Author Archives

Michelle Legro

Does Luxembourg Have Any Business Entering the Space Race?

Once upon a time in the twentieth century, there was an era called the Space Race, a few glorious decades of scientific discovery in the name of national superiority. But once we got to space, what was there to do? Poke around? Send some cool tunes to the farthest reaches of the solar system? Launch a robot to go to Saturn and then burn it up twenty years later?

Now these activities are fun and good for countries that like to spend money, but what about countries that like to make money? Which will be the first nation to break the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of capitalism? The answer, as it turns out, could be Luxembourg,

Luxembourg is a small but savvy nation. With few natural resources — besides its valuable national sovereignty — the country has looked to the stars for its next big venture: asteroid mining. At The Guardian, Atossa Abrahamian lays out the galactic ambitions of a country that has fashioned itself as as tax haven to craft a thriving economy.  When it comes to legal loopholes, space may be the final frontier.

By crafting innovative rules, laws and regulations that only it could (or would) put on offer, Luxembourg has attracted banks, telecommunications companies and consulting firms before any of these industries came to dominate the global economy. Now, by courting asteroid miners before anyone else takes them seriously, it may very well end up doing the same thing for the commercialization of space…

The only catch was the ambiguity of space law: companies wanted assurances that the fruits of their extraterrestrial labour would be recognized here on Earth. This is not a given. Unlike on Earth, where a country can grant a company a mining concession, or a person can sell the right to exploit their land, no one has an obvious legal claim to what’s outside our atmosphere. In fact, the Outer Space Treaty, signed by 107 countries at the UN in 1967, explicitly prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. The question now is: if nobody owns or governs the great unknown, who is to say who gets to own a little piece of it?

Read the story

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Cartoonist Hustling for Money

A successful media model is often a quiet one, gathering up money from the unglamorous corners of the market, cutting checks for its writers and artists in small but regular amounts. When Bob Mankoff retired from the New Yorker this year after twenty years as the Cartoon Editor, he left behind one of most successful new media models of the era: The Cartoon Bank. It was a database he founded in 1992 and ran from an apartment in Yonkers, and it helped cartoonists license their work for thousands of dollars a month. But when Condé Nast bought the Bank from Mankoff in 1997, the money began to dry up and the model began to fail.

Paste magazine recounts the rise and fall of the Cartoon Bank, which was begun by Mankoff with an $1,800 Apple computer and a $745 scanner, and built into a database with over 20,000 images from 50 cartoonists, categorized by subject: “The market was individual consumers as well as businesses; if you ran a dental association, for instance, you could easily find dental-themed cartoons for your monthly newsletter. Early customers included Bloomberg Financial Markets, which delivered a cartoon to 41,000 subscribers each morning,”

With fees ranging from $100 to $1000 for a single image, cartoonists could start to rely on checks coming in from the Bank, and some cartoonists were receiving residiuals of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. But when Condé Nast took over, things began to break and cartoonists saw a reliable income dwindle to nothing.

Read more…

Hilary Mantel’s Eulogy for the Unfinished Diana

Hilary Mantel is an expert on the royal body; the mythology and reality of the nobility once anointed by God and now anointed by fame. In 2013, her controversial essay on Kate Middleton in the London Review of Books compared the future Princess of Wales to her predecessor: “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.”

At the Guardian, Mantel now takes on Diana herself, 20 years after her death. How could time have passed so quickly, she wonders? Royal time passes in centuries, in generations, and as Diana passes through our collective consciousness once more, Mantel considers the reality of Diana’s “fairytale” existence:

By her own account, Diana was not clever. Nor was she especially good, in the sense of having a dependable inclination to virtue; she was quixotically loving, not steadily charitable: mutable, not dependable: given to infatuation, prey to impulse. This is not a criticism. Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.

Read the story

Ellen Pao Is Ready to Name Names

Ellen Pao, who sued her Silicon Valley employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for discrimination, was saving the names for her upcoming book Reset: Ajit Nazre, a partner who became hostile after she rejected his advances. Ted Schlein, a managing partner who explained he liked white, Eastern European sex workers — during a private flight in which a tech CEO in attendance bragged about meeting Jenna Jameson. In her six years at Kleiner Perkins, Pao was passed over for promotion, her clients were stolen, her performance maligned, and eventually she was fired after complaining about harassment to an independent investigator, who asked “Well, if they look down on women so much, if they block you from opportunities, they don’t include you at their events, why do they even keep you around in the first place?”

