rain fell outside. A friend of mine grabbed the issue and began flipping through it. Knowing that I was a veteran, he said, "Hey, did you see this?" pointing to a news story that seemed more like an ad. It read in part:
"This Veterans Day, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Rihanna, Dave Grohl, and Metallica will be among numerous artists who will head to the National Mall in Washington D.C. on November 11th for 'The Concert For Valor,' an all-star event that will pay tribute to armed services."
"Concert For Valor? That sounds like something the North Korean government would organize," I said as I typed into my MacBook Pro looking for more information.

The sucking sound from the espresso maker was drowning out a 10-year-old Shins song. As I read, my heart sank, my shoulders slumped.

Special guests at the Concert for Valor were to include: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg. The mission of the concert, according to a press release, was to “raise awareness” of veterans issues and “provide a national stage for ensuring that veterans and their families know that their fellow Americans’ gratitude is genuine.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen were to serve in an advisory capacity, and Starbucks, HBO, and JPMorgan Chase were to pay for it all. "We are honored to play a small role to help raise awareness and support for our service men and women,” said HBO chairman Richard Plepler.

Though I couldn’t quite say why, that Concert for Valor ad felt tired and sad, despite the images of Rihanna singing full-throated into a gold microphone and James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica wailing away on their guitars. I had gotten my own share of “thanks” from civilians when I was still a U.S. Army Ranger. Who hadn’t? It had been the endless theme of the post-9/11 era, how thankful other Americans were that we would do... well, what exactly, for them? And here it was again. I couldn’t help wondering: Would veterans somewhere actually feel the gratitude that Starbucks and HBO hoped to convey? (...)

These two ceremonies seemed to catch a particular mood (reflected in so many similar, if more up-to-date versions of the same). They might have benefited from a little “awareness raising” when it came to what the American military has actually been doing these last years, not to say decades, beyond our borders. They certainly summed up much of the frustration I was feeling with the Concert for Valor. Plenty of thank yous, for sure, but no history when it came to what the thanks were being offered for in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, no statistics on taxpayer dollars spent or where they went, or on innocent lives lost and why.

Will the “Concert for Valor” mention the trillions of dollars rung up terrorizing Muslim countries for oil, the ratcheting up of the police and surveillance state in this country since 9/11, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost thanks to the wars of George W. Bush and Barack Obama? Is anyone going to dedicate a song to Chelsea Manning, or John Kiriakou, or Edward Snowden -- two of them languishing in prison and one in exile -- for their service to the American people? Will the Concert for Valor raise anyone’s awareness when it comes to the fact that, to this day, veterans lack proper medical attention, particularly for mental health issues, or that there is a veteran suicide every 80 minutes in this country? Let’s hope they find time in between drum solos, but myself, I’m not counting on it.

by Rory Fanning, Salon |  Read more:
Image: via:

Dear Mountain Room Parents

Hi, everyone!

The Mountain Room is gearing up for its Day of the Dead celebration on Friday. Please send in photos of loved ones for our altar. All parents are welcome to come by on Wednesday afternoon to help us make candles and decorate skulls.


Hi again.

Because I’ve gotten some questions about my last e-mail, there is nothing “wrong” with Halloween. The Day of the Dead is the Mexican version, a time of remembrance. Many of you chose Little Learners because of our emphasis on global awareness. Our celebration on Friday is an example of that. The skulls we’re decorating are sugar skulls. I should have made that more clear.



Some of you have expressed concern about your children celebrating a holiday with the word “dead” in it. I asked Eleanor’s mom, who’s a pediatrician, and here’s what she said: “Preschoolers tend to see death as temporary and reversible. Therefore, I see nothing traumatic about the Day of the Dead.” I hope this helps.


Dear Parents:

In response to the e-mail we all received from Maddie’s parents, in which they shared their decision to raise their daughter dogma-free, yes, there will be an altar, but please be assured that the Day of the Dead is a pagan celebration of life and has nothing to do with God. Keep those photos coming!



Perhaps “pagan” was a poor word choice. I feel like we’re veering a bit off track, so here’s what I’ll do. I’ll start setting up our altar now, so that today at pickup you can see for yourselves how colorful and harmless the Day of the Dead truly is.



The photos should be of loved ones who have passed. Max’s grandma was understandably shaken when she came in and saw a photo of herself on our altar. But the candles and skulls were cute, right?


Mountain Room Parents:

It’s late and I can’t possibly respond to each and every e-mail. (Not that it comes up a lot in conversation, but I have children, too.) As the skulls have clearly become a distraction, I decided to throw them away. They’re in the compost. I’m looking at them now. You can, too, tomorrow at drop-off. I just placed a “NO BASURA” card on the bin to make sure it doesn’t get emptied. Finally, to those parents who are offended by our Day of the Dead celebration, I’d like to point out that there are parents who are offended that you are offended.


by Maria Semple, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Jordan Awan

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Angi Welsch

No Windows But Everyone Gets a Window Seat

Vague, over-wing cloud photos are a staple of vacation albums across the Internet, but a British technology incubator wants to do away with them completely. You’ll still be able to see the sky, though. The Centre for Process Innovation is proposing the elimination of airplane cabin windows to make room for floor to ceiling wraparound screens showing continuous footage from outside the plane.

