Category: Journalism

Out of the Iron Closet

Masha Udensiva-Brenner for Guernica
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In search of acceptance, a gay Russian man seeks asylum in the United States:

March, 2015

Sitting in his seat, the plane scheduled to leave JFK for Moscow, Lev noticed how nonchalantly the passengers browsed their computers and iPads, their papers, and magazines. The doors had just closed, the flight attendants were giving their safety speeches, and Lev felt himself falling into a wild panic. It was March 2015, and he had been in the US seeking asylum for nearly two years when he felt he couldn’t take it anymore—his lover, the only person he had become close to during his time in New York, had just left the US for good; he desperately missed his friends and family; and his asylum proceedings were plodding along with no end in sight. He decided to go home, where at least he could see his mother, but now, with the plane doors closed, he couldn’t breathe.

He grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, and told her he had to get off.

She didn’t understand, so he jumped out of his seat and ran to the front of the plane, where he approached the pilot as he entered the cabin.

“I am not going to fly,” he said.

The pilot looked around. “It’s not going to be easy to get you off.”

Scared of causing a commotion, Lev told him to forget it and rushed back to his seat.

Minutes later, both pilots found him.

“Will you fly or not?” the head pilot asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you have to decide.”

* * *

May, 2013

Though Lev spent his first nights in New York City sleeping on a bus-stop bench near city hall and brushing his teeth at Starbucks, he maintains the experience wasn’t traumatizing. As soon as his flight from Moscow landed at Kennedy Airport in May 2013, he felt so free that nothing could have brought him down—not the fact that he spoke almost no English, nor that his living arrangements had dissolved, nor that he didn’t know a single person in the entire city. When he emerged from the A train on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, he was in awe.

For three days Lev wandered the streets, gazing at the throngs of people and savoring his newfound happiness—even the sky seemed iridescent. On the fourth day, unable to bear the possibility of never seeing his mother again, he went back to the airport and, with his meager savings, bought a ticket home for the following evening. But when it came time to leave, he lost his nerve and stayed.

(…)

Tower of Babble

Joe Kloc sums it all up in Harper’s Magazine
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Over on the Harpers Magazine blog, Browsings, Joe Kloc frankly sums it all up:

(…)

Trump announced that he would win the Latino vote, and tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl from Trump Grill in Trump Tower with the message “I love Hispanics!” Trump referred to a black man at one of his rallies as “my African American,” and pledged his support for black people at a gathering of mostly white people in Wisconsin, whom he often referred to as “the forgotten people.” “I am the least racist person,” said Trump, who was sued twice by the Justice Department in the 1970s for allegedly refusing to rent apartments to black tenants, whose Trump Plaza Hotel was fined $200,000 by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1992 for removing black dealers from card tables, who allegedly told a former employee that he hated “black guys counting my money,” who in 2005 floated the idea of pitting an all-black Apprentice team against an all-white one to reflect “our very vicious world,” and who was endorsed by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, one of whom said, “What he believes, we believe.” Trump tweeted statistics credited to a fictional government agency falsely claiming that the majority of white murder victims in the United States are killed by black people. Trump tweeted a photoshopped picture of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who Trump had said “had blood coming out of her wherever,” standing next to a Saudi prince, who tweeted back that he had “financially rescued” Trump twice, including once in 1990, when the prince purchased Trump’s 281-foot yacht, which was formerly owned by a Saudi arms dealer with whom Trump often partied in Atlantic City, and with whom Trump was implicated in a tax-evasion scheme involving a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. Trump disputed former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s claim that Trump magazine is defunct, showing as proof an annual circular for his clubs that was not Trump magazine, which folded in 2009. Trump republished his book Crippled America with the title Great Again. Trump told and retold an apocryphal story about a U.S. general who executed Muslim soldiers with bullets dipped in pig’s blood and proposed that Muslims be banned from entering the country. At the first primary debate, Trump praised his companies’ bankruptcies, including that of Trump Entertainment Resorts, in which lenders lost more than $1 billion and 1,100 employees lost their jobs, and that of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, a publicly traded company that Trump used to purchase two casinos for almost $1 billion, and from which he resigned after the company went bankrupt for the first time, but before it went bankrupt for the second time. “I made a lot of money,” said Trump. At the fifth primary debate, Trump defended the idea of retaliating against America’s foreign aggressors by killing non-combatant members of their families, saying it would “make people think.” At the eleventh primary debate, Trump told the crowd there was “no problem” with the size of his penis. Trump said that he knew more about the Islamic State than “the generals,” and that he would “rely on the generals” to defeat the Islamic State. Trump said he would bring back waterboarding and torture because “we have to beat the savages.”

