Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Cool Story, Wyss

In Empires of the Mind on September 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm

This is pretty cool:

BOSTON — The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced today that it has been awarded a $12.3 million, four-year grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a treatment for sepsis, a commonly fatal bloodstream infection. Sepsis is a major cause of injury and death among combat-injured soldiers in the field, as well as patients in hospital intensive care units.

The proposed treatment would involve a miniaturized, dialysis-like device that could rapidly clear the blood of a wide range of pathogens, much as a living human spleen does, without removing normal blood cells, proteins, fluids, or electrolytes. This novel “Spleen-on-a-Chip” would be portable, self-contained, and easily inserted into the peripheral blood vessels of a septic patient or soldier.

The award is part of DARPA’s Dialysis Like Therapeutics program, which seeks to develop ways to dramatically decrease the morbidity and mortality of sepsis, thereby saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the United States each year. Worldwide, more than 18 million cases of sepsis are reported every year, with more than six million resulting in death.



Featured Find: Jason Kuznicki’s The Machinery of… whatever

In General Principles on September 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm

From start to finish, this is probably the best piece I’ve read on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:

September 11 was the day “Orwellian” stopped being an argument against anything. It became a checklist. My country started collecting various-sized bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four like so many grim commemorative postage stamps. Constant surveillance. Constant warfare. Constant suspicion. Last week’s enemy is this week’s friend, is next week’s enemy, and woe is you if you can’t keep up—Gadhafi, Putin, Arafat, Chirac. Censorship? Making steady progress. We didn’t get Victory Gin, but we did get Freedom Fries; close enough for government work. Oh yes, and torture. Because we are the greatest hegemonic power, and because we can do no wrong, and in the end, just because we fucking can, okay?

Who though is this “we”? It is the deepest, most festering wound of 9/11.

Someone does something shameful, somewhere, maybe just once, usually in secret. Someone’s data mining. Someone’s spying on citizens. Someone imprisons, with neither an indictment nor any other cover of law. Someone puts people on a secret plane, to a place where electrodes and power drills are the standard interrogation protocol. Someone cuts out the middleman and just tortures in place. Someone orders American citizens assassinated. Someone starts an illegal war.

In a braver time, these acts would have kindled a revolution.

Someone, however, is an agent of the state. Therefore someone wasn’t the real actor. No, we did it—that’s the core of the lie, right here, that that someone is us. Sooner or later, we find out about the thing we did. We say, in the awful light of morning, that we did it because we are fighting a dirty enemy, and maybe we have to embrace the dark side just a little bit if we’re going to win.

But really we did it because we were afraid. But really, we didn’t do it. But really, the ones who did it will keep right on doing it.

That’s what’s changed, post-9/11. In the end, we didn’t have the will to fight. We fought the terrorists, sure, and plenty of others who didn’t even attack us. But we didn’t have the will to fight as they took our civil liberties away. We didn’t even have the will to punish them afterward. The word “we” is the pawl on the ratchet of state power. It’s the little catch that ensures there’s no backsliding. The we clanks ever onward. The sun shines, the rain falls; the economy is good, or it’s bad. It doesn’t matter. The abuses haven’t gone away. We’ve mostly just gotten used to them.

A Cross For All America

In Specific Facts on September 11, 2011 at 8:09 am

Two years ago Los Angeles sculptor Jon Krawczyk was presented with a unique opportunity.

The image of the I-beam cross left standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center is a familiar one. In the days and weeks following 9/11 the cross became many things for many people: a symbol of hope and healing; a representation of the unyielding stance of good in the face of evil; a sign of God’s presence; a meaningless coincidence. After standing for several years on a pedestal at the corner of the former Trade Center site the cross was in October 2006 moved a block away, to a place along the sidewalk next to St. Peter’s Catholic Church (which itself was not only damaged when the towers fell but also played a vital role in the recovery efforts carried out in the wake of the attack). This I-beam cross would eventually be moved back to its original site, as a permanent part of the September 11th Memorial & Museum. The St. Peter’s community, meanwhile, had grown attached to the cross and what it represented, and began searching for someone who could create a new cross to stand in its place. My friend Jon Krawczyk, a New Jersey native, accepted the task.

Rather than replace that I-beam cross with a replica, Jon wanted to create something completely different. After many months of designing (and redesigning), Jon had ready a model of a sculpture that, while in the basic shape of a cross, took on in abstract form the shape of a human body, comprised of several uniquely contoured pieces that came together into a single entity. The symbolism, Jon hoped, would transcend the traditional significance of the cross and make this memorial a conduit of remembrance that would embrace all Americans.


It was March when Jon called me. I was in New Jersey, having just removed myself and my family from the nuclear disaster still developing not far from our home in Fukushima, Japan. He was almost done building this cross, he told me, and wanted me to drive cross-country with him – to help fend off the tedium of the long drive perhaps, but also to snap some pictures and maybe shoot a little video as well. ‘There’s a hole in the middle of the cross,’ he said. ‘We’re probably going to meet a bunch of random people, at gas stations or wherever. I’m going to ask people we talk to if they want to write prayers or messages to put inside the cross. I have a chunk of the actual wreckage of the towers, I’m going to seal up the hole with it when we get to New York.’

Cool, I answered along with a few other vague adjectives.

‘I also want to bring this thing to fire stations all across the country,’ Jon went on to say. ‘A lot of firemen died running into those towers trying to save people, I think we should try to pay a little tribute to them.’

Jon and I spoke of driving through deserts and over mountains, introducing his memorial to people from coast to coast. ‘This could turn out to be pretty amazing,’ we agreed. We also agreed, jokingly to assuage the specter of the possibility, that no one in Arizona or New Mexico or Tennessee was going to care about a twisted and contorted steel cross – aside from the novelty. Besides, 9/11 was almost ten years ago; hadn’t America finished licking her wounds and moved on?


America, although a melting pot or salad bowl or whatever other culinary allusion you prefer, is still a largely Christian nation. Everywhere we went, from the Grand Canyon to tiny DeKalb, Texas, from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to the serenity of northern Indiana, we encountered countless people who identified with the symbolism of the cross. Hearing what it was for only served to intensify their emotions. God bless America! was the commonest of sentiments. You gentlemen certainly are doing God’s work some said in so many words. Others, after half an hour or more of engaging us in conversation, called their friends over and placed their written messages in the cross and asked us to join hands with them in prayer. Thank you Lord for bringing your message to the world through these men and such.

In contrast, in 2008 Jon hauled a twenty-two-foot steel statue of a hockey player across the country on a flatbed trailer. He said few people came up to him to ask him about it. Fewer still seemed at all impressed. A fourteen-foot cross on the back of a pickup, on the other hand, stops truck drivers and housewives in their tracks; lures teenagers and the elderly over for a closer look; pulls convenience store clerks and motel cleaning staff away from their counters and carts. Obviously, to many people, this was something special.

But even as a memorial for an event as far-reaching as 9/11, not everyone felt connected to the curved and angled cross in front of them. It’s a 9/11 memorial? Going to New York? That’s nice… And they’d continue on their way. Some barely slowed as they glanced over, or didn’t slow at all. The great majority of those we met, though, had something to say.

Not surprisingly, there were some opposing opinions mixed in with all the admiration.

In a parking lot next to the Grand Canyon we met a group of young men and women of Asian Indian descent. After an inquiry and answer session that would be repeated hundreds of times across the country one man spoke up. ‘I am Hindu,’ he said. ‘How does a cross represent me?’ Jon responded by saying that this was meant to be more than a cross; it was just as much the form of a person, comprised of parts that come together. ‘Much like our country came together on that day.’ The young man remained unconvinced. ‘Those firemen who died,’ Jon went on, ‘they didn’t go running into those towers to save Christians, they went in trying to save people. This isn’t about religion, this is about sacrifice.’

