• Oklahoma woman found guilty of manslaughter after suffering miscarriage

    KSWO 7 reports that 20-year-old Brittney Poolaw was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter after miscarrying at 17 weeks.

    An autopsy report showed that the fetus tested positive for methamphetamine, amphetamine and another drug in the liver and brain.

    An OBGYN testified on the stand Tuesday as an expert by the state.

    The doctor confirmed the fetus was at the gestational age of about 17 weeks and that methamphetamine use can have an effect on the pregnancy, though he said it may not be the direct cause of death for the fetus. The Medical Examiner detected a congenital abnormality, placental abruption and chorioamnionitis as well.

    Just to reiterate: the doctor said that the presence of those drugs may not have killed the fetus. Poolaw was sentenced to four years in prison anyway — not for negligence, but for first-degree manslaughter.

    Certainly there will be some people who argue that, because Poolaw may have allegedly been using drugs, this was a unique situation — possibly even deserved! — and not a portent of a future desired by anti-abortion activists. But, as the National Advocates for Pregnant Women point out:

    Oklahoma's murder and manslaughter laws do not apply to miscarriages, which are pregnancy losses that occur before 20 weeks, a point in pregnancy before a fetus is viable (able to survive outside of the womb). And, even when applied to later losses, Oklahoma law prohibits prosecution of the "mother of the unborn child" unless she committed "a crime that caused the death of the unborn child."

    In other words: this is absolutely the legal future that some anti-abortion activists want.

    Woman found guilty for First-Degree Manslaughter [Tyler Boydston / KSWO ABC 7 News]

    Image: Lorie Shaull / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

  • Police seize flintlock pistol and sword from criminal washing machine

    The Bedfordshire Police are hard at work protecting the mean English streets from 19th-century time travelers, apparently.

    The police shared further details on this heroic venture in a press release, boasting that:

    We have taken a gun off the streets of Bedfordshire after officers found the firearm in a washing machine during a warrant.

    Officers also recovered a sword and Class A drugs during the warrant in Bedford on Monday (11 October).

    A man in his 60s from Bedford was arrested on suspicion of possession of a firearm and being concerned in the supply of a controlled drug as a result of the warrant.

    It marks the second successful seizure by Bedfordshire Police in proactive operations to tackle serious and organised crime in a matter of days.

    A Twitter user with the handle English Country Life noted that, if the flintlock pistol is a genuine antique, it would not be considered to be a licensable firearm. "Secondly," they added, "there are so many parts missing (including the cock and frizen cover) that, whatever it's origin, that relic is definitely non functional."

    British gun control is weird.

    Warrants seize gun, Class A drugs and £1,000 in cash [Bedfordshire Police]

  • There's a weird acoustic phenomenon at the "Center of the Universe" in Oklahoma

    I just learned about the "Center of the Universe" — a strange acoustic phenomenon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stand at the right spot, and your voice will echo wildly around the architecture, no matter how soft or loud you try to speak. But to listeners just outside that specific spot? Your voice completely disappears.

    The architect who built the bridge at the Center of the Universe has no idea why this happens. The science department at the University of Melbourne tried to explain this bizarre occurrence:

    Created in the 1980s after a fire that forced the rebuilding of a bridge in Tusla, Oklahoma, the 'Centre of the Universe' refers to a small concrete circle that sits within a larger circle of bricks. Extending from the centre concrete circle (about 76cm/30inches in diameter) is another circle of 13 bricks which is also surrounding by another circle and so on. In total, the full 'Centre of the Universe' is about 2.5 metres (8 feet) in diameter. 

    In other words, it is just concrete and bricks forming a circle on the ground with nothing extra or special added to it. 

    […]

    The most plausible theory though, is that the acoustic distortion comes from the circular plantar walls that surround the circle, reflecting the sound. 

    This isn't the only place in the world where similar effects have occurred. A few states over in New York lies the "Lake George Mystery Spot" where if you stand in a particular position, the sound you make will form an echo. This place also has similar theories with the most likely again being that the circular walls surrounding the place, reflect the sound.

