Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

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A Tough New Front

March 26th, 2013

Mink PeltsThere’s no question that the animal-rights movement has successfully altered America’s attitude toward fur; coats composed of pelts are no longer a de rigueur status symbol for those with too much money on their hands. So why, then, is mink production ramping up to virtually unprecedented levels? Because the newly affluent Chinese covet fur coats to the same degree as the Eisenhower-era wives of industrial tycoons:

China imported nearly $126 million worth of U.S. mink pelts last year, making it the second most lucrative mink export market for American fur farmers behind South Korea, according to FAS. The North American Fur Auction, which touts itself as the largest fur wholesale auction house in North America, said nearly three quarters of the 700-plus buyers who attended its Toronto auction in February were Chinese.

Zhang Yiren, a 25-year-old medical magazine employee, tried on a fur coat in a Shanghai shopping mall recently with her parents. “I have had two fur coats and bought them for myself,” she said. “The angora one cost me 1,600 yuan ($250), and I love the style. It is beautiful and keeps me warm.”

Herein lies a difficult challenge for the animal-rights movement—namely, how do they modify their message and tactics to reach Chinese consumers? Cheeky shock tactics may not work quite as well in the Middle Kingdom.

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The Specialist, Cont’d

March 21st, 2013

Alfred AnayaNon-fiction storytelling is ridiculously time-consuming. My latest Wired story, which began life as a Microkhan post in January 2012, has been in the works for nearly a year. Granted, much of that time was wasted on tasks that didn’t pan out—I’m still waiting for a certain FOIA request to come through, for example, not to mention a callback from the Kansas Highway Patrol. But there were also so many hours spent perusing over 3,600 pages of trial transcripts, and talking to people with an incredible amount at stake in the project. The end result is a story that I hope y’all will read and pass along—the tale of a creative genius who became a casualty of the War on Drugs.

Special thanks go out to Paul Pope, who provided the story’s perfect illustrations. The one above (click to enlarge) is based on photographs I took in the central character’s San Fernando, Calif., garage.

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Woven Scars

March 19th, 2013

Afghan War RugOne of the tangential characters in The Skies Belong to Us is the late William L. Eageleton, one of the most storied diplomats of the Cold War. When he wasn’t busy representing American interests in global hot spots, Eagleton passed the time by delving into the minutiae of rugs: He was a noted collector of Middle Eastern and North African rugs, as well as the author of an authoritative book on the topic. Tracking his interest in the art form led me the archives of Oriental Rug Review, a wonderfully geeky journal dedicated to the world’s unheralded weavers.

Much of the journal’s content is only available on paper, but a few in-depth articles have been posted on The Tubes. One of my favorites is this lengthy examination of Afghan war rugs, which includes some incredible photos of rugs created in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion. A highly recommended read for anyone who shares our fascination with the way in which conflict shapes creativity.

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Everybody Loves the Sunshine

March 15th, 2013

Ukraine BeachHaving been raised to think that all of the Soviet Bloc resembled the drab realm depicted in this infamous Wendy’s ad, I’m always amused to come across depictions of our Cold War foes basking in the sun. The photo above, of a crowded beach in Odessa, is part of a terrific Ian Berry series from 1982, which includes several more shots of Ukrainians of varying shapes and sizes stretched out on the sand—along with more stereotypical depictions of the city’s bleak corners. Check out a great sampling from the collection here, via the always stellar Vintage Everyday.

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Sympathy for the Predator

March 13th, 2013

Mountain Lion Warning SignHere at Microkhan world headquarters, there are few things we admire more than passionate attention to detail, especially when it’s in the service of chronicling the arcane. And so you can imagine our joy upon encountering this awesomely comprehensive list of bygone mountain lion attacks, which does an excellent job of illustrating North America’s century-long transformation from rugged expanse to giant exurb. The list also contains an intriguing pivot about halfway through, one that goes to show how pop culture can subtly influence all aspects of public discourse:

News coverage of Peter Taylor’s death in 1949 demonstrates that this may be the era when people first began to adopt our modern attitudes toward impressive, cute, and/or amusing animals, including predators. Regarding the savage killing of Peter Taylor, a newspaper opined that the cougar was merely “defending what was his own.” This is the first evidence I have found of this now common attitude beginning to emerge. Perhaps laying the groundwork in our psyches from childhood to adulthood, Walt Disney’s influential Bambi in this same era (1942) pioneered and dramatized the concept of man as the most sinister and heartless threat to all wildlife. A few years later Disney’s “true life,” anthropomorphic, animal adventures series began portraying animals with human-like personalities.