In the end the man nodded, wrote something on a piece of paper and slipped it inside the cross.

‘Trying to say this cross represents everyone,’ said one Jewish man we met in Manhattan, ‘is plainly misguided.’ Placing a message in a cross, he explained, meant nothing to him since the cross itself has no meaning to someone of the Jewish faith. That this memorial was meant to represent something beyond the tenets of one particular faith did not change his mind. ‘It is a cross, that is obvious. No matter what else you think or want it to be, it is still a cross and therefore represents only Christians. If you want to represent all people you should have symbols of all faiths.’

‘I respect that this means something to you,’ said one Muslim man we met on the streets of Brooklyn. ‘But you need to understand that Muslims aren’t going to be interested in a cross.’

When Jon finally welded into place that piece of the World Trade Center rubble, the cross contained messages from people representing every faith we encountered along our way, bolstering Jon’s hope of creating a memorial that, while Christian in form, incorporated a universality. This was a cross, yes; but at the same time it was a man, an abstract human being made up of parts that came together, offered as a repository for the wishes for peace we all have.

Somwhere in this, perhaps, is something everyone can agree on.

Invitation to the Reader: Experience a day along the journey of Jon’s cross – or get the complete story – at

Also: Get a sneak preview of the upcoming documentary of the journey at


Air Travel III – Thin Atmosphere Reading

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm

People will sometimes ask me how long it takes to fly between Tokyo and New Jersey. My answer usually elicits a contorted expression and a syllable or two of pained commiseration, reactions I personally would reserve for someone in truly insufferable straits. A diehard Glee fan, for example. Or someone with a full-time job. 

I don’t know why people consider thirteen hours in the air something akin to torture. In my case at least, I’m flying because I want to, unlike the poor saps up in the front of the plane who have no choice but to fly off to another meeting somewhere. And what’s so bad about being able to sit around and watch movies while people bring you food? If you’re flying with an Asian airline there’s the added bonus of free beer and wine. Plus the flight attendants are still selected in step with the time-honored tradition of chauvinistic arousal. Are you kidding me? If demurely beautiful women in flattering silky garb are bringing me free beer I’ll fly for weeks on end.

Continental offers neither free beer nor chauvinistic arousal. They compensate, however, with an almost comical overload of movie selections and an in-flight magazine that is worth its weight in glossy paper – though probably not in a way Editor in Chief Mike Guy and his team intend. I’ve long had an unabashed affinity for in-flight magazines – the travel articles, even the boring ones, in their own way, are good fodder for future adventures; the crossword puzzles make me feel smart (unlike the sudoku); and the fiction pieces inevitably reassure me that I really can be a writer someday.

The magazine on my most recent flight, however, was an altogether new experience. There was no fiction (unless you count the open letter to Continental-United’s customers by CEO Jeff Smisel on page 11). I didn’t even get to the crossword (I was mentally trashed after the sudoku and didn’t want to risk what little self-esteem I had left). And my appetite for travel didn’t have the opportunity to be whetted what with the comical (in a sort of Michele Bachman way) distractions on almost every page.

The August 2011 issue of Continental’s Hemispheres features (i.e. displays in the biggest letters on the cover except for the word Hemispheres) an article on Stockholm. I visited Sweden once; I spent three hours in Malmo, a short ferry ride from Copenhagen. This was quite possibly the most amazing three hours of my life, for reasons I will get into momentarily. Suffice to say I was eager to dive into whatever ‘Three Perfect Days’ in the Swedish capital might hold. (This despite the letdown I experienced from a previous Three Perfect Days piece of rubbish.) But we would be somewhere over the Kamchatskiy Peninsula before I’d even get a glimpse of the bar at Matbaren.

The first three pages sent a crystal clear message: I am not the target audience for this magazine. On page two was an ad for a thousand-dollar Bang & Olufsen speaker dock thing – the Beowolf 8 or something – for an iPod, iPhone or iPad. If I gave up traveling I might be able to afford one of these doo-hickeys eventually, though I’d have to give up something else to get an iProduct to go with it and my wife insists the kids eat something every day.

Before this though was a two-page spread for Wellendorff, maker of the finest German jewelry (and the most incongruous-sounding name for a jeweler) since 1893. The ad centers around an actual letter from a woman in Latvia who describes in pristine, poetic English how she lost everything in a fire except her ring, made by the elves at Wellendorff. Somehow, according to the Fuhrer at the Dorff, this is a reminder for all of us that ‘the true value of jewelry’ is ‘to offer joy and protection.’ Joy? Perhaps. But I don’t see jewelry offering protection to anyone outside of Wonder Woman. Entschuldigen Sie bitte. No sale to the guy in 43-D.

This, by the way, is Continental’s self-proclaimed first annual food issue. Accompanying the table of headlining articles is a picture of fresh-baked kanelbullar, or cinnamon rolls, found at a restaurant at a museum inside a zoo on one of Stockholm’s fourteen islands. That they are so hard to find makes the mid-flight plastic-wrapped microwave tamale that much more disappointing. Or less, I’m not sure. Heading the second page of content listings is a photo of a covered wagon amid the great American West. I just recently drove across the country but I could never get enough of the west and had to turn immediately to page 42 – only to find a one-column overview of an upcoming PBS mini-series and a close-up of a lizard colored like an Easter egg. (Likening lizards to eggs; this food issue thing is apparently having an effect on me.)

In this month’s message, United Airlines President & CEO Jeff Smisel talks about ‘the world’s most rewarding loyalty program’. True, my wife and my four-year-old will both be flying to the States for free this month; yet my wife, loyal mother that she is, refuses to smuggle our one-year-old onto the plane in a carry-on. Instead she will hold him on her lap for the duration of the flight. For this level of loyalty Continental-United is charging us $400.

To their credit, Continental-United (C-U from now on, I’m already sick of typing it out) seems to be trying to put on a personal, approachable face. To wit: page 12 is dedicated to Customer Service Representative Mary Brown, who has been overseeing the evolution of the usability of the check-in kiosk system. Actual quote from the article: ‘I’ve learned to think like the machines,’ she says with an empathy that extends beyond customers to the kiosks themselves. Just a hunch: Mary had R2D2 bed sheets when she was a girl. Mary’s manager offers further insight: She comes in early, sometimes at 2am, to make sure the machines are working and coming on all right. Meanwhile her kids are at home, punching buttons on the mom-kiosk in the kitchen for a glass of water and a virtual hug before going back to bed.

The people article on page 14 features ‘Ten Million Mile Man’ Tom Stuker, an automotive sales consultant who has flown United close to 6,000 times, including more than 200 hundred times to Australia. Now, I’m no automotive sales consultant expert, but if this guy has to go back to Australia and repeat himself 199 times maybe it’s time for a personnel change on one end or the other. To celebrate this achievement, this mega-miler joined United employees…his immediate family, friends and United executives at a special event held at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Which was so much fun he missed his flight.

On the next page, an ad for The Ritz-Carlton Residences building offering one to three bedrooms and penthouses from $1.4 million, shows a woman with perfect hair, a smashing dark blue silk dress and diamonds on her ears, wrists and shoes – diamonds that probably don’t offer much protection from the pit bull she’s nuzzling noses with. My guess is if this woman stepped out of her $1.4 million pad dressed like that and saw a pit bull sitting in the lobby she’s not going to get cuddly, she’s going to have someone shoot it. (Note: The fine print at the bottom reveals the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has nothing to do with this building except that someone paid them a lot of money for the use of the Ritz-Carlton name.)