    There are other theories though, including ghosts, and a vortex of cosmic energy.

    Here's another video of this strange phenomenon:

    The Center of the Universe [Atlas Obscura]

    Throwback Tulsa: Experts visit Center of the Universe to explain its acoustic magic [Lou Ann Ruark / Tulsa World]

    "Centre of the Universe" Anomoly [University of Melbourne]

  • A brief history of what we think mermaids might look like

    Over Columbus Day weekend, I was reminded of that moron's historical horniness for manatees. According to his journals, he noticed three manatees near the Dominican Republic on January 9, 1493, and mistook them for mythical mermaids, remarking that they were "not half as beautiful as they are painted."

    Speaking of ugliness and mermaids, the Irish folklorists Thomas Crofton Croker and WB Yeats both recorded tales of their male counterparts, known as merrow. Like blanket octopuses, the mer-people are an example of extreme sexual dimorphism, with the males of the species essentially appearing as inversions of the fabled females — that is to say, fishy tops and human bottoms. This, Yeats noted, is why mermaids usually went after fisherman, instead of mating within their own species — because the male merrows were basically fish heads with penises¹.

    Meanwhile, Vaughn Scribner recently published a piece at Public Domain Review that also chronicles the evolution of human assumptions from mermaids as they appeared in visual art throughout the eighteenth century.

    Westerners' combination of curiosity and imperial expansion is well reflected in the cultural relevance of merpeople. Wealthy individuals and philosophical societies funded naturalists', botanists', and cartographers' expeditions to the New World in the hope that they might broaden humanity's understanding of the world and their place in it. In an expanding number of investigations into mermaids and tritons, naturalists demonstrated a growing penchant for the wondrous. They also, importantly, revealed how the process of scientific research had drastically changed over the last two hundred years. Rather than relying strictly on ancient texts and hearsay, eighteenth-century naturalists mustered various "modern" resources — global correspondence networks, erudite publication opportunities, transatlantic travel, specimen procedures, and learned societies — to rationally examine what many considered fantastical. Thus, a growing body of gentlemen both carried on and eschewed the supposed narrative of enlightened logic by applying well-known, valid research methods to mysterious merpeople. In doing so, eighteenth-century philosophers such as Cotton Mather, Peter Collinson, Samuel Fallours, Carl Linnaeus, and Hans Sloane complicated our — and their contemporaries' — conceptions of science, nature, and humanity. The smartest men in the Western world, in short, spent much of the eighteenth century chasing merpeople around the globe

    As I learned from this delightful Public Domain Review piece, even Ben Franklin and Cotton Mather were known to get a little horny for a sea monster every now and then. It's a fun article, with some wonderfully weird visuals.

    Mermaids and Tritons in the Age of Reason [Vaughn Scribner / Public Domain Review]

    ¹I had a little fun with this in my novel Pints of 'Gansett Make You Strong, which sort of riffs on Yeats in a modern day Boston noir. At one point the detective finds a merrow smuggling drugs on the Chelsea docks and remarks:

    He brought a webbed hand with a lit cigarette up to his ugly puckered fishface. His slimy blue-brown scales shined in the sunlight coming off the murky water, and the gills on his cheeks flared as he inhaled his smoke.

    I'd met a few merrows before — a few of 'em even showed up at Mary-Cath's funeral — but even by their standards, he was still an ugly motherfucker, the kind of spawn that even a mother would leave down the river to die. The glassy eyes on the sides of his head glanced around the docks, then he stomped out his cigarette and began to strip down. Once he was fully undressed, he looked around one more time, then dove into the water.

    It wasn't my first time seeing a naked merrow, but it's still not a sight you ever get used to. Mermaids, on the other hand, they were nice to look at, all fish-bottoms and voluptuous tops. You could understand why they preferred seducing humans from the land to the males of their own species. Not that us human males looked so pretty with our clothes off, either. Dicks are pretty weird in general, no matter what the species.

  • Check out this new book about the man who read every single Marvel Comic ever written.

