Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.

Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story [ed.] "Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it.

These examples illustrate Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities. I’d often wondered, when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?

Perhaps people living in medieval societies were less preoccupied with the intricacies of other minds, simply because they didn’t have to be. When people’s choices were constrained and their actions could be predicted based on their social roles, there was less reason to be attuned to the mental states of others (or one’s own, for that matter). The emergence of mind-focused literature may reflect the growing relevance of such attunement, as societies increasingly shed the rigid rules and roles that had imposed order on social interactions.

But current psychological research hints at deeper implications. Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

We humans owe our intensely social natures to biological evolution. We’re genetically endowed with a social intelligence that extends far beyond the reach of our nearest primate relatives. Even toddlers understand that people’s perspectives can differ from their own or that external actions are propelled by internal goals, and they are resistant to learning from adults whose knowledge appears dubious. But genes are only part of the story. We may come pre-equipped with a standard set of skills (a “start-up kit,” in the words of researchers Cecilia Heyes and Chris Frith), but the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability, varies quite a bit from person to person—and there’s growing evidence that complex mentalizing skills are culturally transmitted through a slow learning process, much like reading or playing chess. For example, while babes-in-arms are sensitive to basic emotions such as happiness or sadness, the ability to recognize socially intricate emotions like embarrassment or guilt only emerges at age 7 or later, and continues to be polished up well into adulthood.

The extent to which parents talk to their children about what others are thinking has been found to have profound effects on children’s ability to discern the contents of other minds. A study by Rosie Ensor and her colleagues showed that the frequency with which mothers used words such as think, forget, wonder, learn, or pretend when their children were just 2 years old predicted their mentalizing skills at ages 3, 6, and even 10. (...)

Elizabeth Hart, a specialist in early literature, writes that in medieval or classical texts, “people are constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing, but they somehow manage to do this without the author drawing attention to these mental states.” This changed dramatically between 1500 and 1700, when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy—as is familiar to anyone who’s studied the psychologically rich soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays. Hart suggests that these innovations were spurred by the advent of print, and with it, an explosion in literacy across classes and genders. People could now read in private and at their own pace, re-reading and thinking about reading, deepening a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.

The emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries introduced omniscient narrators who could penetrate their characters’ psyches, at times probing motives that were opaque to the characters themselves. And by the 20th century, many authors labored not just to describe, but to simulate the psychological experience of characters. In her literary manifesto “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

This clarion call was taken up by Dorothy Parker, as in the following passage of “Sentiment,” where she shapes sentences into obsessive, rhythmic loops of thought: “But I knew. I knew. I knew because he had been far away from me long before he went. He’s gone away and he won’t come back. He’s gone away and he won’t come back, he’s gone away and he’ll never come back. Listen to the wheels saying it, on and on and on.”

For Parker and many writers since, all facets of language—from sound to imagery to syntax—are tools for conveying mental states.

by Julie Sedivy, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Danita Delimont

How to Have a Better Death

In 1662 a London haberdasher with an eye for numbers published the first quantitative account of death. John Graunt tallied causes such as “the King’s Evil”, a tubercular disease believed to be cured by the monarch’s touch. Others seem uncanny, even poetic. In 1632, 15 Londoners “made away themselves”, 11 died of “grief” and a pair fell to “lethargy”.

Graunt’s book is a glimpse of the suddenness and terror of death before modern medicine. It came early, too: until the 20th century the average human lived about as long as a chimpanzee. Today science and economic growth mean that no land mammal lives longer. Yet an unintended consequence has been to turn dying into a medical experience.

How, when and where death happens has changed over the past century. As late as 1990 half of deaths worldwide were caused by chronic diseases; in 2015 the share was two-thirds. Most deaths in rich countries follow years of uneven deterioration. Roughly two-thirds happen in a hospital or nursing home. They often come after a crescendo of desperate treatment. Nearly a third of Americans who die after 65 will have spent time in an intensive-care unit in their final three months of life. Almost a fifth undergo surgery in their last month.

Such zealous intervention can be agonising for all concerned (see article). Cancer patients who die in hospital typically experience more pain, stress and depression than similar patients who die in a hospice or at home. Their families are more likely to argue with doctors and each other, to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and to feel prolonged grief.

What matters

Most important, these medicalised deaths do not seem to be what people want. Polls, including one carried out in four large countries by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an American think-tank, and The Economist, find that most people in good health hope that, when the time comes, they will die at home. And few, when asked about their hopes for their final days, say that their priority is to live as long as possible. Rather, they want to die free from pain, at peace, and surrounded by loved ones for whom they are not a burden.

Some deaths are unavoidably miserable. Not everyone will be in a condition to toast death’s imminence with champagne, as Anton Chekhov did. What people say they will want while they are well may change as the end nears (one reason why doctors are sceptical about the instructions set out in “living wills”). Dying at home is less appealing if all the medical kit is at the hospital. A treatment that is unbearable in the imagination can seem like the lesser of two evils when the alternative is death. Some patients will want to fight until all hope is lost.

But too often patients receive drastic treatment in spite of their dying wishes—by default, when doctors do “everything possible”, as they have been trained to, without talking through people’s preferences or ensuring that the prognosis is clearly understood. Just a third of American patients with terminal cancer are asked about their goals at the end of life, for example whether they wish to attend a special event, such as a grandchild’s wedding, even if that means leaving hospital and risking an earlier death. In many other countries, the share is even lower. Most oncologists, who see a lot of dying patients, say that they have never been taught how to talk to them.

This newspaper has called for the legalisation of doctor-assisted dying, so that mentally fit, terminally ill patients can be helped to end their lives if that is their wish. But the right to die is just one part of better care at the end of life. The evidence suggests that most people want this option, but that few would, in the end, choose to exercise it. To give people the death they say they want, medicine should take some simple steps.

by Editors, The Economist |  Read more:
Image: David Parkins
[ed. See also: A Better Way to Care for the Dying]

Friday, April 28, 2017

Kelsey McClelland

So Woke

Two weeks ago, social media lit up in a fever dream of outrage. This time, because a corporation hijacked the imagery and aesthetics of resistance movements as part of a daft strategy to sell soft drink to millennials. Most disturbingly, Pepsi’s ad appropriated the imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement, ultimately trivialising police brutality, which continues to devastate black communities across the US. No doubt, as many activists have pointed out, the ad is racist as all hell – a kick in the face to anyone deeply committed to anti-racist and anti-police struggles – and deserves its mass condemnation. However I suspect that there’s another hidden, murkier reason that this ad got the left – particularly the white, woketivist left – into such a tizzy: because it draws attention to our own always-already co-opted, neutered gestures of resistance.

