The Pleasures of the Super Gossipy Johnny Carson Biography

On my flight to Armenia I read Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin, Carson’s longtime lawyer, business manager and friend. I recommend the book for three reasons: First, it’s the kind of book you can read in five hours like it’s a muthafuckin whodunit.

Second, it’s a portrait of an era so bygone it might as well be Jane Austen:

Sitting across the room was Tom Snyder, the host of The Tomorrow Show, the NBC program that followed Johnny’s. Snyder, who was dining along, sent our table a round of drinks. […] Johnny had long harbored a serious dislike for Snyder, based on nothing but his performances on TV. He thought Snyder had no talent and was an officious bore, and after Johnny had his second glass of wine, we could see his anger bubbling just below the surface. […]

Johnny kept eyeing [Snyder] and finally said, ‘Why the fuck is he staring at me? I’m going to go over there and kick the shit out of that guy.’ […]

Johnny lunged across the table and grabbed for Snyder’s throat. He got nowhere close. Quinn got in front of Snyder and I pulled on Johnny’s arm and McMahon moved his bulk in between.

And another one:

The last time I saw Rick Carson [Johnny’s son, who later died in a car accident] was at the Tonight Show anniversary party that took place on the Queen Mary in October 1987. […] Dinner, dancing and entertainment were part of the festivities, as was a casino where people could play blackjack, roulette and craps. Rick was playing in the casino and drinking heavily. His father went to see him in order the keep him under control, and a screaming match ensued. Johnny lost his temper and began yelling, and Rick responded in kind. Johnny pulled back his fist—he was going to slug his son—but somebody stepped in and hustled Johnny away.

In case it isn’t clear what’s happening here, this is the most famous person in America drunkenly attempting to beat up his own son at a fundraising event on a cruise ship. Media were in attendance, as were members of Carson’s staff, their spouses, hired help. Yet we are only hearing about this now.

Then there are the women. Bushkin describes the weekends Carson used to play Vegas. Two shows a night, 10 weeks a year, his material never changed, and neither did his pre- and post-show routine. He would glad-hand his celebrity friends (five minutes at a time—one of Bushkin’s jobs was to make sure Carson was never trapped in conversation with another person too long), then find girls from the slot machines or the front row and take them back to his hotel room.

The next day Johnny called to make sure the girls would be coming to the show. ‘Maybe they would like to join us at a small dinner party afterward,’ Johnny suggested, ‘up in my apartment.’ [...]

The three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served then wine from a silver platter.

Maybe I’m naive about the lifestyles of celebrities these days, but this sort of thing strikes me as unimaginable today. One of these women would tweet a photo of the Carsonalia, would YouTube a clip of Carson sleeping off the revelry the next morning.

But reading the book, you realize that it’s not just the technology that has changed. Carson’s fame peaked when he was in his late 40s to his mid 60s. This was a married man, with three kids from the first (of four) wives that he all but abandoned.

Bushkin notes that Carson smoked four packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life, that he drank to excess nearly every night, that he kept a .38 in his glove box. At every location, Carson relied on an architecture of bellhops, hotel managers and personal secretaries to facilitate a steady supply of alcohol and hook-ups with women of diminishing age-appropriateness.

‘In the environs of a Las Vegas hotel,’ Bushkin writes, ‘a free-fire zone where no wives were allowed, it was generally accepted that the bigger the star, the greater the latitude for indiscretion.’

It is true that we live in a time when this indiscretion-latitude is narrower, but it’s not just Twitter and TMZ that made us this way. The social norms of Carson’s era rested on a society-wide agreement that some topics were to be known but not said. Maybe we are more gossipy now, or maybe we are more prudish, less willing to wink-and-nudgingly protect a man in his 50s, inebriated, fucking the starstruck out of women in their 20s while his wife and children waited a timezone away. Either way, whether this means we are a better society or a worse one, it would be harder now for Carson to pull this off.

