Sunday, June 24, 2018

Mardi Gras in Theory and Practice

Mardi Gras did not seem like it would be my kind of holiday. It is characterized, in popular stereotypes, by three things: beads, beer, and breasts. As a teetotaler, I do not drink beer. As a person of taste, I am disinclined to cover myself in plastic beads. And while I am theoretically pro-breasts, I feel no particular need to see them publicly displayed from second-floor balconies. Making the prospect even less appealing, my apartment is in the heart of the French Quarter, a place with unpleasantly high quantities of debauchery even in the off-season. (A man peed on my house the other week.) Mardi Gras promised to be a loud, messy spectacle, the worst of New Orleans magnified and multiplied. I had friends who were leaving town to escape it. They seemed wise.

I also quickly began to realize what everyone from here knows already: it is not just a single day, “Fat Tuesday.” It is Carnival Season, a month-long celebration beginning in early January on Twelfth Night and lasting through Ash Wednesday. We are not talking about an afternoon of unusually heavy drinking by a throng of tourists on Bourbon Street. We are talking about over 50 parades, an influx of visitors that multiplies the city’s population by four, and a billion dollars in Mardi Gras related spending. A few weeks before everything descended into chaos, local news reported that the sewage department had extracted 92,000 pounds of leftover Mardi Gras beads from the city’s catch basins. I honestly did not understand how that many pounds of Mardi Gras beads could end up in the drainage system. I would soon understand.

by Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs |  Read more:
Image: Nathan J. Robinson

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Walk to Kobe

A Walk to Kobe

I gazed at Kobe harbour, sparkling leadenly far below, and listened carefully, hoping to pick up some echoes from the past, but nothing came to me. Just the sounds of silence. That’s all. But what are you going to do? We’re talking about things that happened over thirty years ago.

Over thirty years ago. There is one thing I can say for certain: the older a person gets, the lonelier he becomes. It’s true for everyone. But maybe that isn’t wrong. What I mean is, in a sense our lives are nothing more than a series of stages to help us get used to loneliness. That being the case, there’s no reason to complain. And besides, who would we complain to, anyway?

by Haruki Murakami, Granta |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Mind Control

Barbara Ehrenreich cuts an unusual figure in American culture. A prominent radical who never became a liberal, a celebrity, or a reactionary, who built a successful career around socialist-feminist writing and activism, she embodies an opportunity that was lost when the New Left went down to defeat. Since the mid-1970s she has devoted her work to an unsparing examination of what she viewed as the self-involvement of her professional, middle-class peers: from their narcissism and superiority in Fear of Falling and Nickel and Dimed to their misplaced faith in positive thinking in Bright-Sided. Again and again, she has offered a critique of the world they were making and leaving behind them. She is, in other words, both a boomer and the opposite.

At first glance, her new book, Natural Causes, is a polemic against wellness culture and the institutions that sustain it. What makes the argument unusual is its embrace of that great humbler, the end of life. “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation ... and take every possible measure to postpone it,” she offers at the beginning of the book. “Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.” With a winning shrug, she declares herself “old enough to die” and have her obituary simply list “natural causes.”

Ehrenreich contemplates with some satisfaction not just the approach of her own death but also the passing of her generation. As the boomers have aged, denial of death, she argues, has moved to the center of American culture, and a vast industrial ecosystem has bloomed to capitalize on it. Across twelve chapters, Ehrenreich surveys the health care system, the culture of old age, the world of “mindfulness,” and the interior workings of the body itself, and finds a fixation on controlling the body, encouraged by cynical and self-interested professionals in the name of “wellness.” Without opposing reasonable, routine maintenance, Ehrenreich observes that the care of the self has become a coercive and exploitative obligation: a string of endless medical tests, drugs, wellness practices, and exercise fads that threaten to become the point of life rather than its sustenance. Someone, obviously, is profiting from all this.

While innumerable think pieces have impugned millennials’ culture of “self-care”—and argued that the generation born in the 1980s and ’90s is fragile, consumerist, and distracted—Ehrenreich redirects such criticisms toward an older crowd. Her book sets out to refute the idea that it’s possible to control the course and shape of one’s own biological or emotional life, and dissects the desire to do so. “Agency is not concentrated in humans or their gods or favorite animals,” she writes. “It is dispersed throughout the universe, right down to the smallest imaginable scale.” We are not, that is, in charge of ourselves. (...)

Natural Causes opens with her decision to reject a series of medical interventions. Ehrenreich is in her seventies and has survived breast cancer but, “in the last few years,” she writes, she has “given up on the many medical measures—cancer screenings, annual exams, Pap smears, for example—expected of a responsible person with health insurance.” She describes making this choice after a series of troubling experiences: First, her primary care doctor talked her into a bone scan, then diagnosed her with osteopenia—thinning of the bones—“a condition that might have been alarming if I hadn’t found out that it is shared by nearly all women over the age of thirty-five.” Bone scans, though, have been heavily promoted by the manufacturer of the osteopenia drug, which itself turns out to cause bone thinning. Next, she got a false positive on a mammogram and decided never to get another.

