Trump said someone described Michael as ‘like a very wide’ tornado
Turning over my right shoulder, I see all of the humans who have graced my life. Everyone is dressed in their most comfortable attire, from jeans and t-shirts, sweaters and skirts, to mourning attire. Each person adorns a genuine smile while their hands are placed in front of them, one over the other with no […]
I was a mess, my hair was dirty and uncombed, my eyes were wild, staring and bloodshot, my skin was a pasty colour with large red blotches where my blood pressure level was through the roof. My clothes were stained and smelling. I was shaking uncontrollably internally and externally. Unable to hold the drink in front of me, I had to lap it like a dog. I felt totally lost and alone, no hope and nowhere to turn.
Two horses were rescued by their owners in a flooded field during Storm Callum. In a video released on social media, animals can be almost completely submerged in murky water after a river has flooded its banks and flooded the surrounding land in Monmouthshire, south-east Wales. Owner Gareth Silcox hurried to rescue his horses after […]
Two horses were rescued by their owners in a flooded field during Storm Callum. In a video released on social media, animals can be almost completely submerged in murky water after a river has flooded its banks and flooded the surrounding land in Monmouthshire, south-east Wales. Owner Gareth Silcox hurried to rescue his horses after […]
Yemen could face the worst famine in 100 years if the air strikes of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia are not stopped, warned the UN. If the war continues, famine could engulf the country over the next three months, with 12 to 13 million civilians at risk of starvation, said Lise Grande, the organization’s […]
Lucy Li highlights the discrimination that women athletes’ consistently face.
As the planet warms, one place you can still seek solace is a nice, cold beer. But maybe not for long. Or at least not for as cheap. A study published today (Oct. 15) in the academic journal Nature Plants warns that you may pay much more for that brew during severe droughts brought on […]
Thus saith the Lord God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob Thus saith the Lord God unto thee of the Nations of the Middle East thus far the raging fire of conflict has be confined to but a few Nations of that region though thereby causing much suffering mainly borne by the civilian population especially doth […]
via #THE #RAGING FIRE OF #CONFLICT SHALL #CONSUME THE #MIDDLE EAST WHEN IT #SPREADS BEYOND AS IT SHALL #SYRIAS AND #YEMENS BORDERS #CAUSING CIVILIAN #REFUGEES TO #FLEE AND OTHERS #ESPECIALY #CHILDREN TO #SUFFER THE #RAVAGES OF #WAR REVEALED BY #GOD — RONNIE SAMUEL HULSE
Well, the move is underway. Technically, we have been in the new house for 4 days now. Boxes and packing paper cover everything. We’ve built the dogs a small, fenced-in area to run in and the three bantam chickens are temporarily living in a dog crate on the front porch. The people here seem to […]
Bad news has been coming in fast this week. I usually keep a fairly even keel and manage to look on the bright side. But with hurricane Michael wreaking havoc, the stock market tumbling, democracy on the skids, and my glaucoma medication out of stock, just for starters, I’ve been jangled. It cheered me […]
Senator Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test earlier today, claiming that said results provide “strong evidence” for her Native American ancestry. Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee Nation’s secretary of state, gave Warren …
Bitcoin, which has recently experienced a turbulent period, at one point even surged to a two-month-high of £5,928.46 ($ 7,788) today on the Bitfinex trading platform. The immediate outlook for bitcoin is neutral but the pullback from highs above £5,174.09 ($ 6,800) has supported a bearish o… https://wp.me/p8pxoV-1Ew
Google CEO Sundar Pichai publicly addressed his company’s plans to re-enter the Chinese market with a search and news-oriented product, telling a crowd at Wired’s 25th anniversary summit that such a service would be capable of serving 99 percent of queries. Pichai described the Chinese market as “important for us to explore” given its size […]
Trump Condemns 10s of Millions to being Long-Term Refugees
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
Where do you belong? In the hustle and bustle of a big city or amongst friendly faces in a small town? For this week’s challenge, show us your place in the world.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
Those who want to acquire far better brakes for their own car will want to ensure they look into the Hawk brake pads Kits that are available today. If they might like to be sure they can acquire the brake kit as quickly as possible, they will want to make sure they will look for […]
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
Why Do All My Friends Want to Kill Themselves?
When depression is just one push notification away
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
— “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot
I often get texts at 9 a.m. that scare me. I live in London now and, depending on the time zone, that’s around 3 a.m. in the U.S.
While I soberly eat some Greek yogurt (and maybe a banana), my phone vibrates on the table.
“Michael, I want to fucking kill myself.”
It could be anyone.
My heart starts pounding in my chest. I hesitate before opening it; they’ll see I’ve read it and expect a response.
“Are you okay?” I type.
Then I delete that text, letter by letter.
“Hahaha me too dude.”
I press send.
I take a bite of yogurt.
One day, I’ll send that message to a corpse.
I’m not naive enough to think that my generation is the first to experience depression. T.S. Eliot wrote his poem “The Hollow Men” a hundred years ago. A hundred years before that, a surge in mental illness was blamed on newly-invented trains. “Scientists” theorized that the vibrations literally shattered one’s nerves.
No, I do not think depression is new; I’m sure that even cavemen, sometime after discovering fire, felt a certain ennui looking into its flames.
Nor do I think myself or my circumstances particularly unique. I grew up in Plano, Texas. I went to a mid-tier university in California. My parents are still together. I had to work a few jobs to put myself through college, but I’ve done alright since. My friends and I wouldn’t look out of place in a Stella Artois commercial.
So why do we all want to load a revolver, put the barrel to our head, and blow our fucking brains out?
If you’re over the age of 35, you may have found that last visual a bit disturbing. You’re concerned and maybe want to call my parents.
But if you’re in your twenties, you might have let out a little chuckle.
Times have changed.
Imagine this: You’re watching Seinfeld. Jerry walks out for the opening monologue.
“You guys ever feel lonely in this city?” He asks the audience. “I do. Makes me wanna take a fucking handful of pain pills and never wake up!”
The audience goes hysterical. Cue theme song.
That’s the gist of a lot of modern humor. It’s nihilistic. It’s self-immolating. It’s sickly relatable.
It makes us feel less alone.
Follow any popular meme Instagram accounts. You won’t have to wait long before they post content about depression.
Take a look at the comments.
“This is so me.”
“This is so us.”
Here we go round the prickly pear, prickly pear, prickly pear. — “The Hollow Men”
When TS Eliot wrote “The Hollow Men,” he was writing for a generation broken by the most vicious war the world had ever seen; modernity borne out of fire and automation, blood and technology.
But I don’t know what exactly is breaking my generation.
Fire and automation? Blood and technology?
Everyone tries to pin it on one thing: Trump, the recession, social media. Maybe it’s health care. Guns. Maybe if we could go to college for $2000 and buy a house at 22, we wouldn’t feel like this. Maybe if we didn’t spend all our money on avocado toast, we wouldn’t hurt so badly. Maybe if Tinder hadn’t got us ghosted, we wouldn’t stare blankly at our reflections in store windows.
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stones
— “The Hollow Men”
And broken iPhones.
I don’t know. I don’t know why life expectancy has gone down two years in a row. I don’t know why folks get anxiety when calling to order a pizza. I don’t know why the media thinks we need fentanyl, fidget spinners, and a filter just to get out of bed.
But I do know that all my friends want to kill themselves.
I know that we get scared, really scared, when Anthony Bourdain dies. See, we know that he’s the kind of guy who would text back, “Hahaha me too dude.”
We know that in a boring meeting he’d press his forefinger to his temple and pull the trigger, splattering mime brain all over the conference table. We’d have to conceal our laughter behind a yellow legal pad.
We know all that; so we’re confused when the man who had noodles with Obama stops answering his phone.
We go to text a friend, “You okay?”
We delete it.
We open the Facebook app instead.
“So sad. Remember, check in on your friends. The ones who seem least likely to need help are usually the ones who need it most.”
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
— “The Hollow Men”
I’ve had loads of acquaintances kill themselves. Ad-hoc eulogies appear in my Facebook newsfeed; I feel bad that they died with such a goofy profile picture.
My best friend’s father hung himself in 7th grade, but we didn’t talk about it until the 9th.
There are days when I have three or four friends say they want to kill themselves. But I’ve been lucky — they’ve been kidding every time so far.
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
— “The Hollow Men”
Kevin Hines, one of only two people to ever survive jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, waited at the railing for 40 minutes. He later recounted, “If someone had smiled and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I would not have jumped. I just was unable to ask for help myself.”
I want to check in on my friends. But when I open my mouth to smile, it turns into a laugh.
Of course we want to kill ourselves. It’s 2018.
When one friend needs help, you give them help. But what about 20? What about the constant, low-level mental suffering that each of my friends seems to be going through?
I’m afraid it’s like the noise from an air-conditioner; I’m not going to notice it until it stops.
I’ll misinterpret the tone of a text; I’ll laugh when I should be smiling; I’ll smile when I should be crying.
I’ll reply one minute too late.
One of my friends will kill themselves while I eat Greek yogurt and bananas.
Because all my friends want to kill themselves.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
— “The Hollow Men”
Depression is not new. Gallows humor is not new. But technology has lent an immediacy to agony; mental illness has push notifications. On one hand, it’s amazing that more people are talking about mental health. Laughter can be cathartic.
On the other hand, I’m not sure we’re really equipped to handle this.
Cries for help, when texted, are often inaudible amidst the cacophony of complaints. There’s no clear “bang” to distinguish them.
Usually, they’re just whimpers.
Let’s try a little bit harder to listen for them.
“Michael, I want to fucking kill myself.”
“Hahaha me too dude… is everything alright? Are you okay?”
I press send.
I take a bite of yogurt.
Read at 9:05 a.m.
Not with a bang but a whimper.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
The Domestication of Cryptocurrency
In the stupid underground, cryptocurrency remains subversive — even as it’s co-opted by the usual suspects
During the internet’s nascent life, a lot of researchers, early adopters, and enthusiasts recognized that the technology would pose serious problems for acting anonymously online. The very nature of internet infrastructure is problematic for anonymity seekers. Our data always travels through public channels. In order to arrive at its destination, our data must be marked with that destination. Similarly, if we hope to receive a reply, we must make our own address public. As Eric Hughes wrote back in 1993 in A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto:
In most cases personal identity is not salient. When I purchase a magazine at a store and hand cash to the clerk, there is no need to know who I am. When I ask my electronic mail provider to send and receive messages, my provider need not know to whom I am speaking or what I am saying […] When my identity is revealed by the underlying mechanism of the transaction, I have no privacy. I cannot here selectively reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.
The cypherpunks were born out of love for what the internet promised to become and a deep concern for what the internet might mean for personal privacy.
Loosely defined, and loosely associated, the cypherpunks were (and are) a group of people dedicated to cryptography, encryption, and any other tools that enable personal privacy — hence “cypher.” The cypherpunks also stand in opposition to censorship, government overreach, and traditional power structures — hence “punk.”
The fears of the cypherpunks have been roundly and entirely vindicated. It’s all but impossible to browse the web without giving up a wealth of personal information. Eric Snowden’s revelations brought privacy and security explosively into the public’s view. Since then things have only gotten worse. It’s so bad that the phrase “the surveillance economy” has been coined and applied to the most powerful companies on the web — especially Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other advertising-funded giants.
Cypherpunks were (and are) a group of people dedicated to cryptography, encryption, and any other tools that enable personal privacy — hence “cypher.”
One of the most informative things we do online — from a surveillance standpoint — is spend money. In order to sell you more things, Google (and their advertising partners) want to know what you’ve already bought. From a more personal standpoint, such information might be used for a variety of nefarious ends, such as smear campaigns and blackmail. Law enforcement too has been “following the money” for ages. Credit card histories, bank statements, and other financial records are at the center of many criminal investigations. There are reasons that criminal organizations have been big early adopters of cryptocurrency.
For these reasons and more, the idea of digital money that could be spent as anonymously as cash was always a priority for the cypherpunks. As authoritarianism sees a rise globally, many people have legitimate fears about rising internet censorship. Authoritarian regimes clearly have a vested interest in controlling what citizens can purchase, often strictly limiting what can be bought and sold legally.
