Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Joys of Cabin Living in Alaska

My two brothers and I, along with a buddy of ours named Dan Bogan, own a shack at a place called Saltery Cove on Southeast Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. The shack is about 36 feet long and 12 feet wide, with the warped shape and discoloration of a cardboard shoe box that’s been soaked in the rain. A partially uprooted old-growth hemlock leans menacingly over the back corner, and the front deck sits about seven feet above the shoreline on wooden pilings that are in various stages of decay. The tidal fluctuations in this area are so wild that the shack might be 200 yards away from the water’s edge in the morning and then be at risk of becoming oceanic debris by lunchtime. When friends come to visit, they often scrutinize the engineering as though reluctant to commit their full weight to the structure, let alone sleep inside it. While doing so, they’re prone to asking questions like “What made you guys buy this place?” with a weird inflection that seems to betray a hint of pity.

My usual, flippant reply is that real estate cliché about location, location, location. The appeal of our shack isn’t so much the structure itself, but rather the bare-bones nature of its locality. Surrounded largely by the Tongass National Forest, it’s a place where black bears gnaw mussels from the rocks in what might be described as our yard and killer whales pass by so close that you can hear them even with the door closed. But in truth that’s only half the answer. The other half is more difficult to explain and also a bit masochistic: Saltery Cove is a place where everything—the weather, the ocean, the mountains, the people, the trees, the animals, even the buildings—seems capable of kicking your ass in a very physical way. And in today’s increasingly tame and virtual world, where our primary sensations tend to be delivered by our Wi-Fi connections, a good old-fashioned ass kicking is something worth paying for.

Another way in which the cabin kicks my ass is through my wife, Katie. She often regards my purchase of the shack with that eye-rolling sense of dismissal that people will use when confronted with the subject of their spouse’s past girlfriends or boyfriends. Not that Katie, a publicity director for a high-profile publishing house in Manhattan, entirely disapproves. Rather, she just feels that the expense of maintaining our “second home” is grossly incommensurate with how much time we spend there. When I try to justify the costs to her, I point out that it’s not so much a second home as a first shack, and also that it could someday prove to be a good investment. When those justifications fail, I hit below the belt and tell her that I’d intended for it to be my primary place of residence but had willfully sacrificed that dream in order to stay close to her—my true love. That usually does the trick.

The purchase occurred during my late twenties, well before I’d met Katie. It was a time when I was more or less aimlessly bouncing around the country with little or no responsibility. In 2003, this landed me on Prince of Wales Island. I went there with my brother Danny to fish salmon and halibut with one of Saltery Cove’s eight full-time residents, Ron Leighton, a man of mixed Native Alaskan and Irish descent who’ll tear your head off for tangling an anchor line and then send your kid a birthday present even though the nearest mailbox is an hour’s boat ride from his house. Ron’s résumé includes a tour of duty as a door gunner in Vietnam, a career as a detective with the police force in Ketchikan, Alaska, and a parallel career as a halibut long-liner. He and Danny originally met when Danny traveled to Saltery Cove to do some environmental survey work through his job as an ecologist at the University of Alaska. Ron offered to put him up and show him around during his stay, and they struck up an unlikely friendship. Then, about a year after my own initial visit (a trip that included meal upon meal of self-caught shrimp, crab, and halibut), Ron called Danny to tell him that the shack across the creek from his house had been put up for sale by its owner.

The price was $80,000, non-negotiable. Danny recognized that this was a lot of money for one guy to pay, especially for a place that might get knocked into the water by a hemlock and float away. Twenty grand, on the other hand, seemed reasonable. All he had to do was find three other guys who felt the same way. He called me in Rhode Island, where I was living in a short-term rental that sat so close to the water, I could watch movies in my living room at night while holding a fishing rod baited for eels and cast into the bay. I’d just sold my first book for what seemed like a staggering sum of money, and since I was still a few years away from adult responsibility, I knew I’d end up blowing my windfall on outdoor gear and alcoholic beverages. That I could take permanent possession of a setup similar to the one I was now enjoying—albeit 3,000 miles away—was an irresistible notion. Our brother Matt and our buddy Dan were equally intrigued. The four of us mailed in our checks.

by Steven Rinella, Outside |  Read more:
Photo: Randi Berez

The Piccolo and the Pocket Grouse

I. NIGHT BLACKBIRD SONG, for two piccolos (one doubling on flute) and three percussion (1999)

The piece starts with a bang, as the long, drawn-out cry of piccolos brings the listener to attention. After a pause, a wind rustles leaves; a wood block beats out drops of rain. Then a piccolo—the blackbird—starts to sing, warbling over quiet musical gusts of wind. Another bird chimes in, and the two duet (or duel) over a building percussive din. The overall effect is spare and lovely, that of two birds singing to each other, swaying on branches in the dark, trying to be heard over an incidental urban cacophony.

In an interview with journalist George Tombs, Emily Doolittle, the composer of the piece, described its origins. It was 1997, and she had recently moved to Amsterdam from the Midwest. Living in an unfamiliar place, she was more attentive to its aural ecology, and one night she lay awake listening to a European blackbird as it sang outside her window. The blackbird is a member of that family of noted songsters, the thrushes. Its song is rich and melodic. In it, Doolittle heard elements that reminded her of human music. She listened more closely, listened also to other blackbirds down the street. She gathered themes from them, made up some of her own, and wrote a piece as she thought a blackbird might, stitching phrases together in an improvisatory and at times arbitrary fashion.

Still, “Night Blackbird Song” is representative rather than replicative. By its end, the bird-flutes and bird-piccolos have become just flutes and piccolos, incorporated within a more conventional musical statement, as Doolittle makes allowances for the human ear and its expectations. “It is more patterned,” she told Tombs, “there is more transition between motives, things are more connected . . . ”

As one who follows the comings and goings of birds, I was intrigued by Doolittle’s efforts to write music more or less on their terms. When I found out that she lives in Seattle, I wrote to her and asked if she would mind chatting about intersections between music and ecology. We meet at a small coffee shop near the Cornish College for the Arts, where she teaches music theory and composition. “I’m interested in ways that animal sounds are and are not like music,” she says. “There are a few names for this—biomusicology, ecomusicology—but zoomusicology is probably the most specific.”

The term zoomusicology was coined in 1983 by French composer François-Bernard Mâche. Mâche argued that bird song and human music share many attributes. Both rely on repeated patterns, scales, arpeggios, themes, and variations. Both are frequently used to attract mates, or claim territory. (How much conceptual daylight is there between a national anthem and a blackbird singing to tell other males to clear off?) It was possible, then, to analyze animal sounds using musicological principles.

Mâche went further, though, wondering whether birds might consider their own calls aesthetically as well as functionally. Scientists had observed that bird songs are often more complex and ornamented than seems absolutely necessary; and some species create their songs rather than know them innately, cobbling their own compositions together with snippets from their parents, their neighbors. Do these birds improvise and mimic and mock for the sheer raucous thrill of it? Do they hear their own songs as music? If they do—if, as Mâche put it, music could be considered a “widespread phenomenon in several living species apart from man”—the very nature of music would be called into question.

by Eric Wagner, Orion |  Read more:
Images via: here and here

North Dakota Went Boom

Long before the full frenzy of the boom, you could see its harbingers at the Mountrail County courthouse in Stanley, N.D. Geologists had pored over core samples and log signatures and had made their educated guesses, and now it was the hour of the “landmen,” the men and women whose job was to dig through courthouse books for the often-tangled history of mineral title and surface rights.