Next page, an ad for Na Hoku (Hawaii’s Finest Jewellers Since 1924): ‘The Original Hawaiian Slipper Pendant with Diamonds, various sizes from $199’. Chain sold separately. Matching earrings available for those who wish to walk around looking like a shoe rack.

The short, spirited piece on page 18 covers Barack O’Bama’s recent visit to Moneygall, Ireland where his grandfather’s grandfather lived before escaping the famine in 1850. Obviously the President has his Gaelic going on: he weathers the rain, he sips Guinness, and he’s got that national bankruptcy thing down pat.

From the photo on page 19, it seems the ostentatious beachfront Grand Solmar Spa and Resort in Cabo San Lucas does not actually offer guests a way to get down to the beach – not that they’d want to go much past the pool area anyway.

Another short article features an interview with Perry Farrell, founder of the genre-mixing music festival known as Lollapalooza. (Coincidentally the interview takes place in Perry’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. No indication if this is a real Ritz-Carlton or another name-renting gimmick.) This year the 20th Annual L’pooza will include a ‘Kidzapalooza tent’ where ‘seven-year-old kids with sprayed Mohawks,’ as Farrell describes them, can get temporary tattoos before going to see Eminem. (Suddenly I think that maybe there actually is some use in this world for Justin Bieber.)

After a useless bit about four good hotels for star-gazing (one features a photo of the windowless hotel bar) there’s a full-page ad for the ‘China Cultural Tour 2011’ which consists of an image of a Chinese opera actress superimposed over mist-shrouded bits of the Great Wall – and nothing else, save for the China National Tourist Office website. I’d say the Party hasn’t gotten their dictatorial heads around the whole marketing thing. Back in Tiananmen Square they throw up a few posters like this and the hoi polloi are scrambling for tickets for fear of their children going missing or their homes being ransacked if they don’t attend. The rest of us are going to need a little more than a woman in a gaudy kimono and a hat that Princess Beatrice herself would refuse to wear.

On a related note, the Party recently advertised their new high-speed trains as ‘not from Japan.’ This is evidently enough, in their minds, to convince their subjects to keep buying tickets for a train system whose performance truly makes it non-Japanese.

On to Cotswolds, England and ‘Russell’s, a restaurant with rooms.’ If that isn’t enough to make you run for the British Airways counter consider that this restaurant, already so forward-thinking it actually includes rooms for people to eat in, is housed in the former workshop of a furniture designer named (quite coincidentally) Russell who ‘drew his aesthetic inspiration in part from his experiences on the front lines during World War I.’ Table in a trench for two please. One dish on the menu at Russell’s consists of roast Cornish pollock with clams and something called ‘samphire emulsion’ – which I can only imagine is the saucy precursor to the delicacy known as Rocky Mountain Oysters.

Which leads me to an ad for Tempur-pedic, a mattress company whose slogan is, simply, ‘Ask me.’ Half the page is taken up by a group of smiling people with words floating in the air over their heads. The plain-looking brown-haired woman on the left is inviting you to ask her how fast she falls asleep. The guy on the right says ‘ask me about staying asleep.’ The sixty-ish couple in the back suggests you ask them about the twenty-year warranty (after which they’ll have to settle for whatever the old folks’ home offers). The attractive blond, front and center with a devilish grin on her face, has no words above her head, her apparent mattress-related invitation being ‘Just…ask me!’

Page 35 presents a picture of what appears to be a suspension bridge missing half the suspension – which seems not to deter any of the hundred-odd people driving across the bridge. This is San Francisco’s new Bay Bridge, $5.5 (check that – $7) billion worth of erector set parts ‘nearing completion’. Yes, those people are indeed driving over an unfinished bridge. The article is comprised of three main points, none of which lend any added comfort: (1) So emergency vehicles can use the bridge in case of a big earthquake, engineers ‘designed non-essential parts of the bridge to fail.’ Wait a minute, what parts of a bridge, exactly, are non-essential? (2) Rebuilding the Bay Bridge required a construction schedule that would have a minimum effect on the flow of daily traffic – some 280,000 vehicles a day. The only factory that could conform production to this extremely tight schedule was in Shanghai. I think it’s safe to say China built a factory specifically to win this contract so (a) they would own the bridge once it is done, and (b) they would have something to take people’s minds off the non-Japanese trains that keep derailing. (3) The humble Bay Area lawmakers demanded the bridge have something called ‘icon status’ – so the engineers added these tall poles to (I guess) provide aesthetic balance in place of the bridge’s half-missing suspension. These fifty-foot steel rods, sticking up like those traffic light things at the drag races, must be the ‘non-essential’ parts of the bridge designed to fall off in a big quake. They are very logically placed between the east- and westbound sides of the bridge, so no matter which way they fall they will crush whoever is driving across the bridge at the time.

Fairmont Heritage Place in something called Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco calls itself a Private Residence Club. No kidding. In the fine print at the bottom of this ad for luxurious fractional home ownership, offering an extensive ownership world-class benefits program, it reads: This is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation to buy to residents in jurisdictions in which registration requirements have not been fulfilled, and your eligibility and the resorts available for purchase will depend upon the state, province or country of residency of the purchaser. In other words, if we don’t like your zip code stay away or we will sic our pit bulls on you. My advice: go with those Ritz-Carlton posers in Chicago, their $1.4 million apartments are easily available via the Equal Opportunity Housing laws.

The W.M. Keck Foundation has donated $150 million to the USC Medical Center, adding to a previous gift of $110 million. This is fantastically generous when you consider just how many medically-uninsured illegal immigrants this will support.

Advertisement for Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Um…no. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is gluten-free. Um…still no.

This brings me to the meat of the magazine – no pun intended. For the first feature, a guy was paid (I assume) to travel to northeastern India, hang out, take a bite out of a bhut jolokia, the world’s hottest pepper, hang out a little more and go home to New York. I think I could do that. For the second article a different guy got to go to Singapore and eat for five days and then write about it. Excuse me, what exactly is the application procedure for this type of work? This piece starts out by illustrating just how goofy and crazy Singaporeans are: one guy, an aspiring chef, decided one day to put cheese on his braised pork belly dish, and so he did it, and…well…that’s it. His restaurant is very popular. It’s called Wild Rocket, named, apparently, in honor of the guy’s favorite salad. ‘Some people will think of the salad, some people will think of the spaceship,’ he says of his restaurant’s zany, no-holds-barred moniker. The writer eating his way across Singapore then tells us that this idea of mingling of food and spacecraft is a perfect metaphor for Singapore, a nation-state bent on cleanliness and efficiency while maintaining a love for food. Sorry buddy, I don’t get the connection. I want the next eat-across-a-country gig. Not surprisingly, the article is cut off, continued on page 128. Here the overload of dish names and their ingredients makes me feel like I’m reading the Cliff Notes version of The Joy of Cooking. The guy does point out two interesting things – neither of which bolster my admiration for Singaporeans. First, they love to eat yet they thumb their noses at anyone so low as to work in the culinary trade. And second, for all their economic and social achievements, Singaporeans are bent on eating mounds of durian, a fruit so stinky it is banned in all hotels and on all public transit. Give anyone caught chewing gum a good caning, but encourage the masses to walk around smelling like…well, stinky fruit. Brilliant culture.

