Monday, March 26, 2012

A light dusting of Kardashian eventually gets on everything.

I would have preferred to never enter into a debate over the validity of the Kardashians. They have every right to do whatever it is that they do. Yet whether they (or their most exposed member - Kim) are discussed as a cultural force, a target for all sorts of the disgruntled, or as an exercise in bush league satire - they bring it on seemingly everywhere and oh so often. I'm probably not alone in being hooked by the latest story involving Kim Kardashian. I hope you somehow avoided it, but for those looking for the goods - the debate got rolling with last week's "flour bomb" delivered while Kim was walking the red carpet for her new fragrance. The nebulous point(s) evolving from this episode include: who might have targeted Kim and why, whether she'll file charges, and who might pay for that responsible individual's legal defense. Never afraid to step right in it, PETA's already lunged into the frame. That comes from their simmering beef with the Kardashians - which actually features some confusing Kardashian on Kardashian hypocrisy. Obviously, there are more than a few positions to take when it comes to the Kardashians. Prior to this I would've at least tried to claim my typical reaction was to run away from the entire Kardashian milieu at top speed. No longer - check back from all your Kardashian vs. PETA updates right here. Now if you'll excuse me, I must scan my hard drive for all the viruses newly downloaded from my latest Googling.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Nutria Get a Makeover

A fabulous little artistic surprise showed up in my inbox this morning. A writer friend (Eric Jay Dolin - total pro historian & writer of book-length tales) forwarded the link from the NYTimes because his last book gets featured prominently in the resulting video. The animator/writer of the actual video (Drew Christie - maker of all sorts of amazing creative goodness) lives here in Seattle. The subject of the video is the often maligned nutria. They're tough furry buggers to love. Nutria decimate the vegetation along the shoreline of various bodies of water, leading to erosion and general environmental sadness. So they've had bounties placed on their fugly little heads as an unworthy "invasive species" for years. I've been intrigued for years by the various origin stories of how this South American rat with its distinctive orange teeth ended up scattered all over. The basic rundown (also described by Christie in this animated story from his own family's lore) usually ties in some overly excited agribusiness folks who couldn't handle what they bought. Nutria, as the story goes, enjoyed a period of being touted as the next big thing for furry fashion. Oddly enough, even today's fashion hasn't abandoned the idea of using nutria. In fact, some folks are astonishingly creative when it comes to using them, while trying to rebrand the "use" of nutria as good for the environment. But that's a whole other distillation of the nutria debate featured in this animation. I highly recommend y'all check out Drew Christie's fresh, fantastic video featuring a downright lovable nutria, duly educated by Eric Jay Dolin's book (Fur, Fashion, Empire - W.W. Norton 2010). Kid friendly, to boot.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Daisey on the Shame Chain

Near the end of last week, I'd wanted to weigh in here on the cancellation of HBO's "Luck" - the ending of which was directly caused by accidents that led to three horses being euthanized during filming. The story leading up to the plug being pulled on "Luck" had me intrigued because it allowed for a curious peek inside the chasm between PETA and the American Humane Society. But I was also drawn to the evolving intrigue around this horsey story because I just plain love(d) the show. It seems that I'm one of the few who saw the snap once again in David Milch's writing and the conflict-heavy brilliance possible inside the world of racing. As luck would have it, we hit the road last Thursday for a long weekend in the Bay Area. A nice big chunk of which for me meant getting back to the satisfying face-to-face work of research in the field as it relates to much grander narrative ambitions. As has been the case up to now and will still be going forward until such time as having some announcements to make, I don't talk about sources. In effect, this blog parses out parts of the story of a story in progress. Things that interest me as I go along get sporadically posted here - all, hopefully, related to the broader theme. I make up my own rules, but they adhere somewhat to a basic sensibility - I'm not doing journalism, but I treat the people I speak with as if I am doing so. Then something happened over the weekend which made me do a full stop as a small storm of pseudo-journalistic inappropriateness rumbled over the horizon.

"This American Life" ran its "Retraction" of Mike Daisey being featured on their show in January of this year (the most popular episode in their history dating back to the mid-90s). In that original airing, Daisey excerpted and repackaged parts of his stage performance "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs". I wish Daisey's mistake and the subsequent reaction didn't belong to an entire category of such trainwreck stories. James Frey and Greg Mortensen (to name just the most obvious two) have already primed the memory pump. Yet to hear Daisey being interviewed by Ira Glass about the way he outright lied and spun the truth and bent over backwards to lump together an otherwise compelling story about the supply chain for Apple products manufactured in China is to hear a man's reputation come crashing down around him in pieces. I was stunned. I was saddened. I was impressed by "This American Life" immensely yet again. I thought about my own time in China last fall "reporting" for my own book. And I'm still thinking about what it means if someone with a mission to tell a larger truth gets caught with even a few lies mixed into the work.

