sept 07



Last month’s Harper’s included an essay from Paul West that originally appeared in The American Scholar. After his stroke, as his wife explains, he “had suffered brain damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form. Global aphasia, it’s called — the curse of a perpetual tip-of-the-tongue memory hunt. He understood little of what people said, and all he could utter was the syllable ‘mem.’ Nothing more”

She then encouraged him to write, the “first aphasic memoir.” The result is sad and fascinating. Parts, as can be expected, are simply perplexing mush, but, like good poetry, sometimes the abstracts reveal more than any clinical language could about the mysteries of language:

[You] disentangle the least bit of wiry fluff that has been haunting your tongue for half an hour, and assign it to the unwilling project of the human mess… 

I turned my thoughts next to the ghostly hand that dangled uselessly at my side, paler than it had been, and with an odd look of failure about it that I had not noticed before. Could it have withered during the process? Stranger things have happened to a victim of a stroke. It was the same inert apparatus, but somehow more useless, as if it had been ratcheted down a peg or two. In the tremendous lusting ovation of the stroke proper, I rapidly formed an adverse view of my jaw, temple, and hand, wishing them all far away and put to the good uses of someone else who was not too proud of what he brought to the human encounter…

Milling around me there are all sorts of verbal alternatives both nonsensical and full of meaning, to some of which I have permanent access without speaking. I wonder if one can safely execute a lifetime using the language of dumb show. I know of one woman in New York who has successfully done it for years. It is a matter of the breaks. I would, of course, prefer to speak the English that I know and revere, but I think I can see past gobbledygook to a pure and vivid English, instead of starting every sentence five or six times, writing sentences that lose heart halfway through in a futile clutter of grossly amalgamated syllables.

This is interesting to me as West’s essay indicates he has Wernicke’s aphasia, speech in long sentences padded with little meaning and neologisms. However, his wife describes his symptoms as that of someone with Broca’s aphasia, which is the capacity to think coherently, but incapacity to speak more than brief words or phrases. I once used to see a veteran at a bar where I worked, who had this condition. It was deeply frustrating for him, and a little scary for me, when he tried to tell a story about a boat, with lots of hand motions, facial expressions, pointing, and uttering not much more than “boat….red…boat…water…boat…boat.”

I’d have to brush up on neurology but I didn’t realize both aphasia conditions work together. West’s condition was very poor, but his wife explains why he still managed to write, “Because he had wordsmithed for seven decades, he had forged dense thickets of brain connections for language. Also, he could be diabolically determined.”

Also in the same issue is a chilling transcript from Kathleen Weinstein, who taped a conversation with her car hijaker before he ultimately murdered her. Rather than being sordid 48 Hours-style territory, the resulting dialogue is touching, but ultimately – as we know the outcome of it – bleak. The then 17 year-old asks Weinstein about the book she’s reading. It’s about Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. She gives him a minute-long lecture on it as he has a gun pointed at her, and he seems interested. “Why don’t you change your life?” she asks him. “If you could have things be exactly like you wanted them to be right now, what would you do? You’ve got your whole life?” she asks again, offering to help him get into college or buy him a plane ticket.

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Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman is liveblogging his Iraq visit. Today he writes about the Baghdad “Joint Visitors Bureau” hotel:

I’m sitting on a gilded chair, writing on a gilded table. The floors beneath me are marble, and the chandeliers above are sparkly and crystal. The only reminder that I’m in a war zone is the pair of man-high concrete barriers I can see out my window. “It’s Sunday, man, you’re working too hard,” a national guardsmen just told me. Welcome to Baghdad.

Not all that far away, Marine grunts are going weeks without showers or toilets, chomping on rations – and generally maintaining a positive outlook on life. I got my laundry done by a Philippino maid. Yesterday, I listened to a salsa band play in the chow hall, while I supped on alu gobi and navratan vegetable curry.

Then again, that’s the place where contractors literally use hundreds of thousands of US dollars as toys. Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone quoted former CPA official, Frank Willis in a Senate testimony about Custer Battles: “Yes – $100 bills in plastic wrap … We played football with the plastic-wrapped bricks for a little while.” 

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Last year, Britain’s highest court relaxed their strictly enforced libel laws, but evidently, it was not enough. Kelly Torrance investigates an actual book burning by Cambridge University Press. Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz didn’t like what was said about him in “Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World,” (even though the book mentions him only 10 times, “nine of which are in passing.”) This isn’t the first time Mahfouz has pressured a publisher. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It,” “cannot be published in England, and the judge awarded the businessman damages, which Miss Ehrenfeld has refused to pay.” But he doesn’t just target UK publishers. The “New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post haven’t mentioned the ‘Alms for Jihad’ case: All three have settled with Mr. Mahfouz in the past.”

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My new column is up on Brainwash. It’s about real and fake suicides on LiveJournal and Theresa Duncan’s bizarre blog-based cult-following.

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aug 07



One of the first sites I look at in the morning is Google trends. Sometimes I can figure out the source to some search spikes. For example, after an episode of Top Chef aired, when one participant said, “We think just about everything tastes better with sriracha” (she even used it in ice cream,) the following day, the hot sauce was on Google Trends’ top 10. But if you didn’t watch the episode, you would have no idea why.

Most of the time the list is a standard fare of today’s newsmakers, like the top search trend today, Dana Perino (Tony Snow’s replacement.) But don’t ask me about number 2 on that list – “ezekiel 20 29.” If there is a reason for the 5% search increase in Atlanta, GA peeking two hours ago, well, I don’t know it. (The passage, by the way is, “Then I said unto them, What [is] the high place whereunto ye go? And the name thereof is called Bamah unto this day.”)

And some things on the list are completely out of left field, like the peek this morning for people searching for “the dram shop author.” The related searches are no help, “hyena, dram shop author, aardwolf, scarab, royal jelly.” Huh? So I plugged in “dram shop author, aardwolf,” expecting to find, gosh I don’t know, Sisters of Mercy lyrics? It turns out these are clues from the July 20th New York Times crossword puzzle. But, umm, that was over a month ago, why would it be a popular search today? I can only imagine it has been syndicated elsewhere, but who knows? The blogs say nothing. (Frustratingly, the sidebar at Google trends for blog posts is a spam magnet with cut-and-pastes of the day’s list.)

And “dram shop author” is not as literal a clue as one would think. The book is better known, even in English translation, as “L’assommoir” (by Zola.) I imagine Will Shortz has an extra burden now, avoiding answers that can easily be found on search engines.

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My review of William Gibson’s Spook Country is in the Philly Inquirer today.

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I’ve been trying to talk my sister out of a very, very pricey three week long “study abroad” in Sydney, explaining that for the price she could just as well live in Australia for several months and still have some money to see parts of Asia too. But my sister has never traveled out of the country before, and for that reason, I understand her hesitation doing so without an organized group taking care of the itineraries, accommodation, and other planning.

Yesterday, the New York Times showed just why studying abroad is so expensive. Unsurprisingly, the nonprofit groups that organize these programs have rent-seeking schemes similar to the student loan industry, doling out free trips for school officials and cash bonuses per student signed on:

American Institute for Foreign Study offers college officials a free trip to one of its overseas sites for every 15 students that sign on and a 5 percent share of the fees that students pay, according to a copy of its agreement with the University of Mary Washington; if fewer than 15 sign on, the payback is 2 percent. According to its Web site, the institute has deals with universities nationwide, including the University of California, Berkeley; Fordham and Pace in New York, and Rice in Houston.

Amy Bartnick-Blume, a vice president of the nonprofit Institute for Study Abroad, which is affiliated with Butler University in Indiana, said the institute gave colleges with which it has “exclusive agreements” up to $500 per student for restricting them to the institute’s programs in a given region. The practice in effect shuts out the competition. Ms. Bartnick-Blume said that the colleges decide whether to pass the savings on to students and that the institute had no way of knowing how many do…
Many public universities, especially, encourage students to deal directly with the foreign institution to lower costs, even if they also have arrangements with outside providers. Experts in the field say private colleges are increasingly taking the opposite tack, charging full at-home tuition and doling out a fraction to an outside provider or university abroad, pocketing the difference.

And if a student doesn’t pick a school-sponsored program, he runs the risk of having his study abroad credits rejected by his university.

The article doesn’t mention it, but programs might still be cheaper than a school’s tuition. I studied abroad in the Czech Republic, which, would have cost under $3,000 a semester if I signed up on my own, but cost about $15,000 through the program. That’s not so bad compared to your average private college tuition, but one has to wonder where did the $12,000 go?

