16
Oct
15

Roundup – THE UNINVITED

Best of the Best:

The Phantom Fame: ‘Space Ghost Coast to Coast,’ Secretly TV’s Most Influential Show [Sean T. Collins on Grantland] (10/7/15)

Williams Street, Space Ghost’s production company, soft-launched the shows that would become its network in a bottle in late 2000 to fill in the gap left when SGC2C went on hiatus. The future ratings powerhouse Adult Swim, which officially debuted as a late-night programming block in September 2001, was effectively a giant Space Ghost spinoff. Two of its initial series, The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, starred Coast to Coast characters; a third, Sealab 2021, followed in the flagship’s Hanna-Barbera-remixing wake. The fourth, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, starred characters created for a rejected Space Ghost episode by staffers David Willis and Matt Maiellaro out of boredom; it would go on to become Adult Swim’s longest-running show, with its writers, producers, and breathlessly bizarre comedy setting the tone for what was to come. What came next conquered much of cable. Like the show that spawned it, Adult Swim is still seen as a diversion for stoners — TV’s equivalent of pizza-flavored Combos. But Adult Swim slowly expanded from a programming block that aired in the wee hours twice a week to take over Cartoon Network’s entire nighttime programming. The reason is simple: Adult Swim has been no. 1 in the ratings among the sweet, sweet target demo of adults 18-34 for over a decade, unceasingly trouncing the more traditional (and much more widely discussed) boys of late night. And the methods with which it first built up and then utilized that dominance are far more diverse and influential than simply adding the distinctive scent of good kush. Without Space Ghost Coast to Coast, none of it would have ever happened.

Schoolboy [Jordan Ritter Conn on Grantland] (10/7/15)

Gunn becomes animated while listing Stanford’s merits, an Englishman defending the uniquely American institution of college athletics. “Let’s look at the academy model in most countries,” he says. “You’re 16, 17, 18 years old, and your entire life revolves around soccer. You’re going to school, but just barely. So you have this system, and it produces some really fantastic players. But what does it do for most of the other players? It just spits them back out. They’d dedicated their lives to soccer, but they’re still not good enough to play professionally. Now what? They don’t have many options. If you’re the club, then that’s great — all you need to do is develop a few really good players. But for society, for developing human beings, is that really something we want? I think we have something really special here in the United States. There’s always talk about how we should be copying these other countries, and in some ways that might be true. But in other ways, they should be copying us.”

5 Things to Know About Oregon’s Now Legal Marijuana Market [Noelle Crombie on The Oregonian] (10/1/15)

— Retail marijuana sales will be limited to dried flowers, plants and seeds. A staggering variety of marijuana-infused foods, candies, drinks and other edibles, as well as potent marijuana concentrates are not available to recreational shoppers. —  The Oregon Health Authority will oversee sales of recreational marijuana at more than 200 medical marijuana dispensaries statewide. Next year, recreational marijuana production, processing and retail sales will be overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which is still drafting rules for the industry. —  For now, pot shoppers in Oregon get a tax holiday. A 25 percent temporary sales tax doesn’t kick in until Jan. 4, 2016. That tax will be replaced late next year with a 17 percent state tax, estimated to generate more than $30 million a year. Local governments may add up to another 3 percent tax, provided their voters approve. —  While sales of recreational marijuana get underway today, numerous Oregon cities and counties are blocking recreational sales, either through opt-out provisions approved by the Legislature or by refusing to give business licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries. —  Marijuana use can still get you fired. Oregon’s new marijuana law doesn’t affect employers’ ability to establish drug-free policies and it doesn’t prevent them from firing you if you test positive for marijuana, even if you’re not impaired on the job.

South Africa ‘a country at war’ as murder rate soars to nearly 49 a day [The Guardian] (9/29/15)

South Africa’s murder rate has jumped 4.6% in the past year, with almost 49 people killed every day. A total of 17,805 murders were committed from April 2014 to March 2015, an increase of 782 deaths from the year before in a population of 54 million. The government admitted authorities were struggling to tackle the problem, but said the 10-year trend showed a decline in overall crime. Opposition parties and analysts criticised the numbers and said there was a lack of clear strategy to bring crime under control. The murder figures, which have risen each year from a low of 15,554 in 2011-12, reflect a reversal of what many had hoped was a long-term progress in reducing violent crime.

