family

Ghost brides in China

From Reuters’ “China arrests men for murdering “ghost” brides” (26 January 2007):

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese police have arrested three men for killing two young women to sell their corpses as “ghost brides” for dead single men, a Chinese newspaper reported, warning the dark custom might have claimed many other victims.

Yang Donghai, a 35-year-old farmer in western China’s Shaanxi province, confessed to killing a woman bought from a poor family for 12,000 yuan ($1,545) last year.

She thought she was being sold into an arranged marriage, but Yang killed her in a gully and sold her corpse for 16,000 yuan, the Legal Daily reported on Thursday. He and two accomplices then killed a prostitute and sold her for 8,000 yuan before police caught them.

The women were victims of an old belief, still alive in the yellow-earth highlands of western China, that young men who die unmarried should go to their graves accompanied by deceased women who will be their wives in the afterlife. Often these women die natural deaths.

Police in Yanan, the poor and dusty corner of Shaanxi where Chairman Mao Zedong nurtured his Communist revolution, said the dark trade went beyond these cases.

Yang and two helpers sold the bodies to Li Longsheng, an undertaker who police said specialized in buying and selling the dead women for “ghost weddings.” It was unclear what happened to Li.

A nanny’s man-in-the-middle attack

From Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram of 15 April 2004:

Here’s a story of a woman who posts an ad requesting a nanny. When a potential nanny responds, she asks for references for a background check. Then she places another ad, using the reference material as a fake identity. She gets a job with the good references—they’re real, although for another person—and then robs the family who hires her. And then she repeats the process.

Look what’s going on here. She inserts herself in the middle of a communication between the real nanny and the real employer, pretending to be one to the other. The nanny sends her references to someone she assumes to be a potential employer, not realizing that it is a criminal. The employer receives the references and checks them, not realizing that they don’t actually belong to the person who is sending them.

HDTV’s widely adopted by American households

From Alex Mindlin’s “Room to Grow as Homes Add HD TVs” (The New York Times: 21 November 2010):

High-definition televisions have entered American homes with startling speed; 56 percent of households now have at least some HD channels and an HD set, according to Nielsen. Among consumer technologies, that speed of adoption is rivaled only by the VCR.

But the average television viewer is still unlikely to watch television in high definition. One reason is that people watch some standard channels on their HD sets. But a more important reason for the low HD viewing rate is that most homes have several televisions, of which the HD set is only one.

“What we’re seeing,” [Pat McDonough, a senior television analyst at Nielsen] said, “is that people want a second high-definition set pretty quickly, once they get used to watching it.”

Indeed, in households with a single HD set, family members diverge from normal American viewing patterns; rather than migrating to their rooms at night to watch TV on separate sets, they cluster in the living room around the HD set.

Ray Bradbury on an encounter that changed his life

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.

The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. And there was Mr. Electrico sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you make disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, Can you show me how to do this? It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician. He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people? And I said, Yes sir, I would. So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, Clean up your language! Clean up your language! He took me in, and the first person I met was the illustrated man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! He called himself the tattooed man, but I changed his name later for my book. I also met the strong man, the fat lady, the trapeze people, the dwarf, and the skeleton. They all became characters.

Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.

Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.

When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.

Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

Ambient awareness & social media

From Clive Thompson’s “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” (The New York Times Magazine: 5 September 2008):

In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered. One of the most popular new tools is Twitter, a Web site and messaging service that allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates — limited to 140 characters, as brief as a mobile-phone text message — on what they’re doing. There are other services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or Web sites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced in July, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

You could also regard the growing popularity of online awareness as a reaction to social isolation, the modern American disconnectedness that Robert Putnam explored in his book “Bowling Alone.” The mobile workforce requires people to travel more frequently for work, leaving friends and family behind, and members of the growing army of the self-employed often spend their days in solitude. Ambient intimacy becomes a way to “feel less alone,” as more than one Facebook and Twitter user told me.