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… is in The Guardian today. Check it out: airplanes, eco-activists, camps, people with dramatic names (“Merrick”) – it’s all there.

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Witold Rybczynski’s slideshow on prefab houses questions whether they are more than just a fad in coffee-table books. For a little more than the cost of a Prius, you can load all your Mac and IKEA gear into this 1,150-square-foot model:

Well, $35,923 buys you the exterior. Plumbing, heating, interior walls, and other things will triple or quadruple that price. Throw in land and it is not a bargain at all. Last year, Target ran into this problem when it designed prefab garden pavilions (“home extensions.”) While the scheme of picking out colors and designs on a website is a fun one, the final price was estimated to be $40,000. Unsurprisingly, they are no longer available.

Rybczynski points to trailer homes, at an average price of $35,000, as the “most radical form of prefab housing.” They are produced entirely in a factory and towed to a site. But mobile homes too, have hidden costs. One of the comments corrects this assumption:

While [mobile homes] can be towed away, the vast, overwhelming majority are towed away solely to the dump. I’ve yet to meet a mobile home owner who has moved his house from one lot to another. 

Because the lots are leased, rather than purchased, the home owner is at the mercy of his lot owner, generally a mobile home park. Rents can and are raised and the fact the house will unlikely survive a move, holds the home owner hostage to the increases. Many parks do not allow used homes to be brought in, so even if the house were to survive the move, they are few places to go. Worse, the cost of disassembly and re-connection often exceeds that of a newly purchased home.

For every 100 trailers sold in 2001, 20 were repossessed. And the value of a typical manufactured home declines to half its original price in as little as three years, meaning no equity to build up for a downpayment on a conventional home. This 2004 report shows the cost of moving a trailer is $3,000 or more. Faced with eviction, most people simply abandon their dwelling. And eviction is a perpetual threat. “Being landless leaves trailer owners at the park landlord’s mercy,” explains one of the authors “Because the park is private property, the owners have little recourse if they’re evicted.” She even compares it to “serfdom.” 

Then there is the problem that nearby property owners think neighboring trailer parks lower real estate worth – so they use zoning laws and bogus crime statistics to do what they can to kick them out. Wikipedia shows the problem began when they started getting taxed as homes rather than vehicles, even though mobile homes depreciate in value over time like motor vehicles.


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Conn and Hal Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys – “the perfect book for every boy from eight to eighty” – is a bestseller stateside, after selling over 750,000 copies (quite a lot) in the UK since its release last year. Just a look at the adorably retro hardback cover should give you an idea of its contents:


See? Now don’t you want to buy this for the former-Webelo in your life? It’s packed with plenty of miscellany – How to manuals on knots, magic tricks, and making marbling paper. Latin phrases, maps of things like the Battle of Waterloo, and diagraming what to do if you break a window. Just by owning it, you can pretend you’ll put down your Blackberry this Sunday and go fishing or something.

Jenny Turner explains in The Guardian, “It’s not just a compendium of stuff to know or do – it’s a fantasy of reparation. Men buy this book to revisit their own boyhoods, and to visit their own boyhoods on their sons. Obviously, this is an artefact of middle-class nostalgia – a complicated phenomenon, but one which, in a preliminary definition, involves looking both ways, backwards and forwards, with fear and aspiration in equal measure.” (via Things magazine.)

It was only a matter of time before the “for girls” version hit shelves. The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls by Rosemary Davidson and Sarah Vine just made its UK debut, and John Crace’s digested read suggests it is worse than you can imagine, (“you can still learn a lot from the 1950s. Back then, every naice young country gell knew how to make daisy chains and polish their brother’s shoes, and some of us – not you, Rosemary – even went on to marry her very own Tory boy!”)

Turner says friends were “horrified by the gender stereotyping,” but she explains, “Such books are not really meant to be read at all. They are what the publishing trade calls ‘gift books’, for people who don’t much enjoy reading to present to people they don’t really know or like.”

Still, it makes me sad to think there’s any market for a book boiling girlhood fantasies down to darning socks, being a better friend, and baking “fairy” cakes. It seems the younger generation is so much more gender-identified than in my youth. Club Libby-Lu (a hair salon/makeup studio for children) is a more popular young lady birthday destination than Chunk E. Cheese. And while one might argue contemporary girl’s fashion simply apes the looks they see on older sisters – you can’t double-dutch in slim fit jeans.

Turner explains, “In the early 21st century, children’s toys and clothes are far more gender-differentiated than they were 20 or 30 years ago – it’s the obvious way to get people buying, not just one of something, but two or three or four”

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Lie detectors are kind of like Ouija boards. Over twenty years ago, 60 Minutes hired several polygraphers to catch an alleged thief of photographic equipment. Each was told a different “suspect” was the likely guilty party. Unsurprisingly, the polygraphs each favored the suspect that was brought to his attention. And yet, that technology is still in use today. Only fMRI technology – measuring brain activity rather than physiological changes – might make the polygraph obsolete. But its level of accuracy is widely in dispute.

Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article on proprietary fMRI technology begins by shattering a misconception even people well-versed in pop-neurology believe: that lies physically manifest.

People who are afraid of being disbelieved, even when they are telling the truth, may well look more nervous than people who are lying. This is bad news for the falsely accused, especially given that influential manuals of interrogation reinforce the myth of the twitchy liar. “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” (1986), by Fred Inbau, John Reid, and Joseph Buckley, claims that shifts in posture and nervous “grooming gestures,” such as “straightening hair” and “picking lint from clothing,” often signal lying. David Zulawski and Douglas Wicklander’s “Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation” (1992) asserts that a liar’s movements tend to be “jerky and abrupt” and his hands “cold and clammy.” Bunching Kleenex in a sweaty hand is another damning sign—one more reason for a sweaty-palmed, Kleenex-bunching person like me to hope that she’s never interrogated. 

She goes on to explain a less-than-obvious reason that we take honesty for granted:

People are also blinkered by the “truthfulness bias”: the vast majority of questions we ask of other people—the time, the price of the breakfast special—are answered honestly, and truth is therefore our default expectation. Then, there’s the “learning-curve problem.” We don’t have a refined idea of what a successful lie looks and sounds like, since we almost never receive feedback on the fibs that we’ve been told; the co-worker who, at the corporate retreat, assured you that she loved your presentation doesn’t usually reveal later that she hated it. As [Maureen O’Sullivan, a deception researcher at the University of San Francisco] puts it, “By definition, the most convincing lies go undetected.

So, if we tend to believe everyone is honest except Generalized Anxiety Disorder sufferers, the perpetuation of “lie detecting” technology makes sense, even if the results are far from fail-proof. But a major problem with lie detectors is that the machine can work as its own placebo:

People who believe that they are in the presence of an infallible machine sometimes confess, and this is counted as an achievement of the polygraph. (According to law-enforcement lore, the police have used copy machines in much the same way: They tell a suspect to place his hand on a “truth machine”—a copier in which the paper has “LIE ” printed on it. When the photocopy emerges, it shows the suspect’s hand with “LIE ” stamped on it.)

Talbot interviews No Lie MRI founder Joel Huizenga, who for $10,000 will tell you whether your girlfriend is cheating on you or not (provided she agrees to sit down for a scan, rather than slaps you in the face if you even ask.) “What do people lie about?” he says. “Sex, power, and money—probably in that order.” 

No Lie uses fMRI technology to detect changes in blood flow and blood oxygenation in the brain. Apparently, liars use certain parts of the brain that honest people do not, and thus the patterns of oxygen flow can be traced. The problem is even these machines only offer 90% accuracy, (the polygraph is estimated between 61%-85% accuracy, which makes me believe that after several more tests the fMRI will be found even less accurate.) Ten percent might seem like nothing on a calculus exam, but for someone on death row, that’s a huge risk of inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, fMRI, as a new-new thing, is thought to be future-forward. Countless “journalistic accounts of the new technology—accompanied by colorful bitmapped images of the brain in action—resemble science fiction themselves.” She notes a Yale grad student’s study on how the three words “Brain scans indicate” sometimes make test subjects believe things they would otherwise find preposterous.

But the bigger issue seems to be the concept of a lie:

The word “lie” is so broad that it’s hard to imagine that any test, even one that probes the brain, could detect all forms of deceit: small, polite lies; big, brazen, self-aggrandizing lies; lies to protect or enchant our children; lies that we don’t really acknowledge to ourselves as lies; complicated alibis that we spend days rehearsing. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that all these lies will bear the identical neural signature. In their degrees of sophistication and detail, their moral weight, their emotional valence, lies are as varied as the people who tell them. As Montaigne wrote, “The reverse side of the truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits.”