Ah, finally, here we are in Stockholm. I might have skipped right to page 78 here, but I stuck with the preceding pageant of ill-literacy thinking the experience would make this trip to Scandinavia an even fresher breath of fresh air indeed. The two-page introductory spread shows a detail of wooden boats floating on blue waters and the back of a guy, presumably a castle guard, with a silver helmet so shiny it manages to momentarily disguise its overwhelming silliness. As I mentioned before, I once spent three hours in Malmo, Sweden. In these three hours I (1) saw the most incredible, most beautiful tall blond woman my twenty-three-year-old eyes had ever seen; (2) I put a few crowns on double zero at the roulette wheel in the lobby of some hotel and hit; and (3) saw that woman again. I read this Three Perfect Days in Stockholm piece thoroughly, but the guy makes absolutely zero mention of blonds or roulette, going on and on about cafes and museums and charm and Stieg Larsson. He does get points for renting a bicycle for a half hour, but loses them and more for staying in plush hotels instead of making friends and crashing on their couches – or ending up with a tall blond woman. Everyone has his own idea of perfect I guess.

My reading adventure is winding toward the entertainment listings at the back of the magazine, but Mike Guy and his staff manage a few more stupid human tricks. The head of the Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey has a noticeable double chin. When in Denver, try indoor skydiving. For easier, more confident traveling, here is a diagram of Guam International Airport’s one terminal, which consists of a single straight hallway. The Brown hand Center considers four locations in Texas and one each in Phoenix and Vegas ‘nationwide’.

And, at the bottom of the last page, this modest pronouncement: We are proud to recycle aluminum cans, newspapers and plastic bottles on eligible flights. On all other flights, CEO Smisel will explain in his next letter, loyal frequent flyers will not be charged $400 if they take their recyclables home with them. Women with babies on their laps will automatically pay as C-U has recently set a new policy in place that deems carrying babies and recyclables simultaneously unsafe and is therefore not allowed.

I bet Mr. Smisel has a $1.4 million pad. Perfect, I have a pit bull, let’s have some fun, shall we?

Air Travel II – (sk)In-Flight

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I step through the door and come face to face with a half-naked middle-aged man. Well not face to face; he’s turned toward the wall so all I see is his pasty, mealy back. On the shelf in front of him is his open carry-on. He’s got one arm raised high as he slathers on his deodorant. I feel like I’m at the YMCA.

The door to my stall bangs shut as I step around the corner – to see another shirtless man pushing fifty bent over one of the row of sinks. His gut rests on the countertop as he washes his face. This guy didn’t make it very far in the Gladiator audition process either. I take one of the sinks on the opposite wall…and there’s the guy, his back and his front, reflected infinitely in our opposing mirrored walls.

This is nothing compared to a Japanese onsen in terms of proximity to naked strangers and their degree of nakedness. Still, I can’t wait to get on my flight to Tokyo.

Along the otherwise drab walls of Newark Airport’s Terminal C, large back-lit advertisements pine for attention. I’ve got plenty of time before my flight’s final boarding call so I stop to read each one. Brief and bold and paper-thin, they seem aimed at the time-pressed and travel-weary. I am neither. 

A duck with a jovial look on his beak is standing on the middle of a row of three seats, doing that mating call thing with his wings. He’s ostensibly on an airplane, although those three seats are surrounded by a white empty void. (All that legroom and who do they give it to? A duck.) The ad is for an insurance company. ‘Nobody flies stand-by with our coverage,’ the sign states in bold blue letters. Someone just off a twelve-hour flight might nod at the duck in agreement and file the thought safely away in a rolling drawer of gray matter labeled ‘True – Don’t Know Why’. But really, can’t this be taken two ways? Inviting as he appears, I don’t think that duck is giving up his seat.

Beyond an ad for a cancer clinic (as if the time-pressed and travel-weary need that to think about) comes a promotion for 4-H. I’ve never belonged to 4-H, but I’m pretty sure this is an organization dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of society’s youth. They even seem to be specializing now – this particular ad is sponsored by 4-H’s Science, Engineering & Technology faction. Imposed on another empty white void a young girl in a white lab coat is holding a test tube of soylent green. Next to her reads a supposedly uplifting pronouncement: ‘One million new scientists, one million new ideas.’ That averages out to one idea per scientist. I’d say 4-H needs to raise the bar a little.

Newark’s Terminal C, by the way, is dedicated to Continental Airlines, as Newark International is one of their hubs. This would, on the surface, account for the inordinate number of ads for Continental. But really, pretty much everyone in the terminal is already a Continental customer. Shouldn’t they be hanging these ads over in Terminal A?

One of them is for Continental’s Mileage Club Credit Card. In the sky over a white-sand beach that rolls lazily toward a calm blue-green surf it reads: No one ever says ‘I take too many vacations’. This is a lie. I myself have said just that, more than once. I was just kidding, of course. My wife, on the other hand, wasn’t. Either way, I don’t think Continental wants one of their cards in my hands.

Another ad states that this mileage club card is ‘The official card of the Continental loyalist.’ Maybe I watch too many movies, but aren’t the loyalists always the ones who end up dying for the king?

As I stated in my last post, Continental is merging with United. In the gate area (and not out at the check-in counter, where it would help people understand why Continental’s check-in people are politely cramming United Airlines policies down customers’ throats) there are signs everywhere announcing the developing collusion. ‘You’re going to like where we land,’ claims one. Oh yeah? Tell you what, your Highness, enough surprises, I’d appreciate it if you just land where my ticket says you are going to land.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get through take-off, shall we?

It’s interesting how virtually everyone flying economy will casually rush to line up at the gate at the first mention of a boarding call – which of course gives priority to First Class, Business Class, Business First Class, Business Elite, Premier Club Members, Premier Club Gold Members, Advanced Club Members, Advanced Club Gold Members, Advanced Club Silver Members, Silver Select, Silver Elite, Express Pass Members and any poor souls flying economy with children. If I’m with my family you can bet I’m right up there taking advantage of the chance to board ahead of the rest of the back of the plane. It does make settling in easier, but more than that I’ll take anything I can from an airline that says my little kids qualify for the same fuel surcharge as the fat cats up front who are being served free beer and wine while most of economy is still standing on line at the gate.

Last week I flew alone, and since I am not a member of any pay-to-feel-special clubs I had to wait to get on with the rest of economy. So there I am in the lounge, sitting tight through each general boarding call, wondering as I always do why everyone is so eager to get on line only to have to stand there for ten minutes with their carry-ons and laptops. But I guess if everyone stayed on their butts like me waiting for everyone else to board no one would go anywhere.

I’d like to see it just once though. It would be magnificently surreal.

Besides being able to relax in the waiting area those extra minutes before settling into a seat on a plane for twelve hours, boarding last brings another, more sinister pleasure. By the time the other remaining stragglers and I are coming down the aisle, anyone sitting next to an empty seat begins harboring fantasies of having that extra space to themselves for the entire flight. Some of them even start spreading out their stuff, overcome with hopeful anticipation. Others keep one sideways eye on us last few passengers, pretending to ignore us while simultaneously trying to will us away. I know, because I’ve done the same thing. In either case, it’s funny to see the disappointment suddenly appear on someone’s face when I show up in the aisle, apologizing for having to make them move all their crap.

I’m nice about it though; we’re going to be sharing an armrest for the next twelve hours after all.

My flight last week took off at 11:05. I’m still making my way toward my seat near the rear bathrooms, and people are already fluffing and propping their pillows behind their heads. Some have those horseshoe cushion things around their necks. A few of them were already wearing them before they even got on the plane. The flight, by the way, is at 11:05 am. What was there, a narcolepsy conference in Newark this weekend? These people are going to miss first beverage service.

Amazingly, they all seemed to make the flight – no empty seats anywhere.