Even though she showed no signs of sleep apnea, her dentist wanted her to get a test for it, “after which I could buy the treatment from her: a terrifying skull-shaped mask that would supposedly prevent sleep apnea and definitely extinguish any last possibility of sexual activity.” The risk of sudden death in her sleep, she decides, is tolerable. She turns down colonoscopies, certain that she’ll die of something else before colon cancer kills her anyway. She fires her doctor after he suspends his ordinary practice and offers “concierge care” instead—pricey, constant access and a heightened testing regime.

Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D. in cell biology, isn’t opposed to scientific medicine. But she is alert to the power dynamics that characterize a patient-doctor relationship and the ways those dynamics can influence patients’ decisions: Some will seek or accept treatments that won’t help with their condition, simply because so much power is invested in the doctor. Ehrenreich quotes at length from a 1956 article titled “Body Rituals of the Nacirema” (“American” backwards), which describes an American hospital through an ethnographer’s eye:
Few supplicants [patients] in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men [dentists], involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magic wands in the supplicant’s mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh.
Stripped of the authority of Western medicine, the treatments the article describes sound like cruel rituals. “The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte,” the article goes on, “in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.”

A bit wryly, Ehrenreich points out that she’s not the anti-empirical one in this debate. Doctors have been quite resistant to so-called “evidence-based medicine”—the disbursement of treatment according to quantitative evidence rather than medical discretion. And, accustomed to the present system, many patients now worry that anything less than constant testing and maximal intervention would leave them at risk: “An internist in Burlington, North Carolina, reports that when he told a 72-year-old patient that she did not need many of the tests she was expecting in her annual physical, she wrote a letter to the local paper about him as an example of ‘socialized medicine.’ ” Doctors and hospitals use these expectations to drive up demand and prices, and patients, afraid and intimidated, submit.

The way Americans assent to such treatments fits more broadly into a culture of arduous self-improvement regimens. Here, Ehrenreich speaks as an inveterate gym rat, a participant in the astonishing rise of the workout since the 1970s. She sees the ascent of exercise culture in part as a continuation of women’s reclamation of their bodies in the 1970s, and in part as an example of the retreat from public concerns and move toward individualism that many of her peers made around the same time. “I may not be able to do much about grievous injustice in the world, at least not by myself or in very short order, but I can decide to increase the weight on the leg press machine by twenty pounds and achieve that within a few weeks,” she writes. “The gym, which once looked so alien and forbidding to me, became one of the few sites where I could reliably exert control.” What was a consolation, however, quickly evolved into a prize. Working out became a status symbol, a form of conspicuous consumption for a professional middle class bereft of purpose; and it became a disciplinary device, part of a culture that inflicts “steep penalties for being overweight.”

Once associated with play, exercise is now closer to a form of labor: measured, timed, and financially incentivized by employers and insurers. Like any kind of alienated labor, it assumes and intensifies the division between mind and body—indeed, it involves a kind of violence by the mind against the body. Ehrenreich is tired of being told to “crush your workout,” of being urged to develop “explosive strength” through a “warrior” routine. She cites the copy from an advertisement for a home fitness machine: “A moment of silence please, for my body has no idea what I’m about to put it through.” Exercise, for some reason, has become a struggle to the death. As Oscar Pistorius—the amputee and Olympic runner convicted of murder in 2015—has tattooed on his back, “I beat my body and make it my slave / I bring it under my complete subjection.”

While workout culture requires the strict ordering of the body, mindfulness culture has emerged to subject the brain to similarly stringent routines. Mindfulness gurus often begin from the assumption that our mental capacities have been warped and attenuated by the distractions of our age. We need re-centering. Mindfulness teaches that it is possible through discipline and practice to gain a sense of tranquility and focus. Such spiritual discipline, often taking the form of a faux-Buddhist meditation program, can of course be managed through an app on your phone, or, with increasing frequency, might be offered by your employer. Google, for example, keeps on staff a “chief motivator,” who specializes in “fitness for the mind,” while Adobe’s “Project Breathe” program allocates 15 minutes per day for employees to “recharge their batteries.” This fantastical hybrid of exertion and mysticism promises that with enough effort , you too can bend your mind back into shape.

“Whichever prevails in the mind-body duality, the hope, the goal—the cherished assumption,” Ehrenreich summarizes, “is that by working together, the mind and the body can act as a perfectly self-regulating machine.” In this vision, the self is a clockwork mechanism, ideally adapted by natural selection to its circumstances and needing upkeep only in the form of juice cleanses, meditation, CrossFit, and so on. Monitor your data forever and hope to live forever. Like workout culture, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption. It is only the wealthy who have the resources to maintain the illusion of an integral and bounded self, capable of responsible self-care and thus worthy of social status. The same logic says that those who smoke (read: poor), or don’t eat right (poor again), or don’t exercise enough (also poor) have personally failed and somehow deserve their health problems and low life expectancy.