If the definition of a lie doesn’t neatly fit in a box, how can we imagine it boxed in the brain? 

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Funny, I always thought the way to get any woman to fall for you is to look and act like (if not be) Peter Krause. But apparently it has something to do with carrying binoculars, hair bleach, and RPG-inspired pseudonyms. Yep, I’m talking about how to get your game on, playa. The“Seduction community,” in Wikipediaspeak, has been around pretty much as long as the social web ( I remember “LOL”-ing over in high school.) Post-blog explosion, you can read about the exploits of PUAs of all ethnicities, class distinctions, and subcultures (even vegans!) Now, it’s the subject of a VH-1 reality show. Here’s show’s host Mystery in action:

Watching it, I realized just how perfectly cast Tom Cruise was as the Neil Strauss-inspired character in Magnolia. Mystery (every time I type his name I feel like I have to add some kind of sarcastic comment) is completely humorless … in other words, he is dead serious about the “venusian arts.” And what is that thing we are told always ranks higher than looks and money and everything else on importance to women in a mate? I really can’t imagine him every cracking a non-smug grin. There wasn’t much to plot either, even for a reality show. Basically, seven slightly dorky guys were sent into an Austin club with a secret camera. All of them tried to pick up. All of them failed. Later, Mystery and his equally absurd-looking “wingmen” (both of them “graduates” of his program) go in and clean up the girls (now much more intoxicated.)

In an awkward/hilarious interview with Conan O’Brien, he stresses the importance of “getting out of the house” and “peacocking” – dressing with usual pieces for attention. If you get out of the house, you are more likely to meet girls. If you wear something weird, girls will comment on it. The more girls you talk to, the more likely you score. It’s salesman logic through and through. Come to think of it, I have struck up conversations – and subsequently given my number out to – guys wearing Nixon Rotologs. Then again, all of them were gay.

So isn’t it just The Secret for boys? The basis seems much less on evolutionary psychology than positive-thinking. They owe about as much to Matt Ridley and Geoffrey Miller as Rhonda Byrne does to Siddhartha.

And good luck negging your way to kino with a two-set, if everyone in the world now knows what the game is about. I think this guy – in the YouTube comments – has got the right idea, “I met a girl in a bar one night that seen the same episode,and we spent about an hour ripping Mystery apart and laughing. There was probably nothing else in common me and this bitch had. Bottom line is Mystery got me laid that night,so i guess i am a fan. I encourage others to use this approach, you can call it the Jax method. Find a girl who has heard of Mystery, and then rip him apart till she is in tears. I find this technique to be the easiest, most efficient and the most fun. Good luck men!”

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Do you think white-collar executives are subconsciously nostalgic for the Southern Plantation experience? Intel’s advertising team seems to think so, otherwise they would never let this go to press:

Intel has since issued a weak apology.

More telling is how Gizmodo comments are littered with “hey lighten up. it’s just an ad!!!” glib. Only one of the comments seems to know what’s up:

I used to work in advertising.
It is all about subtext and implication. Watch a few minutes of TV commercials and it is impossible to not to see the sexual subtext to most ads. in a very perverted way. Advertising doesnt work by appealing to your intellect, it works on emotions and impulses.
This ad is obviously constructed to appeal to the power hungry sadist in most management types.
“Bow to me cubicle slaves! I work in an OFFICE! With 2 windows!”
It’s an ad about “maximizing the power of your employees”.
you do see that this sentence refers to people as objects that are “yours”? Again this wouldnt be weird if it was a bunch of whites, or a mix of dudes.

BTW even on a full page ad in a couple of regional free weeklies you can be guaranteed there were at least 2 teleconferences and 3 or 4 sit downs to sit around and point fingers at proofs. Basically so some management type can display their knowledge of the word “font”. The idea that this was unintentional is laughable. Ad types are some of the most cynical people you will meet outside of the Military Industrial Complex. I think it was more likely someone thought they would slip it under the radar.

It’s unquestionably racist. But is it more racist than Anthropologie’s Upper West Side “hired help” fantasy? – another company whose PR department is working overtime this month

Back to re-reading Pattern Recognition

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I’m right now working on a book review and all I really want to do is steal what Nancy Franklinwrote in her latest column, “Have any states yet legalized marriage between human beings and TV shows? If so, I’m going to throw a few things in a bag and run off with Mad Men,” (replace “TV shows” with books and “Mad Men” with William Gibson’s oeuvre. )

Here are the articles distracting me in the meantime:

  • LA Weekly on Theresa Duncan (“I knew her, and I knew that much of what she wrote about her world was an elaborate tale, taken as fact by the uninitiated…”) and the LA Times (“In a 27-page “chronology” written by Blake in October in preparation for a lawsuit against the church that was never filed, he alleges the couple was “methodically defamed, harassed, followed and threatened” by Scientologists. The document lists Tom Cruise, filmmaker-artist-author Miranda July, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, former Viacom Chief Executive Tom Freston, alternative rocker Beck and Art Forum Editor Tim Griffin, among others, as players in the dispute. In addition, a number of Hollywood talent agents and major league art collectors were accused of being in on the conspiracy…”) Both articles are very researched, very stirring pieces that bring to mind Sally Quinn’s 1974 Christine Chubbuck obit
  • Clay Shirky rejects the “myth of liberation” on his blog (“Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. ..”)
  • Unfortunately, I missed the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit at the De Young in San Francisco last month, but I will try to catch Kohei Yoshiyuki, another Japanese black-and-white photographer, at Yossi Milo in NYC (via Your Daily Awesome.)
  • And if your house is a mess, just a dab of cleaning solution should get the job done.
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july 07



Alex Garland was one of my favorite novelists back in high school. How can I resist a writer that describes his own work as: “Genre. Written with affection for previous books, comics, and films. All wrapped up in stoner ‘philosophy’”? So many people hyped him as the heir presumptive to J G Ballard, but several years later, revisiting his two novels, The Beach and The Tesseract, I see them only as works of promise. One of many things that makes Ballard a speculative-fiction writer par excellence, is his capacity to craft a fantastic ending. Garland’s books unravel soporifically halfway through (and that’s probably why I hadn’t even noticed he published a third novel in 2004, The Coma, until checking Wikipedia today.)

I suppose it’s like first listening to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, before discovering My Bloody Valentine and then trying to listen to BRMC again; nevertheless Garland is still very very young (37) and Ballard only got rolling – with The Drowned World – in his forties. In the meantime, Garland’s making diversions into cinema, with similarly uneven success. Don’t get me wrong, I loved 28 Days Later…but…the first half. Three endings were filmed (which usually means that all of them are lacking) and I wonder if their latest film. Sunshine might also have been pasted together with a roulette wheel.


The incessantly illuminating Geoff Manaugh points out exactly what it was that made the film hard for me: the first half is brilliant. Really, really brilliant. The second half isn’t. “At the risk of wildly exaggerrating the philosophical depth of the first 5/6ths of the film, this seems roughly akin to throwing in a serial killer for the last three chapters of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche is chased through the claustrophobic rooms of his mountain home – or adding the Son of Sam to the grand finale of the Tao Te Ching,” he writes.


Perhaps it was the A/C, or my coffee, or my pleasant mood that day, but I was in love at first sight: the extraordinary visual effects, Underworld’s Gyorgy Ligeti-tribute, the thoughtful characters, the golden spacesuits (!), and the heterodoxy of a familiar science fiction trope: the crew isn’t headed to the moon or beyond, but to the sun. But after the first hour, my love just died. The ending was excruciatingly horrible, comparable to Jason X, the Friday the 13th sequel set in space in the 25th century.

I love pulpy sci-fi as much as the next person, and appreciate the range from pseudo-serious (Gattaca) to utterly ridiculous (The Island, and aforementioned Jason X), but what I badly want is for someone to make a film as good, or nearly as good, as 2001. There was Dark City, of course, but an underground nightmare tale can’t ever quite capture the imagination like a spaceship traveling to the great unknown.

Several months ago, I heard Marvin Minsky speak about his role as adviser on the set of 2001, giving me an entirely new appreciation of the film. Minsky – himself one of two men (the other was Carl Sagan) that Isaac Assimov called the smartest he’d ever met – explained that Stanley Kubrick was a quick-study and grasped all the concepts Minsky explained immediately. I guess I can’t fault Garland and director Danny Boyle for not being superhuman Kubrickian geniuses, but they could, at the very least, finish what they started, which is to say, let the characters come to terms with their imminent death, as we knew they would straight from the beginning (that is not a spoiler.)