For many, cryptocurrency represents a way to bypass this kind of authoritarian economic control. Yet one of history’s unavoidable lessons is that powerful entities eventually find and co-opt powerful tools. Wannabe cypherpunks are now faced with the same problems that caused Hannah Arendt to comment that “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”
Technology’s Inevitable Domestication
In his essay Stupid Undergrounds, Paul Mann described a pattern he saw in the world of art and critical theory:
In the stupid underground any innovation can be, at one and the same time, utterly radical and worthless in advance. The trajectory past cliche is at stake here as well, a trajectory that takes us not into further innovation but into repetition itself: the repetition of a cultural adventure long after its domestication, but as if it were still an adventure.
Movements that start subversively cannot remain subversive forever. The hanging of a blank canvas can only challenge art for so long, but the same “subversive” act seems to reappear well after the sheen of insurgency has worn off. Furthermore, these once-subversive acts and products inevitably end up being co-opted by established powers.
Marcel Duchamp’s readymades ended up in art galleries. Punk rocker Marky Ramone became a millionaire. And the richest man in the world will sell you over 600 varieties of Che Guevara T-shirt, some made with indentured slave labor, others merely child labor — viva la revolución, no?
Similarly, the cypherpunk ideals that led to the creation of bitcoin are being bundled up into exchange-traded funds, endlessly pitched to the investor class of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and evaluated by organizations as mainstream as BlackRock.
Meanwhile, on Reddit, Twitter, and other corners of the internet, a new stupid underground declares that bitcoin is still a subversive tool standing against the mainstream power structures all while buying and selling it on websites built and funded by the big tech elites that have long since co-opted the cryptocurrency revolution.
Movements that start subversively cannot remain subversive forever.
Kevin Werbach hinted at the domestication of bitcoin in an article examining how regulatory statutes in different countries have had a profound impact on the bitcoin ecosystem. The cypherpunks’ ideal form of money existed outside of existing political structures — and for awhile bitcoin did just that. But the price of victory in a revolution is to become mainstream, and bitcoin has had some significant victories.
Like an artist hanging a blank canvas in 2018, the dark-webizens “hodling” bitcoin because “it’s cypherpunk” are fixated on the original center of a movement that has moved on. The stupid underground of the cryptocurrency world are patting themselves on the back for commodifying and capitalizing on a technology that has already been domesticated, yet they still imagine themselves as revolutionaries.
In the words of Billie Joe Armstrong:
A guy walks up to me and asks, “What’s punk?” So I kick over a garbage can and say, “That’s punk!” So he kicks over the garbage can and says, “That’s punk?” And I say, “No, that’s trendy!”
Is cryptocurrency the cure to oppressive regimes’ obsessive control over their citizens’ spending? Not if the government can successfully regulate bitcoin and jail people for using it, which is already happening in some regimes. Is cryptocurrency a subversive alternative to existing financial power structures? Not if mainstream asset managers like BlackRock want to bundle it up into ETFs. Mann also commented on this “stupid repetition”:
The fury of the punk or skinhead is the fury of this stupid repetition, and it is far more destructive than the most brilliant modernist invention. It ruins everything and leaves it all still in place, functioning as if it mattered, never relieving us of its apparition, never pretending to go beyond it, draining it of value without clearing it away.
Bitcoin enthusiasts are fighting the establishment, and draining “fiat” currency of its value, while directly feeding the coffers of Wall Street and the technology tycoons behind the crypto-exchanges through which they are fighting.
In one way, this is just how change happens. Mainstream organizations adopt new technologies, and that adoption is still a boon to someone who wishes to use cryptocurrency to send money anonymously. On the other hand, technologists shouldn’t keep lying to ourselves about the transformative power of our advancements as if technology exists in a vacuum. Powerful tools always find their way into powerful hands, and pretending to be subversive well after our technology has been co-opted is a bad look.
The stupid underground of the cryptocurrency world are commodifying and capitalizing on a technology that has already been domesticated, yet they still imagine themselves as revolutionaries.
We have to acknowledge that the internet, initially heralded as a subversive check against centralized power has become a central tool in establishment oppression. The stupid underground now looks to “The Distributed Web” as a tool that will surely free us from the stranglehold that has formed around the internet.
To quote Mann one last time, “in the stupid underground, as in so many other sites, the direction of the cure often leads back into the disease; or the cure itself turns out to be nothing more than a symptom.”
Subversive technological advances are not made in a vacuum; they are made in the grander context of Earth’s geopolitical, economic, and interpersonal reality. Such advances may cause shifts and fissures within the groups holding power, but when the dust settles, those who used technology to obtain power will, in turn, use it to maintain their power. And as our technologies become more powerful, the consequences of inventing them have become more significant. Technologists need to acknowledge that whatever we invent, it will not be a lasting panacea for the woes of today. In fact, it’s likely that if you create something powerful today, it will be the source of someone’s woes in the future.
Technologists must acknowledge that the law of unintended consequences applies to their work and therefore approach the work with more skepticism — maybe even a hint of cynicism. The work of technologists will never be exclusively applied to the idyllic goals they are personally pursuing.
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
These are the reasons Software Engineers don’t leave their jobs
Please note: This article is my own opinion and not reflective of any company’s views.
Tech companies are always trying to figure out how to keep their employees happy in their jobs. It’s no easy feat though, and the people in tech I’ve spoken to stay at a particular job for around 18 months or less on average. Whenever I ask any of them what is the reason, it usually stems from the same problems.
Here are six reasons people actually stay at their jobs that I feel matter. Of course, salary is important but it doesn’t stand on its own feet without the following.
1. Getting along with the manager
They say people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. This couldn’t be more true. You should be able to relate to your manager, see eye-to-eye and feel like you can trust one-another. Your manager should stick up for you and you should feel like they are on your side. They should speak to you with respect, dignity and not order you around, abuse their level of control or insult you. Some of the best managers I’ve had are also great friends of mine to this day.
Management is probably one of the hardest things to do. When I say it’s hard, I mean it’s hard if you want to be considered a good manager. You need to work extremely hard for your team, manage expectations and keep morale high… It’s not for everyone.
On my first day, my manager introduced me to everyone, organized a team lunch and we all clinked drinks with the words, ‘Welcome to the team, Shaun’. I have weekly one-to-one meetings to see how I am doing if I have any problems, and always feel reassured about the work I do. These are the little things that make a difference.
2. My ideas and contributions matter
This may have more to do with the fact that I am in a senior position now, but I feel like the ideas others members on the team and I actually push for do make their way into our applications or our workflow. It may be something to do with the company not being a large corporation, which generally tends to contain a lot of strict regulation for change.
A lot of people get fed up with the fact that they cannot initiate change in a company. Young minds bring fresh ideas that should be embraced, but most of the time they’re not, and that is a shame. When a company has a set way of doing things, it’s too risky for them to change because everyone is too comfortable. Companies have to take risks to move forward and innovate.
When young minds feel like they cannot make a difference they lose their passion and drive for that company. Then they decide to find somewhere that will allow them to innovate. Usually, a smaller company such as a startup gives them that opportunity.
3. I have the flexibility to work from home when I need to
We spend most of our lives at work. For me, I commute on the train to London and it takes me approximately fifty minutes door to door. When I lived with my parents a while ago, I used to commute to London and it took me an hour and forty-five minutes each way. It was horrendous, but I managed to read a plethora of books on my journey. Even every edition of Game of Thrones, so it wasn’t a huge waste of time.
My boss at the time said ‘you can work from home now and again but of course don’t abuse it’, which is understandable. A lot of trust is being placed on you when you are not in plain sight, but I think allowing you that flexibility when you have to wait home for the boiler to be fixed by the local plumber is a godsend.
I have found times where working from home has actually increased my productivity. I have fewer distractions and it’s quiet. I don’t need to put on my headphones and I can focus on my tasks much better. The downside is you don’t have that real-time in-the-flesh collaboration with colleagues that I think is equally important.
4. My colleagues are friendly and welcoming
“My colleague once messaged me on HipChat… he was sitting next to me.”
Yes, a friend told me that once. It’s a real shame that people in tech get so comfortable staring at that squared energy of light all day without interacting with one another. There have been days where I have done the same because I had deadlines and didn’t have time to talk, and I came away that day feeling a bit low. We are naturally social beings, so taking the time out of your day to speak with someone – even about something not related to work – can make you feel better.
We arranged a slack channel for anyone who wants to come to the park with us for lunch and we have a good laugh. We arrange nights out in London too with votes on where we should go. Not only that, but we also have a web architecture review meeting for all of the front-end engineers so we can bring up any technical problems we are currently facing in our own teams. Anyone can bring up a problem or suggest a solution that is then discussed among us all. We then have a vote at the end where everyone is respectful of each other’s opinions on the subject.
5. The work is interesting and I’m always learning
When we are passionate about our work and the product we are contributing to we are likely enjoying our job. Currently, we are building a design system built on a strong foundation of typography, colors, four-pixel spacing, and reusable React components.
We use Storybook and the idea of Atomic design to build atomic, molecular and organism components that get built up into templates. This means we can view living, breathing prototypes of our pages. We don’t have to log in to our real application and apply a form of logical state to see how a specific page looks. Instead, we view it in Storybook and because it’s component driven, we know the page would look like that in production. Powerful stuff, and I love working on it. To me, it’s interesting to make our products consistent and easy to build.
When a developer feels like they aren’t learning anything, it could mean that the company is too comfortable and not innovating. The developer is probably doing some maintenance to some legacy code and dealing with the complications of said legacy code. Instead, they could be given the freedom to either find ways to reduce technical debt, identify new solutions to existing problems or work on some exciting new projects where they can work with new technologies to keep their skills sharp. Something that keeps them stimulated.
6. The work you do is recognized and appreciated by others
We naturally want to see our company grow and we want to feel like we are doing something to contribute to that growth. Whether it be keeping the servers healthy in DevOps or deploying a fast microservice in the backend, it’s good for someone to identify and appreciate how you helped make it happen.
When colleagues have the mindset that ‘well it’s your job to do that’, it is not healthy for the team. Don’t hold back from saying, ‘I like how you approached that problem.’
7. You can dress down
Nothing makes me happier than knowing I don’t have to put on a suit every day. Don’t get me wrong, I like dressing up and looking the business, but it feels good to be in casual clothing and comfortable without a tie trying to strangle me all day.
I’m an engineer. Unless I’m interacting with clients directly, I personally don’t see the need to dress up, and worry that my shirts are not ironed. Ironing a shirt is so hard…
Thanks for reading!
I would be interested to know your thoughts on what’s been discussed, so drop me a message or leave a comment. And please drop a few claps if you enjoyed this post!
African crisis and the worlds current natural disasters fund.
In an effort to keep the Daily Open Thread a little more open topic we are going to start a new daily thread for “Presidential Politics”. Please use this thread to post anything relating to the Donald Trump Administration and Presidency. This thread will refresh daily and appear above the Open Discussion Thread. President Trump […]
Nepal earthquake: why I had to return to a devastated country in crisis
Last month, days after our reporter left Nepal, where she’d been reporting from Mount Everest, a 7.8 earthquake rocked the country. Now she returns to a land ill-prepared for such a natural disaster – or for the full-blown humanitarian crisis that has followed in its wake
The devastation in Nepal’s villages two weeks after the earthquake – in pictures
Sun 10 May 2015 17.00 AEST
Last modified on Thu 22 Mar 2018 11.14 AEDT
Local villagers nine days after the earthquake. Photograph: Sagar Chhetri
It’s four days since a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal and my connecting flight from Abu Dhabi is a sea of men, Nepalese workers from the Gulf returning…. well, returning to God knows what. There are tense, miserable faces in every row and in the seat behind, a man is getting quietly and then loudly drunk. “There is nothing left of my house. Nothing!” he says. His name is Navin and it’s his first trip home in 22 months from the United Arab Emirates, where he works as a waiter “earning very small money”. His wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters are now all homeless.
The scale of the devastation is almost beyond comprehension. The latest figures are 3,000 dead (though this will rise – it’s nearly 8,000 as I write), hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed and a third of the population directly affected. But on the drive from the airport, the only thing much different from when I left Kathmandu less than a week before the earthquake is the lack of traffic. But it’s a different story at the Summit hotel, a low-rise, slightly old-fashioned affair set amid flowery gardens.