The goal of the proposal is to reduce how much commercial aircraft bodies, or fuselages, weigh thereby also reducing fuel consumption, costs, and carbon emissions. Windows add weight to aircraft cabins because of both the materials used to make them, and the additional components that must be added to the hull to strengthen and secure it.

Jon Helliwell of CPI told the Guardian, “We had been speaking to people in aerospace and we understood that there was this need to take weight out of aircraft. ... Follow the logical thought through. Let’s take all the windows out—that’s what they do in cargo aircraft.”

To keep people in “window” seats happy, and minimize general feelings of claustrophobia, CPI wants to use cameras mounted on the exteriors of planes and flexible OLED screens on the interior walls to project real-time footage of what's going on outside all over the cabin.

by Lily Hay Newman, Slate | Read more:
Image: CPI

Being Bill Murray

Many of us have random impulses, but Bill Murray is the man who acts on them, for all of us. Consider, for example, the time a couple of years ago when he caught a cab late at night in Oakland. Facing a long drive across the bay to Sausalito, he started talking with his cabbie and discovered that his driver was a frustrated saxophone player: He never had enough time to practice, because he was driving a taxi 14 hours a day. Murray told the cabbie to pull over and get his horn out of the trunk; the cabbie could play it in the back seat while Murray drove.

As he tells this story, Murray is sitting on a couch in a Toronto hotel. Wearing a rumpled shirt with purple stripes, he looks like he'd rather be playing golf than doing an interview. But his eyes light up as he remembers the sound of the cab's trunk opening: "This is gonna be a good one," he thought. "We're both going to dig the shit out of this." Then he decided to "go all the way" and asked the back-seat saxophonist if he was hungry. The cabbie knew a great late-night BBQ place, but worried that it was in a sketchy neighborhood. "I was like, 'Relax, you got the horn,'" says Murray. So around 2:15 a.m., Bill Murray ate Oakland barbecue while his cab driver blew on the saxophone for an astonished crowd. "It was awesome," Murray says. "I think we'd all do that."

In fact, most of us wouldn't (although we probably should). Most of us don't crash strangers' karaoke parties, or get behind a bar in Austin to fulfill all drink orders from whatever random bottle was handy, or give a kid $5 to ride his bike into a swimming pool. Murray has done all those things, and more. The world has an apparently bottomless hunger for true stories of Bill Murray making strangers' lives stranger, and he obliges, whether he's stealing a golf cart and driving it to a nightclub in Stockholm or reading poetry to construction workers. He makes our world a little bit weirder, the mundane routines of everyday life a little more exciting, or as Naomi Watts puts it, "Wherever he goes, he's leaving a trail of hysteria behind him."

The website urban dictionary defines "Bill Murray Story" as "an outlandish (yet plausible) story that involves you witnessing Bill Murray doing something totally unusual, often followed by him walking up to you and whispering, 'No one will ever believe you.' " Ask Murray about his reputation as the master of surreal celebrity encounters and he grimaces, not eager to explain his motivations. But he will concede that he's aware of how his presence is received. "No one has an easy life," he says. "It's this face we put on, that we're not all getting rained on. But you can't start thinking about numbers – if I can change just one person, or I had three nice encounters. You can't think that way, because you're certainly going to have one where you say, ‘What did I just do?' You're a disappointment to yourself, and others, imminently. Any second."

When Lost in Translation was released in 2003 (Murray got an Oscar nomination for playing an aging movie star stranded in the same luxury Tokyo hotel as Scarlett Johansson), I asked director Sofia Coppola what her wish for the following year was. She looked startled. "My wish came true," she said. "Bill Murray did my movie."

Murray, 64, has not made it easy to get him to be in your movie. Unlike any other actor of his stature, he has no agent, no manager, no publicist. If you want to cast him, you get a friend of his to persuade him. Or you call his secret 1-800 number and leave your pitch after the tone. If he checks his voicemail, maybe he'll call you back. After he agrees to be in your movie, you may not hear from him again until the first day of shooting, when he'll show up in the makeup trailer, cracking jokes and giving back rubs. Sometimes his inaccessibility means that he misses out on films he would have excelled in – Little Miss Sunshine, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Monsters, Inc. – but Murray isn't particularly concerned. It's a worthwhile trade-off for him, considering that what he gets in return is freedom.

by Gavin Edwards, Rolling Stone |  Read more:
Image: Caddyshack

Blue Is the Warmest Color

[ed. I finally got around to watching this last night and it's awesome. Awesome. Some would disagree: see here and here. But Adèle Exarchopoulos is amazing. If you don't have Netflix, and can weather watching a 3 hr. movie on your computer, you can also find it here (on YouTube)].

Rumors, rumbles, and other palpitations have beset “Blue Is the Warmest Color” since it showed at the Cannes Film Festival, in May. The jury, chaired by Steven Spielberg, awarded the Palme d’Or to the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, and his two leading ladies. Clearly, this was a work to be reckoned with, but what did it contain? Sex, allegedly, and lots of it: untrammelled, unabashed, and practically unprecedented. We heard that the film was a love story about Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high-school student, and Emma (Léa Seydoux), who is a few years older, and that the dramatizing of that love would make us claw our popcorn into tiny particles. We even heard that the performers had complained of their treatment at the hands of Kechiche. In short, this movie has become a myth, gilded by an NC-17 certificate and crowned by news from Idaho, where depictions of explicit sex may not be combined with an alcohol license, and where patrons of Flicks, an art-house cinema in Boise, will therefore be forbidden to see the film. Heavens! If it’s all too much for Idaho, how will the rest of us cope?

