Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Sacred Child

[ed. I've been reposting a few things from 2015 over the last few days. Here's something from a bit earlier. Given the ubiquity of phone cameras these days it's an issue to think about.]

Goa, India, 2009. A shimmering white beach. Clear blue water, a cloudless sky. The rush of waves and a constant din from jet skis. Behind us: rust-coloured sand, skinny cows browsing among trash and dry bushes.

I'm lounging on the sun bed with a mystery novel and keeping half an eye on my three-year-old daughter, who is sitting in pink swimming pants and playing with a bucket and spade. She is blonde, blue-eyed and unbelievably cute. People here stare at her, ensorcelled, love-struck, touching her hair, pointing at her. The other day the restaurant waiter - stoned? - approached and bit her tenderly on her yummy upper arm. And above all, they want to take her picture. In this country headed headlong into the future - the little dirt track back to the hotel that we walked when we arrived a week ago has already been tarred over with asphalt - every Indian seems to have a camera phone. Often they ask me, or more rarely my wife, civilly if they may take a picture. Having been brought up on Swedish school pedagogics, I relay the question to my daughter: "Is it OK for you if they take your picture?" I guess I think it's her decision.

A well-dressed slender Indian man in white pants and shirt wanders past on the beach. He smiles and coos at the playing Swedish child and takes out his cell phone. My sister-in-law is already there, asks my daughter, who says no. The man pays no attention, takes the pictures anyway.

My daughter is clearly stressed and uneasy with the situation, the strange man who stands before her with his phone portraying her, laughing lightly. My sister in law tells him off sharply, "Please! No!". He pays no mind, takes some more pictures.

I run down to the water and confront the man. "You respect my daughter!" I yell repeatedly. He apologises, looks nervous, says something in Hindi that I don't understand and points at his phone, as if showing that hey, he just took some pictures, what's the harm? He hurries away.

One of the beach guards soon catches up with him and takes the phone, clearly in order to flip through the photo folder. The man, by now visibly sweating and piteous, explains and gesticulates to the grim guard. Apparently there is nothing on the phone to suggest that the man is a sex tourist or pedophile, as he soon gets his phone back and slips off.

I sit back heavily on the sun bed. Conflicting emotions. I feel indignant and aggrieved - dammit, I should have thrown that phone into the sea, would have served that perv right. Uncertain - OK, he shouldn't have done that, but what if he's really just an everyday Indian guy who loves to see European kids on the beach and wanted a lovely holiday souvenir? Is that really such a big deal?

No more strangers take any pictures of my daughter on the trip. I quit offering her to decide. I just say no, categorically. Her image becomes untouchable. Her likeness becomes sacred.

I should perhaps begin with the disclaimer we all seem forced to start with when we talk about this issue. To wit: I hate everything about child molestation. I hate pedophiles, child porn, all the dirt and darkness and nauseating shit those awful people do. I have two little daughters and I'm prepared to kill or die to protect them against that kind of evil.

This is not actually an essay on child pornography, at least not if we take that to mean images of children being sexually abused, images that could not exist unless children had been violated, defiled, victimised. But in 2011, in Sweden, that is not the definition of child pornography. Instead there is a boundary zone between images that are OK (legitimate though potentially provocative) and such that are a crime to produce, disseminate and possess. That gray zone raises a number of difficult questions about children, art, society and sexuality. Those questions have rarely been more topical than today, and they touch upon the most personal, forbidden and sacred of issues.

Biddick Hall, north-east England, 1976. This time the three-year-old's name is Rosie Bowdrey. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a guest at the wealthy family's garden party, the sun beats down and he takes innumerable pictures. Rosie has been swimming and runs around in the nude; her mother hurriedly gets the child into a dress. She sits down, a little huffily, on a stone bench. Mapplethorpe takes a picture, probably using his new Hasselblad. Then the skirt comes off again.

34 years later this picture is considered the single most controversial work in Mapplethorpe's oeuvre. We're dealing with an artist who, later in life, took pictures of BDSM, of coprophagy, sexually charged images of African American men, pictures of himself with a bull whip up his posterior. But the picture where the genitals of a three-year-old can be made out is worse. Wherever "Rosie" has been shown, it has soon been taken down again, most recently in November 2010 at Bukowski's fine-arts auction house in Stockholm.

It makes no difference that Rosie's mother, Lady Beatrix Nevill, signed a release for the image, stating that she does not find it pornographic and that she wants it to be exhibited. It makes no difference that Rosie Bowdrey herself, now an adult, has said that she is proud of the picture, that she can't see how anyone would find it pornographic, and that she wants it to be exhibited. It makes no difference that nothing suggests that Mapplethorpe, who incidentally was gay, had any sexual interest in little girls.

Who is eroticising the child in the picture? The photographer - or the viewer?

Because at the same time: isn't there something erotic about that image? Or what? About the large luminous eyes, about the sullen mouth with its slightly drooping corners? Something like posing, provocative, that we recognise from a thousand sexually explicit or implicit pictures of adult women? Or what? What do you think?

People in art circles rarely condemn a work of art; more commonly one will encounter a "permissive" attitude to the sphere of aesthetics where anything smacking of censorship will be loudly decried. Thus it is interesting to note mystery novelist Mons Kallentoft writing on his blog that the image goes "way, way across the boundary to child porn" and noting with pleasure that this time "the alarm bells" had worked. "It's never ever right to eroticise a child, not even for the most self-aggrandising, priggish artistic purposes", he added. When I reach Kallentoft on the phone he is at first happy to develop his thoughts further.

"The girl in the picture can't choose, she's being watched. There are people on Earth who get turned on by pictures like these, and that constitutes abuse against her no matter how you shake it. Nobody has that right."

But as an adult, the girl in that picture has said that she doesn't view it as pornographic?

"It doesn't work that way. That's like saying that with consent, we're allowed to do whatever we like to each other, and we might as well sign contracts permitting others to murder us ... That picture is child porn and exhibiting it to the public is wrong! I mean sure, OK, you can keep it to yourself in your home."

So would the image be acceptable if it sat in somebody's photo album - where pictures of nude kids are pretty common?

Our interview takes a left turn here. Mons Kallentoft is very upset by my question, or by my matter-of-fact and slightly impersonal way of phrasing it. He asks me if I have experienced any sexual abuse against children. Before I can answer, he angrily declares that he isn't willing to intellectualise this issue further and abruptly ends our conversation.

I feel bad about this, like a cynical and superficial asshole. Somebody who is happy to sit in a comfy desk chair under pleasant lighting with a cup of tea and soft music in the background, writing about this issue as if it were all about aesthetics - while in fact we're talking about children's lives being ruined, children being violated and defiled in unimaginable ways. Do we even have the right to a lukewarm analytical attitude regarding an issue were the stakes are so high?

I don't want to use a fellow human being and colleague's emotional reaction as a rhetorical tool or pedagogical example, but Kallentoft's reaction really shows me how fraught, personal and painful this issue can be. And suddenly I also think I have gained a deeper understanding of how devout Christians or Muslims feel about pictures such as Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin's Ecce Homo or Lars Vilks's Mohammed cartoons. It's such a gross violation that it's impossible to speak rationally about it, a violation that can only get worse when some uncomprehending respectless bastard asks why you feel violated.

Suddenly I understand better how difficult it is to get anywhere when it comes to things that touches the depths of our souls. How much really is at stake.

by Jens Liljestrand, Aardvarcheology | Read more:
Image: via:

Akira Kurosawa - Composing Movement

Bob Dylan's MusiCares Person of the Year Speech

These songs didn't come out of thin air. I didn't just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock 'n' roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.

