Urban Studies

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"I'm an NYU graduate."

“NYU graduate.”

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Morganna Roberts was a bosomy 13-year-old girl in 1960 when she first stepped onto a stage at a strip club, in an era when America was tormented by desire and morality, wanting all manner of urges satisfied and needing to punish the one who provided the satisfaction. Not content to just be ogled and cursed as the star of the burlesque circuit, the teen dreamed of a bigger spotlight–and found it. In the years before women were encouraged to take the field and participate in pro sports, she and her Dolly Parton-ish figure stormed the gates. Morganna, dubbed “the Kissing Bandit,” gained notoriety beginning in 1969 for running onto the playing field at pro games and attempting to plant one on the biggest male athletes of the day, from Pete Rose to Fred Lynn to Nolan Ryan. She was a groupie who only kissed, a streaker even when she kept her clothes on, and someone who was not very popular with women in a time when Billie Jean King was battling the sexist pigs on the court. Only in retrospect can she be appreciated as a feminist icon. 

A short film by Adam Kurland about Morganna’s life as a public jiggler, “Always Leave Them Wanting More,” can be viewed here. (Thanks Hairpin.)

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From the January 23, 1890 New York Times:

Des Moines, Iowa–Judge Hoyt of the Clayton District Court has passed sentence upon probably the youngest life convict in this country. His name is John Wesley Elkins and the offense charged was that of murder of his father. He also murdered his mother at the same time. He was indicted for both offenses, but as he pleaded guilty to the first the other was not tried. The boy is only twelve years old.

On the night of July 17 he shot his father with a rifle while he was asleep, and seized a club and beat his mother’s head to jelly.

He confessed the crime, and gave as his motive that he had desired to leave home and shift for himself, but his parents had objected. He was given the full limit of the law.”

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I dreamt once of an Earth grown too hot, but is it just a dream? If the climate changes, then so does everything. From Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books:

“The facts, rehearsed so often, for so long and to so little effect, nonetheless bear repeating. The greenhouse effect was first hypothesised in 1824 by Joseph Fourier – though his analogy was the bell jar rather than the greenhouse – and proved experimentally by John Tyndall in 1859. In the 19th century it could be seen as unambiguously a good thing: if carbon dioxide and other trace gases didn’t trap heat in the atmosphere, the earth wouldn’t be warm enough to support life as we know it. But there is now far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been at any point in the last 800,000 years (we know this because researchers have analysed air bubbles trapped in the ice in Greenland and Antarctica: the deeper you go, the older the bubbles). The concentration has increased from nearly 320 parts per million (high, but not unprecedented) in 1960 to more than 390 ppm today, 30 per cent higher than any previous peak, largely as a result of human activity. Not even the most fervent climate change denier can argue with the fact that burning carbon produces carbon dioxide: before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were 280 ppm. Since 1850, more than 360 billion tonnes of fossil fuels have gone up in smoke. Average global temperatures have risen accordingly, for the last quarter century pretty much in line with the predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its first assessment report (1990). Almost every year since 1988, when the IPCC was established, has been the hottest ever recorded. The most optimistic projection, which governments are nominally committed to (that’s to say, the signatories of the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 agreed it would be nice), is that the average global temperature will rise no more than 2ºC by the end of the century. Sea level has risen 6 cm since 1990. The IPCC’s fourth assessment report (2007) projected that it would rise between 18 and 59 cm by 2100. According to a more recent study, it could be anything from 33 to 132 cm.

The question of how to prevent climate change – we’re way past that point now – has morphed into the question of how to slow it down. There’s no shortage of theoretical answers about the best way to pump fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or suck more of them out, or lower the temperature by other means. (Another week, another book about climate change: the mood optative, the structure evangelical; threats of doom followed by promises of salvation, punctuated by warnings against false prophets.) And yet carbon emissions, temperatures, sea level and the frequency of extreme weather events just keep on going up. Which leads to another, perhaps even more urgent question: if climate change is not only inevitable but already underway, how are we to live with it?”

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A couple of predictions about the urban future from Benjamin Plackett at the Connectivist:

Future cities will be downloadable

The Internet can be a democratizing force. Social media gave a voice to the Arab spring protesters and made accessing information a consumer’s market. Alastair Parvin, an architect from the U.K., says the Web will do the same for the construction world. Thanks to the increasing capabilities of broadband, ‘we’re moving into a future where the factory is everywhere, and that means the design team is everyone,’ he says. Parvin co-founded a company called WikiHouse, which offers free CAD files to anyone with a 3D printer looking to build a home on a tight budget. The 3-D printer produces the home’s structural components, which Parvin says the user can then assemble ‘without formal construction skills or power tools.’