The third and deepest source of the book’s pleasures is its Big Reveal of Carson as an extreme introvert. As Bushkin describes him, Carson was charming, generous, lively and gracious—but only in small amounts, and under conditions where he controlled each interaction. A one-on-one interview, on his own show, six minutes at a time, with breaks to sell lawnmowers and hair polish, that was Carson’s ideal way of interacting with people. He hated cocktail parties and public appearances, situations where he wasn’t able to choreograph who he would meet, what he would talk about and for how long.

As you can see in the above clips, Carson had a nasty streak. His friendships, his professional relationships, his marriages, nearly all of them ended abruptly and permanently after a perceived slight. It’s like Carson realized that he liked being alone more than he liked his agents and managers, his wives, even (spoiler alert) Bushkin himself. One by one, they all end up under Carson’s emotional guillotine, never to be contacted or acknowledged ever again.

Bushkin notes that Carson died alone, his hospital bed un-surrounded by friends or family. The outpouring of emotion from his audience, kept always at a distance, was not matched by a more intimate group of friends and family. Carson had no inner circle, only the outer one.

It turns out that Johnny, who never carried a wallet but usually kept $1,500 to $2,000 or so in cash on his person, had noticed that at the end of every week for the last month or so, he would be at least $700 to $1,000 light.

Within days we caught his dresser, a union guy who was responsible for taking care of Johnny’s wardrobe, pilfering the money. Johnny was very proud that he had solved the mystery, but he never fired the culprit. He liked him too much as an employee. Instead, he sat him down and told him that as long as he didn’t steal anymore, Johnny would give him another $300 to $400 a week.

This is the same guy that fired dozens of his employees, threw a tantrum at Reagan’s inauguration, never visited his son during his stay in a mental hospital. Even Bushkin, who knew Carson as well as anyone, can’t explain why he acted so nice on some days and so mean on others. But, for 300 pages, it’s worth watching him try.

 

 

 

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Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

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Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
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This is Armenia.
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This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
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I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
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Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
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Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
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Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
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Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
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After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
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To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
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To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
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So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
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But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
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You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
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The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
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A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
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On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
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Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
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Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
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The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
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The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
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factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
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Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
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I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
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The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
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This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. Before There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
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Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
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It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
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Not until I can see myself in it.

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Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

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The Best iTunes U Courses and Why Teacher Quality Matters for Adults Too

In the endless debate over how to improve American schools, you often hear people bring up the issue of teacher quality. A good teacher can apparently give kids 1.5 years of learning in a school year, while a bad teacher can give as little as half a year. This is a profound effect, and people who know stuff about elementary education (i.e. not me) are working on ways to replace America’s crappy teachers with better ones.

I’m reminded of this all the time because over the last few years I’ve become totally obsessed with iTunes U (and, more recently, Coursera), and I listen to course lectures whenever I ride my bike, take a walk, wait in a line, use public transport, fly on an airplane or generally live my life. Courses are the best, they kill time just like a book, but leave your hands and eyes free to keep you from bumping into stuff. 

When I first started checking out these courses, I thought they would be a way to dive into topics I was already interested in. International development, European history, Seattle trivia. The more I listened, though, the more I realized that the subject matter was almost irrelevant to whether or not I enjoyed the course. The only thing that mattered, I eventually realized, was how good the lecturer was.

Topic after topic, I found my interest extinguished by bad lecturers. Meandering speeches, no notes, unclear structure, too many asides. My attention waned, then disappeared. After awhile I started to question if I was even into this shit. Am I only interested in European history because I had a good teacher at it in high school and I’ve been coasting on that ever since?

So then I started looking for courses with good teachers, subject matter be damned. One of the best ones I found is David Blight’s Civil War course. I know this is American Heresy, but the Civil War was never a topic I was particularly fascinated by. I’m not from a part of the country where its legacy is super-proximate; none of my family members were involved; the geography, demography, economics, they’re all a long time ago and far far away. Before Blight’s course, I thought of it like the Napoleonic Wars: Macro important, but micro-boring.

