Apple firestorm leads artist to change his show

Mike Daisey, the off-Broadway performer who admitted that he made up parts of his one-man show about Apple products being made in Chinese sweatshops, has cut questionable sections from the monologue and added a prologue explaining the controversy.

Colombian star Juanes says SXSW is life-changing

Colombian singer Juanes performs a Woody Guthrie song during the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas on Thursday, March 15, 2012.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)Juanes didn’t get to cross Eminem off his South By Southwest bucket list, but it’s still been one of the best weeks of his life.

Midnight Climax: CIA’s MK-ULTRA LSD experiments in San Francisco

Newly released documents shed light on the San Francisco edition of the CIA’s notorious MK-ULTRA program (through which people were unwittingly given massive doses of LSD to see if the drug would be useful for brainwashing), which ran from 1953-1964. There’s lots of detail about MK-ULTRA’s work in NYC and Montreal, but the San Francisco operation has been shrouded in mystery. The newly declassified documents form the springboard for a good investigative piece in SF Weekly, in which Troy Hooper speaks to Wayne Ritchie, one of the survivors of MK-ULTRA’s San Francisco operation.

There were at least three CIA safe houses in the Bay Area where experiments went on. Chief among them was 225 Chestnut on Telegraph Hill, which operated from 1955 to 1965. The L-shaped apartment boasted sweeping waterfront views, and was just a short trip up the hill from North Beach’s rowdy saloons. Inside, prostitutes paid by the government to lure clients to the apartment served up acid-laced cocktails to unsuspecting johns, while martini-swilling secret agents observed their every move from behind a two-way mirror. Recording devices were installed, some disguised as electrical outlets.

To get the guys in the mood, the walls were adorned with photographs of tortured women in bondage and provocative posters from French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The agents grew fascinated with the kinky sex games that played out between the johns and the hookers. The two-way mirror in the bedroom gave the agents a close-up view of all the action.

The main man behind the mirror was burly, balding crime-buster George H. White, a Bureau of Narcotics maverick who made headlines breaking up opium and heroin rings in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and the U.S. Few knew he doubled as a CIA spook for Uncle Sam. He oversaw the San Francisco program, gleefully dubbing it Operation Midnight Climax.

“[White] was a real hard head,” said Ritchie, who regularly ran into him in courtrooms and law enforcement offices in downtown San Francisco. “All of his agents were pretty much afraid to do anything without his full approval. White would turn on them, physically. He was a big tough guy.”

American chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the brains behind White’s brawn. It was the height of McCarthyism in the early ’50s, and government intelligence leaders, claiming fear of communist regimes, were using hallucinogens to induce confessions from prisoners of war held in Korea, and brainwash spies into changing allegiances. What better way to examine the effects of LSD than to dose unsuspecting citizens in New York City and San Francisco?

Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed S.F. Citizens with LSD

(Thanks, tyrsalvia!)

Reagan’s doodles

From the newly released collection of Margaret Thatcher’s papers by the Cambridge University archive, “Doodles left by President Reagan on the table beside Margaret Thatcher at the G7 summit at Ottawa in 1981.”

Doodles left by President Reagan on the table beside Margaret Thatcher at the G7 summit at Ottawa in 1981

Thor’s goat made out of scrap metal

Sculptor Jud Turner writes, “I thought you might enjoy this full-sized goat,
‘Tanngrisnir’, named after one of the two goats in Norse mythology
that pulled Thor’s chariot. He ate them for dinner every night,
saved the bones, and by morning they had come back to life.
Hopeful analogy for recycling, it’s made from 100% recycled scrap
crap. It’s one of the new pieces for my upcoming solo show
DoubleThink, which opens March 30th at the WAVE Gallery in
Eugene, OR.””


(Thanks, Jud!)

A Day of Reckoning for This American Life & Mike Daisey

Fans of the popular public radio program This American Life – and I count myself among them – learned last night that the single most downloaded episode of the show ever – an exposé of sorts of Apple’s production operations in China – was to a great extent a work of fiction. The episode in question, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” was an adaptation of a spoken word performance piece by Mike Daisey called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which Daisey is currently performing at the Public Theater. 