The ad itself is like an old Marxist professor’s dystopian nightmare: activist youth appear as soulless avatars of trendy-materialistic individualism, engaging in politically meaningless outbursts of dissent and self-empowerment. This is a world where our material manifestations of dissent – slogans, signs, marches – have become empty signifiers, devoid of content, and disconnected from any concrete struggle. It’s a world where the logics of branding and commerce are completely interwoven with all aspects of our daily lives, even our rebellions. And when we take an honest look at popular progressive actions – some of which have started to feel more like parties than protests – this world is not so dissimilar from our own.

Some of us on the progressive left earned our weekly wokeness badges by claiming we would boycott PepsiCo, even though that’s almost physically impossible. Such a boycott arguably embodies the kind of vapid activism that drove us all to such distress in the first place: it is the type of protest that’s flashy and public, where you can brand yourself as ‘doing something’ without committing to working towards substantial change. It’s been remarked that ‘protest is the new brunch’ for a newly outraged left that practices social activism by ‘gramming themselves wearing ethical paperclips and holding witty posters.’ In the individualised, entrepreneurial ethos of neoliberal capitalism, it appears that political participation has become part of our own self-realisation project.

I’d wager that, in part, the commercial struck such a severe nerve precisely because it (albeit unwittingly) called these kinds of shallow, self-serving protest actions into question. It conceptualised activism as a series of acts driven by self-gratification, rather than by genuinely altruistic impulses of philanthropy or social justice. Far from delivering an impact on political outcomes, emphasis is placed on what makes activists feel good, whether that be partying, wearing empowering tees, or consuming woke soft drink. Under magnification, many of our own acts of popular ‘protest’ seem as vacuous and stripped of meaning as Pepsi’s PR brain trust has unwittingly made them out to be.

That’s not to say that populist feel-good protests are bad or pointless, per se, but for all the self-righteous huff doing the rounds in progressive social media, it’s surprising and revealing that no one really wants to have a conversation about their effectiveness or political value. Or, what it means that the traditional boundary between ‘activist’ and ‘consumer’ has become so blurred that both identity categories can comfortably coexist. We like to think that brand and commodity culture is completely divorced from our genuine acts of humanitarianism, but as ads like Pepsi’s remind us, that’s simply no longer the case.

by Jeremy Poxon, Overland | Read more:
Image:Jordi Bernabeu Farrús / flickr
[ed. I'm not a fan of the term 'woke' and all it implies (judgement and moral superiority). See also: Are We Having Too Much Fun?]

The White Cornerback (Or Not)

One weekday in August 2012, when the NFL regular season was approaching and rosters were being winnowed, first-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson called a stretch play during an 11-on-11 practice. A rookie cornerback wearing number 38 chased the play from the back side and with speed that Seattle had just clocked at 4.38 in the 40-yard dash, dragged running back Robert Turbin down for no gain.

On the next play No. 38 broke up a 40-yard fade down the opposite sideline. A few snaps later he snuffed out a slant route, slapping Wilson’s spiral into the FieldTurf with an emphatic whap-bomp. Richard Sherman liked the first two plays, but the slant is what launched Seattle’s second-year cornerback from the sideline, his yet-to-be-famous dreads flying, Donny Lisowski thinking he’d died and gone to football heaven as coach Pete Carroll’s hip‑hop selections scored the scene from speakers taller than Donny.

“I see you!” Sherman yelled, leaning backward and nodding at the white cornerback. “They don’t see you, but I see you!”

Born and raised in Seattle, the 28-year-old Lisowski will always remember the summer of 2012, when he had the Seahawks’ practice facility buzzing. He wore the same surging bird decal on his helmet that Marshawn Lynch wore on his. He lined up for DB drills behind his favorite player growing up, Marcus Trufant. He earned the respect of Carroll and his assistants, men he said were first-class in all of their communications with him. But as those summer days turned into months—then years—of solo workouts and precisely zero phone calls from other NFL teams, Lisowski couldn’t help but wonder whether there had been an invisible force at play in his career.

All 64 starting cornerbacks in the NFL are black. So are their backups. One hundred-sixty black cornerbacks, give or take. Not a single white one. It’s been this way for more than 10 years.

by Michael McKnight, ESPN |  Read more:
Image: Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times

Young Adults & the Construction Trades

NAHB conducted a national poll of young adults ages 18 to 25 to find out how this age group feels about a career in the construction trades. The majority of young adults (74%) say they know the field in which they want to have a career. Of these, only 3% are interested in the construction trades.

Most of the young people interested in the trades say the two most important benefits of this career choice are good pay (80%) and the attainment of useful skills (74%). Less than half cite as benefits that the work is seasonal (15%) or that it does not require a college degree (37%).

The 26% of respondents who do not yet know the career path they want to take got a follow-up question about the chance they might consider a number of fields (construction trades being one of them) using a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 meant ‘no chance no matter the pay’ and 5 meant ‘very good chance if the pay is high.’ Construction trades got an average rating of 2.1, with 63% of undecided young adults rating it 1 or 2 (no or little chance regardless of pay) and 18% a 4 or 5 (good to very good chance if pay is high).

The 63% of undecided young adults who indicated there was no or little chance they would consider a career in the trades no matter the pay were prodded about the reasons for their resoluteness. The two most common reasons are wanting a less physically-demanding job (48%) and the belief that construction work is difficult (32%). They were then asked if there was any compensation level that might entice them to reconsider a career in the trades. For slightly more than 20%, that number is either $75,000 or $100,000, but for the plurality (43%), there is no amount of money that could make them give the trades a second thought.

by Rose Quint, NAHB |  Read more:
Image: NAHB

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Is Every Speed Limit Too Low?

When Lieutenant Gary Megge of the Michigan State Police attends a meeting, he sometimes asks, “How many of you broke the speed limit on your way here?”

Hearing his question, you might assume that Lt. Megge is a particularly zealous police officer. The type of person who walks half a city block to avoid jaywalking on an empty street. The model citizen who defers almost obnoxiously to the letter of the law. But that is not the point of Lt. Megge’s question at all.

“We all speed, yet months and months usually pass between us seeing a crash,” Lt. Megge tells us when we call to discuss speed limits. “That tells me that most of us are adequate, safe, reasonable drivers. Speeding and traffic safety have a small correlation.”

Over the past 12 years, Lt. Megge has increased the speed limit on nearly 400 of Michigan’s roadways. Each time, he or one of his officers hears from community groups who complain that people already drive too fast. But as Megge and his colleagues explain, their intent is not to reduce congestion, bow to the reality that everyone drives too fast, or even strike a balance between safety concerns and drivers’ desire to arrive at their destinations faster. Quite the opposite, Lt. Megge advocates for raising speed limits because he believes it makes roads safer.

Traffic Engineering 101

Every year, traffic engineers review the speed limit on thousands of stretches of road and highway. Most are reviewed by a member of the state’s Department of Transportation, often along with a member of the state police, as is the case in Michigan. In each case, the “survey team” has a clear approach: they want to set the speed limit so that 15% of drivers exceed it and 85% of drivers drive at or below the speed limit.