For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I'd heard it just once.

If you sang "John Henry" as many times as me -- "John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain't nothin' but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I'll die with that hammer in my hand."

If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you'd have written "How many roads must a man walk down?" too.

Big Bill Broonzy had a song called "Key to the Highway." "I've got a key to the highway / I'm booked and I'm bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin' because walking is most too slow." I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,

Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61

You'd have written that too if you'd sang "Key to the Highway" as much as me.

"Ain't no use sit 'n cry / You'll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away." "I'm sailing away my own true love." "Boots of Spanish Leather" -- Sheryl Crow just sung that.

"Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man's pay / A dollar a day is the black man's pay / Roll the cotton down." If you sang that song as many times as me, you'd be writing "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more," too.

I sang a lot of "come all you" songs. There's plenty of them. There's way too many to be counted. "Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail." Or, "Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well."

"Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They're like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they're gone again." "If you'll gather 'round, people / A story I will tell / 'Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well."

If you sung all these "come all ye" songs all the time, you'd be writing, "Come gather 'round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you'll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing."

You'd have written them too. There's nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that's all enough, and that's all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense. (...)

All these songs are connected. Don't be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It's just different, saying the same thing. I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary.

by Bob Dylan, LA Times |  Read more:
Image: YouTube

Permission to Fail

[ed. At least the title is accurate. Jeezus. I don't mean to take it out on poor Michelle here because there are so many, many, other posts like this on the internet (*cough*, Medium), she just happened to have the unfortunate luck of popping up on my screen today. I have to say, if I see one more angst-ridden, pseudo-motivational article about some young person wrestling with a new career or business (oh, sorry... "startup") I'm going to scream. Just STFU! Please. Do your job, learn what you can and leave it at that. None of this hand-holding and "be brave" posturing will get you anywhere, except maybe with your co-workers who now have a better idea about your insecurities and can act accordingly. Do you think the heavy rollers at Sequoia Capital have time for this, or even care?]

People write a lot about the emotional rollercoaster of startups. Turns out, that roller coaster doesn’t slow down after year 1, 2, or 3. I know firsthand that the metaphor doesn’t go away after you hit 100 or 500 paying customers, after you’ve been backed by Sequoia Capital, or after you’ve captured millions of dollars in revenue. The roller coaster climbs higher, making the drops all the more terrifying. Slack’s CEO sums it up pretty precisely:

“Now that we’re on this crazy success trajectory, the degree of stress and the degree of doubt and the degree of second-guessing hasn’t been reduced at all,” he said. “In many respects, it’s actually worse now because there’s more at stake. […] I think I wake up every day and look in the mirror and say, ‘We’ve almost certainly fucked this up completely.‘” - Stewart Butterfield, CEO, Slack

One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s easy to write and to be transparent when things are going great. It’s harder when the roller coaster dips downward, when your stomach feels like it’s in freefall. Way back in January, our team experienced one of those dips. Up until this point, for 24 straight months, Keen IO’s business had grown 5-15% - every month! We were embarrassingly confident, and we felt unstoppable. It was coming off of this incredible rise that reality hit and we got to experience a little more of that roller coaster everyone was talking about.

I wrote the following company-wide memo during that time, when we got to learn what it was like to fall a little bit.

On Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 5:55 PM, Michelle Wetzler wrote:

Hey everybody - I hope you don’t mind me sharing a relatively raw piece of writing. It started out as a sort-of blog post, but then I realized it’s really a letter to you all. Feeling a bit brave right now and clicking send. Hope it’s helpful.

by Michelle Wetzler, Keen |  Read more:
Image: Imgur

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

At Señor Frog’s in Times Square, It’s Spring Break Forever

[ed. Oh, my. Pete Wells saves his best restaurant review of the year (and maybe ever) for last.]

I was having my second Frogasm of the night when dinner got weird.

Not that this or any other night at Señor Frog’s in Times Square was ever fully conventional. In point of fact, I had already danced in a conga line wearing a three-foot-high crown of yellow and orange balloons that made me look like Simba in a production of “The Lion King” staged by balloon animals.

In further point of fact, I had also eaten a foot-long chili dog presented on a skateboard. Consider, too, that outside Señor Frog’s I had passed a sign promising that “Drinks go in, fun comes out!” (If nothing else, I was looking forward to seeing the restrooms.) The drink that was going in, a deviant margarita, came in a plastic cup that had a long, thrusting, curved, ridged shaft, ostensibly modeled on the trunk of a palm tree but impossible to grasp without thinking: “ribbed for her pleasure.” (...)

I came to Señor Frog’s later than most of its customers. Founded in Mexico in 1969, the chain thrives in Caribbean beach towns and caters to college students on spring break who will fake orgasms on stage to win a margarita. I wasn’t one of them. My most memorable spring break was whiled away in my room reading “The Sorrows of Young Werther” in German.

This did not get me invited to many orgasm contests, but I was inclined to think the time with Goethe had been well spent until Señor Frog’s opened on 42nd Street last summer. For the first time, I wished I had some memories of the chain. So when I ate there, I brought people who had gone to Señor Frog’s in their wilder years. Unfortunately, none of them recalled anything about it, either. One volunteered that he had climbed onto a giant speaker at the Cancún branch and danced furiously, a fact he knows only because witnesses later told him about it.

“I think I went on a water slide,” said a woman who had also unwound in Cancún. “But I can’t remember where it ended.”

“In jail,” her husband said.

There is no water slide at the Times Square location, which offers a more sober and family-friendly version of the Frog experience. (“Do not show underwear,” the dress code posted at the door warns.) In early evening the place is filled with children, like the two who got up to sing “Let It Go” and gamely karaoked away when a blizzard of confetti snow erupted from the foot of the stage.

Later the crowd got older, with more New Yorkers and fewer tourists than I had expected. Cocktails in embarrassing palm-tree vessels abounded, but I never saw anybody get really tanked, myself included, even after multiple Frogasms. All the mixed drinks seemed tame, and the shot that a server squirted into my open mouth when I hopped by in the conga line tasted like orange Gatorade.

Señor Frog’s is not a good restaurant by most conventional measures, including the fairly basic one of serving food. One night I got just two of the half-dozen appetizers I had asked for. Another time, the starters showed up on schedule, but after nearly two hours the main courses still had not appeared.

“What happened to our food?” we finally asked.

“That’s what I’m wondering!” our server said brightly. “Like, where is it?”

Getting just half of what you order at Señor Frog’s can be a blessing if it’s the right half. The chili, rich and chocolate-brown, does just what you want it to do for the thick, juicy hot dog or the nachos, whose chips were flaccid one night but crunchy another. Honey-sriracha wings, which ping-pong between sweet and spicy, are preferable to the Buffalo wings, which taste like a mild case of acid reflux.

The ribs meet chain-restaurant standards, and so does the pulled pork sandwich once you scrape off the questionable coleslaw. You can get far worse guacamole at far more serious restaurants. (All other restaurants are more serious than Señor Frog’s.)

The Reuben is good, for some reason.

Most other things I tried may as well have stayed in the kitchen, except the chicken enchiladas, which should have been sent back to Cancún. I thought they tasted like tuna, but a more acute observer said the flavor was like pork sprinkled with fish food.

by Pete Wells, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Daniel Kreiger

No Brainer.

For decades now, I have been haunted by the grainy, black-and-white x-ray of a human skull.