The film is still worth seeing. There is one sequence in particular that stands out as one of the finest I can remember in years (when Capa and Kaneda put on the gold spacesuits.) And the cast is wonderful, most photogenic among them being Cillian Murphy, who has such an interesting, alien-esque face, I am not at all surprised to see he’s now filming another sci-fi film, about as a “pair of identical twins are separated by Russian scientists to determine if they can communicate with each other while one is kept on earth and the other is launched into space.”
I don’t really think he’s attractive (to which a number of gals seem to disagree) but were he in a restaurant eating a couple tables away from me, I’d find it very difficult not to stare.


Other assorted good things: the set design is gorgeous, avoiding cliche. The oxygen garden, in particular, is a work of inspired beauty, and yes, gosh, those gold spacesuits. From the beginning, it achieves a contemplative mood that is difficult to get in science fiction (cf: Soderberg’s disasterous attempt at Solaris.) One of the first scenes shows a man desperately arguing with the spaceship intercom AI, requesting she let him view the sun in as high intensity as he possibly can. Later on, they all gather to view the beauty of the planet mercury, knowing this is something they, and no one else, alone will ever see

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Fashionista (via Iris) has scanned the ENTIRE November 2002 issue of Sassy:


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We once had the option to record TV shows and movies (remember the double decks to copy rental tapes?) But we drank the DRM kool-aid and phased out our VCRs. Now we buy DVD TV sitcom seasons off Amazon for $49.99. (Don’t try to tell me the director’s commentary and scene selections make up the difference.)

Just as irrationally, we buy bottles of water for $1.12 … again and again and again. And we buy those bottles even though water is basically free.

Sorry H20 connoisseurs – tap water tastes like bottled water tastes like WATER. So why do you buy bottled water? Would you buy bottled air or bottled stones? Fast Company’s Charles Fishman has a special report attempting to figure out why people pay for something that is basically free, “Yes, it’s just a bottle of water – modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows around supplying us with something we don’t need – when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation – it’s worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is.”

Fishman does the math: “If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly bills would run $9,000.”

Sales of those “squiggly light bulbs,” as my aunt calls them, show that dollar saving is the first “green” people consider in the marketplace. And we’d all buy hybrid cars if we still got tax breaks. Yet, the most simple way to save – literally – a buck, still escapes most of us.

Bottled water sales are likely why hallway bubblers (remember those?) are broken or nonexistent. And forget trying to refill your bottle with a bathroom tap – public bathroom sinks typically lack the height and width to allow a complete refill. Tap water drinkers like me have to hold it slightly crocked and only fill the bottle halfway. (Hey, anyone want to go into business with me and design swan-necked bottles specifically for refilling from the tap?)

It’s also worth noting that airport screeners have no problem with empty bottles. Perhaps owing to their mid-80s interior design, the one place bubblers are readily available are in airports.

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You can’t box up an old building and store it in the attic until it looks cool again. The best a janky motel owner can hope for is for a hipster clientele to come in and ironically appreciate old facades. But will anyone bother to spend the night?

There’s a scene in Swingers where they walk into a Vegas casino – The Stardust – and it’s full of old ladies. Then they argue whether or not they should head down the street to one of the newer places. But those energy-inefficient glittering neon lights and dirty orange carpets offered an authentic Vegas lounge-cat fantasy. You can’t picture Dean Martin sipping gibsons by the bar or Sammy on stage singing, if the interior design of a casino is even vaguely Scandinavian.


Sadly, the Stardust – the last piece of old school left on the strip – was razed in March. (Yet another reason why I regret forgetting my digital camera when I was there last summer.) “Echelon Place,” a $4 billion venture, will take over the lot, and likely be a complex of Cirque de Soleil, Italian high end clothing boutiques, and superstar chef eponymous eateries, like most of the rest of the strip’s current real estate.

Might someone argue The Stardust was a historic landmark as essential to Americana as Plymouth Rock or Monticello?


I was reminded of this while reading Wayne Curtis’ article in The Atlantic nostalgic for vintage motels in Treasure Island, Florida.

Around Florida’s coast, skyscraper condos are replacing fun space-age and tiki-themed mid-century motels. “[As] the number of these old motels falls, I like to think that their value will rise and they’ll be saved and savored,” Curtis begins.


He talks to one vintage motel owner – a former fashion executive – who is hoping to revamp his property with a mix of old and new charms – wifi, pool-side bingo, flat screen TVs, and synchronized swimmers. That motel could be a big hit, in the same way that glitzy bowling alleys have taken off in major cities. But if you’ve ever gone to Lucky Strike or Jillian’s, you know the experience is nothing compared to the dingy dive bowling alley on the outskirts of town.

So what’s going to happen to all the panhandle motels that haven’t found hipster-baiting investors? The article ends with Curtis in Ft lauderdale listening to the din from construction of Trump International, over what was, naturally, an old motel.

But what can they do? One writer Curtis interviewed seems to think that the right buzz could get irony-seeking hipsters to flock to Treasure Island. I’m not convinced.


The Wallpaper(*) magazine reading jetset live by upscale W-style boutiques. And hipsters of the Red Hook and Astoria sort are unlikely to leave their city without a couch to crash on.

Part of the reason we so often reference Philip K Dick today is he was the lone sci-fi writer to imagine that in the future we’ll obsess over the past, and value antiques over white spacesuits. But the great thing about antiques is the tangibility to the past. Motels offer nothing but fleeting memories. A vintage motel might be fun to look at, but sleeping and eating in it – transfat, bedbugs, and all – is a whole nuther story.

Going back to what Curtis said about the value increasing with scarcity – that seems to be happening up north in Cape Cod. Along Truro’s shoreline, there is series of hatbox-sized rooms at Days Cottages. Each is named after a different flower – Zinnia, Violet, Petunia, etc. And each is fully booked summer after summer. Many curbside motels have closed but the most iconic are cherished.

And plenty of loopy post-WWII architecture can be found untouched in Southern California. For one thing, the city limits keep expanding (By the year 3000, all of the United States will be part of “Los Angeles.”) It’s the only place where finding a new cool neighborhood is more of a matter of building it rather than gentrifying an existing one. Secondly, Los Angeles is – as Anthony Lane (or maybe David Derby) wrote in his review of the Black Dahlia – a city in love with its past. So much in love, it seems perpetually stuck in–and revising – its dreamy noir history. Just look at these Santa Monica apartment names (via Things Magazine). This is a city where old movies are played on the side of a mausoleum in the cemetery where Jayne Mansfield and Valentino are buried. The amazing confectionary erzatz architecture of the 40s, 50s, and 60s may be hard to sustain as a motel’s facade, but hotdog stands, dive bars, and diners carry-on the tradition just fine.

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Almost seven years ago, I went to the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and since then I’ve probably made a dozen or so blog entries alluding to it. Well, now I’ve got a new pretentious museum to continually reference – the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Culver City, which I visited a couple weeks ago. Judging by the name, I was expecting an investigation of ancient robots and abacuses and aqueducts. The New Yorker recently had an article on the Antikythera Mechanism, with an aside note saying that there automatons in Ancient Greece, but they were designed more for entertainment than utility – “simulations of animals and men, cleverly engineered to sing, blow trumpets, and dance, among other lifelike actions.” I’ve tried without much luck to find more about the ancient Greek robots, and hoped MJT might be the place.

Well, it wasn’t, but what it was is even more wonderful. The museum is an enormous cabinet of curiosities. Unsurprising now, as I later learned the curator is behind Cabinet magazine, a wonderful, wonderful quarterly. Included are investigations of Cat’s Cradle and other string games, oil painting of the dogs Soviets sent on space missions, letters of “advice” civilians sent to astronomers, a history of medicinal old wives tales, and many things made in miniature. Right now, there is a display on Dr Shea Zellweger’s Logic Alphabet models, a mind-boggling series of wooden models and diagrams.



If you are in the Los Angeles area any time soon, you have no excuse to miss it. Plus, the book selection is probably the best of any gift store I’ve ever seen – including Flann O’Brien’s The Third Man, Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonte, and a biography of Athanasius Kircher.

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My review of Rebecca Mead’s book One Perfect Day appeared in the Sunday Washington Times last week:

If the cost of a wedding were directly proportional to a couple’s love for one another, Donald and Melania Trump would be the Romeo and Juliet of our time. Clearly something other than romance is driving the $161 billion wedding industry. In her new book, “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding,” New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, a bitingly funny Englishwoman, reveals how lavish weddings thrive on our country’s worst insecurities.