Apart from a few fanatics who sometimes turned up at midnight, the landmen would begin arriving at the courthouse around 6 a.m. In the dead of winter, it would still be dark and often 20 or 30 below zero, and because the courthouse didn’t open until 7:30, the landmen would leave their briefcases outside the entrance, on the steps, in the order they arrived. And then they would go back to their cars and trucks to wait with the engines running, their faces wreathed in coffee steam. Sometimes there were more than 20 briefcases filed on the courthouse steps. The former landman who told me this — Brent Brannan, now director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Program — said he sometimes thought he could see the whole boom in that one image, briefcases waiting for the day to start, and it killed him a little that he never took a picture.

For many years North Dakota has been a frontier — not the classic 19th-century kind based on American avarice and the lure of opportunity in unsettled lands, but the kind that comes afterward, when a place has been stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with, and now it has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns. In a way, of course, this kind of frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.

All of which may explain the shock of coming around a bend and suddenly finding a derrick illuminated at night, or a gas flare framed by stars, or dozens of neatly ranked trailers in a “man camp,” or a vast yard of drill pipe, or a herd of water trucks, or tracts of almost-finished single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field. North Dakota has had oil booms before but never one so big, never one that rivaled the land rush precipitated more than a century ago by the transcontinental railroads, never one that so radically changed the subtext of the Dakota frontier from the Bitter Past That Was to the Better Future That May Yet Be.

It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime. It has confounded kids running lemonade stands: 50 cents a cup but your customer has only hundreds in his payday wallet. Oil has financed multimillion-dollar recreation centers and new hospital wings. It has fitted highways with passing lanes and rumble strips. It has forced McDonald’s to offer bonuses and brought job seekers from all over the country — truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers. It has ginned up an unreleased reality show called “Boomtown Girls,” which follows the lives of “five bold and brave sisters” in the formerly drowsy farm center of Williston, N.D. Williston, whose population has tripled in the past 10 years, lies in the middle of the 150,000-square-mile Williston Basin, a depression in the crust of the earth that geologists now believe contains one of the largest oil fields in the world.

In the fall of 2011 in Crosby, N.D., Continental Resources, the oil company with the most acreage leased in the basin, erected a self-congratulatory granite monument celebrating its work in the so-called Bakken Formation, the Williston Basin rocks that, as Continental put it, ushered in “a new era in the American oil industry.” The number of rigs drilling new wells in North Dakota’s part of the basin reached a record 218 last May. It has now leveled off at around 200, as thousands of wells have been completed under deadline pressure to secure expiring mineral leases. Many thousands more will be spudded in the next two years as the boom moves from discovery to production and crews drill “infill” wells, complete pipelines, fortify roads, enlarge refineries and build natural-gas pumping stations and oil-loading train yards.

North Dakota’s last oil boom, 30 years ago, collapsed so quickly when prices crashed that workers in the small city of Dickinson left the coffee in their cups when they quit their trailers. Apostles of “Bakken gold” insist that what’s different this time is that this time is different, the history of frontier avarice notwithstanding. This is the boom that is going to change everything without the remorse and misgivings that have marked the aftermath of so many past orgies of resource extraction. This is the boom that won’t leave the land trashed, won’t destroy communities, won’t afflict the state with the so-called Dutch Disease in which natural-resource development and the sugar rush of fast cash paradoxically make other parts of the economy less competitive and more difficult to sustain. This is the boom being managed by local people certain they know how to look after their interests and safeguard the land they live on. This is the Big One that North Dakota has been waiting for for more than a century.

by Chip Brown, NY Times |  Read more:
Photo: Alec Soth/Magnum, for The New York Times

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ryan Adams

[ed. Repost]

Joan of Arc Eugene Thirion 1876

What Does It Mean to Be Comfortable?

In 1999, government workers in Mexico took their last officially sanctioned siesta. Until then, it was normal for clerks and bureaucrats to take two- or three-hour breaks in the middle of the workday. Many of them went home for lunch, took a nap, then returned to their offices, working into the evening to make up for lost time. The siesta used to be commonplace in Spanish-speaking countries, but the tradition was already waning as Latin America’s economies developed throughout the ’80s and ’90s. As companies and governments modernized, they adopted the same schedules as their counterparts in other countries. Mexico failed to properly anticipate the effect this would have on energy consumption.

By shifting work from the sweltering afternoon into cooler evening hours, the siesta provided a kind of de facto air-conditioning, says Elizabeth Shove, a professor of sociology at Lancaster University in England. Getting rid of siestas makes people more dependent, during the hottest part of the day, on energy-intensive forms of cooling. Air-conditioning use in Mexico has skyrocketed since the siesta ban. In 1995, 10 percent of Mexican homes had A.C. By 2011, that figure had grown to 80 percent.

Shove studies the cultural and historical factors underlying sustainable living. Historically, she says, societies developed methods of dealing with their local climates, and those tools and behaviors became ingrained cultural customs. As the world becomes more interconnected, these customs are changing, and so is the definition of something as elemental as comfort.

That’s right: there is no universal definition of comfort, especially as it relates to temperature. Both Shove and Susan Mazur-Stommen, of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, told me two decades’ worth of research data clearly demonstrate that different people experience the same temperature differently. People report being comfortable all over the thermostat, from 43 degrees Fahrenheit all the way up to 86.

“What people count as comfortable is what they get used to,” Shove says, and this becomes obvious when you examine different societies side by side. In 1996, Harold Wilhite, director at the University of Oslo’s Center for Development and Environment, published a paper comparing energy-use cultural norms in Oslo, Norway, and Fukuoka, Japan. The two cities are similar in population size, level of industrial development, spending power and average home size. But southern Japan is warmer than southern Norway, and Japanese culture is very different from Norwegian culture.

Wilhite found that Norwegians placed emphasis on something they call koselighet — which roughly translates as “coziness,” but with certain social connotations. Part ofkoselighet is making your home a place other people want to visit and spend time in. In Oslo, that means making sure nobody thinks your house is cold. Ever. Half the households Wilhite sampled didn’t turn the thermostat down before bed. Nearly 30 percent kept it turned up even when they weren’t home. In Fukuoka, where winters are comparatively mild, there wasn’t a cultural objection to entering cold rooms. In fact, homes in southern Japan usually didn’t have central heating at all. On chilly nights, families gathered on heated rugs, or around a kotatsu — a table with a built-in heat element.

Koselighet also concerns the quality of light. The Norwegians that Wilhite interviewed told him that ceiling lights felt cold. Not one subject used them in the living room, where instead they had incandescent table and floor lamps to create little golden pools throughout the room. On average, Oslo living rooms had 9.6 light bulbs. Meanwhile, in Fukuoka, the living rooms had an average of only 2.5 light bulbs, mostly more energy-efficient fluorescents fitted into the ceiling. There, people prized visibility, and the color of the fluorescent light had no temperature connotation at all.

But Wilhite also noted that cultural understandings of comfort are changing. Even back in 1996, he reported that people in Fukuoka were buying more space heaters, allowing family members to warm up by their lonesome. And they were buying air-conditioners, something that hadn’t been normal, even in a city with hot summers. Although many of Wilhite’s Japanese subjects believed A.C. units to be unhealthful and unpleasant, they were starting to expect their presence in any prosperous, modern home — a byproduct of globalization, according to Shove and other researchers.

