Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

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Wishful Milking

June 6th, 2011

If you’re the sort who follows the more bizarre tidbits to emerge from the world of agribusiness, you’ve probably noticed that there’s been quite a stir about camel milk as of late. The United Arab Emirates, for one, has vowed to take advantage of relaxed European Union regulations regarding the import of the offbeat dairy product, which is alleged to offer a litany of health benefits.

While the jury may be out on whether camel’s milk is actually any gentler on the human body than the stuff tweaked out of Holsteins, it’s clear that there is genuine consumer interest in such dairy alternatives. In fact, global milk drinkers are increasingly spending their hard-earned dollars on the output of animals that Old McDonald never deigned to own:

At an International Dairy Federation-organised symposium on non-cow milks in Athens this month, over 200 oral and poster presentations looked into the production and nutritional profile of dairy products that have never seen a cow.

Milks made from sheep, goat, yak, camel and buffalo were all put under the microscope as the industry looked to explore the nutritional and economic potential of these products. They have already grown in importance in the global dairy market. Back in 1961 non-cow milk represented 8.9 per cent of global milk production but now its share has risen to 16.7 per cent.

The underlying assumption here is that consumers have become more cognizant of the source of their dairy. But I always distrust narratives that pat folks on the back for becoming less gluttonous. I wonder if non-cow milks will once again slip into semi-obscurity as global trade barriers come down, thereby allowing products from dairy cows to be shipped to new markets. At the end of the day, dairy cows have an advantage over yaks and camels that will never go away: they produce a heckuva lot more milk. (A Holstein can squirt out about 23 times more milk per day than a yak.) In the long run, it’s tough to imagine global consumers sticking with the non-cow milks they know when a nice glass of Nestle Quik can be had for a third of the price.

Related: Chinese milk production, 1980 to 2008. It’s all about the cows over there.

(Image via Strange Taste Horsebeans)


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June 3rd, 2011

The last time we checked in on Papua New Guinea’s efforts to counter its epidemic of sorcery-related killings, the country was considering making changes to its Sorcery Act of 1971 in order to make it easier for authorities to punish both witchcraft practitioners and those who murder them. Unfortunately, those legal reform efforts seem to be stalled, especially in light of the sudden death of respected parliamentary leader Joe Mek Teine, who was leading the anti-sorcery effort. As a result, the killings continue apace, to the point that the country’s national police force has pronounced itself virtually powerless to stem the tide:

We are trying to counter that and basically the rule of law stands – you can’t take someone else’s life, regardless of whatever your grievances are. We’re making that known. But we are spread thinly around the country. We can’t be everywhere and in some instances, we are overpowered and actually some of these killings have happened right in front of our eyes. But we really can’t do much.

As we noted in our earlier post on the topic, this is a really tricky issue. No one can legislate away centuries of belief, yet focusing solely on the murderous side effects of imaginary acts is obviously not doing the trick. So what can a central government do to discourage its citizens from believing in hocus-pocus?

I’ve been trying to think of an American analogue to PNG’s situation, but it’s tough. One situation that popped to mind, which has long been the foundation of one of my favorite legal dilemmas, is how states have handled cases involving faith healing. Juveniles have occasionally perished for want of simple antibiotics, because their parents’ religions don’t allow for any medical intervention besides prayer. Yet though some of these cases have resulted in manslaughter convictions, the government has never taken any action to discourage the opposition to medical science among the faithful.

My fear for PNG is that the belief in sorcery can only be stamped out through early education, which means waiting at least a generation for real change. But given the country’s educational trends, that may be an optimistic projection.


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Under Pressure

June 1st, 2011

First time in forever that I have, quite literally, 27 hours to turn a C+ Wired story into an A-. Not sure I have what it takes, especially since this lede ain’t even close to humming, but I owe the good folks in San Francisco my best shot. Back to y’all once the tale is safely in my editor’s hands; ’til then, meditate upon Robert Diggs’ first spin through the celebrity machine, before Wu-Tang was even a glimmer in his eye.


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Alternate Reality Jazzercise

May 31st, 2011

The exercise visionary Sim D. Kehoe believed that the swinging of Indian clubs could lead to utmost fitness. To his great credit, he recommended such workouts for properly attired ladies as well as men who dreamed of becoming the next Eugen Sandow. In fact, Kehoe had high hopes that Indian club training would help cultivate a certain sense of spirituality in previously idle women of the upper classes—hopes he made explicit in his classic tome The Indian Club Exercise with Explanatory Figures and Positions:

Half an hour with the Clubs daily, divided morning and evening, will soon do away with much that is artificial about womankind, and promote the natural development of a graceful form and movement.

A pity that Kehoe’s vision didn’t stick, especially since the United States might have racked up a few more Olympic medals had things turned out otherwise.


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May 27th, 2011

After much travel-related unpleasantness—most occurring by Gate F8 at the Philadelphia airport—I’m back in my beloved Atlah. Thanks so much for putting up with this week’s sporadic posting; rest assured the absence will pay off down the line, as I managed to collect some dynamite research for my next book. Getting really excited about how this project is coming together, as well as a bit intimidated about how I’ll work up the gumption to stop outlining and start writing the damn thing.

As is always the case, I stumbled across a thousand-and-one great tales in the margins of microfilm and the memories of friendly beer drinkers. One of my favorites is the story of Joann McDaniel, an Oregon girl who made the incredibly foolish mistake of trying to smuggle hashish from Syria to Turkey in the early 1970s. The Turks were, as you might surmise, not amused, and McDaniel and her friends received the Midnight Express treatment. Fortunately for her, the musician Bill Coleman wrote a hit song about the case (“Oregon”), and the continuing public attention eventually compelled the Turks to agree to a 1980 prisoner swap.

What fascinated me about the story is not the arc of the crime-and-incarceration narrative, but rather what happened after the credits had seemingly run. As Coleman recounts here, the seven years in Turkish prison made McDaniel feel like an alien upon her return to the U.S.:

She paid me a visit at my home in 1980 shortly after our initial meeting at the Hindquarter restaurant in Salem. She and Bob Hubbard spoke about maybe settling in Southern Oregon … purchasing a mobile home with the $10K they received from a publisher as an advance on a book they were to write about their experiences.