    Douglas Wolk is the host of the Voice of Latveria podcast. He's also read every single comic book that Marvel has ever published. At first, he was just tracking his journey through the largest single body of fiction mythology in the history of mankind through his Tumblr. But now he's published a book about his journey into mystery, titled All of the Marvels, which came out this week. Here's how the publisher describes it:

    The first-ever full reckoning with Marvel Comics' interconnected, half-million-page story, a revelatory guide to the "epic of epics"—and to the past sixty years of American culture—from a beloved authority on the subject who read all 27,000+ Marvel superhero comics and lived to tell the tale
     

    The superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961 are, as Douglas Wolk notes, the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date, and still growing. The Marvel story is a gigantic mountain smack in the middle of contemporary culture. Thousands of writers and artists have contributed to it. Everyone recognizes its protagonists: Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men. Eighteen of the hundred highest-grossing movies of all time are based on parts of it. Yet not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing—nobody's supposed to. So, of course, that's what Wolk did: he read all 27,000+ comics that make up the Marvel Universe thus far, from Alpha Flight to Omega the Unknown.
     
    And then he made sense of it—seeing into the ever-expanding story, in its parts and as a whole, and seeing through it, as a prism through which to view the landscape of American culture. In Wolk's hands, the mammoth Marvel narrative becomes a fun-house-mirror history of the past sixty years, from the atomic night terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and political division of the present day—a boisterous, tragicomic, magnificently filigreed epic about power and ethics, set in a world transformed by wonders.
     
    As a work of cultural exegesis, this is sneakily significant, even a landmark; it's also ludicrously fun. Wolk sees fascinating patterns—the rise and fall of particular cultural aspirations, and of the storytelling modes that conveyed them. He observes the Marvel story's progressive visions and its painful stereotypes, its patches of woeful hackwork and stretches of luminous creativity, and the way it all feeds into a potent cosmology that echoes our deepest hopes and fears. This is a huge treat for Marvel fans, but it's also a revelation for readers who don't know Doctor Strange from Doctor Doom. Here, truly, are all of the marvels.

    Back in January, I'd read a blogpost on ComicsXF from someone else who had also read every Marvel Comic ever. So while I assume it's still an elite club, Wolk is not the only person to have accomplished such a feat. But he is the first to write about it, and his observations sound pretty interesting. I haven't read the book yet myself, but Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt:

    For someone who lives in our society, having some familiarity with the Marvel story is useful in much the same way as, say, being familiar with the Bible is useful for someone who lives in a Judeo-Christian society: its iconography and influence are pervasive.

    The Marvel story is a mountain, smack in the middle of contemporary culture. The mountain wasn't always there. At first, there was a little subterranean wonder in that spot, a cave that was rumored to have monsters inside it; colorful adventurers had once tested their skills there, and lovers met at its mouth. Then, in the 1960s, it started bulging up above the surface of the earth, and it never stopped growing.

    It's not the kind of mountain whose face you can climb. It doesn't seem hazardous (and it isn't), but those who try to follow what appear to be direct trails to its summit find that it's grown higher every time they look up. The way to experience what the mountain has to offer is to go inside it and explore its innumerable bioluminescent caverns and twisty passageways; some of them lead to stunning vantage points onto the landscape that surrounds it.

    There is no clear pathway into the mountain from the outside. Parts of it are abandoned and choked with cobwebs. Other parts are tedious, gruesome, ludicrous, infuriating. And yet people emerge from it all the time, gasping and cheering, telling one another about the marvels they've seen, then rushing back in for more.

    This is the stuff I love about superhero comics — the meta-narrative inherent to it all. The stories about stories that are constantly riffing on someone else's story. The most inaccessible part of superhero comics is not the continuity, it's their frequent self-referential nature. The retroactive continuity that transforms a practical real-world publishing decision into a part the narrative within the story itself, like how Marvel kept publishing Captain America comics even after Cap was "supposed to" have been frozen in ice, which was later justified in-story with the creation of "replacement Captain Americas" like William Nasland and William Burnside. The story about the story becomes central to the story. You don't need to know that to enjoy Captain America, of course, but it makes the whole tapestry weirdly richer. (I will never forget the look on my wife's face when I tried to explain how Shazam used to be Captain Marvel but then Ms Marvel became Captain Marvel in order to capture the copyright after Captain Marvel died.)