One thing that always bugged me about weddings: on what planet is a white ankle-length gown and hair pulled back tight enough to restrict facial movement, considered sexy?


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Two new things:

A very funny interview with Audacia Ray for Bookslut and my new column on “memory erasing” drugs for PTSD sufferers

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june 07



When Jonathan Lethem, (since it’s been, oh, two weeks since I last quoted Lethem) was asked about dropping out of college he answered, “My mother also dropped out of college and she was one of the smartest people I’ve known, so the way of the autodidact is an honorable one as far as I’m concerned – I hope I’d be supportive if my child chose that path too!”

I couldn’t agree more. The five friends of mine that didn’t graduate college are doing much more with their lives than anyone else I know. And if I could do it over, I’d have used those four years to travel, maybe teach English in China. When I have children, I’ll pay what ever I need to for private Montessori or Waldorf schools, but – unless there’s a great shake-up in higher education over the next twenty-five years (unlikely) – at eighteen, the rest is up to them.

In this bit I wrote as a collegiate – (something I really should go back, pad up, and submit somewhere) – I argued that departments act similar to special interest groups, which is why at least half of the classes you take are guaranteed to make no difference in the rest of your life (Semiotics????) The core curriculum, while nice in theory (math nerds can learn to love Plato too!) is simple bureaucracy in practice.

Richard Vedder (via Hit and Run) argues “too many students, not too few, are going to college”. Vedder, an economist, wrote a book, “Going Broke by Degree,” which I look forward to reading.

He blames federal financial aid programs for the raising higher education costs, (something we all can agree is absurd and evil) and writes, “Colleges and universities often violate an implicit contract with their donors in the way they allocate resources, very often paying scant attention to the needs of the undergraduate students who typically are their bread and butter.”

This snake oil’s ticket price is perpetuated the same way people spend upwards of $30,000 on their wedding day, (This is something Rebecca Mead’s new book, “One Perfect Day” explains hilariously. I have a book review of it coming out soon, so I’ll hold off on talking about that any more, although I’m itching to quote her etymology of “rite-of-passage.”)

It also seems that college prevents young adults from gaining a sense of money and self-reliance. If $35,000 is what your parents paid or you were loaned for a year’s worth of tuition, there’s no way you’ll respect an entry-level salary. I am flabbergasted by friends of mine that have enormous apartments, all brand-new furniture, and eat out every night. The more recently they graduated, the less likely they are to budget or put costs into perspective. That we have a largely cash-less economy makes it even more difficult to consider money as something other than an abstraction.

I also wonder how many people got their jobs through alumni events, professor-advisors, or the job services program at their schools. My hunch is not very many. Then, there’s the problem that students don’t even know what jobs *are*, or whether or not they are interested or eligible. With title inflation abundant everywhere, who the hell knows what a “project coordinator” or “marketing analyst” actually does? (Answer kiddos: file and copy and make coffee!)

Ironically, news headlines instead decry the shortage of men at university. While I don’t have statistics to back this up – I’m guessing more men than women substitute vocational training for college. Men are more career minded, women don’t as often keep an eye on the linear path because, oh, that’s right, about seven years after graduating you’re going to drop out of work to have a baby.

Which is why, many women my age find themselves thinking, “I went $60,000 in debt so I could be Pam from The Office?” Like it or not, the whole, she’s-in-college-to-get-her-M.R.S stereotype exists on every campus, except maybe Smith or Sarah Lawrence.

Unfortunately, it’s going to be a long time until human resource departments are awake to it (partly because HR managers are the worst of the Trixie and Chad post-college stereotypes.) Besides, tech companies – which will hire coders out of high school – most companies set a Bachelor’s degree as the bare minimum. Just look at Craigslist. Even underling administrative jobs – $12 an hour! – require four year college degrees, simply because the culture at large refuses to accept that an eighteen year old may be mature enough to make his or her own decisions.

But classism is the root cause, and it may just be unavoidable. If you are under thirty, the first or second thing you ask another person under thirty is “Where did you go to school?”

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I was up in Ithaca a few weeks ago, and Radio Lab podcasts were a godsend for the long drive to and from. If you haven’t listed to the program, go to the website and download on a whim. I can’t think of a single boring episode. It’s swiftly edited and garnished with lots of fun sound effects, and you will have tons of cocktail party conversation fodder for the rest of the week (Who knew mothers across the globe speak to their babies with universal intonation? Or that a scientist has doubled the lifespan of worms – using genetic research that one day might be applicable to us?)

But it was the interview with Ann Druyan that really hit me as I was just approaching town and looking out the window at the clear Upstate New York night sky. She describes the summer she and her late husband Carl Sagan worked on the Voyager Interstellar Message, the golden records that were placed inside the Voyager I and II spacecrafts. The discs, with a shelf life of a billion years, had everything from Louis Armstrong to obscure Chinese tribal music. They put the records alongside a phonograph and engraved hieroglyphics explaining how to play. But then she had the idea that if she meditated while a machine recorded her brain activity, maybe an intelligent life will eventually be able to decode it. “A billion years is a long time, Annie. You might as well do it,” is what Carl Sagan said. So right now, in outer space, is a recording Druyan’s every neuronal impulse in that moment. Making it even more romantic, the recording took place the very week they fell in love. Of course a billion years isn’t much in space, but that’s got to be the most romantic event in history. That’s just incredible.

Since then, I’ve been reading and listening to more interviews and watching some of her lectures. It’s really no surprise that most google hits for her name turn up websites like “brainy quote” or “quote of the day,” she’s a softly insightful speaker:

“I think the roots of this antagonism to science run very deep. They’re ancient. We see them in Genesis, this first story, this founding myth of ours, in which the first humans are doomed and cursed eternally for asking a question, for partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It’s puzzling that Eden is synonymous with paradise when, if you think about it at all, it’s more like a maximum-security prison with twenty-four hour surveillance. It’s a horrible place. Adam and Eve have no childhood. They awaken full-grown. What is a human being without a childhood? Our long childhood is a critical feature of our species. It differentiates us, to a degree, from most other species. We take a longer time to mature. We depend upon these formative years and the social fabric to learn many of the things we need to know.”

“When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl.”

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Washington City Paper has a long overdue cover feature on street harassment. Unfortunately, the accompanying pieces are semi-oblivious to – or scared to dwell on – the uniqueness of DC’s racial stratification. It’s not called Chocolate City for nothing, but then again, it’s also the number one post-college destination for every do-gooder blonde chick with a liberal arts degree. Read Feministing’s take instead, including this bit about street harassment blogs:

The folks at Hollaback are sensitive to the race issue, and have an antiracism statement on their site. The one time I submitted a cellphone photo of some guys who had harassed me on the street, they informed me that there might be a wait to see my incident appear on their blog, as they make a conscious effort to publish photos of street harassers of all races. And they explicitly ask that submissions not mention race unless it is somehow relevant to the incident of harassment.

Feministing recommends approaching the issue like F Files advises:

Different people may find themselves harassed more by different people, depending on where they live and specifics of their community. Sometimes some groups of people are outside and in the streets more often then other groups. Think before generalizing.

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I’ve posted before about the magnificent photographer Edward Burtynsky (here are his photographs of workers demolishing ships.) Kottke posts the trailer for Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary about his travels through China. It seems to focus on e-waste – a huge and escalating problem in Asia and Africa. I absolutely can’t wait to see this.


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I have a book review of Liza Mundy’s Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women, and the World in The American:

Mundy’s account of the dilemmas posed by unused frozen embryos is the most compelling. She interviewed one couple that pays $2,000 a year to two separate clinics to keep their unused embryos stored in liquid nitrogen. “The range of choices is dizzying: Should they donate these excess embryos to another couple to gestate and bear? Their own daughters’ full biological siblings, raised in a different family? Should they donate the excess embryos to scientific research? Or should they authorize both clinics to remove the glass straws containing the embryos from the liquid nitrogen? Knowing how difficult pregnancy is for her?”

Fertility clinics often suffer the consequences of deadbeat IVF patients. They hire collection agencies to get former patients to make an executive decision, but if the clients can’t be found, the clinics are stuck. One fertility clinic chief told Mundy he fears what will happen when he retires. “The person buying [the clinic] does not want to inherit embryos. That’s the rule. People do not want to inherit embryos. So what do you do with them? I have embryos that have been here since 1992.”

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Linking to Seymour Hersh articles sometimes feels about as necessary as praising Beethoven or heirloom tomatoes in August, but no one should miss his current article, explaining “how Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, became one of its casualties.”

