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Story Wrangler, WordPress.com. Senior Editor, Longreads. Not to be fed after midnight.

When No One Pulls the Trigger, the Gun Is to Blame

Daniel Karmann / AP Images

In a fatal shooting in their Mississippi home, Roger Stringer lost his two sons: younger son Justin to a gunshot to the head, and older son Zac to prison. Zac was found guilty of manslaughter, and although the rifle had fired, he said he knew he hadn’t touched the trigger.

A few years later, Roger came to believe that the rifle from the incident — the Remington Model 700 — was at fault. After some digging into the manufacturer, he learned that the model that killed Justin had in fact been recalled for firing off spontaneously on its own. At The Trace, Casey Parks tells the story of a father seeking justice, and his mission to warn gun owners of the defective rifle.

The New Jersey State Police sent their rifles back in October 2011, alleging that the guns “slam fired” when the officers loaded cartridges. Other people told Remington their Model 700s had shot holes in their walls and sliced through their TVs, all without a pulled trigger. One owner said his rifle went off five times in a row. After he put it in the freezer, it stopped firing. “Happened twice in December,” one customer noted. “Happened three times in a day,” another said. In a 2012 entry, an employee in Remington’s product services department wrote, “Owner wanted refund because he is scared of the gun.”

Most of those incidents never made the news. But in 2010, more than a year before Justin died, CNBC produced an investigation showing that Remington had known since the 1940s that the old trigger — the one that killed the boy in Montana — could fire if someone pushed the safety to the off position. The trigger’s designer, the CNBC report alleged, had proposed a fix that would have cost five-and-a-half cents per gun. The company decided against it.

At Zac’s trial, no one mentioned the CNBC documentary or the dozens of lawsuits pending against Remington. The state’s firearms expert testified that she had hit the Remington with a rubber mallet and dropped it from three feet. Neither test made the rifle fire.

Roger was the last witness to appear for the state. He told himself he was testifying because Justin couldn’t. Roger didn’t understand why Zac might have killed his brother. The boys got along as well as siblings ever do; they argued sometimes, but never violently. Once, Roger had pushed them to fistfight in the yard, but Zac refused to hit his brother in the face. The best Roger could figure was that taking Zac off his ADHD medication had caused him to snap. The alternative — the idea that Zac’s rifle had fired on its own — just didn’t make sense.

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‘It Happened to My Father the Way It Happened’: The Truth About Green Book

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Participant/DreamWorks.

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a film about an Italian-American bouncer who escorts a black pianist on a tour of the Jim Crow South in 1962, is emerging as an awards season frontrunner. Not just inspired by historical events or “based on a true story,” the film is the true story. “It happened to my father the way it happened,” says Nick Vallelonga, the son of the film’s protagonist and one of the movie’s screenwriters.

But the family of the pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, has dismissed the film, not just for its factual inaccuracies, but for essentially revising and rewriting a black man’s identity. At Vanity Fair, film critic K. Austin Collins comments on all that’s wrong with the movie.

The artistic and political success of any film “based on a true story” doesn’t hinge entirely on absolute historical accuracy. But the debate over the truth of Green Book fascinates me because of all of the unquestioned assumptions—and the presumptions—undertaken by Farrelly and crew in their design of Dr. Shirley’s character.

It’s really something. Everyone seems to agree that Tony Lip had a, shall we say, limited view of black Americans before meeting Shirley. According to his son, he was “a product of his times. Italians lived with Italians. The Irish lived with the Irish. African-Americans lived with African-Americans.” The trip with Dr. Shirley, Vallelonga said, “opened my father’s eyes . . . and then changed how he treated people.”

Yet it is this man’s account that became the basis for an entire film—this account which, from his screenwriter son’s own admission, is informed by a limited, very 1960s, very white understanding of race. Though unreliable on its face, this understanding becomes our lens into the history of this specific black man.

