Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rustle, Tingle, Relax: The Compelling World of A.S.M.R.

A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.

Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.

The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour.

For those not wired for A.S.M.R. — and even for those who, like me, apparently are — the videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.)

Two of the most well-known ASMRtists, Maria of GentleWhispering (more than 250,700 subscribers) and Heather Feather (more than 146,500 subscribers), said that although they sometimes received lewd emails and requests, many of their followers reached out to them with notes of gratitude for the relief from anxiety, insomnia and melancholy that their videos provided.

Some say the mundane or monotonous quality of the videos lulls us into a much-needed state of serenity. Others find comfort in being the sole focus of the A.S.M.R. actor’s tender affection and care. Or perhaps the assortment of sounds and scenarios taps into pleasing childhood memories. I grew up falling asleep hearing the sounds from my father’s home office: A computer engineer, he was continually sorting through papers, tapping keys and assembling and disassembling PCs and MACs.

Dr. Carl W. Bazil, a sleep disorders specialist at Columbia University, says A.S.M.R. videos may provide novel ways to switch off our brains.

People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal,” he said. “Behavioral treatments — guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditation — are meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. A.S.M.R. videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.”

So far, it seems to work for me. Like many insomniacs, I have over the years tried natural remedies like valerian root or melatonin, vigorous exercise regimens and strong sleeping pills like Ambien and Lunesta. But sleep rarely came. Nothing has worked as well and consistently as watching a man in an A.S.M.R. video sort through papers and his collection of Titanic paraphernalia.

by Stephanie Fairyington, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: YouTube

The Morality of Perversion

When Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published in 1955, the novel generated an enormous amount of controversy. Narrated by Humbert Humbert, a fictional literature professor in his late thirties, the tragicomedy depicts his obsessive sexual relationship with 12-year-old Dolores Haze—the eponymous Lolita.

60 years down the road, the book remains as controversial as ever. A large part of this seems to be that Lolita, despite our moral condemnation of child sex, somehow manages to elicit the reader’s sympathy for its pedophilic ‘protagonist’ (who is, possibly, more accurately described as a hebephile). Beyond our contempt for Humbert, there is also disgust with ourselves. How dare we even think of sympathizing with such a pervert? Surely by doing so we inch closer to condoning sex with children.

Such confusion reflects unresolved thoughts and feelings about sexual deviation in general. What does it mean to sympathize with perversion? Where, exactly, lies the wrong in what many of us think of as sexual deviance—such as pedophilia, zoophilia, homosexuality, and various other unusual forms of sexuality? What specifically is it that’s so outrageous about the affair between Humbert and Dolores? To answer such questions, we must delve into the field of sexual ethics.

Sex: the moral minefield

Why is the ethics of sex even a thing? For one, sex is a significant act which plays a big part in an individual’s life. How someone practices (or doesn’t practice) sex is intertwined with their emotions, relationships, expression and identity. Moreover, sex is an act involving our own bodies that we either wish to participate in, or don’t. In deontological terms or rights-speak, there are important rights and potential violations surrounding sex. From a consequentialist perspective, there is the potential for both great harm and utility to arise from sex. All this makes sex something we should tread around pretty carefully.

Historically, sexual dynamics have also played a huge role in ordering society (and continue to do so). Our psychological perceptions of morality often end up having a lot to do with maintaining social order. Fields like experimental moral psychology and evolutionary psychology seek to uncover these mental biases. It has been, for example, suggested that moral judgments about promiscuity may have come about as a way of keeping a gender-based social order intact; sleeping around is more likely to be considered a moral violation in places where women are economically dependent on men.

So thinking carefully about the morality of sex is important, because there are substantive deontological and consequential concerns surrounding its practice, and also because it is important to check the psychological biases we have towards our moral judgments about sex.

by Grace Boey, 3 Quarks Daily |  Read more:
Image: Lolita

Comcast Confessions

When AOL executive and Comcast customer Ryan Block recently tried to cancel his internet service, he ended up in a near-yelling match with a customer service representative who spent 18 minutes trying to talk him out of it.

Rep: I’m just trying to figure out here what it is about Comcast service that you’re not liking.
Block: This phone call is actually a really amazing representative example of why I don’t want to stay with Comcast. Can you please cancel our service?
Rep: Okay, but I’m trying to help you.
Block: The way you can help me is by disconnecting my service.
Rep: But how is that helping you? How is that helping you? Explain to me how that is helping you.
Block: Because that’s what I want.
Rep: Okay, so why is that what you want? (...)

Internet not working? Confusing charges on your bill? Moving, and need to cancel your service? It doesn’t matter why you’re calling Comcast — get ready for a sales pitch.

Dozens of current and former Comcast employees told The Verge they had to constantly push products, even if they worked in tech support, billing, and general customer service.

Mark Pavlic was hired as a customer account executive at Comcast in October 2010 after graduating from a technical institute. He figured he’d be troubleshooting TV, phone, and internet service, but most of his month-long training focused on sales. Every day when he walked into the call center, he’d see a whiteboard with employee names and their RGUs, or revenue generating units.

"I didn’t know that I was going to be selling things," he says. "The customer is calling in to tell you what’s wrong, and you’re looking for ways to sell them service."

The longer he was there, the more the company emphasized sales. "They pushed it as a way for us to earn more money," he says. "[But] if you were low on sales, you got put on probation." He quit after 10 months.

Pavlic’s call center in Pittsburgh is operated by Comcast, but the company also uses third-party and international call centers. Exact training and incentive structures vary by call center, and on whether employees are working on business services or residential services. Our interviews revealed a common thread across facilities: what often started out as a carrot — bonuses for frontline employees who made sales — turned into a stick, as employees who failed to pitch hard enough or meet their quotas were chastised, or worse.

Brian Van Horn, a billing specialist who worked at Comcast for 10 years, says the sales pitch gradually got more aggressive. "They were starting off with, ‘just ask," he says. "Then instead of ‘just ask,’ it was ‘just ask again,’ then ‘engage the customer in a conversation,’ then ‘overcome their objections.’" He was even pressured to pitch new services to a customer who was 55 days late on her bill, he says.

by Adrianne Jefferies, The Verge |  Read more:
Image: Michael Shane

How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird?

In August, a Bob Dylan album may well arrive in stores concrete and virtual. It may be called Shadows in the Night. It may have a song called “Full Moon & Empty Arms” on it; a stream of the tune was released without comment on his website a couple of months ago. Why Dylan chose to record a cover of an old Sinatra track isn’t clear; it may, or may not, be a clue that the purported album will consist of covers. Dylan has just finished shows in Japan, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia; will head next to Australia and New Zealand; and may or may not be preparing for a swing through the U.S. in the fall.

We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.

You have to start by disregarding the well-told narrative: The soi-disant vagabond’s rise through folk music to a place of utter domination at the highest level of literate, passionate, and difficult pop and rock music, all by 1966; a retreat and Gethsemane until 1974, when he came back, roaring and vengeful, more passionately focused than before, adding a remarkable personal dimension to his ’60s work. After that, depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity, culminating in the triumphs, late in life, of his five most recent albums.