It is alive but empty, with a cavernous fluid-filled space where the brain should be. A thin layer of brain tissue lines that cavity like an amniotic sac. The image hails from a 1980 review article in Science: Roger Lewin, the author, reports that the patient in question had “virtually no brain”. But that’s not what scared me; hydrocephalus is nothing new, and it takes more to creep out this ex-biologist than a picture of Ventricles Gone Wild.

What scared me was the fact that this virtually brain-free patient had an IQ of 126.

He had a first-class honors degree in mathematics. He presented normally along all social and cognitive axes. He didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with him until he went to the doctor for some unrelated malady, only to be referred to a specialist because his head seemed a bit too large.

It happens occasionally. Someone grows up to become a construction worker or a schoolteacher, before learning that they should have been a rutabaga instead. Lewin’s paper reports that one out of ten hydrocephalus cases are so extreme that cerebrospinal fluid fills 95% of the cranium. Anyone whose brain fits into the remaining 5% should be nothing short of vegetative; yet apparently, fully half have IQs over 100. (Why, here’s another example from 2007; and yet another.) Let’s call them VNBs, or “Virtual No-Brainers”.

The paper is titled “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?”, and it seems to contradict pretty much everything we think we know about neurobiology.(...)

So on and off for the past twenty years, I’ve lain awake at night wondering how a brain the size of a poodle’s could kick my ass at advanced mathematics. I’ve wondered if these miracle freaks might actually have the same brain mass as the rest of us, but squeezed into a smaller, high-density volume by the pressure of all that cerebrospinal fluid (apparently the answer is: no). While I was writing Blindsight— having learned that cortical modules in the brains of autistic savants are relatively underconnected, forcing each to become more efficient— I wondered if some kind of network-isolation effect might be in play.

Now, it turns out the answer to that is: Maybe.

Three decades after Lewin’s paper, we have “Revisiting hydrocephalus as a model to study brain resilience” by de Oliveira et al. (actually published in 2012, although I didn’t read it until last spring). It’s a “Mini Review Article”: only four pages, no new methodologies or original findings— just a bit of background, a hypothesis, a brief “Discussion” and a conclusion calling for further research. In fact, it’s not so much a review as a challenge to the neuro community to get off its ass and study this fascinating phenomenon— so that soon, hopefully, there’ll be enough new research out there warrant a real review.

The authors advocate research into “Computational models such as the small-world and scale-free network”— networks whose nodes are clustered into highly-interconnected “cliques”, while the cliques themselves are more sparsely connected one to another. De Oliveira et al suggest that they hold the secret to the resilience of the hydrocephalic brain. Such networks result in “higher dynamical complexity, lower wiring costs, and resilience to tissue insults.” This also seems reminiscent of those isolated hyper-efficient modules of autistic savants, which is unlikely to be a coincidence: networks from social to genetic to neural have all been described as “small-world”. (You might wonder— as I did— why de Oliveira et al. would credit such networks for the normal intelligence of some hydrocephalics when the same configuration is presumably ubiquitous in vegetative and normal brains as well. I can only assume they meant to suggest that small-world networking is especially well-developed among high-functioning hydrocephalics.) (In all honesty, it’s not the best-written paper I’ve ever read. Which seems to be kind of a trend on the ‘crawl lately.)

The point, though, is that under the right conditions, brain damage may paradoxically result in brain enhancement. Small-world, scale-free networking— focused, intensified, overclocked— might turbocharge a fragment of a brain into acting like the whole thing.

Can you imagine what would happen if we applied that trick to a normal brain?

by Peter Watts, The Crawl |  Read more:
Image: de Olivera et al

Isle of View
Jimmie Spheeris

Seattle Pride

June 28, 2015 
photos: markk (more pics after the jump)

Not Lived Up To

Oriel College, Oxford, is trying to figure out what to do about its giant statue of Cecil Rhodes after students at the University of Cape Town decided they had had enough of their own Rhodes statue, which was removed from its pride of place on the UCT campus last April after a student named Chumani Maxwele flung a bucket of poop over poor closeted old Cecil, thereby igniting a series of protests that became known in the press as “Rhodes Rage.”

There have been a lot of attempts at revisionism this year, one way and another. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is changing the titles and descriptions of various exhibits with a view to eradicating racist words such as “negro,” “Moor,” “Mohammedan” and so on, changing, for example, the title of a painting from “Young negro girl” to “Young girl holding a fan.” Woodrow Wilson’s racist and segregationist beliefs were characterized as a “toxic legacy” by the New York Times Editorial Board last month, as student protesters demanded the renaming of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. (...)

Cecil Rhodes, zillionaire founder of the DeBeers diamond empire, was a fucking monster. He is a real embarrassment to anybody who would defend the patriarchy. Here he is in 1887, addressing the government on whether or not to permit “the natives” of South Africa the vote:
Does this House think it right that men in a state of pure barbarism should have the franchise and vote? The natives do not want it […] let them be a subject race, and keep the liquor from them […] We have to face the question and it must be brought home to them that in the future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in daily labour, in physical work, in manual labour.
Today, black Rhodes Scholars from Africa attend Oxford. William Jefferson Clinton, also something of a monster—though substantially less of a monster than Cecil Rhodes—was a Rhodes Scholar. There are just a handful of tenured professors at the University of Cape Town who are black. Wilson was a segregationist horrorshow, and also he was the president of this country, if a weak one; a founder of the League of Nations, and a pacifist. What I mean by all this is that every institution we possess is irremediably tainted.

We don’t want to get rid of the past; what we want is to regret it. Move the statue, yes, but don’t destroy it. We must supply ourselves with plenty of buckets of poo, and never forget a thing. Oxford classicist Mary Beard made a similar point a few days go in the Independent, expressing admiration for student activism and resistance to racism, but cautioning against what she saw as a “dangerous attempt to try to erase the past.”

“Of course Rhodes was a racist,” she said. “My worries are about the narrower historical point: that history can’t be unwritten or hidden away, or erased when we change our minds. We need to face the past and our dependence on it and do better than it… that’s what the past is for.”

In other words, if we get rid of the statue, where will we even aim the poo.

by Maria Bustillos, The Awl |  Read more:
Image: Star Wars

The NRA Is Actually Half Right

[ed. See also: What does gun violence really cost?]

When Hamlet debuted on the stage of the Globe Theater in May of 1600, a funny thing happened — no one went home and killed their uncle. In fact, in the weeks and months afterward, there was no rash of uncle killings throughout London. The same thing had happened over two thousand years earlier — after the debut of Oedipus Rex, thousands of Greeks (as far as we can tell) did not go home and have sex with their mothers.

With the recent spate of mass shootings — at the community college in Oregon, the Planned Parenthood in Colorado and the county building in San Bernardino — the debate has begun anew, like it has ever since the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999: do we need stricter gun laws, and do we need to decrease the violence we show in the movies and on TV, as a way to help prevent these tragedies?

There is no question that fewer guns will result in fewer gun deaths. This has been proven in every country that has decided to decrease or remove guns from civilian ownership. In the 1980s and '90s, Australia had a series of mass shootings, including an awful one at a school in Port Arthur. The conscience of the country was so moved by that slaughter — that's right, "slaughter," like the slaughter in Colorado Springs, the slaughter in San Bernardino, etc. — that Australia outlawed nearly all guns. Total number of school shootings since that law passed: zero.

Less guns also mean less successful suicides. It should be pointed out that over half of the nearly 30,000 gun deaths each year in this country are from suicide. If you want to make sure you will die by your own hand, using a gun is the tried and true way to accomplish such a task. But many who attempt suicide don't really want to die, and by using pills or even slashing their wrists there's usually a greater that 50% chance that they will live, that someone will save them. There's not much saving going on when there's a bullethole in one's head.