Along with air-conditioning, globalization has also helped popularize something called Ashrae 55: a building code created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, to determine the ideal temperature for large buildings. The standard, which has set thermostats across the globe, is hardly culture-free. It’s based on Fanger’s Comfort Equation, a mathematical model developed in Denmark and the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, which seeks to make a very specific worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.

by Maggie Koerth-Baker, NY Times |  Read more:
Illustration by Brecht Vandenbroucke

Sheree Valentine-Daines Strolling along the Pier

The Winners' History of Rock and Roll, Part 4: Aerosmith

Welcome to the "hump" chapter of The Winners' History of Rock and Roll. So far it's been all rising action, starting in the Wild West of the early 1970s and continuing up through the orderly, corporate culture of rock in the late '80s. We came from the land of the ice and snow and fought the horde. We rocked and rolled all night. We saw a million faces and rocked them all. The first three installments represent the deluxe, VIP-only portion of our journey — the mud-shark-groupie-violating, car-in-the-hotel-swimming-pool-dunking, no-brown-M&Ms-on-the-tour-rider-allowing, multi-million-dollar-contract-spending opening act. We discovered what it took to get here: the relentless touring, the record-label scamming, the vast support network of cunning managers and mercenary songwriters and unscrupulous radio-station employees. Along the way, the sex has been plentiful and the drugs free, delivered by the fistful via sycophants desperate for a few spare minutes in our rarefied orbit. All of our albums have shipped platinum, and every single stadium tour has sold out in minutes. We sensed that ultimate victory in rock was in our sights, we zeroed in, and we made it ours.

It's been fun. If not for the occasional overdose, vehicular homicide, or paternity suit, I'd call it an out-and-out blast. And now it's all over.

It's like that scene in the middle of Goodfellas when Billy Batts is beaten to within an inch of his life by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and then his body is parked outside of Martin Scorsese's mom's house for a few hours, and then he's finally stabbed to death in the trunk of Ray Liotta's car. Or the scene in the middle of Boogie Nights when Little Bill, played by William H. Macy, shoots his wife, her lover, and finally himself at Burt Reynolds's New Year's Eve party. Or the part in The Social Network when Jesse Eisenberg meets Justin Timberlake. These scenes represent the "hump" chapters in their respective stories, the parts when everything that's seemingly right and wonderful starts to go wrong and dark.

This is where we're at right now in The Winners' History of Rock and Roll.

How low are we going to go? Let's take a brief detour to the lowest moment in recent rock history: Woodstock '99. The culmination of nu-metal's tenure as the preimminent sound of mainstream rock music, Woodstock '99 offered up a warped version of a bedrock trope of rock music: The lawless outlaw who cares fuck-all about societal conventions. Where the stars of the original Woodstock — Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Jefferson Airplane — used nonconformity as a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of like-minded people to bond together in a new, utopian society forged in music, Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, Korn's Jonathan Davis, and Kid Rock treated rock stardom not as a means to an end but as the be-all-end-all of a me-first, screw-you lifestyle. And that trickled down to the fans, who tired of paying a small fortune to eat bad food and drink warm bottles of water in the middle of a converted Air Force base situated in the midst of a punishingly arid hellscape. They took out their frustrations on each other — beating and degrading the weak (which mostly meant women) as the music roared out petulant anthems of self-absorption and furious entitlement.

Woodstock '99 illuminated an uncomfortable truth about what happens when masses of humanity are inserted into an uncontrolled environment: If a mob wants to take the social contract by the lapels, douse it in gasoline, and angrily demand to see its tits, a mob will do just that.

After Woodstock '99, the idea that a rock festival could be a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of a generation of young people seemed like a silly, outmoded, even dangerous notion. That same year, Napster revealed that the potential for communities of people to gather around music was best realized in the new online frontier, where a softer brand of lawlessness reigned. The shift of music's hub from a physical to a digital domain, coupled with albums and songs becoming literally worthless in the new world of file-sharing, did a lot to make rock irrelevant in the 21st century. But equally culpable were the hyper-aggressive, über-macho hard-rock bands of the late '90s. If a knobby-bearded, red-hatted jackal like Fred Durst was associated with big arena shows, big-budget music videos, visits to the Playboy Mansion, and shady payola scandals that greased the wheels for platinum popularity,1 well, who would want to emulate that? Limp Bizkit behaved like a third- or fourth-generation copy of a rock band. It was an imitation of Mötley Crüe imitating Van Halen imitating Led Zeppelin and the Stones. And it suddenly seemed really, really fucking stupid and gross.

Acting like a rock band was now the opposite of cool. At best, it was kitsch of the ugliest, dumbest order, and could only be enjoyed ironically. Woodstock '99 marks the unofficial beginning of rock's extended (and perhaps permanent) "post-decadent" period — a time when the "sex and drugs" clichés of rock stardom have lost all remnants of their former glamour, and credible rock bands are actively discouraged from acting like the rock bands of the past.

To get at the roots of post-decadence, we must study a band that was originally scheduled to perform at Woodstock '99, only to back out one month before showtime. Because when it comes to embodying and then forsaking the rock-and-roll lifestyle, Aerosmith was truly ahead of its time.

by Steven Hyden, Grantland |  Read more:
Illustration: Casey Burns

Clever Product Packages That Dissolve After Use

These days, any designer worth his or her salt is grappling with ideas of waste and sustainability, trying to come up with ways to do more with less. This is especially pressing in the realm of product packaging: According to the EPA, Americans alone throw away some 70 million tons of boxes, bags, containers, and inserts each year. It’s a staggering statistic, and any place where we can cut back will help stem the tide. But Aaron Mickelson has a more radical idea. Why not get rid of packaging completely?

That lofty ambition served as the basis for Mickelson’s thesis project at Pratt Institute last semester, where the designer earned his masters in package design. The project, which Mickelson dubs "The Disappearing Package," shows zero-waste solutions for five different products, from trash bags to shower soap. And the craziest part of it all is that the designs really aren’t that crazy.

Most of the solutions stem from streamlining the packages of products that are, in some way, packages themselves--or are products that already include many individually packaged parts. Tide Pods, for example, are single-use detergent pouches typically sold in a plastic jug or stand-up bag. Mickelson’s proposal is a simple one: Arrange the pods in a single, perforated sheet; print on them directly with soap-soluble ink; and roll them up into a tight cylinder for grocery store shelves. At home, customers would simply tear off one pod at a time, as needed, until the last one was used, taking the last traces of the product to the washing machine along with it. Mickelson’s idea for tea bags is similarly elegant--instead of putting all the individual, wax-sealed packets in a tin or cardboard box, simply attach them together accordion-style and let the customer tear off one at a time.

The designer’s proposal for Glad trash bags seems even more feasible--and perhaps even a bit more clever. The idea is to roll up the bags into a self-contained tube, with the product information printed directly on the outside bag. But the best part is that customers draw bags not from the outside of the roll but from the inside, Kleenex-style, which dispenses one bag at a time while keeping the rest in one tidy unit. Not only does the design eliminate the need for the superfluous cardboard box but it also adds a bit of quick-grab usability as well. Reducing waste is worthwhile enough; the added utility is just a victory lap.

by Kyle Vanhemert, Co.Design |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Sell Out: Part One

I am not smart with words, but I work hard every day of my life.

When I come on boat I have only shirt and pants. The food is not kosher and I soon begin to starve. In middle of ocean, I trade pants for tin of herring. Is very cold without the pants. But I survive.

They send me to Brooklyn and I find job in pickle factory. Every day, I crawl through gears and pull out rats. Is not so easy. The rats have sharp teeth and do not like to be touched. But I work hard. When I start in 1908 they pay me eighty cents each day. By 1912 they are giving me ninety cents, plus bowl of potato soup.

I find beautiful girl named Sarah. Her left leg is lame since youth, but she has all her teeth. She is very clever and teaches me to spell words. I save up pennies all week long so on Sunday I can buy her treat, like seltzer or salt fish.

When we marry, and she is with child, we stay up late each night whispering. We make great plans. We will have son, and he will have son, and so on and so on and so on. And some day years from now, when we are dead and gone, our family name will stand for strength and honor. Someday our hopes and dreams will come to pass.

One day at work I fall into brine and they close the lid above me by mistake. Much time passes; it feels like long sleep. When the lid is finally opened, everybody is dressed strange, in colorful, shiny clothes. I do not recognize them. They tell me they are “conceptual artists” and are “reclaiming the abandoned pickle factory for a performance space.” I realize something bad has happened in Brooklyn.