    Anyway I'm looking forward to checking out All of the Marvels as soon as possible.

    All of the Marvels [Douglas Wolk]

  • Official City Wizard fired from New Zealand City after over 20 years of public service

    Ian Brackenbury Channell has served as the official Wizard of Christchurch, New Zealand since 1998, earning an average salary of about $11,000 USD paid for by the city council in exchange for his services. According to his contract, the wizard's duties are "to provide acts of wizardry and other wizard-like-services — as part of promotional work for the city of Christchurch."

    After 23 years, however, the city council has decided to terminate the relationship. Council Assistant Chief Executive Lynn McClelland told Stuff NZ that "The council has met with The Wizard and sent him a letter thanking him for his services to Christchurch over the past decades, and informing him that we are bringing our formal contractual arrangement to a close."

    In response, the Wizard has invoked the specter of cancel culture, saying of the Christchurch City Council:

    They are a bunch of bureaucrats who have no imagination. They are not thinking of ways to promote Christchurch overseas. They are just projecting an image of bureaucrats drinking lattes on the boulevard. Their image of Christchurch is nothing to do with the authentic heritage of the city. 

    Gandalf the White could not be reached for comment as of press time.

  • Man sued for defamation over a missing apostrophe in a Facebook post

    The New York Times reports that an Australian man has gotten himself into a potential legal fire because of grammatically sloppy Facebook rant:

    In the post last year, Anthony Zadravic, the agent, appears to accuse Stuart Gan, his former employer at a real estate agency, of not paying retirement funds to all the agency's workers.

    At issue is the word "employees" in the post, which read: "Oh Stuart Gan!! Selling multi million $ homes in Pearl Beach but can't pay his employees superannuation," referring to Australia's retirement system, in which money is paid by employers into super accounts for employees. "Shame on you Stuart!!! 2 yrs and still waiting!!!"

    Naturally, Zadravic's former employer sued him for defamation, because:

    A judge in New South Wales ruled that the lack of an apostrophe on the word "employees" could be read to suggest a "systematic pattern of conduct" by Mr. Gan's agency rather than an accusation involving one employee.

    […]

    The judge, Judith Gibson, wrote in her statement: "​​The difficulty for the plaintiff is the use of the word 'employees' in the plural. To fail to pay one employee's superannuation entitlement might be seen as unfortunate; to fail to pay some or all of them looks deliberate."

    If Mr. Zadravic loses the case, it could cost him $180,000. And no, that comma is not a mistake.

    Missing Apostrophe in Facebook Post Lands a Man in Defamation Court [Livia Albeck-Ripka / New York Times]

    Image: Jeffrey Beall / Flickr (CC-BY-ND 2.0)

    Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is part of the New York Times Company, which also owns The New York Times.

  • Watch this mesmerizing underwater video of a beautiful blanket octopus

    This video is cool on its own, but I thought I should include something else about blanket octopuses to make this post more interesting. So I did some googling, and discovered a claim that blanket octopuses are one of "the most extreme sexually dimorphic animals." This felt like a pretty ridiculous accolade, so naturally, I kept reading. Apparently, the blanket octopuses that are (assigned) female at birth can reach sizes of up to about two meters, or a little over six feet. By contrast, the (assigned) males tend to max out around … 2.4 centimeters.

    Yes, you read that right. That's like me having sex with a walnut but also I'm a cephalopod.

    Given that information, I feel pretty confident that octopus in the video above is a female.

  • See how stories look when you get rid of all the words but leave the punctuation

    Over at Medium, Coders author Clive Thompson shared a new web app he created that renders beautiful visual images out of any inputted text — using only the punctuation. The project was inspired by a 2016 article by Adam J. Calhoun, which made beautiful posters out of the punctuation from books by different famous writers. As Calhoun observed at the time:

    Inspired by a series of posters, I wondered what did my favorite books look like without words. Can you tell them apart or are they all a-mush? In fact, they can be quite distinct. Take my all-time favorite book, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. It is dense prose stuffed with parentheticals. When placed next to a novel with more simplified prose — Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy — it is a stark difference (see above).