The other pertinent fact regarding gun-related homicides is that more than 60% of murders involve people who know each other — usually it's a domestic situation between spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends or family members. An argument breaks out and somebody "loses it" and goes and grabs the gun. If guns in these heated situations had not been so easily accessible, many deaths would have been avoided.

We will probably never be able to rid ourselves of the more than quarter-billion guns that are in our homes. But any effort to reduce this number would reduce the level of killing.

Unfortunately, even if we had stronger gun laws, we would still have a few thousand gun deaths in this country. That's because we have a problem no law can solve. Canada has strict gun laws, but they also have an estimated five million hunting rifles and shotguns in their homes — and they don't go and shoot each other on a daily basis like we do. In 2013, they had a total of 131 gun murders in a nation of 35 million people. We have nine times their population, but fifty-fives times their gun killings. How can this be?

Which brings us to Hollywood. I don't think I'm making any big revelation here when I point out that the Canadian kids (and adults) are watching the same exact violent movies, playing the same exact violent video games and watching the same exact violent TV shows as their neighbors, the Americans. So why don't their students — other than on the rare, rare occasion — continually walk into their high schools and colleges and start firing away? It's not that the Canadians don't get angry — have you even been to a hockey game? You cannot say that violent Hollywood movies somehow magically affect only American youth, but no one else. The Japanese cannot get enough of blood and gore in movies, ours and their own. Total number of gun murders in Japan in 2012: three.

So what is it about us? It's clear that the NRA is actually half-right in their slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." We just need to modify that to: "Guns don't kill people — Americans kill people."

It's not the movies or the video games or the gruesome crime scene photos on CSI that drive us Americans to kill each other. It's fear. Why would one want to own a gun in the first place? Well, fear of being robbed or assaulted or killed. Wanting to protect yourself or your family. You know, "just in case."

But in case of what? Remember, the statistics show that the most dangerous threat to you is sitting over there on the couch right now. We have nearly 123 million homes in the US. There are only about 600 home invasions here each year that result in a gun-related death. And in nearly half of those incidents, the deceased was killed by the gun that was in the house to protect... the deceased!

It's the fear of getting killed that is getting a lot of us killed. But it's also other fears that are winding us up and making a few of us go crazy enough to take off on a shooting rampage. Unlike in other civilized countries where people take care of each other — with free health care, generous compensation for the unemployed, free or nearly-free college education, strict laws on credit card debt and junk mortgages, serious help and treatment for the mentally ill, aid for aging and infirm people and the list goes on and on. From Ireland to Italy to Norway, from New Zealand to South Korea to Morocco, governments all over the world have discovered that the real way to reduce violence is to simply take care of each other.

by Michael Moore, Hollywood Reporter |  Read more:
Image: via:

The Science to Look Out For in 2016

Sucking up CO2
A Swiss company is set to become the first firm to capture carbon dioxide from the air and sell it on a commercial scale, a stepping stone to larger facilities that could one day help to combat global warming. Around July, Climeworks will start capturing some 75 tonnes of CO2 per month at its plant near Zurich, then selling the gas to nearby greenhouses to boost crop growth. Another company — Carbon Engineering in Calgary, Canada, which has been capturing CO2 since October but is yet to bring it to market — hopes to show that it can convert the gas into liquid fuel. Facilities worldwide already capture the gas from power-plant exhausts, but until 2015 only small demonstration projects sucked it up from air.

Cut-and-paste genes
Human trials will get under way for treatments that use DNA-editing technologies. Sangamo Biosciences in Richmond, California, will test the use of enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases to correct a gene defect that causes haemo-philia. Working with Biogen of Cambridge, Massachusetts, it will also start a trial to look at whether the technique can boost a functional form of haemo-globin in people with the blood disorder β-thalassaemia. Scientists and ethicists hope to agree on broad safety and ethical guidelines for gene editing in humans in late 2016. And this year could see the birth of the first gene-edited monkeys that show symptoms of the human disorders they are designed to model.

High cosmic hopes
Physicists think there is a good chance that they will see the first evidence of gravitational waves — ripples in space-time caused by dense, moving objects such as spiralling neutron stars — thanks to the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO). And Japan will launch Astro-H, a next-generation X-ray satellite observatory that, among other things, could confirm or refute the claim that heavy neutrinos give off dark-matter signals known as bulbulons. Hints of a potential new particle from the supercharged Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has been running at record energies since last June, could become clearer as the machine rapidly accumulates data. Even if the particle is not confirmed, the LHC could still unearth other exotic phenomena, such as glueballs: particles made entirely of the carriers of the strong nuclear force.

Risky research
Scientists will soon hear whether funding for research that makes viruses more dangerous can resume. In October 2014, the US government abruptly suspended financial support for ‘gain-of-function’ studies. These experiments could increase understanding of how certain pathogens evolve and how they can be destroyed, but critics say that the work also boosts the risk of, for example, accidental release of deadly viruses. A risk–benefit analysis was completed in December 2015, and the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will issue recommendations in the next few months on whether to resume funding — potentially with tightened restrictions on the research.

by Elizabeth Gibney, Nature | Read more:
Image: Stephen Belcher/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Nicole McCormick Santiago


I Worked in a Video Store for 25 years. Here’s What I Learned as My Industry Died.

The independent video store where I've worked for 15 years is finally dead. After 28 years in business, we succumbed to the "disruption" of Netflix and Hulu, bled to death by the long, slow defection of our customer base. Once we announced our closing, the few who remained mourned — then we locked the doors. Our permanent collection is gone: boxed up and shipped off to the local library.

Videoport, of Portland, Maine, lasted longer than most. It was better than most. It owed its longevity to a single, engaged owner, to strong ties to the local film scene and a collection that put others to shame. I was proud to work there, alongside a staff that paired film knowledge and exceptional customer service skills like few other places I've known. We were a fixture in town, until we weren't.

It hasn't been so long since independent rental joints had the opposite problem. Before Videoport, I spent 10 years working at Matt & Dave's Video Venture. In retrospect, it's hard to believe that our downfall came at the hands of a buyout by a major rental chain. Suspiciously well-dressed guys with clipboards started dropping in; soon enough, we were gone, one of the estimated 30,000 video stores in America gobbled up by Blockbuster or Movie Gallery or Hollywood Video, each eager to dominate the booming VHS rental racket. If only those chains knew that within a decade, they'd be goners too.

I spent 25 years of my life in an industry that no longer exists. Maybe I'm not the most ambitious guy. But that time has provided me with an up-close look at not just how the industry is changing but how people's tastes, and the culture those tastes create, have changed with it.

Here's what I've learned.

1) Video stores are about investment

The enemy of video stores was convenience. The victim of convenience is conscious choice.

We watch Netflix like we used to watch television on a slow Sunday night, everything blending together as we flip aimlessly through the channels. At first the choice is overwhelming: all of these options and nothing but the questionable "You Might Like" cue to guide us — we stare at the screen like idiots, paralyzed. But then when we make a choice, if we make a choice, it feels unimportant. Another option is only a click away.

If you're actually in a video store, the stakes are different. You're engaged. You're on a mission to find a movie — the right movie. You had to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to a store. You had to think about what you want, why this movie looks good and not that one, perhaps even seeking guidance or advice. Whether it's from nostalgia, advertising, packaging, reputation, recommendation, or sheer whim, a movie chosen from the shelves attaches you to your choice. Before the film even starts playing, you've begun a relationship with it. You're curious. Whether you've chosen well or poorly, you've made a choice, and you're in it for the duration.