For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him. First, you have to appreciate the many layers that make up his peculiar but unmistakable aesthetic. His work is grounded in acoustic folk-blues—­ballads, chants, and love stories, populated with mystical or just plain weird meanings and themes, rattling and farting around like tetched uncles in the attic of our American psyche. To this add the dread-filled dreamscapes—unexplainable, ­unnerving—of French Surrealism, and then, arrestingly, the punchy patois of the Beats, who originally intuited the substratum of social stresses that would whipcrack across the ’60s and into the ’70s. Then factor in personal songwriting, a strain of pop he basically invented, doled out first with obfuscations, payback, tall tales, and lies—some by design, some on general principle, some just to be an asshole—and then the signs, here and there (and then everywhere, the more you look), of autobiographical happenstance and deeply felt emotion.

And remember that some of his narratives are fractured. Time and focus shift; first person can become third; sometimes more than one story seems to be being told at the same time (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples). And then there’s plain sonic impact: Even his earliest important songs have a cerebral and reverberating authority in the recording, his voice sometimes filling the speakers, his primitive but blistering guitar work adding confrontation, ease, humor, anger, and contrariness, presenting all but the most unwilling listeners with moment after moment of incandescence.

And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I might be somewhere by now.”

by Bill Wyman, Vulture |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Sense of Smell

A man committed suicide in my apartment building two weeks ago. They retrieved his body last Tuesday afternoon, about 10 days after he killed himself. Tuesday was a hot and humid day, and the smell was filling the building. The police came and brought fans and propped doors open to clear the air, and by the evening the smell was blown out of the building and into the neighborhood – broken up into small enough molecules to not be particularly noticed by anyone. It had been getting really bad in the apartment.

Last Sunday, two days before they found his body, my building manager posted a note on the door to the apartment saying he would go through everyone’s apartments on Friday in order to find the “source of the odor that has been bothering residents.” I live on the third floor of the building, and the man had lived on the first floor, and the smell hadn’t invaded my floor much, until that weekend. That weekend the smell got really loud.

My building is always full of such strange and curious smells, which I, sometimes reluctantly, process and think about throughout the day. There’s nearly forty apartments in here, and over forty people are cooking dinners, having sex & farting, and then attempting to shower their days away, which coats them with a brand new cloak of scent. The air smells busy in here. It used to be even more complex, but Management God recently blessed us with new carpeting in the hallway, and the old smell of “confused & rotting cherries mixed with human filth” was replaced with “new carpet smell!” I filed away “new carpet smell!” in my brain, simply as that, because I haven’t had many encounters with fresh carpet, and had never remarked on it’s aroma. It was a smell to replace the creepy smell of poorly-managed apartment carpet, and it’s sterile aroma was welcome to my nose.

But on that hot Tuesday, the whole apartment reeked of death. Like new carpet, I hadn’t smelled a neglected dead human before. A friend asked me to describe the smell to him, and the only words I could use to describe it were “hot garbage,” which feels so trite and I’m not satisfied with, but it’s all that came to me. However, I know that if I ever smelled it again, I would immediately recognize it. It’s one of those smells that clings to you. It’s a sad smell to have filed away. You hope you won’t smell it again, but quite likely will.

I’m sorry to linger on something so tragic and disturbing as the smell of death. Smells have become really important to me, and I try to treat my nostrils as a second pair of eyes (so to speak, since we can sometimes only discuss the importance of a sense by relating it to how much we trust our sight). I realized, after his suicide, that I wanted to spend some time writing about how smells have been, and are, important to how I live and understand the world. (...)

I feel like I have a pretty good nose on me now. It has taken a lot of work, and I still have a lot of things to smell and develop faster recall. When I first started working at beezy’s, however, I was fooling myself into thinking I had a good sniffer. My boss had a good sniffer, and it would scare me sometimes (in a fun way). One epic time, she ran back into the kitchen from the basement because she could “smell the noodles sticking to the bottom of the pot.” Allow me to reiterate: FROM THE BASEMENT. I probably told her she was possessed by demons, and she probably ignored me as she grabbed a spatula to scrape off the noodles from the bottom of the pot.

I think people ignore most of the smells they encounter, or at least they don’t stop and allow them to be a source of orientation. We’re not really trained to be aware of our noses, as much as we are for our eyes & ears. We lose a lot of knowledge of the world if we don’t narrate our smells. We’ll have a narrow understanding of our settings if we don’t map the smells that emanate from the corners of our houses. (...)

Lovers become very close with each other’s smells. The smell of Abercrombie cologne takes me back to the excitement of my first boyfriend when I was 14. ( He was so classy.) The mixture of Polar Ice gum and cigarettes makes me think of my friend Larry, when we attempted to date each other. I can smell an old love-of-my-life every time I get my clothes dry-cleaned. That’s a weird one I haven’t figured out yet, since he doesn’t ever get his stuff dry-cleaned.

I had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a very sweet conversation between two of my guyfriends, who were both spending time away from their respective partners. They were talking about how hard it was to get used to having the bed be empty, and one of them suggested that trading pillows might make it easier to have your lover out of town.

“It’d be nice to still be able to smell them.” He said. The other guy heartily agreed, having traded pillows before with his girlfriend, and said “Yeah, that makes it a LOT easier.”

by trikloff, Riki Tiki Pies |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Wax and Wane: The Tough Realities Behind Vinyl's Comeback

More and more people are buying vinyl; sales hit a record 6.1 million units in the U.S. last year. But as demand increases, the number of American pressing plants remains relatively fixed. No one is building new presses because, by all accounts, it would be prohibitively expensive. So the industry is limited to the dozen or so plants currently operating in the States. The biggest is Nashville’s United, which operates 22 presses that pump out 30,000 to 40,000 records a day. California-based Rainbo Records and Erika Records are similarly large outfits, and after that come mid-size operations like Record Technology, Inc., also in California, with nine presses, and Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records, which turns out between 4,000 and 5,000 records a day on six presses. Boutique manufacturers like Musicol in Columbus, Archer in Detroit, andPalomino in Kentucky operate between one and five presses.

“You used to be able to turn over a record in four weeks,” says John Beeler, project manager at Asthmatic Kitty, the label home of Sufjan Stevens. “But I’m now telling my artists that we need at least three months from the time they turn it in to the time we get it back.” Across the board, lengthy lead times that were once anomalies are now the norm. “They’ve been longer this year than they were even nine months ago,” says Nick Blandford, managing director of the Secretly Label Group, which includes prominent indie imprints Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans, and artists including Bon Iver and the War on Drugs. “We crossed our fingers and hoped that turn times would improve after Record Store Day in April, but they’re still about the same. We’ve just accepted this as the reality.”

So when it comes to the current state of the vinyl industry’s unlikely resurrection, everyone is happy. And everyone is frustrated.

