Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

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RIP Matthew Power

March 11th, 2014

Matthew PowerLast November, my friend Matthew Power and I did a reading together at a crowded, cave-like East Village bar. I opened the proceedings with a couple of passages from my skyjacking book, accompanied by some vintage slides of early 1970s nuttiness—my typical presentation, which the crowd seemed to enjoy alright. Then Matt came up, obviously a bit uncomfortable to be the center of attention, and read a long section from his GQ masterpiece about a psychologically scarred drone pilot. Midway through his performance, it was clear that he had absolutely blown me off the stage—the audience, myself included, was astounded by the emotional depth of the reporting and the beauty of the prose. Over pints afterward, I half-teased Matt about the fact that he had made me look like a chump by comparison. In his typically humble fashion, he refused to accept the jealousy-tinged compliment; he preferred to talk about his upcoming trip to South Sudan, where he would be reporting on the work of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

That night has been much in my thoughts today after learning that Matt died while on assignment in Uganda. He was a giant of contemporary nonfiction, a writer whom I admired and envied to no end for his ingenuity, his artistry, and his all-out commitment to the craft. If you were stuck in a hairy situation abroad—say, held up at a border crossing in Papua New Guinea, or detained by a vigilante patrol in the Philippines—there was no one you’d rather have by your side. But Matt was so amazingly low-key—I imagine he’d be quite embarrassed to hear himself described as anything other than a diligent journalist with a passion for roaming the world.

Matt was also one of the most big-hearted, in-love-with-life blokes I’ve ever had the good fortune to call a friend. The few smiles I’ve had today have come from recalling the Bushmills-fueled conversation we once had about the minutiae of dolphin sex, or the time he turned me into an acrophobe by showing me unpublished photos from his epic urban explorers take. Whenever a meet-up with Matt was in the cards, a good time was guaranteed.

Matt and I had plans to eat Korean food in my Queens ‘hood upon his return from Uganda. Knowing that will never happen makes my heart hurt so much.

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The Wisdom of Deer

February 14th, 2014

Kelud EruptionWhen the Indonesian government looks back upon its handling of Mount Kelud’s latest eruption, it may lament its failure to heed a clue from the animal kingdom. Two days before the volcano began to belch its noxious contents, the critters that inhabited its slopes seemed to know that something was up:

“We received reports from people who claimed to see deer and other animals running out of the forest toward their house,” Sakirman, a former Pandansari village chief, said, adding that the occurrence was significant since the volcano is already on a level-three alert.

Hafi Lufi, head of the Malang Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD), said that such an exodus was usually caused by gases rising up from the mountain.

“Smoke may have already been released, so animals have run away from the mountain,” he said. “We’ve prepared masks and evacuation points.”

The BPDB did not, however, order a full evacuation at that point in time—a decision that may well have cost lives in the long run:

Despite the level-three warning, the provincial BPBD has yet to evacuate the 32,000 residents possibly in danger.

“We don’t want to make them panic,” Hafi said. “The status has been raised, but the observation results haven’t shown that an evacuation is urgent.”

I’m sympathetic to this hesitancy to follow the animals’ lead, as our furry compatriots are too often credited with better instincts than they really have. (I’m thinking here of the myth that dogs and horses can predict earthquakes.) But there’s a solid logic to the purported ability of animals to detect volcanic eruptions—their noses are likely more reliable sensors for gas emissions than artificial monitors, especially when those monitors are lightly managed. Perhaps the fleeing deer need to be taken more seriously from here on out.

Follow all the latest Mount Kelud developments here. And pity the volcano’s poor webcam, which gave up the ghost quite early in the process; can’t someone out there develop a protective casing?

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Small Victories

November 27th, 2013

While recently pondering the precise definition of the word “deadpan,” I felt compelled to look up a quote that stuck with me as a kid. It comes from Boris Loginov, the coach of the Soviet Union’s motoball team, on the eve of the 1986 Goodwill Games. He was evidently asked to defend his sport, which can seem a bit risky to the uninitiated:

It is one of the least dangerous of motorcycle sports. The most terrible injury is legs being broken. Or sometimes broken collarbones. And the goalkeeper sometimes breaks his hands because the ball is heavy and moves quickly. But we finish the season with the same number of players.