Of course, the body cannot really be mastered this way. For Ehrenreich, in fact, the body is not even a single thing, but rather a continuous, contradictory process. Immunology—her academic specialty—hinges on an essentially military metaphor of distinction between self and nonself: The immune system protects the homeland by destroying invaders. What, then, are we to make of routine episodes of intrabody conflict? There are obvious cases, such as cancer and autoimmune disorders. But Ehrenreich points out that even something as ordinary as menstruation appears to be the product of the adaptive struggle over resources between mother and fetus, an “arms race ... between the human endometrium and the human embryo/placental combination.” The body, like the body politic pictured on the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan, only gives the appearance of unity: It’s made of a “collection of tiny selves.” And for that matter, there’s not really a king to impose order. (...)

But Ehrenreich’s universe hums with life and activity. It’s warm, not cold. She wants to join it in her final years, not leave it behind by cloistering herself in the clinic, the gym, or the spa. For the elderly today, “the price of survival is endless toil” to keep fit, along with incessant trips to the doctor and avoiding all good food, right up till death. She’s not interested. She still works out, though less intensely than before, and she stretches every day—some of it even “might qualify as yoga.” “Other than that, I pretty much eat what I want and indulge my vices, from butter to wine. Life is too short to forgo these pleasures, and would be far too long without them.”

by Gabriel Winant, TNR |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Michiko Kakutani on 'The Death of Truth'

Forget Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, forget Hillary Clinton’s and James Comey’s ridiculously self-serving memoirs. Former chief book critic for The New York Times Michiko Kakutani has written the first great book of the Trump administration. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (out July 17th) is a fiery polemic against the president and should go down as essential reading.

In nine exquisitely crafted broadsides, the 63-year-old Pulitzer winner calls upon her vast knowledge of literature, philosophy and politics to serve up a damning state of the union. She cites those you might expect from the authoritarian cannon: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Hannah Arendt, but easily pivots to David Foster Wallace, Spike Jonze and Tom Wolfe. She deftly traces the history of leftist postmodern academics who helped usher in relativism and led us away from objective truths, but saves some of her most withering attacks for the right-wing media (FOX News, Brietbart, et al) that set the stage for a dangerous demagogue like Trump.

It’s the fluidity and grace of her prose, however, that leave the reader amazed by Kakutani's virtuoso talent and command. "Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance," she writes, "can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the Constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.”

The Death of Truth is a clear-eyed, if dismal, blueprint for how we got here and why our society has been pushed to the very brink. Rolling Stone reached Kakutani by email for the following exchange:

What was the genesis of this book?

Like many people, I became increasingly alarmed during the 2016 campaign and the first year of the Trump administration by the full-on war being waged on the very idea of truth. The Washington Post estimated that President Trump emits nearly six false or misleading claims a day. And it's not just the liar-in-chief who is spreading "alternative facts" and assailing reason and science; it's also his political and media enablers, aided and abetted by Russian trolls. The consequences for our democracy are grave: The lies spewed forth by Trump and company are promoting division and discord in the country at large, inflaming bigotry and hatred and elevating partisanship and tribal politics over shared values and the democratic ideals embodied in the Constitution. With the erosion of truth, we are made susceptible to propaganda (from the Russians, the White House and the likes of the NRA), our institutions are undermined, and rational public discourse is imperiled.

One of the things I wanted to do in The Death of Truth was explore some of the larger social and political dynamics that fueled the rise of Trump and brought America to the point where a third of the country will casually shrug off hard facts about everything from the size of inaugural crowds to the crime rate among immigrants. Those broader dynamics include the toxic partisanship that increasingly afflicts our politics; the merging of news and politics with entertainment; the growing populist disdain for expertise; the embrace of subjectivity and relativism by both the right and left; the growth of online filter bubbles that segregate us into silos of like-minded users; and the viral spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on the web. Trump is both a bizarro-world apotheosis of many larger trends undermining truth today, and a flame-thrower who is accelerating these alarming attitudes.

One of your last pieces for the Times was seen as comparing Trump to Hitler. This book takes that case further. Did you hesitate to go there?

There are personality traits in common – toxic narcissism, a fondness for superlatives, an instinct for lying, bullying and manipulation. And parallels can be drawn between Hitler's ascent and the rise of Trump: from his translation of his own mendacity into a shameless propaganda machine, to his Machiavellian exploitation of his audiences' fears and resentments, to other politicians' craven failure to stand up to him.

This is not to draw a direct analogy between today's circumstances and the overwhelming horrors of the World War II era, but to look at some of the conditions and attitudes – what Margaret Atwood has called the "danger flags" – that make a people susceptible to demagoguery, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats. And to remind readers of the fragility of democracy – of how quickly the rule of law can be broken and how rapidly civil liberties can erode.

America is being bombarded with disinformation from the White House and its allies – designed, you write, to keep the population not only misled but paranoid and off-balance. Do you see any solutions or ways to combat this crisis?