Vinyl’s sharp rise began in 2008, when sales nearly doubled from the previous year’s 1 million to 1.9 million. The tallies have gone up each year since, and 2013’s 6.1 million is a 33 percent increase over 2012’s 4.6 million. (Those numbers are even larger when you account for releases that fall outside SoundScan’s reach.) The resurgent format’s market share is still far smaller than CDs, digital, and streaming—vinyl accounted for only 2 percent of all album sales last year, compared to 41 percent for digital and 57 percent for CDs—and no one expects it to regain dominance. But it’s more than a trend, and it’s not going away anytime soon. “Four years ago, maybe half our releases would get an LP option,” says James Cartwright, production manager at Merge Records. “Now every release we do has a vinyl format.”

Mounting today’s LPs side-by-side on a giant wall would offer a particularly kaleidoscopic display since a significant chunk of sales now come from colored discs. While some purists claim these sorts of limited-edition releases and Record Store Day exclusives are leading to the cartoonization of a format, it’s apparent after speaking with pressing plants, labels, and record stores that artists like Jack White are giving people what they want. As vinyl sales have climbed, so has the demand for exclusives. Musicol’s two-press operation in Columbus, Ohio, has been pressing vinyl since the 1960s, and though the place used to press about 90 percent black vinyl, color vinyl now accounts for about half of its orders. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s five-year-old Gotta Groove Records presses about 40 percent of its LPs and 45s on colored vinyl.

And White isn’t the only one upping the ante with quirky embellishments. On a recent tour of Gotta Groove’s operation, sparkling specs littered the ground near the 7” machine after a just-completed run of 100 45s were pressed on clear vinyl with glitter. Covering the walls of a listening room were more custom orders that ranged from impressive to confounding. One band pressed coffee grounds into their records. Another incorporated the ashes of a 19th-century Bible. And an upcoming order will include shredded cash. The plant has to draw a line when a client’s order includes bodily fluids. “At least once a month a band wants to press their blood into the record,” says Gotta Groove VP of sales and marketing Matt Earley, who always says no.

Now, you might think adding blood or coffee to vinyl is a sign that the format has officially crossed the line from cultural commodity to tchotchke—and there are certainly bands that would agree. In fact, Beeler at Asthmatic Kitty says some of his label’s artists are beginning to resist colored vinyl and other exclusives. But Asthmatic Kitty and others still do it, because consumers demand it, and those limited-edition releases drive sales. (These sorts of exclusive releases also often bypass distributors and record stores, driving sales directly to a label’s web store.)

by Joel Oliphint, Pitchfork |  Read more:
Image: Mara Robinson 

The Overblown Stigma of Genital Herpes

Even after his friends hype him up, Jamin Peckham still backs out sometimes. It’s not that he’s shy or insecure about his looks. Instead, what keeps this 27-year-old from approaching the cute girl across the room is a set of hypotheticals that most people don’t deal with.

“My mind runs ahead to ‘the disclosure talk’ and then all the way down to, ‘What if we have sex and what if I give it to her?’” said Peckham, an IT professional who lives in Austin, Texas.

Peckham has had genital herpes for six years now and got it from an ex-girlfriend who didn’t know she had it. He hasn’t been in a relationship with any girls since his diagnosis, though he’s been rejected by a few girls who asked to be friends after hearing about his condition. Due to this, Peckham said that he has to work harder than ever to secure a romantic relationship.

Some think of people like Peckham as immoral, assuming only people who sleep around get genital herpes. The stigma of the virus, which exists at the heart of this faulty mindset, is usually worse than the symptoms themselves, as it affects dating, social life and psychological health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of six people in the United States aged 14 to 49 have genital herpes caused by the HSV-2 infection (the herpes simplex virus often responsible for genital herpes). The overall genital herpes statistic is probably higher, the CDC stated, since many people are also contracting genital herpes through oral sex caused by HSV-1 (the kind of herpes usually responsible for cold sores). Taking that into account, genital herpes statistics are usually quoted at closer to 25 percent for women and 10 percent for men, but most of these people don’t even know they have it.

In terms of a person’s health, genital herpes is usually nothing to worry about. According to the National Institutes of Health, many people with genital herpes never even have outbreaks or their outbreaks decrease over time (one or two outbreaks a year is not uncommon). The virus can lie dormant in your system for years without coming to the surface. The initial outbreak is often the worst, occurring a few days to a couple of weeks after being infected. Symptoms may include a fever, headache, and muscle aches for a few weeks. But for the most part, outbreaks consist of painful fever blisters or sores on or near the genitals (or, in less common cases, sores appearing elsewhere) for a few days, as well as burning, itching, swelling, and irritation that may be triggered by stress or fatigue. The virus never goes away, and some take antiviral medicines to relieve or suppress outbreaks. (...)

Genital herpes is contracted during sexual contact, usually spread through fluids on the genitals or mouth. You can only get genital herpes from someone who already has it, can get it during just one sexual encounter, and can get it with or without a condom. Condoms merely lower your risk, according to the CDC. You can even get it if the other person doesn’t have symptoms, since the virus sheds about 10 percent of the time for asymptomatic HSV-2 infections, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association.

Herpes has a unique stigma among sexually transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS is stigmatized, but few laugh at people who have it because it’s a serious illness. HPV can lead to cancer, on occasion, and women get tested regularly for it, making it no joke to most. Chlamydia, syphilis, crabs, scabies, and gonorrhea are sometimes the target of jokes, but these STDS are typically curable, so people won’t have to endure the annoyance for too long. Genital herpes, though, isn’t curable, is thought of as a disease only the promiscuous and cheating-types get, and is a popular joke topic.

Despite the fact that herpes has been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks, according to Stanford University, the widespread stigma seems to be just decades old. Herpes is the “largest epidemic no one wants to talk about,” Eric Sabo wrote in the New York Times. Both Project Accept and HSV Singles Dating blame an antiviral drug marketing campaign during the late 1970s to mid-1980s for herpes’ stigma. But it’s difficult to pin down exactly when and why our negative associations started.

by Jon Fortenbury, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Instant Vantage/flickr

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mike Carroll, Backyard Bounty

For Coconut Waters, a Street Fight for Shelf Space

Like kale salads and Robin Thicke, coconut water seems to have jumped from invisible to unavoidable without a pause in the realm of the vaguely familiar.

The stuff is everywhere — not just in supermarkets and convenience stores, but also on ads on buses (“Crack life open”) and bar signs (“Detox while you retox,” reads one in Manhattan, promoting a Vita Coco Arnold Palmer cocktail). It has turned up on television, as a question on “Jeopardy,” and it regularly makes cameos in glossy magazines, clutched by hydrating celebrities.

The battle for this market, worth $400 million a year and growing, now involves big players like Pepsi and Coke. But in the beginning, it looked more like a street fight between two guys. One was then a 29-year-old college dropout who rolled to Manhattan bodegas at night, on in-line skates, carrying samples in a backpack. The other was a former Peace Corps volunteer, driving a beat-up Econoline Ford van and fighting for the same turf.