This “nationally recognized method” of setting the speed limit as the 85th percentile speed is essentially traffic engineering 101. It’s also a bit perplexing to those unfamiliar with the concept. Shouldn’t everyone drive at or below the speed limit? And if a driver’s speed is dictated by the speed limit, how can you decide whether or not to change that limit based on the speed of traffic?

The answer lies in realizing that the speed limit really is just a number on a sign, and it has very little influence on how fast people drive. “Over the years, I’ve done many follow up studies after we raise or lower a speed limit,” Megge tells us. “Almost every time, the 85th percentile speed doesn’t change, or if it does, it’s by about 2 or 3 mph.”

As most honest drivers would probably concede, this means that if the speed limit on a highway decreases from 65 mph to 55 mph, most drivers will not drive 10 mph slower. But for the majority of drivers, the opposite is also true. If a survey team increases the speed limit by 10 mph, the speed of traffic will not shoot up 10 mph. It will stay around the same. Years of observing traffic has shown engineers that as long as a cop car is not in sight, most people simply drive at whatever speed they like.

Luckily, there is some logic to the speed people choose other than the need for speed. The speed drivers choose is not based on laws or street signs, but the weather, number of intersections, presence of pedestrians and curves, and all the other information that factors into the principle, as Lt. Megge puts it, that “no one I know who gets into their car wants to crash.”

So if drivers disregard speed limits, why bother trying to set the “right” speed limit at all?

One reason is that a minority of drivers do follow the speed limit. “I’ve found that about 10% of drivers truly identify the speed limit sign and drive at or near that limit,” says Megge. Since these are the slowest share of drivers, they don’t affect the 85th percentile speed. But they do impact the average speed -- by about 2 or 3 mph when a speed limit is changed, in Lt. Megge’s experience -- and, more importantly, the variance in driving speeds.

This is important because, as noted in a U.S. Department of Transportation report, “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.” If every car sets its cruise control at the same speed, the odds of a fender bender happening is low. But when some cars drive 55 mph and others drive 85 mph, the odds of cars colliding increases dramatically. This is why getting slow drivers to stick to the right lane is so important to roadway safety; we generally focus on joyriders’ ability to cause accidents -- and rightly so -- but a car driving under the speed limit in the left (passing) lane of a highway is almost as dangerous.

Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads. When the speed limit is correctly set at the 85th percentile speed, the minority of drivers that do conscientiously follow speed limits are no longer driving much slower than the speed of traffic. The choice of the 85th percentile speed is a data-driven conclusion -- as noted Lt. Megge and speed limit resources like the Michigan State Police’s guide -- that has been established by the consistent findings of years of traffic studies.

Yet most speed limits are set below the 85th percentile speed. We first investigated this topic at the urging of the National Motorists Association, a “member-supported driver advocacy organization” that has made raising speed limits to the 85th percentile one focus of its efforts.

One member pointed us to a 1992 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation on the “Effects of Raising and Lowering Speed Limits,” which, beside making the same arguments described above, noted that the majority of highway agencies set speed limits below the 85th percentile, leading over 50% of motorists to drive “in technical violation of the speed limit laws.” Lt. Megge believes the compliance rate in Michigan to be well under 50%.

It seems absurd that over half of drivers technically break the law at all times. It’s also perplexing that speed limit policy so consistently ignore traffic engineering 101. So why do people like Lt. Megge need to spend their time trying to raise speed limits?

by Alex Mayyasi, Pricenomics | Read more:
Image: NDF
[ed. Then there are places like Lynnwood, WA that love enforcing the posted speed limit. It's a great revenue generator.]

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Everything That’s Wrong About Raccoons

Too many people want you to dismiss a raccoon’s deal of “Oh they’re mischievous cat-dogs with friendly washed hands and a jewel-thief face” when it’s really an ALL-HANDS NO-FEET TRASH-CAT WITH A DOG’S STOMACH AND A POSSUM’S HEART.

It can put itself up in trees but it waddles on the ground, I can’t be in trustment of a beast that clambers and waddles both; either be graceful and lithe all of times, or be clumsy and relatable on the ground. Seals can barely pull off “limber in the water, silly on a rock” and raccoons, you are not seals, you do not have their wise old laugh-faces, you just seem creepy and duplicitous.

Once when my dog died a passel of raccoons showed up in the backyard as if to say “Now that he’s gone, we own the night,” and they didn’t flinch when I yelled at them, and I found it disrespectful to 1) me personally and 2) the entire flow of the food chain. Don’t disrespect me if you can’t eat me, you false-night-dogs.


They’re a dense badger lie


I don’t like the word “chittering” and that is the only sound a raccoon makes


I hate the way they wobble-squample across the street at night when you see a shadowy mass under a streetlight and then it turns out to be like seven fur-children

A raccoon is the child of a cat and a wizard and it walks in too many worlds for it to be allowed to stay in this one


by Mallory Ortberg, Toast |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Fitz and the Tantrums / Ed Sheeran / Lia Kim x May J Lee

Why Microdosing Is Taking Over Medical Marijuana

Welcome to marijuana 2.0. With microdosing, people are getting the maximum benefit from the minimum amount, without becoming stoned, paranoid or lethargic. Some are microdsoing to regulate their moods, boost their creativity, or enhance their workouts and yoga sessions. Susannah Grossman, 29, founder of Verdant Communications in Denver, takes several small doses through the day. "It lifts my spirits, relieves the stress and tension that build up, and allows me to approach my work with more keen interest."

Michael Backes, author of Cannabis Pharmacy, says when prohibition ends, microdosing could be the most popular way that people use cannabis. Right now, however, anyone who wants to microdose faces two hurdles: finding the right minimum dose, and finding products that will deliver it.

The challenge with finding your dose is that it's different for each person. With most drugs, there's a bell curve. If you give two aspirin to 100 people, the majority will find it relieves pain, while some outliers may have negative reactions or need 8 pills to get relief. But with marijuana, there's no majority response.

One reason for this may be found in the way that cannabinoids – THC, CBD, and other compounds found in the plant – support the natural functioning of the endocannabinoid system, which can vary from person to person. Humans and other mammals have cannabinoid receptors, which are found throughout the body in tissues, organs, and especially the brain. The body naturally makes chemicals that fit into these receptors, and together they regulate and balance the body's systems, from digestion to nerve signaling to the immune system. Whether by coincidence or evolution, the cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant mimic the endocannabinoids made by the body.

Dustin Sulak, a physician and Reiki healer in Maine, has been practicing cannabis medicine since 2009. He says there are always forces, such as microbes and environmental toxins, pushing us away from balance, and other forces, such as the endocannabinoid system, bringing us back. "Our bodies are already working to prevent dementia, reduce inflammation, and respond to any pathological process," Sulak says. "If we can enhance the functioning of that system with a little bit of extra THC, we can benefit."