But it turns out I was totally wrong! Blight is such a fucking groupie for everyone, right and wrong, slave and white, victor and defeated, he tells you about each person and episode and argument like he’s just learned them. Every lecture has this ‘you’ll never guess what I found out today!’ tone, it’s infectious. I even ended up crying in one of them, about freed slaves; I was biking and I had to pull into the bus lane for a second til he was done.

I found other scorchingly good podcasts on game theory, economic history, the rise and fall of the second reich (not even the famous reich! That’s how good these lectures are!), even fucking stock valuationyou can barely stay awake to finish the name. They’re all, despite their diverse subject matter and dubious usefulness for everyday life, totally engrossing.

This is why I’m so dogmatically pro when it comes to technology and education. Everything is interesting if it’s presented the right way. If I had access to these-type lectures when I was in actual school, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through my 20s thinking that the Civil War was boring, that game theory was only for math geniuses, that the second reich … well, I probably would have known that there was a second reich.

I’m not making a political point. I have no idea how education is going to change in the next 5 years, much less 50. I just know that no matter how it does, I will be ready, somewhere, crying in a bus lane.

 

My Totally Subjective List of The Best iTunes U Courses Ever

 

Also: I’m kind of between courses at the moment, so if you know a good one, let me know in the comments!

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April 8, 2014 · 1:09 pm

My Parents Fled From Iran During the Revolution and All I Got Was This Stupid Slate Article

My folks!

I have an essay in Slate today about how my parents moved to Iran in 1978 to be Christian missionaries, then had to flee when the Revolution happened.

The bus to the airport took 30 minutes. As they passed a gas station, Dave saw a man being pulled from his car by soldiers and struck in the face with a rifle butt. The bus turned before he could see if it was a foreigner or an Iranian.

The airport terminal was closed, so they ran around the building, across the tarmac and onto the plane. They got on, sat down, looked at each other. Martin’s wife and four daughters were there, buckled in, but Martin had stayed behind. The flight would take them to Bahrain, drop them off, and then come back for another batch of employees.

The doors closed and the engines started up. The plane taxied, accelerated, took off. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. When the plane leveled off, the stewardesses opened champagne.

The date was January 3, 1979. Dave and Lynne had moved to Iran to be Christian missionaries, but it had become gradually, then suddenly, clear that they had chosen the wrong country, the wrong time, the wrong reason to be there. Soon, the country spiraling and shrinking below them would be an Islamic Republic, the Shah going into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini coming out of it.

“Welcome on board.” Dave looked up to see a stewardess looking down. “So would you like to buy a ticket for this flight?”

Some stuff got cut from the story, so here’s some bonus anecdotes:

  • Lynne and Dave’s letters barely mention politics at all. They’re mostly focused on the cultural differences. Dave had never before had to ask a female patient to remove her chador to look at her teeth, and he was not used to having his patients’ male relatives observe their treatments. Lynne had never seen so much male-on-male hand-holding and cheek kissing (‘but there is apparently very little homosexuality’ she writes in one of her letters—ah, the ‘70s). They invited an Iranian couple over for dinner and the first thing they said was “What a nice apartment! … How much is your rent?”
  • Bit by bit, Lynne and Dave were cut off from the politics of the country where they lived. Letters from home went missing. The media, controlled by the government, was a reliable source of weather forecasts but little else. Even Lynne’s Farsi workbooks were mostly stories about the Shah, Iran’s bright future, the triumphs of 2,500-years of the Pahlavi dynasty.
  • Helen tells them about a German woman here, a housewife married to an Iranian. In November she was walking home from school with her children and found her house being ransacked by a mob. Somehow they had discovered that her landlords were Bahais. She drove to the compound, left her children with Helen and borrowed a chador. With the chador on, she went back to her own house to join the mob, to salvage whatever she could of her belongings. That night, she and her husband returned to the compound to stay a few nights until they found a new home. That was the last time Helen saw them.
  • One day last month Martin and Helen’s daughters left for school in the morning, got on the school bus the same as always. A few hours later, one of her daughters came home early and told Helen that the school was closed. Too many demonstrations, too much noise. Now the demonstrators were blocking the roads, and the school buses couldn’t get home. Helen had no way of getting ahold of her daughters, she could do nothing except wait. So she did, for hours, until they finally returned.