The science men come and explain. I have been preserved in brine a hundred years and have not aged one day. They describe to me the reason (how this chemical mixed with that chemical, and so on and so on) but I am not paying attention. All I can think of is my beautiful Sarah. Years have passed and she is surely gone.

Soon, though, I have another thought. When I freeze in brine, Sarah was with child. Maybe I still have family in Brooklyn? Maybe our dreams have come true?

The science man turns on computing box and types. I have one great-great-grandson still in Brooklyn, he says. By coincidence, he is twenty-seven years, just like me. His name is Simon Rich. I am so excited I can barely breathe. Maybe he is doctor, or even rabbi? I cannot wait to meet this man—to learn the ending of my family’s story.

“How about Thai fusion?” Simon asks me, as we walk along the street where I once lived. “This place has these amazing gluten-free ginger thingies.”

He gestures at crowded restaurant. It used to be metal factory.

“Are you a cilantro person?” he asks me.

“I do not know your words,” I admit.

“Oh,” he says. “Don’t worry, there’s a bagel place around the corner.”

I sigh with relief and follow Simon into store. He orders two bagels with creamed cheese and hands me one. I cannot believe how large it is—like something to feed an entire Irish family. I take three bites and put the rest in coat, to save for supper. When I look up at Simon I see that he has somehow almost finished his whole bagel. He is eating so fast, I cannot understand it. It is like he is in race and must shove all the bread in his mouth or else he will die. Between bites he gulps from his drink, which is bottle of green sugar water the size of bucket.

“Gatorade?” he asks me.

by Simon Rich, New Yorker |  Read more:
Illustration by Bendik Kaltenborn
Sell Out: Part Two

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Victoria Blake-Tyler Radishes II 2012

Big Wave

Hawaiian big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara will go to any lengths to chase a massive swell. On Monday that pursuit took him back to Praia do Norte, a tiny coastal village about 60 miles north of Lisbon, Portugal, where he got pulled into a massive wave that has the entire surfing world in awe.

What's remarkable about the wave McNamara rode Monday is how much bigger it appears than his record-breaking ride at the very same spot back in November of 2011. That 2011 ride is currently recognized as the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed, at 78 feet.

The decision to give McNamara that record was a controversial one, as it was ruled a single foot bigger than the 2008 record set by Mike Parsons at Cortes Bank, a wave that breaks 100 miles off the coast of Southern California. Naturally, the debate over whether McNamara's wave was truly worthy of the honor raged.

At issue was the questionable method of measuring the wave, which is a problem that faces the judges every year during the annual Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards. The XXL Awards are the most prestigious honors for big-wave surfers, thanks mostly to the judging panel comprised of experienced big-wave legends, leading surf forecasters, and experienced photographers, all of whom examine all the evidence that exist for each ride to pinpoint a measurement.

"The hard part isn't locating the top of the wave," says Bill Sharp, director of the XXL Awards. "It's finding the bottom of it, because that's the point where you start measuring from. The challenge is photos and video can both be deceiving depending on the angle of the shot, the size of the lens used, and even stuff like mist and water color."

by Chris Mauro, GrindTV |  Read more:
Photo via:

Sharecroppers of the Sea

Before you feel sorry for anybody in this story, meet Jared Bright. And remember your first impression, because he's eventully going to call himself a serf. For the moment, he's just a guy you're about to get jealous of. That's because he's 38 years old, and industry sources say he's worth about $2 million.

Between his ordinary upbringing in Ketchikan, Alaska, and the day Bright invested in his fishing boat, there was no winning lottery ticket, no trust fund. He's just a fisherman; been one for 21 years. And lucky for him, he happens to be good at it. If he can keep the bearded men in the embroidered shirts out of his game, he's going to be even better.

But before we get into the bearded men, get rid of the image of the Gorton's fisherman. Forget the fish sticks, the wooden captain's wheel, and that wholesome picture of the guy on the yellow box. Instead, put yourself on one side of the Whole Foods fish counter, a chunk of halibut in the middle—price tag: $28 a pound—and think of Bright as the guy on the other side, the guy who's going to get it to you. Think six feet two inches of lean muscle, pierced ears, and an auburn mug and sideburns, dressed in black North Face and talking like 10 cups of coffee while texting on a smartphone.

This is your fisherman. You are as likely to see him driving around West Seattle in his Smart Car as out on the open ocean. And if you thought The Deadliest Catch was wild, the game he plays to bring you this latest item in white-tablecloth seafood is even weirder.

There's no captain's wheel in this industry. Hasn't been in a while, if there ever really was. The oddball universe that is halibut fishing, a fish that two decades ago cost $3.99 a pound and came in a hideous frozen brick, is more a game of floating Monopoly.

Guys like Jared Bright vie for control of the industry's lower rungs, the only rungs that seem to be left. Simply put, they're renters. They don't own the halibut, not even when it lands in their boats. The fish are instead the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.

Their ownership rights came courtesy of the federal government. At the time, it was a good idea. In ways, it still is. But it's created what amounts to a feudal system over a natural resource.

It's a system, called catch shares, that the government and environmental groups will tell you is the best thing to happen to fish since catch limits. But fishermen in the halibut and black-cod industry—the first in the country to live with the bizarre realities of these new policies—have weathered its real consequences, outcomes that fly in the face of more official, rosy portrayals. Outcomes like absentee landlords, brokers and bankers, fish quota that costs more than your house, and a new generation of people cluttering their hulls, demanding sandwiches.

It's getting hard for young fishermen like Bright to stay in this game. Those who try, though, are bettering their odds with a few comfy amenities, bait for a different kind of big fish: owners. Big-screen TVs, staterooms, hot tubs, saunas, and a super-sweet DVD collection are all things that could potentially shift their odds.

Meet America's newest sharecroppers.

by Lee van der Voo, Seattle Weekly |  Read more:
Photo: Lee van der Voo

Monday, January 28, 2013

Toshiro Kawase flower a day

The Ogden Memo: After the Medical Marijuana Mess

In the summer of 2007, the owners of Harborside Health Center, then and now the most prominent medical marijuana dispensary in the U.S., were reflecting on their rapid rise. Steve DeAngelo had opened the center with his business partner in October 2006, on a day when federal agents raided three other clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We had to decide in that moment whether or not we were really serious about this and whether we were willing to risk arrest for it," DeAngelo said. "And we decided we were going to open our doors. And we did, and we haven’t looked back since. The only way I’ll stop doing what I’m doing is if they drag me away in chains. And as soon as they let me out, I’ll be back doing it again."

DeAngelo, looking at his desktop computer during an interview that summer, threw his hands up and shouted, "Yes!" Hillary Clinton, campaigning for president in New Hampshire, had just told a video-camera-wielding marijuana-policy activist that, if elected, she would end federal raids on pot clubs in California. That meant that all three leading Democratic candidates -- including the ultimate winner -- had vowed as president to leave DeAngelo and his business alone. Within a year of opening, the shop was bringing in $1 million a month in sales.

President Barack Obama made good on his campaign promise shortly after taking office. "What the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing in law enforcement," Attorney General Eric Holder said in March 2009. "What he said during the campaign is now American policy."

In October, the Department of Justice followed up with what became known as the "Ogden memo" -- a missive from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden telling federal law enforcers that they should not focus federal resources "on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

Steph Sherer, the head of Americans for Safe Access, a California-based medical marijuana group, was thrilled when she saw the Ogden memo. The group quickly put out a press release touting it.

"We were so beside ourselves in so many ways that we were finally recognized by a government agency, that our press release was victorious," Sherer said. "What our nuance was, we said, 'Great, we have an administration that will have a dialogue with us, this is a major step forward.'"

Some members of the medical marijuana industry, however, took a less nuanced view. "Instead, the reaction [from cannabis industry people] was, 'OK, we're all in the clear, it's time to expand our businesses and bring in outside investors,'" Sherer said.