Well, here’s an idea: sit down and watch. And here’s what you will see: a three-hour character study, set in the northern French city of Lille, and spread over several years. The French title is “La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2,” which is plainer and more accurate, yet more affecting, since it implies that, if life is a novel, there are more chapters in store. I hope so, not because I expect a sequel but because the end of the film makes you long for Adèle to be happy, though you fear that such a day may never dawn. And it is her tale; the affair with Emma lies at the core, but, well before they meet, we see Adèle sleeping with a boy and avidly kissing a girl, and a sad percentage of the movie is spent by Adèle on her own. Having left school, she herself becomes a teacher, of kindergarten and then of first grade, and here’s something else you may not have heard about the film: more time is devoted to the classroom than to the bedroom. The kitchen and the dinner table, too, receive their due. Of course, we know what turns Adèle on, but, as with any fulfilling portrait of a body and soul, we also learn what happens when desire is turned off and other skills and longings come alive: when she carefully spoons a dab of chicken into a triangle of pastry before deep-frying it and serving it at a party; or when, with instinctive tact and patience, she teaches little children how to read. Blue may be the warmest color, but cooler hues can tell an equal truth.

In short, there are—as Spielberg, of all people, will have noticed—more traces of Truffaut here than there are of “Last Tango in Paris.” Over the years, as the shock of Bertolucci’s film has dimmed, so its savage loneliness has deepened, and that is the point, I think, from which Kechiche departs. His earlier work—especially “The Secret of the Grain” (2007), about a laid-off shipyard worker who opens a couscous restaurant—was packed and populous, rife with family squabbles, tested friendships, and tempting feasts. Now he is damming the flow, as it were, and asking the question: what if love gets in the way? How does the wish to be utterly alone with the loved one, and the dread of being alone when the loved one leaves, fit into that wider, more sociable vision? It takes two to tango, but many more to make a dance of life. Hence the unforgettable image of Adèle in the sunshine, at a school gala, leading her pupils in a kind of shuffling conga. Dressed in bright ethnic costume, they are all smiles. But her smile is barely skin-deep; in the previous scene, we saw her in a blazing brawl with Emma—a conflagration that left Adèle stumbling along a nighttime street in feral moans of distress. Right now, a single closeup shows that, though encircled by young spirits, she wants to die.

So much of this film is absorbed in closeups that, in regard to Adèle, it all but lays down a law: watch her lips. We see her asleep and breathing steadily, like a gentle wave, before falling in love; asleep but whimpering when deprived of passion; and awake but softly gasping as she lies back in the sea, on a trip to the beach, with her face to the sky. The film is, to a compelling degree, the history of that face—tearful, sniffing, puffed with dismay, spotted and blotchy on a cold day, suddenly ravishing, and reddening in embarrassment or lust. Now I understand what it means to be in the full flush of youth.

by Anthony Lane, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Kitchen Network

In a strip mall on a rural stretch of Maryland’s Indian Head Highway, a gaudy red façade shaped like a pagoda distinguishes a Chinese restaurant from a line of bland storefronts: a nail salon, a liquor store, and a laundromat. On a mild Friday morning this July, two customers walked into the dimly lit dining room. It was half an hour before the lunch service began, and, aside from a few fish swimming listlessly in a tank, the room was deserted.

In the back, steam was just starting to rise from pots of soup; two cooks were chopping ginger at a frenzied pace. Most of the lunch crowd comes in for the buffet, and it was nowhere near ready. “Customers are here already!” the restaurant’s owner, a wiry Chinese man in his fifties, barked. He dropped a heavy container onto the metal counter with a crash. “How can you possibly be moving this slowly?”

The senior cook, a lanky twenty-nine-year-old who goes by Rain, had been working in Maryland for almost two months. He stood silently frying noodles in a wok, his loose bangs tucked into a trucker hat with the band name Linkin Park written across the brow. “You’re too slow!” the boss yelled at the other cook, who had arrived only a few days earlier. Rain stayed focussed on the buffet dishes. He was weighing the possibility of getting a cigarette break soon. There was no sense in getting into trouble defending a co-worker he hardly knew.

Rain was born in a village in rural China. He had left his family, walked through a desert, and gone tens of thousands of dollars into debt to reach the United States. From Manhattan, he had taken a late-night Chinatown bus, which stopped at freeway off-ramps to discharge other restaurant workers, whose bosses picked them up and took them to strip malls along Interstate 95. He was in his fourth year of restaurant work and felt a growing pride in his fried noodles and sautéed shrimp.

The other cook set down his knife and squared off with the boss. “I have worked in a lot of restaurants, and none of those bosses complained!” he said. “If you’re so worried about it, why don’t you come do it yourself?” The cook stormed out of the kitchen, on his way to catch a bus back to New York. Rain sighed. The next forty-eight hours were the busiest of the week, and he would be the only cook in the kitchen. “You think I was wrong to talk to him like that?” the boss asked. Rain didn’t answer.