I saw nothing of the book, nor did I ever hear from JoAnn again. Frankly, it would not surpise me at all if they returned to Turkey, or somewhere in the middle east.

Their homecoming to America, after spending nine (seven by my count–ed.) years in a Turkish prison, was fraught with an extreme case of future shock and they didn’t seem to be adjusting well to the “America” that had developed since their arrest…In that relatively short span of time the baby boomer generation had all gone from irresponsible “hippies” to family oriented “thirty somethings” ….. all, except for JoAnn and Bob. They still dressed and spoke like “hippies” … it was as if they has stepped out of a time capsule …. like lost children playing grown up, they wandered through that day with little or nothing in common with the America they had returned to.

They were, in all honesty, like ghosts from the past, and they felt very uncomfortable in this future world.

That discomfort after such a short absence speaks to a fundamental truth about the human condition: Even at relatively advanced ages, we are constantly growing and evolving more than we realize. When that growth is stunted, whether by prison or, say, life in a totalitarian nightmare, seeing how others have changed with the times must be disorienting, indeed.

Have a good Memorial Day Weekend, y’all. I’ll be spending the bulk of mine revising a Wired story and packing for the new global headquarters. Oh, and maybe drinking my fair share of the ol’ reliable, solely to blot out those painful memories of sleeping in the Philly airport as floor-waxing machines whirred loudly in the background.


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U.S. Airways Has Made a Powerful Enemy

May 27th, 2011

I’m writing this post a bit before 1 a.m. as I sit in the Philadelphia airport, awaiting a 6:45 a.m. flight home. I find myself in this predicament thanks to the horrid incompetence of U.S. Airways, which saw fit to cancel my connecting flight to LaGuardia after a five-hour delay. (The lackluster explanation given: “Maintenance.”) By the time the hammer finally came down, the airline claimed that it could not secure us hotel rooms, nor give us any meal vouchers. And so here I am, watching the custodial crew wax the floors and seething with white-hot rage. I’m sure Microkhan Jr. will be similarly peeved when he awakes, as I had promised to take him to school tomorrow. Hope he understands that the blame here does not belong with his pops, but rather with Doug Parker and his inexplicably rude employees.

Needless to say, I think U.S. Airways and the fictional Air Makambo from the clip above have more than a bit in common. If only Hewa Bora Airways had a PHI-to-LGA route, I’d be all over that.


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An Explanation for the Drabness

May 25th, 2011

One of the small upsides of traveling is that it’s given me time to catch up on the to-read queue—not much else to do in a small Oregon town after sundown, except devour information and good beer in equal measure. The first book to fall was Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which is both brilliant and soul-crushingly sad. I exaggerate nothing when I say that one image in particular will always haunt me: That of a North Korean schoolteacher watching her favorite pupil slowly succumb to malnutrition during the 1990s famine, and realizing that nothing can be done to help the poor five-year-old.

Among the many things the book taught me about daily life in North Korea is the practical reason for much of the nation’s notoriously drab palette. As it turns out, the majority of the Hermit Kingdom’s clothing is made from Vinalon, a synthetic fiber made from coal and limestone, which was invented by a Korean in 1939. Because of its origins, Vinalon is considered politically correct by the Kim regime, and is thus the chief component in most North Korean uniforms. (The country’s main Vinalon factory can be glimpsed here.) But as Demick notes, the material is not without its shortcomings:

New clothes were dispensed by your work unit or school, often on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, reinforcing his image as the source of all good things. Everything was pretty much standard issue…The favored fabric was Vinalon, which didn’t hold dye very well, so there was a limited palette drab indigo for factory workers uniforms, black or gray for office workers. Red was reserved for the scarves that children wore around their necks until the age of thirteen as part of their obligatory membership in the Young Pioneers.

I have to wonder about the long-term psychological effects of existing in a society where colorful clothing is basically a technological impossibility. It must sap the ability to feel joy in some way, much as the long, bleak winters of Scandinavia are known to cause depression (as well as some pretty great music). And a nation without joy and its attendant mental energy is that much easier to deceive and subjugate.

Full Vinalon backstory here. Unmentioned in that bit, though, is the speculation that Vinalon production has been used as a front for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.


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Questing in Oregon

May 23rd, 2011

As noted late last week, I’ll be on the road in Oregon for the next few days, gathering research for the next book. I’ll try to post when possible, but apologies in advance for skipped days; gotta focus on the task at hand before I jet back to Atlah. For the moment, enjoy another artifact from my recent round of hammer-throw reporting—a 1984 Soviet documentary about the legendary Sergey Litvinov, the relatively diminutive master of the sport and one of the Eastern Bloc’s athletic idols. His bitter rivalry with fellow Soviet champion Yuriy Sedykh was the Magic-vs.-Bird of mid-eighties hammer throw.


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We’ve Been Here Before

May 20th, 2011

I’m scheduled to begin a long journey to the southwest Oregon coast tomorrow, and thus have spent a good deal of the morning getting ready for the trip. While making sure that my digital recorder had enough battery juice to serve me well, I had an unexpected twinge of worry: What if the nutters handing out leaflets at the Times Square subway station are right, and tomorrow really is Doomsday? Will U.S. Airways credit me for the ticket, or will I simply be out the $422?

My moment of panic didn’t last, however, as my mind quickly turned to past Doomsday predictions that have proven wholly incorrect. My favorite of recent vintage was April 23, 1990, which the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) said would mark the beginning of a global nuclear holocaust; CUT’s members would weather the annihilation in a Montana fallout shelter, then presumably emerge to enjoy some sort of post-apocalyptic Paradise free of sin, gun-control laws, and processed foods.