    Yes, the contrast is stark. But the wild mix of symbols can be beautiful, too. Look at the array of dots and dashes above! This morse code is both meaningless and yet so meaningful. We can look and say: brief sentence; description; shorter description; action; action; action.

    I tried Thompson's app with the text from my unicornpunk short story No God, No Master, and here's what I got:

    (I am frankly relieved that I didn't overuse the semi-colon, though you'll still have to pry the em-dash from cold — albeit still quite vigorous — dead fingers.)

    On Thompson's blog post, he also shares some images he created from the works of some famous writers, including Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway.

    Just The Punctuation [Glitch.me]

    What I Learned About My Writing By Seeing Only The Punctuation [Clive Thompson / Medium]

  • Watch the first trailer THE INFORMATION WAR, a new satire inspired by Alex Jones

    Last August, I shared the IndieGoGo campaign for The Information War, a satirical web series created by my friend Chris D'Amato, who appears in the role of Alex Jones. He and his creative/producing partner, Louis Aquiler, just completed the first trailer for the upcoming show, and it's hilariously haunting. Here's what I wrote about the script last year:

    As much as The Information War makes a caricature out of Jones himself, it also works as a sort of black mirror for the audience to reflect on the worst instincts of American culture, and themselves.

    Also D'Amato's impression of Jones is eerily perfect.

    I still stand by that statement.

    I'm not sure when exactly the series will be released, but here's the official description:

    America. Present Day- the age of misinformation. Madness has besieged the nation. What is fact? What is fake news? One thing is certain: There is a war on for your mind. Famed alt-right conspiracy theorist and radio personality Alex Jones, has made an excellent living for himself capitalizing on the fears and paranoia of an increasingly divided populace. From his "InfoWars" studio in Austin Texas, Alex is not only going to foil the globalist scheme to poison, cripple, and enslave the population, but he's going to sell you bottles of "Super-Male Vitality" and "Caveman True Paleo Formula Bone-broth" while he does it. Little does Alex know however, that the frenetic fervor he has whipped up among his followers has physically manifested itself into something dark, powerful, and very alive. A great evil has been birthed into this earthly realm, and Mr. Jones is about to be thrust to the front lines of a new kind of war where his wealth, marriage, sanity, and our entire civilization hang in the balance.

  • Saga is finally making its triumphant return to comics after 3 years of hiatus

    When Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples launched their epic fantasy space opera comic Saga in 2012, it was an immediate hit — critically acclaimed, as well as one of the best-selling independent comics in history. That success is well-earned; the book brilliant blends every imaginable ridiculous trope of sci-fi and fantasy epics with an incredibly grounded and emotional family story at the center of it. It's nerdy, it's vulgar, it's hilarious, and it's radically heartfelt.

    If you're not familiar, Saga is a sort-of Romeo & Juliet riff — two star-crossed lovers, in this case, coming from two planets that have been at war for so long that no one even remembers why, and yet the entire galaxy has somehow gotten wrapped up in their feud. Alana is a winged Landfallian soldier; Marko is a horned magic-user from Wreath. They fall in love, and our story begins with the birth of their child, Hazel, as the three of them go on the run in order to escape, uhh, well, pretty much everyone in the universe, who all have different reasons for wanting to get their hands on this adorably rare mixed-race baby (and/or kill it and either one of its parents).

    After the release of issue #54 in the summer of 2018 — which saw quite the turn of harrowing events — Vaughan and Staples announced that the book would be taking an indefinite hiatus. But this past weekend at New York Comic-Con, Vaughan announced that the book would be coming back in January 2022:

    "Saga launched at Image during the company's 20th anniversary in 2012, so it seems more than fitting that the series is returning to shops just in time for our 30th anniversary next year," said Eric Stephenson, Chief Creative Officer and Publisher at Image Comics. "I can think of few better ways to celebrate what Image is all about than by welcoming back one of the most incredible storytelling teams in comics history as they embark on the second half of a true epic-in-the-making."