Since I left, it has become ground zero of the international aid community and the car park is rammed with 4x4s, the restaurant heaving with people in agency polo shirts – MSF, WEP, UN – and dozens of evacuated climbers and trekkers camping out in orange expedition tents in the gardens. But through the melee, I spot someone I know: Nick Talbot.
Or at least I think it’s Nick. He looks completely different since I last saw him, which was a fortnight before the earthquake at Everest base camp. Then he was a slim six-footer who hoped to be the first person with cystic fibrosis to climb Everest; now, he’s about two stones lighter, a gaunt figure moving stiffly. I spent more than two weeks trekking up the mountain with him and a team of aspiring Everest climbers who had all booked with a Sheffield-based operator, Jagged Globe. It’s a month since I wrote about them on these pages – why they were there, what motivated them – for an article about the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas last year and the complicated ethics and problems of the Everest industry.
The last time I saw them was over lunch in the camp’s dining tent. I took photos of them all and went off to meet the base camp doctors in the Himalayan Rescue Association tent. I watched the Sherpas hacking into a massive boulder to make a platform for their Puja, a Buddhist ritual held at the start of the season to bless the expedition and shot a little video of another of the team members, a charismatic Google engineer called Dan Fredinburg, showing me the inside of his tent. It was such an extreme, hostile environment, base camp, the crack of avalanches going off every couple of hours, the ground – a glacier – covered in massive, shifting rocks. And maybe it was that, or the deaths last year, but when eventually I said goodbye to them all, it felt a bit emotional. I hugged them and told them to stay safe.
They didn’t. I spent the day of the quake realising that something terrible had happened at base camp and waiting for the news. Eventually, I got it: Dan was dead. Dan the extrovert, the storyteller, the centre of attention; Dan who mysteriously brought my laptop back to life when it got soaked by rain (by sticking it in a sack of rice for two days); Dan with the amazing Go-Pro footage and the larger-than-life tale, who I’d been sure would be the one who got away.
Two other climbers on the team were seriously injured and five of the Sherpas. Another 18 on different teams would die. It was Everest’s deadliest day and hard to take in and yet it paled in comparison with the colossal death toll in the rest of the country, news of which was starting to trickle in.
Everest: is it right to go back to the top?
He’s pretty deadpan, Nick, one of life’s understaters, definitely not an emoter. But, when pressed, he admits how terrifying it was. He tried to run but got picked up by the blast “and smashed into the ground and then I tried to get up and was picked up smashed down again”. He was bruised and battered and on the verge of hypothermia. “I didn’t have any shoes on and was completely covered in ice and I just couldn’t stop shaking,” he says.
But he was lucky, in so many ways. And what was becoming clear from the news reports from the rest of Nepal was that the people who weren’t were mostly the poorest of the poor. The concrete buildings in Kathmandu had largely been spared. It was in the villages, where the houses are made of stone bonded together with mud from the fields, that they’d simply collapsed. It was the poorest people who could least afford it who’d been hit the hardest by the quake. People such as Kandi Karma, the widow of a climbing Sherpa who was killed in the 2014 avalanche and whose house I sat in drinking sweet Tibetan tea. I wrote about Kandi, about how difficult it was to be a widow with three children in Nepal, and I’m shocked when I find out on my first morning in Kathmandu that her house has been destroyed.
And then there’s Sukra, as we knew him – Sukuman Tamang – a sweet-faced, always smiling kitchen boy, who walked up to base camp with us and who was badly injured in the avalanche. Paul Greenan, a 38-year-old Irishman in our group, was critically injured too; he lost a lot of blood, his pelvis was shattered, his arm smashed. Eventually he was flown out to Dublin by air ambulance.
When I see Sukra, his smile has gone. It’s obvious he’s still in pain. He needs an MRI scan on his back and although Summit Trekking, the local agency Jagged Globe use to organise their trips, have done what they can, he is in a long queue behind everyone else at Kathmandu’s packed hospitals. There’s worse news too. When I ask him about his family’s home, he shakes his head. “Gone,” he says.
The gap between rich developed countries and poor desperate ones is perhaps never as glaringly wide as in a natural disaster. The inequality between the two, always huge, becomes an unbridgeable chasm. The disparity between the value of a poor Nepali’s life, and a rich westerner’s is one that the Everest industry magnified and exposed.
And it seems… not ironic, painful perhaps, inappropriate, that it showed up again in the media coverage of the earthquake. In the US, especially, the news focused on what happened at Everest as much as in the rest of Nepal.
Over the next few days, the rest of the team finally make it off the mountain and appear at the Summit hotel drinking beers, high on the sheer good luck of having survived, though when David Hamilton, the expedition leader, arrives he tells me that he feels “embarrassed” by how much news coverage was “focused on the climbers, given what’s happened elsewhere”. He’s right, though on the first day, I point out, the only news coming out was from Kathmandu and base camp. And, actually, the most terrifying details of what happened haven’t yet emerged, as I find out when I catch up with Michele Battelli and Florian Nagl – Mic and Flo – Dan’s friends, who also work at Google and who found him. They’re still in a state of shock. It was more like a bomb blast than an avalanche, they say, caused by a massive serac falling off Pumori, the mountain opposite Everest. It landed on a ledge, which created a huge upward momentum, which then bounced off a ridge, overflew the Himex camp – another operator’s – and then swept across a huge swath of base camp.
I’ve seen the video, I say – the film shot by a German climber.
“The video was nothing!” says Flo. “Nothing! They were right on the very edge of it. It was so much bigger than that. It was just this huge – huge – cloud of ice and rocks. You know those photos of Hiroshima from the air? It was like that, except we were at ground level.” When I ask Michele how high it was, he considers it carefully then says: “At least 300 metres high. And a kilometre across.”
Three hundred metres? I say. I can’t even visualise it. The force was so enormous, they found Dan’s ice axe almost a kilometre from his tent.
Survival was a matter of seconds, split seconds. “I was in Dan’s tent,” says Mic. “We were looking at photos, and it was seconds. I put my boots on and was out of the tent and Dan was behind me. As I got out, he handed me my down jacket… and I don’t know if he stopped to get his camera or jacket, but he never made it out of the tent. It was wrapped around him when we found him.”
He and Flo dived behind a small rise in the hill and when the wave stopped they came out and went back up the hill desperate to find Dan, and “there was nothing there. Nothing. The only thing standing was the HRA [medical] tent,” says Mic. “When I got to Dan’s tent it wasn’t there. All there was was his duffel with a massive great boulder on it,” says Flo.
They found him about 150 metres down the hill, curled against a rock, the back of his head cracked open. “I saw Rachel [Tullet, a British doctor] come stumbling out of the HRA tent,” says Mic. “She was limping. She staggered out and I shouted at her and she came over and examined Dan and then she just leant over and kissed him on the forehead and said: ‘He’s gone’.”
Dan Fredinburg (front right) with some of his fellow climbers in April.
Dan Fredinburg (front right) with some of his fellow climbers in April.
I find out from David that Rachel had actually badly injured her leg – torn ligaments, a cracked patella, a gaping wound – but she had worked all day and night to save the critically wounded. There were a lot of people with severe traumatic head and internal injuries caused by the force of the blast. “At one point, she hugged me and said: ‘I don’t think I can keep them alive.’ But she did. They all lasted the night. And then the next day, she stitched up her own leg without anaesthetic.”
They’re still struggling to take it in when I see them, Mic and Flo. It’s all pure blind luck – Mic and Flo’s survival, Dan’s death. Being born in America, rather than Nepal. Just as it was luck that the earthquake struck in the middle of the day when most Nepalis were out working, and on a Saturday, when the schools were closed.
Mic and Flo are in a simple guesthouse that trains orphans to be chefs and waiters. They have stayed on to help an orphanage they visited last year and to work with the Google Crisis team, who provide technological support in states of emergency. But Mic corrects me when I suggest it’s for Dan’s sake. “It’s not because of that. It’s because it’s the only thing to do right now.”
It’s a sentiment that’s evident everywhere in Kathmandu. Everyone seems to be doing the only thing they can right now, which is trying to help in whatever way they can. The news reports are so desperate, the situation so dire. Aftershocks closed the only international airport and then, when it reopened, it transpired aid was stuck in customs and the weight of the planes had damaged the runway, limiting the size of the planes that could land.
I hadn’t been sure whether to come back to Nepal but then I called Ben Ayers, an American who has lived here for 17 years and is director of a small NGO (non-governmental organisation)called the dZi Foundation, which supports rural development. “Come,” he said, simply. “Nepal needs all the help it can get right now.”
So I came. Because I’d bonded with the group, but I’d also bonded with Nepal. Poor, blighted, beautiful, desperate Nepal. Home to both perhaps the most gorgeous scenery on earth and some of its poorest people. I find Ben at a nearby B&B, the Yellow House, where there are sacks of rice in the courtyard, Italian medics in the garden, and British backpackers manning reception. A spontaneous grassroots volunteer hub has sprung up, which he has been helping with, though overseeing it all is the Yellow House’s warm, dynamic owner and photographer NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati. Since the disaster, she’s been working day and night to do what she can. A website has been launched to collect data (quakemap.org), and there are dozens of people thronging the garden trying to organise relief missions and marshal supplies.
“It’s just happened!” she says. “Nobody is organising this. We were just a group of friends who wanted to try and help somehow, and it’s just ballooned. It blew up on Facebook and the next day hundreds of people just turned up and people were ringing us from all over to give us things.”
Google’s Dan Fredinburg was ‘charismatic and always the centre of attention’
Relief has barely started getting through. In the paper, I read that the worst-hit area, Sindhupalchok, where more than 3,000 people have died, has received almost nothing at all. And then, minutes later, in the hotel laundry, I come across a man called Nakul Khadka, whose parents and two brothers live there and whose houses have been totally destroyed.
“They have nothing. They are sleeping outside in the open. There is no help. I am going tomorrow to take them plastic for a roof. Everything is gone. The whole village is destroyed.”
I end up going with him. One of NayanTara’s relief trucks drops us off, three hours out of Kathmandu. It’s beyond a place called Jalbire but we’ve heard trucks are being looted, so the villagers come to a prearranged spot: a ragtag bunch of old men and small boys who are thrilled to receive a few basic necessities – a tarpaulin each, a packet of biscuits, some thin foam to sleep on.
There’s a terrible stench: it’s boiling hot and the animals killed in the quake are rotting where they fell. Other bodies, too, though I try not to think about that. The plan is that Sagar Chhetri, a Nepalese photographer, and I are going to walk to the village with Nakul to meet his parents and see their house, but a jeep of Nepalese army officers stop and Sagar confers with them. “It’s been seven days,” he translates. “They’re getting desperate. They’re saying it might be quite…intense ”
We look at each other, uncertainly. “It’s only five kilometres,” Nakul says – pleads, really – so we turn and go. It’s different being on foot. The landscape unfolds slowly: it’s a sublimely beautiful river valley, with lush green terraces rising on either side. And beneath them, scenes of total devastation. It looks like a war zone, like images I’ve seen from the second world war of flattened French villages after the D-day landings, though there’s an almost alarming degree of normality too.
Amid so much ruin, it’s almost uncanny to see crops growing, and baby goats butting one another, and despite the desperateness all around us, the young boys in Nakul’s band are still young boys. They laugh and joke, finding it hilarious to have a foreigner in tow, and every two minutes one of them asks me: “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”
Nakul’s five kilometres turns out to be more like 15. It’s dusk when we reach his hamlet and thunder is rumbling in the hills overhead. There’s a mound of rubble where his father’s house was, and another where his older brother’s was. His mother is hunched over in pain from where a rock fell on her back. But she’s pleased to see Nakul, who takes some ibuprofen gel from his bag, five metres of plastic sheeting and a can of kerosene.
Dambar Bahadur in front of the house he bulit decades ago.
Dambar Bahadur in front of the house he built decades ago. Photograph: Sagar Chhetri
His 72-year-old father, Dambar Bahadur, has constructed a simple shelter beneath the ruins of their house. It’s covered with plant matting and one piece of plastic, with space for a fire at one end, the goats at the other and in the middle two simple wooden, mattress-less platform beds they’d salvaged from the house. Those and some dented cooking pots are everything they now own in the world.
