On Tom Lehrer, one of the most influential people in comedy who abruptly stepped away from the spotlight:
He began performing internationally in 1959, when the Palace Theatre in London asked him to perform the first two Sundays in May. “In England in 1959, you couldn’t put on a play, [on Sunday] so the theaters were closed,” Robinson recalled. “But you could put on a concert.”
Lehrer filled the 1,400-seat theater both weekends and was a big enough hit that they kept him on through the end of May, after which he booked several more performances throughout England in June and early July.
Yet despite his enormous success, global popularity, and the release of his second album, More Songs by Tom Lehrer that year, it was exactly at this time that Lehrer first told Robinson he wanted to stop performing. Lehrer has told friends and various interviewers that he didn’t enjoy “anonymous affection.” And while his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal — the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing.
PUBLISHED: April 9, 2014
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5533 words)
A story about the U.S. recovery. When a factory opens up in Ohio, the person in charge of hiring people for supervisor positions finds it difficult to find the right candidates to fill the roles:
“Dad’s Resume,” Bernie says to himself and shakes his head. He has an idea of what kind of person Dad’s Resume might be: Late 50s, early 60s. Experienced. Possibly down on his luck. The way the document is labeled makes Bernie think that maybe the guy doesn’t know much about computers and had to rely on his kid to attach the application and e-mail it in.
Dad’s Resume, he thinks, might be the quintessential story of what it means to be a job-seeker in 2014, in this time of retraining and specialized skill sets. Maybe Dad’s skills are obsolete. Maybe he’s found his world upended. The economy is creeping back to normal. Maybe he’s putting himself out there again.
Bernie wants to interview four to five candidates for each supervisory position. He makes a list of his top choices. He adds Dad’s Resume. So this guy might not have computer skills. He wants to give him a shot.
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2014
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3288 words)
Anti-malarial drugs are quickly becoming ineffective as Plasmodium parasites from western Cambodia evolve resistance to them. The writer travels to the Thai-Burmese border to interview a French researcher named François Nosten who is working to eliminate malaria before the resistant parasites spread to other countries:
Nosten thinks that without radical measures, resistance will spread to India and Bangladesh. Once that happens, it will be too late. Those countries are too big, too populous, too uneven in their health services to even dream about containing the resistant parasites. Once there, they will inevitably spread further. He thinks it will happen in three years, maybe four. “Look at the speed of change on this border. It’s exponential. It’s not going to take 10 or 15 years to reach Bangladesh. It’ll take just a few. We have to do something before it’s too late.”
Hundreds of scientists are developing innovative new ways of dealing with malaria, from potential vaccines to new drugs, genetically modified mosquitoes to lethal fungi. As Nosten sees it, none of these will be ready in time. The only way of stopping artemisinin resistance, he says, is to completely remove malaria from its cradle of resistance. “If you want to eliminate artemisinin resistance, you have to eliminate malaria,” says Nosten. Not control it, not contain it. Eliminate it.
PUBLISHED: April 4, 2014
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5338 words)
A new kind of sex ed for teenage boys includes having discussions about healthy relationships, sexual orientation, and how to trust, communicate, negotiate, and empathize:
Vanier was the first of five junior high schools across Calgary to host WiseGuyz, almost four years ago now. Principal Martin Poirier, a dapper man in a blue bow tie, tells me the younger students look forward to signing up in grade nine. Though the program is voluntary, some are encouraged to enroll, the ones who act inappropriately, or who seem immature and might need more confidence. “What these boys learn,” he says, “has an impact on the whole school. They become role models.”
The curriculum follows a carefully plotted schedule. After the unit on human rights and values, it moves on to the nuts and bolts: anatomy, sex, and contraception. The third unit focuses on gender and sexuality, and the course wraps up in the spring by addressing healthy relationships. It’s heavy stuff, and WiseGuyz takes it seriously, basing the content on current research and constant evaluation. The Calgary Sexual Health Centre study that informed the program drew on surveys from health and social service organizations that serve young people, as well as focus groups and academic literature. A couple of years ago, WiseGuyz commissioned another report measuring its impact and collecting feedback from interviews with teachers and past participants.
PUBLISHED: April 1, 2014
LENGTH: 24 minutes (6011 words)
Joe Guppy is a writer, actor and psychotherapist living in Seattle. Thirty-five years ago, he was 23 years old and a mental patient. He spent 10 weeks in a mental hospital and another 10 weeks in a halfway house after Atabrine, an old-school malaria medication, gave him visions that he was living in hell and that his family was trying to kill him.
Thirty years after he was released, Guppy decided to investigate his own case of mental illness. Through physicians’ notes, journals and interviews, he took stock of how he got sick, how he got better and what his story says about how therapy helps people heal. He is working on a memoir about the experience, and was kind enough to send me a draft and let me interview him about what he found.