    If you haven't read Saga before, this is a great time to catch up. It's truly fantastic. And, like all Image Comics, you can read the first issue for free online.

  • Nestlé launches new vegan shrimp called — wait for it — "Vrimp"

    Nestlé just announced a new plant-based shrimp alternative, which they are calling Garden Gourmet Vrimp:

    It is vegan and made from a combination of seaweed, peas and konjac root. It is a source of fiber and comes with a Nutri-Score B in Europe. It also has the authentic texture and flavor of succulent shrimps. It is perfect for complimenting salads and poke bowls and can be used in stir fried dishes, pasta dishes or as topping for pizzas.

    Vrimp is currently available in Nestlé's home country of Switzerland, as well as Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. It's not clear when it will become available in the US, or why the 64th largest multinational conglomerate in the world couldn't hire a branding firm to come up with a better name than "Vrimp."

    The company also announced a new vegan scrambled eggs alternative, but at least "Garden Gourmet vEGGie" is less weird.

    Plant-based alternatives to egg and shrimp now on menu at Nestlé [Nestlé]

  • New homeowner finds creepy doll in the wall with a note confessing murder

    Jonathan Lewis recently bought a new house in Liverpool. And in a tiny hole in the wall near the stairs is where he discovered … EMILY, a creepy-ass doll, with a note that read:

    My name is Emily. My original owners lived in this house in 1961. I didn't like them so they had to go. All they did was sing and be merry. It was sickening. Stabbing was my choice of death for them, so I hope you have knives.

    Hope you sleep well.

    Mr. Lewis seems pretty non-plussed about the whole event. Personally, I'd be concerned that if the house inspector missed this, they may have missed something else, too.

    Homeowner finds creepy rag doll in his wall with note confessing murder of past owners [Andrew Paul / The AV Club]

  • People in California are turning to Tatooine-style moisture farming

    From ABC News:

    The machine Ted Bowman helped design can make water out of the air, and in parched California, some homeowners are already buying the pricey devices.

    The air-to-water systems work like air conditioners by using coils to chill air, then collect water drops in a basin.

    […]

    The technology works especially well in foggy areas and depending on the size can produce between 200 gallons (900 liters) and 1,900 gallons (8,600 liters) of water a day. The machines also operate efficiently in any area with high humidity, including California's coastline, he said.

    The machines are not cheap, with prices ranging from $30,000 to $200,000. 

    Moisture farming: not just for Force-sensitive teenage orphans anymore!

    In dry California, some buy units that make water from air [Haven Daley / ABC News]

  • TED LASSO re-cut as a horror movie with a killer Nate the Great

    The rise and fall of Assistant Coach Nathan has been one of the most stressful parts of watching Ted Lasso. So London-based video editor Francis Siberini took that to its logical conclusion, and cut a new trailer for Ted Lasso that re-imagines the series as a horror movie, with Nate as the psychotic villain at the center of the chaos.

    It's perfect.

  • A toilet found in Jerusalem is older than Jesus

    The Associated Press reports that a 2700-year-old toilet was recently unearthed in Jerusalem — an incredibly rare find!

    Israeli archaeologists have found a rare ancient toilet in Jerusalem dating back more than 2,700 years, when private bathrooms were a luxury in the holy city, authorities said Tuesday.

    The Israeli Antiquities Authority said the smooth, carved limestone toilet was found in a rectangular cabin that was part of a sprawling mansion overlooking what is now the Old City. It was designed for comfortable sitting, with a deep septic tank dug underneath.

    This kind of private toilet was a luxury reserved for the rich, so chances are that Jesus did not take a holy shit in it some 732 years later (unless he did so shortly after beating up those bankers, just to prove a point).

    The archaeologists also discovered some animal bones and pottery in the septic tank, which could illuminate some new information about lifestyles, diets, and disease in Jerusalem at that time, which is kinda cool.

