Saturday, December 24

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Stories to Live With

Coping with a brother’s suicide.

We tell stories about the dead in order that they may live, if not in body then at least in mind—the minds of those left behind. Although the dead couldn’t care less about these stories—all available evidence suggests the dead don’t care about much—it seems that if we tell them often enough, and listen carefully to the stories of others, our knowledge of the dead can deepen and grow. If we persist in this process, digging and sifting, we had better be prepared for hard truths; like rocks beneath the surface of a plowed field, they show themselves eventually.

Friday, December 23

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Retail Therapy

How Viennese psychologist Ernest Dichter transformed advertising:
What makes soap interesting? Why choose one brand over another? Dichter’s first contract was with the Compton Advertising Agency, to help them sell Ivory soap. Market research typically involved asking shoppers questions like “Why do you use this brand of soap?” Or, more provocatively, “Why don’t you use this brand of soap?” Regarding such lines of inquiry as useless, Dichter instead conducted a hundred so-called “depth interviews”, or open-ended conversations, about his subjects’ most recent scrubbing experiences. The approach was not unlike therapy, with Dichter mining the responses for encoded, unconscious motives and desires. In the case of soap, he found that bathing was a ritual that afforded rare moments of personal indulgence, particularly before a romantic date (“You never can tell,” explained one woman). He discerned an erotic element to bathing, observing that “one of the few occasions when the puritanical American [is] allowed to caress himself or herself [is] while applying soap.” As for why customers picked a particular brand, Dichter concluded that it wasn’t exactly the smell or price or look or feel of the soap, but all that and something else besides—that is, the gestalt or “personality” of the soap.
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How Ethiopia's Adoption Industry Dupes Families and Bullies Activists

In 2008, a 38-year old Oklahoma nurse whom I'll call Kelly adopted an eight-year old girl, "Mary," from Ethiopia. It was the second adoption for Kelly, following one from Guatemala. She'd sought out a child from Ethiopia in the hopes of avoiding some of the ethical problems of adopting from Guatemala: widespread stories of birthmothers coerced to give up their babies and even payments and abductions at the hands of brokers procuring adoptees for unwitting U.S. parents. Now, even after using a reputable agency in Ethiopia, Kelly has come to believe that Mary never should have been placed for adoption.
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No Country for Innocent Men

Why it took more than a decade for the posthumous pardon of Tim Cole, even after another inmate confessed to the brutal crime that put Cole away.

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In the Land of the Dear Leader

The author travels to North Korea in the years after Kim Jong Il’s succession. He also gets a haircut:

But suddenly the whole chair starts vibrating and I find myself surrendering to her, as she begins to knead the acupressure points on my forehead and neck. Next it's ginseng unguent all over my face. Gobs of pomade smelling like bubble gum go on my hair. Then, like a true daughter of the revolution, she upholsters her blow dryer and begins combing in the pomade and sculpting my now subdued hair. The pungent aroma of heated pomade, like fat frying in a pan, fills the room. My stylist gives my hair a little twist with the comb. It feels like she's making a Dairy Queen curl on top. Then she fries it in place with the dryer. Another dab of pomade. More mincing motions with the comb. Another blast of hot air. Suddenly I feel a moist breeze around my ears. She's taken out a can of imported aerosol spray and is cementing her creation in place. She's delicately patting my new coiffure now the way a baker taps a loaf of bread to see if it's springy to the touch. She murmurs something. I'm breathless with expectation. I open my eyes and gaze into the mirror. Magnifique! It looks like I have a loofah sponge on my head! I am reborn -- a cross between Elvis and a 1950s Bulgarian hydrology expert! At last I have become a true son of Pyongyang!

Thursday, December 22

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From Pakistan to Afghanistan, U.S. Finds Convoy of Chaos

What happened when Pakistan shut down the vitally important Karachi to Kabul trucking line.

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Say Hello to My Little Friend

How shrunken heads ended up in downtown Chicago.

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A Family Obsessed

On February 10, 1982, Lucy Dixon’s daughter was raped. Against all odds, she and her family brought the man to justice.

Wednesday, December 21

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Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance

Inside the shadowy meetings between Chicago’s violent gang members and its elected officials.

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The Kiss

The Vancouver riots and an unforgettable image.

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No Ordinary Counterfeit

Alarmingly sophisticated imitations of American currency have turned up all over the world and the false-paper trail leads to North Korea.

Tuesday, December 20

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Chuck Berry Goddamn!

Now 85, Berry still records live music. He just doesn’t want you to hear it.