The Cities Where Millennials are Taking Over the Housing Market [Patrick Clark on Bloomberg News] (9/28/15)

Most of those cities don’t enjoy reputations for being particularly hip. What they are, generally, is cheap—and probably a little hipper than they get credit for. That makes a difference as young homebuyers finally shake off the effects of the recession and enter the housing market. Historically, people 25-34 have made up the largest share of homebuyers, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com. (More specifically, Smoke cited data that showed the age cohort is the most likely to take out a mortgage to buy a home, rather than to refinance.) The explanation is straightforward. People in their early 20s are less likely to be ready to buy, and people past their mid-30s are more likely to have already bought. The millennial generation has bucked that trend, for reasons that have been cause for disagreement and consternation. Slow wage growth, student loan debt, a preference for city living, and a tendency to start families later have all been posited as reasons millennials have been slower to buy than previous generations. The new findings may lower some of the alarm about first-time homebuyers. Thirty-seven percent of mortgage borrowers who bought homes were millennials, up from 31 percent in 2014. A survey conducted by Realtor.com, meanwhile, found the most common reason millennials decided to buy homes this year was that they were making more money.

Teen prosecuted as adult for having naked images – of himself – on phone [Joanna Walters on The Guardian] (9/20/15)

A teenage boy in North Carolina has been prosecuted for having nude pictures of himself on his own mobile phone. The young man, who is now 17 but was 16 at the time the photos were discovered, had to strike a plea deal to avoid potentially going to jail and being registered as a sex offender. Experts condemned the case as ludicrous. The boy was, however, punished by the courts, and had to agree to be subject to warrantless searches by law enforcement for a year, in addition to other penalties. The young man was also named in the media and suffered a suspension as quarterback of his high school football team while the case was being resolved. Cormega Copening, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was prosecuted as an adult under federal child pornography felony laws, for sexually exploiting a minor. The minor was himself.

Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance [Shane Parrish on Farnam Street Blog] (6/11/14)

Simon Ramo, a scientist and statistician, wrote a fascinating little book that few people have bothered to read: Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players. The book isn’t fascinating because I love tennis. I don’t. In the book Ramo identifies the crucial difference between a Winner’s Game and a Loser’s Game. Ramo believed that tennis could be subdivided into two games: the professionals and the rest of us. Players in both games play by the same rules and scoring. They play on the same court. Sometimes they share the same equipment. In short the basic elements of the game are the same. Sometimes amateurs believe they are professionals but professionals never believe they are amateurs. But the games are fundamentally different, which is Ramo’s key insight…In his 1975 essay, The Loser’s Game, Charles Ellis calls professional tennis a “Winner’s Game.” While there is some degree of skill and luck involved, the game is generally determined by the actions of the winner. Amateur tennis is an entirely different game. Not in how it is played but in how it’s won. Long and powerful rallies are generally a thing of the past. Mistakes are frequent. Balls are constantly hit into nets or out of bounds. Double faults are nearly as common as faults…Ramo found this out because he gave up trying to keep track of conventional scores — “Love,” “Fifteen All,” etc. Instead he simply looked at points won versus points lost…After discovering that there are, in effect, two different games and realizing that a generic strategy will not work for both games he devised a clever strategy by which ordinary players can win by losing less and letting the opponent defeat themselves. “… if you choose to win at tennis – as opposed to having a good time – the strategy for winning is to avoid mistakes. The way to avoid mistakes is to be conservative and keep the ball in play, letting the other fellow have plenty of room in which to blunder his way to defeat, because he, being an amateur will play a losing game and not know it.” If you’re an amateur your focus should be on avoiding stupidity.

Putin Faces Growing Exodus as Russia’s Banking, Tech Pros Flee [Irina Reznik, Ksenia Galouchko, and Ilya Arkhipov on Bloomberg News] (9/20/15)

Publicly, the Kremlin has dismissed concerns about any “brain drain.” Still, the subject is sensitive in a country with deep scientific traditions now looking to educated workers and advanced technologies to help diversify its slumping economy from dependence on natural resources. In June, President Vladimir Putin called for a crackdown on foreign groups he accused of “working like a vacuum cleaner” to lure scholars into emigration. Departures of academics have spiked in the last year and a half, Vladimir Fortov, president of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, told state television in March. The outflow goes beyond the high-tech sector, which was showered with Kremlin attention and support under former President Dmitry Medvedev but has seen tightening restrictions since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. Financial and legal professionals also are leaving, according to lawyers and consultants.