    2,700-year-old toilet found in Jerusalem was a rare luxury [Associated Press]

  • Read this wild story about a kidney donor, a short story, and an endless lawsuit

    A recent Slate magazine article posed interesting questions about where stories come from, and to whom or what fiction writers owe inspiration. Slate's Alexis Nowicki spent years obsessing over the possibility that the phenomenal 2017 story Cat Person was literally based on her own life, despite having never met the author. If this seems a little narcissistic, a flattering but unhealthy misunderstanding of how realistic fiction works, it turned out she may have been onto something.

    A new article in New York Times Magazine explores a similar story with some wild twists along the way. "Who Is The Bad Art Friend?" tells the tale of an aspiring novelist named Dawn Dorland who decided to donate a kidney to a random stranger. Dorland spent years attending workshops at the GrubStreet writing center in Boston, and believed—hoped—that the writing community there would be moved by the selflessness of her live organ donation.

    A month later, at the GrubStreet Muse conference in Boston […] barely anyone brought up what Dorland had done, even though everyone must have known she'd done it. "It was a little bit like, if you've been at a funeral and nobody wanted to talk about it — it just was strange to me," she said. "I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people."

    Dorland, who is white, later reached out to a successful writer at GrubStreet, a mixed-race Chinese-American woman named Sonya Larson. Dorland would learn that Larson had written a short story titled, "The Kindest," in which a Chinese-American woman gets in a drunk driving accident and receives a kidney donation from an ostensibly selfless live organ donor, a white woman with a compulsive need to be praised and appreciated for her supposedly selfless act.

    Dorland felt that Larson had blatantly stolen her personal story for a work of fiction. Larson argued that writers take inspiration from all kinds of places, and that Dorland's story merely served as a jumping off point that sparked an idea that turned into an entirely different story in which the selfless live organ donation was only one minor detail.

    "The Kindest" was selected for Boston's "One City, One Story" city-wide reading program, and Dorland sued Larson for copyright infringement. This was perceived by many in their writing community as a racist attack—a jealous white woman trying to take credit for the work of a woman of color—and Dorland's obsession quickly grew toxic, her lawsuits growing in scope and cost.

    When the lawsuit hit the discovery phase, though, it exposed the GrubStreeters' online chats about Dorland—and it turns out she may have a valid case.

    The story gets weird, dark, and complicated. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that somehow, after 5 years of obsessions and tribulations, Dorland decided to pitch this not-so-flattering story to New York Times Magazine. It's long, but holy shit, it's worth it. (You can also listen on Audm.)

    Who is the bad art friend? [Robert Kolker / New York Times Magazine]

    Image: Jakirseu / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

  • THE BODY SCOUT is a modern cyberpunk classic about baseball and big Pharma

    I absolutely adored Lincoln Michel's new novel The Body Scout, which feels like a classic cyberpunk noir with a twist of freshly modern relevance. Here's the official blurb:

    In the future you can have any body you want – as long as you can afford it.

    But in a New York ravaged by climate change and repeat pandemics, Kobo is barely scraping by. He scouts the latest in gene-edited talent for Big Pharma-owned baseball teams, but his own cybernetics are a decade out of date, and twin sister loan sharks are banging down his door. Things couldn't get much worse.

    Then his brother – Monsanto Mets slugger J.J. Zunz – is murdered at home plate.

    Determined to find the killer, Kobo plunges into a world of genetically modified CEOs, philosophical Neanderthals, and back-alley body modification, only to quickly find he's in a game far bigger and more corrupt than he imagined. To keep himself together while the world is falling apart, he'll have to navigate a time where both body and soul are sold to the highest bidder. 

    Michel is a writer who understands both the art and artifice of storytelling. He's the former editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and also writes one of my favorite newsletters about the craft of writing. This pedigree shines in The Body Scout, where Michel marries a self-consciously trope-y hard-boiled detective voice with the scathing sci-fi satire. It's wacky and pulpy, but with a clear sense of purpose. The technology and futuristic lingo often toe a perfect line between on-the-nose corniness and complete believability. Even the overarching idea of Big Pharma sponsoring baseball teams to use as walking advertisements for body modifications — it's both absurd, and terrifyingly plausible.