We didn’t think we’d be staying overnight and I realise with a sinking heart that I have walked into a humanitarian crisis carrying little more than a small packet of biscuits. Sagar is looking dubiously at the shelter and, more pertinently, the pile of rubble precariously balanced above it. The aftershocks have continued all week and relentless rain in the first few days has caused innumerable landslips.
“Let’s assess our exit strategy,” I say, and we both stare at the hillside, the steep terraces leading down to the river and up to the road above. “Down,” I say, and Sagar silently nods.
Despite everything, it’s strangely familiar. It’s easy to think that poor people, foreigners in strange lands, far away, are not like us. Especially after something like this. But Nakul looks about five when he eats the chicken he’s brought and which his mother has cooked. “Mother flavour!” he says. Though I manage to give Dambar most of my meat, I spot him sneaking a knuckle to his favourite dog, just like my own dad would do.
He built the houses with his own hands with rocks gathered from the land. “My father is such a hard worker,” says Nakul. “He says he needs to build a strong house, with concrete pillars. But he thinks it would cost eight to 10 lakh [$8-10,000] and….” There’s no end to the sentence. No answer. And he doesn’t add that the monsoon rains will arrive in a month.
They did survive though. We see two figures in a house on the opposite side of the river picking through the rubble. Two people died there, says Dambar. A baby and an older woman.
I’m ashamed of Britain’s aid pledge to Nepal – just 12p each
We go to bed straight after eating and all through the night the ground rumbles. It’s almost like being on the sea. I’m tired and sleep anyway. “I lay awake a long time,” Sagar says in the morning. “It’s like the ground is alive,” says Dambar.
The next day, I give an inadequate amount of money to Nakul’s mother, who looks heartbreakingly happy to receive it, and then we bump into a team of Indian doctors setting off for villages two days’ walk away. “There is a village up the mountain with 1,500 houses, all destroyed,” one of them tells me. “And nothing has reached there yet.”
All up the sides of the mountain we can see villages, miles from any road. It’s hard to overstate how remote and mountainous so much of Nepal is, how impossibly cut off. This area does have a rudimentary dirt road but it’s blocked by landslides. Then a man from one of the villages, Yanglakot, appears. He explains to Sagar that things are desperate. He summons two young guys, Bipi Lama and Bikash Tamang, on motorbikes. We hop on the back and ride for an hour up the side of the mountain on a hairy, unstable road strewn with fallen rocks until we reach the landslide, and then get off and walk.
The first village we come to, Tinghare, is totally destroyed. There’s not a building standing. Nine people died here but at the first shelter we come to, we are welcomed in. “Stay and drink juice!” the man says. On the ground, there’s a sachet of powdered mango juice that arrived with the one tiny heli-drop of aid that had so far come. They got it, Bipi explains, because their father died. “We organised it so that the neediest were helped first.” We manage to leave before he can offer us the shirt off his back.
Yanglakot initially looks in better shape, but it isn’t. The houses left standing are completely collapsed at the back and sides and in the wider area, the VDC – or Village Development Community – there are 8,000 people sleeping out in the open. We’re given a running commentary on the conditions. “In this shelter, there are seven families… this woman’s husband died… this old lady has a broken leg…”
We need to leave if we’re to have any chance of getting back to Kathmandu that night but Bipi makes it plain that he needs us to get help. “We’re journalists,” I start to say, but then give it up. “We’ll try,” I say. “There are 500 people who have nothing to eat tonight,” he says. “And the rest will run out tomorrow.”
Nakul Khadka (front) with some Jalbire villagers for whom he managed to procure supplies, 2 May.
Nakul Khadka (front) with some Jalbire villagers for whom he managed to procure supplies, 2 May. Photograph: Sagar Chhetri
When we get back to Jalbire, Bipi flags down an open truck for us to ride back to Kathmandu. “Here,” I say, handing him the equivalent of $10. “Please take it. For the fuel.” But, infuriatingly, he refuses and we get in the truck and jolt violently down the road with Gunjan Khadgi and his friends. He’s an accountant, he tells me, and he’s spent all week gathering supplies and taking them out to the villages. But then the roads are thronged with ordinary people who have driven out from Kathmandu to bring rice and blankets and tarpaulin, and anything else they can lay their hands on.
It feels like a modern-day Dunkirk. In 1940, thousands of people in tiny boats sailed across the channel to rescue stranded soldiers. In Nepal, in 2015, it’s people in cars and trucks and jeeps and motorbikes who are carrying whatever they can. It’s my third trip to Nepal and I’ve experienced the kindness of strangers here again and again, but this is something else. It’s like a tidal wave of human emotion. “We had to do something,” says Gunjan. “We just fundraised among friends. And then some friends from abroad sent us money and we had a contact in a village so we took what we could. And then we did it again. There is nothing from the government getting through out here. Nothing!”
Sagar and I spend the evening worrying. We went with a notebook and a camera and we’ve come back feeling responsible for 8,000 people. I don’t think this is how the professionals do it, I tell him. We tell NayanTara about the village because, at the moment, it’s the only thing we can think of. “But you must know of so many villages like this,” I say. She shrugs. “They all count. And we have the information here and a contact. I will try and find some things.”
I email the press contacts I have at various charities to find out how to report the village’s situation and then prowl the breakfast buffet at the Summit hotel to track down the UN’s press officer who I suspect might be here. She is. Her name is Orla Fagan, and she’s out on the terrace.
“Who’s actually in charge?” I ask her. “We are,” she says.
She works for OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), which head up the global response in any emergency (“This is what we do. We’re on the plane the same day”). The body immediately raised $15m from governments around the world in a flash appeal and organised the “cluster” system that tries to coordinate the NGOs on the ground.
“The problem,” says Orla, “is not everyone wants to coordinate. Freelance NGOs, well-meaning people, may have the very best intentions but they can cause a lot of problems. We had people sending containers of secondhand clothes after the tsunami. To a tropical country! We had to pay for them to be destroyed.”
But the only help getting out to some of these villages is being provided by these well-meaning people, I say. And I’m not totally convinced when she tells me: “This is not a food emergency. They’re farmers. The shops are reopening. They can buy rice.”
But they lost their stockpiles, I say. They don’t have any money. People are running out of food. I’ve met them. In a cafe across the road from the UN compound, I meet Thomas Bell, one of the most authoritative foreign correspondents in Kathmandu and the author of an excellent book, Kathmandu. He rolls his eyes when I report what Orla said. “But where are they? If these volunteers are so counterproductive, where are the professionals? I was out in Sindhupalchok with a group of businessmen who were distributing aid and there were no helicopters overhead. These white jeeps that are so visible in the capital –I didn’t see any of them out there.”
The problems are multiple and complex, he says. “The government was knocked for six initially and then responded with characteristic bureaucratic obscurantism. It was reported they were taxing relief supplies but they denied it so I thought it was just a rumour, but it turns out it was true. And there’s a ton of stuff stuck at the border because everything has to be checked by a customs official, which takes days and days and days.”
None of which will help Yanglakot. But I have a lead. Save the Children, I find out, is the lead NGO for emergency relief in Sindhupalchok, but when I ring Sanjeeb Shakya, the charity’s humanitarian response manager for the district, I can hear the frustration and exhaustion in his voice. “The scale of it’s so large. It is just three hours from Kathmandu and the main roads are now open. But out of 63,000 houses, perhaps 5,000-6,000 are standing. And this is just one district.
“The extent of the damage is so enormous… we had supplies in the country but only enough for 5,000 families and we need so much more and we can’t get our supplies into the airport. We don’t have a landing slot. We have these huge cargo planes and we can’t get them in.”
Save the Children itself is responding to 15 Village Development Committees (VDCs) in the area (though not Yanglakot’s), he says, and so far he reckons they have managed to reach 37,000 people. It’s a huge number, but still only around 10% of those in need. It is one of the best-placed organisations to help, though, having 400 staff in the country before any of this happened, and it is one of the charities that will benefit from the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Nepal appeal. The British public have so far donated an astonishing £47m. (An anonymous aid worker tells me: “St Joanna Lumley helped. I was looking at the donation counter after she made her TV appeal and it just went crazy.”) The last update I have from Save the Children’s press officer is that in the last 24 hours, supplies are just starting to get in.
But there’s still the issue of Yanglakot, right here and now. I trudge back to the Yellow House to donate some of my money and some of the Observer’s, only to find that the amazing NayanTara has sent a truck with about $1,500 worth of goods up there. “They were so happy,” a 19-year-old backpacker called Will Jonas, who was on the truck, tells me. “Nothing else had got through.” Big aid will kick in, shortly, hopefully. But in the meantime, it’s the volunteers, all across the city, that are filling the gaps.
“It’s a genuine phenomenon,” Thomas Bell tells me. And to prove the point, the owner of the cafe, Cass Deoj, who happens to be standing by our table, chips in to say that he knows a group of software engineers who are organising a mass mobilisation. “It’s so inspiring. I was feeling so hopeless about everything. But I’m so impressed by them.” He was feeding the volunteers for free in his other restaurant. “That’s the only thing I could do.”
And the only thing I can do is to give money. And come back to Nepal at some point. (“Tell people to go on a trek,” Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times, tells me to say. “That’s the most direct way you can help Nepal.”) It’s all blind luck. That’s my lesson of the Nepalese earthquake. I could be dead. You could be Nepali. We’re the lucky ones, but it could so easily have been the other way round.
The 50/50 Murder
A thought experiment on how we measure risk when the fate of the world hangs in the balance
This is the first installment of “Privatizing the Apocalypse”, a four-part essay to be published throughout October.
Imagine a brilliant would-be killer arranges the following scenario:
A coin will be flipped. If it’s heads, someone dear to you will die. If it’s tails, nothing happens. The bad guy — who is very bad indeed — will eagerly cheer for heads. But whatever the outcome, he’ll accept the coin’s verdict.
Let’s add that if it’s heads, the death will be 100 percent certain. But it will also be instant, painless, and without warning. And if it’s tails, your loved one will never know about any of this. Nor will you, or anyone. In other words, no PTSD. Nor even the faint, fleeting trauma of a rollercoaster ride.
And so, the coin is flipped, and… huzzah, it comes up tails! The bad guy is pissed. But rules are rules, so your loved one lives.
Years pass. Then one day, some ingenious cops discover all of this. Being geniuses, they’re also able to establish — with full certainty — that the bad guy will never do this again. Indeed, he poses absolutely no threat to society.
Given all this, was a crime committed? And should we lock the bastard up?
If your gut is screaming YES!!! I agree, as would almost anyone. That monster put your bestie, kid, or partner in horrible jeopardy. For fun!
Now, does the nature and severity of the crime change if the odds of death shift away from 50 percent?
I would say yes, if they move a lot. For instance, if the would-be victim squeaks past a 99 percent chance of death, prosecutors would tend to view it as attempted murder. But with a 1 percent chance of death, many would question whether the villain truly wished anyone harm and the charge might be something like reckless endangerment.
Intention and mindset matter more as the odds of a bad outcome plummet. Even imposing a one-in-ten-million chance of death feels criminal, if the bad guy’s praying like a Mega Millions ticket holder for the long shot. Whereas, if he deeply hopes that no one dies, this ceases to be a crime at some point. Particularly if there’s something in it for him other than a sadistic thrill.
That just sounds selfish — but we’ve all made similar tradeoffs.
This sounds strange, I know. But the perpetrator’s joy in the game is part of what makes it odious. So instead, suppose this guy would hate for anyone to die, or even stub a toe — but he desperately wants some Doritos. And to get his snack, he’s fine with making society bear a slim chance that someone croaks.
Now, that just sounds selfish — but we’ve all made similar tradeoffs. Like, a lot of them. For instance, if you’re American, your country racks up about 400 billion car rides per year, at the cost of 40,000 or so road deaths. So regardless of who’s at the wheel — be it you, Mom, or Lyft — a 10-million-to-one game of Russian Roulette kicks off whenever you cause a car to roll.