The role of a free and independent press has never been more important, and investigative reporters – working for newspapers, magazines, online outlets, radio and television – have been doing vital, necessary work, trying to untangle Trump and his campaign's relationship with Russia, and expose the culture of lying and corruption that has flourished under his administration, while sounding warning bells about the consequences of his assault on truth.

The problem is that such reports do not reach many of the president's most ardent supporters, who live in Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting silos, and who shrug off any news that does not ratify their pre-existing beliefs. At the same time, the volume and velocity of Trump's lies, his multiplying scandals and violations of norms threaten to overwhelm the public, resulting in numbness and cynicism – the very traits that autocrats (like Vladimir Putin) rely upon to sabotage dissent and strengthen their own hold on power. (...)

Did the media fail in its most basic duty during the 2016 campaign?

In pursuit of the clicks and eyeballs that Trump generated, the media gave the former reality-TV star an estimated $5 billion in free campaign coverage. Many outlets paid more attention to scandals and questions of personality than to substantive matters of policy (like the consequences a Trump administration would have on, say, national security, health care, immigration, the budget), and more attention to Hillary Clinton's emails than to the Trump campaign's entanglements with Russia. Like James Comey, much of the press assumed that Clinton was going to win the election, and that assumption wasn't only wrong – it also affected coverage.

H.L. Mencken wrote: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Isn't that exactly what we are seeing with Trump? Is this our own reckoning of 50-odd years of partisan fighting and a failure of our political class?

Trump tapped into a lot of middle-class and working-class disillusion with the political establishment, and into economic worries and resentments that ballooned in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. His promises to "drain the swamp" and reduce taxes on the middle class, however, turned out to be lies: Since taking office, he has made the swamp deeper and wider than ever, presiding over an administration filled with grifters and dark money – an administration that's delivered tax cuts not to ordinary people, but to corporations and the very rich. His surprise election blindsided the political and media establishment, which underestimated the anti-elitist sentiment in the country and the toxic efficacy of Trump's fear-mongering, and which was also slow to recognize the dangerous levels of misinformation being spread by the alt-right and Russia on the web.

by Sean Woods, Rolling Stone | Read more:
Image: Petr Hlinomaz

Friday, June 22, 2018

Alexander Petrosyan

The Legend of Nintendo

For anyone who’s ever marveled at Nintendo’s vivid, phantasmagoric, zoologically ornate video games, visiting the company’s understated home in Kyoto, Japan, can be disorienting at first. That such an outpouring of kaleidoscopic products comes from a place so devoid of color can be momentarily hard to fathom. The headquarters are housed in a stark white cubical building surrounded on the perimeter by a sturdy white wall. The lobby is minimally decorated. The sidewalls are sheathed in cool white marble. No Donkey Kong posters. No Mario cutouts. No Pikachu plush toys. The rare sprinkling of color comes from a series of small, framed art pieces: a serene procession of birds and flowers. One Tuesday morning in April, the place gave off the reflective vibe of a monastery or, perhaps, a mental asylum.

On the top floor of the building, Tatsumi Kimishima, Nintendo Co.’s president, took a seat in a wood-paneled conference room, next to a translator. A crescent of handlers settled into chairs nearby while a server brought out cups of hot green tea. She padded quietly about the room, making sure not to obstruct anyone’s line of sight to the president, shuffling sideways here, dipping there, like a spy limboing past a laser-triggered alarm system. Not a drop was spilled.

As the tea was served, Kimishima eased into a laconic summary of Nintendo’s affairs. The past year and a half had been eventful, with the company vaulting back from the brink of irrelevance to reclaim its position atop the global video game industry. Kimishima summed up the triumphant drama with monkish self-restraint: “Certainly, we have been pleased.”

In March 2017, the company released the Nintendo Switch. People were skeptical that the console, which can be used as a portable gaming device or docked to a television set, would succeed. It had been more than a decade since Nintendo’s last hardware megahit, the Wii, and the world of home entertainment had destabilized. Smartphones, some analysts maintained, were the future of video games—not sleek, meticulously crafted $299.99 devices with curious motion-sensitive, detachable controllers.

But from the start, gamers loved the Switch’s originality, versatility, and design. This April, Nintendo announced that during the previous fiscal year it had sold more than 15 million units and more than 63 million games. A strong lineup of reimagined classics had helped drive the frenzy. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had sold more than 8 million copies and been named Game of the Year by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. New iterations of the Mario Kart, Super Mario, and Splatoon franchises had performed similarly well. Nintendo’s revenue had more than doubled from the previous year, to $9.5 billion, and its share price had shot up 81 percent.

With the company once again bear-hugging youthful brainstems around the world, marketers of kid products are rushing to license its characters and start joint ventures. (...)

As Kimishima spoke, sunlight flooded the conference room. It was a warm spring day in Kyoto. The cherry trees were in full bloom. The subways were clotted with tourists. Elsewhere in Japan, the firefly squid were returning to Toyama Bay. Police in Miyagi prefecture were investigating what had happened to a black-headed gull found wandering around, alive, with a small arrow mysteriously lodged in its skull, as though escaped from a Nintendo game.