Our threat did not diminish as a result of this newfound sympathy, of course—it just became more insidious, as habitat destruction in the name of development replaced outright hunting as the mountain lion’s great affliction. You can see why the great cats might want to seek their revenge on the occasional wayward hiker.

(Image via Hilobrow)

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Skyjacker of the Day

March 11th, 2013

Skyjacker of the DayLet me assure you that the recent slowdown in Microkhan posting is not due to my having surrendered to indolence. I have instead been busy prepping the launch of a major project in support of The Skies Belong to Us: Skyjacker of the Day.

Over the next hundred days, I’ll be profiling a hundred skyjackers from the Sixties and Seventies—mostly Americans, though I reserve the right to toss in the occasional Japanese militant or Cypriot nationalist. The series launches today with a sketch on Frederick Hahneman, best known for parachuting into the Honduran jungle while clutching $303,000 in ransom.

Be sure to check back daily for updates, and please pay a visit to the new The Skies Belong to Us website when you can. Feedback regarding bugs and errors appreciated, and potentially rewarded with some book-related trading cards down the line.

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Filipino Brass

March 8th, 2013


The annual Musikahan sa Tagum, which just wrapped up its 2013 edition, touts itself as the premier music festival in the entire Philippines. I don’t know enough about that nation’s arts scene to judge the validity of that claim, but I certainly can’t stop watching videos of the Musikahan’s marching-band competition. (The one above, for example, features an epic transition between “Fame” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” about midway through.) The event seems a perfect example of our species’ wondrous knack for hacking culture—the musicians here have taken a distinctly American art form and made it all the more splendid. What I love most about these performances is the way they don’t seem weighted down by their influences—they are not just imitating the stuff of SEC halftime shows, but rather spinning out their own thoroughly Filipino spectacle.

Oh, and be sure to watch for the dancers who kick in around the 3:30 mark. Love how they seem to be doing their own thing to some extent—minor rebels amidst the straitjacketed order of the march.

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High Stakes

March 6th, 2013

Tasmanian PoppiesI was recently intrigued to learn that 45 percent of the world’s opiate alkaloids—that is, the ones incorporated into prescription medicines rather than illicit narcotics—come from Tasmanian poppies. The Australian state’s dominance in this industry is the result of several factors, starting with its unique geography; tucked away in the Southern Hemisphere and surrounded by water, it has natural security advantages over more accessible rivals. But Tasmanian poppy growers have also benefitted from astute regulatory oversight, which has included healthy public investment in agricultural research—research that has dramatically increased the per-poppy opiate yield over the decades.

But Tasmania evidently isn’t producing enough poppies, at least according to TPI Enterprises, the dominant processor on the island. TPI now wants to import additional poppies from Turkey, a plan that is causing no small amount of consternation among their domestic growers. To press their case, those growers are arguing that TPI’s Turkish plans could undermine Tasmania in some rather unexpected ways:

At the hearing, held in Launceston, Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association’s Jan Davis raised concerns surrounding biosecurity, which Mr Rice shared.

“If you’re going to import 2000 tonnes of raw poppy capsule into Tasmania and that’s going to take a minimum of 150 to 200 containers … the bio-sec and risk associated with that is enormous,” he said.

Mr Rice said there was also the issue of intellectual property theft, with Tasmanian poppy seeds being taken over to Turkey to be modelled and grown.

I find the last point most interesting, and perhaps most convincing. While it is hard to imagine a transnational crime syndicate having the wherewithal to steal massive quantities of poppy capsules from container ships, I can easily see the dangers in poppy-related IP theft. Yield is everything in industries such as this, and the secrets of those yields are bound up in the unique genetic makeup of each seed. If a country with lower labor and land costs can figure out how to produce a crop on par with Tasmania’s, they could dominate the market a decade down the line. The advantages of being a remote island can only take Tasmania so far.

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Teksi Driver

March 5th, 2013

Apologies for the late jump on the week, but I’m swamped with prepping an excerpt from The Skies Belong to Us. Back tomorrow with thoughts on the brouhaha in Tasmania’s poppy industry; in the meantime, take a moment to learn about the hardships of driving a taxi in Port Moresby.

