29 August 2015

The New York Times: “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá”

Carlos looked at Wilber, his mirror image. They took a quick peek at each other — they both shouted Ay! and turned their backs, covering their eyes, each turning red. Wilber started speaking, but Carlos was having a hard time catching what he was saying. Instead of rolling his R’s, Wilber spoke with hard D’s. The speech impediment! Carlos had one as a child but overcame it with speech therapy.

All four started comparing notes, quizzing one another, finding out which essential qualities the identical twins shared. Who were the crybabies of the family? Carlos and Wilber! Who had sweet temperaments? Jorge and William! Who were more organized? Carlos and Wilber! Who were the girl-­chasers? Carlos and Wilber! Who were the strongest? Jorge and William!

Even still, while Jorge was seeing sameness with every glance he stole at William, Carlos was seeking differences between him and his country double. Look at our hands, Carlos said. They’re not the same. Wilber’s were bigger, more swollen, marked with scars from countless quarrels with the knives of the butcher shop and the machetes he used in the fields growing up. Carlos, by contrast, frequently got manicures; his nails, as is not uncommon among male professionals in Colombia, were covered in clear gloss.

Susan Dominus

Part South-American telenovela, part serious scientific study about the effects of genes and environment on personal development, this is a fascinating story about a couple of identical twins mixed up after birth and raised separately until their chance encounter two decades later. Along with their conflicting emotions and difficulties adjusting to this new reality, a striking aspect of the article is the wide gap between living in the poor Columbian countryside and the capital, how this divide forces choices and shapes lives beyond the power and will of individuals.

The New Yorker: “The Hunt for El Chapo”

If Chapo’s escape suggested that the Mexican political system had been corroded by drug money, his subsequent years as a fugitive did not diminish this impression. He retreated to Sinaloa and expanded his operations, launching violent turf wars with rival cartels over control of prized entry points along the U.S. border. The sociologist Diego Gambetta, in his 1993 book “The Sicilian Mafia”, observes that durable criminal enterprises are often woven into the social and political fabric, and part of their “intrinsic tenacity” is their ability to offer certain services that the state does not. Today on the streets of Culiacán you see night clubs, fortified villas, and an occasional Lamborghini. Chapo and other drug lords have invested and laundered their proceeds by buying hundreds of legitimate businesses: restaurants, soccer stadiums, day-care centers, ostrich farms. Juan Millán, the former state governor of Sinaloa, once estimated that sixty-two per cent of the state’s economy is tied up with drug money. Sinaloa remains poor, however, and Badiraguato, the municipality containing Guzmán’s home village, is one of the most desperate areas in the state. There had always been some sympathy for the drug trade in Sinaloa, but nothing deepens sympathy like charity and bribes. Eduardo Medina Mora, Mexico’s Ambassador in Washington, described Guzmán’s largesse in the state: You are financing everything. Baptisms. Infrastructure. If someone gets sick, you provide a little plane. So you have lots of local support, because you are Santa Claus. And everybody likes Santa Claus.

Patrick Radden Keefe

If the government is unable to provide safety and services for the citizens, somebody else will – at a higher price. While this underground economy does redistribute some wealth to the poor, it’s just enough for survival; it’s not in the best interest of the criminal group in control to let the poor masses grow richer, more educated, and eventually become independent of the drug money.

Amusing side-note: how the drug lords use Twitter and Instagram to issue threats to their enemies and boast their rich lifestyle.

23 August 2015

Trei noi povestiri de Haruki Murakami

in Bucharest, Romania

După dezamăgirea de anul trecut cu 1Q84 am evitat să mai citesc alte romane de Haruki Murakami. Dar în urmă cu câteva luni am descoperit trei noi povestiri traduse și publicate în The New Yorker, le‑am încărcat pe Kindle și le‑am citit pe rând, printre lecturile mai lungi din ultima vreme. Conțin aceleași teme aproape obsesive, același stil bine-cunoscut care combină izolarea, melancolia lipsei de direcție în viață și un strop de magie, dar și unele din punctele slabe care m‑au iritat în 1Q84.

Kino

Haruki Murakami - Kino

După ce‑și surprinde soția în pat cu un coleg de serviciu, Kino divorțează fără multe discuții, demisionează de la locul de muncă și deschide un mic bar pe o străduță retrasă din Tokyo. Clienții nu se înghesuie în sala inundată de muzica lui preferată de jazz, dar Kino savurează noua lui viață molcomă. Singurii vizitatori fideli sunt Kamita, un tip înalt care apare seara și citește într‑un colț al tejghelei, și o pisică neagră.

As he waited for his first customer, Kino enjoyed listening to whatever music he liked and reading books he’d been wanting to read. Like dry ground welcoming the rain, he let the solitude, silence, and loneliness soak in. He listened to a lot of Art Tatum solo-piano pieces. Somehow they seemed to fit his mood.

După o aventură de o noapte cu o străină însă atmosfera se schimbă: pisica dispare fără urmă și Kamita îl avertizează că trebuie să plece departe de bar pentru că altfel se vor petrece lucruri neplăcute. Călătoria, ieșirea forțată din zona de confort, îl confruntă pe Kino cu durerea pierderii soției, sentimente pe care le evitase din dorința de liniște sau frica de a suferi. Cel puțin asta am înțeles eu din finalul relativ confuz și brusc. O poveste despre relațiile umane și nevoia de a merge mai departe, de a accepta trecutul pentru a putea lua viața de la capăt, asezonată cu aluzii la forțe supranaturale care interacționează subtil cu lumea palpabilă.

