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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Vice, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, "Everything We Don't Know," in 2016. @AaronGilbreath

Breaking Into China’s Counterfeit Supply Chains

When tourists buy Gucci purses in Manhattan’s Chinatown, most of them understand that the bags are fakes. That’s why they shop in Chinatown; all the prestige of the brand at a fraction of the price. But scores of other counterfeit items make it into the world economy without any of us consumers knowing it: phones, pharmaceuticals, clothes, car parts, circuit breakers. The bulk of these come from China.

For California Sunday Magazine, reporter Joshua Hunt shadows one of the private detectives that Western corporations pay to protect their intellectual property by cracking down on Chinese counterfeiters. In China, knockoffs are a $400 billion dollar industry. The black- and gray-markets fill domestic stores with fake wine and fake food, and detectives have to be able to distinguish the quality fakes from the cheap ones to do their job well. This detective can, because he used to make his living in the underground market.

On a hot afternoon last summer, Azim led me through the vast under­ground market beneath Shang­hai’s Science and Technology Mu­se­um. His boss, Angelo Krizmanic, joined us, posing as a foreign businessman interested in some luggage for his girlfriend. “Most of these stores cater to Western tourists who come here specifically to buy knock­offs,” Angelo told me. “Tourists don’t know how to spot a quality fake, so the stuff on the shelves in these shops is garbage. But if you know the difference between a shit knockoff and a really shit knockoff, you can get yourself invited into a shop’s backroom. That’s where the real business goes down.”

We approached an upscale shop selling luxury handbags that Angelo visited, undercover, semiregularly. A salesman in shorts and a navy T-shirt named Kevin bounded toward us, gold chains bouncing off his chest. He spoke to Angelo like an old friend. Kevin led us into the store and pushed against a part of the wall that gave way to reveal a hidden room, roughly 8 feet by 10 feet, with deep shelves that overflowed with counterfeit Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton luggage, purses, and wallets.

Kevin said the market gets raided weekly, but he isn’t concerned. “I pay every month, so no trouble.” He used to be able to bribe police with counterfeit Louis Vuitton, but since China’s president, Xi Jinping, intensified anti-corruption measures in 2012, bribes are increasingly cash only.

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Are Arizona’s Defunded Public Schools the Future of American Education?

Trump’s secretary of education is expanding school voucher programs under the guise of providing greater “school choice” to parents, but as some historically underfunded public school systems show, further divestment spells disaster for public education and the hope for an educated public. At Harper’sAlexandria Neason spent time in Phoenix, Arizona to examine the effects of divestment. From lawsuits and budget cuts to unsafe buildings, Arizona’s struggling public schools suffer some of the country’s lowest teacher salaries and funding per pupil. Naturally, many teachers leave after five years, and the state’s teachers no longer just teach. They canvas door-to-door to ask citizens to help schools financially, and they use their own money to buy books and basic supplies that all public schools should have. And yet, against all evidence and logic, the secretary of education is advocating for a national voucher program. This isn’t the future Americans deserve.

When Governor Ducey signed the new E.S.A. bill into law, he did so in the absence of any studies evaluating its effectiveness. Across the country, there has been relatively little long-term research examining voucher programs, and the findings that do exist are at best mixed. In Milwaukee, a report found that while some voucher kids are more likely to graduate on to a four-year college, there is little to support the notion that, on the basis of test scores, they are better prepared. A recent study of Indiana’s program, which was expanded while Mike Pence was the governor, discovered that students saw drops in math scores, and did not improve in reading until they spent at least four years in private school. In April, the U.S. Department of Education released an analysis of the program in Washington, D.C., the nation’s only federally funded voucher system. The results were grim: Students who used vouchers earned markedly lower scores on math tests in their first year compared with those who applied but did not receive a voucher. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade also had lower reading scores. Secretary DeVos defended the program anyway, insisting that parents overwhelmingly support it.

The election of Trump, and DeVos’s confirmation, has effectively made school choice into national policy. The vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax-credit programs that already exist are poised to grow. This year, thirty-five states have introduced bills that would either create or expand school choice programs. On the federal level, DeVos’s education budget proposal includes $9.2 billion in cuts. (If implemented, it will gut teacher preparation and professional development, after-school programs, Special Olympics activities, American history, and the arts, among other things.) She will instead finance her school choice priorities, namely a $250 million increase in scholarships that send kids to private (including religious) schools and a $1 billion infusion to the Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) program, which sends money to districts that do away with zoning and adopt open enrollment — as Arizona does.

In June, DeVos’s camp received judicial validation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center, in Missouri, which sought public funds to build a playground. “We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation,” DeVos cheered. In the dissent, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote that the decision “slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

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New York City’s Final Frontier: Underground

Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.

Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”

New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.

Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.