Sulak, 37, who wears his dark hair in a ponytail, has developed a protocol for microdosing. "I discovered that most people have a certain threshold of cannabis," Sulak says. "Below it they'll experience a gradual increase in health benefits, and above it they'll start building tolerance, experiencing diminishing benefits and more side effects, like short term memory loss and clumsiness." He adds, "I can't tell you your perfect dose, but I can teach you how to find it for yourself."

He describes the system. "Abstain from cannabis for two days. On day three, consume one milligram of THC and one milligram of CBD, preferably in a tincture or oil where they can be measured precisely. Before consuming, ask yourself three questions, and answer on a scale of one to 10: How easy is it to breathe, how comfortable and calm does your body feel and how easy is it for you to smile authentically, to feel content and grateful?"

After writing down your scores, he says, you take the cannabis, wait 45 minutes and ask the questions again. If there's been no change in your scores and you've felt no effect, increase the dose by one milligram.

"You repeat this process over the next few days," he says, "increasing the dose by small increments. When you reach a point where you feel a difference after consuming, you've found your minimal effective dose."

At this point, he asks patients to continue raising the dose by tiny amounts. At some point, he says, there will be no further benefit from a higher dose. "You've established your therapeutic range, and can take the minimum dose." (...)

Unlike many in the field, Sulak believes that THC is the primary health agent in marijuana. "The idea that THC is recreational and CBD is medical is far from true," he says. "THC, milligram for milligram, has a much greater therapeutic effect than CBD. You could treat pain with 3 mg of THC, but it might take 15 to 30 mg of CBD to attain the same relief." For overall wellbeing and to prevent disease, he recommends combining the two compounds.

by Sara Davidson, Rolling Stone | Read more:
Image: Getty

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Marriage Decision

It’s John Deere’s Tractor, You’re Just Driving It

It's official: John Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway.

In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.

Several manufacturers recently submitted similar comments to the Copyright Office under an inquiry into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. DMCA is a vast 1998 copyright law that (among other things) governs the blurry line between software and hardware. The Copyright Office, after reading the comments and holding a hearing, will decide in July which high-tech devices we can modify, hack, and repair—and decide whether John Deere’s twisted vision of ownership will become a reality.

Over the last two decades, manufacturers have used the DMCA to argue that consumers do not own the software underpinning the products they buy—things like smartphones, computers, coffeemakers, cars, and, yes, even tractors. So, Old MacDonald has a tractor, but he owns a massive barn ornament, because the manufacturer holds the rights to the programming that makes it run.

(This is an important issue for farmers: a neighbor, Kerry Adams, hasn’t been able to fix an expensive transplanter because he doesn’t have access to the diagnostic software he needs. He’s not alone: many farmers are opting for older, computer-free equipment.)

Over the last two decades, manufacturers have used the DMCA to argue that consumers do not own the software that powers the products they buy.

In recent years, some companies have even leveraged the DMCA to stop owners from modifying the programming on those products. This means you can’t strip DRM off smart kitty litter boxes, install custom software on your iPad, or alter the calibration on a tractor’s engine. Not without potentially running afoul of the DMCA.

What does any of that have to do with copyright? Owners, tinkerers, and homebrew “hackers” must copy programming so they can modify it. Product makers don’t like people messing with their stuff, so some manufacturers place digital locks over software. Breaking the lock, making the copy, and changing something could be construed as a violation of copyright law.

And that’s how manufacturers turn tinkerers into “pirates”—even if said “pirates” aren’t circulating illegal copies of anything. Makes sense, right? Yeah, not to me either.

It makes sense to John Deere: The company argues that allowing people to alter the software—even for the purpose of repair—would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.” The pièce de résistance in John Deere’s argument: permitting owners to root around in a tractor’s programming might lead to pirating music through a vehicle’s entertainment system. Because copyright-marauding farmers are very busy and need to multitask by simultaneously copying Taylor Swift’s 1989 and harvesting corn? (I’m guessing, because John Deere’s lawyers never explained why anyone would pirate music on a tractor, only that it could happen.)

by Kyle Wiens, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Mardis Coers/Getty


When Labor is Cheap

Labor is cheap in India which leads to some differences from the United States.

The first couple of times I took a taxi to a restaurant I was surprised when the driver asked if I wanted him to wait. A waiting taxi would be an unthinkable expense for me in the United States but in India the drivers are happy to wait for $1.50 an hour. It still feels odd.

The cars, the physical capital, in India and the United States are similar so the low cost of transportation illustrates just how much of the cost of a taxi is the cost of the driver and just how much driverless cars are going to lower the cost of travel.

Everything can be delivered.

Every mall, hotel, apartment and upscale store has security. It’s all security theatre–India is less dangerous than the United States–but when security theatre can be bought for $1-$2 an hour, why not?

Offices are sometimes open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not that anyone is in the office, just that with 24 hour security there is no reason to lock up, so the office physically stays open.

by Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution |  Read more:
Image: Wikimedia

Jerusalem Hotels: Unlikely Hotbeds of Furtive, Meticulous Romance

Just inside the ornate glass doors stands a cluster of modestly dressed young women, not too overtly scanning the crowd.

The objects of their attentions are sitting restlessly in the lobby, periodically getting up to pace the floor. Each side is looking for the prearranged clue — a gold necklace, a forest green tie — that’ll identify their partner.

One by one pairs form. Each man leads a woman to a corner where they’ll spend the next hour, maybe two. Both hope that the person sitting across from them just might be the one.

It’s the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Central Jerusalem and these young men and women are engaged in “shidduch dating,” a system of matchmaking used by religious Jews, from the liberal Modern Orthodox to the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

Tourists sharing the lobby stare openly at the daters. There’s something about the shidduch date process — the constrained romance, perhaps — that piques curiosity, even envy.

A friend of mine recently wondered why she couldn’t just “outsource her love life to a shadchan” — a Jewish matchmaker. Even though they’d been best friends for over a year, my yoga teacher’s first date with her now-husband was a “shidduch-style” meeting at the King David Hotel just down the road. While they weren’t fully part of the culture, they tapped into a process that evidently works for many.

The ultra-organized world of shidduch dating follows a strict set of practices to guide young people from the time they are deemed of age all the way through to the chuppah, the altar, Jerusalem matchmaker Sarah Dena Katz explained. That could be 18 for women and early 20s for men, although the ages vary according to custom and religiosity.

Additionally, especially in Haredi communities, parents take the lead in finding acceptable candidates for their children. They compose shidduch resumes and, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of college honors societies, compile lists of references to be contacted for further research by a prospective date’s parents.

Kippa or bald spot?

Jenna Bazelon, 26, is the founder of FrumGirlProblems, a private Facebook group with over 9,500 members, all women. Sporting the tagline, “Is that a kippa? Oh, no… just a bald spot,” the group spun from Bazelon’s desire to enjoy the process of shidduch dating by finding the humor in it with like-minded young women.