Encouraged by the Ogden memo and DeAngelo's public assertions of his million-dollar monthly revenue, medical pot shops flooded Montana, Washington, and other states. Legislatures in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have now approved marijuana for medical purposes. Twelve, including DC, have laws allowing dispensaries. Local officials in California's Mendocino County and in towns like Chico moved forward with plans to regulate medical marijuana as well. Before 2009, there were roughly 1,000 pot shops across the country. Today, there are 2,000 to 2,500, according to Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

"Nobody can argue that the number of medical marijuana shops in California and Colorado didn't grow at an exponential rate directly because of this" Ogden memo, said a former senior White House official who worked on drug policy and, like other former and current members of the Obama administration, requested anonymity in order to speak about internal debates.

The Ogden memo, however, was not the beginning of the end of the war on pot. Instead, it kicked off a new battle that still rages. Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal law enforcement officials have gone after banks and landlords who do business with them. Fours years after promising not to make medical marijuana a priority, the government continues to target it aggressively.

The war has played out not just between federal authorities and the pot industry, but between competing factions within the federal government, as well as between local and state officials and the more aggressive federal prosecutors and drug warriors. As officials in Washington fought over whether and how to continue the war on pot, U.S. attorneys in the states helped beat back local efforts to regulate the medical marijuana industry, going so far as to threaten elected officials with jail. The willingness of elements within the Department of Justice, including its top prosecutors, to use their power in brazenly political ways is, in many ways, the untold story of Obama's first-term approach to drug policy.

by Ryan Grim and Ryan J. Reilly, Huffington Post |  Read more:
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Michael Broad Island Fields

Raymond Quenneville La tournée

Capitulation Everywhere

“Even the intelligent investor is likely to need considerable will power to keep from following the crowd.”
- Benjamin Graham

“Human beings desperately want to belong, but, they also desperately want to understand the environment around them. Often, the desire to belong and the desire to know the truth conflict. The idea of the majority view or the ‘mainstream,’ gives people the sense that they are a part of a group, and at the same time, gives them the illusion of being informed.”
- Brandon Smith

The bears are gone, extinct, vanished. Among the ones remaining, many are people whom even I would consider to be either permabears or nut-cases. And yet, the historical evidence for major defensiveness has rarely been stronger.

The newest iteration of the bullish case is the idea of a “great rotation” from bonds and cash to stocks, as if the outstanding quantity of each is not held by someone at every point in time. The head of a “too big to fail” investment firm argued last week that stocks are “underowned” – as if every share of stock presently in existence is not actually owned by someone. To assert that stocks can be “underowned” seems to reflect either a misunderstanding of how markets work, or a desire to distribute overvalued institutional holdings onto the unwashed muppets. Likewise, the idea of a “rotation” out of bonds and into stocks begs the question of who will buy the bonds and sell the stocks, as someone must be on the other side of that trade. Similarly, to “move cash into the market” requires a seller of stock who becomes the new holder of said cash.

Quite simply, the reason that pension funds and other investors hold more bonds relative to stocks than they have historically is that there are more bonds outstanding, relative to stocks, than there have been historically. What is viewed as “underinvestment” in stocks is actually a symptom of a rise in the gross indebtedness of the global economy, enabled and encouraged by quantitative easing of central banks, which have been successful in suppressing all apparent costs of that releveraging.

The "rotation" fallacy has emerged even in the work of analysts that we admire. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater talked on CNBC last week of a move “out of” cash and “into” stocks, seemingly reversing comments he made only weeks ago at the Dealbook conference (h/t PragCap) where he suggested that risk premiums are likely to expand, that the effects of QE are diminishing as we do more rounds, that we’re facing austerity, that growth is flagging, that the economy is facing unprecedented risk, and that we face a slowdown with very little room to maneuver. Meanwhile, Albert Edwards of SocGen suggested that there has been an excessive “move away from equities” in recent years – instead of noting, for example, that the volume of U.S. government debt foisted upon the public (even excluding what has been purchased by the Fed) has doubled since 2007, not to mention other sources of global debt issuance, while the market capitalization of stocks has merely recovered to its previously overvalued highs.

It’s fine to argue that perhaps investors are momentum chasers, and with profit margins now about 70% above historical norms (making stocks seem both "safe" and misleadingly cheap), with stock prices up, and with low returns on cash, investors not holding stocks will be the greater fools that allow investors who do hold stocks to get out. Indeed, that is an argument that I fully embrace as logical – the only issue being the extent to which one wants to assume the perpetual existence of a greater fool, as the supply of greater fools seems increasingly exhausted. But the problem with the “great rotation” argument is that somebody has to hold the debt. Somebody has to hold the cash. It cannot go anywhere, and it is impossible – in aggregate – for the markets to “rotate” out of it.

by John P. Hussman, Hussman Funds |  Read more:
Image via:

Patent Troll Soverain Loses on Appeal

Anyone who visited Soverain Software's website could be forgiven for believing it's a real company. There are separate pages for "products," "services," and "solutions." There's the "About Us" page. There are phone numbers and e-mail addresses for sales and tech support. There's even a login page for customers.

It's all a sham. Court records show Soverain hasn't made a sale—ever. The various voice mailboxes were all set up by Katherine Wolanyk, the former Latham & Watkins attorney who is a co-founder and partial owner of Soverain. And the impressive list of big corporate customers on its webpage? Those are deals struck with another company, more than a decade ago. That was OpenMarket, a software company that created these patents before going out of business in 2001. It sold its assets to a venture capital fund called divine interVentures, which in turn sold the OpenMarket patents to Soverain Software in 2003.

"Thank you for calling Soverain technical support," says Wolanyk, if you press option 2. "If you are a current customer and have a tech support question, please call us at 1-888-884-4432 or e-mail us at" That number, like the "customer support" number on Soverain's contactpage, has been disconnected.

Soverain isn't in the e-commerce business; it's in the higher-margin business of filing patent lawsuits against e-commerce companies. And it has been quite successful until now. The company's plan to extract a patent tax of about one percent of revenue from a huge swath of online retailers was snuffed out last week by Newegg and its lawyers, who won an appeal ruling [PDF] that invalidates the three patents Soverain used to spark a vast patent war.

The ruling effectively shuts down dozens of the lawsuits Soverain filed last year against Nordstrom's, Macy's, Home Depot, RadioShack, Kohl's, and many others (see our chart on page 2). All of them did nothing more than provide shoppers with basic online checkout technology. Soverain used two patents, numbers 5,715,314 and 5,909,492, to claim ownership of the "shopping carts" commonly used in online stores. In some cases, it wielded a third patent, No. 7,272,639.

Soverain will lose the $2.5 million it stood to gain from Newegg, as well as two much bigger verdicts it won against Victoria's Secret and Avon. Those two companies were ordered to pay a total of almost $18 million, plus a "running royalty" of about one percent, after a 2011 trial. The ruling in the Newegg case is a total wipeout for a patent troll that had squeezed many millions from online retailers, was backed by big-firm lawyers, and was determined to collect hundreds of millions more.

For Newegg's Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng, it's a huge validation of the strategy the company decided to pursue back in 2007: not to settle with patent trolls. Ever.

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, 'This is bullshit,'" said Cheng in an interview with Ars. "We saw that if we paid off this patent holder, we'd have to pay off every patent holder this same amount. This is the first case we took all the way to trial. And now, nobody has to pay Soverain jack squat for these patents."

by Joe Mullin, ARS Technica |  Read more:
Photo: Aurich Lawson

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Do-It-Yourself After-Death Care

A little over five years ago, Alison and Doug Kirk held their 9-year-old daughter's hand as she lay on a futon in their Nashville living room, told her they loved her, and watched her take her last breath.

