Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The artifact

I saw a lot of dead bodies in 2018. I was researching a story about medical examiners, and in so doing inadvertently saw autopsies and death scenes and the inside and outside of a lot of corpses. It was an entirely different kind of encounter with the human form for me: so many opened rib cages, sculptural and bloody, and so many surprises. There is a delicate bone shaped like a horseshoe hidden in the cartilage at the throat. The uterus, fierce red, is startlingly pretty when lifted into the light. The dura mater, a membrane that sheaths our brain and spinal cord, clings so stubbornly to the inside of the skull that you need a tool like a chisel to scrape it out. The empty skull echoes. Skin eventually turns colors, swells, splits, peels back like curled paper.

What does a person still living inside her body do with this knowledge? What does a body mean? Nearly all of the corpses, at the moment I saw them, were in a medical examiner’s office, where the bodies are kept naked, toe-tagged, and supine, arranged on metal gurneys. Any clothing or belongings they arrived with rests in brown bags beside them. There’s a standardization to bodies kept in the morgue—the body becomes an item that has entered a bureaucratic system in order to be organized, studied, catalogued, and released. Corpses in this context are something like people, but they are also like books in a library.

Occasionally I saw a body before it had been processed, and turned into so neutral an artifact. In particular, there was a night when I went to the home of a woman who had died on the floor of her bedroom. I had been on standby that evening—if a death investigator was notified that he needed to go out to a death scene and collect a body, he would call me first and I would go, too. I was hanging around my rented room and keeping an eye on my cell phone, waiting for someone in that particular city to die. This woman was the first one that evening, and so I got into the investigator’s car and we drove together to a quiet residential block lit by swirling blue and red.

The situation at the woman’s house was everything the morgue was not; it was filthy, there was horror, people were having feelings all over the place. The house itself was falling apart and the interior was crammed with garbage. The EMS team hadn’t had enough space to work on her in her bedroom (and they’d been worried about catching fleas or bedbugs) so they’d moved her outside. There were six or ten dogs running around. 

The policemen on the scene immediately began reciting the story as they’d heard it from the woman’s family: like plenty of other people who lived in the area, which is a food desert, the woman was malnourished, which led to type 2 diabetes, which led to illness requiring pain medication, which led to addiction, which led to street drugs, which led to heart and liver problems and every other kind of problem, which led to rehab, which led to surgeries to fix the various organ problems and complications, which led more rehab, and on and on. It seemed possible that she’d been killed by an infection in her gaping surgical wound, but the investigator thought that she’d managed to find drugs in the few hours since coming home from the hospital and had overdosed. He referred her for an autopsy to be sure.

The autopsy is a storytelling exercise: in the absence of sure information, it is the job of the medical examiner to excavate the story of your death. “Every body tells a story,” forensic pathologists like to say. “It tells the story you can’t tell yourself.” Without conclusive evidence about what happened, the body will speak. In the case of this woman, the autopsy would confirm whether she died of an overdose, an infection, a heart attack, or something else.

One rule of an autopsy is that you shouldn’t stop when you think you’ve found a cause of death. The autopsy is intended to be the complete record of a body at a particular moment in time—all of its dimensions, markings, defects, and attributes. “Oh! He had rheumatic fever when he was a kid,” the doctor said of one, gesturing for me to come look at a tiny bit of scar tissue in the heart of a woman in her fifties. Another time, a doctor gestured at an X-ray showing that an elderly lady had dozens of healed rib fractures. She likely fell a lot. She likely lived alone long after she shouldn’t have.

This is something I never knew before: that experience is inscribed in the body at the deepest level. I knew about scars and premature graying and sunspots, appearance as a reflection of habit and experience, the residual effects of injury or illness that can permanently reshape the way a body moves and looks. But our veins, too! Even the arches of our feet; even which of our joints swell with arthritis. Once, a forensic anthropologist told me the gender, age, diet, socioeconomic background, basic medical history, and likely country of origin of a skeleton based on his teeth alone. In this sense the body is an artifact but it is also an archive.

Derrida wrote that the archive functions like a prosthesis for memory—it begins at the point where memory fails and, as dancer and scholar Linda Haviland summarizes, “provide[s] a substrate onto which the act of remembering could be consigned and further be retrieved, reproduced, or reiterated in some way.” The archive requires, according to Derrida, “a certain exteriority,” a place other than the self to hold information and memory. Historically, we’ve thought of this as a real structure, a space set apart to safeguard whatever has been chosen to survive time. “No archive without outside.”

But what is “outside,” he asks. There is, even within our own minds, “an internal substrate, surface, or space” onto and into which experience can be imprinted and archived even after it is forgotten. Haviland suggests that the body is a crucial component of this interior-exterior: a “sentient archive.” By this logic, the body carries the self and perhaps is the self but also holds within it someplace, other than the self. Some of what is lost to memory lives there.