Kimishima took a sip of tea. Next year, Nintendo will turn 130 years old. Once again, the outside world is wondering how a company periodically left for dead keeps revitalizing itself. But seesawing is nothing new for Nintendo. It has long alternated between fallow periods, in which the media churns out reports of pending doom, and boom times, during which Nintendo Mania is cast as an unstoppable force. What remains constant is the company’s understated and zealously guarded culture—the system at the root of its unusual ability to recalibrate, with some regularity, to humanity’s ever-evolving sense of play. (...)

Nintendo’s game creators come from a variety of academic backgrounds. Historically, most were Japanese men, though in recent years the company has hired more women and brought in talent from overseas. The increased diversity helps to replenish Nintendo’s wellspring of creativity, executives say, and ultimately to produce a heterodox array of games that appeal to consumers who aren’t necessarily fervid gamers (read: not just young men).

The expectation is that new hires will learn the craft from senior producers and spend the rest of their careers at Nintendo, continuously honing their command. The setup is reminiscent of the apprenticeship system underpinning the rich, artisanal culture for which Kyoto has long been renowned. In studios throughout the city, apprentices work alongside master craftspeople, producing ceramics, paper fans, tie-dyed prints, cutlery, tea canisters, embroidery, bamboo work, and lacquerware. Kyoto’s artisans pride themselves on never letting their handiwork grow stale; each generation of apprentices is expected to absorb the methods of their predecessors while pushing classical practices forward.

Nintendo’s master artisan, its most revered producer, is Shigeru Miyamoto, 65, who joined the company in 1977 and designed its first globally beloved game, Donkey Kong, a few years later. Miyamoto is still at the company, and all its senior game makers, including Koizumi and Takahashi, have worked extensively at his side. “I’m not young myself,” Koizumi said. “But as a developer working on some of these 30-year franchises, one thing that I do recognize is that just because it’s been around for 30 years doesn’t mean that’s necessarily a strength on its own. What you need are fresh ideas. You need young people with interesting takes.”

The company’s creative methods—and, more precisely, why its best games verge on the sublime—have always been something of a mystery. Over the years, Miyamoto has offered some clues. He’s often told a story about how, when he was young, he discovered a cave in a bamboo forest outside his village of Sonobe, northwest of Kyoto. Initially afraid, he pushed deeper into the subterranean world, marveling at the feelings of mystery and soulfulness that washed over him. That sense of astonishment and animism persisted, helping to inspire hit games such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda. Miyamoto’s cave tale is to Nintendo acolytes as Plato’s cave allegory is to students of Greek philosophy: a way of framing the inherent challenge of perceiving reality. How to create a naturalistic gaming environment that opens a player’s mind to the transcendent elements within?

by Felix Gillette, Bloomberg | Read more:
Image: Brian Finke

The Hotel Capital

The Hotel Capital

is only for the rich. For them there are porters in uniforms, long-legged, tailcoated waiters with Spanish accents; for them the silent lifts with mirrors on all sides; for them the brass door handles which must never be allowed to show any fingerprints, the door handles which are for this reason polished twice a day by the petite Yugoslav woman; for them the carpeted stairs to be used only in case they should be assailed by the claustrophobia of the lift; for them huge sofas, heavy quilted bedspreads, breakfasts in bed, air conditioning, towels whiter than snow, soaps and beautifully scented shampoos, toilet seats of real oak, new magazines every morning. It is for them that God created Angelo of Soiled Linen and Zapata of Special Orders, for them the chambermaids in white and pink uniforms, scurrying along the corridors, myself among them. But perhaps to say ‘myself’ is already to say too much; not much of myself is left when, in the little service room at the end of the corridor, I put on a striped apron while, at the same time, taking off my own colours, my body smell, my favourite earrings, my warpaint make-up and high-heeled shoes. At the same time I take off my exotic language, my strange name, my sense of humour, my face lines, my taste for food not appreciated here, my memory of small events—and I stand naked in this pink and white uniform as if emerging from the sea mist. And, from this moment on,

The whole of the second floor of the hotel is mine

every weekend, that is. I start here at eight o’clock and I don’t have to hurry since, at eight o’clock, all the rich people are still asleep. The hotel snuggles them inside, rocking them gently, as if it were a big seashell in the world’s depths and they the precious pearls inside it. In the distance the traffic awakens and the underground train makes the grass tremble gently at its tips. A cool shadow lingers in the hotel’s yard.

I come in through the back door and immediately I become aware of strange intermingled smells of cleaning materials, freshly laundered linen and the walls sweating with the excessive turnover of people. The poky little lift stops in front of me, ready for service. I press the button for the fourth floor and proceed to my supervisor, Miss Lang, to collect my orders for the day. Every time, somewhere halfway between the second and third floors, I am touched by a panicky sensation lest the lift should stop and I should stay here forever, enclosed like a bacterium inside the body of the Hotel Capital. And once the hotel awakens, it will set to work, unhurriedly digesting me, it will even get at my thoughts and absorb all that is left of me, it will feed on me before I noiselessly disappear. But the lift mercifully lets me out.