The Kirks had known for a long time that their little girl, Caroline, would die. In her last weeks, she was under hospice care, lived off an oxygen machine, was fed through a tube, and spoke only in small murmurs. It was the normal course for a child born with Niemann-Pick, a terminal disease that gradually leads to the breakdown of the nervous system, brain and lungs.

What happened after Caroline's death was anything but typical.

Alison and Doug carried Caroline upstairs to the bathtub, where they washed her skin and hair, dried her limp, 45-pound body with a towel and placed her head on a pillow on the bed in her old room. Alison slipped a white communion dress on Caroline, turned up the air-conditioning and put ice packs by her daughter’s sides. She put pink lipstick on the child's paling lips, and covered up Caroline's toes and fingers, which were turning blue at the nails, with the family quilt.

Caroline stayed in her bedroom for 36 hours for her final goodbyes. There was no traditional funeral home service, and no coroner or medical examiner was on hand. Caroline's death was largely a home affair, with a short cemetery burial that followed.

"We had taken care of Caroline her whole life," recalls Alison, whose other daughter, Kate, has the same disease and will also have a home funeral. "Why would we give her to someone else once she died?"

Each year, 2.5 million Americans die. For the majority, about 70 percent, deaths happen in a hospital, nursing home or long-term care facility. What happens afterwards is nearly always the same, with few exceptions for religious traditions: A doctor or nurse will sign a death certificate and the body will be whisked to the funeral home, where it's washed, embalmed, dressed, and prepared for a viewing and burial. A family usually sees the dead only a few times: when they die, if there's an open-casket viewing and in the rare case when a casket is opened during burial.

But a small and growing group of Americans are returning to a more hands-on, no-frills experience of death. In the world of "do it yourself" funerals, freezer packs are used in lieu of embalming, unvarnished wooden boxes replace ornate caskets, viewings are in living rooms and, in some cases, burials happen in backyards.

Nobody keeps track of the number of home funerals and advocacy groups, but home funeral organizations have won battles in recent years in states such as Minnesota and Utah that have attempted to ban the practice. Most states have nearly eliminated any requirements that professionals play a role in funerals. It's now legal in all but eight states to care for one's own after death. And the growth of community-based, nonprofit home funeral groups and burial grounds that are friendly to the cause point to an increasing demand.

The reasons vary from the economic to the psychological and cultural. The average funeral costs $6,560, while a home funeral can cost close to nothing. In a society where seeing death and speaking of it is often taboo, home funeral advocates are challenging the notion that traditional funerals are anything but a natural end to life. Instead, they assert, death and mourning should be seen, smelled, touched and experienced.

"There are people who get it and think it's a great idea. And there are people who have been so indoctrinated to think a different way, a less hands-on way, that they can't imagine anything else," says Elizabeth Knox, the founder of Crossings, a Maryland-based home funeral resource organization, and the president of the National Home Funeral Alliance. Knox travels across the nation to run trainings on do-it-yourself funerals and her book on her daughter's home funeral is what inspired the Kirks to do their own. Her group is one of several that have seen interest grow in recent years. They include Final Passages (California), Natural Transitions (Colorado) and Undertaken with Love (Texas). There are 61 organizations that are members of the NHFA, many of which are run by just one person.

"A lot of people don't want to do anything with touching dead bodies," says Knox. "They consider it creepy. But it can actually be the first step to healing and acceptance of death. Slowing down the process allows all involved to absorb the loss at their own pace. It's an organic emotional and spiritual healing not available from limited calling hours at a remote location."

by Jaweed Kaleem, Huffington Post |  Read more:
Photo: Alison Kirk

Zhou Hao

Bones of Contention

Natural history goes to auction five or six times a year in America, and one Sunday last May a big sale took place in Chelsea, at the onetime home of the Dia Center for the Arts. The bidding, organized by a company called Heritage Auctions, began with two amethyst geodes that, when paired, resembled the ears of an alert rabbit. Then came meteorites, petrified wood, and elephant tusks; centipedes, scorpions, and spiders preserved in amber; rare quartzes, crystals, and fossils. The fossils ranged from small Eocene swimmers imprinted on rock to the remains of late-Cretaceous dinosaurs. That day, the articulated toe and claw of a Moroccan dinosaur sold for sixty-three hundred dollars. A tyrannosaur tooth—ten and a half inches from root to spike—went for nearly forty thousand.

Along one wall, behind ropes, loomed the skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar. T. bataar, as it is known, was a Tyrannosaurus rex cousin that lived some seventy million years ago, in what is now the Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia. Eight feet tall and twenty-four feet long, the specimen had been mounted in a predatory running position, with its arms out and its jaws open, as if determined to eat Lot No. 49220—a cast Komodo dragon, crouching ten yards away, on blue velvet.  (...)

Heritage brokered the T. bataar on behalf of a thirty-seven-year-old bone hunter named Eric Prokopi, who lives in Florida, a great state for fossils. For roughly the first half of the past fifty million years, the region lay beneath a warm, shallow sea. As land repeatedly surfaced and receded, the remains of marine creatures got mixed up with those of terrestrials, forming one big Ice Age graveyard: sea cows, prehistoric sharks, spike-tailed armadillos the size of refrigerators.

Shark teeth attract kids to fossil hunting because they’re so easy to find. Sharks shed thousands of teeth per year, and have been doing so for eons. The teeth, exposed by erosion and tides, can be as big as a human hand. The largest look like the arrowheads of giants, and can sell for thousands of dollars.

Prokopi, who grew up outside Tampa, is the son of a music teacher and a homemaker. He found his first shark tooth as a small boy, in the late seventies, at nearby Venice Beach. By age ten, he had a diving license. His mother, a competitive swimmer, accompanied him on river expeditions. As he explored underwater, holding a rope, she rode in a canoe, tugging the line if she saw an alligator.

Through fossil clubs and field trips to quarries, Prokopi got to know older hunters who spent their lives beachcombing or standing chest deep in muck, searching for bone. Paleontology books explained what he’d found and taught him what to look for next. When he was in high school, fossils began to take over the family’s house, and around 1990 he started selling them, making eight hundred dollars at his first trade show, in Lakeland. At such events, he bartered with other hunters, who often brought entire trailers filled with specimens. Some fossils were still sheathed in “field jackets”—the lumpy white plaster encasements that excavators apply at dig sites, for safe transport, making the artifacts look like misshapen mummies.

Although some countries had fossil-trade restrictions, or were enacting them, certain dealers proceeded as though there were no rules; they justified their trade, in part, with the idea that exposed fossils, if not collected, disintegrate. Prokopi quickly learned that, when he found something good, someone would buy it. If the business sometimes resembled a black market, it was a small one: nobody seriously imagined getting rich digging up prehistoric bones.

Then, the day before Prokopi turned sixteen, a magnificent T. rex was found weathering out of a cliff near Faith, South Dakota. An amber hunter named Sue Hendrickson, working with the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a company that collects and prepares fossils, had wandered off to explore a bluff as her crew changed a flat tire, and came back with a handful of dinosaur. The team named the T. rex Sue.

A legal fight followed, centering on the Sioux rancher who, for five thousand dollars, had sold Black Hills the right to dig out the dinosaur but whose land, part of an Indian reservation, was being held in federal trust. As the case unfolded in the courts, the movie “Jurassic Park” came out, rebooting dinosaurs in the popular imagination. The rancher eventually won the right to sell Tyrannosaurus Sue. On October 4, 1997, Sotheby’s, in New York, auctioned the fossil; Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History bought it, with sponsorship from Disney and McDonald’s, for an unprecedented $8.4 million.