So I’m settling nicely into my aisle seat. 43-D. My shoes are off and stuffed under the seat in front of me where they will stay until we reach the gate at Narita. (I’ll have plenty of time to put them on while everyone else is standing in the aisle, waiting for First Class, Business Class, Business First etc. etc. to clear out so they can rush off the plane and go stand on line at customs and then again at the baggage carousel.)

I’m flipping through the in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, checking to see if the previous passenger screwed up the sudoku, when the woman next to me leans over and puts her ear over my nose. She’s talking (in Korean, I think) with the woman over in seat C. Meanwhile the girl behind me, perusing the channels and games on the TV on the back side of my headrest, seems to think ‘touch screen’ means ‘jab at screen hard as you can’. My head is literally bouncing off the headrest; my nose bumps up against my neighbor’s eardrum. Fortunately this woman and the person across the aisle I figured was her mother suddenly agree on something and they both begin waving at someone a few rows up on the other side of the plane. Then they sit back, both of them eyeing me.

A tap on my shoulder. A girl appears in the aisle next to me. She smiles and leans over. She’s not unattractive. In broken English she asks if I wouldn’t mind switching seats, adding with a few hand gestures she’d like to sit with her mother and grandmother. She tells me she’s in 40-K, a middle seat. ‘Sorry,’ I tell her. ‘But you can switch middle seats with your mom if you like.’

It’s likely a good thing I don’t speak Korean.

Meanwhile the girl behind me is frantically scrolling through the children’s movie selections. I get up and turn to her for a no-nonsense round of show and tell. After that she either understands what touch means or she decides she’s better off just not watching anything for the entire flight.

A flight attendant emerges from the service area at the rear of the plane and comes walking up the aisle. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ Yes I say, putting up a finger as she passes but she’s looking over at Grandma. She keeps walking. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ Yes I say again, but she’s occupied with the sensory-overloading task of handing someone else a newspaper. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ She two rows up now. YES! She turns around and stares at me like I just stuck my nose in her ear. She slaps a USA Today in my hand and continues up the aisle.

The sports section has Thursday’s box scores. The back page gives Friday’s weather forecast. Today is Sunday.

Apparently the royalty at Continental-United are really banking on that loyalist campaign.

The sudokus are clean in my Hemispheres. By the time the crew begins beverage service I’ve already given up on the one labeled ‘hard’ and moved on to one of the mediums. When they come back to collect our plastic cups I’ve already decided to see if the other medium is any easier. Along with the crushed cups and overturned juice boxes there are a few empty beer cans on the cart. The woman next to me is struggling to doze off under her blanket. It’s 12:30pm.

Time to check the movies on offer.

On my previous flight I watched The Last King of Scotland, the story of a young Scottish doctor who goes on a medical mission to a small Ugandan village and ends up one of dictator Idi Amin’s inner circle – until the heavy-handed new leader finds out what this young doctor has been doing with his favorite wife. The movie is listed under comedy. There was absolutely nothing funny about Idi Amin.

Another comedy selection is titled If You Are the One, Part II. I think we can assume how Part I went.

I decide to watch The Reader, which opens with Ralph Fiennes in a lush Berlin apartment in 1995. It is morning. A naked woman walks into the room. I too was in Berlin in 1995, and I can tell you that it was nothing like this. But I manage to suspend my disbelief and keep watching.

The rest of the movie features a different woman, who keeps showing up naked, most often right along with her young boyfriend. And though it is quite well done it dawns on me this might not be something those around me want to see or should be seeing.

I glance around. Virtually everyone is sleeping.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon.

After a long moment leaning against the emergency exit door, staring through the window out over the Hudson Bay, I sit back down and start perusing the pages of my Hemispheres. This proves an experience deserving of its own post, which I intended the previous post to cover but air travel simply offers too much fodder for satire, so this particuar post will likely have to wait a few more days.

First I’m going to relax by taking a bath with a few Japanese men.

The Solutions to Poverty and Unemployment Will Look Something Like This: An Interview with Rachel Cook

In Specific Facts on September 5, 2011 at 5:53 pm
Rachel Cook is a friend of mine from college who let me interview her about her upcoming film, currently titled the Microlending Film ProjectRachel shot footage for Kiva – an awesome organization that has stoked the fires of entrepreneurship in Africa, Southeast Asia, and around the world, and is now stoking the fires of entrepreneurship here in America:

The Microlending Film Project (film title TBD) was conceived as a passion project by Futures Trader turned Director/Producer Rachel Cook after she read a Nicholas Kristof op-ed in The New York Times late one night at a Chicago trading desk.  The article was about how empowering women in the developing world with tools like microfinance can bring about positive, sustainable change (Saving the World’s Women).

The project has been undertaken with the best interests of poor women at heart, as the film seeks to show a balanced, comprehensive picture of microfinance through the lens of the personal stories of the women it impacts. The issue of transparency and its paramount importance to the industry is a key focus, as is showcasing best-practices and suggesting how microfinance can most effectively be used as one development tool in a larger box both domestically and abroad, specifically in terms of the opportunities mobile banking and crowdsourcing promise.