CUT and its leader, the deliciously named Elizabeth Clare Prophet, have largely faded from our collective memory. But fortunately for the history books, they did leave behind an important artifact of their lunacy: The Sounds of American Doomsday Cults, an album that collects Prophet’s sermons against all that allegedly ailed American society. Audio samples here, along with this brief description of how Prophet rolled when at the pulpit:

This record features live recordings of Clare Prophet ‘speaking’ out against the evils of rock music. She sounds perfectly normal as she introduces her ‘psalms’ or ‘songs’ or ‘speeches’ or whatever they are. But when she gets going, it’s amazing. And so goddamn insane sounding. Her rapid fire high pitched testifying sounds a bit like an impossible mix of an auctioneer, a yodeller, the guy who sings the directions at a square dance, Neil Hamburger huffing helium and variations of baseball’s ‘hey batter batter’ chant only faster. It’s like that sound you make when you sort of hum/breathe out and move your finger up and down between your lips making a sort of ‘bebubebubebubebubebubebubebubebu’ sound. It’s one of the most amazing things we’ve ever heard!

When 4/23/90 passed without incident, the CUT took up a new cause of slightly less importance: preserving its tax-exempt status by any means necessary. I assume the May 21st-ers will shift over to something similarly benign once they wake up in their own beds on Sunday morning.


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May 19th, 2011

Writing about the hammer throw has got me thinking a lot about Soviet Bloc athletics, and in turn one of the phenomena that fascinated me during my youth: East-to-West defectors. I was always drawn to tales of sportsmen from the other side of the Iron Curtain who decided to chuck it all and start anew in the NATO-land. A big part of the appeal was my sense that these defectors, in their own bizarre way, living the quintessential American dream, which is all about personal reinvention. (Jay Gatz, anyone?) To a grade schooler who didn’t quite understand the importance of family ties and the psychological comforts of home, bolting from one’s hotel during a competition and seeking asylum at the closest Western embassy seemed like the grandest of grand adventures.

One tale that stuck in my mind was that of the East German discus thrower Wolfgang Schmidt (right). After flubbing an escape attempt, Schmidt was tossed in jail for over a year, after which he was declared Sportverbot—forbidden from ever again practicing the athletic craft to which he had dedicated his young life. This fantastic Sports Ilustrated account of Schmidt’s tribulations and eventual is a longread well worth your time. A typically awesome (and disturbing) snippet:

Wolfgang Schmidt—decorated superstar of the German Democratic Republic, holder of the world record in the discus throw, possessor of an Olympic silver medal, owner of two Orders of Merit of the Fatherland—groaned in pain as he stretched out on his bed of boards and fought to keep himself from going insane. “I played a mind game with myself, pretending that I was only an actor making a film about prison and that the shooting schedule was dragging out longer than it should, but that nothing could be done about it. I also relived all my memories, my visits abroad, my conversations with old friends in the West. Sometime around the seventh day of my second 10 days in solitary, Wiedemann came from Berlin. We did not meet in my stinking cell. He summoned me to an office downstairs. There, he berated me: ‘Have you gone crazy? Do you want to add two years to your sentence? I suggest you withdraw the exit visa request.’ ”

Schmidt was alarmed, but he did not rescind the application. When he was released at the end of his second 10 days in solitary, he had lost 13 pounds, and his back was still sore from the beating as well as from sleeping on boards for so long. He returned to a cold reception from his cellmates. “They did not offer sympathy,” he recalled. “Most of them had disliked me because I was famous and had seen the world. When I got into trouble, most of them were gloating that the authorities had punished a decorated athlete who had lived better than they.”

Schmidt returned to the bleak routines of the KFZ, but he felt something strange in the air—a sense that people were watching him, waiting for something. Finally, Zidorn told him that the word was out that the authorities had decided to break Schmidt for good unless he withdrew his exit visa application. “They’ll never let you leave the country, Wolfgang,” said the swindler. “They’ll put you in solitary again and again.”

Frightened at the thought of another stretch of solitary, Schmidt notified Wiedemann that he had changed his mind about leaving the G.D.R. The Stasi insisted that Schmidt put his decision in writing. He wrote verbatim what Wiedemann dictated: “Herewith I withdraw my application for an exit visa. It is my wish to work in the G.D.R. as a coach in the throwing events or as the caretaker of a fitness club.” Wiedemann insisted that Schmidt add, “My decision is voluntary.”

More on the glamour of Cold War defection shortly, once I get a bit farther along in this draft.


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“Maybe a Kiss in the Dark, Maybe a Knife in the Back”

May 18th, 2011

Today’s all about putting nose to grindstone and writing about the greatest hammer thrower who ever lived, so not much time to Microkhan, alas. But I leave you with a delectable treat: the trailer to 1973’s Wonder Women, which absolutely should have triumphed over The Great Gatsby for the Best Costume Design Oscar. Just check out the surgical uniforms sported by Nancy Kwan‘s medical minions—probably not great for preventing operating-room infections, but otherwise commendable in every regard.


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Transporting Hammerheads

May 17th, 2011

I surely can’t be the only aquarium patron who, when confronted with a vast array of exotic sealife sealed behind glass, can only wonder how the largest of those captive animals was transported to their new homes. Sharks, of course, present special challenges, given their size and potential ferocity. And no shark species has proven more problematic for aquariums than the hammerhead, a delicate creature that has historically demonstrated itself to be quite averse to being cooped up for hours on end. Notes on the Long-term Transport of the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna lewini ) (PDF) provides some history of the evolution of the requisite techniques, including the design of the containment unit pictured above. The latest results, though better than in years past, are unlikely to please those who object to keeping sharks in captivity:

The shortest-duration transport of 42 hr yielded an 83% survival rate 2 weeks after the arrival of the sharks in Beijing. The longest-duration transport to Rotterdam of 70 hr yielded a 33% survival rate, while the transport to Lisbon of 60 hr yielded an 83% survival rate. Throughout the shipments, the sharks appeared to be able to avoid both the walls of the containers and the conspecifics with ease, sustaining no external physical injuries through repeated collisions.

I’ve done you the kindness of snipping and posting the paper’s best chart here. Perhaps the high mortality rate explains why those super-intelligent makos from Deep Blue Sea felt compelled to exact some measure of revenge.


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Would These Men Juice?