There are benefits to defining success downward.

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Trial by Laughter

November 25th, 2013

Trial by LaughterFrom one of the best-titled anthropological papers of the past several decades, a brief account of one way in which Inuit shamanic gatherings could try the resolve of the easily amused:

On the north shore of Hudson Strait, at Akuliaq, when the masked dancers, there called Ekko, appear “the people are not allowed to laugh … if someone laughs, he will soon die.” In Ujaraq’s account of a Tivajuut festival at Pingiqqalik, near Iglulik, the masked dancers first chased people who laughed and hit them with the whip and the snow knife. Then if they caught two men laughing side by side, they obliged them to exchange wives for the night. According to Aava and Aatuat, the newly formed couples, in other words a man and the partner he had chosen, had to enter the ceremonial igloo, as we have already seen, without faltering or giving even the slightest smile, and then go twice very slowly round the pillar holding up the lamp, keeping their eyes fixed on the lamp. They had to remain as straightfaced as possible, in spite of the most lascivious and grotesque demonstrations of the masked dancers, and the most hilarious tricks on the part of the whole gathering, from whom the cry of “Unununununun …” went up in unison.

A beastly difficult test of mental fortitude, but still preferable to the trial by fire.

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More Skies Live Spots

November 18th, 2013

Skies Readings November 2013Greetings from Los Angeles, where I’m spending a few days working and searching for the perfect shrimp burrito. I need to rush back home via red-eye on Wednesday night, though, in order to pull off a couple of The Skies Belong to Us events. I thought I’d take a moment to share the details of those long-anticipated occasions, in case you want to join in the mirth.

The first event will be this Thursday, November 21st, at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan branch (455 Fifth Avenue). It won’t be a traditional reading, but rather a multimedia spectacular featuring 45 rare and awesome images from the golden age of skyjacking. Things kick off at 6:30 sharp.

Then on Friday the 22nd, I’ll be doing a joint event at Brooklyn’s venerable BookCourt with Gregory D. Johnsen, in which we’ll discuss the perils and pleasures of writing about terrorism. The conversation starts at 7 p.m., and I plan on going out drinking in the neighborhood afterwards. If you show up and utter the word “Microkhan” in my ear, I’ll buy you a pint.

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The Skies Needs Your Vote

November 5th, 2013

Punky Brewster Skies Belong to UsOnly the most misguided soul would get into the writing game because he or she craves adulation. Plaudits and ego massages are hard to come by in the line of work, and I’m perfectly fine with that. But I’ll confess to feeling a small twinge of excitement upon learning that The Skies Belong to Us is up for a Goodreads Choice Award, thus giving me my first opportunity to win a multi-round competition since my days of varsity baseball. (Yes, this khan was compelled to play baseball, rather than his preferred yak polo—blame the American educational system.)

Being a realist at heart, I know that my skyjacking yarn stands little chance of taking home the top prize—it’s up against many books more beloved. But if I can make it to the final round, I’ll count that as a monster triumph. And if that happens, I vow to post some recently unearthed footage of my childhood appearance on Punky Brewster.

A scintillating deal, though? Please do you part by casting a vote for The Skies Belong to Us, and telling your compatriots to do likewise. And see you back here shortly for some fresh posts on Venezuelan oil exploration, Tasmanian crime families, and counterfeit doubloons.

(Image via My Tee Spot)

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Of Cults and Cops in the Dominican Republic

October 25th, 2013

Academy for Future HealthThere’s no question that the Academy for Future Health seems like a rather nutty organization; if Google’s translation of its German-language philosophy is to be trusted, then the Academy apparently believes that the Vatican has ties to extraterrestrials, and that a bunch of elite financiers are hip to an approaching Doomsday. So when police in the Dominican Republic raided the group’s command in October 2012, killing a top-ranking member in the process, it was easy to buy into the government’s version of events: that the Academy was stockpiling weapons, possibly in order to carry out terrorist attacks intended to hasten some sort of Ragnarok. The cops had perhaps saved dozens, even hundreds of lives by heading off the threat posed by these bizarre Germans.