Future cities will live underwater

This is perhaps one of the more radical predictions for the future of the urban environment: a sea-scraper. Its designer, Sarly Adre Bin Sarkum, a Malaysian architect, won a special mention from eVolvo Magazine for its entry into the magazine’s annual skyscrapers competition. The design iIt’s essentially a floating, self-sufficient tower building, its top just peeking out above the water’s surface. Wave power would supposedly power the underwater city, while the rooftop would provide a place to farm food. It’s pretty safe to say this is a far-out premise, and there are no plans to build anything like the sea-scraper anytime soon, but it’s certainly set tongues a-wagging.”

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Sears, the retailer originally paired with Roebuck, existed initially in its own sort of cloud: the mail-order one. But it became encumbered by physical real estate, running until it was crushed by brick and mortar, by the era itself. Now it returns to the cloud in another form: data centers. The opening of a brief post at the Atlantic by Alex Madrigal:

“Sears! Once the catalog king, then an eminent brick-and-mortar retailer, and now, perhaps, a real-estate holding company that leases out space for computers that power the cloud.

Data Center Knowledge reported today that Sears had created a new unit — Ubiquity Critical Environments — to look into repurposing its shuttered stores as datacenters, starting with this one in Chicago.

Yes, this is this week’s sign that the 21st century is upon us.”

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Fantasies tell us a lot about a person or a people, but there’s danger in taking them too literally. They’re fantasies not just because we can’t or aren’t allowed to live them, but often because we don’t actually want them realized. They do bear watching, however, since when the bad ones are put into action, horrors can occur.

The opening of a Foreign Policy article about a new wave of scary Chinese military fantasy novels:

“It is the year 2049. China’s economic development has so disturbed the world’s other major powers that the United States, Japan, and Russia form an alliance and invade China. Fierce battles break out on the plains of northeast China, where Japanese troops and U.S. fighter jets besiege Chinese infantry. Caught by surprise, China’s army nonetheless stages a glorious counterattack by deploying levitating tanks, and employing a strategy based on lessons learned from the Anti-Japanese War and the Resist America War (better known in the West as WWII and the Korean War, respectively). 

Such is the plot of The Last Counterattack, a serial novel published on Blood and Iron Reading, a Chinese military literature website. In one of the latest installments, published on May 2, U.S. government-sponsored hackers have infiltrated the Chinese military’s network and accidently launched a Chinese nuclear missile directed at the United States. The anonymous author’s online profile says he is a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army and currently a staff officer in charge of operations and reconnaissance in the 12th Armored Division at China’s 21st Army Group. Going by the online pseudonym ‘the Old Staff Officer,’ he told FP in an interview conducted over the Chinese messaging service QQ that he ‘enjoys the feeling of letting [his] imagination fly.’ But Li, as I’ll call him, believes that what he’s writing may actually come to pass. In an April blog post, he explained his thinking for the book: [The world besieges China and attacks it from all sides. Is this possible? Yes!’

There are thousands of Chinese war fantasy novels on the Internet — too sensitive to be published in book form, they circulate on blogs, and websites like Blood and Iron Reading. Most languish, but the more popular ones get read millions of times. As a rising China struggles to define its military aspirations, and as the country’s vast propaganda apparatus encourages citizens to define their version of President Xi Jinping’s vague slogan ‘Chinese Dream,’ these military fantasy novels provide insight into what Chinese people’s war dreams look like.”

By the way: Merv Griffin, who was a meditator, was taught TM by his frequent tennis partner Clint Eastwood. So he told Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1975.

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“Would sell them for much less.”

IVF Frozen Donor Eggs (Newark, DE)

I am a IVF patient in PA who bought six frozen donor eggs from a reputable agency. I no longer need them as I became pregnant on my own. I invested over $15,000 in them and would sell them for much less. They are safely stored at my doctor’s clinic in Newark, DE but I can ship them to your clinic at any time. I have all of the donor information (Caucasian, blue eyes, brown hair, health info etc.) and will provide copies of the signed contract for their purchase. I hope someone can use them for an IVF cycle. If you are interested, please feel free to contact me. Thank you and good luck with your IVF journey.