May 16th, 2011

For obvious reasons, I have been avidly following the performance of Mongolian grandmaster Dul Erdenebileg at the ongoing World Draughts Championship in The Netherlands. (Previous checkers-related posting here.) In the course of keeping up on the tourney’s matches, I noticed something rather odd: the organizing body is apparently quite serious about drug testing. The complete rules and regulations, listed here in PDF format, are just as stringent as in more physical pastimes. A small snippet of what the checkers drug cops are looking for, translated from the Dutch:

The sample should be sent to an accredited laboratory from WADA for the analysis. Approximately, the laboratory will send the result of the test back within three to four week. The sample will be screened for stimulants, for narcotics, for B-blockers, for diuretics, for anabolic agents, including endogenous steroids, for cannabis, for B2-agonists, for hormone antagonists and modulators, for hCG (males only) and for glucocorticosteroids using the methods in their accreditation scope.

I find this a bit puzzling, as I question whether any of the drugs listed above can actually help sharpen performance in checkers. Perhaps B-blockers can have some small effect by combating nerves, but the other forbidden drugs seem unlikely to aid in mental acuity.

That’s not to say there aren’t some chemical enhancements that might give a checkers competitor an edge. The first drug that popped to mind was modafinil, which enhances alerteness amog those functioning on little sleep (perhaps because they stayed up late studying an opponent’s endgame weaknesses). But what about a more out-there pharmaceutical tipple such as donepezil, which is frequently prescribed to Alzheimer’s patients? It has been shown to improve performance in otherwise healthy pilots who, like checkers champs, must remember long lists of maneuvers under extreme pressure.

If there’s a Victor Conte of checkers, I am going to make it my journalistic mission to find him.

(Image of the legendary 1975 Illinois Open match between Bobby Martin and Dick Fortman via the Online Museum of Checkers History)


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I’m Gonna Beat This Deadline Now

May 13th, 2011

Lost a day to partially feigned child illness this week, so scrambling to meet yet another Wired deadline before a preschool picnic. Apologies for not yet following through on installment two of the Ponchos; next Friday, for sure.


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Pawns in the Game

May 12th, 2011

Is there any professional sports league in the world more troubled than Serbia’s top soccer division? Yesterday’s championship ended in utter confusion, after one side walked off to protest some questionable refereeing. Though I haven’t yet seen video of the plays in question, the losing players had every right to be suspicious—Serbia has endured its fair share of match-fixing scandals in recent months, not to mention death threats levied against officials and numerous riots. If ever a sports league was in need of a latter-day Kenesaw Mountain Landis to clean things up, Serbia’s top division is it.

One of the things I find saddest about the league’s woes is the fact that the hooligans at the heart of its problems are simply tools of powerful interests bent on undermining the popularly elected government. Among the puppet masters is fugitive drug lord Darko Saric, who allegedly egged along a riot in Italy last year:

Serbia face a ban from international football after their supporters rioted and caused Tuesday night’s Euro 2012 qualifier with Italy in Genoa to be abandoned after six minutes. Italian police arrested 17 people, including the ring leader who was found hiding in the boot of a bus, following the violence that left 16 people, including two policemen, injured…

Reports from Serbia yesterday said the riot was an orchestrated demonstration of political violence designed to destabilise the pro-Western government and alienate the country from the rest of Europe. The drug baron Darko Saric, who is on the run, was allegedly behind the ugly scenes that included thugs fighting with riot police and throwing flares on to the pitch, one of which nearly hit the Italy goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano.

More on the high-level manipulation of Serbian soccer hooligans in this 2004 piece, which describes how Belgrade’s most feared fan group is bent to serve ultra-nationalist causes. I have to wonder whether the majority of hooligans realize they’re being conned by those who care more about political power than sport. I’m guessing no; this guy certainly doesn’t look like much of a critical thinker.

(By the way, Darko Saric isn’t just confining his anti-government campaign to the soccer pitch; he’s also become fond of lobbing missiles at those who might dare speak against him.)


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The Revolution Will Not be Besotted

May 11th, 2011

Did East Germany contribute to its own demise by launching an official program to combat alcoholism? New research, packaged under the ominous title The Blue Strangler (a nickname for cheap vodka), makes the case:

Despite the steep prices, high proof alcohol was popular and the average GDR citizen drank 23 bottles of liquor a year – more than double the amount consumed by the average citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. This high per capita consumption made the GDR the world’s heaviest drinker when it came to spirits. Statistics from 1988 suggest that the average GDR citizen also knocked back 12 liters of wine and 146 liters of beer a year…

Party officials did not know how to deal with the problem. It wasn’t until 1983, when the documentary film “Addicted” was produced by state-run film company, DEFA, that the dangers surrounding alcohol were spelled out. The film tells viewers about Rostock-based shipbuilding company Neptun Werft’s in-house alcohol support center. As it began to feature more prominently in the media, alcohol abuse became a subject of public debate in the late 1980s.

As a result, there was a noticeable decline in consumption. A report written by the Council of Ministers in 1989 found that people had bought 82 hectoliters less alcohol than in the previous year. When the peaceful Monday demonstrations against the authoritarian government of the GDR got underway in autumn 1989, alcohol consumption sank to a historic low within a matter of weeks.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but there is something to the argument that a drunken populace is one not prone to anti-establishment tendencies. Alcohol is a drug that, when taken in excess by certain individuals, leads to decidedly anti-social behavior. But those in power are just fine with yobs braining each other with two-by-fours in the streets; what they fear is the more cerebral sort of unrest that can only be the result of clear-headed debate.

(Image of disgruntled East German commuters by Harald Hauswald)


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Picking Up the Yurts

May 10th, 2011

Out in the outer boroughs today, trying to hook up a geographical shift for Microkhan world headquarters. As much as I’ve loved living in Atlah, this shoebox-sized abode has become intolerable; I blame all lousy writing on the fact that I’ve been reduced to working on the floor of Microkhan Jr.’s room during school hours. As I sniff around for brand new digs, enjoy the footage of history’s greatest hammer throwers; note how the wind-and-spin technique has become much more refined over the decades.


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Soft Time in Finland

May 9th, 2011

Buried in this account of a Rwandan-born, Kansas-based octogenarian who may be a genocidaire is an interesting tidbit regarding Finnish jurisprudence:

Mr. Kobagaya did not come to the United States government’s attention until December 2007, when he agreed to testify as a defense witness on behalf of a former neighbor, Francois Bazaramba, in a trial in Finland. Mr. Bazaramba was facing charges that he had organized the genocide in Birambo. Finnish prosecutors tipped off American officials about Mr. Kobagaya’s testimony, which showed he was in Rwanda during the genocide, not Burundi. (Last summer, Mr. Bazaramba was convicted on genocide charges and sentenced to life in a Finnish prison.)