Michael Kirban, who with a buddy founded Vita Coco, and Mark Rampolla, who founded its archrival Zico, happened to start selling nearly identical brands, in the same neighborhoods of New York City, at almost the same time — a week or two apart, in late 2004.

Those in the fray called it the coconut water wars. Each side quickly bulked up with sales teams and tried to win over Manhattan, one grocery store and yoga studio at a time.

The fighting quickly got ugly. It included simple acts of retail vandalism, like tossing the competition’s signs in the garbage, as well as attempts at psychological point-scoring that could charitably be described as sophomoric. Mr. Kirban sometimes placed a container of Zico beside a sleeping vagabond, took a photograph and then emailed it to Mr. Rampolla. And on more than a few occasions, the Zico sales force showed up outside Vita Coco’s offices, then near Union Square, and handed out free Zico samples.

“It was guerrilla tactics,” recalls Mr. Rampolla, talking from his home in Redondo Beach, Calif. “And not legal because you’re supposed to have permits. But if you were quick enough, no one would hassle you.”

Coconut water went from local skirmish to beverage fame despite what might seem like a major impediment: its flavor. Anyone expecting the confectioner’s version of coconut — the one you find in coconut ice cream, for instance — may be repelled. This is the juice of a green coconut, and the taste is a mix of faintly sweet and a tad salty. Some have compared it to socks, sweat and soap. And that group includes people crucial to coconut water’s success.

“When I tried it, I didn’t get it,” says Lewis Hershkowitz, the president of Big Geyser, which distributes Zico in New York City. “I thought it was disgusting.”

For many, the challenging taste is part of the appeal. Some are so smitten with the flavor they have created online forums that sound like support groups.

A decade ago, companies like Goya sold coconut water in stores catering to immigrants, and in quantities that hardly registered in market research. Today, more than 200 brands around the world sell “nature’s own sports drink,” as fans call it, and sales are rising by double-digit figures.

“This will eventually be a $1 billion-a-year category,” says John Craven, founder and chief executive of BevNet, a trade publication. “It’s the real deal. It isn’t a new flavor of Coke. It’s not Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. This has staying power. People put it in their diet and it stays there.”

The titans of the industry are on board. In 2010, PepsiCo acquired a majority stake in the distant third-place contender, O.N.E., and in 2009 Coca-Cola bought a 20 percent stake in Zico. Last year, it purchased the company outright.

Coke’s initial investment in Zico seemed like catastrophic news for Vita Coco, the only brand still controlled by its founders.

“I thought we were dead,” says Mr. Kirban of Vita Coco. “I didn’t tell anybody at the time, but I remember wondering, ‘How are we going to beat Coke?' ”

The answer would involve Madonna, Hula Hoops, a family-owned investment firm in Belgium and a former professional tennis player turned salesman named Goldy. Vita Coco now owns more than 60 percent of the coconut water market, while Zico has less than 20 percent, according to Euromonitor, a research company. Two weeks ago, Vita Coco agreed to sell a 25 percent stake of itself to Red Bull China, giving it a head start in the world’s most populous country and valuing the company at about $665 million.

How a tiny, privately held company outmaneuvered the biggest players in the world is material for a business school case study. And to tell the whole story, you need to start in 2003, at a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, Mr. Kirban and his friend and future business partner, Ira Liran, spotted two Brazilian women.

by David Segal, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Serge Bloch

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lessons From America's War for the Greater Middle East

For well over 30 years now, the United States military has been intensively engaged in various quarters of the Islamic world. An end to that involvement is nowhere in sight.

Tick off the countries in that region that U.S. forces in recent decades have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided and where American soldiers have killed or been killed. Since 1980, they include Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. But also Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan. The list goes on.

To judge by various official explanations coming out of Washington, the mission of the troops dispatched to these various quarters has been to defend or deter or liberate, punishing the wicked and protecting the innocent while spreading liberal values and generally keeping Americans safe.

What are we to make of the larger enterprise in which the U.S. forces have been engaged since well before today’s Notre Dame undergraduates were even born? What is the nature of the military struggle we are waging? What should we call it?

For several years after 9/11, Americans referred to it as the Global War on Terrorism, a misleading term that has since fallen out of favor.

For a brief period during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, certain neoconservatives promoted the term World War IV. This never caught on, however, in part because, unlike other major 20th century conflicts, it found the American people sitting on the sidelines.

With interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on inconclusively, some military officers began referring to what they called the Long War. While nicely capturing the temporal dimension of the conflict, this label had nothing to say about purpose, adversary or location. As with World War IV, the Long War never gained much traction.

Here’s another possibility. Since 1980, back when President Jimmy Carter promulgated the Carter Doctrine, the United States has been engaged in what we should rightfully call America’s War for the Greater Middle East. The premise underlying that war can be simply stated: with disorder, dysfunction and disarray in the Islamic world posing a growing threat to vital U.S. national security interests, the adroit application of hard power would enable the United States to check those tendencies and thereby preserve the American way of life.

Choose whatever term you like: police, pacify, shape, control, dominate, transform. In 1980, President Carter launched the United States on a project aimed at nothing less than determining the fate and future of the peoples inhabiting the arc of nations from the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.

Since the end of World War II, American soldiers had fought and died in Asia. Even when the wars in Korea and Vietnam ended, U.S. troop contingents continued to garrison the region. In Europe, a major U.S. military presence dating from the start of the Cold War signaled Washington’s willingness to fight there as well. Prior to Carter’s watershed 1980 statement, no comparable U.S. commitment toward the Islamic world existed. Now that was going to change.

Only in retrospect does this become clear, of course. At the time President Carter declared the Persian Gulf a vital national security interest — that was the literal meaning of the Carter Doctrine — he did not intend to embark upon a war. Nor did he anticipate what course that war was going to follow — its duration, costs and consequences. Like the European statesmen who a hundred years ago touched off the cataclysm we know today as World War I, Carter merely lit a fuse without knowing where it led. (...)

Neither Carter nor his advisers foresaw what awaited 10 or 20 years down the line. They were largely clueless as to what lay inside the Pandora’s box they insisted on opening. But what they and their successors in government found there prompted them to initiate a sequence of military actions, some large, some small, that deserve collective recognition as a war. That war continues down to the present day.

Look closely enough and the dots connect. Much as, say, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the invasion of Grenada (among many other events) all constitute episodes in what we call the Cold War, so, too, do seemingly disparate events such as the Beirut bombing of 1983, the “Black Hawk Down” debacle of 1993 and the Iraq invasion of 2003 (among many others) all form part of a single narrative. Acknowledging the existence of that narrative — seeing America’s War for the Greater Middle East whole — is a prerequisite to learning.

Let me state plainly my own overall assessment of that war. We have not won it. We are not winning it. And simply pressing on is unlikely to produce more positive results next year or the year after — hence, the imperative of absorbing the lessons this ongoing war has to teach. Learning offers a first-step toward devising wiser, more effective and less costly policies.