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No matter how many times you’ve seen the image of the man standing up to the tank in Tiananmen Square. it is impossible not to be moved by it. I tear up more often than not when I see the video footage. This week Frontline is airing a documentary on the “Tank Man,” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s must viewing especially for everyone that was too young to fully recall the event.


“You could look at him as brave. But he probably wasn’t. He was probably just an ordinary person who was so disgusted by what he’d seen over the past couple days.” said Timothy Brook, from the University of British Columbia.

Because this image has been so frequently reproduced, its context is almost forgotten. It happened just after the government brutally massacred its nonviolent protesting civilians. This footage was horrific. Soldiers fired at their backs as they fled off on bicycles, some carrying wounded people on bicycle carts. Thousands were killed

Some say its fairly certain the man was executed. Tens of thousands were arrested at that time, many of them were executed, and for incidents that were far less insulting to the government.

But Jan Wong from the Globe and Mail disagrees, “I don’t think they had him or they wouldn’t have … displayed him.” As one of the women protesting on the square, Wong’s commentary was the most illuminating. She said that if you’ve ever seen the Chinese guards, they are extremely rough and violent. She thinks the people leading him off were helping him….and that’s he’s still alive.

And if he is alive, he lives in the only country that has forgotten him. Frontline reporters handed the famous picture to Beijing University students, who didn’t recognize it.
“I’m not not sure of the context. It might be a parade of something. I really don’t know. I’m just guessing,” said one student.
“Is this a piece of artwork? Did you make this up?” asked another.

You can’t find “Tank man” anywhere on Chinese google. “If another should step forward, technology will enable a swift arrest,” said the Frontline reporter.

Make no mistake, Chinese censorship is disgraceful and imprisoning, if not killing, innocent civilians. Like Shi Tao, who forwarded an internal memo about how China should deal with the anniversary of Tiananmen Square to a New York publication. Yahoo returned the information to the Chinese government, who put him in jail for 10 years.

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may 07



Yesterday, I saw the Edward Hopper retrospective at the MFA.


By now we all have several Hopper paintings etched in our minds – the solitary figures, 20s architecture, warm sunlight; Americana to the core. He’s Norman Rockwell for the realists

Peter Schjeldahl wrote “Hopper’s is an art of illuminated outsides that bespeak important insides. He vivifies impenetrable privacies. Notice how seldom he gives houses visible or, if visible, usable-looking doors; but the windows are alive. His preoccupied people will neither confirm nor deny any fantasy they stir; their intensity of being defeats conjecture. Imputations, to them, of ‘loneliness’ are sentimental projections by viewers who ought to look harder. They may not have lives you envy, but they live them without complaint.”

And I have to agree. Unfortunately, the MFA exhibit included interpretation-heavy descriptions, finding “unmet eroticism” and “loneliness” in ambiguous situations


His etchings were by far my favorite, as it was like discovering an entirely new artist – pared down, colorless, and harsh. A couple on a train seem entirely more bleak and ominous in sharp-stroked ink.


It is Edward Hopper’s strong sense of an unanswerable narrative that makes the pictures so universally loved. Rorschach blot interpretation is pretty much futile. I was reminded of the recent story in Smithsonian Magazine (via) tracking down the girls in William Eggleston’s photograph, revealing prosaic boy trouble and freshman year anxiety was what made them take such a haunting shape


If you’re looking for an Edward Hopper fix, but can’t make it up to Boston, check out Tsai Ming-liang’s film What Time is It There? , the best tribute to Hopper I can think of.

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From Yahoo Astrology:

If something about that certain someone is giving you pause – whether it’s their feeling on a topic that’s important to you or just an offhand remark on their profile page – be sure not to ignore it.

What’s next, fortune cookies dispensing Facebook “poking” wisdom?


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Natalia Ilyin has got no love for passionate design – because she’s a designer. Here’s what she has to say in Metropolis:

The describing of oneself as “passionate” is pretty much a given these days if you’re in any sort of business. We get junk mail about passionate state representatives running for office, brochures from accountants passionate about filing our taxes; we find passion in plumbers and tree surgeons, and where I live we commute on the ferry with literally hundreds of passionate software engineers, sitting quietly in their clean jeans and fleece vests and Helly Hansen parkas typing away on their laptops. It’s a cliché, okay, but it is a particularly ironic cliché in the design professions, for if there is one single thing that our design language was created to eradicate, it is passion.

Passion is not enthusiasm. It is not love. It is not enjoyment, and it is not flow. Passion is an unstoppable overflowing of emotion that destroys in its satisfaction, that torpedoes lives and marriages and nations, that shoots husbands or coworkers or strangers in rage…

Sure, we all have our consuming interests. We’ve all snatched that “I’m loving this” moment out of the air. But do we abandon logic and hand the reins of self-control over to the limbic brain because of our desire for good design? Do we step away from the well-buttressed conventions of our “designer’s life”? Do we miss a meal over it? It’s true: sometimes we like to give the impression of wild abandon à la Pierre Bernard—we design an edgy poster, use a disgusting photo to make a point, design a building that looks like a torso, string a cable in a weird way. But is that passion? Or is it calculation of the highest order—about exactly what will communicate our ideas to whom? Focus is one thing. Passion is another.

It’s a great essay, the funny thing is she doesn’t really talk about this in terms of customer relations, but more as the reserved “porcupine” nature of designers. Is that why all the designers I know are Aquariuses or Scorpios?

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I’ve been loving Sundance chanel’s series The Green. A recent episode featured Tom Szaky the 25 year-old founder of the plant fertalizer TerraCycle made, very proudly, of “worm poop.” Now MiricleGro is claiming trade-dress infringement and false advertising because, its not-yet-profitable rival uses the colors yellow and green in its packaging.

One doesn’t have to know the Pantone color chart by heart to argue that what MiricleGro is calling “yellow” and “green” is of a signfigantly more electric family than TerraCycle’s muted colors:

Right now TerraCycle’s defense is collecting evidence of green and yellow packaging for agricultural products prior to 1995. “Possible sources: advertisements in old gardening magazines, books and catalogs; state Department of Agriculture fertilizer registration label files.”

Scotts also objects that TerraCycle says its plant food is as good or better than “a leading synthetic plant food” and is refusing Scotts’ demands that TerraCycle hand over its scientific tests conducted at the Rutgers University EcoComplex to Scotts’ scientists and lawyers. Scotts refuses to turn its tests over to TerraCycle.

TerraCycle doesn’t even make its packaging – but instead simply reuses old plastic soda bottles and milk cartons. They’ve set up a website SuedByScotts proudly using this lawsuit as proof the company has made it.

One of the commenters at Amy Alkon’s site explains why this and other silly lawsuits happen so frequently, “In trademark law, it’s been established that in order to retain the full effect of your trademark protection, you have to vigorously defend ALL potential infringements, no matter how trivial. Regardless of how ridiculous this action looks, and how much bad PR Scotts picks up because of it, if it didn’t bring action, it would be easier for the next (legitimate) infringer to claim that Scotts didn’t do all it could to protect the trademark.”

That episode of The Green is worth watching for – among other things – the new resturant Blue Velvet in Los Angeles, planting an entire garden (expected to provide 60% of the resturant’s ingrediants) on its roof

It reminded me of “vertical gardener” Patrick Blanc, who was recently featured in the New York Times (”All His Rooms are Living Rooms.) I saw as many people taking snapshots of his Musée du Quai Branly wall, as any other landmark in Paris. Here are some of his most exquisite designs:




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As the fifty or so dead journalists in recent years demonstrates, Russia is the king of passive-aggressive tactics to silence its opposition. And now there’s a new nasty trick up its sleeve. About a week ago, technorati was going nuts with links to that Guardian report on the Russia-Estonia cyberwar. The trouble was, no one really knew what it meant. Today, Slate’s Cyrus Farivar explains what is really going on. It’s a distributed-denial-of-service attack, loading state-run website with 100 times the traffic they are used to, thereby preventing the websites from running at speed –or even at all. This is a little different from the seriously scary critical infrastructure debate that went one right after 9/11, when our government feared terrorists would hack into our “critical” systems to disable electricity – or worse.

First of all, it’s unlikely (although, not highly unlikely – it is Russia, after all) that these attacks came from the Russian government. It’s more plausible that some very nationalistic computer-savvy individuals are responsible for it. But, given the nature of the attacks, it’s damn near impossible to figure out whose responsible: they can identify the offenders IPs as Russian, but it was botnet “zombie-computer” business that can’t be fingered:

Even in the absence of the physical evidence generated by traditional warfare—charred remains, bombed-out infrastructure—we’ve still learned a lot about the nature of online terrorism in the last few weeks. For one thing, cyberwarfare is efficient. Even the smartest of smart bombs takes out adjacent buildings and kills innocent bystanders. When you wage war online, there doesn’t have to be collateral damage: It’s possible to target a single Web site at a time.