The competitive world of venture capital was familiar to Pao, and she played the game as best she could. But the game was stacked against her, she explains in an excerpt from her book featured at The Cut.

Predicting who will succeed is an imperfect art, but also, sometimes, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When venture capitalists say — and they do say — “We think it’s young white men, ideally Ivy League dropouts, who are the safest bets,” then invest only in young white men with Ivy League backgrounds, of course young white men with Ivy League backgrounds are the only ones who make money for them. They’re also the only ones who lose money for them.

Sometimes the whole world felt like a nerdy frat house. People in the venture world spoke fondly about the early shenanigans at big companies. A friend told me how he sublet office space to Facebook, only to find people having sex there on the floor of the main public area. They wanted to see if the Reactrix — an interactive floor display hooked up to light sensors — would enhance their experience. At VC meetings, male partners frequently spoke over female colleagues or repeated what the women said and took the credit. Women were admonished when they “raised their voices” yet chastised when they couldn’t “own the room.” When I was still relatively new, a male partner made a big show of passing a plate of cookies around the table — but curiously ignored me and the woman next to him. Part of me thought, They’re just cookies. But after everyone left, my co-worker turned to me and shrugged. “It’s like we don’t exist,” she said.

Read the story

How Can Alt-Right Women Exist in a Misogynistic Movement?

Days before the events in Charlottesville, Harper’s published the cover story from their September issue about the prominent women of the alt-right: Women who want to bring others into a movement that is misogynist at its very core. In the piece, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Seyward Darby profiles Lana Lokteff, the “queen bee” of the alt-right who David Duke has described as a “harder-hitting” Ann Coulter with a “movie-star quality.” Lokteff finds likeminded women online and promotes them via Red Ice, a white nationalist media company she runs with her husband. But for women to have a voice in the alt-right, let alone be prominent in the movement, is its own paradox, as Lokteff admonishes women to give counsel to men and embrace classic notions of femininity. I spoke with Darby about what it takes to interview a subject whose very existence appears to undermine her own claims. Read more…

The Engineers Who Can’t Quit Voyager

For the New York Times Magazine, Kim Tingley profiles the nine flight-team engineers of the 1977 Voyager mission, who have been putting off retirement to see through one of NASA’s most successful missions all the way to the end. They estimate Voyager will run out of energy by 2030 at the latest, marking the end of an era when deepest space was seen by the government, and the public at large, as a mystery worth exploring.

The two Voyager spacecraft famously carried a “golden record” to the deepest reaches of the universe, which contain sounds and images of Earth, selected by a committee helmed by Carl Sagan, should Voyager encounter any intelligent life. The mission was one of optimism and wonder. But with the end of the shuttle program in 2011, and NASA under threat of severe cuts from the Trump Administration, the wonder of space is under attack from those who would commodify it. What is the purpose of space if you can’t make money from it?

The mission quite possibly represents the end of an era of space exploration in which the main goal is observation rather than commercialization. In internal memos, Trump-administration advisers have referred to NASA’s traditional contractors as ‘‘Old Space’’ and proposed refocusing its budget on supporting the growth of the private ‘‘New Space’’ industry, Politico reported in February. ‘‘Economic development of space’’ will begin in near-Earth orbit and on the moon, according to the president’s transition team, with ‘‘private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for Americans on the moon, by 2020.’’

All explorations demand sacrifices in exchange for uncertain outcomes. Some of those sacrifices are social: how many resources we collectively devote to a given pursuit of knowledge. But another portion is borne by the explorer alone, who used to be rewarded with adventure and fame if not fortune. For the foreseeable future, Voyager seems destined to remain in the running for the title of Mankind’s Greatest Journey, which might just make its nine flight-team engineers — most of whom have been with the mission since the Reagan administration — our greatest living explorers. They also may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft’s onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone. And while it’s true that these pioneers haven’t gone anywhere themselves, they are arguably every bit as dauntless as more celebrated predecessors. Magellan never had to steer a vessel from the confines of a dun-colored rental office, let alone stay at the helm long enough to qualify for a senior discount at the McDonald’s next door.