She recalled that one time, a potential date called her directly without any pre-vetting or involvement of an intermediary. Confused, Bazelon asked if he was calling her as a reference for someone else. “No,” he said, “for you. I was just looking through a stack of resumes and I saw yours. It looked interesting and I thought I would give you a call.”

“What?” Bazelon said she asked the man. “’Why did you think that you could just give me a call?’ It was so out of the blue, so inappropriate.”

Naturally, he did not get a date. Like the Passover Seder, there’s an order to things, and it’s best to stick to it for positive results.

Once the resumes have been read, the references have been called, and both parties and parents have agreed to the match, a time and location are set and the preparation can begin. For many, the first date is also the first interaction with a member of the opposite sex outside of their family. The shadchan preps the novices on the intricacies of having a conversation, ordering off a menu, and tipping.

by Tracy Frydberg, The Times of Israel | Read more:
Image: Nati Shohat/Flash90

Monday, April 24, 2017

Alessandro Trincone

Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”

There is an obvious political dimension to the claim that wellbeing, with the right attitude, can be produced spontaneously. Months after being elected leader of the most right-wing government in recent British history, yogurt-featured erstwhile PR man David Cameron launched an ill-fated “happiness agenda.” The scheme may have been better received if the former prime minister were not simultaneously engaged in decimating health care, welfare, and higher education—the very social structures that make life manageable for ordinary British people. As part of Cameron’s changes to the welfare system, unemployment was rebranded as a psychological disorder. According to a study in the Medical Humanities journal, in the teeth of the longest and deepest recession in living memory, the jobless were encouraged to treat their “psychological resistance” to work by way of obligatory courses that encouraged them to adopt a jollier attitude toward their own immiseration. They were harangued with motivational text messages telling them to “smile at life” and that “success is the only option.”

This mode of coercion has been adopted by employers, too, as Cederström and Spicer note. Zero-hour-contract laborers in an Amazon warehouse, “although they are in a precarious situation . . . are required to hide these feelings and project a confident, upbeat, employable self.” All of which begs the question: Who exactly are we being well for?

The wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease. The rigors of both work and worklessness, the colonization of every public space by private money, the precarity of daily living, and the growing impossibility of building any sort of community maroon each of us in our lonely struggle to survive. We are supposed to believe that we can only work to improve our lives on that same individual level. Chris Maisano concludes that while “the appeal of individualistic and therapeutic approaches to the problems of our time is not difficult to apprehend . . . it is only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken.”

The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

by Laurie Penny, The Baffler |  Read more: 
Image: Joanna Slodownik

Soft, Smooth and Steady

Drugs and music. Music and drugs. Sometimes, they go together. At least, in the popular imagination. If jazz was haunted by heroin, and rock bloomed on acid, and disco darlings preened on cocaine, and ravers got touchy-feely on ecstasy, Lana Del Rey’s recent single, “Love,” sounds like two milligrams of Xanax crushed into dust and set adrift on the Pacific breeze in your mind. “Don’t worry, baby,” she sings repeatedly during the ballad’s gentle send-off, her voice plunging low, enunciation going slack. It’s the kind of song that quietly levitates you out of your life, then disappears.

Listening to “Love” on Xanax might feel redundant, but in today’s freaked-out America — where relief-seekers are swallowing opioids and benzodiazepines in record numbers — the connection between our sounds and our substances feels pervasive. When everyone seems to be on drugs, everyone’s music sounds more and more like pill-pop.

One could argue that drugs and pop have always worked more in parallel than in tandem — both attempt to relieve the symptoms of the era. But much of today’s pop music explicitly asks to be heard in a pharmacological context. Brand names keep popping up in our singalongs, particularly in rap music, where Xanax, Percocet and other pharmaceuticals have long been praised for their abilities to numb the agony of existence.

The whole of 21st-century pill-pop has a sound, too. It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isn’t new, but it’s increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges. Out on the dance floor, it’s most evident in the cushiony pulse of tropical house, a softer style that Kygo and other big-time producers have used to mitigate the intensity at various EDM festivals in recent years.

In a way, modern music has always been pill music. Drugs and pop were both permanently stitched into America’s cultural fabric shortly after World War II, back when a menu of new psychotropics was being sent to market around the same time rock-and-roll was being born. Both have provided comfort ever since — a parallel that surely isn’t lost on Del Rey, whose inconspicuous lullabies frequently conjure the blurry romance of yesteryear’s American Dream. (...)

More acutely sobering is the role that prescription drugs have played in the deaths of our most beloved pop stars, especially over the past decade. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince each died with painkillers, antianxiety drugs or both coursing through their systems. And because opioids and benzodiazepines are so widely prescribed in tandem, each of these shocking deaths felt strangely familiar. The gods of pop music, indestructible in song, died taking the same drugs that everyone takes.

Regardless of how directly today’s drugs are altering how today’s music gets made, they appear to be having a more significant influence on how that music is being heard. As online streaming services gain traction at the center of music culture, they continue to shape our listening habits in ways that feel entirely compatible with a recreational Xanax habit.

by Chris Richards, Washington Post | Read more:
Image: Eric Petersen

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Silicon Valley’s $400 Juicer May Be Feeling the Squeeze

One of the most lavishly funded gadget startups in Silicon Valley last year was Juicero Inc. It makes a juice machine. The product was an unlikely pick for top technology investors, but they were drawn to the idea of an internet-connected device that transforms single-serving packets of chopped fruits and vegetables into a refreshing and healthy beverage.

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force—“enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands. Two backers said the final device was bulkier than what was originally pitched and that they were puzzled to find that customers could achieve similar results without it. Bloomberg performed its own press test, pitting a Juicero machine against a reporter’s grip. The experiment found that squeezing the bag yields nearly the same amount of juice just as quickly—and in some cases, faster—than using the device.

Juicero declined to comment. A person close to the company said Juicero is aware the packs can be squeezed by hand but that most people would prefer to use the machine because the process is more consistent and less messy. The device also reads a QR code printed on the back of each produce pack and checks the source against an online database to ensure the contents haven’t expired or been recalled, the person said. The expiration date is also printed on the pack.

The creator of Juicero is something of a luminary in the world of juicing. In 2002, Evans helped start Organic Avenue, a chain of juice bars selling cold-press concoctions in glass jars. The New York franchise drew rave reviews from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow. After working on the business for a decade, Evans sold controlling interest to an investor, who pushed him out. The company lumbered toward bankruptcy as Evans got to work on his next project.

