Author Archives

Michelle Legro

Is Conservative Life Behind the ‘Orange Curtain’ at an End?

(Angie Smith / New Republic)

We now know that “Trump Country,” a phrase often used to describe steel-towns and rust-belt cities, is actually suburbia, where 49 percent of voters voted for Donald Trump and 45 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. Orange County, long a red blip in Southern California’s blue electoral map, should be the epitome of Trump Country: wealthy and conservative, where taxes and real estate and religion hold sway.

But in 2016, Orange County went blue for the first time since the Depression—no, not the recession—we’re talking about 1936, when voters went for FDR. The demographics of the OC have shifted in the past decade or so, and minorities are now the majority. This means the county, at long last, is up for grabs—as long as the Democrats don’t mess it up, explains Vauhini Vara in The New Republic. 

Democrats have made Orange County a particular focus of their organizing and fund-raising efforts. Democratic enthusiasm has swept across Orange County, with more than a dozen candidates signing up to compete for its four Republican-held congressional seats. Last spring, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made the unprecedented decision to open an office in Irvine, in the center of Orange County, to oversee races in the western states, something it had traditionally handled from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. “It’s very important to us to win Orange County for the purposes of taking back the House,” Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from Torrance, California, who is the vice chairman of the DCCC for the western region, told me. Tom Steyer, one of the Democratic Party’s largest donors, is pouring millions of dollars into get-out-the-vote efforts in Orange County and told me he considers the region “critical” to regaining control of Congress.

According to the Democrats’ arithmetic—which assumes that the districts where Clinton won are the ripest for flipping—the four Republican-held Orange County districts should be among the 23 easiest targets in the nation. If Democrats can’t win those seats, the path to retaking Congress becomes much narrower. But their investment in Orange County represents much more than a math problem. At a time when the Democratic Party seems lacking in direction, its approach in Orange County, and whether it is successful, could provide more precise answers about the party’s future than its leaders have been willing or able to provide.

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This Is How They Saved Me

Illustration by Katie Kosma, photo courtesy the author

Neda Semnani | Longreads | March 2018 | 20 minutes (4,986 words)

August 8, 1982. It was nearly five in the morning when my uncle Kavoos woke up my six-year-old cousin Laleh to say goodbye. He left her his calligraphy pen and asked her to keep it safe for him until he could come back for it. She nodded sleepily and promised that she would. She kissed him before falling back to sleep. In the other room, my mother, aunts, and uncles were gathering the last of our belongings and arranging them in the trunk of the car, while Laleh’s older brother, my cousin, Asef, wailed.

Why can’t I come? he asked, tears streaming down his face. At eight years old, he knew a long road trip meant picnics, and picnics meant freshly grilled kabobs.

I want to come too! he screamed, inconsolable. I want to kabob!

For goodness sake, his mother said. No one is going to eat kabob without you.

***

When my father’s eldest brother first contacted the smugglers to get us out of Iran, they promised we would make the journey to Turkey by car. It would be a long trip, but a relatively simple and straightforward one: an eight-hour drive from Tehran to Tabriz, a city in the north near the Turkish border. From there, a five- or six-hour drive by Jeep or Land Rover to the border. Once at the border, another car would pick us up and we’d drive three hours to Van, a border city in Turkey.

My mother was seven months pregnant and worried that the car rides would be dangerous. She wouldn’t agree to the plan until her doctor assured her that, as long as she took breaks whenever possible, both she and the baby would be fine. If the pressure in her legs became too painful, he prescribed Valium to help relax her muscles. My mother’s fears assuaged, she agreed that she and I would leave the country. My mother then convinced my father’s father to send his youngest daughter, Astefe, over the border with us. She promised him that she would be safe with us. She told my father’s youngest brother, Kavoos, he must come too. His place, my mother insisted, was with his wife and daughter, not waiting for the Revolutionary Guards to find him.

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What Happened Onboard the ‘Nautilus’?

The premises of Peter Madsen, who is accused of killing Swedish journalist Kim Wall. (Ole Jensen/Corbis/Getty Images)

For journalist May Jeong, Kim Wall was more than a colleague, she was a friend, a compatriot; she was on the frontlines of the great battle for stories, for freelance assignments, for respect as a reporter. “I only have questions” Wall texted Jeong, “about agency as a woman…and if we will ever be free, no matter what we do.”