(…)

The Satoshi Affair

Andrew O'Hagan for the London Review of Books
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Writing for the London Review of Books, here’s the beginning of Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating profile of events and personas that unpacks the myth of Satoshi Nakamoto:

Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said ‘Computer Forensics’; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office. Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde. They were looking for ‘originals or copies’ of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile phone records, research papers and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinised, and 32 individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.

Some of the neighbours say the Wrights were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird – to one neighbour he was ‘Cold-Shoulder Craig’ – and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his ‘toys’, but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling ‘the deal’. Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.

At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways – ‘Tailor Made Office Solutions’, it said on a nearby billboard – and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. ‘I tried to intervene,’ one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, ‘and said we would have to call our lawyers.’

Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story – a story too complicated for her to explain – so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On 9 December, after their first night in the new apartment, Wright woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a ‘peer-to-peer electronic cash system’ – a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.

By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumours, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it – they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM – and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the 63rd floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the 61st floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realised he’d rushed out without his passport.

[…]

‘Unearthing the Secrets of New York’s Mass Graves’

Nina Bernstein for the New York Times
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Over a million people are buried in New York city’s potter’s field on Hart Island. Writing for the New York Times, Nina Bernstein uncovers some of their stories and the failings of the system that put them there:

Twice a week or so, loaded with bodies boxed in pine, a New York City morgue truck passes through a tall chain-link gate and onto a ferry that has no paying passengers. Its destination is Hart Island, an uninhabited strip of land off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, where overgrown 19th-century ruins give way to mass graves gouged out by bulldozers and the only pallbearers are jail inmates paid 50 cents an hour.

There, divergent life stories come to the same anonymous end.

No tombstones name the dead in the 101-acre potter’s field that holds Leola Dickerson, who worked as one family’s housekeeper for 50 years, beloved by three generations for her fried chicken and her kindness. She buried her husband as he had wished, in a family plot back in Alabama. But when she died at 88 in a New York hospital in 2008, she was the ward of a court-appointed guardian who let her house go into foreclosure and her body go unclaimed at the morgue.

By law, her corpse became city property, to be made available as a cadaver for dissection or embalming practice if a medical school or mortuary class wanted it. Then, like more than a million men, women and children since 1869, she was consigned to a trench on Hart Island.

Several dozen trenches back lies Zarramen Gooden, only 17 when the handlebars of his old bike broke and he hit his throat, severing an artery. He had been popping wheelies near the city homeless shelter in the Bronx where he and four younger siblings lived with their heroin-addicted mother. With no funeral help from child protection authorities, his older sister scraped together $8 to buy the used suit he wore at his wake. But the funeral home swiftly sent him back to the morgue when she could not pay the $6,000 burial fee.

For Milton Weinstein, a married father with a fear of dying alone, there was no burial at all for two years after his death at 67. A typographer in his day, he had worked in advertising for Sears, Roebuck & Company. But he lost his career to technology and his vision to diabetes; his wife’s mental problems drove their children away. Though she was at his side when he died in a Bronx nursing home, she had no say over what happened to his remains — and no idea that his body would be used as a cadaver in a medical school and then shoveled into a mass grave on Hart Island.

New York is unique among American cities in the way it disposes of the dead it considers unclaimed: interment on a lonely island, off-limits to the public, by a crew of inmates. Buried by the score in wide, deep pits, the Hart Island dead seem to vanish — and so does any explanation for how they came to be there.

To reclaim their stories from erasure is to confront the unnoticed heartbreak inherent in a great metropolis, in the striving and missed chances of so many lives gone by. Bad childhoods, bad choices or just bad luck — the chronic calamities of the human condition figure in many of these narratives. Here are the harshest consequences of mental illness, addiction or families scattered or distracted by their own misfortunes.