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A Wonder This Didn’t Catch On

March 1st, 2013

Anti-Rape DeviceIn an attempt to flesh out the nascent The Skies Belong to Us mood board, I have been combing through reams of patents for anti-hijacking devices. Most are deliciously zany, such as this capture chamber or this trick chair. The hijacking epidemic of the late 1960s and early 1970s certainly seems to have fired up the imaginations of inventors who spent their formative years watching secret-agent flicks at the local movie palace.

Reading slightly off-center patents is a true pleasure for those who enjoy tangents, for each document offers handy links to related inventions. By perusing the citations for the trick chair, for example, I was led to this bonkers gadget, which presents a classic case of best intentions gone awry. The first paragraph of the abstract speaks for itself (with apologies for the anatomically frank language):

An anti-rape device having a hollow housing adapted to be worn within the human vagina. The housing has a front opening and contains a hypodermic syringe having a volume of rape-deterring fluid and a needle facing and aligned with the front opening. Actuator means in the housing are provided which include housing means such as a spring to force the needle through the front opening and inject the fluid, cocking means to cock the device into a position which totally shields the needle within the housing, and prevents action of the spring, and trigger means which automatically releases the cocking means, upon forceful penis penetration of a vagina containing the device, to permit the spring to protrude the needle and inject the fluid into the penis. Preferably, the fluid is a quick-acting, safe narctoc such as scopolamine, or the like to render the rapist unconscious.

More detailed (and, I assure you, completely safe-for-work) drawings here. I could unearth no evidence that this device ever went into production, perhaps because early market research revealed that the target consumers might be a wee bit skittish about carrying around scopolamine-filled needles inside their bodies.

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Documents Matter

February 28th, 2013

Papua New Guinea SorceryI have been reluctant to comment on the recent witch burning horror in Papua New Guinea, even though I have previously written at length about that nation’s problems with stamping out superstition-related violence. There was something alarmingly voyeuristic about the way in which the murder was covered, and I didn’t think it appropriate to chime in when others were busy leering at the terrible events in question. But enough time has now passed for more sober takes to pop up, and one of the best comes through the eyes of a Catholic priest who has spent four decades in Papua New Guinea. He coolly explains why the belief in sorcery persists in rural areas of his adopted country, and one of the reasons he offers has to do with the nation’s lack of bureaucracy:

Gibbs said he tried to convince his parishioners to take a more modern and scientific view of the world “such as asking a medical doctor the cause of death,” saying medical authorities need to be more open about causes of death, and in a country that often has no death certificate system, he wants one. Oddly, people will accept a death by heart attack; but not high blood pressure.

A great number of attacks on “witches” come after someone—usually a child—has suddenly fallen ill and died. Absent of any formal explanation of how such a tragedy could have occurred, the superstitious seek scapegoats. A great many innocent lives could be saved if the government could somehow help grieving relatives understand that their loved ones were victims of terrible luck, rather than dark arts. Something as simple as a piece of paper with an official stamp certainly might help bolster the legitimacy of such an official explanation.

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Maximum Entertainment

February 26th, 2013

Double Wired deadline today, plus tweaking a soon-to-launch Web project related to The Skies Belong to Us. Back tomorrow with something slightly more erudite than footage of Loni Anderson strutting across a field of broken glass.

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A Question of Competence

February 25th, 2013

Guinea Election WaymarkGuinea’s political opposition is none-too-pleased with the current regime’s decision to outsource the management of May’s election to Waymark, a South African information technology firm. At first glance, these objections may seem flimsy, based more on xenophobia than legitimate fear of cronyism. But if you scratch beneath the surface a bit, you can get a sense of the very specific reasons why Guinean opposition leaders are skeptical of Waymark’s credentials:

Benin alleged in 2008 that the [Waymark] system it used was unreliable and the manner in which it secured the contract was questionable. [Waymark] was chucked out early in tendering for the Cameroonian election this year. In South Africa, Waymark was axed by the Department of Trade and Industry after it was accused of improperly securing an R11m contract to maintain information technology for the former Cipro (now the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission).

It was alleged that President Condé’s son, Mohamed Alpha Condé, worked for Waymark at one stage and introduced the company to the administration…It was reported that the Guinean finance department said Waymark’s contract work amounted to $3m, but the invoice was for $14m. And the United Nations website reveals that Waymark was removed from its list of approved service providers in September 2008.