At Wired, Jeong traces the final voyage of the Nautilus, the private submarine built by Peter Masden, the subject of a story Wall was working on. When Wall didn’t come home after visiting onboard with Masden, the police began a search that would eventually lead to the discovery of her violent murder.

Jeong travels to Copenhagen to find out what happened to Wall, and through her reporting she also finds a way to move through the grief of her friend’s death.

In the days after she disappeared, I heard people ask questions that betrayed a misunderstanding about reporting—couldn’t she have done the interview over the phone?—and casual sexism—why was she there alone so late? On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would end up on internet chat rooms where the comments sections filled me with rage: “She is a woman—how could she go alone with a man she does not know?” And: “She had skirt and pantyhose—how could she egg on a poor uncle in that way.”

In Afghanistan, where I worked mostly with men, I never wanted to show any sign of weakness or fear. In reporting this story, my editor made me promise that I wouldn’t put myself in harm’s way. But much of reporting is just that—routinely putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. In the four months I spent on this story, I did things that in other circumstances might have seemed foolish. I went on long drives at night with sources. I met strangers on their doorsteps and entered their homes. In stepping onto that submarine, Kim was doing what any reporter onto a good story would have done.

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What If Forensic Science Isn’t Really Science?

(Busà Photography/Getty)

Forensic science — the kind that traces the grooves in bullets, the mark of a shoe, or the scrape of a tool — emerged in the early 20th century as a way to professionalize police work. But once its findings made their way into the court system, it became almost impossible to divide the good forensic science from the bad.

In an in-depth feature for The Nation, Meehan Christ and Tim Requarth look at the case of Jimmy Genrich, who was found guilty of a series of pipe bombings in the early 1990s after forensic evidence linked tools found in his apartment with markings on the bombs.

The evidence was circumstantial — Genrich was nowhere near the scene of the crime — and while the forensics specialist was able to show that the tools Genrich had in his possession could have made the marks, he was unable to show that similar tools would make the same marks. “Holy shit, this is not science,” remembers Genrich’s lawyer. “It’s like voodoo.”

Law enforcement borrowed terms from science, establishing crime “laboratories” staffed by forensic “scientists” who announced “theories” cloaked in their own specialized jargon. But forensic “science” focused on inventing clever ways to solve cases and win convictions; it was never about forming theories and testing them according to basic scientific standards. By adopting the trappings of science, the forensic disciplines co-opted its authority while abandoning its methods.

Once a technique has made it into court and survived appeals, subsequent judges, most of whom have no scientific training and little ability to assess the scientific validity of a technique, will continue to allow it by citing precedent. Forensic examiners, in turn, cite precedent in order to claim that their techniques are reliable science. Prosecutors point to guilty verdicts as evidence that the science brought to court was sound. In this circular way, legal rulings — which never really vetted the science to begin with — substitute for scientific proof … Nowhere in this process is anyone required to provide empirical evidence that the techniques work as advertised.

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The Money His Father Left Behind, and the Life it Would Start

Alexander Chee with his father in 1968. (Alexander Chee / BuzzFeed)

When Alexander Chee’s father died at the age of 43 he didn’t leave a will. Instead, his estate was divided evenly among his wife and three children. When he turned 18, Chee was bequeathed a trust, and the first thing he bought was something he thought his father would want for him — a black Alfa Romeo.

In an essay for BuzzFeed adapted from his forthcoming collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee recounts the nine years he spent spending the inheritance, often prudently — paying for college, grad school, and preparing for a life of the mind — and sometimes impetuously, like the purchase of the fast car his father would have loved.

For those nine years, I felt both invulnerable and doomed, under the protection of a spell that I knew to be dwindling in power. The Alfa broke down finally while I was driving from Iowa to New York City. I left it where it stopped, in Poughkeepsie, on the street in front of a friend’s apartment. That summer, newly released from graduate school, with no job and no prospects, I had no money to repair it or move it. Eventually the car, covered in unpaid tickets, was impounded and sold by the state to cover the towing and storage costs. My money gone, I surrendered to life without either the trust’s protections or the car. I know it was all stupid, and I was ashamed, and felt powerless in the face of the problem and ashamed of that powerlessness. But I was also tired of being mistaken for someone who was rich when I felt I had less than nothing.