Looking at others’ lives for clues to what might have been

From Tim Kreider’s “The Referendum” (The New York Times: 17 September 2009):

The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home. It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

It’s especially conspicuous among friends from youth. Young adulthood is an anomalous time in people’s lives; they’re as unlike themselves as they’re ever going to be, experimenting with substances and sex, ideology and religion, trying on different identities before their personalities immutably set. Some people flirt briefly with being freethinking bohemians before becoming their parents. Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.

Yes: the Referendum gets unattractively self-righteous and judgmental. Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.

The problem is, we only get one chance at this, with no do-overs. Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control. In his novel about marriage, “Light Years,” James Salter writes: “For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing its opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.” Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.

A colleague of mine once hosted a visiting cartoonist from Scandinavia who was on a promotional tour. My colleague, who has a university job, a wife and children, was clearly a little wistful about the tour, imagining Brussels, Paris, and London, meeting new fans and colleagues and being taken out for beers every night. The cartoonist, meanwhile, looked forlornly around at his host’s pleasant row house and sighed, almost to himself: “I would like to have such a house.”

One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Orpheus and Eurydice — are lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield.

The Yakuza’s influence in Japan

From Jake Adelstein’s “This Mob Is Big in Japan” (The Washington Post: 11 May 2008):

Most Americans think of Japan as a law-abiding and peaceful place, as well as our staunch ally, but reporting on the underworld gave me a different perspective. Mobs are legal entities here. Their fan magazines and comic books are sold in convenience stores, and bosses socialize with prime ministers and politicians. …

I loved my job. The cops fighting organized crime are hard-drinking iconoclasts — many look like their mobster foes, with their black suits and slicked-back hair. They’re outsiders in Japanese society, and perhaps because I was an outsider too, we got along well. The yakuza’s tribal features are also compelling, like those of an alien life form: the full-body tattoos, missing digits and pseudo-family structure. …

The Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) estimates that the yakuza have almost 80,000 members. The most powerful faction, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is known as “the Wal-Mart of the yakuza” and reportedly has close to 40,000 members. In Tokyo alone, the police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies: investment and auditing firms, construction companies and pastry shops. The mobsters even set up their own bank in California, according to underworld sources.

Over the last seven years, the yakuza have moved into finance. Japan’s Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has an index of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime.

In the good old days, the yakuza made most of their money from sleaze: prostitution, drugs, protection money and child pornography. Kiddie porn is still part of their base income — and another area where Japan isn’t acting like America’s friend.

In 1999, my editors assigned me to cover the Tokyo neighborhood that includes Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red-light district. Japan had recently outlawed child pornography — reluctantly, after international pressure left officials no choice. But the ban, which is still in effect, had a major flaw: It criminalized producing and selling child pornography, not owning it. So the big-money industry goes on, unabated.

I’m not entirely objective on the issue of the yakuza in my adopted homeland. Three years ago, [Tadamasa Goto, a notorious Japanese gang boss, the one that some federal agents call the “John Gotti of Japan”] got word that I was reporting an article about his liver transplant. A few days later, his underlings obliquely threatened me. Then came a formal meeting. The offer was straightforward. “Erase the story or be erased,” one of them said. “Your family too.”

Social networks can be used to manipulate affinity groups

From Ronald A. Cass’ “Madoff Exploited the Jews” (The Wall Street Journal: 18 December 2008):

Steven Spielberg. Elie Wiesel. Mort Zuckerman. Frank Lautenberg. Yeshiva University. As I read the list of people and enterprises reportedly bilked to the tune of $50 billion by Bernard Madoff, I recalled a childhood in which my father received bad news by asking first, “Was it a Jew?” My father coupled sensitivity to anti-Semitism with special sympathy for other Jews. In contrast, Mr. Madoff, it seems, targeted other Jews, drawing them in at least in some measure because of a shared faith.