"Caucasian, blue eyes, brown hair."

“Caucasian, blue eyes, brown hair.”

So-called spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was very good at keeping his legs crossed except when Mia Farrow was around, visits Merv Griffin for the first time in 1975. Merv is the one on your left.

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From James Fallows’ new Atlantic article about Gov. Jerry Brown 2.0, a passage about how California is America writ large, better and worse than ever:

As for the problems Brown and his state are wrestling with, they are America’s problems—but worse. Here we leave the governor for a moment to consider the environment he is working in, which is both emblematic of and surprisingly different from America as a whole.

You can go too far with the idea that California shows how all of America will look a few years from now. The state’s population is already more heavily Hispanic than the U.S. population might ever be: Hispanics, at nearly 40 percent, are about to overtake California’s ‘non-Hispanic white’ percentage to become the largest ethnic group in the state. (Nationwide, Hispanics are about 17 percent of the population.) Relative to the country as a whole, Asians also make up a larger share of California’s population—­roughly 15 percent of the state, versus about 8 percent of the country—while blacks and whites represent smaller shares. (California is about 40 percent white and 6 percent black, versus 63 percent and 12 percent, respectively, for the United States.) Largely because of these demographic shifts, the Republican Party, which a generation ago relied on California as the largest element of its Sunbelt base, now barely bothers to mount statewide races except those self-financed by political-novice millionaires like Meg Whitman, who lost badly to Brown in 2010, and Carly Fiorina, who lost badly to Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate that same year. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3 million votes in California—and by only 2 million more in the other 49 states combined. In both houses of the state legislature the Democrats have, for now, a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ that allows them to prevail even against California’s version of the filibuster. ‘The Republicans appear to have no power,’ Jerry Brown told me. ‘Some of them are nice people, but they aren’t needed for any votes [in the legislature], and they don’t participate.’

In other ways tangible and subjective, California is an outlier. Its median income is much higher than America’s—but so is its unemployment rate. Its prison system is large and fantastically expensive. Two of its sizable cities (Stockton and San Bernardino) have filed for bankruptcy. And it has myriad other problems. Still, California is usefully representative of the country in one very important way. What is good, and bad, about America is better, and worse, in its most populous state.”

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From the June 3, 1898 New York Times:

Sioux City, Iowa–Loaded with wealth, but deserted and starving, John Rochel, once a well-known manufacturer in Sioux City, perished last April on the trail between Dawson City and Alaskan points. The news of his death reached here in a letter to his widow, written by Richard Hendrickson, from Seattle, under date of March 24.

The details of Rochel’s death are meagre, but from what can be gleaned it appears that he was returning from the mines, after disposing of a valuable claim. His party was short of provisions, and as Rochel, who was quite an old man, delayed the march, it was decided to abandon him. Rochel had been engaged here in the manufacture of brick, but was tempted from home by the stories of immense wealth in Alaska. From all accounts he was among the luckiest of the miners at Dawson City, but was unable to bring his winnings back to civilization. His body will be brought here for burial.”

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In the future, the expensive cars being abandoned will likely be driverless. Privacy concerns won’t slow down the software, because trying to control your information in this era is as futile as trying to control what comes out of a 3D printer. From Timothy B. Lee at the Washington Post:

“Self-driving cars will make it easier for the authorities to track you everywhere you go. But the benefits of self-driving cars are likely to be so enormous that American consumers will sign up in droves, regardless of the privacy implications.

We know this because American consumers have already enthusiastically adopted a technology that allows the government to track their every movement: the cellphone. To complete incoming calls, your cellphone company needs to know where you are at all times. A few brave souls have rejected the technology on privacy grounds, but most have signed up without giving it a second thought.

The story will be much the same for self-driving cars.”

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Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, a report from the unfortunately named Messy Nessy Chic about an unusual sign of the economic meltdown in Dubai–expensive ghost vehicles:

“If you’ve ever been to Dubai or anywhere in the United Arab Emirates, you will have noticed they have a serious car culture out there, with a particular preference for the latest and greatest in high-end super cars. But like the rest of the world, Dubai has fallen on hard times. Once the hub of the oil economy and the centre of a booming property market, foreigners, mostly British, invested in the red hot market. Newly wealthy ex-pats bought the lastest Italian and German sports cars to compliment their millionaire lifestyles– and then the global economic crisis came along and burst everybody’s bubble.