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A City in Upheaval: The Story of a Single Block in West Oakland’s Ghost Town Neighborhood

Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The entire west side of Oakland, California, is undergoing dramatic change, and the Ghost Town neighborhood of resident Annette Miller, who was born in her house on 30th Street over 50 years ago, is right in the thick of it. Rents and house prices have soared, while nearly 43 percent of its neighborhood’s residents remain below the poverty line. And while the white population has more than doubled, the black population has dropped from 50 to 39 percent.

Over the years, Miller has fought an eviction notice and a stream of realtors interested in buying her home. But more recently, with properties on the block selling for over $800K and an industrial building soon to become live-work spaces for artists, she feels like many things are out of her control.

At San Francisco Magazine, Gabriel Thompson tells the stories of Miller — and the neighborhood’s old-timers and newcomers — as they witness the changes sweeping the block.

From this perch, Miller has watched as the block—and the entire west side of Oakland—has changed over the decades. She can disentangle its history like an evolutionary biologist. During the Great Recession, houses were bought and lost to banks at some of the highest foreclosure rates in the entire Bay Area. Then those houses were scooped up by real estate men who paced the sidewalks and rarely smiled. Buildings were emptied out, murals painted over. Fences went up. Rent went up—by 71.5 percent over the last five years. Way back in 2001, SFGate called the neighborhood “deliciously attractive” because its “poverty and misfortune preserved a rare sort of purity and beauty,” as if it were a forbidden, primitive fruit. Later, the real estate men would try to take a bite out of Miller, too.

Miller was born in this house, some 52 years ago. “The average person lives in a house for what, three years?” she asks. “I try to tell my kids, living in the same house for so long, it should mean something.” As the pace of change has accelerated, Miller has become the default historian of the block, a keeper of its stories and secrets, an advocate for the old-timers and a bridge to the new arrivals. “It’s not hard at all to remember,” she says of all the missing people and families who once made a life on 30th Street. “When you’ve lived here your whole life, you don’t forget.”

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The Last Place Where No One Is Looking: Embracing the End Times of Snapchat

Ever since I password-protected my Diaryland site 15 years ago, I’ve slowly amassed a collection of now-abandoned online spaces in an effort to create a public, professional web presence. I hopped over to LiveJournal, where a few of my friends spilled their thoughts on a daily basis, then Typepad to create an early version of an online resume, then to a short-lived stint on Blogger, and finally to WordPress, where a significant part of my self still lives, albeit in fragments and forgotten drafts. Initially, I was bothered that these sites floated in the void, as I’ve tried to keep a tidy, tightly curated presence across the internet. Yet over time, as I’ve ditched Twitter, stopped blogging, posted less on Instagram, and made other accounts private, I feel strangely satisfied watching these profiles and sites languish, as my posts and updates harden into artifacts in the Museum of Me. I now wait for the moment when I can use them again solely for myself — when there are no readers left and no one is looking.

I thought about these deteriorating, forgotten spaces while reading Helena Fitzgerald’s thoughts at The Verge on one of the internet’s big ghost towns, Snapchat. Celebrities and the non-famous have abandoned the platform, and the ephemerality that had made the app popular is no longer a unique selling point, rendering Snapchat irrelevant and useless.

But it is this uselessness, Fitzgerald writes, that now makes Snapchat a compelling space for her again: a private hangout for a handful of people, far from the crowd, where they can yell out their secrets, be unseen, and disappear.

Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. Every online space is supposed to get you a job or a partner or a stronger personal brand so you can accomplish the big, public-record goals of life. The public marketplace is everywhere. It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.

First in the era of America Online, and then in the era of LiveJournal and micro-blogging, the internet was at least partly an escape. It was a place where the boundaries of real life, in which everything was more or less a job interview, could be sloughed off and one could imagine the internet as a quiet, uninhabited space of whispered intimacies. In this era of hyper-usefulness, what seems rarest and most valuable online are spaces that offer, however illusorily, a return to this original uselessness. There are places where, against the constant obligation to be seen and remembered, we might get to be unseen, unrecorded, and forgotten.