The Madoff tale is striking in part because it is like stealing from family. Yet frauds that prey on people who share bonds of religion or ethnicity, who travel in the same circles, are quite common. Two years ago the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a warning about “affinity fraud.” The SEC ticked off a series of examples of schemes that were directed at members of a community: Armenian-Americans, Baptist Church members, Jehovah’s Witnesses, African-American church groups, Korean-Americans. In each case, the perpetrator relied on the fact that being from the same community provided a reason to trust the sales pitch, to believe it was plausible that someone from the same background would give you a deal that, if offered by someone without such ties, would sound too good to be true.

The sense of common heritage, of community, also makes it less seemly to ask hard questions. Pressing a fellow parishioner or club member for hard information is like demanding receipts from your aunt — it just doesn’t feel right. Hucksters know that, they play on it, and they count on our trust to make their confidence games work.

The level of affinity and of trust may be especially high among Jews. The Holocaust and generations of anti-Semitic laws and practices around the world made reliance on other Jews, and care for them, a survival instinct. As a result, Jews are often an easy target both for fund-raising appeals and fraud. But affinity plays a role in many groups, making members more trusting of appeals within the group.

Abuse of “terrorist” investigative powers

From BBC News’ “Council admits spying on family” (10 April 2008):

A council has admitted spying on a family using laws to track criminals and terrorists to find out if they were really living in a school catchment.

A couple and their three children were put under surveillance without their knowledge by Poole Borough Council for more than two weeks.

The council admitted using powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) on six occasions in total.

Three of those were for suspected fraudulent school place applications.

RIPA legislation allows councils to carry out surveillance if it suspects criminal activity.

On its website, the Home Office says: “The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislates for using methods of surveillance and information gathering to help the prevention of crime, including terrorism.”

An elderly Eskimo & his unusual knife

From Wade Davis’ “Wade Davis: an Inuit elder and his shit knife” (Boing Boing: 26 September 2008):

The Inuit didn’t fear the cold; they took advantage of it. During the 1950s the Canadian government forced the Inuit into settlements. A family from Arctic Bay told me this fantastic story of their grandfather who refused to go. The family, fearful for his life, took away all of his tools and all of his implements, thinking that would force him into the settlement. But instead, he just slipped out of an igloo on a cold Arctic night, pulled down his caribou and sealskin trousers, and defecated into his hand. As the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of an implement. And when the blade started to take shape, he put a spray of saliva along the leading edge to sharpen it. That’s when what they call the “shit knife” took form. He used it to butcher a dog. Skinned the dog with it. Improvised a sled with the dog’s rib cage, and then, using the skin, he harnessed up an adjacent living dog. He put the shit knife in his belt and disapp eared into the night.

Syrian-style torture via family connections

From D. Ghirlandaio’s “Comment to Stephen Griffin’s ‘Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb'” (10 October 2006):

The Syrians had a technique for the ticking bomb scenario. Give the man who knows where the bomb is a cell phone. “Call your mother.” At the mother’s house, a man picks up the phone.

Ben contemplates fatherhood

From Ben Jones’ Benblog, February 2003:

I was also thinking it strange, the idea of being a businessman. How, when I have children, and people ask what their daddy does, they’ll say, “Oh, he’s a businessperson.”

Maybe I’ll wait until I retire for little ones, just so they can say, “Oh, he gardens. And writes. And draws stories for us. And cooks. And sings. And plays harmonica. And makes up songs on the piano. And saves beautiful wood. And makes mommy laugh. And make other strange happy yummy noises when their door is closed. And dances. And paints with paint he grinds himself sometimes. And cooks. And camps. And photographs. And plays sports. And reads. And other stuff. Sometimes, all dressed up. But mostly, he just hangs out with us, doing the stuff we want to do.”

My brother Gus and I, #12

True story:

Gus and I stand at the entrance of the Indiana University Bookstore, where we must find a temporary locker for our bags. The locker require money.

Gus: I need a quarter. Do you have a quarter?
Me: No, but I’ve got a dollar. Will that help?
Gus: Not unless it’s shaped like a quarter.