Thousands of the finest automobiles ever made are now being abandoned every year since Dubai’s financial meltdown, left by expatriates and locals alike who flee in a hurry because they face crippling debts. With big loans to repay to the banks (unpaid debt or even bouncing a cheque is a criminal offence in Dubai), the panicked car owners make their way to the airport at top speeds and leave their vehicles in the car park, hopping on the next flight out of there, never to return.”

A small plane powered for a matter of feet by a person on a bicycle is utterly useless in a practical sense, yet achingly beautiful to admire, perhaps because of the near-futility of the effort. From a July 10, 1921 New York Times article about French wheelman Gabriel Poulain, who was a pioneer in this odd endeavor:

Paris–Gabriel Poulain, the French champion cyclist, succeeded this morning in the Bois de Boulogne in winning the Peugot prize of 10,000 francs for the flight of more than ten meters distance and one meter high in a man-driven airplane. In an ‘aviette,’ which is a bicycle with two wing planes, he four times flew the prescribed distance, his longest flight being more than twelve meters, or about the same number of yards.

Poulain for several years has been devoting himself to the solution of the problem of flight by the power of his own muscles and several times has come near winning a prize. This morning’s exhibition, however, was by far the most successful, a cyclist never before having been able to rise from the ground a sufficient height to enable him to cover more than six or seven meters.

For today’s attempt Poulain altered the angle of the small rear plane of his machine and it was this alteration, it seems, that solved the problem. 

Poulain made his attempt just after dawn on the smooth road at the entrance to the Longchamps race course. Several members of the Aero Club, donors of the prize and a large company of journalists and photographers were present. A square twenty meters each away was carefully measured off and chalked so as to mark the points at which the ‘aviette’ must rise one meter from the ground and that two flights must be made in opposite directions.

Rides Smoothly in Air

Poulain, who was confident that this time he was going to succeed, rode his machine at top speed toward the chalked square. As he entered it he released the clutch which throws the wing into proper position and at once the miniature biplane rose from the ground gracefully and steadily to a height of more than a meter. 

The flight was as steady as that of a motor-driven airplane and Poulain declared afterward that the motion was smoother than when traveling along the ground. When the judges measured the distance between the wheel marks on the chalk they found it lacked only two centimeters of being twelve meters.

Poulain’s flight in the opposite direction was not quite so successful, though he succeeded in covering eleven and a half meters. In landing he broke two spokes of the rear wheel.

M. Robert Peugeot declared the prize won, but Poulain wished to make further proof of the powers of his machine. After changing the wheel he started from positions chosen by the judges, and in each case he succeeded in covering the prize-winning distance. His longest flight was the last, of twelve meters thirty-two centimeters.

In order to cover so great a distance Poulain worked up to a speed of forty-five kilometers an hour on the ground. According to his own estimate, the muscular force required for flight is equal to three horse power. The total weight of the machine, with the wings, is seventeen kilogrammes, or about thirty-seven pounds, and the cyclist himself weighs seventy-four kilograms, or about 165  pounds.

After the flight Poulain declared that he intended to set at work at once on another plane, which, he believes, will enable him to fly 200 to 300 meters. On this machine he will make use of a propeller instead of depending, as he did today, simply on impetus.

Once in the air, Poulain says that not so much power is needed as for the take-off. He says the pedal-worked propeller will be strong enough to continue flight for a considerable distance without fatigue.”

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From a post and podcast about human enhancement at Practical Ethics, a comment by Australian bioethicist Chris Gyngell about the world to come:

“In the near future parents may be able to directly alter the genetic make-up of their children using genetic engineering technologies (GETs). A popular model that has been proposed for regulating access to GETs is the ‘genetic supermarket.’ In the genetic supermarket parents are free to make decisions about which genes to select for their children with little state interference. One possible consequence of the genetic supermarket is that ‘collective action problems’ will arise. The combined result of individuals using the market to pursue self-interested gains may have a negative effect on society as a whole, and on future generations. n this paper Gyngell asks whether GETs targeting height, innate immunity, and certain cognitive traits would lead to collective action problems if available in the genetic supermarket. he argues that that the widespread availability of GETs targeting height are unlikely to lead to genuine collective action problems, but that those targeting innate immunity and aspects of our cognition, could.”