There isn’t much hard evidence to back up some of the more explosive allegations against Waymark, but there is one notable negative about the company that anyone can check out for themselves: its laughably lackluster website. Tough to imagine trusting a shaky democracy to a company that can’t get basic HTML right.

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Muzzled in Fiji

February 21st, 2013

Approximately two years ago, the Fiji Times reprinted a story from New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times in which a soccer official questioned the ethical soundness of Fiji’s judiciary. The military dictator who runs Fiji as his personal fiefdom did not take kindly to such an insinuation, even though even a casual observer of the island nation can recognize the criticism as true. And so the Fiji Times now finds itself in a sticky legal situation, having been found guilty of contempt of court and fined the equivalent of $170,000. The newspaper was compelled to cover its own punishment, which it did so in the gentlest terms possible:

In 2011, Tai Nicholas made comments to a reporter of the New Zealand-based Sunday Star Times responding to questions on former Fiji Football Association president Dr Muhammed Shamsud-Dean Sahu Khan’s official position in the OFC and FIFA (International Federation of Football Association).

The Sunday Star Times article that contained Mr Nicholas’s comments was published verbatim in this newspaper the following day.

Those comments, according to an affidavit filed by the Attorney-General’s office in November 2011, were said to “scandalise the court and the judiciary of Fiji in that they were a scurrilous attack on the members of the judiciary, thereby lowering the authority of the judiciary and the court”.

In his judgment, Justice Calanchini said this was a case of contempt of court which should be punished by a penalty that reflects the public interest, acts as a deterrent and appropriately denounces the conduct of the respondents.

Whether the tiny Fiji Times can continue to operate with such a judgment hanging over its head is anyone’s guess. I am certain that the powers-that-be in Fiji would prefer that it shut down. Those at the helm of the newspaper must decide not only whether they can survive financially, but whether they wish to risk further harassment. The fact that they are faced with such a difficult choice bodes incredibly ill for Fiji’s future.

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Life in the Bubble

February 19th, 2013

Prince JefriThe adulation accorded Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear motivated me to look up the very first Scientology exposé I can remember: Richard Behar’s 1991 Time investigation, which irked the Church to no end. That piece made me a lifelong fan of Behar, whose meticulous approach to reporting is something I’ve sought to emulate in my own career.

My favorite Behar piece is his 1999 Fortune account of shenanigans in Brunei’s royal family. Astoundingly, Behar managed to snag an interview with the notoriously profligate Prince Jefri, a man who otherwise shuns the media. That interview reveals a man who, by virtue of his spectacular wealth, has no need to engage with everyday reality:

The prince–flanked by a $160,000 pair of solid-gold tissue dispensers–spoke less in sentences than in syllables. He giggled and glared and cocked his head as if I’d just fallen through the roof in a full suit of armor.

“Jefri is not geared for questions,” explained an apologetic aide. “He is painfully shy,” added another. Jefri did manage to say that he was “looking forward” to his return to Brunei, that he missed the Sultan, and that he was “upset, confused, disappointed” when his assets were suddenly seized. I asked how long he planned to stay in Brunei. “I’m very open,” he responded. I tried another tack. Will the Sultan see you? “He knows I’m coming.” Laughter filled the room, but I’d somehow missed the joke. Have the two of you spoken by phone? “Yes, it is good that way. He asked me about the weather in New York.”

I wanted Jefri’s views on the events swirling around Brunei. “You ask me? You were there.” Again, more laughter. When I asked about Aziz and the conservatives, Jefri said that “they would have their own agendas.” And what are those agendas? “You can tell me,” the prince responded. Chuckles all around.

Clearly, this was the stuff of history, so I pressed on. I told Jefri it seemed that certain government officials wanted his country to become more conservative. “They didn’t tell me,” he responded. I also told him it was obvious from my visit to Brunei that he had done many things to open up the society. “What did I do?” he asked, sounding alarmed and confused.

Jefri never says anything of consequence in the interview, but his inability to observe basic norms of human communication speaks volumes about his character. This is a man for whom fellow members of his species are mere abstractions.

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Mistakes Were Made

February 15th, 2013

Tamsin Fitzgerald HijackerCrashing on a mammoth Wired opus today, as well as reviewing the final page proofs for The Skies Belong to Us (which is now endorsed by some thoroughly amazing folks). Back on Monday, provided Asteroid 2012 DA14 doesn’t veer off course and dinosaur us all.