The “10 theses” that follow constitute a preliminary effort to identify the most important of those lessons.

by Andrew Bacevich, Notre Dame Magazine |  Read more:
Image: via:

Where Do Cocktail Prices Come From?

Unlike the people who drink them, not all cocktails are created equal. Or at least that's what their prices seem to indicate. The mixed drinks at one bar in one city might be double what they cost at a cocktail-conscious watering hole in another part of the country.

But it doesn't even take a supersonic bar-hop across America to observe this phenomenon. A house cocktail at New York City's Pouring Ribbons, an innovative establishment slinging impeccable drinks, will cost you $14. Not too far uptown, at the stately bar at the NoMad Hotel—where the drinks are similarly innovative and well executed—an original cocktail sells for $16. Then there's ZZ's Clam Bar, in Greenwich Village, where sipping on one of chief bartender Thomas Waugh's elegant liquid creations will set you back $20—or nearly 43 percent more than the cost of a drink at Pouring Ribbons.

Complicating things further, there are plenty of bars and restaurants that go out of their way, it would appear, to price their house cocktails consistently—say, all for $12 apiece—suggesting to a casual observer that, perhaps, all these drinks are an equal value.

I reached out to several managers of serious cocktail destinations in order to better understand what accounts for the broad swings in price we encounter from place to place as we ply the now-extensive craft-cocktail landscape, as well as why some cocktail menus are priced uniformly.

A cocktail by nature is a combination, in differing ratios, of a set of ingredients that each have costs, so many cocktail bars spend a lot of time and effort crunching the numbers behind their drinks. Setting prices for a cocktail-focused list can take a lot more work than menu-pricing might take at a wine or beer bar. That's certainly the impression I get from Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. He approaches the pricing of his cocktail menu with a great deal of mathematical precision, coupled with a small dose of professional intuition.

In addition to bartending, Morgenthaler maintains a blog about his craft, and pricing strategy has been a recurring subject over the years. He's even released Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to his readers, many of whom are in the service industry, as instructional tools. The charts are basic versions of the ones he uses at Clyde Common to calculate pour cost and, by extension, sales prices for drinks.

Pour cost is pretty much what it sounds like: the cost a bar incurs by pouring a given cocktail. But pour cost is typically expressed as a percentage of the sale price of a drink rather than a raw number; so if it costs a bar $2 in goods to produce a drink that it sells for $10, the pour cost of that drink is 20 percent. "Some places need the pour cost to come in at 18 percent," Morgenthaler tells me, "others are fine with 25 percent. It all depends on the business operations." In other words, a bar might decide upon an acceptable range in which its pour costs must fall, given how other aspects of the business factor in, and then calculate the price of drinks based on that range. Between two drinks sold for the same price, the one with the higher pour cost earns the bar a smaller profit.

by Roger Kamholz, Serious Eats |  Read more:
Image: Alice Gao

Israel Mows the Lawn

In 2004, a year before Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Dov Weissglass, √©minence grise to Ariel Sharon, explained the initiative’s purpose to an interviewer from Haaretz:
The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with … a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress … The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.
In 2006 Weissglass was just as frank about Israel’s policy towards Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants: ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.’ He was not speaking metaphorically: it later emerged that the Israeli defence ministry had conducted detailed research on how to translate his vision into reality, and arrived at a figure of 2279 calories per person per day – some 8 per cent less than a previous calculation because the research team had originally neglected to account for ‘culture and experience’ in determining nutritional ‘red lines’.

This wasn’t an academic exercise. After pursuing a policy of enforced integration between 1967 and the late 1980s, Israeli policy shifted towards separation during the 1987-93 uprising, and then fragmentation during the Oslo years. For the Gaza Strip, an area about the size of Greater Glasgow, these changes entailed a gradual severance from the outside world, with the movement of persons and goods into and out of the territory increasingly restricted.

The screws were turned tighter during the 2000-5 uprising, and in 2007 the Gaza Strip was effectively sealed shut. All exports were banned, and just 131 truckloads of foodstuffs and other essential products were permitted entry per day. Israel also strictly controlled which products could and could not be imported. Prohibited items have included A4 paper, chocolate, coriander, crayons, jam, pasta, shampoo, shoes and wheelchairs.

In 2010, commenting on this premeditated and systematic degradation of the humanity of an entire population, David Cameron characterised the Gaza Strip as a ‘prison camp’ and – for once – did not neuter this assessment by subordinating his criticism to proclamations about the jailers’ right of self-defence against their inmates.

It’s often claimed that Israel’s reason for escalating this punitive regime to a new level of severity was to cause the overthrow of Hamas after its 2007 seizure of power in Gaza. The claim doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Removing Hamas from power has indeed been a policy objective for the US and the EU ever since the Islamist movement won the 2006 parliamentary elections, and their combined efforts to undermine it helped set the stage for the ensuing Palestinian schism.

Israel’s agenda has been different. Had it been determined to end Hamas rule it could easily have done so, particularly while Hamas was still consolidating its control over Gaza in 2007, and without necessarily reversing the 2005 disengagement. Instead, it saw the schism between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as an opportunity to further its policies of separation and fragmentation, and to deflect growing international pressure for an end to an occupation that has lasted nearly half a century. Its massive assaults on the Gaza Strip in 2008-9 (Operation Cast Lead) and 2012 (Operation Pillar of Defence), as well as countless individual attacks between and since, were in this context exercises in what the Israeli military called ‘mowing the lawn’: weakening Hamas and enhancing Israel’s powers of deterrence. As the 2009 Goldstone Report and other investigations have demonstrated, often in excruciating detail, the grass consists overwhelmingly of non-combatant Palestinian civilians, indiscriminately targeted by Israel’s precision weaponry.

by Mouin Rabbani, LRB |  Read more:

Fran Recacha, Sea Lover

Weed Weddings

[ed. As far as weddings are concerned, I'm pretty sure the novelty will wear off soon enough. Can't say that about other aspects of our culture, though.]

Earlier this month, when Ellen Epstein arrived at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash, Colo., for the wedding of her friends Lauren Meisels and Bradley Melshenker, she, like the other guests, found a gift bag waiting for her in her hotel room. But rather than a guide to activities in the area or a jar of locally made honey, the canvas bag contained a rolled joint, a lighter and lip balm infused with mango butter and cannabis, along with this note: “We wanted to show you some of the things we love the best.”

She knew then that the wedding of her fellow Boulder residents would be just a little different from the ones she had attended in the past.

The Meisels and Melshenker nuptials looked as if their inspiration had come not from the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings but from High Times. All of the floral arrangements, including the bride’s bouquet, contained a variety of white flowers mixed with marijuana buds and leaves. Mr. Melshenker and his groomsmen wore boutonnieres crafted out of twine and marijuana buds, and Mr. Melshenker’s three dogs, who were also in attendance, wore collars made of cannabis buds, eucalyptus leaves and pink ribbons.