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Growing Up in Rural Washington as a Muslim Immigrant

At SeattleMet, Hayat Norimine describes what it was like to grow up as an only child in a Japanese-Syrian household in Pullman, Washington, a small town eight miles from the Idaho border where issues of race and diversity were never talked about. “My parents never taught me to be proud of race or heritage,” Norimine writes, and it wasn’t until she was a college student in Seattle that she began to see her childhood more clearly.

In her essay exploring race, class, and identity, Norimine describes how she fell for a man from this very place she is from — a place that is “not glamorous or exotic,” and where “many immigrant kids somehow thrived.”

I had known what I was getting myself into, falling for someone who had very strong ties to the Palouse. I was only 23 when we married, and I had never wanted to be content with the first comfortable option I got. I had wanted to move back abroad, even at the risk of losing a green card. But over time my love for Owen translated to a love for the land that made him, helped him grow. I became comfortable with the idea of living there, while Owen—thinking he had made a commitment to someone who’s going anywhere but there—became comfortable with leaving.

Those dusty, yellow-brown rolling Palouse hills that never looked more beautiful? They were decrepit to Owen, a constant reminder of the land that wasted away under chemical farming to which he helped contribute. We’d drive by and he’d point to the gashes in the hills formed by water runoff, a sign of the damage endured after decades of abuse.

We were looking at the same site but saw very different things. I had romanticized returning to the land that Owen’s family held such ownership to. Owen now saw something else—confinement.

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What the Future of Death Looks Like

At UCLA’s Donated Body Program, Dean Fisher uses a device to dissolve the dead bodies of donors. This alkaline hydrolysis machine, called the “Resomator,” turns bodies into liquid and pure white bone, which is then pounded and scattered at sea. Compared to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is better for the environment, yet the process is currently only legal in the U.K. and in 14 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Is this the machine that could disrupt the death industry?

At Wired UK, Hayley Campbell explores this process of water cremation, which a growing number of advocates is calling a cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive alternative to burial and traditional cremation.

The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.

Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.

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The Beauty (and Predictability) of a Slot Machine’s Algorithm

A Russian mathematician from St. Petersburg named Alex has quite the talent: he reverse engineers the pseudorandom number generators (PRNGs) that govern how slot machines behave. His team of field agents roams casinos around the world and “milk” the machines whose algorithms they’ve cracked.

Here’s how it works: an agent records a video of a targeted slot machine, sends the footage back to St. Petersburg, and Alex analyzes the slot’s behavior to determine the moment it will pay out. “By using these cues to beat slots in multiple casinos,” writes Brendan Koerner in Wired, “a four-person team can earn more than $250,000 a week.”

After interviewing Alex on the record, Koerner tells the story of this programmer-turned-hacker and what he views as his Robin Hood-like crusade against the global gambling industry.

In the course of reverse engineering Novomatic’s software, Alex encountered his first PRNG. He was instantly fascinated by the elegance of this sort of algorithm, which is designed to spew forth an endless series of results that appear impossible to forecast. It does this by taking an initial number, known as a seed, and then mashing it together with various hidden and shifting inputs—the time from a machine’s internal clock, for example. Writing such algorithms requires tremendous mathematical skill, since they’re supposed to produce an output that defies human comprehension; ideally, a PRNG should approximate the utter unpredictability of radioactive decay.

After wrapping up the casino gig, Alex spent six months teaching himself everything he could about PRNGs—in part because he admired their beauty but also because he knew that such expertise could prove profitable. “I mastered it to the point where I can develop such algorithms myself, on a level I am yet to see in a gambling machine,” says Alex, who will never be accused of lacking confidence. “It’s in my bloodstream now. I feel the numbers; I know how they move.”