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Grudge Match

February 14th, 2013

Shoeless Joe Jackson GrudgeWhen Senator Warren B. Rudman recently passed, I was struck by the concluding section of his New York Times obituary, which contained an anecdote that attested to his stubbornness:

Mr. Rudman feuded with his alma mater long after he had left its campus. In 1952, Syracuse University withheld his bachelor’s diploma because he had refused to pay an $18 fee for the yearbook, saying he had not been told of the charge in advance. After he was elected to the Senate, Syracuse offered him the degree or, if he preferred, an honorary degree. It eventually mailed him the diploma, but he never opened the package, and he later blocked an earmark of several million dollars for the university.

This story got me thinking about narratives in which tiny, even accidental slights can have life-altering repercussions down the line. A classic example from recent popular culture is probably Seasons Two of The Wire, in which a seemingly innocuous rivalry over stained-glass windows leads to a hard-working family’s total destruction. Yet I much prefer a tale from the realm of the real—the backstory on the whole Black Sox scandal as recounted by Shoeless Joe Jackson in this 1949 interview. According to Jackson, his lifetime banishment from the game was due solely to bad blood that existed between Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League president Ban Johnson—bad blood that stemmed from a truly petty dispute:

I’ll tell you the story behind the whole thing. The trouble was in the front office. Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, had sworn he’d get even with Mr. Comiskey a few years before, and that was how he did it. It was all over some fish Mr. Comiskey had sent to Mr. Johnson from his Wisconsin hunting lodge back about 1917. Mr. Comiskey had caught two big trout and they were such beauties he sent them to Mr. Johnson. He packed the fish in ice and expressed them, but by the time they got to Chicago the ice had melted and the fish had spoiled. They smelled awful and Mr. Johnson always thought Mr. Comiskey had deliberately pulled a joke on him. He never would believe it any other way.

That fish incident was the cause of it all. When Mr. Johnson got a chance to get even with Mr. Comiskey, he did it. He was the man who ruled us ineligible. He was the man who caused the thing to go into the courts. He did everything he could against Mr. Comiskey.

There has to be some competitive advantage of being prone to grudges—they can be such a powerful motivator, perhaps even more so than the desire for creature comforts. But when a grudge is finally won after many years, even a lifetime of struggle, how often are the psychological rewards worth the accumulated bile?

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The Hieroglyphics of Vagabonds

February 12th, 2013

Hieroglyphics of VagabondsLast summer we marveled at the complexity of hobo pictographs, which we took to be a uniquely American phenomenon. But as this 1872 dictionary of slang from London makes clear, the tradition of wordless transient communication traces back to the Old World. In decidedly non-PC language, the author argues that this code was created by the semi-nomads we now call Travellers, who used markings to alert comrades to meeting spots. And as discussed in our earlier post, this mode of communication was attuned to the Western habit of processing information from left to right:

Gipsies (sic) follow their brethren by numerous marks, such as strewing handfuls of grass in the daytime at a four lane or a crossroads; the grass being strewn down the road the gang have taken; also, by a cross being made on the ground by a stick or a knife–the longest end of the cross denotes the route taken. In the nighttime a cleft stick is placed in the fence at the cross roads, with an arm pointing down the road their comrades have taken. The marks are always placed on the left-hand side, so that the stragglers can easily and readily find them.

The dictionary’s whole list of bygone slang is worth a read, too. So many great words to add to my everyday vocabulary, starting with “akeybo” and “albertopolis.”

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Male Ruffled Grouses in the Mist

February 8th, 2013

Camouflage PatentThe latest post from the indispensable Camoupedia recounts the career of Gerome Brush, an artist with whom I was previously unfamiliar. His anonymity is undeserved, however, as he played an instrumental role in the advent of military camouflage; he helped fellow artist Abbott Handerson Thayer patent the first concept for the visual concealment of ships in 1902, an innovation that was later put to excellent use in the bedazzling of World War I naval vessels. There is perhaps no greater example of the practical application of artistic skill.

An expert of camouflage history would surely argue, however, that Thayer deserves greater credit. It was his 1909 book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (co-authored with his son, Gerald) that is considered the foundational work of this highly functional art form; I highly recommend this painting of the male ruffled grouse as the perfect way to understand the thought process that led Thayer to his eureka moment.