Stung by costs, some of Minnesota’s medical marijuana patients back to buying on streets [Kyle Potter on Associated Press via The Minneapolis Star-Tribune] (9/20/15)

Just two months after Minnesota launched its medical marijuana program, some patients turned off by high costs say they are back to buying the drug illegally because it’s the only way they can afford it. State officials and the companies hired to make marijuana products trumpeted the program’s medical approach — pills and oils, no leaf products — when it launched in July. But some patients say the highly restricted and regulated system is costing them hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month— none of it covered by insurance. Company executives defend their prices — a small vial of marijuana extract can run nearly $130 in Minnesota, more than double the cost of a similar product in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal and they’ve sold it medically for more than a decade — and say costs will fall over time. But they’re also taking steps to help some buyers, including raising money to cut the price for lower-income patients. According to state data, nearly one in five of the 491 registered patients hadn’t returned to buy more medication in the last month, though state officials stress there are many possible explanations.

The richest places in America all have one thing in common [Emily Badger and Lazaro Gamio on Washington Post] (9/18/15)

Kansas City, St. Louis and and Baltimore are missing holes on a map of American prosperity. They are relatively low-income, encircled by wealth. Cross their county lines into the suburbs, and households there make, in many cases, nearly twice as much. Same with Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Dallas. The pattern is a classic American one, built through decades of postwar wealthy flight to the suburbs and disinvestment in cities. But it’s striking today how deeply entrenched this geometry remains at the county level, especially in an era when poverty is expanding into the suburbs and wealthier households are moving back in.

20 Years Of ‘Heat’: Michael Mann Discusses His LA Crime Classic [Vince Mancini on FilmDrunk] (9/18/15)

De Niro’s Neil McCauley based on a guy named, you guessed it, Neil McCauley. The real McCauley was a career criminal from the Midwest who did seven years in Alcatraz, where he had a “near spotless conduct record” and worked as the prison’s chief electrician before his release in 1962. In 1963, he sat down for coffee with Chuck Adamson, the major crimes detective who was tracking him, and the two had a conversation very similar to the one in the film. A year later, McCauley and his gang were trying to rob a supermarket, unaware that Adamson had been tracking them the whole time. As McCauley tried to flee on foot, Adamson shot and killed him on someone’s front lawn. Adamson eventually left police work to become a writer, befriending Michael Mann and eventually writing for Mann’s Miami Vice. Mann was taken with the McCauley-Adamson story, especially the idea that two guys could have such a mutual respect, but still be compartmentalized enough that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill each other. Jon Voight’s “Nate,” McCauley’s fencer/fixer was, according to Mann, based on Edward Bunker, an ex-con and LA underworld figure who wrote memoir called No Beast So Fierce.

Data on Use of Force by Police Across U.S. Proves Almost Useless [Matt Apuzo and Sarah Cohen on New York Times] (8/11/15)

When the Justice Department surveyed police departments nationwide in 2013, officials included for the first time a series of questions about how often officers used force…The Justice Department survey had the potential to reveal whether officers were more likely to use force in diverse or homogeneous cities; in depressed areas or wealthy suburbs; and in cities or rural towns. Did the racial makeup of the police department matter? Did crime rates? But when the data was issued last month, without a public announcement, the figures turned out to be almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely. Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted the use of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not. And many departments, including large ones such as those in New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either said they did not know how many times their officers had used force or simply refused to say. That made any meaningful analysis of the data impossible.