There are more than forty thousand Chinese restaurants across the country—nearly three times the number of McDonald’s outlets. There is one in Pinedale, Wyoming (population 2,043), and one in Old Forge, New York (population 756); Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania (population 1,085), has three. Most are family operations, staffed by immigrants who pass through for a few months at a time, living in houses and apartments that have been converted into makeshift dormitories. The restaurants, connected by Chinese-run bus companies to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, make up an underground network—supported by employment agencies, immigrant hostels, and expensive asylum lawyers—that reaches back to villages and cities in China, which are being abandoned for an ideal of American life that is not quite real.

Rain, who asked that I use his adopted English name to protect his identity, is reedy and slight, with a wide face and sloping cheekbones. He is observant, in no hurry to speak, but he is more cagey than timid. Like his boss, and like everyone else who works at the restaurant, he is primarily concerned with saving as much money as possible. He needs to pay the snakehead that got him to the U.S. and send money to his family in China. He harbors the vague suspicion that everyone around him is angling for more money, less work, or some other benefit at his expense. So, instead of conversation, Rain occupies himself with the math of a transient cook: the time it takes to clean the shrimp, the days before he can visit his girlfriend in New York, and the balance of his debts. At night, he lies on a cot in his boss’s otherwise empty living room, mulling the slow processing of his green card. During the day, if he’s feeling bold, he walks across the strip-mall parking lot to order lunch at Subway, pointing at the menu when he doesn’t know the English word for something.

“I understand why he acts like this,” Rain told me, about his boss. “He’s been working in that restaurant for almost twenty years. He goes back and forth between the restaurant and the dorm where we live. Back and forth, back and forth, every day for years.” The boss’s wife and kids are in China. “You do this kind of work for that long, and you start to lose perspective.” Rain pinched his fingers together. “Your world is this small.”

by Lauren Hilgers, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Annie Ling

Both Sides Now

“But even on the scuffle, the cleaner’s press was in my jeans/ And any eye for detail caught a little lace along the seams,” sang Joni Mitchell on a song called The Boho Dance from her 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. If the couplet was an acknowledgment of her Canadian well-bredness, it was also the perfect metaphor for the increasing sophistication of her music at that time, the “lace along the seams” of her songs.

“For a long time, I’ve been playing in straight rhythms,” Mitchell told her friend, Malka Marom, in 1973, in the first of the three extended interviews that are included in Both Sides Now, a new book published next month. “But now, in order to sophisticate my music to my own taste, I push it into odd places that feel a little unusual to me, so that I feel I’m stretching out.”

Sophistication – melodic, lyrical, compositional – is an undervalued currency in popular music, though it illuminates the finest songs written by artists as diverse as Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield as well as the songwriters for hire of an earlier era – Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin. It also defines the best songs that Joni Mitchell wrote at her creative peak, which, for me, stretched from the release of Blue (1971), through For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), to the pared and broodingly atmospheric Hejira (1976).

The sophistication of her songwriting and, in particular, her musical arrangements is the essential element that sets Joni Mitchell apart from her contemporaries and her peers, whether the troubadours of the early 70s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene or lyrical heavyweights such as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and even Bob Dylan. And yet in the music industry, Mitchell has never really been afforded the kind of respect heaped on her male counterparts. Rolling Stone magazine once listed her at No 62 in its 100 greatest artists of all time, just below Metallica. She was belatedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, but did not attend the ceremony. At 70, she remains a defiant outsider and recluse, who has often expressed her disgust at the music business. And who can blame her?

Her legacy, though, is long and enduringly influential, particularly on several ensuing generations of female singer-songwriters. If I had to choose her two masterpieces, I would opt for Blue and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which between them illustrate the range and depth of her compositional skill. Playing Hissing... again now, its utter completeness strikes me even more strongly, in this age of endless MP3 playlists. I seldom listen to a single track in isolation. (The exception is the iconoclastic and still arresting song The Jungle Line, which jumps out at you with its juxtaposition of Mitchell’s voice and the thunderous rhythms and whoops of the Drummers of Burundi.)

Mitchell came up though the American trad-folk circuit of the mid-60s and was for her first two albums marketed as a fey, fragile hippy folk singer. She had already survived several setbacks. Her childhood in small-town Saskatchewan was fractured when she contacted polio, aged eight, in 1951. In 1964, she had fallen pregnant and, struggling financially, gave her newborn daughter up for adoption the following year. (The song, Little Green, from Blue, is an ode to her lost daughter and, on Chinese Cafe, a song released in 1982, she sang: “My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.” She was reunited with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, in 1997.) A brief, unhappy marriage to her fleeting musical partner Chuck Mitchell followed, before she set out on her own to be a folk singer.

When her manager, Elliot Roberts, first contacted her at the prompting of her early champion David Crosby, Mitchell was setting out on a tour she had organised herself, carrying a small suitcase and an acoustic guitar. She told him she didn’t need a manager, but he persisted. He later said she had already written as many great songs as most songwriters created in a lifetime. It wasn’t until Mitchell settled in Laurel Canyon in the late 60s, sharing a house with the British songwriter Graham Nash, that she found a community of like-minded souls – Nash, Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Mama Cass – to which she could belong at last, for a while at least. Her romantic liaisons were the stuff of legend – Crosby, Nash, Browne, James Taylor. Rolling Stone once published a diagram of her various romances under the disparaging heading: “Old lady of the year”.