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So Far from the Zenith

February 6th, 2013


It is tough not to be saddened by the unraveling of English soccer hero Paul Gascoigne, who is currently drying out at an American rehabilitation facility after a very long, very public battle with a virulent strain of alcoholism. Like so many celebrities who we adore for their bad behavior, Gazza became trapped in a destructive feedback loop—the more he pushed his body to the limit, the more we marveled that this obviously troubled man could have once been among the planet’s foremost athletes. And the demon inside Gazza seems to have taken perverse pleasure in creating that logic-defying persona—though, inevitably, that pleasure melted into self-hate, and the cycle of addiction became ever-more firmly entrenched.

To truly appreciate the bind that Gazza now finds himself in, one must understand the heights that he reached. Doing so does not require knowledge of his sporting feats, but rather a familiarity of the perks those feats created—most notably, entree to the world of music, an aspiration of many a successful athlete filled with hubris. This extremely well-researched piece details every in and out of Gazza’s brief but energetic musical career, in which his will to top the charts was exceeded only by his irredeemable narcissism. He seemed genuinely surprised when his songs were greeted with derision more than love—it was the first time in ages that he realized that he could, in fact, do wrong. For someone with the massive ego required to succeed at the topmost levels of sport, such an epiphany is about the most unwelcome thing imaginable.

Another of Gazza’s party anthems here. You can blame the man for lack of talent, but you certainly can’t blame him for lack of spirit.

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Supreme Mathematics

February 4th, 2013

Hijacking Contagion Equation SmallerA great illness has swept the royal Microkhan yurts in Queens, and so I must dedicate the bulk of today to making sure the clan recuperates in fine style. Back soon with something tasty—in the meantime, please enjoy another sample from our burgeoning collection of book-related images and info.

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The Hidden Beauty of the Panelaks

February 1st, 2013

Serbian Mass HousingWorking-class apartment blocks—particularly those built by authoritarian governments—don’t exactly have stellar aesthetic reputations. When you think of the high-rises erected for the proletariat, adjectives such as “brutish,” “drab”, and “grim” are what immediately pop to mind. Yet it is important to remember that even when budgetary constraints and government ideology factored into the construction equation, the buildings were still the work of human beings. And humans have a penchant for finding some way to make their surroundings tolerable.

That truism is well documented in the nascent International Mass Housing Image Bank, which consists largely of photographs taken in the 1970s and ’80s. At first glance, many of the buildings portrayed look positively dreary—a bit like the banged-up “estate” that the anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange called home. But take a closer look and you can see where architects made small efforts to create something elegant, even warm, despite having to work with the cheapest materials and the dourest bureaucratic overseers.

Of particular note: Images from Microkhan fave Ulaanbaatar, as well as this eerie series from Belgrade.

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Deathboats, Cont’d

January 30th, 2013

Lifeboat AccidentA treasured microblog correspondent alerted us to this heap of bad news from the maritime realm: cruise-ship crews will henceforth be receiving more lifeboat training than ever before. This decision by the Cruise Lines International Association was surely made with the best of intentions, as the organization doesn’t want a repeat of the chaos that marred the evacuation of the Costa Concordia last January. But as previously discussed on Microkhan, lifeboat drills are invariably far more lethal than the disasters they’re supposed to guard against. Let us quote once more from this damning report:

In 2001 the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) studied the UK’s merchant fleet accident reports for ten years and it showed that alongside entering confined spaces and falling overboard, lifeboat practice was the most dangerous area of operation. Sixteen per cent of fatalities happen during lifeboat drill – one death in eight – a chilling statistic.

MAIB concluded that there were major three factors in lifeboat training accidents which in the studied decade killed 12 seafarers and injured a further 87. Ironically over the same period they did not record one single instance where someone was saved by a lifeboat.

The report emphasized deficiencies in lifeboat design, maintenance and training. Their findings were confined to UK waters and therefore only pointed towards the global problem, but they were backed up by the Norwegian and Australian authorities with their separate investigations coming to similar conclusions. The Norwegians estimate that globally there are about 214,000 drills a year causing 1,000 accidents and as many as half causing fatalities.

The fact that this data is so difficult for policy makers to process speaks volumes about the limits of human decision making.