How Russian Hackers Stole the Nasdaq [Michael Riley on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/17/14)

As much as hacking has become a daily irritant, much more of it crosses watch-center monitors out of sight from the public. The Chinese, the French, the Israelis—and many less well known or understood players—all hack in one way or another. They steal missile plans, chemical formulas, power-plant pipeline schematics, and economic data. That’s espionage; attack code is a military strike. There are only a few recorded deployments, the most famous being the Stuxnet worm. Widely believed to be a joint project of the U.S. and Israel, Stuxnet temporarily disabled Iran’s uranium-processing facility at Natanz in 2010. It switched off safety mechanisms, causing the centrifuges at the heart of a refinery to spin out of control. Two years later, Iran destroyed two-thirds of Saudi Aramco’s computer network with a relatively unsophisticated but fast-spreading “wiper” virus. One veteran U.S. official says that when it came to a digital weapon planted in a critical system inside the U.S., he’s seen it only once—in Nasdaq…Thus began a frenzied five-month investigation that would test the cyber-response capabilities of the U.S. and directly involve the president. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, under pressure to decipher a complex hack, struggled to provide an even moderately clear picture to policymakers. After months of work, there were still basic disagreements in different parts of government over who was behind the incident and why…While the hack was successfully disrupted, it revealed how vulnerable financial exchanges—as well as banks, chemical refineries, water plants, and electric utilities—are to digital assault. One official who experienced the event firsthand says he thought the attack would change everything, that it would force the U.S. to get serious about preparing for a new era of conflict by computer. He was wrong.

Pitbull: Get Rich or Die Shilling [Emma Rosenblum on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/17/14)

In the decade since, Pitbull has become ubiquitous and is moving into the territory of empire builder, along the lines of 50 Cent or Jay Z. His publicist, Tom Muzquiz, a peppy man with spiky hair who’s lingering at the next table, promised to figure out the perfect day for us to spend together to help me understand his boss’s reach and ambition. And it didn’t involve a yacht or a crazy night out in South Beach or anything to do with his outsize lifestyle. Exciting for Pitbull, now, is thinking about things other than partying, studio time, and ladies. (He has six children with an undisclosed number of women.) This hotel restaurant isn’t just where Pitbull asked to meet on this day, it’s where he conducts business; he doesn’t have a normal office, so he holds meetings here, sometimes jumping from one table to the other. The location is perfect for Pitbull, as it’s private enough but doesn’t deny him the pleasure of a Greek chorus of Yes Men. He asks that I keep it a secret. If it gets out, Muzquiz says, “it could create problems.” Along with Zigel and Muzquiz, the group consists of Pitbull’s manager, Mike Calderon, and a few large, intimidating men whose purpose seems to be laughing when Pitbull tells a joke. At one point someone’s phone goes off. The ringtone is Timber, Pitbull’s most recent No. 1 hit, which features Kesha singing, “It’s going down, I’m yelling Timber!” Pitbull rolls his eyes.

Is Every Speed Limit Too Low? [Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics] (7/23/14)

Every year, traffic engineers review the speed limit on thousands of stretches of road and highway. Most are reviewed by a member of the state’s Department of Transportation, often along with a member of the state police, as is the case in Michigan. In each case, the “survey team” has a clear approach: they want to set the speed limit so that 15% of drivers exceed it and 85% of drivers drive at or below the speed limit. This “nationally recognized method” of setting the speed limit as the 85th percentile speed is essentially traffic engineering 101. It’s also a bit perplexing to those unfamiliar with the concept. Shouldn’t everyone drive at or below the speed limit? And if a driver’s speed is dictated by the speed limit, how can you decide whether or not to change that limit based on the speed of traffic? The answer lies in realizing that the speed limit really is just a number on a sign, and it has very little influence on how fast people drive…Luckily, there is some logic to the speed people choose other than the need for speed. The speed drivers choose is not based on laws or street signs, but the weather, number of intersections, presence of pedestrians and curves, and all the other information that factors into the principle, as Lt. Megge puts it, that “no one I know who gets into their car wants to crash.”…One reason is that a minority of drivers do follow the speed limit. “I’ve found that about 10% of drivers truly identify the speed limit sign and drive at or near that limit,” says Megge. Since these are the slowest share of drivers, they don’t affect the 85th percentile speed. But they do impact the average speed — by about 2 or 3 mph when a speed limit is changed, in Lt. Megge’s experience — and, more importantly, the variance in driving speeds. This is important because, as noted in a U.S. Department of Transportation report, “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.” If every car sets its cruise control at the same speed, the odds of a fender bender happening is low. But when some cars drive 55 mph and others drive 85 mph, the odds of cars colliding increases dramatically. This is why getting slow drivers to stick to the right lane is so important to roadway safety; we generally focus on joyriders’ ability to cause accidents — and rightly so — but a car driving under the speed limit in the left (passing) lane of a highway is almost as dangerous. Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads.