The encounter with the woman who died on the floor of her bedroom, more than any of the others, sent me into a rictus of anger, or grief, that persisted even after the reporting trip ended. Until that point, I’d been more or less holding it together, but afterward all the bodies I saw lost the relative sterility of the morgue, where everyone is without context. Her death seemed too specific—I’d seen her bras on the carpet and her sons’ faces when they politely asked the death investigator for permission to see her before she was taken away—and too generic, too much a product of impersonal systems, too like a routine news item. 

Suddenly I was full of rage for the babies in the autopsy suite, the teenage suicides, the overdoses, everyone. All I could see in the mirror or in other people was the body as it eventually becomes—the familiar and beloved made strange, grotesque, helpless, architectural, rotted, lifeless. Everyone I saw, I pictured on the autopsy table. I tried not to be weird about it, but I avoided the butcher counter at the grocery store.

A complication of considering the body as an archive is that traditionally archives are curated by an authority that decides what is worth including and knows what is inside it. But most of what inscribes our bodies is out of our control. No one authority affects our childhood nutrition, national origin, and regional location, our scars, illnesses, basic features, or the habits and circumstances of our communities. We never even see the vast majority of our own apparatus. And yet the sense that we have—or should have—primary agency over our own bodies is so powerful. We protect that sense legally, manipulate it for profit, celebrate those who exemplify it, teach it to our children. Thinking of the body as a sentient archive admits the tension that we are both inscribed upon and the inscriber.

It took a few months for the vivid memories of corpses to fade, but they did. Mercifully, I stopped picturing people on the autopsy table. I thought less often of the little old lady with the broken ribs and the baby who died in a grease fire. Little flashes still came here and there, mostly of particularly gruesome things, but less often. I let myself forget and was grateful.

Most of what is recorded by the body remains a mystery to us. We cannot know which experiences will leave a trace and which will vanish, as the body itself eventually does. This is something I think about when I go to acupuncture. Tension or pain my body has stowed away beyond my conscious awareness are surfaced and eased. I started going a few years ago for TMJ, or painful jaw tension, which has come and gone with periods of stress ever since I was a teenager. A muscle in my jaw was spasming with such force that when I lay flat on my back, my neck started to shake, like a child’s hand refusing to let go. The first acupuncturist’s name was Elizabeth Bishop. (There was also an acupuncturist by the name of Sonntag at this establishment, but I chose Elizabeth Bishop. Acupuncturists as a group seem to have spectacular names.)

I laid on my back on a folding table and was scolded gently for not having taken my socks off. “Breathe,” Elizabeth Bishop commanded, and I tried to comply. When she put a needle in the crown of my head I realized a system of muscles on my scalp had been pulling my jaw tight; it all released at once. 

After the first session, my jaw pain went away and didn’t return for months.
Recently, I went to see a new acupuncturist, a woman named Molly Beverage. She was warm and calm, and her office was furnished with comfortable chairs and smelled strongly of essential oils. This acupuncture, though, was more intense than anything I was used to—every needle contracted a muscle so powerfully that I had to draw deep breaths to keep from yelping.

There’s a particular pain to acupuncture when it hurts, which isn’t always. The needle doesn’t sting, but it can make the muscle underneath it contract and throb before it releases. It’s not frightening pain, but it is mysterious. I noticed early on that different needles ache depending on where my mind wanders. When I think about work, certain needles light up with pain—the fleshy muscle between the thumb and forefinger. When I am angry, the needle sticking out of my sternum howls and throbs. Then it passes.

About twenty minutes into the session with Molly Beverage, around the time that the aching was beginning to let up, I smelled death. The room filled with the smell of the woman on the floor, of the morgue, of the autopsy suite. It’s a horrible, absolutely singular smell. Where was it coming from? My head was down in the donut-shaped pillow, and from that limited vantage point I started scanning the floor for dead mice. After the session was over and I got up and looked around, disturbed, convinced there must be a dead animal somewhere. Nothing was there. I thanked Molly and left. It wasn’t until we got in the car that I turned to my partner, who’d received acupuncture in the same room. “There was something dead in the room,” I said. “How could you concentrate?”

She looked at me blankly. Her nose is noticeably and reliably better than mine, but she hadn’t smelled anything at all.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Monday, 24 February 2020

Most serial killers have Taurus as their star sign, research finds

Does your star sign really determine your personal characteristics, or is it just a fluke? 

According to The Mirror, it does have an impact on whether you turn out as a serial killer or not. 

For the last two years, author David Jester has been researching his new thriller Clinic, which was released this week. 
Picture: iStock by Getty / coldsnowstorm

As a result of the research, he concluded that most serial killers were born under the Taurus star sign, which is between April 20 and May 20.

Also, the most serial killers were born on April 21, and February 18. 

