Author Archives

I'm a runner, reader, writer, and editor.

Finding Answers about Life and Love in the Mountain Death Zone

Sunset over Nuptse and Lhotse summits. Solu Khumbu. Nepal. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

He lost his wife and children in a plane crash. Her marriage had crumbled. James Morrison and Hilaree Nelson were brought together by death and loss but united in love — for each other, for self challenge, and for the mountains — in their attempt to become the first adventurers to summit Lhotse and ski down. As Chris Ballard reports at Sports Illustrated, little did the pair know they’d be plagued by equipment delays, as well as adverse weather and avalanches as they made their historic attempt in the death zone.

Above them loomed the jagged outline of Lhotse, rising 27,940 feet, and, to the north, the shadow of Everest. Below stretched a vast expanse of white—ravines and gullies, frozen rivers of ice—and beyond that Nepal. Somewhere over the horizon lay everything the pair often tried to escape: the cities and highways, the clatter, the dark memories.

They communicated without words, conserving energy, James Morrison in front and Hilaree Nelson a few steps behind. Alpine ski blades framed their packs. They’d need to move fast at the summit; according to Morrison’s calculations, they had 12 hours before weather arrived. If they made it, though—if the chute was passable, if they maintained an elevated pace, if the winds held—they’d have a shot at doing something no human had: summiting and then skiing the Dream Line, a track of snow down the western side of the peak. Among mountaineers, it had become a Holy Grail.

Morrison and Nelson wanted to be the first to descend it, of course, but that was only one of the reasons they had traveled to the other side of the world, assuming risks some peers felt too great.

Their other motives were more elemental. And more complicated.

Though the fourth-highest peak in the world, Lhotse bears little of the cachet of its neighbor, Everest. Movies are not made about Lhotse. Thrill seekers do not crowd it. Swiss climbers first summited it in 1956, but its middle peak remained the highest unclimbed spot on the planet until 2001. Lhotse holds particular appeal for skiers due to its unusual architecture. Under the right conditions, a thin ribbon of snow traces a jagged line off the peak, curving through a narrow rock chute for 1,500 vertical feet before emptying out onto the 5,000-foot Lhotse Face.

Read the story

How the US Spied on Allies and Adversaries Alike

Swedish businessman and inventor of encryption machines, Boris Hagelin (1892 - 1983) with one of his company's products, circa 1970. A tape attached to the front of the cipher machine bears the plaintext and encrypted versions of the text 'BORIS HAGELIN STOP BORN HADSHCIKENT RUSSIA STOP JULY EIGHTEEN NINETY TWO STOP'. (Photo by Tony Evans/Getty Images)

The CIA, in a secret partnership with West Germany, used Crypto AG to sell encryption services to gullible governments and then promptly read all their clandestine communications. As Greg Miller reports at The Washington Post, the CIA fed important information to their allies around the world and ignored assassination plots, ethnic cleansing campaigns, and other human rights abuses and atrocities, all in a bid to protect their covert communication channels from being exposed.

For more than half a century, governments all over the world trusted a single company to keep the communications of their spies, soldiers and diplomats secret.

The company, Crypto AG, got its first break with a contract to build code-making machines for U.S. troops during World War II. Flush with cash, it became a dominant maker of encryption devices for decades, navigating waves of technology from mechanical gears to electronic circuits and, finally, silicon chips and software.

The Swiss firm made millions of dollars selling equipment to more than 120 countries well into the 21st century. Its clients included Iran, military juntas in Latin America, nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and even the Vatican.

But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages.

From 1970 on, the CIA and its code-breaking sibling, the National Security Agency, controlled nearly every aspect of Crypto’s operations — presiding with their German partners over hiring decisions, designing its technology, sabotaging its algorithms and directing its sales targets.

Then, the U.S. and West German spies sat back and listened.

They monitored Iran’s mullahs during the 1979 hostage crisis, fed intelligence about Argentina’s military to Britain during the Falklands War, tracked the assassination campaigns of South American dictators and caught Libyan officials congratulating themselves on the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco.

For years, BND officials had recoiled at their American counterpart’s refusal to distinguish adversaries from allies. The two partners often fought over which countries deserved to receive the secure versions of Crypto’s products, with U.S. officials frequently insisting that the rigged equipment be sent to almost anyone — ally or not — who could be deceived into buying it.

Read the story

When Your Father Recruits You for a Life of Crime

Getty Images

What do you do when all you ever really wanted was to be loved by your dad and all he wants is to use you for his criminal enterprise? Vincent Moretti got wrapped up in his overbearing father’s penchant for doing inside-job armoured car heists. As Alexander Huls reports at Truly*Adventurous, when Archie Moretti refused to share the take fairly, Vincent decided he had had enough of the patriarchy.