If the World Began Again, Would Life as We Know It Exist? [Zach Zorich on Nautilus] (6/19/14)

In 11 of Lenski’s flasks, the E. coli cells grew physically larger, but bacteria in one flask divided itself into separate lineages—one with large cells and the other with small cells…No other population in the experiment did the same; a historically contingent event seemed to have taken place. Even 26 years later, none of the other E. coli lineages evolved it. In this case, contingency seems to have won out over convergence. In 2003, another contingent event took place. The number of E. coli in one of the flasks increased to the point where the normally translucent nutrient solution turned cloudy. At first Lenski thought that the flask had been contaminated, but it turned out that the E. coli, which normally just feed on glucose in the solution, had developed a way to consume a different chemical in the flasks, called citrate. After 15 years, or 31,500 generations, just one of the populations was able to consume the substance.2 Its population size quickly expanded by a factor of five. This “historical contingency” gave Lenski and his graduate student Zachary Blount a chance to examine the likelihood that it would happen again if they rewound the tape. Blount went to the archive of frozen E. coli, and selected 72 samples collected at different periods in the experiment from the population that later evolved citrate metabolism. He thawed them out, and let them grow. Eventually, four out of the 72 samples acquired the ability. What’s more, the mutations only occurred in populations that had been frozen after 30,500 generations. Genetic analysis showed that several genes had undergone mutations that “potentiated” the evolution of citrate metabolism before that point. In other words, the ability to consume citrate was contingent upon other mutations that had come before it. Those formed a fork in the road, altering the path that generations after would be able to travel.

The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect [Gideon Lewis-Krause on Wired] (7/22/14)

On the subject of judgment, though, it became clear even in those early days that a sort of editorial consciousness was at work in Word’s spell-check and autocorrect systems. Judgement, for example, isn’t a misspelling—just about every dictionary lists it as an acceptable alternative. But autocorrect tends to enforce primary spellings in all circumstances. On idiom, some of its calls seemed fairly clear-cut: gorilla warfare became guerrilla warfare, for example, even though a wildlife biologist might find that an inconvenient assumption. But some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn’t want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check’s most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.” I called up Thorpe, who now runs a Boston-based startup called Philo, to ask him how the idea for the list came about. An inspiration, as he recalls it, was a certain Microsoft user named Bill Vignola. One day Vignola sent Bill Gates an email. (Thorpe couldn’t recall who Bill Vignola was or what he did.) Whenever Bill Vignola typed his own name in MS Word, the email to Gates explained, it was automatically changed to Bill Vaginal. Presumably Vignola caught this sometimes, but not always, and no doubt this serious man was sad to come across like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. His email made it down the chain of command to Thorpe. And Bill Vaginal wasn’t the only complainant: As Thorpe recalls, Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs. Thorpe went through the dictionary and took out all the words marked as “vulgar.” Then he threw in a few anatomical terms for good measure. The resulting list ran to hundreds of entries: anally, asshole, battle-axe, battleaxe, bimbo, booger, boogers, butthead, Butthead …With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.

Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem [Claire Suddath and Duane Stanford on Bloomberg Businessweek] (7/31/14)

Americans may not have figured out the answer to the obesity epidemic, but for years they’ve pointed to Coca-Cola and other soda as one of the causes. Coke has tried fighting against this. It’s tried ignoring it. Now it accepts this as a reality. This is the problem Douglas has to confront. He has to persuade people to drink Coca-Cola again, even if they don’t guzzle it like water the way they did before. Cultural shifts don’t happen overnight. They build slowly—a sip of coconut water here, a quinoa purchase there, and suddenly the American diet looks drastically different than it did 10 years ago. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the $75 billion soda industry. For decades, soft-drink companies saw consumption rise. During the 1970s, the average person doubled the amount of soda they drank; by the 1980s it had overtaken tap water. In 1998, Americans were downing 56 gallons of the stuff every year—that’s 1.3 oil barrels’ worth of soda for every person in the country. And then we weren’t as thirsty for soda anymore, and there were so many new drink options that we could easily swap it out for something else. Soft-drink sales stabilized for a few years; in 2005 they started dropping, and they haven’t stopped. Americans are now drinking about 450 cans of soda a year, according to Beverage Digest, roughly the same amount they did in 1986.