Evans, 50, follows a diet of mostly raw, vegan foods. Technology was a new thing for him, but he picked it up quickly. He said he spent about three years building a dozen prototypes before devising Juicero’s patent-pending press. In an interview with technology website Recode, he likened his work to the invention of a mainstream personal computer by Apple’s Jobs. “There are 400 custom parts in here,” Evans told Recode. “There’s a scanner; there’s a microprocessor; there’s a wireless chip, wireless antenna.”

by Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Snopes
[ed. I don't even get the 'buying juice packs' part of this. See also: The Very Serious Lessons of Juicero]

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

At five-foot-six and 270 pounds, the bank robber was impossible to miss. On April 19, 1995, he hit two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. Security cameras picked up good images of his face — he wore no mask — and showed him holding a gun to the teller. Police made sure the footage was broadcast on the local eleven o’clock news. A tip came in within minutes, and just after midnight, the police were knocking on the suspect’s door in McKeesport. Identified as McArthur Wheeler, he was incredulous. “But I wore the juice,” he said.

Wheeler told police he rubbed lemon juice on his face to make it invisible to security cameras. Detectives concluded he was not delusional, not on drugs — just incredibly mistaken.

Wheeler knew that lemon juice is used as an invisible ink. Logically, then, lemon juice would make his face invisible to cameras. He tested this out before the heists, putting juice on his face and snapping a selfie with a Polaroid camera. There was no face in the photo! (Police never figured that out. Most likely Wheeler was no more competent as a photographer than he was as a bank robber.) Wheeler reported one problem with his scheme: The lemon juice stung his eyes so badly that he could barely see.

Wheeler went to jail and into the annals of the world’s dumbest criminals. It was such a feature, in the 1996 World Almanac, that brought Wheeler’s story to the attention of David Dunning, a Cornell psychology professor. He saw in this tale of dim-witted woe something universal. Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack. This observation would eventually become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dunning and a graduate student, Justin Kruger, embarked on series of experiments testing this premise. They quizzed undergraduate psychology students on grammar, logic, and jokes, then asked the students to estimate their scores and also estimate how well they did relative to others (on a percentile basis). The students who scored lowest had greatly exaggerated notions of how well they did. Dunning had expected that, but not the magnitude of the effect. His first reaction to the results was “Wow.” Those who scored near the bottom estimated that their skills were superior to two-thirds of the other students.

Later research went far beyond the university. For one experiment, Dunning and Kruger recruited gun hobbyists at a trapshooting and skeet-shooting competition. Volunteers took a ten-question gun safety and knowledge quiz adapted from one published by the National Rifle Association. Again, the gun owners who knew the least about firearm safety wildly overestimated their knowledge.

Like most rules, this one has exceptions. “One need not look far,” Dunning and Kruger wrote, “to find individuals with an impressive understanding of the strategies and techniques of basketball, for instance, yet who could not ‘dunk’ to save their lives. (These people are called coaches.)” But of course coaches understand their own physical limitations. Similarly, “most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct a V-8 engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect requires a minimal degree of knowledge and experience in the area about which you are ignorant (and ignorant of your ignorance). Drivers, as a group, are subject to the effect — bad drivers usually think they’re good drivers — but those who have never learned how to drive are exempt.

Since Dunning and Kruger first published their results in the 1999 paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” the effect named for them has become a meme. It strikes a universal chord: As Dunning put it, the overconfident airhead “is someone we’ve all met.” Actor John Cleese concisely explains the Dunning-Kruger effect in a much-shared YouTube video: “If you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are … And this explains not just Hollywood but almost the entirety of Fox News.” But the 1999 paper makes clear the authors’ opinion that the first place to look for a Dunning-Kruger ignoramus is in the mirror.

There is now an active field of research into how the internet is changing what we learn and remember.

by William Poundstone, Science of Us | Read more:
Image:Jedrzej Kaminski / EyeEm / Getty Images

Why Would Congress Bail Out Miners’ Pensions?

For decades, being a coal miner has come with a deal: Work in dangerous, unpleasant conditions for years, and in exchange, get lifelong health-care benefits and a decent pension. Now, though, part of that deal is jeopardy, as the funds that provide those benefits have dwindled.

When Congress returns next week, legislators will be under intense pressure to fund health-care benefits and pension plans for coal miners that are otherwise set to expire at the end of April. The United Mine Workers Association is urging Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act, which would use money from a fund dedicated to cleaning up abandoned mines to instead shore up former mine workers’ health care and pension plans, which have been decimated as coal companies have filed for bankruptcy and stopped contributing to health-care and pension funds. America has a “moral commitment” to the nation’s retired miners, UMWA president Cecil E. Roberts wrote in a statement last month.

But does it really? The miners argue that Congress has an obligation to step in because of a deal signed between the federal government and the United Mine Workers in 1946 to end a nationwide strike. The federal government had taken control of the mines, and in order to get the miners to return to work, United Mine Workers president John King and Interior Secretary Julius Krug signed a deal that required coal companies to pay into a pension fund and a health insurance fund for miners. Today, the United Mine Workers of America refers to that deal as “The Promise,” and says that it means that the government (since Secretary Krug was one of the signees) committed to providing miners with health care and pensions for life.

But Congress is in a tight spot. If it bails out the miners, why stop there? Why not bail out all of the other pension funds, private and public, that are on the brink of insolvency? Miners are not the only group that is in danger of losing health care and pensions as their employers go bankrupt. One of the biggest private pension funds in the country, the Central States Pension Fund, which provides benefits for truck drivers, is also almost out of money and is proposing cutting benefits for current and future retirees. The miners and truckers funds are examples of defined-benefit multi-employer pension plans, meaning they provide a certain amount of money every month to covered workers from a number of companies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, such plans have $850 billion worth of benefit obligations, but have assets of only $400 billion. According to the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, there are 1,300 such multi-employer pension plans, covering millions of workers.

“If you open the door here to the United Mine Workers, then you have 1,300 other plans waiting there to say, ‘Where's my bailout? Why is it fair that you preserved 100 percent of coal miners’ benefits?’” argues Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

There is, however, a federal backstop for failing private pension plans (though not for failing health-care plans). When the automaker Studebaker went out of business in 1963, it terminated its pension plan and more than 4,000 workers lost most or all of their promised pension benefits. That eventually motivated Congress to pass the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which set up the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which pays out reduced pensions in the event that a private pension fund becomes insolvent. (The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation itself is running out of money, which is another problem.)

by Alana Semuels, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Gene J. Puskar / AP

Friday, April 21, 2017

Who Among Us Has Not Misplaced an Aircraft Carrier?

OK, somebody needs to explain how these things happen. From the NYT:
The problem was, the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the four other warships in its strike force were at that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula. White House officials said on Tuesday they were relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from a premature announcement of the deployment by the military's Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that an American armada was racing toward the waters off North Korea. By the time the White House was asked about the Carl Vinson on April 11, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia, fanning fears that Mr. Trump was considering a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea. It was portrayed as further evidence of the president's muscular style two days after he ordered a missile strike on Syria while he and President Xi Jinping of China were finishing dessert during a meeting in Florida.
Let us catch our breath for a minute and take stock.