Miss Lang sits behind her desk, with her spectacles balancing on the tip of her nose. She looks just like what the queen of all chambermaids, the resident of all eight floors, the dispenser of hundreds of bed sheets and pillowcases, the chamberlain of carpets and lifts, the equerry of brushes and vacuum cleaners, should look like. She eyes me from behind her spectacles and takes out a card prepared especially for me, on which, laid out neatly in rows and columns, a plan of the whole second floor is drawn, indicating the status of each room. Miss Lang does not notice guests in the hotel. Perhaps she considers them to be the concern of the higher management, difficult as it is to imagine someone higher, more distinguished than Miss Lang.

For her, the hotel is probably a perfect structure, a living, if inert, being which we have to take care of. Sure enough, people flow and fly through it, warm its beds, drink water from its brass nipples. But they pass on, go away. We and the hotel remain. That is why Miss Lang describes the rooms to me as if they were haunted places—always in the passive tense, as being occupied or dirty or free for the last few days. As she does this, she looks resentfully at my own clothing, at the traces of my too hurriedly applied make-up. And almost straight away I am walking along the corridor with a note in Miss Lang’s beautiful, slightly Victorian handwriting, planning the strategy of how best to use my strength.

It is then that, unconsciously, I cross from the domestic part of the building to the Guests’ Quarters. I can tell this by the smell—I only have to lift my head to recognize it. Sometimes I score ten out of ten: the scent is that of Armani, or Lagerfeld for Men, or of the seductively elegant Boucheron. I recognize these scents from the free samples in Vogue magazine. I am familiar with the look of their containers. I also catch the scent of powder, of anti-wrinkle cream, of silk, of crocodile skin, of Campari spilled over the bedding, of Caprice cigarettes for subtle brunettes. This, to me, is the specific smell of the second floor. Or rather, not the complete smell, but only the first layer of that special smell of the second floor which I recognize instantly the way one recognizes an old friend, while on my way to the changing room where

A transformation

takes place. Clad in the pink and white uniform, I find myself viewing the corridor with different eyes. I no longer trace the scents, I cease to be drawn by my own reflection in the brass door handles, nor do I listen for the sound of my own steps. What I am singularly interested in now are the numbered rectangles of doors in the corridor’s vista. Behind each of these eight rectangles there is a room—the four-cornered, prostituted space which every few days gives itself to someone else. The windows of four of the rooms look on to the street where a bearded fellow in Scottish attire stands playing his bagpipes.

I suspect he is not a genuine Scot. He exhibits too much enthusiasm. Next to him—a hat and a coin meant to attract offerings.

The next four rooms, whose windows overlook the yard, are not as sunny and seem to be permanently bathed in shadow. All eight rooms are lodged in my brain, even before I can see them. My eyes search out the door handles. Some of them have DO NOT DISTURB notices attached to them. I am pleased at this as it is not in my interest to disturb either the rooms or the people in them, and I prefer that they do not disturb me as I contemplate my sole possession of the second floor. Occasionally, a notice declares the room is READY TO BE SERVICED. This notice puts me in a state of alertness. There is also a third kind of information—that supplied by the absence of any notice. This energizes me, makes me slightly anxious. It switches on my chambermaid’s mind which until then has remained inactive. Sometimes, when the stillness behind such a door is too palpable, I have to put my ear to it and listen intently, and even peep through the keyhole. I prefer this to suddenly finding myself inside with an armful of towels and stumbling upon an alarmed guest covering his nakedness or, even worse, finding a guest so deep in helpless sleep that he scarcely seems to be there. That is why I obey the notices on the doors: they are visas granting me entry into a miniature world,

The world of numbers

Room number 200 is empty, the bed rumpled, a few bits of debris and a bitter smell of someone’s hastiness, of their turning over in bed, of their feverish packing. This somebody must have left early in the morning, probably had to rush to the airport or maybe to a railway station. My job consists of removing the traces of this person’s presence from the bed, the carpet, the wardrobes, the cabinet, the bathroom, the wallpaper, the ashtrays and finally the air itself. This is not at all easy. It’s not enough just to clean. The vestiges of the personality left behind by the previous occupant have to be overcome by my own impersonality. This is what Transformation is all about. It is not enough to wipe away with a piece of cloth the traces of the reflection of that face in the mirror, but the mirror has to be filled with my pink and white facelessness. That smell left behind by distraction and haste has to be stifled by my complete absence of smell. This is what I am here for, as someone in an official capacity who is therefore a non-person. And this is what I do. It is always hardest with women. Women leave behind more traces and I don’t mean simply that they forget their knick-knacks. They instinctively try to remake hotel rooms into ersatz homes. They root wherever they can, like seeds carried on the wind. In the hotel wardrobes they hang some of their deep-seated longings, in the bathrooms they shamelessly divest themselves of their desires and deprivations. Light-heartedly they leave the imprint of their lips on glasses and cigarette butts, as well as their hair in the bath. On the floor they sprinkle talcum powder which traitorously reveals the mystery of their footprints. Some of them do not wipe off their make-up before going to bed and then the pillowcases, like Veronica’s veil, retain the image of their faces. They never leave tips, however. For this the self-assurance of men is needed. Men tend to view the world more as a marketplace than a theatre. They prefer to pay for everything, even in advance. It is only when they pay that they feel free.