This shows us that when the odds of a calamity flirt with zero, we’ll serenely court outcomes as awful as death. Daily life would be impossible otherwise. No one likes to dwell on this reality. But it doesn’t violate our intuitions, because we realize that countless people die in the midst of truly mundane tasks.
Far more chilling and less intuitive is the fact that long-shot, all-or-nothing bets are now placed on a global level too — with humanity itself the de facto wager. Such a bet was first faced and considered in 1942. It was analyzed methodically. Then three years later, the bet was placed. The odds of a disaster were on the low side (one in 3 million, maximum). But the stakes were towering.
The gamblers were running the Manhattan Project. The risk wasn’t a nuclear war (yet), but that our atmosphere might burn up in a chain reaction triggered by their first atomic test. This prospect was first raised by Edward Teller, who later became the father of the hydrogen bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, who would soon lead the Los Alamos lab, called it a “terrible possibility”.
For his part, the head of the project’s theoretical unit “found that it was just incredibly unlikely.” But that sort of language is more comforting when, say, discussing a big softball game. So top people were convened to assess the danger. And confidence mostly reigned by the time of the test.
We now know this confidence wasn’t misplaced — so hats off to the team for getting it right! Although they were kind of right by fiat, since no one would be here to call them out if they’d blown it. It’s also worth noting that Enrico Fermi took bets on the burnt-sky scenario on the big day. Although he was joking, he scared the bejesus out of the enlisted men at the test site, none of whom could parse the reassuring math.
But not everyone put the odds at zero. The one-in-three-million estimate came from Arthur Compton, who oversaw the project’s plutonium production. And I’d say he was as smart as anyone there (Compton won the Nobel Prize for specifying light’s quantization from assumptions about the subatomic interactions of X-ray photons and their scattering angles — a sentence I don’t even understand).
As there wasn’t full consensus on the test’s utter safety, the team de facto accepted the small chance that they might incinerate the sky, and cancel the future. Could we say they had a moral basis for doing this?
To be clear, I’m asking about the decision to proceed with building, then later testing a nuclear device, and not the bomb’s subsequent wartime use. Hard as it is for us to separate the two, the scientists faced the risk of an atmospheric ignition in 1942. A working bomb was years off at the time, the war’s outcome was unknowable, and Germany was at least as menacing as Japan.
I’ll add that nuclear fission had first been discovered just a few years before — by German scientists. Allied intelligence also knew that Germany started its own atomic bomb project almost immediately thereafter. Subsequently, the Wehrmacht’s conquest of Norway put the world’s sole source of heavy water in Nazi hands. Though the German bomb project failed, there was no way to foretell this when Oppenheimer’s team assessed the atmospheric risk. Abandoning their project because of it would have therefore carried another risk: Hitler gaining a nuclear monopoly.
Some would contend the Los Alamos team was immoral to risk torching the sky despite all that. However, it would be very hard to argue that they were selfish for it. They each faced the same doom as everyone else if things went badly, and no extravagant rewards if things went well. In other words, gambling with humanity’s fate — or refraining from doing so — was a public service back then. And any upside from gambling successfully was a public good.
But how would you feel about all of this getting privatized? Both the act of gambling with humanity’s existence, and the payoff on the bet, if things work out?
Odd as that prospect may sound, 2008’s financial crisis is a good analog for it. This meltdown occurred after some of our most trusted and lionized financiers figured out how to use the global banking system as collateral for certain risky bets. Like many risky bets, these generated fat returns when things went fine. Returns which were converted into mega yachts, Picasso canvases, and other bare essentials. Then when things went badly, the gobbling clique at the trough expressed shock — shock! — then handed the $20 trillion bill to the rest of us.
Robert Oppenheimer would be less popular with historians if, for example, he’d swapped a slight chance of erasing the sky for a wildly enriching IPO. Of course, he didn’t (and he almost certainly wouldn’t have, if granted that bizarre opportunity). But what about those asshole bankers? Or Charlie Manson? Or Orlando mass murderer Omar Matteen?
We may find out. Because existential risk is being privatized. Yes, really — and the dice have already been thrown at least once. What’s uncertain is whether placing these bets will remain the exclusive domain of a narrow elite (as in the reassuring case of the financial crisis), or if it will gradually diffuse to any homicidal loser with a death wish. To analyze the bets themselves, a tool used in finance and gambling can be useful. It’s called expected value or EV.
As an example: imagine a certain bet has 75 percent odds of returning $4, and 25 percent odds of returning $1. To find its EV, we apply the first probability to the first value, and the second one to the second. Specifically:
- 75% of $4 = $3.
- 25% of $1 = 25 cents
This makes the bet’s total expected value $3.25.
It feels creepy to use this sort of math on human lives instead of dollars. But actuaries and liability courts do it all the time so let’s apply it to the case of the 50/50 murder. By triggering a 50 percent chance of one death, and a 50 percent chance of zero deaths, our villain incurs an expected cost of half a death. And he does this for the sheer joy of it. Our intuitions scream this is a crime, and any court of law would agree.
But we would feel differently if he imposed that tiny risk on someone for kicks, rather than for a reasonable practical purpose.
In the Doritos scenario, we can say our hungry driver triggers a one in 10 million chance of one death, and an inverse chance of zero deaths for an expected cost of one ten-millionth of a death. Whether or not he’s aware of these numbers, society de facto accepts them, and the SWAT team won’t pounce when he heads out to the deli. But we would feel differently if he imposed that tiny risk on someone for kicks, rather than for a reasonable practical purpose.
If we assume Arthur Compton’s reasoning was sound, we can derive the atomic test’s EV from the 2.5 billion people alive at the time. There’s a one-in-three-million chance that everyone dies, and 2.5 billion divided by three million is 833. Plus there are huge odds that no one dies — and any probability times zero deaths equals zero. Adding the two products, the net expected death toll using Compton’s odds is 833 (though, of course, that doesn’t account for the resultant loss of future generations). Does this mean the New Mexico test was morally equivalent to condemning 833 random people to certain death?
That may feel intuitively wrong to you. If so, your intuition is supported by the apparent lack of moral angst amongst Fermi, Teller, and Oppenheimer over the initial test (the later wartime use of the bomb was another matter). But they’re the ones who put the odds of a catastrophe at zero. Whereas Compton, who didn’t, felt quite differently. Even with the certitude of hindsight, he later declared, “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run the chance of drawing the curtain on mankind!”
As this is a matter of personal values, Compton doesn’t seem foolish to me in retrospect. Nor do his colleagues seem evil.
In his ingenious 2003 book, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, applies a similar, and immensely provocative analysis to a certain experiment conducted at the CERN and Brookhaven supercolliders. It incurred a non-zero chance of destroying the Earth, and perhaps the entire universe. And for those who are skimming this article, I repeat:
Destroying. The motherfucking. Universe.
Yes, really. The experiment created conditions that had no precedent in cosmic history. As for the dangers, Rees characterizes “the best theoretical guesses” as being “reassuring.” However, they hinged on “probabilities, not certainties” and prevailing estimates put the odds of disaster at one in fifty million.
From the dawn of time until the start of the Cold War, no one was in a position to risk things on this scale.
Those are mighty slim — but these guys weren’t preventing a global fascist takeover. They were running a clever experiment. A really clever one, I’m sure! But one without obvious practical benefits. In light of this, Rees turns our attention away from the slimness of the odds, to their expected value. Given the global population at the time, that EV was 120 deaths (note: I posted a 75-minute interview with Rees right here today, in which we discuss many issues connected to this article).
Imagine how the world would treat the probabilistic equivalent of this. I.e. a purely scientific experiment that’s certain to kill 120 random innocents. It would never be allowed. No — not even if it was really, really, really clever.
Personally, I don’t put the experimenters in the criminal category of the hedgetards who wrecked the world economy in 2008. But that’s partly due to my own biases. Because unlike hedgefunding, I view science as a noble calling. Yet despite being a science fanboy, I see some unsettling parallels.
For starters, the benefits from the experiment were mostly private goodies rather than public goods. The folks behind it didn’t become billionaire Wall Street parasites or anything. But you can bet their involvement benefited their careers. Plus, their brains were configured to comprehend and delight in the resulting discoveries. This had to be way more satisfying than any bag of Doritos so it easily merited a one-in-fifty-million risk for each of them personally.
But unlike a daredevil getting a rush from skiing down a forested hill, say, they weren’t just putting themselves on the line. They were chancing it with you and all your loved ones — and maybe Pluto, the Andromeda galaxy, and anyone living out on Hubble’s faintest smudge. You don’t have to be a Luddite or creationist to find that selfish.
The precedent of a cloistered elite arrogating permission to gamble with human annihilation is also chilling. This was nothing like 1942, when that risk was accepted at the top tier of a vast democracy. And even if we give the particle physicists a pass, (because, Science!), does that mean we’re okay with a second group taking a similar chance tomorrow? Or giving each of a thousand brainy groups their own shot next year? Green-light enough experiments, and the odds of catastrophe mount alarmingly.
And by the way, who operates the green light? The experimenters might say that only a tiny handful of their peers have the background knowledge necessary to assess the risk. Which would probably be correct. But follow that path far enough, and a narrow clique of insiders take charge of assessing, taking, and benefitting from risks that imperil us all. In other words, these risks and their upside will be privatized. If that’s bad when the world economy is at stake, and boy, is it, how do we feel when humanity’s future is on the line?
From the dawn of time until the start of the Cold War, no one was in a position to risk things on this scale. For the past few decades, only a tiny handful of people have been in that position. As I’ll discuss in this essay’s second installment, posted next week, this cadre has been tiny and fairly well-vetted thus far. But without extreme care and foresight, that group’s population will soon explode and its admission standards will drop close to zero.
Tommy Emmanuel, John Jorgenson, Pedro Javier González – “Sultans of swing”
How ‘Broadcast News’ Predicted Journalism As We Know It
The Ringer · by · December 18, 2017
On the last day of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, in San Francisco, Susan Zirinsky was busy with her work as the CBS News floor producer when the president of the network, Ed Joyce, stopped by with a new acquaintance. Joyce introduced them, but Zirinsky could swear she already knew the man from somewhere: “I said, ‘Hi, you look so familiar, have we met?’” And he said, “No, I don’t think so,’” she remembers. The familiar-looking man asked if he could take her for a cup of coffee, because he wanted to ask her some questions about her work. She told him they could talk tomorrow during her afternoon off. He left. Lesley Stahl — currently of 60 Minutes, at the time a CBS News correspondent — turned to Zirinsky and said, “You’re a fucking moron.”
Stahl knew why that man looked so familiar: It was James L. Brooks, who, just four months earlier, had won five Academy Awards — including Best Picture — for his film Terms of Endearment. Brooks had been researching something in Washington, D.C., though no one was sure what it was. Later that year, Zirinsky recalls that she attended a dinner party in D.C. where Brooks had interviewed every single woman there: a pollster, a political operative, a lobbyist. Each woman thought he was making a movie about her. But that week in San Francisco, Brooks was just gathering information, and Zirinsky, meanwhile, was trying to make the most of her afternoon off. Zirinsky’s then-boyfriend, Joseph Peyronnin, also a producer at CBS News, was traveling with her, and they had been talking about getting married for a while, and now they had this free time, so … they went to San Francisco’s City Hall. They had to call their families—and also Dan Rather, because CBS had strict rules about colleagues getting married—but they got their bureaucratic blessings and started celebrating. “Champagne starts arriving, caviar,” Zirinsky remembers, “and I look at my watch and I said, ‘I know this is going to sound strange, but I have a meeting with this Hollywood director.’”
Zirinsky left her new husband and met Brooks for a walk in the park. Hours later, they were still talking about his project, which he described as research about women in broadcast television and politics. “He wanted to know: What does a producer do? As the White House producer, what do you do? When you go to war, does everybody do drugs? Does everybody fuck around?’” By this point, Zirinsky was pretty sure she trusted Brooks, so she admitted that about five years ago she moved in with a CBS Chicago producer who had been transferred to D.C., and “three hours and 10 minutes ago, we got married at City Hall.” Brooks insisted on congratulating her new husband in person, and that was the first day she and Brooks hung out.