Against the repeated advice of the court over several months of testimony, Archie was representing himself in a case that would decide whether he would spend the remainder of his life behind bars. His son Vincent was the prosecution’s star witness, the key to pinning nearly two decades of outlandish heists and assorted crimes — the family business, you might say — on his back. Archie’s only hope was to cast doubt on his son’s sanity.

Eventually, the old man started talking and explained that something had happened at the armored car company where he worked as a driver. Some money had gone missing from a truck — around $150,000 — and the FBI was looking into its disappearance.

Silence descended again. A few moments later, Archie turned to his son. He had stolen the money, he confessed.

Vincent was stunned. He knew his father was no saint, but their family was average by most Wisconsin standards and, he believed, law abiding. He had an especially hard time imagining his demure and soft-spoken mother living off stolen money. The revelation was a bombshell, as was the measure of trust his father had just shown him. Before Vincent could finish processing, Archie added something that seemed almost too outrageous to make heads or tails of: He wanted to do it again, and this time he wanted his youngest son’s help.

Read the story

What If This Is It: Will Huey Lewis Sing Again?

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 21: Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News performs during Soul Bugs Superjam: The Dap-Kings play The Beatles at Piestewa Stage during day 2 of the 2017 Lost Lake Festival on October 21, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Huey Lewis, the polo-shirted, red-suited king of the pop charts during the last throes of pop monoculture in the 1980s, is struggling with hearing problems as his enters his 70s. Will his hearing normalize? As Dave Holmes reveals in this profile at Esquire, it’s anybody’s guess.

Huey was backstage at a News gig in Dallas, and all at once the opening act turned into distortion. “They’re playing, and it sounds like it’s warfare … like there’s an airplane taking off.” He went through with the gig, but even the sound in his in-ear monitors was a jumble. He couldn’t find pitch in his own music. “It was the worst night of my life.” An ear specialist put him on a steroid regimen for twenty-eight days. No change. He saw a rheumatologist, then an immunologist, then an otolaryngologist at Stanford. The best any of them could do was to diagnose it, and barely. “They tell me I have Ménière’s disease, but nobody knows what Ménière’s is. It’s a syndrome based on the symptoms. If you have vertigo, stuffed ears—like it feels like you just got out of a swimming pool—and hearing loss and tinnitus,” all of which Huey has experienced, “then they call it Ménière’s.” He shrugs. “But they don’t know what it is.” They also don’t know what causes it or how to cure it. His doctors have put him on a low-salt diet, but he’s not sure it’s helping. The condition might go away as it came on. It also might not.

Huey wears hearing aids that play a series of five tones when he puts them in each morning—“It’s an F chord,” he tells me—and if he can hear all of them, that’s a level 6 hearing day. Today is his twenty-­fifth level 6 hearing day in a row, a new record. If he racks up another week or two of 6’s, he’ll try to sing along to loud music. “What I got to do is get stabilized for a month, and if this works, then we’ll try a little rehearsal experiment. If that works, then we’ll try a full-blown rehearsal. If that works, then maybe book a gig. But I’m a ways away from that yet.”

Read the story

The Most Common Airbnb Scams: A Roundup

Getty Images

After Allie Conti‘s investigation on an elaborate Airbnb scam ring ran in Vice in October, 2019, Airbnb vowed to fix the loopholes in the system that allow fraudsters to profit off of unsuspecting renters, however it’s clear that things aren’t moving fast enough.

In response to Conti’s story (we highlighted it here), over 1,000 people emailed Vice to share how they’d been scammed by smarmy Airbnb predators. In Anna Merlan‘s report, she reveals that the Airbnb scams fall into several categories. Educate yourselves, weary travellers.

Hoping to get a better sense of the issue, we asked readers to tell us about their own experiences using Airbnb. In response, we got nearly 1,000 emails, many of them outlining similar tales of deception.

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

Read the story

Closure in Service of Grief: the Septuagenarian Couple Who Locate Bodies Under Water

Gene Ralston and his wife, Sandy, are shown with their boat at their home in Kuna, Idaho on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessie L. Bonner)

Gene and Sandy Ralston have worked for everyone from the FBI to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and NASA recovering bodies located under water. As Doug Horner reports at The Guardian, with specialized sonar equipment and patience, they’ve found the bodies of over 100 people who’ve succumbed to every manner of death from accidental drowning to premeditated murder. Their work is critical, bringing much-needed closure to families, some of whom have waited decades to say goodbye to their loved ones long after law enforcement has given up the search.