I’ve probably mentioned before that I love Steven Johnson’s book about Victorian Era epidemiology The Ghost Map. At Medium, the author pushes back against some points George Packer makes in his just-published New Yorker article (gated here) about Silicon Valley’s reach into politics. An excerpt:

“The first assumption, cited half a dozen times in the piece, is that the default political framework of the Valley is libertarian. When I was writing Future Perfectwhich makes a cameo in Packer’s piece—I spent quite a few pages clarifying that while the new ‘peer progressive‘ worldview shared some superficial characteristics with Randian libertarianism, it was in actuality fundamentally different. Yes, people who work in the tech sector today (particularly around the web and social media) believe in the power of decentralized systems and less hierarchical forms of organization. But that does not mean they are greed-is-good market fundamentalists. For starters, almost all of them recognize that their industry itself arose out of government funding (see ARPANET), and some of the most celebrated achievements of the digital culture (open source software, Wikipedia) involve commons-based collaboration with no conventional definition of private property whatsoever. It’s precisely because we lack a new vocabulary to describe this worldview that we end up lumping the tech sector together in the libertarian camp.

You can see this confusion most clearly in a series of datapoints that go amazingly unmentioned in Packer’s piece: namely, the election returns from last fall’s presidential race. As Nate Silver observed in a detailed postmortem on Northern California votes, Obama won Santa Clara county by 42% — more than ten times his margin nationally, and more than twice his margin in the rest of liberal California. (While San Francisco and Oakland have long been hotbeds of progressivism, Reagan won Santa Clara by double digits in both of his successful campaigns.) You would think such a dramatic swing to the left would at least warrant a mention in Packer’s piece, but from reading it, an outsider might reasonably assume that the Valley was a Republican stronghold—a vast army of Koch brothers with hoodies.

The numbers are even more stark when you look at campaign finance. According to Silver’s analysis, Google employees gave more than 97% of their political donations to Obama, with comparable percentages at Apple and eBay as well. If libertarianism is so rampant in Silicon Valley, why are they voting for higher taxes and funding a big government liberal by such overwhelming numbers?” (Thanks Browser.)

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“I can help you out.”

have “adult” items you need to get rid of? (norwalk)

i can help you out,,,, i am the porn remover, simply stated i come by before your sale and get rid of those magazine,,,dvds..books ect… that you really just cannot toss out on the curb or display or sell in a tag/garage sale … if the collection is quality i will pay you cash for the mags/books etc. contact me and i will call you right back…

For whatever reason, the Vatican is commemorating the 41st anniversary of the attack on Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, which was vandalized by hammer-wielding madman Laszlo Toth, who believed he was Christ. From Reuters: 

The statue is so lifelike that a viewer can almost feel the curls of the dead Christ’s hair and the softness of the Madonna’s lips.

The veins in Christ’s muscular arms seem to be still holding blood. The folds in the Madonna’s veil seem made of muslin rather than marble.

When art historian Giorgio Vasari saw the statue in 1550 he wrote in his book about the lives of artists.

‘It is a miracle that a rock, which before was without form, can take on such perfection that even nature sometimes struggles to create in the flesh.’

After the attack, some art historians and restorers wanted the statue to remain as it was damaged as a sign of the violent times. Others said it should be restored but with clear marks delineating the damaged parts as a historical testament.

The Vatican instead decided on what is known as an ‘integral restoration,’ one that would not leave any traces of the intervention visible to the naked eye.

‘With any other statue, leaving the wounds (of the attack) visible, however painful, could have been tolerated,’ said Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums.

‘But not with the Pieta, not this miracle of art,’ he said.”

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Fuzzy footage of the attack, and some of the restoration.

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Mike Fleming Jr. has a really insightful interview with Steven Soderbergh at Deadline Hollywood. Among other things, the discussion covers the spiraling costs of launching a blockbuster film, which actually should have grown cheaper with so many new viral ways to reach audiences. I’ll guess the culprits are entrenched interests and insufficient data. An excerpt:

Deadline Hollywood:

On global summer tentpoles, studios routinely use $125 million as the given in the mathematical theorem of what it costs to launch these films. Is there no way to bring down that massive number?  

Steven Soderbergh:

I know they’ve tried to figure this out because it’s killing them, but I haven’t seen a Nate Silver-like systemic analysis of what an ad dollar does, exactly.

Deadline Hollywood:

TV spends seem very inefficient for their high cost.