Before going into dinner, the guests were given a baby marijuana plant in a ceramic pot with their name and table assignment written on a card in green ink, in the kind of stylish script you might find on a container of artisanal goat cheese. The tables were named after different strains of marijuana, like Blue Dream, Sour Diesel and Skywalker (the groom’s favorite strain). Ms. Epstein, who was seated at Skywalker, said that everyone at her table, where the ages ranged from 40 to 70, passed around a device similar to an electronic cigarette — except that it contained hash oil instead of nicotine. “It didn’t feel weird or bizarre,” she said. “It kind of becomes a new cocktail.”

With the sale of marijuana for recreational use now legal in Colorado and Washington State, pot and its various paraphernalia are becoming visible at weddings in those states — as table favors for guests like miniature vaporizers or group activites like a hookah lounge. (...)

Jake Rosenbarger of Kim & Jake’s Cakes in Boulder said he would not make a cannabis cake if asked. Marijuana ruins the flavor, he said, and it can even ruin a wedding. “It can divide a room as much as pull it together,” he said. “It creates a vibe of, ‘Are you in the cool kids club or not?’ ”

Penni Ervin, a wedding planner in Crested Butte, was aghast when asked if she was working on any weddings in which pot was involved. “We’re talking about highly professional people, and I just don’t see C.E.O.s getting stoned,” she said. “It’s a family event with grandma and grandpa,” adding, “and you don’t want them to get shocked.”

by Lois Smith Brady, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Alison Vagnini

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fellow Vegans, Please Stop Making Me Hate You

When I was young and self-hating, I used to not-really-jokingly tell people that I was a "queer writer vegan who hates other queer writer vegans." We can unpack the sadness of that statement at a later date; suffice it to say that I am a competitive attention-seeker, and when competitive attention-seekers are uncertain and immature, sometimes they blame others for their own insecurities rather than examining their own behaviors.

But I digress. Obviously, I no longer hate other queers or other writers. Duh. I do, however, still sometimes hate other vegans. At least, I hate the way some other vegans behave about the whole shebang.

Here's the thing. I've been a vegan for five years now, and I can say that there are a lot of facets of the lifestyle that I appreciate. For example, I like the fact that I eat a hell of a lot more fruits and vegetables than I did in my Dorito-and-Diet-Coke-reliant teenage years. I like that I am occasionally driven by sheer necessity to create new, exciting combinations of breakfast foods (such as peanut-butter-and-frozen-pea tacos, or peanut-butter-and-broccoli stir fry, or peanut-butter-and-one's-own-hand despair-pops). I like that a lot of the vegans I have met are chill folks willing to swap nutritional yeast recipes or let me steal a bite of their tofu breakfast burrito.

And, on the real, I like that I'm not creating any personal demand for factory-farmed milk and eggs. That's what drove me to becoming vegan in the first place, and while I don't talk about it much -- because, frankly, I wrestle with the ethics of avoiding chick-maceration while gorging on strawberries picked by exploited farmworkers -- it's still a pretty big part of why I avoid everything pushed on me by the Cheese Lobby.

However, these positives are far from universal. Veganism is, by nature, not for everyone. And the sooner everyone realizes that, the less inclined I will be to automatically make an Aggressively Placid Face at the next person to espouse the evils of honey at me.

Take what just happened in Detroit, for example. On Thursday, PETA, never known for being a font of rationality when it comes to animal rights, offered to pay the water bill for 10 city families who "pledged to go vegan for a month." Despite the fact that half of Detroit's residents are struggling to, say, flush their toilets or cook on the stove, PETA apparently took it upon itself to use a basic human necessity as leverage for "pledging" to forgo animal products.

Clearly, this is a moronic, unsustainable venture. I am not a resident of Detroit, but if a stranger approached me in my hour of desperation and told me to kill a man just to watch him die, I would 100 percent promise her that her target would be at the bottom of Lake Michigan within the hour. I wouldn't do it, of course, but so long as she was willing to fork over the moolah for utilities, I'd tell her whatever she wanted to hear.

Similarly, there's no indication that PETA will check in with these folks after supposedly ponying up cash for their needs. As of now, they seem content to throw a few pro-vegan pamphlets at families before jetting back to wherever animal rights executives go when they're not trying to raise a stink. In other words, this smells like a publicity stunt, and a half-assed one at best.

From an outside perspective, it appeared as if PETA wanted to cast itself as the wise savior who just needed to offer a tiny incentive -- i.e., water in your own home -- to spark the wonder of veganism within the hearts of Detroiters. In fact, it even graciously pointed out to its would-be beneficiaries that "by accepting our offer to go vegan, not only will families be getting an immediate financial boost and helping animals, if they stick with it, they’ll also lower their risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and strokes." Shut up, PETA. (...)

Again, most vegans I know do not behave this poorly to such a large degree. Many, in fact, understand that food is a personal experience, and that it's unacceptable to shame others for listening to their own bodies, putting their needs ahead of what they perceive to be important, or just frankly not really caring what they place in their face. But I think we've all known vegans who refuse to empathize with other humans in favor of empathizing with farm animals -- and that is no way to create social or environmental change in the long run. For one thing, that's a dickish way to behave, period. For another, it's not going to shift anyone's eating habits, except maybe in the opposite direction out of spite.

by Kate Conway, XOJane |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Ryan Adams

Al Di Meola

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Map

Nasturtium ‘Aloha Red'

Guy Walks Into a Bar

So a guy walks into a bar one day and he can’t believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there’s this one-foot-tall man, in a little tuxedo, playing a tiny grand piano.

So the guy asks the bartender, “Where’d he come from?”

And the bartender’s, like, “There’s a genie in the men’s room who grants wishes.”

So the guy runs into the men’s room and, sure enough, there’s this genie. And the genie’s, like, “Your wish is my command.” So the guy’s, like, “O.K., I wish for world peace.” And there’s this big cloud of smoke—and then the room fills up with geese.

So the guy walks out of the men’s room and he’s, like, “Hey, bartender, I think your genie might be hard of hearing.”

And the bartender’s, like, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”

So the guy processes this. And he’s, like, “Does that mean you wished for a twelve-inch penis?”

And the bartender’s, like, “Yeah. Why, what did you wish for?”

And the guy’s, like, “World peace.”

So the bartender is understandably ashamed.

And the guy orders a beer, like everything is normal, but it’s obvious that something has changed between him and the bartender.

And the bartender’s, like, “I feel like I should explain myself further.”

And the guy’s, like, “You don’t have to.”

But the bartender continues, in a hushed tone. And he’s, like, “I have what’s known as penile dysmorphic disorder. Basically, what that means is I fixate on my size. It’s not that I’m small down there. I’m actually within the normal range. Whenever I see it, though, I feel inadequate.”

And the guy feels sorry for him. So he’s, like, “Where do you think that comes from?”

And the bartender’s, like, “I don’t know. My dad and I had a tense relationship. He used to cheat on my mom, and I knew it was going on, but I didn’t tell her. I think it’s wrapped up in that somehow.”