Yet that easy-to-understand narrative has disintegrated over the past year, starting with the release of surveillance video that contradicted police claims that they encountered substantial armed resistance during the raid. Then came the revelation that the cops had seized approximately $1.5 million in cash and goods while taking down the Academy, and that a large portion of that booty had disappeared from official custody.

Now three Academy members who were on trial for attempted murder and weapons possession have been acquitted of all charges by a Puerto Plata court.

It would not be surprising to learn that the Academy did, indeed, have an arsenal stashed in its compound, or that it was involved in activities more nefarious than simply fleecing gullible Germans. But the truth will be hard to come by now that the Dominican police have made such a hash of the investigation. The only real takeaway here is one that you already knew: in the absence of well-structured governmental oversight, there can be a very fine line between cops and criminals.

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A Quick Fix

October 22nd, 2013

Narcan in West VirginiaGiven the state’s reputation as a mecca for opioid absuers, you will probably not be surprised to learn that West Virginia leads the nation in drug-overdose deaths. Yet the problem evidently has less to do with the sheer number of narcotics consumed than with a dangerous (and nonsensical) quirk of law:

The state doesn’t allow police and firefighters to administer naloxone, a drug that counters the effects of pain-pill overdoses and saves lives during emergencies.

This is a terrible policy, since cops are typically quicker to arrive on scene than paramedics. Time and again, the evidence has shown that equipping the police with naloxone can significantly reduce the mortality rate among opioid addicts—a fact that is leading an increasing number of cities to adopt the harm-reduction approach.

Just as importantly, West Virginia is the sole place in the country where physician assistants are not allowed to prescribe naloxone (see above). Since overdose victims are likely to encounter such employees at understaffed hospitals before they see actual doctors or nurses, this prohibition can only lead to more sorrow. All of which raises a baffler of a question: who, exactly, is preventing the law from being changed in West Virginia? Whose interest does this serve, financially or otherwise? My best guess is that state politicians are under the mistaken impression that their constituents want addicts to pay the ultimate price for their mistakes. They underestimate the compassion and the pragmatism of those whose votes they need.

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A Farmer’s Nonchalance

October 16th, 2013

The Dangers of FarmingA quick Google News search for the term “farm accident” is all that’s required to grasp the perils of working the land. Despite copious safety advances since the early days of the mechanized thresher, agriculture remains a dangerous profession in large part because its essential tasks are often performed by individuals; if something goes amiss, help is often slow to arrive because the victim is trapped in a distant field.

This is precisely the predicament in which Barry Lynch recently found himself. How he coped with the very real threat of slow death should be a lesson to us all:

Barry Lynch, 54, was preparing for a day’s work on an East Feluga cane farm on Tuesday morning when the drawbar of a crop sprayer collapsed on his leg, pinning him to the ground.

With no one in earshot and about nine tonnes of machinery collapsed on his leg, the veteran farmhand was able to remove his boot while deciding on his next move over a cigarette.

“I thought, ‘nobody’s going to miss me until maybe 7pm’, so I started digging,” Mr Lynch said.

Using a pocket knife that had belonged to his father, Mr Lynch dug through the rock-hard surface for the next six-and-a-half hours.

The next time you’re tempted to panic, think about Mr. Lynch enjoying a smoke with 19,842 pounds worth of machinery piled atop his leg.

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A Family Affair

October 9th, 2013

Sand Mafia ProtestThe exploits of the various Indian sand mafias has long been a topic of fascination ’round these parts. As the subcontinent’s construction boom has lead to an escalation in sand prices, miners have become eager to accumulate the granular material by any means necessary. In practice, that means excavating any strip of land they wish, and using a combination of bribery and violence to deal with those who might object.

One women from Kerala, who goes by the sole name Jazeera, has recently become the public face of opposition to the mafias. She first spent over two months sitting in at the state’s capital, telling anyone who would listen that the illegal miners were destroying her private property. Now Jazeera has moved the show to Delhi, with her kids in tow:

On a bright blue tarpaulin spread out, the 31-year-old crusader is camping with her three children, the youngest Mohammad barely a year-and-a-half old, in this unfamiliar city…

An autorickshaw driver by profession, Ms. Jazeera is also fighting against a part of her own family. Her brother, she says, is part of the mafia that illegally dig sand, so the pressure to call off the protest has been immense even at home. “My husband, a madrasa teacher, supports me. He couldn’t come to Delhi, but my children are here,” she says.