    The Body Scout is a quick, plot-driven read, with simple language, short chapters, and swiftly deployed descriptions that keep the story moving. Michel also demonstrates some remarkably deft world-building, establishing imagery and history (of the future, and the characters) in a few short words that spark the reader's imagination just enough to titillate. In other words, the prose is stark, but masterfully deliberate — a commitment to craft that I appreciate. At the same, the story presents satisfying philosophical questions about cloning and body modification and genetic engineering, and explores them all organically through the plot. There are a lot of big ideas at play, but the book doesn't bog you down with them, either. The Body Scout is no morality play, and there are no easy answers — not for the characters, and certainly not for the lingering concerns of body science that the story leaves you with. Michel's vision of the future is one of diversity and progress, but also one that makes you wonder whether you really should "believe the science." Maybe the commune of medical luddites is onto something. Maybe — and this was one of the weirdest considerations a book has ever left behind in my brain — maybe the Neanderthals were right.

    Just trust me: read The Body Scout. It even predicted last night's baseball wild card game, in a way:

    The Body Scout [Lincoln Michel / Orbit]

  • The USPS is testing out becoming a bank, and it's about damn time.

    The American Prospect reports the US Postal Service has — finally! — begun piloting several postal banking programs.

    In four pilot cities, customers can now cash payroll or business checks of up to $500 at post office locations, and have the money put onto a single-use gift card. It's the most far-reaching executive action that the Biden administration has taken since Inauguration Day.

    […]

    According to USPS spokesperson Tatiana Roy, the pilot launched on September 13 in four locations: Washington, D.C.; Falls Church, Virginia; Baltimore; and the Bronx, New York.

    According to the article, Prospect art director Jandos Rothstein successful cashed a business check at the Falls Church post office and converted it into a Visa gift card:

    "At first, [the postal worker] said she didn't think she could take the check," Rothstein said. "But she read the check into her scanner and it went through." He didn't need to show identification or endorse the check. The post office charged Rothstein a flat fee of $5.95, for any amount up to $500.

    Several larger check-cashing chains charge a percentage rate that comes out to $15 or more for a $500 check. Walmart charges between $4 and $8 for check cashing.

    A generic gift card, an existing product sold at post office locations, can be used like a bank debit card, either to take money out of an ATM (though that would, for now, incur fees), or pay for goods and services either online or at point-of-sale retail locations.

    When I say "fucking finally!" I fucking mean it. Nearly every other country on the planet offers banking services through their post office system. President Taft had previously introduced a US Postal Savings System in 1910 to fight back against predatory lending. It offered a guaranteed 2% interest rate, and the post office was legally required to redeposit that money into local banks to stimulate the local economy; the USPS got to keep whatever additional interest they accrued to cover operating costs. By the end of World War II, there was nearly $3.4 billion invested in the Postal Savings System. But the system was shuttered in 1967 because — guess what! — private banks were booming in the postwar economy, and lured the public back to them with lofty promises like higher interest rates.

    To return to a full postal banking system would be a serious boon for a lot of Americans. As it stands, nearly 35 million US households — that's 28% of the country — either don't currently have a bank account, or regularly rely on alternative financial services like check-cashing services and payday loans for other reasons, costing them about 10% of their annual income on average. Meanwhile, 59% of U.S. post offices operate in zip codes where there is just one bank or no bank at all. Even with just the limited financial services offered by banks right now, this makes a difference — consider the fact that rural post offices already sell 27% more money orders per capita than offices in urban areas. Access makes a difference!

    According to an extensive white paper put together by the USPS, those unbanked and underbanked Americans spent a combined total of about $89 billion on interest and fees from alternative financial services in 2012. Imagine how much they could save — and how much more money the post office could make! — if those kinds of services were offered through a trustworthy, legally-bound-to-not-screw-you-over public service like USPS.

    These new pilot programs aren't quite there yet; converting checks into Visa gift cards is still a pretty limited service. But it could be the start of something good.

    USPS Begins Postal Banking Pilot Program [David Dayen / American Prospect]

    Image: Public Domain via Pixabay