Read the story

The Gossip Columnist Who Became the News

“If you were a woman and wrote about politics and D.C., you were a Washington gossip. If you were a man, you were a columnist,” explained Rona Barrett, the television presenter and celebrity gossip queen of the 1970s and ’80s, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen last year. Gossip—he said, she said, who was there, who was he with, what did they talk about—is the official currency of the Trump Administration, and any reporter who thinks they are above it is going to lose the newspaper war.

The women who became the great gossip columnists of the late twentieth century knew they weren’t above it—a reporter merely reported what their sources told them, a gossip columnist psychoanalyzed them.

Read more…

When Everyone In Town Has a Gun, But the Enemy is the Economy

For decades, residents of Nucla, Colorado mined the coal that fueled the nearby power plant. But a lawsuit brought on by environmentalists will close the nuclear plant in 2020, and the mine will shut down as well. One in eight people in the town will lose their jobs. Nucla had a moment of fame in 2013, not for its declining economy, but for an ordinance in the wake of Sandy Hook which ran against a national call for restricted gun access: Every household in Nucla would be required to own a gun.

Lois Beckett traveled to Nucla for the Guardian and talked with residents there about the fight for their livelihood. But Nucla’s enemies can’t be run off their land with firearms; they’re in the liberal town next door.

Read more…

What’s The Matter With Texas? How Long Do You Have?

It’s hard to pinpoint the most Texan detail in Lawrence Wright’s magnum opus in the New Yorker on the state’s changing politics. (Seriously, it’s 19,000 words long.) It might be a nighttime hunt for wild pigs, with Democratic lawmakers armed with pistols, wearing cutoff jeans and tennis shoes. Or perhaps it’s the “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo,” a train that shipped toxic sludge from New York City to El Paso in 1991.

For Wright’s purpose, which is to map the permanent shift right — far, far right — of the Texas State Legislature, it would likely be the 2003 redistricting plan, which involved a run to the border, an old fashioned manhunt, and a standoff at a Holiday Inn.

Tom Craddick, an ultra-conservative Republican lawmaker, became the Speaker of the House that year. Spurned by a lifetime of Democratic obstruction, he came up with a plan not just to win elections, but to make winning a foregone conclusion through gerrymandering. The Democrats, faced with a bill that would create a permanent Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, left the state house and hightailed it to Oklahoma.

Under Craddick’s leadership, the Texas legislature began carving historical congressional districts into new fiefdoms. Taking care not to violate Supreme Court guidelines on minority representation, lawmakers jigsawed Texas into shapes that would decisively capture the state for the right.

In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. Fifty-three Democrats, sensing a lethal threat to their party, fled to Oklahoma, denying Craddick a quorum. He locked the capitol chamber, to prevent any more defections, and called out state troopers to hunt down the missing members, who became known as the Killer Ds.

In the midst of this hubbub, Pete Laney, the former speaker, flew his Piper turboprop from the Panhandle to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he joined his Democratic colleagues at the local Holiday Inn. Someone from DeLay’s office obtained Laney’s flight plan from the Department of Homeland Security by implying that Laney’s plane was overdue to land and might have crashed or been seized by terrorists. Texas troopers and national reporters swarmed into Ardmore. The Democratic faction remained in Oklahoma for four days, until the deadline for considering new legislation had passed. The governor, Rick Perry—by then a stalwart Republican—called a special session for late June, whereupon eleven Democratic state senators decamped to New Mexico. It took two more special sessions to ram the vote through.

It was a successful gambit. So successful that redistricting has become the key tool in elections all over the country, resulting in a Congress with a steadfast and confident Republican majority. So should we watch Texas for what the future will bring? The future, writes Wright, is already here.

Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, and Kansas and Louisiana more out of whack, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.

Read the story

Five Questions for an Actor in the Ensemble of ‘Julius Caesar’

The crowd is its own character in Julius Caesar; they are there to be angered, to forgive, to protest, and most importantly, to be persuaded. In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production, the ensemble sat among the audience for most of the play, standing up to protest only midway through the show. This became confusing during one of the final performances, when a 24-year-old, right-wing activist named Laura Loomer rushed the stage after the assassination scene in the Senate, shouting “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” (“We’re not promoting it,” an actress onstage said to Loomer in the moment. “This is Julius Caesar.”)

Cassandra Cushman was an actor in the ensemble, and we asked her about her experience performing in a 400-year-old play that made national headlines in its final week.

Read more…