Her daughters — 12-year-old Rizwana and 10-year-old Shifana — have been through the worst, but are not complaining.

They miss being at school, but would rather be with their mother. “Some students from Jawaharlal Nehru University have offered to teach them while we are here. I couldn’t have left them behind,” Ms. Jazeera says.

There is certainly an education to be had in all this, primarily about the interplay between politics and money. Here’s to hoping that Jazeera’s children veer more toward idealism rather than cynicism once the affair is settled.

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The Circle of Life

October 8th, 2013

Tasmania Roadkill CompostingFact-checking Tasmania’s claim to be the roadkill capital of the world is no easy feat, since few of its potential competitors (we’re looking at you, Madagascar) keep accurate statistics regarding flattened wildlife. One thing that is certain, however, is that the remote Australian state is a tireless innovator in the roadkill space, dedicating vast resources to mapping trouble spots and figuring out how best to care for victims. Not content to rest on their laurels, however, the Tasmanian authorities are now nudging the ball along even further, by advocating a plan to turn roadkill into compost:

On farm, or just within gardens. I mean, look, people recycle sheep droppings. You regularly see people selling sheep poo on the side of the road. In our local area, those sort of things don’t last long. People are very quick to buy them. So I do think that there’s a market for recycled roadkill, potentially, in Tasmania.

But is this the most efficient use of roadkill? An argument could be made that the poor wallabies, possums, and bandicoots who meet their Maker on Tasmania’s roads might be more valuable as a direct source of calories for humans, rather than a nutrient for future vegetables. The trick, of course, would be to figure out a way to counteract an old taboo against eating meat that was once stuck to asphalt. An enterprising advertising firm should take up that grand challenge.

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Hello Again

September 30th, 2013

Hello Again FalconryContrary to what you may have concluded after several months of silence, I have not, in fact, abandoned this long-cherished experiment in storytelling. I had to shift Microkhan to the back burner during a long summer spent spreading the gospel of The Skies Belong to Us, an endeavor that took me to the far corners of this vast nation. And, to be frank, I had to breathe a bit after the book dropped—that project took a lot out of me, to the point that the healthiest move was to lay off the keyboard for a spell.

But I’m back now and eager to once again bring y’all the finest tales from the worlds of competitive falconry, Papua New Guinea, and the annals of smuggling. While I can’t promise that I’ll have the time to post daily, I do vow to be a much more diligent steward of this prime Internet property. Off to Kansas on a Wired assignment tomorrow, back back at you soon with something delectable. And by “you,” I mean the two or three people who have seen fit to keep Microkhan in their feeds—bless your hearts.

(Image via Palani Mohan’s project on Kazakh eagle hunters)

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Reading is Not a Crime

July 1st, 2013

IMG_6403I have honestly been taken aback by the reluctance of many folks to read The Skies Belong to Us while traveling. Time and again, I’ve heard from people who refuse to bring the book on planes, for fear of freaking out their seatmates—or, more important, those meddlesome TSA screeners.

I’m sympathetic to these concerns, but also saddened by them. Simply reading a book of American history should never be an act that arouses suspicions. I would now like to stress that important point by offering y’all a delicious inducement to read The Skies as you transit from one city to the next.

To promote the book, the missus and I designed and printed 100 sets of skyjacker trading cards. There are now just 20 left, and I want to give these limited-edition gems away to brave souls who read The Skies while aloft—or, at the very least, in airports. How do you claim this scintillating prize? There are three easy ways:

1) Tweet a photo of yourself reading The Skies on an airplane or in an airport, along with either the hashtag #TheSkies or my handle (@brendankoerner). I will then reach out to get your mailing address.

2) Tag both yourself and me (+brendankoerner) in a Facebook photo of yourself reading the book on an airplane or in an airport.

3) Send me the relevant photo via email (brendan AT microkhan DOT com).

Yes, you can snap yourself reading the digital version. I’ll trust you to do the right thing and actually download the book, rather than just hold up a sample chapter for the camera. I believe in the innate goodness of our species.