Hendrickson had found her T. rex the way hunters have always found fossils: by walking around and looking down. In America, the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries have been made in the West, in a swath of exposures from the Canadian border to New Mexico. During the infamous nineteenth-century “bone wars,” between the East Coast paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and O. C. Marsh, scientists encountered dinosaur skeletons “exposed like corpses on a deserted battlefield,” Michael Novacek writes in “Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs.”

Today in the United States, only approved researchers may collect vertebrates on public land, but a hunter who finds a fossil on his property, or on private land where he has permission to dig, can sell it, exhibit it, export it—whatever. After the sale of Tyrannosaurus Sue, a modern gold rush began, and it has not let up. In the summers, the Western snows have barely receded before prospectors arrive, often with private clients who pay to hunt with guides.

Ranchers who had once allowed scientists to explore their land for free began leasing it to the highest bidder. Paleontologists lost out to amateurs with more money, and they lost specimens to vandals and thieves, some of whom went after fossils with sledgehammers. Federal agents have tracked stolen American dinosaurs as far away as Japan. The paleontologist Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says, “The day Sue got auctioned is the day fossils became money.”

by Paige Williams, New Yorker |  Read more:
Photograph by Richard Barnes


Hypocrisy, Explosive Listening and Fear of Death at the World Championship of Public Speaking. 

Most of my students assumed a tone of waxen friendliness when they stepped up to the podium. They’d gesture a little too theatrically and say “Good afternoon, my name is ———!” long after everyone knew each other. They’d bring in gigantic visual aids like computer keyboards and volleyballs and salad bowls and point to them only once. At the end of the speech, they’d ask for questions and then walk away without looking to see if anyone had raised a hand. We’d all be clapping. We clapped no matter what anyone said, as long as they said something.

I learned the applause technique from Toastmasters International, the largest speaking club in the world (with more than two hundred thousand members in ninety countries). The dean who hired me suggested I join the club so I could adopt some of their teaching methods. Several of her former speaking instructors had sat in on meetings, and she’d never heard of a place where everyone was so friendly, she said. I had a feeling she hoped Toastmasters would improve my own speaking skills as well—during the first interview, she gently noted that I was more soft-spoken than most instructors—but we pretended I was going as teacher, not student.

I attended several sessions of a club in Brooklyn Heights with a reputation for particularly active members. The treasurer, Bruce Schaffer, clapped so loudly that he sat in the last row of chairs in the room so he wouldn’t hurt people’s ears. He told me (after politely inquiring whether he should speak in “short, Hemingway sentences or long, flowery, Kerouac ones” for the interview) that being a Toastmaster for the past eleven years had changed his personality and improved his law practice. “I start my day feeling stronger and more powerful,” he said. In the morning when he wakes up, he sometimes yells as loudly as he can into a towel.

Toastmasters meetings usually begin with a pledge of allegiance to the American flag. Then the Jokemaster tells a joke, and the Wordmaster gives the word of the day—easy ones like joy andcollaboration. The first portion of the meeting is devoted to impromptu speaking, and the results are pleasantly idiotic. Members have one minute to respond to random questions like, “Do you feel it is necessary to drink eight glasses of water a day?” or “You are what you eat—agree or disagree?” They struggle for words, clench the lectern, fidget, reveal sweat spots under their arms, and return to their seats suddenly. A designated Grammarian tallies how many times people say “uh,” “um,” “like,” “er,” “you know,” “well.”

At one of my first meetings, I was asked to answer the question “What’s your favorite summer holiday?” I immediately knew my answer (July 4), but all I could do was say, in a tiny, child’s voice, “Do I have to? Can I wait for later?” The Toastmaster officer said yes, but seemed uncomfortable with my request. I soon learned that everyone tries, even if all they can do is go up and whisper a sentence. I felt like I’d ruined the mood. As I left the meeting, a middle-aged man caught up to me and shook my hand. “We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “Don’t believe anyone who says they’re not nervous.” When he asked how I learned about Toastmasters, I was too ashamed to tell him I taught public speaking.

Toastmasters invents the circumstances for ordinary people to speak forcefully and authoritatively to a silent, adoring crowd. To become a “Competent Toastmaster,” members must give ten prepared speeches, each with a specified length and style. Each member then receives an oral evaluation. Those who show talent (and have bigger goals than getting over stage fright) move on to compete against other clubs, divisions, districts, regions, and finally, every August, the best ten speakers gather for the World Championship of Public Speaking. “It’s like American Idol, except no one cares,” says Rory Vaden, one of the 2006 contestants, who, at twenty-three, made the unusual decision that Toastmasters could bring him fame. “I woke up in the middle of the night, and it was like, boom: You are supposed to pursue the World Championship of Public Speaking. You are supposed to become the youngest champion ever.”  (...)

Toastmasters clubs work on cultivating a pleasant, homey atmosphere where all speeches are considered innately special. Many chapters are set up in boardrooms, churches, or classrooms, and, for those scarred by the shame of having once given a horrible presentation, it becomes possible to rewrite the experience. Seasoned Toastmasters look delighted no matter who is speaking: they nod, sigh, and smile at the appropriate moments.

Lee Glickstein, founder of Speaking Circles International—a younger, smaller, more informal version of Toastmasters—calls this type of feedback “explosive listening.” “We were wounded when we stopped trusting ourselves,” he writes in his 1999 bookBe Heard Now! To promote sincerity, he moves away from the Carnegian idea that the best speakers are actors. He encourages students to stare in the mirror for a few minutes every day and get to know themselves—be “vibrantly vulnerable,” “turn nervousness—into nirvana!” “OLD MYTH: public speaking is about mastering PERFORMANCE,” he writes. “NEW REALITY: public speaking is about EXPRESSION OF OUR AUTHENTIC SELVES.” (...)

I, too, began thinking of the gift of public speaking as inexplicably awarded to some and not others. At Toastmasters meetings, I’d take careful notes on voice technique and hand gestures, but never thought of absorbing them myself. I just passed the suggestions on to my students. I quickly became uninterested in becoming a good speaker; it was like becoming a good astronaut. It wasn’t going to happen. I began to feel more comfortable in class, but as soon as I got into a new situation, the anxiety returned. When I was called on at Toastmasters the second time—“What are your hobbies?”—my chest was visibly moving. I couldn’t get enough air. I said, “I like to play tennis?” I stared at an old woman with frizzy gray hair who nodded. My voice was high and airy. “I don’t get to play tennis a lot so I really hope to play more tennis soon.” Everyone clapped.

Most Toastmasters have a story about someone who sobbed through their first speech and then couldn’t be dragged from the stage. When the transformation wasn’t happening for me, I found comfort in the idea that the anxiety could simply be a matter of genetics. “About 20 percent of the population have severe communication apprehension and there’s not a whole hell of a lot they can do about it,” James McCroskey, a professor at the University of Alabama who’s studied this problem for the past thirty years, told me. He began his career believing the fear was taught, and then shifted tracks. Now he believes biology is more important than learning processes. “We thought our parents scared us when we were little kids. We had wonderful theories, but the problem is they weren’t true.”

My therapist’s theory was that speaking anxiety is an accident of evolution: we still interpret being separated from the crowd as a danger. I called her six months after our last appointment (I stopped going after the third session) and told her I was writing an article about public speaking but hadn’t conquered the fear. She was disappointed. “We’re really much more primitive than we think we are,” she said, as consolation. “These feelings are no longer helpful to us, the way that the appendix or tailbone is no longer helpful to us. But these things once had a purpose. It’s not that we’re nuts.”

by Rachel Aviv, The Believer |  Read more:
Photo via:

Saturday, January 26, 2013


The Untouchables

PBS' Frontline program on Tuesday night broadcast a new one-hour report on one of the greatest and most shameful failings of the Obama administration: the lack of even a single arrest or prosecution of any senior Wall Street banker for the systemic fraud that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis: a crisis from which millions of people around the world are still suffering. What this program particularly demonstrated was that the Obama justice department, in particular the Chief of its Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, never even tried to hold the high-level criminals accountable.