Inside YouTube’s Fame Factory [Sarah Kessler on Fast Company] (8/4/14)

A sea of girls is hoisting cell phones into the air. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s a line or whether there’s something extremely interesting toward the center of the mob. A scream erupts from a far corner. “What’s happening?” I ask a tall blonde girl next to me. “I don’t know. Someone came out,” she says…Some kids are here to see beauty vloggers like Michelle Phan (6.7 million subscribers), who posts tutorials about makeup and life advice on her channel. Another, typically older, crowd prefers the Jon Stewart-esque commentary of Philip DeFranco (3.3 million subscribers) and the news-based comedy channel he created called SourceFed (1.4 million subscribers). Others enjoy following daily updates from a family of six that goes by the name “Shaytards” (2.4 million subscribers). The Fine Brothers (9.3 million subscribers), who mostly direct rather than star in videos on their channel, attract an audience that is half comprised of people older than 25, though you’d never guess it here. Other corners of YouTube, like the extremely popular video game YouTubers, aren’t even represented at VidCon, where teenage girls running after cute boy YouTubers are the most visible force. A father-daughter pair have posted themselves strategically between the conference center and hotel, where they have decided there will be the greatest likelihood of spotting a star. Well, one star, in particular: Jenna Marbles (13.5 million subscribers), a 27-year-old with a colorful sense of fashion and a penchant for irreverent sarcasm. The girl’s father pulls his iPhone out of his pocket to show me a video of his daughter crying deliriously with happiness. “This is what happened when Jenna followed her on Twitter.” He turns to his now embarrassed daughter, “show her the notebook.” His daughter rolls her eyes at him before she sheepishly pulls out a thick spiral notebook from her backpack. She has lined its pages with colored construction paper, on which she has pasted frames from each of Jenna Marbles’ more than 200 videos. Written below each photo in marker is her favorite line from that video. “If we can find Jenna Marbles and give her the book, we win, and I can go home,” her father tells me.

The Making of Vladimir Putin [Strobe Talbott on Politico Magazine] (8/19/14)

Putin’s aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock. For years that has meant repudiating the transformational policies of his immediate predecessors and reinstating key attributes of the Soviet system within the borders of the Russian Federation. But there were also indications that, if given a chance, Putin might extend his agenda, his rule, and what he hopes will be his legacy beyond those borders. In 2005, he famously lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Three years later, Russia invaded Georgia and granted “independence” to two breakaway ethnic conclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Not until this year, however, did Russia expand by military conquest and unilateral decree its own territory by seizing Crimea. In doing so, Putin also proclaimed the right to “protect our compatriots and fellow citizens”– i.e., Russian-speaking minorities – elsewhere in the near abroad, from Estonia on the Baltic to Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Therein lies the most malignant manifestation of Putinism: it violates international law, nullifies Russia’s past pledges to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors, carries with it the danger of spinning out of control and sparking a wider conflict, and establishes a precedent for other major powers to apply their own version of the Putin Doctrine when convenient (think of China, for example, and its running feuds with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan over territorial and maritime claims). While Putin has earned the ism that Safire attached to his name more than 14 years ago, the phenomenon he personifies — its content, motivation and rationale, as well as the constituencies behind it — predates the appearance of Putin himself on the scene. A number of students of recent Russian history — including some, like myself, who have dealt with Putin — can, in retrospect, trace the roots of his policies today back more than a quarter century to the battle between Soviet reformers and their reactionary and revanchist foes.