With online streaming, we don't decide — we settle. And when we aren't grabbed immediately, we move on. That means folks are less likely to engage with a film on a deep level; worse, it means people stop taking chances on challenging films. Unlike that DVD they paid for and brought home, a movie on Netflix will be watched only so long as it falls within the viewer's comfort zone. As that comfort zone expands, the desire to look outside of it contracts.

2) An algorithm is no substitute for human interaction

In the last days of the store, daily life at the store got pretty intense. Longtime customers were bereft. We tried to comfort them, explaining how our owner had ensured that our whole collection would soon be available at the public library — for free, even! It didn't help much. Almost to a one, they had the same reply: "But you won't be there to help us."

That was flattering and sad, and ultimately all we could do was agree: Yeah, we wouldn't be there. There were tears and gifts and genuine concern (not unfounded) about what my coworkers and I would do to survive, a phenomenon both touching and illustrative of how identified we were with the role we played in their lives. A great video store is built on relationships, in some cases relationships that had gone on for years. Our customers were losing the people who'd helped shape their movie taste, who'd steered them toward things we knew they'd like and away from things they didn't know they'd hate. We were losing the people that we, in our small way, had been able to help. We were all grieving the loss.

Over the years, we'd come to know our customers' tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn't even always know they had. I've had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — "This guy has an eye patch, and I think there's a mariachi band" — and we'd figure out they were looking for Cutter's Way. Other times, they'd take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, "Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener's ever done." If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, "What's one comedy you've seen that you think is hilarious?" I've spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It's a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.

If you think I'm overrating the power of these connections, consider this: Years ago, I helped a lovely, seemingly upstanding woman choose from several Shakespeare adaptations. The next week she returned, asking about the relative merits of zombie movies. Interesting, I thought.

She started coming in regularly. After months of recommendations and some earnest cinematic dismantling ("Like a handful of romantic comedies thrown into a blender," she said of Love, Actually), I became her go-to movie guy. A year later, I became her go-to everything guy when we got married.

This phenomenon isn't uncommon. We at the store ended up dating and/or wedding customers so consistently that it became a running joke from the boss that we were taking money out of his pocket. (Significant others got free rentals.)

3) A great video store is pop culture in microcosm

A good video store curates culture. Subjective? Certainly. But who do you want shepherding the legacy of TV and movies — a corporation or a store filled with passionate, knowledgeable movie geeks?

by Dennis Perkins, Vox |  Read more:
Image: Wikipedia

Sonny Sharrock

[ed. If Jimi had done jazz  he might have sounded something like this. Special bonus: The Past Adventures of Zydeco Honeycup and Live at the Knitting Factory]

Dear Architects: Sound Matters

[ed. Interesting new approach to media storytelling. Check it out.]

We talk about how cities and buildings look. We call places landmarks or eyesores. But we rarely talk about how architecture sounds, aside from when a building or room is noisy.

The spaces we design and inhabit all have distinctive sounds. The reading rooms at the New York Public Library have an overlay of rich sound. Your office may be a big room in a glass building with rows of cubicles where people stare into computer screens.

It may be sealed off from the outside, and you may think it is quiet.

Is it?

by Michael Kimmelman, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Jon Kasbe

Chet Faker

The Friendship Affair

The first time I saw her, the woman who would become my friend, best friend, unhealthy fixation, her picture was in the newspaper. A few days before the start of the conference to which we’d both been invited, her first novel was published to rave reviews. The newspaper had been spread across my couch amidst the soft toys, long-lost tubes of diaper cream, and Cheerios dust. I might not have noticed it if my husband hadn’t shown me. I had a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, a novel of my own I couldn’t finish. I didn’t notice much that wasn’t clinging to my physical body or standing in my way. He held her picture up to me that Sunday morning, not just any photo but a photo flanked by praise. I looked at her picture, then her bio, then the part of the bio that indicated she was eight years my junior.

“I don’t like her,” I said to my husband, Pete, then I pretended to pull out my hair.

To be fair, at this particular moment in my life — anxious, lonely, bored in my marriage, and up to my eyeballs in kids — I didn’t like anyone, especially myself.

On the surface, I had most of what I’d always wanted: a husband, a home, two healthy kids, and after a decade of professional frustration and failure, something that could pass as a career. I had the things I’d craved so deeply when I was younger, the things that had seemed impossibly out of reach in my early 20s when I’d had not much more to ground my life than a handful of intimate friendships with other women. And yet, as I prepared to leave for the conference, I knew that something was missing. (...)

I’ve done it all my life. Call it oversharing. Call it lack of boundaries. Call it projection or a profound impatience for the normal social mores that make deep-friendship formation so excruciatingly arduous. It doesn’t matter what you call it; the trait remains — the tendency to find one person in a group, one person at work, at a party, on a trip, at a wedding, or anywhere at all. I find one person, and that is my person. We are on the same wavelength, I decide, and then I give up giving a shit about everyone else.There are times when I think I’m an intimacy addict. This is what my husband sensed and feared. (...)

If I mention to a friend over lunch this notion that I might be an intimacy addict, she leans closer and lowers her voice. “Really? I had no idea. You haven’t told me about this!” I can imagine what she’s imagining, a series of illicit hotel encounters or elaborate schemes to find a bed without producing a credit-card receipt. The word intimacy sounds seedy, or worse, sentimental — it’s a word used to sell lingerie or Viagra. It’s a word therapists use when they don’t want to employ the more colloquial term: fucking. But this semantic baggage seems funny and ill-timed to me. For both the young and old, gay and straight, partnered and unattached, it has never been more socially acceptable to have sex with a person you don’t know or like, much less someone with whom you don’t feel intimacy.

To be intimate with a person literally means to feel closeness with that person, to feel familiar, attached, in rapport. Vivian Gornick describes it as an alignment of temperament, “the thing that makes someone respond instinctively with an appreciative ‘I know just what you mean,’” rather than the argumentative What do you mean by that? She describes it as the feeling that “You are me, I am you, it is our obligation to save each other. We are a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives.” Until I met my husband, I can say with a high degree of confidence that none of the men with whom I had sex felt any desire to save me, to be me, or to become my fellow traveler. They were far more likely to demand what I meant by something than to say they knew just what I meant.

With my husband, it was different. He got me. He loved me. He saw me and accepted me for the feisty, neurotic, absentminded, contrarian chick I was. We started out on our married life together locked arm-in-arm. We were buddies and partners, and together we tackled the project of figuring out how to live, how to build a family. But as the years passed, as we got deeper and deeper into “the kid thing,” I could feel the space between us growing, the energy seeping, our empathy going toward our kids instead of each other. Now, there were moments when even my husband, toward whom I felt an unsurpassable kinship and love, seemed to have no idea what I meant when I was at my most agitated or enthralled.

Our emotional orbits intersected in a thousand places every day but never exactly aligned. There was a space between us as we moved through life. Sometimes I think it is this space that allows us to stay married. Sometimes I think it is this space that makes me stay hungry for something else.

by Kim Brooks, The Cut |  Read more:
Image: Hope Gangloff, Clothes Swap, Brooklyn, 2008

Feminist Trouble

It's doubtful whether Camille Paglia – cultural critic, academic and the author of several acclaimed books including, most recently, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars – has ever pulled a punch. Since she burst on to the cultural scene in the 1990s, following the publication of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson – as she put it, the ‘most X-rated academic book ever written’ – Paglia has been a trenchant, principled voice in the Culture Wars, attacking, with one hand, the anti-sex illiberalism of her feminist peers, while, with the other, laying waste to the trendy, pomo relativism infecting the academy.