Steven Soderbergh:

Yeah, but nobody wants to be the first to challenge that, which is weird to me because it would be groundbreaking for somebody to be the one who goes, ‘I’m capping this at $15 million.’ They’re afraid, and yet they lose all the time, doing the thing they always do. It’s an extreme brand of loss aversion. It’s just frustrating because the trickle-down effect is, creatively, things are getting narrower. We did one bold thing on Magic Mike. I had this conversation with Danny Feldman at Warner Bros, when I asked things like, ‘On a $25 million spend, what does that last $8 million get you?” He says, ‘We don’t really know.’ But Danny said, and I’m sure people all over town who love this will be screaming, but Danny said, “I’ve never seen any evidence that outdoor does anything. How would you guys feel if we did no outdoor and took that $3 million and put it into more spots.” And we said, “Great.” We didn’t do any outdoor, at all.

Deadline Hollywood: 

It doesn’t seem to have hurt you at all. Didn’t you and Channing Tatum finance that movie by not taking your fees to become an investor like Todd Phillips did in The Hangover?

Steven Soderbergh:

I don’t know what Todd did exactly, but Channing and I split the negative 50-50. When he called me two years ago and said was I interested, I said there was only one way. You and I are going to pay for it, we’re not talking to anybody else, and we’re in preproduction tomorrow because we have to start shooting the day after Labor Day because that’s the slot that I’ve got and you’ve got. I flew to Cannes four weeks later and sold enough territories to cover us. Cash was coming out of our pocket, but at least on paper we were somewhat covered. That’s how we did it.

Deadline Hollywood:

Todd Phillips made one of the great director paydays on The Hangover. Is Magic Mike the most you’ve ever made on a film?

Steven Soderbergh

It will be, I think. It certainly ought to be.

Deadline Hollywood: 

What does that say about taking entrepreneurial risk when the business is shifting like it is?

Steven Soderbergh

It’s hard for me to use this as an example people should follow. I knew that as ideas go that this was Halley’s Comet. I just knew Channing in a stripper movie, that’s gold. I wouldn’t do that all the time. I had to borrow money from my accountant in the last month of post. To hold up my end, it took everything I had.”

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This is the greatest TV footage ever not just because I’m an atheist but because I’m a big fan of awkwardness, when the truth pushes through a veneer of so-called civility, which is often nothing more than pandering.

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Politicians and organizations that tried to suppress the African-American vote during the 2012 election are angered that some of the targets of the IRS looking for tax-exempt infractions were Tea Party groups. Those who usually support racial profiling are angry that they, in a sense, were stopped and frisked. I’m against all of these investigations based on generalizations but also appalled by the hypocrisy. The opening of “Profiling Is Great…Except When You Do It to Me,” by Farhad Manjoo as Slate:

“Pretend you work at the Internal Revenue Service. Actually, let’s make this exercise even more terrible. Pretend you’re an underpaid, low-level clerk working in the understaffed IRS backwater of Cincinnati. Every day, a big stack of files lands on your desk. Every day, the stack gets a little bigger than the last. Each file represents a new application for a certain tax status—501(c)(4), a tax-exempt designation meant for ‘social welfare’ organizations. Nonprofits with this status aren’t required to disclose the identity of their donors and they’re allowed to lobby legislative officials. The catch is that they must limit their political campaign activity. According to IRS rules, 501(c)(4) groups can participate in elections, but electioneering must not be their ‘primary’ mission.

Got all that? Good—now let’s get to work. It’s your job to decide which 501(c)(4) applications represent legitimate social-welfare organizations, and which ones are from groups trying to hide their campaign activities. What’s more, you’ve got to sort the good from the bad very quickly, as you’re being inundated with applications. In 2010, your office received 1,735 applications for 501(c)(4) status. In 2011, the number jumped 30 percent, to 2,265, and in 2012 there was another 50 percent spike, this time to 3,357 applications.

So what do you do? You look for a shortcut. Someone at your office notices that a lot of the applications for 501(c)(4) status are from groups that claim to be part of the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Aha! When you’re looking for signs of political activity, wouldn’t it make sense to search for criteria related to the largest new political movement of our times? So that’s what you do: Without consulting senior managers, you and your colleagues set up a spreadsheet called ‘Be on the Lookout,’ or BOLO, which spells out specific criteria for flagging potentially politically active groups. The spreadsheet lists keywords like ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriots,’ and ’9/12 Project.’ It also flags groups whose primary concerns are government spending, debt, and taxes, that criticize how the country is being run, or that advocate policies that seek to ‘make America a better place to live.’”