The Microlending Film Project is holding a DVD pre-sale and offering other perks to raise funding for post-production.  To view a trailer and/or purchase a DVD, please follow this link:
The filmmaking crew is also actively seeking out investors at multiple levels. If you have an interest in learning more about investment opportunities in the film, please contact Rachel Cook at rachel at microlendingfilm dot com.
Anyways, here comes the interview:
Christopher CarrHow did you come to where you are now? Describe your life after graduating from college. How did you choose your current path? Where do you see yourself going after this?
Rachel Cook: I knew I wanted to do something involving writing and film, and after studying for a semester in Los Angeles junior year at Duke I knew I hated that “city”. I’d heard about Second City/iO and all of the comedy writers and performers it had produced, people like Bill Murray, Chris Farley and Tina Fey, and studying there seemed like it provided more of a sort of clear path than would toiling in obscurity somewhere else, so I moved to Chicago. While there, I picked up an equities trading position to pay the bills, and I took a ton of improv classes and put on a few shows.
While it was gratifying to put on a show and have 30 people come, or even say, 5, obviously film can reach a much larger audience, so I think that notion was percolating in the back of my mind through the Second City period. Meanwhile, a few years in to my Chicago tenure, I started trading Futures on the European shift, which was in the middle of the night of course, Chicago time.
The trading environment was so surprisingly sexist that it really affected me. I worked at four firms total – three in Chicago and one in Manhattan – and I was always the only girl trader, or one of a few. It was definitely one of the last bastions of old school sexism and it was infuriating and upsetting. So I guess that’s why, one night in September 2009 when I came across a Kristof op-ed in the NYT about the positive impact of microfinance globally, particularly on poor women, that I immediately felt compelled to text my sister and tell her that I was going to make a film on just this topic. Microfinance appealed to both my feminist sensibilities, and to the interest in good investment I’d cultivated while on the trading desk.
From there, it was just a matter of figuring out how the hell to make a global feature film, because I definitely didn’t know how to do that, and we ended up shooting on four continents. In hindsight, I’m glad that I was arrogant and ignorant enough about the process to take all of this on; and it’s grown from here. I quit the trading job I was working in Manhattan in November of 2010 and started working on the film full time, and we just wrapped principal photography this past week in Detroit, so we’ll be heavily editing from here on out.
Going forward, I plan to collaborate with Duke and the iHub, a shared start-up space in Nairobi that we discovered when filming, to launch a social gaming application that facilitates mobile-to-mobile microlending across continents. It’s in its very early stages, but we have high hopes.
Christopher CarrSo, it’s safe to say you’re a microfinance believer. A lot of controversy has come about recently around Nicholas Kristof, who supposedly fabricated a lot of his pro-microfinance columns. Do you think the ends justify the means? Also, could you elaborate on how microfinance appealed to your feminist sensibilities?
Rachel Cook: Yes, from what I’ve seen, it mostly works, and the offer of an alternative method of financial access that it presents is a good thing. Though I haven’t come across accusations of Kristof specifically fabricating pro-microfinance columns, I know he’s been criticized for oversimplifying issues relating to development and resultantly misrepresenting large, complicated problems.
What I know of Kristof’s response (and I’m paraphrasing/summarizing of course) had to do with the contention that in the interest of advancing public knowledge and involvement in development issues, telling a single, powerful story that sheds light on a particular situation because it incites empathy for the person or the people it impacts can bring about political and financial support for an important human rights issue that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise exist, and that that has value. I agree with this idea.
Trying to elaborate on my statement about microfinance appealing to my feminist sensibilities is difficult to answer because the answer is complex; it’s hard to distill into a few paragraphs. I don’t think I had a conscious awareness of sexism prior to college – coming from a small town in Ohio, and being the “smartest kid” in my class or whatever helped me to avoid some of that shit, at least on a more sort of conscious level – but leaving that and first coming into contact with rich 18-year-old boys who were entitled and presented themselves as “super smart” and were into making girls less obnoxious than they were feel silly or stupid was really jarring, and took me years to process and become equipped to combat, in a way.  That was probably my official introduction to sexism.
And unsurprisingly, in the trading world, it was sort of rampant in a way that was crazy to imagine still existed in 2008 – I sometimes felt like I was on the inside of some terrible fraternity and my female presence wasn’t enough to stop any sexist awfulness they were inclined to, so they behaved in appalling ways and I just sat there on my machine staring at gold ETFs or whatever and had to witness it.
So yeah, I guess I was primed to respond strongly to the first sort of pro-feminist, effective-sounding development tool, any pro-feminist anything, really – and when I came across that article while actually sitting at my trading desk, and it talked about how microfinance has the capability to transform a woman’s life, to give her a voice within her household, to stop her from getting beatings from her husband because she’s now a viable source of family income, whatever, I was like, yeah, this is important.  I want to be involved in something that has the potential to do this.
Christopher CarrCan you give us some examples of how microfinance has the capability to transform a woman’s life?
Rachel Cook: The example that immediately comes to mind is the one Kristof wrote about that inspired this project, which was actually a part of the excerpt from his book. To paraphrase, it was about a Pakistani woman named Saima whose husband had gotten the family deep in debt, something like $3,000, which seemed like this amount that it would take the family generations to pay off. And the husband was unemployed and took out his frustrations on her, often beating her. Once she took out a microloan and started a successful embroidery business, she was able to pull the family out of debt surprisingly quickly, and largely because she was now the family’s breadwinner, she commanded a lot more respect within her family and in the community at large, and her husband stopped beating her. So stories like that I think can be very powerful, although this is an ineloquent retelling.
In terms of what we’ve seen ourselves when filming, there were stories like those of Pablina Portillo, the women we spent time with in Paraguay. Her youngest son had a tumor on his abdomen, and the family spent all of their savings to cover his medical expenses (luckily he survived and is now very healthy), but after that they weren’t sure what they’d do to stay afloat. But because microloans were available to her, she was able to launch a successful business selling sweetcakes at a roadside stand outside her home, and the family got back on its feet. Beyond that, because of her relationship with the microfinance institution that had initially given her the loan, the Fundacion Paraguaya, she was made aware of a local agricultural boarding school, and her daughter Antonia was able to win a scholarship to attend there. Antonia now learns progressive farming techniques that she brings home, which helps out her parents. So the positive impact here spanned generations.
And even in Detroit, for instance, to place my response to this question in a Western context, taking out the $2000 loan from Kiva that Emily Thornhill of Homeslice Clothing took out this June has resulted in lots of free publicity for her business, and lots of excitement surrounding entrepreneurial and creative efforts in a beleaguered American city. I mean, in no small part because of what I saw microfinance doing in Detroit, some of the ripple effects of that, I came away in love with the city. So the positive effects of successful microentrepreneurship can not only impact women in sometimes incredible ways, but they can add a certain shine to a community in a very palpable way as well. I actually plan to launch a Kiva City in my own hometown of Canton, Ohio, which is similar in make-up to Detroit in many ways, in conjunction with the screening of the feature there next spring, and I’m excited about what this could do for my own economically troubled area.
And then there’s the flipside, which we saw a lot of in India, in which the institution of microfinance was failing the women it had purported to help. But that’s another story.
Christopher CarrCan you tell us a bit about the failings of microfinance, where it has to grow as a field, what kind of future you see for it, and how it compares to public measures like welfare or aid?
Rachel Cook: The failings of microfinance, given what I’ve seen, tend to have to do with a lack of access – supply not meeting demand – or with government interference, as in India and Bangladesh. In terms of lack of access being an issue, it’s not like Yunus invented the idea of giving out $27.00 to a poor person in 1976 – global communities around the world had been finding ways to finance things for much, much longer, it just wasn’t formalized, and lending on that scale wasn’t something that interested banks. But in modern times, when someone can’t get a loan from a microfinance institution because they can’t get a group of ten people together to apply and that’s a requirement, or because the government has shut lending in their state down, that person will often have no choice but to turn to a loan shark, who may charge upwards of 50% interest, and who may use any of a number of unscrupulous methods to later collect.
Another problem that I think was hugely significant in the failing of the big for-profit microfinance institution, SKS, and the subsequent shutdown of microlending in Andhra Pradesh had to do with the product they offered being a solely financial thing – they just made loans. In that sense, they operated just like a bank, and very differently from many microfinance organizations the world over. There wasn’t any assistance in the design of business plans, any mentorship, and the group lending model was less emphasized, so people didn’t feel the peer pressure to repay that they would’ve felt if they were taking out a loan of with their mother, their sisters, and their neighbors. There wasn’t the sense that they’d really be letting someone down if they didn’t do their part to repay, it was just a faceless bank, and they didn’t feel they were being partnered with in their microbusiness initiatives.
And then, when people started hearing about the suicides and they were so widely publicized, people were told that they didn’t have to repay. We interviewed the head of SKS, Vikram Akula, and he was adamant that his company was a victim of “state brutality”, that the government had played the key role in the problems SKS was having. I don’t know how much truth there is in that, but certainly the supply of loans was limited by government intervention, while demand remained high.
In terms of the direction it has to grow in as a field, issues of transparency are big – there’s no real standardized metric for the determination of what interest rate is actually charged on a loan, it’s often this insanely complicated formula, and one institution that says it charges a 25% interest rate in Bangladesh versus one that says its charging the same in Uganda may in fact be financing these loans at wildly different costs, and not necessarily telling its customers this. The other for-profit MFI that was founded before SKS (It was really the first large-scale for-profit.), Compartamos in Mexico, was charging over 100% according to the Microfinance Transparency Initiatives data, and the CEO of that company is now a billionaire, and they were obviously not publishing this data back in 2007 in a transparent manner, but they also weren’t required to by any central regulatory agency because there literally wasn’t any, and that has to change.
In the future, I think microfinance will become increasingly mobile-to-mobile, which is already happening in East Africa. There’s a company called Musoni, a very new MFI, that is the first in the world to microlend 100% via mobile phone, and I think person-to-person lending that operates on a similar platform is sure to follow. In this way, it’ll become cheaper – what people often don’t realize is how expensive it actually is to amortize these tiny loans – and because mobile phone usage is becoming more and more popular in the developing world, people who need these loans will be able to find them. In Paraguay, for instance, at least as of 2010, there was something like six million people, and 6.6 million mobile phones.
We saw amazing things in Nairobi – people use their cell phones like debit cards, people living in the slums would buy tomatoes at an outdoor market and pay via text message. In five years, Nairobi may very well be a global tech hub, and I think microfinance will be a huge part of that.
I don’t think microfinance really compares to public measures like welfare or aid; as Matt Flannery, one of the co-founders of Kiva said in a talk he gave at the Kiva City launch in Detroit, “microfinance isn’t a sophisticated financial commercial instrument, but it’s not charity either.” I think that’s right; microloans are simple loans, but they’re loans, and people who receive them pay them back at statistically incredibly high rates. So that lends itself to greater efficiency as well; aid dollars may be more likely to be used in less efficient ways, but the level of accountability that traditionally is extended with a microloan sort of cultivates a different attitude among the people receiving the money, and I think that is largely a very good thing.
Christoper CarrWe’ve been hearing recently about the end of poverty, the paradox of thrift, globalization, specifically of commodities and finance, and it seems like all of these forces meet at microfinance. Do you think microfinance has the power to create a new, organic, bottom-up world order? And, if so, would microfinance supplant traditional economic arrangements like apprentice systems and barter markets? Is that even a bad thing? Or is it all so complex and so different from place to place that nothing can really be generalized from it? 
Rachel Cook: I would agree that all of these things you’re mentioning seem to meet at microfiance, and though some people may be interested in pushing the narrative that microfinance has the power to create a new bottom-up world order, I would argue that a more precise description of what it does is that it presents an alternative, certainly more democratic means by which to access capital – so in essence, it offers the world more options for financing, and in that sense I think it sort of broadens the applications of capitalism rather than knocking that world order over on its head. It is, by definition, inclusive, so everyone can join in and reap certain benefits.
But I would, however, strongly argue that microfinance has the power to play a key role in toppling certain elements of the “cultural world order,” if you will, that are overly patriarchal and oppressive of women. Additionally, if people are to become convinced of Yunus’s claim, that access to credit is an “inalienable human right,” than I suppose it could be argued that microfinance goes so far as to expand the general conception of what it means to be human. That’s a pretty powerful thing for $25.00 to do.
I don’t think microfinance will supplant traditional arrangements like barter systems, etc. – it can co-exist peacefully with other aspects of economics and perhaps even enhance them. But yeah, while its applications differ in marked ways from place to place for sure, I think the generalizations above can hold – microfinance can help women, and it absolutely makes capital more accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance at finding any, which is in and of itself a transformative thing.