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Exploiting Mexico’s Indigenous People to Get the West Its Drugs

In the 1600s, Northern Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara tribe escaped Spanish incursions by moving deep into the rugged Sierra Madre. There, they cultivated the steep canyons, maintained their cultural identity and traditions, and developed into some of the world’s best long-distance runners, able to run for days without stopping. The Tarahumara people have earned international renown for their phenomenal marathon endurance. Tarahumara runners have appeared on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. They’re the subject of the best-selling book Born to Run, and they compete in many international races, yet many of their villages still lack running water and electricity. As they’ve suffered drought and famine, Mexico’s drug cartels have preyed on them. Cartels clear-cut their ancient pine forests. They converted their land to marijuana and opium poppy fields, and forced these peaceful reclusive people to work for them or leave.

At Texas Monthly, Ryan Goldberg tells the tribe’s story — which is Mexico’s story — and how cartels now offer the Tarahumara endurance runners money to run drugs across the border. The dire need to keep their families fed and keep violence out of their villages has turned too many village men into felons after they get caught at the border. Although Goldberg’s article isn’t polemical, the narrative puts the responsibility in the hands of Western consumers: if you buy Mexican drugs, you are funding the destruction of these indigenous people. Even if your Saturday night coke party is an occasional weekend extravagance, it comes with a huge human cost, not just to your body. Your purchases are part of an international supply chain, and the West’s appetite for drugs is the root of this problem. Supply and demand itself is simple in theory: no demand for Mexican drugs, no cartels. The reasons for demand are varied and complicated, and addiction is very different than recreational drug use. But America is still complicit in the Tarahumara’s suffering.

As the cartel war ricocheted from one canyon to the next, Urique became one of the last towns to be engulfed by intense violence. It had once served as an outpost for tourists exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding canyons, which helped keep it relatively tranquil until a Sinaloa boss’s nephew was murdered there, in late 2014. From then on gunfire could routinely be heard in the town and up the canyon. In the days leading up to the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco, an eight-hour battle erupted in a village along the planned racecourse. International runners arrived to find armed gangs in the streets of Urique, while local government officials assured the competitors there were no problems. A day before the race, however, Juárez hit men stormed the police station, seizing two officers and a teenager, and American organizers called off the race. Most of the visiting runners, who had come from 23 countries, made their way out under military escort. More than five hundred Tarahumara, Silvino included, resolved to carry on anyway, and the mayor agreed to a version that cut out the downriver loop, where the major shoot-out had occurred.

A few months later, Sinaloa won control of the area—nearly a dozen planes flew out of the town of Urique in one day with the remaining Juárez fighters—but conditions worsened. With the Sinaloa in command, land theft and poppy growing increased.

Some Tarahumara activists tried to make their plight known, like Irma Chávez Cruz, a 25-year-old mother who was a friend of Silvino’s. Chávez had learned Spanish as a teenager, to serve as an interpreter for her people, then earned a university degree in ecology and gotten elected to local government. She worried about Tarahumara children losing their running traditions, so she regularly put on races in the region, including all-female events called ariweta. She helped organize the largest-ever recorded rarajipari in Chihuahua—Silvino led one of the teams—and together they traveled to Brazil, in October 2015, for the inaugural World Indigenous Games. The next year, Chávez ran in the Boston Marathon (possibly the first Tarahumara woman to do so) and, while there, spoke on a panel about indigenous running traditions. Together with her father, an activist, musician, and poet known as Makawi, she pleaded for government officials in Chihuahua to help prevent drug traffickers from stealing their land and their water. But help never came, and speaking out became risky. According to the Mexico City–based magazine Proceso, at least five indigenous activists were assassinated in 2015 and 2016.

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America’s Plastic Legacy

I type this on a plastic keyboard, my lunch leftovers stored in a plastic container, as my infant daughter sleeps nearby next to her plastic pacifier in a rocking sleeper made of plastic. Plastics are one of humanity’s most wide-reaching, versatile and practical inventions, an influential creation arguably on par with the smelting of metal, but these unnatural materials have levied high ecological costs. Plastic bits pollute the world’s oceans, beaches, and rivers. Plastics’ parent chemicals move through the food chain, from plankton to people, into our cells.

Is there a patch of planet earth untouched by plastics? At Aeon, Rebecca Altman visits New Jersey’s old Union Carbide plant, where her father used to work, and where modern petrochemical plastic was first manufactured. Through this father-daughter tour, she assess the worldwide legacy of petrochemistry, its origins, etymology and toxic ubiquity, and her dad talks about what he saw at the factory and how, for him, recycling is a form of redemption.

In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colors that seemed magical and otherworldly.

Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.

In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.