Notorious killers born in the month included Levi Bellfield, Albert Fish, Steve Wright, and Martha Beck.

So, it may be worth taking note if you notice any Taureans acting strangely... 

(Source: indy100)

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Petrol and diesel car sales ban brought forward to 2035

A ban on selling new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars in the UK will be brought forward from 2040 to 2035 at the latest, under government plans.

The change comes after experts said 2040 would be too late if the UK wants to achieve its target of emitting virtually zero carbon by 2050.

Boris Johnson unveiled the policy as part of a launch event for a United Nations climate summit in November.
He said 2020 would be a "defining year of climate action" for the planet.

The summit, known as COP26, is being hosted in Glasgow. It is an annual UN-led gathering set up to assess progress on tackling climate change.
Campaign group Extinction Rebellion held a protest outside London's Science Museum to coincide with the event. Reuters

Sir David Attenborough said at the launch event at London's Science Museum that he was looking forward to COP26 and found it "encouraging" that the UK government was launching a "year of climate action".

"The longer we leave it... the worse it is going to get," he said.

"So now is the moment. It is up to us to organise the nations of the world to do something about it."

In a statement made ahead of the launch, Mr Johnson said the ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars would come even earlier than 2035, if possible.

Hybrid vehicles are also now being included in the proposals, which were originally announced in July 2017.

People will only be able to buy electric or hydrogen cars and vans, once the ban comes into effect.

The change in plans, which will be subject to a consultation, comes after experts warned the previous target date of 2040 would still leave old conventional cars on the roads following the clean-up date of 2050.

The Scottish government does not have the power to ban new petrol and diesel cars but has already pledged to "phase out the need" for them by 2032 with measures such as an expansion of the charging network for electric cars.

Mr Johnson said the 2050 pledge was necessary because the UK's "historic emissions" meant "we have a responsibility to our planet to lead in this way".

The announcement comes as COP26's former president Claire O’Neill, who was sacked on Friday, wrote a bitter letter accusing Mr Johnson of failing to support her work.

The prime minister's official spokesperson said Downing Street had "no comment" to make on the letter, but thanked Mrs O'Neill for her work towards the conference.

He said her replacement would be a "ministerial post" with details set out "in due course."

Mr Johnson did not answer the BBC's David Shukman's questions about the row.

Mr Johnson said: “Hosting COP26 is an important opportunity for the UK and nations across the globe to step up in the fight against climate change.

“As we set out our plans to hit our ambitious 2050 net zero target across this year, so we shall urge others to join us in pledging net zero emissions.

“There can be no greater responsibility than protecting our planet, and no mission that a global Britain is prouder to serve."

At the Science Museum the prime minister added that a "catastrophic period of global addiction" to hydrocarbons had led to the planet being "swaddled in a tea cosy" of carbon dioxide.

But Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said on Twitter: "Carbon emissions are not 'swaddling the planet like a tea cosy'. They are behind wildfires in Australia, soaring temperature records and the broken lives of those least responsible. The PM needs to understand that - and act."

Friends of the Earth's Mike Childs said the government was "right" to bring forward the ban, but that 2030 would be better than 2035.

“A new 2035 target will still leave the UK in the slow-lane of the electric car revolution and meantime allow more greenhouse gases to spew into the atmosphere," he said.

He said the government could show "real leadership" ahead of COP26 by reversing plans to develop "climate-wrecking roads and runways".

AA president Edmund King said: "Drivers support measures to clean up air quality and reduce CO2 emissions but these stretched targets are incredibly challenging."

The chief executive of the society of motor manufacturers and traders (SMMT) accused the government of "moving the goalposts".

"With current demand for this still expensive technology still just a fraction of sales, it's clear that accelerating an already very challenging ambition will take more than industry investment," Mike Hawes said.

He said the government's plans must safeguard industry and jobs, as well as ensuring current sales of low emission vehicles were not undermined.

Meanwhile Mrs O’Neill accused Mr Johnson of promising money and people to support her work, but failing to deliver either.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said Mrs O'Neill was a "close friend" but that he disagreed with her comments.

He told BBC Radio 5 Live Mr Johnson described his own political outlook as "that of a green Tory".

Mrs O'Neill said her "absolute desire for action has not been comfortable for some", adding that this was "not about me" or Mr Johnson - but about working towards "rapid decarbonisation".

She said at COP26 the UK must "absolutely double down on taking our great leadership and ambitions in this space, and really energising the world as to why this is a huge opportunity".

(Source: BBC)

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Where Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s unapologetically sexy halftime show fits into #MeToo

It’s telling that the two words being attached to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV halftime show are “disgusting” and “empowering.”

For 15 electric minutes, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira performed a nonstop celebration of life and lust and Latin pop and Puerto Rican/Colombian/Lebanese culture and identity and costumes and dancing and footwork. It was muscular and sexy. It was unapologetic.