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The Skies

June 18th, 2013

Skies Notecard #2It’s a bit tough for me to believe that The Skies Belong to Us is finally out today. As dedicated followers of this project know, I’ve been working on the book for nearly four years, and there were many moments when its completion seemed an impossibility. The Grand Empress and the progeny can attest to all the dark moods I passed through while shaping the text—they’re saints for putting up with it all.

The notecard above was the seed of the The Skies—the first time I ever jotted down the idea. I pinned it to my corkboard in October 2009, as I do with many random story notions that pop into my skull. For reasons that will hopefully be clear if you check out the book, I just couldn’t let this tale go untold.

Please support the cause if you can. Microkhan is a lovely creative outlet, but it’s the books that should (theoretically) pay for the portable soccer nets that Microkhan Jr. so desperately craves.

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Closer and Closer

June 16th, 2013

Skies Hijacking TranscriptLess than 48 hours to go ’til The Skies Belong to Us officially drops, which is why I’m spending Father’s Day locked in the yurt, endeavoring to spread the good word. You can aid the cause by checking out this enthusiastic review from The New York Times, in which the book is described as “such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio.”

Sound like your kind of thing? Or simply appreciative of all the Papua New Guinea coverage I’ve brought you over the years? Please consider snagging a copy. I promise you won’t regret it.

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The Final Countdown

June 10th, 2013

Just eight days to go until The Skies Belong to Us goes live, a fact that explains my recent absence ’round this particular corner of the digital steppe. I’ll be popping up this week, though, to offer some Skies-related goodies, including a limited-edition set of skyjacker trading cards. In the meantime, check out the footage above from the 1961 hijacking of Continental Airlines Flight 54, a landmark episode that I also discuss in today’s Slate installment of “Skyjacker of the Day.” If anyone knows what became of Cody Bearden after his 21st birthday, please advise.

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The Khan Abides

May 14th, 2013

Granted, I haven’t posted in a whopping eleven days—the longest dry spell in Microkhan history. But rest assured, I have not abandoned this endeavor after a measly 1,559 entries. I have just been so engulfed with the pregame for The Skies Belong to Us, as well as a pair of absorbing Wired projects, that I’ve scarcely had a spare moment to notice that the Grand Emprette has now mastered the art of sitting up, let alone keep pace with this site. I’ll try my best to improve my performance between now and the book’s June 18th launch, but please understand that we’re dealing with extraordinary circumstances over here; things may be more sporadic than any of us might wish.

I’ll try and give you reason to keep checking in, though, by promising to hold some giveaways of limited-edition skyjacker trading cards. Gimme a week or so to come up with a tough-enough trivia question, and we’ll go from there.

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The Rise and Fall of R.I.S.E.

May 3rd, 2013

Pera and Schwander Poison PlotThe two young men above once dreamed of committing a truly dreadful act: poisoning Chicago’s water supply, in order to kill millions and further the ambitions of their revolutionary organization, R.I.S.E. Mainstream press accounts of their failed caper describe them as incompetent fools, but this case study gives them credit for developing some biological agents that at least had the potential to cause grave damage. More important, the case study delves into the specifics of the duo’s motives, which could only have been concocted during a drug-fueled bout of sexual frustration:

R.I.S.E. was apparently founded in mid-November 1971. The precise meaning of the group’s name is unknown, but one police informant indicated that the “R” stood for Reconstruction, the “S” for Society, and the “E” for Extermination (the source could not recall the meaning of the “I”).

Schwandner articulated the group’s ideology in a six-page “manifesto” that he kept in a binder in his apartment…The manifesto started with an assertion that mankind was destroying itself and the planet, and that the only way to preserve the environment was for the human race to be wiped out except for a select group of people who would live in harmony with nature. According to the document, the world would be a better place if it were inhabited only by a small group of like-minded people who agreed on how to address its problems. With the ultimate aim of repopulating the planet, Schwandner planned to recruit people into the group who would select a mate of the opposite sex. He reportedly envisioned that R.I.S.E. would ultimately include sixteen people, comprising eight male-female pairs.

Once their plan was foiled, the pair fled to Cuba, where they suffered through a predictably awful spell in prison. Stephen Pera was the lucky one, in that he eventually got to return to the U.S. and get off with a light punishment. Allen Schwandner does not appear to have been so fortunate; sometimes the wages of youthful idiocy is death.