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How Patagonia Continues to Operate As a Model of Responsible Capitalism

How serious are you about saving the planet? Many marketing types say that activism is the new hot advertising strategy, but some businesses actually believe in the philosophies they espouse, like Patagonia. Founded in 1973, the California-based company has always aimed to balance responsible production with environmental activism, by funding environmental causes, refining its business model and manufacturing practices, and empowering like-minds. With the Trump administration’s move to dismantle environmental protections on public land and climate change, Patagonia’s staff believes that too many companies in the outdoor industry have been too passive for too long, and the time has come to spend more company profits fighting the political forces that not only threaten America, but humanity’s future. At OutsideAbe Streep examines the ways Patagonia reaches consumers, manages its factories, thinks of its role in a revolution, and urges other businesses to step up. With power and influence comes great responsibility, which puts brands in the position to influence social good. Interestingly, this socially responsible model has quadrupled Patagonia’s profits during the last ­seven years. The question is: are those other companies committed to long-term political activism?

For decades, Patagonia sought to demonstrate that profitability and environmentalism can go hand in hand—to show a better way by, for example, encouraging fair-trade practices in foreign factories. The company advised Walmart, helping the retail behemoth clean up its supply chain, and worked with Nike to create the Textile Exchange, a nonprofit that encourages more sustainable practices in the apparel industry. Chouinard now believes that he was mistaken in trying to influence publicly traded companies. “I was pretty naive thinking you could do that,” he told me.

Marcario presented an alternative: grow Patagonia into a much bigger brand so that everything it did would have greater impact. She was uniquely qualified to make this argument. In her youth, she was an outspoken progressive activist, arrested during protests on issues like LGBT rights, AIDS, and women’s health. “She understands the need for revolution,” Chouinard has said. But she also understands business. Upon taking the CFO job, she streamlined distribution and shipping, installed industry-standard software, and focused on improving e-commerce. “Doing things that, you know, like, retailers do,” she laughs. During her first year, in 2008, the global economy crashed, but Patagonia—and much of the outdoor industry—didn’t: the company experienced growth in the high single digits. Casey Sheahan, Patagonia’s CEO at the time, told me that this was due to people “aligning themselves tribally” at a time of strife. It was a hint of the opportunity that would come with the rise of Trump.

Sheahan also told me that, at the time he left Patagonia, more than 50 percent of the revenue came from direct-to-­consumer business via Patagonia’s stores and e-­commerce. He suspects that the percentage is bigger today. (The company wouldn’t confirm or deny this.) Selling directly to a consumer, rather than through a third-party retailer like Backcountry.com or REI, ­increases both revenue and influence. According to Joe Flannery, a veteran outdoor-industry marketer and senior VP of technical apparel for Newell Brands, which owns Marmot and Coleman, Patagonia’s direct-to-consumer sales “represents one of the most powerful mechanisms of any brand. When you have that direct interaction, that means the consumer is digesting what you’re saying.”

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Swabbing Filthy Surfaces for Tomorrow’s Cures

I don’t know about you, but the last two winters where I live have been plagued by extreme flu seasons, with scores of friends and coworkers complaining about getting sicker than they had in ages. Now that it’s summer, I don’t want to think about the hacking and nose-blowing of winter, but a lot of people have started asking an important question: are pathogens getting stronger?

Statistically, we know that many infections have become resistant to drugs. Between overused antibiotics and America’s obsession with antibacterial hand gel, we have created an evolutionary arms races that’s produced super bugs and drug-resistant strains. Some experts fear that resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. Fortunately, scientists are out there fortifying our defenses. At The AtlanticMaryn McKenna writes about the scientist who revived a largely abandoned technique: collecting germs from filthy places. Gathering samples from everything from train station handrails to dog dishes to the bottom of peoples’ shoes, Adam Roberts believes that the answers to our global resistance problem lies not simply in gene-research, but in what’s called the natural microbial world, which is were our first antibiotics came from.

He decided to start where pharmaceutical chemistry had left off decades earlier: in the messy real-world settings where bacteria duke it out. He launched his campaign, called Swab and Send, in February 2015. For £5, participants got a sample tube, a mailing envelope, and an explanation of what Roberts wanted them to look for: a spot in the environment where bacteria were likely to be competing for nutrition and room to reproduce. He asked them to use their imagination. The less sanitary, the better.

In a departure from the first antibiotic searches, Roberts does not ask his sample-collectors to focus on soil. Instead he wants them to search in places his predecessors may have overlooked. “There’s such a rich microbial environment everywhere around us,” he says. “Every single place is a niche, where bacteria will have evolved and adapted independently. Soil may have evolved biological warfare, if you like, completely differently than a marine environment, or a muddy environment, or contaminated pond water. There’s a possibility of different chemistry everywhere.”

The Swab and Send campaign fired people’s enthusiasm: Within two months, Roberts received more than £1,000, and hundreds of swabs. Small checks continue to arrive by mail. (The price of participation has gone up, to £30 for five swabs.) Elementary schools invite Roberts to make presentations, and he gives the kids swabs to take home. He has taken sample tubes to parties and to newsrooms. He has two swabs that were swiped across desks in the Houses of Parliament.