I can't help but think of my own work and a conversation I continually have (both with myself and others) about the way in which I am pursuing this project. I believe it is possible to write a book that is somewhere between "journalism" and "memoir" - a book that bridges bookstores categories that run from "history" to "current affairs" to the full range of indie bookseller classifications that encompass "animal rights" and "nature" and "politics and culture". In fact, I've been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about just that - if the bridge between categories is something appropriate to use when writing a book. Mike Daisey's experience (and that of Frey and Mortensen and countless others who've seemingly ambled down this same road where they feel like the rules don't apply to them) is very much on my mind today. Whatever happens to him hereafter, I think a lesson might be applicable for all sorts of writers. I think it could be summed up as follows:

If you tweak the truth, someone will follow up and find it. Period. Luck has nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Search for Meaning Between Activism and Enforcement

Over the weekend while watching "Game Change" on HBO (a truly fantastic adaptation of the juiciest part of Halperin and Heileman's book), a "Washington Post" story by Juliet Eilperin captured and redirected my focus. I've been looking into much of what's covered by the umbrella of that story. And new details continue to emerge on related cases and issues, even just since this story ran on the front page of Sunday's Post. To step back a bit - Eilperin wrote about what she'd characterized as a decrease in the incidences of "eco-terrorism" and the increased scrutiny of those individuals engaged in or considering such acts. Some folks take issue with the term "eco-terrorism" as applied in shorthand to describe a whole host of political, cultural or paradoxical causes. In my opinion, it's on the order of "homeland security" as a term that ends up strip-mined of real meaning when it gets used too broadly. Still, Eilperin offered up a smart list of examples to support the very valid observation at the center of her story. A dizzying array of interests have since brought something to or taken something away from this story. Just read the comments section associated with the story to see how broad the interests are proving - animal rights, anything Green, Occupy Everything, fracking, you name it. Hell, someone even mentioned Solyndra. Crackpottedness aside, I'm fascinated by this amalgam of reactions - within and far beyond the Post's comments section. Maybe it proves that if you paint with a broad brush, people then see whatever they've been searching for in the abstraction. Think Gerhard Richter - but in sociopolitical terms. If you haven't yet read it but choose to hereafter do so, I would love to hear your takeaways. Before you return to "Game Change" or whatever else preceded coming across this.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What is the "ag gag" - chill bill, speech reach, or just a lame name?

Some pieces of legislation have catchy titles, or at least garner shorthand headlines that raise their profile. Bills for "motor voter" and "cash for clunkers" come to mind almost immediately. Others miss the mark by more than a little or just plain try too hard. In this category, I would most definitely place a new category of legislation dealing with outlawing undercover video taken in agribusiness settings - so called "ag gag" laws. Some blame/credit Mark Bittman for coining the term, but he's surely not alone in pointing a small degree of attention at the debate over these laws. I'm just getting up to speed on not only what's the "gag" but also who's the "ag" in this debate. Utah, Iowa, Minnesota and New York represent the first states where laws have been drawn up. And then Iowa was the first state to pass a version, as of last week. The basic dividing line is between those who say it's an "anti-whistleblower" law versus those who see this as a way to protect agribusiness from bad actors. Aside from a snarky desire to ask Sacha Baron Cohen and Morgan Spurlock where they stand on gonzo reporting being countered with the threat of prison, I'd love to hear the various justifications and/or chilling effects people see from this. Just this morning I asked a contact back in Iowa who's in the business of enforcing these laws. Always the professional, he declined to comment. But he made a point by saying that if a law's on the books, it gets enforced. Next up on the "ag gag" front is Utah - they might pass a bill and send it to the Governor very soon. That is unless Katherine Heigl and Cloris Leachman have anything to say about it. No word yet on where either Rhoda or McDreamy fall on the issue.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Look who's rootin' for Putin - China

The amount of Putin prognasticating by the world's media will surely surge in the upcoming weeks. Russia's first round of the Presidential process comes on March 4th. If he gets more than 50%, Putin wins another term. Which I think means the world will be shuffling through their papers to see what that means for their relationship(s) with Russia. Yawn. I was, however, surprised by one story that showed up in my inbox this morning. China - here using an anecdotal sliver of their manufacturing and retail economy - is obviously rootin' for Putin to take charge once more. As related to my book, I spent a day in the particular area of Beijing being discussed in this piece. During that tiny nutshell moment, I could hardly believe the open and vital connection between Russian buyers and Chinese business. I saw the crowds (far sparser than what gets the drive-by in this piece - but it was just one day). And they were made up of what I characterized as thick-necked, old-school guys holding the burgeoning shopping bags of their over-dressed, cartoonishly-augmented wives/girlfriends/chattel out shopping for luxury goods in Beijing this past September. If Putin wins, the Chinese obviously hope those touring shoppers from the increasingly affluent upper tiers of new Russia will come in greater numbers. In that and maybe all things, all politics is local. Even when weirdly geopolitical, apparently.