Nota mea: 3.5

disponibilă online pe site‑ul The New Yorker

22 August 2015

The Guardian: “How Yarmouk refugee camp became the worst place in Syria”

This was how Yarmouk entered the world’s consciousness: a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth. No electricity for months. No piped water. No access for food. Worse still, no chance for people to leave or return, except for a handful of emergency medical cases or the few who had the means to pay people-smugglers to get them through the multiple checkpoints. Some called it Syria’s Gaza, but its plight was even worse, because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape.

But notoriety can be short-lived. When Gaza came under Israeli bombardment in July 2014 and the world’s media rushed to report the carnage, Yarmouk slipped back into obscurity. The opening in the siege that UNRWA had negotiated in January 2014 applied only fitfully throughout the year: food deliveries were only possible on 131 days, and often less than half the amount required got through. Since 6 December, the siege has once again become impassable. UNRWA reports that it has not been able to deliver any food at all for the past 12 weeks. We are getting new reports of people dying of malnutrition and of women dying in childbirth, but nothing can be confirmed, said Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.

Jonathan Steele

An ongoing humanitarian crisis where nobody seems to be able to intervene, to put a stop to the suffering and misery. It hurts children the most, not only physically, but through the lack of education it limits their future perspectives – if they manage to survive, that is. And worse, the feeling there is no escape for the people trapped inside…

The New York Times: “ISIS and the Lonely Young American”

James Foley, a journalist she had never heard of, had been beheaded by ISIS, a group she knew nothing about. The searing image of the young man kneeling as the knife was lifted to his throat stayed with her.

Riveted by the killing, and struck by a horrified curiosity, she logged on to Twitter to see if she could learn more.

I was looking for people who agreed with what they were doing, so that I could understand why they were doing it, she said. It was actually really easy to find them.

She found herself shocked again, this time by the fact that people who openly identified as belonging to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took the time to politely answer her questions.

Rukmini Callimachi

Taking advantage of the weak and lonely, the sign of a horrible organization.

On the other hand, what kind of person sees people beheading journalists and befriends them because they are polite on Twitter?

19 August 2015

The Guardian: “Where is Google taking us?”

He references two cultural commandments as his guiding principles. One is a line from the founders’ letter that Brin and Page wrote when Google was mostly just the two of them, 16 years ago: Focus on the user and all else follows.

We call it the toothbrush test, Pichai says, we want to concentrate our efforts on things that billions of people use on a daily basis. For it to work for us, it has to be global. Search started that way. You could be very educated or you could be a rural kid somewhere, but as long as you had access to Google connectivity it was the same thing. To me there was something very democratising about that.

Tim Adams

I think the quote above captures ’s long-term mission very well. But at the same time, their global ambitions are what concern many people and can easily be perceived as arrogant, a ‘we know better’-attitude. Despite their declared ‘focus on the user’, it’s evident many of Google’s initiatives failed to satisfy user needs – you only have to look at the string of failed social networks launched in the past decade – so people are naturally reluctant to embrace every new radical project coming from the search giant. I fear that, after the new Alphabet conglomerate structure comes into place, Google will be more transparent, but even less accountable to shareholders and users everywhere.

18 August 2015

REDEF: “Less Money, Mo’ Music & Lots of Problems: A Look at the Music Biz”

“Music is art, and art is important and rare,” Taylor Swift wrote in the Wall Street Journal in July of 2014 (months before pulling her catalogue from Spotify), “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Yet of all the mass media, music is perhaps the least rare, most substitutable and in many instances, the most imitable (just ask Max Martin or Dr. Luke). For nearly half a century, however, the major labels (and therefore their artists) have held a de facto monopoly on the music industry and its output – all by controlling distribution. The costs of recording, producing, distributing and marketing a studio album – not to mention getting a track played on national radio stations – were so significant that few could do so at scale without the major labels. Furthermore, the major labels had scale-related incentives that limited the number of artists they were willing to support. As a result, the supply of both artists and music was fundamentally constrained.

Digital distribution ended this artificial scarcity, and with it the idea that music – even great music – was scarce. Spotify, for example, counts more than 30 million tracks, each available anywhere and anytime. Because of this, music lovers can now listen to a much greater variety of music – not just the few albums they’ve bought or what’s on locally programmed radio (which is heavily influenced by the major labels, too). This competition has inevitable economic consequences: prices go down and average units sold per album, track and artist drop. This is particularly true for online streaming. Though every music listener has favorite artists, consumption of music tends to be more passive and voluminous than any other media category. The average Spotify user, for example, listens to more than 1,300 tracks per month. When consumption is that great, the value of any one stream becomes slight. The economics bear this out: if we focus exclusively on Spotify paid subscribers ($9.99/month), the implied value of any one stream was $0.0076 in Q1 of 2015.

Liam Boluk

Great overview of the music industry, covering everything from the status quo a decade ago to the major shifts in consumption and distribution the business is experiencing today and how it will change the future of music.