PUBLISHED: March 19, 2014
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2425 words)
After the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige disappeared from public view, in 2007, those who asked questions were stonewalled, or worse. Now interviews with former insiders provide a grim assessment of her fate:
This cryptic explanation only fueled the mystery. Had Shelly fled the church? Was she in hiding? Some Scientology defectors believe she was exiled to one of several secretive and heavily guarded bases the church owns in remote western locales. There, the sources say, those who are banned endure lives of isolation, menial labor, and penury. The reason, they claim, is simple. “The law [in Scientology] is: The closer to David Miscavige you get, the harder you’re going to fall,” says Claire Headley, an ex-Scientologist who, along with her husband, Marc, worked closely with the Miscaviges. “It’s like the law of gravity, practically. It’s just a matter of when.” (The church of Scientology declined Vanity Fair’s repeated requests to interview the Miscaviges. In so doing, church representatives dismissed most of V.F.’s sources as disgruntled apostates, and called V.F.’s questions “ludicrous and offensive.” Additionally, the representatives described Shelly Miscavige as a private person who “has been working nonstop in the church, as she always has.” They also point out that I have written critically about the church in the past.)
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2014
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5446 words)
Andrew O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books, recounts the disastrous experience of trying to ghostwrite the autobiography of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (The publisher later released an unauthorized early draft of the book):
I wrote through the night to assemble what we had. The thinness could become a kind of statement, I asserted; it could become a modernist autobiography. But the jokes wouldn’t hold and Julian, despite promising his publishers and me that he’d produce pages, paragraphs, even notes towards his book, produced nothing in all the months I was there. Not a single written sentence came from him in all that time. But at the end, from all those exhausting late night interviews, we assembled a rough draft of 70,000 words. It wasn’t by any means great, but it had a voice, a reasonable, even-tempered, slightly amused but moral voice, which was as invented as anything I’d ever produced in fiction. Yet it hadn’t felt like creating a character in a novel, so much as writing a voiceover for a real person who isn’t quite real. His vanity and the organisation’s need for money couldn’t resist the project, but he never really considered the outcome, that I’d be there, making marks on a page that would in some way represent this process. The issue of control never became real to Julian. He should have felt worried about what he was supplying, but he never did – he had in this, as in everything, a broad illusion of control. Only once did he turn to me and show a glint of understanding. ‘People think you’re helping me write my book,’ he said, ‘but actually I’m helping you write your novel.’
PUBLISHED: Feb. 23, 2014
LENGTH: 105 minutes (26390 words)
The media entrepreneur’s vision for the future of content and journalism:
DENTON: The Panopticon—the prison in which everybody is exposed to scrutiny all the time. Do you remember the website Fucked Company? It was big in about 2000, 2001. I was CEO of Moreover Technologies at the time. A saleswoman put in an anonymous report to the site about my having paid for the eye operation of a young male executive I had the hots for. The story, like many stories, was roughly half true. Yes, there was a young male executive. Yes, he did have an eye operation. No, it wasn’t paid for by me. It was paid for by the company’s health insurance according to normal procedure. And no, I didn’t fancy him; I detested him. It’s such a great example of Fucked Company and, by extension, most internet discussion systems. There’s some real truth that gets told that is never of a scale to warrant mainstream media attention, and there’s also no mechanism for fact-checking, no mechanism to actually converge on some real truth. It’s out there. Half of it’s right. Half of it’s wrong. You don’t know which half is which. What if we could develop a system for collaboratively reaching the truth? Sources and subjects and writers and editors and readers and casual armchair experts asking questions and answering them, with follow-ups and rebuttals. What if we could actually have a journalistic process that didn’t require paid journalists and tape recorders and the cost of a traditional journalistic operation? You could actually uncover everything—every abusive executive, every corrupt eye operation.
PUBLISHED: Feb. 21, 2014
LENGTH: 30 minutes (7539 words)
What to expect when you are expecting, and also happen to make your living in porn:
Q: It seems like some people might have a hard time with the whole porn-star-becomes-mom thing.
A: Yeah, they kind of don’t mesh well. I remember when I first met porn stars, I was like, “You have kids? How do you do that?” But being around it, I got used to it. I mean, I was shocked when people started having kids just in general. People I went to high school with. You hear about it and you’re like, “Are you old enough for that? Is that OK?”
Obviously there are gong to be things. Like, I’m not going to want her to dig through certain boxes in the garage. But on the other hand, there are so many worse things that I’m going to have to steer her through in life. I don’t know if you saw [our pet] bunny sitting in the window? This bunny is awesome. She’s six years old. Best-case scenario, she’ll live to be nine years old. So I’m gonna have this baby, she’s gonna be attached to this bunny, and right when she’s most attached, this rabbit’s going to keel over on her. I’m gonna have to explain death to a three-year-old.
PUBLISHED: Feb. 19, 2014
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2867 words)