These people misplaced an entire carrier attack group and then tried to bluff their way past it in a way guaranteed to make a crazy guy with a bad haircut and a huge army nervous.

by Charles P. Pierce, Esquire |  Read more:
Image:  via:
[ed. My vote for best title of the year. See also: A Fake and a Fraud]

Lookace Bamber

Thursday, April 20, 2017

This Lawsuit Goes to 11

In comedy, as in rock ’n’ roll, nothing is quite as easy as it looks. And so it makes sense that several years before the 1984 release of the legendary rock ’n’ roll mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, director Rob Reiner and stars and co-writers Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer first had to make a shorter version of the same movie: a sort of sample-size Spinal Tap, meant to whet the appetite of studios that might bankroll the real thing. Titled The Final Tour, this 20-minute demo reel about a past-its-prime, unselfconsciously ridiculous band makes for an uncanny viewing experience today, if for no other reason than how fully conceived the idea already was. It’s on YouTube if you’re curious.

There’s Reiner as the band’s earnest interlocutor, Tony Hendra of National Lampoon as the hapless manager, and Bruno Kirby as the cranky limo driver with a thing for Sinatra. There’s the drummer who dies in a bizarre gardening accident—and the other drummer who spontaneously combusts. There’s Shearer’s airport metal-detector scene, where the problem is in his pants. There’s the touching piano number with the surprisingly bawdy title that can’t be printed here. And there are most of the memorable songs: Big Bottom, Sex Farm, Gimme Some Money, Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight, and, of course, Stonehenge, fully staged, complete with that catastrophically tiny prop (they’d expected 18 feet and got 18 inches) and two costumed little people dancing around it.

“I was amazed when I last looked at it,” says Shearer, who plays Derek Smalls, the band’s bare-chested, mutton-chopped, pipe-smoking bassist. “We had this little pittance”—a $60,000 screenplay fee from a company that eventually rejected the idea—“to shoot characters and performances.” He remembers his long black wig costing about $5, and that it took an hour and a half to remove once the shoot was over (the costumer had used super glue). Shearer, Reiner (who plays Marty DiBergi, the fake documentarian), Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel), and McKean (as vocalist David St. Hubbins) had been nursing and developing the idea since 1978. They first performed as the band in a 1979 variety show called The T.V. Show. Then they wrote seven new songs, played a few gigs in costume in Los Angeles, and worked out a complete band history to ensure that their improvisations had a narrative spine they all could rely on. “Michael McKean, I believe, still has the napkin on which the possible names and the possible misspellings were outlined,” Shearer recalls, “because I think at one point we thought maybe S-p-y-n-a-l?”

Armed in 1980 with that demo reel, Reiner and the others were rejected by every studio they pitched. Finally, in 1982, they got $2 million from Embassy Pictures Corp., a tiny studio run by Norman Lear, whom Reiner knew well from his days in the cast of All in the Family. (Lesson No. 1 in Hollywood: It helps to have powerful friends.) By the time the movie came out, Lear had left Embassy, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite an appearance by the band as musical guest on Saturday Night Live, the movie performed anemically in theaters and faded quickly.

But then a funny thing happened: Tap refused to die, thanks in no small part to repeat viewings on VHS. “We may have been the first nonporn home video to do well,” Shearer says. In just a few years, This Is Spinal Tap became a sort of comedy-nerd Casablanca, a classic so infinitely quotable that it practically generated its own language. (If anyone has ever told you that something “goes to 11,” you probably haven’t required an explanation.) And like a low-IQ, longhaired Pinocchio, Spinal Tap transformed into the real thing, recording albums and even touring. “The thing that we joke about is called the Spinal Tap curse,” Shearer says, “where we have to go through everything that we’ve made fun of.”

It’s hard to think of another movie from the past 50 years that’s had a bigger impact on modern comedy. Spinal Tap pioneered a mock-doc genre that’s influenced everything from the long run of improvisational films directed by Guest (Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show among them) to docu-styled sitcoms such as The Office and Modern Family. This made it all the more surprising when, about four years ago, Shearer became the first of his fake bandmates to learn lesson No. 2 in Hollywood: No matter how well your movie does, there’s no such thing as net profit. (...)

Sometimes it takes a malcontent to disturb something as intractable as Hollywood accounting practices. By the terms of the contract they signed in 1982 with Embassy Pictures, the four creators of Spinal Tap are entitled to a portion of income from the film, including merchandise and music, provided certain benchmarks are hit. Given the wild afterlife of This Is Spinal Tap, it seems impossible that anyone with a piece of the movie hasn’t made money. And yet this is Hollywood, where studios have claimed that some of the highest-grossing films—hits such as Return of the Jedi, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy—somehow haven’t turned a profit. As David Zucker, one of the creators of Airplane!, once said of his own sleeper hit, “It made so much money that the studio couldn’t hide it fast enough.”

by Robert Kolker, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: MPTV Images

France in the End of Days

For some time France has been a country that does not like itself. Somewhere on the road from its humiliation in World War II to its disappointment with European integration to its discomfort with globalization, France slid into moroseness. High-speed trains purred; France pouted. Grumbling became a way of life, the response to lost grandeur. Now France seems ready to vent this slow-ripening anger in an election that could see the extreme right return to power for the first time since the 1940s and Europe revert to a turbulence not seen since that epoch.

If Marine Le Pen of the National Front wins, she says she will take France out of the euro, the shared European currency, and restore the franc. Exit from the European Union could follow. This would constitute an economic and political rupture so violent that even Donald Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote to leave the union would pale beside it. Europe, and not just its markets, would be upended. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been meddling, would be happy.

A Le Pen victory is far from assured, plausible if not probable. Returning to France late last month, to the glow of Paris and the gloom of the provinces, I was struck by how much Le Pen’s party, whose racist ideology was once taboo, has joined the mainstream. The pattern that has prevailed throughout the Fifth Republic — alternation of center-left and center-right — seems dead. The French are tired of increasingly indistinguishable Socialist and Republican presidents. President François Hollande, a socialist with a single-digit approval rating, decided not to run for a second term. As elsewhere in the West, traditional parties bereft of compelling ideas are in crisis, buffeted by social-media-driven mobilizations.

The first round of voting on April 23 is almost certain to send Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old upstart leader of a new catchall centrist movement, into the runoff on May 7: the xenophobic nationalist versus the pro-Europe neophyte.

Polls show them both with clear, if tightening, leads over the scandal-plagued Republican candidate, François Fillon, and an extreme leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Unbowed France movement, whose support has surged in recent days. The left, still singing the Internationale and plotting class struggle, is in disarray. The inclination to blow up the system has found fertile ground. People have had it with experts. “Ça suffit!” — “Enough!” — is a much-heard cry; and if disruption leads to deluge, so be it.

Such end-of-days gloom is puzzling. Near 10 percent unemployment and near invisible growth cannot explain it. French infrastructure is a rebuke to American decay. French universal health care works. Savoir-vivre, the art of living, is not a French phrase for nothing. From the United States to China, the French hold on the world’s imagination endures. It is a land of unique pleasures.