It was there, though, that her music deepened and shed its folkie affectations. She later acknowledged that her songwriter style also drew on what she called “the beautiful melodies which belong to the crooner era”. But it was Dylan – who else? – who taught her the power of another kind of narrative, free-form and allusive, as well as the often deadly deployment of the first person singular.

by Sean O'Hagan, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Mike Floyd/Associated Newspapers/Rex

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sekka Kamisaka / 神坂雪佳 (1866〜1942)

Can Video Games Survive?

[ed. I'm not a gamer, so its been hard to understand this rolling hairball called "GamerGate" (other than the evident harassment and misogyny involved). This helps put the industry and its culture in better perspective.] 

GamerGate — named for its Twitter hashtag — began this summer when Zoe Quinn, the designer of the game Depression Quest, received threats of violence after an ex-boyfriend posted a long diatribe about her on the Internet. Some of the crusaders against Ms. Quinn justified their actions by constructing flimsy conspiracies that she colluded unethically with journalists who write for enthusiast websites about video games.

After targeting Ms. Quinn, GamerGate widened its scope to include others perceived to be trying to cram liberal politics into video games. The movement uses the phrase “social justice warriors” to describe the game designers, journalists and critics who, among other alleged sins, desire to see more (and more realistic) representations of women and minorities. That critique, as well as more accusations of collusion among developers and journalists, attracted some conservative gadflies to GamerGate, like the “Firefly” actor Adam Baldwin.

For all of us who love games, GamerGate has made it impossible to overlook an ugly truth about the culture that surrounds them: Despite the growing diversity in designers and in games — games about bullying, games that put you in the role of a transgender woman, games about coming out to your parents — there is an undercurrent of “latent racism, homophobia and misogyny,” as the prominent game designer Cliff Bleszinski wrote in March, before GamerGate even began.

It’s the players who enjoy this culture, even as they distinguish themselves from the worst of the GamerGate trolls, who truly worry me. If all the recent experimentation and progress in video games — they’re in the permanent collection at MoMA now — turns out to be just a plaster on an ugly sore, then the medium’s long journey into the mainstream could be halted or even reversed.

The very word “game” understates (and in some ways restricts) the promise of this new form. Video games have been used, yes, to create digital translations of sports, folk games and carnival games. And they have also been used to invent new modes of competition, from classics like Pong to the “e-sport” League of Legends.

But like any medium of communication, the possibilities for what games can do are close to limitless. Already we use video games to exercise, to make music, to advance political arguments, to tell stories, to create beauty. (...)

If this continues, the medium I love could go backward into its roots as a pastime for children. Instead of being a mainstream form of entertainment, it could end up being something like comic books, a medium that has never outgrown its reputation for power fantasies and is only very occasionally marked by transcendent work (“Maus,” or the books of Chris Ware) that demands that the rest of the culture pay attention to it.

Games like Gone Home do not threaten to displace the blockbusters that dominate sales. The best of them will be bought by a million people or so (which, granted, is better than any music album other than the “Frozen” soundtrack this year). Grand Theft Auto V, by comparison, has sold more than 34 million copies since its release in September 2013.

Yet these games, and the praise they receive, confound and infuriate some players. In a way, this backlash is similar to the irritation that people who like Michael Bay movies experience when film critics prefer something quieter or more difficult. But there’s something about the newness of video games that exacerbates this feeling. Perhaps the medium’s interactive nature gives players a greater feeling of possession over it, or maybe its relative invisibility in the wider culture has given some players the wrongheaded impression that it’s their private preserve.

by Chris Suellentrop, NY Times | Read more:
Image:Scott Gelber

Mixing Oil and Water

The pump, officially known as Thibodeaux No. 1, lets out a loud but contented hum and taps steadily. “That’s the sound of money,” Trahan says with a sidewise grin.

For more than 200 years, the Thibodeaux family has hunted and fished the area where this pump hums.

Some of the earliest land grants and patents were given to ancestors for service in the American Revolution, said Trahan, who began spending much of his free time here a half-century ago, after he was brought here by his bride, Elsie Faye Thibodeaux, who also is Perrin’s third cousin.

By the 1890s, Elsie’s grandfather on her father’s side, Emile Thibodeaux, held a significant amount of land in this part of Vermilion Bay, including the land under the oil well, which was purchased in 1899. Today, 74 of Emile Thibodeaux’s heirs hold the title to 647 acres and pay property taxes on it, like their ancestors did before them.

But 200 years of property taxes mean nothing to the state of Louisiana. Not when the water rises by a few feet, and especially not when oil money is on the line.

A month before this well began to produce oil – and royalties for its owners – the Thibodeaux family was notified that 40 acres of their land was covered by water deep enough to be described as “navigable water,” which is determined in Louisiana by the highest water height in wintertime, averaged over a number of years. (It’s technically called the “mean high water mark.”)

That strips the family of its land. State law requires that all water – and the land below it – be placed into the “public trust,” as resources to be held and protected by the state of Louisiana, for the use by all of its citizens. (...)