There is something slightly dissonant about the phrase “Finnish prison,” perhaps because Finland’s penal system is so famously easygoing. This 2003 piece makes the case that life in a Finnish correctional facility ain’t half bad:

Walls and fences have been removed in favor of unobtrusive camera surveillance and electronic alert networks. Instead of clanging iron gates, metal passageways and grim cells, there are linoleum-floored hallways lined with living spaces for inmates that resemble dormitory rooms more than lockups in a slammer.

Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems like chevrons and epaulettes. ”There are 10 guns in this prison, and they are all in my safe,” Mr. Aaltonen said.

”The only time I take them out is for transfer of prisoners.”

At the ”open” prisons, inmates and guards address each other by first name. Prison superintendents go by nonmilitary titles like manager or governor, and prisoners are sometimes referred to as ”clients” or, if they are youths, ”pupils.”

”We are parents, that’s what we are,” said Kirsti Njeminen, governor of the Kerava prison that specializes in rehabilitating young offenders like Mr. Syvajarvi.

Generous home leaves are available, particularly as the end of a sentence nears, and for midterm inmates, there are houses on the grounds, with privacy assured, where they can spend up to four days at a time with visiting spouses and children.

”We believe that the loss of freedom is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible,” said Merja Toivonen, a supervisor at Hameenlinna.

I by no means think that America’s penal system should be similarly cozy. But I am curious to know more about how Finland’s style of incarceration, which began in the early-to-mid-1990s, has affected the nation’s crime rate. One thing I do know right off the bat, and which may raise some issues: Finland has an unusually high homicide rate, especially in its northern provinces.


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“He Stayed to Write a Grander Legend”

May 6th, 2011

Since I can scarcely imagine life without the biological rocket fuel known as caffeine, I’m counting my lucky stars this morning that I’m not a Cuban. That’s because sky-high coffee prices have forced the government to cut rations, meaning that Cuba’s java addicts must now satisfy their urges with a beverage partly concocted from roasted peas. One can only hope that easy access to sugar cane will be the poor coffee drinkers’ saving grace.

Yet these deprivations have rarely fazed the Cubans; in fact, the Castro regime has survived for so long because of its ability to convince the populace that triumph over such hardships represents triumph over those who wish the nation ill. And the government is aided in this communications endeavor by those increasingly rare souls who made even greater sacrifices for the revolutionary cause—chief among them Teofilo Stevenson, the greatest heavyweight boxer who never quite was, at least in the professional sense.

Pugilistic enthusiasts never tire of speculating on whether Stevenson, a great Olympic champion, could have taken the heavyweight crown from Muhammad Ali in the 1970s. We never got a satisfactory answer to that question because Stevenson refused to defect, despite being presented with many an enticing opportunity. His reward for that willpower has been adulation in Cuba, rather than anything material comfort. As this great 2002 profile reveals, Stevenson’s privileges are scant compared to what he would have received in any other country:

The man who could have fought Muhammad Ali – no, more than that: who could have been Muhammad Ali, famous throughout the world and rich beyond imagining – was fully awake after a drowsy morning. He said he’d be ready to go to lunch as soon as he washed up and changed his clothes. Here’s what Teofilo Stevenson did next: He took a big galvanised bucket out to the front yard, filled it with water from the garden tap, lugged the bucket inside, hoisted it on top of the kitchen range and turned on the flame…

Stevenson went inside twice to check the water on the stove. When it was hot, he carried it to the bathroom and poured it into the tub. Now he could take a bath. There’s no hot water from the tap at the house of the man who could have been Muhammad Ali, just cold…

The house is far from sumptuous, but comfortable – spotless linoleum floors, casement windows framed by floral curtains, utilitarian furniture. There is even a small swimming pool filling the little back yard, though it contains just a couple of feet of black, brackish water. Stevenson explained that it was far too expensive to fill and maintain the thing.

I wonder how many of Stevenson’s houses could fit inside Mike Tyson’s abandoned Ohio manion.


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Nonlinear Athletic Niches

May 5th, 2011

I’m heading upstate today to attend a workout with a world-class track-and-field athlete, as part of my reporting for a story about the limits (or lack thereof) of human performance. In the course of my research, I’ve had occasion to give a lot of thought to nonlinear athletic niches, a spin on the economic phenomenon previously discussed on Microkhan. Why do some nations tend to dominate certain off-the-beaten-path sports? There are clues to be found in this examination of Finnish javelin throwers, who have long ranked at the top of that sport’s tables. One of the more convincing pieces of theorizing:

It is by no means a secret that there was money around in Finnish sports as early as the 1920s. Paavo Nurmi‘s hectic racing schedule on his home tracks as well as in Europe and the United States was the firm background for his later success as a business man and building contractor.

As for the javelin throw, sportswriter Urho Salo tells an interesting story. The late Yrjo Nikkanen – a magnificent natural talent, whose world record of 78.70m from 1938 stood for 15 years – told him he sometimes earned ‘an equivalent of an army officer’s monthly wages in one meet as an under-the-table payment – and there were many meets like that during the summer’.

According to sports historian Anttoi O. Arponen, ‘thanks to his javelin capacity, a poor country boy could become a member of a leading club, at the same time getting better-paid work and climbing higher on the social ladder’.

And a hypothesis that I don’t quite buy, though I certainly appreciate its poetry:

‘The Finns have been moulded psychologically by the extremes of their climate,’ says Turner. ‘Long dark winters and short glorious summers have produced the archetypal strong but silent national character. The javelin suits the Finns, providing an emotional release for all their pent-up feelings. It’s the dual release of spear and emotion which the Finns so much enjoy.’

Current world rankings for men’s javelin here. The top American is a good 10 meters off the pace.