The Ralstons are now in their 70s and spend most of every year travelling to search sites or on the water, looking for bodies. They have clocked more than 31,000 miles on their motorhome in a single year. In almost two decades of searching, they have found 120 victims of drowning in lakes and rivers across the US and Canada. They are considered among the best underwater search and recovery specialists in North America, and have worked for agencies from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to Nasa (hunting for the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on atmospheric entry in February 2003, killing all seven crew members). They have helped solve crimes and generations-old mysteries.

Gene and Sandy are modest, unassuming people, but bring a relentlessness to their often monotonous work. They call it “mowing the lawn” – towing their sonar equipment back and forth through the water, piloting their boat in slow, overlapping strips. Typically, a corpse descends through water with its chest facing the surface. When the feet hit the bottom, the knees buckle and the body spills on to its back, arms outstretched. That is the shape the Ralstons usually look for with their sonar. They knew a murder victim would look different, though. “We call it ‘packaged’ – tied up and weighted,” Gene said.

Gene and Sandy are anomalies in the world of search and rescue. They pursue this work full-time, but they work for free, only charging travel expenses. They take a scientist’s methodical approach to everything they do.

For the families and friends, coping with the loss of a loved one who has drowned without a trace is a special kind of pain. “The human brain can’t let go unless there is evidence of transformation from life to death,” says Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and a family therapist, who has spent the last half-century researching what it means to reunite families with the bodies of the deceased. Without recovering a body, a haunting anguish takes the place of grief and eventual closure. Some people report catching glimpses of their lost loved ones in everyday situations – in the aisles of the supermarket, say – for years after they go missing. “You need to see that the person is no longer breathing,” Boss said. “Or you need to see the bones.”

Read the story

Why Amanda Fortini Won’t Soon Be Leaving Las Vegas

Getty Images

At The Believer, Amanda Fortini suggests that Las Vegas is deep and interesting, and a pretty decent place to live, if you care to meet people and look closely, beyond the glittering lure of unbridled debauchery on the Vegas strip.

What does it mean to write about people who are usually overlooked or ignored? I am thinking about this as I walk back to my office that afternoon, through a corridor on campus where someone often builds little sculpture-towers out of rocks—they remind me of Stonehenge in miniature. I see this found art every day; I wonder who creates these sculptures, and I marvel that the artist persists in re-creating them when students or maintenance workers topple them, as they always do. As I walk across the quad, I see a wire-thin man with close-cropped gray hair placing the rocks, rough-hewn and triangular, one on top of another. They stand as if by some ineffable magic. He tells me his name is Ken; he’s part Mi’Kmaq Indian, a civil engineer who ran an environmental remediation business for eleven years but is no longer practicing. He says his company removed asbestos from underneath the Statue of Liberty. He became an artist seventeen years ago, when he had a vision while planting a garden for his disabled mother in Upstate New York, and he moved to Las Vegas in 2013. He calls his pieces “geoglyphs.”

I’m always curious what compels people to create art outside the spotlight or the marketplace, so I ask him why he does it. He tells me that he can look at a pile of rocks—he gestures to a river of stones on the grass, an undifferentiated mass to my eye—and see how they could be beautiful. The shapes, angles, planes speak to him. They’re puzzle pieces he has to make fit. Every morning when he walks his dog, he will be here, making his towers, one rock precariously balanced on another. When they get knocked down, he will pile them up again. He will do this whether I write about him or not.

Read the story

Vivian Gornick on ‘Political Activism as a Path Toward a Coherent Self’

Photo by librairie mollat CC-BY

In The Cut‘s profile on Vivian Gornick, Nora Caplan-Bricker speaks with the incisive author about how her views on feminism and politics have evolved over her 84 years, and of her ongoing “quest for ‘expressiveness’ — a word that, in her work, connotes both inner clarity and the ability to translate that insight outward.”

Gornick, likewise, does not seek the spotlight. Though she deserves as much credit as any writer alive for codifying the current form of the personal essay — The Paris Review has credited her with pioneering the genre of “personal criticism” now associated with essayists such as Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Jia Tolentino — her influence as a writer has always outstripped her exposure. Other authors have long valued her writing about writing — its unyielding frustrations and the battle for selfhood it encompasses. Perhaps most beloved among her 12 books are a pair of memoirs: Fierce Attachments, from 1987, and The Odd Woman and the City, from 2015, both of which consider her struggle to forge an unconventional life. A 13th book, Unfinished Business, a reflection on rereading done in her signature hybrid of memoir and criticism, comes out in February. Over the years, a certain romance has accrued to the person of Gornick herself, a born-and-bred New Yorker, radical second-wave feminist, and archetypal staffer for the late, great downtown alt-weekly The Village Voice. Though she says she has always felt like an outsider in literary circles, her work sits at the heart of an alternative canon in which art grows from the politics of being oneself.