By Monday, in the harsh light of day, viewers and cultural observers and pundits had fallen into two distinct camps: The show was a triumph; the show was a travesty. Who run the world? (Girls); there was a stripper pole onstage.

The most curious reaction, to me, is one that I’m hearing a variation of over and over: Where does this performance fit into the #MeToo movement? Where does the #MeToo movement fit into this performance?

As one reader wrote to me Monday morning, “In a time that you and I and so many others advocate for not seeing women as sex objects ... WHAT HAPPENED?”

As a commenter wrote on a friend’s Facebook page: “Women will never be taken seriously if they keep turning themselves into sex objects.”

We’re awash in contradictions. Disgusting. Empowering.

Let’s talk about that for a moment.

First, I think it’s worth pondering why a 15-minute halftime show should guide how we view women, as though we share one collective brain or soul or goal in life. Those two particular women wanted to entertain 100 million or so people on Super Bowl Sunday, and they did so with fierce, fearless, sexy aplomb.

Another woman, San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant Katie Sowers, wanted to serve as the first female coach in Super Bowl history. And she did.

Some women want to serve in Congress. Some women want to orbit space. 

Some women want to teach third grade. Some women want to combat climate change. Some women want to write novels.

Is it harder for us to take them seriously as leaders, scientists, teachers, authors, as full humans, as women because of a sexy halftime show?
I hope the answer is no. I hope we’re able to see two women headline a performance, even a performance that involves a stripper pole, and still take women, as a gender, seriously.

Did Adam Levine performing shirtless at last year’s halftime show make it harder to take men seriously? Was his tattooed chest a blow to men’s rights? Did you eye your male colleagues, male mentors, male elected officials, male doctors, male authors, male thought leaders with a little more skepticism, a little less authority the next day? Did you see them as walking contradictions — acting all sexy on the one hand and then wanting to be taken all seriously on the other?

I hope that answer is also no.

I hope we can also acknowledge that the #MeToo movement doesn’t need to muscle out a performance like J.Lo and Shakira’s.

The #MeToo movement, as I see it, is not meant to strip sex or pleasure from the female experience. It is not meant to police women’s sexuality and send up a flare when a woman falls from her purity pedestal. It is not a wobbly construct that relies on women shunning sex and sexuality, lest the whole movement fall like a house of cards.

The #MeToo movement is, at least in part, a reclaiming and reframing of female sexuality. It is an ongoing discussion that asks us to acknowledge some hard truths: For far too long, women have been treated as conquests. 

Bodies to lay claim to and wield power over and use for pleasure, whether the women who inhabit those bodies liked it or not. That sort of separating of the woman from her body leads to sexual harassment and sexual assault — in the workplace, in schools, on the street, in families, in intimate relationships.
The #MeToo movement is a rejoining. Woman to her body. Woman to her agency. Human to her humanity.

The #MeToo movement doesn’t say women can’t be sexual. The #MeToo movement says women don’t want to be raped.

That’s not a contradiction. It’s an awakening. And we’re just now beginning to grapple with what it means. I’m glad we’re having the discussion. It’s not simple, and it won’t be linear, but it’s important. And it’s time.

Friday, 21 February 2020

An artist wheeled 99 smartphones around in a wagon to create fake traffic jams on Google Maps

An artist "hacked" Google Maps' traffic display — and all it took was a red wagon and 99 smartphones.

Simon Weckert toted the pile of smartphones down empty streets in Berlin. Every street he traversed suddenly appeared as a traffic-heavy red zone on Google Maps, rerouting drivers to avoid the streets, as shown in Weckert's YouTube video documenting the results.

Weckert essentially gamed the mechanism Google Maps uses to predict traffic, he said in an email to Business Insider.

A Google representative told Business Insider that the app determines traffic by continuously pinging smartphones that use location services and by using "contributions from the Google Maps community."

"We've launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven't quite cracked traveling by wagon," the representative said. 

"We appreciate seeing creative uses of Google Maps like this as it helps us make maps work better over time."

For Weckert's experiment, all 99 smartphones were turned on with Google Maps running.

"There is no such thing as neutral data. Data is always collected for a specific purpose, by a combination of people, technology, money, commerce, and government," Weckert said in an email to Business Insider.

Weckert said he carried out the experiment last summer but published the results this week in honor of the 15th birthday of Google Maps.

Weckert added that he wanted to draw attention to the blind trust that many people have in tech companies and platforms.

"Maps have the potential as an instrument of power for some intentions. They substitute political and military power," Weckert said. He added that "we are highly focused on" the data of apps like Google Maps "and tend to see them as objective ... thus data are viewed as the world itself, forgetting that the numbers are only representing a model of the world."

(Source: BI)