Three years later Zirinsky attended the New York premiere of James L. Brooks’s 1987 film, Broadcast News. The experience was a little overwhelming, and she tried to take a minute for herself in a bathroom stall. Two colleagues came in and stood at the sink, talking about the movie and about Zirinsky’s credit as producer. “Can you believe she gave us that bullshit that [the movie] had nothing to do with her?,” she overheard one say to the other. They pointed out that Holly Hunter, in the lead role of television news producer Jane Craig, wore clothes that looked just like Zirinsky’s, that she cried just the way Zirinsky did. (“Who cries but her?”) Later Zirinsky bumped into Stahl, who must have also recognized something in the film — Zirinsky remembers her saying, “I don’t know if I would have told them that much.”
Broadcast News, the romantic comedy-drama released on December 16, 1987, is among the best movies ever made about journalism. Written, directed, and produced by Brooks, it’s the story of three people working for the Washington bureau of a major television evening news show. As senior producer, Jane Craig (Hunter) has an excellent working relationship and friendship with reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a man who has the same intense devotion (obsession) to work. Together they produce the kind of news they believe matters most: investigative, necessary, useful journalism. When Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a very handsome man with very few qualifications or even a basic understanding of the field, is hired by her network as an anchorman, Jane and Aaron are completely unnerved. He is, by all appearances, sincere, kind, perhaps a little too interested in his own insecurities; more importantly, he does not and never has understood the news he reports on. Jane is just as repulsed by Tom as she is into him, while Aaron, who is and perhaps always has been in love with Jane, wants to prove that his kind of news and his kind of love are both intellectually and morally superior.
On first watch, it seems like a classic love triangle in a workplace setting. On the second watch, Broadcast News is a classic love triangle in a workplace setting that also functions as a study of rare, fascinating, ambitious characters. On the third watch, Broadcast News is a classic love triangle in a workplace setting with an accurate and hilarious — brutally so — look at the media hellscape as it was then and is now. In other words: It’s a masterpiece. Released the same weekend as two other classic romantic comedies, Moonstruck and Overboard, News was a film that stood out for its exceptional performances and deeply honest writing. Realer than real, it was released at exactly the right time, as news anchors were beginning to secure multimillion-dollar contracts and a certain kind of celebrity above and beyond their predecessors, and it endures, finding new viewers every year it remains on best-of lists and cited as favorites by some surprising fans, like in 2013, when Donald Fagen introduced it as his favorite for an event at IFC Center.
News was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, described it as “about three people who toy with the idea of love, but are obsessed by the idea of making television.” He described the “deadline rush” that is so attractive to the people who claim to be tortured by it, and admitted he knows this experience too well. (“You don’t think I’m turning this review in early, do you?”) But mostly he was taken with the way the film treated romance as a humane but ultimately ordinary experience. “Brooks, almost alone among major Hollywood filmmakers,” he wrote, “knows that some people have higher priorities than love, and deeper fears.” In Broadcast News, romance is present, but kind of besides the point — Brooks’s characters would be the first to tell you they have more important work to do.
“I was, and am, a news buff,” Brooks told me when we spoke over the phone about the 30-year anniversary of the film. “When I was lucky enough to get a job at CBS News, it was dream-life. I couldn’t believe I was in the newsroom.” First an usher and then a copywriter in the early 1960s, Brooks was thrilled with any task. “I actually got to bring coffee! It was fantastic.”
As the creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-offs, Rhoda and Lou Grant, as well as a coproducer of The Simpsons, Brooks’s influence in television alone has shaped the comedic sensibility of several consecutive generations. He has a talent for showing the hard truths about soft feelings, which is why his movies are so formative to the romantic comedy-dramas that followed. Brooks’s ideas about relationships and other emotional entanglements—like the mother and daughter in Terms of Endearment who love each other even when they kind of hate each other, or the warmly antagonistic dynamic between Mary Tyler Moore and her friends and colleagues — now have an elemental status, both to the people who watch his movies and to other filmmakers. There are many recurrent themes in his work — women in television news, for one, and the lack of clear-cut “good” or “bad” people in any situation — but above all Brooks understands the pleasure of watching a smart person work hard to achieve what they want.
After seven years working on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and after the success of Terms, Brooks says he starting feeling like there was a new character emerging. “Feminism was happening,” he says, “and there had to be a female heroine around. I went looking for her.” While Moore represented a “new” kind of woman — primarily that she was unmarried by choice rather than circumstance, and had a career rather than a job — the character of Jane Craig represented women who had, by the measures of feminism at the time, won. In the film, she is ascending to the highest positions in male-dominated workplaces; her authority is recognized, her work respected, and her ambition championed. She is also, in Brooks’s writing and in Hunter’s performance, a person, rather than a principle: a little insecure (though never about her work), with big crushes on inappropriate men (though never at the expense of herself). Jane works hard and is good at what she does, but she isn’t immune to moments of self-doubt or anxious introspection. She fights for what she wants, but she still cares what people think about her. Her preferred form of kindness is brutal because she always says what she really thinks. Every character in the film knows how lucky they are to have her attention at all.
Zirinsky was one of four women crucial to the writing of Jane’s character; when I told Brooks I’d spoken to Zirinsky, he remembered immediately the day they met. “She spent hours talking to me and then told me it was her wedding night!” he said, still charmed by this detail. Brooks stressed that there were many moments and people that contributed to his process, like Joan Richman, one of the first women to be a senior media executive at CBS News; she produced Walter Cronkite’s coverage of Apollo 13, winning the first of her two Emmy Awards and becoming, according to a statement offered by Cronkite after her death in 2004, “probably more important than any other individual in shaping the presentation of a new science that gripped the world’s imagination.” While he was walking around the 1984 conventions, he met a White House correspondent he described as a brilliant reporter, stuck in a love triangle with two men. (He declines to name her, out of respect for her privacy.) “I always had a thing when doing research: The third time you hear something,” such as the detail about women crying in the office, “you can believe it’s generally true.” The process, he says, “was joyous.”
One of the many things Broadcast News gets so right is that, in the traditional or recognizable sense, there is no single climax and no final epiphany. But there are many scenes with small moments of uncertainty or compromise that, in one light, could seem like a great injury, and in the other a petty slight; wins that could be ordinary achievements or career-defining highs; moments that might be nothing, or all in your head, or the thing that finally turns you into the person you were always meant to be. Starting with scenes of each main character as children, we see the patterns they’ll be following their whole lives — Tom is the son of a salesman, already defined by the way people respond to his looks, and Aaron is pained and self-righteous about the rejection of his peers, self-soothing with adolescent ideas of his future sophisticated life. Jane is the hardest-working person in any room, no task too small and no word too imprecise to make her stand up and defend herself and her work. By the end of the film, it’s obvious by their choices that they are, still, the same. Brooks once said it was a film about three people giving up on their last chance at real intimacy, something he tells me he didn’t realize until long after finishing the film: How, he asked himself, could he make it “romantic, and still have it be meaningful?”
In the present, the film gets going when Jane gives a disastrous speech at a conference for local television news broadcasters, talking about the pervasive influence of entertainment-driven ideas of news. Tom is in the audience, and while he is not quite sure he understands, he clearly reads her intelligence and her energy. Jane asks him to dinner, and then back to her hotel room, where it becomes clear that she thinks this is a date and he thinks she is someone who can help him succeed. They get into a strange fight over Tom’s admissions of inadequacy that neither we nor Jane fully understand — is he insincere and looking to offset his responsibilities, or does he mean what he says and deserves her help? In any case, her instinct to edit takes over, and she tells him what she thinks.
This harsh back-and-forth is the precursor to their entire relationship: He’ll be fucked up, and she’ll set him straight. He leaves, and she calls Aaron, clearly a nightly ritual for both of them. “It wasn’t just the speech,” Jane complains, thinking of Tom. “The same thing happened with this guy. I have passed some line, someplace. I am beginning to repel people I am trying to seduce.” “He must’ve been great-looking, right?,” Aaron says, because he can see right through what she’s saying. “No one invites a bad-looking idiot to their bedroom.” After she hangs up, Tom calls — he’s been hired by her network, and now they work together.
Whether Jane ends up with Aaron or Tom is, I guess, the question of the movie, though that’s incidental to the real story, which is their individual relationships to their work. No frame is without some sort of insight or understanding about the people who make news: the scenes of journalists standing around, testing their colleagues’ moral standards with hypothetical questions about telling a source you love them, or whether or not to broadcast footage from an execution; the barely there smile from a famous news anchor as the most exalted form of praise; Jane yelling at her cameraman for telling someone to put on their shoes, because they are, as she says repeatedly, “not here to stage news.” The background dialogue from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner scene is ruthless, with lines like, “The L.A. Times is a great outfit. Best severance pay in the business.” Jane cries periodically throughout the film, unplugging her phone and weeping for what looks to be no reason, or at least no easily identifiable cause. Aaron hates himself for asking Tom for help in delivering a weekend news report, but is delighted to learn that his tip about sitting on the hem of a blazer really does make it look better on camera. One of my favorites is when at the end of the film, as layoffs happen in the newsroom, Blair, played by Joan Cusack, takes a moment to say goodbye to Jane by telling her that, “except for socially, you’re my role model.”
Broadcast News is a movie that is right about journalism, and right about ambition, and there are three major sequences that show how Brooks captured the technical and emotional realities of both. The first is one of the funniest and most recognizable scenes: Jane is editing one of Aaron’s stories right up until the moment Blair has to deliver the tape to the control room. It’s slapstick, mostly because we can feel how serious this is to them. Watching Blair panic as time runs out — “Why do you do this to me?” she complains to Jane, who is inserting new visuals and copy up until the literal last minute. “Is it because I won an award?” — and then following her through the obstacle course of an open-plan newsroom, we know she would rather die (at the very least, she would rather risk kicking a small child in the face) than let the New York control room cut to a blank screen.
The scene was shot by Michael Ballhaus, the Academy Award–winning director of photography and cinematographer who would, three years later, shoot one of the most famous single-take tracking shots in cinema history, for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Though it’s not a single take, the same principles are here in Blair’s race to meet their deadline: Like Ray Liotta as he guides Lorraine Bracco through the kitchen of the Copacabana, we’re backstage with Jane and Blair, invested most in how they get to where they’re going. These scenes also show a quality of unearned, or uneasy, trust that’s present in both films — confidence is seduction, and like Liotta’s Henry Hill, Brooks’s characters behave as though they do, or should, own their hallways. What they might privately feel about their positions is another story.
The second sequence — a test of Tom’s skill, clearly intended as an audition for a much more powerful position — takes place on a Sunday afternoon, when the station’s bureau chief is hosting a brunch for the entire network, including the president, Paul. The news team gets word that a Libyan plane has been shooting at an American base in Sicily, and because their bosses’ boss is there, he makes the assignments — Jane will executive-produce, and Tom will anchor, while Aaron will do … nothing. Jane, the kind of manager who is never not advocating for her people, tells the president of the network to his face that he’s made the wrong choice. (Another truth about News is that every shot that can contain an inside joke does: The character of Paul Moore, the president of the network, was played by Peter Hackes, who had been a correspondent for NBC for 30 years. He was, as Brooks told The Atlantic, let go “in the search for pretty men.”) “OK, that’s your opinion,” Paul responds. “I don’t agree.” “It’s not opinion,” Jane responds. Paul, perhaps not used to people questioning his choices, looks at her for a second, before setting her up for the best line in the film: “You’re just absolutely right,” he deadpans. “And I’m absolutely wrong. It must be nice to always believe you know better. To always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” “No,” Jane says, sincere and present in her answer, which comes out in a softer register than any of her other lines. “It’s awful.”
She loses this battle, and like a true pro, does everything she can to turn Tom into the right anchor for the job, feeding him lines and setting up the other correspondents so that he never has to ask a question. From home, Aaron tries to pretend that he’s not going to watch — still the same person as that betrayed and resentful teen we saw in the first scene — but can’t help himself. He calls in to tell Jane everything he knows about the political situation in Libya, and she then feeds the information to Tom. “I say it here, it comes out there,” he mutters to himself. Afterward, still feeling the high of getting it right, Tom compares Jane’s voice in his ear to great sex: “There was a rhythm we got into,” he says, and the look on her face seems like she might be thinking the same thing.