I had believed I would feel lighter without the money, free of the awful feeling of having it but not having my father. And yet spending the last of it was not just like failing my father — it was like losing him again.

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Art in the Age of Blockchain

cryptokitties.com

What kind of art can one really get for $450 million nowadays? The painting that sold for that amount at Sotheby’s last year was determined to be enough of a Leonardo to warrant the enormous price tag. In today’s art market, it’s actually the not knowing that can drive up the numbers.

Digital art has little of the aura of a Leonardo, but it has just as much of a problem with provenance: it can be repurposed, copied, or straight-up stolen. It’s a unique problem, and the blockchain might be the solution.

At The Paris Review, Daniel Penny attends the first Rare Digital Art Festival (“aka Rare AF, aka Rare as Fuck”) and finds that limited edition crypto collectibles represent a rare thing in the volatile crypto market: a move towards stability. One of the more popular memes, Cryptokitties, has proven to be more than a joke; its a model for a new kind of art market. “The most successful crypto collectibles will not merely sit on your desktop,”  writes Penny, “they will be unbearably cute, the envy of your friends, able to interact with other digital objects in a digital world, and maintain or go up in value.”

Like the Leonardo at Sotheby’s, the rare Pepe memes are the stars of the Rare Digital Art Festival. The creator of Pepe, Matt Furie, has engaged in his own battle of authenticity, suing the alt-right for copyright infringement for use of his character in racist memes. It’s unclear what Furie thinks of the authenticity of the rare Pepe memes at auction, but perhaps copyright is what people make of it; once determined by a judge in a courtroom, now authenticity is secured through the blockchain’s digital ledger.

The history of digital-art collection has been one of beneficence; institutional collectors typically choose to pay artists because curators deem their work important and want to preserve and archive it, but most digital art has no resale value because it cannot be rigorously authenticated. The advent of blockchain is poised to change that. …

DJ Pepe is a crypto collectible rare Pepe meme certified by the Rare Pepe Foundation. Though Pepe began life as a web comic by artist Matt Furie, users of the online message board 4chan have long traded images of the cartoon frog, producing increasingly obscure and bizarre variations of the character, which users ironically refer to as “rare.” (In 2016, Pepe rose to prominence as a hate symbol of the alt-right, which Furie and the Rare Pepe Foundation disavow.) Despite, or perhaps because of Pepe’s mutability—the frog is practically a metonym for memes—collectors have begun to buy and sell limited-edition cryptographic trading cards of Pepe submitted by artists and issued by the Rare Pepe Foundation, which buyers subsequently store in Rare Pepe Wallets. The content of these Pepes varies. Many are satires of the crypto scene itself, like a froggy version of the twins from The Shining called Winkelpepe, but others feature Pepe smoking fat joints, dabbing, or eating animated flying pizzas. Some are released in editions of thousands; others are limited to single copies. With the help of a Bitcoin-based platform called Counterparty, collectors conduct their sales with their own currency, PepeCash, traded on exchanges in the U.S. and Japan for about $0.08 to 1 Pepe buck (at least at the time of publication).

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Money For Nothing in the Bitcoin Bubble

A virtual currencies mining farm operates in a former Soviet-era car factory warehouse in Moscow. (Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps you are a person who thinks that money comes to those who work hard, to those who are smart, or even just to those who are lucky. Perhaps you think that money should be centralized with those who have been successful in business, or perhaps it should be divided equally among a country’s citizens. Perhaps you think people should receive a universal basic income, or free health care or education. Perhaps you have some kind of theory about who deserves money and who doesn’t. Well, buckle up, because everything you thought about money — how it’s made, how it’s spent, and who deserves it — is getting thrown out the window.

“The wealth is intoxicating news, feverish because it seems so random,” writes New York Times tech reporter Nellie Bowles about the most recent tech bubble: the boom in cryptocurrency. It’s a gold rush of new technology that hasn’t created jobs, it hasn’t created a new form of communication — it’s only created money.

The newly-minted millionaires and billionaires of the cryptocurrency boom share one thing in common: an obsession with cryptocurrency. Unlike the dot-com boom of the 1990s or the rise of the social media super companies in the 2000s, the cryptocurrency bubble offers little in the way of goods and services. Its devotees share a distrust of the banks and of the government.