Spokesman Patrick Courreges from the state Department of Natural Resources said that the measurement is in some ways intuitive. “Broadly speaking, when property converts from land you can walk on to water you have to wade in or swim in, that’s when it becomes water bottoms,” he said.

But the process was more exact than that. The Thibodeaux land officially changed hands thanks to oil company surveyors and researchers who are basically acting as an arm of the state, determining boundaries between private property and state-owned water bottom.

Greg Dupuis, spokesman for Louisiana’s Office of State Lands, emphasized that no one within his office pointed at a map and claimed this land for the state. “All we say is, ‘Show us the surveys. Show us where the mean high water mark is,’” Dupuis said. “The oil company did the survey. They’re following our guidelines,” he said. “They do the survey, they look at it and say this is who gets royalties. The oil company makes the decision.” (...)

Last year, from the disputed land, nearly $1 million of the royalties from Thibodeaux No. 1 were diverted to Louisiana state coffers. That portion alone makes the well a top producer for the state of Louisiana, which received $646 million from 1,888 active mineral leases – an average of $324,000 a well – on state-owned land and water bottoms in 2012. Nearly two-thirds of those leases were along the Gulf Coast.

Here’s how the oil-well process works: Before oil companies search for oil, they sign leases with landowners like the Thibodeauxs, who – for a per-acre lease fee followed by a percentage of oil royalties – give oil companies permission to access and drill on their land. Then, before a well is tapped, oil companies take detailed surveys to the DNR, which groups pieces of property together to create a “drilling unit” and notifies affected property owners, based upon geologic assessments of each well and the land it will drain. In the case of Thibodeaux No. 1, family members were notified that they were part of the drilling unit. DNR scientists and oil company engineers then determined that 221 acres from the Thibodeaux estate would be drained of oil by Thibodeaux Well No. 1.

To determine drilling units, the DNR holds drilling-unit hearings every Tuesday except holidays, Courreges said. “An owner can present evidence based on geology arguing that the unit should be a different size,” he said.

It’s unclear what happens next, at the royalty stage, because spokespeople from the Office of State Lands and DNR were not able to describe the process or identify anyone in their offices who decides when property should shift from state land to private land. Barry at Petroquest also did not respond to inquiries. Courreges said there is no administrative hearing or appeals process for royalties. All complaints must be brought judicially, he said.

Perrin, who has practiced law for 42 years, says there’s been sea change, literally. The state is increasingly declaring private lands submerged at the royalty stage, just as oil is located and royalties are imminent, he said.

by Katy Reckdahl, The Weather Channel |  Read more:
Image: Kathleen Flynn

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Seattle Asian Art Museum
photo: markk

27 by Wayne Grivell on Flickr.

The Great American Chain Gang

Laurie Hazen has bad taste in men. “They’re my downfall,” the 41-year-old jokes in her Massachusetts accent. “I have to really stay single.” An ex-boyfriend first introduced her to prescription drugs, she says, a habit she maintained through the course of another relationship, with another addict, and through two stints in prison, most recently in 2012 for writing fake prescriptions.

When she arrived at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham, Hazen left behind a job as a records manager for a fiber-optics company. Her $14-an-hour salary had covered food, utilities, and rent on the modest apartment she shared with her boyfriend and her teenage son. She would have been putting some money away, too, if her paycheck hadn’t also been covering the couple’s drug habit. As it was, like many inmates, she went to prison with no savings and, because her boyfriend was locked up too, had no one on the outside to send her money. Her son went to live with his dad.

After two weeks in prison, Hazen could apply for a job. Because her sentence was less than a year, she wasn’t eligible for the prison’s highest-paying job at $20 per week—stitching American flags for the state police—and she had to choose between washing dishes in the kitchen and cleaning bathrooms. Because portions in prison are notoriously small, Hazen took the kitchen job so she could eat a little extra before and after her shifts. She earned $2 a day collecting inmates’ dirty trays and loading them into the dishwasher during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The cramped room where she worked had no windows and routinely filled with steam from the 200-degree dishwasher. There was one tiny fan. “It was pretty much slave labor,” she says, “but there was nothing I could do about that. I needed stamps to write to my child. I needed hygiene products.”

About half of the 1.6 million Americans serving time in prison have full-time jobs like Hazen did. They aren’t counted in standard labor surveys, but prisoners make up a sizable workforce: with 870,000 working inmates, roughly the same number of workers as in the states of Vermont and Rhode Island combined. Despite decades’ worth of talk about reform—of giving prisoners the skills and resources they need to build a life after prison—the vast majority of these workers, almost 700,000, still do “institutional maintenance” work like Hazen’s. They mop cellblock floors, prepare and serve food in the dining hall, mow the lawns, file papers in the warden’s office, and launder millions of tons of uniforms and bed linens. Compensation varies from state to state and facility to facility, but the median wage in state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents an hour, respectively. (...)