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The Narcissism of Scoundrels

April 29th, 2013

Dave Srail LetterAfter six years on the run, con man David Scott Srail was finally nabbed at a San Antonio airport last week. His capture was due in part to the efforts of a Florida woman, Jacira Paolino, whose daughter was swindled by Srail. Since virtually the moment that Srail went on the lam, Paolino has maintained a website detailing his crimes—a site that includes a four-page handwritten letter in which the scammer unwittingly reveals the depths of his narcissism. Read the whole thing if you have even the slightest interest in the psychology of sociopaths—Srail goes to amazing lengths to make himself an object of pity, when the real purpose of the letter is to inform a victim that all is lost. The lack of conscience layered beneath the veneer of empathy is quite a wonder to behold.

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A Rule Made to be Broken

April 24th, 2013

Pocket KnifeOver on the ol’ microblog, I probably link to a half-dozen intriguing tales per day, most of which I forget about a few moments after posting. But every so often, one of the stories I toss into the flotsam sticks with me for days, even weeks, to the point that I need to sit down and figure out why it’s still occupying space in my head. Such is the case with this complex prison saga from Alaska, which centers on a guard who was fired for violating a workplace rule: he brought a pocket knife into the facility. But his violation was only discovered after he used that pocket knife to save life:

When Spalding ordered inmates into lockdown, most went to their cells. One refused. “Let’s do this,” the inmate said to him, the same phrase used the day before.

Spalding figured an attack was coming and tried to leave. The inmate, a muscular 22-year-old serving seven years for robbery and assault, got between him and the door. They stared at each other. Then the inmate punched him in the head, Spalding said. Spalding tried again for the door.

“About that time, someone jumps me on the back or someone hits me from behind, I’m not sure what. But there was contact,” Spalding said.

A tornado of fighting men lurched toward the locked door. “I’m getting hit, punched, stuff like that, the whole time,” Spalding said. A third inmate joined in. “If I don’t do something now, I am dead,” Spalding remembers thinking.

He was pressed against a glass wall as he fished for his knife. “I finally get it out, I open it, I turn and then just start thrusting at anything that moved,” Spalding said.

He remembers falling to the floor. “They are putting the boots to me.”

The attack seemed to go on forever but lasted less than a minute, he said.

“One of them said, ‘Hey guys, he’s got a knife,’ ” and the inmates backed off, Spalding said. He got up. Everything was red from blood running into his eyes.

As the story makes clear, the security situation within the prison was so woeful that several guards felt compelled to carry added protection, despite knowing full well that they risked their jobs by doing so. They obviously feared for their lives more than they feared for their employment.

The question, then, is whether they had exhausted all other avenues to address their security concerns before going vigilante on the situation. At what point do we accept that people have no choice but to take the most extreme measures to protect themselves, even when those measures run contrary to established laws? There’s so much rich philosophical terrain to explore in this tale. Though for those directly involved, such questions are probably secondary to more basic issues, like when they’ll get their next paycheck.

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The Perception of Risk

April 19th, 2013

Hang Gliding and Maternal MortalityIt’s a good thing I didn’t encounter this graph until after the Grand Emprette joined us here on Spaceship Earth. It’s a salient reminder that the simple act of producing life is still several times more hazardous than any thrill-seeking leisure activity, no matter how seemingly nuts.

It’s worth noting that this graph would have an even more disturbing tilt if it wasn’t using British figures for maternal mortality; the rate in the United States is far worse. And then there’s Benin.

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Everyone’s a Critic

April 17th, 2013

Slaughterhouse Five BurningIn 1973, after a student complained about the language in Slaughterhouse Five, the administration at Drake (N.D.) High School decided to take rather dramatic action (see above). When informed of what had been done to his creation, author Kurt Vonnegut responded in the appropriate manner:

Vonnegut, asked for his reaction, said, “It’s grotesque and ridiculous. It’s like asking how do I feel about man-eating sharks.

Once the initial shock had worn off, Vonnegut dashed off a more eloquent letter to the offending school. It is of course to his great credit that the incident is now recalled with noticeable embarrassment by the people of North Dakota. Images of book incineration rarely, if ever, age well.