The next room is

Number 224, occupied by a Japanese couple

by Olga Tokarczuk, Granta |  Read more:
Image: Lise Sarfati

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Marilyn Manson

[ed. Pretty good track. See also: The Trouble With Johnny Depp (below).]

The Trouble With Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp isn't here yet. Still, his presence is all around the 10,500-square-foot rented mansion at 16 Bishopswood Road in London's Highgate neighborhood.

He is here in the busy hands of Russell, his personal chef working up the Peking duck. He is here in the stogie-size joint left by the sink in the guest bathroom. He is here in the never-ending reservoir of wine that is poured into goblets. And he is here in a half-done painting upstairs that features a burning black house, a child Johnny and an angry woman who resembles his mother, Betty Sue.

And then he is actually here. He is in the living room, crooning his entrance: "Oh, my darling, oh, my darling, my darling Clementine. You are lost and gone forever, my darling Clementine."

Depp has come from a photo shoot for the Hollywood Vampires, his sometime band that features Alice Cooper and Joe Perry. Trailing behind is his lawyer Adam Waldman. Depp is dressed like a Forties gangster, jet-black hair slicked back, pinstripes, suspenders and spats. His face is puffy, but Depp still possesses the fixating brown eyes that have toggled between dreamy and menacing during his 35-year career. Now, Depp's studious leer is reminiscent of late-era Marlon Brando. This isn't a coincidence, since Depp has long built his life by imitating his legends – buying an island like Brando, becoming an expert on quaaludes like Hunter S. Thompson.

"Hey, I'm Johnny. Good to meet you."

He reaches out a right hand whose fingers recently had their tats changed from "slim" – a reference to his ex-wife Amber Heard – to "scum."

"So are you here to hear the truth?" asks Depp as Russell brings him a glass of vintage red wine. "It's full of betrayal."

We move to the dining room for a three-course meal of pad thai, duck and gingerbread with berries. Depp sits at the head of the table and motions toward some rolling papers and two equal piles of tobacco and hash, and asks if I mind. I don't. He pauses for a second. "Well, let's drink some wine first."

This goes on for 72 hours.

It had taken a month and almost 200 e-mails for the message to become clear: Come to London; Johnny Depp wants to bare his soul about his empty bank accounts.

It's estimated that Depp has made $650 million on films that netted $3.6 billion. Almost all of it is gone. He's suing The Management Group, run by his longtime business manager, Joel Mandel, and his brother Robert for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. The suit cites, among other things, that under TMG's watch Depp's sister Christi was given $7 million and his assistant, Nathan Holmes, $750,000, without his knowledge, and that he has paid the IRS more than $5.6 million in late fees. (Most of the ire is directed toward Joel, who had day-to-day responsibility for Depp's account.) There are additional charges of conflict of interest, saying that TMG invested Depp's money for its own purposes and returned it without profit. The suit seeks more than $25 million from TMG, accounting for "tens of millions" it claims TMG illegally took for its commission, plus any additional damages the court sees fit.

The Mandels categorically deny all wrongdoing and are countersuing, alleging that Depp breached his oral contract with the company. The suit suggests that Depp has a $2-million-a-month compulsory-spending disorder, offering bons mots like "Wine is not an investment if you drink it as soon as you buy it." Depp was continuing to "concoct malicious and false allegations" against the company, according to TMG's countersuit, because TMG had filed a private foreclosure notice on one of Depp's properties, claiming Depp owes TMG $4.2 million in unpaid loans.

Over the past 18 months, there has been little but bad news for Depp. In addition to the financial woes, there were reports he couldn't remember his lines and had to have them fed to him through an earpiece. He had split from his longtime lawyer and agent. And he was alone. His tabloid-scarred divorce from actress Heard is complete, but not before there were persuasive allegations of physical abuse that Depp vehemently denies. Depp's inner circle had begged him to not wed Heard or to at least obtain a prenup. Depp ignored his loved ones' advice. And there were whispers that Depp's recreational drug and alcohol use were crippling him.

During my London visit, Depp is alternately hilarious, sly and incoherent. The days begin after dark and run until first light. There is a scared, hunted look about him. Despite grand talks about hitting the town, we never leave the house. As Depp's mind leads us down various rabbit holes, I often think of a line that he recited as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland: "Have I gone mad?"