Above all, Paglia, who some have called the anti-feminist feminist, has remained a staunch defender of individual freedom. She has argued against laws prohibiting pornography, drugs and abortion. And, when political correctness was cutting a swathe through a host of institutions during the 1990s, she stood firmly on the side of free speech. So, what does she make of the political and cultural state of feminism today? What does she think of the revival of anti-sex sentiment among young feminists, their obsession with policing language, and their wholehearted embrace of victimhood? As spiked’s Ella Whelan discovered, Paglia’s convictions burn as brightly as ever…

Ella Whelan: On both sides of the Atlantic, feminism, especially on college campuses, appears to be undergoing a resurgence. As a long-term critic of political correctness, do you think today’s feminists are too focused on policing thought and speech?

Camille Paglia: After the ferocious Culture Wars of the 1980s to mid-1990s, feminism sank into a long period of relative obscurity. It was kept tangentially alive through scattered websites and blogs until it finally regained media visibility over the past five years, partly through splashy endorsements by pop figures like Beyoncé. The history of feminism has always been cyclic: after the suffrage movement gained the vote for women in Britain (1918 and 1928) and the US (1920), feminist activism faded away. Forty years passed before second-wave feminism was launched by Betty Friedan, when she co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1967.

The problem with too much current feminism, in my opinion, is that even when it strikes progressive poses, it emanates from an entitled, upper-middle-class point of view. It demands the intrusion and protection of paternalistic authority figures to project a hypothetical utopia that will be magically free from offence and hurt. Its rampant policing of thought and speech is completely reactionary, a gross betrayal of the radical principles of 1960s counterculture, which was inaugurated in the US by the incendiary Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley.

I am continually shocked and dismayed by the nearly Victorian notions promulgated by today’s feminists about the fragility of women and their naïve helplessness in asserting control over their own dating lives. Female undergraduates incapable of negotiating the oafish pleasures and perils of campus fraternity parties are hardly prepared to win leadership positions in business or government in the future. (...)

Whelan: Speaking of a backward turn, young feminists today are obsessed with the idea of ‘rape culture’. Do you think that, as the idea of rape culture suggests, sexual violence is normalised?

Paglia: ‘Rape culture’ is a ridiculous term – mere gassy propaganda, too rankly bloated to critique. Anyone who sees sex so simplistically has very little sense of world history, anthropology or basic psychology. I feel very sorry for women who have been seduced by this hyper-politicised, victim-centered rhetoric, because in clinging to such superficial, inflammatory phrases, they have renounced their own power and agency.

Whelan: Are you therefore concerned by the push for affirmative-consent or, as they’re otherwise known, ‘Yes means Yes’ laws?

Paglia: As I have repeatedly argued throughout my career, sex is a physical interaction, animated by primitive energies and instincts that cannot be reduced to verbal formulas. Neither party in any sexual encounter is totally operating in the rational realm, which is why the Greek god Dionysus was the patron of ecstasy, a hallucinatory state of pleasure-pain. ‘Yes means Yes’ laws are drearily puritanical and literalistic as well as hopelessly totalitarian. Their increasing popularity simply demonstrates how boring and meaningless sex has become – and why Hollywood movies haven’t produced a scintilla of sexiness since Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct. Sex is always a dangerous gamble – as gay men have known and accepted for thousands of years. Nothing in the world will ever be totally safe, even the plushy pads of an infant’s crib, to which feminist ideologues would evidently wish to reduce us all.

Whelan: What did you make of Chrissie Hynde’s recent assertion that she was at least partially responsible for her sexual assault at the hands of a biker gang when she was 21? Do you think that contemporary feminism is too quick to turn women into blameless victims?

Paglia: I have been a Chrissie Hynde fan since her first albums with the Pretenders, but this scrappy controversy made my admiration for her go stratospheric. I adore her scathing process of self-examination and her bold language of personal responsibility – that is exactly the direction that feminism must take! Hynde (four years younger than me) is demonstrating the tough, no-crap attitude of the rebellious women of my 1960s generation, who were directly inspired by the sexual revolution, created by the brand-new Pill. We took all kinds of risks – I certainly did, with some scary escapes in dark side streets of Paris and Vienna. We wanted the same freedoms as men, and we took charge of our own destinies. We viewed life as a continual experiment, an urgent pressing into the unknown. If we got knocked down, we got up again, nursed our bruises and learned from our mistakes. Today, in contrast, too many young feminists want their safety, security and happiness guaranteed in advance by all-seeing, all-enveloping bureaucracies. It’s a sad, limited and childish view of life that I find as claustrophobic as a hospital ward.

by Ella Whelan, Spiked |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Green Bay Packers Paul Hornung, Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi look on from the sidelines during a game against the Baltimore Colts on Sept. 20, 1964 at City Stadium in Green Bay. Hornung, the first athlete to win the Heisman Trophy, be selected as the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, win the NFL MVP award, and be inducted into both the professional and college football halls of fame, turned 80 years old on Dec. 23, 2015.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Art Deco “Polar Bear” silver-plated cocktail shaker, circa 1930’s.

Meadowlark Lemon, Harlem Globetrotters’ Dazzling Court Jester, Dies at 83

[ed. I was fortunate to see Meadowlark and the Trotters when I was kid. It's one of my most cherished childhood memories.] 

Meadowlark Lemon, whose halfcourt hook shots, no-look behind-the-back passes and vivid clowning were marquee features of the feel-good traveling basketball show known as the Harlem Globetrotters for nearly a quarter-century, died on Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 83.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Cynthia Lemon.

A gifted athlete with an entertainer’s hunger for the spotlight, Lemon, who dreamed of playing for the Globetrotters as a boy in North Carolina, joined the team in 1954, not long after leaving the Army. Within a few years, he had assumed the central role of showman, taking over from Reece Tatum, whom everyone called Goose, the Trotters’ long-reigning clown prince.

Tatum, who had left the team around the time Lemon joined it, was a superb ballplayer whose on-court gags — or reams, as the players called them — had established the team’s reputation for laugh-inducing wizardry at a championship level.

This was a time when the Trotters were known not only for their comedy routines and basketball legerdemain; they were also recognized as a formidable competitive team. Their victory over the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 was instrumental in integrating the National Basketball Association, and a decade later their owner, Abe Saperstein, signed a 7-footer out of the University of Kansas to a one-year contract before he was eligible for the N.B.A.: Wilt Chamberlain.

By then, Lemon, who was 6 feet 3 inches and slender, was the team’s leading light, such a star that he played center while Chamberlain played guard.

Lemon was a slick ballhandler and a virtuoso passer, and he specialized in the long-distance hook, a trick shot he made with remarkable regularity. But it was his charisma and comic bravado that made him perhaps the most famous Globetrotter. For 22 years, until he left the team in 1978, Lemon was the Trotters’ ringmaster, directing their basketball circus from the pivot. He imitated Tatum’s reams, like spying on the opposition’s huddle, and added his own. (...)

The Trotters played in mammoth arenas and on dirt courts in African villages. They played in Rome before the pope; they played in Moscow during the Cold War before the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In the United States, they played in small towns and big cities, in Madison Square Garden, in high school gyms, in cleared-out auditoriums — even on the floor of a drained swimming pool. They performed their most entertaining ball-handling tricks, accompanied by their signature tune “Sweet Georgia Brown,” on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Through it all, Lemon became “an American institution like the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty” whose “uniform will one day hang in the Smithsonian right next to Lindbergh’s airplane,” as the Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once described him.