(Image via Martin’s Marine Engineering Page)

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Upside-Down World

January 29th, 2013

Venezuela PrisonsThere is a certain breed of non-fiction story that I call the bridge burner—a tale so damning that it ensures that the writer will never again enjoy access to a vast swath of trusted sources. A prime example would be Jon Lee Anderson’s recent “Slumlord,” in which he paints a vivid portrait of the chaos that Hugo Chavez has created in Venezuela. Although “chaos” is perhaps too mild a word to characterize the atmosphere that Anderson describes—the place he describes more closely resembles the dystopian prison in Escape from New York than a functioning nation.

There are many stellar set pieces in the story, including a lengthy exploration of life in the Torre de David, an unfinished skyscraper now inhabited by squatters and ruled by a quasi-religious gangster chieftain. But the anecdote that will always stick with me is this passage, in which Anderson visits one of the many prisons now entirely controlled by armed inmates:

A prison official drove me on a dirt road around the perimeter fence. We stopped, and I saw two tall cellblocks with scores of bullet holes in their facades; where te windows should have been there were jagged holes, and a large group of shirtless, rough-looking men looking down at us. A thick black line of human excrement ran down an exterior wall, and in the yard below was a sea of sludge and garbage several feet deep. “We can’t hang around here,” the official said. “If we stay too long, they might shoot at us.” As we drove off, he explained that there were only six guards at a time inside the prison. The inmates allowed one handpicked guard to retrieve dead bodies they left there.

I very much doubt that Anderson will get any sit-downs with Chavez’s successor. But he has placed himself in excellent position to report on the nascent opposition to the Chavista “dynasty,” which seems to be taking shape outside of Venezuela’s borders.

(Image via Caracas Chronicles)

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Knife Tricks

January 25th, 2013

Skyjacker Knife TrickThe effervescent young lady above worked for an early manufacturer of handheld metal detectors. Here she shows a Congressional panel how the skyjackers of the the late 1960s managed to sneak knives aboard planes, even when selected for manual frisking by airline employees.

From my very nascent collection of skyjacking-related images, tied into the forthcoming release of that project y’all will be surely sick of hearing come June. Apologies—at least until there’s only a month to go before publication, I’ll try and limit these posts to one-per-week. Deal?

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The Unapologetic Cipher

January 24th, 2013


I’m midway through David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali, which is pretty much as stellar as you would expect. Yet there are times when I wish the narrative would instead focus on the tragic figure of Sonny Liston—what can I say, I’m attracted to characters who will never be universally adored, and who perhaps take some modicum of pleasure in that fact. The snippets of Liston backstory that the book provides motivated me to delve more deeply into the man’s bittersweet arc. The most enjoyable contemporary story I’ve uncovered so far is this one, from a 1962 issue of Life. It’s hackneyed, for sure, especially in its structure; like every other account of Liston’s rise from convict to contender, it uses purplish prose to explore his moral fitness to wear the heavyweight crown. But the piece also contains plenty of gems based on interviews with the famously tight-lipped Liston; my favorite concerns the man’s pre-fight nutritional regimen:

When in hard training for a fight he eats only once a day. “When you get in the gym and start jumping the food hits the top of your stomach and sticks there,” he explains. His one meal never varies—steak eaten nearly raw. When he goes to camp he brings along 50 or 60 steaks packed in dry ice. “That’s why they have training camps,” he explains. “They take away women and feed you raw meat and this puts you in a fighting mood. It makes you angry and brings up the evil inside of you, so that when the man in your corner says, ‘Go in and kill ‘em,’ you do.”

For some reason, the one Liston bio written during his heyday is out-of-print and ludicrously expensive. If anyone has a copy they can loan out, I’ll send you a signed copy of Now the Hell Will Start.

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The Talented Mr. Quan

January 22nd, 2013

PhoceaThe Phocea is one of the world’s largest superyachts, checking in at an impressive 75-meters in length. It has also proven to be a monkey’s paw of sorts, as great misfortune has befallen its ultra-successful owners:

The Phocea was built in Toulon in 1976 for yachtsman Alain Colas who called her Club Mediterranee. She competed in a Trans-Atlantic race for Colas, came second. Colas disappeared at sea the following year.

In 1982 French business man Bernard Tapie bought Phocea and had her converted to a private yacht at great expense. Tapie christened her Phocea, in honour of the Phoenicians who founded Marseilles where she was refitted.