Air Travel I – Wonder & Woe

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 5, 2011 at 2:22 am

Three weeks ago I flew from Newark, New Jersey to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. (If this were a facebook status update I’d simply say ‘EWR-NRT’, assuming such snark has not yet become passé.) It had been a while since I’d flown –six weeks almost – so it took no time for the incongruous wonders of air travel, like the burn of a jalapeno, to rip into my senses once again.

Of course, the physics alone are mind-boggling. I’m sure Orville and Wilbur never imagined an eight-million-pound plane, loaded with another eight million pounds of people, luggage and processed dinner omelets, could make it over a sand dune let alone the Pacific Ocean. Legalized extortion (commonly known as the fuel surcharge) notwithstanding, that we can in twenty-four hours get from any semi-major city in the world to any other semi-major city not currently steeped in rioting and/or armed conflict is nothing less than an everyday miracle (until we figure out those wormhole things). Yet people will still complain about the dinner omelets.

However many times I’ve flown, the experience still makes me giddy. Feeling the lunge and thrust of a plane leaving the ground; looking down on land and water lying six miles beneath my squished nose; being able to doze off while hurtling through the atmosphere in a metal tube held together with bolts no thicker than my thumb; human accomplishments in aviation are indeed a wonder to behold.

Which makes the prevailing thought processes driving the whole air travel culture that much more incongruous.

‘This is a bicycle,’ I said as I laid my tandem, disassembled and all bungeed up tight in a bicycle bag, on the conveyor belt/ scale thing at the check-in counter. (I have no idea how those two can be combined.) ‘It’s kind of fragile,’ I told the woman. 

‘Do you want me to put a fragile sticker on it?’ she asked, oblivious or maybe just used to the fact that her red neck scarf had a ridiculously huge bow in it.

‘Yes, please do.’ It had made the trip to Thailand fine, wrapped in foam inside a heavy cardboard box. But that box and all the foam were now in a dumpster in Chanthaburi somewhere, and I was a bit apprehensive about the protective qualities of my thin nylon sack. ‘Yes, a fragile sticker thing would be great.’ 

‘Okay, please sign this for me.’ The woman slid a small rectangular form across the counter at me.

‘What’s this?’

‘It means we are not responsible if we break your bicycle. Please sign at the bottom.’

Whoa. ‘Wait a minute, why wouldn’t you be responsible?’

‘Because you are saying it is fragile.’

I’m no psychology major…wait, yes I am. And I’m sure we covered logic in there somewhere.

‘Well yes, of course. I am telling you it’s fragile so you don’t break it.’

‘You are saying it is fragile because it is not packed properly. So if it breaks you can not hold the airline responsible. That is why we need you to sign that.’

So I tell them it’s fragile so they don’t break it, and my reward is signing a little form that says it is okay if they break it. These airlines must have lawyers working for them or something.

‘What if I don’t sign this?’

‘Then I take that fragile sticker off,’ said the woman, disregarding the red pterodactyl attacking her throat.

‘So then if my bicycle is damaged I can hold you responsible?’ (I made it a point to say you.)

‘No, the airline (she made it a point to say airline) would not be responsible.’

‘Why not? If you break my bicycle…’

‘Because without a sticker we don’t know that it is fragile.’

I ended up signing the form.

On the up side, since I was flying an Asian airline, the beer was free. And since this was not a Chinese airline my bicycle made it through okay. Not perfect, but okay. (Note to anyone traveling by bicycle in Thailand: there’s a big cardboard box and lots of foam in a dumpster behind the restaurant by the side of the road where the bus from the airport drops off people going to Chanthaburi, please help yourself.)

On the other hand, the following conversation took place at the check-in counter of one of the American airlines, all of which have the audacity to charge for beer. This was last Fall while checking my family in for our flight from Tokyo to L.A.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, showing my flight info sheet to the check-in woman, a large blue tuna fish can pinned to her hair, noticeably off-center. ‘There’s no meal for the baby.’ I meant it as a subtle, helpful hint.

‘That’s correct,’ she replied. ‘There’s no baby meal.’

It’s obvious when someone is ending a conversation, even in Japanese.

‘Okay, well, we’d like to request a meal for the baby.’ Two meals, really, though I figured I didn’t need to point that out.

‘No, I’m sorry. We don’t offer baby meals.’

‘…He gets a regular meal?’ I knew this couldn’t be the case but neither could the alternative. So I thought.

‘No, there is no baby meal on this flight.’

‘On this flight?’

The woman stared, cock-eyed like a confused puppy so that her tuna can was now sitting on the highest point on her head.

I tried again, without the sarcasm (which was already becoming increasingly difficult). ‘You mean, you have nothing for the baby?’

‘Yes.’ (Which, translated into English, means no.)

‘No food for the entire eleven-hour flight?’


‘You’re kidding me, eleven hours and the kid gets no food.’

‘There is no baby meal.’

‘No crackers.’


‘Not even a piece of bread?’

‘You can give him some of yours.’ (They probably don’t mean to, but Japanese people can come across as terribly magnanimous at the worst times.)

‘But he gets nothing,’ I said.

‘That is correct.’