In the performance piece, Daisey recounts a trip to China where he met with various workers at Foxconn, a factory that makes products for Apple. The working conditions at Foxconn and other Apple production facilities in China have been the focus of a number of critical reports over the past few months, including this series in The New York Times. But Daisey’s performance piece came first, and many credit him with drawing attention to the story. If that’s true, then This American Life’s massive amplification of his performance aided in that process.

It turns out, ultimately by his own admission, that many of the interactions Daisey describes didn’t actually happen, rather they were often amalgamations of stories and encounters he heard about in his travels across China. A Shanghai-based reporter for the public radio show Marketplace named Rob Schmitz heard the broadcast and Daisey’s story didn’t sit well with him so he did some digging. He confirmed the lies and it wasn’t difficult. All he did was Google the first name of Daisey’s translator, along with the word translator and the name of the city she worked in, and she was the first result. He spoke to her and she told him that much of what Daisey described didn’t happen. This American Life had asked Daisey for the translator’s number when they were fact checking the story, but Daisey said he didn’t have it. They believed him and for some reason elected not to try and track her down themselves. 

This American Life devoted this week’s episode of the show to the retraction and features an interview with Schmitz and two interviews with Mr. Daisey, who manages to both nominally take responsibility for and defiantly rationalize his deception. Listen to it. In addition to displaying an admirably introspective recounting of a grievous error on the part of the producers of the show, it is a damn compelling hour of radio. It was incredibly satisfying to hear host Ira Glass call Daisey out, as was Daisey’s inability to talk his way out of it.  

I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but as someone who has literally listened to every episode of This American Life (when I worked as a temp in 2000 and 2001, I listened to five or six episodes a day) and who has pitched them stories on a few occasions (alas, to no avail), I have to say that this incident helps to crystalize some questions I have about what This American Life is and how it has evolved.

When the show began in 1995 the stories generally focused on the emotional journeys of the subjects. It was about American lives, recounted in a tone and tempo that has become synonymous with This American Life and Ira Glass. But in recent years, the show has evolved, and it has overlaid that tone and tempo onto more traditional and often incredibly complex news stories. The most powerful of these I think are the shows it has produced on the financial crisis, starting with the phenomenal episode “The Giant Pool of Money.” In that show, precisely because of their unique tone and tempo, they were able to describe complex financial mechanisms like mortgage backed securities in terms which a lay audience could understand (not to mention countless journalists who were confounded by this stuff until hearing the episode).

The episode won Polk, Peabody and duPont awards and was named one of the top ten works of journalism of the decade by the New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. I think it deserved all of it and more. On a personal level, their reporting in this area has definitely informed the way I’ve written about money

I suppose what preoccupies me on some level is the sense I have that now This American Life oscillates between two kinds of stories now. They do newsy pieces, told in their unique way, AND more traditional stories of American lives, told in their unique way. Sometimes I feel that the ground rules for these two types of stories are different. For example, there was a show they did in 2010 called “The Georgia Rambler,” in which producers dropped in on nine random counties in Georgia and basically looked for interesting stories. They found them. Lots of them. But one of the tales contained a bit of narration that concerned me.

They were interviewing three 20-something guys who worked in a chicken wing place in a rural county. The “reporter” in this episode was a comedian named Eugene Mirman and he was introducing one of the guys, using his full name, which I won’t do here.

“This is —– —-. He’s 27, but doesn’t look a day over 23. He’s there with two friends. All three work at Wild Wings. They’re hanging out drinking as it’s closing up for the night. Matt’s just discovered Friends on DVD with the kind of enthusiasm potential rock stars discover The Velvet Underground. My producer thinks he might be gay. But I think he just likes R.E.M. and wants to be an artist.”

When I heard that I thought to myself, “Did This American Life just out a kid living in rural Georgia because he likes the show Friends?”