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Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead was unfortunately among the chorus of people who reprimanded the Onion over a tasteless Oscar night joke about nine year-old nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.

Lizz WinsteadLizz WinsteadVerified account@lizzwinstead

9-year olds are always so into irony. #AndAlwaysAppreciateIt #Edgy #Fail @TheOnion

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Now Winstead has gotten herself into trouble for telling jokes in wake of the devastating Oklahoma tornado, which has killed at least 21 people, nine of whom were children.

So how could someone think that a small child who was nominated for an award wasn’t grist for humor but that a tragedy that created actual dead small children was useful for a joke about the IRS scandal? Because comedy is a subjective, unscientific thing often based on imperfect information and questionable priorities. It’s a mess, just like you and I. It doesn’t always make sense and sometimes offends, but it’s far better to live in a society that goes a little too far than one that’s repressed. Unexplored energies below the surface force their ways to the fore in often horrible ways, not merely insulting ones. Comedy is not pretty, as Steve Martin once said, but it is necessary, so we shouldn’t overreact when it goes awry. 

Lizz Winstead isn’t a bad person. She just told a bad joke.

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William S. Burroughs was more deeply involved in Scientology than we know according to a new book by David S. Wills. The writer just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit on the topic. A few passages follow.

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Question:

What initially brought Burroughs to the Scientologists? 

David S. Wills:

Well that’s the first half of the book right there… In a nutshell, he was a deeply disturbed man. He was abused as a child, troubled by his homosexuality, accidentally killed his wife, and was hooked on drugs for decades. He sought out many “cures” for his problems and despite being obviously intelligent in many ways, was incredibly gullible. Ultimately, he came to Scientology for a magic fix, and for a while, he actually believed he was getting it. In fact, as late as 1994 (3 yrs prior to his death) he was convinced of some of its merits.

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Question:

I heard many rumors that scientology cures you of being gay that many high profile celebrities join to get cured of gay. Any truth to that?

David S. Wills:

Long ago, L. Ron Hubbard listed homosexuals as among the lowest forms of human beings (this has subsequently been changed in his books). I have no idea about the rumors of other celebrities… but it is highly likely that Burroughs sought a “cure” for his homosexuality in Scientology. He went through periods of feeling it was a handicap and remarked on a number of occasions that Scientology (temporarily) cured him of various “handicaps”.

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Question:

What is a misconceptions that you had about Scientology that later changed?

David S. Wills:

I thought that the whole Xenu/space opera thing was of more importance. The tabloids and South Park really play it up, but it didn’t get incorporated until later, and even then it was for the high-level members. Really, for the average Scientologist, that wasn’t even a part of it.

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Question:

Did they try to convert you?

David S. Wills:

No. Most Scientologists and ex-Scientologists I talked to were pretty open but not pushy. They were willing to explain concepts but not force them upon me. Interestingly, I did speak to someone who had letters from a Scientologist who’d used Burroughs to convert young people in the 60s.

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An excerpt from a blog post at the New Yorker in which George Packer, who just published The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, writes of some of the things he likes about our contemporary nation:

“Recent additions to American life that I would fight to hang onto: marriage equality, Lipitor, a black President, Google searches, airbags, novelistic TV shows, the opportunity for women to be as singlemindedly driven as their male colleagues, good coffee, safer cities, cleaner air, photographs of the kids on my phone, anti-bullying, Daniel Day Lewis, cheap communications, smoke-free airplanes, wheelchair parking, and I could go on.

In general, the things in my list fall into two categories: technological advances that make life easier, tastier, more entertaining, healthier, longer; and socio-political changes that have made the country a more tolerant, inclusive place. Over the past generation, America has opened previously inaccessible avenues to previously excluded groups, although in some cases the obstacles remain formidable, and in others (immigrant farm laborers, for example) there has hardly been any change at all. More Americans than ever before are free to win elective office or gain admission to a good college or be hired by a good company or simply be themselves in public. And they have more freedom to choose among telephones, TV shows, toothpastes, reading matter, news outlets, and nearly every other consumer item you can think of.

The bottom line in all these improvements is freedom. In America, that’s half the game.

The other half is equality.”

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