What Obama justice officials did instead is exactly what they did in the face of high-level Bush era crimes of torture and warrantless eavesdropping: namely, acted to protect the most powerful factions in the society in the face of overwhelming evidence of serious criminality. Indeed, financial elites were not only vested with immunity for their fraud, but thrived as a result of it, even as ordinary Americans continue to suffer the effects of that crisis.

Worst of all, Obama justice officials both shielded and feted these Wall Street oligarchs (who, just by the way, overwhelmingly supported Obama's 2008 presidential campaign) as they simultaneously prosecuted and imprisoned powerless Americans for far more trivial transgressions. As Harvard law professor Larry Lessig put it two weeks ago when expressing anger over the DOJ's persecution of Aaron Swartz: "we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House." (Indeed, as "The Untouchables" put it: while no senior Wall Street executives have been prosecuted, "many small mortgage brokers, loan appraisers and even home buyers" have been).

As I documented at length in my 2011 book on America's two-tiered justice system, With Liberty and Justice for Some, the evidence that felonies were committed by Wall Street is overwhelming. That evidence directly negates the primary excuse by Breuer (previously offered by Obama himself) that the bad acts of Wall Street were not criminal.

Numerous documents prove that executives at leading banks, credit agencies, and mortgage brokers were falsely touting assets as sound that knew were junk: the very definition of fraud. As former Wall Street analyst Yves Smith wrote in her book ECONned: "What went on at Lehman and AIG, as well as the chicanery in the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] business, by any sensible standard is criminal." Even lifelong Wall Street defender Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chair, said in Congressional testimony that "a lot of that stuff was just plain fraud."

A New York Times editorial in August explained that the DOJ's excuse for failing to prosecute Wall Street executives - that it was too hard to obtain convictions - "has always defied common sense - and all the more so now that a fuller picture is emerging of the range of banks' reckless and lawless activities, including interest-rate rigging, money laundering, securities fraud and excessive speculation." The Frontline program interviewed former prosecutors, Senate staffers and regulators who unequivocally said the same: it is inconceivable that the DOJ could not have successfully prosecuted at least some high-level Wall Street executives - had they tried.

What's most remarkable about all of this is not even Wall Street had the audacity to expect the generosity of largesse they ended up receiving. "The Untouchables" begins by recounting the massive financial devastation the 2008 crisis wrought - "the economy was in ruins and bankers were being blamed" - and recounts:

"In 2009, Wall Street bankers were on the defensive, worried they could be held criminally liable for fraud. With a new administration, bankers and their attorneys expected investigations and at least some prosecutions."

Indeed, the show recalls that both in Washington and the country generally, "there was broad support for prosecuting Wall Street." Nonetheless: "four years later, there have been no arrests of any senior Wall Street executives."

In response to the DOJ's excuse-making that these criminal cases are too hard to win, numerous experts - Senators, top Hill staffers, former DOJ prosecutors - emphasized the key point: Obama officials never even tried. One of the heroes of "The Untouchables", former Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman, worked tirelessly to provide the DOJ with all the funds it needed to ensure probing criminal investigations and even to pressure and compel them to do so. Yet when he and his staff would meet with Breuer and other top DOJ officials, they would proudly tout the small mortgage brokers they were pursuing, in response to which Kafuman and his staff said: "No. Don't show me small-time mortgage guys in California. This is totally about what went on in Wall Street. . . . We are talking about investigating senior level Wall Street executives, even at the Board level". (The same Lanny Breuer was recently seen announcing that the banking giant HSBC would face no criminal prosecution for its money laundering of funds for designated terrorist groups and drug networks on the ground that the bank was too big to risk prosecuting).

by Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian |  Read more:
Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

Kenton Nelson, Time Out

Why Does Stephen Hate Bob (More Than His Wife)?

“If a wife left her husband with three kids and no job/ to run off to fuck in Hawaii with some doctor named Bob/ you could skin them and drain them of blood so they die…especially Bob. Then you would be justice guy”. – Stephen Lynch, “Superhero”

For those of you not in the know, Stephen Lynch is a popular comedic musician. In the song, “Superhero”, Stephen gives the above description of what he would do were he “Justice Guy”. As one can gather, in this story, Stephen’s wife has run off with another man, resulting in Mr. Lynch temporarily experiencing a Predator-like urge for revenge. The interesting thing about this particular song is the emphasis that Stephen puts on his urge to kill Bob. It’s interesting in that it doesn’t make much sense, morally speaking: it’s not as if Bob, a third party who was not involved in any kind of relationship with Stephen, had any formal obligation to respect the boundaries of Stephen’s relationship with his wife. Looking out for the relationship, it seems, ought to have been his wife’s job. She was the person who had the social obligation to Stephen that was violated, so it seems the one who Stephen ought to mad at (or, at least madder at) would be his wife. So why does Stephen wish to especially punish Bob?

There are two candidate explanations I’d like to consider today to help explain the urge for this kind of Bob-specific punishment: one is slightly more specific to the situation at hand and the other applies to punishment interactions more generally, so let’s start off with the more specific case. Stephen wants his wife to behave cooperatively in terms of their relationship, and she seems less than willing to do so herself; presumably, some mating mechanisms in her brain is suggesting that the payoffs would be better for her to ditch her jobless husband to run off with a wealthy, high-status doctor. In order to alter the cost/benefit ratio to certain actions, then, Stephen entertains the idea of enacting punishment. If Stephen’s punishment makes his wife’s infidelity costlier than remaining faithful, her behavior will likely adjust accordingly. While punishing his wife can potentially be an effective strategy for enforcing her cooperation, it’s also a risky venture for Stephen on two fronts: (1) too much punishing of his wife – in this case, murder, though it need not be that extreme – can be counterproductive to his goals, as it would render her less able to deliver the benefits she previously provided to the relationship; the punishment might also be counterproductive because (2) the punishment makes the relationship less valuable still to his wife as new costs mount, resulting in her urge to abandon the relationship altogether for a better deal elsewhere growing even stronger.

The punishing of potential third parties – in this case, Bob – does not hold these same costs, though. Provided Bob was a stranger, Stephen doesn’t suffer any loss of benefits, as benefits were never being provided by Bob in the first place. If Stephen and Bob were previously cooperating in some form the matter gets a bit more involved, but we won’t concern ourselves with that for now; we’ll just assume the benefits his wife could provide are more valuable than the ones Bob could. With regard to the second cost – the relationship becoming costlier for the person punishment is directed at – this is, in fact, not a cost when that punishment is directed at Bob, but rather the entire point. If the relationship is costlier for a third party to engage in, due to the prospect of a potentially-homicidal partner, that third party may well think twice before deciding whether to pursue the affair any further. Punishing Bob would seem to look like the better option, then. There’s just one major hitch: specifically, punishing is costly for Stephen, both in terms of time, energy, and risk, and he may well need to direct punishment towards far more targets if he’s attempting to prevent his wife from having sex with other people.

Punishing third parties versus punishing one’s partner can be thought of, by way of analogy, to treating the symptoms or the cause of a disease, respectively. Treating the symptoms (deterring other interested men), in this case, might be cheaper than treating the underlying cause on an individual basis, but you may also need to continuously treat the symptoms (if his wife is rather interested with the idea of having affairs more generally). Depending on the situation, then, it might be ultimately cheaper and more effective to treat either the cause or the symptoms of the problem. It’s probably safe to assume that the relative cost/benefit calculations being worked out cognitively might ultimately be represented to some degree in our desires: if some part of Stephen’s mind eventually comes to the conclusion, for whatever reasons, that punishing one or more third parties would be the cheaper of the two options, he might end up feeling especially interested in punishing Bob.

by Jesse Marczyk, Pop Psychology |  Read more:
Photo: uncredited