(At this point I had to switch to English.) ‘Are you flipping serious?’

No answer.

‘Infants get nothing?’

‘Meals are reserved for people in seats.’

‘…You mean he’s not a person if he isn’t in a seat?’

‘I did not say that.’

‘What do you think he is, a carry-on?’

Silence. Sarcasm is clearly non-existent in Japan.

‘For eleven hours…more than eleven hours, he gets nothing to eat.’

‘Yes, I’m sorry.’

‘You’re sorry? Don’t be sorry, just do something. He’s a real live person. He needs to eat.’

‘There’s nothing I can do.’

‘You can give me back the four hundred dollar fuel surcharge I had to pay for him.’

‘The fuel surcharge applies to all passengers.’

‘And all carry-ons with hair?’

If I ever teach in Japan again I am teaching sarcasm and only sarcasm.

‘Great, so he’s a human being – a full-sized human being – when it means four hundred dollars for you, but when it comes to meals he’s a piece of luggage.’

Blank face. I had to try in Japanese. She still didn’t understand me.

I pointed to my older son. ‘You gave him meals when he was a baby.’

‘United has never given baby meals.’

‘United? What do you mean United? This is Continental!’

‘Sir, I’m sorry, we don’t offer baby meals.’

To be honest, I had plenty of food in my backpack for the kid. My wife always packs enough sandwiches and rice balls and crackers for the five-hour bus ride to Tokyo, the three hours until we are in the air, the entire pan-Pacific flight and lunch the next day in New Jersey. But my wife’s overzealousness provides an airline with neither reason nor excuse not to offer something in exchange for their four hundred dollar shakedown on my sixteen-pound kid.

‘Let me guess, you don’t offer diapers anymore either, do you?’

‘United stopped offering diapers several years ago.’

‘Why do you keep talking about United? United is United, this is Continental!’

‘We follow United’s policy for infants.’

It was my turn to stare cock-eyed. I wanted to ask her if she could make my kid a tuna sandwich.

‘So this is what you are telling me…’ I motioned to the guy at the next check-in window, two hundred fifty pounds easy even without the Louis Vuitton carry-on. ‘My baby pays the same fuel charge as him?’

She glanced over. ‘Yes.’ Then she thought for a moment and turned back to me. ‘But that man doesn’t get diapers either.’

Okay I made that last part up. But the point remains. For all the advancements in air travel technology – self-check-in, a hundred movies on-demand, special plastic bags for liquids to keep any would-be terrorists from making a bomb – there remains a noticeable void of human intelligence here. 

Or maybe the airlines and their lawyers really are smart enough to know just how much they can get away with because we are never going to stop flying.

Until we figure out that wormhole thing.

By the way, Continental and United Airlines are merging, in case you hadn’t heard – or been personally introduced to the circus in progress. This would account for the odd logic the woman with the tuna can was tossing me – though I wish she’d explained why my kid was now legally both a human being and a piece of luggage.

I swore after this encounter with United-Continental’s cherry-picking, profit-driven policy decisions I’d never fly either airline again. Of course I said the same thing about all Chinese airlines not too long ago, for their baggage-handling non-policies. But the reality is that my air travel decisions are savings-driven. Until the day I can afford to fly business class on whatever airline tickles my fancy I’ll have to live with the prevailing air travel culture while I continue staring out the window, marveling at how fast we are going, how beautiful the world looks from six miles up, and how many movies I have at my fingertips.

And hey, the coffee’s free.


Note to the alert reader: Yes I know that while I mentioned at the beginning of this post that three weeks ago my senses were reintroduced to the capsicum-like effects of air travel, neither of the above instances occurred three weeks ago. This is because I have to go feed and change my carry-on and thus have no time to delve into my latest air travel adventure, involving both the bold statements slathered across the pages of my recent in-flight magazine and the finer print lurking below. This will be covered in an upcoming post – probably the next one as I am not planning to fly for another two weeks, almost.

Assessing Risk of Nuclear Disaster

In Specific Facts on September 4, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I commented at LoOG: 

I started this as a reply to Pat above, but it just got longer and longer and longer, and it’s probably the most significant thing I’ve written about Fukushima since it all went down, so I decided to start a new thread with it.

I was a proponent of nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster, and I’ve had a long six months or so to think about this, but I’m not sure if I’m still on board with nuclear because: human error rates are always higher than we estimate them to be. I’m not sure the real risks are worth the benefits; so I’m skeptical of the way we usually evaluate risk when it comes to nuclear power.

In the case of Japan, the tsunami affected sparsely-populated coastal areas (Japan’s infrastructure has already been shaped by insider’s knowledge of risk distributed over thousands of years of seismic activity.) Nevertheless, the tsunami still managed to kill almost 30,000 people. This speaks to the sheer power of a 9.2 quake right offshore more than it does to poor planning à la New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. For what Fate dealt it, Japan did a hell of a job minimizing casualties.

In contrast to the 30,000 tsunami victims, the nuclear meltdown so far has sentenced about eighty people to death from various cancers, according to certain epidemiology panels. This number could be way off-base, but even if it wildly underestimates increases in the incidence of cancer, the point is that the number of deaths-by-tsunami is significantly larger than the deaths-by-nuclear-meltdown. Therefore, in consideration of a worst-case scenario like Fukushima, nuclear power is not that much of a threat to public safety. Or so the proponent’s argument goes.

This argument misses the point that nuclear disaster – even if properly managed – represents a deceptively large economic and social cost. Right now in Fukushima City, Koriyama City, Sendai, and even Tokyo (four urban centers with a combined population of almost forty million people) there are places where the risk of cancer significantly increases after only a few years of normal lifestyle. Where these places are is determinable, especially with so many amateurs wielding Geiger counters and the crowd-sourcing opportunities offered by information technologies. (One of things I want to do with my future medical degree is to create a global toxin crowd-sourced platform.)

Right now, all the people who live in these “hot spots” have modified their lifestyles considerably while they wait for further instructions from the government and scientific experts. (This NHK documentary describes the stress of living in hot spots: These people don’t or can’t go outside, or they have to minimize their exposure to radiation. They can’t start businesses or buy homes, because they may become part of an ever-expanding evacuation zone in the near future.

Accordingly, the economies of five or ten prefectures have been permanently set on courses for destruction. Tohoku is a region which derives its wealth from the pursuits of agriculture, industry, and tourism, much like the Midwest in the United States (minus tourism perhaps). What do you think would happen if even a small amount of nuclear fall-out covered the Midwest from Denver to Detroit? Staple products like corn and wheat would see significant losses (What kinds of images does the phrase “Chernobyl apple” or “Fukushima peach” conjure up? Would you consider buying such products at the supermarket?); and no one would buy Ford, Chrysler, or GM products, just as American companies have stopped importing the hypodermic needles one of my students normally inspects. The motor and steel cities would crumble. Such is happening to northern Japan. Everything that region produces is unmarketable for the next hundred years.

Accordingly, in the six months after the earthquake and nuclear disaster, there has been a brain drain of epic proportions. The wealthy can afford to leave. Foreigners like me can come back to America and weather the comparably-mild displeasures of unemployment for six months and then go start taking classes at Harvard next week. Some of my wealthier professional students have accepted fellowships abroad, or sent their children to international boarding schools, or moved to other cities in Western Japan. Doctors and lawyers and other knowledge-based professionals can perform their services anywhere. The working class – and particularly farmers – remain. This is remarkably unjust.

The risk-management models for nuclear power all miss this human story. It is a unique and significant psychological, black swan consideration that doesn’t exist for other power sources. Oil spills may ravage a region, but no one is afraid of gumbo or Gulf Albacore.