And the guy’s, like, “Have you ever seen anyone about this?”

And the bartender’s, like, “Oh, yeah, I started seeing a therapist four years ago. But she says we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

by Simon Rich, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Yann Kebbi

Inside Sun Noodle, the Secret Weapon of America's Best Ramen Shops

There were only about three or four ramen shops on Oahu when Hidehito Uki founded Sun Noodle in 1981. Ramen in America was pretty much just a cup of noodles you cook in the microwave. Uki — who had come to Hawaii from Japan to make and sell fresh ramen noodles — wondered how he could ever be successful.
Now, ramen shops have proliferated in cities from Los Angeles and New York to DC, Chicago, and even Milwaukee. People stand in line for ramen. Chefs create mash-ups of ramen and hamburgers, and people stand in line for those, too.

Behind the scenes of the so-called ramen boom of recent years is Sun Noodle. Over the last 33 years, the Hawaiian company has built three factories which pump out a combined 90,000 servings of ramen noodles per day. It sells these noodles to notable ramenya across America, including nine of New York Times critic Pete Wells' picks for the top 10 ramen destinations in New York. Ivan Orkin, one of Japan's most respected ramen chefs, says that Sun Noodle was the clear choice when he recently opened two restaurants in New York City. And Momofuku's David Chang, who is often credited with the rise of ramen in America, believes that Sun Noodle facilitated that boom. "It's an entire micro-industry they've created," he says. (...)

Sun Noodle Begins

A trip to Hawaii was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to an 19-year-old Hidehito Uki. He was working for a noodle factory in the Japanese countryside when he got the call from his father, who operated another noodle company named Unoki in Japan. His father's business partner had pulled out of their project in Hawaii just before it opened. The project was dead, but a noodle-making machine remained on-site. Did Hidehito want it?

Hidehito arrived in Honolulu in 1981. He didn't speak any English, and he didn't know anything about the Hawaiian noodle market. All he knew was that people in Hawaii were interested in noodles, particularly the local variety called saimin, a native Hawaiian noodle soup that is similar to ramen but made with egg noodles and topped with things like Spam. Saimin dates back the islands' plantation history, and was such a locally beloved comfort food that McDonald's already offered saimin on its menus in Hawaii by the time Hidehito arrived.

There were about 20 noodle manufacturers on the island of Oahu at the time, mostly churning out saimin noodles. There were a few ramen shops and plenty of instant ramen available, but Hidehito didn't find much in the way of fresh ramen as he launched Sun Noodle. The quality of the flour wasn't very good either. "I was so surprised, and I wondered if I could have a successful business in Hawaii," Hidehito says.

Getting that first customer did turn out to be a challenge. Hidehito's strategy was to bring samples to potential clients who didn't really understand what he was offering after years of working with instant noodles. They didn't want to eat Hidehito's noodles with their unfamiliarly firm texture, a result of the alkalinity that is key to fresh ramen noodles. He would listen to their feedback, return to his factory, and make the noodles again. Hidehito went back and forth about 15 times with Ezogiku, a small Japanese ramen shop that had opened its first international location in Hawaii seven years earlier. The owners were impressed, and Ezogiku became Sun Noodle's first customer. More customers came. (...)

Sun Noodle has a reputation for working with chefs to create a noodle that best complements their broth recipe. At the New Jersey factory, there are 40 recipes for dough on the master sheet. Each of these can be cut differently — wavy, straight, thick, thin — meaning that there are altogether about 120 types of ramen noodle produced on just one assembly line in the 10,000-square-foot factory. "Can you imagine a bakery that makes 75 kinds of bread, 80 kinds of bread?" Orkin asks.

And Sun Noodle is obsessive about the quality of each of these 120 types of ramen noodles. Every detail matters, starting with the flour. Sun Noodle uses eight different types of flour from suppliers in Canada, Australia, and America, in various combinations. The flour is tempered for at least eight hours at a temperature between 62 and 67 degrees. The factory filters water on a reverse osmosis machine, and constantly measures the humidity of the factory to adjust the water levels correspondingly. Sun Noodle also adds kansui, a mix of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, to the water in order to reproduce the alkalinity of Japanese water that makes ramen noodles firm and springy.

by Amy McKeever, Eater |  Read more:
Image: Daniel Krieger

Failing the Third Machine Age

[ed. See also: And So It Begins.]

A cheerily written op-ed in the New York Times proclaims: “It’s time for robot caregivers”.

Why? We have many elderly people who need care, and children—especially those with disabilities—the piece argues, and not enough caregivers.

Call in the machines, she says:
“We do not have anywhere near enough human caregivers for the growing number of older Americans.”
This how to fail the third machine age.

This is not just an inhuman policy perspective, it’s economically destructive and rests on accepting current economic policies and realities as if they were immutable.

Let me explain. When people confidently announce that once robots come for our jobs, we’ll find something else to do like we always did, they are drawing from a very short history. The truth is, there’s only been one-and-a-three-quarters of a machine age—we are close to concluding the second one—we are moving into the third one.

And there is probably no fourth one.

Humans have only so many “irreplaceable” skills, and the idea that we’ll just keep outrunning the machines, skill-wise, is a folly. (...)

But wait, you say, there’s a next set of skills, surely?

That has been the historical argument: sure, robots may replace us, but humans have always found a place to go.

As I recounted, there are really only one and a maybe two thirds examples of such shifts, so far, so forgive me if I find such induction unconvincing. Manual labor (one), mental labor (still happening) and now mental skills are getting replaced, we are retreating, partially into emotional labor—i.e. care-giving.

And now machines, we are told, are coming for care-giving.

We are told that this is because there aren't enough humans?

Let’s just start with the obvious: Nonsense.

Of course we have enough human caregivers for the elderly. The country –and the world— is awash in underemployment and unemployment, and many people find caregiving to be a fulfilling and desirable profession. The only problem is that we –as a society— don’t want to pay caregivers well and don’t value their labor. Slightly redistributive policies that would slightly decrease the existing concentration of wealth to provide subsidies for childcare or elder care are, unfortunately, deemed untouchable goals by political parties beholden to a narrow slice of society.

Remember: whenever you hear there’s a shortage of humans (or food), it is almost always a code for shortage of money. (Modern famines are also almost always a shortage of money, not food). Modern shortages of “labor” are almost always a shortage of willingness to pay well, or a desire to avoid hiring the “wrong” kind of people. (...)

Next, consider that emotional labor is all that’s left to escape to as humans workers after manual and mental labor have been already been mostly taken over by machines.

(Creative labor is sometimes cited as another alternative but I am discounting this since it is already discounted—it is very difficult, already, to make a living through creative labor, and it’s getting harder and not easier. But that’s another post).

US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the following jobs as the ones with the largest growth in the next decade: Personal care aides, registered nurses, retail salespersons, home health aides, fast-food, nursing assistants, secretaries, customer service representatives, janitors…

It’s those face-to-face professions, ones in which being in contact with another human being are important, that are growing in numbers—almost every other profession is shrinking, numerically.