It’s also elementary to focus a cyberattack on the upper crust. In targeting Estonia’s online seats of political and economic power, the perpetrators sent a threatening message to a country where cabinet-level discussions happen online, and documents are signed by digital signatures. Linnar Viik, the architect of many of Estonia’s e-government services and now a government IT consultant, told me that there have been no panicked calls by politicians to completely shut down these online services. If these attacks had happened during March’s national elections, however, a lot of bureaucrats might have rethought the country’s dependence on e-government…

Perhaps in some sense, it’s good that Estonia was the patient zero for cyberwarfare. The small, tech-savvy country has provided a good blueprint for what to do to keep these attacks at bay.

I was in Tallinn about seven years ago, and it remains in my memory one of the most bizarrely adorable cities – all rotting spiered and embellished buildings in cotton candy colors, fading and chipping, as if maintained by lazy elves – and one of the most wired cities. In 2001, most cities had a handful of internet cafes, but there, they seemed to outnumber fruit stands. Now, “you can pay for your parking meter via cell phone, access free Wi-Fi at every gas station” and even their last election allowed online voting.

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I’ve got a new article in Brainwash about Save Darfur’s divestment campaign.

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My favorite books in middle school were So Far From the Bamboo Grove and My Brother, My Sister, and I. Both were penned by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, who lived on Cape Cod and was a friend of my grandmother’s before she passed away. I met her once, and she signed my copies “Joanne, sweetness, so cute!” which made my day, because at 13, I felt neither cute nor sweet

Now Yoko Kawashima Watkins is the local equivelency of James Frey. So Far From the Bamboo Groove describes WWII atrocities experienced by a Japanese family in Korea. Naturally, at 13, I didn’t know enough about history to raise an eyebrow. But plenty of Korean-Americans have objected to including the book in public school libraries. Carter Eckert, a Korean history Harvard professor argued in the Boston Globe that “context and balance are important. While Yoko’s story is compelling as a narrative of survival, it achieves its powerful effect in part by eliding the historical context in which Yoko and her family had been living Korea. That context, simply put, was a 40-year record of harsh colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45, when Yoko was growing up. While some Koreans fared better than others, many were conscripted for forced labor and sexual slavery to serve the Japanese imperial war machine, while the colonial authorities simultaneously promoted a program of intensive, coercive cultural assimilation that sought to erase a separate Korean identity on the peninsula. Watkins was a small girl as these events were unfolding and can hardly be blamed for them, let alone held responsible for the occupation itself. But the story she tells is unfortunately incomplete, if not distorted, by the absence of this larger context.”

Yoko Kawashima Watkins says when she visits schools she always apologizes for the suffering caused by the Japanese government.

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As much as I loathed semiotics in college, it’s hard not to read/problematize/question the signifier the hell out of this from the new Anthropologie catalog:


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Your kids will wish you had picked up some Banksy prints just like you wish your parents bought some Warhol…but not cause it will pay for their college. He welcomes reproduction, even including a free store of images to download on his website: “Serving suggestion: Prints look best when done on gloss paper using the company printer ink when everyone else is at lunch.”And that’s pretty characteristic of the Banksy wit: anger without cruelty, inclusion valued over exclusion.

It’s no surprise that the two most famous street artists here in the States – Mark Jenkins and “BORF” – come from the art-allergic District of Columbia: graffiti is by nature a political act. But Banksy’s seems the most authentic and true. He spraypaints to city walls what we wish we could scream from the rooftops.


In February Wooster Collective had post called The Banksy Effect, saying, “While we’ve always been unabashed (and unapologetic) fans of Banksy, we now see Banksy as the single greatest thing that has happened not only to the street/urban art movement, but to contemporary art in general.” The rest of the post goes on to explain that “sweepingly broad statement that is likely to get us in trouble,” pointing out he’s an entryway to the subculture and one who “almost single handedly redefined what art is to a lot of people who probably never felt they appreciated art before.”

Lauren Collins, in a very thorough article in the New Yorker, got to email him, after a year of seeking him out. When asked about the record sales at snooty auction houses – some topping half a million dollars – Banksy is noticeably uncomfortable, but nevertheless genuine, “I have been called a sellout, but I give away thousands of paintings for free, how many more do you want? … I think it was easier when I was the underdog, and I had a lot of practise at it. The money that my work fetches these days makes me a bit uncomfortable, but that’s an easy problem to solve—you just stop whingeing and give it all away. I don’t think it’s possible to make art about world poverty and then trouser all the cash, that’s an irony too far, even for me”

The article gives a great example of the ephemeral nature of street art. A couple outside of Bristol tried to sell one of his tags “with house attached for free.” Sometime later, the graffiti was covered in red paint.

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Tao Lin interviewed by Bookslut:

Okay, how fun is it correcting people’s spelling on a book called Eeeee Eee Eeee?


Really fun. My friend Kobo Abe misspelled it Eeee Eeeee Eee and I corrected his spelling.

He also says Marco Roth “called me on the phone and I pitched him an essay on statutory rape to promote my next novel.” It gets better on his blog.

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If all it took to be happy in this crazy, mixed-up world was to dump your girlfriend, quit your job, hop in the car and drive west, then California wouldn’t be filled with therapists and plastic surgeons. – Heather Havrilesky

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The cover of the New Yorker April 30th issue (a couple looking at a digital camera capture of the painting before them) reminds me of the Prado museum-goers flocking around Thomas Struth’s “Making Time” photographs of people looking at paintings. They spent more time looking at the photographs than the actual paintings – sometimes right next to them!


It’s sort of like how, when you see a live performance with a close-circuit video, most heads in the crowd will tilt toward the TV. Too bad Susan Sontag isn’t around to comment on this…

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april 07




With the aviator specs and wavy hair, this photo of Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University and his robot double looks like a still from an early Cronenberg film:

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Sometime ago, I wondered why more people don’t print fake cash, since no one really knows what a $20 bill looks like anyway. Turns out, Bank of America can’t tell the difference either, and has been caught issuing a counterfeit note from an ATM machine.

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Today’s feature in The American highlights Korea’s thriving film culture, now in a precarious place due to Old Boy’s alleged influence on Cho Seung-Hui.

Unfortunately the author of that piece did not further explain the change in policies in the 80s that accounts for their flourishing local film industry. A dizzying number of great films have come out of Korea in the past twenty years. In 1988, military leader Roh Tae-woo enacted a new constitution easing political censorship, meanwhile regulations on the industry were relaxed. For example, independent productions were illegal up until 1984. As a result, Korean artists took to film like a sixteen-year-olds to car keys.

In 2001, the local market share topped 50% and it steadily rose in the years since. However, last month, Variety pointed out the local market is declining for a number of reasons. And the recent controversy over the Virgina Tech shooting isn’t going to help. Lets hope the country is wise enough not to impede its progress with new regulations on its film industry

Old Boy, after all, represents Korean film about as much as Pulp Fiction represents American film. But that’s not to say it has no merit. I agree with Henry Jenkins’s point:

A news story in the New York Times describes Old Boy as an obscure cult film which appeals primarily to those who are interested in excessive violence. In fact, Old Boy has emerged as one of the most important films in the recent Korean film revival, one which has won awards from film festivals and has been playing in art houses across the country. While the film includes some of the most disturbing violence I’ve seen on screen in some time, that’s precisely the point: the violence is meant to be disturbing. We watch the main character’s slow descent into his own personal hell and then as he seeks to right wrongs that have been committed against him, we see him pushed into more and more violence himself. The filmmaker doesn’t glorify the violence: he’s horrified by it; he’s using it to push past our own reserves and to get us to engage in issues of oppression and social aggression from a fresh perspective. I have always been struck by the fact that moral reformers rarely take aim at mundane and banal representations of violence though formulaic violence is pervasive in our culture. Almost always, they go after works that are acclaimed elsewhere as art – the works of Martin Scorsese or Quintin Tarantino, say – precisely because these works manage to get under their skin. For some of us, this provocation gets us thinking more deeply about the moral consequences of violence where-as others condemn the works themselves, unable to process the idea that a work might provoke us to reflect about the violence that it represents.

Think about how many college kids get together, order pizza, and watch A Clockwork Orange. And how many murderous rampages have resulted from that?