The third sequence — in which Tom achieves another real win for his career, at a great expense to Jane and Aaron’s personal and professional ideals — is as close to a traditional climactic event as the film gets. Tom, emboldened by the success of his first on-air segment, pitches his own idea to Jane: “It’s about women,” he explains, “who are attacked, by someone … they know, on a date.” Tom shoots an interview with a woman willing to speak about her experience (the term “date rape” was still new enough at the time that we can hear Tom stumble on the cadence), and as it airs, the women in the newsroom watch, their feelings on their faces, the men silent. Aaron, however, is unmoved; “Could I turn on the news for a second?” he asks. During the interview, the woman cries, and the camera cuts to Tom, who is also crying, just a little. “What’s wrong with it?” Tom asks, knowing that Aaron disapproves. “Nothing,” Aaron says. “I think you really blew the lid off nookie.”
Aaron is morally wrong — indefensibly so — but he is approaching the segment as a journalist, trained to never stage, lead, or corrupt interviews with performances. Tom is telling a story with emotions rather than facts, coasting on people’s feelings rather than speaking to their intellect. Aaron later realizes that this tape has been edited to include a shot of Tom crying, staged after the interview was over; it cannot be trusted. But Tom knows how to study people — their feelings, their responses — and is finding that ability to be far more valuable than studying facts or ideas.
The scene predicts so much of contemporary news — in particular, the tendency for stories about sexual harassment to revolve around personal stories when reporting on systematic abuse. Tom’s behavior is unethical, and Aaron’s response is callous, and what they share is a complete commitment to what they don’t know and won’t learn: Aaron is refusing to see what makes this a story, and Tom is refusing to learn what standards his story should be held to. This is the story line in which Brooks shows his essential skill: He treats the subplot lightly, and in doing so he avoids a film that is merely hagiographic in favor of one that is honest. Brooks has crafted, in fiction, a truth about who tells stories of sex, power, and abuse—and how they decide to do so. After the segment airs, Jane tries to sneak away, and Tom needles her into saying what she thought. “It moved me,” she says, after a moment of contemplating. “I did relate to it, I really did.”
Much later in the film, Aaron will reveal Tom’s edit to Jane; in a long scene that ends with Aaron telling Jane the truth about his feelings for her, he makes the case that Tom, “while being a very nice guy, is the devil.”
The edit is ultimately the reason that, after many stops and starts, nothing happens between her and Tom. Jane realizes that he is not just a simple man in need of her help, not just a person that could be better if she got through to him; whether intentionally or not, he is aware of the effect he has on people and is more than willing to use it to his advantage. She cannot compromise on her ethics, even if she really, really wants to. “You could get fired for things like that,” she says when she confronts him. “I got promoted for things like that,” he replies. They’re both right, which, as we’ve established, is a terrible thing to be. It’s movie magic at its most painful, the tiny truths between characters exactly the kinds of truths we work really hard to avoid recognizing in real life.
That realism is, in many practical ways, a result of Zirinsky’s influence. Though Jane Craig is a composite of Brooks’s research and Holly Hunter’s remarkable performance, Zirinsky’s work as an associate producer of the film can be seen and heard throughout the movie. Currently the senior executive producer of 48 Hours, her list of accomplishments is beyond impressive: She has won multiple Emmy Awards as well as the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence. She led CBS News’s coverage during Tiananmen Square, followed presidents Reagan and Carter throughout their careers, and was the producer of 9/11, the documentary that has the only footage from inside the north tower of the World Trade Center, as well as Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, the Showtime documentary featuring the only interviews with all 12 heads of the CIA, both present and former, at the time. In September I met with Zirinsky at her office in New York, where she keeps a framed poster her staff made for her on the 20th anniversary of the film, superimposing her face over Holly Hunter’s.
As a child, Zirinsky watched movies like Casablanca and Exodus, and wanted to be a film director. But in college, she got a weekend job at CBS News; it was the spring of 1972, and two weeks after she started, burglars were arrested at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. “My roommates were getting shitfaced and I was in the alley of the Jefferson Hotel staking out the attorney general of the United States,” she remembers. “I would come home to regale them of this very important work I was doing, and they were … puking in the sink.” After that, Zirinsky says, she was hooked, totally hooked. “You couldn’t come out of the Nixon era and bring down a presidency based on journalism, and not be, as a kid in college, profoundly impacted.”
At first, Zirinsky turned down the position on Brooks’s film, thinking that she couldn’t take a leave of absence from her job; she had been promoted from White House producer to senior producer at the Washington bureau for CBS Evening News, and the scheduling between her job and Brooks’s shooting didn’t seem right. Still, she found a way to make it work. During the day, she covered Iran-Contra; at night, she wrote simulated stories for Brooks’s characters to read. Once, Brooks asked her to walk around with a tape recorder and just talk about what she did as she was doing it. Another time, Brooks called to ask a question, and she picked up just to tell him, “If I don’t hang up this phone, I’m not going to make the lead piece with Lesley Stahl at the White House, and I’m not going to have a job.” She would speak with her friends at the Pentagon to get the details for the Sicily special report scene, asking them how far a plane could go without refueling, what air base they would have taken off from.
Zirinsky used to deny the obvious connections, preferring to think of her role as primarily technical; but sometimes when she visited the set the similarities were too real. The first day she met Holly Hunter, she peeked into a rehearsal and saw Hunter: They were the same height, with the same build, wearing the same kind of sweater and boots and belt. She remembers that while she was looking, Albert Brooks snuck up behind her and started whisper-singing the Twilight Zone theme song. Jack Nicholson, as anchor Bill Rorish, James Brooks recalls, spent an intensive day with Zirinsky, learning how to speak and read the news like a real anchor. William Hurt, Brooks says, was deliberately kept away from Zirinsky. “Bill, it was important that he not do it. Because the character he played had to be behind the game, and not in on everybody’s joke.”
She is in the film, though always off camera: When Jane watches the tapes from Tom’s date-rape story, she hears a producer say, “Tom, it kills me that we didn’t get you on camera. It’s so powerful … I thought you were going to cry yourself.” That’s Zirinsky’s voice. That’s Zirinsky’s handwriting in the control room, using yellow tape to label the different switches State, D.O.D., and so forth, so that we’re seeing Hunter’s fingers hover over Zirinsky’s handwriting.
The other devil in the details was the work of Polly Platt, Brooks’s frequent collaborator and the production designer of News, who died in 2011. “Many thought [Polly Platt] had the talent to be the first great woman director,” wrote Rachel Abramowitz in the November 1993 issue of Premiere, “but Platt is of a certain generation and temperament, and instead she plowed all her energy and brilliance into making men brilliant.”
Platt’s relationship with Brooks was complicated; they fought, and she pushed him away, accepting job offers for other films. Still, Brooks refused to give up on her. “‘Jim called me and fought harder than I’ve ever seen anybody fight,” Platt said to Premiere. “In Broadcast News, when [Jane] won’t go with [Tom] on the plane, he keeps saying, ‘It’s a big deal.’ I remember Jim just kept saying to me, ‘It’s a big deal if you leave.’’” They shared an open and generous idea of what love can be (she, too, believed that there are no bad guys in a Brooks movie) and even the recollections of their fights show just how much they respected each other. She did eventually accept Brooks’s offer to be the producer on the film — she told Abramowitz that she recognized her own style of working in Hunter’s performance “because even to this day, I’m all about how to get there in every sense of the word” — and there was no detail too small for Platt’s eye on that set. Brooks said the key color of Broadcast News was red, a favored color in television because of its naturally high contrast. Brooks told Premiere that he remembers seeing her during the shooting of a small scene at the beginning of the film, when a teenage Aaron is getting beaten up by his high school bullies, and she was on her knees, painting a red accent on a staircase.
When I asked Brooks about Platt’s work, he spoke of her with such fondness. “She loved film as much as anybody I’ve ever known. She loved it. She loved it romantically. She loved it practically. She loved it like mothers love their daughters. Like women friends love each other. She loved film. She never lost that crazy idealism, the kind of romanticism you bring to what you’re first starting. She never lost that, no matter what happened to her life. And everything happened to her life.”
Of the many subtle moments crafted by Brooks and his crew of experts and advisers, there are two mirrored scenes with Jane that feel especially true, and they both show the influence of Platt, who knew how much details matter, and Zirinsky, who knew how much journalism matters. In the first, Jane helps Aaron pick his outfit for his night as weekend anchor while she is getting ready for her first — and only — real date with Tom. She’s wearing a pretty dress with a cropped blazer, and when she and Aaron stand on a corner to get cabs, she turns and looks at him one last time before pulling out her shoulder pads and inserting them into his blazer. It’s what he needed. But the camera stays on her as she makes her way to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, her fingers fidgeting with her slightly deflated shoulders. She’s left something behind. At the end of the movie, when it becomes clear that nothing can happen between her and Tom, Jane confronts him and refuses to get on a plane with him for a week away. She stays in the airport until she knows he’s gone. Getting into a cab, she sits there, not quite crying, unable to let the driver go without making sure she tells him the best route to get home, holding her hand to her mouth. Once again, we know: She’s left something behind. What that is, and how much she needs it, is not the point — the point is watching Jane be alone in her rightness, her certainty, her successes that are not wins and her losses the conclusion of her own choices. It is, as she said, awful; she’s not just right, she’s responsible for making everyone else as right as she is. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are, at any given moment, approximately one hundred million movies about writers to watch. Many of them share qualities with backstage movies, offering viewers the chance to see how our stories really get made. Netflix does not offer a category called “A Young Journalist Searches for the Story — and Love — of Her Life,” which seems like an oversight, but it is perhaps just a function of the fact that the designation already applies to so many movies: to name just a few, there are His Girl Friday, Heartburn, Up Close & Personal, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Never Been Kissed, Top Five, Morning Glory, and, if you really think about it, The Ring. The 2017 blockbuster Girls Trip was, as New York Times Magazine editor Jazmine Hughes pointed out, a film about ethics in journalism. There are movies about the mechanics of a fashion magazine, like Funny Face, as well as movies about how awesome it was to work at Rolling Stone, like Almost Famous, which was based on Cameron Crowe’s real experience as a boy-wonder reporter, and Perfect, which features a Jann Wenner–like character played by … Jann Wenner. There are movies about disgraced journalists — Shattered Glass — and movies about journalists who changed the world, like All the President’s Men, Frost/Nixon, and Spotlight. This month, Steven Spielberg will offer his version of this story with The Post, a dramatization about the battle between The Washington Post and The New York Times for claim to the Pentagon Papers.
In both of my interviews with Brooks and Zirinsky, I tried to get them to agree with me that Broadcast News is the best movie about journalism, but they gracefully deflected. Brooks is steadfast in his belief that Network could be the best movie ever made, and certainly the best movie about journalism. “Are you kidding?” he responds when I ask him to name a particularly prescient moment from Network. “It’s nuts what it saw coming. [Network] saw reality TV. [Paddy Chayefsky] stone-cold saw the future.” He does not believe that Broadcast News predicted the future in the same way; he thinks the timing was right, and the research was solid, and it is as simple as “the future was beginning to happen.” When I asked Zirinsky if she thinks Broadcast News is the best movie ever made about journalists, she said she wasn’t sure; she liked Good Night, and Good Luck a lot.
Broadcast News is not a satire, although it is sometimes labeled as such. It is too warm, and too concerned with showing something true. The only thing that might function as satire is that, contrary to their depiction in movies and television shows, most writers do not know just what to say exactly when they need to say it. But most writers know how to go home and turn the experience over and over in their mind until they find the perfect response. They know enough to get into screenwriting, or other forms of fiction. They know how to tell stories in which they get to say now what they should have said then.
When the film was released, parsing its realism for reality became a minor sport among print publications. Journalists, well versed in turning any screen into a mirror, watched Broadcast News and looked for their own reflection. In January 1988, The Washington Post ran an article about all the different women who had, in their own way, been identified as inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character; Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter is quoted as saying “practically every unmarried woman in her thirties with a decent job and an occasional anxiety attack thinks the movie’s about her.” (Me, reading that quote 30 years after the fact: “Fuck.”) A February 1988 cover story for People was titled “Tom Brokaw Takes On Broadcast News,” and asks a question that provides its own answer: “The Oscar-bound hit has the networks fuming: are TV news anchors really dumb, overpaid pretty boys with too much power?” The article points out that there is a parallel to be made in CBS firing 215 employees in the past year, while increasing “anchormania” for “the gorgeous guys who read the nightly news: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.” The piece describes Hurt’s character as having “Brokaw’s boyish charm and Midwestern upbringing, Jennings’ lack of formal education and former ladies’ man reputation and Rather’s penchant for addressing the audience personally—even tearing up on-camera.”