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The Hazards of Herding Blitzen

May 4th, 2011

In case you don’t keep regular tabs on Scandinavian jurisprudence, I’d like to draw your attention to a recent legal triumph by a group of Sami reindeer herders who operate in Sweden’s forbidding north. After 14 years of litigation, the herders have finally won the right to let their animals graze in the forests around Nordmaling, which are privately owned. Sami activists claim that the victory ensures the survival of their traditional profession, and thus continued sustenance for those who enjoy a nice slice of reindeer every now and then.

But while future generations of Sami herders might now be guaranteed grazing rights, their profession will continue to be far from stable. That is because tending to reindeer remains a fantastically perilous way to make one’s living—so much so that it has attracted plenty of attention from occupational safety researchers, who are keen to reduce the endeavor’s sky-high fatality rate. This 2004 study details the perils:

Reindeer herding implies many hazardous situations, especially during the gathering of the reindeer for migration or slaughter. During these periods the herders use vehicles to gather the reindeer (i.e. motorcycles, snowmobiles, helicopters, airplanes and boats), and the work is often executed during long working hours in harsh climate. For instance, it has been shown that most reindeer-herding men spend approximately 800 hours per winter on snowmobile. The increasing number of work-related fatal accidents among the reindeer herders is probably related to an increasing pressure from the Swedish society to develop profitable reindeer herding companies with less dependence on governmental support. This has resulted in external socio-economic pressure and competition between the family companies within the Sami communities, which in turn has forced the enterprises to make costly investments in vehicles to save time and personnel expenses…

The high number of work-related accidents among reindeer herders puts reindeer herding at the top among the most hazardous occupations in Sweden. A comparison of the present results and official statistics on work-related accidents in different occupations shows that work-related fatal accidents are more than twice as common among reindeer herders than within the agricultural and the building- construction sectors.

Still, it does seem a fair bit safer than elephant training.


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Hiding in Plain Sight

May 3rd, 2011

I somehow doubt we’ll ever hear the full story regarding what Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus knew about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts these past five years. It is totally naïve to think they knew naught, of course; the big question is who in the spook food chain was in on the conspiracy, and (perhaps most important) what they stood to gain from keeping the matter under wraps.

My pessimism about the eventual resolution of these mysteries stems from past experience. Time and again, big-name fugitives have been found hiding in plain sight, obviously having enjoyed the protection of powerful figures. Yet no one ever seems to suffer any consequences for this sort of aiding and abetting—to mod an infamous Leona Helmsley quote, only the little people get pinched for helping evildoers. My favorite example of this truism pertains to the case of Salvatore Riina, the onetime boss of the Sicilian Mafia, who made bin Laden’s time on the lam seem like child’s play. Bin Laden, at least, reportedly kept to himself indoors; when he wasn’t luxuriating in his massive hilltop villa, Riina milled about downtown Palermo at will:

During the 23 years that Salvatore Riina lived as a fugitive, he married in the church, fathered four children born in the same clinic, circulated freely in Palermo and ruled as dictator over the Mafia.

That freedom ended with his arrest in the Sicilian capital Friday. Amid the banner headlines and expressions of joy, many Italians asked how the country’s most wanted man could have avoided capture so long…

Asked why it took so long to capture Riina, Carabinieri commander Antonio Viesti said he was protected by a “network of cover.”

It’s easy to see why the members of that network were never brought to account: They likely controlled the very apparatus charged with investigating the affair. I have no doubt that the people complicit in protecting bin Laden wield similar authority in Pakistan. In fact, those who provided cover for bin Laden will likely be the same officials who now crow the most loudly about the benefits of his demise. In corrupt systems such as early 1990s Sicily or modern-day Pakistan, the elites who last are those most adepts at playing both sides of the coin.


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Let it All Come Down

May 2nd, 2011

If you desire a brief respite from today’s deluge of bin Laden-related news and punditry, take a sec to check out the work of Bern Will Brown. He’s sort of the Paul Gaugin of the frozen north, having settled into the tiny Arctic hamlet of Colville Lake many decades ago. Though he originally journeyed up to Canada’s northern climes as a Catholic missionary, he’s now best known for his depictions of daily life in the Northwest Territories’ remotest corners; along with his paintings, his 16mm film of Beluga whale hunting comes highly recommended.


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Over the Bridge

April 29th, 2011

Have a date with the American bureaucracy this morning, so zipping out with a lil’ vintage Turkish funk. First got turned on to the tune above by a sample from Action Bronson’s decidedly NSFW “The Madness”, which I initially mistook for a new Ghostface cut. Not sure I’m tempted to sift through Ferdi Özbğen‘s entire back catalog, since it seems like a lot of it tends toward a Turkish Tom Jones vibe. But great to see producers following Madlib’s lead and digging through ever more far-flung crates. I’m all for ditching those overused Isley Brothers’ samples in favor of more Ivo’s Group.


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Requiem for the Slug Kings

April 28th, 2011

A surprising number of tears were shed when the world’s last manual-typewriter factory announced its shuttering a few days back. Once again, generations of technological know-how are set to evaporate as a once state-of-the-art invention tumbles into museum mode.

The manual typewriter industry’s long-anticipated demise got me thinking about engineering wizards whose skills have been outmoded by the relentless march of technology. As a New Yorker, the first folks who popped to mind were Kim Gibbs and Alan Campbell, the so-called Slug Kings, who made minor fortunes in the ’80s and early ’90s by manufacturing counterfeit subway tokens. Operating behind a Midtown front business called KG Delivery Service, Gibbs and Campbell churned out untold thousands, if not millions, of brass discs that would permit their bearers to enter the city’s subway system for a relative song. In 1991, Campbell described the technology and expertise invovled:

Around 1970 – the year the fare increased from 20 to 30 cents, triggering a mad run on all available slug supplies – Campbell was introduced, by chance, to the wonders of the reciprocating press, an industrial-strength hole puncher. He bought his own.

“The metal is slipped into long coils – really big ones are 300 pounds – and fed through the press,” he recalled. “I believe it was Russians who figured out that a submachine gun could be made from a reciprocating press. Making a slug is the easiest and simplest use of the reciprocating press. You could make up to a million if you kept the machine going.”