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The Flavor of Childhood: Sweet Medicine

Even if you were more partial to the taste of purple Dimetapp cough syrup or the fake banana flavor of some prescription whose name I can no longer remember, you know the flavor of pediatric amoxicillin. Everyone loved that pink medicine. Its chalky, anonymous fruit flavor has generated loving blog posts and subreddits of impressive lengths. One writer loved it so much as a kid she went on a quest to taste it one more time. At The Atlantic, Julie Beck searches for that peculiar pink flavor of childhood to learn where it came from and how taste shapes a child’s experience of illness.

Taste is a factor in children’s medicine in a way that it’s just not for adults, who are prescribed pills for most things. And children often need the extra enticement of a familiar flavor to be coaxed into taking their medicine. But flavor used to be considered a more integral part of medicine for all ages—more than just something added to make it palatable.

Under the humoral theory of medicine, Berenstein says, “tastes themselves were correlated with the body’s humors.” So if someone’s four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—were seen to be out of balance, they’d likely be advised to avoid certain tastes, and eat more of others. A melancholic person, for example, might want to avoid vinegar (sour—just like them), and eat more sugar to balance themselves out. “It wasn’t about a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down,” Berenstein says. “A spoonful of sugar was the medicine.”

And for bitter herbal preparations that served as medicine, Greene adds, the bitter taste was “proof of efficacy”: If it tastes gross, it must be working. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Western understanding of medicine came to focus on active ingredients. What Greene calls “the sensuous dimensions of medicine” got “systematically written out of the stories we tell ourselves about pharmaceuticals and the way they work.” But medicines “nonetheless have physical properties,” he says, “and those physical properties certainly influence our experience of them.”

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Architecture and Religious Bias: A California Case Study

In the green hills east of San Francisco, a group of peaceful Sufis proposed a gigantic sanctuary in the town of Saranap. Many Saranap homeowners resisted, claiming their semi-rural, unincorporated village of native oaks was being taken from them, blemished, they said, by a bubble-looking building straight from the Buckminster Fuller playbook, if Fuller was from Azerbaijan. The Sufis felt discriminated against, and when they dug in their heals, the kind, quiet religious order showed a newly aggressive side of its personality. At the heart of the battle were issues of domain and inclusion that lie at the heart of America itself: who gets to decide who becomes part of a community or not? Why do communities tolerate one religion over another? No surprise that race, class, and wealth are involved. Oh, and the Cheesecake Factory’s wealthy CEO. At The FADER, Amos Barshad tells this story of clashing cultures and religious bias.

But ugly, explicit religious hatred would surface. “The Sufis’ project is a mosque with teachings from the Koran,” railed a fortysomething man named Steven, incoherently, in one meeting. “What other buildings in the area are made of glow-in-the-dark circles, to no end, like the sign of infinity, the time our neighborhood will be dealing with this monstrosity? We don’t care that you eat a lot of cheesecake.” Then he laid down what sounded like a threat.

Others had argued that construction would trigger aggression and cause permanent hearing loss in children, or force homes teetering off the sides of cliffs. Steven, dressed mildly in a white polo shirt and sweater vest, went further: he promised that if construction somehow harmed his own family, “I will make sure there is hell to pay.”

Later in the same session, Pascal Kaplan of Sufism Reoriented took to the lectern. Dapper in a light summer suit, speaking calmly and quietly, he recalled his doctoral studies in theology at Harvard, where he’d read extensively about “unintended religious bias.” He explained that it comes “not out of malice” but simply because people are “unfamiliar with the tenets, symbols, and theology” of the faiths they are biased against. Respectfully, he pushed back.

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Finding Her True Self: Queer and Muslim

When young international student Lamya H arrives in Manhattan, she not only finds the city she’s come to know from books and media, she finds a place to explore her sexuality in a way that surprises even her. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lamya H recounts how she started to embrace her true self and all the challenges it would create.

It has been a wonderful night. “Queer Muslim Show and Tell,” a brilliant idea by my friend, where we’ve all shared something we’re passionate about. Things that we didn’t know about each other: my friend who is a serious academic reads us the poetry that she writes in her free time; another friend brings a comic book collection to show us; another talks about the anti-violence project she’s starting up at her mosque.

It has taken me a while to find these people, this group of queer Muslims who will spend a Saturday night sharing parts of themselves. It has taken me years dragging myself to lesbian bars and pride and dance parties and all that this city has to offer, these places where my Muslimness, my brownness feel acutely out of place. These places where, once, a white lesbian once petted my hijab like I was an exotic creature, where this other time, a Moroccan bouncer looked me up and down and said, “What are you doing here, sister?”

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