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Bound for Moscow

April 12th, 2013


The low-grade 1972 thriller Skyjacked plays a brief but important role in my upcoming book. Here’s a brief excerpt of the chapter in which I describe why this lesser Charlton Heston flick made a splash at the box office:

The film was controversial due to its subject matter, and numerous TV stations refused to run ads for it; one station manager in Washington, D.C., said he feared the movie would impel viewers with “impressionable minds” to seize planes. But Skyjacked nevertheless opened strongly at the box office, drawing moviegoers curious to experience the terror of life aboard a hijacked jet.

Despite an all-star cast that included Rosey Grier and Yvette Mimieux in addition to Heston, Skyjacked was a dreadful movie riddled with plot holes. Based on a pulp novel called Hijacked, the movie was a halfhearted whodunit in which the skyjacker initially communicates his threats by anonymously scrawling messages on a lavatory mirror. It is no great shock when the culprit is revealed to be a stereotypically frazzled Vietnam vet, played by the thirty-one-year-old James Brolin. Upset over his treatment by the Army, Brolin’s character decides to escape to the Soviet Union, where he is certain that he will be given a hero’s welcome. His daft plan unsurprisingly fails, though not until the Boeing 707 is on the ground in Moscow.

Strangely, Heston doesn’t get the honor of dispatching the traitorous Brolin. That feat is instead accomplished by (SPOILER ALERT!) the Soviet military, which rather randomly decides that this crazy hijacker won’t fit into the dictatorship of the proletariat. Brolin really should have chosen a more laid-back destination.

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A Koan for Our Times

April 10th, 2013

Apologies for the sporadic posting these last couple of weeks. I’m neck deep in a million things as the book nears publication, including those all-important updates on Skyjacker of the Day. Fear not, though, this enterprise still lives, and posts shall be issuing at more traditional rate starting early next week.

For the moment, though, I’d like to direct your attention to this Utican tale of a mass-murder survivor, which delves into one of Microkhan’s favorite issues: how a brush with catastrophic death alters the soul. The protagonist of the story, a 66-year-old barber whose co-worker was killed, is obviously still coming to grips with why he was spared, and how he should proceed with the precious time he has remaining. There’s a point in the story where he flicks at the notion of karmic reward, but I much prefer the inquisitive sentiment he expresses in the kicker:

Seymour knows there wasn’t much difference between him and the other well-respected and much-loved men who died that day.

“So what saved you?” Seymour’s mother asked her son.

“He missed,” Seymour replied.

Out of the mouths of the nearly murdered, wisdom flows.

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Lord of the Elvers

April 8th, 2013

Elver PricesIf you want to know why elver-related crime is on the rise in Maine (and elsewhere), look no further than the chart above, which shows just how valuable those wriggly little creatures have become in the past few years. As this dissection of the political tussle over fishing licenses reveals, the Asian appetite for baby eels is having a significant ripple effect on the Down East economy:

Landing records reflect the impact of market price on the size of Maine’s recent annual eel harvests. In 2008, Maine’s eel catch weighed in at 6,951 pounds, with a value of $1.5 million, or $216 a pound. By 2010, the take was down to 3,185 pounds with a market value of $585,000, or $184 a pound. Both the harvest and its value spiked in 2012 at 19,000 pounds worth $38 million at a record-high per-pound price of $2,000.

My hunch is that the elver bubble is set to pop, mostly because prices have reached the point where it makes more sense for restaurateurs to try and fool diners than buy the genuine article. What percentage of those who consume elvers at the end of the supply chain can really tell the difference between the bona fide foodstuff and a cheap imitation? Certainly far less than the warring factions in Maine might care to admit.

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Money Equals Life

April 4th, 2013

Taipan AntivenomThe Papuan taipan is arguably the deadliest snake in the world, but not only because of the intensity of its venom. The creature kills humans at such an alarming rate primarily because the antidote to its bite is too expensive for most Papuan medical facilities to afford. That unfortunate fact could soon change, though, thanks to research out of Costa Rica’s Instituto Clodomiro Picado, which is developing an affordable taipan antivenom called TaipanOx-ICP. This fascinating interview about the medication’s upcoming clinical trials sheds light on why creating antivenoms is such a labor-intensive exercise:

Anti-venoms are made by immunising a horse with selected snake venoms, so that the horse makes antibodies and these antibodies are extracted from the horse’s plasma and refined so that they’re fit to be given by the intravenous route to human snakebite victims. And the Costa Ricans, as I say, have found a much simpler, less expensive, but no less safe and no less effective method.