How many was he selling? “As far as the total, I didn’t want documents like that in my possession,” he said. “Sometimes I used newspaper articles to track it.” In those early years, one could read that 2,000, 8,000, 10,000, slugs a day were being collected from turnstiles. On his prices, he is vague – “variable rates; at one point I raised it to 15 cents” – and while he has a diary somewhere, he believes any figures would sound deceptively large.

Much more here. I like how Gibbs and Campbell had a nickname for their counterfeiting ring: “The Ministry.” Makes me think they spent way too much time studying the villains from Justice League.


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Mushrooms for Strength

April 27th, 2011

I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research on a piece about Soviet athletic excellence, which was a more enigmatic phenomenon than most folks realize. There really isn’t one definitive explanation for the nation’s sporting success throughout its last three decades of existence, though there are certainly plenty of theories. As I’ve become immersed in the topic, I’ve started to believe that the primary reason for the Soviets’ athletic achievement was total dedication, made possible by a system that offered unusually special privileges to those who gave up their entire lives in pursuit of world records—many of which are still held by Soviets who competed in the 1980s. For a small glimpse of the devotion required to be an elite Soviet athlete during this time period, I encourage you to check out this interview with hockey star Anatoly Firsov, who discusses (in poorly translated English) the constant effort demanded by his coach, the legendary Anatoli Tarasov:

Lucky were those who were close to [Coach Tarasov]. All out free time with him we were going out. He especially liked to go for mushrooms. He had a place slightly farther than I now have my dacha. We arrived in the evening, went into forest while it is slightly going darker. He gave us some 15-20 minutes, and then we returned after a whistle. And then the most sweet began — preparation of mushrooms, in oil, in sour cream, in own juice. Then we laid down to rest. Early in the morning we wake up, he about 3:00 a.m., we a little bit later. And here I realized for the first time what it costs to me. When he saw, how I pick up mushrooms, — when you calmly came by, bend, cut, put it in, get a joy — he shouted for a half of the forest, “First, what are you doing! You must pick up mushroom! To sit down on one leg, on another leg, land on one buttock, and then tear off the mushroom, not only with one hand, but with another as well, and keep an eye to make sure, that nobody else could pick the mushroom up!” So he in every moment looked for an opportunity to train.

Once, when we after Olympic games, went by train was it to Sverdlovsk or where? Olympic champions, we went in a common 3rd-class carriage, together with everybody else, no special compartment, nothing. On one station, in Kazan, it seems, he suddenly says, “Well, boys, everybody quickly out and begin training. We have 10-minutes stop, and we must train very well.” We had been going already about two days, and for him it was very fearsome that we are without training. So he forced us to jump on steps of a carriage, run, tumble, we were looked at like strange people. “Olympic champions, what they are doing?” But for us it was important to hold a training in any conditions, and when we were tumbling on a platform, people could not understand what are they doing, is it an Olympic team or they are being transported to a crazy house? How it is possible to jump, leap and tumble on a snow, on an asphalt? But for Tarasov there was nothing more important than training with a use.

These anecdotes, of course, remind me of how this East/West paradigm was flipped on his head by the training montage from Rocky IV, in which Ivan Drago uses the latest technology to prepare for the climactic bout, while Sylvester Stallone saws wood in foot-deep snow.

(Image via English Russia)


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What’s in Wyoming?

April 26th, 2011

Limited time to work today as Microkhan Jr. still has one day left of spring break, which he has apparently decided to spend attempting to coax me into serial games of hide-and-seek. Trying to grab a few hours here and there to focus on what pays the bills ’round this humble yurt, and that means half-assing it on the blog this morning. In lieu of the standard fare, then, enjoy the 39-year-old news clip above, about the bizarre Brooklyn bank heist that inspired Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Check out the lead robber’s mannerisms in particular, as he gestures to the assembled crowd—Al Pacino just nailed the nuances of those arm waves in the movie.


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The Folly of Youth

April 25th, 2011

I’m just now getting cranking on a sports-related project—my first crack at writing about the athletic games that adults play since I covered the Nagano Olympics as a mere cub. To get into the right mindset for the challenge, I’ve been looking up the old Sports Illustrated stories that influenced me so deeply as young’un. Though I typically credit my college-age encounters with longform journalism for steering me down my current path, my love of in-depth storytelling actually dates back to my weekly consumption of SI in grade school and junior high. Looking back at some of those great SI pieces now, I’m struck by their artistry and detail; the best of the lot were darn near perfect, little jewels of the craft that deserve to be dissected and analyzed the same as any contemporary David Grann masterpiece.

One of the standouts is a story that I was able to found solely because a couple of lives have never left me. I couldn’t remember anything about this piece save for the fact that it was about prison sports, and that it contained the tragic tale excerpted below—a tale in which the simple observation in bold managed to echo in my noggin’ for the next 23 years:

During his first stint in prison, at the Georgia Training and Development Center in Buford, Leroy Fowler got a chance to go to an Atlanta Braves game as a trustee with Billy Shaw, a guard who also coached the prison baseball team. When they returned to Buford, Fowler told Shaw that he had a better fastball than anybody he had seen that night, and Shaw couldn’t disagree. Fowler had a slider and an overhand curve in addition to what’s reputed to have been a 95-mph heater.

“Fast? Oh, yes sir!” says Shaw, who is now deputy warden, when he’s asked about Fowler’s arm. “Our team barnstormed all over the state back in 1966 and ’67, playing Georgia Southern and a lot of semipro teams. We never lost but a couple of games, and Leroy pitched them all.”

The Cardinals and the Dodgers expressed interest in Fowler and told him to call when he was released. Then, just four days before he was to be paroled, Fowler, who was 20 at the time, escaped with one of his buddies. Why? “I was young and stupid,” says Fowler, realizing even as he speaks that what he did extends beyond stupidity to self-destruction.

Fowler and his pal stole a prison officer’s car and drove to Atlanta, where they watched a Braves game. Six months later Fowler was recaptured, but he escaped again in 1971. This time he went to a Cincinnati Reds try-out in Marietta, Ga., where he used a false name and took his turn with the other pitching hopefuls. Fowler says now of the scouts, “I think they were interested in me. I got to bringin’ it pretty hard. I pitched three innings, and they asked me to come back the next day.” Unfortunately, somebody in the stands who had seen him pitch on the prison team, recognized him, and Fowler ducked out, left town and didn’t return.