I want to thank my parents for spending so much time walking me through these episodes, and especially their friends Martin and Helen, who gave me a really vivid picture of their lives in Iran. It’s not always easy to have some random guy poking around in your past stripping it for anecdotes, and everyone I spoke to was patient with my questions and forgiving of my mistakes.

To get a better understanding of the political context and the experience of the Christian community in Iran before and during the Revolution, Martin and Helen recommended that I read Paul Hunt’s Inside Iran, and I did, and I recommend you do too!

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Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

Flematic

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I was randomly in Antwerp last weekend.
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There is in fact no other way to be in Antwerp.
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I have this weird fascination with places that are local tourist attractions, but not quite stellar enough to attract international visitors.
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Antwerp is firmly within that genre. Lovely, but like 53rd on most peoples’ ‘Must See in Europe’ list.
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Not that it matters. I was in a trying-to-finish-an-essay fugue state, and I barely did anything I couldn’t have done at home.
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I got up at five every morning, wrote for like seven hours, then ventured out, ravenous for breakfast and scenery.
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Antwerp has a surplus of both, though if you bike far enough in any direction, it starts to look like True Detective.
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But I sort of like that, how Antwerp goes all ugly at the edges.
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It’s a reminder that European cities, no matter how pretty they are in the center, need cranes and shipping containers and rusty train tracks to keep them that way.
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Antwerp got rich after WWII, it was one of the only ports unbombed during the war. This is where a lot of the Marshall Plan donkeys came in.
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Now the port host a different kind of donkey, tourists like me, our dangling cameras, our insipid questions, our temporary interest.
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I realized as I was on my way to the airport that chatting with my AirBnB host was the longest conversation I had all weekend.
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‘What are you doing here in Antwerp?’ she asked. ‘As little as possible,’ I replied.
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‘Well you’re in the right place,’ she said, and handed me the keys.

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Doing Development in Dhaka

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There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
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Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
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I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
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Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
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I always go jogging when I travel for work.
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Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
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There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
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Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
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No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
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Like, we all know how the post office works.
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And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
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But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
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What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
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Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
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Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
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The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
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I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
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Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
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I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
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This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
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Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
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Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
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I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
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One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
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Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
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That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
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And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
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Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
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Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
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Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
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And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
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Brand new tomorrow.

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An Interview With a Therapist Who Was Once Insane

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I’ve got another interview up at Longreads. Here’s a little leftover I couldn’t figure out how to work in:

What kind of issues do you work with in your practice?

Anxiety, depression, a lot of work with addiction—drugs, alcohol, love, sex.

So sexual addiction is a real thing?

Yes it is. People die because of compulsive sexuality. They contract AIDS, they go insane, they destroy their marriages, they spend all their money at strip clubs or on hookers. The definition of addiction is an individual decision about whether you think you’re an addict or not. It just means stuff you’re doing that you don’t want to do and that’s ruining your life. That can be playing online scrabble. Your brain can become addicted to online scrabble. And you’re up all night and losing your job because the chemicals in your brain are dependent on the excitement you get from playing online scrabble. So it’s not about what the behavior is specifically that makes it an addiction or not. It’s the experience of the person with the behavior.

 

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How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. [...]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!

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Filed under Journalism, London, Personal, Serious, United Kingdom, Work

Five Stories About Sports for People Who Hate Sports


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I’m on Longreads again

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