Thirty years later, watching Broadcast News might inspire even more questions of life imitating film; watching a film about an industry that has since become the old guard allows us to see parallels among today’s ideas about new media. If the field of journalism has one easily identified and frequently fictionalized problem, it is one of proportions. The people who care deeply about journalism, whether as an art form or a necessity, are too often also the same people who make it. Broadcast News predicted that the way we feel about the news would become the news itself, and that there was real drama to be found in how much the people who make the news care about it — let’s not forget one of Aaron’s lines, delivered with sarcasm, which proves truer than he’d like to admit: Journalists are the real story. This often creates an effect that is less of an overlap and more of an eclipse — journalists making art about why journalism is worth caring about. To look at it without being blinded requires the remove of allegory, and the protection of comedy.
Tom’s promotion will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in journalism. It is not that I am opposed to hot people, but I recognize too well the dynamic that Tom’s advancement represented then and signifies now. He does not just represent the increasing prioritization of celebrity over achievement, one that was evident in the newscasters of 1987, and is seen today in everything from the cynical opportunism of right-wing news anchors who become morning talk-show hosts, to the glib posturing of contrarian op-ed columnists, and to the emotional manipulations of magazine profiles attempting to humanize hate. Tom is gloss over substance, theater over fact. As characters who are white and middle-class, this seems to be the first time any of them have thought closely about the dangers that come with giving people access and status simply because they look the part. “There isn’t a system in the world that wouldn’t value one of us,” Aaron says to Tom toward the end of the film, and he is just as correct as he is grossly entitled.
Producers, editors, anchors, and other kinds of managers or leaders continue to be the same kinds of people, chosen based on the same kinds of precedents for what we consider success (pageviews, tweets, and other high-profile but low-impact forms of insular flattery); they continue to guide the work they are responsible for as though there is no distinction between what the work needs and what they don’t know, and as a result only the stories they understand are published. More insidiously, in today’s parallels, they publicly speak with high-minded rhetoric they know looks right, while treating their employees who have less inherent social and professional power as disposable. The past weeks since the first Harvey Weinstein story was published have been just such a crisis: As publications report on abuses of power, more and more stories about journalists abusing their own power in their own workplaces have required no less than a total reckoning — who can we trust, and under what standards have we determined what that trust is worth?
Meanwhile, billionaires looking to diversify their investments buy publications as vanity projects — like Joe Ricketts, who founded DNAInfo and bought Gothamist and then shut them down, admitting to The New York Times it was motivated by a desire to union-bust. The business of news runs on heavily inflated budgets and periodic cullings, and cruel injustices are found everywhere but remain hidden behind nondisclosure and nondisparagement severance agreements. Distrustful bitterness becomes both a posture and a form of protection. One of Brooks’s favorite lines in the film comes in the scene when the president of the network has to lay off the majority of the newsroom — Zirinsky says she cried watching the dailies because the entire scene felt so familiar — and one man ends his meeting with Paul by saying he is just old enough to be flattered by the phrase “early retirement.” Paul jovially offers to help any way he can, and the fired man replies, “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.”
Death wishes aside, all of those truths can’t touch the way Broadcast News is in love with the work it depicts, and the love felt by Brooks and Zirinsky for what they do. Thirty years after its release, it is an essential movie about journalism because it gives the field the allowance to be everything: deserving of every critique, and of the Vaseline-lensed romanticization it gets from the people who love it. Brooks knows what’s wrong with journalism, and the people who make it; he also understands that that just makes the rewards of getting it right all the more deserved.
Brooks admitted that he does sometimes wonder what his life would have been like if he had stayed in news — “not recently, thank god,” he said. “But yes, I did. The person who reports on a king with honesty is maybe bigger than the king, which is what we’re finding out. You guys still have … there’s still a community in news. That’s the thing that saves it. The community of journalism is still vibrant, I think, with all the shit that’s happening. Don’t you think so?” For the sake of the conversation, I agreed, although months later, I’m still not sure what my answer is.
“Today,” Brooks said, “people have turned against news in general,” referencing what has come to be known as fake news, and a general distrust of mainstream media coverage. “I don’t think there’s a movie that has caught that. I think we have at least two newspapers rising to an occasion, to a demand, and as the line is blurred about opinion and when you’re allowed to have a point of view … the religious rules about it have changed.” He talks about the scene in which Jane catches Tom altering the reality of his story, saying that “I don’t think things are quite as holy as that anymore. I don’t think they can be. But where that leads, I don’t know. There are heroic reporters all over the place, at a time when the whole profession is being drained.” Before we hung up, Brooks wanted to know if I listen to the Longform podcast. “It’s like my fantasy of what the internet would be, where you overhear conversations you can’t believe you’re overhearing.” He loves it; he’s still thinking about the women who make news, and the work it takes to do it right. He wanted me to know he thought the interview with New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, in particular, was extraordinary.
Brooks has spoken about his failed attempt to shoot a more traditionally romantic ending, telling The Atlantic that he told Hunter they were doing reshoots, and had prepped Hurt on jumping into her cab before she leaves the airport—so that they would be left presumably happily ever after, in a more cinematically traditional manner. When a crew member accidentally greeted Hurt on set, the surprise was blown, and Brooks, who had never really felt there was a clear choice as to who Jane should end up with, decided not to choose at all. Aaron, he reminded me, calls Tom the devil, and makes a persuasive case for this characterization. “Sending your heroine off to the devil is a little dark,” he pointed out.
Instead, Broadcast News ends with an odd coda: Seven years in the future, all three characters are at a conference, and in their conversation they briefly reassure the audience that everything has turned out OK, if not especially wonderful. Tom has been promoted to evening news anchor, and Jane has accepted the position of his managing editor, while Aaron is working in Portland. Tom is engaged to a pretty woman, and Aaron has a sweet, curly-haired son. Jane has a boyfriend that she tentatively talks about; it’s still new, it seems. Audiences were not reassured — they reportedly hated the ending, which seemed too pat and final for a conclusion that did not bring an expected romantic reunion, or the tragic finality of a lost love. But the point is that the romantic reconciliation is between the characters and their work. We’re left knowing who they are, and who they’ll always be. They’re colleagues who won’t let go of the respect they’ve earned from each other; friends, even when they kind of hate each other; in love with each other, even if they can’t be together. It’s right. It’s also awful.
Yahoo Small Business is back with new investments from Verizon
The wireless carrier is investing and its sales and stores infrastructure could boost YSB sales.
Remember Yahoo Small Business? Before Facebook, before GoDaddy, before Google My Business, it was the top webhosting, e-commerce and marketing platform for small businesses. For years it was also neglected as a kind of cash cow without much new investment; it was also going to be spun out as Aabaco Small Business.
New YSB investments being made. However, Verizon agreed to acquire most of Yahoo in 2016 and the deal closed last year. Yahoo Small Business was not actually sold off and is now part of Verizon. This gives new life to the division and potential new distribution and competitive advantages, not yet implemented or realized.
Currently Yahoo Small Business offers:
- Listings management (via Yext)
Verizon-Yahoo’s Dan Breeden said in an interview that the parent company is investing again in Yahoo Small Business. Among other things, he said they’re doubling the size of the team.
I also asked him about the health of the brand. He said that while in some geographic pockets Yahoo has faded as a technology brand it does very well “off the coasts,” especially with small business owners.
Expanding its SMB services. I also asked Breeden about the product roadmap and whether the company is going to expand its marketing tools and other services (i.e., CRM, SEM and social). He wasn’t able to answer me but indicated that the company will definitely be expanding its offering and is evaluating many things right now.
He added, by way of milestones, that Yahoo Small Business has processed 300 million orders through the platform at a value of more than $80 billion in gross sales. This is during the 20+ years of its existence.
Verizon can leverage YSB and vice versa. Perhaps most intriguing is the potential Verizon-Yahoo sales channel combination. Verizon has a large salesforce. It also has over 2,300 retail locations. These could be used to promote and/or sell Yahoo Small Business solutions.
Equally, Yahoo Small Business might be used to promote Verizon as an ISP and wireless carrier. Verizon has more than 150 million wireless customers, many of whom are small business owners.
The Directorate of Veterinary Medicine in the New Valley Governorate announced the implementation of 29 seminars in the framework of an information campaign launched by the Directorate throughout the month of September to raise awareness of farmers and breeders of animal wealth epidemics. The Director of the Directorate of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Shenouda Tawfiq, said […]
WASHINGTON — FBI agents on Sunday interviewed one of the three women who have accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as Republicans and Democrats quarreled over whether the bureau would have enough time and freedom to conduct a thorough investigation before a high-stakes vote on his nomination to the nation’s highest court. […]
No longer held down by its past (or its politics), the slender nation of Vietnam makes for easy itineraries, book-ended as it is with two very different cities: poetic, tight-lipped Hanoi and zestful, go-go-go Ho Chi Minh City. You can fly into one and out from the other, seeing the dialect, temperament, and diet change […]
On September 30th, 1999 a little game known as Crash Team Racing would cap off developer Naughty Dog’s time with the franchise. For those that don’t know Crash Bandicoot was the franchise that made Naughty Dog a household name, as they had cut their teeth on platforms like the Apple II and other such machines. […]
I want to be a romance writer. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was twelve, reading Judy Blume and trying to sneak some of the more mature YA off the shelf and into my library checkout stack without my mom noticing. Because whenever she did manage to notice she questioned me with fail with […]
For a week now Facebook has not allowed us the ability to share our content with other conservative groups. They want us to pay then in order to boost posts because we are a page and not a group. Please help share content when you can.
Guatemala Chronicles- Part 1 I remember how excited I was when we were preparing to touch down in Guatemala City. Even though my mom’s side of the family is from Central America, the only country I had visited there was Costa Rica. I was ecstatic to see another part of the world and take part […]
Indonesia rescue team evacuate a woman from damage following earthquakes and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sept. 30, 2018. (Associated Press) “The death is believed to be still increasing since many bodies are still under the wreckage, while many have not been reached,” he said. By Niniek Karmini | Associated Press PALU, Indonesia […]
Hospitality was something more thrust upon me than sought after. Straight out of highschool into the first job that I applied for, through a sister who worked at the restaurant, it’s strangled any thoughts of having a social life out of me. They say that the half-life of people working in hospitality is ten years. […]
Fields: social work, data analysis, housing, mental health, homeless | Location: NYC, New York | Deadline: Until filled
from Genesis Apologetics
To attack the famine before it causes more havoc, the giants of cutting-edge technologies “will use the power of data” in order to analyze and anticipate dangerous situations and take action, explained the World Bank and the Nations. United in a statement. In 2017, more than 20 million people in northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan […]
Preston Pride took place on Saturday 29 September to celebrate and raise awareness for the LGBT community. Music, rainbows, glitter and “#BigJesus” filled the city centre with joy and seeing everyone coming together in acceptance was great to see. Pride helps to spread the word about equality for the community with various information stands, such […]
When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman. The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have […]
Yesterday evening a friend of mine inboxed me on facebook. She just had one question for me “Gaiven how could those Republicans still support Judge Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court”. I didn’t have to think long and hard about this. I just needed to gather my thoughts for a few seconds and then I sent […]
Africa Soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army prepare to head into the north of South Sudan in October 2016. Heavy fighting had broken out between government and opposition forces in Wajwok and Lalo villages, outside Malakal. (Charles Atiki Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images) By Siobhán O’Grady September 26 Years of brutal civil war in South Sudan have left […]
Good People and Good Food!
In exclusive extracts from a new biography of Hollywood legend Jane Fonda, written by a friend who studied with her at drama school, we’ve heard about the insecurities that led her to a traumatic first marriage and then into the arms of revolutionaries. Here, in the final part of our series, we see Jane marry, […]