Despite the conditions and the pay, most inmates want to work. A job gives them a safe place to be for hours each day, provides a break from the monotony of prison life, and—in most states—puts a few dollars and cents in their commissary account. “I was happy to work,” Hazen says. “It made me feel like I wasn’t so much in prison. It gave me a minute by myself to get away from the craziness, time to think and reflect and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.” What the job didn’t provide was a wage sufficient to support her son and accumulate some savings for post-prison life, or job training that would help her pursue the goals she established in that dish room: to study psychology and one day open a domestic-violence shelter. After six months of work, Hazen left prison the way most people do: with a criminal record, no meaningful job experience beyond what she went in with, and not even enough savings to buy a suit for a job interview ($43).

Study after study has found what common sense would suggest: Prisoners who gain professional skills while locked up, and those who earn a decent wage for their work, are far less likely to end up back behind bars. But if prisons in America, with the world’s highest incarceration rate, had to pay minimum wage—let alone the prevailing wage—they couldn’t keep operating. If inmates like Hazen weren’t washing dishes in Massachusetts prisons, the state’s corrections department would spend an average of $9.22 to hire someone else to do it (the mean hourly wage for a dishwasher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). That’s 30 to 45 times what inmates make for performing the same service. As a result, prisons—and taxpayers—use prisoners to save hundreds of millions of dollars each year on labor costs, according to the GAO.

“If our criminal-justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse,” says Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, an independent magazine that promotes inmates’ rights. “We could not afford to run our justice system without exploiting inmates.”

If paying inmates pennies looks like savings to corrections officials, it translates to additional costs for everyone else. Consider, for starters, that more than 1.2 million prisoners have a minor child—2.7 million kids in all. About half of these parents were, like Laurie Hazen, their families’ primary breadwinners before they went to prison. Not surprisingly, their families often turn to social safety-net programs to compensate for the missing income. Families with an incarcerated parent are 50 percent more likely to use Medicaid and twice as likely to use food stamps.

For most, the situation doesn’t improve upon release. Even as state and federal governments pour hundreds of millions of dollars into re-entry initiatives with the aim of easing the transition home and slowing the “revolving door” between prison and the community, they’re undermining successful re-entry by burying inmates in fees and fines while paying them next to nothing for their work. It costs money to be locked up in America—more and more of it all the time: court costs and fees when you’re tried, booking fees when you’re processed in jail and then prison, and supervision fees while you’re out on parole. Restitution costs, child-support arrears, and, in some states, “room and board costs” pile up during long prison terms. A state-sponsored study of the impact of legal fees in Washington found that the average inmate owes $2,540 per conviction in fees and fines.

by Beth Schwartzapfel, American Prospect | Read more:
Image: AP Photo/The News Tribune, Peter Haley

Giving Up the Ghost

I had expected an austere, sanatorium-like atmosphere, with staff in crisp lab coats, the walls plastered with rules and bumper sticker–type slogans: Rehab is for quitters, maybe. Instead, the place skews toward homey, or at least as homey as a medical facility can be, with nary a motivational poster to be seen. My room features a Murphy bed, a small desk, a wall-mounted TV, and an inoffensive print; brown and beige are the dominant colours. The space is reminiscent of an upscale dorm or a highway motel, except for the syringe disposal receptacle in the bathroom.

But matters of decor are not top of mind on this Friday in January, as I stand outside the entrance of the building. Instead, I’m focused on cigarettes—or, more precisely, smoking as many of them as possible in the time left before 4:30 p.m., when nine other people and I will hand over our packs and lighters, and put our faith in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Center. (...)

I could claim that an extremely belated road-to-Damascus experience led me to rehab, but the fact is, for years now, you have had to be either terminally dense or a Big Tobacco executive (not mutually exclusive categories) to deny the health risks. It wasn’t even the pariah status, the death-ray glares of disapproval that lighting up automatically incurs. True, that contempt—and its flip side, a self-image hovering below zero—was one of the reasons I’d quit numerous times over the past five decades. I had stopped for as little as a week and as long as seven years, the latter an interregnum that went up in flames during an evening that featured a lot of fun and too much wine; suddenly, cadging a cig seemed like a good idea. Within a week, I was back to a pack and a half a day.

This time, there were two things that influenced me to kick the habit. One was my kid, twenty-three years old and a smoker since he was fifteen. I know he’s not immortal, even if he doesn’t, and my guilt about being a noxious role model is intense. The second, at the risk of seeming to have skewed priorities, was the money. I was smoking two large packs a day—fifty cigarettes, about thirty more than what’s currently defined as heavy smoking—which translated to a ludicrous $8,750 a year. On the cusp of retirement, with its decreased income, I realized I couldn’t afford to keep smoking if I still wanted to live indoors. (...)

The truth is that we don’t fund cigarette rehab because we don’t consider smoking a true addiction. Today, people are said to be hooked on everything from Facebook to Oreos, but being an Internet fanatic or cookie monster is not the same as experiencing the panicky tightening in the gut, the I’d-do-anything-for-a-hit feeling, that strikes when you’re running short of fill-in-the-blank—smack, booze, Oxys, cocaine, cigs. Unlike those other substances, though, cigarettes are both legal and, when used as intended, apt to kill their consumers. It’s impossible to contemplate these dissonant facts without engaging in some conspiracy theorizing. Might there be a connection between cigarettes’ still-lawful status, despite their indisputably lethal nature, and the $7.3 billion in tobacco-related tax revenue the federal and provincial governments reaped last year? After all, if everyone actually quit, that’s a lot of dough forgone.