Her lasting political awakening came with her introduction to feminism in 1970, when she was assigned to cover a meeting of what her editor termed “women’s libbers” on Bleecker Street for the Voice, which had by then hired her as a staff writer. “Overnight, my inner life was galvanized,” she later wrote. “It was as though the kaleidoscope of experience had been shaken and when the pieces settled into place an entirely new design had been formed.”

Read the story

Behind the Magic: The Story of Prince’s Super Bowl Halftime Show

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 04: Musician Prince performs during the "Pepsi Halftime Show" at Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears on February 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

At The Ringer, read an oral history of how Prince ruminated on and carefully selected the setlist for his legendary 12-minute Super Bowl XLI halftime show in 2007. As Alan Siegel reports, Prince did it all his way, from playing specially chosen cover songs during his concert, to upending the traditional pre-game press conference — a checkbox “requirement” of the halftime act — with a live performance before stunned journalists. Super Bowl organizers learned to their delight that you can plan for a lot of things, but you simply cannot plan for the genius of Prince.

Shelby J: “We’re thinking, ‘Are we gonna change some stuff? … Are we gonna wear tennis shoes now?’ Prince was like, ‘Don’t change nothing.’ And that was part of him teaching us and me personally to be fearless.”

Prince’s Super Bowl week was booked solid. In between a full show at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Wednesday and an appearance with Latin funk outfit Grupo Fantasma at a private party for CBS on Friday, he made time for the halftime act and national anthem singer’s customary press conference at Miami Beach Convention Center.

Mischer: When we said, “You’ll have to have a press conference. They would like to interview you,” Prince point blank said, “I don’t do interviews.”

Coplin: There were just a few things where he was like, “I’m not gonna do that.” We’re like, “We’re not gonna break the deal over this.”

Mischer: He said, “I’m just gonna play for them.” And we said “OK.”

Meglen: The run-through on Thursday, they have to tape that. Because if for some reason, you physically can’t really do the halftime show, they still have to have something to broadcast to the rest of the world, right? So they tape that one. But the whole time they’re in rehearsals, Prince never turned his guitar on, and never turned his vocal mic on, so he knew what everybody else was doing at all times.

Hayes: That’s why they shoot it at the dress rehearsal. If there’s something like a weather anomaly, then they’ll just run the footage, [and] cut it for television like it’s live. They had it all planned out. The prep stuff, it was always intense. He’s like, on everybody. He’s on the techs. He’s on us. He’s with the production. He’s out in the sound truck. It’s just crazy intense because he’s trying to cross every “t” and dot every “i.”

Read the story

Please Don’t You Be My Neighbor

Colorful buildings near Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, New York City USA (Getty Images)

More from Jeremiah Moss! We’re proud to have published the first chapter of his book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul. Read “Mourning the Low-Rent, Weirdo-Filled East Village of Old.”

As his neighbors pass from health problems and old age, relinquishing formerly rent-controlled apartments to monied young people, writer Jeremiah Moss remembers and mourns the simple intimacies that passed among the colorful tenants of his East Village apartment building. In this stunningly beautiful essay at n + 1, Moss recounts how the new tenants, eyes glued to phones, have mastered marginalizing their neighbors simply by ignoring them — refusing even the small kindness of eye contact, refusing their very existence.

The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.

As a psychoanalyst, I help people to think, and I am hyperattuned to variations in the psychic field, but anyone paying attention can feel a person’s psyche in close proximity. You can feel if it runs sluggish or quick, shallow or deep, elegant or jumbled. On the sidewalks and subways, you know which people to avoid simply from their fizz in the air. What I feel from many of the new people, the ones working so hard to be normal, is the absence of mind. When I picture it, I see a tightly compressed knot, a forced blank, surrounded by a buzzy cloud of agitation and distraction. This is, of course, highly subjective and impossible to measure, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say: They aren’t really here. And that absence, that rapidly replicating zombie effect, makes the city a lonelier place than it used to be.

So why would I leave this place? I am good at sitting still and waiting. I will outwait the new people. Surely, I tell myself, the bubble will burst, the tide will shift, and they will move on, the way they always do, after they’ve suctioned up all of what they came to eat. But I know they won’t leave. They are forever replenishing themselves, like the teeth in a shark’s mouth; one vacates and another steps forward to take its place. If I survive the hunt, I will be a leftover in the glittering ruins of that future world, the old neighbor whistling on the stairs, taking his time, a ghost stuttering under the electronic eyes, barely seen, but still here. Holding the memory for as long as I can. We are, after all, the things we have lost.

Read the essay