(No there won’t be a shortage of engineers and programmers either—engineers and programmers, better than anyone, should know that machine intelligence is coming for them fairly soon, and will move up the value chain pretty quickly. Also, much of this “shortage”, too, is about controlling workers and not paying them—note how Silicon Valley colluded to not pay its engineers too much, even as the companies in question had hoarded billions in cash. In a true shortage under market conditions, companies would pay more to that which was scarce).

Many of these jobs BLS says will grow, however, are only there for the grace-of-the-generation that still wants to see a cashiers while checking out—and besides, they are low-paid jobs. Automation plus natural language processing by machines is going to obliterate through those jobs in the next decade or two. (Is anyone ready for the even worse labor crisis that will ensue?) Machines will take your order at the fast-food joint, they will check out your groceries without having to scan them, it will become even harder to get a human on the customer service line.

What’s left as jobs is those transactions in which the presence of the human is something more than a smiling face that takes your order and enters into another machine—the cashier and the travel agent that has now been replaced by us, in the “self-serve” economy.

What’s left is deep emotional labor: taking care of each other.

by Zeynep Tufekci, Medium |  Read more:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Arctic Man

Wild rides and crazed nights at America's most extreme ski race. 

It's April in Alaska so the traffic on the Glenn Highway can't be blamed on either winter snow or summer tourists. The line of yellowing motorhomes, bulbous camper trailers, jacked-up pickups and shopworn Subarus inching out of Wasilla onto the hairpins and steep climbs of the Glenn is, as the bumper stickers say, "Alaska Grown," the annual migration of the state's Sledneck population to Arctic Man. Once clear of the sprawl of Wasilla, the signs along the way read like pages flying back on a calendar, flipping past the state's prospector and homestead era — "Jackass Creek," "Frost Heave," "Eureka" — to the Native names, from long before there was English to write them down: "Matanuska," "Chickaloon," "Tazlina." Then there's the highway itself, named for Edwin Glenn, a Spanish-American war vet and Army officer who was the first American soldier ever court-martialed for waterboarding. But earlier in his career, in the late 1890s, Glenn led two expeditions into this wilderness.

Maybe that's the lesson: If you put your name in the ground up here, it stays. Your life outside the state is your own concern.

After the Glenn, you head up past Gulkana — Athabascan for "winding river" — and then a final rush out onto the frozen moonscape of Summit Lake, where the peaks of the Alaska Range fill the horizon, all the way to mighty Denali, which might be the best counterexample of Alaskan identity: William McKinley may have been president, but he never set foot in Alaska, so most Alaskans call the nation's largest mountain by its native name, Denali.

You turn off the highway, down a road piled with eight feet of snow on both sides. This is Camp Isabel, once the single biggest work camp along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, now a forgotten gravel airstrip at the base of the Hoodoo Mountains. Perhaps 1,000 motorhomes, RVs and trailers are already here, strewn like fallen Jenga pieces inside the frozen walls. Snowmachines buzz past your doors, above your head on the snow banks and over the distant peaks like swarming gnats. The temperature is way below freezing, but the air still carries the smell of gasoline, grilled meat and alcohol. A four-wheeler rumbles past pulling a big sled and on the big sled is a couch, a so-called Alaskan Rickshaw. Four people are riding, holding drinks. One of them is wearing a full wolf pelt, snout, eyes, ears and all. He nods and tips his cup "Hello."

Arctic Man is a weeklong, booze and fossil-fueled Sledneck Revival bookended around the world's craziest ski race. Both the festival and the race at its heart have been firing off every year in these mountains for more than half as long as Alaska has been a state. Over the course of a week, something like 10,000 partiers and their snowmachines disgorge onto Camp Isabel's 300-acre pad to drink, grill, fight, drink and, at least while the sun is out, blast their sleds through the ear-deep powder in the surrounding hills one last time before it all melts away. Then on Friday morning, anyone not hopelessly hungover or already drunk by noon swarms up the valley south of camp to watch the damnedest ski race on earth.

by Matt White, SBNation |  Read more:
Image: Brian Montalbo

Henri Matisse, Bathers by a River

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Shining Light on Cutoff Culture

Most of us don’t blink when a friend says they’ve cut off an ex. But if you’ve ever been cut off by someone you care deeply for, then you know how distinctly painful an experience it can be. While it may be socially acceptable to cut off communication with our exes, we’re not always cognizant of the impacts on ourselves and our former partners. When we cut off, we may do so from anger but often we may be avoiding feelings of discomfort. Furthermore, if the person being cut off has trauma in their background, the psychological impacts can be devastating.

I’m not talking about distancing ourselves from those we casually date or asking for space after a breakup or simply choosing not to be friends with our exes. I’m talking about breaking off all contact with the most intimate person in our lives without civility — refusing to answer the phone, reply to emails, or acknowledge any aspect of their communication or needs — often without explanation.

Few of my friends know I’ve been nursing a broken heart, for nearly two and a half years. It’s not a typical broken heart but one that combines the end of a romance with the bewilderment and sadness of being cut off by a dear and trusted partner without explanation. It’s also one that echoes painful experiences from my childhood. (...)

Cutting off contact with exes seems to be a common practice. A friend of mine related being told by another friend to break up with her boyfriend via “JSC”; just stop communicating. “Love is a battlefield,” goes the saying.

When personal safety is involved, cutoff is warranted. But most times this isn’t the case. When it’s not, this kind of behavior dehumanizes the other and sends the message “your needs don’t matter, you don’t matter.” University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo told Psychology Today, “‘The pain of losing a meaningful relationship can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact.’ With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.”

Emma once told me, “You’re the first one to want me for me,” but her abrupt about-face might make you think I ran off with her best friend or boiled her rabbit … I did neither. In fact, to this day, I have only guesses to make sense of her hostility to me.

Because Emma’s withdrawal and eventual cutoff surprised me so much, I had a lot of intense emotions and questions about what she’d experienced and the choices she’d made. Rather than face my need for explanation and desire for resolution, she chose to withdraw.

Our society supports you when a loved one dies, but when someone dumps you and cuts off communication, you’re supposed to just get over it. Friends are often uncomfortable talking with you about these kinds of feelings. They want you to let go, move on, and definitely stop talking about it.

In The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson writes, “When a loved one dies, the loss is absolutely final…[but] abandonment survivors may remain in denial and postpone closure, sometimes indefinitely.” We’re not comfortable witnessing the process of grief and acceptance when it stems from the loss of romantic attachment, especially when it’s extended.

When there are emotional loose ends — unanswered questions, mistrust, betrayal, disbelief, bewilderment (as it was for me with Emma) — it can be very difficult to heal. Our culture is very hostile to people in this situation. We often judge those who don’t move on right away. Being the one struggling without answers is one of the most difficult human experiences.

by Jeff Reifman, Medium |  Read more:
Image: Jeff Reifman