The Hedge Fund and the Despot [Cam Simpson and Jesse Westbrook on Bloomberg Businessweek] (8/21/14)

In March 2008, McGee met secretly with a member of the political machine of Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe and Africa’s most notorious living despot. In 1979, Mugabe had led one of two guerrilla groups that liberated the former Rhodesia from a white-minority regime, a conflict that left an estimated 30,000 dead. Mugabe won democratic elections in 1980 but soon consolidated his power. He unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on a rival guerrilla force, killing an estimated 20,000, including thousands of civilians. The world was slow to react, but finally, in 2003, the U.S. levied sanctions against Mugabe and his cohorts, threatening any U.S. individuals or companies that backed them. By 2008, when McGee was ambassador, Mugabe and his ruling party had wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy and were on the brink of losing power. McGee was deeply skeptical of his informant during their first meeting, but he found one of his tips plausible: The dictator was about to lose a first round of elections, and Mugabe knew it. The regime was cash-starved; its currency was virtually worthless outside the country, with Zimbabwe’s central bank printing money 24 hours a day. Inflation had hit an estimated 500,000 percent. The total value of all the currency in the economy was estimated at just $100 million. The election was five days away; defeat for Mugabe posed a viable threat to his rule for the first time. The informant was right: Mugabe lost that first round to Morgan Tsvangirai. Two weeks after the loss, McGee spoke to the insider again. “He told us the regime was preparing for war,” he recalls. Mugabe’s men were setting up command centers for torture and killing in areas that voted for the opposition, the man told McGee, and regional party leaders like him were told to draw up lists of people to target. The ambassador learned that Mugabe’s government had landed critical funding, totaling $100 million, only days after the vote. The regime even provided hundreds of trucks and other vehicles to ferry militias to regions that favored Tsvangirai. Reports of violence across the country soon poured into McGee’s embassy as Mugabe’s militias sought to punish opposition activists, drive their supporters from their homes, and intimidate the rest into backing Mugabe in the next round of elections…McGee wouldn’t find out for years, but as the attacks were unfolding, and as he worked with Washington to financially isolate Mugabe, a Wall Street consortium provided the $100 million for the dictator’s government. These millions secured the rights to mine platinum, among the most valuable of minerals, from central Zimbabwe. Several firms were involved in the investment, including BlackRock (BLK), GLG Partners, and Credit Suisse (CS). The most vital player was Och-Ziff Capital Management (OZM), the largest publicly traded hedge fund on Wall Street. An Och-Ziff spokesman declined to comment for this article. Now some of its African investments are at the center of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Secret History of Guns [Adam Winkler on The Atlantic] (September 2011)

Opposition to gun control was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale’s view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police…Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. “Article number two of the constitutional amendments,” Malcolm X argued, “provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley…Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as “an arsenal.” William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage…After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice. Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city…The Panthers’ methods provoked an immediate backlash. The day of their statehouse protest, lawmakers said the incident would speed enactment of Mulford’s gun-control proposal…Republicans in California eagerly supported increased gun control. Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”…The fear inspired by black people with guns also led the United States Congress to consider new gun restrictions, after the summer of 1967 brought what the historian Harvard Sitkoff called the “most intense and destructive wave of racial violence the nation had ever witnessed.” Devastating riots engulfed Detroit and Newark. Police and National Guardsmen who tried to help restore order were greeted with sniper fire. A 1968 federal report blamed the unrest at least partly on the easy availability of guns. Because rioters used guns to keep law enforcement at bay, the report’s authors asserted that a recent spike in firearms sales and permit applications was “directly related to the actuality and prospect of civil disorders.” They drew “the firm conclusion that effective firearms controls are an essential contribution to domestic peace and tranquility.” Political will in Congress reached the critical point around this time. In April of 1968, James Earl Ray, a virulent racist, used a Remington Gamemaster deer rifle to kill Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s assassination—and the sniper fire faced by police trying to quell the resulting riots—gave gun-control advocates a vivid argument. Two months later, a man wielding a .22-caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver shot Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. The very next day, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the first federal gun-control law in 30 years. Months later, the Gun Control Act of 1968 amended and enlarged it. Together, these laws greatly expanded the federal licensing system for gun dealers and clarified which people—including anyone previously convicted of a felony, the mentally ill, illegal-drug users, and minors—were not allowed to own firearms. More controversially, the laws restricted importation of “Saturday Night Specials”—the small, cheap, poor-quality handguns so named by Detroit police for their association with urban crime, which spiked on weekends. Because these inexpensive pistols were popular in minority communities, one critic said the new federal gun legislation “was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.”

Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom [Roy Scranton on The Rolling Stone] (7/17/14)

I’d always been ambivalent about being a veteran. On the one hand, I was proud of my service. I’d done something difficult that few Americans show the courage or wherewithal to do, and I’d come out stronger for it. My year in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division was spent mainly on two kinds of missions: For the first six months of our tour, in 2003, we picked up artillery rounds all over Baghdad. We kept Iraqi kids from blowing themselves up and denied insurgents weapons. For the next six months, I drove a Humvee around a Sunni neighborhood in south Baghdad called Dora, and then down the highway to Karbala and Najaf, looking for roadside bombs and snipers. On the other hand, the war was the most dehumanizing experience of my life. Inside the wire, we lived like prisoners, staring at the same walls and the same faces, lifting weights, watching DVDs, killing time until we got to go back home. Outside the wire, we moved in an alien, hostile world luminous with adrenaline and danger. Over time, as we were shot at, mortared and sometimes blown up, fear and rage built up in us like toxins, until we were praying for reasons to shoot – not people, mind you, just fucking hajjis. We harassed and intimidated hajjis on the street. We humiliated hajjis in their homes. We ran hajji cars off the road when they got in our way. We locked hajjis up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of us did worse. Some of us did a lot worse. Meanwhile, the war itself never made any sense. Like many veterans, when it came to my role, I relied on a rhetoric of professionalism, camaraderie and a narrow focus on personal experience to help me ignore heavy questions about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Later, I let the relative peace following America’s 2011 withdrawal confirm the official narrative: We had made mistakes with the invasion, but the surge had worked, and we’d left Iraq a functioning democracy. I had my doubts, but it was a story I wanted to believe. Over time, I took up a mantra of comforting phrases that numbed those doubts and fuzzed out my connection to the big picture: “The war was fucked, but I did my job. I’m proud of my service, but it’s complicated. I did the best I could in a bad situation.” Watching ISIS take Fallujah in January had made me realize just how empty those phrases were. To see an Al Qaeda splinter group take over a third of Iraq, while the so-called democratic government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki revealed itself to be a dysfunctional hybrid of anarcho-capitalism and tyranny, meant having to give up the illusion that we might have done some good in Iraq. It meant having to confront the possibility that we didn’t just leave Iraq – we had lost Iraq.

What Happened to Motorola [Ted C. Fishman on Chicago Magazine] (8/25/14)

Three months after Chris Galvin left Motorola, the company’s numbers began to turn around dramatically. The Razr proved to be a monster hit, with 50 million selling in its first two years on the market. By the end of 2004, Motorola’s market cap—the market value of its outstanding shares—hit $42 billion. The person celebrating was Galvin’s replacement, Ed Zander. Formerly the COO of pioneering computer company Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle), Zander was a skilled corporate showman who entertained with verve and humor. At a leadership seminar in Silicon Valley after he took the job, Zander joked to the audience that the Motorola he inherited was so slow moving, so blind to the coming convergence of telecommunications technologies, that he cried on his first day. With the success of the Razr, he could soon put his tears on hold. Motorola began generating billions in cash. In Zander’s first two years, the stock price doubled. The new CEO rode the Razr as long as possible, producing a dizzying variety in different colors and shapes and with slightly different features. The big carriers demanded it, says Zander, who currently sits on several boards: “Verizon would want the power button on one side, and AT&T would want it on the other.” Meanwhile, in arguably one of the worst decisions ever made by a major corporate CEO, Zander struck a deal with his Silicon Valley friend Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. Together their companies created a Motorola iTunes phone, the first phone connected to Apple’s music store. “We can’t think of a more natural partnership than this one with Apple,” Zander said at the time. Named the Rokr, the phone launched in the fall of 2005. Jobs, who introduced it, called it “an iPod Shuffle right on your phone.” Zander says he believed that by working with Apple, Motorola could become cool again. But much as it had taught the Chinese to compete with it years before, Motorola was teaching one of the most creative, competitive, and consumer-savvy companies of all time how to make a phone.

Curiously Strong Remains:

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