Tapie later went to jail over corruption offences and in 1997 French Lebanese socialite Mouna Ayoub purchased the yacht – after she sold one of her diamonds, the largest yellow diamond in the world, and several other lesser jewels to pay for the US$17 million refit.

At some point after Ayoub’s sell-off of assets, the yacht fell into the hands of a man who goes by Pascal Anh Quan Saken. Quan claims to be the founder of the Billionaire Yacht Club, as well as the holder of an MBA from the “University of Minneapolis.” (Full curriculum vitae here.) But the PNG Post-Courier asserts that he is actually a trafficker of contraband who has no real ownership of the Phocea. In fact, Quan seems to have registered the ship in Malta by submitting forged documents; as a result, the Phocea was impounded by officials in Vanuatu, some of whom have been accused of illicit dealings with Quan. (Though he was apparently born in Vietnam, Quan appears to hold a diplomatic passport from Vanuatu.)

Quan is rumored to have flown to Papua New Guinea, to ask the government there to register the Phocea so it can be liberated from Vanuatu. I hope someone in Port Moresby asks him how, exactly, he got his hands on the yacht. My hunch tells me that it was exchanged for either arms or drugs, which is why there is no legit record of its sale. On a planet where large financial transactions are increasingly likely to come to the attention of the authorities, old-fashioned bartering may be the way of the future on the black market.

Check out a full list of stories on L’affaire Phocea here.

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Be Thankful for What You’ve Got

January 18th, 2013

Chicago Elevator Death TrapsA bundle of statistics to chew over the next time you set foot in an automated elevator. Yes, the steel boxes of today lack a certain charm compared to the ornate, manually-controlled brass contraptions of yore. But at least they’re not death traps. (Current accident statistics here.) Humans are great at many things, but reliable elevator operation is not one of them.

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A Serious Approach

January 17th, 2013

Bigfoot ArtIf you pay the slightest bit of attention to high-profile criminal cases, you have doubtless encountered the sketches of Harvey Pratt. The Oklahoma-based forensic artist is one of the masters of his craft, and thus a frequent attendee at trials where cameras are verboten. He is also a pioneer of post-mortem reconstruction techniques, which allow police to envision what severely traumatized homicide victims looked like prior to meeting their unfortunate ends.

Pratt’s curiosity is not confined to the grisly, however: He is also the most serious-minded Bigfoot artist you’ll ever encounter. In attempting to shed light on the mythical creatures that allegedly stalk North America’s forest, Pratt deals with primary sources no differently than he would for his day job:

The North America Bigfoot Search has brought together years of law enforcement investigative experience and forensic artistry to the field of Bigfoot studies with it’s new book The Hoopa Project: Bigfoot Encounters in California. The Executive Director of North America Bigfoot Search, Dave Paulides has spent the last three years researching and working in the far northern portion of California’s Humboldt County, concentrating in the area of the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe jurisdiction.

For this project, Harvey Pratt was commissioned to meet with witnesses who saw a Sasquatch and complete forensic sketches based on his interview with them. He met with 13 witnesses and completed 16 forensic sketches that are featured in The Hoopa Project. The drawings bring forth the surprising conclusion that Bigfoot’s facial features appear to be more human than originally thought.

A full gallery of Pratt’s Bigfoot-related work here. I am particularly fond of the perspective on “Researcher’s Last View,” as well as the sheer excess of “My Dark Passenger.”

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Someone Take Him Up on This

January 15th, 2013

Lukashenko HockeyBelarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who we prefer to think of as The Armed Clown, has a famously high opinion of his own athletic prowess. Today that hubris led him to make a proposition that I hope he will live to regret, as he wrote a check with his mouth that his body surely cannot cash. In the midst of a press conference at which he addressed Hugo Chavez’s ailing health, Lukashenko felt the need to emphasize that he is in no danger of relinquishing his “throne.” And as is his wont, he stressed this fact in the most brazen way possible to journalist in attendance:

If you question my health, please, put on skates, bring a hockey stick or skis and we will try it with you. You are younger than me. If you want, we can do it in front of everyone. 10km race. If you finish first, you will become president by right of health tomorrow.

You have no idea how fondly we wish for this contest to happen. Because at this point, it looks like old-school trial-by-combat is the only way the Belarusian people will get the change in government they so desperately need.

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