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‘A Boy with No Backstory’: One Teenager’s Transition

In 2014, Oregonian reporter Casey Parks contacted local hospitals to find transgender patients who were interested in telling their stories. One doctor, Karin Selva, had a 15-year-old patient named Jay who was willing to share his own. Parks met Jay and his mother Nancy the following year, soon after his first testosterone shot, and has spent hundreds of hours with him since — at home with family and friends, on school visits, and during medical appointments. In the first piece of a three-part series, Parks chronicles the realization that would prompt Jay’s medical transition.

One afternoon while his mom worked, Jay called his younger sisters to the living room. They were 8 and 10 — old enough, he hoped, to understand.

“I need to show you a video,” he told them. He streamed one of the YouTube videos on the TV. A trans guy appeared on the screen and explained how he came out to his family.

Jay stood while his sisters watched from the couch.

“This is how I feel,” Jay said when it ended.

“So you’re becoming a boy?” asked his youngest sister, Angie.

Jay paused. He couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.

“Kind of.”

“Do you want me to tell mom?” Maria asked.

“No,” he said. Jay hadn’t talked to his mother much the past year, but he knew he had to tell her.

The next day, he crept to the other side of their trailer, his heart knocking. He pushed open his mom’s bedroom door, stood in the doorway and watched her play Candy Crush. She was zoned out after a 12-hour workday. Maybe she’d be too tired to talk about it. She already had on her favorite pajamas, gray sweatpants and a tan tank top.

“I think I figured it out,” he said.

He took a deep breath.

“I’m a boy.”

His mom looked up from the phone.

“So you want to be a butch lesbian?”

“No,” he said. He walked toward her.

“A boy.”

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‘Oakland Used to Be More Funky’: Where Have All the Artists Gone?

There’s Adley Penner, a West Oakland musician who lives in a shed with Styrofoam walls. There’s also Theo Williams, of the musical group Sambafunk!, who was drumming at Lake Merritt one day when a man approached and asked if they had a permit, pulled the drumsticks from his hands, and called the police. And then there’s writer Tara Marsden, who ditched a full-time job at a tech company in San Francisco and moved across the bay to focus on her art — but now struggles financially and has had to move five times in recent years.

As the lack of affordable housing and influx of new, affluent residents make it increasingly hard for artists to live in Oakland, the future of the city’s vibrant creative community is uncertain. At Laney Tower, Sarah Carpenter, Brian Howey, and KR Nava trace the history of the city’s arts through years of development, industry, and racial discrimination and tell the stories of some of Oakland’s artists who are experiencing, firsthand, a changing local scene. Read more…

In a League of His Own: One Man’s Mission to Make Moviegoing Fun Again

Launched in Austin 20 years ago by Tim League, the Alamo Drafthouse chain of cinemas has spread to 27 locations and 20 cities, serving up League’s fun, eclectic blend of film, food, and entertainment: a Vin Diesel trivia contest before the screening of The Fast and the Furious. A DeLorean displayed during a run of Back to the Future. Food and drink menus curated for the films. Super-fans dressed in costumes.

But as more people stream movies on their TVs and tablets at home than ever before, traditional theaters face an uncertain future. And League, as Dan Solomon writes in Texas Monthly, believes he can bring us back into theaters — and make moviegoing great again.

In recent years, box office receipts have been high—2015 shattered the previous record, nudging past $11 billion—but much of that profit is based on people paying higher prices. The average cost of a movie ticket has spiked by more than $2.50 since 2004; it is now $8.84. But the number of tickets sold—the number of people going to the movies—has been declining. Except at certain theaters, like the Alamo, which are consistently selling out.

All of which highlights what Tim League and the Alamo Drafthouse are really selling. You can see a movie anywhere, but anyone who’s had to buy tickets weeks or months in advance for the opening night of a movie at the Drafthouse, a movie that will also be playing at every theater in town, knows that, like Marcus Loew, League doesn’t sell tickets to movies, he sells tickets to theaters—to an experience.

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