Yet this seems to offer scant comfort. Instead the French are focused on their country’s failures: its dispatch under Vichy of Jews to their deaths, its painful colonial past in Algeria, its faltering attempts to integrate one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, its vulnerability to terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, its expensive and sometimes rigid welfare state, its ambiguous relationship to global capitalism, its fraying model of “laïcité” (or secularism) designed to subsume religious difference in the values of the French republic — all are endlessly agonized over.

“There is a certain French masochism,” Pascal Bruckner, an author, told me. “We are a country that does not unleash its potential. We ruminate on the past. After 1989, we thought Europe would become French. But the models of Germany and Thatcher did much better. And so we lapse into mediocrity.” Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist, put it this way: “France suffers from cultural and civilizational insecurity. Many people feel somehow dispossessed.”

This sense of dispossession, of loss, is what the National Front has exploited: loss of identity, jobs, national borders; loss of faith in a corrupt political system. “On est chez nous!” — roughly “We are at home!” — is the party’s strange battle cry, chanted at every rally. But why such pathological need to reaffirm belonging, and who exactly are “we”? Millions of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, many of them Muslims, do not appear to make the cut.

“There is no right or left. This election is about patriotism versus globalization,” Nicolas Bay, the secretary-general of the National Front, told me. “That is why we would end immigration. If it’s Le Pen against the globalist Macron in the second round, it will be clear what the contest is about: Do we defend the nation, or is the nation finished?”

by Roger Cohen, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Pierre Terdjman

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin

Alec Baldwin collapses onto his dressing-room couch at Saturday Night Live like a man participating too enthusiastically in a trust fall. He is 58 years old. He has three children under 4. He has been dividing what’s left of his time between filming a movie with Emilio Estevez in Cincinnati and answering the call from NBC whenever it comes, which, because of his now-signature portrayal of Donald Trump, has been many weeks this season. His appearances gather eyes like car accidents; some clips have been watched on YouTube more than 20 million times. Those legions of viewers have formed a kind of makeshift resistance, a community of the gaslit, together feeling a little less crazy for knowing that at least Alec Baldwin can see what they are seeing. Turning the president into a running joke might prove the most consequential work of his career. It’s at least been the most consuming.

Baldwin has bags under his eyes, his normally enviable hair appears as though it’s been beaten flat with a tire iron, and he has two blood-red spots on the bridge of his nose. His whole body looks like it aches. He is keeping it going by alternating between a bottle of Diet Coke and some grainy concoction from Starbucks served in a bucket. This week he is hosting SNL for a record 17th time, expectations are soaring, and the pressure, like the workload, is telling on him like a terrible secret. It’s only Tuesday.

There is a knock at the door. It’s time for Baldwin to go to makeup. Among his many chores today, February 7, he has to pose for this week’s “bumpers,” the photos of the host that bookend SNL’s commercial breaks. His wife, Hilaria, is coming in later with their kids for what will be a lovely family portrait, but the first shot is of Baldwin as Hamlet, holding the skull of the ill-fated court jester Yorick, with Baldwin’s Trump wig on it. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.

Baldwin walks down the hall slowly, listing a little, as though he’s walking on a ship. When he reaches his destination—bright lights, mirrors, and a bunch of people who are really happy to see him—he straightens up and smiles, jolted to life by the affection. He climbs into a chair, and a woman surveys his hair for half a second before firing up her clippers. A makeup artist asks whether he can put cooling pads under Baldwin’s eyes, and Baldwin beckons him forward as if to say, “You think I’d rather look like this?”

On a shelf behind him, his custom-made Trump wig shines golden on a life-size model of Baldwin’s head. The shelf contains the disembodied heads of every cast member, each labeled with a name and a size. Vanessa Bayer has the smallest; Baldwin’s dome is tied with several others’ for the biggest. There have been rumors that he will wear the wig for the entire show—that on Saturday, February 11, he will play Trump in every sketch. The team here in makeup has heard as much.

“No,” Baldwin says. “No. That would be a horrible idea.” He slips into Jack Donaghy, the executive he played so well on 30 Rock, dry as straight gin (“What am I, a farmer?”). “There’s a lot of talented people here. When I show up, I’m really only one of several people who make the show worthwhile. Sometimes I’m the least of what makes the show worthwhile.” He returns to playing himself. “That’s the most idiotic idea I’ve heard in my life. Ninety minutes of me walking around, like—”

Then it happens.

Baldwin’s face spasms almost uncontrollably, seized by muscle memory. He opens his left eye wide, he nearly closes his right eye, and he pushes out his wet lips as far as his chin will allow, his mouth turned suddenly into a bottomless black pit. His hands fly up, his fingers doing ridiculous, discordant things. He turns his head as though he’s been startled by a loud noise, and the woman cutting his hair has to snatch away her clippers with a jerk, her face gone urgent with the realization of how close she came to disaster.

“These are my golf clubs,” Baldwin says, his trademark voice transformed into Trump’s strange muffle, his naturally seamless, rapid-fire cadence turned halting. “They were given to me as a gift from Qaddafi. We’re doing a lot of business together, Muammar and I.”

Baldwin stops there. “Muammar,” he repeats, his mouth pushed out to the point of rupture, now satisfied that he has it right.

Everyone but the very professional hairstylist is in stitches. “Careful,” she says. “You’ll have a bald spot.” Baldwin relaxes. She moves quickly to finish her work, exchanging the clippers for scissors. She can’t help but marvel at the magnificence taking shape before her. “It’s unbelievable,” she says to no one and everyone at once. “He has gorgeous hair.”Baldwin sometimes wishes Trump would appear next to him on SNL. “If he was smart, he’d show up this week. It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”

Baldwin looks at himself in the mirror. “I don’t have anything else left,” he says. “It’s so sad. Seriously: age. Now you see why Cary Grant retired. People will do that to me on the internet. ‘Oh, here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU WERE HOT.’ ” He puts on his best polite voice. “Thank you! THANK YOU, SUZIE.” He’s quiet for a moment, and then he’s back to playing the imaginary Suzie. “Here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU LOOKED GOOD.” (...)

Baldwin’s ear is so good, he can do three phases of Pacino: early, middle, and late. It is a breathless, almost vaudevillian routine, performed entirely while seated. It is also desperately funny. In 20 minutes, Baldwin has inhabited seven different characters. Of all the parts, Trump is his least favorite to play. “It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s not easy.”

Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.

“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.” (...)

For the next shot he pulls on an ill-fitting suit and too-long tie, and he watches as that same wig is placed on his enormous, groomed head, and he mangles his eyes and pushes out his lips, this tired man made beautiful made ugly. It’s an unsettling transformation to watch. It’s almost as though Alec Baldwin, before he can become Donald Trump, must first become the best version of Alec Baldwin, and then ruin him.

by Chris Jones, The Atlantic | Read more:
Image: Mary Ellen Matthews / NBC