But if Hart Island hides individual tragedies, it also obscures systemic failings, ones that stack the odds against people too poor, too old or too isolated to defend themselves. In the face of an end-of-life industry that can drain the resources of the most prudent, these people are especially vulnerable.

Indeed, this graveyard of last resort hides wrongdoing by some of the very individuals and institutions charged with protecting New Yorkers, including court-appointed guardians and nursing homes. And at a time when many still fear a potter’s field as the ultimate indignity, the secrecy that shrouds Hart Island’s dead also veils the city’s haphazard treatment of their remains.

These cases are among hundreds unearthed through an investigation by The New York Times that draws on a database of people buried on the island since 1980. The records make it possible for the first time to trace the lives of the dead, revealing the many paths that led New Yorkers to a common grave.

[…]

‘Check in with the Velociraptor…’

Gideon Lewis-Kraus for WIRED
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Writing for WIRED, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports from the world’s first robot hotel:

Japan has a national gift for holding in balance the stateliness of tradition and the marvel of novelty. So it ought to come as no surprise that on the western margin of the archipelago, on a serene bay in a remote area of the Nagasaki Prefecture, there is an enormous theme park dedicated to the splendors of imperial Holland. It follows with perfect logic that the historical theme park’s newest lodging place is the world’s first hotel staffed by robots.

The hotel, even before it opened last summer, had received extensive coverage in the international and domestic press for its promise of novel ease and convenience. But when I arrived at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park very late one humid summer night, just days after the fanfare of the robot hotel’s ribbon-cutting, nobody was quite sure where it might be found. Even the employees of the resort’s Hotel Okura, a towering replica of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station replete with stone reliefs and mansard roofs, discovered themselves unable to come to my aid. In rudimentary Japanese I asked where one might find the Henn-na Hotel. The name is an untranslatable double entendre: The literal meaning is “Strange Hotel,” but it’s very close to the word for “evolve”; it’s designed to acknowledge the slight uncanniness that might attend the coming hospitality singularity. The dual meaning, however, seemed lost on the Okura’s concierge, whose rigorous training hadn’t prepared her to counsel swarthy, disreputable-seeming, late-arriving foreigners in search of evolved accommodation. I did a little Kraftwerk automation dance to clear things up, but it only seemed to alarm her further.

My journey had taken 24 hours, and I looked forward to interacting with no more humans en route to a dreamless sleep.

She bowed and looked at her feet, then busied herself at her drawer, eventually withdrawing a map of the park and its environs; at almost 400 acres, Huis Ten Bosch is nearly the size of Monaco. Her pen hovered over the park’s periphery, at the verge of the bosky hills that surround mock Holland.

“Maybe,” she said, “it is here.” Her pen landed on one of the map’s empty green spaces.

Arigatou gozaimasu,” I said, bowing with great weariness. My journey, taxi-flight-walk-flight-taxi-train-train, had taken 24 hours, and I looked forward to interacting with no more humans en route to a dreamless sleep.

But she wasn’t finished. “Maybe,” she continued, “it is here.” Her pen landed on another unoccupied parcel of the park map.

I thanked her again, bowed again.

Before I could back away, she held up one finger, then marked a third place for good measure. “Maybe,” she concluded, “it is here.”

“Can I walk there?” I asked, as if she’d specified with confidence a particular there.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Is there a bus or taxi, then?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

The concierge had reddened considerably. She did not know where one might find the hotel; at the same time, it was a source of great shame to her to think she might disappoint a patron. The Japanese language and culture do not distinguish between a guest and a customer—even, as in this case, a customer of somebody else’s hotel—so her inability to assist felt to her like a jagged tear in the social fabric. For my entire tenure at that counter, she was going to mark, with fear and hope, an arbitrary sequence of potential strange hotel locations. I backed away, bowing, to spare her this potentially endless exercise. The Japanese desire to save face makes omnipresent the threat of looping infinite regress, and it wasn’t fair to either of us to let it continue.

This initial exchange was depleting but in an instructive and relevant way. One of the many wonderful contradictions of Japan is that it hosts both the world’s most mature service industry and the world’s most advanced androidal technology. It was, in fact, with that contradiction in mind that I’d set out to visit our service future, to see how nostalgic I’d be, in the face of their summary deletion, for human beings.

[…]

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