All I could think of is that kid and his friends and family sitting down to listen to the episode the weekend it aired, and the look on the guy’s face when that line came across. Word would get around. Would people ostracize him? Would someone beat him up? Now, maybe the guy was gay, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was out and maybe This American Life called him and asked if it was OK to say that we think you’re gay on the radio and he said, “Sure!” I have no idea. What I do know is that in the context of the show it was pure conjecture. Saying that you think someone’s gay isn’t a qualitative description of a character. It’s not like saying someone “doesn’t look a day over 23.”  I’m generally OK with subjective, textural details coming from narrators, but someone’s sexual orientation isn’t subjective. And I think because of the incredibly strong reporting This America Life has produced in the past few years, that kind of narrative voice seemed out of place to me.  Maybe it wouldn’t have in 1995, but it did in 2010.

If there are indeed two kinds of This American Life episodes – the newsy one and the story-ey ones – I think perhaps the episode “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” is a combination of the two. Reporting a news story purely through first person narrative is a tricky business in the best of circumstances. Adding inferences and speculation is something people often do when they’re telling stories. These things tend to make stories more entertaining, as Eugene Mirman and the show’s producers probably thought when they included that line about the kid in Georgia. Some people, like Mike Daisy, however, allow these inferences to morph into facts in the telling, either because they have an agenda and the ends justify the means, or simply because they think it will make a better “big fish” story. Who can say for sure what happened here.

This has no doubt been an incredibly troubling experience for Ira Glass and the rest of the people at This American Life, but given their candor on the radio last night, I have to believe that this incident will ultimately make the show stronger as it continues to grow, and it will remain a great American institution. As for Mike Daisey… not so much. 

Cross-section of America’s electronic freedom campaigners

Forbes’s Carol Pinchefsky profiles “4 Public Interest Groups Who Are Fighting for Your Digital Freedom” including EFF, Public Knowledge, TechFreedom and the Center for Democracy and Technology. It’s a great cross-section of the different approaches that activist groups take to technology and freedom (but I would lobby for the inclusion of some of the newer groups, like and, who were so key to the SOPA/PIPA fight). This is part one, focusing on Public Knowledge and EFF.

Cohn said, “We continue to battle the warrantless wiretapping that was started by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration. The administration has been trying to avoid a court looking at what they’re doing by hiding behind the state’s secrets privilege, so we’ve had to have a lot of fights around that.”

Among other battles, the EFF is fighting copyright trolls, people who “use copyright claims to try to shake down people. The business model is not about the lawsuit, it’s about the strategy of extracting money.” For example, Camelot Distribution Group blanketed the users of a peer-to-peer downloading site with threatening letters, claiming that the users illegally downloaded the “nunsploitation” movie, Nude Nuns with Big Guns.

According to Cohn, Camelot Distribution Group told users, “You can pay us a thousand dollars and this whole thing will go away.” She said, “People feel intimidated by this, whether or not they did it, because even if they fight this and they’re exonerated, they’re going to be forever linked to Nude Nuns with Big Guns.”

Worse, the lawsuits are usually created in locations that are geographically undesirable for the defendants, which makes it hard for them to defend themselves. Cohn said, “We’ve been filing amicus briefs and getting appointed by courts across the country to defend these people and to develop some processes that is more fair than the trolls want to do it.”

4 Public Interest Groups Who Are Fighting for Your Digital Freedom (part 1)

(Thanks, Carol!)

Norah Jones to play entire new album at SXSW

Norah Jones is unveiling something new at South By Southwest — again.

Horse racing drama ‘Luck’ proved too real for HBO

Horse racing has long withstood the deaths of its skittish, injury-prone thoroughbreds. Hollywood proved it lacks the stomach for it.

Retro rocket ring

Noah Scalin sez, “Just look at this awesome steampunky rocket ring created by Herbert Hoover (not the former president) for his Ring-A-Day project. He also has a laser-cut miniature wooden version for sale on his Etsy page as well.”

I’m partial to Hoover’s espresso ring, too.

Ring-A-Day: Rocket Ring