Behind these counterintuitive policies is the big lie that smoking is merely a bad habit. As the industry’s disingenuous slogan of the 1980s and 1990s had it, “My pleasure, my choice.” But it’s not just Big Tobacco that advances this perspective. Last February, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente articulated a common outlook: “If addiction is a disease, it’s a peculiar one.” Her point was that, unlike those with so-called real diseases, addicts get themselves into trouble and can jolly well get themselves out. “The disease model of addiction implies that the victim is helpless,” she wrote. “It denies the role of personal agency, which is probably the most important force of all when facing down your demons.”

This is reminiscent of how wartime post-traumatic stress disorder was once chalked up to LMF—lack of moral fibre. It’s the attitude of those who unhelpfully recount how they just got up one day and pitched their cigs, the implication being that you could do the same if you weren’t such a gormless loser.

by Lynn Cunningham, The Walrus |  Read more:
Image: Alena Skarina

Friday, October 24, 2014

[ed. Technical difficuilties. Posting may be erratic over the next few days.] 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Message to the 21st Century

[ed. I don't usually post back-to-back articles from the same source but this and the one following seem to be dishearteningly compatible.]

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” With these words Dickens began his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities. But this cannot, alas, be said about our own terrible century. Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.

I speak with particular feeling, for I am a very old man, and I have lived through almost the entire century. My life has been peaceful and secure, and I feel almost ashamed of this in view of what has happened to so many other human beings. I am not a historian, and so I cannot speak with authority on the causes of these horrors. Yet perhaps I can try.

They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. (...)

Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.

The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. It can and must be implemented, and those who have found it are the leaders whose word is law. (...)

This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false. Not only because the solutions given by different schools of social thought differ, and none can be demonstrated by rational methods—but for an even deeper reason. The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports.

by Isaiah Berlin, NYRB | Read more:
Image: David Williams/Corbis

Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’

Ashraf Ghani, who has just become the president of Afghanistan, once drafted a document for Hamid Karzai that began:
There is a consensus in Afghan society: violence…must end. National reconciliation and respect for fundamental human rights will form the path to lasting peace and stability across the country. The people’s aspirations must be represented in an accountable, broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, representative government that delivers daily value.
That was twelve years ago. No one speaks like that now—not even the new president. The best case now is presented as political accommodation with the Taliban, the worst as civil war.

Western policymakers still argue, however, that something has been achieved: counterterrorist operations succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there has been progress in health care and education, and even Afghan government has its strengths at the most local level. This is not much, given that the US-led coalition spent $1 trillion and deployed one million soldiers and civilians over thirteen years. But it is better than nothing; and it is tempting to think that everything has now been said: after all, such conclusions are now reflected in thousands of studies by aid agencies, multilateral organizations, foreign ministries, intelligence agencies, universities, and departments of defense.

But Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living shows that everything has not been said. His new and shocking indictment demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed. Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:
The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.
Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry. (...)

Ashraf Ghani is now—after four months of wrangling over electoral fraud—the new president of Afghanistan. His book Fixing Failed States (coauthored with Clare Lockhart) argues that Afghanistan can be fixed through creating ten functions of the state, including the “rule of law,” good governance, and a state “monopoly on the legitimate means of violence.” Along the way he proposes eliminating corruption, disarming and demobilizing militias, and creating a reliable justice system and a prosperous economy. Having spent three decades as a professor, a World Bank official, and an Afghan minister developing this intricate theory, he is now putting it into practice.

The leaders of the US intervention in Afghanistan once had very similar objectives—often directly influenced by Ashraf Ghani, who has been the most tenacious and articulate advocate of this vision of “state-building” since September 11. Similar concepts appear in General David Petraeus’s US Army counterinsurgency manual and in presidential envoy James Dobbins’s The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building. Much of the $1 trillion spent by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, and the more than a million people, deployed over a dozen years, have been justified in such terms. President Obama may in fact have been unconsciously quoting Ghani when he explained that Afghanistan’s problems with narcotics and women’s rights, and even the instability of neighboring states, could be solved through the creation of “a credible, effective, legitimate state.”

State-building, however, is not confined to Afghanistan. Ghani has promoted exactly the same recipe from Nepal to Ethiopia as the copresident of the Institute for State Effectiveness. And it seems to be immensely appealing. For the World Bank in 2013, state-building was the solution to piracy in Somalia. For French President François Hollande in 2013, “restoring the state, improving governance” were the first steps in tackling trafficking and violence in Mali. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon distilled the theory of Afghanistan’s civilian surge in his 2014 bon mot “Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism.”

Gopal’s book, however, should at least make us question this fashion of state-building under fire. (...)

What future was there for the Afghan economy when, as Gopal shows, it relied on servicing, supporting, and seeking rent from two hundred thousand foreign soldiers and civilian contractors, and where Afghan “businessmen” were often simply warlords profiting from security, supply, and construction contracts generated by US military bases? How would any of this be sustainable after the troops withdrew?

by Rory Stewart, NYRB |  Read more:
Image: James Ferguson

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

[ed. I'd say, if you find yourself in Whittier you've taken the wrong turn.]

Jen Kinney, City Under One Roof

Nan Goldin - Smokey car, New Hampshire, 1979.