The cryptocurrency community is centered around a tightknit group of friends — developers, libertarians, Redditors and cypherpunks — who have known each other for years through meet-ups, an endless circuit of crypto conferences and internet message boards. Over long hours in anonymous group chats, San Francisco bars and Settlers of Catan game nights, they talk about how cryptocurrency will decentralize power and wealth, changing the world order.

The goal may be decentralization, but the money is extremely concentrated. Coinbase has more than 13 million accounts that own cryptocurrencies. Data suggests that about 94 percent of the Bitcoin wealth is held by men, and some estimate that 95 percent of the wealth is held by 4 percent of the owners.

There are only a few winners here, and, unless they lose it all, their impact going forward will be outsize.

Cryptocurrency is created through the mining of data, a substance as seemingly immaterial as “Ethereum,” the name of one currently booming currency. But data mining has real-world consequences: While everyone is getting rich, the environment is melting down.

At its current rate, bitcoin will use as much energy as the entire United States by the middle of 2019, and by the end of the year, it would use as much energy as the entire world. It’s a surreal prospect, but it’s one the crypto millionaire is willing to take. “The worse regular civilization does and the less you trust, the better crypto does,” one person explains. “It’s almost like the ultimate short trade.”

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The End of the Line for New York City

(Stacey Bramhall/Getty)

If New York City subway cars were a horror in the 1970s — covered in graffiti and falling apart — 40 years later it’s the entire system that’s a horror, a crumbling infrastructure plastered over with shiny new trains, wifi, arrival times, and cheerful new stations. In the cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Mahler traces the unseen factors that turn an already-grueling commute into a nightmare. He also looks at how the subway reinvented inequality in the city, making a few people very rich and establishing how new areas would gentrify, pushing residents beyond the reach of public transportation. “The case for the subway is the case for mobility,” Mahler writes “physical mobility, economic mobility, social mobility.” Without mobility, what will New York become?

New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.

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A Mother’s Less-Than-True Story of Being a Child Bride

Daniel Wallace's mother with her second husband, Wallace's father, whom she eloped with when she was 18. (Daniel Wallace/Bitter Southerner)

Daniel Wallace’s mother told everyone she knew about her brief marriage during the summer of 1943, still dripping in her swimsuit while standing before the county clerk, taking her vows. Her new husband was 18. She was 12.

Being a child bride was something Wallace’s mother was proud of, “because it cut to the chase of the kind of woman my mother was, and who she always had been: defiant, sexual, shocking, a woman who bridled when the spotlight was on anyone other than her.” As it turned out, it also wasn’t true.

Wallace is the author of Big Fish, a novel about a son who tries to reconcile his father’s life with the tall tales he told. In real life, his mother was just as messy with her family history, and in this essay for the Bitter Southerner, Wallace reconciles the mother he knew with the tales she told.

It’s something you hear a lot when you start digging into the past, even the relatively recent past. There is always someone who knows what you want to know, but they’re dead, alas, and now no one knows what really happened. Without a witness it’s all hearsay, a story…

One reason I write fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, is the freedom the form allows me, which is almost total. I’m free to write the story I want to write, the way I want to write it, and if something displeases me or doesn’t work, I can delete it — a word, a paragraph, or much, much more — all from the comfort of my office, couch, or king-sized bed. The only conflict I experience is on the page. I’ve never been much for research or being investigative, asking people questions, insinuating myself into their real lives.

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The Downwardly Mobile Generation

(RyanJLane/Getty)

It’s a fun little game, pitting the generations against each other. Isn’t it charming how each generation complains about the last? Won’t they ever get along?!

The millennial generation is portrayed as the worst of the bunch, killing everything you hold dear: marriage, family, career, home, community. They’re entitled and flighty, they just can’t settle down or decide what to do. They’ve broken the economy with their scattered interests and varied spending. They have the least job prospects despite the highest level of education of any generation.

You must forgive me for reading with glee Michael Hobbes’s detailed breakdown at HuffPost Highline of the most screwed generation, reaching adulthood in a perfect storm of economic inopportunity. He details how job insecurity, student debt, health care, racist zoning and the housing market have compounded over decades to create a life few millennials can afford. (For an even more in-depth account of millennials and human capital, read Malcolm Harris’s new book Kids These Days) If you want to call this passing the buck, then by all means. But for a generation that has internalized high productivity and blistering output with the nagging feeling that we are barely worthy of a job, it’s at least a reminder that it’s not all in our heads.

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