His closest confidant seems to be Waldman, a lawyer he met less than two years ago. Waldman, 49, possesses an unlined face, sandy hair, a designer black leather jacket and a soothing voice that could make the bird-flu epidemic sound reasonable. He tells me he is married to the "world's number-one face doctor."

Depp seems oblivious to any personal complicity in his current predicament. Waldman seems to have convinced Depp that they are freedom fighters taking on the Hollywood machine rather than scavengers squabbling over the scraps of a fortune squandered.

One day, Depp shows me his artwork, and it strikes me that Depp is now a worn Dorian Gray. "I imagine Johnny doing a version of Jack Sparrow at 70, at 80," his friend Pen̩lope Cruz tells me. "It will be as charming and as great." But the things that were charming when he was 28 Рdoing drugs and running around the scaffolding on a high floor of Atlantic Records' L.A. building Рseem disturbing at 54. (Cruz ends our conversation by telling me about Depp trying to pull his own tooth at a London restaurant while having dinner with her and Stella McCartney.)

Maybe being a permanent Peter Pan is the key to Depp's onscreen charm. But time has passed. Boyish insouciance has slowly morphed into an aging man-child, still charismatic but only in glimpses. If his current life isn't a perfect copy of Elvis Presley's last days, it is a decent facsimile.

Depp and Tom Petty had long been friends, and Petty's death hit Depp hard. "We'd call each other and ask, 'Hey, you still smoking?' " Depp recalls. "Tom would go, ‘Yeah, I'm still smoking,' and I'd feel better: 'Well, if Tom is still smoking, I'm OK.' "

Depp goes quiet, perhaps realizing the sadness of what he has just said. He wipes his eyes. "I loved him," he says.

The two shared more in common than an addiction to nicotine. They both arrived in L.A. whiskey tango from Florida, intent on making it as rockers (perfectly played by Depp in the video for Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open"). Depp changed course after an L.A. drinking buddy named Nicolas Cage told him there was money to make in acting.

by Stephen Rodrick, Rolling Stone | Read more:
Image: Matt Mahurin for Rolling Stone

Get Ready for More Sales Taxes on Online Purchases

State governments may require online retailers to collect sales taxes even in states where the retailers have no physical presence, the US Supreme Court ruled in a decision issued today.

The 5-4 ruling could clear the way for more states to require collection of sales taxes on products ordered online from out-of-state retailers.

The case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., Et Al., involved a South Dakota state law "requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales tax 'as if the seller had a physical presence in the State,'" the decision noted. Online retailers argued that the law was unconstitutional, and the State Supreme Court agreed, but the US Supreme Court overturned the state court ruling. South Dakota expects to collect another $48 million to $58 million in taxes a year because of this ruling.

The South Dakota Supreme Court based its ruling on a 1992 US Supreme Court case, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, which held that out-of-state companies don't have to collect state sales taxes in states where they don't have a physical presence.

Today's Supreme Court ruling said the Quill decision was flawed:
Quill imposes the sort of arbitrary, formalistic distinction that the Court's modern Commerce Clause precedents disavow in favor of "a sensitive, case-by-case analysis of purposes and effects." It treats economically identical actors differently for arbitrary reasons. For example, a business that maintains a few items of inventory in a small warehouse in a State is required to collect and remit a tax on all of its sales in the State, while a seller with a pervasive Internet presence cannot be subject to the same tax for the sales of the same items.
"Forty-one States, two Territories, and the District of Columbia have asked the Court to reject Quill's test," today's ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, also said. "Helping respondents' customers evade a lawful tax unfairly shifts an increased share of the taxes to those consumers who buy from competitors with a physical presence in the State. It is essential to public confidence in the tax system that the Court avoid creating inequitable exceptions."

The rise of the Internet "has made Quill's original error all the more egregious and harmful," the court said, noting that Congress should not have "to address a false constitutional premise of this Court's own creation."

The majority decision came from Justices Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting justices were John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Shares of Amazon, Etsy, Wayfair, and other online retailers fell today after the ruling. "Traditional retailers like Target, Walmart and Best Buy saw shares rise about one percent after the decision," CNBC wrote.

Amazon collects sales tax in all states that impose such taxes, at least for purchases from Amazon and its affiliates. Amazon generally doesn't collect taxes on behalf of third-party sellers that sell goods on Amazon, but it does collect taxes on third-party sales in Pennsylvania and Washington because of new laws in those states.

Some members of Congress objected to the decision. The ruling "is a nightmare for American businesses and small online sellers, who will now have to comply with the different tax rates and rules" of each jurisdiction, said a statement by US Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

"The dominant issues under debate in this case involved policy, not law," the representatives also said. "The briefs filed with the Court were filled with discussions of economics, the efficacy of software, trends in the retail industry, and myriad other non-legal questions. Congress is the appropriate institution to resolve these policy questions, not the Supreme Court."

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court, applauded the ruling. "Today's landmark decision is a win for South Dakota and for Main Street businesses across America that will now have a level playing field and tax fairness," Jackley said.

by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica |  Read more:
Image: Mike Kline/Getty