If anyone can point me toward a readable history of antivenom development, I’d be much obliged. I’d be interested to know how horses were settled upon as the ideal animals for antibody production. Were other animals tried out first, with disappointing results?

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The Aztec Way of Marriage

April 2nd, 2013

Aztec MarriagePerhaps because they were so enthusiastic about ritualistically slicing hearts out of their fellow humans, the Aztecs are rarely examined with much seriousness. This University of Texas collection seeks to correct that oversight, by chronicling the tenets of the legal system that sustained Aztec society until the conquistadors showed up. There is great stuff throughout, such as the bit about the Aztecs’ curious attitude toward alcohol consumption. (“Public drunkenness was punishable by death for younger individuals; however, elders could consume as much alcohol as they wished.”) My favorite part, though, deals with marital law, and includes the revelation that the Aztec definition of “traditional marriage” was rather loosey-goosey:

Marriage was conditional in that the parties could decide to separate or stay together after they had their first son. Marriages could also be unconditional and last for an indefinite period of time.

It’s fun to imagine the middle-aged dating scene in Tenochtitlan, replete with marriage vets who left the kids at home. Babysitting rates must have been through the roof.

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“Some Were True Believers in Their Cause”

March 29th, 2013


I’m trying to cram in a bunch of last-minute work before disappearing for the (brief) holiday weekend, so I’ll catch y’all on Monday with something about Aztec marital law. In the meantime, please check out the trailer for The Skies Belong to Us, which is the genius handiwork of Thomas Beug (of This is My City fame). And you can hear even more of my voice on this brand-new podcast, in which I discuss heavy-duty archival research, my travails in northwest Burma, and my extremely brief guest appearance on the second episode of Punky Brewster.

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Next-Level Celebrity Activism

March 27th, 2013


The Gujarati folksinger Farida Mir does not mess around when it comes to political activism. While her Western peers may content themselves with making bold statements in the media, Mir has no problem with getting her hands dirty—particularly when the lives of cows are stake. Just check out how far she recently went to protest a government plan to provide cattle to beef-eating “tribals” in her native state:

The first incident was reported near Kuvadva on the outskirts of the city Friday night when Mir and seven others stopped a truck carrying nine cows and a calf. The truck was on its way to Pavi Jetpur taluka in Vadodara district from Khambahlia in Jamnagar district. The singer and her associates allegedly beat up driver and cleaner of the truck, torn off documents of the animal transfer and vandalised the vehicle.

Mir, who is an active Gaurakshak, filed a complaint against the driver and cleaner under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act 1956 at Kuwadva police station and “rescued” the cows.

You can accuse Mir of many things. But living in the celebrity bubble certainly isn’t one of them.

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A Tough New Front

March 26th, 2013

Mink PeltsThere’s no question that the animal-rights movement has successfully altered America’s attitude toward fur; coats composed of pelts are no longer a de rigueur status symbol for those with too much money on their hands. So why, then, is mink production ramping up to virtually unprecedented levels? Because the newly affluent Chinese covet fur coats to the same degree as the Eisenhower-era wives of industrial tycoons:

China imported nearly $126 million worth of U.S. mink pelts last year, making it the second most lucrative mink export market for American fur farmers behind South Korea, according to FAS. The North American Fur Auction, which touts itself as the largest fur wholesale auction house in North America, said nearly three quarters of the 700-plus buyers who attended its Toronto auction in February were Chinese.

Zhang Yiren, a 25-year-old medical magazine employee, tried on a fur coat in a Shanghai shopping mall recently with her parents. “I have had two fur coats and bought them for myself,” she said. “The angora one cost me 1,600 yuan ($250), and I love the style. It is beautiful and keeps me warm.”

Herein lies a difficult challenge for the animal-rights movement—namely, how do they modify their message and tactics to reach Chinese consumers? Cheeky shock tactics may not work quite as well in the Middle Kingdom.

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