A year later, he was recaptured after taking a blast from a policeman’s shotgun in the right arm. He was in the prison hospital for six days before undergoing surgery, and, as he lay there, Fowler asked himself if he was a failure because of fate or bad luck or ignorance or maybe because his arm was an arbitrary gift that made him hope for more than he deserved.

The injury cost him the use of his little finger and caused nerve damage in the ring finger. He rehabilitated the arm as well as he could, but he was through as a prospect. A prospect needs it all. Fowler is now a star on the inmate Softball team, a power hitter with a really good arm and one of those sad stories nobody wants to hear.

I’m not sure why Fowler’s unvarnished admission of idiocy made such an impression on my young brain. It’s partly because even at that young age, I was astounded by the sheer stupidity of his decision to escape. But the line might’ve washed right over me if the writer, Rick Telander, hadn’t somehow managed to make me care about a felon—and in such a modicum of space, to boot. And that is the great trick of nonfiction: To make the reader understand that every character, no matter how high or low, must cope with basic human needs and emotions.

Moving on now to another SI classic from my youth: Gary McLain’s personal account of his cocaine abuse at Villanova. Yes, I have a thing for stories about wasted talent.


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The Scope of the Slithery Problem

April 22nd, 2011

One of the great riddles of epidemiology is the toll of snakebites on India. Various studies over the years have estimated the annual death toll anywhere from 1,300 to 50,000. Until recently, the most convincing analysis out there, based on data from local hospitals, put the number of fatalities at roughly 11,000 per year. But a new study, employing data culled from so-called verbal autopsies, concludes that the problem is much worse than feared:

Snakebite remains an important cause of accidental death in modern India, and its public health importance has been systematically underestimated. The estimated total of 45,900 (95% CI 40,900–50,900) national snakebite deaths in 2005 constitutes about 5% of all injury deaths and nearly 0.5% of all deaths in India. It is more than 30-fold higher than the number declared from official hospital returns. The underreporting of snake bite deaths has a number of possible causes. Most importantly, it is well known that many patients are treated and die outside health facilities – especially in rural areas. Thus rural diseases, be they acute fever deaths from malaria and other infections or bites from snakes or mammals (rabies), are underestimated by routine hospital data. Moreover, even hospital deaths may be missed or not reported as official government returns vary in their reliability, as shown from a study of snakebites in Sri Lanka. The true burden of mortality from snakebite revealed by our study is similar in magnitude to that of some higher profile infectious diseases; for example, there is one snakebite death for every two AIDS deaths in India.

Virtually every death by snakebite is preventable, of course, as long as the victim receives the appropriate anti-venom drug in time. It would seem that it would be relatively cheap to disseminate the most popular remedies to far-flung villages, so that victims who are located a great distance from hospitals can be treated as quickly as possible. But as previously discussed on Microkhan, antivenins are absurdly expensive, since so few drug companies produce them in any quantity. Until now, governments and NGOs haven’t seen fit to apply pressure on such companies to ramp up production. Now that they have good evidence that a vast market awaits in India, perhaps it’s time to state the case for antivenin manufacturing more forcefully. There is money to be made here if a program is created on the national level—and, more important, tens of thousands of lives to be saved.


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The Giggle Box Comes Back

April 21st, 2011

I recently watched Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which I can best describe as surprisingly awesome. As a resident of the Empire State, I thought I had a pretty good handle on our former governor’s self-destruction, but the flick gave me a whole new perspective on the affair. It’s shamelessly pro-Spitzer, and thus glosses over some of his more notable political failings, but it does make a convincing case that he probably deserved a break. His big mistake wasn’t cheating on his wife with call girls, the movie argues; it was being so aggressive on Wall Street and in Albany that the knives were out for him as soon as he slipped up.

What really makes the movie work is the assortment of characters that director Alex Gibney convinced to get in front of his camera. My favorite might be Cecil Suwal, the madam of the escort service that provided Spitzer with his temporary paramours. The New York Times‘ David Carr aptly describes her as “a giggle box of truth”—there’s a great scene (and possible Poncho nominee) in which she bursts out laughing while describing how she calculated the overnight rates for her escorts by simply adding a zero to their hourly rates. It takes you a moment to realize that she’s talking about a sophisticated, multinational call girl ring, rather than the time she and her sorority sisters got drunk and did karaoke in Atlantic City.

Curious khan that I am, I naturally had to know what Suwal was up to these days. She’s out of prison, as is her husband and business partner, Mark Brener (who also happens to be about four decades her senior). The couple is no longer peddling flesh, but rather “success.” Their dodgy-sounding product is called “The Achievers’ System for Finding Joy, Fulfillment and Meaning in Success,” and it’s all described here:

This program contains the key to Creative Genius and the wealth it brings. It is the most Advanced, Complete System for Achievement, Success, Peace of Mind and Happiness. While course registration is yours at $25,000 USD our income is derived primarily from the success you gain after having taken this course.

This 15-week seminar course will change your life. It will enable you to rise to even higher levels of success than ever before. Gain access to the Supreme Powers inside you to structure and create your life according to your most important ideals…

This the first course to make public (largely buried) ancient knowledge and its direct relationship to leading Frontier Science. In the long chain of human evolution, access to such relevant information has never been so timely. Strictly for those accustomed to excellence, this course is that which the best of the best have long needed to reach their newly undiscovered heights…

During the period spent in the “desert” we were able to experience previously unknown facets of life, do personal research and learn from both contemporary and ancient teachers such as M. M. Schneerson, Eckhart Tolle, David Hawkins, Jesus Christ, Eric Kandel, Steven (sic) Hawking and many other beautiful people who in their own, unique ways pierced a few “layers” of, what Kabbalah and other writings call, universal wisdom.

If you read the fine print, you’ll note that the $25,000 course fee is only the beginning of an attendee’s financial commitment to Suwal and Brener. They will also owe the couple 10 percent of the gross profits on every $1 million they earn henceforth.

Personally, I’m skeptical that anyone who gets a “Property of Mark Brener” tattoo by their privates has a firm understanding of the mysteries of human existence. But if any Microkhan readers do take the plunge, please report back.


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