Significantly, Lemon’s time with the Globetrotters paralleled the rise of the N.B.A. When he joined the team, the Globetrotters were still better known than the Knicks and the Boston Celtics and played for bigger crowds than they did. When he left, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were about to enter the N.B.A. and propel it to worldwide popularity. In between, the league became thoroughly accommodating to black players, competing with the Globetrotters for their services and eventually usurping the Trotters as the most viable employer of top black basketball talent. (...)

Lemon, as the stellar attraction, thrived in this environment, but he also became a lightning rod for troubles within the Globetrotter organization. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, the players’ antics on the court drew criticism from outside for reinforcing what many considered to be demeaning black stereotypes, and Lemon drew criticism from inside.

Not only was he the leading figure in what some thought to be a discomforting resurrection of the minstrel show; he was also, by far, the highest-paid Globetrotter, and his teammates associated him more with management than with themselves. When the players went on strike for higher pay in 1971, Lemon, who negotiated his own salary, did not join them.

by Bruce Weber, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Suzanne Vlamis/AP

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

The Year Media Started Doubting the Web

In 2015, news on the Internet no longer belonged to the web alone.

This was the year that Snapchat, previously best known as a messaging service for ephemeral photos, launched its own version of the news called Discover. It was the year that Facebook figured news articles on the web loaded too slowly, so it decided to make them instant. It was the year that Apple’s latest version of iOS came with its own app for reading news on iPhones. Meanwhile, Twitter got into the news game with Moments, its attempt to make the service easier for n00bs to understand by using real humans to curate the news tweet by tweet.

It’s no coincidence that the proliferation of platforms serving up articles and videos, a plethora of news, entertainment, and sports, all happened in the same year. Publishers have grown steadily more dependent on Google and Facebook over the past decade for directing attention to their sites. But as audiences spend more and more of their time on mobile, that dependency has become more acute. The biggest tech companies are all vying for mobile users’ attention, which they’ve increasingly lured to apps and away from the web, publishers’ traditional online home. But the Facebooks, Twitters, and Snapchats of the world need interesting stuff for audiences to see once they’re there. And for that they need publishers.

In 2015, publishers cautiously sought to find out whether ceding some control to platforms could yield a beneficial symbiosis. In 2016, we’ll find out whether moving beyond the web helps the makers of news gain bigger, more interested audiences, or if they’re just small-time vassals who have no choice but to pay tribute to their attention-grabbing overlords.

Writers Blocked

One of the main factors contributing to a shift away from the web is that we’re spending less of our time there. Or, rather, we’re spending more of our time on our phones.

For publishers, that’s a problem. Most people spend the majority of their time on smartphones in a handful of apps like Facebook. They’re not on the web, and they’re also not likely to download and switch among apps from every news organization whose stories they may want to read. Native apps for publishers are not only costly to design and produce, but also unlikely to reach as wide an audience as, say, Facebook already does. Sure, The New York Times and BuzzFeed may find a loyal following with standalone apps. But to reach anyone beyond diehards, even the biggest publishers depend on social media.

But the increasing magnetism of mobile wasn’t the only important shift this year. Even as digital ad spending could soon exceed ad dollars spent on TV, 2015 was also the year that blocking ads on the web went mainstream as even Apple began supporting ad-blocking on its mobile devices.

For advertisers, the popularity of ad-blocking became a very real worry. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group, publicly apologized for the fact that digital advertising has gotten out of hand, stoking demand for software that could block the pervasive annoyance of online sales pitches. “The rise of ad blocking poses a threat to the internet and could potentially drive users to an enclosed platform world dominated by a few companies,” wrote Scott Cunningham, the senior vice president of tech and ad operations at IAB.

Anxiety around ad-blockers could mean that advertisers direct more of their dollars to platforms and less to web-dependent publishers directly. And if that’s where the dollars start to head, publishers see they need to head there as well. Not only do Facebook’s Instant Articles, say, or Apple News offer a more streamlined user experience for consuming news, but many also offer a significant portion of ad revenues—ads that advertisers know can’t be blocked.

by Julia Greenberg, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Bryan Derballa via:

Why Life Is Absurd

[ed. As 2015 comes to a close I'll be reposting a few favorites out of this year's archive.]  

In the 1870s, Leo Tolstoy became depressed about life’s futility. He had it all but so what? In “My Confession,” he wrote: “Sooner or later there will come diseases and death (they had come already) to my dear ones and to me, and there would be nothing left but stench and worms. All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself should not exist. So why should I worry about these things?”

Life’s brevity bothered Tolstoy so much that he resolved to adopt religious faith to connect to the infinite afterlife, even though he considered religious belief “irrational” and “monstrous.” Was Tolstoy right? Is life so short as to make a mockery of people and their purposes and to render human life absurd?

In a famous 1971 paper, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel argues that life’s absurdity has nothing to do with its length. If a short life is absurd, he says, a longer life would be even more absurd: “Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts 70 years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?”

This line of reasoning has a nice ring to it but whether lengthening an absurd thing will relieve it of its absurdity depends on why the thing is absurd and how much you lengthen it. A longer life might be less absurd even if an infinite life would not be. A short poem that is absurd because it is written in gibberish would be even more absurd if it prattled on for longer. But, say I decided to wear a skirt so short it could be mistaken for a belt. On my way to teach my class, a colleague intercepts me:

“Your skirt,” she says, “is absurd.”

“Absurd? Why?” I ask.

“Because it is so short!” she replies.

“If a short skirt is absurd, a longer skirt would be even more absurd,” I retort.

Now who’s being absurd? The skirt is absurd because it is so short. A longer skirt would be less absurd. Why? Because it does not suffer from the feature that makes the short skirt absurd, namely, a ridiculously short length. The same goes for a one-hour hunger strike. The point of a hunger strike is to show that one feels so strongly about something that one is willing to suffer a lack of nourishment for a long time in order to make a point. If you only “starve” for an hour, you have not made your point. Your one-hour hunger strike is absurd because it is too short. If you lengthened it to one month or one year, you might be taken more seriously. If life is absurd because it’s short, it might be less absurd if it were suitably longer.

Absurdity occurs when things are so ill-fitting or ill-suited to their purpose or situation as to be ridiculous, like wearing a clown costume to a (non-circus) job interview or demanding that your dog tell you what time it is. Is the lifespan of a relatively healthy and well-preserved human, say somewhere between 75 and 85, so short as to render it absurd, ill-suited to reasonable human purposes? (...)

What if we lived for, say, 500 or 1,000 years? Would our ambition tend to grow to scale, making life seem absurdly short for human purposes, whatever its length? Is it human nature to adopt outsized ambitions, condemning ourselves to absurdity by having conceptions of reasonable achievement that we don’t have the time to realize? Why haven’t we scaled down our ambitions to fit the time we have? Is the problem our nature or our lifespan?

There may be no way to be sure but consider the fact that, although we have ambitions unsuited to our lifespan, we don’t seem to consistently adopt ambitions unsuited to our species in respects other than time. It’s not absurd to us that we cannot fly or hibernate. We don’t think the fact that we can hold our breath for minutes rather than hours or memorize a few pages rather than a tome makes human life meaningless. We don’t find that our inability to read each other’s minds, speak to animals, glow in the dark, run 60 miles an hour, solve complex equations in our heads simultaneously or lift thousand-pound weights makes a sad mockery of human existence. This makes it more likely that, given a longer lifespan, life might seem less absurdly short for our purposes.

Just as a lifespan can be too short, it can be too long. For many, it is far too long already. Many people are bored with life, irritated by the human condition, exhausted from suffering, tired of living. For those for whom life is too long, a longer life would be worse and, quite possibly, more absurd. For some, however, life seems too long because it’s too short, meaning life is rendered so absurd by being short that even a short absurd life feels too long because it is pointless. A life made absurd because it is too short would be rendered less absurd if it were significantly longer.