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I just returned from Europe (Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris) so expect some Flickr albums once I catch up on a mountain of email I’ve neglected over the past two weeks. One of the highlights was seeing an exhibit on Samuel Beckett at the Pompidou Centre. It is always interesting to me which writers have a following of visual artists, musicians, or other non-literary creatives. Ballard, for one, seems much more admired by architects than by fellow writers. The legacy that Lewis Carroll has left merits its own Wikipedia entry. Beckett, likewise, has a fanbase from Bruce Nauman to Philip Glass. His stark short sentences easily translate into any language, and seem timeless, existing in a realm of his own. He is also an icon as much as Marilyn Monroe, appearing tirelessly stern and out-of-place in every photo from his youth to old age:


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Artist and novelist Robert Marshall has an incredible article in Salon on the “dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda.” Although he disappeared from public eye in 1973, Castaneda continued to promote Tensegrity, his closest followers created workshops and instructional videos that continue to this day. But his innocuous reputation needs reexamination:

At the heart of Castaneda’s movement was a group of intensely devoted women, all of whom were or had been his lovers. They were known as the witches, and two of them, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar, vanished the day after Castaneda’s death, along with Cleargreen president Amalia Marquez and Tensegrity instructor Kylie Lundahl. A few weeks later, Patricia Partin, Castaneda’s adopted daughter as well as his lover, also disappeared. In February 2006, a skeleton found in Death Valley, Calif., was identified through DNA analysis as Partin’s.

Some former Castaneda associates suspect the missing women committed suicide. They cite remarks the women made shortly before vanishing, and point to Castaneda’s frequent discussion of suicide in private group meetings. Achieving transcendence through a death nobly chosen, they maintain, had long been central to his teachings….

No one contributed more to Castaneda’s debunking than Richard de Mille. De Mille, who held a Ph.D. in psychology from USC, was something of a freelance intellectual. In a recent interview, he remarked that because he wasn’t associated with a university, he could tell the story straight. “People in the academy wouldn’t do it,” he remarked. “They’d be embarrassing the establishment.” Specifically the UCLA professors who, according to de Mille, knew it was a hoax from the start. But a hoax that, he said, supported their theories, which de Mille summed up succinctly: “Reality doesn’t exist. It’s all what people say to each other.”

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I! ME! I! ME! (SO, LA, TE…) I! ME! ME! ME!

Hey, anybody got a guitar? I think I just wrote the next single to go platinum!

Hey Hey You You!
You should totally love me.
I am so much better than she is.
Didn’t you see that picture of me on Myspace?
Oh, here’s another great thing about me.
I’m just so hot! (3x)
And by the way I am better than that girl too!
Yay! Yay! Yay!

Some old cranky sexist – Alexander Theroux maybe, or Norman Mailer – once said that only men fall in love, and women fall in love with being loved. Now, that certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but it might help us understand the current trend toward self-aggrandizing pop songs (“doncha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”) Goodbye lovesongs, hello musical catfights, where “I” and “you” seem paradoxically reversed. “Now tell me who have you been dreaming of? I and I alone…Maybe I’m perfect for you” sang the heiress, but nowhere is it more apparent than Avril Lavigne’s new single: “Don’t you know what I could do to make you feel alright? Don’t pretend I think you know I’m damn precious.” For Slate, Jody Rosen even asks if she’s become a “Heather”. (To be fair, that guy from The Killers also seems a jealous sort, as most of his songs seem to be about hating other guys.)

This sentiment is also taking book reviews by storm. I mean why bother wasting any space on Rebecca Mead’s “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding” – even if you are reviewing it for the New York Times. Instead, you can just write about how cool your own wedding was and tell that sorry spinster who wrote the book, she is so totally wrong to think people plan lavish weddings cause the rest of married life will be a drag, “Au contraire, Rebecca — come over some night for homemade ice cream and see! … Hell yeah! I’m the motherfing princess! Hey! Hey! You! You!”

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An interview with eloquent, expected Nobel prize winner by 2030, Bosnian writer Muharem Bazdulj, and a column on whether or not Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002) lets kiddie porn consumers off the hook. Not wanting to defend Ashcroft on anything, I’m pleased to see there may be a way out of the virtual child porn predicament. Hany Farid, a Dartmouth College computer scientist, is developing software than scans things such as light sources and pixels to determine whether photos have been digitally altered or not.

“This is an arms race,” Farid says. “I can already tell you how it’s going to end: We’re going to lose. It’s always going to be easier to create a forgery than detect a forgery. But we’re going to take the power to create forgeries out of the hands of amateurs. We will raise that bar up until you have to be very, very good to do it.”

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Should comic book authors find inspiration in Henry Ford?


Stuart Immonen (via Drawn) weighs in:

I’m by no mean embarrassed by my vocation, but I recognize that it’s a bit esoteric, and generally not well-understood by the layperson. “I draw comics,” tends to elicit a cascade of other questions, most of which require quite a lot of explaining, and by the time you’re done, the person who asked is either overwhelmed or utterly bored. But this time, I was taken aback by the response; All this fellow said was, “So they do all that on computers now?”

Naturally I scoffed– this was pre-internet, almost pre-Photoshop, after all. “No,” I coolly replied, “I use a pencil and paper.”

And for a good long time afterward, that statement defined my M.O. Even now, most of the community of professionals working in the assembly-line method established almost at the birth of comics still work this way. But it would be a considerable oversimplification to say that a pencil and paper have never been the only tools at the artist’s disposal.

Face it, deadlines are murder, especially when they come around every thirty days or so…

Immonen goes on to explain the many methods that make comic book illustrating faster. But these tools make the work better, rather than sloppier. No one wants to read a zoetrope.

Picasso (a macho artist if there ever was one) said, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” I think he was just rephrasing Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

What would he have done with Photoshop and a Creative Commons photo library, I wonder?

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feb 07



Because America’s Future Foundation is a nonprofit, I am not allowed to use its forum to support or oppose any bill in Congress. However, on my personal site I am free to do so, and that is why I’d like to clear up some confusion over my recent article on the FRPAA. I think it is very much needed for precisely the reasons this GSU blog post states. In an attempt to make the article seem balanced, I lost my own perspective, and I regret writing the column so hastily. Please visit SPARC for more information on the bill

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The New Yorker is publishing a number of Primo Levi’s recently translated stories. Here is the Kafkaesque The Tranquil Star. Translator Ann Goldstein explains these stories will get people “to see him not as a Holocaust writer but as a great writer.”


Carlo Mollino’s mountain attic (BLDBLOG) could be used to illustrate another story, Bear Meat

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Mother Jones Precog child porn

Slate Timothy Noah: Not Wiki-worthy

New Yorker What 24 teaches us about torture (and what Jane Mayer teaches us about arts and culture reporting)

Harper’s Jonathan Lethem’s a great essayist too. Can I just cut and paste all that for my next Brainwash column?

Gillian Carnegie at Andrea Rosen

Wikipedia CP Snow’s Two Cultures

Tech Liberation Front Debuts Podcast

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Iris Schieferstein sculpts new creatures out of dead animals. It’s the stuff of nightmares:


(via we make money not art)

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The jailed 22-year old Egyptian blogger’s trial has again been postponed until Feb 22. Which means another three weeks in solitary confinement for the crime of setting up a blogger account and speaking out against an oppressive government. Kareem Amir (also written in translation as Karim Amer) faces nine years in prision. This week Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Barney Frank (D-MA) sent a letter to Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy asking for his release.

My friend Constantino has been an enormous help in getting attention out, including staging a rally Wednesday outside the Egyptian Consulate in New York. Read his impassioned Columbia Spectator article about the case.

His expulsion did not dampen his criticisms of his society. He may find it harder now to become a lawyer, but he claims to be freer. “As I was being investigated, I discovered-for the first time-that being a student at Al-Azhar University means I was a slave, owned by it,” he said. “They were expecting me to deny or evade responsibility of my free and courageous opinions-they were waiting for me to give birth to a second personality during the investigations-but how preposterous!”


How brave, I say. The true magnitude of his words might be hard to grasp by someone who has always lived in a free society-and trust me, the U.S. is a free society, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney notwithstanding. Realizing that Hosni Mubarak has been the president of Egypt since before Kareem was even born might help us put things into perspective. Kareem has lived his entire life under the rule of one person, under the boot of the same totalitarian government. In his words, his arrest last year meant only that he was “moved from a big jail to a small disciplinary cell because [he] did not follow the rules that the 70 million Egyptians are forced to abide by, and [he] broke the widespread traditions of the Great Jail of the Arab Republic of Egypt.”

Please sign the Petition for Kareem Amer’s release.

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