A million-year or infinite life might be too long for human nature and purposes too, though such a life would be so radically different that we can only speculate. An infinite life might become tedious, and people world-weary. Lifetime love commitments, a source of meaning now, would likely cease to exist. A million-year or infinite lifespan might be too long and slip into absurdity. To everything its time. Both a too short lifespan and a too long lifespan present absurdist challenges to a meaningful life.

by Rivka Weinberg, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Leif Parsons
[ed. Repost]

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Return of the Harmonica

In the late 1960s, as the general manager of Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco, Reese Marin sold guitars, drums, keyboards, and amps to the biggest psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. His customers ranged from Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Guitarists as musically diverse as Carlos Santana and Steve Miller could find what they were looking for at Don Wehr’s; so did jazz virtuosos George Benson and Barney Kessel, who would walk down Columbus Avenue from Broadway in North Beach—where the jazz clubs competed with strip joints for tourists—whenever they were in town.

These legends were some of the most demanding and finicky musicians on the planet. So it should have been easy for Marin to sell a couple of $5 harmonicas to Lee Oskar, whose melodic riffs on hits like “Cisco Kid,” “The World is a Ghetto,” and “Low Rider” gave one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, WAR, its signature sound. Oskar, however, heard imperfections in his chosen instrument that Marin didn’t know existed. Oskar was not tentative in his quest for what he considered a “gig-worthy” harmonica. “I spent all my money on harmonicas,” Oskar told me recently, “just to find 1 out of 10 that was any good.”

Marin says Oskar was exaggerating, but not by much. He was actually behind the counter when Oskar made his first of many visits to Don Wehr’s and asked to play all of the harmonicas the store had in stock in C, A, F, G, and E—the keys where rock bands live and die. On any given day, Marin maintained an inventory of 10 to 20 harmonicas in each key for each model they sold. That was a lot of harmonicas for Oskar to put his mouth on, so Marin decided to be firm. “I said, ‘You can’t play ’em unless you buy ’em,’” Marin told me, “and he said, ‘I don’t mind.’”

Shrugging, Marin rang him up, then Oskar proceeded to play every single harmonica on the sales counter, which he then divided into two piles—one for the gig-worthy harmonicas and another for the rejects, which were 80 to 90 percent of the total. “When he was done, I said, ‘Lee, what do you want me to do with all these harmonicas?’ and he said, ‘I don’t really care. I can’t use them.’” Marin ended up giving away a lot of used Lee Oskar-played harmonicas. “Lee did this over and over, every time he was in town,” says Marin. “It was crazy.”

Until relatively recently, playing a harmonica was sort of crazy, too, since doing so was essentially the same thing as destroying it. For harmonicas like the Hohner Marine Bands Oskar road-tested that day at Don Wehr’s, a player’s saliva would soak into the wood inside the instrument, causing it to swell. At the end of a gig, the wood would dry out and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls Steve Baker, a London-born harmonica player and an authority on the Marine Band. Most players would never do that, of course, content to just toss their worn-out wrecks in the trash.

When players performed with their harmonicas, the wood inside would soak with saliva, dry out, and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls one player.

For Hohner, this must have seemed like a very good business model. After all, the Marine Band had been Hohner’s most popular harmonica brand almost since 1896, the year it was introduced. In the United States, in the first half of the 20thcentury, American folk musicians and blues artists alike embraced the Marine Band as their own, giving the instrument originally designed to play traditional German folk tunes an aura of cool. With sales soaring after World War II, Hohner found itself making an instrument everybody wanted, even though it needed to be replaced regularly. How could a manufacturer’s product get any better than that?

Well, answered harmonica players and a small but influential community of harmonica customizers, how about an instrument that doesn’t wear out, is built to be serviced and tuned to a musician’s needs, and is made out of materials that don’t cause our lips to bleed? (...)

To understand why the Marine Band was such a favorite for musicians, it helps to know a little about how the instrument works, beginning with a mental picture of its guts. The Marine Band is what’s called a “diatonic” harmonica. It’s built out of five parts, which are stacked together like a sandwich (in fact, “tin sandwich” is just one of the instrument’s colorful aliases, “Mississippi saxophone” being another). In the center is the comb, on the top and bottom of which are two matching metal plates; those plates have been punched with rectangular holes, which align with the voids in the comb. Partially covering these holes are two rows of reeds, which vibrate in and out of the holes to produce a harmonica’s sound. Cover plates give the player something to grip, while openings at the back of the plates give the sound somewhere to go.

No single component of the Marine Band can claim credit for its signature sound, but if any part of a harp’s composition could be deemed especially critical, it would be the reeds. Unlike the reeds in wind instruments like saxophones and clarinets, which are made of organic material like bamboo, harmonica reeds are made of metal, usually the same stuff as the reed plate in which they vibrate. “It’s a dreadfully complicated topic,” Baker says. There’s the reed’s composition, how it’s hardened, and also its final degree of hardness. Lots of metals will work, but the degree of hardness is different for each one. And the parameters for a given material—bronze, stainless steel, or the brass alloys like Hohner uses—are very fine. “In the end,” Baker says, “it means people are trying out lots of shit until it works.”

For some reason, Hohner got all of this right with the Marine Band, which may explain why the company viewed with suspicion anything that did not conform to its sense of harmonica perfection. “Bending” notes, for example, must have seemed an especially black art.

Bent notes are one of the most recognizable auditory tropes in the blues, and any harmonica player who cannot get the note he’s playing to drop in pitch, or bend, might as well take up German folk tunes. “Until I started working for Hohner, they didn’t even know what happened when you bent notes,” Baker told me. Once upon a time, someone at Hohner must have understood how it worked, but in the late 1980s, Baker was the guy who explained it to Hohner again, right down to the physics of what bending does to the reeds (you can read his explanation for yourself in “The Harp Handbook,” published in 1990).

From Hohner’s perspective, bending notes represented a malfunction of the instrument, because it’s not what a Marine Band harmonica was designed to do. That, of course, does not mean it cannot be done, as any blues player knows.

The secret is in the reeds, two of which block the air in every hole, or channel, of a diatonic harmonica like a Marine Band. For those reeds to work together, the player needs to go for the throat—literally. In order to bend a note, a harmonica player has to physically change the length of the air column in his throat, which forces the higher pitch of the two reeds downward. Meanwhile, the opposing reed, which normally would only begin vibrating due to a blow air stream, starts vibrating in the draw air stream. It’s the interaction of these two pitches that creates a bent note. “When I explained all this to the people at Hohner,” Baker says, “they regarded it as a malfunction because notes in-between the 12-tone scale aren’t common in European classical or folk music.”

That explanation occurred some time after 1987, when Baker began consulting to Hohner. By then, Baker had learned what turned the company’s best-selling instrument into a piece of junk. For one thing, the milling tools used to cut those all-important reeds and reed slots were not being sharpened or replaced, causing sloppy work. In addition, the company’s protocols for tuning, which required all Hohner harmonicas, including Marine Bands, to be tuned three times, with rest periods in-between so the material could settle, were scrapped. “They cut out all of that because it was an easy way to make more money,” says Baker.

By this time, Lee Oskar had become so fed up with the quality of Marine Bands that he started his own harmonica company. “I had never thought of going into business to manufacture harmonicas,” Oskar says, “but I needed tools that could live up to my expectations.”

by Ben Marks, Craftsman |  Read more:
Image: via: and